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All Things Devoured

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All Things Devoured

01

 


There’s a lot of things you don’t really realize the importance of until they’re gone, or so they say. ‘They’ being books and songs the world over, usually lamenting the loss of a partner, or a home, or a purpose. Loss gets tied to regret gets tied to hope for a new future. Well, in the things I’ve read, at least. Things I used to read. I don’t, anymore. I don’t do a lot of things anymore, to go back to that missing-what-you’ve-lost thing.

Like blinking. I don’t do much of that, these days. Breathing would be up there too, but I have to fake that a lot more consistently than the blinking. Flex the diaphragm, let my chest expand, then wait a second before relaxing. Air whistles out from the ruin of my nose, and I see Julia turn to Madison a couple rows ahead and make a gagging motion. I breathe in again and exhale even louder, just to be petty. At the front of the class, Mr. Gladly turns his head from the board to see what’s making that noise, only to immediately remember what’s making that noise and quickly avert his eyes.

And I’d thought that the teachers at Winslow didn’t look at me before, hoo boy. Now that we’re living in a post-Locker world, everyone keeps to a minimum safe distance. No eye contact allowed.

The bell rings and I shove my textbooks into my bag with all the care and grace they deserve, then spend the next minute picking up the remains and scattered papers from the floor. It gives time for Madison to take up her post outside the classroom, which is the cue for Emma to sidle on by and draw other individuals into her orbit for the show. I get out the door and look, there they are, right on time. I stand close to the wall and let her approach, following the script of this tired play.

She starts talking at me. I don’t really care to listen, and neither does anyone else crowding the hallway. I don’t think Emma has realized that people don’t follow her movements to watch me. She talks, and I just stare. I always forget to blink, so I know my eyes look glassy and clouded. Emma talks a bit faster, like maybe if she just throws darts quickly enough one of them will strike home. Bullseye. Which gives me an idea.

I tilt my head a bit, like I’m thinking, and put my hand on my cheek. My pinky taps and taps into one of the sunken pockmark scars, right near my cheekbone, where doctors had to excise a lesion that had gone gangrenous. Once I see a few students start to fidget, I stop tapping, and move my pinky a bit higher.

I press the digit against my eye, just enough to move it. Relax, then press again, and now a few kids are already breaking away, unable to handle it. Emma finally notices about three more sentences in, so I press a bit harder and move my finger back a bit, like I’m going to pop the eye right out of its socket. I’ve considered doing it for real, but I’d never get a second attempt, so I’m saving it for a special occasion.

Emma’s composure breaks, like I knew it would. She stammers, and tries to rally her courage, but like Humpty Dumpty she can’t quite get herself together again. Her jabs get more desperate, more vicious, less able to be shrugged off as typical highschool drama. And the kids all around us in the hallway stop to watch her mask peel off, show the rotten undersides.

I don’t really blink anymore. I don’t do a lot of things anymore. But Emma doesn’t really have friends anymore, and while it’s a really far cry from an even trade, it’s something I can start with.

You see, everyone knows what Emma is. Everyone knows what Emma did. Everyone knows how the pretty redhead locked me up in that too-small space, how she laughed into the vents when I didn’t cry. Everyone knows that by the time the janitor pulled me out, I was eaten and dripping and broken. Everyone knows that there’s such a thing as going too far, and that Emma didn’t care.

Everyone knows what Emma is, except Emma.

I remember to inhale so I can start humming to myself, like everyone remembers I did while I was stuck in there. A nursery rhyme; Emma calls me a retard, as expected, and when I keep it up she just makes this teakettle shriek and slaps me, then runs away. By tomorrow she’ll have glossed over this whole thing until she’s forgotten it, or convinced herself she’s ‘won’ something.

One of the students says something-- an apology, or a reprimand to Emma’s behavior. I stare at them until they look away. None of them helped. They don’t get to say they’re sorry.

The crowd disperses, the show over. So is school, as far as I’m concerned. Which just leaves one last thing on today’s planned itinerary: check the traps.

There are two types of traps set around the city, mostly near the docks and the trainyards. That’s where there are the most rats, so that’s where there are traps. The regular rat-traps are easy, in that they’re easy to get and easy to set. Basically just an oversized mousetrap, with the brass bar strong enough to break a human hand. I baited them with peanut butter, and on good days maybe a third of the traps would have a rat in them waiting for me. The other traps were live traps, and so far I really hadn’t had any luck with them.

Today wasn’t a good day, but it wasn’t a bad day, either. I emptied the traps of my catch, moved them around, and re-set them for the next batch. Then it was just a matter of finding a nice, quiet alley where I could remove my shirt. Saves on laundromat costs.

I hunched down over the small pile of furry carcasses, and stopped holding my flesh in place so tightly. My false ribs twitched, then strained, making a bulge in the skin around my belly until the thin layer tore, making room for the bones to stretch outwards and reform. Skin wrapped back up around them as tendons crawled along the new limbs-- they were small, vestigial, they didn’t really need muscles. The tiny clawed hands reached, and I bent down a bit more so I could grab a rat with them, then I curled even farther forward. Saliva started flowing again, just in time to let my jawbone dislocate and crack in half, opening up my throat like a snake. I assume that most snakes don’t have squirming tendrils to help pull the meal in and down, but it’s convenient. The rat gets dissected on the way to where my stomach should be, its flesh becoming my flesh. I’m about to start on the third rat when someone’s foot scrapes on the asphalt behind me.

I turn my upper body, my spine making a popping sound as it gets twisted apart and put back together in the same instant. Bone spurs are already starting to press outwards from my wrists, flattening and sharpening until my limbs are less than useful for fine manipulation, but very useful for scything and stabbing.

I don’t use them for that, at least not right away. I’m not interested in stabbing heroes, even if it looks like they’re interested in stabbing me. Though, I suppose I will have to do something.

But there’s enough time to finish the rat before I decide.



(Story only thread, don't actually vote.)

Who's there?
[-]Write-in

Chapter Text

02

 

Who's there?
[X]Vista (and probably Aegis)


Colors were a bit distorted in the gloom of the alley, but the green and white skirt belonging to Vista of the local wards was pretty distinctive. I heard a sharp intake of breath as the Ward froze, unable to escape the most common, and most unhelpful, human instinct imaginable. With my throat still a bit occupied by the rat, I decide I’ll need to get a bit creative in order to greet her properly.

The vestigial arms at my gut get pulled back in with a shlorp, the muscles and tendons rearranging themselves with haste. The thin bones get pried apart and broken into splinters, then anchored inside and, with a quick sideways flex, split the skin over my stomach again into an uneven line. The splinters take their places as teeth, and an intestinal tongue waggles a bit between them.

“Rrrruude to sssstaree,” my stomach garbles.

Vista starts screaming. Well then.

Before I can say anything else with either mouth, the alleyway suddenly twists and pulls like taffy, until Vista is a good fifty feet away instead of four, and the walls on either side of me compress together at the tops and stretch out at the street level. It surprises me to discover that, yes, I actually can still feel pain, because when the alleyway stretches I get stretched with it, and not like a funhouse mirror. I get split along way too many seams, until I’m a mass of blood-colored silly putty spread along the alley’s grime and puddles. And that just makes her scream louder, like she’s the one trying to instinctively regrow her limbs six times at once. I inflate my lungs, causing a few different patches of my gore to balloon out, and then I start screaming back.

The godawful wet shriek I’m making must break her concentration, because the alley snaps back to normal proportions and takes me with it. I run out of air and don’t particularly care to refill. If Vista actually wants to chat instead of mangle me, she’s going to have to wait. I turn my attention to putting myself back together, gathering up my scraps of skin and repurposing connective tissues to make more. Articulated limbs aren’t a priority, so my arm-blades get pressed into service lifting my reforming torso off the street.

“Oh god! Oh god I didn’t mean it!” Vista wails. Sure. That’s what they all say.

“Vista, move back, call for backup.” A red shape orders, hovering nearby. I curse my half-working optic nerves. It’s male, flying, and in red, so… Aegis, probably. That’s lovely, another hero to watch me bubble and flail. It seems bitterness has not completely left me either. Silver lining. I take a moment to seal my throat up again, and find my lungs.

“Even more rude not to help,” I rasp at them. “Especially after splattering me across a street. Now either go away, or make yourselves useful. Help me find all my bits.”

After making sure Vista is at the end of the alley and presumably safe from the helpless blob monster, Aegis floats over. I shush whatever speech he had prepared and point a scythe in the direction of some loose chunks. And that is a bit odd-- I’ve never had parts of me separated before, so knowing where I am in places that’s not where I am is a new sensation. I can feel the missing pieces, the bodiless meat starting to break down into undifferentiated cells and odiferous slime. I wonder if I can…

Aegis prods at a piece, then picks it up. I snap at him, and tell him to toss it on the pile. He does, and the moment is broken. I fill my lungs enough for an irritated huff, and focus on getting my flesh to squirm into its proper place. Aegis collects a few other scraps and adds them to my increasingly non-blobby form.

“Ma’am, do you require medical attention? We can get a healer here for you--”

“No.” My jeans got torn in Vista’s panic. It’s a shame, that was one of my better-fitting pairs. Once I get my legs together, I grow a set of fleshy hooks to hold them together on my frame. Speaking of Vista-- the younger Ward walks back into the alley, her steps much more sure than I’d have expected.

“I’m really, really sorry. My power isn’t supposed to work on living things, I didn’t know it’d… affect you like that.” ...well, okay. I suppose I can’t blame her for that. I remind myself that none of the Wards go to Winslow, so they’re not at fault for-- well, for me.

“Don’t do it again, if you please. That actually hurt a bit.”

“I won’t. I’m glad you’re a regenerator, that’s for sure.” She breathes out a sigh, then sets her face in a cheerier expression. I’m a little out of practice, but I think it looks forced. “Start over, maybe? I’m Vista.”

“Sure. And I don’t have a cape name or anything.” I expect Aegis to play along and introduce himself as well, but the older Ward is doing this thing where he’s trying to keep an eye on me, but also keep his eyes away from me at the same time. It takes me a couple of seconds for it to click. I flap my wrist at him in irritation, then start looking around for my shirt. “Oh, deal with it.”

Once I’m dressed again, and I’ve accepted Vista’s offer of a cloth domino mask, Aegis seems much more at ease. I am actually less at ease, because now that I’m all in one piece again, I can feel just how tired I am after being pulled apart like that. Shifting my flesh around seems a lot easier when I’m whole. I’m not in a hurry to experience separation again any time soon. That, and the sound of approaching vehicles, is a good enough excuse as any to take my leave. Aegis foists a card on me before I do, the small embossed paper holding a number or two for the local Protectorate. It is promptly tucked in my hoodie and forgotten. I wanted to sleep.

I wanted to dream.


I dreamt of…
[-]Darker places
[-]Brighter days

* * *

Vista took shallow breaths, and kept the transport’s armrest in a white-knuckled grip. It was probably making a couple of the PRT troopers nervous, but she refused Aegis’ second offer of a bag, swallowed, and measured her breaths. Triumph, their backup, gave her a brief smile before turning to the Wards leader.

“Aegis, give me a rundown.”

“Sir,” he nodded. Then hesitated. “I think we’ll need to discuss the details with Armsmaster and the Director, but short version, we encountered a new parahuman. Brute and Changer, by my estimate.”

Triumph caught Aegis’ glance towards the unpowered troopers, and his meaning. “Were they hostile?”

“I don’t think so,” he hedged. “We caught them while they were… busy with something. Vista made first contact. The parahuman was armed and Vista attempted to put some space between them, but it appears that the parahuman was at the least not Manton-limit protected from Vista’s space-warping powers.”

The driver twitched and a couple of the troopers exchanged glances as the implications sunk in. Triumph blinked a few times and looked towards Vista. The younger Ward was slowly getting her composure back. Aegis caught the protectorate hero’s attention again, saying, “I’m not sure I’d say they were cordial, after that, but they left on at least neutral terms. I gave the parahuman a contact card, before they left.”

“Alright,” Triumph breathed, “I’ll get Armsmaster contacted, and we can go over this in more detail. Vista, you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m-- yeah. I’m good. I just got… startled, is all.”

“Aegis said they were armed?”

“Literally, yes. The parahuman adopted a threat display, for lack of a better term, when I approached. Turned their arms into bone blades.” Vista trailed off, and Triumph let her. She was glad for it, since the more she talked the greater the risk of throwing up in front of her teammates after all. It was already bad enough she was making a fuss, she needed to get her shit together if she was going to explain to Armsmaster and the Director that:

[-]the parahuman’s appearance had shocked her into panic.
[-]she’d seen that girl on the news.

Chapter Text

03

 

[X]Vista had seen that girl on the news.


The debriefing was a tense affair. Armsmaster listened to their report, asked a few questions-- and then asked more questions, highest among them being “Are you sure?”

“Completely, sir.” Vista nodded. “That’s not really a face you forget. The tabloids kept going on about Winslow and the ‘Locker Girl’ even after the news stopped, and there’s a thread on PHO about the incident. Some videos, too.” Not as many as there had been a couple months ago, when the scandal was fresh, but sometimes a new clip popped up as the Locker Girl was spotted.

“Understood. You’re dismissed for now, Vista.” Armsmaster packed up his notes without even a cursory nod, and left the Wards’ briefing room. Vista took a moment to rub her hands along her arms, trying to banish the gooseflesh, then she went and rejoined her peers in the commons.

Armsmaster, meanwhile, set up some automatic searches in his onboard computer on the way to make his own report. No recent sightings of a Brute/Changer matching the description Vista and Aegis had provided, so either the Hebert girl’s Trigger was recent--which he very much doubted, given January’s fiasco--or she was keeping a low profile. Maybe it meant she wasn’t doing anything, or maybe it meant she simply hadn’t been caught. Armsmaster thought back to Vista’s statement, then started a few searches for missing pets in the area, as well. Whether her… activities were for sustenance, a component of her power, or something else, it would be good to have some statistics on the frequency of her feedings. Not much he could do about trying to track the rat populations, but if there was a significant increase in missing animals…

One of his programs finished its searches, and in a moment of morbid curiosity, Armsmaster brought up a browser and loaded the most-viewed video in the results, simply titled ‘Interview with Winslow’s Locker Girl.’ It was only 15 seconds long.

The video was unedited, and likely from an amateur journalist, because the camera shook and the microphone picked up on the huffing breaths of the cameraman and the reporter both. The pair jogged towards a crowded sidewalk, where a single girl walked in a bubble of personal space, head down, black hair lank and scraggly over her shoulders.

“Excuse me, Taylor Herbert! Miss Herbert, we’d like to ask you a few questions--”

Taylor Hebert’s face whipped around when the camera got close, and Armsmaster had to admit that Vista was right, because this was not a forgettable face. Pale, marked by numerous scars and discolorations from infected wounds-- one of her eyes must have still had ruptured vessels, because the white was eclipsed by red. Most of her nose was gone, as was half of her upper lip, the flesh shrunken and scabbed over. It gave her a skeletal appearance, and stirred vague fears of leprosy.

“Fuck off,” she said, and the video ended with her fist smashing the camera.

And now, according to the Wards, this girl was a parahuman, with intimidatingly potent regenerative abilities at the least. Shadow Stalker managed to cause trouble even from the Madison Quarantine Zone, it seemed. Now, the question fell to Armsmaster: what to do about it?


[-]Contact the girl directly. It’s never a good idea to leave young, angry parahumans alone.
--[-]How? (phone, house, etc. Write-in)
[-]Wait and see. Try to get an idea of her temperament first.
[-]Something else? (Write-in)



* * *


[X]Taylor dreamed of brighter days


Sleep is a strange thing for me, now. For one, it’s semi-lucid, as I can’t seem to turn off my thoughts even when I’ve turned off everything else unnecessary, like my pulse. I can’t still be thinking with my brain, I feel its fluids settle into jelly when I drift off. So where am I, then? Sometimes, as I sleep, I wonder if I’m thinking with every bit of me at once. Every single cell.

When I sleep, I sink into a fever-dream haze, until I can’t tell what’s real and what’s a passing fancy. I let my limbs grow cold and numb, so I don’t start wandering; who knows where I’d wake up, if I didn’t. I lock my door, too, but that’s for Dad’s benefit more than mine. A few inches of wood isn’t going to stop me from leaving, but it does stop Dad from seeing me. So I take precautions, and crawl into the narrow space under my bed, and I let my thoughts go where they may. They went to summer.

I dreamt of heat, wonderful bone-deep heat that I couldn’t trace back to chemical respiration. It was on my skin, the bright sun overhead warm and welcome. Heat even seeped up through my legs-- I was on the front step, and the wood had drunk of the sun as readily as I did. The painted step held my slight weight effortlessly, but gave a good-natured groan when I moved aside to let Emma sit next to me. Her mouth moved, forming words as distant and senseless as the adult voices drifting from the back yard. She handed me something green and bright pink, and under the bed I felt saliva fill my cheeks at the remembered-imagined taste of watermelon-- the sugar, the quench. We sat under the sun, and spit seeds into the grass, and I waited for my friend to turn and put a knife through my eye. To wrap her fingers around my neck. She didn’t; I woke up before she could remove her mask.

And that made me furious.

I opened my mouth and couldn’t scream, my emptied lungs producing only a bare hiss. I scraped my teeth against the floorboards instead, against the iron leg of the bed frame. I bit and gnawed and jittered my limbs, forcing motion to return to them. I scraped my way back out from under my bed and put a scythe-arm through the mattress. Damnit. God damnit.

After a quick check to confirm Dad had left for work, I left my room and stalked downstairs, first to the kitchen and then to the basement. Bitterness churned like an empty stomach. It was this pseudo-hunger that dredged up such things, unearthed old wants and needless things. I hadn’t been able to keep any of the rats’ flesh after Vista had pulled me apart, needing to use it to mend all the tears, so I went ahead and laid some of the blame at her feet, too. I shoved past the cardboard boxes of books that marked my mother’s grave, and crouched under an old pipe fixture to get behind the coal chute, where I kept my stash.

A big plastic tote, with a fitted lid and a wreath of car air fresheners-- I swept the latter to the ground and fumbled at the lid. Inside was a couple weeks’ worth of meat, or what had been meat before I’d consumed it and broken it down into an aimless blob. A sticky, foul-smelling hoard of undifferentiated cells and slime. Any excess weight from my rat feasts got disgorged here. I’d initially had no idea what I thought I was going to accomplish by saving the stuff, but I was strangely reluctant to dispose of it-- it was my flesh, I wanted to keep it with me-- but there was no time like the present to experiment a bit. I briefly considered going back upstairs and fetching a soup ladle or something, but the thought of doing dishes afterwards didn’t particularly appeal, so instead I just added rings of cartilage and thin muscle to my esophagus and extended it into a proboscis, nature’s crazy straw.

I reabsorbed a good third of the tote’s contents, and only vaguely lamented the lack of taste. I didn’t really taste things in general, but the meatslime was so… uniform, it just didn’t appeal the way something with bones and nerves did. But it helped curb that emptiness, smoothed away the distress of loss, and after a few minutes I felt much more at ease. If I didn’t feel anything missing, then I felt whole, and that was enough. Mostly.


* * *


Sometimes I’m not sure why I keep coming to school. I think it’s spite. I drift through the day and don’t even bother listening to lectures, but there’s a certain satisfaction in the Winslow veterans’ discomfort with my presence, and in the shaking hands and desperate voices of all the substitute teachers. That last is something like a fun diversion-- when I find a new face standing at the chalkboard, I make sure to pick a seat in the front row, and see how many days they can last. I like to think I’m doing the school a favor, weeding out the weak-willed subs from the strong. Sadly, that game is almost done, as most of the temporary teachers seem to be here to stay. I wonder if they’ll actually stay on, after the semester-- Winslow must be desperate for new staff, after a good third of them were fired and a few more resigned-- but they also can’t have good salaries.

It isn’t until near the last bell that I find Emma. She must still be singed from yesterday’s performance, because she stays at her locker and makes too-loud comments, rather than approach me directly. Other kids keep their eyes forward, resolute in ignorance, or outright watch me with wary eyes. I watch Emma. It occurs to me that maybe I need to eat more, because I can feel anger prick at my nerve endings, and my nightmare is fresh in my mind. Stupid bitch. How dare she pretend she can hide her face from me. Her separation cuts at me still, even when her insults have long since lost their edge. How dare she still find a way to hurt me.

I take two steps forward and she falls silent, freezing up. I take a third and she lashes out in fear, her open palm aimed for my face. The movement is slow and I catch it easily, tighten my hand around her wrist, and take another step. And another. Until her back is against her own locker and I’m so close she can smell my breath. There’s no more room to step, so I lean until my lips brush her ear.

“I miss you.”





(Story only thread, don't actually vote.)

I’m hungry.

[-]Content yourself with the rats
[-]Find a new source of biomass
--[-]What?

Chapter Text

04

 

I'm hungry.
[X]Find a slaughterhouse dumping ground


The problem with rats, I decided, was that they’re actually kinda clever. Probably moreso than most people when it came to situational awareness and not getting themselves killed, if the evening news was any way to judge. While on my daily route through the Docks I found one of my live traps had been sprung, but the whole cage had gotten dragged away--I know, because I found the scuff trails in the asphalt’s protective layer of grime--and eventually broken open. The little door was half bent and everything. So much for that potential victim. Most of my other traps were empty, either not touched or simply sprung without reward. I did manage to snag a single rodent from the regular traps, but the meager haul irritated me more than I’d thought it would. Rats, it seemed, were not as sustainable a resource as I’d hoped they would be.

And after what happened with Vista, I felt driven to insure myself against that kind of damage in the future. I needed either a better hunting ground, or better prey, and since the Docks were about the best place I could find already that left me with a bit of a problem. Thankfully, after a few false starts, I managed to invoke the power of internet search engines to solve the problem for me. Meat comes from animals, and animals come from slaughterhouses; there’s some other steps in that chain too but they’re not as important. What was important was that there was a poultry rendering plant not that far away, and that I’m not that picky.

The plant had been built on the edge of town back when Brockton was still growing, but not long before it stopped growing, so it was still pretty out there on the fringes of the southeast side. I ditched school after what had been Mrs. Knott’s computer sciences class and found a bus line that would get me closer to the rendering plant, and then walked the rest of the way. When I got close enough to the plant, I could smell it: it’s a weirdly earthy smell, like a mixture of melting fat and manure-dusted straw. I found an out-of-the-way place to sit and observe my new prey. A rendering plant isn’t quite a slaughterhouse, if the internet is to be trusted. Instead of killing the livestock directly and turning them into tasty meats, a rendering plant takes in all the non-tasty bits and makes them into a meat slurry, the better to use it to make dog food and… I don’t know. Protein diet bars, maybe?

As I watched, a large truck finally pulled in. It looked like a repurposed dump truck to me, which was a close enough guess. The truck backed up to a large bin, and with a shove of machinery, dumped several feathery carcasses into the open container. I made like a cockroach and scuttled closer, sticking to shadows as much as I could, a couple extra vestigial limbs from my middle helping with the scuttle. As soon as the truck started drove off, I ran up to the nearest bin and looked inside. It was an automated process, lucky me-- no workers to have to sneak around. At the bottom of the bin were a set of spinning screw blades, which were grinding up the dead laying hens and producing all sorts of interesting colors and globular shapes in the process. Cool. I made a mental note to figure out how to make spinning blades by myself, and in the meantime, let the vestigial limbs melt into my real ones to serve as bracing supports, while my arms lengthened and my fingers curled and sharpened into grabby claws.

I claimed this meat for Taylorsylvania and started stuffing birds down my gullet as quick as I could, before the screw blade finished with them. Excellent. An entire week’s worth of rats for so little effort. I was definitely coming back in a few days to scope the place out some more.

I went home with a good forty pounds of extra weight under my hoodie and a sense of accomplishment. Good things can come my way, provided I actively hunt them down and spear them on my bone spines. Wisdom.

I took a nap to let my flesh digest itself, and a few hours later got up and headed back downstairs, then further downstairs to the basement, and my stash. I couldn’t just keep a spare tire around my middle, Dad might ask questions. Besides, now that the birds had ceased to be birds and were now me, I didn’t feel such a pressing need to keep that flesh with me. I passed the coal chute and opened up my tote, then thankfully remembered to hold back my hair this time as I disgorged meatslime into the meathoard. Ten, maybe twelve pounds of undifferentiated cells and proteins joined the rest.

I stopped, and poked at the steaming mess with one arm-scythe. I grew some extra fingers to let me lift up my hoodie and poke at my mostly-flat stomach. Huh.

I didn’t pay much attention to school these days, but I still remembered what the conservation of matter was. I had taken in maybe forty pounds of meat, but only got rid of maybe twelve. So where was the rest of it? I certainly wasn’t carrying it still. I didn’t feel the discomfort of separation, so whatever had happened to my missing flesh, it wasn’t that missing. Had this been happening the whole time, I wondered, as I closed up the tote and fastened the wreath of air fresheners to it again. I’d never eaten such a large amount at once before, so maybe this had been my first chance to notice the discrepancy. That was… actually quite curious. I might actually want to look into this, maybe run some tests. I had no idea of where to start, but, one step at a time.

I stalked upstairs to rinse out my mouth, still idly turning the puzzle I’d found around in my head. I paced around the empty house, growing and twisting and molding a couple of extra appendages at random. It helps me think. It’s also a very unhelpful way of confirming that all the curtains are still drawn, and that none of the neighbors can see inside. A tendril’s careless flailing knocks over Dad’s wastepaper basket near his desk, and it gets reabsorbed and its mass shifted to my butt in penalty for disrupting my thoughts. But, when I started shoving the papers back into the basket, the red stamps caught my attention and gave me something new to stalk around and wonder about. Not postage stamps, but ink stamps. “Final notice,” one said. “Overdue” scolded another.

Right. Dad’s new job wasn’t exactly bringing home the bacon.

Resentment simmered in the hollow of my ribcage, currently stretched wide and open like an actual cage. Not towards Dad, but the Union. Or whomever ran the Union, because they weren’t a downtrodden dockworker, that was for damn sure. I added Winslow and The Bitches and Child Protective Services to the hate pile, then stalked back upstairs to crawl under my bed so I could brood properly. Back in January, when I told a very helpful police officer what had happened with The Locker et al, the whole situation at Winslow kind of imploded. I must have cashed in all of my forfeited good luck from the past several years, because the police came down on the school hard, and anyone else who got in their way. Teachers fired or resigned left and right, Blackwell blacklisted; Emma got like 100 hours of community service after her dear daddy managed to put his nose into things. I know she lost her modeling work, not that she’ll admit to it, but she did avoid going to juvie. Not sure what happened to Sophia, exactly, but it involved her vanishing from the face of the earth, so I’m not going to fret about it. I’ll keep some back knives sharpened and ready, just in case, but I’m not worrying.

Of course by like March the natural order of the universe reasserted itself, and my good luck vanished. Child Protective Services got called, suddenly very interested in how Dad could have not known about the bullying, or if my inexplicably poor health had deeper causes. The investigation came to nothing, of course, and I learned that I enjoy swearing at people in suits, but the supposed scandal was enough to kill Dad’s career. Thirty years, give or take, and dropped in an instant. I didn’t buy it. I know he’d been a thorn in somebody’s side for a while, the Mayor maybe, always being a dastardly blue-collar worker. Maybe someone he’d pissed off had pull, or had paid to get pull, I didn’t know. Whatever the mechanism, the Union higher-ups were looking for an excuse, and they made one.

Now Dad’s bagging groceries at the supermarket, the bills are burying him, and I’m some sort of fucked-up zombie.

It occurred to me, as I lay under my bed and idly scraped nails at the gaps in the floorboards, that we might lose the house soon. Maybe not even ‘might.’ Any attachment I’d had for Brockton Bay had been burned out, but Dad still had roots here. And if we moved, I’d lose Mom’s grave as my sanctuary. I’d lose my front-row seats to the destruction of Emma’s life. Maybe there was something I could do to get money-- I was a parahuman, probably. They loot places all the time, don’t they? And I think the Wards even get paid.

Of course, if my earlier experience with the rendering plant had taught me anything, it’s that simply taking things is a lot easier than I’d thought. The idea held no small amount of appeal. In the meantime, I still had a solitary dead rat from my earlier harvest in my backpack that needed to be used before it rotted much more. I wasn’t hungry for flesh, but that was okay-- I could sate another desire easily enough.

The route to Emma’s house was still familiar, even at night and crawling through bushes instead of riding a bike down the sidewalk. I skittered my way to her front door and laid the rat upon the stoop, gutting it with the utmost of care. And a very merry un-birthday to you, Emma. Many happy returns.

Heh.




(Story only thread, don't actually vote.)

Acquire dosh.
[-]Something legit would be safest. Call that Wards number.
[-]Spoils of war! Find something to attack and loot. (Where/Who? Write-in)
[-]Ah, just take it. Rob something. (Where/whom--bank, building, etc. Write-in.)

Research opportunity:
[-]Practice mechanical mimicry (able to mold flesh into simple moving parts)
[-]Practice channelling flesh (able to add/subtract mass from ???)

Chapter Text

05

 

Acquire Dosh
[X]Call the wards. We’re already dead, but let’s not invite Taxes.

Research Opportunity: Channel flesh.


“Aegis, would you mind bringing me up to speed? You met Miss Hebert already, didn’t you?”

The somewhat wary look in the leader of the Wards’ eyes was enough to make Miss Militia start to regret not getting a copy of the girl’s preliminary file before now. She knew the basics, as much as anyone in the local Protectorate did-- the incident with Shadow Stalker had shaken the team and induced a fury in Director Piggot that Miss Militia hadn’t thought possible. But, well, she had been busy, and it wasn’t like villains were going to arrest themselves. “Armsmaster was rather abrupt when he called me earlier.”

Aegis nodded, and began to summarize. “Taylor Hebert, age fifteen. Most likely triggered in January at Winslow, after a protracted bullying campaign. Vista and I encountered her a few days ago while on patrol. She was eating several dead rats-- we sort of startled each other and discovered that Hebert is not Manton-protected against Vista’s spatial manipulation.” Keeping her eyes on the road helped avoid a double-take. She’d heard the second part, but the rats were new. “Preliminary classification as Changer/Brute 4 due to her formation of natural weapons and extreme regenerative capabilities.”

“How extreme?”

“That hasn’t been determined, ma’am.”

“In your opinion.”

He hesitated, thinking it over. “I’d say on par with Lung, maybe. Once her, uh… bits were all roughly in the right place she put herself together pretty quickly. I’m not sure how to qualify being spread over a few square yards and being only mildly inconvenienced.”

Miss Militia hmm’d and refocused on driving, as according to her directions they were almost there. Once they turned onto the right street she found the place quickly enough, a somewhat run-down little two-story house with a driveway in need of repair, but probably not so in need as to actually get those repairs. She honked, then carefully backed the covert-ops vehicle into the driveway, getting the back end of the Louie’s Plumbing and Waterworks Repair truck as close to the now-opening garage door as she could. “Alright, we’re here.”

Aegis got out first, pushing open the back doors of the truck and double-checking that line of sight to anywhere outside of the garage was suitably blocked. Miss Militia followed close after, and the pair of them entered the slightly-raised door at the side of the mostly-empty single car storage, and passed into the house proper. Much like the outside, the Hebert’s home had a worn-but-not-ramshackle look to it, and the hallway the garage side door opened to was only dimly lit. Miss Militia moved past Aegis, one hand on her power holstered at her hip, and peered into the gloom. “Miss Hebert?”

“Kitchen,” a hoarse female voice called to them. Militia angled herself towards it and walked, moving past an end table with a bare picture frame and towards a slightly more lighted room. The Hebert’s kitchen didn’t have any lights on, but the mid-afternoon sunlight that filtered through the blinds was apparently enough for Taylor Hebert. The girl herself was seated at the kitchen table, wearing baggy jeans and a tank top that left her scarred and pitted arms exposed. She had one hand in front of her face, the limb so emaciated that there were holes between the largest bones and tendons, and as Miss Militia watched skin and fat crept back up towards her fingers and smoothed itself over, like a candle melting in reverse, until the limb was normal and miss Hebert turned her attention onto her guests.

“Didn’t expect two of you,” was her greeting. “Sit down, if you want.”

“Thank you, Miss Hebert. I’d offer introductions, but I suspect you already recognise us.” Miss Militia sat down across the table from Taylor Hebert, and Aegis took the seat between them. “We were very happy to hear from you, and we’ll be pleased to answer any questions you might have. Not just about the Wards, but about being a parahuman, too.”

“Are you doing okay, since I last saw you?” Aegis spoke up, and Taylor turned her head to watch him speak. “I’m sorry, again, for what happened. Vista’s been pretty worried, too.” Having nightmares counted as worrying. For his part, Aegis had lost any sense of squick for bizarre bodily processes since his own Trigger, although he was certainly aware of how his teammates reacted to particularly gruesome wounds. When the girl’s call had come in and Miss Militia had requested one of them to come along as a representative of the Wards, Aegis had made the argument that his own powers shared similarities to Taylor’s and thus he was a logical choice as a tagalong. It had saved Vista from a spiral of wanting the responsibility yet being repulsed by the idea.

Taylor just waved a hand, dismissing his concerns. “Fine. So, Wards. Give me the sales pitch.”

“Are you interested in becoming a hero? As a new parahuman, you do have several options, but joining the Protectorate is--”

“Spare me,” she rasped, interrupting Miss Militia. “I don’t really care about that. Joining the Wards is a job, so gimme the rundown on it.”

Words seemed to fail the heroes for a moment. Taylor Hebert rolled her bloodshot eyes at them. “It’s very simple. I need paying work, so either I go get a job stocking shelves or bagging groceries, or I be a parahuman. And since every time I go outside I’m either screamed at by children or followed by tabloid assholes--not to mention, trying to get job interviews with my lovely face--the first option isn’t happening. So that leaves using my powers, and while there’s no shortage of targets in this city, the IRS was something Al Capone feared even back in the day. I doubt they’re any less scary now that they’ve probably got capes of their own.”

“How… pragmatic,” Miss Militia said. “I understand if you don’t wish to answer, but is there a specific reason you’re in need of money?” After a quick moment to consider, the disfigured girl nodded, and she gave a quick rundown of what had happened to her family’s finances since her Trigger. Aegis winced in sympathy. Given what it took to make someone Trigger, unhappy home lives weren’t very rare among young parahumans, and there were cases where joining the Wards was an escape from a bad situation. This seemed like an odd inversion of the usual, perhaps for the better. It went a way towards explaining the girl’s all-encompassing frustration, too.

“I see. Well, you’re correct, the Wards are employed by the Protectorate, and you would be paid. Wages are $7.25 an hour, averaging 23 hours a week during school sessions, but depending on your academic progress you could increase your weekly hours through a work-study program. Additionally, you’ll receive competitive benefits…” Miss Militia switched over fully to Recruiter Mode, with Aegis following his cues to answer questions or provide short anecdotes as needed. Taylor Hebert listened, nodded occasionally, and asked some surprising questions. It mostly came off as having at least some experience with negotiations-- she’d said her father was a Union man, right?--but there were a few in particular that made the heroes pause.

“So homeschooling isn’t an option? At least for a year, anyway… Bleugh.” She made a face, and absently started picking at one of the pockmark scars at her neck. “So, you said you have to make sure my needs are being met, right? Food, shelter, etcetera? If there’s a reason I can’t get that at home, does the Protectorate take over for it? Do they hold to a minimum necessary clause or something?”

“The PRT is bound to make sure that the Wards are being provided for and afforded a healthy environment, not just ‘minimum necessary.’ Is there something specific you have a concern about?”

“If you forgot last week already, yes. I’m hungry, and I don’t really eat food anymore. Just dead things.”

“The rats, then?” Aegis said. “You can’t eat any regular food at all?”

“Mostly. I’ll leave plates in the sink with breadcrumbs and such to make Dad think I had a sandwich, but meat is about the only thing I can take. Well… sugar too. That’s easy and useful,” Taylor added, expression growing thoughtful. “And I occasionally drink a bit of water. But mostly I just need raw meat, and there’s no way I or Dad could buy it all. So I trap rats and such. Point being, feeding me is kind of a dealbreaker, here.”

“We would never deprive someone of their needs, Miss Hebert, and that includes needs necessitated by their powers.”

“Gonna want that in writing,” was her blunt reply. “But other than that… I guess it’s a good deal. Got the paperwork handy?”

“We do, but before we get ahead of ourselves, there is the matter of parental consent.” Miss Militia hesitated a moment, adopting as gentle an expression as she could behind the cover of her bandanna, “Have you told him?”

“Figures. And no. Maybe he knows anyway, I dunno. I don’t think it matters, since I’m not exactly just going to stop being a zombie if he doesn’t like it.” Taylor trailed off, suddenly turning her head at an angle, towards the front windows. “I think that’s his car? Yeah, he does usually come home about now. Great, you can go over all that stuff with him.”

A car door slammed just outside, followed shortly by a rattle of keys and the front door opening. A tall, gangly sort of man, with thick glasses and a receding hairline, stepped inside. Mr. Hebert, presumably, and he looked rather bewildered-- probably because of the plumbing truck in his driveway and the two costumed heroes at his kitchen table. Taylor immediately stood, her chair pushing out with a harsh rattle of wood on linoleum. “Hey Dad, welcome home, by the way I’m a zombie and the PRT will pay me to do zombie things at people who aren’t them. Wanna go over the paperwork a bit? Cool thanks.” She immediately retreated to the living room, away from the incredulous stares at her back.

Mr. Hebert made a choking noise for a moment, then sighed and removed his glasses long enough to rub at his tired eyes. “...I’m sorry. Did Taylor offer you anything to drink? Would you like anything? I’m going to need some coffee, at the least.”

“If you’re making it already, coffee would be nice, thank you,” Miss Militia said, after a moment. She turned towards Aegis and made a small motion towards the living room. “Aegis, perhaps Miss Hebert has a few more questions?”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered, and stood to go follow his potential teammate. He wasn’t exactly going to be of much use here, anyway, and… if he was honest, it was more than a little uncomfortable to watch the tired man making coffee, forcing an apologetic smile that didn’t even get close to his eyes. Aegis’ parents had taken the ‘so your child is a parahuman’ speech pretty well, and he’d seen a few others in the course of his time as a Ward, but the reaction was rarely one of abject surrender. He shuffled out of the kitchen and into the living room, where Taylor was draped sideways across a worn easy chair. She was staring at her hand and arm again, watching the fingers curl into claws, by some definition of the term. Aegis saw her glance back at him, but she must not have objected to an audience, because the flesh on her arm started to just… swell. Tendons and muscles rippled and crawled as the limb started to bulk up, growing into a caricature of the human form. Once she was satisfied she tried flexing the muscles and testing the range of motion, frowning all the while. Aegis took a seat on the nearby couch.

“...humans are kind of poorly designed,” she muttered.

“I’d disagree,” Aegis countered. “Human bodies are pretty well balanced when they’re healthy. It looks like you’re packing on too much muscle, and not enough bone or cartilage-- and the muscle mass is all in one place, rather than being firmly-anchored to the bones and ligaments further along the line of your arm. Everything in the human body is part of a system, remember. Nothing works in vacuum, and lots of parts assist or depend on other parts.” He may have been a bit biased, sure, but the frown on Taylor Hebert’s face softened as she considered his words. After a few more silent moments, the excess mass on her warped limb retreated and smoothed back out into something recognisably human.

“Fair enough,” she croaked. “So, they kick you out to let the adults talk?”

“Something like that,” he grinned. “Plus, I can try and answer any more questions you’ve got.”

“Nah.”

“Fair enough. Mind if I ask a couple?”

“I don’t promise to answer.”

“That’s fine. Have you been thinking about a cape name?”

“...not really. Won’t they just assign me one?”

“Ehhh. PR can help with it, make lists of choices and such, but-- it’s your identity, you have say in it. Got a theme in mind, anything?”

“Did you miss the part about me being a zombie?” she scoffed. “All the good monster names are probably taken, too.” She caught his look and rolled her bloodied eyes again. “What? I may as well own up to it. Plus, my mom was a lit buff, so… sentimental attachment, memorial wishes, yadda yadda.”

“I’m… sure they can come up with something.” Hopefully.



(Story only thread, don't actually vote.)

Got any ideas?
[-]Write-in. Justifications encouraged.

What to do in the meantime?
[-]Spend time with the Wards. If you take a little poison each day, you eventually get immune.
[-]Double-down on academics. They are probably going to send you to Arcadia, so…
[-]Stay home. Try to research more about your powers.

Chapter Text

06

What to do...
[X]Spend time with the Wards. If you take a little poison each day, you eventually get immune.


I didn’t think it was possible for Dad to actually get even more gloomy, but he managed it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, I suppose. Pity his will never never seemed to include things like happiness… hm. Maybe this is more proof to the apple never falling far from the tree. Either way, after a couple days of paperwork and him visiting the PRT office in my stead, he pulled me aside and said, “Taylor… you know you don’t have to do this.”

Maybe not have to have to, but I kinda did? Sheer pragmatism was still a pretty good argument, even to me. The PRT was covering my medical expenses I’d racked up in January as a stretched definition of ‘collateral damage’ from my Trigger Event. Three weeks in the ICU wasn’t cheap, and it might have been a bit unreasonable but that was at least a little my responsibility. Most of that time had been me getting a handle on remembering to do stuff like breathe and have a pulse, and boy oh boy did I keep the nurses and resuscitation teams on their toes. I wonder if they got overtime pay. So that alone was a fair reason to sign my soul away for the next three years, and after that I would be free, free to run and escape the shackles of societal duty.

Though, who knows? Maybe in three years I’ll have grown a sense of empathy and camaraderie, surrounded by heroes and peers who teach me the true meaning of friendship, as we all work for the good of our fellow man.

Dad mistakes my smile for trying to reassure him, as I savor the joke. “Doing it anyway,” I tell him.

* * *

Mr. George Stevens is the local marketing director for the Brockton Bay Wards. He wears some rather inoffensive khaki pants and suspenders, so he’s already somewhere on my bottomless shitlist, and he isn’t improving his station with the bright plastic smile he plasters on as soon as he gets to the office room I’ve been told to wait in. To be fair to him, I’m coming into this already in a mood. The past few days have been a battery of pointless conversations and tests. (Why yes, mister scientist, I am completely devoid of all vital signs of life. What tipped you off? Was it the zombie eyes?) Pointless tests to me, at any rate. The raw strength tests were at least a little informative. I’m maybe not that strong with my regular-ol-Taylor little bird arms, but once I start twisting my limbs around and building new muscles and bone supports with that mysterious otherflesh that apparently exists in a Schrodinger's stomach, then I mean business.

That’s a thing too, as it turns out. I found out that if I start drawing in the vanished flesh that’s not inside me, but don’t start using it to build muscle and skin and stuff? It goes right back into my stomach from whence it came. Started a nice vomit chain among the PRT scientists when I filled my gut near to bursting, then horked meatslime all over the treadmill they were trying to get me on.

But that was then, and this was now, being told to sit in a padded chair to talk about my brand. On Aegis’ advice, I had prepared a list of names I’d be willing to accept, and when Mr. Stevens asked for it I opened up my ribcage and pulled the little yellow legal pad out from where I’d had it stashed in my left lung. It was a bit damp from humidity-- hopefully the ink didn’t run. Mr. Stevens just sort of stared for a few moments before his smile got even thinner and he took the list to start reading.

“S-so! What have we come up with? I’ll admit, the team hasn’t had much time to go over your, uh, profile, so we don’t have much to add to this yet, but… lessee.” With his eyes no longer on me he started to focus again, and I watched him purse his lips a bit. Oh, sure, disapprove right off the bat. “So… Cryptkeeper, Necromancer, Necromorph, Necromata, ‘that one person who just has to read the Necronomicon,’ Strigoi, Romero, Revenant, Zombie, Runner Zombie… I am sensing a bit of a theme here.”

I just stared. He looked at me, hesitated, then looked back down at the safety of the list. “We here at the PRT would really rather prefer to stay away from names invoking dead things, if that’s all right. What else on here is alive… um. Grendel. And… Dorian?” That one gets him to look back up at me. I shrug.

“Picture of Dorian Grey. My mom... really liked that book.” I have no idea if she liked it or not.

“I see. I’ve… heard of that one. I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate either.”

“How inconvenient.” I fell silent and let my eyes slowly dry out as I watched the spin doctor. He started taking notes and jotting things down on his own, less blood plasma-damp pad of paper, and the longer I watched him the more and more nervous he got. Mr. Stevens lasted about ten minutes before he looked up again, that plastic smile cracking. He did that double-take sort of twitch most people do when they catch me not breathing, too.

“Ah… well, you know what? I’m… I’m going to take this up with my team, and maybe my superiors. Just… want to make sure we get a right fit for you! That’s… that’s important.” He tried to rally his smile again. “So! Why don’t I call Miss Militia, and see if she’s got time to introduce you to the Wards? Sound like fun?”

“Delightful,” I wheezed.

* * *

Miss Militia allegedly said she’d be happy to introduce me to the Wards, so I waited patiently and stared at Mr. Stevens until she arrived, just zoning out while I focused on the small, fine muscles in my cheeks, practicing separating as small of bundles of fibers as I could and still be able to move them. Mr. Stevens just stared back until the heroine came to rescue him. I formed some crude eyes on the back of my neck as soon as she knocked, so when we left I could keep staring. Someone should perhaps tell Mr. Stevens to use a shotglass, instead of drinking straight from the bottle of whatever it was he keeps in his desk drawer. Heh.

Miss Militia made a few attempts at conversation during the walk, but about nothing that actually interested me. I didn’t even look at her until we reached the Wards’ commons room door, and she tried to foist a plain black domino mask on me. I stared at the strip of cloth, then slowly swiveled my eyes to stare at her instead. “My Trigger Event is a matter of public record, and an eye mask does jack squat to disguise my distinctive features.”

Miss Militia looked a little embarrassed, and she started to lower the mask from where she held it out for me. “Point taken, but are you sure you don’t--”

“No. I have nothing left to hide.”

“Very well, it’s your decision.” Miss Militia hit a button to the side of the pneumatic door, and I heard a buzzer sound. The heroine explained before I could decide if I cared enough to ask. “A 30-second warning, so anyone inside can get their masks on. I did call ahead and let them know I’d be bringing a new recruit by, so it might not be strictly necessary, but it’s a required precaution. Best to keep the habit.”

A little light above the button turned green, and Miss Militia opened the door and walked inside. I followed a couple paces behind. “Hello, Wards! I’d like to introduce you to-- ah, well, she doesn’t have an official name yet. She’ll be joining your team soon.”

“Oh, hi! I’m Vista, great to meet--” I stepped out from behind Miss Militia and got to see Vista freeze mid-sentence. I recognised Clockblocker on the nearby couch and a taller Ward whom I’m pretty sure was Gallant? He wasn’t in red so he wasn’t Aegis, at any rate. I was probably going to have to actually learn all their names at some point. The ‘I am making a mistake’ counter in my head ticked just a bit higher. Clockblocker turned his head to look between me and the deer-in-headlights Vista. I supposed I should say something.

“Greetings, teenage parahumans. I will be your new Token Evil Teammate.”

Clockblocker made a sort of choking sound. It didn’t quite manage to hide Miss Militia’s sigh. “Why don’t you four get introduced. I’m going to go get some work done, but you know my office number if you need me.” A hiss of the pneumatic door, and she left us to the awkward silence. Well. Awkward for them, anyway. It lasted until Vista recovered enough to invite me to sit on the couch. I settled down just a little too close to Clockblocker for his comfort.

“Cool, so… Token Evil Teammate, huh? Well our last one moved out of state, so the position is open.”

“That’s good. I was a little worried I’d have to fight for it. Or looking forward to it. I haven’t decided.”

Clock,” Gallant chided. He didn’t bother to expand on it, so it must have been a regular occurrence. The taller teen settled onto a chair across from me--Vista had taken a chair nearby as well--and shook his head. “Sorry about him. Militia said you don’t have an official name yet, but what should we call you until then?”

“Taylor.”

“I meant a cape name, you don’t have to unmask… hrm.” He sort of trailed off as the fault in that sentence caught up to him.

“It’s not like my face isn’t already known. And the PR guy didn’t like any of my choices, so I left him to it.”

“Hoo boy. It’s usually better to work with them than leave them to their own devices,” Vista said, “Because they might choose something you don’t much like. After someone here, not naming names, took matters into his own hands, they’ve been a bit more gunshy about choosing a cape name that hasn’t gotten cleared by a committee of people-friendly analysts.”

“I don’t really care either way. They could call me Princess Glitter and it wouldn’t change what I am.” Though it would prompt me to bribe a tattoo artist to put a skull-shaped cutie mark on my butt.

“What are you, exactly?” Clockblocker was the first to ask, and fail to dodge the rebuking hand upside the head from Gallant. “I mean-- your powers. What are your powers?”

“I am made of flesh taffy.” Vista, who had some idea already, started to edge backwards in her seat.

“Wh-- haha, what? What’s that supposed to mea--” I turned to Clockblocker before he could finish and split my face in two. All those thin bundles of muscle fibers waved and curled like grasping tendrils, while the bones of my jaw ground and split and curled in like claws. I made a deep, gargling sort of sound in my throat, but I don’t think anyone heard it over the screaming. Clockblocker scrambled back and I felt his leg kick at my knee. Next thing I knew, he was gone and so was Vista, and Gallant was at the door talking to someone-- oh, Miss Militia again. I quietly put my face back together.

So, that went well.



(Story-only thread, do not actually vote)
Find something to do. (Choose two)
[-]Spend time with someone (Who?)
[-]Test the limits of your powers in a sparring match
[-]Research opportunity: Mechanical Mimicry
[-]Something else? (Write-in)

 

Chapter Text

07

“Renick.”

“Yes ma’am?”

“What am I looking at.” There was no true curiosity in that question, just the accepting finality of someone lining up the sights of a rifle. Deputy Director Renick couldn’t actually see Director Piggot’s monitor from where he stood, but the wet tearing and slurping sounds told him all he needed to know. That, and the extremely pinched look on Director Piggot’s face… and the fact that he had forwarded the video clip to her not an hour before.

“That would be Miss Hebert, temporary codename Stretch despite nobody using it, and newest hopeful for the Wards ENE.” The pinched expression deepened. “Specifically, that’s footage requested by Stevens over in Marketing. Apparently they’re having some trouble with this one, and wanted something visual to kick along up the line along with their request for input. She consented, so I think that would be… lunch.” Lunch, according to a report he was going to have a fun time explaining to the Budget Committee, was nearly fifty pounds of raw beef, consisting of a mixture of leftover ground chuck and various forms of offal, including intestines, skin, and bones. The city’s newest possible hero had been quite clear on her needs and preferences, which was both a blessing (undesirable scraps were much cheaper than prime meats) and a curse (sooner or later the Youth Guard would want to know why a Ward was eating actual refuse.) Maybe it was for the best that she only needed to eat roughly three times a week.

Director Piggot hit pause on the video, then pressed her fingers against her temples, inhaling sharply and deeply through her nose. “Winslow’s Locker Girl wants to be a Ward. Here.”

“Offers were made to transfer her to another team, but both she and her father have refused for the time being. Hopefully in six months to a year we’ll be able to find another placement for her.”

“Christ,” the Director groaned. “And until then we’re stuck with a political landmine made of tentacles and knives.” And eyes and teeth.

“On a related note, Stevens requested a psych overview to be sent with the video.” Director Piggot raised her head and gave him a sharp look. Renick shook his head at the unspoken objection. “Not her actual profile. He wants to pass this buck as far as it will go, I think, and a personality overview will mean handing her case over to another Marketing Director entirely, instead of just getting a consult.”

“And if he thinks he can just bow out and tell someone else to handle it, because he can’t handle the-- Jesus, are those fingers coming out of her face?” Renick nodded. Director Piggot’s pinched expression returned, before sagging into grudging defeat. “...send the video to Glenn. If he takes over, fine. If not, it’s Stevens’ ass.”

“Got it. Anything else?”

“Let Militia know about the profiling, then when she sends back something useful put it together with Miss Hebert’s contract requests and para-science overview. Having a quick resource will save time for Stevens’ replacement.”

* * *

Miss Militia looked up at the sound of a knock, even the tapping of knuckles on wood sounding polite. “Gallant, come in.”

Her office door opened, and the Ward stepped in as he was bidden. She gestured, and he took a seat on the other side of her desk. “You wanted to see me, ma’am? ...and how did you know it was me?”

“Just a hunch,” Militia said, smiling behind her bandana so it reached the crinkling corners of her eyes. “I wanted to speak with you, regarding your impressions of the new Ward.” It wasn’t really an uncommon question. The teen’s empathic senses were a useful tool in gauging the climate of the Wards team, and when part of your job entailed corralling teenagers--let alone parahuman teenagers--you made use of every advantage you could get. Gallant nodded, and straightened a little in his chair.

“I’d have to say… mixed? As far as the team goes, it’s mostly shades of negative. Taylor’s powers are kind of…” Gallant trailed off as he visibly searched for an appropriate descriptor. “Grotesque, to be honest. And nobody really knows her yet, so there’s just the shock to go off of. Aegis doesn’t seem bothered, though.”

“Well, that’s to be expected, really.”

He nodded. “As for Taylor herself, it’s… kind of difficult to say, ma’am. She’s oddly muted, from what I can pick up-- it’s a little worrying, really. So far I haven’t seen her experience much in the way of strong emotions, just sort of vague ones. Lots of bitterness, and anger. Brief bits of amusement when Clockblocker or Vista shies away from her.”

Miss Militia frowned. That was not a very promising analysis. Probationary membership and guidance could only do so much, and if Miss Hebert wasn’t willing or able to adapt and make an effort towards teamwork, then she couldn’t stay here. Likewise, if the rest of the Wards were afraid of her, it’d be very difficult to keep any sort of cohesion. A harsh lesson that cut both ways: the established Wards needed to learn to overcome personal distaste, because nobody could always choose their co-workers; and Miss Hebert would need to learn that rebelliousness and the Protectorate do not mix. “That sounds like it could be a problem,” Miss Militia said aloud. To her surprise, Gallant quickly shook his head.

“No, I don’t think so-- sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt-- but I don’t think it will be a problem for long. She might like playing pranks, but even then I don’t think it’s mean-spirited,” he explained. “She’s mostly muted, but every time I’ve interacted with her there’s been a pervasive sense of loneliness behind everything. I think she just wants to make friends.”

“Ah, I think I understand. Thank you, Gallant.” The Ward nodded, and excused himself, leaving Miss Militia alone with her thoughts and word processor. Loneliness being expressed as passive-aggression? That was a bit more in line with typical adolescent behavior. Given her background, perhaps Miss Hebert was simply reluctant to extend trust, to her peers and to the Protectorate. She’d make a note of it in her report.

Ah, and that reminded her of something. The Protectorate’s mentorship program had been expanded in recent years to include the Wards, after some somewhat awkward questions had been asked regarding access to therapeutic services. It was a much less formal arrangement than the mentoring period for full heroes, but now every Ward was assigned a local protectorate member as a guide, not just the Tinkers, and for the full length of their membership to the Wards program. Having a trustworthy adult figure that the Ward could go to was considered an acceptable compromise to having assigned therapists, a point of contention that the PRT seemed unwilling to back down on. That having a closer relationship with Protectorate members led to fewer Wards rejecting full membership once they came of age was likely not a coincidence.

Miss Militia pulled up Miss Hebert’s personal file again, studying it for what clues she could glean. Miss Hebert’s mother was dead, so an older woman such as herself or Battery might be… not a surrogate, exactly, something to help fill that void. Assault, for all her immediate reservations, would probably be able to handle Miss Hebert’s inclinations towards mischief. Armsmaster, by contrast, would likely not appreciate the intrusion at all, but he’d also not take any shit from a Ward under his carbon nanotube wing. Triumph had a smaller age gap and a good head on his shoulders, Velocity had a very nonthreatening sort of charm, Dauntless was naturally genuine… Miss Militia sighed. Usually this was an easier decision to make, since power similarities could be taken into account, but the Brockton Bay team didn’t have any Changers at present. Still, she could send her recommendation to Director Piggot, who would have the final say once she’d heard from everyone.


Recommend a mentor.
[ ]Write-in. Justifications encouraged.


* * *

[X]Spend time with Aegis
[X]Research: Mechanical Mimicry (Level 1)


Aegis heard the 30-second buzzer sound, and half a minute later the door to the Wards’ Commons opened, admitting a tall figure in a hoodie and giving him a glimpse of the PRT agent just outside, whom was presumably being an escort. Once she was inside, Taylor pulled down the hood of her sweatshirt and claimed an unoccupied seat, every inch of her posture bristling. Occasionally literally, as a few thin bone spines crept through the seams of her shoulders before being pulled back in.

“Welcome back,” Aegis greeted her. “Didn’t actually think you’d be by again so soon.”

“Paperwork. And having me tear different types of cloth apart.”

“Ah, for a costume. I remember that. Of course, mine was more finding just the right shade of red so it wouldn’t be so obvious I was bleeding. I’ll bet trying to work around a Changer power is frustrating.”

“Mm,” was the extent of her agreement.

“Do you mind if I ask how it works? I know you said ‘flesh taffy,’ but I mean… is that literal, you’re that malleable? What sort of shapes can you turn into?”

She sent him an exasperated look, and said nothing, but after a few moments she held up a hand where he could see. Flesh melted like wax, then crawled upwards, and muffled snaps of breaking and reforming bones came from her wrist as one hand became two. Aegis watched as a few fingers melded into one another, then--much more slowly--thinned and pulled away from bones that no longer resembled knuckles at all. Not even claws… Actually, they kind of looked like--

“Are those lockpicks?” Aegis asked. A slight quirk of Taylor’s lips counted for a smile, probably. Though she was always smiling if you counted the side with the bare skull grin.

“Flesh is easier, but bones can be shaped too. Tried to make a chainsaw hand, didn’t work. Couldn’t figure out the moving parts.”

A flesh engine was a possibility even Aegis wasn’t sure he wanted to witness, but there was a morbid sort of fascination that, he feared, might not be satisfied until he had. “Hang on a sec, I’ll be right back.”

He jogged out of the room and to his dorm, retrieved his laptop, and hustled back to the Commons. “How are you with joints?” he asked, as he turned the machine on and clicked impatiently at the internet.

“...fine, I guess? Why?”

Twenty minutes later, Kid Win walked in on the two of them sitting on the couch, gazing intently at the schematics of steam engine train wheels, while Taylor had hooked her beating heart up to a couple of bone-lined flesh cogs and an axle, and was unsuccessfully attempting to create motion.

He very quietly backed out and shut the door behind him.

 

 

Chapter Text

08

 

[X]Recommend a mentor: Assault

It took almost a minute for the laughter to die down, and when it did, it did so awkwardly and with a limp. Assault mimed wiping tears from his eyes, then slowly grew still as he watched the worried expression on Miss Militia’s face remain unchanged. “Wait, you’re-- you’re serious?”

“Unfortunately,” was her blunt reply.

“...wow.”

“Oh hush, that wasn’t fatal.” Miss Milita waved a hand, dismissing the overdramatic look of hurt on her co-worker’s face. “You know we don’t have a Changer on board locally, and you and Battery are the closest we have to Brutes. So it came down to psych compatibility, and you’re the closer fit.”

“What, really? Even over Puppy?” Assault gave Milia a skeptical look. “You don’t think I’m going to get her in trouble?”

“She’s already in trouble, Assault. That’s why you’re the preferential choice,” she sighed. Assault’s expression drifted away from mischief and started to mirror her own. Militia put the manila folder containing Miss Hebert’s profile down on the surface of Assault’s desk, and slid it over to him with a firm push. “Read that, I’ll make use of your coffee maker if you don’t mind.”

“S’fine.” He opened up the folder and started skimming-- with an expected first recoil at the photos pinned to the inside of the folder. “Well, I’d heard a few rumors about her power, but… gimmie the lowdown, Militia.”

“Prolonged social isolation and ostracization from peers. That’s Stalker’s victim.” The folder twitched in Assault’s hand as his fingers tightened on it. “Yeah. I shouldn’t need to say this, but don’t mention her. Velocity got off easy with just a probation, but if any of this gets dredged up again it’ll be a fight between Piggot and Armsmaster to see who gets their hands on the axe first.”

Assault pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled. “No airing the dirty laundry, got it. What else?”

The coffee machine started to hiss and sputter as hot water began its ponderous drip through a handful of cheap grounds. “Apathetic behavior, with depression or sociopathy-- we’re obviously hoping for the former. There’s no previous indication for the latter in her history so it would be power-induced, which is usually troubling. It’s a longshot guess, though, so don’t worry about it. We’re mostly seeing a tendency towards passive-aggressive behavior and a fixation on grotesque displays.”

“Okay, that part I did hear about. Heard she got Clock pretty good?”

“See, you get it. A warped sort of humor put in place as a shield.” The coffee maker quieted down, and Miss Militia pulled the carafe out of the machine to pour herself and Assault a cup. The last few drops of water hissed on the exposed hot plate. “It was decided that someone she can’t push away with her antics would be good for her, so you’ve drawn the short stick. Two sugar, no milk?”

“Got it in one… dammit, now I’ll have to review the mentorship handbook, too,” Assault sighed, and shut the folder with a soft snap. “When do I get to meet her, anyway?”

“Probably this weekend, so you might get exempted from the conference coming up. Bad timing all around, there might be a Zodiac fight soon.”

“Every time is bad timing. Who’s up next, anyway? I can never keep the dates straight.”

“Aries if it’s by next weekend, Taurus if not. Assuming neither of the big ones show, of course.”

“Well, yeah.” Assault took the proffered mug of coffee with a muttered thanks, and watched Miss Militia start on her own, unaltered black brew. How she could stand drinking the PRT’s mud-water coffee straight, he’d never understood. “Did they still not get a name ready for her?”

“Heh. I heard the PR team washed their hands of her, went running to Chambers.”

“Ha! That bad, really?”

“Mhm. I think she’s got a video call with him today, actually. Should be interesting.”

* * *

This was a trap. It had to be. Nobody dressed this badly accidentally.

In a sharp contrast to Mr. Stevens, Glenn Chambers was a fat man in a loud, plaid-print tweed jacket, thrown over what had probably been nice khakis before he’d squeezed his bulk into them. I could just see the rounded edge of that big pad of crotch fat that older people got, between the bellybutton and the groin proper, until he pushed his chair closer to his desk and finished hiding the lower half of him from view of the webcam. I couldn’t see what his office looked like, outside of the narrow view of the camera, but I put even odds on it being as superficially offensive as the rest of him.

This was the PRT Head of Image?

“So! Let’s get straight to it, shall we? I’m Glenn Chambers, head of the PRT Image and Marketing. You’re Taylor Hebert, prospective Ward, hero name unassigned. That right?”

“Nobody liked my suggestions,” I rasped.

“Can’t blame ‘em. We usually try to avoid monikers that imply villany, monsters, or are easily rhymed with swear words. That said, you’re a bit of a special case-- I’ve seen a few videos of your power in action, and pulled up all the tabloid rags that mentioned your little situation at your school. That, and your behavior, suggests you’ve got no interest in being kid-friendly, am I correct?”

I nodded, and retracted the few bone slivers that had been creeping along my arms at his mention of the ‘tabloid rags.’ I hate cameras. I hate the people who carry them around even more, especially when they’re trying to take pictures of me.

“Well, welcome to the Monkey’s Paw, Miss Hebert, because we’re doubling down on you being a zombie.”

“...what?” I filled my lungs enough to ask, then held the air in. I might need it for an interjection. Mr. Chambers leaned over his desk so his face filled the computer screen in front of me.

“There’s something I’ve learned about parahumans, Miss Hebert, over the years I’ve worked with them. It’s that, no matter who they are, they each walk or fly or however they move away from their Trigger Event with one thing. They rarely say it, but every single one of them thinks it: never again. Doesn’t matter what it was, it stays with them the rest of their career. Never again.”

It’s like telling someone not to think of an elephant-- they automatically do. I thought about that dark, too-warm place. Humid. No air to breathe, until I stopped needing it. Things crawling on my skin, until my skin crawled after them.

“Now, I read all about your school, and what happened. But if I were a betting man, I’d put good money on it not being that locker that really hurt. Not from the way you act now. One girl shoved in a biohazard for hours, with a hundred other students to listen and know-- and nobody acted. They all turned a blind eye. And that, Miss Hebert, is what really got to you, isn’t it?” Glenn Chambers leaned back again, away from the monitor. Blood was starting to gel in my heart, against the valves in my veins. I kept still. “I hear you’re fond of jokes. Pranks. Of getting in people’s faces-- of forcing them to look at you. Because nobody’s allowed to turn away anymore, just because you make them uncomfortable, right? Never again.”

He went silent, watching me. Under my clothes, I’d felt my skin slither away from my spine and ribs, ready to twist into sinew. If he smiled, even once, I’d find him. I’d find him and peel his face away inch by inch. He didn’t smile; he nodded once, sharp. “Telling you to do otherwise is pointless, so we’re going to use that. Tonal shift is powerful, refuge in absurdity is tricky, but reliable if you can keep it up. So, listen to me very carefully, Miss Hebert: from now on, every day is Halloween. Say it.”

His eyes bored into mine even over video. Air whistled into my nose and lungs. “Everyday is Halloween.”

“That’s right. From now on, you put on a costume, and you get to play tricks. You get to have your jokes, your gallows humor. We’ll even make some brain-shaped suckers for you to eat in public. But it’s all in good fun, you understand? There are lines you will not cross. You will have to learn to work with your teammates--and they with you, yes--and you’ll have to respect whatever lines they draw as too far, as well. This is the best offer you will get for a brand, make no mistake. I’ll have a few concept sketches for costumes sent to your local branch. They’ll come with instructions for dress and behavior, even in your civilian life. And why is that?”

“Because everyday is Halloween.”

“Exactly right. You’re highly visible in your private life--that’s just the way it is--so when you take off one mask you’ll be putting on another. I suspect you’re a bit familiar with that already.”

I did not come here expecting a fat man to run roughshod over me so effectively. God damn. “I’ll tear any costume I wear to bits. Changer, made of skin and knives.”

“I know. Regardless of whichever you pick, there will be an emergency leotard included. Exposing yourself is over the line, regardless of circumstances.”

“It’ll get torn too. I use my ribs for a lot of things.”

“You’ve got space in your chest cavity, don’t you? Just keep a spare in there and ooze into it before you put your people costume back on. Any questions?” I shook my head. “Alright then. Pleasure working with you. Welcome to the Wards, Deadpan.”

...this man is a wily foe indeed.

* * *

As Glenn Chambers promised, I got called in to the Rig after school a few days later to come make a final decision on a costume. I’d expected the PRT building, that’s where the Wards were, but the reason for the change was explained as soon as I was escorted not to a bland meeting room, but an actual office, with frosted glass on the door and everything. There was a nameplate on it: Assault. Huh.

I knocked, and the door opened. Yeah, that was Assault.

“Heroes have offices?” I rasped at him.

“Heroes have paperwork, so we get a desk too. You’re Deadpan, right? Come on in.” He stepped aside and ushered me in. Assault’s office was… small. Kind of cramped. There was a desk, like he’d said, with a couple chairs in front of it and a filing cabinet behind. The wall next to the door had a narrow countertop along it, with cabinets underneath, and I spotted a cheap coffee maker and a stack of little styrofoam cups. It was like something that wouldn’t be out of place in a small-town bank, so a red-costumed superhero sitting at the desk was kind of surreal.

“So! You might know this already, but I’m Assault, pleased to meet’cha. I’ve been assigned as your mentor for the duration of your membership in the Wards.”

“...why do I need a mentor?”

“Everyone gets one, and you might be surprised by the need. Uh, a quick overview, I guess… A few years back-- 2008 or so?-- it was decided that the Protectorate mentorship program would extend to all Wards. Before that, it’d been more of a sponsorship thing for Tinkers. But that was then, this is now.”

I stared. He hadn’t answered my question. And he had the nerve to catch my glare and give me a tight smile in return. “Big pad of legalese boils down to this: as your Mentor, I’m responsible for making sure you get whatever you need. Part of that’s professional, so I’m here to help with your training and be an advocate for you to the Youth Guard, PRT, and Protectorate if they come knocking for something. But it’s also personal. I’m here as someone you can go to if you’re having trouble-- family life, school life, Wards life, doesn’t matter-- I will always make time to see you. I’ve got the same confidentiality deal as a doctor or a therapist, so you don’t have to worry about me repeating anything back to my bosses, or your bosses, or parents, whoever.”

So heroes are social workers now? I wondered how much Assault was getting paid to deal with me. Whatever it is, it will not be enough.

“Oh, also your costume sketches came in. Do you want to go over them now, or--” I held out my hand and made grabby motions. Assault snorted and passed me a file folder. I’ll admit, I was actually a little curious what the fat man came up with. There were a couple of choices, so I set the drawings side by side on the desk while Assault nattered about mobility or something. I think he was asking about my fleshy weapons, but I wanted to get this out of the way once and for all.

One of the designs looked more or less what I’d expected, a sleeveless swimsuit-looking thing that covered up to my neck like a fancy dress might, only it kept going until it covered up my face over my nose. So… more like a super-turtleneck. It had pants and an odd number of belts and buckles that served no obvious purpose. There were notes and little arrows scrawled in the margins, noting the locations of openings in the suit for me to grow extra limbs out of without damaging it.

The second suggestion gave me a shudder of revulsion, because wow had Chambers not been joking about the Halloween thing, apparently. Looser and more drapey, almost like robes, with black and orange colors and a pumpkin mask. Woooow. Assault had moved behind me to see better, and he started coughing rather suspiciously. I grew some very angry eyes on my shoulders until he shut up.

The third was… apparently going triple-down on being a zombie, because it looked like a better-funded version of someone who just crawled out of the grave. Shorts over leggings, a utility belt and padded vest, with a full face mask and my hair in a ponytail. I saw tears and rips in the leggings and shirt--maybe they were one piece--so it was one of those “distressed” jeans things or the material was cheap, because I’d be expected to shred it. From the squiggles in the margins, probably both. It looked… okay? Ish? Somewhere between teenybopper, Hot Topic, and a Romero movie. And I’ll be damned, there was a concept sketch for the brain-shaped suckers in the folder too.

“Don’t much care for these masks.”

“Mm… not the best selection, yeah. Kinda necessary, though. You’ve got distinguishing marks on your face, so it’d be easy to pick you out if they’re not covered. The scars could be concealed with makeup, but your nose and jaw got their skeleton game going strong.”

I guessed that was a far point. Although… I couldn’t fill in the missing parts, but could I take more away? I prodded my fingers at the intact half of my face, then focused. The skin withered, shrank back, exposed my teeth and blackened my gums. I turned to face Assault, he didn’t need any warning.

The hero twitched, a reflexive recoil, but he had enough moxie to stop from taking a step back. “Changer, right… hm. I don’t have a mirror handy, but if you can get that more symmetrical, you might be able to ask Marketing to redesign the masks. If it’s exactly the same on each side--especially if you can add to the half what’s scarred up already--it’ll look more like makeup or a… whatever that is. The plastic stuff. Like for Klingon faces.”

I probably could. I sucked away more flesh from my jawbone, leaving an almost translucent layer of skin as its covering. Hooray, now I didn’t have to work at smiling. And if I had trouble talking without lips, I could make a second mouth in my throat.

(Story-only thread)
Deadpan, huh? Better make a decision.

[-]Costume #1. Looks quiet and mysterious. All those belts, though…
[-]Costume #2. Looks, uh… happy meal. ‘Wouldn’t you like to see something strange?’
[-]Costume #3. Looks a bit out of place, if sassy. Would pigtails be too Bonesaw? Probably.

I bet they want me to play nice.
[-]Spend time with someone? (Write-in)

Chapter Text

09

 

[X]Costume #2: Pumpkinhead


After careful consideration, I add extra knuckles and extend one finger out a foot to tap against the second concept sketch. “This one.”

“You can take as much time as you need, you know. It’s an important decision,” Assault tries to sway me. I shake my head and tap the sketch a bit harder. “Well, alright. Can I ask why? You didn’t seem all that impressed at first.”

I stack the unwanted sketches back into the folder, and think for a bit. I supposed it wouldn’t hurt to tell him, and if Assault was supposed to be my mentor I’d need to throw him some breadcrumbs of interaction on a fairly regular basis anyway. “I hate it.”

He sort of blinks a couple times as he sits back down across from me. “Then why pick it? I mean, if it’s that bad we could call Imaging, and--”

“No,” I rasp at him, and pause to inflate my lungs a bit better. I almost never get the proper pattern on that while talking, anymore. “I hate it, but this isn’t about what I want. It’s about what I need and what Chambers will allow.”

Assault makes a sort of go-on gesture. I counter with a gesture at myself. “You see this? Chambers called it my ‘people costume.’ I don’t much like it, either. Don’t like holding myself in one shape all the time. I need to stretch my limbs and everything else. I also need this job, and Image needs me to at least pretend I’m just a normal kid.”

Assault looks like he wants to interrupt, so I inhale a bit quicker and let air whistle through the ruin of my nose, a much more effective shushing maneuver. “With this, even if it’s ridiculous, and they want me to be nice and hand out candy, I don’t have to hold one shape all the time. I can rearrange myself and nobody can see. It’s going to suck learning to play the part, but at least I’ll have this.”

“So it’s a compromise, then? I’ll be honest, not sure I’m cool with your reasoning, but it’s good to see you’re taking this gig seriously. If you’re that sure about it, I’ll go ahead and get it filed and everything for you.”

I nod, then remember something: “Can I send a note with it? I had some thoughts on the mask.” It looks like there’d be plenty of room in that pumpkin, after all… I was kind of curious to see if they’d go for it. I figure I need to find some means of enjoying this whole situation, even and especially if that means making my own entertainment. Not much else to do with my time or attention. Assault agrees and fishes out a notepad from his desk for me, and I write down my request while he does whatever it is he needs to to get this moving. And… I look over the pumpkinhead design again. Despite my reservations, I think I can work with this. I’ve actually already got an idea, though it seems pretty far-fetched. I finish writing my request and inhale again to catch Assault’s attention. “Hey. You said you can get me things, right?”

“Within reason,” he says slowly, already suspicious. Smart man. “And if not I can at least explain why. Something you have in mind?”

“I need, like, ten bucks. For my power.”

“Uh huh. Deadpan, I’m--”

“In pennies.”

“...well now I’m curious.”

“It’s the iron in blood that gives it a red color, right? Oxidized iron, anyway. Different metals burn different colors. You said some stuff about a mask and it made me think I should try changing colors.”

“Uh… science isn’t my strong point, but are you saying you want to… fill your blood with money?”

“...yes.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.” Assault might have been trying to look sympathetic, but then he smiles a bit. He’s one of those people who always shows teeth when they smile, I note. “Still, it’s the start of a cool idea. We can always ask the power docs for their take on it. I’d think you’d need some way of dissolving the metal, though? The iron in your blood is at the molecular level or something.”

Hmm. Well, I should have a few days before I get my actual costume, so I can spend some time thinking on it. Or I could pursue something else, I suppose. I’ve got a few other ideas I’ve been wanting to sleep on.


Research Opportunity
[-]Keep with the color-changing, I think there’s something there. (Unlocks: ???)
[-]Play with some meatslime. Something about it’s been nagging me. (Unlocks: ???)


* * *

[X]Don’t play rough with: Vista

The PRT works pretty fast, since I did get the costume on Wednesday. Fitting wasn’t really a problem, since I could just shrink or stretch as necessary, so the first attempt was fine with me. I suspect that Chambers recognized my compromise, because the costume had a bit more of a ragged look to the edges of the cloak and the cloth bindings on the boots than I’d picked up from the sketches. Sadly, my idea for the pumpkin head didn’t really pan out-- namely, a little bit of storage with a latching lid, so I could pull those brain-suckers out of my head-- but when I sighed the costume guy said they were still debating it. So maybe I had that to look forward to. In the meantime, they have me a colorful plastic bucket instead. It is also a pumpkin, because of course it is.

They’re also kind of disappointed when I tell them I can’t really taste the suckers they give me to try. I’m not; supposedly they were cherry flavored, second only to grape on the most terrible hard candies scale. Still free sugar.

I do ask if I can go show my costume to the Wards, if any are here, and Assault seems pleased by the request. Maybe he thinks I’m warming up to them. I actually just want some acting practice. Either way, I don’t have a passkey yet, so he escorts me down to their commons. He does the door buzzer thing and follows me in.

“Hey kids, guess what!” I think I’d be irritated at his enthusiasm if I hadn’t caught the slight twitch of distaste Vista makes when she heard him. “Deadpan got her costume!”

Deadpan? That’s what you’re going with?” Vista asks, the incredulity clear. I actually don’t see anyone else here at the moment, but maybe they’re off in their dorms or the bathroom or something. Or maybe Vista just likes hanging out at work instead of home.

“In honor of my delightful sense of humor,” I wheeze through the carved pumpkin face, “and also my questionable life state.”

“I know what it means, I’m just… surprised? I didn’t think something like that would get through PR, but… well, I guess we do already have Clockblocker.”

Fair enough. And since she’s here, time to try out this ‘human interaction with your peers’ thing. I think I remember how it goes. I walk over to Vista, put my hand on her shoulder--she tries to lean away, but she foolishly left her back to a wall--and then shlurp my hand and fingers out of the glove so it falls limp. “I challenge you to a duel for your title of Team Mascot.”

“Wh-- what?!”

“Choose your weapon. We will meet on the field of battle, and I will seize your crown as my own.”

“I am not the Team Mascot!” Vista shrieks, and I see the room warp a bit. I wonder if she’ll actually gib me again? I kind of doubt it. Still not gonna push too hard, for now. I extend a tendril and collect my glove from her shoulder.

“I see,” I rasp, and pause long enough to twist some eye-covered stalks out of my neck and brace them against the inside of my mask. A careful flex lets me swivel my pumpkinhead around 180 degrees. “In that case: where is Clockblocker?”

The extra eyes are pretty crude, and I can’t quite tell what expression Assault is making, but my ears still work fine. I can hear the schadenfreude in Vista’s voice when she says, “Down that hallway, third door on the right.” Excellent.

* * *

I skipped school the next day. Not for any real reason, it’s just Thursday. I’m not very fond of Thursdays. It might be the double period of science, since my assigned seat in the lab is all the way at the back (gee, I wonder why) and eventually everyone gets used to feeling me watching them. Instead, I slept in a bit, and I wake up rather hazy and restless, like I tend to do.

I also apparently moved around in my sleep again, because when I get my brain juices flowing again I realize I’ve half-sucked my costume into my chest cavity. Which… doesn’t actually seem like a bad idea. It’s bulky, but by hollowing out as much of my insides as possible, I manage to make it fit, pumpkinhead and all. Sadly not my candy basket, but overall I’m pleased. I couldn’t do this a month ago, I’d never thought to just vanish half my body mass. It makes walking kind of stilted and difficult with so much missing and replaced with smuggled cloth, but I like the novelty and the challenge so I decide to try and keep it that way for the day. Or at least until I get bored.

I also suppose I should be productive if I’m not going to Winslow. I kept a few rat traps going, so I can go check on those and see if anything’s left, and after taking stock of the situation (staring into space for a few minutes until a few thoughts knocked together), I also remember that I need to set up a bank account. I won’t get paid for another week or so yet, I think, but I need a place for that pay to go first.

That helps set up an itinerary: go to Brockton Bay Central Bank, maybe window shop on the Boardwalk if people will fuck off and leave me alone, and check the traps after. I dig out the floppiest hoodie I own as well as my bus pass, and head out. My torso is kind of lumpy with all the costume stuffed inside me, so that’s a first. The bus ride is boring, as it should be, and I let my thoughts wander. Window shopping sounds better and better-- I’ve got a little allowance left as well-- and as long as I’m being so active today there’s something I’ve been meaning to take care of.

Find a gift for Emma.
[-](Write-in)

It’s either for the best or the worst that I decide to take care of the bank first, because I arrive just in time for… well, definitely something. The sirens aren’t going, but there’s flashing blue-red lights all over, and once I get close enough I can make out the half-circle of the Wards standing in front of the bank’s main doors. Was someone seriously trying to rob the place? Must be. And the Wards were here, so it was probably a cape thing.

I slow down and join the throng of rubberneckers standing a safe distance from the ongoing situation, as much as a safe distance exists for cape fights. It kind of figures someone would choose the one day I come here to start trouble. And I kind of felt like giving trouble back, if they were going to inconvenience me. Thinking it over, I could see a few options:

Aegis was in that half-circle of my co-workers, I could see his red suit pretty clearly. He was the Wards leader, so following his orders was a thing I needed to get used to, kinda. I hadn’t actually been, y’know, introduced yet, but I could go join them as soon as I found an alleyway or a phone booth to disgorge my costume from.

Of course, that meant that whoever was robbing the place would know I was here. The element of surprise might be worth holding on to, if I wanted to be a little more direct about things. Or indirect, whatever.


A bank robbery, huh?
[-]Go join the Wards. Just saunter up all casual-like. They’ve probably got a plan already.
[-]Infiltrate. Try and get inside the bank and see what’s going on.
[-]Set a trap. Try and figure out the most likely escape route for the robbers.


(Story-only thread, votes not counted.)

Chapter Text

10

 

[X]Go join the Wards. Just saunter up all casual-like. They’ve probably got a plan already.


It’s not my first choice, but if I’m hoping to be paid to be part of a hero team, I should probably pay attention to the team part. Mavericks and loose cannons in movies are cool and all, but they have plot armor against red tape. I have no such protection, and even less patience. I shove my way back out of the rubbernecker crowd and to the nearest alleyway. Time to get my Earth Aleph Superhero Plausible Deniability Transformation on, I guess. Only I’m not wearing my costume underneath my clothes, exactly. And I’m kinda lacking on the unreasonably attractive proportions. And my teeth never come with a lens flare… well, whatever. Once I’m out of sight, I unzip my skin from neck to navel and spit out my costume-- and then promptly collapse into a loose pile of skin and hair, now that my supporting endoskeleton of Halloween is gone. Whoops.

No big deal. I slither into my costume easily enough. There’s something interesting about being draped head to toe (or equivalent) in cloth that I’ve started to notice, and it’s that I don’t feel as… I suppose obligated? To keep a recognisable form, like I told Assault. Like right now, when I crawl into my costume I do so by ditching the skin entirely and become a stick-figure of exposed muscle and tendons, wrapped over chicken-thin bones as jointed as a snake. It’s just not something I would have done before now, even when I’m pacing alone in the house. Maybe it’s because I can’t see myself-- not from any sense of shame, but from a lingering idea of ‘this is my shape’ that’s locked on what I used to be.

Food for thought, but not important right now. I stumble out of the alleyway and back towards the bank, my gait growing steadier and heavier every second as I bulk up under the concealing cloak. There’s an audible, ominous gurgling coming from my torso as I suck flesh in from Elsewhere, and squelch it into my limbs, adding muscle and fat and bone. The rubberneckers part before me like a wave as I walk through them, and while a couple of policemen yell at me, I ignore them and saunter up to the line of my co-workers. There’s more than one double-take when I get close enough to rasp, “‘Sup?”

“Deadpan? What are you doing here?!” Aegis hisses at me. That doesn’t sound like Aegis. That sounds like Clockblocker. I spot someone who looks like Clockblocker a few feet away, making an aborted twitch like they’re going to march over to me. I pause before replying, because I want them to feel my disappointment. When I thought they had a plan, I’d expected it to be a good plan.

“I was gonna open a bank account today, but it looks like they’re closed.”

“No shit, Deadpan!” Vista whispers through her teeth, her voice a lot closer than it should be. I guess her power is pretty precise. “The Undersiders are in there. They’ve got hostages.”

“I noticed. So did you want some help, or…?”

“You’re not on the team yet, you can’t--” Not-Aegis bites off the rest of his complaint. “Look, just-- stand over there by Vista for now. She’s got the back of the bank closed off, so we’re just gonna stall as long as we can until backup gets here.”

As he speaks, some motion near the top of my field of vision catches my attention, and I glance up in time to spot what is probably Glory Girl sweeping down onto the roof of the bank. I think I hear a low groan from Gallant. “You mean that backup?”

“Piggot is going to kill us all.” I guess that’s a no, then. Sucks to be the living. Or at least Not-Aegis, because whatever god he’d pissed off this week decided to up the ante even further: the doors to the bank lobby opened up, releasing first a straggling line of hostages, and then a flood of just… featureless black. We had to back up several paces to keep out of it. I kinda regret not doing any homework on the city’s cape scene, now. Not enough to really correct that error, not yet. My first instinct is that nothing can really hurt me, but Vista proved that at least partially wrong within seconds of meeting her, so maybe a Brockton Bay for Dummies is in order. Still, if the Wards are here and not the real heroes, the Undersiders can’t be that bad.

“Deadpan, you’re a Brute, right? You’re on Hellhound’s monsters.” Monsters?

I don’t get a chance to ask for details, as what I’m assuming are the monsters in question come barrelling out of the darkness. They’re huge, and I can see how Hellhound got her name because they are kind of dog-shaped, if dogs were 200% evil. Covered in twisted growths of skin and bones, gigantic heads filled with huge, saliva-slicked teeth perfect for rending and tearing, claws like mattocks just tearing up the asphalt as they charge towards us…

“Holy shit,” I wheeze. “I want one.”

I hear Vista mutter behind me: “You would.”

There were three of them, one with a rider in a cheap dog mask whom I assumed was Hellhound, and they charged for not-Aegis, then juked to the side at the last minute and went for not-Clockblocker instead. I almost felt worry for a moment, but he started flying and brawling with the hounds, so I guess there wasn’t anything to worry about after all. And like hell I was letting actual-Aegis have all the fun. I shifted mass around as quickly as I could, and shouldered past actual-Clockblocker who was trying to make a run at the hounds as well. The top half of my costume practically deflated, and probably started flopping around uselessly as I pulled all but a few tendrils out of it, and I slowed down for the few steps it took me to get the new limbs I’d been moulding out from under my coat and into the air. They weren’t quite octopus arms-- I only had six of them, and instead of suckers I lined the undersides with shards of bones like teeth, while the top I lined with more crude, easily-formed eyes. Hard to tell who’s who with those, but a giant monster dog is kind of hard to mistake. The very second I get in range of one of the hounds, I lash out my limbs and wrap myself bodily around it.

The monster’s thick hide keeps me from doing much damage on first contact, and it’s got a long enough neck it turns and bites down on my costume’s torso, but most of my mass is in my limbs now, and what’s left in the costume is mostly gristle and tendons. I feel a crushing discomfort as the beast’s teeth come together, but unless it really starts chewing I should be fine.

Speaking of chewing.

The roiling cloud of darkness envelops both me and the hound, rending my eyes useless and producing a curious numbness on what scraps of skin I have. That’s all it seems to do, though, so I couldn’t care less about it. Hell, I don’t care what the Wards are doing either, because right then I dig the arm-teeth in deep enough to start getting a taste of this thing, and I am never letting go. I squeeze as tight as I can, and start twisting the insides of them into openings, just deep enough to seat mouths. I think I get close to four dozen maws, none of them terribly big, but that doesn’t matter right now-- what matters is biting, biting harder, chewing swallowing eating consuming devouring.

The head of the hound makes noise, and shakes my lesser limbs like a rabbit, severing them and tearing holes in my costume. It hurts, the separation hurts and the tendrils quiver inside the loose cloth, but I don’t care. I inflate my feeding limbs, and there’s a hissing gurgle as new tubes and sacs develop within them, yellow pustules forming along the surface instead of skin. I form connecting valves to the maws, then squeeze.

Stomach acid vomits all throughout my limbs, and the dog-monster yelps, then starts making a high-pitched crying whine as it thrashes, trying to dislodge me and stop from being digested. I don’t have many eyes left between the pustules, just enough to tell the darkness is gone, but I have a few ear canals that pick up on very angry yelling from somewhere close by. A second set of giant teeth close on me, but that only pops a number of the acid sacs, and I hear the second dog-monster yelp as its dead flesh starts dissolving into slime. A couple teeth get left behind as the beast’s gums fizzle into nothing, while the monster I’m eating starts to slow its thrashes, then finally, finally goes limp. I easily tune out the chaos around me, and shift my limbs to focus more on consuming, rather than restraint.

The meat has a wonderful complexity. I want to savor it, but I want even more for it to stop being separate, and hurry up and become me.

As my limbs close in, curling into a ball around the diminishing pile of meat that was Hellhound’s minion, I snake out a couple tendrils and reconnect to the missing bits in the top half of my costume, and start rebuilding a humanoid torso within it. Complete with eyes, to see the scattered Wards team, a very chewed-up Aegis, the smoking circle of acid-scored parking lot and gore I’m in, and a lot of horrified expressions.

...and hey! There’s a dog in here!

Like, an actual dog. At the center of my meat is something like an amniotic sac, and there’s a twitching canine inside it. So, Hellhound’s monsters are dogs? Learn something new every day. I think it’s still alive, though I’m not sure how, and I should do something with it.

Never had live prey before… (Story-only, votes not counted)
[ ]Considerate of Hellhound to leave a palate-cleanser. (Eat the dog)
[ ]Well, maybe the Protectorate will want it? (Try to keep the dog alive and restrained)
[ ]...live prey. I feel... strange. (Let the dog go)

Chapter Text

11

 

[X]Well, maybe the Protectorate will want it? (Try to keep the dog alive and restrained)

A gurgling sound breaks the horrified silence as I drain away the amniotic sac, and the torso of my costume bunches and roils as I multi-segment some ribs to help open it up so I can spit the dog out like a hairball. It starts wriggling and whining as soon as I get it out of its fluid, but a few thinner, less-voracious tendrils are enough to keep a good grip on it. Then I extend the tendrils enough to raise the pupper over my head and yell out, “I found a doooooog!”

“Deadpan, that’s-- that’s great, but could you maybe--”

Actual-Aegis keeps one hand up as he approaches me, so I guess the whole ruse is over with now. I turn towards him and spot Actual-Clockblocker throwing up on the time-locked shoes of some girl in a dog mask… he should probably hope he can freeze her again before she realizes. Either way, not my problem. I step out of the circle of acid and melted giblets and start walking towards Vista, holding the terrified dog about a foot in front of me with some tendrils. It’d be easier to just keep it in my chest, but… The thought actually works a shiver down my spine. I want it. I want that dog, that living meat. Just holding it is making every nerve cramp with a hunger that isn’t. I know hunger, and this is… something else. My tendrils tighten around it, sliding through the fur. “Vista. Vista check out this dog I found.”

“Ohh no, don’t you come over here with that thing!”

“Vista pet the dog.”

“No!” Hurry up and take it away from me.

“Oh for-- I’ll take it, Deadpan, go sit in the transport. That is an order,” Actual-Aegis finishes by hissing through his teeth at me, even as he takes the dog. My tendrils come away with bits of its fur, caught on small teeth that were growing along the undersides. As soon as the creature is clear of them I retract my tendrils so fast they crack like a whip. The dog struggles against Aegis pretty hard, but he gets a grip on it and frees a hand long enough to point me towards a waiting PRT transport; I guess backup got here while I was distracted. I slouch over to it, passing Gallant and Glory Girl on the way. The latter has her mascara running and she’s sort of whisper-shouting at Gallant, but again: not my problem.

What is my problem is that now I’m going to be spending the rest of the day probably at the PRT, doing work stuff instead of either of the two things I actually set out to do today. Feh.

* * *

The real Wards get a debriefing about their performance at the bank robbery; I get to sit in a side room and hum to myself for a while until a rather frazzled-looking Assault finds time to speak with me. Come to think of it, I’m a little surprised I haven’t seen Miss Militia around yet. She seems like she’s gotten the Den Mother thing going on, so I would have expected her to be fussing around the Wards. I don’t have anything to lose by asking, so I rasp a question at Assault once he settles in. He’s a bit unexpectedly grim when he answers, “She’s off at a conference this weekend. Most of the local team is, in fact the only reason I’m not is I’m still getting things all squared away with you. Unlucky coincidence for the Undersiders, eh?”

His shit-eating grin reappears for a moment, then vanishes back into something approaching seriousness. Huh. I guess he really can just turn that on and off. “On a related note, Deadpan-- talk to me. What happened, why were you even there? You kinda torpedoed your own debut and from what I hear, the PRT’s phones are blowing up about as hard as the press.”

I can’t even get lunch without ending up on the local news. Story of my life.

“I was trying to open a bank account and picked the wrong day to do it.” I shrug at him with a spare set of shoulders. “The Wards were there, so I figured I’d lend a few hands. Went over to who I thought was Aegis to see if he had any directions for me, and I got told to take care of Hellhound’s dogs. So I did.”

“We’ll… get to that. So you just happened to have your costume with you? And weren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Skipped school. And I kinda half-ate my costume while I was sleeping so I just went with it, had it stashed in my chest cavity.” Assault gets this sort of stare on his face, like there are just so many things he could say but there’s no logical place to start. I mentally cross him off my list of people I need to baffle this week.

“Alright. And what about the dogs?”

“Turns out they’re giant mobile tootsie-roll pops. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside.”

Deadpan.”

“I forgot to keep track of how many licks it took, though. Didn’t we capture Hellhound? Get her to build another dog-thing and I’ll take notes this time.”

“Deadpan!” Assault snaps at me, then immediately takes a breath and holds it for a second. Maybe he didn’t mean to yell at the widdle zombie. “This is serious. I know it’s a pain, but the Protectorate and the PRT have strong opinions about public image. They really don’t like heroes being threatening, and that goes triple for Wards. And you just went Cthulhu on a villain. Deadpan, you have to explain this to me, so I can explain to the Director why you should stay on the team.”

Damnit. My one weakness: threatening my paycheck, and my easy meal ticket; now that I’ve had a taste of the high life (as in, not rats) I’m rather loathe to give it up. I let the pumpkin head of my helmet tilt downwards so I can stare at my boots, and scuff my feet against the floor while I think. Damn him for this. There’s few things I hate more than pity, but it’s probably my best shot at getting the PRT to keep with a sunk cost fallacy rather than buyer’s remorse. And while Chambers might be fine with enlightened self-interest, Director Piggot might not want to indulge me unless she absolutely has to. Which means I need to make indulging me be the PR-friendly thing to do.

“...I was hungry,” I mutter, while making sure there’s some pus in my throat to make me sound choked-up. From remorse or shame, I don’t care.

“Didn’t you eat just yesterday?”

I clench my fists and hunch my shoulders a bit, while threading a few eyes on stalks through my clothes to try and get a bead on Assault’s face. It’s not easy, since they have to be small and fairly crude to blend in with the fabric. “You wouldn’t ask that of anybody else. Normal people eat every day. I know meat is expensive, and it’s great that I’m not starving anymore but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable. I’m always hungry, sometimes so much it hurts, so when I got a hold of that dog-monster… the outside was all just dead skin and bones, so I ate it. I didn’t hurt the real dog.”

The eyes peeking out of the seams of my costume catch Assault’s face go from confused to horrified, and he accidentally squishes a few into jelly when he reaches over and squeezes a hand on my shoulder. “Oh, jeeze-- I’m sorry, kiddo. I thought-- why didn’t you say you needed more food?”

“I need this job. And I know I’m not exactly hero material, so I didn’t want to ask for too much.”

“Deadpan-- Taylor--” Assault sighs, and I take it as a sign I can stop hanging my head and actually look at him now. “Your power changed your body’s needs, we get that. It’s not your fault. You shouldn’t be scared to ask for what you need. The PRT’s your employer, yeah, but it’s also here to help you. And like I said, as your mentor, I’m here to advocate for you. So, come to me if you need anything, okay? I’ll talk to Piggot and get this smoothed over.”

“...okay.”

“Okay. And, Deadpan?” Assault waits for me to look up at him as he goes to leave. That toothy grin flips back on like a switch and he waggles a finger at me. “No more cutting class, got it?” Feh.



‘Come to me if you need anything, okay?’ (Story-only thread, do not vote)
[-]Talk to Assault about what you felt with the dog.
[-]Keep quiet.


* * *

The fervor over the bank robbery makes going shopping way harder than it needs to be, but a hoodie in Brockton Bay is basically code for ‘don’t look at me, I could be a ganger or a homeless bum about to pee on you,’ so it’s not impossible. As a bonus, I pass by an electronics store while window shopping, and actually see myself in a report that doesn’t come from a tabloid. There’s apparently some rampant fear and speculation getting started over the Case 53 that was sighted with the Wards. Might even be a good thing; nobody really thinks the monster capes go to school and have lives, so maybe if I just don’t deny being a Case 53, I can keep on being the local dead girl instead of a celebrity. Me, I mean. Deadpan will probably haunt all the wrong forums on PHO. That’s what I get for being made of tentacles and eyes.

Speaking of, a jar of glass eyes on a velvet cushion lets me know I’ve found the perfect store, two blocks over from the main thoroughfare of Lord’s Market. One of those occult shops, so worn-down and dingy it probably doesn’t need to worry about protection money. Nobody runs a place like this for profit, only for personal interest. Or curses.

It’s late, with the streetlights all fizzling on one-by-one, and I walk out of there $20 poorer but immeasurably richer. You can’t put a price tag on the heart, you see. Unless it’s a pig heart in a jar of formaldehyde. You can easily put a price tag on that. Amusingly, finding a ribbon in just the right shade of red as Emma’s hair is actually harder than finding a preserved heart, but I am nothing if not determined. I leave the jar on her doorstep, just like the rat, and while I briefly consider ringing the doorbell and scuttling away, a glance at the side of the house and the late hour gives me a better idea.

There’s a nice old tree not far from Emma’s bedroom window, and molding a few grasping limbs to help me climb it is easy. It’s a bit less easy to adjust my eyes to see in the dark, and I don’t manage it as well as I’d like, but eventually I make out the shape of Emma’s bed through the crack in the curtains. It’s a shame she doesn’t have a fireplace in her room-- there’s one downstairs, I remember, but I’m not quite willing to shimmy down the chimney when there’s no easy exit.

I stay in the tree and watch her for maybe an hour, even forming a few mouths to press lightly against the glass and harmonize with me as I hum a lullaby. She’s always been a light sleeper, and she tosses and turns occasionally, squeezing her pillow tight. I slither out of the tree and go home before the moon can set.


Dream of… (Story-only thread, do not vote)
[-]Somewhere warm
[-]Someplace cold

Chapter Text

12

 

“...so we would like to introduce the newest member of our Wards team. Please welcome Deadpan!”

I get a small amount of satisfaction at how nervous the PRT rep sounds when he calls my name. The small crowd that’s been gathered for the press conference I’ve been roped into attending doesn’t sound all that confident, either; there’s scattered applause, but also a drone of whispers and the click-flash of cameras as I stalk over to the podium. I had to spend the last few hours getting briefed on what to say, and what not to say, in response to a multitude of different hypothetical questions the reporters could throw at me, so I’m not exactly in the best of moods. Still, I’m taking the PRT’s obvious reluctance as confirmation that they’ll be helping me avoid cameras from here on out, so at least this should be a rare occurrence.

If it isn’t, I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I know it won’t be PR-friendly. I hate cameras.

“Hello, Brockton Bay,” I rasp at the microphone. The PRT rep has moved as far away from me as he can without leaving the stage, I note. “You can call me Deadpan. I chose this name in reference to my delightful sense of humor,” I say, managing to lie and re-use my line to Vista in a single sentence. Multitasking.

There’s a flurry of questions, all garbled together, and I don’t have to look at the PRT reps to know it’s not supposed to be that way. These things are usually pretty well-controlled, with the press briefed on what topics are taboo just like the neophyte Ward is, but I guess I’m an exception. It might have something to do with all those cell phone videos of me digesting that hellhound before I’d even swallowed it. There are a loooooot of deleted posts on PHO, now. Maybe I can get a vial of Glenn Chambers’ tears for Christmas, at this rate? Unlikely, I conclude after a moment. I don’t think the fatman is capable of crying. I could definitely decant a few bottles of the local branch’s Image consultants, though. Eventually the herd organizes itself enough for one voice to override the others, “Tim Kilpatrick, Weekly Take. Deadpan, you were spotted at the Brockton Central Bank during the robbery a few days ago. Were you a part of the Wards by then? If yes, how come you hadn’t been introduced yet? Or was that incident your introduction to the Wards, as well?”

There’s a disapproving murmur in the crowd, and I see out of the corner of a few extra eyes in the back of my shoulders some of the other PRT reps making angry gestures at each other; evidently this was one of those taboo questions. Or more likely, I realize as I finish unpacking the question a bit, it’s because he’s implying the PRT might have strong-armed me into joining after that fight. The Weekly Take is kind of a rumor magazine. They’re one of the names that came up in the debriefing I had to sit through. “I approached the PRT a good while ago, but I hadn’t been introduced until now because they wanted to help me get settled and adjusted to daily life a bit first. I was just in the area when the robbery happened, and decided to lend a helping tentacle.”

“David McKinnley, Channel 8. On that note, Deadpan, what are you?”

And that one’s definitely a taboo question. Nice of him not to beat around the bush for it, though. “Dead meat.”

“Er… I-- to clarify, ah-- your voice is rather indistinct. Are you a boy, or a girl?”

“I’m dead meat.”

Some woman raises her hand, almost unwillingly, and doesn’t bother to introduce herself. “About Hellhound’s creatures…”

“Made of dead meat.”

“Could-- could you expand on--”

“My body needs a lot of food to sustain itself. Coincidentally, my favorite food is dead meat.”

“D-Donner Murphy, Channel 12. Deadpan, are you a case 53?”

“...do you really want to know what’s under my robe?” I ask him in place of a reply. He starts to look very uncomfortable. Even moreso after I carefully unseat one eye from its socket, and use a tendril to press it up against the triangular eyehole of my pumpkinhead, followed by another three eyes, of different sizes and colors, in the other socket of the costume. “Since I’m pretty sure what you’re really asking is, ‘are you human?’-- I’m mostly an amorphous mass of muscle and miscellaneous organs. That’s why I have this neat costume that gives me a human-like shape.”

There-- between the line about the PRT helping me to adjust, and this? It’s as good as a confirmation. There’ll be rumors and debates about how I never said explicitly otherwise, but everyone knows the monster capes are all Case 53s, and I’m fine with embracing the label of Monster. It’ll tide me over while I find new and interesting labels to earn. The press briefing doesn’t last much longer after that, for some odd reason the reporters seem to be much less keen on asking me stupid questions, how odd.

* * *

[X]Dream about someplace cold


After the truly impressive amount of effort I put into having to stand in front of a group of inquisitive assholes, I decided a nap was in order. I’d been assigned a dorm room with the other Wards, a little modular cubicle of a place with a bed, a set of drawers, and a desk with a complimentary computer; the cost of using it was having to keep up on all the continuously changing password requirements and M/S protocol drills and all that information security junk. I just put a post-it note with my current passcodes on the side of the monitor. Anyone who wants to try and sneak into my room to get at my computer is going to have bigger problems than a locked screensaver.

Which reminds me, I should probably, like… warn people not to come near me when I’m asleep. I tend to wander a bit. For now, I just lock the door and scuttle under the low bed, so I can let my heartbeat run out in peace.

Awareness fades, then drifts as my body cools and sets into rigor mortis. I feel… expansive. Unconfined. My flesh undulates, flows uncontested in a liquid medium, cells rearranging and shifting across the vast plain of my self as I keep a careful balance across my surface; the permafrost bite of zero pressure all tangled up in the aching burn of solar radiation.

Some part of my flesh remembers-- a mountainous formation of me that’s still being disseminated and spread through the rest. Its cells inform mine of a different arrangement, the rumor spreads, and my surface shimmers and twists into different biological placements. The solar radiation stops burning, becomes a more welcoming glow that my flesh can absorb and synthesize into fuel. How efficient; my satisfied hum trembles the unliving stones beneath my mass.

From out of the cold death of space, I finally hear it. There’s no air to carry sound, but I hear it anyway. It’s not a satisfied hum-- it’s a scream. A wail from far, far away, from some distant star. It’s hurt, whatever it is. Hurting and lonely and begging for someone, anyone, to come help it.

My little garden of flesh suddenly feels so small, listening to that scream. I can’t move to go help it. I can’t even tell it that I hear it. I hum along, try to echo it; it’s all I can do.

(“This is a terrible idea. Don’t do it.”)

(“No, she’s got to be in here, I can hear… what is that? Breathing?”)

(“Doesn’t sound like breathing to me. It’s creepy. Let’s just go.”)

(“Come on, it’s not fair to just leave her out of everything. Uh… hey, Deadpan? Are you in there? Hellooo?”)

My eyeballs start transmitting signals to my meatbrain again in time for me to see Kid Win push open my door, with Vista standing over his shoulder. I realize at about the same time as they do what they have walked in on: I’ve dragged my corpse half-out from under my bed, and let disseminated flesh flow out of my mouth and a few torn-open orifices in my stomach to form tendrils and vines that have wrapped themselves around most of the furniture. A few have bloomed, literally, into alien flowers with reflective petals, trying to catch sunlight that doesn’t exist inside a closed room.

Vista starts screaming. Kid Win starts screaming. I gurgle, until Vista reflexively twists space (and me) into a pretzel, and then I start screaming.

An indeterminate amount of unbelievable agony later, space settles back into its normal dimensions, and I get my various ocular bits to start working again. I think half the local Protectorate is in here now, all trying to talk over each other, and Armsmaster is rapidly losing his patience. Like he has a reason to be pissed, when I’m the one now dripping from the ceiling.

“Will you stop already?!” I wheeze as loud as I can. “God damn, doesn’t anyone know how to knock?”

“You ate the l-lock,” someone whimpers. Probably Vista. Or maybe Clockblocker, I can’t even tell from here.

“Let’s not get wrapped up in who ate what,” I garble at them. “It’s gonna take me an hour to pull myself together like this, Vista! Someone get a mop.”


Stupid Vista, and her stupid space power reducing me to slime.
[-]Forgive her. She’s not used to tripping over corpses yet, give her time.
[-]Don’t forgive her. Three strikes shouldn’t apply when a strike smears me across the walls.


* * *


[X]Talk to assault about the dog.


Assault looks kind of jumpy when he answers my knock on his ridiculous little office-worker door. Everyone is kind of jumpy. I would be, but honestly I’m more aggravated than startled over being woken up. “Hey, Taylor. Come in, what do you need?”

“You said we could talk if I wanted.”

“Of course,” he says, and gestures for me to sit. I do, and he takes his own chair across the desk from me, and tries to look serious and concerned. I don’t think it’s a natural look for him. “What would you like to talk about? ...Vista?”

“What? No. I wanted to talk about the dog.” Assault sort of blinks a couple of times. “The one from the bank,” I remind him.

“R-right. I just thought-- nevermind. What about it?”
I hesitate. It’s hard to really put into words, but I’m really kind of curious about what happened-- and maybe a little worried. So who knows, maybe Assault will have some advice? He’s been a cape a lot longer than I have. “I… after I got the dog out of its candy shell, I felt… really weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Like I wanted-- like my power wanted to do something about it. To it. I’ve trapped rats before, but they’ve always been dead by the time I get to them, and I never felt that way.” The more I think about it, the more certain I am that’s the difference. The dog was alive, and I needed something from it that I couldn’t get from just digesting dead rats. Assault asks a lot of unrelated questions, trying to narrow down if it was Hellhound’s power that was affecting me somehow, and if I’ve felt anything similar in other situations, and if I was doing okay after Vista’s little interruption earlier and would I like to talk about it?

Since yes, I was fine and no, I didn’t want to talk about it, Assault eventually relented and escorted me to the Rig, where the lower levels have the PRT’s harem of scientists and parahuman specialists. Which is how I found myself in a large, sealed room, full of monitoring apparatuses and a reinforced window keeping Assault and a bunch of people in white coats safe from any potential splatter that might result from this little experiment.

They had found, on very short notice, a small cage containing a white rat. Either the PRT had some bred for their own use in a lab here, or somewhere in the city a pet shop owner’s trust had just been broken.

“Okay, Deadpan. You can open the cage with the little latch on the top. Go ahead.”

I reach for it, as directed, and open the hatch at the top of the cage. The rat is squeaking, scurrying around the edges of its prison in growing panic, and I feel that same hunger start to cramp on my nerves. It’s alive; it’s restrained. Instead of reaching into the cage, I pull off my pumpkinhead, freeing my mouth from its vinyl prison, and I lean over.

My tongue stretches, firms up with cartilage, then snaps out quick as a whip and buries a thin bone needle in the rat’s side. The rodent convulses, flops over, and I retract my proboscis to watch.

Something under the rat’s skin writhes, even as its body grows still, and--

[Discorporation research tree unlocked.]

And it’s me. That rat is me. Its flesh is my flesh. Its tail twitches, and I know that it isn’t just a random firing of nerves.

A paw flexes, and braces against the floor of the cage, like it’s going to stand up. (Story-only thread, do not vote)
[-]Eat the rat, NOW. Its flesh is yours, reclaim it. (Unlocks: Creep)
[-]Leave the rat. (Unlocks: Voluntary Separation)

Chapter Text

[X]Leave the rat



Despite all the startled yells, the people talking over each other, and the sudden flashes of red light as someone triggers a containment lockdown of some sort, I can’t help but feel like the PRT’s scientists are missing the importance of what just happened.

The rat-shape has gotten up, scrabbled clumsily to its paws and then froze in place, with its eyeballs already turning grey and its heart muscles being turned into jelly. It’s not moving because I’m not moving. It’s me. It’s not another me, it’s just me in a place that’s not where I’m standing right now. It’s separate, but still connected. My flesh. I can feel the attachment, it’s like looking at one of those stupid Magic Eye pictures, stop focusing on the piece of me that’s standing here and the rest of the picture pops out. For a moment, I’m so giddy with excitement I can’t contain myself.

I start jumping up and down like a little kid, giggling and squealing and lashing a half-dozen tendrils around wildly. Separation hurts, all of it hurts. Emma’s absence, my flesh spread across the walls by Vista, all of it. But this? It’s still connected. It confirms something I’ve thought about for a while, ever since I started filling that tote in my basement full of meatslime. No; really, I have Vista to thank for this. She broke me apart in that alleyway and all the pieces were still me, I just didn’t know how to recognize it past the hurt. This body, this shape? It’s not me. It’s just a shape. I don’t have to be in this shape, and I don’t have to be in one place.

Oh man, I can’t wait to abuse this.

I pick up the rat-shape and hold it close to my chest, still dancing around and laughing, then turn and face the viewing window and hold the rat-shape out, grinning so wide it’s split my cheeks all the way to my ears. “Assault! Assault, look! It doesn’t hurt! It doesn’t hurt at all!”

* * *

Up in the observation booth, Assault stared at the spectacle in the test chamber.

He was still staring a few hours later, only this time at the wall of Armsmaster’s office on the Rig, from a distance of approximately 1000 yards. Miss Militia was sitting next to him and staring at Assault, just waiting quietly, ready to be there for him if he needed a shoulder to cry on or a 12 gauge slug to the face to end a rampage. The room’s owner finally arrived, juggling a clutter of paperwork and his phone, all of which he shoved onto the desk so he could turn and face the two of them.

“I left you alone for two weeks, and when I came back there’s a zombie in the Wards. Then I left you alone for two hours, and now Piggot is drinking an entire bottle of antacids. What happened?”

“Welcome back, Armsmaster,” Militia said. Assault was still too far away to respond. “How was your patrol?”

“Good, there was a bit of noise over by the Trainyards, but it was just a domestic-- no. You can’t distract me like that.” He scowled at them and moved around to his side of the desk. The chair, even reinforced, creaked under the weight of his armor. “Start talking. And about something relevant, please.”

Militia gave him a pat on the shoulder; she’d tried. Assault sighed, and launched into an explanation of what his boss had missed regarding Brockton Bay’s newest acquisition. Militia chimed in with her own observations and questions, when appropriate. Armsmaster butted in once in a whole to get clarifications, but otherwise just let Assault speak. Once he got to the part with the rat, Armsmaster stopped him long enough to get out a notepad, so he could write things down. The Tinker had a lot of questions, some Assault knew the answer to, but many he didn’t. Did they confirm an absence of vital signs in the rat? How long did the reanimation process take? Was the rat autonomous, instinctual, or controlled? What was the transmission vector, was it a pure Striker power or something else?

The answers, in order: yes, way too damn fast, controlled, and deliberate action. Deadpan had, upon questioning, insisted that she had ‘eaten’ the rat. She didn’t eat or digest in the traditional sense, so anything she ate was assimilated into part of her. She claimed she’d injected just a bit of herself into the rat, and eaten it from the inside out. She’d then decided to prove her claim that the rat wasn’t a minion, just a glob of her own flesh, by holding the critter up and making it melt into goo. It had dripped all over her arm and the floor, and the drips had crawled back to her and sank into her skin. One of the newer technicians in the power testing room had started crying.

“And I just-- I dunno. I can’t even, that’s the phrase, right? I can’t even. You know what she said?”

“The fact that I’m asking you should point to ‘no.”

“She asked if this meant she could find a spare garbage can in the cafeteria, then turn it into a sarlacc pit for the cooks to toss meat scraps and leftover hotdogs into.”

“Well, that… does sound practical,” Armsmaster hedged, “but not really something I want to decide on now. She only mentioned this… urge in regards to animals, correct?”

“Right,” Militia said. “And she’s shown no similar inclinations while interacting with the Wards. Her father is fine, too.”

“That proves nothing either way,” Armsmaster said, and frowned even harder. “There’s enough precedent with Masters to indicate she might have a Manton limitation against, ehh, ‘infecting’ humans, but there’s also precedent of her ignoring established Manton limitations. This is going to require some testing.”

“Isn’t jumping straight to ‘infection’ being a little unfair, Armsmaster?” Assault asked.

“No.”

“Terminology aside, I agree we need to investigate this,” Militia cut in, ever the diplomat. “If her first description of the incident is to equate it to just regular eating habits, then I personally doubt she’s a danger in the Master sense. But, it behooves us to make sure anyway… actually, that reminds me. Assault, did she say anything about what happened with Kid Win and Vista?”

“Not really,” he shrugged. “I tried asking, but she brushed it off.”

“Hm. Well, if she’s reluctant there’s still the other witnesses. Militia, see if Vista’s willing to talk to you about it. I’ll question Kid Win. If nothing else, her destruction of her door makes me think I’ll need to find an acid-proof material for her quarters.” Armsmaster sighed, and jotted down a few more scribbles on his notepad. “I’ll add it to the pile of tests. Assault, make sure she stays under observation until I say otherwise; move her into one of the M/S containment rooms for the time being.”

“Wh-- you want to keep her locked up?!”

Under observation, I said, as a precaution. Since there’s been no signs of her power having a Shaker or Stranger element, she’s free to visit the Wards’ Commons still, but I don’t want her given free reign to leave until I’ve had time to study her power a bit more. Hm-- speaking of, don’t move anything out of her room yet, I’m going to grab some scanners and go over it right after this.”

* * *

[X]Forgive Vista

My good mood hadn’t entirely evaporated by the time I finally got back to the Wards’ Commons. Mind you, it was under threat of doing so; as much as I was getting curious about the limits of my flesh, I was also quickly getting tired of the attention. I wasn’t allowed to take a nap, either, since Armsmaster had apparently locked himself in my room with a black light or something, which was kind of strange. The Tinker had probably been my second-favorite hero for most of my childhood, and I was pretty sure I still had a poster of him on my bookshelf at home, but man. The whole Protectorate was turning out to be much more weird than I’d ever anticipated. I hope he finishes whatever he’s doing soon. I want to see if I can grow enough extra ribs to make a throne of bones to replace my computer chair. I hear the PHO mods want a picture of you using your powers in order to verify your Cape tag.

In the meantime, though, there’s something else I guess I can take care of.

I find Vista’s room down the narrow hall from mine, and try to make my hand as normal as possible before I knock on her door. The trick works, because I hear her call out, then finally get up and open the door when I don’t identify myself with an answer. She freezes in place when she sees me, holding the door half-open. “D-deadpan?”

“Hey. Can we talk?”

“Sure, um… sure. Come in.” Vista backs away from the door, rather than turn around and lose sight of me. I reward her prudence by leaving a couple feet of distance between us. “Listen, Deadpan, I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to use my power on you, I swear.”

You know what’s funny? I actually believe her. She sounds serious, not sad or remorseful. None of Madison’s crocodile tears, or Emma’s pursed lips and pouts. None of the fidgeting denials I get from Winslow’s staff. It’s… nice? No-- not nice. But it’s satisfying in a weird way. “I think you’re telling the truth. I don’t think you meant to hurt me, Vista. You did anyway, but I hope intention counts for something.

I take a step closer, and she leans back a bit, but doesn’t retreat any farther. “I’ve heard a saying. Once is chance, twice is coincidence. And three times is…?”

I trail off, and wait for her to finish the sentence. “...enemy action?”

“Enemy action, yes. But I don’t think you’re an enemy, Vista. We’re teammates, right? You won’t do it again, right?”

She swallows, and answers with, “I’ll try not to. I’ll try really hard.”

She refuses to make a promise she might not keep. It makes me smile at her, and she fidgets in response. Maybe she would have prefered if I’d worn a mask. “Thanks for being honest, at least. I guess that’s the best I can hope for, really. People think I’m scary, and disgusting. It’s okay.”

“N-no, I didn’t mean that, I--” She protests, automatic denials. Vista really doesn’t want to hurt me. The denials are hollow and we both know it, there’s a panic in her eyes now. She doesn’t want to lie to me, but also doesn’t want to tell the truth; but still no fake sympathy. That’s what makes me smile.

“Thanks, Vista, but really. It’s okay. I know I make you nervous, but… if you really mean that, then… maybe we can even be friends, some day?” With Emma remaining stubbornly separate, I could use someone to take her place sometimes.

“O-of course, Deadpan.” She hesitates, then steps forward and wraps me in a brief, reluctant hug. Her body temperature is 98.6 degrees. “We could hang out sometime, when you’re not busy.”

I could get attached to her.


(Story-only thread, votes not counted)
House arrest by another name, huh? Guess I have some free time.
[-]Spend time with someone (who?)

When the heroes aren’t poking me with sticks, I mean.
[-]Research Opportunity: choose a branch (Chemical Compounds, Discorporation, Channel Flesh, or Mimicry)

Chapter Text

Research Opportunity: Mimicry]
[Spend time with: Vista and Aegis]


I’m not entirely sure about how I feel on the whole ‘being poked with sticks’ issue, by which I mean having the PRT’s scientists try really, really hard to dissect me like a research specimen without actually doing it. I know that most of that is because of the whole human rights issues, but I sincerely hope my efforts did not go to waste: now that I’ve figured out how, any time the scientists or doctors took a tissue sample, I waited about five minutes before making it grow tiny legs and start bumbling around whatever container they had it in, like the scraps and drippings were trying to get back to me. Then, once this pattern was established, I let one sample be. Just because. The doctors started almost started swarming around it and had a whole camera array setup to watch for movement before Armsmaster came in and told me to knock it off.

I’d wonder if Armsmaster had made it his mission to ruin any and all fun on Protectorate-owned properties, but I think he’s just naturally that way.

I also don’t think he’s very fond of me. I’m not sure what would possibly give me that impression. Might have been how he stalked out of my bedroom in the Wards’ Commons, held up a sticky note with all my computer passwords in front of me, and then flexed his beard a bit to frown even harder.

I guess to his credit he seems to know a lot about parahuman powers, but he’s still in the negatives for how he goes about testing them. He wrote a questionnaire, for crying out loud, one that took almost three hours to complete because I had to keep asking him what the hell he was talking about. On the bright side, once I was done he went and got a bunch of different tools and machine parts, and asked me to try copying their shapes by sight; I got most of them pretty right, just by filling a bubble of skin with liquefied fat and meat juices and proceeding to mold it like putty. Armsmaster sort of nodded, then told me to swallow the machine parts and try again. Which sounds all kinds of crazy, but I doubted I was leaving the testing facility until I did like he said, so I unzipped my ribcage and stuffed the hammers and gears and such into my chest cavity.

So it turns out that since I’m not actually a single shape, I’m meat that’s pretending to be a single shape? I can feel stuff through the miscellaneous protein goo that I keep sloshing around under my skin. Like, tactile sense through all those junk cells. Being able to feel all those parts in three dimensions simultaneously made it really easy to make copies of them, not just the shape, but in layers of bone and gristle to emulate the weight and density a bit better as well. I did have to eject all those parts into sealed Evidence bags, but the experience has definitely given me something to think about.

[Mechanical Mimicry 2 unlocked]
[Animal Mimicry 1 unlocked]

* * *

Assault intercepts me almost as soon as I get back to the Wards’ Commons. His usual shit-eating grin looks a bit strained which, if I had to guess, has something to do with his misplaced feelings of sympathy, because the first thing out of his mouth is: “Hey, Deadpan… let’s talk for a second, okay?”

Nobody ever wants to just chat. It’s always let’s talk. I shrug a set of shoulders and follow him back to his office. “Okay.”

“Well, first, uh-- how was power testing?”

“Boring. Most of it, anyway. Getting better at letting my bits be away from me, so that’s got potential. A lot of the time was just me sitting on a table while the lab guys wandered around looking at bits of me in a microscope and whispering at each other.” Or trying with increasing desperation to find where my veins were for drawing blood. Circulatory systems are for the weak.

“Ah, yeah… sorry about that. Everybody ends up getting poked and prodded by them sooner or later,” he says, conveniently not mentioning whether or not it’s typical for all the lab techs to be in HAZMAT suits. Somehow, I doubt it. “It usually gets a bit more fun once you’re past the number-crunching and into the ‘so let’s see if you can do this cool thing’ phase.”

“Oh. Yeah, there was some of that.” I poke some bone through the end of my finger and sharpen it, so I can pick more efficiently at a loose thread on Assault’s guest chair. “They got a few different animals and tried seeing if any would eat me.”

Assault works his jaw in silence for a moment. “They what?”

“Yeah. Some rats, bugs, even a crow. No idea how they had one of those caught and ready to go, but whatever. Seeing if carrion-feeders will approach me, or a severed bit of me.” They had not, which was a shame. There are so many potholes in Brockton Bay, I would have liked to leave a tiny trapdoor-Taylorspider in all of them. Alas, every critter they tried to tempt with my meat just crowded as far away from me as it could. Animals really are smarter than humans. “None of them did. Animals don’t like me anymore.”

“Oh. Um… I’m sorry.” Assault takes a deep breath and rubs the back of his neck. “Deadpan-- Taylor-- I’m sure the testing is really inconvenient, and I’m sorry. But it’s really important that we know how your power works. Not just what you can do, but how you do it, especially since you can, uh… ‘digest’ things basically just by touching them. And that has the potential to be very, very dangerous. So we need to be sure that we can avoid any accidents, do you understand?”

“Yeah.” Translation: ehhh.

“Good. We’re, ah, also moving your room to the Rig for a little bit.” The Wards’ Commons are in the PRT building, not the Protectorate Rig, so this seems like an odd choice to me. When I press Assault for an explanation, he says, “Well… the Rig is where the M/S Containment rooms are. And we’re not trying to lock you away or anything, it’s just-- Armsmaster needs time to acid-proof your regular room. So you don’t have to worry about eating the door or anything again.”

Just for a little while, he insists. Just as a precaution. Stupid sleepwalking, I knew it was going to get me in trouble sooner or later. Though… admittedly, maybe this was a better outcome than the alternatives. After all, it could have been my dad to walk in on me, instead of Vista. There is a downside to this arrangement: I won’t be going to school for a while. How tragic. Except I’m kind of surprised to find that thought upsetting. I don’t really care about Winslow, but that’s where Emma is. How will she survive without me around? Without me, there’s nobody to help her peel her mask away and let her real face breathe. I’ll have to make it up to her.

Find another gift for Emma.
[-]Write-in

* * *

The M/S containment cells aren’t so bad. Kinda bare and sterile, but whatever. The PRT tried putting a better mattress in there and some personal effects, but I tend to sleep under the bed anyway so it didn’t much matter to me. I got a lot of odd looks from the security staff in the morning, though. Maybe I wandered around a lot while sleeping. Or did… whatever it was Vista and Kid Win walked in on. Well, I do get to spend the daylight hours in the Wards’ Commons, so maybe I’ll ask.

Since I have an actual door pass or ID card or whatever now, there’s no buzzer to announce my presence when I drop by… which means that the raised voices I hear when I enter don’t notice me at the same time I notice them. I recognise them, too: Aegis and Vista. I’d dismiss their argument as another example of Not My Problem, but evidently, it is.

(“Look, I know you find Deadpan a bit… unsettling, but--”)

(“She’s more than unsettling, Aegis! She’s more than creepy! Why can’t you see that?”)

I drop low to the ground, suck a bunch of my mass into Elsewhere so I don’t make the floor creak, then shimmy closer. There’s no reaction, even when I creep close enough to see the two Wards’ shadows under what I assume is Aegis’ door. Does Vista not know I’m here? I don’t know if she’s using her power passively or not, but it’s true that I don’t register as living to her...

(“I-- Vista, you know I don’t really feel grossed out by anything. I’m sorry if that’s making it harder for me to understand your concerns. But I am listening. And I think Deadpan might not know when she’s crossing a line. What has she done to make you uncomfortable, exactly? I’ll have a talk with her.”)

(“You don’t get it! It’s not just what she does, it’s-- I dunno. I just get a really, really bad feeling about her. Like, I’m actually getting kind of scared. I almost wish we’d kept Stalker, instead.”)

(“Missy...”)

(“Don’t Missy me! I’m serious! I know she was horrible, but even so--”)

An alarm interrupted Vista and made me jump right out of my skin. I hurriedly grabbed it up and leaped as far away from the door as I could, then dove behind the couch. I managed to put myself into more or less working order just as Vista and Aegis barged out of his room and came running into the main area. I ratchet my neck up a foot to peek out from behind the furniture and rasp at them, “What the hell is that?”

“Just a warning, I’ll check the alerts.” Aegis marches over to the Console and gives it a few practiced clicks to find what he needs. “Zodiac spotted, it’s Tauros. Headed towards Seattle, it looks like.”

Both Aegis and Vista visibly relax, and I can’t help but unwind a little bit, too. Zodiacs are nasty, popping up roughly eight or nine times a year, but they’re better than one of the Endbringers showing up. It’s only a small chance one of the big two will replace a Zodiac in whatever lottery they’re running, but it’s still a chance. Huh. Come to think of it, I don’t know if Wards are allowed to attend those fights, and if I’m going to be doing this cape thing I might actually have to know a bit about this. “That’s the bull-thing, right? What’s Tauros do?”

“Tramples things, mostly. It’s a speedster’s fight; Velocity’s definitely headed out now. Probably Assault and Battery too. Armsmaster shows up on principle, I think.” Aegis shrugs. “Hopefully they can turn it around before it gets to the city.”

“Think they’ll kill it?” It’d be back next year, sure, but it was an option. One more reason the Zodiacs are better than the alternatives.

“Maybe,” Vista says. “Tauros is easier to handle than some of the others, I know that, but I’m not actually sure how he stacks against Aries. He is better than Gemini, though. It’s likely they’ll just herd him around so that he’s still in the rotation next year.”

She huffs, then throws herself onto the couch. “Still another couple years before I can volunteer. My power’s predicted to be really good for battlefield control, it’s unfair they won’t let me go now.”

“I don’t mean to burst your bubble, Vista, but I kinda doubt Militia will sign off on it for you, even in a couple of years.”

Vista’s the longest-serving member of the Wards, I think, so it must be an age thing… and Militia is probably her mentor. I’ll have to remember to ask Assault about this sometime, see if he expects me to go zombie at giant monsters.

“We’d better head out. Sorry, Deadpan, I think you’re not cleared for patrols yet; the rest of us are going to be busy for the rest of the night, probably.” Aegis makes an apologetic face at me, as though I should be upset at not being forced to go work. Whatever, I’m going back to my cage and taking a nap. It takes finding Triumph to escort me over to the Rig, since I don’t have free access to helicopters (which is a shame), but aside from that minor detour that is exactly what I do.

Home sweet cell.

I wake up in the night, not entirely sure why, but I pull my limbs in closer under the bed on reflex. I don’t tend to wake up quickly, it’s usually more of a gradual thing. I’m confused at the change until I hear footsteps and a few hushed whispers-- followed by a roiling cloud of black that creeps along the floor outside my cell’s observation window. The black swallows up the sound and rises to about waist-height, judging on where the cloud is relative to the several people that go sneaking past.

I know that cloud-- that’s Grue, from the bank. And, if I’m not mistaken, Clockblocker managed to tag Hellhound. I didn’t know she was being kept here, but I can’t think of any other reason for the Undersiders to be breaking in. No idea how they got in here, but they sure chose a good night for it, there’s not many heroes around.

But there is a zombie.



Looks like a jailbreak in progress.
[-]Not my problem, and I probably shouldn’t break out of my own cell anyway. (Do something while still in the cell instead? Write-in)
[-]I should totally break out of my cell. (And do what? Write-in)

 

 

Chapter Text

[X] Make the Undersiders regret everything



I watch the roiling fog against the glass wall of my cell, and consider my options. I should really try to do something to earn my paycheck at some point, and the current breaking-and-entering is basically within arm’s reach, so it’s not out of my way. There is the small matter of me being in a cell that’s explicitly designed to not be broken out of, but it’s not like I’ve seen a ton of competence from the Protectorate after living in Brockton Bay for the past several years, so I’m not going to assume this place works as intended. Not without taking a few stabs at it, anyway. Once I’m more-or-less confident the Undersiders have passed by completely, I crawl out from under my bed to do exactly that.

The viewing window is stab-proof, unfortunately, and bulletproof as well, but it might not be acid-proof. Pustules form on my tongue and I give the window a few experimental licks. Thin wisps of acrid smoke peel away from the glass. I guess the nitrous or nitric or whatever the hell Armsmaster said I could spit up works on glass, but not fast enough. Thinking back to listening to the Tinker mutter through his beard gives me an idea, though. I don’t have an example drill stashed in my chest to compare to, but a bone spiral honestly isn’t a hard shape to make, once I peel all the skin and tendons away from one hand and replace them with hardened calcium deposits instead. A few hollow tubes and holes in the surface for the acid to pour through, and I’m set.

I bore a hole in the window about the size of my fist, and Grue’s black smoke starts to drip into my cell, bit by bit. It’s harmless, as far as I can tell, so I ignore it and focus on the hole instead. Maybe I should have thought this through a bit more, because now I really don’t have time to try and make a bigger hole if I want to catch up to the thieves… but, skinny as I am, there’s still no way I’m fitting through that.

Well. Not in one piece, at any rate.

* * *

“Geeze, could you go any slower? I’m gonna miss my shows at this rate.”

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue snapped at his teammate. He spared a glance at the other member of their current trio, checking to see if the outburst had disturbed Tattletale while she worked her magic on the keypad on Bitch’s cell. The Thinker had a very pinched look on her face, but she didn’t look up. She was probably pretty used to ignoring Regent by now, anyway. Ignoring Bitch seemed like a harder task, as she was pacing restlessly back and forth in front of the locked door, her mouth moving furiously but no sound escaping the cell.

(S-sciiitch)

Bitch’s rant finally became intellible as Tattletale made a short, victorious fistbump and hit the large green button on the keypad, her power having deduced the password through whatever means it supposedly relied upon. Grue clapped a leather-clad hand over Bitch’s mouth as soon as the door opened, and she gave him a furious glare over the tops of his fingers. Regent started to laugh, only to receive a sharp elbow from Tattletale. “Grue. What is it?”

“Thought I heard something.” Hadn’t he? A sort of… wet sound, just for a moment? The other Undersiders all quieted, each of them listening to the quiet darkened corridors. The waist-high layer of his power wouldn’t muffle anyone’s footsteps for him, at least. As the moment stretched, however, the sound of boots on tile never materialized. “Nevermind. Let’s just get out of here.”

“Some of those guard assholes said Judas was still alive,” Bitch hissed as she stepped out of her cell. “We have to find him.”

“We have to secure our own escape first, Bitch,” Tattletale said.

“Judas can get us out of here easily.”

“We don’t know where they might be keeping him, we have to focus on us right now.”

(Pit. Pit. Pat.)

Grue’s head whipped around inside his helmet to stare down the hallway. He had heard something, but it wasn’t the footfalls of a patrolling PRT officer. Instead, a small flicker of motion caught his eye, down low on the ground just near where the hallway turned a corner. As he watched, under the cover of his power’s fog, a hand crept around the corner. No arm followed it, just a trio of stubby tendrils helping to inch the wandering limb forward.

(Pit-pit pit. Pit pat. Pit pit pat pitpitpitpit--)

A heap of something tumbled around the corner in the crawling hand’s wake, the mass quickly splintering into a jittery wave of palm-sized scraps of bloodless flesh. They cavorted, and scuttled, and bumped into each other constantly in an aimless horde that, despite their seeming confusion, was quickly advancing towards the Undersiders. More of the swarming mass was following, pouring and scrabbling ever more quickly from past the corner.

Grue pushed Bitch into Regent and Tattletale, forcing the whole group to stumble back. “We need to run. Now.”

“Grue, what is it, we can’t see anything through--” Even as she complained, Tattletale had a hand moving to the gun holstered at her hip. Instead of wasting time trying to explain, Grue banished the black fog with a wave of his hand.

Immediately, the swarm’s behavior changed, the confused and bumbling pieces all suddenly moving in tandem. The new ones still spilling into the hallway spread out, crawling up the walls like headless bats until they were above where the end of Grue’s fog had been. The ones already chasing them sped up, many beginning to make chittering and squeaking noises from small, toothy seams that served as mouths. A long rope of what looked like intestines had at one point joined the mass, the disembodied organ making a clumsy attempt at slithering down the corridor after them, and as the Undersiders watched several of the pale scraps and other, red-slicked things started coalescing onto the swelling intestine, gathering together.

“Put it back,” Tattletale yelled, “Put your power back on it!”

Another wave of Grue’s hand, and the hallway filled with darkness. The Undersiders turned and ran, the stumbling swarm fast on their heels.

* * *

Assault hit the pause button of the security camera footage again, stilling the feed at an image of the Undersiders emerging from a pall of black smoke, outside the M/S cells wing. They’d apparently blacked out the ceiling during their infiltration, and I’d never really looked up to notice. The Undersiders had different things to worry about by the time they escape the containment wing and had neglected the cameras. It may have had something to do with all the gibs they were covered in: there was a disembodied hand with a death-grip on Grue’s jacket, and the picture of the guy in the poofy shirt was all blurry as he’d tried to shake the little swarming bastards I’d dissolved into out of his hair. I vaguely remember the taste of exceptionally fancy shampoo.

“Once more, Deadpan-- you don’t remember anything from the point you left your… room until roughly this moment shown here?” Assault sounds tired. It’s a cold comfort that this interrogation is inconveniencing him as much as or moreso than it is me.

“Yes, like I keep telling you,” I rasp at him. “Just… vague bits. It’s all confused. It wasn’t like when I practiced being in parts instead of being person-shaped.” It’s also completely fucking frustrating. Apparently that black smoke is a little more complex than a supernatural blindfold; as soon as I’d spilled my bits into it it was like all my parts just… lost track of me. Lost track of even being me, but they kept moving. Whenever the Undersiders left it or my giblets managed to out-scurry the fog’s advance I was okay--disoriented maybe, but I knew I was still there. Armsmaster, when he’d still been in this little meeting, had started lecturing about ‘distributed intelligence,’ meaning that my brainmeats weren’t the only part of me that I thought with. I could have told them that.

Stupid Grue. Stupid Grue and his stupid power and his stupid leather pants. I hate him.

Things continue in this vein for a while, back and forth, just going over the same damn things. It’s so pointless, and I’m tired and I’m sore and I ache at being separated like that. I’m never stepping in Grue’s power again unless I’m in one piece. I grit my teeth just at the thought. The so-called ‘Masters of Escape’ did manage to escape me, for the most part, but they tripped alarms trying to get away from me and ran into mundane PRT troopers instead. Poofy-shirt guy got tazed and at least one of them took a bullet, because I have another vague memory of a few swarmers gathering around to clean up a blood spill. But they did get away.

They got away. From me. They were mine. My stomach curdles in anger.

Assault’s still talking, still keeping up this farce, but I abruptly raise my head and interrupt him. “Can I go home now?”

“Er…” Assault falters.

“I don’t want to go back to the cells. I want to sleep in my own room. I’ll even go to school.” Thorns form on my tongue, but I swallow them down. I know he’s got a weak spot, and so long as I don’t press it too often… “Please?”

It’s not entirely a weaponized plea. I really do want to go home, or at least be somewhere more familiar. If I had nerves, they’d be shaken from this experience, and I’m fed up with bureaucracy and playing nice for the moment. I want something normal for a while, or as normal as I ever get. Torment the teachers at Winslow for a few days, have a few empty conversations with Dad, that sort of thing. Assault makes a number of noises as he waffles between apologetic and sympathetic, but eventually, he relents.

* * *

[X]Get Emma a fffrriiieeennddd

It’s been almost a week since the Undersiders’ little incursion, and I still feel bruised in a way that doesn’t make much sense. It’s not as bad, sure, but I still end up taking a lot of naps under my bed. Partly out of boredom, partly out of wanting to escape that insufferable feeling of separation. Other than that, it’s like nothing has changed at all. Dad’s smile is strained, the teachers at Winslow try their hardest to pretend I don’t exist, even Emma is as polished and empty as ever.

Around Friday, after Dad has gone to bed and I’ve stuffed my homework in the wastepaper basket for the time being, I crawl out from under my bed feeling a bit… odd. A little floaty, a little detached, like I’m sleepwalking. Maybe I am. Maybe it doesn’t matter either way. I lever my bedroom window open with a pair of claws and slide out into the night, only one destination in mind. This time, I do shimmy down the chimney of the Barnes’ big old house. I’ve been trying to shape a meat-rat all week, with vague thoughts of giving Emma a pet. It never really came out right, but since when has being wrong about something stopped me?

I creep up the stairs on many legs, slide tendrils around the door to Emma’s room to hold it up while I open it-- it creaks otherwise, I remember. She’s changed her bedspread and curtains since I was in here last, but her mattress still has room for two. Emma smiles in her sleep, a satisfied little smile, like a cat. I carefully tangle a dozen feelers in her hair and pajamas, then pry open her mouth and stick the inanimate meatrat in her mouth. Just like a cat. Hee hee.

“Hi Emma,” I whisper to her. “I brought you a present.”

She’s wide awake now, and she tries to spit out the rat, but I put as normal a hand as I can manage over her face to keep her still. She tosses and turns against my limbs.

“I was worried you might be lonely,” I continue, and run my other hand through her hair, untangling it. “We didn’t used to ever be lonely. You remember.”

Never lonely. Never separate. I move my hand from her hair to trace fingers against her cheek, then wrap increasingly-long digits around her throat. She was my best friend. Mine. And she’s not allowed to keep hurting me like this.

“Don’t cry, Emma.” She shakes her head over and over, not obeying. Well, she always was headstrong. I smile at her. Then I open my skin from neck to navel, and spread my ribs wide for a hug.



Take Emma with you? (Story-only thread)
[-]YES

[-]YES

[-]YES

Chapter Text

16


Emma wasn’t at school the next day. I passed by her locker a few times, ignoring the stares and whispers of all the students who were also missing our little routine. I debated skipping class and going to the Docks to set up my old rat traps, for a substitute nostalgia, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth getting Assault on my ass about truancy.

The day after that, I got called into the Principal’s office--which was kinda upsetting, because if I’d known I was going to be in trouble anyway then I may as well have spared myself the drudgery--but the two police officers waiting there kinda shot the idea that this was over something I’d done to piss off the staff of Winslow out of the water. If that wasn’t enough, Principal--I’d never learned her name; Ernst? Earnhert? Something with an E?--quietly excused herself and left me alone with the officers as soon as I got there. One of the two uniformed men stepped forward slightly, but before he could speak or introduce himself I interrupted with a loud, whistling sigh through the ruin of my nose and asked, “Okay, what now?”

The officer didn’t seem to like being thrown off his stride, but he took it well enough. “Miss Hebert, I’m Officer Jones, this is Officer Roberts. We’d like to ask you a few questions.” He gestured at one of the chairs in the room; they’d already been pulled away from the desk to make a little triangle, one for me and two together for the police. I gave a bony shrug instead of an answer and sat down. Jones and Roberts sat themselves down, facing me, once I’d settled.

“Great. First off, Miss Hebert, do you know an Emma Barnes?”

“Uh… yes, duh.” That had to be rhetorical, or some kind of form-letter interrogation starter. When the officers frowned again I rolled my eyes. “Everybody knows I know Emma. It’d be hard for me not to. Why?”

“Emma’s parents reported her missing, and she hasn’t been seen since the day before yesterday. You two have some history together, so we were wondering if you’d seen her, or if you’d have any idea where she might be?” Ohhhh, right. There was a minimum 24-hour thing about missing persons.

“I dunno,” I shrugged again. “I know she wasn’t at school yesterday. We haven’t been buddy-buddy for a while, so she didn’t come crawling to me if that’s what you’re wondering.”

The officers were steady enough to not exchange a glance, but the second one spoke up, saying, “You say you’re not ‘buddy-buddy’ with Miss Barnes. Could you elaborate on that a bit?”

“...not really.”

“And why is that?” One of the two leans forward a bit to study me, and I half-turn away. It’s good that I don’t have a heartbeat or any nervous tics for them to jump on, but the mention of Emma and the scrutiny still makes me want to press bone spines out of my everywhere; maybe see if they like being needled. I doubt they’re going to let me leave without answering, though, so I frown with the half of my face that’s not withered and sigh again, blowing a stray lock of hair out of my face in the manner of surly teenagers everywhere.

“Oh. I get it.”

“Get what, Miss Hebert?”

“What you’re doing. If watching cape dramas on TV has taught me anything, it’s that there’s an easy way to tell who the secret villain is. I’ll give you a hint,” I say, and gesture at my face while dropping my voice into a stage whisper. “It’s the ugly one.”

* * *

Either the cops don’t know if they can hold me without any charges or a confirmed criminal case, or they’re reluctant to on account of my rather public history with abuse of authority, but either way I don’t get handcuffed and marched out of Winslow. I am given a speech about not leaving town any time soon, and that they’ll be in touch, and if there’s anything that comes to mind about Emma I should give them a call, so once I get the opportunity to do so I end up hiding on the roof of the school and digging out my shiny new PRT phone to call Assault. He did say it was now his job to deal with my problems, or something close enough to that effect. After a couple of rings, he picks up. “Deadpan, what’s up?

“One of my classmates went missing and I’m the most suspicious-looking person in a five mile radius,” I rasp. “Police already came by to ask me some stuff. Figured you should know.”

O-oh. Um. Okay... you’re coming in after class, right? Why don’t we talk about this then?

“Fine,” I say, and hang up. Getting all that questioning out of the way is probably better done sooner than later, and there’s a bit of a silver lining: with this being so ‘distressing’ I’m willing to bet I can hang out on the roof of Winslow for the rest of the day instead of going to class. It’s a nice day for it, too, with plenty of sun. It takes me a few minutes to figure out the specifics, but I hook a few strands of wriggling meat over the doorknob leading back into the school, to keep it closed and hopefully alert me of anyone trying to open it. That leaves me more or less safe to spread several thin puddles of flesh around the rooftop, and try to replicate the flowers I dreamed about. Maybe give shaping a meatrat another go, while I’m up here. All in all, a pleasant afternoon.

It’s nice to feel whole.


Research Opportunity, choose one:
(Story-only thread)


* * *


Once I got to work and met up with Assault, the hero led me back to his tiny office and sat me down for another round of questioning. Though, this one would probably contain marginally less sarcasm; despite my quota, this was a bit serious. The PRT and Protectorate know I’m a zombie, after all. The police might think I have a motive for Emma’s sudden failure to exist, but the PRT could think I have a means. I kept my flesh held tightly to my Taylor-shape, and chewed on my lip like I was nervous, and waited for Assault to get to the point.

“Okay,” he finally took a breath, and leaned forward a bit over his desk. “Talk to me, kiddo. What’s going on?”

“I told you. One of the kids at school didn’t show up for a couple days, so the cops came and asked me about her.”

“You mentioned. Did they talk to anyone else, or just you?”

“Probably the principal,” I shrug. “Maybe a couple other people. But I didn’t hear anyone else called to the office.”

“Okay. What did they ask you?”

“Just… stuff. Things like if I’d seen or talked to her recently.” I trail off for a few moments, then huff angrily. “They probably think I killed her or something.”

“That’s… a bit of a leap, Taylor. Why do you think that?” Assault’s a person who trembles their legs when anxious. My feet are goo inside my shoes, where he can’t see them, and I can feel the vibrations in tiny ripples.

“Well, ‘cuz… because it’s Emma. She’s the one who did this to me,” I run my hand down my face, the side with the withered lips, and I trace my smile for a moment. “Her and her friend, Sophia. And a couple hangers-on, too. So I guess I’ve got reason to want revenge.”

Assault’s leg goes very still halfway through that sentence, and even his hand twitches. He moves it to the arm of his chair. Hmm. “Well, I guess I can understand that. Do you want revenge, Taylor? I won’t judge.”

I don’t believe for a second that’s not a loaded question, but I’m also not sure what the correct answer is. Silence seems kinda damning, though, so after a long pause I lower my voice. “I don’t know. Sometimes, yeah; I think about everything she did and said and I get pissed off. She was my best friend, before she met Sophia… so the fact that we were close made it hurt more when she broke away, y’know? Other times I just-- wish the whole thing had never happened at all.”

“Yeah, that’s-- that’s rough, Taylor. I’m sorry.”

I shrug again. Despite my attempts to keep still, I can feel the flesh around my spine twisting and rearranging, ready to lash out. I know it’s important, but I don’t like this conversation anymore. “I dunno. I try not to think about it.”

“Okay,” Assault’s usual boisterous tone is absent. I have a bit of trouble trying to place what voice he’s aiming for. “Well, there’s no reason to think something like that has happened to her, so try not to let the cops get to you, okay? Is there anything else you think I should know, or that you want to talk about?”


Is there?
[-]Yes: Confess to harassing Emma
[-]No: I’d rather let the matter digest in peace


* * *


I finally let my flesh relax once I get out of Assault’s office, and my spinal cord wastes no time in freeing itself from the confines of my skeleton. By the time I get to the Wards’ Commons it’s been repurposed into a stretchy whip protruding from the back of my head, with the remains of my coccyx sharpened into a spearhead. The long scythes that my wrists are fond of forming make it a little difficult to buzz myself in, but that’s the tradeoff for dual-wielding the grim reaper, I guess.

I don’t actually remember that my room is off-limits until I’m already in the common area, so I’m a bit thrown by finding both Armsmaster and someone else I don’t recognize. The newcomer is probably an adult, and he’s wearing a set of full-body armor made of oddly smooth metal or ceramic in different shades of white and pale grey. They stop what conversation they’re involved in and look up as I approach. Maybe I should have worn my costume, instead of letting my giblets all hang out.

Armsmaster taps a pencil against the clipboard he’s holding--even from here it looks like it’s full of gibberish, much less math gibberish--and speaks first. “Deadpan, good timing. Sphere and I are going over the requirements for refurbishing your quarters. We could use some more samples of your acid to help choose the right alloy composition.”

Huh. So that’s Sphere. I didn’t know he really worked with the Protectorate, I only ever hear about him building those underwater habitats and stuff. And I guess the quarantine domes, like up in Wisconsin. The Tinker walks towards me and extends a white-enameled hand; I shake it with a vestigial arm I push out of my stomach. He actually laughs. “Deadpan, huh? Nice to meet you. Exciting stuff, this-- Armsmaster tells me you’ve got a belly full of Nitric in concentrations it really shouldn’t be at. I’m looking forward to testing it, I use Inconel 625 for the basis of a lot of my work, and developing a variant alloy to withstand your juices could have wonderful cross-applications for fission shielding and containment.”

I… have no idea what this man is talking about. I mutter a quick agreement and then excuse myself to go check the Ward schedules, because at least on that the words make sense.


I could tolerate the company of someone who speaks English and doesn’t ask questions:
[-]Story-only thread

 

 

Chapter Text

17



[X]Hang out with: Vista

[X]Research Opportunity: Biohazard. [Creep] unlocked.



“Bored...”

I sighed, and dissolved a few more tendons into jelly. I was draped over the couch in the Wards' Commons, and letting increasing amounts of my flesh fill the area in as liquid a manner as I could manage. It was like blood-flavored molasses was slowly filling the room. I didn't see much need to bother with adding skin on the slow-motion meat fountain that was my torso, it'd be a waste of calories, so I watched the red goop puddle around the couch with few connective tissues to break up the uniform texture.

“Booooored...”

The only good news recently was that I was assigned to Console for monitoring Ward patrols, which was the next step in being assigned to excursions myself. So, 'good' news was in airquotes. Meanwhile, my main reason for attending Winslow was gone, and every day had become a slog, made worse by the fact that the PRT wanted its kid heroes to have a relatively high standard for grades. Today's crop of current and overdue homework was sitting on the low table in front of me. It was still a toss-up over what would reach the piles of papers and books first: some scrap of determination to just get it over with, or the rising tide of apathy.

It turned out to be neither, as Vista chose that moment to enter the Commons. She tripped on the sludge nearest the door, but managed to keep herself from falling face-first into the puddle. Good reflexes, that one. “What the hell is this?! Ugghhh, it's sticky!”

“I let my hair down and didn't know when to stop,” I rasped at her. I gave her a boneless flail of one arm as a wave in greeting, too. I'm supposed to be nice, here. “It won't stick to you, s'fine.”

“Deadpan, what--” Vista experimentally lifted one foot. Gore stretched out from her shoe like warm bubblegum, before finally snapping back to the creeping sludge before it could be separated from itself. I'm liking this new fluid mix I've come up with. Like a particularly slimy mold and a chameleon's tongue all in one. “Oh, god... Deadpan, can you not?”

“Ehhhhh... I mean, I could. But I'm trying to see how high I can get it, and if I pull myself together I'll have to start over.” I declined to mention that the meatwell had slowed down to a trickle. This was a pretty large room, but I was still disappointed. I'm pretty sure I've eaten way more than this, so I guess there's a cap on how much I can pull from whatever other space exists in my stomach. I'll really need some practice if I want to reach the ceiling fans and experience brief, ill-conceived flight. Although...

I disengaged my head from the support of my spine, then rotated it to watch Vista grimace and struggle her way across the floor. “You think the cafeteria has any spare blenders or Salad Shooters?”

“I don't know, and I don't really care to know,” Vista grumbled in my direction. “Are you the only one here?”

“Kid Win and Clockblocker are, but they didn't want to talk to me.” I continue to side-eye Vista, idly wondering if she's too annoyed to feel guilt. I have nothing else better to do, so I may as well find out. “Not like that's new, though. I think you and Aegis are the only ones who've said more than six words to me.”

I start drawing all my loose flesh back to me, leaving only a thin covering of veins and mucous on the floor, as it's just now occurred to me how much grit and dirt is in this carpet. I'll have to be slow in reclaiming the rest of my biomass if I want to filter all that crap out instead of taking it with me. Also, it seems like Vista is in a surly mood, because she doesn't even put up a token attempt at playing mediator. “Maybe if you'd stop going out of your way to look like a horror movie, you'd be more approachable.”

I spend the fraction of a second it takes to realign my skeleton into something capable of movement trying to measure exactly how much spite Vista deserves right now. Then I give up, because if I'm going to fire back a rejoinder, I may as well go full-bore. I raise my voice enough to be heard over the snaps and pops of my bones and hiss, “What do you think I'm doing 90% of the time? Do you have to wear frilly pink dresses and carry a teddy bear when you're not here?”

“What? No.”

“Because I have to keep up a disguise I hate when I'm not here. You think looking like a dead girl is normal, or easy? It's not. I have to use my power constantly to stay in one shape. It's exhausting.” While I do have to hold my flesh in place, it's more annoying than anything. But a little exaggeration never hurt anybody. Except maybe Vista-- she flinches a bit. “And what does that get me? People whispering behind my back. Tabloid assholes following me if I go outside. Getting kicked out of public buildings if I dare to try and do anything normal.”

“That's-- I didn't--”

“I thought this was supposed to be the one place I could relax and feel safe with my power.”

“Deadpan, I--”

“Whatever. I'm gonna go be a horror movie in my room.” I scuttle away on an odd-number of legs, ignoring Vista's protestations and leaving half the room still threaded with veins. I make sure to leave a few more behind me as I go, letting them snake under the small crack of my door so I can maintain a connection. I don't think it'd hurt to leave it behind, not for a while anyway, but that's not really the point. Once I'm safely locked away I let more flesh idly creep up the walls of my now acid-proofed room, and focus on building connecting nerves and thin cilia along the network I left behind. Vibrations are easy to pick up on this way, giving me some vague thoughts of finally building a better rat-trap, but hearing requires a bit more tweaking. I don't get it quite right until Vista is at the end of a conversation with someone, and since I didn't feel anyone walk by it must be over a phone. She sounds upset.

Mission accomplished, then. Her footsteps soon take her back towards the exit of the Commons, then out of my range of detection. If I had to guess, she might be off to see Miss Militia, her mentor. Time will tell if this will come back to bite me, but I guess for a little while at least I can pin the blame of any irritability on Emma. Nice of her to be so supportive. I open my ribcage and try adding some keratin around one of the bones, then adjust pigments until it's just the right shade. It's easier than I thought. The flesh remembers.

My network of thin strands hears a door open and shut, followed by footsteps a bit heavier than Vista's. I don't need my pseudo-ears to help me overhear Clockblocker discover my leavings. “Oh god, what the hell is this?! Nnngahhh, it's sticky!”

On reflex, I wrap several of the mucous-slicked veins around Clockblocker's foot, and hear a startled yell in response. In a blink, I can feel two or three people in the Commons, and hear Gallant knocking at my door and calling out to me. Goddamn, this meatmoss is just the gift that keeps on giving.


* * *


I do get into a little bit of trouble for grabbing Clockblocker's foot. Well, 'trouble.' Getting to mess with the PRT scientists some more is infinitely more interesting than doing my homework, so if Assault thinks this is going to dissuade me from pulling similar stunts in the future, he should probably brush up on what behavioral conditioning means. Either way, it seems he or at least his bosses are becoming a tad bit Concerned(tm) about me coming up with new ways to hassle my co-workers. Or potentially trap living prey. One of the two. Personally, I'm pretty pleased about it. I am also, to my surprise, pretty pleased about being given free reign to move around the large testing facility in the depths of the Rig. I've never really had so much space to move around in before. As it turned out, that clear slime I put in the meatmoss was something I'd been using to line the inside of any acid-sacs I grew, but apparently when mixed with the undifferentiated slurry I can vomit up, it becomes a powerful adhesive. So naturally I was now stuck to the ceiling by a rope of stretchy intestines, and was swinging around. If letting the scientists poke and prod at a few scraps of flesh is what it takes to get this, I'm fine with that.

“Okay, but Deadpan, I'm serious, here,” the rather harried-looking Assault called up to me. I wonder how much paperwork I pulled him away from. “You understand why you can't play pranks like that?”

Yes, okay, I get it. Jeeze, I just thought it'd be funny. I wasn't the one who held him there for ten minutes, he did that to himself.” Pretty sure I overheard one of the scientists wondering if the duration of Clockblocker's time-stops can be predicted based on how scared he is. I figure having to test that is enough comeuppance for tattling on me. Plus, again, having all this space to mess around in. I flex my anchored flesh to stop my momentum, then start pumping more meat out of my stomach and into a balloon formed of repurposed skin hanging from my arms. The weight pulls me down almost to the floor before I deliberately sever it, and the meatball splatters while I go sailing upwards. Boing!

I catch sight of Assault's face and put in some effort to slow my movements again. It's hard to tell with his mask exactly what he might be feeling, but if he keeps grimacing like that, his face is going to get stuck. Good thing I understand basic behavioral conditioning. I decide to throw him a bone; figuratively, anyway. “Hey, Assault?”

“Yes?”

“Can we come back here sometimes? I've never really gotten to play around with my power like this before. It's fun.” I am my own jungle gym; some assembly required.

“O-oh... really?” The grimace softens a bit. Good. “Why not?”

“I've been dead for months but I was always too busy trying to keep myself fed with rats. This is nice.”

“Well-- sure, Deadpan. We can come back. Maybe you'd like to do some teamwork exercises too?” He sounds so hopeful. I just bet my co-workers would love to oblige. I assure him I'd be fine with that, then return to swinging. I really like this vantage point. People don't tend to look up. Animals do, though. Maybe I could ask the scientists for some of those raccoons and such they had, or some other critters to try and trap. Some more snacks would be nice, too.

Chapter Text

18

 

 

{X}Find a source of biomass: Check in with the PRT scientists to find your limits

 

If there's one thing my power is good for, it's finding new and uncomfortable questions in need of answers. Questions like, 'is zombiehood the afterlife?' and 'do I need to pay taxes if I'm already dead?' Probably a whole bunch of actual moral and philosophical stuff, too, but for today the only one I was concerned with was 'can I eat a tree?' Honestly, it's not a very awkward or unfortunate question, but that didn't stop the PRT's scientists from staring or grinning or occasionally whispering please god not again as I slouch into the lab on appointment.

The answer, as a few hours of experimentation revealed, was 'kinda.' Anything made of flesh was easily made into my flesh, but other mostly-living things like an apple, or a stolen houseplant, or a salad ended up just... dissolved. They didn't become my flesh, but they were broken down and added to my flesh. Boring, non-flesh dead things like chairs and clothes I just kind of gooped off of. It was disappointing, in more than one way. The scientists were pleased (most of them), but I walked out feeling worse than when I'd walked in. Taking in the plants and other organic masses was like eating styrofoam packing peanuts: it was tasteless and disgusting and it left me feeling rotted inside.

Screw going back to the labs for a while, I don't want them trying to make some vegetarian slurry to force down my gullet.

 

* * *

 

{X}Apologize to the coward

 

Hunger is still scraping against my stomach walls when I finally, finally, catch Clockblocker a few days later. Our schedules don't seem to overlap much, even though I'm here more often than not. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he was avoiding me. Possibly with help. Vista's interference would be too obvious, and Aegis seems straight-laced enough not to play favorites this early... maybe I should say hello to Gallant or Kid Win one of these days. Put some real effort into it.

I catch sight of his white costume turning a corner near the cafeteria, and quicken my pace as best I can manage; I've been playing around recently with dividing myself into different parts and seeing how weird I could get without disrupting the humanlike shape of my pumpkin outfit. Bones, muscles, veins, pustules... don't really care much about composition, so long as I can move, but speed wasn't something I'd been concerned about until now. “Hey, Clock. Stop.”

Surprising me, he did. He turned around and put a hand behind his head, like a cartoon character scratching the back of their neck. “Uh... hey, Deadpan. I'm kinda in a hurry. What's up?”

“Don't worry,” I rasp, and reach out a hand towards his, intending to shake it. “This won't take long.”

It'd be inaccurate to say I 'wake up,' but that's as close as I can describe it, coming to awareness in what was roughly my right leg. The top half off my mass was frozen in time, but enough of me is disconnected that I'd escaped being fully clockblocked. I didn't have much in the way of sensory organs prepared, so I couldn't say for sure... but if he was smart, then Clockblocker was already running.

I ooze out of the gaps in my frozen costume, more squirming tendrils than anything, and start forming some sort of body as quickly as feasible. Half the mass available, and I don't have time to gather more, so legs are eschewed in favor of strong arms and a muscle-filled tail of intestines and bones. As soon as rudimentary ears form I hear the sound of distant footsteps: I'm after them like a shot, running on two clawed hands and screeching in frustration. I'm much faster than he is now, what with being built for speed in mind, and I leap around a corner and then again off of a wall to close the distance. Clockblocker turns his head to look, then breaks into a full-out sprint.

Not fast enough.

A twist of my tail like a spring, coupled with a mighty push from my arms, and I lunge a good 40 feet and tackle the Striker from behind. I don't particularly care about what noises he's making, as wrapping myself around him takes priority-- this way, if he tries to freeze me again, he'll be trapped. He doesn't, and I manage to wrestle him around until he's on his back and I am facing him.

“I apologize.”

Clockblocker makes a few more wordless sounds and strains against me, but when I don't say or do anything else, he slowly quiets. “W...what?”

“For grabbing your foot,” I mutter. “I shouldn't have scared you.”

Clockblocker doesn't say anything coherent, just a thin high-pitched noise, but I can just imagine him gaping behind his full-face mask. I hiss and smack the bladed end of my tail against the floor in a fit of pique. It leaves a gouge. “And if you'd stop running, I wouldn't have to chase you! Tch. See if I do anything nice for you ever again...”

I keep grumbling as I untwine myself from Clockblocker's prone form, then slink away in search of the rest of my body.

 

* * *

 

It wasn't long before I got a knock on my door. Big surprise, Clockblocker must have gone crying to someone. I think Battery was his mentor? But, when I opened up the door, it wasn't Battery or Assault, which surprised me. Instead, Aegis was standing just outside. Alone, even. I checked.

“Deadpan. May I come in? We need to have a talk.”

“...sure.” I step back and wave him in, and he takes a moment to look around at my new furnishings. Almost everything's been coated in some weird metal alloy that Sphere cooked up, the chair, the desk, the walls, everything. The only exceptions are the mattress that I don't use, a paper day calendar on my desk that someone put there, and the computer itself. That and the monitor are encased in something that's not glass, but is clear like it. I'm not sure what it is, but I'll bet that it's expensive, as the keyboard and mouse are spared their entrapment in exchange for being expendable.

“I see they finished acid-proofing your room,” Aegis says. Then he just stands there, until I do the polite thing and make a vague gesture at my computer chair. It's only after he's turned the chair around and I'm seated on the foot of the bed that he starts speaking again. “So, I wanted to have a chat about how you're fitting in with the rest of the team, now that you've been here a few weeks.”

“I'm not.” No point in being subtle about it.

“And that's why I wanted to talk about it. Deadpan, to be blunt, you're scaring your teammates, and it has to stop.”

“Yeah? Well I can't really stop being a walking horror movie.”

“But you can make an effort to tone it down and let everyone get used to you slowly.”

I scoff at him. “So I have to smile and pretend nothing's wrong, and they don't have to do anything. How is that fair?”

“It isn't,” Aegis says, his voice flat. That actually makes me discard any further complaints for the moment. I figured he was going to do the polite, beat-around-the-bush non-answer sort of response. “Parahuman powers aren't fair, and you got shafted. You'll have to work harder to get along with people than someone whose powers didn't change their body. That's just the way it is.”

When I stay quiet, he continues, saying, “It's not fair to you to have to change yourself just to fit in, but it's also not fair to the others to let you do whatever you want. We're a team. We need to work together. And this is supposed to be a safe and comfortable environment for everyone.”

Shit. He knows. And now he's twisting my words to Vista back on me. Which means if I act like that's not important to me, this will blow up in my face for sure. Crap... I'm going to have to actually try to play nice. Hoisted by my own petard. I try not to scowl so much it shows off my grinding my teeth into splinters, and nod. Aegis nods back, and gives me a small smile. “Good, glad to hear it. Now, is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?”

I'm too busy sulking to come up with anything, so after a few more minutes Aegis takes his leave, and I flop onto my unused mattress to consider my options

 

* * *

 

{X}May as well check in on the old man.

 

 

I did get paid, eventually; I ended up with some back pay because I'd not had a bank account to deposit it into, because somebody decided to get in my way. Stupid Grue. So, my first check was quite a bit larger than it would normally be, and I figured I may as well take the opportunity to pay off some of the bills Dad kept telling me not to worry about. The PRT had taken up the medical bills, but that didn't erase the usual cost of living, or what was lost in trying to stay afloat of those bills. I was a little worried that he'd still be too proud to accept what I could offer, but I guess working at the supermarket has lowered his expectations of himself. Hopefully he won't hit rock bottom. I'm not sure yet if I have any opinions on gravedigging.

“Taylor, that's...” Dad sighed, and closed his eyes. After a second he opened them again, and continued speaking with a tight smile. “That's very sweet, honey. Thank you. This is your money though, you've earned it.”

I shrugged. I didn't think the Wards had been any more soul-draining than your average retail job. Maybe even less, if some of the stories I've heard were true. “Don't care. Call it a gift, or rent, or whatever makes you happy.”

“Taylor...”

“No.”

He sighed again, and sat down across from me at the kitchen table. I tried to adjust my posture to match his. I'd spent enough time in costume or growing along walls lately that just sitting here in my most basic Taylor-shape felt kind of foreign. Probably because I don't have much of a butt to speak of, for padding. Or because my knees keep finding ways to get bumped against things. Maybe Aegis had a point. “You're not gonna let this go, are you?”

“No.”

“Fine... and, I do appreciate it, Taylor, don't get me wrong. Tell you what: I'll accept half until a few bills are paid off. Alright?” I whistled a sigh out from what was left of my nose. Dad is a stubborn sort, and I don't really have the patience to fight him anymore. But with this settled, his expression lightened. “So! How is it, being a Ward? Are they treating you right? I haven't seen you much since you joined, it feels like. Tell me about your day, honey.”

Ah, hell. He looks hopeful, too. Guess he changed his mind about being worried, but...

 

* * *

 

Once Dad had gone to bed, I was finally free to scuttle out from under my bed and creep down to the basement. I hadn't been down here for a while, and I'll admit I even missed it. It was cool down here, and dark, and I found that rather soothing. Maybe I could find time to take a nap down here before I left again. That wasn't while I was here tonight, though. I crouched low and crawled behind the heater and past the coal chute, to where my plastic tote of meatslime still rested.

I'd felt it as soon as I got onto the same street as my house: a sense of being here, but not where my body was. It was... weird. It didn't hurt, as I'd expect any sort of division over that kind of distance to. And it hadn't really occurred to me that I could possibly lose track of my flesh. It seemed impossible. But, thinking about it, I'd been doing just that all along. Every time I disgorged any rats I'd caught, I'd been able to leave the flesh here, away from me, so that didn't really track with the rest of my experience of being undead. But, I'd also never sensed that meatslime from a distance like I could now, so that was odd, too. Maybe the former was because the undifferentiated cells and protiens I'd spit up weren't as... solidly me, I guess? Which would mean the latter was because that tote wasn't full of basic slime anymore.

The lid was still clasped to the 20-gallon plastic box, but it wasn't fitting so well anymore. The meat inside had expanded, filled up the container until the top was bulging, enough so that it'd even knocked the wreath of air-fresheners I'd placed atop it to the ground. The start of a few hair-thin tendrils of nerves and veins had started to escape it, growing along the sides of the overburdened tote. I didn't see any of them moving, so it must have been a relatively slow process, but the fact that it was happening at all was unusual. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.