One More Trigger
Part Thirty: Riley Grace
[A/N: This chapter has been beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
"Now, now," chided Panacea. "Gloating does not become a hero. We must strive to be better than those that we face and defeat in battle."
To Riley, that sounded more than a little stilted, and she didn't even know the girl. But apparently she wasn't the only one to think so.
"That's a quote, right?" asked Ladybug, casually ignoring Riley in favour of the conversation. "Who from?"
Panacea snorted. "Carol. I swear, she made up so many half-baked rules that heroes had to follow, I was surprised she could get her costume on around the stick up her ass."
"Mind you, gloating's a bad habit to get into," observed a blonde teenager who strolled up behind Panacea and draped an arm over her shoulders in a familiar fashion. "I've seen it screw people up before." She wore an Alexandria T-shirt, jeans and a domino mask. Riley didn't know who she was.
"I'm not arguing with the sentiment," Panacea said, leaning back against the newcomer and reaching up to lace fingers with her. "Just with the pretentiousness."
Riley had no idea what was going on here or what the Samaritans wanted with her, except maybe to mess with her head. Which, though she wasn't going to just admit it, they were succeeding at doing. But nobody was getting in her face and preaching about being a hero or anything like that. It was very disorienting.
The PRT van drove off, revealing someone who had been standing at the driver's side window. Riley vaguely recognised her as Vista, Brockton Bay's youngest Ward and (according to Mr Jack) far more powerful than she let on. As she recalled, Director Piggy had said something about Vista being her parole officer. As if; she's only about a year older than me. And I bet I've been in the Nine longer than she's been in the Wards.
"Just going to say, pretentiousness does seem to go hand in hand with powers for some people," Ladybug noted. "The Nine were built around being pretentious, even though the only member of the team who survived its whole run was Jack Slash, and he did that by using the rest of them as meat-shields."
"That's not true!" Riley burst out, though she knew damn—darn—well that the bug-themed cape was only trying to get a rise out of her. "He cared about all of us!"
"So you loved him like a father, huh?" That was Vista. "You weren't scared of him at all? You weren't scared of the others?"
Riley set her jaw stubbornly. "No," she claimed. "They're my family. I'm not scared of any of them. I'm one of them."
"That's only partly true," observed the blonde girl with her arm draped around Panacea. "You saw Siberian as a mother figure or a pet, but you feared Jack so you did your best to please him." She tilted her head slightly. "Though you're also trying to please someone else … can't quite figure out who. Someone who's not around anymore?"
"You're wrong!" Riley shouted. "Mr Jack likes me! I'm his little poppet! And I don't have to please anyone else!"
"Really." The girl had a very irritating line in smirks. "It's funny how much 'poppet' sounds like 'puppet', doesn't it?"
"Athena, Vista, stop provoking the supervillain," Sparx said without heat. "Riley, you're with us for rehabilitation, just like you suggested back when we first captured you. However, we're not stupid. Your powers have been neutralised and we will be watching you twenty-four-seven. Any questions?"
"Yeah. Why?" Riley jabbed her thumb at her own chest. "You don't like me or trust me. What makes you think I can be rehabilitated? And why did the Director hand me over, anyway? Are you her kid or something?"
"I'm actually pretty sure any kid of Director Piggot would spontaneously trigger and then go villain, just to get away from her," the girl called Athena snarked. "Nope, nobody here is related to her, that we know of anyway."
Riley didn't respond to that; the girl's 'puppet' remark had stung more deeply than she'd expected. Instead, she looked at Vista challengingly. "And you're supposed to keep me in line, are you? What are you gonna do if I don't do as you say? Cry? Beat me up?"
"Nope." Vista gave her a steady return gaze, of a type she hadn't gotten from someone who wasn't Mr Jack or one of the Nine for a very long time. "I'm going to treat you the same as everyone else here. You get what you get, or you don't. Your choice."
"Ooh, I'm scared." Riley rolled her eyes. "I can't believe you guys beat us even once, let alone twice. You must be the luckiest amateurs on the east coast."
"Well, to be honest, I am curious." Ladybug stepped forward, the swarm moving with her. "What sort of training did Jack put you through? Fitness exercises? Capture the flag? Required reading for the capes you were going to be facing?"
"Hah, no." Riley snorted at how stupid that sounded. "Mr Jack figured out the plans and told us what we were supposed to do. We always won if we stayed and fought, but sometimes we snuck away if the odds were too great. They usually weren't, with Crawler and Siberian on our side."
"So you've never done any running to keep fit?" asked Athena, another smirk taking up residence on her face.
"No, why would I do that?" Riley snorted. "My powers let me stay as fit as I want to be. Anyway, I'm in the Nine. People run away from us, not the other way around." She paused, curious despite herself. "Why?"
Athena's smirk widened. "Oh, no reason," she purred.
"Okay, then." Sparx dusted her hand off briskly. "You wanted to know how we beat you, Riley? We're about to show you. C'mon." She led the way around the corner of the fence panel structure to where a table awaited with a sunshade over it. The last member of the Samaritans was there already, the one they called Aerodyne. "Suit up, ladies."
As she got closer, Riley identified the items on the table as goggles, painter's masks and earmuffs. Her confusion only increased when Athena took up a painter's mask and put it on; it covered her nose and mouth completely. Vista turned her back and removed her visor, then put a pair of goggles on; when she turned back around, Riley realised that the eyepieces had been painted dead black.
"How can you even see out of those things?" she demanded.
"I can't." Vista seemed unconcerned by this. "I can kinda vibrate my Shaker ability to see if there's anything solid around me, but for the most part I have to depend on the others to tell me which way to go."
"So you can't see right now?" Riley smirked and gave her the finger.
A large and unpleasant-looking wasp perched on the tip of her middle finger a moment later, the stinger just barely touching her skin. "No," buzzed the bugs around Ladybug as she pulled a painter's mask on, then followed up with a pair of goggles and a pair of earmuffs. "But I can." She hadn't even looked in Riley's direction.
"Hey, keep out of this," Riley told the bug on her finger. "This is between me and her."
"You'll find that we look out for each other," Ladybug told her bluntly. "If anyone attacks one of us, we all retaliate. Kind of like a beehive, only a whole lot less pleasant."
Riley decided to drop it, not least because the wasp looked like it really, really wanted to sting her. "Okay, so why are you putting that stuff on? Is it for protection?"
"Nope." Sparx was fitting a pair of the darkened goggles over her face, while Athena pulled on a set that only partly blocked her eyesight. "These force us to figure out more creative uses of our powers. We make things as hard for ourselves as we can while we train, so that actual combat is easier."
"Damn right," Aerodyne said. She was wearing darkened goggles and earmuffs, while Sparx put on a painter's mask. "So, you game to come on this training run, or sit it out?"
"Depends," said Riley warily. "Do I get punished if I sit it out?"
"Well, if you don't come along, you don't learn how we beat you," Ladybug said in that creepy buzzing voice.
Riley rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine, I'll come through with you. What do I need to know?"
Aerodyne smiled. "Excellent. You're a first-timer, so you don't get any handicaps. Our job is to get Panacea through the maze without being shot; your job is to observe what we do, so you know what's expected of you the next time around."
Sparx put her hands behind her back. Her hair formed words in the air with static highlighting the letters: ZIP-TIE ME?
"I got it," Ladybug said. "Aerodyne?"
"Yes, please." Aerodyne mimicked Sparx's move. In another moment, Ladybug had both her and Sparx firmly secured with the zip-ties, despite wearing goggles with dead-black lenses from side to side. "So, Riley. Any questions?"
"Yeah, just one." Riley stared at Aerodyne and Sparx. "You're seriously going into a training scenario with your hands tied?"
"Well, yes," Ladybug said. "If you already know how to do something, you'll never figure out an alternate idea unless someone makes it impossible the first way."
"You're nuts," Riley muttered. "Absolutely insane. And trust me, I know insane." She paused; something that Aerodyne had said earlier was bothering her. "Wait, shot?"
Sparx's hair lit up with two words. YOU'LL SEE.
Three minutes later, Riley did indeed see.
She hadn't paid much attention to the catwalks over the top of the maze, or the three men who'd been standing up there talking quietly to one another, and she really should have. As soon as she moved into the maze with the others, the mayhem started. Paintbombs were hurled down from above, interspersed with really accurate paintball shooting. There were smoke bombs, showers spraying water and what she was fairly certain had to be bug spray.
In all of this, even while she ducked and yelped and cringed (being all too aware of her newfound vulnerability), the members of the Samaritans pressed forward, moving quickly and professionally even with the artificial handicaps they'd taken. Despite being effectively gagged, Athena somehow passed on information to the other members via rapid-fire hand signals, which the speaking members relayed to those who couldn't see. A couple of them got shot and immediately stopped on the spot until Panacea could get to them and wipe off the paint with a damp rag. Thus 'healed', they moved on.
The maze took a good twenty minutes to traverse, though it felt like about three hours to Riley. By the time she stumbled out the far end, coughing from the smoke and wringing water out of her hair, she was thoroughly glad that she hadn't been targeted by whoever was putting pinpoint-accurate paintballs downrange. Only by the combined efforts of Aerodyne, Sparx, Ladybug and Vista had they managed to fend off the attacks until they got all the way through.
"Okay, girls, not bad." A tall rangy figure slid down a ladder without bothering to use the rungs and approached them. "Take ten, then hit the track. We'll reset the traps and you can go through it the other way on the next run."
Riley stared at him. The voice was familiar and when she moved aside so that the afternoon sun wasn't behind his head, she recognised him. "You!" she said accusingly.
He adjusted his glasses and observed her with a raised eyebrow. "We're down to pronouns, are we?"
She took a deep breath, wishing she still had dart launchers. "You were there! You shot Mr Jack!"
"I did," he agreed. "He had it coming. Anyone who threatens me or mine had best make out their will, because I only ever give one warning."
Riley had heard threats from the best. Mr Jack had been particularly good at it; she'd figured it was because everyone knew he was willing to go that extra mile and make sure someone was really dead.
And because he was able to cut someone's throat from across the room, of course.
This guy, standing there with a paintball gun slung over his shoulder and heavy work gloves on his hands, shouldn't have so much as hit her scale of 'menacing', but somehow his words sent a shiver down her back in a way that even Director Piggot's most dire pronouncements hadn't managed to do. He gave her one more look, then turned away and headed toward the maze. "Alpha," he said into a hand-held radio. "Disable thirty-three, will you?"
"Disabling," the radio crackled, but Riley wasn't paying attention anymore. She turned away to where the others were removing their goggles and earmuffs and painter masks and placing them on a second table, twin to the first. As she watched, there was a loud POP of discharged current, accompanied by a sudden smell of ozone, and Sparx pulled her hands free of the zip-tie holding her. Aerodyne wasn't far behind her; with a thin high-pitched whistling noise that did not come from her mouth, she parted her own restraints and lifted the goggles from her head.
"Who was that guy? Was he one of the jerks shooting at us?" Riley complained. "Who set this all up?"
Aerodyne tilted her head to a pavilion that had been set up a little distance away. Tables bearing what Riley could almost swear were drinks and snacks were set up in the shade. "Let's go have that ten minutes while we talk. We get to sit down and take the weight off and trust me, you'll be glad you did."
"Why?" asked Riley suspiciously, but she followed along. They weren't treating her like an enemy anymore, just like a newcomer to the team. It was nice, she guessed, though she didn't trust it for a second. There was going to be another shoe dropping, one that was steel plated and had lots of spikes underneath.
They were settled on folding chairs and Riley had a glass of soda in one hand and a cracker with cheese in the other before Ladybug answered her original question. "Those guys, well, one of them's my dad, and the other two are Aerodyne's and Sparx's dads. Our job is to run the maze. Their job is to make the maze as hard to run as possible."
"You ran that one pretty fast just now." Riley took a decorous bite of her cracker, then chased it down with a sip of soda. "How long have you been practising it?"
"That setup? First time," Sparx said cheerfully. "We'll run it a few more times, then they'll reset the entire thing. Takes them most of a day."
Aerodyne nodded. "They brainstorm new booby traps and other ways to screw with our powers and keep us on our toes, all the damn time." She rubbed her butt, where a faint blue mark indicated the impact point of a paintball earlier. "And they make sure we remember it when we screw up."
Riley blinked, an unpleasant realisation making itself known to her. The Samaritans had bulldozed the obstacles in the maze like they'd already planned for them, but apparently they hadn't. It was just the way they were trained. "So the way you took us down the first time and the second time, it wasn't a fluke? You didn't just get lucky?"
"Hahaha nope," said Vista, waving a piece of cake for emphasis. "First time I met them, they'd just shut down a bank robbery by Athena's crew. Owned them like a lottery ticket. So when Director Piggot offered me the chance to go be a liaison, I jumped on it with both feet. Never regretted it for a minute."
Athena jabbed her playfully with her elbow. "Well, maybe a couple of times? I know I have."
"That's the difference between you and me," Vista said with a smirk. "When I volunteered to be a liaison, I did it because I wanted to get into the Samaritans. You stepped up to get out of a bad situation, without thinking of where it was leading to. Meanwhile, Amy over there …"
"Amy over here did both at the same time, because I'm nothing if not a multitasker when it comes to making questionable life decisions," Panacea observed from the other side of Athena. She raised her eyebrows at the other two. "I will say this much. Even when I've regretted it, I haven't regretted it. New Wave was good in its own way, but in the Samaritans I can be me. I'm still finding out who that is, to be honest, but I'm doing it in my own time, in my own way, and you guys don't judge."
"Well, duh," Ladybug said. "If any of us was in the least bit judgemental, we'd do nothing but. We're friends. We're teammates. We've got each other's backs."
Riley tried to think back to instances of the same kind of warm camaraderie with the whole Nine together, and had trouble with the idea. Mr Jack had of course been the centre of attention at all times; it was how he had to be. All eyes were drawn to him. But he'd never been warm. He never bantered with anyone the way the Samaritans bantered with each other. His word had to be final … and oddly enough, in a team full of people who were ready to kill on a whim, that had always been the way. Nobody gainsaid him, or presented logical reasons for why he might be wrong, even when such reasons were readily available.
The Siberian had been nothing but kind to her; holding her as she slept to stave off the nightmares, allowing her to braid those black and white locks, carrying her on those tall slender shoulders. But she wasn't warm either. She couldn't be. It was not in her nature.
As for the other members of the Nine, more than a few had come and gone since she had joined. Everyone was polite, some were friendly, but nobody was warm to her, and joked in the way that these people did. Maybe it was because she was closer to their age than anyone else had been.
So did that make her strong and them weak, or her stupid and them smart? She knew which way she wanted to jump on that one. Ever since she'd joined the Nine, she'd been stronger than she ever could have imagined. An entire nation was terrified of her name.
Bonesaw. Not Riley. They weren't terrified of Riley Grace Davis. It was Bonesaw they feared.
She was obscurely proud of that fact. She, six-year-old Riley, had taken that name and made something of it. Sure, Mr Jack had needed to suggest a few targets at first, and he'd chided her for not being imaginative enough. His disapproval had hurt and scared her, because if he decided she wasn't worth his time, that she was an outsider in the Nine, her lifespan would be measured in minutes if not seconds.
So she'd applied herself and put all her considerable imagination toward impressing Jack with her skills. Her power allowed her to ignore the squick factor of blood and exposed flesh and other aspects of cutting people up; it was only a short step from there to having pride in her work, and then positive enjoyment of it and the praise that Mr Jack heaped on her for it.
But now the Nine were gone, scattered. Burnscar was dead, so they said, as was Mr Jack. Personally, Riley didn't believe that, at least about Mr Jack. She'd built enough redundancies and organ reinforcement into his torso to make it very hard to kill him with anything less than a tank shell or a full-blooded punch from Alexandria.
She sipped at her soda and nibbled at her cracker, vaguely aware that if she had her powers she'd be able to engineer subtle poisons from the food and drink that was on the table. But she didn't, so she was just going to have to bide her time and wait for her captors to make a mistake. The only one they'd made so far that she could see was in treating her so casually, almost like she was one of them. Which, she reluctantly admitted to herself, was nicer than the overt hostility she'd been getting from the PRT—no!
Gritting her teeth, she kept her expression bland as she berated herself for almost falling into the trap. They were being the Good Cop, while the PRT was the Bad Cop. It was all a huge con. She was Bonesaw of the Nine, not some kid who didn't know which way was up, and anyone who thought differently was in for a lethal surprise as soon as she got her powers back.
Being a member of the Nine for so long, she'd learned to hide her true thoughts while cultivating an outward appearance of 'good little girl', so she was pretty sure nobody had picked up on her mental lapse. Glancing around casually at the others, who were in the main laughing and joking with each other, her eyes fell on Athena who was replying to something Panacea had said. Even as she spoke to the biokinetic, Athena briefly locked gazes with Riley and smirked ever so slightly.
The message was clear. I know what you're thinking.
Riley yanked her gaze away and clenched her fists so tight that her nails—trimmed close by the PRT—dug into her palms. What was Athena's game? Why was she not denouncing Riley to everyone else? It wasn't like the girl lacked confidence or was thought unreliable by the others, even though she'd come from a villain gang. It all came down to one big question.
What does she want from me?
She was still wondering that when the tall man with the glasses ducked into the pavilion and cleared his throat. "That's ten minutes," he announced. "Track time. Ten laps, everyone."
"You heard Delta," Sparx stated, getting up. "Domino masks if you want them, then limber up. We hit the track in five minutes."
Riley ignored Ladybug and Vista going to a small table where domino masks lay in favour of speaking to the redheaded girl. "Track?" she asked.
"Running track," Sparx stated, lifting one leg and hugging it to her chest. She looked across at Riley. "You might want to do some stretches. You're running with us."
"Nah, I think I'll sit out," Riley decided, relaxing back into her chair. "Go on without me."
"Excellent," said the tall man. "We need someone to test the booby traps for us. How do you feel about paint in your hair?"
Riley looked at him, and he looked back. Despite his mild features and glasses, there was not an ounce of give in him. "You're not serious," she said, though she wasn't sure if she believed it herself.
"Oh, absolutely." His smile never reached his eyes. "We also need to sight in our paintball guns. How fast can you run?"
If he was bluffing, she couldn't tell, and she liked to think she was a good judge of that sort of thing. After a second or so, she decided that he wasn't bluffing. They would absolutely throw paint over her and use her for target practise.
"Feel free to take him up on that," Athena said from behind her. "I did, once. I had bruises on my butt for days. But hey, I got out of running track that day."
Riley considered defying them and remaining in her chair. But she knew if she physically refused to cooperate with their training schedule, they would take that much longer to let their guard down, or even send her back to the PRT. So far, she was on to a good thing so long as she pretended to play along. Besides, she'd been a cape longer than any of these wimps. It wasn't like they'd been through half the stuff she had.
Slowly, she got to her feet. "So where's this stupid running track?"
Being a paintball target, Riley decided, might have been a better option.
The running track was a graded dirt road that wended through the trees in a rough oval, with thick enough undergrowth that it would be almost impossible to force one's way through to make a shortcut. There were no rough patches or rocks to trip over, and the sheer number of footprints in the dust bore silent witness as to how often it got used for this purpose. Overall, she decided in some small analytical part of her mind, it was probably about five hundred yards in length.
Or, a larger part of her argued, about a million miles.
Streaming with sweat, she stumbled along, panting like a steam-train. To her horrified annoyance, everyone else was actually running, even Vista. And as far as she could tell, the Ward wasn't so much as cheating with her powers. In fact, she seemed to be positively enjoying the exertion and the chance to get out into the open air. Not that Riley was left alone on the run; Athena and Panacea were taking turns to pace her, swapping out for each lap while the other forged ahead and lapped her, just to add insult to injury.
Worst of all were Ladybug, Sparx and Aerodyne. Those three were flying around the track with Ladybug ahead and the other two in hot pursuit. Riley was left wondering how long those three had been doing this, and why Vista and Panacea and Athena didn't get angry with them for showing off that they were so much better.
Why should I even be running? she demanded of herself. The members of the Samaritans had proven to be unexpectedly fit and a lot faster on the track besides. Part of her wanted to drop back to a walk, or even just sit down on the track and refuse to move at all. But then there was the will to keep going, to never give up, that had allowed her to survive her induction into the Nine all those years ago. And there was also her stubborn pride as Bonesaw of the Nine. She had met and beaten bigger challenges than this before.
Her exhausted meanderings were interrupted by a sudden nausea that wracked her body. Falling to her hands and knees, she vomited in the middle of the track, arching her back and heaving until nothing but bile was coming up.
"Shit, is she okay?" Panacea pushed past the others; Athena, who'd been kneeling beside her and rubbing her back, made way. The biokinetic laid the back of her hand against Riley's forehead.
"I'm guessing a little bit of heat exhaustion and dehydration," Athena said, though the tone of her voice made it anything but a guess.
"Right on the money." Panacea did something that made Riley feel a little better, at least enough to stop throwing up. "Of course, the crap they were feeding her at the PRT wasn't helping in the slightest. Get her back into the shade and get her cooled down. She'll need electrolytes, too."
"On it." Two voices spoke at once; Athena and Sparx.
Riley was only vaguely aware of being lifted and carried, wrapped in something that was warm and soft and comfortable. By the time she was ready to pay attention to her surroundings, she was back in her folding chair in the shade.
"Water," she croaked.
"Close your eyes," Athena told her.
Riley didn't have the will to resist. She closed her eyes.
A moment later, cool water trickled over her head, spreading out in all directions over her scalp, cooling the skin deliciously before cutting channels through the grime on her face as well as running down the back of her neck.
It felt heavenly.
"Okay, you can open 'em now." There was a gurgling noise and Athena handed her another cup. "Just take it easy. Let your body adjust. Flush your mouth out before you actually drink any of it."
"I know all that," she said with some annoyance. Or rather, she had known, instinctively, how the body would react to various stresses. Did she know it now, or did she just think she did?
"Mm-hmm." Athena pressed a damp cloth to her forehead, mopping away the sweat and dust that was clinging to her skin. "How's that feel?"
"Better," Riley said reluctantly. "Thanks." The word popped out before she could call it back, and she felt a spike of annoyance at herself. She took a mouthful, swirled it around, then spat it off to the side. Her mouth still tasted horrible, so she did it twice more before actually letting the cool liquid run down her throat.
"That's good." Athena nodded to herself as she began sponging down the back of Riley's neck. "When you've finished that water, we've got Gatorade. It'll get the electrolytes back into your system and make sure you don't come down with cramps."
It was weird, how solicitous she was being. Riley decided that they clearly didn't want to have their prisoner hospitalised on the first day. "How many laps did I make before I upchucked?"
"Four, four and a half? Let's call it a mile." Athena shrugged. "I'm guessing you're used to being carried if you had to go far and fast, yeah?"
"Well, yeah." There wasn't much point in denying it. "I'm twelve. Even with augments, I was still slower than any one of the rest of them."
She'd finished the cup of water. Athena twisted the cap off a bottle of the promised sports drink and handed it over. Riley took a mouthful and swallowed it, grimacing at the taste but knowing she needed it.
"Quick question; just give me the first answer that pops into your head," Athena said casually. "If you and Jack were running for your lives, would he sacrifice himself to let you get away or would he leave you to die?"
"Leave me to die," Riley said without thinking, then pulled herself up abruptly. "Hey, wait, that's no fair asking questions like that when I'm not thinking right. He'd find a way to get us both away."
"And if a way like that didn't exist?" Athena's voice was quiet.
"He'd make one!" insisted Riley. "Mr Jack wouldn't abandon me."
Just for a moment, her eyes met Athena's. Instead of the mocking or gloating expression she expected to see there, all she found was empathy and understanding. Somehow, that burned more deeply than derision.
She turned her face away. "You wouldn't understand."
"You might be surprised," the blonde ex-villain said softly. "I had a boss like that once upon a time. He loved to manipulate people, too. Even kidnapped a little girl who had a power that he wanted to use for his own. I was paid handsomely, but I always had the understanding that I was expendable. If he ever decided that keeping me was more trouble than using me up, I would've been on the trash heap the next day. That's why, when the Samaritans stopped that bank robbery, I saw my chance and jumped ship. Because I know Coil would've shot me in the leg, or the face, if it meant giving him half a chance to get away."
That sounded like past tense. "So what happened to him? This Coil guy, I mean?"
Athena chuckled. "Well, once everyone was on the same page, we went back and took him down. The gang here, plus Glory Girl. You know, Panacea's sister?"
"I know of her," Riley said carefully. "I was, uh, more interested in Panacea herself. Possible, whaddayacallems, synchronisations between our powers?"
"Synergies," Athena said at once. "And yeah, you're not wrong. You two could have a level of synergy that would be utterly frightening with someone like Jack Slash calling the shots." She tilted her head to one side. "Was it you or Jack who wanted you to go after her?"
Riley wanted to say me! but paused long enough to think about it. "… Mr Jack, I think," she said after a moment. "But it wasn't a hard sell for me. I wanted a big sister who was like me, not just someone who was in the team one day and dead the next. She was supposed to be a hero, but Mr Jack thought he could bring her around to his way of thinking. He's really good at that."
"Yeah, he was," Athena said. "We were brainstorming, the first time around, and we came up with a theory that he might be a really subtle Master. I mean, how else would he keep people like the Siberian and Crawler and Hatchet Face from just murdering him in his sleep and taking over? That kind of people really don't play nice with others. Just saying."
"He's not a Master," Riley said instinctively. Athena didn't say a word, just looked at her with slightly raised eyebrows. "Well, he's not," she reiterated, feeling defensive. "We do what we do because we want to. Not because he's making us do it."
"You do realise that you're quoting the PRT handbook on how to spot Master influence, almost word for word," Athena said quietly. "But I'm not going to argue with you about it. I just want you to think about the possibility."
Riley rolled her eyes. "Yeah, so you can make me feel so bad about what I've done that I renounce my villain ways and come over to the side of good. That's never gonna happen."
"Well, I'll be the first to admit that there'll be a lot of roadblocks," Athena conceded. "The justice system has a kill-boner for you despite the fact that you're still a minor because you've spent six years redefining the phrase 'body horror'. But I think they're wrong."
"Oh, really?" Riley put all the sarcasm she had at her disposal into those two words. "So … what, am I supposed to be able to pretend that I was never Bonesaw, because Mr Jack's the one who made me be this way in the first place?"
"That's precisely what I think happened," Athena said. "I know a lot about Stockholm Syndrome and brainwashing, and I'm pretty sure that's exactly what's happened to you. But what can be done can be undone. I think there's a chance you can still be a good person again, if you were willing to work with us."
"Yeah, well, you're wrong," Riley said defiantly. "I know Mr Jack killed my family and took me away, and I don't care. I like doing what I do. I like being Bonesaw. He showed me what I could do, who I could be, but the rest was all me." She took a long drink of the Gatorade; the taste was starting to grow on her. "So what are you gonna do? Send me back to the PRT so they can put a bullet in my head one fine morning, or are you just gonna do the deed out here and bury me in an unmarked grave?"
"Neither." Athena's tone never changed. "We took you on to see if we could rehabilitate you, and there's no way we're giving up after just one day. Me, I'm looking forward to beating Jack Slash one last time."
Riley sniffed, in as superior a manner as she could achieve. "Good luck with that." She frowned, suddenly curious. "Say, what's with that, anyway?"
"What's with what?" Athena's carefree tone didn't match the intent look on her face. "You might want to narrow it down a little."
"The way you keep talking about Mr Jack, like he's dead." Riley gave her an annoyed look. "He's not, and we both know it."
"What makes you think he isn't?" The intent look was there in full force.
Riley rolled her eyes. "Well, duh. Shooting him in the chest is only going to annoy him a bit. Armoured sternum, protective mesh around his important organs, shock cage around his heart. So why are you acting like he's dead?"
"Because he is." Athena closed her left eye and tapped the eyelid with her fingertip. "Twelve-gauge shotgun firing double-ought buckshot through the eye-socket at one inch range. Autopsy found no life signs, and his brain had been pulped. His corpse is currently under guard just to be absolutely certain, but he is very, very dead."
The world came to a screeching halt for Riley as she took in the blonde ex-villain's words. People had tried to kill Mr Jack before, both before and after she'd become part of the Nine. Heroes and other villains alike just could not seem to get a clear shot. Even those who did … she recalled how Crimson had leaped in the way of an attack that would have shredded Mr Jack into bloody confetti. Winter had exacted a horrific vengeance but her lover had still been dead, and Mr Jack was very much alive.
Is he—was he—really a Master?
No, can't think about that.
Is he really dead?
Closing her eyes, she tried to think it through logically. What Athena was describing could definitely have killed Mr Jack. She'd reinforced his skull, to the point that pistol fire would bounce off more often than not, but it was near-impossible to armour the eye-sockets. The heavy buckshot would've ricocheted around inside his skull until his brain was basically mush …
He really is dead, isn't he?
I'm just fooling myself if I try to think otherwise.
If he was still alive, there's no way the PRT would hand me over to the Samaritans, powered or otherwise.
She opened her eyes, to find herself looking into Athena's bottle-green gaze. There was still no gloating or triumph, just … concern. Concern for Riley. Which was weird as poop, because if she still had her powers, she'd …
With Mr Jack dead, what was she supposed to do?
Declare vengeance on the people who murdered him (to stop him from murdering them)?
Throw her entire villain career away and embark on a life of good, with rainbows and unicorns and kittens and puppies (and not to experiment on)?
Break free of the Samaritans and restart the Slaughterhouse Nine in her own image (and probably be murdered in her sleep by them, because Athena had a good point)?
"You okay?" Athena's voice was level and calm. Riley had the nagging feeling that the older girl knew most, if not all, of what had just gone through her head … and was fine with it.
"Never better," she lied, knowing that Athena was fully aware it was a lie. I know that you know that I know that you know … "But if you think I'm going back into that maze, you've got another think coming."
"Well, no, not today," Sparx said firmly. Riley looked around to see that the rest of the Samaritans had been sitting a little distance away, apparently to give her and Athena some privacy. Sparx was now standing, having gotten up at Riley's words. "While having you collapse in the middle of the maze might add verisimilitude, I'd rather not make Panacea deal with an actual medical emergency during training. But you will be running it, for real, in the near future."
"Yay." Riley made her voice as deadpan as possible. "Don't hold your breath."
To her surprise, the others burst out laughing. Aerodyne even went so far as to come over and offer her a high-five. Riley sneered and didn't even bother responding. You gotta be kidding.
She was a prisoner in the middle of the enemy camp. That was something she couldn't afford to forget. Playing along to get along was one thing, but she was not one of them; nor would she ever be.
The house belonged to Ladybug and her father. She still hadn't learned their names, though she'd seen their faces; she'd been told to call him 'Delta'. It felt kind of silly, but she'd spent the last six years among people who used their supervillain monikers exclusively, so it could easily have been worse.
The evening meal was partaken around a table in the kitchen; apart from Riley, Athena was there. Ladybug apparently needed glasses, and had a long serious face that the costume managed to hide to a certain degree. There was less banter than there had been in the team exercise earlier, and she wondered how much of this silence was due to having to keep secrets from her. She also noticed that her place setting was the only one that had plastic cutlery.
With all that, the meal had been filling and delicious. A lot better than she'd been getting from the PRT, that was for sure.
"Good maze run today," Ladybug observed. "That autofiring paintball gun was a nasty surprise."
"I thought so." Delta's slight smile reached his eyes this time. "It was, uh, Romeo's idea."
By now, Riley was aware that they were using phonetic alphabetic tags for the adults. So 'Romeo', who had to be either Sparx's or Aerodyne's dad, had a name starting with 'R'. Which … really didn't help her in the slightest.
"Money came through today," he went on. "I think … we'll talk about that later." His sidelong glance at Riley spelled out the reason in huge neon letters.
"Oh, do go ahead," she said sweetly. "Feel free to discuss how you're going to use the blood money you got for killing the guy who was my father figure over the last six years. Murdering a helpless prisoner. How did it make you feel?"
He met her gaze over the table. No longer diffident, his resolve was iron-hard, his tone sharp enough to slice diamond. "Then? Relieved that the man who'd been about to cut my daughter's throat was dead. Now? Thirty-six million dollars richer. How many helpless people did he murder over the years, and why is it suddenly such a bad thing now that it's happened to him?"
"Dad …" Ladybug tugged at his sleeve. Riley, about to throw back the hackneyed old line of 'that makes you no better than us', caught the look in Ladybug's eye and decided not to. She let her superior smile speak for her, quietly pleased that she'd at least gotten under his skin.
"Well, now, that's an excellent time for us to get ready for bed, Riley." Athena stood up, her hand wrapping around Riley's arm. Her fingers dug into just the right nerve point to give the younger girl no choice at all about standing up as well.
"Fine." Riley rolled her arm out of Athena's grip and followed her upstairs to the bathroom. They'd supplied a toothbrush for her to clean her teeth; it was a habit she'd kept for years, all part of being a 'good girl'. Through the floorboards, she could hear the tones of an argument, though not the actual words.
Spitting out the used toothpaste, she flushed her mouth out. "So when are you sending me back to the PRT?"
"What?" asked Athena. "Where did you get that idea from?"
Riley gestured toward the floorboards. "Are you deaf? They hate me." The words surprised her; not that she'd been thinking them, but that she'd had to say them out loud.
"They hate the idea of you." Athena had been brushing her teeth alongside Riley. "Not you personally." She paused, thinking. "Okay, maybe they hate you personally, just a little. But mainly, they hate the concept that any one of them, under different circumstances, could've ended up where you are. Happily using their powers at the whim of a horrific mass murderer. Each of them could do as much damage, or more, with their powers as you did. And every time you identify with being Bonesaw, you remind them of that. Does that make sense?"
"Well, no duh, Sherlock." Riley rolled her eyes. "I was in the Nine. Everyone hated us. Including you, I bet."
Athena snorted. "Think again. I've been there, remember? Not for as long, and Coil technically isn't as bad as Jack Slash, but yeah, I know what it's like to be under the thumb of an amoral asshole. And I am so damn glad to be out from under."
Riley had trouble assessing that mindset. Life without Mr Jack made her feel exposed, vulnerable. For the first time, she could understand what it felt like to be on the other side of being skinned alive, and she didn't like it. "I'm not. It was simpler in the Nine. Mr Jack knew how the world worked."
"Newsflash, kiddo." Athena smirked. "Most of us are just faking it from day to day. You show me someone who says he knows exactly what the hell's going on, and I'll show you a goddamn liar."
"Language," Riley said automatically. She stepped out into the corridor and looked around. "So where am I going to be sleeping? For that matter, where are you going to be sleeping?" She'd showered and put on a T-shirt and jeans she suspected had been donated by Vista, but they were hardly sleepwear.
"Downstairs." Athena led the way back toward the stairs.
"What, on that sofa?" Riley frowned. "It's kinda lumpy."
"It's absolutely lumpy," Athena agreed. "Which is why neither one of us is going to be sleeping on it." They headed down the stairs, Riley noting that the argument died away before it could become properly audible.
Back in the kitchen, Delta and Ladybug had begun to clear the dishes, though there was still an air of tension in the room. Riley suspected the argument would be ongoing for awhile yet. It felt weird; nobody argued with Mr Jack unless he wanted the disagreement to continue for whatever reason. But Ladybug seemed to be perfectly okay with talking back to her father and defying his will. That just wouldn't happen in the Nine.
"Night, guys." Athena led the way through the kitchen to what Riley belatedly realised was a basement door. She opened it and gestured to the stairs within. "After you."
"Night, uh, Athena." Ladybug came over and gave the blonde teen a hug. "You'll be okay?"
"Yeah, totes. Ames gave me a mod so I can stay up all night if I want." Athena fished her phone out of her pants pocket. "So long as you've got a charge point down there, I'm copacetic."
"We've got one down there." Delta cleared his throat roughly. "Good night, Athena … Riley."
Riley didn't answer; she figured she wasn't expected to. Are they really going to lock me in the basement overnight?
The light was already on, so she headed down the steps, careful not to get a splinter from the wooden rail. There was a washing machine and a dryer, and a wooden panel screwed to the wall. Across the other side of the basement was an old workbench. But what really caught her eye was the bed.
It wasn't anything fancy, but it had a nice thick mattress, sheets and a blanket. There was even a pillow. Between the bed and the stairs was a comfortable-looking armchair.
"Wait," said Riley suspiciously as she reached the bottom of the steps. "Do I get the bed or the chair?"
"You get the bed, I get the chair," Athena said briskly. "I'm gonna be staying up all night because, and don't take this the wrong way, we don't trust you as far as we can spit you if we don't have our eyes on you every step of the way. But that doesn't mean you have to be uncomfortable."
Riley tried to feel offended at this but in all honesty, Athena had a point. Given a chance, she would totally try to turn the tables somehow.
Well, maybe after a good night's sleep.
"Whatever," she snarked back, testing out the mattress with her hands. It was springy, but not too much so. At the end of the bed, there was a set of pyjamas with cutesy little pink flying unicorns on them. Picking them up, she looked questioningly at Athena.
"Vista's," the blonde teen confirmed. "And yes, you can feel free to tease the crap out of her about them when you see her next."
Riley's grin was predatory. "I might just do that." She waited until Athena turned her back then changed into the pyjamas. They were soft and comfortable, just as the bed was when she climbed onto it.
Not once did she consider attacking the blonde teen when she wasn't looking, and that was only partly due to the fact that she was pretty sure Athena would see her coming anyway. The other part was simple; of everyone in the Samaritans, Athena had been the one to most consistently treat her like a human being and listen to what she had to say. She didn't like Athena—the girl was bossy, smug and loved showing off how smart she was—but she didn't hate her either.
Once Riley was settled down in bed, Athena went partway up the stairs and pulled the cord to turn the light off. Her footsteps came back down and Riley heard the creak as she curled up in the armchair. A moment later, a dim light came up as she turned her phone on. In the faint radiance, Riley saw her face as she looked over at the bed. "Night, Riley."
She didn't want to be friendly with these people, but … well, it couldn't hurt. "Night, Athena."
There was a long pause, then Athena spoke again in the darkness. "Lisa. My name's Lisa."
"Oh." Riley was unaccountably touched. It probably didn't matter in the slightest, but Athena sharing her real name was the most human gesture she'd gotten in recent days. "Good night, Lisa."
Silence fell then, broken only by the very faint tapping of Lisa's fingers on her phone screen—if Riley had to guess from her personality, she was probably shitposting on the PHO boards—and the occasional creak from the house above. Rolling over, Riley got comfortable, which was remarkably easy with the bed they'd given her, combined with the exertions she'd been through on that day. Closing her eyes, she tried to drift off to sleep.
"Be a good girl …"
Stifling a scream, Riley sat bolt upright in bed, staring around her with wide eyes. Hyperventilating, she tried to make sense of her surroundings. This wasn't what she was used to. Mr Jack wasn't there. The Siberian wasn't there. Nobody was there. Where am I?
"Hey. Hey, you okay?"
The voice was soft and familiar, and the hand on her arm gave her something to focus on. She turned, to see a silhouette against the light of a phone left on an armchair. "Lisa?" she whispered as a memory dropped into place.
"That's me. You okay? Nightmare?"
"No … no, I'll be fine." She couldn't show weakness, not in front of Lisa. Even though sweat was even now drying cold on her forehead, and her heart was still thundering in her chest.
"Pfft, hah. I'm calling bullcrap. Shove over." The blanket was pushed aside, and the bed creaked as Lisa's weight settled onto it.
Automatically, Riley made room for her. She felt the blonde teen tug the blanket back up to cover them both. One arm slid under Riley's neck, while the other wrapped around her waist and held her tight. As if they'd done it a dozen times before, they settled into the spooning position that was so familiar to her. Without even thinking about it, she put her hand over Lisa's where it rested on her stomach, lacing their fingers together.
"Better?" murmured Lisa.
"Mm-hmm." It was more than 'better'. It was warmth and comfort and protection, and the nearness of another person. To be held close so that she could sleep. Everything that she'd been missing in PRT lockup.
"Good. I'll be here when you wake up."
Reassured, Riley slept.
End of Part Thirty