One Bad Day

Part Two: One Bad Day

Winslow High School
December 22, 2010

"Okay, this is the last day of school," Emma reminded the other two. "If you've got any ideas for how to make Hebert cry, today's the day."

"Still think we should've gone with the locker thing," Madison said. "It woulda been fuckin' awesome."

"We can still do it," Sophia pointed out. "Sneak back into school after it's closed and do what we want. Right now? We make sure that she remembers today."

"Okay, you know how she always disappears around lunchtime?" Madison grinned. "Found out where she goes."

Emma raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"Third floor bathrooms," Madison revealed. "Watched her go in there yesterday with her lunch."

Sophia's smile was vicious. "Fuckin' yes."

The trio quickened their pace along the corridor.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

Aisha had tried to keep up with the three girls both normally and using her powers. But while the crowd parted for those three, it didn't for her, whether people knew she was there or not.

It had taken until last night to get another line on Shadow Stalker's home location. Aisha had drawn the second line on the map, then gone and looked over the area where they intersected. There had been no way she could search all the houses, but then she'd had a flash of brilliance.

Only one bus line ran through the area, taking kids to school. Shadow Stalker was a teenager; she had to go to school. She would be taking the bus in the morning.

Aisha had gotten on the bus and ridden it through that area. At stop after stop, she had scrutinised the people getting on. Most were the wrong skin colour or had the wrong hair colour, or something else that didn't fit. But by the time the bus left the area, she had it nailed down to three suspects. She watched those three, seeing how they acted around others. One stood out from the others.

When that girl got off the bus, so did she. At Winslow High School. Now all I have to do is make sure it's really Shadow Stalker. She didn't want to kill the wrong one, after all. If it's not her, I'll go back and try again.

The Undersiders' Base

"Hey, Lisa. Hold up."

Lisa turned at the doorway and looked back. Hardcase was sprawled on the couch, jacket open. At the moment, he was six feet tall and sported an impressive set of abs. But he could alter his height as easily as he could change his weight or his facial features. He was also, Lisa was certain, a borderline psychopath.

"What is it? I'm just going out." Regent had already gone out somewhere, and Bitch was walking her dogs. Lisa didn't want to spend another moment with Hardcase's eyes boring into her, undressing her in his mind.

"No. Stay. I want to talk to you."

"Can it wait?"

"No. It can't." He gestured. "Get back here. That's an order."

Which Coil told me I had to follow. Reluctantly, Lisa turned and walked back into the living area. "Okay, so what's up?"

"Siddown." Hardcase patted the sofa beside him. Even more reluctantly, Lisa sat. "Now, when I was hired for this job, the boss warned me that you might be a little bit of a handful. Your power's useful as fuck, but it doesn't help when you're second-guessing me all the time."

You want us to kill people. The Undersiders don't work that way. But she didn't say anything.

"So let's get one thing straight. When we're on a job, you do things my way, every time. You don't second-guess me, and when one of the others looks at you instead of me, you fuckin' tell them to look at me. You got it?"

Slowly, she nodded. "I got it."

"But the trouble is," he went on as if she hadn't spoken, "I don't think you really got it. I don't think you really understand who's in fuckin' charge here. I want to be sure that you're gonna follow every order I give you, any time, any place."

Terror flashed through her as her power filled in what he wasn't saying. Oh, shit. Oh, no. No. Not that. She started to jump up, but he was too fast. His meaty hand wrapped around her forearm. "No -"

"I'm sorry, what the fuck was that?" He pulled her to him. With his free hand, he pulled down his zipper. "Now, I'm gonna let you guess at my first order."

Empire Eighty-Eight Territory

"Okay, I'm gonna ask you one more time," Vicky snarled. She was hovering five feet above the pavement, holding the Empire skinhead another two feet in the air by the front of his shirt. "Who killed Brian Laborn?"

"And I'm tellin' you, I don't know no fuckin' Brian Laborn," blustered the thug.

"The guy who got killed three weeks ago, in the alleyway off of Findlater," Vicky shook him, as if to jog his memory. "He had a broomstick shoved through his chest, and a swastika carved around it. Come on, that's a bit obvious even for you guys. What was it? Some kind of initiation? All I need's a name, and you can go back to being gutter scum."

"And for the last fuckin' time, you stupid fuckin' bitch, I got no idea what you're fuckin' talking about." Abruptly, the Empire thug raised his arms, slipping out of the loose jacket. He hit the ground and rolled, then got up and bolted.

Vicky's anger boiled over. Call me a stupid fucking bitch, will you? A dumpster sat nearby; she swooped in and kicked it. The metal dented deeply as it was launched in a ballistic arc toward the guy. It'll just clip him and -

But then, as her eyes widened, the lid came open; even as the corner of the dumpster caught him across the back, the edge of the lid smashed across the back of his skull. He went down, sprawled like a rag doll, as the dumpster flew on, crashing on to its side and skidding several yards.

"Oh god, oh god, oh god." She landed beside him, reaching down to feel for a pulse. There was one, but it was very weak and thready. The back of his skull looked … misshapen. "Oh, shit. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck."

Yanking her phone out, she pressed numbers hastily.

"Vicky? What's up?"

"Ames, I need your help."

There was a long hesitation. "Where are you?"

"I'm at the corner of China and Weston. Come quick. Don't tell anyone where you're going."

"What? What are you doing out of school?"

"I'm investigating that murder. But I need your help."

"Why? What's happened? Are you hurt?"

She could hear the desperation in her own voice. "Just get here fast. Please."

Another long hesitation. "Okay. But this better be good."

"I will so owe you."

"I know."

Winslow High School

Taylor sighed as she climbed the stairs to the third floor girls' bathrooms. It was lunchtime, which meant that the day was half over. But already, it had proven to be a very stressful day. Madison and Julia had proven to be both innovative and relentless in World Affairs, with each one ready to draw Mr Gladly's attention if he seemed about to notice what the other was pulling on Taylor.

Prior to that, Physical Education had been a trial, with Sophia taking every opportunity to bump, elbow-jab or trip her. Worse, other boys and girls had gotten into the act every time Mr Johannsen turned his back. It wasn't as if they even knew her, but Sophia was moderately popular and Taylor was not. She felt she had bruises over every inch of her body that was covered by her clothing. Gym clothes at that; Sophia had revived an old favourite and tossed her regular clothes into the shower after PE, soaking them so that she had to wear her sweaty gym clothes to class. When she walked into World Affairs, at least half the class had turned toward her and held their noses.

That hadn't even been the start of it. None of her bullies were in Computers, but they didn't need to be. Her email inbox had been jammed full yet again; insults bordering from the subtle to the blatant ruled the day. As fast as she deleted them, they came in once more, making it impossible for her to use the account for anything. So she had opened yet another one; before the class was half over, three more taunting emails had ended up in it.

I've had enough. Seriously. All I want is for the day to end. To go home and cry. To be caught crying in school would be social suicide, even worse than snitching. It would give the bullies even more ammunition than Emma already had on her.

Pushing open the bathroom door, she avoided three girls as they left, anxiously scanning the crowd already there for familiar faces. There were none that she knew, but then, not knowing them merely meant that they'd have more of a chance to pull a prank before she realised what was going on. Moving to an empty corner, she held her backpack tightly to herself while she waited for a stall to become vacant.

One did, so she ducked in as the other girl exited. Locking the door, she sighed in not-quite-relief as she sat down on the toilet lid. It was going to keep happening after lunch, she knew. This was just a respite. But it was all she had.

Opening the backpack, she took out her bag lunch and a book she'd been meaning to read. Losing herself in the pages of a novel was about the most she could do to escape the constant harassment at school, these days. Taking the pita wrap from the brown paper bag, she began to nibble on it as she opened the book.

Too late, she registered that the noise level outside the stall had dropped dramatically. In fact, the only voices out there were whispers. She blinked. Oh, shit. That's not good.

A moment later, she was proven right by a clunking noise from above her. Looking up, she saw the rectangular end of some kind of plastic bin resting on the top of the partition. Dropping everything, she leaped to her feet and tried to push the door open. It held firm. Someone's holding it shut.

The deluge that descended on her at that moment smelled worse than anything she had ever experienced before. As she gasped and sputtered and tried to wipe it out of her eyes, a second torrent of evil-smelling material washed over her, leaving small objects lodged in her hair and on her glasses. Then darkness descended as something fell over her head, sliding down over her shoulders, pinning her arms to her sides.

She couldn't breathe, couldn't struggle. When she tried to inhale, the noxious smell, along with some of the fluid, went into her mouth and up her nose, and she vomited convulsively, all over herself and the inside of whatever was imprisoning her arms.

Falling to the floor, she jerked and screamed and struggled, trying to free herself. I can't breathe. I can't get free. I'll die in here. She vomited again and again, bringing up everything she had eaten over the last day. Her glasses had fallen off; the stuff was getting in her eyes, stinging them.

There was no way out.

Aisha had lost the three girls in the crowd, but she had remembered what the petite one had said. Third floor bathrooms, at lunch time.

So, at lunch time, she had been up on the third floor, in the girls' bathrooms. She hadn't paid much attention when the skinny girl came in, but she was intrigued when Shadow Stalker and the other girls had come in and started clearing the bathroom. While the redhead leaned against the stall door, Shadow Stalker and the petite one each took the top off of a feminine-hygiene bin. Aisha blinked; she thought she knew what was going to happen, but she couldn't believe it.

As the screams and choking sounds arose from the stall a moment later, she believed it all right. The three bullies leaned against the wall, convulsing in laughter. While they were thus occupied, Aisha stepped up to the stall and pulled it open. She was just kneeling down to pull the container off the girl's head – she was so skinny that it had been jammed all the way down to her elbows – something happened. One moment, Aisha was crouching in the mess that included horribly stinking used feminine items, and the next she was sitting in them.

What the fuck was that?

Outside the stall, she could hear concerned voices, asking 'Sophia' if she was all right. Sophia snapped back angrily; from the other sounds, she was also climbing to her feet. Whatever it was, it got her too.

Ignoring the muck now soaking into her tights, Aisha took a good grip on the disposal bin and pulled it free of the skinny girl's head and shoulders. A pair of glasses clattered to the tiles; she picked them up, wiped them as best she could, and put them back on the feebly moving girl's face.

"Okay," she murmured. "I'll just leave you here and -" She was going to finish with 'go get help', but then the girl moved again. Aisha scrambled out of the way as she actually got up.

Fuck, she's tougher than I'll ever be.

Taylor wasn't quite sure what was going on, but the bin was off of her head and she had her glasses back on. Her eyes were still stinging, but at least she could see. There was a weird buzzing in the back of her mind, and flashes of light going off at random behind her eyes. She was also pissed as hell.

Clambering to her feet, Taylor pushed open the stall door with one hand. The three bitches were right there; they began to turn toward her, just as she used her other hand to heave the bin at them. It arced through the air, on a direct collision course with Sophia's head. The dark-skinned girl saw it coming, almost too late. And then, as Taylor watched disbelievingly, her form blurred; the bin flew through her, bouncing off of the bench behind, then clattering harmlessly to the floor.

The anger within her grew as she connected the dots. "You're a cape!" she blurted. "You're – you're Shadow Stalker!"

It was all so clear to her now. The school let Sophia get away with everything because she was a cape. Sophia could get into her locker because of her powers. But now the secret was out.

"You're Shadow Stalker," she repeated, anger and glee combining in her voice. "I saw it. I've got you now, you fucking bitch. I've got you. You're fucking going down."

The Undersiders' Base

"No!" Tattletale indeed knew exactly what he wanted from her. And it would not stop with what he wanted her to do first. He intended to dominate her as crudely and as totally as men have been dominating women since the dawn of time. His intent was to take her, to use her, to own her.

"Fuckin' yes." His hand was on the back of her neck now, holding her in an inescapable grip. His power was twofold; he could grow or shrink any part of his body, within certain limits, and he could apply a surface-level force field that increased his strength. "Time I'm finished with you, you'll be begging for more."

Her hands scrabbled for anything she could use to escape this fate; half-hidden beneath a pizza box lid, she grasped the arrow she had pulled from Brian's chest. Without even stopping to think about the consequences of her actions, she stabbed it upward between his legs.

He screamed and let her go, grabbing for the injured location. Wrenching the arrow free, she stabbed him again, first in the left arm and then, as he bent over, in the eye. One of his arms caught her, sending her sprawling across the floor, head spinning. Regaining her wits, she pulled herself to her feet, to find him lurching toward her.

"You bitch!" he bellowed. "I'll kill you for that!"

Just as he reached up toward his face, she lunged forward; the heel of her hand slammed against the nock of the arrow, driving it all the way into his brain. He grabbed at her with his left hand and missed, blood spurting from between the fingers of his right hand as he tried to pull the arrow out.

And then, like a tree falling, he crashed to the floor. Blood ran from under his face to pool on the rug.

Pressed back against the wall, she panted, watching his twitching slowly subside. With her hand to her mouth, she bit on her knuckle, trying to stop herself from shaking. She wanted to cry; she wanted to throw up. Neither thing happened, but only due to the most stringent effort of will that she had ever enforced upon herself.

In the silence, a phone began to ring.

Empire Eighty-Eight Territory

The taxi let Amy out at the correct address. She grabbed the change and jumped out of the vehicle, looking around for Vicky. A moment later, she spotted the familiar blonde hair of her sister, leaning out of an alley, just up the block. Amy hurried in that direction.

"Okay, what's the big rush?" she asked as she reached Vicky.

"There's a guy hurt," Vicky explained in a rush; Amy yelped involuntarily yelped as her sister scooped her up in her arms. "Come on, I think he's dying."

The sides of the alley flashed by, then Vicky was letting her down by the side of a man dressed in the typical garb of an Empire Eighty-Eight goon. He was certainly in a bad way; Amy could tell that without even touching him. She laid a hand on his bare arm, and shuddered.

"Spinal fractures, broken ribs, a badly fractured skull, severe brain damage … I'm not even sure how he's still alive," she reported. "What happened here?"

Vicky's eyes shifted sideways. "I was questioning him …" she began, then trailed off.

Amy could fill in the rest, especially given that there was a dumpster with a large dent in the side, lying upturned further down the alley. "For Christ's sake, Vicky," she chided her sister. "This is getting worse all the time. Ever since Dad died …"

"Yeah, yeah, okay, got it," Vicky interrupted. "But he'll be all right, yeah?"

Amy grimaced. "I dunno. The broken bones are easy. So's the skull fracture. But the brain damage – his brain was deformed by the impact. Even if he survives, much less with his intellect intact, which would hugely surprise me, he'll never walk, talk or see ever again."

Vicky shook her head. "No. No no no. You've gotta fix him. You've gotta fix this."

"No, I don't." Amy stood up from the skinhead's side. "Vicky. This is vastly different from fixing a broken arm or even a ruptured spleen. Both of which you've caused before, because you're not being careful enough. This is the brain. I don't do brains."

"But you can," argued Vicky. "Just this once, Ames. Come on. For me. You said you'd help."

Amy took a deep breath. "You never said that you'd caused massive brain trauma to some skinhead. You know I don't do brains."

"Amy, if this guy dies, or ends up as a vegetable, do you have any idea how much trouble I'll be in?" pleaded Vicky. "Do you really want to do that to me? To Mom? To the team? I'll be tried for negligence, or even manslaughter. And if they heard about the other times, it'd be even worse."

"Vicky." Amy shook her head. "I'm sorry. I can't keep doing this. You need to learn self-control. Every time I bail you out like this, you don't learn anything."

It wasn't that she didn't want to help Vicky. She knew full well that if she did this, she would get a flashing smile and a 'thank you!' then Vicky would go on her merry way. To do this all over again. To earn that smile and the gratitude that came with it was something that she liked. But she was beginning to learn that no matter how much she put herself forward, no matter how many times she saved Vicky from the consequences of her own actions, she wasn't actually going to get what she truly wanted from her sister. I love her, but she just keeps using me.

"Amy, please." Vicky stepped forward and embraced Amy, holding her close. Her aura flared, bombarding Amy's mind with impulses of warm feelings toward Vicky. It wasn't that she needed them; she already had all the warm feelings that she would ever get in that regard. However, in combination with the close proximity, Vicky's body pressing on hers in all the right places, and even her scent, it all combined to form a single intoxicating wave of sensation. In addition, the embrace brought back involuntary memories of catching Vicky in flagrante delicto with Dean, and how seeing the two of them had made her feel at the time.

All of the pain, the hurt, the loss and the anguish came together at once. Amy was adrift; nothing made sense. Her sister, the guiding light of her life, was begging her – begging her – to break one of her most fundamental rules, and she was seriously beginning to consider doing just that.

"Anything you want me to do, just ask. I'll do it for you," Vicky pleaded urgently. "Any favour, any time. It's yours."

Amy couldn't hold out any longer. "Okay, I'll do it," she agreed. Dropping to one knee, she laid her hands on the Empire thug's head. He still lived, but was fading fast. She exerted her power; the man's skull reshaped, and the brain with it. Connections were re-established as she fixed the trauma, bringing his brain back to full functionality. From beginning to end, it took barely ten seconds. It waseasy.

Standing up once more, she faced her sister. "Done."

"What, really?"

As if in answer, the man groaned and stirred.

Vicky's eyes widened. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Again, she grabbed Amy in a ferocious hug. Again, her aura flared, even more strongly. And this time, the temptation was far too strong to resist. She said she would do anything I wanted. I want … this.

And Amy kissed her.

Winslow High School

"Yeah, right," scoffed Sophia. "That's gonna fly. Not."

Taylor felt the power of the situation she was in. She could also feel a power of a different sort building in the back of her head, feeding on her anger, growing ever stronger. "So you're not gonna object if I march on down to Blackwell's office, tell her you did this, and make her ring the PRT to tell them what you've been doing?"

"Like they'll listen to you," Emma stated flatly. "All we gotta do is tell them it's all bullshit."

Almost, Taylor believed her. Almost. But there was the faintest edge of doubt in Emma's voice. Firmly, she reminded herself that she knew this, that there was no way Sophia could make the PRT shut up about this. "Let's go find out then," she declared. "It's not like I've got anything to lose."

She started for the door, but only made it three steps before Sophia tackled her from behind. They both slammed into the door; Sophia got the better of it, as she went to vapour just before impact. Taylor's glasses were jolted off again, skidding sideways into one of the stalls.

Dazed, Taylor tried to get up, but Sophia knocked her down again with one accurate punch to the face. The roaring in the back of her head was thunderous now; just as Sophia landed on her with both knees, she released it to do its worst.

Bugs poured into the bathrooms from every nook and cranny, every crevice. More flooded in through the open window. They swarmed around Emma and Madison, and attacked Sophia in force. Emma yanked the door open and fled; Madison tried to follow, but at that moment, Sophia slammed Taylor up against the door, blocking egress.

Sophia flickered to fog, then back to solid form, landing a punch that winded Taylor. Another flickering change, another blow. Taylor felt the world wavering around her.

Fuck. She's gonna kill me, and with these bugs, she's gonna call it self defence.

Another solid blow, one that rattled her teeth. The world went out of focus.

The Undersiders' Base

Lisa realised that she was sitting on the floor, hugging her knees, as the phone rang on. It wasn't her phone; that had a different ringtone. It must be Hardcase's phone.

Slowly, she pulled herself to her feet. Maybe I can explain what happened -

Her own phone began to ring. She pulled it out and checked caller ID, although she knew who it was going to be. Coil.

There was no way to explain this, she realised, that Coil would accept.

The phone rang on. As it did so, she headed into her room. I have to go, she told herself. I have to run. Get out of here.

Leaving the phone to ring – it would only serve to aid Coil in tracing her – she stuffed a backpack with her most essential items, and dashed out the door. Down the spiral staircase, moving as fast as she could. Just as she got to the entry door itself, she paused. Outside, she had just heard the sound of vehicular brakes, squeaking to a halt.

Fuck. He's here.

There was a back door, she knew. She'd spent some time oiling the hinges and making sure the lock would open. She also had the only key to it. And she had never told anyone about this bolt-hole.

As footsteps approached the main entry door, she dashed through the dimness, dodging around the derelict machinery. There was a creak as the door opened, light splashing through the interior of the building. But she was already behind cover.

The tall skinny silhouette who entered could only have been Coil. Had she her pistol, she may have chanced picking him off. Or perhaps not; the man had a talent for turning bad situations to his advantage.

As he mounted the staircase, she took the chance to sidle the rest of the way, to the carefully-maintained rear exit. He reached the top. She slid the key into the lock. Carefully, slowly, she turned it; the click was muted. There were just seconds left before he discovered the body; opening the door, she slipped out.

The back alley was deserted; she set off at a steady trot, her pack bouncing on her back. Ahead of her stretched an uncertain future. Her only chance of survival involved getting as far away from Coil as possible, and staying there.

Empire Eighty-Eight Territory

Vicky's eyes opened wide as Amy's lips melded with hers, but it was far too late. Too late for both Amy and Vicky. Amy had lived with her frustrated desires for far too long; the recent emotional upheavals had only served to sharpen her wants and needs. So even if she had been inclined to moderate her approach at the beginning, her own hormone-driven urges would not have allowed her to do so.

Too late also for Vicky; when she realised what Amy was doing, she tried to protest, to pull away. But Amy, although unable to physically enforce her will on Vicky in this matter, still had resources to draw on. It was ironic that Vicky had just persuaded Amy to use her power on someone's brain for the very first time just moments before; had she not done so, what happened next may have been avoided.

Amy felt the stirrings of denial in Vicky's brain long before, neurologically speaking, her sister began to try to push her away. But her frustrated desires would not accept 'no' for an answer; all she knew was that she wanted what she wanted, and she wanted it now. So when Vicky tried to push her away, Amy's power excised that part of Vicky's mind that had originated the order.

It must be noted that Amy knew nothing of this. All she knew was that Vicky's initial resistance quickly faded, replaced by compliance. She kissed Vicky, and was kissed in return.

It was only when Amy reluctantly separated from Vicky, her mind clearing, that she realised what she had done. Albeit unwittingly, she had rewritten Vicky's brain, removing those parts of her personality which had objected to the forced kiss. All that was left was a shell of a human being, one whose entire being revolved around pleasing Amy. Nothing else remained.

"Oh, god," she whimpered. "Oh, god. Vicky. Please. No."

"What's the matter, Amy?" Vicky's voice was simpler, childlike. "Are you all right?"

"Vicky." Tears flooded Amy's eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please, let me make it right."

"Of course you can make it right, Amy." Vicky smiled at her, a bright and happy smile. "You can do anything."

Neither of them took notice of the Empire skinhead stumbling to his feet and fleeing. He wasn't important any more.

Amy put her hands to Vicky's head and concentrated. In every other case of brain damage and amnesia she had ever encountered, the lost information had been somewhere. Even if she didn't deal with brains, she could still see how to fix them.

But in this case, the information truly was gone. Much of Vicky's personality had been erased, as if it had never been. She was, in many ways, a tabula rasa.

Amy had done this. She had done this because she had desired Vicky. Most of all, she had done this because she had broken her cardinal rule. I don't touch brains. Looking at the wreckage of her sister, at the bright and empty smile, she felt her world crumbling around her. Her gorge rose. I did this. Me.

Right at that moment, had a blade been handy, she would have slit her own wrists with a smile.

She shook her head. No. I can't think that way. Vicky needs me. There was vanishingly little self-motivation within that which had been Vicky. If Amy died – or if I give myself up to be Birdcaged –there was every chance that Vicky would sit and stare at the wall until she died of thirst or hunger.

There's only one thing I can do.

"Vicky," she stated firmly. "We're leaving."

"Are we going home?"

"No. We're not going home. We're just going … away for a while. On a holiday."

"I like holidays."

"I know." She would never be able to go home, to face Carol, ever again. Not until she had figured out how to rebuild Vicky's personality from the wreckage into which she had rendered it. However long it took. However stringent the cost was on herself.

I swear to you, Vicky, I will do this. No matter what it takes. You will be yourself again. Even if you hate me for the rest of your life for what I have done to you.

She reached for Vicky's hand. "Come on, let's go."

Trustingly, Vicky allowed her to take it. "Okay."

Together, they walked off down the alleyway.

Winslow High School

Sophia was choking her. Taylor was on her knees, fighting to drag the stronger girl's hands from her throat, but to no avail. She only had the vaguest of control over the bugs she had apparently summoned, and not enough were attacking Sophia in ways that would make her let Taylor go.

And then something was pushed into her right hand. Taylor's fading eyesight could not make it out, but the bugs that landed on it gave her the shape. A blade. A knife.

Where it had come from, she didn't know. But right then, she didn't care. Convulsively, she brought the knife up between them, sinking the razor-sharp blade up and under Sophia's ribcage. Sophia's eyes opened wide before she puffed into shadow form, reforming a couple of yards away. A bloodstain appeared across the front of Sophia's top, spreading as if by magic. She pressed her hand to it, then went from her feet to her knees. Bending forward, she coughed; blood sprayed from her lips. She went to shadow form once more, vanishing through the door.

Taylor looked at the knife in her hand. It had a swastika emblazoned on the top of the handle. Convulsively, she let it fall; it clattered to the tiles of the bathroom. Painfully, she climbed to her feet. As she approached Madison, the bugs covering the petite girl swarmed aside. More climbed from her open mouth. Her open eyes had been partially eaten away.

Abruptly, Taylor turned aside and vomited into one of the sinks. She washed her mouth out, washed the clinging muck from her face. With both hands on the sink, she stared into her reflection. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face bruised. But she had more life in her eyes than she'd had over the last six months.

"Well, fuck," she muttered. "I need to get out of here. But where are my glasses?"

With a start, she realised that she was holding them in her right hand. Carefully, she put them on; the world came back into focus. Pulling the bathroom door open, she peered outside. Sophia was lying at the top of the steps, face down.

Okay, she told herself. Okay. Okay. Okay. I've just stabbed a Ward to death. Killed a civilian with bug powers which I didn't know I had. They Birdcage people for less.

"Fuck." Her voice was raspy. "I have to get out of here. I have to get away."

As quickly and quietly as she knew how, she descended the stairs and headed for the nearest fire door. Pushing it open, she stepped into the midday sun.

She didn't know where she was going, or what she was going to do when she got there.

All she knew was that there was no going back.

An Abandoned Building in the Docks

Lisa finally managed to work the board away from where it had been nailed over the empty window frame, and climbed through. She pulled it back into place just far enough that it would look undisturbed. Coil will have frozen my accounts. I'm gonna have to start hustling for more cash tomorrow. In the meantime, I've got cans and bottled water. She'd settled for less, in the past.

A small spirit stove provided both light and heat; she tipped the contents of a can into a small bowl and began to heat it.

A noise outside made her look around; silently, she turned the stove down and put a cover on the bowl. Fully aware that the cooking smell would have permeated outside, she silently got to her feet and prowled over to the side of the window. In her hand was a short piece of rebar; anyone coming after her was going to get a nasty surprise.

To her own surprise, the fingers that hooked under the loose board were those of what she judged to be a teenage girl. A few bugs buzzed around her, landing on her upraised arms. The hands stopped pulling on the board.

"May – may I come in, please?" The voice was female, about Lisa's own age. "I won't hurt you. I promise. I just need somewhere to sleep."

Sincerity rang in every syllable. More, there was deep hurt there. Whoever this girl was, she had been carrying pain for a very long time.

Lisa sighed. "Come on in." She helped the girl pull away the board, then gave her a hand to climb in. While taller than Lisa, the newcomer was very skinny. Her clothing and hair were also caked with something horrid. "I'm Lisa. You?"

"Taylor." She seemed to be about to say something more, but then her head came up. "Someone's out there."

Lisa looked around, just as the door, which had been nailed into the doorframe, came loose with a piercing shriek. "Shit. Get ready to run."

A frizzy-haired girl stumbled into the room. "I smell food. Is that food? Oh, god. I am so hungry." Following her was a tall blonde teenager, wearing a very readily identifiable costume.

Lisa stared, her eyes going wide. "Holy shit. Panacea and Glory Girl."

Taylor's reaction was terror; she jerked as if to flee, then slumped. Slowly, she raised her hands. "I can't run any more. I give up."

"No, wait." Lisa put her hand on Taylor's shoulder. "They're not here to arrest you."

"We're not here to arrest anyone." Panacea's face had lines in it that no teenager should. "We just want shelter for the night. And a little of that food, if you can spare it." She turned to the blonde. "Are you hungry, Vicky?"

Glory Girl nodded. "I am hungry, Amy."

Lisa blinked rapidly as her power connected the dots. "Well, holy shit."

Taylor was slower on the uptake. This was not surprising; nearly everyone was slower on the uptake than Lisa. "What?"

Lisa nodded to the other two girls. "They're on the run, too. For something that Amy did to Glory Girl."

"I'm going to fix it." Amy's voice was strained almost to the breaking point. "I have to."

"I can never fix what I did." Taylor's voice was dull.

"Depends." Lisa eyed her shrewdly. "What did you do that was so bad?"

Taylor's eyes dropped to the floor. "I killed Shadow Stalker."

"You did what." Lisa spoke at the same time as Panacea, although her tone was somewhat different.

"She was choking me to death, and I had a knife. So I stabbed her." Taylor's voice was almost inaudible at the end.

"That's self-defence." Amy's voice was firm. "You could have turned yourself in. Gotten a fair hearing."

Taylor shook her head. "No. I couldn't."

"And anyway, it couldn't have happened to a nicer bitch." Lisa smiled at Taylor. "Thanks. You just saved me the trouble of tracking her down and killing her myself."

Taylor looked confused. "What? Why?"

"Because she murdered Grue, right in front of my eyes."

Panacea frowned. "She murdered someone?"

"Sure as hell," Lisa confirmed. "Shot a crossbow arrow right into the middle of his chest. Then she made it look like an Empire Eighty-Eight kill. He was black, you see."

It was Panacea's turn for her eyes to open wide. "Vicky."

"Yes, Amy?"

"Which murder were you investigating?"

"Brian Laborn," Vicky replied at once. "Murdered by the Empire Eighty-Eight. Sharpened broomstick rammed into his chest." She went back to staring at the wall.

Lisa nodded. "That was his name. Brian."

Amy ran her hand over her forehead. "Vicky told me that she ran into Shadow Stalker, who told her that the Empire was responsible."

Lisa snorted. "Like hell. She was just covering up her crime."

Taylor's head came up. "So … she was a murderer?"

"Several times over, if I had to guess," Lisa agreed. "But we'll never be able to prove it."

"Oh." Taylor slumped again.

"But that's okay." Lisa shrugged. "You can hang with me for a while, if you want. Until you figure out what you want to do."

Taylor nodded. "Thanks."

"Uh …" That was Panacea.

Lisa looked that way. "Yeah?"

"Can we … can we hang with you a while, too?"

It had been a while since Lisa had been able to smile, but now she did. "Sure. The more the merrier."

End of Part Two