I'm HALPING!


Part Fourteen: Coming to an Agreement


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


That Evening


What got Vicky's attention was the laughter. She'd heard Amy laugh before, but not often and not recently. In fact, over the last year or so, Amy had become more and more snarky, to the point that her sense of humour had been all bite and no smile. But now, through her sister's bedroom door, Vicky could hear unrestrained laughter that verged on outright cackling.

What's going on here? Temporarily abandoning her idea of having an early shower before dinner, she tapped on Amy's door. "Are you okay in there, Ames?" she asked, then opened the door anyway. She and Amy barged into each other's rooms on the regular. It wasn't like either of them had any secrets worth keeping from each other.

Amy was sitting at her computer desk, with the laptop up and running. At first glance, the brunette seemed fine, though her face was red and tears were streaming down her cheeks. As Vicky watched, she clicked on something then burst out laughing all over again.

Finally, she registered Vicky's presence; turning, she beckoned. "C'mon," she gasped. "You've gotta see this. It's the funniest thing ever."

A dark suspicion bloomed in Vicky's mind. Did someone record that jerk cheating to beat me at arm-wrestling and put it online? And Amy's laughing at it? Not cool. Not cool at all.

Still, she had to show she was a good sport so she came into the room and positioned herself so she could see the screen. Okay, let's see how humiliating this … "Huh?" Instead of the Arcadia cafeteria scene she expected, it was … one of the ships at the Boat Graveyard?

Vicky remembered it well. Nobody except the ship registry recalled the vessel's name, but it had been left half-sunken at the mouth of the Bay for basically her entire life. Once, when she had just gotten her powers and was still finding the limits to her strength, she had snuck out one night and flown out to that ship. She, Glory Girl, was going to move it, and everyone would see how cool and strong she was!

Predictably, it hadn't moved even an inch as she strained and heaved at it. She'd even punched it a few times from sheer frustration, leaving fist-sized dents in the rusted steel, but nothing other than that. After about half an hour of trying from every angle (even diving into the water in the hope of lifting it clear of the seabed—that was a dismal failure as well) she had given up and flown home.

But now, there was something different happening. The three members of the Triumvirate were hovering over the ship, while two people stood on the deck. "Wait, freeze that," Vicky said, leaning in. "Is that …"

Amy grinned; the expression was one she hadn't worn in … years. "Yup. It's your playdate partner. Zachary himself. And that's Taylor with him. Love the jacket she's wearing."

Vicky raised an eyebrow. Amy didn't do fashion appreciation. Or at least, she didn't normally. On the other hand, the jacket Taylor was wearing did look very nice indeed, even under a high-visibility vest. Beside her, the aforementioned Zachary was wearing an identical vest. They both sported hard hats, while Zachary also had what looked like a heavy length of hose over his shoulder.

"What's going on?" Vicky searched the picture for the source of Amy's hilarity, and couldn't find it. "Who even took this?"

"Some guy on shore with a long lens," Amy explained succinctly. "He normally likes to get footage of new capes sneaking into the Boat Graveyard and breaking stuff to test out their powers. Boy, was he surprised when the Triumvirate showed up."

I would be too. Vicky had heard a rumour they were in town, but she didn't deal in rumour. She dealt in hard facts. "Okay, so what's so funny?"

"Oh, you'll see." Amy set the video scrolling on once more.

Vicky watched with confusion as Zachary dumped one end of the hose in the hold of the ship. To her certain knowledge, the thing was full of water. Did he think he was going to drain it out using that hose? She had news for him if that was his thought process. Physics didn't play that way.

So then he put the free end of the hose to his mouth … and blew?

The camera panned sideways with a jolt, and Vicky frowned as it steadied on what looked like a vertical column of filthy brown water. Briefly pulling back, the view showed water fountaining up out of every hatchway, supposedly under the impetus of Zachary blowing into the hose. Which was patently ridiculous.

"Wait, no," she told Amy, who was already starting to giggle. "It doesn't work like that. You can't just make water do that. I don't care how hard you can make air move out of your mouth." As a teenager, she was automatically careful of using any sentence that involved the word 'blow'.

Amy just giggled harder. "He can. But that's not the best bit."

"Okay, so what's the …" Vicky's voice trailed off as the immense vertical deluges—which had to be emptying the ship at an unprecedented rate—petered off, then stopped. And then she saw. Oh, did she see.

Hovering directly over one of the hatchways, clearly having been caught in the full force of the upward torrent … was Eidolon. But not the immaculately costumed Eidolon that she had seen just moments before. This Eidolon was … different. This one clearly had things on his mind. And on his costume.

The camera had to be an extremely expensive model, because as it zoomed in on the iconic hero, no details were lost. The look of rage on what little of his face that could be seen, the water dripping off his helmet, the stains of mud or possibly worse on his costume, the rotting seaweed draped over his shoulder and helmet …

Already giggling, Vicky watched as he reached up behind his helmet and pulled out what was clearly a live fish, flopping and twisting in his gloved hand. She lost it entirely when he flicked the fish away, sending it out of frame. Leaning against Amy's chair, she howled with laughter, especially when the footage flicked back to where the fountaining water stopped and Eidolon's embarrassment was shown in all its glory, in majestic slow motion.

After they'd watched it again, no more than five or six times (that she could recall), with the two sisters pointing out particularly funny points to each other, she asked Amy if there was more to the filmclip.

"Oh, yeah. But it's not about Eidolon, so I haven't watched it." Amy let it run through again. They giggled, watching it—it would never not be funny—but let it keep running.

After a little conversation—during which Eidolon made his requirements abundantly clear, as in you get over there and don't come near me—Taylor and Zachary vanished in a burst of flame.

Vicky blinked. "Did you see that?"

"I did." Amy paused the footage and flicked it back a few seconds. Sure enough, they'd teleported in a burst of flame. "Is it just me, or did that look like the Butcher's teleportation?"

"It's not just you." Vicky shook her head. Either Taylor had developed powers, or Zach was being more cheaty than normal. Who just showed up out of the blue with teleportation, anyway? "But he can jump and move at superspeed. Why does he even need teleportation?"

The camera watched the members of the Triumvirate working to ensure the ship didn't sink again, now with somewhat less comedy. Then it panned back over the ships of the Boat Graveyard, and paused. There, gleaming like a diamond in a goat's ass (thank you, Uncle Neil, for that little saying) were three ships, no longer wrecks or even close to it. They floated upright, freshly painted, looking ready to put to sea within the hour.

"What the hell?" Amy voiced Vicky's question before she herself had the chance to ask it. "Where did they come from?" Because they certainly didn't belong in the motley collection of rusting hulks that made up the Boat Graveyard.

And then the camera zoomed in on another ship. This one was lying almost on its side, having sprung a leak and rolled years ago. The deck was almost vertical, but Taylor and Zachary were standing on the curved hull. As they watched, Zachary raised one leg and stamped his foot down. It didn't seem all that hard, but the whole ship shuddered in the water and a cloud of rust and barnacles exploded away from the hull. When it cleared, she could see smooth, unblemished steel in place of the rust-pitted wreck.

"What the hell?" she echoed Amy's question. "Did you just see that?"

"Keep watching, keep watching!" Amy gestured at the screen.

Vicky looked back at it just in time to see the entire ship rolling upright, filthy water gushing from every hatchway and porthole. Holding Taylor around the waist, Zachary leaped lightly into the air, seemed to hang there for a moment, then came down for a feather-light landing on the now-level deck. When he stamped his foot once more, the whole ship shivered and blurred. Somehow, she wasn't surprised when the vessel that emerged from the effect was painted and polished, as if freshly constructed.

She and Amy watched as the ship drifted sideways against the incoming tide into a clear area—Zachary seemed to have a whole repertoire of foot-taps to call on—and then the anchor dropped and the ship stopped moving. Which was all well and good, but she wasn't at all sure that it had had an anchor before.

"Did he just … fix the whole ship by stomping on it?" Vicky wasn't sure if she'd seen things correctly.

"I … guess?" Amy shrugged. "Percussive maintenance for the win?"

Vicky glared at her. "That was not percussive maintenance. That was some kind of shaker bullshit." She snapped her fingers. "So that's how he beat me! He used shaker powers to make me weaker! I knew it!"

"Uh huh." Amy rolled her eyes. "Or maybe he's just stronger. Ever think of that?"

"No." Vicky was absolutely certain about that. "He does not get to have all those other bullshit powers and just plain be stronger than me as well. It's gotta be a trick of some sort."

Amy sighed. "You are aware that nobody's keeping score, right? There's not some guy sitting there with pen and paper, making sure that everyone's power is balanced out. He's actually allowed to be more powerful than you. Stronger. And yes, he's allowed to be able to jump across the city and move at superspeed and teleport like that. It's called grab-bag powers. That's a thing. Look it up."

"I know what a grab-bag cape is, Ames," huffed Vicky. "But even grab-bags don't get so many huge powers. Just lots of low-level useful ones. Like Circus."

"Or Eidolon?" suggested Amy slyly. "Or is he not allowed to have so many powers either?"

"Eidolon's not a grab-bag!" Vicky had no idea what had gotten into her sister. Amy's sense of humour had been sadly lacking for a little while, but now it all seemed to be coming back in spades. And it was kicking Vicky's ass. "He's a Trump!"

Amy nodded in acknowledgement of the correction. "And maybe Zachary's a Trump as well. Gallant got me a copy of the footage they had of the confrontation at Winslow, and I noticed something interesting."

"What, really?" Vicky had seen the same footage. She just hadn't known that Dean had passed it on to Amy as well. Whatever Amy had seen in it, she wasn't sure. It was basically Zachary being bullshit, as usual.

"He encountered Velocity in the school, and he's not noted to have shown super-speed before then. He didn't do any huge jumps before he had his little face-to-face with Assault." Amy ticked off items on her fingers. "He said that he used Assault's own powers to send him to Boston, and got him there without harm. Dean also told me that when they brought in Lung, Hookwolf, Cricket and Oni Lee, none of them showed signs of having any powers until they were solidly in custody. I think if he comes within range of people, he can pick up versions of their powers, or mess with the powers that they already have. Or, you know, turn them off for the time being."

"See?" Vicky spread her hands. "See? See? I told you. He fucked with my strength. He cheated."

"He also walked out of containment foam, ripped apart a servery counter and threw tear gas grenades through a wall," Amy said inexorably. "Not to mention, he hurled a PRT van fifteen hundred miles and nailed Jack Slash and the Nine with it."

Vicky couldn't throw a van fifteen hundred miles. Or even one mile. A baseball, possibly. A van, no. She sighed, running her hands through her hair. "Okay, fine. He's allowed to be a little bit strong. But I personally think that the van thing was something like Assault's powers. There's no way it got there from a simple toss."

"But the rest of it?" Amy didn't seem about to let her down easily. "Picking up the van wouldn't have been exactly easy either, but he didn't seem to be exerting himself when they showed it on the news. And that's not an Assault thing. Assault redirects kinetic energy, but he's not super-strong."

"Are you on my side or his?" asked Vicky, trying not to unload her frustration on her sister but getting more and more irritated by the second. "And what's gotten into you, anyway? You're usually a lot less fangirly over capes you've barely met. In fact, you don't do the cape crush thing. Anyway, I'm fairly sure he's taken."

"What?" Amy stared at her, then burst out laughing. "God, no. I'm not crushing on him. He's a nice guy, but he's just not my type. I mean, you're right, he's so attentive to Taylor that every guy in the room should've been taking notes, but that's got nothing to do with it. Personally, I still can't believe you're so jealous of him destroying the Nine that you actually challenged him to an arm-wrestle. I mean, seriously? Who does that?"

"I just …" Vicky hesitated, trying to vocalise the thoughts she'd had at the time in such a way that it didn't sound like I just needed to beat him. "He rubbed me the wrong way, is all."

Amy snorted derisively. "Rubbed you the wrong way? You spoke to him for all of thirty seconds before you decided you could take him. And you've never stopped trying to prove that his powers shouldn't work the way they do."

When Amy put it like that, it did sound pretty childish. But Vicky had never been someone to give up easily. "I've attended college courses on powers, you know that. There are mechanics behind them, even if we don't fully understand everything yet. But nobody just gets that level of power without it having some effect on them, either physically or mentally. He just keeps on pulling powers out of his ass with no good reason behind them! I mean, he utterly no-sold my aura power, just like that!"

"You were trying to cheat," Amy reminded her firmly. "I don't blame him for doing that to you. You need to damp down your aura a lot more anyway."

Vicky decided to change tack. This had nothing to do with the fact that Amy was winning the argument. "Yeah, but what if he did that to your power? Took away your ability to heal … I mean, like, forever?"


Amy put her head to one side and considered the concept. To have the crushing weight, the endless temptation, finally lifted from her shoulders …

Well, sure, she'd be able to get sick then. Her immune system was probably a little behind the times, and she was probably still sensitive to pollen, so she'd likely spend a month or so in the year sneezing every few minutes. Then there were the actual things she could catch, like colds and the flu.

But still.

Being a superhero, being the girl who could heal anyone of anything, had been great right up until it wasn't. Right up until people stopped seeing the girl and just saw the healing. Stopped saying, "Thank you for healing all these people," and started saying, "Good, you healed those people. Now we need you to heal these other people."

Where is this even coming from? She wasn't usually this brutally honest with herself. Oh, it was all true, but she was generally better at lying to herself, even about Vicky's behaviour. Normally, calling out her sister's cheating would've gone by the wayside, but now she found she was willing to put in the extra effort.

If I lost my powers permanently, I'd probably have to change my name and appearance somehow, so I didn't get faced with all those people being sorry at me for losing such a 'great gift to mankind'. Silently, she snorted to herself. When they actually mean, 'the ability to heal me if I needed it'.

"Ames?" Vicky's voice cut through her swirling thoughts. "You've got a weird little smile on your face. Why are you smiling? You're freaking me out."

"Would losing my powers be so bad?" Amy looked directly at her sister. "I mean, in the grand scheme of things? Would the world shudder to a halt, unable to function?"

"What?" Vicky seemed unable to grasp what she was saying. "Don't even joke about it. You save lives every time you go out as Panacea. The number of people alive right now who'd be dead if you hadn't been there—"

"—is a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people who've died through perfectly natural means over the same timespan." Amy kept her voice calm. She decided that she really hated having her powers thrown in her face as an argument. "Sure, I can save a few lives every day. But any hero worth the name saves more people than I do on a daily basis. I'm just the one who does it without having to punch the bad guy in the face. Anyway, it's not like healing's what I really do."

"Uh, yeah. It is." Vicky's voice had the tone used by someone who's been told by a learned academic that the earth is flat, and is waiting for the punchline to the joke. "Isn't it?"

"Pfft, not hardly," scoffed Amy. This was a conversation she'd never ever thought she'd be having with anyone, but it was like Zachary had said; she couldn't let her fears control her. Or something of that sort, anyway. The best way to not be weighed down with a secret was to make it not a secret anymore. A burden shared is a burden halved. She'd heard that somewhere, once upon a time. "I've never been just a healer. You've attended classes on the study of powers. Isn't it always more complicated than that?"

"Well, um, maybe?" Vicky was looking oddly at her. "If you're not 'just' a healer, then … what are you?"

Not in the least bit deterred, Amy rolled her eyes. "Isn't it obvious? I'm a biokinetic. The first time I used it was to heal you, so everyone naturally thought I was a healer. It was a nice, safe power for the nice, safe second Dallon daughter to have. And of course right then I was looking for any kind of validation I could get, so I went along with it. Let Carol dress me up in a burqa while you got to fly around in a princess outfit." She threw her hands in the air. "I mean, can the symbolism be any more blatant? You, they show off. Me, they hide behind a hood and a scarf. I might as well have a secret identity. It's not like half of Brockton Bay even knows what my face looks like. I bet I could get stuck in a bank robbery and not even be recognised by the robbers."

"Wait." Vicky stared at her, eyes wide. "Biokinetic. Like … living things? You can … do what with them?"

"Anything I want," Amy assured her. "Living organisms are like putty to me. My clay, to shape any way I see fit. Someone's got cancer? I can bioshape it to not be cancer. Severed arm? If I tell it that it's not severed anymore, it doesn't get the chance to argue."

"No, I mean …" Vicky waved her hands vaguely. "Could you give someone wings or a tail, for instance?"

"Well, yes and no." Amy rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "A tail, sure. That's easy. I've petted cats and dogs. I know how their tails work. A prehensile monkey tail would be a little more difficult, but totally doable. Wings … well, I could make someone grow wings, but it would require a hell of a lot of work to make them functional for actual flight, or even gliding, in Earth's gravity. It's not a magic wand that I can tap someone with and say, 'Hey, you can fly now!'. I've got to stick to whatever's biologically viable."

"Biologically viable." Vicky seemed to be trying out the words for taste. "That … covers a lot of ground." She suddenly squinted at Amy, who had a flash of intuition as to where she was going to go next. "Brains."

"Brrraaaiiinnnsss," Amy responded immediately, lowering her voice to a zombie moan.

"Be serious." Vicky snorted and rolled her eyes. "You keep saying you can't do brains."

Amy waited, looking at her sister attentively. "Yes, I do. Was there a question involved here?"

Slowly, deliberately, Vicky punched Amy in the shoulder. "You know what I mean, twerp. Can you actually do brains, or is this a hole in your 'anything biological'?"

"Oh, I can absolutely do them," Amy confirmed. This whole 'being honest' thing was weirdly liberating. All the lies she'd been saddling herself down with had been far more corrosive to her soul than she'd ever imagined. "Easy as anything else. Easier, actually. You wouldn't believe how small a change is needed to turn a psycho raving killer into someone you could trust with your life." Holding up her hand, she showed Vicky the tiny gap between finger and thumb to demonstrate how small the needed change was. "Gimme five minutes and a bunch of containment foam, and I could turn the entirety of the Empire Eighty-Eight into productive members of society."

Internally, she sighed as Vicky seemed to recoil slightly. "Ames! You're not supposed to even think about pulling shit like that!"

And this is why I never told anyone this before.

"Why not, though?" She spread her hands. "It's not like shoving Hookwolf in the Birdcage is gonna actually change him from an asshole into a law-abiding citizen. He'll always be Hookwolf, deep down. And if he ever got let out and got the chance to be Hookwolf again, he would. You know it and I know it. I mean, hell, I don't even have to give him a new personality. Just … ramp up his social responsibility index and his guilt factor, and tone down his stubbornness and aggressiveness a tad. Make him more empathetic, less bloodthirsty. He'd still be an asshole, just a law-abiding asshole."

"All that is a new personality, Ames!" Vicky sounded downright horrified. "You'd be killing whoever he was before! I mean, who he was before is a murdering Nazi scumbag, sure, but he has a right to life, too!"

"And what about all his future victims?" Amy couldn't believe she was having this argument with Vicky, of all people. "You know he's gonna kill again. Don't those people have a right to life as well?"

"That's what the Birdcage is for." Vicky folded her arms and huffed.

"And every other villain who goes into the prison system but hasn't quite made their Birdcage quota yet, so they end up back on the streets after a daring and totally unexpected breakout?" Amy tried not to sound too sarcastic, but figured she'd probably failed.

"Villains who kill heroes get targeted by other heroes and villains, you know that." But Vicky's response was weak.

"Yeah, yeah, the unwritten rules," jeered Amy. "The things that work, until they don't. And those don't even cover non-powered people unless they're directly related to the heroes or villains, and only then if you can prove they were deliberately targeted. And hey, remind me of what happened to that asshole who murdered Aunt Jess again? Oh, wait, he wasn't even a cape, and he's still in the Empire Eighty-Eight. I bet they still buy him drinks for offing a member of New Wave."

Vicky pressed her lips together. "This isn't like you, Amy. You've been acting weird ever since you talked to that guy in the cafeteria. Are you sure you're feeling alright?"

"Sure, I'm feeling fine since I talked to him." Amy smirked at Vicky. "We are talking about Zachary here, yeah? The guy who utterly obliterated you at arm-wrestling? That guy?"

The lip-pressing turned into teeth-grinding, if Amy was any judge. "He cheated," Vicky muttered. "And I think he did something to you. You're not the same as you were three days ago."

"What, miserable? Hiding secrets? Carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders?" Amy rolled her eyes. "What part of that was good for me to be?" She stood up and stretched, feeling her back pop in a few places. "And you know what? If Zachary offered to take my powers away tomorrow, I'd take him up on it in a heartbeat. Because they utterly suck."

Vicky stared, eyes wide and jaw dropping. Amy almost wished she had a camera.


The Next Day
San Diego
Coil


Thomas Calvert had, after a long and dreary amount of soul-searching, come to a thoroughly unpalatable conclusion. In his headlong dash to be away from Zachary, he'd covered more than the fifteen hundred miles that had separated the faux teen from the Slaughterhouse Nine at the time of the latter's demise, but he still didn't feel safe. In fact, when he nearly ran off the road after seeing Creep (body bag and all) sitting in the back seat of the vehicle, he had to acknowledge that enough was enough.

He had lost.

He was beaten.

Zachary was just going to keep on doing it.

No matter what he did to avoid his fate, Creep was going to keep returning to haunt him, literally and physically. It might be a power manifestation or it might actually be Creep himself; either way, he didn't want to know. So he was talking himself into doing the one thing that maybe, hopefully, would bring him a measure of peace. Or at least a lack of body-bagged corpses when he least expected them.

He pulled the vehicle to a halt in a parking space and climbed out. About to lock the doors, he decided not to; not because he wasn't a careful man, but because he very much doubted that he would ever need it again. Straightening his shirt and wishing he'd had a chance to shave, he walked purposefully down the sidewalk for half a block, then approached a set of automatic doors with the PRT logo embossed on them.

So certain was he that the doors were going to open that he literally walked right into them. With a comical bong sound from the heavy polycarbonate, he recoiled; off balance, he staggered back two steps and sat down hard. Directly ahead of him, for no understandable reason, the doors presented an obdurate barrier.

For a moment, he sat there in a befuddled daze while people stepped around him. Once he caught the tail end of a comment—"drunk on the sidewalk at one in the afternoon, I ask you"—and it took a few seconds for him to realise they were referring to about him.

What the hell? Did the door sensor not notice me?

Trying to gather his wits, he eyed the doors suspiciously. When a well-dressed man stepped around him and approached the doors, his eyes narrowed, observing.

The doors opened before the man, moving smoothly and almost silently.

Okay, good. Whatever just happened, it was a momentary glitch. Scrambling to his feet—he was normally more athletic, but the last few days had not been kind to him—he tried to dash in between the slowly closing doors.

Bong.

Again, he found himself sitting on his ass in the middle of the sidewalk. His head was ringing once more from the impact, and it took him a long moment to figure out what had happened. He'd been less than half a second from passing between the doors when they had suddenly and inexplicably whipped shut, presenting a barrier where no such barrier should have existed.

Wait, what the fuck? The PRT building absolutely should not have doors that acted this way. Getting to his feet for the second time in less than a minute, he brushed himself down. Something was up with these doors; face-planting them twice in a row should be impossible.

This time, the doors opened from the inside, as a bunch of tourists walked out. He waited until the last one was stepping between the doors, and tried to dart in alongside. If the door was open for someone else, he reasoned, it would stay open for him.

Bong.

In the words of a sergeant he'd known long ago—the man had died in Ellisburg—this was starting to seriously get on his tits. Climbing to his feet yet again, he ignored the increasingly annoyed looks from around him and bounced up and down on the balls of his feet. If Zachary wanted to present him with a challenge, he would meet and overcome it.

Another woman edged around him and headed for the doors. He took a deep breath and split time. It hadn't helped him against Zachary before, but perhaps he was meant to use his ability now. At the moment the doors opened for her, he lunged forward like a linebacker with one of his instances, the other standing still and observing. Being arrested for assault right now was at the bottom of his list of worries.

His shoulder slammed into her back and she was jolted forward with a yelp of protest. He felt a flare of triumph even as she shouted in protest. It didn't matter to him, only that he get inside.

And then the doors slammed shut with shocking force, cutting him in half. There was no amusing bong this time, just a visceral sound of rigid edges slicing into his body. Bones crackled and snapped, and he knew the exact moment when his spine was severed.

He dropped the timeline. Whatever it was that Zachary wanted from him, he wasn't going to get there by merely walking into the PRT building and giving himself up. Moving to the side, away from the automatic doors, he dug into his pocket for his last burner phone and dialled 9-1-1.

It rang, and rang, and rang.

Nobody answered.

He cancelled the call, and dialled the number again, taking extra care.

Again, nobody picked up.

Finally, he went back to the vehicle and climbed in. For a long moment, he sat bowed forward with his forehead touching the wheel. "What do you want from me?" he whispered. "What do I need to do?"

The phone, still in his hand, pinged with an incoming text message. He blinked in surprise, then looked at it. It was an address in a town a couple of hundred miles away, and a time that gave him eight hours to get there. There was nothing more, not even a sender address.

With exactly zero hesitation, he slid the keys into the ignition and started the vehicle. He already knew what Zachary could do to him if he refused, without ever leaving Brockton Bay. The Endbringer playing at being a teenage boy had been terrorizing him for fun up until now; he didn't want to give Zachary any kind of excuse to get serious.


At Almost Exactly the Same Time
Arcadia Cafeteria
Taylor


I left the lunch line with a loaded-down tray—Zach had been right, there were some food choices that would never have even occurred to Winslow—and headed over to where Zach was holding a spare seat at a table for me. I'd gotten some food for him too, though I strongly suspected he would have chowed down on gravel and motor oil and pronounced them delicious if I offered them to him. When I was still halfway to the table, I saw Panacea and Glory Girl also heading the same way. Well, I supposed I should be calling them Amy and Vicky Dallon, seeing that they were out of costume.

"Hey," I greeted them as I came up to the table. As Zach had done, I'd gotten a second tray, which I put down in front of him. He started transferring what was his from one tray to the other—I hadn't even known he liked tapioca—with one hand, while with the other he pulled out my chair so I could sit down. Despite knowing who and what he was, I was still impressed that he was able to time the pushing-in of the chair perfectly.

"Hey, Taylor." Amy smiled as she pulled out her own chair. "Saw you and Zachary putting on your little show at the Boat Graveyard yesterday. Kind of impressive."

"Yeah." Vicky didn't seem interested in sitting down, nor did she seem as cheerful as Amy. In fact, she was giving Zach a phenomenal amount of stink-eye. "Impressive. For a cheating cheater."

"Wow." I didn't quite yawn, but I made like I was about to. "I hope you're not going to challenge Zach to another arm-wrestle today. I mean, it was almost interesting the last time, but it'd be an anticlimax now that I know exactly how outmatched you are."

Vicky gave me a glare that should by rights have shaved steel, but I couldn't even feel her (in)famous aura right then. I had my jacket on, though it wasn't zipped up all the way, so it couldn't have been that. I guessed Zach was doing something about it, which I was perfectly fine with.

"Cheating isn't winning," she gritted. "Taking away someone's powers doesn't prove you're stronger. It just shows you can't win without trickery."

Zach gave her his best innocent gaze, which I had to admit was pretty damn good. "I did not take away your strength, Victoria Dallon. The contest was purely my strength against yours. You are very strong, but I am stronger."

I shrugged. "Besides, he didn't start taking away powers permanently until yesterday, when Butcher and the Teeth came to town." Taking the ball out of my pocket, I started idly playing with it, bouncing it up and down on the table beside the tray.

"Wait, the Teeth came to Brockton Bay?" Vicky stared at me, as though daring me to admit to making a joke. "Why didn't we hear about this?"

"Because Zach heard about it first," I said, snatching the ball out of the air and bouncing it off her forehead. It smacked back into my palm before she had a chance to react. "We showed up and Zach took them apart like a cheap clock. Gave me this." Giving the ball a spin, I let it balance on my fingertip. I'd learned that the ball pretty well treated physics as a suggestion, so if I wanted it to balance on my finger, it balanced on my finger.

"Hey!" objected Vicky. She looked to her sister for backup, but Amy merely giggled at the byplay. "What the fuck?"

"See, he made this out of Animos' powers," I explained. "When I bounced it off your head? I negated your powers. That's what it feels like. See the difference?"

A series of emotions chased each other over Vicky's face, one after the other; disbelief, smugness, surprise and then anger. I watched her bounce on her toes, as though she were trying to fly, but her feet never left the floor. Her expression turned to rage and she bared her teeth in a silent growl, then she took a deep breath. "Give me my powers back!"

I glanced around, wondering what everyone else in the cafeteria was making of this, but nobody seemed to be taking the slightest bit of notice. This, at least, I could understand; if Zach didn't want people to care about something, it could happen right in front of them and they would consider it to be perfectly normal. My attention went back to Vicky, just as she made an abortive movement in my direction.

Zach turned toward her and, while I couldn't see the expression in his green eyes from where I was, it was enough to stop her in her tracks. "Taylor negated your powers to prove a point, Glory Girl," he said mildly. "Even with your powers, I would have no difficulty in preventing you from attacking her." He didn't have to explain the situation now that she was temporarily without powers. She wouldn't be able to move without his express permission.

Holding up the ball between my index and middle finger, I flicked the mental switch to release the hold it had on her powers and raised my eyebrows. "And now you've got them back. You're welcome."

She took a deep breath, then rose a few inches into the air. I didn't need to look at her feet to know that she was levitating off the ground. "Don't ever do that to me again," she snarled.

"Don't ever accuse Zach of cheating again, and I won't have to." I tossed the ball in the air and caught it without looking.

"Hey." Amy spoke up, defusing some of the tension. We all looked around at her, and I saw her staring at the ball. "That ball … it removes powers?"

"Well, kind of." I bounced it on the table, just to feel the sensation of it slapping back into my palm. "When I bounce it off a cape, it turns off their powers until I decide to let them work again. Doesn't exactly remove them, sorry. Why?"

"What if someone just takes your stupid ball and bounces it off your boyfriend's head, huh? Did you ever think about that?" Vicky didn't make any moves against me or Zach—apparently she could learn—but she also didn't seem interested in forgiving or forgetting just yet.

"Nobody can take it from Taylor unless she wants them to." Zach's tone was polite but firm. "It will not work on me, because I am not a cape."

"Shut up, Vicky." Amy tried to wave her sister to silence. "Do you … do you have to bounce it off someone's head to make it work?"

I snorted with amusement. "No. It's just funnier that way." Finally, her manner started making sense to me. "Wait, did you want me to negate your powers?"

Almost shyly, she nodded. "Yeah. Just to see what it's like, you know? It's been so long since I didn't have powers, I've forgotten."

"It sucks," Vicky said fiercely. "I still can't believe you don't want yours anymore."

I shared a glance with Zach. This was definitely a revelation I hadn't been expecting. "Uh … the ball doesn't take them away permanently. Just so you know, right?"

"Uh huh." Amy nodded firmly. "I just want to know." She put her hand flat on the table. "Hit me."

"Sure thing." I bounced it off her hand, not hard, and caught it again. The mental switch told me that her powers were in abeyance for the moment. "How's that feel?"

"Actually, kinda normal." She sounded almost disappointed. "There's a little less background noise, but … can I touch your hand?"

"No problem." I shrugged and slid my free hand closer to hers. With my other hand, I started tossing the ball up and catching it again.

Her fingertip touched mine, and she smiled almost beatifically. "Wow. I don't sense anything about you. No health problems, no mental problems, nothing. I love it."

"I hope you don't think I'm out of line or anything," I said diffidently, "but there's a lot of people who'd pay to have your powers. Just saying." I tossed the ball up again.

Vicky moved faster than I would've given her credit for, swiping it out of the air. "Hah!" She held it triumphantly. "So much for not letting me have it. Amy, come on. We're out of here."

"Vicky!" Amy pulled her hand away from mine. "Stop being a total jerkwad, and give Taylor her ball back." She paused. "Wow, I never thought I'd have to say that again, after middle school anyway."

"Hell, nope." Vicky poised the ball as if to throw it at me or Zach. "Who's got the power now? That's right. Me!" Posing like a villain on a Saturday morning cartoon, she brought her fist down on the table.

As it happened, she hit Zach's tray. Specifically, the bowl of tapioca that he'd asked me to get for him. It flipped up in the air and splattered all over her face.

Before, nobody had been paying attention. Now, it was like a switch had been flipped; everyone was. Laughter arose in waves, and I saw more than one phone held up to record the event. Vicky took off, flying half-blind across the cafeteria; fortunately, she dropped the ball before she hit the doors on the full, and slowed enough to see where she was going.

I held out my hand and the ball bounced into my palm, then I looked at Amy. "She gonna be okay, or do you need to go make sure?"

She looked toward the doors, then shrugged. "Hey, she's a big girl now. She can deal with her own problems. Especially the self-inflicted ones. Speaking of which, did you do that on purpose?"

With a grin, I held up the ball. "Not really. She kind of brought it on herself. Zach calls this the Idiot Ball."

"Hah!" The laughter was genuine, as far as I could tell. "I can see why. That was amazing."

I nodded. "It definitely is. Do you really want your powers taken away? Because that's a pretty big step, not gonna lie."

"You have no idea." She gave Zach a penetrating stare. "I'm guessing you already know what my powers are. My real powers, I mean."

"Yes, Amelia Claire Lavere, I do know." He tilted his head to one side questioningly. "Did you wish to continue the conversation we began the last time, about your personal happiness?"

"Yeah." It was more of a sigh than a word. "Yeah, I do. So, I've been doing a lot of thinking since then, and last night I decided to tell Vicky the truth about stuff I've been keeping from her. Keeping from everyone."

I snorted softly. "I bet that went down well."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, boy. Did it ever. Freaked her out big time. Fortunately, she agreed not to tell Carol until we'd had a chance to hash it out properly …"


End of Part Fourteen