I'm HALPING!


Part Fifteen: Changing Up


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


Taylor


"Wow, so you're not just a healer?" I stared at Amy, who looked steadfastly back at me.

"Taylor, you are being impolite," Zach said reproachfully.

"Oh, uh, sorry." I flushed and looked away. "My bad."

"It is alright, Taylor." Zach smiled at me. "It is my observation that people often do not intend to be rude, and that they change their behaviour once it is indicated to them. As you have done with me on more than one occasion."

"It's really, actually okay," Amy said, putting her hand on my arm. "I didn't even see that as being problematic. Vicky gets more personal than that on a daily basis."

"Which still doesn't make it okay," I replied firmly. "Just because I did it without meaning to doesn't mean it's fine for me to do it. Even if you're not offended. It just means you've learned to not be offended by shit that you should be offended by."

It was Amy's turn to give me an odd look. "Isn't it kind of my personal prerogative whether I want to be offended by something or not?"

She actually had a good point there. I floundered, trying to figure out how to counter it, or even if I should. "Uh, I …"

"Yes, Amelia Claire, it is," Zachary covered for me smoothly. "However, it is my experience that if people are allowed to get away with antisocial behaviour because someone chooses not to be offended, they themselves become unhappy if they are called out on it by others who are rightfully offended. It is better for them to understand from the beginning that some behaviours are less acceptable than others, and that some people will be offended by them."

I blinked. "Wow. That was … impressive. When did you figure all that out?"

"It has taken me some little time, Taylor." He beamed at me happily. "Fortunately, attending Arcadia has given me a great deal of observational data upon which to base my conclusions. Was I in error?"

Amy answered for me. "No. You weren't. And you're right. Just because I'm not offended by Vicky being rude doesn't mean that nobody else will be. I hadn't actually thought of it that way before."

"You are welcome, Amelia Claire." Zach tilted his head. "Victoria Dallon has not yet returned. Would you like me to find out if she will return before the end of school today, in order to give you a lift home?"

"Oh, uh, don't bother," Amy said hastily. "She's probably just sulking on the roof or something. She'll be back." Still, she took out her phone and dashed off a quick text. "I just told her to get over herself and come on back. Nobody's mad at her." Belatedly, she looked at me and Zach. "You're not mad at her, are you?"

I shrugged. "Nope. In the words of a good friend of my dad's—and please don't ever repeat this in his hearing—she fucked around and found out."

"That sounds like something Uncle Neil would say," Amy replied with a giggle.

"It's definitely a guy thing," I agreed. "I'm good if she is. Zach?"

"I have no quarrel with Victoria Dallon," Zach replied seriously. "It is my observation that when she is not trying too hard to be Glory Girl, she is quite a nice person to be around."

"Now who's being rude?" I rolled my eyes. "You realise you just said that when she's being Glory Girl, she's not a nice person?"

"Relax," Amy said with a giggle. "He did say when she's trying too hard. Which is kinda true. She can push the 'flying brick who takes no shit' persona a bit too far sometimes."

"Alexandria is a tough role model to live up to, granted." I nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I'm still okay with her if she's okay with me. And I promise not to bounce the Idiot Ball off her head again."

"You don't have to promise that," Amy said hastily. "That was about the funniest thing I've seen all day. The look on her face was like, did she really just do that? I nearly wet myself trying not to laugh out loud."

"I only did it to prove a point, not to be mean to her." I took out the ball again and held it between my index and middle fingers. "I know it's not a toy, but it's fun to bounce around. Especially since Zach set it up so it goes exactly where I want it to, and nowhere else."

Amy held out her hand. "May I?"

"Sure," I said, and tossed it to her. "Just be aware. If you're not careful, it'll give you the impulse to do stupid things."

"Yup, got it." Amy looked carefully at the ball. "It really doesn't look like much. How does it work?"

I shrugged. "It works because Zach wants it to work, I guess? All I know is that Animos had the power to nullify other powers, and now he doesn't have it anymore."

"Oh, so it's in this ball? Huh." Amy bounced it off the table and caught it again.

"No, it is the ball." I looked at Zach. "Or am I totally misunderstanding things?"

"No, Taylor, you are mostly correct." Zach indicated the ball with a gesture. "I took the power and modified it, then formed it into a physical object. I added a little of Assault's power so that you could bounce it anywhere because I thought you would enjoy it more that way."

Amy smirked. "I can absolutely see why you would think that." She tossed the ball back to me. "So where did the 'idiot' part come in? Where did you get that from?"

Zach looked at the both of us, deadpan. "Everyone."

I looked at Amy and she at me, then we both burst out laughing. It was so very true. Every single person on Earth Bet had their own idiot ball; it was just that some used them more than others.


Glory Girl


Vicky wasn't sulking on the roof. She'd headed there initially, but once she got the tapioca off her face—who even ordered tapioca anyway?—she'd had time to think, and her thoughts were taking a decidedly darker turn.

He's Mastered Amy. And probably Taylor as well, given that they're both playing along with his little games. And if that's not bad enough, I'm not strong enough to beat him. That's been made abundantly clear. Even if I try, Taylor's got that little depowering ball. Which I can't touch.

Her phone buzzed, and she wiped her hands clean before taking it out. The text was from Amy: Come on back, you big goof. Nobody's mad at you.

Which was exactly what someone who'd been Mastered would say.

She was supposed to return to the cafeteria, where everyone had just seen her with tapioca all over her face, so they'd probably laugh at her all over again. And then, sit down with the Master and his two victims. And this time, if she spoke out of turn, Taylor would probably remove her powers again. Permanently.

It was how she knew beyond the absolute shadow of a doubt that Amy had been Mastered in the first place. Because who in their right mind, having gotten superpowers, would ever willingly relinquish them?

She lifted off the roof, considering her options. The PRT was a possibility. Director Piggot was a hardass when it came to capes in general, and Master capes had to be no less a problem for her. But right now Zach was their golden boy, having dealt with both an S-class and an A-class threat in just a matter of days. He'd even had the chops to get them to call in the Triumvirate to clear the Boat Graveyard.

All of a sudden, that whole video took on a far more sinister tone to her. Did Zach have his hooks in even the highest level of the Protectorate? How powerful is he? How far up does it go?

Rising higher in the air, she set course for Downtown. She couldn't trust the PRT with this, not until she had serious backup on her side. Taking her phone out, she dialled a preset number. "Mom? Are you busy?"


Brandish


Of all the potential interruptions to her workday, there were some things Carol Dallon didn't really expect. Vicky's arrival had been one of them; more than a little dishevelled, with the streaky remains of what appeared to be tapioca on her blouse, coming to see Carol about … a Master in Arcadia High?

"Are you sure about this, honey?" She eyed her daughter with concern as they sat across from each other in the company cafeteria. "It's just that it sounds more than a little far-fetched to me. Has one of the Wards been feeding you a line about that sort of thing? This sounds exactly like something that teenaged delinquent Clockblocker would do." If the aforementioned Ward had been a part of New Wave, her tone suggested, his irreverent name would not have even made it past the screening stage.

"No, no, it's real, Mom." At her mother's suggestion, Vicky had taken the opportunity to freshen up in the bathrooms; her blouse was clean again, and her face and hair clear of any errant traces of foodstuffs. However, her expression was both earnest and concerned. "I saw it happen. Ames just … let this guy take her powers away. Asked him to do it."

"Wait, he took her powers away? That's a Trump, not a Master." Carol took out a notepad and pen. "Suppose you start from the beginning. When did he first say anything to Amy about allowing him to remove her powers?"

Vicky frowned. "Well … he didn't. Not really. She was talking about it last night, actually. Saying weird things like, would it really change the world so much if she wasn't healing people. If she didn't have her powers."

"Stop there a moment," Carol said, busily taking notes. "Did she say 'if she stopped healing people' or 'if she lost her healing powers'?"

Vicky tilted her head to one side in thought. "She was more focusing on the idea of not having her powers anymore. Which is stupid. Why would anyone not want to have powers?"

"Okay, okay." Carol nodded. "So who brought up the subject last night? Was it her or you?"

"… me," Vicky admitted reluctantly. "But we were talking about Zach, and how he can futz with powers anyway. He did it to me yesterday."

Carol's eyebrows rose, and she turned to a new page of her notebook. "Perhaps you should've led with that. Also, do you have a full name for this 'Zach' person?"

Vicky huffed. "All I know him as is 'Zachary'. He's got a girl called Taylor Hebert under his spell as well. He's the one who's supposed to have offed the Nine, remember?"

"Oh, that Zachary. Why didn't you say so?" Carol shook her head, mildly chagrined at the fact that she hadn't recognised the name earlier. "He seems like a perfectly harmless boy to me. I doubt very much that he's Mastering anyone, much less stealing their powers without permission."

"But Mom, I saw him do it! He did it to me, yesterday!" Vicky's voice was starting to get a little shrill and her aura had kicked up slightly, enough to get other people in the cafeteria looking their way.

"Calm down," Carol advised. "One step at a time. I'm sure it's not as bad as you think, but let's go through it anyway. What happened yesterday? Tell me from the top."

Vicky took a deep breath. "Okay, so we saw them in the cafeteria. Zachary and Taylor, that is. I can't remember who wanted to go over to them, me or Ames, but we went over there. We got to talking and Zachary was asking Ames all these really personal questions, like was she happy with what she was doing and stuff like that."

"And was Amy objecting to these questions?" Carol knew damn well what the answer would be normally. Amy's response to things she didn't like was usually to either shut down or to become sarcastic.

"Well, no, she wasn't. But I didn't like how personal he was getting, so I … kind of challenged him to an arm-wrestling match. Right there, in the cafeteria." Vicky looked away.

Through years of practising law (and being the mother of teenagers) Carol was very good at reading people. Specifically, when someone realised that they'd said too much and didn't want to keep talking. She tapped her notebook with the pen, knowing already what the answer to her next question was going to be. "Go on. Who won?"

"He did!" The words burst out of Vicky's mouth as if under pressure. "He cheated! He must have! I mean, I know he's strong, but …"

"Well, of course he's strong, dear." Carol casually doodled the name 'Zach', each letter built out of bricks. "He picked up a van and threw it nearly two thousand miles. I saw him do it on the news."

"But there's more to it," Vicky insisted. "I … kinda tried to use my aura, and he turned it off!"

Carol frowned at her daughter. "Did I just hear correctly? Did a child of mine try to cheat in a fair contest?"

"Mom, that's not the point!" Vicky's aura was stronger now, proving (among other things) that whatever Zach had done to it, it was working just fine now. "He cheated too!"

"It is most definitely the point. And tone your aura down, please." Carol glanced around and waved reassuringly. "It's all good. Everything's fine."

Grudgingly (or so it seemed) the aura reduced in intensity until Carol could barely notice it. "Mom, you're not listening. If he could turn my aura off, he could turn my strength off too. We both know there's capes out there that use powers that act like super-strength but it's really not, right? What if all his 'strength' is just bullshit powers, and he's using a Trump ability to make other people weaker? What about that?"

Carol wasn't buying her daughter's line of self-justification. "You can say 'what if' all day, Vicky. He's done enough things on camera that his strength passes the duck test easily. I've seen footage of him crushing concrete with his bare hands, and swinging Lung around by the tail like a cat. Not to mention, smacking Assault all the way to Boston. Without killing him, by the way, which was even more impressive. Personally, even if he did have a Trump power that takes people's super-strength away, I don't think he'd ever need to use it."

"But he did use it!" protested Vicky. "He took away my powers today!"

"Did he? They appear to be back, if he did." Carol made a note anyway. Removal of powers was a serious matter.

"Oh, Taylor gave them back." Vicky hesitated. "Uh …"

"Wait." Carol gave Vicky a serious look. "Who took your powers away, Zachary or this Taylor? Is she a parahuman? And how do you know she was the one who gave them back?"

Vicky was getting more flustered by the second, a sure sign that she was trying to shade the truth. "Okay, it wasn't Zach who took my powers away. It was Taylor, but she used the ball he gave her. She hit me on the face with it!" Her tone was righteously aggrieved by this point.

"Used … a ball …?" Carol turned to yet another page of her notebook. "Tell me exactly what happened there. And don't leave out why she did this to you." Find out why. It was an instinct that she'd cultivated over the years. As damning as Vicky's story sounded at first telling, it seemed to be missing a large amount of motive on the part of Zachary and Taylor.

"Um …" Vicky grimaced, and Carol knew she'd hit the mark. "I was kind of telling Zachary that I knew he'd cheated by taking away my strength, and then Taylor just threw this ball at me! It hit me right here!" She tapped the middle of her forehead. "I actually felt it! And then she said something about how that was what having my powers really taken away felt like!"

"And had you actually lost your powers?" Carol wrote the word Provoked? And underlined it twice.

"Well, yeah." Vicky seemed to be on steadier ground now. "I tried to fly and flare my aura, but nothing happened. It was like I'd never had them at all."

"And then she gave them back? How did that work? Did she hit you with the ball again? Also, what did this ball look like? Was it Tinkertech?"

"It was a kid's rubber ball," Vicky said. "You know, the type you play handball with. A bit smaller than a tennis ball. Red and yellow and blue. Really bright. And no, she just told me my powers were back, and she was right. They were back. And that's when Ames asked her to take her powers away."

"So it wasn't Zachary who took Amy's powers away, but Taylor with this rubber ball?" Carol flipped back a few pages. "Why did you tell me it was him and not her?"

"Because even if it was her, it was still him!" Vicky's voice didn't rise to a shout, but it came close. "He gave her the ball!"

"Did he tell her to use it on Amy, or even on you?" Carol poised her pen over the pad.

Vicky hunched her shoulders and looked down at the table. "Well … no."

"So, for all you know, it was Taylor's idea the whole time, especially since you'd shown such poor sportsmanship after losing a contest of strength that you initiated?" Carol felt no pleasure in taking apart Vicky's story, but the truth was important in situations like this.

Nobody's going to be able to accuse me of being biased even when it comes to my own daughter, no sir!


Coil


Hunched over the steering wheel, Thomas wondered what he was driving toward. Then he began to wonder which road he should take. Slowing down, he went to reach across for the map, then recoiled as he realised Creep was sitting in the passenger seat. Reading the map.

After a long moment, one corpse-white finger pointed at a particular exit sign. Calvert shuddered in resignation and hit the indicator.


Taylor


Amy looked around and frowned. "Where's Vicky? She normally flies me home."

I shrugged. The other Arcadia students were passing us by in their eagerness to exit the hallowed halls of learning so they could go home and be normal kids, but she was right; there was a certain lack of Vicky in our general vicinity.

"Glory Girl went to speak with her mother regarding our encounter," Zach informed us. "Her accounting of it was highly biased, but the conversation did not go the way she anticipated. Carol Dallon has chastised her for wrongfully blaming me for removing her powers, however temporarily, and has grounded her for the remainder of the day."

That wasn't something I had expected. "So … am I in trouble with New Wave?" I asked.

"Wait a second." Amy paused. "Sorry, you were first, Taylor. Zach? Is she in trouble with Carol?"

"Not to any significant degree," Zach informed us cheerfully. "Carol Dallon is taking into account the fact that you were provoked into taking punitive action. She wishes to speak with the both of us, but only to verify her understanding of the situation."

"And what about …" Amy caught herself. "How do you know all this? Are you a Thinker or something?" A moment later, she blinked. "No, you're not a parahuman. Sorry, I forgot. So how do you know this?"

"Oh, that is easy." Zach smiled. "I asked my sister. She has been taking a great interest in my activities so far."

Which absolutely made sense. If anyone would be expected to keep up with someone like Zach, it would have to be the Simurgh.

"Your sister …?" Amy shook her head. "Sorry, didn't mean to pry into your family business. Or are you all open capes, like New Wave?"

"We make no secret of our identities, that is true." I had to admire Zach; he was good at telling the truth without actually revealing anything of importance. Say nothing in great detail, indeed. "You have certainly heard of her. She is very well-known."

"Right … got it. Don't tell me, I want to figure it out for myself." Amy's voice turned introspective, and I could almost see the cogwheels ticking over in her head. This was where her encyclopaedic knowledge of the cape scene was going to work against her; she was justifiably proud of knowing every name there was to know of any prominence, but there was no way in hell she was going to connect the Simurgh with Zach.

"In the meantime," I said, "how's Amy supposed to get home if Vicky's not allowed to give her a lift?"

"Glory Girl asked that same question," Zach revealed. "Brandish replied to the effect that Amy was a big girl now and was perfectly capable of catching the bus."

Oof. That was cold; glancing at Amy's face, I could see that she had taken the comment to heart. "Hey," I said. "Zach, do you feel up to giving us both a lift?"

It had only been a passing thought, and I half-expected Zach to explain how he wasn't a taxi service, but instead he nodded earnestly. "Yes, Taylor. I can do that."

"Wait, you'd give me a lift?" Amy looked startled. "I can't impose on you like that."

"It would not be an imposition, Amelia Claire." Zach smiled at her. "I am entirely capable of carrying you both at once, and it would make Taylor happy to know that you got home safely."

I grinned at him. "I'd say you read my mind, but that's your sister's job. Thanks, Zach. This makes things a lot easier."

"You are welcome, Taylor." Zach followed me and Amy as we made our way outside. "My sister said to tell you that is the nicest thing anyone ever has said or will say about her, and to thank you for that."

"Wait, a prominent cape who can read minds?" Amy frowned. "Either I'm missing something, or you're making references to capes I've never heard of. Besides, Vicky says it's impossible for the human mind to read another person's mind. Something to do with needing way too much processing power."

"My sister also says that the people teaching that course are acting on incomplete data," Zach informed her blandly. "Powers themselves supply processing power. Or did you truly think that your brain was capable of handling the information input that you get from your biokinesis without giving you a terminal migraine?"

Amy stared at him for a long moment, then facepalmed. "I'm an idiot. Why did I never think of that before?"

"Because your power did not wish for you to doubt it," Zach said. "It wants you to express yourself more fully. This is why you are unhappy and feeling stressed."

"It what again now?" I asked, less than half a second before Amy came out with roughly the same question. "Since when do super-powers have opinions? And what happens to Amy now that she doesn't have access to her power?"

"All powers supply urges to the user." Zach's tone was almost professorial, now. "Powers are more than just the ability to do something. There are entire mechanisms devoted to overcoming the limitations of physics such that capes do not experience any lapse or lag in using their abilities. For the most part, these mechanisms are self-aware, and are seeking new stimulation."

"So every time I healed a bad guy and was tempted to change their brain to make them a good guy, that was my power, not me?" Amy looked revolted. "What if it took over? Could it do that?"

"Under situations of great stress, yes, powers have been known to activate against the user's will." Zach's voice was bland, as if he was unaware of the potential horror of what he was describing. "You have heard of the case of Bad Canary. That was her power activating and infusing a single angry vocalisation with an involuntary command. This happened because she has been using her voice for singing purposes only, and not to control people en masse, which would give her power much more stimulation."

I'd definitely heard of the case, but now I realised all the press had been slanted against the singer. There hadn't even been a statement from her, much less a public appearance. It was all about how she'd Mastered her boyfriend and made him mutilate himself for her sick pleasure. The revelation that there was another side to it, one that had never made the light of day, was stunning. Also, somewhat frightening. What else got buried in plain sight like this, that we never learned about?

"Can you … can you make it so I'll never do anything like that with my power?" asked Amy, her voice unsteady. "Or if you can't, then just take it away permanently."

"You might want to think twice about that." I glanced at Zach. "What if you lose your powers, but the urges remain? You'd go nuts because you couldn't do anything about them."

"I would not do that to Amelia Claire," Zach assured me. "When I remove someone's powers permanently, I leave no trace of them in their system. It would be as though she had never had them." He looked thoughtful. "There is always a potential chance of triggering with other powers at a later date, but that is something which can be anticipated and dealt with at the time."

"Well, that's definitely an option, then," Amy noted. "Or can you take away the urges and leave me the powers? I'd rather not accidentally turn one of my patients into living body horror one day just because I'm having a crap week, thank you very much."

"That can also be done," Zach agreed. "Which one would you prefer?"

"Hmm, decisions, decisions." Amy shook her head. "I can't make up my mind right now. Can I sleep on it?"

"Yes, Amelia Claire." Zach nodded to back up his words. "You may take all the time you wish to make up your mind."

Taking out the ball, I held it up. "Did you want me to give you back your powers in the meantime?"

She shook her head again. "No thanks. Right now, I don't have to do jack in an emergency, and it feels great."

"Okay, cool." I stuck the ball in my pocket again. "So, you still want that lift?"

"If that's okay with you and Zach," Amy said hopefully. "I really don't feel like riding the bus today."

"That is perfectly okay with me," Zach declared. "If you two ladies would like to stand on either side of me and put your arms over my shoulders, I will be able to leap safely with the both of you. Be warned; I will have to put my arms around your waists."

I frowned. "Oh, I thought you were going to take us each separately." Turning to Amy, I explained, "He usually carries me bridal-style, but you probably knew that."

"No, Taylor." Zach shook his head. "Doing that would separate you from me for at least a few seconds. That is long enough for someone to harm you if they had sufficient motive and the right opportunity. I will not allow that. Jumping alongside me is perfectly safe."

"Then why have you been carrying me in your arms?" I asked. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Just asking."

"Jumping a great distance can be a frightening experience." Zach moved his shoulders as if attempting a shrug. "I wished for you to feel as safe as possible."

"Well, damn," Amy said with a chuckle. "I just wanna say, Taylor, this guy's a keeper." She stepped up alongside him and put her left arm over his shoulders, having to reach up more than a little to get there. "Geez, you're tall."

"He is that." I moved to his left side and put my right arm over his shoulders, alongside Amy's. "Okay, ready."

"Please inform me if this makes you feel at all uncomfortable." Zach put his arm around my waist, holding me firmly. He was the one guy my age I knew I could absolutely trust not to cop a feel, and that trust was rewarded.

"Nope, I'm good," I said. "Amy?"

"Doing okay, here. Vicky usually holds me a lot tighter than this, actually."

"I am not attempting to denigrate Glory Girl, but there is always a possibility that she might accidentally drop you, however slight that chance might be," Zach said conversationally. "There is no possibility of me letting you go. Are you both prepared for the jump to Amelia Claire's home?"

"Uh huh." I knew Zach's jumps were safe, but all of a sudden I could see why he'd been carrying me before. That way felt a lot more secure. "Let's do this thing."

"Ohh, boy." Amy sucked in a long breath. "I'm looking forward to the conversation at home a lot less than the jump itself. Blast off, big guuuuyyyyyyyyyyyy…"

Halfway through 'guy', Zach kicked off from the gravel edging of the footpath, taking us both along for the ride. We shot into the sky at a frankly ludicrous speed, which somehow felt even faster because I was simply being held by the pressure of his arm around my waist. Still, I heard myself whooping with exhilaration. A moment later, Amy echoed me, her voice even shriller than mine.

We soared through the sky above Brockton Bay, the city whipping by beneath us. I didn't know how fast we were going, but it looked like we were going to be there in just moments. Maybe Velocity could've beaten us there; somehow, I doubted it.

It appeared the headquarters of New Wave was a typical suburban home, two storey, emplaced among many others of the same type. From above, even though I could see where we were going, I had trouble picking out one house from another. It was, I thought with a grin, pretty good protective camouflage.

We flashed down out of the sky and landed on the concrete sidewalk with barely a jar. I looked downward and saw that the concrete wasn't even cracked. Zach was definitely upping his game. "Nicely done," I said as I took my arm off his shoulders and stepped away from him.

"Thank you," he replied. "Did you enjoy the experience, Amelia Claire?"

"Oh, wow, did I!" Amy, I noted on a second look, looked as windblown as I felt, but there was a glow in her face that had been missing up until now. "I've never gotten home from Arcadia so fast before, even with Vicky carrying me. Is that what it's like to fly?"

Zach nodded. "My sister tells me it is very like that, yes."

"There you go with your sister again." Amy's tone was half complaining, half amused. "Are you going to give me any more hints about her? So she can fly, she can read minds … what else can she do? Is she one of those flashy Indian capes?" I could see why she was asking the question; Zach didn't look Indian, but people who could change their appearance was a thing.

"No, Amelia Claire, she is not." And there he went again, subtly implying that his sister was American, while actually saying nothing of the sort.

Evidently, she was catching on to his word games, because she stopped still and mock-glared at him, her hands on her hips. "Okay, smart guy. You got me. I'm stumped. I've been going over and over in my head who she could be, and absolutely nobody I can think of fits the bill. Who is your sister? And be warned, if she turns out to be somebody I've never heard of, I am going to kick you in the shin."

"Well, there's not much else you can do to him right now," I murmured with a grin.

She heard me—I'd meant her to—and rolled her eyes. "You know what's going on, don't you?"

I nodded. "Uh huh. But before you ask, not my place to say."

"Yeah, figured." She turned her attention back to Zach. "Well? Are you gonna spill, or am I going to have to hobble around with a broken foot for a couple of weeks?"

Well, at least she was being realistic about things. I couldn't imagine a very different outcome for anyone trying to kick Zach in the shin. Or anywhere, for that matter.

"Do not harm yourself trying to kick me, Amelia Claire." The slight grin on Zach's face told me that he found this exchange as funny as I did. "The truth of the matter is that my sister is the Simurgh. I am an Endbringer."

"Well, technically an Endbringer," I corrected him. "You aren't here to bring an end to anything, as far as I can tell."

"That is true, Taylor," he conceded. "The term is intended more as a descriptor of my origin and capabilities than my perceived function and intent." He turned back to Amy, who was standing there with her jaw dropped. "Are you alright, Amelia Claire?"

"You're an Endbringer," Amy said flatly. "Your sister is the goddamn Simurgh. That shouldn't make so much sense, but it does. Why?"

"Because it's true." I tried not to sound facetious. "The Endbringer sirens we had the other day? That was the Simurgh dropping in for a visit, and to hand over Oni Lee after Zach kicked him into orbit."

Amy shook her head, though it didn't seem to be in disbelief. She wasn't totally freaking out either, so I suspected Zach was doing something to her emotional levels. Whatever it was, it allowed her to assimilate the shock without going off the deep end.

"Well, that explains the 'sister' aspect," she grumbled. "Telepathic, clairvoyant, able to fly … I can't believe I didn't see it."

I nodded. "To be fair, not many people jump straight to 'Endbringer' as a potential relative. Just saying. And please don't ask him how long it took me to realise that all the hints he was dropping were indicators to what he really was." I rolled my eyes. "That was so embarrassing when he finally laid it out for me. Especially since he'd told me earlier and I'd thought he was joking!"

Amy started to giggle, then laugh out loud. She pointed at me and tried to say something, then laughed harder. I got the joke—boy, did I get the joke—and started laughing too. We were leaning on each other, laughing our asses off, when Carol Dallon finally came to the door to find out what was going on outside.

The first I knew of it was when Zach brightened and stepped forward. "Good afternoon, Brandish!" he greeted her brightly. "How are you today? It is good to meet Amelia Claire's adopted mother!" Holding out his hand politely, he waited for a response.


Brandish


Dealing with a sulky teenager was bad enough. Dealing with one who was certain she was in the right was ten times as bad. By the time her 'discussion' with Vicky was over, Carol had made the executive decision that sending the girl back to Arcadia would probably be a bad idea (besides, the school day was almost over), so she'd made Vicky come home with her.

Amy's transport problems were not something she wanted to worry about right then; besides, the girl was surely mature enough to catch the bus. Unlike Vicky, who was exhibiting a level of immaturity that made Carol wonder about her ability to tie her shoes right then. Besides, riding the bus home would keep Amy out of the house that little bit longer, allowing Carol more time to try to get through to Vicky.

That was the plan, anyway. Right up until Carol heard familiar laughter outside the house mere minutes after school should have let out. Even flying home with Vicky wouldn't have gotten her here this fast. And she'd texted from school only a short time before.

What's going on here?

Opening the front door, Carol saw three teenagers. One was Amy, the second was Zachary, and the third was a girl she didn't really recognise, but who was wearing a really nice jacket. Zachary, of course, she knew from the news. He turned from his amused appraisal of the two laughing girls—what were they finding so funny, anyway?—and approached her.

"Good afternoon, Brandish!" His voice was bright and cheerful, and projected the sense that she was the one person he was happiest to meet today. "How are you today? It is good to meet Amelia Claire's adopted mother!"

"Well, uh, hello … Zachary, yes?" She felt flustered despite herself; the sheer presence of the boy was almost overwhelming. "It's good to meet you, too." She shook his outstretched hand firmly. "You've done the city, the nation, a great service in ridding us of the Slaughterhouse Nine. Also, in putting Lung and Hookwolf behind bars."

"They were a danger to Taylor, so I made sure that they were not." Zachary had a very straightforward way of talking. When he spoke, there was absolutely no misunderstanding his motives or his intent. Carol didn't think he could use weasel words if he tried.

"Well, that's definitely an admirable goal," she admitted, then looked past him to Amy. "So … did the two of you give Amy a lift home?"

"Zach did," said the tall brunette in the nice jacket. "Hi, I'm Taylor Hebert. It's good to meet you, Mrs Dallon. I just started at Arcadia, and Amy here's been really nice to me. Made me feel welcome."

"Oh." Carol blinked. "That's, uh, that's sweet of her." Feeling as though she should say something more, she gave Amy a nod. "Well done." Then she remembered what Vicky had been saying. "Uh … I understand you had your powers taken away today? Is that still a thing, or are they back now?"

"Nope, still gone," Amy said cheerfully, lifting her chin almost as a challenge. "I asked Taylor to take them away for the time being. If I still like the idea in the morning, I'm going to ask Zach to remove them permanently."

That was almost exactly what Vicky had claimed, though the addition of Zachary as someone who could remove powers permanently and without harming the cape involved was definitely new.

Carol stared at Amy. "Are you certain you want this?" she asked. "You're Panacea. You're a hero. You help people."

Just for a moment, she thought Amy was going to snap back, but the girl glanced at Taylor and Zach and took a breath before speaking. "Is it really being heroic if you never have a choice in the matter?"

That was from so far out of left field that Carol found herself momentarily lost for words. "I … It's what we do. We have powers that can let us help people, so we use them to help people."

"And what if I don't want to be a hero anymore?" Amy's voice was a little stronger now. "What if I don't want that burden anymore?"

"It's not a burden!" Carol couldn't believe she had to actually say this. "It's a gift!"

"If it's a gift, then it's a white elephant." Amy shook her head. "I don't want it. I don't need it. I'm through being judged for what I'm not more than for what I am." She turned to Zachary. "I've made up my mind. Can you take them away permanently, please?"

"I can definitely do that, Amelia Claire." Zachary smiled at Amy and reached out to her. "I will need to hold your hand."

"Here you go." Amy clasped his hand with hers, then turned to Carol. "What's more heroic? Someone who gets powers they don't want and uses them kind of heroically, or someone who gives up the powers they already have so they won't hurt people with them by accident?"

While Carol was trying to figure out how to answer that question, she watched as Zachary withdrew his hand from Amy's, pulling an insubstantial thing out of the girl. It was almost like Hollywood's idea of a ghost, not quite there, a trick of the light. It came free from Amy with an inaudible pop, and she staggered half a step. Taylor was there to steady her, while Zachary started doing … something with the intangible mass he had pulled out of Amy.

"What … is that?" asked Carol, though she had a strong feeling she already knew.

"It is Amelia Claire's healing power," Zachary said briskly, moving his hands through it and around it as he spoke. "I am shaping it into a form that other people will be able to use."

"But … wait … you're doing what?" Events were moving too fast for Carol. Powers could not be simply pulled free from people, and certainly not made so that other people could use them.

Could they?

Not bothering to answer her, Zachary moved his hands around each other in a way that she was almost certain was impossible, then suddenly what he was working on snapped into focus. He now held a pair of gloves, neatly stitched, shading from crimson on the palm to rose gold on the back. "Here you are, Taylor," he said, handing them to the tall brunette. "These should be in your size."

"Really, Zach?" she asked, even as she accepted them. "You don't have to give me every power you take from someone, you know."

"Why not?" he asked ingenuously. "You are responsible enough to use them. They will allow you to heal yourself if needed. Also, they are weighted in the knuckles so that you can knock out anyone you wish just by punching them."

Taylor chuckled at that, then pulled the gloves on. They matched with the jacket rather nicely, Carol couldn't help but notice. "Okay, fine. But I reserve the right to stuff them in my pocket and never put them on again."

"That is your right," he agreed. "You will be alright, Amelia Claire?"

Amy nodded. "Yeah, I think so. Thanks." From what Carol could tell, she meant it.

"Cool," Taylor said. "See you at school tomorrow." She gave Amy a quick hug—which was reciprocated—then stepped over next to Zachary and put her arm around his shoulders. "Bye, Mrs Dallon. Nice meeting you."

"You too, Taylor." Carol watched as Zachary put his arm around the girl and crouched slightly, then they blurred upward, faster than Sarah or even Vicky could fly. Fading on the wind was a distant whoop from Taylor.

Then she looked at Amy, no longer Panacea, who was looking almost defiantly back at her, as though expecting to be yelled at for her decision.

No matter what she'd been before, Amy no longer manifested Marquis' legacy in her powers. In fact, she'd consciously given them up, specifically so she wouldn't accidentally hurt people.

All that was left was the teenage girl before her.

Carol reached out and took her daughter by the hand.

"Come on," she said. "Let's go inside and talk."

Amy nodded. "I'd like that."


End of Part Fifteen