"How about you, Dragon?" I asked, ignoring my belligerent cousin. "Lose anyone from the Guild during the fighting?"
The average looking woman shook her head. "No. We sustained some casualties, but none of them were lethal."
Grace stood from her chair, glaring at me. "I asked you a question!" she declared.
I nodded, reaching out to a computer spider, and sending Quinn a request to 'Scan the room for listening devices please, Overwatch'
He did so, as my cousin took a step my way, demanding, "Well?"
Reading the report, I nodded, commenting blandly, "I wasn't aware you were a power copier, Khione. It's not in your file with the PRT."
Grace's face screwed up in confusion, "What's that matter? You already knew that. What matters is tha-"
"Oh, given all the active microphones on your person, I would've thought you would be more worried about dropping what are apparently secrets," I interrupted, getting increasingly tired of my cousin's issues. She wasn't like this before, I thought, wondering what had happened in the time since I'd last seen her, the girl's arrival to this world taking place months after my own, despite me still existing in my own world.
"What? Those are mine," she declared. "They don't matter."
"Wow, and you have perfect information security, to have recordings of you openly discussing such things. Even we don't have that," I replied, faking surprise. "Though, why you have them on and recording is something I still have to wonder."
Dragon interceded, "They are just part of our gear. We're not recording you specifically."
Nodding, I told her, "I assumed. I also don't like getting yelled at the second I walk through the door."
"Well I don't like having to fight an Endbringer on my own!" Grace shot back.
Blinking, I looked at Dragon with false worry, "My people said there were over a thousand parahumans there, and I have reports of you specifically being present. Are they compromised, and you didn't go?"
"You know what I mean!" my cousin shot back.
"But you seem to be missing what I mean. Let me speak clearly: Turn. The microphones. Off," I instructed her in turn.
Grace folded the arms of her power armor. "Make me."
"Fry, Master, Disassemble, or Annihilation?" I replied in turn. "Pick one."
"What?" she asked, not understanding, but Dragon did.
The woman's eyes widened, her Second Triggered Technopathy flashing out, and the active microphones on both their armors de-activating. Grace, looking betrayed, turned to question her follower, "Dragon? What the heck?"
"Glad you have your own helper, Grace" I remarked dryly, taking a seat in one of the two chairs on the other side of the table they sat at, reaching out with a pink glowing hand and flicking the other with a charged Anarchic Structure Inducement. The piece of furniture fell apart, screws popping off, welds undoing, and the entire thing clattered to the ground in a small shower of metal. "Your armor looks like it'd be a pain to put back together."
Grace paled, then her brows furrowed as she started to challenge, "You wouldn'-"
"Khione," Dragon rebuked her, "Maybe we shouldn't provoke the parahuman king in his own fortress?"
My cousin started to argue, "But he's-"
"Khione," her follower repeated, meeting the teen's gaze, and not flinching.
"Fine," Grace gave, sitting down in her own seat. "Why'd you hide here instead of fighting while people died?"
"Didn't want to start the apocalypse," I answered easily. "I probably could've taken out this Legion. If it worked like I think it does. But the difference between Scion and his Endbringers is the difference between us and your average Host."
Dragon spoke first, "And you would've provoked Scion early?"
Early? I thought, not clear on how much my cousin had briefed the incarnated AI, but she'd apparently informed her of Golden Morning as well. "Early," I agreed. "Jack Slash has been removed from the board, which means, theoretically, we've got a decade before Goldenrod decides to have his hissy-fit. In reality, it's almost certain the moment he sees me, he's going to lose his shit."
"Why would. . ." Grace trailed off. "Oh, you idiot, Lee! I told you it was stupid! And a waste of points! Why didn't you listen to me?"
Because I have absolutely no clue what you're talking about, I thought, but didn't say. With how the girl was acting, I. . . wasn't terribly inclined to give her more things to misunderstand and yell at me for. "Because my choices were, apparently, locked in months previous," I replied instead.
Mind you, without that constant stream of energy I knew I wouldn't've been able to have as many Shard Slots as I'd made, wouldn't have been able to empower others, hell, without the energy to work with I likely would've died from my injuries after suffering under the S9's not-so-tender mercies.
"I'm sorry, I appear to be missing something," Dragon stated, looking between the two of us.
"Lee's gonna end the world cause he's an idiot!" Grace said, throwing up her hands.
"Lee's gonna save the world," I countered, unamused. "Short story, I'm what the Entities are looking for, and Scion would destroy every Earth he could if that means getting his hands on me. But, when we win, that same thing is going to be what helps us make things a lot better."
"And you'll just keep running from Endbringer battles until then?" Grace questioned acidly.
I shrugged, "I don't know, seemed to work for you."
She froze, looking at me, clearly offended. "What did you say?"
Smiling humorlessly, I asked, "Oh, did I stutter? You not fighting against Leviathan makes sense. You just triggered the first time, and the second the CUI were involved. You were there against Behemoth but, Grace, when The Simurgh attacked D.C., where were you?"
"I, what?" Grace questioned, caught off guard.
"You're a Blindspot," I reminded the teen, tone chilling. "Ziz's kryptonite. I wonder how many you could have been saved, how many heroes would still be alive today if you'd been there."
It was something that I hadn't realized until I started thinking of how I'd managed to miss the girl this entire time, then started, as I often did, running 'what ifs'. Only this time, it wasn't 'what if I'd done X instead of Y', it was 'what if I'd known my cousin was here earlier.'
"I. . .you weren't there either!" she accused, scrambling for a non-existent defense.
"I was informed by Legend, speaking on behalf of Cauldron, that, given how hard Leviathan had gone, after I'd warned them of his arrival, I was not to attend that fight," I informed her. "They were quite emphatic about it, as they thought Leviathan had risen in lethality to meet my level of resistance. What was your excuse?"
"You, you were?" she questioned. I nodded, and, the girl clearly looking for an out, Grace settling on, "My suit wasn't ready!"
". . . Your suit wasn't ready," I repeated, deadpan.
"Yeah, it wasn't ready! Endbringer fights are dangerous," she stated, with a nod, gaze intent as if daring me to say anything else.
. . . I'd say it was cute, if I wasn't so annoyed.
"Huh. If only you could just stay within a kilometer of, say, Alexandria and Narwhal, who were both at that fight, you would've been fine, even if you were naked," I commented, "let alone the several hundred other powers you'd have a large fraction of to use on the foe who literally couldn't perceive you. No, clearly it was better to let hundreds die because you might be injured. So, let's try this again: why didn't you fight the Simurgh?"
Grace get her teeth, her powers fluctuating, before she finally sent me a scathing look, "I was scared! Okay? It was an Endbringer and I was scared! I was alone, and in a place that shouldn't exist, and I was scared!"
"Okay," I nodded.
"And you don't get to. . . what?" she started to argue, pausing.
"You were scared, and alone. I understand. That's never stopped me from fighting, but I've learned that a lot of people aren't me-" I started to reply.
However, instead of being comforted, my words only seemed to anger her. "You're not better than me!" she yelled.
Sighing, done with this girl, I decided to take off the kiddie gloves. She was still family, but, well, my family didn't treat me like they demanded I treat them, and. . . and I was starting to feel Tired again.
Alright, you want to play hardball, let's do so.
Reaching out, it was easy to metaphysically grasp both Shards, Grace's Abaddon one and Dragon's 'Dead' one, and then allowed myself to BURN with power. Pulling back my mask, I Saw them both, and the matrix of powers they held, the connection between them, and the powers that both had running. With a single Pulse, I shook them both loose of their networks, bringing their Shards to heel, and told her,
I am better than you.
You barely damaged Behemoth.
I stopped him cold, alone.
Break killed him.
I have rebuilt Brockton Bay and more.
I have saved millions of civilians.
I've worked to save the world.
What have YOU done?
There was a moment of silence, as both girls stared at me, afraid, Grace finally stuttering, "W-What are you?"
I let my grip on them loosen, and sighed, "I'm your cousin, Grace. But, with the way you've been treating me, that means less to you than I thought. You think Negentropy is useless, but there's a reason it was as costly as it was. You were scared. I can understand that. But that means, between the two of us, I am in the position to judge you, not the other way around."
From her scowl, she clearly disagreed, but didn't say anything, so I continued. "I have been working hard to try and save this world, and, if you'd merely visited, you would have found me. It must have been hard to find yourself here without knowing what was going on, I know, because Herb and I had the exact same thing happen, so did my father, so did my brother, we all met up weeks after we'd arrived. And then I fought, without the help of a group like the Guild, trying to do my best while almost dying, over and over again."
"If I do something, it almost certainly is a reason, Grace," I told her. "And, just as I did not lambaste you for your rank cowardice, leaving me and the others to try and pick up the slack, perhaps you could return the favor and give me the benefit of the doubt? Because, if you really want to play the 'who's done more' or the 'who's suffered more' game, it's gonna be the person whose fought multiple Endbringer-class threats, whose built multiple cities, and whose been tortured by the Slaughterhouse Nine."
I gave them both a long look. "Grace, you. . . you didn't use to be like this."
"And you were?" she asked, incredulous.
Shrugging, I replied, "I don't know, probably? A lot of shit's happened. But, well, I had the power to do something, and, well, with great power. . ."
"What? With great power what?" Grace asked, not finishing the quote, and that. . . hurt, for some reason.
"Comes great responsibility," I finished a bit lamely. "So, I didn't show up to this last fight because it'd kickstart the apocalypse, while you didn't show up to the Ziz and Echidna fights because you were a coward. Good talk. Hope we don't have to do it again. Now, you two came to my doorstep to talk, so was it for something other than to accuse me of the behavior you have already exhibited or are we done here? Because I need to go back to building cities, saving people, and empowering the Hosts that work for me to better handle whatever threat comes next, since we're well and truly in uncharted waters."
I waited a moment, then sighed, and started to reach out for a Mark, when she spoke. "I, I'm sorry."
Pausing, I waited, watching the girl. "I, I was scared!" she repeated, as if it were an argument.
"And if the reason I'd not fought Legion was that I was scared, would that have been acceptable?" I questioned, honestly wondering what her answer would be.
From her pained look, it was clear what she wanted to say. "I. . ." she started to state, then grimaced, trying to find the words. "No. It wouldn't be," she admitted. "I'm, I'm sorry Lee. It's just, you don't seem like Lee," she offered.
Lifting an eyebrow, I said nothing, opening my arms in a 'how' gesture.
"The Lee I knew wouldn't do, do this," Grace said, waving towards the city. "You were nice, I guess, but, well, you were fat," she stated, like it meant something. "And you went to college for English. And you just kinda did whatever I wanted when we were younger."
I glanced to Dragon, who, thankfully, seemed just as confused as I was. I had a guess, but it wasn't a very pleasant one. "So, because I was nice, and overweight, I must be weak? Because I wanted to teach and didn't go for a STEM degree like you were, I must be dumb? Because, when I was lonely and just wanted a friend, I was willing to do what you wanted, so I, what, can't stand up for myself?"
My cousin shrugged. "Yeah. You don't look like you," she stated, as if I was being the one in the wrong for not accepting her 'rationale'. "You don't act like Lee."
~That shallow bitch!~ Taylor hissed, and I hadn't realized she'd been listening. ~She's just like Emma!~
Pinching the bridge of my nose, I sighed. "You really don't get that how I was when I was effectively rudderless, with everything I tried failing, with zero help but and just as few stakes, each day wondering if it might be for the best if I just died, I might be different once I had power, and a goal, and people that gave a damn about me, like I appear to not have had before?"
The stupid girl before me frowned, "Your parents-"
"Aren't yours, Grace," I cut her off. "My father is here, on Earth Bet, and refuses to talk to me, when the literal fucking world is at risk." A thought occurred to me, a parallel to a problem that'd been created when a 'friend' I'd had in college had acted nothing like one should, but was pleasant enough that she got along with others enough for them to believe her, especially as she's never outright lied, she'd merely never spoke up in my defense. "Your parents always spoke well of you, even when you fucked up, so it follows that you believed, for my parents to openly talk shit about me, I must truly be a useless piece of crap, didn't you?"
"Well, you just said nothing you did worked," she argued, and, for a moment, I didn't see my cousin, I saw. . . well, I saw a lot of people, the kind that constantly undercut me, my mother most of all, and I had to stomp on the rage that flared, for just a moment, the emotion the domain of my. . . other self, that Man of Wealth and Taste.
~You saved ME,~ Taylor whispered to me, over our shared power. ~You saved Amy, and Dinah, and others. You aren't useless.~
And that. . . that helped. "Huh. You're Hermione Granger," I realized.
"Thanks, but you aren't Harry," Grace shot back, snarkily, like it was some sort of 'own', but. . . I think I understood.
"You're all institutional knowledge, and no understanding," I continued, tired, but working it out. "You were told things, and you believed them at face value, so they have to be true, and, when you face something that's proven you wrong, you look for some way to prove the new statements wrong, rather than come to terms with the fact that you might've believed the wrong thing. So, because I wasn't succeeding, it must be because I'm just incompetent. I wonder if you think the poor deserve to be poor, because if they were capable they'd be rich. That it's their fault that-"
"Of course not!" she disagreed, offended. "There's systems of institutional racism and sexism that keep women and minorities-"
"Yes, repeat what you've been told," I interrupted her in turn. "It's what you're best at."
The girl glared at me. "Lee would've never said that to me."
"If you'd treated me like this, I would've," I informed her. "But back then you didn't have anything better to do, so you let me, what, entertain you? Maybe you liked the attention. Now that I'm trying to do something, and doing better than you, I'm clearly not myself. I'm clearly not human."
"You're not even speaking English!" the teen tried to argue.
With a flick of my will, the words clumsier, I replied, "So most of the world isn't human, because they don't speak the proper language? How 'problematic', Grace." I mocked.
She started to respond, but I held up a hand, and when she tried to yell at me anyways, her words died the instant they started to form, rendering her silent. "I came to see you because you came to me. I wanted to see if you were alright, and see if I could help. Instead of asking why I didn't come to the Endbringer fight, you berated me, tried to take the high ground and hold me to standards you yourself can't hope to match, but I'm clearly garbage for not hitting them no matter the reason, and then you accused me of not being myself when I didn't fold like you expected me to. Jesus Christ, Grace, what the fuck happened to you?"
I let her speak, and her 'pithy' response of, "What happened to you?" was. . . disappointing.
"Really? 'No, you!'? That's all you've got?" I questioned rhetorically, shutting her back up as I started to speak again, and she tried to interrupt me. "You want to know what happened, Grace? Responsibility happened. True, life or death, do or die responsibility, instead of teachers and friends and clubs that don't ever seem to matter. I'm. . . I'm so goddamned tired, but I've been breaking myself to try and make this happen, while you were having playing hero in Canada, forcing myself into this bullshit so deep that I'm at the point that I find Shardspeak easier to use than English, and I finally find I might have a family member here who isn't my unreachable father or my actual piece-of-shit brother, who can't be bothered to help if he doesn't get something out of it, and she treats me like I'm, I don't know, something like a complete retard, crossed with a fucking Nazi, crossed with a sexual predator, when I'm just trying to help, and. . ."
I trailed off, unable to find the words. Grace, clearly pissed at being rendered silent, just glared, flipping me off, but. . . I didn't care.
It was Dragon who spoke, clearly surprised that she could, but nevertheless pushing on, stating, "I-I'm sorry." I looked up in surprise, as did Grace, though my cousin's look seemed betrayed, and, yes, I could see the girl pulling on the strings of Master power that bound the incarnated AI to her, possibly subconsciously, possibly not, but, able to observe the inner workings, the issue she was having was easy to spot.
Followers were loyal, and stood by you, but that didn't make them sycophantic, obedient slaves.
Like what the girl clearly wanted Dragon to be.
"It is clear that you and Khione have a long history," Dragon stated. "And a much rockier one than I was led to believe. She should have visited, or I should have reached out to you, through proxies, in a secure manner given her fears about security. What you have done here is nothing short of miraculous, Vejovis, and you should be proud of what you've accomplished. That my friend is ignoring that is. . . troubling."
"Par for the course for my life before I came here," I offered, so Tired.
"That does not make it acceptable," Dragon disagreed, to which I just shrugged. "Vejovis, I am not a trained psychologist, but I do have access to such resources, and many of your behavior patterns. . . let me say that, while Khione has questions about your, your status, you follow many documented patterns. Human patterns. Have you considered seeing someone about your clinical depression?"
It wasn't a happy sound.
"With what time, Dragon? Haven't you heard, there's a new Endbringer and," I waved a hand towards Grace, "it's apparently my job to handle it, to the point that my not being there is some great sin. Oh, but I'm not better than her, which, logically, means that it's just as much her fault for not stopping it as it is mine, but things never flow both ways, do they?" I leaned back in my seat, my strength casually shattering the back, causing both girls to flinch, as I lifted a hand, streams of purple and red diamond dust swirling around it, capable of scouring flesh from bone in seconds.
"And the best part?" I mused, as I pulled on the power, making fractally twisting rivers of death that danced through my fingers. "It's that if she truly believed me capable of the things she's accusing me of, if I was really such a danger, she'd be more careful around me, because someone that selfish, that evil, wouldn't hesitate to kill her for the insult she's offered me."
Glancing over to my cousin, she'd paled, possibly thinking the worst of me again. Playing around with my powers, I extended purple flaming wings made of blades beside myself, though despite my best efforts they were shot through with red, and chakram were enough of an offensive tool that Pyrokinetic Weaponry let me create a flaming purple halo over my head. Continuing my thought, I stated, "Which means she knows I'm still her family, that I'm still me, that I will still be restrained by the very same blood ties she seems to feel no need to honor herself, that she uses as a leash to bind me, to try and shut me up when I don't just take the emotional beating like the inferior she clearly thought me to be."
I sighed, mad at myself for hoping this would've turned out better. That someone from my previous life would turn out to not be a complete disappointment.
"So all this is, is a lost, scared little girl with more power than she can handle lashing out at what she used to believe was an acceptable target, a social inferior, and throwing a tantrum when she finds out she can't." I looked at my cousin, "You know, I had your problem, Grace, but in reverse. I was so used to my own parents being quick to dish on every flaw I had, that, when yours talked you up, I believed them. Funny that."
~Lee,~ Taylor said to me, her concern/sorrow/support clearer than ever, since she'd learned to communicate properly.
I clapped my hands together, dismissing the weaponry, funneling the diamond dust into a tiny star before it winked out too. "But you're not here to listen to me talk. You're not here for any reason, really. Neither of you are part of the Penumbral Defenders, and, Khione, from how you've acted, I would not offer you a spot. And, as you have perma-mastered Dragon, I cannot offer her one either. So, is there any official business you, Khione and Dragon of the Guild, have with me, Vejovis, Leader of the Penumbral Defenders and Ruler of New Avalon?"
Dropping the silence effect, the look Grace gave me was downright venomous. "Oh, I can talk now?"
"You have one more sentence before I throw your ass out of my city," I smiled humorlessly, "Use it well. Do. You. Have. Official. Business?"
"You think you can push me around just because you have powers? And you call yourself a hero? I have powers too!" She stated.
"But mine are better, and that's three. Goodbye Khione, Dragon will meet you shortly," I told her, even as her powers flared, but, with a single flex of Strider's Shard teleported her to the middle of nowhere, her primary power rendered useless, the girl's suit alone enough to make sure she was fine, let alone her suite of other powers.
"I'm sorry," the woman instantly apologized. "Where did you send her?"
"The wilds of northeastern Canada, near your base. Figured I'd save you two the flight," I remarked. "You do know I can't trust anything you say, correct?"
The incarnated AI nodded. "She. . . isn't like that with me. Or the others of the Guild."
"She likes you, and them," I offered. "She used to like me too, at least a little. Now, I have, apparently, fell out of favor, and thus am scum that should be glad for whatever attention she offers, even if it's uniformly negative, and then thank her for her 'concern'," I drawled. "Neither of you are welcome in New Avalon any longer, by the way, though I do hope she decides to grow up, take responsibility, and act like the Hero she claims to be, in order to make moral pronouncements of others."
"We have been stopping Villains," Dragon argued, but even she could tell her argument was weak, adding, "but not like you have."
I nodded, "If you have need of us, I very well may help, but I might say no. Either way, having you be the one to make the request would probably be for the best." I let out a long breath. "I really wished I could've reached you before she did, Dragon. I would've found another way. Tell me, how long did it take you to become her Follower?"
The incarnated AI hesitated, informing me, "A week, but I don't regret that decision."
"I'm not sure you physically can. And that's just. . . lovely," I replied. "Anything else?" When she shook her head no, and fully activated her power armor, I gave her a small wave before Striding her after her Master.
Just for a moment, I let my anger flow, the space I was in ripped to shreds in an instant, destroying the bugs both Khione and Dragon had planted in the room, detected by Quinn, and stepped back to my office, where Taylor looked up at me, concerned.
"You still have me," she stated earnestly.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak, and walked through the side door to the small attached bedroom, so tired. Laying on the bed, I tried to sleep, but couldn't, and felt the movements in the air as Taylor entered, climbing up to lay down next to me.
"You don't need to-" I started to argue.
"I know. I want to. That makes it better," my partner declared, still working the Insect Network as she got comfortable, holding onto me, and directing me to in turn.
It. . . helped, and I drifted off to a fitful sleep, not one where I was stuck reliving the fight I'd just had, like I worried, but of one of the evenings I spent with Taylor, hanging out, watching/making fun of movies, and just. . . being.