Rumors 1.1 - My Weakness

People liked to talk, and whisper. Gossip spread like wildfire, traversing the world in an instant. Before the ground has stopped shaking in Peru, people in China knew about the earthquake, and vice versa. In the modern world, there was nothing that travelled faster than a good story.

Or a good lie.

Rumours and insinuations were more seductive than the truth, and unconstrained by mere reality. They could be… mighty. The poison-tipped pen was stronger than the sharpest sword.

I wasn't normal, and I hadn't been for a long time. Physically, I was the same I'd always been, fairly tall for my age and lanky, with all the awkwardness of being a teenager and few of the features. My hair, once my favorite, now hung in disorganized tangles across a face that didn't stand out from the crowd - except, perhaps, for a too-wide mouth. Not that I'd cared about such things - because the inside was a lot more screwed up than the outside could ever be. The words and whispers of others had crawled under my skin, and settled there to stay.

I was weak. Harmless. Broken. I'd heard all those things before from the lips of my tormentors, and for the longest time I'd refused to listen to them. I'd been convinced they were wrong, that they were just trying to get a rise out of me. But - no matter their twisted intent, their pointless antagonism, I knew there was a kernel of truth there. And that hurt.

There was only one certainty in my life, and that was school. And school was hell. I dragged myself there with little more than rote repetition driving me onwards. I kept going just because change might be painful, or because I couldn't face the future. I wasn't sure. Some days, it felt like I only caught up with myself when I was finally walking home again.

I still don't know why everything became too much. Why I couldn't handle on Tuesday what I'd survived on Monday. I just knew that I'd locked myself away in the bathroom in desperation, crying as silently as I could manage, all the while attempting to stop. I didn't even care to get up the next morning, staring blankly at the ceiling until Dad came to check up on me. I don't know if I'd ever gotten up if not for him. It felt like I was dead, but still moving.

I had many reasons to be despondent, but at the core of things were just three people. Three bullies who refused to back down, seemingly intent on ruining my life. I hoped beyond hope that they would give up, get bored and move on - but they never did. I don't think even they knew why they were still at it. It was just the way of things, now.

A few weeks after I'd stopped reacting to their hateful words, the trio caught me after school. Not content with my glum silence, they'd shoved me into a dumpster on the side of the road to let me stew in the garbage 'where I belonged'. It was, perhaps, to echo their prank from January, when I'd spent several disgusting hours in my own locker. The dumpster had been mercifully empty, though it was suffused with a ghastly stench which wouldn't wash off for days and seeped into my clothes and skin. I'd scrubbed myself raw to get rid of the taint, but it didn't help against my mind's little games.

Even while I was down in that dump, though, I hadn't been able to really blame the trio - not anymore. Madison had looked downright uncomfortable as she closed the lid. Emma was urging the others on, but her eyes were empty. Sophia just seemed bored. They were going through the motions. In their own ways, they were as stuck as I was. Caught in repetition.

Those three were a symptom of a greater problem. They were just a few especially rotten apples in a spoiled batch. The trio had done what many others spoke about, but never dared to act upon - they lashed out at the outsider in their midst. Theirs was a primal reaction, one that they might not even fully understand. A reaction not to me specifically, but to something I represented - weakness in all its forms, perhaps.

I'd heard all the lies before, the nonsense people told each other to cover up their own insecurities, their own failings. "Taylor's such a loser..." they muttered just loud enough for me to hear, often in far more vulgar terms, trying to reassure their peers of their worth. "She won't ever stand up for herself…" they claimed, safely ensconced in their restrictive group and its rules, unable to rebel against the rules. "I hear she cries herself to sleep and can't even talk to people normally! Emma told me that she's a sociopath or something," they repeated, not allowed to show the wrong emotions for fear of public ridicule.

They were stuck, and I was their scapegoat. I - could live with that. But I couldn't live among them.

I skipped weeks of school, unwilling to return as if nothing had happened, because the trio wouldn't like my lack of fear, my acceptance of things which they reviled so instinctually. I tried to distract myself from the disaster that was my life, wandering the Boardwalk because I couldn't face going home. People still whispered around me, of course, but they weren't actively malicious. Among strangers, I could disappear.

"For once, can't you all just shut up," I whispered under my breath, rubbing my forehead as it rang like a drum, the result of a stress headache that I'd felt coming for hours. I sat down along a stretch of blank wall on the Boardwalk, staring out over the distant harbor, content to just ignore everything for a while. It was calm there, silent. Lonely. "There we go..." I hummed.

The voices faded as the early evening crept up on the city, and the street emptied. I thought of Dad, and his tired face whenever he came home from a long day of work, his compassionate but helpless pleas to the school board. He was the one rock I still had left in the stormy sea. Some days, the only thing that kept me going was his encouragement, his kind gestures.

I had almost convinced myself to go home, to face him, when someone sat down next to me.

"Hey there, sourpuss," the girl said lightly, her piercing green eyes meeting mine. "You seem glum."


Rumors 1.2 - My Friend

Someone - was talking to me. What the hell?

The girl's dirty blonde hair stood out over her black vest and rather smudgy pants, but I was especially caught by the bright green of her expressive eyes. "You've had a rough couple weeks, haven't you?" she added after a moment, her gaze betraying discomfort. "I saw you around town last wednesday, you know. I wanted to say something then and there, but things got kind of hectic..."

Right, I knew what she meant, now. That had been when a bunch of villains raided a bank in plain view of the street, barely a block away from where I'd been. I'd been tempted to snoop, in case any of the Wards showed up to beat up the crooks, but I'd resisted the urge. I coloured at the thought, looking away from the stranger. Why would a complete stranger come up to me in the street just to remind me of a cape fight I wasn't even present for? I glanced at her worriedly, and familiar thoughts occurred to me. Familiar fears. Does she know about me?

"You don't have to worry too much, I'm not some creepy stalker girl," the creepy stalker girl promised as she raised her hands in mock-surrender, a grin curling around her mouth. "Call me Lisa. I live nearby, you could say…" She waved vaguely towards the end of the street. "Well, at least I'm around these parts often enough. If you ever need someone to talk to, I'm ready to serve. I'll have you know that I'm a very good listener. And talker, obviously."

No kidding. "...I'm Taylor." I wasn't sure what to say after that, uncomfortable at having someone pay so much attention to me. At the same time, I was inordinately relieved that someone was paying attention to me. "I guess that would be nice..." I added noncommittally.

"That's great!" Lisa proclaimed, looking at me again with that intense gaze. "They did do a number on you, didn't they?" she wondered. "I got a feeling that you were in a bad place, but I can see that it's a little worse than I thought..." She leaned rather far into my comfort zone. "The bastards will pay, you know. Sooner or later. I'll even help, if you need me to."

The last time I'd tried to get help, I'd been burned - badly. "Ah…" I hesitated, cringing slightly at a sudden realization of what she'd said. She obviously knew things about me - enough to be dangerous. Had the rumours about me spread into the city already? Was I the pariah of the whole of Brockton Bay, now? The thought chilled my bones, and my breath caught in horror.

Lisa grasped my shaking arm firmly. "You don't have to panic. I'm just really insightful," she explained, narrowing her eyes as I stared at her. "And you're just hiding in that shell of yours, aren't you?" she wondered. "I've seen this before - people that just sort of fold in on themselves after taking a lot of abuse. It tends to take a good shock to the system to get them back out of their funk." She murmured something under breath, too low to hear, before grimacing. "Not that I'm going to do that to you, of course. I'm not that heartless."

"Who exactly are you?" I demanded desperately, looking down at her hand which still kept my arm in place. "Wh…?" I couldn't even complete the thought. What would I ask? Why are you being so cruel? What gives you the right to be so insightful? Why are you paying attention to a weakling like me?

"I remember introducing myself, so you know who I am," Lisa said snootily, clearly encouraged that I wasn't brushing her off. "I'm just someone who's concerned for other people, that's all. Well, I care for some people, not others." She frowned at that. "I'm sure we both know a few who could use a good spiked boot to the face."

Hah - humor. Glumly I imagined stomping all over the faces of my nemeses, and it was a little disconcerting how utterly empty of feeling the image left me. Defeating symptoms of the disease just felt pointless. "I suppose," I admitted ruefully, knowing that's the answer Lisa expected. "I guess I can relate."

Lisa nodded, laying her arm across my shoulders as if we'd known each other for years. "You have to know there's more to life than assholes and crappy schoolwork," she whispered as if it were a great secret. "You can live! For example… I like to hang out my friends when I'm not working, and even when I am working, they're never very far away. I have hobbies, I like puzzles, that sort of thing…" She waved her hand, shrugging. "I do stuff."

I just sighed. Friends. A life. It would be nice to have those.

"Hm. Clearly we've got a lot of work to do," Lisa murmured under her breath. "I could use some more friends, and clearly you're looking for some too. I can talk for both of us if that's necessary. It's perfect!" She held out her free hand. "So, friends?"

Her smile seemed so very genuine that I couldn't say no to something so freely offered. Not just because Lisa was fast-talking, easy-going and generally reminded me of so many things I had lost sight of, but because I knew I couldn't turn down a helping hand, and this was the first one I had been offered all year. Still - I didn't know a thing about her.

So be it. Tabula Rasa, and hope that I don't get burned again.

"Alright." I smiled hesitantly, and it came out right for the first time in ages. I grasped her hand and she squeezed firmly. "Friends."

Lisa's grin grew wider, and a vague sense of unease seemed to lift from her expression. She pulled me upright, and I hadn't quite caught my balance before she grasped my arm again in a tighter hold than before, and pulled me with her. "Friends share drinks and stuff, right?" she inquired lightly as she tapped her chin as she glanced back. "I think I know a nice place around here, not too out in the open… I've been there often..."

I was too surprised to protest, and let myself get pulled along by Lisa's whirlwind enthusiasm. It was a far cry better from anything else I could be doing with my time, and she probably knew that. We rushed down the Boardwalk, past a few rather mean-looking guards who kept the peace, and we walked by half a dozen perfectly serviceable restaurants. Lisa finally dragged me into a rather poorly-lit pub, dropped me down at a table, and put her feet as she crashed into her own seat. There weren't any people around except the staff, thankfully.

"You're… sort of forward," I noted, a little frazzled, as I looked around the place. I'd never been to this particular bar, as it had always looked grungy from the outside. Inside, it was at least clean, if rather old-timey. A young waitress with a rather mousy haircut was already heading our way.

"It's a nice spot, right? I come here sometimes when I want to take a breather," Lisa said before I could ask. "They know my order, obviously. I assume you'd be fine with tea as well."

"...Sure."

Lisa smirked. "Don't worry. Dragging people in here is a bad habit of mine." She took a steaming cup of tea from the waitress, and a second cup was put in front of me. I had to admit - it did smell heavenly. Lisa snickered at my reaction, sipping eagerly from her own. "I don't really think assertiveness is a bad character trait, but opinions differ. There's plenty of introverts around to balance me out," she added solemnly, raising an eyebrow. "Case in point, I believe."

I grimaced at that. "...I guess."

The blonde nodded. "We'll have to work on the whole 'woman of few words' thing, but I know a few approaches that might get you out of your shell," she declared, looking out towards the harbor through the smudgy window. "This demure thing might be endearing to some people, I'm sure, but it's kind of unhealthy. After all, I'm fairly certain this is not your natural style."

I stared at her blankly. "How...?"

"How do I know that?" She shrugged. "Call it intuition. People can change, but it doesn't tend to be terribly healthy when it's sudden. Pardon me, but you don't come across as someone who should be meek and introverted - it just feels so wrong. This whole thing…" She waved at me vaguely, her eyes gleaming. "It's major-league weirdness. My kind of weirdness."

I wasn't sure what she was implying with that statement, but I nodded along. It wasn't the first time someone had told me I had changed, or looked at me funny. My dad had made his worries known before, but he'd stopped talking about my attitude back when he visited the school over the locker incident. I knew I was more fearful these days, more withdrawn - but who wouldn't be after all that happened?

I was weak, after all...

"So, now what?" I wondered uneasily, glancing away from Lisa's smile. "I'm not very good at friends."

Lisa raised an eyebrow. "Eh, we'll see. Nothing has to change if you don't want it to." She paused, frowning. "You know what? This is a decent enough place to hang for a bit, so why don't you come here whenever things get too crazy? Give me a call, and odds are I'll be around to talk. Nobody here cares two bits about some teenagers, so it's a good neutral ground."

I didn't answer immediately, hesitating.

Lisa smiled wryly, shaking her head. "Besides, we're within walking distance of some pretty good second-hand clothing shops here - I'm positive we can scrounge up something nice in there. What do you say to that?"

God, shopping. When was the last time…?

"I thought so," Lisa muttered smugly. "Clearly you've been missing out on the good life! I'll have to change that." She drank her tea, sinking into her chair. "Maybe we have some more things to talk about, too? I play a great game of chess, I'm told, and I've got a few good books I want to finish up. Plus, like anyone, I've got my weird obsessions." She made a little mock salute, smirking. "Certified cape fanatic, reporting for duty."

I swallowed thickly. "Capes, huh?"

Parahumans, heroes and villains, the Protectorate - once, I had lived for that stuff. I'd read the magazines religiously, watching every crappy documentary I could. Dozens of books were still stashed in my closet at home, most of them about the early days of parahumans, and my one-time favourite, Alexandria. I hadn't really thought about all that for a while, but for a chunk of my early life, capes had been pure awesome.

"I… know a few things about them, I guess," I admitted.

Lisa's smile was practically manic at that point. "You managed a full sentence there, so that must mean it's more than a bit. I'm sure of it. Fess up, you're a total geek too."

No sense in lying, even if I was rusty at this stuff. "...Yeah."

She nodded confidently. "Right! Well, that settles it, then. You like capes, I like capes - we have so much in common!" She rolled her eyes at her own silliness, tapping her chin again. "You know what? I have some stuff lying around at home that you might like. A bit of research, a bit of speculation on my part. I want to see what you make of it. I have an inkling it might be fun." She raised an eyebrow. "Interested?"

I couldn't keep my own smile, tiny as it was, from making it through. "Yeah," I managed. "That sounds good."

It really did, and that was amazing.


Interlude 1 - Tattletale

Lisa strolled into the red brick factory without even trying to be silent, listening for the growls of Rachel's dogs, just in case. The lower rooms were dark, the moonlight barely creeping through the dusty windows near the ceiling as she made her way to the back, passing by huge machines covered in tarps and sheets. Once upon a time, this place had been used for something, but...

She shivered, the stinging edge of a headache already too close to the surface for comfort. Pacing herself, even now, could be difficult. A nap would be good.

"You're awfully late," a familiar voice spoke from the dark, and Lisa paused for a moment. Brian stepped from the shadows between the old machines. "I figured you'd show up eventually. The others were sure you'd bailed, actually. Rachel took off in a huff a while ago."

"Right. As if she needed an excuse," Lisa murmured tiredly. A small smile made its way onto her face nevertheless. "I have a good excuse, though - I was busy! I think you'll like what I'm up to, and I thought I could blow movie night for something important. This wasn't exactly a job, after all..."

Brian shifted slightly. "Now you made me curious. Do tell."

"It's nothing much, really. I just made a new friend," Lisa explained, her eyes gleaming knowingly. "She's an interesting sort - the same girl I got wiggy about last week. Funny how that happens."

"You sought her out, then?" Brian wondered, frowning. "You're not saying…?"

Lisa nodded, holding off on using her power. She needed more, and she wouldn't get it tonight. "I'm pretty sure I'm right, yeah - still fuzzy on the details. You know this is my area of expertise, though. The boss might not be too enthusiastic about my extracurricular activities, but as long as I'm keeping it outside working hours, things should be fine." She shrugged. "I have a little something to try out first, anyway. Call it an audition."

"You should discuss potential hires with everyone," Brian said warningly. "Besides, something tells me your friend wasn't wearing tights - and neither were you. Do you want to get in trouble?"

"Eh, I'm not helpless," Lisa noted. "Anyway, she needed my help, so I didn't really see a better alternative. I'm not going to force the issue, obviously." She crossed her arms. "Besides, you tend to trust my instincts when your life's in danger, so why not trust me on this? Do you honestly think I'll fuck up?"

"That's not…" Brian rubbed his forehead. "You know Rachel will freak about a recruit. You remember how things went with Spitfire? Or Circus?"

"This isn't the same. Besides, I wasn't the one who messed it up with Spitfire," Lisa remarked dryly. "Unfortunately, right now I think Rachel's dogs wouldn't defer to this one, so a meet-and-greet is out of the question. Give this amateur psychotherapist a few sessions, and I'll see what I can do about that." She wiggled her fingers and grinned. "Some caring ears, a little bit of Thinker magic, and we just might get something neat…"

Brian groaned despairingly. "Figures you'd find another weird one. Does she have a name?"

Lisa rolled her eyes. "Everyone has a name, silly." She wagged her finger. "And no, I don't think so. Anyway, I'm going to keep this one separate from the rest of the group, since it's too soon to call. I need more data." She paused. "But if you must, you can call her…" She shrugged. "Amalgam."

"...Yeah, that's not cryptic at all," Brian muttered. "Is she any good?"

"You know me," Lisa said lightly, grinning. "She'll be the best."


Rumors 1.3 - My Inspiration

It was a given that I would visit Lisa again, and I did so just a few days after our first run-in. I returned to that same dingy little pub where we'd shared a drink, certain that for a few hours I could ignore a lot of the usual crap of my life, and be myself - after a fashion. Shy, conservative with words, and on the paranoid side - but not completely miserable.

Lisa saw right through me as I sank into a chair, and she smiled with a sort of sad understanding that only dad could match. It was amazing to realize just how much I had missed sharing a word or two with someone who didn't look at me with pity or worry, and my new friend's dark expression from the first day didn't return - she was bright and enthusiastic throughout, obviously quite intent to keep things light. My mood lifted with hers, enjoying the positive moment in a dreary always, and it was the first time in months that I felt like things could genuinely get better.

Honestly, it couldn't get much worse.

True to her word, Lisa had brought some things for me to look over; a whole stack of them, in fact. I didn't quite know what I had expected to receive, but what I got was stunning with a side-order of amazing. Apparently Lisa had compiled a truly massive collection of random information about all sorts of capes, ranging from their height and favourite food all the way to details on their powers, and everything in between.

I had never seen anything quite like it, and though the disorganized mess could clearly use a lot of work in terms of structuring, there was a masterwork hidden in there - I could almost see it.

Perhaps it was because she was my only friend, but I carried that particular thought rather further than I might have done otherwise. One idea kept prodding at me in the silent hours, urging me to do something about it, and I'd caved soon enough. My body protested against the sleepless nights, but I weathered them because I had a friend again, and I wasn't going to let her down.

Lisa hadn't even asked for anything in particular, but I couldn't very well give all her carefully collected information back without comment, so I set off to do a little annotating. By reading her work and doing something with it, I decided, she would see that I was worthy of such a gift. It was an incredibly unhealthy way to look at a friendship, but it worked for me. I was enthusiastic about something again, and that was all that really mattered!

My self-appointed work was not easy. When I finally got all the way through Lisa's poorly formatted notations, after hours of puzzling and scratching my head, I was honestly intrigued by what all that I'd found. Many of the notations were short or almost nonsensical and they jumped from tangent to tangent with intermediate steps missing altogether, but there was some system there, nevertheless. The confusion might have discouraged me, if note for the few bits I did understand. The cape geek in me was giddy with excitement at every complicated theory she'd jotted down about obscure capes from far-off places, every list of tinker gadgets and sketch of suits and uniforms, and they all made me want to figure out the missing pieces that she'd left out. Hundreds of faces and names were missing from the collection, but there was a lot of information present that I'd never read before, spread across dozens of subjects.

This was every cape geek's dream, I knew. Lisa's collection was a labor of love, completely hand-written across what had to be months or years, slowly added to whenever something new came came up, amended to fix mistakes. It was a fanatic's bible. And Lisa had given it away without a second thought. To me. To someone she met only days before. A perfect stranger.

That… that was pretty awesome.

I didn't return to visit Lisa the next week, but not for lack of caring - instead, I spent more and more time at home, engaged in my self-appointed mission to the exclusion of almost everything else. I was far too busy for distractions. I slaved away on a half-formed concept that took shape even as I typed away. Caught up in long-abandoned interests that burned anew, I barely even left my room, and school was an afterthought. Between my books and the internet, I had my hands more than full.

It took me two weeks to turn part of Lisa's disjointed mess of inferences into something coherent, something of a rough narrative. The shapeless blob of hypotheses now had an actual structure with a beginning, middle, and end - it was getting somewhere. I had never been particularly brilliant at English Literature, but that didn't really matter - I wasn't writing for a Pulitzer. The manuscript was thirty-seven pages long, black on white, and I'd printed it using the rickety old printer that my dad hadn't used in ages. The ink was still drying as I picked up the first few sections, and while there were intermittent white lines across them that signified ink was running out, everything was legible and present. It was finally done!

'Mind Games', I called it, 'A History and Exploration of Thinker Capes.' That was a topic which Lisa's notes had covered very extensively, though I had barely known two things about before I opened up her complicated treasure trove of information. It was the natural first choice to work on, and it admittedly felt amazing to enjoy learning after the disaster that was school. Almost every theory that Lisa had offered made it into the paper - and some of my own, constructed from the information I'd analyzed myself.

She had to like it, I decided, more confident than I'd felt in months. I picked up my phone, calling Lisa for the first time in nearly two weeks, and it took a long while for her to pick up. Finally, just before I was going to hang up, her voice resounded across the line - sleepy, disoriented. What was she doing, napping in the middle of the afternoon?

"Wuzzah?"

"It's me," I answered nervously.

"Taylor!" Lisa called, and she sounded clear awake, now. "You're - you want to meet? Right?"

I bit my lip. "...Yeah. When?"

"It's… That's good! Great!" Lisa proclaimed. "This is kind of inconvenient - but well, never mind that. You are probably more important. Yeah - yeah. Definitely more important. I'll be at the usual spot in half an hour!" She hung up.

I just stared at my phone for a moment, incredulous. Lisa clearly hadn't expected me to call back at all, as she sounded downright stunned at my call. Still - the enthusiasm in her voice had been obvious, and I smiled to myself at the fact that someone cared.

"Taylor?" a voice asked, and I froze for an instant before recognizing it. "Are you alright?"

I glanced to the door of my room, realizing distantly that I'd forgotten to close it, too caught up in my rediscovered hobby to pay attention. My dad was standing there, looking at the freshly printed pages in my hands with an odd expression of disbelief. I wondered how long he'd been there. Had he seen my little conversation?

"...Hi dad," was all I managed. I hadn't really spoken to him in days, it seemed. I saw him in the morning, of course, but he was usually gone before I was properly awake, and I would have locked myself in my room by the time he came back. I was pretty sure he knew I wasn't going to school regularly - but he hadn't mentioned that at all. What could I say, now?

"You look - better," my dad said after a long moment, stepping into the room hesitantly, as if he expected me to toss him out at any moment. He glanced around, perhaps surprised that I hadn't let it turn into a pigsty, and nodded to himself. "I was worried you were… I don't know what I thought. Stupid things. Could be anything in this city." He focused on the papers I'd reflexively pressed to my chest. "I wondered what you were doing… I see you've been busy."

"...Yeah." I shifted a little to show him the gift I'd typed up. "It's for… I think I made a friend."

"A friend, huh?" My dad's eyes seemed to light up behind his thick glasses, and some of the lines on his face seemed to vanish. "Really? That's wonderful!" He glanced down at my hands again, brow furrowing as he glanced at the title page of my article. "Capes? You met this friend of yours on the internet, I take it?"

"Her name's Lisa," I blurted in response, wondering if I should disabuse him of the notion, and tell him about our little meetings. I wrestled with my tongue, but explanations were beyond me. "She's… nice," I managed. I wanted to say something more, but I couldn't get the words out even as I tried. It was as if they vanished halfway between my brain and my mouth, suddenly dropping into the ether. I concentrated, getting a little angry with myself at my failure, although I had learned to expect it. "She's not from school," I added at last, halfway towards a decent explanation.

"I see." Dad seemed to understand the subtext, nodding sadly as he looked away. "I suppose that's why you've been skipping classes again, huh?" he observed. "I wish there were alternatives to the situation, Taylor. I wish I knew…" He stopped again, and I thought I saw tears in his eyes for an instant. "After January - I've been trying to get something arranged, but it's…"

"I know..." I whispered. I did understand - between the school's utter lack of sympathy and Emma's dad, there weren't many options to consider. We didn't have the money for a better school, and dad had trouble enough keeping his job without having to throw my education around.

"Just... just do what you think is right, and I'll handle the fallout, alright?" dad said slowly, eyes downcast. "We'll see if there's options when Summer vacation comes around. Until then, just act responsibly, and we'll get through this. We always have."

"Yeah." I looked away. "Of course."

"Taylor…" He looked at me again with that conflicted gaze, that tangible uncertainty. "You know I'll always love you, right? No matter what you -" He grimaced as he cut himself off. "No matter who you are inside."

"...I know that, dad." Now there were tears in my eyes. Why was he getting all emotional, now of all times? Why was I? "I… I'm gonna go out for a while…" I murmured, mortified. "Alright?"

Dad narrowed his eyes for a brief moment, perhaps realizing my attempt to flee the situation, then nodded mechanically. "Alright - if that's what you need to do. But… be careful out there, and be ready - take your pepper spray with you. And remember that you shouldn't trust anyone." He took another deep, shuddering breath as he gestured to the door. "Stay safe."

I agreed distractedly, stuffing my article into a bag under dad's watchful eyes. "Later, dad," I murmured as I passed him at the door. "I'll be at dinner."

He nodded, and his smile mirrored my own. Things weren't perfect - but we managed.

We always did.


Rumors 1.4 - My Gift

I got to the little pub off the Boardwalk in record time, unable to shake the talk with my dad from my mind, or forget that strange look in his eyes. I was tempted to go back, to try and explain what was going on in my life, but the very thought of it seemed to constrict my throat - I couldn't handle that. Not yet. I glanced to the pack of paper under my arm, my little gift for Lisa, and tried to gather my courage, such as it was.

The bar was, as ever, devoid of much life. I suspected that it would get busier later at night, but while the sun was up the pub might as well be a ghost town for all the regulars it had. Well - this wasn't my first time here, though, so by some definitions I'm sure I counted as a regular. That thought was confirmed when the waitress looked up from reading something, and smiled in recognition. I nodded at her as I headed for my usual seat.

I halted in the middle of my step. Lisa was already present, of course, hands behind her head as she leaned against the wall, her chair balancing precariously on two legs. She wasn't the one that surprised me, though. That would be her neighbour. Hanging limply on his own chair, a boy my age was looking at Lisa with a vaguely annoyed expression, his mop of black curls almost covering his eyes in their shade, the white hood of his vest hiding the rest of his face from view. I'd only been there for a few seconds when his light blue eyes turned to me without a hint of surprise.

"Look who's here," the boy said without even looking at Lisa. "Of course you'd run all the way here, just to prove her right…"

"Told you she'd be quick," Lisa replied smugly, her smile broadening. "And you wouldn't believe I made an actual friend, would you? You honestly should know better. The house always wins."

"Har har."

Hesitantly, I stepped closer, clutching my bag to the chest as I glanced from one to the other. Noting Lisa's amusement, my gaze slipped back to him. My confusion was clearly written all over my face, as Lisa snorted in amusement.

"Don't mind this idiot," she noted, winking. "I was in the middle of something when you called, and he got overly curious…" Hadn't she been sleeping? "Anyway, I couldn't get him to let sleeping dogs lie, so..." She sighed. "Taylor - this lump here is Alec. We work together, sort of. He's nice enough, most of the time."

"You shower me with faint praise," Alec said as he looked me over. I tried for a smile, but my nervousness was evidently clearly visible. "Nice to meet you."

"...Sure," I answered. "Same."

An awkward silence followed.

Lisa tapped on the chair next to her, cocking her head to the side curiously. "Don't worry, I'll make sure he won't bite. Much, anyway."

Alec snorted. "Please, what kind of person do you think I am? I leave that kind of stuff to Rachel."

I didn't know quite what to say to the quibbling pair, but I wasn't going to run before I'd given Lisa what I'd made. Slipping into the seat next to her, as far away from the boy as possible, I tried not to look too uncomfortable. I didn't have a very good track record with guys - especially not handsome ones - though Alec probably counted as more pretty. Italian descent, I figured.

"Well, look at that. She's shaking like a leaf," Alec murmured, and I felt myself color despite myself, grasping for the cup of tea that Lisa must've ordered before I even arrived. "You sure know how to pick 'em, Lisa…"

"Don't be a dick," she deadpanned. "You had to butt your nose into things for no reason. I told you that there were… issues to work through."

"I had a perfectly legitimate interest," Alec protested.

"I'm sure you did, in your weird little mind." Lisa rolled her eyes as she focused on me again. "You alright there, Taylor? You look - better than last time, actually." She blinked. "That's kind of unexpected. No offense."

I nodded slowly, looking down at my glass. "I guess…"

"Still a bit of a mute, though," Lisa observed lightly. "But you've been busy, haven't you?" She cocked her head to the side. "You know, after last time, I was afraid you were going to try something - troubling. You didn't call, didn't pick up the phone… You fell off the grid. I've been thinking about tracking you down."

Though her suggestion hurt, I smiled at her genuine concern, and nodded. "I was busy," I agreed, fumbling hurriedly for my bag, removing Mind Games from in between the pages of a heavy book that prevented it from getting too crumpled on the way over. "I made this," I said lamely as I put it on the table. "It's… for you."

"For me, huh?" Lisa's brow furrowed momentarily as she took my article, and she glanced to it and back with that penetrating gaze of hers. It seemed like it could cut through bone. "Mind Games?" she mouthed, eyebrows raised. "A history of thinker capes."

"What?" Alec asked, glancing over. "Did you just say -"

"Yeah. It's based on something I gave her. My notes," Lisa said shortly, flipping through my gift, glancing over the text with narrowed eyes. "I figured that maybe if someone else could understand my notations, someone clever. I had a hunch…" She looked up. "This is… excellent stuff. You processed what I gave you, that much is obvious - certainly no amateur hijinks. Especially given I have trouble deciphering half the stuff I wrote in the past..."

"I…" What could I say? The words wouldn't even come to mind. "...Thanks?"

"You told me you were a cape geek - but this is just cool." Lisa paused, looking over my creation with suspicious eyes. "How did you figure out all this thinker-related stuff? I'm fairly sure I left it in bits and pieces. Out of everything, that had to have been one of my more scatterbrained topics."

I shrugged helplessly.

Lisa sighed laboriously. "Yeah, I figured this talking thing would be a problem," she complained as she leaned over. "Communication is important - and I can tell that you're struggling in there. You're tensing up, you're frustrated with yourself, but you can't quite break through this - facade of yours." She nodded. "It's involuntarily - or at the very least, you can't figure it out from the inside..."

Alec sighed. "Why are you bothering with this, Lisa?"

"Because I'm not an asshole," she shot back, glaring. "You of all people should know why it's important to get a handle on these sorts of - emotional problems. I don't care about what comes after all this, let's just act as decent human beings in the interim." She looked down at Mind Games. "Besides, I have a feeling that this… this means something. An important clue, I think, though clearly not enough to work from yet."

"You think that is important?" Alec asked acerbically, glaring from under his curls, his gaze never wandering from mine. "You think this - this dishrag of a girl is important? I know you've had some strange friends, but this one takes the cake." He sniffed. "This weakling..."

The words didn't hurt, really - I'd grown numb to them long ago - but a feeling of intense disappointment bubbled up from inside. I wasn't sure if I was disappointed with him, or the screwed-up world we shared, or at the fact that I'd gotten my hopes up.

Lisa, though, stared at Alec as if he'd just grown antlers. "What did you just say?"

"You heard me. Why are we even here?" Alec asked, glowering. "We both have better things to do than hang out with depressed failures like her, don't we?" He moved to get up, still glaring at me, and Lisa joined him - only to slap him on the cheek. Hard. The sound seemed to echo in the small establishment, and I could only stare at the frozen moment.

After what seemed like ages, Alec rubbed his face, blinking. "Ow, what the hell, Lisa…?"

"Did you listen to yourself just now?" Lisa demanded, still standing opposite him, her hand quivering from the slap. "Did you even know what you were saying? God, here I've been trying not to screw this up, and you just waltz in and - " she paused, and her incensed expression made way for something else - something curious and terrible. Her gaze slowly moved back to me, eyes wide. "Oh. Oh."

"Lisa…?" Alec blinked slowly, following her gaze to me. After a long moment, his breath hitched - and then he paled. "Oh, fuck. You're not saying she's got that?"

"Don't talk about it in here," Lisa hissed, glancing to the waitress. "Too public,"she added, snapping up my article, and before I knew it she'd grabbed my arm and dragged me away - a gesture that was all too familiar already. Alec followed swiftly, dropping a fiver at the bar without even looking twice. I tried to struggle against her iron grip - but my feet wouldn't stop, and all I managed was a tremble.

Lisa didn't head onto the Boardwalk proper. Instead, she dragged me into one of the back alleys, where rust and decay popped up out of nowhere only a short distance from the clean streets. Behind the thin veneer of the city's main thoroughfares things were dirty and old, and I stared at the crumbling buildings as we passed them by. I'd never been here - I'd never even seen these places. Dad wouldn't have allowed it, either.

"Just bear with me for a while," Lisa noted, and I wasn't sure who she was addressing as she turned into a side corner. It was only then that I realized Alec was well behind us - was that comment aimed at me? "We'll be there soon, no worries."

We dived through two, three partially blocked side-streets, into some kind of industrial area that had been abandoned ages ago. Our haphazard journey ended as Lisa kicked open the rotten door to a particularly worn building, its windows caked with dust and its roof rotting away. The inside smelt terrible, and I had to gag - I didn't have time to complain, though, as I was led down the stairs and into the cellar.

The utterly clean, well-stocked cellar. The wallpaper was old and discolored, but the place was in remarkably good condition given the rest of the house. What the hell?

"Isn't this one of his places?" Alec asked nervously as he entered behind us, closing the door to the upper level. "Should we be in here at all?"

"It's fine. I wouldn't have gotten an address if we couldn't use it," Lisa said in response, glancing around. "There hasn't been anyone here in at least a month or two, and it'll be that way for at least a few more weeks. It's a bit dusty - but we'll manage." She grabbed a lawnchair from the corner of the room, and dumped me on it without fanfare. "Stay here."

What was I, a dog? A surge of anger tried to break out, and I meant to speak up, to flip out - but I couldn't do it. A meek 'Okay,' was all that came out of my mouth. Damn it. What the hell do I do? All my anger was reduced to useless echoes in my skull.

"I know you're very pissed off right now," Lisa murmured almost to herself, frowning as she put down two more plastic chairs, the only ones available. "And on other days, I'm pretty sure you'd be scratching my eyes out - but there's progress there. Two weeks ago I couldn't even tell the real you was in there…" She raised an eyebrow. "Given your current predicament, I think a cure is worth a little manhandling, right? Trust me, we mean well."

She was talking about a - a cure. For what? For my weakness?

"Lisa…" Alec spoke up warningly. "You know what we just did, right? We can't just go around kidnapping people off the street, not to mention doing whatever the hell it is you're planning…" He sighed. "Don't tell me. It's going to be nuts and everyone's going to flip out when they hear about it, right? That seems like you."

"Nah. I'm planning nothing important," Lisa responded mildly. She stuck up two fingers in a peace sign as she turned back to me. "Hey there, Taylor. I'm Lisa - but you can also call me Tattletale. I'm a cape, surprise!"

"Lisa, stop!" Alec snapped. "What do you think -"

"The mouthy bastard is Regent," she continued undaunted, as if her words were about mundanities like the weather, rather than about parahumans. "He's got powers too, obviously. Don't spread it around."

Capes - Lisa and Alec were capes. The idea didn't want to register for a long moment, even though the idea had crossed my mind, momentarily, when I was working on Mind Games. I'd written it off as too bizarre, too coincidental. I didn't know Alec, but Lisa was my friend - someone who liked to hang out and talk, not someone like Alexandria or Miss Militia. She didn't come across as much of a fighter at all - she was more of a…

"Thinker," I whispered in recognition.

Alec - Regent let out a long sigh. "Goddamnit."

Lisa grinned at me. "Good deduction, though you had all the parts to solve this a while ago... Yes, I do indeed have a thinker power," Lisa agreed. "And unless I'm very mistaken - so do you."