Interlude 15b: The Anchor

Source material: Worm, Interlude 15b

Originally blogged: November 1-3, 2018


Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #2)

Something about this chapter header seems familiar.

So, we’re back in Interlude territory. Damn, this Arc is hard to speculate on with the regular chapters, and then you add a whole bunch of Interludes? Which have historically been very hard to speculate on before I start?

Fair enough.

I’m gonna try anyway. So, who are we likely to get this time?

I’ve suggested this for several previous Interludes already, but I think it’s reasonable to bring up the Travelers again. They are very possibly going to be important when we start properly going up against Coil (which might be next Arc rather than this one), and their internal affairs – what we know of them – connect well with the previous chapter’s focus on communication and openness.

Relatedly, their situation is relevant to what I’ve supposed might be the story concept or theme of this Arc, with regards to groups falling apart due to internal conflict. The Travelers are very fragile in that sense, sticking together only because of some shared history and a promise.

I’ve wanted a Traveler Interlude for a while now, but right now the case for that actually coming up (if not in this Interlude, then in another one soon) is stronger that ever.

If we do get a Traveler Interlude, I suspect it’ll be Ballistic. Not counting the two Travelers behind the scenes, he’s the one we know the least, and for some reason I’ve gotten the impression that he might be the one who’d be most affected if he were to learn the 325 (which I believe belongs to Trickster, the second most likely Traveler to get an Interlude).

Otherwise… Maybe we could have an Interlude from the perspective of someone who runs into Armsmaster? That seems much less thematically consistent with the rest of the Arc, but I kinda just want an update on him. At least enough to tell whether he survived the Nine or not. (This is wishful thinking, of course. It’s probably better to wait until he floats back into relevance anyway.)

Without further ado, let’s take a look!


I joke about the chapter headers, but at least that “#2” makes the (so far) two Interlude 15s more distinct than the two Interlude 8s were. :p


He pummeled the bag, one hit after another.  There wasn’t any real rhyme or reason to his strikes.  Only his training persisted, hardwired into his brain: the joints of his hands were stacked, his weight shifted back and forth over the balls of his feet, and the room was filled with the muffled thumps of fist against vinyl.

Brian, is that you?

Whoever this is seems to be taking out some aggression.

His dad would be yelling at him right about now, shouting at him about how he was risking injury.  Didn’t matter.

Yeah, this is Brian. Nice, I’m all for that. 🙂

So what’s got you riled up, pal? It could be what Lisa and Alec did in the last chapters, once he got filled in, but I doubt it. We already spent last chapter dealing with Taylor’s reaction to that, and given the whole friendly betrayal and deception thing, it’s way more related to her character than Brian’s. Even if he might consider it an unnecessary risk.

Where were Brian and Rachel during all that, anyway?

Just needed to hit something.

Needed to release.  To feel some relief, push himself to a point where he was too tired to think.

Ahh. Escapism from the trauma of what Bonesaw and Mannequin did to him?


Except all he felt was a mounting frustration.

It spooked him, just a little.  He couldn’t help but wonder if this was his new default state.  If this was how he’d be for the rest of his life.

These things do have a tendency to leave lasting scars. But right now, it’s more of a healing wound. It hasn’t settled down into just a scar yet, if you catch my meaning?

He twisted his body to strike the bag with a roundhouse kick.  The bag swung from the chain.

He turned away.  Sweat streamed down his body, his hands were shaking, and he couldn’t control his breathing.

“Jesus, bro.  You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”

Hi, Aisha. Did Brian know you were there?

He snapped his head around to see Aisha in the doorway.  Cognitively, he’d known who she was the second he’d heard her voice, and he recognized her at a glance.  Still, that initial alarm that came with being surprised sang through his nerves, not a momentary sensation, but a thrum of tension that wouldn’t go away.

Yikes.

So does Aisha’s favor from Taylor have to do with Brian’s state of mind? Except why would she not want Coil to hear about that? …because it could be a weakness for Coil to exploit if they went up against him directly, perhaps? Hmm.


She didn’t seem to notice.  It was like they were two different people in two very different scenes.  She had her mask in one hand, her black scarf loosely piled around her neck.

I’m not sure whether or not she noticed. Aisha is sharper than one might guess, but she’s not that great with nuanced communication, I think.

Nowhere near Rachel’s levels of “not that great”, of course. I’m talking more in terms of regular personal skills.

For a half second, he could see Bonesaw standing there instead, about the same height, dress, bloodstained apron glittering with tools and wide eyes darting about, taking in everything in her surroundings as if there was inspiration or tools to be found anywhere.

Oof.

This… reminds me of Carol, a few chapters back. Both of them find themselves reminded of the person responsible for a trigger event by a family member’s appearance.

He blinked, hard, and that fleeting image slipped away.  It wasn’t the same.  Aisha’s investigation of the area was casual, comfortable and idle, surveying his room.  At the top floor of the headquarters he shared with her, his room had a punching bag, weight bench and sink in one corner, a bed and a stand for his costume in the opposite corner, and a television placed where he could watch it anywhere in the room.  Not that there was much available in the way of channels.

So the TV is in a third corner, then, or other furniture is placed in such a way that he can’t normally get into its blind zone.

And yeah, I suppose after the Shattering, only the satellite TV channels would work.

“You’re back,” he grunted.  “Didn’t tell me you were going.”

“You mean I didn’t ask permission.  No.  I totally wanted to hang around here with you wound as tight as a new clock.”

Wait. Is she back from something else or did they not tell Brian about the outing to deal with the Chosen at all?


“That doesn’t make sense,” he said, still panting for breath.  His chest hurt.  He stepped over to the sink and splashed water on his face.

What, the metaphor?

“Sue me.  Not like I’ve ever seen a wind-up clock.  Not like you’ve ever seen one either.  Don’t pretend you’re so much more civilized.”

Hah!

(I have!)

“Grandpa had one.”

“Really?”

He only nodded, still trying to get his breathing under control.  This isn’t just the exercise.  Something else.  Can’t let her see it.

Like Carol, he’s hiding his reaction.

Except I think this has less to do with pretending he loves her and more to do with appearing strong, competent, fearless. Macho.

“Still good to see…” he had to pause to catch a breath, “You’re okay.”

“Of course I’m okay, dumbass.  Nobody knows I’m there.”

Now, where exactly is “there” in this case? Is it where we just were, or has Aisha regularly been taking off to spy on someone?

Also, way to be rude in response to genuine concern. See, this is the kind of thing I was talking about with “nuanced communication”.

“Not good enough.”  He began peeling off his gloves.

I mean, yes, there are plenty of things that could hurt Aisha in spite of – or even because of – people not knowing she’s there. Like anything with an AoE destructive effect. Aisha is more susceptible than most to friendly fire like that.


“I’ve got the costume Skitter made me.  I had no idea she was wearing something like this,” Aisha pulled at the fabric between her fingers, stretching it.  “It’s so smooth and so light, I thought she was bullshitting about the fact that you couldn’t cut it.  But I tried and she was right.  It’s crazy.  But yeah, I’m as safe as any of you.  Safer.”

This is fair, though. Everyone else can also be hit by AoE attacks. Aisha’s power just makes it slightly more likely to happen when the attacker is friendly to her, and significantly less likely to happen when the attacker is hostile. Especially considering that she can go in between the enemies, and a hostile attacker would probably not want to attack them. Unless they were dealing with a three-party battle.

That’s not saying that much.  He examined his hands, where the skin was torn.  Blood had welled out from the open wound and been pressed into the creases and pores. He turned on the tap again and put his hands under, washing where his skin was raw and bleeding at the knuckles.

Should probably have listened to your inner Dad Laborn, just this once.

“Jesus fuck,” she gasped, looking past him to his hands.  “Any time I’ve spent in the gyms, it’s ’cause Dad dragged me there, so I wasn’t paying attention so much as I was looking for the nearest exit.  But I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be bleeding like that.”

Yeah, that’s not supposed to happen.

What was he supposed to say to that?

Yeeeah, how about the truth? How you’re broken apart by what Bonesaw did to you, how you’re breaking yourself further to drown out that pain?


“Why did you do that to yourself?”

Thank you, Aisha. Nuance isn’t your thing, but you know what questions to ask sometimes.

“Just trying to tire myself out.”

…I hereby grant you permission to play the “why” game, Aisha.

“You’re already tired, you dumbass!  This isn’t going to improve the situation.  How long were you fucking hitting that thing?  The entire time I was gone?”

I’ve handled worse, he thought.  He’d meant it as a joke, a moment of personal humor, but the amusement didn’t come.

Yeah, no, sorry. That’s not really funny.

Incision here… saw through the breast bone, there we go.  You’re cooperating so nicely!  Not that you have much of a choice.  Oh, here. 

Oh cod, we’re getting flashback quotes.

Oh hell yes, we’re getting flashback quotes!

This part is always cool.  See, the ribs are flexible, and with the sternum separated, a little bit of help from Spider thirty-three here, they unfold like a bird slowly spreaaaaading its wings.

Case in point for my change of tone there. She’s so good.


He leaned over the sink, gripping the edges.  That pressure in his chest was getting worse.

I should hope that pressure isn’t your organs pressing themselves out. We’ve had enough of that already.

Her tone changed.  “Hey, seriously, are you okay?  You’ve been breathing really hard for a bit now, and now you’ve gone really quiet for, like, a minute.  I didn’t use my power, either, so I know it’s not you ignoring me because of that.”

At first it was half “seriously, bro, what the fuck?”, but now that part’s fading into genuine concern.

He bit back the harsh retort, telling her to shut up, to stop being annoying and go away, that he wanted to be alone.  If he did, she would; she’d run away from home six times in four years, had gone from their mother’s house to their father’s, back to their mother’s and then to foster care.

We wouldn’t want her running away from here too.

Every time, there was a reason, some argument or incident that had pushed her.  Any excuse would do, even a criticism at the wrong moment.  The child services workers would put her somewhere else, praying for some stability that she would never have.

I appreciate that Brian has the presence of mind to consider these things before retorting, though “she’ll go away” isn’t the only reason he shouldn’t be that harsh towards her. Even if the tendency to be rude in response to concern might run in the family.

She was flighty, like a wild animal that would bolt at a loud noise.  That might forever be the case.

Perhaps she is. Perhaps you’re underestimating how shitty life with her mother was.


If he lashed out like he had with Taylor, he doubted Aisha would forgive him so readily.

“I’m okay,” he lied.  “Tired.”

He couldn’t scare her away like that, but he was afraid he would, anyways.

So there is a part of him that says “no, she won’t run”. But also a part that says “BuT wHaT iF sHe DoEs?!”.

[On a reread, this reads more like “he couldn’t bring himself to scare her away like that” than the “he wouldn’t be capable of scaring her away like that” I originally read it as.]

Couldn’t trust himself like this, feeling like he was on the verge of snapping.

The fact that he was spooked over the idea only contributed to the problem, compounded that restless anxiety that seemed to have nestled deep in the core of his body, which gave him more reason to worry.  An endless cycle.

Fun times all around.

If he were more rested, he knew, more rational, he could break the cycle, deliberately focus on something else.  He’d hoped the exercise would help there.  It hadn’t.

It’s Brian’s turn to desperately need restful sleep.

But with what happened to him, it can probably be difficult to fall asleep, let alone to sleep without nightmares when he does.


He flinched as a hand settled on his arm.

“Hey,” Aisha said.  “Zoning out again.”

Aisha, internally: “Yeah, he’s not okay.”

“Mm.”

“I was going to go out on a patrol near the school.  Tattletale said there’s some leftover members of the Merchants hanging around over here, thought I’d scare them off.

Ah, Merchants. Been a while.

Maybe see if I can drive them into Ballistic’s territory, if I can’t push them out of the city.”

So basically shoving the problem over to him.

“Don’t antagonize him,” Brian said.

“Just saying, he’s better suited for a straight-up fight, and these guys are low-level mooks. We want them to panic, to see there’s no place to go.”

That’s fair.


No place to go.

“I’ll come,” he decided.

Good. Get some air. You really need it, I think.

…so do I, actually. *opens window*

“No!” She said, with a little too much emphasis.  “No you won’t.  I’m perfectly capable of handling this.  I’d stay to keep an eye on you, if I didn’t think it would do more harm than good.”

Oh yeah, I do suppose he’s a bit too tired.

Still. Get some air into the room.

“Alright,” he conceded.  “Alright.  Some quiet sounds good.”

Are you sure? Because while that might help you rest, it might also leave you thinking.


“I don’t want you doing this again, okay?” she gestured toward the bag, then his hands.  “Really, it’s more than a little creepy.  I know I don’t have a nurturing nature, like, at all, but I’m gonna feel pretty terrible if I come back and you’re a bloody mess.”

At least she’s self-aware about it.

Oh,” Taylor’s voice, a croak.  “Oh, Brian.

Ah, second flashback, this time from when the Undersiders found him in that freezer room (right?). If we’re going chronologically, that probably means we’re not getting any more Bonesaw in these.

He winced.

“Poor choice of words,” Aisha said.  Quieter, she added, “Sorry.”

It’s good to see that she recognizes it.

“We shouldn’t be going anywhere alone,” he said.  He was only now feeling like his breathing was getting under control.

It doesn’t help that both of them ended up in Bonesaw’s clutches because they each went off on their own.

“Tattletale did.  Skitter did.  Regent sort of did.”

“Tattletale and Skitter can see trouble coming.  Regent’s got Shatterbird so he’s not alone.”

Debatable.

Aisha shook her head.  “Which doesn’t do him any good if he gets shot.  Shatterbird would get free, and then everyone loses.”

True!


Don’t want to argue.  Don’t want to get too deep into this.  There’s already too many things to keep track of, too many variables to consider.  “Hopefully everyone has more common sense than that.  He really should be keeping her in containment unless she’s needed.”

Yeah, I agree. She’s a constant risk factor, even as useful as she may be.

But Brian, are you suggesting that you think common sense is common?

“We were taking on the Chosen, and some of Purity’s people.  It’s all good.  We picked up Victor, and Tattletale’s hoping you’ll try your power on him, see if you can’t pick something up.”

Time to see how Brian feels about not being told this in advance.

Brian nodded, “After.”

Huh. Seems like he doesn’t particularly mind. Even hearing that his sister had been up against the supremacists.

“So I’m gonna go now-”

He grimaced.  “I don’t want you going alone.”

“It’s dangerous to go alone,” he said, pulling a tiny sword out of his pocket. “Take this.”


“I’m going with Regent.  Relax.”

Not sure that makes me feel better.

Hah.

“Not sure that’s the company I want you to keep.”

He was well familiar with the annoyed look that flashed over her face before she forced it away.  She said, “It’s fine.  He’s your buddy, and our powers actually work well together.  You and me, we can’t… what’s the word?”

Synergize?

“Synergize.”

Yes, that.

“We can’t synergize.  I do my thing, you do yours, but we get in each other’s way.  You blind me, I wipe myself from your memory.  With Regent and me, I can set people up for him to mess with, give him a chance to use his power.  Or we mix it up a little, so I spook people, then he uses his power to make them feel like they’re being pushed around while I deal with others, to freak them out.

Niice.

Wait. Does Regent not forget about Imp too? Does his awareness of people’s bodies work around it like Lisa’s general intuition does?

Or I go in first and then give him word on what’s going on.”

“You’ve been out with him before,” he realized.

Yeah, it’s pretty clear by now that she doesn’t tell you everything she’s up to.

“Couple times.  Just doing what you asked, not going out alone.  You weren’t exactly up to it.”

Like you take Brian’s authority seriously enough for that to be the only reason.


He looked down at his hands and picked off a peel of skin.

“Um.  So yeah.  You stay right here, try to take it easy?”  She sounded a little tense.

Save the skin peeling for your alone time, Brian. Seriously.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Maybe we could go for a walk later?  Check on one of the ‘rents?”

I mean, that’s a lot easier for you to do than for Brian.

It also sounds like one of the last things he’d want to do. Though it’d be nice to get a direct look at their dad the way we did for their mom.

It sounded so unlike her.  He could count on one hand the number of times she’d been this conciliatory and gentle.  He couldn’t remember a single case where she’d acted like that when she hadn’t wanted something.

Hmm.

I’m still inclined to think she’s genuinely very concerned about you, for once.

Brian forced a smile.  “Maybe.  You go.  Be safe.”

He was both relieved and terrified when the door shut behind Aisha.

Alone time, for better or worse.


So many things were like that, now.  Bad with the good, or just plain bad.

Didn’t realize she’d been out with Regent.  Need to catch up on things.

Are we going to have Brian contacting others for updates, or are we leaving that stuff for off-screen / later?

He flexed his hands, feeling the pain where he’d damaged himself, and made his way into what he liked to call the war room.

Pfft, that sounds suitably nice and epic.

The war room sat opposite Aisha’s room, on the same floor as his.  It wasn’t large, but it didn’t really have to be.  Satellite images of various locations around the city had been printed out onto four-by-five foot sheets of laminated paper, rolls shelved on the wall with labels in marker.

So it’s exactly what the name suggests. A room where you plan your battle tactics around a map.

It genuinely is a war room, it’s just that the war is on a significantly smaller scale.

They varied in size, with some extending over the whole city, while others covered the various territories.

He picked the roll for his own territory and unfurled it.

Let’s take a look.

His territory was marked out in black marker.  Southwest end of the Docks.  Lots of residential areas, lots of schools, small businesses, restaurants.  Lots of hiding places for troublemakers.  People he was expected to deal with in short order.  More problematic, he was expected to keep anyone else from coming in and setting up shop.

Basically, you need to pull yourself together if you’re to keep the territory up.

And then when you go up against Coil, that might be jeopardized anyway.

Wasn’t right that Tattletale shouldered the full load, when she had her own territory to look after.

Her power isn’t even particularly good for doing this, either. At least she has Coildiers, though.


Coil had provided the map, and Tattletale had provided the details.  Various symbols and gang symbols marked out spots where enemies were lurking.  Stars for the nobodies, the M with the two ‘dollar sign’ vertical lines struck through it for the stragglers from the defeated Merchants, and a wolf’s head for Fenrir’s Chosen.

Of course.

What about the Pure, what kind of symbol do you use for them? If not in this territory, then on the other maps?

His own were marked out in clear, blocky letters, noting priority, naming locations for what they were and briefly covering the nature of the operations these crooks and gangs were conducting in his territory.  Low level drug dealers and looters here, some Chosen dragging families from their home and selling them off as slave labor over there.

Eesh.

But the map had been altered.

Hm? What changed?

Red ‘x’ symbols crossed out a solid two-thirds of the symbols.  Barely-legible handwriting in the same red marker was squeezed into any space that wasn’t too dark to obscure it – filling the white border at the edge of the map.  ‘Gone’.  ‘Left city’.  ‘Hospitalized’.  There was a circle around one of the Merchants’ symbols at the school. The next target.

Looks like Aisha and Alec have been busy.

Lisa too, I suppose, but she doesn’t have immediate access to these maps most of the time, so she’d have to inform Aisha about her progress for Aisha to put it on the map.

So, what, are you going to sneak after them?


He knew he should feel relieved.  Knew that he should appreciate that Aisha had tried to do something to help him even if she wasn’t the best at expressing concern or affection.

He only felt guilty.

Hey! That’s Taylor’s trademark emotion. Now she’s going to have to sue you.

He’d been wallowing, stumbling around their headquarters in a fugue, and Aisha had apparently been going all out, taking out their enemies and clearing their territory of threats.  It had been a big task for the two of them, and she was doing it on her own.

With some help from Alec, probably. I don’t believe her when she says it’s only been a couple of times, what with how intimately she knew how well she and Alec worked together.

Why am I here?  He wondered.  He wasn’t a leader anymore, he wasn’t doing his job with his territory, wasn’t protecting the people he was important to, wasn’t working towards anything…

And your original motivation for being a cape has been largely out the window for quite a few Arcs now. Though the core of “protect Aisha” has remained.

Don’t go suicidal on us, though.


He shook his head, as if to shake off the thoughts that were plaguing him.

It had been four or five days since the Nine had left the city, and he’d been, what?  Spinning in place?  Sinking deeper and deeper into this well of negative emotion?

Finally, a solid timeframe. Thank you.

Hated this.  Hated that his body, which he’d always seen as something under his absolute control, a tool to be honed, was betraying him with this anxiety, panic and weakness.  His power, too, was a tool that now carried so many negative connotations.

Right. Though I think that last thing is something almost every cape who didn’t get their power from Cauldron has to deal with. You’ve got two triggers to think about, though, one of which literally had your body disassembled, so maybe you do have a bit of an upper hand in the misery olympics.

He hated that everything seemed so ugly now.  The city was soiled, ruined, and festering.  His friends and family were tainted with negative associations.

Naturalist literature hit this city hard.

Seizing territory felt both hollow and it reminded him that this business with Coil might collapse soon, or the city would be condemned, and he would have nowhere to go and nothing to do after that.  Except dwell on memories he didn’t want to dwell on.

Yeeeeah, there’s a very tangible sense of futility here.

It was hard to convince himself to care, especially with the alleged end of the world.

Maybe you should talk to Alec about that.


Of course, he couldn’t not deal with Coil.  Taylor wouldn’t stick around if they didn’t, for one thing, and he knew that the little girl deserved to be rescued.

She does, but let’s note that while he does think this, this makes it sound like he doesn’t care enough to remember her name.

I’m sure he does, it’s just something about the use of “the little girl” in place of it.

I spent three hours in that refrigerator.  Dinah’s spent nearly that many months with Coil. 

Ohh. So that’s what brought about this change of heart, besides the reduction in how much he needs to depend on Coil: He can relate to Dinah now.

And though it was nebulous, he feared the future.  He’d spent so many years of his life so sure in what he was doing, how A led to B led to C, that he wasn’t sure what to do now that the possibilities were so open-ended.

Let’s add Dinah to the list of people Brian should talk to.


Even the simplest things were screwed up, now.  Sleep in particular was hard to come by, and was riddled with terror dreams that left him more exhausted than when he’d put his head down to the pillow.

Unsurprisingly.
[above]

He clenched his fist, feeling the sting where his hand was still bleeding.

Okay, seriously, if it’s still bleeding at this point, you really should go and find a bandage for that.

He’d go after Aisha, lend some assistance, maybe, or make sure that everything was going okay.

Yeah, looks like we’re doing this.

There was no good narrative reason for the map to inform Brian of the next target otherwise. Some okay reasons, sure, but no good ones.


He couldn’t even explain his own line of thinking to himself.  He didn’t always like her, but he was barely able to think straight when he thought about Aisha suffering anything close to what he’d been through.

That honestly makes a lot of sense to me.

I’m not sure he’d wish that on his worst enemies, let alone his closest family.

Aisha would be annoyed, even upset.  She was already feeling pressured, but he had his own pressures, his own concerns.  It would reach a critical point one way or the other, but for now he needed to check on her.

He does patronize her a bit, but it’s all well-intentioned.

He paused when he’d re-entered his own room and found himself facing his costume as it hung on the stand.  The eyes were surrounded by ridges of horns, the teeth curled and curved into one another.  A demon, a creature of nightmare.

Are you sure you wanted this change?

Although… maybe he wasn’t comfortable with the skull anymore after having had his actual skeleton exposed?

…I could give you a skull face like that helmet of yours, only real… 

Oh. Yeah, that’s worse.

and crank your power up to the max, always on, give you some biological imperative to encourage cannibalism, see how long it takes for them to eliminate you if they can’t see or hear you…” 

So she wanted to turn him into an actual grue.


Fun fact I just discovered while looking up which game it was I needed to tag in the previous post (Zork, though the term “grue” for a dark-dwellling monster originates from Dying Earth):

Brian gets a mention in the “In popular culture” section of Wikipedia’s page on grues.

(Naturally, I noped out the moment I saw the phrase “The webserial Worm features”, in case of spoilers, so I don’t know exactly what it says about him.)


“You’re gone,” Brian growled to the empty room, seizing the mask in both hands and pulling it free of the stand.  “We won.  Shut up.”

Yes. Keep telling her that.

Her giggling was so vivid in his memory that it sounded like she was right next to him.

“No I’m not.”

He stared at the mask, glad it wasn’t the skull mask that Bonesaw had referenced.  Hard to explain why.

You really don’t need to explain why.

He was reaching to pull his mask on when he felt something brush against his bare arm.

Hm?

A moth?

Taylor, are you controlling this one?

Are you spying on Brian for Aisha?


[End of session]


[reblogging the following ask response from here]

I’m interested to see that a lot of people interpret Amy’s motivations/mental state and what Victoria became very differently to how I do. People seem to see a purpose or direction that I just don’t? I understood it to be that Amy fell into one of those feverish/nightmare states where you’re trying to do something very important but keep forgetting where you’re up to, so you start over and over. “What does Victoria look like? Swan neck, yes. Beautiful hair, yes. Delicate fingers, yes. What else? There’s a head there somewhere. What next? Oh, her hair, that’s important. I guess there are legs. No, I forgot her neck, got to put the neck in. What else? Hands, yes, what else…” Knowing that it wasn’t right but every time she tried to fix it she got caught in the loop again. It’s kind of an indication, to me, of how not in her right mind she was – she couldn’t even make her fit a human body plan? What state do you have to be in to forget that?

This sounds like a perfect description to me, yeah! This is exactly the kind of thing that would lead to the most important parts (to Amy) showing up over and over, and it fits with Amy’s description of what happened pretty well.

And yeah, I don’t think she had any more purpose or direction than “fix this”. And she failed to fix it, hard, because she was so damn out of it. Everything that had happened over the last, what, week or two? It all drove her to this.

What state do you have to be in? Clearly you have to be in Massachusetts.

So you know how sometimes you get a song stuck in your head, but you don’t fully know the lyrics, just certain bits of the song that you particularly like?

And so you find yourself idly singing the song to yourself, but not the way it’s supposed to be. Instead, you’re singing just the bits you really like, and since you don’t know the rest and can’t connect them, the song becomes a mishmash of those few bits, repeated over and over, in an almost random order.

Your brain is stuck, trying over and over again to recreate the song, but it can’t finish the puzzle, because it only has its favorite pieces and can’t remember where they go.


[Session 2]


“I sure hope that’s you,” he said.  “Because I’m talking to myself too much already.”

Hah.

The moth flew in a lazy circle in front of him.

So whether this is Taylor’s doing or not, the moth definitely represents her. A comforting touch on his arm, keeping him company through the pain.

“Right.  Meet you at the door,” he said.

Has Taylor been practicing listening through the bugs lately?

That’d be very good for spying.

He hesitated, then put the mask back on the stand.

A few minutes passed as he waited.  He found himself debating whether he’d misunderstood the moth’s movements as something they weren’t.

Who knows.

I kinda doubt he’s going to find himself at the door with no one there, just because we kinda need a new input for Brian to react to here. Something for the chapter to continue with besides idle thoughts.

I remember when I didn’t have these doubts about what I was doing. 

I suppose the fact that it was his decision that landed him in Bonesaw’s clutches doesn’t help with the hit it dealt to his confidence.

She wasn’t in costume.  It was odd, seeing her approach from a distance, observing her uninterrupted over a longer span of time.

This is probably going to be good. Observing Taylor from an outside perspective is generally interesting, and Brian has a very different outside perspective on her than, say, Sierra or any of their opponents.

She conveyed an eerie kind of confidence that he knew she didn’t have at her core.  Some of that was how she unflinchingly looked forward.  She didn’t react as the wind blew her hair across her face, didn’t turn to look around the street as she crossed an intersection.

She seems… determined.

What’s up, Taylor?

Also, Danny would absolutely raise her to diligently check each side before crossing, even if she is going through a… rebellious phase. I wonder if part of why she doesn’t do that now is because she has bugs that can check for her?


He might have to say something about that.  If that was her using her power to assess her surroundings and keep an eye out for trouble, she should avoid doing it when she was in civilian wear.

That’s a good point.

I’m not sure Taylor really remembers that the two identities are separate, anymore.

She stopped a short distance away, holding grocery bags in one hand and tucking her hair back into place with the other.  She wore a black tank top, jeans and rubber boots, with a sweatshirt tied around her waist.  That last article of clothing would be to conceal weapons, he guessed.

She’s been known to do that with her costume, too.

Her glasses caught the light from the sun to the west, turning almost opaque in the glare as she looked his way.

Conveniently robbing us of seeing the expression in her eyes. I’m not sure this is a pleasant visit.

“Decided to check in on me?”

“Imp asked me to,” she said.  Her stare was uncomfortable, analyzing him.

Yep. Favor confirmed, probably.

Maybe.

He nodded.  Imp’s earlier behavior made some more sense in light of that fact.  She’d wanted to keep him here so he wouldn’t miss Taylor’s arrival.

Ahh, yeah, that makes sense.

He felt self-conscious of the wounds on his hands.  She’d seen them, but she hadn’t commented.

You know she’s thought quite a bit about them already, though.


“But I wanted to anyways,” she added.

Again, he nodded.  What could he say to that?  He changed the focus, asking, “The bag?”

“It’s for stuffing you into if I have to take you somewhere.”

“I thought I’d make dinner for the two of us, if you wanted.  You can say no.”

Ooh, that sounds nice. And kinda romantic… 😉

“Okay.  Sure.”

He moved out of the way to let her inside, then shut and locked the door.

Not that a lock would do anything against the kinds of people who haunted his nightmares.  It was the uglier side of dealing with capes, knowing that there was no measure of security that would ever stand up to all of the bad guys.

Do you hear that, Dragon?

This line right here is the strongest evidence yet for my “Birdcage will break” theory, besides the thing about Endbringers targeting it from Interlude 7. It very much feels like foreshadowing.

There would always be people like the Nine, like Leviathan and Behemoth.

Two of which have been explicitly stated to target the Birdcage!

Forces as inevitable and unstoppable as a natural disaster.  The best analogy he could come up with was the Cold War, the sense that bombs could start dropping at a moment’s notice, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.

When suddenly it’s not just a game anymore.


Unlike the major players in the Cold War, the monsters he was thinking about weren’t so rational that they’d stand down with Scion in the picture.

Not without a bit of a destructive fight.

Although Scion’s power actually seems to reduce the destructiveness.

“Hey,” Taylor spoke up, “You okay?”

Oops, spacing out again.

“Hm?”

“You’re sort of staring off into space.  Come on, sit down and talk to me.”

Brian nodded and followed her into the kitchen.  He opted to stand instead of taking the stool.

*calm dog owner voice* Siiit.

“Chicken breasts okay?”

“Sure.”

Fuck, can I join in?

She reached into the grocery bag and retrieved a ziploc baggie with chicken in marinade.  “Was going to bring pork chops, but I just served this huge pork shoulder roast for everyone in my territory the other night, and then we had leftovers so I’ve had it for lunch a few times.  Kind of sick of it.”

Heh, that’s fair.


“Ah.”

“We’ve got lots of kids running around.  It’s kind of nice, but hard.  It’s like they’re totally unrestrained, so when they’re happy, they’re ecstatic, and when they’re unhappy they’re miserable, you know?”

That’s kids, yeah.

“I haven’t spent a lot of time around kids.  Only Aisha, when I was younger, and I think she might have been a special case.”

How so? Because she’s your sister?

“She’s really coming into her own, getting comfortable with her powers, figuring out where she needs to be and when.  Can’t be easy, when the rest of us don’t know where she is half the time.”

Heh.

Yeah, and with Brian always looking over her shoulder. Or trying to.

“Did she put herself in any danger?”

Taylor started frying up the chicken.  “Yes and no.  She took down Night, but Night wasn’t able to use her power, had no idea she was there.  She was safe.”

Pretty much, yeah!

Took down Night.  Aisha?

That bothered him, and he couldn’t say why.

Perhaps because your little, innocent sister isn’t quite so little and innocent anymore? Because you’ve been trying to protect her so much that you didn’t realize how capable she is at protecting herself? Because if you don’t need to protect her anymore, what are you good for?


“We got Victor.  Not sure if I like how Lisa sprung that on me, but we got him.  We were thinking you could try borrowing his power, see if you don’t get any permanent boosts.”

Too late, Taylor, Aisha already told him this.

“Sure.  Aisha mentioned that.  I don’t know if it’ll work.”

It’s worth a shot.

“No?”

Brian tried to organize his answer about why in his head.  What had Bonesaw said?  Something about passengers.

Why would something about the passengers make this not work? Do you need Victor’s passenger to get the permanent boosts, with those counting as a passive part of the power even after you’ve stopped doing the active draining?

He glanced over at Taylor, who was busy with the sides, something with sweet potato, some parsnips.  She looked over her shoulder at him, and he was struck with the image of her lying on the ground, Bonesaw straddling her, her forehead a bloody mess, a small electric saw grinding through the bone of her skull with an ear-splitting whine.

Here we go.

And this one might hit especially hard, because this is the trigger. Not what happened to him, but the thought that it might happen to Taylor and the rest of his friends.


He looked away.

“What is it?”

“Trying to get my thoughts in order.  Tired.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He shook his head.  “Victor’s power… If we supposedly have these ‘passengers’ in our heads, guiding our power use, giving us the brain structures we need to manage the powers, I don’t think I have that with any powers I borrow.

Sure, change the subject.

…kind of.

But yeah, this makes sense. Similarly, he would be able to control Taylor’s bugs (with a short range), but would probably not be able to multitask like Taylor does.

They’re weaker, but I don’t have that knowledge about what’s going on, or that extra measure of control.”

“Want to try on me?  I know I wasn’t ok with it before, but I think I can handle it if I know it’s coming.”

He considered for a moment.  “Okay.”

Nice. Let’s get some Brian perspective on this power!

On the darkness, too. We know he can see and hear through it, but we don’t know how it manifests to his eyes. Does the darkness just look like a weak mist to him?

…does it look different in a mirror?


He reached out and let the darkness stream from his fingertips.  It wove in and out of itself, coiled at things that weren’t there, alternately creeping and lunging forward.  Heavy, it drifted to the ground to spill out there.  It didn’t obscure his sight, but he could tell where it was, almost as if he were seeing in strict black and white when he looked through the darkness, but the color was still there.

…alright. Strange, but alright.

The best I can figure from that last description is that what he sees through the darkness is desaturated, but not completely.

Bad analogy.  The difference was stark, but he couldn’t pinpoint what separated it from anything else.

I see.

The contact with Taylor was like having his eyes shut and then opening them as a firecracker burst spectacularly, seeing the sparks scattered over half a mile.

Niice. This is a good description.

Only the sparks were alive, moving.

Unsure about how to use the ability, he pushed out.  There was no control, no sense of what he was controlling.  He was the gust of wind, and Taylor’s bugs were the leaves that blew in that wind.

“Go away!”

This has to feel pretty odd for Taylor, sensing the bugs acting like this without her input. Even if she knows why it’s happening and was prepared, it’s an unusual feeling.

She pushed back, and won with little effort.  He could feel her moving the individual bugs, the casual hand with which she picked out the ones she wanted.

Heh, nice. Of course, she’s the one with the majority of the power, here, and she knows how to use it.


“It’s sort of calming, when you think about it,” she said.  “You realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things.  We’re not really the rulers of this planet, we’re just tenants, and it’s the small stuff, the bacteria and insects and the plant matter that really runs it all.  Even the big stuff, the nasty, scary stuff, it’s all pretty small in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?”

Great. Brian was just thinking about how small he was in the face of all the big stuff, and now you’re pointing out how small we all are in the face of all the smaller stuff.

Is that a good thing? 

Exactly, this is a point that can go both ways.

Sure, it absolves you of some grand sense of responsibility for the world, but it also leaves you thinking about what’s really in charge of your life.

“I know I sound a little crazy when I say that, but really, you get a glimpse of these bugs as they go about their lives, almost mechanical in how they follow their instincts, you see them breeding, eating, building nests, and dying, and you see how they just saturate every aspect of our existence, in the air, the dark corners, the insides of the walls, they eat our dead.  I can’t sense them, but there’re skin mites all over our bodies and in our eyelashes… I guess it takes me out of myself when I think about it, reminds me that we’re only one part of this vast system, we’re cogs in the universe, in our own way.  Seeing the little details makes me feel like the big problems aren’t so personal, they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Are we sure Taylor isn’t a Buddhist?

Okay, but seriously, it’s nice to hear this. It’s good to hear Taylor say that something helps calm her in this mess.

Wait. She can’t sense the skin mites? Is that a Manton effect thing? Do they count as part of the body of the person they’re living on?


Rambling aside, she looked more at ease than he’d ever seen someone in his darkness.  She was blind, deaf, and she leaned against the counter, staring off into space as she talked.  Even the talking, it caught him off guard.  Being blind, unable to see the reactions of the person you were talking to, not getting any feedback, most people would struggle more, much for the same reasons they found it awkward to speak to an answering machine.

Is there a particular reason you need to leave her in the dark? Does the darkness have to cover the head in particular for this to work? Where the passenger is?

“I don’t know if that makes sense, but I usually try reaching out to these guys when things get bad.  In retrospect, it kind of centers me.”

I’ve been suggesting since Arc 4 that part of why she got this power was because she was reaching out with her mind.

This feels relevant.

“I wish I could find the same comfort in my power,” Brian murmured.

If she can make out what he said using her moth, I’ll be quite impressed with her progress, but she can probably tell that he said something at least.

“Did you say something?  I think I just felt some vibrations in the air, but it’s hard to tell with your power out there.”

Yep.


He didn’t reply.

Instead, he looked at Taylor.  She wasn’t conventionally attractive, he had to admit.  Her mouth was wide for her face, her ears large enough that they stuck out of the mess of black curls that draped over her shoulders.

I think this is the first time we’ve gotten an outside perspective on what she actually looks like as Taylor Hebert.

Wide mouth, large ears… I didn’t realize Taylor was a goblin.

And her shoulders: narrow, bony, deceptively delicate in appearance.  She somehow managed to be self-conscious and yet unaware of the way she held herself.

Narrow, bony shoulders… goblin theory still checks out.

The seeming fragility of her body was accented by the angles she seemed to settle into when she rested: her wrist bent at a right angle as she picked at one of her cuticles with her thumbnail, her leg raised so her right foot could rest flat against the cabinet, her shoulders tilted forward a fraction.

The neat thing here is that we’re not just getting an outside perspective on Taylor’s appearance. We’re getting it from someone with a certain attraction to her, someone who’ll notice all these little things.

It was as if her skin didn’t fit and she couldn’t stretch both arms or both legs out to their full lengths at the same time.

“It was like she was supposed to have more limbs, and wings, and a few more eyes too.”

It wasn’t so dramatic that he’d notice if he wasn’t already paying attention, but it was a quirk he could note as he studied her.  It made him think of a bird, or one of her insects, but… he didn’t feel he was being unflattering by thinking it.

I’m not at all surprised to see her being physically compared to the insects. The people reflect their powers and their powers reflect them.


In fact, as he looked, he could note how long her arms and legs were, the length of her neck and torso.  She was still growing, she had grown even in the months they’d known each other.

tumblr_inline_phmmqwRCkK1sxgvvn_640.png

Somehow, he could see how the groundwork was being laid for the finished product, a body that wouldn’t be skinny, but slender, long-legged.  If she was still growing, and if her dad was any indication, she’d be tall.

Tall and beautiful, right?

(Also, that’s a nice little casual reminder that Brian has met Danny.)

Would she be a trophy wife, or turn heads?  Probably not.

Taylor would hate being a trophy wife.

But he could see how someone might come to look past the quirks, even come to like them, and they’d find nothing to complain about in her.  How someone might want to hold her in their arms-

Dude, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that someone is already getting to that point.

Poor Taylor’s probably wondering if he’s going to try anything else with the bugs or if he’s just gonna space out for the rest of the evening.


She spoke, interrupting his train of thought, “Okay.  You probably have some reason for keeping the darkness up this long.  I won’t complain, since you’re probably working things out in your own way, like I was talking about with my bugs, but maybe keep an eye on the chicken?”  She offered a small laugh, “I could use my bugs to check on it, maybe, but I don’t think either of us want that.”

Ahaha!

He glanced at the stove, prodding the chicken.  No problems.  He turned down the heat to be safe.

That’s a good idea if you’re going to be spacing out like this again.

“Look, Brian, I don’t want to stir up any unhappy thoughts, but I don’t want to ignore the subject either.  I did some reading, and there’s a pretty scary number of people who have their second trigger events and then have a bad ending shortly after.

Well that’s ominous. Are we talking suicide here?

I think it has to do with the toll it takes on you, the event… I’m… I’m not good at this.  At the people stuff.  But I have been through some dark spots.  My mom died not too long ago, I can’t remember if we really talked about that.  And there was the bullying, I sometimes wonder how much that influences what I do and why.

Oh man, she’s getting really personal here, in her effort to get through to him and connect.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but I guess I’m saying I’m here for whatever you need.”

I won’t speak for Brian, but appreciate it, Taylor. I really do.


He expected there to be a swell of that dark anxiety that had plagued him as she raised the subject of what had happened, but when his heart pounded, it wasn’t the same as it had been earlier.

Relief, happiness that there’s someone he can talk to who isn’t Aisha? Love, even?

Through the sliver of power he had borrowed from her, he could feel the bugs at work, performing a hundred subtly different tasks, sweeping over areas in formation, drawing lines of silk across doorways and roadways, marking the people elsewhere in the neighborhood, keeping an eye on their movements, gathering en masse when people weren’t in a room to check tabletops and cabinets.

What are you doing, Taylor? Like, keeping an eye on your surroundings is one thing, but this seems more focused. Are you looking for something?

And Taylor was just standing there, leaning agains the counter, calm.  She was blind, deaf, and the person at the other end of the conversation hadn’t responded for at least a minute.  It wasn’t like she didn’t have her own ugly thoughts plaguing her, a thousand responsibilities, a hundred reasons to feel angry or guilty, but she’d somehow found a way to let herself be at ease here.

I think it has a lot to do with trust. She trusts you.

Or was that the same deceptive confidence she’d displayed as she’d approached his headquarters?

Maybe it’s both things.


He idly wondered if that veneer would crack if he surprised her here.  But he didn’t want to be mean as he did it, that felt wrong.

Oooh, this sounds like fun. So if you’re not going to be mean about it, how exactly are you going to do it? :3

Hand on her shoulder?

Something else.  Almost on instinct, Brian stepped forward, reaching for her, then stopped, letting his hands drop to his sides.  If he reached out to hold her, that would be a breach of trust, wouldn’t it? He-

…I guess she sensed it through the bugs?

“Hey,” Taylor said, her voice so quiet he could barely hear it.  Slightly louder, she said, “Go ahead.”

“If you need a hug, I’m here.”

She knew?  But-  He felt out with her power, saw the ‘spark’ of the bugs she’d placed on the cuffs of his pants, on the edge of his sleeve.

How did she keep track of all that?

I know, right? I suppose that’s what her passenger helps with.

And how was he supposed to respond, now?  He barely had any friends, outside of ‘work’, his contact with girls had been limited to flirting, more ‘work’ and fighting with his sister.

hug him.png

[El Goonish Shive panel]

Susan’s Nature: Hug him!
Susan’s Nature: Hug him like you’ve never hugged anyone before!

(or, well, “her”)


Swallowing, he reached out and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, gently pulling her close.  He couldn’t shake the idea that she’d break if he squeezed too hard, so his touch was light.

She’s not that fragile. Still, it’s sweet.

She hugged his lower body, pressing her head against his collarbone, both actions surprising him with their strength and ferocity.

Hehe. Taylor has no such ideas of physical fragility for Brian.

He willed the darkness away, banished the sparks that, as Taylor had suggested, painted them as very small people in a big world.  As the light returned, it was just them.

“This is what you wanted?” she murmured.

“You’re so still,” he replied, not even sure what he meant.

So… calm? Collected?

“That’s good,” she answered him, her non-sequitur almost matching his own.

They stayed like that for some time, his chin resting on top of her head.  He could feel her breathing, her heartbeat, and the warmth of her breath against his chest.  He felt tears in his eyes, blinked them away, unsure why they’d even come in the first place.

It’s official, guys. I’m back on board.

This is a very sweet moment. 🙂


“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be.”

He couldn’t be quite sure what he was sorry for.  This awkwardness, the length of time this had gone on?

I’m not sure Taylor knows either, yet she’s pretty clear that he shouldn’t be sorry for… this.

For putting her in a position like this, when she knew he was vulnerable and would have a hard time of saying no?  He didn’t get the sense that she minded.  If she had, he suspected, there would be some sign, some movement, some attempt to pull away.

Taylor isn’t one to let herself be forced into things without a fight.

Maybe he’d said it because it had taken him this long?

Perhaps… it’s been twelve Arcs since I started shipping you two, eight since she made her feelings clear…

But there’s no rush.

He dismissed the doubts and hesitation.

“Can we?” he pulled away slightly, and looked in the direction of the couch.

I recommend checking on the chicken first.

“Um,” her eyes widened a fraction.

“Not… not that.  Just-” he paused, trying to find a way to say what he wanted to say without putting her in a position where she couldn’t say no.

Pfft. Get your mind out of the gutter, Taylor. 😉

“Okay.”  She seemed to get his meaning.  She led him by one hand into the living room.  He laid down first, arranging the cushions into a makeshift pillow.  She took that time to remove the knife, the gun and the various contents of her pockets, placing them on the nearby coffee table.

Right, it’d probably be a bit uncomfortable to cuddle with those in there.

Once he was arranged, he was the one to pull on her hand.  Moving gingerly, as if she expected him to react badly with every motion she made, she found a way to lie across him without lying on top of him, her head on his shoulder, both legs draping across his pelvis, her upper body pressed against his side.  If he hadn’t noted that quirk of hers, how she bent herself at odd angles, he might have thought she’d be uncomfortable.

Maybe Taylor should consider becoming a contortionist?

Or maybe a fake contortionist. The audience thinks the contortionist is wearing a costume that looks like she’s covered in insects, but in reality, the contortionist is made of insects.

As it was, he somehow didn’t feel the need to worry.  He pulled her closer with one arm.

For days, he’d been seeking some way to get centered, to stop that downward spiral where anxiety and fear gave him cause to be more anxious, more afraid.  He’d hurt himself doing it, and he’d very nearly hurt his relationship with Aisha.

It looks like you’ve found the thing that helps center you.

He’d been trying to do it alone.  He’d needed a rock, an anchor.  If he’d been asked months ago, weeks ago, even days ago, he wasn’t sure he would have believed that was true, or that it would be Taylor, of all people.

You need to allow others to help you.

“The stove,” he said, starting to sit up.

Told ya.

Heh, maybe Taylor has used her bugs to turn it off.

“Handled,” Taylor replied, pushing him back down.

He looked over and saw the dials had been set to ‘off’.

By the bugs, like I was imagining? Or did she just do it when he wasn’t looking?


“Thank you,” he said.  It took him a second to raise the courage, but he kissed the top of her head.

Oooh.

She nodded, her head rubbing against him.

“Really,” he said, reaching over to tilt her head so she was looking up at him.  He kissed her on the lips this time. “Thank you.”

shippers rejoice.png


She didn’t reply, only smiling and nestling in close again.

Taylor fell asleep before he did.  He laid there for some time, trying to match his breathing to hers, as if he could copy her and fall asleep the same way.  It was almost as if he’d forgotten how.

Aww.

He wasn’t all better.  Wasn’t sure he would ever be.  He just had to think about it, and he could almost see Bonesaw in the kitchen, waiting, watching.  Whatever barriers he’d erected between reality and the uglier possibilities, they’d taken a beating.

Hey, Bonesaw, could you pass me some of that chicken? Thanks.

And yeah, these things aren’t healed that easily. It takes time and comfort, and even then it might never truly be healed.

Maybe Brian should take up stand-up comedy. I haven’t listened to it yet, but yesterday, this month’s selection of Audible Originals (shorter works of which members get two free from a selection of six each month) came out, and one of the ones I picked was a documentary of a project involving three PTSD-afflicted war veterans being taught to joke about their experiences for a crowd as an experimental rehabilitation method. It’s an interesting premise.

But he could breathe, now.

His eyes closed.

Relax. Dream. Rest.

Good night, Brian.

(#i’m not sponsored by audible)


End of Interlude 15b

I want chicken.

This was very solid. We got a good look into how Brian has been affected by the events of Snare, some excellent Aisha development (especially highlighting how much she genuinely cares about her brother despite their differences), a little bit of Bonesaw, a look at how Brian’s powers appear from his perspective, Brian’s detailed assessment of Taylor’s body and “quirks”, and some sweet relief at the end that really helped sell the ship again. The chapter was low-key, but held a lot of very good stuff.

Next up… the morning after, I suppose? Maybe Taylor will get a chance to go check on her colony then. Other than that, I don’t really have much to go on, I think. Alec and Lisa seem to be handling Victor, so we probably won’t be following that side of things directly.

And hey, for all I know, we might be getting another Interlude 15 next chapter. *checks* Nope, Colony 15.4. Well, I guess I’ll just have to read on and see what happens.

See you then!

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2 thoughts on “Interlude 15b: The Anchor

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