This sees us all caught up with the completed chapters to date. I’m two installments away from completing chapter 4, then I’ll likely use another Archive Saturday to reprint over here. Cut tag at the end of the first section, as always.
Chapter 3: Fitting In
“Do you see, boy? Do you see the horrors you’ve wrought? How can you live with yourself?”
Liam stumbled back a few steps as the overwrought woman beat at his chest in her grief. She held her ground as he retreated, clutching ripped fabric in both hands.
“Just back away and let her work through the pain,” Bruise advised, and Liam clamped his mouth closed on the response he’d been ready to make.
“The entire line has to be redone!”
Fresh from his discharge at the hospital, Liam had been looking forward to his first official fitting, especially since he’d found the right name to make an impact. When he and Bruise (Max, Liam reminded himself. you’ll never get over the hero worship if you don’t remember these people have real names) walked in, Eva Nunes had been in the middle of slashing a rack full of clothing into garish ribbons. At the sight of Liam, Spotlight’s lead clothing designer had pounced.
Short, squat, and at the far end of middle-age, her hair haphazardly twisted into a loose bun held in place with what looked like a pencil, Eva shouldn’t have presented much of a threat. But faced with the heated fervor of the round-faced woman’s grief and rage, Liam felt like running for cover.
“You heard about the name change?” This from Roc–Teresa–walking in after the two boys. Max nodded.
“Of course I heard!” Eva screamed, returning to the rack to toss slashed fabric and hangers into the air. “But I already have samples, don’t I? And all of them conceptualized for The Human Megaphone, not The Voice!”
“Just ‘Voice,'” Liam corrected, remembering the stern rejoinder from Trent about stepping on network television’s toes.
“You changed it again!?!” Eva’s vocal pitch was rising to nearly painful altitudes. Without realizing he was doing it, Liam turned her volume down. Max and Teresa’s thankful glances were offset when Eva herself noticed. She closed on Liam again, this time brandishing a hanger.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Liam said, twisting subharmonics as he added “Calm down.”
As he hoped, Eva’s arms dropped to her side and the rage seemed to fall out of her when the subliminal influence took. Eva’s design assistant peeked back up from the desk he’d been hiding behind.
“That probably was a bit melodramatic, wasn’t it?” Eva said with a blush. “And, you know, now that I’m seeing you in person, I realize it’s for the best. I had no idea how pale you really were. We can’t have you modeling a line that washes you out.” Before Liam could say anything else, Eva was snapping her fingers. The aforementioned design assistant came skittering across the room with a tablet and stylus. He was about Eva’s height, but was himself frightfully thin.
“Yes. See, it’s always a challenge with you folks. Five years to establish a line. Still not sure on you, but we’re going to fix the colors first. We’ll let marketing worry about your niche.” Both Liam and the assistant leaned in as Eva started furiously sketching onto the tablet, but she shooed them away with a quick click of her tongue. The assistant turned his attention to picking up the mess. Liam joined Max and Teresa where they huddled together, speaking quietly.
“Don’t worry. Happened to all of us,” Max offered with a sympathetic smirk.
“And, hey, Eva’s mostly concerned with color and cut,” Teresa added. “If I have to hear Trent talking about failing to serve my ‘urban’ demographic one more time, I swear…”
There was a knock at the front door, and the waifish assistant hurried to answer. He was signing for and opening the package as Eva intruded on the trio of teammates, eyes alight.
“This! This is where I think we’re going. Lots of blues and greens to set off that fair skin. Pale is the new healthy, you know? And as for cuts–”
Eva stopped with a surprised grunt, as her assistant’s thrown knife struck her between the shoulder blades.
“I missed? How could I miss this close?” Eva’s assistant shrieked.
“I won’t,” Roc returned, throwing her hand forward to command a strip of concrete pin her quarry against a wall. “What is wrong with you…?” Roc realized in that moment that she didn’t even know the man’s name, though he’d been here for every fitting and meeting she’d had since The Stone chose her almost two and a half years ago.
“There’s nothing wrong with me!” The assistant replied, struggling against the concrete hand holding him in place. “It’s you lot! You ruin everything! But not any more. No, now I’m–”
“Going to shut the hell up.” As he spoke, Voice caught Roc’s attention out of the corner of her eye, and sure enough, the assistant’s screaming cut out.
“She’s bad,” Voice said softly. Now that the assistant wasn’t making any noise, Roc could hear Eva groaning weakly behind them. “She needs a hospital, and you’re the only one who can fly.”
“But I need to hold him–”
“Or we just give him what he gave,” Bruise’s voice called from behind. He’d be mitigating Eva’s pain, at least. Good. Then Roc saw where the pain was going, as the assistant’s eyes went wide and panicky. His scream was all the more unsettling for its soundlessness. Thankfully, it was short. Bruise knew what he was doing, as the pain overwhelmed the man, and he passed out.
Roc wasn’t sure how she felt about Bruise’s facility with that kind of thing. She pushed aside a momentary wonder about how he practiced his skills.
“Bruise can keep Eva comfortable. You can fly them to the hospital,” Voice said. “I’ll get this guy trussed up for the authorities.”
Roc hesitated a moment.
“Teresa!” Roc shook herself back into action as Bruise snapped. Eva was cradled on his lap. He could absorb her pain, but that wouldn’t close the wound, though he was trying to maintain pressure using the scraps Eva had been flinging about earlier. Roc nodded, gesturing to the far wall. A disk of concrete obliged her will by ripping itself clean off and exposing the city beyond. She used it to generate her armor, then mentally lifted the layer of floor under Bruise and Eva so they wouldn’t have to move.
She turned back to call out, and only then did she notice the slumped form of the delivery person. Dragged into all this gossip and glitz and not only did she miss the threat, but it took two innocents on her watch. What kind of a knight was she?
“The messenger!” She called, pointing. Voice made a quick beeline to him.
“No blood and his pulse is good,” Voice said.
“Go! I’ll be fine!” He assured her as she hesitated just outside the building.
“I’m calling for backup just in case!” she yelled as she flew off toward the hospital, platform in tow.
“You don’t trust him,” Bruise said. She couldn’t tell if he objected or not.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. Emphasis on caution,” she returned. “None of us has a good answer for why The Stone gave him a villain’s powers, or if the powers were what caused things to go south last time.”
She tapped the comm at her ear, then, effectively cutting off any rejoinder Bruise might have.
“Tell me how sexy I am,” answered Stallion’s voice over the line.
Maybe back up wasn’t such a great idea.
Stallion rolled his eyes as Roc filled him in on the current situation. A damn fine vid from a fan interrupted by this nonsense.
“Bad guy down, vic on the way to the hospital. Why the hell do you need me, again?” he said, tapping the spacebar to let the nubile young woman on-screen finish out a bit of mind-blowing flexibility.
“Seriously, do you even listen when other people talk?” Roc snapped.
“When you start saying something worth listening to, Lesbiana–”
“Oh, for the love of … How many times do I have to tell you I’m not–?”
“Whatever. Fine. I’ll grab schizo and we’ll be there,” he said, tapping out of the conversation. Stallion saved the vid to a folder titled SB. He dropped his sock to the floor and pulled up his pants with a sigh.
“Never catch a break,” he muttered as he left the gloomy dimness of his monitor-lit room for the hallway. His ears rotated as soon as he closed the door. The walls here were pretty solid but his ears were also better (and bigger, as the Stone Cold Bitch kept pointing out) than normal. He heard giggling. Buttloads of it. All that tittering, it sounded like a sorority overnighter, and it was coming from Crowd’s room.
It was hard to sneak around when you had hooves for feet. Most of the time, Stallion didn’t mind. Still, he stuck to the carpets to help muffle his approach as his twitching ears got close enough to catch the conversation.
“… never? Really? Don’t worry, we’ve had lots of practice. We’ll help you.”
Recognizing the slight smacking noises, Stallion opened the door eagerly. Sure enough, Crowd was lip-locked with one of her counters as several other voluptuous versions of her offered advice.
One of them gasped as she noticed Stallion, and with a quiet pop of air, she and the others disappeared, until only the frumpy original remained.
“Don’t you knock?” she said with an indignant pout, crossing her arms and turning to face Stallion.
“None of you had your shirts off, so what’s it matter?” Stallion returned, then gave a wicked smile. “Not that I would have minded either way, yeah?”
Crowd’s jaw dropped, and those doe-eyes of hers actually managed to get wider. Stallion rolled his eyes again.
“Stop. You know you want this,” he said. “Just think about it. I mean, you’re the perfect three-way. Or four way. Or we could just fill the room and have ourselves our own private orgy. But maybe we use my room, since I think the unicorn and rainbow shit you’ve got up in here would kill the mood, amiright?”
He felt the tingle along his skin that meant his juice was starting up, saw the way Crowd’s hands gripped her crossed arms a bit tighter, then started to rub slowly along their length. He caught the flush at her cheeks. Damn the timing on when his pheromones decided to cooperate.
“We gotta go,” he said with a disappointed sigh. He felt the tingle fade. “Newbie’s stuck alone with some psycho. Other than Cutter-boy.”
“Bruise doesn’t hurt himself,” Crowd said, her indignation back without his chemical reinforcement. The momentary glare she shot him said she knew what he’d just tried to do.
“Whatever. You coming or not?”
She paused just a moment longer, then shrugged and nodded. Stallion stopped her as she made to leave out the door. He opened the nearby window, instead.
“We ain’t got time for that, sugar,” he said, climbing out to the fire escape. He waved to the paparazzi gathered below and stretched out a hand back to Crowd.
“I’ll jump us over,” he said, pointing in the direction of Eva’s studio. “Faster, cooler, and you get to ride the Stallion for free.”
As she wrapped her arms around his thick neck, Crowd snarked, “It’s like having a real, live, My Little Pony!”
“Just hold tight and hope I don’t drop you, Incestua,” the equine hero snarled, launching them both into a high arc as cameras flashed below.
The studio was a rustle of fabric and clatter of hangers, all victims of the gusting wind from the hole Roc left in the wall. Voices and engines and horns wafted upward to join in. Liam sighed and exerted his will. The room became blissfully quiet.
Able to think again, he turned to the assistant. His head lolled to one side as he stayed propped up by the concrete grip Roc left behind. He wondered idly if the police would be able to extricate him without Teresa’s help, and crossed over to see exactly how tightly the man was pinned in.
At his approach, something shot through the air at him. Liam ducked out of the way on instinct, his lack of focus letting the sounds of the city back into the studio even as he swore aloud himself. Whipping about, he saw the … whatever it was. Small, pasty.
And wriggling quickly into the messenger’s left ear. The boy opened his eyes wide, then glared at Liam.
“That hurt!” the messenger shrieked, leaping to his feet. There was something familiar in his voice Liam couldn’t quite pin down. “Earworm doesn’t like to hurt!”
There it was, and now Liam felt it. The voice wasn’t the same, but there was an altered resonance, in the core of the voice, that matched the assistant’s as he’d been crying out threats. Almost … a second voice embedded in the first.
While Liam was working that out, however, the messenger had charged him and wrapped his fingers around the newly-minted hero’s throat. Both fell to the ground. The messenger, a wiry nothing of a boy, was a hell of a lot stronger than Liam would have guessed.
Liam caught the high-pitched wave of horn drifting in the window, and though it wasn’t exactly easy to focus, he managed to tighten and amplify the wave all at once, hitting his attacker with a nastily piercing tone. The messenger grabbed at his ears, falling back, and Liam pushed the decibels, even going so far as mixing in the man’s own scream, so he aided in his own suffering.
He ran, and Liam scrambled after. Between already having a messenger’s endurance for running and, Liam’s throbbing throat suggested, some kind of adrenal enhancement from whatever Earworm was, it wasn’t until they both crashed out into the sidewalk that Liam managed to catch him. Even then, it was only because his target had looked back as he exited, missing the thick crowd gathering there, most of whom missed seeing him, in turn, as they all pointed up to the hole Roc had left several floors above.
He smashed into a little girl who wandered into his path. Both messenger and child tumbled to the concrete.
Liam grabbed Earworm by the back of the shirt and threw him off the girl as her concerned mother ran to her side.
“Are you all right?”
Wide, adorable eyes looked at Liam. The little girl nodded.
“You saved me,” she said as her mother grabbed her hand. Her voice was a mix of wonder, fear, and …
“Dammit,” Liam muttered as his extra-audio senses caught the familiar, embedded tone. He realized the messenger was once again unconscious next to him; clearly possession took a heavy toll on the possessed. How long could a little girl last?
“Ma’am, I need you to step away from your daughter,” Liam said coldly, eyes locked on the wide-eyed Earworm, playing its part well.
“Omigod! That’s the new Spotlight guy, isn’t it?” came a cry from the crowd.
“The Human Megaphone?” said someone else.
“No, he’s The Voice now.”
“It’s just ‘Voice,'” Liam corrected automatically.
“Mommy, I’m scared,” little girl / Earworm mewled.
“He’s the one with the traitor powers, isn’t he?”
Her mother was stooping to pick her up. Liam realized this would put Earworm right next to an adult’s ear, in perfect position for another swap without anyone seeing it. He couldn’t risk that. He snatched the highest wave value he could find from the chatter, twisted it into the same painful tone he’d used before, and directed it straight at the girl.
The crowd erupted in horror and outrage as a little girl held her ears against an assault from Spotlight’s newest member. So, of course that was the moment Stallion and Crowd arrived, the former crashing into the pavement, the latter’s eyes squeezed shut–though whether it was against the height, the wind, or some other unpleasantness, Liam couldn’t say.
As Crowd dropped to the ground, Stallion lost no time in doing exactly what Liam was trying to prevent. He swept up the screaming girl, yelling, “What the hell, douche?”
“No! Put her down!” Liam called out frantically. “There’s something–!”
But Liam already saw the little girl, cradled on Stallion’s shoulder, right next to those big, inviting ears, slump in exhaustion as Earworm found himself a new home. He wasn’t surprised in the least to hear Earworm’s embedded tone as Stallion pointed and called out:
“Crowd! Take him down before he hurts anyone else!”
While Crowd-the-hero seemed to hesitate, the non-powered human crowd seemed to feel Stallion’s call was meant just as clearly for them, and they weren’t nearly so hesitant to engage.
As the throng of angry citizens surged in toward Voice, Crowd acted on instinct, erecting a human barrier of counter-selves to momentarily stem the tide.
“What are you doing?” Stallion yelled, handing the unconscious little girl in his arms back to her frantic mother, his own eyes not exactly calm.
Yeah. Watch them rip him apart! It’ll be awesome!
“Um … stopping a riot?” Crowd returned sheepishly.
“He’s gone evil!”
“No, I haven’t!” Voice returned. “Stallion has something in him. It calls itself–”
“Are you serious?” Stallion roared, charging forward. Voice barely dodged out of the way. “Look what you did to that little girl!”
“That’s how it got in him,” Voice insisted, his gaze flitting back and forth from Crowd to where Stallion squatted down, preparing another charge.
“Earworm,” Voice said. “It was in the girl. Jumped to Stallion when he got her close to him. We have to stop it before it jumps to someone else.”
He’s making that up!
One of the counters yanked Voice out of the way just before Stallion’s roundhouse connected.
“Why are you helping him?” bellowed Stallion, cords on his neck throbbing as he gritted his large teeth.
Someone’s got a cruuush
I thought she liked Gloria?
“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on!” Crowd snapped back at voices both external and internal.
“You’ve known that guy for all of ten minutes! Who are you going to trust more?”
“Crowd … Sarah, please,” Voice said.
No one calls us that
Exclusionary jerk. There’s more than just her around, you know.
Crowd shook her head to clear it, then ran at Voice, tackling him to the ground.
“That’s it, girl!” Stallion cheered, as did the throng around them.
“How do we get it out of him?” Crowd whispered.
Does it involve vivisection? I do so long to see one.
Voice’s shocked gaze softened to a smile.
“Cover your ears,” he whispered back. “All of them.”
As one, the assembled counter-crowds crouched to the ground, hands pressed tightly in place over their ears. It still hurt as Voice unleashed a nasty, high-pitched tone across all those gathered, but bracing against it helped. Both Stallion and the civilians screamed, but it worked: Crowd gaped as she saw some nasty, pasty parasite squeeze its way out of her equine team-mate’s left ear. It writhed there a moment as Stallion tottered, shook his head.
One of the closest counters, a lithe and spindly version with a ruddy complexion, snatched the bug as the tone cut off, cupping it in her hands.
Unlike the little girl, Stallion remained standing, though he did seem to be unsteady on his pegs.
“How did you know?” Stallion asked.
“Who knew?” responded a surly counter-Crowd covered in tattoos. “We just wanted to hit you more than the other one.”
“Look out!” Crowd called, pointing, as she felt the shadow-pain of the bite to her counter’s palm. The counter hissed, accidentally allowing enough space for the worm to squeeze out. Except, it wasn’t just a worm now. It seemed to have molted several fly-like wings along its length, and buzzed upward.
“Don’t let it get–!” Voice didn’t even finish calling out, as Stallion, chuffing hot air, leaped into the air, clapped his hands together on the worm-fly, and landed. Crowd turned away (though several morbid-minded counters refused to look away, much to her chagrin) as Stallion opened his hands to reveal the purplish goo that remained.
“I hate bugs,” Stallion grumbled. “Anyone got a wet nap?”
Pests hating their own kind. What’s the world coming to?
The assembled throng seemed thoroughly confused, but as Stallion hit on the trio of young women who rushed forward offering him something to clean his hands with, their violent tendencies, at least, seemed to have abated.
Besides, they’re all busy uploading the video of Voice-villain attacking them.
Somebody’s gonna be in trooooouble.
Originally published at Spotlight