A big thanks to Lyova and Gaia for their help in editing this. Also big thanks to Pericardium whose amazing fic Life Bends Down inspired me to finish writing this chapter.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust from my laptop screen to the dim light of the room. Once they did, I had to push aside a pile of candy wrappers and empty ramen containers on my bed to see Koa. She was just barely peeking in through the doorway, her hands gripping the frame. Like I'd ordered, she hadn't set foot inside.
"Will you please let me come in?" She asked, leaning as far into the room as she possibly could.
"No, I don't want to be bothered," I said, opening a new tab in Firefox. "I'm not feeling well, and anyways, I'm busy."
Koa looked around the room at the trash that had started to accumulate in her absence. "I can tell you've been busy."
"Just tell me what it is."
"The Protectorate called again."
I sighed and rubbed between my eyebrows, at the migraine that just wouldn't leave.
"They want to have a meeting this afternoon," Koa continued.
I dropped my head onto the bed, covered it with a pillow and gave a long-suffering moan.
"So, is that a no?"
My response was muffled. "What do you think?"
"You know, Miss Taylor, this would be a good chance for you to have a productive conversation with the local heroes."
I lifted my head out of my bedding. "Aren't you supposed to be a demon? How about you encourage bad behaviour."
"You don't want to be tempted. You just want to be boring."
"Why didn't I summon a sloth demon?"
"Because you wanted someone who would actually work. Besides, they're really gross. I hope you wouldn't want to keep one of those creeps around.
I didn't reply, hoping my problem would walk herself back out my door.
"They said they could bring in Panacea if you changed your mind about her."
"I don't want to go through anything like that again."
"Miss Taylor, we aren't sure that it was her healing that-."
"No, I'm sure," I replied, "and I'm definitely not going to let it happen again just to prove myself right. There's no cure for me. Go away. I'll set up a meeting when I feel better." I threw my blankets over myself, turned towards the wall, and that was that.
It didn't take long before I heard the soft padding of Koa's feet on the floor as she made her way towards me. I sighed and covered my face with my hands.
"So, how'd you figure out a loophole?"
"Section Nine, Part C, Paragraph 2. An employee has the right to a meeting with their employer or a representative of said employer at the earliest opportunity when they believe there is a credible danger in the workplace. In such a case, a meeting with the employer will be held to discuss the reason for the causes and fears over the aforementioned danger, and the employer shall, at their earliest convenience, seek to remedy these issues in any way possible."
"Doritos, Miss Taylor? Really?"
I let out a another moan and ducked under the covers, a few pitiful coughs coming out as I hid myself. I should never have given Koa time to think. I should have sent her off on a quest or something equally pointless.
I felt the bed shake as something heavy and annoying sat down on the edge of it. I pulled my feet away and moved up to the headboard.
"There's only so much bed. You won't be able to run away for long."
I grabbed the sheets and wrapped myself up, forming a ball.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that," Koa said.
She tried to worm a hand underneath, but my fuzzy cocoon proved impenetrable. She opted for rubbing my back through the down comforter.
Why did her massages have to feel so good? Damn succubus; my aches and pains faded with every stroke.
"I want to help Miss Taylor so please, let me. I've been reading up on human relationships and feelings. I think I know how to make you feel better, in every way I possibly can."
The bed shifted as she moved closer to me.
"And I think I've found a way to help fulfill you, connect with you emotionally. But for that, we're going to need to get more...intimate," she said, drawing out every syllable.
Koa crawled on top of me. I was crushed by one hundred and forty pounds of demonic familiar, so heavy I found it hard to breathe.
"Do you have any childhood traumas, Miss Taylor? I'm here for you; I want to listen to your problems. Together I think we can get off-" Koa's sultry voice in my ear paused, "get our minds off the emotional issues that plague our relationship."
"Koa. What are you trying to do right now. Really, what do you think you're doing?"
Her sultry voice lost a bit of its luster. "The book said that that relationships are built off mutual understandings of your significant others insecurities and-"
"Enough. Off," I commanded.
"But Miss Taylor-" she whined.
The bed shook as she hopped back to the edge of it.
"Well, maybe you'd like to talk about your love for animals? Maybe while petting one? I could have Meiling find us a dog-"
I cut her off. "Koa. Get out."
She stopped. After a while, she stood up and I heard her walking for the door. Then she stopped and walked back, things swishing and crinkling as she did so.
"I'm sorry Miss Taylor. I'll do better next time, I promise," Koa said, before laying a kiss down vaguely where my forehead was.
The sounds of more trash being moved followed as she walked back outside.
"I'll be right here in case you need anything," she reassured me.
I responded with a huff and was sealed back in with a click. I didn't move, didn't bother untangling myself. It was hot and uncomfortable under the blankets but I stayed there until the need to breathe became unbearable.
Koa was too much of an overbearing presence. She couldn't handle being without me for more than a minute. I should have known she would freak out the longer I kept her away. I really wasn't feeling well and no amount of humor, kind words, or parahuman powers was going to help with that. Even worse that she didn't know what the hell she was doing.
But, maybe I shouldn't have been so snippy with her. She was an idiot and annoying, but she had been trying to help. Koa was a lot of things to me, but most of all she was important. That demon had managed to intertwine herself into my life. I don't think I could, or would want to, take her out of it. I liked her and aside from dad, she was all that I really had.
I gasped for breath as my head breached the covers.
Koa had cleaned my room. Everything had been picked up and put away. The trash was gone and not a speck was out of place as far as I could tell in this light. I even spied a plate of food sitting on my desk. For a moment I stared, hoping it would just disappear and go back to being a mess.
I left the warmth of my bed and floated over to my lunch. Soup, bread and tea. Very minimalist. I bought the bowl of miso soup up to my lips and sipped. Salty and savory, a meal to help you face the day. I squished a small piece of tofu in my mouth, washing it down with another sip of the warm broth. I took a small nibble of bread to help with digestion and then a gulp of tea. Sweet honey mingled with the earthy flavor. A hint of ginger? Maybe? I breathed a little easier, felt a little better. Wiped at my face where it had gotten a little wet.
I floated over to the door and opened it. Koa was waiting there just like she said. She had placed a chair right outside and was leaning back in it as she leafed through a book. I could make out two scantily-clad women cuddling on the front cover with flowy text about flowers and pomegranates or whatever the hell…
Her book on relationships. Jesus Christ. Should I have expected anything else?
Koa was smiling at me and not the lecherous smile I had been expecting.
"Tomorrow. I'll try talking with them tomorrow. And thank you, but please don't read romance novels for tips on emotions."
"That's great news," she said, ignoring my advice, "I already was talking about setting up a meeting for tomorrow. It'll be perfect!"
I smiled, nodded and shut the door. Feelings, Koa; I could deal with that later. An important meeting was coming up. I'd push it all aside for now; I had some research to do.
I sat at a table rehearsing the lines I'd written for myself. My last meeting with the Protectorate hadn't gone so well; I needed to make this one count. Koa had picked up the unspoken message and given me plenty of space, only appearing to fill up on tea or bring me snacks.
"Thank you for your time," I mumbled. "I apologize for what happened a few days ago. I hope there are no hard feelings."
I wasn't sure who would be showing up, so I had written some vague questions I was likely to get depending on the person and a - hopefully - broad enough series of answers to work for any scenario or group. After that I'd have to wing it, but this should be a suitable start to a productive conversation about...well, Endbringer attacks I guess.
"She's here." Koa's message flashed through my head.
Looks like I didn't have time to ruminate on it.
"Send her in."
It had to be Miss Militia. She implied female. Battery was the only other female Protectorate member and chances she would show up without Assault were very slim. The chances of a Ward being sent alone were even worse. Besides, I assumed they wouldn't send Armsmaster again, so it made sense the second in command would come instead. I shifted papers around until I found the series of Miss Militia-tailored responses. I set everything in order and waited patiently for my guest.
Then, I stared blankly as a wave of bugs wound their way around a bookshelf. Koa was surrounded by a horde of insects, looking far too enthusiastic for someone in as much trouble as she was. Skitter was standing to her left, nodding along as Koa spoke.
"Koa. What is this? What is she doing in here?"
"You said to let her in," Koa replied with a shrug.
"Well you're going to need to get her out of here before the Protectorate arrives."
"Why would the Protectorate be showing up?"
"What do you-" one look at Skitter and then back at Koa was all it took. "No."
"No?" Skitter asked.
"I don't know what this is, but I'm not letting you bring a villain into my library. Take her back out."
"Oh don't worry, she isn't with the Undersiders right now. Hardly even a villain at the moment. This will be a quick conversation that we need to have. Just hear her out alright?"
I ran my hand through my hair. "Koa..."
"I'll explain everything later," was Koa's desperate plea across our connection, "please play along for now."
"Fine, fine," I said out loud.
Koa's smile was beaming. She gestured to a seat and Skitter moved to sit down.
"Oh no, you aren't sitting in that chair, I'm not getting whatever germs you have all over my furniture."
"Miss Patchy." Koa's voice was reproachful, like a mothers.
"Ugh, fine, but you're cleaning it up after."
Skitter pulled the chair back and sat down, her bugs keeping a loose vigil around her.
"Can you keep those things to yourself. This is a library; I don't want to have to fumigate this place after you leave."
There was a noticeable shift in the order of bugs, many of them retracting onto her person.
I leaned over the table and rested on my elbows, stapling my fingers together. "So, you've come to me looking for something?"
"Koa set up this meeting."
Koa was smiling at me from behind Skitter's chair, a hand placed reassuringly on the back of it.
"She lets you call her Koa?"
"Why wouldn't she?"
"She doesn't let many people - you know what, it doesn't matter." Koa and I would be talking about it after. "You're here for a reason, aren't you?"
"I'm calling in my favor."
"Your favor?" I rolled that comment around in my head, trying to drudge something up.
"The Undersiders helped with Purity." Koa reminded me.
I grimaced. "That wasn't a favor. They helped without prompting, for their own reasons. There wasn't an agreement, no contract, nothing. I'm not going to be held to a binding-"
"She doesn't mean a favor like that Miss Taylor. It's more of an understanding between groups. Helping out those who helped you. Just an honor sort of thing."
"You said that you owed us," Skitter took over, "and you know that you owe us. If your word means anything to you, you should own up to it."
"You have to admit that she's not wrong; we do owe the Undersiders for their help. This won't be anything bad and it will help us in the long run, so please listen to her," Koa pled, her eyes wide and hands clasped together.
"I don't like feeling left out on these things, you know that," I sent to Koa over our connection. "Why's she really here? What stupid scheme did you get in your head?"
"It's a bit more difficult than I can explain right now," Koa sent back. "Please, just listen, I can tell you everything after she leaves. I swear, Miss Taylor, this is something that will help us establish ourselves as heroes. No need to run around trying to capture gangsters or whatever Remilia has planned."
I sighed, running my hand across my face. "I just don't want you to double team me on this."
"I don't know Miss Taylor, that sounds like it could be really fun!"
I groaned out loud and slammed my face into the table. Skitter was staring at me, must not have expected that as my response.
"Okay, whatever, I'm listening," I said out loud, before closing my eyes to try and deal with the headache that was forming.
"Koa says that you're trying to transition into a hero group. Well, I'm trying to stop a villain from tearing apart the city we both live in. This would be a good way to make a name for yourself and do some good."
Gangs fighting between each other, doesn't that sound heroic? That request was the sort of thing some know-nothing hero would latch on to, only to wind up in horrible trouble. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to build up mucho cred never came without drawbacks. The phrasing and vagary was just perfect to trick someone into doing something nefarious. Too bad for her, I wasn't that clueless.
"If you want any help I'm going to need a lot more than that. Who is it and why me?"
Skitter looked back at Koa. Koa nodded at her and the villain turned back to me. "The Undersiders boss, Coil. I never knew who he was before, everything went through Tattletale. I didn't know what kind of guy he was, what he really did. I didn't realize we were working for a monster. He was the one that kidnapped Dinah."
Skitter let that statement hang there.
"Kidnapping victim, about a month ago," Koa supplied. "Mayor's niece."
"Oh, right," I nodded, remembering the the news.
Then the implications of that hit me and I felt a pit start to form in my stomach. "What would Coil want with the mayor's niece?"
"She has a power, some sort of thinker. He locked her up in a cell. Hooked her on drugs so she has to answer questions for him. He calls her pet." Skitter paused to take a few deep breaths before saying, "I don't care what you think of me, but I don't want someone like that taking control of the city."
I sat back and couldn't get the thought out of my head. A girl in white, arms lithe and body still.
"She's telling the truth," I asked Koa.
"Yes. She is."
I felt the energy start to drain out of me. I leaned onto the table, using it to help hold my weight.
"But why come to me?"
"Coil's afraid of you."
"Well, maybe not afraid," Skitter corrected herself, "but cautious. He ordered Tattletale to avoid you, not to pry too deep or pester you for anything. Tattletale figured out you mess with thinker powers. We think that might be why. If it's true, you might be the key to getting to him. And-" she waved her hand here, "-you're like an island. You aren't allied with anyone. There really isn't any neutral group like that in Brockton..."
"Tattletale was looking into me?"
Skitter didn't respond to that question. Oh well, it didn't matter, I assumed people had to be looking into me. I was sure Contessa would deal with anyone who actually got too close.
"I'm not going to say I'm against the idea," I continued, "but I'll need a little bit of time to plan everything."
Also, a lot of time to get the real story out of Koa and look into what the Undersiders were actually planning.
"Well, isn't that perfect," Koa chimed in, "because then she can stay here to help plan!"
"No she can't, Koa."
"Of course she can, there's plenty of space. I have a guest bedroom set up already. You don't have much to carry do you? Of course you don't. Besides, it's better than moping in that crummy motel and volunteering at soup kitchens. We can all work together and start planning right away with you here."
Koa fussed and prodded at Skitter, moving her out of the chair and trying to make her more comfortable.
"You don't understand me. We have room, but she can't stay here," I said.
"I don't want to stay here," Skitter interjected. "I'm going back to the Undersiders. I just - I wanted everything in order before I did. I just wanted to make sure you were on board before I started planning. I needed Koa to stop bothering me anyway and this seemed like the easiest way to do it."
"Yeah, okay." I gave a lazy response because my mind was focused on something else.
"You were bothering her Koa?" I sent over our connection. "What the hell are you doing? Why are you acting like this? It's almost like-"
I looked at Skitter for a moment, then at Koa. Back to Skitter, back to Koa.
"That's...Koa, I'm going to kill you. I can't believe this," I said out loud.
"Oh, you're being overdramatic," Koa replied.
"How did you even find out about her? Where would you even begin to figure this out?"
"What do you mean?" Skitter asked.
"Were you looking?" I asked, ignoring Skitter. "Was that it? Hoping that you'd be able to set something up like this? Without me realizing it?"
"I'm hurt," she said, covering her heart, "I would never do anything so crude. At least, not without your permission. I'm just an impassioned bystander trying to help our first heroic venture."
"Koa, I can't deal with this sort of shit. What am I supposed to do with this. Do with her. Why would you bring her here without telling me something as important as this?"
"Well, you know what they say about twins and this is the closest I'll get-"
The insects on and around Skitter were buzzing loudly enough that Koa paused.
"What are you two talking about?" Her voice was echoed by her bugs, a distorted symphony of chittering noise.
Koa was looking to me for the answer to that question. I rubbed at my face. I had the ability to put up illusions. I had researched ways to change my appearance. It had just never been a priority to actually use those spells. Why bother on a different world?
I was an idiot.
"I'm sorry, it's just - I didn't realize before, but we know each other."
"Intimately," butted in Koa.
"You're in enough trouble, don't start any more for yourself," I told her.
"You recognize me?" Skitter's voice was dangerous.
I reached for my mask and slowly pulled it off. Skitter clenched the edge of the table, but didn't say a word.
"Yeah, I think we have a lot more to talk about than just Coil."