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Another Way (Worm AU fanfic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Aug 31, 2015.

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  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Whoops. Will fix.
     
    SamueLewis likes this.
  2. Threadmarks: Part Thirteen: Relative Innocence
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Thirteen: Relative Innocence

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Tuesday Afternoon, October 2, 2007

    Claire

    “The Empire Eighty-Eight is no longer in existence as a coherent organisation,” announced Earl Marchant grandly. “This calls for celebration.” He poured a glass of champagne for himself, and another for Kayden. She smiled and murmured thanks as she accepted the glass, then moved back to the sofa. Claire, already seated in an armchair with her legs curled under herself, nodded to Kayden and raised her glass of lemonade slightly in a gesture somewhere between a salute and a toast.

    “So soon?” asked Kayden. “That's moving kind of quickly, isn't it?” She nodded in return to Claire and took a sip from her glass. “I mean, I know you told Max to dismantle the organisation, but surely the others had more loyalty than that?” Clear in her tone were the unspoken words, I would have stayed longer.

    “Apparently not,” Earl replied as he placed the bottle back on the sideboard. Crossing the room, he sank on to the sofa next to Kayden. “Not everyone has your sense of honour and loyalty, my dear. It appears they were either in the team because of Max's charisma and persuasiveness or for the money. Lacking a strong leader and a regular paycheck, as well as parahuman backup, it seems the Empire rank and file are slipping away into the night. Any capes that aren't leaving town are keeping their heads well down. Or so my contacts are telling me.”

    “Except myself, of course.” Kayden raised her eyebrows as she took another sip. “Or are you no longer counting me among their number?” Her voice sounded amused. Claire was pretty sure the woman was teasing her father.

    Earl's voice, by contrast, was deadly serious. “You were no longer one of them the moment you decided that their perfidy was something that needed to be addressed. An organisation that deals in treachery and backbiting is one that doesn't deserve any level of respect.” He reached out and took Kayden's hand, then kissed it gently. Unexpectedly, she blushed.

    “Ahem.” Claire said the word rather than clearing her throat. “Am I going to have to tell you two to get a room?” She smirked as they both turned to look at her, their faces showing surprise. “What? I've been here the whole time.”

    “Ah, yes.” Earl chuckled a little self-consciously. “My apologies. I let myself become sidetracked. As I was saying, while the Empire itself is no longer a going concern, we have two other problems to deal with. So we must not allow ourselves to become complacent.”

    Claire frowned. “I'm guessing Lung's one of them. What's the other one?” Lung, the leader of the ABB, had to be making plans for dealing with Marquis, given that the latter had already claimed some of his territory. While dealing with Lung was theoretically easy—all she had to do was get close enough to the guy—she wasn't allowing herself to become complacent quite yet.

    “The attack on Danny Hebert,” Earl said, to his daughter's surprise. “That wasn't as random as it seemed. After you gave Fleischer his body back, I spent a little time chatting with him. He revealed he'd been paid to have Danny Hebert killed.” He let the pause draw out a little, then dropped the bombshell. “By someone connected to the Mayor's office.”

    “Wait, what?” blurted Claire; on the sofa, Kayden looked almost as shocked. “The … the mayor tried to have Mr Hebert murdered?” Now this was sounding like the plot of a bad movie.

    “Hardly.” Earl shook his head. “No matter his private feelings on the subject, I doubt Mayor McAuley would stoop so low. But there are others working in that office who benefit by having the Boat Graveyard right where it is. Since I threw my financial weight behind Danny's efforts, I doubt very much that they are at all pleased.”

    “But wouldn't that mean they were coming after you as well?” Kayden's tone was sincere, and not a little concerned.

    “It would.” Earl shrugged. “Apparently I was the secondary target, because I'm much harder to get to than him. We can thank Jonas for that.” He looked around. “Where is Jonas, anyway?”

    “On the way here,” Claire reported. “He's in a hurry.”

    “And so he should be,” Earl said firmly. “I left orders to be here at this time. I'm willing to cut him a large amount of slack, but I hope he has a good excuse for his tardiness.” He sipped at his glass, then turned toward the door as the burly South African entered. When he spoke, his tone was just a little sarcastic. “Ah, Jonas. So pleased you could take time out of your busy schedule to join us.”

    Despite the improvements Claire had made to his cardiovascular system, Jonas was breathing hard, which meant that he must have run all the way from his rooms. “Sorry, sir,” the bodyguard replied. “Saw something on the news you needed to know about, so I watched it all the way through, just to make sure I had it right.”

    Earl's head came up. “You have my attention. Please continue.”

    Jonas grimaced. “Someone just robbed Brockton Bay Savings & Loan,” he said. “Someone with bone powers just like yours, sir. Unless you went out this afternoon without my knowledge, you're being framed for it.”

    By the time Jonas had finished speaking, Earl was on his feet. “I most certainly did not,” he declared. “Are you certain that the powers exhibited by this imposter were identical to mine?” His demeanour was outwardly calm and collected, but Claire could tell from the flaring in his nervous system that he was far more angry than he seemed.

    “As far as I could tell from the footage, yes, sir,” Jonas confirmed. “Whoever it was struck the bank about two hours ago. There was a couple of mooks, both masked. They didn't have anyone filling in for Miss Claire. But the security cameras did get a good solid shot of your Marquis face, which looked deliberate to me.”

    “Damnation,” snarled Earl, turning sharply to Kayden. “You're more well-informed about Brockton Bay's cape scene than any one of us here. Are there any Changers or Trumps in the city that I'm unaware of?” His knuckles began to whiten around his glass.

    “Uh, Dad,” Claire interjected, nodding toward the glass. “Might want to put that down before you break it.”

    Startled, he looked down at the glass. Through his nerves, Claire could feel the strain of the muscles in his hand as they clenched on the receptacle. “Right,” he said shortly, and put it down on a side-table, before beginning to pace across the room.

    Kayden blinked, looking thoughtful. “Uh, there's no Changers or Trumps that I know of,” she admitted. “Especially not one who could mimic your appearance and your powers, all at once.”

    “This may be a little out of left field,” Claire suggested, “but what if the guy pretending to be you wasn't even the cape? What if those two 'mooks' with him were the capes?” In this case, it would be a perfect cover, she imagined.

    “What are you saying, chick? That they made him look like he had powers, and look like Marquis?” Jonas nodded slowly. “Gotta say, Mr Marchant, I've heard of a lot weirder things.”

    “Actually …” Kayden sat up, her expression clearing. “There is one possibility, but I don't want you jumping to any conclusions yet.”

    Marquis turned toward her, his expression becoming even more intent. To Claire, anger radiated off him like heat-waves, but he kept his voice level. “Very well. You have my undivided attention. Please continue.”

    “Well,” Kayden said carefully. “There's a guy in town called Blasto who's a cloning Tinker. He mainly tends to keep his head down and create hybrid minions, but bank robberies are where he makes his bread and butter.”

    “Blasto.” Marquis' voice promised dire retribution to the absent Tinker. “Where might I find this … Blasto?”

    “You said you wouldn't jump to conclusions,” Kayden reminded him. “It's only a strong possibility, not a definite.”

    “So noted.” Marquis' tone was cool and controlled, in contrast to the dark turmoil of his thoughts. “And where might I be able to find him? For the purpose of a friendly discussion, of course.” He put his hands behind his back. Outwardly, it seemed he was simply clasping his hands together, but Claire noticed through her power that his right hand was clenched into a fist, with the left covering the knuckles. Friendly, my ass.

    “He maintains a series of safehouses over near the College,” Kayden said. “Though from what I've heard, he's careful about covering his tracks. Doesn't have anyone working for him, except for his creations.” She gave him a steady look. “What are you going to do to him?”

    Marquis gave her a thin smile. “Someone has crossed me, and besmirched my reputation in the process. If this Blasto has nothing to do with it, he has nothing to fear. If, however, he knows who it might be, I'm willing to compensate him for his time.” Claire was quite aware that her father had deliberately omitted the final option; from the expression on Kayden's face, so was she.

    Draining her glass, Kayden placed it down. “I'm fine with that,” she stated coolly. She really was, Claire realised. “Now, from everything I've heard, he needs a DNA sample of some sort. Which raises the question; if he cloned you, where did he get the material from?”

    “That's the easy one,” Claire said with a roll of her eyes. “Seriously, Dad, you leave bone everywhere we go. I guess it was only a matter of time before we ran into someone who could do something with it.”

    Earl frowned. “Which gives us a whole new set of problems to work around. To begin with, I'm going to have to shred any bone I create, to ensure that nobody else tries to pull this sort of stunt. As well as having to postpone our plans in order to deal with the current situation, of course.” He glanced at Claire, who could read the grim purpose in his brain functions. “Are you ready to do what needs doing, Claire-bear?”

    “Do you really need to ask me that, Dad?” Claire raised her eyebrows. “If this Blasto's trying something on you, he's trying it on me too. We're a family. I didn't bite Stormtiger's head off just to let some pretender screw us over at this stage.” Privately, she grinned at Kayden's mildly shocked expression.

    That's my girl,” Earl declared. He took up his glass, drained it, and set it aside. “Of course, before we go and speak with Blasto, we're going to need to make another stop. Jonas, go and get the limousine ready, if you will?”

    “Right you are, sir,” grunted the big South African. He turned and left the room, his footsteps almost silent.

    Kayden watched him go. “Is it just me, or is he way too quiet?” she asked in a low tone. “Don't get me wrong; I like the guy and he's been nothing but polite to me. But he's so light on his feet it's more than a little creepy.”

    “Don't bother keeping your voice down,” Claire said cheerfully. “He can hear what you're saying from three rooms away. I upgraded his hearing, his balance and his proprioception on the last go-around. Now he can hear a safety catch come off at twenty yards, and he'll never stumble, trip or shuffle ever again.” With a shrug, she looked up at Kayden. “It's helpful in a fight.” She then brightened. “I could always upgrade you too, if you want. Better reflexes, maybe? And subdermal armour; that's always useful.” There was a certain amount of sarcasm in her tone; through her power, she knew that her father had caught her meaning.

    “Now, now, Claire, ease off.” Earl's tone was chiding, but there was an undercurrent of amusement to his thoughts. With a definite target in mind, she could tell that he was more cheerful. “She's only had a couple of days to get used to you. I'm trying to ease her into getting to know us without frightening her off altogether.” He rubbed his thumb across the back of his other hand. “And of course, with my power, total coverage of subdermal armour makes it harder for me to produce bone when and where I need it.” He turned to Kayden. “To return to the previous topic, would you like to come along with us? If you intend to make our alliance public, it never hurts to show a unified front.”

    From Kayden's expression, she was a little taken aback by the rapid-fire banter between Claire and her father. To her credit, the petite woman rallied quickly. “Oh, um, where are you going, exactly?”

    “The PRT building,” Marquis stated firmly. “I find that going to the top is the best way to get things done.” Absently, he rubbed his chin. “And I never did get to visit it, the last time I was in town.”

    Kayden looked a little confused. “Uh, I get it that Earl Marchant is rich, so they're likely to give you and your daughter a tour, but I'm not sure how you'll explain having me along.”

    Claire shook her head, a grin beginning to spread over her face. She wasn't a hundred percent sure as to what her father's plan was, but if her guess was at all correct, this was gonna be awesome. “Nope,” she said cheerfully. “We're going as Marquis and Marchioness, right, Dad?”

    Graciously, he inclined his head in her direction. “Entirely correct, my dear. If I am correct, between our lack of hostile intent and your unique status as an area-effect healer, we should pass unscathed.” His smile became slightly more razor-edged. “Though I must admit, taking the opportunity to tweak the noses of those in authority is a guilty pleasure of mine.”

    “But I'm a known villain,” Kayden objected. “Would they leave me alone just for being in your company?” She sounded dubious in the extreme; Claire didn't blame her.

    “Sure,” Claire told her. “My power is something the PRT would pay literally any amount of money to have on side. Unless I'm totally misreading things, they're willing to bend over backward a really long way to make sure I'll be attending Endbringer attacks if and when necessary. So long as we're not actually attacking them at the moment, I'm pretty sure that you and Dad can both skate by on that.”

    The math was really simple. Endbringer conflicts invariably ended with maimed and dead parahumans by the dozen, if not the hundreds. Claire's power could save lives, put wounded parahumans back on their feet, and heal crippling injuries in moments. Better yet, she didn't even have to concentrate on one person at a time. Or rather, she could do just that to make things go faster or to get a specific end result, but even when she wasn't concentrating, her power served to bring the subject back up to their normal level of health anyway. And if the PRT and Protectorate weren't willing to make some allowances to get access to that level of capability, she'd be greatly astonished.

    “Okay, I'll take your word for it,” Kayden said. “But if they try to capture us, I will be blasting my way out. Fair warning and all.”

    “Understood.” Earl nodded briefly. “While I don't believe that it'll be necessary, I do understand the caution.”

    “Time to get changed?” asked Claire as she got up from her sat. Linking her hands together and stretching them over her head, she began to push her body into its 'Marchioness' form. Her bones reshaped as her auburn hair retracted into her scalp, then grew out again in midnight black. She could feel her clothes hanging differently on her as she became taller and more slender.

    “If you don't mind, Claire dear,” Earl said, holding out his hand courteously. She took it and began the alteration on his body, even as she finished off her own transfiguration. Both sets of changes included the internal improvements she'd devised. While entirely human-looking from exterior appearances, both Claire and her father ended up rather stronger and more durable than any normal person.

    Kayden shook her head as Claire completed her alterations. “That's the second time I've seen you two do that, and I still have trouble believing it. Don't you feel weird? At all?”

    “Not in the slightest,” Marquis said, his voice slightly lower in timbre than in his other persona. Claire had ensured a change in the vocal cords that would invalidate even Tinkertech voiceprint analysis. His hair was long and curly, and he was taller than 'Earl Marchant'. “At first, I had problems with the different bodily proportions, but my dear Claire smoothed that out after a little testing.” He tilted his head and a smile quirked one corner of his mouth. “In fact, how would you like to feed the PRT some disinformation?”

    <><>​

    Kayden

    While Kayden had no great love for the PRT, she'd learned from her association with Max to never simply agree to a proposition before learning the details. “I'm listening,” she said cautiously.

    “What Dad's suggesting is that I change your looks so that you can come along to the PRT building with us unmasked,” Marchioness filled in. “They'll pretend not to notice, but as soon as you're gone you can bet they'll be carefully scrutinising every frame of the security footage and trying to figure out who you really are.” She grinned; it didn't take Kayden long to get the joke.

    “And coming up blank.” Kayden smirked. “Oh, that's mean. I love it.” She paused uncertainly. “Uh, does it hurt, and can you change me back afterward?”

    “It won't hurt at all,” Marchioness said firmly. “I'll have total control over everything, including pain impulses. In fact, I like you a lot, so my powers won't want to cause you pain. And as for changing you back after, I shouldn't have any trouble, but I'll take some photos for reference anyway.” She reached into her pocket for her phone. “Oh, and did you want defensive modifications like we were talking about before? Nanotube laced bones, subdermal armour, stuff like that? Basically impossible to spot without really good scanning, and it makes you a crapload harder to hurt.”

    Kayden blinked. The revelation that Marchioness' powers were linked to her emotions actually explained quite a bit. “Is that why I've been feeling so upbeat since I joined you and your father?” Another, more worrying thought crossed her mind, and she blurted it out without thinking. “Have you been making me want to be here? Making me loyal to your father?”

    Marchioness burst out laughing, but to Kayden's ear it was the carefree mirth of a good joke rather than the sinister chuckling of a master manipulator. “Haha, no,” she managed, wiping her eyes. “You wanted to be here, and you were already going to be loyal. My power is being nice to you because you and Dad like each other, not the other way around.” She gave a violent shudder. “Not that I'd interfere with that in any way, because eeeewwww!

    “Ah, there you are,” Kayden said cheerfully, feeling somewhat more on familiar ground now.

    Marchioness blinked. “What do you mean?”

    It was time for Kayden to grin. “The thirteen year old. I was wondering if you were still in there.”

    “Indeed.” Earl's tone was dry. “I have wondered that occasionally myself.”

    In reply, Marchioness stuck her tongue out. It occurred to Kayden that the girl could be playing her even now. What if she's making me think she's telling the truth? She searched her memory, trying to find any point where her attitudes and thoughts had changed direction in a dramatic fashion. The only one she could locate was when Marchioness, in the guise of a flying creature out of nightmare, had informed her that it was Max who'd violated the sanctity of Somers Rock. The shock and anger she'd felt then had been real enough, but even then she hadn't made the decision to leave Max's employ. That had come later, after Marchioness had saved her life. Every move she'd made after that point had proceeded logically, or at least reasonably for her. “Yeah, I guess it would be.” She took a deep breath and thought about the offer. It was more or less unprecedented in her experience, but she was doing a lot of new things these days. And the idea of causing the PRT irritation did rather appeal to her. “Sure. Let's do this thing.”

    “Okay, hold still.” Marchioness held the phone up, obviously framing her face with the camera. Kayden heard the electronic shutter-click sound as she looked straight ahead. She kept her position as the teenage girl moved around her, taking photos at intervals. “Okay, that should be enough.” The girl stopped taking pictures, and started swiping through the ones she'd already taken. “Yeah, that's good.” Shutting down the phone, she put it away. “Right,” she said briskly. “What do you want me to change?”

    “Oh, uh …” Kayden's mind went blank. “I don't suppose you could make me taller?” As it was, she was currently shorter than Marchioness' altered form.

    “Heh, nope.” Marchioness grinned. “I suppose I could add an inch or two, but I'd be astonished if the PRT didn't already have a really good estimate of your height. Better to do something with your hair or eyes or skin. Well, scratch that last, because I doubt we could sell the idea that the Empire was more ethnically-diverse than it really was.”

    Kayden grimaced. Marchioness had a point, even if it wasn't aimed directly as a dig at her. “Okay then, we can still change the shape of my face, right? And my hair?” Even though she'd gone masked as a matter of course, she'd never powered down where unfriendly eyes could see her. It was a tiny piece of institutional paranoia that had served her well in the past.

    “Hair, sure.” Reaching out, Marchioness touched the end of Kayden's hair. “It's a bit easier than your face, but only by a matter of degree. Let me know what you want and I'll see if I can deliver.”

    When she was younger, Kayden had had a certain look in mind, but she'd never had the features to pull it off. On thinking about it, she began to wonder about her taste at the time. “Um … I had an idea, but I'm not so sure now.”

    “Well, whatever it was, I'm sure Marchioness can manage it.” Earl bent a benevolent gaze upon his daughter. “She's nothing if not versatile.”

    Kayden felt a flush begin to creep up her cheeks. “I always wanted to be a tall blonde Valkyrie, even before I met Max. Tall, strong, someone that nobody dared to mess with.” She carefully did not mention the inadequacy she felt regarding her bust line; as an adult, it was up to her to deal with that.

    “Hmm.” An intrigued look crept over Marchioness's face. “Well, we can't change your height, for obvious reasons. But I can certainly do long blonde hair, maybe with a bit of a wave?” She paused, waiting for Kayden's nod. “Okay, cool. And your face, how did you want to change that?”

    Bringing her hands up, Kayden cupped her face, pushing her cheeks up. “I'm not exactly striking, you know? I've got a round face. Nobody looks twice at me. A thinner face, a stronger jaw, higher cheekbones … I mean, nothing ridiculous, but …” She flushed again. “I'd like for those superheroes to look at me and for at least one of them to think, 'Whoa!'. Is that stupid?”

    With a chuckle, Marquis put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a brief hug. “My dear, you already make me happy to know you, and I appreciate your looks to the fullest, but if you wish to do this, I have no problem with it.” He chuckled. “In any case, there's nothing wrong with making a hero consider changing sides, even briefly.”

    Kayden leaned back against his chest. With Max, it had always felt as though she were trying to earn his regard. Marquis simply made her feel accepted. They hadn't gone past a certain level of physical intimacy yet, but she wasn't ruling anything out at this stage. His words, whether they were sincere or just intended to make her feel more confident, gave her a much-needed boost.

    “Thanks,” she said, leaning around to give him a kiss on the cheek. Stepping forward, she held out her hand to Marchioness. “Think you can do something with that?”

    “Sure, I can try.” The slender dark-haired girl took her hand; her eyes went distant for a moment. “Okay, got it. This will probably feel a little weird.”

    While she wasn't certain what Marchioness meant by 'a little weird', Kayden quickly found out. Her scalp crawled as her hair retracted into it, then she felt the very odd sensation as her facial bones reconfigured. Even her lower jaw changed shape. Before she could really register all of it, there was a slithering feeling as hair extended from her scalp once more, sliding down over her shoulders.

    “Okay, done,” announced the biokinetic briskly. “Dad, what do you think?”

    Marquis gazed at Kayden's remodelled face for long enough that she began to flush once more, then he nodded. “Very nice. I believe the superheroes will indeed be saying 'Whoa!'. If they do not, I shall be questioning their orientation.”

    “Okay, enough,” Kayden said. “I have to go see for myself.” She set off toward the nearest bathroom—because, of course, Marquis' house had more than one. Following some kind of unspoken agreement, Marchioness accompanied her while Marquis stayed behind.

    Entering the bathroom, Kayden stared into the mirror, and gasped. Her eyes had been a light hazel before; now, they were a deep sapphire blue. The rest of her features had been similarly altered, changing her look utterly. Her button nose now had an aristocratic arch, while her chin was stronger and her cheekbones higher. Her eyebrows, more defined and several shades lighter than before, rose in wings rather than petering out, and her hair …

    “Oh, wow,” she murmured, running her hands through the luxurious blonde waves. She'd always resigned herself to straight boring brown hair; this was outside of her experience. Turning side-on, she looked at the mirror from the corner of her eye, taking in the way the hair draped over her shoulders. “This is me?”

    “It is now,” Marchioness confirmed. “Anything you want touched up while we're in here? Feeling comfortable with everything?”

    “Um … wow,” Kayden said, turning face-on to the mirror once more. “I can't see anything I don't like. Though … uh, I didn't ask for blue eyes. I thought we were trying to get me away from the Empire background?”

    “As Dad would put it, I don't believe eye colour will affect their view of you, either way.” Marchioness shrugged. “Those who want to believe you're still a neo-Nazi will hold to that, no matter what you look like. But this way, we're playing into their preconceptions, making them more likely to accept that these are your original looks.”

    “Huh.” That made a certain amount of sense. Still, there was no harm in trying out other options. “Would you be able to show me what other eye colours look like? Just in case I like something else better?”

    “Sure.” Marchioness moved up alongside her, arms folded and one hand supporting her chin thoughtfully. Despite the fact that there was no skin contact, Kayden felt a vaguely odd sensation in her eyes. She stared into the mirror to see her irises transitioning from blue to green and then to a molten gold.

    “Holy crap,” she blurted. “I didn't know you could do something like that without touching.” In the mirror, her blonde hair brought out the gold irises; somehow, Marchioness had made them slightly reflective. It made her look both striking and dangerous, like a powerful visitor from another world. “Oh. Oh, my.”

    “Sure.” Marchioness grinned. “My range isn't great, but it's better when I actually like the people I'm doing it to. You like it? It looks really cool.”

    “Oh hell, yes,” Kayden blurted. “Can I keep it?” Then the rest of what Marchioness had said caught up with her. “What about people you hate?”

    Marchioness snorted. “The range goes up again, but my power tries to do bad things to them. If I really despise someone, I find it hard to do serious healing on them. When I was rebuilding Krieg and the others, I had to keep reminding myself that I was gonna screw them over totally with the whole skin colour thing, or they would've ended up with boils or some nasty skin condition or something.” She rolled her eyes. “I actually had to fix Kaiser something like three times. His immune system kept crapping out on him.”

    “Right.” Kayden tried not to shudder. Claire was a sweet girl, whether she was in her normal form or her Marchioness identity, but it was a good idea to remember that she would also make a horrific enemy. As Max and the others had discovered, the hard way. “Remind me to never piss you off that badly.”

    “Hey, it's okay.” Marchioness gave Kayden a hug, startling her. “I like you. My power would never do anything mean to you. And I know you'll never do anything bad to me or Dad. It's just not in you.”

    That was actually reassuring, in a very weird way. She wasn't certain if Marchioness was reading her thoughts or just her emotions, but the fact that they were communicating meaningfully (without any stupid mind games—thanks, Max!) was nice. Also, it was good to know that the girl liked her for herself. Kayden tended to return the sentiment, even if she wasn't sure she was ready for the whole 'mom' role quite yet.

    Which brought up something that had been niggling at the back of her mind. When she looked at herself and Marchioness side by side in the mirror, they looked like mother and daughter; apart from the hair and eyes, their facial features were almost identical. The cheekbones, the shape of their faces, even down to the waves in their hair; it had to be more than a coincidence. Though the revelation of the emotional side of Claire's powers made her wonder. Was this deliberate, or is her power reacting to a need for a mother figure?

    Was it true, or did she have matters all wrong? What do I do if I'm right? She was certain Claire would never harm her with her powers, but she didn't want to hurt the girl's feelings anyway. It was something she'd have to think about.

    “Well, I'll do my best,” she said, returning the hug. “I'm just grateful you gave me the benefit of the doubt after Max's idiocy.”

    “That's okay.” Marchioness gave her a final squeeze, then let her go. “Time to go get costumed up, or Dad'll start making veiled comments about women taking forever to get ready.” She grinned at Kayden. “I'm glad you like the eyes. They make you look awesome.” Turning, she headed out of the bathroom.

    With a smile of her own Kayden looked over her new face in the mirror again, marvelling at the golden hair and eyes, and how easy Marchioness had made it seem. It seemed her life had turned upside down since encountering the flying creature over Brockton Bay, but she didn't regret a moment of it. She shuddered to think how it might have turned out if she'd attacked Marchioness; whoever won, it would've gone badly. Learning the true nature of Max Anders was a wake-up call that she'd fortunately survived, but only with the girl's help.

    She could have stayed there all day, exploring the nuances of her new face, but she didn't want to be left behind. Not that she thought Marquis would do that, but he was capable of a certain level of sarcasm when necessary. Leaving the bathroom, she went to the room in which she now kept some of her clothes, as well as a spare costume. The one damaged by Max's steel spike had not yet been repaired; she kept it that way to remind herself of the incident.

    It only took her a few moments to change into the pure-white costume. By habit, she pulled on the cloth mask that covered the upper half of her face, then stopped herself. Removing it once more, she dropped it on the bed. Her new appearance would serve to conceal her identity more than a flimsy piece of cloth, after all. She wondered if any superhero teams had gone unmasked in this way, but none came to mind. Of course, any such team wouldn't have someone like Marchioness to conceal their identities.

    By the time she got back to the living room, Marquis and Marchioness were there, each dressed in their trademark evening wear. As she entered, Marquis began to turn toward her. “Ah, there you are. Actually, I was thinking that if you were agreeable, we could switch out your name and costume for something more in keeping with our current theme. Does that seem worthwhile to …” His voice trailed off as his eyebrows rose toward his hairline. “Well. I am impressed. That will certainly draw attention.” She suspected that he saw more than the gold eyes, from the glance he flickered to his daughter and back to her.

    All the same, she was pleased by the praise. “Thanks. It was Claire's idea. Um, can we hold off on the new name and costume till we see how the PRT reacts to me like this? If they go all rabid, we might have to rethink the whole idea. Because even if we do that, they'll still know it's me the first time I power up.”

    He inclined his head. “I understand completely, my dear. Are you ready to go?” Courteously, he extended his elbow in her direction.

    “Not really, but let's do this anyway.” With a smile that she hoped showed none of the butterflies in her stomach—she was about to walk into the PRT building!—she linked her arm through his. Marchioness took her father's other arm and they headed toward the garage.

    <><>​

    Marquis

    At Earl's side, Kayden looked around with a faint air of nervousness. She was seated between himself and Claire, but the vehicle was roomy enough that the space was in no way cramped. In the front of the car, Jonas guided the large car through Brockton Bay's afternoon traffic with practised ease.

    At the passenger side window, Claire cleared her throat. “So hey, Kayden, did you want defensive mods, or should we leave it off for the moment?”

    A little surprised, Earl looked across at his daughter. “You haven't already dealt with that?” he asked. Claire was usually much more on top of matters than this.

    “I kinda forgot, and then I had to get ready,” Claire admitted, looking slightly embarrassed. “That's why I'm bringing it up now.”

    “Um, I do appreciate the time to think about it,” Kayden put in. “But yes, Claire—I mean Marchioness, sorry. Yes, Marchioness, I would like whatever modifications you think I might find necessary.” She paused and added hastily, “Uh, I'll still look like me, won't I?”

    Marchioness snorted. “Well, for a given definition of 'you' to look like, sure.”

    “Oh. Yes.” Kayden put up her hand to her face; a most becoming flush mounted her cheeks. Earl would've bet quite a large amount of money that she'd temporarily forgotten she was wearing a new face. “All right, thanks. What are you going to do?”

    “Just the basics, really.” Claire took hold of Kayden's hand. “Subdermal carbon nanotube armour, bone strengthening, and reinforcement of your vital organs. It'll only take a minute. I'm pretty good at it, now.”

    “If that's the basics, what's the more advanced stuff?” asked Kayden, quite possibly to take her mind off the fact that a thirteen year old girl was working to reinforce her organs and bones. “Is it that stuff you were talking about with Jonas? The proprioception?”

    “That, and partial replacement of the bones with nanotubes, rebuilding and moving organs to be less vulnerable and more efficient, improving the sensorium and reflex triggers,” Claire said absently. “Jonas gets to test out stuff like that for me. He's also got a secondary braincase, with shock-absorbing gel between the inner and outer layers. And he can lift nearly half a ton.”

    “Holy shit,” blurted Kayden, looking forward to where Jonas bulked in the front seat. “So you really weren't kidding when you said he took on Hookwolf.”

    “No, ma'am, they were not.” Jonas' deep voice rumbled through the speaker. “Excuse me for the interruption, sir, but we're nearly there.”

    “Thank you, Jonas,” Earl said smoothly. “Ladies, if you're quite finished?”

    “Just about,” Claire replied almost immediately. “And … done. I doubt they're gonna attack us, but that should give you protection against small-arms fire anyway. A rifle bullet will punch through your skin, but probably won't break bones or do more than bruise an organ. As far as I can tell, anyway. I'm not gonna make any predictions against powers.”

    “Oh. Right.” Kayden flexed her fingers. “I really can't tell the difference. Though I could kind of feel something while you were doing it.”

    Claire smiled. As Marchioness, she had a good line in enigmatic smiles, which Earl of course encouraged. “If you could, I'd be disappointed in myself. I touched up your joints a fraction, but otherwise you shouldn't really notice any difference in how your body works.”

    “Okay, thanks.” Kayden looked around as the car came to a halt. “Uh, I hate to make things difficult, but I think I want to start with a different cape name. I mean, I know they'll figure out I'm Purity anyway, but why borrow trouble right this moment? The trouble is, I have no idea what name to go with.”

    Claire blinked. “Uh, I hadn't thought of one. Dad?”

    Earl resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Well, of course, dearest Marchioness. How does Palatina sound?” Opening the door, he climbed from the car and closed it once more. Normally, Jonas would have performed this function, but Marquis didn't want the big man to be a link between Earl Marchant and Marquis.

    Rounding the rear of the car, he opened the passenger side rear door. Claire slid out, expertly arranging her evening gown. Then she stood by as Earl reached in and assisted Kayden from the vehicle. Once they were both out, Earl closed the door firmly; the car moved off and merged with traffic moments later.

    “Okay,” said Marchioness as they turned toward the imposing frontage of the PRT building, “I'll bite. What's a Palatina?”

    “It's derived from a title dating as far back as the Roman Empire,” Earl informed her as he led the way to the bastion of law and order. “The Palatine Hill was where the Emperor had his residence, which was where the words 'palace' and 'palatial' came from. A 'palatine' was a high-level official who spent a lot of time on the Palatine Hill, attending to the Emperor. The title stayed in use even after the fall of Rome; you may have heard the term 'paladin', which is also derived from it. It basically means someone who has power just below that of the monarch.” He smiled at Kayden. “Thus, my second in charge.”

    She blinked, whether at the revelation of her new status or the impromptu history lesson, he wasn't sure. “Uh … but what about Marchioness? I'm not, uh …”

    Ah, so it was the status she was concerned about. This made him more certain that he'd made the right decision. “Don't be worried about that. She's not exactly in the chain of command. Sometimes I tell her what to do, and sometimes she tells me what to do. I trust her judgement.” There was the occasional flare-up of teenage misbehaviour to deal with, but he considered that they had quite an adequate understanding of boundaries there. At least at the moment. When Claire started noticing boys, and they started noticing her, he was going to have to brush up on his subtle—or not so subtle—death threats. The issue was simple; nobody was worthy of his little girl.

    “Oh, okay.” Kayden shut up as they reached the thick automatic glass doors, which slid aside to let out a gust of chilled air.

    “Dad,” Claire said rapidly, “you did call ahead, right?” She was good with her powers; even as his tongue pressed into the roof of his mouth to begin shaping the word 'no', she huffed and stepped in front of him. “Right, got it. Stay behind me. No sudden moves. Yeesh.”

    A little amused by Claire's irritation, he let her take the lead.

    <><>​

    Marchioness

    Claire opened her throat slightly and reinforced her diaphragm as she stepped forward. The inner doors swished open in front of her and she moved forward into the lobby of the PRT building. “Excuse me, everyone?” she called out, making sure that her amplified voice reached everyone in the room. “Please stay calm. My name is Marchioness. Marquis and I are visiting peacefully. We are not hostile.” It took a few seconds for the import of her words to reach everyone, and by then Marquis and Palatina were in the lobby as well.

    “Kindly heed Marchioness' words,” Marquis said, his voice carrying just as much as hers had. “We bear no hostile intent.”

    There were four guards spaced around the lobby; two were armed with containment foam sprayers, while the other two had grenade launchers. She almost hoped that they'd try to foam her; if it was organic, she was confident of finding a way of dissolving it. As soon as she began to speak, all of them had brought up their weapons; on hearing her name, they had lowered them again. It's like Dad and I thought; the word's gone out to leave me alone. Now to see if it works for Dad and Kayden as well.

    There was a moment of frozen silence, broken only by the teens in the gift shop, peering out to see who was talking. Then one of the PRT men stepped forward. His weapon, a grenade launcher, wasn't quite raised far enough to point at them. “What do you want here, Marquis?”

    “To talk to someone in authority, actually.” Claire felt her father nudge Kayden, then he moved toward the officer. His hands were in plain view, but that meant nothing; she knew he could produce bone from any part of his body he needed. She kept pace with him, while Kayden did the same on the other side. “I wish to make a statement about the bank robbery this afternoon.”

    While Claire couldn't see the man's face with her eyes, she could read his body's reactions like a book. His eyes widened in what appeared to be surprise. “You want to turn yourself in?” the man asked, not sounding as if even he believed the answer would be in the affirmative.

    “That, I'm afraid, is not the case.” Marquis sounded amused, even though adrenaline was singing through his veins. “I really would rather speak to one of your superiors, though, unless you want this conversation to take place in such a public arena.” His smile was that of a man who knew he held all the cards. “I rather suspect that your superiors would not appreciate that happening.”

    Though no sound was audible from where she stood, Claire knew that the soldier was hearing something over the radio in his helmet. Unfortunately, she was only able to tell this from the regular vibrations in his eardrums; deciphering the speech would require her to be close enough to lock on to his brain activity. It was far too soon for anyone to be giving orders, so she assumed that one of the other soldiers was reporting on the situation.

    She heard a clicking noise and looked over to see that the teenagers were taking pictures of the standoff; feeling just a little mischievous, she smiled and waved. The soldier's hand tightened on his weapon, but he didn't raise it. She guessed he was irritated at the interruption. Her father, on the other hand, stood with his hands folded before him in a supremely relaxed pose that she knew was almost entirely feigned. Kayden was feeling nerves in a big way; Claire eased off the older woman's production of epinephrine, trying to help her relax slightly.

    Something else came across the radio; the soldier's neck muscles twitched, as if he wanted to nod. Instead, he spoke, softly enough that it didn't carry out of the helmet. Some kind of selective sound dampening? Claire had no idea how to tell. However, she could tell what he was saying.

    Grant, here. There's three of them. Marquis, Marchioness, and a woman in white. None of them are masked. I've never seen the woman in white before. About five foot two. She's got a face you don't forget, and her eyes are gold. The irises, I mean. Uh, they haven't done anything aggressive. They just want to talk to someone in authority, about the bank robbery.” A pause, while someone spoke to him. “I don't know. Marquis said that you wouldn't like it if he had to say it in public.” Another pause. “Wait, you're going to actually—uh, I mean, yes, ma'am. I copy. Conference room three, roger. I'll escort them up. Grant, out.”

    Claire hid a smile as he turned his attention to them. “All right, then,” he said out loud. “You'll have your meeting. I'm going to need you to come with me and hand over any … uh.”

    “If your next word was going to be 'weapons', I believe you need to rethink your request,” Marquis interjected, his voice filled with amusement. He broke off the bone knife which had grown in his hand, then let it dissolve into dust. Claire winced inwardly at the stab of pain that went through him, but decided that if he wasn't going to say anything about it, nor was she.

    “Why don't we just go up?” Claire asked jauntily. “Conference room three, wasn't it?” She probably shouldn't have felt amusement at his start of surprise, but she did anyway. She was, after all, her father's daughter.

    “Yes,” growled Grant, shooting her a look of deep suspicion from behind his faceplate. “Come on, then. This way.” He led the way toward the bank of elevators at the back of the lobby. Claire followed, making sure to stay close to her father and Kayden both; she didn't want to give the PRT even the slightest chance to split them up. In the process, she got close enough to Grant that she could pick up his mental processes.

    He was apprehensive and determined in equal parts, but she could detect no deceit from him. This wasn't a trap; or if it was, he wasn't part of it. She had to admire how he was hiding his dislike of the situation he was in; if she couldn't see it for herself, she'd never have known it.

    Is there a problem, Lieutenant?” asked a voice over his radio. It sounded like a woman, maybe in her forties.

    “Not a real problem, ma'am,” he answered out loud. “Addition to the file: Marchioness appears to be a Thinker, able to hear through soundproofing.”

    Understood, Lieutenant. All other units, switch to alternate frequency Delta. Over.”

    Claire blinked, suddenly wishing she hadn't shown off. All it had done was make them suspicious of her, without any real gain. Neither the flare of irritation in her father's mind nor the sharp glance he sent her way were really necessary to make her realise the significance of her blunder.

    It was only moderately crowded with all four of them in the elevator, the majority of the bulk coming from Grant's containment foam tanks. The button panel was actually a digital screen, Claire noted. As she watched, both it and the floor display went dark. However, this didn't seem to be a glitch, because the lights stayed on in the lift and the doors interleaved together in a way that screamed 'Tinkertech' to anyone with any experience of capes in pop culture.

    There was only the slightest jolt as the lift began to move, and barely any sensation of movement at all after that. The only way Claire knew they were travelling at all was the way she could sense people in the building outside the lift, dropping away below them, rather faster than she would've expected.

    The trip in the elevator would've been awkward, but it was over too quickly for that. When the doors opened again, she felt a jolt of surprise from both Kayden and her father. Grant must've seen something in their faces, because satisfaction flared in his brain and he smirked slightly inside his helmet before stepping out of the elevator.

    “Come on out,” he said. “If you wander off, it will be taken as a hostile act.” His tone wasn't exactly aggressive, but he wasn't giving an inch either. Claire didn't really blame him.

    “I assure you, not one of us would dream of it.” Marquis stepped aside to leave Kayden and Claire a clear path from the elevator. As he did so, she noted another person approaching, one who seemed familiar. Stepping to her father's side, she looked around to see she'd been right. It was Armsmaster; unlike the last time she'd met him, he was holding his trademark halberd.

    “Uh, hi, Armsmaster,” she said, determined not to repeat her earlier faux pas. “You're looking well. I saw Mega Girl the other night. She seemed to be doing well too.”

    “Marchioness,” he acknowledged her, but his attention was on Kayden. “I don't know you. Please identify yourself.” Despite the courteous phrasing, the tone of his voice made it an order.

    “Uh, I'm Palatina,” Kayden replied. Claire silently let go the breath she'd been holding; there'd been the very real chance that she'd use her previous name.

    Armsmaster held still for a moment, his eyes roving over a heads-up display. Claire could see it, but she couldn't share his understanding of what it meant, especially as the display changed faster than she could keep up with. Then a line of text popped up: VOICE ANALYSIS: NO MATCH. Claire schooled her expression into blankness; the alterations she had made to Kayden's larynx were subtle, but had obviously done the job.

    “You're not in our files,” Armsmaster announced. “Why are you even involved with Marquis?” His tone was slightly harsher now, and more adrenaline was going through his system. Not surprising, as he was facing what, to him, was an unknown cape.

    “Kaiser blew up Somer's Rock and tried to kill Marquis and Marchioness,” Kayden said, truthfully but unhelpfully. “I was in the area, and decided to help them out.”

    Surprise flashed through both Armsmaster's and Grant's brains, but the armoured hero recovered first. “We're going to need more details on that,” he stated. “Such as details on exactly who died there.”

    Claire shared a glance with her father. This was not what she'd expected they'd be talking about when they went into the PRT building. “Only the wait-staff at Somer's Rock died,” he said, saving her the problem of having to figure out what to say to that. “Now, I believe you were showing us to a conference room?”

    Armsmaster's lips thinned, but he nodded. Frustration radiated from him like heat shimmer over an asphalt road at midday; she didn't even need her powers to spot it. Turning, he led the way down the corridor. Marquis followed along, with Claire and Kayden behind him; Grant brought up the rear. Several office doors, all devoid of identifying nameplates, went by before Armsmaster opened a set of double doors and stepped inside. Claire could easily detect the PRT troopers in the offices. Each one was feeling a mixture of determination and apprehension, but none of them were worked up to the point where they were about to attack.

    With Kayden at her side, Claire followed her father into the conference room. It was equipped with a long table, lined on each side by chairs; the wall at one end was mostly taken up by a huge screen. Marquis pulled out chairs for each of them, then took a seat himself. Armsmaster, followed by Grant, moved around to the far side of the table. The Brockton Bay Protectorate leader took up a foursquare stance with his halberd still in his hands; after a moment, Grant emulated him.

    The screen came to life, showing the head and shoulders of a woman with a careworn face and dark brown hair starting to go grey here and there. From the suit she wore and the discreet insignia on her shoulders, Claire gathered that this was the regional Director of the PRT East-North-East.

    Emily Piggot was not a regular TV personality, and from the expression on her face, it wasn't hard to figure out why. Piggot didn't treat her position as Director as a vehicle for fame; she was here to do a job. And from her glare, Marquis wasn't making it any easier on her.

    “Ah, good afternoon, Director.” Her father was definitely pouring on the charm. Claire could read wary respect in his mind, so she decided to treat the Director in the same way. “So very kind of you to host us today. We have some good news for you.”

    You realise that I could have you all detained and arrested right now.” Piggot's voice was flat and hard. “Marquis, you have enough crimes against your name that you would be remanded immediately to the Birdcage. Palatina, be aware that you are associating with a criminal with a very long rap sheet. Now that you know this, also be aware that further association could very easily lead to arrest and criminal charges.”

    Claire read apprehension and the beginnings of anger from Kayden; reaching over, she pressed the older woman's hand. Wait. Kayden subsided, just slightly.

    “Oh, you could try.” Marquis leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers together. He could only have appeared more relaxed if he had his feet up. “But you won't, will you? All this is merely a show, an attempt to intimidate us. The unofficial policy regarding myself and Marchioness is 'hands off', isn't it?”

    “You seem very certain about that.” Armsmaster's voice was harsh. “I've encountered many criminals who thought they couldn't be arrested. Most of them are in custody.” He was once more too far away from Claire to read his brain activity, but from the way he was gripping his halberd, he wasn't happy.

    “Oh, it wasn't hard to determine this.” Claire could almost feel the waves of smugness coming off of her father. “We encountered the Brockton Bay Brigade just the other night. My men had intervened to protect some civilians from Empire thugs in my territory. While Brandish was determined to arrest my men, neither she nor the rest of the Brigade tried to to arrest me.” Carelessly, he buffed his immaculate nails against his coat, then continued. “Now, this may be because they know they don't stand a chance against me, but that's never stopped them before. Which means to me that they've been warned off. And perhaps the only person who could successfully warn them off, and make it stick, would be …” He waved a courteous hand toward the screen. “Yourself, dear Director. Am I perhaps getting warm?”

    He'd done more than get 'warm', Claire decided. The Director looked as though she were sucking on a lemon, and had been doing so for the last week. “Be that as it may,” she grated. “You came here to give us some information. What is it?”

    “Ah, ah, ah, my dear,” he admonished her, waving a nonchalant finger. “Before we commence, there is first the matter of Palatina's status; specifically, that she is recognised as being affiliated with Marchioness and myself, and thus enjoys the same immunity from arrest. Are we agreed on this?”

    There was the sound of something snapping off-screen; Claire fancied that it might be a pencil. Jerkily, Piggot nodded. “Agreed, on the provision that this conversation goes no farther than this room.” She sat forward. “Now. The information on the bank robbery.”

    Marquis straightened in his seat, casting off the careless air. “That's quite simple. I didn't do it.”

    “You expect us to believe that?” Armsmaster stepped forward, until his halberd bumped one of the chairs. “We have footage showing your face, you bastard. You've done far worse in your career. Why are you denying your involvement in this, of all things?”

    “For a start, Armsmaster, unless you wish to match off with me again, I would advise you to keep this discussion civil.” Marquis' tone never lost its cultivated air, but there was the hint of something darker behind it. “I am saying it because it happens to be true. Be aware that I'm already ridiculously wealthy. Unless the haul from this robbery were several magnitudes higher than I suspect it was, I simply would not be interested.” He tilted his head. “Asking from curiosity, how much was taken? To the nearest thousand will do.”

    Armsmaster glanced at the screen. Director Piggot hesitated, then nodded almost imperceptibly. “Two hundred and thirty-three thousand dollars,” she replied. “In addition, a security guard was badly hurt, and two hostages and a bank teller were slightly injured.”

    Marquis' expression sharpened. “Women and children?” he asked, his tone flat.

    “One of the injured hostages was a woman,” Armsmaster supplied. Claire wondered what was going through his mind; whether he was actually coming around to the truth, or if he was just playing along with Director Piggot's line.

    “I … see.” Marquis opened his coat and reached inside. Armsmaster stepped back and levelled his halberd, while beside him Grant did the same with the foam sprayer. Raising one eyebrow, the bone manipulator slid a leather wallet from the inner pocket of his coat. “Really?” he asked, eyeing the weapons currently aimed in his direction. “You do realise that if I were to pull out a gun, you would be substantially safer than if I decided to use my powers, correct?”

    Armsmaster was the first to raise his weapon; Grant followed suit. Inside his helmet, the PRT officer had a look of mortification. Claire decided not to point this out.

    “Good,” murmured Marquis. “Now we have that settled …” Tapping his fingernail down the row of cards contained in the wallet, he selected two and skimmed them across the table. “Consider this a declaration of my innocence in the matter.”

    Stepping forward once more, Armsmaster eyed the cards with (Claire could tell) deep suspicion. “What are they?”

    “Welcome to the world of high finance, dear boy.” Marquis put the wallet away and waved a negligent hand. “They contain the access details for funds held in escrow. The red one with white lettering holds a quarter of a million dollars. Reimburse the bank with that. The green one holds a hundred thousand dollars. Pass that on to the victims, to cover their medical bills. Is that easy enough to understand?”

    Wait, you're giving money away?” Director Piggot didn't seem to be able to comprehend the concept. “You're a villain. Why?”

    Marquis shrugged. “As I said before, I happen to be ridiculously wealthy. This sort of expenditure is literally pocket change for me. I wouldn't even consider robbing a bank for less than ten million. It simply wouldn't be worth my time any more. And I will not permit my name to be connected to any endeavour where women or children were harmed. Is that understood?”

    The lines on Director Piggot's face deepened, as if she were in pain. “It's understood. Of course, I can't say anything officially, but I'll do what I can unofficially.”

    “If you didn't do it, who are you accusing of doing it?” asked Armsmaster. His voice didn't give away much, but Piggot's agreement had to have had some effect. He didn't sound quite as hostile as before, which had to be something.

    When Marquis smiled, his eyes were hooded. “We'll leave that for later. You wanted to know about Somer's Rock? The details there get a little more complicated.”

    “Our analysts found five separate blood traces, as well as a mass of bone. Your work?” The question from Armsmaster was almost polite. That is, as polite as anything asked by a man holding a halberd can really be.

    “The bone, yes,” agreed Claire's father. “The blood, no. We were attacked by four members of the Empire after they killed the wait-staff and blew up the venue in an attempt to assassinate us, on Kaiser's orders.” The smile he bestowed upon Armsmaster and the PRT personnel was downright chilling. “What happened next was pure self-defence.”

    What did happen next? Who did you kill?” Piggot's face was even closer to the camera.

    “As it happened, nobody.” Marquis smiled sardonically at the look on her face. “But the upshot of it was that Kaiser dissolved the Empire Eighty-Eight. He's left town, as have Krieg, Hookwolf, Cricket and Stormtiger. All hale and hearty, if not the most thrilled.”

    “Do you have proof of that? Any evidence at all?” Armsmaster leaned forward expectantly.

    Marquis chuckled as he pushed his chair back and stood up. “Do you take me for a hero? If I don't have to follow the rule of law, I'm certainly not obliged to follow the rules of evidence. I'm telling you this, and you may choose to believe it or not, as you will.” Courteously, he pulled out Kayden's chair, then Claire's. “Ladies, if you will, we shall be leaving now.”

    Wait.” The Director sat back in her chair. “We hadn't finished talking about who robbed Brockton Savings and Loan.”

    “True; we had not.” Marquis inclined his head politely toward the screen. “I have a strong idea as to who has stolen my good name. Now, I intend to go and get both it and my money back. This is my last word on the subject.”

    “But who is it?” Armsmaster was nothing if not persistent.

    Marquis smiled indulgently. “And give you the chance to get there first? I think not. You may read about it in the papers tomorrow. Now, are you going to escort us out or do we have to make a hole in the wall? Your choice.”

    As Lieutenant Grant led them from the room, Claire waved to the screen. The Director did not return the gesture.



    End of Part Thirteen

    Part Fourteen
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2018
  3. Thief of Words

    Thief of Words Still Broken, but Less Lost

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    What happened to canon's blonde bob cut? Or has she not started to bleach her hair yet?
     
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  4. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Ah, Claire messes up a little, but that's to be expected from a teenager. A very stylish, and very Marquis scene there with Piggot. Nicely done.
     
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  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    My headcanon is that she started to bleach it when the grey began to show through.
     
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  6. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    So, a week after Clockblocker joined the Wards?
     
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  7. Dreadis

    Dreadis No idea whats going on

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    So in about 2 weeks after the shit she is going to have to be dealing with now?
     
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  8. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix Versed in the lewd.

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    So, if Kayden's joining the Marche, and possibly Marquis, where's Theo in all this? Did he leave with Kaiser, or does he stay with his step-mom and become Amelia's adorable little brother?
     
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Theo's about eleven or twelve. Given that Kayden hasn't actually been in a relationship with Max yet ... hmm. He's probably staying with relatives.
     
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  10. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix Versed in the lewd.

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    Ah, I didn't put together that they hadn't married yet.
     
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  11. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yup.

    Also, Theo's situation almost certainly came up while they had Max. Marquis probably acted to have him placed in a foster family.
     
  12. 1oldman

    1oldman Lurking lurker witch lurks

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    I thank you writer of words.
    poor Theo , but hey is he now in charge of Medhall ?
     
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  13. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Nope. Marquis now owns all but 1% of Max's former assets.

    Theo (I'll note this later) has been placed with a foster family.
     
  14. Alexcorvin

    Alexcorvin Ran All Out Of Fucks To Give

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    My google fu has failed me. What is a 'four square stance' oh great Ack-Sempai?
     
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  15. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It means to stand solidly, not giving an inch.
    Foursquare.
     
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  16. Threadmarks: Part Fourteen: Clash of Titans
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Fourteen: Clash of Titans

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Tuesday Afternoon, October 2, 2007
    Marchioness


    “Okay,” Palatina stated as the automatic doors hissed shut behind them and they walked away from the PRT building. “That was … harrowing.”

    “Oh, come on,” Claire said with a grin. “Admit it. It was fun.”

    Palatina rolled her eyes. “Sure. Fun. As in fundamentally unsettling.” She gave Marquis a look that Claire interpreted as mixing respect with exasperation. “One of these days, you're going to push their buttons a little too hard and someone's going to do something that you don't expect.”

    “Like Kaiser and Krieg did,” Claire reminded her father. She'd certainly enjoyed the sight of Armsmaster and Director Piggot fuming over not being able to arrest her father, but it was only possible to push people so far before they pushed back. “And I'm not at all sure I could pull off that particular stunt again, especially not in the PRT building.”

    “Well, no,” Marquis agreed. “Starting a fight on the enemy's home turf, where they can control the terrain and bring up troops faster than you can knock them down, is almost invariably a losing move. I believe the relevant quote is 'never fight a land war in Asia'. As for Kaiser … well, it was an unexpected gambit. Of course, he himself would never have come up with it on his own. But desperate men will adopt desperate strategies, and the loss of Somer's Rock must have seemed worth the benefit of wiping me off the board.”

    “I'm still shocked that Krieg even thought of it,” Palatina said. “I mean, it's Somer's Rock. Villains—and one or two heroes—have been meeting there since forever.” She shook her head. “I've seen deadly enemies be polite to each other—well, at least they didn't try to kill each other—while sitting in the 'Rock. It's just …” She trailed off, shaking her head at the apparent impossibility of expressing what she was feeling.

    “You're forgetting a fundamental aspect here,” Marquis pointed out as they strolled down the street. While he spoke, Claire kept a lookout all around, ready to warn the others if she spotted any kind of danger. To her mild surprise, barely anyone was even paying attention to them. Palatina's costume was noticeable as such, but its very plainness worked in their favour. The lack of any kind of logo or theme apparently made her look less interesting. Those few who spotted her unusual irises gave her a second look, but it wasn't as if they were going to recognise her as Purity.

    “What aspect is that?” Palatina was also apparently aware of the scrutiny, or lack thereof. Claire was just close enough to get a hint of confusion and wary acceptance from her. It obviously wasn't her usual thing to walk past the PRT building in full costume, even with the rest of her team in attendance. The Empire, as bold as they had been, probably hadn't been that audacious.

    “He wasn't from Brockton Bay,” Marquis said bluntly. “We all are. From the moment you set foot in the cape scene, you were made aware of how sacred it was. Krieg was sent to America by Gesellschaft, to forge a connection with Allfather's Empire, back in the day. You'll note that even though he was nominally an outsider, he was made a second in command of the Empire. That was part of the agreement with Gesellschaft. But he was never really a Brockton Bay cape, not where it counted.”

    “That … actually makes a lot of sense,” Palatina admitted, enlightenment washing through her brain. It looked kind of pretty, Claire decided. “He was always just a bit standoffish, especially after Max started paying attention to me. I'm curious now if he thought Max might replace him with me.” She sounded a little wistful.

    “Wondering about what might have been?” Marquis raised a practised eyebrow. “Believe me, if I mourned every lost opportunity, I'd never get anything done. As far as I'm concerned, it's better to look ahead for the opportunities in the future than spend all your time in the past.”

    “Well, this is true,” Palatina conceded, giving Claire's father a half-smile. “Besides, I doubt I'll ever really forgive him for stabbing me like that.” Her voice was calm, but underneath her thoughts were in turmoil. The release of tension stemming from walking out of the lion's den was making her just a little giddy, which contributed to the heavy-lidded gaze she sent Marquis' way. She didn't speak, and Claire wasn't actually able to read thoughts, but the subtext was extremely clear: I know you wouldn't do that to me.

    “Seriously, am I gonna have to tell you two to get a room?” Claire pretended exasperation. “Or are we gonna go after Blasto and explain to him why he shouldn't be making copies of my Dad?” She looked from one adult to the other. “Because I'll happily go looking for him myself, just so long as I'm away from you two making goo-goo eyes at each other.” She was pleased that Kayden and her father were interested in each other. While she missed Abigail, she knew he was lonely, and Kayden was nice. As the saying went, there was a time and a place for things like that.

    “We are not making goo-goo eyes at each other,” protested Palatina, but she coloured heavily at the same time. “We were just making polite conversation.”

    “Uh huh,” Claire said sarcastically, noting that her father had not weighed in on the matter. While his face showed nothing, his thoughts indicated a certain amount of amusement. “So, any ideas about how we're gonna track down Blasto?”

    “Steady down,” Marquis advised her. “He's a very strong suspect, certainly, but all we have at the moment is circumstantial evidence.” He clasped his hands behind his back as he strode along. “The fact of the matter is that we don't know if he's behind it. It could be that someone is framing him. In which case, we need to be careful with our approach. If he's actually innocent of the charge, a clumsy approach means we've just made an enemy needlessly.”

    “Kaiser wouldn't have had a problem with that,” Palatina offered. “Or Lung. They aren't known for letting defeated enemies go if they have a chance to kill them instead.”

    Marquis didn't react outwardly to that, though Claire read the determination in his mind. Curious as to whether this was a universal trait in the villains of Brockton Bay, she turned to Palatina. The older woman misread her expression and shrugged. “What? It's true.”

    Claire had seen direct evidence of that, but she still had to ask the question. It would make her sound more than a little naïve, but she wanted to get things clear in her head. “Aren't there kind of unspoken rules against killing downed enemies, stuff like that?”

    “Certainly,” Marquis agreed. “The truth is, most of us agree to abide by them. But there's always those who think they're above such things. Case in point: Somer's Rock.”

    Palatina cleared her throat, apparently a little uncomfortable with the topic at hand. Claire figured she was thinking about the Empire's role in the matter. “But Marchioness has a point. How are we going to find him?”

    “By a process of elimination,” declared Marquis. “Blasto is a Tinker of sorts, which means he needs a sizeable base and resources to work with. We simply take away all the places he can't be based in, then we investigate the remainder.”

    “Oh.” Claire was a little taken aback. “For a moment there, I thought you were going to pull out some cool trick that lets us go straight to his lair. I was totally ready to be thoroughly impressed.”

    “Well, compared with the Saturday morning cartoon method of wandering around aimlessly until you accidentally stumble across a clue, I think that actually counts as a cool trick,” Palatina pointed out. “Either that or wait to be attacked, then follow the villains back to their lair.”

    “Does that ever happen in real life?” asked Claire. “Just being attacked out of the blue?”

    Behind them, a loud metallic clang sounded. All three turned as one, to see Lung climbing out of a manhole. The cover lay nearby. Lung was a good eight feet tall at this point, and a heat shimmer danced around his body as he squeezed through the narrow (for him) opening. His mask looked a little different from normal; Claire wondered if the original had been damaged or something.

    “Apparently, more often than you'd think,” Palatina replied, her voice oddly calm. Claire could tell she was forcing her fear down. She didn't know if Purity had ever fought the Asian crime lord—it wasn't a topic of conversation that had actually come up—but it was a contest that could only end badly for the loser.

    “Is there anything we need to know about him?” asked Marquis, as Lung finally gained his feet. “Particular vulnerabilities or immunities? Apart from fire, that is?”

    Lung turned to look at them. In response, Marquis coated himself from head to toe in living bone. An elaborate trident formed itself in his hands, but he made no move to attack. Behind him, Claire was working hard on herself and the other two, doing her best to fireproof them. It wasn't easy, but she had a few ideas. And if worst came to worst, she'd take on the combat form she'd used to such great effect before.

    After giving them a long look, from which Claire could swear she felt the air heat up around them, Lung abruptly turned away. He started toward the front doors of the PRT building, silver scales sliding into place on his skin and flame dancing around his hands.

    “Okay, I have a question.” Claire wondered if she was missing something. “Why is Lung attacking the PRT building, alone?” Because there was a singular lack of ABB members climbing out of the manhole, or converging on the doors from other directions. And surely even Lung didn't consider himself so powerful that he could take on the PRT in a direct confrontation and win. It was a spectacularly unstrategic move.

    "I find myself asking the same question," mused Marquis. "More to the point, we've been antagonising him almost from the day we arrived back in the 'Bay. Why would he choose to attack them over me?"

    Amused despite herself, Claire snorted. “A little hurt pride there, Dad?” However, her father's point was valid. Lung had to know what Marquis looked like, and had the reputation of never turning away from a fight. Despite having never met him, she was sure this was extremely out of character for the man.

    “Forget your male pride,” Palatina said bluntly. “What do we do? Shouldn't we just … well, walk away?” She sounded as though she meant it. Even in her mind, she was singularly uninterested in testing herself against Lung. “It's not our fight. If Lung wants to take on the PRT, that's his problem.”

    Sirens began to sound from within the building, and shutters rattled down into place just as Lung reached the doors. He took hold of the shutters and let out a grunt of effort that Claire heard from where she was. With a screech of tearing metal, he tore them out of their runners and hurled them out into the street. Then he took hold of the glass sliding doors and tried to pull them apart.

    Marquis rubbed his chin. “I think that it's a good idea to keep your enemy guessing,” he decided. “In the interests of confusing the good Director Piggot, we shall assist them today. Because unless I miss my guess, Lung is going to flee just before sufficient forces arrive to take him into custody. And I don't want that happening.”

    Claire frowned. “I can see he's not acting like himself, but …” And then she clicked. The fact that Lung was alone was one thing. However, add in the factors that he wasn't attacking Marquis on sight and he was doing something absolutely guaranteed to get the PRT and Protectorate even more interested in arresting him, and there was only one reasonable conclusion. “He's a clone too, isn't he?”

    “That's my guess, my dear Marchioness,” Marquis agreed. They heard the sound of shattering glass as Lung took his fists to the barriers, destroying them with a few solid punches. Claire was impressed. She was sure that had been no ordinary glass. He glanced around. “The lobby of that building is no place for a protracted battle. In addition, there are innocents within. Palatina, take Marchioness to the roof and request access to the elevator, to get you down to the ground floor. Blow him out of the building. Can you do that?”

    “I can get us up there,” Palatina agreed, a little dubiously. “Why are they going to let me use the elevator, again?”

    “Because I'll be with you,” Claire said, grasping her father's plan at once. “Come on. It'll be fun.”

    “Fun. Yes. I'm beginning to wonder about your definition of the word.” Palatina was definitely feeling misgivings, but she didn't hesitate as she wrapped her arms around Claire. “Up we go.”

    If Claire had thought the glare was bright before, it was utterly blinding now that she was right next to the source. So she shut her eyes and braced herself for the upward acceleration. It was actually quite brisk, considering that Palatina was having to lift her mass as well. The modifications she'd done to the older woman to increase her strength were helping. Still, it seemed like minutes before they reached the rooftop, although it had to be only a few seconds.

    As Palatina set her down, shouts rang out across the broad expanse. “PRT! Hold it right there! Move and we'll shoot! Purity, power down now-now-now!”

    “Oh, shit,” muttered Palatina. “I hope your dad knows what he's talking about.” Fear washed through her system, spiking her adrenaline levels, but she didn't seem to be about to do anything stupid.

    “He usually does.” Claire kept her voice soothing. As Palatina's glare faded, they both turned toward the guards, who had rifles aimed and ready. She couldn't read their bodies from this range, but they had to be ready to fire at the slightest provocation. “Just remember, you're mostly bulletproof,” she said without moving her lips. Slowly, she raised her hands.

    “'Mostly' isn't 'totally',” Palatina pointed out, but she followed suit. “What now?”

    “Follow my lead.” Claire raised her voice. “Excuse me,” she called out. “I'm Marchioness. You may have been briefed on me. Palatina and I would like to use your elevator, if you don't mind.”

    There was a moment of silence across the rooftop before one of the guards replied. “Wait, what?”

    “Never mind that,” snapped the other guard harshly. “Secure them, fast. We're needed to help with that maniac tearing up the lobby.”

    “That's what we're here for.” Claire tried to project all the reasonable logic into her voice that she could. She kept her hands up because the approaching guards still looked as though they had their fingers on the triggers. “We're here to help. Lung is attacking your building, and we want to stop him.”

    “Shut up.” It was the harsh-voiced guard. “On your knees. Hands behind your heads. Purity, if you even begin to light up, I will fill you full of lead. I shit you not.”

    This was beginning to look like a bad idea. “No, listen,” Claire tried again. “Call the Director. Tell her it's Marchioness. We were talking to her five minutes ago!”

    “The Director's got other problems,” the guard said flatly. “You must've thought it was a golden opportunity to attack us from the air. Well, surprise, cupcake. Dunno what a 'Marchioness' is supposed to be, but I know who Purity is, and she's got warrants in her name from here to Boston. So you're both under arrest, and that's just for starters.” He gestured with his gun. “On your knees, I said. Now!”

    Well, crap. I had to run into the only two guards in the building who don't know who I am. Claire sank to her knees. Beside her, Palatina did the same.

    Claire was starting to foster a real dislike for the harsh-voiced guard, which extended her range relative to him, even though he was farther away. However, she couldn't do anything to his thought patterns, just to his body. The other one was coming closer, his rifle at the ready.

    “Don't do anything stupid now,” the closer one said. “Nobody needs to get hurt …” And then he stepped inside the range where she could exert positive, precise control over his body. Almost casually, his hand dropped to his waist, where grenades hung from clips. Each one carried on it the symbol for containment foam.

    “Stop wasting time!” snapped the one she didn't like. “Get them secured! We need a bag on Purity's head, asap!”

    The closer guard's adrenaline spiked in fear as he realised he'd lost all conscious control over his body, but Claire made his movements smooth and fast. Hooking the grenade from his belt, he flicked the pin off and tossed it toward his comrade before she froze every voluntary muscle in his body. The other guard realised what was going on, just as the grenade landed at his feet. “Fuck!” he yelled. “Master!” Levelling his rifle at Claire, he made to fire, but she was two steps ahead of him. She couldn't exert the same control as she could over the closer guard, but she could numb his hands and make him drop the weapon. Then the grenade went off, engulfing him in an ever-expanding blob of yellow foam.

    Claire came to her feet and darted over to the guard whose body she'd commandeered. “It's okay,” she said soothingly, laying her hand on his arm to get close enough for mental adjustment. “Everything's going to be fine.” At the same time, she reinforced her words with the belief that what she was saying was absolutely true. “You just have to let us go down in the elevator, and we'll be out of your hair.”

    “But—but what about him?” asked the guard, pointing at his comrade. Or rather, at the blob of foam which was wriggling slightly with the man's struggles. “I foamed him!”

    Claire stepped in front of him to block his view. “He was going to shoot me. I'm Marchioness. You know, the healer? You heard about me somewhere and remembered that I wasn't to be hurt, so you foamed him to protect me. You'll be a hero.” As she spoke, her power continued to influence him to accept her words as gospel.

    “Oh, that's right,” the guard said shakily. “He's gonna be pissed at me, though.”

    “That's all right,” Claire said. “The Director's gonna be happy with you. But we really have to get downstairs quickly.”

    “Sure, I can let you in,” the guard agreed hastily. “But the elevator is locked down because of Lung. You'll have to use the fire stairs.” He led them to the doors that opened on to the roof, and tapped in a code. They hissed open, then he tapped another code into the panel next to the fire stairs. Pulling that door open, he stepped aside. “There you go, ladies. Sorry about the misunderstanding from before.”

    “That's okay,” Palatina said, her voice just a little dubious. She glanced at Claire, then at the guard, as if she wasn't quite able to get her head around what the teen was doing. Heading into the stairwell, she lit up and levitated over the rail. Seconds later, she was out of sight, with only the light flaring up from below to show where she was.

    “So, I'm curious,” the guard said as Claire prepared to follow her. “Is Purity a good guy now? Because I didn't know that.”

    Claire sighed. “It's … complicated.” She set the disbelief blocker to dissolve in a few moments—the guard didn't deserve to automatically accept everything that everyone told him for the rest of his life—and hurried down the stairs after Palatina.

    It's a good thing I'm as fit as I need to be.

    <><>​

    Kayden

    Flying down the stairwell was a pain. Kayden would've been much happier if it had been an open-plan staircase that she could just drop down the middle of, but no, they had to go with the classic switchback pattern. This meant she had to swerve back and forth across the centreline for each floor. Worse, she had to time each swerve just right, which meant she couldn't go too fast. It crossed her mind that she could've just blasted their way in through a ground-floor fire door. Of course, doing so would draw official attention … ugh.

    Left … right … left … right … left … right … She was concentrating so hard on the stairs that it took a moment for her to realise that she was at the ground floor, mainly due to the sounds of combat permeating through the door from the building proper. With a sheepish grin, she flew back up one flight of stairs—they seemed to go all the way into a basement level—and got to the fire door. Which was locked. Because of course it is.

    Gritting her teeth, she cupped her hands around the handle and loosed the weakest bolt she was capable of producing. Her power flared and blasted a foot-wide chunk out of the doorframe, and blew the door clean off its hinges. Well, I tried … Glowing and levitating, because there was no way she was going to be stealthy after that, Kayden flew through the doorway.

    The other side was … chaos. Piles of containment foam lay everywhere, some looking decidedly scorched. The gift shop was piled high with the stuff, for what reason Kayden had no idea. Around the room, the cameras and TV monitors had all been destroyed, and the main counter had been mostly destroyed. Quite a bit of the place was on fire. The clone of Lung, standing at least twelve feet tall, looked around from where he was seconds away from breaking through into the office spaces. Beyond the barrier, Armsmaster stood with his halberd in a guard position.

    'Lung' looked around and saw Kayden; with a roar, he sent a gust of fire at her. Almost instinctively, she returned the blast, then shielded her face with her arms as the flame washed over her. It stung, a lot, but the pain was neither crippling nor even agonising. While her blast sent 'Lung' flying back to smash against the opposite wall, she felt that she was barely scorched. Though I think my eyebrows are AWOL. Until Claire can grow them back, that is.

    'Lung' pulled himself out of the hole he'd made in the wall. Kayden found herself somewhat impressed at the structural strength of the building. Of course, it was the PRT building, so a certain amount of effort had no doubt gone into its construction. But this wasn't getting her job done. She flew forward, skimming by the ruined counter.

    “Purity!” That was Armsmaster's bellow. She'd know it anywhere. “You're in on this, too?”

    “It's Palatina!” she shouted back. “And I'm saving your ass!” She saw the clone preparing to launch another fire blast and yelled, “Duck!”

    Bellowing something even more incomprehensible than normal, the silver-scaled monster sent another blast of flame at her, but she heeded her own advice and got out of the way. This one, she felt, might have actually hurt. It washed past her into the office spaces, and she thought she heard cries of fear. When she glanced back, Armsmaster was still standing there, though his armour showed signs of scorching. Crap, there's still people down here. That's why he hasn't retreated. Well, time to pull up my big-girl pants and show this cheap copy how a real cape does things.

    “Lung,” she shouted, then paused, trying to work out a suitably dramatic line. Nothing came to her, so she just yelled, “Fuck off!” He lunged at her, steel claws outstretched. She let him almost get to her, then triggered as powerful a blast as she dared use inside the building.

    The spiralling lines of force smashed into the hulking form and blasted it out through the open doorway. His outstretched arm took a sizeable chunk of wall with it, but she didn't care. Coughing a little from the smoke, she flew out after him, ready to hit him again if need be. However, Marquis had been waiting for this moment. By the time she got clear of the building, 'Lung' was thoroughly encased in bone, with more accreting on him with every second that passed. There was a distinct lack of traffic, due mainly to the bone barriers that blocked the road in both directions.

    “Is that it?” she asked, then coughed again. “Did we get him?”

    “For the moment,” he said, then looked around. “Where's Marchioness? We need her to finish this.”

    “She's coming down the stairs,” she replied. “We couldn't use the elevator.” Then she saw the two men on the otherwise-deserted street beyond Marquis. They were both wearing the red and green of the ABB. Worse, they were carrying firearms. “Shit, look out!”

    He turned fast, the bone armour on his body thickening as he flung out his arm to generate a wall of bone between herself and the gunmen. Only a second or so later, the distinctive sound of gunfire echoed from the frontage of the PRT building; at the same time, she heard the impacts of bullets against the bone wall.

    She wasn't sure whether she should be pleased that he'd made it a priority to protect her or annoyed that he thought she needed protection. Claire, after all, had made her somewhat more durable than before. She'd even gotten through a close-quarters fight with the Lung knockoff without losing more than her eyebrows.

    No more shots came their way, so she powered up and rose above the barrier to see what was going on. Marquis stood with one hand outstretched, a line of bone reaching down the road. At the far end, it had formed an enclosure which he was just now closing off at the top. “That should deal with you,” he said with satisfaction.

    “I thought this was a clone,” Kayden said, frowning. “Those guys were ABB. Why are they following a clone?”

    “Kindly note that there are only two of them, and they looked rather young,” Marquis replied with a certain amount of good cheer. “I'm willing to bet that they match the body types of the two goons who showed up with my ersatz duplicate at the bank robbery.” He looked around. “Ah, my dear Marchioness. Decided to join the party at last?”

    Claire, in her Marchioness form, exited the PRT building. She seemed skinnier than normal, and her arms and legs looked longer. As she crossed the street to join them, her limbs reduced in length and her body filled out. “You try getting down all those stairs in a hurry, while wearing an evening gown,” she snarked back at him. “You get him?”

    “To a point,” Marquis allowed. “He's still growing. I'm adapting the bone casing, but soon it just won't have the structural strength to hold him.” As if to emphasise his words, the mass of bone cracked briefly and flame spurted out before the cracks sealed over again. Marquis' voice took on an intrigued note. “Hm. That's interesting.”

    “We've got the extremely pissed-off clone of a powerful cape currently outgrowing our attempts to hold him in,” Kayden said tensely. She powered up to give herself the best chance of a pre-emptive shot should 'Lung' burst free from his confinement. “I'd say that's more than just 'interesting'.”

    “That's not what I was talking about,” Marquis replied lightly. “Now that Marchioness has joined us, his rate of growth seems to have increased. Perhaps his power ramps up more when there are capes nearby?”

    “That's kind of a frightening idea,” Kayden said bluntly. “I know it's pretty hard to fight him even with cape powers, but if he just gets tougher when capes are involved, I can see why he hasn't lost many fights.”

    “It is somewhat of a game-changer, yes.” Marquis nodded to Marchioness. “Can you get close enough to put him to sleep?”

    “I've been trying,” she said. “Physically, I should be able to, but his regeneration keeps overriding the order to become unconscious. I'd be able to knock him out with access to his brain, but I can't do that with all this bone in the way. While I don't like Lung, I know this isn't him, so I haven't got much in the way of feelings about this guy. I mean, I know he tried to kill people, but that was because Blasto ordered him to. If anything, I'm sorry for him.”

    Marquis grimaced. “I'd been wondering when the emotional aspect of your powers would come back to bite us. It appears that today is the day.” He sighed. “Very well. I shall weaken some of the bone. This should give him the chance to break an arm free. Will that work for you?”

    <><>​

    Claire

    “That should be perfect,” Claire said. While she could sense the pseudo-Lung's body easily, and even control some of his autonomic responses, his power no-sold a lot of the more subtle stuff she could do to people. Which meant she had to get a lot closer than normal. She leaned in, knowing that she was protected against most of what he could do as well, but still not wanting to tempt fate.

    A circle about a foot wide inscribed itself on the bone surface in front of her, then acquired dozens of subtle cracks across its diameter. She waited, feeling the movement of the clone as it attempted to burst out of its osseous bonds. Through her power, she knew it had just felt the bone give way in a particular direction. It lunged, steel-taloned fingers reaching to grasp and tear.

    Small chunks of bone flew every which way as the clone's arm smashed its way free of the barrier. However, Claire had been waiting, and she'd tuned up her reaction time for this exact purpose. Even if the clone had been able to see what was happening, it still wouldn't have been able to pull its arm back in time. Her hand blurred forward and slapped around the clone's wrist. Fire licked and curled upward out of the hole, but that didn't matter either; her skin was remarkably fire-resistant right then. Assuming control over his brain, she dived in to see what was going on and how to manipulate it for her own use.

    Three seconds later, it was done, and she released the clone's wrist. “Okay, you can let him go, Dad,” she said cheerfully, dusting her hands off. “He won't be any trouble.” As she spoke, she was making the requisite changes to her own skin to carry off her next trick.

    “Wait, what did you do?” Palatina stared as the bone holding 'Lung' captive cracked and then began to crumble to fine powder. The clone stood up and brushed himself off, then turned to Claire and stood waiting. She noted that it had been thankfully provided with bicycle shorts that were both stretchy and (apparently) fireproof. “One minute he's trying to kill us all and the next he's fine with us? I thought it took longer to subvert someone?”

    Claire loved moments like this. “Yeah, normally it would. But this guy was built with a hyper-effective vomeronasal organ, which provides a ready-made source of control. I just subverted that. Much easier.” She looked over toward the large cylindrical bone shape that had planted itself in the middle of the street, not far away. “I'm guessing there's someone in there too?”

    “Certainly,” Marquis confirmed. “Two idiots who attempted to interrupt us. Let me know when you're ready, my dear.”

    “Wait, wait,” protested Palatina, who apparently hadn't noted the significance of the term Claire had used. “What's a vomero-whatsit, and how does it let you control him?”

    “Pheromones,” Claire explained succinctly. “His reaction to them is about as sensitive as a moth's. Certain pheromones cause predetermined actions, and right now I'm putting out the one that signals to stand down, the fight's over.” She headed over toward the bone prison. Her power told her that there were two young men imprisoned within, just as her father had said. The sense she had of their bodies told her that they were holding guns. Not for long.

    “But can't Blasto, or whoever, just engineer something that'll put out stronger pheromones?” asked Palatina. Claire had to hand it to her; she was definitely thinking this through. “The first we'll know about it is when he turns on us.”

    “Well, yeah, that is a concern,” admitted Claire, her expression serious. She couldn't keep it up for long, though, and her face lit up with a mischievous grin. “Or it would be if I hadn't retuned his receptors to accept different pheromones, anyway.” She triggered an uncontrollable shaking in their hands that caused them to drop the guns. That small task accomplished, she slapped at the bone wall before her. “Knock knock.”

    If someone had responded with “who's there”, it would've made her day. Disappointingly enough, nothing of the sort happened. A doorway-shaped section of bone crumbled inward and slumped to the ground, but she knew that was her father's doing. Within were the two people she'd sensed, their hands still shaking.

    “Hi,” she said cheerfully. “Who wants to be first?”

    <><>​

    Marquis

    Earl Marchant watched his daughter march up to the bone box and smiled proudly. She's far more confident than I was at that age, he knew. Leaning across to Palatina, he murmured, “Who's on first?” His power served to weaken enough bone to effect an entry, as Marchioness obviously wanted.

    The blonde caught the Abbott & Costello reference just as the first of the Lung-clone's minions decided to try to rush his way out. Her snort of amusement was cut short as her eyes widened in alarm. This was understandable, given that the lad in question outweighed Claire by about half again. But before either of them could react, Earl's delicate little girl bodily grabbed the boy, hoisted him over her head and slammed him down on to the asphalt.

    Stay,” she ordered the headstrong lout, then turned toward his comrade. “Next?” she offered sweetly. Earl was reminded once more of her strength of will. And, more importantly, the fact that she could rebuild her body as needed. Right then, it seemed, she'd needed the ability to perform a move that would've gotten a standing ovation from any pro-wrestling audience.

    “You really aren't going to be worried when she starts dating, are you?” asked Palatina, a smile lurking on her lips. She had relaxed somewhat, but he could tell she was still scanning the surroundings. Which was a smart thing to do; Protectorate reinforcements had to be incoming.

    “I must admit, any importunate young man trying anything on her will probably undergo a more stringent punishment from her than from me,” he said lightly. “After all, I would only kill them. Or perhaps slowly emasculate them. My dear, sweet, innocent daughter can do much, much more to them.” He watched as Claire stepped aside from a wildly-thrown punch. Almost as if they'd practised, she grabbed the boy's wrist, causing him to freeze in his tracks.

    The corner of Palatina's mouth lifted in acknowledgement. “That makes a lot of sense,” she agreed. “She'll be about the safest teenage girl in the United States. The closer they try to get to her, the more power she'll have over them, and the more insight she'll have into their motivations.”

    “In a perfect world, she'd never get into a situation where she had to use her power in such a way, but this isn't a perfect world,” Earl pointed out. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he hit speed-dial. “Jonas, we're ready for pickup. If you can meet us one block west from the PRT building, that would be appreciated. We will have three guests with us. Speed will be of the essence.”

    Very good, sir.” Even as the call ended, Earl heard the car engine rumble to life. He put the phone away, turning his attention to his surroundings once more. It really is very good to have people I can depend on.

    “It's time to move,” he announced, raising his voice so that Claire could hear him. “This way.”

    At that moment, Armsmaster emerged from the front doors of the PRT building. He was limping slightly, but his stride was implacable, and he held his halberd in a position of readiness. “Lung! Purity!” he bellowed. “You're under arrest! Stand down or I will use lethal force!”

    “I'm sorry, Armsmaster,” Marquis called back. “There's two problems with that statement.” He gestured in the direction he needed the others to go in. “Go on. I'll catch up.”

    “This is none of your business, Marquis!” snapped Armsmaster. “I'm arresting two known criminals!” He limped closer, but Earl stepped into his way.

    “No.” Long ago, Earl had perfected a tone which conveyed all the elements of no, you will not do that without requiring him to raise his voice. “I don't believe you are.” He watched Armsmaster, and just as the armoured hero opened his mouth, he cut in once more. “Tell me, who do you think you are arresting?”

    Caught short, Armsmaster stopped and turned his helmet toward Earl. If the veteran villain's understanding of body language was in any way accurate, Armsmaster was glaring at him almost hard enough to melt holes in his own visor through the sheer force of his anger. “Purity and Lung,” he bit off.

    “Well, there you're wrong,” Earl corrected him lightly. “That's not Purity. That's Palatina. As you may have ascertained from the connotations of the name, she's my second in command. And that … is not Lung.”

    Armsmaster did a manful job of swallowing his anger at being corrected over Palatina's identity. Earl could tell that he wanted to arrest her anyway, but the stricture had already been applied, and so he could not. But he wasn't yet done. “Of course that's Lung!” he snapped. “He's still wearing the goddamn mask!”

    “Language, Armsmaster,” Claire chided him with just the right amount of fake outrage in her voice. “I am a minor, you know.” She waved her hand toward 'Lung' as the clone followed Palatina down the street. “That's not Lung. He's a clone of Lung, but he's not the original.”

    “He still attacked the PRT building!” Armsmaster took a step toward Earl. “I'm warning you. I won't arrest you, but I will stun you and step over your body.” He paused. “Wait, a clone?”

    “He's not going to do it again,” Claire said, entirely reasonably. “And yes, he's a clone. We're going to find out who sent the clone—probably the same person who sent the clone of Marquis to the bank—and ask him very politely never to do it again.” Her tone was sweet reason itself, right up until the last five words, upon which it acquired a pitch and a spin that would've made a strong man take a step back.

    To Armsmaster's credit, he did no such thing. “Blasto.” His voice was thoughtful. “You're talking about Blasto.”

    “That is our supposition, yes,” Earl agreed. He wasn't thrilled that the PRT had even this information, but such things happened. In any case, he had what he needed. “Don't worry; by the time we're done, he will no longer be a threat to Brockton Bay.”

    “I do not condone murder!” Armsmaster snapped. “Even a villain has the right to due process!”

    I do not condone people using my face to mar my good name,” Earl returned bluntly. “I'm certain Lung would not be overly happy about it, either. I'm doing you a favour. Once I clear us both, you can go back to prosecuting Lung for the crimes he has committed. You wouldn't want any cases to be thrown out of court on a technicality, would you?”

    “And Blasto will be alive when we give him to you,” Claire piped up. She tilted her head slightly. “For a given definition of 'alive', that is.” She looked Armsmaster right in the eye, or where his eyes would be. “And as my father has said, he's a villain. He doesn't have to follow the law.”

    “Everyone has to follow the law.” Armsmaster's tone should have scraped sparks off the concrete pavement between them.

    We don't.” Claire gave him a cheeky grin. “Because it's more convenient for the Director to let me heal people than to deal with the fallout from you trying to arrest my father. Or Palatina. Or anyone else we decide to recruit.”

    Momentarily, Earl wondered if Armsmaster's armour had a blood-pressure readout. If it does, I think Claire just broke it. “The agreement was for Palatina,” Armsmaster snapped. “Not Lung, and not for … who were the other two, anyway?”

    “As Marchioness pointed out, that's not Lung. And as for who they are … well, that's one of the things we're interested in finding out,” Earl said cheerfully. “Now, I'd like to say that it's been enlightening chatting to you, but we really do have to go. The crime in Brockton Bay's not going to clean itself up, after all.” He turned toward the end of the block, where the car had just turned the corner. Palatina would be in it, along with the other three. With a thought, Earl dissolved the rest of his creations in the area, allowing the dust to blow away in the wind. With nothing to impede its progress, the car rolled slowly toward them.

    “I can't let you leave.” Armsmaster stood defiantly before the car, his halberd pointing directly at it. “I'm not arresting you, but you will be detained until we have answers.”

    Earl sighed and took his phone out of his pocket. He tapped in a number, and then put it on speaker. It had been well worth the ridiculous amount he'd paid to get the private numbers of all the movers and shakers in Brockton Bay.

    Hello? Who is this?” Emily Piggot's voice sounded suspicious.

    “This is Marquis,” Earl replied, doing his best to sound like he was being entirely reasonable against all odds. “Armsmaster is being difficult. Would you kindly order him to allow us to depart before I lose patience with him and leave him hanging upside down from your flagpole, minus his armour? Because that can be arranged.”

    “Director—” Armsmaster tried to get a word in edgeways, but didn't quite make it.

    Armsmaster.” Piggot's tone was that of someone whose last nerve was being tap-danced upon, and who didn't appreciate it in the slightest. “Stand down immediately.”

    So then, of course, Armsmaster proved himself entirely incapable of reading the most obvious of vocal cues. “But I—”

    Don't make me repeat myself. Allow Marquis and Marchioness to leave. Get a damage and casualty report. That's an order.”

    It wasn't a blood pressure reader that Armsmaster's armour needed, Earl decided. It was a pressure scale reader for his teeth. If the man gritted them any harder, he'd be able to compress graphene into diamonds. “Orders received and understood, Director.” There was probably a hate-filled glare in there somewhere, but the visor rendered such things null and void. Turning on his heel, Armsmaster stalked off back toward the PRT building.

    “Ouch.” Claire's tone was low, pitched only for Earl's ears. “That had to hurt.”

    “Indubitably.” Earl opened the door for his daughter, then got into the front seat. This was not his practice, but the back seat looked distinctly cosy at the moment, even with the spare seats. “And that is why I would never subjugate myself to the whims of another. A man must be the master of his own destiny. If he must follow another, then he should pick someone who thinks the same way as he does. Otherwise, it's his own problem. Don't you agree, Jonas?”

    The burly South African nodded briefly. “Sure thing, sir.” He glanced into the back seat, which was indeed somewhat crowded. “Where to, sir?”

    Earl leaned back in the car seat. “Home,” he decided. “We have information to gather and plans to make.”

    Blasto, after all, was not on the same scale as the Merchants had been. With his genetic creations, he was potentially much worse.

    As the car moved off, Earl allowed himself a slight smile.

    Finally, a real challenge.



    End of Part Fourteen

    Part Fifteen
     
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2018
  17. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    And the plot thickens. Is that Coil's doing?
     
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  18. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Coil isn't around yet.
     
  19. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Why did it jump from them wanting to use the lift to them using the fire stairs?

    *edit- Wow, completely missed the line about the lift being locked down....
     
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  20. NavigatorNobilis

    NavigatorNobilis Follower of the Second Star

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    Freaking glorious. I am so happy to see this continued!

    And I would dearly love to get an outsider's view on things in the Bay. The Marquis returns, and practically day one he vanished the Merchants, a month or so and the Empire dissolves, and I bet that by the end of the next he'll have dealt with Lung and the Graveyard will see the first signs of progress.

    What do you call a villain who does more good than the heroes?

    EDIT: Wait, wasn't this the fic where Squealer is Panzer? It was, wasn't it. So, what's happening to everyone's least favorite Tinker?
     
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2018
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  21. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    She's still around. She kind of went into hiding after the rest of the Empire went downhill fast.

    Of course now, she's got the expense account Kaiser handed over to her (as it wasn't part of his holdings at that point, he didn't sign it over to Marquis) and a grudge against Marquis and Marchioness ...
     
  22. Threadmarks: Part Fifteen: Closing In
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Fifteen: Closing In

    [A/N: this chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


    Earl

    Jonas pulled the car to a halt in the garage. Earl got out of the front seat, then opened the back door for Claire. On the far side of the car, Jonas was doing the same for Palatina. With a smile at her father, Claire alighted from the vehicle then leaned in to look at the Lung clone and the two ersatz ABB gangsters. “Out you get,” she said firmly. “Follow me. Don't do anything silly, hmm?” Turning to Earl, she raised an eyebrow. “Basement?”

    “Basement,” he agreed.

    Obediently, the three men climbed from the car and fell into line behind her as she headed for the door into the house proper. Earl shared a glance with Jonas, who gave the faintest of shrugs as he pressed the fob to re-lock the car. Don't look at me. She's your daughter.

    Kayden had less in the way of self-composure. “Is it just me,” she murmured to Earl as they followed along behind, “or is that creepy as hell?”

    Earl held out his arm, and she linked hers through it. “Possibly,” he conceded. “But you have to admit, it's also extremely impressive. I couldn't be prouder of her. She's coming into her abilities very effectively indeed.”

    “True. What's she going to be like when she's twenty?” She sounded curious rather than apprehensive.

    “God only knows.” He chuckled. “Probably allowing the President to keep his job because she can't be bothered doing the paperwork.”

    “Will you be needing me, sir?” asked Jonas.

    Earl considered the question. “I shouldn't think so, Jonas,” he said. “Though refreshments might be in order. Perhaps a light lunch?”

    “Very good, sir.” Jonas headed for the key safe.

    As they went out the door, Kayden laced her fingers through Earl's. “Where did you find him?” she asked in a low tone. “Max never got that level of loyalty without either brainwashing people with the Cause or paying large amounts of money. Or both. Claire told me about how he went toe-to-toe with Hookwolf, to buy her time to save you. I don't know anyone else who would've done that.”

    “Well, I do pay him what he's worth,” Earl pointed out. “But apart from that, he's been with us for years. Claire loves him like an uncle, and I consider him to be more of a good friend than an employee.” He quirked a grin. “And of course, there's the fact that Claire is offering the best health care in the world.”

    “There is that,” she agreed dryly.

    As they reached the basement stairs and proceeded down them, his thoughts went back to Kayden's earlier comment. Creepy, nothing. She's terrifying. But she's my kind of terrifying.

    It was an oddly comforting thought.

    <><>​

    Claire

    The more Claire saw of the pseudo-Lung, the more she hated Blasto. Before, when he'd just been the guy who'd framed her dad for robbing a bank (and oh, the memory of the look on the Director's face when he just casually paid it all back was amazing) she'd just disliked him. Despised, rather. But not hated. Hate was an emotion she reserved for people she could easily kill, if they gave her a reason.

    She didn't hate him for framing her father. She hated him for creating a living being that had just enough sapience to be used as a robot, as a slave, but not enough that they could live and survive on their own. That was something she swore to herself she'd never, ever do. Some lines should never be crossed, after all.

    The human brain was a wondrous place. Full of beautiful interactions and feedback loops, creating the emergent status occasionally referred to as 'self-awareness'; Claire was often in awe of it. No two brains were exactly alike. While the underlying chemical mechanisms were the same, the way each person processed data and came to their own conclusions was subtly different. The pathways formed by life and experience were different in every case. Every brain was an artwork, a da Vinci or a Rembrandt, full of exquisite detail, almost fractal in nature at times.

    By comparison, the clone's brain was a finger painting. There was no subtlety, no delicacy. A series of mental states: attack, flee, do-what-I-say, a few others. A language centre that allowed 'Lung' to understand spoken commands. Virtually all higher thought processes were replaced by inputs via the vomeronasal system. He had no real thoughts about what was happening. No curiosity, no apprehension. She was pretty sure he didn't even understand that she and her father were nominally the enemy.

    The two gang thugs, on the other hand, were fully aware that she was the enemy. Initially, she'd taken away their ability to have any say about what was going on, leaving their brains working just fine. After a few moments, though, she'd been forced to take measures to damp down the internal screaming. If she let them flail around inside their own heads for too long, they might drive themselves insane, and that would be a pain to fix. Now, they still knew she was the enemy; they just didn't care.

    She pointed at an empty area of floor. “Sit.” Obediently, the three sat. Looking around toward her father, she raised an eyebrow, silently asking if he wanted to take over. He shook his head, then crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. The message was clear: she was in the driver's seat. Kayden hesitated, then followed Earl's lead.

    All right, then. The knowledge wasn't as daunting as it might have been. When she'd first reached Brockton Bay, there had been the undercurrent of worry that she didn't really know what she was doing. But now, after what had already gone down, she had much more confidence in herself. She had the measure of the opposition, now.

    Questioning the Lung clone would reveal nothing of use. Even if he knew anything, from what she could tell, he was only barely verbal. However, his two cohorts had both the knowledge she wanted and the means to convey it to her. She turned to the guy on the left. “You. What's your name?”

    “Sugito,” he said dully. His brain activity showed that he was being truthful, mainly because he didn't feel strongly enough about the matter to lie about it.

    “Okay, Sugito,” she said. “What was this about? What's the point of having a clone of Lung attack the PRT building?”

    “Blasto wants the PRT to arrest Lung,” Sugito replied simply. “If the clone killed people, Lung would get the Birdcage. That would take Lung out of Brockton Bay permanently.”

    Which pretty well agreed with their assumptions so far, and confirmed that Blasto was behind it all. Still, there were a few things Claire wasn't certain about. “Why are you working for Blasto? I didn't know he had human minions.”

    “When Lung killed Dao, we had to run for it because he was gonna kill us next. I had one of Lung's scales and some of Marquis' bone, so Blasto let us work for him.”

    “Which is how he made a clone of Marquis to rob that bank,” Claire stated. It wasn't exactly a difficult guess.

    “Yes,” Sugito confirmed. “On the next bank robbery, Marquis will take hostages and slaughter them all before escaping.”

    Earl stepped forward off the wall at that point. “Really,” he hissed. “Why didn't that happen, this time?”

    Sugito looked at Claire and said nothing. She repeated the question.

    “There weren't enough people, and Pak and me thought it was best to go before the capes showed,” Sugito explained in the same deadpan voice. “Blasto was angry. He told us to wait longer, the next time.”

    “When will the next time be?” asked Claire.

    “This afternoon.”

    Claire met her father's eyes, then looked back at Sugito. “Where?”

    “Brockton Bay Central Bank,” Sugito said.

    “But you're here, not there.” Claire felt a burst of hope. “This means it's not going to happen.”

    Sugito shrugged. “If we're not back in time, Blasto will probably send someone else.”

    And people will die. Claire didn't have an overriding sense of the sanctity of human life—there were people who needed to die, after all—but casual murder wasn't something she approved of. Especially when it came to framing her father for that same murder. “How many people is he likely to send, and how heavily will they be armed?”

    “I don't know,” said Sugito. “Three or four, maybe, with guns or knives. But they won't use them unless they're attacked. The whole idea is to show Marquis as a mass murderer.”

    “How do you give him your orders?” asked Claire. Having the supposed minions telling the boss what to do during the robbery wasn't exactly the height of discretion.

    “We say things in certain ways normally,” Sugito explained. “Like, 'maybe it would be a good idea to do this, boss'. But we had gas bombs to drop when we wanted him to go all murderboss.”

    Pheromone signals, right. “And Blasto sprayed you with something before you went out?”

    “Yes.” His emotions were flattened almost to non-existence, but he looked at her with as much curiosity as he was able. “How did you know that?”

    “Lucky guess.” It hadn't been hard to figure out. Blasto wouldn't want his minions shredded by the fake Marquis, so he'd sprayed them with something that would cause the clone to treat them as friends. She turned to her father. “Okay, we've got a problem.”

    “Yes, we do.” He frowned heavily. “This is becoming more and more ridiculous. First, we had to save the PRT from Lung. Now, we must act to prevent a bank robbery.”

    “On the upside, this will confuse the Director even more,” she pointed out. “And then we can go and smack down Blasto.”

    “Something I will probably enjoy far more than I should,” he declared. “But for now, let's focus on preventing a massacre.” He turned to Kayden. “I know this probably isn't what you signed up to do. You can come with us, or stay out of it. Your choice.”

    “You have to be joking.” Kayden stepped forward. “Of course I'm coming along. I'm part of this team now, aren't I?”

    “You most certainly are,” Earl agreed warmly. “Now, as for these ones …” He cast an unfavourable eye over the seated trio. “What should we do with them?”

    “We don't have to make that decision right now, Dad,” Claire pointed out. “I can leave Lung two-point-oh here, and make sure that Dumb and Dumber don't wander off while we go make sure you don't get blamed for something else you haven't done.”

    “Yes.” He turned to Kayden. “Could you please find Jonas and let him know we're heading out again? The light lunch is going to have to wait.”

    “Sure,” she said, then leaned in and gave him a peck on the lips. “Don't leave without me.” She headed up out of the basement, taking the stairs two at a time.

    Claire hid a smirk at her father's momentarily startled look, and turned toward the three prisoners. “Right, then. You two. Don't leave the house. Don't steal or damage anything in the house. Don't try to communicate with anyone outside the house. Don't try to give this clone any orders. Unless you need to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, stay in this basement. Don't make a mess. Do you understand me?”

    Sugito nodded, and his friend followed suit. “Yes,” said Sugito.

    Satisfied, Claire turned to the clone. “Sleep,” she said firmly, giving him a dose of the appropriate pheromones to reinforce the order. His physiology was robust enough that he wouldn't need to eat or relieve himself for the next few hours. Or even the next day, if it came to that. Obediently, he subsided on to his side and closed his eyes.

    “Okay, we're done,” she told her father. “Dumb and Dumber will follow the last orders I gave them. The clone will sleep until I wake him up. Let's go.”

    “It seems a little … cold,” he said after a moment's thought. “Calculating. Treating people like robots. Go there, do that.”

    She snorted with laughter. “Dad, seriously? You're a supervillain. You've killed people before. I've killed people before. I can't believe you have a problem with this. Especially with people who tried to frame you.”

    “Killed, certainly,” he agreed. “Not made into puppets. Making people suffer is inefficient, unless the whole point is to make an example of them. And we have nobody here to make an example of them to. On the whole, I prefer to dispose of people quickly and cleanly.”

    “Oh, they're not suffering,” she said hastily. “I've turned down their emotions so they can't feel much of anything. And I'm pretty sure the clone can't suffer. He doesn't know how.”

    “And is this 'turning down of emotions' permanent or temporary? Just out of curiosity.”

    “Permanent, until I reverse it,” she said. “We don't want them snapping out of it at the wrong moment. Also, until I did it, they were on the way to driving themselves into psychosis. Right now, they just don't care.”

    “Just so long as you don't decide to keep them in this state, afterward,” he said. “I may be a ruthless killer, but there are some things we don't want the PRT knowing about you.”

    “I suppose you have a point,” she agreed. By now, they were at the car, which was sitting with its engine running. The back door was open, with Kayden already in the back seat, waiting for them.

    Without pausing, Claire slid into the car beside Kayden, then Earl got in after her. Pulling the door shut, he began to fasten his seatbelt. “When you're ready, Jonas.”

    “Right you are, sir.” Jonas hit the garage door opener, and set the car moving.

    “So, you two were having a very animated discussion just now,” Kayden noted. “Was it about how we're going to dispose of our unwanted guests?”

    “In a way,” Earl said. “How did Max handle things like that?”

    She wrinkled her nose. “Usually by dressing it up as an execution with honour or something like that. Or he got Hookwolf to kill them, then chop them up into small pieces. If he wanted to hide the fact that a murder had happened at all, the remains got dissolved in acid or dumped out at sea. Otherwise, the remains would be dumped in the territory of whichever gang they came from.”

    “Yay.” Claire kept her voice absolutely deadpan.

    “Actually, I'm not sure why you're even asking,” Kayden said. “I mean, you're Marquis. You pioneered the art of disappearing minions who displeased you. Not to mention the occasional opposition cape. You even killed Iron Rain.”

    Earl chuckled lightly. “My dear, I believe it's time I let you in on a little secret. I didn't kill half the people who have been ascribed to me.”

    Kayden blinked. “ … what? No, no, that's not right. Max told me all about you. You were the boogeyman of Brockton Bay. Nobody crossed you, if they could help it. Even Jack Slash left town rather than get on your bad side.”

    “Just as planned,” he said. “If people already believe you're a heartless killer who'll snuff you out in a moment, they tread very lightly around you. Oh, I have killed before, and I'll kill again. But I didn't kill Iron Rain, and I never murdered any minions simply for disappointing me.”

    She frowned, then. “But Max said …” Slowly, she trailed off.

    “Max was repeating what his father told him,” Marquis explained. “The Teeth were in town at the time. They murdered Iron Rain, but at the same time, they were having trouble with a couple of intrusive Protectorate capes. So they hired the Nine to come in and deal with the problem. The Nine did it, but they had a habit even then of turning on their employers. I was going after the Teeth at the same time, ironically enough because I disapproved of them murdering a woman in my town. Between us, we whittled the Teeth down to Butcher … Seven, I think, who fled town. I told the Nine to leave as well but they refused, so I killed Psychosoma and Nice Guy. Jack Slash got the message after that, and did as he was told.”

    Claire smiled slightly. She already knew this story. It never failed to amuse her when people simultaneously considered her father to be a stone killer while acknowledging the fact that he'd tussled with the Brockton Bay Brigade on several occasions without ever killing a single one of them. People saw what they wanted to see, she figured.

    “What happened then?” asked Kayden, her voice almost a whisper.

    “Well, then I spoke with Allfather. We agreed that I would publicly wear the blame for Iron Rain's murder and that he'd swear vengeance, but would never follow through with it. This way, my reputation as a heartless killer was enhanced, and he didn't have to publicly admit that he owed me by acknowledging that I'd avenged her. The Nine got the credit for smashing the Teeth, and all was right with the world.”

    “Okay, wow.” Kayden shook her head. “So you never killed Iron Rain. What about your minions? That story had to start somewhere.”

    “Oh, it did.” Earl leaned back in his seat. “This one goes back a ways, to when I first began my rise as the Marquis of Brockton Bay. After my first few victories, I began to fancy myself as a mentor of sorts to up and coming young villains. I took a couple of them under my wing and began to show them the tricks of the trade. However, it didn't pan out exactly as I'd envisaged.”

    “They turned on you,” Kayden guessed. It wasn't exactly a difficult conclusion to reach.

    “They turned on me,” he confirmed. “It was after our first big score. I'd led them though it by the numbers, showing them how easy it could be, done properly. This was most likely a mistake. They didn't think they needed me any more, and all that money was a potent lure for treachery. I killed them, of course, then put the word out that they'd 'disappointed' me. By betraying me, was what I meant. But the subtleties were lost on the Brockton Bay underworld. Not long after, some of my normal minions were killed in a clash with the Empire. To make it appear that I'd lost fewer men than I had, I disappeared those bodies as well, and proclaimed that they, too, had disappointed me. It didn't take long for the story to take hold that anyone who disappointed me vanished forever.” He smiled dryly. “It led to a certain level of loyalty among the men. Nobody joined me who didn't mean to give one hundred percent to the cause, and I rewarded them accordingly. Of course, that was also my downfall.”

    “Your downfall?” Kayden sounded utterly fascinated. Claire had been too, when she'd heard this for the first time.

    “Yes.” Earl frowned. “The Brockton Bay Brigade latched on to my reputation as a murderous psychopath and used that as an excuse to hound me relentlessly, or as relentlessly as they were able. While, at the same time, benefiting from the known fact that I never go after women or children. I strongly suspect that my men began to use my reputation to haze the new hires, and it backfired when one of them failed me in some minor way. He didn't know what the rest of them knew, that the 'disappointment' story was merely a canard, so he bolted to the heroes and sold me out to save his own skin.”

    “And nearly got me killed in the process,” Claire rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Being a new hire, he probably didn't know about me. When the Brigade came to the house, they were shooting blasts everywhere. Dad had to show them I was there before they'd stop.” She still vaguely recalled the incident, mainly because she'd been over it with her father several times over the years.

    Kayden shook her head. “This is … wow. This is not what Max led me to expect from you.”

    One corner of Earl's mouth quirked upward. “Disappointed that I'm tamer than the expectations?”

    “Hardly.” She smiled in return. “I've spent the last few years in the company of people who strive to make people think they're more dangerous than their reputations would suggest. It's a breath of fresh air to have you explain that the opposite is true.”

    Before Earl could comment on this, the car pulled to a halt. “Brockton Bay Central Bank is one block ahead, sir,” Jonas said. “There's nothing on the police scanner as yet, but that doesn't mean anything.” He turned to look back at Earl. “Will you be needing any assistance, sir?”

    “I'd like to say 'no', but considering recent events, that's tempting fate.” Earl rubbed his chin. “Stay on alert. If we do need you, we'll need you fast.”

    Jonas nodded briefly. “Very good, sir.” From the glovebox, he pulled out a balaclava and a large pistol. “I'll be contacting reinforcements and moving them into the area, just in case.”

    Earl got out of the car, then assisted Claire and Kayden out as well. Nobody commented on Jonas' preparations. The big man had been a capable soldier of fortune well before joining Earl's employ. As far as Claire could tell, Brockton Bay was just another battlefield for him.

    Once again, nobody seemed to take any particular notice as they made their way down the sidewalk. This was almost certainly due to the fact that only Kayden wore anything resembling a typical costume, being skintight and pure white. For herself and her father, the evening dress was a little unusual as it was still broad daylight, but not hugely so. If they'd skulked along and attempted to conceal their presence, everyone would be paying attention to them. As it was, a few people took photos with their phones. She wondered how many of them recognised her father for who he really was.

    “Marchioness.” Her father's tone was sharp. He inclined his head, indicating four figures who had just gotten out of a car outside the bank, still half a block away. One was taller than the other three. Even at this distance she could recognise the profile of her father's face, or rather that of his clone. “I believe we should hurry.”

    “I think I can get them before they get inside,” Kayden said tensely, a glow building up around her hands.

    “Chase them away from the bank, if you can,” Earl said. “Don't shoot if you can avoid it.” It was obvious to Claire why he'd added that; Kayden's blasts were vigorous, to say the least. A direct hit would smear a normal across the street.

    “Got it.” Kayden powered up fully, and launched herself forward. Claire adjusted her eyes toward the low infrared; she could still see what was going on, but Kayden's glare wasn't blinding her any more.

    Earl started forward with Claire at his side. “Let's try to capture rather than kill,” he said, breaking into a run. The high heels and evening dress would normally have hampered Claire in attempting to match his pace, but she'd reshaped her knee and ankle joints to overcome this difficulty.

    She was fully aware that it was not mercy that drove his request, but the need to find out any information about Blasto. In this, she fully agreed. Once they had Blasto, the first order of business was to destroy all the samples he had of her father's DNA. The second was to make absolutely certain the gene-Tinker didn't pull this stunt ever again.

    One of the four turned to look down the street as Kayden blazed toward them, glowing brightly. He shouted and pulled a gun. One of the others grabbed 'Marquis' by the arm and tugged him up the stairs toward the bank doors. The third one also pulled a gun, while the fourth ran back down the stairs and dived into the car.

    Claire considered changing into her battle form, but decided the occasion wasn't worth losing her dress over. She ignored the pop-pop-pop of shots being fired—Kayden was absolutely capable of shrugging off pistol fire by now, even if they were able to hit a moving target—and concentrated on getting there as quickly as possible. “There'll be hostages,” she warned, timing her words for the exhale.

    “Yes.” Her father's response was almost curt in its brevity. “Keep casualties. To a minimum.”

    The car's engine roared to life. Kayden swooped in at the two guys shooting at her, and flew between them. At the last second, she stretched her arms out to each side and neatly clotheslined both of them at once. Claire heard the double impact from where she was. If she'd cared about their welfare, she might've winced in sympathy. Well, she's certainly making use of the improvements. It was doubtful she could've pulled off a move like that before Claire had enhanced her physiology.

    “Nicely done.” It appeared that Earl agreed, though Claire wasn't sure who he was congratulating.

    As the car began to pull away, the last man obviously choosing to abandon his compatriots, Kayden pulled up and around. Other vehicles swerved and screeched to a halt, the drivers probably unnerved by the brilliant glow, but the getaway car began to accelerate, swerving around the others. Right up until Kayden loosed a spiralling blast that blew the front end clean off the car, destroying the engine and sending one wheel bounding down the road. The car began to skid to a halt, sparks flying as metal ground against asphalt.

    Oh, shit. Claire could see what was going to happen next, and ramped up her adrenaline production for a burst of extra speed. But it was too late. The fuel line had been ruptured, allowing gasoline to escape in a spreading pool, and one of the sparks came close enough to ignite the vapour.

    Whoomph.

    Flame ran across the ground as the car finally stopped, enveloping it in seconds. Claire knew the fuel tank wasn't likely to explode—that happened far more often in Hollywood than in real life—but the driver was still in extreme danger. Even if the fire didn't get into the interior of the car—and it would—he'd still cook alive from the heat generated all around him.

    Kayden had obviously worked that out as well. Dropping to the ground alongside the car, she reached through the wall of flames, opened the door and wrenched the driver out. He hit the ground rolling, mainly from the force with which she'd thrown him, but it still managed to put out the small flames on his clothing. As Claire and Earl ran up, she patted down the smouldering sleeves of her costume and looked at them. “What now?” she asked. “The clone's inside with the last one.”

    “In a moment, my dear Palatina,” Earl said. “Well done, by the way. Marchioness, can you make sure of these reprobates? I need to attend to this.”

    “Certainly, Marquis,” Claire replied with a grin. She went to each of the mooks in turn, checking their vitals and ensuring they wouldn't die before she had a chance to question them. Each of them she left in a dreamless slumber, to ensure they'd still be around to question afterward.

    When she turned around from the last one, she saw that the once-burning car was now a dome of white bone. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air, but the fire was definitely out.

    “What do we do now?” she asked. “They'll have had time to get set up.”

    “True,” he agreed. “But the 'Marquis robbed a bank and slaughtered all the hostages' narrative is dead in the water now. And however they've trained that clone, he won't know nearly enough about bone control as I do.” He paused, rubbing his chin. “Which means he'll have the hostages between us and him. He might even be trying to pass as a hostage. And if we make a frontal attack, the hostages will get hurt.”

    “I have a novel idea,” Claire mused. “Why don't I try to talk to him?”

    “Because he'll almost certainly see it as a trick?” replied Kayden.

    “If he starts killing hostages, we're going to have to go in anyway,” Claire pointed out. “And if I can get close enough, I'll change his mind for him. I need to be in that bank.”

    Earl shared a glance with Kayden, raising an eyebrow interrogatively. She shrugged. “Don't look at me. I've never had to deal with a bank siege situation, either.”

    Heading up the stairs, Claire blinked as the sliding doors opened before her. The guy must be rattled if he hasn't had anyone lock them. That was both good and bad.

    “Hello?” she called out as she stepped inside. Her hands were raised over her head, and she did her best to look non-threatening. “I'm just here to talk.”

    The lights were off inside the bank. Nostrils flaring, she expanded her sense of smell. Her vision, already angled toward the infrared, stayed that way.

    The smell of sweat hit her, tinged with the sour stink of fear. She could also smell gun oil, perfume, cologne and a few odd scents. What she couldn't smell was blood, for which she heaved a silent sigh of relief.

    In front of her, huddled in groups on the floor, were about two dozen people, faces glowing with the heat of their blood. She couldn't see the clone or his handler anywhere.

    “So talk.” The voice sounded young, teetering on the knife-blade of terror. In the darkness, amid the multitude. Normally, she would never have been able to pick him out, but her enhanced vision spotted him peeking out from behind a pillar off to the side. It was certainly big enough to hide him and the clone at the same time.

    “I know you work for Blasto,” she said. “And I know that's not really Marquis with you.”

    “What?” He sounded badly startled. “That's not true! Who told you that?”

    “I'm Marchioness,” she said patiently. “Marquis is my father. The real Marquis. Who is just outside, and so long as you're talking to me, he's not coming in here. Do you understand?”

    “If you don't fuck off right now, all these people are gonna die!” His voice was nearly hysterical. “Do you understand that?”

    She stepped behind a pillar of her own, and kicked off her shoes. Her skin went a dull black to match her dress, and her hands and feet splayed out. She'd never given herself gecko-grip soles before, but there was always a first time. Placing her hands on the pillar, she pulled herself upward, then reshaped her hips and knees to make this kind of movement more natural.

    “We don't have to go down this path,” she said soothingly. “Nobody has to get hurt today. You don't have to get hurt, I don't have to get hurt, and the people in this bank don't have to get hurt.” As she spoke, she scuttled up the pillar, moving faster and faster as she got more used to it. She made sure to keep her face close to the pillar so it would make it harder to tell where the sound was coming from.

    Reaching the top of the pillar, she eyed the ceiling panels dubiously. She was certain she could cling to them, but could they support her weight? Better not risk it. Crawling around the pillar, she sighted in on the one the guy was hiding behind. Her leg muscles shifted, becoming all fast-twitch, and she reinforced her ligaments and tendons to support a single huge effort.

    “If you don't fuck off now, a lot of people are going to get hurt, and it'll be your fault!” He sounded on the edge.

    Taking a deep breath, she sprang off the side of the pillar with all the power with which she was capable. Over the gap between pillars she soared, twisting in mid-air so that she could attach securely to it when she landed. The impact was bruising, or it would've been to any normal person. She clung to her landing spot, looking around. Nobody was looking up at her, which was a good start.

    He called out again. “Did you hear me? What are you doing back there? Why aren't you saying anything?”

    Her ventriloquistic skills were rudimentary at best, and she knew he'd know where she was if she called out. So she stayed quiet, scrambling around the pillar. There. He stood directly below her, the clone of her father standing silently behind him. In one hand, he held a pistol. That posed a minimal danger to her, but a rather greater danger to the crowd. In the other … she wasn't certain that he was holding anything at all, but from the way his fingers were loosely closed, she wouldn't bet on it.

    It's got to be the murder-pheromone. If that was released, 'Marquis' would snap and use his bone control powers to kill everyone who wasn't dosed with the 'friend' pheromones.

    “Hey!” he shouted. “I'm talking to you!”

    Time was running out. He was getting more and more suspicious, which meant she had to act now. Lifting her left hand away from the pillar, she formed the battle-claw, but instead of pure batrachotoxin, she infused the claws with a mix of that and ketamine. Hopefully, she decided, it would be a knockout dose rather than a kill-shot. Of course, either way, she'd be happy with 'out of the fight'.

    Kicking free of the pillar, she dropped. Her legs easily took the twenty-foot drop, and she landed in a crouch. Her battle-claw was already in motion, slashing across the top of his left wrist, where he held the small object. With a cry of pain, he dropped it, but she'd already positioned her right hand under his, featuring broad pads of fingers and numerous tiny hairs with which to take advantage of the van der Waal effect. The tiny globe fell into her hand, was trapped there, and she wrapped her fingers around it.

    “What—” The idiot tried to bring his gun up, but the toxin was already in his bloodstream. She kicked him under the kneecap and slashed his gun hand to make him drop the weapon. It clattered to the ground, and he followed it shortly thereafter.

    Then she turned to look up at the other combatant. The far more deadly one. In her hand, cushioned safely, was a globule of death; breaking it would spell doom for everyone in the bank. Of course, she didn't know what he'd been conditioned to do if his designated 'friends' were attacked. Would he default to 'kill everyone' mode? Or would he just stand there?

    An instant later, her question was answered in no uncertain terms. His hand came up, and a bone blade extended from it. The clone slashed at her with a speed and power reminiscent of her father, driving her to hurriedly duck out of the way. Diving over the supine gang member, she ignored the discarded pistol and inhaled deeply, pulling in every whiff of the pheromone with which this guy had been doused.

    Why didn't I take the clone down first? she raged at herself. It would've been so easy to come down on him like a bolt from the blue. To take him out before the other guy even knew she was there. But even as she leaped to the side to avoid another swing, she knew why. Because he looks like Dad.

    Bone armour, cruder than her father's but still perfectly adequate, covered the faux-Marquis from head to toe. Another blade extended from his other hand, and hellishly sharp spikes and hooks extended from every surface. Even getting close would be dangerous.

    Deep within her sinuses, she finished the analysis of the pheromone, and began to replicate it. The glands she'd used to make the last batch were in place; all she had to do was repurpose them. While fighting for her life against a clone of her father.

    He was fast. With each failed strike, he seemed to gain more skill, pressing her ever closer to her limits. And then he began to throw up barriers, to make it harder for her to dodge. If she could get close enough to affect his body, the fight would be over, but he was all too good at playing keep-away.

    The blades merged to form a massive hammer, which hummed through the air as he swung it two-handed. When he struck other jags of bone that had already been laid down, they shattered and sprayed through the air. She wasn't worried about being hurt by them, but if one got close enough, he'd be able to expand it to trap her. He'd be able to do it, too; already, he was using far too many of her father's tricks for comfort. He's just a clone! How is he this good? Against her father, he would of course lose, but her father was in a class of his own.

    Finally, it seemed that he had inhaled the pheromones that she was now exuding from her pores. The massive hammer sank to the ground. Taking a deep breath of her own, she stepped in close. He didn't attack. Reaching out, she took control of his body and mind, and put him to sleep. And only then did she relax.

    “Whew,” she muttered, changing her battle-claw back to a normal hand so she could bend over and put it on her knee. “Some days it's just not worth getting out of bed.”



    End of Part Fifteen

    Part Sixteen
     
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2019
  23. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    "I just beat up a clone of you, Dad! Are you proud?"

    Nice twist on the "disappointment leads to death" story too.
     
  24. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    He's actually going to be irritated with her for not dealing with the clone first. "You should know by now that I'm the most dangerous thing in the room!"

    "But he looked like YOU!"

    "This is no time for sentiment!"

    "Well, excuse me for not wanting to attack my father!"
     
  25. Threadmarks: Part Sixteen: Following Up
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Another Way

    Part Sixteen: Following Up


    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


    Claire

    “Um … miss? Are you a superhero?”

    Claire turned to look at the hostages sitting on the floor, all staring at her in the dimness with varying levels of trepidation. Before, they hadn’t gone anywhere because of the threat of the Marquis clone, but that didn’t seem to be what they were worried about right now.

    Oh. Right.

    One by one, she began undoing the changes she’d made in herself for the battle. Dead black skin faded back to pink, high-agility joints reshaped themselves almost to normal, her gecko-grip right hand altered shape to become recognisably human, and her muscles regained a more natural blend of fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibres. As soon as she was sure she wouldn’t freak the hostages out, she gave them a smile.

    “Not exactly,” she said dryly. “As you just heard, my name is Marchioness. I’m here to help. Is anyone hurt?”

    “Only the security guard,” said a middle-aged woman. “I think everyone else is okay. Are you really Marquis’ daughter? Isn't that Marquis just over there?”

    Claire sighed. If people would just pay attention once in a while, their lives—and everyone else's—would be so much easier. “No, it's not. That's a clone. My father's just outside.” Belatedly, she added, “Where’s the security guard?”

    “Here.” The painful wheeze was masculine in timbre. “You sayin’ it wasn’t Marquis who put me down?” Oddly enough, he sounded almost disappointed.

    “That is indeed the case!”

    Claire didn’t have to look around to know who it was that had spoken, his dramatic tones ringing through the darkened space. In the next moment, light flooded across the interior of the bank, causing her to cast a shadow across the hostages. I love you dearly, Dad, but do you really have to ham it up like this? She didn’t even need to voice the question out loud. The answer, as long as she’d known him, was ‘yes’.

    With the extra light, she was easily able to pick out the wounded guard. He looked like he’d been nailed in the right shoulder and left leg by the clone. Makeshift bandages had been wrapped around his wounds, but they were soaked through with blood.

    She was close enough now that she was able to single him out with her power, and she set it to work repairing his wounds. Glancing around, she confirmed her guess that her father was striding forward like a conquering hero, with Kayden hovering behind him. The effect was … pretty impressive, actually. The hostages, already getting to their feet, were shading their eyes and watching him with a certain amount of awe.

    “All is well here, Marchioness?” he asked as he reached her, placing his hand on her shoulder. Claire could see at least one cell-phone in the crowd, and she figured she knew what the front page picture on tomorrow’s edition of the Brockton Bay Bulletin was going to be. “Did you have any difficulty with the clone?”

    “It’s all good. Once I figured out how to put him down, it wasn’t hard.” She deliberately spoke in obscure terms, to make sure nobody in the crowd figured out how she’d done it. As Marchioness, she was known as a healer, not as a biokinetic and definitely not a Changer. While some of the hostages would’ve seen a little of what she’d done to take down the last minion and the clone, the darkness would’ve obscured a lot of the useful detail. She hoped, anyway.

    “I had every faith in you, my dear.” Even ignoring the overacting, she knew he was serious. It had to have been a wrench for him to let her go in solo, but she’d won. “And the other item?”

    “Got it right here.” She held up her right hand, opening it just far enough for him to see the vial peeking through. “You want to deal with it?”

    “I would like nothing better.” She felt him pluck the vial from her fingers. Seconds later, he had encased it in a smooth shiny capsule of bone, the better to ensure that it wouldn’t break if dropped.

    With that off her mind, and out of her hands, she turned her attention back to the security guard. He was sitting up now, with his wounds almost completely healed. The rest of the people who’d been in the bank—specifically, the customers. The staff had obviously retreated to the rear of the building—were keeping back, probably out of a combination of fear and respect.

    “Hey,” said the guard. “You’re villains, right?”

    He sounded more puzzled than accusatory, but Claire felt it was necessary to correct his misapprehension. “My father’s a villain,” she said. “I’m not. I’m not a villain, a hero, a rogue, or any of that. I’m me.

    “Yeah, that’s what I’m wondering about,” the guard replied. “If you don’t mind me asking … why did you stop the bank robbery? I mean … that’s what heroes do. Not villains and … well, whatever you are.”

    Maybe a little lighter on the endorphins next time, Claire decided. This guy was posing questions that he probably wouldn’t ordinarily have asked in a hundred years. It was almost certainly the fault of the hormones she had running through his system so he didn’t panic over what was going on.

    Still, he’d been polite about asking. “This wasn’t a bank robbery,” she explained. “It was made to look like one, but the whole idea was to send the Marquis clone into a murderous rage so he killed you all, then use the security footage to frame my father for mass murder. I happen to like my father without a kill order on his head, thank you very much.”

    Carefully, the guard climbed to his feet. “So wait, if they hadn’t been planning to kill us all, you wouldn’t have intervened?” He sounded almost offended.

    “My only concern was that they were using my name in vain, ” Earl put in from behind Claire. “Saving your lives was merely a collateral effect. Bank robbery is a time-honoured activity of imagination-challenged criminals; far be it from me to nip such a venerable practice in the bud.” He nodded toward where his clone and the last Blasto minion were resting peacefully. “If you’re finished tending to the unwashed masses, my dear, I believe it may be time to leave. With, of course, those persons of interest to us.”

    “Wait, you’re just taking them and going?” Now the guard looked confused. “Aren’t you going to wait for the cops or anything?”

    Earl stepped up alongside Claire and gave the man a full-on are you kidding? look. “In case you’d forgotten, the appellation ‘villain’ literally does mean I’m not obliged to cooperate with the forces of law and order.” He raised his hand slightly; the guard flinched. “Of course, if you’re unconvinced, I can always bind you before we leave.”

    Both of the guard’s hands were raised in surrender. “No, no, I’m good. Take ‘em and go. And … well, thanks.”

    “Whatever for?” Earl turned away, obviously putting the man from his mind as irrelevant. Claire gave the guard a nod of acknowledgement before following her father.

    <><>​

    “I’m not entirely certain as to why I was the obvious choice for carrying this miscreant.” Despite his words, Earl’s voice was bemused rather than annoyed as he carried the teenaged thug from the bank. “Surely your internal modifications make you capable for the purpose.”

    “Yeah, well, I coulda carried him,” Claire confirmed. She hadn’t quite given herself the same level of modifications Jonas was currently enjoying, but what she did have would’ve been well within the requirement to support the boy. “But it raises fewer questions if you do it.” She had considered getting the clone—now shuffling along behind her—to do the heavy work, but she hadn’t wanted to get into fiddly commands while people were watching, even with Kayden there to dazzle them. Both literally and figuratively.

    “I see,” he replied, in the tone of voice he used when he was admitting she was right without actually saying so. “Do not imagine for a moment that this will be a regular state of affairs.”

    “Well, duh.” She grinned at him as the car pulled up in front of the bank. “That’s what Jonas is for.”

    “What’m I for again, Miss Marchioness, ma’am?” asked Jonas as he opened the door and got out.

    Claire smirked. She should’ve known Jonas would hear that comment, given the improved sensorium she was testing out on him. “Heavy lifting and punching people really hard,” she replied cheekily. “Got another clone to deal with. And a prisoner for interrogation.”

    “Well, I can’t argue with that job description.” Jonas opened the back door to allow Earl to dump his burden inside on the floor. With a touch of pheromone and a spoken order, Claire had the clone climb in as well, then she put him to sleep. That left just Kayden and Claire to get in.

    As they did so, Earl eyed the three mooks lying peacefully on the steps of the bank. “Do we really need these as well? Or is one enough?”

    “One’s plenty,” Claire said as she got comfortable, using the recumbent clone as a foot-rest. “We can leave the others for the cops. They’ll wake up in about half an hour. Sooner, if someone jostles them around.”

    “Very well.” Earl turned to look at the white bone dome covering what had been the burning getaway car. He gestured idly in its direction, then climbed into the front seat of the limo. Behind him, the dome began to disintegrate, the hard shell flaking off and wafting away in the breeze. “When I see Blasto,” he muttered, “I will be sure to thank him for making my life that little bit harder.”

    “I think we’ve all got a bone to pick with him, Dad,” offered Claire from the back seat, then she grinned at the round of groans. “Oh, come on. That was a good one.”

    Earl looked up at the rear-vision mirror. “On that, my dear, we have a difference of opinion. And we still have to speak about how you didn’t take out the clone first.”

    Claire huffed in irritation. “He looked like you, okay? I had a hard enough time attacking him in the first place. Besides, I wanted to make sure the murder-pheromone wasn’t at risk.”

    “Hmm,” he said. “I’ll let it go … this time.”

    She poked her tongue out at him, then turned to Kayden. “Comfortable?”

    “Sure,” the older woman replied with an eye-rolling grin, as she stretched her legs out and rested them on the Marquis clone as well. “Couldn’t be better.”

    “You two are using my clone as a foot-rest, aren’t you?” Earl asked suspiciously.

    Claire and Kayden immediately moved their feet from the clone on to the mook. “No,” they chorused. Exchanging mischievous smirks, they settled back to enjoy the ride.

    <><>​

    “All right then.”

    The basement was cool and quiet. Claire stood, eyeing their prisoners. The clones stared blankly back, while the three mooks watched her with varying degrees of terror. She’d removed their various compulsions, leaving just five behind.

    First: don’t move without permission.

    Second: don’t speak without permission.

    Third: do what I tell you to do.

    Fourth: don’t try to give orders to the clones at all.

    Fifth: give the absolute and total truth when asked a question or told to speak.

    One of the things she’d given back was the ability to care about what was going to happen to them. She wanted them to care. She wanted them terrified. Pure, gut-wrenching fear was a better loosener of tongues than any number of mental compulsions.

    She wasn’t alone in the cellar, of course. Earl and Kayden were standing back a few steps, while Jonas loomed in the background. The belated light lunch sat on a tray nearby. Claire took a slice of apple and chewed on it while she considered the questions she was going to ask.

    “I’m going to ask questions. If you know the answer to any of the questions, put your hand up. Once the question has been answered, put your hand down. Do not lie by keeping your hand down if you know the answer. Is that perfectly clear?” All three mooks put their hands up. Claire looked at the first one. “What is the answer?”

    “Yes, it is clear.” The mook put his hand down. So did the other two. This puzzled Claire until she realised she hadn’t specified that they had to answer the question before they put their hand down, just that the question had to be answered.

    She repeated the question with the other two mooks, getting the same answer each time. Okay, so that works. Taking a sheet of paper from her purse, she unfolded it to reveal the list of questions that she and the others had brainstormed over for the last fifteen minutes.

    “Question number one: how many people does Blasto have working for him?”

    All three hands shot into the air.

    <><>​

    Blasto

    Rey Andino had a bad feeling about the way the day was going. Not only had the massacre at Brockton Bay Central Bank not made the news yet, but his Lung-clone wasn’t back from the PRT building. In fact, both clones and their attendant minions may as well have fallen into a hole, as far as their existence was concerned.

    The PRT HQ had been attacked, he knew that much. But far from trumpeting the move by Lung to the skies and swearing to bring him in and avenge his victims, the PRT was saying … very little indeed. What news footage there was showed a barricade set up around the entrance of the PRT building, with both fire trucks and police cars nearby. A statement had been given by a tight-lipped PRT public-relations guy, which boiled down to “something happened, but we’re not going to talk about it”.

    What the hell’s going on here?

    When he first came up with his master plan, the idea had been to sit back and watch the chaos unfold all around him. As each gang was weakened in turn, he would slowly but surely expand his territory in that direction, until the true ruler of Brockton Bay’s underworld ended up as none other than he himself. And all without using self-reproducing creatures; he had no desire for that pre-signed kill order to come into effect. The PRT may have hobbled him but they’d left loopholes, which he fully intended to exploit. And if a few civilians died in the process, who cared? It wasn’t like he’d get blamed for the deaths.

    But still, something was going on. His latest masterpiece was still maturing, so he left it to continue growing and absorbing nutrient matter at a steady rate. It wouldn’t need his attention for another ten minutes or more. In the meantime, he had something he needed to do.

    He had to admit, however grudgingly, that the ex-ABB youths had held up their end of the deal. As he ducked past the curtain into the kitchen area of his lair, he saw one mopping the floor and another stirring something that smelled delicious on the stove. The place had never looked cleaner; all the surfaces sparkled, dishes were washed and put away, and they’d even managed to get rid of whatever had been growing in the fridge.

    “You two,” he said. He’d never bothered learning their names; why should he? People were far less interesting than his beautiful monsters, after all. “Have you been watching the news?”

    “No,” said the girl who was stirring the pot. “What’s happened? Where are the others?”

    “They aren’t back yet. And neither are my clones.” His tone made it clear which was more important to him. “You’ve heard nothing from any of them?”

    “No, sir,” said the kid with the mop. “Not even from Sugito.”

    Rey looked at him. “Sugito,” he repeated, gesturing for the street rat to make some kind of sense.

    “He went out with the Lung clone,” the girl clarified. “He should’ve been back hours ago. Or called. Or something.”

    “Would he have gone to the authorities? Or back to the ABB?” He was beginning to regret taking the kids in altogether. People were just so unreliable.

    The girl snorted. “Fuck, no. Lung—the real one—woulda killed him. And Sugito wouldn’t have gone to the cops. That’s just not him. We’re his people. He wouldn’t flip on us.”

    Her words rang with sincerity, which paradoxically made him more uneasy, not less. There was a potential problem here, much worse than simple betrayal. “Get your weapons,” he said. “You’re off cooking and cleaning duty and on guard duty. Something’s wrong.”

    “What? What’s wrong?” asked the girl, but she was already turning the stove off and putting a lid on the pot.

    “If I knew what it was, I could do something about it.” Having exhausted his store of patience for human interaction for the day, Rey turned and hustled back toward his lab.

    If his creations had been captured, their ingrained instincts were to fight their way free. Separated from their human sheepdogs, they would return home. They hadn’t come back, with or without the teenagers he’d sent out to accompany them. Which meant that someone had captured or killed his creations without it making the news …

    Right on cue, the TV he had fixed to the wall played an alert tone.

    “We interrupt with a breaking news bulletin. The Brockton Bay Central Bank was the scene of a bizarre villain attack earlier today, where someone initially appearing to be Marquis entered the bank and took hostages. Shortly thereafter, the new cape known as Marchioness engaged both the false Marquis and his teenage accomplice and disabled them, claiming that this was merely a clone of the infamous villain. Marchioness has claimed to be the daughter of the real Marquis, and this was borne out when he entered the bank as well. They took the clone and the accomplice with them, after Marchioness healed the hostages of their injuries. Witnesses at the scene report that—”

    That couldn’t be right. Rey wasn’t exactly an avid follower of current events, but even he’d heard of the healer called Marchioness. She’d made waves by establishing herself at the Brockton Bay General Hospital on a semi-regular basis and curing all comers of their ailments. He hadn’t heard that Marquis was her father, though. But that begged the question of how a healer took out the clone and its minders.

    I bet she went in to try to defuse the situation, then her father took out the clone and the idiot minions. He’d probably handed her the credit just to confuse matters. Who’d take her on, after all, if they thought she was some kind of badass? It wasn’t like healing was a particularly scary power.

    But in any case, he’d heard enough. Moving to where a chain hung from the ceiling, he yanked on it. Immediately, a pre-mixed pheromone jetted from the re-purposed fire sprinkler system, spreading in clouds through the air. When his guard-beasts inhaled it, they got up from where they were resting and moved toward the exterior wall of the building, peering out through peepholes. Growls rumbled in their chests. Others scaled ladders to higher vantage points on the upper walkway.

    That was the main reason he preferred working with his own creations. Given the right stimulus, his creatures would instantly go on to high alert without him having to talk to them.

    He turned his attention to his latest project. Almost fully grown, it would be ready for decanting in just a few minutes. He didn’t know that the base would be coming under attack, but it was the safest assumption to make. If anyone did attack, he intended to make them severely regret it, then use their genetic material to build the next generation of his creatures.

    Unless it was Marquis, of course. He already had Marquis’ genetic material, so he’d just kill the man and dispose of the corpse, unwritten rules be damned. The daughter—Marchioness, wasn’t it?—might yield some interesting insights, so he’d probably keep her alive long enough to see what she could do before he got a sample and disposed of the rest of her.

    He was fully aware that normally he was a lot more cautious than this, but dammit, he’d been keeping his head down for far too long! The gold ring was within sight, and he was damned if he was going to turn back now! By the time he was finished, Brockton Bay would understand that Blasto was a force to be reckoned with—

    Someone knocked on the door.

    His internal monologue came to a screeching halt and he looked around, not at all sure what was going on. If someone was going to attack, they normally didn’t knock first. He checked on the project; less than a minute to go. Picking up one of several spray-bottles he had sitting around, he liberally doused himself with a specific pheromone; not unlike the one he’d given his minions, it made all his creations see him as someone to be respected and obeyed. To them, he was basically God, which wasn’t all that far from reality if he stopped and thought about it.

    The knock came again.

    Selecting the nearest guard-creature, he pointed at the door. “See who it is!” As the guard hulked its way toward the entry, Rey pulled open a drawer and took out the pistol it contained. He didn’t like using firearms—as far as he was concerned, they were far less reliable and versatile than his creations—but they were an effective force multiplier in tight situations. He hurried after the guard, positioning himself by the door so that when it opened he’d be able to hear the conversation.

    The guard clumsily manipulated the locking mechanism, then pulled the door open. There was a short pause. “Who you?” it grunted.

    “Hi,” a voice answered. Rey wasn’t the best person for determining age or even gender by voice alone, but if pressed he would’ve pegged this as a young woman or a teenage girl. One who sounded quite pleased with herself. Annoyingly so, even. “The name’s Marchioness. I’m here to give your boss one chance to surrender before Marquis brings this place down around your ears and Palatina makes a crater out of it.”

    The guard-creature obviously tried to absorb all this, but eventually it shook its head in confusion. “Uh?”

    “Oh, you poor thing.” Marchioness’ voice was immediately full of compassion. “Did he do the same thing with you as the other clones?”

    This had gone on long enough. Rey pulled the door open a little farther and pointed the pistol at … huh. It was a teenage girl, after all. Wearing an evening dress and heels, with a little wrist purse even. She was done up to the nines, looking for all the world like she was going out to a high-society function with her parents, not standing on a supervillain’s front doorstep. “All right,” he snapped. “Who are you really, and what do you want?” The name ‘Marchioness’ did seem to be familiar from the news just before, but he’d learned not to believe everything he saw on TV.

    “Oh, good.” She smiled at him. He’d seen smiles like that before, on creations he’d made that owed a lot to shark DNA. “I was worried that I’d have to come find you. So, the offer to accept your surrender expires in one minute. My father and Palatina have this place surrounded. Dad is all kinds of pissed that you tried to drag his name in the mud, and Palatina isn’t thrilled with you either.”

    So many things about this weren’t adding up; he grasped at the first straw that came to hand. “Palatina? Who’s he?” It wasn’t a cape name he recognised, and it didn’t exactly make it obvious what the cape’s powers were. If it even was a cape. For all he knew, it was someone’s surname.

    She gave him a pitying little smile, as if he’d missed something very important. “Palatina’s a she, not a he. She’s very nice, unless you upset her. Then she blows things up a lot. She’s the newest member of our team, and she’s currently waiting to see if I ring her and say you’ve surrendered.”

    Palatina was a name Rey hadn’t heard before. It was another point in favour of the theory that Marchioness hadn’t been the one to take down the crew in the bank; if Marquis had had another cape on hand to deal with them, there was no way he’d be sending the healer in to do the job. Which meant the media had gotten things wrong yet again. In any case, even if her healing was scarier than it sounded, he had a gun and his guard-beast was sufficiently big and scary to make the average linebacker wet himself in terror.

    “Grab her,” he said to the guard-beast, gesturing with the gun. As the creature complied, he gave Marchioness a nasty little smile of his own. “Once they see you with a gun at your head, they’ll be the ones surrendering, not me.”

    He was mildly surprised when she didn't try to avoid the guard-beast's grasp, but figured that she hadn't expected him to try this ploy. Not that it would've helped her; with these beasts, he'd coded high-speed reflexes and brute strength into one remarkably effective package. She didn't struggle to get free, probably because she recognised the uselessness of pitting her muscles against the highly tuned physique of the creature holding her.

    He'd been kind of expecting her to scream as the guard-beast dragged her across the threshold and he slammed the door behind her, but she remained eerily silent. And unless a faintly worrying smile was her version of a rictus of terror, it wasn't fear that was keeping her quiet.

    I've got the upper hand here, he reminded himself firmly. I've got my gun, I've got my guards, and I've got my masterpiece. If she thinks she can overcome that, she's delusional.

    “So that's a ‘no’ on unconditional surrender, then?” The girl's smile had, if anything, become more worrying. Delusional she might be, but there was a certainty about her that would've made him reconsider his life choices if he wasn't pointing a gun at her face.

    “Don't be a fool,” he told her roughly. “Your father and Palatina, whoever that is, can't help you now. They aren't here. I am. And unless they do exactly what I say, things are going to go very badly for you. Call them up and tell them that.

    Her smile widened slightly and she looked past him. “Oh, hi!” she called out. “How are you doing?”

    Backing off slightly, in case she made a grab for the gun, he glanced in that direction, wondering who or what he had in his base that she addressed so familiarly. The two kids were standing the doorway to the kitchen area, staring at Marchioness with the level of horror that she should have really been showing toward the guard-beast.

    “Shit!” yelled the boy, half a second ahead of the girl. “What's she doing here?”

    Wait, they know her?

    “That bitch got Dao killed!” the girl clarified. “Is Marquis here? We are so fucked.”

    “Wow, you're really good at picking sucky bosses, aren't you?” Marchioness sounded positively amused. A corner of her smile sharpened. “If I was you ... I'd run.”

    Rey turned his full attention back to her and raised his pistol slightly. “What’s going on? What are they talking about?” At the back of his mind, he wondered if he shouldn't just shoot her—

    Now her smile was fully predatory. “This.” And then she snapped her fingers.

    When the guard-beast began to growl, he didn't immediately realise what the problem was. Then he did; the thing was looking at him, thin lips peeled back to reveal razor-edged dentition. It released Marchioness’ arm and took a step toward him, the thick brush of hair on its hunched shoulders starting to bristle in an unmistakable fashion. It was just seconds away from attacking and from all the indications, he was the target. Which was ludicrous. Never in his career had any of his creations defied their pheromone-induced state of servitude.

    “Gotta love an easily-adjustable vomeronasal system,” she observed casually, a wicked expression dancing in her eyes. A casual hand on the monster's arm stopped its forward advance.

    His eyes widened as her words hit home with all the force and shock of a half-brick impacting the back of his head. “You didn't!” he protested. “You couldn't have!” But either she'd wrested control of his creation—carefully engineered to be as strong, fast, durable, vicious and implacable as he could manage—from him, or somebody else had. Somebody who was guiding it to attack him.

    He'd figure out the whys and wherefores later. Aiming the pistol two-handed at Marchioness, he squeezed the trigger before he could talk himself out of it. If she was indeed calling the shots, killing her should end the problem.

    The shot echoed loudly across the huge room as the weapon bucked in his hands. Burnt cellulose irritated his nose and his ears rang painfully, but Marchioness didn't even stagger. With a mildly irritated frown, she looked down at the dark hole that had appeared just above the ‘V‘ of her evening gown. Placing her finger and thumb on either side of the bullet wound—which had yet to start bleeding—she squeezed inward. The next moment, the pistol slug popped out of the hole and she caught it, then brushed the same hand over the wound. After her hand had passed by, the skin was once more unblemished, as if he'd imagined the whole thing.

    “Idiot,” she said with the same level of exasperation as if he was a puppy that had just peed on the carpet. “I’m not guiding him to attack you. That's down to the pheromones you're wearing. Right now, they make him want to rip you apart. I'm the only thing holding him back. Five.” Lifting the palm of her hand from the creature's arm, she left just the fingertips in contact with its skin. And then she raised her pinky, leaving four points of contact. “Four.”

    There had to be a way around this. “If he kills me, the rest of them will tear the two of you apart,” he bluffed. Inserting a deadman switch like that had been tempting, but he didn’t want them massacring their way across the city if he was injured. That sort of thing would get him Birdcaged or worse.

    He didn’t even consider shooting the guard-beast. The way he’d designed them, bullets would merely irritate it.

    Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “Nice try. I know how they’re programmed.” Up went the next finger. "Three.” The creature growled again, long and low and menacing.

    Rey’s nerve broke. He backed off, away from the unnerving teenager and the suborned guard-beast. Only when he was next to his workbench did he look away from the girl and the creature, and that was to locate the big red button on the side of his cloning tank. The Emergency Decant function had only been used a couple of times, but he’d really needed it. Just like he needed it now.

    The girl lifted her hand free of the guard-beast’s arm, and it roared with the excitement of the hunt. Powerful haunches launched it toward him, ropes of drool hanging from its wide-open jaws as it closed the distance shockingly fast.

    He slapped the button. Several things happened at once.

    Within the tank, the newest creation opened its eyes wide as the nutrient feeds dumped epinephrine into its system. Another nutrient tube gave it a dose of pure glucose, to give it a head start on the blood sugar it was going to need for energy. Tiny explosive bolts blew the casing off of the cloning tank, and his latest masterpiece surged upward, already looking for an opponent.

    Rey cringed back from the oncoming guard-beast, eyes clenched shut. There was a massive meaty thud, and a howl of rage and frustration from the guard-beast. With his arm still upraised in a futile attempt at warding it off, he cracked one eyelid to see what was going on.

    Barely two yards from him, his freshly-created masterpiece had intercepted the oncoming creature in the middle of a leap. He was impressed despite itself; the newly decanted creation was already eight feet tall and covered in silvery scales. As he watched, it threw the guard-beast off it then fired a burst of flaming bone spikes out of its hands. These struck the suborned creature, sinking deep and eliciting another howl of rage and pain.

    He scrambled away as the clone of Marquis and Lung—with some honey badger and wolverine mixed in, because why not—enveloped itself in flame and grew another twelve inches in height. It seemed to be hefting a spear made of bone, the flame around the tip so hot it was painful to look at.

    The guard-beasts watching the outside were finally coming to realise that something was wrong within the building. Several were venturing over, probably trying to figure out which of the two they should attack. It was fortunate their pack instinct was almost non-existent, or they would probably be already attacking the newest clone. As it was, they were diffident in the extreme.

    It wasn’t hard to figure out why. His guard-beasts were horrifically effective, but they had normal animal instincts where it came to dealing with fire. That is, they didn’t do it at all well.

    Backing off some more, he looked around to see where his human minions had gotten to. They were nowhere to be seen. Now that he came to think about it, he seemed to recall frightened voices saying something along the lines of “fuck this shit, I’m out” when Marchioness pulled her reveal with the guard-beast. And there was a back door out of the kitchen, to allow for the dumping of trash.

    Fucking cowards. I’m better off without them.

    Not that Rey was interested in taking on the rogue creature by himself. Fortunately, he had his newest clone doing all the heavy lifting on that front. As tough and strong as the guard-beast was, the Lung/Marquis clone was wiping the floor with it. Twelve feet tall, with silvery metal talons and flaming bone spikes driving deep into the guard-beast’s vitals, the clone was justifying every minute of the long hours of effort he’d put into getting it just right.

    The next problem of course, was that Marquis and someone called Palatina were somewhere outside his base. This was in no way an ideal situation. In fact, it was very bad indeed. However, he also had his guard-beasts (which were in turn slavishly loyal to him, so long as Marchioness didn’t get to turn any more of them) and his hybrid clone, which he’d back against either Marquis or Lung in a straight fight.

    Where was Marchioness, anyway? He’d gotten over the shock of shooting her to no real effect, and was wondering if multiple shots to the head would be more effective. It occurred to him that he was contemplating the murder of a teenage girl, but then he weighed this against being Brockton Bay’s next pre-eminent crime-lord, and it became less of an issue. And even if his gun didn’t do the trick, he’d call in the rest of the guard-beasts. Surely they’d be able to tear her apart faster than she could do whatever she did to corrupt them.

    The trouble was, she was nowhere to be seen when he decided to enact his plan. Pistol up and ready, he began to stalk around the interior of the base. Each time he came close to a guard-beast, he called it to him. He didn’t intend to take any chances when he finally caught up with her.

    But I definitely want that genetic sample now. Whatever powers she’s got, I can use.

    <><>​

    Claire

    As the fight escalated, Claire slipped out through the main doors and shut them behind her. The hyena-gorilla hybrid creatures were tough, but she had a feeling that whatever Blasto had let loose was even tougher. From her initial observations, she had an idea she knew what (or rather, who) had contributed DNA toward it. Mission accomplished. Now to let Dad know what's going on.

    Moving away from the doors, she gave the thumb's up toward a nearby rooftop. Once she judged herself to be a safe distance away—though the fight inside the base was still audible—she pulled out her phone and dialled a number.

    Her father answered immediately. “Marchioness, are you all right? I heard a shot.”

    “I’m fine,” she replied with a roll of the eyes. Had he forgotten who’d pulled his ass out of the fire not all that long ago? “He tried to shoot me with a nine-mil Beretta. My battle armour stopped it cold. Just FYI, he’s definitely not surrendering.”

    “No surprise there,” he agreed. “So did you manage to provoke him the way you wanted to?”

    “ … yeah, you’re not gonna like this,” she said. “The big guy? I know who went into it.”

    “Me?” She heard what might have been a bitten-off swearword. “Seriously, that man is irritating. How many of me are we going to have to deal with? And who’s the other me fighting, if it isn’t you?”

    Claire took a deep breath. “Uh … not quite of you. There’s some kind of animal mixed in. Whatever it is, it has anger issues. Oh, and the other half is ... Lung.” She braced herself for the explosion.

    There was silence for several seconds. “Lung.” His voice was almost serene in its lack of emotion. “Damnation. He mixed my DNA with Lung’s. That man is the loosest of loose cannons, and now my powers will be associated with him? By all that’s holy, by the time I'm finished with Blasto, he'll be begging for death.”

    “We're gonna need a good plan for this one. Knocking on the front door isn't going to work twice. The clone is up and aware, and is already able to use its powers effectively. And then there’s the rest of the guards. Individually, they’re pretty wimpy compared to the hybrid clone, but en masse they could cause problems.”

    “Sounds like the old line about quantity having a quality of its own,” her father mused. “Incidentally, while you were in there, his last two human minions ran out through a back door. Palatina intercepted them and has ascertained that they are two of the people who …”

    “Who we met in the alley, yeah.” Claire smirked. “I think we made an impression. Sucks to be them.”

    “We did more than make an impression, my dear.” Her father’s tone was firm. “Apparently our actions in the alley led directly to the situation we’re in now. Including the fact that Blasto now has my genetic material, and Lung’s, to play with. Which means even if we wanted to walk away now, we can’t.”

    “Ah.” She saw his point immediately. He wasn’t chastising her directly; instead, he was ensuring she understood the consequences their actions were having. And that if they walked away at this point, Blasto’s creations would be even more formidable when they finally did choose to confront him. “Yeah, I get it.”

    “So who is the hybrid clone fighting? Or rather, was. I believe the sounds of battle have died down now.”

    “Yeah, like I thought, I was able to turn the guard-thing against him.” Claire felt a pang of regret for the passing of the guard-beast. It’d never had a choice, or a chance, to be anything but a puppet to its orders. First Blasto had created it and set it going with a series of immutable commands and urges, then she’d subverted these which led to its inevitable demise. At least it went down fighting. I think that’s the only time those things feel happy. “He activated the hybrid to protect himself, like we planned. The hybrid must’ve killed it. That thing’s pretty impressive, from what I saw. Basically, a seven foot humanoid honey badger with Lung’s powers and yours overlaid on it. And it ramps up fast. Also, shoots spikes of flaming bone from its hands.”

    Her father paused for a long moment. “That’s … impressive, yes. Which means Palatina can’t just stay out of reach and blast it into submission.”

    “Uh, you did realise that once he ramps up far enough, he'll be able to fly anyway, right?” Claire's question was tentative. There was no way her father would've forgotten that little aspect.

    “Of course.” He sounded almost impatient. “I was hoping she could put the thing down before it got that far.”

    "Yeah, two problems with that.” Claire grimaced. “He’s kind of ramped up already, and he did it pretty quickly. I don't know how fast he could come up with wings, but I don't want to bet that she can smear him before he does.”

    “And of course, as per your plan, Blasto is aware that we're out here. So our chances of sniping the creature by surprise are now minimal.” She heard a sigh over the phone.

    “So what are we going to do?”

    He chuckled warmly. “You should know by now that I always have at least two backup plans, my dear Marchioness. It's the secret of my success.”

    “I always thought the secret of your success was being better at using your powers than the other guy.”

    “That, my dear, is Plan A.” She could hear the smugness in his voice.

    “So, did you have a plan B?” The question was almost immaterial.

    “I thought you'd never ask.”


    End of Part Sixteen
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2019
  26. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Blasto deserves the "Silver Ribbon of Escalation" here. He's not quite as bad as Taylor at her worst, but he's making a mighty effort. Nice scene in the bank, and Marquis should enter a smug-competition with Tattletale.
     
  27. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Tattletale has smugness; Marquis has Pride.
     
  28. Extras: Intermission: Planning Process for Part 16
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Intermission: Planning Process

    [A/N: this covers the planning process that went into Part 16, because some people are never happy unless they get told every detail.]
    [A/N 2: The last part of the previous chapter has been rewritten somewhat to fit.]


    Claire spread her carefully-written notes over the table, and Earl leaned in to examine them, with Kayden at his side. “Very impressive, my dear. I’ve questioned many men over the years, but getting them to give me the correct information has always been the greatest challenge.”

    Jonas nodded from his side of the table. “He’s right, chick. With you boosting their memories, it was just a matter of making them slow down long enough to get the information we needed. I’m pretty sure not even Blasto knew how much they saw. Down to the fact that he owns just one firearm, and it’s not even Tinkertech.”

    Claire fought the blush rising on her cheeks. “It’s just my powers,” she protested. “They’re kind of ideal for this sort of thing.”

    “That they are,” Earl declared. “Now, with all this, I’m wondering if we should go with a slow and careful infiltration or a hard and fast strike. Each approach has its merits and drawbacks. It goes without saying that any plan we have is going to maximise the merits and nullify as many drawbacks as possible.”

    Claire tilted her head to one side, the facts and figures fitting themselves into one formation after another. “I think we should go with option C. I walk up, knock on the door, and give him the chance to surrender.”

    Earl and Jonas shared a long glance with Kayden, then all three adults turned toward Claire. By silent agreement, Earl spoke first. “That’s an interesting approach, my dear. Also bold, daring and audacious. I would applaud it, save that I would be inclined to also call it foolhardy and risky in the extreme.”

    Jonas nodded in stolid agreement. “We can’t trust him to be civilised, chick. The man is a Tinker. He tried to frame your father for mass murder. He could do anything to you, and we wouldn’t be able to stop him in time.”

    “Not ‘anything’,” she pointed out. “A lot of things, yes, but there are some things he’s incapable of doing. And I’ll be able to guard against most of the rest. And for the remainder …” She turned to Jonas. “Do you still have that anti-materiel rifle I got you for your birthday?”

    A slow grin began to spread across the ex-mercenary’s scarred features. “I believe I see your line, chick. You want me as overwatch.”

    “Well, duh,” she said with an answering grin. “Who else?”

    The rifle had been a custom job, built by a skilled gunsmith to Brute standards. Not by coincidence, to the Brute standards that Jonas could achieve. Despite a very effective gas-recoil system, it still packed a kick that would break a lesser man’s shoulder. Claire had watched Jonas literally explode blocks of concrete with the rifle, through the sheer kinetic force of the bullet. It came with an IR scope and a high-powered parabolic microphone.

    Earl eyed his daughter suspiciously. “Did you get that for him because you thought something like this would turn up?”

    “‘Would’, no. ‘Might’, yes.” Claire shrugged. “It’s better to have the sniper rifle from hell and not need it …” She trailed off, knowing she didn’t have to finish the statement.

    “Indeed,” Earl noted. “Well, that alleviates quite a few of the concerns I held regarding your plan. How is it supposed to culminate? With his capture?”

    “No, actually.” Claire tapped one of the pieces of paper. “We know he doesn’t do anything smaller than the naked eye can see. In fact, he’s never made anything smaller than a cat. And he has no other cape clones in his base. But he’s making something now, and he’s taking a lot of time about it, according to this. And it’s big.”

    “And you want me to snipe it, chick?” Jonas rolled his head on his neck. “Not sure if I can get a sight picture through the wall with the scope, but I’ll do my best.”

    “Well, it’d be great if you could,” Claire told him with a grin. “But I’m thinking of going in like a bratty teenager who’s got more arrogance than brains, and starting something that makes him use the big guy. That’s when I pull back, leaving him wondering what the hell I was even there for.”

    “Provoking him may not be the best idea,” Kayden pointed out in a masterful understatement. “He is a Tinker. He’s undoubtedly got many ways to hurt you if he really tried.”

    Claire held up her hand and it morphed into the battle-claw she’d used on the fateful day the Empire crumbled. The razor-edged talons retracted, and skin crawled up over the black integument. “I can run my skin and hair as a semi-separate organism outside my battle-armour,” she said. “Even better, if he grabs a sample, it’ll clone out as an octopus or something. In the meantime, I look harmless and I can still affect everything around me. While still being bulletproof, immune to poison and able to regenerate any damage that gets through the carbon outer shell.”

    “So why not just take him on?” asked Kayden. “Take him out in one hit? Or draw him out so Jonas’ rifle can make his head into pink mist? It’s what we’re here to do, isn’t it?”

    “The solution isn’t quite so simple as that, dearest Kayden,” Earl said, putting his arm around her waist. “I believe I see where Claire is going with this. Should Blasto have installed a deadman switch in his creations, killing or even disabling him could cause the other twenty-five beasts he has as guards to run amok about the city. While we could certainly chase them all down and dispose of them, I suspect they would rack up quite the body count before we did. And once more, I face being accused of mass murder. Damnation.”

    “Exactly,” Claire agreed. “I need to have some face time with one of his guard-thingies. If he controls them with pheromones, like he did the clones we captured, I can get a good idea of what pheromones I need to produce to make them think I’m the guy in charge. Hell, if they don’t have the kill-order in them, I can make it go after him because of his own pheromones.”

    “I find the concept of Blasto being torn asunder by his own creations to be oddly compelling,” Earl observed. “Alternatively, if you can suborn all of them under his nose, that would be even better.”

    Claire waggled her hand back and forth. “Difficult,” she admitted. “Yes, I can probably infiltrate the building, but I don’t know where they’re situated, and the guys confirmed that the guard-things have a high-end sense of smell. It would be virtually impossible for me to totally negate my scent, and they would raise the alarm. There’s every chance I could get close to one, but by the time I had him turned, the others would know something’s up. I’m good, but anyone can be dogpiled. I’d rather not see if they could pull me to pieces before I could turn them.”

    “A most unpleasant outcome,” Earl agreed. “So you intend to test the waters, so to speak, before we commit our full strength?”

    “Yeah.” Claire tapped one of the papers. “Like I said, he’s making something big. If I send a guard-thing rampaging after him, what’s he gonna do?”

    “He’ll use the big creation to defend himself,” Jonas answered slowly. “It’s what I’d do, anyway.”

    “Yup.” Claire grinned. “And that way we find out what it can do. It’s like Abigail taught me. When attacking an opponent of unknown strength, lead with a feint.” At Earl’s almost imperceptible wince, Claire put her hand on his arm. “Sorry, Dad. Didn’t mean to bring up old problems.”

    “It is of no moment,” her father protested, though he had to know she knew he was lying. “So you wish to manipulate him into showing what cards he’s holding, whilst acting like a foolhardy, risk-prone teenager?”

    “Basically, yes.” Claire nodded. “With Jonas as overwatch and Palatina providing an eye in the sky.” She smiled at her father. “You did say we’d be minimising the risks.”

    Earl nodded. “I did indeed. The plan has merit. Let us run it past all the facts we have, and plug any holes before commencing. Just in case.”

    Claire nodded again. “Just in case.”


    End of Intermission
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2019
  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Just so everyone knows, I've rewritten the back end of Chapter 20 a little.
     
  30. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    Chapter 20? As in, one that hasn't been published, yet?
     
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