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Price of Blood [Worm fanfic] (Complete)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Nov 30, 2016.

  1. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

    Feb 20, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Thus giving us yet another definition of 'asshole.'
    ShadowStepper1300 likes this.
  2. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Yup, there was that too.

    Big problem here:

    Right now, on too many fronts, humanity faces problems that are threatening to cause catastrophe in the future (pollution, high birth rate, etc, etc). For any of these, we have three options:

    1) Accept outside control to regulate the damaging behaviour.
    2) Self-regulate to bring the damaging behaviour under control.
    3) Let the world go to hell.

    Nobody wants to admit that humanity as a whole is more or less choosing 3) by default, but they fight like hell against 1) and every time someone starts trying to push 2), they get pulled down again, quite often by politicians and big business (who are going for the short term profits).

    FFS, humanity, it's not rocket science. Make a choice and own it.

    (Sigh. Sorry for the rant. Will go back to writing the latest post for I'm HALPING!)
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2017
  3. Threadmarks: Part Eleven: Upsides, Downsides and Underside(r)s

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Price of Blood

    Part Eleven: Upsides, Downsides and Underside(r)s

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

    Barnes Household
    Thursday, February 3, 2011
    0815 AM

    “Honey, you'd better get ready for school.”

    Emma, still clad in pyjamas and holding a bowl of cereal on her lap, turned her head to look over the back of the sofa at her mother. “Don't have to go to school today. They're shut down because of the Swarm.” She gestured at the TV with the hand holding her spoon. “See?” Part of her was a little disappointed because she wouldn't see Taylor's face after spreading the rumour that she was the Swarmbringer—as if!—but the majority of her was quite happy to chill at home. Or on the Boardwalk, with Sophia and Madison.

    She supposed that she should feel bad about all those people who died in the Swarm, but worse things happened every few months when the Endbringers attacked. People died. It was a thing. She wasn't one of them, and she hadn't lost anyone she knew (as far as she was aware) so it was like Sophia said: If you didn't move on and become stronger from your ordeal, the world would steamroll over the top of you.

    “I suppose.” Zoe Barnes sighed. “I wish you wouldn't eat cereal on the sofa. Can't you eat it at the table, like a civilised person?” Her tone was long-suffering, but Emma could tell she didn't really mean it.

    “If I eat at the table, it means I can't watch TV,” Emma pointed out logically. After all, watching TV was a God-given right shared by every red-blooded American teenager. She was sure she'd read that somewhere. “Anyway, I'm being careful.” Beside her, her phone buzzed. Putting the spoon in the bowl and balancing the latter on her legs, she picked up the phone and tapped in the code to open it. The text wasn't from Sophia, which was a little puzzling. The last message she'd gotten from the Ward was “GTG, busy” and Sophia hadn't texted back since. I'll wait till I know she's off duty, then I'll message her. Though it was probably against some rule or other, Sophia usually shared her duty roster with Emma, so that the redhead knew when to contact her and when to stay off the line.

    The text was from Madison, but that wasn't the weird bit. Normally the petite girl was on point with her messages, and sometimes she had some funny shit to share. But this one simply consisted of 'Get o'. What ever 'o' was. Maybe she got a phone call while she was texting, and accidentally sent it? Emma had done that herself before. With a grin on her lips, she texted back, 'Get o yourself, munchkin'. Dropping the phone on the sofa, she was about to resume eating her cereal when the doorbell rang.

    “Emma, can you get that?” her mother called out from the kitchen.

    Yeah, as if. “Mom, I'm eating cereal in my p-j's,” Emma called back. “What'll that look like if I answer the door?”

    After a moment, during which time the doorbell rang again, Zoe emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. “Well, if you got dressed at a civilised hour and ate cereal at the table like a normal person, there wouldn't be a problem, would there?” Her tone held a certain amount of asperity, but not so severe that Emma thought she might be in trouble.

    “Uh huh, yeah, you're totally right.” Her objective achieved—not having to get up to answer the door—Emma tuned her mother out and turned her attention back to the TV. Maybe I'll have some toast, after. But she'd have to be careful with it; her mother was even more unreasonable about toast crumbs on the sofa than she was about milk spills. If it wipes off, what's the big deal?

    She resumed eating cereal, losing herself in the blissful nirvana of being a teenage girl whose biggest question was what she was going to wear to the Boardwalk later. Another TV spot came up about the Swarm, but it showed nothing new. She'd seen the grainy picture of Taylor before, of course. A smile crept across her lips as she imagined accusing Taylor of being the Swarmbringer and scoffing at her panicked denials.

    “Emma.” Zoe's voice, much more serious than normal, cut into her daydream. Emma looked up with innocence written all over her face, ready to promise to wash the dishes or take the trash out … later. Much later. Maybe tomorrow. Or next week.

    When she saw the two police officers, one male and one female, her heart skipped a beat. Having cops in your house, looking sternly at you, was never a good situation. “Uh, Mom?” She swallowed, her throat having unaccountably gone dry. The spoon in her hand still held a load of cereal on its way to her mouth. “What's going on?”

    The male cop, about the same size and heft as her father, had a notebook in his hand. “Miss Emma Barnes?” When she nodded mutely, he went on. “I'm Sergeant Pauling, and this is Trooper Jameson. We need to ask you questions about your relationship with Taylor Hebert, Sophia Hess and Madison Clements.”

    Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. “I'm … uh, I'm not sure what you're talking about,” she bluffed weakly.

    The big cop shook his head slightly. “Trooper Jameson, does it seem to you that Miss Barnes is being uncooperative?”

    His partner, who was shorter with blonde hair bunched tightly at the base of her neck, nodded. “It does seem that way, Sergeant.”

    “I'm glad we agree.” He nodded to the piece of paper that Zoe was holding. “Miss Barnes, that's a warrant for your arrest on suspicion of multiple cases of verbal, emotional and physical assault against Taylor Hebert, as well as theft and false imprisonment. You'll be coming down to the station with us. Mrs Barnes, we need you to come along as well, unless you'd like to have someone else representing her instead?”

    Emma stared. “Wait, what? But—but Taylor's a liar! She's been telling tales about this all year! How can you believe her over me? Ask anyone! Ask Sophia! Ask Madis ….” She trailed off, recalling too late the text that Madison had sent to her. 'Get o'. Get out.

    “Oh, we will be asking Miss Clements exactly what she has to say,” Trooper Jameson said with some satisfaction. She produced a laminated card from her belt and began to read in an almost bored monotone. “You are now under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned. If you cannot hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning if you wish. You can decide at any time to exercise these rights and not answer any questions or make any statements.” Pausing, she looked up from the card. “Miss Barnes, do you understand each of these rights as I've explained them to you?” She waited expectantly.

    Emma knew her rights, of course. Growing up with a father for a lawyer—even a divorce lawyer—it was almost impossible not to. She also knew it wasn't a bright idea to pretend that she didn't understand them, especially with her mother right there. “Yeah,” she said sullenly. “I understand them.”

    “Good.” The trooper gave her a bright smile. “Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to us right now?”

    Her father had also explained carefully that no matter how friendly the police officer, it was never a good idea to talk to one without a lawyer present. “Nope. Shutting up now. I want my Dad.”

    The cops traded a glance. “That's your right,” the policewoman said. “Up you get, miss. As the sergeant just told you, we're going down to the station and processing you in.”

    For a moment, Emma considered just staying on the sofa. Common sense intruded; Trooper Jameson didn't look exactly puny, and Emma had no doubt that she'd be dragged to the car if necessary. Or carried, for that matter. Putting the bowl of cereal to one side, she reluctantly stood up. “Can I at least get changed?”

    “Certainly.” That was the sergeant. “Trooper Jameson will accompany you at all times.” His voice brooked no disagreement.

    “No!” The word was jerked out of Emma's throat. “I'm not letting her see me with my clothes off!” She looked wildly to her mother. “Mom, tell them they can't do that!”

    “Miss Barnes.” Trooper Jameson didn't sound so friendly any more. “I will remind you once that you're under arrest. We haven't handcuffed you, but that's just a courtesy. Yes, I will be accompanying you into your bedroom. Besides, I used to work in a women's prison. You've got nothing I haven't seen before. Now, did you want to change or go as you are?”

    Emma blinked. Her mother was looking helplessly from her to the policewoman and back. She obviously wanted to object, but didn't seem to know what to say. “Mom?”

    Zoe grimaced. “Emma, do as they say. I'm going to be calling your father to meet us at the station. Don't answer any questions.” She turned to the male cop. “I'll be coming with you.”

    “Certainly.” He nodded politely to her, then pointed at the couch. “Is that your daughter's phone?”

    Oh, shit. All of a sudden, Emma became very aware of exactly how many incriminating texts there were on her phone. Say no, Mom. Say no.

    Telepathy was obviously not Emma's forte, because her mother nodded. “Yes, that's her phone. Do you need it as well?” She picked it up from the sofa.

    Mom!” Emma knew that speaking up was probably a bad idea, but the words came out before she could stop them. “That's my personal, private property! Don't just—just hand it over to them!”

    “Actually, we will be requiring that, yes.” The sergeant held up another piece of paper. “As it happens, we do have a search warrant for the phone belonging to Emma Barnes.”

    “But what if that's not my only phone?” demanded Emma, looking desperately for any loophole. “You can't just grab any of them.”

    “Very true,” agreed the sergeant. He passed the warrant to Zoe and pulled out his own phone. “According to our files, the phone we are looking for has this number.” He tapped at his screen. A moment later, the phone in Zoe's hand began to ring. “And that's the phone we're after.” He shut off the call. Putting his own phone away, he accepted Emma's phone from her mother and carefully placed it in a ziplock bag. “If our findings are correct, this holds potential evidence of conspiracy to commit a crime.”

    Jameson patted Emma on the shoulder. “Thanks for letting us know it was important, by the way.” She tilted her head toward the stairs. “Let's go, Miss Barnes. Time to get dressed.”

    Emma was out of options. Slowly, draggingly, she made her way upstairs, with the policewoman at her heels. For the life of her, she had no idea how this was even happening.

    Or how to get out of it.


    Outside the PRT ENE Building

    “Mom, I can't believe you did that!”

    Carol felt a creeping doubt that she'd handled the situation as well as possible, but done was done. “Victoria, she attacked me from behind. You saw it. That's unacceptable behaviour.”

    “Yeah, but you heard Director Piggot. If you'd kept going the way you were, you coulda got in real trouble.” Victoria pulled out her cell-phone and started dialling.

    “Are you calling your sister?” Carol took a step toward her. “Stop that this moment.”

    “No.” Glory Girl lifted into the air, holding the phone out of her mother's reach. “I'm calling your sister.”

    “What? No!” Carol didn't know how Sarah would take this, but she wanted to have the time to break it to her carefully, not just have it blurted out by her teenage daughter.

    Unfortunately, Vicky was out of reach by now. “Hi, Aunt Sarah? Yeah, it's me. Guess what. Mom just disowned Ames and kicked her off the team. Talk sense into her, will you?”

    Even from several yards away, Carol heard the “WHAT?” that made the phone vibrate in her daughter's hand. Then “Give her the phone, NOW!”

    Victoria drifted to the ground again, and held out the phone to Carol. “It's for you.”

    Carol accepted it with all the eagerness of someone peeling a week-old dead skunk off the asphalt. Reluctantly, she held it to her ear. “Hello?”

    Carol.” Sarah's voice was low and controlled. Carol didn't let this fool her into thinking that her sister wasn't angry. “Please tell me that Victoria's playing some kind of elaborate prank on me. Or that you're playing one on her.”

    Carol sighed. “No, it's not a prank, but it's not what you think -”

    Before she got any farther, Sarah interrupted. “Okay, if it's not what I think, what is it about? Have you really kicked Amy off the team? If so, why?”

    Before she could lose her nerve, Carol said, “Yes, I have.” She shot a glance at Victoria, who was standing there with arms folded. “The reasons why are … complicated.”

    “Oh, bullshit!” her daughter shouted. “Mom, put her on speaker. I'll tell her.” She moved toward Carol, her hand held out. “Or give me the phone and I'll put it on speaker myself.”

    “No!” Carol stabbed her finger at the phone, muting the call. “Victoria, listen to me.” She took a step back, holding the phone away from her daughter. Distantly, Sarah's voice echoed from the phone, though Carol couldn't quite make out the words.

    Victoria scowled, and her next step cracked the asphalt. “Mom, give me the damn phone. You can't hide what you've done from Aunt Sarah forever.”

    “No.” For the first time, Carol felt the fear from her daughter's aura that had terrified criminals for the last three years. “You can't tell her. Not without breaking the NDA that you signed.” And violating the Vikare Act. While she hadn't actually thought this through all the way before objecting, the more she thought about it, the more it worked for her.

    Victoria stopped her advance and, as the aura dropped away abruptly, Carol became aware of cold sweat sheening her forehead. “Aw, fuck.” She grimaced, running her fingers through her hair. “Okay, I won't tell her about that. But Ames does deserve a fair hearing. And you're not about to give her one, are you?”

    “I -” Carol hesitated, caught between honesty and expediency. “Victoria, hitting me from behind like that proves she can't be trusted, don't you understand? It means she's just like her father. And we can't have someone like that in the team.” Watching the look on her daughter's face, she cursed the slip about Amy's father. But without that, Victoria wouldn't have the context. Damned if I do, damned if I don't.

    Victoria took a deep breath, then her eyes narrowed. “Her father … you're not talking about Dad, are you? You're talking about whoever you adopted her from.” Well, Carol had always known she wasn't stupid.

    Carol grimaced. “No, not Mark. Amy's father was … dangerous. Not someone you need to know about right now.” Not ever, if I had my way. “But yes, just to confirm that look in your eyes, he was a villain. Which means that whatever genetic predisposition drove him to crime, she's got it too.” Worse, if anything. Marquis never actually stabbed anyone in the back.

    “What the actual fuck do you mean, Mom?” Victoria's voice rose to a shout, uncaring of the curious stares of passers-by. “There's no such thing as 'genetic predisposition' toward crime! That kind of bullshit belongs with the fucking eugenics crap of the nineteen fucking thirties! You've distrusted Ames for the last ten years because of a … a fucking eighty year old bullshit concept that's been debunked fifty ways from Sunday? That's the kind of thing Kaiser and the Empire Eighty-Eight like to wave around! Fuuuck!” She threw her hands in the air in frustration.

    “I …” Carol paused. She couldn't remember where she'd actually read the phrase 'genetic predisposition toward crime', but it had stuck with her at the time. And it'd made so much sense to lump Amy in with her father, because they … because Marquis had been a danger to the city who needed to be taken down, goddammit. She'd never wanted to take Amy in, to see those accusing eyes that mirrored Marquis' so closely, every day since. Why did I even agree … A phone rang, making her jump.

    For a moment, she looked at Victoria's phone, still clutched in her hand, temporarily forgotten in their argument … still on mute. Except that it wasn't; the screen indicated that the call had ended. Which meant that it was Carol's phone that was ringing. Of course. Sarah got pissed that I put her on hold. Don't really blame her, to be honest.

    “Here,” she muttered, handing Victoria's phone back to her. “I've got to take this.” Digging her own phone out, she swiped to answer it. As she'd surmised, it was her sister. She spoke fast, trying to get in first. “Sarah, don't get mad. I had to -”

    Carol, seriously, what the hell? What's going on? Why did you put me on mute?” Carol absently noted that now her sister actually sounded pissed.

    She rubbed at her eyes, thinking rapidly. How do I put this … “Look, Sarah. It's complicated, but … there's a cape identity involved. I was … about to do something unwise, and she attacked me from behind. Rendered me unconscious. I … I can't say that what she did was entirely unwarranted, but … I can't trust her any more. Not if she's going to do something like that.”

    There was silence from Sarah's end, and Carol checked the phone to see if she'd hung up. No such luck. At about the time Carol put the phone back to her ear, Sarah began speaking again. Now she sounded a little weary. “So where exactly were you when you disowned her and kicked her off the team?”

    “In the PRT building.” Carol closed her eyes to weather the blast that was coming. “She's in good hands. Why?”

    Oh, for fuck's sake. Of all the stupid fucking bone-headed stunts you've ever pulled, Carol, this one tops them all with a fucking cherry on top.” Sarah's voice was even more scathing than Carol had anticipated, making her wince away from the phone. “Do you have any fucking idea what you've just done?”

    “Well, I didn't drop her off in ABB territory or something,” Carol said defensively. “The PRT -”

    Will snap her up in a hot Brockton Bay minute,” Sarah snapped. “If I know you, you just rejected her in no uncertain terms, leaving her in no doubt that she's off the team. So she's standing in a building that's already housing a teenage superhero team. What do you think they'll do, just as soon as they finish thanking every fucking lucky star they own?”

    The inference was unavoidable. “Recruit her,” Carol filled in. It made a lot of sense. “But … why did you ask?”

    Because if you'd dropped her off anywhere but there, I would've been there as soon as I could. I'm team leader, not you. You don't get to kick people off the team unilaterally. I would've adopted her myself before I let her go.” Sarah's voice was savage. “Meanwhile, after your little performance, she's probably accepted she's off the team by now. Well done, sis. You just cost us one of our most valuable members.”

    Carol felt her knees weaken, and she sat down on the edge of a garden bed. “But I couldn't … I can't …” Trust her, she wanted to say. Work with her.

    “You know what? Fuck this.” It was Victoria's voice. As Carol turned to look, her daughter was just tucking her phone away again. “Mom? You know how you kicked Ames off the team? She just texted me. They're offering her a probationary Wards membership. She's thinking about accepting. And you know something? I'm gonna join her.”

    “Victoria, no!” Carol came to her feet in a rush. “Don't rush into this. We can sit down, talk about it like adults -” She held out her hand to stop her daughter.

    “What, like you did with Ames?” Victoria gave her a single scathing look, then turned to walk back into the building.

    Smarting from the rebuke—from her own daughter, no less!—Carol went to follow, but was distracted by Sarah's voice in her ear. “Carol? What the hell just happened? Was that what I thought it was? Did Vicky just quit New Wave?”

    “I'll talk to her,” Carol promised. “Change her mind.” She hurried toward the doors, which had just closed behind Victoria.

    No.” Sarah's voice held iron in that single word. “Don't do a damned thing. You've done enough damage already.”

    Bewildered, Carol stared at the frontage of the PRT building. “But …”

    I'm coming down to the PRT building right now to talk to Amy and Vicky, and see if I can't talk them around.” Her voice became a little echoey, which probably meant she had the phone on speaker while she costumed up.

    “I … I can help. Provide moral support.” Carol hated the tone in her voice. It made her feel that she was clutching at any straw to prove she wasn't totally screwing everything up.

    No. As leader, I'm suspending you from the team until I get this hot mess sorted out. Go home. Be with Mark. Think about what you've done here.” Sarah hung up the call, leaving Carol staring at the phone.

    Well, fuck. She sat down on the edge of the garden bed again. Now what do I do?


    PRT ENE Infirmary

    Sitting up in bed, I looked at Dad, then at Panacea and the Director. There was a doctor in the room as well, but he was keeping to the background. I wasn't altogether surprised; the only people who didn't outrank him or have powers were me and Dad. “So, um,” I said, a little surprised by how well I seemed to be taking everything—apart from my initial breakdown, of course—“Where do we go from here?”

    Director Piggot put her phone away and addressed me. “When you reminded me of your so-called friend and her associate, I made a call to find out the status of the action against them. Emma Barnes and Madison Clements are in custody at this moment. Even if you were returning to Winslow, they would no longer be an issue for you.” She smiled briefly and without much in the way of humour. “You see, the PRT is actually invested in your well-being.”

    “Even though you haven't got Sophia yet.” I still wasn't willing to let that one go quite yet. “I can't believe you had her here, in the building, and she still got away.” My tone made her grimace.

    “Not for want of trying. And we will catch her.” She looked me over. “Are you feeling better?”

    Obvious change of subject is obvious. Okay, I'll bite. “A little, yes. Now that I know Emma and Madison have been arrested. Though how much of what they've done is actually gonna stick?”

    “I wouldn't begin to hazard a guess.” A glint came into her eye. “Though I understand the charges against them are quite extensive. Your journal supplies quite a damning amount of supporting evidence; I'll personally be astonished if they don't end up in juvenile detention, at least for a while.”

    Good.” Dad's fists were clenched, though he didn't look as angry as he'd been before. “I've known Emma for years, but if she's going to backstab Taylor like this, I've got no time whatsoever for her.” His gaze softened as he looked at me. “It's my fault. If I'd been paying more attention -”

    “No, Mr Hebert.” The Director's voice was firm. “It was their fault. They chose to bully your daughter. She's not at fault for not reporting it, and you're not at fault for not seeing it. Ms Barnes was your daughter's friend, and Ms Hess was supposed to be a superhero. Whatever their reasons, they have not one excuse for their actions.” She drew herself up to her not inconsiderable height. “I was a field officer before I was invalided out of regular duties into this job. For the longest time, I blamed myself for not being strong enough or fast enough to win. To avoid being injured. But then I realised the truth. What happened to me, happened because someone chose to do it. And now it's my job to help maintain peace and order in this city. To try to make sure that nobody else gets away with making the choice to oppress and abuse others with ill-gotten power.”

    “I've seen the state of the city.” Dad's voice was almost mild. “Two major gangs and several smaller ones, all waging a cold war over territory. Muggings and killings are almost a nightly occurrence in the Docks. What was that, exactly, about maintaining peace and order?” Once more, there was a certain amount of challenge in his voice.

    The glint was back in the Director's eye. “Trust me, when I stepped into this role, the city was about two bad days away from open warfare. Now, I'd give it a week. How long do you think law and order would last if the PRT and Protectorate were pulled from Brockton Bay?” Taking a deep breath, she stepped away from him then turned to me. “And on that note, Taylor, I would like to extend an invitation for you to join the Wards. You and your powers could be a great asset for us. To help others. To save lives. To make sure that fewer people are victimised as you were.”

    The breath caught in my throat. The Director of the PRT wanted me to join the Wards. The local Director, I amended in my head. Still, it was … holy shit. What do I say? I stared at her, wanting to say yes. After the words she'd just spoken, it felt like disloyalty to deny what she was saying. But … I couldn't. After everything I'd been through, to give someone else power over me felt … wrong. But it's for a good cause. I tried to convince myself of that, but it just didn't work. The more I tried to force it, the harder it was to breathe. It was almost like I was back in the alley, my nose broken and swelling, struggling to draw air into my lungs. A buzzing rose in my ears.

    “Taylor? Taylor, look at me.” Panacea's voice was soft but insistent. Her hand was warm in mine. “Taylor, it's all right. You don't have to.”

    It was like an epiphany. She was right, of course. I didn't have to do anything that Director Piggot said. Even if she meant well, I still didn't have to let her trap me into a velvet prison. I don't have to. As the realisation flooded through me, I took a deep breath of life-giving air, then another. I sat there in bed, just breathing, as my thudding heart began to slow down. The buzzing wasn't there any more, which made me wonder if I'd even heard it, or just imagined it.

    “You okay now?” asked Panacea, but of course she knew. The question was for my benefit. I felt a rush of gratitude toward her for merely asking.

    “Taylor, what just happened?” Dad said broke in. “You went really pale there for a moment. Are you all right?” He looked at Panacea. “Is she all right?” At that moment, he looked haggard and frightened. Almost as frightened as I'd felt at the idea of being trapped in the coils of yet another unfeeling bureaucracy, unable to escape or even call for help when something went wrong.

    “She'll be fine,” Panacea assured him. “It was just a panic attack. A minor one,” she hastened to add, as he opened his mouth once more. “But she got past it. Right, Taylor?” she prompted.

    “Y-yeah,” I said, giving her a smile. “I'm good now, thanks.” I turned toward Director Piggot. “I'm sorry,” I said, though I wasn't quite as sorry as I tried to sound. “I can't do it. Not the Wards.” Pausing, I tried to make sense of my disordered thoughts. “You had Sophia in the Wards for months, and she did what she did. I'd always be looking over my shoulder, in case whoever you brought in to replace her was the same. Or worse.”

    The Director's face creased in an expression that looked almost like pain, then she shot Panacea a glance that I couldn't interpret. “We do have options,” she said. “I was going to make an offer for you to transfer to Los Angeles, to train under Alexandria. In fact, that was going to be my original offer. After all, I don't know that the people of Brockton Bay would take too well to a bug-controller in the Wards at the moment. The people of LA, however, will never make the connection.” She gave me a look of guarded hopefulness.

    “No.” I shook my head again. “The Wards are the Wards. I mean, Alexandria's about the coolest hero ever -”

    “Hey!” Panacea protested mock-indignantly. “Where do I rate?”

    “- present company not included,” I amended, then stuck my tongue out at her. She rolled her eyes as I continued. “But she's got other things she's got to do. All she has to do is turn her back for one second, and someone in the Wards, just like Sophia, figures out who I am, then decides to make my life hell for it. Again.” I was surprised at the bitter tone in my voice. “And then all this shit starts all over again. Are they more popular than me? Will they be believed more than me? I can't do this shit again.”

    Director Piggot sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, her face screwed up in what looked like pain. “Miss Hebert, I'm not trying to coerce you into joining the Wards. I assure you, that is in no way my intention. But you did state that you wanted to be a hero. If being in the Wards is off the table, what do you want?”

    “Before you say anything more,” Panacea interrupted, “just so you know, I'm actually joining the Wards myself. More of a support basis than a patrol basis, but … yeah, I'm kinda not in New Wave any more.” She offered me a small smile and squeezed my hand. “Just in case, you know, that helps tip the balance.”

    I blinked. Panacea was leaving New Wave and joining the Wards? “When did that happen?” I asked. Was this on my account? I nearly snorted at the ridiculous idea. Whatever it was about, it wasn't about me.

    “Oh, it's been coming for a little while,” Panacea said, a little sadly. “But matters came to a head today, so here I am.” She tilted her head. “The current lineup's nice, if a bit boy-heavy. The only other girl's gonna be Vista and she's about twelve, I think. Wanna come with? We can be the edgy ones who sit in the corner and snark at everyone else.”

    It was tempting. I'd been pushed down for so long, I wasn't good at socialising. It seemed to me that Panacea had the opposite problem; she didn't like social situations, but she'd probably had them inflicted on her. I thought about taking her up on the offer. Somehow, I suspected there was a lot of snark hidden under her deceptively demure surface. But when I began to seriously consider it, I got that tightness in my throat again. Panacea must've been reading my body, because she grimaced at the same time that I did.

    “I'm sorry,” I said truthfully. “I really am. But I just don't … I just can't … there's too much …” I fluttered my free hand at my throat. “Every time I start thinking about it, I feel trapped. Like I can't breathe.”

    Panacea chuckled ruefully. “Oh, trust me. I know exactly how that feels. But for me, joining the Wards gets me out of the trap.” She paused, and glanced at me. “Please don't repeat that to anyone, ever. Okay?”

    It felt weird to be casually discussing things like this with Panacea. The world-famous healer. She could cure cancer, for crying out loud. But here she was, a normal teenage girl with problems not entirely unlike mine from the sound of it, sitting on my bed and holding my hand like it was the most natural thing in the world. In the same way that I'd held hands with Emma a thousand times before. Like we were … friends.

    “Sure, okay,” I assured her with a shrug. “Thanks for being understanding about it.” Then I raised my head as something occurred to me. “Um, quick question. Can you, you know, fix my panic attacks or something?”

    She shook her head hastily. “No.” Her voice was so sharp that I realised I'd struck a nerve. She looked down and away from me.

    “Oh, uh, sorry.” I felt about one inch tall. “I'm such an idiot. You're healing people all the time. Here we are just chatting, and I just impose on you like that. I'm sorry, I mean -”

    “It's not that.” Director Piggot's voice was uncharacteristically soft. “Panacea can't affect brains.”

    I glanced up at her, startled at the interruption, before looking back at the healer. “Really? Wow. Shit. I'm sorry.” Pulling my hand free of hers, I enfolded her in a hug. “I didn't mean to bring that up.”

    She mumbled something that sounded like, “S'alright.” I kept up the hug and a little after that, her arms crept out to hug me in return. It felt nice.

    “Hey, forgive me?” I murmured in her ear. “I'm just an idiot who asks stupid questions, but I promise to do better.”

    Her head came up at that. “I'm not pissed at you or anything,” she said, resting her chin on my shoulder. “It just … hurts a bit, when someone reminds me of that.”

    “Yeah, I get that.” We eased out of the hug, and I took hold of her hand again. “So, still friends?”

    It was her turn to look a little startled. “Friends?” Her face lit up in a smile. “Sure. Why not. It's not like I've got all that many, right now.”

    The Director had pulled Dad away from the bed and was speaking to him quietly. I wondered what they were talking about, then shrugged; when I needed to know, Dad would fill me in. “Yeah, tell me about it,” I agreed. Then the incongruity of what she'd just said registered on me. “Wait, what?”

    “What?” she asked, staring at me oddly.

    “You're Panacea,” I said blankly. “You're about the most accomplished healer ever. You grew that one President a new arm after the last one got shot off. You can cure cancer. How do you not have more friends than, well, everyone?”

    She chuckled darkly. “Here's the thing. Sure, people are grateful. But as soon as they're used to being okay, it's 'so what've you done for me today?'.” She rolled her eyes. “And as for social situations, when anyone meets me and Vicky, they're not looking at me.” A gusty sigh escaped her. “If anyone ever tells you that powers are worth the hassle, tell 'em from me that's bullshit.”

    I could certainly agree with the last sentiment. And I had a certain amount of experience with being overshadowed in the looks department. “Well I can tell you that I'm grateful not just for the healing, but for just being here. So what if you can't fix brains? I don't care. You're helping me cope just by sitting there, you know?”

    “On that note,” the Director said, breaking from the huddle she'd been in with Dad. “Ms Dallon, you're still interested in joining the Wards, yes?” Her voice held its normal intensity.

    “Well, uh, yeah.” Panacea nodded. “Why? Is there a problem?” She grimaced. “Is it Carol?”

    Director Piggot shook her head. “No. I understand that both Glory Girl and Lady Photon are in the building, wishing to speak with you. But if you are still interested in joining the Wards, I've just arranged off-base housing for you, so you don't have to live here all the time.”

    Panacea and I shared a surprised glance, then we looked at the Director and my dad. “What?” I asked. “What's going on here?”

    Dad cleared his throat in the way I interpreted as bracing for trouble. “Taylor, Director Piggot's asked me if we could put Panacea up at home. You two seem to get along well, so …”

    “I … what?” I stared at the brunette again. “Um … what do you think?” Just for an instant, a shaft of joy shot through me. I've got a new friend and I can take her home now!

    She raised her eyebrows. “I dunno. Do you snore?”

    I considered that. “Not that I know of. You?”

    “Not really.” She shook her head. “Vicky used to. Sounded like a bandsaw hitting an iron spike in a tree trunk.” She held up her hand with thumb and forefinger held a fraction of an inch apart. “Until I fixed it.”

    She cures snoring too. Damn. “My turn,” I said. “Three hour showers?”

    “Hah, nope,” she replied. “Now, Vicky's the reason we've got more than one shower in the house, but I never take longer than ten minutes. You?”

    I shrugged. “Five minutes. Unless I'm washing my hair. Then maybe another ten.”

    She ran a few strands through her fingers. “Well, you've got nicer hair than me so that's fair, I guess. Um, do I have to worry about boyfriends? Or girlfriends?” When I raised my eyebrows, she coloured slightly. “Hey, it's a thing.”

    I shook my head. “Not dating, not looking. Besides, what part of 'high school outcast' didn't you really understand?” I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

    “Oh. Yeah. Whoops.” She squeezed my hand, and I felt better almost immediately. “Sorry, my bad. In case you're wondering, no action on this side either. I mean, Vicky sets me up on blind dates but I'm just not that interested, you know?”

    I grinned at her. “Yeah, that's something you don't have to worry about from me.” The more I talked to Panacea, the more I found in common with her.

    “Oh, good.” Pursing her lips, she frowned. “Favourite pizza topping?”

    “Mushroom and olive,” I said at once.

    “You have to be kidding,” she said with what sounded like genuine disgust. “Ham and pineapple all the way.”

    “Pineapple? On pizza?” I pretended to recoil from her. “Philistine.”

    She wrinkled her nose. “Barbarian.”

    I decided to pull out the big guns. “Nekulturny.”

    She blinked. “What the hell's that?”

    I giggled. “It's Russian for 'uncultured'. Only it means a hell of a lot more than that.” It was something I'd picked up from reading some of Mom's books.

    “Huh. Learn something new every day.” Her expression was intrigued.

    I turned to Dad. “We've made our decision. She can sleep in the hall closet.”

    “Hell nope.” Panacea nudged me with her shoulder. “You can sleep in the closet. I'm taking your bed.”

    “How about nobody sleeps in the hall closet,” Dad suggested, a long-suffering tone to his voice. “I'll drag the camp bed out of storage and Panacea can sleep in your room until we can get the spare room set up as a bedroom again.”

    I nodded. “Sounds good.” I gave Panacea a mock glare. “I better not catch you wearing my clothes.”

    She stuck her tongue out at me. “As if I'd fit into them.” She tilted her head. “You do realise that Vicky's gonna be coming by. And she'll probably drag us both out shopping. For clothes.” I now knew what pure evil looked like. Specifically, her grin.

    “I'm safe, then,” I said cheerfully. “My allowance doesn't cover clothes shopping.” Of course, I wouldn't have objected to a higher allowance, but it was a good excuse.

    Dad cleared his throat again. “Uh, the Director tells me that there's a stipend for any household that puts up a Ward. For the inconvenience, you see. Your, uh, your allowance just went up.”

    I stared at Panacea. “Did you know about this?” If it turned out that she had, I'd be … well, mildly miffed.

    “How could I?” she demanded. “I've always lived at home.” She grinned. “Cool. So how much is my cut?”

    “Enough to cover school supplies and costume needs,” the Director said, as if quoting from a list. “Over and above the monthly paycheck and trust fund.” She looked at me. “Now, if you chose to join the Wards, you and your father would also get a stipend, just not as large as if you were living away from home. You would, of course, get your paycheck and a regular payment into a trust fund.” Her tone was blunt, but I appreciated the way she was laying the facts out.

    I took a deep breath. “It's a generous offer, but I … I really can't.” Even just thinking about it brought a tightness to my chest. I squeezed Panacea's hand. “But I've got no problem with you doing it.”

    “Which brings us back to the problem at hand.” Director Piggot frowned. “Being a member of the Wards, either here or in another city, would make you feel trapped. But you do want to be a hero. Does that about sum it up?”

    “Yeah.” I could see her problem, but I wasn't sure how to fix it. “I mean, I know that bug control is gonna be a no-no power in Brockton Bay for about the next year, but …” I trailed off helplessly.

    “I have a suggestion.” The Director checked her watch. “I'm going to be needed back at my desk shortly, but how about this. Mr Hebert, take Taylor and Panacea home and sort out their living arrangements. Taylor, consider your options. Panacea, you've got experience in this field, so feel free to make any suggestions that occur to you. In the meantime, I'll talk to my people. Between us, we'll see if we can't come up with a mutually acceptable solution.”

    Dad nodded. “Sure thing. Taylor, I brought some clothes over, so you can get changed before we go. Panacea, do you need to pick anything up?”

    The healer shook her head. “No, this is all I've got. I'll get Vicky to bring my stuff over from the house as soon as we get settled in. And one more thing?” She looked at Dad and me, and raised her eyebrows. “If we're gonna be living in the same house, I'm Amy. Panacea's for when I'm in costume.” She held out her hand to him. “Okay?”

    He shook it. “Okay.” Then he ruffled my hair fondly. “I'll be outside when you're ready to go.”

    Panacea—Amy—watched the door close behind them, then turned to me. “Ready to get dressed, Taylor?”

    I nodded and smiled. "Sure thing … Amy." Something Director Piggot had said earlier came back to me. "What about your sister and aunt? What are you going to say to them?"

    She shrugged. "Like I said, this has been a long time coming. If I'm gonna go, it's best to make a clean break. Come on, let's get you dressed." She helped me out of bed.

    "Hey, I'm not a total invalid, you know." I grabbed a pillow and swatted her with it.

    "Hey!" She retaliated with a pillow of her own. We thwacked away at each other a few more times, then burst into giggles.

    For a day that had started so shittily, it was certainly looking up.


    At the Undersiders' Base

    She sat on one end of the couch, with Regent on the other end. Tattletale sat on one of the armchairs, sneaking a peek at her every now and again, and giggling uncontrollably. This was really pissing her off, even more than the way Grue was giving her the stink-eye, and Hellhound's dogs kept growling at her.

    “This wasn't my fuckin' idea,” she protested, for about the tenth time. “The boss just told me to come here. I didn't even know it was you guys. I just needed a place to stay.”

    Regent played idly with his sceptre. Sophia knew it was more than just a fancy stick; he'd shocked her with it once, some time ago. Now, she wasn't getting too close to him. “And what if we decide we don't want you around?” He wriggled his little finger, and her knee jerked.

    She glared at him. “Fuckin' quit that, asshole! I said, it's not my fuckin' choice. Complain to the boss, not me!”

    “Well, that's the thing,” Grue stated, his lip curling. “None of us know how to contact the boss, except Tattletale here. In fact, none of us but her knows who he is. Care to enlighten us?”

    Sophia glanced at Tattletale, who shook her head slightly. Yeah, not a good idea. If it gets back to him—and it will—he'll probably kick me to the curb. Calvert pulls me back in, and the whole thing's for nothing. “Nah,” Sophia said with more bravado than she was feeling. “If he doesn't feel like telling you, then why the fuck should I?” The fact that she knew something that three of the others didn't know meant she had a certain amount of power. What it could do for her, she wasn't sure, but she wasn't gonna waste it over nothing. Standing up, she stretched. “Where's the bathroom? Gotta go.”

    Grue hooked his thumb down the hallway that led to the kitchen area. “Second on the left.” He didn't say any more, but his intense glare followed her as she ventured down the short hallway and opened the door with the male and female silhouettes on it.

    She entered, to find a shower cubicle and toilet commode, both remarkably similar to the setup that she'd had in her temporary quarters in Coil's base. It may even have been identical, although she'd have to check the photos to make sure. Closing the door behind her, she flicked the lock and glanced around for any easy way to spy on her. She didn't really think there would be; after all, they hadn't even known it was going to be her. But it was always a good idea to check.

    She saw no obvious spy-holes or cameras though the walls stopped at only eight feet up, well short of the underside of the roof, or even the metal girders holding it up. Well, it's the best I'm gonna get. She really did need to go, so she removed the cloak and made the necessary adjustments to her clothing. Taking the phone from its hiding place, she checked the battery percentage. It wasn't as high as she would've liked it, but there had been phone charge cords in the living area; if she could 'borrow' one of those, she'd be set. At least until she could acquire one of her own.

    Carefully, she double-checked that the phone alerts were all on silent and that even the vibration was turned off; while it was technically 'silent', she didn't need the insistent buzz that came along with it. Then she put the earpiece in and hit the button to dial Calvert's number.

    It rang three times before he answered it. “Yes?”

    “I'm in, kind of,” she said hastily. “But there's one huge problem.”

    She heard the tension ratchet up in his voice even as he answered. “What's the problem? Do you need to be pulled out?”

    She grimaced. “The problem is that Coil's placed me with the fucking Undersiders. Did you know that they were working for him? Because I didn't.”

    No. No, I did not.” He actually sounded impressed. “This is good intel. You're doing well. Now, what's the problem? Have they made you?”

    She resisted the impulse to shake her head. “No, actually. Tattletale seems to think I'm on the level. It seems that she isn't as good as she thinks.” A hint of derision crept into her voice.

    Careful.” His sharp tone pulled her up. “Underestimating your enemy is the first step to losing. You've got to assume that they're looking for mistakes every step of the way. You've got to pretend to be who you say you are, every step of the way.”

    “Right, got it.” She took a deep breath. “So what sort of information do you want? I figure I can get their secret identities. I can definitely give you the location of their hideout.”

    Their secret identities would be very useful.” He sounded pleased, now. “And I'm pulling the location of their hideout off your GPS right now. Just remember, for them to treat you as one of them, you've got to act like one of them.”

    “Right, right.” A thought occurred to her. “So … what happens if they go to commit a crime? Do I bust them then?”

    No. You're undercover, so if they go to commit a crime, you go along with them. You're covered; they aren't. Do whatever you need to, in order to convince them that you've really gone off the reservation.”

    “Uh huh.” He'd explained this all to her before. But now that she was here, it felt a lot more real. “So … we are gonna be busting 'em, right?”

    Of course.” His voice was firm. “But you're our best chance to do it. So I'm going to need you to play it cool until we've got all the information we need to sweep the whole operation up in one go. Do this right and they'll be pinning medals on you.”

    Sophia nodded. “Okay … yeah, I can do this. It's for a good cause, after all.” If she were being totally honest with herself, she might have even admitted that she was kind of looking forward to breaking the law, just a bit.

    Good. Just remember, if you need to be pulled out, let me know and I'll arrange it.”

    “Right, sure. Got it.” Nah, I got this.

    Good. I'll talk to you later.” The line went dead.

    Sophia shut the phone down and stored it back in her top, then finished her business on the toilet. By the time she'd washed her hands and put her cloak back on, her heart rate was back down to normal. I can do this. All I've gotta do is think like one of them.

    Unlocking the door, she stepped out to join the Undersiders.


    Coil's Base

    “Good. I'll talk to you later.”

    Thomas Calvert shut down the phone. Leaning back in his chair, he allowed himself a few seconds of self-satisfied gloating. It had taken some careful juggling of timelines, but it sounded like Shadow Stalker was coming along nicely.

    Still, there was no sense in being too complacent. Time to put her through her paces. Taking up his phone, he sent a text to his Tattletale. 'Arrange a jewellery store heist. Give me details. Usual insurance.'. Her acknowledgement came back almost immediately, which told him she'd been waiting for the message. Good.

    He turned his attention to other matters. The loss of Reed was irritating, but he had other assets on site, people whom Reed didn't know of and could not identify. Reed doesn't know who I am, so that's a dead end. Pulling the number of one of his men up, he split time then typed in a short message. 'Send me all you have on location & situation of Taylor Hebert.'

    The splitting of time had been a basic precaution; if his man answered normally, he'd drop the other timeline. It was only common sense.

    No answer came back immediately, but he didn't expect one. In the meantime … sitting forward, he clicked the mouse on his computer, then opened up the encrypted and totally illegal gateway between his base and his PRT computer. From there, he tunnelled his way into the PRT phone servers and erased the record of the text message he'd just sent. No sense in leaving tracks.

    With just as much care, he retreated the way he'd come, shutting down first the connection into the server and then into the PRT itself. Closing the computer down, he got up from his office chair. Time to go inspect the base. After all, what use was owning an honest-to-goodness underground supervillain base if one wasn't allowed to admire it once in a while?


    Director Piggot's Office

    Emily Piggot's email inbox dinged. She clicked the mouse to check on the latest arrival. When she read the header, her eyebrows rose. Then a smile spread across her face, somewhat akin to what a shark would wear when closing in on an unwary swimmer.

    I've got you now, you bastard.

    End of Part Eleven

    Part Twelve
    Last edited: Jan 13, 2018
  4. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

    Jan 10, 2015
    Likes Received:
    Glad t see TT's still getting full amusement value out of SS's situation, lol.
  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    She's modelling in her mind the various ways that she wants to tell Sophia exactly how screwed, blued and tattooed she is. She's up to sixteen and counting. Each of them is equally hilarious.
  6. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

    Jan 24, 2015
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    I sort of want Tattletale to tell the others that SS thinks she is pulling some sort of sting operation when in actuality she's been tricked.

    I know she won't, but it would be amusing to see Alec react.
  7. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

    Jul 29, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Alec:....s~o wait, are you saying that we should really fuck with her head as much as possible and then when it all comes crashing down on her we record her reaction to watch everyday for the rest of our lives?

    Lisa: Exactly! :D

    Brian, Alec, Rachel: We're in
  8. Visual Pun

    Visual Pun Know what you're doing yet?

    Jan 30, 2016
    Likes Received:
    #7: The fake can of nuts with spring-snakes which pop out, each trailing a streamer which says "Congrats, you're a traitor!"

    #7a: Regent farts in the can just before loading in the snakes.
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    I'm thinking that Lisa keeps Sophia from finding out about Calvert's arrest until the rest of the gang are all packed and ready to go (because who'd stay in the same hideout?). Then she rings Sophia once she's away. And has cameras ready to record her reaction from all angles. Oh, and this is after she's called the PRT to tell them where Sophia is.
  10. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

    Feb 20, 2014
    Likes Received:
    In that case, I hope that Sophia can't second trigger from sheer rage (unlikely, given her powers).
    Chase92 and Ack like this.
  11. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

    Feb 20, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Depending on her original Trigger, that could totally be Second Trigger worthy. Betrayed by literally everyone around her; trapped with no way out, nowhere to run, and no one to turn to; lied to and used then discarded... that's a pretty nasty combination of horrors, and if one or more of them match her original Trigger event, I could totally see her getting a Second Trigger.
  12. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    They would hear the echoes of her F-bomb in Miami.
  13. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

    Jan 10, 2015
    Likes Received:
    Sounds like some prime omake material to me!
  14. Threadmarks: Part Twelve: Connections

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Price of Blood

    Part Twelve: Connections

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

    Conflicting emotions washed through Sarah as she came in for a landing on the roof of the PRT building. Sharpest of all was the anger she felt toward Carol for putting her in a near-impossible situation. She knew Carol had problems; had known it for years, in fact. But like the other members of New Wave, she'd figured her sister had her demons under control. That Carol did not was now glaringly self-evident. She could have, and possibly should have, sought help before today. The big downside of that, of course, was the news of a member of New Wave taking therapy would've made the papers in a big way. She thought maybe she could've spun that sort of story into a positive light for the team, but it wasn't guaranteed.

    The only upside, and a very small one it was, happened to be that the outburst hadn't been witnessed by civilians. More than one team had disintegrated under the intense media scrutiny following a public indiscretion of one sort or another. The very worst case, that of innocents being hurt or killed, had been thankfully averted altogether. Not that Sarah really thought Carol would try to remove inconvenient witnesses, but today's debacle had proven she didn't know her sister as well as she thought she did.

    Underlying the anger was the love and concern she felt toward Carol and the girls. This was not a paradox; over the course of her marriage and motherhood, Sarah had found it entirely possible to consider someone precious to her heart and still want to strangle them. What in the world had prompted Carol into the disastrous series of events which led to the dismissal of Amy from the team and Vicky quitting of her own accord, anyway? She did intend to find out; whatever it was, it had to be serious. But what the hell could Carol and the girls have done which was serious enough to trigger such events? See above about not knowing Carol as well as I thought I did.

    Last but not least was the anxiety she felt over knowing that whatever she said to Amy and Vicky in an attempt to convince them New Wave was where they belonged, it might not be enough. Putting it simply, this was going to be an uphill battle. Already, she'd be starting off on the back foot, not knowing what had happened and who had said what, and talking to people who had already made up their minds. On the other hand, she wasn't the one who'd had the argument with them or kicked Amy off the team, so there was that. There was a chance, she figured, if she was persuasive enough, she might be able to bring them around to her point of view. The first order of business, of course, would be to determine what damage Carol had done and try to mend it. She couldn't unsay whatever had been said, but she could assure them that whatever it was, it wasn't what the whole team thought.

    There were two guards at the entrance of the rooftop structure; accompanying them was Miss Militia. Her weapon of choice for the moment was, appropriately, an elaborately scoped sniper rifle. Fortunately for Sarah's peace of mind, the firearm was slung over Miss Militia's shoulder. This was more a symbolic gesture than anything else, given that Sarah had seen the Protectorate cape bring her power to bear faster than her opponents could react, on more than one occasion. With one hand shading her eyes, Miss Militia followed Sarah's approach and landing.

    As she touched down in the middle of the large painted 'H', Sarah saw the flag-clad hero say something to one of the guards and start out across the rooftop toward her. Sarah walked to meet her; while slower than flying would have been, this was only polite.

    “Miss Militia,” she said as they came within range of easy conversation. “Thanks for coming up.” She and the other cape had known each other for years. While they'd never quite graduated to sharing late-night coffees and discussing their deepest secrets, they'd fought side by side on more than one occasion and, ended up with a certain amount of mutual respect. Sarah liked to think of Miss Militia as a friend, even an ally. It was better than thinking of the Protectorate cape as a potential adversary; for all her power, she wasn't at all sanguine about her chances of beating the other woman in a straight fight.

    “Lady Photon,” replied Miss Militia, her cheeks under the scarf moving in a way that denoted a smile. “It's good to see you again. How've you been?” She tilted her head toward the entrance. “Come on down. They're waiting for you.” Her tone was open and friendly, but despite her liking and trust for the woman, Sarah wasn't fooled. No matter what friendships Miss Militia might form across party lines, she was loyal to the Protectorate through and through. She'd be on Sarah's side right up until it conflicted with her duties, and then she'd draw a line in the sand and never step over it. This bespoke an unbending integrity, and was something Sarah admired about her, except for times like this.

    Still, it did no harm to try. “So, uh, all I know is that Brandish cut Panacea loose and stormed out,” she said. “Can you give me any more details? I'm kind of in the dark, here.” She made her tone light and careless. It's not really important, but I'd like to know if it isn't too much hassle. You know, just a favour for a friend. Too old a hand at this sort of thing to be caught glancing sideways at Miss Militia to gauge her reaction, she instead studied the troopers they were approaching. Neither of them raised a weapon in her direction. Given that Miss Militia was here to meet her, that was only to be expected.

    The guards didn't move as she walked up to them, though she fancied she saw the left-hand guy's helmet move slightly to track her. It was, in a way, mildly ironic, considering the history of masked parahumans. Sarah was a superhero and the two guards before her were baseline human, yet she was the one showing her face while they hid theirs behind opaque helmet visors.

    “Not here,” Miss Militia said quietly, then addressed the guards. “I'll be escorting Lady Photon down to see the Director.” It wasn't a question, and nor was it quite an order; more a statement of how things were going to be. She never broke stride, walking between the armoured men as though they were mere decorations. Sarah followed along through the entrance up to the bank of elevators; as they arrived, one set of doors interleaved open as if on cue. Which, given that they were obviously Tinkertech, was not beyond the bounds of probability.

    Sarah stepped into the lift with Miss Militia half a pace behind her; the doors closed behind them and the lift began to descend. Looking at the dusky-skinned cape, Sarah decided to try again. “How about here?” she asked bluntly. “Is there anything at all you can give me?” She met Miss Militia's gaze squarely, aware that she was probably overstepping whatever invisible boundaries ruled around their acquaintance, but not overly caring right at that moment. Not only was the future of New Wave potentially at stake—the loss of two of its younger members would be a serious blow to the long-term survival of the team—but more importantly, she wanted Panacea and Glory Girl where she could see and protect them.

    “Only that there's more going on than I can tell you right now,” Miss Militia said as the lift came to a halt. The doors hissed open and the hero stepped out, then waited for Sarah to join her. “I understand why you're here, and I sympathise, but I honestly don't think you'll get them back. I'm sorry.” The concern in her eyes, matching the tone of her voice, took Sarah aback. She meant every word, or Sarah had forgotten everything she'd ever known about reading people. And as the mother of two teenagers and the aunt of two more, she knew a lot. Which indicated, disturbingly enough, that Miss Militia really did think Amy and Victoria fully intended to join the Wards. If they hadn't already.

    Turning, Miss Militia led the way down the corridor to a conference room, where Director Piggot sat at the head of the table and the Dallon girls were sitting side by side facing the door. Amy and Victoria both stood as she entered, while Miss Militia went to stand behind Piggot's chair.

    Victoria spoke first. “Aunt Sarah. Hi.” She seemed much less chirpy than she had been when she made the phone call earlier. “I guess you're here to try and talk us out of joining the Wards?” Beside her, Amy surreptitiously took her hand; at first, the healer kept her eyes on the table, but then she raised her gaze to Sarah's and stared at her almost defiantly.

    “Well, yes.” It would've been stupid, not to mention counter-productive, to deny the charge. “Girls, I don't know what happened, but your mother does not have the authority to kick anyone out of New Wave. If you want to come back, there's no obstacle to your doing so. But before we even talk about that … what actually did happen?” Another question occurred to her, and she wondered why she hadn't asked it earlier, while she was talking to Carol. “And why did it happen here? What were you even doing here?”

    Director Piggot cleared her throat. “Lady Photon, before Panacea and Glory Girl are permitted to say any more, I'm going to need to clarify the situation a little.” Under her clasped hands, Sarah realised, there were a couple of manila folders. Sarah didn't need Carol's expertise as a lawyer to recognise that a folder in a potential adversary's hands could be deadly dangerous.

    Pulling out the sole chair on her side of the table, Sarah sat facing the girls but half-turned to pay full attention to what the Director was saying. Emily Piggot had been doing this job for a long time, and would not throw around phrases like 'permitted to say any more' unless she meant exactly that. Nor would she do so unless she knew her precise legal standing in the matter. “I'm listening,” she said cautiously.

    Piggot nodded. “In brief, then: recently, Brandish came into the possession of incomplete information and in her ignorance, she chose a course of action that would've led to her breaking the law. When she refused to deviate from it, Panacea was forced to use her powers to render Brandish unconscious. Brandish was conveyed here and revived, whereupon I explained the facts of the matter to her. She now understands the situation, but due to Panacea taking her down without warning, she's cut loose her daughter from both her family and her team. Glory Girl, as I understand matters, has followed her sister for the sake of solidarity. I've offered them both probationary Wards memberships, which they've tentatively accepted. However, as a courtesy to New Wave, nothing has been signed yet.”

    Throughout the explanation, the Director's voice held steady, as if she were describing the plot of a mildly interesting novel. Each fact slotted into place, leading the way for the next. By the time she finished speaking, Sarah had no doubt that events had transpired exactly as Piggot had described them. However, it was equally obvious that many details had been left out of the singularly bald narrative.

    “Okay, I can get that,” Sarah said. “But what was Carol so determined to break the law about?” She looked at Amy. “What was she going to do, that you felt it necessary to knock her out?” It was considerably out of character for her niece to do something like that. While she'd had her disagreements with her relatives—after all, arguments happened—she'd never put anyone to sleep before. Whatever was going on, Amy obviously felt very strongly about it. And in fact, something that would compel a lawyer to break the law would have to be equally extraordinary.

    “I, uh, don't think I'm supposed to answer that one,” Amy said, then glanced at the Director. Her gaze was not in the least bit shifty; as far as Sarah could tell, she simply required reassurance regarding something she'd been told. Which meant that she wanted to tell Sarah, but was abiding by the instructions she'd been given. This was getting more confusing by the moment.

    “Quite right.” Director Piggot slid one of the folders forward. “Lady Photon, if you want to go any further on this, I'm going to require you to sign an NDA. Without that, we've covered all you're permitted to know.” There was no triumph or gloating in her voice. She was doing her job, carrying out her function as effectively as she knew how. If Sarah wanted to know more, she would have to put her signature to a non-disclosure form. This was a rock-solid fact; no amount of arguing or pleading would change it. If Sarah knew anything about Emily Piggot, she knew that.

    “I … see.” There was, of course, one more question she had to ask before she made her decision. “Did Carol sign an NDA?” This was a very important point; if Carol had been convinced to back down without signing an NDA, it meant that Sarah could pump her for what she knew, thus satisfying her curiosity. If she hadn't, however …

    “She did.” Piggot's tone, neutral as it was, dashed her hopes. “She and Glory Girl now share the same body of knowledge about the situation. Panacea knows quite a bit more. The circumstances of how she knows are covered by the NDA.” Not by any inflection of tone or expression did she reveal that she was aware of the curiosity that was currently consuming Sarah from the inside out.

    Nobody liked signing non-disclosure forms. Their very nature presented a paradox. On the one hand, not signing meant missing out on the (often very interesting) information protected by them. However, on the other hand, signing meant learning the information—then not being able to tell anyone. The temptation to tell people anyway required strong legal penalties for breaking confidentiality. Sarah was fully aware of such penalties, and had no intention of falling afoul of them. Which presented her with a problem.

    The problem was that if she didn't sign, she would learn no more details about what had happened. And if she were to bring Amy and Victoria back into New Wave, she needed those details. Which meant that, no matter how galling it was, she'd have to sign, if only to find what Carol had been about to do and why.

    With an aggravated sigh, she gestured toward the folder. “I don't see that I have a choice in the matter. Do you have a pen I can use?” It was a rhetorical question; Sarah doubted that the Director went anywhere in the building without at least three working pens. And probably a firearm in a shoulder holster, given her military background, but that was entirely her choice. In any case, Piggot would not have presented the form without the wherewithal to sign it.

    “Certainly.” Emily reached into her coat and withdrew an expensive-looking gold-plated pen. Clipping it to the folder, she slid both down the table toward Sarah. Reaching out, Sarah took hold of them, removed the pen and opened the folder. The form within was two sheets thick, but had been lightly sealed together; the top page was filled with the standard legalese. Emily Piggot's name was already filled out, as were Amy's and Victoria's. All Sarah had to do was fill in her own name; almost everything else was already done. She read the form over, then clicked the pen, the sound loud in the otherwise silent room. Carefully, she signed her name at the bottom and dated it.

    Miss Militia moved forward and took the pen; leaning over the table, she signed the last empty space, that of witness, and added the date a second time. Clicking the pen closed, she laid it on the table then pulled away the top sheet of the form. There was a faint tearing noise as the light adhesive parted, allowing the second part of the form to become visible. Sarah took the revealed sheet and began reading. There wasn't much on it overall; mainly, it defined the hitherto vague legal penalties hinted at on the cover sheet. But one phrase grabbed Sarah's attention, and she stopped and raised her eyes to look at the Director. “The Vikare Act?” she asked. “That means it's about a superhero's secret identity.” This changed matters, a lot. If Carol had been about to out a superhero—though Sarah had no idea why she'd do such a thing—then Amy had almost certainly been justified in knocking her out.

    “That's correct,” the Director replied. “If you'll initial the sheet to show that you've read it, we can explain the situation as it stands.” She settled back to a Sphinx-like stillness, hands clasped in front of her. Every nuance of her being spelled out that despite being the only unpowered person in the room, she was the master of the situation. Sarah suddenly wondered how many interrogations Piggot had sat in on, and extracted confessions through sheer presence. More than a few, she suspected.

    Taking the pen, Sarah scrawled 'SP' at the bottom, then clicked the button—it even sounded expensive—and handed it back to Miss Militia. “Okay, I'm listening.” Even before the Director began speaking, she began turning over possibilities. She didn't know which cape it might have been who fell afoul of Carol's ire, but whoever it was had to be new in town. Or—and her mind latched on to this possibility—a known villain who had decided to turn hero. But who might that be? She'd heard rumours about E88's Purity, but—

    “You're aware of the Swarm event yesterday.” It was a statement rather than a question. Sarah would've laughed if she didn't consider it inappropriate; too many had died too recently for mirth. Everyone in Brockton Bay knew about the Swarm. She didn't frequent the online forums like some, but Eric had said at the breakfast table that the theories about its instigator—called the Swarmbringer by some—were multiplying by the hour. Most were centred around the teenage girl seen outside the Denny's while the Swarm was still ongoing; a few said she'd been rescued, though most were sure she'd been arrested, or even taken away for execution.

    “I am.” She considered her next answer, then decided to go for broke. “Is this about the Swarmbringer?” Even as the words left her mouth, she knew she'd made a mistake. Amy flinched, Victoria grimaced, and Miss Militia shook her head very slightly. Director Piggot reacted the least, but the lines of her face settled into deeper grooves as she regarded Sarah.

    “The Swarmbringer does not exist.” Piggot's voice was harsh. “It was not a deliberate act of malice. The event was brought on when a teenage girl with bug control powers was attacked by several teenage boys, acting with the obvious intent to rape her. She called on her powers to protect her, but the boys beat her unconscious. Her power continued to act on her last command, which caused the Swarm to gather and attack everyone in her radius of effect. When she woke, her first act was to disperse the Swarm. She was then taken into custody, whereupon Panacea was called in to treat her injuries, which were quite severe. She has since given an extensive statement, implicating people at her school in an ongoing bullying campaign, including the attack itself. The PRT has spent the last twelve hours verifying the facts of that statement. We've found no substantive untruths in it. Several people have been arrested.”

    Sarah blinked. “That's … horrific.” She turned to Amy. “You treated her?” Several points raised by Piggot resounded in her mind as she waited for the teen's answer. One, that the girl's powers kept acting when she was unconscious. That could be … scary. Two, that her radius of effect covered such a wide area. Frankly speaking, that could be even scarier. And three, that the PRT had acted so promptly to clear a brand-new cape of wrongdoing. What was going on behind the scenes here?

    Amy nodded. “I did. She had a broken jaw, missing teeth, fractured ribs and several other injuries. They really beat on her.” She grimaced. “Her name's Taylor, and she doesn't deserve any of what they've been doing to her. When she found out how many people died, she nearly went catatonic.” Her head drooped, and she leaned against Victoria, who put an arm around her. The blonde rested her head atop Amy's and held her close. It was obvious that this situation was affecting Amy deeply.

    “Okay.” Sarah looked from her nieces to the Director and Miss Militia, then back again. “I get that she didn't really mean to do it. But how do you get from there to Carol nearly violating the Vikare Act?” There were pieces still missing here, and she intended to find out what they were. Only then could she effectively argue for Amy and Victoria to return to New Wave.

    Victoria sighed. “Mom's as nosy as ever, and when me and Ames got back from fixing Taylor and talking to her, she gave us the third degree. We'd already signed our nondisclosures, but she wormed it out of us with some lawyer tricks and a few good guesses. So when the PRT picked us up this morning, she rode along. But about halfway in, when Miss Militia found out that she knew more than she should have, things kinda went sideways. Mom was gonna start spreading it around that the PRT was holding the Swarmbringer in secret. So Ames had to knock her out before she shredded our transport.” Her tone was unhappy, but she maintained her comforting hug with her sister.

    The Director cleared her throat. “Almost the first thing Taylor said once she was coherent was that she wanted to be a hero. I took that as a statement of intent. With her powers, she could be a considerable asset to the Protectorate, but if she were painted as a rogue or villain, that's almost certainly not going to happen. So I took the statement of intent and applied it to her legal status. She's officially a superhero until she chooses to say otherwise; her identity as a cape is thus protected by the Vikare Act.” She resolutely met Sarah's eyes, as if daring her to challenge the assertion.

    While it wasn't the most imaginative twisting of legalities that Sarah had ever seen, it certainly made the top ten. She tilted her head. “So she escapes any sort of punishment for killing two hundred seventy-three people, even if by accident?” She felt sympathy for Taylor—being caught between a rock and a hard place was unpleasant for anyone—but the law was the law. Nobody should get off scot free.

    “No, because it wasn't her fault.” Amy had shrugged off Victoria's hug and was leaning forward, hands on the table and eyes blazing with intensity. “It's not her fault that her powers went out of her control when she was knocked out. It's the fault of the boys who attacked her.” Raising a hand, she gestured vaguely. “It's a point of law. I can't remember what it's called, but when people commit a crime and someone gets hurt as a direct result, they're liable.”

    Sarah's eyebrows notched up a little. This was the most engaged she'd seen Amy in a very long time. Normally, the healer simply walked away once she was done with applying her power. Perhaps she'd seen a kindred soul in this Taylor? “I believe I've heard your mother talking about things like that,” she agreed. “I suppose it makes sense, in a rather odd way. It's definitely the first case I've ever heard of.” Though she privately suspected that it would never make it to court. The Swarm event had been too much like an Endbringer attack for the public's peace of mind, especially with the upcoming Canary trial in the news. Calling her the 'Swarmbringer' had been no accident, after all. And no matter the legal wrangling, the stigma of nearly three hundred deaths would almost certainly doom her in the courtroom, even without the friends and family of those slain calling for a kill order. Not to mention those who might try to just kill her anyway.

    She looked up from her musing to see Director Piggot eyeing her keenly. Piggot was no parahuman, but Sarah had the uncomfortable feeling that the big woman knew what thoughts were passing through her mind. Quite probably because they'd already passed through her own. “So now you know,” the Director said bluntly. “Do you intend to do anything about it?” She had to know that Sarah could only give one answer to that question, no matter her real intentions. Either she told the truth and told nobody, or she lied and spread the word. Only an absolute idiot broadcast their intentions before the act, especially if said intentions involved breaking the law.

    Except that was exactly what Carol had done. Crap. Sarah realised that she'd just called her sister an idiot, even if only in the privacy of her own mind. In any case, she already knew which way she was going to jump on this. “No,” she said truthfully. “From the sound of it, she's got enough problems on her plate as it is.” From the corner of her eye, she saw the girls relaxing slightly; there was even an audible exhalation of relief, which probably came from Amy. Thinking back over the explanation of events, it was easy to tell why Carol had been angry at Amy. She still thought abandoning the girl in the PRT building was far over and above anything resembling a proportional response, but at least she could understand it now. Drawing a deep breath, she turned to her nieces. “And I want you to know, Amy, whatever your mother said doesn't apply to me. What's important is that you know that you still have a place in New Wave. Both of you.”

    For a long moment, she thought she'd swayed them, but then Amy shook her head with a look of regret. “I'm sorry, Aunt Sarah, but what Carol said can't be taken back. She meant what she said, and I really think I need to move on from New Wave. From being Panacea.” Reaching out, she squeezed her aunt's hand briefly. “It's nothing personal against you, but this moment's been coming for a long time. Anyway, they need me to help Taylor.” Her words were earnest and forthright, and made no sense at all.

    “Taylor?” Sarah shook her head with a frown. “You healed her, right? I can't see you having trouble with a simple beating. Unless there's brain damage?” Even in a world of ridiculous powers, Amy was the closest thing Sarah had ever seen to a miracle made flesh. Everything from sucking chest wounds to traumatic amputations, from inoperable tumours to incurable diseases; all were equally susceptible to her power. The only thing she couldn't handle was the brain itself, which Sarah chose to think was an acceptable trade-off while secretly praying that she'd never suffer a traumatic cranial injury.

    “No, no brain damage,” Victoria said. “At least, not the way you think.” She grimaced. “Taylor's had an absolute shit of a time, and learning that her power killed all those people didn't do her any favours at all. She's deeply traumatised, and Ames is her best bet at staying sane till she can process what happened to her. And what nearly happened.” Her chin jutted out in determination. “And Ames needs me, so I'm gonna stick by her no matter what.”

    Sarah had seen Victoria in those moods before, and knew that it would be easier to shift Captain's Hill on its foundations than to budge her niece from her position with argument. The only recourse was to try logic and reason, and hope that Victoria would listen long enough to be swayed from her course. The trouble was, there were very few points upon which she could base such logic. She leaned forward, trying to capture their attention. “Amy, I've already spoken with Carol. She's going to be standing down for the time being, at least until we've gotten all this sorted out. Wouldn't that be better than you quitting the team altogether? I mean, you can still go and see Taylor whenever you're needed. I'd have no problem with that.”

    Amy shook her head. “No.” Her tone was low but determined. “If Carol stayed home, so would Mark. And I don't intend to stay in the same house as that woman, not ever again. Not after what she said. In any case, Carol and Mark bring more firepower to the team than I do. Maybe more than Vicky does. And I don't want anyone resenting me for forcing them to stay away. It's best that I make a clean break like this.”

    “But where are you going to live?” Sarah gestured at the ceiling and, by extension, the PRT building. “While I'm sure they'd be willing to allow you to stay on, I doubt you'd want to live here indefinitely.” She knew Vicky well; the girl liked nothing so much as being able to just open a window and go flying at a whim. The Wards base, in the basement of the PRT building, would not offer such an option.

    “Don't be silly, Aunt Sarah.” Victoria's stubborn expression morphed into a sunny smile. “Amy's not going to live here. She's going to stay with Taylor and her dad. Director Piggot's already set up the paperwork.” Before Sarah could ask the obvious question, she went on. “And I could live here, at least till I got my own place, but I was thinking, would I be able to stay with you for the time being? Just for a little bit?” She fluttered her eyelashes dramatically.

    Puppy-dog eyes of that intensity, Sarah decided, should be made illegal. She decided she was going to to put her foot down and tell Victoria that there was no way she was going to enable her in this ridiculous act of teenage rebellion. However, just as she was about to put that plan into action, her mouth ran away with her. “Of course you can,” she heard herself saying. “Stay as long as you like. Crystal's barely using her room any more.” Before she could get too upset with herself for folding so easily, her common sense caught up with the rest of her brain and pointed out that this let her keep in touch with Victoria and, by extension, Amy. Though she still thought puppy-dog eyes of that level should be given their own Master rating.

    Thank you, Aunt Sarah!” Victoria's aura surged briefly, giving her a dopamine rush, then the girl herself levitated over the table to give her a hug. “I don't want to hurt the team, really I don't. But I'm not gonna let Mom just kick Ames out in the cold either. And I'll bring her over to see you and the others any time we're free, I promise.” Her enthusiasm was hard to withstand.

    Sarah didn't even try; instead, she stood up to hug her niece properly. “That's okay, Victoria. I just want the two of you to be happy. And if you don't want to be on the team, I can't make you stay.” It wasn't the easiest thing in the world to say, but it was unfortunately true. She sighed and looked across at Amy. “I never wanted this to happen. You're both valuable members of the team. Of my family. You know that, don't you?”

    “Yeah.” Amy's nod was reluctant. “It's not your fault, but it did happen. I'm sorry, Aunt Sarah. I think this really is for the best.” She got up from her chair and walked around the end of the table to give her aunt a hug. Sarah embraced her in return, belatedly wishing she'd gotten to know her troubled, standoffish adoptive niece a little better. Or at least, that Carol had. If she had, this might've been avoided.

    But too late was too late. She said her goodbyes and escaped into the corridor. With the door closed safely behind her, she sagged against the wall and sighed softly. “God damn it,” she muttered. “God damn it.” It was as she'd feared; the odds against her getting Amy and Vicky back on the team had been stacked too high from the beginning. Of course, she hadn't foreseen the situation with … Taylor, was it? The bug controlling teenager, whose power had accidentally murdered nearly three hundred people. In the normal run of things, such a catastrophic loss of life would've resulted in a sentence to the Birdcage, if not a straight-out kill order. But Director Piggot was as straight-arrow as they got when it came to keeping capes in line; if she'd given the girl a pass, it meant she deserved a pass. Of course, that didn't help Sarah and New Wave in the here and now.

    The door opened and Miss Militia stepped out. “Hey.” Sarah couldn't see the majority of her expression, but at least her eyes were sympathetic. “You okay? Want to talk?” She honestly sounded concerned. She can afford to, snarked the sarcastic side of Sarah's brain. They just signed on an Alexandria package and a touch healer.

    Sarah gusted out another sigh. “ … no. I think I'll just go home and think about how I'm gonna break this to the rest of the team.” Pushing herself off the wall, she started off down toward the elevators, aware that Miss Militia was following. “Um …” The question rose in her mind, but she didn't know how to ask it.

    Miss Militia stepped up alongside her. “What's up?” Her weapon was now a baton, which she idly spun between her fingers as she waited for Sarah's response. “Is it about Taylor?”

    “Yeah.” Sarah hated herself for asking this, for prodding at the wound. “What's she like? Does she really need Amy this badly?” Not that it would change matters even if the answer was in the negative, but she had to know.

    Her answer was a solemn nod. “If it wasn't for Panacea, that poor girl would be either catatonic or out of her mind by now. And the Swarm would come back, and never end until someone put an end to her.” Miss Militia's voice was quiet and unconcerned, but the weapon in her hand turned into a silenced automatic pistol. “She wants to be a hero. The Director thinks she can make it. It's up to us to help her get there.”

    Sarah pressed the button on the elevator. Almost immediately, the doors unfolded out of the way. She stepped in and turned to look at Miss Militia. “Well, good luck with it. I just wish it hadn't turned out this way.”

    Miss Militia nodded. “Believe me, it's mutual.” Before she could say any more, the doors interleaved shut once more and the elevator was on the way upward, leaving Sarah alone with her thoughts.

    Crap. What am I going to tell the others?



    There was a reason Carol hadn't ridden the bus for years. Once the Brigade had unmasked as New Wave, she'd avoided public transport. Although she was proud of being Brandish, and of the work she and the team did, there was such a thing as too little privacy. She was relearning this the hard way, trying to ignore the curious stares from her fellow passengers as she rehashed in her mind what had happened, trying to see exactly where she'd gone wrong.

    The misapprehension with the Swarmbringer, with Taylor Hebert, was a natural one. She told herself this over and over, trying to still the nagging doubt that said otherwise. The girl had killed hundreds. A moment later, she corrected herself: the girl's power had killed hundreds. That was a subtle but important distinction. Piggot and Armsmaster had been adamant on that point, and Carol had seen their side of it. She could've insisted that the point was a spurious one, that she'd given the original orders and was responsible for the ultimate outcome, but for whatever reason, she hadn't. Perhaps it was because the girl's story had struck a chord with her—she, too, had been forced to kill at far too young an age—or perhaps she didn't want to see anyone else die.

    The next part … she didn't want to think about the next part. It was the part where she vented her anger at Amy, at the girl who'd masqueraded as her daughter for ten years, at Marquis' offspring. A villain's child, living under her roof. A villain's child, who had as good as stabbed Carol in the back, knocking her unconscious with powers inherited from her father.

    Carol did not trust easily. Trust allowed someone to turn around and betray her as soon as it suited them. She trusted her sister, because she'd been through the same ordeal as Carol. Mark had also earned her trust and love, by being ever faithful and jumping through every hoop she'd set him. Some of that placidity and devotion had in time shown itself up to be chronic depression, but that had not changed her love for him. Depressed or otherwise, he still loved her, and she knew it. She did wish that he'd take his meds more often though.

    There was only one other person whom Carol trusted unconditionally, and even then she'd only agreed to get pregnant because Mark wanted children. Born of her body, nursed at her breast, raised under her eye, Vicky was Carol's child through and through. Not so Amy. She had argued against taking the child, but the facts were against her, and in the end she'd given in. Even then, if Amy had been quiet and docile in the beginning, she may have softened toward the child. But in those first few weeks and months, Amy had been difficult and argumentative, demanding her father, demanding her favourite book to be read to her. Demanding, demanding, demanding.

    In time she had settled down, seeming to forget her past. But Carol had not forgotten. She couldn't forget. Even when Amy came to her for attention, Carol could only see the hair and features of the man who fathered her. She couldn't bring herself to like the child, no matter how she tried. She certainly couldn't love her. And there was no question at all of trusting her. Not the daughter of Marquis. Not in my lifetime.

    So when Carol awoke and found that Amy had turned her powers on her, was it any wonder that she had reacted the way she did? She asked herself that question over and over, trying to see if there was another way she could've gone, something else she might have done. Should she not have thrown Amy off the team?

    It was hard, she found, to even visualise the concept. To do so, to let the girl know she could act like that with impunity, would put the whole team at risk. Carol had spent most of her life as a superhero, and she knew the importance of protecting her teammates. But maybe she should have let it go, just this once? Even asking the question as a hypothetical wasn't easy. Carol was self-aware enough to recognise that her dislike of Amy was colouring her view of the matter, but it wasn't enough to change her opinion. If Amy really was a time bomb waiting to go off, then it wasn't really prejudice, was it?

    The bus stopped and she got off, still wrestling with the matter. Uncaring by now of the stares of the other passengers, she made her way down the pavement toward her house. It wasn't a long walk, but by the time she got there, another possibility had occurred to her. Instead of simply kicking Amy off the team, what if she'd called a meeting instead? That would've allowed Carol to present her case in her own way, explaining the situation in detail. And—this was difficult to work through, but she persevered—maybe Amy didn't even need to be fired from the team. An appropriate punishment could've been levied instead. In that way, Amy could be shown that such behaviour was inappropriate and uncalled for, while the team continued to benefit from her power. And, of course, Vicky wouldn't have then run off to join the Wards as well.

    She was just opening the front door as this final revelation occurred to her. “Oh, god,” she muttered. “Oh, hellfire and god damn it.” Grimacing, she pushed the door shut behind her.

    “Honey? Is that you?” She heard the creak of Mark's favourite armchair, then her husband leaned around the living room doorway. “Oh, hi,” he said. Slowly, a frown worked its way across his forehead. “Where are the girls?”

    Carol took a deep breath. Rule number one for being a successful lawyer was knowing when you've fucked up. “Sweetie, I … I think it's all my fault.” Hot prickles at the corners of her eyes heralded the approach of tears. “Don't hate me. Please don't hate me.”

    “I don't hate you,” he said, stepping around the doorway and coming up to her. “Honey, what's the matter? What happened?”

    So she told him in excruciating detail. As the tears began to flow down her face, he led her to the sofa. The words spilled out faster and faster, tumbling over one other as she unburdened herself, reliving every sharp word and cruel comment. By the time she finished, she was crying on his shoulder while he patted her gently on the back.

    “What are we going to do?” she asked plaintively. “I've driven my daughter away and I don't know how to get her back.” In asking the question, she didn't even know if he had an answer, but it was a relief to have someone else to listen.

    Without saying a word, he got up off the sofa; she stared after him as he padded out of the room. Was this what it had come to? Was everyone going to reject her? Misery filled her all over again as she contemplated that fate.

    Her thoughts along that line were interrupted by his return. Seating himself beside her, he placed a tub of ice-cream on her lap and removed the lid. She blinked at it, then felt a spoon being pushed into her hand.

    This isn't me. I don't do ice-cream therapy. Digging into the tub, she came out with a spoonful of ice-cream and ate it. It was really, really good.

    This isn't going to solve anything. She dug out another spoonful; it followed the fate of the first. Mark put his arm around her and held her close. She leaned against him.

    Oh well, why not. She had another spoonful. It didn't solve her problems, but it didn't make them any worse, either.

    And right now, that was good enough.


    Half an Hour Later


    “And here we are,” announced Danny. The sedan slowed and turned up into the driveway, tyres crunching on gravel. Amy looked out the car window at the house; while it had a second floor, overall it was somewhat smaller than the place she called home. The flower garden showed signs of only intermittent weeding, the lawn hadn't been mown for a few weeks, and the house needed a new coat of paint. But for all that, she observed it with interest.

    “It's, uh, probably not what you're used to,” Taylor said, sounding just a little sheepish. “Dad's with the Dockworkers, and the last few years haven't been the greatest.” Amy was aware that there were things that Taylor wasn't talking about; just for starters, Armsmaster had briefed her on the death of Taylor's mother. But while the house did look just a little run-down, it certainly wasn't the only one in the neighbourhood that did. This wasn't a good area, economically speaking.

    “Pfft, hey,” Amy said cheerfully. “If what the place looked like mattered to me, I'd be trying to move into the Forsberg Gallery. So long as the roof don't leak and the floor isn't about to drop me into the basement, I'm good.” She wasn't just trying to put on a good show. The house represented a new start for her, and she wasn't going to turn up her nose at a shabby exterior. Appearances, she was fully aware, quite often had little to do with the reality of the situation. Besides, there was nothing here that a few hours of hard work wouldn't fix.

    “That's the spirit,” Danny replied, and got out of the car. Opening the trunk, he retrieved his overnight bag. Amy opened her door and got out as well, then took a few steps off the driveway on to the lawn. She slipped her feet out of her sandals and curled her toes in the grass, feeling the tiny interconnected lives as her power spread through them. It was a way for her to ground herself, by letting the awareness of a larger world reduce her merely human problems to more realistic proportions. Unfortunately, she'd been doing this all too rarely of late.

    “It's good to be home.” Taylor's words were almost a sigh as she climbed out of the car. Closing the door behind her, she went around the car and moved to join Amy, walking carefully. Amy noted how pale she looked and put out a hand to steady her. With a grateful smile, Taylor leaned against her.

    “Hey, you okay?” asked Amy. Skin contact with Taylor told her that the taller girl was still feeling a little wobbly after having spent so long unconscious yesterday and overnight. The bland food they'd been giving her hadn't helped in that regard. There was also a significant amount of mental uncertainty going on there; she still hadn't fully recovered from the shock of learning how many had died due to her power. A lot of pain and anguish was bubbling away under the surface, not all of it caused by recent events, but none of it helping.

    “Yeah, I'll be okay in a moment.” Taylor's voice was quiet. “It's just so … when I left home for school yesterday, none of this had happened, y'know? It's like … I'm looking at the house and it's an entirely different place, but it's not the house that's changed. It's me.” She hugged her arms around herself. “I'm a different person. So much shit's happened, because of choices I made.”

    “Hey. Hey, hey hey.” Amy put her arm around Taylor. She wasn't tall enough to hug Taylor around the shoulders, but she did her best anyway. “If anyone knows about the consequences of choices, it's me. And I'm here to tell you that no matter what you do, no matter how much you try to do good, some other asshole's gonna come along and fuck things up just because they feel like it. I've healed criminals, only to see them in the news later for reoffending. Did my choice make it possible, or were they gonna reoffend when they got better anyway?” She squeezed Taylor's arms. “You did what you thought best. That's all you can do. Got it?”

    “Yeah.” Taylor gave a weak smile. “Thanks.” Her arm went around Amy's shoulders and she squeezed back. She looked up at where Danny was just unlocking the front door. “Wanna go in? I'll show you my room. Our room, I mean. And then I'll take a shower. I really, really want a shower right now. And a change of clothes.” She looked down at Amy. “Um, not sure if my stuff will fit you. I mean, we can try …”

    “Don't worry about it,” Amy assured her. “Vicky said she was gonna come over later with something for me to wear for the next few days.” She gave Taylor a beaming smile. “I appreciate the thought, though.” And she did. It was nice to have someone, a comparative stranger, actually being considerate toward her needs. Vicky tried to be, but she saw everything from a Vicky perspective, which usually meant that whatever she tried to get for Amy was more to her tastes than Amy's. Case in point: the semi-regular double dates she dragged Amy along on. Also, the way Taylor had corrected herself to include Amy in the occupancy of the room was kind of sweet.

    “Oh, good.” Taylor led the way to the front steps. “Watch that second step. It's kind of rotten.” She stepped over it, holding on to the rail to steady herself, then climbed the rest of the way with ease. Amy looked down at the step in question, noting the signs of deterioration in the wood, and also stepped over it. Maybe I can do something about that later, she mused. Tucking the mental note away, she followed Taylor into the house.

    Immediately inside the front door was a front hall consisting of a set of stairs going up, and a corridor alongside them leading to the back of the house. Danny was already at the other end of the hall, but instead of following him, Taylor headed up the stairs. Closing the front door behind her, Amy passed by a hallway mirror and a doorway into what looked like a living room, and followed her. When they were halfway up, Danny called out something from down below. However, his voice was muffled, and she had no idea what he'd said.

    It seemed that neither did Taylor, because she paused on the stairs. “What was that, Dad?” she called back. Rolling her eyes, she confided to Amy, “He always does this when he's in the basement. Has no idea I can't hear him.” The show of spirit, as much as the comment itself, made Amy grin. It was good to see a sign of recovery, however minor.

    Danny's next shout was somewhat easier to understand. “I said, did you girls want me to make lasagne or just get takeout for dinner?”

    Amy opened her mouth to answer, but Taylor held up her hand, a positively evil smirk on her face.

    “What?” Taylor called innocently a second time. “I didn't hear you.”

    Amy fought the urge to burst into giggles at Taylor's prank. Footsteps sounded from down below and Danny came into sight.

    “I said—” he began, then stopped and glared up at them. “You heard me. You know you heard me.”

    Hastily, Amy composed her features into innocence, but she got the impression that it was far too little, far too late. Beside her, Taylor wasn't even trying. “Sorry, Dad,” she said between hiccups of laughter. “Lasagne would be wonderful, thanks. Amy?”

    Still trying to come to grips with the casual way Taylor joked with her father, Amy nodded. “Uh, yeah. I like lasagne.” In her family, she might pull jokes on Vicky, but that was as far as it went. It'd never occurred to her to play with her parents in such a fashion. Carol would've murdered her—figuratively if not literally—and with Mark's bouts of chronic depression, pranks would just be mean. But even feeling as fragile as she obviously was, Taylor felt comfortable with pulling her father's leg like this.

    “Right.” Danny continued to glare up at them, then the forbidding expression shifted to a rueful smile and he shook his head. “Teenagers,” he muttered as he turned away. Amy wasn't quite sure if it was a swearword or just a comment on the world in general.

    Still chuckling, Taylor headed up the stairs again, with Amy following on. “Bathroom,” she said, pushing open the door that opened almost at the top of the steps. “And yes, we have a tub.” Amy had already spotted that, and was making plans for a long stress-free soak later. The corridor took another turn, then ended a few yards on with doors to the left and right, and a louvred door straight ahead. Taylor pointed at the doors in sequence, starting at the left. “Dad's room. Linen cupboard. Our room.”

    Opening the door to 'our room' revealed a typical teenage girl's bedroom, with a few items of clothing strewn on the floor in front of a dresser, an ancient computer lurking on a desk in the corner, and a wide selection of posters on the wall. Aside from the obligatory depiction of Alexandria, Amy was vaguely surprised to see one for New Wave, which she chose not to comment on. She thought she even recalled the photo-shoot for the poster in question. The makeup guy had spent way too long trying to 'bring her eyes out', insisting that she looked hollow-eyed and tired. She had been hollow-eyed and tired, having spent a little too long at the hospital the previous night. The leadup to every poster shoot was stressful for the whole family, and sneaking off to Brockton General was the best way she had to deal with some of it. Of course, she'd caught flak from Carol afterward for 'letting the team down', but that was nothing new, even then.

    Taylor went to her knees in front of the dresser. “I'm not this messy usually,” she explained, her back to Amy. She took hold of a pair of jeans and folded them, shoving them haphazardly into a bottom drawer. A bra and a pair of panties got bundled together and jammed into the same drawer. “Dad must've—must've dropped some when he came to get clothes, for when I was—when I was …” Her hands got tangled up in a t-shirt as she tried to fold it, and her voice trailed off into a sob. Amy dropped straight down beside Taylor, putting an arm around her shoulders.

    “Hey,” she said softly. “I'm here. It's all right. It's over. It's never gonna happen again. You're safe.” Gently removing the shirt from Taylor's hands, she rubbed her other hand in gentle circles on the taller girl's back. “I'm here. It's gonna be all right.”

    “It's never going to be all right,” Taylor choked out. “It's my power that killed all those people. What if it happens again? What if I accidentally kill Dad, or you?” Her eyes, anguished, came up to meet Amy's, as she twisted her hands together, the nails digging into her skin. “I'd never forgive myself if that happened. I'd die first.”

    “Okay, for starters, you couldn't kill me with bugs.” Amy made her voice light and confident. “It can't be done. If a bug touches me, I've got control of its biology. It couldn't sting me any more than you can look at the back of your own head.” Carefully, she took hold of Taylor's hands in her own. Taylor's biology was open to her; ever so subtly, she stimulated the production of calming hormones. “And you've got better control than that. I know you do.” Clasping both of Taylor's hands in her left hand, she lifted her right to push the black curly hair back from Taylor's forehead. Her thumb touched Taylor's skin and moved in slow circles, above and between her eyes. “Right in here is all the control you need. I can tell.”

    Looking a little confused at Amy's pronouncement, Taylor tilted her head slightly. “How can you tell? You can't affect brains. You told me that before.” She was less agitated, Amy noted, and that was only partially due to the soothing chemicals now in her bloodstream. It was taking less effort each time to talk her down, which was good. The last thing she wanted was to get Taylor addicted to the hormones needed to make her feel calm and secure.

    Of course, there was also the question that needed answering now. Did she trust Taylor enough to keep her most carefully-guarded secret? “Can I tell you something I've only ever told Vicky?” It wasn't quite a snap decision. Taylor deserved to know what was going on and, on a more personal note, sharing secrets tended to build trust. If I'm going to get Taylor through this, she needs to know she can trust me.

    Taylor blinked at Amy as the biokinetic helped her up and guided her to sit on the bed. Amy sat down beside her a moment later, feeling the springs sag under her. As she did so, Taylor stared at her with a gradually awakening realisation as she connected the dots. “Holy crap,” she whispered. “You can affect brains?” Despite the fact that she'd figured it out, she obviously hadn't thought it all the way through, because she didn't pull her hands back from Amy's grasp.

    “Yeah.” Amy nodded. “I tell people I can't because I don't want to use that part of my power.” She stared into Taylor's eyes, willing her to understand. “It's not because it's hard. It's because it's too easy. The temptation is there every time I heal someone, every time I accidentally brush against someone in the hall. To remake people the way I think they should be. The power's right there, within my reach, to change the world.” Holding out her right hand, she flexed her fingers in a grasping motion. “I could do it, I really could. But I don't dare. Because I don't know if I could bring myself to stop, once I started. So I don't start. And I don't even let anyone know that I could do it.”

    “Wow.” Taylor shook her head slowly. “Wait … so you could alter my brain if you wanted to? While we're sitting here?” She looked down at where Amy held her hand loosely, and a flush of fear went through her system. “Did you alter my brain? Have you made it so I can't have a psychotic break?”

    “No.” Amy kept her voice at the same even tone as before. “I can prove it, too.” It'd been a mistake to tell Vicky that she could indeed affect brains, but not for the reason she'd feared. Her sister, always a very direct person, had immediately seized upon the idea of Amy reforming criminals just by laying a hand on them. Amy rejected the whole idea, even as her power laid out in the back of her mind exactly how she'd do it. It would've been so easy, and that was one of the reasons she was so vehemently against it. Another reason was that she was a firm believer in free will, and altering someone's mind simply took that away.

    “Um, okay?” The turmoil in Taylor's mind edged between fear and wanting to trust. However, she still hadn't pulled away, which gave Amy the suspicion that deep down she wanted Amy to render judgement upon her with her powers. “How can you prove that? If you can make me believe anything you say, I'd never be able to tell.”

    Amy chuckled warmly. “Yeah, but that's my proof. You're still worried that I might do it. If I wanted you unworried, I could instil in your mind the absolute certainty that I could never affect your mind, or that I'd never do it. But I won't.” The logic was tortuous in the extreme, but Taylor was a smart girl. Amy had faith in her to figure it out. “In any case, you had nothing to worry about. If you were ever gonna have a psychotic break and go all murderous, it would've happened a month ago.”

    “Ah. Yeah. Right.” Taylor's anxiety smoothed out and she settled down again, one fingertip gently tracing the veins on the back of Amy's hand. “Um …” She hesitated. “Were you ever worried about affecting brains because you'd kill people?”

    Amy found the sensation a little weird, but she didn't pull her hand away. For Taylor to trust her, she had to feel that Amy trusted her first. Which meant that if Taylor wanted to play this-little-piggy-went-to-market with her hand … well, it was a very long time since she'd played that game, but Amy would play along as best she could. “How do you mean?” she asked. “Like, accidentally turning their brain off? My power doesn't work that way. I know the exact consequence of everything I do before I do it.” Turning someone's brain off on purpose was something else altogether. Not that she'd actually do it unless she had no other choice (and possibly not even then), but it was definitely something that could happen.

    “No.” Taylor quit fiddling with Amy's hand and looked up at her. “I read about stuff where if you changed the basic foundations of what made up a person, you effectively killed them. Brainwashing and stuff like that. I'm pretty sure I've read a novel or two where the characters got total amnesia, and ended up as totally different people. Is that why you're scared of affecting brains?”

    Amy frowned. “That's a slippery slope, right there. Yeah, I could technically alter someone's brain so hard that if you didn't know their face you wouldn't know it was the same person. But the kind of alterations I was referring to was tiny stuff. You know, habits and attitudes that people could change on their own, given time. I mean, we all change from hour to hour and day to day. Are you the same person, do you have the same attitudes that you had three years ago? Or would you say that person's dead and gone?”

    “Well, no,” Taylor admitted. “That person grew up to be me. I'm her, plus three years of life experiences. Some pretty crappy experiences, yeah, but that's what makes me different from her.” It was her turn to frown. “Some people change pretty damn fast though. And then they just don't change at all, afterward. Why is that?”

    Amy chuckled and shook her head. “I'm no psychiatrist. I can tell you how the brain fits together, but I can't even begin to explain why people think the way they do. I guess you're talking about that ex-bestie of yours?” Having seen a picture of the Barnes girl, Amy thought she'd recognised her. A few months ago, she'd attended a photo-shoot with Vicky, where the gimmick was that the heroes were photographed out of costume (but with opera masks to conceal their identities) alongside local teens wearing superhero costumes. If it was the same girl, Amy seemed to recall her being nasty toward a disabled kid who was also in the photo-shoot. Vicky had been deeply offended at the time.

    “Yeah.” Taylor sighed. “Over just a few weeks, she went from being my best friend to my worst enemy. And Sophia …” She shook her head. “From then on, they were on my case. Never letting up.” There was pain and regret in her voice, echoing the feelings inside her. Amy suspected that Taylor had agonised over Emma's betrayal more than once.

    Amy smiled and put her arm around Taylor. “Well, I can guarantee that it's not gonna happen any more. Dunno if anyone else told you, but the Director's going full court press on this one. She's pissed as fuck that one of her Wards could pull this shit under her nose, and drag civilians into it as well. From what I understand, she had Armsmaster, Assault, Battery and even Dragon gathering evidence all last night, and what she can't use against Shadow Stalker, she turned over to the police.”

    From the dip in Taylor's good mood, mentioning Shadow Stalker's name also reminded her that the (now ex-) Ward had escaped capture the previous night, and was still at large. “She's still out there,” Taylor said softly. “And I know better than just about anyone how she can hold a grudge.”

    “Yeah, well,” Amy replied, tightening her hug. “If she tries anything, she's also gonna have to come through me, Vicky and the rest of the Wards. Because we're in this together.” In lieu of an answer, Taylor leaned against her once more. It was odd, Amy felt, the difference it made to have someone coming to her for reassurance rather than healing. All in all, it was something she could get used to.


    Undersiders Base


    “You've got to be kidding.” Brian stared at Lisa, searching for any signs of humour on her face. There were none; even her typical screw-you grin was absent. She looked as serious as he'd ever known her to be. “We haven't even had Shadow Stalker—”

    “I fuckin' told you, I'm Spectre now.” The newest member of the team raised her voice from across the room where she was glowering in an armchair. “I rebranded. New start and all that shit. Now quit it with the 'Shadow Stalker' bullshit.”

    Brian rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine, 'Spectre'. My point stands. We haven't even had her on the team for one fucking day, and you're already planning a robbery with her? We haven't got to know her—”

    This time, it was Alec who interrupted. “Nah, see, we know her all too well. She's a trigger-happy bitch-face who can't make up her mind if she's a hero or a villain. I vote we tie her up and leave her in the base while we go do the robbery.” Without even acknowledging the poisonous glare being directed at him by Spectre—she'd unmasked but not offered her real name—he went back to playing his first-person shooter game.

    “Oh, for fuck's sake.” Brian looked around. “Bitch, you got anything to say? Because apparently this two-person discussion's an open fucking forum now.” Rachel didn't answer because, he realised after a moment, she wasn't in the room. “Where's Bitch?”

    “Went out for a walk,” Alec offered. “Said something about either getting out or killing Shadow Stalker. Personally, I think—” He was interrupted by a cushion hitting the side of his head.

    “Listen, you little cretin,” hissed Spectre from right beside him, leaning down with both hands on the arm of his chair. “You call me Shadow Stalker one more fuckin' time, I'll mess up your shit so bad they'll see it from fuckin' orbit. You get me?”

    Brian turned toward the incipient confrontation, but Alec waved a negligent hand before he could intervene. Consequently, Shadow Stalker—Spectre—lurched sideways, tripping clumsily on to the floor. Even as she impacted, she went to shadow and regained her feet in an instant. Returning to her human form, she started toward Alec with her fingers crooked like claws, her face a mask of fury. “You little fucking—!”

    “Hey!” Brian stepped forward, darkness billowing from his hands. “Regent, leave Spectre alone. Spectre, don't start shit you can't finish. We clear?” This sort of crap was not the way a team acted, though admittedly Alec wasn't blameless in the matter. He waited, and after a moment, Spectre stepped back. Alec gave a thumb's up, and Spectre didn't trip again, so Brian figured that was his agreement.

    “Okay, good.” Brian turned back to Lisa. “Can you please, please get back on to the boss and tell him that Spectre just isn't a good fit for us? And that we really should wait a week or so to let Spectre shake down with us, before we do any major crimes?” He figured that if this sort of shit kept up, he was gonna be punching someone really soon. If he was lucky, it would be Spectre; the wound her arrow had left still twinged him, some days.

    Lisa rolled her eyes. “Don't you think I haven't already gone over this with him? Three times? He's insisting that Spectre get a fair shot. This gig will be her way of proving to everyone that she can work with us. Now, we're hitting that big jewellery store in the Hillside Mall, tomorrow around lunchtime. Me, Spectre and Regent go in, case the place, and call the boss. He gives us the go/no go, and if we green-light it, you and Bitch bring the dogs in. In the meantime, we're subduing the staff and customers and grabbing all the good stuff. Once you get there, we jump on the dogs and vacate the premises. Easy as pie.”

    The last three words she spoke gave him an acute pain, not unlike heartburn. “I'm gonna want to see full plans, security rosters and escape routes before I okay this. Got it?” He gave her a level stare to drive home the fact that he was serious. Going into a robbery with half-assed planning was bad enough, but to do it with Shadow Stalker along was just asking for trouble.

    “Hey.” Her tone was light. “Have I ever let you down?” He just looked at her. “Uh, recently?” He still didn't say a word. “Badly?”

    Relenting, he shook his head. “Don't make this the first time, okay?”

    Grabbing up her laptop, she headed into the passageway leading to the kitchen. "Trust me, by the time I get done with this, it'll be airtight." She sounded certain of herself, but she'd done that before, too.

    Still, there was nothing to be gained in trying to micromanage her in what she did best. Grimacing, he turned away. "Just make sure you do." He knew full well he didn't have any kind of Thinker power, but if anyone asked, he would've been the first to admit that he had a bad feeling about this.


    PRT Building

    Emily Piggot

    Settling into her office chair, Emily let out a sigh of ... not quite comfort, but less discomfort than normal. She looked up at Armsmaster, who had followed her into the office. "So there's no doubt about it?" The question was less for her benefit than his; the man was almost obsessive about getting every detail correct. For her part, she had no problem believing that Calvert was the man they were after. When she first met him, she judged him to be an unscrupulous snake, and nothing she'd seen in the meantime had done anything to change her mind.

    "None whatsoever, ma'am," he replied firmly. "Dragon triple-checked everything. The chance of someone spoofing the message to frame Calvert is minuscule. If they could do that, then we would never have got the data off the captured phones that we did." That was definitely good enough for Emily. Armsmaster was extremely good at what he did. And when he teamed up with Dragon, as the night's events had shown, the results were nothing short of exceptional.

    "Good." She bared her teeth in an atavistic snarl. "Send the email.” It wasn't a particularly dramatic command, such as 'unleash the hounds' or 'fire when ready', but this was the modern age, after all. Drama could afford to be understated. Especially when all the hounds of Hell were about to descend upon a thoroughly treacherous subordinate.

    She couldn't wait.


    Underground Base


    Calvert frowned as his computer pinged to indicate an incoming email, one which had been rerouted from his computer at the PRT building. He hadn't been expecting any incoming messages; in fact, he was always careful to have his paperwork up to date and filed on time so as not to attract official attention. So it was with a certain amount of curiosity that he clicked the tab to open the email.

    A moment later, he rolled his eyes. “All strike team commanders are to report to their respective bases on Friday, February 4th, to attend mandatory briefings on rule changes regarding the treatment of Mastered hostages …” Great. More time-wasting make-work, just so the higher-ups could justify their existence in the chain of command. When I'm running the show, this sort of shit won't fly.

    With an irritated grunt, he typed out a swift reply, indicating that Commander Thomas Calvert would be there on time. As irritating as it was, he could not afford to raise eyebrows with conspicuous absences. However, it was only after he clicked the Send icon that he recalled the Undersiders and the planned initiation of their newest member. By the time he was done with her, she would have little to no chance of returning to her life as a reluctant Ward, if she even wanted to. With any luck, she would require little inducement to take to the life of a supervillain. Of course, if that were not the case, he was fully prepared to supply whatever inducement was needed.

    Well, he decided. I'm just going to have to handle it. It wasn't as if sitting in a deadly dull briefing was something he was unused to. Receiving and sending text messages during that time wasn't exactly unknown either; in any case, he'd just have to make sure he sat up at the back. Clicking on the icon that put his computer to sleep, he stood up and stretched. He was getting a little stiff, so he decided to make use of his private exercise room.

    Behind him, as he walked away, he failed to hear the faint beep as the computer started up again. Nor, as the screen remained dark, would he have known about it even if he'd turned around. Deep in the electronic guts of the machine, a virus unpacked itself and went to work.

    End of Part Twelve

    Part Thirteen
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2018
  15. RioVena

    RioVena Know what you're doing yet?

    Jan 29, 2017
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    Holy shit. The PRT is actually going to get Coil.
  16. GW_Yoda

    GW_Yoda Professional Lurker

    May 25, 2015
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    Awesome chapter! Can't wait to see Coil taken down. Might the Wards be getting some new members after this?
    Ack likes this.
  17. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    At least one.
  18. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

    Jul 29, 2014
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    Jeez Brian was sympathic towards Taylor in canon but just imagine how he'd treat her in this....is it wrong that I want this to go Brian/Taylor?
  19. Slayer Anderson

    Slayer Anderson Orthodox Heretic

    Jan 15, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Yes, yes it is and you should feel bad for it.;)
    Ack likes this.
  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    Unfortunately for any Brylor ships, Taylor's got issues with getting close to guys right now. Just saying.

    Also, at this time he'd still see her more along the lines of a sister.
  21. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

    Jan 10, 2015
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    I 'lol'ed at this.:D
    Erm... At this point wouldn't Brian just see Taylor as a random stranger? I don't think they've met yet...:p
    ShadowStepper1300 and Ack like this.
  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    Once he gets to know her, I meant.
  23. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

    Feb 20, 2013
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    With that dramatic statement, she walked boldly up the steps, the second of which promptly collapsed underneath her.

    The Heberts at least had the grace to look embarrassed as the helped her back up.

    "Hey hey hey?"
  24. bloo

    bloo Getting some practice in, huh?

    Jan 2, 2018
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    I like this representation of the PRT. Sure they're a government agency and they can get a little slow with all the red tape, but that doesn't mean they're fucking idiots like every fic pretends they are (read a fic recently where director piggot made a deal with Kaiser to assassinate our SI, a hero who murders rapists).
    Alayne, Ack and ShadowStepper1300 like this.
  25. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Jun 20, 2016
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    Okay, what the fuck? I have to see this travesty of a Piggot.
    Ack likes this.
  26. Muroshi9

    Muroshi9 I'm so ronery So ronery So ronery and sadly arone

    Feb 7, 2015
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    Didn't that happen in [NSFW] R.O.B.ed... Your trials are my amusement... [Worm AU] cause I think I remember that along with Miss Militia sniping him during the battle with Vista's help and he threw a light saber to cut off her hands using Force TK and precog to do it from several miles away without it harming Vista at all which she wasn't even mad about since she truly objected to following those orders.

    I just have to think, though I picture Amanda Waller when thinking of Piggot, she is in fact white and blond so would fit in the Empire with no problems.
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2018
    Ack likes this.
  27. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
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    Ugh. Just tried reading it. Piggot's behaviour isn't the only travesty.
    Alayne, Prince Charon and MerelysSoul like this.
  28. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Jun 20, 2016
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    Same. Overpoweredness, the writing is bad, the SI sexually harasses the trio, the author doesn't understand how Tattletale's power works, stations of canon without a good reason, and that's just the first chapter.
    Ack likes this.
  29. DuskAtDawn

    DuskAtDawn Of the Thousand Faces

    Nov 26, 2013
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    I'm more concerned with the fact that someone who goes around murdering people can be called a "Hero", from what bloo said. Worm's pretty clear on the whole "You kill people, you're a villain" bit, regardless of what they did "to deserve it". Other than, you know, kill-orders and the like. That's part of what I like about this fic, that it actually explores the ramifications of killing people.
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2018
    Ack likes this.
  30. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Jun 20, 2016
    Likes Received:
    The rapists in question were with Lung when he went to kill the Undersiders (unless he ganked more rapists after that, which he probably did). A competent PRT would have called him a violent vigilante who violated the law and privately arrested him with an eye to seeing if they could reform him, while this PRT labeled him as a villain, stole his credit, and had Dragon blow up the computer he was using when he tried to upload proof that he alone defeated Lung. That the author still calls Benji a hero is proof that they don't have a definition of hero anywhere near what a hero actually is.
    Prince Charon and Ack like this.