Price of Blood Pt 10
 Part Ten: Legalities and Illegalities

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

Director Emily Piggot's Office
PRT ENE HQ
0824 Hours

Emily, feeling somewhat better than she had the night before—it was amazing what a good night's sleep could do—stood up as Glory Girl carried an unconscious Brandish in through the door to her office. Armsmaster followed, with Panacea trailing in last. The healer looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but there. The Director sympathised with her, but it was a truism that you rarely got what you wanted. Be glad you only have to live with the result of one hard decision today.

“Put her there,” she directed, pointing at the chair directly in front of her desk. She knew, of course, exactly why Brandish was in this state and how she'd gotten there. Miss Militia's verbal report, delivered over the phone, had been extremely concise. Which left the next step in Emily's hands. She wasn't looking forward to it; Carol Dallon had a well-deserved reputation for being stubborn, and that could make for problems if the interview went badly.

Glory Girl carefully placed her mother in the chair, arranging her hands in her lap. She stayed there, one hand on Brandish's shoulder so the woman wouldn't loll forward and end up on the floor. Emily nodded fractionally in approval, then turned her attention to Armsmaster. “Miss Militia isn't attending this meeting?”

The armoured hero shook his head. “No, ma'am. She considered that as she was present for the disagreement, her presence may exacerbate the situation, so she asked to be excused from the follow-up.” His tone was pragmatic; Emily got the impression that it didn't matter to him one way or the other. Personally, she thought Miss Militia had a point. Stepping aside to let her superior deal with a tricky situation might be seen as cowardice by some, but Miss Militia had never been accused of that. With a situation this volatile, it was only wise to ensure there was as little chance as possible for things to go wrong.

“I can understand that.” She sat down and clasped her hands on the desk in front of her. “Panacea, are there any complications inherent in putting someone to sleep like this?” As she spoke, she captured the healer's gaze with her own. If the girl chose to lie, Emily wanted to know about it before anything was done.

“None at all.” While Panacea was nervous, her eyes didn't flicker to the side in any kind of obvious tell. Nor did her voice hesitate. Emily was willing to bet she was telling the plain truth. “I just told her body to go to sleep. I can wake her up at any time, and she'll be fine.”

This fitted in with what Emily had already heard of the healer's capabilities. Panacea's healing capabilities reportedly came with the ability to anaesthetise her patients, which was very convenient for all concerned. There was nothing, Emily supposed, stopping the girl from using the anaesthetic side of her power on someone who was perfectly healthy.

“Good.” Emily nodded. “Wake her up, please.” Despite the phrasing, she meant it as an order. If she was going to sort out the current problem with Carol Dallon, the woman had to be awake for it.

“O-okay.” It was interesting to note how Emily's tone put steel in Panacea's spine. With a steady step, the healer approached her mother and put her hand out. Emily watched carefully as the girl touched Brandish's neck lightly for just a few seconds. There was no visible power effect, no crackling transfer of energy or glow of light. Carol Dallon just … woke up.

As soon as the woman stirred, Emily gestured to Panacea to move away. Obviously not needing the hint, Panacea stepped back to join her sister at the back wall, alongside Armsmaster. To her approval, Emily noted that the local leader of the Protectorate was standing at parade rest, treating the situation with the dignity and gravity which it deserved.

“Wha-huh?” Carol Dallon flailed for a second, her arms coming up as she stared around wildly.

While Emily could understand her confusion, the last thing she wanted was a confused Brandish cutting her office to pieces with a blade of pure unstoppable energy. “Brandish!” she snapped. “Stand down!” Into the words she projected every bit of command presence of which she was capable.

It seemed to have an effect. Carol's attention sharpened, focusing on her. “Director Piggot,” she said, almost disbelievingly. “What happened? How did I get here?” She began to rise, looking around the room. Although her face was turned almost totally away from Emily when her eyes fell on Panacea, it was still obvious when the last pieces fell into place. “You,” hissed Brandish, her hand reaching out in a grasping motion.

Sit. Down.” Emily didn't shout, but her voice cracked across the office like a whip. “Brandish. You will face me and talk to me about this. And once we've sorted it out, then you can take it up with your daughters.” She hadn't used that tone in far too long, but it was still gratifying to see Carol Dallon, as strong-willed as she was, slowly herself back into the chair. “Now,” she continued, knowing just how important it was to keep up the momentum, “I believe you have a grievance regarding the cape currently known as the Swarmbringer.”

“Yes,” spat Carol. “I know you're harbouring her and giving her healing. And once you let me out of here, I'll be shouting it to the rooftops.” Her jaw set mulishly, and Emily knew she meant every word of her statement.

Fortunately, she knew her own words were just as telling. “Not unless you've got a pressing need to inspect the interior of the Birdcage.”

Carol paused, obviously taken aback by the blatant threat. “Wai … what?”

Emily leaned back in her chair. “Now I have your attention, let me be perfectly frank. There will be no 'letting out', because you're not being kept against your will. But telling all you know would be unwise in the extreme.” Emily's voice was quiet. “Not only would it endanger an innocent girl and her father, but you would also be violating the Vikare Act.” She could see the exact moment when the point of her words hit Carol properly; the other woman's eyes widened fractionally.

“But …” Carol stopped, opening her mouth and closing it again.

After a moment, Emily nodded encouragingly. “Go on.” She could see the inevitable conclusions piling up behind Brandish's eyes, but she wanted the New Wave hero to articulate them, to bring them out into the real world. Once said, they could not be unsaid.

“But the Vikare Act is about unmasking heroes.” Carol's voice was almost plaintive. “That doesn't apply here.” Her eyes focused on Emily. “Or … how does it apply here? It doesn't apply to villains!”

This was true, on the face of it. While the Vikare Act specifically forbade the “deliberate revelation and/or broadcasting of the secret identity of a heroic superhuman” and was punishable under United States law, rogues and villains were not covered to the same extent. An unmasked rogue could pursue civil suit for the loss of earnings connected to a costumed identity, while a villain had no legal redress at all. All the latter had to fall back on were the 'unspoken rules', a loosely adhered-to set of codes that boiled down to “you don't screw with me, I won't screw with you”. While the PRT didn't officially recognise these 'rules', they tended to keep the body count down, so nobody bent them too hard when anyone was watching. When minor villains were captured, for instance, they were identified, but that information was never made public.

Occasionally it had come to pass that a villain accidentally learned the secret identity of a Protectorate-approved superhero. This didn't fall under 'deliberate revelation', as neither a deliberate act nor any actual revelation were involved. However, there was always the risk of the villain later reconsidering his stance, especially if said hero was seeking his capture. So the not-quite-official measure of reciprocal unmasking had been adopted, as a kind of mutually-assured-destruction. Both capes then generally avoided one another assiduously thereafter.

Also, while the Protectorate as a whole was larger than any given villain group, it was a fact that some of the larger villain groups were known to outnumber local Protectorate forces, sometimes by a ludicrous amount. This led to a state of armed semi-truce, where neither side was willing to escalate past a certain level of violence, in the certain knowledge that whoever started kicking sand at the other would also end up being hammered into the ground. There were those, of course, who ignored these limits; this was almost always self-policing, as the worst violators usually ended up in the Birdcage or dead. Or both.

So while some considered the 'unspoken rules' to be a ridiculous holdover to the comic-book mentality of the early days of capes, Emily tended to let them be. Without them, she was certain, things would be a lot worse.

“This is true.” She conceded the point gracefully. “It doesn't apply to villains. However, there is a great deal you do not know about this case.” Come on … take the bait.

Carol eyed her with suspicion. “What I want to know is why you're giving the Swarmbringer those protections. Protecting her under the Vikare Act.” She tilted her head. “How would I be violating it, exactly?”

Emily unclasped her hands from one another and laid her right hand on one of the two folders that lay before her. “I can't tell you until you sign an NDA about what I'll be telling you.” She placed a pen atop the folder and slid it toward Carol. In the background, she heard Glory Girl make a muted noise, perhaps a cough or chuckle; no doubt the girl had caught on to the Catch-22 aspect of the situation. That's right. I can only tell you how to avoid breaking the law by having you sign a document where you promise not to break the law. She had to admire the legal minds which had thought up that little wrinkle. But she did her admiring from a distance, and she washed her hands afterward.

Carol eyed the document as though it were a particularly loathsome snake. “Or I could get up and walk out of here.” Despite her words, Emily noted that she made no move to do so.

“You could.” Emily kept her tone light, as if discussing the weather. “Except that as I've just informed you the Vikare Act is in play, you will be held fully accountable for anything you say that's in violation of the Act. Even if you've got no idea what you've said that did it.”

Backing up her words was another factor neither of them needed (or wanted) to articulate. Parahumans were demonstrably capable of doing much more than any one normal human; thus, it had long been recognised that capes who chose a heroic role were essentially irreplaceable national assets. From there, it was only a short step to determining that anyone who acted to undermine the utility of such capes—such as by outing their secret identities—were in fact working against the national interest. For Protectorate capes, this could be—and had been, more than once—defined as treason. However, even those heroic capes who didn't draw a federal paycheck were still of considerable use to the nation. Thus, the part of the Vikare Act which covered them had been appropriated from legislation originally intended to counter domestic terrorism. While the First Amendment was aggressively used by civil-liberties groups to combat any attempt to curtail free speech, the Vikare Act had already weathered several court challenges aimed at overturning its 'unconstitutional' provisions. The only way to sidestep the Act and avoid the draconian penalties thereof—which could, depending on circumstances, include incarceration in the Birdcage—was to first prove the cape involved wasn't actually a hero. And if the PRT kept insisting otherwise, this could be a problem.

Brandish's lips thinned. It was obvious she didn't appreciate being pushed into a corner. Then again, who does? Emily watched her closely, applying ten years' worth of facing parahumans over this very desk toward trying to figure out which way she'd go. Unfortunately, the woman was a consummate professional, at least in the legal field. She'd probably be hell to face over a poker table, as she'd only given away that one particular tell.

“I've got one question.” It was almost a growl.

Emily smelled surrender, so she nodded easily enough. “What is it?”

Carol nodded toward the other folder, under Emily's left hand. “What's that one for?” She had her expression and voice under control once more; even to Emily's trained ear, she may well have been making light conversation.

For her part, Emily was mildly impressed. Lawyers had to think three steps ahead, and Carol was obviously no exception. “It's another NDA,” she explained. “The one you have covers what Glory Girl knows. This one covers what Panacea knows.”

“I see.” Carol eyed the second folder, even as she tapped the one before her with a lacquered nail. “If I sign this one, will I gain more of an insight as to what's in that one?”

Emily considered the question. It skated right on the edge of what she considered acceptable when it came to digging for information. However, as the answer—a simple 'yes' or 'no'—couldn't actually give Brandish any more data on the case, she nodded. “You will,” she confirmed.

Carol nodded, then opened the folder. Even as she retrieved the pen and clicked it in and out a few times, she read through the form, her eyes flickering back and forth. Her expression never changed as she turned the page. I am definitely never playing poker with her.

When she reached the bottom of the second page, Brandish put pen to paper and affixed her bold signature to the document. She nodded slowly as she read back through it, then closed the folder and slid it across the desk to Emily. “Okay, I've signed,” she said bluntly. “What aren't you telling me?”

“Her name is Taylor Hebert,” Emily said crisply. “She has the power to control bugs. Yesterday afternoon, through no fault of her own, she was attacked, subdued and tied up with duct tape. There were five of them. When she realised what their ultimate intention was—specifically rape and possibly murder—she panicked and began to build a swarm to defend herself. However, that was when they must have realised she was a cape, because they beat her unconscious.”

Carol's lips tightened again while her hands clenched into fists. “They deserve whatever they got, then,” she muttered, apparently more to herself than to Emily. Emily privately agreed, though she couldn't exactly say so then and there. “But why did she build such a large swarm and attack so indiscriminately? That's more the mark of a villain than a hero.”

Emily could almost sympathise with her; she'd also had trouble with that particular conclusion as well. But it was what it was, and they had to accept it and move on. “It was a very specific circumstance,” she explained carefully. “What she didn't know at the time was that her powers would remain active even after she was knocked out, carrying out the last order she gave: protect me. Attack those around me.”

“Ahh.” The word was more an exhalation of pure revelation as Carol leaned back in her chair. “That's what I couldn't understand. Her orders to the Swarm were interrupted before she could refine them.”

Once again, Emily was impressed by Brandish's grasp of the situation. “Essentially, yes. In fact, we have a recording of her stating her intention to be a hero.” Thank God. She had no desire to kill a fifteen year old girl, no matter what the circumstances. Thankfully, the way this was playing out meant she wouldn't have to go down that path, or put her own career in jeopardy by standing in its way.

On the other hand, there was now a strong possibility of bringing another hero into the fold. New heroes were always good. While Emily preferred to put her faith in the PRT, she was fully aware that some parahumans could only be realistically opposed by other parahumans. And when push came to shove, she knew damn well she'd rather have as many parahuman assets on her side as possible. Because the alternative—facing them over the barrel of a gun—rarely ended well.

“In any case, we weren't going to be using 'Swarmbringer' as a cape name for her,” Armsmaster interjected from where he stood at parade rest behind Carol. “That name was applied by the public under the erroneous impression that the Swarm was a deliberate attack on the city.” His diction was precise, reinforcing the facts for Carol's benefit. Emily noted his word choice and silently approved. The man could be irritating at times but, in this particular instance, his methodical nature was exactly what she needed to ensure Carol didn't decide to doubt what she'd just been told.

Behind their mother, Glory Girl and Panacea still stood alongside Armsmaster, each of them in a less formal stance than the senior hero. The healer had her arms folded and seemed a little nervous, while the young Alexandria package was fidgeting, apparently anxious for the conversation to be concluded. As Armsmaster finished speaking, Glory Girl opened her mouth to speak, but Emily caught her eye and shook her head slightly. Wonder of wonders, the girl actually paid heed to her and stayed quiet.

“But she isn't officially a hero yet.” Carol set her jaw slightly, a trace of stubbornness still present in her voice. It wasn't hard to see how she'd gone as far as she had in her chosen profession; when she got hold of a fact, she didn't like to let it go. But Emily was working to a time limit and she knew it. Taylor would be waking up soon, whether Panacea was there to rouse her or not, and Emily had to have all her ducks in a row by then. Bringing Brandish around to understanding the facts wasn't the most important task she had to face, but nor was it a trivial one. It was just one more thing that, if neglected or mishandled, could scuttle the entire effort.

“She's clearly stated her intention to be one, and has expressed considerable remorse over the deaths.” Emily's voice was flat and hard. “Armsmaster and Panacea were witness to this.” She decided to leave out the fact she'd been listening in the next room over the intercom. While it would still be admissible in court—if this ever got to court—that sort of thing was less useful than someone who had been there at the time. “Given how she was attacked, it's unsurprising that her powers went on the offensive as they did. The circumstances are unfortunate in the extreme, but they are not her fault.” She knew she was laying it on just a little thick, but if that was what it took to get through to Carol Dallon as a woman and a mother, rather than Brandish as a self-righteous superhero, then that was what it would take.

For a long moment, Carol tried to muster a defiant gaze in return, but the fire died from her eyes and she sat back a little in the chair. “And you're treating her as an avowed hero under the law.” It was more a statement than a question; at the same time, it was an admission of retreat from her previous position. She nodded slowly, even though Emily hadn't replied. “I suppose I can accept that.” Her tone became thoughtful. “But here we have a problem. Over two hundred people are dead, and there's that picture of her outside the Denny's. How do we avoid having her named as the culprit in the public's eye? Especially when it was her power that caused all the deaths?”

“We have a culprit.” Armsmaster spoke bluntly. “The person who set those five boys on her committed a crime in doing so. That crime led to the deaths of all five perpetrators, and to the two hundred and sixty-eight other fatalities, as well as the thousands of injuries. As the five are dead, the culpability for all the deaths falls upon the shoulders of that one person.” Emily had to admire his presentation. The man could state a case in a way that made it sound already signed, sealed and delivered.

She wondered briefly if he had a program in his helmet feeding him public-speaking tips. I wouldn't be at all surprised.

“Wait, why didn't you say so earlier?” Carol turned to face the armoured hero. “Who is this culprit? Are they in custody? Why did you give me all this song and dance about how the Swarm- I mean, the girl is innocent when you've already got someone?” The fire was back in her voice.

Emily almost smiled as Carol shifted her lawyer persona into high gear. Now she's on our side. Of course, they still weren't out of the woods. There was one more tricky bit of negotiation to do. She cleared her throat, drawing Carol's attention back to her. “If you wish to know the name of the culprit, and the details of the surrounding case, you'll have to sign the other NDA,” she warned. “The situation is extremely sensitive, and has recently become even more so.” She awaited Carol's reply, trying to discern which way she was going to jump. On the one hand, the woman was a lawyer, and lawyers always wanted to know the details. However, in this particular instance, signing the second agreement would be tying Carol's hands in the matter unless she could acqire the same information via separate means; as a superhero, Brandish would dislike that in the extreme. I know I would. It all came down to whether she felt more like being a lawyer or a superhero at that moment.

Carol frowned, looked briefly at her daughters, then she turned back to the desk. “Am I to understand Amy knows the rest of it?” The distaste that filled her tone explained why she wasn't willing to address the girl directly. Emily hadn't heard the complete story of what had happened in the van yet, but Miss Militia's verbal report had given her the shape of it. Being knocked unconscious by one's own daughter would have to be upsetting, to say the least.

When Clockblocker had first joined the Wards, he'd pranked a few people by freezing them in embarrassing postures; disciplinary action had put paid to that particular habit, but his victims reportedly had trouble trusting him afterward. This felt like much the same thing. I hope they sort it out.

“Panacea knows more or less all the pertinent details, yes.” Emily wasn't telling the entire truth—after all, the Dallon girl didn't know Shadow Stalker had escaped capture—but that was a hair which didn't need splitting right now. And when it came to determining the innocence of Taylor Hebert, it wasn't really a pertinent detail, as such. In any case, Shadow Stalker had escaped after the healer had gone home for the night.

“Hm.” Carol's expression became pensive once more. “Well, then. I believe I can leave the other one for the moment. You've made a good case for the Hebert girl's innocence, and I can stand by that.”

Had Carol chosen to debate that specific point, arguing that two hundred plus fatalities outweighed a possibly concussed declaration of wanting to be a hero, it would've almost certainly come down to a court case. Even if Taylor were subsequently acquitted of all wrongdoing—not necessarily a sinecure, given the current atmosphere surrounding the Canary case—the PRT would most assuredly come out of it with a great deal of blame attached. Emily knew she'd be out of a job, as would nearly everyone with any connection to Shadow Stalker. The Wards and Protectorate would be split up and assigned around the country, and entirely new teams brought in to cover Brockton Bay. And the local villains, Emily knew with a certainty that bordered on prescience, would chew up and spit out whoever was brought in to 'handle' them.

Thus, she was feeling just a little relief as she nodded in reply. We aren't quite out of the woods yet, but we're closer than we were. “Thank you, Mrs Dallon. You're now on the same page as Glory Girl. The two of you may now discuss the case freely, assuming nobody else is listening in.” Her eyes flickered momentarily to the time display on her computer screen. She still had a few minutes up her sleeve, but fewer than she would've liked. “Were there any more questions?”

“Just one.” Carol Dallon stood, brushing her hands off on her skirt. She gave Emily a long, considering look; not in the least bit intimidated, Emily returned it with interest. “Is the culprit free or in custody?”

“You're not cleared to know anything about the culprit,” Emily reminded her just a little tartly. She just never stops. “And no pressing Panacea on the matter, either.” While she didn't think the healer would give her mother chapter and verse, there was no harm in giving the lawyer a firm directive.

“You won't have to worry about that.” Turning, Brandish pointed at Glory Girl. “Victoria, come along.” With a purposeful stride, she made for the door. Emily was just starting to realise what was happening when Glory Girl stopped.

“Mom,” the blonde teenager protested. “What about Ames?” She looked back toward her sister, and Emily could read the worry in her eyes.

“What about her?” Carol paused at the threshold. “Director Piggot, Panacea attacked me from behind. She used her powers on me without my permission. I can forgive many things, but not that.” Standing in the doorway, she gave Emily a direct look. “I wash my hands of her. You seem to have need of her; I don't want to ever see her again.”

“Brandish.” Emily didn't raise her voice, but she could see she had Carol Dallon's full attention. “You're making a mistake. You can't blame your own daughter for subduing you before you could start a fight inside a moving vehicle. Especially over a situation where you've admitted that you were ignorant of the facts.” She strove for a reasonable tone, but even as she spoke, she saw the woman's face shut down altogether.

Brandish looked bleakly back at her. “You're the one who's making a mistake. Two of them, in fact. First: New Wave is not under PRT orders, so you don't get to tell me what I can and can't do. Second: Panacea isn't my daughter, and never has been. I've had my doubts about her for a long time, and today merely proved me right. She doesn't belong in New Wave. As of right now, she's off the team.”

Emily cursed herself for the wounded pride she heard in the woman's voice. She was the one who'd dismantled Carol Dallon's carefully constructed narrative and shown how close she'd come to making a catastrophic mistake. In the normal run of things, she had no doubt Brandish would have cooled down and become amenable to reason in a relatively short time. However, in this particular instance, Carol needed to salve her hurt feelings by lashing out at someone. Emily was manifestly just doing her job, but Panacea had also drawn her mother's ire. This apparently coincided with an ongoing problem between the two of them, bringing it into the open once and for all. I think I'm going to have to revisit Panacea's file.

“Mom!” Glory Girl stared at her mother, then at her sister. “You can't just -”

“Glory Girl.” Emily's tone brooked no interference. More importantly, she interrupted the teen hero before she could repeat the mistake that Emily herself had just made. “Go with your mother. Panacea will be fine.” She glanced toward the healer, noting how she was huddled inside her hoodie as if trying to disappear into the wallpaper. … I hope.

Goddamn cape drama. She suppressed the thought even as she watched the door close behind Glory Girl. The stakes right now were more important than the hurt feelings of a prima donna cape. Maybe Brandish's family would be able to talk her around, and maybe they wouldn't. What was important was that Taylor Hebert woke up to a friendly, non-threatening environment. Which meant Panacea had to be on deck for that. Is she up to it?

“Miss Dallon. Are you all right?” Emily made her voice as gentle as possible. Picking up the folder, she stood and moved around the desk, stopping short of actually crossing the room and crowding into the teenager's space. Wonder of wonders, Armsmaster took the hint and moved a couple of steps away from Panacea as well.

Panacea sniffled and surreptitiously wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “I … I guess,” she mumbled. “That was a bit sudden, is all.” She drew in a deep breath and straightened up again. “I can deal. She'll cool off. Eventually.” Emily wasn't quite sure whether or not to believe her. She wasn't even certain if Panacea believed her own words.

Armsmaster, apparently, had fewer doubts. “That-a-girl,” he said encouragingly. “You did what you had to. She'll come around.” He paused for a moment. “And even if she doesn't, we've got the Wards program -”

“- but we'll talk about that another time,” Emily cut in briskly. Not the right time, Mr Wallis. “Right now, I believe Taylor's about to wake up. Amy, do you feel up to sitting with her again?” She didn't quite hold her breath over the answer, but if pressed, she would've admitted to a certain amount of tension. Amy Dallon's insights into the teenage mindset had come in extremely handy on the previous night.

Panacea's chin came up and her resolve visibly firmed. “I can do that,” she said; to Emily's ear, her voice held a note of something akin to gratitude.

Right at that moment, Emily had no idea what was going through the girl's head. The mood whiplash made her want to sigh with relief and bang her head on the desk, all at the same time. I need a teen girl whisperer for my teen girl whisperer. Is this what it's like to be a parent? “Good,” she said out loud. “I do appreciate the time and effort you're putting in.”

Wonder of wonders, that actually got her a wan smile. “Thanks,” Panacea said. “I'm just glad I can help someone to not have a shitty day today.”

“Well, she's still got several pieces of unpleasant news to take in,” Emily reminded her. “But with you there, I'm certain she'll take it better than if you weren't.” Which was, she knew, about the understatement of the century. Her background was in the PRT as part of field operations, which meant she was accustomed to giving orders and expecting results. Working with children, having to dance around hurt feelings, was not something she was good at. Of course, she reminded herself sourly, that also applied to working with some of the adult capes as well. Armsmaster's antipathy toward Dauntless was, after all, perhaps the worst-kept secret in the Brockton Bay PRT building.

Amy Dallon nodded. “I'll do what I can,” she promised. She squared her shoulders and moved toward the door. “We'd better get moving. She won't be asleep for much longer.” Now she had been reminded of her charge, Emily noted with bemusement, she was once more acting like a medical professional rather than a traumatised teenager. There would probably be an emotional crash coming at some point in the future, but Emily knew the wisest course of action was to deal with one problem at a time. We'll deal with that when we get to it.

“Well, then,” Emily said. “Let's not waste any time.” Moving toward the door, she opened it, then paused. “Armsmaster.”

The armoured hero stopped halfway to the door. “Yes, ma'am?”

“Get some sleep. That's an order. Panacea and I can handle this.” It felt good to say it.

To his credit, he didn't even try to argue. “Yes, Director.”

“Good.” With that, Emily turned and led the way toward the infirmary.

<><>

Taylor

This time, when I woke up, my mind was a lot less confused. It took me only a few seconds to recall that I was in the PRT infirmary, and what had gone before. It would still have been frightening and unfamiliar, but my blurry vision made out Panacea—Amy—sitting at the side of the bed, her hand touching mine.

“Hey,” I said, my voice a little raspy. “Did you get any sleep last night?” Taking her hand, I squeezed it. “Dunno if I said thanks last night, but thanks.”

“And what about your dear old dad?” It was Dad's voice, all right. I turned my head as my glasses were pushed into my free hand. After fitting them on to my face—and rubbing the sleep from my eyes—I took a good look at him. For once, he looked well-rested and clean-shaven, and the smile he sent my way was worth more than gold or jewels to me. Letting go of Panacea's hand, I sat up and hugged Dad fiercely, feeling his arms go around me in return.

“Feeling better, kiddo?” he asked, the smile showing through in his voice as he let me go. My smile only broadened; he didn't often call me that, but when he did, he meant it. It showed the depth of emotion he was feeling right at that moment.

“Lots, actually.” I meant it, too. I still remembered what had happened the previous evening, but with the distance of a good night's sleep between now and then, I was able to view it more objectively. Of course, there were some things I didn't really want to remember, and for which I'd probably need therapy, but … “Well, not totally okay.” I took his hand and squeezed it, feeling him return the pressure. My eyes went down and away from him. “I don't know if I'll ever really be okay again. But I'm not as big a mess as I was last night.”

“That's good to hear, Miss Hebert.” I looked up at the new voice, just as Panacea recaptured my free hand. A heavy-set woman wearing a blue business suit had entered the infirmary. She looked vaguely familiar to me, but the big hint was the way the guard stood to attention as she walked past him. “I'm Director Emily Piggot. You're in my building. Do you have any complaints about your treatment here?”

I tried to sit up a little straighter. The name of the Director of the local branch of the PRT was known to me, of course. Somehow, I'd thought she'd be taller. Grey eyes glinted back at me as I struggled to think of something to say. “I, uh, no, everyone's been really good. Thanks, uh …” Thanks for not Birdcaging me? How do I even say that without sounding like an idiot?

She gave me a measured nod, although her expression didn't change. I got the impression she only smiled for important events, such as the defeat of an Endbringer. “You're entirely welcome, Taylor. May I call you Taylor?”

Unlike some people who asked that sort of question, she actually paused after asking, instead of automatically assuming consent. I blinked stupidly for a second, then forced my mouth to work. “Uh, yeah, of course. Uh, Director.”

“Thank you. I'm here to speak to you about several important matters, Taylor.” Her gaze, which had already been intimidating, became even more intense. “But first, an important thing to note. You are not in trouble. Do you understand this? What I'm about to say is very serious, but I've had my people working hard through the night, and they've ironed out the details of what did actually happen yesterday. And it's not your fault.”

I wanted to believe her; I really did. But the memory of what I'd done came home to me once more. “But … I killed those people. With my powers.” I felt Panacea and Dad squeeze my hands at the same time. It helped, a little.

“Taylor, I've been doing my job here for ten years.” Her voice was firm, if a little harsh. “If there's anything I've learned in my time here, it's that there's a clear distinction between responsibility and guilt. Yes, your power is responsible for those deaths, but that doesn't make you guilty of murder.”

Her words weren't making sense. “If I'm not … then who is? Who can you blame for this? My power did it.”

I'd been wrong about her not smiling, although the expression that crossed her face was almost predatory. “The boys who attacked you would have been held responsible, but they're all dead. So the blame devolves on to the person who gave them their orders.”

My eyes opened wide. “Sophia Hess?” Wait—they can actually blame her for all this? Then reality returned, like a dousing from a bucket of cold water. It's not like they can prove it. “She'll just say she didn't do it.”

“As I said.” The Director's lips tightened. “My people have been busy. However, there's something you don't know about her. Something you need to know before we go any farther. Something that changes everything.”

I had no idea what to make of this. “Um … sure?”

She moved closer to the bed and held out a folder to Dad. “I'm going to need both of you to sign this, to show you're aware of the legal ramifications of passing on anything you hear in this room.”

“Sure, but I'm going to be reading it through first,” he said. I wasn't surprised; given his job in the Dock Workers, he always treated any contract with extreme caution. It wasn't what was in there that you had to worry about, he had once told me. It was the stuff that was implied but not actually included. So I was content to relax back onto my pillows—Panacea thoughtfully stole a pile of them from the other beds so I could sit up without discomfort—and let him peruse the document at his own pace.

Eventually, he finished looking it over and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said. “Though what's the Vikare Act again?” As he spoke, he took the pen that was clipped to the folder.

“It's got to do with stopping people from outing heroic capes,” I blurted, then felt myself flush as he and the Director both looked at me. “We covered it in World Affairs last year.”

“I'm pleased to see our educational system isn't quite failing today's youth.” Director Piggot's voice was just a little dry. “But that's basically correct, yes.”

“Right.” Dad signed his usual illegible scribble at the bottom of the document, then passed it over to me, along with the pen. I scrawled my own signature, then passed the folder and pen back to the Director. “So, what's so important my daughter needs to sign her life away before being told what's going on?”

She took a deep breath, looking extremely uncomfortable. I saw her eyes flicker to Panacea; to my surprise, the healer nodded slightly and made a go-on gesture. A grimace crossed the Director's face. “I'm going to do something now that I very rarely do. Taylor, Daniel, I want to offer my sincere apologies for everything Taylor's been through since September last. It is, at least in part, the fault of the PRT for not keeping Sophia Hess in line.”

After a few moments, I became aware I was gaping, my jaw hanging open like a landed fish. People like the Director didn't apologise. Not to people like me. Not about … “Wait. Did you say Sophia Hess?”

An expression very much like physical pain had taken up semi-permanent residence on her face; I could see it settling into lines already worn into her face. “I did. You see, Sophia Hess is otherwise known as Shadow Stalker.”

My jaw dropped for the second time in as many minutes. “Wait, what? The living fuck? Sophia's Shadow Stalker? A Ward? Fuck … that's …” My thoughts whirled. Dad looked just as confused as I did, but Panacea … “Wait, did you already know about this?”

“Not until last night,” Panacea said quietly. Her hands were both holding mine. “Shadow Stalker's always been very close-mouthed with her secret identity. If I'd have had even a hint …” Her grip tightened on mine, and I squeezed back. Her support meant so much to me, right at that moment.

“How long have you known?” This was a different side of Dad. His jaw was set, and his tone was granite-hard as he faced the Director. “How long has the PRT been letting this go on?”

“It seems it's been permitted to go on since last September.” The Director didn't look any happier, but she wasn't being defensive about it. “I found out last night. Shadow Stalker, you see, wasn't exactly a model citizen before she joined the Wards. She had a handler, who was supposed to be reporting any irregularities. Between that woman and your Principal Blackwell, nothing of any note got through to me. That side of things is being dealt with as we speak. It was an unconscionable state of affairs, but it's now at an end. Thanks mainly to your daughter.”

“And we're supposed to be grateful after the fact?” Dad wasn't giving an inch. “After my daughter was bullied to within an inch of her life? After what happened yesterday?” His grip on my hand tightened, and I squeezed back. “I could've lost her, because you were all looking in the wrong goddamn fucking direction!”

The Director shook her head. “I don't expect thanks, Mr Hebert. You're entirely correct. This is my job, and I missed things I should've caught. Well, I'm aware of it now. Shadow Stalker's case worker is currently in custody, pending charges. Principal Blackwell is almost certainly going to lose her job, once what my people found on her computer system makes its way to the right people. So are half the teachers in Taylor's year.” She put the folder on the end of the bed and spread her hands. “I acknowledge that the PRT screwed up, Taylor. As the Director, this is ultimately my fault. Right now, I'm working to fix it.”

Dad jumped in. “And how exactly are you planning to do that?”

The Director looked him straight in the eye. “From what we found in the Winslow computer system, you're due a considerably larger compensation check than you got from them last month.”

“Wait a minute.” My head was still buzzing with all the new information, but I picked out several important bits. “You went to Winslow? In the middle of the night? Just for me?”

Fuck the money!” Dad's eyes locked on to the Director's, and he pointed off to the side. “What are you going to do about Sophia Hess, given she blew out through that window last night? Has she been recaptured?”

“It's a work in progress,” the Director stated firmly. “We know her capabilities, we know her skills, and we'll have her home locked down solid. It's only a matter of time before she's in custody.” I watched her face. From her expression, she was just as angry as Dad, but she was better at concealing it. “She's been caught before. We can do it again.”

“And what happens once you get her?” Dad wasn't letting this go. “A slap on the wrist? Juvey for a couple of years? Shuffled off to the Wards in a different city under a different name?”

“None of the above.” The Director's expression hardened. “I'm going to be pushing for the Birdcage, myself.”

“Really? A teenager?” Dad's expression was sceptical. “Is that ever really going to happen, or are you just saying it? Because I've had people put their hands on their hearts before and -”

“Mr Hebert.” She was starting to show her anger, now. They faced each other, bristling like two dogs that both refused to back down. “If you think for one moment -”

“Director!” I didn't want to step in between them but I knew if this kept escalating, Dad might just throw a punch, and that would be bad for everyone. She swung to look at me, eyes still flinty with anger. “Uh, you said something about finding stuff on Principal Blackwell's computer. Was it really that bad?”

She took a breath then, and seemed to relax slightly. “Yes. I authorised Armsmaster to call in Dragon to help.” She didn't have to say any more. If there was a better person to work with computers than Dragon, nobody knew of them. She was the computer Tinker. “And Dragon found everything there was to find.”

“And Blackwell's losing her job?” I had trouble believing that. While I hadn't personally interacted with the principal of Winslow very much, she had been the authority figure overshadowing my time in high school. With every act of unpunished bullying, every time my complaints had been trivialised, I had learned to trust her less and less, until she was simply there, the anchor to the whole system. It wasn't that she had ever acted against me; more like she had never acted for me. But why that had been, I still couldn't … “Wait. Did she know -” Was she bending over backward because Shadow Stalker is a Ward?

The Director nodded. “Yes. We have arrangements with schools that have Wards attending them. It seems she was inclined to let Shadow Stalker's misbehaviour go a little farther than it should have, in order to keep her in the school and collect the stipend. We have yet to analyse everything we got, but if it seems too egregious, there may be prison time involved.” She seemed neither pleased nor unhappy at this, merely satisfied she was doing her job.

“Good.” Dad had managed to regain his own cool while the Director was talking. He shot me a grateful glance, then directed his attention back toward her. However, his tone had lost a lot of the aggression from before, and he was definitely happy at this turn of events. “She doesn't deserve to run a hot-dog cart, let alone a goddamn high school.”

“So I gathered.” The Director gave him a measured nod. “And you can be certain we'll be dealing appropriately with Shadow Stalker once she's in custody.” She turned toward me. “But there's something else you need to know about. Something that is not your fault.”

Involuntarily, I tensed up. Those three words, no doubt intended to make me feel better, had exactly the opposite result. I glanced from Dad to Panacea. Neither one seemed to be surprised by the way this was going. “Uh …”

“I'm here for you.” Dad squeezed my hand. “Hear her out.” I squeezed back, glad of his presence, but still not sure what was going on.

“Me too.” Panacea gave me a slightly damp smile. “It's gonna be all right. I promise.”

Don't make promises you can't keep. I took a deep breath and looked the Director in the eye. “Okay, hit me.”

She nodded once, looking uncomfortable. “The death toll of the Swarm wasn't just the five people you know about. There were … more. Many more.”

My breath caught in my throat. “M-more?” I heard my voice squeak, and I hated myself for it. “How-how many more? Ten?” My eyes clenched shut, not wanting to see the look in her eyes. The look of pity, with a strong hint of sadness. “Fifty?” There was no answer. “A hundred?”

“Taylor.” Panacea let go my hand; a moment later, I felt her wrap her arms around me. “I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. It was two hundred and seventy-three people.”

two …

“What?” I nearly screamed the word. “No! Not that many! How? How?”

hundred ..

“Shh, shh ...” Dad's voice was soothing in my ear as he stroked my hair. “It just happened. Your powers were really widespread. It's not your fault.”

seventy …

I bucked against Panacea's hug, not sure why I was fighting. “No! I don't believe it! It's not true! How could I do that?”

three …

I felt Panacea's cheek against mine. It was wet with tears; hers or mine, I wasn't sure. “You didn't do it, Taylor. You didn't do it. You stopped the Swarm as soon as you woke up. You saved lives. It's Shadow Stalker who killed them. Not you.”

people …

I pushed away from Panacea, tears running down my cheeks, and screamed. My voice echoed from the walls, interspersed with my racking sobs. I screamed again and again, until my throat was raw and I had a headache from the effort I was putting into it. Outside the building, I could feel the bugs starting to get agitated, but I couldn't make myself care. My voice, harsh and ragged, echoed through the room yet again, and blackness welled up at the edges of my vision. I began to slide away into some dark place where I could wail and scream in the darkness, where nobody could hear me.

Then I was back, shuddering and crying. Panacea held me as I sobbed into her shoulder. It felt … better. I could control my emotions more, and the bugs began to settle down again. Someone, probably Dad, patted me on the back.

I might not have been personally responsible for this—despite the Director's assurances, I still harboured some secret doubts—but it was still my power that did it, no matter who had set off the situation. Maybe I should've attacked them earlier. Maybe I should've … I didn't know what I should've done. Something.

I had no idea how long it took for me to cry myself out. All of the repressed emotions came out. All of the anger and fear that had filled me at the time, the terror as I realised what the boys intended, the despair and hopelessness I felt more and more these days. It all came bubbling up as I cried on Panacea's shoulder.

At some point, I realised the headache was gone, and my throat was no longer raw. I still felt like shit, but it was a level of feeling-like-shit I could tolerate. Slowly, I opened my eyes, realising someone had removed my glasses during my crying jag. Panacea smiled at me, close enough that my poor vision could spot it, and offered me a handkerchief. I took it and wiped my eyes, then blew my nose. That went on for some time. Then she took it away and gave me my glasses back.

“Hey,” she said quietly. “You okay?”

I took a good look at her for the first time in … well, ever. Everyone had seen the publicity stills for New Wave, with Glory Girl posing in mid-air, front and centre. In those pictures, Panacea was usually standing off to the side with the cowled robe and the facial scarf, with only her eyes showing. She couldn't fly or bounce bullets off her chest. The prominent red crosses on her costume pointed out her role to all concerned. Nobody bothered her, or bothered with her.

She'd pushed her hood back so messy brown hair framed her concerned eyes. Tiny lines around them told me she hadn't had as easy a life as some people probably thought. She had problems, or she'd had them in the past. I had no doubt that I had similar lines on my own face. I was no great judge of feminine beauty—I knew I didn't have any worth notingbut I figured if she put the effort in, she could be pretty, though her cheekbones weren't pronounced enough for anything more than that. She did have freckles dusted over her nose, and I'd heard some guys found that sort of thing cute, so there was that.

Looking at her from this close, something struck me as weird. Glory Girl's face was well-known, as were the more active members of New Wave. Both Brandish and Glory Girl had classically beautiful faces, with strong cheekbones and heart-shaped faces. Panacea … looked nothing like them. Not in the hair, not in the eyes, not in the shape of the face. And while Flashbang had light brown hair and Brandish was blonde, Panacea's hair was darker than her father's and downright frizzy. Nobody else in New Wave had curly hair at all. Or freckles, for that matter.

“What?” she asked, flushing slightly. “Is there something on my nose?” Lifting her free hand—the other one was still holding mine—she rubbed at it.

“No, sorry.” I felt embarrassed to have been caught staring. “It's just that I've seen your picture a thousand times, but I've never actually seen your face before.”

She rolled her eyes in what looked like a practised move. “It's just a face. Nobody looks at me. Everyone looks at Vicky.” I wasn't quite sure what to make of her tone. Was she annoyed or relieved?

“I know what that's like.” I didn't like to think of Emma, with all she'd done to me, but if it let me relate to Panacea even superficially, I could stand it. “I … used to have a best friend who models occasionally. All the boys look at her. Never at me.”

“Um, honey, why do you say 'used to have'?” asked Dad. He was still standing next to the bed, I realised with an awkward start. Director Piggot was still standing off at a discreet distance. I had no idea what she thought of me now. Overly emotional teenager probably rated high on the list.

“Uh …” I stopped short. Dad didn't know about Emma, or Madison. He knew about Sophia, but not that she was connected to them. Oh, god. What do I tell him?

“She screwed me over.” It took me a second to realise the voice was mine. I was speaking the words I'd never thought I would say out loud. “Sophia's her best friend now. They've got another friend called Madison. Ever since we went to Winslow, they've been bullying me.” With an effort, I closed my mouth, panting slightly. What the hell was that? I'd managed to keep all that secret from Dad for more than a year, and now I was just casually blurting it out?

“What … the … hell?” Dad's eyes opened wide behind his glasses. “Why didn't you tell me? Like … a year ago?” I could see the anger mounting in his face again.

I thought I had it. The emotional release from all the crying had temporarily knocked down my normal barriers. My filters needed re-establishing before I blurted out all my secrets to the world. “At first I thought it was me.” Okay, that's good. “Then I tried complaining to the teachers. But it didn't help. And you were still grieving for Mom, and I didn't want to put more on your plate. Then it was too late. It had gone on too long, and I didn't know how to tell you.” Yeah, that's better.

The Director pulled out a phone and stepped away from us, dialling a number. I didn't know what was going on with her, but I guessed if it was urgent, she would've spoken to the guard at the door.

“Still, you should've told me,” he said, an agonised look on his face. “I mean, god, Taylor.”

I sighed softly. Panacea squeezed my hand encouragingly. “Yeah, I got it.” My voice was resigned. “I'm an idiot.” Then I remembered something he'd said before I'd been given the news on the death toll. “Wait a minute. You said Sophia blew out of here through that window. How did you know she … wait, did she do that while I was in here?”

He nodded reluctantly. “She was going to—I think she was going to try and kill you. But I stopped her.” He opened his mouth, then shut it again.

“Stopped her?” Now I was curious. “How did you do that?” My Dad, the hero. For a moment, I imagined him tackling Sophia to the ground and wresting the crossbows from her hands.

“I, uh, hit her on the head …” He mumbled three more words so quietly I didn't hear them. But apparently Panacea did, because she burst out laughing.

“What?” I stared at him, then at her. “What was that? What did he say?”

“With a bedpan!” she whooped. “Mr Hebert, that's awesome!” She held up her hand for a high-five across the bed. With a bemused expression on his face, he returned it.

As the mental image of Dad bonking Sophia Hess over the head with a bedpan sent me into a fit of the giggles, a thought occurred to me.

Things could be worse.

<><>

Sophia

This sucks.

Sophia looked around the confines of the small room she'd been shown to. It was a little larger than a prison cell, but not hugely so. Also, she was fairly certain it was underground, which explained the total lack of windows. In fact, the whole base struck her as being still under construction, with trailing wires here and there, and lots of crates with odd stencilled markings on them stacked up in large piles. Coil's mooks seemed to be relatively disorganised, which would suck for them if the place had to be defended in a hurry. If the PRT came in here right now, they could roll these guys up pretty easily.

Standing up from the bed—at least it was an actual bed, rather than a hard concrete slab—she took three steps and opened the closet tucked away in one corner. There were hangers, but no clothes at the moment. Let's hope I'm not here long enough to need to store anything in here. She moved on, into the tiny bathroom that the room boasted. Washbasin, commode, shower cubicle. All the fittings looked as though they'd been bought pre-fabricated and plugged into place. I wonder if that actually means something I can use?

After a moment, she dug the phone out of the pouch on the back of her belt. Powering it up, she checked the charge. It still had over seventy percent, which was heartening. Unfortunately, it also showed zero signal bars. Figures. Lots of concrete means lots of rebar. But this didn't mean she couldn't use the camera. Maybe Calvert can match these to a purchaser. Careful to turn the flash off, she took several shots of the bathroom fittings, and one of her bed. A distant clanging warned her someone was approaching her door. It did have a lock on the inside—for which she was obscurely grateful—but she had no illusions about its ability to withstand a determined force.

By the time the mercenary banged on her door, she had the phone powered down and back in the pouch. She unlocked the door and opened it. “What the fuck do you want?”

“Here.” The uniformed man thrust a carrier bag at her. “Boss wants you costumed up and out front of his office in ten.” His helmet had a closed faceplate, just like the rest of them, though his nametag read MINOR. She wasn't sure if that was his real name, a codename, or an indication that he was only seventeen. Not that she cared either way.

“I'm already costumed up.” She ignored the carrier bag and tapped the mask she was wearing. “See?” Moron.

“Nope.” He shook his head. “You're not Shadow Stalker any more. Protectorate sees that costume, they'll come down on you like the hounds of hell. Some cape they've never seen before, it'll be business as normal. Take the damn bag.”

He had a point, though she didn't like to admit to anyone getting the better of her, even in an argument. With a sneer that was wasted on him, she snatched the bag from his hand and stepped back into her room. Even as she closed the door again, the resonant clanging indicated he was heading off again on whatever other duties Coil had planned for him.

Reaching into the bag, she pulled out a tinted visor attached to a boxing-style head protector. This she tossed on to the bed. The next thing she found was a shopping bag containing half a dozen sets of feminine underwear, all in generic brands. She sneered again; Emma had shown her the difference in quality between generic and designer brands, and she'd never gone back. Finally, she found a set of urban-camo fatigues in her approximate size, and a hooded cloak in the same pattern.

I'm Shadow Stalker, damn it. She didn't want to change costumes, because that meant these assholes were impressing their wills on her, and she didn't take that shit. Not for one hot Brockton Bay second. But she knew she had to play along, just for a while. Right up until I can turn around and fuck them up hard.

Five minutes later, her Stalker costume was folded neatly on the bed, or as neatly as she ever folded it. In its place, she was wearing the urban camo. Over her face, she fitted the faceplate; it didn't obscure her vision nearly as much as she'd worried about. After a moment spent figuring how to attach the cloak to the costume, she headed into the bathroom to check herself out.

It was definitely a good look. With her normal mask, people could focus more or less on her eyes, but with this one, there was nothing to focus on. Like Clockblocker, but badass. It changed her whole appearance, a lot more than she'd figured it would. I think I can scare the fuck out of people like this.

With that pleasant thought in mind, she headed back into the main room and considered the utility belt. If I put it on, people might wonder why. After a few moments, she took out the phone and earpiece. The latter went into her ear, almost entirely concealed by the head protector even before she pulled the hood up. The phone was more problematic; she tried it in half a dozen different pockets before deciding that tucking it into her bra was her best bet. It rode awkwardly, and wasn't particularly comfortable, but it was the best she was going to get.

Thus fully costumed, she strode from her room toward Coil's office. Every mercenary she passed had a sidearm or a rifle, whereas she had no weapons. Even though the strongest reaction she got was an occasional odd look, every step caused her to feel the lack of armament more and more keenly.

When she got there, she hesitated. Do I knock and wait, barge in, or phase through the door? No, scratch that last. It's almost certainly wired. The Tinkertech circuitry in her Shadow Stalker mask had not been replicated in her visor. While this wasn't exactly surprising, it did leave her feeling slightly more vulnerable.

She was just making up her mind to knock when the door slid open and Coil stepped out. She couldn't see his eyes, but from the way he moved his head, he was looking her over. “Good,” he said, his dry-as-dust voice giving her the creeps. “It suits you. Unless you have an objection, your new codename will be Spectre.”

What the fuck do I say to that? On the one hand, 'spectre' was a little close to 'spook', which still got used as an insult from time to time. On the other, it was kind of badass. And hadn't there been a James Bond villain group called that? Then she took a mental grip on herself. What the fuck am I worried about? They can call me what they like. I'm goddamn Shadow Stalker, bitches. “Sure,” she said. “Sounds kickass to me.”

“I'm glad you approve.” She couldn't quite tell if he was being sarcastic. “Go with Fish. He'll take you to meet the people you'll be working with.” He turned away from her and headed back into his office. She considered striking then and there, decapitating the organisation, but that would make her chances of survival somewhat slim. I'll wait till later. See what Calvert has to say.

With that thought in mind, she turned to go look for Fish, only to find the burly mercenary standing right behind her. “Holy fuck!” she yelped, jumping half a yard back. “Don't do that!” He wasn't there ten seconds ago. And how did he sneak up behind me? Is he a fucking cape too?

“Do what?” He handed her the shopping bag from her room. “That's yours. Let's go.” His voice revealed nothing out of the ordinary. For all she knew, his hobby consisted of scaring the living shit out of teenage girls.

Numbly she took the bag, then glared at him—to no avail, she recalled a moment later, as they were both wearing tinted visors. “The fuck? You get this out of my room?”

“And if I did?” He shrugged. “The boss said to get it and meet you here. Anyway, you're being posted away from this base. Your other stuff will go into storage until you get back.” There was no triumph, no gloating. Just simple statements of fact. He pivoted on his heel and moved off, his boots clanging rhythmically on the metal catwalk. “Coming?” he called over his shoulder.

After a moment, she followed. He moved easily, with a long stride she couldn't duplicate; as it was, she had to half-trot to keep up. Bet I could still outrun you on the flat, asshole. With a permanent sneer on her face, she kept pace with him as they headed for the exit.

When they reached the last door, he pulled a familiar-looking bag from his pocket. “Gotta put this on.”

She shook her head. “No. Fuck off. I'm one of you guys now. I'm even wearing your pansy-ass uniform.” Even though it does look kinda badass on me.

Unmoved, he shook his head. “Boss's orders.” He offered the bag again.

Fuck. I have got to get orders soon. And for that, I've gotta get outside. With a snarl, she snatched the bag from his hand, pulled back the hood, and yanked the bag over her head. “Okay, happy now?”

“Totally.” His voice was deadpan. She felt his hand descend on her shoulder, and he guided her to a vehicle. After she heard the door open, she felt her way around until she could climb in. The door closed behind her, then after a moment Fish got in on the far side. “I'll get you close, then give you directions,” he said. “You can walk the rest of the way. They know you're coming.”

“Who the fuck are they?” She hated asking, especially from inside the bag, but she also hated being kept in the dark. Figuratively and literally. “And when will you assholes be giving me my crossbows back?”

“You'll find out when you meet them.” Fish started the car. “And you won't be getting your crossbows back. They're too easy to trace back to you. Boss says you'll be supplied with new weapons.” The vehicle moved off, leaving Sophia to stew in her own thoughts. The mercenary was right, she decided, but she didn't have to like it. And she really didn't like being unarmed. Not that that was really an issue; if it came down to it, whatever weapons the enemy had would soon be her weapons.

Still, the loss of the crossbows hurt, even if they would identify her to the PRT and Protectorate. God damnit.

<><>

“Okay, we're here.” The car pulled to a halt. Sophia had no idea where she was, save that the roads had been getting rougher.

“Can I take the fucking bag off yet?” she snapped. Her nostrils felt suffused with the musty smell of unwashed cloth.

“You could've taken it off five minutes ago,” he said, a tone of mild surprise in his voice. “I kind of figured you liked it that way.”

Asshole! She jerked the bag off her head and gave him the finger with both hands at once. “Not fuckin' funny, shitbag,” she hissed.

Although she couldn't see his face, she got the distinct impression he was raising an eyebrow at her. “Actually, it kinda was.” He pointed out through the windshield. “See that intersection? Turn right, go half a block. Big-ass building on the right. You'll hear dogs barking. Go on in. Introduce yourself.”

She wanted to hit him, but there was no way it would go well after that. With one final impotent glare, she opened her door and got out, then stomped on down the street. She heard the car pulling a U-turn behind her, and looked back to get a read on the license plate. To her irritation, it was smeared with mud. Which was, she decided, probably deliberate. Because Coil's not stupid. Which is gonna make it all the more satisfying to take his ass down, once and for all.

She trudged on down the street and turned the corner. This was the crappy area of town. Shopfronts were closed, and wrecked cars decorated the street here and there. Down on the right was indeed a large brick building. She broke into a trot to get there before anyone spotted her, the cloak billowing out behind her. Rather than wait for whoever was inside to unlock the personal-entrance door, she phased into shadow and stepped through the obviously-stuck roller-door. Inside was dark and smelled of rust and mould. And dog, too; even as she registered the smell, a storm of barking started up from … above?

Looking around, she saw a spiral staircase ascending into the gloom. She took the stairs two at a time, moving as quietly as she knew how. Whoever these guys were, she wanted to make a proper appearance. She just wished she had her weapons, so she could ensure they knew not to fuck with her.

As she reached the top, she heard voices over the barking. Someone was shushing the dogs, while other people were talking to each other.

“Sounds like our new member's here.” That was a girl.

“Any idea who it is?” A guy, sounded kinda husky.

“Eh, so long it's not some kinda dork.” Another guy, with what sounded like a no-shits-given attitude.

There were lights on inside, so she decided to show off a bit. Placing the shopping bag on the floor, she turned to shadow and leaped inside, rolling to her feet and turning solid with her new cloak flaring behind her. It was, she decided, one of her better entrances.

“What -”

“Holy shit -”

“Look out -”

Two guys and two girls were staring at her. None were masked or costumed, but there seemed to be something terribly familiar about them. The stocky auburn-haired girl kneeling with the dogs recovered first. “It's Shadow Stalker!” she yelled. Raising her hand as the dogs began to growl, she pointed at Sophia and started to frame a command.

“No, wait!” It was the blonde with the elaborate French braid in her hair. “Guys, this is our new member.” Amusement flared in her eyes, and she began to chuckle. Then that devolved into full-on laughter.

“The fuck?” The skinny guy with the delicate features and curly hair stared at her. “Shadow Stalker is our new fucking member? How the fuck does that even work?”

The big black guy stood up, towering over Sophia even from across the room. Darkness began to leak from his skin, confirming her rapidly-growing suspicions about whose base she had just walked into. Fuck me. It's the Undersiders. And she was unarmed, up against Grue, in a confined space. Someone whom she'd shot with a broadhead arrow not so very long ago. He'll fucking murder me.

The blonde—fucking Tattletale—let up on her laughing for just a moment. “She—she ran from the PRT,” she gasped. “Wanted for—oh shit, this is too good—all the shit she's done. She's legit, guys.” With that, she lost control of her hilarity to the point where she fell off the sofa arm she'd been perched on, ending up out of Sophia's sight. Her feet stuck out into view, kicking at the carpet in tune with her repeated peals of laughter.

Grue rubbed the back of his neck and stared at her. “This is not fucking cool,” he growled.

For the first time in her life, she found herself agreeing with him. 

Part 11