Price of Blood `12
 
 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?

<><>

Carol

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

Amy

“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

Grue

“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

Coil

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.

Part 13

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I'm only human.  My writing speed is not infinite.  And so I tend to write one or two chapters at a time.  However, given that interest has been noted in getting chapters from stories that are not in the voting lineup, I can write such a chapter from time to time.
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