Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

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March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22

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“…you can call me Weaver.”

The broadcast ended.   A hush took hold of everyone present, a silence that deepened when someone muted the television.

The spell was broken by one of the kids.  Ephraim.  “She’s going to be a hero?”

“She’s going to try,” Forrest answered.

Charlotte looked around at the collected residents of the Boardwalk.  It was customary, now, to have a block party every third night of the week.  A mass-barbecue, a bonfire on the beach, or some other big meal that would bring everyone together.  Community.

Skitter’s community, though Skitter was gone, in more senses than one.

Taylor had turned herself in, early in the day, and word had spread.  They’d hooked up a television, the biggest they could get their hands on, and set it up beneath a waterproof tent for good measure.

For the better part of the day, they’d watched.  People had stopped by, glancing at the latest news.  Any update, however large or small, was met by shouted alerts, by hollers and speculation.

Charlotte had taken the day off school, taking only the time necessary to see the little ones off and to bring them back.  She wouldn’t have been able to focus, anyways, and the schools were still being lenient.

And now, finally, this.

“It’s done,” Charlotte said.  “For better or worse.”

“For better,” Forrest said.

“I’m not so sure,” Charlotte said, lowering her voice so others wouldn’t hear.

“She’s a hero,” Forrest said.  “This is where she’s supposed to be.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte answered.  She couldn’t help but think of how scary Taylor had been when she’d dealt with the ABB thugs.  How easily the girl had slipped into her role as a leader of the territory.  “But even if it’s where she’s meant to go, they won’t necessarily accept her.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Forrest said.  “It’s out of our hands.  We’ll wish her the best, give her some moral support if they let her get fan letters, and handle our own business, so she doesn’t have to worry about us.  And speaking of handling our own business…”

Forrest directed a pointed look at the kids who were sitting around Charlotte.

“Right,” she said.

“I’ll be along to see to the lads,” Forrest said.  “Just have to clean up first.”

Charlotte nodded.  Bed time for the littlest ones.  She rose from the bench.  “Show’s over, come on, it’s time to go to bed.”

There were groans and grumbles here and there.  Charlotte knew who it was without looking.  She identified Mason, set a hand on top of his head, and pulled him closer to her as she walked back to their place.  “Be good.”

Mason mimicked the exact same groan he’d given a moment ago.

“So dumb,” Kathy was saying.  She was one of the older children, looking after Jessie and Aidan.  “I never had to go to bed this early before.”

“It’s easier,” Charlotte said.  “And we can all use an earlier bedtime.  It leaves us in better shape to face tomorrow, don’t you think?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Kathy said.

Kathy and Mason were the most likely to fight, to challenge her.  When she was hurrying to get them out to the bus stop for school, it was Mason who would decide he’d suddenly forgotten how to tie his shoes, or who would drag his feet to force her to seize his hand and pull him along.  He needed that attention in moments of crisis, however small.  Kathy was the opposite.  Charlotte hadn’t uncovered the details, but the girl had been burned by someone in authority, and rebelled against it as a matter of habit.  Kathy wanted to be independent, but she was too young.

“You were complaining about something I said.”

Kathy glared at her.  “I could stay up, watch TV for another hour or two, and then go to bed.  I’d be quiet.”

“And what if you were too tired to look after Aidan and Jessie?”

Kathy scowled, but she didn’t reply.

Jessie wet the bed most nights.  She never came to Charlotte to let her know.  More than once, Charlotte had found the girl sleeping on the floor when morning came.  Aidan had nightmares that left him screaming and wailing well after he’d woken up, refusing to listen to her.  More than once, he’d actually had the nightmares while sleepwalking.

It was hard to deal with, frankly.  She’d taken to setting her alarm for one, three and five o’clock in the morning, rising from bed and checking in to make sure the kids were alright, that Jessie’s bed was dry.  It was embarrassing to admit, but there had been four occasions when she’d been terrified as she had run into Aidan, standing in the bathroom or sitting at the table in the kitchen.  Each time, he’d been gripped by whatever terrors it was that found him at nighttime.  Half the time he fought her, the other half the time he just screamed, bloodcurdling.

Kathy, a little more than half Charlotte’s age, took it in stride, almost thrived on looking after the younger ones.  She had endless patience with Jessie’s nighttime accidents, and virtually every time Aidan’s screams woke her, Kathy was already at his side, speaking calmly, waiting until he’d relaxed enough that she could hug and cuddle him.

They made their way inside, and Charlotte was sure to close the shutter just beyond the front door.  Aidan watched carefully as she fed the chain through the ring at the base of the door and the small gap in the floor.  She locked it, then tugged it for good measure, demonstrating how secure it was.

“Safe,” she said.

Wordless, his forehead creased with the sort of worry he shouldn’t have for another fifteen years, Aidan turned and walked away.

“Girls in the bath first, snacks after,” Charlotte said.  “Boys, cookies and milk before your bath.”

The O’Daly clan had collected their kids, most of their kids, finally.  It left the number more manageable.  Kathy, Mai and Jessie made their way to the bathroom.  Aidan, Ephraim, Ethan and Mason found stools at the kitchen counter while Ben, the oldest of the boys, got the cookies, glasses and milk out.

Charlotte checked on the girls to make sure that they were getting along okay, then shut the bathroom door and got her laptop out.

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“She’s famous,” Charlotte said aloud.

“Because she was on TV?” this from Aidan.

“Because she was a bad guy, and she turned around and decided to be good,” Charlotte said.  “And because she helped beat Alexandria.  It’s controversial stuff, and I think people are going to be arguing about it for a long time.”

“She’s not a bad guy,” Ben said, taking a seat beside the other boys.

“Was too,” Ephraim said.

“She was scary and mean,” Ben said, “But she’s not bad.”

“They’re the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlotte says.

“She got us pizza,” Ben said.  “That’s all that matters to me.”

“That’s sound enough reasoning,” Charlotte said, smiling a little.

She left the laptop to visit the bathroom, calling through the door.  “Five minutes, then out!”

She could hear another grumble from Kathy.

They’d do better if left to their own devices.  Kathy would be happier with something to do, even if it was washing the hair of the younger girls and ensuring they brushed their teeth.

She returned to the kitchen, collecting the plates and glasses and putting them in the dishwasher.

A car horn outside caught her attention.  It wasn’t easy to get cars in and out of the area, with the streets still under repair, and the vehicles that were around were construction vehicles, which didn’t work this late at night.

The horn sounded again, and there were shouts in response.

She was still staring at the door, straining to make out something telling, when Ethan approached her.

“Do you need me to run an errand?”

“No, Ethan.  Now might not be a good time.”  There was more noise outside.  Voices.

“Okay,” he said.  He looked disappointed.

“If you want some fresh air, I can let you upstairs.  You can sit on the balcony.”

Ethan frowned.  “No.  No thanks.”

“Just give me five minutes,” she said.  “Ben?  Lock the shutter after me.  I’ll come through the door downstairs when I return.  Let Kathy and the girls know I’ll be back.”

Ben nodded.

She didn’t raise the shutter all the way, stooping beneath and holding it partially closed.  Ben wasn’t strong enough to lower it on his own, and the outside didn’t have any real handholds.

With Ben’s help, she still managed to press her hands against the broad strip of metal and push it to ground level.  There was a sound of the chain rattling through the gaps.

People were active, gathering in clusters and crowds.  The focus of attention?  A news van.

The news crew was surrounded.

“…word out,” the reporter was saying.  “People are going to make a lot of ugly assumptions.”

“Just go!” someone shouted.

“Turn the camera off and leave!”

The reporter, a tall, blond man with a broad jaw, only smiled.  “I’d almost think you guys had something to hide.”

“We want to be left alone,” Charlotte said.

“Not going to happen,” the reporter said.  “This is blowing up.  People are going to want to investigate every last scrap of dirt.  Even if I left, others would come.”

“We’ll tell them the same thing we told you,” she said.  She saw Forrest approaching, making his way through the crowd.  “That we had school and work all day, that everyone here is working on rebuilding, and we’re tired, we’re not interested in the scandal of the moment.”

“Working hard?” the reporter asked.  “What if I offered, say, two hundred bucks, to whoever gave me the most information?”

“We’d tell you to fuck off,” Forrest cut in, before anyone could take the deal.

“World wants to know.  What is she really like?”  The reporter asked.  “Two hundred dollars, your face on camera.  If you love her, don’t you want people across America to hear something good?  Best support you can give.  If you hated her, well, the opposite’s true, isn’t it?”

“You’d twist our words around,” Forrest said.  “Edit it to take the choicest bits.”

“That’d be dishonest.  It’s not the way we work at channel twelve.”

“No,” Forrest said.  “I think that you’re primarily interested in what gets viewers and ratings.  Maybe you’d stick around for two hours, interview everyone you could, and then take the most controversial and extreme statements.  Only way we don’t play into your hands is if nobody opens their mouth.”

He raised his voice a little at that final statement.

“That so?” the reporter asked.  “Three hundred dollars.  That’s, what, two or three days’ pay, with the kind of wage you earn here?”

Forrest didn’t respond.

“Okay,” the reporter said.  “Well, there’s nothing stopping us from sitting around, is there?  And if someone decides that they’d like to earn a little cash…”

“They’d have to be pretty stupid,” Forrest said.  “Property values are set to soar here, and the way things are organized, just about everyone here is slated to earn a property or a share of a property somewhere down the road.”

“And you’re saying that has nothing to do with the fact that you all worked for a supervillain.”

“I’m not saying anything one way or the other,” Forrest said.  “Except that the numbers don’t add up.  Three hundred dollars now, or get a share of a place that could be worth millions, a few years down the road?”

“People are enterprising,” the reporter said.  He smiled.  “And I can be discreet.  The public needs to know who’s protecting them.”

He turned, returning to the passenger side door of the van, then paused.  “We’ll be parked on the beach.  We can blur out your faces if we need to.”

It took them a minute to get their camera packed away and leave.  Sure enough, they made their way to the beach.  Charlotte could see the headlights illuminating the sand.  Then they went out, and the van was effectively invisible.

“Guards,” Forrest said.  “Take shifts.  We’re not giving them anything.”

“You’re wanting to protect Skitter?” someone asked, from the crowd.

“I worked for her,” Forrest said.  “Most of you know that.  In a way, I still think I work for her, even if she isn’t here anymore.  A lot of us owe her.”

“She brought us as much trouble as she stopped,” the person said.  Charlotte could see it was a tall man who’d hidden a receding hairline and bald spot by shaving his head.  There was only stubble, now.

“She made it possible to rebuild, Scott.”

Everyone’s rebuilding.  We got a head start, that’s all.  You’re saying that’s worth it?  Mannequin came here because of her.  Burnscar came here because of her.  Or didn’t you hear?”

Forrest folded his arms.

Scott said, “My sister-in-law works for the PRT.  Wears a uniform.  She said the Slaughterhouse Nine were here because they were recruiting.  They picked a bunch of people across the city, trying to recruit them, and Skitter was one.  Obviously.  So it’s her fault the people died here.  The help she gave?  She was probably guilty.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Forrest said.

“Bullshit.  You were there, that first time, when Mannequin was in the warehouse on Shell.  He was wagging his finger at her.  Why?  He was there for her.”

“I was there,” Forrest said.  “Remember?  I stepped up.  I dragged that bastard to where we could tie his head up.  I smashed his head with a concrete block.”

“And I won’t deny that,” Scott answered.  “I would’ve been right there with you if I didn’t have my wife and kid to protect.  We both saw how it played out.  Going by what my sister-in-law said, you wouldn’t have had to do that if Skitter had been somewhere else.”

“I would have,” Forrest said.  “I know Skitter.  Taylor.  Weaver.  Whatever you call her.  We’ve talked, talked a lot.  I’ve heard her side of things, and I know you’re off base.”

“You’re saying my family’s lying?”  Scott asked, raising his voice a touch.  “Or maybe you’re blind.  Can’t see what’s going on because of your own basic, underlying bias.”

Scott approached, moving through the crowd.  He was clearly irritated, a big guy, undoubtedly a dock worker, breathing just a little harder than normal.  Charlotte found herself biting her lip and backing away as he drew closer.  Her stomach twisted as he passed her, as though it were a towel someone was wringing out.  Not an unfamiliar sensation.

For a moment, she could imagine him in her face, hooting, hollering, a vein standing out on his bald head.

The wrenching got worse at the idea, until it felt like everything below her shoulders was being crushed.

The crowd around her was too much, now.  Too evocative.

She fled, pushing her way through the crowd.  For every part of her that wanted to follow the discussion, there was another part that could hear the discordant music blaring, could hear the yelling, smell the sweat, the smoke and incense.

She’d seen what people were like when everything else was stripped away.  Not everyone, not always, but often enough.  It was easy to descend to that level.  Taylor had offered security.  Strength, and the ruthlessness necessary to cut out the cancer.

It wasn’t rational to think this way.  Charlotte knew, generally speaking, that the people here were good.  The bad ones had been scared off, or cut out of the deals that kept everyone else loyal.

On a less rational level?  She hated the idea that this place could devolve into that.  Into what the Merchants had become.

She was upset, she wasn’t thinking straight, and she couldn’t afford to return to the kids like this.  Ben and Kathy would look after the littlest ones for five more minutes.  She could keep walking, burn off this nervous energy and get in a better headsp-

“Miss?”

She jumped, swiftly backing away.

It was a man.  Thin, with glasses, reaching out-

Groping, greedy for a handful of flesh.

No.  To get her attention.  Nothing more.  His hand dropped to his side.

“Are you a reporter?”

“I- do I look like a reporter?” he looked anxious, and the expression was unrelated to his question.

“No,” she said.

“I was asking around, for someone who knew Taylor.  Someone told me to look for a girl about your height, with long, dark hair, like yours, with kids around her.  I was going to ask some more, but then the crowd came, and I decided to hang back.”

So he is here to ask questionsBut he said Taylor instead of Skitter.  “You really aren’t a reporter?”

“If you know who they were talking about, maybe you could point me in the right direction?”

Charlotte frowned.  “They were talking about me.  What do you want?”

“I’m her father.  Danny.”

Oh.  She could see the resemblance, now that she knew to look for it.  Both he and Taylor were above average height, both were narrow.  She must have gotten her hair and mouth from her mom, though.

“Okay,” she said.  She forced herself to relax a touch.  He’s safe.  Mostly.  “O-”  She exhaled as she spoke, and her breath caught.  She was still a little out of sorts.

“Are you okay?”

She shook her head.  “Yes.”

“You’re sure.”

“A lot to deal with, all at once.”

“Yes.”

She glanced up at him, saw how troubled he looked.  “Do you drink tea?”

“Coffee.”

“We can do coffee,” she said.  She reached into her back pocket for her phone.  “Stand still.”

He looked confused as she turned the phone his way.  The flash went off.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Protocols,” she said.

“Protocols?”

She typed out a text and sent the text, picture included, to Tattletale.

“I worked for her.”

“Oh.  Oh.

“Come on.  We’ll, um, we’ll hear soon, if you’re okay to come inside.  But I have to head back that way anyways.”

He nodded.

“Why aren’t you with her?”  She asked, as they started walking.

“Things turned ugly.”

“Oh.  Alexandria?”

“I only just found out about Alexandria.  Maybe I shouldn’t say, but things don’t seem to add up.  What people were saying before, what happened, and what seems to have happened after.”

“Yeah,” she said, though she didn’t quite understand.

“All the way through this, I told myself I’d trust her.  That she was the same child my wife and I raised for the last sixteen years.  That things were muddled, but she was the same person deep down inside.”

“Isn’t she?”

“I’m not so sure anymore.”

The phone vibrated.  Charlotte checked.

Tt:
A-ok.  Treat him well.

“You’re clear to come inside,” Charlotte said.  She used her hand to indicate a change of direction, leading him towards the beach.

“All this secrecy?  It’s necessary?  I thought she left.”

“We still have enemies.  People who’d hurt her by hurting us.  We have to stay safe.”

He fell silent.

“What?”

“I haven’t really been thinking along those lines.  About the greater scale of things, my life being at risk because I’m connected to her.”

“You learn,” Charlotte said.  “You learn to think that way.”

“Why?  I mean.  I don’t have a choice, but you- you could walk away from this, and you haven’t.”

“I can’t walk away from this,” Charlotte said.  “I’m probably more tied up in this than you are.”

“How’s that?”

She glanced down the beach.  The people who were watching out for those who might talk to the reporter were far enough away.  Still, it would be a bad idea to use her flashlight.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out a glove, pulling it on.  “You’ll see in a minute.  Hold my hand and don’t let go.  Neither of us want you to get turned around in here.  Not much room to get lost, but yeah.”

She could barely see him in the gloom.  There were no lights on the beach.  Still, when she reached out for his hand, he took it, holding tight.

Carefully, Charlotte led Taylor’s father into the storm drain.  Her gloved hand traced the wall.  First right.  Skip the next right, with a few seconds of nerve-wracking isolation in the darkness, then follow the wall… one right, turn left at the t-junction.

They ascended to the cellar, first, and then up to the living room.

“It’s a house?” he asked.  He looked even more bewildered than before as he took in the particulars, the living room, with young girls clustered on one couch, boys on the other couch and the floor, the appliances, the stacks of boxed-up food that had yet to be unpacked.  “Children?”

“Orphans,” Charlotte said, keeping her voice low.  Both Mai and Ephraim could break down in tears at the slightest reminder of their departed parents.  “I’ve been looking after them.”

“You can’t do that.  Not like this, without certification, others checking in.”

“I know,” she said.  “It’s only for a little while longer.”

This is why you can’t leave?”

“Part of it.  There’s more.”

“This is what she was doing, all that time?  Taking care of these children?”

“That was only a small part of it.  She mostly paid me to look after them and make sure people got the food they needed.  She looked after everyone.  When they were all in the worst situations they’d ever faced, struggling for food, worrying every hour if they would be attacked or preyed on, she stepped up.”

“You’re trying to defend her.  To justify what she did.”

“Only a little.”

Ethan approached.  He gave Taylor’s dad a curious look.

“It’s Taylor’s daddy,” Charlotte explained.

“Danny,” Danny said.

“Oh,” Ethan said.  He looked down at the floor.

“Do you want to run an errand for me?”  Charlotte asked.

Ethan nodded, still not making eye contact.  Charlotte could see how he’d set his jaw, so stern for a little man.

“Go tell Forrest that Skitter’s daddy is here.  And if anyone approaches you to ask you questions, you don’t answer, okay?  No matter how nice they seem, don’t say a word, and blow your whistle.  There are reporters out there we don’t want to talk to.”

Ethan nodded.

“Don’t take too long,” she warned.

The little boy, no older than eight, ran off, opening the front door and unchaining the shutter.  A moment later, he was gone into the night.

“Is that okay?” Danny asked.  “A little boy going out alone after dark?”

“The area’s safe, the people know each other.  It’s a community, and the community will look after the kids.  Besides, he’s got a whistle in case he gets in trouble.”

“It almost looked like he was asking for an errand.”

“He was.”

Danny gave her a curious look.

Charlotte walked around the kitchen counter to get into the kitchen, starting the water boiling for the coffee.  She still had a habit of keeping the kettle full for Taylor.  “Ethan’s bottling up a lot of hurt, but he’s convinced himself that big boys shouldn’t cry, and nothing will convince him otherwise.  For now, I’ll let him take five to twenty minutes longer than he should when I tell him to go do something, and I won’t say a word if he comes back with red eyes and a runny nose.  If he needs to find a quiet place to cry on his own, that’s okay.”

“There has to be a better way to handle it,” Danny said.  His eyes were still roving, as if trying to find and identify Taylor’s signature touches on the surroundings.

“There probably is.  But for now, it works for him and it works for me.  The other kids-” she lowered her voice a fraction, “They all have their individual needs.  Some get aggressive.  Some internalize it, have nightmares or wet the bed.  Others withdraw.”

Danny sighed.  “Kids are hard, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said.  Then she changed her mind.  “No.”

“No?”

People are hard to deal with.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

“You should really be with her.”

“I was there,” Danny said.  “I told myself I’d stand by her, and then… all at once, it wasn’t her.  I’ve seen her in a crisis, after her mom died.  She was one of the people who withdrew.  When she was bullied at school, she withdrew.  But there?  At the PRT headquarters?  That wasn’t her.”

“It was,” Charlotte said.  “Maybe you lost sight of who she was becoming, somewhere down the line.  I don’t think anyone would fault you, with the secrets she was keeping.”

“No,” Danny said.  “I don’t think it was her, not really.  For just a minute, she became a monster.”

“We all have a monster somewhere inside us,” Charlotte said.  “Like I was saying about the kids.  Sometimes it’s aggressive, sometimes it finds other forms of attack, and other times it’s a cowardly one.”

Like mine.

Danny sighed.

“You don’t agree?  I’m still off target?”

“I don’t know.  I think maybe you’re right.  I’ve got my own demons.  But… whatever monster that was, it was a big one.”

Charlotte didn’t have an answer to that.

There was a knock on the shutter.  Then it raised a fraction.  Forrest stepped inside, growled and made threatening gestures as the kids practically leaped off of the couches and swarmed him.

He gave Danny a funny look.

“Taylor’s dad,” Charlotte said.

“Nice to meet you,” Forrest said.  He waded through the cluster of kids and, straight-legged, he leaned over the kitchen counter to shake Danny’s hand.  “Right, rugrats!  If you stand up to pee, get yourselves into the bath, pronto!”

“I can pee standing up!” Mai said.  “A girl at school showed me how.”

“Then… if you think action figures are better than dolls!”

“I think army men are better than dolls!” Mai said.

“Then let’s go with those who’d rather be a baseball player than a princess!”

“I-”  Mai stopped short, shrieking as Forrest swept her up in his arms.

“I get the point,” he said.  “As penance, I’m letting you ride on my shoulders.”

Mai squealed in glee.

“With a blindfold, in case the menfolk are bashful.  Move along, tykes.”

Ben, Ephraim and Aidan made their way into the bathroom, followed by Forrest, with Mai sitting on his shoulders.  Forrest practically had to get on his knees to get through the doorway without hitting Mai’s head on the doorframe.  The door shut behind him.

“Coffee will be done in a few minutes,” Charlotte said, making sure things were set up.  She moved to the living room, and beckoned for Kathy to come closer.  Kathy scowled but obeyed, sitting beside Charlotte as Charlotte set to brushing out her hair.

“I couldn’t recognize my own daughter,” Danny said.  “Every step of the way, I’ve wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how.  Did she say anything?  About me?”

“No,” Charlotte said.  She could see Danny’s face fall.

“But,” she said.  “She acted on it.  When it came down to it, she wanted to spend time with you, even if it meant that all the rest of this was harder.”

“When it came down to it,” he said, “She chose her friends over me.  She chose to fight, to go all out, instead of making a concession and possibly coming home at some point.”

“Bigger things,” Charlotte said.  “I- the rest of us feel a little betrayed too, but we’re little more than specks, with the sheer scale of the stuff she’s focused on.”

Danny sighed.  “I came here to make a decision.  To work up some courage.  But I feel as conflicted as ever.  Worse, if anything.”

“A decision?”

“Taylor has to join the Wards, if she’s going to join an official team.  Her lawyer got in contact with me, to let me know that there’s certain procedures.  She needs a parent, guardian, notary, or a person in authority to vouch for her, and it has to be someone who’s otherwise free of connections to superheroes or supervillains, someone that knows her and can testify about her character.”

“Do it.”

“I’m wondering if I should.”

Charlotte gave him a hard look.  He took it without flinching.

“My number one instinct is to keep my daughter safe.  If she went to juvenile detention, it would… it wouldn’t be good, but it’d keep her out of the line of fire.  It’d stop her from going down this reckless path.”

“She’d hate you,” Charlotte said.  “She’d still love you, but she’d be angry.”

“She would be safe,” he said.

Charlotte didn’t have much to say in response to that.  She turned her attention to the girls, instead.  “Five more minutes of cartoons, then bed.  I’ll fix your hair in just a second, okay, Jessie?”

Jessie nodded.

“I could, if it would make it easier,” Danny offered.

Charlotte felt that twang of alarm at the notion of a relative stranger touching ‘her’ kids.  She could rationalize that this was Taylor’s dad, but…

Jessie made the decision for her.  Standing and approaching Danny, before sitting beside him.  Charlotte tossed the man a hairbrush.

For long minutes, they worked on combing through knots and tangles.  Kathy made sure to grunt with every one.

The boys exited the bathroom, each with a towel wrapped around them, while Forrest carried a squealing, giggling Mai under one arm, a sock tied over her eyes, her hair now dry and combed straight..

“You’re better than Char,” Jessie said, as Danny finished.  She hopped down from the armrest of the chair, before scampering off to the bedroom.

“Traitor,” Charlotte muttered, after Jessie was gone.  Kathy followed the girl, taking Jessie’s hand after catching up.

There was a pause.

“If she needs you, you should help her,” Charlotte said.

“I’m just not sure what helping her entails,” Danny replied.

Charlotte rose to pour the coffee.  Her phone glowed with a fresh text.  She stared down at it.

“Shit,” she said.

“What?” Danny asked.

“Company,” she answered.

“Enemies?  Danger?”

“Worse.  Allies,” Sierra said, from the doorway.

Charlotte turned to see her friend, Sierra.  The girl still had her red hair bound in dreads, but the rest of her was all professional attire.  Nice shoes, slacks, a blue dress shirt, and just a little makeup.

Sierra approached, arms reaching out to hug Charlotte.  Charlotte welcomed the hug, murmuring the words, “I missed you.”

But her eyes were still on the doorway.  Tattletale stepped into the front hallway, followed by Grue and the pairings of Imp and Regent, Parian and Flechette.

A superhero, here?

After a brief pause, Bitch entered as well, glowering, looking fit to murder something or someone.  Her appearance was at stark odds with the puppies that followed her, each at the end of a differently colored leash.

Danny stood, eyes widening as he recognized the people entering the room.

“Long time no see, Danny,” Tattletale said.

“Lisa,” he answered.  There was no warmth in his tone.

“Tattletale while I”m in costume, please,” she said.  She flashed a grin, and he didn’t return it.

Grue extended a hand to Danny.  It took the man a second to accept it.  He watched the group warily.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked.

“Need to watch your phone,” Tattletale said.  “I sent you a string of texts.”

“I was busy.  Looking after the kids, and talking with Danny.”

“Right,” Tattletale said.  She made her way to one couch, then lay down.  “Damn.  Hell of a day.  Not enough sleep, already feeling like shit, and then this gets dropped on us.”

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked, again.

“You mean what’s going on here or what’s going on in general?  Generallyour commander-in-chief just defected to the white hats.”

“Here,” Charlotte said.  “Why are you here?  We’re just getting the kids off to bed.”

“Loose ends,” Tattletale said.  “A few here, a few there.  Skitter’s gone, and she’s liable to spend time in prison before she joins the Wards, and she won’t be able to visit for a while, even after that.  I want to get this as done as we can, so I can sleep for a few days straight and wake up feeling better.”

Charlotte frowned.  Tattletale had taken up one couch, Grue was sitting in another, and she didn’t want to sit next to him.  She was forced to stand, but standing and being a part of the conversation meant standing in a place where her back was to Bitch, to Parian and Flechette, who were sitting on stools by the kitchen counter, and to Regent and Imp, who were rifling through cabinets and drawers, in search of snacks.

“I have to ask.  Why the puppies?” Charlotte asked, glancing at Bitch.

“Tattletale said to.”

“That’s not exactly right,” Tattletale said.

“It’s what you said,” Bitch responded, sounding irritated.

“I recommended puppy therapy,” Tattletale said.  “Everyone loves puppies, so maybe it’s a way to deal when we’re feeling a bit lonely?”

Bitch looked at Charlotte.  “You miss her?”

“Um.  Yes?”

Bitch bent down, grabbing a puppy with one hand, then thrust it into Charlotte’s arms.  She started to withdraw her hand, paused, then said, “It’s a loan.”

“Of course,” Charlotte said.  She held the puppy close, scratched it behind the ear.  She knew better than to argue the point.

“You?” Bitch asked Danny.

“No, thank you.”

“You don’t miss your daughter?” Bitch asked, narrowing her eyes a little.

“I do, I mean, I think I’ll see her soon, probably, but-”

“Then take it.  For now.”

He surrendered in the face of her blunt approach, accepting the puppy.

“The kids,” Charlotte said.  “They’ve already settled in bed, but I think they’d love to have a visit with the puppies.  Tell them it’s just for a little while, they can cuddle, but they have to stay in bed.  Oh, and they don’t know how to play with dogs, so be sure to teach them the ground rules, okay?”

Bitch nodded, then marched off with her new mission, the puppies leaping and falling over each other to keep up.

“Parian?” Tattletale asked.  “Supervise?”

Parian nodded.  She got down from the stool, and was joined by Flechette in heading to the back room.

“Well handled,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

She paused as the children in the other room started squealing and shouting.  Bitch’s barked orders could be heard over the racket.

“-doesn’t know how to handle this.  We’re sort of forging new ground, but I think time’s the only thing that’s going to mend this wound.  I think she’s hurting more than anyone, right now.”

Charlotte nodded.

Danny, though, said, “Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”

“I can do presumptuous,” Tattletale said.  “Just trust me on this count, okay?”

Regent and Imp approached from the kitchen, finding spots on the floor of the living room to sit, just to the left of the television.  They had arms full of snacks, including the little gummy candies Charlotte had been planning to give the kids in their school lunches.

She’d figure something else out.  Best not to get distracted.  The puppies would suffice as a treat for the kids right now.

Damn it, they’re going to ask to keep them, Charlotte thought.  She scratched the puppy that now slept in her arms.

Grue stretched a hand in the direction of the pair, an unspoken request for one bag of snacks.  Imp replied by hurling a small bag of chips at him, with the same sort of movement that might accompany throwing a baseball.  It banked off of his helmet and fell behind the couch.

Grue grumbled, but he turned around to grab it.

Forrest arrived from the bedroom, pausing a second to take in the crowd in the living room.

“Okay, let’s get down to business,” Tattletale said.  “Forrest, Charlotte, we’re backing you up, on Taylor’s behalf.  As of now, the Boardwalk doesn’t fall in just one person’s territory.  Parian, Grue and I will each have a hand in protecting it.  As of tonight, it should be the safest place in the city.  That’s all already handled.  You’ll have our numbers, in case of emergency, but you should only use it if there’s real trouble.  Supervillains attacking or something like that.  This all goes more smoothly if we don’t maintain any obvious connection between our groups that can be exploited.”

Charlotte nodded.

“Sierra is working under me.  She holds the property and presents our legitimate face to the public.”

Charlotte glanced at Sierra, who nodded.

“Property?” Charlotte asked.

“Everything we own in Brockton Bay, through a series of dummy corporations, is officially in her name.  That includes the areas in the Boardwalk that Coil once controlled.  From now on, you can contact us through her for all of the basics.  I know Skitter arranged a way for those who contribute to the restoration of the Boardwalk to earn shares of property.  Sierra will see to that.  In a pinch, you can also talk to her about funding, big projects, and the like.  But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”

Forrest frowned.  “Why not?”

“Skitter arranged for her territory to be taken care of,” Tattletale said.

“She left us some money.  For food, to pay people.  Not a lot, but things should be sustainable by the time we run out.”

“There’s more,” Tattletale said.  “She had a lot of money to spare.  Some from illicit activity, more from the properties we acquired and sold.  That’s going to you.”

“Wait, us?”

“To the Boardwalk.  She mentioned getting the ferry up and running again, a new set of storefronts, and pushing for more residential areas.  Duplexes, apartments, condos…”

“How much?”

“More than enough.  Part of the procedures for joining the Wards includes a full background check.  They’ll find out she had a lot of money, much of it illicit, and they’ll empty her accounts.  It might not be a problem, but I recently changed to a different bank, so to speak, and they’re liable to find Skitter’s end of the paper trail.” Tattletale said.

Charlotte nodded.

“Something to use to take care of yourselves.  And the kids,” Tattletale said.

Charlotte thought to what Scott had said.  Had Taylor blamed herself after all?  Was this a way of making amends?

“Part of the measures we’ll have for defending the Boardwalk will be the mercenaries I have on retainer,” Tattletale said.  “Non-powered individuals, though they have experience fighting capes.  They’re going to train your people.”

“Train?”

“In hand to hand, first aid, firearms and tactics for fighting bigger threats.”

Ethan reappeared in the front hall, hands jammed in his pockets.  His eyes went wide as he took in the supervillains sitting in the area where he’d been watching TV not twenty minutes ago.  Charlotte stood and ushered him towards the bedrooms.

Behind her, Forrest said, “That seems like it’ll cause more problems than it solves.  People are resentful.  There’s already cracks forming.”

“Discipline will help with that,” Grue said.  “Time will help with the rest.”

“It’s not perfect,” Tattletale said, “The rest, we can figure out.  What’s important is getting the foundation laid out, and being ready.  Shit’s going to go down when villains start making plays for the interdimensional door.”

Charlotte studied the people who were sitting around the room.  Concern, worry, anxiousness.  “Are we going to make it?”

“Have to,” Tattletale said.  She turned her head.  Bitch was returning from the back room.  She had only one puppy with her.  The wolf cub.  “Taylor won’t forgive us if we don’t.”

“You should know.  When I was there,” Danny spoke up.  “Alexandria offered her a hell of a deal.  Two years of juvenile detention, and leaving the rest of you alone.  It wasn’t everything she’d asked for.  She said no, said she trusted you to handle things on your end.  I don’t want to be offensive, but I couldn’t understand it.  Still can’t.  But I thought you should know.”

“She was prepared to leave us to our own devices when she surrendered,” Tattletale said.  “But if she believes in us to that degree, that’s another reason we can’t fail.”

There were nods all around.

The discussion continued, but fatigue caught up to Charlotte at the same time that the details seemed to grow even more trivial.  Bitch, for her part, was focused, listening intently, while Danny seemed reserved, not quite a part of this.

Was this influencing his decision?  Which way would it, if it did?

It was midnight by the time they finished.  Exhausted though they hadn’t fought anyone, weary Undersiders rose from their seats on the furniture and floors to make their way to the front door.

Charlotte accompanied Bitch to the bedroom, making her way to each bunk bed to collect a puppy, despite whispered protests and whimpers.  A tiny heartbreak, each step of the way.

I’m going to have to get these kids dogs now, she thought, swearing to herself.

“Puppy therapy,” she murmured, on her way back to the front hall.  Bitch was clipping the leashes onto the puppies.

“Mm,” Bitch grunted.

“Does it work?”

“Yes,” Bitch said.  “But it’s not enough.  I haven’t felt like this since… Brutus and Judas.”

Brutus and Judas?  Charlotte didn’t recognize the names.  “That’s natural, isn’t it?  We’re people, we need other people close to us.  A dog is… fantastic, but it can’t fill that void.”

Charlotte could see a crease in between Bitch’s eyebrows, but the look didn’t reach her eyes or mouth.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Bitch shook her head, but she didn’t reply.

“If you wanted to bring the dogs back, the kids would love it,” Charlotte said.  “And… I’m thinking we’ll have to get at least one to keep.  I think it could do them a lot of good, and they’d give the puppies more than enough love and care.”

Bitch’s silence extended for long seconds.  She looked down at the puppies.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Bitch shrugged.  She glowered at the ground, “She wanted me to go to the other side.”

“First I’m hearing of this,” Grue said.

“Through the portal,” Bitch said. “Police it.  Keep that side safe.”

“There won’t be anything over there for at least a few weeks or months,” Tattletale said.

The glower deepened.  “That… sounds good.”

“All on your own?” Charlotte asked, “But-”

“Me and my dogs,” Bitch said.  Then she seemed to think of something.  “Maybe.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Tattletale said.

With that done, the Undersiders departed.

Danny met Charlotte’s eyes.

“Decided?”

Danny shook his head.

“Could be that she did it for you,” she said.  “I think even Tattletale was surprised she went over to the other side.”

Danny didn’t reply.

“Good luck, either way.”

“You too,” he answered.

“We survived,” Forrest said.

“We survived,” Charlotte said.  “You’ll be by in the morning?”

Forrest nodded.

She waited until he was gone, then closed the shutter, being careful to lock it.

Then she ascended to the top floor, past Skitter’s room, with the now-empty terrariums and the armor stand with her old suit.  She reached the top floor, where Skitter’s belongings had been collected and boxed.

I’d meant to show this to Danny, to see if there was anything he wanted to keep or to send to her.

She lay in her bed, Skitter’s old room, but sleep didn’t find her.  She was still awake when her alarm buzzed.  She rose and made her way downstairs to the bedroom.  Checking on the kids.

Jessie’s bunk, dry.

No food under Mai’s pillow, or at the end of her bed.  The girl had taken to hoarding food.

Others were asleep, though Ethan’s eyes were open, staring.  She pulled his covers up a bit, and he smiled in the dark.

Aidan was awake too.

“I want a dog,” he whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back.  “No nightmares?”

“Not any really bad ones since… five nights ago.”

“Five nights ago?”

“Had a good dream.  A big dream.”

“About?”

He shook his head.  “Can’t really remember.”

“Okay,” she whispered back.  “Not a big deal.”

“But you told me to draw things or write them down after a bad dream,” he said.  He pulled a pad of paper from the gap between his bunk and the wall.

She looked at it.  It didn’t look like much of anything.  Two scribbles, circles and dots.

“These big things… Fish?”

“I don’t remember.  I think it started as a bad dream, and then became better.”

“And these dots or circles?”  They only covered part of the page.

“Planets and stars.  I only remember because that’s how I usually draw them.”

“What do you mean, you only remember?”

“Forgot.  Even faster than I usually forget the bad dreams.”

She frowned.  The way he described it, it put her in mind of something.  The day Skitter had rescued her.  Someone had had a trigger event, and both Skitter and Tattletale had reacted.

The way the two had forgotten, and the things Tattletale had mumbled about while she was recuperating…

“You don’t have superpowers, do you?” she whispered.

Aidan shook his head.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said, in a very solemn manner.

If it wasn’t a trigger event, then what?

“Five nights ago?”

“I know because it was the night Skitter stayed out all night.  I woke up a bit after she came in.  I was drawing while she made noise in the kitchen.”

The night Skitter had been outed.  Where had she been, and how did it connect?

If not a trigger event, the potential to trigger?

So many questions, and Skitter was no longer here to answer them.

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Cell 22.6

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Dragon’s craft closed the distance to the rooftop’s edge, using precise adjustments to almost freeze in mid-air as it hovered.  It was gentle and graceful in comparison to Defiant’s squat, durable tank.  I wondered how intentional that was.  Just looking at it, I had little doubt that it was even longer range than any of the other models I’d crossed paths with.  I was put in mind of a sniper rifle, long, narrow, sleek and focused in its almost singular design.  The stability it had fit with the idea.  A stark contrast to Defiant’s craft, which seemed more like the type to be in the thick of a fight, fighting alongside him and complementing his fighting style.

Not that the aesthetics of Dragon’s work was really a priority right this moment.

“A mistake,” I said.

“We know how she operates,” Defiant said.  “Dragon, Miss Militia and I have each worked directly under Alexandria at some point.  It’s something of an unofficial policy to have anyone that’s being considered for a leadership position working under each member of the triumvirate for a time.”

“Must have been real fun for you guys when you found out what they’re really like, last month.”

“Not fun at all,” Miss Militia said.  She had to stoop to exit the ship and step onto the roof’s edge.

“We’ve seen how Alexandria handles interrogations,” Defiant said.  “She reads microexpressions.  Shapes every statement and action to get the responses she wants.”

“And she wanted this?” I asked.

Defiant shook his head.  “Knowing her, this was a gambit.  It wouldn’t do to have one workable outcome.  She pushes you, and if you attack, she has cause to finish you off or send you straight to the birdcage without a trial.  If you don’t attack, she knows she has leverage against you and the Undersiders.  She’d see which way you were leaning, then refine her approach further.”

“And here I was,” Miss Militia mused, “Thinking you didn’t have a head for this sort of thing, Defiant.”

“I’ve had help,” he said, glancing at Dragon.

“But she didn’t get either of those results,” I said.  “At least, not like she wanted.  For all her brains, for all this apparent ability to read me, she… didn’t understand what my friends mean to me.”

“I think she understood well enough,” Defiant said.  “But the mistake, the tragedy in all of this, was that she didn’t get an accurate read on you.  Much, I expect, for the same reason my lie detector could never seem to.  She was working with bad information, and she pushed you too far, too fast.”

An eerie parallel to mistakes Tattletale had made in the past.  And I killed Alexandria and Tagg because of it.

“And… my friends?  Just to make sure.  They’re okay?”

“Alexandria didn’t touch them.  The ones she brought into the building were body doubles, and the real Undersiders are poised to attack in-”  Miss Militia reached for her phone.

“Fifteen minutes,” Defiant said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.  “In the meantime, we’re trying to deal with your lawyer, who got his hands on the footage of the interrogation and is threatening to bring hell down on our heads-”

Earning his pay, I thought.

She continued without pause.  “-And we still have to find a way to handle this without a complete PR catastrophe.  Once the media gets hold of this, we lose the ability to control the situation.”

“Dragon is managing the details as we speak,” Defiant said.  “She can isolate and track digital communication, but she can’t stop the spread of word of mouth.  Chevalier’s doing what he can on his end, but the PRT agents that confirmed Alexandria’s death won’t be able to keep their mouths shut forever, not with something as grave as this.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“Fourteen,” Defiant cut in, correcting her.

Fourteen minutes,” she said, “That’s our working timeline.  Even if Skitter were to call off the Undersiders, we have information leaks.”

“Then what if we let it leak?” I asked.  “We say ‘fuck it, the PRT is fucked, Alexandria is a monster, let people figure it out for themselves.'”

“You don’t really want that,” Miss Militia said.

“The system is fucked,” I said.  “Everything that’s happened, it’s taught me a few things.  People are fucked up, for one thing.  And any organization that has people in control is going to be fucked on an exponential level.  But for all that, people are a hell of a lot tougher than we give them credit for.  We survive.  We innovate.  So yeah, I’m seriously thinking along those lines.  I wouldn’t mind seeing the PRT burn, damn it, because I think we’ll make it regardless.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “What changed your mind from the moment you decided to surrender?  Your friends weren’t at risk, you already knew something about Tagg and Alexandria.”

“You,” I told her.  “You were part of it.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Exactly.”

“You can’t blame me for standing out of the way.  You had a plan, Alexandria told me she had a plan, and nobody shared anything substantial with me.  I couldn’t take a step without risking that I’d get in someone’s way.”

I frowned.

“You’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re still reeling from what you thought happened,” Miss Militia said.  “Fine.  That’s fair.  But we don’t have time to work through that.  You said you wanted to work together, to compromise.  Do you stand by that?  Are you willing to at least try a workable solution?  Or are you going to keep fighting us?”

I glanced at Defiant.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“We need you to call your team and get them to stand down.  We can’t have bloodshed, and we can’t have Tattletale divulging critical information.”

I folded my arms.  “Meet me halfway.”

“Twelve minutes,” Defiant said.  “This isn’t the time to be hard-nosed.  You don’t want this fight any more than we do.  If this happens, your team will be at a very real risk of death or arrest.  Three of the A.I. models, Dragon’s, mine, the Brockton Bay heroes and no less than ten visiting heroes.”

“This is exactly the time to be hard-nosed.  The Undersiders get left alone.  Those are my terms.  Figure it the fuck out.”

There was a pause, an exchange of looks between Defiant and Dragon.

“We’re talking to Chevalier and the Chief Director,” Defiant said.

“Good,” I answered him.

A few seconds passed.  I glanced at the sun, dipping beneath the mountains to the west.

Miss Militia will fill in as an interim PRT director,” a male voice sounded from the speaker at Dragon’s shoulder.  Chevalier.  “I’ll arrange it.  We have leverage, with the current state of emergency and the issues that are liable to come up with the announcement that we can make use of the portal.

“And I’ll remain hands off, unless I’m replaced or I have no other choice?” Miss Militia said.

We’ll keep you in position for as long as we can, postpone any changes or replacements until people get more comfortable with the idea.  With luck, we can segue into keeping you in position on a permanent basis. Failing that, we tap someone sympathetic to our aims.

“Damn it,” Miss Militia muttered.  “I feel like my lifespan just got cut short.  Double the work, too.”

“We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” Defiant said.  He looked at me.  “Satisfactory?”

“Yes.  Phone?”

Miss Militia tapped out a password, then handed me hers.

I dialed Tattletale’s number.

When Tattletale didn’t pick up on the first ring, I felt my heart jump into my throat.  She’d never done that.

“‘Lo,” Tattletale said.  I let myself breathe a sigh of relief.  She continued, “Call display says PRT Phone server.  Who am I talking to?

“It’s me,” I said.

You!  You wouldn’t believe how worried I’ve been.  Or the headache I have.  You know they gave you bad info?

“I know,” I said.

The stuff you were writing, it didn’t match up.  Tried to tell you, but you couldn’t understand me.

“I know,” I said.  “Just tell me… everyone’s safe?”

Everyone’s accounted for.  Shit, what did they do?

“Tattletale-”

They tried something.  What happened?”

“Tattletale,” I said, raising my voice a notch.  “Time’s short.  Call off the hounds, literal or otherwise.  Delay.”

Delay?”

“They’re making temporary offers,” I said, eyeing the heroes, “We can make some temporary concessions.”

Okay.  But I can’t hold back some of the bastards we put into play.  I can stop them, but that’s it.  They’ll leave, and we’re that much weaker.

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “These guys are at a bit of a disadvantage too.”

Okay… let’s see… alright.  Holding off for… half an hour?  Adding fifteen minutes to the clock?” Tattletale asked.

“Longer?” I asked.

Any longer and more mercenaries start walking away, deciding to take the half we paid up front.

“That’ll do, then, I guess.”  I said, giving the heroes a thumbs up.

You said they’re weaker, huh?  So it’s true.  I didn’t want to use my power to verify… but the rumor mill is right?  Alexandria bit it?

“Yes.  I-” I stopped.

You?  You did it?”  Tattletale asked.  “Guys-

Her voice faded as she turned away from the phone.

“Don’t tell them,” I said, once I realized what she was saying.

It was too late.  I could hear jeers and whooping from Regent and Imp in the background.  I couldn’t make out everything Grue was saying, but I caught something along the lines of ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ.

It’s too late to matter, honey bear,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t have much juice powerwise, but I don’t need any to know this much.  Word’s already out about Alexandria.

“Word’s out about Alexandria,” I said, for the benefit of the heroes.

Defiant folded his arms.

Anything else I can do?” she asked.

“Stay near a phone.  Thank you,” I said.  And keep the jailbreak specialists on hand, I thought.  Not that I could say that with the Protectorate members around me.

“One disaster averted,” Miss Militia said.

“Held at bay,” Defiant said.  “The word’s spreading.  It’s starting to pop up on isolated channels.”

“We’ll need to get our official word out first,” Miss Militia said.

“What do you even say?” I asked.  “She’s dead.”

“And that will make a lot of people lose hope,” Miss Militia said.  “We have other ideas, but we need something bigger, more concrete.”

“But she’s dead,” I said.  “The only way to change the reaction is to convince everyone we have a winning game plan anyways.  That the PRT isn’t fucked, which it is.”

“The A.I. craft,” Defiant said, turning to look at the Pendragon.  “Expendable, versatile, devastating in their own right, and there’s image attached to them.  They’ll get the public’s imagination fired up.”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “There’ll be doubts, it’s not enough.  Behemoth can generate electromagnetic waves that wipe out electronics.  Even many reinforced electronics, if he’s close enough.  The Simurgh can scramble coding.  We don’t just have to convince the public.  We need to convince the heroes, and they know these things.”

“And they know what the difference is going to be, without Alexandria on the front lines,” Defiant said.  He sighed audibly.  “Four times now, she’s been the deciding factor in beating the Simurgh back early.  Once with Leviathan, when I was new to the Protectorate.”

“We can reduce the impact of the loss with careful word choice and a good speech,” Miss Militia said.  “If Skitter is willing to call off her other dogs.”

I glanced at the phone in my hand.  “Okay.”

“No demands this time?”

“Believe it or not, I want to fix things,” I said, as I dialed Mr. Calle’s number.  “We’re on the same side here.  The difference is I consider my friends to be a part of a workable scenario.  I have my issues with you guys, but I’m extending the benefit of a doubt again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.  Again.”

The phone rang.  Mr. Calle answered.  “Quinn Calle speaking.

“It’s Taylor Hebert.”

Ah, excellent.  I’d feared they’d executed you or sent you to be incarcerated.

“I’m sorry for, um, that,” I said.

They had one of your good friends in a body bag, or they led you to believe they did.  You reacted as many would, with anger and pain.  You were simply, how to put it… better equipped than the rest of us mere mortals to express that anger and pain.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d left.”

Rest assured, Ms. Hebert, I’ve dealt with worse.

“Okay,” I said.  “I need you to back off on whatever threats you’re directing at the PRT.”

No can do, I’m afraid.

“Why the hell not?”

Because, right at this moment, you’re in the custody of the heroes.  They’ve given you a phone, no doubt, and they’ve caught you at an emotionally vulnerable moment.  For your benefit, I can’t assume you’re of sound mind or that you aren’t being coerced.

“How do we change your mind?”

I wouldn’t mind an invitation to the discussion.

“We’re sending a vehicle your way,” I said.  “Where are you?”

The lovely little shop with the donuts I visited this morning.

“Okay,” I said, putting my hand over the mouthpiece, “He says-”

I stopped.  The armored suit Miss Militia had left was already moving, heading directly for my territory.  She’d been listening in.

“Never mind.”

“Let’s talk about our game plan,” Miss Militia said.  “We’ve got the peripheral stuff in the works.  You’re bringing the suits in?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “She is.  Chevalier is on the way as well, and we’ve contacted the media.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “The two major crises are being held at bay, thanks to Skitter’s cooperation.  We can’t keep the word from spreading through other channels, so let’s cover every base we can.  We only get one shot at this.”

“Key points being Skitter’s role in this, and addressing how we deal with Alexandria’s demise,” Defiant said.

“My role?” I asked.  “I thought you wanted me to call off the attack?”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “There’s more.”

I narrowed my eyes, very conscious of the fact that there were three rather powerful capes and one mechanized suit in my immediate vicinity.  “What more?”

She glanced at Defiant, then back to me.  “We’d like you to be there for the conference with the media.  Dragon’s going over footage, and so long as your lawyer doesn’t release the unedited content, we can hide the worst of the details from the media.  Shape the narrative.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“We’re revising the truth,” she said.  She paused.  “Yes.  We’re lying.”

“And you want me to participate in that?”

“Yes.  Your presence will lend a degree of legitimacy to what we’re saying.  We’re on opposite sides, in the public eye, making it all the more meaningful if we agree on what happened.”

“Are you fighting to keep the PRT going, or are you working to rebuild it?” I asked.

“Rebuild it,” she said.  No hesitation.

“And you’re doing it by starting with a lie.  Just like they did.”

“Yes,” she said.  Again, there was no hesitation.  “There’s no pretty, perfect answers, and concessions have to be made.  Questions and issues on a greater scale mean more repercussions for failure, and they call for bigger concessions if we want to ensure success.”

“And this is a big event, a lot of power,” I said.  “Big concessions?”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked ten times as tired as she said it.

I folded my arms.  I couldn’t disagree.  I didn’t like it.  But I’d been a leader.  I’d made shady calls.  I’d hurt people.  Had lied, cheated, stolen, killed.

The sun was gone, hidden by the mountains, and the clouds were changing from purple to black.  How long until the new deadline?  Twenty minutes?

I could see Defiant, saw him conversing with Dragon and Miss Militia.

I saw how he folded his arms, still holding his spear, so it rested against his shoulder.  How he planted his feet further apart.  A warrior’s stance.

It inspired a memory, of my first night out in costume.  The bad guy lying defeated on the street below, the city quiet around us, the dark sky overhead, with only meager light illuminating us.  Framing the situation, talking about options and priorities.

Not so different from the scene here.  The villain wasn’t here.  Alexandria had fallen a distance away.  But the city was quiet, the area still blockaded, the sky was dark, and the topic of discussion…

I thought of something, one moment in that night’s discussion when I’d thought that maybe Armsmaster could live up to the reputation, that he could really truly be someone who I could look up to.

“Hey,” I said.

Heads turned my way.

“As far as Alexandria goes, what if we turn it around?”

“Turn it around?”

“Way back, when I first started out in costume, I had a talk with Armsmaster.  He told me that I should be happy I was mistaken for a villain, because it meant I didn’t have to fight the Undersiders.  This was before I joined them.  It reminded me of how I’d been trying to deal with the shit I was going through back then, turning negatives into positives.  I think we can do that here.”

“How?” Miss Militia asked.  She glanced at Dragon’s craft, just now arriving to bring my lawyer to us.

“So long as we’re lying,” I said, “Let’s go wholesale.  We present Alexandria as the villain she was.”

“That’ll make the situation worse,” Miss Militia said.

“It depends on how we present the idea,” I said.

Dragon’s suit once again came to a stop at the edge of the roof, as it had when it had delivered Miss Militia.  It turned sideways, and the body opened, revealing my lawyer, looking more stressed than I’d seen him, in the midst of a rather compact cockpit.

Mr. Calle accepted Miss Militia’s offered hand in stepping down to the rooftop, and seemed to relax the instant his feet touched solid ground.

“Whoo,” he said.  “Never let it be said that my job isn’t an adventure.  You’re well, Ms. Hebert?”

“I am.”

“You haven’t made any deals?”

“Nothing permanent.”

“Good.”

Dragon touched my shoulder.  When I turned her way, she set her fingers in my hand, pulling me after her with the light contact of two of her fingertips.  Gentle, easy to avoid, but clear enough.

I followed as she led me to her hovering Dragon-craft, Mr. Calle a step behind me.  Mr. Calle had longer legs than I did, but he was the one who hesitated at the gap before stepping into the open cockpit.

Once I was on board, Dragon reached over to the wall and opened a shallow drawer, no more than three inches deep.  The drawer opened with a noise like something from a science fiction movie.

I stared at the contents.

“How?” I asked, and all of the confidence was gone from my voice.  “Wait, nevermind. You’re fu- you’re tinkers, damn it.”

Mr. Calle stepped up beside me, placing one hand on my shoulder in an uncharacteristic need for some support.  He looked down.  “I take it we’ve reached something of a consensus here?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said, from the rooftop.

“Then it seems I need to draw up some paperwork,” Mr. Calle said.  “For formality’s sake, if nothing else.”

“Do it in five minutes,” Miss Militia said, from Defiant’s side.  “We’re out of time.  The media’s here.”

“Five?”  Mr. Calle seemed momentarily pained.  “Paper, fast.”

Dragon handed him a sleek keyboard, pointing to a screen.  He started typing.

“I’ll credit you this, Ms. Hebert,” my lawyer said, as he typed away, tabbing to different windows to draw up pages he could copy-paste from.  “You manage a great deal of grief and chaos in very short spans of time.”

Chevalier had arrived, and stepped into the cockpit.  Gold and silver armor, his cannonblade resting against one shoulder.  He briefly clasped hands with Defiant.

I stopped tidying my hair long enough to take the stylus from Dragon, scribbling my signature on the offered pad.  Others were already present – Miss Militia’s and Defiant’s.  The Chief Director’s signature appeared as the document was signed from a remote location.

“You’re ready?” Chevalier asked me.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“But you’re willing?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I rubbed my arms, then  zipped up my prison-issue sweatshirt.  “Has to be done, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not pretty,” he said.  “There’s a lot of ugliness in this.  But yes.  This gives us the best chance.”

I nodded.  I still had Miss Militia’s phone.  I dialed Tattletale.

Yo?

“Turn on the TV,” I said.  “And call them off.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, this is it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” I said.  No, I thought.

I hung up.

All together, we stepped out of the cockpit and walked around the craft.

The Wards were here.  Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Crucible, standing on guard.

Rounding the corner, we approached the open street where the crowd of reporters waited.  Television cameras shifted to focus on the reporters announcing our arrival, or to follow us as we walked.  Tripod-mounted lights cast shafts of light across the road, all converging on one point, the makeshift stage – the flat ledge of the Dragon-suit’s wing, five feet off the ground.  Voices bubbled around us, a million questions, almost a singular noise.

Chevalier stepped forward, and they simultaneously drew quiet.  He had a presence, a kind of nobility that garnered respect.

“Today, not two hours ago, Alexandria was killed.”

I could barely see the reporters past the massive lights that were shedding light on the stage, on us.  They were solemn, focused on every single word.  They didn’t even flinch at the news.  They’d already known.

“Alexandria was a veteran among capes.  She was one of the first capes, one who was present for almost every major catastrophe in the last twenty years.  With every challenge she surmounted, she reaffirmed our belief in her, showed us how strong she was, how impervious and noble she was.”

He lowered his head.  I resisted the urge to fidget.  This was showing live, to homes across America.

On a rooftop nearby, capes teleported in.  Other capes, flying, were touching down on top of a news car.  Dovetail, with Sere beside her.

“If that was it, this would be hard enough,” he spoke.  “But she was a mythic figure in her own way.  She was a living symbol, recognized across the world.  She was a leader among us.  She was a friend to some of us.”

I sensed rather than saw Eidolon, hovering well above the reach of the lights.  Legend was close too, though less intent on hiding.

I steeled myself for what came next, willing myself to stay calm, to not give anything away.

“And she was a traitor.”

That garnered a response from the news reporters.  Shouted questions pierced the silence that loomed in the wake of Chevalier’s words.

He continued.  “When Alexandria was slain, earlier today, it was done by individuals standing on this stage.”

Every word carefully chosen, so it was technically or at least partially true.  Alexandria was a traitor, with her involvement with Cauldron, she had been slain at the hands of someone on the stage.

“There are individuals out there right now, who have kept quiet about recent events.  Only last month, there was an event in this city, a threat that was theorized to be a nascent Endbringer.  In the wake of that event, Alexandria was revealed to be partially responsible.”

The reporters, I noted, were deathly still.  Deer in the headlights.

Good capes,” Chevalier said, “Burdened by conscience, walked away from the PRT.  Without them to serve as our backbone, we were left gutted.  There has been rampant speculation on what has been going on within the PRT, on what might have caused so many capes to abandon it.  We –they– couldn’t speak because Alexandria held a position of power, because she was purportedly invincible, unassailable.  Because of the threat she posed, and the resources she had at her disposal.”

Others were joining the crowd of reporters.  Civilians, returning now that the blockades had been taken down, maybe going home, only to see the scene, the heroes in the spotlight.  They clustered, or parked at the periphery of the crowd, getting out of their cars.

How many millions were tuning in right this moment?

“Some of us left, because their consciences couldn’t bear serving a corrupt power.  Others, many of us on the stage included, stayed, because we felt the PRT, the Protectorate, the Wards program and the teams that draw on us for resources were too important.  I’m not here to say one decision was better than the other, or to lay blame with those who sided with her.  In coming weeks and months, our capes, accountants and lawyers will be meeting with anyone and everyone in a position of power within the Protectorate program or the PRT, ensuring nothing of this scale occurs again.”

Something moved into my range.  An insect.  Large.

Atlas.

I moved him experimentally, and felt how incredibly weary he was.  His reserves of energy were drained, his body dying.  His forelegs touched the walls around him.  He’d been placed in the back of a van.

And the occupants of that van – bugs entered open windows to make contact with the others.  Lisa, Brian, Alec and Aisha.  I could hear the echo, time delayed by five seconds, as they watched Chevalier speak on a tablet PC.

 “Alexandria betrayed us on a fundamental level, and the whole cape community has felt that.  The public has felt that.  I urge people not to blame her.  She had no less than eighteen fights against the Simurgh.  We had been led to believe her powers rendered her immune, but she was clever enough to hide and alter the evidence.  She was a victim, and it’s a testament to her character that she fought off the Simurgh’s influence for as long as she did.”

And there’s the first egregious lie, I thought.

With luck, nobody would believe anyone that was callous enough to point it out.  Nobody would want to believe them.  It was an ugly thought, that Alexandria could be twisted to act against our interests just because of who she was.  She’d worked with Cauldron, had experimented on humans, all in the interest of… what?  Creating powers?  Selling them?

I swallowed hard.  I knew what came next.

“It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.”

Chevalier reached out, put a hand on my shoulder.  He drew me closer to him, until I stood in front of him and he had both hands resting on my shoulders.

“Many will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.”

And now half the world hates me, I thought, staring forward.  The glare was so intense I thought my eyes might start crossing.  And the other half… I don’t know what the other half thinks.

I’d agreed to share ‘credit’ for the kill, but only because there had been a consensus that people wouldn’t believe it if I took sole responsibility.

Chevalier wasn’t speaking.  I saw a red light go on at the corner of my collar.  The microphone Dragon had clipped there was live.  The signals would be received by all equipped, official cameras.  Something the PRT had arranged for convenience’s sake some time ago.

I had a chance to speak in my own defense, in front of countless tens or hundreds of millions of eyes, and the words were dying in my throat.

My thoughts were grinding to a standstill.  What was I supposed to say?  We’d barely had any time to prepare.  We hadn’t had time to prepare.

There were whole lines I was supposed to give.  Ideas I was supposed to express, striking the right tone, and I’d gone blank.

I couldn’t defend myself like this, even with rehearsed lines.

Chevalier rescued me.  He spoke, his voice clear.  “This isn’t a happy day.”

It was a reminder of what my line was supposed to be.  I’m not proud, I’m not happy that it came to this…

“It’s not a happy day, but it’s a good day,” he said, skipping ahead two or so minutes.  “It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.”

Dragon’s ships descended from the sky above.  My hair and the hood of my sweatshirt flapped as the vessels landed to either side of us.  Eleven vessels.  The ones we’d destroyed had been rebuilt, updated.  Others, old Dragon suits, had apparently been set up with A.I. to fly on their own.  They gleamed, various shades of chrome and gunmetal, with trim in different metals and colors for decoration and highlighting.

She had more made, I thought.

“A chance to fight Endbringers without as many casualties,” Chevalier said.  “And hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency.”

I stared at the van where the Undersiders were.

“And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.”

His hands dropped from my shoulders.

I reached up to the zipper of my sweatshirt.  I pulled it down, then shrugged out of it.  Chevalier took the piece of clothing in one hand.

I bent over and stepped out of the loose-fitting prison sweats as well.

Defiant handed me my new mask, and I pulled it on.  Electric blue lenses, the opposite of the yellow I’d worn before.  They helped with the glare, though they weren’t so good against it as my old lenses.

Light gray fabric where I’d had black.  Armor panels in the same dark gray as before, albeit with cleaner lines, less bulk, and less in the way of edges.  I had no points at the tips of my gloves, and both the mantle around my shoulders and the cloth that hung around my belt were marked with an electric blue border, with my gang emblem in miniature at each corner, flipped upside down so they faced skyward, altered to match my new color scheme.

“I admitted to reprehensible things,” I said.  “I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.”

I paused.  For a terrifying moment, I thought I’d forget what to say again.  Then I fixed my eyes on the windshield of the van, at the far end of the crowd.

It struck me that I hadn’t suffered stage fright.  It had been something else entirely.  I hadn’t wanted to speak, because there would be no going back.

When I finally spoke, I didn’t follow the cues I’d been given.  My eyes didn’t leave the spot where the Undersiders were watching from.

“I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable.

“Except there are bigger things.  More important things.”

The eyes and cameras on me made me feel like I was deep in the ocean, a crushing weight pressing down on me.

“I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.”

A lump welled in my throat.  I knew I didn’t have many more words left before I wouldn’t be able to speak.

“This is what I want to do, above all else,” I said, and I said it to the Undersiders.  “Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-“

A howling in the distance interrupted me.

Moments later, others took up the cry.  Ten dogs, then twenty.  Others took up the cry around the city, from various shelters and homes.  A hundred, two hundred dogs, and the wolf cub that had started them off.

“-When and if I do take up the job,” I finished, speaking around the growing lump in my throat, “You can call me Weaver.”

Chevalier set a hand on my shoulder.

“That’ll be all,” the hero said.  “We’ll have another statement and a conference to answer questions early tomorrow, when we know more for sure.”

The reporters were already calling out questions.  Is this the first time you’ve recruited a villain?  How did Alexandria die?  What crimes did she commit, exactly?

More questions, until it was a jumble.

He led me away, one hand steady and firm on my shoulder, and Miss Militia, Defiant, Dragon and my lawyer fell into step behind us.

I cast one last glance at the van, then entered Dragon’s ship.

“You stumbled,” Defiant said.  “Improvised.  But that was good.”

I didn’t respond.

“You know you can’t stay here.  There’s a conflict of-“

Dragon reached out and pressed an index finger against the ‘mouth’ of his mask.

Then she folded her arms around me.  She was cold to the touch, hard and unyielding, but she still managed a motherly embrace.

My face pressed against her shoulder, I found myself glad that my mask hid my face from view.

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Cell 22.5

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Abandoned.

The word hit me before I was fully conscious, as though my brain had grasped the idea before I even had half of a brain functioning.

My father, gone.  My lawyer was gone as well.  Not such a big surprise.  I’d gone all out, held little back, and I’d given no apparent justification.  To them, to my dad especially, I would have looked like a monster.

Fitting, because I’d been one.  I was one.  Was that a label that was affixed to me permanently, now?

My mind was wandering more than it should have.  My head hurt.  I tried to focus, turning to my bugs.

Except my swarm was nearly gone.  Only a small fraction remained.  Hundreds, if that.  My bugs had carried out the last order I’d given them, to attack, before I was knocked out.  I knew that.  What confused me were the other behaviors my bugs had performed.

They’d spread out and searched my surroundings, and they’d been gunned down en masse by Kid Win’s drones. I could sort of understand that, especially if they were actively searching for the last targets I’d given them. That, and I could picture myself unconsciously wanting to check for incoming threats and assess the battlefield before the tranquilizer took hold.  Odd, fucking inconvenient, but understandable.

But the fact that bugs had spent the time I was out to weave lengths of silk cord?  That was unusual, something out of place.  It was something I’d taken to having my bugs handle in the background at any given moment, but why would I carry it out in my sleep?  I was pretty sure I hadn’t given that order, which left only three real possibilities.  Either my unconscious mind had willed it while I slept, or my passenger had.  Unnerving.

More unnerving was the third possibility – that there wasn’t a real distinction between my unconscious mind and the passenger.

I sat up, contorted in pain as I felt bruises and cuts making themselves known, and then groaned as my expression shifted and I felt the damage above and around my eye.  There was a wound: my skin had split, and the tightness coupled with the crusty wet sensation suggested drying blood.

My glasses were screwed up too.  Tagg had knocked one lens out of the frame when he’d slammed my face into the table.  My vision was oddly dreamlike, blurry through my right eye, too crisp through my left.  I moved my hands to move the glasses, and felt the heavy-duty cuffs encasing them.  The sort of handcuffs reserved for low-level Brutes, that covered my hands entirely, each hand welded to the other.

I was in the PRT offices.  I was back in my cell.

As far as I could tell, the building was empty.  My power reached five blocks, and… nothing.  There were no people. Computers were active, television screens were glowing with shifting images, and cars sat in the middle of the road outside, but the people were gone.

Evacuation?  When my power hadn’t stopped, the PRT would have ordered people to clear out of the area.

Maybe they weren’t sure if my power would keep going if they shot me.

I stood and rolled my shoulders, feeling things pop, grind and sing with pain in response to the movement.  I’d had my hands fixed in front of me for the better part of the day, with only a brief respite in my cell while I’d showered.

Showering… it made me think of being in my lair after the first night I’d been with Brian.

I pushed it out of my mind, and Rachel appeared instead, stepping to fill the blank in my mind’s eye.

As if I were suddenly channeling her, I struck at the door with the restraints that encased my hands.  Metal struck metal, the strike barely denting the brushed stainless steel of the door’s surface.

A rapid, high-pitched beeping sounded from above me.  I looked up at the orb just in time to see it lighting up.  I threw myself to the ground, felt the shock jolt through me.

If I’d been sore before, the jolt cranked it up to ten.  I felt my mind go white, heat coiling through the interior of my body, as though it were dancing around my internal organs and bones.  The strength went out of me; my cuffs were too heavy, and I didn’t have the ability to hold them up.  I fell, as though the restraints were an anchor pulling me down.

I could feel my muscles twitching in a way that seemed like it was intentionally making the sorest parts of me move.

Do not disturb the peace of your cell.  This deterrence measure was calculated at twenty percent of your overall capacity.  The next response will be at twice the strength.  Thank you,” the automated voice informed me.

For long minutes, I lay there, spasming and searching the building with surviving bugs, because doing anything else was impossible or futile.

Needed out.

How had they unlocked my cell and the interrogation room?  They’d had phones.  PRT issue, probably, and had tapped the phone against the wall.

Phones… there were no PRT officers in the building.

In the morgue… there was a body bag.  Bugs clung to it.

Brian?  Rachel?  Someone else?

I sent bugs over to explore it.  One centipede to latch the zipper, other bugs to haul it back.

It was Tagg, dead.

I’d killed a man, and I had done it with my power, which somehow felt more intimate than the gun that killed Coil.  My power made the bugs an extension of myself, and I’d used them to murder the man.  It was little different from wrapping my hands around his throat and squeezing, or biting him in the throat and tearing deep enough that he couldn’t survive.

I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything meaningful about it.  I wanted to.  I wanted to think of his daughters, apparently college students overseas, and his apparently loving wife, and the fact that I’d just taken a member of their family from them, much as my mom had been taken from me.  I wanted to feel terrible, to cry, but I couldn’t bring myself to.  I felt bad, but not as bad as I should have.

No.  I could only see the bully, the monster, the threat he posed to the city or the world.  To my team.

Or was that the threat he had posed?  Was it too late to save them?

I couldn’t check the time without sacrificing bugs to the patrolling drones.  However long I’d been out, the remainder of the Undersiders could be embroiled in an all-out war.

Tagg,  I thought.  Have to focus.

His phone was in his jacket pocket, his key ring in his pants pocket.  Getting the items to me would be harder.  There were closed doors, vents, the elevator and the blocked elevator shaft.  The morgue was in a separate building, joined to the PRT office at one corner.

Worse, the numerous skirmishes in, outside and around the building had led to there being a great deal of renovation and rebuilding.  New things were that much harder to get bugs through.  There were no open grates, no gaps in air conditioning ducts or anything in that vein.

There had to be a way.  I was down to a few hundred bugs.  Barely enough to matter.  I wasn’t about to brute force my way through anything.

I thought of the hole Alexandria had put in the roof during her hurried exit.  It was the most indirect way, getting bugs from the basement of one building outside, to the roof, and back down to the basement of the next building… but it was a path.  If there were barriers I wasn’t sensing, I’d handle them.

Working together, bugs began dragging the keys and smart phone down the hall to the mortician’s office.  Windows, squat, looked out at the parking lot, no doubt intended more to bring natural light into the office than for the sake of the view.  I knew before approaching them that the windows were open – there was fresh air flowing into the hallway, and my bugs could sense the shifting air currents.

A screen blocked the way.  Not a serious issue.  The bugs started chewing through the individual wires, while the bugs with the phone and key ring began binding the items in silk, connecting them to a line.

Minutes passed while the bugs made their way up to the hole in the roof, down the shaft to the Wards headquarters one floor below me, and to the elevator.

The stairwell was blocked off, the elevator… the buttons.

I had the largest bug ram it.

Nothing.  Feeble at best.

The wiring.  Could I hotwire it like someone hotwired a car?

Getting into the walls wasn’t as hard as it should have been.  Rachel had done a little damage when she’d attacked with the dogs a week ago.  Even though they’d shored it up and sealed the exterior from the interior, there were gaps that I could use to get inside from the building’s interior, much as I’d done when disconnecting the outlet for Kid Win’s drone recharging station.

The actual connection… the damn thing seemed to be reinforced, with thick wires and a button mechanism that was too heavy to move from within.  The bugs themselves couldn’t form a live connection between the button and the contact.

A workaround.  I used cockroaches to carefully strip away insulation, two centipedes positioning themselves so their mandibles were above two respective pieces of wire, their tail ends entwined with one another.  Then they let themselves drop.  Their bodies bridged the gap between the wire behind the contact and the wiring by the button.

The centipedes died in an instant, and the door opened.

I dragged the smart phone and keys in, being careful to use bugs to bridge the gap so the phone and the keys wouldn’t fall through, and then let the elevator carry the bugs to the floor above.  The doors opened automatically as the elevator arrived, and I brought the items out the same way.

The bugs began the slow process of bringing the phone to a point high enough on the wall.  I spent the time recovering, flexing my muscles until I was sure they moved right.  I had to draw out more silk to have a line strong enough, and set to reeling it in, anchoring end at the corner of the door frame, pushing up with the bugs and looping any slack around the corner of metal.

It wasn’t halfway up when the heroes arrived to collect their prisoner.  A vibration through the building as a heavy vehicle landed on the helicopter pad on the roof.  Four legged, with turbines in the place of wings, and a neckless head.  A man stepped out.  Defiant.

Dragon arrived as Defiant reached the elevator door on the rooftop.  My bugs inside continued the glacial process of raising the phone to the necessary height, while the ones outside clustered on Defiant and Dragon.  They knew I was here.  There was no reason to be subtle.  The only thing I had to be careful of was keeping Defiant from killing the swarm with one of his bug zapping tricks.

His focus was on his phone and the door, instead.  He was typing something.  A password?

If one was required to access the phone, I was screwed.  If it was access specific…

I memorized the sequence.  Now I had the problem of using it on the touch screen of the smart phone.

If it was pressure sensitive, then I could use it.

If it was heat-sensitive…

Bugs approached the fluorescent lightbulbs in the hallway outside, warming themselves until their wings and legs threatened to burn up.

The pair of heroes was halfway to the elevator on the top floor when the phone reached the correct height.  Bugs I’d warmed on the bulbs moved to the keyboard, copying the same sequence of movements I’d tracked with the bugs on Defiant’s glove and phone.

The door slid open.

I dropped to my hands and knees to get the phone in my teeth, stooped down so the bugs with the keys could latch on to my gauntlet-restraints, then speed-hobbled for the elevator, chains at my ankles clanking.

I hit the button a second before Defiant hit the one on the top floor.  The doors opened immediately.

They hadn’t reacted yet.  The delay before the elevator moved hadn’t registered with them.  Once they saw the elevator moving… they would expect me to run, cut me off.

Fuck that.

Had to second guess them, which was harder than it sounded, because they weren’t dumb.  If they expected me to make a break for the ground floor, I’d have to do something else.

I leaned back against the wall and used my bare toe to hit the button for the first and third floors.  That done, I turned my attention to the keys.  The phone went into one pocket, moved by a swarm of bugs and the slope of my arm.  When that was done, smaller bugs searched the keyhole at the base of my restraints to gauge the width.  Other bugs marked the keys that fit the same size, yet others holding the ring against my restraints so I could use my teeth to pick through them, sliding them around the ring when they weren’t appropriate.  Cockroaches wedged themselves in between keys to speed the process along.

Defiant and Dragon were moving.  Dragon opened a window and moved outside, while Defiant headed into the stairwell.  They wanted to cut me off on the ground floor.

They could communicate without talking.  Some kind of system built into their masks.  It made this harder.  I couldn’t listen in and anticipate what they were saying.

By the time I passed the first floor, they were turning around.  I hurried to the stairwell, and took the stairs two at a time in a hurry to get up to the second floor.

Just inside the door, I used my toes to ease it closed, then crouched to stay out of sight as Dragon patrolled outside, peeking in the windows.

I tried a key, sliding it into the hole before successfully turning it with my teeth.  My lips came in contact with the cockroaches I was using to guide the metal into place.  I didn’t care.

Disease, filth, disgust, they all came in a distant second to other priorities.  I felt numb, and it wasn’t the electrocution.  They’d taken away someone important to me, pushed me.  My dad was gone, my lawyer, my team… my team wasn’t here.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why they hadn’t come to the rescue, or why the mercenaries we’d hired hadn’t been called in.

I had an ugly feeling in my gut that something was wrong.  Something beyond what had just happened here, beyond the possibility that someone I loved, romantically or platonically, was gone.

I got the cuffs off, set them down on a computer chair and slid it neatly under the desk so the cuffs wouldn’t be immediately apparent.

My hands were free.  I needed tools and I needed weapons.

I scooped up silk cords from the floor, where they’d been abandoned by the bugs that had been working on them.  Not much.  Most were short, but it was something.  I set my bugs to splicing them together.  One twenty-foot rope was more use to me than ten cords that were each two or three feet long.

Other priorities.  Those fucking drones.  I could see them, footballs with one end sawn off, carried aloft by antigravity panels like the ones from Kid Win’s skateboard.  I could see one switch modes, unfolding and reconfiguring to an entirely different setup, from white to red.

I used my body to block its line of sight to my swarm, trusting that it wouldn’t do any serious damage if there was a human in its line of sight, then grabbed the thing out of the air and shoved it into a desk drawer.  I shut the drawer firmly before blocking it with a box of paperwork.

I’d slipped out of the pair’s grasp for just a moment.  I had little doubt they’d pull some other solution out of their tinker caps before long.  I crossed the room to get to a second drone, picking up a trash can from beside one desk, catching it like I might a large butterfly in a net, and then planting it on the ground, moving a monitor from someone’s desk to sit on top.

Once the way was clear, my swarm worked to catch up.  Tagg’s phone wasn’t good for anything more than access until I figured out his password.  A check of the phones failed to give me a dial tone.  Dragon’s work?

This floor was where the PRT officers worked.  It was where they got briefed and debriefed, and where they typed up their paperwork.  I’d observed them at work with my bugs, had seen the patterns and figured it out in advance.  I’d also seen where they kept their stuff.

Tagg’s phone and the code Defiant had used served to open the supply room.  In the same moment the lock opened, Dragon turned around and made a beeline for the stairwell, using her jetpack to pick up speed.  Defiant changed direction only a moment later.

She’d tapped into the security system, no doubt.  Defiant would know the building’s layout if he had any of his old technology.  I couldn’t give them any advantages, and if she had eyes on the security system, it would eliminate any possibility of me evading them.  I set bugs to chewing on the lines that fed into the building from outside.

The boxes were locked, but I had Tagg’s keys and nothing to lose.  Fully aware of Dragon and Defiant’s approach, I worked my way through the keys in much the same way I had with the keys for the cuffs.

The lights abruptly went out.  After a moment, the lights came back on, with a dim red glow.  The backup generator.  I started to work on that as well.  I could fight in darkness.  I wasn’t sure they could.

I could hear them walking by the time I got the box open.

Grenade launchers, with special shells.  I turned a grenade launcher over in my hands before figuring out how to open it and load the cartridges.  Each was color coded, with a symbol and two-letter code stenciled on it.  A green cartridge with a face, eyes squinting, mouth open with tongue extended, T.G. beneath.  A red cartridge with the letters I.G. and a flame.  A blue cartridge with a stick-man stuck in goop, C.F. no doubt standing for containment foam.  A yellow cartridge with a lightning bolt and E.M. beneath.

I loaded the last, aiming out the open door of the storage area, and pulled the trigger.

Nothing.

A bar of black on the back of the grip lit up with letters, running vertically from above my thumb to the bottom of the grip.  ‘NONCONFIRMED’.

They’d either learned since we attacked the fundraiser, or they took stricter measures with their more dangerous weaponry.

I investigated, but there didn’t seem to be a place to input any code.

The footsteps drew closer, heavy.  I could sense Defiant with my swarm, only a short distance away, looking into the briefing room to see if he could spot me.

Fingerprints, I thought.  Except there wasn’t a flat panel to press the finger against.  The grip was textured, and nothing about the barrel suggested it was meant to read anything.

The gloves.

I used the same key that had opened the box to access the locker with the armor the PRT officers wore.  I found a glove and began pulling it on.

Defiant appeared in the doorway.  He aimed the butt of his spear at me, and the display on the gun dissipated.

He lunged, and the butt of his spear caught me just below the collarbone.  With that alone, he pushed me into the lockers with enough force that they rocked against my back, rendering me pinned.

I let the grenade launcher fall to the ground.

Dragon appeared behind him, setting one hand on his arm as she passed through the door.  He eased back on the pressure.

I glared at them, but they didn’t speak, and Defiant didn’t move to release me.  Were they talking with one another?

“Fine,” I said.  “You got me.  I had to-”

Defiant was shaking his head.  He tapped his mask.

Bugs flowed over the outside of his armor, and he didn’t seem to mind.  There were no openings, no apertures, no air holes or gaps I could work a bug into.  He was playing the same game Mannequin had, to counteract my power.  Fuck it.  I wouldn’t be able to sting him.  Dragon either, apparently.

He couldn’t talk.  I wasn’t positive he could even hear.

He shifted his grip, then grabbed my upper left arm.  Dragon took hold of the right.  They half-walked, half-carried me towards the stairwells and elevator.  I walked more to keep them from putting more strain on my already sore shoulders than out of any need.  Their grip left me little doubt they could have held me off the ground if they wanted.

Defiant stopped mid-stride, then glanced at Dragon and me.

Without letting go of me he charged the very air with a current from his spear, frying each and every one of the bugs I had in the area.  It included, unfortunately, the two groups of bugs that were following me, each group discreetly escorting specialized canisters from the grenade launcher.  I could feel my hair shift in reaction to the strike, the little hairs on my arms and the nape of my neck standing to attention.

I wasn’t sure if it would have worked, but my hope had been to possibly drop the grenades from overhead after we’d reached the roof.  No such luck.  I hung my head as we entered the stairwell, making our way up to the roof and the waiting vehicle.

This was my escort, apparently.  Heroes with the tools to disable and defeat my most common methods, sealed in suits that my bugs couldn’t touch, overloaded with firepower, while I had none.

Unfair.  All of it.  On so many levels.  Too many situations, all together, with no perfect, right answers.  Over and over, being faced with lose-lose situations.  Cutting ties with the Undersiders versus helping Dinah.  Leaving my dad versus abandoning the people in my territory.  Leaving the city versus letting the world blow up in some unknown, undefined end of the world scenario.

And maybe I could have lived with that, could have accepted that things weren’t fair and the world was biased, but I wasn’t the one paying the price.  All too often, it was others around me who paid the price.  My dad had suffered for my decisions before.  And now?  This.

Emotion was starting to creep back in.  Anger, frustration, despair, heartbreak.

I blinked rapidly, to keep my eyes as dry as possible.

The anger, of all things, was comforting.  It was something that pushed me to act, to move, when I wanted nothing more than to give up.  I hurt everywhere, I had nobody left to rely on, and I felt drained.  The fear, the hopelessness, it was seductive.  It was urging me to give up.

The lights in the stairwell died as the bugs severed the output from the generator.  I tried to use the surprise to pull free, but Defiant and Dragon didn’t even slow down.  Their grips were firm.

I gave up when the struggling became too much of a chore with the pain in my shoulders.  I still had the silk cord, if nothing else.  Escape wasn’t a good option.  Offense, then.

When we stepped out of the stairwell and onto the rooftop, the light momentarily blinded me.  Defiant’s vessel was a mechanized dragon painted in black and green, glossy, with gold framing the shield at the dragon’s forehead, at the ‘wings’ and shoulders.  The sleek form focused the light cast by the reddening sun at the horizon’s edge.  It felt like the design had all been engineered to direct a hundred gleaming daggers of light right into my eyes.

To the people out there, barring those within a third of a mile who had been evacuated, this was a diversion.  It was little more than something to discuss at the dinner table, or watch on the late night news.  The area being evacuated, the fighting, the destruction.  Even the demise of the PRT director wouldn’t have a huge impact on the average citizen of Brockton Bay.  Spotting Dragon’s heavy vehicle-suit circling overhead would barely warrant twenty words in small talk.  It wasn’t so noteworthy to the people down there, probably wouldn’t change the course of their weeks or evenings.

To me, this was everything.  It was the rest of my life, my friends, my father.  I’d lost someone.  Brian or Rachel.  The only people who would fit the bag.  I was doing what I could to avoid dwelling on it, glad that I hadn’t yet confirmed it either way, because it let me feel like it was Rachel when I was thinking about Brian, or vice versa.

It couldn’t end like this.  I didn’t want to get taken in.  I had to find a way.  My plan, as minor and feeble as it was, was easy enough to put into action, with him holding me like he was.  My bugs moved down the length of his arm, then traveled around his midsection, twice, with the cord following them.  There were only two people to tie Defiant to.  Doing it to myself would be nearly useless.  That left only Dragon.

I bound the other end around her left foot.  The slack trailed several feet behind us.  A cord as thick around as two of my fingers put together, as strong as steel.

“Before you take me in,” I said, “Could I have a word?”

Dragon turned to look at me, but didn’t speak.

“A word with Defiant,” I said.  “I’m not going to try anything.  He doesn’t even have to say anything.  It’s sort of a last request.”

Defiant’s mask opened with a barely perceptible noise.

“A last request,” he made it a statement rather than a question.  “We can talk in the Pendragon.  There’s no need.”

“I spent the day in a cell, I wanted some fresh air.  Sue me for thinking you actually meant something when you apologized, that you were sorry for not being fair to me back then,”  I sounded more petulant and bitter than I liked.

He glanced at Dragon, and the silence suggested there was a dialogue happening.

“It’s rude to whisper,” I said.  Again, more petty than I wanted to be.

“She can’t speak out loud,” Defiant said.  “It’s complicated to explain.  She’s under certain restrictions, many related to the PRT, and we’d agreed we didn’t want to win like that, back at the school.  The only way for Dragon to stop was if I stepped in and made her stop, and she was hurt in the process.  The recovery is slow.”

Only if he made her stop?  Because the PRT would be harsher with her, with whatever leverage they had over her?  I thought.  Was that something I could use?  What did they have on her that they didn’t have on the hero-on-probation?

“Thank you,” I said, to Dragon.  “For doing that.”

She gave me a curt nod in response.

“I’ve been trying to grow as a person, with Dragon’s help,” Defiant said.  “I’m willing to listen, but it’ll have to be fast.”

“Okay,” I said.  I glanced at Dragon.  I almost hated to do this, but I’d already started, and I couldn’t go to jail.  Not with things as they stood.  “Can I talk to him in private?”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a look.  He nodded once, and she took flight, heading towards her airborne vehicle-suit.

The cord went taut, and Defiant’s grip on my arm was wrenched away as he was dragged back.  Heavy as he was, Dragon’s jet was powerful, and he wasn’t on his guard.  It took him seconds to realize what was happening, to get his footing and shift his center of balance lower to the ground.

I was already moving, chasing him.  There was no point to trying to escape if they were right on my heels.

He came to a stop at the edge of the roof, but I was already arriving, taking advantage of his lack of balance to throw myself into his upper body.

Not the first time I’ve fought a dragon-man on a rooftop, I thought, as I felt Defiant move in response, all of his sturdiness and armor nothing with a strong push at the right moment.  One to mark the start of my career in costume, the other to mark the end?

If he’d had a mind to, he could have grabbed me and taken me down with him.  Maybe Armsmaster would have.

But Defiant twisted as he tilted backwards, drawing his folded-up spear and striking out in the same motion.  It bit into the concrete of the rooftop’s edge, the head expanding for a more secure grip.

I kicked the spear, as if I could dislodge it, but only succeeded in hurting my foot.

Dragon caught me a moment later, pushing me away.  She offered Defiant a hand, and he used both her grip and the spear to right himself, pulling himself back from the edge.

He stepped forward and gripped me by the front of my oversized prison-uniform t-shirt.  “Stop that.”

I only glared.

Stop trying things,” he repeated, as if he thought repetition would get through more than articulation.

“Fuck you,” I said.  I didn’t like how I sounded.  The guise of confidence I was so used to wearing was slipping away.  “Fuck you and the people you work for.”

“I don’t know why I-” he said, then he stopped abruptly.  Was Dragon interrupting?

“You bastards,” I said.  I could feel the veneer starting to crack.  The tears that had threatened earlier were now promising to overflow.

“You don’t have any conception of what you did, do you?” he asked.

“I have some,” I said.  “But no, you assholes knocked me out.  I don’t know anything that’s been going on.  I attacked Tagg and Alexandria-”

“They’re dead,” Defiant said.

Dead.  I hadn’t believed Alexandria would die like that.  She’d flown away.  Surely there were methods.

“A family man-”

“A bully,” I said.  “Twisted by the Simurgh, probably-”

“He was vetted,” Defiant said.  “But he’s not important.  You killed one of the strongest recognized heroes in the world, at a time we needed her most.  Her image, her courage, her help.  Do you know what’s going to happen, now?”

“I do,” I said.  “It’s going to crush the morale of our defending forces, and it’s going to break the hearts of billions of people around the world.  I knew it when I made the call, but I did it anyways.”

“And you doomed us all.”

She doomed us all.  She was the one who did it, her and Tagg.”

“Maybe.  Probably.  They forced your hand.  I understand that, and I’ve been trying to be lenient.  Gentle, even, though it’s not familiar to me.”  His tone changed, “You’re making it hard, you keep trying things.  Trying to kill me.”

“You would have survived,” I said.  “A six-story fall in armor like yours?  I could have run while Dragon looked after you.  Gotten my hands on another weapon or something.”

He didn’t answer right away, but there was nothing indicating an exchange between him and Dragon.  His voice was tight with restrained anger when he said, “You could make this easier.”

“I don’t want to make this easy,” I said.  “As long as you work for them, I’m going to fight you.  You want to know what Alexandria did?  She and Tagg convinced me that the PRT is more trouble than it’s worth.  If we have to rely on them to win this, then we don’t deserve to win.”

“That’s a choice you just made for a whole planet of people,” Defiant said.

“A choice I’m making for me.  I think we can find a way past the end of the world, it can’t be impossible to survive the meantime without the PRT.”

This isn’t going to work.”

The voice was female, and it came from Dragon’s direction.

“I’m having my doubts as well,” Defiant said.

We’re low on options,” the voice sounded.  It wasn’t Dragon, but someone communicating through a speaker on her shoulder.  I recognized the voice.  Miss Militia.

“Where is she?” I asked.

Defiant pointed at Dragon’s airborne craft.

“You’re not just here to arrest me?” I asked.

“No,” Defiant said.  “Or we weren’t, until you decided to try to push me off a building.  Now I’m reconsidering.”

Tell her the plan,” Miss Militia said, through the speaker,  “We don’t have any more time, for reconsidering or anything else.

Time?

I glanced over my shoulder at the sun on the horizon.  It was still twenty or thirty minutes from sunset.  I must have been out for an hour or so.

But… the deadline didn’t matter anymore, did it?  The Undersiders should be attacking already, after being attacked, it was almost inevitable, if Grue or Rachel…

I shook my head.  “No.  No, no, no.  No.

“Skitter-”

Too many things that hadn’t made sense.

The fact that the Undersiders hadn’t gone on the offensive, or rescued me here after the PRT left me in my cell.

Alexandria keeping to her schedule, the little clues she’d given, like reminding me she could be drowned.  The baiting, the pressure, even from the moment Tagg was introduced.

Even the way she’d avoided stopping Coil, avoided stopping us.  The way she hadn’t stepped in against the Nine, or against Echidna, at first.  There had been something bigger going on.

“Why?  For what?” I asked.  “A ruse?  Playing me?”

“Yes.  With one tragic mistake that we’re all about to pay for.”

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Cell 22.4

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I watched my dad’s expression change.  “I don’t understand.”

“Like I said,” Tagg said, “Peace of mind.”

“Let’s get started,” Alexandria said.  “I believe I’m fully up to speed, unless Director Tagg has agreed to any deals or made any concessions.”

“Sadly, he hasn’t,” my lawyer said.

“This is common knowledge?” my dad murmured to me.

“Since roughly ten days ago,” I said, not taking my eyes off the woman.  She was looking at me like Tattletale sometimes did.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

“Let’s not make this the focus of our discussion.  You wanted to be on board, I presume.  You had to be informed, so you understood exactly what it means when I make a threat.”

“You’re planning to make threats?” I asked.

“Threats is the wrong word,” she said.  “But English is a limited language in some ways.  There’s really no word to articulate what I mean.  A threat with a measure of inevitability to it.  A promise?  Too feeble.  People break promises too often.  A curse?  A malediction?  Too… magical.  An oath?  The connotations are wrong.  When I say I’ll do something, I make it happen.”

I didn’t respond.  Mr. Calle did.  “You seem rather confident.”

Overconfident?  I imagine I seem that way.  It doesn’t matter.”

I studied her, “When you say you’re going to do something?  What is it you’re doing?”

“Putting an end to this nonsense, for one thing.  The PRT, flawed as it is, is my legacy, and I truly believe that it saves lives, or I wouldn’t try to protect it.”

I’m trying to protect it,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  “But the timing is wrong.  Things are too fragile at this moment.  It won’t do.  We’ll arrange this discussion for another time, weeks or months from now, when things have stabilized.”

“I… don’t think it works that way,” I said.

“It does.  Truth be told, I’ve relinquished all authority.  I’m serving under the new Chief Director, and I’m carrying out his instructions, between the times where I’m instructing him in the particulars of his job.  Alexandria, however, remains with the Protectorate, having given her notice that she quits within the week.  She’ll continue as a solo operative.”

An operative for Cauldron, I thought.  I didn’t say it aloud.  Best to let her dictate what information was acceptable to mention aloud.  And she refers to her costumed self as someone else entirely.

I could see the confusion in my father’s face, the dawning realization of how far in over his head he was.

“So you’re following orders,” I said.  “That’s the worst and scariest excuse in the world, really.”

“It’s a reality,” she said.  “When you’re dealing with organizations as big as these.”

“And it’s also a reality that you’ll have people at the top who don’t understand how things work on the ground, giving orders that don’t jibe with reality.”

“You’d be surprised at what I’m capable of understanding,” Alexandria told me.

“You’re forgetting about the Undersiders.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t forget anything.  Your team is now my bargaining chip.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “How’s that?”

“It’s twenty minutes to six.  I’m not in a particular rush, and I actually enjoy the idea of some field work.  We can talk for five minutes, and then have ‘Alexandria’ remove one of your teammates from the field.  Depending on the situation, I will either arrest them and take them to PRT offices in New York and Boston, or I’ll kill them.”

I could feel my blood run cold.

“After, we can talk for another five or ten minutes, and then I will, again, depart to dispatch one of your teammates.  I expect that by the time the sun sets at eight thirty, the Undersiders will be either dealt with or so neutered that they aren’t a consideration.”

“You’re talking about killing teenagers,” my dad said.  “Without a trial?”

“I’m talking about self-defense, if it comes down to it.  Tattletale can see through weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that she’d be able to leverage mine in the spur of the moment, but I won’t rule anything out.”

I stared at her.  “You’re willing to go this far, yet you couldn’t bring yourself to show up to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Or Echidna, when she first showed.”

“There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Tattletale, you mean.”

“No.  Tattletale was only a small part of it,” she said.  “And it should be obvious that the rest isn’t up for discussion.  Three minutes and forty-five seconds.  Negotiate.”

“You mean you want me to make concessions.”

“I’m saying I’m willing to hear you out.  Convince me.”

“You’re underestimating my team.”

“And now you’re referring to them as ‘your team’.  I thought you left.  You committed to this idea of yours, did you not?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do.  But as much as I may be underestimating them, I find that others underestimate me.  Strength, durability, flight.  It doesn’t lend itself to much imagination, does it?  Yet others acknowledge me as one of the strongest heroes in the world.  ‘Cape geeks’ debate my effectiveness, protesting that I’m only seen as powerful by association with Legend and Eidolon.  Do feel free to interrupt me if you want to talk about more concrete things.”

I would have, if I could have thought of something to say.

“My reputation isn’t so different from yours, Taylor Hebert.  It’s a reputation that was forged.  There have been fifty-six Endbringer attacks in the last nineteen years.  I have personally participated in forty-nine of them, and in each fight I’ve attended, I’ve been in the thick of the fighting, personally trading blows with the abominations.  The creatures know me.  They know how to fight me, and I know how to fight them.  Yet I’m still here.  Strength, invulnerability, flight.  Those are my core powers, but my other power is greater.”

“Other power?” my dad asked.  “I remember.  When you started off… you explained the reason for your name.”

“A reference to the burned library of Alexandria.  It’s been mythologized as that era’s sum of human knowledge.  I am much the same.  I think faster, I think more easily.  I know martial arts and I remember everything that crosses my path.”

Miss Militia reacted to that, giving Alexandria a look I couldn’t interpret.

She went on.  “I would say I am one of three or four people in this world who truly understands what is going on.  I don’t have all of the answers, and there are some riddles in particular that we’re desperately seeking to unravel.”

We, of course, being…” I said, trailing off.  It wasn’t a question.  Something about the gravity of the word made my dad look at me, startled.

“I won’t discuss the others.  I’ve been disconnected from my former partners, so it’s a moot point.  A debatable point, to use the true meaning of the word.”

I saw a possible piece of leverage and grasped for it, “If you need answers, then we’re the last people you should be attacking.  Tattletale can offer input.  Leave the Undersiders in place, and they can work with you where necessary.  Treat me fairly, and I’m sure Tattletale will play ball.”

“There’s two problems with that offer,” Alexandria said.  She stood from her seat and adjusted her suit jacket, then turned her attention to her cuffs.  “First of all, I believe I mentioned that there’s only a small number of people who truly understand what’s going on.  We haven’t shared this information.  Why?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“This isn’t a riddle.  It’s quite simple: we don’t want people to know.  And we don’t want people to know for good reason.  Having Tattletale off leash with all of the information she might discover is a dangerous prospect.”

“She’s not that unpredictable.”

“But it’s not a variable we can afford to have in play.  As I’ve said, things are fragile.  Which brings me to my second point.  There’s no reason to leave her here if we can bring her into custody and use her freedom or probationary freedom as leverage to obtain her talents.”

I frowned.

Alexandria glanced at Tagg, “It’s time.  Five forty-five.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes.

She was at the door, waiting for the guard to open it, when I called out, “Tattletale won’t listen.  She’s too rebellious, wants to be the smartest person in the room.  If you force her, she’ll sabotage you, or she’ll just make you put her in the Birdcage, having her here, it’s the only way to get her help.”

Alexandria paused, then looked back at me.  “That will do.  Information I can use, that changes how I’ll respond to this particular confrontation.  I don’t agree, but we can discuss that after.  I’ll target one of the others in the meantime.”

The metal door slammed shut.

Miss Militia stood.  “I need some fresh air.”

She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t even look at anyone as she made her way to the door and knocked for the PRT guard to let her through.

“Everything she was talking about,” my dad said, “I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“This is what I’ve been living,” I said.  “This has been my day-to-day.  My friends and I, facing terminal risk, facing down monsters like her, like Alexandria.”

“She’s one of the heroes.”

“Yeah,” I said, meeting my dad’s eyes.  It hadn’t been so long ago that I’d been able to cling to that basic idea.  The image, as I’d heard it phrased, of the heroes, of the Triumvirate.  It had been Armsmaster who instilled the seed of doubt in me, as far as the heroes went.  “Do you think she’s that heroic, now that you’ve met her in person?”

“No,” he said.  He looked troubled.

Shit.  I was stuck in a box while one of the scariest heroes around was going after my friends.  I’d expected retaliation, had told Tattletale to expect it, but this was… I hadn’t expected Alexandria.  She wasn’t even supposed to be with the PRT.  Eidolon, we possibly could have dealt with.  Or Tattletale could have.  Even Legend, possibly.  Alexandria was something else.  The heroic equivalent of a cruise missile.

There was Grue’s power, Imp’s power… did Alexandria have the ability to see through it?

Alexandria was taking her time.  She’d said ten minutes, but she wasn’t in a hurry, making her way out of the building.

“You know, now,” I said.  “After the Echidna incident-”

I could see Tagg stiffen, kept talking, “-Stuff went down.  Alexandria was outed as head of the PRT, other secrets came to light.  You know the PRT is supposed to be led by non-capes, there was scandal, and now the PRT is falling apart.”

“I see,” my dad said.  “Other secrets?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.  “And Tagg would be exceedingly upset if I shared.”

My dad frowned and stared down at the table.  “I believe you.”

I nodded.

Alexandria had found an alley and promptly took to the air, zig-zagging between buildings and flying with enough speed that people couldn’t follow her with their eyes.

“My phone isn’t working,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have you warning them,” Tagg replied.

“I’m offended at the implication,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have her warning them either,” Tagg replied.

Warning them.  I needed a way to contact my team. Cells wouldn’t work.  A land line?  An unoccupied office… Tagg’s office would do.  My bugs made their way there.

Too small to affect anything, to press a key on the computer, even if I could see the screen.  Too small to transmit a message of any sort.

I needed a larger bug.  There were larger beetles and cockroaches outside.  Everything else had been wiped out by Kid Win’s drones.

I could see Mr. Calle and Tagg watching my dad and I, looking between us.  “What?”

Mr. Calle answered, “I’ve represented a lot of supervillains.  I can count on one hand the ones who had parents show up at their trial, let alone pre-trial.  When they did show up, half of them were a nightmare.  Bambina’s mother, for example, all of the worst aspects of a showbiz parent, but the kid’s a vandal and a mass murderer.  Don’t even get me started on how toxic that dynamic was.  You two are civil with one another, at the very least.  That’s… something.  Hold onto it.”

“Hold onto it?” Tagg commented, from the opposite end of the table.  “I think you’re forgetting your client’s circumstances.”

Again, interjecting himself in between my dad and I.  Driving in wedges.  I felt a momentary urge to do something painful to him.

I couldn’t rise to the bait, though.  I had to channel the anger.  Bugs were finding their way through vents and down hallways, spreading out so the two or three remaining drones couldn’t eradicate them.

Others clustered on Tagg’s phone.  Silk allowed multiple bugs to effectively ‘grip’ the phone handle.  Larger bugs found their way under the base of it, wedging their bodies beneath as the pull on the cord tilted it.  A little bit of progress, driving in the wedge to make sure the phone didn’t simply fall back into place.

“You’re going to jail, Skitter,” Tagg said.  “And if you’re very, very lucky, it won’t be the Birdcage or a death sentence.”

“She’s a minor,” my dad said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Calle sighed.

“Look at me, Tagg,” I said.  “You said you weren’t going to underestimate me.  Do you really think I’m worried?  Do you think I would have surrendered if I didn’t have confidence that I’d be able to manage?”

My dad was staring at me.

“No,” he said.  “I think you have a number of plans in the works.  But it doesn’t matter.  Alexandria can out-think your plans, counter anything your Tattletale throws at us.

His phone handset fell from its perch, clattering across the keys before it fell from the desk, swinging.  I could see the flare of light on the phone, marking that the line was active.  I hoped there wasn’t a secretary who’d notice.

I flew the largest beetle I had into the number pad, driving him into the number five.  The bugs on the mouthpiece heard a sound I took to be the answering beep.

Five again.  Second number in the sequence.

Not hard enough.  No beep.

Five again.

Seven numbers.

The message that came through was odd, rhythmic somehow, though I couldn’t make out the words.  A recording.

I had to dial an outside line.

Eight numbers this time, starting with… Nine.  It took a full minute to hit the buttons.

Nothing.

Eight numbers starting with eight…  No.

Seven.

The call went through.  I got a response.

Please be Lisa.

I tried buzzing out words.  It didn’t feel like enough.

So I retired the abused beetle and set to using cockroaches.  My bugs felt the indents of the characters on the number pad.

Two, five, three, nine, two, six…

The voice interrupted me.

The number of syllables was right.  She understood.  The numbers each corresponded to three possible letters, and each number pressed on the phone generated a different sound.  Anyone else might have struggled, but Tattletale picked up on it right away.  ‘Alexandria’.

I could only hope it helped.  A little forewarning, at best.

Still couldn’t make out words that followed.  The filter of both the phone and my bugs was too much, and I couldn’t begin to guess where the speaker phone button was.  Wasn’t sure I wanted to risk using it in case someone stepped into the office.  A phone being off the hook was far better than a voice talking to nothing.

“You meant it, when you said they were your friends,” my dad said.

“We’ve been through thick and thin.  They saved me, in some ways.  I’d like to think I saved them.”

Tagg snorted.  I ignored him.

“They did… bad things, didn’t they?” my dad asked.

“So have I,” I said.

“But you’re willing to martyr yourself for them?”

“No,” I said.  “I didn’t come here to be a martyr, I had other hopes.  But… things didn’t work out like that.  It’s down to secondary goals… and if those fail, then I’m willing to go to jail for their sakes.  Not just my friends.  The people in my territory, and maybe just a little, everyone.”

I looked at Tagg as I said that last word.  He gave me a dirty look, then more or less turned his attention to his phone, watching me with one eye while texting with one hand.

“Everyone?” my dad asked.

“We can’t lose the next Endbringer fight,” was all I could say.

“No, I don’t imagine we can,” he said.

That was something he understood in full, even if he didn’t know the particulars.  The Endbringers were something we all understood.  A fact of reality, something that touched everyone, struck a chord of fear in cape and civilian alike.

My heart sank as Alexandria appeared.  She plunged past the cloud of bugs that had collected over the roof, into an opening aperture in the ceiling.  She passed down a shaft that ran parallel to the elevator, and into the Wards’ quarters.

From there, she reached the elevator and made her way up to the cells.

Alexandria rejoined us in the cell, virtually the same, though her hair was disheveled, her suit jacket folded over one arm.  She laid it across the back of Miss Militia’s empty chair and stayed there, leaning on the back of the chair that was bolted to the floor.

Noting Miss Militia’s absence led to me double checking on her.  She was on the roof.  No, I couldn’t count on anything from her.  I’d hoped to have one more piece in play, but she was leaning over a railing at the edge of a helicopter landing pad, staring out over the city.

Alexandria had to be my focus.  She was staring at me, scrutinizing me.  I met her eyes, and she locked hers onto mine.

“I’d thought Tattletale had figured it out…” she paused, “But no.  You told them.  You have an open line of communication with them.”

I shrugged, thinking of Tagg’s phone, with the handset still dangling over the edge of the desk.

Wished I could hear her response.  What had happened to my teammates?

“Let’s take five minutes more to talk.  Then I’ll take care of another of the Undersiders.”

“Another?”

“A PRT van will be along shortly.  I wanted to keep to my time commitment, so I sent a truck.”

“Why should I say anything?” I asked her.

“Because as long as we’re talking, I’m not out there, taking your team to pieces, and you have a shot at passing them information.  It gives them time to recuperate and strategize.  Five minutes gives them time to make a getaway, or contact help.  I imagine you arranged for backup.  Hired mercenaries to help break you out if this went badly enough that you faced jail without getting anything you wanted or needed.”

I set my jaw.

“I know the general value of the properties you acquired, the proposed value of it.  Your team would spend it.  Ninety two million dollars, spent on hired soldiers, hired parahumans.  That’s only your liquid assets.”

I didn’t reply.  I set to typing the next message on Tagg’s phone.  K-N-O-W-S-A-B-O-U-T-M-E-R-C-S

She straightened, removing her hands from the back of the chair.  “If you’re not going to say anything, I might as well go now.  You’re rather partial to Grue, aren’t you?  Or should I take Tattletale out of the picture?”

“We can talk,” I told her.

“Excellent,” she said.  She stepped around the corner of the table and sat in her chair, opposite me.  “Do you need anything?  Water?  Coffee?  Soda?”

I shook my head.

“Mr. Calle?  Mr. Hebert?”

Two refusals.

She removed her phone from her jacket pocket.  “Forgive me for using this in the midst of our discussion.  Chevalier is likely to become the head of the Protectorate once the Triumvirate has departed, and he’s insisting that I keep tabs with him, what with the scandal and all.  I’d show you, but that would be a breach of confidence.”

She smiled, as though at a private joke.  The smile didn’t matter to me.  It was the way her eyes didn’t leave me.

“You’re cold reading me,” I said.

“Cold reading?” My dad asked.

“Tattletale does it too.  Mixes details she knows with ones she doesn’t, with very careful wording and a bit of an edge with her thinker powers.”

“Mm hmm,” Alexandria said.  She typed expertly on her phone, almost absently.  “I know you’ve probably got someone in the lobby or outside, receiving coded messages.  I know about the mercenaries.  More mercenaries than I implied.  I expect Tattletale called in favors.  Probably not the Irregulars, but I didn’t read that.  Simple logic.  They wouldn’t work for you.  I know that you’re still feeling confident, but not entirely so.  If you were very close to breaking or very, very confident, you would have accepted my offer of a drink.  And I know that your bugs can’t see computer screens.”

Was she bluffing on that last part?  Did it matter if she was?  I could refuse, play some kind of trick, and she’d see right through it.

“I could make some noise about my client’s rights being trampled, a lack of consent to that kind of analysis,” Mr. Calle said.

“But you know the law doesn’t apply here.  We’re in a gray area, up until the moment we decide to press charges and set this into motion, or you decide to force the issue.  But neither of us want that.  For now, this is… somewhere between her being in our custody and us having a friendly chat.”

My lawyer glanced at me.  I frowned.  “Yeah.  So long as she doesn’t start grilling me.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Calle said.

My head turned as I sensed the truck arriving.   Bugs clustered to it as it found a spot at the side of the building, PRT uniforms moving their target on a stretcher.  My bugs shifted position, tracking what they were moving.  The white mask, the curls, the shirt, with a tightly woven fabric beneath… a spider silk shirt?  It was Regent, unconscious.

The bugs moved, tracing down the length of his arm.  It was broken in two places, virtually zig-zagging.  His leg was the same.  I caught the words ‘medical’ and ‘doctor’.  ‘Tranquilizer’.

“He’s arrived, I take it.” Alexandria said.

I nodded tightly.

“The paradigm has changed,” Alexandria said.  “In… two minutes and thirty seconds, I go and dispatch another of your teammates.  I’ll hear concessions, offers or relevant information, and I’ll adjust my methods and the severity of my attack where appropriate.”

“This is extortion,” my dad said.

“She makes the process easier for us, we make it easier on her and her friends.”

I frowned.  “That’s still extortion.”

“Two minutes and eight seconds,” she said, not even bothering to deny it.  She had the same habit as Tattletale, of knowing the time without looking at a clock.  “They’re going to be running, now, trying to throw me off their trail.  I’ll find them.  I can study the environment, I’ve studied the case histories and I know where they own property.”

Another alert I needed to give.  I was still typing in the last one.  The cockroaches weren’t strong enough to hit the keys with enough force, so it was more of a case of having to leverage the key down through the combined efforts of several larger roaches and carefully arranged silk.

I grit my teeth, trying to focus on the spelling while keeping track of what Alexandria was saying.  Started on the next message.  X-K-N-O-W-S-P-R-O-P-E-R-T-I-E-S

“You’re backing me into a corner,” I said.  “Backing them into a corner.  Someone’s bound to snap.”

“Most likely,” she said, and there wasn’t a trace of concern in her expression.  It was almost eerie, how little she seemed to care.  Was that her passenger at work, or was she simply good enough at what she did, comfortable enough in her invincibility, that she’d grown able to shrug off the insignificant things?

I shook my head.  “I’m not making concessions.  The terms I gave still stand.  If you want to discuss the reasons behind-”

She was already getting out of her chair.

“-behind why I made the demands I made, we can.  I think you’ll find it reasonable.”

“I’ve heard this,” Alexandria said.  She donned her suit jacket, buttoning it up in front.  “Read it, rather.  I’ve thought about all the permutations and unless you’re willing to change tack or tell me something I don’t know, there’s no point to this discussion.”

She walked to the door and knocked.  While waiting for the officer to open the door, she turned, “One last chance to offer me something.  Any detail I can use, things to watch out for.”

Bitch, I thought.  Her power, it screwed with her headShe can’t relate to people.  She doesn’t understand facial expressions, body language or our social constructs.  It’s all replaced by dog behavior. 

Grue.  Post traumatic stress.  He doesn’t like doctors, doesn’t like being confined, or the dark.  But he’s stable otherwise.

Information that could be used to protect Bitch, protect Grue.  To keep a bad situation from getting worse.  It felt like it would be a betrayal anyways.  It was an eerie reversal of the rationalization I’d done back at the bank robbery, on my first job as a villain.  Telling myself that terrorizing the hostages was for their own good.

But I couldn’t bring myself to betray them on that level.  Not to people who trusted me.

And she was gone.

I grit my teeth.  I looked at Calle, but he shook his head.

Tagg reached for his phone, where it sat on the table.

Long minutes passed, as Tagg texted and I sat in anxious silence.

“You said you’ve worked with cape families,” my dad spoke.  It took me a second to realize he was talking to Calle.

“Yes,” my lawyer answered.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

“I was just about to step outside, call some colleagues.”

“Oh.”

“After.  Unless you want to join me?”

“Isn’t it better if she isn’t alone?”

“Everything’s recorded.  Short of her being threatened with serious bodily injury or death, I don’t see a problem.”

My dad cast me a look.  I nodded.

He left with Mr. Calle.

“You and I,” Tagg said.

I folded my arms as best as I was able, then leaned forward to rest my head.  Not worth giving him the benefit of a conversation.

The table shook, and I briefly looked up, only to see Tagg setting his feet on the metal surface.

He took his time getting comfortable, and kicked the table several times in the process.

When I set my head down, he started humming.

He’s trying to get to me, I thought to myself, for the Nth time.

They were bullies.  Tagg and Alexandria both.  They were the equivalent of the older child picking on the kindergartener, or the adult picking on the child.  They had power to throw around that I didn’t, they had freedom, liberty, the power of choice.  They wanted to punish me, to put me off-balance for their own ends.

Just… bullies in a grander scale.

I simultaneously felt like I understood Tagg a little more, and a little less.

Mr. Calle answered a ton of my father’s questions, big and small.  About things I’d thought were common knowledge, like trigger events, and more specific, grave matters, like the prospect of my receiving the death penalty.  When he’d exhausted each of those questions, he asked about other things.  Smarter things, like the degree to which he might be able to stand up to Alexandria or Tagg, about how he could work with Calle to throw them off-balance, and signals to arrange a plan of attack.

My dad, entirely out of place, out of his depth, confused and utterly unarmed, fighting to get up to speed, in the hopes that he could do something to help.

It was a step forward.  A small step, but a step forward.

Tagg stood, approaching me, then leaned on the table just beside me, so he loomed over me, not speaking, invading my personal space, denying me the ability to rest or relax.

And my bugs, in his office, continued punching away as best as they were able.  Me, communicating with Tattletale, unable to hear her response, straining to hear some sign of the violence.  Had they split up?

Regent’s arms and legs had been set, and he lay on a bed identical to the one I’d had, apparently tranquilized.

I was the target, the mastermind, the one they were trying to break.

Alexandria only took six minutes.  She arrived by the same route, only she held a girl this time.  A hard mask with horns and slanted lenses that tapered into points at the corners, a skin-tight bodysuit.  Imp.

Alexandria had found a way around Imp’s power.  Or her mental powers had overridden them.

One more body in the cells.  One more Undersider down.

Alexandria found her way back to the cells before my dad and my lawyer did, accompanied by Miss Militia.  Alexandria grabbed one of Kid Win’s active drones from the air and tucked it under one arm like a football as she made her way down, and held it up as she visited the cell where they were checking an unconscious, tranquilized Imp.  Every bug was eradicated by the mist that appeared, leaving me utterly blind.

I didn’t see her again until she opened the door and joined us.  She was drenched, her hair soaked, swept back away from her face, and the makeup that had hidden the seam of her prosthetic eye had been washed away, leaving a conspicuous line in place.  Miss Militia looked grim and very dry beside her.

“They fought back?”  I asked.

“A firehose, and a cape with a water geyser power.  They tried to drown me.  It didn’t work.  Others have tried the same thing, in many different variations.  Old hat.”

A cape with water generating powers?  The Ambassadors.

She looked around, “Your lawyer?”

“Out,” Tagg said, not looking up from his phone.

“I suppose it would be bad manners to talk to you while he’s occupied,” Alexandria said.

I didn’t reply.

“Well, five minutes before I go again.  If this is a delaying tactic, it won’t work.”

“Read my face,” I said, “It’s not a delaying tactic.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “I’m keeping to a schedule.  Roughly half an hour at a time, collecting one Undersider with each excursion.  I told you I’d hold off on collecting Tattletale, so I’ll save her for last.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

Tattletale was still periodically speaking into the phone, while I typed out letters.  She’d stopped talking as much when I’d typed out a few words to let her know I couldn’t understand.  No, her focus right now would be on arranging her remaining forces, handling what she could, dealing with Alexandria.

“I’d like to stay,” Alexandria said.  “May I sit?”

“If you want,” I said.  I gestured towards the chair, best as I was able with the cuffs.

“Excellent.  So cooperative.”  She sat down.  “And we can talk?”

I nodded mutely.

Alexandria, a bully, believing herself untouchable.  I felt a grim sort of loathing stirring in the depths of my gut.

“My terms, to you.  You surrender.  The Undersiders receive no amnesty, but I let captives go, with all required medical care.  They fend for themselves from here on out.  Tagg remains in position.  He’s here for a reason.  Miss Militia is promoted elsewhere.  With the fall of the Triumvirate, we need a new core group.  We can market it.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“It’s what I’m offering.  And you… provided you cooperate fully, giving us all the information we desire on you, your histories, and the Undersiders, we put you in juvenile detention.  Two years, followed by a long probation and acknowledgement that any conceivable violation of that probation will be counted as a third strike and cause for sentencing to the Birdcage.”

My dad and lawyer were just arriving.

“What’s this?” Mr. Calle asked.

“Skitter’s hearing my revised terms,” Alexandria said.

“And?” Mr. Calle asked.

“They want me to turn myself in.  I get virtually nothing, except the prompt release of the Undersiders she’s picked up and a stay in juvenile detention until I’m eighteen.”

I could see my dad’s eyes light up.  He saw this as a way out, when he was seeing just how deep we were in the midst of this.

Which broke my heart, in a way.

“And your thoughts?” Mr. Calle asked.

“No,” I said.  I looked at Alexandria.  “No.”

“This isn’t the sort of offer that stays on the table,” she said.  “If you want to push this further, we could keep the Undersiders.”

“You need the Undersiders,” I told her.  “You need someone on the ground, keeping the real monsters out of the city.  You need us, so don’t pretend you’re really going to keep them.”

“There’s other options,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “Because even if there wasn’t that security, no.”

“That’s a disappointment,” she said.

“You wanted compromise, Skitter,” Miss Militia said, “But you’re asking for the impossible.”

“I’m asking for the improbable,” I said.  “But it wouldn’t be worth fighting for if it was easy.  Alexandria isn’t asking me to meet her halfway.  She’s threatening people I love.”

“From teammates to friends to people you love.”

I grit my teeth.

“I don’t blame you,” she said.  “I loved Hero.  I loved Legend, and Eidolon, and Myrddin.  I know what it means to pass through hell together, to take a desperate breath for air, to clutch for clarity of mind, and help each other find the briefest of respite in the little things, only to plunge into that hell once more.  The little jokes, the familiarity, the gestures and small kindnesses, they count for a lot, when you’ve been through what we’ve been through-”

“Don’t compare us,” I cut in.

“-and you learn to look past their faults.  The little evils,” she said.  “And they learn to look past yours.”

Miss Militia gave Alexandria a curious look, then turned to me, “The offer, it’s the most reasonable one we can give you.  It’s generous, considering all you’ve done.”

“It’s not enough,” I said.  “Until my team has amnesty, I can’t back down.  I can’t abandon them to fight lunatics like Tagg and Alexandria the second I’m gone.”

“That’s what you want?” Alexandria asked.  “Amnesty, release for captured teammates, and a sentence to juvenile detention?”

My dad reached out, taking my hand, a silent plea.  Saying everything without doing me the disservice of interjecting.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.  I could trust my teammates to hold their own.  I could… I could find my way.  Two years made for such a small length of time.  It… it would mean I was in custody when Dinah’s deadline came.  But maybe that was what she’d wanted.  For me to be somewhere secure when it all started.  I couldn’t rule it out.

And all it would take was for me to do what I’d done for so long before I had my powers, for months after I’d had my powers.  To capitulate, to let go of my pride.  To let them win, those people who wanted to use their power, their prestige and superiority against me.

My dad squeezed my hand, hard.

“I named my terms,” I told Alexandria.  “I trust my teammates, and I trust that they’ll win where it counts.  No.”

I met Tagg’s eyes, and my voice was a growl, “And if you fucking hurt another hair on their heads, I’ll see you pay for it.  Like Lung, like Valefor, and if it comes down to it, I’ll come after you like I did with Butcher, and Coil- Calvert.”

I directed my glare at Alexandria as I said that last part.

“You’re admitting-” Miss Militia started.

“Let’s not pretend we don’t all know,” I said.

I felt my dad’s hand drop away from mine.  I might have met his eyes, to take in the hurt and the pain that came with seeing who I really was, but I wasn’t willing to break eye contact with Alexandria.

You can read facial expressions?  Read this.  Know I’m telling the truthKnow that I’ll take you apart, given the slightest excuse.

I was pressing the keys on the telephone before Alexandria had even stood from her seat.  Another warning that Alexandria was en route.

She stood, wordless.  There was no negotiation, no offer for leniency, and I didn’t ask for either.

I could only hope.

In a matter of minutes, she was gone, flying away.  A third mission.  A third hunt.

Bugs found their way through vents to Regent, but Imp’s cell was sealed tight, no doubt due to the Stranger-class precautions that had led to the note being pasted on her cell door, notifying the PRT of the special precautions.  It didn’t matter.  Regent was still unconscious, and Imp was likely to be as well.

Grue, Rachel, Tattletale and Parian.  Flechette too, if it came down to it.

Flechette… could she hurt Alexandria?

It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have answers, couldn’t get them.  I could only wait, keeping my bugs out of the way of the drones that Kid Win had finally recharged.

“You had a way out,” Miss Militia said.

“You said you understand me,” I told her.  “That you had insight into who I was as a person, now that you knew my history.  If that’s true, you understand why I had to say no.”

“For your sake.  Because of what you’ve been through.”

“And because of them.  They’d never forgive me if I betrayed everything they helped me become, because I didn’t think they could fend for themselves.”

“And me?” my dad asked.  “I know it’s asking a lot.  I failed you where it counted.”

“Dad-”

“And maybe it’s selfish, to want my daughter, when you’re talking about things on this scale…” he said, pausing as if he was going to follow that with an argument.  But no argument followed.

And I couldn’t give him a good response.

Eight minutes passed.  I could count the progression of time on the clock hands, when I dared let a bug pass through open spaces.

Nine minutes in, I could see Tagg suddenly tense, lines in his neck standing out as he read the newest message on his phone.  He glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask.

The PRT van arrived before Alexandria did, this time.  The PRT officers took their time before they finally emerged.

Restless, I shifted position.  My forearms were digging into the table where the cuffs held my arms in front of me.  Leaning forward made my back hurt.

They opened the back of the van, and there were no precautions this time.  Their weapons were holstered, and they didn’t stand in any particular formation.

The only thing in the back was a single body bag.

Back pain forgotten, I went as stiff as Tagg.  I drew more bugs in to get a better picture of the scene.

They took a different route this time, using their phones to make their way through the various doors and checkpoints.  They entered the attached building.  A small hospital, or a special office with medical facilities.  It didn’t matter.

And they made their way to the morgue.

The size of the bag… it couldn’t be Lizardtail.  He was too large.  Was the wrong size and shape to be one of the dogs.  That left only three real possibilities.  A PRT officer, Rachel, or Brian.

I closed my eyes, clenched my hands.

Then one of the PRT officers who was escorting the body said something, and others laughed in response.  It was one of those rare moments I could discern tone, and it wasn’t a kind one.  That was enough for me to know it wasn’t one of them.  It wasn’t a civilian.

Metal clicked as they unlocked the heavy clasps and locks that were likely meant to prevent any parahumans from getting up from the dead.

They unzipped the bag, and lifted the body onto the drawer.  The drawer slid into the recess, the lid was closed and locked.

I didn’t want to know which of them it was.  I couldn’t. Whether it was Brian or Rachel, it didn’t matter.  Neither of them would get up from the dead.  They weren’t so lucky.

I stared down at my hands, and I felt myself go cold, my thoughts crystal clear, singular.

“Taylor,” my dad murmured, so quiet I could barely hear him.

“Yes?”

I sounded so calm, like an entirely different person was speaking.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered.

“Oh,” I said.  I couldn’t really think of anything else to say.  He was right.  My fingers were trembling.

I looked at Tagg, to see if he’d heard or if he’d noticed.  No indication, but his hand was close to his gun.  The text he’d read… he knew.  He probably wasn’t aware he was doing it, but he was ready for a fight to erupt any second.

Miss Militia’s hand wasn’t, but I could read a tension in her, as she exchanged words with Calle.  But then, I suspected she could draw faster than Tagg in virtually any circumstance.  Or maybe she wasn’t as ready or willing to deal out violence as Tagg was.

Then I had to lower my eyes, to hide the tears that were welling.  Needed just a few moments.  Just a few more seconds.

Alexandria arrived the same way she had after her last two excursions, through the hole in the roof.  With the speed she moved, she didn’t risk being spotted.  Even photography wasn’t in the cards.

With the speed she moved, she didn’t seem to notice the bugs that followed after her as the aperture began to close behind her.

She got as far as the Wards HQ before she stopped and the bugs had a chance to catch up to her.

As though I’d thrown a javelin, they speared right for her nose and open mouth, the fastest moving bugs I had at my disposal, and spiders.

She was invincible, the flesh inside her throat untouchable.  The flap that kept food out of her lungs kept the bugs at bay.  At first.  They bound themselves together, spiders fixing themselves and others to the inside of her throat with adhesive.

As strong as she was, air didn’t move past the mass of bugs that filled her mouth, as they fought to move into positions where they could block her throat.  She coughed in an instinctive attempt to dislodge them.

Even with super strength, even with a diaphragm like hers, the coughs didn’t remove every bug, and the greedy gasp of air allowed those who remained to find their way inside, filling her lungs.  They were just as impervious inside, but the bugs arranged themselves side by side, forming a layer that blocked the flow of oxygen to the membranes of the lung itself.  Spiders drew out silk, filling gaps.

If she could choke, if Leviathan saw submerging her in water as a viable tactic, if Tattletale saw fit to try to do the same, then I could drown her in insects.

The Wards were watching, realizing what was going on.  Clockblocker ran, pressing a button for the alarm.

And in front of me, Tagg moved, drawing his gun.  His voice was a roar, “She knows!”

A thread caught it before he could point it at me, and it fell to the ground.

With each entry that had been made into the interrogation room, barring the one where she’d used the drone in Imp’s cell, I’d brought more bugs inside.  Spiders, hornets, black widows, brown recluses and more.

I’d warned him.  He jumped as he felt the bites.  Shouted as hornets found the soft tissues of his eyes, his tongue and eardrums.  Black widows and brown recluses found crevices.

Miss Militia moved too, but the silk I’d used only bound her hand, didn’t serve to stop her.

“Taylor!” my dad’s voice sounded so far away.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t let the bullies win again, I thought.  That I’d stop the monsters.

But the thoughts sounded disconnected, false.

No, this was revenge.  Something simpler than any of that.

Miss Militia raised a gun, pointing it at me, where I had my head bowed, hands still chained in front of me.  My dad was shaking me, but I wasn’t a hard target to hurt.

And my bugs weren’t hurting her.  Weren’t touching my dad, or Mr. Calle, who was backed up into a corner, trying to make as much distance from me as he could.

She didn’t shoot.  Her gun clattered to the ground.

“Taylor!” she called out, as if she could reach me that way.  “I’m not going to shoot, but you have to stop!”

“Not a promise, not an oath, or a malediction or a curse,” I said, sounding calm, probably inaudible in the midst of Tagg’s screaming.  “Inevitable.  Wasn’t that how she put it?  I told them.  Warned them.”

Alexandria, in the basement, still choking, drowning on dry land with lungs full of dragonflies, spiders and cockroaches, soared.  She flew through the closed barrier in the roof, and debris showered down on the Wards who’d approached her, wanting to help but finding themselves unable.

In moments, she was out of my range, too high in the air.  I wasn’t sure it mattered.

And Tagg- Tagg was staggering towards me, roaring something incoherent, chewing and spitting in a feeble attempt to remove bugs from his mouth.  His tongue was likely swollen already.  The black widow venom would take effect soon.

He tried to push my dad out of the way, and my dad blocked him, shielding me with his body.

Tagg kicked my father hard enough to drive him to the ground.  The Director was still shouting, nearly blind.  He gripped me by the hair and slammed my head down on the table, hard.

I saw stars, felt tears welling out freely, as if the dam had finally broken.

Blind, writhing in pain and a struggle to get the insects off him, Tagg still managed to hold me down as the PRT officers burst into the room.  They had darts like the one that Shadow Stalker had kept in her crossbow, jammed one into my neck.

I had only the chance to think of how they’d just signed Tagg’s death warrant, that my power would work while I was unconscious.  I could have rescinded the order in the last moments.  I didn’t.

And then it was only darkness.  Oblivion.  A false kind of death.

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Cell 22.3

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The door slammed shut as the last of the heroes departed.  They joined the PRT uniforms and Wards who had gathered just in front of the elevator, leaving me and my lawyer to talk in private.

It should have been quieter, but things got more disruptive.  The moment the door was shut, a handful of seconds passed, and then everyone started talking.  Mr. Calle saying something to me, Director Tagg talking to his deputy and Miss Militia, Clockblocker talking with his teammates.

“This is more or less what we expected…” Mr. Calle was saying.

“Call him.  And let me know when he arrives.” Director Tagg, talking about my dad.

“She wanted to defect,” Clockblocker told the waiting Wards.  “Join Defiant and Dragon, go hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine…”

“You created pressure with the deadline, he’s trying to turn it around on you…” Mr. Calle said.

“I know he’s trying to turn it around on me,” I said.  I slid forward until I was sitting on the very edge of the chair, my elbows on the table, forehead resting against my hands.  “I didn’t think he’d be this stupid, and I kind of hoped someone would speak up, give a little momentum to what I was proposing.”

“People are stupid,” Mr. Calle said.  “The question is how we can use that.  If we-”

Some heroes simultaneously began to voice their thoughts, to the point that I failed to take any of it in.  It was too much.  Too much input, all together.  I couldn’t track it all.  I shut my eyes.  “Do me a favor?”

“You’re the client.”

“Five minutes,” I said.  “Five minutes to think, with some quiet.”

“Would pen scratches bother you?”

I shook my head.

Mr. Calle didn’t reply to that.  Instead, he started writing on a pad of yellow, lined paper, apparently unconcerned that I’d just brushed him off.

“…a hot button for her,” Mrs. Yamada was telling the Director.  “It’s a pattern, with the timeline we established.  Something happens to her father, and she escalates.”

“Yes,” the Director replied.  “But let’s not talk about that here.  Not while she could be listening.  We give Kid Win’s drones a chance to check us over before talking about any of that…”

“Hunting the Slaughterhouse Nine?” Vista was asking.  The Wards were lagging a short distance behind the adult members of the PRT and Protectorate.

“Yeah.  As in, step down from her position here, stop the guys who are supposed to end the world,” Clockblocker said.

“She didn’t kill any, did she?” Kid Win asked.

“Grue supposedly killed Burnscar, Piggot killed Crawler and Mannequin, they killed Cherish themselves, basically, Vista finished off Shatterbird after things caved in on them at the Echidna fight… no, Skitter didn’t kill any, I don’t think.  She was there, though.  Have to give her credit, she made a difference in that last fight with Mannequin and Crawler.”

“Which doesn’t matter,” Tagg said.  He’d overheard, it seemed, and stopped at the open elevator door.  “Because she also wanted us to condone criminal activity in this city.  Think about what that really means.  Your careers would be dead in the water once people caught on to the fact that you weren’t going after the real threats.  You’d be known for being corrupt.  Flechette’s actions threaten to taint this organization for some time to come..”

“Wait, wait,” Kid Win said, “Flechette?”

“We’re telling them?” Clockblocker asked.  “It’s confirmed?  It’s not a trick?”

“It’s not Regent,” Miss Militia said.  “The timing doesn’t fit.  No, it doesn’t look like it’s a trick.  She sent us an email and the details include only things she knows.  It feels right.”

There was a pause.

“What happened?” Crucible asked.

“Flechette is stepping down from the Wards program.  She is going to be assisting the Undersiders in the future, helping Parian,” Miss Militia said.

“No!”  Vista said, raising her voice.  “No!  She became a villain?  What… what the hell!?

“Vista,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in love.”

“She was still one of us.  Did you do something?”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, until Tagg responded, “No.  We didn’t do a thing to her.  Everyone that’s been in Brockton Bay over the past weeks and months has dealt with a lot, and I think this is her wrestling with something on her own.  I have immense respect for Flechette, and all I can do, all we can do, is hope she comes to her senses.”

“What about her parents?  Her family?”  Vista asked.

“I can’t talk about anything my patients discuss with me in my office,” Mrs. Yamada replied.  “I’m sorry.”

“She came from a broken home,” Miss Militia supplied the information instead.  “She bounced between her mother, her father and the surrogate mother who had attempted to renege on the deal they’d made and keep her.  With the number of times she changed between them and moved, I can’t imagine she has strong ties to the idea of ‘home’.  Even within the Wards… New York has five small teams, and she moved between them as she changed residences.”

“She didn’t say anything about that.”

“It didn’t matter in the here and now.  Her focus, her path, was school, her career with the Wards.  She didn’t have much in the way of roots, but she had direction.  I think that the events following the Echidna crisis left her more devastated than she let on.”

“Can I call her?” Vista asked.

“I don’t know if that would be wise,” Miss Militia said.

“Do,” Tagg said.  “Remind her what she’s leaving behind, tell her how you feel, then let her be.  Too much pressure and she’s liable to be stubborn.  Give her time to think, and you may sway her.”

“Okay,” Vista said.

“When you’re done, join the others in discussing battle plans.  I’d rather not wait for Skitter’s forces to strike.  If it comes down to it, we mobilize first.”

“We’ll be fighting Flechette,” Vista said.

Tagg nodded.  “Very possible.  If you don’t feel confident you can do it in good conscience, then I won’t make you.  In the meantime, I’m requisitioning capes from nearby areas.  If it comes down to it, I want to be ready for a fight.”

“And if they don’t give us the chance?” Miss Militia asked.

I missed Tagg’s response.  It was monosyllabic.

“If the Undersiders try to avoid direct engagement and attempt to come at us from another angle?  Media?  Revealing telling details?  Financially?  Through our families?”

“Oh shit,” Clockblocker said.

“They wouldn’t, would they?” Crucible asked.

“They would,” Kid Win said.  “Probably.”

“They would,” Director Tagg agreed.  “And I already have ideas in mind.  This situation is far from unmanageable.  Rest assured.  I’ll need to make some calls.  Miss Militia, are you up for another walk?”

“Yes.”

Tagg stepped into the elevator, holding the door open.  It was too small for everyone to fit inside, but Miss Militia, the deputy and Clockblocker joined him.

Mrs. Yamada started to step inside, then paused while standing in the doorway.  “I’ll be in my office all day.  If any of you need to talk about Flechette, or anything else that’s going on, come see me.”

There was no reply.  There might have been nods, but I didn’t have bugs on top of any of the Ward’s heads.

The doors shut, and a few seconds passed, Kid Win, Crucible and Vista standing in the hallway with a handful of PRT officers.

“Fuck,” Vista said.  “Fuck this.  Fuck you, Skitter, if you can hear me.”

I waited to see if there was more, but neither she nor her teammates said anything.  The drones Kid Win had made were doing a number on my bugs, catching me by surprise when they opened fire with lasers, striking from the other side of the room.  It wasn’t easy to avoid them completely, when an exposed bug could get zapped, but keeping my bugs in hiding prevented me from seeing the drones themselves.

Miss Militia left the building, walking.  She wasn’t quite out of my range when she made her first call.

“Mr. Hebert?”

I sighed, then shifted position.

“Everything alright?” Mr. Calle asked me.  “Needed to get centered?”

“Was listening in,” I said.

“Listening in?”

“I can hear what my insects hear.  Tagg is confident.  He’s calling in more capes, and preparing for a fight.  He’s apparently not too worried about the Undersiders pulling something that isn’t a direct attack, but I don’t know what he’s got in mind, as far as trump cards go.  Miss Militia is apparently calling my dad, so Tagg can talk with him.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Calle said.  “Anything else?”

“The Wards are upset over Flechette defecting.”

“Okay.  Something to keep in mind.  Now, this is difficult to say, but-”

Mr. Calle paused very deliberately.

“What?”

“I would never recommend my clients do anything illegal,” he said.

“But you maybe suspect that if I had any leverage, I should exercise it?”

“I would never say any such thing,” Mr. Calle said.  He smiled.  “But now that you mention it…”

“There are options,” I said.  I thought about the areas of attack that Miss Militia had outlined.  Family would cross a line.  Something to shake their confidence in the coming conflict.  “Can you pass on a message?”

“That would be a mistake, I think.  I walk a fine line as it is, and I won’t have a hand in anything direct.”

I frowned.

“Let’s talk about what I can do.  First off, I think we should change things up.  As it stands, the Protectorate East-North-East holds Brockton Bay in a specialized state of emergency.  It’s a legal wild west, with very little precedent holding things together.  Director Tagg reports to his superiors, who report to the United States government.  This circumvents a great many of the usual checks and balances.  Checks and balances I think we should put back into play.”

“How?”

“Contacting the District Attorney and bringing her to the discussion would tie Tagg’s hands, but it would also tie yours.  We’d be working entirely within the law, certain items would be taken off the table.  You couldn’t ask for condoned villainy, for example.  Charges would inevitably move forward against you, but these same things would tie him up in managing things.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it.”

“It depends.  It’s… pressure.  The Director is focused on a half-dozen things at once.  There’s a lot to be said for putting one more thing on his plate.  I know he’s not trained in the particulars of law.  He’d be forced out of his depth, made to consult others, made to wrap his head around terms he’s not familiar with.  It would mandate that you, as a minor, would need a guardian present.  Failing that, there’s a great many hoops they’d have to jump through.  He’s a soldier.  So long as this is a battlefield of some sort, he has a leg up.  We can make it something else.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We’d be adding pressure, turning things around so he’s the one on his heels, but I’m still not convinced it’s worth the price of admission.  Other options?”

“Media.”

“He doesn’t care about image,” I said.  “He said he figures it’ll get patched up with good PR in a matter of time, a few days back.”

“It won’t hurt him as badly, then, but he’s more likely to make a mistake if it’s not something he pays attention to.”

“An option,” I said.  “It sets a bad tone, though.  I’m really looking for cooperation.  I’m putting everything on the line in the hopes of getting it.  I don’t want them to be enemies, not any more than they are.  And I don’t know that just talking to the media is going to be enough to get the results I want.”

“It isn’t, frankly.  Are there points you’re willing to compromise on?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Because he’s not willing to meet me halfway.”

Mr. Calle rubbed his chin.  “Okay.”

“So we need leverage, and it can’t be legal.  Going to the District Attorney or the media has drawbacks.”

“Yes.”

“Then I need you to get in contact with Tattletale.  Only we’ll be above-board, mostly, about how we handle it.  She’s been arranging things for a while.  Now it’s time to figure out just how much clout she has.  We’ll hit them with the biggest card we have.  We’ll make a play for ownership of the portal.  Successful or not, it’ll distract them.”

“I’ll do what I can to get in touch with her, then.  My firm’s assets will be at your disposal, of course.”

I nodded.

He stood from his seat to make the call.  Apparently he didn’t find them much more comfortable than I did.  He paced as he waited for the phone to ring.  “Cecily?  Need you to pull some strings.  And route me to someone, best if it’s untraceable.”

It wouldn’t be a direct call.  That didn’t make sense.  I focused my attention elsewhere in the building.  The outlet that fed Kid Win’s anti-bug drones… I found the wiring in the walls and ordered cockroaches to start chewing through it.

Petty, maybe, but I didn’t want to be disarmed, not with the way things were going.

The heroes were returning, Sere and Dovetail entering the lobby.  I planted bugs on Dovetail as she made her way indoors, and as discreetly as I was able, I transferred the bugs to Tagg and Miss Militia, who were waiting.

“They’re moving,” Dovetail said, “… soldiers.  Arming civilians.  Squads no larger than five people, across the city.”

“Good,” Tagg said.

“That’s all.”

“Tell the others,” Miss Militia said, “Adamant’s getting a cycle retooled to handle more weight before he leaves again.  He’ll go with Triumph.  Log it all in the system.”

“Will do,” Dovetail said.  Miss Militia patted her on the shoulder as she made her way inside.

Miss Militia and Tagg remained in the lobby, by the hallway to the elevators.  They didn’t say much.  A few words on degrees of lethal force, but no camraderie, not even much in the way of small talk.

My cockroaches found their way through the wire, and promptly died as they came in contact with the live circuit.  A breaker blew, but Kid Win didn’t seem to react.

Hopefully the drones wouldn’t get a chance to recharge.

A few minutes passed, as my lawyer got in touch with someone, and started talking about media contacts.  Then my father arrived.

I could sense him as he got out of a truck in the parking lot, making his way inside.

“Mr. Hebert,” Miss Militia said, extending a hand.

My dad shook it.

“Thank you for coming in again,” Director Tagg said.  He extended a hand.  Again, my father shook it.

“My office?” Tagg asked.

My dad nodded.

My pulse was pounding as Miss Militia, Tagg and my father entered the elevator and made their way upstairs.

“She’s here?” my dad asked.

“In a room downstairs with her lawyer,” Miss Militia answered.

“She hired him herself?”

“I imagine she did,” Miss Militia said.  “With the speed he pulled things together, I suspect she may have more working in the background.  Crime does pay, if she’s paying their salaries.  They’re apparently top of the line, as parahuman defense attorneys go.”

“I can’t believe this is all real.”

“It is,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s very real.”

“And very real blood will be shed tonight,” Tagg said, “If we can’t rein her in.”

Rein me in.

They exited the elevator and made their way to Tagg’s office.

“These,” Tagg leaned forward, and my bugs could hear something move.  “Are the charges as they stand.”

I didn’t sense it, but my bugs could hear papers rustle.  I might not have identified the sound if I hadn’t had the context.

A few long seconds passed, and I could hear the rustling again.  The turning of a page.

I clenched my fist.

“Problem?”  Mr. Calle asked, covering the mouthpiece of his phone.

“My dad’s here.  They’ve got him in Tagg’s office, and they’re filling him in on their version of events.”

“Right.  Let’s put a stop to that.  I’ll be back.”

Phone still pressed to his ear, he picked up his briefcase, tapping on the door three times with the side of his shoe.

A PRT uniform unlocked and opened the door, and my lawyer strode out.  It shut behind him.

Upstairs, my dad turned another page.

He was reading through it all.  All the details I’d gone over with my lawyer, only without my feedback, without my voice to point out the places where they were going a little overboard, naming charges they could throw at me, without checking whether they could stick.  Not that the difference was that big, comparing what I’d actually done to what they were accusing me of.

I heard the sound of him flipping through the last few pages before he dropped the pad on the table.  “Okay.”

“She’s in a lot of trouble,” Tagg said.

“This isn’t news to me,” my dad answered, his voice quiet.

“If the charges went through, she would face being charged as an adult.  The three strikes protection act wouldn’t mitigate things.  I’d say the worst case scenario is execution, or indefinite detention in the Birdcage, but the best case scenario for her isn’t much better.”

My dad didn’t reply to that.

“Her power means we can’t keep her in a conventional prison.  She’s too flexible, too versatile for us to use any of our current means of keeping her from using her ability.  Even today, contained in a cell, she’s been literally ‘bugging’ us to track our movements and listen in on conversations.  We had our tinker put together a countermeasure, but it’s not perfect.”

Again, my dad was silent.

“I have two daughters.  Four and six years older than Taylor,” the Director said.  “I can’t imagine.”

“I can’t either,” my dad said.  “Like I said, it doesn’t feel real.”

“I’d like you to come with me the next time I speak to your daughter.”

“She didn’t listen to me before, she won’t listen now,” my dad said.

“I didn’t ask you to come because I thought you could convince her,” Tagg said.  “You don’t have to say anything, as a matter of fact.”

What was he up to?

My lawyer had reached the top floor, and was striding between cubicles and desks.  He raised his voice to ask a question I couldn’t make out, and someone answered him.  He altered his course slightly in response, walked with more purpose, directly for Tagg, Miss Militia and my father.

“I’d like to talk to her alone,” my dad said.

“We can arrange that,” Tagg said.

I clenched my fists.  Using my dad as a pawn?  Damn right I was going to escalate.  Which, I suspected, was exactly what Tagg was aiming to achieve.  This was something to put me off balance, just like we were looking to do to him by way of leveraging control of the portal.

My lawyer knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for a response.  “My client would like a word.”

“Of course,” Tagg said.  As the four of them exited his office and made their way to the elevator, I turned the two words around in my head.  Had he sounded sarcastic?  Did he simply expect me to interrupt?

I couldn’t say.  I could only wait as they made their way downstairs.  I was stuck, my back hurting where my arms were in a more or less fixed position.  I stood, stretched as well as I was able, tossed my head to one side in an attempt to get my hair out of my face.  When that didn’t work, I bent over and lowered my face to my hands to tidy my hair.

Then I sat, stewing in unidentifiable emotions.  Trepidation, dread, fear, guilt, shame, anger, relief… none I could put a finger on.

“Did you know?” Miss Militia asked.

“Me?” my dad asked, by way of response.

“Who she was?  What she was?”

“Yes,” he said.  I could feel alarm sing through me, inexplicable, but jarring.  Then he seemed to change his mind, “No.”

And the emotion that hit me at that was just as strong as that misplaced sense of alarm.

Damn Tagg.  Damn him for bringing my dad into this.

The four of them stopped outside of the cell.  Miss Militia used her phone to unlock it, and Tagg gestured for my dad to enter.

I saw him hesitate as he stepped into the room, dark sheet metal, a reflective pane of one-way glass, the metal table bolted to the floor, my handcuffs, locked to the table in turn.  Me, with my hair in some disarray, a touch damp from the shower and ineffectual toweling, from sweat, in my black uniform with the word ‘villain’ marked clearly across it.

I could see it, his expression changing, the disbelief he’d professed to becoming something else entirely.

His feelings were as mixed as mine.  I could tell just by looking at him, by imagining what he’d been through, the person standing by, dealing with the aftermath of everything I’d done.  His frustration, his confusion, pain, and embarrassment.  His loneliness, disappointment, his fear.

And, somehow, as though it were too much to bottle in, it seemed to boil over in the form of one singular emotion.  I could see his jaw shift as he clenched his teeth, met my eyes and looked away.  The sudden agitation that seemed to grip him, as he opened and closed his fists.

Tagg and Miss Militia had reached the interior of the room on the other side of the one way mirror, while Mr. Calle stood in the hallway, speaking on the phone.  I stood from the chair as my dad approached, his body language making it all too clear what he was about to do.  Miss Militia took one look and reacted, turning around to hurry back out of the room, to intervene.  Tagg said something, two words I couldn’t be bothered to decipher, and she stopped in her tracks.

My dad raised his hand, palm open, and I closed my eyes, lifting my chin to take the hit.

It didn’t come.  My dad wrapped his arms around my shoulders instead.  I squeaked, and I couldn’t say whether it was because he was squeezing me too tight or if it was because of an overflow of emotion similar to the one he’d just displayed.  I stood there, unable to return the hug with the way I was cuffed to the table, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

When minutes passed and we hadn’t exchanged a single word, Tagg and Miss Militia stepped out of the observation room, signaling Mr. Calle.

“Let’s talk,” Tagg said.

I broke away from my dad.  Blinked where there were tears in the corners of my eyes.  I didn’t care if Tagg saw.

“I’m waiting on a response from my colleagues,” Mr. Calle said.  “There’s no reason to speak further, unless you’re capitulating.”

“No,” Tagg answered.  “But I’d like to go over the main points.”

This was why he wanted my dad here, I thought.

“You’ve informed me that your teammates, many of whom are known murderers, are going to declare war against the PRT in three hours and twenty minutes, without word from you.”

My dad took a seat to my left, watching me carefully.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ve described them as unpredictable.  They’re undeniably dangerous.  You think they’ll hurt people.  They’ll pull out all the stops, to get you back, and to hurt us.  The good guys.”

“Yes,” I said, not taking my eyes off Tagg.  “But I don’t think you’re a good guy, Director.”

“I don’t think you’re a good person either,” Tagg said, “and the court of public opinion is likely to agree with me before they agree with you.”

“Let’s not resort to name calling this early in the discussion,” Mr. Calle said.

“Right,” Tagg said, “It wastes time, and you have very little.”

“Neither of us want this to happen, Director,” I said.  “Neither of us have time, and neither of us want a war.  Except maybe you do.  Maybe you think you’d win, and it’d be a bump in the PRT’s ratings.”

“No,” he said, “I think, like any altercation, both sides would lose something.  But let’s talk about your terms.  You want amnesty for your criminal friends?’

I was acutely aware of my dad watching me.

“Yes,” I said.

“You want to depose me, raising Miss Militia to my place, and in the doing, force the PRT to relinquish all ideas of humans governing parahumans, to help keep those with incredible power in check.”

“Yes.”

“And you wanted me to allow you to become an official vigilante, leaving your group behind while you worked to hunt down psychopaths with powers.  I’ve explained why that can’t happen.  I’m not sure if you intend to change your demands, or-”

“I’ll go to the Birdcage if I have to,” I said.  “Because the rest of it, I believe in it enough to make the sacrifice.”

“Taylor,” my dad said.  The first words he’d said to me since the breakfast we’d had together, on the day I’d been outed.  “Why?”

“Because we’re losing.  We’re so focused on the little things, on petty squabbles and factions and vendettas, that we’re losing against the real dangers.  The Class S threats.  The fact that the world’s going to end in a year and eleven months.  Did you hear about that?”

He shook his head.  “I… I read the letter you left me, at Annette’s grave.  Realized it was probably what you were trying to write, the night you left.  Before you changed your mind.”

The night I left, so long ago.  When I’d first met Coil.

“A lot of what I did, it was to stop the man who really wanted to take over the city.  Who would have been far worse than any of us Undersiders.  And I did that because he had a little girl captive.  Dinah Alcott.  She could see the future, and she says the world ends in two years.”

My dad shook his head, “No.”

“Yes.  The heroes know it.  It’s a big part of why the PRT is falling apart.  You’ve heard about that on the news?”

“I… some.  But I haven’t paid much attention since I found out that you-”

“That I’m a supervillain,” I said.

He flinched visibly at that.

“Interesting,” Tagg cut in.  “That you call yourself that.  You say you’ve had justifications for what you’ve done, but you call yourself a villain.”

I wanted to hit him, for cutting into my conversation with my dad, for polluting my attempts to explain things.

“I am,” I told him.  “I’ve done bad things.”

“Left a trail of devastation in your wake.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And I’m willing to pay the price.  I’ll go to the Birdcage, a place you described as a literal hell on Earth.  A place where people just as scary as the ones I’ve spent the last few months fighting stay.  A place where some of those very people are currently imprisoned.  Lung, Bakuda, Trickster.  They probably want to inflict fates worse than death on me.  But I’ll do it.  Because I really truly believe the world needs the PRT, or a PRT, one without lunatics like you in charge, and maybe bringing me in helps keep a handful more capes in the roster, keeps my friends secure where they are, so they can help.”

I was heated, my words angry.

“Your friends,” he said.

“My friends.”

“That’s the rapist, Jean-paul?  Alec?  A murderer.”

“Regent.  He was the son of a supervillain, screwed from the get go, and yeah, maybe some shady stuff went down, way back then.  I think he’s… not in love, but he’s close to Imp.  Somewhere between love and friendship, maybe.”

“Imp.  She’s the one who makes it a game, to psychologically and mentally torture gang members who step foot in her territory, until they have mental break downs.”

“Yes,” I said, through grit teeth.  “It’s more complicated than that, she’s been through a lot, but yes.  And I heard directly from people who were grateful to her for scaring off the real rapists and murderers.”

He didn’t pay me any mind.  “Who else is there?  Hellhound.”

“She prefers Bitch,” I said.  “But she’s Rachel to me.”

“Who had her monster dogs chew up innocents who’d gotten in her way.”

“It was a bad time for her.  Weren’t you just excusing Flechette, because we’ve all been through some shit?  I know Rachel as the person who takes care of wayward souls, grown men and children who are lost in a way even we can’t fathom, with the things we’ve been through.”

“And Grue?  Do tell me how you see him.”

“I liked him,” I said.  “If I’d stayed with them, maybe he and I would have tried to make it work.”

“Romance.”

I met my dad’s eyes.  His forehead was creased with worry.  My power was buzzing around the periphery of my consciousness.

I found refuge in the bugs, paid attention to their movements as they avoided the remaining drones, found my center, so to speak.  Calm.  He wants me upset.

“Romance,” I said.  “He was my rock, when I needed a rock.  And I was his, when-”

“When he snapped,” Tagg cut in.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“He was the stable one, until he wasn’t stable,” Tagg said.  “Until he killed Burnscar.  Yet I suspect he’s the one in charge, now that you’ve left?”

“Yes,” I said.  “And with the dozens, hundreds of people I’ve tried to take care of or whose lives I’ve saved, I trust Grue to look after them and keep the peace.  I wouldn’t give him that responsibility, with all the time and effort I’ve invested in them, if I didn’t trust him.”

“Very generous,” Tagg told me.  “And Tattletale.  Where do I even start?”

“With the fact that she was my best friend.  That she’s maybe our best bet at understanding what’s going on?  Understanding the Endbringers and what they’re doing?  Understanding powers?  Finding the Nine before they bring about the end of the world?  Understanding how the world ends?”

“All of this, from the girl who used her power to convince her brother to kill himself, before fleeing, spending years on the streets, stealing wallets and using the account numbers to take whole fortunes?”

“All wrong,” I said.

“And who planted the seeds that led to Panacea breaking down and mutilating her sister.”

“Those seeds were planted a long time before we talked to Panacea,” I said.

This was what Tagg had wanted.  He’d devastated my defenses, bringing my dad into this.

“Nonetheless,” Tagg said, leaning back.  “So, Danny Hebert, what do you think about your daughter’s friends?”

My dad glanced at me, then looked at the Director.  “I know less about them than either of you.”

“That’s not important,” the Director said.  “I just want you to answer one question for me.  Assume we’re both right.  Me and your daughter.  Assume that they’re everything we described them as.  Do you really want them in control of this city’s underworld?”

Again, my dad looked at me.

“No need to double-check with your daughter.  I’m wanting your honest opinion, as a man on the streets, from someone who has to live in this city without any real say over what happens in the cape-on-cape fights and politics.  Do you really want them in charge?”

“No,” my dad said.

I did my best not to show it, but the word was like a punch in the gut.

“I’m sorry, Taylor, but-”

“Are they really that much worse than the ABB?  Than Empire Eighty-Eight?”

“With them, we…” my dad trailed off.

“With them, we could pretend things weren’t bad!” I said, “But they were worse.  You know they were worse.  The people you worked with, the addicts, the people without money…”

“Does it matter?” Tagg asked.  “You don’t have your dad’s support, what makes you think you’d get anyone else’s?”

I grit my teeth.

“No,” my father said.

“Hm?”  Tagg raised his bushy eyebrows.

“No.  I think you’re wrong there,” my dad told Tagg.  “She has support.  When you attacked her in the school, there were people who stood by her.  If I’m being honest, I don’t get it, I don’t want those people in charge, but I don’t want any villains in charge.  I don’t understand the politics behind this, or the context, but I trust my daughter.”

“Of course you trust your daughter.  The curse of being a parent, I know it well.”

“You wanted my opinion,” my dad said, his voice a little firmer, “You get my opinion.  Others believe in her.  I trust her, even if I don’t know enough to follow what this is all about. Even if I barely feel like I know her right now, I can look her in the eye and know that’s the same girl I’ve spent the last sixteen years with.  With some of the worst qualities of my wife and I, and a lot more of the better ones.”

“I wonder how long that opinion will hold,” Tagg said.  “Because we have, what is it?  Three hours and a handful of minutes?  Then the war she set in motion hits this city.”

“It can be avoided,” I said.

“If we cave in to your extortion,” Tagg said.  “Except you think too small, Skitter.  It’s a common flaw among teenagers, however powerful they are.  They attend high school, and all they can see is the school, their peers.  Tunnel vision.  You’re the same.  You’re focused on this city, but you don’t see what happens elsewhere.  You don’t see the ramifications.”

“Which are?”

“You’d be strengthening the PRT a little in the short-term, but the long-term?  Letting villains take charge, taking the humans out of the PRT, condoning villainy?  It would doom us all.  What you’re threatening us with?  It’s only one fight.  And maybe it’s ugly, but it’s one fight.  If they kill us, if they become monsters of the Slaughterhouse Nine’s caliber to defeat us, then we win.  Your side wins the battle, loses the war.  If you don’t go that far?  If you leave us in a state to recover?  We pick ourselves up and we lick our wounds, and then we rebuild.”

Tagg cupped his hands, moving them as if balancing a scale.  “One fight, one set of casualties in one area of one medium-sized city, compared to consequences that reach across North America?  Across the world?  It doesn’t measure up.”

I glanced at my lawyer.

“You don’t have an answer for me?” Tagg asked.

“I have one,” I said.  I hope.

Mr. Calle looked at his phone, then gave me one curt nod.

“What?” Tagg asked.

“It’s in the news,” Mr. Calle said.

Tagg and Miss Militia simultaneously reached for their smartphones.  I was probably as tense as they were, as they thumbed past the security screens and found news sites.  Miss Militia was a few seconds faster than Tagg.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“It’s all legitimate,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.  Legal enough.”

“What is it?” my dad asked.

“Property,” I said.  “I expect a great amount of property just changed hands.”

“Who’s Sierra Kiley?” Miss Militia asked.

It was all I could do to keep from smiling with joy.  Of all the people to serve as a public face, Tattletale had found Sierra.  Someone I owed, in many ways.  Someone who’d, maybe, followed recent events and rethought her initial doubts.

“No idea,” I said, maintaining my poker face.

“I don’t understand,” my dad said.

“Quite simple,” Mr. Calle told him.  “I believe the PRT has become aware that properties in a wide area around the portal in downtown Brockton Bay, previously under the control of various individuals and groups, just exchanged hands, finding itself in the hands of one singular individual.”

“And that one individual is in thrall to the villains who control this town,” Tagg said.

“I resent the notion,” I told him, and I allowed myself a small smile.  “But it would be amusing, if it were true.  You might even have to rethink what you were saying about how narrow my worldview is.  I mean, that’s a whole other world.  Anything but narrow, when you think about it.”

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said.

“You’re playing out your hand.”

“And you’re bringing my family into this.  Remember how our little feud started?  You crossed the line.  You made the call to out me, because you wanted me in custody.  Congratulations, you got me in custody.  You broke the unwritten rules, because you think that you don’t have to obey them, since you aren’t a cape.  Except you’re forgetting why they exist in the first place.  The rules keep the game afloat.  They keep everything afloat, at the core of it.  We all know the PRT is a sinking ship.  You don’t agree with what I’m doing?  Fine.  But at least I’m trying to keep it afloat.”

“And you?” my dad asked.  It took me a second to realize he was looking at Miss Militia.

“What about me?” she asked.

“You’ve been quiet.  Are you here just in case my daughter turns violent?”

“No.  She’s not violent.  Not in that sense.”

“You don’t have anything to say?”

“As grateful as I am for the right to free speech,” Miss Militia said, “I’m grateful for the right to silence as well.”

“Then you don’t agree with your Director?”

“I didn’t say that.  What I’m saying is that there’s no right answer here, and I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make the decision.”

“Isn’t that cowardly?”  I asked.

“No.  It’s human, to not want to make the hard choices,” she said.  She raised one boot off the ground and placed it on the corner of her chair.  “And it’s good strategy to conserve your strength.”

“We’re not fighting,” I said.  “We’re not going to get tired.”

“Physically?” she asked.  “No.  Emotionally?  Mentally? Yes.”

“You’re anticipating the fight,” I said.  “You don’t think there’ll be a consensus in time.”

She shook her head, then used one hand to fix her hair, tucking it behind one ear.  “No.  I don’t think there will be a fight.  I hope there’ll be a consensus, but it’s not necessary.  Your ploys with the portal, controlling the territory around it, it’s clever, it’ll take a lot of time before we can pass legislation or conduct a thorough enough investigation to justifiably seize it.  But I’m not worried about that, either, nor am I concerned about the damage Tattletale could do in other areas.”

“Then why do you need to conserve your strength?” I asked.

“Because we’re dealing with the devil,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m angry at you, Taylor, and half of that is because you put us in this situation, a set of circumstances where we’re liable to lose either way.  Because I agree with the conclusions you came to, how the PRT is needed, the need for compromise, and because I can’t condone how you approached those conclusions.”

She shifted position, and the black-green energy of her flickered from her right hip to her right hand, appearing in her hand, amorphous and shapeless, as if searching for a form to take.  When she didn’t grasp it, it darted to her left hip, and the metal of a cutlass clinked against her seat.

“But I really hate you because we had to call her,” Miss Militia intoned.

Her?

Tagg looked at his phone.  “Assuming she’s on time, it’ll be less than ten minutes.”

“Her?” my dad asked.

“You’ve played your part,” Tagg responded.  “Go.  It’d be better in the long run.  Wash your hands of this, leave.  Your daughter’s in custody, she’s going to one prison or another.  You can go home and know that it was inevitable, and that this was the best outcome.  It takes a few years maybe, but you lament your mistakes, and you eventually make an uneasy peace with what happened to your daughter.”

“And if I stay?”

“You won’t have any of that peace of mind,” Tagg said, and that was all.

My dad looked at me, “I think you’re wrong.  Everything before this, it was the times where I thought I had to walk away, look away, times where I thought things were inevitable, that I regretted the most.”

He took my hand.  “I’ll stay.”

“Thank you,” I murmured the words.

Our guest didn’t arrive right away.  It might have been fitting, in a dramatic way, for her to appear as we finished our dialogue, but things weren’t so carefully orchestrated in the real world.

“Those things they said you did?” my dad murmured.

“Mostly true,” I said.

He squeezed my hand for a moment, but it wasn’t reassuring.  Something else.  Concern, maybe, channeled through a simple gesture.  Concern for me, for what I’d become.

I wanted nothing more than for my dad and I to talk for a month straight, just to hash things out, to form some kind of balance, some semblance of a connection like we’d once had.  Instead, there was only this, like the father-daughter relationship distilled.  Not enough communication, barely any familiarity, both of us flooded with very different sorts of fear, confusion, and frustration.  I imagined it was much like the bonds that had kept primitive families together in an era when living from week to week was a challenge.  Basic, crude, but almost primeval.

She arrived, minutes later.  A woman, tall, in a suit, carrying nothing with her.  I sensed her at the periphery of my range, walking with a steady, strong stride.

I was reminded of the Siberian, almost.  The way she moved with the confidence of the indomitable, the way that she was almost careful as she moved among people.  Except that where the Siberian was only careful among her teammates, this woman was careful with everybody.

It took her five minutes to reach us, walking through the crowds, using the pedestrian crossings.

But the person I found myself comparing her to, as she approached the PRT building, wasn’t the Siberian.  It was me.  She reached her home ground, and people started to recognize her.  They reacted, moving out of her way.  Showing respect.  Showing fear, in some cases.

Three of the Wards were in the elevator when it stopped at the ground floor.  Kid Win was taking his drone recharge station apart, which meant it was just Clockblocker, Crucible and Vista that crossed paths with her.

The Wards took only a moment to recognize her as she entered the elevator, and the two native Brocktonites left, pulling a protesting, confused Crucible after them.

In a matter of a minute, she was opening the door to the cell.  A woman, the sort who could be forty but looked like she was in her late twenties.  Hispanic, insofar as that was a descriptor, with darker skin and long, straight black hair.

But more than her description, the part of her that hit me was her presence.  Almost without thinking about it, I got out of my chair, standing, the chains of my cuffs pulling taut against the lock on the table.  My lawyer, Miss Militia and Tagg all stood, my dad a step behind them, bewildered.  The only one not in the know.

“Chief Director,” I said.

Deputy Chief.  I’ve stepped down from my position, but I still have to train my replacement,” she said, her gaze piercing through me.  I couldn’t even tell that one of her eyes was a prosthetic.  “And seeing to some leftover crises.  Hello, Ms. Hebert.”

She extended a hand.  As though driven to accept the handshake by a peculiar gravity, I extended my own hand and shook it.  Her firm grip could have pulverized me.  I might have been less intimidated if I were trapped in a small pen with an angry bull elephant.

“And Mr. Danny Hebert,” she said.  She shook my father’s hand.

Tagg stood from the chair at the table and moved over one left, leaving the seat for his superior.  “Since you’ve made up your mind about staying, you’ll need to know.  This is Deputy Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.”

My father nodded.  I was getting the feeling he was almost shell-shocked.  To find out about the end of the world, the situation his daughter was in, and countless other things, the name of this woman might not have even processed for him.

“Otherwise known as Alexandria,” Alexandria said, taking the chair opposite me.

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Cell 22.2

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Miss Militia handed me a phone and uncuffed one hand from the table.  I dialed the number I’d memorized and waited while she and Director Tagg watched.

Mr. Calle, Esquire,” the voice on the other line said.  He sounded distracted, and the voice was slightly muffled.  I could hear noise in the background, voices.

“It’s time,” I said.  “I’m at the PRT headquarters, second basement floor.”

Ms. Hebert!  Excellent!  I was just telling myself that I’d almost run out of things to see in your city, here, and was about to let myself start being concerned for your welfare if it got much later.  I’m in your territory as we speak.

“My territory?”

Getting a sense of who you are as a person and a personality.  There’s a number of people here who are very concerned for your welfare.  They don’t quite believe me when I say I’m looking out for your interests.

“Okay,” I said.  “Big guy?  Beard?”

A young lady, dark-haired.

I thought for a second.  “Tell her ‘fly in a paper box.'”

He didn’t cover the mouthpiece of his phone as he spoke the phrase.  There was a pause, then Mr. Calle spoke into the phone once again, “That did it.

I don’t really care, I thought.  I just didn’t want him getting in any trouble.  “How soon can you be here?”

“A five minute drive.”

“It’s not a five minute drive from there to here.”

“I’m a fast driver.  No need to worry, but… maybe don’t mention it to the law enforcement officials that are looking over your shoulder.  Do you have any preferences for donuts?  Coffee?”

There was a murmur on the other end.

“Someone’s telling me you want tea,” he asked.

“Just-” Just get here, I was about to say, then I reconsidered.  I knew where he was, and I was tempted at the thought.  Besides, I knew Tagg was watching me.  “A BLT on toasted white and a sugar donut.  And tea.”

“They don’t sell any tea here, but I’m sure we can contrive to get you some in a timely manner.  I trust you haven’t said anything to the glowering heroes?”

“No.”

“Excellent.  Keep your mouth shut, now.  I’ll be there in six.”

With that said, he hung up.

“A sandwich, donuts and tea,” Tagg said.  He had his arms folded.

I smiled a little, but I didn’t reply.

“Very casual,” he mused.  He took the phone, gripped my wrist in his hand and set the handcuff back into place.

I shifted position, and the movement raked the chain of my cuffs against the ring that held them fixed to the table.  It was hard to get comfortable.  The table and chairs were bolted to the floor, and my hands were held in front of me.  I got the impression the setup was meant for villains just a touch taller than I was – I couldn’t quite lean against the chair back without the cuffs cutting into my wrists.

“I’m trying to figure you out,” Tagg said.

I ignored him.

“My aims aren’t very high.  I’m not a psychologist, like Mrs. Yamada, I’m not experienced in the ins and outs of the traumas you capes go through or the damage that shit causes.  You and I haven’t really squared off yet, like you have with Miss Militia.  Those two understand you on levels I never could.”

I glanced at Miss Militia.  Her expression was inscrutable behind the stars-and-stripes scarf she wore over the lower half.

“I’m setting my sights lower than that.  I’m trying to figure out if you really think you have the upper hand, here, if you’re arrogant enough to expect everything will go your way…” Tagg paused, studying me, as if looking for a response.  “…or if you intend to martyr yourself.  Is that the idea?  You go to the Birdcage, but you make some demands first?”

I would have put my head on the table and tried to close my eyes for a minute, but the setup wasn’t very accommodating.  I didn’t want to try to then realize I couldn’t get comfortable.

“Maybe you don’t really get what the Birdcage is.  See, I hate it.  I was in Lausanne in two-thousand two through oh-three.  Fought a whole mess of ugly.  People that couldn’t be reasoned with, people who were hopeless, in the grand scheme of it.  Victims, as much as anyone else.”

I found myself listening, despite myself.

“We shot them, the people who heard too much of the Simurgh’s song, who weren’t just walking disaster areas, but who’d listened long enough that they lost something.  Men, women and children missing that moral center that people like Miss Militia and I have.  Hell, even you’ve got morals.  They didn’t.  I’m sure you heard about it, you’re not that young.  Suicide bombers, dirty bombs.  Terrorism, if you will.  Eleven year olds and old men making their way to Amsterdam or London and opening fire in a crowded area.  Just like that.”

Tagg slammed his hand down on the metal table, coinciding with the ‘that’.  I jumped a little, despite myself.

He’s just trying to rattle me.

“Once we realized what was happening, we had to act, contain the damage.  Contain families.  Had to act against people who went home from a day of trying to kill the rest of us and cooked a nice dinner, oblivious to just how fucked they were in the head.  People who were otherwise good, who got warped on a fundamental level, left open to the preaching and the incitement of their angrier neighbors.  Two years of fighting before we got the word down from on high, that they couldn’t rehabilitate the ones they’d captured, the ones who’d listened too long.  The poor assholes would play nice until they saw an opportunity, then they’d take it, do as much damage as they could.  Two years fighting good people who’d been convinced they had to throw their lives away fighting an enemy that didn’t exist.  So we closed the perimeter, bombed them out, herded them and gunned them down.”

I glanced up, briefly meeting his eyes.  The lines around them seemed just a little deeper.  I wasn’t sure if it was emotion, memories coming to the surface, or if it was just the lighting in this interrogation room.

“Which takes me back to my original point,” Tagg said.  “The Birdcage.  I hate it.  Hate what it stands for, the affront to our freedoms.  The farce of it.  You know what that word means, little girl?  Farce?”

I almost took the bait and responded, bit my tongue instead.

“Guess not.  And Miss Militia said you were smart.  When it comes to the monsters and the menaces who are more trouble than they’re worth, I wish with all my heart that we had another option.  Look me in the eyes, now.  I want you to see I mean what I say.”

I met his eyes.

“I’d rather do what we did in Lausanne than use the Birdcage.  End result’s the same.  You’re gone from this world.  It’s more merciful, understand?  If it was legal, if I got the okay from on high, I’d make you kneel in the center of this very room and end you with one well placed bullet.  Better than you getting in a van and getting disappeared, dropped into a pit that some of the scariest, meanest capes around haven’t figured out how to escape, a literal hell on earth.”

Disappeared.

“But as much as I hate the Birdcage, I’ll gladly use it if it gets menaces like you off the streets and out of the way of civilized Americans who are trying to live their lives.  And my bosses know that.  They know I’m just as stubborn as the worst of them, because I’ve fought bastards like the sad souls in Lausanne, who didn’t even know how to yield, and I outlasted them.”

I wasn’t sure I could have responded if I’d been willing to open my mouth.

“I want you to think on that.  As much as you see me as an asshole, maybe you look down on me because you think you’re smarter than I am, but you think about what it means that I’d sooner shoot a misguided sixteen year old girl than send her to that place… and I’d sooner send you there than let you go free to keep perverting the system.”

“My lawyer’s here,” I said.  I could sense him, striding through the lobby to talk to a receptionist at the front desk.  “Mr. Calle.  He’s upstairs.”

“Someone will show him the way down here,” Tagg said.  “You and I, we can keep chatting here.”

I shut my mouth, frowning.  Miss Militia wasn’t acting, wasn’t saying a thing.

“I wonder if you realize what you’ve really done.  Pulling the shit you have in this city.  Forget the PRT, forget me and the people I work for.  Let’s talk about the grander perspective.  The precedent this shit sets.  You know there’s already been others who tried to do what you’re doing?  Take over?”

People have been trying to take over for a long time, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

“People are getting hurt, hurting others, trying to follow in your footsteps.  You’re a fucking pioneer, aren’t you?  Do you get that?  That part of what we’re doing, here, is not just stopping you, dealing with you Undersiders, whatever your excuses might be.  It’s the effects that reach across this entire country.  The world.”

I didn’t reply.  My focus was on Mr. Calle, who was making his way downstairs in the elevator, accompanied by the same PRT soldier who had taken me to my cell.

“What’s the name of the fellow who tried to take over that town in Alaska just a few days ago?  You remember, Miss Militia?”

“Hiemal.”

“Hiemal.  How many did his people kill?”

“Three.”

“Three dead,” Tagg said.  He pulled a chair away from the table, set one foot on it, so he was looming over me.

Mr. Calle appeared in the doorway.  I’d looked him up prior to first contacting him, and I’d seen his photos online.  I was caught off guard, nonetheless, on two very different fronts.

“Good afternoon,” he said, putting his briefcase down before extending a hand to Miss Militia, smiling in a way that showed off his very white teeth.  I’d assumed that his prim appearance in the pictures had been because he’d been anticipating having his photos taken, or because he’d been appearing in public.  His black hair hadn’t just been cut, it had been styled, his eyebrows shaped.  He had long eyelashes, I noted, and a small cleft in his chin.  He was an exceptionally handsome Latino guy, in a light gray suit with a white vest beneath, and a red tie.  He had a folder and a paper bag under one arm, in addition to the briefcase he’d put down.

His immaculate appearance was the first thing that caught me off guard, and it set a stark contrast with the corner of one nostril and one of his cheekbones, where, apparently, one of his clients had done some damage.  It was a cut, but puckered around the edges where it had been burned, either with fire or some kind of acid.

He extended a hand to the Director, who glowered but shook it.  He flashed another white smile at Tagg, “Quinn Calle, I-”

“I know who you are,” Tagg replied.

“Excellent.  That should make the rest of this easier.  I’d like some time alone with my client.  I already have the bulk of the paperwork, but if you could give me anything that came up in the last short while, I’d appreciate it.”

“I’ll see what we have,” Miss Militia said.  She and Tagg turned to leave.

Calle brushed the seat clear where Tagg had stepped on it, then sat down just to my left.  “And Director?”

Director Tagg paused in the doorway.

Mr. Calle pointed at the one-way mirror at one side of the interrogation room.  “This is a confidential meeting with my client.  I would never imply that anyone in the PRT would be so crass as to listen in, but… let’s leave that room empty until further notice, okay?”

Tagg visibly bristled at the implication.  Wordless, he turned to leave.

“And cameras stay off!” Mr. Calle called out at the Director’s back.

Tagg shut the door with a little more force than necessary.

“Ms. Hebert,” Mr. Calle said, without looking at me.  He set the folder on the table and began sorting out the contents.  He waited until the paperwork was all arranged in front of him before he turned his attention to the paper bag, retrieving my sandwich, a small carton of six donuts, and a small thermos.  He met my eyes and spoke, “We finally meet.”

Again, that smile, the kind of smile someone could only really give if they were attractive and they knew it.  He didn’t seem to mind the blemish on his face, acted as though it weren’t there, as if that dictated how others would react to it.

“Can we cut out the charm and get to business?” I asked, as I reached for the thermos and sandwich.  “There’s something of a time limit.”

The smile dropped from his face, and he was all business.  “A time limit.  Can I ask?”

“It’s twelve past one,” I said.  “We have until eight-thirty.”

“Very well.  Let’s get moving.  First off, I want to get some things clear.  I’m an excellent lawyer, I’ve worked with more than a few big-name villains, as well as heroes who went astray.  I have the rest of my firm backing me, and their talents are but a phone call away.  But.  He paused in a very deliberate way.  “You should know that I’m not the lawyer you want at a jury trial.  We’ve run simulations, and I don’t sell when it comes to juries.  This little mark is a good part of that.”

He touched his face, where the scar was.

Mr. Calle continued, “If it comes to a serious trial, I’ll take the backseat and one of my senior partners would represent you.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s fine.  I don’t want this to go to trial.”

“Alright.  We can work with that.  In the meantime, let’s see what we’re up against…”

He turned the first page in one of the neatly bound sheafs of paper.  “Charges… chime in, but don’t panic, alright?”

“Okay,” I said.

“April tenth, criminal negligence with a parahuman ability, sixteen charges of assault, sixteen charges of battery with a parahuman ability.”

I tried to think.  April tenth?  Early in my career?

“Lung,” I said, “I attacked him and his gang.  They’re seriously charging me for attacking Lung’s henchmen?”

“They’re going to charge you with everything they think they can get away with and see what sticks.  Depending on who they could actually find and convince to testify, they’ll drop charges after the fact.  We can maybe use that, or we could, if circumstances were different and we were wanting to take this to trial.  No need to worry.  Gut reaction?  Could they make it stick?”

“The Lung part, yes, but the rest… probably not.”

“Okay.  Let’s run down the list.  April fourteenth.  Thirty two charges of willful felony assault with a parahuman ability.  Thirty two charges of hostage taking, technically domestic terrorism, each perpetrated with a parahuman ability.  Robbery with a parahuman ability.  Willful damage to government property.  Disturbing the peace.”

“The bank robbery.  I didn’t damage any property.”

“Right.  April twenty-fourth?  One case of battery.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“An… Emma Barnes.  She appeared-”

“Right.  No, I remember what that was.  It happened, didn’t think anything would come of it.”

“One of the girls who bullied you.  Odd that they took their time filing charges on it.  Only this past week.”

Tagg must have talked to her.  I shrugged.

“Moving on, then.  Incidents taking place at the… Forsberg Gallery, May fifth.  Five cases of assaulting a law enforcement officer.  Five cases of battering a law enforcement officer, three performed with a parahuman ability.”

“That’s attacking the heroes?”

“No.  That’d be an entirely different charge, and…” my lawyer flipped through the papers, “Just double checking… there’s a conspicuous lack of charges involving your altercations with major heroes.  It could be that they discussed it and didn’t feel it necessary.  Things get complicated when capes take the stand, given the issues of identity and character, and they might not have wanted to dredge up old business.  If not that, the only way I could imagine it is if the heroes in question withdrew all charges?”

He pitched his voice to make the statement into something of a question.

I thought of Armsmaster.  Him?  Maybe.  But Assault?  Miss Militia?  That was harder to picture.  The Wards?  Harder still.

“I don’t know which it is,” I admitted.

“All right.  Something to look into, if we have time.  Still on May fifth, eighty-one charges of willful felony assault.  Still at the fundraiser.”

He raised one eyebrow.  I only nodded confirmation.

“Skipping ahead a month to June third, we’ve got… complicity towards one count of kidnapping using a parahuman ability.  This was-”

“Sophia Hess.”

“One of the girls who bullied you.  Extenuating circumstances, perhaps,” he said.  He made a note in the margins of the document.  “June fourth, you’re supposedly complicit in class two extortion with a parahuman ability, criminal negligence with a parahuman ability and false imprisonment with a parahuman ability.”

“They… can probably make that stick.”

“June fifth.  Treason.”

“Treason.”

“That would be, in effect, declaring war against the government of the United States of America.”

“That’s not what I did.”

“It’s what they’re going to say you did when you took over the territory.  I’d expect they already have strong arguments lined up on that front.  On the same day, thirty cases of assault and battery.  Six cases of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability.”

I nodded.

“June eighth, eight cases of assault with a parahuman ability.  June ninth, we’ve got twelve more.  June tenth, three cases of assault with a parahuman ability, one case of assault in the third degree.”

“Alright,” I said.

“Thirteenth, we have three more cases of assault with a parahuman ability.”

“Makes sense.”

“Sixteenth of June, disturbing the peace, property damage.”

I nodded.  The days were starting to blend into one another, to the point that I wasn’t sure I could guess which charges were referring to which events.

“Seventeenth, five charges of assault and battery.  One charge of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability.  One charge of criminal extortion.”

“Attacking the mayor,” I said, almost relieved to be able to pinpoint the crime in question.

“And his family, it seems.”  Mr. Calle paused, then paged through the rest of the pad.  “June eighteenth.  Destruction of government property, four counts.  Hostage taking, assault and battery of a law enforcement officer.  June nineteenth, complicity in another count of treason.  Complicity in manslaughter, nineteen counts.”

I nodded.  Dragon and fighting in the debate.  Given Dragon’s response in the cafeteria, I’d almost expected her to drop any charges involved in the destruction of the suits she’d sent against me.  Maybe people higher up than her had charged me anyways.  Then there was the manslaughter.  “Apparently the murders were staged.”

“We’ll have to look into that.  And… that’s the last we have in our actual records.  The PRT was slow in sending us the rest, but Miss Militia should deliver it soon.  There’s been more in the last week, I take it?”

“More assault and battery,” I said, feeling a touch weary.  “Whatever charges come up with the thing at the school.  I sort of arranged to have a psychopath kill herself.  Um.  However you’d charge putting maggots in someone’s eyeballs.  In self-defense.”

He didn’t even flinch at that.  “I see.  And any other charges that might catch us by surprise?”

“Premeditated murder,” I said.  “Of a law enforcement officer.  Miss Militia knows, but she’s kept quiet on it.”

“I see,” Mr. Calle said.  He frowned briefly.

“It was Coil.  Director Thomas Calvert was Coil.”

“Alright, then,” Mr. Calle said.  He met my eyes, then smiled.  “Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse.”

I wasn’t sure if I should feel relieved at that.

“Now let’s talk about our goals.  For the record, if we took this to trial, I think we could knock off most of these charges on a lack of evidence and degrees of amnesty surrounding your participation against the various class-S threats.  They’re going to want to put together a jury that hasn’t heard of you, which would be difficult.  To those people, it’s going to sound downright preposterous that a sixteen year old girl is being charged with treason and terrorism, especially after we reduce the number of assault and battery charges to single digits.”

“I don’t want a jury trial,” I said.  “I’ve said this twice now.”

“I know,” Mr. Calle said. “Hear me out.  I’m wanting to make sure our expectations are realistic.  Theoretically speaking, I think we could get you charged as a minor.  Paint a picture of a bullied teenager pushed to the limit, caught out of her depth and, following the Leviathan attack, ensnared in an ugly situation where she’s trying to protect people and the heroes are being unreasonable in how they interact with her.  We could use the unwarranted unmasking to indicate just how aggressive and ruthless the PRT has been in regards to you.”

“And if I decided to plea down, in exchange for certain considerations?”

“We can still reduce the charges, which would help reduce the penalties you’d face, but where I’m confident we could get you off in a trial by jury, you’d face some consequences if you insisted on taking this route.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I can live with consequences.  In terms of holding them to the terms I stipulate, is there any way to set it up so they can’t change their minds after they’ve gotten what they want from me?”

“We can prepare a contract, but that only imposes financial penalties,” Mr. Calle answered me.  “The PRT could theoretically get it thrown out of court, and that’s ignoring the possibility that you could be sent to the birdcage.  It would depend on the penalties you’re able to levy against them…”

He trailed off.

I thought of Tattletale.  “I think I have some ideas.”

“Excellent.  But the best way, I’m thinking, is to make it all common knowledge.  Let the rest of the country hold them to it.  It would depend on whether we could share the details with John and Jane Q. Public.”

“Can we talk about the terms, then?” I asked.

“We can.  I got the impression you were able to tell time?”

“It’s one twenty-seven.  Six hours and three minutes left.”

“Right then,” he made a pained expression.  “A good thing I told my wife I wouldn’t make it to dinner.  I’ll get a few of my coworkers on the line.  They can pitch in and put an intern to typing things up while we hash this out.  You don’t have much ground to stand on, but we can make the legal ramifications as ugly as possible for them if they throw you under the bus.”

It took one and a half hours, roughly, to get everything worked out and organized.  After that, I had to put up with twenty minutes of waiting while Mr. Calle’s law firm typed it and emailed it to us.  It took ten more minutes for my lawyer to run to a nearby print shop and get the paperwork we’d put together.  Mr. Calle then insisted on reading the entire thing through.  The wait was almost intolerable.

Fifteen more minutes passed as he went through it page by page, with agonizing slowness.  I winced a little every time he stopped and went back to check earlier details against whatever it was he was reading.

“It’s bare bones,” he finally said.

“I didn’t expect much else,” I said.

“We could have done better with more notice, I have to say.”

“Too many variables to lay anything out ahead of time,” I said.

“Very well.  Let’s bring them in.”

More minutes ticked away as we waited for the others to arrive.  Director Tagg, the Deputy Director, Miss Militia, Clockblocker, and Mrs. Yamada… they were gathering in force.  Tagg took a seat opposite us, Miss Militia to his left, his second in command to his right.

“Let’s hear it,” he said.

Mr. Calle stood, then walked around the table, handing each person present a copy of the document.  I was the only one who didn’t have one in front of me.

“My client, Taylor Hebert, is offering official surrender to the PRT, for a select handful of crimes.  This surrender and an admission of guilt would be televised locally, nationally and possibly internationally, dependent on which outlets were prepared to cooperate.  In exchange, my client, Taylor Hebert, known by the alias ‘Skitter’, requests some concessions from the Protectorate, PRT and Wards.”

“Televised?” Tagg asked.

“It serves as insurance for my client, and it serves to signal the Undersiders to stand down, should they be considering any sort of aggression for the capture of their leader and friend.”

“Right,” Tagg said.  “Let’s pretend she didn’t plan for that.  Go on.”

“To begin with, the remaining members of the Undersiders will be given leniency for past crimes.  With the understanding that the Undersiders are serving to police this city’s underworld where the Protectorate is unable, the group would cease to be the target of any aggression or harassment on the part of the PRT, Protectorate or Wards.  This fact would not be disclosed to the public, but would serve as a truce to allow both sides to carry out their respective duties in the service of Brockton Bay.”

“You’re kidding me,” Clockblocker said.

“You want us to play nice,” Tagg said.

I watched Miss Militia.  We’d already discussed this point.  I’d gauged her response.  Now I was putting it out there in simple, clear terms, making it official.  I couldn’t be sure if she’d hold to her word or if it would collapse under the bureaucracy.

I’d tested her once, and she’d informed Tagg of what I was planning.  This would be a second test, of sorts.

“Special allowances,” Mr. Calle said, “Would be made for crimes committed in the future, within specific limits detailed on page three of the paperwork you have in front of you.”

“You want to neuter us,” Director Tagg said.  “Stop us from policing the criminals who run this city.”

“As my client phrased it, Director, we’re hoping to free you to focus your efforts on real targets.”

“You can want it and begin again,” Tagg said, “But I won’t stand by and watch it happen.”

“Quite alright,” my lawyer responded.  He flashed a smile, “I expect that’s why Ms. Hebert has asked that you retire, Director Tagg.  Her colleague, known by the alias Tattletale, has apparently confirmed that you’ve put in the requisite number of years.  You could collect your pension without issue.”

I watched as Tagg leaned back in his seat.  He gave me a smug look.  He thinks he got to me.

“You’re dangerous,” I said.  “You’ve got a soldier’s mentality at a time when we need peace.  You’d let the world burn to… give me a bloody nose.  You said it yourself.  You’re unyielding, and we need compromise.”

“A reality that Ms. Hebert feels Miss Militia would be better equipped to accommodate,” my lawyer added.  “That’s our third term.”

There weren’t any retorts or rebuttals from the ‘good guys’.  Instead, they exchanged glances across the table, everyone looking between Miss Militia and Director Tagg.

“The PRT is led by non-capes,” Miss Militia said.

“That can change,” I said.  “Nearly a week ago, you and I had a conversation.  We talked about the issues within the PRT, the fact that you had to kowtow to non-capes and all the problems that posed.  I think the non-capes who tend to find powerful positions in the PRT are getting there by dangerous roads.  They tend to have backgrounds with the police, military, and anti-parahuman strike teams.  It sets up a combative mindset, where we don’t need one.  With a cape in charge of the local team, at the very least, I could hope that there’d be a shared perspective.”

“You think Miss Militia would be easier to manipulate,” Tagg accused me.

“I think she’s a no-nonsense type.  I know she’s a respected cape, that her power… it’s not one you want to cross paths with, so there’d be little doubt she could put up a fight if it came down to it.  And she listens.  She doesn’t always do what I’d want her to, but I can live with that.”

“This sets a precedent,” Miss Militia said.  “One that I doubt our superiors would be happy with.  One I doubt the public would be happy with.”

“When I showed up the night you guys outed me to the public, Tagg was boasting about your fantastic public relations department,” I said.  “How virtually anything could be sold to the public, given time.”

“It’s ultimately up to the Director,” Triumph said, “But what if, hypothetically, we had a figurehead leader, with Miss Militia as the person that was really calling the shots?”

I shook my head.  “Not good enough.”

“You actually have the temerity to play hardball?” Tagg asked, his voice rising a notch.  “I think you’re missing the fact that you’re securely in our custody, and you already surrendered.  If it comes down to it, we can see you shipped off with Dragon and Defiant, keep you airborne and away from any large body of insects until your trial by teleconference.”

“And my teammates?” I asked.

“That’s up to you,” he said, “But I don’t think you have it in you to sacrifice them for… this.”

“I guess I have a higher estimation of them than you do.  Don’t tell your people to stop underestimating me, only to slip up and expect to win wholesale against the rest of the Undersiders.  I think they’d surprise you.  Surprise all of you.”

“You said you need compromise,” Miss Militia said.  “But you won’t budge on this point?  A figurehead leader would keep the public content and give you what you’re asking for.”

“What I want,” I said, “Is to set a precedent.  Fixing Brockton Bay doesn’t do a thing, if we don’t leave doors open to fix things elsewhere.  If one cape becomes head of the local PRT, then it could happen elsewhere.”

Director Tagg drummed his fingertips on the metal table for a few seconds.  When he spoke, his tone was derisive.  “Your arrogance boggles the fucking mind.  You want to change the world, and you think a confession on television and the threat of your friends attacking the PRT will be incentive enough?  You’re not that big a fish.”

“I don’t want to change the world,” I said.  “I want to make it possible for things to change.”

“Semantics.”

I sighed.  My glasses were slipping down my nose.  I had to bend over to put them in reach of my hand so I could push them up.

“Is that it?” Miss Militia asked.

“One more thing,” Mr. Calle said.  “My client has a request.”

All eyes turned to me.  I straightened.  “I recognize that I’m asking for some big things.  I’m hoping that the… scale of some of what I’m asking for is tempered by the fact that this is all constructive.  It puts us in a better place and leaves us prepared to face down the real threats: the impending apocalypse, the Endbringers, the forces who’d want to move into this city and abuse the portal.  I’m going to ask for one more thing in that vein.  Don’t send me to the Birdcage.  Don’t send me to juvie, or hang me for treason.  It’s… not constructive.”

“What would you have us do?” Mrs. Yamada spoke up.

Use me.  I get that it wouldn’t work, having me join the Wards.  Too much baggage.  But… the end of the world hinges on Jack Slash doing something within the next two years.  You absolved Armsmaster of his crimes and sent him out to hunt them down.  Do the same with me.  I can cover a lot of ground in a search, I have experience fighting them, and if you needed it, nobody would even have to know I was doing it.  I’d be one more body on the ground, relatively discreet, and maybe that gives us all a slightly better chance of keeping Dinah’s prediction from coming to pass.”

I wasn’t even done talking when I saw the looks, felt a sinking in my gut as the various people in charge exchanged glances.  Tagg smiled a little.  Miss Militia looked… concerned.  The only person who looked as confused as I felt was Clockblocker.

“What?” I asked.

“Your intel is out of date,” Tagg said.  His heavily lined eyes were staring at me, studying me.

“What?” I asked.  “You already stopped them?”

“No,” he said, and the word was a growl.  He didn’t elaborate further.

“Taylor,” Miss Militia rescued me, “Do you know where the Slaughterhouse Nine went after leaving Brockton Bay?”

“A series of small towns, then Boston,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.  “And they struck one target after Boston.  Toybox.”

I remembered seeing the name on Tattletale’s bulletin board.  “Who or where is Toybox?”

What’s Toybox, you mean,” the Director said.

“What’s Toybox?” I asked.

“May I?” Miss Militia asked Tagg.  He gave her a curt nod, and she took hold of the laptop in front of him.  It took her a few moments to log in and open the page.  She unplugged the cord from the laptop and handed it to Mrs. Yamada, who handed it to my lawyer.  He set it so we could both see it.  Mr. Calle clicked the touchpad to page through the various images and documents.

“Toybox is a black market organization,” Miss Militia said.  “Tinkers who operate solo find life rather difficult, due to a lack of resources and the fact that gangs and government organizations are very, very persistent when it comes to recruiting them.  Faced with the prospect of spending their lives on the run, trying to avoid being forcibly recruited into one organization or another, most turn to the Protectorate or the Wards.  For those few who don’t, Toybox is… was a refuge of sorts.  Tinkers would join, share technology, stay in the enclave as long as they needed to build up a reputation and whatever tools they needed, they would share thirty-three percent of any proceeds with the rest of the group, helping to keep others afloat.  Toybox sustained itself with barter, by moving frequently, operating between the scope of heroes and villains, and by selling less-than-legal goods to criminal groups.”

I could see the images, grainy black and white photos of various tinkers huddled together, or standing behind tables loaded down with ray guns and the like.  There was a chronology of sorts, to the point that I could see the group evolve, some leaving as others joined, the enclave shifting from a group as small as four members to as many as fifteen.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine attacked them at the end of June,” Miss Militia said.  “In doing so, they appropriated all of the tinker technology and all of the tinkers that were staying with the group.  See page thirty-six and on.”

Mr. Calle paged forward until the images showed up.

Pyrotechnical.  A tinker focusing on flame manipulation, special effects, guns.

Cranial.  A tinker specializing in neurology.  Brain scans, draining thoughts, recording thoughts.

Big Rig.  A tinker who built drones that built things in turn, particularly buildings.

Bauble.  A girl who specialized in glassworking and glassworking tools, including tools that could turn inorganic matter into glass.

Dodge.  A boy, twelve, who made access devices for pocket dimensions.

Toy Soldier.  A powersuit user with a suit the size of a small building.

Glace.  A tinker specializing in cryogenics and stasis.

“The Nine have access to all of their work?”  I felt an inarticulate feeling of horror creep over me.  I couldn’t imagine anything particular, but anything that enhanced the capabilities and options that Slaughterhouse Nine had at their disposal?

“And access to the work of Blasto, a cloning specialist they assaulted and kidnapped in Boston,” Miss Militia said.

I sat back and the chain of my cuffs went taut, my arms stretched out in front of me.  “This doesn’t change things.  If anything, you need all of the help you can get.  This is serious.”

“It’s complicated,” Miss Militia said.

“Seems pretty damn simple,” I said.

“No,” she said, shaking her head.  “Because they’re gone.  They stopped.”

I shut my mouth, staring.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Toybox, taking the group’s devices for themselves, and they disappeared.  We suspect they used Dodge’s devices to exit into a pocket dimension, and by the time we’d found a way to follow, they’d exited elsewhere.”

“They’re dimension hopping?”

“Dodge’s devices only exit from Bet to pocket worlds he creates with his devices, back to Bet.  We believe they exited somewhere on Bet, possibly in another state, then used another device to hide.  Which would be where they are now.  Without knowing where they entered that particular pocket, we can’t hope to find them,” Miss Militia said.  “We know their patterns.  They tend to cut a swathe of destruction across North America, and it’s rare for even a handful of days to pass without them taking any action at all.  Between the PRT’s past experience with the group, our thinkers, and the fact that they haven’t made an appearance in nearly ten days, we believe we’ve worked out what they’re doing.”

I stared at the laptop.  It was still on the last page.  Glace.

“Cryogenics,” I said.

“Stasis,” Miss Militia agreed.  “The pressure grew too intense, with Defiant and Dragon’s pursuit, they weren’t recovering from losses fast enough.  They’ve gone into hiding, and we think they plan to wait.”

Wait, I thought.

“How long?” Clockblocker asked.

“We can’t know for sure,”  Miss Militia replied.  “But if they’ve put themselves in a cryogenic sleep, they could wake and resume their normal activities days, weeks, months or years from now.  Depending on the resources they have available, they might well emerge with clones of their current members at their side.”

Tattletale should have told me, I thought, even as I knew why she hadn’t.  Her power had been out of commission.  She’d been out of commission.  We’d known the Nine attacked the Toybox, but we’d missed what that meant in the grand scheme of things.  Through a combination of Tattletale’s ailment and a hundred other small distractions, we’d missed out on the reason Defiant and Dragon had been able to abandon their hunt for the Nine and visit Arcadia.

“Does Jack know?” I asked.  “I mean, I know he knows he’s supposed to end the world, but does he know he sets it in motion within two years?”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “We don’t think so.  Which means that, unless there’s something specific they want to wake up for, we can’t even begin to guess when he’ll have his team wake up.”

Silence hung in the air for long seconds.

“Now you know.  These are your demands?”  Tagg spoke up.

“We’ll need to discuss things and revise our terms with this new information in mind,” Mr. Calle said, glancing at me.  I nodded once.

“Better do some heavy revision,” Director Tagg said.  “And do it fast, because it’s not that long until sundown, and I won’t be accepting any of your terms as they stand.  You said it yourself, nobody wants this fight.”

I frowned, watching each of them making their way out of the interrogation room.

Tagg joined Miss Militia’s side, and I couldn’t help but notice the way she adopted a guarded position, folding her arms as he approached.  It gave me a flicker of hope.

Until the bugs I’d planted inside the fold of Tagg’s collar caught a fragment of something he was saying.

“…her father.”

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Cell 22.1

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I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-“

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

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