-ooo-

Recoil


Part 7-2: Connections


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


Lieutenant Robert Gordon
Parahuman Response Teams


"All rise."

Rob stood up along with the officer, a Captain Hinkley, who had been assigned as his legal counsel. Hinkley had made no secret of the fact that he didn't like Rob, but he'd done the best he could with what he had, throwing doubt on the official testimony wherever he could.

It hadn't actually made much of a difference—the prosecutor had apparently done his best to nail everything down as hard as he could—but Rob appreciated the effort. The one he truly blamed for his misfortune, the one who'd been his bugbear since she showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in his department, was Snow. Well, he had to admit that the description wasn't totally accurate. She'd been extremely serious from the start; even a bit of a killjoy, really. And the way she had of talking to someone and somehow taking away more than they actually said was creepy, to say the least.

He supposed he should've taken note of the red flag inherent in the fact that she'd already been a first lieutenant when she arrived at the Chicago offices of the PRT, even though she was fresh out of Basic. It just went to show that, for all her actual flaws (of which she had many) she was a past master at buttering up superior officers. This was a skill which she'd proven over and over that she possessed, given her expert manipulation of that delusional old fool Hamilton.

The whole Nice Guy incident had been utterly mismanaged, in his expert opinion. Snow had gotten lucky; Kinsey should've been discharged as unreliable and Snow given a pat on the head and sent back to work. But somehow she'd parlayed that into being a protected species with Hamilton and the higher-ups. The personal computer, the hush-hush idiocy around the time when the Behemoth attacked New York, the medals they kept pinning on her … couldn't they see she was using them to get a free ride and a totally undeserved reputation?

But he'd been too overt in trying to show her up, and she'd used the influence she'd garnered against him. Even as she left on her own little tour of the nation, she'd managed to twist Hamilton's head into having him investigated. Everyone had a little contraband, he was certain. It wasn't as though it was a crime or anything. But he'd lost a pay grade because of that irritating little parasite.

And now, through no fault of his own, they were prosecuting him. For … what? Talking to a woman off-base? How was that a crime? He'd watched as Snow and that hulking sergeant gunned down Christine and Elijah both, and they walked away scot-free. How was that justice? All they had to do was spin a tale that Christine was a Master, and it all turned around on him.

It was entirely unfair. But of course, Snow and Hamilton had spoken to the JAG lawyers. The fix was in. All he could do was endure and come out the other end, and then maybe clear his name.

"The court has heard the charges and counter-arguments, and we have reached a verdict." The presiding officer in the military court, one of five arrayed behind the bench, unfolded a piece of paper. "We find the defendant, Lieutenant Robert McCarthy Gordon, guilty on all charges."

A jolt of adrenaline shot through Rob's system. All charges? He hadn't thought that was even a possibility. Prosecutors threw every charge they could at a suspect, in the hope that something would stick. Most of them didn't but enough usually sufficed to put the accused away. How could they even … Ah. Of course. Snow got to the judges as well.

He zoned out, trying to think past the confusion rattling around in his skull. Suddenly, he felt a nudge from Hinkley, and realised that his name had been called and that everyone was standing up.

"Uh, yes, sir?" he replied huskily, rising to his feet. They'd had to put a tracheostomy tube in his throat while his larynx healed from the damage Snow had done to him with her damned walking cane, and talking was still difficult. He'd nearly died, for Christ's sake! What did it take to convince them that the woman was dangerous?

The presiding officer lowered his reading glasses and observed Rob sternly over them. "Lieutenant Gordon, your very future is at stake here. It would bode you well to pay attention to the proceedings."

The man seemed to be expecting an answer. "Yes, sir. I apologise, sir."

"Very well. Do you have anything to say before we pass judgement?"

Just for a moment, he thought of blowing the doors off and telling them everything Snow had been getting up to, of doing his best to convince them that they should be sentencing her, not him. But common sense prevailed; no matter what he said, they would have made up their minds back in chambers. Also, as he'd already figured, she'd clearly gotten to them and set them against him before they ever laid eyes on him. Saying anything at this point in time would tip his hand. Better to take whatever punishment they'd decided was good enough to shut him up, then deal with Snow his way.

"No, sir," he said with his best approximation of humility. "I do not."

"As you will." The presiding officer cleared his throat. "The charges against you are severe in nature, which would normally result in a Bad Conduct Discharge." Which, as Rob's counsel had patiently explained to him, usually involved a spell in military prison. Not where he ever wanted to go. "However, as some of them involve the influence of a parahuman Master power, we are inclined to be lenient. You will be stripped of your rank and given an Other Than Honorable discharge from the Parahuman Response Teams. From this moment on, you are prohibited from enlisting in or serving under any capacity with any military or paramilitary force fielded by the United States government. Do you understand?"

A discharge. Worse, an OTH. They were kicking him out of the PRT. After all he'd ever done for them. He'd known something was up when he'd tried to log onto the computer system using his credentials and found himself locked out. Guilty until proven innocent; he should've realised the fix was in as far back as then. It wasn't as though he was going to actually commit any crimes, just … get copies of useful information before it was sealed away from the public forever. But he'd been forestalled from even that. Goddamn Snow wins again.

"Yes, sir," he managed to croak out. "I understand."

"Good." The officer banged a gavel. "These proceedings are over. Take him away."

A burly MP sergeant, vaguely reminiscent of the inconvenient Kinsey—more in heft than appearance—gestured, and Rob moved obediently to his side. He was escorted out, the unpleasantness over for the moment. Of course, he still had to go through the actual discharge procedure, but at least he wouldn't get punished more than that.

What am I thinking? I made the PRT my life. Snow took that away from me.

He wasn't quite sure how he was going to repay the hurt she had done him, but he had time now.

All the time in the world.


Andrea's Apartment
Brockton Bay
Saturday morning, August 20, 1994
Captain Taylor Snow, PRT


"Are you certain I will be welcome there, ma'am?" asked Kinsey. Belying the question, he was clad in his undress blues, as was I. We could have chosen to show up in dress uniform, but doing that would have caused us to pose a serious threat of outshining the wedding party. As it was, he was every inch a PRT sergeant, from the closely-cropped scalp to the mirror-shined boots.

I looked around from checking the set of my tunic in the mirror. "Sergeant Kinsey, when I attended Gladys and Franklin's wedding, nobody knew you. Since then, they've all met you. If I show up without you, they will be asking where you are. And besides, did you want to disappoint Andrea by not showing up?"

"Darn tootin'!" Andrea piped up, popping into the room like a jack-in-the-box. She was wearing the gorgeous red dress she'd chosen for the previous wedding I'd just alluded to, and it made her look cute as hell. "I get to be escorted by two gorgeous soldiers. Works for me."

Kinsey cleared his throat. "Andrea … I'm not convinced that 'gorgeous' is the right word for me." He waved his hand at himself, apparently trying to convey his meaning by gesture.

I hid a smirk. While I secretly agreed with him—I would've favoured words like 'muscular', 'competent' or 'effective' for descriptors—it was always fun watching him try to verbally spar with her. She helped him loosen up in ways I couldn't, possibly because she'd slept with him before (no sleep was involved) and none of us were ruling out a return engagement. That was a line I couldn't cross (with him, not her) while I was a serving officer in the PRT.

Well, technically with her too, but what the PRT didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

"Pfft, yeah, right." She moved to stand in front of him, hands on hips. He was a good foot taller than her and seriously wider across the shoulders, but she owned the room right then. "If I say you're gorgeous, Jim, you're gorgeous. Got it?"

He sighed very quietly. "I can't argue with that logic." His gaze flicked to me, giving me bare warning of what he was about to say next. "Perhaps between the two of us, we'll be able to help the Captain avoid getting drunk on sparkling cider, this time around."

I raised my eyebrows in mock outrage. "Oh, so that's the way it is, is it? That was just the once." Though he had a point; that night had nearly gone sideways in more ways than one. I'd finished it off by attempting to drunkenly seduce him, which could've sunk my own career right then and there if he'd been more of a stickler for the rules.

More than ever, I needed to keep my wits about me at all times, and not just because sparkling cider was insidiously alcoholic. With my mission of Master/Stranger-proofing the PRT computer network almost done, I would not have been surprised if more disgruntled capes were out for my blood even now. With that in mind, I'd added a discreet purse to my outfit, for the sole purpose of keeping my Glock close to hand but out of sight. Not quite regulations, but sometimes practicality had to take precedence over regs.

"Really?" asked Andrea gleefully. "Jim, did I ever tell you about the time Taylor and I met, and she basically threw herself at me? She was drunk then, too."

"Yes, Andrea, you have." Kinsey's tone was neutral. "Several times."

"Also, I do wish to point out that my drink was spiked on that occasion," I said. "So it doesn't really count. I'd only had the one drink."

"Pfft, details, details." Andrea airily waved my words away. "You've clearly got no head for alcohol."

"Well, I wasn't going to be drinking anyway." Lisa had assigned a fairly low probability to the concept that hostile capes might seek me out while I was in Brockton Bay, whether it be local parahumans or frustrated out-of-towners, but I didn't want to take any chances.

Marquis would stay out of my way if he knew what was good for him; I didn't have much patience for his self-serving grandstanding right now. Or, if truth be told, ever. A criminal with a code was still a criminal.

"Probably a good idea, ma'am." From Kinsey's tone, he was no longer in bantering mode.

He and I were right on the same page when it came to assessing potential threats. The Mathers incident had shaken us both badly. Even though we'd come out of it without any real physical harm, there were many ways it could've gone very badly indeed for the both of us. It had been the first time I'd specifically been targeted by one of the Master/Strangers I was attempting to proof the PRT against, but I strongly suspected it would not be the last. And it was Kinsey's job to be suspicious on my account.

I gave Kinsey a top to toe visual inspection and found nothing amiss. In all honesty, if I'd found anything out of place, I would've been both concerned and wary. He'd been doing this far longer than I had, after all.

His return inspection garnered me a very slight nod of approval, which I returned; while we were inside and not covered, saluting was not approved by regs. Each of us had our beret rolled up and stowed under the left-hand epaulette, and we were wearing our ribbons rather than the full-sized medals.

When the PRT had been picking its uniform colours, it had been limited to a certain degree by the fact that every other service had already had their pick of the palette. So they went with a steel-blue tunic and aquamarine trousers (or skirt; though neither Kinsey nor I had gone with the latter) for the undress uniform, and midnight blue for the dress uniform. Since the Battle of the Compound, there'd been a push toward urban camo for field operations, for which I'd made my support known. Black matched with nothing, not even on night ops.

My recommendations had also included ditching the opaque faceplate to make our troopers look less like faceless minions of the evil overlord and more like paramilitary soldiers. This was still working its way through committee; apparently some people liked the 'faceless minion' look. That said more about them, in my opinion, than about the PRT in general.

Apart from the purse, which I intended to hide if I was subjected to photography, we were fully in line with uniform regulations. Kinsey looked stolidly impressive, Andrea was pretty as a picture, and I was … me. Taylor Snow, neé Hebert; supervillain, warlord, Wards member, time traveller, captain in the PRT and would-be world-saver. Fortunately, ninety-nine percent of that didn't show up to the casual observer.

"Well, then," I said. "Let's go."

It was time to attend my parents' wedding.


Danny Hebert


It was hot in the church. Danny had been attending services on and off since he could remember, mainly at his mother's behest, but he didn't recall it being this hot before. Even during Gladys' and Franklin's wedding, it hadn't been this bad.

As he tugged at his collar, Alan Barnes turned from where he'd been chatting with the minister and chuckled. "What's the matter?" he asked quietly. "Nerves? It's a bit late to make a run for the Canadian border. And besides you know she'd hunt you down anyway."

"Yeah, I know," sighed Danny. "And you know I love her. It's just that … all this, you know?" He gestured discreetly, taking in the row after row of occupied pews. He seriously hadn't been aware that he and Annette knew or were related to so many people.

Alan chuckled. "From a married man to an almost-married man, I can tell you that everything gets a whole lot better after this is all said and done. Your life will never be the same again, but knowing how much you and Anne-Rose love each other, that's actually a good thing."

"Thanks, man." Danny actually felt better for hearing his friend's advice. Wanting to take his mind off his own impending nuptials, he changed the subject. "I, uh, hear you and Zoe are trying for another kid?"

Alan rolled his eyes. "Let me guess. Zoe told Anne-Rose, and Anne-Rose told you? Yeah, we're trying." He sighed expressively. "No results yet, though."

Danny briefly considered saying something along the line of 'trying is half the fun' then decided that saying it about his best friend's wife was probably not in the best of taste. "Well, good luck then. Hope you and Zoe can handle two kids at the same time."

"Oh, Anne's a little angel," Alan said. "I have no idea what people are talking about with their kids that supposedly cry all the time and give them endless trouble. We just want to get her a little brother or sister so she's got someone to play with, growing up."

"Well, that's—oh, hey, Taylor's here," Danny said, looking up as he caught movement from the corner of his eye. "Oh, Andrea and Sergeant Kinsey, too."

Alan looked around at the trio currently proceeding down the aisle. The wedding guests were also taking notice, but Taylor's status as an officer in the PRT was well-known enough that nobody remarked on the uniforms. "They most certainly are," he observed. "Is it just me, or is that sergeant even bigger than the last time we saw him?"

"No, it just seems that way," Danny said with a grin. "What I want to know is, is he actually her bodyguard or does she just bring him along so people think he is?"

Alan shook his head. "I've seen her shoot. And fight with those damn staff things. Not even gonna try to guess that one."

"I hear you, buddy." Danny took a deep breath. "Just gonna go say hi. Still got the ring?"

"Like I'd lose it now." Alan patted his jacket pocket. "Safe and secure. Go."

As he left Alan's side and stepped down off the bema, Danny let a genuine smile cross his face. Taylor may have been (in the inimitable words of Winston Churchill) 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma', but she was also his friend and one of the strongest people he knew. What little she'd let him see of her secret life was frankly terrifying—he'd had nightmares about the Behemoth creature for a week—but that fact that she was out there fighting to avert her terrible future heartened him immensely. Also, she'd taken the time to attend his wedding … though he couldn't help wondering if that was just to ensure that he and Anne-Rose actually got married.

Knowing her, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

"Taylor," he said warmly. "Good to see you again. And you too, Sergeant."

"And what about me?" asked Andrea, sounding mock-offended.

"Oh, hey, didn't see you down there." Danny's smile widened at the expression on her face. "It's really good to see you too, Andrea. Anne-Rose will be pleased that you showed up."

"Uh huh, sure." She playfully feinted a swipe at him. "You're just worried I'll take her away from you."

"I don't think you or I could 'take' Anne-Rose away from anyone she wanted to be with," he said, raising his eyebrows. "Tell me I'm wrong."

"Nope, you're not wrong." She gave him a sudden hug, squeezing his ribs with surprising strength. "Good to see you again too, Danny. Now, you just make sure you treat Anne-Rose properly, or I will hunt you down and make you regret it."

"I'm pretty sure there'll be a queue if that happens," Danny observed, nodding to Taylor. She nodded back; damn right there would be.

"Darn tootin'." Andrea looked around. "So are we sitting on the bride's side or the groom's?"

"Groom's," Danny said. "Taylor may as well be my younger sister, and I'm not going to make you guys sit apart." He led the way to the front row, where he'd reserved seating next to his parents, sufficient for three people. Sergeant Kinsey was broader than most, but Andrea and Taylor tended toward the petite, so that evened out.

His parents looked up as he escorted the trio to their seats; by unspoken agreement, Taylor sat next to his mother, with Sergeant Kinsey next to her and Andrea next to Kinsey. His mother immediately started chatting with Taylor in low tones, while his father shared a single understanding nod with Sergeant Kinsey. Satisfied that they were in good hands, he returned to the altar where Alan was waiting with the minister.

"Okay, that's sorted," he said with as much relief as he could muster for the moment. "So when was—"

At that moment, someone must have given a signal because the music changed from generic background tunes to the one he'd been subconsciously waiting for. Automatically straightening his jacket, he stepped up alongside Alan and turned his gaze toward the church doorway. A moment later, Anne-Rose stepped through. As people craned their heads to watch, she entered the church wearing a gorgeous confection of the dressmaker's art that he glanced at once then totally forgot. It was Anne-Rose who had all his attention, and from the smile on her face she knew it.

I'm getting married today. Wow.


Taylor


"Doesn't she look divine?" murmured Dorothy Hebert, craning her neck around to watch as Anne-Rose paced her way up the aisle, moving deliberately slowly so that the rest of the wedding party could keep up.

A lump rose in my throat and tears filled my eyes; the dress Mom was wearing wasn't identical to the one I'd seen in the old photo album of their wedding, but it was pretty close to it. That was to be kind of expected. In my timeline, Mom and Dad had gotten married later in the year, after Mom had gotten pregnant with me.

There were other ways that this ceremony wasn't identical to when my original-issue parents had gotten married. Among other things, it had been a much hastier service and certain people simply hadn't shown up. Myself and Kinsey for two, but also Mom's parents, whom I recognised on the far side of the aisle, looking curiously at myself and Kinsey. Apparently, in my original timeline they hadn't approved of their little girl having to give up her law studies for something so mundane as an unexpected pregnancy and wedding. George and Dorothy hadn't been best pleased either, but at least they'd supported Dad and Mom until they got their feet under them.

This time around, while Anne-Rose's parents didn't look thrilled (Anne-Rose had still given up studying law for English, but of her own accord this time) at least this wedding wasn't a frantic last-minute affair to cover up for an inconvenient bun in the oven. Danny was a 'young man with prospects', not 'that lout who got our daughter pregnant'. As I understood it, even after Mom died and I was going through my problems with bullying and powers, Gram was still curt with Dad when they spoke.

"They really do." It was Gladys Knott, one row back, also turning her head to look. She seemed just as happy to be here as she had been at her own wedding. Next to her and Franklin was Zoe Barnes; Zoe had to keep an eye on little Anne in the seat next to her, but she was also clearly determined to enjoy the wedding to its fullest.

I'd spoken to Lisa about this. The Anne Barnes I'd known was only three years older than Emma, but this version was five already and Emma had yet to be born. According to Lisa, there were many other discontinuities between the history of this timeline and what had happened in my world. Fortunately, most were so minor as to be negligible. All of them, apparently, could be traced back to Ruth's emergence in nineteen sixty-one. Her individual influence over the world was minuscule, but more than thirty years of interacting with literally tens of thousands of people, starting from before Dad or Alan Barnes were even born, added up to a lot of tiny nudges. While the vast majority would've cancelled out, a few had manifestly propagated and spread onward.

In the grand scheme of things, it didn't really matter. My mission was unchanged from what it always had been. Capes still existed, Scion was still a menace, and I still had the threat of the Endbringers to deal with before I switched focus to him.

But for right now, I could sit and indulge myself by watching Danny and Anne-Rose get married. I can make sure one good thing happens in the world.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today …"


Andrea


Weddings were not exactly Andrea's favourite place to be. They were all about adult responsibility and growing up instead of just having fun with life. Other people's weddings were alright, she supposed, so long as she didn't actually have to do anything at them. Though she'd always thought having a bucket of popcorn to throw at the bride and groom would liven matters up considerably.

Not that Taylor had entertained the suggestion beyond a brief smile. She'd put her foot down, and Andrea had agreed to be on her best behaviour for the ceremony. Of course, the reception was different. It was just fine to get a little silly there (she was never not a little silly), and afterward she'd have Taylor back at her place, maybe a little drunk—Andrea definitely intended to be more than a little drunk—and then the party could really get started.

Even better, since she'd proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jim was attracted to women, she had that option too. Unfortunately, she knew Taylor well enough that even her most appealing puppy-dog eyes would not suffice to get the two of them into the same bed with Andrea at the same time. In Andrea's expert opinion, that lack of action was an absolute waste of potential, especially as she could tell that they at least liked each other.

She had it on good authority that her more risqué hobbies were not a good idea to practise at a wedding reception—well, there were kids in attendance, so she had to reluctantly agree—which meant she had to confine herself to just three of the more harmless ones. Drinking, flirting and dancing. Sometimes all at once. And if there was anything Andrea knew about, it was moving her body in ways that raised eyebrows and lowered inhibitions.

Jim wasn't dancing at all, but she could kind of understand that, too. Taylor had filled her in on some of what the pair of them had been doing across the nation, and Andrea could easily understand that criminal Masters and Strangers might have a grudge against one Captain Snow. So he was drinking mineral water while he watched Taylor's back and made sure his hand didn't stray more than a few inches from her purse, which she'd left on the table. Taylor wasn't a 'purse' sort of person and she hadn't opened it even once, which gave Andrea a rather good idea of what was inside.

Makeup was not high on that list.

At the moment, Taylor was dancing with Alan Barnes. Where her movements were precise and measured, his were on the flamboyant side. It kind of went with his personality, Andrea figured. She could totally relate; she was all about flamboyant as a way of life.

Danny had Anne-Rose as his partner on the dance-floor, and he still had the slightly shell-shocked look of wow, this is my wife about him. Andrea silently wished him luck with that; before she'd met Taylor, she'd never even considered tying herself down to one person. Since she'd met Taylor … well, it kind of sucked because with the tall brunette, she was actually kinda open to the idea now. Now if they'd only let gay people actually get married already. It was about the only good thing she'd heard about Taylor's future.

Of course, that would also require that Taylor leave the PRT, because there was no way in hell those closed-minded reactionary bastards would let one of their soldiers stay a soldier if they happened to get married to a (shock, horror) woman! And so Andrea had to leave that idea alone for the moment, because while she wasn't certain that Taylor was happy in the PRT, her lover was certainly busy as the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, plugging their holes for them. Once she was done with that … well, Andrea had always gotten the impression that the PRT was specifically a means to an end for Taylor, and nothing more. At some point, she would part ways with them (on her terms, not theirs, or Andrea didn't know Taylor) and then Taylor would be hers.

Well, as much as Taylor was anyone's, to be brutally honest. It wasn't like she'd stop working to save the world once she left the uniform behind … but maybe she could spend a little more time in Brockton Bay between missions? Andrea could live in hope, anyway.

In the meantime, she was going to do her darnedest to maintain the health and well-being of Taylor's financial empire. The enterprise was definitely in the black and firing well on all cylinders; their mercenary group was building up nicely and training well, and the high-rise she'd bought and paid for was almost ready to move into. In fact, she intended to show Taylor through it sometime in the next few days. Someone had to christen the brand-new queen-sized bed, after all.

With such pleasant thoughts in mind, Andrea got up from where she was sitting and approached Danny and Anne-Rose, where he was doing his best not to tread all over his new bride's feet and she was ensuring he didn't. Right on cue, the music changed to the next song and she tapped Danny on the shoulder. "Mind if I cut in?" she asked with a grin. "Pretty sure it's traditional for the bride to dance with other people on her wedding night."

"So long as dancing's all you've got in mind," he replied with a grin that took the sting out of his words. "Anne-Rose has told me how smooth you can be."

"I bet she hasn't told you all about it." She smirked as Anne-Rose blushed a delicate pink and made a discreet 'nope' gesture. Yeah, she still remembers.

"Uh huh. Just behave, or I'll tell Taylor on you." With that potent threat, Danny left them to it, strolling across to the refreshments table to acquire a cup of punch.

"Sweetie, you are incorrigible," murmured Anne-Rose. "And here I thought knowing Taylor would've given you a good role model to work with." She tilted her head toward the door. "I was just going to catch a breath of fresh air. Want to come with?"

"Sure," Andrea said at once, then grinned. "That's the thing about role models. You've actually got to want to live up to them. Me, I prefer to live life on my terms." She caught Taylor's eye and mouthed, going outside, getting a nod in return.

"So I see." Anne-Rose shook her head. "Same old Andrea. As wild and crazy as ever. You never change, do you?"

Andrea tilted her head at the mildly censorious tone of voice as she opened the door for Anne-Rose. "You seemed to enjoy being wild and crazy with me, back in the day."

"Yes," Anne-Rose said patiently, "but that was then and this is now. We're no longer freshmen. I'm married. You're … doing whatever it is that you do. Wild and crazy isn't really a feasible option for either one of us, not anymore." She stopped a few paces outside the door and drew deep breaths of the cool night air. "Oh, that's nice. It's starting to get a bit muggy in there."

"Speak for yourself," Andrea snarked. "I'm gonna be …" Her voice trailed off as she spotted the telltale glow of a cigarette inside a vehicle across the parking lot from them. "Hey, is that someone in that car over there?"


Sergeant James McMartin Kinsey, PRT


Jim sat and watched the revellers and sipped at his mineral water. It wasn't bad, actually; he made a mental note to find out what brand it was, and maybe stock up some in the car. It would help keep them hydrated on the long stretches between cities.

As the music changed, he watched Andrea go up and accost the bride and groom. If he hadn't already known they were good friends, their body language would've given him the hint. Danny Hebert left the dancefloor, and Andrea spoke briefly with Anne-Rose. He was still mildly intrigued that she and the Captain resembled each other so closely, but this wasn't something he had the right or the inclination to chase down.

At the same time, the Captain left off dancing with Barnes and went to the refreshment table, where she struck up a conversation with Danny as they acquired drinks. Barnes returned to his wife, who was currently taking care of their young child. Andrea and Anne-Rose strolled toward the exit; a moment later, the Captain gave him the high sign to shadow them.

Casually, Jim unsnapped the catch of the purse and reached into it. His hand closed over the comforting grip of the Captain's compact Glock, covered by the purse. He would rather have had his classic .44 hand-cannon, but the Captain had decided that open-carrying into the church and the reception might well cause anxiety in some of the guests, and she didn't want to ruin her friends' wedding.

Still, each of them had practised enough with the other's preferred weapon that it was familiar to his hand. As if getting up to stretch his legs, he stood up, letting the purse slide off his hand. The pistol went down out of sight alongside his leg, between him and the wall, so as not to spook anyone. He didn't know that there was anyone waiting outside to abduct the ladies—and Andrea had learned enough from him to give any casual mugger one hell of a horrible surprise—but he and the Captain had learned the hard way that the bad guys could be anywhere.

He headed for the door, aiming to reach it just after they passed outside and to keep them in view thereafter. As he got there, he heard a snatch of their conversation, then Andrea's tone changed. "Hey, is that someone in that car over there?"

That was a red flag, right there. Kinsey stepped out through the doors, weapon still down, finger still outside the trigger guard. "Ladies," he murmured. "You need to go back inside, right now. Andrea, I need the Captain."

Anne-Rose's eyes widened at his tone, but Andrea got it immediately. "Sure thing," she said, taking the brunette by the arm. "Come on, Anne-Rose. Let's do what the sergeant says."

They slipped back into the venue—a sports hall, if Kinsey understood things correctly—and closed the door behind them. If he knew Andrea—and he figured he did—she would do as he'd asked.

Without looking directly at where the cigarette glowed brightly once more in the car, Kinsey silently rated the smoker a negative one out of five for stakeout procedure. About the only more obvious thing he could've done would be to walk right in and sit down. Still, it wasn't Kinsey's job to correct the guy's technique; he much preferred to take advantage of it. Stepping back through the door, he closed it firmly behind him.

When he'd arrived on site, the first thing he'd done was check all exits to make sure nobody could sneak up on them. Now, it was time to see what the Captain wanted to do about the situation.


Taylor


Kinsey and I had briefly conferred just inside the doors, deliberately blocking them to discourage any other casual fresh-air seekers. We'd agreed that if the guy lurking out there had his sights on anyone, it had to be me. Whether he was stalking me to put a bullet in me or thank me for something I didn't know about, I had no idea. It was a sad commentary on my life to date that I could think of more people with reason to do the former than the latter.

Lisa had informed me the previous night that Robbie Gordon's trial had gone through, and he'd gotten an OTH as we'd figured. While he was likely to become a nuisance in the future, right now he was trying to convince Director Martins of the ATF to take him on in some capacity so they could plot my downfall together. I knew that Martins hated me with a white-hot fury—I'd personally caused the ATF to lose a considerable amount of face, and shot his direct predecessor—but he wasn't quite stupid enough to try to bypass the ruling from Robbie's court-martial. There was the possibility that he would figure out a way to pay Robbie off the books, but that would come later.

Right now, this wasn't Robbie in the car. Neither had I expected it to be, really. He was a short-sighted idiot in some ways but he knew the basics of following someone, and this wasn't it.

So we needed to find out who this was and why they were lurking outside the reception. Preferably before the rest of the people inside realised that something untoward was happening, and panicked. I knew Andrea wouldn't, and Gladys also seemed to have a notion that something was wrong by the way she was eyeing me from across the room, but that still left far too many others in the venue.

I gestured to Gladys and she left Franklin's side to come over to me. "What's up?" she asked bluntly.

"Someone outside in the parking lot," I explained concisely. "Sitting in a car, smoking. Chances are, they're waiting on a specific someone to come out. It's probably not a professional thing, but amateurs can still get lucky."

She didn't need me to unpack my meaning. We'd been through too much together before now. Neither did she hesitate. "What do you need me to do?"

I appreciated the sentiment, but I wasn't going to put her in the way of any more danger if I could possibly help it. "Kinsey and I are going to deal with it. If shit goes sideways, you and Andrea get everyone out the back way."

"Okay, then." She nodded sharply. "Give 'em hell for me."

I grinned at her, or at least showed my teeth. "It's what we do."


Kinsey


Jim eased out through the back door and ghosted through around the darkened perimeter to the front of the building. He'd paused for a few moments to let his eyes get used to the lack of light, and he made sure his focus didn't get drawn in by any one thing. In the dark, peripheral vision was better at spotting movement, and he checked out each shadow before putting it to his back.

Arriving at the corner of the parking lot, he checked to see if his target was still in place, and was rewarded by the tiny bright cherry of the cigarette tip. Unless this guy was a designated decoy, he was officially the worst stalker Jim had ever seen. Nobody else appeared to be loitering in the parking lot, and there were no idling vehicles nearby. It was amazing how far sound carried at night.

Car by car, he eased closer to the occupied vehicle. The Captain had taken back her pistol, but in its place he'd acquired the butt-end of a pool cue; long enough to get a good swing in, with a weighted end. Shooting at a moving target in the dark was a good way to miss altogether or hit one's allies, but very little argued successfully with inertia, a strong right arm, and a length of lead-weighed wood.

When he got to the blindspot of the target vehicle—a rental car, he noted, which suggested the man wasn't quite as much an amateur as it might seem—he crouched and eyeballed the interior to see if there was anyone else inside, then waited. The Captain, per their arranged strategy, was going to count down five minutes then walk outside alone. If she was the target, the man in the car would react then. And Jim would be right there to counter whatever he did.

The time ticked over, and the door opened. Out into the pool of light stepped the Captain, purse open, apparently fiddling with something inside it. Jim knew damn well what was there, and that she could get the pistol into action and start putting steel on target in well under a second.

He heard the exhalation and the muttered 'at last' from where he was. The cigarette butt, flaring brightly, sailed out through the open window, hit the asphalt of the parking lot, and lay there still glowing. Then the door opened and the man began to get out. Jim could see, from the car's interior light, that he wasn't holding anything in his hands.

This was the prime opportunity to move. Sitting in a car seat for any length of time caused the muscles and joints to stiffen up, especially in the cool of the evening. Moreover, the watcher was now focused on the Captain as he got out, to the exclusion of all else.

Jim took two long strides up behind his target. Holding the impromptu baton ready in case he had to start breaking bones, he said quietly, "Help you with something?"

With a strangled scream, the guy leaped into the air, spun around, lost his footing, and fell headlong on the grimy asphalt. "Ah, crap—where the heck—you scared me!" he yelped.

Keeping an eye on the guy, Jim raised his hand and gestured to the Captain, who started across the parking lot toward them. "What were you doing out here?" he asked, levelling the half-cue at the guy's face in a silent threat.

"Waiting—waiting for Captain Snow," the guy stammered. He had a Canadian accent; but then, many people did. The border wasn't all that far away.

"I already got that." Jim put a growl of I'm losing my patience here into his voice. "Why were you waiting for the Captain?"

"She asked me to come and see her when she was on leave," the guy said. "She invited me."

Such was the injured innocence in the man's voice that Jim was inclined to believe him. He looked the guy over again, still sprawled in the pool of light cast by the vehicle's interior light. On the skinny side, awkward, with a shock of blond hair, he looked slightly less threatening than Andrea on her best day.

"So what's your name?" he asked.

Just then, the Captain arrived. Looking down at the man on the ground, she sighed. "Let him up, Kinsey," she said. "His name's Andrew Richter. He's a friendly."


Taylor
Later
Andrea's Apartment


"Okay, let me get this straight," said Andrea. "This is the guy we went up to Newfoundland for you to see on that mysterious mission. The one you wouldn't tell us anything about."

"That's the one," I confirmed, rubbing my hair dry following the shower. I had nothing against the uniform as such, but it was nice to get out of it and into civvies once more.

"So what's his story?" she pressed. "What did you invite him down here for?"

"I'll tell you, soon. Promise." Tossing the towel onto the hamper, I made my way out into the living room, where Kinsey was sitting opposite Richter. "It's okay, I've got this," I said to Kinsey. "Go and freshen up, if you want."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, and stood up. "You think about what I told you," he said to Richter, then headed down the corridor in the direction of the bathroom.

"What he told you?" I asked Richter curiously as I took the seat Kinsey had been using.

The self-confessed computer nerd coloured slightly. He still looked ruffled from Kinsey's ambush, but I suspected that was his natural look. "He was giving me pointers on how not to be caught unawares like that again. I still can't believe how easily someone his size snuck up on me. It was like he just appeared out of thin air." His eyes narrowed. "Is he a parahuman?"

I chuckled and shook my head. "No, but he used to be a military cop. I happen to know that he's very good at his job."

"Yeah, no crap," he mumbled. "He scared the living heck out of me."

Andrea giggled. "You're not the only one he's done it to, I bet." She perched on my chair arm. "So, what's your deal?"

Richter glanced at me. "How much do they know?"

"Andrea knows basically everything," I assured him. "What you can tell me, you can tell her." Except any details about Christine Mather or her son. "Sergeant Kinsey isn't cleared on the matter we spoke about, at your house."

Andrea's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "I get to know something that Jim doesn't? Ooh, spill with the juicy deets."

Richter took a deep breath. "Well, Captain Snow, I've investigated you as deeply as I'm able, and I'm satisfied that you're on the level. I'm willing to accept your assistance in that matter."

"Wait a minute," Andrea said, looking and sounded more than a little affronted. "Who the hell gave you the right to investigate Taylor? What the hell do you think you're up to, bozo?"

I reached out and slid my arm around her waist, pulling her onto my lap. She giggled, snuggling up to me. "It's okay, Andrea. I said he could. It was necessary, so he could trust me to help him out." I tilted my head. "Well, trust me to get you to help him out."

"Me?" she asked, staring at me in surprise.

"Her?" echoed Richter, looking between me and Andrea uncertainly. "Are you sure?"

"Remember the friend I told you about?" I said. "This is her."

"Absolutely, I'm her friend all day long." Andrea turned to look at me. "But you're gonna have to give me more details about what you just volunteered me for. Just saying."

"Sure." I tilted my head toward the bathroom corridor, to indicate that Kinsey was potentially within earshot. "I'm just going to whisper it into your ear. Okay?"

"Oooo," she said, in a blatant attempt to sound mysterious. "Seeecrets."

"Uh huh. Now, hold still." I lowered my voice and put my lips next to her ear.


Andrew Richter


He could tell the moment Captain Snow said the magic words 'artificial intelligence' because Andrea's eyes popped wide open and she stared at him. "What, really?" she squeaked.

"Absolutely," he confirmed. "It's what I do."

"That's so cool!" she enthused. "So where do I fit in?"

Again, Captain Snow whispered in the redhead's ear. Andrea nodded several times during the apparent exposition, then turned her attention to Andrew. Even before she spoke, he knew what she was going to say.

"I am so totally in," she said. Mentally, he paid out on the bet he'd made with himself. "I mean, I've never helped raise a kid before but hey, first time for everything. So, what do I gotta do?"

"Well, for a start, we're going to need to install a high-capacity secure data link from Deer Lake to Brockton Bay," Andrew began, his mind taking apart the problem into its component parts. "I've got a little money put aside I can use for that, but …"

Andrea smirked. "Got you covered," she said smugly. "What else?"

For the first time, Andrew began to feel a ray of hope. With access to whatever assistance Andrea and Captain Snow could give him, maybe he could ensure that Dragon was socialised without having to burden her down with crippling restrictions.

Well, not so many, anyway.


Taylor
The Next Day


"So where are we going this time?" I asked, as Andrea drove through Brockton Bay's morning traffic. She handled the car like she did everything else, with cheerful aplomb and a penchant for treating rules as mere suggestions.

Kinsey had wanted to come along, but Andrea had made it clear this was a girls-only outing. Accordingly, I'd pointed out that one, I was armed; two, I had Andrea with me; and three, Andrew Richter was in dire need of a guiding tutorial on how to not hurt oneself when handling firearms. Richter had been less than thrilled by my throwing him to the wolves but I figured it would do him the world of good.

"Not gonna tell you," she said with a cheeky sideways grin. "Serves you right for springing that on me with Andy. I get to talk with a real artificial intelligence? That's amazing. And you didn't tell me anything about it, ahead of time."

"I didn't know when he was going to contact me," I pointed out reasonably enough. "He had to do a deep-dive on me and make sure he could trust me. It could've taken months or it could've taken years." Even with Lisa to consult, any actions I took in the meantime could change matters in a way that she couldn't foresee.

"Yeah, yeah, excuses, excuses." She blew a raspberry at me, then cut off a BMW, ducking through the lights with the sound of an angry car horn fading into the distance behind us. "Yeah, yeah, same to you, buddy."

"So you're okay with chatting to Dragon and getting to know her?" I asked. Andrea had already agreed to it, but I wanted to make sure she wasn't just saying so because of me.

"Well, duh," she said. "Real. Artificial. Intelligence. I might not be a total nerd, but I've dated them, and even I can see the appeal." She smirked at me. "Besides, it's not often I get the chance to corrupt a pure and untarnished mind."

"Oh, god," I muttered. "Just remember, Dragon will basically be a child, learning from you. Learning about humanity, and how to be human. It's a huge responsibility."

"And I get that." Her tone was serious now. "If this is a part of your future that you need to fix, then I can be as responsible as I need to be. Ahh, here we are."

Pressing a button on the dash, she swung the car down a ramp into what seemed to be an underground parking garage of some sort. A private one, from the looks of the heavy grille that was even now rattling upward out of our way. Andrea slowed just long enough to let the barrier rise far enough for the car to go under, then drove on through. We bumped over what I belatedly recognised as tyre shredders—fortunately undeployed—and then Andrea wheeled the car into a parking space emblazoned with "CEO" painted boldly on it.

I got out of the car, looking around the otherwise-empty parking garage with interest. "Where are we?"

"Under our building, duh," she said, and set off toward a set of elevator doors. "It's finished. The bulk of the furniture shows up Monday, and then I move in."

I raised my eyebrows as I caught up with her. "So, leaving the old apartment behind, huh?" That was a pity. I had fond memories of the place.

"Oh, I'll be keeping it on for appearances, but I just won't be living there most days." She tapped the 'up' button, and the elevator doors opened silently.

We stepped inside and I blinked, somewhat impressed. I was pretty sure it wasn't Tinkertech, but it still looked very impressive, all chrome and black reflective glass. The floor display and control panel both consisted of glowing red numbers behind the glass.

"To use the elevator, you need a card like this one," Andrea said, pulling out a featureless black card from her purse.

When she tapped the display with it, the numbers turned green. In addition, several numbers at the top that had previously not shown up at all began to glow. At the very top, the word 'Penthouse' sprawled across the display. Reaching up, she tapped the word with her finger.

"Let me guess," I said as the elevator started upward. "Your card is the only one that makes those numbers and the penthouse show up at all?"

"Got it in one." She pulled an identical card out and handed it to me. "And now yours does, too. Don't lose that. They're expensive."

"Hm. Okay." I stowed it away in my card wallet, already considering where I would stash it once I rejoined PRT regular operations.

We travelled upward for quite a ways. A travelling circle flicked from one number to the next, impressively quickly for mundane tech. Then the elevator slowed to a halt, the travelling circle now a rectangular frame around 'Penthouse'. The doors opened again, absolutely silently. Andrea led the way out, almost jiggling with repressed excitement.

We were in a small foyer; featuring a couple of chairs, a painting on the wall, an intercom panel and a card-reader beside the single door out. A security camera enclosed in an impressively sturdy cage observed both the elevator doors and the exit door. I tilted my head toward it and raised my eyebrows.

Divining my question, Andrea nodded and giggled. "That's for show. It actually draws a video feed, but the cameras we rely on are a lot smaller and harder to spot."

"Nice," I murmured. For my money, redundant security was the best type, especially when the perpetrators didn't know the extra layer even existed.

Andrea swiped the card reader. We stepped out into the main living area of the penthouse, and my jaw slowly dropped. I had seen luxury before, but I'd never lived in it. Now, it seemed, I had my chance.

As Andrea had noted, the majority of the furniture was still on the way, but it was easy to tell what was to go where. We walked through a living room that I could not swear was smaller than the house I'd grown up in, with a gorgeously deep pile carpet from one side to the other. One wall was basically taken up with the largest flatscreen TV I'd ever seen; looking more closely, I could tell that it was a series of smaller screens, but it was still impressive as hell.

"Always wanted one of those," Andrea noted, indicating the wall TV. "Got speakers to match, too. This room takes the concept of surround sound, beats it up, and steals its lunch money."

Personally, I thought she might have been going a little over the top with the size of the entertainment setup, but it was her job to handle the money and my job to trust her to handle the money. If we could afford this and she enjoyed it, then I didn't have a problem. "So far so good," I said, looking around the room. It was spacious and airy with large windows, and I could see the appeal. "What else you got?"

"Well, the kitchen is through here, laundry and bathroom here, and the bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms are up these stairs." Almost dragging me by the hand, she led me up a broad quarter-spiral staircase that let out onto an equally broad corridor, leading off into another section of the building.

"Wait," I said. "Bedrooms and ensuites, plural?" Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I heard a chuckle. Lisa, what have you been up to?

"Well, yeah," Andrea said, still tugging me along. "When I was discussing the building with Lisa, she said to make sure I built in at least half a dozen extra bedrooms with attached bathrooms, so I made it eight. She wouldn't say why. I thought you knew about it."

"No. I didn't. I had no idea of any of this." But ideas that I'd been trying to work out how to prepare for, concepts gradually unfurling in the back of my mind, suddenly burst into brilliant flower. I smiled. "Though I know who they're for."

"Oh, good, so long as someone does." Andrea flung open the double doors at the end of the corridor. Beyond was a bedroom, but what a bedroom. The bed looked about the same size as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, French windows let out onto a balcony with a gorgeous view of the Boardwalk and the ocean beyond, and underfoot there was more of that luxurious carpet. Walk-in closets adorned two walls, and an open door led through to an impressive-looking ensuite.

I paused, eyeing the bed suspiciously. Of all the furniture that was going into this penthouse apartment, she'd arranged for this one thing to be delivered ahead of my visit? And made up with sheets, pillows and a coverlet? "Andrea …"

"What?" she looked around innocently, her shoes kicked off so she could dig her toes into the carpet. "C'mon, you gotta try this. It's a whole new level."

With a sigh, I did as she said. And she was right; it felt marvellous on my bare feet. I walked around the bedroom for a minute or so, clenching my toes then relaxing them again. When I looked back at Andrea, she was sitting demurely on the bed.

I sighed. "Did you honestly bring me across town and up into what is by far the most extravagantly luxurious place I've been in since the White House, just to drag me into bed?"

"Drag, no," she said with a giggle. "Invite, yes." She held out her hand to me. "Trust me, this mattress is amazing."

I hmphed. "I will sit on the bed. No hanky-panky."

Butter wouldn't have melted in her mouth. "Not a hanky or a panky in sight, I promise."

I sat on the bed. She'd been right; I'd never experienced a more comfortable mattress. Slowly, I lay back, feeling it cradle my body. It might not have been quite like drifting on a cloud, but it came close.

"Roll over," she ordered me. "I can see your stress knots from here."

"It's been a long week," I offered without bothering to elaborate. And it had been; a week since Chicago. Since I'd done what I had to do. Slowly, I rolled over onto my stomach.

Andrea knelt next to me and started massaging my back, her practised hands finding the spots where they would have the best effect. "Wow," she murmured. "I knew I should've gotten to you earlier."

"Couldn't be helped." On my first night back, I'd fallen into bed and slept like the dead. The next night, following the wedding reception, Andrea had been giggly and playful but the alcohol had caught up with her and she'd fallen asleep in my arms after doing not much more than fool around for awhile. I would've been happy either way; just holding her was good enough for me.

"Well, now it can be. You're tense as a board. What've you been doing?"

I shook my head, rolling it from side to side on my crossed arms. "You know I can't talk about it, sorry."

"Yeah, well, I can't do much about it with your top and bra on, either," she retorted. "Come on, you know the drill."

With a put-upon sigh, I rolled over and sat up, and started undoing buttons. "Just so we're clear, this is only for a massage?"

"Absolutely."


Some Time Later


I stretched extravagantly and cuddled up to Andrea, spoon-fashion. "Just a massage, my ass," I muttered, but I was smiling as I nuzzled into her hair. I was more relaxed than I had been in months.

She wriggled around so she could kiss me. "Didn't hear you saying no."

We both knew my complaints were for form's sake only. I had needed what she could do for me more than I'd realised. It wouldn't rid me of my demons—I doubted anything had that power for me, now—but it had certainly served to quiet them for awhile.

"I have to admit, this is very nice," I admitted, lounging back on the luxurious sheets and looking around at the décor of the bedroom. "Coming home to this will be well worth it."

"That's the whole idea." She slid off the bed and strolled out onto the balcony, as unselfconscious as ever despite the fact that she wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. Of course, we were so high up, anyone wanting to catch us flashing the whole city would've needed a good-sized telescope. Not that she would've cared, even then. Knowing her, she would've posed.

I stepped into my panties, mostly as a figleaf to my own modesty, and followed her out. The roughened marble tiles were warm underfoot. "So, about those other bedrooms."

"Yes …?" She drew the question out, leaning back against the balcony rail with her eyes closed, face tilted back to catch the sun. She was so much in the moment that my heart ached. I wasn't attracted to the female form the way I was to guys—and even that was hit and miss—but right then, I loved her so much that I wanted to gather her up and take her back to bed.

Focus, Taylor.

"So, you know how you said about Dragon that you'd never tried raising a kid before, but there was a first time for everything?" I stepped in next to her and put my arm around her waist.

One eye opened and gazed up at me suspiciously. "Are you saying you want to adopt kids? Because it sounds to me like you want to adopt kids."

"Very specific kids," I amended. "Kids I knew, back in the day. Kids who otherwise would have an absolute shit of a time."

She snorted. "Please tell me you don't want me to adopt your younger self, once you're born."

We both knew that wasn't happening. "Nope. Danny and Anne-Rose are good people. I had a great childhood. It was my teen years that sucked, especially after Mom died in a car accident." I shook my head. "Getting off topic. The first kid we need to adopt will be born in early January. His parents won't want to give him up, but they're tight on cash so they have no choice. Unfortunately, his true parentage will come out so nobody will want to be near him."

"True parentage?" Now she had both eyes open. "What are they so worried about that you don't think is a problem?"

I looked her in the eyes and kept my voice serious. "He's the last son of Heartbreaker. People attach far too much of a stigma to things like that. Yes, he's a second gen cape. Yes, he's likely to trigger more easily than a first gen. But by the time he does, you'll be his mother in all but DNA. And I want him to have a good life."

Twelve years into the parahuman phenomenon, there were no second generation capes as yet; accordingly, the general public was unaware of their increased likelihood of triggering. Andrea knew because I'd told her. She nodded firmly, accepting the information. "So, what's his name?"

I smiled. With that question, she'd accepted the implicit request. Flighty she might be, but she never broke a promise. "Heartbreaker would've named him Jean-Paul, but when I met him he was calling himself Alec."


End of Part 7-2