Confrontation II: The Reckoning


Part Eight: All In


[A/N 1: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: This was going to be the last chapter, but it just blew out of control. So there'll be another one after this. Following that will be four epilogues. Enjoy.]


Grue


Brian opened his eyes, staring at the ceiling in the darkness. Slowly, he rolled his head sideways on the pillow until he could read the numbers on his alarm clock. 01:27.

God damn it, he groused mentally. Ever since he'd read the text from Taylor—Buzz—he hadn't been able to concentrate. Hadn't been able to stay asleep. It had stuck with him, right alongside the memory of Sophia's face when she realised it was him she'd been trying to kill. Had it been horror, or disgust?

If she'd stayed … but she hadn't stayed. She'd run, and Taylor had run right after her. This had given him the chance to get away which he was grateful for, but he knew he'd be more grateful if he knew what was going on inside Shadow Stalker's head.

No, he decided. Shadow Stalker's a bitch. I want to know what's going on inside Sophia's head. She's the sane one.

It didn't even seem odd to him to be thinking about someone as two different people, defined by whether they were wearing a mask at the time or not. The same went for Taylor, now that he came to think about it. Out of costume, she was friendly and reserved with a dry sense of humour. In costume she was tactically alert, extremely difficult to fight even inside his darkness, and absolutely relentless.

Even if Taylor's being genuine, how do I know Shadow Stalker won't suddenly snap again and try to kill me? God, what if she goes after Aisha? Did I ever give her my address? Does she have Aisha's number?

Fumbling for his phone, he squinted in the dark as he tapped out a text to his sister. If Sophia or Taylor contact you, don't respond. Call me instead.

He'd done all he could for the moment. Shutting down the phone, he closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep. The turmoil in his mind, aided and abetted by the dull throb of the bruising on his throat, ensured that it would be a long time coming.


Squealer


The wrench slipped and Sherrel skinned her knuckles. She cursed, but it was more out of habit than from the pain. Besides, the tiny sting was nothing next to the great aching void in her chest that came from losing the one man she'd ever loved. Adam Mustain might have been a lowlife druggie supervillain, but he'd been her lowlife druggie supervillain.

Again, the image played out in her mind. Victor had been aiming a rifle right at her head, through the (not overly bulletproof) windshield of her current ride, and Adam had popped up with a length of pipe over his shoulder like a missile launcher. When the piece of rebar whipped out of it and harpooned Victor through the goddamn shoulder, she'd screamed in exhilaration. The fucking Empire had been sneering at the Merchants for way too long, and to see one of them go down in a bleeding heap was amazing.

But then everything went wrong. He'd grabbed up another piece of rebar and got ready to drop it in the back end of his little homemade railgun (she could make one that was ten times as good, but it would take her hours) with the blue-glowing end pointed at Kaiser. She figured—as he probably did too—that even if the bar didn't punch through the Nazi asshole's armour, it'd sure as hell send him ass over teakettle.

Except that Kaiser shot first. Adam's wild cackle had stuttered off into a gurgle of blood as spikes erupted from the street all around him and pin-cushioned his body from a dozen different angles. He couldn't even fall down, held up as he was. The makeshift launcher had fallen from his shoulder and slid down the spikes to the street, where she could see that the blue glow had faded.

She'd gone a little crazy then. Powering her ride into high gear and engaging the afterburners (because who doesn't want jet engines on a tank?) she smashed aside half a dozen cars in a definitive attempt to run the leader of the Empire down and splatter him across the sidewalk. She would've succeeded too, but he'd put down some spikes that guided her one way while he went the other. At some point Aegis went under her tracks, but all she wanted was Kaiser's broken, bleeding body on the ground in front of her. So she could drive over him again, then back up a few times.

The motherfucker needed to die, was what she was getting at.

In fact, all of the Empire needed to die.

And while she was making a list of assholes who would look a lot better in a pine box (or smeared all over the asphalt), the Protectorate and the PRT belonged on that list as well.

"Fuck it," she said out loud, fitting the wrench on the nut once more. "Let's just kill everyone in fucking Brockton Bay for you, Skids." She was going to be leaving the city in her rearview sooner rather than later, but before she did that, she was going to show the whole fucking city why they shouldn't have messed with her. And why they shouldn't have killed her Skidsy.

Muttering to herself, she levered the plating off and let it fall to the floor with a clang. She needed to upgrade all over, if she was going to have a chance of fucking up everyone in Brockton Bay who'd had even the slightest connection to Skidmark's death. More guns, bigger guns, more firepower. Also, reactive armour so if any asshole tried to rip open the tank to get to her, they'd get a faceful of shrapnel. Fortunately, the basic chassis was intact, but the outer hull had taken a beating before she got far enough away to engage the cloaking and break contact altogether.

"Anti-sniper point defence," she decided. "Fuck Victor and the fucking horse he rode in on." She'd be reducing her view to a narrow slit to discourage snipers, but she also wanted to put little guns all over that would pick the fuckers off before they could pull any tricky shit. Just in case.

A niggling doubt in the back of her mind told her that she was unlikely to be able to build shit with enough firepower, but she shoved it aside ruthlessly. She would do what she had to do.


Armsmaster


Colin frowned as he pulled a device off his belt, made a few adjustments, and set it to scan the area. This particular section of the Trainyards had seen some sort of action very recently, or the damaged train cars and the melted switch lever were lying to him. He just didn't know who would've been out here, or who they would've been fighting. Nobody had actually reported the fight, but sensors on the Protectorate headquarters had picked up one particular detonation from all the way out in the bay.

His frown deepened. The screen of the reader was showing half a dozen types of exotic energy, only one or two of which he could put a name to. It was easy to find the nexus point, but adapting his halberd as an antenna and prodding the area from six feet away achieved nothing significant.

"What happened here?" he mused, putting the halberd away and starting another sweep of the area.

"I'm not certain, but it's definitely making the hair on the back of my neck stand up." While Miss Militia was capable of cracking jokes, on this occasion her voice was entirely devoid of anything resembling humour. She cradled a rifle large enough to put a respectable hole in a charging rhino as she kept an eye on their surroundings.

Colin had been feeling the odd prickle at the back of his neck as well, but he kept silent about that. Changing settings on the scanner again, he swept it over the area, and paused. Flicking a switch on the side of the device, he bathed the area in light. "Does that look like wheel-tracks to you?" he asked.

After doing one more all-round sweep of their surroundings, Miss Militia looked down at the pool of light. After a moment, she nodded doubtfully. "Something as wide as a car, sure. It might even have hit that train car." She pointed across at what looked like relatively recent impact damage.

"Except that it's no longer here," Colin pointed out. "The wheel-tracks start and stop there. But what else would create furrows in the gravel like that?"

"Wait. Shine the light over here." Miss Militia moved alongside the purported wheel-tracks toward a small, dried-out tuft of grass that had somehow survived the night's events. "There's something right there." She pointed her rifle barrel, adding the undermount flashlight beam to Colin's illumination and picking out the gleam of metal.

"What is that?" Colin put the scanner away and unshipped his halberd once more. Moving up alongside Miss Militia, he used the grapple function to reach into the grass and lay hold of what lurked within. In the event, it turned out to be …

"A busted rear-vision mirror," Miss Militia said in tones of mild disappointment. "Looks like it was torn from whatever it came off with Brute strength. Look how that metal's twisted and compressed."

"Well, now we know there was a motor vehicle of some kind here," Colin said. "This mirror almost certainly came off it. The trouble is, we don't know all the important information."

"Who was driving it, where it came from, what happened while it was here, and where it went to," Miss Militia summarised. "You're thinking a teleporter?"

"I'm thinking a Tinker with a teleporter," Colin amended the concept. "If his accuracy is less than perfect, driving through a portal into the Trainyards by accident and ramming a train car isn't outside the realms of possibility."

"And the other stuff?" Miss Militia gestured at the still-hot melted lever.

Colin had been thinking about that. "If there was an energy imbalance, the arrival or the departure might have caused that. And if the teleport is a field around the car and it fluctuated …"

"Say, because the vehicle rammed into a solid obstacle …" Miss Militia was clearly on the same page.

"Then the mirror could've been left behind when it teleported out." Colin nodded. The theory fit all the evidence, even down to the stressed metal at the severance point. It looked as though it had been squeezed like taffy then pinched off altogether. Superficially, it could've fitted Miss Militia's initial Brute theory, but teleportation was looking more and more likely all the time.

"So, has anyone heard from Leet since the fight?" asked Miss Militia, seemingly at random.

Colin shook his head, not because he didn't think Leet capable of this, but in negation to the question. "Nothing. They might as well have dropped off the face of the earth. And if it was Leet who did this, that might not be a figure of speech."

Miss Militia nodded slowly. They both knew of the propensity of Leet's devices to fail in spectacular but—so far—non-lethal ways. A Tinkertech portal with an imprecise aiming mechanism could easily drop its user into a fatal situation even without blowing up in his face. "Well, all we can do is keep an eye out."

"That's usually the way, isn't it?" Turning, Colin led the way back to where they had left their motorbikes. One more thing to write a report about. It had been a long night, and he hadn't thought to bring along his fingerprint kit. Something like that could wait until morning, right?


Bakuda


Alice had been walking for what felt like hours, which hadn't improved her temper in any way. Still, she was back from that hellhole, in the land of McDonalds and hot showers and fresh underwear and no fucking dinosaurs, so there was that. Which meant that she was free to rebuild her shit and go after the Undersiders and the Wards and any other asshole who got in her way. Having to dodge overly-toothy feathered monsters, not to mention things that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Bitch's dogs at their most monstrous, was not her idea of a relaxing vacation away.

Of course, her next big problem was that she'd used up basically everything she had in the way of resources to build the portal-bomb that had delivered her back to Brockton Bay. It had been the kludgiest of kludges, and she'd estimated a twenty percent chance that it would either spread her all over half a mile of terrain or send her to a random alternate world, but she'd been rapidly running out of resources anyway. As it was, the Jeep had made the run on an empty radiator, given that she'd had to drain it dry and boil off the antifreeze for drinking water.

Which wouldn't have been quite as much of a problem if she'd had access to one of her workshops. But each one she'd gone to had either been emptied of basically everything useful or had been sealed up tight by the PRT. So now she was reduced to slinking through the city in search of something, anything, she could use as an explosive device. Even a 7-11 would be perfect; sugar, flour, drain cleaner, refined chemicals of all sorts. Also, food. She'd have to shoplift the stuff, given that her coins and paper money had gone toward building the go-home bomb (circuitry and insulation, respectively) but a little petty theft had never bothered her in the slightest.

And then she smelt it. The acrid odour of one piece of metal being welded to another. Once scented, never forgotten. And for the vast majority of Tinkers, the very breath of life. Turning her head, she breathed deeply and attempted to isolate it. Where was it coming from? This was not an area of town she'd expect to find a garage open at this time of night.

Like a predatory cat, she stalked through the night, literally tracking her prey by scent. It grew stronger as she neared her goal, until she pushed open an ill-secured door and entered … heaven. Just for a moment, her brain manufactured the sound of a chorus of angels as she beheld a fully-stocked workshop; tools galore, and storage drums holding all kinds of volatile liquids.

With this shit, I could blow up the city. And that's even without Tinkertech.

Across the other side of the workshop, she heard the crackling sound of a welding seam being laid down as harsh violet light played across the ceiling, then the tap-tap of the welding operator knocking away the slag to check on the bead. While she hadn't been into building much in the way of big shit (her bombs tended to be on the small side), she was fully cognizant of the procedure.

There was a grunt of approval as she began to sneak closer. Whoever this was had to be wearing either a set of goggles or a full mask, which meant their peripheral vision would be shit right now. Without conscious thought into the matter, her right hand snaked out and took up a hefty wrench. All she had to do was get close enough, and the workshop would become hers.

The welding began again as she sneaked around the end of the vehicle taking up a large section of the workshop. She didn't care who they were or what they were building; she just wanted their stuff. Her hand clenched around the handle of the wrench in anticipation. Brockton Bay is going to regret fucking me over. Starting with whoever the fuck this is.

Shielding her eyes from the glare with one arm, she eased closer. Ten more steps. Nine. Taking care not to kick loose tools or step on anything that might roll under her foot. Eight. Seven. The fumes from the welding stung her nose and throat, making her wish she hadn't had to take apart the gas mask for components to use in the go-home bomb. Six. Five. She raised the wrench in anticipation. Four. Three. Two.

The welding arc cut out again, and the woman in the welding mask raised the darkened glass visor to observe her work. "I'll get the assholes for you, Skidsy," she said out loud, startling Alice, who thought for a moment she'd been spotted. "I'll kill every last one of the motherfuckers. Make Brockton Bay into a fucking crater."

As the woman laid down the electrode clamp holding the stick and took up a small hammer, Alice paused. If she was connecting the clues right, this was Squealer, a Tinker in her own right.

A pissed-off one. One who wanted to fuck up Brockton Bay almost as badly as Alice herself did.

Slowly, Alice lowered the wrench.

She could use talent like this.


Squealer


When the person cleared their throat from just behind her, Sherrel nearly pissed herself. But she came around fast with the chipping hammer held up in a threatening position, ready to bury the sharp point in the skull of anyone who came too close. After a few seconds of panic, she realised that there was just one person; a woman with Asian features and bright blue eyes, leaning back against a tool cabinet with her arms folded, a heavy wrench dangling from one hand.

"What the fuck?" squawked Sherrel, fully aware that she'd been caught napping by the intruder. If the bitch had wanted to, she could've caved in Sherrel's skull easily with that wrench. Which meant she'd chosen not to. "Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my fuckin' workshop?"

"Hey, take a chill pill," advised the taller woman. Her eyes bored into Sherrel's. "I'm not here to hurt you."

In her chosen line of work, Sherrel had associated with habitual liars more often than with the other type. After all, addicts would lie to themselves just as frequently as to others, if not more so. And there was literally no lie they would not tell to get themselves that next fix of the good stuff. So she was well-acquainted with the mind of the liar, having been down that road many times before herself.

The woman opposite her was lying in one way but not in another. If Sherrel had to guess, the intruder had come in here to cave Sherrel's head in and rob the place blind, but for some reason had changed her mind. "Yeah?" Sherrel said challengingly. "What are you here for, then?"

With a smile, the woman stepped forward and held her hand out. "Alice Himawara, but you can call me Bakuda. And I'm here to fuck up every last cape in Brockton Bay."

"What, really?" Sherrel stared at the woman. The build was right for Bakuda, and the hair too. There was no way she could tell from the voice or even the looks; the gas mask the bomb Tinker usually wore had utterly concealed every aspect of her facial features and tone of voice. "What'd they ever do to you? An' where you been, anyway? I thought you left town after Lung and Oni Lee got caught."

Apparently reminded of something that pissed her off greatly, Bakuda gritted her teeth. "They fucked with the ABB, and they fucked with me. I should've won, but instead I got sent to someplace where I had to watch my driver get eaten by something with far too many teeth. Nearly got me too, but I had a couple of bombs in reserve. Now I'm back, and I'm going to fuck them all up."

Now Sherrel could place what unsettled her about the woman. She was fuckin' nuts. Either she'd been that way all along, or the little side trip she'd just referred to had driven her around the twist. It was obvious in the voice and the eyes, once Sherrel knew what to look for. There went someone whose grasp on reality was tenuous at best, and who'd casually stab someone to death over the last chocolate bar in the fridge.

Still, her bombs could absolutely provide the firepower that Sherrel had been missing up until now. And if Bakuda wanted to blow shit up, who was Sherrel to argue?

"Sounds good to me." Sherrel hooked her thumb toward the door to the back room. "Food in the fridge. Hot shower. Check the dresser for clothing; most of my stuff should fit you. Once you're sorted out, we can talk."

The wrench clanged on the floor and the door was already closing behind Bakuda before Sherrel had finished speaking. She shook her head and turned back to her welding. She's nuts, sure. But she's my kind of nuts.

Let's fuckin' do this.


The Next Day
Taylor


There was a gentle onshore breeze, and seabirds soared and squawked over the Boardwalk. It seemed downright peaceful; I could almost imagine that yesterday's cape brawl hadn't even taken place, and people hadn't died or been badly injured. But it had, and they had. Which was why Dennis was on patrol with me and Sophia; not to keep us from killing each other, but to provide safety in numbers.

Paradoxically, our job wasn't to be a show of force; we were there to pretend that everything was okay, and that things were back to normal. Or whatever passed for normal in Brockton Bay, that is. Unfortunately, having fewer criminal capes on the scene was not necessarily a good thing. With Lung and Oni Lee in PRT holding cells and Bakuda (hopefully permanently) out of the picture, that left a power vacuum in a significant area of the city, which Kaiser wanted to claim for the Empire Eighty-Eight.

As yesterday had proven, he couldn't just walk in and take it without facing determined opposition. But that opposition had not come without a price. Skidmark was dead, Mush was in custody and Squealer was on the run. More than a few of Protectorate capes had been messed up to one degree or another. The PRT could call on Panacea (and had in the past) but the rumour I'd heard was that she hadn't moved from Glory Girl's side since her sister had been injured, not even to heal Brandish. That is, she hadn't healed her own mother.

"Earth Bet to Buzz. Come in, Buzz." Dennis' voice was joking. "What's going on in the world of bugs?"

It only took me a split second to tap into the insects (and other things) I had patrolling invisibly around us. Swarms of crabs paralleled our motion offshore, and I even had earthworms under our feet 'listening' for odd vibrations through the earth with their whole bodies. Given yesterday's shit-show, I wasn't leaving anything to chance.

"It's clear all the way around," I reported. My range was all the way out to four blocks at the moment, a distinct improvement on the usual, though I wasn't totally certain as to why. "Oh, wait, no. There's a mugging. Block and a half that way." I pointed, just as a swarm of wasps swooped in at the perpetrator. "Well, there was." After the wasps were done with him, the spiders were ready to move in and web him in place.

"Mugging? Shit." Sophia's voice expressed the disappointment that her mask was so good at hiding. "He'll be long gone before we get there."

I shook my head and smirked under my own mask. "Nope. He won't. I'm just asking the victim if he can hang about until we get there. One perp. May as well get the cops to pick him up, yeah?"

"Hah!" The laugh was jerked out of her, and she offered a low-five which I returned. "That's what I love about working with you, Buzz. You own the goddamn battlefield."

Dennis shook his head, but his tone was amused when he spoke. "Everyone else would be terrified or freaked out, but you enjoy this crap. I'm not surprised you two work together so well. You're both as crazy as the other."

Sophia turned her head as if to glance at me, and I nodded slightly. We both moved up until we were right behind him; me at his left shoulder and Sophia at his right. "One of us," we chorused in the creepiest voices we could manage. "One of us." I added buzzing tones from my bugs as a fake echo.

"You know how I said you should freak people out? You just succeeded with me." Dennis turned his head to survey us both. I got the impression he was pretending to glare at us from behind his opaque faceplate. "Just save it for the actual villains, okay?"

"You're the boss," I said in the most innocent tone I could manage. I was pretty sure I hadn't succeeded in convincing him, and Sophia snorted in amusement, so she was probably a wash as well. Then again, I hadn't been actually trying to fool him, just get it on record that I agreed he was in charge. Which he would be, right up until I needed to do something he didn't agree with.

"And don't you forget it," he replied, his tone confirming my supposition. Then he cleared his throat and put his hand to the side of his helmet in the standard signal for 'using the radio'. "Ah, Console, this is Clockblocker, over."

As he was retransmitting to us so that we were all in the loop, I heard Browbeat's reply. "Clockblocker from Console, go ahead, over."

Idly, I wondered how many times people had stumbled over our team leader's name when talking on the radio in the past. Part of me suspected it was why he'd called himself that.

"Yeah, Console, we have an attempted mugging at …" He trailed off questioningly.

"Broad Street, halfway between Lamont and Packard," I supplied helpfully.

Dennis repeated my instructions. "If you could notify the police to swing by and pick up the perp, that would be nice, over."

"Understood." I heard typing in the background as Browbeat spoke. There was a pause. "Uh, I show you as still on the Boardwalk, about a block away from the location you're talking about. Are you sure you've got it right? Over."

"Absolutely." Even though I couldn't see Dennis' face, the grin was audible in his voice. "Our very own Buzz was just demonstrating how a Master handles matters. We'll be there in a couple of minutes, over."

"I, uh, copy that, Clockblocker." Browbeat sounded resigned. "I'm contacting the police now. Oh, and while I have you on the line, just for general information, two men identifying as Uber and Leet presented at Brockton Bay General about half an hour ago, suffering gunshot wounds. Uber is stable, but there's some doubt as to whether Leet will pull through. There was verbal identification of Empire Eighty-Eight rank and file as the ones who attacked them. Over."

"Clockblocker copies. Out." Dennis closed the channel then glanced at the both of us. "You heard that?"

"Yeah. Damn." Sophia sounded actually shaken. "Those two are assholes and fuckwits, but that's over the top even for me."

"I know, right?" I shook my head. "They might be the Greg Veder of capes, but that doesn't mean we actually want them dead."

"I don't recognise that reference," Dennis said. "Should I?"

"Nah," Sophia assured him. "Just someone me and Buzz know. She's not wrong, though. Being a clueless moron, even if you're a villain, doesn't automatically mean someone's justified in kicking your door in and shooting you."

"And the scary bit is, you actually had to say that part out loud," Dennis agreed. "I think we're all in agreement that Kaiser sent his goons to make sure they didn't join in on the other side, yeah?"

"Which means he's desperate." I didn't like what I was saying, but I said it anyway. "He's committed to winning any way he can, which means he's tossing the standard norms out the window. Just between me and you guys, I think it's gonna get worse before it gets better."

Dennis sighed. "You're not wrong, but I wish you hadn't said it like that."

"That makes three of us," agreed Sophia.


Kaiser


Max Anders considered his options.

Yesterday had been a mixed success. Only one cape had died; Skidmark had overstepped and paid the penalty. His death, Max decided, should serve the purpose of passing on a message. Specifically, 'cross the Empire at your peril'.

No heroes had been killed, which was perhaps a good thing. Nobody wanted reinforcements flooding in from other cities. Or worse, the Triumvirate coming to town. It was mainly for that reason that he had given orders to go easy on the Wards; nothing would enrage the cape community faster than seeing the bodies of costumed kids on the news. A broken arm was one thing, but a broken neck was quite another.

In the absence of Othala, the bullet wound in Cricket's calf muscle had been given standard first aid. It was a through-and-through that had missed all the major blood vessels, and she claimed to be strong enough to go into battle after stitching it up herself. Unfortunately, Menja still needed support to get around and Victor's shoulder was an absolute mess. Getting the team's Trump back was a high priority, and not just because Victor missed his wife. Without her, they were lacking a serious force multiplier that he'd gotten used to.

On the upside, a message had come in from Hookwolf that he was alive, though a ways down the coast. Max had sent men in a car to pick him up.

That was probably the one bit of good news he was going to get out of the whole shit-show. Stormtiger was back in PRT custody and Rune had been captured by a pair of Wards who hadn't even been at the battle, after she'd split off to go after a couple of the Undersiders. With Kayden still refusing to rejoin the Empire Eighty-Eight (despite his disinformation campaign to spread it around that she was merely undercover for the moment) and with Night and Fog out of town, he was getting painfully low on capes. Right now, he'd even take Crusader back, if he could pry the little suck-up clear of Kayden's orbit.

Which left him with the pressing question: did he keep pushing, capitalising on the gains already made, or did he pull back and admit that he couldn't keep what he already had?

His pride demanded that he not simply roll over and concede defeat. The Empire needed a win out of this.

This wasn't just about his pride, either. The Empire Eighty-Eight, though made up of the capes under Max's command, was nothing without the rank and file, the believers in the Cause. His support base were the ones who showed up to hear him speak. If they lost faith and walked away now, the Empire was done.

All right then, he decided. He would compromise. "James."

"Yes?" responded his sole remaining lieutenant (at least until Bradley got back).

"We're going to wind things back a little. I want everyone off the streets; tell them to go home and get some rest, but to be ready to move in a couple of days' time. Let them all know we're luring the PRT into a false sense of security, but then we're going to strike at the heart of the beast."

James only needed a second or so to get his meaning. "The PRT. You want to break Othala out."

"And Stormtiger and Rune, yes." Max decided that he'd earned a little self-indulgence, and steepled his fingertips together. "Once Hookwolf gets back, we'll have the throw weight to force our way in there and retrieve our people. And then …"

He didn't need to keep going. With Othala on hand to provide regeneration and other powers at need, and with Cricket and Menja at full fighting form alongside Hookwolf and Stormtiger, the Empire Eighty-Eight would retake their place as Brockton Bay's strongest cape alliance.

And if the opposition had any sense, they'd step back and let it happen.


The Undersiders' Hideout
Grue


When Brian came out of his room, Lisa was waiting for him. She had her arms folded, which was always a bad sign. It didn't help that she was tapping her foot as well.

Whatever it was she wanted, she knew enough to stand aside while he went to the restroom. He considered waiting in there until she went away, but he knew damn well she wouldn't. Still, he took as long as he dared then splashed cold water on his face. A little more awake, he opened the door and looked at her resolute face.

"Restroom's free," he said, and tried to ease past her. He knew it wouldn't work, but he had to try anyway.

"I don't want the restroom. We need to talk."

"I've got nothing to say." Maybe if he refused to open up, she'd leave it alone?

"Fine. I'll talk. You listen." She hooked his arm with her hand, somehow managing to find the nerve point in his elbow on the first attempt, and towed him along behind her to the ad hoc dining room. He could've pulled free at any time, but at this point he knew resistance would cause more trouble than going along with what she wanted. When they reached their destination, she pointed at a chair. "Sit."

Again, he considered just walking away, but the glint in her eye warned him otherwise. So he dragged out a chair, spun it around, and straddled it. "I'm sitting. Now what?"

She hitched her butt up on the corner of the table. "You've been dating Shadow Stalker."

As an opener, it was a fairly effective one. He sat up straight, not even pretending not to pay attention anymore. "How in the living fuck did you know that?"

"Well, duh." She rolled her eyes. "The big clue was when I saw on the news that Buzz and Shadow Stalker engaged Rune and Grue yesterday. Rune was captured; you weren't. You came home wondering what the fuck to do. So, they let you go. There was another account of Shadow Stalker and Buzz chasing someone away from the scene, but they weren't, were they? Shadow Stalker had just found out you were you, and she was running away from that knowledge. It was a surprise from both sides." She tilted her head slightly. "Stalker tried to kill you again, Buzz stopped her, and that's when you both learned about each other. That about right?"

He shrugged. "Dunno why I'm here. You seem to have all the answers."

Rapping her knuckle once on the table, Lisa leaned forward. "You're here because you need to figure out what you're going to do, going forward. This is not something we can just ignore and walk away from. Has Stalker tried to contact you … no. She hasn't. Buzz has. Okay, then. Stalker's still an emotional mess about it. Buzz is being a good friend and helping her through it. Also, she's trying to get in touch with you. What did she say when she texted you?"

He didn't even need to get his phone out. "Call me. Please."

"And you haven't, of course." Lisa huffed a sigh. "Because you're such a fucking male that you can't stand it when something's not under your direct control. You don't know what'll happen if you call, so you won't call." Reaching out, she snapped her fingers twice. "Phone."

Reluctantly, he dragged it out of his pocket. He had no idea how he'd gotten into this position or how to get out of it, but Lisa seemed to know what she was doing. He just hoped she wasn't about to fuck him over.

"Thank you," she murmured, twitching it out of his hand. Glancing at him a couple of times, she tapped on the screen; entirely without surprise, he saw the phone open up for her. "All right then …" She began to scroll through the numbers. "That would be Buzz's call, and … huh. Shadow Stalker's name's Sophia? Sounds pretty ordinary for a raging murderous bitch."

"She's not—!" he began, then bit off his words as she glanced sideways at him. The corner of her mouth quirked upward. Fuck. She played me. Again.

"Never thought I'd see the day," she mused obscurely. "You must have it bad. Okay, then. Imma call Buzz. You get to choose whether it's me or you on this end."

"I'll make the call," he said, the words slipping out of his mouth unbidden. "Buzz doesn't know you. She might think I'm trying to set her up for something."

"Awesome." She tapped the 'call' icon, then put the phone on speaker. "We can both listen. You talk."

"The others?" he asked quickly.

"Told 'em to keep out of it," she assured him.

The phone rang again, then Taylor answered. "Hello?"


Taylor


I had just finished de-webbing the would-be mugger and handing him over to the police when my phone rang. I gestured as such to Dennis and Sophia and they nodded, so I moved away from the group a little. When I saw Brian's name on the screen, my heart nearly stopped for a moment. My eyes found Sophia, but I didn't call her over. Not yet.

Swiping the answer icon, I put the phone to my ear. "Hello?"

Almost immediately, I got the impression the phone on the other end was on speaker. I decided to be extra cautious about what I said.

"Buzz?" It was Brian's voice, full of pain. "Is that really you?"

I got it immediately. There was someone else there, and he was keeping my identity secret. This was a good sign. "Hey, it was as big a surprise to me as it was to you. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. No thanks to her." He sounded more angry than hurt now.

"I get it, I get it," I assured him. "She's got issues. We're addressing some of them, but the one about you was something we were getting to. Now she's having to face what she did. What she almost did. She's hurting, Brian. She doesn't know what to do. She doesn't even know if what you and she had is still a thing."

"Still a thing?" His laugh was hollow. "She tried to kill me. And it's not the first time."

That bit was news to me, though not a huge surprise. "Brian. I had my own issues with her before I ever had powers. When I first joined the Wards, I didn't know who she was. She didn't know me, either. We ended up as partners. Watching each other's backs. Saving each other's lives. Meanwhile, outside the mask, we hated each other's guts."

"So what happened when you unmasked to each other?" he asked bitterly. "Kiss and make up? You seem pretty chummy now."

"Hah, nope. I broke her jaw." I didn't even know why I was saying this. Well, I did, to be honest. I wanted to save what Brian and Sophia had. "When I told them what she'd been doing, she nearly ended up in juvey. Again. But I decided that what I had with her in costume was more important than the shit between us outside the Wards. So I gave her a second chance. And I've never regretted it."

The silence that followed was so long that I checked the phone to see if the call had dropped out. It hadn't. So I waited.

When Brian spoke again, his voice sounded different. Almost hopeful. "What did she do to you, before you joined the Wards?"

I hadn't told him she'd done anything in particular, but it was a valid question. "We'd need more time than this phone call to cover everything in detail, but in short? She fucked my life up for more than a year over petty teenage bullshit. For her piece de resistance, she and her friends shoved me in my locker with some pretty nasty shit and locked me in for about an hour. So yeah, we had issues."

"Oh." In the background, I could've sworn I heard someone gagging. Maybe he had the TV on? "How can you forgive her for all that?"

"I didn't, not really. I just moved past it." I took a deep breath. "I'll be honest. She's done bad shit that I'm not actually okay with, but she's trying hard to be a better person, and I can appreciate that. As my partner in the Wards, she's got my back. When Oni Lee came after me personally, she could've run. But she stayed, and she took him on more or less single-handedly, and she won. Saved my life. That gives her a lot of leeway, in my book."

"Oh." He paused. "Thanks for telling me that."

"One more thing." I waited to see if he'd say something. He didn't. "After what happened with you, she was a total mess. She looked me in the eye and asked me for help." I lowered my voice instinctively. "That's the first time I've ever seen her cry."

"Jesus." The exclamation was jerked out of him. "I don't even know how to address that."

"Call her," I said simply. "Please. Just to talk. Not right now—we're on patrol—but maybe later. Yell at her if you want. I think she wants to be yelled at by someone. But don't just … throw it all away. Not without giving her a second chance. Please?"

Again, there was a long silence. "I'll think about it. No promises. Thanks, Buzz. For everything." Then I heard the tone for the end of the call.

Slowly, I put my phone away. I didn't know if I'd helped or hurt their situation, but I'd had to say something.

Sophia looked up as I came back over to them. The mugger was now in custody, and the police were talking to the prospective victim. "Hey, you okay?" she asked.

I was pretty impressed at her perceptiveness, given that I was wearing a full-face mask. "I'll be fine," I said, hoping it was true. "We done here?"

"Just about," Dennis said, coming over to us. "The cops just need a statement about how you bugswarmed the guy and we can go."

"Pfft," I muttered. "I barely touched him. The big wimp."

Sophia snorted with amusement and elbowed me in the arm. "Go get 'em, tiger."


Tattletale


She patted him on the arm as he ended the call. "Feel better now?"

"Yeah, but not a lot," he said grudgingly. "I mean, Taylor's okay with me but I still haven't heard from Sophia."

"You told me they were besties," Lisa reminded him. "Do you honestly think Taylor wouldn't talk to her and try to bring her around?"

"Yeah, but … I dunno … shit!" He scrubbed his hands over his face. "I have no fuckin' idea what to do now."

Lisa sighed. "It's very simple. Do you want to sever ties and go back to the way you were before?"

The answer popped out before he would've had time to think about it. "No!"

"Then do you want to fix matters?" She tried to be gently prompting. Romance wasn't something she ever wanted to get into, but that wasn't because it was confusing to her. In her opinion, people made it way too complicated.

"What if she doesn't want to?"

She prodded him ungently in the ribs. "Wrong question. You don't start building bridges from her end. You start from your end. Now come on, get up."

"What? Why?"

This is worse than trying to get Alec to clean the bathroom. "We're going out for a drive. Down to the Boardwalk or someplace like that."

He tilted his head to look at her suspiciously. "Are you trying to arrange a meet cute in and out of costume? Because we kinda did that already. It's how we got into this mess in the first place."

While that wasn't a bad idea, she snorted and shook her head. "We're going to find a gift shop and you're going to buy her something decorative and useless that she'll swoon over, because it will prove you still care about her. And then, maybe tomorrow, unless she's already called, we'll call her again and set up a neutral meeting where you can give her the gift, and you two can talk it out already. Got it?"

"Oh." But he got up. "Okay, I'll get my wallet."

Finally.

Lisa was profoundly grateful that Alec and Rachel weren't dating anyone. Just fixing Brian's love life was way too stressful, and he was the most normal of them all.


Othala's PRT Holding Cell
Coil


In one timeline, Commander Thomas Calvert sat opposite the prisoner, his demeanour immaculate, his voice measured. "Are you absolutely certain you don't wish to give me anything about your employer?" His tone was the epitome of reason. "I'll be certain to put it into your record for the trial. Who knows; we might even manage to score you a place in the Protectorate. After rebranding, of course."

He knew damn well she wouldn't take him up on it. Even in the other timeline, where he was being somewhat rougher about questioning her, she'd been extremely stubborn about giving up any information at all. Fortunately, he had zero scruples about doing lasting damage, so she'd talked. As had Rune before her. Despite being full of teenage bravado, young Tammi had been a lot easier to break, though she hadn't known nearly as much as Othala did.

He'd only drawn that interrogation out as long as he had because it was fun.

In the other timeline, as the broken, bloodied woman choked out what he wanted to know past shattered teeth, Piggot's outraged guards finally managed to force the door open. It didn't matter. He'd got what he needed.

He closed that timeline and gave Othala an austere smile. "Well, if you're absolutely certain? A little cooperation goes a very long way, you know."

Glaring at him from across the cell, Othala gave him the finger. "Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, you bl—"

"What Ms Othala means," the PRT duty lawyer interrupted hastily, "is that she does not intend to make any statements before the trial."

Thomas shrugged lightly and got to his feet. He closed the notebook, upon the first page of which he had written a single line—Prisoner uncooperative—and rapped at the door to the cell. "I'm ready to leave now."

The door opened and he favoured the supervillain and her lawyer with a slight nod. "Good day to you." As he left the cell, he was going over the information she'd given him in his head. Also, on the second page of the notebook—now secure within his pocket—were all the names she'd revealed under torture. Names he'd suspected and wondered about, but now had proof of.

It's a good day to be me.


Squealer


"Oh, for fuck's sake!" complained Sherrel. "We've been through Empire Eighty-Eight territory three times, and there's not a single fuckin' cape or skinhead to be seen!" She adjusted the controls on the stealthed tank and it turned the corner neatly, barely even mounting the pavement a little bit. From the inside, it was thirty tons of rumbling monster travelling on broad tracks. The outside; less so. Nobody saw or heard a thing unless they were within about two yards of it. The light didn't go anywhere, and the sound and vibration were redirected downward into the ground in a diffuse pattern.

"I kind of noticed that myself," Bakuda agreed. "Are you certain they haven't packed up and moved cities in the last few days? There's not even any Hitler Youth around tagging the walls." As she spoke, she finished constructing yet another one of her useful little devices. The movement of the tank might have caused her problems with this, but she'd managed to rig up a stable work surface that negated the vibration and swaying.

"They were all up in everyone's grille yesterday," Sherrel reminded her. "I saw Kaiser just fuckin' murder Skidmark, right in front of me. Why the hell hasn't the PRT arrested and Birdcaged that Nazi asshole already? That's what I want to know."

Bakuda shrugged. "Maybe they don't care? It suits them to have the Empire keeping everyone scared until the PRT and the Protectorate come in and do the 'big damn hero' thing."

"So what you're saying …" Sherrel's voice was thoughtful. "Are you saying the PRT and Protectorate are in on it with the Empire?"

"Well, why the fuck not?" Bakuda gave Sherrel a broad grin that didn't make her look any less crazy. "They've arrested Hookwolf before, but every time they try to send him to the Birdcage, he 'escapes'. Sounds pretty convenient to me."

"Right, then. Fuck this shit. Let's go play with the big boys." Sherrel jolted the tank into a higher gear, and gouged a little concrete out of the curb going around the corner. "Time to go see how many licks it takes to get to the centre of a Tootsie Pop. Or PRT building. Whichever happens first."

"All-right!" cackled Bakuda. "And I know just the party favour to start the festivities off with." She rummaged around in the racks that held the bombs she'd already constructed, then came up with one that had 'Fuck You' written on it. Pulling down the loading rack for the big overhead launcher, she inserted the bomb into it. "Ready to rock and roll when you are."


Coil


"Did you get what you wanted, sir?" asked the guard on the desk as Thomas handed in the pass he'd been issued for the prison level.

"No," he sighed, pretending disappointment. "Well, that's me for the day. I just came in hoping the prisoners would have information useful to me. Surprise, surprise, they weren't willing to talk."

"Yeah, that's a shocker," agreed the guard. "I suppose they're expecting their homeboys to bust them out any day now." He chuckled. "Might be a bit harder when we've got two of their heavy hitters right here behind bars."

Thomas smiled tightly in acknowledgement. "I can't wait to see their faces when they actually go to trial. Actions have consequences, after all." For everyone but me.

"Can't argue with that. Have a good day, Commander."

"You, too." Thomas went over to the elevator and took it up to the garage level.

His car was as nondescript as it could get, and the secondary exit for the PRT underground parking garage let out from what appeared to be a commercial parking lot. He approved of the security measures and made use of them whenever he could. Someone like him didn't get where they were without exercising caution whenever they could, after all.

He would've been happier if his pet could have given him a prediction on today's events, but they'd been working on a new formulation of her 'candy' and it hadn't agreed with her. So he'd gotten as far as finding out that Rune and Othala could give him actionable intel on the Empire Eighty-Eight, and that he wouldn't fall under suspicion for interrogating them, then given the rest of the questions a miss. It wasn't as though he was going to launch a criminal endeavour today, after all. Drive to the PRT building and drive home (or to his base) again. It was as simple as that.

As he paused at the boom gate for the faux commercial parking lot, he split time. In one timeline, he got his phone out and dashed off a quick text to Creep to meet him at the usual place. The boom gate rose and he checked left and right to find the street completely clear. In both timelines, he drove out onto the street. One version of him turned left as his thumb tapped the last few characters and hit Send; the other, undistracted by any such thing, turned right.

When the tank appeared out of nowhere, the first version of him could possibly have escaped or swerved out of the way, but he was concentrating on his phone. By the time he wrenched his attention back to controlling the car, it was too late.

The second version of him had no chance at all. Between one instant and the next, the tank was right in front of him. His car went under it and the wide tracks climbed up and over, compressing it to a fraction of its height in mere seconds. The last thing that went through his mind was his spinal column.

The first version almost managed to bail out of the car in time.


Coil's Underground Base
Mr Pitter


As the male nurse was making sure that the girl's IV drip was feeding her the correct amount of nutrients, she began to giggle.

At first, he dismissed it as a side effect of the new drug regime, but the giggles continued. They seemed to involve actual humour rather than hysteria, which puzzled him.

"Are you alright?" he asked, with some concern.

She giggled again. "He's gone. Never coming back."

The giggles became full-fledged laughter.


Bakuda


"What the fuck?" Squealer wrestled the tank back into line. "We just ran over some stupid fuck! He just drove out in front of us!"

"Stop the tank, stop the tank!" Alice lunged for the hatch.

"What? Why?" But Squealer pulled the unwieldy vehicle to a juddering halt anyway. "Pretty sure he's dead."

"Just before he went under the tank, I saw a uniform," Alice said tersely. "I think he's PRT. There might be useful shit in that car." She pulled the hatch open. "Wait here."

"Yeah, no shit," muttered Squealer. "You can go mess with squished dead bodies. I'm good right here."

Ignoring her, Alice clambered out onto the top deck of the tank, then jumped down and strode back to where the remains of the car leaked oil and gasoline across the asphalt. As she'd thought, the driver had almost managed to get out of the car in time, but the tracks had crunched the roof down over his pelvic and lower abdominal area. Without direct intervention from Panacea, and possibly even with it, he was going to die soon.

As she approached him, he scrabbled weakly for where he probably normally wore his pistol, but it was nowhere to be seen. "Hey," she said conversationally. "Got anything I might find interesting? Make it worth your while."

He tried to reach for her. "Help," he rasped. "PRT … you've got to help me … please …"

"Yeah, nah." She kicked him in the face, then did it again because it felt so good the first time. Teeth scattered across the blacktop. He stopped trying to grasp her boots.

Going down on one knee, she quickly frisked his upper body, which was all she could reach. Buttoned into one top pocket, she found a notepad, which she extracted from its hiding place.

"No …" he gurgled. "Mine …" Feebly, he tried to take it back.

Grabbing one of his fingers, she bent it back until it snapped, then stood up. Flipping back the cover revealed the front page, which read Prisoner uncooperative. It said nothing else and she was about to discard it when an instinct had her flip to the next page. He'd really wanted it back, after all.

What she saw then made her eyebrows raise dramatically.

Kaiser – Max Anders

Hookwolf – Bradley Meadows

Krieg – James Fliescher (sp?)

Her grin widened dramatically as she skimmed down the list of names. "Oh, yes," she muttered. "Oh, fuck me, yes."

Snapping the notebook closed, she looked down at the dying man at her feet. His breath stuttered in his throat as he stared back up at her. She grinned back savagely and opened the notebook again, right to the back where there was no writing. Tearing out a couple of pages, she crumpled them loosely then pulled out a cigarette lighter. It was the work of a moment to light the paper then she tossed it into the spreading pool of gasoline.

Tucking the notebook and lighter into her own pocket, she turned and strode back to the tank and climbed onboard, ignoring the crackling flames and muffled screams from behind her. When she let herself down into the hatch, Squealer turned to look at her. "So, you find anything?"

Alice grinned. "Did I. Got us a new target."

"Yeah? Where?"

The grin grew wider, and Alice felt a giggle threatening to burst free. "The Medhall building."

"Really? What'd they do to you?"

"Tell you on the way there."

Let's see how long they play hide and seek now.


End of Part Eight