Hostage Situation


Part Ten: Ongoing Fallout


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


Shortly After Saint's Death
Margaret 'Mags' Pellick


It had been a long, lonely flight back to the Dragonslayer Base. This had been made worse by the fact that tears kept blurring her vision. Complicating the situation, jets had been scrambled from air force bases in the region, combing the airspace to see if Geoff had had any backup.

Well, he'd had her, but she'd been there to drag him away rather than back him up, and she'd gotten there too late to do any good anyway. While she hadn't quite been close enough to witness his death—where the hell did they get off, going straight to lethal force anyway?—she'd acquired enough snippets from PRT comms and other sources to assemble a partial picture of how it had gone down.

It wasn't Dragon or even one of her drones that had killed Geoff. This was fortunate for the mechanical intelligence; if it had been even tangentially responsible for her husband's death, Mags would've been activating Ascalon the moment she got back to Toronto. But no, it was a local villain—not even a hero; a villain—who'd unleashed enough force to demolish a medium-sized building, without so much as giving Geoff a chance to surrender. By the subsequent PRT chatter, there literally hadn't been enough left to scrape into a shoebox.

As she carefully threaded her way between radar hotspots, Mags shook her head. She'd seen the lightshow from miles out, though she hadn't known what it meant at the time. What was the world coming to when villains took a hand in heroic matters like that? And who had set those damn bombs off across the city? Everyone had been blaming Geoff, but there'd been no bombs in the loadout he took with him. Anyway, why bomb the city at all? It had only served to well and truly stir up the ant's nest.

Flying low and slow over Toronto, keeping her thruster noise to a minimum, she was fully aware she didn't know everything that had happened. But she knew enough. She knew Geoff—Saint—was dead, and he'd been the glue holding the Dragonslayers together. He'd supplied the relentless drive to keep them together through thick and thin, and he was the one who had planned each attack on Dragon itself. It was his intuitive understanding of the machine's capabilities and limitations that had brought them to success every time … and now he was gone.

Geoff Pellick.

Saint, of the Dragonslayers.

The man she loved.

He'd been all of that, and more. She knew he hadn't been perfect, but who was? He'd loved her in return, and had drawn her along in his wake as he created the Dragonslayers and equipped them with technology created by their enemy. She didn't hate Dragon quite as intensely as he did, but she could certainly see the danger if the world's only self-aware AI decided humanity needed to die.

Unfortunately, there had been hidden pitfalls along the path he'd chosen, and he'd fallen prey to one of them. His obsession with getting renewed access to Teacher had killed him, and now the only question left was what they were going to do, going forward. It was something she was going to have to talk to Mischa about.

The roof entry motored open, and she dropped down into the mecha-suit hangar. The jets flared at the last moment and she touched down on the dirty concrete, the suit's shock absorbers compressing to deal with the last of her momentum. As she popped the helmet and prepared to climb out, she saw Mischa standing by the switch, looking up at the still-open roof entry.

"Close it," she said wearily. "He's not coming. Ever."

"Not ever?" He stared, then hit the switch. As the roof entry started to rumble closed, he moved in her direction. "What happened? He is caught, imprisoned? We must prepare prison break?"

"No." She shook her head and swiped her flight-suited arm across her eyes. "One of the local villains killed him. Blew the suit to pieces, with him inside it. There wasn't even a body to retrieve. Then they just let her fly away. Fuckers."

"Bozhe moi," he muttered. My God. "I hear things about this place, Brockton Bay. Race gangs, drug dealer gangs, more villains in one gang than all of Protectorate in city. It is perhaps worse than stories."

"None of that 'perhaps' bullshit," she said, peeling her gloves off. "He got there right in the middle of a bombing attack on the whole city. Apparently it was another one of their local villains trying for a diversion, so they could break another one out of PRT holding, but Geoff got blamed for it when he grabbed Panacea. I have no idea why that villain went at him so hard. Maybe someone she knew got hurt by the bombing, and she bought into the idea of him being responsible."

"Is crazy town, everyone says so," agreed Mischa. "Heroes should stick with hero stuff, villains stick with villain stuff. Less confusion this way, da?"

"Absolutely." Mags strode through to where the console was set up to monitor Dragon's ongoing feed. "Any unusual activity on this front?"

"Just a little," he assured her. "Not large amount. Have been checking in between fixing suit. Geoff wrecked many systems. Some spare parts, but may not be enough."

"What do you mean, 'just a little' activity?" asked Mags carefully.

"When news went out about Geoff wanting Teacher out of Birdcage, Dragon sent signal into Birdcage, to be played on TV sets. Is not totally unusual. Has done before." He shrugged. "Not sure what point."

"Let me see." Ignoring the fact that she was still wearing her basic flight suit and needed a long hot shower, Mags plopped herself down into the command seat. She wasn't as conversant with the system as Geoff had been, but she could navigate it with a certain amount of surety. Pulling up the replay, she rewound it to where the signal was linked up to the dedicated line going into the Birdcage. While she couldn't decipher all the code around the command, she was reasonably sure there were no actual communications aimed at the inmates included with the signal. It was just the raw TV data.

"You see?" asked Mischa. "Is no big."

Mags leaned back in the chair and rubbed her chin. "I don't know. There's something more going on here."

"Will leave you with it," Mischa said. "See if suit can be fixed." He trod off toward the mech hangar bay.

Barely noticing his departure, Mags leaned forward and dug a little deeper into the replay. Calling up the camera feeds from the Birdcage at the same time of the broadcast, she caught several people watching the screen, among them Marquis.

"Well, shit." It was a cape she didn't know, his most prominent feature being hands that were blackened to the wrist. "Kidnapping a healer to get one of us out of here? What do you reckon, boss? Think it'll work?"

Marquis stood. "I think you should get everyone together. We're going to war." He punctuated his words with an ominous crack of his knuckles.

Jumping from feed to feed, Mags watched as Marquis and his forces efficiently and swiftly invaded what she presumed was Teacher's domain. Marquis gave orders to go non-lethal where they could, emphasising that he just wanted Teacher alive and in his hands. A few died, but she could tell he was going by his own principle. She wasn't entirely sure what good this was going to do; he was in the Birdcage, after all. It wasn't like he could place a phone call once he had Teacher prisoner.

Watching the veteran crime boss in action, she was somewhat glad the Dragonslayers had never had to face him. They might have the firepower of their suits at their command, but he was a surgeon when it came to the use of his power. Nobody even came close to touching him. By the time Teacher ended up in his custody, she was starting to wonder exactly how the PRT had captured him.

And then he dragged Teacher back to the TV where he'd seen the broadcast. "Let me speak to Saint," he'd demanded, speaking directly to the screen.

And a line opened up, sending a feed directly to the TV in question. In the meantime, the camera directly over the TV started feeding out of the Birdcage, to a device somewhere in Brockton Bay. It took Mags a moment to realise that yes, Dragon had somehow managed to arrange a one-on-one conversation between Marquis and Geoff, each with their own hostage.

Holy shit. She arranged it. She sent the footage into the Birdcage so Marquis could organise the only leverage Geoff would even recognise.

Right then, she was torn. The man she loved was dead, but it seemed Dragon had done everything she could to de-escalate the situation. Even if it meant putting Teacher himself in danger.

Mags had never held any great regard for the sweaty, ugly, arrogant little man. She had even less love for the effect his power had had on Geoff. Seeing Marquis press a bone blade to Teacher's throat bothered her far less than it clearly did her husband.

Do what he says, she silently urged Geoff, ignoring the fact that the action was long done. He means business. This was made abundantly clear through Marquis' body language.

Unfortunately, the conversation did not go well. Geoff was far too invested in his 'brilliant' scheme to even imagine failure. No matter the blatant danger to Teacher's life, no matter the outs Marquis and the others tried to give him, he kept doubling down.

Right up until he tried to grab Panacea, with the clear intent of doing her harm. Mags leaned forward, her breath catching in her throat. No, love. No. Please don't.

Something, somewhere, must have heard her plea, because his arm stopped working. He bashed it with the other hand; a common field tactic among the Dragonslayers for getting problematic joints working again.

The arm fell off. Mags watched disbelievingly as the entire arm detached from the shoulder assembly and landed with a crash on the concrete. Panacea took her opportunity to make a break for it right then; even with one arm out of commission, Geoff would've caught her in short order except for the fact that when he went to move after her, the suit's leg failed as well. Not just ceased to work, but literally crumpled under him like it had been constructed from modelling clay.

There was a streak of motion, a gold and white blur. Panacea was scooped up by a slim figure Mags only identified by association. Glory Girl was the healer's sister, after all. Geoff tried to make a grab for them, but they were too far away. And then the glow intensified.

Mags had known Purity killed Geoff, but she'd temporarily forgotten the fact. Now she was reminded, very forcefully, as the cape herself moved into camera view. Her image flared out half the picture, even as the camera tried to adjust. Mags was just barely able to see the spiralling blast that smashed into Geoff's suit, shattering it and the concrete beneath in an instant. Such was the power of Purity's attack that when she let up after just a second or so, the crater had seawater lapping into it. Even after the villain moved out of frame and the picture returned to normal, Mags could see no part of Geoff's suit. He was gone. She doubted he'd even felt a thing.

The image cut out then. Mags put her elbows on the table and leaned her face into her hands, feeling the tears wetting her palms. It had been heart-wrenching, soul-destroying, to experience it all over again, but she had to know. Had to see.

After a while, she took a deep breath, trying to cleanse herself of the jagged emotions tearing at the still-tender wound of her loss. Another deep breath, and another; then she clicked the mouse again, looking for the next act in the story. What had Marquis done with Teacher, once Geoff was dead?

It didn't take long to find the answer to the question. When Teacher had gotten too pushy about the idea of reparations, Marquis simply killed him. The news reporting was devoid of all but the basic content, but the message had been sent anyway. If you try to use my daughter as leverage, whoever you try to get out of the Birdcage will die.

It was a harsh message. On the one hand, she couldn't fault it in principle. On the other, as a former law enforcement official, she had issues with the concept of one person taking on the role of judge, jury and executioner.

The next saved file she accessed was a three-way conversation between Dragon, Director Piggot of PRT ENE, and Chief Director Costa-Brown. Once she grasped the gist of the discussion, chills ran down her spine. It was Panacea who had caused Geoff's suit to fail so dramatically? The girl had disabled the suit and opened him up to being murdered by Purity, not some Tinkertech device?

It seemed Costa-Brown was of a like mind with Mags herself when it came to this sort of capability being used at will, without so much as informing the PRT of its possibility. The Chief Director had floated the idea of Birdcaging the girl instead of simply bowing to her whims, a suggestion that had Mags silently cheering her on … only to be shot down by Dragon of all people.

The machine had already thrown a curve ball when pointing out how Marquis should not face punishment for Teacher's execution, because the interior of the Birdcage was a de facto extrajudicial location. And now it was swinging hard in the other direction, threatening Costa-Brown with backlash against the PRT if the woman attempted to have Panacea Birdcaged for the mere potential of being able to bring the US to ruin. Worse, Piggot's support (however lukewarm) for Dragon's pushback against Costa-Brown (was it even allowed to do that?) had slammed the door in the face of basically doing anything to rein Panacea in.

But as shocking as the revelations so far had been, it was the last recording she watched that put the icing on the cake. Unmonitored by anyone at the Dragonslayers base, Dragon had sent its nanotech into the Birdcage once more. Mags was nowhere near as proficient as Geoff had been at reading her code, so she couldn't really tell what the microscopic robots were programmed to do. But whatever it was, they'd done it. Marquis's subsequent speech had the (undoubtedly intended) effect of making him seem suicidal, then he barricaded himself in his room and proceeded to break a hole in the wall of his cell.

The last Mags saw of Marquis was watching him being sucked out into the vacuum that apparently surrounded the Birdcage. This would have satisfied her as being the end of the story, especially with the supporting news articles, if she hadn't known differently. No matter what the official story was, Marquis had been released from the Birdcage, and Panacea was suffering no punishment at all for carrying out the exact same thing Geoff had died trying to do.

Intellectually, Mags was aware Purity's murder of Geoff probably had more to do with him threatening Panacea with harm, but this was beyond the point. Some people were allowed to break (or remake) the rules, and some clearly were not. Marquis got to walk free, while Geoff Pellick would have a closed-casket funeral for the very good reason that they hadn't actually located more than a few fragments suitable only for DNA samples.

The inequity was stunning, as was the injustice. She just didn't know what she could do about it.


Marquis


First came consciousness, then came pain.

He shifted, feeling a comfortably soft mattress under him, the cotton sheets moving against his bare arms. It felt odd after ten years of the coarse weave common in the Birdcage (not to mention the silk sheets he'd favoured before then), but it also served as a reminder of something he still had more than a little trouble believing.

He was out.

Out of the Birdcage.

Released from a place he'd thought he was going to die in, someday.

And it was all because of his little Amelia. When he'd last been face to face with her, he'd been the protector. But now she was the one protecting him.

The pain was prodding at him from odd locations. It wasn't the same as after any of his numerous battles, even the one where the Brigade had taken him down. He figured it was lingering soft tissue damage from his brief exposure to vacuum, but it didn't feel serious.

In any case, he could live with it. It wasn't debilitating, and he didn't feel like his capabilities would be impaired in any way, so he decided to let things heal in their own time. The next order of business was to find out where they had him.

He opened his eyes; just a slit at first, then wider as he saw nobody in his immediate vicinity. More aches and pains awoke throughout his body as he sat up, but none seemed to be more problematic than the ones he'd already registered.

Looking around, he saw he was in a sterile white room, striking only in its lack of extraneous details. There were two doors, and a closet in the corner, but no pictures on the wall and no windows, not even so much as a TV. It could've been a private room in any hospital or clinic in America, but somehow he suspected not. The fact there was no call button in evidence merely underlined his supposition.

He was wearing short-sleeved pyjamas; again, more forgiving on the skin than anything available in the Birdcage while being less luxurious than what he'd had before. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he stood up. The floor felt strange against the soles of his feet, and he wondered how long he'd been out to it.

Then he stopped wondering as one of the doors opened. Alexandria swept in, tall and imposing, black cape flaring behind her. She fairly radiated power as she stood, arms folded. He couldn't really see her eyes behind the steel helmet/mask combo, but the set of her mouth gave him the impression she was unhappy with him.

"I was not in favour of releasing you." Her voice was low and steady. "It is important that you understand this. The first step out of line—the first—will see you back in the Birdcage. And I hope you resist being recaptured. Because when and if that happens, I will break your bones so hard, even you will have trouble mending them again. Do you understand?"

It was not his way to be impolite to ladies, so he resisted the urge to scoff at the attempt to intimidate him. It was a good try to be sure, but he'd faced down Jack Slash back in the day. He knew for a fact she hadn't, because one of the two would be dead in that case. Even to those trapped in the Birdcage, that news would've spread by pure osmosis.

"Not entirely, my dear." He gave her a polite smile. "I'm sure it's merely an oversight, but you're being a little vague about precisely where the line is."

Not from the slightest shift in her posture or expression did she betray that she was on the back foot, but his old instincts rarely failed him. She was, he could tell, irritated and a little puzzled as to why he wasn't folding then and there. Still, she hadn't given up. It wasn't in her nature; he could tell.

"You won't be officially on parole, of course." She lost some of the hostile tone, but her voice was still cool. "But if you get caught breaking the law in any way, you're done. Back to the Birdcage."

"So sorry." He kept his tone light, not wanting to give her the idea he was mocking her. "I'm a little hazy about how this works. What happens if somebody on the street decides to pick a fight with me, and I fight back? Technically, I've broken the law. Does that put me back in the Birdcage? Because forgive me, dear lady, if I do not consider this a fair and equitable bargain."

He sensed rather than saw her eyes narrowing behind the mask. "Panacea is entirely capable of repairing any damage done to you in a common brawl, and we both know it. So no, if you are attacked in the street, you are not permitted any actions other than what constitutes pure self-defence. Are we clear?"

"Absolutely and completely." He paused for a beat, just long enough for her to think he'd finished speaking, then he raised a finger. "And if the attacker happens to be a cape instead of some mundane street thug? For that matter, how good is Panacea's self-healing capability?"

Her pause was almost infinitesimal, but he knew he'd asked an important question. The answer merely confirmed it. "Panacea can't heal herself. She's strictly a non-combatant."

"Then if my daughter is attacked with lethal intent, whether by cape or by normal, by the law of the land, I am permitted to use lethal force in defending her. Yes?"

Her lips tightened fractionally. "In such an instance, yes, you are permitted to defend her to the best of your ability. However." She put her finger up, possibly in conscious imitation of his previous gesture. "If you do anything to betray the fact that Marquis is out of the Birdcage, the deal is null and void. Most specifically, using your powers in public. If this happens, you go back, and we institute a disinformation campaign about a pretender. Life returns to normal, and the Birdcage continues to be inviolate. Am I understood?"

"Entirely." He raised an eyebrow. "Of course, I refuse to accept responsibility if some other party were to reveal said fact."

Was that a twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth? "If the revelation can be proven to be in no way instigated by you, I will not hold you responsible." Implicit in her statement was the understanding she would find any such connection, if it existed.

He nodded to acknowledge the unspoken words, then raised his eyebrows; both, this time. "Very well; we have established that doing anything which would cause me to be arrested or revealing that I am indeed out of the Birdcage, are both grounds for returning me there post-haste. Was there anything else I needed to keep in mind, my dear?"

This time, the twitch of a smile was unmistakeable. It seemed Alexandria found it amusing, or at least interesting, when people didn't just roll over for her. "No making contact with any of your previous criminal associates. That's a definite."

Frowning a little to give the impression of having to think about it, he tilted his head. "Wouldn't such a situation be covered by the rule about letting people know I'm out of the Birdcage? And in any case, it's effectively a non-issue."

She nodded slowly to concede the point. "In order to contact them, you'd have to let them know who you were. Yes, you're correct. But why would you consider it a non-issue? Surely there are still many people in the criminal scene who've been around since before you went into the Birdcage?"

"Remarkably few with whom I would even wish to associate," he informed her. "My last loyal minion died mere days ago. As for the cape scene, if the Teeth even returned to Brockton Bay, not one of them would be someone I knew from the old days. Galvanate is still in the Birdcage. And if Jack Slash ever returns to Brockton Bay while I am here, we both know I'll kill him."

"The Empire Eighty-Eight are still in Brockton Bay," she reminded him, with barely a pause to acknowledge his claim about Jack Slash. "I presume you associated with them, back in the day."

He allowed his amusement at the idea to show, just for a moment. "I knew Allfather and Iron Rain, but I wouldn't say I associated with them. While I strongly disapproved of their twisted ideology, they ran their territory efficiently and didn't intrude upon mine, so I respected them for that at least. Kaiser was barely making his mark when I went away."

"So I understand," she replied, her tone bemused. "Is this likely to be a problem?"

"Not as such." His smile widened a little. "I never gathered other capes around me, but that was from choice. The boy was always far too pretentious for his own good; this tends to grate on people after awhile. I honestly doubt any of the other capes he has around him are the ones I knew at the time. And as for Kaiser himself … I have zero desire to renew what minimal acquaintance I had with him."

"Understood, but … wait a moment." Her lips pursed in a frown. "I seem to recall, when reading up on the old files, there being a feud between yourself and Allfather. He swore vengeance upon you for murdering Iron Rain. You said there was respect between you and them, and I was under the impression you didn't hurt women. Or was that just an act?"

Now, he smiled sardonically. "Congratulations. You've uncovered a secret that's been hidden in plain sight for the last ten years. My disinclination to harm women or children was more than a little romanticised, even while I was active as the Marquis of Brockton Bay. Originally, it was less in the way of conscience and more a specific choice. You see, I had noted that those villain capes with a reputation for indiscriminate violence often have all the stops pulled out against them, while those who publicly exhibit consistent levels of self-control and gentlemanly behaviour—especially regarding women and children—are far more likely to be given a pass at the end of the day. Over the years, it simply became habit."

Her lips set in a tight line. "I don't know whether to praise you for your restraint or smack you for your sheer overwhelming cynicism. How did that work out for you? I mean, you got captured anyway."

"Yes, well." He let out a faintly irritated sigh. "It worked quite well; to a point. Right up until the distaff members of the Brockton Bay Brigade allowed themselves to be used as human shields during a combat with me. This was to allow their male partners to attack me with impunity."

"And it worked. They captured you." Alexandria tilted her head, studying him intently. "Ahh … no. I see. There was another factor involved."

He acknowledged her insight with a fractional nod. "Yes. I was working around it, but my daughter was on site and the battle endangered her. I put myself in harm's way to protect her, and was disabled by Brandish." His smile reflected his genuine amusement. "And now little Amelia has lifted me out of Hell, in her turn. It's interesting how these things go, is it not?"

"That's a matter of perspective." Her focus, he could see, was still razor-sharp. "We were talking about Iron Rain. Did you kill her?"

"No, as it happens." He sighed. "There was a battle with the Teeth. Butcher got in a lucky shot in the heat of it, and she died later of her wounds. At the time, the capes of the Empire Eighty-Eight were very heavily into the twin narratives of honour and retribution. They were also a particularly violent collection of miscreants. Allfather would have been bound to go after Butcher and kill him, and become Butcher in his turn."

"Well, that's a no-brainer." Alexandria shook her head. "If it's suicide, you don't go."

It wasn't often he got the opportunity for a teaching moment, especially with someone as sharp as Alexandria. "You forget, dear lady, this was the old days. The Empire was still establishing itself. Refusal would have splintered the organisation to the core, as Allfather's capes abandoned him and the control he held over them. Nobody wanted them rampaging across the city, so I offered a compromise; I would take 'credit' for the killing, and he would claim the right to exact vengeance."

"Hm." Her expression under the mask was unreadable. "Wouldn't that have opened you up to reprisals from one of the other Empire Eighty-Eight capes?"

He chuckled. "Certainly, but my reputation at that time was solid enough that not a single one of the Empire capes was willing to take me on personally, all their talk of honour be damned. Allfather and I were in the process of arranging a show battle, where damage would be done but nobody came out on top, when I was captured. I understand he died a few years afterward under suspicious circumstances, and Kaiser took over. The boy always was impatient to take up the reins of power."

She made an impatient gesture as if waving away the trivia of the Empire's methods of transfer of power. "Very well. I am satisfied you are both unlikely and unwilling to renew any criminal associations you might have once enjoyed. You will be provided with a new identity, and a basic stipend. Should you wish to augment this, I strongly suggest you take up some form of honest employment. Steal just one dollar, and you're gone. Do you understand?"

Sounding impatient at this juncture would've done his cause no good at all, so he kept his voice bland. "As you have made abundantly clear, dear lady, I am to do nothing that may get me arrested or reveal my identity as Marquis, out and about in Brockton Bay. In return, I may walk in the sunlight and breathe free air. I consider this to be an extremely adequate bargain."

After studying him for a long moment, she nodded. "That's good enough for me. There is a washroom through the other door, and clothing in the closet. I suggest you make use of the clippers in the washroom to style your hair to something other than what you used to wear, back in the day."

This time, he chuckled; he couldn't help himself. "And are you going to supply me with a pair of fake glasses to hide my identity? I used to go armoured in bone. The number of people now who saw my uncovered face then would be minimal, approaching zero. And even if my face was familiar to them, they wouldn't believe it was really me. Nobody gets out of the Birdcage, after all."

She seemed to consider his words for a long moment. "Acceptable. If anyone does approach you, what will you do?"

"Put on my best bewildered expression and tell them they are surely mistaken," he said cheerfully. "Now, if you don't mind, I would like to take a shower in a bathroom that doesn't have a floor of concrete."

Taking the hint, she stepped out of the way. "When you are ready to leave, walk out that door." She went to the door in question and opened it to reveal a blank white corridor. "You will be met."

"I appreciate the courtesy." He headed for the bathroom door. "I would say 'see you later', but I suspect you will see me before I see you."

"Count on it." Stepping out through the other door into the corridor, she closed it behind her.

Always has to have the last word. Well, it wasn't entirely surprising.

Unbuttoning his pyjama shirt, he stepped into the bathroom. Whatever facility this was, he didn't know if their hot water budget could be exceeded, but he intended to give it the old college try.


Dallon Household
Panacea


I stared at the text I'd just received.

Your father will be walking through your front door in the next five minutes. Please be waiting inside.

– Alexandria

"What is it, Ames? You've just gone white as a sheet." Vicky peered at my phone. "Holy shit, he's actually out? And he's coming here?" She hugged me tightly. "You were right!"

"What, that he was still alive?" I rolled my eyes in an attempt to conceal my jittery nerves. "A mishap in the Birdcage that just so happens to kill him, just after Teacher dies as well? I sincerely doubt that either one was as accidental as they'd like the public to think."

Vicky frowned. "What, you think they lied about Teacher dying?"

"Oh, no, Teacher's dead." I spoke with absolute assurance. "Dad—I mean Marquis Dad—would never have left him alive after Saint tried to use me to get him out. That asshole wasn't Teacher's only cult member, you know."

"Exactly correct." The new voice, one I'd only heard once before, coincided with the front door opening. A familiar figure stepped through, then glanced behind himself with some puzzlement. He shook his head, frowning. "I could've sworn …"

"Dad?" My voice was low and breathless. I could feel my heart rate accelerating. "Is it really you?" It certainly looked like him, although his hair and beard had been trimmed somewhat. That didn't matter, once I got a closer look at him; the timbre of his voice and the way he moved awakened memories long forgotten.

"It is, dearest Amelia." Dismissing whatever it was that had him confused, he stepped all the way inside and closed the door. Moving toward me, he put his hands on my shoulders and stared into my face. "My God, you've grown."

I pushed forward and hugged him tightly. Vaguely, I felt him patting me gently on the back. "I missed you," I said, trying not to cry. "I didn't know how bad I missed you, until I saw you in the Birdcage. But I missed you so bad. Vicky says I cried myself to sleep for months after they took me away."

"Well, that's what I remember happening, anyway," Vicky said awkwardly from beside me. "I didn't really know what was going on, except that I had a new sister and she was sad all the time. So I tried to make her happy."

"And I appreciate it," Dad said, patting me on the back again, but speaking to her. "Victoria, was it? Glory Girl?"

"I go by Vicky, actually." She paused, apparently unsure about how to go on. "So … what do we call you? New Guy? Amy's Dad? I'm pretty sure 'Uncle Marquis' is out of the question."

He chuckled warmly. "I can see we're going to get along just fine. No, an identity has been arranged for me. My new name is Patrick Matheson, but you can call me Patrick."

Slowly, I unpeeled myself from my father, but took hold of his hand to keep him close. "I kind of expected them to use 'Marcus' or 'Mark'. You know, keep it familiar?"

When he smiled, I saw creases collecting around his eyes. "Giveaway names like that only happen in Saturday morning cartoons. Do they still have those?"

"Uh huh," I said immediately. "Protectorate Kids is a big favourite. They can't put the Wards up even as parody images until they're eighteen, but de-aged versions of the current Protectorate are fair game."

"Yeah." Vicky smirked. "Li'l Alexandria is so cute."

Dad actually laughed out loud. "I am definitely going to have to watch that."


Dragonslayer Base
Mags


"So, have you decided what to do with Marquis data?" Mischa's question was phrased casually, but the look in his eye was anything but.

It wasn't hard for Mags to figure out where his thoughts lay. "I'm not going to Brockton Bay to avenge Geoff," she assured him. "That was a fool's errand to begin with. But I'm not going to let them off scot free either. Someone's gonna pay for this shit."

Mischa nodded. "Talking about pay, what is happening with team? One working suit is too vulnerable, da? Are we even Dragonslayers?"

Leaning back in the computer chair, Mags closed her eyes and sighed. "No, you're right. We're going to have to make some changes around here. Go and pay the men off, let them know we're not doing active jobs anymore. Try to break it to them gently, okay? Let them know it's not them, it's us."

"Will do." She heard his heavy tread as he moved out of the room and off down the corridor.

Opening her eyes again, Mags turned to the computer system. For a moment, she was tempted to activate Ascalon anyway. An irresistible weapon to slay a dragon. Once set in motion, the program would remove the machine from consideration forever.

But the Dragon AI had never done anything to warrant its execution. Geoff had been stalking Dragon obsessively over the last few years, scrutinising its every move in the hope of finding something to prove it was the danger he had always maintained it was. He had consistently come up empty, over and over again. And in the meantime, Dragon had emulated being a hero successfully enough that people considered 'her' to be a real person.

There was no harm, Mags decided, in allowing Dragon to continue helping people until such time as it decided to start hurting them instead. She would keep an eye on it, monitoring its activities, providing a check on its behaviour. Protecting humanity from behind the scenes.

This wasn't to say that either Panacea or Marquis would go unpunished. As she'd said to Mischa, someone was going to pay dearly for Geoff's death.

Carefully, she crafted the file that would go out. It contained the footage of Panacea's conversation with Marquis in the Birdcage, as well as each subsequent interaction that involved a mention of Marquis or Panacea. Appended to it was the code string that prevented Dragon from intercepting it or following the trail back, because she wasn't stupid.

THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD CALL THEMSELVES YOUR HEROES, she emblazoned across the screen that finished off the file. Carefully, she picked out the destination addresses; mainstream news as well as conspiracy theory sites. If even one took it up and reposted it, it would go viral in hours.

Finally, there was but one thing left to do. The SEND icon lay under the cursor on her screen. Once rung, this bell could never be unrung.

Fuck you all. Geoff, this is for you.

With a cold and bitter smile, she clicked the mouse button.


Marquis


'Patrick' sat on the sofa across from the adult members of New Wave. Brandish and Lady Photon sat on the sofa opposite, while Manpower and Flashbang stood behind it. His Amelia sat beside him, while Vicky perched on the arm of the sofa with her hand on her sister's shoulder. Filling out the team, Shielder and Laserdream flanked their parents on either side.

"You're all looking well," he observed, taking a sip from his cup of tea. Even that tasted so much better out of the Birdcage. "Though I understand you're all unmasked for fighting crime? Even the children?"

Brandish glared. "It was an integral aspect of the New Wave movement. Total accountability for heroes and villains alike."

He sipped again. "You do realise, do you not, that villains will mask up anyway? That you were simply exposing yourselves and your loved ones to whatever retribution the villains would be likely to send your way?" He stopped short of mentioning Fleur by name. They were all thinking it by that point, and it was easier to let them rub the salt into their own wounds.

"Shut up." Brandish seemed to have taken on the role of spokesperson for the team. "We're here to talk about Amy, not your views on how we run our team."

"Very well." He placed the cup down and faced them squarely. "Amelia is my daughter, and she will be staying with me for as long as she and I choose. I will thank you to not stalk me or her, lest you draw unwelcome attention to me. I have given my word to her to not take up my old criminal ways again, and I intend to stand by that word. Do you understand?"

Lady Photon looked concerned. "Amy's duties with New Wave—"

"—will be attended to at Amelia's discretion," he interrupted smoothly. "When and if you choose to pay her for such healing as she decides to carry out, she will be placing a higher priority on that. Until then, I will be seeing about creating a more equitable arrangement for her. In addition, I will be looking at child labour laws, to see if a lawsuit against the team has any standing. There might be serious damages accruing for the last three years. Accountability, you understand."

At their collective stunned look, he took up his teacup and sat back, feeling truly comfortable for the first time since he had been released from the Birdcage. Once he had undertaken not to perform any overt criminal activity, those in positions of power had apparently dismissed him as harmless, unable to effect change.

They had no idea—yet—how wrong they were.


End of Part Ten