Another Way

Part Nineteen: Taking Care of Business

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

Robert wasn't at all sure where the sword came from, but when he summoned it, it grew out of his hand. Much like the armour that covered his body, it was there when he needed it, and vanished when he didn't. He had trouble remembering more than vague details about the world, but he was reasonably sure that people didn't ordinarily extrude metal armour from their skin, or cause long metal blades to grow out of their hands. Even without the armour, he was particularly durable and strong, but with it … he would've said he was unbeatable.

Except that he wasn't.

"Attend to your guard, boy!" Even as the words cracked across the training room, a bone club came whistling past his sword and smacked into the side of his head, sending him sprawling. The steel helmet protected him from the worst of the impact, but his vision wavered and his ears rang with the impact. "Don't look at where my weapon is! Focus on where it's going to be!"

"I'm trying!" he protested. "You keep changing your weapon!" He'd thought he just about had the hang of the bone sword Marquis was using, until it became a club and the veteran supervillain totally changed his fighting style.

"It's true," Marquis agreed. "I do. It's one of the ways I keep my opponents off-balance."

"Well, it's sure working on me," muttered Robert. "Every time I think I know what I'm doing, you change the rules."

Marquis made the bone club disappear. "On the contrary, the rules never change. You're simply unaware of which game you're trying to play. It's very simple: don't get hit."

"You've been doing it for a lot longer than me." Robert tried not to sound like he was whining. "No matter what I try, you hit me."

"Would you rather I allow you to think you were more skilled than you are?" Marquis raised an eyebrow. "That kind of shoddy training gets people killed."

"Yeah, I know." Robert tried to muster a coherent argument. "But you're so much better than me. It's like you're doing stuff you think I should know how to react to, but I'm not even up to the level you're dumbing it down to."

"Hmm." Marquis rubbed his chin between forefinger and thumb. "You may be correct. Very well; we shall change opponents."

"Don't look at me," Palatina advised over the rumble of her treadmill, next to the wall. "I'm best at ranged combat."

"We are going to have to address that at some point," he noted. "But not today." He looked across the gym to where Claire in her Marchioness form, wearing a martial-arts gi, was sparring with the scary man-mountain who pretended to be their bodyguard.

Robert had watched Jonas bench half a ton without breaking a sweat earlier. He was no weakling himself, but that was a level of power he knew he couldn't match. One punch from the big guy, he knew quite well, would probably put him clean through the wall.

He wasn't quite sure if Jonas was hamming it up for the boss' daughter or if she really was that fast, but each time one of those huge fists lashed out, it connected with nothing but air. In return, she was beating on him like a punching-bag, though her punches and shin-strikes seemed to be having little effect.

"Claire!" called out Marquis. "Cease playing patty-cake with Jonas. Robert needs tuition in the basics before I can get back to teaching him how to stay alive in a fight."

"Just a second, Dad!" Claire moved aside smoothly from a piledriver blow from Jonas, took hold of the arm, then spun and twisted in a very specific way. To Robert's astonishment, Jonas' feet left the mat as he somersaulted up and over, landing on his back with a muffled crash.

Claire didn't let go his arm; a brief but fierce scuffle developed between the teenage girl and the burly 'bodyguard' that ended up with Jonas face-down on the mat. His arm was angled up behind him at what looked like a very uncomfortable degree, and Claire was sitting on his back with her left foot wedged in behind his left ear. "Give?" she called out.

Jonas grunted and tried to throw her off, but lacked any kind of serious leverage. She ratcheted up the tension on her hold a few degrees. After a few more seconds, Jonas slapped the mat with his free hand. Claire immediately released his arm and rolled off his back, coming to her feet in a single lithe move.

"I might have to increase the play in your shoulder joints a little," she said as she offered a hand for him to get up. "I'm thinking I took you down a little too easily there."

"Could be, chick," the big man rumbled, accepting the help. She braced herself and heaved him up. "Are you getting faster, or am I slowing down?"

"You're not slowing down," she assured him. "I'm experimenting with a different neurotransmitter-analogue. Maybe fifteen percent faster reactions. But it would have unpleasant side-effects on any human system that hasn't been tailored to accept it." Reaching up, she slapped him on the shoulder. "But we can talk shop later. Let's go see what Dad wants."

"Fifteen percent?" asked Marquis as Claire and Jonas approached. "Really?"

Claire shrugged. "It ranges from fourteen to sixteen, so I went with fifteen. It's a work in progress. Anyway, what's up?"

Robert could see the writing on the wall. Marquis was going to tell Jonas to spar with him. It didn't matter that the man was technically unarmed; nobody who had been within reach of those fists would use that particular term about Jonas with any degree of seriousness. It was bad enough when he got hit by whatever bone weapon Marquis was favouring at the moment. He was reasonably certain that Jonas was capable of putting his fist through a brick wall without doing himself appreciable damage. And he wasn't at all certain he was fast or strong enough to evade or block a blow from the enhanced bodyguard.

This is going to suck, big-time.

"Young Robert has raised the excellent point that I'm too far out of his league to teach him properly," Marquis said without the slightest hint of irony in his voice. "Claire, you're the one here who's learned self-defence techniques most recently. Do you think you could tutor him until he's got a basis we can build upon?"

"Sure." Claire shrugged, then glanced at Robert. "If that's okay with you?"

"Uh, sure." Robert glanced from Jonas to Claire, recalling the ease with which she'd thrown the much larger man. "Just go easy on me, okay? I'm pretty sure you're stronger and faster than me."

She grinned, and he could've sworn her teeth got a tiny bit sharper. "No promises."

Well, it's still probably going to suck, Robert reflected. Just not quite as much.


Kenta stared at the footage. If he hadn't known for an absolute fact that he was not the one in the imagery being blasted out through the front wall of the PRT building, he would've been taken in by the masquerade. The flames and metallic scales were hard to mistake for anyone but him.

On the screen, the impostor hit the asphalt and rolled over several times, then snarled and began to climb to his feet. On his chest, the area of scales that had been blasted away by the energy beam began to grow in again, thicker and heavier than ever. Except that he never made it all the way; an off-white barrier sprang up around him, then filled itself in faster than he could break out. By the time the glowing woman emerged from the hole, the other Lung was thoroughly encased.

What was Purity doing inside the PRT building? A moment later, he dismissed the question as irrelevant, as he had every other time he'd watched this video. The answer would come out, or it wouldn't.

His eyes narrowed and heat built up around his hands when he saw the red and green colours worn by the minions of the fake Lung. If he was not much mistaken, they had fled his service after badly failing him. Running away was bad enough, but they were still purporting to be members of the ABB. This was a mortal insult; if he ever found them again, he would do to them what he'd done to their craven leader.

The sound on the phone video was so bad as to be not there at all, so he could only guess at what was said between Marquis (for who else could it be?), the girl in the evening gown, Purity and Armsmaster. He would've given a great deal to know exactly who Marquis had called to make Armsmaster back off; was the veteran supervillain now working with the PRT?

As the car drove off, tinted windows and obscured license plate making it impossible to garner any clues about its ownership, Kenta leaned back in his chair and thought about what he'd just seen. The girl was almost certainly Marquis' daughter, the rogue known as Marchioness. She had to have a Master rating by the way she'd managed to gain ascendancy over his ex-minions or even his own doppelganger, because they'd walked to the car without the slightest fuss.

Which meant that something was going on behind the scenes. Possibly more than one 'something', given the number of strange events that were happening around Brockton Bay at the moment. The disappearance of both the Archer's Bridge Merchants and the Empire Eighty-Eight from the underworld scene, save for Purity, who appeared to have taken up with Marquis. The strange story of the bank robbery both perpetrated and foiled by Marquis. The explosive immolation of a warehouse in the Docklands, the area now sequestered and shut down by the PRT.

Stripping away all the inconsequentialities, this spelled a potential opportunity for Kenta and the ABB, both to expand in operations and to gain revenge for the insult inflicted by Marquis. He was fully aware of the fact that with allies, Marquis was stronger than he ever had been before, but he didn't care. The bone-manipulator would die for crossing him and claiming ABB territory, and for turning his previously-loyal followers against him.

As for Marquis' allies, Kenta wasn't overly concerned. Purity's blasts were powerful but she couldn't take the same sort of damage that she could deal out. He could weather a few of her shots until he got in close, then he'd deal a killing blow. Likewise, it seemed that Marchioness needed to be close to her victims to make her Master ability work. His flames could easily fry her from a distance, before she could ever lay a hand on him. No, the real danger was Marquis and his osteokinesis; fortunately, Kenta was strong enough to smash through barricades and tough enough to take a hit from any bone weapon the older man wished to try on him. It would be a tough fight, but the leader of the ABB knew he would win. He always had.

He vaguely recalled hearing that apart from her Master ability, Marchioness also healed people at the Brockton Bay General Hospital. Being able to heal was useful, but there was nothing she'd be able to do to bring Marquis back from what Kenta intended to do to him. Let's see her heal a pile of ashes.

The idea of capturing her from the hospital to use as leverage to bring her father out of hiding occurred to him, but he dismissed it almost at once. As one of the two major criminal capes in the city, a move like that would almost certainly bring down unwanted attention on him and the rest of the ABB. Especially considering the odd influence Marquis seemed to possess with the PRT. He, himself, could stand the heat, but if the authorities took to arresting his minions as fast as they showed their faces, the ABB would not last long. Also, he couldn't think of a way to kidnap her that didn't involve getting close enough for her to Master his minions, or even himself.

Having his minions attack Marquis' footsoldiers seemed a valid tactic. From what he'd heard, the men were competent but didn't include any actual capes. They were advancing into what had been Empire territory, and shooing drug dealers out of Merchant turf, with little in the way of opposition. Moving into ABB territory, they were being a little more circumspect, but so far they were having things all their own way. A few judicious defeats, he decided, should both send the right message and draw out Marquis to deal with the problem.

Whereupon Kenta would intercept him and deal with his problem, once and for all. Deprived of their natural leader, Marchioness and Purity would be relatively easy to mop up.

Half-closing his eyes, Kenta allowed a predatory smile to cross his face. Once that happened, the ABB would be the undisputed cape gang in Brockton Bay. They would rule, and draw tributes, from Captain's Hill to Lord Street; from the Forsberg Gallery to the Docks. And if anyone else tried to muscle in on that action … well, there was a reason they called him the Dragon of Kyushu.

He started the video again from the beginning.

PRT ENE Building
Director's Office

Colin wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Normally, he maintained a strictly professional relationship with the Director because she was the Director. Her dislike of capes was an open secret within the local PRT and Protectorate, but for the most part she seemed willing to step back and let the heroes sort things out. Until she wasn't. When she decided that the Protectorate or Wards had overstepped the line, she wasn't the type to send a passive-aggressive memo suggesting that they clean up their act. No, she wasn't that sort of person at all. Emily Piggot was ex-military, formerly a front-line officer, and it showed.

When she was pissed at someone, she didn't get passive-aggressive at all. She just got aggressive.

"So, a tank," she said flatly.

"Yes," he confirmed.

She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Heavy, covered in armour, big gun on the front, caterpillar tracks, slow and noisy … that kind of tank?"

"That's the description we got from Marchioness, Mega Girl, and the staff who witnessed it, yes," he said. Internally, he winced at the phrase 'slow and noisy'. Those three words did not bode well for his immediate mental well-being.

"Where did it come from, and why was it not detected before it came within half a mile of the hospital?" she asked, as if to a child. Colin hoped that she never had children, if only for the sake of her putative offspring. She wasn't a bad person, but 'good' did not equal 'nice', especially in her job.

Fortunately, he'd done some looking around in the aftermath of the attack on the hospital. Marchioness had answered his questions, but with a certain amount of blunt sarcasm. She was also a little vague on how she'd avoided being abducted, claiming that Mega Girl had been there to save the day but only giving a few basic details.

Mega Girl had been a little more forthcoming, reporting that 'a big guy in a mask' had assisted her with disabling the tank before she flew away with it. No, she'd never seen the big guy before. No, she had no idea who he was. He was a Brute, she'd told Colin, but everything had happened so fast. No, when she got back to the hospital, he was gone …

Backtracking the tank itself, he'd discovered that the tracks ran out alongside one of the major roads, about two blocks from the hospital. "At my best estimation, it was dropped off by a large truck of some sort," he said. "As for why we didn't notice it before it hit the hospital itself, especially given that it passed by several security cameras, none of which saw anything significant, I'm going with a cloaking device for the time being."

"Anything significant?" she asked, proving that she was paying attention. "Was there something not significant that they picked up?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said, glad to have something positive to report. "The tank left trackmarks in the roadway, which gave us a timestamp for each camera it passed by. Enhancing and examining the footage of those cameras, we were able to detect a distinctive fuzziness, as if the tank had been photoshopped out of the footage. By measuring the movement of the camera, we were also able to detect the vibration caused by the tank going past, even though it cancelled audible sound. I am reasonably certain I can devise a drop-down filter that will allow me to spot the next such cloaked vehicle."

The look on her face showed that she was not enthralled by his pronouncement. "The next such cloaked vehicle?"

"Well, yes." Despite his best efforts, his voice took on a didactic tone. "This Tinker dislikes Marchioness personally, but only knew enough about her personal habits to attack her at the hospital …" His voice trailed off as facts connected themselves together in his head to make a brand-new picture. "Wait … of course …"

"Of course what?" snapped Piggot. "Have you worked out a machine that will track this goddamn Tinker down and disable the next invisible tank he Tinker builds?"

Her tone was mainly sarcastic, but he didn't mind. "Not yet, ma'am, but I've been trying to work out who could be behind this. Marquis and Marchioness have only been back in Brockton Bay for a short while, and we have a distinct lack of villain Tinkers as it is. But I just remembered. You may recall my report about Traction, the powersuit user who got injured while I was giving Mega Girl a training run?"

She nodded, an expression of enlightenment crossing her face. "The Bailey woman, correct? She was broken out of prisoner transport by the Empire Eighty-Eight. There were casualties. You think she's our culprit?"

"I do." It was good to be on the same page again. "She showed all the signs of being a habitual drug user, and in fact was attempting to steal pharmaceuticals when she was apprehended. Marchioness was in the emergency room at the time, and not only healed her but cured her addiction and alerted me to the fact that she was awake and playing possum."

Piggot considered that. "Well, she's definitely a Tinker, and for a motive I suppose she might be holding a grudge against Marchioness for warning you that she was about to escape."

"Not even that, ma'am," Colin told her. "Marchioness forced her to go fully sober. Removed all the chemical cravings from her body. She's having to face the world as it is for the first time in a long time. Worse, if there's anything I've learned from going against the Merchants, it's that addiction can be in itself an addiction. Even when they're totally clean, addicts still crave that perfect high. I would bet my halberd that Marchioness made it so she can't just get straight back on the drugs, and that she's pissed at Marchioness for taking that from her."

"In other words, no good deed goes unpunished." Piggot grimaced and shook her head. "It makes sense. God knows I wish it didn't, but it does. Where in a sane universe does someone build a goddamn stealth tank to abduct the person who cured their addiction … and what did she want with Marchioness once she had her?"

Colin figured the first question was rhetorical, so he felt safe in answering the second one. "If I had to guess? Revenge, or maybe to try to force Marchioness to take away whatever's stopping Bailey from getting high. And then revenge."

Piggot nodded in understanding. "That definitely ticks all the boxes. Cape names aren't the best way to determine someone's powers, but a Tinker calling herself Traction sounds like someone who could build a tank, to me at least. Motive, means and opportunity." She drew a deep breath. "We got lucky this time, that Mega Girl and this unnamed Brute were nearby. No indication on who he was? Security footage?"

"I looked for that, too." Armsmaster shook his head. "Whoever it was knew how to evade security cameras. He wore a balaclava and dark clothing. About my size, maybe a bit heavier through the shoulders. We don't have very good imagery of him and once the action was over, he left the area covered by the cameras without even looking back. Apart from the fact that he can apparently bend metal in his bare hands, I would've taken him for a wannabe non-powered vigilante."

"So, another newbie on the scene who hasn't taken the time to get a proper costume together, who happened on the scene and helped out," Piggot summarised. "We'll almost certainly see him around and about at some point in a proper costume, unless something happens to him. At least he seems to have the right instincts, which doesn't always happen. Either way, he helped us dodge a bullet. This time."

"Yes, ma'am." Colin didn't need that to be explained to him. "The question is, now that we know someone has a definite motive to attack Marchioness, is Marquis going to do the smart thing and keep her undercover until we've got Traction stuffed in the Birdcage?"

The look she gave him then would've made him snort if he was inclined to be amused at times like this. "Now, now, Armsmaster. We both know that they haven't yet convened the trial to see if Traction is Birdcage material, and the law of the land says she's innocent until proven guilty."

"Of course, Director." He kept his voice deadpan, eliciting a very faint smile from her. "Whatever happens to Traction, there are several reasons we don't want Marchioness getting hurt; her status as a potential game-changer at Endbringer battles is just one of them."

"I concur." The humour was entirely gone from her voice now. From the sound of things, Piggot wasn't hopeful about Marquis doing the smart thing. "She might be the daughter of a notorious supervillain and murderer, but she's still just a teenage girl. More to the point, if she were to be hurt or killed, I shudder to think about the revenge Marquis would wreak upon whoever he considered responsible." She interlaced her fingers and clenched her hands together. "Which is why I'm going to be taking a very risky step, hopefully to avert an even riskier outcome."

"Ma'am?" This conversation was going places Colin hadn't expected it to. "What do you have in mind?"

Piggot looked up at him, her face set in determined lines. "We both know Marquis isn't the type to step back from adversity. He moves forward, faces it and overcomes it. The only reason he left Brockton Bay was the threat against his daughter before she had powers; he came back because she now has powers of her own and can take care of herself. Do you concur?"

"I do." He nodded cautiously. So far, her logic seemed to be holding up, but he wasn't sure he liked where it seemed to be leading. "Which means …?"

"Which means I'm going to have to authorise PRT and possibly Protectorate surveillance on Marchioness whenever she's seen in public," the Director stated firmly. "No information gathering, of course no attempts to hinder her or take her in. Call it an informal protection detail. If anyone tries anything against her, that's when our people step in."

"And if she makes us?" Colin considered it a distinct possibility. Marchioness had come across as being very sharp, and that didn't even factor in what training her father may have given her in counter-surveillance.

Piggot's expression soured. "Then we're going to have to come clean. The absolute last thing I want is for Marquis to get the impression that we're lurking around with the intent to abduct his daughter. But unless that happens, we have to stay discreet; the second last thing I want is for the news organisations to find out that we're offering free protection to the kids of supervillains. That shitstorm would go thermonuclear faster than Behemoth playing with plutonium."

"I don't like it." Colin shook his head. "Marquis is very good at what he does. If he spots the surveillance crew, gets the wrong idea, and goes in for the attack, we could easily lose people. The man is utterly ruthless and damn near unstoppable when he wants to be." He took a deep breath. "I agree that we need to put people on her … but we're also going to have to inform Marquis about it before we do."

If Piggot had given the impression of sucking on a lemon before, now she looked like she'd just gone through half a dozen of them. "I like that even less. If he chose to alert the press …"

"I don't think he'd actually do that," Colin said with a shake of his head. "All it would achieve is to draw unnecessary attention to Marchioness, and he won't want that." A brief grimace crossed his face. "I can see him critiquing our technique or telling us to back off, but I can't see him making a public song and dance about it."

"As much as I hate to admit it, I could live with that," the Director agreed. "If we're seen to be making an honest effort to protect her and he tells us to back off, then whatever happens afterward will not fall on our necks. It would be a pity and a crying shame if she got hurt, but we can't save every cat from every tree." She took a deep breath. "I'm going to find out from the hospital when she's due to be in there, and have a rapid-response crew nearby on those dates. It'll be slightly more problematic if she chooses to go out and about in public with no prior warning, but we'll work something out."

"I can change up the rosters so we've always got a member of the Protectorate or the Wards ready to detach from regular duties and 'patrol' the area she's in, if that happens," Colin decided. "Perhaps we can bring Mega Girl in on this; she seems to be building a rapport with Marchioness."

"That's not a terrible idea," agreed Piggot. "Now, one last hurdle. Contacting Marquis and letting him know what our plans are before we set all this in motion. As much as I hate to be giving a supervillain a heads-up on our movements …"

"It's a good idea in this case." Colin liked it no more than she did, but extraordinary situations required extraordinary measures. "And fortunately, we have a phone number for Marchioness." He reached into a belt pouch and produced a copy of the card the girl had given him. The original had gone through so many tests and analyses that it had essentially fallen apart.

"That's probably going to be the only convenient thing in this whole damn case," Piggot muttered as she took the copy.

"I hear that, ma'am. I'll get started on the roster change." Colin turned and headed for the door.

"You do that."

The last thing Colin saw in his rear-view camera before the door closed behind him was Piggot staring at the number on the card as if it were a bug she really, really wanted to squash.


"And that's how you deal with someone who tries to grab you from behind," Claire said cheerfully as she helped Robert get to his feet. Off to the side, her father was still sparring with Jonas, full-power blows thwacking into bone shields and hardened subdermal armour. Both of them, as far as she could tell, were enjoying the workout. She didn't go that hard into the full-contact stuff until she'd added on some body mass, but she was good at evading attacks even when she was at her normal weight.

"I see." Looking self-conscious, Robert rubbed at his butt. "I know I'm hard to hurt and I heal fast, but you've been putting bruises on me faster than I've been getting rid of them. Maybe I should've been wearing the armour."

"Nope," she said definitively, and tilted her head toward the bench where her stuff was laid out. "Let's hydrate. Wearing the armour would've been bad, because it protects you."

"Isn't that the idea of armour? To protect me?" He followed her over to the bench and took the bottle of Gatorade she handed him.

"You need to learn," she pointed out. Twisting the top off her own bottle, she chugged down a few mouthfuls. "You don't learn if there's no incentive. Bruises are an incentive." Her phone was on the bench, so she sat down and hit the power button.

"How did you learn?" He gestured in her general direction, then took a long drink himself. "I mean, you're naturally fast and armoured, right?"

She nodded. "Yeah, but Dad's had me doing martial arts for years, since before I got powers. There was one teacher I had who made me look like I was standing still on my best day." A little sadly, she thought of Abigail, wondering where the Irish cape was now. With a deep breath, she shook herself out of the mood. "Once I've got you up to speed with the basics, Dad and Jonas can start applying the tougher stuff. By the time they're finished, you'll be able to handle anything anyone out there can throw at you."

"Yeah, but that's because they'll be throwing it at me in here," he said, looking just a little rueful.

"That's the way it goes," she confirmed, then looked down as her phone pinged. "Huh. Two missed calls and a text." She opened the text and her eyebrows rose.


I need to speak to your father about ensuring your safety, especially regarding the hospital incident. Please have him contact me at his earliest convenience.

-Emily Piggot, PRT ENE Regional Director

"Dad!" she called out across the gym. "I just got a text from Director Piggot! It's for you!"

That got his attention to the point that he put up his hand to stop Jonas as he turned to face her. "That's a first," he remarked. "Okay, training's over for the day. Robert, Jonas, hit the showers. I've got to take this."

As the other two headed out the door, he went over to where Claire was holding out the phone. "I confess, I'm intrigued as to…" He stopped, re-reading the text. "What, really?"

"I know, right?" Claire asked. "They're so worried about my well-being that they're actually willing to do something more than passively-aggressively snipe from the sidelines?"

"Oooh," observed Kayden as she stepped off the treadmill and swiped a towel over her forehead. "Burn."

He raised an eyebrow and smiled at Kayden's sally. "I tend to agree. It would be a change, yes. Of course, it may be a little premature to think about celebrating just yet. So, once we've showered and changed, we shall be taking a drive around Brockton Bay so that we can make a call."

"'We' as in me too?" asked Claire, though she already knew the answer. It was only polite to ask.

"Well, of course." He smiled. "It's about you, after all."

Apparently Abandoned Warehouse
Backup Empire Eighty-Eight Base

"Are you really going to make this about you?" asked Justin. He scratched the back of his head as he looked over the chassis of Sherrel's latest creation.

She hadn't wasted any time since losing the remote-controlled tank, getting straight back into the workshop. In all honesty, it was a little daunting. Was every Tinker this driven, or had they picked up a particularly obsessed member of the fraternity? Or was it sorority? He couldn't remember. All he knew was that, despite the fact that she was the most recent recruit after himself, Alabaster and Night and Fog, she had somehow ended up calling the shots.

Sherrel looked around, her glare razor-sharp despite the fact that she had to flip up the light welding goggles to make eye contact. He involuntarily took a step back at the intensity of her gaze. "Of fucking course it's not about me," she snapped. Reaching out, she turned off the welder and set the welding rod down. "But I don't see any of you clowns making a move to do something about the skinny little cow who murdered three-quarters of the Empire Eighty-Eight in cold blood."

Justin grimaced. "Well, we don't know for a fact that it was her … I mean, Marquis …" He'd joined the Empire after Marquis had left Brockton Bay, but the stories that the older hands had told him had stuck in his head. The man had run his turf on his own, with no cape backup, and nobody crossed him if they wanted their skeleton to be in the same shape when he was finished. He didn't know exactly what had happened at Somers Rock or at the Medhall Tower, but if anyone had killed that many capes, his money would've been on the bone controller, not some healer chick.

"Marquis does bone, you idiot!" she snapped. "Not great big black flying tigers, or whatever the fuck it was that they saw flying around Medhall! So either it was Marchioness, or some projection of hers, or maybe some friend of hers from out of town. But no matter fuckin' what, Marchioness is the one behind it all. So we are gonna grab her. End of story. Unless you've got something better to do while we wait for Marquis or Lung to push their territory this far."

Justin was no longer wondering how she'd managed to take over the small group. He had no real idea how to lead (even if he'd possessed the ambition for it), Alabaster couldn't be bothered, and Geoff and Dorothy didn't have the initiative to break out of their self-created ruts. "No, no, you're right," he said. "I'll just leave you to it."

"Sure. Good. Hey, before you go, grab me a beer, would you?" She gestured at the bar fridge beside the workshop door. "See if that shit's worn off yet."

"No problem." Justin wished his ghosts could manipulate non-living matter. In the absence of that ability, he went over to the fridge and took a beer out, then handed it to her.

"Thanks." She popped the cap off and took a drink …

… and sprayed the mouthful all over the wall. "Fuck!" she screeched, as the mostly-full bottle sailed across the workshop to shatter against the far wall, the glass shards joining a deepening heap there. Old, dried beer stains bore mute testimony about previous attempts to see if she could handle booze again. It was apparent that today was not going to be the day.

Backing out of the room, he closed the door behind him. He was going to have to see about getting more beer into that fridge. In fact, now would be a good time—

Turning, he bumped into Alabaster, who raised a sardonic eyebrow toward the extremely illustrative cursing emanating from beyond the carefully shut door. "Still can't drink, huh?" the other man asked with a smirk.

"Gah!" Justin was almost certain that the white-skinned man had snuck up on him on purpose. "Yeah, still tastes like shit to her. Listen, maybe you can talk to her. Make her see sense."

"See sense in what?" Alabaster had a shit-eating grin a mile wide on his face.

"This!" Justin gestured broadly. "All … this. We're getting in too deep. Going after Marquis' kid? This isn't what the Empire does. We're here to—"

Alabaster took bunched his fist in Justin's shirt and slammed him against the wall beside the door. "The Empire isn't here anymore," he growled. "Because of whatever bullshit Marquis and his kid pulled. Killed them, ate them, disappeared them, whatever they did. Purity's defected and Kaiser along with everyone else … vanished. Now, we can scuttle back into our hole and whine about how it's not fair, or we can bring the fight to them. We can't take down Purity without taking on Marquis, so we take him down. The best way to do that is to have his kid hostage. Make him come to us."

Justin did his best to inhale. Alabaster was a lot stronger than him, and he knew better than to try to fight the older cape. No matter how many ghosts he summoned to grab Alabaster, the guy wouldn't go down and he wouldn't stop fighting. "You know they're gonna Birdcage her," he managed. "Attacking a hospital? If they get their hands on her, her feet won't have time to touch the ground. Hell, if she keeps going, it might even end up as a kill order. And us with her. You really want it to go that far?"

Shaking his head, Alabaster let Justin down. "You just don't get it. This is the big leagues we're playing in here. Hookwolf went for years with a Birdcage sentence hanging over his head. Think that stopped him from going out and doing his thing? Like fuck it did. If we backed away from something just because the authorities might not like it, we'd never fucking get anything done." He slapped himself on the chest. "And if they want to kill-order me, let 'em fuckin' try."

Yeah, but what if they succeed? Justin didn't say that out loud. "Right," he said, trying to sound convinced. "I think I might go and check my armour over. If we're gonna be going hard, I need to be prepped."

"Yeah, good thinking." Alabaster slapped Justin on the shoulder. "Wouldn't do to have your whiny bitch ass shot or stabbed, just because you got too close to the action."

There was nothing Justin could say to that without sounding either defiant or whiny, so he kept his mouth shut. As he headed off to where he kept his gear, he could feel the jaws of the trap closing in on him.

What can I do? Talk to Geoff and Dorothy? It would be an even worse idea than trying to talk sense into Sherrell. Those two would do whatever she said.

If he turned on the team, they'd kill him. If he tried to walk away, they'd track him down and then kill him. If he stayed where he was ... shit was going to go sideways.

No matter what he did, he was screwed.



Claire leaned back in the car seat as her father carried on the conversation over speakerphone. The route Jonas was driving allowed the big man to watch for tails and in general make sure that the PRT wasn't pulling a fast one. Not that she or her father thought they might, but he hadn't lasted so long in the villain business by assuming everyone would follow the rules.

From the tone of her father's voice, he was slightly irritated but mostly amused. Also from the sound of it, Director Piggot had not been in control of the conversation. Claire had had to cover her mouth a few times to avoid giggling out loud at some of her father's comments.

"In conclusion, Emily," he said, "while I cannot prevent you from deploying your fine men and women when and where you choose, and I am not in the least bit averse to extra protection for my daughter ..."

He paused meaningfully.

After a few seconds, Director Piggot prompted him. "Yes ...?"

Marquis leaned forward, despite the fact that she couldn't see him. All humour was gone from his tone. "If your men screw up in any way and these idiots get to her because of it, I will not rest until I've gotten full restitution from them and you. Is that perfectly understood?'

There was another pause before Piggot answered. "Absolutely."

"Good." He cut the call, then turned to Claire. "Well, Claire-bear, it seems you're going to have a whole new level of security."

She frowned. "But you threatened her. Wouldn't it be smarter for her to stand back, now that you've said that?"

"For most of us, yes," he agreed with a chuckle. "For the good Director, a threat works like a red flag. She can't let it go by. And in addition, this means the Protectorate and PRT will be focusing on you."

Her frown turned into a look of suspicion. "And what will you be doing while they're concentrating on me?'

He smiled, showing his teeth. "Tracking down Traction, of course."

End of Part Nineteen