Another Way


Part Twenty: Socialising and Scouting


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


Northwest Middle School
Taylor


"Emma, Taylor, hey!" Claire's voice sang out behind them in the corridor. Taylor turned first, with Emma just half a beat behind. Her eyebrows raised as she saw her other best friend forging her way through the crowd, towing a slightly younger male black-haired version of herself (albeit skinnier and a little less self-assured) by the hand.

"Hi, Claire." Taylor nodded toward the boy. "Who's this?"

"This is my cousin Marcus," Claire said happily. "He's just transferred in from Boston, and he'll be staying with us for awhile. I just thought I'd introduce him to you guys before I took him to the office and got him straightened out."

"Well, hi, Marcus." Emma beamed at him. "It's good to meet you. Don't listen to anything Claire tells you about us—"

"—because it's all true," Taylor interjected. "But we'll deny everything to our dying breath. Do you like sports? I like sports. Track and field, mainly. You look like you can run." She tilted her head to the side musingly. "Or are you a swimmer? We've got a great swimming pool here—"

"Okay, okay, wow," broke in Claire, laughing. "Give him a chance to get a word in edgewise, will you?"

"It's okay, cuz," Marcus said with a grin. "They're your friends, not mine. I don't really want to intrude."

"Nuh uh," Emma declared. "Until you get your own friends, we're adopting you. It's the rules. Because we're gonna be coming over now and again—"

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Mainly because Emma and her swimsuit have fallen in love with Mr Marchant's heated swimming pool, am I right?" She held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Taylor Hebert. How do you feel about frogs?"

Marcus raised an eyebrow questioningly. "We have an agreement. I don't pick them up and they don't pee on me. Why?"

Taylor shuddered theatrically. "We're supposedly dissecting them today. Last time I did that, I threw up."

Emma waited until Marcus had shaken Taylor's hand, then held out her own. "Emma Barnes. We did frogs yesterday. Mine got away from me. Jumped out the window."

Claire snorted with amusement. "It had help. There was at least twenty feet between your desk and the window."

"What?" asked Emma, with badly-feigned innocence. "Frogs are good jumpers. Everyone knows that."

"Especially when they start wriggling around after you pick them up, huh?" Claire had the light of mischief in her eyes now. "You guys should've seen it. She let out this shriek that should've busted all the windows, then just threw it."

Taylor felt bad about laughing, but then she saw Emma was chuckling too, even as her face turned almost red enough to match her hair. "I thought it was dead," Emma claimed. "Then it just woke up all of a sudden and started croaking. You'd throw it away, too."

"Okay, yeah, that would've been funny to see," Marcus said. "Would've been funnier if you'd hit someone else with it, but the window is still good."

Taylor smirked, then she and Emma looked at Claire. "He'll do," they said in well-practised unison.

"Oh, good." Claire looked at each of them, then shook her head. "Congratulations, Marcus. My crazy friends approve of you." She tilted her head in the general direction of the admissions office. "Come on, before they decide you aren't showing up today and give your stuff to someone else."

Marcus grinned again. "Coming." He gave Taylor and Emma each a smile. "Nice meeting you. See you around."

"Bye, Marcus," Emma and Taylor chorused as he followed his cousin into the teeming crowds of students. Then they looked at each other and giggled.

"You threw the frog out the window?" Taylor snorted with laughter.

"Well, wouldn't you?" Emma shook her head. "I just, you know, did it without thinking. Marcus seemed nice. And he didn't zone out when you started up your motormouth."

"Excuse me?" Taylor's voice rose with well-simulated indignation. "I do not have a 'motormouth'. I have a well-tuned sense of word placement, which allows me to speak extemporaneously and at length while lesser beings are aimlessly wondering what they're going to say next. You may as well say—"

"How can I say anything?" Emma retorted. "Like Claire said, you barely let anyone get a word in edgewise."

Taylor sniffed haughtily, elevated her nose a few extra degrees in the air, and decided to try a line her father had used once. "I'll have you know, I resemble that remark."

"Well, yeah … what?"

"You heard me."

Still amiably bickering, the two friends wandered down the corridor toward their respective home rooms.


Danny


The construction machinery was visible from several blocks away. Danny tried to pay attention to the road but it was difficult; the closer he got, the more curiosity he felt. Finally, he pulled up at the entrance to the new compound that had been set up since the last time he'd been there. The guard stepped out of the shack with a clipboard in his hand and approached the window of his car.

"Good morning, sir," he said. "I'm going to need to ask for your name and your reason for coming onsite today." Despite the polite tone of his words, Danny could see the metal speed hump just inside the drop-barrier with the row of holes on top; if anyone tried to bull on through without being cleared first, the pop-up spikes would almost certainly eviscerate their tyres.

"I'm Danny Hebert." Danny gestured at the narrow section of the Boat Graveyard he could see through the open gateway. "I'm with the Dockworkers' Association. Earl Marchant called me and asked me to come over."

"Ah, yes, Mr Hebert." The guard ticked something on the board. "I was told to expect you. I just need to see your ID and you can go right in."

Feeling somewhat surreal, Danny pulled his wallet out and showed the man his driver's license.

"Perfect." The guard made another notation, then gave a high sign to whoever was still in the guard shack. "Just take a left after you're inside. Park next to the site admin shack. They'll outfit you with a hard hat and a high-vis vest, and let Mr Marchant know you're on site."

Danny nodded. "Gotcha. And thanks." He waited until the barrier rose far enough then rolled on through, his wheels bumping over the speed hump. Following the instructions he'd been given, he turned left and parked alongside a row of other vehicles.

Moments later, after he'd introduced himself to the admin staff, they'd outfitted him with the promised hard hat and vest. When he stepped outside, he was greeted by the sight of Earl himself, striding over from what looked like the direction of the most activity, also wearing a hard hat and vest. Unlike the others, Earl's hat and vest had the word 'BOSS' stamped across the front in large letters. Several men and women trailed in his wake.

"Danny, glad you could make it," Earl said cheerfully. "Come on, let me show you around."

"Uh, sure." Danny fell in beside Earl, the others automatically making room for him. "So, what's going on here exactly?"

"Well, I looked at various ways we could get these ships out of the way and most of them are prohibitively expensive or would take too long. But there's one or two ways that will work within a reasonable timescale." Earl gestured at the waterfront, where various machinery was being installed. Out on the water, derelict ships rocked slowly at anchor, while others were visible only by way of their superstructures protruding above the waterline.

"I'm guessing these ways are also costly," Danny said. He vaguely wondered what Earl saw as 'prohibitively' expensive. What he was already seeing looked way too rich for his blood.

"Yes, but in my line of work you have to give a little to get a lot," Earl said. His tone was definitely upbeat, which Danny saw as a good sign. "So, we're assembling winches and cranes onshore, to drag the ships out of the water. From there they'll go onto cradles where they can be moved out of the way and disassembled at our leisure. On the water, we'll have salvage vessels and tugs as well as a dredge, to get the ships to where they can be dragged out of the water then clean up after them. The biggest ones are going to have to be pulled in close, cut up in place, and removed from the water piecemeal. With me so far?"

Jesus Christ almighty. This is like a major military operation. "Yes," Danny said faintly. "At least, I think so. Where do I come in?"

Earl smiled. "I was hoping you'd ask me that. You see, I've got all my employment slots filled, except for the part where the ships get dragged out of the water and torn down to their component pieces. I was wondering if the Dockworkers had anyone free who had the appropriate heavy machinery tickets."

Danny blinked. He scanned the machinery that was in the process of being installed. "Uh … how many people do you need?"

"I don't know." Earl's smile turned up at the corners, as though he was enjoying an enormous joke. "How many can you supply?"

In that moment, Danny knew that Earl was aware of exactly how many Dockworkers there were on the Association's books, and was intent on supplying full employment to them all. How the man had gotten that information he had no idea, but he hadn't asked for this favour and Earl hadn't overtly offered, so it slid past his radar. Just barely, but it slid past.

"I'll have to check the books to see who's got the right qualifications and get back to you on that," he prevaricated. He wasn't about to sign off on the Dockworkers being used for criminal purposes—that way led to the Association being virtually owned by the gangs, which he'd fought against for the whole of his adult life—but this was good honest paid work. If Earl wanted to employ everyone, he didn't want to supply either an undercount or an overcount before they even started. He was going to play this straight down the line.

"Absolutely." Earl beamed at him approvingly. "Do you have any idea how refreshing it is to work with an honest man? I was speaking with Mayor Christner and some of his councillors just the other day and when I floated a trial balloon about this project, you should've seen all the agendas appear out of the woodwork. Not a one of them would so much as offer verbal support unless I agreed to help fund their little pork-barrel side ventures, or promise a make-work job to their useless cousin-in-law. I swear, if I'd let them have their way I would've ended up financing half their pension plans and three of their mistresses."

This wasn't in the least bit surprising to Danny. What he did wonder, though, was how this worksite was being allowed to go ahead without official interference if Earl hadn't agreed to pay their thinly disguised bribes. "Did you have any problems getting the permits?"

Earl rolled his eyes. "I see you've had to do business in this town before. Fortunately, this is not my first rodeo." He buffed his already-perfect nails on his vest and inspected them. "I have been known to be persuasive from time to time."

"So you got the permits." Danny made it not quite a question, but it was a definite invitation for an answer. Needing work or not, he wasn't going to put the Dockworkers into a situation where the Association could be fined for sending people onto a worksite without the appropriate permits.

"I did," Earl assured him. "I had to speak a little plainly to some of them, and one or two may have found reasons to leave town after the fact, but our overhead expenses were remarkably low, considering the situation. Everything is above-board and legal on this worksite. The requisite paperwork has already been couriered to your office. All it needs is for you to sign off on how many men you're willing to send over."

Translation: they tried to put the screws to him, and he intimidated them into playing ball. Part of Danny wished he could've been there but the rest of him was glad he hadn't, if only because he could remain officially ignorant of his new business associate's methods of persuasion. He'd have to keep a close eye on any further deals he made with Earl, though; while their current business situation might all be on the up-and-up, there were no guarantees that this would remain the case.

"Got it," he said out loud. "What progress have you made on the ferry?"

"Oh, once we're up and running with the Boat Graveyard, we can get right on that," Earl assured him. "I got the permits for that signed at the same time. Same people, even."

Danny raised his eyebrows. "And they didn't try to roadblock you with the gangs?"

"What gangs?" Earl spread his hands disingenuously. "The Azn Bad Boyz—and if that's not a ridiculous name, I've never heard one—are the only group causing problems at the moment. And I hear even they are keeping their heads down right now."

"We've still got Marquis," Danny reminded him. "His men are going around collecting protection money." The tiny gold M was on his nightstand at home; he didn't quite have the nerve to wear it around in the daytime.

"True," agreed Earl. "I can't claim to know the man well, but I've associated with his organisation before. I do know this much about him; if he pledges protection, protection will happen. Causing trouble is not what they do."

Danny nodded, recalling that one night. "Yeah, I can't argue with that." He paused, blinking, as an idea occurred to him. "Actually, I wonder …"

"Yes?" Earl raised an eyebrow.

Speaking slowly, Danny worked his way through the idea. "Marchioness is a seriously capable healer. I'm wondering if we could arrange a kind of ongoing insurance arrangement with her, if she's agreeable of course, to have her able to show up to deal with any workplace injuries while this work is ongoing."

"Well." Earl chuckled dryly. "You have hidden depths, Danny. Asking to hire on a supervillain's daughter as your medical insurer takes balls, I'll give you that."

"Well, she did save my life not so long ago, so I know what she's capable of," Danny pointed out. "And I've heard a rumour that she's being paid just to show up at Brockton General and heal people. If they're doing business with her, I don't see why we can't." Worry began to nibble at the edge of his confidence. "Do you think he'd get pissed off at us if we asked?"

"I'm certain he thinks the world of his daughter," Earl assured him. "But if the request was made with all due respect to her wishes and needs, I can't see why he would become angry."

"Well, I'd be prepared to arrange for whatever entertainment she enjoys to be set up," Danny said. "Out of my own pocket, even. TV, computer game console, fridge with snacks, whatever. Over and above whatever we pay her, of course." He looked at Earl. "I've only met them once. You sound like you know them better than I do. Think you could reach out to him and make the request?"

After a moment, Earl nodded. "I believe I can handle that, yes. Leave it with me." He held out his hand.

Danny shook it, feel better about the whole deal already. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

Earl smiled. For once, the expression reached all the way to his eyes. "No. Thank you."


Claire


The rumbling of the car into the garage would have gone unheard by any normal person, but Claire had long since relinquished any claim on the word 'normal'. Getting up from where she'd been watching TV with Robert and Marcus, she wandered on down to meet her father.

"Hey, Dad," she said, and gave him a hug. "How was your day?"

"Fruitful and interesting." He ruffled her hair playfully. "How did your introduction of Marcus at the school go?"

"Well, Taylor and Emma think he's nice," she said, batting his hand away. "After I spoke to the principal, she agreed that his grades were good enough that he didn't have to stay back a year. He says his day went okay after I went to my classes."

Earl raised his eyebrows. "Spoke to her, hmm? Was that all you did?"

As much as she would've liked to lie through her teeth, he could somehow pick up on when she was doing that, even when she suppressed all her tells. It was very unfair. "I may have depressed her critical thinking capability and made her a little suggestible. It didn't take much." She glanced over her shoulder, but her 'cousin' hadn't followed her to the garage. "The grades we faked for him were pretty good to start with."

"Well, he is a bright lad," Earl noted without any irony at all. "In other news, I may have secured you some extra after-school employment, if you're interested?"

She raised her eyebrows. "I'm already doing Friday and Saturday evenings at the hospital. What else did you have in mind?"

His mouth stretched in amusement. "Danny Hebert has advanced the idea of paying you a stipend to be on-call for injuries at the Boat Graveyard worksite. He's also willing to spring for a TV and a snack fridge for your exclusive use while you're on site."

"Sure—" She paused as he raised a finger. She knew what that gesture meant. Slow down and think about it. "Uh, depending on the size of the stipend, I mean. But yeah, I like Mr Hebert, and Taylor's pretty cool too. So as long as they're not trying to rip me off, I'd be happy to do that. Besides, it helps your thing along if the work goes smoothly, yeah?"

He nodded; she could tell he was pleased at her evaluation of the situation. "It does, yes. We haven't discussed the exact size of the stipend, but given the medical insurance payments that we would otherwise be shelling out for an operation of that magnitude, there's definitely some wiggle room in the budget."

"Okay then, let's do it." She looked up at her father. "Whose idea was it to bring in the TV and snack fridge?"

"His, actually." He shrugged. "I'll say this about Danny Hebert. He's not stupid."

"Well, that's true. Taylor's pretty smart, too." Claire grinned at him. "It was weird the first time, meeting Taylor when she only knew me as me, but I think I can handle it."

"I'm sure you can, Claire-bear." Earl raised an eyebrow. "So, I've got a few ideas where Traction, or Panzer, or whatever her name is, might have gone to ground. Interested in coming out and scouting the locations with me?"

She brightened right up. "Definitely. Are we bringing the boys with us?"

"Robert, yes," he decided. "Marcus … not yet. At least, not until he's had all the tutoring I can give him in dealing with bone."

Claire pursed her lips slightly. "That might cause morale problems later. If Marcus gets the idea that he's being sidelined because of his age, he might act out. After all, he's as strong-willed as you, and doesn't have nearly the life experience to teach him not to do something stupid like that."

After a moment or two of contemplation, Earl grimaced. "Damnation, you're right. I would do that exact thing, at his age. In fact, I did do something remarkably similar when I was only a few years older than he is now. The end result could have been very messy, extremely fatal or both. Fortunately, the blind luck that looks out for fools and drunkards saved me, though it did teach me a salutary lesson about paying due care and attention to what I was doing. There's no guarantee that the boy will even survive to learn the same lesson."

"So what are we going to do?" Claire had no illusions that her father was going to reverse his ruling on Marcus coming out with them. As unfair as Marcus might accuse his 'uncle' of being, Earl very rarely changed his mind once it was made up, and only when he was presented with an extremely good reason for doing so.

"Well, I was thinking of inviting Kayden out on the scouting mission," Earl mused. "Do you think she would be overly upset if I asked her to stay home and keep Marcus company?"

"Probably best if she did," agreed Claire. "She's not exactly stealthy at the best of times, and Marcus likes her." She had trod lightly when it came to arranging the memories for her father's clone. After reducing his apparent age to a year below hers, she'd given him an edited version of her own impressions of Boston, along with vague impressions of parents, now deceased. Taking her cues from how Robert had reacted to his mental implants, she'd ensured that Marcus' own brain did the heavy lifting on interpreting the memories she'd installed, filling in the gaps as needed. This ensured that he never ran into an actual amnesiac block, but always figured that the details of a particular event or person had slipped his mind.

Kayden, as an official member of the team, was a near-constant visitor to the house, and had been accepted by Robert and Marcus as being equal to Earl and Claire in authority. In Claire's opinion, she filled the necessary role of 'team mom' for the boys, which Claire didn't really feel qualified to perform.

"I shall speak with her about it," decided Earl. "She gets a say in this as well, of course. Where might I find her?"

"I'm pretty sure she said she was going to take a nap," Claire said. "I think she wanted one of us to come get her when you got home."

"Well, then, I shall attend to that myself." Earl shook his head slowly. "I'm still not sure what Kaiser was thinking when he turned on her. Or if he was thinking."

Claire grinned as they started through the house. "Well, his loss and our win. Apparently, treating someone with respect and decency pays off. Who knew?"

"I know you think you're joking," he retorted. "Far too many people have tripped up on that very respect. Fear or feelings of inadequacy are altogether too common as a controlling tactic in villain gangs."

Claire rolled her eyes. "And more than one hero group, I bet."

Her father raised an eyebrow. "Once again, I suspect that you think you're joking." He strode off toward the rooms that had been set aside for Kayden's private use; both he and Claire made a point of ignoring the fact that they adjoined his rooms.

Claire headed back to the main lounge room, a grin on her face. Capes were dysfunctional in so many ways; heroes were probably no different, in the long run.


Crusader


"Okay … a little more … more … nearly there … perfect. Now hold it!"

Justin grunted and sweated, his hands hurting where they gripped the cable, as Panzer gunned the engine of her new tank and trundled it under the suspended gun turret. Alabaster seemed to be able to do this all day—because of course he can—while Geoff barely seemed to be trying. To Justin, it felt like he was carrying the whole thing all by himself.

"Okay!" yelled Panzer. "Lower away! Slowly!"

He wasn't sure if he could handle 'slowly' right then, with his hands on fire as they were, but he did his best. This was exactly what he wasn't good at; his ghosts were only capable of interacting with things that were alive, like people. Inch by inch, his feet trying to skid on the floor, he paid the rope out with the others as the turret slid into place on the tank.

With the last metallic clank signalled that it was properly seated, he let the rope—now slack—drop from his hands. They were red and sore, and he was almost certain he could see a couple of blisters in the process of forming. "I did not sign up for this," he muttered.

"What was that?" called out Panzer, looking around from where she was crouching on the hull of the tank, inspecting the turret.

"I said, I'm going for a shower," Justin replied, deciding a straight lie was the best idea. Besides, he actually needed one. Between his abraded hands and aching back, he'd had enough manual labour for the one day. So much for the life of luxury and ease Kaiser promised me when I joined the Empire Eighty-Eight.

"We still got another turret to put in," she called after him.

He didn't so much as break step. "Then get everyone out of the room and have Night drop it into place in her monster form. I need a shower."

"I thought of that. She's not manually dextrous enough. She's nothing but blades in that form!" Panzer actually sounded angry about it.

"Well, I'm still done for the day." He left the room, closing the door behind him.

I seriously do not need this shit right now.


Panzer


Sherrel huffed as she put her hands on her hips. "Fuck," she growled, staring at the closed door as though she could force Justin to come back through with sheer pissed-off willpower. Unfortunately for her, all of her talents lay in the region of building shit, so her glare accomplished nothing of note.

"Want me to go get him?" Alabaster cracked his knuckles. He looked as fresh as when he'd started, for obvious reasons. "I can fetch the little pussy easily."

"No, don't bother," she said, waving him off. "You could bring him back but you can't make him actually pull on the damn cable. And I need all three of you to do the lifting."

"So why don't you have a winch to do the lifting?" he asked pragmatically.

"Because I dismantled it to help build the last tank," she said acerbically. It hadn't really been her fault; Mega Girl had been the one to toss the tank in the bay, not her. She'd expected to be able to use the thing for months, and in the meantime she could've bought herself a new winch.

"So what are we gonna do until he feels like helping again?" He looked at her as though she might give him a job that involved going out and hurting someone.

"Well, I dunno about you, but there's other things I can build." She turned toward the large and very cluttered workbench. "I'm thinking a scout drone of some sort. If we can follow Marchioness remotely, we can pick and choose the spot to grab her. At the same time, we can identify who her friends are, and grab them too. I can just tell she's the unreasonable type."

Alabaster grinned. "Hostages solve so many problems."

"I'll take your word for it. Okay, where'd I put that microturbine?"

Tuning out Alabaster, she set to work on the latest project. Sure, her tech might be clunky as fuck, but she could take actual scrap and make a working tank out of it. Or, in this case, a scout drone. She just had to remember to allow for a mass and power budget for the cloaking unit she was going to have to build into it. Otherwise, her scout drone would rapidly become a skeet drone.

So of course, thirty seconds later a motion sensor alarm went off.


Robert


The car rolled silently down the darkened street. Some of the streetlights had been damaged, and some had apparently stopped working altogether, leaving no artificial illumination except for the headlights. Robert could have easily believed he was in a ghost town, for all that Downtown was thriving only a few miles away.

"It looks a little run-down," he said, peering out the window at the grimy, cracked brickwork and the boarded-up windows of the buildings beside them. He braced himself as the car jolted through a pothole. It wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last, though Jonas was avoiding most of them.

"Run down? It's gone to hell." Miss Claire shook her head. "How can they let it get this bad?"

"Politicians feathering their own nests," Mr Marchant announced, disgust in his tone. "With the bribes they tried to offer me to give them favourable deals on the port renewal, half of City Hall must have their hand in the till. And infrastructure is one of the first things to go. Once our venture is properly established in this city, there will be some changes around here."

"So run for Mayor," Miss Claire suggested, her tone joking. "You can't be worse at it than the idiot they've got in charge right now."

Slowly, he turned to look at her. A smile spread across his face. "Do you know, I just may do that. See if they can handle actual cut-throat politics."

"I didn't really mean it," she protested hastily. "I mean, what if they look into your background?"

"Earl Marchant has an established background," he pointed out. "It just so happens that he attended a school that was conveniently destroyed when Behemoth attacked New York, though of course I have copies of his purported scholastic records. The trail is fuzzy enough that anyone looking into me will blame the passage of time rather than deliberate obfuscation."

"We're almost there, sir," Jonas noted from the front seat. "The location is just up ahead."

"Good. Pull over here." Mr Marchant looked at the other occupants of the back of the car. "Time to get your game face on, Robert."

"And remember, in costume you're Knight Errant," Miss Claire reminded him. She, of course, had already made herself over into her Marchioness persona.

"Knight Errant, gotcha." Robert took a deep breath as metal slid out of his skin to form the distinctive helmet and armour. "I still can't really believe you're actually letting me come along like this."

"All the training in the world means nothing without time in the field," Marquis—no longer Mr Marchant, Robert reminded himself—intoned as he opened the car door and got out. "You've got to get your feet wet someday, boy. If you get in trouble, cover up as we've shown you, and one of us will come to your assistance. They may try to separate us. Do not let that happen."

"Don't get separated, right." Robert waited to allow Miss Claire to get out before him, then climbed out as well. He had no illusions about being there to protect her, despite his noble-sounding codename. If anything, they were there to protect him.

From the car behind, four men got out. They wore the long black coats and discreet 'M' badges that marked them out as Marquis' men, and had an air of quiet assurance. While they didn't look the same, they still gave the impression of somehow being cast from the same mold. This was probably due to the way they moved in unison with each other.

"Gentlemen." Marquis gave them a nod.

"Sir." One of the men stepped forward and returned the gesture, bowing his head slightly deeper. "Orders?"

Marquis pointed at a large building farther up the street. For all Robert could tell, it might have housed a factory, a printing plant or a supervillain's lair. From the outside, there was no way to tell. "We're going to investigate that location. You are to watch the perimeter and provide backup if we call for it."

The man nodded again. "Understood, sir."

Together, they moved up the quiet street. The men in black fanned out, hands in coat pockets and eyes checking everywhere. Robert was aware that they had some of the same modifications Miss Claire had performed on Jonas, though he hadn't seen them in action yet. They seemed outwardly confident and competent though, and this heartened him.

When they reached a point across the road from the building and down a ways, Marquis stopped to study it. Robert cleared his throat tentatively, then regretted it as all eyes fell on him.

"Yes?" asked the veteran supervillain.

"Uh … what about underground? Like, through the sewers?"

Marquis looked down at the cracked concrete sidewalk and rubbed his chin. "Hm. You have a point. I can't see Panzer driving her machinery through a sewer tunnel, but if she's in there, it might be annoying for her to escape that way."

"I'll go down and look," Miss Claire suggested. "Knight-Errant can come with me as backup."

It took Robert a couple of seconds to realise that she meant him. "Uh … me?"

"Yes, you, boy." Marquis raised an eyebrow. "Unless you're scared of the dark."

"Well, no, I'm not." Robert was pretty sure about that, at least.

"Good. Give me a moment." Miss Claire went over to a manhole cover, crouched down, and lifted it one-handed with no real sign of effort. Still holding it up on one side, she slithered down into the darkness, much more easily than her evening gown should have allowed her to do. The manhole cover clinked gently back into place.

Robert glanced at Marquis, not entirely sure what he should be doing. Had she decided not to take him along? The crime lord didn't seem overly worried as he studied the building across the road.

Then the manhole cover lifted again, and a black clawed hand emerged holding the bundled-up evening gown. "Come on down," hissed a throaty voice that sounded vaguely like Miss Claire's if he listened very carefully.

"Uh, right," muttered Robert. He took the gown and passed it on to Marquis, then lifted up the manhole and climbed down himself.

Almost immediately, he was glad that Mr Marchant and Miss Claire had made him perform such esoteric actions as climbing ladders and doing calisthenics while wearing the armour, because without that practise he would have been a lot less sure in his movements. Step by step he descended, pulling the cover over the hole until he was encompassed in total darkness. All he had now was his sense of touch, and that was curtailed by the metal plating over every part of his body.

Eventually his feet found level flooring, though it felt unpleasantly squishy underfoot. He looked around for Miss Claire, his eyes wide in the darkness as if that would help him see better.

It really couldn't.

"Miss Claire!" he whisper-shouted. "Uh, Marchioness! Where are you?"

From directly overhead, an amused-sounding voice hissed, "Ceiling lizard iz watching u …" followed by a snicker.

Tilting his head back as best he could, he stared upward, unable to see anything until suddenly two glowing opalescent eyes faded into existence, along with a great many sharp teeth in a very pointed grin. And then, they were gone again.

Oh, wait, he told himself. I can do stuff too. Holding out his hand, he summoned his sword. As always, it seemed to grow out of his skin as if extruding from his body. When he gave the mental command, it lit up, flame crawling along the length of it.

This illuminated the sewer tunnel he was standing in, showing that he was all alone. The ceiling above was empty, which made him wonder where Miss Claire had gotten to.

"This is not funny," he muttered.

And then, right where he was looking, the eyes opened again and blinked twice. The razor-sharp teeth made a reappearance as well, still grinning.

"Oh, I think it's hilarious," Miss Claire murmured, her outline showing as she skittered briefly to another part of the tunnel roof. As soon as she stopped, she seemed to flatten onto the brickwork and the patterning on her body changed to suit her surroundings. Even knowing exactly where she was, Robert could not make her out. It was a decidedly creepy feeling, and he was glad she was on his side.

"I'm sure you do," he said softly, knowing she could hear him perfectly well. "What's 'ceiling lizard' about, anyway?"

"Oh, it's a meme from a story I read about online," she replied just as quietly. "I'll show you later. Let's get scouting."

"Okay." He lowered his flaming sword a little, so he could see where he was walking. There was no way in hell, he knew, that any amount of light would pick out Miss Claire if she didn't want to be seen.

They proceeded onward at a cautious pace while he tried to limit the noise he was making. Miss Claire was sometimes visible and sometimes not, but never more than a shadow out of the corner of his eye. The sewer didn't smell all that bad as far as he was concerned; or at least, it could've been much worse. He supposed he should be thankful that this area was in disuse, or everything might have been a lot … fresher. So to speak.

At one point, he stopped at a Y-junction, waiting for Miss Claire to come and show him which way she'd gone. When she did appear, she actually showed her entire head and shoulders outlined in greenish phosphorescence. Without speaking, she lifted a single claw to her closed mouth, then pointed down one of the tunnels.

He got the message, dimming down his flame even further until he could just barely see the sewer floor in front of his feet. As quietly as he could, he followed along behind her, noting with gratitude that she'd chosen to leave a line of glowing green footprints on the roof of the sewer tunnel. He didn't know what she'd found, but he figured she didn't want him just charging in, so he took extra care.

And then he heard the voices. At the same time, a long black tail swung down out of the darkness and nudged his sword with the tip. He doused the flame immediately, then realised why she'd done it. Up ahead, barely visible even in the pitch darkness, there was a dim square of light in the ceiling of the sewer tunnel.

"Because I said so, that's why!" yelled a female voice. Robert had never heard it before, but he guessed it might be Panzer. "I don't care if you're going for a shower! Something just tripped the motion sensors in the sewer, so you're going to go look!"

There was a pause as somebody answered, but so far away as to be inaudible.

"Because Alabaster and Fog don't go into sewers, and if Night runs into someone she'll be helpless!" The shouting woman sounded angry by now. "You don't have to go down yourself, you little pussy! Just send a couple of your stupid fucking ghosts! Make yourself useful for once!"

Again, there was a near-inaudible answer. The woman didn't do any more shouting. Instead, there was muttering and clanking and a few noises that Robert couldn't place.

Miss Claire's hand appeared before Robert's face, once again outlined by phosphorescence. She made a gesture of turning around, then another of walking. Robert agreed wholeheartedly with the plan; let's get out of here before the scary ghost cape shows up. He was uncomfortably aware that inside his metal armour, he was all too squishy.

With Miss Claire in the lead, he began to retrace his steps, trying even harder to make no noise whatsoever. It was twice as tense now, the nebulous threat of someone in the tunnels giving way to the very real threat of something that knew they were there.

Onward he crept, twice flattening against the wall to avoid the notice of a drifting ghost. On the second incidence, he was almost certain he'd been seen, but it didn't turn its head. It didn't help that he was thoroughly lost by now, and had no idea where he'd come up if he climbed out of the sewers now.

Also, he wanted a shower so badly.

And then, the worst happened. He turned a corner just as a ghost dropped out of the ceiling, directly in front of him. Staring at him. Their eyes met, and he realised he was dimly illuminated by the radiance coming off the ghost itself.

Busted.

He knew damn well he couldn't do a damn thing to the ghost, but the long spear it carried was seriously worrying to him. It could skewer him a dozen times while he was regenerating the first hit, and it could keep stabbing him until he was dead. Worse, there was nothing he or Miss Claire could do to stop it. The best she could do was keep him alive, and even that would be problematic if it called in reinforcements.

Eyes wide, he stared at the intangible form before him. Drawing in a deep breath and ignoring the dank air of the sewer, he prepared to run as fast as he could. Even in armour, he was fast—not as fast as Miss Claire, but she was a special case—and maybe he could outpace it until he could find an exit from the sewer?

And then, it deliberately looked away from him and moved off down the sewer tunnel.

It had seen him. He knew it had seen him. Why had it ignored him? Why was it letting him go? Was this some kind of trick?

"Well, come on," hissed Miss Claire from directly above him. "Don't just stand there. Let's go."

Obediently, he stumbled onward, following the phosphorescent footprints in the ceiling once more.

As he went, one thought kept worrying at the edges of his mind.

Why did he let me go?


Crusader


Justin dismissed the last of his ghosts, then opened his eyes to look at Panzer, who was glaring at him from three feet away. "What?" he snapped.

"Well, what's down there?" she demanded.

"Nothing." He tried to make his tone off-handed.

"No, it's not nothing." She prodded him in the middle of his chestplate with her forefinger. "Something down there set off a motion sensor. Twice."

"Well, I didn't see anyone." He knocked her arm aside. "Must have been a rat."

"The sensor was halfway up the wall!"

"A big rat."

"They do get pretty damn big in the sewers here," Alabaster offered, sounding amused. "Less so since Blasto stopped dumping stuff down the drain, but still damn nasty. Why do you think I don't go down there? Renewal's all well and good, but some smells you never get out of your clothes."

Panzer drew air in through her nostrils, then let it out again in a frustrated huff of annoyance. "Fine. Go have your fucking shower."

Before she could change her mind, he went. It wasn't until he had the door of the bathroom closed and the shower running that he allowed himself to think about what he'd seen.

An armoured hero, scouting out Panzer's base. Here to take the out of control villain down, once and for all.

Closing his eyes, he let the spray run over his face.

And not before time.


End of Part Twenty