Another Way

Part Twenty-Three: A New Viewpoint

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

Monday Morning, December 10, 2007
Two Months After the Lung Ejection

Abigail Beltane leaned against the window of the train and stared out at the landscape going by. Boston was as far north as she'd ever been in New England, but Brockton Bay was where Earl had said he was taking Claire, and so that was where she was going now. The past eight months had been interesting, necessitating her to live by her wits more than once, but now it was time for a change.

Over the last two of those months, she'd noticed a distinct lack of Gesellschaft assassins after her blood. Her inquiries into the matter—necessarily discreet and roundabout in nature—had eventually garnered for her the intriguing information that the US hub of contact for the German cape organisation had been located in Brockton Bay … specifically, past tense had. At some point following Earl's relocation to that city, the Empire Eighty-Eight (a more pretentious name Abigail had trouble imagining) had simply … ceased to be. The head of the gang (Kaiser) as well as all but a very few of its core members had vanished like a puff of smoke on a windy day. Which meant that, while Gesellschaft could still insert capes into the US, they didn't have the ease or freedom to do it that they'd had before. Or, for that matter, a local base to work from.

As for the 'very few', those had either gone into PRT custody, or reappeared under different names—working for Marquis. Palatina, sporting a blue and gold pseudo-military costume, was almost certainly Purity rebranded, while Legionnaire (wearing the armour of a Roman soldier, carrying a shortsword and a spear) had clearly been Crusader once upon a time. But somehow, despite the fact that Marquis was now the head of the most powerful cape gang in the city (she was mildly interested in finding out how he'd ended up recruiting Knight Errant), the local PRT never moved against him.

Lung was apparently still a power in the city. Abigail had vaguely heard the name before, but wasn't quite sure who he was until she looked more deeply into the matter. When she made the connection with Kyushu, she was much more impressed … and yet, there was a disconnect between the cape who had survived the fight with Leviathan and the would-be crime lord of Brockton Bay. Especially since he'd clashed with Marquis once before (or twice; sources were uncertain) and come off second best all the way. Whether it was one defeat or two, he'd been notably reluctant to attempt any reclamation of his former 'unbeaten' title. If anything, there seemed to be an unspoken truce between the two. How long it would last was anyone's guess.

As for young Claire, her little acushla was making waves for herself as well. The girl's Marchioness identity was well-established in the city by now, though the various commentators weren't quite sure what to make of her. While the children of parahumans were known to often take on a variation of their parents' powers, those children usually either debuted working alongside their elders, or (very much more rarely) took up an adversarial role. Claire had done neither; while she'd been entirely transparent about her parentage and her ongoing affiliation with Marquis, she had also made it a regular event to attend the Brockton Bay General Hospital. Not even bothering to go upstairs, she chose instead to park herself in the emergency room and watch cartoons while everyone in the emergency room was healed of their various ailments around her. This included the patients that the medical staff wheeled in from their various wards. While Claire herself apparently paid no attention to what was going on around her, choosing instead to eat candy and drink soda from a rolling cooler. Because of course that's how my Claire acushla would play it.

There had reportedly been one attempt to abduct her from the hospital, unanimously decried by everyone in the city who chose to speak up about it. This attempt was foiled by Mega Girl, newest member of the Brockton Bay Brigade (ironically, the same team that had tried and failed to capture Marquis, back in the day). The cape responsible (a Tinker called Panzer, leading a remnant of the ill-fated Empire Eighty-Eight) had been captured and handed over to authorities by none other than Marquis and his allies.

Abigail could've told the idiot that they'd been extremely lucky. While going up against Marquis in the normal run of matters was no more deadly than any other cape clash, defaulting straight to lethal measures was extremely likely to draw the same in response. More to the point, posing a serious threat to his daughter's welfare could be seen as an elaborate way to commit suicide; the only way she could see that moron surviving to be handed over to the PRT was if they'd been a woman.

As the train rattled into the station, she got up and pulled her luggage off the overhead rack. She never travelled with more than she could pack into a single carry-on bag; waiting around for her luggage to be unloaded was a prime way to set herself up for a sniper shot. Still, she was adept at making do, and she'd never been much of a fashionista anyway. When it came to clothing, bargain bins were perfectly acceptable.

She stepped out onto the platform, scanning for the usual signs of danger without even thinking about it. People paying attention to her while pretending not to was a moderate red flag; doing so while talking on the phone much bigger and much redder. An earpiece, with or without the connecting cord, blew the signal all the way out to 'get the fuck out of Dodge'. It was possible to get a false positive, but she was very good at telling the gaze of someone who had made her as a person of interest from that of some guy who just wanted to massage her ass with his eyeballs.

Within thirty seconds, two potential problems cropped up. Tall, well-built fit men, each wearing a black long-coat over similarly coloured pants and shirt, with a tiny gold badge on the lapel. She wasn't close enough to make out what the pin read, but these guys were cutting through the crowd like a pair of sharks in a school of minnows, eyes everywhere. From the way they moved, they were extremely adept at handling themselves in a close-quarters situation, and she wouldn't have bet against skill in firearms either.

Just about the time she realised that they were both wearing earpieces, one of them glanced her way. Instinctively, she froze and let her eyes drift away from his, though she strongly suspected the guy wasn't fooled. Time hung in the balance while she debated internally whether to saunter away casually or make a break for it before the place could be surrounded—then the guy acted, just not in the way she'd expected.

Flicking his eyes away from hers, he reached out and grabbed a youngster of seventeen or eighteen from the crowd and smacked him face-first against one of the pillars holding up the roof. His free hand swooped down to catch what turned out to be a wallet, then his partner tapped someone else on the shoulder. The person turned, saw the wallet, and expressed shock and surprise.

Abigail decided it was best to absent herself from the scene before the long-coat guys decided they needed come and talk to her as well. Using the crowd as cover, she strolled out of the station, wondering exactly what that was she'd just seen.

Not cops, not PRT, and they weren't masked so probably not capes. What's going on here?

Before she made any important moves in Brockton Bay, she decided, she needed answers. And the person she figured who would have the most answers was probably Earl himself.

Now, how do I track down the most dangerous man in the city?

Thirty minutes later, she paid the cabbie off and climbed out of the car. Slinging her carry-bag over her shoulder, she looked up at the imposing house before her and nodded to herself. That's definitely a place Earl would live in, to be sure. Practised eyes picked out subtle hints of a high-end security system and she grinned to herself. From what he'd said to her, he'd never really forgiven himself for allowing the home invasion that had nearly caused Claire to get hurt, so it made sense that he'd double down on his security in the here and now.

Of course, anyone getting past all that would then be forced to deal with Earl himself, Jonas, the deceptively dangerous Claire, and of course the other three people Earl had brought into the team while she'd been away (she had no real idea of their capabilities but knowing Earl, they would be no pushovers). She doubted anyone seeking to break into the house of rich entrepreneur Earl Marchant—she'd found his name in the phone book, of all the ways to locate someone—would be quite ready for that level of punishment. And even if, by some fluke of bad luck, they were aware of his secret identity … they still wouldn't be ready for it. Especially now that I'm back.

She headed up the front steps to the wide portico, considered knocking for a moment—I'd probably need a sledgehammer to make myself heard through it, so I would—then spotted the doorbell button and pressed it. The deep and stately tones were barely audible through the door, but at least the thing worked. She waited, presuming that anyone coming to answer the front door would likely need a little time to get there.

The lock clicked and the massive door opened inward with nary a creak. Jonas stood there, as imperturbable as ever. "Hm," he observed. "Miss Beltane. It's been some time. Are you well?"

The words weren't all he greeted her with. She noted that his right hand was hidden behind the door, and his left was held in a certain way, asking a question. That was part of a repertoire of hand-signs they'd used back when she'd still been employed by Earl, as a way of asking if the other person was under duress. She couldn't really blame him for wondering, given that she'd just now turned up out of the blue after eight whole months of radio silence.

"'Course I'm well, Jonas, you great lummox," she said happily. Her free hand formed the sign all is good. "Is it me, or are you even bigger than I remember you being? And for God's sake, call me Abigail. Anything else makes me feel old."

"It's not you, Abigail," he responded, a smile threatening to crack his grim visage. "There's been changes made. Come on in. Does Mr. Marchant know you were coming?"

"Well, if he did, it's because he's just that good," she said cheerfully. "I only got off the train maybe an hour ago. What do you mean, 'changes'?"

Jonas opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching down the wide marble staircase. "Abigail? Is that you?" The voice was familiar, as was the girl who came into view a second later. Eight months had been kind to her, it was readily apparent, as she bounded down the final stretch, taking five and six steps at a time. Abigail's heart leaped into her mouth as she half-expected Claire to trip or stumble at any moment, but the girl made it to the bottom unscathed.

"Claire acushla! You've grown, so you have!" Abigail dropped her bag and opened her arms, then braced herself. It was good that she had, because the Claire that came in for a full-on glomp had a few inches and a few pounds on the girl she'd left behind. But even that didn't matter, because even as she spun Claire around, she felt all the myriad aches and pains that had built up over the last few days just wash away.

Ahh, yes. I'd forgotten about that little detail. Being Claire's friend was literally good for a body.

"Abigail, it's so good to see you!" Claire's face was alight with happiness as she reluctantly disentangled herself from Abigail's embrace. "How have you been? Where did you go? Are you back now, or are you just visiting? Dad's gonna be so thrilled—did he know you were coming? Have you ever been to Brockton Bay before, or is this your first time? Are you okay? I mean, you were away for so long!"

Abigail laughed out loud as she took Claire's hands in hers. It seemed her young charge had begun to open up and come out of her shell in the older woman's absence, if the torrent of questions was any indication. It was good to see her so exuberant, not to mention confident.

"Well now, Claire, I've been around and about and no mistake. I've met bad people and good, and I'd like to think I was one of the good, so I would. And yes, if your da will be having me, I'd like for me to be back. Is he in the house, or busy?" The other questions she decided to shelve for the moment. There would be time enough for that later.

"Oh, he's upstairs," Claire told her happily. "We're just now going over strategies for dealing with any new villain gangs that might come to town. Also, for undermining Lung on his own turf."

"Lung," she said carefully. "That's the dragon man who fought Leviathan, yes? I have read some things about him. They say your father beat him once, or maybe twice."

"Oh, only the once. The other time was a clone." Claire started for the stairs, towing Abigail with her. "Come on up. See you in a bit, Jonas."

The big man nodded once. "I'll see you then, chick."

Bemused, Abigail allowed herself to be drawn along in Claire's wake, admiring the house as she went. "Your da actually fought that great lump of a monster? And what do you mean, the other was a clone? I always thought that sort of thing was aught but rumour and tales."

"Well, it would've been," Claire acknowledged. "But we had a villain called Blasto who specialised in that sort of thing. If he'd kept his head down, everything would've been okay. But he just had to make clones of Lung and Dad to frame them both for stuff, so we had to step in before things went too far sideways."

Abigail considered Claire's blithe explanation. There was a lot not being said, she suspected. "And how did matters turn out for this Blasto?" Having both Earl and Lung annoyed at him, she decided, would not have been a great career move.

"Oh, he had a hybrid clone of Dad and Lung maturing right then and there. It kind of broke out of his control ... and, well, ate him."

"Really?" Abigail would not have been the thief she was without being able to read people. And as good as Claire was at hiding her tells—she was already almost supernatural at it, and in another few years would be basically impossible to catch out in a lie—Abigail was just that little bit better. So far. "Just so happened to break out of his control, hmm? Might it have had a little help, there?"

The dirty look Claire sent in her direction made her day. "How do you always do that?"

"Never try to con a con artist, my dearest Claire." Abigail reached out with her fingertip and booped the girl gently on the nose. "So what happened to the hybrid clone after it feasted upon the unfortunate Blasto? And could he not have picked a better name? That one makes it sound like his capability should have been grenades instead of genetics, so it does."

Claire's expression lost its exuberance. "I … well, I had to subdue and dispose of it, after. A clone of Lung, sure. A clone of Dad, I could deal with. But a clone of both? I've got to draw the line somewhere, right?"

Abigail tilted her head to one side at Claire's words. "You speak as though you didn't simply dispose of them down the nearest available open elevator-shaft. I detect a secret."

Oddly enough, Claire glanced evasively aside at that. "I'll, uh, fill you in later." Before Abigail could press for more details, she turned the polished brass handle on an elaborately carved door and opened it. "Hey, Dad," she said cheerfully as she entered. "Guess who just showed up out of the blue."

As Abigail followed Claire into the room, she saw the people there were dressed in casual clothing, with most of them seated in comfortable chairs in a rough semicircle around a large whiteboard. Looking as fit and healthy as he ever had been, Earl stood at the whiteboard, while the chairs were occupied by a petite woman with mousy brown hair, two young men, and a teenage boy. They all turned to look at her and she noted that while she'd never met any of them before, the boy bore a distinct likeness to Earl himself. Which was odd, because he'd never spoken of any young male relatives before.

"Good God," Earl said after half a second of what she judged to be stunned silence. "Abigail. When did you get back into town?" Abandoning his position at the whiteboard, he ducked past the chairs and came straight over toward her.

"Just an hour or so ago, leannán," she said, taking his hands in hers. But as she leaned in for a kiss, she noticed an unexpected hesitation on his part. Glancing past him, she saw that the woman's eyes were narrowed in a somewhat displeased fashion, so she diverted her aim and kissed him on the cheek instead.

So, that's the way of things now, is it? It wasn't as though she could exactly blame Earl for moving on; she was the one who had walked away from him after all, without leaving any specific length of time to wait for her. It had also been her choice (albeit for his protection) to cut off all communications; to his perceptions, she would've disappeared into the void eight months ago. Calling him 'lover' immediately on her return had been, she admitted to herself, a little precipitous. Also, more than a little risky, given that the woman was probably Purity (now Palatina), whose blasts could reportedly level small buildings.

"Well, it's very good to see you again." The enthusiasm in his voice was unfeigned as he turned to the others in the room. "Everyone, this is Abigail Beltane, a good friend of mine and previous bodyguard to Claire before she had to move on due to … complications."

"Wait, I know that name." Both the woman and one of the young men had reacted to Earl's introduction, but it was the man who spoke up. He was in his late teens or early twenties with sandy brown hair and the unconscious arrogance of someone who is good-looking and knows it. "Kaiser had us on the lookout for any mention of you maybe six months, a year ago? He never did tell us why."

"He told me," Palatina said bluntly. "Gesellschaft wanted her in their hands or dead because of something she stole from them, and they weren't picky which one it was. When she left town, he figured it wasn't our problem and left them to it." She addressed her next words directly to Abigail, with the barest hint of a challenge. "It looks like you're sneakier than they thought."

"As they say in the old country, it's better to be a coward for a minute than dead for the rest of your life." Unconsciously, Abigail bounced lightly on the balls of her feet. "Anyone here still interested in collecting that Gesellschaft bounty?"

"Absolutely not." Earl's voice, harshly no-nonsense, cut across the almost-banter like a chainsaw. "Even if Abigail were not a valued comrade, she is a guest under my roof and I won't countenance even a joke about turning her in for whatever those people are offering."

His words hung in the air just long enough for the silence to become uncomfortable before the teenager scrambled to his feet. "Wasn't about to, Uncle Earl. Hey, Ms. Beltane, isn't it? I'm Marcus. Claire's told me all about you."

Abigail gave Earl a dry look—wow, really?—before giving Marcus her full attention. "Of course you are," she said warmly, holding out her hand. "But you can call me Abigail, fear óg." Between the name and the family resemblance, she figured she was talking to one of the clones Claire had alluded to earlier. It was eerie to say the least, looking into the face of someone who had been created more or less from whole cloth less than a twelvemonth ago, and yet walked and spoke as one who had lived life for more years than that. "It's good to meet another member of the family." And Claire did this? My little acushla's more talented than I gave her credit for.

He shook her hand firmly, showing both strength and restraint. "It's good to meet you too, Abigail. What's 'fahr-ohg' mean?"

"Ah. Hm." She smiled broadly. "'Tis Irish for 'young man', so it is." She nodded toward the other seated people. "Would you do me a kindness and introduce me to your friends, then?"

"Oh, sure." Marcus didn't seem to have noticed the earlier awkwardness, or perhaps he'd chosen to ignore it. Either way, he indicated each of the others in turn. "That's Ms. Russel, that's Robert and this is Justin."

"Ahh, to be sure." Abigail smiled at each one. "I'd wager your names in costume are Palatina, Knight Errant and Legionnaire, then? 'Tis in the news you've been on occasion. I'm impressed." Right up until the handsome fellow spoke up, she wouldn't have known which of Legionnaire or Knight Errant he was. Fortunately, he'd given her the clue to his original allegiance when he spoke up earlier, so she was able to get it right without having to guess.

"That's us." Palatina gave her a calculating stare. Though her tone wasn't quite as hostile as it had been before, it still didn't give Abigail any confidence they'd be sharing girl talk any time soon. "We haven't heard anything about you. In fact, this is the first I've heard of you from anyone other than Earl or Claire."

"And that's the way I like it," Abigail assured her. "Not for me the big splash. I wear no mask, take no cape name. I just take … things. Usually, unique things. Usually for pay. On occasion I steal reputations, set up situations to leave people looking bad. But I leave no calling card, and I do not ever spread my name willy-nilly. I prefer for my successes to be their own advertisement."

"Sounds to me like you'd make a great assassin," Legionnaire observed. "Not that I've got anything against it. You do you."

"Sure, I could do that and all." Abigail gave him a measured nod. "But I choose not to. Not because I consider life to be sacred or anything so pointlessly abstract. There are many out there whose lives undoubtedly need to be cut short as soon as someone can arrange it, and well we all know it. No, I just know I'd be good at it, and I worry I would become somebody I do not like overmuch if I began to consider killing to be an acceptable option for … well, anything other than saving my own hide, or another life."

"That's … actually a really good point." The broad-shouldered black-haired man whom Marcus had introduced as 'Robert' looked thoughtful. Abigail was strongly inclined to suspect he was the other clone Claire had alluded to. If Marcus was derived from Earl's DNA, then Robert was the genetic derivation of Lung, remodelled. Metal armour and flame were a somewhat unusual juxtaposition of power effects, after all.

"To be honest, I can't disagree with your analysis of the matter." Earl stepped to the side so it was clear he was addressing the whole room rather than just Abigail. "I've killed in the past, and not just to save my life. At the time I considered it wholly necessary, but over the last few years I've found myself wondering if it needed to be so very black and white. Yes, if your life is in peril and the only way out is by killing your aggressor, then you can assume they understand this, and you're not murdering an innocent. But sometimes … I didn't necessarily need to kill someone but I did it anyway, just to ensure that they wouldn't get up and try to kill me when my back was turned."

"Heroes, too?" That was Legionnaire. All eyes turned to him, and he put his hands up defensively. "Hey, I'm just saying. Sometimes Hookwolf would get into stories from the old days, things he'd heard from before he joined the Empire." He nodded to Earl. "To hear him tell it, you were death on two legs when it came to anyone who got in your way. Heroes, villains, it didn't matter. You had a reputation. Even Jack Slash chose to walk away rather than get in your face when you refused to play his sick little games."

Earl snorted softly. "Everyone should live long enough to hear the stories told about what they used to be like. I didn't have one reputation, boy. I had several. As for the one where I killed any hero who got in my face, you're aware of the Brockton Bay Brigade, yes?"

Abigail knew exactly where this was going. Snagging a spare chair, she pulled it off to the side and sat down to enjoy the show.

"Well, yeah," Legionnaire said. "They've been around since …" His brain finally caught up with what he was saying, and he stopped. "Oh."

"Yes. Oh." Earl raised his eyebrows. "They attempted to take me in on multiple occasions, and I sent them packing each time. While they had a rudimentary idea of teamwork, there were gaps in their technique one could reverse an eighteen-wheeler through without touching the sides, and I exploited those repeatedly. They never learned, though. Right up until they invaded my house. Claire was six at the time."

Palatina—Abigail had to get into the habit of calling her that, rather than Purity—sat up. Apparently, she'd never heard this story before. "And you didn't kill them then? They threatened your child!"

Well, now. Interesting, indeed. Abigail made a mental note. Far from being a hardened Nazi killer, it seemed Palatina was a real momma-bear type when it came to the little ones. She was starting to see what Earl saw in the woman.

"Oh, if they'd deliberately threatened her well-being as a means of getting me to surrender, this would be a whole different conversation." Earl's voice was suddenly cold; Abigail half-expected to see puffs of white breath around the room. Then he smiled, the mood lightened, and he went on. "But they didn't. They agreed to take it outside, I sent Claire upstairs, and I proceeded to explain to them why their tactic of using their female members as human shields was still not the game-changer they'd thought it would be."

"Okay, so you didn't kill them." Legionnaire didn't seem to want to let this go. "But you did kill heroes. What's the difference between them and others?"

"It's simple." Earl smiled faintly. "Those so-called heroes weren't trying to arrest me. They were doing their very best to murder me straight out of the gate. Which I found to be the height of rudeness, seeing as I was doing them the courtesy of keeping my attacks on the non-lethal side. So I reciprocated in kind, and of course was painted as a bloody-handed psychopath almost immediately. Despite the fact that those self-same heroes had a collective body count of villains they'd faced and murdered for the fame and glory of it; villains who had done nothing to earn a death sentence. They identified as heroes, so they got a pass. There's inequality for you, right there."

"Okay, just gonna say, wow." Marcus half-raised his hand. "Now I want to hear about Jack Slash."

Earl rolled his eyes and threw a tolerant grin in Abigail's direction. "See what you've done? We were having a perfectly productive session of tactics and techniques against current threats, and now we're discussing ancient history."

She refused to be baited out like that, as he had to have known she would. Lounging sideways with one leg thrown over the chair arm, she threw a smartass grin right back at him. "'Tis shocked and surprised I am you have not yet explained all this to them, your closest allies even. Claire and Jonas and I have the knowing of it, but does your Palatina or any of the others?"

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I should know better than to get into an argument of this sort with you. No, you're correct; they don't. But we'll leave off that particular history lesson for another time. I get the impression you wouldn't have bothered me if it wasn't important. What's the matter?"

"There are folks out and about in this city that have me confused and puzzled," she explained, getting right to the heart of the matter. "In the train station, I saw two of them stop a pickpocket before he'd taken two steps past his mark, almost as fast and smooth as I might have, were I inclined to do so. They wore all black with coats that fell to the knees and beyond, and something gold in the lapel right here." Her thumb touched her shoulder. "I saw no masks, no badges of office. Who might they be?"

From the dawning expressions of amusement around the room, she knew she was missing something, but it was Earl who spoke first. "Those would be my men," he said, a hint of pride in his voice. "They provide protection and security to the general public … for a price, of course. I call them the Mercia; it's Old English."

"For 'men of the borderlands', aye," she agreed, seeing the whole concept all at once. The title of Marquis went to one who was responsible for defending a borderland region against invasion, after all. "And it likely does not hurt that the name sounds a little like 'mercy', am I wrong?" Further aspects she considered but did not speak of revolved around where Earl had found so many talented and capable people to work for him. Her eyes flicked to Claire, and the final piece fell into place. Found … or made?

Oh, my. Oh, my. Claire acushla, you have come a very long way in these last eight months, so you have.

Earl chuckled warmly. "A little preventative psychology goes a very long way. When you add in Claire's regular visits to the Brockton General emergency room, my organisation has a better reputation in this city than some hero teams have had in the past."

Abigail swung her leg off the chair arm and sat up. "I find myself impressed, sure and I do. You've done well, Earl Marchant, and that's a fact." Left unspoken was the regret for what she'd missed out on while she'd been away. "I have to ask, though. Is there still a place here for such as myself?"

Earl rubbed his chin seriously. "Now, that's something I can't tell you," he said. "I would like to say yes, but that would be my own personal feelings, not a measured judgement. Why don't you take a few days to figure it out for yourself? We have a spare room for you to crash in for as long as you'd like."

"Also, a heated swimming pool," Claire put in. "I know you were always more into parkour than swimming, but it's amazing to be able to swim all year round if you want. Please say you'll stay." She put on a 'puppy-dog eyes' expression that was even more heart-wrenching than the last time Abigail had seen it.

"Mercy, mercy!" Laughing, Abigail threw her hands up in surrender. "I'll be staying for the moment, I promise. If you can point me in the direction of this room of which you speak, I'll be going there and getting out of your hair."

"I can do that," offered Claire at once. "Come on, Abigail. I can't wait to hear all about what you've been doing while you were away."

"Thank you kindly, Claire acushla." Abigail stood up from the chair and retrieved her bag. "It does my heart good to see you once more, Earl. And 'twas grand to meet the rest of you. Fare well until we meet again." Turning to where Claire was waiting at the door, she followed on.

The house was, as she had already noted, large and well-appointed. It would likely take her a little while to learn the layout, though by all appearances Claire was well used to it. "'Tis a nice place you have here," Abigail offered. "Do you have many visitors, or just your da's allies?"

"Oh, there's a few people who drop over from time to time." Claire smiled happily. "There's the Heberts; they're nice. Mr. Hebert's an important man with the Dockworkers' Association, and Mrs. Hebert's an English professor at the college. They've got a daughter called Taylor who's a year younger than me, but we're in the same grade because the principal decided I should repeat a year. Taylor loves to talk a mile a minute, and her friend Emma's pretty cool too. Emma's teaching me stuff about makeup I never knew."

Abigail blinked. "I'm thinking this chatterbox Taylor might be rubbing off on you a wee smidgen, so she might."

"What, on me? Nahh." Claire shook her head definitively. "Next to Taylor, I barely say a word all day. Anyway, before I take you to see your room, there was something I wanted you to see. Something I've been working on that Dad knows about, but the others don't."

God in heaven, how much does this Taylor talk? Though it's good and all that Claire has friends her own age. "Sure, and I'd love to see what new craziness you've come up with."

"Cool!" Claire grinned broadly, evidently pleased that Abigail wanted to know about it. "Come on, it's down this way."

She led Abigail down a side corridor, which led to a set of back stairs. At the bottom of the steps, Claire led the way into what had once been a greenhouse, but which now had half the panes missing. As they stepped inside, Abigail felt soft yielding soil under her feet instead of concrete.

Occupying the almost-greenhouse, making absolutely certain that the 'green' aspect was well represented, were plants of every description. Big ones, small ones, some that were actively growing up through the open gaps in the roof of the greenhouse and others lying dormant.

Abigail looked around with interest and admiration. "This is a proper garden and no mistake. All grown with your power?" She leaned in to look more closely at a brilliantly coloured flower. There were a few odd spots on the leaves that she figured were some kind of plant disease; Claire would have that cleared up in a moment or so.

"Oh, yeah, but that's not what I brought you here to see." Claire reached up to the nearest growing thing to her, a kind of shrub. As Abigail watched, one of the branches bent, lowering itself until the tip was just over Claire's open hand. A bundle of leaves grew with startling speed, swelling as though Abigail was watching it through time-lapse photography. Then a small object was deposited in Claire's palm and the branch retracted itself again. If that wasn't weird enough, Claire promptly popped the thing into her mouth and swallowed it.

"Uhhh … Claire acushla? What exactly was that, and why did you eat it?" Events were moving faster than Abigail was used to, never a pleasant sensation.

"Oh, that was just an information seed. I asked Mr. Green to let me know what's been going on, so he did." Claire took on a distant expression. "Hmm. Well, there's nothing drastic going on at the moment, so that's good."

"Mr. Green? Who might that be? Are you using the plants to communicate with someone?" Instead of clearing matters up, Claire's answer had only served to raise more questions.

Claire grinned. "Nope. This is what I brought you here to see." She waved her hand at the greenhouse. "This is all Mr. Green. The plants in here, plus all the ones outside, all across the city. A few weeks ago, I started playing with the plants right here, connecting them together via their root systems to make them one giant organism. It was easy enough to do, so I started spreading the connections outward."

This was starting to sound ominous. "Claire, exactly how far out did you spread them?"

"Oh, only out to the city limits," Claire explained blithely. "Dad said I should keep it inside that, for the time being. Somewhere along the way, I came up with a more effective connection fibre, designed to improve information transfer back to me, and had the root network evolve into it. I'd read about eyespots on some micro-organisms, so I figured out how to make them using chlorophyll and wrote them into every plant in the network as well. Now I can use every tree, every bush, every lawn as a compound eye. The hairs on leaves also make a good substitute for eardrums, so I can get sound too."

Abigail considered that, pleased that the girl had at least consulted her da. There appeared to be something missing, though. "So … how do you assimilate the information and input from every leaf and blade of grass in the city, or is there something you're not telling me? Because it sounds to me like that should be one mass of noise rather than any kind of coherent picture, so it does."

"Well, yeah, it was." Claire shrugged. "I was getting ready to toss the whole idea, to be honest. But then Mr. Green came along."

"You have not yet explained who exactly that is, Claire acushla." Abigail raised her eyebrows.

Claire's grin widened, and she gestured at the greenhouse. "All of this. Across Brockton Bay. It's all Mr. Green. The special connection fibre reached a certain limit, and he kind of became aware, and started talking back to me. He's not human, or anything close to it, and he thinks really slow, but he can take in all that information I've been telling you about and make it into packages of coherent images and sounds that I can skim through when I eat one of those information seeds."

Abigail swore softly in Gaelic. "So … what you're saying … is you've created a giant plant brain? With eyes and ears across the city? What's stopping it from going monster-movie on us all? Because surely it cannot be pleased with the idea of us chopping parts of it down, pulling parts up to eat as food, burning parts for light and heat, and trimming our grass on a Saturday afternoon, so it cannot."

"Two reasons. The first is that Mr. Green doesn't think like that," Claire explained patiently. "I've talked to him about all this stuff and more. Because he's all the plants at once, he doesn't really care if some of them get damaged or pruned. I mean, would you go to war if you found out your skin mites were clipping your toenails for you?"

"Well, okay then." Abigail could see her logic, after a fashion. "I might consider it a tiny bit creepy, to be sure, but that's just me. And you mentioned a second reason."

Claire chuckled. "He's a plant-based intelligence, more like a computer than a person. Did I mention he thinks real slow? He can't really move with any speed, because the vast majority of plants don't, and I've made damn sure the genomes of any plants that can move fast aren't incorporated into any part of this plant mass. Also, I'm the only one who can make adjustments to his 'body'. The special connecting fibre doesn't replicate until I tell it to. If I ever went away and didn't come back, Mr. Green would gradually fade away again as connecting plants died off or were replaced with non-connecting ones." She grinned, showing her teeth. "Though if I was ever forced out of this city, I might just make the connecting fibres self-replicating and give Mr. Green some of those genomes. Let whoever took the place over deal with a pissed-off plant monster the size of a city."

Abigail shuddered. "Well now, that would a sight to see and no mistake. From a great distance, to be absolutely clear on the matter. Maybe low earth orbit."

Claire nodded and was about to say something when Jonas knocked on the doorframe behind them. "Excuse me for interrupting, chick, but your father needs you upstairs right now."

"What?" Claire frowned. "What's the matter now? Is the ABB making a move?" She headed out of the greenhouse with Abigail right behind her. As pretty as the plants were, somehow Abigail didn't want to be alone with them anymore. Like, ever.

"No, miss. It's worse than that." Jonas gave the teenage girl a serious look. "The PRT just contacted your father. Leviathan's on track to attack Orlando, Florida."

"Oh, shit." Claire met Abigail's eyes. "Well, time to put my money where my mouth is."

Abigail frowned. "What do you mean, Claire acushla? It's not like Florida's anywhere near here."

"I mean, I already told the PRT I would attend Endbringer battles." Claire quickened her pace. "Looks like Marchioness is going to Florida."

And all Abigail could do was stare at her. Well, shit.

I expected to find any number of weird things when I got to Brockton Bay, but I never expected this.

End of Part Twenty-Three