Another Way


Part Twenty-Five: Shenanigans


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


Marchioness


The transition from Orlando back to Brockton Bay was as flawless as the trip down had been. Claire, Earl, Kayden, Justin, Robert, Jonas, and the Mercia appeared on the roof of the PRT building, along with the Protectorate and Brockton Bay Brigade members who had also attended. The only real indication that they'd moved—apart from the shift in scenery—was a minor reduction in temperature and humidity. Back to what they should be, in Claire's opinion.

"Whoof," said Strider. "That was a big one. Good going, by the way. Nice to have met you all." He tipped them a mock salute, two fingers tapping the brim of the peaked cap he wore, then vanished with a muted crack of displaced air.

"Ahh, it's good to be home again," Earl said. He nodded to Armsmaster. "A pleasure working alongside you. I shall attempt to keep the unpleasantness between us to a minimum."

"Trust me, what your people achieved today was impressive." The armoured hero shook his head. "If we can keep going the way we are, I'll be fine with that." He turned to Claire. "And thank you too, Marchioness. We would've lost some good people today, if it wasn't for you."

"Not to mention, half of Florida would still be under water," Assault jibed. He was still a little green around the gills—apparently, teleportation didn't agree with him—but he was right on point with the humour. "Watching it all just drain away like that was spectacular."

Claire shrugged. "My dad might be a villain, but I'm not about to stand back and let people suffer or die when I can do something about it. You might call it heroic. I just call it doing what I can." She was pleased to see that Armsmaster's attitude was genuine. When she'd originally met him, he had exuded an air of unhappiness, but right now he seemed to be riding the rush of victory.

Having watched Leviathan being pitched out to sea like the world's longest-range fastball would've done a lot to improve everyone's mood, she figured.

She also knew, just as Armsmaster did, that her commitment to healing people (both in Brockton General and Endbringer fights) was what kept the PRT from pursuing her father in any significant manner. As it happened, she was fine with that; helping people was something she enjoyed doing. If she could tweak Director Piggot's tail just a little in the process, that was a bonus.

"Well, I'm not one for puns, but if anyone could be said to have turned the tide, it was you and your … what did you call it again? Mr. Bloom?" Armsmaster paused, ignoring Assault, who had just facepalmed. "Uh … just a question … it can't …"

"Travel?" Claire shook her head. "No, he's very likely going to spend his time soaking up the sunshine in Florida. Now, if someone else threatens Orlando or the local area with large-scale destruction, he might wake up again and deal with it, but I can pretty well guarantee he's never going to show up in Brockton Bay."

Armsmaster hid his reaction well, but Claire was standing close enough to tell when his stance relaxed very subtly. "Good," he said. "That's somewhat of a relief."

"But what's gonna happen now when someone goes to cut their lawn, and their flower garden objects?" This time, Assault seemed a little more serious. "If it—he—is all the plants, things could get messy."

Claire shook her head. "Mr. Bloom is bigger than that. The bit that got up, that was all he needed to deal with Leviathan. At that scale, it would be like you getting upset with your eyelash mites for eating your dead skin cells. He literally won't notice. Unless someone decides to bulldoze an entire forest or something."

"Eyelash mites?" Assault's eyes were mostly hidden behind his tinted visor, but he seemed to be trying to look cross-eyed at his own eyelashes. "I have eyelash mites?"

"Everyone does," Armsmaster said impatiently. "What's likely to happen if someone does set about demolishing a forest?"

She knew exactly what would happen, but she made a show of rubbing her chin. "Well, I have told him to play nice with people, so his first response would probably be to grow back all the trees that were knocked down. If they did it again … well, their bulldozers and chainsaws wouldn't actually survive the experience. And by that time, he'd most likely be in contact with me."

Earl put his hand on Claire's shoulder. "And then we'd take an interest."

Armsmaster seemed to freeze for a second. "It … he … can communicate with you from there?"

"If he really, really has to … yeah." Claire raised an eyebrow. "When people talk about contacting someone over the 'grapevine', it's not necessarily a figure of speech."

Assault facepalmed again.

"So, uh, hey, how about we show Marchioness and Marquis our appreciation by giving them a lift down to ground level?" asked Mega Girl brightly. "I mean, the elevator can do it, but it's kinda crowded, y'know?"

"I'm on board with that idea," Lady Photon agreed. The left sleeve of her costume had been torn away and the ragged edge was a little bloodstained, but nowhere near as badly as it had been when she was injured. "We all owe them a huge debt of thanks. Laserdream, Shielder, if you could link your shields with mine?"

She moved into a clear area of the roof along with her two children—the family resemblance was too strong for it to be otherwise—and placed a glowing force field flat on the roof. Shielder, who looked about ten or eleven, reinforced it with his own, while Laserdream added more around the edges and added a safety rail. Lady Photon looked it over critically, made a few minor adjustments, then nodded toward Earl in an unspoken invitation.

"Thank you, dear lady," he responded. With Claire at his side, he boarded the glowing structure. Kayden chose to light off her powers instead and flew a dozen yards upward, clearly waiting to escort them down. Lacking the ability to fly, the rest of Earl's contingent stepped on board as well.

Moving steadily, in a manner they'd clearly practised, Lady Photon and the two younger heroes carried Claire and the others up off the roof and descended alongside the PRT building like the smoothest of outdoor elevators. Kayden drifted down on one side, and Mega Girl on the other. Even though she knew treachery was not being planned, and she was pretty sure her comrades had figured it out too, Claire could still feel the tension permeating those around her. There was always the chance something could go wrong, after all.

They reached the ground without incident and Lady Photon dissolved her force field, followed a moment later by the other two. "Well," she said. "I want to thank you again for saving my life. I don't remember much about it, but Mega Girl says it was bad." She held out her hand.

"You're welcome." Claire had saved too many lives in the hospital to be feeling awkward about this, but still she found herself wanting to blush in response to the unreserved gratitude. Repressing the instinct, she shook Lady Photon's hand firmly. "There's no reason capes can't work together when it really matters."

"And be friends, right?" Mega Girl landed beside Claire and hugged her. "'Cause you're a hero in my book for saving Lady Photon."

Claire hugged her right back. "Always. I might not be a hero like you, but you're one of my best friends here in Brockton Bay."

That broke the ice, and first Laserdream then Shielder took turns at hugging Marchioness. "Thanks for saving Mom," muttered the boy as they broke apart.

"Hey!" hissed Laserdream, elbowing him. "No secret identities, twerp!"

"It's alright," Claire assured her. "I'd already figured it out, and I'm pretty sure it's an open secret in Brockton Bay anyway."

"Yeah," rumbled Jonas, looming next to Claire. "It is."

Laserdream blinked and stared at the huge man, and Claire grinned. While Jonas wasn't as tall as Manpower, he was broader in the shoulders. She'd designed his enhancements to give him both power and presence, and they absolutely worked. "See?" she said cheerfully. "Even Watchman knows about it."

"Well," Earl said briskly. "We have to be on our way, and you no doubt have things which you wish to attend to. Allow me to bid you a good day, and let us hope that our next meeting will be equally harmonious."

Lady Photon nodded to him. "I'll second that. Come on, kids." A moment later, she was airborne; Mega Girl and the other two followed on.

Earl dusted his hands off. "Mercia; you've all done very well. Go home, rest up. Bring the pony bottles and first-aid kits back in when you report for duty. Everyone else, let's return home as well, and see if anything unusual has transpired in our absence."

As the long-coated men vanished into alleys and side-streets—whether rooftop-running or sticking to street level, they could cover ground across the city at a frankly astounding pace—Claire followed her father to where the SUV awaited. It was less conspicuous than a limo, and the flip-plates prevented casual identification. They all climbed in, and Jonas started it moving. After a few moments of watching the mirrors, he nodded and removed his domino mask. "Nobody following us, sir, and no radio emissions coming from the car."

"Good." Earl turned his head from where he was sitting in the front passenger seat and smiled thinly. "The Endbringer Truce is a thing, but I have little faith in people to stick with such an agreement if they believe they've hit upon a foolproof way to get around it."

Robert relaxed, allowing the metal armour to recede into his body. "They'd do that, even after what we achieved in Orlando?"

"Yeah, they would," Claire said as she reached forward and returned Earl and then Kayden to their 'civilian' appearances. "Some people fixate on 'us versus them' and 'win at all costs' to the point that it actually negates any advantage they'd get out of it. And they still don't see where they went wrong."

Kayden rolled her eyes. "Oh, trust me. I know how that one goes. And I suspect you do too, Justin."

"Yeah." Justin nodded as he removed his helmet. "Panzer was so hell-bent on getting revenge on everyone for everything that she didn't even stop to think about how she maybe would've been better off just walking away."

"Thus embodying the very essence of the sunk cost fallacy," Earl agreed. "Of course, it's a particularly insidious problem. Simply cutting one's losses before they get too great is a lesson many people simply refuse to learn. Even knowing this, it took me a certain amount of soul-searching before I could convince my more combative instincts that it was a good idea to take my dear Claire and relocate to Boston. But in the end, I believe it was the best possible move."

"But … heroes." Robert seemed to be struggling with the concept. "I mean, I understand villains being dicks to each other. You guys not included," he added hastily. "Other villains, sure. But not heroes … right?"

Earl chuckled. "Oh, we've performed our share of shenanigans against other villains. Skidmark wasn't even bothering us before we went and ensured that his merry band of misfits wouldn't pollute the streets of Brockton Bay with their poisons anymore. As for Kaiser, he attacked us first, but we did much more than give him a slap on the wrist in retaliation. However, yes, heroes are just as capable of such activities as villains. They merely possess better public relations, so that people are less prone to believe it of them." He paused, frowning in thought. "Except, oddly enough, those who are most earnestly and actively heroic; the general public are ready to believe bad things about them in a heartbeat. It's somewhat of a paradox, to be honest."

Claire raised an eyebrow. "I'm actually wondering if the other heroes don't talk smack about them behind their backs, to make them look bad. So when an actual rumour comes along, people are ready to believe it."

"Being the only non-cape in the car, chick," rumbled Jonas from the front seat, "I'm thinking you might have the right of it there. Never seen so many prima donnas in one place until I came to Brockton Bay with you and Mr. Marchant."

The laughter lasted all the way back to the house.


When Claire got out of the SUV in the undercover parking area, Abigail and Marcus were there to greet them. What gave her pause, however, was the fact that Abigail's arm was in a sling and Marcus had a split lip.

"What's been going on here?" Earl moved toward them with fast steps. "Did a sparring session get out of hand?"

Claire almost didn't catch the lightning-fast flicker of Abigail's eyes to her and back to Earl, but then the Irish woman's shoulders slumped in resignation. They both knew that as good as Abigail's body control was, not even she could successfully lie to Claire.

Which raised the question of exactly what Abigail might want to lie about. Claire knew damn well that her old bodyguard—and her father's ex-lover—wouldn't betray them under even the most stringent of circumstances. And it was highly doubtful that anyone could've convinced her otherwise in the few hours they'd been gone.

"I wish we could say that was all it was, Earl darlin'," Abigail said. "Unfortunately, it was a sight more than that. Not more'n half an hour after you left, the Mercia you had patrollin' your territory sent in a report of the blasted green an' reds causin' problems. No sign of th' big lizard, though. Not at first, anyway."

Earl tilted his head curiously. "I'm not hearing anything yet about why you're reluctant to tell me what happened." He rested his left elbow in his right hand, and rubbed his left index finger knuckle over his lips. "Unless you're about to tell me that you personally engaged Lung yourself." Claire saw his eyes flick sideways to the teen boy. "Or you let Marcus do it."

"That'd be a little bit o' yes, and a little bit o' no," Abigail said hastily, as Kayden began to fuss over Marcus. Claire moved a little closer so that her power could start accelerating the healing for both of them, but her attention remained on Abigail's story. "Y'see, it kinda went like this …"


Abigail

Four Hours Previously


Twenty minutes after Jonas drove away with Marquis and Claire and the others, Abigail muttered one of the less offensive Gaelic swears she knew, and got to her feet. The lounge was comfortable, God knew—if there was something Earl Marchant could do, it was supply luxurious living conditions—but right now she didn't need comfortable. She needed something to do.

"What's wrong, Ms. Beltane?" asked Marcus, also looking up from the movie they'd been watching.

"Nothing, Marcus storeen," she said, linking her hands over her head and stretching upward as hard as she could. "I mislike sitting still for too long. Think ye that you can show me where your uncail Earl has hidden his gymnasium in this monster of a house? 'Tis exercising I have a mind to do." That there would be a gym, she had zero doubt. Jonas needed someplace to store the car axles she suspected he used as bar-bells these days.

"Oh, sure," Marcus said, jumping up off the sofa as well. He grabbed the remote and paused the movie, then led the way out through one of the doors. "We've also got an indoor heated pool, if you wanted to do some swimming. I'm sure Kayden wouldn't mind loaning you one of her swimsuits."

She smiled at his ready enthusiasm. "And I'm likewise sure that she'd be much appreciative if we asked before borrowing. Just the gym will be doing me fine for the moment."

His reply was cut off by the sound of a phone ringing. He glanced around, then darted down the corridor a few yards to where an antique-looking phone was perched in a nook. Taking up the receiver, he visibly composed himself. "Hello?"

Abigail's hearing was good, but not good enough to make out words from the tinny buzz coming through the earpiece. Marcus, on the other hand, evidently heard everything that was said. "Speaking. Report."

Now, what's going on here? Abigail knew full-well that Earl Marchant rarely had just one iron in the fire, and (to stretch the metaphor a little) was not averse to starting new fires, just so that he could put irons in them. Whatever this was, however, Marcus hadn't been expecting it.

Slowly, after what seemed like several minutes of unintelligible speech from the person on the other end of the phone and terse questions from Marcus, the teenager slowly put the phone down. "Well, shit," he muttered.

"Well, don't be keepin' me in suspense," Abigail urged. "Why the serious face? What's the craic?" This was the first flaw she'd seen in the young man's well-mannered façade, and she wanted to know what had caused it.

He visibly steeled himself and turned to her. "You know that Uncle Earl—Marquis—controls a large amount of territory, mainly taken over from when the Merchants and the Empire left town, yes?"

"I did not know that specifically, but it surprises me not at all," she replied. "Your uncail and I have little love for the Empire, to be sure. Have they returned?"

"Not them, no. It's the Asian Bad Boyz. Lung's gang. They tried pushing in on us a few months ago, and Kayden literally threw Lung out of Uncle Earl's territory. The Mercia are reporting probing attacks, no real damage yet, just thrown rocks and bricks. So far, nobody's trying anything more." He looked pensive. "If Uncle Earl was here, he'd know what to do. And I know what he'd tell me to do. Stay right here."

"He'd want you to be safe while he went out and took care of business, sure and he would," Abigail agreed. "So, this Lung fellow would likely be front and centre, aye? Where are they sayin' he's at?"

Marcus shook his head. "They're not. Nobody's seen him yet, and that's what worries me. I haven't been doing this as long as Uncle Earl, but I know that's not like him at all. He's got to be in the spotlight."

Abigail fancied she could see the pieces of the puzzle clicking together. "If that's what your uncail says, then I'd be of a mind to believe it. Have ye a map to show me where the Marquis territory extends?"

"Uh huh." Marcus nodded, transparently relieved that Abigail seemed to know what she was doing.

Not that she did, exactly, but she'd been in a lot of tight places over the years, and she had a few hunches about what was going on. And it was always better to have more information about the situation.

Exercise forgotten, she followed him to what looked suspiciously like Earl's study from back in Boston, transposed to the new house. All the same books, in the same order, on the same bookshelves. Marcus pulled a folded map off a shelf and spread it out on the desk, clicking on the lamp to show the detail. "The house is here. We control this area here …" His finger traced over the paper. "Around to here. ABB territory is here. The Mercia who called it in said the attacks are happening here, here, here and here."

Abigail studied the map. She wasn't what anyone would mistake for an expert in strategy, but a few things suggested themselves to her. "So, no attacks on this quarter, at all?" Her fingernail ran over the map, covering a short distance.

"None that he mentioned," Marcus confirmed with a frown.

"And all your men are currently engaged, keeping the current ones at bay, aye?" The idea that was forming in her head was one she didn't like, but this wasn't a popularity contest.

"All the ones we've got in town right this second, yeah." He gestured in what was possibly a southerly direction. "Uncle Earl and Claire took the rest down to Florida with them, to fight Leviathan."

"And Lung would almost certainly know that, by fair means or foul." Abigail nodded slowly. "How quickly can we get there?" Again, her nail tapped the gap in coverage. "If Lung is anywhere, this is where he'll be. Moving in, finding a target, and showing that Marquis isn't the boss of him."

Marcus grimaced. "He's going to kill people, isn't he?"

"Aye, Marcus storeen," she said soberly. "Your uncail has set a store of his reputation in this area. To me it sounds as though Lung is bound and determined to undermine that, by any means he can. And folk like that care not who they hurt, so long as they get what they desire."

"But Uncle Earl will go after him, then." The boy seemed to have trouble parsing the concept. "He has to know that."

"They also look not overly far into the future," she said. "Also, mayhap he believes doing this will enrage your uncail to the point that he will attack without caution. After all, if it is the same Lung I've heard of a time or three, he withstood the worst Leviathan could throw at him once before."

"It is," Marcus confirmed. "But—"

"I had not finished," Abigail said. "There is the other concern, that he will simply murder all witnesses and claim innocence of the entire affair."

Marcus looked horrified. "We can't let that happen!" He turned and dashed out the door.

Young and fast he may have been; Abigail was older, wiser and a good deal faster. She caught up with him just a few strides down the corridor, and brought him to a halt by the expedient of hooking two fingers into the back of his collar. "Whoa down there a wee while, me bucko. Something needs to be done, to be sure and all, but far fewer have died from stopping and having a crafty ponder than from not doing it. First of all, how were you going to get there in time?"

"We've got vehicles in the garage," he said, not quite pulling against the hold she had on him, but not relaxing either. "Jonas has been teaching me how to drive."

"Stick shift?" she asked, raising an eyebrow interrogatively. For as long as she'd known him, Earl Marchant had stuck with manual-transmission vehicles.

"Well, yeah," he said. "Come on, we've got to do something!"

"And we will," she assured him, her decision crystallising into place. "But I'm driving."


Marcus


As the four-by-four drifted around yet another corner, tyres smoking and howling, Marcus hung on for dear life. He'd been reasonably confident in his ability to drive, but Ms. Beltane's mastery of the wheel blew that all the way out the window. There would've been no way in hell he could've gotten them across town as fast as she had, and certainly not without hitting something.

This wasn't to say she hadn't broken a few road rules. As far as he could see, she'd broken them all; at least, the ones he was aware of. Of the few she hadn't shattered outright, the majority of those were probably severely bent and traumatised as well. Two separate police cars had made abortive attempts at giving chase, and had been left behind with equal ease.

"How close are we?" she asked, only needing to raise her voice a little to compensate for the roar of the engine; in every other way, she could've been taking the vehicle on a nice leisurely Sunday drive down to the Boardwalk and back.

"Next block!" he called back, sticking his head out the window at the sound of another police siren. Yeah, it was definitely following them. "We've got another one!"

"Just when we don't want one," she said, as if complaining about a mild summer shower. "Marcus storeen, your uncail used to be able to drop tyre-poppers, caltrop style. Has he shown you that technique, yet?"

"Yeah." Marcus didn't like using his powers extensively, because snapping off something he'd formed was always painful. Uncle Earl had assured him that it always would be. Still, he didn't want to disappoint Ms. Beltane. "Give me a second."

Taking a deep breath, he formed a ball of bone in his left hand, then used his right to snap it off. He clenched his teeth as he did so, but the sharp stab of pain up his arm was over quickly, and now he held the primary weapon he shared with his uncle. Holding it partly out the window, he caused it to grow and spawn caltrops, one after the other, as fast as he could manage it. When he leaned forward to look in the mirror, he could see the tiny white objects bouncing and skittering in the wake of the four-by-four, but the oncoming cop car hadn't hit any yet, so he kept making them.

And then it abruptly swerved sideways and skidded to a halt, halfway up on the sidewalk. "Yes!" he exulted. "Got him!"

"'Tis not out of the woods yet we are, fear óg," she reminded him, slowing the vehicle to normal driving speed. "The damage is done, now ye'd best be removing the evidence."

"Ah. Right." A little chastened that he'd needed reminding, he reached out with his power and dissolved all the bone he'd dropped back along the way, included the sharpened piece that had punctured the car tyre. Though they may harbour deep suspicions, none of the investigators looking into the crash would find more than the finest of dust, blowing in the wind.

And besides, nobody outside the household knew about him yet. The only other osteokinetic in Brockton Bay was safely in Florida, fighting Leviathan. Even if they identified the powder as being bone-related, Uncle Earl had the best alibi on the planet.

The piece he'd been growing the caltrops from, he kept. It was not outside the realms of possibility that he would need more bone in a hurry, after all.

"Okay, done," he said once he'd felt the last caltrop collapse into fine powder. "Let's go. I think I know where he's headed."

Immediately, the four-by-four accelerated once more. They had a dragon to stop.


Lung


This had been a long time coming. Kenta knew that some would see it as weak to strike when his enemy wasn't even in the city, but it was merely good tactics. One did not attack the foe where they were strong, after all.

The point wasn't to attack Marquis and best him in a one-to-one struggle. If Kenta could make the man stand still long enough to burn him to a crisp, that would be ideal, but as Marquis consistently declined to fight like that, he had to do it this way. Proving to the bone manipulator that there was no place safe from Lung if he put his mind to it might just bring Marquis to battle once and for all. And once the fool had been cremated (Kenta had heard that Marquis didn't allow drugs or run prostitutes in his area at all, which was the true mark of a fool) the mantle of Brockton Bay supreme crime lord would fall to him at last.

But that would come later. For now, he was savouring the fear he could feel from the shopkeepers and residents on either side of the street. They'd thought they were safe under Marquis' dominion? He would teach them otherwise.

But just up ahead was his target. This was where he'd literally been ejected from Marquis' territory two months ago, making him a laughing-stock of the underworld. The jokes had even circulated among the ABB—albeit briefly—bringing him more shame than he'd ever felt in his life before.

Now … he was going to take back his pride.

It was a heady feeling … one that lasted right up until the familiar bone-clad figure stepped around the corner in front of him. At the sight of Marquis, the ABB men around Kenta stopped in their tracks, looking around nervously.

"I thought he said Marquis wasn't here," one muttered.

"How can he be back already?" hissed another.

"Careful," murmured another. "Lung might hear you."

Lung had indeed heard, and he felt anger growing in his heart over the cowardice of his men. He was the one they needed to fear, not Marquis! Marquis was nothing! A pretender who played with bones! Kenta was a dragon, who grew as large as he needed to be, and whose fire could hold even an Endbringer at bay!

Still, if he was here, the rest of his motley group might be around somewhere, so it was wise to watch his back. Keeping a cautious eye out for Purity—he knew of the name change, but it didn't fool him—Kenta moved toward Marquis. He wasn't as big as he'd like to be certain of dealing with his foe, so he didn't immediately rush to the attack.

"That's far enough, Lung."

Kenta stopped, his hands flexing. Despite the trademark bone armour, Marquis didn't sound quite his usual confident self. Had he been injured in the fight with Leviathan? And where was the rest of his gang?

"Step aside," he ordered brusquely. "You cannot win against me." Already, he felt his muscles enlarging, while the tingling of his skin that told him scales were on the way.

Marquis chuckled, again giving Kenta pause. The sound was pitched a little higher than normal for the crime lord, which again made him wonder if Marquis was wounded in some way.

"If that were true, you'd already be running this territory. Back off, now, before I do something you'll regret."

It hadn't been his imagination. Marquis didn't want to fight. He was putting up a good bluff, but there was something wrong with him. This was not the crime lord Kenta had been humiliated by, before. Something was lacking.

"I think not." He grinned toothily behind his metal mask. "This turf is mine. Step aside, or bend your knee to me." To underline his words, he let flames flare up from his hands.

"Marquis bends the knee to nobody." The bone-manipulator held up his hand, where Kenta could see that he held an off-white ball, about the size of a baseball. A moment later, he threw it, hard.

Kenta ducked, but the ball went a yard over his head. If Marquis had been aiming it at him, he was definitely not on his game. "What was that supposed to—" he began, just before the chorus of yells from his men cut him off.

Implicitly conscious of Marquis still in front of him, Kenta glanced back over his shoulder. All the men he'd brought along, as well as their knives, steel bars, and the occasional gun, were secured in a network of bony struts that had sprung out from the ball in all directions.

"Now it's just you and me." Marquis' tone was light, as though he was utterly unconcerned that Kenta could fry him alive inside that bone armour. "Care to try your luck, or are you going to be smarter than that, today?"

Every instinct Kenta had told him Marquis was running a bluff. That this was Marquis, he had no doubt; nobody else could handle bone like that. But there was something missing about the man, something he couldn't quite pin down. It might have been the tone of voice, or perhaps the body language or stance, but whatever it was, Marquis did not want this fight.

Which meant Kenta absolutely wanted the fight. Reluctant opponents were the best; they barely showed any opposition, and folded as soon as they could plausibly get away with it. Marquis had never shown reluctance for battle before, but he was now.

And Kenta knew what that meant.

Victory was at hand.

"It's not my luck that's run out, bone man," he growled. "It's yours."

And he launched into the attack.


Marcus


His bluff was almost working, he could tell. He'd been applying all the lessons Uncle Marcus had given him on how to walk confidently and to project assurance with every word, but while the twenty-odd ABB guys had fallen for it, Lung hadn't quite bought it. Marcus could feel the suspicious gaze of the leader of the Asian gang searching him from head to toe, looking for the discrepancies.

He'd formed the bone armour the same way Uncle Earl did, with thicker soles in the 'boots' to make up for the few inches he lacked in height, and he was almost certain the helmet allowed him to mimic his uncle's voice closely enough that people would think he was Marquis. The idea had been to prompt Lung into leaving of his own accord, thus avoiding a fight he wasn't ready for.

But it hadn't worked. The more he tried to push the bluff, the more suspicious Lung got. He hadn't quite realised Marcus wasn't Marquis, but the suspicion was enough to goad him into attacking.

Frantically, he tried to remember his hand-to-hand lessons; would a throw even work against someone of Lung's size? An image flashed up in his mind's eye of Claire dropping Jonas on the mat with ridiculous ease, but he also knew she had a whole series of advantages that he just plain lacked. Still, he had to try.

The one thing he couldn't try against Lung, he knew, was the same sort of bone manacles he'd just applied to the ABB men. Created on the fly, they were sufficient to restrain someone of normal human strength, but Lung's Brute rating would allow him to tear straight through them. While Uncle Earl had the ability to create bone faster and stronger than Lung could smash it, Marcus still hadn't gotten to that point, as demonstrated by an attempt to bind Jonas in the same way.

In short, it hadn't ended well.

The throw was not one of his best. In fact, it was one of the worst he'd ever actually pulled off. It didn't help that Lung got in a hit on him, smashing his helmet against his face, as he sent the gang lord over onto the roadway. He also went down, his head ringing. There was a taste of blood in his mouth, and a couple of teeth were loose; that, at least, he could fix.

When he looked up, Lung was already getting to his feet. Marcus' bone armour was interfering with easy movement and his head was still spinning; he could see the Asian crime lord would be up first. He still wasn't very good at going underground, but it looked like his only choice—

The roar of the four-by-four's engine burst onto his eardrums. He flinched aside as it thundered past, mere inches from him, and smashed headlong into Lung. The impact flung the dragon-tattooed man twenty feet into a wall, and sent the vehicle into a tyre-screeching four-wheel drift. Lung slumped to the ground at about the same time as the four-by-four slammed side-on into an electricity pole, the engine stalling out.

Climbing unsteadily to his feet, Marcus stumbled over to where Lung lay semi-conscious on the sidewalk. He generated a pellet of bone from his hand, gritted his teeth through the pain as he snapped it off, and tossed it onto Lung. Under the urgings of his power, it grew to encompass the crime lord, leaving just a few holes for breathing. Lung would recover from the impact, but he would take a little while to break out of the bone prison.

When he got to the four-by-four, he found Abigail clenching her teeth as she tried to get the driver's side door open. The pole had hit the back door, but the side of the vehicle was comprehensively caved in all the same. "Are you okay?" he asked.

Abigail drew in air through her teeth as he managed to get the door open from the outside. "I reckon I dislocated my shoulder an' all," she admitted. "Hurts like the hound of Lugh Lámhfhada were tearing at it. Lung?"

"Locked down for the moment," he assured her. "He's going to be pissed when he wakes up, though. And that'll be sooner rather than later."

"Aye," she agreed, then looked up at the rooftop and grinned. "But it isn't our problem anymore, so it isn't."

Not sure what she was talking about, he turned his head and looked … and there, standing on the rooftops were members of the Mercia, with more arriving all the time. "Oh," he said. "Oh, good."

At an unseen signal, they all jumped down to ground level at the same time—thirty and forty foot drops—like stepping off a curb. Several came over to where Marcus was standing with Abigail.

"You're not Marquis," one said.

"No," agreed Marcus, and pulled back the bone from where it covered his face. "I wanted to make Lung back off. He wouldn't."

"Understood," said the same one. "We'll escort him and his men out of our territory now. You probably need to get back to the house. Unless you need medical attention?"

"I'm fine," Marcus said hastily. "But Ms. Beltane's got a dislocated shoulder."

The Mercia man looked at Abigail. "I can put that back in for you, if you want."

She grimaced. "Yeah, go ahead."

Marcus stepped back and watched as he took hold of her arm. "On the count of three. One … two …" There was a swift movement, and Abigail made a sharp sound as the socket popped back into place.

She worked her shoulder tenderly as she stepped away from the long-coated man, then gave him a dirty look. "Count of three, huh?"

He seemed mildly amused. "It always works. Do you need a hand getting back to the house?"

Rubbing her shoulder, she winced. "Not sure I'll be able to drive like this."

"I can drive," Marcus assured her. "Jonas has been teaching me."

She gave him a dubious look, then nodded. "Sure, and you'll have to," she decided. "It's not racing we need to do now."

Half a dozen of the Mercia surrounded the four-by-four; at a voiced command, they lifted the entire vehicle up and moved it sideways, clear of the pole. The back door was badly bent, but two of them took hold of it and forced it back to a rough approximation of its proper shape. "It still needs repairs," one of them said, "but that should get you home."

"Thanks," said Marcus, then nodded toward where the shell he had over Lung was starting to move and shake. "You'll be okay here?"

The man nodded. "Dissolve the bone anytime you like. He won't be up to facing us all at once."

"Good." Marcus climbed into the front seat of the four-by-four. Abigail was already in the passenger seat, rigging up a sling for her injured arm. Carefully, he closed his door and applied his seat-belt. Breathing deeply, he looked over the dashboard and tried to remember the lessons Jonas had given him.

Hopefully, this would go better than the fight with Lung.


Claire


"… and then the lad drove us both home, as smooth as you please," Abigail finished up. "He stuck to the speed limit, and nobody paid us a blind bit of notice."

"Good, good," Earl said. "I'm pleased you're both okay; or you will be, once Claire finishes dealing with your injuries. What I'm less pleased about is how you could've been hurt or killed out there."

"Don't be mad at Ms. Beltane, Uncle Earl," Marcus urged. "It was my idea. Lung deliberately set things up to draw the Mercia away from that area, and he was going to do his best to wreck it before they got back. All because you were down in Florida."

Earl nodded grimly. "That part hadn't escaped me. But you two went into the fight with barely a plan between you. I thought I taught you better than that."

"Yeah," Jonas added. "Especially the part about never going toe-to-toe with someone who's bigger an' stronger than you. Never ends well."

Marcus looked down at his feet. "I thought I could bluff him," he confessed. "I nearly had him, too. If I'd been just a little bit better at it, maybe I could've gotten him to back off without a fight."

Claire shook her head. "Nope. He probably believed you were Dad, alright, but he didn't care. You were alone, as far as he could see, and he had his men with him. There was no way he was going to back down in front of them. That fight was gonna happen, one way or the other."

"I suspect that it's time I moved you on to more esoteric applications of our powers than merely generating basic weapons and armouring yourself with bone," Earl decided. "Also, we need to work on your burrowing capability."

Marcus nodded. "Totally. I don't ever want to feel like that again."

Jonas chuckled. "Oh, you'll definitely feel like that again, kid. But the next time 'round, you'll know what to do about it."

"Which reminds me," Kayden said. "This was a direct attack from Lung. He was trying to demoralise your people and maybe even take some territory. How are we going to respond to that?"

Earl smiled slowly, showing all of his teeth, with zero humour involved. "We're going to visit the ABB and explain the error of their ways. I might even shout."


End of Part Twenty-Five