Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Five: Removing Threats


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


"What did I do?" demanded Sophia Hess as the man climbed the steps out of the basement. "What did I do to you? Tell me! Tell me!"

He didn't respond, not even by turning his head to look at her. The light clicked off. At the top of the stairs, the door opened and then closed again. Only then did she allow the terror she felt to send shivers throughout her body.

She had no idea how long she'd been imprisoned down here, but it seemed like an eternity. It wasn't that the man had been cruel. He hadn't tortured her in the physical sense. He hadn't waterboarded her or even used the stun-gun after the first time. It had sat on the bench like a silent observation that yes, he could put white fire through her veins at any time, but he'd never actually used it.

Neither had he starved her or forced her to soil herself. One of her hands had been released so she could eat—takeaway food; she wasn't picky about her nutrition—and he'd released her from the chair at one point so she could relieve herself into a bucket. But he'd taped the damned electrical cord to her ankle first, so she still couldn't use her powers.

That hadn't stopped her from trying to jump him, of course. He'd turned his back out of respect for her privacy, and she'd gone in for a kidney strike. One hit to slow him down, and she could beat the living shit of him at her leisure. Maybe tie him into the fucking chair, and see if she could drain the batteries of the stun-gun into him before he died of a heart attack or something.

That plan lasted right up until she'd gotten within arm's reach of him. All she recalled from that point on was the glint of the basement light on his glasses as he swayed aside from her attack and retaliated in kind, far more effectively than she'd ever been on her best day. She'd woken up in the chair with a few new bruises and the burning question uppermost in her mind: Who the fuck is this guy? Because old and balding or not, glasses or not, he had moves she'd never even seen Armsmaster use.

It hadn't been hard for him to get the story about Emma and Taylor out of her. The PRT handbook even said that if you were faced with torture, confess everything. It wasn't like he was asking for classified shit, like the secret identities of the Wards or the layout of the PRT building. He just wanted to know what was going on with her and Emma and Hebert.

Truth be told, she might've embellished things a little. It was obvious that this was a guy for whom the phrase 'does not fuck around' might well have been invented. After the beatdown, she'd decided that it couldn't hurt to try to impress him a little. Badass to badass, that sort of thing. It could even be that he was testing her, seeing what she was like when the chips were down.

So, after she told him everything, she'd said, "Okay, I gave you what you wanted. Who the fuck are you?"

Earlier, he'd ignored the question. Now, he answered it. And the more he spoke, the more deeply she regretted asking it.

She'd heard of the Dark, of course. Who hadn't? But he'd vanished from the Brockton Bay scene before she ever got powers, and as time went on she'd tended to assume that his legend had been vastly inflated.

But there was one little problem. She knew boastfulness and braggadocio when she heard it, and the dry uninflected voice of the man before her had none of that. In fact, the more she listened to him speak about his career, citing half-forgotten names from before Sophia was even born, the more worried she became.

If this guy is for real, what does he want with me?

"So wait," she'd interrupted after he'd explained how Jack Slash's elbows and knees had been shot out with sniper fire. "If you're really the Dark, didn't you have a rule where you don't go after capes?" She was sure she'd heard that somewhere.

"That was more of a guideline," he replied, turning his head in just the right way that the basement light hid his eyes behind the reflection from his glasses. It gave him a supremely sinister air. "I came to an agreement a long time ago with a scarily competent woman in a fedora. It's apparently in society's best interests not to have capes being sniped from every rooftop. However, it's also in society's best interests to have people like me around to deal with certain other people. So I agreed not to take any jobs to kill capes, and to try to avoid killing them in general. But that didn't include special circumstances. The fact that I won't take money to kill a cape doesn't mean I won't kill capes if I consider it necessary. I've just managed to avoid the necessity until very recently."

"Special circumstances?" she asked, a suspicion nagging at her that she might regret asking. But then, she'd never been one to avoid doing something just because she might regret it later.

"Special circumstances," he repeated, tossing a newspaper on her lap. It took her a moment to focus on the print, and then her eyes widened. It had been folded so that one specific story was prominently displayed; the deaths of Cricket and Hookwolf. When she looked up from the paper, he let out a brief whistle. The puppy that she'd seen snuffling around the darker corners of the basement with great interest woke up and came trotting over. He picked the dog up and scratched its ears. "The Empire took my dog. I went and got him back. Cricket and Hookwolf wanted to argue the point."

It was cool in the basement, but sweat still sprang out on Sophia's forehead. She'd already known she was in the presence of a uniquely dangerous individual. His words hammered that point home in no uncertain terms. Not only was he capable of killing two highly capable parahumans without much in the way of trouble, but he was entirely willing to do so over a dog. "I never hurt your dog," she offered hopefully.

Again, he looked at her. This time, she could see his eyes behind his glasses, and she wished she couldn't. They were dead, flat. His gaze didn't promise pain. It promised oblivion. "No," he agreed, and his voice was even more terrifying than his eyes. "You did something much, much worse."

That was when he turned and left the basement, still carrying the dog with him. She called after him, wanting answers. Above all, wanting to know why. But he never answered her. Reaching up, he pulled on the cord to turn off the basement light. The basement was plunged into darkness, alleviated only briefly by the door opening and closing at the top of the stairs.

Sophia Hess sat in pitch blackness, tied to the chair. She racked her mind to recall everything she'd ever heard about the Dark, but only came up with one thing. A question he used to ask. Popular culture held that it was the very last question that some people ever heard.

Are you afraid of the Dark?

And as she sat in the stillness, with not a scintilla of light to illuminate her surroundings, she discovered that the answer was yes. She was very much afraid of the Dark.


Taylor


Chewie stood up on Taylor's lap with his front paws on the windowsill of the car door, his head as far out the window as he could reach and his tongue flapping in the breeze. His back end was just as busy, hindquarters wriggling as his tail wagged briskly. She held on to him carefully, which he had no problem with. He seemed to be so thoroughly alive in the moment that it was hard not to share his pleasure.

Of course, she was also enjoying the situation of her own accord. Doctor Franklin and the nurses had all been kind to her, but the hospital was not home, and she craved the comfort and familiarity of her own bed in her own bedroom. Despite her father's occasionally acerbic comments on the matter, she'd gathered he was fine with Chewie sleeping in her room, or even up on her bed if she so wished. Just so long as she ensured that he didn't make a mess, or that she was responsible for cleaning up any messes he did make.

She was perfectly okay with that. Chewie was wholly, unequivocally devoted to her, just as she was to him. He didn't mind when she clung to him extra tightly, or when her tears soaked into his fur. For her part, she was always cheered up when he licked her face or slobbered in her ear, even if part of the laughter came with an exasperated, "Chewie!"

"You okay, honey?" asked her father, breaking into her introspection. "You're being a bit quiet there."

She turned to him, a smile breaking out on her face. "I'm great. Getting used to being out of the hospital and actually going home. I still can't believe they made me ride out the front doors in a wheelchair."

"Hospitals," he said. "Go figure." He turned his eyes forward, his tone becoming thoughtful. "Things are going to be different. You understand that, right? I'm not going to let something like that happen to you again."

The suddenly serious topic caused her to sit up a little in her seat. "Yeah, well, now that Winslow's burned down, I don't have to go back there ever again," she agreed. "Have they found out what caused that? I'd like to find the person responsible and give them a big hug."

He raised an eyebrow. "You seem sure that it was deliberate and not something like frayed electrical insulation." A smirk lingered on his face. "Is there something you're not telling me?"

"Dad, seriously?" She grinned more widely, playing along. "You can't prove anything. I've got the perfect alibi. But you have to admit; this was Winslow. It probably had a higher population of potential teenage arsonists per classroom than any other school in Brockton Bay."

"Your point is valid." He tapped the steering-wheel idly with his finger. "However it happened, I'm glad it did. Makes it much easier to get you a transfer. And this way, I don't have to worry about pressing charges against everyone from that Blackwell woman on down."

"And I don't have to sit through another World Affairs class with Mr Gladly trying to be everybody's friend but mine, and ignoring all the shit they're doing to me."

"Hm." Danny's eyes took on a faraway look. "Gladly, huh?"

"Yeah." She snorted. "So glad."

Her father nodded. "Yeah, me too. You won't have to worry about that anymore." His eyes coming back into focus, he glanced at her. "So how are you doing?"

She snuggled Chewie to her, and he obligingly licked her on the chin. "I'm not going to say that what I went through was worth it, but I think I'm going to be okay."

"That's the general idea." He turned the car on to their street. "Also, just so you know, I've arranged another little surprise for you. A bit of closure, you might say."

She turned to him, mouth opening to ask questions, but he held up a hand. "I'm not saying any more. This is going to be an actual surprise. No hints."

"Okay." She settled back in her seat and scratched Chewie behind the ears. "What's the surprise, Chewie? Do you know what it is? You can tell me. I'll give you a belly rub."

Chewie yapped and licked her face. She sputtered and wiped her mouth, but giggled anyway. "Chewie! Dog breath, ew!"

Her father snorted with amusement. "Serves you right for trying to entice that poor innocent pup with belly rubs."

"Poor innocent pup, my butt," snorted Taylor. "He begs for belly rubs every chance he gets."

"My point exactly." Danny slowed down and turned the wheel. Gravel crunched under the wheels as they rolled up into the driveway. "You've corrupted him. Addicted him to them."

Taylor undid her seat belt once the car engine shut off, and opened the door. "Dad, that's the silliest thing I've heard you say yet. And I know you."

"Doesn't mean it's not true." Her father led the way to the front steps, Chewie running alongside. "Did you know that dog brain chemistry is set up so that every time they see you, they have the same reaction as falling in love for the first time?"

"What, really?" Taylor looked at Danny askance as he climbed the steps and unlocked the front door. Bending down, she picked Chewie up. While he had all the will in the world, he was more suited to running under the steps than climbing them. She followed him up into the house as he opened the door and entered.

"Really," he said. "I'm not actually joking here. I mean, you've seen the way Chewie reacts every time he meets you."

"Huh." She pushed the front door closed with her heel so that the latch clicked, then scratched Chewie behind the ears as she headed through into the living room. "Well, I fall in love with him every time I see him too, so that's fair."

"So I see." Her father watched as she let the puppy down on the floor. Immediately, Chewie trotted off in the general direction of the kitchen, snuffling loudly. He disappeared around the door frame, and a moment later Taylor heard the sound of dry kibble crunching. "I really should've done this a long time ago."

Taylor leaned up against her father and put her arm fondly around his waist. "Yeah, you should have. But I'm not complaining. I was about as far down as I could get. Chewie gave me the boost to start climbing out of the hole I'm in."

"That's really good to hear." Danny turned his head as a car pulled to a halt outside the house. "Ah, it seems we have a visitor."

"Visitor?" Taylor looked around with puzzlement. "Was that the surprise?"

"No. That's something else. But the visitor can come first." Danny nodded toward the kitchen. "I'm just going to make sure Chewie's got enough water. Would you mind getting the door?"

"Uh, sure?" Taylor went back into the entrance hall and unlocked the front door. She took a moment to dust herself off and make sure there weren't any Chewie hairs visibly adhering to the front of her coat. A glance in the mirror showed that she was reasonably presentable. While she felt her hair could do with a good brushing, she didn't have the time for that right now.

Footsteps sounded on the path, then someone climbed the front steps. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door … and froze.

"Hello, Taylor," Alan Barnes said awkwardly. "May I … may I come in?"

"Is Emma with you?" Warily, Taylor tried to look around him without making it look as though she was doing just that. In the back of her head, she started manufacturing excuses as to why she didn't want to hang out with Emma while their dads talked over whatever business they had.

"No." He shook his head heavily. There was something in his eyes that she couldn't identify, something that she'd never seen in his expression before. It might've been guilt or shame or fear, or some combination of all three. Or she may well have been imagining the whole thing. "Taylor … you won't have to see Emma again. You'll never go through that again. Not ever."

Her head came up and she stared at him. "What … I …" All of her assumptions smashed headlong into reality and shattered irreparably. His words spun around and around in her head, leaving her dizzy and off-balance. " … I don't understand."

His smile was more of a grimace. "You will. But I'll get your dad to explain. May I come in? Please? He asked me to come over for this."

This? What 'this'? Mystery was mounting on mystery. "Is this to do with the surprise he was talking about? Do you know about it?"

Now he looked unaccountably wary. "I … suspect so. I don't know what the surprise is, but … probably. Knowing your father."

"Well, that cleared the air." Taylor wrinkled her nose, then nodded. "Okay, you can come in." She opened the door all the way, then stepped back. "Dad!" she shouted. "It's Mr Barnes!"

"I know!" he called back. "Bring him through!"

That was clear enough. Pausing only to make sure the front door was securely closed, Taylor led the way along the entrance hall to the kitchen. Her father, sitting at the kitchen table, looked around as they entered. "Hello, Alan," he said. "Have you met Chewie yet?"

The puppy, hearing his name, paused in the act of licking himself where dogs have a habit of licking, and looked around. When he spotted Alan, he yapped then trotted over to Taylor. She gathered him up and held him protectively.

"No, I haven't." Alan held out the back of his hand for the puppy to sniff. "Hello, Chewie." For his trouble, he got a sniff and a cautious lick. Then he turned to Danny, surreptitiously wiping his hand on his shirt. "Taylor mentioned a surprise. Is this why I'm here?"

"In a way." Danny gestured at the closed basement door. "Taylor, your surprise is down there. You might want to leave Chewie with us."

"Okay …" Taylor had no idea at all what was going on now. Setting Chewie on the floor, she patted his butt and gave him a little shove toward her father. "Go to Dad. Go on." Then she turned toward the basement door.


Shadow Stalker


Sophia came awake as the door at the top of the steps opened. Instinctively, she tried to pull free of her bonds, but none of them had fortuitously come loose during the night. The damned fan was still whirring away on the shelf, reminding her that electricity coursed through the cord that had been wrapped generously around her arms and legs and neck.

With no source of light, it was hard to tell the passage of time, but she was pretty sure a day would've passed by now. Which meant they were probably starting to search for her. The fact the front door hadn't already been kicked in meant that he'd done something to spoof the tracking signal from her PRT-issued phone. So she was going to have to get out of this shit all by herself. Fucking typical.

At least she'd managed to get a few hours of sleep here and there. She'd pulled all-nighters before, sometimes in even less comfortable circumstances than the current ones. She'd never spent a night tied to a chair before, though. When she got out of this, once she got her hands on the Dark, she was going to make him understand once and for all that as scary as he might be, it was a huge mistake to mess with Shadow Stalker.

Long hours of experience on stakeouts clued her in that whoever was coming down the stairs had a lighter tread than the Dark. Was it another prisoner? An accomplice? Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Whoever it was, she knew they were her very best chance for getting out of this.

With a click, the light came on. As weak and worn-out as the bulb was, it flared like a nova in her vision, leaving spots before her eyes. While she was in the process of blinking them clear, a stupid bug of some sort landed on her face. Fuck off, bug.

"Hello?" The speaker was a teenage girl. She knew that voice. "Who's there?"


Taylor


When the light came on, the first thing Taylor saw was a dark mass in the middle of the basement floor. A few seconds later, she made it out to be a person tied to a chair. Okay, what the hell? They were wearing dark clothes, and long dark hair hung over the face, keeping it in shadow.

Exerting her power, she sent a fly to land on the person's face. The fly's senses reported back that yes, this was a living person. "Hello?" she called out as she continued down the stairs. "Who's there?" Was this some kind of live roleplay setup, where she was supposed to play the part of the superhero and release the hostage?

And then the person's head lifted and she saw the face for the first time. "Hebert?" rasped a voice that she almost recognised. "Is that you? Fuck, it is you."

"Sophia?" Taylor reached the bottom of the stairs. "What the hell's going on?" Slowly, she began to circle around the bound teenager. Oddly enough, there was a large sheet of plastic on the floor, extending several yards in all directions from the chair. "And what the hell are you wearing, anyway?"

Taylor Hebert considered herself to be a good person. If she'd found Mrs Knott tied up like this, or Greg Veder, she knew she would immediately be working to set them free.

Well, maybe she'd free Greg. After she freed everyone else she found tied up at the same time.

But Sophia Hess was another story altogether. From literally the first minute she'd met the girl, Sophia had done nothing but sneer at her, bully her and trip her whenever possible. She'd had exactly zero interactions with the girl that were even neutral, much less positive. Freeing her right now seemed to be remarkably counter-intuitive, at least until she found out what was actually going on here.

"Never mind what I'm wearing, Hebert!" Sophia's tone was urgent, almost frantic. "You've got to cut me loose! We've got to get the fuck out of here before he comes back!"

"Before who comes back?" Taylor stared at Sophia's outfit. It seemed almost familiar. Like something she'd seen on TV.

"Tall skinny psychotic fuck with glasses!" Sophia struggled uselessly against her bonds. "Asshole cap— uh, abducted me. Tased me. Tied me up in his basement." She struggled against the cable ties for a moment by way of demonstration. "You don't think I came down here and tied myself up, do you?"

Taylor studied Sophia's bonds. They appeared professionally-applied, and extremely thoroughly done. Unless Sophia was a contortionist of the highest degree, there was no way she would've been able to tie herself to the chair like that. But the inspection raised another question. "Well, no. But what's with the extension cord?"

"Fucked if I know, but if you can get it off me, I'd appreciate it." Sophia grimaced. "It's uncomfortable as fuck."

Taylor looked up at the fan on the shelf and at how the cord leading to it had been wrapped around the black girl's arms and legs, even fastened to one ankle with electrical tape. There was a puzzle at work here. Somehow, all the pieces of the jigsaw could be arranged in a fashion that would let her form a single coherent picture out of everything that was going on. She was just missing some important details. "Give me a moment here …"

"Hebert!" snapped Sophia. "Get this fucking shit off me right the fuck now!" She struggled against her bonds, rocking back and forth in the chair. With the wide base it was sitting on, she didn't even shift it a little. "Come on! He might come back at any moment! When he finds out you know I'm here, you'll be next! Cut me loose! Come on!"

The urgency in her tone was real, but Taylor still wasn't sure what was going on. And to be honest, it was deeply satisfying to see Sophia tied up like this. Tuning the bully's words out, she wandered away toward the workbench at the side of the room.

"HEBERT!" screamed Sophia. "GET BACK HERE! CUT ME LOOSE, YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT!"

And then Taylor saw it. A mask, lying beside what had to be a stun-gun. She picked it up and examined it. A scowling woman's face; again, oddly familiar. Next to the stun-gun was a pair of small crossbows. She looked from them back to the raving girl in the chair, then carried the mask back to Sophia. "Is this yours?" she asked.

"Of course it's not fucking mine, you little moron!" Little flecks of spittle were flying off Sophia's lips. "Now cut me loose, or so help me fucking God, when I see you next at school, you are so goddamn fucked."

The threat almost got to Taylor. She was so accustomed to bowing her head to the threats offered by Emma and her friends that she nearly did as Sophia told her. Her hand was actually reaching for a pair of wire-cutters, when she heard it. The merest intake of breath from Sophia. The sound of despair given hope. The only crack she'd ever seen in the girl's armour.

She stopped, and pulled her hand away. Slowly, she turned back to Sophia. "No," she said quietly. "I don't think I will."

"What?" Shock had replaced the rage on Sophia's face. "You can't just leave me tied up! He's going to come back any minute now and kill us both! Don't be a fucking pathetic little queef all your fucking life!"

Taylor walked around Sophia slowly. She held the mask in her hand, turning it over and over. Taking her glasses off for a moment, she tried it on. It felt a little strange, the padding not quite fitting the contours of her face, but she could see out through the eyeholes quite well. It certainly wasn't an amateur job. Taking it away, she put her glasses back on.

"You know what I think?" she said as the pieces continued to fall into place in her head. "I think this is your mask. I think you're Shadow Stalker. You've been Shadow Stalker all the time I've known you. You've been pretending to be a hero all this time …"

"I AM A FUCKING HERO, YOU COCKSUCKING LITTLE NOBODY!" screamed Sophia. "Now cut me loose or I swear to God that when the Protectorate tracks me down, I'll name you as an accessory and a fucking accomplice and you'll go to supermax for attacking me in my civilian identity!"

Taylor backhanded Sophia with her own mask. It was heavy and solid, and rocked the black girl's head to one side. A cut on her cheek began to bleed.

"I was fucking talking," gritted Taylor. "You've been pretending to be a hero, all the time you were doing all that shit to me. I nearly died in that fucking locker. Because of you. A hero." Contemptuously, she tossed the mask back on to the bench. "You're no hero. You want to talk about a psycho? You're the psycho in the room."

"Well said," Danny added as he opened the door and started down the stairs. Behind him, Alan Barnes entered the basement. Alan grimaced as he saw Sophia tied to the chair, but he closed the door carefully behind him, and followed Taylor's father into the basement.

"Oh, hey, Dad." Taylor paused. "Where's Chewie?"

"Attacking a large hambone in the kitchen," Danny said. "We won't be long, and his ears are still pretty sensitive."

"Holy fuck," Sophia said. "Holy living fuck. He's your fucking dad? You're the daughter of—" She broke off as she saw Alan Barnes for the first time. "Oh, thank fuck you're here! You've got to get me out of this!"

Slowly, Alan Barnes folded his arms. "I'm not here for you, Sophia."

Danny came over to Taylor and put his arm around her shoulders. "Okay. So, any questions so far?"

"Yeah," said Taylor, looking up at her dad. "How'd you catch her, and what are we gonna do with her?"

"To answer your first question, she's a predictable idiot who goes on solo unsanctioned patrols. I went out and got myself mugged in the area she was patrolling. Took me seven encounters before she finally intervened." Danny gave Sophia a disapproving glare. "And even then it took her a good thirty seconds to decide to do anything about it. Turns out she only intervenes if the victim tries to fight back."

Taylor turned to Sophia, who had gone utterly silent. "Is this true?"

Sophia glanced at Danny, then at Taylor. Lips tight shut, she carefully nodded.

"Don't bother pretending you didn't say anything to Taylor," Danny advised Sophia. "We heard everything." Then he turned to Alan. "You advocated for her once. Care to do it again?"

Silence fell, then Alan slowly shook his head. "No, Danny," he said quietly. "I made that mistake once. For Emma's sake, I won't do it again."

Danny reached out and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "For Emma's sake, there's more you need to do before your slate's clear."

"I'll be moving," Alan said. "I'll tell the company it's a family emergency. Transfer to … LA, maybe?"

"A better idea would be to ship her off to boarding school in Europe," Danny stated. "But that wasn't what I was talking about. You made this mistake. You enabled this mistake. You need to be the one to correct it."

Taylor tilted her head. "What are you talking about, Dad? Correct what mistake?"

"Oh, don't be fucking terminally dense all your fucking life, Hebert!" Sophia burst out. "Your father's the fucking Dark! He hasn't got the balls to kill me, so he's getting Alan fucking Barnes to do his dirty work for him!"

"The Dark?" Taylor had heard that name before, but only in whispered conversations. The names of the people the Dark had supposedly killed were legion, but to equate the semi-mythical hitman with her father; her funny, sometimes awkward father … "Dad, is this true?"

He turned to look at her. "It is. I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's true. But this is the first time I've done any of this since your mother passed."

Taylor tilted her head. "Did … did Mom know that you were the Dark?" Was I the only one you never told?

He smiled and gathered her in for a hug. "We were the Dark, honey. Danny and Anne-Rose, Killers for Hire. We were a team, and a damn good one. When you were born, we made a pact that if either of us died, the other would give up the killing to take care of you."

Taylor had a sudden presentiment. "Mom … the way she died. Was it really a car accident, or did someone …" Her voice trailed off.

The lines on her father's face deepened, as though he'd just aged ten years. "It was just a car accident. But we'd agreed. So I walked away from being the Dark, until now. Until the locker. Until her." He gestured off-hand at Sophia.

"Are we … are we really going to kill her?" It was as though Taylor stood on the edge of a yawning gulf. It really was a very long way down, but if she trusted herself to jump into the darkness, a safe landing on the other side was promised to her. Or she could stay and trust to the footing where she was.

"When it comes to secrets, there are three types of people in the world," Danny said in a lecturing tone. "Those who can be trusted to keep it because they know it's the right thing to do, those who can be trusted to keep it because they're scared of the consequences, and those who can't be trusted either way." He gestured at Sophia. "I stayed up till five this morning talking to her. By the time I finished, she was terrified of me. But she's since gotten over that. In my estimation, she's the type of idiot who'll fuck herself over just to get a chance to screw with the people she sees as her enemies. Alan, do you concur?"

Alan Barnes stared down at Sophia and rubbed his chin with forefinger and thumb. "Unfortunately, I do." His voice was reluctant. "In my personal estimation, she holds exactly one viewpoint as being valid; hers. She despises Taylor for perceived 'weakness' and she hates you for scaring her. No matter what you say or do to dissuade her; if you let her go, she will report this incident in every detail, and even make up a few to incriminate Taylor as well."

"Even though she knows I'll kill her for it," Danny noted dispassionately.

"She believes she can evade that fate." Alan shrugged as if to say, not my fault she's an idiot.

"Hm." Taylor didn't see her father's hand move, but suddenly he held a pistol. Where the hell did he get that from? Turning it so it lay across his palm—Taylor noted that at no time did the barrel point at any of them—he offered it to Alan. "It's loaded."

"I'd be surprised if it wasn't." Alan took the weapon, then did something with it that exposed a glint of brass. When he let go of the bit he'd pulled back, it snapped into place with a meaty clack. A smaller snik followed as he clicked over some kind of control on the side. He looked up at Danny. "Just to clarify; once I send Emma to boarding school, she'll be in the clear?"

"So long as she never comes near Taylor again, yes." Taylor had never heard her father's voice pronounce judgement so starkly.

"Mr Barnes!" Sophia struggled in her bonds. "You've got the gun! You don't want to do this! He'll kill Emma anyway! Kill him! The PRT will fucking shower you with money! They'll give you a fucking medal! Shoot him! Shoot them both! You'll be a fucking hero!"

Alan Barnes' laugh was entirely without humour. "There are two problems with that. One; even if I were willing to betray my oldest friend, only an idiot assumes the Dark has just handed over his only gun. Two; I trust him a lot more than I trust you." He paused. "Oh, and three? You nearly got Emma killed twice, you stupid little bitch." With that, he levelled the pistol at Sophia's head.

"Wait a minute, Alan." Danny turned to Taylor. "Why don't you go up and check on Chewie, hon? Make sure he's not gotten lonely yet."

Taylor nodded, grateful for the reprieve. She was pretty sure she knew exactly what was coming, and she wasn't at all certain she was ready for it. "Okay, Dad."

She trotted up the stairs and opened the door at the top. As she began to close it behind her, she heard Sophia sneer, "Fucking weakling little bi—"

The door clicked shut and she looked around for Chewie. He raised his head from the tattered remnants of the hambone her father had mentioned, then paused and looked down at the bone again. Taking pity on him, she walked over and bent down to pick him up. He licked her face; his breath smelled like ham. This one time, she didn't object.

A minute or so later, the basement door opened and her father emerged, followed by Mr Barnes and a faint acrid smell. The pistol, unsurprisingly, was nowhere in sight. She looked at them both. "She's dead?" It was a surprisingly easy question to ask.


Danny


"It had to be done," he said. He put a hand on Alan's shoulder. "You'll be okay?"

Alan offered a wan smile. "When Emma's safe in Europe, I'll be okay. I need to head home and start making the arrangements. I guess I'll see you around." He held out his hand.

Danny shook it. "I guess so. Give my best to Zoe and Anne."

"I'll do that." Alan turned and headed toward the front door.

Danny waited until the door opened and closed before he turned to Taylor. "Are you okay?"

"I'm not sure." Taylor had an odd expression on her face. "It's kind of an emotional whiplash to find out your father's a hitman that everyone was scared of back in the day. And to know someone was just shot and killed in my basement." She paused. "And don't get me started on how I feel about the victim being Sophia, who was also a Ward, and a bully, and was threatening us both with the PRT and the Protectorate." She thumped the heel of her free hand on the side of her head. "I'll let you know how I feel about it when it all settles out."

"That's fair," Danny allowed. "Okay, I'll ask a simpler question. How do you feel about me being the Dark? About your dad maybe going back into the business of killing people, if I think it's necessary that some people die?"

"How do I feel about that? Hmm, let me think." Taylor grinned and put Chewie back on the floor, where he immediately attacked the hambone again with a series of little growls. Then she took hold of his arm and wrapped it around her in a hug. "On the one hand, you're a merciless killer. On the other, you got me Chewie."

He snorted a laugh. "I see you have your priorities straight. I'm impressed that you're taking my secrets on board so readily."

Taylor's smile fell away. "Secrets," she said. "Right."

Danny blinked. "What's the matter? What did I say?"

"It's nothing you said," she assured him. "It's something about me. Something I think you need to know."

He raised an eyebrow. "Okay, I'm officially intrigued. What is it that I need to know?"

Stepping back from him, Taylor raised her arms dramatically upward and outward. Danny wasn't sure exactly what was going to happen, until tens of thousands of bugs started swarming in through the windows and under the doors. They scuttled over the floor and walls, while those that could fly took to the air. Moving in unison, they began to orbit Taylor, covering the floor in a glittering curve of brown-black chitin. The air was abuzz with the sound of thousands of tiny wings.

Danny looked at the insectoid halo surrounding his daughter and whistled softly.

"Well, now," he said softly. "Isn't that interesting."


Barnes Household
Emma Barnes


"What do you mean, you're sending me to boarding school in Germany?" Emma demanded. "It's not fair! You can't just drag me away from all my friends! I was going to go to Arcadia!"

"It's a done deal." Her father was adamant. "And don't even think of trying to wiggle out of it. You're grounded. Indefinitely. And I've changed your cell-phone plan until further notice. From here on in, the only people you can contact will be me, your mother and your sister."

"What?" Her voice was almost a shriek. "You can't do that!" Her father had never pushed back on what she wanted before.

But apparently, when he set his mind to it, he could and would.


End of Part Five