Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Eight: True Lies


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


The Undersiders had a nice sofa, and an impressive console gaming setup. Well, I assumed it was impressive; I'd never actually seen one before. It looked pretty damn expensive to me. The rest of the place … well, if someone had told me that only teenagers lived there, I would've believed them. Subtle signs like stacked-up pizza boxes waiting to go into the trash.

The big guy, Grue when he was in costume, was extremely unhappy for reasons I could absolutely understand, despite the fact that he wasn't zip-cuffed anymore. He'd probably never had to fight someone who could beat him in his own darkness before now. This was almost certainly why he was on his best behaviour, but I could see him wishing very hard that we were gone.

It could've been worse; that bit went unspoken. Dad could've shot him, or killed him some other way. That he hadn't, made a point all of its own.

Grue's teammates were reacting in different ways; all telling.

The one who called herself Bitch (Dad addressed her as 'Miss Lindt') wasn't so much resentful as respectful. Extremely respectful. She had her dogs, three of them, lying on the floor beside her. Every few seconds, she looked down to make sure that they hadn't moved. The rest of the time, she was watching Dad, or glancing across at Chewie. Not at me; I wasn't even on her radar as anything other than 'person holding the puppy'.

The blonde, Tattletale, was absolutely terrified. Again, not of me, despite the fact that she knew I could control bugs. Every time one landed on her, she flicked her eyes to me. But most of the time her attention was fixed on Dad, even as she made tea in their little kitchenette. Her movements were careful and deliberate, and she never, ever put her hands out of sight.

Regent, the last member of their little group, was a different matter altogether. Dad hadn't given him back his gold-painted stick, but he didn't seem to mind. Of everyone here, he seemed the most chill with the whole situation. If I'd had to wager a guess, I would've said that he came across as someone with the most experience at sitting around under the eye of someone who could fuck his entire life up at will. But with all that, he didn't seem scared, or worried, or … well … anything. A little cautious, maybe, but that was about it.

This was probably why, after a somewhat uncomfortable silence, he was the first one to speak.

"Excuse me, Mr. The Dark, but can I say something without being shot?"

Dad nodded slightly. "Go ahead."

A corner of Regent's mouth flicked upward. "I have to say, I've seen Tats pissed off, I've seen her happy, I've seen her sad, and oh my good Lord I have seen her smug. But this is the first time I've seen her so scared she actually shuts up." He tilted his head. "I couldn't convince you to come visit on the regular, could I?"

Dad's eyes hooded with amusement. "I'll leave that for the rest of your teammates to decide. In the meantime, I'll thank you to moderate your language in front of my daughter and her puppy." He glanced at me and Chewie. "Yes, she probably knows the words already, but he's still very young and has sensitive ears. You understand." There was the slightest motion of the pistol silencer from where he had his arms folded.

Regent nodded carefully and sat back against the sofa, apparently no longer interested in being a smartass.

Grue cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention. "Can I at least ask why you're here … sir?" The honorific was clearly an afterthought, and equally clearly sincere.

Dad nodded. "I have a problem, and I understand that Tattletale has a reputation of being a psychic."

Tattletale twitched at that, then finished pouring the tea and brought the cup out to him, on a saucer. He took both; the pistol vanished somewhere while he was doing so, but I suspected nobody was stupid enough to assume it was gone for good.

"Ahh, thank you, my dear. You may sit down now." He took a sip, and nodded. "Perfect. Now, as I was saying. I have a problem. Rumour has it that a man named Coil is abusing my good name for his own ends. You may have heard of the recent armoured-car robbery, where the perpetrator claimed that he was the Dark? He wasn't."

"You're saying that was Coil himself?" asked Grue. Dad's eyes cut his way. "Uh, sorry, sir."

Dad nodded to acknowledge the apology. "No, that wasn't Coil wearing the mask. Far too much of a risk if one of the guards gets brave. But I have it on good authority that only Coil could have arranged the robbery, so he is responsible. I need to find out all I can on him; where his bases and safe houses are, how many people he employs, and how I can go about arranging a personal one-on-one interview with the man." His attention turned back to where Tattletale was sitting on the sofa beside me. "And that's where you come in."

Interestingly enough, she was actually sweating now. I wasn't sure why; it wasn't like Dad was personally mad at her. "M-me?" she squeaked.

"Yes, you," Dad said patiently. "I know your type. You love being seen as the smartest person in the room, or am I incorrect on that score?"

Regent chuckled. "Well, Tats, he's definitely got your number. Shutting up now," he added hastily, as Dad glanced across at him.

"As I was saying." Dad took a step closer to Tattletale, the teacup still in his hand. "You're clearly a Thinker of some type. I'm told you always know more than you should. It's time you put that talent to good use. I need you to do a deep-dive on Coil. Everything you can dig up on him, even if you don't think I'll find it useful. Can you do this, or aren't you as smart as I've been led to believe?"

It was psychological manipulation of the most blatant type. I knew it, Dad certainly knew it, and Tattletale most definitely knew it. I could see it in her eyes. But it was also a bait she couldn't help but rise to. As Dad had said, her ego was immense. Even scared out of her wits, she had to prove herself smarter than the next person.

"I can do it," she declared, drawing herself up. Meeting his eyes seemed to be a struggle for her, but she managed it. "When do you want it by?"

"'Scuse me, wait a second." Regent put his hand up, like a kid in class. "Can I ask a question here?"

Dad smiled slightly. "It appears I can't stop you. Ask away."

"Right. Okay. You're the Dark. You are literally the scariest guy in three states. You pop someone off, you're gonna get paid for it, yeah? So are we working for free here, or do we get something out of it too?"

Grue and Tattletale both facepalmed. "Regent," growled the big guy under his breath. "If we get out of this alive, so help me I'm gonna …"

"No, he's right." Dad nodded to Regent. "A fair day's pay for a fair day's work. If you come through with actionable intel, I will owe you one favour for a later date. This favour will apply to either Tattletale personally or to the group as a whole. You get to pick which one."

Everyone's eyes widened at that one. I saw Grue and Tattletale glance at each other, and in that moment I knew they were thinking about taking the deal. Even Bitch seemed interested. Regent pretended not to be, but I had a suspicion that he just didn't show off emotion like everyone else.

"What sort of a favour?" asked Tattletale carefully.

Dad's smile widened fractionally. He had them, and we both knew it. Deliberately, he looked over at me and Chewie again. "Nothing that works against my personal interests, or harms anyone I care about. It has to be within my power to pull off. And nothing that denigrates my reputation as the Dark."

"If we ask you for something you can't give, you'll tell us so we can change it, right?" That was Grue.

"A deal is a deal," agreed Dad. "I will inform you if I am unable or unwilling to deliver the asked-for favour. For my part, I will trust you not to give me bad information."

He didn't raise his voice or change his tone; he didn't have to. Everyone there got the message loud and clear. Screwing with me would be a very, very unwise move. A moment later, I got the second part, when he glanced at Tattletale. If she was as good as people said, any bad information the team gave him would have to be deliberate in nature. She'd gotten the message too, from the way her lips whitened where they pressed together.

"Uh, getting back to the whole deep-diving Coil thing," Regent said. "What if he finds out and objects? I hear he's got mercenaries and stuff. Can we call on you if he comes after us, or are you just gonna sit back with popcorn once you've got the information?"

"You surprise me." Dad's tone was light. "Your team has an impressive reputation for being able to duck away from trouble. But in the case that his people prove better at tracking you than most, you may call the number I will be giving to Tattletale. Only use it if you're truly in need of assistance." He smiled coldly. "I don't anticipate this being the case. He and I will be having an in-depth discussion about the inadvisability of identity theft."

Regent shrugged. "Suits me. Even if I knew the man, I still wouldn't care."

"Strangely enough, I believe you." Dad turned his attention to the rest of the Undersiders. "Does anyone else have any questions before we go?"

Tattletale and Grue glanced at each other, then at Rachel. Then Tattletale looked back at Dad. "Uh, no."

"Good." Placing the teacup and saucer on the side table, he reached into his jacket, then raised his eyebrows at the sudden tension in the room. "Really?"

"You've got a pretty intense reputation yourself, you know," I pointed out, scratching Chewie behind the ears. He lazed blissfully in my arms, only his sharp little eyes moving to follow Rachel's dogs.

"Hm. True." His hand emerged again with a card held between index and forefinger. He put this on the table beside the teacup. "We'll be going now." His gaze fell on Tattletale as I got up from the sofa. "Thank you for the tea. It was delicious. When will you have it?"

"Tomorrow, next day at the latest." It seemed she had to force herself to meet his eyes, but she did it anyway.

"Good. I'll be waiting. Do not try to follow us." Dad stepped aside to allow me past, then followed me down the steps.

We left the building and walked briskly to the end of the block. Nobody had messed with the car that we'd parked around the corner, so we got in. I removed the bandanna I'd been wearing, then nodded to Dad. "Okay, I just took the bugs off them. I'm pretty sure Tattletale told them not to move until I did."

He gave me a warm smile. "Well done, Taylor. It's good to have competent backup."

As he started the car, I smirked and rubbed Chewie's tummy. He woke up briefly, yawned, then rolled over in my arms and went back to sleep. "Well, Chewie did his best."

He grinned and reached across the pet the puppy. "You think you're joking, but you might recall the story I told you about encountering Ms Lindt. She's the one who saved Chewie's life that night, and I saved hers, so we've already got a connection there. Also, the Empire's called off all dog-fights, just to make sure Chewie doesn't get caught up in them again. What she's been trying to do for months, I achieved in one night. I suspect she will go quite a long way to avoid antagonising us."

"Oh, wow." I'd actually forgotten about that. "Next time I see her, I'm gonna have to give her a hug for saving Chewie."

He shook his head. "That might not be the best idea. If I'm reading her correctly, she doesn't have the usual emotional responses to people, and might react badly to close physical contact."

It didn't sound like he was pulling my leg, so I gave up on that idea. "Okay, then. So what are we doing until Tattletale comes back with the information?"

"The hardest part about this life." When I looked quizzically at him, he grinned. "Pretending to be normal."

"Oh, okay." I felt a little let down. My dad was a trained killer, the scariest person in three states (if Regent were to be believed), and I was a parahuman who could control bugs. 'Normal' was about the furthest thing from my mind right then.

He reached across and ruffled my hair. "I'll be continuing your training in how to make the best use of your bugs, of course. The assistance you gave me in the fight against Grue was invaluable."

"Ah. Right." Well, that was better. For a given definition of 'better'. Dad's idea of training could get pretty strenuous. Though I supposed it was all for the good. Bad guys, as he was fond of saying, weren't likely to let me catch my breath. And Chewie certainly enjoyed all the running around.

"If you're up for it, of course." His tone was sly.

There was only one acceptable answer. "I'm your daughter. I was born ready."

"That's my girl."

"Woof."

"You said it, Chewie."


Grue


"Okay, we can move now," Lisa said, and got up off the sofa. She took the card from the side table and tucked it into her pocket, then carried the teacup and saucer into the kitchenette.

"Wait, are you washing those?" Brian got up and followed her. He wasn't sure what his plan was, just that he'd seen this sort of situation in spy movies. "We could get fingerprints and DNA from them, maybe find out who he really is."

She put them on the sink, then turned to face him. Her features were so pale that her freckles stood out in stark contrast. Where she gripped the edge of the sink with her hands, her knuckles were white. "How are we even going to get that information? We're not set up for forensic examination here, and while I could maybe half-ass my way through doing that in an actual lab, I'd be just as likely to screw it up."

He shrugged. "Well, maybe you could pass it onto our mysterious boss. Or the PRT, or someone."

"Nuh-uh." She shook her head violently, causing her hair to fly everywhere. "Bad idea. So very bad. Someone talks, it will get back to him. He beat you down, in your own darkness, when he was just looking for information. If he decides that we've actually betrayed him, we're dead. Simple as that. It'd just be a matter of time."

"We're not gonna go against him." That was Rachel, standing at the entrance to the kitchenette. "I owe him. He went into the dogfights to save that puppy, and he killed Cricket and Hookwolf to save me. He's one of the good guys."

"Fuck." Brian rubbed the heels of his hands over his face, trying to forget how easily he'd been taken down. He'd been overconfident, which had been his first huge mistake, but he suspected that it wouldn't have made much difference.

The Dark had come in toward him; feet gliding over the ground, head tilted slightly, eyes unfocused. Just as Brian went to jab the guy with Alec's borrowed sceptre, some bugs had gotten in his eyes, then the guy somehow blocked the second try. From that first contact, he'd owned Brian; a vicious knee up under the short ribs, followed by a twist then a grab. He'd followed up by lifting, turning and smashing Brian to the ground while he was still reacting to the blow. It had been the most humiliating defeat Brian had suffered since … well, a long time.

"Don't look at me," Alec piped up from where he'd picked up his controller and was prepping a new game to play. "I know stone killers. He's as cold as they come. But he's not like some of them. You know, the ones where they've gotta kill someone or they don't feel complete? He doesn't give out that vibe. We play straight with him, he'll play straight with us."

"Exactly." Lisa put the plug in the sink and started running hot water over the cup and saucer. Reaching for the bottle of detergent, she put a squirt of the green liquid in the sink as well. "So as soon as I've done this, I'm going to start right in on what he asked us to do."

"Argh." Brian huffed out an aggravated breath. "I hear what you're saying, and I can see where you're coming from, but why do I have the feeling that we're all going to regret this?"

"Because we are." Lisa turned off the hot water at just the right time, then turned to look at him. "We're supervillains. Making bad choices now that we're gonna regret later on is basically what we do."

"Damn right," agreed Alec, thumbs busy manipulating the controller.

Lisa began washing up the cup and saucer. "The trick is to pick the regrettable action that we can at least survive, and hopefully get some profit out of."

Brian looked at her suspiciously, wondering if he was just imagining the impression that there was more to what she was saying than met the ear. With another annoyed huff, he went over and flopped onto the sofa. "Pass me a controller."

"Now you're talking."


Director Piggot, PRT ENE


Emily stood at the podium of the briefing room. Every seat was filled; where not by PRT uniforms, then by costumes. Far more of the former than the latter, which was the way she privately preferred it. Capes were a necessary evil, as far as she was concerned.

Armstrong was the only PRT Director who had actually given her the time of day. He'd sent along a contingent of troopers, along with Bastion and Weld. The two capes least likely to be hurt by the Empire capes, she reflected sourly; not so much the two that would be most effective against them.

If she recalled the notes on those two capes correctly, Bastion was good at making barriers and force fields, which would be helpful, but scuttlebutt said he had a temper problem. Armstrong's probably moving him out of Boston for a little while, to see if that will settle him down.

Weld, on the other hand, was reportedly level-headed; in fact, Armstrong's notes said that he had leadership potential. He was also effectively bulletproof, and had strength to match his durability. The downside, of course, was that if he touched metal, he would stick to it. While Hookwolf and Cricket were dead, the number of metal-wearing villains in Brockton Bay was considerable. Just in the Empire Eighty-Eight, there were Kaiser, Stormtiger, Fenja and Menja. Victor tended to wear a breastplate, though while Crusader wore armour as well, Weld's powers would serve as a natural counter to the villain's spear-wielding ghosts.

Filling out the ranks of the capes were some minor names, as well as the New Wave heroes; these ones, at least, she'd had previous dealings with.

She tapped the microphone, creating a hollow booming through the room. All eyes turned to her.

"For those of you who don't know about this," she said bluntly, "one of our Wards was brutally murdered the other day. She was tasered, beaten, unmasked, tied up, then killed execution-style with a single shot to the head. After that, her body was deliberately left for us to find." A click on the projector control projected a publicity still of Shadow Stalker on the screen behind her. It would've been a picture taken at the scene, but there were minors in the room and she didn't want the Youth Guard assholes coming down on her neck any more than they already were. That picture would be in the briefing packets, to be handed out later. "She was sixteen years old."

A murmur swept through the room. The heroes looked especially grim; no cape liked to think they could be taken down and eliminated like just another mook. Young heroes in general and Wards in particular were to be protected, so the cape culture went. This was why they were given the soft patrol routes.

Emily stifled a snort. In Brockton Bay, there was no such thing.

"We don't have a specific suspect as yet, but this is why you're all here. Shadow Stalker was the only black member of the Wards, and she had a habit of going off on solo patrols … in Empire Eighty-Eight territory."

This time, the murmur was much stronger. Everyone in the room knew of the Empire Eighty-Eight. It had chapters in several cities, but none so strong as in Brockton Bay, its home base. Everyone there also knew of its ethos; the reason for its being. If anyone was likely to murder a black Ward in such an explicit fashion, it would be the neo-Nazis of the Empire Eighty-Eight.

There really were no other viable suspects.

"We will continue to monitor the activity of the other gangs, but the ones we're going after in force are the Empire and its followers. If we see Empire supporters, we'll be targeting them hard, charging them with whatever crimes they are committing at the time, and handing them over to the police. Empire capes, if encountered, will be brought down as hard and fast as possible." She took a deep breath. "I am not authorising lethal force—unless it is to protect yourself or one of your comrades."

The reaction to this part wasn't a dissatisfied mumble, as she'd feared it might be. It was a growl, a collective snarl of anger. Directed not at her, but at the enemy upon whom she was preparing to unleash them. With those last words, she had effectively signed the death warrant for any Empire cape who resisted with significant amounts of force, but she didn't care.

The Empire Eighty-Eight had been a stain on the face of Brockton Bay for far too long. Some said that they were too influential to remove from the status quo, that such a removal would threaten a reiteration of the Boston Games, back in the day. Power was attracted to a vacuum, after all.

It didn't matter.

The Empire Eighty-Eight had committed the most egregious sin in her book. They had murdered someone who was under her command, under her care, and they'd taunted her with the body. We can do this, their actions had sneered. And you can't do a damn thing about it.

She was going to see about that.

"Once we have the leadership in custody, we will be interrogating them to find out who authorised this despicable act." Her voice was hard and flat, brooking no disagreement. "That cape, if I have anything to say about it, will be going to the Birdcage. Those underlings who carried out the order will be facing trial as well. We are going to be sending a message to the gangs of Brockton Bay; nobody touches our Wards."

Just because she didn't like the irritating little shits didn't mean she was okay with them being murdered, especially in such a taunting fashion. Kaiser was going to learn that lesson if she had to engrave it on a fifty-calibre round and pop him through the head with it. And she would too, if she had to.

"Very well," she said. "Individual briefing packets have been prepared. I want every squad ready to roll by oh-eight-hundred tomorrow. Dismissed."

Turning off the mic, she stepped down from the podium. Armsmaster came over to meet her and she paused for him. "What is it?"

"I'm sorry we couldn't get more heroes," he said quietly. "I spoke to Legend, and he told me flat-out he was under orders not to send capes out of the city."

"Understood," she murmured in reply. She would've liked to have more troopers rather than more capes but either would do in a pinch, so long as they could be trusted not to cut and run. Unfortunately, that was something that could only be determined at the time.

Why she was being undercut with the number of troopers and heroes that could've been released to her, she wasn't precisely sure, though she had a few ideas. It probably didn't even have anything to do with her, personally. Sometimes it was just politics … or maybe they didn't want to be caught up in the shitstorm that would almost inevitably follow tomorrow's crackdown.

She left the briefing room with an air of confidence that was at least fifty percent assumed for the benefit of the troops. On the walk back to her office, she mulled over the aspects of the situation that had not been covered by the briefing; neither would they be. Going after a specific cape gang with the intent of wiping them from the face of the city was … if not unprecedented, then at least unofficially discouraged. Doing so would cause an upheaval in Brockton Bay's criminal underworld that would take some time to settle down into whatever the new normal turned out to be.

As she opened her office door, she ran her thumb over the nameplate. With any kind of luck, Brockton Bay wouldn't have a rerun of the Boston chaos. Whichever way it went, though, she figured there was better than a fifty-fifty chance that she'd be out on her ear in the aftermath, especially if any of the Empire capes (none of whom had a Kill Order against their names) happened to eat a bullet or three in the name of self-defence.

If she could just bring down that smug bastard Kaiser and the Empire Eighty-Eight in the meantime, she figured it would be worth it. She hadn't even liked Shadow Stalker, but those racist fucks had gone all the way over the line and way past it when they executed the kid like that.

Enough was enough.

They were going down.


Coil


Holy shit. She's actually going to do it.

Calvert could barely contain his internal glee. If this was what it took to send Piggot off the reservation, he should've had Shadow Stalker popped about one month after she joined the Wards. But for all his plans and manipulations to oust her and take her place, he couldn't believe it was something that he hadn't even done that would bring her down.

Life was really, really weird sometimes. Also, highly satisfying.

He sat in the briefing room as she took everyone through the bare bones of the case. He'd known the basic information, but he hadn't been privy to the gritty details until now. Once he got hold of the information packet, he was going to read the hell out of it.

There was no doubt in his mind that it was the Empire who'd done it; after all, who else would be so stupid as to murder a Ward in such a public fashion? He hadn't done it, and none of his men had been out and about on that night. It wasn't the ABB, because Shadow Stalker hadn't shown any signs of being stabbed, caught in a grenade explosion or burned to death. As for the Merchants, as much as they could be mistaken for a gang, he imagined their preferred method of execution would be an overdose of something nasty.

In addition, the sharp arrows (he had a contact in Evidence) were equally problematic for the PRT. It was extremely doubtful that whoever had ended Shadow Stalker had been carrying a bunch of arrows that would fit her crossbows, just in case. The inevitable conclusion was that she'd been going out and about with them, looking to do exactly what got her caught by the PRT in the first place.

In other words, Shadow Stalker had lacked a certain amount of pattern recognition. Whether that had been what got her caught and killed, he doubted he'd ever know. Though the chances were that it had contributed in some way. Long story short, she was dead.

Officially, he was dedicated to hunting down her murderers and bringing them to justice. Unofficially, he didn't give a shit, but he was going to vaguely regret not having had the chance to swing her to his side. With the right incentive, or carefully crafted bunch of lies, he suspected that she would've made a useful tool.

As he left the room, he allowed himself a brief smile. Between the Shadow Stalker situation and his fake Dark, it seemed he couldn't put a foot wrong.


Anders Household
Purity


The first indication Kayden got that something was wrong was when Max answered his phone and spent a solid minute just listening, his eyes getting wider and wider. When the call ended, he just sat there, staring at his phone. "What the fuck?" he exclaimed.

This was far enough out of character for him that she got up awkwardly (the baby was due any day now, and it couldn't come soon enough) and went over to him. "What's the matter?"

He stared at her; for a second, it seemed he didn't recognise her, then his eyes came into focus. "First the Dark, and now this. What the fuck's happening?"

"Honey," she said soothingly. "Talk to me. Whatever it is, we can figure it out."

He took a deep breath. "Right. You know that Ward, Shadow Stalker?"

She nodded. Shadow Stalker had a reputation for unwarranted violence (which didn't surprise her much, given that the Ward was one of those people) and she'd put more than a few members of the Empire in the emergency room. Usually with broken bones, though before she'd joined the Wards, Stalker had nailed her fair share with razor-sharp crossbow arrows.

Personally, Kayden thought it was just typical that a violent black vigilante got a pass from the PRT and got to join up with the heroes, while right-thinking white capes had arrest warrants put out on them. But that wasn't addressing the situation at hand. "I know of her, yes. What's she done now?"

She braced herself for the bad news; someone important to the Empire had been hurt or killed, and of course the 'misunderstood' little black thug would merely get a slap on the wrist and be allowed to carry on as normal.

"She's dead." Max spat the words out like they were poison. "Shot in the head."

To her credit, Kayden tried to feel regret for the wasted life, but Shadow Stalker had gone after enough of her fellow Empire members that it wasn't easy. In addition, she wasn't sure why Max was unhappy. Unless … "Wait, did we do it?"

"Well, I didn't order it!" Which wasn't a guarantee that it hadn't been an Empire thing; that, she understood perfectly well. "But that's not the worst bit. Piggot's decided that we're the only suspects, so she's called up all the reinforcements she can get, and she's coming after the Empire. She intends to end us. Literally, if anyone does anything to resist. She said straight out that she was authorising lethal force for if they feel threatened, or if they think someone else is threatened."

That sent a chill down her back. The PRT never went lethal if they could avoid it, except in the case of Kill Orders. This was mainly due to the rarely-stated but always-present threat of villain retaliation; if you come after us with intent to kill, every other villain in town will do the same to you.

Kill Orders were different, of course. People who had earned those were generally vile enough that nobody liked them, and even other villains could kill them for the reward with no repercussions. Kayden had never done that herself, but she'd heard that the villains who'd taken down the Siberian (losing half their number in the process) had made absolute bank, despite the fact that they'd levelled a small town to do it.

But it looked and sounded like Director Piggot had just unilaterally declared a mass Kill Order on every member of the Empire. And she'd called in help from out of town to do it. "Is that even legal? Can she do that?"

Neither then nor later did she or Max ever stop to consider the irony of a supervillain appealing to the rule of law to save them from the situation. There were rules, damn it, and if the good guys couldn't be depended on to adhere to them, who could?

Max's voice was grim. "Technically speaking? No. In reality? Piggot's quite likely going with the concept that it's better to beg for forgiveness than permission. She'll likely get a slap on the wrist for this, but anyone her goons gun down will still be just as dead."

She took a deep breath, and made the decision that had been dancing at the back of her mind for the last few moments. "That's it, then. I'm out."

"Out?" He stared at her quizzically. "What do you mean, 'out'? Out of the fight?"

"Out, as in out of the game. I'm done. If the PRT and the heroes are going to go lethal anytime some idiot Ward pushes the wrong thug the wrong way, being a villain isn't for me anymore." She patted her swollen belly. "I'm going to be a mother, Max. I can't risk orphaning my baby. Or worse, what if they decide to suspend the Unwritten Rules even further and start going after villains' families again?"

"They'd never do that." He was trying to be firm and reassuring, but she knew him too well. His tone was too hearty for it to be anything but an act. "There would be an outcry from the rooftops. It would result in a retaliation like never before."

"Like when that one guy murdered Fleur? That kind of retaliation?" She'd been with the Empire Eighty-Eight about five years when that had happened, and she hadn't approved of it even then. But nobody else (on the villain side, anyway) had seemed to have a problem with it, possibly because the kid (a teenager, at the time) hadn't been a cape.

There'd been no retaliation upon him or the Empire. He'd broken down in court during the trial, but after he'd done his time and gotten out, he'd been accepted straight into the gang. As far as she knew, he was still an active member, living his best life.

"This is different." But he was trying too hard, and she knew it. "Heroes don't take revenge for that sort of thing. At least, not extra-judicially. Not if they want to stay out of the Birdcage."

"Well, apparently they do now." She tried not to sound too sarcastic. "If the regional PRT Director says it's legal, does that mean it's even extra-judicial? And just between you and me, are Lung or Skidmark or Coil even going to raise an eyebrow when the PRT comes after us for the murder of a black Ward? It's not like they're going to get anything but profit out of this."

"If it can happen to us, it can happen to them." But he was trying to shore up a collapsing levee with leaky sandbags, and they both knew it.

"Not if they keep their noses clean, and don't murder Wards." She saw his eyes flare at the sharpness in her tone, but she refused to back down. "You know I'm right. And you know there's only one way out of this right now. When's this going down? When are they coming for us?"

"Tomorrow morning, eight AM." He frowned at her. "Why? What do you have in mind?"

She took a deep breath. "Can you put your hand on your heart, Max Anders, and tell me without a shadow of a doubt that the Empire Eighty-Eight had no hand in killing Shadow Stalker?"

He glared at her for a long moment. The look in his eyes told her that he dearly wanted to answer in the affirmative, but he didn't say the word. Finally, lips thinned almost to invisibility, he shook his head. "You know I can't. I didn't give the order, but that doesn't mean that someone in the Empire didn't do it."

"Then find out." Her voice was brisk. "Have the men you trust reach out to everyone under them. Find out who was out and about on the night in question. Where they were, and who was with them. For all we know, they might have boasted about it to their friends. You've got until eight tomorrow morning to find this person and present him to Director Piggot."

"What, just surrender?" He sounded horrified. "Just hand him over, whoever he is? The Empire is about right-minded people supporting each other! That's as far from 'support' as you can possibly get!"

She didn't budge from her stance. "And if the PRT rolls over us? Who'll be left of us then? I read a Russian saying once that basically said when the wolves are closing in, you've got to choose who you're going to throw off the back of the sleigh."

From his expression, he knew she was right. His jaw hardened. "God fucking damn it."

An idea occurred to her, and she raised a finger. "And no finding some sacrificial goat and telling the PRT it was him. They'll be wanting to interrogate him, and I'm quite sure there's details your man on the inside doesn't know. Whoever they get has to be the right one."

"But what if he's one of our best?" Though Max was slowly coming around, it was clear he didn't like the idea in the slightest.

"If he's going to pull a stunt like this without at least informing you, or his immediate superior, then he really isn't one of your best, is he?" In retrospect, she was quite proud of that point of logic.

He huffed out an aggravated sigh. "You're right. I'll send out the word." Clicking the power button on his phone to wake it up again, he looked up at her. "So you'll stay now?"

Though she was tempted, she shook her head. "I'm going to see how it all turns out. This might be a one-off, or the PRT might actually be changing their policies permanently. I have no desire to be sniped from half a mile away by a PRT special ops guy with a high-powered rifle and a light filter on his scope."

"I'll find whoever did it," Max promised. "And he will confess to the PRT that it was all his idea. Once that's dealt with, things will probably go back to normal."

"Probably isn't certainly." Kayden raised her eyebrows. "Until I know for a fact that they aren't about to go all kill-order at the slightest provocation, I'm unofficially retiring from the villain business. If they keep it up, I'll be making it official." She started making her way out of the room.

"Wait, where are you going?"

"Packing." At the door, she turned and favoured him with a glance. "Don't you think you'd better start making those calls?"

As she headed toward the bedroom she shared with him, she heard the first button-presses. She didn't know whether or not he was going to be successful in his quest but one way or the other, she didn't intend to be in the line of fire.


Lady Photon


Sarah Pelham sat on the edge of the rooftop, looking out over the city. Beside her, Carol seemed to be engrossed in her own thoughts, but Sarah was pretty sure she knew the way they were going.

"Penny for them," she said lightly.

Carol roused herself from the introspective trance. "I'm thinking it's about damn time. Those assholes have been making the city look bad for far too long."

"No second thoughts?" Sarah tilted her head. "Even about how the Director said we're clear to use lethal force if we're protecting someone?"

Carol raised her hand, and a shining blade of light grew out of it. When she touched the weapon to the brickwork, smoke arose from the glowing cut. "They did the crime. They couldn't have expected for there not to be some kind of backlash from this."

"Even if we don't know who actually pulled the trigger?" Sarah's voice was quiet, thoughtful. Other ideas were running through her mind.

"If they're willing to hide him, they're all complicit." Carol looked across at her, allowing the lightblade to vanish. "Tell me you don't believe that they're not all criminals anyway."

"Oh, no. I'm down with it, as the youngsters say." Sarah smiled briefly, then her expression changed to something darker. "They murdered a kid, this time. A Ward. Unmasked her then executed her. The PRT wants to take the Empire out of the picture once and for all? I am totally on board with that. It's been a long time coming."

"Good." Carol got up from her perch and dusted herself off. "I'm going to call Victoria and get a lift home. Are we meeting at our place or yours in the morning?"

"Yours, I think," Sarah said. "That way, Crystal and Eric can help carry you and Mark to the PRT rendezvous. Seven?"

"Seven." Carol reached out to Sarah, her fist clenched. "We're gonna kick their asses."

Sarah bumped her sister's fist with her own. "Absolutely."

She watched as her sister strolled along the roofline a little way before pulling out her phone to make a call. Then, when she was sure she wouldn't be overheard, she took out a phone of her own; not her New Wave handset, but a burner she'd acquired about six months ago, just in case.

The 'just in case' had come due, as she dug into her pocket for the other thing. It was a folded scrap of paper, tattered and faded, bearing a single name as well as a string of digits. Carefully, she tapped the number into the phone.

For ten years, she'd convinced herself that this was not what a hero did. But now, with everything else that was happening, she couldn't lie to herself anymore. Some things just had to be done. And now, it seemed, he was back.

The phone, held to her ear, rang several times. Then it was answered. "You have the Dark."

She'd met the man once, years before. He'd scared her silly then, and even hearing his voice now wasn't much better. "This is … this is Sarah Pelham."

"Lady Photon." He sounded bemused. "You have my interest. Why are you calling?"

"I … there's a man. In the Empire Eighty-Eight. Seven years ago, he killed my brother's fiancée."

"Fleur. Yes, I remember. A great pity." There was no emotion in his voice to go with his words.

She took a deep breath. "I want you to find him and kill him. Tomorrow, when the Empire is disrupted from the PRT attack. I want you to look him in the eye as he dies, and tell him New Wave sends their regards."

She didn't bother giving the guy's name; it had made the news more than once, despite the fact that he'd been tried as a minor. The Dark would either know it or he could find it out. He was known to be very, very good at locating his targets.

"Understood. We can arrange payment once it's done."

That she would be paying whatever price he demanded was in no doubt whatsoever. She knew that for a fact. "Absolutely."

"Good. Then we can do business. You'll receive a message when the job's complete." The call ended.

She sat there, looking at the phone, before sliding it back into her pocket. Whether she'd just done the right thing or not, she didn't know. But it had to be done, all the same.

Carol came back to sit by her, her own phone call concluded. "Vicky's on the way. What was that about?"

Sarah looked up at the night sky. "Oh, just taking care of some business."


End of Part Eight