I'm HALPING!


Part Twenty-Three: Accelerating the Agenda


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


Atop the Eiffel Tower
Taylor


"It's really nice up here," I said, aiming the camera through the protective mesh and taking another photo, this time of the lights along the Seine. I already had a dozen photos of the Parisian nightscape as it was, but such was the whirlwind of life with Zachary that I couldn't count on having time to get back to enjoy the view again, any time soon. "Even if you hadn't just goaded the Three Blasphemies into blowing each other up."

"You are the one who did all the hard work with the Idiot Ball, Taylor," he said with a smile. "I merely opened portals to where they were needed."

I snorted but didn't argue with him. For someone of his amazing (if not terrifying) level of power, he was remarkably self-effacing. To him, that was what had happened.

As I pointed the camera in a different direction, trying to zoom in on the Arc de Triomphe, I caught a flicker of movement crossing several of the city lights. My glasses picked it up a moment later, outlining an incoming form. "We've got a cape," I warned.

"It is a hero," Zach assured me. "Let him know that we will be leaving soon."

"Okay." Zach's peculiar brand of Move along, nothing to see here never got old for me. I took the photo, then waited for the cape to arrive.

As they got closer, I could tell it was a guy. His costume and cape were patterned in red, white and blue—the French patriotic colours as well as American, I reminded myself—and across his chest was splashed the French flag with the Arc itself overprinted in gold. My glasses popped up with a name: TRIOMPHE.

"He's going to ask us what we're doing up here, what happened to the Tower, and why it's in pristine condition, isn't he?" I was no kind of a precog, but even I could read the writing on the wall.

"That is a fair assessment, yes." Zach waited alongside me as Triomphe came up alongside the safety mesh. I wondered if the guy knew there was someone with an English-language translation of his name in Brockton Bay. A moment later, I mentally facepalmed; there had to be dozens, or even hundreds, of capes with language-duplicate names around the world. Then he was speaking to us.

Who are you and what are you doing up here? I couldn't speak French, but the glasses provided their usual real-time translation.

I intended to say something bland about just dropping by and we'd be moving along soon, but my traitorous mouth betrayed me. "Oh, we're just relaxing and doing the tourist thing after taking down the Three Blasphemies. How's your day been?"

He paused, mouth half open as he absorbed my words. I didn't have the same ability to alter perceptions that Zach did, but the earpiece apparently made me a lot more persuasive.

Are you serious? One of them was seen earlier in Paris.

"Absolutely," I assured him after mentally facepalming again. It looked like we were going loud instead of quiet. "I'm Taylor; this is Zach. Check the news from America recently. Anyway, nice Tower you've got here. Great view. Amazing engineering." Shut up already, Taylor!

If true, that's astounding news. How did you get past the police cordon, and what happened with the top of the tower?

I rolled my eyes. "'If true', hah. You should find three craters where they were. As for how we got through the cordon, we didn't. We teleported here. And they kind of blew the tower up too, but Zach fixed it. Because he's cool like that. Anyway, bye!"

I was all out of stuff to say to Triomphe and I didn't want to start babbling or repeating myself, so I grabbed Zach's arm and teleported us out of there. One second, the Eiffel Tower at night; the next, the middle of our living room in Brockton Bay, with afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows.

"Okay, wow," I said, letting my breath out with a rush. "That was … a little stressful."

Zach put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a comforting squeeze. "Taylor, you stood firm at my side when we dealt with Ash Beast, Moord Nag, Sleeper and the Three Blasphemies. Why did you feel stressed when speaking with a friendly superhero?"

I took a deep breath, let it out, then did it again. "Because I suck at social situations. I feel comfortable with you because you've shown me over and over that you're not going to screw me over like other people have."

"Hmm." He nodded thoughtfully. "There is something I need to speak with you about, and I do not wish to cause you extra stress. Would you like to sit down?"

I looked at him suspiciously. "Is this going to be your 'It's time for me to leave' speech?"

"No, Taylor." His tone was serious. "When it becomes time for me to leave, you will be fully aware of it. I wish to speak to you about something more pressing."

Slowly, I sat down on the sofa. "Okay, what is it?"

He sat next to me and half-turned so that I could see his expression without straining myself. "You are aware of the secondary purpose of destroying each of the villains we have been engaging over the last few days, yes?"

I nodded; he hadn't actually been subtle about it. "So you can take their powers and use them for yourself."

"That is correct, Taylor." He beamed at me, apparently pleased at how well the talk was going. "Have you ever been told how super-powers work?"

"Only what I've seen in talk shows and Saturday morning cartoons, which probably has nothing to do with the reality of the situation," I admitted.

"You are correct," he confirmed. "The theorising in those shows is all very inaccurate, although I suspect Little Protectorate Pals would become a little less popular if they portrayed the science properly."

I tilted my head at him. "Since when did you ever watch Li'l Protectorate Pals?"

He was already good at pretending innocence, so I didn't believe his nonchalant expression for an instant. "My sister has watched every show. She played some episodes for me. I found the childlike reimagining of Father to be … endearing."

Because of course the Simurgh would become addicted to a show like that. "Okay, getting off-track. You were talking about how super-powers happen."

"Yes, I was." Zach took a breath; purely for effect, I knew, because he didn't have to breathe. "Each set of powers is granted by an extradimensional biological supercomputer. When a person has such a thing connected to them, their brain grows a structure called the corona pollentia in order to handle the input. Within the corona pollentia is a sub-structure called the gemma, which becomes active once the person gains access to their power. That is what actually controls the use of the power."

I blinked. "That's … that's a lot to take in, right there." A thought struck me. "Wait, are you saying I've got one of these corona pollination things in my head?" Because otherwise, why would he be bringing it up? "And do you even have one yourself? How do you handle all the powers you've been yoinking out of people's heads?"

"You have a corona pollentia, yes," he said soberly. "But your gemma is not active. Your father bore the connection for years, then it switched to you. In order to trigger the activation of the power, the person has to go through the most stressful situation imaginable."

"The locker," I said, an epiphany bursting upon me. "Did I … was I going to …"

"You would have triggered, yes," he said, as if that were the most normal thing in the world. "The power you would have gained is one that allows normally impossible levels of multi-tasking. I rescued you from the locker before you reached the state of mind necessary to trigger, and I removed the power from you while you were still insensate. I do not possess a corona pollentia, but the power inherent in me as an Endbringer allows me to commandeer and modify the powers of others. As yours was not fully integrated with your brain, I was able to bring it over to me in its entirety without further disturbing you."

"Oh." It was an odd feeling. At the time, I doubt I would have been capable of comprehending a request to take my as-yet unconnected power, much less emotionally stable enough to give a coherent answer. Yet Zach had simply … taken it. "Would … would it have been better for me to have triggered and then let you remove the power later, once I decided I didn't want it?"

"My sister says not," he informed me frankly. "The aftermath of the emotional trauma necessary for triggering is always profound. Worse, the process often alters the personality in unpredictable ways. And finally, by its very nature, it would have been forcing new and poorly understood sensory inputs on you at a time when you were least able to understand and assimilate them, thus inflicting more mental trauma upon you."

I grimaced. "Ouch." The trauma I'd been through had already been bad enough. Taking more than that sounded like no fun whatsoever. "I, uh, I hope it hasn't been giving you any problems like that?"

"Hardly." He smiled. "It has proven quite useful, actually. I have been using it to utilise each and every one of the powers I have removed from others to their full capacity, where normally I would have been limited to just one or two at a time."

"Right." I'd definitely seen that in action. "What if … what if I asked for it back? I mean, I had it first and all that."

"I have already integrated an aspect of it into your glasses," he said promptly. "That is how you are able to use all the Thinker powers built into them so readily." He tilted his head. "Did you want the entirety of it back? I can do that too, if you wish."

That was easy to answer. "No … I was just asking." I took a deep breath. The next question wasn't one I really wanted to ask, but I did anyway. "So … how long was I in the locker for, and how much longer would it have taken me to trigger?"

"You were in the locker for precisely forty-three seconds," Zach informed me. "Going by my observation of how strong-willed you are, I suspect it would have taken you thirty to forty-five minutes to reach the level of despair necessary to form the trigger connection with your power."

I nodded. "Right. So it wasn't something that almost happened. Where I was when you ripped the door off and got me out, that was just the start." I didn't want to think about the idea of being in there for another half-hour or more. "How badly did you hurt them all, again?"

His smile was back; open, happy, unconcerned. "If you are considering revenge, I can take you to the hospital wards where they are each undergoing treatment. Each of them suffered broken bones and minor internal injuries, though Sophia has it the worst. The aftermath of our exit from Winslow ensured that their actions would be impossible to conceal within the bureaucracy. Also, Director Piggot now has every reason to wish us well, so she is pushing hard for full transparency. Or, to put it another way, to keep us happy."

"I just bet." I recalled the sheer savage glee the Director had expressed when dealing with the cankerous sore that Ellisburg had become. Before that point, she would've been wary of us; afterward, somewhat more approving. Some bribes, it seemed, could not be paid in mere money or even material goods. "So, what did you want to do now?"

"I would suggest you have something to eat, so that your nutrition and blood sugar levels are at optimum," he said blandly. "I will also have something, because eating tasty food is enjoyable. After that, would you like to go and help improve the world a little more?"

"Food, then fixing the world. I like that." I jumped up off the sofa. "Have I got time for a shower?"

He spread his hands. "You have all the time you want, Taylor."

I liked the sound of that. "Back in ten."


PRT Medical Facility


The doctor showed us the X-rays, tapping with his pen at certain spots. "With the fractures here, here and here, it's unlikely that she will ever walk again. If the damage is as bad as I suspect, she will be wearing a diaper for the rest of her life."

"I see," said Zach. "May we speak to the patient?"

I stood by, hands in the pockets of my jacket, just letting Zach do his thing. We were in the middle of the PRT building, in their secure medical facility, having literally teleported inside. Maybe we could've asked the Director for permission to enter, but Zach had decided to not bother her this time around. We could get in and out perfectly well on our own, after all.

"Certainly," said the doctor. He got that familiar what's-going-on look on his face, but his expression cleared again immediately. Zach's Stranger power was working just fine. "Right this way."

We were ushered into Sophia's private room, where I counted at least three cameras pointed directly at her. For her protection or to prevent escapes, I wasn't sure. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. She was lying in an oddly rigid pose, probably because of the body brace that was supposed to prevent her from damaging her spine any farther. As we came in, her face was turned away from the door.

"Hi, Soph," I said quietly.

For a moment, there was no reaction, then her head whipped around so fast I was concerned she'd do more damage to her spine. "What the fuck?" Her voice was husky, as if she'd screamed herself hoarse, or maybe just hadn't used it for a while. "What the fuck are you doing here? Who let you in?" One of her hands scrabbled for a call button as she stared wide-eyed at Zach.

I thought he'd stop her, but instead he let her press it. The buzz was audible even through the door; a moment later, an orderly opened it and leaned in. "What's the problem?" he asked.

"These two shouldn't be here!" Sophia shrieked. Boy, she'd gotten her voice back in a hurry. "They're here to kill me! Get help!"

The orderly's expression flickered and changed, then he looked at us. "Are you going to be long?"

"Not at all," Zach said politely. "Thank you very much."

"No problem." The orderly closed the door again.

Sophia stared at us, eyes so wide I could see white all around her irises. Her thumb remained pressed firmly on the call button. Nobody outside acknowledged it. "What … the … fuck …?"

I took a step forward. "I'm here to ask you a question, Sophia. It's got one of two answers. If you answer with anything else, I will assume you're okay with the first answer. Do you understand?"

She tried to scrabble back up the bed to get away from us but didn't get anywhere. "This is a fuckin' nightmare. It's gotta be."

I glanced at Zach; he shrugged. "She heard and understood what you said."

"Good." I took another step forward, so I was looming over her. "The question is simple. Would you rather have powers, or be able to walk?"

That got her attention. She stared at me. "What?"

I sighed slightly. "Would you rather have powers, or be able to walk? It's not a hard question, Sophia. Which would you rather have? Powers, or mobility?"

Her stare turned into a glare. "So you're here to fuckin' taunt me. Fuck you."

"Not at all." I shook my head. "I'm here to offer you a choice. You've got ten seconds to decide, or I decide for you." Theatrically, I pushed back my glove to check my watch. "Starting … now."

She continued to glare, lips pressed tightly together. No doubt determined to not give me the pleasure of 'winning'. Whatever that meant for her at this time.

The ten seconds came and went, and I motioned my head toward Zach. "Okay, time's up. She prefers to have powers."

We turned in unison and headed for the door. I had my hand on the handle when Sophia shouted, "Wait!"

Pausing, my hand still on the door, I turned. "Yeah?"

Sophia gritted her teeth. Her glare had intensified. "I …"

I waited, a polite expression on my face as I made a go-on gesture. "You …?"

The expression on her face was reminiscent of someone being forced to drink concentrated lemon juice. "Walk! I want to walk!"

Leaving the door unopened, I strolled back to the bed. "You're sure about this. You'd rather be able to walk than have powers."

If her powerset had included any kind of Blaster ability, I would've been dead on the spot. She looked like she was trying to ignite my face with the sheer intensity of her hatred. Just for emphasis, my glasses overlaid cartoon images of steam shooting from her ears.

"… yes."

"Good." I gestured to Zach. "Powers now, walkies after. Zach?"

"As you wish, Taylor." Reaching out, Zach lightly pinched the back of Sophia's hand, just beside where a cannula went in. It was always fascinating to watch him do this, as he pulled a shadowy gauze-like thing out of her, yard after yard of it, bundling it up as he went.

When he was done, he turned to me. "Her power has been removed." With a flick of his wrist, he made the wadded-up expression of Sophia's power vanish. "It is over to you now."

"I'm going to hold your hand now," I told Sophia. "Don't get any ideas." Reaching out, I gripped her fingers.

"What are you going to do?" she sneered. "Aren't you going to bring Panacea or someone in? And what the fuck did he just do now, anyway?"

"Weren't you paying attention?" I raised my eyebrows. "He took your powers away. You're normal now, just like everyone you ever beat up. And anyway, Panacea isn't Panacea anymore. She doesn't have her powers. I've got them."

As I spoke, I looked over her injuries. The doctor had been correct; the damage to her spinal cord would've caused paralysis from the waist down. I fixed the fractures and the internal damage with relative ease, then made one more change before I let her hand go again. "You're good to go. Try to wriggle your toes."

Sophia stared past me at the end of the bed, and I saw the coverlet twitch slightly. "Holy shit, you did it. My legs work … wait. That was my right foot. I tried to wriggle my left foot."

I nodded, a grin creeping across my face. "Yeah, about that. I switched your proprioception for left and right. Your brain will figure it out in time, but you are gonna have to learn how to walk all over again. Enjoy." Because damn right I was gonna have hard feelings.

"You can't do that!" she screamed, rising onto her elbows. "Come back here and—"

"Bye." I considered giving her a finger-wave, then settled for the finger itself. Taking Zach's arm, I teleported us out of the PRT building.


Top of Captain's Hill


"Well, that was fun," I observed, swinging my legs idly back and forth while I sat on a picnic table and watched the sun set over the western hills. "I mean, it didn't do much to fix the world as a whole, but it was intensely satisfying all the same."

"Every little bit helps," he said, apparently enjoying the sunset just as much as I was. "Would you like to go and help fix another little bit of it now, before we move back to the big leagues?"

"What, Emma and Madison?" I asked. "I thought you said they just had broken bones and minor internal injuries."

"Emma and Madison will heal quite well on their own," he assured me. "This is in New York."

I slid off the picnic table. "I'm down for New York. Let's do this."


New York
March


May grinned behind her rabbit mask. Her ad hoc team of minor villains, barely worthy of being called a gang when left to their own devices, was proving its worth under her direction. They'd intercepted Flechette's evening patrol and were even now separating her farther and farther from her teammates.

The timer in her head ticked over and she raised her radio. "Lurker, hit her with a shadow ball to the left hand … now." This would throw Lily off-balance again—not an easy thing to do—and keep her heading away from the other two Wards.

In the meantime, May's decoy Flechette, a girl of about the right height and looks, wearing a very similar costume, was drawing the other Wards in entirely the wrong direction. She'd planned it all out, down to the second. She and Lily were going to have it out once and for all, once the beleaguered Ward stumbled into the alley directly below where she was—

"Hi, there."

It was a girl's voice, coming from directly behind her. She'd checked the rooftop ten seconds ago! Nobody should be there! Her plans did not allow for someone to be there!

The rapier flickering from its sheath, she turned with all the speed and precision she was capable of. Even as she registered there were not one but two intruders on the rooftop, she energised the slim metal length of the blade and lunged at the more dangerous-looking of the pair—

And stopped so hard she wrenched something in her wrist.

The tip of the blade was mere inches from the chest of the teenage boy, but she couldn't move it. It was as though the hilt were encased in concrete. Beside the boy, the teenage girl—skinny, curly black hair, stylish glasses, absolutely rockin' jacket—raised her eyebrows.

"Unfriendly," she observed.

"It is her nature," the boy said, his diction precise and measured down to the microsecond. He didn't breathe except to speak, May noted. Reaching up, he pinched the end of the rapier. May grinned, expecting him to yelp as the energised metal cut his fingers to the bone.

That didn't happen. Instead, he began to draw some kind of filament from the tip of the blade. Stepping back, he flicked the filament this way and that as if performing some kind of over-the-top cat's cradle.

May tried to release the rapier, but that didn't happen either. She could feel her fingers, but they would not move from the hilt of the weapon. Looking down at it, she saw at last that the hilt and glove were both a dull monochrome gray in colour, instead of gleaming metal and white cloth.

Left hand it is, then. Dropping the radio—right now, there were more stringent issues at stake—she slid a knife from its sheath and energised it, preparatory to throwing at the gir—no, at the boy. Even though her intellect insisted the girl was the better target, so as to distract the boy from what he was doing, she knew the boy was far more dangerous.

The girl sighed and flicked her fingers. A tiny gray sphere flashed out toward the knife. Even as May tried to jerk her hand aside, the sphere swerved and hit its target anyway. Encompassing her hand and the hilt of the knife, it locked them solid. She suspected if she fell over now, she would have two broken wrists, instead of just one slightly sprained one.

"What's with the rabbit mask anyway?" asked the girl. "I mean, I get it that capes can get some pretty weird costume ideas, but are you supposed to be the Easter Bunny's evil twin or something?"

What? She doesn't even know who I am? "I'm March," snapped May, trying to move her hands with no success. Just a few feet closer, though, and she might be able to launch a kick and stun the little cow …

She glanced at the girl's companion, who seemed to be using the filament to weave … a pair of heavy wristbands? The last of it popped from the tip of the rapier … which was no longer energised. In fact, all of May's timing was … gone. All the balance, all the plans, all the understanding. Gone, as though it had never been.

"March?" The girl frowned. "What's that got to do with rabbits? I thought Easter was in April."

"Not Easter, you stupid little … hngh!" May tried again to get free and failed. "As in March Hare! And as in marching in step! Don't you understand word association at all? What've you done to me, anyway? Is that a Trump effect?"

The girl shrugged, apparently unconcerned at her anger. "Nope. Zach just took your powers. You're not actually getting them back." She looked around as someone climbed the fire escape. "Oh, hey."


Flechette


March had to be behind this. Nobody else could organise a bunch of nobodies this well. Lily ducked away from one attack, tried to load her arbalest, and nearly had it knocked out of her hands by another. Fully aware she was being herded, she sprinted across the narrow street and dived into the alleyway on the other side. One of Lurker's darkness balls hit the brickwork next to her left arm, hurrying her on her way.

If her radio was still working, she would've been able to call for help, but that was the first thing they'd targeted. Her phone was still intact, but there was no chance of her getting the time to pull it out and make a call back to base, the way they were pressing her. It was like they knew every one of her moves before she made them … because, in a way, they did.

This was one of May's talents, to direct an assault like this with precise timing. She knew Lily's every move, and she was able to translate that into instructions to the third-raters she'd hired for this job. Without her whispering in their ears, Lily would've been able to take them apart in seconds. As it was, this was like trying to match up, unpowered, against specialist troops.

And then … Lurker missed his shot. Like, wide. Lily had all the time in the world to duck aside and pull a blade, which she hurled along the alley. Scattershot yelped as it pinned his arm to the bricks by the sleeve, and Lily grinned. Something had changed, and she was going to make full use of it.

Lurker ventured along the alleyway, peering around for her, another shadow-ball forming in his hands. Lily came down on him from above like the vengeance from a particularly pissed-off goddess, smacking him just above the ear with the butt of her arbalest with precisely measured force. He folded like a cheap suit, face-planting into the dirt and grime.

Checking up and around, just to make sure March wasn't pulling one of her trademark ambushes, Lily headed back down the alley to secure Scattershot. It didn't take long to have him secured hand and foot, and then she pulled out her phone. "Yeah, hi, Flechette. No, I've been heading west. Yeah, west. March has had her guys herding me, but I got the better of them." She tilted her head as she heard a familiar voice drifting down from a rooftop. "Home in on my signal. I think I got her."

Leaving the call on, she dropped the phone into its pouch and headed through the alley toward where she'd heard the shout. More angry words filtered down toward her. It didn't sound like March was having a good time of it. She leaped up, grabbed the fire escape ladder, and started to climb.

As she came up over the top, a curious sight caught her eye. March was there, alright, with her rapier in one hand and a knife in the other. She was in full battle mode, yet the people she was aggressing on were just … casually standing there. One was a teenage boy who looked kind of familiar, while the other was a girl who Lily also thought she should know from somewhere but couldn't quite place her. The girl had on a damn nice jacket, too.

The girl turned toward her. "Oh, hey."

As the boy finished fitting a couple of leather wrist-bands on his arms, he also turned to face her. "Hello, Flechette," he said happily. "I am Zachary, and this is Taylor. We are pleased to be of service to you tonight. Are you healthy?"

"Bruised, cut, but doing a lot better than I was." Lily strolled over, loading her arbalest and cranking back the string as she did so. As soon as it was ready to shoot, she aimed it at March. "This one's been giving me a heap of problems tonight, though." She didn't intend to shoot, but March was dangerous even when she wasn't armed.

"I had you," spat March. "I had you!" She appeared particularly bitter over something. "If—" She cut herself off.

"Wait, I know this one," the girl—Taylor—said, putting one finger up. "Is this the one that goes, if it wasn't for these meddling kids, I would've gotten away with impersonating the Easter Bunny and stealing all the eggs?"

Despite herself, Lily was impressed at the furious outburst that followed. She'd known March had a fairly broad command of profanity, but dang.


Observation Deck of the Empire State Building


The safety mesh reminded me of the top of the Eiffel Tower, though the hooked-over bars on top were different. I had my camera out, taking photos of the city lights, while Zach appeared content to just look out over Manhattan Island. "This is nice, too. But did you help out Flechette just to be nice, or was there another reason?"

"Very good, Taylor," he said approvingly. "March had a powerset that I need for my future plans. Besides, doing good for the sake of doing good makes you happy, as does foiling the plans of supervillains. Especially over-pretentious supervillains like that one."

I had to admit, he knew me well. I lined up on the Chrysler Building, took the shot, then turned to him. "Okay, I've done my touristy thing. Where to next?"

He looked thoughtful. "I believe it may be time for us to visit the Birdcage once more. Lung and Hookwolf will have had time to settle in and consider their options, after all."

I nodded. "I got this one." Putting my camera away, I tucked my arm through Zach's. "In the words of Time Warp, it's just a jump to the left …"

We 'jumped to the left' across the width of North America, reappearing in the courtyard of the new and improved Birdcage. A single Dragon suit stood watchfully in the corner of the yard, apparently in consultation with a few of the inmates. Overhead, the sky was showing the orange of sunset. It occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time jumping between time zones today.

Our sudden appearance did not go unnoticed. Several inmates waved, while others looked impassively in our direction. Oh, well. It's not like we can expect everyone to be grateful. Acidbath (or rather, the former Acidbath) just glowered. He had a few bruises on his face; it appeared he was unable to control his mouth around his fellow inmates, even after losing his powers. Remembering what he was like, I could not find much sympathy in my heart for him.

The double doors marked DOWN TO BIRDCAGE were what we wanted. I strolled in that direction, with Zach at my side. As I came up to the doors, I looked over at the Dragon suit and nodded once; the suit returned the nod. I pulled the doors open and entered the staircase.

Carved from the surrounding rock, the stairs were broad and easy to traverse, curving slightly to the right as they proceeded downward. Subdued overhead lighting made it easy to ensure I didn't trip, if my glasses hadn't already been outlining the steps already for me. Halfway down, I encountered Cinderhands on the way up, holding two bottles of an expensive imported beer.

"Evening," I said, and nodded at the beer. "Is that for Marquis?"

"Yes, ma'am," he confirmed, then looked at Zach. "My appeal's going well, so thank you for that too."

"You are welcome." He nodded at the ex-supervillain, then we continued downstairs.

When we entered the common area at the bottom of the stairs, it resembled nothing so much as an old-fashioned gentlemen's club, one catering to classic noir gangsters. Not that anyone was dressed in period attire, but the attitude was there. A veneer of politeness over the ability to render extreme violence if necessary.

My glasses scanned the room, then picked out the people Zach was here to see. Lung was sitting back in the corner, watching the large-screen TV, while Hookwolf was in the middle of a game of pool. Neither of them took notice of our arrival at first, but then a murmuring spread through the room until everyone had ceased their activities and were looking at us. I didn't pick out any hostility, at least as bad as Acidbath's upstairs, but a few seemed apprehensive, as if they were worried we were going to inflict some unknown punishment on them … or worse, take the largesse away again.

"Good evening, everyone," Zach announced. Of course, everyone heard him. "Do not worry. Nobody is in trouble. However, we are here to make two announcements. First, I will be speaking to Dragon about ceasing intake into this facility. No more villains will be sent to the Birdcage. Second, I am here so that we may complete the processing of those who wish to either forfeit their powers or take on a behavioural control collar. For those who are unaware of the situation, one or the other has to happen before you will be permitted to venture upstairs and begin the process of filing your appeal."

"Appeal?" Unsurprisingly, it was Hookwolf who spoke up. "So these assholes haven't been pulling my leg? I can actually appeal to get out of this damn place?"

"Eventually, yes," Zach said. "Not immediately, of course. Appeals take years to process even in ordinary prisons, and you have been sent away for particularly heinous acts, after all. But once you get upstairs, the process can be started. Or …" He gestured at the surrounding area. "You can choose to stay down here with anyone who has decided they like it better this way."

"Nah, screw that." Hookwolf shook his head. "What do I gotta do?"

I cleared my throat. "First, you need to move to the back of the line. There are people who have been here far longer than you, that I did not manage to deal on our last visit. They have priority."

The burly Empire Eighty-Eight cape looked from Zach to me and back again, apparently wondering who was in charge but just smart enough not to ask the question out loud.

"Please do as Taylor has requested," Zach said firmly. "She is the one who determines who I see first."

That caused a stir as people started forming up into a line. A few other newcomers to the Birdcage tried to slip in early, but my glasses picked them out and I sent them to the back as well. If anybody tried to argue, they were glared into silence by the rest. It appeared they were learning.

I quickly slipped into the routine of asking them what they intended to do once they got out, then whether they wanted their powers gone or if they merely wanted a behavioural control collar. As the line progressed through, the ones farther back heard what I was saying and were able to think about their responses, so when they got to me they were able to provide a quick response. Whichever one they wanted, I sent them on to Zach.

In barely any time at all (or so it seemed), we were down to the last few. Hookwolf was the second-last in front of Lung, but it looked like the time he'd spent in line hadn't actually helped him with the decision. "Which one do you think I should do?" he asked me point-blank.

"That's not my choice," I said. "Either way, you won't be able to go back to the Empire Eighty-Eight." He was too proud to settle for going from being one of the movers and shakers to just being an unpowered mook. Even I could see that.

He shook his head, making a derisive noise. "Nah, screw those losers. Never really believed in that master-race bullshit, anyway. If I kept my powers, you think they'd let me go hero?"

I shrugged. "You'd have to move to somewhere away from Brockton Bay and get rid of the wolf theme. And those tattoos. And the attitude. But yeah, if you managed to pull that off, I don't see why not." If Sophia managed to masquerade as a hero for more than a year, I was sure he could too.

"Yeah, okay. Why not?" He moved over to Zach, and I was face to face with Lung.

"Good evening," I said smoothly. I knew I was in zero danger, even from someone as powerful as him. Even if he ramped up then and there and tried to murder me on the spot, I had every faith in Zach being able to slap him down so hard there would be an imprint in the rock beneath our feet. "So, what do you intend to do once you get out of here?"

"I … do not know," he said at last. "I have been Lung for so long, I don't know who else to be. Who are you when you take off that jacket?"

"This?" I looked down at the jacket. "Still me, only not wearing the jacket. I don't really need a hero persona to live up to, I guess."

At that moment, a message flashed up on my glasses. I will be needing his powers. This was the first time Zach had actually stated a preference, which surprised me slightly.

"Will I still be Lung if I have my powers removed?" The thoughtful question also surprised me. Everyone saw him as the brutish crime lord, but that actually showed introspection.

"Well, you won't be allowed to be Lung of the ABB once you're no longer able to commit crimes," I pointed out. "Also, by the time you get out of here, the ABB is almost certainly going to be long gone. Without you or Oni Lee to run the show, they're likely to drift out of the gang and vanish into the woodwork." I let the earpiece add a little bit of its influence. "If you want my suggestion, give up your powers and just be an ordinary citizen. Don't be the man who was once Lung. Be …" I checked with my glasses. "… Kenta Fujiwara, pillar of the community. Teach the young people how not to fall into the same traps you did at their age." That he'd fallen into traps, I was sure. Every teenager did.

He snorted, probably remembering those same traps. "You talk a good game. Don't you think I should try to be a hero, like Hookwolf?"

"Well, you could try," I conceded. "I don't know how successful you would be. Heroes who catch fire when they get more powerful tend to end up dealing with property damage lawsuits. He's only got to worry about sharp metal bits."

"Hmm." He looked thoughtful at that.

I wanted to keep talking but knew if I did, I'd probably put my foot in it. Instead, I tried to look helpful and interested. Even the earpiece could only make me so persuasive.

Drawing a deep breath, he let out a long sigh. "I'll do it."

"Do what?" I asked, though I thought I knew which one he meant.

"A dragon will relinquish its powers before it allows itself to be collared." It sounded vaguely like a quote out of a book, but I was pretty sure he'd made it up on the spot. Kudos to him; it actually sounded kind of badass.

"Cool," I said. "Zach?"

"Thank you, Mr Fujiwara," Zach said, stepping up alongside me. He shook Lung's hand, then from that contact pulled an honest-to-goodness dragon out of the man. It was long and snake-like, in the style of the Oriental dragons I'd read about. Twisting and coiling in Zach's hands, it breathed imaginary fire at the ceiling.

Lung watched as the illusory dragon wound itself around Zach's arm all the way up over his shoulders, then down his other arm. I could not swear there were no tears in his eyes. Instead of bundling the power up as he had the others, Zach let it sink into his body through his light coat, until it was no longer in view. I wondered what ornament or clothing item Zach would make out of it, once we were gone from the Birdcage.

"And that is all?" asked Zach. "All cell blocks have been checked to ensure nobody has been left out?"

The Dragon suit standing by the stairway door, quiet until now, nodded. "All cell blocks contain only persons already processed by you," she said.

"Good," Zach said. "Have a good evening, all. I wish you luck with your appeals."

That actually raised a cheer, muted only slightly by the doors closing behind us as we headed upstairs to the courtyard once more. By the time we got up there, full night had fallen. I stood for a moment, looking up at the stairs.

"Why did you need Lung's powers?" I asked. "Everyone else, you've given them the choice. Why Lung?"

"For the same reason I needed Ash Beast, Sleeper and Moord Nag's powers," he replied candidly. "His power is particularly potent. I will be having need of that."

I turned to face him. "Zach … as powerful as you are … when you talk about needing more power, you worry me. What the hell do you need so much power for?"

He sighed and put his arm around me. "I will tell you, when the time comes. For now, we should return to Brockton Bay. My sister says your father has almost finished making the evening meal, and we both know how he gets if he is kept waiting."

I snorted and leaned into him. "Literally an Endbringer. Casually arm-wrestles Alexandria packages. Leaps across the continent in a single bound. Scared of my father."

"Well, of course," Zach said as he scooped me up in his arms. "Your father is a scary man."

I was still laughing when he braked to a halt outside the house.


End of Part Twenty-Three