AN: here we are again folks! And holy crap, I'm blown away. Archer has cleared the 3k follower milestone. I can't fully explain just how much that means to me. I do this because I love it, but all of you push me to be better just by being invested in what I create. Thank you for joining me on this adventure, because it means the world to me to have all of you along for the ride.
For those of you reading on your computers you'll notice Archer has a new cover image! Glyphz over on Sufficient Velocity has cranked out some amazing fanart, and I got his permission to use it here. Swing by the thread there to check out some more fanart, mocked up Fate GO cards, and reader Omakes. Again, can't tell you how blown away I am by all the support and interest.
Happy thanksgiving to all my American readers and keep your eyes pealed I've got five days off from work and I'm trying to get in as much writing as I can.
I growled to myself as the Humvee hit yet another pothole throwing me against the edge of the opening in the roof I was standing through. Normally this spot would go to someone manning a fifty cal. Unfortunately, I was human artillery and significantly outgunned standard issue. Never mind the fact I couldn't actually fire my bow in this stupid position! I was a cape and therefore more dangerous than the gun so I got to stand here bruising my sides every time we hit a pothole or piece of debris. Which seemed to be every thirty or forty feet.
Ok it wasn't that bad. My armor was eating most of the impact. And I was pretty well braced so only the worst of the bumps were actually throwing me. I just needed to have a word with the ass hat driving the fucking thing about not going forty with me hanging out the damn top!
Lack of sleep certainly wasn't helping. You would think busting more than a thousand Merchants would have been enough of a warning to not fuck with us. You would also be wrong. In the five days since the raid I'd been kept from a full nights sleep by shouting civilians who were unwilling to abandon their homes. Shouting soldiers trying to scare off remnants of the Merchants who had not been at the party we crashed. Idiot Merchants actually breaking into a different camp, and being sent to help secure them when the Guard ran out of restraints and needed me to trace more. And finally, rushing to respond to an attack by Purity and a few other capes.
The nightlight and her band of Nazi's made off with a relative handful of supplies then tore out of the city with Laserdream and Lady Photon hot on their heels. Sadly, New Wave called off the chase a bit before they hit the city border. I understood Lady Photon's reasoning; it just annoyed me to no end that yet another group managed to raid the people I was supposed to be protecting. Never mind the fact I was staying at a different camp, it still felt like a personal failure.
So here I was, tired, cranky, and being tossed around because the roads were shit and my driver was trying to make good time. I glanced back at the rest of the convoy following behind us. My convoy was one of five making its way to the downtown camps, but even accounting for that division of forces it was less than expected. We hadn't lost too many people thanks to Panacea, but we had lost a few, and a decent chunk had been reassigned to guard the highways out of town.
Apparently, there were concerns that Hookwolf or Lung might lay an ambush for a group leaving town. It seemed a bit unlikely to me given the number of abandoned cars they should be able to hot wire, but it was good to not ignore the possibility. At least this way we would have advanced warning if the bastards decided to try anything.
Another pothole threw my stomach into the lip of the roof. With a growl I ducked inside.
"Corporal, are you trying to hit every pothole in this city!"
"Sorry, kid! There've been reports of ABB in the area! I don't want to meet a dragon!"
"I can kill a damn dragon! What I can't do is keep my feet with this stupid thing going up on two wheels every thirty seconds!"
"Sorry, Legacy! We'll be at the camp soon enough! Roads should improve a bit once we get close!"
With a muttered curse I stood back up and opted to reinforce my body and armor. With that problem more or less solved, I went back to scanning the surrounding buildings and alleys. It was a bit hard to argue with the Corporal given the Asian style dragon spray painted across three separate buildings. Of course, I also had access to at least a dozen dragon slaying swords…. and I doubted I'd even need them to finish him. Still, I couldn't fault the guy for not wanting a front row seat to that kind of fight.
The next ten minutes were bumpy and filled with cursing, but I didn't see any signs of Dragon men or Nazi's. Not even a normal with a pipe or bat. Which was both wonderful and terrible for my nerves. It was a relief to not need to fight… But given the way things had gone since I'd gotten back to the Bay… Well I was starting to look for the next shoe to drop.
"Relax. The Gangs must know this many engines means the National Guard are on the move. But we're not hauling supplies and so they have nothing to gain from attacking us."
"We're moving to reinforce the camps. Removing us before we can fortify would make future attacks easier."
"Maybe." Archer grunted. "But that assumes they are not busy planning their own withdrawal. They'll know the city is being abandoned. Raiding the camps will do little to help them get established elsewhere."
"There it is." I muttered to myself as we pulled out into a tent filled camp. If I was remembering right the area used to be home to a few warehouses. The pile of debris off to one side seemed to back that memory. The outskirts of the camp were only half haphazardly marked by the absence of tents, and a few obvious watchmen.
And there, standing right by the edge of the road in her dark purple costume, arbalest in hand, was Flechette. Phantom stood next to Flechette in her black and white get up. Both girls' faces lit up with grins and they waved excitedly. For all that I was grumpy enough to try blowing people off for a nap, seeing familiar faces, safe and happy? People I knew being that excited to see me again? I'd missed them too. A smile bloomed on my own face and I waved back.
And then the Humvee drove right past them.
I growled and thumped the roof hard enough to make my hand sting, but at least it relieved some of my aggravation with the worst driver I'd ever met. When we did stop, almost halfway through the camp, I wasted no time in hopping out through the hole in the roof I was already standing in. Little bit of a drop getting down, but reinforcing negated that easily. Besides, I wasn't waiting for everyone to get out.
Lily practically slammed into me, but I didn't hesitate to return the hug. A moment later Dani glomped both of us. Luckily, she was light or all three of us might have ended up on the ground. Dani pulled away pretty quickly, but Lily held on a few moments longer, and tightened her grip, before grudgingly stepping back.
"Have you had lunch yet?" Lily asked. I only had time to shake my head before she was dragging me off by the hand. "Come on then. They've got a small tent set aside for us so we can eat without masks."
I spared a glance towards Dani, but she was chuckling into her hands with mirth dancing behind her eyes. No help, or answers, coming from her then. Bemused, I resigned myself to just going along with it.
It had been a long time since I'd had any friends that would worry about me enough to get so clingy. It felt good. Like coming home.
Stepping into the tent my good mood was doused with ice water.
While I didn't have any problem with Vista, who was nibbling at something, there was one other cape in the room. Seeing Miss Militia sitting there drinking a cup of coffee was more than enough to get my hackles up.
Of the three people who had interviewed me before I was shipped out of the bay. Miss Militia was likely the one I resented the most. Galant was an idiot that reported what his power was showing him. His opinion didn't matter, and much as I wanted to, I couldn't work up a real grudge against someone for telling their bosses the truth. Even if he had been wrong.
Armsmaster had been a dick, but he hadn't been cruel. Just a blunt ass who wouldn't even consider what I was saying.
But Miss Militia? I couldn't shake off the memory of her pity, of her reasoning with me like I was unstable or something. I knew how it looked from her end. I understood why they'd done that to me. But she was directly responsible. She asked me to demonstrate my power. She jumped to conclusions. She pitied me when she decided to ignore what I was saying and assume the worst.
Something about that burned me in a way the other two hadn't. It wasn't logical, it wasn't fair to her. Staring at her I found that I didn't really care though. Especially not when hazel eyes lit up with a warm smile as if nothing had ever happened. With a grunt I turned away from the woman and snagged a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of water. Sitting with my back to her might have been petty, but I wasn't above being petty right now. Dani and Lily claiming the streets across from me broke me out of those thoughts.
"I can't believe you three chased me all the way here." I shook my head. "No that's not it. I can't believe Legend let you."
Dani smirked at me.
"Oh, he didn't want to, but Jason twisted his arm."
"You never mentioned that before." I glanced over as Vista planted herself in the seat next to mine. "How did the leader of a Wards team manage to pressure the head of the Protectorate?"
Dani faked a swoon bringing her hands together in front of her chest.
"He was amazing, he talked rings around Legend. Best chance of getting you to come back, how you needed support, how the locals wouldn't have the resources to spare trying to change your mind…" She hesitated there and looked guiltily at me. "He was right, but I think we all assumed that our being here would make it at least a little bit easier to reach out to you. That part didn't work out so well."
I gave the pair as kind a smile as I could muster after the past few weeks of stress.
"Maybe not, but I appreciate you all trying. I hear you've been kept pretty busy?"
"Yeah…" Lily answered dourly. "The gangs pushed every few days, and there's been a lot of looting and arguments to break up. What's been worse is the rioting. It's… I don't know. It's only happened a couple times, and it got stopped pretty quickly, but everyone was on edge for days after. And just being here isn't enough to calm them down. It got really tense."
"It's been better though since the order to evacuate went out though." Dani cut in. "Not that people are happy, there just… sort of resigned really. They don't seem to have the energy to get that worked up anymore."
I nodded sadly. I'd seen more or less the same thing going on before hitching a ride here with the guard. Minus the rioting. I wasn't sure what the difference was, but people hadn't ever boiled over into riots at Captains Hill.
"Well Purity and her little group hit us on their way out of the city so we don't need to worry about them. Though that still leaves Hookwolf's group and the ABB. Though without Oni-Lee I'm not too worried about them. Lung could be trouble, but I have a few options if he really pushes things."
"You have a plan to deal with Lung?"
Tension spread across my back and shoulders as Miss Militia joined the conversation.
"If it comes down to it I have options for everything short of an Endbringer." "And I'd give it fifty fifty odds even for them if I go all out."
"Nonlethal options?" The woman arched an eyebrow at me as she rounded the table.
I bristled at her tone.
"I'm more concerned with the people I'd be protecting from him." I answered flatly.
"That's not your decision to make." She shook her head.
"Of course, it's my decision to make. Just like it's your decision to tickle him with rubber bullets and beanbags."
"Taylor." Lily reached across the table and placed her hand over my clenched fist.
I took a deep breath and let it out.
"If I can pin him by his shadow that's one thing. But if that doesn't work my options for dealing with him start at wounds that won't heal, and escalate to outright lethal. I'm not going to let people die just so someone can sit their court date before getting shipped to the birdcage."
"You don't have to fight him at all. You shouldn't have to fight him. If it comes down to fighting Lung or running you can leave it to the Protectorate."
"I couldn't even leave half a city to the Protectorate." I cut back. Seeing her flinch and then scowl was more satisfying than I wanted to admit.
"Hey, enough." Dani shot both of us an angry look. "Taylor in case you forgot Lily, Jason and I were all here too, and it still wasn't enough."
I grimaced and looked to the ground. She was right. And I wasn't exactly being fair. For all that the Guard, New Wave, and I had done better overall, we still lost people and supplies, and that was against just the Merchants.
"And you shouldn't be antagonizing her." Dani continued with a frown as she stared down Miss Militia. "She's had a lousy couple of weeks and she's done a lot of good. Getting angry about how she did things doesn't help anyone."
Miss Militia seemed genuinely unsure how to handle that kind of back talk from a Ward.
Deciding I was done with the conversation I put my helmet back on and marched out of the tent with my plate and water bottle in hand. I could make out raised voices coming from the tent but I didn't bother to try listening in. Instead I headed for the perimeter. I needed to ask whoever was on watch which directions trouble was most likely to come from.
"Your arguments are usually more eloquent than that."
I only turned enough to glance at Lily as she walked up, surprisingly Vista was trailing along a step behind her. I took an aggressive bite from my sandwich while I debated how to answer.
"I just didn't have the patience for a debate with her of all people."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Vista asked as she sat on a chunk of rubble. "Miss Militia's nice."
"She pulled me from the hospital to put me in MS screening a few hours after my trigger. She didn't believe anything I said and talked down to me like I was a head case then. Then I spent three months convincing people I wasn't mastered or crazy. Now, the first time she sees me after all of that, and rather than apologize for what she put me through she starts after me for using lethal force?" I shook my head sharply.
Vista frowned but gave me a begrudging nod after thinking that over.
"She's usually nice." Vista muttered.
"I don't doubt it. But even if I'm just a special case that doesn't change how I feel about her. If anything it makes it worse." Finishing the last of my food I traced a butterfly knife and let the click clack of spinning metal ease some of my frustration.
"...How are you doing, Legacy. Hood said you were doing ok, but…"
"Honestly? I'm doing good." I smiled. "We've managed to talk a couple times. Still can't believe he managed to beg a ride out of the city while I was still on my first search of the camps on the other side of the city."
"I'm glad he's safe, but I'm a little surprised you're still here. I kind of expected you to go after him again." Lilly half asked.
"He's safe." I shrugged before tossing and catching my knife as the finale of a particularly flashy trick. "There are a lot of people here who aren't. If waiting a week or two means I can keep some of those people safe? Dad understands."
"Lucky." Vista muttered.
"Yeah, guess I am." I smiled to myself.
"...Did you really mean what you said? Could you really kill Lung? I know, I mean, I heard about Mush, and the raid, but…"
I glanced at the younger girl before looking at Lily. She fidgeted a bit and only shrugged back. I took the time to work through another short trick with my butterfly knife before snapping it shut and giving Vista my full attention.
"I could easily kill Lung." Which was kind of crazy to consider given his reputation, but it wouldn't even be hard. I'd barely even tapped the upper tier of what I could do, and that was assuming something as directed and controlled as Gáy Bolg didn't work. Though getting into stabbing range with a spear against a pyrokinetic could be dicey. That still left plenty of options, and many being heavy on collateral damage wasn't much of an issue in a condemned city. "I don't want to. I'm not looking to. But I'd do it if I had to… My definition of "have to" is just, well, it's not what the Protectorate would like it to be."
I watched Lily from the corner of my eye even as I gave Vista most of my attention. Jason might have understood, but Lily was an idealist. I respected that about her, in an abstract sort of way. I just wasn't sure how she would handle the reality of what I was willing to do. To hear me talk about it was one thing. To know I'd done it and would do so again?
I was honestly surprised at just how good both girls poker faces were. Vista's only expression was a slight downward tilt to her lips, which could have meant almost anything. Lily showed even less. Her face was perfectly neutral.
Then the moment passed and she slumped down onto another piece of ruble.
"I hate it, but I think I'm starting to get why you and Hood don't agree with the Protectorate's rules of engagement."
I blinked at that. Of anything I'd been expecting to hear from her that was absolutely not it.
"The Villains here are just insane." She looked away. "No one goes for the kill against Wards, But Hookwolf and his people certainly weren't holding back and neither has Lung. I don't know if they were always like that or if things are just worse now…"
"It's a little of both." Vista chimed in. "Hookwolf and Lung never really held back. Though before Kaiser died, he restrained most of the Empire's other capes, at least a bit. But with him dead, and Hookwolf taking over, they're doing things his way now."
"Brockton's always been a dangerous place." What else was there to say? I wasn't going to rub this in her face. She looked plenty ripped up about it already without anyone trying to make things worse.
Lily seemed to shake herself, just a bit, no more than a slight shake of her head. Then refocused on me.
"The director here wants Hood to try and keep you in line at least until we leave the city."
My lips twitched down and I flipped open my knife moving into a lengthy trick to buy me time to think before answering. When I finished that one I went through two more.
"What exactly would that mean for me. I don't… I'm happy to have more support, or even be the support, believe me. Trying to keep even one camp safe with just me and the Guard was stressful enough. New Wave helped, and working with all of you can only be a good thing. I just…" With a grunt I spun into another trick hunting for the right words. "I left for a reason and I know Legend wants me back in New York, what he thinks that's going to do or change I have no idea, and I don't know what anyone here even wants at all. No one has tried to stop me so far but now…"
"We'll figure it out Taylor. Your father's alive, you have more than enough power to stand on your own, and you haven't committed any crimes they could hold against you. Let them scheme. You can undo anything they might say with just your testimony, and they know it."
"Not if they shout their story loud enough often enough. People listen to the story they want to hear especially when it's repeated more often than the opposition."
"Maybe so, but people also love to hear about the dirty little secrets of the people in power. Shadow Stalker alone would validate your claims and draw attention. The injustice of being denied the chance to aid your only living family? The heroics of making hard choices to defend the helpless? You're not the kind of hero people have grown up with, but that will make you all the more interesting whether they approve or not."
I wanted to keep discussing that. Shirou and I had tossed a few ideas back and forth about how we could handle any PRT power plays. It essentially boiled down to the same threat I'd used against Legend and Glenn, stop jerking me around or I'll tell everyone the truth. I knew I could make that hurt. But I just couldn't be sure it would be enough. And how far would they go to bury that story?
Unfortunately carrying on two conversations at once was difficult at times, and Lily was done thinking and ready to answer my question. So, the umpteenth repetition of my debate with Shirou would have to wait.
"I don't know what the Protectorate wants." Lily spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. "Director Piggot wants things to run smoothly until this all stops being her problem."
"...Ok, I can work with that. But what does that mean for me?"
"It means getting you to at least pay lip service to Protectorate orders." Vista cut in. "If you look like you're going back to the Wards it's one less thing people can bother her about."
I chewed on that carefully.
"Do you think she'd try to trap me? Get me inside, foam me, and ship me out to be someone else's problem?" Both girls gave me startled looks. I could probably fight through that if I had to but people would get hurt and the city couldn't afford to be short of any available help right now.
"Don't get me wrong, I know things are winding down here, and you could handle it. I just… I feel responsible. This is home, and maybe I wasn't here for the fight, but I'm here now and I can still help. But if Legend or the Chief Director hear I'm playing ball again would they be happy with that, or try to order me out?"
I needed to know. Yes, the city was more or less under control. No, they didn't really need me here anymore. But I could still help and Lily and Jason and Dani were here helping my home. I just… I wanted to see this through.
Vista chewed at her lip for a moment before answering, picking her way through every word slowly.
"I don't think so. Piggot wants things to go smoothly and quickly. Picking a fight with you, it could get in the way. Worse, it would make things messy."
I let that simmer in the back of my head for a few minutes as I played with my knife. If The woman in charge wasn't going to make this a fight… Well it didn't cost me much of anything to play along for now. And there was one thing I desperately wanted right now they might be able to give me.
"... I don't suppose you have working showers, do you?"
Lily's grin was blinding.
"Kid Win made something to clean up and desalinate the water. It's only big enough to handle the base, and breaks down every other day, but we do have showers."
The feel of oily barely washed hair pressed against my scalp by my helmet was suddenly impossible to ignore.
"When are you going back?"
"We get relieved in a couple of hours." Vista was obviously amused but she was polite enough not to laugh at me.
"Right, I can play nice. It can't be that hard." I glanced back toward where I'd last seen Miss Militia. "I hope."