95.5 Interlude Gregor - Shawn

Interlude Gregor

Gregor watched as the final segment of the video played out on Newter's phone. The boy was leaning over to show it to Fleet, but behind the reflective visor of his helmet it was anyone's guess if the man was actually watching. He hadn't seemed the least bit surprised when the video was released and seemed to know about its contents even as it started playing.

There was at least passing interest from Kataklyzein. The cat was reclined on a nearby sofa in the lounge, still enjoying the attention of two of the girls that had been providing bottle service. Attractive, professional girls who had a long history with the club and frequently worked directly with the team.

Faultline had been meticulous in her management of every aspect of the evening, including the selection of the waitstaff. The task of preparing to host members of the Celestial Forge had been more stressful than some of the missions they had undertaken. His offer to Fleet had been a gamble, really a shot in the dark, but seeing it accepted they had put everything they had into preparing.

Overpreparing, if he was being honest. Everything from drink selections, the ambiance of the lounge, arrival routes, precise staffing levels, which of the team would be present, where and how the pair would be greeted, and the activities of the evening were considered in excruciating detail. Even the composition of the rest of the club was taken into account, with specific instructions to bouncers and security as well as certain incentives and calls to event organizers to ensure a healthy but not overwhelming crowd for a Tuesday night.

The entire operation had more in common with a meeting for state dignitaries than a visit to a nightclub. Dignitaries from a state that could annihilate them without any concern and minimal repercussions. Even now, watching Fleet recline in his relaxed manner or Kataklyzein purring at the attention from the girls on either side of him, Gregor couldn't forget the scale of what they were dealing with.

Fleet, moving faster that the eye could hope to follow. A single move of his arm nearly scattering the most powerful capes of the Empire. Standing completely surrounded while utterly unconcerned for his own safety. An action taken instantly and completely at his own initiative.

That was the most telling thing to Gregor. The reason why he had risked approaching the man independent of Apeiron. The Enigmatic Artificer. It was a decision he had made drawing from his own history of cape work. He had a lifetime of experience serving as muscle. Usually dumb muscle, at least in the minds of his employers.

Parahuman gangs tended to see their members in terms of their powers. If they wanted advice they'd consult or contract a thinker. Brutes were for when they wanted something broken. Gregor didn't perfectly fall into that category, but the same could be said for his other designations. Blasters and shakers were retained for their destructive or disruptive potential, not their insight or initiative.

People who had hired him had been looking for an intimidating cape with strong powers that could be directed as necessary. Directed. Not briefed on overall goals or left to his own initiative. The term 'hired gun' was oddly correct when it came to capes. They were representations of their powers, which was where their value lay.

That state of being defined by your power was more true for Case 53s than most other capes, but Gregor didn't delude himself. Emily and Elle were as defined by their powers as he and Newter were. The only difference was that they were able to step back into a facsimile of normality, at least to various degrees. More so with Emily than Elle.

In that regard, Faultline was better than any of his previous employers. There was no question as to the nature of his value to the team, but she was willing to work beyond that, and did so with all of them. If there was a word that could describe Faultline it would be dedicated. She wasn't willing to allow things to lie fallow, actively encouraging the development of skills, techniques, and personal proficiencies. The success the team had seen was proof of the value of her approach, but it was specifically her approach.

The team was centered around Faultline. She listened to those under her command. She encouraged them to speak their mind and make suggestions, but the decisions ultimately lay with her. It wasn't the kind of organization where capes were wielded like tools by the person in command, but it also wasn't one of those informal coalitions where matters were decided by vote and anyone could walk out whenever they wanted.

Things weren't like that in the Celestial Forge. Gregor wasn't exactly sure what they were like, but there wasn't the sense that anyone was exactly 'working for' Apeiron. Fleet had acted on his own initiative, taking action against a major group within the city the instant he became aware of the threat they represented. Gregor had suspected he had acted without Apeiron's direction or approval and the man had confirmed as much over the course of the evening.

As far as he knew, no one could figure out the command structure of the Celestial Forge. Apeiron was clearly the leader, but what exactly that entailed was anyone's guess. They'd had to work very hard to restrain themselves to keep the evening from turning into an interrogation, instead broaching topics in what could seem like a natural way and pouncing on any insights that were offered. It wasn't easy when you were dealing with two of the most powerful capes in the city.

Looking over to Kataklyzein, even when the cat was relishing the attention of the pair of lovely girls, there was an edge to his demeanor that Gregor couldn't dismiss. It wasn't obvious, particularly to those with less experience and fewer encounters with dangerous men. Or cats.

Unlike Fleet, Kataklyzein hadn't taken any dramatic action or made any display of his abilities. The only direct point was Apeiron's statement that, had Kataklyzein been available, he would have left him to fight Lung alone. For anyone else that would come across as a grandiose boast, but Apeiron wasn't anyone else. Every move could either be regarded as a masterful tactical stroke or dismissive gesture towards people who were beneath concern. Sometimes both at the same time.

Gregor had seen the weight of experience in the way the cat had moved. The handling of his weapon, the evaluation of his environment. It all spoke to a depth of understanding and experience that was lacking, though not entirely absent, in the rest of the Celestial Forge.

Even in this relaxed atmosphere, the edge was still there. No matter how casual Kataklyzein acted, Gregor couldn't dismiss him as a threat, even with him arriving unarmed.

Neither of the capes had brought the weight of equipment they'd carried at Somer's Rock. They'd come masked, but not in costume. Instead, their attire could have fit in at any club in the city with Fleet in a tailored dress shirt with an open collar, slacks, and a loose-fitting jacket while Kataklyzein merely wore jeans and a rather nice t-shirt.

Their identities were still concealed. Fleet was wearing a less bulky version of his pilot helmet. A mirrored visor kept his eyes hidden while leaving his mouth and nose exposed. In Kataklyzein's case he had also replaced his mask, switching the ominous black helmet for one of more conventional bronze.

Newter had asked about that, casually inquiring as to why he had made the change and what happened to the old helmet. The cat had simply explained that he was wearing a different helmet to ensure nobody accidently came in contact with the metal of his other one. Going against conventional wisdom, Newter had asked what would happen if someone touched that helmet. The question seemed to provoke a measure of contemplation between Kataklyzein and Fleet. Their eventual answer was simply "Nothing good.".

That had unnerved the entire team, prompting Newter to quickly change the subject. Gregor had exchanged a look with Faultline, sharing his concern and seeing that she recognized it as well. It wasn't the fact that Kataklyzein had no trouble handling that glowing black metal or that no one on the Celestial Forge had been the least bit guarded about it. It was that the double headed spear that Kataklyzein had carried was made of the same material. If the cat was concerned about someone accidentally brushing against his helmet, what would happen when he decided to use that spear?

Probably exactly what the two capes had described. "Nothing good." To an even greater degree than the result typically expected when a person was struck by a presumed brute wielding a presumed Apeiron-crafted spear.

Without keeping that in mind it would be easy to dismiss the threat, particularly with the way the cape meowed happily as one of the bottle service girls moved to scratch under his chin. To Gregor's knowledge they weren't usually fans of facial hair, but seemed to be enjoying the experience as much as Kataklyzein was. Well, nearly as much.

Gregor turned his attention back to Newter as the video finished playing as the host thanked the guest, brewery, and viewer for their generosity, followed by the usual requests for subscription, comments, likes, and shares. As if there was actually a need to try to boost the circulation of a display like that.

"Crazy stuff, huh?" Newter asked. Fleet just inclined his head and took another sip from his drink. Gregor noticed Faultline eyeing it closely. While everything in the lounge was beyond the club's top shelf offerings, she seemed to had come to realize exactly how far a step down that was for the Celestial Forge.

Clearly, they weren't here for the quality of the liquor.

"Hey boss lady?" Newter called over to Faultline. "Any chance we can get in on that?"

Faultline put a good-humored smile on her face. "I'm not going anywhere near that auction." She said plainly. It was a stance Gregor agreed with fully. They had bigger things to focus on, and two of them were sharing the lounge with them at that moment.

"Too rich for your blood?" Newter asked. "Hell of a tip. Any idea what it'll go for?" He asked Fleet.

It was a bit forward, but in this case Newter's youth and impertinence was an asset. He was easily tolerated by Fleet and able to take bolder actions without directly reflecting on the rest of the team. Gregor wondered if Faultline had coached him beforehand, or if he just saw the opportunity and pounced on it. Given what was at stake for both of them, Gregor fully understood his enthusiasm.

"Would depend on the market. Who's willing to buy, and for how much." Fleet said dismissively. "Not really my area, but Survey will have estimates modeled out."

It was another tidbit of information. Insights into the dynamics and relationships of the Celestial Forge. They'd been dropping like breadcrumbs all night. The kind of facts that would drive Protectorate thinkers mad, casually thrown in to add context to either of the cape's statements.

It was understandable. The importance of the Celestial Forge was completely disproportionate to the amount of information available regarding them. Capes of their level would have dossiers documenting every detail that might make them easier to manage, or at least provide some measure of comfort or security for the people who had to deal with them. Instead, there was nothing. A single public appearance, a few online comments, and that was it.

It was easy to forget that it had only been two days since the team had debuted. It seemed every waking moment was focused on the implications of their presence. Anywhere else and the local powers would step back, allow things to settle, and approach when they had more information and a stable situation to work in.

That wasn't an option in Brockton Bay. The team was technically employed by Uppercrust, but he had given consent for them to join any collective action against the Teeth. Things were already in motion and they were going to get messy before the matter could be resolved. Even then, there was still Bakuda and her hostages, the inevitable clash between the Empire and the remaining powers in the city, and the need to contend with anyone else who might decide to take advantage of the chaos.

And in the center of all of that uncertainty was a team of some of the most powerful parahumans on record, existing as a complete enigma. It was easy to imagine them as some shadowy cabal of manipulators, carefully planning every appearance, action, and statement to serve their overall goals. Each as inscrutable as Apeiron appeared to be.

That contrasted rather harshly with the offhanded references that Fleet and Kataklyzein made to their teammates. If Gregor had to put a word to it, he'd say they talked about them like well-liked roommates rather than collaborators in some global conspiracy. As if asking for a detailed financial model requiring estimates of the behavioral habits and spending power of dozens if not hundreds of individuals, organizations, and even corporations was as simple as asking for a lift, or if someone wanted to order a pizza.

In a way, the sheer audacity of the situation made it easier to deal with. There was no reverence when Fleet mentioned Survey. No deep appreciation for her beauty or her unique abilities. No apparent desire to leverage his association for personal advantage. Just an offhand comment that she would have the information in question, and would probably be more than happy to share it. If the sense Gregor got was correct, Survey was probably more happy to share the results of her analysis than her teammates were to receive them.

"They said whoever buys it might release a line for resale." Emily said. She was wearing a reduced version of her Spitfire mask with the respirator removed, leaving her mouth free. Originally, she had come in full costume, but had left to shed her fireproof suit part way through the evening, returning in an outfit that matched the colors of her cape identity, but without the bulk.

Gregor suspected the change might have had something to do with Fleet, or specifically the way Emily had reacted when the cape had smiled at her. Something she seemed to be in good company with, judging by general reactions. The man's rugged demeanor didn't seem to be to everyone's taste, but had provoked some unabashed reactions from what Gregor had seen online.

Once again, something of a theme with the Celestial Forge.

"What, just buy a bottle when they do a general release?" Newter asked.

"That's not going to be easy." Faultline said. "It's a built-in limited release. Anyone with sense would go hard with it. Numbered bottles, collector cases, certificates, probably a waitlist to even be considered for purchase."

"Shit." Newter said. "Course, that's assuming Apeiron doesn't flood the market, right?" He turned to Fleet and Kataklyzein. "So, was this some marketing stunt or what? Build up the hype, then Apeiron starts churning it out by the buttload?"

Fleet just shook his head. "Apeiron can't make that anymore."

The statement was made so casually that Gregor literally found himself doing a double take. Actual information about Apeiron's ability, or more specifically the limits of them. Something Apeiron could not do. The idea was almost unheard of.

"What?" Newter asked. He scrolled the video back to where the whiskey was shown. "You're shitting me, right?"

"No." Fleet said. Gregor found himself leaning in. "It's too basic. He can't bring the quality down to that level. Not anymore."

Gregor blinked as his mind spun and tried to catch up with what was just said. The rest of the team was in the same state, with even the wait staff seemingly stalling out. Apeiron couldn't recreate that whiskey, not because he had lost the capacity, but because his work couldn't lower itself to that level. A level that literally had a man in tears on camera. That was poised to bring in millions of dollars. All for something he had handed off as a gratuity.

"No shit?" Newter asked.

"Three day old." Gregor said in understanding, earning a nod from Fleet.

"Wait, they said he made that Sunday morning, right?" Emily asked. "I mean, not to get technical, but that would be like two and a half…"

"Bottled on Sunday. The batch is from Saturday night." Fleet clarified calmly.

"Oh, yeah." Emily said softly. "Three days then."

"Of course. He needed to age it for seventy years." Faultline said dryly. "Of course it would have to sit overnight."

"A fine vintage." Gregor said to her. "Last Saturday was a very good year for whiskey." She returned a smile. Once again, she had swapped her welding mask for a pair of goggles in order to partake with the rest of the team.

Newter scoffed and turned his attention back to Fleet. "But Apeiron's still making liquor, right?" Fleet gave Newter a single nod. "Holy shit." He muttered, then looked up with a wry smile on his face. "So, his current stuff's like, what, something that'll raise the dead?"

Newter said it in jest, but Fleet seemed to be seriously considering the question. More seriously than Gregor was comfortable with. He ended up looking over to Kataklyzein for some kind of confirmation, but the cat only gave an indeterminate gesture, leaving Fleet to just shrug.

Faultline cleared her throat, drawing attention away from the implication of the last question. "So that whiskey can't be recreated at all?" She asked. "If so, it would be quite the collector item, even as an example of transitional work."

Fleet shook his head. "I don't think anyone can-"

"Matrix?" Kataklyzein offered, cutting him off.

Fleet seemed to consider the suggestion. "Close, but not the same. It would be an emulation at best."

"True." Kataklyzein acquiesced.

He spoke with an accent that had strong tones of cat-like sounds, almost a yowling tone. There was an entire language in that phonetic structure that Gregor had no experience with. Based on some of their exchanges, Fleet clearly understood, but didn't speak it during their conversations. Probably a pronunciation issue.

Gregor was familiar with that kind of thing. He was very careful with his own pronunciation, both in an attempt to moderate the image he projected and to ensure that his Icelandic accent didn't impact people's ability to understand him.

Fluency in a foreign language was a common factor among case 53s. Often the language was obscure, modified, or even completely unknown. Kataklyzein's unique and personal language was something that raised a great number of flags on that particular issue.

It was something he badly wanted to raise with the two capes. The team had kept things light and social, avoiding direct questions about their past or the nature of their abilities. Particularly regarding both Proto Aima and the transformation Apeiron had demonstrated during his fight with Lung.

There was no evidence of that theory, the impossible dream of a team of cured Case 53 who might be willing to share the technique that saved them. Looking at the two capes, there was little evidence of anything abnormal, but some factors jumped out if you approached from the right angle. The way Fleet stood seemed to embody the image he wished to present, one of quiet confidence and rugged strength, but if anything, he was too good at exemplifying that image. Just as Survey clearly possessed some supernatural aspect to her beauty, Fleet also seemed to have aspects that went further than should be conventionally possible. Evidence that perhaps they were artificially induced.

On the other hand, Kataklyzein was a completely conventional example of a cat. He did have minor expressions out of the norm, the frill of feathers on the base of his tail and emerging from the sides of his helmet, but that was hardly worth mentioning. The language was what had drawn Gregor's interest, particularly the cat's approach to it.

Kataklyzein chose to speak with the accent of that language. Possibly his original language. The cat had an unusual talent for accents, able to recreate any when challenged and even speak with perfect diction, but seemed to prefer showcasing shadows of that unknown language when he spoke. Almost as if it meant something.

For Gregor, his knowledge of Icelandic was a source of frustration. He had looked into the country, its culture, people, and landmarks, and felt nothing. No hint of connection or flash of insight. But there was a connection. He spoke the language. Somewhere in his lost past there was a connection that had been shrouded from him. The only hint at a life before he became what he currently was. The only hint that there might have been a 'before'.

Even if he was able to move on, to receive a cure as miraculous as what had apparently been gifted to Fleet or Kataklyzein, he wouldn't want to deny that connection. Just as it appeared Kataklyzein wasn't denying his own.

"So, the Matrix makes booze? Not just robots?" Newter asked. It was closer to a direct question about their capabilities than any of them would have dared, but both capes seemed to tolerate the boy with good humor.

It also helped that they were completely immune to the chemicals that infused Newter's body, happily demonstrating their resilience with a full handshake, something not even Gregor could risk. The boy seemed to enjoy not needing to be hyper vigilant of any accidental contact for once in his life.

"The Matrix makes everything. It's what they do." Fleet stated simply. Once again, powerful and significant insight, at least given the current state of panic over the team's recent appearance.

Gregor had expected the two of them to be more guarded. He'd been ready to spend the night dancing around topics and being shut down on every front as they maintained operational security and kept abilities fully concealed, but that wasn't the case.

They weren't concerned about the minor details that could leak through casual conversation. The reason was readily apparent if you thought about it for more than a moment. Knowing additional details about the Celestial Forge wouldn't give you an advantage against them anymore than knowing the exact tonnage of the train barreling towards you would help you survive the impact. Honestly, the facts they were learning weren't so much revealing weaknesses as dismissing the possibility of them. Announcing that the Celestial Forge was actually much stronger, well supplied, and better coordinated than people expected wasn't the kind of analysis people were hoping to receive.

If those kernels of insight were all they were after, the night could have been said to be a rousing success. A more mercenary team could betray the trust that had been extended and sell the information gained to the highest bidder. Probably a lot of high bidders, given how desperate people were for any information on the Celestial Forge. But that wasn't what was going to happen, and not just because of the absolutely terrifying prospect of getting on the bad side of the Celestial Forge.

Professional relationships carried less weight in cape circles than you would expect. That mercenary attitude was the default, not the exception. To accept Gregor's invitation and arrive unguarded and willing to engage with them was an incredibly rare thing, even when dealing with conventional capes. With the Celestial Forge it was a stroke of unbelievable fortune.

But it was still fortune that needed to be capitalized on. Once again, if things were slower, calmer, or more stable then this could have been the first step of many. The beginning of the slow building of a relationship, gradually feeling out each other's intention until a proposal could be made or a request could be issued.

But things were moving too quickly for that. Every day seemed to bring new concerns and developments, with Apeiron moving further and further away. The whiskey video was just another reminder of how far he'd gone. For someone seeking assistance, that growth might seem encouraging, but it was also concerning.

Gregor was daring to entertain the hope that he might have something that could be traded for treatment, even on the level of what Weld had received, but the more Apeiron grew the harder it became to entertain that idea. An effectively discarded test batch of whiskey would bring in millions, possibly tens of millions at auction. What could Gregor offer in comparison to that?

Nothing, but it was possible that would not be a problem. An arrangement could be made, it would just be paid for with unfamiliar coin, at least for him. Apeiron himself has said, 'Not every business relationship is based on finances'. There had been a clear implication at the time that became progressively more questionable as the situation developed. Gregor didn't know the truth of the matter, but it was clear that interpersonal relationships held a lot of weight with Apeiron. It was something that you could see in the way his teammates behaved, and it was something that it might be possible to leverage, or at least turn in their favor.

Gregor almost wished this had been a purely financial arrangement. No doubt the cost would have been crippling, but considering what was being offered he would have gladly spent his life paying it off. Instead, he had to rely on his nearly nonexistent interpersonal skills.

Gregor liked to think he had a reasonable assessment of his own strengths and abilities. He could manage interactions with people. His appearance was always an obstacle for him, but he took that into account when dealing with people. Clear, direct, and always to the point. It might have come across as overly curt, but he doubted that most people resented him for taking steps to resolve his interactions as quickly as possible.

As such, socially he was functional, but hardly diplomatic. The only reason he wouldn't rate himself as the weakest member of the team in that regard was because of Labyrinth's unique situation. Elle had been watching from the corner for the entire evening. It was more engaged than she would normally have been with outsiders, but not quite on the level of her good days. The rare times when she could function on her own without Faultline or Emily's assistance.

It had been like that since Uber and Leet. That wasn't something he wanted to relive. He still felt responsible, but so did Faultline. Neither of them had taken the pair seriously enough until the team had been torn through like wet paper. Even knowing about March's hand in the attack hadn't helped. The fact that there were more factors at play, factors that had been enough to counter every group in the city, didn't excuse their failure.

Every group. Looking over at Fleet and Kataklyzein, Gregor was forced to include the Celestial Forge in that assessment as well. March's attack had ultimately failed, but it had come closer than anyone dreamed possible, downing the only man who had been able to counter her plans.

Until he had gotten back up. Restored himself, revealed abilities no one could have anticipated, and struck down his attackers. Though at least with the help of Proto Aima. And the Matrix. And Fleet. And Lethe. And likely Survey.

It was very possible that strike had dragged his team into the light, well before they were ready to present themselves. Possible, but uncertain, like everything regarding the Celestial Forge.

Dwelling on the difficulty of his task wouldn't do any good at this point. The evening had progressed as well as they could have hoped. He could present his case, or at least make a more direct inquiry without affronting anyone. If he had the choice, he would have left this to Faultline, but she would have approached it as a financial deal. A contract for services that they could never afford. Their only hope was a favor issued out of compassion. Sympathy. Pity.

The thought made Gregor's stomach curdle. Approaching things this way went against everything he stood for. A core conviction that had carried him through his worst days. To stand against the looks of disgust and shame. The people who regarded him as a lesser, incomplete being. Time and again he had forged his way through, taken his own path and secured his own comfort and safety.

But that wasn't something he could do here. This was beyond what he could accomplish on his own. There was no price he could offer that would compel Apeiron's hand. Leveraging the goodwill of his subordinate for the pity of the man was the only path forward, and he was the only one who could take it.

Faultline wouldn't be able to make a personal case. Newter couldn't be trusted with a task as sensitive and vital. Instead, Gregor would have to act on his behalf. Leveraging sympathy for both his situation, and that of his friend.

It all came down to this. He just hoped that Fleet wouldn't be put off by a direct approach.

Gregor waited for Newter to finish his string of questions as to what exactly they meant by the Matrix making 'everything'. It had devolved into a game of Newter naming random objects and inquiring as to whether the Matrix did or could make it. Fleet and Kataklyzein seemed to enjoy the boy's antics, swapping references to various constructions the mysterious tinker was apparently responsible for.

Even after the full evening, Gregor wasn't sure exactly what the Matrix was. They were always referenced in a kind of collective singular, as if they were talking about a separate group rather than an individual. It had been evident that 'they' were focused on assembly and creation. Not at the level of Apeiron, though perhaps to a larger or at least broader scale. The appearance of the Mech that deployed against Lung, mirrored by the Matrix's armor at Somer's Rock made it clear that scale was something of a specialty for the Matrix.

Beyond that, Gregor had no idea what exactly the Matrix was. The references and comments made through the night raised more questions than answers. It seemed they were a similar case to Proto Aima, another mystery that might be answerable as a cured or partially cured Case 53, or might be something else entirely.

It was why Gregor needed to make his case. Sympathy based on similar experiences stung less than the pity of an outsider, but given what was at stake he was willing to swallow his pride and take whatever deal he could secure.

He glanced at Faultline, signaling his intentions. She gave an almost imperceptible nod and reentered the conversation, shifting the topics towards Kataklyzein's interests. The cat had greatly enjoyed accounts of their previous missions, often asking pertinent questions about their tactics and strategic approach.

It was another point of confirmation for Gregor's own concerns about the cape. Kataklyzein could grasp the nature of a mission remarkably quickly, often piecing it together faster than Faultline could describe it to him. His questions were simple and straightforward, but also telling of the experience he carried in matters of combat. Several times he had been able to completely reframe an encounter by pointing out a single element that had been overlooked, casting new light on the team's success or struggles.

He knew that Faultline would have loved to have spent the entire night picking Kataklyzein's brain on tactical matters, but her enthusiasm wasn't shared by the rest of the team, particularly the highlights of various oversights or personal missteps. Similarly, there was the sense that Fleet mostly tolerated Kataklyzein's passion for the subject, rather than sharing it.

Returning to the topic presented Gregor with an opportunity to approach Fleet, one that he couldn't afford to waste. He pulled himself from his chair, considering how to approach the matter for what seemed like the hundredth time. Dozens of delicate approaches were discarded in favor of the direct approach he had mastered through his life as a cape.

"Fleet." He said simply.

The helmet turned towards him, reflecting his own translucent flesh and visible skull in the mirrored visor. He didn't react, he was long past that, though he appreciated how neither Fleet or Kataklyzein had shown any discomfort. Either they were genuinely comfortable or had such masterful self-control that it was impossible to tell otherwise.

"I'd like to speak with you." He continued. "Can we step outside?"

"Sure." Fleet was climbing to his feet before Gregor had a chance to begin worrying about the wisdom of his decision.

The amount of anxiety he'd been wrestling with wasn't typical for him, but this wasn't a typical situation. He'd been deliberating the best approach and readying himself for any of a dozen ways it could go wrong, only to find himself needing to play catchup as all those concerns flew out the window.

"This way." He said quickly, leading Fleet away from the lounge to the club's balcony. It was technically a spillover area for private events, at least when the team wasn't using it. The team's lounge existed a level above even the VIP room of the club, with Faultline making sure to set them apart.

The balcony could be opened to the rest of the lounge, but right now it was closed off and as private as possible. The temperate night air of the late April night hit Gregor as he stepped out. When the door closed behind Fleet the sounds of the club muffled, leaving only the thrum of the bass speakers and the sound of the street below.

Fleet seemed as relaxed out in the open air as he had in the lounge. There was something about the man that made him seem like he could be at home anywhere. The relaxed demeanor contrasted quite strongly with Kataklyzein's approach. The cat would adapt to his environment, ingratiating and immersing himself in it, while Fleet simply existed. The man looked out over the city with a calm demeanor and the slight smile that was something of a hallmark for him.

Once again, Gregor found himself wrestling with how to move forward. His decision to take the direct approach had been more out of desperation and a lack of other options. It had gotten him this far, but relying on that seemed an uncertain prospect for a crucially important moment.

"You're nervous." Fleet said, causing Gregor's head to snap up towards him. "You've been nervous all night. Covered it well, but it was there from the start."

Gregor let out a snort. There was no reason to think that the extraordinary awareness was limited to Survey and Apeiron. They had refrained from the demonstrations of power that meetings of parahumans often involved. It was almost a requirement in certain circles, the need to constantly remind people you weren't just another grunt to be ignored.

Gregor didn't have that problem. His very nature reminded people of what he was. For Fleet and Kataklyzein their association with Apeiron was enough to remain unquestioned. Nobody wanted to prod them to demonstrate their abilities, mostly because there was an unspoken concern of exactly how far those abilities went.

Fleet could have some secondary thinker power. He could be using some advanced sensor buried in his mostly mundane looking helmet, or he could just be good at reading people. No matter the explanation, it didn't change the fact that he was right.

"I am." He said. "It was enjoyable to spend time with you tonight, but you are very powerful, and a member of a powerful organization. It is not possible to forget that."

Fleet leaned back against the wall of the building and shook his head. It was a smooth, effortless movement. Not the unnatural perfection with which Apeiron carried himself, but something that was both totally controlled and entirely natural. For some reason the simple motion put Gregor in mind of expert pilots. People who didn't need flash or pageantry, who could show off their skill through mastery of the simplest things. The fact that such a simple motion had such an impact only reinforced his point, and amplified his concerns.

"That's not all you're worried about." He said. "You invited us because you wanted something. You've been trying to find a chance to ask. This is the opportunity you choose to take."

"I hope I have not offended." Gregor said in a measured voice. Fleet just shook his head.

"It was good company. I appreciate the effort, and Kataklyzein has been enjoying himself." He said, his head inclining slightly towards the door.

Gregor nodded. "I was uncertain how many opportunities you had for social engagements. I am not one to seek them out myself, but I understand their importance, even as a pretext for other matters."

"The shortest route isn't always the correct one." Fleet said. "Somer's Rock wasn't the time to make personal requests."

"But now is the time?" Gregor asked, a hint of hope entering his voice.

"The requests are the easy part." Fleet replied. "Anyone can make them. It's everything that comes after where things get complicated."

"Of course." Gregor said. He drew on all his experience to harden his resolve before pushing forward. "We know about what Apeiron did for Weld."

Gregor watched the man's reaction closely as he gave a single nod. "Not surprising. The PRT has terrible information security and Weld clearly made his own attempts to spread the information."

"You know how serious this is?" Gregor asked. "How significant? What Apeiron did for Weld…"

He couldn't even put it into words, even with all the time he'd had to prepare. His condition and the conditions of so many others were something that they had been forced to accept. No treatment had ever resolved more problems than it caused. A cure was a prospect long since abandoned by official sources, leaving the desperate and deluded to seek help elsewhere. Stories of the work of mad tinkers and experiments by foreign governments had only reinforced the impossibility of the task.

Until Apeiron had accomplished what no one else had, with no preparation, materials, or equipment. On the bottom of the ocean. In the span of a few minutes. And, most importantly, with the implication that he had done so before.

The darkened balcony was lit only by bleed over from the city. The yellow glow of streetlights leaked up in a haze. In that half-light Gregor could still see his reflection in Fleet's visor. The translucent nature of his flesh wasn't obvious, but the other aspects of his bloated and deformed body were on display. He couldn't have been more different from the statuesque cape that stood before him.

"I do not believe Apeiron regards that as significant." Fleet said. "Not with the limited nature of what he was able to accomplish."

Gregor's breath caught in his throat. He forced himself to speak, choosing his words carefully. "He can cure Weld?"

There was a pause before Fleet replied. "I believe he would like to cure Weld."

"He has a contract." Gregor said. The magic word when it came to Apeiron. Whether it was some compulsion of his tinkering or just a personal standard no one could say, but it was evident that the man held to his agreements adamantly.

Once again, Fleet nodded. "There are difficulties. Issues related to the development of a treatment and the offering of such, given Weld's position."

As if the Ward wouldn't forsake his position and career for the slightest chance of a cure. You would be hard pressed to find any Case 53 who would place personal loyalty over the opportunity to address the issues they struggled with every day.

"Such treatments?" Gregor asked. "Apeiron had performed them before?" It was a more direct question than he had dared, but he wasn't the kind of person who could approach delicate issues from an oblique angle. He was just fortunate that Fleet seemed amenable to such an approach.

Fleet's mouth narrowed and Gregor found himself wishing he could see the man's eyes. The expression seemed to have weight to it, but Gregor couldn't piece it together from what he could see of Fleet's face.

"There are details of my teammates' lives that are not mine to disclose. Speaking while avoiding those details will cause you to arrive at incorrect conclusions regarding our situation." He stated plainly. "There are many theories about our team. Few are accurate to any meaningful degree, with most of that being coincidental. It is understandable. Our situation is unique."

There was an emphasis on that word that stood beyond conventional use. Gregor nodded along, trying to reorient himself. Fleet was not an overly verbose person, something Gregor appreciated. The effort and care that had gone into that clarification couldn't be discounted. It highlighted concerns, but specifically lacked denials.

"But Apeiron has been able to address similar problems?" Gregor asked. "Difficulties of form or functionality? He has-"

"Apeiron is not a Case 53." Fleet stated directly.

Gregor was a calloused man, and not just in his appearance. He was used to disappointment and not one to entertain flights of fancy. Even so, he had to admit to a withering sense of disappointment triggered by Fleet's statement. The dream of comradery, of a cure developed by 'one of their own', ready to be freely shared, had been a tantalizing one. Not something he'd engaged on the level of Newter, but the appeal was impossible to deny.

Gregor easily covered for his disappointment. It was something he had a lifetime of experience with. "During the battle against Lung, his transformation?"

"An unrelated effect." Fleet confirmed.

Even the denial was a vitally important piece of information. The idea of a temporary reversion under stress had been appealing, fit so well that it drew in the hopeful mind. Perhaps that was why Gregor never fully subscribed to it. Too many things aligning too well suggested wishful thinking and the discounting of alternate possibilities.

Still, even without that direct connection, without evidence of a previous cure to draw upon, there was still hope. Apeiron had accomplished what no one else had, and under conditions that were far from ideal. And he had experience, at least with the 'unrelated effect' seen during his conflict with Lung, and possibly several others.

He looked at Fleet. Not the inhuman perfection that had radiated from Survey, but an undeniable grace and clarity of form. Something that, when closely examined, was too perfect, too fitting to be entirely natural.

"But Weld's situation is not unique?" Gregor asked. "Apeiron has helped people with altered bodies? Inhuman forms?"

He felt self-conscious under Fleet's gaze. Not the flashes of annoyance he experienced when someone glanced at his face and averted their eyes. Instead, he felt exposed. Because he was. Because he was bearing himself before the man driven by nothing but hope.

"He has. Several times, though not precisely in the way you might imagine." Fleet said.

Gregor took a breath. His next step would be exceptionally forward. Everything could fall apart at this moment, but if not, it would be the confirmation he needed. The avenue to help that had been impossible for so long.

"Before Somer's Rock you did not appear in person, yet you have helped Apeiron." Gregor began. "And you were responsible for the vehicle and plan that ended Lung."

There was a slight smile from Fleet at that reference. The man was proud of his accomplishment, though was sparse on the details when the subject came up. It was like it was more of a technical accomplishment than a career defining victory. As if the technology used to strike down Lung was more important than the fact that he had been given credit for defeating someone that had stalemated an Endbringer.

"Did Apeiron help you? To be as you are now?" Gregor asked.

The air felt heavy as he waited for Fleet's response. The silence seemed to amplify every ambient sound. The muffled thrum of the music. The murmurs from the patrons waiting outside the club. The sounds of traffic on the street. The noise seemed to intrude on them, stripping away privacy and making Gregor's already borderline inappropriate question so much more intrusive.

"He did." Fleet's voice cut through the night. With the confirmation Gregor looked at the cape with fresh eyes. Every impossibility coming into focus, not as some act of chance but the deliberate work of a guiding hand.

"Prior to that intervention, I was not able to assist directly." Fleet said. "I worked through intermediaries. Guided vehicles." Once again, he smiled. "It is something of a specialty of mine."

Between the dual meaning of his name and his clear passion whenever a related topic came up over the course of the evening, Gregor didn't doubt it.

"And he changed you into this?" Gregor asked.

Fleet seemed to consider the question. "You could say that, but it is not precisely in the manner you would assume." At Gregor's confusion he continued. "I am not limited to what you see before you."

Slowly Gregor nodded. "You have another form? Like Apeiron, when he transformed?"

Once again, the man paused, as if considering how much the question might apply to him.

"I do." He said calmly. "Though there are complexities to my situation beyond the assumption you are likely to make given the information I have shared."

The assumption Gregor was making was that Apeiron had treated a teammate's condition, elevating him to an impossibly perfect and powerful human form. That there was more to the story, he didn't doubt, but at the very least Apeiron had done something that facilitated Fleet's ability to function. To integrate himself into society.

Apeiron. No hint of any collaboration from the other members of the Celestial Forge. Members who had their own secrets that Fleet would not share. The gulf between their abilities and Apeiron's capabilities was evident in how they spoke about the man.

It was no wonder the team had no evidence of compelled or competing loyalty. No concerns over income streams, shares of jobs, or pay scales. No clashes within the group or challenges to his authority, lax as it seemed to be. If a man had done that for him, given him a life as freely and artfully as Apeiron seemed to be able to, loyalty would never be in doubt.

What exactly had been done was still a mystery. Something different from what afflicted Case 53s, but still dramatic enough to need Apeiron's direct assistance at a skill level beyond what had been able to address a portion of Weld's condition.

"You want to see my other form." Fleet stated directly.

Gregor blanched. "I would not ask that of you. Such things are sensitive, and I have already intruded a great deal."

Fleet shook his head. "It's fine, but I do not believe it will answer your questions. That form is not what impaired me prior to Apeiron's intervention. That was a separate and more complicated issue."

Gregor nodded. That was something he was familiar with. They may not have been Case 53s, at least not precisely, but it was common for there to be complexities well beyond obvious physical limitations. Those could be intensely personal matters and not something to be shared.

"Still, I would like to know." Gregor said with conviction. It was intrusive, but not something he could turn away from. Evidence of what had happened to Fleet, what Apeiron was capable of. He wanted to see what else there was.

Fleet pushed off from the wall, taking a few steps towards the center of the balcony. Gregor quickly checked to ensure their privacy. The doors to the lounge were closed and the windows shuttered. They were sheltered from the street below and no nearby buildings had a vantage point on their location.

Fleet hadn't made any attempt to check for himself, but Gregor didn't doubt the man's awareness of the environment. He simply turned to Gregor and nodded.

Gregor didn't know what he had been expecting. Apeiron's own transformation had been analyzed extensively. He could remember the way his body warped, growing in height, bones restructuring themselves, and the ultimate final shift to a primordial beast man. What happened to Fleet wasn't as dramatic, but there was a weight to it that Gregor had never imagined.

On the surface it was subtle. The man's body grew and swelled. Unlike with Apeiron, Fleet's clothing grew and shifted with him, keeping shape and fit even as he transformed. His skin paled from a healthy tone to a washed out gray. Muscles expanded dramatically, the transformation further highlighted as his skin pulled in to outline them. Red vein-like patterns played across his flesh in a manner that seemed like fractures spreading through a sheet of glass.

Fleet was taller, bulkier, with inhumanly colored skin. It should have been seen as a minor change, but it very much wasn't. There was a weight to his presence that seemed to press down on Gregor's chest. The vein-like patterns thrummed with red light and every pulse threatened to bring him to his knees. Every subtle motion Fleet made seemed to drag the world along with it.

Power. Gregor was looking at power the likes of which he had never seen before. Never felt. His heart was hammering in his ears as panicked instincts fought for prominence. Fight or flight, but fight was impossible. He wasn't looking at something that could be overcome. He was standing before something that should not exist in the natural world. That stood apart from reality itself.

The gentle night breeze that had been flowing across the balcony whipped up into a gale and roared in Gregor's ears. The wind swirled around the being that had been Fleet in a tight vortex. Gregor had to place a hand on a nearby table, the strength of the wind nearly carrying him off his feet even while that impossible pressure beat down on him. Steadying himself, he looked up and saw the sky.

The clouds were moving. City lights and a quarter moon meant the night sky was barely visible, but he could see it. The entire atmosphere seemed to be dragged along with Fleet's will, pulled into the same rotation as the storm that the… man? That Fleet wore like a cloak.

The cape lifted a hand. The motion was slow, but the world seemed to bow around him as he moved. Then he clenched a fist and everything stopped. Everything. The wind didn't calm, it held itself frozen in place. The roiling clouds above them halted and a beam of light from the quarter moon shone down on the balcony, illuminating Fleet's impossible form. The flecks of debris swept up by his wind hung frozen around him, the moonlight making them glitter like a mantle of stars.

At that moment Gregor understood exactly how fitting the name that Apeiron had chosen for his team actually was.

Fleet relaxed his hand and the world seemed to fall back into place. Gregor could breathe again. The clouds above them were carried by the night wind, freed of inhuman will. The beam of moonlight was quickly obscured and the once glittering debris returned to the dust and detritus of the city. Fleet's form compressed, shrinking back to his normal height, his normal build, his normal complexion.

But he wasn't normal. He was as far from normal as Gregor could comprehend a person being. And this was what Apeiron had worked with. He still didn't know what Fleet had been dealing with before Apeiron had helped him. He didn't even know what Fleet was now, but the scale of it, the impossibility was burned into his mind.

Fleet hadn't done anything. He hadn't said anything. He had barely moved, and yet the world seemed to be overwhelmed from his very presence. It was the kind of reaction you only saw from beings too powerful to even be considered capes. Ashbeast, Sleeper, or the Endbringers.

The world had no idea how badly they were underestimating the Celestial Forge.

"Are you doing okay?" Fleet asked as he stepped forward to check on him.

The calm, laid back man had returned. Looking at him, Gregor couldn't see any hint of the overwhelming power that had shaken him to his very core.

"I am alright." Gregor said, pulling himself upright and forcing himself to take a deep breath. His heart was still hammering in his chest, the weight of the experience still with him. "That was more than I was expecting." He swallowed. "With that, that much power, why do you…" He trailed off.

Fleet just smiled. "There are problems that you can't solve with a wrecking ball, no matter how big it is." He sounded regretful about the admission. Gregor supposed that if one possessed a 'wrecking ball' in the same class as Fleet's, they'd be disappointed about not being able to use it freely.

"Are you certain about that?" Gregor asked, remembering the sheer power on display.

Fleet shook his head, an expression of good humor on his face. "Removing a problem isn't the same thing as resolving it, and it only seems easier. You're really just introducing more problems down the line."

"That you would also have to 'remove'." Gregor said. With the power at Fleet's disposal, he didn't doubt the man's ability to remove any problem that offended him, nor did he have any doubts as to what that removal would entail.

"The rest of the Celestial Forge?" He asked. "Are they-"

Fleet shook his head. "They have their own situations." A smile appeared on his face. "We're all different."

And yet Apeiron had been able to help them all. Maybe not in the same way as Fleet, but the implication was clear.

Gregor looked up at the sky. Evidence of the earlier cloud movement was already being erased by the night wind, but he can't have been the only one to have noticed it, even if the effect only lasted for a few seconds.

"Will there be trouble about that?" He asked. Fleet shrugged.

"Maybe, but we can deal with it." He said. Gregor didn't doubt that. As to what anyone would make of the disruption, he couldn't say, but enough people were on edge that he couldn't imagine it being overlooked.

Gregor took another breath. The situation had become much more complicated than he had imagined, and he hadn't been coming in with the expectation that things would be simple. Once again, the only way through seemed to be the most straightforward method possible.

"Apeiron has helped you. He was able to partially treat Weld. There are more Case 53s coming to the city, hoping for his assistance. Will he be able to help them?" He asked.

It was a more neutral question than if he would or what he would ask in return.

"Probably." It was a less certain answer that Gregor expected. Given the sheer magnitude of what had been displayed, he couldn't understand what could justify a lack of confidence.

"You are not certain?" He asked.

Fleet shrugged. "Powers are complicated." He said. "There are countless ways they can express themselves. Each has unique expressions and mechanisms. There is no universal answer, and no absolute certainty."

"Even with everything you are capable of?" Gregor didn't like the desperation welling up within his voice. "Even with everything what Apeiron can accomplish? When he, when you are so powerful?"

"Passengers are also powerful, and they are the cause of these effects." He said.

Passengers. The theory that powers were driven by outside intelligences. Apeiron apparently subscribed to the idea, which was enough to convince the majority of people to its accuracy.

"And these passengers are more powerful than you?" He asked, the physical presence of Fleet's transformation fresh in his mind.

"Yes." Fleet's response was simple and direct. No consideration or doubt. He spoke with complete conviction.

It was a harrowing thought. That the world warping presence that had been displayed before him could be so overshadowed by the being that allowed fire to be thrown from a woman's mouth, or material to split at the touch of a finger. Overshadowed to the point where Fleet did not even entertain the possibility.

And to provide such an assessment with such certainty, it was clear what would be necessary.

"You are aware of them?" He asked. "Familiar with the nature of the passengers?"

Fleet nodded. "Familiar enough to understand the scale at which they work. To understand that we cannot directly override it, at least not with consistency."

"But there are other ways?" Gregor asked.

Fleet nodded. "Connections can be modified, expressions changed. It is complicated and needs to be personalized for each situation."

Personalized to individual situations. Like the situations of the rest of the Celestial Forge.

"But Apeiron is able to do it? Or would be able to try?" Gregor asked.

Fleet nodded. "He could. Even in the worst situations, the majority of the detrimental aspects could be addressed. At worst there would be some residual features that could be concealed or addressed through other means."

Such as through a transformation, binding an inhuman force of nature into the form of an ordinary man. Gregor didn't know if that was what had been done for Fleet, but it was possible. And if it was possible for Fleet, it was also possible for him, and Newter, and every other Case 53 making their way to the city to seek Apeiron's help.

"What would Apeiron ask, in exchange for his aid?" Gregor asked. It was the most presumptuous and critical question he had asked. What did Apeiron want from those seeking his help?

There was a long moment while he waited for Fleet's response while feeling the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. Finally, the man spoke.

"Patience." Fleet replied.

Gregor blinked. "What?"

"You wanted to know what Apeiron would ask of those who wish for his assistance. That is your answer. He would ask you to have patience." Fleet continued.

"Patience?" Gregor asked.

Fleet nodded, then turned to look over the city. "There are other matters that must be dealt with. The situation is too volatile, and Apeiron is not able to act as freely as he wished, so he asks that you have patience, until he has the freedom, capacity, and time to act on your behalf."

He had the feeling that Fleet was speaking collectively. Gregor seemingly found himself in the unenviable position of representing all Case 53s. It was not a role he would have sought out in any other situation.

"Only that? Just patience?" He asked. He still could not quite believe the terms that were being presented.

"You act like it is a small request." Fleet said.

"Is it not?" Gregor asked. "I have patience."

"You have patience now. Will you have it once you know there is an option beyond your reach? Will you have it when Apeiron attends to other matters, matters that seem less important than your own situation? When others are treated and healed while you are still waiting?"

Gregor straightened his back. "I am a patient man. I have endured for years. I will wait as long as Apeiron requires. I have a surplus of patience."

Fleet smiled. "In that case, I would ask you to share it with those who are not as fortunate." Gregor gave the man a surprised look. "You are correct. Case 53s are making their way to the city. Some are already here and have not made their presence known. There will be a great need for patience."

Gregor nodded. "You wish for me to help manage the situation." He said. "I can do that. I am known by many Case 53s. They may not all heed my advice, but I will do what I can."

Fleet nodded. "I know Apeiron would appreciate that." Gregor felt a surge of excitement, but kept his expression neutral. It wasn't quite a contract, but it was something. More than he had before. Much, much more.

"You will be able to rely on me." Gregor said.

"I am glad to hear it." Fleet said, and extended a hand.

Gregor looked at the offered gesture of friendship and for a moment all he could see was that clenched fist that seemed to hold all the air in the city in its grasp. Doing his best to shake off the shadows of that experience, he stepped forward and shook Fleet's hand. The grip was firm, but lacked any of the postures of strength or durability that were so common with brutes.

Because they were completely unneeded. When the Celestial Forge postured it was for the comfort and peace of mind of those around them, not to aggrandize their own position. That was what they had seen so far. All they had seen. Posturing to hold back the panic at the true scope of what now walked among them.

They returned to the lounge where the evening seemed to be winding down. Kataklyzein bid an affectionate farewell to the bottle service girls, and a more professional goodbye to the rest of the team. Secure contact information was exchanged with both Fleet and Kataklyzein, saving them from needing to rely on PHO or Apeiron's website in the future. Though from their comments, it seemed that it was as much Survey's site as Apeiron's.

Unsurprisingly, they refused the offer of a car and driver to take them anywhere they needed. One had been standing by for the entire evening in case it was needed. In reality it was employed for the ability to make the offer, not the expectation that it would be taken up. Instead, they were escorted to a discreet back entrance to the club, with the assurance they would be able to see to themselves.

After they left Gregor found himself approached by Faultline, away from the rest of the team.

"You look like you've just had the worst shock of your life." She said plainly. "But I didn't get the impression that things went badly."

"They did not." He replied, working to steady himself. "But there are developments. Things you should know."

"Well, I look forward to hearing from them." Faultline said with a smile. One that died when she saw his face. "Unless I won't."

"That remains to be seen." He said. He had received a glimpse of the true power of the Celestial Forge, once the curtain was pulled back and the truth was laid bare. Somehow, he doubted it would be any more comforting to Faultline than it had been to him.

But comforting or not, they had a way forward. He hadn't survived in the world of parahumans by neglecting opportunities when they presented themselves. He was not about to pick up such poor habits at this point.

Interlude Shawn

Shawn circled through the north end of the city, his boots propelling him through the night sky. The area beyond the Dark Zone had been largely abandoned, or at least neglected since the ungodly hour. The area had been hit fairly hard, though not to the extent of the core ABB holdings closer to the Dark Zone.

Even so, that wouldn't have been enough to justify effectively abandoning a fifth of the city. The area still had water, power, and residents who refused to be relocated. Beneath him the street lights still shone, despite scattered dark spots. Some of which he knew had been there since before Bakuda's first bombing spree.

That was the real reason for the effective withdrawal. The area had been in decline for as long as Shawn could remember. It was mostly abandoned industrial estates and a few holdout residences and resilient businesses. It also had a reputation as Merchant territory, despite not being particularly rich or desirable. Of course, the same could be said about the Merchants themselves.

Essentially, it had been a forgotten portion of the city even before the Dark Zone had effectively cut it off. With other disasters to manage and emergency services reeling from the damage and losses Bakuda had caused there wouldn't have been enough manpower to deal with it, even if they had more than two safe routes through.

Even he was forced to loop around the Dark Zone when he left on patrols. Unlike with Battery, they had at least confirmed the effect of Apeiron's particles was harmless for him, merely clinging in an annoying fashion and creating a static field around him. It was something he'd been ordered to avoid after the video of his first experience with the field had made the rounds.

He understood the importance of image. He wasn't as inexperienced as people around him seemed to assume. That was probably a consequence when there were Wards on the team who had been active longer than he had been an official member of the Protectorate. It didn't help that the PR department liked to play up the fresh-faced rookie angle, to the point of implying that he was younger than he actually was.

He understood how much of a cape's career was tied up in how the public perceived them, but being ordered to stay out of the Dark Zone for image related reasons didn't sit right with him.

That was probably why he'd been doing his best to patrol north of the Zone whenever possible, managing at least one pass each shift, even if it played hell with his schedule. Though it wasn't like it could get much worse. Sleep hadn't been a regular thing since Bakuda's first attack. There were times when he'd forgotten what day it was, having to rely on direction from whoever was manning the console for basic information and instructions.

In any other case that would have been a red flag sufficient to have him pulled from duty, but he doubted anything would come of it. Maybe once relief forces stepped in their schedule might return to a level of sanity, but the fact that they were being deployed outside Director Piggot's authority wasn't a good sign. He had a feeling their patrols schedule would be maintained or even stepped up to ensure that the local PRT had a representative on hand whenever the external forces were in the field.

He also wasn't blind to the internal politics that were playing out in the department. To be fair, someone would need to be exceptionally blind to ignore the presence of Mrs. Garrick as the Youth Guard representative had torn through the department. That was a bad sign for any office, but in their case, it only compounded the director's concerns.

He had kept out of the barrage of scandals and inquiries. Or perhaps he had been kept out of them. More image control. He knew the level of investment the Protectorate had in him. It could be overwhelming at times, even if he understood the logic behind it.

Hope. Hope was a rare thing in the modern world. The idea of a hero who was constantly increasing in power, who would be able to rise to the top and defeat any threat just by existing was something that gave people that hope. And the Protectorate was doing everything they could to make sure nothing happened that would compromise that image. Even if the entire Protectorate ENE burned down around him, they would probably find a way to ensure none of the blame landed on his shoulder.

It could be infuriating. Being treated with kid gloves, kept safe and in reserve. Right after his trigger he had relished that. The fact that he hadn't needed to launch into cape life while dealing with middling powers and family obligations. But it seemed the closer he came to reaching that point of true relevance, the more they held him back. A trump card they had to save as long as possible, no matter how many hands they lost in the process.

He knew Armsmaster's feelings about him. He wasn't completely certain, but he could put the pieces together. The amount of work the man put into his career could not have contrasted more sharply with his own status as the reserve hero that they benched as much as possible. He didn't work a tenth as hard as Armsmaster and yet enjoyed constantly rising popularity.

Hope, as well as spectacle. People liked seeing new powers. They liked the idea of their favorite hero being the strongest, but apparently the idea that he was getting stronger was even more exciting. Every time he premiered a new ability, some breakthrough or critical feature of his equipment he surged in popularity. New media tours and merchandise lines. Toys were reissued, video games were patched to include the update. Every few months for years he had received a surge in popularity for doing absolutely nothing.

Even when the city needed him most, when no one had been held back, there had been a limit to what he'd been able to accomplish. He'd fought villains, saved people, and intervened in disasters. Conventional hero work. But the situation was anything but conventional. In a way it made him aware of a limit, something he wasn't supposed to have. Not a limit in power. No, what had hit him was a much more fundamental limit.

It was like a limit of the system itself. A limit of what you could accomplish while operating as a hero inside the Protectorate. His entire career he had been defined by a sense of eventual success. That eventually he would be able to fly, and eventually he could. Just as eventually he would be able to withstand any attack and eventually he would be able to defeat the city's villains.

Eventually didn't work here. If the bombings had happened three months later his shield might have been strong enough to take some of the blasts, but not all of them. If it had happened six months later then the extra charges that he could spare for his helmet might have been able to detect some of the bombs, but not all of them. At least not in time to intervene. If it was a year later his boots might have been able to carry him fast enough to make a difference in some dispersed conflicts, but not all of them.

His growth, his expanding power, could turn down the situation by degrees, but he didn't see how it could be stopped. Or how any growth of his power could help the people being held in Alan Shepard Park.

And he didn't have another option. Trying to start anew, to grow in a new direction, something that would let him address this crisis, it would only leave him vulnerable against the threats he had been working to counter. And there could always be a new, unknown threat on the horizon. Something that would require another application, one he wouldn't be able to build up in time to make a difference.

People saw him, had seen him as a silver bullet. The miracle they had been waiting for, not just for Brockton Bay, but for the entire world. Hope had sprung eternal and his star had risen, all while he felt the constant pressure of never being enough. A failure that was always forgiven, because of that 'eventually'. The eventually that hadn't come soon enough.

He let out a breath and closed his eyes, feeling the cool night air flow past him. He loved flying. Loved the experience and loved what it represented. For so long it had seemed like a pipe dream, something that didn't seem possible as charges had to be split between too many areas just to get him to the bare level of functionality to premier as a cape. Years of work, first figuring out what his power meant then slowly focusing it. Managing his charges and building up his control and understanding.

When he had premiered, he hadn't been able to fly. He remembered the motorcycle they had issued him, something he'd needed to learn to ride, but even then, image had been the focus. His boots had slowly been charged, improving by fractions. Three years ago the best he could do was launch himself into inhuman leaps. Now he could take to the sky, unbound and able to reach people who actually needed his help.

The buildup of his boots had felt like more of an accomplishment than the gradual improvements in his weapon, shield, or armor. It had added something unique and vital, something that changed the way he functioned and let him begin to really make a difference.

Just like he was trying to now. Flying over a forsaken part of the city, scanning from the air in the hopes of finding something that he could do to help the people in the area. But he couldn't remove the effect keeping them isolated or repair the damage to their streets or homes. The best he could do was intercede if he came across something of note, or hope that his presence might act as a deterrent of some kind.

He had passed gatherings of the Merchants during his patrol. No visible capes, at least from his vantage point, but crowds of people celebrating the supposed ascension of the gang. It had become common, the near nightly revels functioning as a rallying cry and membership drive. It was a concerning trend, but at least it kept the gang contained to specific areas. Despite the swelling of Merchant ranks, there had been little presence in the wider area and the few times he'd had to intervene it was against people apparently unaffiliated with the gang.

That was evidence of Apeiron's mandate. This close to when it was issued it seemed no one wanted to test the waters to see what, if anything, the tinker would tolerate. Even the Empire was reportedly keeping their members on a tight leash, but that was just as likely to be in preparation for a move against the Teeth.

More trouble he didn't need. This level of villain activity would have been crippling with a healthy and fully staffed department. In their current state he didn't know if the director had a plan other than to let the Empire and Teeth fight it out while trusting Apeiron to step in if things got out of hand. Though somehow he doubted Director Piggot would subscribe to any plan that required her to put her trust in Apeiron.

Shawn suddenly froze. His boots flared, killing his momentum as he forced himself to check again, making sure he wasn't seeing things. Not that there was a chance of mistaking the figure for anyone else. He was instantly recognizable from the pictures released after Sunday night. The same military-cut costume, the steel visor, the burning red lock standing out against a head of gray hair. He didn't have his constantly billowing cape or his white gloves, but he was still unmistakable.

And he wasn't alone. Standing next to him on the street corner was a young woman in a red costume. She came across much more energetic than Apeiron, gesturing wildly and constantly moving while he bore her attention with good humor, splitting his attention between the girl and the eastern sky.

They were standing on the corner of an old industrial estate, currently so decayed that the purpose of the crumbling walls and rusted machinery couldn't be discerned. Probably something to do with the city's shipping industry, given the proximity to the coast. Apeiron's vantage point looked out between the rusting hulks of the boat graveyard towards the slowly brightening horizon.

Once again, Shawn found himself greeting the dawn from the wrong end. Even if he left now, by the time he checked in, changed out of costume and returned home he would be limited to a couple of hours of sleep before he'd need to get ready for Garment's event. He would have been better texting an apology to Addison and getting what sleep he could at the PRT headquarters, accepting the fact that he might not be able to see his son until the end of his next shift.

But that was just an assessment of his original schedule, which was flying out the window as he took in the scene below him. Apeiron, making a public appearance in the presence of a new cape. There were protocols for this. Directives he was supposed to follow. Frankly, there were conflicting directives. Local orders that had never been officially rescinded as well as mandates from the national office. It created just enough confusion that he wasn't clear what he was even supposed to do in this situation.

Probably because nobody imagined they would find Apeiron just standing around in public. Policies were designed to prepare for the next major disruption, because Apeiron's appearances were always major disruptions. The idea of him just standing around was so out of character no one had bothered to prepare for it, just as they didn't have procedures for what to do if they found Kaiser hosting a Bar Mitzvah or Skidmark attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

He could call it in. Should call it in. The reception north of the Dark Zone was terrible, but they'd been working to install enough relays to improve it to the point where it was merely frustrating. Losing every fifth word instead of every third.

This was the kind of thing that would be kicked upstairs, probably to a higher level than the director. The idea of standing there while a team from the Think Tank picked over every relayed word and action from Apeiron while issuing frustratingly precise directives for his own behavior and interactions sounded exhausting, even if he wasn't at the end of a grueling shift and the end of a grueling week.

Looking down at the two capes he made his decision. Every precautionary measure applied to Apeiron seemed to only make things worse. The master accusations, the no-contact mandate, the containment procedures, it had been one bad decision rolling into the next, all when anyone looking at the situation from the outside could see that through the progression of failure and paranoia nobody had actually made the attempt to speak with the man. Not without threats and contingencies and countermeasures being put in place.

What he was about to do was unquestionably a breach of regulations, but the same factors that had him held back and coddled ensured there was little chance he would see blowback. Not unless things went very, very wrong. Considering this was Apeiron, the potential for how wrong things could go was significant. It was why those policies existed in the first place. It was why the analysts would be screaming to avoid anything that could possibly set the man off. Treating him like a live bomb, rather than a person and then wondering why they couldn't connect with him.

Considering the decision further wasn't going to do any good. At most he might find a way to talk himself out of this. He reached up, adjusting his helmet so he could reach his earpiece and switch it off. If he was doing this he wasn't going to be listened in on or called away mid conversation. Another breach of protocol and another potential avenue of disaster, but he was already committed. Half measures wouldn't have done him any favors.

He flared his boots slightly. Mostly to adjust his trajectory as he dropped out of the air, but also as a way of announcing his presence. He didn't think he could really surprise Apeiron, but he didn't want to find out how the man reacted when he was startled. Unsurprisingly, Apeiron turned towards his approach well before he entered his field of view. The young woman by his side chatted excitedly, waving to Shawn as he approached.

"Dauntless." The man said with a smile. Seeing him in person, Shawn could see that unnatural smoothness to his motions, as subtle as they were. Just a friendly gesture came off as intimidating. He shuddered to imagine what the man would be like in a fight.

"Apeiron." The tinker's title flew through his head at the mention of his name. He did his best to ignore what would likely be a repeat occurrence over the course of the conversation. "Good morning." He added.

"Good morning." He turned back towards the eastern horizon. "In the technical sense. From a practical perspective we aren't quite there yet."

Shawn nodded as amicably as he could. The man was calm, friendly even, but despite his earlier convictions he couldn't quite put aside the scale of what was standing in front of him. Every example of overpowered insanity the man had wrought as if it were nothing flashed through his mind. He swallowed and shifted his attention to the other cape.

She stood a little over five feet tall and had long red hair that glowed slightly. The effect was matched by both her eyes and clothing and was much more apparent close up than it had been from the air. She was wearing a red domino mask that sat flush with her face, doing little to conceal her identity for all that such a thing might be needed. For the rest of her costume, she wore a short jacket over a fitted blouse, complimented by a set of leggings and knee-boots. The combination has a look that put him more in mind of high fashion than hero or villain iconography. The pulsing red of the costume was worked into the design, contrasting with patterns of black and yellow highlights. In particular, the inside of the jacket seemed almost alive as the black lining was crisscrossed with constantly shifting red lines.

He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, I don't believe I've met your companion."

"Hi!" The girl called out, and suddenly she was well inside his personal space. His normally guarded reaction was completely disarmed by the pure joyful enthusiasm bleeding off the young woman. "I'm Proto Aima. It's nice to meet you, Dauntless."

Years of public appearance training took over as he found himself operating on pure muscle memory. His Arclance was shifted to the crook of his arm as he shook the girl's hand on instinct.

"It's nice to meet you as well." He said, even his voice falling into practiced tones for interacting with the public. He blinked as his mind caught up with his actions, active-duty experience finally overriding PR training.

The fact that it was such a fight spoke to the amount of time he'd spend at promotional activities, rather than in the field.

"Wait, did you-" But he found his hand empty with the girl back by Apeiron's side, smiling wildly. He cleared his throat again, doing his best to dismiss what was apparently casual short ranged teleportation.

Contact with an unknown cape, or contact with an unknown form of a prior cape with unknown abilities. Default reactions that would be reviewed for suspected mental influence. Concerns over Proto Aima's presence and Apeiron's purpose. If he had called this in, he would be swamped with requests, demands, and analysis, with twice as much to follow when he returned to the PRT headquarters.

He was definitely not regretting his decision.

"I'm sorry, did you say you were Proto Aima?" He asked as politely as possible.

"Yep." She said with a wide smile. "I know I looked different before, but I'm better now."

"Yes, I can see." Dauntless said. More implications. More things for people to panic and stress over. More problems for later. For other people. "You seem to be doing well."

"I am. It's nice to be able to have other people hear me when I talk." She said.

"Other people?" He asked in a neutral voice.

"Apeiron could." She said, "But I had to use computers to talk to everyone else. It wasn't fun."

"Well, I'm glad I can speak with you." He said. There was something about her demeanor that was hard to place, even beyond the obvious parahuman aspects of her appearance. Physically she could be anywhere from early to mid-teens. In terms of mentality, it didn't seem so much like immaturity as a highly excitable nature.

"So am I!" She said. And then she was gone. Dauntless whipped his head around, but there was no sign of the girl.

"Where did she go?" He asked.

"To tell Survey." He said with a smile. "You're the first hero she's met. She's quite excited about it."

"Ah." He said awkwardly and found himself looking around the empty street.

The sudden departure of Proto Aima forced Shawn to recalibrate his earlier threat assessment. A high-speed short-range teleporter was not nearly the same level as someone who could travel God knows how far with the same effect. No charge time, no line of sight and no visible effect. Just the kind of thing that would cause nightmares for threat analysts.

He did his best to put those thoughts aside and reoriented himself for the unexpected one on one conversation. "She seems nice." He offered. "Quite the contrast to the impression many people had."

"Yourself included?" He asked. Shawn wasn't sure how to respond, but the tinker waved him off. "Don't worry. Neither of us were at our best when she made her first appearance."

Shawn felt sweat bead on his forehead and did his best to ignore it. "So, it was her that-"

"Saved my life against Lung?" He replied in a flat voice. There was a tired look on Aperion's face as he spoke. "Yeah, like I said, not my best moment."

Shawn tightened his grip on his Arclance, remembering the many, many missteps the protectorate had made. "There was plenty of that going around." He said. "It seemed to be something March excelled at."

Apeiron nodded. "At least her impact was obvious in retrospect."

His casual reference to the accusations laid at his feet along with March's near destruction of the city caused Dauntless to stiffen, but there was no malice in Apeiron's tone. It wasn't an accusation, and the lack of one might have been worse. If he had accused them of failing it would have at least indicated he's expected better from the city's heroes. Instead, there seemed to be nothing but a grim resignation.

"Apeiron, I don't have the authority to speak for the Protectorate or PRT in any official capacity, but I want to say I have not approved of the policies put in place towards you, or the disregard that was paid to your warnings and March's arrival." He said. Another thing that could get him in serious trouble, but he was already neck deep from his actions thus far. He didn't see any reason to stop now.

"I appreciate that." He said. "It doesn't do much good now, but it's nice to know that not everyone was onboard with those policies."

Dauntless nodded. "The Protectorate doesn't leave much room for voicing objections to policy decisions."

"Not publicly." He said. "But I understand other directors are more receptive when issues are brought to them by heroes under their command."

It was clear what he was referencing. "I know that things began poorly between you and Director Piggot." He said in an even tone.

Apeiron snorted a short laugh, even managing to make that look inhumanly graceful. "You mean when I accused her of being mentally unfit and she forbade any cape under her command from making contact with me?" He asked. "Yeah, that probably qualifies as a poor start to a relationship."

"Do you still feel that way regarding the director?" Dauntless asked.

The tinker shook his head. "I was relaying information I had received from my thinker power, not making a medical evaluation. Her response didn't do much to patch things up. At this point I'm not sure our relationship matters." The tall man looked down at Shawn. "Tell me, if I walked into the PRT headquarters, would I end up speaking to Director Piggot, or would they keep her in her office while the PRT patches me through to her boss's boss's boss? While having the think tank analyze my every word and action." He added.

It was an uncharitable, but not unreasonable assessment of the situation. "Matters concerning your case are being decided at the national level." Sharing that was another breach, but Shawn doubted it mattered. "And I'm guessing you know that already."

"Information leaks should really have been a bigger concern for the department." The man said, checking the eastern sky again. "Things are only slightly more secure now than they were before everything fell apart. I really shouldn't need to point out why that's a serious matter that would make a person reluctant to reach out regarding anything sensitive."

Shawn cringed, but had to concede the point. Even with all the other local failings, the level of security breaches evident from the department were inexcusable. Assurances were made that certain information had been kept completely isolated, but the fact that the security of his family's identity had even been in doubt was harrowing. With everything else, there was no certainty of what was secure and what had been compromised.

"Efforts are being made…" He began somewhat lamely.

"I know." He replied. "It was easy for me to know. And the fact that I know so easily should show that they aren't working. This is the kind of thing that should have been dealt with at the first sign of trouble, not pasted over until it fed a crisis, and then crippled the department through a half measure."

Shawn wilted, finding himself unable to offer even a half-hearted rebuttal. If something had happened that put Addison at risk, he not only would have never forgiven himself, he never would have forgiven the department.

It was only made worse by the fact that Director Piggot maintained such tight controls about information access, often directly briefing select individuals and strategically sharing information. He had been deployed only to later learn he'd been given half the story, if that. In order to maintain operational security or streamline the mission structure. Other departments in the city were in an even worse position when it came to information sharing, with the issue famously highlighted by Commissioner Murphy during a now infamous meeting. Accusations that the city's gangs had a better line to the PRT than his own department.

That thing about him being better off buying briefings from the Merchants than requesting them through official channels was probably hyperbole. Or at least Shawn hoped it was.

"Incidentally, thank you for not calling in before this conversation." Aperion said. "And turning off your communicator was a nice touch."

He wasn't surprised Apeiron was aware of his communication status. He wouldn't have expected to keep it hidden from him, which is why he chose this approach.

"I thought you might enjoy a direct conversation. There seems to have been a shortage of people willing to reach out." He said.

There were reasons for that approach, but not particularly good ones. Bad decisions perpetuated beyond the point where they could do any good because no one was willing to step out of line. It was funny, the same privilege treatment, excessive leeway, and coddling that he knew Armsmaster resented him for was precisely what allowed him to take this kind of risk. To open up a point of contact that nobody had been able to, but that the city desperately needed.

"Plus, I doubt we would have been able to proceed undisturbed if I had kept my comm open. I wouldn't want to interrupt your…" He trailed off as he realized he had no idea why Apeiron was out here. Not just in the city, but here in particular. "What are you doing, anyway?" He asked in as light a tone as he could manage.

"Waiting for sunrise." Apeiron said.

Dauntless turned to look at the eastern sky. Visible between two wrecked shells of rusted ships, the horizon was beginning to change color. Dawn was coming, and it was close.

"Can I ask why?" He said.

"Wanting to see the new day isn't enough?" The tinker asked him. Shawn had a feeling there would be amusement in his eyes, if they weren't obscured by that visor.

"I imagine you could see that from anywhere in the city. Why here?" Shawn asked.

Apeiron turned from him to look down at the street corner, then back again. "You're from Brockton Bay as well, aren't you?" He asked. "I mean, that's not just department PR?"

As well. Confirmation that Apeiron was a native of the city. Something that analysts were nearly certain of, but having it confirmed was… not relevant at this point.

"I am." He said. "I lived outside the city for a while after high school before I moved back." Referring to it as 'after high school sounded better than 'emancipated from parents and relocated'.

Apeiron nodded. "You must have seen a lot of the city's history."

Shawn wasn't sure if it was a direct accusation, but he didn't doubt Apeiron's ability to discern details as trivial as what the Protectorate's PR department tried to spin.

"Some." As if more than thirty years was a blink of an eye. Sometimes it felt like it was. "But I wasn't involved in most of it." Sadly, that was true even after he joined the Protectorate.

Apeiron smiled. "That's really the thing, isn't it? You can grow up in this city, but it's like you're separated from what happens in it. Supervillains are something that happens on the news, or to a friend of a friend. Unless you're one of the communities that ends up in the thick of it, you can have a catastrophic event and within a couple of months nobody's talking about it."

"The Protectorate works to shield people from that kind of thing. To keep cape conflicts contained." Dauntless said, somewhat in the department's defense.

"It also keeps them concentrated and isolated. People in the Towers, Downtown, the Beaches, Captain's Hill, even the South Docks, have no idea what they're living next to. Not until it blows up in their face." Apeiron said.

Apeiron looked at Shawn like he expected another defense of the system, but he just dropped his head.

"I wish we could do more." He said. His grip trembled around his Arclance. "I wish we could have done more. It never should have reached this point."

He stopped there, but all the times he pushed for more, on some level, any level, only to be shot down or sent away with the equivalent of a pat on the head flashed through his mind. He was the one they couldn't risk. He wasn't allowed to propose anything dangerous or disruptive.

It had annoyed him when he'd only heard the rumors of what was out there. Having the true extent of the ABB and Lung's actions laid bare sickened him. The department was being condemned for complacency, but they were being condemned for a lot of things. As a result, the most legitimate criticism was buried among their numerous failings.

"You get more powerful." Apeiron said.

Shawn managed a weak smile. "So do you." He replied. "It isn't easy, is it?"

"I don't imagine struggling from a position of weakness is particularly enjoyable either, but no. There are problems. Ones that nobody would consider." Shawn nodded.

"Act now, do what you can and accept the risk and the reprisals, or wait." He said, bitterness in his voice. "Wait until you're sure you can handle it. Sure that you can make a difference."

Apeiron gave a short nod, then looked back to the eastern sky. "Take those problems and multiply them by a thousand. Shorten the timescale from years to days. Scale the reprisals from angry gang leaders to international organizations. Change the issues you have to handle from the problems of a single city to the fate of the world."

Shawn nodded slowly. He understood. It was beyond him, but he at least understood where Apeiron was coming from. All the theories, the proposed mechanism, the potential specializations and threat analysis, they were all irrelevant to this. It was a core issue, and one he had faced himself. The growth of power and the burdens and responsibilities that came with it.

"The Protectorate really does want to make it seem like you're fresh out of college." Apeiron said. "I'm surprised by the effort they put into it."

Dauntless smiled. "I have a young-looking face." He said with a measure of amusement. It was the same effect that had celebrities playing teenagers into their late twenties. "It's convenient when I'm out of costume. Makes it harder to connect to my civilian identity."

"And it conceals how long ago you triggered." Apeiron said.

Shawn froze. "You can tell that?" He asked.

"Your Arclance." He said. "It's older than anything else you're carrying, by a significant margin."

Causal analysis of abilities with absolute certainty. How had he ended up dropping his guard around a reputed power tinker with abilities that dwarfed every other cape on the planet?

He wanted to say that it was because his guard was meaningless against someone like Apeiron, but that wasn't it. Normally, when meeting a powerful cape, they wouldn't let you forget it. The gulf of strength was hammered home and constantly reinforced. That didn't happen with Apeiron. He was… casual. At least at times like this. When he wasn't squaring off against Bakuda or facing down Lung. Was it that the gulf in power was so much that he didn't care about posturing, or did he just have a personality that made it hard to stay on edge?

Shawn let out a breath. He held up the shaft of solidified electricity that served as his primary weapon. His Arclance.

"I triggered a long time before I joined the Protectorate." He admitted. "I registered, but there were things I needed to deal with and, well…" He sighed. "I wasn't great with my power back then. Didn't know how to manage it, how to best use the charges, how far I could layer it." He shook his head. "A lot of wasted potential."

To his surprise Apeiron nodded in agreement. He gave the man a questioning look. "Just because you're advancing faster doesn't mean you perfectly manage everything." He said. "You just end up condensing your mistakes, rather than spreading them out over years."

Dauntless nodded. "Right." He sighed. "When I got things settled and had a handle on my power I looked into the Protectorate." He explained. "Took some more time refining things, building up, before I premiered."

He'd only premiered a few years ago. The heroic rookie, secretly in his late twenties with nearly a decade since his trigger.

"And it helped create the impression of faster growth." Apeiron said. Dauntless nodded.

"Focus and careful management. No wasted charges. Every boost accounted for. Gets checked against the models they have for my growth. Power testing every quarter, expanded for any new expressions." He explained. Privileged information and not something he spoke about in public, but he doubted it would matter here.

"Well, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one under a microscope." He said. He glanced at the sky again, then turned back to Dauntless. "Can I see that?" He asked,

His eyes dropped down to his Arclance. Once again, on the surface it was insane. A request to disarm himself while in the field. To give up something he could never get back. Years of his life, to say nothing of what the item meant to him on a personal level.

But that was treating this like a confrontation. A power struggle where you fought for advantage, as if any level of advantage would mean anything here. If Apeiron wanted he could take the lance with no trouble, but that wasn't the sense he had. This wasn't a threat. He could choose to extend some trust, which might be what this was about, or he could fall back into the mistakes that may have doomed his entire department.

"Here." He said, gingerly handing over the weapon. Despite the strange size and weight, Apeiron handled it like a professional. "Items I charge don't work for anyone but me." He explained. It was common knowledge, but that didn't stop other people from trying to get the lance to extend or shoot lightning.

Apeiron smiled at him, then raised the Arclance into the air. The weapon surged upward like a thunderclap, striking into the night with a ruinous discharge that bathed the dim street in blinding blue-white light. The smell of ozone filled the area as Dauntless found himself blinking away the aftermath of an attack more impressive than anything he had managed, even with the temporary boost from when a fresh charge was used.

"Your power infuses an energy structure into items. Essentially instructions on how the effect expresses itself. The effect still has to be powered, which comes from your own abilities. A separate avenue from the 'charges' you build up." He explained. "I'm good with powers. Can emulate the same feed effect that allows the energy structure to operate, and…" He raised the Arclance in a loose grip and fired off a similarly impressive blast of energy.

Dauntless took a breath. "People are theorizing that you are a power tinker. That your specialization is understanding and modifying powers."

Apeiron smiled. "People are theorizing a lot of things. Most of them are wrong, and when something is correct, it's usually by accident." He looked down at the lance again. "This is your oldest item, but it hasn't been advanced to the level of your other equipment."

Dauntless nodded. "The cost of oversight. Focus is defense, then mobility, then attack power, as a distant third." It made sense, if the goal was to keep him alive long enough to make a difference. Less so if he wanted to be as effective as possible. There were brutes in the city who could walk through his Arclance like it was nothing, leaving him to play defense for other heroes or try for a game of keep away.

"I'd say the problem is the base item." Apeiron said. Shawn felt himself tense again, but did his best not to show it. "I'm guessing that's related to its age?"

Shawn nodded. "Early days, I didn't have the best sense of what would work and what didn't. Some items respond better for certain applications." He gestured down at himself. "The rest of my gear was from after I started working with the Protectorate."

"Still, this has been pushed further than anyone probably thought possible." He said, testing the grip of the lance as he spoke. "People can't even tell it used to be a knife."

Shawn froze. Moments flickered through his eyes. Buried, desperate, trying to console Kelly, help her through the ordeal. The horrible moment when he was forced to act, that first charge…

"I'm sorry." Apeiron said. "I should have known."

Shawn blinked behind his helmet. "Known? What? How?"

He looked at the weapon in his hand. "The age. The amount of use. It's something from your trigger, or close enough after."

Shawn nodded numbly. With someone like Apeiron, there was no point in denying it. The man had practically redefined trigger theory through his actions. "It's nothing."

"It's not." He said. "Triggers aren't something to trivialize, not after any length of time." He ran a hand along the length of the lance. "With this, the item isn't suited for the application. Your power is making up for that, both form and function, but it's taking effort. I'm guessing even when you can charge it, you get less return than your armor or other equipment."

Dauntless nodded. "You know quite a lot about this."

"The effect isn't unique. I use something similar to it myself." He looked more closely at the lance as if he hadn't just shared a major insight into the mechanics of his power and technology. "Normally, if this was one of mine, I'd either shelve it and start over, or strip it down. But there are some items you can't replace. Fortunately, there are other options, even for those."

"What do you mean?" Dauntless asked. The tinker smiled at him, then the Arclance flashed in his hands. Dauntless furiously worked to blink away the spots in his vision only to find the tinker offering him his weapon back.

Gingerly, he reached out and accepted the lance. As soon as his fingers closed around the weapon he felt the surge of energy. Not the welling of power from his charges, but an outward flow, energy pooling in the lance like it never had before.

"What… what did you do?" He asked.

"The Arclance was a poor fit for what your power was trying to accomplish with it. I couldn't change the base item." He paused. "I couldn't do it here, and don't imagine you'd want me to." Dauntless nodded. "But I could grant an affinity for a certain type of energy. An element, if you will. The infusion process makes the item more powerful in its expression of energy types and more receptive to similar effects."

The Arclance thrummed in Dauntless's hands. It felt like it had received years of additional charge, but he could feel the structure of the energy in the weapon. There wasn't more of it, but what was there was so much more functional. An experimental swing left a trail of lighting hanging in the air. Slamming the butt of the spear to the ground sent spiderwebs of energy through the road's surface. A casual blast to the air dwarfed even Apeiron's earlier showing.

He considered a possibility. It would mean a variance from his charging schedule, but he had enough violations to fill a phone book by now. He gripped the lance and poured the charge he had accumulated through the day into the weapon. Less than a full day's energy felt like he had infused it with ten or even twenty full charges. The spear briefly glowed like the sun, then settled, thrumming with new power. New potential.

A casual act from Apeiron had completely changed his life, his capabilities, and his ability to function as a cape. "I… thank you." He stuttered.

"Don't mention it." The man said. "I was overly forward, both in my question and acting without asking." He acted as if the slight misstep on his part was equal to a life changing boon handed out freely.

"Apeiron, I…" He stumbled over his next words as Proto Aima suddenly appeared between him and the tinker.

"Hi Dauntless." She said.

"Hello Proto Aima." He said as calmly as he could, glancing from the young woman to the tinker.

She smiled and then turned to Apeiron. "Survey said we should let you talk with Dauntless alone, so I helped her with some of the other stuff, but it was getting close to time so I had to come back."

Somehow, Shawn had the sense she was explaining herself for his benefit, rather than to inform Apeiron. "Time?" He asked. In response Apeiron looked towards the horizon again. Dauntless turned and could see the brightening sky and the glow of the sun's rays begin to creep over the horizon. They were close to sunrise. "Ah."

"I didn't mess things up, did I?" Proto Aima asked Apeiron. "With the waiting?"

He smiled down at the girl. "The waiting is important, but I've got that covered. Dauntless even helped me wait." Shawn gave the tinker a confused expression as the man continued to talk to the younger cape. "You're here for the connection, and that's what's important for you."

"I'm sorry?" Shawn asked. "What connection?"

The tinker grinned at him. "I really am grateful you didn't call in before you came down. If a squad of thinkers had been on the line someone would probably have figured out why I was here, specifically."

"What, here?" He asked. "This street corner?"

Apeiron nodded. "Like I said, even for people from the city, we're insulated from what happens. We're kept insulated. People move on from events, they don't commemorate them, no matter the loss." He looked down at the streetlight. "To be fair, if the city memorialized every fallen cape, the docks would look more like a graveyard than a city."

Shawn felt a chill go up his spine. "What happened here?" He asked.

The tinker looked up at him and Dauntless found himself wishing he could see the man's expression through his visor. "This is where Butcher IV was created." He looked back down at the lamp post. "And that was where War Seer died."

Shawn felt his pulse quicken and his body grow cold. Butcher. The one cape that every mandate was crystal clear on. Apeiron must be kept away from the Butcher. But the Butcher wasn't here. Instead, there was something else.

And more than that, there was War Seer. He barely remembered the man as a background element of the early cape scene on Brockton Bay, back before he left. The business with Butcher III and IV had passed by the time he got back.

Apeiron was right. The city didn't remember. The hero who had tried to stop the Butcher and been driven mad as a result was little more than a point of trivia in their history. He never would have connected this spot with that event, but Apeiron had.

"What are you going to do?" He asked.

"Greet the new day." Apeiron said as he reached into his coat and removed three small items. Two cups and a flask. "And honor the dead."

Dauntless watched transfixed as Apeiron handed one of the immaculately crafted cups to Proto Aima. The smokey black metal seemed to glow faintly, even in the growing light of morning. There was a twinge of discomfort as she accepted the cup, but she quickly gave Apeiron a nod of assurance.

Aperion opened the flask and poured its contents into the two cups. The smell of liquor bloomed forth. It was unquestionably strong, but not overwhelming. Somehow, despite the potency, there was a refreshing aspect to it. For some reason the strongest liquor he had ever encountered seemed invigorating.

Apeiron placed a hand on Proto Aima's shoulder and they turned to face the east. She looked up at the tinker and smiled.

"You know, there's another way we could do this. It would make the connection easier." She said in a probing voice.

Apeiron let out a single laugh. "A bit much for something like this. And I doubt Dauntless would want to see that."

"He might." She looked over at him. "Should I ask?"

"Not right now. It's almost time." He said, watching the horizon. "You ready?"

"Ready." She said, Holding her cup in both hands.

As the disk of the sun broke the horizon Apeiron raised his cup of black steel. "War Seer." He called in a clear, firm voice.

"Caydancil." Said Proto Aima, echoing his action. Then, with a swift movement, they cast the contents of both cups onto the ground.

The scent and sensations that Dauntless had thought to be overwhelming before suddenly elevated to a tremendous level. The vapor of the liquor seemed to rise from the spilled liquid like a physical presence. Not just as scent, but for a moment he swore he could experience so much more. Sound, texture, color, motion. It was a blur, and then it was gone.

Literally gone. A random breeze blowing in from the sea carried the cloud of vapor away from them and into the city. The spilled liquid had dried at a speed that spoke to the strength of the alcohol, as if there was any doubt. And then it was over.

Proto Aima handed back the cup, then began rubbing her fingers where they had made contact with the metal. He watched as she shook out one hand, then literally shook it out, causing it to dissolve into a cloud of glowing red fibers. Then she snapped the mass upwards, instantly forming it into a whole and apparently total human hand, free of whatever discomfort she had been working to address.

"That was what you were here for?" Dauntless asked, filing away Proto Aima's display as a concern for another time. After the… offering? Ritual? The 'pouring one out'? Afterwards, the mood was different, and not just because their conversation was now happening in the light of day.

"What I was waiting for, yes." The man said.

"And the waiting was important?" He asked.

"It was." Proto Aima said. "Thank you for helping him wait when I was away."

Apeiron nodded. "Waiting for the dawn is different from meeting the dawn. I could have concealed myself, but hiding is different from waiting."

"And the waiting was important?" Dauntless asked again. Apeiron and Proto Aima nodded while Shawn found himself struggling to keep a confused expression off his face.

On honest reflection, the meeting had gone well. Better than he could have hoped for, even if the aftermath was another question entirely. But Apeiron's reasoning for his actions was more abstract, more arcane than he would have expected. In a world where people were terrified of mounting instability of an out of control mad scientist tinker, finding the man embracing ritualistic behavior on the streets of the city was far from a good sign, no matter how stable he appeared to be otherwise.

"So, what happenes now?" Shawn asked.

"Now?" Apeiron said. "I have another appointment to get to, and a busy day ahead of me. As do you, I imagine, though from the look of things I would recommend some sleep if at all possible."

"It would be a good idea." Proto Aima said with a firm nod.

Dauntless blinked and looked between them. "That's it?"

The tinker grinned. "Were you expecting some warnings? Threats or ultimatums, or to be sworn to secrecy?" He shook his head. "No, I think I've worried enough over the past few days. I'm trusting you to handle this."

"Handle it how?" Dauntless asked.

"To your best judgment, I hope." He said. "If you want to announce everything to a compromised PRT department, subjecting yourself to hours of debriefs and demands to recount every word, gesture, and facial expression then I think that's worse than whatever I could threaten you with."

"You want this kept confidential?" He asked.

"Let's just say that for once I would prefer not to receive commentary on the PRT's response to my actions from the villain community." He said plainly. "Given recent events, I think you have more than enough justification for practicing discretion."

Dauntless nodded. It would mean going over the director's head, something she wasn't likely to forgive, but that would see her clashing against national policy, which would have been a long bet on her best day. Really, all he'd have to do was say 'Apeiron would prefer the conversation not be excessively analyzed', then leave it to the PRT to decide who wants to be the person to make the call.

Still, there was one last point that he needed to clarify. A matter too important to leave ambiguous. Because nothing involving the Butcher could be taken lightly.

"War Seer and Caydancil." Dauntless said. "Butchers Three and Seven. It was reported from Somer's Rock that you offered to help them." He looked over at the man. "Is that still your intention? Are you going to offer them 'Contracts'?"

The tinker smiled at him. "I just did."

Proto Aima mirrored his smile as she reached up and gripped his arm. He nodded once, and then he was gone, leaving only the faintest popping sound in the air and more questions than Dauntless knew what to do with.

Jumpchain abilities this chapter:

Minor Blessing Zeus - Lightning (Percy Jackson) 100:

For one reason or another you've got a god who cares slightly about you and has seen fit to grant you some minor boon within their domains. Choose one god from any pantheon and gain a minor boon from them. The god will care slightly about you but unless you go on to further distinguish yourself it will be more of a minor interest in your affairs than someone they feel the need to help (Effectively think a diminished version of one ability a demigod might have, think minor ones are stuff along the lines of breathing water, lucid dreaming, or appropriate vague extra senses, useful but nothing especially major). This can be taken multiple times.

Unnatural Skill: Curses (Percy Jackson) 200:

Whether from your heritage or just being that good you've got one particular mundane skill that your feats with border on supernatural. Whether you're a smith on the level of the Cyclopses, a near prescient tactician or a swordsman who is ny unstoppable with a blade your feats will be legendary. You are on a level within your skill such that only other beings of legend can hope to match you. This may be taken multiple times. You may not choose magic but you may choose a particular application of magic if you have it already (so curses, enchanting might work, more specific gets a bigger boost)

Gym (Personal Reality) 100:

This provides your Personal Reality with a large open training room for physical exercise. It comes with exercise equipment that can be used to train almost anyone dedicated enough to the limits of their potential (as long as that potential is no more than 150% of peak human potential) fitness. It can be easily converted into a sparring pit. If you have Robots, this includes extremely durable sparring automatons to learn from in your pit. Anybody using the Gym will find that training physical abilities is slightly less fatiguing than it otherwise would be.

Central Control (Personal Reality) 100:

This optional purchase hooks your Personal Reality up with a Smart Pseudo-Intelligent Computer System that tracks the location and condition of all items brought into the Personal Reality. It will share that information with you or anyone you authorize to use the system. They do not have to have a key and you can set up varying levels of access. Central Control can also recall your companions to the Personal Reality if you have Portal and command it to or they are killed and you've set up automated recall. It can open your Personal Reality Door from the inside if you've given it permission to do so, but will only admit those it believes will assist you. It can only open doors on which Access Key has been used on, but the key need not be still in that door for the door to be opened.

Your Robots (Personal Reality) 200:

This Central Control Upgrade provides you with an automated sorting system that sorts and automatically retrieves anything stored in your Personal Reality. These Robots are completely upgradeable and programmable, so you can keep them out of key areas or tell them not to disturb certain potentially explosive experiments if you want. You get twenty of them and instructions on how to make more.

Arena (Personal Reality) 300:

This Gym Upgrade that Requires Central Control and Robots removes the limiter on what can be trained and now it can be used to train anyone to any physical potential they might have. The sparring pit is now outfitted with duplodroids, sparring partners that can duplicate the fighting strength and style of anyone you've ever fought… or even combine enemies and styles to attempt to throw you curves. Every fight you've ever been in and every fight you're in from now on can be replayed by the Arena. Fights in the Arena are never fatal, like Pokemon Battles, they only result in KOs. If you choose to use the Arena Supplement, you may incorporate it with this Arena for an additional -100 WP.