Part Eight: Best of Enemies
Aegis had insisted upon ensuring that I had no more dangerous items upon my person; this was, I figured, regulations. However, he had taken me upon my word that I was fully disarmed. I appreciated that; I bore no ill-will toward him or anyone except Sophia Hess. It wasn't as if I was going to attack anyone else, or go on a rampage through the PRT base.
Of course, we had both known, even as I handed over the pepper spray, the spare baton, the folding knife and the brass knuckles, that these were the least of the weapons that I could bring to bear. Every bug within … huh … three and a half blocks was mine to command. I wasn't entirely sure as to why my range had expanded, but there it was.
However, I wasn't hostile toward Aegis, the Wards, the Protectorate or even the PRT. I was angry that they had somehow let someone like Sophia join the Wards and stay there, even as she helped carry out a vicious bullying campaign against me. Someone had dropped the ball, big time.
I supposed, as I sat in the holding cell, that had I known about Sophia being Shadow Stalker at the time Armsmaster suggested I join the Wards, that this would have tipped the balance for me. I would not have wanted to become part of any organisation that could tolerate her.
But now I was a member – for however long they let me stay in, I guessed – and I liked it. I liked them. Aegis was like an older brother, and Vista like a younger sister. Not that I'd ever had either one, but they were like what I thought having siblings would be like.
Shadow Stalker had fit into that frame of reference too, I realised, somewhat belatedly. She'd been that bitchy cousin who acted out because nobody really liked or understood her. Not that she made herself easy to like. She saw the world on her terms, very black and white. It was just that they weren't the terms that everyone else saw it on.
I turned my mask over and over in my hands, staring into the dull yellow lenses, trying to work through what I really thought about Shadow Stalker.
I wanted to tell myself that I had never really liked her, that I'd had some inkling, at some time, as to who she really was. What she really was. But I hadn't. I had liked her. I had trusted her. We had shared danger, and a few laughs, and I had been on the verge of accepting her offer to unmask. To meet her 'bestie' – Emma, of course – and go to the movies with them.
Now, of course, I couldn't help but wonder how that particular scenario would have turned out. Would she have rejected me? Would it have overturned her whole worldview to realise that Buzz was actually the girl she had tormented on a daily basis for so long?
And even if it had, even if she had changed, would I have changed? Or would I have done as I did, and attacked her with a deadly weapon?
I'd had an immense amount of respect for her, especially after seeing her in action. And yes, I had liked her. To others, she came across as rough-edged, almost hostile; to me, she was just direct. Of course, her admiration for my bug control probably had a great deal to do with her respect for me. And had she liked me? I believed so. After all, it was she who had raised the subject of unmasking. Capes didn't unmask in front of mere casual acquaintances.
And as for understanding her ... in a way, it was easier if I divided her into two people; Sophia Hess and Shadow Stalker. In her costumed identity, the impression I got was anger. Anger at the world, anger at the criminals who were dragging the city down. It was an emotion with which I could agree, even sympathise.
As for the other side of the equation ... I couldn't even begin to understand why she had targeted me in her civilian identity, but I had a nagging feeling that it had to do, somehow, with Emma. Well, of course it had to do with Emma; she was just as eager to bully me. But just as Emma was following Sophia's lead, there had to be some reason, related to Emma, that Sophia had chosen me to target.
I drew a deep breath, realising that the bugs with which I was in contact were agitated, swarming in greater and greater masses. With an effort, I sent calming impulses outward, even though I didn't feel much like calming down myself. The swarms gradually began to disperse, to settle down, and I leaned back, closing my eyes.
This was perhaps a mistake; almost immediately, I started going through a slow-motion replay of the reason that I was in the holding cell in the first place. The realisation, pulling the baton, swinging it. I had been sitting to Sophia's right, but we'd had our chairs half-turned, facing one another. In fact, we'd just finished agreeing that we didn't have a problem with each other.
Irony, thy name is Taylor Hebert.
I could still feel the impact as the weighted tip of the baton smashed into her mask, shattering the hard plastic. It was probably the only thing that had saved her life; the force of my blow had apparently broken her jaw in two different places. Had I struck her anywhere but the mask, I could have severely concussed her, or even killed her.
I could have killed her. We were friends. We were partners. She saved my life, and I nearly killed her.
That was the part that was twisting me up inside the most; while I despised Sophia Hess with every fibre of my being – which was why I had swung that baton with every ounce of strength that I had – I didn't dislike Shadow Stalker. I had seen her in her element, and I had wanted to be like that. I wanted to be that good, that practised, at what I did.
As Buzz, I had come face to face with her, neither of us knowing who the other was, and she had accepted me. She'd been cool about it. I had appreciated that; from what I saw, Soph – Shadow Stalker – did not want to be seen as weak, and yet she had accepted my help when she was wounded. We had connected, even; it might have been on a relatively weird wavelength, but we had understood each other. Kind of. Which was more, from what I gathered, than any of the other Wards had managed so far.
Of course, when I was talking about my problems, I was talking about her, and when she was talking about her problems, she was talking about me. Once more, I was forcibly reminded of the irony inherent in the situation.
I wondered how she was doing, if she had regained consciousness yet. And then I wondered at myself, for worrying about the well-being of someone who had helped bully me incessantly for eighteen months.
Shut up, I told myself. I'm worried about Shadow Stalker, not Sophia.
The fact that they were one and the same person, I tried hard to ignore.
I had to move. Sitting still just wasn't doing it for me. Standing up, I began to pace back and forth. I couldn't figure out why Shadow Stalker had made such a strong impression on me. We'd only known each other a few days. She had a forceful personality, sure, but that wasn't really it.
Sophia had that same forceful personality, but it had all been aimed toward hurting me. Shadow Stalker had acted like I was someone she wanted to spend time with, to team up with. She had admired me, admired my powerset. She had affirmed me as a hero, and as a person; as she was someone whom I suspected was hard to please or impress, this had pleased and impressed me.
But Sophia …
Sophia's not Shadow Stalker, I decided abruptly. Shadow Stalker's who Sophia wants to be, but she can't always reach that goal. In or out of costume, she needs an enemy to beat.
I wasn't sure why she had picked me to be said 'designated enemy', but as Shadow Stalker, she had obviously decided that I was an ally. She had admired me, and I had admired her.
Which made my hatred for Sophia all the harder to assimilate.
Fortunately, before I could twist myself into even more existential knots, the door opened. Aegis leaned into the holding cell.
"They're ready to see you now," he informed me.
Getting up, I wiped my suddenly-sweaty palms on my legs. "Thanks," I replied with a weak smile. "Should I mask up?"
"You can if you want." He paused, then added in a deliberately casual tone, "I wouldn't bother, if I were you. Everyone there knows who you are."
He didn't say any more, but I caught the unspoken message anyway. The mask makes you look scary. You don't want to look scary. It was the same thing that Mr Richardson had told me, not so very long ago. "Okay," I replied just as casually. "I'll leave it off then."
Besides, I belatedly realised, masking up makes it look as though I have something to hide.
Whatever impression I wanted to make, that was the very last one.
Aegis escorted me to a conference room, not unlike the one in which I had had my initial entry interview into the Wards. It may well have been the same one; I wouldn't have been surprised. Several people were already there when we arrived – Director Piggot and Deputy Renick, Mr Richardson, Armsmaster, Shadow Stalker, in costume but unmasked, and a woman I didn't know – but I only had eyes for one.
"Taylor!" Dad exclaimed, rising from his seat and coming toward me. I met him; we embraced. "They called me, told me it was urgent," he told me. "What's happened?"
"They didn't tell you that bit?" I asked.
"Only that you'd had a disagreement with one of the other Wards," he replied with a frown. He hooked his head sideways to where Shadow Stalker sat. Is that her?
I nodded very slightly. Yes. "Did you bring that stuff I asked them to tell you about, from home?"
Puzzled, he nodded. "Yes, and I glanced over it. When this is done, I'm going to have words with Alan about -"
"Dad." I hated to cut him off. "That's not important right now. You gave it to them, right?"
"He did, yes." That was Director Piggot. I had spoken to her only once before now, but I had come away with the impression that those who dismissed her as a know-nothing bureaucrat did so at their peril. She tapped at the stack of papers before her. "I have perused it. The material is somewhat disturbing, if true. Ms Hebert?"
"I'm not sure," I told her. "May I see?"
She slid the pages over to me, and I leafed through them. The only sound in the room was that of rustling paper, as I turned one page after another. The dates all matched up, and nothing seemed to have been added in or removed.
"It's all there," I told Piggot, sliding the sheaf back to her. Belatedly, I realised how I had just addressed the woman who very likely had ultimate power over whether or not I continued in the Wards. "Uh, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. Every word."
"Hm." She eyed me for a moment. "Sit, please. And you too, Mr Hebert. Aegis."
As we took our seats, Aegis closed the door and moved to take his own seat at the table.
There was a gap between me and the Director, with Deputy Director Renick on her other side, and Dad beside me. Armsmaster was alongside the Deputy Director, and Mr Richardson on the other side of Dad. At the far end of the oval table, probably not by coincidence, Shadow Stalker sat with Aegis on one side of her and the blonde woman on the other.
"Excuse me." Everyone looked at me. "Uh, who's that?" I indicated the woman. "I was told that everyone here knew who I was." I addressed her directly. "I've never met you."
"Oh. Uh, sorry," the woman replied. "Kirsten Bright. I'm Shadow Stalker's handler."
I frowned. "We get handlers?" If so, I'd never met mine.
Armsmaster shook his head. "No. It's due to Shadow Stalker's status within the Wards, not a factor of belonging to the Wards themselves."
There was something I wasn't getting. "I -"
"This is beyond the point, Ms Hebert," Director Piggot stated, cutting me off. "Ms Bright has been read in on your identity. Her presence here is not your concern. What is your concern is that you are accused of assaulting a fellow Ward on base, in the presence of your team leader, an attack that could have resulted in serious injury or death. Do you deny this?"
I took a deep breath and looked her in the eye. "No, I don't deny this."
I felt Dad's hand steal over mine and clasp it tightly; I squeezed back. Armsmaster, the Director and Aegis seemed to relax slightly. Mr Richardson leaned forward fractionally, as did Shadow Stalker. The woman called Kirsten Bright didn't seem to react one way or the other.
"Very well then," the Director noted. "In this case -"
"Wait a minute," Dad interrupted, earning him an irritated glance. "Aren't you even going to ask her why?"
"Oh, the cause seems to be eminently cut and dried," the Director pointed out. "The papers which you brought from home match Taylor's handwriting, have been verified by Taylor to be genuine, and outline a rather extensive program of bullying against her since September of last year."
I took a deep breath. "The year before," I corrected her. "I only started to write it down last September."
"Indeed," she acknowledged, accepting and dismissing the information in less than a second. "Well, that's outside our purview. The beginning of your written account, however, does coincide, more or less, with Shadow Stalker's induction into the Wards. It's not that much of a stretch to imagine that when you discovered that Shadow Stalker was your bully and nemesis, you snapped. A weapon was at hand, and you used it."
I blinked. "Uh, yes. That's about it." This seemed to be too easy.
"Unless, of course," Armsmaster suggested, confirming my supposition, "you already knew of Shadow Stalker's secret identity, learned perhaps over the course of your patrol, and you manoeuvred yourself into a position where you could attack her in front of a witness and claim 'heat of the moment'?"
"Uh, no," I blurted. "No, that wasn't it at all. At school, we fought, Tuesday last week. I tripped her, she put me in an armlock, but then a teacher came past and they had to let me go. But she doesn't take insults like that lightly. She's been trying to catch up with me ever since then, but I've been using my bugs to keep track of her and her friends."
"So that was it!" Everyone turned to stare at Shadow Stalker. "No wonder I couldn't corner you!" I had been avoiding looking at her up until that point, but now I looked, and her expression wasn't the hatred or dismissal that I was used to; it was wariness, and maybe respect. I couldn't be sure of that last one; I wasn't used to seeing respect on her face.
Ms Bright murmured something to her, but she waved the woman off. "Doesn't matter now, does it? I misjudged Hebert. Never thought she'd have the guts to do something like this. But now that I know that she's Buzz, I'm not surprised. If she's got one tenth the shit written down about me that I think she does, then I'm done. I'm gone." She shot me a look in which baffled fury warred with the previous emotions.
Director Piggot leaned on the table and stared down at Sophia. "So you're admitting to everything that Taylor Hebert is accusing you of doing?"
Sophia shrugged. "Here's the thing. I deny it ever happened, you look into it, you find out I'm lying. I go to juvey. I cop to it, I still go to juvey. You got me. I admit it." She paused meaningfully. "But it wasn't you who brought me down. It was Buzz."
"And that's important to you?" asked Armsmaster.
"Sure it's important," Sophia replied readily. "Hebert was either weak, or pretending to be, all the time that shit was going down. I can't respect weakness. You get strong, or you die. Buzz is strong. I saw that from the moment I met her. She took on Lung, for fuck's sake."
"Language!" snapped Director Piggot.
"Oh, puh-leeze," Sophia retorted. "What are you gonna do? Throw me in juvey?" She looked back at me. "So all that time, you gathered that shit on me, and now, you take what I did to you, and use it to bring me down. That's ballsy, right there." She gave me a measured nod; I couldn't help but wonder if she would have been so accepting of her fate if the 'weak' Taylor Hebert had presented the evidence instead. But her words raised another question.
"So wait," I objected. "You're in the Wards because it keeps you out of juvey? How does that work?"
"Shadow Stalker shot a man," the Deputy Director explained. "A criminal. He nearly died. She was brought in, but a hearing decided that she could serve out her sentence in the Wards. However, she is under probationary status. Which she has just broken."
Which meant, of course, that Sophia would be going to juvey.
The trouble was, I suddenly realised, I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want Shadow Stalker to go to juvey. I disliked her as Sophia Hess; that was a given. But as Shadow Stalker, she was … not someone different, exactly, but someone who expressed herself in a different way. In costume, she was more free to do what she wanted, be who she wanted. I couldn't help wondering if her attacking me out of costume wasn't in some way down to a feeling of constraint, of frustration, at the rules she had to follow in her civilian identity.
Sophia Hess was someone I hated, but Shadow Stalker was someone I could be friends with. And I had few enough friends that I could not afford to not stand up for them.
Not that I was excusing her from her actions in any way; what she and Emma and Madison had done to me over the past year and a half was inexcusable. She had done the wrong thing, and she needed to pay for it. But … was locking her up the best way to do this?
"Which means that you're going back to juvenile detention." Deputy Director Renick went on, "Just as soon as the paperwork is completed."
I cleared my throat. "I … have an alternative suggestion."
Director Piggot turned to stare at me. "Ms Hebert, what the Deputy Director is proposing to do is the best result for you. Shadow Stalker has been tormenting you for more than a year, according to you. What possible alternative could you suggest to that?"
"She hasn't been bullying me as Shadow Stalker," I pointed out. "As Sophia Hess, yes. And I don't like her in the slightest." I paused, hoping that they'd get the fact that I was differentiating between the two. "But Shadow Stalker accepted me as a Ward. She's good at what she does. She can do good on the streets."
"We've heard these arguments before," Piggot stated dismissively. "They got her out of juvey once. It won't work a second time."
"I want to give Shadow Stalker a second chance," I told her boldly. "People can change. Most people don't choose to, because there's always ways to get around needing to change. But if they really have to, they can." I looked down the table at Sophia. "Maybe, before, when I was letting you bully me, I was weak. I'm not, now. Maybe you're a bad person. You don't have to stay that way."
"I don't understand," Renick objected. "This girl helped make your life hell. How can you be forgiving her, this easily?"
"I'm not," I told him with a shake of my head. "I'm not forgiving or forgetting. I'm just not … throwing her away."
"But why?" demanded Armsmaster. "Why even give her another chance? Surely she's used up all of her chances."
"I'm the one who attacked her, not the other way around," I reminded him. "If she'd attacked a fellow Ward, then yeah, all her chances would be used up, but that's not the case here."
"Yes, but you were provoked -" he began.
"And so what?" I overrode him. "I'm supposed to be the hero. I'm supposed to exercise restraint. I didn't. And for that, I guess I owe her a little bit of leeway here. So I am personally asking for you to not send her to juvey." I took a deep breath. "When I met Shadow Stalker, I liked her. She liked me, I think. I can work with Shadow Stalker. It's Sophia Hess I hate. But I think maybe Sophia Hess is the mask and Shadow Stalker is the girl. I want to give the girl under that mask a second chance."
Mr Richardson rubbed his chin. "She certainly violated her parole," he noted.
"Agreed." That was Renick.
"But ... she's already known as our 'success story'. And if we dump her now, and the truth gets out ... that's bad PR."
Piggot's expression was as sour as her voice. "Please don't tell me you're going where I think you're going with this."
Richardson's voice was meditative. "Ms Hebert, the victim, has expressed a desire for her not to go to juvenile detention."
Renick frowned. "Get to the point."
"The point, I believe, is that we desperately need all the capes we can get out there. On the streets."
"So you're saying to put her back on the streets." Piggot's voice was disbelieving.
"Still on probation," Richardson hastened to add. "Under supervision at all times."
"There's one big problem," the Director stated flatly. "We still have the problem, as Aegis pointed out, that nobody likes to partner her on patrol. Buzz was the only person who seemed to get along with her. Now that this has happened -"
I cleared my throat. "I'll still partner her."
My statement could not have stopped her more thoroughly if I had asked Armsmaster to marry me. She stared at me; Armsmaster's helmet swivelled to point straight at me. Even Shadow Stalker was eyeing me as though I had grown two heads and started dancing the polka.
Shadow Stalker was the first to speak. "The fuck?" Her tone was heavy with disbelief.
"Language," responded Armsmaster, but he seemed half-hearted about it. "Ms Hebert – Buzz – do you know what you're saying?"
I nodded. "Yes. I do. You saved my life. You gave me a second chance. Like I said before, I think second chances count for something." I took a deep breath. "Look, if anyone has the right to demand that Shadow Stalker gets punted straight into juvey, it's me. She's hurt me more than … let's just say, she's done a lot to me. But if I'm willing to plead her case, that should say something."
"Yeah," Sophia replied directly. "It says you're nuts. Giving me another chance after … after what I did to you? You have to be." But her expression said something else; the wariness was back. She seemed to be trying to figure out where I was coming from, and failing.
"As much as I hate to agree with Shadow Stalker on anything … " murmured Aegis.
"No. I'm not." I looked squarely at the Director. "What would help the city more? To have Sophia Hess in juvenile detention, or to have Shadow Stalker out on the streets, saving people, doing good?"
It was a question with only one answer, and she knew it; her lips tightened. However, she rallied, as I had suspected that she would. "We can't allow her to just go out again and not suffer any penalties," she insisted. "It would send entirely the wrong message. In fact, doing this at all sends the wrong message."
"She's right," declared Armsmaster. "Crimes must be punished."
"It depends on the message, and how it's sent," Mr Richardson – I just couldn't think of him as Gerard – put in unexpectedly. "After all, if there is precedent for a supervillain to change sides and become one of the good guys, then there's precedent for a Ward gone wrong to turn over a new leaf and learn to better her ways."
Silence fell over the table; Director Piggot looked as though she had bitten into a particularly sour lemon. I wondered which superhero – which supervillain – Mr Richardson was referring to; it certainly didn't sound as though he was making an example up on the spot. Sophia, Ms Bright, Armsmaster and Renick all looked toward the Director for her response. Dad squeezed my hand again and leaned in close to me. "I hope you know what you're doing," he murmured. I didn't reply, but I nodded fractionally. So do I.
When Piggot next spoke, her tone was cautious, as if picking her words with care. "So, you're proposing that you will partner Shadow Stalker. Act as her probation officer, so to speak. Watch her to ensure that she doesn't transgress again."
I nodded. "Yes. In costume and at school." A shrug. "What she does at home isn't my problem."
"Oh, in the off-chance that we go along with this," the Director declared, "I will insist on a tracking bracelet that will only be disabled while Ms Hess is at school or on Wards business. When she's at home, she'll be under house arrest. Also, just so that she doesn't get the mistaken idea that she may be getting off scot free, her wages will be garnished; half her Wards pay will be going to you as partial compensation for her crimes." Her gaze on me sharpened. "Is that satisfactory?"
"Um, okay, sure," I agreed.
"Uh, Emily, Buzz may be capable, but she's not a qualified legal adult." This was the Deputy Director.
The Director shut him down with a gesture. "You're certain that you can do this? Ensure that she doesn't embarrass us again?"
I wanted to smile, but I repressed it. "I would demonstrate, but this might make you nervous. But yes, I can keep track of Sophia every minute, every second, that I'm within range of her. Trust me, you've never had a probation officer like me."
Piggot still wasn't convinced. "And this won't limit your heroic capabilities? Or impinge upon your academic studies?"
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Sophia objected. "You're all talking about me like I wasn't here. Don't I get a say in this?"
I met her eyes. "Yes. You do. You get to say 'yes', or you get to say 'send me to juvey, pretty please with flowers on top'. You don't get a third option."
Her gaze was challenging. "Maybe I don't mind going to juvey. Maybe I'd prefer it than have you watching over my shoulder with your goddamn bugs, morning, noon and night. Ever think of that?"
Her words were one thing, but under the tone was something else. Something that seemed to say, convince me …
"In which case, you go to juvey." My shrug was pure unconcern. "I really don't give a shit. I'm not married to the idea of you staying out; if you don't want to do it, then I can not, and will not, force you to do it. I'm just saying this because I don't want to send you on a one-way trip without at least giving you a chance to make right what you've done."
"Make right. Hah." Her sneer was magnificent. "Same old wimpy Hebert. Can't face up to sending me away."
Almost, I took the bait. Almost, I turned away. But I didn't. I'd seen that look a thousand times before, and this time, to me, it rang hollow. There was no conviction behind it, merely habit. So I didn't take the bait, didn't condemn her, as some small part of me wanted to. Instead, I matched her, sneer for sneer. "Maybe. Or maybe you're too weak to face up to what you've done."
A long blink. "The fuck did you just say to me?"
"You heard." I paused for effect. "Coward."
"No." She shook her head. "No. You do not get to say that shit to me."
The script was running on track. "Prove me wrong." My tone was challenging. "Run away and hide in juvey … or prove that you're brave enough to be a real hero."
"I am a real hero!" I had broken through to the real Shadow Stalker; now, I saw real anger on the surface, not just simmering away in the depths.
Leaning back, I folded my arms. "Haven't seen it yet. All I've seen is someone who's so brave they have to have friends along to bully one skinny fifteen year old."
For a moment, I thought that I might have gone too far. The glint in Sophia's eyes promised me dire retribution. But then she got a hold of herself; she knew as well as I did where this would go if she kept shouting. Already, Ms Bright was grasping her by the shoulder.
She shook off her probation officer and glared at me. "I can stick it out as long as you can."
"So that's a yes?" I asked.
Grudgingly, she nodded. "Yes."
"Director Piggot." My tone was formal. "Do you have a problem with this?"
"Many." Hers was less than thrilled. "But when one deals with parahumans, it seems that one must make compromises." She glared at me, then at Sophia, with what seemed to be equal amounts of venom. "Ms Hebert, I do not appreciate having my meetings hijacked like this. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am." I nodded respectfully.
Next, she looked to Mr Richardson. "Gerard. Do you see a potential PR hazard in this?"
"No, ma'am." He shook his head. "In fact, if this goes through, it solves a potential problem in the making."
Her jaw muscles tightened. "I was afraid of that." Before I could work up the nerve to ask her what she meant by that, she was going on. "Buzz. You will partner Shadow Stalker. You will monitor her activities. Ms Bright, as her previous probation officer, will be your immediate supervisor in this matter. You will call her at any time of night or day if you have any queries, problems, or even if you just want to discuss the case or get advice."
Her gaze switched to Kirsten Bright. "You will make yourself available to Buzz twenty-four seven. You will help her to the very best of your ability. I will expect a written report for myself, and the Deputy Director, at the end of each week." Pausing, she looked back and forth between the pair of us. "If Shadow Stalker goes off the reservation in any way, at any time, I want to know about it."
She glared at me. "You will not soft pedal. You will not omit something because it was a 'one time thing'. You will not give her 'one last chance'. If she does something that would violate her probation, then I want to hear about it soonest."
Sophia opened her mouth to protest, but Piggot was already swinging toward her. "Shadow Stalker. You are beyond your last warning. You don't get an appeal; screw up from this and you are gone. Buzz, through some improbable level of goodness in her heart, is giving you this chance. She could just as easily have condemned you." She pointed at me, while still looking at Sophia. "There sits your very best friend. Her goodwill is all that stands between you and juvenile detention." A pause. "Is there any part of this that you do not understand?"
"Yeah." Sophia's gaze on me was once more challenging. "Why? And don't give me that 'second chance' bullshit. I want to know why you're really doing this. 'Cause if it's just to psych me out before dropping me in the shit, then forget it. I'm not playing."
"I've been out with you." My voice was quiet, but everyone in the room heard it. "I've seen you in action. You're good at what you do. When you want to be, you're a hero." I paused, thinking of what I was going to say next; she went to speak, but I waved her to silence. Wonder of wonders, she heeded me.
Taking a deep breath, I continued. "When I didn't know who you were, when you didn't know who I was, we got along. We worked well together. We were friends." Pausing, I grimaced. "I don't think that's going to happen again, not for a long time, if ever. That bridge burned down a long time ago. But we don't have to be friends to be teammates, to work well together. We just need the will to do it. I'm prepared to give it a shot. Are you?"
She gave me a long, considering stare. "And what if I said no? Next stop juvey?"
I glanced at the Director; she gave me a nod. "Yeah," I told Sophia. "That's about the size of it. Is that what you want? Because you seemed pretty chill about it, earlier."
Sophia snorted. "Yeah, no, fuck that. Juvey can kiss my muscular black ass."
Director Piggot frowned. "I'm still not totally convinced that this is a good idea, but Buzz has made a good argument. Deputy Director?"
Renick pushed his glasses up on his nose, and peered at me through them. "Ms Hebert, are you certain that you want to take on this level of responsibility?"
"If I don't, then who will?" I looked at him directly. "The way I see it, the PRT has not only failed me, by letting Sophia have her head to torment me, but it also failed Sophia, by neglecting to set and enforce boundaries on her actions. Sure, she should have been more responsible, but let's get real, here. Teenagers with superpowers are a powder keg with a lit fuse anyway. Bad judgement is something that we do really good, and that's without powers to mess up our heads."
Sophia brightened. "Hey, yeah, that's right. I'm not responsible -"
"Shut up, Sophia."
She shot me a glare. "Make me."
"I'm warning you, you won't like it." My tone was mild.
"Yeah, what're -" She broke off, coughing, as a bug flew down her throat.
"Told you that you wouldn't like it." I turned back to Renick. "I've made my own mistakes – who doesn't? – but I'm trying to learn from them. I want to give Sophia the chance to learn from hers."
Sophia was still coughing; Aegis helpfully slapped her on the back. The bug flew out of her throat and buzzed away. Sophia shot me a dirty look. "That was fucked up."
"Sophia." My voice was still mild. "Don't test me."
There was a long pause, as Sophia eyed me critically, as if she were trying to determine exactly how serious I was. Perhaps she even recalled what she had said about my bug control being badass. Whatever her thought process, she gave me a grudging nod.
"Okay," she agreed. "I can work with this."
I nodded in return. Boundary set.
"Good." I looked at the others. "So what else do we need to do here?"
Mr Richardson raised his head. "Shadow Stalker is already attending therapy. I would like to recommend that Buzz also attends regular therapy sessions, and that they attend joint sessions. No matter their good intentions, it's almost certain that the tensions between them will crop up again, unless they're dealt with."
I wasn't sure if I liked that idea. "Dad?"
"It's a good idea, kiddo." He squeezed my hand for emphasis.
If I can't trust Dad, who can I trust? "Okay, I accept," I stated firmly. "Sophia, you on board with this?"
Sophia frowned. "No, fuck that. No way I … " She trailed off. After a moment, she cleared her throat. "You know what? Great idea. Joint therapy for me, all the way."
Now, that's weird, even for her. I stared at her, trying to figure out the reason for her sudden about-turn. She was staring back at me, as were Aegis and Ms Bright.
No, wait. They're looking past me. I turned, as did Dad and Mr Richardson. To my right, the Director also turned.
The large window overlooking the city had been admitting bright sunlight just a few moments ago; now it was darkening, covered by thousands and thousands of bugs, with more arriving every second.
"Huh," I muttered. "Sorry. Didn't mean to do that. They tend to swarm when I'm irritated or upset or frustrated." I told the swarm to disperse, and they did; moments later, there was not a one to be seen.
"I see," replied the Deputy Director. "Does this happen often?"
"Not really," I assured him. "As soon as I notice it, I just tell them to go away. They don't go apocalyptic on the city or anything."
"I'm pretty sure that we would have noticed such a thing," Mr Richardson agreed gravely.
Director Piggot cleared her throat. "I'm approving therapy for both Buzz and Shadow Stalker. Ms Hess, be warned that failing to turn up for a joint session will be -"
" - a violation of probation, got it," Sophia finished. "Don't worry, I'll show. I don't think I want Buzzpocalypse there mad at me."
I eyed her suspiciously. The 'Buzzpocalypse' line seemed a little close to our 'bugpocalypse' joke. Is she just putting on a show? Pretending reluctance, because that's what people expect of her?
Director Piggot was looking around the room. "Was there anything else before we conclude this?"
Dad raised his hand briefly. "Yeah. I want the other girls that have been bullying Taylor to be brought to account."
"We can inform the police of the matter," the Deputy Director agreed. "Show them the evidence you brought us."
"Plus a sworn statement from Sophia," I added. "That should nail it down nicely."
Sophia eyed me for a few moments, then shrugged. "Sure. I was going to be cutting ties with those bitches anyway."
Ms Bright stirred. "I can see to that if you want, Director."
Piggot shook her head. "No. I want you to stay, once we're done here. We need to discuss your … reporting priorities."
"Yes, Director." Kirsten Bright did not look particularly happy at the idea. Not that I cared all that much about her happiness; if she had enabled Sophia in what she did, I gave the Director all joy in that conversation.
"I'll deal with it," Mr Richardson offered. "She'd need to bring them to me to get them notarised anyway."
Piggot nodded. "See to it." She looked around the table. "Any other business?"
No-one had any; she nodded. "Meeting over. Shadow Stalker, Buzz, you're rostered off until tomorrow morning. Roster sheets will be posted up in the Wards' base. Aegis, Ms Bright, please wait back a moment. Armsmaster, Paul, a moment also, please. Everyone else, dismissed."
Outside the meeting room, Mr Richardson turned to Sophia, Dad and me. "I can do those statements now if you want," he told us. "My office is just along this way."
"So you're a notary public as well as what you do here?" asked Dad as we followed him.
"In addition to Public Relations officer, yes," Mr Richardson explained. "It's amazing how many documents need to be witnessed on a daily basis in a building this size."
"I can't even imagine," I commented truthfully.
"Let's just say 'enough' and leave it at that," he replied with a warm chuckle. "Here we are now. If you can just wait for a moment, I'll get the forms so you can write up the statements; Mr Hebert, I'll get you to witness them, and I'll notarise them."
We took our seats in the outer office area; I glanced at Sophia. "You aren't saying much."
Her shrug was minimal. "Waiting for the, whaddaya call it, other shoe to drop."
"Trust me," I told her. "You'll know when it does."
She paused and lowered her voice. "Tell me something."
I moved my seat closer to hers. "What?"
"What you said in there. Did you really mean all of that, or were you just fucking with me?"
"I meant it," I told her immediately. "As Shadow Stalker, I like you. But you're also Sophia Hess. Who I can't stand, for obvious reasons."
She nodded. "Well, yeah. Can't exactly blame you for that."
"Yeah. So here's the question. Are you still basically the bitch who bullied me for eighteen months for shits and giggles, or are you the superhero who trusted me to get a bandaging job right, and who saved me from falling to my death? Wrong answer, you'll be going back to juvey pretty soon. Right answer, you stay a Ward. Your choice."
She frowned, as if trying to work through something. "So wait, what you're saying is that you're still willing to give me a fair shake. Just because I wasn't a dick to you, the first time we met in costume."
I thought about that. "Basically, yes," I conceded.
" ... huh." Sophia sounded almost puzzled. "I'm going to have to think about that."
"Aegis." Director Piggot's tone was hard, even harsh.
"You brought this on us with your insensitive handling of the situation."
"Ma'am, yes, but I -"
"I wasn't finished."
"You could have driven Buzz away for good, or caused Shadow Stalker to suffer permanent injury or even death."
"Ma'am, I was trying -"
"- to do something you weren't trained for, and didn't know how not to do."
There was a long pause. "Yes, ma'am."
"You're being relieved of the position of the leader of the Wards. I am appointing Clockblocker in your place. You will undergo whatever training I deem necessary until you are fit to lead the Wards again. Do you understand?"
She waited till the door was closed, then turned to Kirsten Bright. "Now, Ms Bright. This whole fiasco could have been avoided if you had just paid more attention and done your job as you were instructed to do."
Pale-faced, Kirsten nodded without speaking.
"Even more than Aegis, you are at fault here. There had to be some mention of Ms Hess' tendency toward aggressive interactions with the other students."
"If there was, I don't know what it was," Kirsten replied defensively. "Her grades were acceptable, she was getting prizes in track and field - "
"Complaints?" asked Armsmaster. "Detentions?"
"A few," admitted Kirsten. "But every kid gets detention at some point or another."
"So why was I not informed of any of them?" asked Piggot harshly.
"I, uh, didn't want to bother you -"
"Well, guess what. What bothers me is that you failed to keep us in the loop, and as a result, this happened." The Director leaned forward. "Not unlike Shadow Stalker, you have one last chance. Don't screw it up."
As the door closed behind Kirsten Bright, Piggot leaned back in her chair with a sigh.
"Make you feel any better?" asked Renick.
Piggot shook her head. "Not really," she admitted. "Hess is pretty devious. Caught us all on the back foot."
"You think Buzz will be able to handle her?" asked Armsmaster. "She is only new."
"For both their sakes, I hope so," muttered the Director.
"Well, fuck you too!"
I paused at the entrance to the cafeteria. Sophia was storming away from a seated group of girls, which included Emma and Madison. She saw me and almost visibly decided not to alter course to avoid me. Once outside in the corridor, she stopped and punched the wall.
"Problems?" I asked mildly.
"You weren't listening in?" She was breathing heavily, clenching and unclenching her fists.
"I rarely do." Plus, bugs have crappy hearing.
"Fucking Emma." Her voice was a growl.
"Not that I don't agree, but what about fucking Emma?"
She rolled her eyes. "She's pissed at me because of that statement. Wants me to use my 'Wards influence' to step in on her side." She didn't make air quotes; I suspected that she would punch anyone else who did so in her presence.
"And you told her that you couldn't or wouldn't," I guessed.
She punched the wall again, not as hard. "So she 'just happened' to mention the dirt that she and her dad have on me. Stuff that could come out if it comes to court."
I had my phone out. "Bad stuff?"
"Stuff the PRT doesn't know about yet." Which made it bad, almost by definition. "What are you doing?"
"Damage control." I hit the speed dial for Kirsten Bright.
Three rings later, she answered. "Yes?"
"Got a potential problem. Here's Sophia."
I handed the phone over, and Sophia had a brief muttered conversation. I didn't try too hard to listen in, but I didn't walk away either. I caught references to 'he just fell' and 'had a gun', but that was about it.
When she was finished, she handed the phone back. "She wants to talk to you."
I held it to my ear. "Yeah?"
"Thanks for contacting me on this. I'll get our legal team on to it immediately. Director Piggot will want to speak to Sophia about withholding information. Anything else?"
"Not at the moment."
"I'll talk to you later then."
I put the phone away and turned to Sophia. "Anything you want to talk about?"
"Not right now."
"Fine then. How about telling me something else?"
She eyed me suspiciously. "Like what?"
"Like why Emma turned on me like she did."
"What, you don't know?"
"No, Sophia, I don't know."
"Huh. Okay, sure, I'll tell you."
I sat, staring into space. Sophia nudged my shoulder. "You okay?"
"Huh? Yeah. I just can't believe it."
"Can't believe what?"
"Can't believe that that crock of shit is what put me through utter hell for eighteen months."
"Hey." Her voice was defensive. "That 'crock of shit' got me through some bad times."
"And it put me through some pretty damn bad times, too." I gave her a hard look. "So what are you gonna do?"
She sighed. "Yeah, I know. Geez, if I'd known you were gonna be busting my balls like this … "
I waited; she didn't go on. "Yes?"
She grimaced. "This 'feeling sorry' shit sucks big time."
"Get to the point sometime this century, already."
"Fine." It was a sigh. "I was hoping I wouldn't have to go through with this." Opening her bag, she pulled out a long narrow cardboard box and offered it to me.
I didn't take it. "What is it?" I asked suspiciously. "And go through with what?"
"Open it," she told me. "You'll see." She seemed to be bracing herself for something unpleasant.
Cautiously, I took the box and opened it. Inside, it was lined with tissue paper. In the tissue paper …
I fumbled it out of the box, heedless of the litter I was dropping on the floor. The flute was old, worn. The damage once done to it had been carefully repaired; the marks of it were still there, but that was all they were, marks. I looked it over, trying to blink back the tears that welled in my eyes.
"My mother's flute."
She nodded, still apparently bracing herself. "Yeah. I got it back from Emma, the day after you stood up for me. Took me awhile to do something with it. And when I did, it cost me almost all my savings. But yeah, this is kind of me saying sorry. Okay?"
I grabbed her, hugged her, squeezed her tightly. "Thank you," I breathed. "Thank you."
Slowly, her arms went around me. "Yeah, don't make a habit of this, all right? I still don't know how to deal with this emotional bullshit."
Grinning through the tears that were now running down my face, I gave her an extra squeeze before letting her go. "No promises, Sophia. No promises."
[A/N: Buzz and Shadow Stalker may return in a sequel to Confrontation, but this is as far as this story covers. Thank you for reading.]