One Bad Day

Part Ten: That Escalated Quickly

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

"Okay, enough with the doom and gloom," I announced before Amy could hit the downward spiral again. I was actually getting pretty good at spotting the signs. "We have momentum right now, so we need to keep it going. The next person on our list is Gallant."

Neither of the Pelham kids showed any surprise at that revelation, though Laserdream put her hand up. "Not Mom or Dad? They'd both be chill with this, once they knew what was really going on."

"I did think of that," Amy said. "But Dean knows Vicky a lot better, and he can also tell if I'm lying to him. With him on the inside rather than the outside, it becomes a lot easier to convince everyone else to at least give us a hearing."

"By which she means," snarked Aisha, "get them to stand still long enough that we can take them down anyway if they decide to fuck us around." She looked around as Amy and I glared at her. "What? You were all thinking it."

"That's as may be," Dad remarked, keeping his tone free of accusation. "But sometimes diplomacy involves not actually saying out loud what everyone's thinking."

Aisha let out a derisive raspberry. "Do I look like I do diplomacy?"

"No, you don't." Lisa's tone was deadly serious. "And before you start, I know what you're thinking. Danny's being all adult and boring. But he's really not. The rest of us can't turn on a don't-notice-me field and just walk away when things don't go our way. We've got to wear our mistakes."

"Says miss 'I can talk anyone around'," jeered Aisha. "I've seen the shit you can pull."

I saw Lisa visibly choose not to sigh, or do anything else that might cause Aisha to think she was being talked down to. "Yeah, I can pull serious shit. That's totally true. But I need two things for that to work." She tapped her temple. "First, I need some kind of exposure to their life, so I can put together the hints and build a picture to work from. And second, I need them to be listening. I can't reason with someone if they're just intent on punching me in the face."

"Never let the Thinker talk," said Amy unexpectedly. "Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil drilled that into us over and over again. If we let someone start talking, there was a chance they'd be able to make anything sound reasonable, turn us against the rest of the team. That's why so few heroes do the hero-villain banter like you see on the kids' shows."

"I always wondered about that." I shook my head. "I just put it down to reality not being the same as Saturday morning cartoons. Never realised there was an actual reason behind it."

Shielder lifted his chin. "Mouse Protector does the banter. And cheese puns. So some heroes do it."

Jabbing him gently in the ribs with her elbow, Laserdream rolled her eyes. "Mouse Protector knows what she's doing. Also, you'll note she spends more time talking than listening. Nothing throws a Thinker off more than having to think up a different killer argument because someone made a terrible cheese pun based on the last one."

Lisa nodded. "Can confirm. Anyway, back to the original topic." She returned her attention to Aisha. "You're a valuable member of the team, and we couldn't do what we're doing without you," she said, sincerely enough that I believed her. "But everyone's got their part to play, and every step we take from here on in gets more and more dangerous. I mean, I can see how tempting it is to just grab them without giving them a choice in the matter. And with your power, it would totally be easy."

Aisha wrinkled her nose and gave Lisa a suspicious look. "Yeah, it would be. So why can't I?"

I shared a glance with Amy. Lisa was good at this. Amy had just flat-out said 'never let the Thinker talk', and yet there was Aisha doing exactly that.

"Because every time we go to pick up someone else, the more chance we've got that they'll have a problem with it." Lisa waved at us all. "We're good, and getting better all the time, but if just one person gets away because they were spooked by something going wrong with a grab, Vicky might never get all of herself back … and that's even if everything else goes perfectly."

"Which it won't." Amy and I spoke at the same time. We'd spent enough time around Lisa to spot a cue when we saw one.

Dad cleared his throat in a 'Dad pronouncement' kind of way. "If everything's going better than expected, you're not in possession of all the facts." From the way he said it, it sounded like a quote from somewhere.

Aisha gave us a sour look. "You're all killjoys and I don't like you anymore."

"Do you like me, Most Esteemed Aisha?" asked Vicky plaintively.

Almost immediately, the scowl melted off Aisha's face. "'Course I do, Vicky." She took the blonde's hand in hers. "C'mon, I'll brush your hair for you. It'll look wicked awesome."

Vicky smiled, her mood brightening immediately. "Yay! I like it when my hair is brushed."

As they headed to the area we'd set aside for sleeping arrangements (we were kind of spoiled for choice, given the size of Coil's base) I glanced at Lisa and saw her let out a tiny sigh of relief. "Like herding cats," she muttered under her breath.

"You're doing fine," Dad assured her. "Better than I would, anyway. Union meetings I can handle, but teenagers speak a whole different language."

"… said every adult ever, forgetting that they also used to be teenagers," Amy snarked. Laserdream giggled and Shielder chuckled.

Dad raised a finger. "Ah, but in my day, we were polite and respectful to our elders."

I snorted with amusement. "That's not what Gram told me that one time."

Dramatically, he clutched his hand to his chest. "Curses! Undone!"

Amy rolled her eyes, but cracked a smile. Laserdream and Shielder laughed out loud, while Lisa just shook her head and smirked.

"Okay, then," she said once we'd gotten over Dad's attempt at humour. "Do we go after Gallant in his civilian identity—that is, at home, or out and about with friends—or while he's in costume?"

"And how do we draw him in?" I asked. "We can't use Vicky as bait. No matter how we coached her, there's no telling how she'd act once she doesn't have one of us there. Also, the moment he looks at her, his powers will tell him there's something badly wrong with her, and he'll be on guard."

"Let's look at the pros and cons," Dad decided. "What are the benefits and problems of going after him when he's in costume?"

Amy took that one up. "It would have to be while he was on patrol as a Ward. Two cons I can think of, off the top of my head. First, he's got that armour, so it's a lot harder to hit him with something to disable him if necessary. Second, he'll have a partner with him."

"Pro," Laserdream said. "They aren't on the comms one hundred percent of the time. If they go radio silent for a few minutes, nobody panics."

Lisa nodded, looking serious. I didn't know what she was thinking, but I was most concerned about the potential partner. If it was someone like Clockblocker, also in a full-body costume, it would be almost impossible to disable them both at the same time without actually initiating full-on combat. And asking Vicky to lightly tap them in her current state of mind was just asking for a tragedy.

"Okay, then." Dad had acquired a notepad from somewhere and was writing in it. "So, pros and cons of grabbing him out of costume?"

"Once school starts up again, me or Eric could just walk up to him and say we wanted to talk to him," Laserdream offered. "That's a lot easier than doing it in costume while we're on patrol. That's a pro. Also, the Wards are under orders not to congregate at school too much, so he's unlikely to have anyone else seeing something suspicious."

"His power's on more or less all the time, or so Vicky told me once." Amy's tone was heavy. "You're gonna need to be upbeat. No tension, no readiness to fight. Any of that, and shit will go sideways faster than an outhouse in a tornado."

Shielder—Eric—let out a bark of laughter. "Holy shit, Amy. I love it. Where'd you get that one from?"

"Aisha," Lisa explained briefly. "Okay, cons for grabbing him out of costume." She ticked off her fingers. "There's the unwritten rules about going after capes in their civilian identities …"

Amy rolled her eyes. "As opposed to the actual laws about kidnapping teens, capes or otherwise. But yeah, if we make it loud, we'll have the Protectorate and PRT coming after us with everything. Not to mention everyone the Stansfields can whip into action against us, with their money." She raised her eyebrows in a query. "I'm guessing me and Vicky are kinda the centre of the news, right now?"

Laserdream—Crystal—nodded. "You guess right. Nobody's quite sure where you've gotten to, and the rumours are spreading thick and fast. Someone actually saw you kissing Vicky, so that's out there spawning its own stories as well. Fortunately, not many people believe them."

"They don't need to." Lisa shook her head. "Scandal sells. People will push it onward because they want it to be true. But I think I see what you're getting at. Grabbing Gallant will draw a direct line back to Vicky and make people think that her friends are being targeted."

"Which they are," I chimed in. "Only not in the way they think."

"Won't matter that it's for Vicky's benefit." Amy didn't look or sound happy. "People will react stupidly, because people. We don't just need to get Dean, but we need to get him on side." She nodded to Eric and Crystal. "The more people we can convince that what we need to do is the right thing to do, the better."

Crystal pursed her lips. "Well … I'm personally still not convinced that going to Toybox is the best idea. I mean, they sell to criminals all the time, which makes them criminals. But I do understand that it's a huge problem and that Vicky needs help, and I can't think of a better plan right at this second. I mean, one that doesn't involve dealing with supervillains."

"You need to get rid of those preconceptions," Lisa advised her briskly. "I'm a supervillain. Aisha's not officially one or the other, but she's more likely to shape up as a villain than a hero. Taylor's killed people, stabbed someone who was trying to kill her, and attacked law enforcement with her powers. There's none of us here, except for maybe Taylor's dad, who's actually innocent in all this."

"Aiding and abetting," Dad said promptly.

"And there you go." Lisa gave Crystal a hard stare. "The heroes would likely take her away for therapy, ignoring the fact that she's missing bits they could never recover. Because they automatically think that they know better. Right now, us villains and criminal lowlife types are her best chance at ever getting back to a normal life again."

I carefully didn't look at her or Amy. What she wasn't saying was that if outside interference made it impossible to fix Vicky, Amy's reaction would be … unpredictable. Terrifyingly so. It might range all the way from turning herself in to face the music, to committing suicide, to lashing out at the world around her. Or more than one of the above.

I really, really didn't want to have to gamble on her state of mind if it all went wrong.

"Okay," I said. "So, do we really want to wait until the third? That's over a week away. Or do we do it as soon as possible?"

"I'm not waiting," Amy said immediately. "Vicky can't afford to wait. Every day she's like this, her brain's likely to get more used to being like this, and it'll be harder to fix the damage."

"Well, school would be easier," Lisa said slowly. "But it won't make it impossible. The upsides still outweigh the downsides. Here's how we'll do it …"

I'd once heard a quote about no plan surviving contact with the enemy. Hopefully, this wasn't one of those times.

Stansfield Household
Monday, December 27

Dean waved his hand at a fly, then went back to reading. Since getting his powers, he'd taken to enjoying a good mystery novel more than he liked watching movies. Looking at people on the screen and not being able to discern their motives tended to be a little disorienting, especially with the wash of emotions from the other moviegoers. But words on paper were sufficiently disconnected from reality that he could build the scene in his head without much problem.

The doorbell went off and he waved at the fly again, more or less at the same moment. How were they getting in, he wondered. Also, why was he the focus of their attention?

"Dean, can you get the door?" his mother called out from the kitchen.

Already distracted from the novel, he slid a bookmark into place and put it down. "Okay, Mom," he called back. Climbing to his feet, he headed through the living room to the entrance hall. Just as he got there, the doorbell rang again. "Coming!" he called out.

He wasn't sure who would be calling unannounced like this. His friends all had cellphones, and would text ahead before showing up on his doorstep. Likewise, his parents hadn't mentioned anyone coming over.

Maybe it's Vicky? She's back from wherever she went, and she wants to surprise me? That would certainly fit with Vicky's impetuous nature, though he'd want to know chapter and verse about where she'd been and why.

With that in mind, already half-convincing himself he was right, he unlocked the door and opened it. His eager gaze found … not Vicky. In fact, two people who weren't Vicky. One was a girl of slightly above average height with rich auburn hair and a knowing smirk; her friend was a couple of years younger, darker skinned, with a purple streak through her hair. Both wore Girl Scout uniforms, and the redhead carried a clipboard. Behind them, a car with a garish iridescent purple paint-job idled at the curb.

That was his first impression. The second impression was that the younger girl was bubbling over with ill-concealed mischief, while her older compatriot had a feeling of purpose about her. Also smugness. Lots of smugness.

Dean had been a member of the Scouts before he got his powers and went into the Wards, and so he'd associated with the distaff side of the organisation from time to time. As such, he had a lot of respect for them, and had no problem assisting them with their fundraising efforts. Though he wasn't precisely sure why the older girl would be feeling so smug, unless it was because they were hitting the jackpot with selling cookies, two days after Christmas.

In any case, it wasn't his business. "Oh, hey," he greeted them. "That time of year again, huh? How's it going?"

"Oh, we're batting a thousand so far." The redhead's smugness actually increased slightly, while her partner's sense of mischief almost went off the charts. "So, did you want to buy anything today?" She tapped the clipboard with her pen.

Dean frowned. His fellow-feeling toward the Girl Scouts notwithstanding, he wasn't really in the mood for thin mints right at that moment. Plus, they'd been doing well before they got to his house, so they didn't need his assistance. "Um, maybe later?"

Something weird happened then. As he turned around to go back into the house, he found himself turning again to look at the redhead. A vague question floated through his head—wasn't there two of them?—before the girl stepped forward. "Are you certain, sir?" Her tone was anything but deferential, and her emotions matched it. "We have an extremely special offer on today."

What is this? he wondered, even as he found his hand reaching out to accept the clipboard that she handed him. He'd been trained in basic self-defence for the Wards, and he was pretty sure he could handle one teenage Girl Scout. If that's what she is. Still, there was no ill intent in her emotional mix, just rock-solid purpose. And if need be, he could smack her down with a sense of crippling insecurity while he called the cops.

Turning the clipboard to look at what was written on it, Dean froze.

Vicky needs your help.

Before he could speak, the redhead began to talk again, her voice pitched low. "This is not a hostage situation. Vicky's hurt, but not in a way the PRT or Protectorate can do anything about. You are one of the few people who can help her. We need your assistance. Will you give it?"

His mind racing, Dean tried to get his thoughts in order. "Who are you?" he managed. "What's going on here? Where's Vicky? What happened to her?"

In response, she leaned forward and used the pen to tap a section of the clipboard a little farther down. He blinked and read what was written there.

Not important right this second. Call me Lisa.
Vicky's hurt. We're trying to fix this. Try to keep up.
In a safe place. Amy's taking care of her.
Long story.

"I could give you chapter and verse, but your mom will soon be wondering why you haven't come back inside already," 'Lisa' said, her whole manner brimming with certitude. "Everything that's written down there is true."

And his power told him that whatever else she was up to, she wasn't lying about that. It was either all true, or else she was someone else's patsy in some grand scheme or another … and she didn't strike him as being anyone's patsy.

Of course, that was secondary to what she'd just done. "How did you know—"

"Really?" She raised her eyebrows and gave him a level stare. "Are we seriously going to go through this? Figure it out … Gallant."

"You're a Thinker." It was glaringly obvious, once he stopped and thought about it. His secret identity she could probably have learned elsewhere, but there was no way she could've anticipated what he was about to say without using powers.

"Correct." Her bottle-green eyes bored into him. "Now. Glory Girl needs your help. Not right this very instant, but she will need it soon. Or rather, we'll need you to help us help her. Is any of this sinking in, or do I need to go over it again from the top?"

"I want to help, of course, but how—"

"Mistakes were made." She cut his question off before it was properly started. "Shit happened. Me and some friends of mine are working to unfuck the situation, but we're going to need the cooperation of basically everyone who knows her well."

"Why can't the PRT or Protectorate—"

"Because they'll screw it up royally. There's exactly one way to fix this. And no, Panacea can't do it. She's part of the problem."

"Part of the problem? How? She can fix anything." Even as he said it, Dean knew that wasn't exactly true. Brains had always been Panacea's one loophole. Anything else, she could fix. Brains, not so much.

'Lisa' was staring perceptively at him. "More than you think, less than you know. So, we good?"

He stared at her, his Wards training coming to the fore. "You've given me almost nothing and fobbed me off with a bunch of generalisations, and you want me to be satisfied with that? What do you think?"

"I haven't lied to you once," she replied steadily. "Now, you can take it on faith that what I'm saying is all up-front and honest, or—"

"That's the problem," he said, interrupting her. "You're a Thinker. The 'truth' you've told me is so ambiguous that I can't use it to base anything on. Hell, you fooled me into thinking you were a Girl Scout. I can't believe anything you say without independent verification."

She huffed a sigh. "Okay, fine. Tell your mom you're going out. We'll take you to where Vicky is and give you the full story. But don't say I didn't warn you."

Dean paused. Just for a moment, he heard Rory say in the back of his mind, Wait, you got in a car with a bunch of strangers without telling anyone?

"I, uh, I can do that," he said. As soon as he was inside, he'd send a text to Rory and have the Wards home in on his phone signal.

"No." 'Lisa' shook her head. "Weren't you listening? This is not a situation that will be improved by getting more heroes involved. Who were you going to alert? Armsmaster or Triumph? Right, Triumph. Bad idea. He'll get the PRT involved, and that will only have a—" She turned her head to look toward the street. "Oh, shit. You didn't call them? No, you didn't have the time."

"Call who?" Dean followed her line of sight. He didn't immediately recognise the car that pulled up, but the people who got out were another matter altogether, despite the fact that they were in civilian clothing. Sarah Pelham and Carol Dallon; Lady Photon and Brandish. "No, I didn't call them. What are they doing here?"

"Same as me, but from the other side of things." 'Lisa' kept her voice down. "They think you might have an insight for where Vicky is. This was Brandish's idea."

Dean's mind moved quickly. He did have an insight toward Vicky's location; the faux Girl Scout right in front of him. Specifically, she knew where Vicky was. She was definitely a Thinker, but there were no Wards or Protectorate Thinkers in the city, redheaded ones or otherwise. Which made her a villain or a rogue, and he was in no way comfortable knowing that the girl he loved was in the hands of people without heroic intentions in mind. And she still hadn't come clean with him about what had happened to Vicky.

We need more answers than she's willing to give.

'Lisa' dodged backward, even before he reached for her. "Shit—no—don't—you idiot—" Her emotions were swirling into anger and frustration, but he didn't have time to analyse the reasons for this. Vicky's well-being, maybe even her life, was at stake.

He lunged forward and grabbed her arm, trying not to hurt her. 'Gallant' wasn't just his cape name, after all. "Villain alert!" he yelled at the same time, pitching his voice so that the two members of New Wave heard him. "Secure that car!"

Lady Photon, he was pleased to see, was on the ball. Turning to see where he was pointing, she immediately enclosed the car in a glowing force field. Brandish looked from her to the car, then from him to 'Lisa'. Clearly deciding that Lady Photon had matters under control with the car, Brandish approached where he was struggling with the redheaded girl.

'Lisa' was slippery and tenacious, but she was no combat Thinker. It took a little effort, but he finally managed to get her into a compliance hold. Unlike some people, who would keep fighting and hurt themselves, she relaxed and let him maintain the hold with little difficulty.

"You know, this is entirely the wrong way to go about this," she remarked, sounding altogether too calm for someone in her position.

Dean was still working out his answer when Brandish got to them. Close up, it was clear she still wasn't over Flashbang's death. Her makeup went some way toward dispelling the bags under her eyes, but she looked like death warmed over anyway. If he were to make a guess, he figured she'd been having a few bad days of it.

"What's this about?" she asked, and the razor edge in her voice was a match with her roiling emotions. There was not a single hint of lightness in the cloud that metaphorically hung over her head. "Who is this girl?"

"She's a Thinker," panted Dean. "She knows where Vicky is. She says I'm needed to help fix whatever happened to her, but she won't tell me what."

Brandish's eyes, somewhat more bloodshot than the last time Dean had seen them, fixed on Lisa. A glowing blade extended from her hand, as if summoned by magic. The smile on her face was creepy; her voice, even more so. "Oh, I think she will."

'Lisa' twitched, as if trying to pull away from Dean's hold, but reminding herself not to at the last moment. "She's been drinking," she said clearly. "You need to let me go right now, before she decides to torture me in front of you, or even maim or murder me. Because she's totally capable of it."

Dean could see her aura clearly, and each of those statements had the appearance of veracity to it. Of course, she'd managed to misapprehend the truth to his face once already, but it was hard to apply any sort of ambiguity to such definitive statements.

The energy blade drifted close to 'Lisa's face, and she flinched away from it. A couple of strands of red hair drifted to the ground; smoke wafted upward and Dean smelled an acrid odour. "Hey, careful," he said, recalling the girl's words. "All we need to do is ask her questions, then hand her over to the PRT."

"Villains never just answer questions." Brandish's voice was without inflection, but Dean knew that was a lie; her aura was a maelstrom of emotion at that moment. "You have to make them fully aware of what'll happen if they don't answer."

"Touch me again with that blade, and I will make certain that New Wave is ended as a team," 'Lisa' said, her voice almost as steady as Brandish's. Unlike the older woman's aura, hers was saturated with fear. She truly believed that something bad was likely to happen. "I know exactly what to say to get an audience with Director Piggot, and I'll tell her that you convinced Lady Photon to come out here while you're still legally drunk, to Gallant's house, to see if he had any idea where Glory Girl was. All this, flashing your powers around? How soon before the news crews get here, do you think?"

"Won't matter." Brandish looked at 'Lisa' with her head tilted to one side, as if examining a particularly repulsive slime mold. "Sarah and me are already public capes."

"Gallant isn't," 'Lisa' said. "How long before someone puts two and two together, and comes up with 'oh wait, Dean Stansfield is Gallant'? Because why else would the mother and aunt of Glory Girl be visiting his house? And if the Stansfields have to go into protective custody because you can't get through the day without a drink or ten, I'd be most surprised if that doesn't motivate the good Director to re-examine the PRT affiliation with New Wave."

"Shut up," gritted Brandish. "Just shut up, and tell me where the fuck my daughter is." The blade edged closer to 'Lisa's face again.

"Okay, fine," 'Lisa' muttered. "You win. Now."

Now? wondered Dean.

"Now?" asked Brandish. Then the energy blade flickered out and she fell over, convulsing. For an instant, Dean thought he heard a crackling sound.

"What did you do to Carol?" shouted Lady Photon, looking around with concern, even as she maintained the force field around the car. "What's going on?"

"You can let me go, Dean, or you can be tased," 'Lisa' murmured. "Your choice." She raised her voice. "There's one problem with your power, Photon Mom. It doesn't stop other powers from working through it."

"What do you—" Abruptly, Sarah was cut off when a swarm of bugs seemingly coalesced from nowhere and folded around her. Shouting incoherently, trying to brush them off her, she rose into the air. The field she'd had around the car popped out of existence, then she started trying to scrape the blanket of bugs off herself with a multitude of tiny shaped force field projections.

"Are you doing this? How are you doing this?" Dean looked around nervously. On the girl he was still holding captive, the fear was almost all gone, and the smugness was back.

He could hear the smirk in her voice. "Wouldn't you like to know." She paused expectantly. "No? Okay, fine. Do it."


From the safety of the car, I watched as Dean let Lisa go and stumbled back several paces. "She didn't give him as big a jolt as she gave Brandish," I observed, while I vectored several Amy specials—knockout bugs—toward the semi-conscious cape. Even with her system depressed by alcohol, Carol Dallon wouldn't stay down long from Aisha's taser shot. Or maybe she'd stay down because of the alcohol; I really didn't know how that stuff worked.

"That's good," Dad said from the driver's seat. "It's really good, in fact. She's showing restraint."

"So I should hold off from knocking him out?" I asked.

"Hell no," he said at once. "I've seen his type before. There's no way we can count on him staying quiet once we leave, if we don't take him with us. And from the way Lisa was arguing with him, he's just refusing to accept what she's saying."

"What about the other two?" More knockout bugs had been wriggling their way through the swarming mass around Lady Photon, twenty feet in the air. They began to deliver their toxin in measured doses, seeking drowsiness before unconsciousness. We didn't want her to fall to her death, after all.

"What are you doing?" shouted Dean. "What are you doing to them?" His head jerked around as the bugs stung him, and he slapped at them. Amy had planned for this, and they survived the blow easily.

Carol Dallon started to get up but her bugs were already delivering their soporific payload, and she slumped down again. Lisa had mentioned that she might be a bit irrational with the disappearance of Vicky; I mentally upgraded that to 'fucking nuts'.

"I tried to be reasonable," Lisa told him. "I really did." She stepped back out of the way as he reached for her, then grunted as he unloaded an emotion blast into her from close range. Moving away from him, she leaned against the side of the house as he slumped to the ground. Lady Photon landed in a heap beside her sister, the bugs dispersing from her once they were no longer required.

"Shit, shit, shit," I muttered, trying not to panic. "What do we do now?"

"Focus," Dad said sharply. "Who's seen this, and what are they doing?"

Focus. Right. I breathed deeply. That bought me some clarity, and I was able to tap into the bugs, dogs, birds and (very vaguely) the people around us. For some reason, I could sense people farther away, and with more clarity than normal. I didn't question it.

"Uhhh … Dean's mom heard something but she's not coming to the door just yet," I reported. "Two other people saw it. One's just watching, but the other one's got a phone."

"Okay, we're on the clock." He scanned the back seat, then reached into the glove compartment and pulled out two ski masks. One of these, he handed to me. "We need to get Lady Photon and Gallant into the car as soon as possible."

"Not Brandish?" I was already pulling my ski mask on as I got out of the car.

"Not Brandish," confirmed Lisa as she started to drag Dean toward the vehicle. I went over to give her a hand, while Dad handled Lady Photon.

"Not arguing," I grunted as I took his weight. "But why?" Dean, I decided, could do with losing a few pounds, even if it was all muscle. There was indeed such a thing as too much of a good thing.

"These two are the most likely to come around once we fill them all the way in," Lisa panted. "God, what do they feed this guy? Bricks?"

"What I was thinking." I wriggled one hand free and opened the back door. We'd had enough trouble moving Coil's body, and he'd been a skinny guy. Someone with Gallant's heft was a whole lot harder to deal with. "Okay, so they'll come around." I managed to get his head and shoulders into the car, and we skated him along the seat. "Not her?"

"Not her," Dad agreed, coming up behind us with Lady Photon slung over his shoulders in a fireman's carry. "No matter what we tell her, she won't agree to a damn thing. And once she's awake, she'll attack us. If she sees Amy, she'll try to kill her."

I could unfortunately see that, all too easily. "Can't Amy … you know, tweak her so she won't?"

Lisa and I got Gallant all the way into the car, then stood back so Dad could manhandle (womanhandle?) Lady Photon in beside him. She shook her head. "You know why it's a bad idea to even suggest it to her, right now."

"But she's going to want to kill Amy! Even when we're done and Vicky's back!" It made no sense to me. "Are we just going to let that time bomb keep ticking?"

"Taylor." Lisa put her hands on my shoulders. "We'll talk about that in the car."

"Okay, gotcha." I took a deep breath. "What about you? What did he hit you with?"

"Oh, you saw that." Lisa shook her head. "Crippling doubt and insecurity. Threw me for a loop. I felt like I was back home again, with Dad gaslighting me into making predictions that would raise the company's profit line. But I'm over it now, I think. Mostly, anyway. Hard to judge."

"Good." Dad finally got Lady Photon into the car, and I closed the door for him. "We still need Brandish for the final plan, right?"

"Absolutely," Lisa said. "She might be bugnuts crazy right now, but she still knows Vicky as well as anyone in the family. We'll just have to deal with that when we come to it." I wasn't great at subtext, but I was pretty sure she was talking about kidnapping. She rounded the car to the other side. "We've gotta go. Cops aren't far away."

"Aisha?" I asked.

"Already gone." Lisa opened the rear passenger door. "Joy. I get to ride with Gallant drooling all over me."

"You could've gone with Aisha," I said as I got in on my side.

Lisa shook her head as she shoved Dean into a more or less seated position, and yanked the door shut. "Yeah, no, fuck that. I'd rather walk."

I didn't blame her. After riding pillion with Aisha just once, I felt the same way.

Dad started the car, and we drove off sedately. As soon as we were around the corner and halfway down the street, the bugs I'd had covering the license plates flew in through the open rear window, as did the multitude of tiny iridescent purple bugs that had been covering every inch of the mundane green paint job. I pretended to be reading a map as three cop cars blazed past in the opposite direction.

The PRT would be close behind, almost certainly with the Protectorate in attendance. We really had to be off the street before they came through; the last thing I wanted was to draw Armsmaster's attention for any reason at all. For all I knew, his bike recorded everything. Fortunately, I had the range to see them coming, the iconic motorcycle leading the way. A word to Dad, and we turned down a side street just moments before the cavalcade swept past.

"Okay," I said. "What was that about Amy?"

Lisa sighed. "Right now, Amy's still convinced that adjusting brains is a bad idea. This is a good thing. She needs to keep thinking it's a last-minute emergency measure, not something that can be done at a whim. Because if we bring in her mom to be adjusted, and she starts getting the idea that it's not a bad thing, who knows where she's going to stop? Bad guys? Good guys who think it's a bad idea to brainfuck bad guys? Us, so we're never going to turn against her like her mom did? Yes, Carol Dallon needs to be dealt with. But not that way."

I nodded. "Got it." She was right; I just hadn't thought it all the way through.

We were free and clear for now, but I couldn't guarantee that would last.

Director Piggot's Office

Emily's phone chimed. The caller ID verified that it was Armsmaster calling, so she swiped to answer it.

"Talk to me," she ordered.

"It's as the report stated." The local leader of the Protectorate didn't mince his words. "Cape battle involving Lady Photon, Brandish, at least one unknown cape, and Gallant. They knocked all three out, and took Gallant and Lady Photon."

Emily gritted her teeth. That was about as bad as it could get, short of having Gallant murdered, or outed, on site. "Details on the hostile?"

"Brandish describes her as a teenage girl, average height, red hair. She was described as a Thinker by Gallant when they first arrived, but she reportedly performed a ranged taser effect as well as some sort of chemical knockout, both on Brandish."

Closing her eyes for a moment, Emily pinched the bridge of her nose. I fucking hate grab-bag capes. "Is Brandish showing any ill effects?"

"She's a little groggy, but it's wearing off." Armsmaster paused. "There were witnesses to the fight. None of them seem to have made the conceptual leap that Gallant is a cape, but one reports seeing Lady Photon covered in darkness or maybe bugs. And Brandish has presented with what look like bug bites, possibly where the knockout dose was injected."

"No rats or birds, or explosions?" Part of her wanted the cape from the Trainyards to be involved in this, so she could merge the cases, while the rest of her desperately hoped that she'd never hear about that cape again. Someone who could train a bird or a rat to carry an explosive package … that was the next level of scary.

At that moment, a pigeon alighted on the window ledge outside her office. She eyed it with extreme suspicion, even though it only seemed to be doing pigeon things. A moment later, it crapped on the ledge and flew off again. Nothing exploded. She breathed a little easier.

"… Director?" Armsmaster sounded concerned. "Are you still there?"

"Yes, I'm here. Sorry, I was distracted for a moment. So, that was a no?"

"Correct. None of the witnesses saw anything like that." Like her, Armsmaster seemed to be edging between disappointment and relief.

"Understood. So, walk me through it. What happened, and why were Lady Photon and Brandish there in the first place?"

Armsmaster hesitated. "It turns out that the rumours we've been hearing of Glory Girl's disappearance are actually true. Lady Photon and Brandish were visiting Gallant in their civilian identities to see if he could suggest anywhere she might have gotten to. When they got there, Gallant was outside, struggling with the hostile. Current temporary designation: Redflag. He directed them to secure a car that was sitting at the curb."

"Wait, go back. Glory Girl's actually missing? How about Panacea?" Emily was actually shocked a wild rumour like that had actually turned out to be true. She'd assumed that Glory Girl had broken something more expensive than normal, and been grounded by Brandish. The death of Flashbang had hit the family pretty hard, and it was normal for teens to act out in times of stress … wasn't it? She was no expert, and her own teen years were too far behind her to work as a metric.

"She's gone, too. I'm going to assume the disappearances are linked until I get evidence to the contrary. And then there's the story that they were seen kissing."

Emily frowned. She'd also discounted that angle, for the very good reason that people loved to push such stories for the scandal value. "If they've gone and shacked up somewhere … why would Brandish and Lady Photon come out and see Gallant about where they might be? Unless they were hiding their relationship from literally everyone? In my experience, that sort of thing is almost impossible to hide from family."

There was a note of irritation in Armsmaster's voice, apparently directed at himself. "That's something I hadn't considered. I'll make sure to ask Brandish that when I get the chance."

"Also, one other thing." Now that Emily had had time to think, other connections were making themselves known in her mind. "Two, in fact. Wasn't one of your witnesses to the Shadow Stalker thing a redhead as well? And wasn't the cape involved a bug controller?"

"I'll have someone check on the Barnes girl's movements immediately, ma'am. Though, as I recall, she was distinctly hostile toward the Hebert girl. Much of her phrasing was emotionally charged, in a negative fashion. Of course, that could have been a ruse. As for the bug control … that's a good point. It could be that she was Redflag, wearing a wig. Or maybe she was in the car."

"Controlling the bugs, while Redflag used her own powers. That fits." Emily nodded. "Though I'm still dubious about bugs biting people and knocking them out. Did you get a blood sample?"

"Brandish refused, and said she was feeling better." Armsmaster didn't sound pleased. "She's a lawyer. Without one of my own, I doubt I could have legally forced the issue."

"No, your point is valid. Carry on."

It would've been good to find out just how bugs could render a human being unconscious with just a bite or two, but legal rights were legal rights. Armsmaster would've required a court order (at the very least) to ensure compliance in the matter. Hopefully, the next victim (she'd have to be delusional to believe that there wasn't going to be one) would be more cooperative.

"Yes, ma'am."

The call ended, leaving Emily wondering exactly what Taylor Hebert had to do with the abduction of a Ward, especially one with whom she'd had zero recorded contact.

And who the hell is Redflag?

Too many questions, not enough answers.


Waiting was the worst part.

She was able to keep Vicky happy by playing silly little games, though every time she looked into her sister's vacant expression, the tiny knot inside her chest tightened a little more. But they had no reliable way of communicating that they could risk being intercepted, especially by the PRT. So she had to wait, and hope they didn't run into something they couldn't handle.

All they had to do was go to Dean's place, talk to him and maybe bring him back to the base. Bringing him back was the nuclear option, of course. It was basically shoving what she'd done in his face, and forcing him to understand exactly what was at stake.

But even though she hated … not Dean exactly, but the idea of Vicky being with Dean … she paradoxically trusted him. His cape name was no accident. He was a gentleman; he was gallant. Faced with the true state of affairs, he would do the right thing. He would do whatever it took to make Vicky whole again. And that put them firmly on the same side.

The buzzer sounded through the base, making Vicky look around before she went back to the simple tune she was humming. It was the alert for the parking garage entrance. Danny would've dropped the others off before returning home in time for the next PRT drive-by.

And then the buzzer sounded twice more. That was different. Had someone followed them? Amy took a deep breath. Was it even them? Was someone else sneaking into the base?

"Vicky, come with me," she said, hating the fact that she had to give her sister orders now. "Protect me if we see bad men."

"Yes, Amy," Vicky said happily. She followed Amy as they passed through solid armoured doors—Coil had been nothing if not paranoid as fuck—into the entry area for the parking garage.

There, Amy stopped short. Taylor, Lisa and Aisha were back, but they hadn't come back alone. On the floor, Dean lay unconscious beside … "Aunt Sarah?" Amy looked at the other three. "What the fuck?"

Lisa grinned, Aisha smirked, and Taylor shrugged awkwardly. "Uh, we can explain?"

Amy could feel a headache coming on. I wonder if Aunt Sarah has days like this.

End of Part Ten