Part Eight: Home Truths

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

The blow-dried woman who scrambled out of the news van was the same one who'd approached us after Zach had thrown a two hundred thousand dollar PRT vehicle halfway across America. The cameraman piled out behind her, but didn't get too close to us; it was probably the way both Alexandria—sorry, Chief Director Costa-Brown—and Eidolon were looking at them. Not that we could see Eidolon's eyes, but he could glare pretty well all the same. I wondered if it was some kind of power.

"Giselle Barber, Brockton Bay Nightly News!" the woman announced breathlessly. "It's Eidolon, isn't it? And you're Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown of the PRT. What brings you to our city? Is it the reported Simurgh sighting? Do you have anything to say to our viewers?" As she spoke, a microphone on a boom extended past her shoulder, held by the cameraman. It was positioned so if any of us said anything, it'd probably pick us up clearly.

There was a pregnant pause, almost as if Eidolon and Alexandria were each expecting the other one to say something … then Zach stepped forward. His expression was genial and friendly as always, which was a good thing. However, I had no idea what he was going to say, which wasn't. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Chief Director's hand move, as if she intended to grab his arm. She didn't go through with it, which definitely meant she could learn.

"Nothing, in great detail!" he announced brightly. A soft groan came to my ears, and I turned my head slightly to see the Chief Director closing her eyes slightly and looking down and to the side. I was no Thinker, but I was pretty sure she wanted to face-palm right then. To be honest, I didn't blame her; I'd thought Zach had gotten past his literal stage. Then again, those precise words were what Alexandria had said to say. I had to wonder if he was very gently pranking her. Which would mark a great improvement in his sense of humour, though I doubted very much that she'd see the funny side.

Ms Barber, on the other hand, didn't even seem to get the joke, much less the context. "I … beg your pardon, uh, Zachary?" She frowned, obviously trying to work out why he'd said that. "I'm not quite sure what you meant. Can you elaborate?"

"Of course I can," he said, still in the same bouncy tone. "But it is supposed to be a secret, so I am not supposed to talk about it. Do you understand?" With his wide, guileless gaze, he looked straight at her, apparently ignoring the microphone the cameraman was dangling closer and closer to his face. The Chief Director was now making a noise deep in her throat that sounded like a puppy after its favourite toy had been taken away. Her self-control was definitely superhuman, because she looked like she wanted to grab Zach and slap her hand over his mouth herself.

While I could sympathise, I didn't think the situation was quite that dire yet. Zach might come across as clueless from time to time, but he'd quite often shown a keen grasp of the situation. Even if his solutions were somewhat off-the-wall, they made sense according to the way he saw things. And I had to admit, he had no bullshit in him. To ask Zach a question was to get a direct answer, even if it wasn't the one you wanted to hear.

"Of course I do," Ms Barber said warmly, actually lifting the microphone in her hand toward him. "You can trust me." Which meant she fully intended to broadcast whatever he said, probably under the claim she didn't know he meant what he was going to say was off the record.

"Oh, good." Zach looked her directly in the eyes. "What happened here is that either I am the fourth Endbringer and Eidolon is our father and the Simurgh came down here to say hello to my friend Taylor …"

People had talked about Zach having some sort of Master/Stranger effect, but this was the first time I'd experienced it for myself. As he spoke, I felt something nudging me to disbelieve what I'd seen with my own eyes just minutes earlier, but I was easily able to push it back. Ms Barber, on the other hand, was listening silently with an extremely dubious look on her face.

"Or," continued Zach, "What everyone thought was the Simurgh was actually the side-effect of the test of a top-secret piece of Tinkertech, which Eidolon and Chief Director Costa-Brown are here to observe." He gave her a beaming smile. "I think you can figure out which one is more likely."

The sensation of being nudged returned, only this time I felt the vague urge to believe the story about the Tinkertech. Again, I shook it off without effort. Ms Barber, on the other hand, burst out laughing so hard she dropped her microphone. "F-fourth Endbringer?" she gasped between whoops of hilarity. "Eidolon's your f-father? Come on, you can do better than that."

On cue, the Chief Director stepped forward. "The PRT cannot confirm or deny any report of a Tinkertech test in this location. Top secret is top secret, after all." She shot Zach a stern look. "And Zachary, in future? The next time you decide to concoct a wild story to share with the press? Try to make it sound at least somewhat believable, hmm?"

"Yes, Chief Director," he said happily. "I will do that." As the Chief Director closed in on the reporter, Zachary turned to Dad and me. "It is probably a good idea to walk away now," he said much more quietly. "The Chief Director and Eidolon have this under control."

Dad and I took his advice, but it puzzled me the reporter hadn't even tried to pursue us on, well, anything. Sure, Eidolon was one of the world's premier capes, but Chief Director Costa-Brown wasn't known as a media personality—well, I didn't know her as a media personality, at least—so I would've thought they'd be more fixated on Zach.

"Yeah, but why?" I asked, keeping my voice just as low. "I mean, you wiped out the Slaughterhouse Nine just a little while ago. Without even really trying. I mean, even if they don't believe the stuff you just said, why aren't they breaking their necks to get an exclusive with you?" it just didn't make sense to me.

It might've been my imagination, but Zach's smile was a little more self-satisfied than normal. "That is because they do not believe me to be important at all," he explained. "As far as they are concerned, we are three innocent bystanders. They will not be bothering you unless you want them to pay attention to you. And if they do not pay attention to me, it will make it much easier for me to protect you."

Dad raised his eyebrows at that. "So, you can make them just … ignore us? Does this work for everyone?" He looked around, at the PRT men still in the vicinity. Several of them seemed to be on guard against any further strangeness, while the rest packed equipment away in their vans. The remaining vans, I reminded myself, given that one had been damaged by Oni Lee and another had turned Jack Slash into roadkill. All of them were studiously not paying attention to us, but in a different way to the manner in which the reporter and her cameraman had ignored us.

"No," Zach said. "I could make it work like that, but I am simply allowing them to believe I am simultaneously too dangerous to arrest and not dangerous enough to pose a serious threat." He said this with the same matter-of-fact tone which he used in most situations, but it didn't make it any less weird. Of course, at the same time, I could appreciate exactly how useful this could be to me and Dad. It wasn't as if we really wanted the PRT camping on our doorstep, trying to arrest Zach every five minutes. Once had been far more than enough.

Dad seemed to be thinking the same way. "Just so long as I'll still be able to get people to take me seriously when I tell them I'm going to be demolishing the Boat Graveyard and reopening Lord's Port." He gave Zach a serious look. "This means a lot to me."

"And the Ferry too," I put in. "Don't forget that one, Dad." As if I'd even thought he might. Dad had been pushing his personal campaign to get the Brockton Bay Ferry reinstated for almost as long as I'd been alive. Sometimes I wondered if it was even the Ferry he was really trying to bring back, or if he was just trying to revive what he remembered of the golden days of Brockton Bay, before the Boat Graveyard blocked Lord's Port and stifled the local shipping industry.

He chuckled and ruffled my hair. "Where would I be without you to remind me of the important things in life, kiddo?" His bantering tone made me grin; it had been absent all too often of late. Sliding his arm around my shoulders, he nodded toward the house. "Think they've cleaned up in there yet?"

"I hope so," I said, suddenly aware I was barefoot, and that I'd been that way since I left the house. It seemed ridiculous that so much had happened in such a short time. Had I really gone climbing over rubble with Miss Militia to rescue trapped people? And how had I not hurt my feet doing so? "Uh, Dad, can I lean on you for a second?"

"Sure thing," he said, offering his arm. I took hold of it and lifted my left foot to examine the sole. At first I thought I must've trodden in something, because the skin covering the underside of my foot was black from side to side. But as I watched, the blackness evaporated, wafting away like smoke. Underneath was the smooth pink skin of my foot.

"What the heck?" I put my foot down, suddenly aware I could feel the asphalt much more keenly under my feet now, and gave Zach a questioning look. "Was that you? Did you do that?" I was a little torn; while he had only been protecting me, I didn't appreciate being kept in the dark about it.

"Yes, Taylor." He smiled at me. "I did not want you to hurt your feet, and I was going to be busy fighting, so I made sure a protective layer of rubber from the floor of the van adhered to your feet. It is no longer necessary, because there are shoes in the house you can wear."

Dad blinked. "Well, that was very thoughtful of you, Zach. But I'm guessing you didn't tell Taylor about this when you did it?" He gave me a discerning glance. "See her face? That's the face which says 'you really should've told me earlier'."

"I did not know this," Zach replied, studying my face carefully. "Taylor, are you angry with me?" The smile slid off his face, replaced by an expression of anxiety. "I did not wish to hurt your feelings. My intention was only to prevent harm from coming to you."

For an Endbringer, he had a very good line in puppy-dog eyes. While I wasn't going to really be mad at him for trying to help me, I didn't want him to think he could just do anything and assume I'd be okay with it after the fact. He needed to learn boundaries. Which, I had to admit, he'd already shown he was good at.

"That's okay, Zach," I said, putting a hand on his arm. "I'm not angry, but Dad's right. It's nice to know you're protecting me, but if you're going to do something like this, I'd prefer to know about it. This way, we both know what's going on." I offered him a smile of my own. "I know you're doing your best, and you're doing an absolutely awesome job of protecting me physically. It's just that keeping me in the dark about it doesn't make me feel like I've got a lot of control over my life at the moment. You understand what I'm talking about?"

For a moment, he tilted his head slightly, his expression one of intense concentration. Then his face cleared, and he smiled brilliantly. "Yes, I understand now, Taylor. I just asked my sister and she explained it to me. She also said people could be very complicated and I should not assume I know how they will react to what I do."

For all that I'd just met his sister (who was the Simurgh! Some part of me, deep inside, was still gibbering over this) the fact he'd just asked her for advice about me just blew me away. What just about everyone knew about the Simurgh (apart from the part about her being a city-killing monster, of course) was that she was really smart, and could out-think the whole Triumvirate, including Alexandria, which was even more impressive. And he'd asked her about me.

Of course, she'd given him good advice. How could she not? It just remained to be seen if he'd follow it. On balance, I figured he would; Zach might seem clueless from time to time, but he wasn't exactly dumb. I decided to reinforce it, just in case. "You should listen to your sister," I told him seriously. "She knows what she's talking about." Thinking about what I'd just said, about the Simurgh, I couldn't help wondering when I'd started thinking of the Endbringers as … well, as people. I wasn't counting Zach; he was already a person, as far as I was concerned.

Commander Calvert approached us, his armour still showing scuff-marks from the earlier tumble. He stopped at a respectful distance before clearing his throat. If he'd been wearing a hat instead of a helmet, his attitude suggested he would've been holding it in his hands in front of him. I wasn't quite sure what Zach had said to him, but all of my experience told me my newest and best friend could redefine the concept of 'persuasive' if he put his mind to it. Calvert looked … persuaded.

"Excuse me, Mr Hebert?" he said diffidently. "We've cleaned up all the broken glass. A glazier has been contacted, and the PRT will be footing the bill. Please accept our deepest apologies for this entire misunderstanding." His eyes flickered to Zach then back to Dad, the motion almost too fast for me to register. "You have my personal assurance it won't be happening again."

Well, that bit was a given. I was pretty sure Zach had things covered. As for Calvert himself, he gave me the impression he was a man who didn't always play by the rules, especially if there wasn't someone like Zach around to keep him in line. So I chose to take his apparent sincerity with a large grain of salt. Plus, there was something I wanted to say.

"Misunderstanding?" I snorted and shook my head. "I'll give you 'misunderstanding'. The only 'misunderstanding' was you idiots not understanding you couldn't just do what you wanted. I told you what was happening from the beginning, and you just kept pushing. And now you all look like morons, and whose fault is that, exactly?"

Calvert didn't look altogether thrilled at being yelled at by a teenager, but this wasn't my problem. I finally had someone to vent at who was standing still long enough to be vented at. He winced as I raised my voice. "And have you called in someone to repair our front step? We all saw you break it, you know. I'd be surprised if someone didn't get it on film." I threw my hands in the air. "And amazingly enough, that's the least moronic thing you idiots have done all day!"

Dad nodded. "At least the Chief Director has already agreed the PRT will be covering all the costs of what happened today. Of course, now I have to go and yell at her school principal for letting that shit happen there. Just be glad you can't be held responsible for that, too." Despite the fact Commander Calvert was about as tall as my father, and more physically imposing due to the bulk of the gear he was wearing, the PRT officer swayed backward under the force of Dad's anger.

"Actually, the PRT is at least partially to blame for the ongoing bullying, as well," Zach announced brightly, just as the Commander began to edge away. "After all, Sophia Hess is a Ward, and they are responsible for not curtailing her actions." In the wake of this revelation, he beamed at Dad and me. Very slowly, Commander Calvert face-palmed.

"Oh. Really." Dad took a step toward Calvert. The latter, a trained soldier wearing weapons and armour, took a step back with his hands held up defensively. "So that's your fault as well? You enabled this girl, this Ward, to bully my daughter at school? You let it happen?" Dad's voice rose to a shout. "How many other ways have the PRT managed to fuck up today? Do those helmets cut off the blood supply to your brains or something? How hard is it to keep an eye on the behaviour of one teenage superhero?"

"That's not my side of operations," Calvert said quickly. "I'm not involved in the Wards side of things. And to be honest, I wasn't aware there was a Ward attending Winslow. I've certainly had no personal contact with the girl." Eyeing the implacable expression on Dad's face, he hastily added, "Though I have no doubt he's telling the exact truth. And now this has come out, I'm sure the appropriate measures will be taken."

"So long as the appropriate measures include words like 'shitcanned so fast her head spins' and 'juvenile detention until she's forty', I'm good." A muscle was jumping in Dad's jaw now, a sign that he was reaching a high point in his anger. "But if you even consider sweeping it all under the carpet, this is coming out. All of it. I don't take this shit, not from you or from anyone, not when my daughter's well-being is involved."

Calvert shot another lightning-fast glance at Zach, then returned his attention to Dad. "Mr Hebert, this is not my area of authority." He opened his mouth to say more, but a look of strained relief settled on his face as he closed it again.

"No, but it is mine." It was Alexandria's voice, coming from behind us. We turned to look at her. "Commander Calvert, you're dismissed. Get your men packed up and out of here. Zachary, I have no personal knowledge of what you're talking about, but I would appreciate being filled in as quickly as possible. Mr Hebert, may we use your house for the sake of privacy?"

"Why?" asked Dad, still seething. "So you can get all the details, cover it up, then deny it later?" He indicated the reporter, still talking to Eidolon. "Seems to me this sort of shit gets made to go away all too often. Maybe I should go over there and make a statement. Blow this whole thing wide open."

Alexandria shook her head minutely. "Presuming Zachary would not allow us to inflict a legal punishment on you for outing a Ward, that's still a bad idea. No matter your feelings about whichever person we're talking about, she undoubtedly has family and friends who will be put at risk if you out her."

"Yes," said Zach unexpectedly. "She has a mother, a brother and a younger sister. They are innocent in this." Despite the surprising revelation, he made the statement as dramatic as if he were talking about the weather.

"Wait, when were you going to tell me she was a Ward?" I demanded. "We talked about this! Just now, even! Why did you hold this back, of all things?" Nothing seemed simple any more; even Zach, it seemed, was picking and choosing the information he was giving me.

"I was not holding it back, Taylor," he said earnestly. "I thought you would be less happy if I told you when there was nobody around who could do something about it. In addition, if you learned about it and spread the information, her family may have been harmed and you would be unhappy." He gestured toward Alexandria. "The Chief Director can do something about it that will not harm her family." His gaze turned anxious again. "Or was I incorrect in thinking you would have brooded about it until something could be done?"

I blinked. As much as I hated to admit it, he was correct. I would've been a lot angrier if I didn't have anyone to bitch at regarding Sophia, once Zach told me what was going on there. Worse, telling Armsmaster or Miss Militia might not have had the best results. And if I'd spread it around, Sophia's family could easily have gotten hurt without me even knowing about it.

It went back to something Dad always said: if you're going to complain, complain to the guy in charge. This applied for more than one reason, as I was discovering. "Did … did you know the Chief Director would be coming here?" I asked, glancing sideways at the woman herself. For her part, she had a peculiar expression on her face, as of someone who'd bitten into an apple and found half a worm. Finding out that your actions had been predicted well ahead of time would definitely be a wake-up call, especially when you were someone like Alexandria.

Cheerfully, he nodded. "Once I killed the Nine off, it was a virtual certainty. I knew when she arrived, she would want to test my capabilities. As soon as that was out of the way, I knew I would be able to inform you of the matter." He beamed at me; while Zach would never do 'smug' well, he could still look moderately pleased with himself.

"That's pretty sharp, to figure all that out," I observed. "Or did you consult with your sister?" From the look on his face, I figured I had it right. Zach was smart, but he tended to be very straightforward. Twisty logic wasn't his strength.

"Yes," he admitted at once. "I did not know how to tell you in such a way as to keep you happy and not put other people at risk, so I asked her, and she suggested this way. She also suggested it would be best to continue the conversation in the house."

Zach didn't offer suggestions very often so when he did, I listened. "Okay," I said. "Let's take this into the house." Turning, I led the way across the street and up the driveway. I was used to stepping over the rotten stair anyway; the lack simply made it mandatory. The last PRT man out of the house had closed the door but not locked it, so I opened it and went inside.

Calvert's men had obviously found our geriatric vacuum cleaner; the area of floor under where the glass would have fallen was the cleanest spot in the living room. I switched on the light and moved carefully, looking for twinkles of light on the linoleum, but they'd been very thorough. Even the shards of glass remaining in the window frames had been removed. Moving over to the sofa, I inspected the cushions critically; there was no glass there either.

"It is safe," Zach said from behind me. "All glass particles that could potentially harm you have been removed. The men missed a few, but my sister dealt with those." I shouldn't have been surprised by that last statement, but there it was. It was almost impossible to imagine the Simurgh lowering herself to domestic cleaning.

"Um, wait a second," I protested. An image of that terrifying figure wearing an apron and vacuuming the floor popped up in my mind, and I tried to expel it again. It was just too weird. "She did that? I thought she just came down to say hello and confirm what you were saying. I mean, I'm nobody special."

"You are the most special person in the world to me." I'd heard this from Zach before, but I didn't really think I'd ever get over it. When most people said that sort of thing, they were just saying it. Zach, on the other hand, meant it on a bone-deep level. "Also, she likes you. She says you are our best chance to break the cycle."

"Excuse me?" It was Alexandria. I hadn't seen her or Dad enter, because I'd been focused on what Zach was saying. "What cycle is this, exactly? Is this something we need to be concerned about?"

"The Endbringer cycle." Zach turned to her, his expression bland. "My brothers or my sister attack a city and allow themselves to get chased away again. Father's power orders them to do it to cause damage and require heroes to force them away."

"Wait, allow themselves to be chased away?" Dad looked as though he wasn't sure he wanted to be here for this. "Are they throwing the fights?" To be fair, it was a very disquieting thought. Every time there was an Endbringer fight, the news was full of praise for the bravery of the capes who forced the monster to (eventually) retreat. Was it all a sham?

"Well, yes." Zach blinked, as if no other answer was possible. "Behemoth could ignite everything in a ten-mile radius if he chose to. Leviathan could pull all the water out of the bodies of everyone in the fight. And Ziz … well, she does not need to sing to affect the minds of people, or even be near them. Those are just rules they made up for themselves to give people the hope that they could be beaten. They are much more powerful than they have shown, but to use their full strength would make it impossible for them to pretend to be beaten."

Alexandria, suddenly pale, slowly lowered herself on to the sofa. "And you?" she asked, her tone more than a little shaken. "Are you that powerful as well?"

I thought back to what I'd seen Zach do, and decided the answer was 'holy shit, yes'. Though, thinking back, he did say he'd gotten his brothers and sister to help him with certain stunts. Of course, the fact that they had helped him without moving from wherever they were gave his previous statement some serious credibility.

"I am powerful," Zach confirmed without any kind of boastful tone in his voice. "I am not as physically strong as Behemoth, but I am able to manipulate perceptions of me as well as the powers of parahumans whom I encounter. Those powers that I like, I keep to make use of, and sometimes I add extra capabilities to make them more useful. I will not remove powers from parahumans without explicit permission, but I can shut down access to their powers for extended periods of time."

"You mentioned manipulation of perceptions." Alexandria was bouncing back fast, showing the steel she'd used to remain as the Chief Director of the PRT over my lifetime. "Is this the Stranger effect you used to make us believe you weren't a parahuman?"

"I did not lie," Zach pointed out. "I always tell the truth. However, my perception manipulation can cause people to see my existence as being absolutely normal. It can also make me seem inconsequential as far as threat potential goes. With some, that will de-escalate the situation. With others, it increases the chance of conflict." He turned to me. "Taylor, I want to apologise to you. I have been using that power on you ever since I ripped the door off the locker."

I blinked. "Wait, what? How have you been using a power on me? I haven't noticed anything." And I hadn't. Zach had always been nice and friendly to me, never even suggesting the threat of harm.

Zach tilted his head. "Have you not questioned why you didn't wonder how I was so strong, or where I came from, or why I was helping you? Those questions would have caused you to be worried, or even reject my companionship and protection. Each time your mind brought up the possibility of me being dangerous, or any other concept that may have caused you to push me away, my power turned it aside." He paused. "I want you to understand that I have never lied to you. Your well-being and happiness is my ultimate concern."

Without speaking, I sat down at the far end of the sofa from Alexandria. Some news has to be processed sitting down. It wasn't easy to deal with; he'd been telling the truth to my face, while his power was making sure I'd accept what he said. Did that mean he was lying to me or not? It was hard to figure out. I decided to shelve it for the moment—I could always yell at Zach later—and deal with something else that was niggling at me.

"Quick question." I looked up at Zach. "Why were you assigned to be my protector? I mean, this is about as far from the concept of 'make Eidolon look heroic' as you can get."

Instead of answering me straight away, Zach looked at Alexandria. "I suspect if Father hears the details of what I am about to say, it will affect future events in a bad way. My sister thinks so, anyway. Can you agree to not tell him?" He gave her his 'serious' look, which I had to admit was pretty damn serious.

After a moment, she nodded. "I'm not promising anything, but I'll take your, uh, sister's assessment under advisement." She leaned forward with raised eyebrows. "I'm also somewhat curious about that issue. Though I wasn't until Taylor brought it up just now." She shot him an irritated glance. "Dammit. I'd thought your power wasn't affecting me. It's very insidious."

"It is intended to be so," he agreed, his expression deadpan. "If it is detectable, then much of the utility is lost."

"I felt it when you were using it on the reporter and her cameraman," I put in. "That was just the edges of it, I guess?" I saw Alexandria and Dad both nodding; it seemed they'd felt the same thing.

"Yes," he said. "I let you feel what I was doing, so that you were not surprised by her acquiescence. Though did you wonder then or later if the power had ever been used on you, even with evidence that I had it?"

I knew I hadn't, and with Zach's confession about using it on me I wasn't really surprised. But now both Dad and Alexandria were shaking their heads. Dad's expression was one of dawning revelation. "Damn," he marvelled. "You are good at that. You wouldn't be able to sit in on some of the negotiation meetings I'm gonna be holding to talk about demolishing the Boat Graveyard, would you?"

Alexandria cleared her throat. "I suspect doing something of the sort would fall under the heading of 'using a parahuman power for undue influence'," she noted, though the smile on her face took the sting out of her remark. "But we're getting off topic. Zach, you were explaining to Taylor about why Eidolon assigned you to be her protector."

Zach nodded. "Father does not have complete control over the power that governs us," he said. "He wants to be a hero, but if he had control he would never have caused it to create monsters that kill millions. It is all subconscious. My sister is good at manipulating the subconscious. She is unable to affect him directly, but she was able to cause minor mishaps and events in his vicinity which then informed his thought patterns. One night, as a result of this, he manifested a precognitive power while he was asleep. He had a dream of you being locked in your locker. The emotion he felt about that ultimately triggered my creation as your protector."

A long silence ensued, as each of us thought about the ramifications of that. A distant siren wailed, but that was nothing out of the ordinary; on some days in Brockton Bay, sirens were more common than birdsong. I watched as a solitary fly buzzed in through one of the glass-less windows and made a slow circuit of the room. My brain was turning over what Zach had told me, and I didn't know whether to laugh, cry or run downstairs and lock myself in the basement until the crazy went away.

"Okay, I've got a question." Dad looked just a little wild around the eyes, but I suspected I had much the same look. Having one's entire world overturned in a few minutes had that sort of effect. "Why not tell Eidolon? Surely we could do with having more like Zach around? I mean, he's done nothing but help Taylor out. And then there's the Nine."

"The problem is that once he is told what happened, Father might try to do it again." Zach's voice was flat. "Ziz says that is a very bad idea. After all, my brothers and sister came about through a heroic impulse."

"So noted." Alexandria's tone was a little faint. I guessed she was thinking the same thing I was; if the Simurgh said something was a bad idea, this was probably the understatement of the year. "About that. Are you created out of nothing, or … how does it even work? After all, I doubt very much there were Endbringers like Behemoth and teenage boys all queued up in limbo, waiting to be brought into the world."

Zach smiled a little at that. "You are correct. Endbringers—or chaos generators, as I call us—do not have any particular form to begin with. Our final form has very little to do with our power level. It is all window-dressing. I could have been a fifty foot tall being composed of razor blades, or a series of interlocking shadows, and still had the same abilities that I do now. However, being in this form makes it much easier for my perception filter to work, so this is my form."

"Chaos generators?" Dad roused himself to ask the question. "Why do you call yourself that? You haven't attacked the city. In fact, all you've done is … oh."

As he trailed off, I burst out laughing at the same realisation that was only now spreading over his face. For someone whose stated goal was to help me and keep me safe, Zach had done an amazing job of generating chaos. From the altercation with Armsmaster, to smacking Assault all the way to Boston … at every turn, we'd escaped from one chaotic situation only to run headlong into another. It was the final straw, making sense of everything else. I cackled, whooped and pounded the armrest of the sofa with my fist. Tears ran down my face and I laughed until my ribs hurt, then I laughed some more. It was even funnier than the time Zach had told me he was an Endbringer, and I'd thought he was joking. Because this time, the punchline was utterly hilarious: it's all true.

Finally, I subsided, still chuckling. Wiping my eyes, I looked around at the two adults, each of whom was looking at me with degrees of exasperation. Zach was just leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, smiling. "Okay, I'm good," I said, then chuckled again. "But you gotta admit, that was funny. The look on your face, Dad, when you realised what you were saying."

Alexandria pursed her lips. "Well, yes," she conceded, a little reluctantly. "However, if you're done, Miss Hebert, I'd like to get to the main point of this gathering. Specifically, the issue with Sophia Hess."

If anything was guaranteed to get me serious, that was it. All sense of humour evaporated as I sat upright. "Okay. I didn't know she was a Ward, though now I think about it, Armsmaster was acting a bit hinky at the time. I'm wondering if he wasn't trying to keep it on the down-low. It did strike me as a bit weird how the Protectorate and PRT turned up so fast at the school."

"I will be talking to Armsmaster," Alexandria said, and just for a moment, I felt sorry for Armsmaster. But only for a moment. "However. First, I would like your side of the story. Specifically, the details of your interactions with Sophia Hess, both in her civilian identity and as Shadow Stalker, and anything else you feel is relevant." She turned to face me, one leg up on the sofa, and gave me her full attention.

I tried not to gulp; it was like being pinned to the wall by a searchlight. "Okay, I didn't know Sophia was Shadow Stalker until Zach mentioned it. But Sophia's been on my case since I started high school. Somehow, she stole my best friend and turned her against me, and they haven't given me a day to myself since." I paused. "Um, Zach, in my bedroom, there's a stack of papers held together with a bulldog clip, on the top shelf of my—" Between one word and the next, Zach was gone. I opened my mouth to say something, and he was back again, standing next to the sofa with my journal in his hand. "—wardrobe," I finished lamely. "Thanks. Wow." I'd seen him do his move trick before over short distances before, but that was something else. There'd barely even been any air displacement, and no after-images or sound of thundering feet. Did he fly? Was he teleporting? I wasn't sure; nor was I certain how to ask.

"Is that a record of what's been going on?" asked Alexandria. She eyed the stack of paper. "That's … a lot of pages."

"That's because there's a lot of incidents," I said bitterly. "That's only from November last, by the way. I only started writing it down then."

" … wait." Dad turned his attention from Zach and the journal to me. "You just said 'stole your best friend'. But that's—" He broke off and moved forward. Taking the papers from Zach's hand, he scanned the front page then stopped, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the thick sheaf. "Emma?" His voice was a plea, an appeal to help him understand what was going on. "How could she …?"

"I don't know, and that's the truth," I confessed. "I just know that she's turned every secret I ever shared with her against me. And today, she helped Sophia lock me in my locker." I eyed Alexandria cynically. "They did report what was in that locker, didn't they?" I wouldn't have put it past them to conveniently 'forget' that bit.

However, it seemed that I'd done them a disservice. "I know what was in the locker," she confirmed, the twist of her lips making it clear that she knew what I was talking about.

"Well, I don't know what was in the locker," Dad interjected. He looked from me to Alexandria and back again. "Do I want to know?"

"Probably not," I said sympathetically. "But would you rather hear it from me or read it in the papers?" I knew it wasn't really fair to make him choose, but then, I hadn't had an option about going into the locker anyway.

Dad held up a hand and went into the kitchen. When he came out, he was carrying one of the dining chairs. Taking a seat, he gave me a steady look. "Okay, I'm sitting down. Hit me."

I took a deep breath. This wasn't easy for me, either. "You know the special bins they have in the girls' bathrooms? They must've emptied every single one in the school." My stomach clenched at the memory.

"Fuck." Dad's voice grated like broken glass. "Here." He stood up again and thrust the stack of papers toward Alexandria. "Have a look at what else your precious Ward did when your back was turned." A little of the venom was back in his voice. "I'm thinking I might just go and have a word with Alan Barnes. I might be gone a little while." Turning on his heel, he started for the door.

"Dad, no!" I raised my voice, and he stopped. "I don't think he knew about it, and even if he did, if you punch him, you'll get arrested. That'll make it harder to fix stuff, if you've got a record."

"It'll just be a fine." He started moving toward the door again. "I can afford a fine. I'm just gonna ask him a few questions. And if I don't like the answers, I'm gonna punch his teeth down his neck."

"Mr Hebert." Alexandria didn't take her eyes off the sheets as she leafed through them at an impressive speed. "Your course of action is inadvisable." The tone of her voice didn't change, but he stopped again. I had to learn how she did that. "His daughter is already injured. That'll get him sympathy in court. On the other side of the coin, attacking him will muddy the case against her, when it goes through. Do you want to see your daughter's attackers go free?"

Dad stopped with his hand on the doorknob. I saw his shoulders hunch and his knuckles whiten as he gripped the smooth metal. He wanted to go out and deliver a warning, if not an actual beatdown, to work off his own agitation; that much was obvious. But Alexandria's warning made a lot of sense. The last thing we wanted was to have Emma walk free because Dad's temper got the better of him.

Finally, he drew a deep breath and let the doorknob go. It didn't bear indentations in the shape of his fingers, but I figured it'd been a near thing. "Fine," he said with bad grace. "You win. I won't go beat the snot out of him. But once this is done, him and me are gonna be sitting down and having a very intense conversation about keeping an eye on what his fucking daughter is up to."

"That's fair." Alexandria stood up from the sofa, leaving the sheaf of papers on the cushions. "I've got everything I need from that." She turned to me. "What were the highlighted emails about? There were a few of those."

I was mildly stunned that she'd not only read through the lot, but she'd had the time to take note of the highlighted emails. Superpowers are bullshit. Of course, I had Zach as the uber-example of that. He had powers that capes thought were bullshit. "Um, those are the ones that were sent during school hours."

"Ah." Her eyes cleared, then focused in the middle distance. "Yes, I see. That's very useful. I don't believe it will be very hard to track down the originals of those emails, where they were sent from, and who was logged in at the time." She smiled at me. "This is all very useful. You did a good job there."

I flushed slightly; even seeing her warts and all, getting praise from Alexandria was definitely a high point in my day. "Um, thanks. I guess I wasn't expecting to have to go as high as you before someone actually paid attention to me."

"May I say something that you might not wish to hear, Taylor?" Zach's voice was diffident. "It is a matter of perspective."

I looked at him curiously. "Okay, go ahead." While I wasn't sure I wanted to hear something unpleasant, Zach obviously thought I needed to know whatever it was. Taking a breath, I braced myself for the bad news.

"I merely wished to remind you of the fact that while Chief Director Costa-Brown is currently committed to this course of action, it is only because I am so powerful that she cannot guarantee victory over me." Zach spoke blandly, though his words were anything other than forgettable. "If I were not here and you attempted to make your case to the PRT, she may well have authorised a cover-up and roadblocks put in your way to ensure nothing more was said about the matter. You saw how Armsmaster and the rest of the Protectorate reacted to your words about Shadow Stalker. In short, while she will be acting in your best interests, it is solely because she has no other choice in the matter."

I'd heard the phrase 'the ugly truth' before, but I'd rarely come across so fitting an example. Nor did I think to question his analysis of the matter; it rang so very true, even without the look on Alexandria's face to go by. I gave her a hard stare, and she had the grace to drop her gaze. Or was she merely acting out shame? I had no doubt she'd done far worse in her career.

"It's true, isn't it." I didn't even bother to phrase it as a question. The temptation to shout at her or call her names was strong, but I restrained myself. I would be the better person.

Slowly, she nodded. "You would've figured it out sooner or later anyway, even without Zachary to point it out. But the fact of the matter is, we all bend the knee to whomever comes along that's stronger than us. You think the criminal element plays nice when there's a superhero walking down the street because they like him? It's the threat of force. You can't keep order without giving orders, and it's an age-old truism that orders not backed by force are merely suggestions. Yes, we should've been aware of your situation a lot earlier, and we should've been ready to remedy it as soon as we found out. That's on us."

She took a deep breath and looked around at each of us. "However, as in any organisation, there are many factors to be taken into account, and they absolutely have to be prioritised in order to keep things running smoothly. Almost invariably, the priorities are aimed more at increasing efficiency and less at the welfare of individual people. Sometimes, this means that people like you fall through the cracks. I wish it were otherwise. I wish I were smart enough to run things so well that everyone benefits. But I'm not."

Dad grimaced. "I wish I was able to call bullshit on that. But I've been involved with organisational planning before, and I know where you're coming from." He paused to give her a stern glare. "However, this doesn't mean you're off the hook for everything that happened to Taylor because of the PRT and Protectorate fucking up. In fact …" He paused, eyes going distant. "I'm thinking we might be in line for compensation. Call it a fuckup tax. The PRT and Protectorate need to learn not to pull this shit any more, and having to actually make an effort to put things right makes for a great object lesson."

"Okay …" She eyed him warily. "You do realise, you're already going to be getting ninety-nine point four million dollars for the Nine. Asking for more money at this point sounds a little grabby to me. Just saying."

He snorted with dark humour. "Who said I was gonna be asking for money? I want to clear the Boat Graveyard. I'm thinking that sometime in the near future, I'm gonna want to be able to make a phone call, and if the Triumvirate happened to be free, I'm pretty sure they could clear the lot in a lazy afternoon."

I wanted to laugh out loud. It was perfect. Between Alexandria, Legend and Eidolon, they could make short work of even that vast tonnage of half-sunken hulks. "And I've got an even better idea," I said. "Zach could help too. He wouldn't do all the work—after all, the Triumvirate have got to show how heroic they can be—but I'm pretty sure he could do his bit."

"I most certainly could do my bit, Taylor." Zach beamed at me. "Would you like me to invite any of my brothers or sister to help as well? I am sure they could speed things up a lot." His gaze was so guileless that I couldn't quite tell if he was trolling Alexandria or not.

"Uh, let's not," she said hastily. "We don't want to cause a mass panic, after all. I'm sure that between the four of us, we could do the job." Turning back to Dad, she added, "Did you want me to contact Legend and get it done this afternoon?" There was an almost hopeful tone to her voice; maybe I can get this over and done with today.

"Not at the moment," he said with a shake of the head. "I'm going to need to start the ball rolling with Roy Christner and get the Merchants dealt with first. Once crime in the area is down to a minimum and the local infrastructure's been brought back up to speed, then I'll give you that call." He gave her a thin smile, which wasn't reflected in his eyes. "But you won't be waiting too long. I don't intend to drag my feet on this."

"So I see," she murmured, then dusted her hands off almost theatrically. "Well, if you call my official contact number, I'll see to it that you're put straight through, night or day. Is there anything else we needed to talk about before I go?"

"One minor detail," Zach said. "If you wanted one more point to make the case against Shadow Stalker stick, she has been in the habit of taking regular arrows out on patrol instead of the probation-mandated tranquilliser arrows. I am sure that someone of your capabilities would be able to locate such arrows wherever she has them hidden."

Alexandria's eyelids drooped slightly and her smile became razor-edged. "Oh, I will take the greatest pleasure in locating her stash." She nodded to Zach. "I believe working alongside you will be fascinating and irritating in equal measure, and I wouldn't miss it for the world." Turning to me, she stepped forward and reached out her hand. "And I know this is more than a little belated, but I want to apologise again for what has been done to you."

I shrugged, then reached up and shook her hand. Her grip was firm, but I'd never have judged it capable of crushing steel if I hadn't known who she really was. "I appreciate it. Even if you are kinda working under duress. As far as I'm concerned, the results are all I'm interested in."

"That's fair." She gave me a measured nod, then turned and shook hands with Dad. "I look forward to working with you again, Mr Hebert. It's nice to talk to someone who has some small idea of what I have to deal with."

"If you speak with Accord in Boston, he will be able to formulate plans to streamline the efficiency of all three organisations of which you are a part," Zach put in unexpectedly. "Of course, this requires that you give him access to deep organisational details, which some may object to." He shrugged. "It is your choice."

Alexandria blinked. "And that one was well out of left field. I'll consider it. No promises." She shook Zach's hand. "It was … extremely interesting to meet you. Don't forget to ask Taylor that question." Moving to the door, she opened it; a moment later, she was gone.

"Wait, what question?" I asked, looking at Zach.

He smiled. "She asked me to ask you if my brothers and sister should stop attacking cities. I already know you do not like people dying, but I allowed her to think she had accomplished something by asking me. I have already asked them to not hurt anyone else, and they have said they will try. Is that what you would have wanted?"

I nodded fervently. "Yeah. Definitely. Thanks for that, Zach. It's a huge weight off my mind."

"Well, this has definitely been an unusual day, even for Brockton Bay," Dad noted. "Start it with a super-powered stand-off at your high school, and end it by saving the world from the Endbringers. And we're not even half done yet."

"True." I grinned. "Of course, tomorrow we're just gonna have to top what we've done today."

Dad shook his head in resignation. "Just make sure Brockton Bay's standing at the end of it, all right?"

I giggled. "I'll do my best."

End of Part Eight