The large conference room near the top of the Rig's main superstructure had to have been one of the swankiest that the Protectorate had to offer. Whether it was the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city, the huge table of dark, polished wood with inset monitors, the plush, orthopedic office chairs, or the huge display screen opposite the windows, every detail of the room gave off a 'best that money can buy' sort of feeling.
Seated in the chair nearest the windows, elbows on the table and my hands folded just below my nose, I imagined myself as some big-wig in the Protectorate hierarchy.
"In light of the illuminating evidence provided by a good Samaritan," the portly man in a fancy tailored suit to my left would say. "Shadow Stalker is to be found guilty of an extensive list of reprehensible charges!" He'd slam his meaty fist down on the table, rattling the glass bottles of Peruvian glacier water, imported specifically for this very meeting.
"Director! There can be no other punishment but death!" A murmur would rise around the room before I held up a hand to silence it.
"Though I agree that a firm hand is required," I'd begin, my voice as smooth and refined as the red wine poured by the meeting's butler. "I wouldn't go so far as to condemn her to death. There are no lessons to be learned in the afterlife, after all."
My proclamation would be met by nods and words of agreement, as my gathered officials praised me for my leniency and compassion in the face of such heinous crimes.
A heavy thunk from the other end of the table startled me from my daydreams as Battery dropped a cardboard box onto the surface. She left it there for Assault to open and made her way back to an open closet nearby. Miss Militia was there, only visible from the waist down as she leaned in to sort through a number of boxes of her own.
Once Assault had torn through the tape and pulled apart the cardboard flaps, he peered inside and glanced at Battery with a grin.
"Ah yes! The full PRT complement of pamphlets and flyers," he observed, mischief obvious in his tone. "No teenager can resist the allure of their compelling statistics and carefully worded paragraphs."
"Less quipping, more searching." Battery called back as she hefted a box of her own up onto a rolling cart and tore it open.
Assault reached into the box and pulled out a tri-fold made from thick cardstock. Flipping it open, he plopped himself down into one of the office chairs and kicked his feet up onto the conference table, giving the brightly colored booklet a once-over. After a moment, his grin redoubled and he called out in a patronizing tone.
"Did you know that most independent capes receive a serious injury within their first three months of activity?" Pausing her own inspection, Battery glanced over at him. "The Protectorate offers a variety of medical resources to help keep its members fit and healthy. Whether it be one of their very own Parahuman healers or one of the PRT's on-call staff of world renowned medical professionals, the Protectorate is here to make sure you-"
"Would you quit fooling around and help us already?" Battery interrupted, shaking her head and returning her attention to the contents of her box. Assault let the pamphlet drop onto the table and pushed off to spin languidly in his chair.
"Au contraire, Puppy. My help comes later on in this grand fiasco."
"Mm-hmm." Battery hummed dismissively, pulling out a pamphlet and turning to hold it up for Miss Militia to see. "Watchdog?" she asked aloud to get the other heroine's attention. Miss Militia paused her own search, backing out of the closet with a few items in hand and straightening to quickly stretch her back. She gave the pamphlet in Battery's hand one glance before she shook her head.
"No, I remember that one," she said, sparing the lazing Assault a dismissive look of her own before she returned her attention to Battery. "It's more of a warning than a sales pitch. Not the sort of tone we're aiming for."
"Right," Battery sighed, dropping the pamphlet back inside and quickly hefting the box down onto the floor so she could put another in its place. Miss Militia strode over to drop what she'd found onto the table as Assault called out again, forcing his way back into the conversation.
"You see, while you two are focusing on your propaganda pamphlets and boring power points, old Assault here's cooking up some brilliant plans to win over our Stranger friend."
Miss Militia responded with a theatrical sigh.
"I'd better start thinking about how I'm going to manage damage control, then," she groused in a put-upon tone. Battery gave an amused snort as Assault squawked in feigned indignation.
"O ye, of little faith," he retorted, folding his arms across his chest as he pushed his foot off the edge of the table again to maintain the momentum of his spin. "I guarantee that you'll be singing my praises before the day is done!"
"Or gathering your remains once the Director's finished roasting you alive." Battery droned back.
A chime forestalled any further comebacks as the large screen at the front of the room clicked itself on. Assault paused his spinning as Dragon's digital avatar resolved itself on the display and before she could deliver a greeting, he called out to her.
"Dragon! Tell these ladies to have a little more faith in me, would you?"
"Well," she began, a pensive expression on her face. "I suppose there is a first time for everyone."
Battery and Miss Militia snorted out surprised laughs and even I clapped a hand over my mouth in shocked humor. It was like when the teacher gave a retort to the class clown that was actually really funny; you weren't sure whether or not you were supposed to laugh.
Assault slapped a hand onto his chest and made a show of recoiling like he was wounded.
"Et tu, Dragon?" He wheezed out as though in great pain. Dragon's response was deadpan.
"Fly not; stand stiff: ambition's debt is paid."
"Ah, you women always stick together," Assault complained, grinning as Battery tried to fix him with a chastising glare. The effect was diminished by how tightly her lips were pressed together and the twitching corners of her mouth; her internal war against smiling was hard-fought, it seemed.
"It's good to see you, Dragon," Miss Militia greeted, steering things back towards more professional waters. "Thank you for taking the time to help us with this."
"I'm glad to help," Dragon replied, her full faced smile easily discernible on her obfuscated avatar. It was amazing how she could be so expressive through whatever filter or program she used to conceal her identity. "Honestly, it's me who's thankful that the PRT has come to trust me enough to help with these internal situations. It was a nightmare trying to coordinate protocols before I'd earned all of the proper clearances."
"Any new movements from Stray?" Battery asked as she began to move the dispersed boxes back into the closet.
"It's hard to say," Dragon replied, turning away like she was looking at another computer screen. "The last recorded input at the terminal she was using occurred eight minutes ago, so it's possible that she's wandered off again."
"What, can't keep track of a silent, invisible, teleporting Stranger?" Assault questioned with a teasing grin. "Is the queen of information control finally losing her touch?"
"Assault!" Battery hissed as her suppressed smile twisted into a withering glare.
Dragon took the banter in stride. "Oh, don't worry; I still have a few tricks up my sleeve. Though in this case, I think the direct approach is best. I'll send her another message and see if she replies, but first I dropped in to deliver an update.
"Director Piggot has just finished briefing the Wards on the situation. Aegis, Gallant, and Clockblocker were chosen to participate in the meeting and are on their way up now."
"Clockblocker?!" Battery and Assault both exclaimed, in disbelief and excitement respectively.
"I didn't think they'd be included for this," Miss Militia wondered aloud, brows creased in thought. "How much did the Director tell them?"
"Only the basic outline: that there was a rogue but not overtly hostile Stranger in the base, probably around their ages. They're aware that their priority is to leave a positive impression but they don't know any of the specific details."
"Leaving them in the dark seems like it could backfire on us big time." Assault pointed out, carefree tone replaced by a note of caution. "We can guess at what a few of Stray's hot-button topics might be, and they're all things that the Wards are pretty likely to unintentionally poke at in conversation."
"True," Miss Militia agreed, fingers drumming rhythmically on the holster at her hip. "A lot of the information is still under the Master/Stranger gag order, but we should be able to decide on a few ground rules to help avoid controversial topics. Speaking of, what's the latest on the Shadow Stalker review?"
I unconsciously perked up as Shadow Stalker was mentioned.
"The preliminary evaluation of what's been found seems to corroborate Stray's testimony." Dragon announced with quiet resignation. I definitely didn't fist-pump. "Of course, nothing has been conclusively proven yet, considering the guidelines of evidence review under Master/Stranger protocols, but the tone of recent communications has been less about whether or not the story is true and more about what's going to be done."
Shaking her head, Dragon blew out a heavy sigh, the sound almost musical through the electronic distortion that masked her voice. "There seems to be fairly heavy pressure coming from on-high to get Stray on board, and they're prepared to allow quite a few concessions. Director Piggot tried to speak with her earlier, but-" Dragon paused as Assault laughed out loud. When everyone turned to him, he simply waved for Dragon to continue, a shit-eating-grin plastered on his face. "Well, given that the Director's attempt failed, I suspect that you'll be given a good deal of leeway to do what you think is best."
As Assault rubbed his hands together with a mischievous giggle, Dragon tacked on a clarifier.
"Don't sweat the details," Assault insisted as he reclined leisurely in his chair. "It's like they always say: it's better to ask forgiveness than permission."
"Oh dear," Dragon sighed.
Storming over to him, Battery clapped a hand down on Assault's shoulder, a strained smile on her face.
"Don't worry, Dragon," she began, voice thick with the sort of sickly-sweet charm of an indirect threat. "While you try to touch base with Stray, we'll sort out our game plan to make sure we're all on the same page, right?" Bringing up a hand to conceal his grin, Assault turned away from them and surprisingly kept his mouth shut.
With a knowing smile, Dragon replied, "I'll leave you to it."
As the large screen went blank, Battery whirled on Assault with surprising intensity
"You're unbelievable! You can't just talk to everyone like you're close friends!" As Battery all but exploded, Miss Militia made herself busy by sorting their gathered supplies and pretending to be oblivious to the verbal lashing. "Do you even think about who you're talking to or the situation you're in when you speak? Because it seems like you just spit out the first thing that pops into your head, no matter how inappropriate it might be!"
"Puppy, relax!" Assault cut in to the tirade, holding up his hands in surrender. "I know how to read my audience, alright? Dragon's not going to be insulted by a bit of friendly back and forth. If you weren't so distracted by all the twinkles and sparkles you would've seen that it was fine. She gave as good as she got."
"I- I what?" Battery stammered, taken aback. Assault's amused grin turned absolutely predatory.
I was half aware of a new message from Dragon appearing on the computer I'd been using, but I was so engrossed by the confrontation that I just barely glanced at it and sent a quick reply.
"I'd think you'd have been over that sort of hero worship by now after serving under Legend for so long, but I guess that's just another one of your adorable puppy-isms."
What was visible of Battery's face had turned absolutely scarlet.
"What hero worship?!" she nearly shrieked, clenching her fists as she gestured sharply at the screen. "How many Endrbringer fights do you think I-"
"Aw Puppy, there's no need to be so embarrassed!" Assault cooed in the sort of voice that was meant to infuriate rather than calm. "I'm sure that Dragon-"
Whatever he'd been about to say, Battery didn't give him a chance to finish. She lunged forward, seemingly intent to throttle her partner where he sat. Assault dodged with practiced reflexes, leaping from his chair and taking off around the large conference table, cackling all the while. Battery pursued with a vengeance, throwing away her dignity in favor of violent retribution.
However, as she chased him around, burning with a fury stoked by embarrassment, I couldn't help but notice that she never used her power. She'd probably catch him immediately if she did, but instead she seemed content to run after him normally, pursuing with intent but never crossing that final line.
She must really love him.
The spectacle was interrupted when someone knocked at the door to the room.
In response, Battery skidded to a stop, immediately moving to smooth out her costume and straighten her hair. The motion looked so ingrained that it must have been a reflex born from years of repetition. In contrast, Assault threw himself into one of the chairs at the table and dropped his head onto his arms, visibly shaking with silent laughter.
Ever the bastion of calm rationality, Miss Militia simply pretended that nothing had happened and moved to open the door.
She was greeted by a fully geared PRT trooper, waiting in the hallway with a rolling, stainless steel cafeteria cart. It was piled up with various lunch and snack items, ranging from pizza boxes and sandwich platters, to bags of chips and soda. There were even two big metal thermoses labeled coffee and hot water, with an assortment of tea bags in a basket nearby.
"Catering's here," the man announced without preamble. Miss Militia thanked him and accepted the cart, pulling it into the conference room. His delivery completed, the trooper gave an informal salute and wandered off back down the hall.
As Miss Militia pulled the cart over to the conference table, Battery helped her unload the various food items and tableware, and spread them out in a more organized presentation.
Picking his head up from the table, Assault gave a few theatrically overstated sniffs and declared, "I smell pizza!"
"And you're going to wait until everyone gets here to eat any." Battery replied, forestalling any scavenging. "Besides, you just ate. You can't be that hungry."
"There's always room in my stomach for pizza." Assault insisted, pushing out from the table and rolling along backwards in his chair to get closer to the food. Battery reached out and caught the chair, halting his advance with a steady hand.
"I smell pizza!" another enthusiastic voice called out. A moment later, the costumed figures of Clockblocker, Aegis, and Gallant stepped into the conference room.
"Didn't you just eat, Clock?" Aegis retorted in a skeptical but amused tone. As his featureless white helmet turned to survey the food laid out on the table, Clockblocker gestured animatedly at the pizza boxes.
"Look! They ordered in! None of that rubbery cafeteria stuff. There's no way I'm not going to have a slice or ten."
"Déjà vu," Miss Militia muttered in amusement as the trio of younger heroes lined up in front of her.
"Ma'am," Aegis and Gallant greeted her with respectful nods. Clockblocker simply delivered a corny salute.
"Good afternoon," Miss Militia replied, her tone amicable. She gestured to the conference table. "Feel free to follow Assault's example and make yourselves comfortable. The goal today is to leave our guest with a good impression in a relaxed atmosphere. Your jobs are to simply be yourselves and engage with her."
"Just try not to stick your feet in your mouths," Assault cut in. "Otherwise, you'll end up being haunted by an upset, teleporting Stranger."
If there was someone in the room that I was considering haunting, it wasn't one of the Wards.
"What Assault meant to say," Battery quickly took over. "Is that we're aware of a few topics that we'd probably do well to broach carefully, if at all."
As the three younger heroes settled into chairs of their own, they pushed away from the table to form a half circle with the protectorate members, letting everyone see each other clearly.
"Pardon me for saying, but that sounds a bit ominous." Aegis observed, glancing briefly at Clockblocker for support.
"I don't think you need to be too concerned," Miss Militia said. "Throughout Stray's interactions with us so far, she's been fairly cordial, if a bit nervous."
"Except with the Director!" Assault once again added his two cents.
"Well, that's a given," Clockblocker accepted with a nod. Aegis turned to fix him with a look. "Don't even pretend to be surprised by that. Piggy is way better suited to be in an interrogation room than in a sales meeting. Unless you're talking hard sales." Clockblocker punctuated his statement by shaking his fist with mock aggression.
"More to the point," Miss Militia interjected as she tried to get the discussion back on track. "She's expressed an interest in being a hero. So while we'd like to give her a favorable impression of joining the Wards program, I think it's more important for us to avoid pushing her away." There were a round of nods and murmured agreements before Miss Militia turned to Gallant.
"Gallant, you've seemed like you're distracted. Is something bothering you?" Gallant's helmet perked up and he gave a quick shake of his head.
"No ma'am, I apologize. It's just that everyone around the base has been understandably on edge. I'd like to reserve my own judgment until I'm able to meet Stray for myself."
"An admirable stance," Miss Militia assented, her smile obvious despite her scarf. "Then, let's go over some points that the Director might not have shared. Based on information we've both received and managed to infer, it's likely that school will be a sensitive topic for her."
I felt myself go tense. Had I mentioned anything about my problems being related to school? I could have sworn that I'd been careful to avoid being so specific. Was it just an easy inference to make, or had the PRT managed to do more information gathering than I'd thought?
"You can probably commiserate over how much it sucks," Assault supplied.
"Or emphasize some of the good points about Arcadia." Battery stepped in. "It's just probably not a good idea to ask her about her own experiences."
"Bullying?" Aegis asked with a grimace.
"It's likely," Miss Militia replied evasively. "I'll emphasize that we should try to build a camaraderie with her. She may not have many places where she feels like she belongs, so I think that being friendly and genuine with her will go much farther than the specific content of what we're saying."
It surprised me how much it stung to hear that, to hear them talk about me and realize how closely what they were saying was hitting the mark. These people barely knew anything about me, and yet they could somehow strike at the heart of my own issues. Worst of all, was the realization that when Miss Militia mentioned me not belonging, my first thought wasn't of school but my own home.
I may have been fundamentally intangible, but I definitely felt that punch.
"Okay!" Assault broke in, throwing his hands up into the air palms out. "Sorry, but with all this talk of camaraderie, this needs to be said. If you talk about the Wards, don't even mention Shadow Stalker. Don't say her name. Don't even acknowledge her existence." As everyone turned to him in surprise, Assault continued.
"This is still completely classified so you didn't hear me say it, but the whole reason Stray came around here in the first place was to deliver a laundry list of complaints about her. They seem to have a pretty bad beef, so whatever you may think about little-miss-attitude yourselves, you're better off not saying anything at all.
"Can't tell you why just yet, not unless Stray talks about it herself, anyway, but don't worry because you're probably going to find out soon. Any questions?"
"Um, quite a few, actually." Clockblocker supplied.
"Weird, because I don't remember saying anything." Assault singsonged as he pantomimed zipping his lips shut.
As the Wards exchanged uncertain glances, there was another chime from the screen at the front of the room. After a moment, Dragon's avatar reappeared.
"Ah, I'm sorry," she began sheepishly, as she seemed to give the group a once over. "Did I interrupt?"
"No, I think we hit on the major points," Miss Militia sighed. "From here, we'll just have to do our best. Were you able to get in contact with her, Dragon?"
Dragon's avatar nodded. "Are you ready for me to send her up?"
"Yeah, let's get started before the pizza gets cold!" Assault exclaimed.
"Why do I even bother?" Battery muttered to herself, palming her forehead in resignation.
"Should we send down an escort?" Miss Militia asked as the Wards organized themselves back around the table. They angled themselves so that they could see the door without directly facing it.
"I think that given the observed usage of her power, it might be better for me to tell her about the meeting and let her arrive at her own pace. Just be ready for her to pop up at any time after I give the okay."
"Wait, like, literally?" Clockblocker asked.
"Yes," Dragon confirmed. "At the moment, she's been marked as both a Mover and a Stranger. It wouldn't be out of character for her to arrive unseen and then take a moment to observe everyone before feeling confident enough to show herself."
I suddenly felt like the room was getting uncomfortably warm.
"Spooky!" Assault crooned, turning to Battery for a reaction. She gave him a half hearted smack.
"Right, what should we be doing, then?" Aegis asked.
"Why don't we grab drinks and talk among ourselves," Miss Militia supplied. "Just be mindful of what you say from this point on."
As Miss Militia turned and nodded to Dragon, the Wards shared another uncertain look between themselves before somewhat stiffly getting up and separating a pack of styrofoam cups.
Another message from Dragon appeared on my computer.
Dragon: Would you still be interested in meeting with a few of the Protectorate and Wards members? They've heard a bit about you now and would like to say hello.
I turned away from the gathering to give Dragon a reply.
StrangerTemp: Yes, that would be fine. Where should I be going?
As Dragon sent back directions to the conference room, she announced my imminent arrival.
"Okay, she's agreed to meet and I've told her where to go. The rest is up to you."
Despite preparation, a tense atmosphere seemed to settle over the room. It didn't last for long though, as Assault loudly clapped his hands together and leapt to his feet.
"Alright, who's ready to do this?! Clockblocker!" Despite his momentary surprise, Clockblocker responded with admirable composure.
"Sure," he shrugged, head tilted in mild confusion as he watched the older hero practically bounce over to him.
"That's what I like to hear. Up high!" As Assault held a hand out above his head, Clockblocker seemed to come to some realization. He sprang to his feet and responded to Assault's implied request with an exuberant high-five.
Battery, too, seemed to come to a realization. Her head snapped around and she called out in a warning tone. "No."
Heedless of her warning, Clockblocker held out a hand below his waist. "Down low!"
As Assault wound up, swinging his arm in an exaggerated arc for a simple 'low-five,' Battery's warning took on a note of desperation.
"Assault, no!" she practically pleaded.
Before their hands made contact, Clockblocker pulled his away, causing Assault to miss and stumble with exaggerated clumsiness.
"Too slow!" The younger hero announced.
Assault dropped low into an awkward squat and opened his mouth wide, clapping his hands together onto either side of his face in a comical 'Oh no!' expression. Finally, to round off the gag, Clockblocker slapped Assault on the back and the older hero stopped moving, completely frozen in time.
There was a beat of silence, broken a moment later by Battery's despondent wail.
"No!" she grieved, hands going to either side of her head in a moment of unintentional symmetry with her frozen partner.
"Clock," Aegis breathed out in disbelief.
"Dragon!" Miss Militia called out, turning to the screen for help.
"I'll see if I can delay her," was the immediate reply.
Suddenly realizing what he'd just done, Clockblocker held up his hands defensively.
"Whoa, wait a second! This- you can't just blame me for this. Assault was totally asking for it! I mean literally asking for it!"
"You're not supposed to go along with him!" Battery exclaimed, voice high and tight with panic.
"Clockblocker," Miss Militia intoned, voice steely with implied threat. "How long?"
"I- I don't know!" he stammered in panic. "It don't think it'll be a long one, but I can't say for sure. Maybe- maybe five minutes. Tops!"
"You've really done it this time, Clock," Aegis sighed.
"Look," Clockblocker tried, visibly floundering. "This doesn't have to be a bad thing! Why don't we take a sheet or something, and throw it over him. It'll be like-"
"A sheet?" Miss Militia demanded in disbelief. Clockblocker took a step back.
"Yeah, I- uh-" Clockblocker was saved from his impending fate when someone choked out a stifled laugh.
Five heads and one digital avatar snapped around to stare directly at me.
Had that been me? Oops.
Clapping two hands over my mouth, my stomach burned as I tried to suppress my frantic chortles.
What was it about trying not to laugh that made everything seem infinitely funnier?
As I sat on the other side of the table, glancing between each of their shocked stares in turn, I desperately tried to think of something to say. Throwing caution to the wind, I pulled my hands away from my face and opened my mouth, only to be preempted by my own rather unladylike guffaw.
In panicked embarrassment, I vanished myself away.
There was a long moment of stunned silence before Clockblocker suddenly perked up.
"Oh, I get it! Because she's like a cat!" he exclaimed.
The group turned to face him in disbelief and after another long pause, Aegis slapped the back of his head.