Chapter 8

Publicly Relative Teams

The armored van entered an underground garage. I started keeping track of the location of my body and my Friendbringer's bodies from my real self as it was almost impossible to figure it out from inside the van.

Must've been intentional. I didn't miss how easy it would be to reconfigure these things to prison transports. They were nice and comfy and cushy for us, though, so we must be doing something right.

That or Legend's backing carried a lot more weight than I realized.

...Or they were so scared of us, the PRT wasn't going to make any sudden moves, like a person with a TRex breathing down the back of their neck.

It was probably a mixture of all three, if I'm being honest.

Anyways, the van entered an underground parking garage with other, very similar vans in it and the driver parked.

The engine shut down, and the Protectorate members in the van with us looked to Armsmaster.

He still seemed lost in thought, so I politely coughed and kicked his armored shin. Lightly, but not light enough to prevent the loud clang as my strength, even lightly, caused a sonic feedback from the metal.

Armsmaster almost jumped out of his chair even as I felt myself blush with embarrassment. His hand went to his halberd and he rapidly scanned for something. Danger, I assume.

I had to give the heroes with us credit, only Assault was unable to keep himself from snickering.

Armsmaster glared at me. "What was that for?" he asked irritability.

Losing my own ability to keep from snickering, I gestured to the driver, the uniformed and helmeted… woman who was snickering along with me. "I think we're here," I deadpanned, attempting to keep a straight face even though I'd just snickered.

Armsmaster didn't know I could see the scowl he sent me, but I just smiled angelically.

"Thank you for… informing me," he growled out, then stood up. "Come, the Director wants to meet you."

He turned to the back of the van and opened it. With a step off the van his armor landed on the pavement with a loud clang. The van lifted itself on its suspension. Noticeably. His armor was pretty heavy, after all.

Armsmaster stood there all imposing and looked back over his shoulder. "Miss Militia, please aid me in escorting them. The rest of you…" he looked over Assault, Velocity, Battery, and Dauntless as he said that, "hit the showers."

Assault snapped off a snarky salute and almost bounded out of the van, somehow skirting right past Armsmaster.

Battery groaned. "I'd better make sure he doesn't get in trouble," she lamented, ducking past the man in armor with an apologetic smile.

Armsmaster's shoulders tensed up, but she didn't notice.

Just before she left the van, she turned back to me as if suddenly remembering something. "Oh hey, if you need anything, just ask for me, okay?"

I nodded to her after a moment, smiling. "Sure thing. Thanks." Left unsaid between us both was that Legend had directed her to aid me… but she was genuine in her offer of assistance. My Shards could tell that easily.

She went off to deal with her husband, leaving the van behind.

Armsmaster's shoulders tensed even further and his free hand clenched into a fist. "Would anyone ELSE like to brush past my armor?" he demanded, sounding incredibly offended.

I kept myself quiet and glared at the smirk Ziz was wearing.

Velocity started to raise his hand.

"NO," Armsmaster declared, fully turning around to glare at the red speedster.

At this point Miss Militia's eyes were in full crinkle mode and she seemed to be having trouble keeping herself from chuckling, but she managed.

"We will all exit this van in an orderly, organized manner," Armsmaster declared, glancing at me as if pleading with me not to refute him. "Director's… guests, first."

And that's how my Friendbringers and I ended up on a Tinkertech elevator flanked by an irritated Armsmaster and a highly amused Miss Militia.

The poor guy's patience had clearly suffered quite an assault today, not just because of yours truly, and he definitely needed to recharge his batteries.

The ride wasn't long, only about a minute. Felt like a lot longer, though, especially when my three female Friendbringers started snickering under their breath at my wholly unintentional puns.

And then… the conversation started.

"I've always wanted to meet the Director," Emma spoke up, to break the silence only previously interrupted by her snickering, Armsmaster's creaking and clenched fist, and the almost audible laughter that came from Miss Militia's wrinkled eye corners. "She seems nice."

Miss Militia sent her a shocked look that she couldn't see. Or rather, one she wouldn't have been able to see if she wasn't currently tapping into her sensors, surveilling the entire coast for anything dangerous to me.

Guess I wasn't the only one on edge.

"She's nice?" Khonsou asked, innocently perplexed. "But Ziz said she was a bi-"

Ziz slapped a hand over her mouth and gave the now glaring Armsmaster a sheepish smile. "Haha, wow, yeah, let's not talk about what other me may or may not have said, okay Khonsou?" she asked, somewhat demandingly, and the other part pleadingly.

Khonsou's reply was muffled, but the innocent and accepting "Okay!" was clear for us all to hear.

"The Director can be… a little intense," Miss Militia admitted, wincing to herself.

"Some of the time," Armsmaster hesitantly agreed. His fists relaxed and the stress began to leave his shoulders, one of my emotional detection Shards informing me that he was returning to normal now that he had something else besides Assault to focus on. "She has a difficult job. Normally I wouldn't speak of this, but you are aware of the state of the city, correct?" He looked down at us as he asked us the question.

I sighed, crossing my arms. "Yeah, Brockton Bay needs some work," I agreed.

I knew what he was talking about. The city was in a state of almost constant gang wars. Plural, due to the three main ones run by Parah- by Shard Hosts, and their general dislike of each other.

Ironically the one with the asian rage dragon was the best one of the three. The other two were literal Nazis, and druggies that drugged up others.

In my city's reality, rumors of forced prostitution and human trafficking were better than them.

Armsmaster nodded. "She has to oversee all of that, our Wards, and keep people safe on top of it," he explained, sounding proud for some reason. "A four way cold war that sometimes turns hot, and she's the nominal leader of the only good side. New Wave included."

"The city isn't split five ways anymore, though," Ziz spoke up.

We all turned to her in surprise, my Friendbringers included. "Excuse me? Five?" Armsmaster asked her.

Ziz nodded. "Before Taylor changed us and became what she is now," she began explaining, "there was you guys, the Druggies, the Nazis, the Asians, and one more; Coil's almost paramilitary faction." She grimaced and shook her head. "He's about to finish constructing his supposedly secret underground base and begin operations with his forces."

Miss Militia frowned and shared a wary glance with Armsmaster. "Armsmaster, what do we have on Coil?"

Armsmaster didn't reply for a moment, no doubt using his suit's systems to search for just that. "Not much," he admitted after his pause, "he's supposed to be a villain who employs mercenaries, but other than that, we have nothing." He turned his head to look at Ziz and seemed to consider a decision.

"Elevator, pause, monitoring systems off," he announced to the air.

The Tinkertech elevator slowed to a stop, letting out a single chime.

The massive array of Shard-driven sensors I'd barely noticed attempting to get information from me shut down, and suddenly we might as well have been invisible to the PRT HQ's systems.

On top of that, a huge connection I definitely hadn't noticed before due to its presence when I first met Armsmaster disconnected from his armor. Curious, I idly traced the path back through the Internet and hit a massive server farm all the way up in Canada.

Canada? Wasn't the Tinker Dragon from there?

I shrugged and let the thought fall onto my to-do list. I'd investigate that later. A server farm for a Tinker wasn't that unusual, after all.

"With or without breaking the Unwritten Rules?" Ziz asked, seemingly out of nowhere, right as Armsmaster was about to open his mouth.

My head snapped to look at directly her and I glared, prepping an internal command just in case I had to stop her from running her mouth.

I might not care about the rules that most capes apparently claimed to bind themselves by, but others would.

"Without, please," Armsmaster asked.

Ziz sighed and shook her head. "Okay, fine. But I will be obeying the letter of them, not the spirit," she declared, then hesitated. She looked to me with a worried and apologetic smile on her face. "That's… okay, right?"

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. "Yes."

Ziz nodded. "Right. Coil has the power to simulate two timelines. He can extract information in them and then cancel the simulation, so nobody would ever know," she began explaining.

Miss Militia frowned, looking quite worried. Armsmaster tensed up. "Any information?" Miss Militia asked.

Ziz nodded, but Emma stepped in. "Actually he's limited to normal Thinker Shard restrictions," she revealed, an amused smirk on her face. "So all of us are safe." She frowned, then, and looked at the two heroes. "Dunno about you two, though, or the PRT."

Ziz shook her head. "Oh no, he's definitely compromised the PRT," she insisted.

I wondered where all this was coming from. He sounded pretty dangerous, at least to Hosts. I wasn't worried about myself or my family… Emma was right. I took an idle peek at their focused databases and raised my eyebrows.

I knew that Shard signature.

It was one I'd noticed was connected to a Host in the building we were in, right now.

Coil was IN the PRT HQ Building, and no alarms were going off.

Two different things could be assumed from this. One, he was also a high level Stranger… though his Shard didn't seem capable of that. Like Battery's Shard, his seemed off, somehow. Like it was tired. It also accepted my administration codes without complaint… or reply.

Just like Battery's had.


"How?" Armsmaster growled.

"You mean beyond his ability to interrogate any of you in a simulation?" my winged Friendbringer snarked back.

Armsmaster looked at me, his raised eyebrows supposedly not visible inside his helmet. "You're alright with her telling us all this?" he asked me, disbelievingly.

I nodded his way and uncrossed my arms. "Yeah. I'm a Hero, and so are my Friendbringers, which nominally puts us on the same side… at least on paper," I informed him. "I don't actually care about the Unwritten Rules, either. I am having Ziz stick to them not because I fear anyone attacking my father or any of us over us breaking them, but because I'm afraid of how far I would have to go to stop them once they do."

Miss Militia paled at the implication, and Armsmaster didn't fare much better. "I am only assuming at this moment, but can I take your statement to mean it would not go well?"

"At the very least," Ben spoke up, reminding everyone he was present due to his deep, booming voice. Even I jumped, and I'd been peripherally aware of him at all times due to how we were connected. The guy can be stealthy, apparently. "Even if we were to stay out of the battle, it is unlikely that all humans working together would be capable of injuring Taylor more than momentarily."

The elevator was silent for a few moments.

"...Right," Armsmaster finally spoke up. "We will… I'll put that in my report."

"Please do," Ben suggested pleasantly, but it sure didn't feel like a request.

I sighed and reached up to rub my temples. "Look, we're supposed to be on the same side, okay? We're all heroes, let's act like them and stop discussing how badly shit would hit the fan if all the gloves came off."

Ben and Armsmaster stared each other down for a few moments before looking away from each other.

"As you wish, Taylor."

"Very well."

Miss Militia scoffed and rolled her eyes.

Internally, I directed queries to my Friendbringers. [What gives?] I asked them.

The two responsible for this mess gave no external indication they'd received anything, but engaged me in discussion regardless. [They must be made aware that you are not to be taken lightly,] Ben directed my way.

Ziz chimed in with her own reason. [Taylor, they're going to turn on you. Maybe not all of them, maybe not even the majority, but someone in this organization will think they can fuck with you and then they will try something stupid. You've already been betrayed enough.] She sent me the feeling of pleading and support. [We're just trying to stop that from occurring.]

I closed my eyes and sighed. [I know that's going to happen, guys, I'm dense, not naive. And I know Coil is here.]

At that they did react externally. Ziz and Ben's eyes both widened, and they turned to look at me. A moment later, the conversation that Emma was having with Khonsou and Levi puttered out as they joined in looking at me.

[Way to be clandestine,] I sarcastically fired at all of them.

Armsmaster and Miss Militia noticed, alright. They looked at us as if we were incredibly weird, which given we were five teens staring at me silently, was understandable.

[You're expecting betrayal?] Emma asked. Her face morphed to a look of hurt. [Is it because of my original?]

I opened my eyes and looked directly at her. [No. Well, at least not entirely,] I reassured her. [I just know enough about human history to see the obvious result that'll happen at some point. And, once again, supervillain in the building!]

I really didn't want to talk about my expectations anymore. Thankfully, the Friendbringer that was my sister picked up my growing irritation over the conceptual network we had, and steered the conversation where I wanted it to go.

[What are we going to do about that, by the way?] Emma asked, crossing her arms. She frowned a little at me. [Disclosing his identity would be a violation of the Unwritten Rules.]

Ziz narrowed her eyes at Emma and I auspiciously, but a single check of my emotional state was enough to deter her. And thus, the rest of them. She sighed and shook her head. [I don't know. There's lots of ways to alert the PRT to his presence without breaking the Rules.] She looked over to me again and raised an eyebrow. [It all depends on what you'll let me do, Taylor.]

I grimaced, then glanced at the curious Miss Militia and the downright intrigued Armsmaster. I took a moment to investigate why he was so focused on our silent communications. A query to his Shard showed that it was feeding him designs for a mind-to-mind comms system.

And not sending him into a Tinker fugue.

Guess it really took my instructions seriously.

I shook my head to ward off my thoughts and refocused on the real topic. [I don't want supervillains around any more than you do, guys, and especially not in a position to further ease the PRT betraying me.] I sighed and shrugged, closing my eyes. [Without breaking the letter of the Unwritten but totally actually very written Rules in Piggot's desk drawer, go nuts and disable him.]

Ziz gained a very scary smile. A second later, so did Emma.

"I take it your mental conversation is finished?" Armsmaster spoke up.

Ziz and Emma turned to him as one unit, while the rest of my Friendbringers resumed talking amongst themselves. They quickly drew Miss Militia in via the power of Khonsou and Levi's cuteness.

"Taylor has given us clearance to help you take down Coil, as long as we don't break the letter of the Unwritten Rules," Emma informed him.

His eyebrows rose inside his helmet, but before he could speak, Ziz continued.

My winged Friendbringer tossed her long hair over her shoulder and fluttered her wings as a subtle reminder of what she used to be. "And that's a lot of leeway," she said, grinning wide. "For instance; Coil is in the building right now."

Armsmaster tensed up and Miss Militia immediately snapped her suddenly intense gaze to Ziz. "What."

"There's more!" Emma cheerfully stated.

"Yep!" Ziz agreed, nodding. "While I don't recommend ethnic profiling, if you didn't do some of that in the search for who Coil is, you'd probably miss him. Stereotypes unfortunately sometimes are accurate."

Miss Militia frowned. Clearly, she didn't understand Ziz's clue. "There are laws against that, not to mention morals-" she started to protest.

Armsmaster cut her off by holding out his armored arm in front of her. "No, Miss Militia, that's not what she's saying," he countered, but found himself not entirely convinced. "...Correct?"

Ziz just smiled angelically and clasped her hands behind her back.

"Anything more down that train of thought would be breaking the Unwritten Rules," Emma explained for her.

Armsmaster stared at the both of them for several moments. "...Message received," he finally acknowledged. He turned to the still offended Miss Militia and gave her something that was vague, but definitely got the point across. "They could have picked a less morally laced way to phrase it, but I understand what they're trying to deliver," he informed her.

Miss Militia seemed like she was going to keep going… and then it clicked. Her mouth opened underneath her scarf and she let out a little 'oh.'

"Indeed," Armsmaster confirmed.

"That's… really?" she asked, turning to Ziz with a bewildered look about her eyes.

Ziz nodded, but said nothing more.

Miss Militia took a deep breath and blinked to clear her confusion… and probably whatever traumas Ziz had unintentionally (or intentionally, honestly I couldn't tell) dug up for her. "Any other nuggets of wisdom?" she finally asked.

Ziz shook her head and mimed zipping her mouth shut.

Emma, on the other hand, wasn't as worried about my orders. Rightfully so, as it was unlikely I would punish her for things Ziz couldn't get away with. At least, that's what I kept telling myself; in the back of my mind and three threads of thought away, I acknowledged I wouldn't be able to punish any of them, ever.

They were my first friends since Emma's original betrayed me.

"Actually yeah," she spoke up. "Coil's secret base is like a bunker. A really tough, durable fortress." She locked eyes with Armsmaster and nodded her head at herself, Ziz, and the rest of my Friendbringers. "Coil constructed it himself to resist them, after all."

Miss Militia's eyes widened and Armsmaster cursed.

"You're joking," Miss Militia pleaded.

"Nope." And with that, Emma zipped her lips too.

The two capes turned to me, almost as if they wanted me to refute what they'd heard.

"All true. And whatever conclusions you come to with this information are entirely yours," I told them, stressing that last bit. "Just remember how his power works if you do find out who he is, because he wilI likely know everything you think he will, and a lot of things you don't think he will. Uh… I think you have something called Stranger Master protocols? I'd recommend operating under the maximum level of whatever those are."

Miss Militia swallowed, the sound audible in the silent elevator, and Armsmaster sighed.

"Very well. Thank you for enlightening us with this... interesting information," he stated flatly, then turned back to resume the position he'd been in. "After I resume the monitoring systems, I will need to go address this. Miss Militia can take you the rest of the way. To the Director."

Miss Militia hesitated. "Armsmaster, won't you need help?"

He pressed a button on his halberd, and it rapidly shifted into a much more menacing form. Spikes erupted from the blade's edge, two guns which looked an awful lot like tasers popped out of the sides of the handle, and several parts began to glow. He sent his teammate and second in command a smirk. "I can handle one villainous precog," he affirmed.

He hesitated, then, and turned back to me. "He is just a precog, right?" he asked, hesitancy clear in his voice where before there had been none.

I took another glance at the Shard I now knew to be Coil's, checking what it was telling me against my own copy. Other than the fact mine was no longer short on energy, or 'tired', they were identical, and their cycle limits, though pretty corrupted, stated they only have the ability to the host that Coil's Shard initially reported. "Yeap," I confirmed, nodding and popping the p. "Just a precog. A pretty limited one, too, even though he's managed to figure out how to munchkin it to a frankly impressive degree."

Armsmaster relaxed, once more confident, but raised an eyebrow. "Munchkin?"

Miss Militia was the one to tell him. "Clockblocker explained it to me. Basically, finding out how to exploit a given set of rules to your advantage."

"Ah," Armsmaster nodded. "Well, munchkin or not, I'm going to show him just how real this timeline is." His hands ground the metal of his suit around them and he gave the command. "Elevator resume. Monitoring systems on."

Just like that, all the systems that had been watching us before switched back on, and the elevator continued its ascent.

I tried not to shiver now that I was aware of their existence.

"Well, I'll take you to see the Director while Armsmaster is busy," Miss Militia announced, her face all smiles and no worries again. Damn she was good. "I'm sure she'll be interested to hear your stories too."

[Act natural,] Ziz poked me, stopping me from looking at the American flag themed cape like she was nuts.

I stared at my Friendbringer with internal disbelief, but a somewhat contented face on my body. [The monitoring systems?] I guessed.

Ziz nodded. She then turned to Miss Militia and smiled widely. "Speaking for myself, I want to get my story out there, and especially to Director Piggot," she announced. "I've… my previous self has had a wing or two in some of her traumatic past and I need to apologize."

Holy shit Ziz, that's one way to torpedo the conversation.

Miss Militia raised her eyebrows. "...Well," she managed. "I'm sure she'll at least listen. Don't know about the forgiveness, though. She doesn't do that easily."

Ziz put on a brave face and stood her ground. "I still want to try."

I found myself feeling just the littlest amount of pride. She was trying to own up to her past self's actions and make up for them.

That littlest amount was a torrent just as large as the debt she had to repay, but I would refuse to acknowledge it if anyone asked.

Thankfully nobody did. The elevator arrived with a pleasant chime, and the door opened to a hallway.

"I'll see you all later," Armsmaster said, stepping off the elevator. "Keep them content, Miss Militia."

The man clunked away while Miss Militia nodded.

Since none of us were leaving, the door closed, and suddenly Miss Militia found herself the focus of the eyes of five Friendbringers… and me.

The fact all of us were eons more powerful than her couldn't have been far from her mind, but she grinned through it and at least attempted to seem like she wasn't scared.

"So, shall we go see the Director?"