AN: Sorry about the delay, I never should have bought Elden Ring.

Well, this has been an interesting update to write. Taylor and Danny talking is… weirdly one of those things I like to write even though it's tricky to get it to turn out to my satisfaction. And then the cast kind of said hey remember that idea you played with months ago? Yeah that's happening now. Why now? Because it's in character and putting it off wasn't. So there go some of my plans, but what the hell, that's nothing new.

Thanks go out to my beta Functionality.

It took nearly half an hour to carve up Noelle's lower half to the point it stopped moving while getting the victims out in one piece. Harpe was excellent for fighting regenerators, but it was still a scythe. It was not made for precision cuts or lopping flesh off of something the size of an elephant. Especially when I couldn't risk touching any of the slices in case, they decided to clone me.

Thankfully thermite did wonders for cremation, and was simple enough for me to trace even without being a weapon. I wasn't taking any chances and no one would care about one more ruined stretch of road in a condemned city.

Triage and emergency medical aid hadn't taken all that long. Though my ability to create pressure bandages had been in high demand at the start. The sad truth was there were a lot more fatalities than injuries. Most of the injuries had been caused by panicked people crashing into and trampling one another.

A few gunshot wounds caused by the handful of armed clones, a lot of broken bones from panicked stampeding, and one poor teen with burns over seventy percent of his body we barely kept stable long enough for Panacea to arrive. The rest... The rest of the aftermath had been spent trying to calm people down. Listening to them vent their rage. Comforting them as they cried, and in one case pulling a knife out of the hands of a woman that lost her husband to Leviathan and her child to one of the Lung clones. She'd tried to turn it on herself, and I'd… I couldn't let her.

Lily was a mess. For her, being a hero was all about the people. Helping them, making them feel safe. To her, in spite of how many we saved, this was an absolute failure. Vista wasn't taking things much better. Dani wasn't handling it very well, but Jason could help her better than I could, and Kid Win had essentially shut down.

The New Wave group that came with Panacea had only stayed long enough to heal the wounded before they headed back as escort for Lung, who had survived his wounds.

Now sitting in a corner of a tent Vista, Missy, was balled up against my left side still clutching the spear and shield I'd made her. Lilly was nearly passed out leaning against my right side.

We had long since passed the point where we had anything truly helpful to offer and the adult heroes and the LEO's had shuffled us away for a chance to breathe. The contrary teenage shit in me wanted to protest and keep offering whatever help I could, but… One look at everyone else, and an honest assessment of my own exhaustion was enough to make me see sense. Even if I was just a warm body to lean against, I was doing some good here. Probably more than if I was doing the same for a civilian I didn't know. I finally gave up and let my head lean back against the wall of the tent. If something else happened they could wake me.

{}{}{}{} two days later

The ride out of the now dead city had been quiet. Not even Lily or Dani had worked up the energy to talk much. Instead, the pair had taken to just leaning against myself and Jason respectively. Missy had nabbed the seat on my left. She was still holding onto the spear I gave her. The last person foolish enough to ask about taking it got smacked in the head with the blunt end.

Seeing the semi familiar New York skyline was… honestly it wasn't much of anything to me at the moment. I was just done with everything. I wanted a week to get my head on straight. Figure out how to answer Lily's feelings. Sort out what exactly Dad and I would do for a home and income. Figure out how I was going to go about being a hero outside the Wards without getting myself killed or jailed.

There was stuff I needed to do, and I wasn't doing any of it until I got the chance to enjoy a long shower and twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep.

So, I was understandably unimpressed when the van door finally opened in the PRT garage and I saw Legend standing next to a small crowd of worried parents. It was very, very easy to put the rainbow ranger out of my mind when I locked eyes with Dad. I don't quite remember moving, but I must have to get past Missy and out of the van. Honestly, I couldn't remember how. It felt like one moment I'd been sitting and the next my arms were wrapped around Dad with his quickly closing around me to return my hug.

Hearing from him and finding out he was alive and safe was like being able to breathe again after days of uncertainty. Hugging him, the last lingering fear melted away. We might not be as close as we had been before Mom died, but we'd been getting better since I got my powers.

I wasn't ready to lose him.

"You scared the hell out of me, kiddo."

"You scared me first. Besides, I can handle myself."

"I know you can, Taylor, but that'll never stop a parent worrying."

"I'm sorry… I'm probably going to keep worrying you."

Dad snorted.

"I'm sure you will, but please give your old man's heart a few weeks to recover before you do anything else quite this dangerous?" Dad said. His tone was aimed at joking, but it came out a little too strained to really make it.

"I can promise you a week and a half?" My tone didn't quite make it fully to joking either, but Dad humored me with a halfhearted chuckle. I felt him relax just a little bit more.

"I suppose I'll take what I can get." Dad choked out.

Hearing shouting off to my left I reluctantly pulled away to see who was shouting during what should be a bunch of family reunions.

Missy was handily proving that it was in fact possible for a preteen to win a game of keep away against not one, but two adults. The couple I assumed to be her parents were utterly failing to snatch away the girl's spear as Missy warped the space around her into an Escher painting and held her weapon over her head.

The other families backed away with a variety of expressions, even as several of the Wards and I started walking towards the arguing family.

"You're not taking it!" Missy shouted at her parents and oddly enough she had so thoroughly warped the space around her that her words layered over themselves at maybe a quarter second delay. "This is my spear! It kept me safe and I used it to help stop Noelle from making more Lung clones! It's mine, and I'm not giving it up!"

"You are not keeping that weapon young lady!" The woman I assumed to be her mother shouted as she made another grab for the spear which… honestly watching her arm swing through the twisted space made my head hurt.

Missy blew a raspberry and flipped her mother the bird.

I grinned. It was good to see the girl being lively. Though the fact the first thing her parents chose to do after everything was pick a fight? Not encouraging.

"You might as well leave it alone. Last person to try taking that got a wonderful bump on their head for their trouble." I spoke up.

Both parents turned glares on me for that.

"This is none of your concern child, we are dealing with our daughter." The mother finished the sentence with a dismissive sniff and turned back to Missy.

"Oh no you don't, lady. Missy's mother or not, you're prissy ass doesn't get to dismiss me like that. Especially not if you're going to piss off my newest friend."

"Considering I gave her that spear. That I have been showing her how to use it. And the fact that I definitely owe her for making sure I only needed to kill four Lung clones instead of dozens… I'm going to go ahead and disagree with you. Because I'd say it is my business." I countered.

The woman turned on her heel and gapped at me like a fish. It was really hard to keep a straight face.

"Do you normally let your daughter speak that way to adults?" The father asked icily.

Dad stepped up next to me and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"A word of advice, one parent to another." Dad said mildly. "The idea is to raise your child. Not train them like a dog."

Missy positively beamed.

Her parents bristled like startled cats.

I just grinned at Dad. This was nice. We should tear strips out of people together more often.

Missy shifted her stance and her shield, still sporting a pockmark from blocking a bullet, expanded to its original size as she slipped it onto her arm. Then she brought the butt of her spear down on the concrete floor with a decisive crack.

"I've spent the last three years absolutely useless for anything but support, because I'm too small to fight hand to hand, and no one wanted to give me even a can of pepper spray." Missy's glare shifted between her parents and Legend. "I made a major difference in the fight against the cloning cape because this shield kept me from getting shot, and this spear let me stop them from getting away with Lung. I made a difference in that fight!"

"Missy-" her mother started to speak only to be cut off.

"These are mine, and no one is taking them from me!" Missy snarled before rounding on Legend. "And Vista's not going out unarmed ever again. If you want me in the Wards I get weapons, and training. If a knife on a stick is too much for PR I'll take a taser on a stick instead, but I'm not going out unarmed anymore!"

Legend took a deep breath before stepping forward.

"I know you've been through a lot, and I understand that you want extra security right now, but-" Missy twitched and the butt of her spear whipped up passing a foot over Legend's head.

"I've heard that opening three times in the past week! The next person to condescend me for my age, or say that trauma means my logic is flawed, without pointing out a flaw in it, is getting whacked across the nose!" Missy shouted as she shook her spear. "I've been a hero for three years, and I know from personal experience that I am safer, and more effective, armed! If someone's got a problem with either of those things, they don't belong in law enforcement!"

I laughed. I didn't know what Missy's options were here, probably even less than mine, but between an Endbringer attack, the fight with Noelle, and some talks we'd had… Well, she seemed to have hit a point where she was saying enough. Unlike me she wanted to stay. But I could respect that, and I definitely respected her.

Missy, apparently done with the conversation, turned and stepped out of the room. Forty feet in one step was never going to stop surprising me, or giving me headaches. Her parents tried to follow only to realize they didn't have security clearance for the door Missy shut behind herself. They then rounded on Legend making separate demands at an obnoxious volume.

"Well, probably won't have a better chance to slip out…"

"Can we go get pizza? I really just want to stuff myself and pass out for a couple days." I asked Dad.

Dad looked from me, to Legend, then back again before grinning.

"Think we can agree on toppings this time, or should I resign myself to buying two pizza's?"

"Well, if you didn't insist on putting pineapple on yours…" I grinned as we both headed for the garage exit. I waved goodbye to Lily and the rest on my way out.

Eat, sleep, talk to Dad. The PRT could wait a few days until I had my shit together.


The complimentary breakfast in the hotel lobby was… edible. There were at least salt and pepper shakers so I could salvage the scrambled eggs, and the toast wasn't burned black so… damn I was getting spoiled for quality food. And now we didn't even have a kitchen. It was also a safe bet the room was being paid for by the PRT…

We were really going to need some income here. Upside, a Ward's salary probably wouldn't even make a dent in what we needed, so I just needed to make being a vigilante profitable. Which… yeah, I could manage that. Gangs certainly kept a lot of cash on hand. I'd just need to get it out before the Police or PRT came through. Yeah, the local government might be able to use that to fill in some potholes or pay officers overtime, but if I was going to do the job, I should get some kind of reward. Quality costs, and it wasn't like I'd even be charging anyone.

I'd have to make my pitch to the NYPD about working for them but… I knew how that would play out. If I was eighteen it might work if they knew just what I brought to the table, but at almost sixteen and not having a clue how powerful I was? Not a chance.

The Guild was a decent option on paper, and given their more international bent they didn't quite conform to the United States age of majority. With Dad's permission I could join when I turned seventeen, but that was still a year away and would not help with our immediate needs…

"Taylor." Dad said mildly.

"Yeah, Dad."

"No plotting at the breakfast table."

I blinked and looked up at Dad who was grinning a bit.

"Your Mother used look just like that when she was wrestling with something difficult, we're not discussing anything sensitive in a hotel lobby so just sit on those thoughts."

Glancing once more at my plate and then at Dad's I shrugged and decided to get it over with and just finish my food so we could get a move on. Dad picked up on my decision, sighed and gulped down the last of his coffee. By silent agreement we didn't say anything until we made it back to the hotel room. Dad pulled out a chair from the little table and I started to pace and traced a butterfly knife on autopilot. The click-clack-click of metal soon filled the quiet room as I tried to get my thoughts in order.

Dad, bless him, let me. He just leaned back in his chair and waited.

"I don't want to go back to being a Ward." I decided to lead off with the issue most likely to cause a fight. Mostly because how this conversation played out would affect everything else.

Dad opened his mouth, paused, closed it, and visibly thought that over.

"What changed?" He finally asked.

"I killed people. My team understood. The people I saved understood. The National Guard understood. Hell, even some of the Protectorate capes understood! But, not all of them, and definitely not some of the idiots in the PRT."

The knife spun through a particularly difficult trick without leaving so much as a scratch on my skin as I tried to gather my thoughts.

Dad just looked… exhausted. As soon as I mentioned killing it was like he started to collapse in on himself. Before hanging onto the rest of the conversation by his fingernails and stubborn refusal to give up before we really began.

"There were already issues. I was trying to make this work. I like my team, and they were supportive! Even though two of them were dealing with their own minor breakdowns. But this, all of this since Leviathan…" with a growl I turned on my heel and launched into another series of tricks.

I could feel Shirou at the back of my mind, awake and alert, but silent. Our mission… my mission took priority over anything else, in theory. In practice? I didn't have a fully realized connection to the reality marble… and given that Shirou was becoming less talkative, and how the place was starting to look in my dreams? I wasn't sure he had a solid connection anymore either. I wasn't ready.

The cold harsh reality was I might never be up to the task I'd been given. But making the attempt before I'd mastered my own abilities would be suicidal. And we still didn't know who or what I needed to go after. If the freaking Parasite was even on Earth Bet.

The more practical priorities were, stay alive, keep improving, make the world a safer place for others, keep searching for the Source of powers.

This was my life and I needed to live it because Shirou wouldn't be here forever. This needed to be my choice because it would, hopefully, affect me long after he was gone.

"Miss Militia tried to lecture me about nonlethal options and responsible use of power." Twice actually. Once when I met up with everyone and again two days ago. Not about Noelle or the clones at least, because we'd had orders, but the Merchants? Oh, how I'd wanted to chew her out before Jason ran interference and Lily dragged me away.

"And the PRT, the way some of them were watching me you would think I'd been slaughtering civilians all over the city." Not all of them, certainly not the ones whose lives had been on the line during the attack, but the ones who got to stay safe and comfy back at base? A good chunk of them watched me like I was some dangerous animal sauntering through their living rooms.

"I was basically ready to quit when Legend denied my transfer request. I understand that he has to follow bureaucratic bullshit, but if ever there was a time to cut some red tape a family crisis is it!"

And oh, was I ever still pissed about that. He couldn't even look me in the eye and say he wouldn't go charging off if the situation had been reversed. Did he really expect me to just stay put?

"But the reception I got from people after? That was the last straw." The knife clicked shut and with a sigh I placed it down the dresser before leaning against the wall and hunching my shoulders.

"I don't really get it." I finally muttered. "I do this to keep people safe and I succeeded, mostly." Damn it now was not the time to think about those I hadn't saved! "Those people appreciated it. The people I was working with appreciated it. I shouldn't care about the opinions of a bunch of idiots who won't take the same risks and one holier than thou cape, but somehow it grates on my nerves. I was already on the fence, so it just…"

I shook my head and growled as even Mom's flowery old English lessons failed to provide me with the words I needed to explain.

"I get it." Dad said and suddenly he sounded so tired. "I used to feel that way every time I left a meeting with the mayor. Or when I failed to land a new contract. It seemed like the whole city had just given up and they were asking me why I hadn't yet. At least I could go in the next morning and talk with the rest of the union and they would get it. Though there were always a few who just… they were out of money, out of patience, out of hope. They'd ask if I even knew what I was doing and before they could really lose it Kurt or one of the others would drag them off and explain just how much time and effort I put into the job. But it would still hurt to hear that from them."

Dad sighed before pulling off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose.

"What would you do, hypothetically, if I asked you to keep trying to make things work as a part of the Wards. If I asked you to stick it out because it would be safer and I would feel better knowing there was only so much trouble you could get into and back up ready to come running."

Dad looked at me very seriously.

"No exaggerations. No dramatics. What do you think would happen? How do you see that playing out?" He asked

I bit my lip and did my absolute best to step back and think it through logically.

"They'll have to punish me, for starters. I wasn't supposed to patrol for another couple of weeks. Helping lock up looters during the attack here doesn't count, because that's an Endbringer attack, and a lot of rules stop mattering for those. But with you unaccounted for, I'm pretty sure they were responsible for me, and then I ditched them, I went AWOL, or whatever the law enforcement equivalent is."

I stopped to think more.

"So far… so far, their idea of punishment is to make me do public relations stunts. Like the cooking show, and a magic act for some kindergarteners."

"So, they'll make you do more things like that?" Dad asked.

"Maybe? I don't… if they put me in any kind of situation where I can talk to people, I'd have a hard time not just telling people it's all bullshit and I'd do the same again in a heartbeat."

"Then they would probably just punish you more." Dad said thoughtfully.

"How? More publicity events where I can call them out and no patrols? They'll probably bar me from those anyway for a while. Which is one more reason why going back feels like a complete waste of time. Three weeks sidelined over an arm. It wasn't mine, and I saved a man's life. I get giving people a chance to decompress before they end up in another fight but-"

Dad held up a hand. Honestly, he looked like someone had kicked him in the gut.

"Taylor, I understand that your situation is not normal. But most people, not teenagers, people, would be shaken by that. Especially if they didn't have any kind of serious training or mental conditioning. We had plenty of vets in the dockworkers and a few of them explained to me how they go about getting law abiding, nonviolent, civilians ready for the fact they may have to kill someone. And even then, they insist that a lot of people, especially if they are seeing action for the first time, will end up aiming high and missing. You and the other Wards get none of that because you are not meant to be child soldiers."

"He isn't wrong." Shirou muttered.

"And then not two weeks later you were fighting for your life, seeing people die, killing people. No one has told me any of the details but I know you. And changing personality or not I know you wouldn't do that lightly."

He paused, face contorting, trying to fit emotions into words.

"I know about Shirou. I've seen your personality shift. I watched you become more confident, focused…" He waved a hand through the air trying for more before giving up with a huff. "Point is I know, and my fist through fifth reaction is still to grab you in a hug and not let go until you turn twenty. This shouldn't have happened to you, and you shouldn't be in a rush to go back to more of the same."

I found myself with another butterfly knife in hand. Rather than doing tricks I left it folded shut and simply turned it back and forth in my hands.

"I'm not… I don't want to rush straight into another fight." I managed to get the words out.

Dad leaned back in his chair. He didn't look happy, but he seemed more than willing to wait while I got my thoughts together.

"The whole, all of it. All of it sucked. I was worried about you, worried about civilians, worried about the people I was fighting alongside… worried about myself, a little. Maybe not as much as I should have, but I know just how broken my powers are. That makes it a little hard to worry but…"

I'd moved right into every fight. I'm not sure I could have done anything less. But… armored cars barreling towards me with no plan to stop, Lung clones, lightning, and teeth, and just did not want to die. Bullets bouncing off my riot shield. I hadn't let it so much as slow me down, but I'd felt it.

It had just been drowned out by the worry for everyone else, and the anger, rage really. I'd been so absolutely furious when the Merchants abducted those girls, and when the Lung clones had made it into the camp. There hadn't been much room left for personal fear with all of that.

"I need a break. I know I need a break. But I don't think I'll be able to sit around and do nothing for very long. A week, maybe two… yeah, I'd appreciate that right now. But I'm pretty sure I'll start going stir crazy after that. We'll need money, which I can get from raiding the gangs if I can find a good source of information. And I just, I can't do nothing anymore. I can make a difference. I don't want to stop. I can't stop."

Dad stood up and started to pace. I leaned fully back against the wall and very deliberately did not start another series of tricks with my knife. He'd let me think and speak my mind. I owed him the same opportunity.

"I wish I could talk you out of it. All of it. Not just leaving the Wards. Being a cape. Fighting. All of it. Your mother… I can't help but think she would be furious with me for letting you risk your life. Then again, heh, if Annette had powers when we were in college… Hah, she might not have ever slowed down."

Dad scrubbed at his face with the palms of his hands, not quite hiding a rueful smile.

"But that's not going to happen, is it?" He asked.

"No." I couldn't bring myself to look at Dad. Instead, I just stared at the carpet. "I get that this shouldn't be my job." That was a hell of an understatement given I hadn't told Dad everything. "But… God, Dad, just… those Lung clones shredded people like it was nothing, and if I hadn't been there… And that was just the worst of it. Even just helping out with the cooking made a difference to those people." And that was a thought. Lily's idea of heroics, it wasn't enough, but it was growing on me. I'd have to look for a soup kitchen I could volunteer at. It was such a simple thing to do, but it felt important in its own way.

I shook my head.

"I can't stop, Dad. There are people who need help, and people who need to be stopped. I can do those things. I can't walk away. I know I can't help everyone but-"

Dad pulled me into a hug.

"It doesn't have to be you. There are others-"

"Dad. This isn't the 'with great power comes great responsibility' nonsense. That's crap. Powers are some bullshit consolation prizes for surviving something awful. Using them responsibly could be as simple as not hurting anyone with them. What anyone else can do doesn't matter to me. I need to keep doing this or I won't be able to live with myself. This is shielding people who need someone to save them. This is me defying anyone who thinks power means they can do what they please and to hell with whoever that hurts."

Emma and Sophia shared that with every villain. At the end of the day that's what they all had in common. Give them a modicum of power and they think they can do whatever they please and damn the consequences.

I couldn't quite fight back a snort.

Was I actually any different in that regard? Here I was with incredible power, and I was going to use it the way I felt I should, and forget anyone who disagreed. But where they used power to take advantage of others, I wanted to protect people from harm. Same disregard for rules, completely different objective. I'd have to hold onto that difference.

"Right. Not going to stop crime fighting. The Wards. You don't like some vocal people's opinions. You're mad that Legend didn't let you come looking for me. Any other reasons you want to leave?"

"You mean besides the old ones?" I snorted again. "They recruited Sophia then failed to keep an eye on her. They're seventy five percent public relations. They want me to limit myself so I don't scare people. I could do more good targeting criminals instead of spending time showing the flag… Well, I suppose if you want a new one? The fact they let Vista run around the Bay for years without so much as a taser counts in my mind."

Dad let out an aborted laugh at my new reason.

"True, any group letting a girl that young help with things as bad as the city was going shouldn't have sent her unarmed. Probably should have moved her out of the city though."

I wanted to argue, but on some level, I knew he had a point. But if I agreed with that, I'd have to agree that my age counted against me too. Besides, Vista had more than proved herself against Noelle. I settled for humming something indistinct. With one last squeeze I stepped back, breaking the hug.

"Ok… let's pretend for just a moment that I'm willing to let you break from the Wards," I wanted to get excited but that wording sounded really iffy. "What is your plan? How will you stay safe? Who are you going to have backing you up when something goes wrong? Because things can always go wrong. What is your plan, long term? You can't honestly think you can make vigilante into a lifetime career. And as someone who has seen people try to juggle two jobs, I promise you working a nine to five before putting on your mask for a few hours is going to be a lot more draining than you might think."

"Ok, so-" I twisted my wrist and set the knife spinning, "I can join the Guild at seventeen, with your permission."

Dad narrowed his eyes. So, I rushed on.

"The Guild might do some of the PR stunts the Protectorate and Wards do, but they're more serious business, and they actively hunt kill orders when they can. They should be a lot more accepting of my whole… everything."

Dad gave me a very piercing look.

"And if they aren't?" He asked.

I winced.

"Then I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. But it's about all I've got for long term plans right now."

"Ok… I'll need to do some research before I agree, but it's something. What about more immediately?"

I ran through another trick to try and buy time to think… It didn't make my plan sound any better.

"Yeah, so, um there is this group here in New York called the Adepts. They're, sort of a mercenary group that manages to keep crime in one of the boroughs from becoming the mess we had back home by swiping up all the villainous capes-"

"You are not joining a gang!"

"Not the plan!" I waved my arms frantically. "Not, not exactly." Dad was glaring now so I rushed to explain. "I met one of their people. Either a recruiter or some kind of behind the scenes thinker that keeps their nose clean. Not really sure. Point is I think we might be able to work out something that benefits both of us. They can't hit any of the gangs without losing all their clients and risking becoming everyone's target. I'm willing to bet there are a few people they would like off of the board so if they can give me some intel, even the basics like locations and numbers, I could scout things out, pick people off. Leave them for the police and make off with enough gang cash to keep us comfortable. Might have to give the adepts a cut-" or magic pointers, if those could be taught, "but if they go for it, I should be able to pick my battles and not get in over my head."

"You want to be a deniable asset for a group of mercenaries, against other gangs?"

"Pretty much." I shrugged.

"Damn it, Taylor." Dad pinched the bridge of his nose.

"It should work." It was a weak defense given I knew that wasn't his point.

"That's not the point!" Dad shouted.

"Hell yes! I knew following you was a good idea!" A black girl, who appeared from literally nowhere, shouted.

Just as she finished speaking, I had a pair of swords crossed over her throat and the tips of the blades just scraped the nearest wall.

The girl honest to goodness meeped as she stared down at the steel edges only about three eighths of an inch from her skin.

"Ok, maybe not my best plan." The girl admitted with a gulp.

Why the hell was I holding swords crossed against the wall?

"Taylor? What?"

"Kind of asking myself the same thing right now, Dad."

Seriously, what?

Crystal gears chimed and I growled as assassin's dagger after assassin's dagger flashed through my mind.

The headache was a bitch, but I got the message loud and clear.

"Stranger, we've got a Stranger. I am really hoping they're pinned and smart enough to know testing me is a bad plan." I moved the blades forward a fraction of an inch.

The very terrified black teen appearing between the blades was vindicating, and also terrifying. This was very, very bad news.

"You have to be either very stupid, very cocky, or very desperate to try something like this." A bit a frigid fury leaked into my voice and the girl paled even further.

"Little of all three?" She offered. "We've met before once, my uh, my mask is clipped to my belt."

Glancing down I blinked at a black horned mask with white fangs.

"Imp, right. Never saw you after Noelle. Didn't even think about it with how tired we all were but then I'm betting no one sees you if you don't want them to."

"Yeah, that's uh, that's me. I'm uh, kinda up a creek, ya know? Not dealing with my parents now that no one can make me, but-" She swallowed and shook her head as much as my blades would allow. "My bro's dead, my team's dead or kidnapped. I've got a snake of an ex-boss to kill but I'm not, I don't know what the hell to do on my own. I could pick the pockets of the whole damn city but I'm not a planner, and I need some intel and… Sundancer's just, she's done. Either she hangs up her costume or the Protectorate is going to snap her up, but I'm not doing that. So, I'm just…"

I backed the swords away enough that I was no longer menacing her, but not far enough that she could just casually slip away. She grinned at me, faintly, in response.

Trusting a villain's sob story was stupid. But it matched up pretty neatly with the whole Noelle cluster fuck and what Sundancer had said after everything was done.

"I need someone who knows this town and won't ride my ass about being the perfect little hero and you? You were the only one talking about going solo instead of staying with the pigs. So, I followed you after the fight."

This girl… had been stalking me for days. And I had no idea, that was fucking terrifying. I glanced over at Dad who looked, well, rattled. But he had enough of a poker face I couldn't just guess what he was thinking.

"Your cooking is awesome by the way."

Aaaand that's what kept happening to the leftovers. Good to know, I guess. Damn it that probably meant the leftover pizza was gone already. Maybe she shared Dad's lousy taste in toppings and I'd get lucky.

"So, you want to deal with villains. I want to talk to them at least because I'm hoping they can help me find my old boss. And, we could both use a little bit of back up right now, ya know?" She asked hopefully.

This time when I glanced at Dad he looked back and we did our best attempt at a silent conversation. He grimaced, but eventually nodded.

Well… I guess that's one way to get permission to collaborate with villains against other villains. I was not thanking this girl though. If we didn't establish some ground rules here and now, I was turning her in and to hell with my plans… even if she'd probably tell the Protectorate what I was plotting. Fucking, damn it.

I blew out a breath and stared the girl right in the eye.

"You need to work on your sales pitch because this? This is not how you approach someone you want to work with." I doubled down on my glare to make the point clear. "I could use some back up. I don't know if we can work together." I eyed her skeptically. "But I can at least introduce you to the Adepts when I try to hash something out, and I'd be willing to try working together. Ground rules. You don't hurt civilians, you do not put my dad in danger, and you let me know if you're eating with us so I can make enough, and not just wake up to find the leftovers missing."

I should probably push for more, but it might be better to start with the things I'd stab her for. And if giving the girl a chance was all it took to get her on my side? Where she wouldn't be tempted to stab me when I didn't even know she was there? This girl was terrifying. I could kill her or make her an ally, but I was not letting her out of my sight until one of those two things was achieved. Anything else was asking to die when I wasn't expecting it.

"Ok, ok I can work with that." She said.

I gave her a searching look then stepped back and got rid of the swords.

"You don't turn me in to the heroes, and you let me deal with Coil. Let me crash with you, and uh, yeah ok, that's all I got right now." She demanded before trailing off.

"Taylor, are you sure about this? Especially the bit about working with villains?" Dad asked.

"So long as everyone involved is clear on the ground rules. There shouldn't be any problems with establishing a working relationship." With this girl or the Adepts. "And she knows our names, faces, and where we're staying. If we can't work together, I can at least get her in contact with a group that isn't too bad as villains go." I shot the girl another look. "Just so we're clear, I'm letting someone I trust know about this. You stab me in the back, literally or figuratively, and they will let the PRT know about you."

She grimaced but nodded anyway.

"Sure, fine, fair, whatever. There's only one person I want to stab and you don't even have his snake theme." She dismissed then perked up. "Are you cooking again? Because pizzas awesome and all, but you made hamburger taste like I don't even know what with a few bottles of spices. I really want to know what you can do with shrimp…"

I buried my head in my hands and groaned.

"This is my life. I go out, kick villain ass, and somehow, I end up with teenagers following me around asking for treats."

Dad laughed. Imp snickered. Shirou even huffed in the back of my head. I threw my hands up and went looking for a pen and pad. If I was going shopping, I needed to make a list. What did the little kitchenette even have for pots and pans? Never mind dumb question I'd trace whatever I needed. It would have to be stove top because this room didn't have an oven, but I could make do.

Fuck this really was my life now.

AN: So, the original plan was Aisha goes off on her murder revenge quest and mulches Coil. Then pops up in story looking to talk to Tay about something then sort of flits around helping but mostly just doing her own thing. Writing this chapter the imaginary Imp in the back of my head started poking me asking how the hell she was supposed to track down Coil when she didn't even know what city he had run to… and I honestly just blue screened. Imp can be vicious and cunning (to a degree) and street smart but she's 14, inexperienced with the cape game, and utterly lacking the kind of info or resources she could have pestered Lisa into getting for her in canon.

So, I tossed my plans and put myself in her shoes. No allies, no money, no plan. Follow the Wards and Sundancer back to base. Sundancer is just done? Ughhhhh fuck, hey what's that smell? Fooood! Wow, bad ass chicks going to leave the Wards? Interesting…. And it just sort of spiraled from there with Aisha making objectively terrible decisions because Aisha. And then what's Tay going to do? Murder the pants shitingly terrifying girl who's only a bit younger than her? Nope, alright what else we got? Try to arrest a girl with no criminal record on trespassing charges? That's making a dangerous enemy who would probably be out in short order and knows her name and face. Try to put her on a path that's a bit better than a homeless pickpocket or unknowable professional assassin while getting some much needed back up? … Not always easy being the good guy.