A/N: Chap 21 review responses are in my forums as normal. As for this chapter, a little tale. I've recently broken into social media for the first time with Reddit. (Yes, I really am so old the idea of social media horrifies me. I'm not scare of it, I'm scare of its horrid affects on society). Someone posted a threat about how they were having trouble with a scene, and I suggested trying to rewrite it from a different perspective. This chapter was what inspired the suggestion. I had some trouble making the Alexandria/Taylor scene work.
So I gave it a different perspective.
Chapter Twenty-Two: Your Friend to Feast
Brockton Bay felt brittle, as if the slightest vibration could shatter it. Lisa Wilbourn drove quickly from the Comp-U-Stor in the strip mall on the southern outskirts of town back toward the Undersider's lair. She could still see a few lingering pillars of smoke from the docks where the worst of the gang clashes went down.
The freak early snowstorm the day before didn't help. The snow was already mostly gone, but it just added to the brittle feeling in the air-that things were wrong on every level. And to a certain extent, Lisa felt responsible for it.
In her seventeen years of life, Lisa had become a connoisseur of guilt. She wore it around herself like an old, familiar shawl. What was a little more guilt to add to it? According to the radio news this morning as she drove out to the mall, 234 people died in the gang violence last night. Granted, many of them were direct combatants, but at least forty were innocent bystanders.
And on top of that, two giant oak trees sprouted up overnight in the entryway of Winslow High School. The trees were so huge that the roots of the one in the school entrance broke the school's foundation and utility lines, as well as completely blocking access to the front of the school. The school was closed and the students being redirected to the other area schools.
As she listened to the news broadcast recounting all the things wrong, the little voice that sounded like her dead brother whispered, You did this.
Which was nonsense, Lisa told herself. Guns didn't kill people, people killed people. Guns just made it easier for them to do it. In that regard, she was a gun. No, not even that. She was the manufacturer of the bullets that Coil used to start the firefight. She was the one who identified Lung's favorite lieutenant to give to the Empire as a target. She was the one who picked out who to leak word of Hebert to among Lung's remaining people. She was the one to ID'd Hebert's resource agent's family and get her out of the way for more of Coil's machinations.
She knew Coil was scared shitless of Hebert. He'd gone full-on Bond Villain mode to set up that fight at Winslow. But even if at first it looked like he got his way, something spooked him badly. It wasn't until Lisa learned from her own snooping that Accord in Boston contacted Coil directly with a little snippet of video provided by a mercenary named Saint, of the Dragonslayers. Lisa wasn't sure what was on the video, but when Coil called and ordered her to barter an agreement with Saint, her power assured her of one thing above all others:
Coil was even more afraid of Taylor Hebert than before. It wasn't his normal caution, but rather a genuine, deep-seated fear that had already forced him to change his plans. She wasn't sure what all those plans were, but she was convinced he was changing them. The only reason Lisa could think of is if somehow Taylor Hebert fucked with Coil's power in some way.
And since the Undersiders were one of Coil's plans, that meant he might change them as well. For villains, change was always bad. Which is why she'd concocted a frankly risky plan.
She parked her old Fairlane in an abandoned garage across the street and half a block down from the lair. She made her way on foot through the back of the old red brick building, making sure to stay well away from the sweatshop she knew the ABB ran nearby, until she emerged in the abandoned first floor of their building. When she made it to the refurbished loft, she found Brian on the mat going after a weighted rubber torso.
He paused and watched her climb the stairs into their loft. He was sweaty and muscular and everything Lisa might have found attractive if she could still find things attractive. "You were out early," he noted.
"Private job for the boss," she said.
As Grue, Brian Laborn wore black leathers and a motorcycle helmet with a skull on it. His power let him generate a cloud of black fog that dulled senses and signals. As Brian, he was a young man newly turned eighteen with great genes and a flatly pragmatic outlook on life. Hence his question:
"Will it affect the team?"
"It shouldn't. Just brokering an information swap."
"Right. I did hear back from the lawyer. Boss came through, looks like the custody petition is moving forward for Aisha."
Lisa forced a smile even as her stomach dropped. Coil wouldn't actually help Brian unless things were changing. The promise of help was far more powerful than gratitude after the fact. "That's great! I hope Aisha knows just how much her big brother is doing for her."
Appealing to his virtue was enough to distract him from her pallid attempt at support. "Yeah, hope so." With that, he went back to beating the hell out of the pink rubber torso on a stand.
Lisa continued to her room, shut and locked the door, hung her jacket up over the tinker-made camera Coil was sure she didn't know about, and then quickly removed and set up her brand-new laptop. She had a separate dedicated cell-based VPN protected connection, tinker-made and expensive as hell, that she hooked up.
She had her normal computer open as well, and her latest throw-away phone on the table. If she didn't time this right, she was dead. Even if she did, she knew she was taking a huge risk. But if she didn't, what chance did she have?
The appointed time came. She quickly entered the designated number and put the phone on speaker. A woman answered on the second ring. "Something's happened."
Lisa rolled her eyes at the wanna-be espionage schtick. "It must be Tuesday." She spoke to counter-signal. "Am I talking to the Dragonslayers?"
"You are. Is the wire ready?"
"I'll get the boss on for final verification."
She dialed on a second phone while muting the first. The phone answered, again on the second ring. Without waiting for an answer, Lisa spoke.
"the sellers are awaiting wire instructions."
"Very good." Coil sounded cool, collected and somewhat disinterested. All affected, she knew. She turned to her brand-new laptop, with the bank login screen already up and waiting. "The account number is 254677-WFN-S2BA. Verification code is 'To make a better world.' The amount agreed upon is there."
She muted Coil's line as she quickly typed in the account number and codes and quickly withdrew five million dollars. She unmuted the Dragonslayer's line and repeated the account number and verification code to the Dragonslayers before unmuting both phones. The tinker-tech filter in Coil's phone prevented feedback. She was logged out before the mercenaries ever had a chance to log in.
The woman finally accessed the account. "Account confirmed, we've begun the wiring process." Her words conveyed through to Coil's line. "The terminal connection will last no more than an hour. Dragon cycles through encryption algorithms at least once every hour when she's remote accessing. She knows we've cracked her carrier wave in the past, so she'll be on the lookout for anything hijacking her signals."
The link came through their secured Toybox messaging software. "Got it," Tattletale confirmed to both phones.
"Our business is concluded, then," Coil said. "Until next time, Dragonslayers."
The connection with the mercenaries ended. "They're off, boss."
"Record everything, Tattletale. I expect your report within two hours. Sooner, if possible."
"Got it." The phone call ended. "Asshole."
She glanced at her new laptop. She'd already received confirmation from the Number Man. She was now a millionaire. At least for the moment. It was the first step in her master plan of "Not getting shot by Coil".
The Dragonslayers wanted $10 million for the backdoor to Dragon's remote access channel to a meeting that was going to happen this very morning. The situation was fluid and moved quickly. Into that chaos, Lisa inserted a simple, easy lie. Instead of $10, she told Coil the price was $20 million. When Coil counter-offered with $13 million, that became $8 million to the Dragonslayers, who happily agreed. And since no villain worth their salt would be so crass as to specify a dollar amount during a clandestine meeting that was organized within an hour, especially not such a wanna-be as Saint, Tattletale felt confident Coil wouldn't discover it for a while. Risky, yes. But there was no reward without risk in the villain business.
Still, she wasn't free yet. She opened up the Tinker-made app and found herself looking at the inside of a cheesy, low-ceiling restaurant from multiple cameras. "Subjects are en route," a man's voice said. "ETA, two minutes."
"Thank you, Legend. I'm ready." Dragon's voice came through loudly, but calm and gentle in tone. "Am I to continue to record?"
"Yes. The recording must be filed as Ex-12 level or above, for Triumvirate or Chief Director Eyes Only."
The front doors of the restaurant opened in a flash of momentarily blinding daylight. When the light faded, Alexandria and Taylor Hebert stood inside the restaurant. The young, winged cape was looking around the restaurant tensely, as if about to bolt. The video was much better than what Uber and Leet had to work with, and showed just how extraordinary and exquisite the wings were.
In a channel directly to Legend, who must have been watching remotely, Dragon said, "The air pressure within the restaurant just increased to over a thousand millibars. The temperature within the restaurant dropped two degrees. Subject is having a noticeable atmospheric effect within the whole restaurant."
Legend said nothing. Through the monitor, Hebert looked around with her faintly luminescent eyes. "There's no one here. Not even the kitchen. How'd you know I was in this town?"
"Dragon had drones around the town. She saw you flying in. While you were clothes shopping, we quietly evacuated the restaurant in the hope you'd be willing to talk. There is food, though. Just like I promised."
The Alexandria speaking in the cameras sounded completely different from the public face Alexandria presented as the Triumvirate. Her voice and tone were carefully measured to present an air of casual ease. The cape was using every tool in her kit to keep the situation calm.
Even through the camera, Lisa worked to avoid looking into Hebert's eyes, remembering all too well how that worked out last time. Instead, she concentrated on the wings.
Too small for natural flight. Symbolic? Can be hardened to near unblockable weapons.
Hebert floated toward the buffet that took up the back of the room, as if drawn to the food like in a cartoon. "That's a lot of food for one person."
"You think I won't eat?"
Hebert turned and regarded Alexandria for a long moment. "If you do, you'll just have to puke it up later. Your power didn't cure you; it just froze you. You're inviolate because you're biologically locked."
Lisa's power throbbed as it adjusted its entire understanding of Alexandria around that declaration. It was true, her power told her. Which is why only a physics-breaker like Siberian could injure her, and why no healer could restore her eye.
A second after Lisa's power supplied her that insight, Alexandria said, "My power bothers you."
"All powers bother me, but the dead ones are worse."
Alexandria motioned to the buffet. "Please help yourself. We can talk while you eat."
Hebert did just that, taking a plate and piling it with steak, lobster tails, crab and fried shrimp. She took liberally of the various sauces, and then on a separate plate made a sizable salad. There were probably two to three thousand calories on the two plates. Alexandria said nothing as the two sat, and Hebert immediately set into the steak. They sat in the table centermost in the restaurant, in clear view of all the hidden cameras.
"Damn that girl can put away food," Lisa whispered to herself. She made a note.
Hebert sat stiffly as she ate. Her wings ruffled like those of a real bird, then contracted even more tightly against her back due to the chair she sat at. Though she wolfed down the food, it was interesting to watch her eat. The girl had impeccable manners. She ate quickly, efficiently, and cleanly.
Alexandria sat patiently, watching. It wasn't until Taylor finished her steak and was on her second lobster tail when the hero spoke. "Did you know Shadow Stalker was a Ward?
The young woman finished chewing her bite as she considered the question. "All I knew about her was that she dressed in black and shot me in the back while I tried to defend the school against Lung. I didn't even know it was a girl until the end-all I saw was a soul twisted by hate. I assumed she was one of Lung's, like Oni Lee."
"And the helicopter pilot?"
For the first time, Hebert's cold reserve cracked. She looked down at her mostly finished meal, then put her silverware on the plate and pushed it away. Her feathers actually fluffed a little. Unconscious nervous reaction. Can't control them entirely.
"I went out there to keep from hurting anyone else. I told him to stay put and went to fetch something to heal him with. I don't know why he didn't listen. If he'd just stayed still, he'd be alive and whole. I don't understand why he didn't."
Alexandria nodded as she listened. "Your display impacted the weather patterns for the entire northeast. It caused an early snow from Maine to the Carolinas and twenty tornadoes across New Hampshire. Not to mention the fact you flattened ten square miles of forest. Was it a surprise the Park Service sent out a helicopter to see what was happening?"
"He still should have let me heal him."
"He didn't trust you," Alexandria explained. She sounded perfectly neutral. Trying to avoid sounding judgmental. Afraid of Hebert. Not sure she could win a fight.
"When he called in the report of your...tantrum...he was advised by the PRT that you were extremely dangerous," the Triumvirate hero continued. "He was told you killed a 16-year-old Ward. He sacrificed his own life to call in help for his daughter."
Hebert placed her hands on the table, tattooed fingers clasped tightly together. Lisa quickly wrote down notes. Weather control? Multi-state area of effect? Lisa came to a stop as she realized the freak snowstorm was Hebert's fault.
It got worse. "Taylor, did you mean to tell Legend that all three Endbringers were trailing your father? In Africa?"
Lisa's head throbbed again. She made a note while almost drawing blood from where she bit her lip.
On the monitor, Hebert opened her mouth only to close it again. Her wings ruffled behind her. "I just wanted to leave."
"Unfortunately, you let that genie out of the bottle. What would happen if I ripped those charms off your neck?"
At first, Hebert looked alarmed, only to relaxed. "You couldn't. You could drop a nuke on them and they wouldn't burn. You could pull them with all the power of Atlas, and they wouldn't break."
"Then what would happen if you took them off?"
Hebert shifted. "Then the Endbringers would see me. The Destroyer of all Things would see me. You know who he is. And what. The godkiller. The Endbringers are only tools. Weapons. They'll grind the world down, but it'll be the Destroyer that consumes us. I can't...I'm not ready to face him yet. That's why Dad's in Africa, distracting the Endbringers. He's buying me time to grow until I'm ready. That's why he gave me his charm, and why I keep them on."
Tattletale wished more than anything that she could see Alexandria's face. Her body had gone preternaturally still, almost like she was a statue. There was so much in that statement that Lisa's head throbbed as her power overheated. Worse was that Alexandria did indeed know who Hebert was talking about.
Gods. With the word Lisa's power began to run rampant through her mind, making her ears ring and her eyes blur. True.
"Mother has memories of whole pantheons riding against him. Gods from around the world rose up to defend their domains, only to have their domains torn down and their powers diminished or destroyed. If not by the Destroyer, then by his Endbringers. Lung lost his domain in Kyushu. Mother almost lost hers in Newfoundland. The horned god of Gaul fell with Luxemburg. Almost all the Tuatha De Daanan slaughtered. Dozens of gods throughout Africa and Asia. We survived because mother's magic hid us. Until… she died."
"Your mother. The goddess Freya. How does the goddess of magic die, Taylor?"
"By casting the most powerful magical spell known to the gods. The blessing of Achilles. The blessing of Baldur. She and Dad couldn't fight the Destroyer themselves, so instead she sacrificed her divinity for two decades to grant me magical protection. When the van hit her, she was still mortal enough to die. I almost died too. Dad was trying to save me, and you people kept getting in our way."
Alexandria leaned forward, her elbows on the table. "Taylor, I'm not your enemy. The Protectorate was formed to try and save the world."
Knows who the Destroyer is. Knows world is in danger. Has done many things behind the scenes. Lisa's stomach clenched as if she'd been slugged as her power supplied answers to terrifying questions she'd never wanted to ask.
The cape wasn't finished. "We want to help you. But the country saw you cut a Ward in half. Even if it was self-defense, that's hard to get past. I think the helicopter crash was a genuine accident. But Taylor, it was an accident that got a man killed and dumped two feet of snow on the East Coast. This isn't pre-Christian Europe. We're a modern secular society. Your divinity doesn't exempt you from the law, not if you want to be a part of that society."
Feathers fluffed out. "This is my home. But it doesn't have to be. I can speak any language known to man. I can cross over or under oceans in minutes. Morocco would welcome me back. Tunisia would. Spain. Any of the Nordic countries would. You haven't exactly given me a reason to stay, and everyone forgets that I don't have to."
Though Lisa could not see Alexandria's face, she noted the woman sit up slightly. Her power assured her it was in alarm.
"We already have a contract."
Hebert actually snorted. "Really? I didn't sign it. Your PRT people told Zoe Barnes I had to join. That I had no choice. I went along because it was just easier to do it. Everything that happened after was because I trusted you. I know better now. My power gives me a choice, Alexandria. My fate requires a choice. And I choose not to be a Ward. Neither you nor your people have ever given me reason to trust you."
Not what Alexandria wanted to hear. Lisa's power assured her that the older cape expected to be able to awe Hebert back to her side. If not that, then brow-beat her. Only now did the woman realizes neither was an option.
Alexandria leaned back. "You're right. The PRT screwed up; the Protectorate screwed up. I'll let you in on a terrible secret, Taylor. It's one we try our best not to advertise. There is no single Protectorate. There is no single PRT. There are just people doing their best to hold on to civilization for a little longer. But we don't have much time left. Within my lifetime, we're likely to see civilization as we know it grind to a halt. For all our screw-ups; for all our mistakes, we remain the best hope to hold on. We're on the same side."
"That's not what it felt like in New York when you tried to break my neck. We wouldn't even be talking right now if you thought for a moment you could overpower me."
Lisa was surprised when Alexandria didn't contest the claim. "I've been wearing this costume for over twenty-five years, Taylor. When I started, I was sure that me and Legend, Hero and Eidolon could save the world. Then I watched the Siberian rip Hero's intestines out before she cut out my eye. I watched Behemoth, Leviathan and the Simurgh destroy city after city. We're not winning; I realize we never were. After a few decades as a hammer, you begin to view every problem as a nail. I'm here, now, because we've realized you're not the nail. You're the hammer, Taylor. We realize that. I'm here because we need you."
"I'm not sure I need you, though. And after Winslow, I know for a fact that I don't want you."
Alexandria clasped her hands together with her elbows on the table, as if in prayer. "A Tier-1 Protectorate Associate's Agreement has a maximum of $100,000 in grant money, free public relations consultation and costume design, subsidized parahuman insurance, and a legal referral program. You would not be a Ward or Protectorate, but the Protectorate could call on you in the case of an emergency. Your only requirement would be power testing, and because you don't have a high school diploma, school. That's a Youth Guard requirement we can't budge on."
"I have a collection of coins my parents have been collecting since before Christ. I'm not sure I need money."
Lisa actually found herself smiling. Hebert was actively angry at Alexandria, and both of them knew it.
"Do you really think you or your father could kill an Endbringer?"
"My dad killed Zeus and tore down Olympus. He fought Odin and Thor, and his son Loki helped bring about the end of Asgard. His power isn't just physical, it's divine. And I have his strength. With the right weapons, we could kill the Endbringers. It's their master that I was brought into the world to fight."
The answer seemed to be in line with what Alexandria was thinking.
"In addition to the Tier-1 Associate's Agreement, we'd be willing to have the President declare you a Section 6-71 cape. Between that declaration and the fact that Shadow Stalker was legitimately trying to kill you, that should make the murder charges go away. The same with the Park Ranger."
"It refers to Title Six, Chapter Seven, Subchapter 1 of the United States Code, in which the President or his duly authorized delegates may designate a parahuman as being an integral part of the United States' national defense against Endbringers. If you agree to work with us, Taylor-if you agree to formal power testing and a binding Associate's contract-we'll use this designation to make any potential charges against you and your father go away."
She added a moment later, "As a 6-71 cape myself, I can say that not paying any federal income tax is nice. Especially given California's exorbitant taxes."
Tattletale continued to make notes. On her other laptop, she looked up the designation. The only Title 6-71 capes were the Triumvirate, Dragon and Strider. There were several nominees pending, though, including Brockton Bay's own Panacea.
"Just like that?"
The heroine leaned forward intently. "I get it, Taylor. Legend and I both went after you without the full picture. That's on us, and this is me trying to make it right by you. The only other thing I'd ask is for you to keep this to yourself. There are only a handful of people in existence who truly realize what the Destroyer is. The threat he represents. Not only do you know a secret people have been killed over, you've dedicated your life to fighting him. Even if my colleagues don't believe in what you are, they respect the potential you represent.
"But Taylor-if you agree to this, we need you to keep him a secret. We need to keep yours and your father's interaction with the Endbringers a secret. Because the most important part of being subject to civilian oversight? Civilians panic. Badly. If enough people find out the truth, everything I've spent the past thirty years fighting for will fall apart. The Destroyer won't need to destroy the world-we'll do it ourselves."
She leaned back in her chair, regarding Taylor intently. "As I said, you'll have to go to school. For obvious reasons we'll have to send you to Arcadia. It will be difficult, but again the Bureaucrats must be appeased. I'd rather fight Behemoth than deal with the Youth Guard."
The goddess's wings fluffed again, and for a moment she looked like a panicked fourteen-year-old. "I don't think school is a good idea."
"Is that the young goddess speaking, Taylor? Or the frightened teenage girl?"
"Low blow there, Lexie," Lisa said with a smirk.
"I have all the knowledge of the Gods," Hebert said archly.
"Do the gods know who the twenty-third president was? Or the capital of South Dakota? If you have a hot air balloon climbing vertically, from 25 degrees at 10:00 am to 60 degrees at 10:02 am and the point of observation of the angle of elevation is situated 300 meters away from the take off point, could you tell me what the balloon's upward speed was?"
"No," Hebert admitted. "But I could reanimate a dead body and cast protections on locations or people."
Tattletale sputtered as her power verified Hebert's words. Alexandria didn't bat an eye. In fact, she actually smiled as she said, "Sadly, those are not subjects covered by the SAT or ACT."
For the very first time since they walked in, Hebert's angry façade cracked. "Fine. I live in my house. No guardians."
The other woman sat for a long moment studying her. "If I were to make that happen, you'll have to stop telling people you're fourteen. No judge would affirm your situation that young. Even fifteen is pushing it."
"But you could make it happen." It wasn't a question.
"I could. Will you agree, then? Sign the Associate's Agreement. Subject yourself to formal power testing at a facility of our choosing? Agree to follow and uphold the law? Go to school and maintain a minimum B average? In return, $100,000 grant money, free costume design, legal referrals and parahuman insurance coverage?"
Hebert took a long, brittle sigh. "Yes."
Alexandria stood; Taylor followed. "Good. I think we can make this work Taylor. Speaking of...have you ever read the Greek philosophers?"
"Um...Dad didn't like them, very much."
"Hmm, I suppose he knew some of them personally. I was just thinking about your cape name. Even if you're outed, having a Cape Name makes things a little easier. You made me think of Aristotle. In a very real sense, you are the final purpose and cause of your parents. You are their Telos. Something to consider."
Tattletale could see the young goddess considering the name. "Telos," she said, trying it out.
The heroine nodded. "I look forward to seeing how far you can…"
The signal ended abruptly. Lisa looked at the clock. Had that short conversation really taken an hour? No, only half an hour. Dragon must have caught it or changed something. Still, it was enough.
For a moment, she considered throwing up. When her head hurt as badly as it did, the nausea was unavoidable. But if nothing else, Lisa learned from her mistakes. Her primary lesson last time was never to look into Taylor Hebert's eyes.
When her phone rang, only the painkiller kept her from jumping in alarm. She answered on speaker, not surprised to hear her boss's voice.
"Give me a sec, boss. Had to take another Special. This girl just beats the shit out of my power." She made a point of shuffling paper on her notepad. "Okay, so. Yeah. A lot here. First off-she's a god. Not parahuman. God. Like granddaughter of Zeus god. That snowstorm we had? That was her having a temper tantrum up in White Mountain.
"What else...Danny Hebert is a god. Like actual fucking thousands-year-old son of Zeus god. He's so fucking dangerous he's got all three Endbringers following him around in Africa. I shit you not. Straight from Alexandria's mouth. Hebert's strong and fast enough that Alexandria was legit scared and soft-balling her. They're going to let her get away with Shadow Stalker and a park ranger she killed in the mountain's 'cause she's too important and they couldn't hold her anyway. They're going to name her a Title 6-71 cape. She'll sign an associate contract and go to power testing. Oh, and she said she can reanimate dead people. So...yeah, there's that."
He didn't answer. At least, not for a painfully long minute. Lisa realized then he'd muted his phone. When he unmuted, he spoke with barely-held control. "That does change things, doesn't it? You and your team are to keep your heads low for now. The situation is fluid. I will contact you once I have something for you."
He hung up. Lisa's hands shook as she cracked open the phone and pulled out the sim and broke it. She slipped a new one in, then looked back at her new laptop. She felt as brittle as the city around her as she pushed past her throbbing headache and began working on the second step of her Don't-get-shot master plan.