"It doesn't look particularly dangerous."

Mike turned his head to fix his gaze on the speaker. Armsmaster, or Colin Wallis, was a Tinker with a bright future in front of him due to his excellent work ethic and ability, but he was, as Mike had said to Legend, inexperienced. And rather too like one of his own machines at times, although Mike knew he meant well. He was just… not that good with people. "Appearances can be deceptive," he commented, fairly mildly. "Trust me, Brockton Bay is anything but safe. Remember that both the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Teeth vanished without trace here. To this day no one has a clue what the hell happened to either group, no matter what story you may have heard. I can guarantee you they're all wrong."

The other man, who was in his mid twenties and decked out in a set of power armor of his own design and construction, returned his look for a moment, then went back to staring out the window of the Protectorate base at the illuminated skyline of the city. It was only a couple of miles away across the water, and while not the most impressive view Mike had ever seen, it was quite the sight even so.

Only installed two years earlier, the new base was at heart a repurposed off shore oil rig, but it had been heavily modified by both Tinker and normal technology before it was anchored here in the bay itself. The construction was enormous, having surprised Mike when he'd first seen it with his own eyes the day before. Having been significantly enlarged in some areas, it now had facilities for several hundred staff, as well as two landing decks at the top which had originally been intended for helicopters. These had been upgraded to take the much newer VTOL craft that were coming into operation. Six such aircraft were stored in the Rig, as it had become known, using a vertical hangar with elevator patterned on the sort of thing aircraft carriers had used for many years.

The latest addition to the facility was an honest to god force-field bridge, which when activated linked the lower boat launch deck of the Rig, some twenty feet above normal high tide level, with a point on the shore. It allowed them to deploy forces in ground vehicles, although there were also several fast patrol boats and a pair of small ferries for times the bridge wasn't available, or when it might be best not used.

He was also quite impressed by the similar technology used to project a force field shield around the Rig itself, which from a distance gave the impression that the entire huge edifice was a snow globe or something of that nature. Ironic in a sense as given the current weather conditions the field was keeping snow out. It was snowing quite hard, with a strong wind blowing inshore from the sea. Even at this distance he could make out how the snow was settling on the streets of the city, the wharf that led down to the far end of where the bridge connected completely covered and glinting under the sodium lights lining it.

As they watched the snowfall intensified, the skyline fading into the darkness, only a few more powerful lights such as the ones on top of the Medhall tower penetrating the near-blizzard that was descending on Brockton Bay. He shivered slightly, even though he was nice and warm inside the Rig, far above the undoubtedly extremely cold and inhospitable waters below them. Waves broke against the legs of the structure regularly, sending spray high into the air and causing a very faint subliminal rumble as the metalwork gently vibrated.

The fact that there were several trawlers making their way through the snowstorm under these conditions made him wonder about the sanity of their crews. It was hardly a night to be out on the water, but as he watched the small boats chugged past, heading up the bay to the narrow end where the rivers entered it. He assumed they were probably connected with the Dock Worker's Union, which had a complicated mess of wharfs and buildings that from here he couldn't currently make out, and was in one way or another connected to anything to do with the sea.

He'd heard stories about that part of the city. Stories that in many cases came from sources he'd never be able to explain to his co-workers, without raising eyebrows and alarm. Stories that were, in their own way, much weirder than the ones everyone knew, the ones involving Parahumans.

Stories that made him disinclined to poke around there, just in case they had an element of truth to them…

He shivered again, for a different reason, then deliberately turned and went back to the table, Colin following after one last look out at the night scene. Sitting, he studied the people around him. Two, Armsmaster and Miss Militia, or Hannah Washington in civilian guise, were well known to him. Colin sat a couple of chairs down in the reinforced one he'd brought that would take the weight of his armor, and Hannah was already seated, reading a folder that was in front of her. She'd looked up when he'd gone to the window, peered past him, shrugged, and got on with her work apparently not as curious to see the view as he was.

The other three Protectorate members were people he'd read the dossiers of after being pushed into this role, and one was known to him even before that.

He studied the first person, a blonde woman whose cape name was Challenger, real name Kelly Holden. Missing an eye, she had sharp features and was a combination of low level Brute, giving her increased strength and faster reflexes, and a similarly low level Mover, which allowed her noticeably higher speed in general. While individually her powers weren't all that exceptional the synergy between them was something she had a lot of practice in using, making her remarkably combat effective. She normally carried both a battle ax and a high caliber rifle, making her dangerous both at range and in melee combat.

She'd been a member of the Protectorate ENE for four years and was considered a good team player but not an exceptionally gifted leader.

Moving on, he mused on the next person, this being a young man by the name of Shawn Davidson, also known as Dauntless. He was only twenty one, and had joined the Protectorate six months ago after Triggering during an Empire Eighty Eight action which had destroyed a small movie theater. His power allowed him to create items and gradually imbue them with energy, which steadily built over time. It was suspected that if there was an upper limit to this, it was very large indeed, but he was too new for there to be any real data as of yet. Even so he seemed to have promise and Mike felt, as did others, that he might in time become a very powerful cape. He was the only one of those present who was a Brockton native as well, which might come in handy. Local knowledge was always useful.

The last of the Parahumans present was someone he'd known for a number of years. Leo Walton, or Backstep, was a Shaker/Breaker combination who could essentially rewind time over a small area for a few seconds, as well as temporarily pause time at range. This was done by firing what looked like a glowing green energy beam, which had an effective distance of effect of some two hundred yards or so. The effect always lasted eleven seconds for reasons no one could determine, but that was long enough to make him pretty useful in a battle. His rewind time power also worked over an eleven second period, and a zone up to twenty feet across, always centered on him. Both powers used together had saved quite a number of lives over the years, and defeated a fair few villains too.

On the whole, it wasn't a huge team, only the six of them, for a city the size of Brockton Bay, especially considering just how many other Parahumans lived here. There were at least two independent teams, the recently renamed New Wave, formerly the Brockton Bay Brigade, and the pair calling themselves Protection, consisting of a Tinker and a Thinker, Divisor and Forecast, who tended to rent their abilities out to people with enough money to pay for their services. They pretty much did exactly what the name suggested, offering a service that provided security and client protection, and had a reputation of being effective and discreet. As well as people you didn't want to upset too much as they tended to react rather badly to surprises when on a job.

Badly as in the last idiot that had tried kidnapping the person they'd been hired to protect had gone home in two separate boxes…

Mind you, he'd been someone no one actually missed, and in that case they sure didn't, Mike thought with a certain amount of black amusement. There came a point in the career of a villain when one should probably think whether what you had chosen to do with your life was a good idea. His answer would have been no, but apparently he hadn't worked that out in time...

Of course, that was only the nominal good guys, if one ignored the dozen or more singletons who came and went in the city. There were always a few new heroes wandering around, some moving on to greener pastures, some vanishing in a way that suggested something unfortunate happened to them, and the occasional one joining either the Wards or the Protectorate. Not enough of either of the latter to make him happy but it did happen, as one could see from Shawn's example. On the other side were more than enough villains to keep every single hero in the city busy full time.

The big one was the Empire Eighty Eight, a genuine Nazi group with at the moment five capes. The one who had started the organization, Allfather, had of course recently vanished, in a way that strongly suggested he'd met a sticky end. The general line of thought was that this was at the hand of his son Kaiser, although no one really knew for sure. Nor did they know what happened to Iron Rain, Allfather's daughter, who had also disappeared nearly a year ago, but once again infighting seemed the most likely cause. They weren't exactly known for being nice people, after all. Iron Rain in fact had had a reputation of being a vicious bitch even in Nazi terms, and reading between the lines of the report he'd seen, the E88 in general was probably rather pleased she was no longer around.

The PRT certainly was although they didn't put it like that, for a number of reasons.

Kaiser himself had taken over the family business very recently, only weeks after his father vanished from the public eye, which added to the general feeling that he'd arranged the whole thing. Apparently the man had gone very quiet after officially taking command, and right now the whole group was being oddly low key. No one outside that organization knew why but everyone hoped it would continue in that vein for as long as possible.

Other than Kaiser, they also had Purity, a very potent flying Blaster who was extremely dangerous as she could fire energy beams strong enough to entirely destroy whole buildings in one shot, Krieg, a kinetic energy manipulator with Brute abilities and no redeeming qualities at all, Alabaster, a man whose power pretty much only kept him alive through anything even though other than that he was more or less just a normal man, and if the rumors were correct, a new member calling himself Hookwolf. He was apparently a Changer/Brute if the report was correct, and by the sound of it someone who could definitely be a major threat.

In addition to the E88, there were a good half dozen other smaller gangs with one or two capes, none of whom were nearly as bad as the Empire was. Most were content to perform petty street crime, deal drugs, and other things that while highly irritating were on balance not too upsetting to most of the inhabitants of the city. Super powered Nazis going on a rampage were far more of a problem than someone whose power let him sneak around in the dark selling weed, even if technically the latter was still a criminal.

Four-Twenty wasn't much of a criminal, it had to be said. Mike would much prefer more like him and less like Kaiser if he had a choice, but life was seldom so helpful. Especially around here.

Since the fall of the Marche, and the disappearance of the Teeth and their leader the Butcher, the city had been much calmer, but even so, it was not somewhere to take for granted. The history of it showed that new threats could come out of nowhere with little to no warning, and those threats could run the gamut from almost amusing to literally capable of destroying entire city blocks. Knowing what he did about Brockton Bay, and having read a lot of PRT and Protectorate reports on the subject since he was inflicted with this job, he was all too aware that peace was very fragile in these parts.

Cape-led problems were the most worrying sort, of course, but the entirely mundane threats were still threats. In some cases, potentially severe ones. So it didn't pay to let one's guard down even if the city was currently about as peaceful as it ever got. One never knew when that situation might change entirely.

Looking around the table again, he said, "Thank you all for coming. As you know, I'm the guy tasked with running this branch of the Protectorate, since your former leader Killjoy saw sense and retired." He smiled a little, as Dauntless snorted with suppressed laughter. The other two locals glanced at each other and shrugged. "Hopefully we can become an effective team. I've had considerable success in Chicago with creating one of the more useful and well regarded units around and I'm certainly going to do my best to repeat that here. I realize that the ENE branch has for years been understaffed, and one of the first things I want to do is sort that out. To that end I've brought Armsmaster and Miss Militia with me, and we're going to be looking to round out the team with at least one, possibly two, more people fairly soon. I'm still working on that, although if any of you have any suggestions or recommendations, I'm more than happy to listen."

He paused, looking around for any signs of disagreement. Kelly nodded slightly, appearing approving of his comment, Leo was watching him with his arms folded and leaning back in his chair, and Shawn was looking back and forth between him and the first two. Colin seemed to be listening with interest although it was always hard to tell with him, while Hannah had closed the folder she'd been reading as he started talking and was also listening carefully.

"Colin here is a Tinker, specializing in miniaturization, while Hannah is basically the weapons expert." He nodded at the two people in question. "I've known both for a couple of years, and Legend respects them too. Hannah was in the first group of Wards when the program originally started, and has been instrumental in the capture of half a dozen major villains during her career so far. Colin's Tinkering abilities are considered to have some of the most promise of anyone in the last decade or more. While he's not nearly as experienced as some of us here, I have no doubt that he will learn on the job very quickly." Raising a hand, he pointed at the folders he'd put in front of all of their places before they came in, the one Hannah possessed being what she'd been studying. "Full details on everyone here are in those, so I'd suggest it would be a good idea to familiarize yourselves with anyone you don't already know about as soon as possible."

Shawn looked at the folder in front of him, reached for it, then retracted his hand as he thought better of opening it immediately, making Mike hide a smile. God, the guy was young…

"It's undoubtedly going to take us all a while to get to know each other in most cases, and come to a working arrangement that's as effective as I'm sure it will become," he went on after a moment. "I'm always receptive to any critiques of my methods, and suggestions to improve team cohesiveness and efficiency. I'd prefer those critiques to be at least marginally polite, but I won't insist on it." He grinned as Leo chuckled. "Most of the time. Try to keep it professional in front of the troops. That aside, I'm hopeful that we can make a really good team here, one we can hold up against any in the country."

"Even Chicago?" Kelly commented with a small wry smile.

"Even Chicago, yes," he replied, nodding. "Although I can tell you that will not be easy. I left a very, very good group of people there."

No one said anything for a few seconds, then she nodded. "Well, in that case, welcome to Brockton Bay, I guess. Hopefully you won't come to regret accepting this posting."

He shrugged, not wanting to admit he'd been regretting it since Legend had basically tossed him at the damn place. He was stuck here so he might as well try to make it work, and letting anyone else know how much he wished he was almost anywhere else in the world was hardly the way to raise team morale. So despite feeling the back of his neck itching as if he could feel the city out there staring at him, he smiled back at her.

"I'm sure things will work out well with some work."

'I fucking hope so, anyway…'

"All right, then. That's that part out of the way." He pushed the folder in front of him slightly to the side. "Fill me in on the current situation in Brockton Bay, in your own words, not what's in the reports. What's the current threat level like? Who is the biggest problem? Tell me what I need to know, the stuff you don't write down."

The three local heroes exchanged looks. "You sure you want to know?" Leo asked, his face a little worried.

"I wouldn't have asked if I didn't, Leo," Mike replied. "I can read the official reports for days. I did, in fact, read them for days. There's always information that doesn't get into those things. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. Sometimes that information is just noise, sometimes it's the difference between success and ignominious failure. Or death."

The other man nodded slowly. "True, yeah. You're right enough. Well…" He thought for a moment. "The Empire is the obvious one, I guess. They've got more capes than we do, or at least until you guys turned up and Allfather bought it, they did. And they're fucking Nazis. They have a hell of a lot of foot soldiers and way more money than they should have, which means they tend to have way more guns than they should have. They're not shy about using them either. I'd say at least half the murders in the entire city are down to them, one way or another."

"More like seventy percent," Kelly added, scowling. "I hate those fuckers. Why we even allow them to live is beyond me. The only good Nazi is one six feet underground."

"Unfortunately, while I rather agree with the sentiment, we can't simply execute them no matter how distasteful their ideology is," Mike pointed out.

"I know, I know, people keep telling me that." She looked annoyed about it. "Don't expect me not to shoot back if they start things, though."

He didn't say anything, because to be honest he agreed.

"So yeah, the Empire are a big problem," Leo went on when his colleague fell quiet. "We've had a lot of trouble with them in the past. That said, since whatever did happen to Allfather happened, which I for one really hope was very fatal, they've been weirdly quiet. I don't like it, because the last time that happened they finally kicked off with one of the biggest fights we've had in years. They're probably plotting something we're really not going to like."

"But there's no proof one way or another, I assume?"

"No. Nothing useful at all. Kaiser is known to have announced he was taking over from his father, but we have no idea why or what happened. I'd guess he just killed the old man, but who knows? They might have had a fight and Allfather lost, he might have choked on a chicken bone and they're embarrassed to admit it. God knows what really happened." Leo shrugged. "We might never find out but I can guarantee you they'll be back sooner or later. They always are."

Mike made some notes and nodded. "OK, thanks. What else?"

"Don't fuck around with the Dock Workers," Shawn commented with a look at Leo, then him.


"That's something people sometimes need to be told around here when they're new," the younger man explained. "It's really not a good idea to fuck around with the Dock Workers. Or their Union. They don't like it."

"Do they have capes or something?" Hannah asked, speaking for the first time. "I wasn't aware they were a gang, I thought they genuinely were a union."

"Oh, they are, yeah," Shawn replied quickly. "As far as anyone knows, they don't have any capes, and they sure aren't a gang. But…" He hesitated, then went on, "No one really knows what they are except bad news if you get them pissed at you. That whole part of the city is something that'll bite your hand off at the elbow and chew if you cause too much trouble, and they're a big part of it. Everyone who grew up here knows that one of the main rules is 'do not start trouble in the Docks or someone will end it for you.' Even Allfather learned that the hard way…"

"Shawn's right," Kelly said after ten seconds of silence. They all looked at her. "There are parts of the city you definitely don't want to get too close to if you're planning trouble. The Dock Workers aren't people you want annoyed at you, true enough, but…" She shrugged a bit with a glance at Leo. "There are worse things out there."

"Like what?" Hannah queried, frowning a little.

"Difficult to say, to be honest." Kelly shook her head. "Stories. Weird things happen sometimes. Things like you can go down a back alley and find yourself coming out a different alley somewhere else in the city, without any idea how that happened. And no one can ever find any evidence afterwards. Sometimes you walk past a building and hear something… odd. A noise that doesn't fit, or a smell that's out of place, that sort of thing. There are certain areas that few people like to stay around for too long. Makes them uneasy."

"Ghost stories," Colin suggested, frowning a little.

"You can call it that if you want," Kelly replied. "You might even be right. But I've seen enough bizarre things in my time here to know that sometimes, those ghost stories are a lot more real than makes me happy. And there are some parts of this city I don't want to visit, just in case."

"There are places you only go if you're invited, or you're very, very careful," Shawn added after a long pause, quite quietly and seriously. "And you never ever start things there. People who do…" He shook his head. "They tend not to come back. Or they come back different."

"Not entirely right in the head," Leo put in. "Yeah, the kid's not wrong. Brockton Bay has some dangers you don't find most other places. The S9 found that out right quick, as far as anyone knows."

"A ghost ate the nine?" Hannah asked with an odd expression on her face.

"No one knows. But I for one wouldn't want to swear it didn't," Kelly replied in a low voice. "So we stay out of the Docks unless someone asks us to visit. I'd suggest that's probably a good thing to bear in mind."

No one said anything for a while after her comment, although Mike was thinking to himself that possibly some of the locals might well be more aware of certain things he was than he'd expected. Whether that was a good thing or the exact opposite he had no idea at the moment. What it suggested, though, was that he was going to have to do some research of his own. Very discreetly and very, very carefully…

Eventually he cleared his throat. "I believe I understand your point," he said. "And I'll take your comments into consideration. That rather unnerving aspect aside, anything else important I need to know?"

The locals exchanged glances. "Well, you'll probably want to introduce yourself to New Wave, just so everyone's on the same page," Leo said after a few seconds. "Killjoy didn't really get on with them, I have to say, although that was more of a personal… animosity.. between him and Brandish."

"Ah. I've heard about her."

"Yeah, well, in person she's probably worse than what you've heard," the other man sighed. "Don't get me wrong, she's actually pretty good at what she does, both as a lawyer from what I've heard, and as a hero. But she's… definitely an acquired taste. A kind of bitter one."

Kelly snorted slightly. "She's a fucking bitch, is what you mean."

"I wasn't going to put it exactly that way, but there's a certain amount of truth to your comment," Leo replied, shrugged, then looking back to Mike. "The woman's picture should be in the dictionary next to the entry for 'tightly wound'. She's… intense. And tends to be more rigid in her outlook than is probably completely ideal."

"She nearly got her fool head blown off by Protection at one point because she wouldn't stop shouting," Kelly pointed out acidly. "She considers them to be mercenaries and she really doesn't like mercenaries. They think she's a damn pain in the ass. Which she is a lot of the time. I think she's a damn pain in the ass for that matter."

Mike made a few notes. "What about the rest of New Wave?"

"Oh, most of them are fine, to be honest," the woman replied. "Lightstar isn't the easiest person to get along with, in my opinion, but he's normally less abrasive than she is. Lady Photon is the complete opposite, she's one of the most professional and genuine people I've met in this business. Fleur is also a nice kid, and gets on with pretty much everyone. Manpower is fine, he's a professional who knows how to work with others. Flashbang… he's…" She looked at Leo who nodded.

"Man's an effective hero and knows his stuff, but he's probably suffering from depression or PTSD or something like that, as far as I can tell," her colleague said. "Sometimes when you talk to him you kind of get the impression he's not entirely there in the room with you, you know?"

Mike did. He'd seen it before. Considering the trauma of a Trigger event, he was always a little surprised he didn't see it more. "Yeah, I get the idea," he replied, making more notes. "I was planning on officially introducing myself to them, and this helps me think of the best way to do that. I'm familiar with Manpower as it happens, but I've not met any of the others in person."

"Lady Photon is the official contact with their group, so you should probably talk to her," Shawn put in. "Their contact number is in our database."

"Thanks." Mike jotted down the last of his thoughts on the matter, then turned the page. "How is the working relationship between the Protectorate ENE and the local independents, in your opinion?" He studied their expressions as they exchanged glances.

"Generally good, I guess?" Leo replied almost quizzically as he pondered the question. "New Wave, or the Brockton Bay Brigade, did manage to take down Marquis, which got them quite a lot of brownie points in some places. Lost them a few too, though."

"Oh? Why?"

"The way they jumped him in his own house kind of rankled some people," Kelly responded, frowning slightly. "I can see why, although on the other hand I can also see why they did it that way. But it caused a certain amount of… irritation… among both heroes and villains, if I'm honest about it. Another one of those things which is making some people say we need better rules of engagement. Like it's a fucking game or something."

"A lot of capes see it that way and don't like the idea of being attacked at home, or having their families attacked, though," Shawn commented. "I can see both sides of the argument, I have to admit."

"So can I but I don't particularly agree with it," she replied with a shrug. "But it might happen if people get pissed enough. That said, Marquis needed to be shut down."

"There are quite a few people who preferred him to Allfather, and you have to admit the man did have style," Leo chuckled. "And he kept the E88 relatively honest. To a point."

"True, true, I can see that argument too, but… major super villain, you realize."

"Not like we have a shortage of those around here, is it?"

She shook her head with a small sigh. "No. Which pisses me off, but that's life."

Mike, who had been looking back and forth as they talked, waited until they seemed to have stopped then said, "Cape politics seem at least as complicated here as in Chicago," with a slight smile. "That doesn't surprise me, all things considered. OK, what about the other smaller groups, and the independents?"

"Protection are very professional, very dangerous, and very, very good," Leo promptly replied. "They tend to stick to whatever their current contract is and pretty much ignore anything else unless it threatens whoever it is they're being paid to protect. Then they usually take fairly immediate action, which can be… drastic. Pretty good at minimizing collateral though, I'll give them that. And stopping repeat offenses." He grinned darkly. "Usually by making sure there isn't a repeat offender. Last time the E88 were stupid enough to get mixed up in something they were working on Allfather was lucky to get away with all his limbs. He tended to avoid them after that."

"Huh. Impressive," Mike remarked thoughtfully. "So they're not likely to work with us?"

"If you pay them enough, sure, they'll work with us, but if they're already on a contract, they'll tell you politely to get lost. They never break a contract." Kelly shrugged. "Although they do sometimes pass on information if they come across something we need to know. It's always good."

"I see. Useful to know."

"As far as independents, they come and go. There's a new girl in town, name of Faultline, who seems to be gearing up for a merc business like Protection. Hasn't settled on a group yet from what I heard, but she's savvy enough and dangerous enough that she's successfully kept her independence for nearly a year so far. Which probably puts her in the top ten percent of new Triggers. Then there's that crazy Tinker bastard Ratman, the one that dresses up like a giant rat with a cape and jumps on muggers from out of manholes… Completely nuts, but he's strangely effective even so. And a complete ham. Keeps going on about rat themed Tinker tech. He seems to have something for almost every possible problem." She shook her head in a sort of baffled respect.

"The guy is weird even for the Bay," Leo agreed. "But his Rat Shark Repellent actually works as advertised."

"How the hell do you know that?" she asked with an odd look at him.

"He gave me some before I went to Florida for a holiday last summer," he shrugged. "Said it might come in handy. It did."

Everyone looked at him, then each other, and by mutual consent decided to move on.

The meeting went on for another hour or so, and by the end of it Mike had a large pile of notes, on a remarkably wide range of heroes, villains, rogues, and just random weirdos who came and went with no clear reason. Almost none of the information was in the official records, mostly for fairly good reasons as a lot of it was hearsay at best, but it was in his view still useful. In some cases as he'd said it might be critical. You never knew in this business what little bit of data might save your ass, so he liked to collect as much as possible. It had been extremely helpful at various times in the past, after all.

Even Colin had finally managed to unbend enough to become more sociable and join in, which was close to a miracle in Mike's opinion. Possibly the man could actually learn to be something a little closer to a human given the right impetus…

Hannah still seemed skeptical about some of the stories the original three team members had relayed, and Colin clearly was even less believing than that for the most part, but Mike still made notes on everything. He had more reason than most to accept the truth of certain things many wouldn't.

"OK," he finally said, putting his notes into order, and placing the pen on top of the thick stack of paper. "Thank you for the information. I'll go over everything and see how much is directly relevant, but I expect most will be helpful one way or another." He looked around the table. "I have high hopes for this team, and all of you are critical to our success. Let's see how things progress, and as I said at the beginning, I'm always available if any of you have questions or suggestions. And if you know of anyone else who we should look at to join us, don't hesitate to speak up." Glancing at the clock on the wall, he added, "That's it for today. Dismissed, and thanks again for a very productive initial meeting."

He stood, as did Leo. Shawn turned to Hannah and started asking her some questions, while Colin pulled out a small device that unfolded into a somewhat ridiculously large tablet computer and started drawing something on the screen, becoming immediately lost to the outside world. Kelly watched him for a moment, looked at Mike who shrugged, shook her head, and left the room.

"He's… unique… isn't he?" Leo commented in a low voice as they both watched the Tinker work for a few seconds.

"Yeah," Mike sighed. "He's good, but he's… very him. You'll probably get used to it sooner or later."

His colleague chuckled, slapped him on the shoulder, and followed after Kelly. Mike, after nodding to Hannah and Shawn, both of whom returned the gesture before going back to their conversation, also left. He had a lot of work to do and a lot of information to collate.

And he needed to work out what exactly he'd got himself into.

Some of the strange events Kelly had mentioned… People going down one alley and coming out a completely different one? If he didn't know better he'd swear that sounded like someone opening a Way.

Which was not exactly the simplest thing one could do even if one knew how, and had the ability. And it sure as hell wasn't the sort of thing you generally did accidentally…

So what was going on in this city? And should he even be trying to find out, or should he ignore it and pretend it wasn't there, just to be safe?

Mike slept rather badly that night, and dreamed that something with glowing eyes was laughing at him from under the bed.

Putting the phone back in his pocket, Mike checked his schedule journal, nodded to himself, and moved a few things around. When he'd finished he closed the program and got up from behind the desk, moving to the window that looked out across the bay. The view wasn't quite as good as from the conference room, the armored glass window being somewhat small and not pointing in the same direction, but even so he could see most of the city across the water, which still looked very cold and inhospitable. The swell was rolling in long waves from the mouth of the bay back towards the inland end, slamming into the legs of the Rig and causing the subliminal vibrations to come and go in a way that he guessed he'd get used to in the end but for now were quite noticeable.

Pondering the sight of Brockton Bay, he wondered somewhat uneasily what really lurked deep in the city. It had long had a reputation, far longer than most people really realized, and for that matter far longer than Parahumans had been on the scene. He was aware of some of the reasons for this and did his best not to think too hard about them, as doing so ran the risk of attracting… certain things it was generally considered best not to attract. Not if you wanted anything even remotely resembling a quiet life, even by the terms the cape profession set.

He'd learned a lot of unusual skills and information over his life, and some of those skills came via methods most of those in the PRT didn't know about and probably wouldn't much like if they did. As a group they preferred to believe that they were the final authority on how the oddities of Parahuman abilities worked, as far as anyone could know such things. But he, along with a very small number of others, was all too aware that there were abilities out there which made Parahumans look somewhat ineffectual, with wielders that would very much worry the PRT. Information that should it become more widespread in certain quarters would likely cause some individuals and groups to try to take control of such things, a task he was utterly certain would end extremely badly for everyone involved.

There were certain entities one did not attempt to persuade, or worse, force, to do anything they did not wish to do. One might, if you were particularly stupid, ask them to do something, and if you were very unlucky they might agree. You might even live to regret it. In rare cases, you might get exactly what you asked for.

On the other hand, you might not. And even if you did, sometimes that was the worst outcome of all…

He looked away from the city, which seemed to momentarily become something out of a nightmare, and blinked a couple of times. When he looked back, it was a normal misty morning scene of an urban sprawl across the water.

Swallowing a little unevenly, he nodded to himself again. He was stuck here for now, and he'd do his job, but while doing it he was definitely going to make certain he didn't step on the wrong toes. Because even the PRT and the Protectorate wouldn't stand a chance if the owner of said toes got sufficiently annoyed.

Because somewhere out there, Mal Linwood's daughter lived, which meant in turn somewhere out there was a place Mal Linwood visited.

He did not want to get Mal Linwood upset with him. Oh, no, not even slightly. No one even vaguely sane, with the knowledge of who, and more accurately what, she was would desire that.

Mike was almost certain that both the S9 and the Teeth had managed that feat. And no one had ever heard of them again.

He was certain that Allfather had also done something similar. He'd felt the result, deep in his bones, via senses he tended not to tell people about. Those in the know would also have noticed, but there weren't many of them these days for a number of reasons.

Magic, sorcery, The Arts, whatever you called it, ebbed and waned in the world at large as far as humans were concerned. Knowledge came and went over the decades, centuries, and millennia. But the underlying power persisted, and there were those who had never lost any of that knowledge.

Those who had far, far more of such knowledge than any mere human could hope to gather. Or survive.

Such people, if you could really consider them such, tended to lurk in the background of human affairs, spawning tales and stories that came down from beyond the dim mists of history, from as far back as could be traced. He strongly suspected that if you could somehow delve even deeper, such stories had always been there, from before humanity existed at all. As had those who sparked them.

And those stories always had a kernel of truth to them, no matter how outlandish or bizarre they were…

Which honestly scared the shit out of him if he let himself dwell on it too long. So he tried not to.

Shaking his head, he turned away from the window and headed for the door, as he needed breakfast before his first task of the day. Sometimes he wished he'd never learned various truths in his studies, he thought as he walked through the corridors. He'd have slept a lot better over the years.

But that was the price one paid for certain knowledge, and there was nothing to be done about it. The benefits mostly outweighed the deficits, after all.

Some time later he found himself walking up the path from the road towards a suburban house, quite a nice one, on the north-eastern outskirts of the city. Stopping in front of the door he made sure his robes were arranged correctly, then raised the staff he was holding and prodded the doorbell button with the head of it. Grounding the staff again he waited. A few seconds passed after the faint sound of the bell faded, then the door was yanked open. He looked down.

"Hi!" a small blonde girl of about six or seven said brightly, grinning up at him. "Who are you?"

Slightly taken aback but also somewhat amused, he gravely replied, "I, young lady, am Myrrdin."

"Are you a wizard?" she asked, eyeing his staff with a critical gaze.

"Of sorts," he smiled, stroking his beard with his free hand.

"Can you do magic?"

"Some would call it that."

"Can you talk to the monsters under the bed?"

"… I have to admit I don't know, I've never tried."

"Mine is called Jeff. He's really cool. And he helps me go to Taylor's house sometimes. Want to meet him?"

"I am… not sure."

"His teeth are amazing!"

"I somehow find myself less sure."

"He won't bite unless you poke him. He doesn't like that. Most people don't like being poked. Amy doesn't like it but she doesn't bite you, she just kicks you in the knee."

"I would agree that poking people is often not a good idea."

"Nope. Taylor says that if that happens you need to Make An Example so it doesn't happen again. Her dad's bat is good for making Examples. She showed it to me from when she had to make the new monster in the closet stop growling at her all the time. Because he's a poohead. She bent the bat on his head. He doesn't growl at her any more."

"...I would expect not."

"When her old closet monster gets back from sab… at… eekal? I think that's right. When he gets back he's going to be very upset about the growling, she says."

"I see."

Mike was feeling a touch overwhelmed. The little girl was remarkably cheerful and chatty and managed to get her words out at a high rate of speed without apparently breathing at all, which was a touch worrying. She was also grinning widely in a manner that tended to make you step back, for reasons he wasn't entirely sure of but definitely felt. It was the grin of someone who knew something you didn't and was much too happy about it.


"Eep! Aunt Sarah!" The apparently-named Vicky jumped at the shout from behind her and spun around in the air, landing facing the other way in a fine display of youthful flexibility.

"Stop chattering like that and go back in the kitchen, please. We talked about rushing to the door, didn't we?" the mid-thirties blonde woman who was approaching down the hallway instructed, giving Mike a quick smile, then turning his attention to the small girl, who was now looking embarrassed and poking the floor with a toe.

"I wanted to see who was there. This is Myrrdin, he's a wizard. Or something. He doesn't know about the monster under the bed though so how can he really be a wizard? All the wizards I know know about monsters."

Sarah, presumably Sarah Pelham, sighed very faintly, although she was smiling still. "How many wizards do you actually know, dear?"

Vicky counted on her fingers, mumbling under her breath, then held up four fingers. "Five!"

Trying not to chuckle Mike watch Sarah shake her head, then put her hand on the girl's back and urge her in the direction she'd come from. "Go and have some cookies, dear, they're fresh. Take the plate upstairs to Eric and Crystal and stay there for now, please, until we're done down here."

"OK, Auntie," Vicky said happily, and dashed off down the hall, zipping into a door at the end and slamming it behind her. A moment later her voice drifted back to them. "Ooh, mint chocolate chip!"

Everything went quiet again and Sarah rubbed her forehead, shook her head again, then turned to Mike. Holding out her hand, she shook his when he responded. "I'm sorry about that, Myrrdin. Victoria is… ebullient. To put it mildly."

"She does seem quite enthusiastic," he agreed with a laugh.

"You have no idea," she sighed. "Come in, everyone is in the living room. We're waiting on Lightstar and Fleur, they're running a little late because of traffic, but they'll be here in a few minutes." He nodded and walked inside, waiting for her to close the door, then precede him down the hall, turning right near the kitchen. The room they ended up in was a large living room that had apparently been two different rooms at one point which had been converted into one much bigger L-shaped one, running halfway down the front of the house and all the way to the back.

Several sofas and chairs were in one part, while there was a large table and various other bits of furniture in the other half. Most of the current New Wave roster was sitting around the place. Manpower, Neil Pelham and Sarah's husband, who he'd have recognized half a mile away even out of costume, was at the table looking through a pile of paperwork, with another man who by implication was Flashbang, or Mark Dallon, sitting opposite him writing on a pad, and a blonde woman who was clearly Sarah Pelham's sister Carol Dallon as she bore a very distinct familial resemblance was on one of the sofas. She'd been leafing through what looked like a bound report of some sort but lowered it as he came in to stare at him in a slightly confrontational manner. He politely nodded to her, and she looked away.

Yeah. Tightly wound would be a good way to describe her indeed, he thought with inner amusement.

Neil looked around as they entered, then smiled widely. "Ah, Myrrdin. Nice to see you again," he said as he got up from the obviously custom made chair which was needed for his huge frame, then came over and held out his hand. Mike shook it, his hand dwarfed by the one of the other man. "Welcome to Brockton Bay."

"I'm still not sure if I should say thanks or please help me," Mike quipped. Neil burst out laughing and Mark, who hadn't said anything, looked amused. Sarah snickered for a moment.

"We get a lot of that around here," Neil commented. "Have a seat. Beer?"

"I wouldn't turn it down, thanks," Mike replied, sitting in the indicated chair. He looked around. "Nice house." Neil disappeared through a door at the end of the room.

"Thank you," Sarah said as she also sat, on the sofa opposite him next to her sister, who closed the report and leaned sideways to put it on the small end table. "We've lived here for some time and like it ourselves. It's a bit too big for only four people, but we host the others here so often it's useful to have the space. And the garden is unusually big for this area, which is nice for the kids to play in."

"Although the weather isn't exactly conducive for that right at the moment," Neil remarked as he came back from wherever he'd gone, half a dozen bottles of beer held in one huge hand. He gave Mike one, then handed a couple more to the two women, giving another to Mark who accepted it with a murmur of thanks. Mike looked at the label, seeing it was apparently made locally, then unscrewed the cap with a hiss and took a small sip.

"Hmm. Not bad at all," he said, impressed.

"We've got a few good craft breweries in the city, mostly in the Docks," Neil replied, sitting down in a vast armchair then opening one for himself. "This one is my favorite."

Mike nodded. He glanced out the window, where the afternoon light was filtering though the snow which had started falling again about two hours ago. "Yeah, I can agree that it's not the best weather for the children to be playing around outside," he said, looking back at his hosts. "Is it like this a lot around here?"

Sarah wiggled a hand from side to side. "Sometimes, sometimes not. We get a lot of precipitation all year round because of lake effect, but at the same time it's milder here than it is further inland for the same reason. But every now and then we get a cold year and it snows like crazy, for months, on and off. This year has been particularly cold, and we've had a lot more snow than we did since…" She paused to think.

"Probably about two thousand and one, I'd say," Mark put in, making her look at him then nod.

"That sounds about right, yes. Of course the kids love it, when it's not storming and the snow has stopped falling they're outside building snow forts and snow men and snow monsters…" She half-grinned. "That last one is mostly Vicky, it has to be said."

"If what she made last week is really what's under her bed I for one don't want to meet it," Neil chuckled, finishing the beer in his hand and opening the last one. From the size of him it would probably take him about a case full to get even a mild buzz going, Mike thought with amusement as he sipped his own. "Hell of an imagination, that girl."

"They all do at that age," Sarah smiled.

A knock at the front door was followed by it opening, and a woman's voice called, "Hi! We finally made it!"

"We're in here, Jess," Sarah called. Seconds later a woman somewhat younger than either Sarah or her sister stuck her head around the doorway and looked in, smiling widely.

"Sorry we're late. Mike didn't want to wreck the car. Lots of people driving like lunatics out there."

"What else is new?" Carol grumbled, speaking for the first time. Sarah prodded her in the arm and she looked somewhat annoyed but fell silent again. The woman, Fleur, or Jess Winters, looked between the sisters and visibly decided not to comment, instead coming into the room followed almost immediately by a man about four years older based on Mike's information. This was Lightstar, the two sisters' brother Michael Ellison, also known as Mike. Which was going to be a little confusing, Mike thought with an inner grin.

Michael looked around, nodded to Mark and Neil, who raised their beer bottles to him, then dropped onto a free sofa. Jess sat next to him and held his hand, smiling at Mike. "Kids here by the sound of it?" the other man commented, raising his eyes to the ceiling as a thud echoed through the room accompanied by faint cries of annoyance.

"Yes, the sitter wasn't available today on short notice," Sarah replied to her brother, also looking upwards for a moment. The sound didn't recur, so she shrugged a little and lowered her gaze. "Right, we're all here. So, as you all know, this is Myrrdin, the new Protectorate ENE leader. He arrived in the city yesterday, and asked to meet with us this morning. Myrrdin, I assume you know who all of us are?" She looked at him.

"I do, yes," he replied, nodding. "I've read your files, and of course I've met Manpower before."

"Why did you want to meet us?" Carol asked a little suspiciously, causing her sister to noticeably suppress a small sigh.

He chuckled. "Nothing serious, Brandish. I merely wanted to introduce myself officially. We're undoubtedly going to find ourselves working together sooner or later and it's a good idea to at least be familiar with people in that situation. We're in the same business after all, even if in slightly different ways. I intend to try to build a working relationship with all the independents in Brockton Bay as far as possible, which I understand my predecessor didn't manage." He spread his hands for a moment. "We don't necessarily have to be friends, but it's best in my view to not be antagonists. I'll be meeting Protection as soon as I can manage it for similar reasons, and Faultline, along with as many of the other less well known heroes in the city."

"I see," the younger sister commented, still examining him like she expected something unpleasant to happen. He got the impression this was pretty much how she always was, which backed up what her file said. Michael was doing much the same, but the rest seemed relaxed and understanding.

"Well I for one think that's a sensible attitude," Jess remarked, smiling. "I'm pleased to meet you, Myrrdin."

"Likewise, Fleur," he replied with a smile in his own voice. Looking around he went on, "If there's anything you'd like to ask me about how I am going to operate, feel free. Or if you have any suggestions or complaints about the Protectorate here, I'd like to hear them. I can't guarantee to fix everything immediately, but I do know that Killjoy wasn't always on the best terms with independents. I happen to think that people like you are very important to the stability of the city, as was proved by your taking down of Marquis. Which was rather impressive if I'm honest."

"Thank you," Sarah replied with a nod.

"Although I will admit that the method you used should probably not be used again," he added, causing Carol to scowl and Sarah to sigh a little, while Mark and Neil exchanged glances. "My information suggests that the tolerance for that sort of thing from both heroes and villains is falling. I assume you realize that?"

"We do," Sarah replied heavily. "At the time it was the best method, and trust me, we had a lot of arguments about whether to do it like that or not. Even now I'm conflicted about how we went about it. But on the other hand, we didn't have a lot of choice, as far as I can see. Marquis was too dangerous to allow him to have any preparation time. Someone would have died. Probably a lot of people, to be honest."

"Yes, I understand that, and I'm not going to second guess you. You people were the ones in the field, you had the local knowledge, and more than anything else, you succeeded, which counts for a lot," he acknowledged with a nod. "I'm just saying that if there is a similar operation in future that method probably won't work and might well have repercussions no one would enjoy. Just as an FYI, really."

She nodded. "I get it, and I hear you."

"It's not a game," Michael put in with a frown. "We don't have rules and penalties."

"I know that, and you know that, but there are a lot of people who like to believe the opposite," Mike sighed. "On both sides. I've had this exact discussion with my own people, both yesterday here and at various times in the past in Chicago. It's a very difficult problem with no good solution, but an awful lot of bad ones. And I don't want to end up with a bad solution turning into an absolute disaster. We all remember Memphis…"

Several of them shuddered a little, for reasons he fully shared. That had been one hell of a mess…

"Point taken," Michael replied after several seconds, sounding somewhat annoyed but not at Mike.

"Unfortunately life is complicated at best and cape life is worse," Mike continued, shrugging a little. "All we can do is adapt as the situation changes and try to make sure we don't make a bad situation worse through good intentions. It's a tricky balance."

"just a little," Neil sighed.

The room fell quiet as Mike drank some more beer, then he lowered the bottle and said, "In any case, I'm not here to lecture you." He looked around at them all. "As I said, if you have any questions, concerns, problems I might be able to help with, or anything like that, I wanted to make sure you knew I was always willing to discuss them." Producing a handful of business cards with a mild exertion of his power, he leaned forward and handed them to Jess, who was closest. "That has my direct contact details on. If you need to get hold of me in a hurry, call." She looked at the one she kept even as she passed the rest onto her boyfriend, who distributed them to the others then sat again, retaining one which he slipped into his pocket.

"Thank you, Myrrdin," Sarah said, looking at the card she received, then putting it next to her on the sofa. "I have to admit Killjoy wasn't nearly as… open."

Mike chuckled a little. "No, I'd have to agree there. He's a good man, and very experienced, but he has a certain… rigidity… in his approach to business which doesn't always work well with people outside his chain of command."

"That's one way to put it," Mark muttered. Neil and Carol nodded, the latter seeming somewhat peeved.

"But since he's retired, the job is mine now, and I have a different way of doing things," Mike went on. "I'd like to think it's a successful one."

"You certainly turned Chicago around from what I know," Jess commented.

He looked at her, then nodded thanks. "It took a lot of work but I'm pleased with the end result. Hopefully I can repeat the process here."

"Brockton Bay is a lot harder to deal with than Chicago was," Neil warned. "Trust me, I know that all too well. We're all natives, and even we find it weird sometimes. This place has a habit of surprising you even when you think you've seen everything. After all, people still don't know what the hell happened to the Teeth. Or the S9…" He trailed off, shaking his head.

"Or several other potential or actual problems in the past," Sarah added, frowning a little. "Sometimes, something just… makes the issue go away. Only the worst threats, as far as I'm able to find out, and who or what is behind that I have absolutely no idea. I don't know how Marquis got away with it for so long while the Teeth got dealt with in days, but there it is. Whatever it really is."

Mike had a suspicion he knew at least one of the possible causes of the phenomenon but there was no way he was going to tell anyone about it. That way led to things he'd rather not think too hard about…

"I've been told by my new work colleagues that this city does have some… oddities… about it, which certainly backs up some of the things I've heard over the years," he replied fairly mildly, then finished his beer and put the bottle down.

"'Oddities' doesn't do it justice," Jess commented with a strange smile. "Completely bizarre shit no one can explain is much closer to the truth." She looked around at the others, then back to him. "Some of the stories I've been told, and some of the things I've seen, are… not easily explainable."

"We have more Parahumans per square foot than anywhere else in the country, Jess," Carol stated with a frown. "That explains it perfectly well. There are a lot of minor villains, and even rogues, who do strange things in the background. You make it sound like the city is cursed or something."

Jess raised an eyebrow at the other woman. "After some of the things you've seen recently you still believe it's just some random Parahuman?"

"What else is there?" Carol demanded.

The younger woman shrugged. "I don't know. But I'll keep an open mind, unless someone can prove otherwise. I know quite a lot of people in the Docks, and I've heard stories. Stories that are a hell of a lot older than any Parahuman. Brockton Bay has always had bizarre things going on, for as long as it's existed and possibly longer. Parahumans just made it weirder, but they sure didn't cause the weirdness."

"The Docks are a pestilence on the city," Carol growled, before taking a long pull on her beer, then looking somewhat disappointed that it was empty. "Way too many problems come from that direction."

"Only if you're unwise enough to provoke them, dear," Mark remarked with a small smile. "I agree with Jess. Our city is not normal, but it does seem to work even so. Just in a strange way."

Mike had been listening with interest. He got the distinct impression that Carol very firmly didn't believe any of the stories that seemed to be floating around, while Jess certainly did. The expressions of the others suggested that they all had their own feelings about the whole subject varying between the two points of view. "I've been told by a couple of people that it's considered unwise to start trouble in the Docks," he said calmly.

"Oh, that much is very true," Sarah agreed. "The entire area is prone to reacting rather quickly to threats. It always has been. The people who live there have always stuck together, feeling that they had to take care of each other because no one else would. It was traditionally the blue collar sector of the city, centered on the actual docks and associated industries, which were the industrial heart of the city right from the day it was founded. A huge amount of money flowed through that place but not a lot of it stayed, which even today causes a certain amount of resentment towards the richer parts of the city where all the people who did get the profits mostly live. It almost caused riots a few years ago, and has been behind other protests over the years." She shrugged with a shake of her head. "The history of this city isn't entirely free of some pretty nasty problems. But that's the case in most places. Especially old cities, and Brockton is one of the oldest in the country."

"The Docks are an absolute maze of roads and abandoned buildings and hardly anyone from outside can even find their way through it half the time," Neil put in. "That's one of the reasons you tend to find people warning outsiders off. It's all too easy to end up somewhere you didn't mean to go and that sometimes results in problems."

"Because there are criminals all over the place," Carol grumbled.

"Well, yes, there is quite a lot of low level criminal activity around," Jess nodded. "Most of it is pretty mild though, compared to what the E88 do and what the Teeth tried to do. And the Marche, for that matter, even though Marquis stuck to the richer areas. Petty thefts, the odd burglary, moon-shining, that sort of thing. Not a lot of muggings and damn sure no sex crimes or assaults." She shivered a little. "Anyone who tries that around there finds out very fast there's no tolerance for it at all."

"Examples have been made," Mark put in quietly. "Fairly graphic ones. People learned not to push their luck a long, long time ago."

"Yeah. They learned that causing trouble past a certain point gets you beaten to a pulp and told to fuck off if you're lucky," Neil chuckled. "Strangely enough it seems to work."

"More criminals assaulting each other," Carol muttered, making her sister glance sidelong at her then sigh faintly.

"A colorful area, by the sound of it," Mike said. Sarah nodded, smiling a bit.

"Some would call it that."

"A den of iniquity," her sister complained.

"And some would call it that," Sarah sighed. "Mostly you." Carol opened her mouth again to retort but subsided after a look from the other woman. Mike watched the interplay, but said nothing.

"Anyway, all in all, you should probably be prepared to hear some very strange things as long as you're here," Sarah said, turning back to him. "Many of them will be true, at least in some way. I'd strongly advise letting the Docks handle themselves and deal with the rest of the city, which will be more than enough to keep you busy. Especially with the E88 running around."

"At least Allfather is out of the picture," Michael noted, having got up a moment earlier and vanished for a moment, and now coming back with a beer of his own. He took a drink from it, then waved the bottle in the direction of the window, through which the city could be seen. "God knows what his damn son will do with the gang, but with luck it will take a while before they get back to fucking things up for everyone else."

"They have been strangely quiet recently," Neil nodded, frowning. "No one seems to know exactly what happened though."

"Kaiser killed his father and has been rearranging things, I bet," the other man responded as he walked over to the window and stood looking out at the view. "He probably offed Iron Rain too. To be honest I'd shake the bastard's hand for that. His bitch of a sister was way worse than he is or his dad was. And that's saying something, because I hate his guts."

"Can't disagree," Neil replied, having thought it over for a moment.

"No one knows what happened, so perhaps Kaiser didn't kill Allfather," Jess said, shrugging. Everyone looked at her and she flushed a little.

"Yeah, right," her fiance said with a dark grin. "He just dropped dead of a heart attack? Got frightened to death on Halloween or something?" Snorting with laughter, he took another pull on his beer, returning to gazing out the window.

"Who knows? Only Kaiser, probably, and he's not telling," Mark chuckled. "Does it matter? At least the man is out of the picture."

"The rest of them are still around and I guarantee they're going to do something horrible sooner or later," Carol snapped. "That's what they do."

"Point," her husband nodded.

Sarah got up and left the room for a couple of minutes. When she came back, Michael and his sister were arguing about how exactly the E88 would commit the next atrocity, while everyone was listening, Mike taking mental notes. "Cookie?" she offered, holding the plate out. "I hid this one so the kids wouldn't find it," she added as he took one. "Which takes some doing. Vicky is very good at sniffing out hiding places." Passing the plate around, she sat again.

"These are really good," Mike complimented her, before taking another bite.

"Thanks. I do a lot of baking and that recipe is one of the more popular ones," the woman replied with a smile. "The kids would eat every one I made and ask for more if I let them. Hardly a balanced diet."

"Children do tend to have a sweet tooth," he laughed. Finishing the cookie, he accepted another one when she held the plate out.

By the time they were all gone, and she'd brought out some coffee which he'd gratefully accepted as well, they'd discussed most of the other Parahumans in the city, giving him quite a bit of anecdotal information which he made notes on. It added to what he had from the files in a few places they'd been a little thin on. Finally, after closing his notebook and stashing it away with his power, he nodded.

"This is all useful. Thank you all very much for meeting with me like this. Hopefully we can have a good working relationship in the coming years."

"I hope so too, Myrrdin," Sarah replied. "I think we're all looking forward to seeing how you manage the Protectorate here." She looked around at her family, who all nodded to one degree or another. "Good luck, in any case. I fear you may need it," she added with a small grin.

He snickered. "Probably. But then Chicago was damn hard work but it came out all right in the end, so hopefully I can do that here." He shrugged. "With luck I'll have as productive a meeting with Protection and the rest of the independents and we can all work together. It would make things a lot easier."

"Have you talked to the PRT Director yet?" Jess asked curiously.

"I met him when I arrived but he was right in the process of rushing to a meeting so we only talked for about half a minute," Mike replied. "I'll be talking to him properly tomorrow morning."

"We always found him reasonably straightforward to deal with, but I'll admit we don't have all that much to do with him. Most of our interactions with the PRT are at a lower level," Sarah commented. "After we got Marquis, we had words, but on the whole he seemed pleased the man was in custody but annoyed it wasn't his people who did it."

"Yeah, I can imagine," Mike nodded, grinning to himself. "He wouldn't like being upstaged. Most people wouldn't."

"They had their chance," Carol said, almost looking amused for a second or two. "It's not our fault if they didn't take it."

"I suppose that's fair enough," he allowed.

Falling silent, he finished his coffee while trying to work out how to ask the last thing he was curious about, and not entirely sure he should…

In the end, he mentally shrugged and decided just to do it. "Out of personal interest, before I leave… How did your interaction with Mal Linwood go in the end?" he queried, rather cautiously.

Every single one of them stared at him, then each other. Sarah swallowed a tiny bit, while Carol looked at the floor.

"In the end… I think it went as well as could be hoped after a slightly rocky start," she replied in a subdued manner. "We parted on what seemed to be good terms, and the last time we met she was perfectly calm."

"You've met her again?" he managed to say after a few seconds of mild incredulous horror.

"Several times," she nodded. "For various reasons we found ourselves visiting her daughter's house on occasion, and she was sometimes there."

He felt a level of internal worry that suddenly made all his misgivings about accepting this posting rush back in spades. "So it wasn't a one time thing, then," he finally said, when he could make his voice steady.


"I hope for your sake that you were very, very careful not to give offense," Mike remarked, looking down at the coffee cup he was still holding and noticing idly that his hand was ever so slightly shaking. Reaching out he put it on the small table to the side, then folded his hands on his legs. "Mal Linwood is not the person anyone wants to upset. And it's highly unusual for anyone to meet her more than once or twice. I'm not sure if I'm impressed, or terrified. Or both. She must like you for some reason."

"Who is she?" Carol demanded. "You're talking like she's the most dangerous person in the city, but she's just some old woman."

"She is the most dangerous person in the city," he said in a low voice. "Any city. And I would very much suggest you never call her 'just an old woman' to her face or you may find out why…"

Taking a breath, he held up a hand as she started to snap something. "No, hold on a second. Before you start shouting, please understand that like I said before, I cannot tell you what you want to know. It would end very badly for everyone if I did, especially me. What I can say is that those stories we were discussing before? I believe a lot of them, because Mal Linwood visits this city. Trust me when I tell you that I'd believe almost anything where she's involved, and I want little to nothing to do with any of it. You got yourselves mixed up in something you really shouldn't have and by some blind luck managed to get away with it. You have no idea how badly it could have gone if you didn't. And I can't tell you." He shivered despite himself, while the rest of them were watching him with strange expressions.

"Whatever deal you worked out with her, don't tell me, just make extremely sure you never, ever, break it. You don't want to know what would happen. I don't want to know what would happen." Leaning forward he fixed hidden eyes on Carol's face, which made her look momentarily worried. "Just make damn sure you stick to the terms. And if you managed to get your boon, thank any power you care to name, because you've got an ally the likes of which you can't possibly imagine. Keep that tucked away for when you really need it and don't squander it. Very few ever get a chance like that." He shook his head and leaned back. "You must have the luck of the devil to have walked away from whatever it was that got her interested in you…"

"I'm scared now," Jess said, only partially joking by the look in her eye when he turned his head to meet her gaze.

"You probably should be," he replied quietly. "But that said, if you keep faith with your promise, whatever it was, you'll probably be fine."

"Should we be worried that Vicky visits her granddaughter a lot?" Sarah asked after the entire room had been silent for a few seconds.

He snapped his head around to look at her so fast he felt a bone in his neck twinge. "What?" he yipped in a rather unmanly voice.

"Vicky spends quite a lot of time at the Hebert house," Neil commented, giving him an odd look. "Taylor and Amy, along with a girl called Emma, and Vicky, are all about the same age and they all play together."

Mike closed his eyes and tried to calm his racing heart. Eventually he opened them again, and said, "Hebert?"

"Annette Hebert is Mal Linwood's daughter, and Danny Hebert, her husband, is the Dock Worker's Union boss," the man replied. "Taylor and… Amy Hebert are the two kids. Taylor is actually the reason we met them, which is a long story. Vicky gets on really well with both of them and another girl, Emma… Barnes, from memory."

"We probably can't actually stop them getting together at this point," Mark said, shaking his head. "They're as thick as thieves, those girls. The Heberts don't seem to mind them spending time there and Vicky always comes home very cheerful even for her. As far as I'm concerned she's found a very good group of friends."

"Your kid plays with Mal Linwood's granddaughter," Mike repeated in a dreamy voice. "And she knows five wizards…" He snickered, then snorted with laughter, thumping his hand on the arm of the chair. "Only in Brockton Bay."

The various members of New Wave exchanged puzzled glances as he chortled to himself, until he finally subsided. "This place will be the death of me, I can feel it," he mumbled, then more loudly he said, looking around at them all, "All I can say is that Vicky is as safe with the… Heberts… as she would be anywhere. So you don't have to worry about that part. If I were you I'd just leave it alone. If she's happy, everything is fine."

"I wish I knew what you won't tell us," Sarah said, eyeing him closely.

"No, you really, really don't," he responded as he stood, then smoothed his robes down. "That much I can absolutely guarantee you." Retrieving his staff from where he'd leaned it against the chair when he'd originally sat down, he looked around once more. "It's been an interesting time, meeting you all. I expect we'll meet again, hopefully under good circumstances."

Sarah also stood, holding her hand out, which he shook. "Thanks for dropping in. I think we all found this as useful as you did, although the mystery of Mal will eat at me even more now."

"Best to just move on, Sarah," he advised. "Some things you simply have to accept and not question, and that's very definitely one of those things."

The woman looked confused, but nodded. "If you need anything from us that we can help with, just call, you have our number," she added.

"I'll do that," he replied. Looking around, he nodded to the others. Neil raised a hand in a wave, Mark nodded back, Jess smiled at him, while Michael and Carol just watched him with almost identical neutral expressions. "Until next time," he said, then left the room, Sarah accompanying him down the hallway to the front door.

With her hand on the knob, she turned to him. "You're sure Vicky is safe?" she asked very quietly.

Putting his hand on her shoulder, he nodded. "If she's on close friendship terms with a relative of Mal Linwood, I guarantee she's about as safe as anyone can be, although I have absolutely no idea how that could have happened," he assured her, still feeling somewhat bewildered by what he'd learned but hiding it with the ease of long practice in keeping secrets. "Don't worry about that part."

She nodded back, looking somewhat less worried now. "Good luck with your new post," she said, pulling the door open and standing aside.

"Thanks, I'm probably going to need it," he chuckled, walking outside, then turning to look at her. "Keep up the good work yourself."

"We intend to," she smiled. "Good bye, Myrrdin."

He nodded, and she closed the door. Walking a couple of steps down the path, he was about to take off when something hit him in the back, making him turn to see Vicky standing there in a thick coat wearing gloves and boots, with another snowball in her hand, grinning widely at him. "Shot in the back," he cried, hamming it up. "I am betrayed!"

The girl giggled, then tossed the second snowball in his direction. He allowed it to hit his chest, looked down at the snow dripping off his robe, then shook his head. "Another mortal wound. Enough, young warrior, I am undone."

"You should do yourself up again," she giggled, making him laugh. "Bye, Mr Wizard."

"Good bye, young one," he replied with a smile and a bow, gesturing with his staff. "I must be on my way. Wizardly things to do, after all."

"You're funny," she laughed, shaking her head. "Granny Mallie would like you."

His smile froze under his hood, but after a few seconds he managed to say, "That's nice."

'Granny Mallie?' he thought in complete stunned disbelief. 'Granny Mallie?'

Oh yes. This girl was very safe.

He pitied anyone who ever tried to cause trouble for her…

Coughing a little, he rasped, "I will be on my way. Until we meet again, young lady." With that he lifted off. She waved at him then dashed off through the snow and around the back of the house. Turning his back on the Pelham residence he accelerated, heading back to the Rig and a place to have a very long hard think about many things.

Things that, if mishandled, could be far worse than a mere Parahuman super-villain…

Danny met his wife's eyes and smiled a little. "I suspect things will be interesting soon," he commented, handing her the bowl of ice cream.

"Most likely," she murmured, while watching as Taylor and Amy, heads bent over the table and crayons in their hands, carefully drew on the paper in front of them. "Not like that, dear," she added more loudly, putting her hand on Amy's back for a moment and causing the girl to look up quizzically at her. Gently taking the crayon from her hand, Annette leaned down and corrected one small section of the complex symbols surrounding the circle on the paper in front of her daughter. "Like this, see? A small curve here, then the line here and here."

"Oh, I see, mom," Amy replied, watching intently. As Annette finished the symbol it glowed a pale green for a moment. "Cool."

"Is this right, Mom?" Taylor asked from the other side of the table, holding up her own paper.

Annette looked at it, then sighed. "Are you trying to summon a lizard, dear?" she asked patiently. Taylor turned the paper to face her and cocked her head to the side as she inspected it.

"Maybe?" she hazarded.

"That's a little more advanced than we're going for, Taylor," her mother said, coming around to that side and taking the paper from her. She studied it for a moment, then put it down and smoothed it out, various pastel colors glowing as she ran her hand over it. "Perhaps next year. For now, let's just change this part a little, like this, so we get something a little less… confusing." She made a couple of small alterations to the symbols, waving away the puff of smoke that rose when she did, then handed her daughter the crayon again. On the other side of the table Amy stuck her tongue out at Taylor, who crossed her eyes at her sister, before both of them giggled.

"I wish Emma and Vicky were here," Taylor sighed, digging through the pile of crayons in the middle of the table, eventually finding a blue one, which she started using. More symbols glowed as she copied them from the book in front of her.

"We can do this again when they come next, don't worry, Taylor," her mother assured her. "Both of them had family things to do. But you'll see them again soon."

A loud pop made everyone turn to look at Amy, who peeped "eek!" and ducked as a small flying creature swooped over her head, then landed on top of the fridge. It stared back with huge green eyes. As the cloud of purple smoke that had erupted from Amy's circle dissipated, Annette sighed very quietly.

"You used an orange crayon for that last symbol didn't you, Amy?" she asked calmly.

"Um… I think so," the small girl said, ducking again as the thing leaped off the fridge, swept just over her hair, grabbed an apple from the bowl on the side counter, then vanished out the door and up the stairs.

"I'm fairly sure you did, as that's generally how you get flying monkeys," Annette commented with a glance at her husband who was snickering to himself and eating his own ice cream. "Stop laughing and catch it before it breaks something," she said sternly.

The loud crash from upstairs made her put her hand over her eyes, and caused her husband to guffaw. "Too late," Taylor said, grinning. Amy was looking an odd mix of embarrassed and proud. "Come on, let's help Dad," she added, jumping up and dashing out the door with her sister on her heels. Danny followed more slowly, still chortling under his breath.

Annette sat at the table and sighed once more, very fondly, before picking up her spoon and dipping it into the ice cream. As chaos reigned around her, she ate calmly while leafing through the book Amy had been using as a reference, feeling that life was on the whole going very well despite the occasional minor upset.