AN: Still writing.


I opened the door to the Wards' break room and was greeted by the sound of some kind of weapons fire. I flinched back instinctively, then relaxed when I realized that the man in the imperial stormtrooper armor was facing away from me. I suppressed a sigh and walked through the door. Some of my teammates really shouldn't be left without adult supervision.

The room was bigger than the student rec room at Winslow High, and the furniture was obviously newer and better cared for, but the similarities were there. The couch and love seat done up in a bland institutional grey, clustered around a coffee table that housed several boxes of board games that, as far as I knew, had never been opened. The carpet and the upholstery had all
been chosen with durability rather than comfort in mind, the better to stand up to the rigors of use by teenaged superheroes.

The TV was noticeably nicer than the one back at Winslow, and my understanding was that the games systems hooked up to it were state of the art. The real departure came in the large open area in the back of the room that was usually used for informal power testing and experimentation. Right now it was set up as a sort of makeshift firing range.

I resolved not to get involved in whatever idiocy was currently going on and headed for the attached kitchenette area to grab a can of coke. I wouldn't say free snacks were the main reason I became a Ward-immunity from liability for property damages had probably topped the list-but they didn't hurt.

When I came back into the room the firing had stopped. Dennis was standing down range examining a target, the charred circle in the center testifying to a perfect shot. Sticking to my resolution not to get involved, I settled down on the couch and started flipping through the pile of magazines on the coffee table.

"I can't believe it. Three times, now," Dennis said. When I looked up he was ruefully shaking his head.

"I told you, kid, you're no good to the Emperor if you can't shoot."

It was hard to tell through the muffling effect of the helmet, but I thought I could hear a long-suffering sigh punctuate the end of that statement as the stormtrooper set his blaster down on the end table. When you hang around Dennis you hear a lot of that particular tone of voice.

"I don't know why you're so surprised. Obi-wan did say that they were known to be precise shots."

That last comment was contributed by Jared, the latest addition to our team. Known as Showtime when he was out and about in costume, he didn't exactly look the part of a classic superhero with his round, friendly face and messy blonde hair. Still, once he had developed some control over his ability to manifest projections based on movie characters he had proven to be a valuable member of the Wards.

There was a limit to the power of his creations-as confirmed by a very dissapointing showing of Bruce Almighty-but the ability to produce an expendable support team was still quite valuable. Plus, when he joined the team the PRT had added a top of the line home theater system to the Wards' base of operations, which certainly didn't hurt his standing with the rest of us.

"One time! Then they spend the rest of the movie missing everything they shoot at," Dennis said, reaching into his pocket and handing over what looked like a five dollar bill. "Stupid informed abilities-oh, hi Taylor."

"Hey," I said, abandoning the magazines. "Isn't this kind of a frivolous use of your powers?"

The joking expression dropped from Jared's face as he turned to face me, crossing his arms over his chest and fixing me with a serious look.

"Some questions have plagued man since the dawn of time. If I can use my ability to answer those questions, how could I refuse to do so?"

Then he grinned at me. "Besides, if winning money off of Dennis is wrong, I don't want to be right."

"Gah! I just don't understand it," Dennis said, throwing his hands in the air in frustration before turning to address the stormtrooper again. "Is it the Jedi thing? Like, it's hard to hit somebody who's strong in the force?"

There was a skeptical snort that echoed oddly in the man's helmet.

"Don't buy into the hype, kid. It's nice to think that some 'force' will protect you, but if you're really being shot at what you need is a blaster of your own by your side so you can shoot back."

Something about the way he said it tickled at the back of my mind.

"Say, what scene did you grab this guy from again?"

Jared looked at me, and I saw a flicker of panic in his eyes before he started glacing rapidly around the room. After a moment he seemed to force himself to relax and adopt a casual posture.

"Oh, I don't remember exactly," he said, waving his hand aimlessly and causing the stormtrooper to disappear in a puff of buttery scented smoke. "Sitting in the theater with the big screen, high definition, surround sound, and the unedited original theatrical cut... I was mostly just lost in the movie, you know."

"Wait, you-" it was amazing, the way you could see the moment Dennis latched on to the distraction. "The original cut? How did you get that?"

"Beats me," Jared said, turning the relieved slump in his shoulders into a shrug. "Armsmaster says they treat my movies the same way they treat requests for Tinker materials. I ask for it, some thinker takes a look at it, then it shows up. I can call it up for you before I head out on patrol if you want to take a look."

"I... will have to take you up on that some other time," Dennis said, sighing. "We have to go to that stupid fundraiser in like an hour."

"Oh, I heard about that. I'm glad they're letting me out of it because of my schedule conflict," Jared said, before giving Dennis a half-serious glare. "Funny how you didn't mention PR crap like that when you were recruiting me."

Dennis's face flushed slightly at being put on the spot. "Hey, everything I told you about joining the Wards was true... from a certain point of view."

That got a laugh.

"Fair enough," Jared said, waving his hand dismissively. "By the way, I've been meaning to tell you, when you came by on that recruiting visit you really made a positive impression on my sister. I've been instructed to tell you that I can give you her number... you know, if you're interested."

It may have been a little uncharitable of me to think this was Dennis's first time facing this kind of situation, but his reaction confirmed it. His whole body gave a sort of jolt of surprise. When he settled down he immediately started scratching the back of his head nervously.

"I'm flattered, but I'm not really on the market right now, so..."

"Right. Your girlfriend." Jared's tone was flat, and the smile was off his face.

"Yeah," Dennis said, sheepishly.

"The one that never hangs out with us. That nobody else has even met."

"Yeah," Dennis repeated, shrugging helplessly. "Look, she's just kind of... shy."

I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of anybody describing Lisa as shy. Both of them turned to look at me, making me feel guilty for making light of the situation. I cast around for a reasonable change of subject.

"Ah... don't you need to go start up a movie to get ready to patrol?"

"Nah," Jared said, the grin returning to his face, "I actually got ready ahead of time."

He gestured vaguely at the couch, and the top layer of it suddenly acquired a metallic sheen and started to flow together. It first formed into a humanoid shape, then fleshed out into a perfect duplicate of me.

I was spurred into action by my well-honed reflexes.


I did a full front somersault off of the couch, chucking the can of soda at my doppelganger in reflex. The can crashed through the thing, leaving a shiny silver hole in the middle of its chest. It wasn't long before the material it was made out of flowed back together, leaving no sign of damage.

The whole time it simply regarded me with a curious expression.

I was hopping mad by the time I righted myself.

"Are you crazy? You can't go on patrol with a bad guy!"

"It's perfect, though. Decent Brute and Mover ratings, and best of all: no obvious copyright infringement," Jared replied. "Besides, it's not really evil. Just really focused on its mission."

"Fine," I said. I hated to give up so easily, but I had learned that if I got upset every time the Wards did something stupid it didn't really change anything except to make me upset all the time. "Do me a favor, though: if you rescue any kids tonight, don't ask for their names?"

"Sure," Jared said, before the smile fell off his face when he turned to face Dennis. "You know, if you're not into my sister, that's fine. Making up a lie like that... I thought we were friends."

He turned and left, trailed by his bodyguard for the evening. It helped my peace of mind when it morphed into the shape of an anonymous PRT officer as it walked out the door. Worst case scenario, at least nobody would think that I had killed some poor unlucky John Connor.

"You know, you could have said something," Dennis said. He sounded a little upset.

"You're right, I could have," I replied. "I could have explained exactly why you don't want your girlfriend meeting all of the Wards out in their civilian clothes. Does that sound like a good idea?"

Dennis just groaned and fell back onto the couch, punching a pillow in frustration. I felt some sympathy for him, but not that much.

"Face it, this is what you get for dating a villain."

"Hey, you shouldn't be so smug," Dennis shot back, sitting up straight. "Not with your thing with Grue."

"My thing? What thing?" I asked, waving my arms in denial. "There is no 'thing.'"

Dennis smirked, sensing that he had the upper hand at the moment.

"Come on," he said. "You guys disappear into a cloud of darkness, then ten minutes later you're all flustered and he's nowhere to be seen."

"He caught me by surprise!"

"Maybe the first time, at the bank," Dennis said, before crossing his arms and giving me a skeptical look. "But what about last week, that jewelry store robbery?"

"I didn't think he would try the same thing twice in a row!" I protested.

"What exactly is the appeal... you know what, I don't want to know," Dennis said, sighing in frustration. "I just don't see what the big deal is with Grue. Have you looked at his forum on Parahumans Online? Half of it is marriage proposals, and the other half is blocked by the PRT content filter."

"What?" I asked sharply, before clearing my throat and settling down. "I don't know what they see in the big jerk. Maybe if he hooked up with one of those skanks he'd stop assaulting me."

Dennis started to say something, but he was interrupted when a shadowy figure walked through the front door.

"What's up, dorks. You guys talking about Grue?"

Shadow Stalker was something of an enigma to me. I had never seen her out of costume, even deep in our base. She didn't really hang out with the rest of us much. I was a little disappointed-Vista still wasn't talking to me, and it would have been nice to have a chance to bond with the other girl on the team.

Dennis looked faintly insulted by her greeting, but nodded in confirmation.

"Yeah, I'd hit that," she replied, nodding decisively. "Good work, rook."

She sat down next to me on the couch, holding out a fist in my direction. I looked down, a little uncertain how to respond. It was Dennis who managed to put my confusion into words.

"Isn't he, like, your archnemesis or something?" He asked.

"Hey, I've got eyes," Shadow Stalker replied. "There aren't a lot of villains with the balls to wear leather pants out in public and the ass to pull it off."

She wiggled her fist insistently. I sighed before making a fist of my own and giving hers a bump. Whatever else you might say about Grue, he did have a nice butt.

"I'm not saying I like the guy," Shadow Stalker continued. "But he definitely heads the list of people I would hate fuck the shit out of."

"What?" I squeaked, flinching back. "There's none of... that... going on. Hate or otherwise."

"Sure, you guys disappear into total privacy and just braid each other's hair or whatever," Shadow Stalker said. I couldn't see it under her mask, but I was pretty sure she was rolling her eyes. "That makes sense."

Dennis interrupted before I could respond.

"Hold on, back up. You have a list?"

"It's not written or anything. Let's see," Shadow Stalker said, starting to count off on her fingers. "Grue's number one for sure, then probably Glory Girl. Every time I see her I want to punch that smug smile off her face... but I also kind of want to make out with her, you know?"

"Go on...ouch!" Dennis fell back as I pegged him with one of the couch pillows. Shadow Stalker went intangible to give me a clear shot, either because she didn't approve of Dennis's comment or because she just liked to see him get nailed in the face with a pillow.

"Settle down, pervert," I said, before addressing Shadow Stalker. "I don't think it's really appropriate to talk about our fellow heroes that way."

"Fine, fine, villains only then," Shadow Stalker said, then clucked her tongue. "Man, the talent really drops off after Grue, now that I think about it. Regent's not really my type, the Nazi thing is kind of a deal-breaker for the Empire guys, and I wouldn't touch Skidmark with Piggy's dick."

The three of us shuddered at the thought of anybody being intimate with Skidmark.

"So I guess it's Grue or nobody, if he hasn't settled down with the rookie," she concluded. I didn't dignify that remark with a response, so she decided to needle Dennis. "What about you, which villain has caught your eye?"

"What?" Dennis asked, his voice going up an octave as he brought his hands up in a defensive posture. "I'm not-no, none of them. Who said I was into any villains? That would be wrong. And a lie."

"Ok, whatever, freak," Shadow Stalker said. She stretched out, then reached down behind the soda cushion to dig out the can that I had thrown earlier. She looked at it contemplatively for a moment, and I wondered if I should warn her that it had been shaken up.

"You know, you can take off your mask in this part of the base," Dennis said, apparently not sharing my sense of scruples.

"Nah, I'm good," Shadow Stalker said, waving him off. She tossed the can of soda up in the air, then puffed into her shadow state. The can fell into the middle of her intangible form before she switched back. The transition sent the can flying forward right into her outstretched palm.

She saw me looking at her curiously and turned the can so that I could see into it when she cracked it open, showing that it was completely empty.

"When I switch back my body absorbs the liquid and expels the solid. Gets the caffeine into my bloodstream a lot quicker," she explained. "Pretty cool, right?"

"That doesn't seem safe," Dennis said.

"Hey, remember that time I asked for your approval before I did something?" Shadow Stalker asked.

Dennis shook his head.

"Yeah, me neither."

She ripped off a vigorous belch just before turning intangible once more. I felt a slight breeze moving from me towards her, which suggested that she had done something to direct the air in Dennis's direction. That was confirmed when Dennis wrinkled his nose in disgust while the shadowy figure stood and tossed a little ball of shadows towards the back wall.

A tinkling noise confirmed that the can had phased back into normal space in time to land in the recycling bin in our kitchenette. Shadow Stalker turned to face us, returning to tangibility with one hand cocked on her hip.

"You're disgusting," Dennis said.

"And yet you're still going to be thinking about me when you're spending time with your 'girlfriend' tonight," she replied, making an unmistakeable pumping gesture with her right hand. "The video server stops locking out the good stuff once Showoff is off the base, so I know how I'm spending my evening. Have fun at the fundraiser."

She turned to leave, then turned back to face me.

"I almost forgot. If you wind up decking one of those rich pricks, just say they grabbed your ass first. You'll get four weeks of shit duty, but they'll stop making you do any PR bullshit."

She gave me a thumbs up before turning and phasing through the door.

Dennis and I sat in silence for a minute. Finally, I just had to ask.

"Is she always so..." I trailed off, not quite sure how to finish that sentence.

"Yeah. You get used to it," Dennis said, then shook his head. "No, actually, that's not true."

There didn't seem to be much else to say on that topic. Which was fine, because I had something else I wanted to talk with Dennis about.

"Look, I wanted to talk to you about Lisa, seriously," I said. He looked at me with mild alarm, but I pressed on. "You realize you're going to have to break things off at some point if she doesn't turn herself in, right?"

"You think so?" Dennis asked.

"Of course," I said, nodding decisively. "You can't just keep dating a supervillain indefinitely."

"I think 'supervillain' is kind of a strong word," he protested.

"Does she or does she not commit crimes in a spandex outfit using powers not available to normal people?"

"Fine, fine." Dennis slumped down in defeat, and I gave him a conciliatory pat on the shoulder.

"It's only natural to give an attractive person a pass," I said. "It's hard to break up with somebody when they're better looking than anybody else you're ever going to date."

Dennis sighed, but didn't say anything.

"Way better looking," I continued, before pointing at him for emphasis. "But being attractive isn't a free pass to commit crimes."

"The Undersiders never really hurt anybody, though," he said.

"Dennis," I said, shaking my head. "This is how it starts. Today you're making excuses, in a month you'll be a warlord ruling the city's underworld with an iron fist."

"I..." Dennis trailed off, but suddenly seemed to regain his confidence. "This is from Armsmaster's stupid pamphlet, isn't it?"

"I thought he made some good points," I said, a little upset to have the Wards' Relationship Manual dismissed out of hand like that. Sure, it was a little unusual to have a negative dating scenario described in such detail, but I thought it was nice of Armsmaster to really humanize the problems that could result from casting your lot in with villains.

"Come on, do you really see me as some kind of big bad?" Dennis asked.

"Maybe not," I allowed, "still, I would hate for you to be any kind of villain."

"Yeah, I bet-"

"I mean, when villains fight each other, it's for keeps," I continued. "I know Lisa would do her best to keep you safe, but I would worry."

"Thanks," Dennis said, slumping back down. I gave him a minute to think things over. I was pretty sure that he would see that I was right, but my confidence took a hit when he seemed to regain his second wind.

"I understand that you're worried about me. I do," Dennis said, sitting up and looking me in the eye. "But when you care about someone, you can't just flip a switch and turn it off like a light bulb or something. That doesn't mean I'm about to go out and start robbing banks."

"I talk to Lisa about this kind of stuff too, you know," he continued. "I hope she'll come around. If she doesn't... I guess you'll just have to trust my judgment."

What could I say to that?


Another silence fell over the room, but this time it felt companionable rather than awkward. Glancing over, I noticed that the blaster had remained behind when Jared dismissed the stormtrooper earlier.

"Say, you think that thing works when Jared's not around?"


The PRT provided one of its personnel carriers to take us to the fundraiser. It was actually pretty roomy with just the five of us. Dennis and I sat next to each other on a bench that would usually be crammed with seven or eight PRT officers. Assault was casually lounging on the bench across from us. Battery had initially sat next to him with her usual sort of severely proper posture, but as the trip went on she had gradually maneuvered-or been maneuvered-to lean casually against Assault's side.

Armsmaster stood at the front of the passenger space. He had brought a lectern with him that used some kind of tinker-build technology to stay in place as we passed through the streets of Brockton Bay. He was fiddling with his halberd, a sight that filled me with a vague sense of unease. That unease came into focus when he slotted the halberd into the lectern and the weapon came to life, projecting a test pattern on the wall behind him.

Armsmaster rapped on the lectern to get our attention.

"What's all this about, boss man?" Assault asked, casually stretching his arms out and somehow deepening his slouch. "Shadow Stalker isn't here, and everybody else knows not to take a swing at any of the VIPs."

Armsmaster didn't dignify Assault's comment with a response, instead tapping on his halberd. A very familiar set of photographs filled the screen behind him.

"I have reason to believe that tonight's event will be attacked by the criminal group known as the Undersiders."

"You finally managed to get a tracker on those guys?" Assault whistled in appreciation. "Nice work, boss."

"I don't think it's appropriate to discuss the source of the information," Armsmaster replied.

"Come on, how likely is it that he suddenly managed to get an electronic bug in place after all this time," Battery commented. "It's probably a mole. Is it Grue? I think it's Grue."

"Again, I don't-" Armsmaster began, before Dennis interrupted.

"What is it with Grue? Everybody online thinks he has this secret heart of gold."

"They think-oh, in the parts you kids can access," Assault said, chuckling. "You ever want an education, kid, try googling for Fifty Shades of Grue."

That earned him a slap on the back of the head from Battery. He rubbed at the sore spot while he continued.

"Really though, if there's a mole it's probably Browbeat. A new guy joins the team, and suddenly we start getting inside tips? Put two and two together," he said, shaking his head. "Besides, it's kind of silly to think he's going to turn over a new leaf just because he's sweet on Taylor. That kind of storybook ending doesn't happen in real life."

For some reason, that earned him a glare from Battery, and Assault brought up his hands in a warding motion.

"I mean, that only happens when the girl is something pretty special."

"What, exactly," I said, crossing my arms and fixing him with a glare, "is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, you see..." Assault said, before turning to Armsmaster. "Boss, didn't you want to brief us on the plan for tonight?"

"Hmm?" Armsmaster asked, looking up from some tinker device that he was fiddling with. "Oh, I was just recording this for the next time somebody asks why I don't tell you things."

I wouldn't have thought somebody with Assault's build-not to mention his costume-could pull off such a compelling display of puppy dog eyes. Despite myself, I was impressed.

"Fine," Armsmaster said, putting the device away. "There's not much to say, really. If the Undersiders show up, stay back and follow my lead. I've prepared countermeasures against their usual tactics. Just don't do anything foolish."

He looked over at me as he made that last remark, which I didn't think was fair. Anybody can get unlucky. Just because my bad luck seemed to cluster around the Undersiders wasn't any reason to start casting aspersions on my decisionmaking.


The fundraiser was a pretty typical meet and greet kind of event. Brockton Bay's movers and shakers donated money to various worthy causes in exchange for the chance to rub shoulders with their parahuman protectors. I was happy to see that this particular event had a decent contingent of kids my age. I was less happy when I recognized the distinctive red hair of my former best friend. I was distinctly unhappy when I discovered that out of all of the seats at all of the round tables dotting the auditorium my name tag had wound up on the one next to hers.

Emma might not be bothering me much at school these days, but that didn't mean that I really wanted to spend an evening hanging out with her.

Emma didn't seem to pick up on my reticence, instead launching into a stream of chatter almost as soon as I sat down. I guess if I didn't know her it would have been charming to hear about how everybody at Winslow thought the Wards were the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even flattering.

As it was, it was all I could do do muster up an affirmative grunt at the right places in the conversation. Unfortunately, I didn't think Shadow Stalker's advice about dealing with VIPs was going to work here.

I looked up from my salad when Emma's voice took on a distinctly conspiratorial tone.

"So," she asked, leaning forward slightly, "what's Grue like in person? My friend Madison was in that bank the Undersiders robbed and she says the photos don't even do him justice."

"She better stay away from him!" I said, before I was distracted by a soft squealing sound. Looking down, I saw that I had mangled the salad fork. I set it down as discreetly as I could and cleared my throat before continuing in a normal tone of voice. "Villains are dangerous, no matter what you might think of their appearance."

"So, is it true, you know..."

Emma trailed off, and we just stared at each other for a few seconds. I had never been so happy to have a giant dog jump in through a skylight.

Say one thing about the Undersiders, they knew how to make an entrance. The three dogs came crashing in one after the other, forming a neat line up on the stage at the front of the room. Grue hopped off of the first dog and strode to the front of the stage.

"All right, everybody, this is a good old-fashioned robbery," he called out, his powers adding a strange reverberation to his voice. "Just cooperate and don't try to be a hero and nobody gets hurt. We'll be out of your hair in fifteen minutes if everything goes to plan."

Plans. Grue had his plan. Armsmaster had a plan. I always used to be a big planner. All it ever got me was stuffed in a locker. Ever since that day, I stopped trying to make plans and started trusting my instincts.

It was with that thought in mind that I leapt up on our table and started bounding towards the stage. I had made it across two tables-halfway to my destination-when my left leg suddenly buckled, sending me falling forward. I turned it into a handspring, grabbing a pair of butter knives on my way.

Before heading for the next table, I sent the knives spinning forward. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the blunt ends of each hit their targets: one hit Regent on the forehead, stunning him for a moment to keep him from repeating his little trick, while the other caught Hellhound in the throat, stopping her from signaling her dogs.

A wave of darkness started billowing out from Grue and suddenly I was in the middle of it, up on the stage. I smiled and closed my eyes.

Experience had taught me that Grue's darkness didn't just block out sight and muffle sound. It also muffled active use of my power-my ability to grow and improve as the fight went on. However, it didn't stop the use of any skills that I had developed before entering the darkness. The last two weeks I spent in the PRT sub-basement with cotton stuffed in my ears was about to pay off.

Grue tried to side step, but I honed in on his new location and charged towards him. He lashed out at me, but I ducked under the punch before springing up towards him. I caught him across the throat with my forearm and kept driving him back until he hit something solid.

I felt a breeze ruffle my hair as I stepped in close to deny him any leverage that he could use to break free. I couldn't keep the smirk off my face at the easy victory.

"Finally, I have you right where I want you."

Somewhat to my surprise, Grue didn't have a snappy comeback. Even more to my surprise, I heard the sound of somebody clearing their throat. That shouldn't have been possible... I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach even before I opened my eyes and confirmed that the darkness was gone. Looking back at the auditorium I saw that Armsmaster had some kind of tinker device that he must have used to neutralize Grue's power. Also, everybody in the room was staring at the two of us.

"And it sounded so noble when he volunteered to keep Firefly distracted."

The comment came from Regent. I glared at him, briefly wishing that I hadn't used the blunt end of the knife to distract him earlier.

Thankfully, Armsmaster spoke up before things could degenerate even further.

"Give it up, Undersiders," he announced. "This was over the moment you entered the room."

Surprisingly, the response didn't come from Regent or from Tattletale. Instead, the newest member of the Undersiders stepped forwards, cracking his knuckles before he spoke.

"It's over when I say it's over."


The mood in the personnel carrier was rather more somber on the way back to base than it had been on the way out.

"Well," Assault said, wincing as he tried to find a comfortable seating position, "on the one hand, that was pretty embarassing. But on the other hand, it's pretty neat that we got to see that kind of badassery first hand. I really think that Browbeat kid is going places. He reminds me of mmmmm...adcap, that guy had style."

"The Birdcage escape guy?" I asked, frowning as I searched my memory. "I always thought he kind of wasted the potential of his abilities. Not to mention the whole '90s costume design thing."

"It's kind of scary how much trivia you know about those old-timey capes," Dennis said. "Seriously, though, is Armsmaster going to be ok?"

Assault seemed to be at a loss for words, which was a first in my experience. Battery patted him on the hand before she sat up to answer Dennis's question.

"He'll be fine," she said. "Once they get the halberd out Panacea will fix him up right as rain."

"Unfortunately she can't do anything about the metaphorical stick shoved up-hey," Assault said, "I'm convalescing."

"If you're feeling well enough to refuse a trip to the hospital," Battery said, "you're feeling well enough to at least try to be a good influence on the Wards."

"Yeah, yeah," Assault said, before he turned to me. "You know, as impressive as that kid was, I do kind of wonder what would have happened if Taylor here had been able to pry herself off of Grue."

"I was keeping him restrained!"

"Hmm," Assault said, scratching his chin. "So how'd he get away?"

I looked down, unable to control the blush rising in my cheeks.

"I don't want to talk about it."

Battery stood up from her spot on the bench and walked across the aisle to sit down next to me. She threw her arm over my shoulder and gave me a comforting pat.

"It's ok, Taylor," she said. "It's perfectly natural to want to go easy on somebody who you find attractive. But what you have to understand is that being good-looking isn't a free pass to live a life of crime..."

I groaned and leaned back to bang my head against the side of the truck, closing my eyes for a moment and letting Battery's words wash over me.

It would have been nice if Dennis could have at least refrained from openly gloating after we got back to headquarters.