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A Darker Path [Worm Fanfic]

That's a very long way of saying, "Yes, I agree with you. I knew what I was doing, knew it wasn't ideal, and chose to do it anyway." I never once asked you to change your story. I simply told you that I didn't like that part of it and why, which is part of the function of forum pages like this one.

But I think that trying to blame readers for it is in poor taste. If a reader tells you to put XYZ into your story and you don't agree, I imagine you, like most if not all authors, can, will, and do ignore them or tell them to get stuffed. Like you did here to me because you thought I was telling you to change something, which, again, I wasn't. Just because readers post something is not a reason to include it, and as it's your story, completely under your control, pointing at them and saying "It's their fault" when someone complains is cheesy. You're the author. You decide what does and doesn't go into your story, as you so vehemently pointed out in this very post, and therefore YOU are the one responsible, not the readers. You can (and should) credit them when someone likes something you included, but blaming them when someone doesn't is not how it works. Yet twice on this topic alone that's precisely what you did.

That's all I have to say on this topic, because as someone said it's getting repetitive.
Your post came across as though you were accusing me of literally making up those thread-posts on my own and having my own back-and-forth conversations using the various PHO readers as mouthpieces.

I wasn't blaming the readers for submitting those posts. I was crediting them with it.

They, the readers of this fic, enjoyed seeing their words canonised. I enjoyed giving them the chance to have that happen.

I never said anything about knowing how I've done something 'wrong' with this fic. Having such a long PHO segment was pushing the boundaries, but it's not actually wrong. Just because you, personally didn't enjoy it, and some others found it a little tedious, did not make it wrong.

This is a learning process; A Darker Path is the first fic I've done with semi-regular PHO segments, and I'm still working out what most people like and what they don't. I recognised that such a long segment wasn't to everyone's taste, and acknowledged this, but (and this is important) it wasn't wrong. This is a free story, that I'm writing for free and you're reading for free, so I can experiment and see what works better than other stuff, which also means that if I do something that some readers aren't thrilled about but others love, it doesn't mean it's wrong.

It's just different.

You not liking it doesn't make it wrong. It just means you don't like it.

That said, I will be reining in the PHO post lengths from now on, but because I want to. Not because it's wrong.

Got it? Got it.

A Darker Path is the first fic I've done with semi-regular PHO segments, and I'm still working out what most people like and what they don't.

To be honest, I've mostly quite enjoyed them. And this story. It's one of your best. It's only this one PHO segment that came across as tedious, and that's why I called it out as such. Feedback to you as the author. You even commented to similar effect in the chapter, and I was IN AGREEMENT. But whether you intended it or not, your responses did sound like you were saying "I only did it because readers told me to" and that's blame. I think we're mostly in agreement here, though.
To be honest, I've mostly quite enjoyed them. And this story. It's one of your best. It's only this one PHO segment that came across as tedious, and that's why I called it out as such. Feedback to you as the author. You even commented to similar effect in the chapter, and I was IN AGREEMENT. But whether you intended it or not, your responses did sound like you were saying "I only did it because readers told me to" and that's blame. I think we're mostly in agreement here, though.
Okay, we're in agreement.

Part Thirty-Seven: Plotting and Planning
A Darker Path

Part Thirty-Seven: Plotting and Planning

[A/N 1: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: This was originally part of a much larger post, so I split it in two. Expect the other half very soon.]

Relevant Sidestory (Spacebattles)

On a Private Jet, Flying East

Bastard Son

"What part of 'abduct someone' was not perfectly clear?"

This was the problem with talking to his people over the phone. Face to face, his Master ability served to cut the whole 'second thoughts' bullshit off at the pass. But when he was at a remove, he had to work with whatever hold it still had on his minions, without the option of reinforcing it as needed.

Fortunately, he'd already thought this problem through. The car they were driving had been rigged up by people he knew were damn well loyal to him. All these idiots had to do was carry out his damn instructions, and everything would be okay. For him, not for them.

"But women? Kids? That sort of thing gets you in real deep shit with the Feds, and Atropos is like to shoot us straight in the head if she catches us …"

The guy was wavering, though he was holding firm on that sticking point. Mooks had the weirdest hangups.

"Listen, it'll be a one-and-done." He breathed deeply, trying to sell the lie. "Nobody gets hurt. Think of them as insurance. Nobody's gonna start a firefight if there's kids in the car. The only thing you have to do, if Atropos stops you, is let me know that it's happened. That's it. After that, you can go ahead and surrender." And they would, too. Because for all their bravado, they believed Atropos' hype.

He knew better. Nobody was that good, except maybe his people. And of course, me.

The trick with any cape was to hit them where it hurt. Lacking current information on Atropos' friends and family (though he would find that out sooner or later) he'd decided to attack her reputation. She had reacted extremely violently to every attempt to bring drugs into Brockton Bay, but she'd spared innocents. So he would set up a catch-twenty-two for her.

The men who were driving into Brockton Bay only thought they were transporting drugs. They would follow his orders to abduct women and kids, on the understanding that the hostages would be released at the end of the journey. But the car had been rigged with explosives, and he held the remote trigger.

If Atropos interfered with his shipment in any way, the whole damn thing would blow. And once innocents were dead, it wouldn't matter how blameless she was in the matter, her rep would be forever tarnished. He had people online who would make sure of that.

It was how he always worked, striking at people from unexpected angles, then fading away as they tried to strike back. He'd never once failed to bring his enemy down in this way.

And if she was a Thinker, aware of the explosives and hostages ahead of time? It honestly didn't matter. If she held back in the understanding that there was no winning scenario for her, he'd have the only pipeline of drugs into a city starved of them. The news that she'd failed to keep drugs out of Brockton Bay would spread like wildfire, and her rep would take a hit of a totally different nature.

Either way, she'd lose and he'd win.

Checkmate, bitch.


To: TheRealPanacea
From: Atropos
Subject: Re: Can we talk?

Let's skip all the back and forth, and potential miscommunications. Pick a place where you're comfortable talking to me, be there at (say) ten tonight, and we'll chat.

Oh, and bring your friend. I definitely want to meet him.



Outside a Shopping Mall on I-95

Kayleen Hoskins, Housewife

Kayleen hummed to herself as she packed the groceries in the trunk of the car. She preferred to do the weekly shopping on a Friday afternoon; that way, the weekend was free and she didn't have the rush and bother on a Monday. Sean, at ten, liked to help her with the groceries and put the cart away after, while Bella and Marie fussed at each other in the back seat. Twin seven-year-olds could be a hassle at times, but at least they hadn't gotten in the habit of swapping their clothing around to fool her.

The roar of an engine alerted her, and she drew back alongside the car with Sean before she even looked around. The groceries didn't matter; if someone was driving recklessly, they needed to be out of the way.

It wasn't a young idiot driving stupidly, though. When the sedan screeched to a halt behind her car, the men who got out were middle-aged and carrying guns. Guns that were immediately pointed at her and Sean. What …?

"You two!" barked one of the men. "Get over here! Now!"

Kayleen's mind went blank. She'd never even considered that she might ever be kidnapped, but now it was happening. If it had just been her, she might've made a break for it, but Sean seemed to be even more frozen than she was, and one of the men had a gun pointed right at his head.

"Mommy …?" That was Bella, from inside the car. Both girls—she dared a quick sideways glance—were kneeling up on the back seat, staring out through the window.

No. They can't take them too. Terror for her daughters galvanised her lungs.

For the last few years, she'd instilled in them one thing they should always do. If a stranger approached them and tried to make them go somewhere, they should 'run to cop'. Find a security guard or a police officer or a superhero and run to him.

"Bella, Marie!" she screamed. "Run-to-cop! Run-to-cop!"

They could be as irritating as any other kid of that age, but this time they did as they were told. Bailing out of the car faster than she could've managed it, they bolted back toward the shopping mall, where the security guard stood outside the front doors. An overweight older man, he probably couldn't do much against the two gunmen, but he could protect her daughters and call 911.

"Yeah, nicely done," growled the one who had the pistol pointed at her. "Now you and the boy, get here now." He held up a bunch of heavy-duty zip-ties. "Nobody does anythin' stupid, nobody gets hurt. We're goin' for a car ride."

Stumbling forward with Sean at her side, all Kayleen could think of was, at least the girls are safe.


Hebert Household Basement


In the back of my brain, I mulled over Bastard Son's plans, working out the best way to bring them to a screeching halt. Killing him was the quickest and easiest way, as my power cheerfully pointed out, but of course it was also good to make an example. Ironic deaths were so very useful for that. They caught everyone's attention.

I had the electrical bits and pieces that I'd used to make the remote releases for Kaiser's katzbalger out on the bench again, and I'd warmed the soldering iron up. With the goggles snuggled down over my eyes, I whistled absently as I attached an alligator clip to the end of a three-foot piece of wire. It was already screwed into place, but I wanted the connection to be solid.

"So, what's this for?" asked Cherie. She was wearing an identical pair of goggles, watching my handiwork with interest.

"To be honest, I have no idea," I confessed. "But my power says I'm gonna need 'em, so I'm making 'em."

Cherie eyed the piece of wire, then the three near-identical ones I'd already put together, with a clip on each end. Beside them lay the two-way radio I'd used for the truck intercept on the highway, once upon a time. I'd done some work on it, too. "Well, far be it from me to question your power on anything. Even my power seems to consider it a bad idea to mess with you."

I grinned at her. "That's the general idea."

The basement door opened, and Dad came down a few steps. "Hey, kids. How's it going down here?"

Lifting the soldering iron away from my work, I turned toward him and flipped the dark lenses up. "Hi, Dad. We're doing fine. What's up?"

He gestured up toward the door and the kitchen beyond. "Whenever you're finished down here, dinner's nearly ready."

"Cool. We'll be done here in a minute." I flipped the lenses back down as he retreated up the stairs.

Cherie shook her head. "It's still totally weird to me that your dad cooks. And that he's good at it."

"Well, I take my turn too," I reminded her. "And you can too, if you want to. Just let us know what ingredients you need."

"I just might do that." Her tone was speculative. I knew this was because when she'd cooked for her father, he'd punished her for getting the slightest thing wrong.

Things were different here, I mused as I bent over the alligator clip again. She was learning that, but I still didn't want to rush her.

One thing at a time.


9:55 PM


I must be insane to be even considering this.

Dressed in her darkest hoodie and jeans, Amy skulked down the side-street, keeping a careful eye all around. She wasn't worried about being attacked; if even one tenth of the rumours about Atropos were true, she was the safest person in the city right now. Her concern lay with being spotted by someone who might recognise her and ask what Panacea was doing out and about at this time of night.

They might also be curious about the carefully wrapped bundle she was carrying, but that would only become a real problem when she was handed back to Carol and Mark. Carol would definitely want to know what it was, second only to where Amy thought she was going. And when she found out either one … Amy didn't really know how she was going to react, but 'well' did not appear on the list of possible options. Somewhere between 'angry' and 'apocalyptic' was her best guess.

Normally she wouldn't even have considered coming to this area of town without at least Vicky in attendance, but she hadn't seen a fresh Merchants tag in days, and she'd heard that the drug rehab clinics were going well.

A police cruiser rolled through the intersection in front of her, and she froze until it was past. This was actually another good sign; prior to Atropos' debut, the police would never have come into this area without serious backup. The word about the stimulus payments had also gone out, and she suspected everyone was staying put and not doing anything that might get them arrested, for fear of missing out.

Crossing the intersection, she walked another half-block until she came to a small neighbourhood park. It was here that she'd done her first healing 'in the wild', as it were, of a gangbanger who'd been shot in the leg during a dustup with the ABB. She'd been so nervous that she totally forgot to ask his permission to heal him, or use any of the other bedside-manner phrases that she'd been trained in. Once he was healed, the young man had been taken away to be presumably charged and arraigned.

She'd never even asked his name.

Sticking to the clear areas of the path—she probably wouldn't get infected if she trod on a used needle, but getting a sharp bit of metal in her foot would hurt like hell anyway—she reached the circular bench in the middle and sat down. The bundle in her arms, she set down on the bench beside her.

"Okay, then," she muttered, and pulled out her phone to send the message to Atropos saying where she was. "Time to do something that's probably really stupid." It wasn't that she thought so, not really, but Carol's views on the matter were clear to everyone in the household, and constant repetition had a way of colouring her opinions.

"Oh, I don't know." The warmly amused voice came from just behind her. "We've all done things that are way stupider than this."

Amy froze, then turned slowly. Atropos was seated a little way around the circle from her, just far enough to be out of her peripheral vision. Between the morph mask and the hat shading her face from the weak street-lighting, there was no way of even guessing her expression, but Amy would've bet her college fund that the remorseless killer was grinning broadly.

"You did that on purpose!" she accused Atropos. "Christ, are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"Yes, I did, and no, I'm not." The amusement had not left Atropos' tone. "If I was going to do something like that, I would've done it to Heartbreaker. Anyway, as I was saying, what you're doing right now proves you're smarter than literally every cape who's gone up against me so far."

"Yeah, like that's a high bar." Amy didn't care that Atropos knew she was still feeling somewhat aggrieved. "Pulling a jump-scare like that every time makes you feel like you've got power over everyone else, does it?"

Atropos appeared to consider that for a moment. "You have a point," she admitted. "I do it mainly because I can, and to remind even the most vigilant capes that I can in fact sneak up on them. But let's be serious here—"

She vanished from the bench between one word and the next. Amy looked around in surprise—New Wave had been briefed on the 'smoky doorway' Atropos had used to get away from Velocity and to leave New York, but she'd seen no such thing this time—as the dark figure strolled toward her along the path, still talking. The long-coat flared briefly in the breeze.

"—you'd still consider an entrance like this to be needlessly dramatic, so I can't really win. In other words, yes, I'm doing this for fun, not to try to impress you or scare you." She reached the bench again and sat down beside Amy. "So, let's take it from the top. You want to talk to me and make sure that the things you're doing with your power aren't going to piss me off, and I just want to have a chat and see how you're doing. Does that sound about right?"

Amy blinked. "… yes?" Instead of denying her motives, Atropos had more or less admitted that Amy was correct. But then something she'd said caught Amy's attention. "Wait, you want to see how I'm doing? Aren't you supposed to be all gung-ho about Brockton Bay as a city, not any one person in particular? I mean, sure, I'm a healer, but even I can't put all that big a dent in the sick and injured population of Brockton Bay."

"Yes and no." Atropos leaned forward slightly. "I care about some people in Brockton Bay, but not many. The city is indeed my greater concern. However, you're capable of helping me effect change for the better, out of all proportion to your healing capability. Also, if your issues were allowed to continue to fester, you could absolutely cause problems I'd rather not have to deal with. Thus, this conversation."

The allusion to problems sent a chill down Amy's spine. She had a very good idea how Atropos dealt with 'problems', and those who caused them. "Um," she began.

"That wasn't a warning, by the way." Atropos's tone was light. "Just an observation, and an answer to your question. So, can I see what you've brought along?"

"Um. Okay." Amy was almost certain that Atropos already knew what it was, but this was the first time she'd shared it with anyone. Her throat was dry and her pulse almost audible in her ears as she picked up the bundle and carefully began to unwrap it. "Please just … benefit of the doubt, okay?"

"Totally." Atropos watched intently as the cloth came off.

The plant pot full of dirt hadn't been light, but she'd managed. Covering the top of it was an inverted bowl, which she took off last of all. There, revealed in the dim light afforded by the street lighting, was the tennis-ball sized fungus she'd created.

Then it started to wake up. Slowly, it uncurled from its somnolent position, revealing the oversized 'head' and the two arms; the bottom end of the 'torso' was firmly planted in the dirt. The large eyes blinked as it looked around, then it stretched mightily, its mouth gaping wide in a parody of a yawn. It couldn't talk (yet, as she was still working on the equivalent of lungs and vocal chords) but she'd decided that a non-working mouth was far less creepy than no mouth at all. It had a tiny button nose for the same reason.

"Okay, that's cuter than I expected," Atropos observed. "How—"

The mushroom baby (as Amy privately called it) reacted to Atropos' voice, turning and staring up at her, then immediately curling up into its sleep posture, arms wrapped around its head. A moment later, one arm shifted and it peeked out at her.

"Shh," Amy crooned, stroking its back with her fingertip. "Sh-sh-shhh. She's a friend. She's not going to hurt you … are you?" Raising her eyes to Atropos' face, she gave the other girl a challenging look that she would never have dared use on her own account.

"Nope. Not here to hurt anyone. In fact, I'm mightily impressed. He can see, hear and think." Atropos tilted her head to one side. "Or did you program all that in as autonomic responses?"

"… some of it, yes," Amy admitted. "He knows not to come out if he hears strangers around. But he can learn, too. And he understands nearly everything I say."

Slowly, the mushroom baby emerged again, and gave Atropos a tentative wave. Atropos returned it and the fungus creature smiled, staring up at her.

"So how did you fit all that in?" Atropos peered more closely at it. "That head can't be bigger than a ping-pong ball."

"I cheated," admitted Amy. "His brain isn't in his head. He's got an incredibly dense mycelium network underground, and I repurposed that as a neural network."

"Huh. And this guy's the only one you've got?"

"No, actually. I've got a terrarium in my room with a couple more. Also, a lizard I got from the pet store, for protective camouflage."

Atropos nodded. "So everyone looks at the lizard, and not at the fungus guys. Neat."

"That's the idea, yeah." Amy glanced down at the mushroom baby and saw that it was playing one of its little games, sorting bits of shell and gravel into patterns in the dirt in front of it. Raising her gaze to Atropos, she asked the question she knew she had to. "So, am I going to be in trouble if I keep doing this?"

"Not in the slightest." Atropos shook her head to emphasise the point. "Whose idea was it to make these? Yours or your power's?"

"My power's, I think." Amy thought back, trying to recall the exact sequence of events. "I already made the grass in the back yard go fluorescent for a few seconds, so then I found a mushroom and asked my power what it wanted to do with that. I think it's been having fun, and so have I. In between moments of abject terror about being caught out, of course."

"Don't be scared of me, without due cause." Atropos spoke firmly. "If you're doing something I don't like, I'll totally warn you. In the meantime, I want you to exercise your power. Do fun things. Do silly things. Stretch that muscle. And if you need to talk about anything, I'm willing to listen." Her tone became light-hearted. "Just be aware that if you're ever tempted to take over Brockton Bay as your own personal biokinetic fiefdom, I will be forced to take notice."

"Ha ha ha, nope." Amy shook her head. "Hard pass."

"Oh, good." Atropos' head came up. "Hm. It appears Bastard Son has moved up the timetable a little. I'm going to have to go."

"Oh, um, I'll be fine." Amy shrugged. "I got here okay, didn't I? Or is there something I can do to help?"

Atropos looked at her. "No, I can handle it, thanks. But Vicky's also going to knock on your door in about one minute to talk to you about moving on and rebranding once Brockton Bay gets too safe for all the heroes we've got."

"Shit!" Amy's eyes went wide, and the sense of impending doom that had been hovering over her all evening (to be fair, she usually had a sense of impending doom) slammed down around her. "I need to call her, so she doesn't tell Carol and Mark—!"

"Chill. I've got this." Atropos stood up and did something with her arm. Amy could've almost sworn, in the silence that hung around, that she heard tiny electronic beeps. Then a cover clicked shut, and Atropos gestured toward an empty spot next to Amy. Between one second and the next, a smoky doorway formed in mid-air. "Forty seconds. Go."

Hastily, Amy grabbed up the plant-pot, the bowl and the wrapping cloth. "What do I have to do?"

"Just step through. Thirty seconds."

"Thanks." The next words were ones she hadn't wanted to say, but they were true all the same. "I owe you one." Atropos could so easily have just let her face the music.

"I know. Twenty-five seconds."

Taking a deep breath—she knew damn well that if Atropos wanted to kill her, there were many other ways to do it, but it was still a huge leap of faith—Amy stepped through the portal. The dimly lit park vanished, to be replaced by the familiar surroundings of her room. Holy shit, it worked.

Hastily, she placed the pot next to the aquarium. "Go to sleep," she whispered. The mushroom baby obediently curled up, becoming an unremarkable fungus once more.

Next, she dragged off the hoodie over her head and hurled it at the laundry hamper in the corner of the room. Then the knock came on the door, just as she was toeing her sneakers off. "Ames? You awake?"

She hastily rolled into bed, trying not to make the mattress springs creak too much, ignoring the fact that she was still wearing her jeans. The t-shirt, at least, would pass as sleepwear. "Yeah," she replied as she pulled the covers into place. "What's up?"

Vicky opened the door and sidled in, then carefully closed it behind her so the latch didn't click. "Couldn't sleep. Wanted to talk. You know how I've been thinking about rebranding and moving on?"

"Kinda, yeah." Amy moved over and patted the edge of the bed. "What's Carol think about it?"

"She's not a fan right now, but I'm still working on that." With a sigh, Vicky sat down, the mattress creaking and settling under her. "It's going to have to happen. Once the supervillains left town, cape crime fell off a cliff, and non-cape crime was due to follow soon after. There's zero drug trade in town and Atropos will kill anyone who messes with the economic recovery, which means the cops will be free to deal with normal crime and the PRT will be keeping an eye on the rogues. It won't be long before we heroes will be going after jaywalkers, because there'll be literally nothing else for us to do. But I didn't come in here to talk about that."

Amy yawned. "Sorry. So, what did you want to talk about?"

"Names." Vicky gestured toward herself. "I can't be Glory Girl forever, and Glory Woman just sounds … no."

"No," Amy agreed. "Not Glory Woman." She thought for a moment. "How about just Glory?"

"Thought about it, but … not as bad as Glory Woman, but still too derivative." Vicky sounded pensive.

Amy snickered. "You still don't have it as bad as Kid Win. What's he going to be? Adult Win? Man Win? Go nudist and call himself Winning Streak?"

Vicky's back shook as she snorted with laughter. "No idea. But Dad said something the other day about me being a beacon of hope. Maybe Beacon?"

"'I lift my lamp beside the golden door'," quoted Amy. "Yeah, I like that name. It's a good one."

Vicky nodded. They were both familiar with the poem, considering how Vicky's tiara had been inspired by the Statue of Liberty. "Thanks. I like it too. I just didn't want to jump in and have everyone think it was too much on the nose."

"No, it's totally a good name," Amy assured her. "I like it."

"Good." Vicky stood up, the mattress rising back into place as her weight lifted off it. "Imma go to bed now. Thanks for listening."

"No problem. Night … Beacon."

"Night, awesome sister of mine."

Her door opened, then clicked shut again. Amy was alone in her room, but she waited a good minute before pulling the covers off and scooting out of bed to finish changing. There was no way she could risk a shower this late, so she instead repurposed her skin bacteria to process the sweat products on her skin.

Rolling back into bed, she sighed as she pulled the covers up. The talk with Atropos had been both less nerve-wracking and more productive than the one with Vicky. How did that work, anyway?

She said I'm fine. Smiling, she rolled over and wriggled down into a comfortable position.

With the weight lifted off her shoulders, sleep came easily for once.

End of Part Thirty-Seven
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The Elite really are a group that needs to be ripped up by the roots and burned out of existence, but that would require federal powers to actually see to their jobs instead of their own self interest. Bastard Son is especially odious, and is a prime example of being full on protected and condoned by the PRT and Protectorate.

I look forward to seeing him die. As I said before, Atropos' results aren't just cleaning up the Bay, they're shining a pretty unforgiving light on the PRT and Law Enforcement as a whole. Her actions are the sort of thing that sends shock waves across the entire noble class and their pet administrators.

The PRT and Feds in general are almost certainly running themselves ragged covering asses and controlling information to prevent the entirely right and proper response from the general populace.
This was a great chapter. It's very fun to see her and Amy interact. I am eager to see what you have waiting for us next chapter.
Wait, Panacea have Bowser and Toad in her basement now? Is she Peach then? Or is Vicky Peach? You sister is in another PRT building...

Also Bastard Son is quite confident for somebody that gonna die in a painful way lul.

Actually, are the Shards are gonna push the ones they deemed "boring" to Atropos, so they can be disposed of lol?
Part Thirty-Eight: Traffic Stop
A Darker Path

Part Thirty-Eight: Traffic Stop

[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

Kayleen Hoskins, Hostage

"Mom, I'm scared."

"Shut it, kid."

Kayleen looked around at Sean, sitting in the middle of the back seat with the man she'd mentally dubbed 'Kidnapper B' beside him. "It'll be okay," she said, desperately hoping she was telling the truth.

"Listen to your mom, kid," advised Kidnapper A, in the driver's seat. "We get to Brockton Bay and make the delivery, you're free and clear. We ain't gonna touch a hair on your fuckin' head."

Yeah, and what happens when the first cop gets suspicious? A gun to our heads, that's what. Kayleen wasn't stupid. She knew how this sort of thing played out in movies and TV shows.

But she knew the only chance she and Sean had of surviving was to do what they were told until she saw a chance for him to make a run for it. Right now, they had no chance at all; the kidnappers had zip-tied their hands in front of them after fastening their seatbelts, so they were literally attached to the car. But once they got out, their hands would be free and maybe there would be a chance then.

It was more than a little worrying that the kidnappers weren't bothering to cover their faces in any way. That sort of thing usually meant they weren't concerned about witnesses identifying them later. Which made it all the more imperative that she give Sean a chance to get away. He was a smart kid; he knew how to run, how to hide and how to find a cop. Her only worry was that he'd try to help her get away as well.

She would never forgive herself if she got away and he got killed.

"Shit!" Kidnapper A snapped, cutting into her reverie. "Cops! Coming up fast!"

"Just stay cool, man." Kidnapper B tried to sound smooth and confident, but Kayleen could hear the worry in his voice. "They're probably after someone else. We switched the plates, yeah?"

"Yeah, but that does jack and shit if they're just looking for a make and colour, dumbass."

In the next moment, the interior of the car was flooded with light. Kidnapper A swore and adjusted the rearview mirror so it wasn't throwing a concentrated beam of light into his eyes; Kayleen felt the car surge forward as he put his foot down.

In response, there was a chirp of siren from behind them, then a bullhorn-amplified voice bellowed, "DARK GREY FORD SEDAN, PULL OVER. NOW!"

"Keep driving!" There was strain in Kidnapper B's voice.

"Like I was going to do anything else!" Kidnapper A's knuckles were white on the wheel.

They were now hurtling down the road at speeds that put Kayleen's heart in her throat. Seatbelts or no seatbelts, if they crashed now, she and Sean were going to be seriously hurt or worse.

The light that filled the car cut off, but that was because the state trooper's car was now coming up alongside them. Blue and red bubblegum lights flashed and the siren blared at full strength, as much for intimidation value as for letting the public know it was there. And then a side-spot cut in, glaring in through the driver's side window, leaving Kayleen unable to see anything at all.

"Hold up your hands!" yelled Kidnapper A over the wail of the siren. "Let 'em see the cuffs! You too, junior!"

Squinting against the sun-bright spotlight, Kayleen did as she was told; hopefully, Sean was doing the same. At the same time, she felt the cold touch of metal as Kidnapper A put his pistol to her head. She desperately hoped that nothing would get in his way right then, because it was not a good time to have one hand off the wheel.

The state trooper must have seen the heavy zip-ties and the pistol, because the spotlight cut out and the car abruptly fell back. Kayleen tried to blink away the dancing blobs of colour that had invaded her vision, but it wasn't easy. The gun wasn't at her head anymore and they were still alive, so that was a good thing.

"Okay, so what now?" That was Kidnapper A, from the voice.

"We keep driving. That's what the boss said. They know we've got hostages, so they won't try anything cute."

"And what about Atropos? What if she shows up?"

"If Atropos shows up, we fucking pull over and surrender. Dipshit."

"Don't call me dipshit. Asshole."

"Shut up and drive. Is that cop still back there?"

Kayleen's vision was starting to return, and she saw Kidnapper A look up at the rearview mirror. "Yeah, he's still there. Hanging back about a hundred yards or so."

"Good. As soon as we hit the suburbs, we'll lose him."

"Uh …"


Kidnapper A pointed ahead through the windshield. Kayleen blinked the last of the dazzle from her eyes and stared ahead as well. Kidnapper B swore luridly.

Far ahead, though clearly illuminated by a lone street-light, a dark figure awaited them, standing in the middle of the road. A black long-coat flared dramatically in the breeze. Kayleen couldn't see a gun, but that didn't matter. She knew who it was.


"Hands off guns," Kidnapper A said, applying the brakes and changing gears to slow down. "We don't threaten the lady, we don't threaten the kid, we don't even try to threaten the scary fuckin' cape, and we might live through this."

"I'm letting the boss know." Kidnapper B had his phone out and dialling as he spoke. "Once we've done that, we can surrender."

"Yeah, you do that."


On a Private Jet, Still Flying East

Bastard Son

His phone chimed, and he smiled as he picked it up. "Yes?"

"Uh, sir, we nearly got to Brockton Bay, but Atropos is here. Just letting you know we're going to surrender."

"Understood." He cut the call, then dropped the burner phone into the foil bag at his side. He'd have that crushed as soon as he landed.

Taking up the remote detonator, he flipped the switch to arm it. Each and every one of the car's booby traps was now live; if they so much as opened the doors or even removed their seatbelts, it would send a signal to the two pounds of Semtex packed under the seat-cushions (and armed with pressure sensors). The car would become a fireball, spreading destruction far and wide, and innocents would absolutely die.

And even if Atropos figured out the trap and devised a way to disarm the explosives so that they could get out alive? He had a direct detonation signal, ready to send. Pressing the red button on his remote would send a signal to the other four pounds of high explosive, packed in and around the frame of the vehicle, entirely separate from the other bombs and impossible to get to without disassembling half the car. And even that wasn't all; if all else failed, there was now a timer ticking down. One way or another, Atropos was done.

The tiny screen built into the remote fuzzed then cleared, showing the view from the tiny fisheye lens built into the frame of the rear-view mirror. Settling back with his thumb resting lightly on the detonation button, he prepared to watch the show.


Kayleen Hoskins

The car slowed to a halt, about ten yards away from Atropos. She stepped forward, raising a bullhorn. In her other hand was a pistol, pointed at the vehicle. "EVERYONE STAY IN THE CAR," she warned them. "DO NOT UNFASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS. DO NOT OPEN YOUR DOORS. KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM."

"But we want to surrender!" shouted Kidnapper A, keeping his hands clearly in sight. "Just hand us over to the cops!"

"Not that easy, I'm afraid." Atropos let the bullhorn fall to hang by its sling from her shoulder as she walked up alongside the car. "Your boss left you a very final severance package. If you open your door or undo your seatbelt, you will die. If you try to do it, I will shoot you in the head." She broke off, turning to address the approaching state trooper with the bullhorn. "BACK OFF. THE CAR IS RIGGED TO BLOW. I'VE GOT THIS."

"Rigged to blow?" blurted Kayleen as the trooper backed off again. "You mean explosives?"

"That's the idea. But like I said, I've got this." Leaning down, Atropos surveyed the interior of the car, then shook her head slowly. "I have to say, he was damn thorough about it. There's enough explosives in this car to turn it into confetti."

"What the fuck?" demanded Kidnapper B. "Why would he do that?"

"Because he knew I'd intercept you," Atropos said patiently. "And the last four times people have just tried to bull-rush past me, I've killed them. But I've spared innocents. So, he's setting it up so I have to let you go or risk this lady and her son being killed. Or so he thinks."

"We weren't going to hurt them," Kidnapper A interjected nervously. "Just so you know that, right?"

Atropos nodded. "Oh, I know. That's why I'm not going to kill you, just hand you over to the cops." She turned to Kayleen. "Your girls are safe. Your husband showed up and took them and the car home. Now, if you do exactly as I say, you'll see them again in just a few hours."

A knot of tension eased in Kayleen's chest. "Okay. What do you want me to do?"

"Reach across and roll your window all the way down. Can you do that for me?"

"I think so." Kayleen did as she was told, and carefully rolled the window down. As she did so, she became aware of flashing lights approaching from ahead. "Uh, what's that?"

Atropos didn't even bother looking around. "That would be the PRT, right on time. They'll keep idiots from interfering."

"But … you're a villain!" protested Kidnapper B. "Won't they try to arrest you?"

"Nah. I've trained 'em well." Atropos walked around the front of the car and produced a large and very sharp-looking pair of shears. Kayleen wasn't sure, but she thought she recognised them from the online footage that had been released about Atropos. "Wrists, please."

Obediently, Kayleen held up her bound wrists. The shears slid in between the plastic and her skin, the sharp metal cold on her skin, and snipped once; the zip-tie fell away.

"Thank you." Kayleen massaged her wrists for a moment. "What do I do now?"



"One sec." I turned as one of the PRT troopers approached me. The rest were keeping their distance, setting up a perimeter. "Reave. How many favours did you have to burn to get lead on this case?"

He wasn't even surprised that I'd identified him by his PHO handle. "Not as many as you'd think. What've we got?"

I gestured at the car. "It's like I told you in the text. Bastard Son is trying to smuggle drugs into the city, so he got two of his expendable mooks here to grab hostages. But he's also had the car rigged to blow nine ways from Sunday as a massive fuck-you to yours truly. Six pounds of Semtex. With booby-traps, a remote detonator, and a timer on top of that, which is counting down right now."

"Shit." He didn't sound happy. "Is there enough time for the bomb squad to get here?"

"Not nearly. Besides, some of the explosives are built into the chassis. I'm just going to disarm enough of it to get them out, then let it blow in place." It was going to make a hole in the highway, I knew, but it wasn't my highway.

"Wait," he protested. "You said remote detonation. What if he sets it off while you're disarming it?"

I grinned under the mask. "Yeah, he's been trying to do that for the last minute or so."


Bastard Son

1 Minute Ago

The view at the outer edge of the fisheye lens was distorted, but it was possible to see that the woman had rolled down her window and was holding up her wrists. A moment later, a metal blade came into view—no, not a blade! A pair of shears! He sat up straight as the gleaming metal snipped through the heavy plastic tie. Atropos is right there! At the car!

All his intricate planning had come to this moment. Why bother destroying her reputation when he could kill her? Even as the triumphant thought crossed his mind, he jabbed his thumb down on the red button and kept it there.

Nothing happened immediately, but he knew that signal lag was a thing. The killswitch signal had to get from him to the car, then the visual signal had to get back. Leaning forward, he studied the tiny screen with mounting anticipation. Any second now, he'd see the camera image dissolve into snow.

Any ...

Second ...

Now ...

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" he exclaimed, staring at the screen and jabbing the button again. "Work, you sonovabitch! Work!"

But on the screen ... nothing happened.



"Jesus!" Reave took an involuntary step away from the car. "Then how come ..."

"We aren't dying in a fireball?" I reached into the pocket of my long-coat and showed him what had once been a radio. A red LED glowed balefully on top. "Signal jammer."

"Oh. So what can I do to help?" He didn't even seem to notice that he was deferring to me.

"Shut down this side of the highway, pull everyone back to a hundred-foot minimum perimeter." I gestured at the car. "And take these two idiots into custody once I make it safe for them to get out."

"Yeah, I can do that." He tilted his head. "You're not going to kill them?"

I shrugged. "They surrendered, so they get to live. Anyway, back to business." I leaned in and looked at the lady. "Mrs Hoskins, I want you to listen very carefully. I'm going to wedge my shears in between the door and the frame. Once I've done that, only when I say so, I want you to carefully open the door. Can you do that for me?"

She nodded cautiously. As intended, the repeated references to explosives ensured I had her close and personal attention. "When you tell me to open the door, I'll open it."

"Carefully," I reiterated.

"Carefully," she repeated.

"That's right." I knew that each door had contact points added to it that were now live since Bastard Son had activated them. In order to open the doors, I was going to have to bridge those points.

Sliding my shears in past the door seal, I wriggled them in until I felt them touching the contact points. "Okay, open the door. Carefully."

"Carefully," she echoed again. At any other time or place, either one of us might have been annoyed at the repetition, but right then it was the mantra keeping us alive. Carefully.

I felt the latch disengage, then the door began to edge open. I moved the shears to maintain the contact, then turned them as the gap gradually widened, then opened them. At all times, there was solid metal-on-metal contact between the shears, the door and the frame, maintaining the safety circuit.

"Stop," I ordered, bracing the door with my knee to back up the command. By now, the door was open about six inches; the shears didn't have much more play in them, but that didn't matter.

Kayleen did as she was told, her wide eyes staring up at me. "What? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Everything's going as planned." Holding the shears in place with one hand, I dipped into my pocket with the other. Back in the basement, I'd wondered why I was attaching alligator clips to wires, but now I wondered no more. It was the work of a moment to attach the clips to the contacts, bridging the gap much more securely. Taking the shears away, I opened the door wide enough to give me access to the side of the seat.

"Oh," she said, staring up at the connecting wire. "Do you always carry something like that with you?"

"Only when I need it." I knelt down inside the open door.

"Can I ... can I get out now?" She sounded almost childishly hopeful.

I shook my head. "Not yet. You're sitting on a pressure sensor, and the seat belt has a wire running through it. Cut either of those connections, and ... boom." I took the shears and sliced open the side of the seat, right where the almost-invisible repair line ran. "Now, let's see ..."

Diving my hand into the split in the cushion, I felt around until I found what I was looking for; the last part of the explosive device they'd installed. Specifically, the detonator. Pulling it free of the Semtex and the connecting wire, I eased it out from under the cushion.

"So it's disarmed?" asked Reave. Such was his faith in my ability to not fuck up that he was standing about two metres away. Or maybe he'd just been ordered to stick close to me.

"I wish." I walked away from the car and set the detonator down. "That's one of four. Three more to go."

I did the driver's side front seat next, fully aware of the timer still ticking down. It felt like it took me less time, though I knew it didn't. The guy in the front looked relieved when I removed the detonator, though less so when I reminded him that there were two more to go.

The kid in the back seat looked worried, so I made small talk to keep him calm while we were opening his door. He paid attention and followed instructions, which was all I could've asked of him.

Once I had the fourth and last detonator out, I made sure they were all in a row, far enough away from anyone that they wouldn't be a problem. "Mrs Hoskins!" I called out, stepping smartly back from them. "Kindly undo your seat belt!"

After a long moment of hesitation, no doubt recalling my repeated admonitions not to do just that, she pressed down on the release. The click of the latch coming free was drowned out by the spiteful crackcrackcrackcrack as the detonators went off all at once.

"Jesus!" blurted Reave. "What the hell?"

"Radio dets," I explained, largely unnecessarily. "The seatbelt buckles send out signals that set off all the detonators at once. Which was why the elaborate precautions. Okay, everyone. You can get out now. Reave, I'll leave you to deal with the nitty-gritty of arresting the ones who need arresting and so forth."

"Right." He gestured troopers forward to take care of that. "So it's safe now?"

"Hardly. There's still that timer I told you about. It's wired to set off a det built into the chassis, and it hasn't got long to go. Everyone needs to get back to the safety perimeter right now." I started toward the car.

"Wait, where are you going?" He followed me toward the car, even as he waved the others back.

"Something I've got to do. You get back."

He paused for a long moment, then muttered something about 'goddamn glory hounds' as he headed back toward the safety perimeter.

I knew I was about to piss him off some more, but I didn't care. He had innocents to take care of and criminals to hand over to the regular cops, so he should be happy with that. But he wasn't even the one I was truly interested in messing with.


Bastard Son

He was still staring with gritted teeth at the screen of the remote, vowing that he was going to find the moron who set the explosives and shove a radio detonator up his ass, when Atropos slid into the driver's seat of the car. Reflexively, he hit the red button again, but it didn't work any more than it had the other fifty times he'd pressed it. Lifting her chin, Atropos seemed to be staring directly into the hidden camera ... then she proved it by making the I'm watching you gesture, aimed directly at it.

Not that he was really paying attention to that. The only other readout on the remote was a digital timer, counting down. Now it was in the single-digit seconds. Go on, he silently urged her. Grandstand. Be a showoff. Try to prove you're smarter than me.

To his mounting glee, she made no move to get out of the car. When the timer hit five seconds, he knew she was doomed; even if she ran for it now, she'd be caught in the blast radius. 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

And then the image on the screen was replaced by hash, and he fist-pumped. "Fuckin' yes!"

Atropos was gone.

He'd won.

Nobody beats me.

Brockton Bay is mine.



I aimed the teleport to drop me in the shadow of the PRT van. Nobody saw me arrive; everyone was staring at the roiling fireball, as though expecting me to stride out of it. Which I supposed I could've prepped for, but that would've been too much hassle.

Besides, this way was funnier.

Strolling forward, I ended up behind Reave. One of his subordinates was apparently asking him something over the radio, because he was shaking his head and taking under his breath. "No, she's not dead," he insisted. "I'd bet a year's pay that she'll—"

"—show up again out of nowhere?" I suggested.

He spun around, as did everyone else there. Where they were staring dumbfounded, I got the impression he was glaring. "Did you have to do that?"

"Well, yes." I shrugged. "Bastard Son had a camera in that car. What do you think he's going to assume, with that footage?"

He paused for a long moment. "That you're dead."

I nodded. "So what won't he be prepared for, when he shows up?"

Reave let out the most evil chuckle I'd ever heard from someone who wasn't me. "You."

I tapped my nose and pointed at him. "Bingo."

He shook his head. "Was that always part of the plan, or did you make it up on the fly?"

"Wow, I thought you knew me by now." I spread my hands. "It's all part of the plan."

More headlights were approaching from the direction of Brockton Bay. I knew who they were, and thus I knew it was time to go. "Media incoming. Toodles."

"Wait, where—" But I was already ducking around behind him and activating the teleporter. The shadowy portal formed in front of me, and I stepped through into my living room.

"Oh, hey." Cherie had been sitting up, watching the TV turned down low. "How'd it go?"

I pulled my hat and mask off and grinned. "When Bastard Son gets here, he's gonna have one hell of a surprise waiting for him."

Cherie grinned right back. "Good."

End of Part Thirty-Eight
It also seems like the just snipe them and let the car stop would have also worked, because nothing was armed until they reported in.

That said, doing it this way serves more goals, and as a bonus is much more dramatic. Just the way she likes it.
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It also seems like the just snipe them and let the car stop would have also worked, because nothing was armed until they reported in.

Except there was a camera in the vehicle, so them getting sniped would have been the report in.

Plus, Bastard Son's plan not even killing his henchmen is a message all of its own. Not that he's paying attention to what he's being told.
It also seems like the just snipe them and let the car stop would have also worked, because nothing was armed until they reported in.

That said, doing it this way serves more goals, and as a bonus is much more dramatic. Just the way she likes it.
The car was currently travelling at unsafe speeds. Killing the driver would have seriously endangered the innocents.
Part Thirty-Nine: Decision Points
A Darker Path

Part Thirty-Nine: Decision Points

[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

Bastard Son

The closest airfield run by Elite interests on the east coast, where he could land and deplane without anyone taking more notice than they should, was in New York State. He'd already ordered a limo, which was waiting for him when the jet touched down. It wasn't just for the luxuriously comfortable seating in the limousine that he was in a hurry to get out of the plane and into the car; the jet's accommodations were just as enjoyable. But he wanted to get started on the way to Brockton Bay and set up operations there. More to the point, he wanted to brag without being interrupted.

So he held his impatience in check until he and his baggage were in the limo, and the driver had it on the road out of the airport. Then, and only then, did he fire up the admittedly impressive communications array that was built into the luxury vehicle. The large screen that motored up out of the console subdivided itself into a dozen sections, then each of these sub-screens lit up with a different picture.

"Bastard Son," one of them said in an electronically modified voice, while a white frame appeared around the speaker's image. "I hope you did not contact us all merely to let us know that you've arrived in New York?"

"Hah, no." His sneer was just as vicious as the masks he usually wore. "I contacted you all to let you know the job's already done. Brockton Bay's wide open for the taking, thanks to yours truly, heh."

The ripple of shock that spread across those talking to him was subtle yet unmistakeable. "I find that … hard to believe."

"I find you hard to believe, heh." He took a bottle from the wet bar and poured himself a generous shot of bourbon. "The bitch was just too smart for her own damn good. I rigged a car with booby traps, a remote trigger and a timer, then I made the assholes driving it grab some hostages on the way. So she couldn't stop it and she couldn't not stop it, heh." Leaning back, he took a drink, luxuriating in the mellow taste of the liquor.

There was a long moment of silence in the car before another one of his interlocutors spoke up, albeit reluctantly. "So, what happened then? What makes you so sure she's dead?"

The feeling of triumph was amazing. "Well, she got around the booby traps some damn how, and she must've blocked the signal for the remote detonator, or just got lucky, but then she went and sat in the car so she could flex about how smart she was. And she was still there when the car exploded, heh."

Another few seconds of silence passed, before the first person spoke up. "You are aware, are you not, that she is strongly suspected to possess a teleportation device? And that she may well have simply teleported out before the timer ran out?"

"No," he said, shaking his head. "No. Absolutely not. I watched her on the screen. I recorded that shit, heh. And she was right there, all the way until the camera cut out. The bitch is dead, heh."

"She has been observed to make impossibly accurate shots. If she can do that, then she may well have been able to time the teleport to coincide with the destruction of the camera."

He put the glass down before he would've succumbed to the temptation to hurl it through the screen. Those things were expensive, and the booze was too good to waste. "Are you fucking listening to me? Nobody has timing that good, except my people. Is she one of my people? No. She's just another dead wannabe, heh."

"A 'dead wannabe' who took down the Nine in forty-three minutes, and mopped up Butcher and the Teeth in less than two." The air quotes were audible, for all that they were only implied. "I feel it would be a grave mistake to underestimate her."

He rolled his eyes. "You're just salty because I fuckin' got her when all of you were pissing your pants about having to deal with one cape killer, heh."

There was a sigh from the speakers. "Very well. If you are so adamant that she is deceased, the PRT undoubtedly has her corpse in their morgue. Do what you said you'd do, and bring back her head, however charred it may be. Only then will we move on this situation."

"Fine, I'll do that! And when I drop it on your desk, I'm going to expect a full apology for doubting me, heh." He'd had enough of the call, so he hit the button to end it.

But he was still seething from the lack of accolades that had come his way, so he tapped in another number. Back-channel contacts were a universal constant, and his Gesellschaft opposite number had done him a solid or two over the last few years. It was time to repay those with interest.

"Hello?" The voice was grumpy, as befitted someone who was used to rising no earlier than ten in the morning, but had been woken up at five instead. "This had better be important."

"Gunther, old buddy!" There was no image on the screen, but he picked up the glass and toasted the distant man with it anyway. "I've got good news for you. Both of us, really, but something you'll be happy to hear, heh."

"I'm listening, but only because it's you."

His sneer had been replaced by a grin. "Atropos is dead. I got rid of her an hour ago, more or less. We've got a clear run at Brockton Bay again, heh."

"Was, wirklich?" Gunther paused for a moment. "Please tell me that this is not one of your jokes. I know how much you enjoy those. Now is not the time for one of them."

This was much, much better. "Swear to God, hand on heart. I got her with a car bomb. There is literally footage of her sitting in the front seat, until the timer hits zero. She is dead, man. You can't get much deader than she is right now, heh."

"Oh." He could literally hear the smile on Gunther's face. "Oh, this is very good news to hear. I owe you big-time for this. You have done us all a great service. She has cost us millions."

"I know, I know." He basked in the praise, as was only his due. "I know you want to get off the line so you can make some arrangements, so I'll talk to you later, heh."

"Yes. We will talk. I will want to hear all the details." The call ended, this time from the other end.

He relaxed in the comfortable seating and finished off the glass. Finally, someone appreciated just how damn good he was at this.

His plans had been put together with Atropos in mind and he couldn't have changed them now, even if he'd wanted to. Infiltrating Brockton Bay with his people required that they be trained up first, so he'd arranged to rendezvous with them in Boston and get them up to speed before moving on.

They weren't about to pull any jobs while they were there, so there was no real need to inform the locals of their presence. Besides, he'd heard a rumour that Accord was actually working with Atropos, even after she'd totalled one of his drug shipments. Fuckin' pussy.

Maybe half a day in Boston getting all his ducks in a row, then he'd make his move on Brockton Bay. In the absence of their local overhyped boogeyman, the local rogues wouldn't stand a chance. Then he'd kick in the door of the morgue, claim Atropos' head, and solidify his position as king of the Brockton Bay underworld.

Basking in the glow of his own genius, he poured himself another drink.


PRT Building ENE


"So she's definitely alive? Because I've seen no hint of it." Deputy Director Renick glanced at his laptop screen, which was currently showing a PHO feed. "Normally, she would've posted about this whole episode by now." This was true; the girl did like her midnight tell-alls.

"Absolutely, sir." He nodded, trying not to smile at the recollection. "The little smartass pulled a Bugs Bunny on us. Literally came out of nowhere and finished my sentence for me." Although he'd been certain she was still alive, the relief he'd felt at that moment had been unmistakeable.

Which raised a question in his mind: when had her status shifted from 'adversary' to 'ally'? Am I compromised? Instead of me recruiting her, has she recruited me?

Renick lifted his chin. "So, what's her plan? Do you know what her endgame is?"

"I believe I do, sir. She needs Bastard Son to think she's dead, so he'll let his guard down when he comes into the city. That's why I instructed everyone there to clam up about her. Not to say she's dead, but not to say she's not dead, either. Zero news. Hopefully, Bastard Son will think we're trying to keep her death quiet."

"So she can get the drop on him," Renick finished. "And kill him."

"That's the way I read it, sir."

This time, the Deputy Director raised an eyebrow. "You do recall that our job requires us to arrest villains, not turn them over to another villain to be murdered, yes?"

"Yes, sir, I do." He lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. "I've also read up on Bastard Son. He doesn't play by any ruleset except his own. Every time he's gone into a city, people have died. PRT and heroes can't get a handle on him, and rogues and villains are either co-opted into the Elite or they die. Also, as we saw tonight, he's got zero respect for innocent bystanders. Excuse my French, sir, but he's one hell of an elusive son of a bitch, and a mad dog into the bargain. I trust Atropos to be able to nail him down and do what should've been done years ago."

Renick shook his head dubiously. "This is a very slippery slope you're stepping on to. I'm not at all sure the Director will sign off on it, when she comes on in the morning. Going hands-off on Atropos is one thing, but actively assisting her in murdering someone is entirely another."

"With all due respect, sir, I don't see it that way." He took a deep breath. Arguing with one's boss was always a tricky prospect. "We're not forcing Bastard Son to come into the city, and I certainly won't be pulling the trigger myself. At most, we're doing nothing. If we did something now to queer her pitch, she'll probably still get the job done, but the best outcome aside from that is losing all chance of her ever actively cooperating with us. And the worst outcome …"

"… is that she decides we've betrayed her, and we go on her enemy list." Renick nodded. "Your point is well made. I don't want to be on that list any more than you do." He held up a finger. "However, if Bastard Son decides to hand himself over to us at any time, we're duty-bound to accept that surrender."

"Understood, sir." He knew damn well, as did Renick, that Bastard Son would be unlikely to even attempt any such surrender. The man was far too arrogant for that.

Fortunately, if he did, this was one of Atropos' self-appointed options for those who broke her rules.

"Good." Renick laced his fingers together. "Dismissed. Write up your report, then get some rest." A faint smile crossed his face. "And damn good work out there tonight."

"Thank you, sir."


Boston, Massachusetts; Later That Morning

Judge Peter Regan's Chambers

Leaning back in his comfortable leather-upholstered chair, Peter Regan gazed out the window at the freshly risen sun. Steepled before him, his fingers twitched as the only outward sign of the tension that had him in its inexorable grasp. Two paths lay before him, neither one at all to his taste.

On one side, there was the agreement—nothing official, nothing signed. It was merely understood that Masters needed a message sent to them. Paige Mcabee had stumbled at the wrong moment, and so she was to be both the subject and the body of the message. The prosecutor was aware, without ever having been directly told, that he was to go as hard as he could on her. Her funds had been frozen, and the court-appointed defence attorney knew his role in the matter. As such, he had yet to speak to her in lockup. Arrangements had been made to gag her and ensure that she looked as dangerous as possible to the jury.

The fix was in. Paige Mcabee would be Birdcaged, no matter what the public wanted. It was that simple.

On the other side, was the message Dragon had passed on to him. There was no subtlety, no delicately phrased observations that could easily be mistaken for innocent comments taken out of context. It was very simple: Atropos knows about the Mcabee case.

Very few capes had amassed a reputation as fearful as Atropos', and certainly not in such a short period of time. In fact, she'd killed several of the others who were as well-known as her, and many more besides. Worse, most of these kills had been performed on camera, and she'd made it look positively effortless. Skidmark had been literally smeared all over the road; Peter had exactly zero interest in finding out what sort of imaginative demise she would come up with for someone who sent an undeserving person to the Birdcage.

Mere human security, by definition, could not protect him. Being literally surrounded by capes had manifestly failed to save Kaiser from a sword through the eye. And if Dragon's observation about the Triumvirate was correct, even they might choose to look the other way if Atropos came calling.

He'd actually called Dragon back, to appeal to her for protection. The hero had told him quite bluntly that she wasn't getting in the middle of that, but if he ensured Ms Mcabee had a fair trial, he should be just fine.

Her advice hadn't been the slightest bit helpful, for all that it was glaringly self-evident.

He didn't know what penalties, if any, would fall his way if he threw the case. His career, he suspected, would be over. Not immediately, of course. That would be too blatant. But tiny whispers would eventually add up to suggestions that he retire. For his 'health', of course.

If he stayed the course and convicted Mcabee, he didn't know that Atropos would kill him, but he had absolutely no reason to believe that she wouldn't, either. Her every public action bespoke an exceedingly black and white morality; those who heeded her warnings lived, while those who didn't … died. The message Dragon had passed along had been just such a warning, no less dire for being second-hand in nature.

He'd heard of being stuck between a rock and a hard place, or the Devil and the deep blue sea, and many other hackneyed phrases about not having any good place to turn. Up until forty hours ago, he had never suspected that he himself might end up in such a position. It was, he'd found, a most unpleasant situation to be in.

On the one hand, he risked his career; on the other, his life.

He liked his career. Over the course of it, many accused had gone before his bench. As far as he was concerned, he had administered justice without fear or favour.

Paige Mcabee had been accused of a horrific crime: forcing a man to first mutilate and then violate himself. While he didn't necessarily think this was precisely Birdcage-worthy, especially on a first offence, it had been made clear to him on the quiet that unless this sort of thing was dealt with harshly from the outset, other Masters would see it as carte blanche to run rampant among the population. He saw their reasoning, and was fully on board with the need to send a message. It was a pity about the Mcabee girl, but eggs and omelettes. The greater good took precedence.

The thing was, he belatedly realised, while he liked his career, it wasn't his life. His life was his life.

And with that epiphany, his course of action became clear.

Screw the greater good, I want to live.

Turning back to the desk, he picked up his voice recorder and clicked it on. "To the editor, Boston Globe. Usual header. From the desk of Judge Peter Regan, et cetera. Letter begins. After much soul-searching, I have decided to recuse myself from the case of Massachusetts vs Paige Mcabee. Moreover, I am ordering a comprehensive review of the projected security precautions around Ms Mcabee, in light of the understanding that she is perfectly capable of typing her testimony from a soundproof booth and has no known Brute rating. Furthermore, I will be issuing an order to release her funds for use in her courtroom defence." He paused and stopped the recording while he went over in his mind what else he needed to say. Finally, he clicked it back on. "These are trying times for all of us, but we must not let fear make monsters of us. End letter, usual salutations. Have it on my desk for signing by the end of the day."

Getting up from his desk, he walked the recorder through to his personal assistant's office and dropped it in her in-tray. "Take your time with this one," he said. "I'm taking half a day. I'll be back this afternoon."

"Yes, Judge Regan." Her tone was professional, but he could feel her eyes following him out the door. He didn't care.

He'd just ended his own career, he could feel it. Word would get out that he didn't stick to agreements. And as much of an old boy's club as the judicial community was, someone like that just wasn't welcome.

Maybe he'd even retire before the doors all shut in his face. It didn't matter, not anymore.

He'd made his choice, and he'd stick with it.

Because despite the high-sounding tone of his letter, it did actually come down to fear.


Brockton Bay PRT Building, around the same time

Director Piggot's Office

Emily finished reading the after-action report and the scribbled addendum that Renick had added, then sat back in her chair, brow creased in thought. And irritation; mainly irritation.

For ten long years, she'd fought the good fight, keeping her city afloat against a seemingly endless tide of villain capes who seemed to think that Brockton Bay was the perfect place to kick-start (or restart) their careers. Along the way, she'd struggled against institutional apathy within both the PRT and the BBPD, and not a little corruption in both organisations. Even outside that, she had prodnose do-gooder institutions such as Youth Guard attempting to insert their grubby little fingers into the lives of the local Wards (and the non-Ward younger heroes as well), all in an attempt to justify their own existence.

And, of course, she had the Wards themselves, and the heroes of the Protectorate: capes, one and all. She didn't actually like capes, not since Ellisburg. They'd fled the battlefield then, leaving her people to die. Deep down, she didn't trust them not to do it again (especially given that Shadow Stalker had been edgier than a wood-chipper on steroids, and Assault was literally an ex-villain).

But still, she'd taken what she was given, and she'd made it work (for a given definition of 'work'). From day to day, the disparate organisation had staggered from crisis to crisis, held together through sheer stubborn refusal to quit. It had been a balancing act of epic proportions, and she liked to think she'd been fairly good at it.

And then Atropos came along.

In less than two weeks (and counting, because she surely was not done yet), that one irritating girl had achieved everything Emily had been striving to do for ten fucking years. Villains? Dead or gone. Hard drugs? Gone. Gangs? Keeping their heads way down. Even the corruption and apathy within the PRT had been mostly rooted out (and the BBPD was well on the way to compliance as well), but only because Atropos had said it had to be so.

During those two weeks, the craziness that was a normal part of life in Brockton Bay had just … died. Citizens were starting to feel safe to walk the streets of their own city once more. The PRT had gone from just barely holding their own to literally having excess time on their hands. With the heroes freed from having to focus on villain capes and gang violence, they were assisting the BBPD in going after normal criminals; in short, the change right across the board had been both fundamental and massive.

So why am I not happier about this?

She knew damn well why. Atropos represented three things Emily utterly despised. First, she was a cape. Second, she was a villain. Third, she didn't follow the rules; or rather, she made her own rules. She murdered people and boasted about it, and still got away with it.

Worst of all, people applauded her for it. She was a self-confessed serial killer, yet among the ordinary citizenry of Brockton Bay, she had an actual fan club, and more people on top of that who simply approved of what she was doing. (Well, in fairness, she had taken out the Nine … and Butcher and the Teeth … and several other capes who had been perennial thorns in Emily's side … but that shouldn't matter. Murder was still murder.)

Still, Emily wasn't stupid. She'd given orders for the Wards to stay well clear (because not one of them would stand a chance against her) and for the heroes to exercise caution (same reason). The PRT also had a hands-off policy, not least because she didn't feel like sending her men into a meat-grinder.

It didn't mean she had to like it.

This latest report was one more droplet of the water-torture that was life in the same city as Atropos. Bastard Son of the Elite was due to arrive in Brockton Bay shortly, if he wasn't already in the city. Atropos had made use of his car bomb to fake her death temporarily, at least in his eyes, so that when he showed up, he wouldn't be prepared for her particular brand of homicidal 'justice'.

If the PRT stood back and did nothing to hamper her, Atropos would end him, bringing yet another incursion into the city to an abrupt halt. A man would die; one who didn't have a kill order on his head, but who had signed his own death warrant merely by deciding to come to Brockton Bay.

The worst bit was, Emily knew damn well who she'd choose to have in her city if there was a gun to her head and she had to pick one or the other. Atropos was an unapologetic murderer, with a death toll that was now into the dozens, not even counting the unpowered mooks she'd executed along the way, but she was still preferable to Bastard Son.

If Mouse Protector was to be believed, the entire Ravager incident in New York had taken place because Atropos had turned down a million-dollar bounty on the hero's head, and instead contracted with her to destroy Ravager's credibility. Emily didn't know many ordinary people, much less capes, who would walk away from a million-dollar payday like that. From all indications, Bastard Son was not one of them.

And now, Atropos had saved two hostages and handed the mooks over to the PRT. The report held nothing but praise for her. Even Renick's note on the report strongly recommended that the PRT just stand back and let events take their course.

Emily Piggot despised capes, but she hated Bastard Son more than Atropos. Taking a deep breath, she opened a text file on her computer and started typing.

General Order: to be disseminated to all PRT personnel in ENE Department

For the next 24 hours, until 0900 hours on Sunday the 16th of January, no mention will be made of Atropos by any PRT personnel, on any media. Her existence will not be acknowledged to anyone outside the PRT until the 24 hour period is up or she is seen in public, at which point this order will be automatically rescinded.

Signed, E. Piggot, Director, PRT ENE

Sitting back in her chair, she read the words through and nodded to herself. That was absolutely as far as she was willing to go.

Beyond that, Atropos was on her own.

End of Part Thirty-Nine
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I fully expect Atropos to pull some Looney Tunes style shenaniganery, with Bastard Son walking around bragging about killing Atropos, while she's doing the over-exaggerated tip-toeing behind him with a finger to her lips and an oversized set of shears badly hidden behind her back with the other hand.

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