Conflict Resolution

Part Eleven: A Working Day

by Scalar7th

Tags: #another_day_at_the_office #any/all #multiple_partners #romance #superhero #urban_fantasy #bondage #comic_book #D/s #enchanting_voice #exhibitionism #scifi #socialism #villainy

(CW: parental abuse)

Monday proceeds as Monday might be expected to proceed for all involved.

Port City, USA

A warm Monday afternoon

The heart of the downtown district

The top floor of Bright Tower, the imposing lobby outside Gerald Bright's office

Reggie Bright hangs up his phone, having set up a late lunch date with Chelsea while waiting for his father.

He's been waiting for quite a while. Near an hour. He knows that that's deliberate, but there's little he can do about it. If he leaves, even for a minute, he's sure to miss his father's call.

Gerald Bright keeps others waiting. He is not to be delayed, himself.

It makes Reggie angry. It has always made him angry. He wants to use that anger, to take it back out on patrol, to do violent justice towards the criminals openly defying the rule of law. And since this wait is longer than usual, Reggie is angrier than usual. But he's also on guard. Gerald knows that waiting makes Reggie furious, which means that Gerald wants Reggie angry. So he banks the fires somewhat, keeps his wits about him. There would be a time and a place for—

The door opens. Karl, his father's tall grey-haired assistant, nods to Reggie, then walks out, the two of them scowling silently at one another as they pass.

Karl and Reggie do not get along.

Truth be told, Reggie doesn't get along with many people in the organization. He keeps track of who he'll have to remove when his father finally retires—or gets himself retired—and the list is fairly extensive. Some like Karl will have to be removed immediately, others will be persuaded over time, once it's Reggie's company.

Reggie enters his father's office. Gerald is standing by his window. "Father."

Icy silence serves as a response.

"You called for me."

"I am aware."

Other fathers might say, "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed." Mine says, "I am aware." Reggie takes a few steps forward.

"No closer," Gerald says, his words dripping in acid. "I have seen how easily you are provoked."

So it is about Saturday. Reggie automatically stops his advance. "Then you know—"

"That you have put years of careful work consolidating power and destabilizing the dockworks in deep jeopardy."

Easy, Reggie, the younger man counsels himself. His old mindset doesn't let him see the better way. His father's power isn't flashy or dramatic; he spent decades working in the shadows, and he still thinks in those terms, so he doesn't understand that the best way to quell the riots and take control in the docks is to stand in the sun and show them how easy they are to push down.

"There's a note on the desk," Gerald continues. "It arrived in Karl's hands this morning. Courier-delivered."

Someone had paid a lot of money to get that note—a three-dollar greeting card, with a pastel-colored picture of a bouquet of flowers—to Gerald, then. Reggie picks it up and flips it open. The card had been blank inside, and the text is hand-written in an elaborate, florid script.

"'Dearest Gerald,'" he reads aloud. "'I thought we had an understanding. If you haven't rectified the situation, expect repercussions to the Bright Society. The docks are still mine, and the confederation is under my protection. Yours, S. T.' What is this?"

Gerald turns slowly, an air of pained exasperation in every step. "Do you remember the dock-workers' strike twelve years ago? Not that you were paying any attention to it then." Gerald doesn't wait for Reggie to respond. "One of the reasons they were able to gain the upper hand in negotiations and eventually establish the collective confederation is that Silver Tongue fought with them, and was able to wield influence over the discussions. That card is a reminder of our failure, and a reminder of what will happen if we challenge him."

Reggie fails to keep the scoff out of his voice. "I was told Silver Tongue is a myth."

"Then who sent me that card?" Gerald sounds slightly amused. "There aren't many who would dare threaten the Bright Society directly."

Reggie shrugs, tossing the card back on the desk. "If Courier delivered it, it could have been anyone."

Gerald's eyes narrow. "Use your brains, boy," he snapped. "Who else would bother sending a card like that to the Society?"

"Maybe it's just someone in the docks who wants you and the police to back off and thinks that threatening us is the way to do it."

Gerald sighs the same way he used to sigh when eight-year-old Reggie would ask him why the sky is blue, with an undercurrent of contained anger. "That card is a reminder, Reginald. It is a reminder that our enemy still holds power in the docks. Even if Silver Tongue is a myth—and he is not—his influence matters."

Reggie rolls his eyes. "So what 'understanding,'" he asks, making quotation marks with his fingers, "did you have with Silver Tongue?"

"Didn't we teach you to read?"

Reggie picks up the card again. "He says the docks are his." He gesticulates with the card. "Was that this 'understanding'?"

"Don't you get it yet, you fool?" Gerald's anger kindles swiftly and his voice rises as he marches towards his son. "Twelve years ago we were beaten by an enemy that we underestimated, that outmaneuvered us. We've been fighting that war ever since. Not a day goes by that the chamber of commerce doesn't regret its decision to allow the co-operative to exist. It keeps growing like some disgusting amoeba, absorbing more people, more operations. It's like its own goddamned city down there. And now you've given them the excuses they need to fortify against the Port City Police Department and the Bright Society."

"Then we break the fortifications!" Reggie counters, his voice a growl, the card bending in his hand as his fingers curl into a fist. "You let me lead the charge, and the Bright Society crashes through the co-op like it's not even there. The police pick up any who resist, and if Silver Tongue shows his face..."

"And we would get demolished!" Gerald yells, planting his hands firmly on the desk in the middle of the room. "The people would revolt! The Brights would lose their authority, authority that I have spent decades carefully building up!" He shakes his head. "I think Grey was right, Reggie, I think you actually want violence."

Reggie's hands burst into flames. The greeting card lights quickly and crumbles to ash. He could hear Sterling Grey's voice blending with Gerald's. He takes a step, raises his burning fist, and—

Howls.

His body is wracked with pain, contorting his muscles, driving him to his knees. The fires in his hands go out as he gasps for air, and finds even that act is torture. He drops to all fours, clutching at the carpet.

Gerald crouches down beside him, a hand on his shoulder, almost gentle, speaking quickly and quietly. "Here's how this works now. We need to make a show of contrition. Just before the six-o'clock news, Flamehammer is going down to the central police station to turn himself in. There will be a brief investigation after which you will be cleared of all charges—unless Grey wants to make an assault case of it, in which case Flamehammer might go to court, although I think that unlikely. You are to be on the front steps at half past five in your costume in front of the press. The Bright Society publicists will make a statement. You will not. Are we understood?"

It is agony, trying to speak against the weight of his father's power setting his own body against him. Still, after what seems like an eternity, Reggie chokes out an affirmation, and the pain stops, allowing him to collapse to the floor.

Gerald is already standing on the other side of the desk. "You leave your fire outside this office."

"Yes, father," Reggie mutters from the floor without looking up.

"When you're ready, you may leave."

A pained cough. "Yes, father."

There is silence for a moment in the office.

"I have a meeting in ten minutes."

Reggie growls into the carpet.

"What was that?"

He crawls up to his knees. "Nothing, father."

"Good. Go."

Reggie manages to get up and walk out with some dignity. The pains his father had caused are gone, but their memory lingers, and the bruises from falling roughly to his knees will ache for a while, as will the effect of strain on his muscles tensing as pain-sensing nerves fired all at once. His body is surging with adrenaline.

He has a meeting with Chelsea in less than an hour. He has to be ready for her by then. And then he has to prepare for an evening in the police department. And then... After that, he's not sure. His anger demands satisfaction, or at least some sort of release. And he's going to be at the police department for a while.

His anger can wait, and grow, until after that.


The fifth floor of an apartment building downtown.

A little later that afternoon.

Tanya opens her apartment door after her usual ritual of taking the elevator to the seventh floor and walking back down the stairs, fuming more than a little. She hates that she might owe anything to Sterling Grey of all people.

Ugh. Fuck him. She kicks her shoes off and stretches, letting the door fall shut behind her then turning to set the deadbolt. Fuck them all. Her angry thoughts don't have angry emotions behind them, though. She wants to be mad. Very mad. She wants to be jealous, and furious, and hateful, but it's just not something she can manage.

Because she's not mad.

Fuck me, I'm not even a little upset.

She throws herself bodily into her office chair, feels the familiar wobble of it. What am I, then? Happy?

No, not that. Anything but that.

And she isn't, not really. That edge, the undercurrent of tension is still there.

But there was that talk she'd had with Sterling. When she had been talking with him about his intentions. The dance at Club Argent that felt like forever ago. That was the nearest she'd ever felt to free from that motivating tension. A close second was that afternoon, when the four of them were eating lunch at Sharon's.

That makes her suspicious. Happiness—her own, anyway—puts her on guard. Nothing good ever follows when she's happy. And worse still that it's Sterling Grey that seems to be able to make her happy. The thought nearly makes her retch.

She looks around quickly. Nothing seems unusual, except that her computer isn't whirring away since Sharon "watered the plants" for her—made sure that the automatic systems she had in place would continue their work on the Bright Systems cloud and shut down the local hardware—but still she felt the creeping suspicion that something was going to go wrong.

Maybe it's because of how easily someone had delivered a note to her door. A note that had apparently been sent to lure her into a trap. No one has her real address except Chelsea and Sharon, her closest friends, and a couple people in the Bright Society. Everyone above suspicion.

But could Sterling have done something, maybe? He knows what building she lives in, maybe he has someone who could find out her apartment number despite her subterfuge. There hadn't been any alerts on her security software about searches for her location, though. And he would have had to move awfully fast, since the note arrived just after they'd met.

The idea that Chelsea or Sharon might betray her like that is unthinkable. And there was no reason to think that anyone from the Bright Society might want her in jail or...

She casually flips on the power switch with a toe. She needs a replacement phone, that much is sure, since hers is slag in the middle of a collapsed cafe, apparently. Tanya thinks back to the evening of the fire, but frustratingly, she can't recall anything after getting out of the cab. She can't even come up with any reasonable evidence that she didn't set the fire, as the police assert, which is infuriating.

Equally frustrating is how the Dockworks had sent her a lawyer. A competent lawyer. Kolesnyk was too much like Grey: unflappable, precise, professional. Almost inhuman. It bothers her. If only he was bad at his job. Instead, he was a step ahead of the police on everything, and worse, ahead of her. She'd hardly said a word before he would interrupt and gently remind her that she didn't have to tell the police anything. His ability to deliver a cool rejection seemed to be much more effective than her varied and creative ways to tell the pigs to fuck off.

Still, even when they're on her side, even when they're pissing off the cops, she doesn't like unflappable people. She wants to know how to get under the skin of everyone she meets.

The computer finishes loading, so Tanya spins the office chair in a full circle and clicks on the cyber-security app she developed. It opens and fills the screen, immediately starting to download notifications and information from the cloud. While it works, she contemplates what she might do with her afternoon, whether it's worthwhile doing a more in-depth search on Sterling Grey and the Dockworks, or if she needs to do any serious research on a new phone or tablet, or...

The sheer number of notifications brings her thoughts up short. Someone had been doing some extensive research on Chelsea. Dug into work records, into old class photos, hospital records... into everything. And Tanya hadn't been around to deflect or defer, to temporarily flood sites with bad information or launch denial-of-service attacks. The false information wasn't any good if someone could just dig deeper  to get at the truth, and there was no question that someone had done exactly that.

Tanya's breathing quickened. Who knows what? She starts prying into the notifications, but the trail is too cold now, and the person or people who had got ahold of the information were too good themselves. There was just no way, even after half an hour's digging, to figure out who had been searching and what exactly they had found.

"Fuck."

Nothing to be done.

"Fuck!"

Tanya hates when there's nothing to be done.

Chelsea's been her friend forever, but if Tanya can't protect the superhero, she's not much use. She can't even text or call Chelsea to let her know that something's up. All she can do is send Chelsea an email, which she does, but there's no telling when it will be received.

The next has to be to replace her phone. She can't be caught without again. There's simply too much to do.

And then...

"Well, Mr. Grey, if someone's going to go poking into my secrets," she says, calling up a couple of search engines, "let's go prying into yours." She sets the standard search system to calling up the latest in smartphones and the other—her personal link to Bright Society servers and services—to once more looking up all possible information about Sterling Grey and the Dockworks Co-operative Confederation.

She's missed a whole weekend of work. She's not going to miss any more.


The sidewalk outside Bright Tower

A little later still

Chelsea stands on the corner in a fresh outfit of her own, good-looking enough for a friendy coffee, simple and comfortable enough for work. Loose jeans, light blue top and matching shoes. She feels good. Comfortable. A little serious, a little playful, older than her years but not by a lot, putting her maybe on par with Reggie.

Reggie, who is walking out the front doors of Bright Tower, looking, if not angry, at least aggravated. Perhaps she's imagining things, but it seems that the moment Reggie sees her, his mood brightens considerably. He makes a beeline for her and opens his arms in an offered hug which she accepts without question.

"Chelsea. I'm glad you called," Reggie says as they embrace.

"I'm glad you agreed to meet," Chelsea replies. She steps out of the hug. "I just need someone to talk to about everything."

Reggie gives her a smile. "Always happy to talk. Should we be worried about being in public, or...?"

Chelsea frowns. "Uh. Probably? I mean, there's likely some... secret stuff we ought to discuss."

"Of course," Reggie chuckles. "Should we use a meeting room inside?"

Chelsea shakes her head. "Maybe later, but, uh, first just a walk would be great, if we could."

"Sure. Lead on, partner."

The two of them travel in silence towards Nelligan Park, a pleasant green space just on the edge of downtown. The weather is warm, and the sun periodically peeks out behind the light cloud cover. Just a nice day for a walk. Plus there's a little ice cream shop on the far side that Chelsea enjoys stopping by on occasion, although that doesn't really sway her choice of direction too strongly.

"The lilacs are in bloom," Reggie says as they cross Fourth. "I can smell them from here. You want to walk through the park?"

Chelsea can smell them, too, their sweet scent wafting on the breeze. "Yeah, I thought that would be nice. How much time have you got?"

Reggie shrugs. "I should be back at the office for half past four." He looks around. "The Society has decided that Flamehammer's going to turn himself in to the police tonight."

Chelsea blanches a bit. "I haven't heard anything about Arctic Angel."

Reggie shakes his head. "She's fine. She didn't attack an unpowered individual, and her power seems to do no damage. Might be needed as a witness at some point, though."

"Ah, okay." Chelsea looks around, too, as they walk into the park. Just after three on a weekday, there's almost no one around, despite the warmth of the day. "Think anything will come of it?"

"Nah," Reggie shrugs again. "It's all optics. At worst, I'll have to make a donation to some charity, a shelter or something."

"You've been through this before?"

"Not myself, but I've worked on a couple similar cases on the Society's end of things."

Chelsea nods, thinking. How much worse would it have been if they hadn't left the scene? If they hadn't backed down from the riot? Her powers have never hurt anyone, so far as she knows, but Flamehammer can cause serious damage. It's reasonable to think that he might have severely hurt someone, given how he felled Sterling with one punch. If his fire powers came up, people might have...

No, she puts that thought out of her mind. Reggie would have held back. He probably wouldn't have even hurt Sterling if he hadn't been goaded into it. Everything she knows about Reggie tells her that he's a careful, considerate man.

They walk along a garden path, and the scent of the lilac bushes becomes muted thanks to the roses along the sides of the walk. The conservancy association apparently had the use of someone with superpowers, because the roses were not only in full bloom, but were out in wild, unnatural colors. Chelsea smiles at a brilliant blue-and-silver-striped flower that shimmered in the soft light.

Reggie stops beside her. "It's beautiful," he says. He taps at his watch, a strange, nervous habit of his. "Reminds me of you, you know."

Chelsea flushes. "How so?"

"It's like glimmering ice, you see?" Reggie smiles. "And the silver stripes make me think of your wings."

She nods, a bit dumbstruck. Chelsea feels a bit silly to be flattered like she is. Reggie gently strokes a silver line on the bloom, careful not to damage it. Despite the warmth of the day, Chelsea shivers a little, and can't help but imagine those light touches over her own feathers.

Sharon is a good fight for me. Flamehammer might be a good match for the Angel. The idea comes to her head unbidden, as does the rush of blood to her face and the wetness between her legs. She'd never thought of Reggie that way before, but right now...

She sighs inwardly. She's been having too much sex lately, it's all that's on her mind.

"And the blue is close, but not as deep as the Angel's eyes," Reggie continues. "It's really very..." He looks over at her. "I'm sorry, that's inappropriate. We're co-workers."

She laughs it off. "It's alright, I really don't mind." She smiles. "I'd be lying if I said that Flamehammer wasn't a very attractive man." She lets out a slow breath. "But things between me and the Angel and the rest of the world are a little complicated right now."

Reggie nods. "The double-life is complex, isn't it." He lets go of the flower and fiddles with his watch again.

"It sure is." They start walking. "That's why I'm glad to have you to talk about it."

"Happy to be of service," he says. "There's a nice little ice cream place on the other side of the park, and I could use a little treat. Want something on me?"

Chelsea nods. "That sounds great."

The conversation stops for a while as they walk the winding, flowered paths. The birds are singing. The sun shines now and again. At some point, Chelsea's not sure when, they join hands. The realization surprises her a little, but it's not unpleasant. It feels comfortable. Friendly.

Reggie is a good friend to have, there's no question. Chelsea's already feeling a lot better about the weekend, and more enthusiastic about the rest of her day. She feels good around him. And she's looking forward to their next patrol together. She knows it will go well.

How could it be otherwise?


Around 3:30 PM

Tanya's apartment

The space is quickly filling with the sound of cursing.

Tanya's requisition for a replacement phone is denied.

And about forty-five minutes into her search for more information on Sterling Grey, right as she feels on the edge of a breakthrough, her connection to Bright Society servers was severed.

The reason for both is the same: suspicion of criminal activity, requiring further investigation.

She opens a new browser window. "D'you bastards mind if I order myself a goddamn pizza?" she snaps at no one in particular.

She receives no reply, and no interference.

That done, she leans back in the chair, lets out another string of profanity. It helps her to think.

She had hit opposition the moment she started to dig into the co-op, opposition that was very similar to the sorts of defenses she had erected around Chelsea's history. She was just starting to get somewhere by poking at Sterling Grey's connections when the Brights had shut her down.

As Tanya calms down, she opens a new browser, a more anonymous pathway, not through her work connections. If she can't wind her way to the target through the Dockworks, she'll aim straight for the heart.


Shortly after six o'clock

Sterling Grey's living room

"Get wrecked, fucker," Sharon mutters to herself. She's sitting in Sterling's nice, big armchair, watching the news on his television, as he cooks in the kitchen. Once Chelsea had left to jog home and they'd put Tanya in a cab, there was little left for the two of them to do, so Sterling had invited her over for a late dinner. She had resisted the idea initially, but Sterling had pointed out that it was often easier to cook for two than for one, and that the company was nice.

So now she's enjoying a cool glass of water after having gone with him for groceries, watching Flamehammer turn himself in to the police.

Chelsea isn't the only one with conflicting loyalties, but Sharon is far less conflicted about hers. The police chief's daughter had long ago settled her political differences with her family and is very happily living her own life without seeing them more than necessary—about every six weeks, and Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. They do not talk about work, by agreement.

Sharon knows that Chelsea won't be happy to see Flamehammer turning himself in. But she also watched Flamehammer try to break the protests with his fists.

Sterling walks out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a tea towel. "That's not going to stick."

"Sure isn't," Sharon replies. "I give it four hours."

"Unless I press charges, which I'm not going to."

"Why not?"

"Because I have better things to do, and I don't need to get tied up in a weeks-long optics fight with the Bright Society." Sterling puts the towel over his shoulder. "We're on the winning side right now, so the BS and PCPD are scrambling to get the public back. Why should we play into that?"

Sharon nods. "Yeah, that's why you're in ConRes and I'm over in maintenance." She laughs. "I don't have the head for this intrigue stuff."

Sterling chuckles about something. "I guess that's the thing about maintenance, you get to keep away from the politics." He leans against the wall. "How are you doing, Sharon?"

Sharon frowns a bit. "I'm a little messed up. This has been one hell of a week. I don't like the co-op being on strike, but then, I guess no one really does. I don't like having the police driving around so often just a couple blocks from my home. I don't like Tanya getting arrested or so many of my co-workers held on bogus charges. But," she brightens a bit, "I've never seen Chelsea happier, with her new job and you; it feels good to be out marching for good causes; I even made a new friend at the rally yesterday."

"Oh yeah?"

Sharon nods. "I guess it's just the right week for meeting people. How long until supper?"

"Half an hour. Everything's in the oven. If I'd thought to make a salad we could have that now, I guess, but there's potatoes, broccoli, carrots, onion, and chicken breast roasting in the oven."

Sharon licks her lips. "Sounds great." She gets to her feet. "What to do until then?"

"Got some clever ideas?" Sterling asks with a crooked eyebrow.

"Well, there was that thing you did the other day with your hands..."

"Hm, that would fit into the time quite nicely." He steps into the room.

Sharon grins. "I was hoping you might say that." She grips her shirt and throws it off easily.

Sterling steps behind her, putting his hands on her hips. He leans in close. "And while my hands are making you very, very happy," he says, "my words will be reinforcing the programming we began this afternoon."

"Mmm, that sounds fantastic," Sharon moans, leaning back into his grip. "Think you can get me off before dinner's ready?"

"Twice, if you want, but I'd rather take my time." He begins lightly massaging. "Tomorrow, when you go for your run with Crystal..."

Sharon sighs. "Oh, I love this part. And I'll just act like nothing strange is going on. Like right now, because nothing strange is going on right now." She squirms a bit under his touch. "Nothing I'm going to remember, anyway."

"That's right, once this is done, you're just going to remember—"

"—how good your touch feels, and how the words you whisper in my ear make my knees go weak."

He kisses the back of her neck. "Perfect, Sharon." His hands trace the muscles of her abdomen, pressing just hard enough to avoid tickling. "On your run, Crystal will be using a mind-control device to influence you."

Sharon nods, shivering with delight. "Yes. And that's just fine, you'll undo any dangerous programming."

"And reinforce anything that's to our advantage." He nips lightly at her earlobe, earning a cry of delight. "Right now, you're so focused on the way my touch feels that your mind can hardly remember my words enough to respond to them."

"That doesn't matter," Sharon whispers, leaning a little more into him. "I obey, all the same."

"You know that this is safe," Sterling continues, his hands slipping under her waistband.

"Mhmm, and you're violating the rules of your own game," she replies with a grin.

"Do you care?" he asks, pressing his fingers between her legs.

She grabs his hands and removes them from her pants, then turns around and gives his a powerful, passionate kiss. "Not in the least."

Somehow her bra makes its way to the floor. "With every step you take tomorrow," Sterling says, his fingers dancing on Sharon's breasts.

"The programming gets stronger," she replies, arching her back to press her flesh into his hands.

"And after your run is over?" He caresses her chest unhurriedly.

"I contact you immediately, and then go back to my work, waiting for further instruction. Mmm, keep going, Sterling."

"I'm not planning to stop," he says, before kissing her neck, her chin, her lips.

"Good," she gasps. "Do we get to do this more?"

"I don't know about cooking you dinner, but we'll certainly be working very closely together." His fingers dance their way down her arms.

"Mmm, I look forward to it." She grins. "Or I guess I won't."

"You can, for now." He lifts her right hand to his lips. "And then you'll forget about it as you focus on the way this feels."

Sharon shivers as he uses lips, tongue, and teeth to excite every part of her sensitive hand. Hands are nerve-centers of the body, he'd said to Chelsea, and then he'd made her, and then Sharon, believe it. And he was on the verge of making her believe it again.

Her knees termbled as he described the way he was going to muddle up her mind, using only his fingers and words, how the moment she came everything but his touch would be lost in the fog. His enervating fingertips fell again on her breasts, having moved her hand to her own chest so he could trace her fingers and her nipples with one hand. He's beside her, then, with one hand on her ass to hold her in place, to hold her up, as he whipsers more directions, driving home the conditioning he's pouring into her. She is replying, when she can catch her breath, but her words don't make a lot of sense.

But that's not important. What is, is how the fire between her legs is growing, how she can hardly manage to think straight with the way he's teasing her body, the way his words are making her weak.

Soon there's nothing on her mind but that.

And then even less, as her body tenses up, her hips bucking, her breath coming in gasps. All that she can think about is her need, her demand for sexual release. Her eyes are closed and her hands clenched, and she's sweating profusely.

He touches her just so, whispers the right words in her ear at just the right time using just the right tone, and everything gives way. Her legs turn to jelly and she falls to her knees, with Sterling's arms wrapped around her chest to help her stay upright, her breathing loud and labored as her blood sings with ecstasy. Waves of pleasure pulse through her, exploding outward from her pussy, as she presses back into Sterling's grasp, feeling him take a step back to brace himself.

Sharon gulps down air as the orgasm subsides, trying to regain her equilibrium. "Fuck," she whispers. "God, that's good."

"And we still have a few minutes before dinner," Sterling says. She can hear his grin.

"Want something for yourself?" she asks, looking up at him.

"I do, but not quite in the same way."

"Oh?"

He helps her to her feet. "I think you're perfectly dressed for a lovely dinner."

She smirks. "You're sure I'm not wearing too much?"

"You can wear as little as you like, I suppose." Sterling kisses her cheek. "Just no more than you are."

"When I don't have guests, I don't tend to wear anything."

He laughs. "What if I were to ask you to make yourself at home?"

In response, Sharon removes her belt and lets her jeans fall, standing nude but for a pair of practical white panties. "We can discuss the rest, if you like."

"If you take them off, dinner might get burnt."

"Wouldn't want that." Sharon walks slowly over to the dining table and sits down. "Not after you've gone to all that work."

Sterling sighs happily, watching Sharon move. "I adore just looking at you, you know."

"I know." She gives him a wink. "What are the rest of your plans?"

"I told Chelsea I'd meet her on her lunch break. She's going to message me around midnight."

"Then I'd better not tire you out too much."

"I may be a little more resilient than you think, but that's probably a good idea." He smiles. "From the smell of things, dinner's about ready, mind if I check on it?"

"Not at all. Is there anything I can help with?"

Sterling shakes his head. "Not much to do except put everything on plates and serve, once it's cooked."

Sharon stretches, feeling Sterling's admiring gaze on her body. "Then I'll just sit here and look good, alright?"

"Perfect."


Half past six

The headquarters of Dockworks Communications

Paula al-Masri sighs and sits back in their chair. Someone is determined to get into the Dockworks systems. They look over at Mark Spirit, who looks back and rolls his eyes.

"All from the same source, right?" Paula asks.

Mark nods. "Same address, same user, but pushed through so many layers we'll never unravel it."

Paula makes a face, sitting back up and running a hand through their short hair. "Think we need more firepower?"

"Nah." Mark turns back to his monitor. "It's one hacker, and they're not even trying to do anything. Just find out stuff. And from what I can tell, not even all that secret stuff. Personnel files. Who cares."

Paula frowns. "The police are all over the place. Are you so sure that you don't have secrets you want kept from them?'

They see Mark's short green spikes of hair bob. "'Kay, I get it. If it's the cops, they're digging for some shit someone doesn't want 'em to see."

Tom Harvey sticks his head out of the War Room. "Everything going okay?"

Paula gives him a thumbs-up. "Same thing as last hour. Nothing new to worry about."

"Let me know if you need anything. And Mark?"

The nineteen-year-old kid looks up. "Yeah, Tom?"

"Keep notes. You two are off the clock at eight, we need the next shift to be able to keep up the fight, if they have to."

Mark snaps a quick salute. "Will do, chief."

Tom chuckles. "I don't want any complaints from Anna tomorrow, you get me?"

"She'll love us in the morning, we promise." Paula grins. "Besides, it's two against one."

"Being outnumbered doesn't mean you're on the losing side," Tom warns them. "That's the whole point of the Dockworks, right?'

Paula nods. "Don't worry, we'll let you know if we have any trouble."

Mark makes an affirmative noise, typing away.


Sometime after eight in the evening.

Port City Police Headquarters, downtown

A meeting room on the main floor

"THEY'RE SINGING AGAIN," Flamehammer says to Officer Matt Taylor.

Taylor nods. "They sure are. Happiest bunch of prisoners we've ever had in there." His expression remains neutral. "They've been having themselves a campfire sing-along a couple times an hour. You'd think they were having a party or something."

Flamehammer nods in reply. You want to do violence, and you could if they'd put you in there with them. But he knows his disdainful expression is hidden under his helmet. Wouldn't be anything like a fair fight.

"You want a drink or something?" the officer asks.

"CAN'T REALLY DRINK THROUGH THE HELMET."

"Uh, yeah, I guess so." Officer Taylor looks around. "Why not take it off? The room can be locked."

"IT'S A PAIN IN THE ASS." Flamehammer sighs. "BUT BRIGHT SOCIETY RULES INSIST ON IT."

"Just you and me here, and I sure ain't talkin'." Taylor smiles. "Besides, we're probably here a while more."

Flamehammer drums his fingers on the table. "BEEN HERE A WHILE ALREADY."

Taylor shrugs. "Just following orders, man."

"ME TOO."

"Too bad. You get all this power, and your hands get tied by the Brights." Officer Taylor shakes his head. "Man, I tell you, the things I could do with your fire."

Flamehammer says nothing.

"We're totally grateful for you guys, don't get me wrong. We all love to see a super pulling with us. But we'd kinda love to see the Brights doing a little more now and again." Taylor grins. "There's a few drug dealers and gang members that aren't worth the trouble to bring in, you know? Especially when they start to get the big lawyers showing up."

Flamehammer nods. "THE PROBLEM IS THAT EVERYONE'S WATCHING."

"You can't drop the uniform, huh."

"BRIGHT SOCIETY RULES."

Officer Taylor laughs. "Guess I shouldn't say anything about breaking rules." He shakes his head. "Just too bad that we have to follow so many while the criminals don't."

Under the helmet, Reggie smiles. "I'M SURE YOU'D NEVER ARREST SOMEONE WHO'S JUST THERE TO HELP."

"I don't see you in cuffs right now," Taylor points out. "Frankly, those of us who saw you take down that loudmouth cheered. No one likes going down on the docks with all the violent weirdos around there. I've done a few patrols there, everyone's always on edge."

"NOW THEY THINK THEY CAN HOLD THE CITY HOS—"

The door opens. Chief Marrol is standing there. "Society's lawyer's here. We're letting you go."

Flamehammer gets to his feet. "THANK YOU, CHIEF." He offers his hand to the chief, who shakes it, and then to Officer Taylor, who does the same.

"Thank you, Flamehammer. Hopefully this is all sorted out shortly." The chief steps out to hold the door for him.

The rioters are singing again. He doesn't have to walk past the holding cells, but he can hear them.

He wants them to hurt. Badly.

And maybe he'll have his chance soon enough.

How will Tanya's return to work go? Will the Bright Society manage their public-relations battle? And what will Silver Tongue's programming do to Sharon, especially as it collides with someone else's?

Find out more in part twelve!

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