Conflict Resolution

Part Thirteen: The Interrogations

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

Sterling Grey has a very long day ahead of him, including two significant interrogations!

Port City, USA

7:26 PM, Tuesday evening

The Port City Dockworks Co-operative Confederation

Basement of the maintenance building

Sharon emerges from the locker room with a towel around her shoulders, not realizing that she hasn't dressed after her run and her shower. She walks out confidently into the empty hallway, turns a corner, and heads into a meeting room, closing the door in the dimly-lit space.

She jumps in surprise. She's not alone.

A woman stands in the soft light, about halfway into the meeting room. She has red, frizzy hair, cute glasses on her round face, and a short, stout frame. She's wearing the shirt of a local pizza shop.

And nothing else.

There's a hand at her crotch, not her own, slowly stroking her exposed labia. She's trembling, but not with fear; instead, she's wearing an expression of joy and arousal. Her eyes are closed. She doesn't seem to notice Sharon.

Sharon looks away from the delivery woman, her gaze lighting on the hand and following it past the wrist and elbow to an high-backed office chair facing away from the door. All she can see of the chair's occupant is that arm.

"Sharon," a melodious baritone voice says, presuambly from the chair's occupant. "I don't believe you've met Marie."

"I think I would remember..."

The voice in the chair chuckled, curling a finger and making Marie gasp in pleasure. "Most people think they would. The truth is, I learned a long time ago that by giving people more than one important thing to focus on, it's very likely they would remember none of them."

"You... wait, you're..."

"That's right."

Marie moans, and her knees shake. She paws the air by her hip with her left hand, futilely looking for something to hold on to. She groans out a "Yes," but whether that's an answer to Sharon's statement or a reaction to her own pleasure is impossible to tell.

"You're not here to stare at her," the voice continues. "But you're going to. You're here to tell me all about what Crystal said to you on your walk."

Sharon's hand drifted to her breast, watching Silver Tongue finger-fuck the pizza girl. Marie. She was already finding it hard to concentrate. "We had a normal jog through the docks, down by the water and up towards downtown before circling back here. Crystal went home because her shift's done."

"There would be a moment," Silver Tongue begins, but is interrupted by a cry of joy and Marie's hand clutching to his. "Shh, not yet," he says, and his voice is something like comfort and chastisement all at once. Marie visibly swallows air, trying to maintain her composure. The mind-controller chuckles. "We've been waiting for you for quite a while, you see."

"I didn't realize I was on a schedule," Sharon retorts curiously, her fingers playing over her nipple.

"Oh, you're not. It just means that Marie's been on edge for some time."

Marie swallows again and nods. "Uh... uhhuh..."

"So hopefully," he continues, "you will be able to answer my questions."

"I'll do my best," Sharon responds honestly. "Anything to help Project Sunset." She glances over at the cute, stout redhead, whimpering and shaking. She's starting to shake a bit, herself. "Is she involved?"

"Fantastic. She's not involved. Now." Silver Tongue gives a sharp hand motion and Marie cries out loudly with pleasure, then takes a deep breath and holds it. Sharon's knees buckle a bit, watching the display. "There would be a moment, where you paused, where she spoke to you in phrases that were directives. How to think. What to believe. It might have been very subtle, maybe even innocuous. Did anything stand out to you?"

Sharon tries to think, as Marie lets her held breath out in stuttering bursts of noise, puffing a bit like a woman in labor. She waits for Marie to finish and take another gasp before speaking. "There wasn't anything that seemed unusual."

"That is the point, both of the way the language is used, and of the subsonic inducer."

Marie's mouth is moving, but Sharon can't hear anything emerging. She imagines herself in Marie's position, not realizing that her own left hand has begun lightly stroking her labia. What would she be saying, if she were facing that direct manipulation of her body instead of this deflected manipulation of her mind?

And then she is talking. About how when they came off the first bend, Crystal was talking about leading a double life, which was an unusual thing to say. But it seemed so normal, then. Even exciting. Something she might like to do. The way Crystal talked about it, it was almost like something everyone did. Just part of everyday life.

Marie shivers and seems to want to push forward, to take a step, as Silver Tongue's hand moves away from her slightly. Out of her, slightly, Sharon realizes, as her own fingers tease and flutter between her legs and at her chest.

"That's very good information, thank you," Silver Tongue says. "Please, continue. Think of anything that might have been strange or out-of-place."

Silver Tongue's hand moves suddenly and quickly, swinging up at the elbow to go past Marie and backhand her bottom with an audible swat. Marie gasps and moans loudly. Sharon tenses sympathetically, and blurts out, "Crystal said that I must know a lot of weak points in the docks."

Marie takes a deep breath and adjusts her position carefully, using the moment to secure her footing.

The voice comes from the chair. "Good, Sharon. And did you start to think about those after she said it?"

"Yes, I did." Sharon's eyes were fixed on the slow-motion movement of the villain's fingertips, gently making their way over Marie's hip, moving like a spider, returning to their place of rest between the pizza girl's legs. "I started to think about the responsibility of the maintenance team, and all the damage I could do just by not doing my job, and more still than that, by active sabotage."

"Ngyaaah!" Marie shouted as those fingers once more slipped inside of her. Sharon's own fingers mirrored them and she gasped, only finally realizing what she was doing to her own body.

Silver Tongue's voice drifted to her once more. "Did Crystal say anything about that? This is important, so watch Marie closely."

Marie's hands were tightly gripped to the outsides of her chubby thighs, the only possible point of purchase they could get. Sharon realizes that Marie must have been instructed to stand with her arms at her sides. "Yes," Sharon replies, mirroring Marie's repeated vocalizations. Her own voice sounds distant to her, with Marie's cries being so present. "Yes, she said I should probably figure out as many of those weak points as possible. To understand how I could do the most damage, if I were trying to attack the Confederation."

"Just in case someone does attack us, so you know all the vulnerable places."

"That's right."

"One, last question," Silver Tongue says.

"Oh God oh please just one more," Marie blurts out.

Looking at Marie's fingers digging into her own flesh, Sharon thinks, It'll be surprising if she doesn't have bruises in the morning.

"Steady." There's a very familiar chuckle from the chair, but Sharon can't place it. "I promise this will be the last."

Marie gibbers a bit, incomprehensibly, but recaptures her composure with a needy whine. Sharon, watching, runs her hand over both breasts and plays a little more roughly between her legs.

"Did she say anything else about a double life? Exact words, if you can."

Sharon shook her head. "Nothing special at all."

Marie gasps as Silver Tongue removes his hand.

"Just that I'll be leading one like everyone else."

Marie lets out a throaty roar and sinks to her knees on the carpet, body convulsing, her own hands taking the place of the supervillain's with a terrific suddenness.

Sharon, meanwhile finishes her shower. Nothing like a hot, soothing blast of water after a long run. And for some reason, the fantasies were overpowering. She had imagined watching from a distance as Sterling touched, teased, and generally tormented another woman; she had initially thought she might fantasize about Chelsea, but she created someone new for her friend to finger-fuck, apparently.

Either way, it had been amazingly hot. Normally she doesn't masturbate at work, even in the shower, but it's a slow day, everyone's taking it easy, and the run got her physically tuned up, and once the fantasy took hold...

She tosses her towel in her gym bag and grabs her work clothes. She'll be a little late getting back on shift, but today, no one will care.


Also at 7:26 PM, Tuesday evening

A set of townhouse-style apartments in Barwater, near the docks

Tanya sits alone in Sharon's apartment, at her friend's personal laptop. She isn't able to check her friends' schedules, so she doesn't know when Sharon will be home. Or if.

Her talk with Amelia and Natali has cemented her view that Sterling Grey isn't to be trusted, at the very least. From there, it wasn't too much of a challenge to draw the same conclusion that Amelia had, that Sterling Grey had, and has, powers. She opens another search tab. She hates powers. She hates what they do to her friend, tearing her life apart, even if she can't see it. She hates what they did to her parents' relationship, and to hers with her father.

"Why can't everyone just be fucking normal?" she mutters to no one in particular, madly typing away, looking for more information about Natali's story in one tab, about Sterling Grey's life-coaching business in another, and for any illict activity from his years in college in the third—especially looking for a pattern of unexplained assaults or druggings or anything like the rumors Amelia had told her surrounded him. "People are fucked up enough without this supernatural... magic... shit. Or whatever."

She clicks back over to the stories of the human trafficking arrests, the exploitation ring that had been broken up by Dockworks security and not, to their humiliation, by Port City PD. The media seemed to eat up that narrative, too, not just the story but the angle: the Dockworks Co-operative Confederation were the heroes, while the police (and specifically, she noticed, the Bright Society) were called out for their incompetence in handling the matter.

There is no mention of Sterling Grey in the articles. Strange, considering what Natali had told her, that sixteen young women personally owed him their lives, that he was there with security forces to stall the operation. Idly, she opens another tab and starts just searching for Sterling Grey, being sure to exclude Flamehammer from the search so that she doesn't get a dozen articles about what had happened the other night. Considering his placement in the co-op and given that, if she understands correctly, part of his job is to make interactions between the confederation and the rest of the world go smoothly, he's practically invisible to the media.

Maybe that's what he does with his power. Gives other people the credit. That would fit with his saintly image, she thinks sarcastically. Just who the fuck is this guy?

Back to the information about the operation that had brought Natali to the U.S.. Other than the anti-police, pro-PCDCC slant, nothing about it seems that unusual, it's a standard sort of article Tanya expects would be written about that sort of thing. She tries a few other links, nothing particularly interesting comes up.

She flips to the last tab she'd opened, looking into Sterling personally, going back as far as she could in time while not going beyond the beginning of the Dockworks Confederation. There were a couple photos of him in old Crier articles, listing him as part of the strike negotiation team, and then a couple years after that, leading an impassioned discussion at City Hall over some regulatory procedure or something, but it seems that since then he's been laying low, at least media-wise.

Tanya wishes that she had her tools from her home computer. Maybe she shouldn't have come to Sharon's place, but she had been hoping Sharon would be here, that it wouldn't be too late to...

To what? To save her? From what? Tanya pauses a moment, then gets up from the computer and heads to the kitchen. If I believe Amelia, Sterling's had dozens of girls in his power at some point, whatever that means, but they've all come back alright, more or less. If not, there would be some evidence, some trail, unless he can make information vanish.

She sighs. It had been instinctual, wanting to be here with her friend as she worked. She doesn't want to be alone right now, but there's not a lot of choice. At least she feels safer here than in her home; someone knows just where she lives, someone who might have tried to kill her, or at least, if Sterling and her lawyer are to be believed, to frame her.

She returns to Sharon's desk with a glass of cold water and sits back down. Something catches her eye on the screen, which drives her to look back at the first tab. She tilts her head. "Really?"

A quick search for the name 'Elena Reyes' in connection to the PCDCC shows that she writes a lot of articles for the Crier about the docks. Nothing too shocking, maybe that's just her beat—but she never seems to have a bad word to say about the Confederation. If Tanya were an outside observer, maybe from the other side of the country (or the world), and only knew about the Dockworks through Elena Reyes' articles, she might have the impression that there was nothing wrong going on there.

It's very subtle in places, which Tanya only really notices when she compares Elena's stories to others written from other viewpoints. She's a propogandist, and a very, very good one, more insidious because she's so very careful not to look like one.

And the connection is right there in front of her, or it is after a moment or two of searching. Reyes was not Elena's birth name; Elena Crenham graduated from Bayshore the same year Sterling Grey did, with an Arts degree in jounalism. And, a little more searching shows, from Kennemin High, the same year Sterling did. Looking at Elena's grad photo, there's no question that she would have been on his radar. She probably still is.

She looks at the clock in the corner of the screen. 8:12 PM. No sign of Sharon. God only knows where she might be. If she's on shift, she might be home in an hour, or it might not be until midnight. "Fuck," she mutters. "You're about to do something goddamn stupid, aren't you."

She gets to her feet to pace. "But this is something I'm doing myself," she says, speaking to herself as she walks in circles. "I'm not being lured. No one's inviting me. I'm going on my own. I have the element of surprise. Tactical advantage."

She quickly heads back to the computer, stops the browser, shuts it down, closes the lid. Stupid fucking foolish decision made, she says, leaving the apartment and locking the door behind her. I'm gonna die.


About 10:30 PM

Sterling Grey's apartment

"But you didn't," he says. "And you're not going to."

Tanya startles, coming out of her stupor. She feels like she's been talking a while. There's a strange, metallic taste in her mouth, like she left a piece of aluminum foil stuck to a plate of leftovers. "What?"

"I had to know what you said, in Sharon's apartment." Sterling's sitting on a barstool across the room from her. "You didn't die. I'm not going to kill you. I don't kill people."

She's tied to a chair.

Tied to a chair and feeling fucking stupid.

Idiot. You're a goddamned idiot. You got yourself into trouble just a few fucking days ago because you went somewhere without talking to anyone. She leans her head back against the chair. And you knew where you going this time! Fuck me, you're a fool sometimes.

"No, you just keep knockout drugs and ropes on hand for fun," she spits. She's terrified, but she's not about to let Sterling know it.

Fuck, not Sterling-fucking-Grey, she thinks to herself, testing the bonds that hold her limbs. They're solidly secure, but oddly comfortable, much like the chair itself. He's goddamn Silver Tongue. He didn't even try to deny when I—

"I do, yes," he replies, taking a drink of his water. "And I've been talking a lot today, so you'll pardon me if I go slowly."

She rolls her eyes at him. "Is that what you say to all the girls you brain-rape?"

He winces at the term. She's struck a nerve. Good. "I don't... do that." He seems averse to the word. "Not anymore."

"But you did."

He gives a wry smile. "I did. Cards on the table. I was once the monster you believe I am now."

"So, Amelia? Elena?" she guesses.

"No, not by then, but... yes." He nods. "I got very lucky with Elena. It doesn't excuse my behavior—and boy, did she let me know about it, and she was right—but I got very lucky with her. Turns out..." He chuckles, and she sees color rising in his cheeks. "Turns out she likes that."

Tanya scoffs. "Or did you just muck around in her thoughts until she did?"

He shakes his head, sitting up straighter. "No, not then. I... I wouldn't have known how."

"But now you do."

"Oh yes, now I do, and now I know better than to do it. No, back in high school, I fixated on Elena, used my newfound powers, did some things I recognize now to be terrible, and put the thought in her head that she wouldn't tell anyone about it." He stands up, rocking on his heels, walking lazily back and forth. "I didn't even think to erase her memory, just gave her a powerful command never to speak of it. So she, of course, found me, and we did speak of it, and that was part of my journey to develop empathy and a conscience."

"Christ, you whine a lot, you know?" Tanya snaps a bit. "You had power, you took what you wanted, then when you get called out for it you insist that you're all better now, but a week ago you brought my two best friends home after warping their minds. And mine, too."

"You're not going to see it like this now," he begins.

"Oh, I'm sure you'll change my mind."

"If you want," he says, and his tone sends fear down her spine.

"That's not fair," she says, suddenly feeling small. "You can make me want you to."

He nods. "Cards on the table."

She lets out a breath slowly. "So... are you?"

"No."

She gives him an odd look. "You're... you're not?"

"No."

Such a simple word. She gathers her courage. "Why the fuck not, am I not good enough for you?"

He laughs. "Tanya, if that was all that mattered..."

"You took two of us home last week, why not all three?"

"Because I left the monster behind half a lifetime ago, and it was more than clear that you weren't interested."

"But they were?"

He nods. "All I did to them was put a few little ideas in their heads to consider, and smooth a few things over. I didn't make them come home with me."

"Okay. Are you being honest with me?" She's not sure why she asks, but she wants to hear his answer.

"Absolutely," he replies. "I know there's no way I can prove that to you, but I am. I'm not using my power right now."

She struggles in her seat. It's too damn comfortable. "Got any reason why the fuck I should believe you?"

"Actually, I do," he says, and he stops walking. "When this discussion is over, I'm going to give you a choice, and that choice depends on you having good information and a free option."

Tanya scoffs. "I'm tied to a chair in your apartment and you're a mind-controlling supervillain. What 'free option' can I get?"

"This," Sterling replies, sitting back down. "Either you join the Dockworks—"

"Not fucking likely."

"—or you forget all this ever happened, and you wake up tomorrow happy for your friends' happiness."

Tanya blinks. "Shit." She sighs. "You can do that?"

"I can do that," he confirms. "And I've done it to a lot of people, for a lot of reasons."

"All good, I'm sure," she growls.

"No." He doesn't elaborate.

"But this reason's a good one?" she asks. She hates how her voice pitches up when she's nervous. Her stoicity is slipping, right when she needs it.

If Sterling notices, he doesn't show it. "It is, believe me."

"And there's no chance of you just letting me fucking go with a promise not to tell anyone."

He laughs. "That didn't work out so great with Elena." He looks her straight in the eye. "Those are the only two options."

Tanya nods. "I guess that makes some sense," she says. There's an odd taste in her mouth again. A taste like sand—not the texture of it, not gritty at all, just its flavor.

"You can see it from my point of view?"

She laughs, shaking her head. "Fuck me, yeah, I kinda do. Jesus fuck, what are you doing to me, dockie?" She licks her teeth a bit, trying to figure out what she can taste. Maybe an aftereffect of the drug he'd...

"So, like I said, you won't see it like this now, but I don't do what I used to do."

What? Oh, right. "I'm not seeing much of a difference, asshole."

"That's because a lot of it is theoretical to you, but I'm telling you, the way I handled myself in school was far worse."

"Amelia didn't think so."

"Amelia doesn't know."

"Because you fucked with her memory."

"Not like some others, but yes, I did. She told you about the rumors, that I was a dealer?"

Tanya nods curtly.

"Imagine that you go on a date with someone, you go home with them, and the next day, everything's just a bit... fuzzy. Just a little off. Your behavior is a little strange. Your memory has holes in it." He takes another sip of his water. "It's not... it wasn't always intentional. I didn't know how to moderate or mediate my power, I didn't know how potent language is. In short, I was a kid and I didn't know how to control myself. And more than that, I didn't want to control myself. So at a point there was this trail of women with vague memories of going out with me but who were all a bit unsure on the details..."

"Jesus, Casanova, I get it. You got a reputation, and it didn't stop you from getting more pussy."

"And then..." he sighs. "Well, you must know who Warren Donovan was."

She plays dumb, but she's sure her shocked expression gives her away. "No clue."

"Your loyalty is commendable, but while you were in jail, we found out about Chelsea."

That terrifies her, but also solidifies her resolve. "Okay, so you know." Crap, that adds a whole other dimension to this discussion.

"So you would know Warren Donovan."

No point in lying. "I met Chelsea after he took off, I got nothing to do with the bastard," she spits. The fear makes her eyes water, which she hopes isn't visible in the low light. If I forget, I won't know that he knows that Chelsea's—

"Warren can, and did, and probably does, do horrific things to other people with powers," Sterling explains, not seeming to notice Tanya's predicament. "And so, when it became known that he was coming for both Lawman and Silver Tongue, well... There were two different sides and two different reactions. I, coward that I am, hid. I had already started to build up a little operation with my friends and colleagues, and I just finished out my degree and kept myself secret as well as I could. Sterling Grey sure couldn't disappear, because that would be too obvious, but I could just not be Silver Tongue for a while, keep a low profile. Meanwhile, Lawman was protected by the Bright Society, and they circled the wagons, even sacrificed a couple low-level brutes to Warren in an effort to distract or trap him. The distractions worked for a while, but Donovan wasn't about to be hemmed in."

"Too bad you did just keep fucking not being Silver Tongue." But if I join them, I'll be helping him. "You got something behind that history lesson?"

"I do, yes," Sterling says, still undeterred by her sarcasm. "I had to learn to modulate my power, so that I didn't leave an obvious trail leading right to me. And then I learned that it was far easier, far better, and far more fun, to just nudge a bit. Grease the hinges, instead of forcing my way through the door. Trust me, Tanya, if either Chelsea or Sharon were opposed to what's been going on this week, it wouldn't be happening. I didn't make it possible, I only took it from a possibility to a reality."

There's that weird taste again. Had she eaten anything since Billy's? Did he pour dirt in her mouth or some shit? "Alright, so let's pretend for a hot fucking second that I buy that. So what? You still made it happen. You're still full of shit."

He raises an eyebrow, and a hint of a grin plays over his mouth. "Do you want to know how powerful I really am? What I could make happen if I wanted?"

The fear delivers a punch to her gut, but she steels herself in defiance. "Yeah, sure, what, am I gonna get up and give you a fucking blow job?"

"Look at your arms."

"What?"

"Look. At your arms."

She does.

"I'm... what the fuck, Sterling?"

"You're not tied up."

"I can fucking see that you fucking tool!" She's inexplicably angry. "What the fuck is going on?"

"You believe you're tied up."

Her baleful glare snaps to his grinning face. "I do not believe that I'm tied up you fucker! I can see that I'm not! Why can't I fucking move?"

"Because I told you to act like you're tied up, even if I showed you that you weren't."

"Well that's just fucking fantastic for you, isn't it?" she yells. "Because if I could get out of this chair, I'd come over there and wipe that stupid smile off your fat fucking face!"

"But you can't. You're stuck there," he says. Then something seems to occur to him. He leans forward, letting his feet plant on the floor. "Do you want to know what it's like, being frozen like I was? So cold that you can't move?"

She's about to tell him that of course Chelsea's frozen her before, but the chill rushes through her too quickly. The heat of her anger flickers and dies in an instant. Every muscle in her body locks in place. It doesn't feel like the Arctic Angel's ice blast, because it's not; the moment Chelsea's cold took hold of her, everything stopped, right down to her breathing, her heartbeat, her thoughts, even the feeling of the cold itself. This is different, much more on the surface, but also somehow more profound, maybe because she's aware enough to feel cold.

"This is what I can do," Silver Tongue is saying, rising to tower over her, walking across the room. "I can make you cold, or hot. I can make you move, or make you still. I can make you believe, or make you doubt. I can wipe every resistant thought from your mind and make you kneel before your worst enemy and worship at his feet." His hands were on the arms of the chair, his face inches from hers.

She shivers in the cold that she perceives in her mind, that she knows is just an illusion. "W-why," she stammers, then swallows, then speaks again, "Why don't you j-just do that, then?"

He smirks. He looks ... different. Not different like the Angel looks from Chelsea, it's still identifiably Sterling Grey, but his expression is twisted. Almost cruel. It's a glare that's almost fundamentally opposed to everything she's seen of the man.

But cruelty inspires still more defiance. "If you could f-fuck me up like that... d-do it. Do it, you s-sick bastard." Realization hits. "You already d-did. You made me t-trust you, at the Argent. Fuck, you made me tell you h-how to seduce my friends!"

"Did I?" he asks, simply. "Did that feel like this?"

"No," she admits. A calm settles over her, a calm of acceptance, feeling strength in her position. "But you did it, didn't you? You wormed your way into my brain, made me comfortable, got me talking..."

"No," he says, finally backing off. "No, I didn't."

She challenges him, her voice rising. "No? What do you call it, then? Greasing the hinges? What, you think that just because you demonstrate that you could fuck my brain six ways from Sunday that I should be happy that you just weaseled information out of me? If you pull a gun, should I be happy when you just piss off with my purse instead of shooting me? Fuck you, Sterling Grey. Just fucking wipe my brain, and keep sleeping with my best friends, and for good measure drag me into your bed once in a while, you goddamn pervert." She pauses, shaking off the last of the cold. There's a silence into which they're both breathing heavily, Tanya in anger, while Sterling's reaction is less readable. "What's the matter, Sterling?" she taunts him. "Too close to the truth?"

"Too close to an old truth," he replies. "That's not who I am anymore."

"Oh really. Then why can't I move my arms? And don't tell me that you're scared of a little girl."

He raises an eyebrow. "Pretty sure that you threatened to, what did you say? 'Separate my kneecaps from my legs'? And, 'Slice me into little pieces, starting with my balls'?"

Despite herself, she snickers. "Sounds like me." Then she meets his eyes.

That's a mistake. For them both.

He tries to stop it. She watches him try to contain it, watches his eyes twitch and his mouth curl. But...

He laughs.

And hearing him, seeing him try to fight, she laughs back, laughs with him. And the two of them aren't able to keep themselves from escalating, each building on the other. Tears roll down her cheeks that she can't lift a finger to stop. Sterling slides down the wall he's leaning on for support until he's forced to sit on the ground. Wave after wave of helpless laughter struck them, leaving them exhausted.

She's the first to recover, giggling. "Ooh, 'I can make you hot or cold.' Look at you, a fucking HVAC system for a superpower."

Sterling laughs again, a high-pitched, throaty sound. "What... what about you? Talking tough while you can't even lift a finger!"

"Well what about you?" she chortles back. "So scared of me that you drug me and tie me up!"

Sterling takes a deep breath. "Standard procedure, really," he says, through shallow breaths.

"Oh yeah? For mind-fucking new recruits?"

"Something like that, yes," he replies. He looks up at her, trying to be serious. "Do you... do you understand, now? What I can do? Why I don't have to give you a choice?"

Tanya wrinkles her nose, getting control over her emotions. "Yeah, I..." This is an important question. Fuck, this is him being chivalrous. "I get it. You could just..." she swallows. Real fear and vulnerability well up in her, surprising her, sobering her. "I get it, Sterling," she says, and she means it.

"So..." He sighs. "I feel.... uncivilized. Brutish. Especially now."

"You are," she points out, but there's no heat in her words. "What you do to people—"

He shakes his head. "Isn't this. This isn't what I do."

"But you're doing it. Ipso fucko..."

He moans, rolling up to his knees. "Most of the time, it doesn't go this way."

"Oh, is this a common occurrence for you, then? Just a fun little Tuesday evening activity?"

Sterling stands up, still catching his breath. "No, it's pretty rare that someone rolls up to my door, knocks on it, pushes her way into my apartment, and then says, 'You're Silver Tongue.' I've had to improvise a bit. So, the spray I keep near the door, and the necessary questions about whether I was being recorded, or if you'd told anyone, how you figured it out, and what you'd said in Sharon's apartment."

The apartment again. "Why do you care what I said there."

"Because there's a bug in Sharon's apartment, and if you'd said it out loud, there might have been trouble."

"Oh. I, uh, I guess that's something to talk about later." Tanya sighs. "So what the fuck do we do now, fuckface?" Her tone is more weary than upset.

"Well, we can start again," Sterling suggests. "Or we can sit down and have a cup of tea."

She rolls her eyes. "Jesus fucking Christ on a motherfucking crutch, you're a pain in the ass, you know that?"

"I do, yes."

She exhales slowly. "It's late, I wanna get this fucking dealt with, whether you're gonna blank me out or you're gonna enslave me. I guess it's kinda inevitable, at this point, yeah, one or the other?"

He nods.

"Alright. Fuck you. Put the kettle on and break out the chocolate chip cookies, let's have us a little kitchen party."


Midnight

Reginald Bright's bedroom

The Arctic Angel sits on the edge of the bed as Flamehammer stands in front of her and massages her shoulders.

"Bit of a rough session," he says with a grin. "I'm gonna feel most of that in the morning."

She nods. She assesses her evening, finds it was satisfactory. A nutritious dinner at a restaurant, energy-giving and somewhat exotic, definitely a step above her usual fare. A restful time watching a movie. An exceptional sparring match where Flamehammer had proven once more to be incapable of besting her.

It was satisfying. As was the sex which followed, both on the floor of the training room and in Reggie's bed.

She had yet to let her transformation fade. She can sense that Flamehammer prefers this.

It had become more and more difficult to think of Flamehammer as "Reggie" over the course of the evening. The longer they had sat watching the movie, a movie she can scarcely remember for how often she seemed to be drifting off during the slower moments, the more she thought of this man not as her co-worker but as her ally in the fight.

This is what she wants. Sterling is a fine challenge for Chelsea's mind, and can do wonderful things with Chelsea's body. Sharon can match Chelsea's strength and enthusiasm, and the emotional connection there is potent. But only Flamehammer is a good match for the Arctic Angel.

Those words echo in her mind, as true as when she thought them. Only Flamehammer is a good match for the Arctic Angel.

Plus, Sterling and Sharon are rioters. Brutal, violent criminals. When the time comes, the Arctic Angel will be called on to bring them to justice. No matter how deep Chelsea's personal connection to them, that is what must happen.

Flamehammer's attempts to massage her shoulders went largely unnoticed. The Angel presumes that he's more doing that for his own benefit than for hers.

"I do have to go home," she says. She sounds amused. She's not, it's a plain statement of fact, but she can tell that Flamehammer would prefer that it be a joke, or at least joking.

"No chance for the best three outta five falls, huh," he replies, still rubbing her shoulders unhelpfully.

"None," she replies, and she remembers to smile for him. "I should change back."

"That's a shame," Flamehammer replies. "But it is late, and I do have to work tomorrow, and I've had two sparring matches with you today. I'm going to need all the sleep I can get."

She remembers to smile.

The wings dissolve into vapor and the Angel shrinks down into Chelsea, who stands up and stretches. "Meanwhile, I had a nap and a workout between our little matches." She grins and plants a playful little kiss on Reggie's cheek. "And I don't work tomorrow."

The Angel feels cold, almost lifeless. This place where she keeps herself until Chelsea calls on her is her own.

Unusually, though, she's still aware. In the past—even that very morning—Chelsea grew into the Arctic Angel, and the Angel was an extension of her. But now, as Chelsea has some bedroom banter with Flamehammer and heads back to the basement to retrieve her clothing, the Arctic Angel feels like she's... trapped?

No. Not trapped. Contained, but not trapped. More like lying in wait. Awaiting an opportunity.

An opportunity for what? she thinks as Chelsea pulls on her tight jeans. She doesn't know.

And then she does.

Flamehammer follows Chelsea downstairs, fiddling with his watch as he puts it on.

Violence. She's waiting for the chance to do violence.

She wants to do violence.

Those words of Sterling Grey's resonate in her soul.

She wants to do violence.

And they have a riot to contain. A perfect outlet.

She will remember what Chelsea cannot. The urge to fight. That ache to be with Flamehammer, to meet her match and go to war with him on the training floor and in the bedroom. The drive to mold herself into what he needs her to be, so they can accomplish his aims together.

The rioters weren't her equal. She can hold them off well enough herself; with Flamehammer at her side, they wouldn't stand a chance.

This is what Flamehammer is telling her through the drive back to Chelsea's apartment. Somehow, he's speaking directly to her, encouraging her, drawing her out, without Chelsea paying attention, without Chelsea even really noticing.

The Angel appreciates the effort, but she is still a part of Chelsea.

For now.


2:25 AM

Sterling Grey's living room

"Is it done?"

"Yes."

Tanya blinks her eyes open. "I don't feel any different."

"You're not supposed to."

"Yeah," she says, not knowing what else to say.

There's a moment of silence.

"Were you expecting to?"

"I mean, kinda?"

Another space of a breath.

"So when I wake up tomorrow..."

Sterling nods.

"Why not right now?"

"Because then you would feel different, and you'd question that, and..." he shrugs. "Take it from the experienced mind controller, it's better this way."

It hadn't been a difficult decision, in the end. Not that she had told him, or would tell him, her reasoning; once he'd said that he knew Chelsea's secret, that left no other path open to her. Everything after that point had been stalling for time, but no matter how hard she worked on the puzzle, she couldn't come up with any other answer.

She couldn't forget that. Not and keep Chelsea safe. If the PCDCC knows, she has to know that they know, and that means she has to work with them. Work from within. Especially now that she no longer has access to the Bright Society servers.

Maybe it's just time to see what resources the Dockworks has to offer her.

"Your first shift is Friday, I think," he says. He seems tired.

"Your voice sounds rough."

"I've been talking a lot, today," he explains, the hint of a smile on his face.

"Yeah, I get it," she says. "Me too."

He nods. "And it's late. I was up late last night, too."

She nods. "Me too."

"I know." He grins. "It was easy to connect the dots, when a fraud email landed in Amelia's inbox about half an hour after the attack on our personnel servers. You kept me up until about four in the morning sorting all that out."

"You wish it was me keepin' you up."

"Heh, I don't think that's really what you'd want."

She nods. "Yeah, uh, is that gonna, like, change?"

He shakes his head. "Remember the monster in college? I learned back then that lesbians—and straight guys, for that matter—are way too much work for what they get out of it."

"That's a lot of information to dump on a girl who just woke up out of a mind-controlled stupor. I have questions." Tanya frowned. "First of all, straight guys? You tellin' me you're bi? And what do you mean too much work?"

"I experimented in college, because I could, right? But no, one of the things experimentation can tell you is what you aren't, as well as what you are." He shrugs. "I'm pretty decidedly straight."

"So... why not experiment with gay guys, then?"

"You think I didn't?"

"Okay, okay, that's fair." Tanya stands up from the armchair and stretches. "So. I'm too much work?"

He chuckles. "When I had to stop being so... overt in my use of power, I learned that less is far, far more. The more subtle my touch, the less power I use, the better the results."

"If that's true, why did you have to do... whatever it is you just did?"

"What you don't appreciate, since you're the one under the sway, is how subtle the suggestions I gave you are. Uh, let's use a programming metaphor, I guess? I'm not great with computers, but... Instead of downloading one massive file to overwrite your operating system, I sent you a thousand little files that total the same size as the one big one, but overall have a less dramatic effect on who you are, but a more powerful long-term impact on what you do. But from your point of view, it's just uploading a gigabyte of programs, either way, you see?"

Tanya nods. "I think so. That's a shit metaphor."

"Sorry, it's all I've got."

"So if I follow," she continues, "you'd have to do a lot of those big-file downloads to get me to bed?"

"Yeah, and when I have a lot of options without doing that—"

"Lesbians and straight guys are too much effort."

"That's right, and then it takes still more work to cover up the unusual-for-them behavior."

Tanya smirks. "Sleeping with you would be pretty fucking unusual behavior."

"Which is why I use mind control powers to get some."

"Jesus, Sterling, did you just make a fucking joke?"

"Don't tell anyone, alright?"

She snaps a salute. "You got it, boss."

"Oh Lord," he complains. "Another one."

"Hm?"

"Never mind."

A moment passes between them.

"So, what now?" Tanya asks. "You gonna send me home on a fuckin' cab or something?"

"I could. You're also welcome to stay."

"Huh. Well it would save me some time, I guess. Where are you gonna sleep when I take your bed?"

"The armchair," he replies, not missing a beat.

She doesn't have the energy to explode at him, not again. "Christ," she says evenly. "You're fucking infuriating. I'm almost fucking disappointed I didn't wake up as a mindless drone just so I could be goddamn right about something about you."

"You knew I couldn't be trusted," he says, almost sadly. "You knew I was trouble."

"Jesus, don't be so... you all the time, alright?" Am I feeling sympathy? For this fucker?

"Honestly, I haven't been myself at all this last week. After months of steady decline into routine and, if I'm honest, drudgery, you and your friends show up, and suddenly Silver Tongue is back, and Sterling Grey's a new man. Oh and also I'm involved in a fight with two Bright Society majors, I organize a massive workers' strike, and I start implimenting a major strategic project." He sits down on the bar stool he'd been on when he started talking all soft and she'd lost track of his words. "I haven't had time to be myself."

"Well maybe you wanna consider being someone else, then."

He lets out a brief, bitter laugh. "Another thing that I learned in the mind control business—in the life-coach business, actually. Trying to be someone you're not is a real challenge. Trying to make someone into someone else is a lost cause for most people."

Tanya tilts her head, curious. "And for you?"

He lets out a sigh. "I suppose I owe you at least that much. You asked why I didn't just force you into this, and, well, that's the reason. I can make someone into someone they're not, someone they would never be. It's not easy, it takes time and reinforcement and power, but..."

"Shit, you've done that before."

He nods. "I have. But I always run up against two problems." He holds up his right index finger. "One, it takes constant reinforcement; even in the face of my power, people are very resilient, and after a while, they'll shrug off suggestions that aren't well set in place."

Tanya nods. "No wonder you got into psych studies, huh."

"How did you—?"

"Hacker." She's too tired to be smug about it.

"Right, uh, anyway." His middle finger comes up to make a 'V.' "Second problem. Making someone into someone they're not supercedes who they were. They have the interest and incentive to keep the fictional persona going, especially if it's properly anchored, so it's not like you can make someone lead a double life. It's really all or nothing."

"Huh, so if someone came along and did that shit to you, you'd be like 100% Silver Tongue and 0% Sterling Grey?" Tanya asks, curious.

"Well, I'd be 100% what they want Silver Tongue to be, and if there was constant reinforcement of that, I'd stay that way."

"And there'd be no way for you to be both?"

"There are lots of ways for me to be both. I'm both right now. But that's the point of it; I can't use mind control to make a complete, complex human being, especially not out of a complete, complex human being. If I'm imposing that sort of thing on someone, I can only make them into whatever I can describe them to be." Sterling closes his eyes and weaves a bit on his stool. "It tends to... simplify someone, to an obvious extreme. People notice when you do that to a person."

"I'm not sure I follow."

He looks her in the eyes. He looks exhausted. "My power is based on my voice, on my words. Can you imagine me trying to direct every aspect of someone's personality? Dictating every reaction they might have, every emotion, every quirk and foible? That's why I can't effectively make a split personality, because people are never just one thing, and any effort to make them that is futile, unless all you want is a drone that focuses all their attention on a small set of actions."

"Okay, okay." Tanya yawns, realizing how tired she is. "So I'm not just a worker bee then?"

"Nope," Sterling says, stifling a yawn himself. "Just adjusted your loyalties a little, made you like the idea of working with us, instilled some incentives to keep you on board... You're not going to be perfect, you're just going to be Tanya, working on the docks. Just as you are now, with a little more besides."

"Yeah, well, it's that 'little more' I'm worried about."

"You'll feel better in the morning."

"Yeah, that's what I'm worried about, too."

Sterling snorts. "I'm pretty much done in, can I show you to my room?"

She offers him a hand to help him to his feet, despite the fact that, on his stool, he's still about as tall as she is. "I bet you say that to all the pretty girls."

He grins. "No, usually just the ones I've mind-controlled into fucking me."

She rolls her eyes again but can't keep the smile from her face. "You know, dickwad, you're actually kinda fun sometimes."

What will Tanya's new life look like? How will Sharon handle her instructions? What's happening with the Arctic Angel and Chelsea?

Find out more in Chapter Fourteen!

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