Conflict Resolution

Part Seventeen: The Liberated

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 for abuse, extreme violence)

Protesters are finally being released from lockup, and people's lives are finally moving forward. Plans are made and meetings go ahead.

Port City, USA

Police department headquarters

The sidewalk outside

6:12 PM, Wednesday evening

She's the first one out of the cell. Which worked out nicely, she'd been the first one in it.

Shanice Richards is one of the oldest workers in PCDCC, and one of the few who had worked on the docks before the union had taken over. Life had got much better for her almost immediately after that. Shanice had been in the accounting department of Atlantic-Great-Archway Shipping before it became Port City Dockworks. She was born to an unwed mother in the middle of the civil rights movement—which isn't to say that she didn't have a father, just that because of their situation, her parents weren't able to afford the time or money to get married. And before they could, her father, who had worked on board the cargo ships, wound up drafted, and never came home.

Her mother had never stopped working. Shanice had been able to finish high school. And neither of them were ever done protesting. Shanice had walked with her mother in anti-war protests, the two had marched together for gay rights, and June had continued to go with her daughter to protest international trade practices and police brutality and environmental destruction until age claimed her in her sleep one night, in the midst of the dock strikes that led to the formation of the PCDCC.

Shanice had never found time for a relationship, had any children of her own, but she's always had family. And a good part of that family is still in the police holding cells.

So Shanice waits. And while she's waiting, she does what she's done her whole life. She lifts her voice, and she starts to sing.

June used to say that her daughter was born singing instead of crying.

"In the dark and cold of winter... in the rains of early spring..."

Shanice saw heads turning, people just walking by. It's after the evening rush, but downtown is far from abandoned.

"In summer's heat, in autumn's wind, we will stand and we will sing..."

She doesn't have the range she used to, when she was younger. She's grown old, and large, and her voice has deepened, but it carries, echoing off the buildings, ringing through the park. A couple people have pulled out phones.

"Though they send the troops from up the hill, and will not leave us be, still we raise our voices, loud and long, 'til the last of us is free."

Maybe the police think they can earn some political points, letting an old Black woman out first. Or maybe they just want the song leader out of their building. Whatever the case, when Sandy K. came in with that judge's order, the police were told to let all the protesters go. And for some reason, all the officers who were able to manage the paperwork were on break but one, and his computer was sure giving him a lot of trouble.

Shanice isn't going to leave her family inside. If they want her to go away, they're going to have to pick up the pace.

"In the morning, or the afternoon... when the evening church-bells ring..."

An officer in uniform comes out the main doors. A handful of people have gathered. A familiar face across the street, a driver who had been leaning against his car doing something with his phone, approaches, too.

"In dark or light, in day or night, we will stand and we will sing..."

"Ma'am, I'm sorry," the officer says, reaching the bottom of the stairs, "but you need to leave."

"Why?" the driver asks, now standing beside Shanice. "She's on a public sidewalk."

Shanice ignored them both. "If they beat and break our bodies... if they hang us from the tree..."

"She's causing a disturbance."

The driver looks to the people around and raises his voice. "Anyone here disturbed?"

"Then our spirits still will sing our song, 'til the last of us is free." It was a song that her mother had taught her from the cradle. She knows it very, very well.

"I could take her in for panhandling."

"That's a real stretch, officer, she's not asking anyone for money."

Devon. That's his name. He works for the rideshare company. "In the working hours, in times of rest, and whatever sleep might bring..."

The officer looks around at the growing crowd and realizes that he's attracting more attention than she is. And worse still for him, it looks like someone from the press is nearby. "Look—"

"What, are you going to start hauling us in if we walk down the street whistling?"

"No matter what we're needed for, we will stand and we will sing..."

"People drive down the road with music blaring way louder," a woman nearby points out. "And y'all don't do shit about that."

Another man from the other side of the officer pipes up. "She's just singing, what's the problem?"

"We can raise our voice in labor... We'll be heard and take a knee..."

Devon is singing with her. It doesn't matter that he can't carry a tune in a bucket, or that the key is absolutely wrong for his light tenor voice. She can anchor the melody. He can provide more sound, so more people can hear. And people are hearing. A few are gathering at the entrance to the park across the street. Other passers-by and stopping and watching. More phones are out, recording the proceedings. More are chiming in with comments, a couple who know the song are joining in.

"We can sing our song the whole day long, 'til the last of us is free."

It's not a big crowd, but it's enough of one, given the cameras, especially since there's only one officer. Another appears, but stays at the top of the stairs, watching.

"In the dark and cold of winter..." Shanice begins the song again, and others are following along. From the side-door, Caroline Pine, one of her co-workers in accounting, emerges. She'd had things rough, the past couple days. A generation younger, a little more sheltered, from a nicer area of town, properly educated. Probably disappointed her parents, being arrested. Her long blonde hair is straggly and tangled and dirty, and she looks like she hasn't slept since they'd been brought in. Still, her eyes light up seeing the crowd, and she immediately adds her voice to the growing choir, moving through the assembled people to stand beside Shanice.

She knows the song. They've sung it together a dozen times a day since they were locked up.

The singing helped keep them together, gave them something to do, kept them from despair, lent them a sense of solidarity. Some of the younger ones like Caroline had never been to a protest before where the police got involved, some had never been on the receiving end of anything like this. It was important for the veterans to show them that they're not alone, and they're not weak.

And for Shanice, that means singing.

Another voice joins, and another. More people are watching. More phones are recording. Another co-operative member, and then another. Something's made the police speed up the process of letting the protesters out of the holding cell.

Her singing will not change the world, not on its own. But it might just be one more step in changing little things for the better. It seems that Shanice's life, especially the last twelve years, is all about changing little things for the better, and that's just how she likes it.


7:30 PM Wednesday

The communications center of the Port City Dockworks Co-operative Confederation

The main work room

Crystal walks in, looking around, and sees the only person working at one of the terminals. She walks over. "Hello, Tanya," she says.

Tanya looks up from the work she's busy with. "Oh, hey. What're you doing here?"

"I work here."

"Well, fuck, yeah, but what're you doing here?"

Crystal giggles. "I'm on break, heard that you might be on site, thought I'd see what you were up to."

Tanya nods. "Yeah, I'm getting signed in and all this stuff. I start on Friday, officially." She taps the face of the smartphone tethered to the computer. "I should get your number, now that I have a phone again."

Crystal pulls out her own phone. "Too bad I'm here until two."

"Why?"

"Oh, just thinking it'd be fun to get together after."

"So what's bad about you being here until two?"

Crystal blinks. "You'd... like, I wouldn't get home until half past and..."

"So just come straight to my building," Tanya replies with a shrug. She holds up her phone with a collection of digits on it. "Just give me a call."

"At two in the morning?"

"Sure, who gives a fuck?"

Crystal dials and sends a quick text message, hearing a blip from Tanya's phone as it receives the information. "There's my number. Are you for real?"

"Huh? Yeah? Why?"

"You'd want to get together at two thirty in the morning." Crystal sounds skeptical.

"Why not?"

"Do you sleep?"

"Don't you?" Tanya shoots back. "You're gonna be up, right?"

"Well, sure, but I usually just go home, clean up, and go straight to bed."

The hacker shrugs again. "So tonight, you're gonna give me a call and we'll go out for a walk or some shit instead."

"Won't you be tired?"

"Sure, but so will you."

"I..." Crystal puts a hand to her head. "... guess that makes some sort of sick sense?"

Tanya looks up and meets the security officer's eyes. "You're gonna have to get used to that."

"Used to...?"

"Me just cutting through bullshit and telling you what's going on."

Crystal pauses, thinking.

"Look," Tanya continues. "You wanna get together. I wanna get together. I'm gonna go home in a couple hours, I'll rest up, you just have to come to my place and we'll go out. Who gives a shit if we're tired?"

"I just thought—"

"You work weird hours, and so do I," Tanya continues as though Crystal hadn't spoken. "I already have a fucked up schedule, what's a little more fucked-uppedness in it?"

"But what will—"

"Whatever the fuck we want. The city is so fucking quiet at night. We can go for a walk. There's a few places around me that stay open. We can figure that out then." Tanya puts her phone down and stands up, barely coming up to Crystal's chin. "The point is that we can spend time together, which is what we both wanna do, right?"

"Right, but—"

"So let's just fucking do it, right?"

"Right, but—"

"Good." Tanya nods. "It's decided. Call me when you get off work, I'll give you directions."

Tanya sits back down. Crystal has the distinct feeling of being dismissed, and a definite sense of confusion. "Tanya?"

The small woman looks up. "Yeah, what is it? Some problem with the plan?"

"No, I mean, it's a good plan, I think?"

"So what's up?"

Crystal hesitates. "I'm just... not... not sure what's going on."

Tanya heaves the sigh of the long-suffering. "You're going to call me," she says slowly, pointing to her phone, "when you," she points at Crystal, "get done your shift."

"That's not what I meant." Crystal laughs. "And if you're trying to get on my good side—"

"Yeah, I shouldn't treat you like you're an idiot, I know." Tanya sighs and rolls her eyes, and Crystal has the impression that it's entirely self-directed. "I don't think you're an idiot, Crystal. I just... You know how most people care about making a good impression?"

"Yeah?"

"I don't."

Crystal blinks. "Why not?"

Tanya shrugs. "Always seemed like a waste of time, to me. I go out of my way, impress you with my gentility, play nice, talk you into bed or something, and then one day you wake up and realize you're lying next to..." She points to herself. "Figured it's better you know the worst up front."

"This is as bad as it gets?" Crystal asks with a smile.

Tanya grins, getting back to her feet. "This is what it is. No better, no worse, just me, all fuckin' day long."

"I think I can live with that."

"You better be goddamn sure, because I'm not gonna make any exceptions if you get all moon-eyed on me or some shit."

Crystal bursts out laughing again. "I think I can handle you."

"You might think that, but—"

"I'm like twice your size and—"

"Yeah, well, I'm flexible and fast, so—"

"If you give me trouble I'll just pin you to the—"

"Don't threaten me with a good time."

The two of them are laughing now in the empty room. Impulsively, Crystal leans down and kisses Tanya's forehead.

"What, that's it?" Tanya says, still grinning. "You're going back to work and all I get is a fuckin' peck?" Without waiting for a reply, she puts her hands on Crystal's shoulders, pulls her close, and kisses her full on the lips.

The two of them stand there awkwardly, savoring the moment. Crystal's arms make their way around Tanya without conscious thought, and soon they're sharing an embrace. The kiss deepens easily, naturally, and it's sweet and tender. There's a hint of mint on Tanya's breath, and warmth in her touch.

Tanya settles back on the balls of her feet. "Guess you don't forget how," she says.

"Been a while?" Crystal asks.

Tanya thinks for a moment. "Nineteen months? No, seventeen. Christmas."

Crystal nods. "Been since... before, for me."

"Well, you didn't fuckin' forget, either," Tanya says with a grin. "I'm gonna get back to work, but I promise you I'm gonna be distracted the whole goddamn time."

"Yeah, I should head to the break room, see if I can catch a little nap before my next patrol," Crystal agrees. "But I think I'll have some fun dreams."

"You fuckin' well better." Tanya sits back down and turns to her work.

Crystal watches for a moment, once more feeling awkward, before turning to leave. Not much for long goodbyes, either, huh, she thinks as she walks away.


8:01 PM

The sidewalk outside Sterling Grey's apartment

Sterling is waiting there as Chelsea walks up. Only a minute, but still, Chelsea feels bad about being late.

Sterling doesn't mention it. She doubts he's even noticed. They share a hug and a chaste kiss.

"So what's the plan?" she asks.

Sterling smiles. "You work at midnight, which means we have about three hours. How hungry are you?"

Chelsea's stomach grumbles at the thought. She hasn't eaten since she woke up in the morning, and even though she's not done anything significant all day except shower and get dressed, and she did burn a lot of energy the night before with Flamehammer. "I could definitely eat. I could probably eat a fair bit."

"I have had a very long day," Sterling says, and something in his voice tells Chelsea that even that is an understatement. "I've done no preparation, and I really want to just sit back and have a ridiculously unhealthy meal and some decent conversation." He offers his arm, which she takes. "Have you ever been to Yves' Canadian Diner?"

"Eve's what?" Chelsea asks. "A Canadian diner?"

"It's a fairly new place, just opened last fall. I don't know how authentic it is, but no one particularly cares, it's a nice place and the food is ridiculously decadent."

"I'm up for ridiculous decadence."

"A ten-minute walk alright?"

"Just fine. We've already done a minute of that."

Sterling nods. "So, how was your day?"

"Wonderfully relaxing. Sounds like your was the opposite. All work?"

"I hardly do anything else. It doesn't mean it wasn't good and fun," he adds, "but it gets tiring."

"Been a long week, huh."

"Very." He sighs. "At least the strike is over."

Chelsea nods, keeping herself carefully composed. The weak judge couldn't see the value and use of keeping violent rioters behind bars, but the judge is also the authority. "Yes, I saw the crowd on a news site. Very inspiring, the singing. How come you're not down there with them?"

"Because I have a date," Sterling explains. "One of my co-workers has been after me for a while to let the machinery of the dockworks run without me, even the ConRes stuff. So that's what I'm doing, and frankly, the legal department's done its job excellently without me looking over their shoulder."

"So you're kinda a big deal, down on the docks?"

Sterling shake his head. "No, no I'm not, and that's the point. No one is. We're all important, but no one is irreplaceable."

Chelsea nods. "I can get behind that philosophy. So long as that doesn't extend to people, just jobs."

"That's the idea." He pulls her a little closer by the arm. "You're irreplaceable as a human being, but there are other nurses."

"Just like there are other Conflict Resolution officers."

"Exactly."

The two of them walk in silence for a little way. Chelsea thinks about what he's saying. There are other nurses, sure, but there's only one Arctic Angel, and the idea that what she does for the Bright Society might be easily done by someone else is more than a little troubling.

Who else can freeze a riot in its tracks? she asks herself. There's no one else that can bring down crowds like I can, and without hurting anyone. Flamehammer's among the best for hand-to-hand, one-on-one fighting, but—

Sterling shivers. "Oof, that breeze is chilly," he says. "I should have dressed warmer."

Chelsea is about to apologize before realizing what she would be admitting to. "Doesn't seem too bad for me. Besides, you said ten minutes, right? We're probably closer to the diner than to your apartment." She carefully pulls the ice back, holds it close in her heart. He must not know that she's the one who blasted him with ice a few days ago. In any event, he isn't dressed shabbily, in casual khakis and a nice navy blue button-down shirt. He looks like he's done with his work for the day, but not done with his day entirely, which seems like the case.

"Oh, I wasn't thinking of going back, just commenting on my own foolishness." He sighs. "A bit of a theme today. Seems like whenever one plan has come together, another comes unraveled. But I would rather not discuss these things, I'm sorry."

"It's fine, I don't really want to talk about my work either." Either work, she thinks. If anyone wouldn't understand the split-identity life, it would be someone like Sterling, who's so completely devoted to one cause. "What else is going on?"

"Not a whole lot," he replies. "I'm carrying on an affair with an absolutely astonishing young nurse, while seeing her best friend, who she's also sleeping with. Navigating that situation takes a lot of my time and energy." He turns to her and grins. "But it's the most fun I've had in years."

Chelsea flushes. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I've started fucking my best friend while we're sharing this really cute executive type. A little older, but a great lay."

Sterling chuckles. "I hope he's treating you right."

"Oh, he's a very sweet guy." She pats his arm reassuringly. "I think our relationship might go places, you know? Although he seems like a bit of a playboy. Gets around a bit."

"Sounds like he could be trouble. Maybe you should just stick with me instead."

"While you're managing the nurse and her friend? You sure you can handle all of us?"

"Three at once?" Sterling seems to be considering the idea.

"Who said 'at once'?" Chelsea laughs. "Oh, I bet if there were three of us, you'd do just fine."

Sterling takes a deep breath. "In my younger days, I used to be a little... wilder."

"Wilder than you are now? What, did you host orgies?"

Sterling says nothing.

"Oh my God, you..."

He nods. "Not so much now, no one has the—"

"Time and energy, right." Chelsea shakes her head. "You're a strange guy, Sterling."

He shrugs. "Not much to argue about there." He makes a grand gesture towards a nearby building. "We have arrived."

Chelsea looks and sees an entrance nestled between two larger businesses. A small sign above in red and white labels it as Yves' Diner, and the dot over the 'i' is a stylized maple leaf. "Looks interesting," she says, examining the menu taped to the inside of the window.

"It's not Catelli's, but it's a lot of starchy and greasy food, and I need something full of energy. Will this suit you?"

"Oh, definitely. How's the, uh... Prince Edward Platter?"

"It's a lot of potatoes," Sterling replies. "If you like a lot of potatoes, it's a lot of potatoes."

"What are you getting?"

"The hot roast beef sandwich, probably. Unless something strikes me in the meanwhile." He pulls open the door. "After you."

"Thank you." Chelsea nods and slips into the quiet, empty diner. Some energetic folk music drifts softly from the speakers, a wild fiddle tickling the edges of hearing. Chelsea had expected some form of thematic decoration, and while she isn't disappointed—various team pennants, pictures of Canadian-born celebrities, and a few flags she didn't recognize dot the walls—there also isn't quite as much as she expected.

No one greets them. Chelsea and Sterling seat themselves at a table in the middle of the room as a middle-aged man steps out from the back.

"Bonsoir," he says, speaking with a light accent, "Welcome to Yves' Diner." He walks up and places two menus in front of them. "Can I get you a drink?"

"I think I'm ready to order, but I could do with a glass of wine," Sterling says. "Or a bottle?"

Chelsea shakes her head. "I work at midnight, I can't have that much."

"A glass each of the ice wine, then."

The Angel smiles at the thought.

"Are you both ready to order?" the waiter asks.

They are, and they do. The waiter takes their requests and heads back to the kitchen.

Chelsea grins at Sterling. "This one doesn't seem to know you."

"I don't know everyone," Sterling laughs. "I don't come here often, but today is a special occasion."

"You're hungry."

He nods. "That's as special an occasion as I need."

"Works for me," she replies as the waiter comes back with two glasses of white wine and two of water. "Sometimes that's all that matters." She raises her wine. "To a crazy week."

"To many more," Sterling replies, and they clink their glasses together. "Hopefully less crazy."

"A little at least." She sips the wine. It's good, sweet. "I'm not opposed to some of the crazy."

"Hear hear."

Chelsea lays her hand on the table, and Sterling takes it in his own. The two of them sit there a moment, just sipping wine and water and holding hands.

"You work at midnight," Sterling begins. "Does that sort of schedule trouble you?"

Chelsea shakes her head. "No, it's... well, you keep weird hours, too."

"I do, and it really messes with my social life."

"Does the same for me," Chelsea says. "That's why I really only have the two friends I hang around with."

Sterling nods. "I can understand that." He seems thoughtful. "I imagine it's a strain on all kinds of relationships."

Chelsea nearly chokes on her wine. In the last week I've taken three new lovers, she thinks, somehow maintaining her composure. It's almost the opposite. "No more than anything else," she says lightly. "Moving schools, graduating from college..." She shrugs. "I'm lucky to have even those two who've stuck with me."

"Knowing the three of you, even for the short time I have, you're all very lucky to have each other."

Chelsea grins and squeezes his hand. "You're not just saying that because you're fucking two of us?"

"Not just, no." He squeezes back. "It might be a factor."

A thought occurs. "Couldn't having a relationship with Sharon get you in trouble or something?"

He shakes his head. "I'm not her supervisor, I don't hold a special position of power in the organization, at least not officially. If you want to get very technical, we don't even work for the same company. Even if she wanted to, which she doesn't—I hope!—Sharon's got no real case for harassment or discrimination."

I guess Flamehammer had better be careful, then. The Angel starts to wonder if their training sessions might cause problems for either of them. Although ... does the Bright Society have that sort of organizational structure? 

"What's on your mind?" Sterling asks.

"Hm?"

"You just looked like you were thinking."

She shakes her head. "Just wool-gathering. Maybe fantasizing a little." She smirks at him, running a finger over her water glass. "Thinking about what I might like for dessert."

He raises an eyebrow. "Would you like to see what we have back at my place?"

"Very much," Chelsea replies as their food arrives. At the appearance of her platter of potatoes—mashed, French fried, and roasted—she thinks that perhaps she has misjudged her hunger. A handful of seasoned chicken fingers and a bowl of gravy round out the plate. She looks up with wide eyes.

Sterling looks back over a significant sandwich smothered in beef gravy, with a side plate of steamed broccoli and cheese. He shrugs apologetically. "I'm very hungry."

"Not sure I'm going to need dessert after this," Chelsea mutters with a smile.

"A lot of that reheats really well, maybe for a mid-shift snack?"

Chelsea looks down at the plate again. "You know, that's not a bad idea. I'll eat up the mash and gravy, some of the chicken, and take the rest to work."

Sterling is already slicing off a corner of the sandwich. "Good plan." He lifts his fork to his mouth. "I don't think I'll have any left to take home," he says, taking a bite.

"You're that hungry."

He nods, not talking with his mouth full. Once he's swallowed, he says, "I've had a long day, and no time to eat. I didn't really realize how hungry I was getting until I had a chance to sit down and rest."

"Been there," Chelsea says around a mouthful of well-seasoned mashed potato. "Long hours studying..."

"Of course. I bet that you're glad to be done with that."

Chelsea smiles. "Oh, definitely."

"And you're probably thinking about 'dessert'..."

"Mmm," she says. The chicken tastes almost sweet. Sterling had been saying something about... She looks around. There's no one near, the waiter is in the back. She drops her voice and leans in. "Honestly? I'm thinking about calling in sick to work, calling up Sharon, and repeating last week's fun..."

She can tell by the way his chewing slows, by his contemplative expression, that he's considering it. "I shouldn't take you from your work."

She chuckles. "Maybe you don't have the choice."

"Well, I'm not going to make you. Or encourage you. Or even ask you."

"Oh, you've made it clear that you think it's a bad idea." She smirks again. "Maybe I'll have to convince you."

"I don't think that will be a terrific challenge for you," he replies. "Besides, much as I think it's not a good idea, I'm not in a position to stop you."

"You wouldn't want to." She has another bite of chicken. It tastes a little more as expected, with a mix of savoury spices and little of the sweetness she'd originally detected.

"Well, no, but I don't want you to get in trouble, either."

"Then if I decide to call in, we'd better be very, very quiet about it." She winks.

At least he seems to be a little off-kilter, unsure what to make of the discussion. Perhaps it's more because of a busy day than because of her suggestions, but she's still going to claim credit for it, mentally. She takes another bite of mashed potato and smiles assuredly at him.

Maybe it's her imagination, but she thinks that he's eating a little faster than before. She knows that she is.

It's not long before both of them are declaring defeat, with Sterling leaving only a couple bites of his sandwich and his side behind, while Chelsea, true to her plan, left most of her reheatable potatoes and chicken. Chelsea picked up the check for them both, and the two of them headed back towards Sterling's apartment. She isn't planning to call in sick to work, not really, not when she isn't sick, but it's fun to tease, even if she's just teasing herself.

The walk back to Sterling's apartment is leisurely and calm, but the air of anticipation hangs over the two of them. Sterling is making small talk, and she's responding in kind but not really paying attention. It's not important. At one point, about halfway there, something he says catches her attention, more in his tone of voice than his words, and the Angel reminds her of what he'd said on the weekend, how much she wants violence. That reminder becomes another thought in her head, keeping her from focusing too much on the conversation.

Or it does until they get upstairs. Chelsea checks the clock, half past nine, and she's barely put her purse down before she and Sterling are kissing. It's a wonderful feeling, to be fairly full and comfortable and warm and wrapped up in an embrace by a man she wants to make love to. He leans in close and whispers in her ear,

"Relax, and come with me."

Her heart flutters. He takes her hand and leads her towards his bedroom. She follows, feeling docile, subdued, but no less excited for it. He says something about her top, and suddenly she's bare from the waist up. His hands are on her chest, and they're kissing again, and again, and she's feeling the warmth and excitement resonating in her whole body. She feels like she's in a cotton-candy-flavored fog, a mist thick and pink and sugary, and she's not entirely sure when she wound up naked or how she wound up lying on the bed instead of him, but she loves the feel of his hands on her ass, lifting her up as his lips and tongue work between her legs.

She's warm, warm all over, as they kiss again and again, and he's inside her, fucking her, and the fog is thick and deep and his words are the fire in her blood that moves her, fuels her... She can't help but think of Flamehammer's fire, and the violence she craves from him, even as Sterling's words and actions heat her not from the outside but from within, and for a moment, for a brief moment, the cold in her heart feels like melting, and there's an instantaneous terror that she would let something slip which was drowned immediately in a flood of sexual pleasure so complete that she didn't fear telling secrets, because she didn't have any secrets to tell. Everything, all her worries and concerns and thoughts and ideas, the hospital, the riots, the Bright Society, Tanya, Flamehammer, Sharon, the Arctic Angel, her father, all of it, swept away in that rising tide, in the flood of sweetness and the pink glow that dissolves her down to her core.

And as she rolls him onto the bed and kisses her way down his bare chest and belly to his still-stiff cock, taking it first in her hand and then in her mouth, as she cleans him with her tongue and starts massaging his sweet member with her lips, she realizes that all those secrets do matter, but not now, not to her. They mattered to Chelsea before, and they'll matter to Chelsea after, but to Chelsea now they're irrelevant. If he asks her, she wouldn't keep them, wouldn't know how to keep them, but he doesn't know to ask.

This isn't the first time he's made her feel this way, she recalls as she straddles him and mounts him and starts fucking him in return. It seems whenever they're together her resistance and resilience just fade, and the only thing that's keeping her most hidden knowledge from him is the fact that he doesn't know she's keeping secrets in the first place. And as she feels him start to spurt inside her and she reaches her second climax of the evening and everything dissolves into saccharine bursts in rainbow hues and he's holding her, kissing her still, suckling at her very sensitive breast, she can't help but ask herself if it would be so bad if he knew.

She's warm throughout, as his hands work their magic on her fingers, and her face, and her breasts and stomach and ass and legs and pussy. He tells her that this was just what he needed after a long day, and she flushes with pleasure. Wonderfully relaxing, he says, and she does feel wonderfully relaxed, floating on and in a cloud of bliss that tastes like vanilla and peppermint. He offers her a shower as he touches her, excites her, and she can't help but accept, there's no other reasonable answer, but it doesn't have to be right away. It's only ten, and they can lie here a while more, and then it's quarter after and the haze is starting to dissipate, and she wakes up ten minutes later and things are clearer still.

Sterling is asleep.

Judging by how much he'd talked about his long day, she felt it best to leave him there. For the first time since they'd entered the apartment, the Angel appears, suggesting that they could just freeze him there and let him sleep, but Chelsea knows that that won't help him rest, that she just wants to see what he looks like when... She shakes her head, collects her clothes. She can freeze Sharon to see a hot body up close if she wants. Sterling, when he's not talking to her, not touching her, looks so very... ordinary. Average. Nothing special. Everything important about him is in what he does, what he says, and not so much who and what he is.

Right now, the man who just made her come twice looks like a naked, slightly-overweight management type. Sharon and Flamehammer have raw sex appeal built in. But...

But.

He's asleep, she's sure of it. She moves quietly, slowly, towards the bathroom, as much to give her time and space to think as to make sure she doesn't wake Sterling.

She turns on the shower. Scalding hot. Looks at herself in the mirror.

She doesn't see the Angel staring back at her.

He doesn't know, she says to herself, and he doesn't care.

Sharon loves her already, but Sharon was by her side as she grew into her power. Sharon—and Tanya, too, for that matter—are as close to the Angel as they are to Chelsea. Flamehammer doesn't seem to care for Chelsea, not like he does for the Angel, and that's fine and good and understandable, and the Angel needs him for what he can do.

But.

Sterling Grey doesn't know anything about the Arctic Angel, and he still treats her... like he treats her. He makes her warm. When they're together, it's almost like the Angel doesn't exist, doesn't have to exist. She's just Chelsea, something she hasn't been for ten years.

She's shaking as she steps into the shower.

She's terrified, she realizes.

With Sterling, she thinks as she starts to wash her head, the Angel isn't a factor. But the Angel is a factor, can never not be. And if she wants to carry on with Sterling—and she does—that means coming to a decision, to tell him, or to keep her secret, and coming to that decision soon.

Because if he had asked, she'd have told him. Without a second thought. And that's not how she wants to reveal her secret.

Thinking about it is no less terrifying, but it helps her be calm and afraid, at least. She's been worried about what being known means since she started to develop her powers and she had been petrified of her father finding out, even though he'd been gone from her life for years at that point. She didn't want her school to know, didn't want anyone to know, but she needed help with that, and that meant going to Tanya, who was already a half-decent hacker (by her own estimation), and Sharon, who even then was hyper-protective of her friends, to help keep things out of the public eye.

Until joining the Bright Society, no one but them had known. Even within the Society only a very few people know, only those who are necessary.

The hot water sweeps away so much emotionality, gives Chelsea a chance to think. She'd chosen armor for the fight, and it had been stripped away so cleanly and so easily, by a man who put in almost no effort to do so, so far as she could tell. Some admittedly excellent potatoes, she thinks to herself, and I'm ready to just drop my panties.

She shakes her head, running her hands over her bare head, brushing water from her eyes. She'd been guarded for so long, held herself apart for nearly a decade, and the moment a crack appears in the shell, she loses control, nearly completely. A week and she's undone.

She doesn't come to a decision, at least not directly. She manages an if-then arrangement with herself: if things go well with Sterling, then he will have to be told. She refuses to define what "going well" means.

Chelsea towels herself off, head to toe, feeling clean, feeling settled. And really, feeling great, despite the fear she held for herself. It isn't a bad fear, it's only a little more than the background noise of worry that she constantly deals with, keeping a secret so important. She dresses as quietly as she can, gives Sterling—still sleeping—a kiss on the forehead, and grabs the notepad in the kitchen. She leaves a quick note: thanks for dinner, thanks for company, thanks for... everything. She checks her phone, finds that she has lots of time, and decides to jog to work instead of taking a taxi.

More time to think means more time to sort things out.


A large six-bedroom home on the outskirts of the city

Presently almost entirely unoccupied

9:58 PM

Reggie Bright drives up to his childhood home—his father's home—and parks in the garage.

He has been invited.

Which is not a request.

Reggie has a plan. Which is why he doesn't drive up in his own car.

He knows what Gerald wants to talk about. The "spontaneous choir" has been in news feeds, and would no doubt be all over the 11 o'clock broadcasts. It might even make the national news, because of the involvement of the Bright Society—namely Flamehammer and Arctic Angel—in the arrests.

He walks in the door. His father is sitting in the living room, a glass of bourbon in his hand.

"You're not ready," he says before Reggie can even greet him. Simple, direct, matter-of-fact. He doesn't even turn his head to face his son.

"Father, I—"

"No, Reginald. No more excuses. You're just not ready for this."

"But—"

"But what?" Gerald asks, finally looking towards Reggie.

Reggie gasps, feeling the first slight pangs of the Lawman's power. A reminder of what Gerald Bright is capable of, nothing more. As though Reggie could forget. "It's not—"

"—not your fault, yes, I know." Gerald puts his drink down and pushes himself to his feet. "My whole life, I've had to listen to people whine about how this, or that, or the other thing isn't their fault. Lazy employees. Worthless debtors. Shiftless criminals. I thought I'd raised you better."

"You didn't raise me at—"

That's when the first wave hits, driving Reggie to his knees. "Thirty years old and I still have to teach you respect? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised." The pain subsides, then. "Maybe if you're lucky in five or ten years, it will be time for you to take over, but not now."

I beg to differ, father, Reggie thinks, standing back up and grinding the small glass vials that he'd surreptitiously dropped under his heel. "What do you propose?" he asks, trying his best to sound obsequious.

"You step back from all Society activities," Gerald says, coming a step closer. "You play no part in planning or administration. You are a grunt, nothing more. You go where you're told to, you do what you're told to. Nothing more. Understand?"

"Unacceptable," Reggie replies.

Gerald raises an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"

It is a rare experience to see his father caught off his guard. "That will not be acceptable, father."

"Your acceptance is not necessary to the equation," Gerald says, immediately regaining his composure. "This is what will happen."

Anger-fueled flames licked at Reggie's hands and arms. "You put me in an impossible situation and—"

"Oh, it's not your fault again, is it?" Gerald's glare and the power behind it is much more potent this time.

Reggie stands his ground, despite his nerves screaming at him. "You don't... control... me..." he grunts, the fires on his arms growing more intense.

Gerald's reply is cold. "Oh, but I do, son. You don't dictate the direction of the Society."

Reggie struggles to keep the fires going. He's unable to speak, focused as he is on that.

"How do you not understand this yet?" Gerald continues, walking forward. "You are not a threat to me, and you're very quickly proving that you're not a threat to anyone else."

Not a threat? Reggie thinks to himself, allowing himself to again be forced down, this time making a show of stumbling back and sitting, bringing his flaming hands in contact with the chemical accelerants he had pressed into the floor. In less than a second, the floor around him is on fire, thick smoke rising up from a combination of the chemicals that Reggie had dropped and the old carpet. The hero felt the pain in his nerves ease as Gerald's poor vision is obscured by the stinging gasses—gasses which are affecting Reggie as well, but he isn't dependent on his vision to work his powers, and he is very used to dealing with hurt.

After thirty years of abuse, this is not an opportunity to be passed up. He wants this. He actually wants this. Grey was right. He's wanted this on some level for each of his thirty years. He's not about to let his father stand in his way any longer. Not when a solution presents itself, a solution he very much wants.

And so while he moves quickly, he still savors tossing the beverage in his Gerald's, adding strong alcohol to the irritants that plagued the elder Bright's eyes, before bringing the heavy glass down on back of the his father's head. Gerald might be saying something, but Reggie isn't listening, and at any rate the old hero loses his footing and falls face-first to the floor on the third or fourth blow.

He stops moving completely by the ninth.

The glass shatters on the twelfth blow, cutting up Reggie's hand. He figures that's enough. The job is done.

Coldly, he walks to the basement, leaving the fire burning. He has nothing to fear from fire, never has, and so it's not a problem for him to start lighting up the walls near the electrical switchbox and the furnace. That task complete, he returns to the living room, places his father's body back in his chair, and puts the bottle of expensive bourbon beside him. He's no forensic scientist, but given the location of the broken glass it almost looks like it had been thrown there from the chair. He leaves it alone. There's no need to clean up.

He hears the fire starting to spread, and heads to the garage. He has nothing to fear from fire and heat itself, but pressure waves from explosions and being battered by falling debris are both very real threats. His clothes are charred and burnt and splashed with chemicals and alcohol. He removes them, strips to the skin, leaves his expensive shoes behind at the door, throws his clothes into a laundry hamper and uses his power to set them alight, too, as the electrical system fails and the lights go out.

The fire department is surely on the way by now. They will be far too late. The downside of living out of town is living away from Port City's services. He dresses quickly as the first curls of smoke start to make their way under the garage door. The private security services won't rush into a fire, since they don't have the training for it, especially given how far the fire will have progressed by the time they arrive.

Which leaves the car. Having contacts in the criminal world has its advantages. The car was purchased for cash, anonymously, through several levels, and had been stolen only a few days before. It will stay there, and it will burn, which meant that Reggie has a very long walk ahead of him. A very long, very satisfying walk, starting with getting off his father's property, through the woods, using paths he'd known since childhood, moving quickly and quietly. After all, he's had a long day, and he went straight to bed at half past eight and hasn't seen or heard from anyone all night.

The king is dead, he thinks. Which means that it's time for things to change.

Is the strike finally over? How will Crystal and Tanya get along? What will happen to the Bright Society?

Find out more in Part Eighteen!

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