Conflict Resolution

Part Eighteen: Fire

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

A fire has set off a chain of events which will have far-reaching ramifications. Much is set in motion.

Port City, USA

Sterling Grey's apartment

12:01 Thursday morning

"Hey handsome."

Sterling jolts awake at the fingers tickling his feet. "What the—?"

Elena is sitting on the end of his bed. "We're in trouble, boss."

"You couldn't have called?" He looks around, disoriented. Chelsea is nowhere to be seen.

"I did call. So did Thomas. Sandy. I was closest so I came here to pound on your door. It was unlocked. We're in trouble."

Sterling makes a mental note to get Chelsea a key so this can stop happening. "That's twice you've said that." He struggles to sit, not caring that he's still naked.

"Just as true now as the first time." She flips her phone to him. A news article is open on the screen.

Fire consumes Bright residence—Gerald Bright missing, feared dead

Sterling looks at Elena. "Is this for real?"

"We're in—"

"Trouble, yes." Sterling, unconcerned about his nakedness, gets up and walks to the living room, grabs the remote, turns on the television, puts on the news channel.

The national news channel.

"We didn't just get pre-empted from local coverage," Elena says, coming out of the bedroom. "All that great footage I got of the crew out there, singing..."

Sterling watches in stunned disbelief. "Sources close to the Bright Society suggest that the fire have been set as revenge for the involvement of Society members in the arrests of rioters on the docks this past weekend," the anchor is saying.

"Fuck," he says. "Jesus fucking Christ."

Elena nods. "That's what I said."

A police officer on the screen is holding up a familiar-looking card. The card he'd sent to Gerald as a reminder, as a poison pill, a way to goad the old man into action. In a mild state of shock, he turns off the television, not needing to hear what they had to say about that crucial piece of evidence.

"So are you gonna get dressed or..." Elena says, her eyes trailing down between his legs.

"I will be in my office in an hour," he says softly.

"Good. I'm not sleeping tonight." She walks past him towards the door.

"Elena?"

"Yes, Sterling?"

"Tell Thomas..." He sighs. "Tell everyone. Security, ConRes, communications. All hands."

She nods. "Already done, boss."

She shuts the door behind her. He locks it. He walks to the bathroom, still in a daze.

He's known for a long time that war was coming. He hadn't expected it to begin with the death of the enemy general.


Port City docks

Outside the maintenance headquarters of the PCDCC

Earlier Wednesday night, 11:05 PM

Crystal bounces on her toes, waiting for Sharon to emerge. She's anxious to get going on this evening's run.

She has some particular orders. Very specific. A little unusual.

But she thinks about Liana.

It's not hard to follow orders. It's all about motivation. And Crystal is very, very motivated.

Which doesn't make her feel good about what she's doing. In fact, she feels like she's on very shaky ground, morally, and it gets worse every time she thinks about it. So she tries not to think about it too much, about how Marie looked and sounded when she was being accidentally affected by the inducer, or about how she'd felt when Marie had done the same to her.

Or when she realized that Reggie had been doing—

"Hey, you okay?"

"Hm?" Sharon's voice cut through Crystal's reverie. "Oh, yeah, sorry, right I was just—"

"You looked upset," Sharon continued, "and I have this great big mother hen instinct going on." She smirked. "Especially if you look down when everyone should be celebrating! The holding cells are empty, our co-workers are coming back by Friday, we won!"

Crystal is used to faking happiness, so she puts on her best, brightest smile, and nods enthusiastically. At least, she thinks, this time she's not hiding anger or sadness, just a personal confusion, uncertainty at how to feel, at what she should be feeling.

She realizes that, come Friday, her continued betrayal of the PCDCC means a betrayal of the woman she's hoping to date, and her smile grows a little more forced.

"Come on," Sharon continued, "let's have a nice run down by the waterfront."

"Sounds good." Crystal starts down the road, and Sharon follows her for a couple steps before easily catching her up.

The two of them keep pace in silence for a while, until they turn and head up the shoreline. "So..." Crystal says, cautiously. "What... what can you tell me about your friend Tanya?"

"What do you want to know?" Sharon asks in return.

Crystal feels herself flushing. "I, huh, I just... I met her today and..."

"Bowled you over some?"

"You... could say that."

Sharon laughs. "She does that." The two of them pause, and Sharon steps towards the ocean, putting her hands on a metal railing that overlooks the water. "Thought I was in love with her for a bit."

Crystal moves to stand beside her. "What happened?"

The carpenter shrugs. "We're just not... compatible, let's say. Or if I wanted to be more precise..." Sharon sighs. "Problems in bed."

"Oh, that's rough." They're standing still, and Crystal has a job to do. She aligns the subsonic inducer in her jacket pocket and clicks it on. "You want to talk about it?" Intoned like a question, phrased like a statement. Deliberate.

Sharon looks out over the ocean. "Yeah, I do want to talk about it. If you want to listen."

"If it's useful advice..."

"With Tanya?" Sharon chuckles. "You can use all the advice you can get."

Crystal nods. "Sounds about right," she says. "I don't really understand her."

"No, you do," Sharon replies. "It's impossible not to understand Tanya. You're just not used to her, and that's different. The rest of us," she waves vaguely in the direction of the city, "have to hide parts of ourselves. Tanya doesn't really care about that, either about covering herself up, or letting anyone else hide anything."

"That causes problems in bed?"

Sharon smirks. "It does when your partner won't shut up about what you could be doing better."

Crystal winces. "Ouch."

"Just something to be aware of. And you know, she was probably—no, she was definitely right, but it still doesn't make it fun at the time." Sharon smacks her hand on the railing, making a ringing noise. "Tanya was my first time with another woman, and I'd had a little too much to drink. Not the best mix of things. Tanya was understanding, but that didn't stop her from being critical. Fortunately we were and are too good of friends to let that come between us."

"So... so that's just how she is, then?" Crystal asks. She has a vague memory of that morning, before they'd gone for lunch...

"That's just how she is. Why, did she say something to you?"

"A lot of somethings, actually." High school star athlete, ran away from home, beautiful deep voice, big and tall and broad... the only question is why you think I should give a fuck. The thought of it makes her smile, even if she doesn't quite know when she heard Tanya say it. It had to have been when they met but...

"Must have been good somethings," Sharon says with a grin. "Come on, let's keep going, you have to be back at work soon, right?"

Crystal nods. "Yeah, and I don't want to stay late tonight, I have a date."

"Tanya's always been a night owl. Up to the edge of downtown and then back to my apartment?"

"Actually," Crystal makes sure she's in proper alignment with Sharon, "I think you'd probably rather jog through the middle of the docks and show me all those weaknesses you know so much about, but you'll remember that we took the route you suggested."

Sharon smiles. "I'd rather jog through the middle of the docks, you're right. A security team member should know all about those weak points."

The way she says it, so naturally, so easily, sends chills down Crystal's spine. It makes her uncomfortable, especially when she starts to wonder how many of her own statements have been so natural-sounding. But... Liana.

Once Liana's safe, she can stop. It all stops, then. Maybe she even comes clean, admits to what's been going on, takes her lumps like a big girl.

Once Liana's in Port City, properly set up.

Crystal takes notes as they jog, and a few pictures on her phone, forwarding them all to Reggie, never realizing that Sharon's misleading her the entire time. Which is fair, since Sharon never realizes that she's misleading Crystal, either.


The Docks

PCDCC Conflict Resolution buidling

12:59 AM Thursday

Sterling Grey walks into his office, well-groomed and dressed in a steel grey suit. Elena is already there waiting for him.

"We had to wake up Letitia," she says, "but all vital crews are on-site, and we're gathering as much of the rank-and-file as we can, at least in media relations and security."

"Great. So I'm guessing Shanice's choir is just being completely pre-empted on this?"

"One hundred percent, boss. I'm doing my best to get it out there, but there's not much we can do. Major city—no, major international player's house burns with him likely still in it?"

Sterling nods. "We're small potatoes."

"Except that we're going to take the heat."

"Small roasted potatoes, then."

"That's more or less it."

"What do you figure is coming?"

Elana looks a bit surprised. "You're asking me?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

"I'm not an analyst."

"You're who's here, and you know a lot more than most."

Elena lets out a breath. "Okay. So here's what I see. The police use the arson and possible murder as an excuse to increase their presence here again, with the smuggled goods they 'found' in the cafe as evidence. They're going to drag in anyone they can for questioning, especially you. And if they found a way to hold people as long as they did because of protests, they're gonna find ways to lock us all up on conspiracy charges until the PCDCC isn't able to run anymore."

Sterling chews his lip, thinking. "That's more or less what I'd come up with, too. See any other way of it playing out?"

Elena pauses, then shakes her head. "I can't imagine anything else. Gerald Bright is a pillar of the community and all that. Oh, and apparently Reggie's not around, too, for some reason, but that's a footnote right now."

"Hm. Maybe a footnote now, but maybe not insignificant. Still, we'll have to see how that develops."

"For sure, bigger problems." She sighs. "It's been a great dozen years, boss."

Sterling smiles grimly. "Hard not to feel the same way," he admits. "I'm worried this becomes an all-out fight, and the police have guns. Maybe it's just better to give in, see things through to the other side."

"No jury would convict you," Elena says with a grin. "And you just have to let Sandy let you defend the rest of us."

"And that's the rest of my free time gone for the next decade. We have a legal department for a reason."

"Oh, I'd still love to see you work your magic on a courtroom."

Sterling laughs. "Existential crisis, and you're still horny."

"All the jurors just eating out of your hand..."

"Elena..."

"What?" She smiles innocently.

"We're not going to—"

"I know, Sterling. But you think better, faster, and more creatively when I'm teasing you."

He snickers. "Sure, but not necessarily in the right directions. I have to focus. And so do you, by the way."

"Tough when you're here."

"Unless I—"

"Go ahead."

Sterling puts a hand to his head. "I still just woke up, have had almost no sleep, and I did a huge amount of supervillainy yesterday."

Elena sits down opposite him. "Do tell."

Sterling counts on his fingers. "Converted a hacker. Set her up with a security officer. Dragged in someone who had figured me out, she's still in the safe apartment. Manipulated one of the women I met last week, although that was relatively minor. I'm frankly a little surprised I can talk at this point."

"I'll get you a glass of water."

"You'll get to work and let me worry about me, alright?"

Elena smiles at him. "When you're ready, go to Thomas. He's going to need the most support, and he can't get out of the war room at the moment."

"It had crossed my mind." Sterling is unable to keep from letting a little annoyance into his voice.

Elena's mood is undeterred as she gets up. "I have to get to my own work. The Crier's gonna want an article on the possibility of the Confederation's involvement."

"'We're all saddened to hear of this senseless loss of life and wish the Bright family the best in this difficult time,'" Sterling says flatly, as if reciting badly from a document. "I don't care who you get that quote from, if it's me or someone else, but—"

"You know your job. I know mine." She gives him a wink and turns on her heel, her green dress flaring around her knees as she heads for the door. She stops in the doorway and turns back. "Sterling, I know this is big, and I know it's bad, but you've been so happy this last week, and nothing's fallen apart despite some of the biggest fires—literal fires, some of them—that we've had to deal with since the Strike. So let the wheels turn, boss. You take care of Silver Tongue things and whatever ConRes stuff can't be done by the others. We going to need our supervillain in peak form if we're going to have any chance at all of coming through this."

He nods and opens his mouth, but Elena cuts him off. "You're about to say that no individual is that important to the movement, and you're right, Sterling. You're not that important to the PCDCC. But you're vital for countering police tactics and Brights, and you know it. They're going to bring the big sword, and you're the best shield we have. Security forces can be frozen out en masse by Arctic Angel, but if you can whisper a few words in her ear—"

"Yeah, I get it," Sterling replies. "I don't like it, but I get it." He sighs. "I don't want to get into it, because I know you're right, or at least right enough."

Elena walks back into the room and puts her arms around Sterling's shoulders. "The more you remember that I'm going to be right, the better off you'll be. Now if I don't mistake myself, you've had a hell of a day and are running on about an hour and a half of sleep." She punctuates her next words with forcible rubs of his shoulders. "Save. Your. Strength."

He chuckles. "Yes, boss."

She bops him lightly on the back of the head. "Don't give me that backtalk."

The two of them laugh briefly, and Elena swirls out the door without another word.

Sterling shakes his head. "I hope you're wrong," he says after she's long gone. He sighs again, sends a quick text message to Thomas, then gets up to walk to the communications building.


A young woman stands outside an apartment building downtown

She looks down and checks her phone, making sure she has the right address

2:27 AM

Crystal feels the lump in her coat pocket. Switched off. But... But Crystal can't help but think how it could make this date go smoothly.

She sends two quick text messages. Tanya replies immediately, saying that she'll be right down. It's more than a little awkward, standing out on the street corner at half past two, but Tanya's right, even downtown is quiet. The cool air is refreshing, and that with the excitement of the date works to keep Crystal awake even in the face of a long, stressful shift after a long day. She wants a shower, but if she had gone home, she would certainly have not wanted to go back out.

Tanya comes through the main doors of the complex. "Hey, what's up?" She's dressed warm, in white sweat pants and a purple hooded sweater. "Hope you don't mind the get up, I wanted to be comfortable instead of impressive. Figured I'd let my personality take care of the rest."

"You're already pretty impressive, you don't need to dress for it," Crystal confirms. "So where are we going?"

"Depends on how much time you got, dockie."

Crystal shrugs. "I guess have me home by sunrise? Big stuff is happening, I need to be rested."

Tanya nods. "Yeah, I get to start tomorrow instead of Friday because of the whole Bright thing. Whee." She makes little mock-excitement motions with her hands at head-level.

"You sure you wanna go—"

"I ain't staying the fuck home because I have to work tomorrow just because some old fart's house burned up."

Crystal laughs. "Not caring about first impressions includes for your job, huh."

Tanya rolls her eyes. "Why wouldn't it? Come on." She starts walking down the road, waving Crystal along.

"I don't even know what's safe and what isn't," Crystal says, following closely. "I'm not usually out at night."

"Yeah, leave it to us vampires. Trust me I know where the best blood is," Tanya deadpans. "Honestly, I haven't got a fuckin' clue where to take you. I usually just wander around in the lighter places, staring at my phone. Technically the parks close at eleven, which means going to the park is trespassing, so do you feel like being a rebel?"

"Oh yeah, anarchy and chaos, trespassing in the park," Crystal giggles. "Yeah sure, sounds... well..." She frowns. "Maybe we shouldn't give the police an excuse right now."

"We're out at nearly three in the morning, think they need a better one? At least we're not dressed like hookers. Made that mistake once, had to use my get-outta-jail-free card on that one."

"Those work?"

Tanya laughed. "Yeah, I mean I called the Bright Society 'cause I worked for 'em as a freelancer, but I shouldn't'a been brought in in the first place. It was last summer, during the heat wave, and I just wanted to go for a walk and stay cool, so I put on some skimpy clothing. Didn't get anyone even catcalling me, but still got hauled in. Took all of ten minutes to get me out, once I start dropping names and someone makes a phone call."

Crystal's mouth goes a little dry. "You... work for the Bright Society?"

"Worked. Past tense. One arrest on suspicion of arson, and they dropped me faster'n a scalding potato."

"Arrest for—"

"Yeah, I was the body they dragged out of the cafe on the docks, apparently."

"Apparently?"

"I don't remember," Tanya says with a shrug. "Sterling thinks I was drugged."

Crystal frowns. "Who?"

"Sterling G—oh, that's right. The way he talks you'd think he knows everyone on the docks."

Crystal shrugs. "I think I might've heard the name before?"

"That's probably it. Maybe from Sharon. She knows him better'n I do."

"What does he do?"

"He's in conflict resolution, apparently. Fucked if I know what that is."

Crystal giggles again. "ConRes resolve conflicts, either between different parts of the Confederation or between the PCDCC and the rest of the world."

"Yeah, the way things are I'm not surprised you need a whole department for that shit."

"World's out to get us. You too, now."

"Shit. Yeah." Tanya sighs. "God, I wish I wanted a smoke."

Crystal blinks. "What?"

"I wish I... I had a..." Tanya seems to be trying to explain her statement. "A friend helped me quit pretty recently, and right now I wish he hadn't."

"Why not just say you want a cigarette, then?"

"Because I fucking don't," Tanya growls, frustrated. "And it feels... I dunno, weird not to, you get me? Fuck, let's just talk about something else. Got any family?"

"That's... conversational whiplash, a bit." Crystal's head spun with the thought of it. "I mean—"

"Right, fuck, you're a runaway, sorry if I'm—"

"No, no, it's fine, that's all behind me. Well..." Crystal took a deep breath. "I'm still in touch with my sister. My parents don't want anything to do with me."

"Shit, that sucks."

Crystal shrugs. "Made my peace with that a long time ago. I just want to get Liana out."

"Your folks that bad?"

"Yeah, she's not happy," Crystal explains. "I wanna get her here, get an apartment with her."

Tanya nods. "Good plan. How's it going?"

Crystal bites her lip. She does a bit of math in her head. "I have enough for a bus ticket and a deposit and about three months' rent in a two-bed place uptown."

The hacker gives a low whistle. "Why haven't you brought her here, then?"

Crystal's brow furrowed. "Because I only have enough for three months?"

"But you have a job."

"Sure?"

"A good job."

"I mean, I guess."

"Look, you've put all that away while still managing to pay your own rent and feed yourself and keep that awesome body in fuckin' stellar shape," Tanya says, coming to a halt at a street corner. "And your sister can get a job too, right?"

Crystal puts a hand to her temple. She's starting to get a headache. Must be tired, she thinks. "I suppose it's... possible?"

Tanya persists. "If things are so bad at home, why not get her out of there ay-sap, you know?"

One or two more good paydays, and... "School ends soon. Easier to get her here during summer break." She smirks as the two of them head down a different, less-well-lit residential street. "Better start planning that I guess."

"Yeah, you might wanna get on that," Tanya says. "Despite the evidence to the contrary, summer is on its way."

"Jeez, did we just pivot to talking about the weather?"

"Christ, my ex is right, I am boring."

Crystal laughs. "If there's something about you I will never believe, Tanya, it's that you're boring."

"Look at you, being fucking charming." Tanya grabs Crystal's hand and squeezes. "Gonna make me think you wanna get into my pants."

"Well... I don't not want to be there..." Crystal admits, flushing.

"Easy, tiger, let a girl buy you a late-night drink first."

"You can't," Crystal replies. "I'm only twenty."

"A non-alcoholic drink, then, fine. You can have a vodka another time if you don't tell anyone."

"My lips are sealed."

"Oh, I hope not," Tanya says, looking up at her. "Two reasons. I love your voice, and I want you to kiss me. A lot."

Crystal hesitates. "Like—"

"Yeah, like earlier, you gonna do it or what?" Tanya stops walking and grins, pulling Crystal to a halt as well under a streetlamp. "It's the perfect time for a first kiss."

"Second."

"Whatever, who gives a fuck. We can have a million first kisses if we want, who's gonna tell us otherwise? And don't you fuckin' say 'the definition of first' or some shit. I don't care, just fuckin' kiss mmmph!" Tanya's last word is cut off as Crystal makes her decision, sweeps the smaller woman into her arms, and presses their lips together.

Tanya's interrupted outburst turns into a gasp and a pleased moan. Crystal enjoys that almost as much as the taste and feel of the hacker's lips on her tongue and the small, soft body crowding into her strong, muscular frame.

They fit together, and it's already beautiful.

"Holy shit," Tanya says as they separate.

"Yeah," Crystal agrees. "Holy shit." She takes a breath. "About that drink..."

"Three blocks towards the water, Club Argent, you know it?"

"Yeah, sure, but I can't go in because—"

"Fuck. Right. Okay. Jesus. Get older. Anyway. We could go over a few streets to Armstrong's All-nite Internet Cafe."

Crystal can't keep from laughing at the outburst. "Sold." She lets Tanya go. The hacker grabs her arm and swings her back the way they came, practically dragging Crystal along as she goes.

"Kinda pointless to tell you I'm thirsty, huh."

Crystal thinks for a moment. "I could ask what kind of thirsty you m—"

"Both."

"Got it. Me too."

Tanya squeezes her hand again. "Deal with one first, negotiate the other?"

"Considering I'm going to be fighting between tired and horny until I get some sleep," Crystal says with a bit of a sigh, "negotiation seems like a good idea. I didn't get a whole lot of napping in, and had a long jog on my second break."

"Oh yeah, right, you and Sharon do that thing where you take a fuckin' sexy body and spend hours of your time every day making it sexier." Tanya hugs a little closer to Crystal's side. "I don't object, you understand."

"Hey, I'm an athlete," Crystal says, lapsing into a familiar topic. "Just because it's the off-season—"

"Right, hockey, does the co-op have a league or something?"

She shakes her head. "Not that I know of. Not enough hockey players, and anyway I left all my equipment behind. Not sure I can even skate anymore. Security has a baseball team, though, which I've subbed in on when they were short a couple times. They rent a community center and field in Trace Point and play against some of the other departments."

Tanya seems thoughtful. "Does communications and IT have a team?"

"Yeah, there's not enough of them on their own, so they join up with—"

"Oh fuck. No way they have a team with—"

"ConRes," the two of them say together.

"Jesus," Tanya spits. "Of course they do. Can I defect?"

"You haven't even started working yet!"

"Doesn't mean I can't fucking defect."

Crystal giggles. "Yeah, I suppose that's true."

Tanya hugs herself close to Crystal again. "You 'n' me'll make our own team."

"You could just join the security team. Two people doesn't really make a baseball team."

"You pitch, I'll catch, and if no one ever hits the ball we don't need the other seven people."

"What about batting?"

Tanya laughs maliciously. "Every game a zero-zero tie."

"Ah, I think it'd be fun to be on opposite sides. You know, the winner can console the loser..."

"I like the way you think, Crystal."

Crystal reaches across and puts her hand over Tanya's. The two of them walk into Armstrong's. Crystal had never been before, let alone at nearly three in the morning, but it reminds her of a bigger version of the nerve center of the Communications department, albeit with more cubicles, some public tables and booths with computer equipment on them, much dimmer lighting, and electronic music pumping through the place at a not-intolerable volume.

Tanya waves to the greeter, who looks up from his phone. "Booth for two. Private as you can. Just here for drinks."

Crystal doesn't hear the reply, but the two of them follow the host to a corner of the mostly-empty room. They were seated on two sides of a quarter-circle-shaped table. A large monitor sat where they could both see it, with a menu on it. Crystal peruses it quickly while Tanya takes her hand. Nothing jumps out, food-wise.

"Just drinks, or d'you want a snack?" Tanya asks.

"Just a drink."

"In a hurry?"

Crystal grins at her. "Maybe."

Tanya smirks back. "Me too." She reaches up and taps on the screen, selecting a drink for herself. "What'd you like?"

Crystal considers the menu for a moment. "Sparkling lemonade?"

"Yeah, not my thing," Tanya taps the menu item then sends the order in, "but whatever, if you like it."

"Guess I'll find out." Crystal takes a deep breath, and squeezes Tanya's hand. "And after?"

Tanya turns to her. "I'll take you to bed. Your choice if that's literal or figurative."

Crystal feels herself warming. "My place or yours?"

"Yours," Tanya says definitively. "No offense, but I don't bring people home."

"Not on the first date?"

"Not ever."

Crystal blinks. "O-kay..."

"Paranoia is a fuck of a drug."

Crystal nods. That, at least, is something she can understand. "Is it—"

"Not gonna talk about it."

"Not even—"

"Not gonna talk about it." Tanya looks Crystal in the eye. "If you weren't so goddamn hot, so fucking young, and so unbearably cute, I would walk out the door. Got me?"

The lump in Crystal's pocket weighs on her mind. It doesn't have to be a mystery finds itself at odds with She deserves her privacy and on the way it gets all tangled up with She doesn't even have to know she told me. 

She hates it. She hates that she's actually considering it. She hates that she almost instinctively clicks the switch into place as she says, "Hey, no worries, forget I asked."

Tanya's expression softens. "Yeah, no worries. You're new, you'll get used to me eventually. What were we talking about again?"

Before Crystal can think of something to say, their drinks arrive, two pint-glasses, one with a translucent yellowish liquid—her lemonade—and one with a bright red, fizzy substance. With a practiced motion, she switches off the subsonic inducer. That's done enough damage.

"You mind if I get this?" Tanya asks. "I know you're loaded, but I kinda wanna feel like I'm treating you tonight."

"I don't object," Crystal replies as Tanya pulls some money out of her pocket and gives it to the waiter. Loaded? she thinks.

"Especially because you're taking me back to your place," Tanya continues. "Trading hospitality. Good for, I dunno, karma or some shit?" She raises her heavy glass. "Cheers."

"Uh, yeah." Crystal clinks her glass against Tanya's and sips at the drink. It's nice, lemony as expected and not too sweet. Her mind is still on Tanya's comments about her financial situation, but thinking about it gives her a headache. But that starts her thinking about why it's giving her a headache.

She's tired, but she doesn't think that she's that tired.

Crystal hides her thoughtful silence behind her glass. Tanya's clearly enjoying her vibrant beverage and doesn't seem to notice.

"It's funny," the smaller woman says, putting her glass down. "I'm the transparent one, but you're drinking the clear drink, and I have the weird colorful thing."

"You think you can't see through me?" Crystal asks, hoping that that was the case.

Tanya snorts. "Nah, just trying to do a symbolic thing or something, I dunno. It was fucking stupid anyway."

"No, I mean—"

"It was, don't lie to me."

Crystal shrugs and smiles, choosing to take a drink instead of answering.

"'Sides," Tanya continues, "I'm the one who won't let you know where I live."

"I know the building," Crystal points out.

"But not which of the almost-two-hundred apartments in there is mine."

Crystal grins. "I could guess. It'd be the one with the cutest girl in it."

"Shut the fuck up," Tanya laughs and hides her face in her hands. "Who the Hell are you, anyway?" she says into the table.

"What do you mean?"

Tanya lifts her head and shakes it. "Nah, doesn't matter." She sighs. "How the fuck did I wind up with you? Sharon has this kind of luck. I don't."

Crystal blinks, confused. How did they meet, anyway? "I could say the same, I guess? I mean, I haven't really been looking for—"

"Yeah, me neither. But I found it, and I'm not letting go easy."

"Me too." Crystal says, then drains the last of her drink. "I'm gonna go use the bathroom, that alright?"

"Yeah, I still have a couple good shots left in me and I don't need to go before we leave, unless it's like an hour walk or something?"

Crystal gives her a kiss on the cheek. "You can use the one in my apartment if you need to go."

"That's the plan. Meet you at the front?"

"Meet you there."


Bright General Hospital

Second floor supply closet

4:03 AM

Chelsea startles awake from her nap when someone comes in the door. The light blinds her momentarily.

"Hello?" she moans, shielding her eyes.

"Chelsea."

"Reggie?"

The dark figure walks into the room. Flamehammer is disheveled, looks tired. His hand is bandaged.

"Things are happening," he says.

"Yeah, I... I heard about your father, his house, are you okay?"

"I'm fine." His tone is dismissive, almost angry. "I need you, Chelsea."

She sits up wearily. "That's... I mean I'm flattered, but—"

He reaches into his pocket. Cold rushes through Chelsea's veins. "My father was murdered tonight. We need to plan our response."

The Angel nods. "Should I take the rest of my shift off?"

"We need every available hero on hand."

"Of course." The Arctic Angel gets to her feet. "What can I do?"

"I will drive you to my home, we will plan our next moves from there."

"Perfect." She moves towards the door, her eyes still adjusting to the light. "I will speak to the shift manager."

"I'll bring the car to the main entrance." Flamehammer follows her into the hall, turning right while she goes left.

The conversation with the shift manager did not go well. The Angel wasn't ever going to be convincing faking illness or even exhaustion, and so she merely referred him to the Bright agent in charge. As far as the shift manager and her other colleagues knew, Chelsea was merely seconded to the hospital as part of her primary employment with the Bright Society itself, but even if they had first priority over her work situation, it was still considered inappropriate that she leave in the middle of a shift. No one would be exceptionally surprised, given the news, but that did not make them more amenable. Chelsea is employed by the Bright Society as a private nurse, the Bright Society allows her to work for the hospital when needed, and the Bright Society deems it necessary to recall all medical personnel from the hospital, and that includes Chelsea.

She is not alone in that. One surgeon and two members of the janitorial staff were also recalled, mostly, she knew, so that her own recall would not raise eyebrows. Bright General has its own staff employed directly by the hospital foundation, so in a Bright Society emergency the hospital was not left bereft, and of course most Bright Society staff were working during the day, not overnight, but still, the loss of a nurse would present a challenge to the ward.

The Angel can't bring herself to care about that. She has a purpose. The Bright agent would justify her actions. She expresses a regret she doesn't feel before heading out the door and down the stairs. Flamehammer is waiting in his car, as he said he would be, and the two of them head off together.


The street outside Sterling Grey's apartment

4:45 AM

It has been 4:45 for a while.

Oleksandr Kolesnyk stares at the scene before him. He can't do anything else, frozen as he is. Frozen as everything and everyone is.

Two police cars sit out front of the building, lights off, waiting, and they've been waiting at least since Oleksandr's watch read 4:42, when he arrived.

He hadn't really needed to use his power once he found a good vantage point, but it gives him a lot of time to think.

Two cars means they're going to try and intercept him before he goes inside. But there's only two officers in those cars which means two are inside, probably waiting by his door.

He scans the scene again, checking for anything he might have missed, before releasing his power. Feeling his heart start beating again is always a bit of a rush. He reaches quickly for his phone and places a call to Thomas Holfers.

He describes the situation, quickly and quietly. They have plans within plans, contingencies for almost anything, and this is no exception.

He settles back into his place on the public bench, carefully not looking at the cars. In a moment, the front doors open, and a very large, well-muscled man emerges, dressed only in boxer shorts, a man he's met only once before, Thomas' partner. He's apparently drunk. He marches up to one of the cars and knocks on the window loudly.

His voice very loud and heavily slurred, the man starts thanking the officers for their presence, keeping the neighborhood safe. Oleksandr doesn't pay too much attention to what he's saying, that's not what's important. What is, is how the officers are busy dealing with the distraction while Sterling walks right past them and into the front door of his apartment complex.

Oleksandr takes that as his cue, walking over to the loud scene in front of him.

"All'm sayin', 'ffsserr, izzat you bein' here makes errythin' better," the man is practically shouting at the officer in his car. The other is standing beside him, a hand on his shoulder.

"Cousin?" Oleksandr says softly as he approaches. Three heads turn to face him. "Cousin, I think you've had a little much tonight."

"Whaa? Nooo, no 'm fiiine!"

"Come on, let's get you inside." He puts a hand around the large man's waist, and addresses the policemen. "Thank you both for understanding. He's having a rough time lately."

"Oh, of course," the officer in the street says. "Just make sure he stays inside, he's making a disturbance."

Oleksandr smiles and nods, leading Jim Tyler back to the apartment door. "Lucky I live across the road. Oh, cousin, did you forget your keys? I have mine here..."

Jim turns back and give the officers a big smile and a clumsy wave as Oleksandr gently pushes him inside.

The door closes behind them and Jim immediately straightens up. Sterling Grey is standing in the doorway to the apartment he shares with Thomas Holfers.

"There's two more upstairs waiting outside your door," Jim says.

Sterling nods. "No doubt with a rushed warrant." He extends a hand to Jim, who clasps it solidly. "Thank you, old friend."

"Any time, Sterling. Don't hesitate to call."

Sterling nods and turns to go up the stairs.

"Where are you going?" Jim asks.

"Somewhere safe, don't worry. Not home."

Oleksandr smiles. "Has it been long enough, do you think?"

Jim shakes his head. "You'd better come inside for a few minutes, make sure I'm 'properly settled.'"

"Of course, 'cousin.'"

Sterling chuckles as he heads up the stairs.

Oleksandr follows Jim into the apartment. "Five minutes ought to be enough," he asserts.

"Probably don't even need that much. It's late and I'm supposedly too drunk to remember my keys."

The lawyer laughs. "A bit overdramatic, that performance."

Jim laughs with him. "Yeah, sorry, I was never good at subtlety."

"You did the job brilliantly. Thank you, on behalf of all of us."

"Just keep Thomas safe, alright?"

"I'll do my best."

Jim shakes Oleksandr's hand. "You want a glass of water? I need one after that bellowing."

"I'm fine, thank you." The lawyer stands by the door, watching the clock. A side effect of his power is his inability to mark time in its usual passage. "I'll just wait here a couple minutes then be out of your hair."

"Great. I'll hang out, not because I want to keep an eye on you but so I can lock the door behind you. There's a couple strange men in the building and I don't feel safe."

The two of them share a grin, and pass some time in silence.

Once the clock on the wall reads 4:52, Oleksandr opens the door. "Stay safe, 'cousin.'"

"You too."

He heads out the front doors. Both cars are still there, waiting. He waves to the officers, then heads down the block.


She doesn't know the time, and isn't entirely sure of the place

Marie stares into the dark room. She's had a good sleep, but doesn't really know what to do with herself. She's not hungry, doesn't feel like watching television, doesn't particularly want to go back to bed. So she sits in the armchair where she'd been so completely, deliciously controlled a few... hours ago? she guesses. She's paced the apartment out a few times.

She's bored, but she doesn't want to do anything about that boredom.

But also, she wants to think about—

It's so hard to keep from getting distracted, so she isolated herself from distractions, and even then it's a challenge to keep from fantasizing, to keep focused on the question before her. It's a serious question, one that will affect her for the rest of her life, no matter her choice.

What makes it so difficult, aside from being constantly side-tracked by beautiful fantasies, is that she's happy with things just as they are, but that's no longer an option. It's what makes giving up her life so appealing in the first place: Silver Tongue was wonderful to her at every turn, even if he has technically been using her for his own ends. There's nothing at all that she could point to and definitively say that he's a monster. If she had that, that one moment where he had done something so far beyond the pale that she wouldn't have been able to live with herself had she done it, there would be no difficulty, no choice at all, really.

She's sure that other people would look at it differently. Tanya, from earlier, probably didn't agree, she seemed to have a certain moral opposition to Silver Tongue in general. Which Marie can understand, at least; the man is a villain, in the literal sense. A villain, but not a monster.

It went against everything they'd been taught in school, every news story, every piece of fiction. There were heroes, and there were villains. Good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. Brights... and monsters. Maybe some middle ground, surely—a lot of movies now were exploring the concept of unaligned people with powers—but supposedly once you pick a side, you have chosen a side, and that comes with all the moral implications of that choice. The good guys are good, unless they fall, and the bad guys are bad, unless they're redeemed.

Silver Tongue is not redeemed. He's probably irredeemable. And certainly, even if he could be "reached" somehow, it isn't going to be her doing it. Her choice was to become a loyal subject, not to be his new moral center. She isn't going to "fix" him with her love or something, certainly not if she gives in to his offer.

But in part, that's because he doesn't, in her estimation, need fixing. Not that he's perfect, but nobody is perfect. He's just not broken.

And neither am I, she says to herself, defiantly. I wasn't broken before we met, and he hasn't broken me.

She thinks back over her life since she graduated. It's the same story as a hundred other people from her school—wasted a bit of time, got a job, drifted more or less aimlessly—with the notable difference of having met a supervillain and been one of his lovers. How had that shaped her life? Had he held her back? Convinced her to keep her job instead of growing into something else? That seems ridiculous, she loves John and Ash, and the job might not be the best in the world, but it's fun and interesting.

But with his help, she could really be and do anything. If she wants the discipline to learn a new skill, he can give her that discipline easily. Or, she reasons, if he wants her to have a new skill, a new attitude, a new... She shivers at the possibilities. Whatever she needs to be, for her own purposes or for his, he can make happen, and that had been a driving force behind her sexual fantasies since before she knew what a sexual fantasy was.

But...

There's more to life than sex. And having a fantasy isn't the same as living a fantasy.

Which is the same argument she's been having with herself since she woke up.

She got up from the armchair with a sigh. A shower might help her concentrate. She takes a step towards the hallway, then pauses and looks toward the door.

"You're here, aren't you," she says. "You've been here a while."

"Not long," comes the reply.

"That could mean a lot of things."

"It means, 'Not long.'"

She smiles. "What do you want?" She's curious, not confrontational.

"Just some company. It's been a very long night."

"I could use some company, too," she replies. "I'm having trouble coming to a big decision."

"You know I won't help you with that."

Marie chuckles. "You'll help, even if you won't make the decision for me. I just mostly need someone to talk to, someone who isn't me."

"I'm not sure that I can talk back to you."

Marie moves towards the door. "Earlier, you had to leave before we could shower together. Now, it sounds like we could both use some hot water. Join me?"

There's a sigh, perhaps relieved. "I think that's a great idea." And Silver Tongue, who she could see the whole time but who her mind refused to acknowledge until that moment, takes her hand and allows himself to be led to the bathroom.

How will the aftermath to Gerald's death unfold? What's going to happen between Tanya and Crystal? What will Reggie do with Chelsea? What will Marie decide?

Find out more in Part Nineteen!

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