Conflict Resolution

Part Twenty-One: Before the Storm

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 final flurry of activity the evening before the expected police raid sends Sterling Grey on a long and eventful walk through the city.

Port City, USA

The main room of Dockworks Telecomm

Approaching nine in the evening, Thursday

Thomas emerges from the War Room, needing a break. They've been working on decrypting communications protocols on Courier's burner phone for nearly three hours. Tanya has given him much to think about.

He looks around the workspace. It's empty.

"That son of a..."

He pulls out his phone, half in anger, half in frustration, and sends a terse text message to Sterling Grey. "I'd bet he was never even in Scouts."

Half past one, Friday morning.

Sterling Grey walks back into the Dockworks Telecomm building.

Thomas is waiting for him like an impatient father.

"Tell me, please, that you didn't just risk arrest and the whole of the operation just so you could get laid."

Sterling smiles, but doesn't answer.

After a moment, Thomas' frustration and exhaustion got the better of him. "Fine. There's a cot in the war room, if you want it. If you're not going to go wandering the streets for another thrill."

"You're exagg—"

"Of course I am." Thomas sighs. "Doesn't mean I'm not angry."

"You'll get over it."

"Right. You'll see to that, won't you."

"That's not fair."

Thomas shakes his head. "Doesn't matter." He steps closer, a bit aggressively. "I've been making excuses and defending you for years. Don't, don't make me side with the hacker of all things."


"Exactly. She's not really fond of you, you know."


Thomas does smile. "She fucking hates you, Sterling."

He nods. "She'll come around."

"We all do." Thomas' smile turns a little sarcastic. "And for those who don't..."

Sterling rolls his eyes, but says nothing.

"I'm taking Jim and going home. That's assuming the police haven't taken it apart brick by brick looking for you. Tanya's agreed to cover the main computer until Anna gets here at five."

"Have a good night, Thomas. Get your rest."

"You too."

In that same room

Seven hours before

just after six, Thursday evening

Sterling Grey scrolls through a few messages, making a mental list of things he has to do.

It hasn't been ten minutes since he promised Thomas that he wouldn't leave the building.

He hasn't forgotten his promise. But there's important work to be done, and a very narrow timeframe to accomplish it.

His phone shuts off for lack of charge the moment he unplugs it. It doesn't concern him greatly, he plans to charge it when he gets to his destination.

"Believe me officer, I'm not the man you're looking for."

The front door of a normal-looking three-story apartment block

6:45 PM, Thursday evening

Sterling Grey stands on the front step, speaking to a uniformed police officer. Unleashing his voice.

The officer is comparing a photo of who is very clearly Sterling Grey to the man who matches it precisely, and nodding. "You can go about your business," the officer says, stepping aside.

Sterling has always wanted to do that.

He wastes no time in hurrying up to the second floor of the complex. His key opens the containment apartment where Marie is being kept.

She's not in the front room, so he quickly plugs his phone in by the television to let it continue charging and heads to the bedroom.

Marie is there, sitting cross-legged and naked on the bed. She looks up. She's obviously a little upset, and Sterling can guess that she had recently been moreso.

"It was always going to be a difficult decision," he says, standing by the doorway.

"You could have made it easy, you know," she replies. There's a little accusation in her voice, a little fire, but no hate, no sting.

He nods, smiling kindly. "Then it wouldn't have been yours."

She sighs. "So who's this better for? You, or me?"

"Both of us," he explains. "It's better for my conscience, and you get to consider all the facets of your life that I don't know about."

Finally she smiles and a touch of the mirth that he always admires in her comes back. "There's not much that you don't know about. It's not much of a life."

"Even if that were true, and I don't believe that it is, the life is still yours, and you still have a right to determine its course."

She waves him over, and he sits on the edge of the bed, near to her. "And if I want to give up that right?"

"Then you know what to ask me."

She gets up on her knees, her arms wrap around his shoulders and she presses close to him. "Before I tell you..." she whispers, and he shivers, "will you tell me what you hope I'm going to say?"

He turns at the neck and kisses her lightly on the lips. "Absolutely not," he says with a smile.

"Yeah, that's what I figured." She giggles a little. "It's alright, my mind is made up, you're not going to change it."

"You'd think that," Sterling says, "but I'm going to avoid any accusation of biasing the decision. If I tell you, I can't be sure that your decision was made neutrally."

"Even if I do the thing you don't want?"

He's well aware that she's teasing him. "Then how would I know that you aren't picking it because it's the choice I don't want?"

Marie laughs. "How do you live with all this potential guilt going on?"

His fingers slide up the inside of her thigh, eliciting giggles and then moans. "You learn ways to cope."

"Mmm, lots of sex?"

He nods. "And working hard to make the world a better place, even if I'm something of a worm in that apple."

She gives him a light punch in the shoulder. "You're no worm, Sterling Grey. I don't care what the Brights say 'bout you." She wraps him up in another warm hug. "You're not a hero, neither, I don't think, you're just... a guy. A pretty nice guy an' a great lay an' a weird supervillain an' a fabulous tipper. Everything, everyone has expectations of you. I know I do, and it's something I've been thinking about a lot the last... God, how long's it been? You know what, it doesn't matter. Since you locked me up in here, been thinking about it. I even wondered if I could turn you, make you reconsider and join the Brights or somethin'. An' I know, two things wrong with that, I don't have a strong enough hold on you, first, and second, that's not what I want even if I did. But I bet you'd become like some sorta criminal counselor or somethin'. They'd push you into changin' people for the good of society, right? Which is what you're doing already, when it comes down. And from what I can see—and believe me, I haven't done any real thinking about it, so this is just one pizza girl's impression—from what I can see, the main difference between hero 'n' villain is who you decide to make society better for, right?"

"I doubt that the Brights or the police will see it that way."

Marie squeezes harder, forcing a little air from Sterling's lungs. "Who cares, when there's lots of opinions that matter a lot more?" She nuzzles into his neck. "Don't our views count for anything? The people who actually care about you?" She reaches down and strokes his chest. "The people who wanna make love with you?"

Sterling inhales deeply. "Those opinions matter more to me than just about anything." He chuckles. "That's what keeps me going."

"Got a little time to listen to those opinions with me?" Her tone in his ear made her intentions for the means of exploration very clear. His answer comes in the form of an intense kiss, and Marie responds by pressing closer still and drawing his mouth down to her chest, reveling in the feel of his lips and tongue on her breasts. He was the one to proceed lower, without her direction, pressing her back onto the bed and kissing her soft belly, caressing her sides and hips.

He looks up at her, meets her gaze. "You will not let me change your mind about your decision," he says, and he feels her shiver as his voice takes hold.

She looks back at him as her eyes refocus. "Shorta usin' your powers on me, there's no chance." She's deadly serious in tone. "My mind is made up."

"Good," he says. "Then let's just not think about that for a while."

"Sounds wonderful."

And as his kisses make their way down her belly, her body trembles in excitement and need. At his command, she waits patiently for him to disrobe, listening to his voice curling around her thoughts and bending them all towards one goal, one interest, one purpose. She is perhaps a little surprised when he names that purpose as her pleasure, but also he knows that his pleasure is her pleasure, and so when he penetrates her, when he begins fucking her with all the energy he can muster after a very long week, he can sense that she's taking joy not just in her own bodily gratification but his, as well.

As always, she's warm, and inviting, and submissive—servile, even—to the point that Sterling is tempted to just forget that he's given her an option at all.

She thinks the world of you, and would gladly give the world for you, his darker nature points out as he approaches his climax. It would just take a little nudge. He looks at her trusting eyes, her messy hair, her joyous expression. She never needs to know that she didn't make the decision herself.

The fantasy of it pushes him harder, faster, imagining Marie on her knees for... for whenever he needs her. Forever. And behind her, Chelsea, Sharon, awaiting their orders, and behind them, more, and more, and—

Marie cries out in ecstasy, and her voice couples with Sterling's as he comes inside her, the two of them locked together in a moment of exquisite sexual pleasure. Sterling took a deep breath and settled into Marie's arms, and she smiles and hums cheerfully, breathing as hard as he is.

"That was amazing," Marie murmurs. She rubs his bare back, digging her fingers in a bit. "No way I can keep this going just as we have been, huh."

"None," he says, shaking his head, then kissing her forehead.

"So..." She sighs, and it's not entirely out of sadness or frustration. "What now?"

Sterling kisses her cheek. "I stay with you a while, I, or we, shower, and then I have to continue on my work tonight." He carefully disentangles himself and lies next to her, stroking her hair softly. "And at some point, I find out what it is you've decided, and we make it happen."

Marie grins and laughs like a child. "Ooh, can we do that bit in the shower? I love the idea of a real honest-to-goodness brainwashing."

Sterling can't help but laugh. "I admit that I've never done that before." He holds her closely and whispers in her ear, "I will wash your brain thoroughly, with soap and water and my powerful voice."

She laughs and moans. "How'd you make that sound so sexy?"

His fingers dance lightly between her legs, drawing little circles in the evidence of their prior activity, make her twitch and giggle. "Practice."

"Mmm." She presses closer to him, turning on her side and trapping his hand between her thighs. "Glad to help with the routine." She wraps him up again. "How long can we just be here together?"

"We have a while. I just don't have time to fall asleep."

"What is it, early meeting?" Her sarcastic joking tone hides a not-entirely-disguised hurt. Nothing terrible, so far as Sterling can tell, but there was a sting there.

He chooses to ignore it gently. "Late, actually. And since you've been out of touch for a while... there's..." He shakes his head. "There's really a lot going on."

She squeezes his ass. "And you decided to spend some little bit of your free time with me?"

"You're important."

Those two words brighten her smile significantly. "Thank you, Mr. Grey," is all she says in reply.

He kisses her slowly, tenderly. "You're welcome."

The moment stretches out lazily. There's an occasional kiss or snuggle, but mostly the two just hold each other in the fading warmth of their passion.

It's Marie that breaks the silence. "You got villainy to get to," she says with a grin. "We should shower."

Sterling smiles and unwraps himself from her arms and the blankets. "Let's do that."

She hesitates a moment before sitting up. "This is it, I guess. Life gets very different now." She grins at him as she moves to the edge of the bed. "Not so much for you."

"My life is always changing," he admits, sitting beside her. "Still, I think your adjustment is going to go easier than mine."

She leans her head on his shoulder, and they sit for a moment.

"I think," she begins. She squeezes his knee. "I think I need you to make me do this."

He nods, putting an arm around her waist, and his voice comes to him easily.

Sterling Grey's apartment

Twenty minutes to nine

The door is unlocked. Presented with a search warrant, the superintendent would have let the police in. At the very least, someone could have come by and locked it back up.

The door of his apartment is becoming a security risk. The whole building is, really. Which is a problem for a later day.

The apartment is, as expected, a disaster area. Right from the doorway, Sterling can see that every available hiding place has been dismantled. The cushion has been torn from the armchair and sliced apart, the stuffing is all over the floor. The liquor cabinet had been forced opened; the lock is broken, but all the bottles are laid out in some semblance of order on the shelf and bar. All the kitchen cabinets have been rifled, and nothing is put back in its place (although nothing seems to be broken, either, which is a small miracle).

A noise causes Sterling to turn as he's examining the kitchen. He isn't armed, but that doesn't make him defenseless.

"As your lawyer," Oleksandr Kolesnyk begins.

Sterling laughs with relief. "What is it, Sandy? You have some advice for me?"

"Mostly just to get out of here before the cops find you," the legal expert replies.

"How much time have I got?"

"I assume you put slipped past the sentry easily?"

Sterling nods.

"And spent some time with the lovely lady on the second floor?"

"That was the main reason for my return," Sterling affirms. "I came here on the chance that I could find a suit."

"Your room," Sandy says, "is it no better a state."

"Why are you here?"

"Cataloguing the damage," the lawyer replied. "For a potential lawsuit."

Sterling shakes his head. "Not going to bother."

"Port City's got—"

"Enough troubles without a lawsuit against the PD for my tearing up apartment."

Oleksandr chuckles. "Don't hang around too long. We don't know if they stuck one of the Mechanician's bugs in the walls or something."

Sterling puts a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You should go rest, too. We're likely to need you tomorrow."

The lawyer nods. "I'll stay a while until after you've gone. Fewer of us traveling together evokes less suspicion. What's next for you?"

Sterling heads towards the disaster area that is his bedroom. "I have a date."

"Do you ever not?" Oleksandr calls from the kitchen.

Sterling laughs. "This one's different."

"They're all different."

Sterling strips off his borrowed clothes. "This isn't like the other girls."

"None of them are."

He opens his closet and puts together a suit from clothing that hasn't been tossed on the floor, still hung up and ready for wear. One does not approach the battlefield without proper armor, he thinks, pulling on a steel-grey suit. He looks through his available neckties before selecting a solid-color dark-blue. "You said yourself that there might be a bug in here." He starts tying the tie, walking back to the kitchen. "So I hope you understand when I'm not going to give you any more detail."

"Don't say anything you wouldn't want your grandparents to hear, we should be alright." Oleksandr is taking pictures with his smartphone. "You heading out?"

"If I don't now, they might show up."

The lawyer nods. "Don't be out too late, they're looking for you."

"Got it, dad," Sterling says with a grin. "I know you'll bail me out if I need it." He walks to the door. "These could be the last days of the Confederation."

"I know. I'll land on my feet, I have all these fancy letters after my name. You'll do fine with your voice."

Hand on the doorknob, Sterling sighs. "I don't want to do fine. I don't want to land on my feet, Sandy. I want everything to go well and all my colleagues to thrive."

"Heh. Don't we all. Be safe, Sterling."

"You too, Sandy."

9:30 PM

Crystal, hearing a notification, checks her messages.

She sends back an acknowledgment and a promise to report in.

Then she prepares for her meeting, erasing the messages and forgetting that she received them.

A two-bedroom bungalow in the university district

Ten minutes after eleven

A tired-looking man in a grey suit stands on the front stoop.

A woman in her late twenties, wearing a thin, short green night robe that matches her eyes answers the door with a sigh.

"You look like you've walked a long way," she says quietly, stepping out onto the porch and closing the door.

"I did," he replies.

She sighs again. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this late-night visit from a supervillain?"

"I think you know."

He brushes her cheek lightly with the back of his hand, and she doesn't pull away; instead she nods, saying nothing.

"You didn't have to marry him," he says.

"I did."

"You didn't have to join with them."

"I fell in love and I wanted a normal life." She gives him a little ironic smile. "Love and a normal life are two things that you can't possibly offer me."

He shrugs. "And they can?"

She tilts her head. Her expression says that she can hardly believe he's asking.

"Shall we head out back?"

She crosses her arms and shivers in the cool air. "It's been, what, three years?" Still, she takes his arm and walks around the side of the house.

He smiles. "Something like that. We've had little chats in the meanwhile, but three years since..."

She nods. The two of them move into the dimly-lit back yard. She huddles close for warmth. "I wondered if I'd be seeing you."

"Do they know you're compromised?" he asks.

She shakes her head. "How could they know what I don't?"

He chuckles. "You know what a mind controller likes to hear."

Standing by the big oak tree in the yard, she leans on him, wrapping her arms around his. "Why are you doing this? Is it because of...?" She leaves the question hanging.

He nods. "You know they're going to come for me."

"For all of you, but..."

"But they want Silver Tongue."

She shivers, and not from the cold, at the sound of his name. "I'm not going to remember this, am I."

He chuckles. "Oh, no, this one, you'll remember. Some of it, anyway."

She kisses him, then, and he responds in kind. It's a gentle, subtle, tender experience. Unique, in its way. They enjoy the contact for a moment, and the silence that follows afterwards.

She takes a breath. "My husband is just inside," she says. When he doesn't respond, she continues, "I could defend myself as well."

He nods. "Both true. Both irrelevant."

"Irrelevant," she says. She smiles. "You son of a bitch." She sighs again. "What comes next?"

"I assume your house is bugged?"

She shrugs. "Oh, probably. The Mechanician loves his toys, and the Brights love their surveillance."

He smirks, then. "You work in HR, can't you do something about that?"

"Funny thing," she says, squeezing his arm. "No one ever complains about the secret bugging made possible by the subtle mind control of a hypnotic inducer. Weird, right?"

He laughs softly. "Kind of like how no one complains about the quality of my work."

"In whatever job it is that you do." She lets him go, then, but takes his hands in her own. "Did you burn down Gerald Bright's house and leave him a note? Are the docks under your protection?"

"Didn't burn down his house, not that that matters. I did send him that note, to his private office in Bright Tower, and the docks and its people are mine."

"Yours," she whispers. "Like I was."

"Until you fell in love, and took a job with the Brights."

"I wanted a normal life," she repeats, voice still quiet. "Thought I could have it all."

He shakes his head. "No one can have it all. Especially not us."

She swallows. He can see that she's nervous. He can also see her considering her powers, her possible escape. "Could I... I-if I made a different decision back then, what could..."

"I don't speculate like that. I can't." He sighs. "People like us, our lives touch too many other lives. A small change in our pasts could mean something completely, wildly different now. That's true of most people, but..."

"Yeah." She lets out her breath, takes another. "I don't have a way out of this, do I?"

"Well, you could run away with me, join up with my cause, and help me protect the docks."

She scoffs. "I don't think that's going to happen."

"I didn't expect it to."

"Why don't you just..." She wiggles her fingers at him.

"If I change you so thoroughly, you wouldn't be you anymore," he explains. "And then I'd have to keep using my powers to keep you under control. It's not even a very good short-term solution."

A moment passes. Sterling can see that her thoughts of escape are fading.

"Did you love me?"

He's caught off-guard by the question. "What?"

"Did you love me, Silver Tongue? When we were... when you were... doing things to me. When you were in my head, when you were my secret bedmate, when we fucked... did you love me?"

"What does—"

"It matters. To me, it matters." She shakes her head. "I remember, sometimes. Oh, I don't let on, I never tell anyone, but I get little flashes when I'm kissing my husband or when I'm at my day job or when I'm on patrol. That when I was still in school, when I was first learning what I could do with my power, when... when I needed someone, when I made a call, there was a voice, a faceless voice, a body that joined with mine, kisses on my legs and face and breasts, and... hands... touching, holding mine." She looks down where her fingers intertwined with his, the hint of blush on her cheeks in the dim light. "I remember being in love with someone I don't remember. So it matters. Even if I forget this conversation and this night and can't place your face again, I want to know if, for whatever brief time of my existence, I held the heart of a supervillain in my hands."

He closes his eyes, feeling the warmth of her hands.

Before he can answer, she speaks again. He can hear the smile in her voice. "Lie to me, then."

He smiles, opens his eyes, meets her gaze directly. His voice, tired though it is, brings him the perfect words.

Fifteen minutes later, when the containment team arrives, she is on her knees in the kitchen, eyes closed, mumbling quietly to herself. Her flimsy robe had been thrown off outside, and she was nude. She swears to them that she has no idea that anyone at all had visited, let alone a supervillain, but they have the audio from the recorders secreted around the house. A voice, deep and strong, giving her directions. Her replies, soft, sounding half-asleep. He had left not ten minutes before. He had been talking about "The program," and, "The system," but she swears up and down that she doesn't know anything about either of those words.

Her husband is upset, of course, but she has to be taken in, to be held at least until the weekend is over. There is no question that she's now a potential threat to the upcoming operations. They would be putting her in one of Mechanician's stasis chambers under Bright Tower until Monday, when she can be properly assessed. They allow her the courtesy of the robe, after checking it thoroughly, but not a chance to get dressed. She barely has time to say goodbye to Daniel before she's shuffled out the door and into a Bright Society containment van.

A boat, docked in the harbor

11:02 PM

Crystal Smith goes belowdecks.

Reggie Bright is already there, waiting for her.

She doesn't allow him to speak.

"You've been fucking with my memory," she says, slamming the subsonic inducer on the table between them. Her voice is moderated, but clearly angry.


"No, you shut up, asshole. I've been working for a year and a goddamn half for you so that I could bring my sister here, and I find out that she and I have never discussed the plans I thought I was making with her."


"And I learn this morning that my father had a fucking stroke months ago and I don't remember it."

"This is the father who threw you out?"

"Not the point!" she snaps, fighting back tears of fury. "I did this work for you because I thought it would help me, because I thought I needed it, because I thought my sister needed it. You used this... this..."

"Subsonic inducer." He's infuriatingly calm. He crosses his legs.

"Shut up! You broke me, you asshole! You took away my family! My right to—"

"Rights?" he interrupts, laughing. "You want to talk to me about rights? About family?" He stands up. He's not as tall as she is, but they're built similarly. "You walked away from your family. Yesterday, someone from these fucking docks took my only family away from me, the only family I've ever had. Can you blame me for wanting revenge? My right to justice?"

Crystal sees it, then. Sees it so plainly. She steps back. "Oh, don't even try." She takes another step away. "No one from these docks killed your father." Reggie's mouth curls into a snarl, but even the expression rings obviously false to her eyes. She cuts him off before he can speak. "You're about to tell another lie, but I can read you like a fucking book. I know all about lying." She takes a step, still backwards, up the stairs, trying to keep space between them. She will hit him if she has to, but she doesn't want it to come to that; he's in the Bright Society, after all, he may have powers she doesn't know about. "You didn't spend your life having to hide a damn thing, and you don't have a chance lying to me, not without your mind control bullshit."

"I don't know what you're—"

"Yes you do." Three stairs up now. She has to lean over to be seen. Her voice a hiss. "You killed him, you son of a bitch."

A hand lands on her shoulder, from behind. Before she can turn, she feels a chill, down to her bones, a cold deeper than anything she's ever felt, than anything she's ever imagined. And before she can process it, everything goes dark.

11:06 PM

"How long?"

"Two hours. Maybe three, the air is cool."

"Alright. What if we throw her in the harbor?"

"With the water temperature right now? ... I'd guess midday Sunday, if she stays under."

"If? She'll float?"

"I haven't done much experimenting, but if you want to be sure that she'll stay there, we'll need to weigh her down. She'll drown when she wakes up, though."

"Whatever. Toss her phone in the water, take any valuables on her, ID, money, make it look like a robbery. Or... better. Tear her clothes, too, make it look like a sex thing. There's lots of rope here, just tie her to something solid. When she comes up to the surface, and it'll be another black mark for these pricks on the docks. The cops'll find someone they can blame."


Nothing more needs to be said. The work is as cold as the victim.

Still... a hint of the accusation lingers. What if this woman is right?

Half past one, Friday morning.

Sterling watches Thomas leave, then moves into the war room, where Tanya is still working at the master computer. A cot has been set up for him, like Thomas said. Or perhaps it's for the now-homeless hacker in the room. Either way, it's there, and he moves to it.

He checks his messages, then plugs in his phone.

"She hasn't messaged you back, huh," Tanya says. Her voice betrays a sense of worry.


"Like you don't know I've been eavesdropping on your goddamn phone. Crystal. Hasn't texted you." She clicks on something, facing the monitor. "'Excellent work, Crystal. Thank you for your service. Forget these messages as usual, and send me an update when the meeting is over.' Perfect fucking punctuation and capitalization, too, like the pompous ass you are. Christ, you're even annoying when you write."

Sterling smiles at her. "Worried?"

"Shut the fuck up. Yes."

"Tell you the truth," he says, "so am I. But right now, I can't do anything about it, and if I try—"

"Thomas's already got your number, huh."

"There is that." He slips off his coat, hangs it on a chair, and lies back on the cot. "I also have to know my own limits. There's only so much I can do before I get exhausted, and tomorrow's going to be..." He paused, staring at the ceiling. "Actually, I don't know what tomorrow's like. Could be nothing, but—"

"Yeah, it's not gonna be fucking nothing, and you know it, prick."

Sterling chuckles, closing his eyes. "Guess I do. No way they're going to let us alone after the fire." He takes a slow breath as a thought occurs. "Wonder if they'll find the same chemicals at Gerald's that they found in the cafe?"

The last words he hears before drifting off are Tanya's dismissive, "Fucked if I know."

Is everything in place for the confrontation Friday? Will the Confederation survive? Will Crystal?

Find out more in Part Twenty-two!

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