Port City, USA
Sharon Marrol's apartment
Very early in the morning
Sharon isn't asleep, so when the door opens, she hears it.
There are only two people other than Sharon who have a key to the townhouse. One of them she doesn't expect. One of them, she does.
She reaches for her phone, and begins typing out a message to the other.
She sends the message just as a shadowy figure appears in her bedroom doorway.
"You're awake," Chelsea says softly.
"You hoped this would be easier," Sharon replies. "You'd just sneak in here, freeze me without my waking up, and carry me to the van outside."
"You knew I was coming."
"Of course I did. I work for the PCDCC, and I know your secret identity, and I'm willing to bet that the rumors of a police raid tonight are very true."
Chelsea nods. "And if you or Tanya tell Ste—tell anyone about me..."
"So an extra-judicial kidnapping of the police chief's daughter," Sharon says, her voice thick with irony. She turns to put her feet on the floor, sitting up with only a thin sheet across her lap and the darkness itself preserving her modesty. "Is Reggie organizing black-bagging vans and roving death squads next?"
A sigh comes from the doorway. "Why didn't you leave? Why aren't you hiding?"
"I don't run away from my troubles, Chels. Or from my friends."
She knows that will cut. She braces herself for the blast of cold intended to silence her.
It doesn't come. Instead, Chelsea takes two steps into the room. "Can I... can I sit with you?"
Sharon nods and pats the mattress. "You know there's always room in my bed for you, Chelsea."
"That's not the comfort I want from you tonight."
Sharon expects to hear her friend's smile in her voice. The fact that she doesn't is cause for concern. "What do you want, then?"
Chelsea sits on the bedside, not too near to Sharon, but reaches out and holds her hand. Sharon shivers at the touch; Chelsea's fingers are already ice-cold. "I ... I don't know, Share. I really don't. Security. Assurance. Part of me wants to put you and Tanya and Sterling on ice and just have you all safely out of the way."
"But Tanya's AWOL and Sterling's on the run from the police already, so you can't find them."
"Apparently they do run from their problems," Chelsea says.
"Or they have something else to deal with." Internally, Sharon is cheered to know that the others are still free. She sighs. "You're having second thoughts."
Chelsea snorts. "Of course I am, Sharon. I don't want to freeze my best fucking friend and stick her in a stasis chamber for the weekend." She lets out a sigh. "If I give you five minutes to head out the back, I could tell the containment team that I couldn't find you, which would give you plenty of time to hide and—"
Sharon cuts her off, squeezing her hand. "First, again, I don't run away from my friends. But you have to freeze me, Chels."
"Haven't you thought this through?"
"Thought what through?"
"Chelsea. The rumors are that Silver Tongue is back. If he asks the right questions..." she shrugs. "Or maybe, supervillain or not, in a moment of disloyalty to you I just give up your identity, because it helps the collective."
"I'm not going to ask again why you didn't run, then."
"Good, because I'll just tell you again, if you do." Sharon shakes her head. "I'm not getting out of here, obviously. I didn't plan on it."
"Doesn't mean I want to do it."
Sharon chuckles. "Part of you does."
Sharon reaches over and takes Chelsea's free hand. "Look." She puts Chelsea's hand on her elbow. "I'm already frozen halfway to the shoulder."
"Oh shit, Sharon, I'm sorry! I didn't mean—"
"If you didn't mean it, Chelsea, then you'd better hurry up and get control of yourself. Because otherwise..."
There's silence in the room.
"Because if you don't have control of yourself, someone else does."
Chelsea tries to pull her other hand away, but Sharon holds her fast.
"Chelsea. Arctic Angel." The carpenter places the superhero's other hand on her chest. "Who do you want to be?"
In the darkness, Chelsea searches for her friend's eyes. Sharon holds her gaze steady. The hand on her breast is anything but sexy.
As the ice bursts into her heart, Sharon hears three words out of the darkness, barely whispered.
"I don't know."
The War Room at the heart of the building
Tanya is very quietly listening to the scene unfolding in Sharon's bedroom. She keeps her cursing to a minimum so she doesn't wake the conflict resolution officer and supervillain sleeping just across the room.
She always knew it was possible. Likely, even. Sharon works for the PCDCC, Chelsea works for the Brights. But actually hearing it happen in real time is rough.
Get ahold of yourself, dumbass, Sharon's been frozen before. So have you. You know it's not harmful.
But the context stings. However secretive, this is an act of war. And Tanya was on the receiving end of it.
Chelsea had named her. Specifically.
She disconnects the eavesdropping app and looked at the message Sharon had sent her.
Share: the door's opening and i can hear someone coming in... for sure its c... we always knew this was coming... im gonna turn on that thing you sent us so you can hear... whatever happens i luv u both and keep sg safe k? <3
Tanya had replied with a simple 'k' and turned on the eavesdropper she'd programmed, downloaded to her new phone from an image of the old saved to her desktop before it had been immolated, and was able to hear everything that Sharon said, and most of what Chelsea had as well, without Chelsea knowing that she was listening. Of course, Chelsea might have suspected that Tanya was listening, but she couldn't be sure.
Which left her with two questions: who to tell, and what to do about it.
So, who to tell? Does she have a responsibility to let the maintenance department know? Is it important that Sharon is missing? Does she have a work shift?
Should Tanya tell Sterling? He'd told her that he knew Chelsea's secret—it was one of the major factors in her decision to join the confederation, after all—so he might be able to offer some advice. It might be something he needs to know if there's planning that has to be done. It might help keep people safe.
And what to do about it? If she acts quickly, she might be able to get someone to intercept the containment van, but that would mean that the game is up and would likely prompt retaliation. Sharon pointed out that it was an extrajudicial kidnapping, which might mean her best bet is legal—but that also means revealing Chelsea's secret to more people within the organization. A quick search of Arctic Angel's details on the PCDCC database still shows that her civilian identity hasn't been made known, at least publicly.
Was he planning a hostage situation? Leverage? Back off, or we'll tell the whole world your real identity?
Fuck, with Warren still out there that's a real serious fucking threat.
Maybe that's his game. Wait until Arctic Angel's coming for them, then reveal he knows who she is and threaten to tell her father. Warren would be back here in a heartbeat to try to win his daughter's affection. And her powers. He'd be on the next flight out. Hell, if he's grabbed the right powers, he'll just fucking flap his arms.
Or maybe he's just decided to straight-up sell that information to the Monster of Maple Street.
Which means that now Tanya has a problem.
Does she let Chelsea know that her identity has been compromised?
She's no friend of the Brights, not after what she realized last night, not after they burned her apartment. She's a wanted criminal. Maybe whatever Grey has planned for the information is better for her in the long run anyway. Might even be better for Chelsea, too.
Goddamn it, why can't any of this be fucking simple?
She sighs aloud and reopens the recording she'd made from the eavesdropping app. Sharon's friendly, calm voice telling Chelsea to hurry up and get control of yourself. Which means that Chelsea was losing control. Losing herself. She listened to the whole recording again, and sure enough, Chelsea didn't sound like Chelsea. Oh, her voice was the same, but her tone, her choice of words...
And that final question. Who do you want to be?
Tanya asks that of herself.
Well, fuck me, Angel, if you're going to turn villain...
She looks over at the actual villain sleeping quietly in the cot.
Guess that makes me the goddamn hero, huh.
She pulls up the messaging app on her phone, and puts in Sterling's number.
Guess what, dickwad, I'm about to do something unbelievably stupid, but the Angel just showed up and froze your other piece of ass to her bed to take her to containment for the weekend, which kinda figures given her involvement and who she is, since we can't have the chief's daughter used in a hostage sitch or accidentally offed by a Bright or a cop, right? So now that you know that I'm fucking off to try and find my girlfriend and see if I can get laid before my last goddamn night on earth alright?
That wasn't all she had in mind, but it would do for a start.
She listens to hear the noise of Sterling's phone receiving a message. Satisfied, she grabs a few supplies from the closet, things she figures she might need, and heads out.
Outside Sterling Grey's apartment building
The Arctic Angel stands on the corner, watching the door. She's in disguise, of course, she doesn't want to be seen.
She's debating whether or not she should go up. She would have to call. She could take Sterling Grey out of the equation entirely, if she does. One simple act.
But that would mean revealing herself to him. Calling containment. Revealing Chelsea's relationship. Questions about her loyalty. Her friendships.
One working on the docks. One a criminal on the run.
And Sterling Grey, the man who stood in front of Flamehammer and said, I think you want violence.
Her friendships did not suggest that she was loyal to the cause.
2:53 AM, she decides, finally, not to bother him. Whatever happens in the course of the day will happen.
The Angel is loyal to the Brights. It would not do to cast doubt on that.
She turns her hood up against the damp air and starts walking towards downtown. She wants a few minutes to think before she gets to Bright Tower. Still, she doesn't shrug off the cold the way Flamehammer ignores heat, and the moisture in the air makes everything a little worse. Arctic Angel sighs, and her breath fogs in the air. She has little to fear, walking in the dark at three in the morning, but still she's nervous, hyperaware, on edge. It's just how she is.
Only Chelsea can be relaxed. The Angel is vigilant. Cognizant of threats. Ready for anything. It is who she is, who she needs to be, to be safe, to be effective. If she is to make the world better through the Bright Society, she can't miss a step. She would feel better flying, with an aerial view and far fewer risks of attack, but right now it might attract attention. She has to consider her reputation and her position within the Society; it would not do to be caught flying naked through the city at three in the morning.
The Society cannot be seen to lose its advantage in the popular arena, not now. The political fight is just beginning. A fast walk will do.
She arrives at Bright Tower at half past three. The main doors are unlocked at all hours; the Society is of course active twenty-four hours a day, but there's also Bright's extensive investment corporation, which operates globally, and several legal offices linked to the Society. The Angel thinks it might also house an embassy or consulate or something, and some government offices. A sleepy security guard checks her identification (valid) and runs the metal-detecting wand over her, front and back (nothing special). She internally chuckles at the thought of needing a knife or a firearm; she is the weapon, she doesn't need to carry anything.
A biometric scan on the elevator gives her access to the normally-locked-out floor where she would find the Bright Society's main offices, and more importantly, Flamehammer's office. He hasn't moved in to Gerald's yet, she doubts that he will; Gerald was the head of the entire operation, Flamehammer only cares about the Society, about the work of the heroes.
Also, regardless of how long it feels, it has only been a little over a day, and Flamehammer's been very busy that whole time.
She walks a bit excitedly to that office at the end of the long hallway. Flamehammer is sitting there, working at his computer, dressed in his civilian clothes. He looks up as she comes in.
"The containment team arrived a half-hour ago," he says.
The Angel nods. "I wanted to walk, I had a lot to consider." She sits, uninvited, across from him at the desk.
"I'm sure you did. It can't have been an easy thing to do." He almost sounds sympathetic.
The Angel shakes her head. "She gave me no trouble."
"But it was still hard."
There is a moment of silence where Flamehammer's statement hangs in the air.
Chelsea feels small. She questions her decision, feels her doubt written on her face, wants to head down to containment (impossible, she doesn't have access) and break her friend out.
His nervous habit of playing with his watch seems worse at this late hour. Or maybe it's the emotionally charged subject. "It was the right thing to do," he says.
She nods immediately. "Yes. Absolutely the right thing."
"Sharon is a potential liability," he continues, "a hostage the dockworks might use to curb police activity."
"Of course. A potential liability, absolutely."
"And we need our rest for tonight."
"So it's best if you just let Chelsea's guilt fall away..."
Huh? Chelsea's? But she's...
"... because you are Arctic Angel."
"Yes." Chelsea's emotions were irrelevant. An actor doesn't consider the feelings of the costume they're wearing.
Her clothes come off and she starts to change, to grow.
"You have no need of Chelsea anymore, for this upcoming conflict."
The Angel's wings spill out into the room. Her hair flows down in silver and blue.
"The disguise can come away."
Lost in his words and her transformation, she doesn't notice that he's removed his clothing below the waist until she opens her eyes.
She gets down on her knees in front of his office chair. He's already hard.
She takes a moment to be sure that she won't accidentally freeze him, and then proceeds as he so clearly wishes her to.
The War Room
five in the morning
Sterling is startled awake by Anna Tolman's surprised exclamation, and bolts upright.
"Oh! Sterling, sorry, I forgot, it's early, and..." Anna scrambles to explain her shock.
Sterling waves her explanations off. "It's alright, Anna, really. Someone should've warned you." he says blearily. He looks over at the main console. "Where's Tanya?"
"I was warned, I just... it just slipped my..." She follows his gaze. "No one minding the shop?"
"Thomas went home and left Tanya in charge, he wants to get a full night before anything happens. Where's Tanya, though?"
Anna moves over to the master computer. "Looks like everything's running from... is it all remote?" She starts clicking through applications, reading and typing quickly. "Sterling, who is this girl you've got working with us?"
"The name's Tanya Nomura," says a voice over the speakers. "And don't worry, I kept your shit up and running just fine even though I wasn't there. I'll disconnect now, if you don't mind, this setup is a bitch on the batteries."
"Tanya?" Sterling calls, getting out of the cot.
"Check your new messages, fuckface," she replies, before an audible ping is heard in the room.
Anna stares. "She just disconnected. Everything's up and running just as it should be. Uh..." she sits and starts paging through files and programs. "Wow, what has she..." the senior engineer mutters, lost in her work.
Sterling shrugs and follows the directions Tanya gave him, removing the charging line from his phone and opening the messenger, seeing two new notifications from her. He sighs heavily. "I am too goddamn tired for this."
"What is it, boss?" Anna asks.
"Our hacker has turned vigilante, it seems. She's out trying to find a lost lamb."
"What shepherd, having a hundred sheep, would not leave ninety-nine in the open to look for the one that's lost?"
"Yeah, well," Sterling says, stretching. "Someone's got to look out for the ninety-nine, too, right?"
"My job. Go do yours."
"You don't even know what I'm going to do."
"Does it matter?" she asks, looking up. "You're just going to do it anyway. I can object, but what's that going to do? It's not like I have any authority over you. Who can I call to stop you? Security's not going to haul you in or anything. Everyone knows you're just going to do what you need to do and to keep out of your way, so..."
He frowns. "Am I such a wild card?"
She laughs. "Not really, Sterling, no. You're just always taking on more than you ought to, no matter what we tell you, and I think we've all just accepted that. No one wants you to hit a wall, no one wants you to get brought in or to get hurt, but we don't know what else to do. And with that being said..." Anna looks back down at the monitor. "This girl's some sort of a prodigy or something. She's been here for a few hours and it looks like she's been doing some useful software upgrades."
"Is that good?"
Anna shrugs. "I'll spend some time sorting through things and see just what's she's done, but it looks to me like she's worth keeping around. Even if just for the remote access routines alone."
"So I go find the lost lamb."
"Like a good shepherd, that's right."
Sterling moves towards the door. "I'm not sure I entirely like the analogy." He smirks. "I'm not the messiah, but I am a very naughty boy."
"Oh, so less Gospel, more Monty Python. Got it." Anna laughs. "Go."
The door swings closed behind him.
"Oh for fuck's sake," Tanya says, seeing Sterling Grey approach.
It's nearly six in the morning, and she's standing down by the harbor.
"Can't you leave me the hell alone?"
He shakes his head, smiling in disbelief. "You told me where to find you. You asked for my help when I woke up. Directly." He holds up his phone with the message detailing exactly where she would be and the request for his company.
"Yeah well," Tanya shrugs. "Gotta keep up fucking appearances, don't I."
She rolls her eyes at him. The truth is, she's actually somewhat happy to see him, which disgusts her. "Maybe it's just for me," she mutters.
"What did you want me here for?" Sterling asks, and she's not sure if he heard her or not.
"Protection, mostly, in case someone decides they want to mess with me. You bring a knife?"
"Then how are you going to stab a mugger?"
"I figured I'd just throw myself in their path and let you escape."
"Well isn't that just fucking noble of you." They're walking down towards the harbor as they banter, Tanya a step ahead of Sterling.
"Kind of my thing," he replies. "Where are we going?"
Tanya pointed. "That way." She shrugs. "At this point I'm wandering a bit aimlessly."
"Alright, so... why?"
"Don't really fuckin' know, boss," she says. "I'm not good at this whole 'investigating missing persons' bullshit, and it's not like we can go to the cops."
Sterling nods. "Crystal?"
"Fuck. Yes." Tanya leans against a chain-link fence. "Alright, dockie, how much do you know about cell towers and triangulation?"
Sterling shakes his head. "You should be talking to Anna about that."
She scoffs. "I don't need to talk to anyone, I've done it. I'm asking if you know what I'm doing."
"Not a clue."
"Okay, so you have these things called cell towers that connect in a great big—"
Sterling stops her with a look, a cross between amusement and mild irritation.
Tanya smirks. "Sure. You're not a complete idiot."
"Far from it."
"Anyway, the last tower that Crystal's phone connected to was just a couple blocks up from where we are now, and the last message she got from an unknown number was, and I fucking quote, 'the boat tonight eleven pm,' it would make sense that Crystal's phone is somewhere around here."
Sterling nods. "And you figure where her phone is, you'll find her?"
Tanya frowns. "I'm not sure where else she'd be. Unless the containment teams came and got her like they did with Sharon."
"It's possible. Likely, even, given her conflicted loyalties." He pauses. "How did you know that—"
"She messaged me as it was happening. I was able to activate her phone and listen in because of a program I built that me, Sharon, and Chels all have on our phones." Tanya sighs. "She's fine, you just won't be getting any until she's thawed out."
"Bright Containment has been busy tonight, then," Sterling says thoughtfully.
Tanya raises an eyebrow.
"I paid a visit to an old friend and made sure the containment team took her. One less hero to worry about in the upcoming raid."
"Using Bright resources against them? I like, I like." Tanya gave a small round of applause. "What'd you do?"
"Walked into her house and, while being recorded, messed with her head. Made up a couple things to make it sound like I'd made her into a mole."
"Shit, you got guts, putting yourself that close to the Brights."
"And basically confirming my continued existence to them." He lets out a slow breath. "I've been fairly invisible for over a decade. It's strange being... not."
Tanya feels a pang of sympathy, which she immediately represses. "Feeling exposed?"
Sterling laughs. "More than a little. My way of protecting myself from the Brights—and from Donovan, come to think of it—was to make my very existence something of an uncertainty. Warren was led to believe that I headed west, and gave chase; I went to ground here. Stepping out of the shadows for the first time since then..."
"Mhmm, well, went to bed, more like," Tanya says. "All the women you've been with and all that."
"They didn't know they were sleeping with a supervillain. The ones that did could be made to ignore or forget that information. Very few people found out, fewer still retained that knowledge. The strike provided the perfect opportunity to advance my career and still operate in secret. But, I suppose that all good things must come to an end."
"I mean, yeah, no shit. That's what it's like for all of us, dickhead. Jesus, you can't live your life of twenty-four-seven-three-six-five hedonism and you get all whiny and introspective."
Sterling smiles, but says nothing.
"So what's the next move, after tonight?"
"Depends on if we survive. I'm willing to bet that if I'm fully found out, if they crack my identity, I go into a Bright containment chamber and I don't come back."
"That would be a shame," Tanya says before she can think about it, and she means it.
"Nice of you to say," he replies before she can retract or counter it with sarcasm. "Put me on the stand, no judge or jury will convict me, so if you're the Brights and you don't want me to go free..."
Tanya nods, understanding. And really, she does understand him a little more, now, which upsets her a bit. "So whaddya want, sympathy? One of my best friends is in those containment chambers, and my girlfriend is fucking missing after meeting someone on a boat."
Sterling kicks at a loose stone. "I don't need your sympathy, Tanya. I do need your help, though. Like we agreed." He extends his hand. "I'll search with you until seven. Then we're going to find breakfast, and somewhere we can get a good day's rest so we can be at our best tonight, deal?"
She reaches for his hand almost instinctively, then hesitates. He looks at her curiously. She tilts her head, the hint of a smile on her face. "Make me."
His eyebrow rises. "What?"
"There's no one here, no one nearby. I wanna know what it's like, for something that I would agree to anyway. So make me."
"What, you chickening out now?" Tanya pulls her hand back. "Use your fucking evil insidious voice, mess my goddamn mind up, and make me shake your hand and take your deal."
He seems confused, which makes her grin internally. "You... told me not too long ago—"
"That was then. I figure this is something safe. Easy. Simple. It'll help... I dunno, protect me against the next time."
"That's not how my power works."
"Then I'll at least learn a little more about it."
He finally retracts his hand, still seeming a little perplexed. "Miss Nomura, you are without a doubt one of the strangest people I've ever dealt with."
"I take that as a fucking compliment, coming from you."
"It is." He steps a bit closer. "You're also one of the bravest."
"Christ, Sterling, you're not getting in my pants. You heard me when I told you I was gay, right?"
He laughs. "You're sure that—"
"Hundred percent. Hit me. Make it good, brainfucker."
He's talking again, but she's not really paying attention. There's an odd tang in the air, something aside from the salt/water/fish scent that lingers on everything this close to the ocean. It's like something metallic, or citrus, or maybe both. She's still trying to figure that out as she shakes his hand, and as they walk down the road together, looking for any information they might find about Crystal. Whatever he's saying, it doesn't relate to the search, so she decides it's not worth giving a shit about. After a while, Sterling leads her away from the harbor—she doesn't really want to go, but she did make a deal—and the strange scent is still bothersome. She hasn't quite put her finger on the source or the specifics of the scent by the time they reach Sharon's apartment; she vaguely remembers suggesting it as a safe place to get some food. She's unlocking the door as she's trying to figure out whether it's lemon or grapefruit, and aluminum or iron. She settles on stainless steel—like the taste of a fork—but it's not the same taste as when he first started talking. He does check behind the door, by the picture of the Chelsea and Sharon and Tanya all together on the beach, back when Chelsea wore a short black wig to cover her thinning hair, but whatever he finds there, or doesn't find there, convinces him that she's right, that this is a safe place. Besides, she reasons as she struggles to identify just what kind of orange is on the tip of her tongue, if they don't eat her bread it'll be moldy by the time she gets free.
Breakfast passes in a haze, the marmalade from the fridge only serving to confuse matters. As Sterling stretches out on the couch, she pulls off her top and bra, wishes him a pleasant sleep, and heads to Sharon's bed.
It's only just as she's falling asleep that she realizes the order of events. She laughs into the pillow. "Son of a bitch," she mumbles, amazed at his audacity.
Fuck me, she reasons, it's nothing he hasn't seen before.
Sharon Marrol's apartment
Sterling Grey lies uneasily on the couch in the living room.
What IS the next move, if we survive? he wonders. The Brights will be after me, full-force, which puts the dockworks at risk. With any luck, we'll be able to disrupt their operations enough tonight that they won't be able to rally until I can get away, but... Get away to where? To do what?
He tries not to think about Tanya exposing herself to him.
He hadn't suggested it.
Even if she has exhibitionist tendencies, he doesn't think that her fantasies would include him, of all people.
That leaves trust, and comfort, and confidence.
Or maybe that she just did it to put him off-balance, not caring since he'd already seen her in her underwear.
He tries not to think about it again, but it's hard not to when he's so tired.
So he moves on to other invasive thoughts. Knowing Sharon had been taken by the Brights. Their inability to locate Crystal, and the uncertainty of her status. Not knowing where Chelsea was or what she was doing. Not wanting to risk contacting her, for fear that she'd end up locked up as well—she would be compromised by her association with him, after all, and she does work for Gerald Bright General Hospital. That last is a bit of a silly fear; why would they put a nurse into containment?
The more he thinks about that worry, the more he realizes that his tired mind is just busily coming up with any concern it could think of. He determinedly puts his fears aside, closes his eyes, and concentrates on sinking into the couch until his consciousness slips away.