Conflict Resolution

Part Six: High Society

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

As Sterling provides support to Chelsea and prepares to deal with the fallout of the cafe fire, an important meeting is taking place not far from the hospital.

Port City, USA

A cloudy Friday morning

The heart of the downtown district

Gerald Bright stands in his office atop Bright Tower, looking out over a downtown view that he can no longer appreciate as once he did. He had earned his penthouse, earned his wealth, clawed his way up from almost nothing to the top. He was right where he was supposed to be, where he deserved to be.

In his younger days, as he had come in to his power, he was smarter than his... he hesitates to think of the other superpowered people that he's come across in his life as colleagues. He hadn't been so devoted to high-minded ideals like the others from the early days. To an extent, it was his power that had dictated its own function; if he can see someone, he can cause them pain. Any pain he likes, from a nagging ache to debilitating, horrific, crushing agony, at any part of the body he wanted, localized or generalized. Only to one person at a time, but hardly needing any concentration to do so.

The anonymous nature of his power and the potent effects of it had led him to sell his services, through careful, secret channels, to certain criminal elements. When you can make someone feel like you've broken their thumbs, but they don't need any medical attention afterwards, it's the best of both worlds. Out of that time in his life he created The Enforcer, a rumor more than a real person, a shadowy figure, a face in the crowd, striking when he couldn't be pinpointed as a source. He never let his real identity slip, he never took unnecessary chances, and he almost always delivered. He could have started his own protection racket—if your restaurant is known for people suddenly doubling over in pain, your restaurant won't survive long—but that was a lot of legwork and a lot of risk; it had been much more lucrative to arrange for debtors to pay their debts, and to take ten percent off the top. Or to cause some very public incidents—anti-corruption candidates finding it impossible to manage public appearances, rival mob bosses suddenly confessing their crimes aloud, protesters being unable to speak their messages—and collect the fees. Disruption, too, became lucrative business.

And he turned those sources of income into some lucrative long-term investments.

After a few years, he had put The Enforcer away, letting the character vanish into the fog of memory and legend. Oh, he had still done occasional jobs now and again for important sources, but that was mainly to keep his contacts fresh. He would need those contacts as part of his future plans.

He found an actor, a little younger than he was. In good shape. Unsuccessful. Alcoholic. In debt. Few friends, no family. The perfect would-be superhero, except that he had no powers of his own.

But with Gerald's help, and the actor's absolute silence purchased at a high price, The Lawman took to the streets.

His power had allowed him to work from the shadows while the actor was the public face. At various times, a pair of binoculars or a telescope or other surreptitious means of spying on had given him all the view he needed, and so long as he was seeing into the room when The Lawman was playing his part, he could make sure that the guilty party was subject to "The Lawman's" supernatural ability to subdue criminals. And somehow, The Lawman had been able to track down many of The Enforcer's old contacts and bring them to justice.

It was entirely propaganda, of course. Oh, not that The Lawman didn't help the police from time to time, but it was incidental, there was a grander purpose. Bright had money, and media interests, and he made The Lawman into a popular hero, unquestionably good. If The Lawman was on the scene, there was no doubt that a bad guy was about to be brought down.

About ten years after The Lawman was established, he "rescued" notable investment banker Gerald Bright from a group of "kidnappers," criminals Bright had hired himself. Subduing them had been easy enough for The Lawman when Bright was right in the room. It was a small risk, with a big reward.

After he'd been checked out at the hospital (the hospital that even then bore his name, after a massive capital fund donation once his investments started to pay), he held the press conference that would change the rest of his life, that would put his stamp on the world. He declared funding, from his personal accounts, for a force of superheroes to help rid Port City of its rampant crime.

Thus, almost thirty years ago, the Bright Society was born. The Lawman was its first member, until his "choice" to retire and leave public life a few months later. The actor who had played The Lawman mixed an unfortunate amount of alcohol with a significant number of sleeping pills about a year after that, and had passed into obscurity. There was no evidence that Gerald Bright or anyone associated with him had anything to do with that.

From its origins in Port City, the Bright Society had grown to work with police and military forces in over sixty nations in the word, linking super-powered individuals together with the resources they need to do the work that keeps society running.

It made him a very powerful man. Even as perversely his eyesight fails, and with it his ability to exercise his powerful glare, he is still a titan. He had never looked like a superhero, and now as his hair had gone grey and his posture was slightly bent with age he looked even less like one, and yet he was more powerful in real terms than any ten capes he could name.

"Father."

That includes the pyromaniac son he'd sired three decades back with that otherwise-useless woman. He doesn't turn. "Reginald."

"You called for me."

The boy's dramatically deep voice, an affectation he refuses to drop, grates on Gerald's nerves. He doesn't let it show. "I did."

"What is it?"

Thirty years old, and not a drop of his father's patience. "The operation in the docks."

"The cafe was—"

"Do you think," Gerald says, without turning, without raising his voice, and yet commands the room, "that I do not know about the operation."

"No, father, I'm—"

"I wish to speak to you about it." He looks out over the city. His city. Though he can no longer see it clearly, he knows it well. "I am already aware of what has happened."

Reggie is finally quiet.

"The paramedics interfered."

"They weren't sup—"

"That," Gerald says, rounding on his son, who is still standing near the door. He does not change his tone. "Is meaningless. I gave you the responsibility of the docks, of breaking that ridiculous communist association. You decided to burn a cafe."

Reggie says nothing.

"I have tried to teach you to think tactically, to think long-term, to think." Finally he snaps that last word. "What are you doing to follow up after the fire?"

"I've spoken with the chief of police, he's going to authorize more police resources on the docks and admit Brights to patrol."

"A good step. What's the next?"

Reggie pauses. "Greater scrutiny on—"

"And the next?"

Another pause. "We—"

"And after that?" Gerald snaps again.

Silence hangs in the air a moment.

"I gave you the docks to handle because the docks represent a threat. Control over the docks is control over transport of goods, which is control over the economic health of this city. The longer it remains in the hands of the wrong people, the bigger the dockworks gets, the more power slips from us. I gave you this because it's important, boy." Gerald puts his hands on his desk, leans towards the vague, blurred figure of his son. "Because if you're going to take over this city, this empire, you're going to have to know what you're doing."

"Yes, Father." Reggie knows that complaints and excuses don't matter in this room.

"Do I need to find someone else to handle the docks?"

"No, Father."

"Then fix your mistakes," Gerald says, standing up again. "This is the sort of act that can galvanize public support. No doubt the communists are planning to rebuild as quickly as possible. Break them. Stop them."

"Yes, Father."

"Do you need help, boy?"

"No, Father." Not the slightest hesitation. At least he'd done something right as a father.

"Before you go."

There was silence, again.

"The girl you framed. Tell me who she is."

A pause. "I—"

"You framed her, son. You want her to take the fall for the arson. You intended that she die there."

Even though he cannot see his son's face, he knows the expression of discomfort it's wearing. He gets no reply.

"Was it personal?"

"Father, I—"

"Was it personal?"

"N-no, Father!" Finally that faux-bass falls away and the offended whine of the child shines through. "She was- i-is convenient! Nothing more than that!"

Reginald is lying. Gerald's face and expression do not betray this knowledge. "Good."

"Is that all?" Reggie's deep voice is back again.

"Yes."

Gerald turns back to the view, walking to the window. He hears the door close behind him. Maybe I can still set the boy straight, he thinks. Wouldn't that be the perfect irony, if I can't. Everything I've spent my life working for, undone by an idiot hothead child.


Gerald Bright General Hospital

Emergency ward

Waiting area

"You're sure you're okay?" Sterling asks Chelsea, concerned.

Chelsea nods. "Yeah, I'll be fine."

They had been to the hospital the night before to see Tanya. A few words to the triage nurse had encouraged him to be forthcoming with a little information—Tanya is in stable condition, unconscious, expected to recover—but wasn't able to let them in to see her. They had returned to Chelsea's apartment after that, where she'd left a message for Sharon.

Sterling had encouraged her to relax some, giving her a shoulder rub as she lay against him in her bed. A few words in the right places, and she'd fallen asleep, and he could roll her to the side.

He hadn't thought it was prudent to leave her alone, so he waited, lying next to her, until he had also fallen asleep.

First thing in the morning, they had returned.

"Should you eat something?" he asks.

She looks around, pulls him aside. "Sterling, you've already done so much. My shift starts in a couple hours, and Sharon's going to be here. I can't ask anything more." She gives him a little peck on the cheek. "This is way above and beyond for someone I just met."

He nods. "Okay. I'll get going, then." He holds her cold hands. "If you need anything, don't hesitate, alright?"

She smirks. "What if I do, and things don't work out between us?"

He chuckles in reply. "Then I'll send you a bill. You're working at G. B. Gen., you can afford it."

"Gold digger," she teases. "Alright, you get to what you gotta do, okay?"

He lets her go. "I'll call if I hear anything about the cafe or anything regarding Tanya."

Chelsea nods. "Yeah, please do. Or, uh, call Sharon. Call Sharon too, alright? Whether you get me or not. And I'll let you know when I'm done my shift."

He steps back, nods with her. "Alright." He turns aside, heads back to the waiting room, grabs his briefcase, and retrieves his phone from his jacket pocket. He needs three things: a stop at home, a lift to the docks, and to talk to Callum.

He calls up the rideshare office, initially, as he walks out the doors of the hospital. "Port City Dockworks Rideshare office," comes the familiar business-like voice of the dispatcher.

"Millie, how are you?"

The voice warms immediately. "Sterling, darling, I hear you dragged one of my drivers all the way over downtown last night."

He starts walking down towards the taxi stand. "People do talk," he replies. "Is anyone in downtown right now?"

"Hum." Millie smacked her lips. "No darling, I haven't got anyone in the area. Want me to send someone, in blatant defiance of operating procedures and the law?"

"I would, actually, but I'll take a cab instead. Is there someone who can meet me at my apartment in about half an hour?"

"Ah, so it's just going to be a small risk on a day when the cops are sniffing around." Sterling can hear the sarcastic-but-motherly smile in her voice. "I'll send someone in a personal vehicle."

"We're just carpooling, that's all," he replies.

"Of course, dear. You take care now."

He hears the click of Millie hanging up and flags down a waiting taxi. He hops in the back seat, gives the driver his address, and hands him a $20 bill in advance; the fare won't be much more than half that, but he's not going to worry about that. He taps on his texting tools and brings up Callum's profile.

Sterling: Hey Cal, is the lab open?

The reply comes back almost immediately.

Callum: For you any time

Sterling: Be there in an hour.
Callum: Sure thing boss

That wasn't so much a message sent to tell Callum to go to the lab; it was to make sure that Callum had pants on when Sterling arrived.

He glances over his waiting messages, but there's nothing that he can deal with in the course of the short drive. His concentration is a bit shot, too, so he just watches the city go by out the window.

His city.

Or at least it would be his city, if some of his friends and colleagues have their way. He thought of the discussion he'd had with Elena not even two days ago.

Elena. Right.

He opens the texting app again.

Sterling: Elena, are you busy?

Elena: I was wondering when you'd be in touch.
Sterling: What's the word?
Elena: About the fire? Burglar in hospital, cafe ashes, almost everyone on board with pooling money to rebuild.
Sterling: Great job, thanks.
Elena: What's the spin?
Sterling: Still working that out, I need more info first.
Elena: I'll hold off on anything official then :)
Sterling: Meet me in my office in two hours.
Elena: Wouldn't miss it <3 ;)

The taxi pulls up to Sterling's apartment building. He thanks the driver and heads in and upstairs, taking the steps two at a time. In under two minutes, he's in the shower; ten minutes later, he's putting on a fresh steel-grey suit.

He has enough time to put four slices of bread in the toaster and pour a glass of orange juice down his throat. The toast is only just buttered when he receives the message that his 'carpool' is waiting, so he grabs his briefcase and bolts out the door.


An unassuming three-story office building near the docks

The large central room, blocked off from the rest of the floor by heavy, reinforced metal walls

Three large metal tables take up much of the space, with cabinets both under the tables and by the walls. In one corner are a sink, shower, and eye-washing station; in the opposite, a long, comfortable couch with a computer and television set. In the middle of the room, a tall Black man wearing a long-sleeved green lab coat down to his knees and apparently nothing else putters about as Sterling walks through the security doors.

"How's the mad scientist?" Sterling asks from the doorway, taking off his coat and setting down his case.

The tall man turns, revealing his thin physique and his blue-and-white striped boxer shorts. "It's the 21st century, Sterling, for God's sake. No one's mad anymore. I'm irate, at worst."

Sterling grins. "Safe to come across?"

"Got nothing goin' on, you're free to come on in."

Sterling accepts the invitation and heads across the room to clasp the hand of his old friend. "Callum. How's everything going?"

Callum's expression doesn't change, but his handshake is firm and friendly. "Same as ever, Sterling. How's conflict resolution these days? I heard the sirens last night so you must be busy."

Sterling lets out a slow breath. "Well, that's more or less what I'm here to talk to you about."

"Oh, so this isn't just a social call to the agoraphobic genius you keep locked in the attic?" While his tone is heavily sarcastic, Callum's expression is the same measured neutral it's been since Sterling walked in.

"Haven't got a lot of time for social calls these days."

Callum laughs, a mirthless noise that Sterling nonetheless knows is genuine. "Yeah, I keep up on what you're doing. Co-op keeps me eatin', so I pay attention."

Sterling nods. "So yeah, this mess with the new cafe is just icing on the cake."

"I bet. Cops get involved?"

"Yeah, and I cornered the Courier at the scene."

"Ooh, that must've been fun, given what you did to him last time." Callum chuckles.

Sterling sighs grimly. "I don't know that I'd call it 'fun,' Cal."

"You're lyin' to yourself again, Sterling. You love usin' your powers. Just like the rest of us."

"Not here to debate that today."

"You got a better reason." It isn't a question.

"I do." Sterling retrieves his briefcase.

Callum sits on the edge of one of the tables. "Is that full of cash?"

"You don't look like a city councillor to me."

"'Sides," Callum adds, "You don't need to bribe me, I've got everything I want right here."

"Happy people are tough to corrupt," Sterling says, putting the case on a separate table and opening it. "I've got the Courier's discard bag. Nitrile gloves and a burner phone. I'm suspecting that we'll find some sort of accelerant on there."

"And you know if there's any traces of anything on there, I'm gonna find it."

"I'm counting on it," Sterling replies, handing Callum the paper bag. "I'm relying on intuition here, but something about all this is seriously fucked up. Courier was directed to call the cops."

Callum's eyes widened a bit. "That's weird."

Sterling nods. "He also called the first responders, not on direction from whoever hired him."

Callum put the bag on the table. "What's the whole story, any idea?"

"Courier's not going to reveal too much, even with me in his head, but what he did tell me was that he delivered a letter to Tanya—the woman in question, and then to put a different package in the cafe. He doesn't think that it was a bomb, and I believe him. Then Tanya showed up to the cafe and went in the back, and he called the cops, and then he saw the fire and hung around to get the ambulance down here."

"You don't think it was a bomb, but you think I'll find an accellerant on his gloves."

"Just because it wasn't the source..." Sterling says with a shrug. "I think that the girl was supposed to be framed for the arson, so if she picked up the package, she'll have accellerant transfer on her hands. And whatever was in that package would be destroyed in the fire, too."

Callum nods. "Sounds reasonable. Or maybe I find out nothing, and you're back where you started."

"Well that's the fun of chasing a lead." Sterling shakes his head. "Don't know where it's going to take me."

"Been a long time since we've played detective."

"Maybe the co-op ought to open a PI's office."

Callum nods. "Don't need that a lot these days."

Sterling takes a breath. "Hope we don't need a lot more. I'm not really cut out for it."

"The way you can get confessions from people? I'm afraid that I have to disagree. Plus you'd look great in a trench coat and fedora."

"You know, Cal, there are times when I don't know if you're joking or not."

"Didn't you know? I'm always completely serious."

A lie, but a funny one. Sterling laughs. Callum is, as ever, stonefaced. For all that Callum is terminally non-expressive, his comments often betray a fun-loving spirit under that unsmiling exterior. Callum's inability to show emotion has never got in the way of his comedy.

The weird kid that Sterling had befriended in middle school had turned out to be a phenomenal scientific analyst and experimental creator. More an artist, really, than a stereotypical scientist, partly because his powers leaned heavily in that direction. The unfortunate part of that leaning is that it rarely provides anything functional, often producing something which either requires as much work to find a use for as it took to produce, or simply being completely useless. Once in a blue moon, though, Callum is able to create something brilliant and extremely valuable.

The corrosion- and fire-resistant paint that coated all the co-op's buildings and many of the vehicles in the docks was a perfect example. If they could figure out a way to properly mass-produce it, Callum might just incidentally make the co-op a brilliant new source of revenue. As of now, though, the process is slow and tedious and only really worthwhile in the context of the co-op itself.

More significant still is the canister of what is apparently pepper-spray at Sterling's hip. An instant anaesthetic, causing sleep within seconds in anyone who breathes it in, lasting for minutes, with no long-term effects. Like the paint Callum had invented, it isn't really possible to mass-produce, but the small batches that can be made are ideal for use by the dockworks security teams.

"Anything you need, Cal?" Sterling asks, getting to his feet and picking up his case. "I have to get back to my office to meet with Elena."

"No better message manager," Callum says. "Nah, I'm good. Although if you wanna send Elena around after you're done with your meeting, my corner's feeling a bit lonely. If she's not all tired out from what you'll do to her."

Sterling flushes a bit. "I wasn't gonna—"

"Sure you aren't, Sterling." Callum hops to the ground himself. "Think we don't all know how you use your power? Don't matter much to anyone. I just want someone to go a few rounds on the Atom Smasher." He points to the gaming console hooked up to his television. "Elena's got the fastest fingers around. Other'n me, of course."

"Of course," Sterling replies, heading towards the door.

"And the things she can do with her tongue..."

Sterling stops at the door and turns back. Callum's watching him, wearing his usual blank expression. "Twenty-plus years, Cal, and I still can't figure you out."

"Soon as I do, I'll let you know what the fuck's wrong with me."

Sterling smiles at that. "Not a thing wrong with ya, Callum. You know that."

"That's not what the doctors said."

"That's what your friends say, though, and who do you trust more?"

"Depends," Callum says, opening one of the drawers under the table. "Are we talking about a broken arm or a broken brain?"

Sterling doesn't answer, just gives Callum a short wave and heads out the door. He imagines that Callum is smiling a bit as he does so, at least internally.


A similar office building, right near the shore

About half an hour later

A private corner office overlooking the docks

Elena, dressed in a long green dress and matching low heels, walks in to see Sterling sitting at his computer. She steps in quietly and closes the door behind her.

Sterling acknoweldges her presence with a smile and a nod.

"I came prepared this time," she says, putting her hands on the back of one of the chairs across from him. "You won't be stealing my underwear today."

Sterling reddens. "Oh? Why is that?"

She raises her eyebrows and gives him a disbelieving look. She hasn't worn any, of course, and he has to know that that's what she means. She changes the subject. "Did you take my advice?"

"To go out and get laid?"

She sits down with a swirl of her skirt, watching him attentively.

"I suppose I did," he continues.

"So, spill the story, then," she encourages.

"I went to Club Argent Wednesday night and woke up with two beautful women in my bed Thursday morning."

Elena grins. "And were they happy to be there?"

"Happy as I could make them."

"I know from experience that that's very happy."

He returns her smile. "Well, I saw one of them again last night." He lets out a sudden sigh. "That's when things went south."

Elena's smile faded. "What happened?"

"That's a long story, and it's tied to last night's fire. The injured woman was with them Wednesday."

"Oh no. So you had to break the news? Wait, she was the burglar?"

"I think," Sterling says, putting the keyboard on his desk, "that she was framed. And I intend to prove it."

Elena nods, pursing her lips. "Right. And media management is going to be important, let me guess, because the police want to blame her?"

"You've got it."

Elena spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. "What if they're right?"

Sterling shrugs. "It doesn't fit what I know—which is admittedly little—about the woman. Certainly her friends don't think she would do it."

"Your friends don't think you'd control the minds of a thousand-plus people to rule the docks with an iron fist," she points out. "At least, some of them don't."

"Most of my friends are among the controlled," Sterling responds.

"Some of them," Elena says, playing with the strap of her dress, "very voluntarily."

He gives her a slightly predatory smile, and she shifts in her seat. She feels warm, thinking about what that smile might mean.

"My point, though," she continues, "is that maybe the police are right on this one, strange as it might seem."

"Doesn't matter if they're right," Sterling says. "They'll use it as an excuse to crack down."

"And so you need me to spin the story." Elena gets to her feet and walks to the window, looks out over the docks. "To blunt the edge of the authoritative sword and defend the freedom of our little corner of town. Whether I'm lying about it or not."

She hears him get up. "Poetic," he says, standing beside her.

She takes his hand. "Thank you. It's part of my job, and I do it well." She turned to look at him. "I'm almost as good at mind control as you."

He smirks. "I've yet to see you talk someone's pants off."

"That's because you're usually the one doing the talking." She touches his cheek. "Maybe you ought to be quiet a little and let someone else have a turn."

"What would you say, if I did?"

She felt the tendrils of his power, and it made her heart flutter. She just let the words flow. "To sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of your labor."

"To feed you the information and let you manage the story."

She nods, putting her hands on his chest. "Now you're getting it. Stop trying to control everything. Be more spontaneous. Let the rest of us do our job, even if it affects yours."

"Tell you the editorial slant..."

"... that someone is framing a poor girl and the police are at best, dupes, and at worst, complicit." She leans in and kisses him, forcefully. Her hands are moving down towards his belt.

His body responds to hers, pressing close. She can feel the heat of his body as he wraps her up in his arms and kisses her again, and again.

She pauses for breath. "Go ahead," she says. "Talk my pants off."

"You're not wearing any."

"Should be easy then." She undoes his tie and leans in to nip at his neck.

There are words, then. She doesn't know what they are, but she knows that she will obey.

obey Obey. obey

She hasn't felt obey this much of his power in freeze months. Her mind races as her body stays still for his demands. Maybe years. 

Maybe obey ever. She can't touch function under the weight of move his will. She can barely dance breathe without his word. She twirls around the floor without thinking, metaphorically gasping for air. She's the dress seen him do this forget twice before, when she happened to kneel be on the scene and he was dealing with...

wake

"... to be yourself."

Elle is sitting on her heels, her head down, her hands on her knees. Elle looks up. His tie is hanging loosely, undone, but otherwise he is every inch the Silver Tongue that Elle had given herself over to.

master Elle breathes. The word itself sends shivers through her, that she doesn't allow to show. Elle will never let it show. He has given her strength, Elle will not show him weakness.

Until he tells her to.

His tie comes off. Elle's hands come like this sir? up to shoulder height, clasped together. Elle realizes only then that He spoke. And she thank you had answered. Elle feels the silk tie around her wrists, pulling them together tightly.

His hands are warm. He shares that warmth with her hands, her arms, her i obey shoulders, her face. A finger under her as you say chin guides Elle to her feet, and her hands fall in front of her bare crotch. Her breasts feel warm. Elle's yes being kissed. Touched. Searched. Embraced.

And kissed again.

And then Elle is as you wish climbing awkwardly on the desk, her hands still tied, and Master is behind her, and his hands are on her breasts, and he's inside her, pushing into her, and she can feel him starting to, and then as Elle feels him burst inside her she orgasms powerfully, loudly, pressing back into him, still fucking him even though they're both cumming.

Elle's body is tired but her spirit insatiable and she waits until she hears a command to...

wake

Elena moans her way gradually back to consciousness.

"Mmm, Sterling you're still inside me."

"You think I don't know, Elena?" He chuckles. "Kind of hard to miss."

"It's just a nice way to come out of that space. Your girls really got you worked up, huh."

"They're not mine," he replies, a little irate.

"Do that to them and they will be."

"You only say that because I fucked your mind."

"Mmm, and I want you to do it again." She slips off him and stands up, still naked, hands still bound by his necktie. He's bare from the waist down, but still in his jacket and shirt. "Gonna let me loose?"

He sighs, leaning on the desk where she had just been fucked. "I don't really want to."

"But I have work to do," she reminds him. "Stories to spin. Your empire to save."

He runs his hand over her cheek and into her hair. His voice pours into her ears. She can taste him, feel him, as she runs her tongue over him, cleaning him. She is standing, then, straightening his tie, heading towards the door. She touches the door handle.

"Elena?"

Sterlings voice cuts through the fog.

"Are you planning to go back to work?"

She turns back to see his grin. "Of course, why do you ask?"

"I think you'll attract a lot more attention than you want, walking back to the presses like that."

"What do you..." She looks down and sees her bare breasts. "Oh, of course."

"Because your dress is still on the floor."

"Yes, so I see." Elena walks with her usual quiet dignity to where her dress lies. Not the first time she's gone naked but for heels. "I also see you've managed to get your own boxers on."

"Wasn't that much of a challenge," he says with a gentle teasing tone. "I just keep my head about me."

She doesn't speak, just throws the dress over her head, adjusts herself, and raises her middle finger towards him. He responds by blowing her a kiss. She winks. He grins. She heads for the door a second time, pauses when her fingers land on the handle, checks herself again.

"Callum would like to see you," Sterling says as she opens the door.

She chuckles. "Of course he would. No one else around here games to his level."

"That's not what he said," Sterling calls as she walks out of his office.

It's not until the door closes behind her that she notices she's wearing underwear she hadn't walked in with. Must be my panties from the other day, she realizes. There's no doubt in her mind that he's had them properly cleaned; too bad that she'd just got messy enough to undo his laundering.


The street outside Gerald Bright General Hospital

Mid-evening.

A bench around the corner from the main entrance.

A young woman sits there, looking uncomfortable, wearing a grey fleece hoodie over nursing scrubs. A man in business attire approachers her, carrying a hot drink in a large disposable paper cup.

Chelsea takes the coffee gratefully. "Thanks, Reggie."

"Hey, that's what Society members do, right? Look out for each other?"

She smiles and nods and blows the steam away. "That's what they tell me."

Reginald Bright sits down next to Chelsea, keeping a respectful distance. "It might be a little soon to ask you about an assignment," he begins.

Chelsea takes a drink of the coffee, but motions him to continue.

"The police are authorizing regular Bright patrols down on the docks. Should be nice and easy, you understand?"

Chelsea nods again. "Sure, I see. Give me a chance to get my feet under me before I'm needed for something serious."

Reggie smiles. "That's it exactly. I'll arrange to bring you in on my squad, we'll keep the peace. An easy first patrol for the Arctic Angel." Having someone so showy on patrol would be a beautiful demonstration of the Society's dominance, even in the supposedly-lawless docks.

Reginald doesn't share his father's hatred and fear of the co-operative. It hardly matters. Something his father never understood about the world, not really. No one actually gives a flying fuck about Gerald's philanthropy. What they care about is the exercise of power. Gerald was too obsessed with the future to actually shape it in a meaningful way, too obsessed with building his religion to actually be a god. And now the blind old man couldn't even effectively wield his powers, and was forced to spend his time making his little empire's gears turn, grinding out that ever-increasing number that means that he can die as one of the world's hundred richest men.

"That sounds nice," Chelsea is saying. "I haven't had a chance to stretch my wings in a while. Vigilantism isn't really an option right now." She grins at the joke.

He grins back. "Not if you want to keep your Bright Society decoder ring."

Reggie's problem with the co-operative is much more practical than his father's. The docks have no respect for proper authority. Let them have their happy little union or whatever, so long as they obey the law. But the co-operative provides shelter and support to criminals, to vagrants and thieves and prostitutes and smugglers. After meticulous planning, Reginald had put into action the first step of his plan to clean up the docks, to bring them to heel. His father saw it as a tactical error, a political faux-pas; he sees it as an opening, the first of many.

Chelsea drains the last of the coffee. "You're sure I'm alright to go out on patrol? I'm not really in my best state of mind, with Tanya being..." She trails off.

Unfortunately, the little hacker had survived, so his efforts to make some connection between her research and Grey were shaken. It would have been sweet to take down one of the architects of the dockworks while he had been at it, but releasing that little bit of information would have to wait; he couldn't out a Bright Society covert asset while she was still alive, not without good reason, not without losing the respect of the other covert operatives.

Reggie nods. "We've all done patrol when stressed out or something's gone weird in our personal lives. You'll have a team there to rely on."

Even the press release had been planned. "Somehow, the dock worker must have become suspicious of her; perhaps she had found something of substance. Sadly, now that she's gone and her notes with her, we'll never know what she'd found out about Sterling Grey." 

It had been almost too fortunate when she'd decided to research him on her own. Reggie's plan was in place to give her that assignment the next day, so that there would be traces of her search history to damn him with, but once her activity was logged on the Bright Society computers, he was able to move up his schedule by two days.

Setting fire to the cafe on its opening night was particularly delectable. Better even that it would have been on the weekend. The flames of justice must burn bright, to illuminate the dark corners where evil can hide, and the sooner, the better.

Chelsea has been sitting quietly and thinking as she drinks her coffee. "Alright. I'll do it. Got to get to it at some point, might as well start."

"Might help to take your mind off things, if that's something you want." Reggie gets to his feet and offers to take Chelsea's cup, which she hands him. "Sometimes action is the best therapy."

"Not that we'll see much action, right?"

Reggie puts the cup in the nearby trash can. "Of course. It should be quiet." It had better be quiet, or there will be fire. "Just a relaxed late-night stroll."

Chelsea rises. "I have to get back to work, and I should look in on Tanya."

Reggie stands close. "Is she awake yet?"

Chelsea shakes her head. "The doctor says she should recover soon."

"Should I call in one of the big guns?"

"Thanks, but no." Chelsea smiles. "It's a nice offer, but she should be okay. No need to get powers involved."

Reggie nods and smiles back, taking her hand in a friendly manner. "Alright. Let m— let us know if you need anything."

"Thank you, Reggie."

He watches her go, picturing those crystalline wings and long silver hair where both were missing. He lets out a deep breath as his smile fades. He has patrols to assign, and plans to put in place. He also has to choose his next target more carefully.

Got to make daddy proud, he says to himself sarcastically, before turning on his heel and heading back towards his office in the nearby Bright Tower.

Will Tanya recover? What will Elena do? How will the docks cope with increased scrutiny, including the presence of hostile superheroes?

Find out more in Part Seven!

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