"You're saying I shouldn't take the credit," I said.
“I’m saying you have two options. Option one is to join the Wards, where you’ll have support and protection in the event of an altercation. Option two is to keep your head down. Don’t take the credit. Fly under the radar."
My head was swimming – normally, I'd be getting up for my morning run less than four hours from now. Normally, I wouldn't be up this late. Of course, normally I didn't nearly die half a dozen times in the last thirty minutes, trying not to get eaten. Or barbequed. By a dragon, or as close as makes no difference. When I started out tonight, I wanted to... break up a mugging, maybe. Something helpful, sure, but something safe. Ish. Starting a death-feud with the whole ABB, unless I joined the Wards? That was not the plan. I'd thought about joining the Protectorate, maybe, but not nearly enough to just say 'Yes.' Being able to just... get away had kept me sane over the last few months, and Wards always had someone watching them. That might save my life, if Oni Lee went after me... but could I live that way?
For the rest of my life?
I shook my head, searching for the words, and winced as a wave of dizziness shot through me. Was it the adrenaline crash? Or had I been hit harder than I'd thought, earlier?
Armsmaster raised a gauntleted hand, and turned slightly to the left, before turning back to face me.
"I need to go. Looks like Empire 88 is making a move on Coil again. Look — I don't think there's a good third option for you, long term. Lung can't let this slide, but he's not crazy enough to start a war with the entire Protectorate. And you're not even hinting you'd like to join the Wards."
I shrugged, and then winced as my shoulder twinged.
"It's a lifetime commitment."
He smiled, more brightly than I'd expected. It made him look friendly, and even handsome — briefly. "To those of us who take it seriously, yes." He dropped a card on the ground in front of me. "I can hold the details of the press release on Lung for 48 hours. Call in sick tomorrow, costume up, and call that number. I can arrange a ride-along. You'll do a patrol or two with some Wards. You don't have to join... but you certainly don't have to choose blindly."
He turned, and dropped out of sight. As I bent to pick up the card, I heard the soft roar of his motorcycle start up, then doppler into the distance. The card was printed on heavy stock, with a matte finish, and had nothing but a phone number printed on it.
276 762 7837
I was tired, bruised, and slightly singed.
There was at least a half-hour of jogging before I could make it home, and then I'd have to be up again in a handful of hours. But... it could have gone much, much worse. And, as I realized I wouldn't be going to school tomorrow, I even mustered a grin.
Not a bad night's work.