Interlude 5-a: An Awkward Pairing

Chemist and Noir

Greg grunted as he ducked behind one of the supporting pillars of the warehouse. He peeked around the corner only to flinch backward as the crack of a gunshot managed to momentarily pierce the sounds of the howling dogs.

He grimaced and rapidly typed out a formula on the screen at his wrist producing a new chem ball from his gauntlet that he promptly slotted into the drum of the new pseudo-grenade launcher Kid Win had helped him make.

Better accuracy, a longer range, and a larger ammo capacity. Time to see if the Empire appreciated it as much as he did.

He peeked around the corner long enough to fire, a soft whump signifying the successful launch of his chem-ball. Satisfaction followed at the sight of two hapless Empire thugs glued to the floor and each other. Greg ducked back behind his cover before they could retaliate.

"Why the hell did I agree to this again?"

"Because you wanted to test the new toys you and your nerd friend made? And also fuck dog fighting."

His new… ally said. Effortlessly managing to convey amusement despite her current lack of a face courtesy of her costume.

Tattletale… no, Noir now, he reprimanded himself peeked from her own corner and fired a few warning shots at the remaining gangsters. He couldn't help but grimace at the former villain with a gun who was now his teammate somehow.

"Relax, this one's got rubber bullets," she said despite him not having said anything.

"And what do you get of all this?" He grumbled, deciding to ignore that.

This one?

"Smokescreen," was the unsatisfying response.

Rolling his eyes, Greg pressed a button on his chem-launcher and the drum whirred before stopping at the proper chem. Pointing the launcher around the corner he fired blindly and was rewarded with shouts and cursing from the gangsters.

Noir wasted no time. Smoothly rising from her crouched position she strode forward, firing with confidence at the E88 members despite the dense cloud of blue smoke he had created.

Shouts of pain came from the smoke justifying the thinker's confidence. The detective themed cape cocked her head as she eyed the smoked out area. After a moment of thought, she adjusted her aim and fired one last shot.

"Fucking shit!"

Satisfied, Noir holstered the gun into the shoulder holster under her trench coat and spun around.

Tipping her hat towards the tinker hero she spoke, "And that's that. All Empire assholes are out and accounted for.

Greg cautiously stepped out from cover relaxing only when the smoke finally thinned out enough to give truth to the girl's words.

"As for what I get out of this," Noir continued, briskly tying up the cursing gangsters, "it's simple. An," she paused as though trying to decide the right word, "associate of mine couldn't make it before the first fights were scheduled. I usually send this sort of thing to her but," she shrugged, "well anyway. I feel like I owe it to her," the thinker finished, a touch more somber than usual.

Greg nodded distractedly as he finally noticed the cages lining the walls. His stomach clenched at the nauseating sight of the filthy battered dogs. The larger ones were still barking up a storm while the smaller bait dogs whimpered and did their best to make themselves as small as possible.

"What do we do with them?" He asked, feeling lost and with a sudden urge to go home and hug Buster to death and shower him with treats.

How could someone do this?

"My associate will take care of them," Lisa said confidently. "Let's just get them organized."

"How?"

"Separate the fighters from each other as much as we can and we should get the bait dogs away from them so they can hopefully calm down."

Greg nodded and walked forward to get started. He frowned sadly at the black Cairn Terrier in a too-small cage that was near foaming at the mouth as it snarled and barked, eyes rolling in panic and fear.

As gently as he could, he lifted the cage and started walking to a quiet corner of the warehouse turned fighting ring. He winced as the dog slammed itself into the cage in a terror and hoped it didn't injure itself.

A sickening self-loathing thought wormed insidiously through his conscience.

Was this anything like what Taylor felt when she was trapped in the locker.

He did his best to focus on the present as he got to work with Lisa.

Greg wasn't sure how long it had been before they'd finally gotten all of the dogs separated and relatively calmed down. All he knew was that his back and arms were aching fiercely and it was getting harder and harder to rebuff Lisa's attempts at conversation.

The thinker let out an annoyed sigh, one hand scratching at the crook of her elbow.

"Alright," she said, a mix of annoyed and resigned, "let's just get this over with. We got a few minutes until my associate gets here anyway."

"Get what over with?" He asked warily.

"This!" She said, gesturing at the space between them in emphasis. "I don't really care if you like me but this whole not trusting always looking over your shoulder at me is gonna blow up and screw us over during something important. So we're dealing with this now."

"And what if I don't want to?" Was his annoyed response.

"Tough shit. What if Jiraiya's the one that pays the price because you can't focus on what matters when you're too busy looking for a non-existent betrayal from me."

Greg whirled on her, "that's why I don't trust you!" He said heatedly. "You were a villain less than a month ago and you're constantly manipulating everything. How could I trust someone like you?"

He took a deep breath, surprised at the emotion in his words.

"What do you want from me?" She hissed in an uncharacteristic display. "I'm patrolling, I'm doing the training, and I'm going from one migraine to the next working out gang patrol routes and finding targets for you and Jiraiya. I'm all in on this."

She took a deep breath and suddenly seemed to notice that she'd been scratching at the crook of her arm this whole time and whipped her hand away as if it were burned.

"Fucking snake," she muttered to herself.

Greg fiddled with his goggles to mask his twisted expression. Because dammit she was right. He'd seen her multiple times laid out on the couch fighting off a thinker headache in between his tinkering.

The chemical tinker made an effort to organize his thoughts. Trying to put his feelings into something coherent. Villain or not, she'd at least earned that much.

"It's not about the work you're doing as a hero," he said finally. Feelings crystalizing into words. "It's that the hero thing is just a last resort for you. If things had been going okay for you. You never met Coil. Would you have been a hero?"

He shook his head already knowing the answer. "Jiraiya chose this. She puts her life on the line because she wants to make a difference." Greg exhaled tiredly, "And I chose it too," he said with fragile pride.

Because it sucked feeling like shit all of the time.

And yeah he wished he'd fucking chosen to step up sooner. Been a stronger person. Before Taylor had to suffer the locker and during all of the bullying.

But in the end he'd still chosen to be a hero. To make sure no one else suffered while he could do something about it.

That meant something.

He had to believe that.

"It's hard to give a shit about saving people when all you can see is their absolute worst," the former villain said at last

Greg stood there awkwardly and fought the urge to mess with the chemical analysis suite Armsmaster had added to his new, more durable chem-pack rather than continue this.

In the end, there was nothing he could do. Lisa was right about one thing. This current awkwardness hanging over all of them was a distraction that could end with someone hurt or worse.

He didn't trust her. Not yet. But Taylor did. Enough to give the former villain a shot at redemption and access to their base. And if there was anyone he trusted it was Taylor. He would just have to trust in whatever Taylor saw in the other girl.

Maybe in time, he would see it too.

Before he could speak he was interrupted by the heavy thuds of something massive heading their way. Gripping his chem-launcher he turned towards the warehouse entrance raising the weapon to sight down the door.

His stomach clenched as the sound got closer. It sounded big. Had the Empire already heard that they'd hit their dog fighting ring? He could only think of three of their capes that could be big enough for what he was hearing. Fenja, Menja, or Hookwolf. Greg felt a bead of sweat form at his temple at the thought. He pressed a button to switch to a more dangerous chem and raised his launcher only for a hand to force it down.

"Relax," Lisa said. "It's my contact. Don't make any hostile moves, please. Bitch is," she hesitated, "volatile."

Greg looked at her unsure before finally reluctantly lowering his weapons.

Trust had to start somewhere.

He couldn't help wondering what kind of person would name themselves Bitch.

He got his answer as three monsters thundered their way into the warehouse. It was by the barest of margins that Greg managed to stay his hand and not fire every chem in his pack as fast as he could. Despite himself, he took a step back even as Noir confidently walked to the new arrivals.

Oh, he realized belatedly. Bitch was Hellhound.

The three monstrous creatures stood panting and snarling. They must have weighed three tons each and were a horrific amalgamation of exposed muscle and a multitude of wicked bone spurs and spike peppered their bodies. They were further reinforced by plates of bone and calcified flesh. Drool dripped between teeth that were longer than his forearm at the shortest. Long whip-like tails lashed furiously as they observed their surroundings.

It was with some hysteria that Greg found himself almost missing Lung.

The dogs in the warehouse had gone completely silent at the entrance of the three dogs turned monsters.

"Bitch," Lisa said, "it's good to see you."

It was only then that he noticed the person riding one of the monsters. Sliding off its back with practiced ease was a burly girl wearing a dirty leather jacket with a fur collar and a cheap plastic dog mask. He took note of the pipe slung across her back.

She ignored the thinker for the moment.

"Brutus, guard. Judas patrol."

Her voice was blunt and gruff. Two of the monstrous creatures peeled off. One planting itself at the doorway while the other exited the building.

The third demonic-looking creature padded over to the detective thinker panting happily. It was a horrifying look on that monstrous form.

"It's good to see you also Angelica," Lisa said with a smile that could be felt from behind her blank face.

Bitch snapped her fingers loudly. Angelica gave the thinker an apologetic look before bounding back to her master.

Greg tried not to shift awkwardly and draw attention to himself as the form and current villains and team members stared at each other.

The dog masked girl tilted her head. "What the fuck are you wearing?" She said bluntly.

"What? You don't like it?" The thinker asked with mock hurt.

Bitch grunted and strode past her former teammate and made her way to the dogs. Greg ignored the small amount of irritation at being overlooked in favor of embracing the much more potent feeling of relief that the monster creator seemed content to ignore him.

"Fuckers," Bitch snarled, sounding more animal than human as she took in the state of the various dogs.

Snarling again, the dog master turned around and let loose a vicious boot into one of the downed Empire members making the hapless skinhead wheeze pathetically, coughing up blood as he struggled for breath.

Greg frowned taking a step forward only to stop at a frantic handwave from Lisa. He stood there unsure of what to do.

Thankfully Bitch seemingly decided that the dogs deserved more attention than the Empire members.

"Thanks," the brawny girl said finally, not taking her eyes from the rescued dogs.

"Anytime," Lisa said with a shrug, not quite managing the casualness she was going for. "Do you need any help?"

"Fuck off."

Lisa slumped slightly but seemed unsurprised. Firming her posture she nodded to the back of her former teammate. "I'll call this in in 10 minutes. You should have 20 to 25 minutes to get the dogs and clear out before the PRT get here."

Spinning on her heel the former villain started walking towards the exit.

Greg followed the older girl edging as far away from the thing masquerading as a dog as possible.

The awkward silence continued as they started walking in the direction of their base. Greg struggled to think of something to say but came up short and Lisa didn't seem to be in a mood for conversation.

It was ten minutes later that he finally broke the silence.

"You know some… interesting people."

Lisa huffed out a laugh at that understatement, her shoulders loosening into something less tense.

"It just comes with the territory I'm afraid."