5.1

It quickly becomes obvious that I don't actually have any idea how to have a 'night on the town'. (Or afternoon... well, morning still, I think... oh, whatever) Cherie interrogates me relentlessly on clubs, high-class restaurants, bars (!?), etc etc etc... and I have no idea where any such thing actually is in Brockton Bay. (Well, no, I do know of a couple of bars, which gets a raised eyebrow from Cherie. I try not to sound too defensive when I explain it's because Dad goes with his friends regularly enough it's something I've picked up incidentally)

We ultimately turn to looking for groups of people having fun, using her power.

This ends up taking us to a party in a high-rise that's invite-only, security checking for invites at the front door and turning away people who lack them. Cherie is initially heading right up to it anyway, clearly intending on just mind tricking her way in with no invite, but I pull on her hand, and then stop when she keeps going. She turns to pout at me -it doesn't work so well when she's wearing sunglasses, honestly, and it's never impressed me anyway- and whines, "Why not?"

"I want fun, a break. I don't want to risk drama," is my simple explanation.

Cherie very obviously wants to argue the point, but finally she just lets out a deep breath. She aims it upward, at a stray lock of her hair. Then she marshals herself and goes, "Right then, follow me," and we're walking again.


We try three more places, Cherie getting increasingly frustrated by my unwillingness to go in any of them. One place demanded people had ID to prove they were 21 or older, and I refused to let Cherie cheat us past that. ("What about if I didn't use my power, but got us in anyway? Pure charm, honest." "I'd never know the difference, and anyway: no.") Another was... ugh. The way people were dressed just made me uncomfortable. The third was -well. Cherie wasn't too bothered by me not accepting that one, she actually wrinkled her nose and commented that she was pretty sure there was blood sport going on in there and she didn't seem particularly enthused. She still asked me if I wanted to go in or not, didn't express an opinion herself, but I think she was a little relieved when my face screwed up and I said no to going in.

On the way to a fifth place, we cut through an alleyway.

This was a mistake.

The deeper shadows glitter and shift and move and people who can see the alleyway entrance very conspicuously decide that it's none of their business what's happening inside the alley. Cherie stiffens, and murmurs out of the side of her mouth, "I can't find whoever is doing this."

I can't reply though, because I'm behind her and the darkness has blocked sight from the street well enough that nobody can see me. A noise from above catches my attention -somebody closing their window. This repeats a few times, while a pillar of darkness pulls itself together in front of us. I check behind us -that way is closed off too. Up? There's a buzzing cloud. We're surrounded by a buzzing dark mass. Now that I'm the monster, though, I realize it's not shadows -it's bugs. I see a pillar of bugs forming... it's vaguely human in shape. Creepy.

Fuck. Locust. And Cherie can't find her. Eeewww. She must actually be made of bugs. Can she see us like this?

Cherie mutters to me, "So this is as bad as it looks?" worse "Oh. Goody."

"Yo̵͝u͢͡ ca̢n̴͠n̛͘o̴̴t̴̢ ̡ḩi̴͢d͞e f̨r̷̛͞o҉̴m L͢͞o̷̕cưs̷t,̶̧͞ ̵c҉̡͏ap̧͘͢e͝͏.̵̡͟ T̕hi̛s̸ iş Empir͢e̸ t͏erri̧tor̴y.̵ S̛ide̸k̢ic̵k.͟ L͜e̢a͞ve͟,̛ o͞r͘ ͢b͏ę coņs͏umed. The ̶ca̴p͞e an҉d I̵ ͝h͞ave͝ ͘bu͟s͘i̧neşş.̶"

I suspect I'd twitch in response if I were myself. That's fucked-up sounding. A sussurating buzzing that forms words, but clearly wrong. A voice without true tone, lacking the proper rhythm of human speech. Well, she clearly knows we're here. Not simply bad luck. Unfortunate. Very unfortunate.

Come on Cherie, bluff.

Cherie taps with one finger the limb taking the place of where my arm was, still held in her hand, and I try to make myself feel... I dunno. Something as confirmation. I have no fucking clue whether this is working at all.

After a moment, Cherie smiles brightly (I can see just enough to work it out from this angle) and says, "Hi miss, uh, Locust? We're very sorry for the misunderstanding-"

"Ther҉e̷ ̧i͠s ͞no̧ m͢i̵sund͢er͟s̕ta͝n̶d̸i͠n͜g."

Cherie smoothly continues with, "-but we're not, um, capes. Just... a couple of girls on the town."

The bugs move a little closer to us, and Cherie tenses. I think it's in response to me getting concerned, because I don't think she can see well enough like this to tell that they're closing.

"Y̷̢͟͡o̕͝͝҉̛u͠͏̴̨ ͟a҉̕̕͜͟r̸͜҉ę̶̢͏ ̧̛͟͡҉a̷̵̢̨ ̴̢͘͘͠l̢̧͡i̸a͢͝r̕͘͠ ̢͘͡ơ҉͡r̨ ̧̨͠a̷̧̢͝ ̵͜͞͝f̨̕͟͟͡o͝ǫ̕̕l̵̨̧͝.̧̕͢͠ ͏I̶̢ ̵͜͏̶a̷̶̵͝m҉̴̧̛ ̶n̡̛̕o͏͘t̢ ̷̵͜b̵͢͡l͟i͡n͟͝ḑ.̷̡͠҉ ̴͝͏̷͜T͟͢͠h̡͝͠͝ę͢͠ ̸̡͞o̧͢t̕͏͢͝h͝҉̷͘ȩ̷͜͡ŗ̶ ̨͟i̕҉̶̸̡s̨͏ ̧͝͏a҉̷̢̛͢ ̧͢͢m̢̧͢͞͏o̵͘͘n̶̡͟͠ş̵̛͞t̶̨̕̕͞r̡̨o̸̵͏҉s̵̨͠i̢͞t̴͝y̧̢̢̕͡,͘͡͏̛ ̡͠h̸̴͜a͘s̶̛͜͟ ̸͢f̷̸̢͞l̴̢̢u͡҉̛͘i̡̨͜͠d̵l̨͘͡͡y͢͜͠ ̷͢͡ş̶̛͘̕h̨̧͠i̷̴̡f̡̕͜t҉̨͟͡e̷̵͜d̷̡ ̛̕t̴̷͢o̡͟͡ ̸̡͞a̴n̴͞͏d̕͡͠ ̵̵͢f̷̢͢ŗ̴o̡̕m̸̴ ̡̕͜͝f̷̕͜͜͠ǫ͘͢r͝͡ ̶̡̨͝͏t̵̡͢͞h̶e͜͏ ̡̨̕͞͝p̴̸͞a͠͡͞s͏̕t̷̨̡͞͞ ͝҉̴̷h̶̡̢͜͠a҉l͞f͘͟ ̷͟͟ḩ̛͝o͏͘͜͞u̧͜͞҉r̵̶̵̡.͘͝ ̶͜͟͝L̕͡͏e̢͘a͡v̢̛͏͝e̢ ͘b̨̕e҉̸̛͘͝f͢͡o̶r̴̸͝e̶̡͞ ̨͢͟͡I̵̢ ̢̕҉ḑ͜͡e̵̢̛c̨̡͏͟i̶̕d̵̸͘e̷̡̕ ҉̧y̷͢͢o̧͡ư҉ ̴̵̡͏n̷͞e̸͡ȩ͝͞͠d̢ ̸̧͜t҉̷̢̛o̡͞ ̛d̢̡ię̶͘͘͟ ̡͟t̶͡͞͡oo̕͘͜.̸̵̵̧"

I... think I understood that? I'm going to assume Locust is upset. It's the obvious reason for her to abruptly become harder to understand. Wait, did she call me a monstrosity? Fucking Locust calling me a- Cherie squeezes my limb. I feel virtually nothing, but I see the motion, and make an effort to calm myself down. I'm... not too worried about fighting Locust myself, but Cherie is squishier.

Then a fog-like thing moves in. White and not entirely solid, anyway. Shit. Fog is here. I'm not actually clear how he works, other than lethally. He might be a real threat to me, and now I'm really concerned about Cherie.

"Sį̶deķ̕į͡c̕k̛.̨ ͘͢L͝͏̕e̶a̕v͘e̶̕͏.̶ ̶͝No̷ ̕҉m̢͝o͠r̵̢̛e̴҉ ͘t̨͟a͡͝l̕͠k̨i̴ng.̕͜"

I can see Cherie's wince. I pull my limb away, and she looks fully toward me, but I remain the monster. Shit. How many bugs does Locust have here? I jerk behind Cherie and push her slightly, and she sags a little before giving me a thumbs-up.

Then she strides confidently back the direction we came from. Locust's bugs move aside, more or less, and then close behind her.

"C̸ap̡e̵.͡ ͢Y͘o҉u stŗi̴de ̵boldļy t̶h̸r͝o͝ugh E͜mp̛i͡ŗe̵ ̢t͜err̛ito͠ry̴. ͡Y͘o͡u m̨u̡s̴t̨ ̡s͜u҉bmit. To pu͞n҉ishmen̴t͘ o̕r͟ to̡ ̷s͜e̡rvi͘ce͝,͢ ͘i͜t m̢akes̶ n̢o̕ diff̸er̶enc̨e ̷to ҉me.͘"

I turn to face the pillar of bugs that vaguely resembles a person. Sort of. I mean, there's two red spots for eyes somehow, set inside a vaguely head-shaped area. No arms, though. Not even a pretension of legs.

I'm wishing I'd bothered to learn Morse code. I legitimately considered it... I think the third day after I triggered? But it looked hard and I had so many other things to look up and anyway how likely was it that I'd meet someone who would know Morse code and how likely was it that I'd want to talk to them as the monster? I mean, I kind of doubt Locust knows Morse code, but the option to try would be appreciated. Ugh.

"Do͏ ̧n͟ot͠ ̛t̷est our͠ p͞ati͞en͡ce.̸"

Aaaand she doesn't realize I can't actually speak. Great.

I gesture at my head area, angling to show off my lack of an actual jaw.

"Y̨ou̸ ̶can̨n̷ot ̷sp̷eak̴ i͢n t͏hi̢s̢ f͟orm̴?̵"

I nod.

"T͡he̸n̶ be̶ ̨huma̡n,͜ ca͡p̧e̕."

Aaargh. Um. I shake my head.

"Y̷ou do ̧no̷t̕ get t͜o r̸ef҉u̕se.̕ Y͠o̷ur only ch͏oi̸c҉e͢s ̨a̛r̡e pa̡in͞ ͏or servi̢ce."

The swarm seems... agitated, too. Closer, definitely. Fog's form is closer, as well. I try holding two limbs up, shake them back and forth a little. I'm going for surrender or pleading or something of the sort -I really don't see much point in fighting these two- but that's very clearly not how it gets read. The swarm descends, the pillar of bugs breaks up to rush me, Fog's smoky form moves closer while the buzzing informs me-

"I̛̛n̵̨̡͜s̶͝͡͝o͜l͏͟e̡̨҉̵n̴̛͝c̷̡͝e̡͢.̵҉ ̡̨̢͠͠S̵̢ư̵͡͡f̶̛f̶͘͜e̸̡ŗ̶͜͝.̢̡̕̕"

-and I decide fuck it and start shredding Locust's bugs. This is... not quite as simple as it might sound, as hitting them mostly tends to knock them away, essentially unharmed.

"Y̴̨ơ͢͝ư̴͜ cą̴n̷̸n̡o̡ţ̧͠ ̛͟w͝͝͝i͏̵n͡. ͘̕̕Y̸͟ou ̷͟c͜͜a͠nn͞o̡t̢ ̧͘h͏̷ų̢r̸t ̢͝͡u͟s̡. ̴F͝e̴e̶b͢͝l̨҉e̶."

I have to pin them against something to actually kill them, so I'm slamming them into the ground hard enough to leave marks in the... is it asphalt or pavement? Either way. This is painfully slow compared to back when I was tearing at Nilbog's creatures, though on the other hand Locust's bugs are pretty clearly useless against me. I think they're trying to bite and sting, but mostly they're struggling to even get to my skin past the fluid. I'm pretty sure many of them are drowning in the fluid. The ones that make it to my actual body aren't accomplishing anything that I can tell. I'm sort of hoping to kill enough bugs to drive off Locust -it seems like a plausible scenario, maybe- but she doesn't seem to care about the deaths of members of her blob of bugs.

Fog is... not what I was expecting. I was ignoring him entirely because my understanding is that he's some kind of poison gas, and I don't breathe and can't stab gas, but he actually circles around limbs and... turns semi-solid? Or something? There's a dim sense of pressure, anyway, and it feels a little bit like when Nilbog's creatures with cutting parts were hitting me. Is he made of razor blades? Weird. Useless, too. I'm just too tough for him, and apparently neither of them counts as a person. Well, Fog has a human form and I'd be surprised if that doesn't count, but I'm not exactly concerned at this point. They don't seem to understand how my power works well enough to deliberately exploit that.

I try stabbing at Fog, but I really have no idea whether it's accomplishing anything. No blood, nothing I might interpret as a flinch, no real resistance. Even when I try slashing at semi-solid parts of him, even though I meet resistance nothing really happens that I can tell. Just slows down my limb slightly.

"Yơu arę a̸ ͠fool.͠"

Yeah yeah, whatever.

One of my limbs jerks, motion arrested. What?-

"T͜h̶er͘e is҉ n̷ǫ ͡es͠c̴a͠p̸e."

I don't- I don't see anything! I pull, and the limb moves, but not as far as I'm trying to move it. What the fuck?

Then another limb catches. I pull, and there's motion again, but it's still not as much as I want. I hear a clatter of something metal hitting the ground, not sure what. Odd. I pull in a different dire- oh come on! I've now got four limbs that aren't responding as fully as I want them to. What is this nonsense?

I'm at six limbs impaired when I notice that there's a... string of bugs?... connecting to and wrapping around one of the limbs that won't move as fully as I want. What? I slash at the bugs, and the whole thing wobbles. The bugs remain, and new ones join them, focused around where I slashed. I cut more, faster, until enough bugs are shredded or pulped that I can see that they're actually clinging to a cord of some kind. Grey-white. Looks kind of like rope? What is this? Some aspect of Fog's power? No, I don't think so. Watching him, he's keeping his more solidified parts away from these cords. (Bug-chains=cords) Actually, how the fuck does he see?

No, never mind. Focus on the fight.

"You ̸ha͞ve ̡cho̷s͘en pąin̴. ͟You s͝h͟ou͝l̡d ̕h͝av̢e̵ c̴hos͏en ̕ser͏v͡ic̕e."

I'm starting to wonder if Locust is refusing to shut the fuck up as a replacement for a normal social life. Lady made of bugs probably doesn't have many opportunities to socialize, even among her E88 cape-friends. Teammates. Whatever. Yeah, let's ignore that depressing line of thought.

I cut and cut and cut and cut and keep cutting, and the cord is tearing but not as fast as I want it to tear. One of the limbs I'm cutting with jerks, and how the fuck does this keep happening why can't I figure it out? I keep cutting with the remainder, and finally my attempts to pull the limb in question free lead to the cord finally noticeably stretching, which I think makes the cutting go faster? Not sure. In any case, after a few seconds the cord has broken, my limb is free, and I turn to cutting another cord.

"-̧͉̹̈́̓͞-͉͖̜̲͕̦̝̗̑̒̉͗ͦͩ͂̿-̸̤̺̤̖̺ͯͤ̍̈̃̋̈́̒̚͞-̶̛̣̖͇͖̞̗̬̓ͦ̊͐-̬̩̈́̽̇̓́ͥ̍-̢̲̳͔̦̗̌̔̄̅ͨ͗͌̃ͅ-̨͚̜̻̟̬͉̏̀͆̆̓-̛̖̺̳̥̗̹̓͐̂͑̍̾͋̇-̴̣͇̲͉̰̺̫̇̋ͅ-̸̟̤̅ͭ̃ͩͩ͘͟-̲̂̅̐ͨͯ̓ͥ̕ͅ-̡̨̲̞̳͇̜̱̙̜ͪ̆ͧ͐́̂ͫ͒-͒̋ͮͣ̽̎͏̰̝̤-̴͊̃ͤ҉̛̺̫ͅ "

I think Locust is upset.

"-͇̝̖͕̤̞̔̌̉̓ͤͧͭͩ̒̾̔ͦͨ̎̑̐̍̚͘-̶̒̌͐̇ͨ̈́̌̀̒ͨ̓̉ͧ͐̾͏̧̣̲͔̠̹̺͜ͅ-̸̵̬͍͉̠͎͕̹̱͎͓̯̙̲͂ͬ͒ͧͭ͂͋̇ͯ̐ͯ̓̾͑̅ͧ-̸̵̛͖͙͕̜͖̭̝̦̖̫̰̯̫͔̎͐͆̌̎ͤͨ̂̊͑̒̆̉̚̚-̶̵̧̤̠͕̈́͒̇͂̐̄͜-̂̋̎ͦͦͫ͗̿̍͆͋҉̲̦̘͙͞-̸̷̸̩̪͉̘̤̼̠͉̯͈̺͑̓̊̓͛ͭ̃-̵̧̯̟̣̱͖͚̮͚ͧ͂̂̍͆͋̔͑͌̂ͣ̇̕̕-̶̷̹̤̭͓̮̜̞͎̠̯̙̐ͦ̂ͨͭ̐ͤͫͥ̉ͦͫ̓͂̋͌̚̕-̸̵͓̹̹͔̟̼̫̫͚̟̮̫͚̒̓̓ͥ̐͆̈́̏̀̋̿͌̎̌̚͝͞-͚̳̺̼͋ͥͣ́͌̾̈́͐̌͊̅ͥ̏ͩͫ͟͠-̸̢̛̱̖̪̜̲͑̓́ͬ̾́̔̓ͩ̃̌͗̈ͤ̀ͧ͒͜-̏͊̓͋ͧ͒ͤ͋̈̀͏̴̨̯̣̘̥̞͔͙̜̞͡-̶̲͔͖̙͚̏ͩͬͧͧ̏ͩͣͦ̉̄̚̕̕͢-̡̹̲͖̯̫̹̘̜̻̮̹̖̬͙̻̝̯ͤ̌̎̽̐͑̾͠-̸̛̰̹̥̳̺̬̹̠͖̤̻͓̱̎ͭͧͩͮͅ-̜͙͖͔̜̝͉̣̞͍͔͇͉̪̭̲̤̑͗͐́͌͆̅͑̃ͪ͐ͭ̈̍̎͜͠͠ͅ-̩̪̼̞̭̲̩̲̹̋ͬ͒̓ͩ̈́̒̂̉͞͝-̵̧̡̫͕̠̪̪̫̭̟̗͕̙ͩ͆ͪ̐ͪ͝-̷̢͕̣̪͔̜̒̽ͦ̄ͫͫ͆̍̿͟͜ "

Very upset.

"N͘͘͟o̡҉̸̨!̷ ̷̧͢Ģ̶̷̨͝ę̕͠t̸̵ ͜͜͝͡a̷̧̨̛͡w̢̛͏a̡͏̵̡̛y͞!̵͘͜"

Huh?

The bug swarm does... something... weird. I'm not sure how to describe it. Like a convulsion, but the bug-swarm? Christ, I dunno. I'm focused on cutting my way free of these damn cords. To my surprise, the swarm sort of... saying it drops out of the sky is overly dramatic. They don't, like, stop all at the same time and then drop. This isn't a ye olde cartoon. It's not actually obvious anything new is happening at first. I only notice anything is going on when I realize the bug swarm is thin enough I can actually see the street, the sky, the walls. In particular, I can see that the cords on me are attached to various heavy, immobile objects. A dumpster, the roof edge two stories up, that kind of thing. This leads to me noticing that the swarm is thinning, the ground carpeted with bugs that are... twitching, or holding very, very still. Now that the swarm is this thin, I can see that bugs are sort of... carrying forward on their momentum, hitting the ground, and stopping. It seems to be getting worse, with more and more bugs ceasing to move in a controlled manner.

"H̛̯̬̳͈̖̹̲͕̭ͬͬ̑͆͐͂̔ḛ̶͚̦ͬ͐͋͘l̡̗̫̮͊ͣ̍̚͡ͅp̴̻͇̞ͧ͗͊̃̉̿͟ͅ!̢̤̜͎̽̾̋̊͋̒̅͊"

Fog roils and moves away from me noticeably faster than when he approached, heading toward a broken ground-floor window. Basement window? But isn't Locust these bugs? I'm confused.

Now that I can see the cords properly, I'm better able to cut where they're thin or, in one case, finagle the limb to simply pull loose by reversing the joint. The process of escape is, ironically, completed by a civilian peeking into the alleyway, the three limbs still bound ceasing to exist.

"... are... are you okay, miss?"

It's a man -absently, I note he's white, which feels rather more important to pay attention to than it did just a few minutes ago- and he sounds genuinely concerned, but I need to follow Fog, find out what the fuck just happened. So I snarl at him, "Go away!" and he recoils like he's been slapped, glances at the carpet of bugs, and turns back around the corner. I hear him running the instant he's out of sight.

Gotta hurry before I lose Fog.

I can't follow through the basement window. It's too small, I'm too large. I think. I'm not willing to waste time testing it, anyway. Instead, I crash through the window that's basically right next to me and go rushing through the surprisingly-clean space (I wince a little internally. I'd been thinking this was abandoned, but it's clearly lived-in) looking for a basement entrance. Most of the doors are handle-based instead of using a doorknob, which is lucky. When I jerk open a door to two children -a little boy and a little girl having a tea party?- I blurt out, "Where's the entrance to the basement?"

The little boy blinks at me, looks at his plastic cup, and glances at the little girl like this is her fault. The little girl slowly and deliberately takes a sip from her own plastic cup -and I do hear an actual sip- before setting her cup down and then turning to face me with a frown. "You have'ta intru-intro- tell us your name. First. Or else yer rude." She says 'rude' like it's the worst possible thing in the entire universe.

I blink, non-plussed. "Uh. I'm Monster."

She smiles brilliantly while the little boy looks at me like I'm crazy. Then he looks at the little girl like she's crazy. The little girl says, "Hiya missus Monster. I'm Susie, that's Larry, this-" She gestures at a teddy bear. "-is Lord High King Of All He Surveys, and that-" She gestures at a unicorn with wings. "-is Mister Hugs."

The little boy -er, Larry- chews on his lip and butts in to ask, "If we tell you, will you go away?" while the lit- um, Susie glares at him and waves a finger at him in the 'naughty-naughty' motion.

I nod decisively.

Larry visibly relaxes and says, "Go right, open the door, and then turn left. It's at the end. Um. Please don't tell anyone about, um-" He gestures vaguely at the very, very pink tea party. "-this."

I smile a little, catch myself, and very solemnly say, "Of course."

Then I close the door and I'm off like a shot. (I make sure to close the next door behind me, as well. I think I just exited someone's apartment. Rather not leave the door open, given the kids seemed to be alone. I'm aggravated that I broke a window as-is)

The directions are accurate, but the basement is empty. There doesn't even seem to be another place for Fog to have slipped through, unless he took the basement door? Or maybe he can slip through more things than I think?...

My eye is drawn to a large wardrobe sitting against one wall. It... looks out of place. Not sure what's bugging me about it. I approach it, and then my eyes are drawn to a combination padlock. Er. That's... odd. The wardrobe is big enough you could walk in and stand inside it, I think. That's... I glance around, and the wardrobe is still bugging me. After a moment it occurs to me that Fog could be hiding inside it. That... seems out of character? I'm pretty sure he was reacting to Locust's distress? But that doesn't make much- fuckit, I tear at the padlock's chain until a link gives enough to pull the whole thing away, and open the wardrobe and that is not clothes.

There's a goddamn tunnel behind the wardrobe.

Reflexively, I glance at the wardrobe's feet. They're... screwed into the floor? Or bolted down? They're attached to the concrete, anyway. I think that's what was bugging me. Then my attention returns to the tunnel, and I dash through to the other end (Another basement), and there's nothing here -wait I think I see wisps of Fog's fog-body going through the door up!

I dash up the stairs and tear at the door's hinges and then kick it down and yes, there's Fog drifting and what the fuck why is Cherie holding a cape with a knife to their throat.

We're in a surprisingly normal-looking living room. The cape Cherie is holding with a knife to their throat is sitting on a couch, facing a TV. (It's off) Cherie has somehow arranged for the cape to be sitting in her lap, so really it's Cherie sitting on the couch and the cape sitting on Cherie. I call them a cape because they're in a full-body costume, everything obscured. Gloves, some kind of helmet, the works. The only thing they don't have is an actual cape. It's all grey-white, with swastikas and other Nazi imagery I wouldn't know the name for slapped onto the shoulders, chest, ears of the helmet... I notice that even the neck has some form of protection, though Cherie has clearly managed to separate it so she can cut the neck directly. (I can see the material bunching up a little, down below the knife) Some kind of cloth? Seems like poor protection. But then again, Cherie went through the effort of getting it out of the way?

The room is sufficiently nicely-lit that Cherie looking at me ("Heya Boss!" she grins. Where'd her sunglasses go?) reverts me. I twitch, expecting Fog to attack me, but instead he actually condenses, solidifies, and becomes a human shape. He's dressed... virtually identically to the cape on the couch, actually. In fact, I think they're almost exactly identical costumes.

"Let my wife go."

Fog's voice catches me off guard. He sounds... he sounds like the most normal, boring man to ever exist, having a conversation with a friend about how to go about moving a box. He's not demanding or concerned. It's a statement with little emotion to it. No anger, no fear. That's... this is maybe hypocritical of me, but that's fucking creepy. She's your wife? You don't sound like she's your wife.

Cherie shakes her head ever-so-slightly. "Nah, See, if I do that, you'll just do your fog thingy and kill me."

Still as the grave, Fog says, "If you swear you will leave us be, I swear you will be free to go."

"No deal," is Cherie's fast response. I'm not even sure what's going on. I thought Fog was married to Locust? Who the hell is this person? (Wait, if two men are married, are they husband and husband or- no never mind) Actually- why did I stay and fight? Goddammit, I could've left. Waited a few minutes for Cherie to get to safety, fled for our hideout, waited for her to show up. I didn't need to try to fight. These two, murderous bastards though they are, just aren't as important to deal with as the in-charge members. And anyway, I should've at least tried to leave once it became clear I couldn't really hurt them. What the fuck is wrong with me?

Cherie (Wait, should I be thinking of her as Pride? Arrrgh) adds, "I want to hear it from your boss. I've heard good things about his honorability."

What the fuck are you doing Cherie? Cherie glances my way and I feel a surge of trust, but then it fades almost immediately. I- I think she's trying to ask me to trust her?

"I have no reason to take you at your word," is Fog's deadpan counterpoint.

Cherie flutters her eyes at him and says, "Awww, come on. You haven't heard of Monster and Pride? We're good guys. That makes us trustworthy by default!"

I- no it fucking doesn't. Hell, we're on the outs with the PRT for whatever fucking reason, so I'm not sure we qualify as Rogues anymore. If they've labeled us as Villains, this is double-stupid. Goddammit Pride.

Nonetheless, after a moment Fog says, "If you cross us, our people will ensure your pain is legendary," and then pulls out a cell phone. Cherie nods agreeably. The anonymous cape sits there, seemingly fine with being ignored. I wonder what their power even is? Not something that would help them escape, presumably. Unless Cherie's pinning them with emotional manipulation?

I try to meet Cherie's eyes, somehow convey seriously, what the fuck are you doing and get that weird surge/banking of trust again. Cherie doesn't look away from Fog, though. It occurs to me that Fog has completely ignored me, too. The cape Cherie is holding hostage is staring right at me, going by the motion of their helmet.

"Sir, we have a situation." Fog's apparently reached his boss. "Yes. Uh-huh. We've been compromised. No, not our IDs yet. I would, but they've got a knife to her throat. Neutralized her power, sir." Wait, what? "I don't know how. Sir, they've agreed to leave us be if you swear that we will do the same." He pauses, covers the phone with his other hand, and asks Cherie, "By 'we' do you mean the two of us, or the Empire as a whole?"

Cherie's grin widens a little -looks a little creepy like this, honestly, her head right up against the cape's head, knife to their throat- and with the air of a queen deigning to grant a favor says, "Just you two and anyone in the area that might attack us as we're leaving. Not asking for a long-term agreement."

Without actually acknowledging anything she just said, he uncovers the phone and returns it to his ear. "Just us and locals. Temporary agreement. They say they trust your word, sir. Monster and Pride, sir. I don't know. Yes. No. Yes. Okay." He fiddles with the phone for a second, and then holds it facing out toward Cherie.

"You will have your deal if you leave my subordinates unharmed and immediately leave Empire territory," flows from the phone. I was expecting a German accent for some reason. Ridiculous of me. If anything, he sounds... Midwestern? More business-like than I would've expected of Kaiser. PHO says Kaiser is 'charismatic', and he doesn't sound it to me. Huh. Though... that might make sense, really. No reason to ooze charisma with enemy capes. I feel a stab of rage that then just... muffles. What? I glance at Cherie and there's that surge of trust again. Then I glance at Fog and there is that anger again. Wait, does she want us to double-cross the Empire?

Cherie nods slightly, says, "You got it," and once Fog has turned off his phone, starting to say something, Cherie hits me with restlessness and I give her a look but move behind Fog anyway while he continues to speak, quiet as I can, and then once I'm behind him Cherie twists the cape on her lap's head to one side and slices their throat -then cuts some more when they judder and start squirming- while closing her own eyes and meanwhile Fog's legs are blurring and I'm the monster and I stab and stab and stab until he falls over, unmoving. Hmm. The costume held up better than I would have-

"He's faking, Boss." Oh shit she's right I can see the blur still going up his legs so I stab him through the head now that he's on the ground and I don't stop stabbing until- "Okay, now he's dead."

Then Cherie opens her eyes, shoves the still-bleeding cape on her to one side (Are they dead?), and starts wiping her knife off on their costume. I march up to her and demand, "Why the hell did we just do this?" but Cherie's too-wide grin just widens a little further. Dammit, she can tell I'm not that angry. I've wished Locust dead many a time, and Fog is... god. Fog has less of a reputation, but from what I've read he's actually more cruel. I frown, turn my focus to the knife (Oh jeez, it's serrated and huge), and say, "At least wash the knife off properly. There's got to be sinks in here."

Cherie shrugs, wanders off to, I presume, comply, and I'm left as the monster. I look around for a bit, taking in the... weirdly ordinary room. I hear water run for a minute. Stop. Then movement catches my eye, and I jerk to face it, ready to attack, but it's just roaches fleeing into the darkness. Wait, shit, Locust!

"No no, that's her on the couch," from the doorway.

I turn to face her, nervously glancing at the... jeez, that's a lot of bugs swarming in the shadows... and ask, "You sure? Actually, no, seriously, explain what just happened. Last I knew, you were fleeing to safety."

She shrugs -knife's vanished, need to ask about that- and explains, "Well, yeah, initially. If only to not blow my cover of Perfectly Ordinary Teenage Girl. Buuuut I... hm. Okay, background! Conversation has a back and forth, right?" I raise an eyebrow, but nod. "Well, I can generally tell when two people are having a conversation, because there tends to be a clear, uh, action-reaction thing. Like, someone is going to tell a joke, their anticipation is high, they're amused at the joke themselves, and once they've told it, the anticipation levels off and everybody who heard the joke laughs." A pause. "Assuming it was actually funny." Another pause. "Aaaaanyway, so take that principle, okay? And Iiii... didn't know exactly what kind of conversation you guys were having after I left, but I could see how the beats of conversation were playing out with you and no one else was in the alleyway."

I interrupt. "Fog was present."

She nods her head. "Yeah, okay, I couldn't sense him when he was, uh, foggy, so that's not surprising. Not the point!" She raises one hand, pointer finger aimed up. "Point is, there was someone who you were having an action-reaction interaction with, and they were... here." She gestures at the corpse on the couch. Then she grins again. "So I figured they were the bug person, and if they were hiding away like this, I figured they were proooobably fairly..."

She seems to be searching for a word. I suggest, "Mortal?"

She nods again. "Sure, mortal. That. Well within my means to kill. Just, whammo! Depression and apathy and stuff and then I knife 'em."

"Speaking of the knife..." I trail off leadingly, looking at her pointedly.

Cherie gestures at her purse, and in a light tone says, "Girl's got to carry protection, ya know?" Oh goddammit Cherie. More seriously she says, "Not joking. My power is... mostly reliable at protecting me from the unempowered, but your power isn't the only one that interferes with mine." She gestures at Fog's body. "So! Protection."

... I'm still not sure how she hid it in that purse -it's not that big of one- but I let the topic go. "So you found... Locust, apparently. And?"

She smiles again, drops into a chair, and continues her story. "Took me a bit to find the way in, and I... actually had to, uh, pick the lock-" She knows how to pick locks. Of course she knows how to pick locks. Ugh. "-yeah I figured you wouldn't like that part but ANYWAY I got in, and the place is pretty empty. Like, I poke into a couple of rooms along the way and they have these huge spiderweb thingies, like people are cocooned inside or something-" oh jeeze "-though it's just Locust in the building so I dunno what that's about, and anyway I go to knock at her door and she says something like 'No solicitors' in this robotic tone and she's not really paying attention, and... honestly? I just tried the doorknob. Wasn't even locked. 'course, I knew I was on the right track when bugs came pouring out of the walls-" She shudders theatrically. "-so then I hit her with crushing depression and a side dose of more ordinary apathy."

She pauses, and averts her eyes. "I... actually kind of fucked up. Thought it would take her out of the fight entirely. It... I'm not sure why, but she wasn't really affected at all. Like, I could feel she was a little depressed, a little apathetic, but not anywhere near where she should've been. If her bugs had been faster, I might be dead right now."

Then she meets my eyes and grins again. "But it worked out anyway! I got to her, and wow she was just... she's pathetic. She tried to hold me off, and she was struggling just to move. Which is weird, because her and her costume barely weigh anything at all. I initially thought the costume might be, like, really serious armor, and I... actually tried to cut past the neckpiece initially to no success so it can't be that bad, but she was no burden at all. Weird stuff."

I hesitate, and then decide it can't make things any worse, and go to pull off Locust's helmet. Cherie keeps talking. "So I got her in a grapple thingie while I'm trying to figure out how to stab her to death and her bugs buzz out something, sounded like a cry for help to me?" I nod absently, trying to figure out how the helmet actually comes off. "Oh, so she called for Fog to come then?" I nod again. "Aaah, I was wondering about that. Good to know. Anyway! I spent a bit on that, and then I had the knife to her throat and she was whispering how her-"

The helmet is off, and Cherie and I stare in silence at Locust. She's a very ordinary-looking woman, with brown hair, blue eyes, a face that I want to call 'handsome' rather than 'pretty', a hairstyle of no note, a pair of nice-but-not-too-nice earrings...

... and her too-pale skin, sunken cheeks, sunken eyes... look like a picture of a concentration camp survivor. One kept away from the sun for months.

"Holy fuck," is Cherie's gob smacked commentary.

I ignore her and start trying to pull off more of Locust's costume. Enough to see... yes. She's almost completely flat, her collarbone stands out prominently, disturbingly. It's not just her face. Cherie asks, "What's wrong with her?"

I comment, "It looks like malnutrition. Possibly a lack of exercise as well, but mostly I'd guess she wasn't eating enough."

Cherie mutters, "I thought she was a little too easy to hold." She sounds upset by that.

I turn to do the same with Fog's corpse, and absently comment, "Continue your story."

Cherie takes a deep, rattling breath. She's not nearly as enthusiastic as she was a minute ago. "Um. Where was I- oh. Her superiors. She was telling me about how they'd make an example of the two of us -I guess she recognized me from when her bugs surrounded us?- if I killed her, the pain would be so bad we'd beg for death, yadda yadda yadda. Um. So then I had the idea."

Fog, helmet removed, isn't half as bad looking. He's very boring-looking, just like Locust, no distinctive birthmarks or anything of the sort, but he looks healthier. Pale, but not as pale as Locust. I note that he's clean-shaven, but with 5 o'clock shadow. I start tugging open the chest portion, and give Cherie the prompt she's clearly waiting for. "Idea?"

She sounds a little more normal, a little more excited now. "I got to thinking I could get her to call her boss, and I'd backtrack him the same as I backtracked her. Boom! Instantly find Kaiser. None of this wasting our time looking at irrelevant losers nonsense. In fact, we could go right now, if you want!"

I pause at that. Then I finish pulling open Fog's costume enough to determine... yes, he's somewhat underweight, but not emaciated. I also note with some consternation that all his chest hair has clearly been shaved off. Is that normal? I don't think that's normal. Then I turn around and blandly ask, "I thought you wanted to party, Cherie."

Cherie blinks. Squints at me. Says, "That was your idea, Boss."

I blink back, non-plussed. "I thought you liked... stuff like that."

Cherie's clearly bewildered. I get the impression 'being bewildered' is, itself, confusing to her. She asks, "You had us go for an 'afternoon on the town' because you thought I would enjoy it?"

That's... not what I said... nonetheless, I reluctantly nod my head and admit, "Yyyyessss?"

We stare at each other for a few seconds, Cherie blinking owlishly. Then, slowly, she asks, "Why did you do that?"

I look down and shuffle uncomfortably. Glance up. No, she's not going to let this go. Dammit. I look away and say, "I... think... I was trying to make up for... how I... treated you in response to... um." I glance at her again. Wince at how she's hanging on my every word. Grit my teeth, force it out. "I went too far when you kept hitting on me."

Cherie blinks. Raises one hand, pointer finger upraised. Stops. Lowers it. Incredulously, she says, "You were trying to apologize?"

I can feel the flush. Fuck. Dammit. I wish she hadn't said it that way. I hate apologizing. Easier to tell myself it's a gift than to frame it as an admission I did wrong. I turn to face away-

-why is she hugging me again. Why does this keep happening.

"Shhh, shhh. It's okay. You don't need to apologize. I knew -okay, I didn't know exactly what I was getting into, but I knew you were a murderous psychopath willing to kill people who have offended your sense of justice."

Gee. Thanks.

"I was prepared for there to be bumps along the way. Bumps are fine." There's a pause. "Very fine." I frown. What does that mean? "But you've misunderstood me, and frankly, I'm more offended by that than the, erm, incident."

I break out of the hug, and turn to face her, puzzled. Cherie's arms are crossed, and she's scowling at me. That's... weird. Has she ever done that? I can't remember her being mad at me. Ever.

"I've been over this. I'm here because you are doing fuckawesome stuff and I want some of that." She's adamant. "I'm not here to party. I didn't sign on to- to go to clubs or whatever. " She frowns. "I only did that sort of thing back at daddy- my father's to pass the time, fuck's sake!" I stare blankly, unsure how to respond to that outburst. She calms down, and stops crossing her arms. "This?" She gestures at Locust's corpse. "This is why I'm hanging with you."

... I wonder if she understands how that comes across.

I watch her face carefully. After a few moments of this, she looks confused. "What?"

I shake my head and say, "Never mind." Pause. "So... you don't want to continue our... adventure."

"Fuck no!" Then she pouts. "You won't let me do any of the really fun stuff anyway."

... okay.

"... and you know where Kaiser is? Right now?"

She brightens. "Yes!"

I glance around at the way-the-fuck-too-many bugs, and say, "Then we should return to the warehouse and get suited up."

She's bouncing eagerly in place. "Suited up, or just costumes?"

I affirm, "Suited up. Dragonslayer suit for you."

She fist pumps again.

It looks more genuine this time.

I find myself smiling.

5.2

Astoundingly, making our way back to the warehouse goes smoothly. We just wait until Cherie declares the area clear, and then leave, and from there... we walk. (Cherie pulls her sunglasses from her purse and makes me wear them, first) I have a minor heart attack when a PRT truck goes past, siren blaring, and a more significant one when Velocity runs down the bike lane on the other side of the street, but Cherie reassuringly squeezes my hand both times and, when no one is too close, informs me that they didn't notice us at all.

She gives me intermittent running commentary, muttered quietly. "Okay, yeah, they're there for the fight. They're frustrated, confused. Investigating. Velocity's talking to a couple of people, I-" She frowns a little. "-I think he's trying to be reassuring? One of the people is sullen, not happy Velocity's there, not really reacting to what he's saying. The other one is... being demanding? Not sure exactly. Ah, wait, Velocity's moving. Basement? Basement. Moving... underground?" She cocks an eyebrow at me.

I shrug. "There was a tunnel connecting two basements. That's how I came up from that basement. Couldn't begin to guess why."

Cherie frowns at that, then shrugs, expression smoothing out. "Anyway, okay, other basement, up the steps -there we go, he's found them. He's repulsed. Not as horrified as I thought he'd be? There's the visceral response, repelled by the smell and the gore and all, but he seems... resigned? I think he's on a radio or phone or something. PRT truck is moving to join him. Ooooh. I think he just found the cocoons. Now there's real horror. Oh, and some catharsis! I think he's glad they're dead, now. Hmm. Reads like he's not going to admit it to anyone? This is harder to work out. Aaaanyway, he's... doing something investigative. Morbid curiosity. Hm. He was startled, but now he's pleasantly surprised? A little relieved? Not sure what that's about."

Cherie pulls me to the left at an intersection. I give her a weird look, but she doesn't explain herself. It'll take us to the warehouse just as fast either way, but... why?

She wait a minute or so, then resumes narrating. "Okay, PRT people are there, they're all talking... yes, definitely talking to someone via radio or whatever. Someone back in the PRT HQ, not the Rig. They're cranky. PRT troopers are... making morbid jokes, I'm thinking. Little bit of trying to shrug off some horror, little bit of genuine relief." She gives me a quizzical look. "Were those two really that horrible?"

I shrug. I hated them.

She shrugs herself, then continues her description after waiting for a gaggle of overly loud girls to walk past us. "Still poking around... I think Velocity found the door we exited by, but he's -whoa. Okay?" I glance at her, keeping my expression still, but she waves off my concern. "He zipped around all over the place for a couple seconds, it messed with me, that's all. Thought for juuust a half-second he might've found our trail, but no. He's a little frustrated, but he -whoa okay- he's back with the PRT troopers. Looks like they're trying to... secure the perimeter? I'm guessing they're setting up a crime scene. A proper one, 'cause Velocity already did a once-over but I guess that wasn't official enough because now they're all making an effort to be very serious and- do you really care anymore?"

I shrug. "If... something interesting happens, I'd like to know. You can talk with me and keep track of all that, right?"

She smiles. "Ab-so-lutely."

"Then let's go with that."

Cherie nods.

For the rest of the walk, we talk about... procedure, I guess. I don't want to have this happen again, and Cherie's happy to oblige.


The window nagged at me. Not guilt, aggravatingly, no guilt for me ever again, but... still. The waste nags at me, and I should feel bad about it. Nothing ambiguous about this. So the first thing I do after we arrive while Cherie heads off to get changed into the undersuit and then the Dragonslayer suit is actually go to the computer. Poke at the RobinHood program... yes, it can make deposits in fairly arbitrary accounts. I didn't have any reason to believe otherwise, but closer inspection of the interface pretty well confirms it. Can I... use the program to figure out who owns a given account?

... there's actually a search engine. The interface is... minimal, but I'm able to define parameters and narrow things down. 'Brockton Bay' reduces the list, some marked with question marks. Mostly Swiss bank accounts. Huh. It takes me some fiddling to figure out how to search by street and so on, figure out which apartment building I broke into... and then I'm stumped. Can't figure out how to narrow it down to... Susie and Larry's parents, I assume. The RobinHood program is able to narrow things down to everybody who lives in the building, with... three question marks. I hesitate. Then I have it remove from the list all the E88 gang members. (I don't understand this program. How does it know who's a criminal or not? It- it adds a category as I'm searching, some gang called 'The Blackened Hand', which I learn was only recently recognized by authorities when I use the browser to check who The Blackened Hand is. As in the news article is an hour old)

To my unpleasant surprise, that only leaves three bank accounts, one of which is flagged with a question mark. I hesitate some more... now I wish I'd asked for the kid's family names. I think I might be able to find out who's actually attached to a given bank account, real-name-wise, and I could've narrowed it down that way.

Damn.

I finally settle for directing the program to dump 450$ from E88 accounts across the three accounts.

Wish I could set up an apology note somehow.

... fuck, I hope Susie and Larry's parents aren't E88 members.

I sigh.

Then I move to get into my costume.


It's still broad daylight. My initial impulse is to go roof-hopping, but Cherie points out it would make more sense for her to carry me like this. (She's holding onto the helmet so we can talk)

I feel like that's... less stealthy, though.

"If you want stealth, Boss, we should wait until dark."

Ugh.

Actually... "Does the suit have a stealth mode?"

Cherie blinks, holds up a finger, then looks at the helmet. "Uh. Give me a minute." She puts on the helmet -it does that vacuum sealing thing again, that still looks weird- and I wait patiently, now the monster. I can hear her muttering, barely, but can't make out the words. After... probably two minutes, a few lights on the suit dim and a hmmm that wasn't there a moment ago kicks in. Cherie gives a thumbs-up, then removes her helmet, compressed air hissing out. "There is totally a stealth mode! So how I do look? Is it, like, active camouflage or-"

"Some lights got dimmer and now the suit is humming."

Cherie's face falls. "Oh. I... guess it's protection from radar or something. That's... disappointing." She pauses for a moment, then visibly cheers up. "So, uh, how are we handling this anyway, because I... only vaguely recall Kaiser. Something about blades?"

... I only just realized I have no idea if she knew about Locust and Fog in detail. Cherie is... more reckless than I'd realized. Huh.

Huh.

...

Moving on...

"He can grow metal from solid surfaces and from metal. He can grow metal from the metal he generates, and he's not Manton limited that I can te-" Cherie's face is blank as she mouths 'Manton limited?' "-ll. Ugh. Um, okay, short version: a lot of powers either work on living creatures or do not work on living creatures. Like, a pyrokinetic can't boil your blood inside your veins. Um. There used to be a guy called Marquis who controlled bone, and he was kind of odd. He could manipulate and grow bone, even if it was inside other people-" Cherie winces. "-but only if it was exposed to the air." I pause. "Except he could freely manipulate his own, I think? It's been a while since I read about him, he got Birdcaged, so it's not been important. Anyway, so Kaiser can and does do stuff like grow knives out of the ground under your feet right into your feet."

Cherie looks a bit pale now. Hm. "Y-you mean he could make my suit just... grow blades right into me? Like I'm in some fucking iron maiden waiting to happen?"

Ooooh. Yeah, that... would be concerning. I try to smile and sound comforting, but I'm not sure how well it works. "Yyyeeess, which is why you're going to be staying back and acting as fire support. His range is... a block or two? Miiight be three. You were able to shoot back at whoever was on the roof, and that was at least five blocks away."

"Ten, actually." She sags in relief. Good, good.

I nod. "So you can drop me off nearby, I go in, and if things go awry you'll be sniping him from safety."

Cherie looks around for a moment, frowns. "Um. If we're planning on leaving immediately afterward, shouldn't we get stuff... packed up? 'cause if we're gonna potentially have even more heat on us, it'd be... bad if we're rushing to pack while people are coming after us."

... damn. I'm so used to that being the kind of thing Dad handles... it didn't occur to me.

I sigh. "Yeah, you're right." I pause, an unpleasant thought occurring to me. "... isn't the truck in an alleyway?"

Cherie gives a cheeky grin. "Nah, after you left I found an entrance for vehicles. Had to manually crank it, and the only reason nobody investigated is 'cause everybody who heard it was scared shitless, but I did it. Baaad neighborhood."

Somewhat absentmindedly, I comment, "I'm not sure there's really a 'good' neighborhood in Brockton Bay." Then I straighten up a bit. "Okay, that simplifies things. Though... I've still got my monster problem."

She shrugs. "I load the truck, you plan?"

I glance at the computer. "I guess."


I pass the first five minutes just watching Dragon's perspective, thinking about whether I should activate Ascalon or not. I don't think Kaiser is going to manage to kill me, but I'd hate to have my waffling lead to humanity annihilated in a robopocalypse...

Ultimately I put off the decision again, in no small part because her perspective jumps to that Tinker workshop I saw before -only this time Armsmaster is inside. Dragon greets him, he sounds pleased to hear from her (Yet he doesn't look up from his motorcycle... man, the front is a scorched mess. What happened?), and they smoothly drop into casual conversation from there. It makes me feel like I'm intruding on something private. I mean, they're not making goo-goo eyes at each other or anything, but it's not like Dragon has any business reason to be hanging out with him. I haven't seen her watching other Protectorate tinker workshops... this is probably a close relationship. Friends and all. Which is odd, because Armsmaster refers to Dragon's 'agoraphobia', so I'm pretty sure he doesn't know she's an AI.

I close that program, discomfited, and open the browser. Poke around the Bay's parahuman population. Eh? Parian?

... oh, right, the... string? I forget, she's a Rogue. Does parties. I dig around a bit for details, but they're a bit light. She doesn't do combat, and the only thing she's really shared about her power is firmly stating it's not a tinker ability.

Okay. I poke into PHO... one of the tinfoil hats claims to have snuck away a piece of one of her stuffed animals. Also claims, disappointed, that it doesn't seem to have retained any special properties. Says he had to take a really serious knife to get even this small bit. Excuse me, she had to take a serious knife. (My mind jumps to Cherie, and then I frown. No, that's stupid, stop that, brain) Also, the thing she took it from deflated entirely, like a pierced balloon. Tinfoil lady is... oh, I recognize her now. She has good information, so long as you ignore basically anything she says about the Triumvirate. Not sure why she feels the need to make up ugly stuff about them. Maybe one of them wronged her accidentally when saving the day?

Getting distracted. I'll assume for the moment that Gala_Gallery_Goo is telling the truth. Too bad, now that I think about it. Having a super-strong sheet to cover the monster would've been nice, but if the material isn't actually any stronger... and if Parian's power has some weird rule where it won't tolerate eyeholes... it really is too bad. Still, something to keep in mind for the future? Maybe we can hire a tinker to make something for me. Toybox is supposed to be pretty mercenary. I... suspect RobinHood can cover nearly anything they demand, too. No idea how you find them, though. They apparently move around a lot, for one. Not sure how easy it is to track them, either. The Protectorate has publicly stated they consider Toybox to be a low priority, compared to 'real villains', but now I'm wondering if the real reason they haven't busted the group is they haven't been able to find them.

I check, and Cherie's still loading other stuff. The other suit, right now. Ugh.

I poke around some more. Blah blah blah... the... oh yeah, the Undersiders, that's what they were called. They hit a casino. PRT investigation ended up discovering the part where the place was a casino, came down hard. Azn Bad Boys is the guess as to who was running it. This happened... last night. Huh. Hmm. There were a lot of fires... Miss Militia has gone on record to confirm that Lung was not on site at any point. The fires appear to have been... napalm? Yikes. Lots of speculation that the Undersiders have a new team member. I pop into their thread, and that speculation is basically the entire thread. Nobody has any ideas for who this new cape is, and some people are wondering if it's actually a never-before-seen power from an existing member. People seem to be in general agreement that if it's anybody already on the team, it's 'Tattletale', who... yeah, the wiki just has her name and a crappy night-time photo of her in costume. Thread OP lists her as... "Thinker or tinker, probably."

Huh.

Finally, twenty minutes or so in, Cherie gets around to-

She jerks me up by my armpits, which is... unpleasant, but I'll heal so whatever. Then she does a little twirl, still holding me, which annoys me a bit more. Once she sets me down, I turn around and say, "What."

She smiles, and flexes one arm, as if to show off her biceps. "Superstrength is so much fun. Also, I need to load the computer, and you were in the way."

I facepalm, and gesture at the computer. "Just... let me actually get it shut down and all first."

Cherie's expression turns a bit sheepish, she nods, and steps off to one side. I get the computer handled, and then step aside and wave at the computer. "All yours." I stand there and watch while she handles that.

Once she's done, locked the truck, and popped the keys into... somewhere in her suit... she turns to me and smiles. "We doin' this?"

I n- wait.

"We should have a way to keep in contact with each other. Do you have... walky-talkies?" She shakes her head. "Oh. Um, spare cell phones?"

She bounces once, holds up a pointer finger in a 'one moment' gesture, and then dashes off to go rummaging around in the truck. She comes back with a cell phone, makes a motion as if to toss it, very obviously reconsiders that course of action, and then steps just slightly into my personal space and hands it to me directly. Huh. "How many do you have?"

"Oh, I got three spares when I was lookin' for you. I mean, I dunno what you did with that first one..." She trails off leadingly, but I ignore it. "... but I've still got that burner phone, another burner phone, and a phone for me that might as well be a burner phone."

I start to nod again, frown. "Wait, what about you?"

She smiles and bounces in place a little, looking excited. "One sec'!" She runs off, grabs the helmet, puts it on (vacuum seal), and then turns to face me and jars to a halt. "Ooooh. Right. That thing. Hey, actually, how do you experience that anyway? 'cause it seems like it would be a big deal, but you don't react-" I gesture at my lack of a mouth. "-oh. Yeah, sorry." There's a hiss of escaping air, and it finally occurs to me that I haven't seen evidence of her poking at anything physical. So how does the suit work?... she pulls the helmet off, smiles. "Okay, you're gonna need to... set the phone down or, um, avoid making it vanish somehow. 'kay?"

I obligingly set it on the concrete, wondering where this is going. Cherie nods, presumably to herself, puts the helmet back on, and comments, "Hot." Makes me feel better about not being able to wear these suits. After a delay, the phone starts buzzing. It's not a smartphone, thankfully, so I'm able to very carefully poke the button that... is probably 'accept'. (I take a moment to be grateful my fluids don't drip off and fry the phone) Then I hear Cherie's voice from the phone and from the suit simultaneously. The echo is a little eerie, honestly. "Ta-da! The suit has built-in phone-calling ability! It's rad." I cock my head, wondering when she found this out. Then her voice is only coming from the phone. "Stealth-calling, too." A pause. "Though the suit doesn't seem to have a number to call? So I think you won't be able to call me, but I don't think that should be an issue."

Then there's a hiss of escaping air again, and she pulls the helmet off. Before she can say anything, I ask, "How do you even operate the suit, anyway? And when did you even find out the suit had this... functionality."

She smiles widely. She smiles a lot, I'm noticing. "I crank-called someone when I was having fun flying, back when we got it." I rub at my forehead, aggravated. "Oh, don't worry, it's not anyone you know, just a random Canadian citizen of no note. Honest!" I glare at her. She rolls her eyes. "Fiiine, I won't do it again. Anyway! Controls are actually really weird. I mean, moving around on the ground is actually painless, and in the air is surprisingly intuitive and mostly based on leaning and stuff, but like 90% of the rest of the controls are based on reading my eye movements. I look at a thing and it 'clicks' it. It's crazy!"

I stare in disbelief. "... how does it distinguish between deliberate 'I want to click here' eye motion and 'that grabbed my attention' eye motion and the just... constant motion of the eyeball to make you not blind?"

She blinks. "The what?"

I sigh. "Human eyes move constantly to... refresh the light coming in. You'd be blind if your eyes were actually completely still. You just don't notice the motion because... basically, your brain edits it out."

Cherie gives me a confused, vaguely disturbed look. "Oooookay. Whatever, it's tinkertech. It probably, like, scans my brain or something. I can't operate the controls without wearing the helmet anyway, so it'd be, like, efficient? Two birds, one stone. Or two dragons?" She's looking mischievous at the end there.

I rub at my forehead again. Then I lean down, grab the phone, cancel the call -Cherie pouts for some reason- and put it in a pants pocket. "Let's... just go find Kaiser and get this over with."

"Wait wait, gimme your phone for a second, I need to fiddle with some of the settings!"

I pause. "Sure, why not." I hand it over to her, watch while she pokes at it. Not like I want to get overly familiar with cell phones. Still feels like... betraying Mom or something. Bad.

Then she hands it over, smiling brightly.

Okay then. Good to go?


Cherie, it turns out, actually has a plan for how to handle this in a vaguely stealthy way. I'm vaguely affronted by that. Aren't I the stealthy one here?

"So my ranges are huge and you're pretty fearless as the beast of-" She stops, visibly thinks about what she's saying, I'm guessing changes her mind. "-too many legs. Sooo my guess from our experiences is that you'd be fine a mile or so into the sky, right?" I nod reluctantly. I'm still not fully comfortable at fall-to-your-death heights, but I'm... about as comfortable as I suspect I'll ever get, and I'm pretty sure I'm not in significant danger at dying from a fall, bar the possibility of landing in the middle of a crowd that then fixates on me. So even though I kind of want to say 'no', it's... essentially accurate.

"Okay right, so my thought is we get a little distance from the warehouse, and then I fly us up into a cloud or something, and then I go fly over the building Kaiser is in and drop you off and you arrange to let me call you and then I guide you via phone. Then... um. You kill him?"

She gives me a questioning look. I shake my head. "I need to be sure it's Kaiser. I want to provoke him into using his power. Threaten to kill him, maybe, I'm not entirely sure how I'll handle that piece of it. But I'm not killing a man -or a woman- purely on your say-so."

Cherie pouts. Visibly hesitates. "So I lead you to Kaiser and you... confront him, I guess? Then you kill him, once he's proven he's Kaiser?" I nod. "... you'd be fine with me shooting him, right?" I cock an eyebrow at her, puzzled. Nod slowly. She looks abashed for a second, then starts talking again, I think to cover for embarrassment. No idea what she feels embarrassed about. "Okay cool we've got a plan. So now are we ready to go, for realsy reals?"

I nod. "Yes."

On goes the helmet. Hiss of air. Still looks weird to see her hair sort of... slurp into the suit. I'm the monster now. Cherie takes a step toward me, hesitates, and then her distorted voice comes through. (Is that automatic, or is she actually taking this 'secret identities' thing seriously?) "This might be a little awkward."

She leans forward and pulls me into something approximating a bridal carry, much like she did when she rescued me from the Protectorate ambush. I'm not too worried about damaging the suit, but I still make an effort to keep the blades out of contact. I'm also a little worried that the fluid will corrode it or something, though it doesn't seem to have been a problem last time and I still haven't noticing it interacting in a chemical way with anything... but not much I can do about that other than veto this plan, and it's... better than anything I had in mind.

Then she flies up and out one of the window-y bits toward the ceiling -where the glass has clearly been shattered- and flies just over rooftop for... two blocks? Fairly quickly. She talks briefly, keeps me up to date, keeps it quiet.

"No Protectorate or PRT people in the area, I think. People are probably noticing us, but they're not concerned or anything. Surprised, startled, not scared. No wait there's someone scared. Okay, mostly not scared. Alright, here..." We stop over a roof. "... we..." Cherie adjusts her hold on me. "... go!" I hear the 'rocket' on her back flare up.

Up we go.

For a few terrifying moments I am myself, in a proper bridal carry. It scares me ("Eep!"), particularly when my weight jerks and takes a moment to settle. To my surprise, Cherie's flight doesn't seem affected at all. We hit a cloud, and suddenly we're just surrounded in white-grey. Mostly white. I'm the monster, and... yeah, no, it can't see through clouds. Hadn't really thought about it before. Useful to know. I'm probably vulnerable to being blinded by fog, then. Kind of weird that I saw fairly well in the ocean, though. Is it about 'liquid vs gas', or is it about salt content? Maybe something more esoteric.

"Okay, I think nobody's going to come after us. What I'm getting suggests that, aside from a handful of people who saw us and then basically lost interest, we're good. No phone calls to the PRT, no being spotted by the Protectorate... actually, one sec'-" There's a pause, and then lights on the suit dim. Oh, right, the stealth mode. Okay? "-just crossed my mind that if it is radar protection or something I really ought to be running it. Wouldn't want them to see us inside the cloud, right? Right. Okay, now we're drifting. Trying to not leave this little patch of cloud, it's not that big, but it's going the way we want and it shouldn't take lon-" She cuts off for no clear reason.

I get a sinking feeling.

"No no, this is a good thing. I just noticed something, you'll love it."

The sinking feeling gets worse.

"Awwww come on, don't you tru- oh okay you don't. Damn. But that's okay! I assure you this is a good thing you will be happy to have had happen!"

The fact that she's not telling me what it is doesn't help.

"Okayherewego!"

Cherie sort of... tosses me at an angle downward. I have more than enough time to react and grab onto a leg, but I can't actually talk to her like this and she's being so vague I'm not quite willing to just refuse to go along by default. Maybe she's indicating Kaiser got into a fight, making this whole thing easier.

The fall itself is... there's no fear initially. It's weird. I've gone vaguely torpedo-y in shape, limbs all angled downward to a point, and I didn't even notice that I was doing it. Feels... natural, actually. Like I was born to do this.

Because that's not creepy at all.

Then I get far enough down that apparently people looking up can see me clearly enough to trigger the transformation, and I'm myself, falling feet-first. The detachable skirt shoots right up, blinding me, and the cape catches too, and I end up spinning, fucking terrified, and suddenly this seems like a really stupid goddamn plan

and then I'm the monster and somehow I'm still in this torpedo shape and I'm only like ten feet from hitting a roof and I hit.

My limbs take the impact shockingly well, bending smoothly and coming to a stop when my main body is maybe half a foot from touching the roof. The fluid covering me ripples, and a good chunk sprays from the impact points of my limbs, staining the rooftop. The heart-pounding panic/anger is muted, but I'm still disoriented. It takes me a second to really grasp that, yes, I'm okay.

Then I'm myself again, abruptly.

"Cape!" It's a girl's voice. Startled... angry? "No sudden moves, mister."

I turn to face the voice. It's... I know her, hell, there's only two Wards that are girls in Brockton Bay, and she's certainly not Vista, what was her name?... Ah, right! Shadow Stalker. She's pointing a crossbow at my head, which seems a bit dumb to me given I'm wearing a helmet. A frown crosses my countenance. Wait, why is she targeting my head? I'm distracted by Kid Win coming around some rooftop whatsit, riding his signature hoverboard. I still wonder how that stays stable at all.

"Whoa there, Stalker, what's going on?" Kid Win sounds wary, but I notice he's giving Shadow Stalker suspicious glances. Huh. Would've expected him to be giving me the evil eye. Odd.

"It's a fu- freakin' villain, that's what." There's a sneer in there.

Then there's a ringtone. It's... the Imperial March? I glance back and forth between Shadow Stalker and Kid Win. They stare at me-

Oh, right.

I hold up a finger in a 'please wait' motion, and retrieve the phone from my pocket... try not to think too hard about how lucky I am that it didn't simply go flying out of the pocket and smash into the ground somewhere... or smash into someone's skull... yeah, let's just not think about that. Yep, it's my phone. Darth Vader's theme music. Goddammit Ch- Pride. We're in costume.

Flip it open.

"Yes! You met the jerk!" Pride sounds pleased with herself. Kid Win and Shadow Stalker are exchanging glances. I think I've broken their script or something. I don't think they can hear Pride's voice, though. Not in detail.

"Pride. Clarify." Shadow Stalker's attention snaps to me, while Kid Win winces. Odd.

"One of the jerks who's bullying you! They're a Ward, they're right in front of you, we're leaving town after this. Vengeance!" Cherie sounds... excited. Thrilled to help. Little bit creepy. Then the words really register. What, Emma a Ward? I... hmm. Well, now that I think about it, having had trigger events explained to me... it would make sense if Emma is being heinously evil because she triggered. It would mean she- no, wait. Unless Emma's pretending to be male -and there's no way she's doing that- that doesn't make any sense. Vista is too young, too small for it to be Emma pretending to be younger than she is, and the timing doesn't line up at all anyway. Shadow Stalker is...

... black.

Like Sophia.

The phone drops from my nerveless fingers. I can just barely hear Pride's tinny voice. "Ah- no no no come on it's time for righteous vengeance!"

Shadow Stalker and Kid Win stare at the phone. "Aaah, is something... wrong?" Kid Win's concern for an anonymous stranger is mildly touching, except I think he's on automatic right now.

"It's fine." My tone is... wooden. Dammit. I lean down, pick up the phone, and cradle it up against my helmet again. "Pride, I went over this. This is not how we do things."

Pride makes a strangled noise of frustration. "You're trying to kill Kaiser like this! And they broke those rules first!"

I slump a little, realizing she has a point about Kaiser. Still. "The Wards are not the Protectorate or PRT."

Shadow Stalker sneers. "Ya got that right." Kid Win facepalms, sighs. Not sure why.

"Whu." I find it a little too easy to imagine Pride's gob smacked expression. "Whaddya mean the Protectorate's child soldiers aren't a part of the Protectorate?"

I sigh. I almost try to commiserate with Shadow Stalker and Kid Win, then sense kicks in. "Pride, they probably don't even know. They certainly didn't make the decision."

Kid Win interjects. "Know what?"

I look at him, and blandly say, "I'm Monster." No immediate response. No indication they think I'm an enemy of mankind or anything of the sort. Must not have been told yet, I guess.

After a delay, Kid Win blinks behind his goggles. Then Shadow Stalker cocks her head... then she lowers her crossbow? Odd. "You killed Leet." Can't read her tone. "Good. Little shit deserved it."

I blink owlishly at her. Kid Win winces, opens his mouth to say something, and then clearly decides not to. Oh, Shadow Stalker was relaxing, not just aiming her weapon away fro- wait, what? Why? It feels like a bad idea to say it, but... "That was an accident."

Shadow Stalker nods sagely. "Yes. An accident. A very fortunate accident." I think she winks at me. Then she looks around, clearly curious. "So where's, uh, Prejudice?"

"Pride." "PRIDE!"

We all glance at the phone. Pride heard that? Then I move to turn off the phone -

"Hey!"

-and then put it away. Then the Imperial March starts. I bring out the phone, open it up-

"Rude!"

-and turn it off. Actually off, not just ending the call.

Then it goes back into the pocket again.

There's some awkward silence before Kid Win apparently screws up his courage. "So you're a hero, then?"

"Rogue, actually. I think. Probably? It's what I picked in the form, anyway." I keep my voice level, calm.

More awkward silence.

"We... need to get back to our patrol." Shadow Stalker gives a big sigh in response to this pronouncement, but nods, claps Kid Win on the shoulder (His entire hoverboard drops half a foot and angles badly and it almost looks like he's going to crack his skull on the concrete, but then he regains his balance and it's all good) and then runs to a roof edge, jumps, and just after she's pushed off turns ghostly. She gets a surprising amount of airtime. Huh. I'd always wondered how she managed the roof thing. Kid Win winces. "I'm sorry, she's a bit..."

I cut him off. "No, it's fine. I'm... not the most... socially savvy person myself. It's fine. You should catch up with her, make sure she doesn't... get into trouble or anything." I frown. "Actually, isn't this Empire territory?"

He goes pale, and zips away. I can just barely hear him calling after Shadow Stalker. "Wait don't be picking fi..."

So now I'm the monster again.

I shuffle around on the rooftop, looking for a reflective surface. I finally find a piece of (aluminum?) that's clear enough I revert when looking into it, and I very carefully pull the phone out, turn it back on...

Imperial March

... there we go.

Flip phone open. "Ruuuude." Honestly, she sounds more... disappointed than anything else.

"What. Was. That. About." I'm... not actually gritting my teeth, but I'm grinding the words out regardless. Irritated.

There's a long pause. I get to the point of wondering if I need to say anything, but-

"It was supposed to be a present. A surprise gift! You get to kill one of the people who's made your life hell for, um, a long time, you feel better-"

I frown and cut her off. "I'm not going to school ever again anyway."

A pause. "... so?"

"So the bullying is done."

Another, somewhat longer pause. "But they've hurt you so much! A-and you're fine with killing terrib-"

"No." She's clearly misunderstood me. Badly. "My goal is not punishment." Pride makes an inarticulate, deathly confused noise. "I don't kill people because they are bad. I kill people to prevent badness." Silence. In fact, I can't even hear her breathing. That's... weird. The suit filters it out, I guess? "Nilbog was an apocalypse waiting to happen, though I... overestimated myself there. Heartbreaker was a serial mind controlling rapist showing no sign of stopping or returning these women to their own lives or anything. The Dragonslayers cle-... I thought the Dragonslayers were simple blood money monsters who would never give a damn about the consequences of their actions. If So- if my tormentor is Shadow Stalker? She's done. The bullying was personal. They won't take it out on someone else, and even if they were the bullying doesn't justify fucking murder."

I realize I'm breathing heavily. Angry. More angry than I'd realized. Just... so hard to remember Ch-Pride's not being intentionally an asshole. I've... thinking on it, I've become so used to the bullies' snide, false-polite ugly remarks... I might be reacting based on that. That... sucks, if so. Need to work on that. I deliberately slow my breathing, take deeper breathes. Calm. It's... nice that Pride can't effect me at this distance. No second-guessing myself.

More calmly, I continue, "I actually used to keep a journal of every incident of bullying." Pride makes a vague sound of confusion, but I ignore her. "I thought I'd be able to use it as evidence so the teachers would believe me, catch out the bullies, and make them stop." Fuck, too angry, I'm still trying for calm, this is hard. Another deep breath. Okay. "They didn't take the journal seriously. They were 'impressed with my dedication', but 'wished I had put so much effort into my schoolwork instead of fantasy'." Fuck, breathing hard again, deep breath, calm, continue. "And, you know, a lot of the teachers ignored it happening even when it was right in front of them, so eventually I concluded there was no fucking point, the journal served no fucking purpose except to fuel a vague hope that one day the bullies would be punished for what they'd done to me. You know what I did?"

Pride is quiet just long enough I almost continue without letting her speak. "... you stopped with the journal?"

I nod viciously, if a nod can be vicious. "And I threw all the notes I'd already made into the furnace." I deliberately pause. "So like I said; I'm not about fucking punishment."

Fuck, I'm really struggling to stay calm. Quiet. Calm. It's no big deal, Taylor. Just... calm. Move on.

Finally, Pride responds, her voice small, sounding... hurt? No, not hurt. I can't place it. "I thought it would make you feel better."

I pause at that. It's... completely the wrong way of going about it, but she is trying. "I like that you want to help, I really do. But you really should... talk with me. It's better to talk with me and find out what I want than to try to... surprise me with it."

There's a long silence. "Boss, you tried to spring a pleasant surprise on me."

My brow furrows. Huh? Then I realize she's alluding to the failed 'afternoon on the town.' Right. That. "That... was a mistake, and it's a... little different anyway. If you'd objected when I suggested it, we would've talked, tried to figure out what to do instead. Here? You didn't explain to me what you were trying to do, and threw me into a situation that... could've ended quite badly."

"Oh." A pause. "Um. Sorry?"

I wince. She clearly isn't sure whether an apology is appropriate. "Yes, an apology is appropriate. And thanks."

Another pause. "Soooo... um, you're two rooftops away from Kaiser. Oh. Wait. Shit. Okay, um, did you see the direction the two, uh, Wards came from?"

"Yes."

"Okay, you'll need to hop a roof, and then hop another roof, and you'll be on top of the building Kaiser is in."

"Got it."

I close up the phone, put it away, and go.

Surprisingly, the two jumps I have to make don't bother me particularly. I was expecting a... relapse? Point is, I was expecting to have a hard time dealing with dangerous heights again. It helps that with the second jump I remain the monster for the whole of it, but still. No panic on that first jump.

Anyway. Here I am-

Wait a second.

I go to the roof's edge. Pretty sure it's the front. I'm seeing the back of some letters, the upper third or so sticking up over the roof, and I try to angle to get a better look from in front, realize that's stupid, and focus on the parking lot. Yeah, those are shopping cart... places. There's got to be an actual word for that. Oh, whatever. Point is: this is a grocery store. I know this grocery store. It's a local place, name of 'Terrence's'.

I know it because it's our main grocery store.

Kaiser works at our fucking grocery store?

That can't be right.

I move to find a reflective surface, open up the phone, wait. There we go, goddamn Imperial March -I need to have a word with Pride about that- and answer.

"Why so serious, Boss?" She sounds joking? I don't get it.

"I'm on top of the right building, yes?" I keep my tone controlled.

"... yyyeeess? Actually, right now you should be... almost directly above him. He's alone, too. Pretty sure he's on a phone."

"This is a grocery store."

"Oh, that's kind of funny." She puts on a vaguely male-sounding voice. "'Look at me, I'm king of the grocery store!' I mean, I'm pretty sure he's, like, the manager, but that's still great."

I pause. No, she's not putting me on. Ugh. "So manager's office, probably."

"Yep."

"Great. Give me a minute."

I peek over the side. No, there's not a convenient window. Not that I want to break in anyway... ugh. This is going to be awful.

I back up, get to the reflective surface.

"Oh hey the connection came back on its own!"

What? How- no, ignore it. Powers are dumb. "I can't see an easy way to reach him. Trying to decide whether we should do a stakeout, wait for the store to close and him to leave, or if I should just... brazenly walk in."

"Brazenly walk in sounds awesome."

I pause. Right. I'm talking to Cherie. Of course she's going to support a plan based on how 'awesome' it is, rather than whether it's a good idea. New angle. "Let me put that another way. Do you think you can pull off waiting for that long."

She responds instantly, cheerfully. "Nope!" I sigh. "I'm already at, like, 80% power-"

I blink. "Wait, how does the suit's power work?"

"Hell if I know, but it charges when I'm not in it, anyway. Somehow. Anyway, power isn't the main concern, but it is a concern. But even if power isn't an issue, the cloud's, ya know, moving. I'm already a biiiit further away from you. Take too long and I'll either have to break cover or leave entirely. Like, ten minute wait? Probably too long at this point."

Damn. Ugh. Wait, there's an idea. "Pride, you said before your... power... isn't actually line of sight based? It can go through walls or, say, ceilings?"

"Oh, absolutely, though it does reduce my range to have stuff in the way." Pride sounds... hm. Cheery? Optimistic? Can't quite place it.

Okay good- wait. "Actually, now that I think about it, is the suit included in that?"

"... nnnooo? I mean, I haven't noticed any range loss. So probably not?" Less confident now. Little nervous. Hm.

"Okay good this should work. New plan: you land on the roof, panic the shit out of Kaiser, and then fly away when he comes out, probably using his power. And if he's not Kaiser, well, we've just scared a civilian. Not... ideal, but no permanent harm done."

"Awesome. I'll be right there!"

The phone clicks offs. I put it away, and then turn to watch the sky. Is that?... no, it's not her. Oh, no, it's that other cloud, she just came out of it I'm pretty sure. I suppose it could be Glory Girl or something, but I doubt it. Huh. Somehow I was expecting her to arrive, like, instan- wait, she's angling weirdly. Oh! She's coming in with the sun behind her! I... just realized that staring directly at the sun as the monster isn't blinding. Huh. Anyway, that's clever. Nicely done! Not sure why she didn't throw me down with the sun behind me. Or maybe she did, and I just didn't realize it? Hmm. Might want to ask her.

She arrives at speed, swoops past, flares the jet -it's surprisingly quiet- and hangs just above the rooftop for a second before reaching her feet out, making contact, getting her feet flat against the ground... and then the jet cuts out. Then she turns to face me, jogs over, gives me a thumbs up, aaand... sort of stands there. Then I guess she notices my consternation? "Yeah, this works, hitting him right now. He's... one second, this is tricky, his first impulse was to go to a corner. It's tricky getting a precise response. What I'd love to do would be just giving him a fear that something is after him and he needs to be out in the open, but I'm not that precise. Okay, let's mix in some anger with that fear -hm. I think he just hurt himself hitting something. Still not leaving. Fine! Anxiety out the wazoo! Yeah, there we go, he's stopped holding still. Okay, this part is going to be tricky, so don't distract me."

I hold completely still.

After a minute or so I hear a screaming voice 'approaching'. The volume jumps up -"Okay he's outside!"- and I jump over the roof's edge.

Fuck!

My leg! My fucking le-

oh there we go it's better

...

Think before you jump, Taylor. Ugh.

I turn to face the screaming lunatic, though he's more of a wheezing lunatic at this point, eyes darting every which way before they lock onto me. "You." I blink. Open my mou-

No wait he's running at me whoa that's fast it's not Velocity-fast but it's pretty damn fast, I try to dodge and he lands a punch and jesus christ my shoulder what the hell man.

And then with a flash of green his head explodes into gore.

Followed immediately by Pride grabbing onto me and jerking into the air and my shoulder is killing me right up until it isn't and what the hell is going on?

Then I see behind us New Wave's fliers following us. Glory Girl in particular looks pissed.

Shit.

5.c

Cherie

Dammit, I knew knew knew this was a bad idea. Boss can't just let me handle it, nooooo, too important to her to do it herself even if it's a terrible idea. Ugh. Need to figure that out, root it out before it gets her/us in real trouble.

Goddamn... whatever they're called again. Shoulda noticed them, fliers are obvious capes, but they fell into the background 'cause people weren't reacting to them like they're in costume. They're not in costume, so fair enough, but I'm used to capes out of costume being unwilling to act without getting into costume first. Figured, in the back of my head, that we had time. Nope, wrong.

So I reduced Fog's boss' head to a bloody smear and caught the Boss in a bridal carry. Need to go, now, stop babying her emotional whatsit.

She's mad at me, but whatevs. It's indignant anger, not you-die-now anger, and she is not winning a fight with -emotioncount- four capes in public. Seven if I count the three non-fliers that have been left behind.

... oh, and she probably wouldn't want to fight them anyway. Heroes, and she got mad at me when I dangled Shadow Stalker in front of her, so even if I dug out some skeletons from their closets I kinda doubt she'd change her mind. Lame.

Oh well!

Evade, evade. I fly low and fast, using my emotion sense to plot probable courses through areas I can't even see, flying just over rooftop where I can. Initially the fliers are lobbing projectiles at us, but once one shot clips a building there's a surge of chagrin from the woman in charge and they focus on just following. I'm making space though, and eventually the one being dragged gets passed off and his ex-dragger shoots ahead in pursuit.

In one of the brief moments Boss is a damsel rather than a razorsquid, she shouts. "Glory Girl." Which is even kind of useful! I've heard of her up in Canada, she's weirdly high profile. Flight -duh- toughness, strength, and... what was th-

I panic, and the Boss hunches in on herself. I don't consciously connect the dots, I just react, slapping Glory Girl with as much negative feelings as I can thread at once. My panic surges and the Boss wriggles in my grasp and I push -comeonangerfearsadnessguiltshame THERE!

Glory Girl falls behind, and the Boss seems to hug herself. I think. Not convinced her body language is the same as the squid, but it sure looks like she's hugging herself with her prehensile razors. My own thinking calms, though not completely. Emotional momentum and all. Then I go right, some kind of 'aura of respect'. Doesn't feel like respect to me, you lying liars who lie.

Haaaate when people mess with my head. Can't see into my skull, only caught it this time because she was hitting the Boss, too.

Note to self: fuck Glory Girl. (Addendum: not that way)

Oh hey, I forgot the suit has a notepad program! Neat. Creepy that I wrote into it without noticing, but neat.

Aggravatingly, I can feel her renewing her resolve, working up a fine lather of anger. Ugh, do I have to shoot her to get her to back off? 'cause I totally will if she keeps this up. Shouldn't need to, really. I'm still flying away, working on breaking line of sight. Can't chase what you can't find!

Taylor jerks, I lose my grip on her, and she goes tumbling down to a rooftop, rolling like a ball. I slow down and loop around, baffled. I got no warning from her, no warning from anybody in the area. What the hell? There's a moment of primeval fear where I'm certain it's Pauline, and then I'm far enough into looping around to see that squid-Taylor is dancing away from and stabbing at some see-through thing poking out of the rooftop.

Uuuuh. What? No, seriously, what?...

Regardless, I fly down, intending to retrieve the Boss and continue our escape. Glory Hog -no wait, Glory Swine? No, Sow, I like that- Glory Sow catches up, good and angry, but pauses, startled and uncertain when she sees Boss' foe. For a moment I think she's as confused as me, but then she calls out.

"Truce?"

I blink inside my rad helmet. Then the spear-thing rises and oh hey it's a see-through man. And there's more of him coming up through the roof. And they're... giving Glory Sow nods? Whatever, I snap a shot off at one of the ghosty guys aaaand it just went right through him and punched a hole into the rooftop. With Glory Sow in the area, Taylor is a regular ol' costumed person again, and she's shaking her head furiously at me and gesturing away. Um. No, Boss, not abandoning you. Cherie to the rescu-

OH JESUS FUCK WHY MY ARM WHAT

Back higher up in the sky, away from the ghost assholes, I take stock. Somehow I've gotten a pretty vicious gash in my arm where a ghost poked at me -oh fuck me it was phasing right through the roof. Fucking duh.

Taylor, meanwhile, has been cornered by Glory Sow and the ghostkateers, and the girl has grabbed her and is slowly flying away, one arm held to Taylor's neck while the other gestures angrily at the ghosts. I think she's yelling something. Taylor is frustrated, but not scared.

Okay, this is hard. Can't just shoot Glory Sow because then Taylor falls in amid the ghosts, who are apparently going straight for the kill. Can't hurt the ghosts, and they don't register as having feelings so I can't shut them down that way. Already tried a swooping rescue, got cut for it.

...

Fuck.

A couple ghosts are eying me speculatively, but for the moment the mob is focused on Glory Sow, making demanding gestures. Glory is shaking her head, aaah shit her friends have caught up. That's going to be a prob-

FUCK

FUCK

WHAT

I

WILL

END

YOU

You! I sense your smug satisfaction three blocks away!

I swoop over to run down the pissant that just shot Boss in the head ohmygod how did this happen she's dying I can feel her dying this is bullshit we're just fighting losers

Boom! Goes the sniper's head. There's a woman who's looking at me in horror and she's breaking inside. Loved the guy apparently. A lot.

Boom! Goes her head.

Nazis, the both of them, swastikas on display because fuck Brockton Bay why should Nazis pretend to hide nobody cares right? Right. The ghosts. They were a distraction, to tie us up while the sniper lined up his shot. This is retaliation, planned. For killing Fog and Locust? They shouldn't already know about the other guy, but this is fast regardless.

I glance back at the ghosts, where Glory Swine and her colorful comrades are staring right at her corpse. Her body.

She's dead. Taylor has a hole in her head, she's dead.

Fuck.

This bothers me a lot more than it should. We haven't even been hanging out all that long, and if I'm entirely honest she's not exactly an ideal friend.

But she was mine.

... l-like Jean-Paul. Fuck. Fuck. N-no, not that again.

I feel adrift for a moment, and then I remember the fucking ghosts. Whoever is making them needs to die too. Now. Still haven't pinned them down. They've got to be in the city, don't they?

Fuck it. I fly over to the ghosts, doing my best to blot out Taylor's corpse twitching in a parody of life, and crank up the volume on the suit's speakers.

"Hey, you! Fuckface! Your buddies are dead-" The 'heroes' recoil and focus on me and

and

nowhat stop lying power stop lying

my helmet snaps to Taylor's last position, and the murdersquid is already darting away to behind some piece of rooftop whatever, the ghost's heads all tracking her and yes my power is still telling me that she's got tightly controlled fear/anger even through the flatness of the squid and she's still alive what the fuck

I hang in the air, frozen. I had a plan, kind of, a direction anyway, b-but it was vengeance for the Boss she was dead I felt her die and now she's not? So? I?

What?

Then the ghosts move to chase her and the other jerks start moving toward me -cautiously, one of them is saying something but I don't care because I just connected the ghosts to someone, probably the spawner (Controller?) who is reacting in sync with the ghost feedback and they're not even that far they're literally just in the top floor of the building I can fly right over and kill the bastard.

So that's what I do, shooting him right through the window even as the other fliers catch up to me and Glory Swine has grabbed at me from behind and I elbow her and she yelps and pulls away and the others are alarmed and I turn and there's a hideous burn across her stomach, costume intertwined with the twisted flesh and I am so glad I can't smell this through the suit. She's staring at the injury, they're all shocked and horrified, and they're not really paying attention to me. Good.

I back away, angling toward Taylor. We need to get out of here. Not just this fight, which is drawing a lot of attention, we need to get out of the city, go do whatever it was Boss had planned next. I also, while I'm at it, try to micromanipulate their feelings so that every time their attention strays to me I'm hitting them with a little bit of apathy and revulsion and fear and every time their focus shifts to Glory Bacon I'm hitting them with nerve-wracking worry, a sense of urgency, and that blobby mix of feeling people have for family. The idea, obviously, is to get them feeling like I'm not important enough to chase and/or too scary to chase and also le gasp! Our daughter/sister/cousin/whateverthefuck needs medical attention right away! Let us go right now and abandon the fight!

I'm sort of surprised when it's the oldest of them who spikes anger and fires some purple glowy thing at me. On impulse, I try batting it away when it gets close. I blink, startled, when it works.

I stare at the hand for a second.

Coooool.

As a bonus, that's taken a good chunk of the wind out of her sails. The two kids have grabbed onto the bacon and are supporting her and wait is she crying huh I made a girl cry without using my power. That's a first.

No, stop. Taylor. Boss. Taylorboss. She's being cautious, there's less fear or horror or whatever than I'd expect given she fucking died what the fuck but I need to get there before she... I dunno. Goes manually searching for Kaiser 'cause that wasn't Kaiser oh boy I can just imagine her going Cherie, we didn't actually kill the evil bastard I want dead, so we're not leaving, the leave-by-day's-end thing was just a guideline anyway come ooonnn help me go kill myself on a supervillain again like the fucking crazy bitch I am it'll be fun!

...

Okay, not exactly like that, but eh, close enough. You get the idea. I get the idea.

I'm talking to myself why am I talking to myself this has to stop, me, stop doing that.

Fuck.

Not grounded, not grounded at all.

Fuck.

I thought I was more independent than this. Was the fam really so important to keeping me from going loo-loo? That's depressing. That's really, really depressing.

Fuck. If this is what I'm like when she only kind of died, what will I be like if she really dies?

No, focus.

I back away some more, and finally Mommy Dearest flies back and helps the kids drag the baconator off to be processed see it's like I'm making a cannibalism joke laugh damn you laugh

fuck


"You were dead!" I blurt out.

Murdersquid-Taylor doesn't move an inch. Her emotional whatsit twitches a tiny bit in the general direction of, "Huh."

Then abruptly a nearby door slams open and I sense someone come through it and wait that's Aunt Cordelia's signature, Taylor is herself in costume and I turn to face whatever fucker is here to take my anchor away and.

Um.

Huh?

I turn back to Taylor, she's still Taylor.

?

Wait, she's staring at something, looking and feeling upset?...

There's someone panting, exhausted. "Hello, Monster. I'm-" pause, I think while they swallow "-your biggest fan."

Yes, that is Aunt Cordelia's voice. Aaaand Taylor is freaking out in utter terror, I rush forward and grab her in a hug because she is not getting away and getting herself killed and her fear SPIKES holy shit what the fuck I start murmuring into her ear, um, stuff, whatever, I focus on soothing tone and trying to fight her emotional state directly but there's resistance and

"Hey! Let go of her you... you tin can!"

I look where the voice is coming from and where Aunt Cordelia's signature is and there's nothing there.

I cock my head to one side, holding the struggling Taylor as best I can. There's split-seconds where scratches appear on the suit in bursts. Um. Is she transforming when Aunt Cordelia blinks? Wait never mind, Cordelia. She's here. I can't see her. Taylor... can see her? Okay whatever fuck this I say, "I am not up for your shit today Aunt Cordelia," and whammo there's the hammer of... er.

... that's not fear.

Then Taylor's right arm breaks holy shit what and I let her go and she goes screaming straight toward the roof's edge goddamnit no we are not doing this again so I fly toward her and thankfully she's staying herself though her arm just is suddenly straight and whole somewhere in here and I catch her by the back of her shirt and lift her and say, "You are not dying again."

She gets some kind of hold on herself, surprising me again. She's still terrified for... whatever reason... what the fuck is up with Aunt Cordelia, seriously? But she's got enough control to talk to me. "Not dead."

Oh. Oh wow. I rotate her so I can see her face and she's glaring at me with this mulish look on her face and it's adorable and she... doesn't remember dying? That must be it.

...

Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that.

Then she shrieks and it cuts off and holy fuck what is wrong with her throat and I swing my other arm through the empty space in front of me where I can sense Cordelia but can't see her and it stops with an oomph but Taylor is still choking and my head jerks back while Cordelia is feeling annoyed and right, right,

hit her with apathy

harder

MORE

and then Taylor is sputtering and then she's the squid while Cordelia's signature is on the ground in front of me.

What.

The.

Fuck.

Then Cordelia's signature just... goes away, blood suddenly soaking Taylor's limbs and there's a corpse with its head missing, neck obviously sawed in half. Oh, there's Aunt Cordelia's head going flipping over the roof's edge ha ha listen to the people down below freak out I'd forgotten how great it is to mess with crowds and here's Taylor doing it by accident. Ha.

...

"Taylor. Please don't tell me you just killed one of my less unpleasant aunts."

Ha ha Cherie made a lighthearted... a... it's not a joke?...

Taylor's a little sullen, a little... angry?... Oh dammit she thinks I'm actually upset and is trying to do some kind of self-blame thing even though she's literally incapable of feeling guilt.

...

I mean, I am upset, but that... wasn't what I was trying to do. Actually trying to downplay things, do a funny so she can relax after having died, nearly died again, and been scared shitless ever since Aunt Cordelia showed up. But noooo she can't read the moo- okay that's a little unfair I actually have a big advantage there and she's literally had emotions surgically removed by her power or something.

So I hug her and make shushing noises and say, "Shhh it's fine we're all fine everything's fine let's get out of here right now," I say while abruptly flying away, in the general direction of the truck because ohmygod I am not waiting for Armsmaster's signature to get here and make things more stupid.


Free! Freeee!

Freee!

We are currently out past the edge of town in the truck. My suit is stashed under some of the crap in the back of the pickup. Taylor's costume is shoved down in the passenger seat's foot-space thingy. I am driving, because yeah, having her drive went sooo well last time we tried it. Do not give a fuck about how we had to bandage my arm with a strip from Taylor's shirt and I shouldn't be putting pressure on it or whatever she's still not driving dammit.

I'm humming contentedly to myself because we are finally done with Brockton Fucking Bay and that's glorious!

Taylor is brooding, because she's Taylor. She hasn't even asked me what I meant by the whole yo boss you died and it really upset me thing that happened. Or asked about Aunt Cordelia though I guess maybe that's a bit obvious so yeah fair enough. Which, to be fair, she's been the murdersquid a lot of the time. And she had a squirmy upset moment when she realized the alley the truck was stashed in had no convenient reflective surfaces (I guess the truck's windows aren't good enough? Ugh, I dunno) and so I'd need to stare riiiight at her to let her change out of her costume which, you know, was too important for her to try to avoid it happening.

... I actually didn't think to leer at her and make a remark until we'd already been driving three blocks and my stress levels had dropped to something vaguely reasonable (Because Armsmaster's stupid-looking motorcycle went right on past us a block away without paying us any mind) so that's a glorious opportunity missed. I mean, I had other things on my mind like the bullet hole through her bicycle helmet which had no blood or brain matter or anything... I felt her stop, though! Doesn't make any sense, creeps the hell out of me.

Maybe I should plan out snappy one-liners. Practice them? I really need to be ready the next ti-

"We're hunting the Slaughterhouse Nine next."

-!

...

"Sounds fun, Boss." I say this with a laugh and a smile.

And then start furiously plotting how to prevent her from getting herself killed again.


I actually wasn't, like, joking or whatever. Frankly, after how she got herself shot in the head by, I'm pretty sure, killing people attached to a big and powerful organization of capes and the heroes were getting on our case and so on... I think running down the Nine is one of the safer things we could be doing. I mean, okay, yeah, they're all terrifyingly dangerous psychos, but they don't exactly have a lot of friends, ya know? Kill Orders signed and everything, nobody's gonna get on our case for killing them. Probably. God, I hope.

Point is: Boss' track record so far is she's fine at the whole 'running them down and killing them' thing -aside from the grocery store dude, whoever he was- but she's got something of a thing of provoking retaliation down the line. Heck, even Aunt Cordelia falls under that umbrella!

(Should it bother me that her death is way less upsetting than when I thought Taylor had died? It says something, but there's so many things it could be...)

And really, wouldn't it be grand to be known as the Slaughterers of the Nine? Has a nice ring to it, I think.


Let's skip ahead.

I mean, you'd think Important Stuff would've happened, but Taylor didn't acknowledge having died and I honestly couldn't figure out whether she was deliberately avoiding talking about it or if she was just getting confused and deciding to ignore it. Her emotional reaction wasn't very informative: she didn't experience, say, a jab of fear that she suppressed, which would've suggested she remembered dying but didn't want to talk about it with me. But neither was she obviously confused and curious when I brought it up. She just... stared at me, brow furrowed, feeling disinterested.

So basically either she died and doesn't care or she just finds me mentioning it confusing but doesn't care enough to ask for clarity.

She's incurious enough I'm actually not able to rule out the latter... and she's reckless enough the former would make perfect sense.

Arrrrgh.

So anyway: my suit, though more dinged up than I'd have preferred, didn't have a horrible breakdown, well, not any catastrophic breakdowns. The magical tinkerlaptop saw a fair amount of use (Most of it being the Boss brooding in front of it), and we did our best to head in what Taylor hoped would be an interception sort of direction. Texas, specifically, because the Nine'd apparently headed east from California, turned sharply north in Arizona, and Taylor was of the conviction that it was a feint and they were actually going to a big city in Texas. Houston or something. I tried talking with Taylor intermittently, but she tended to ignore me or keep to 'relevant' conversation. She was willing to inform me of how New Wave had denounced our cape identities and one of them ("Carol") had made some subtle-but-ugly remark about our names suiting us all too well or whatever, and how 'word on the street' was that the Empire had bounties on our heads. The Protectorate had apparently declared that we had 'tricked' them and, according to Taylor, implied that I'd possibly Mastered some of their personnel, as the Brockton Bay Protectorate was talking about producing more stringent Master/Stranger protocols. They didn't say it was about us, but they brought it up in some news press thingy where they talked about us 'tricking' them, so Taylor insisted the implication was obvious. I can kind of see her point.

They apparently also announced a new Hero in Boston by the name of Major Zeppelins and Taylor was delighted by that and I have no idea why 'cause okay yeah the lady looks nice but I thought Taylor didn't believe she went for girls?... I tried asking but she clammed up and I threw my hands up in the air because whatever.

The weirdest moment in all this is when I feel Taylor being amused, one night in the woods while I'm trying to bed down.

I turn slightly, head on her back, but nothing on the computer's screen seems to justify being amused. "What's so funny?"

She tenses, and then very deliberately relaxes. After a moment, she gives an actual answer. "I just found out everyone thinks we're laying low in Brockton Bay. People are trying to figure out how to avoid being killed by me in their sleep, that kind of thing, and we're in Kansas. It's... funny."

I don't see the humor in it, but whatevs. I smirk, a thought coming to mind. "I wonder if anyone in Winslow has noticed Taylor disappearing the same day Monster goes off the radar?"

fuckfuck she's getting depressed misstep misstep!

Then it falters without my interference, and amusement rises to the surface. She grins a little. "Sophia sweating bullets. Yeah, I like that."

Okaaaaay. Doesn't want to kill the girl, but is willing to delight in her hypothetical suffering? Whatever, this is working, I got Taylor to smile after like three fucking weeks of nothing. So instead I grin, try to come up with something to add to that, and then just... stop.

Partly because I can't think of anything, and partly because Taylor apparently saw the grin reflected on the screen and liked it.

I say good night and snuggle back up against her, instead, smiling.


Naturally, the next time we hear of the Nine is when we're halfway down New Mexico, and of course they hit Topeka, Kansas. We turn around, and off we go.


This kind of thing goes on and on. We adjust and narrow and just keep not finding the Nine, and they vanish off the radar for a minimum of a week after each (relatively major) attack making things harder. One time we travel for a week in the exact opposite direction they apparently went, having to turn around the instant Taylor reports 'Slaughterhouse Stalkers' reporting them nowhere near us. I'm 'listening in' for emotions, but 'murderous psychopaths operating in a group' is both not an actual emotional pattern and isn't actually that distinctive. We take apart two villain groups -by which I mean Taylor murders the fuck out of them while I provide support and help with interrogating whoever proves safest to ignore the combat threat of- that we found entirely because I thought they might be the Nine, and they weren't, one skulking in a podunk town I don't bother to remember the name of and another skulking in, I kid not, a cave that they'd been dressing up like some old-timey cape cartoon's villain lair. (The hilarious thing is they were slavers. When we got into the lair I was expecting people playing at being villain, but no, they were a bunch of 30-40-year old criminals of a perfectly mundane sort, powers aside, not even a Master among them, and we freed a dozen girls and drove them to a nearby town. I particularly liked the girl who kicked and spat on the corpse of the guy who'd claimed to have 'invulnerability', as we were leaving)

I'm getting frustrated, and I keep expecting Taylor to be, too, but she just... isn't. She's calm, placid. For that matter, I keep expecting her to dwell on being separated from her father and feel something, but if she is, she does it only while I'm asleep. Which. You know, doubtful.

It's kind of cool, or convenient, in a way, since she's at least not being Drama, but I can't make sense of it.

A lot of my downtime is spent on going over my own feelings. I already knew I liked Taylor, but I was thinking of it as a challenge. Can't just go LOVE ME and have it stick with no effort, gotta think, right? Cool, I've never had to do it manually. But, ah, the whole complete freak out I had when Taylor quote-unquote 'died' is... not in line with that. Yeah, Jean-Paul got pretty depressed that time Pauline broke some game he liked over her knee, but I'm... pretty sure my reaction was a lot stronger than that.

Theory: Taylor has got a Master power of her own that makes me like her. I've never previously suspected such a thing, but then people don't usually guess that I'm doing parahuman things to them, either. The fact that I'm having the thought right now is important -if she does have such a power, it isn't suppressing me noticing it. That means if such a power is involved I'm not doomed by my inability to even recognize there is a problem.

However, the evidence I have so far isn't very suggestive in that direction. Taylor honestly didn't want anything to do with me when I shoved my way into her life, which makes it unlikely it's an effect she consciously chose to impose on me. (Never mind what I originally thought of 'killer'...) She's not even willing to admit any kind of attraction to me -not entirely sure whether there is any attraction, dammit- so my wonderful self hanging off her does not seem to be a dream come true for her, alas. But an uncontrolled/unconscious effect, though not impossible, raises the question why me? Her school life would have been a lot more, ah, comfortable (heh) if she'd been spraying LOVE ME at everyone in the area. So that seems a bit unlikely...

... but for the point that there is one thing about me that seems to be unique: I've seen her in squid mode. So perhaps the squid sprays LOVE ME magic ink at people who actually see its true form? I mean, that'd be a pretty dang weird power, but it's vaguely possible. More importantly, it's something I can watch for when we fight someone whose gaze does not change her: if I detect rising love/lust, then point for the theory. If I don't...

... well.

Then I'll be forced to confront the terrifying possibility that she matters that much to me for completely normal, non-parahuman reasons.

...

Yeeeeeaaah let's put that off forever.


Then, in the middle of week seven, I sense a group of seven people stalking through the woods of northern Alabama.

I don't think much of it at the time -the Nine are currently supposed to be eight in number- but I let Taylor know anyway. We park somewhere, I suit up in my tinkersuit, and mount up, 'cause it's stealthier for us to approach that way. (Among other reasons, hee. Still more fun than flying!) Then we stalk them, quietly, having worked out a communication system that relies primarily on contact for me guiding her and getting feedback in turn over these long, looong weeks. Months. Forevers. Anyway, means I don't have to talk out loud, which is good because, uh, the suit's speakers are... getting erratic. I keep expecting the left one to do something drastic, really. The rest of the suit is working passably well so far. As far as I'm aware. But I'm not a tinker. Sooooo.

Yeah.

Approach is boring, and I try to work out a profile of the goobers just to pass the time, never mind that I'm expecting us to either ignore them or kill them. Mostly they're all this weird mix of tense and bored, but then you've got one who is twitchy as fuck, not sure why, maybe they've been kidnapped?... eh. Boss' decision how to handle this. There's one who's amused though, having fun. A socializer, I guess? Or I suppose they could be playing some kind of game on their phone or the like, but I'm pretty sure they're playing off the others in the group. And we've got the Oblivious One, who my mental image is a five year old skipping through a field going 'la la la', because they're just... derp.

Nothing very interesting, really.

... and then we get line of sight and yes, it's the Nine.

I actually don't notice the Siberian initially. You'd think she'd be one of the first I'd notice, but... my emotiondar is telling me there's nothing there. Nothing. So my eyes just sort of went right over her straight to the people who actually have emotions. Jack Slash. (The amused one, having fun) Bonesaw. (The Oblivious One, which I guess isn't that surprising) Crawler. (He seems calm and bored?) Shatterbird. (Reading a book, floating in a throne of glass, looking a lot more regal and calm than she actually is. Way to seethe, lady!) Mannequinn, who, uh, is the twitchy-as-fuck dude, not at all what I was expecting from his smooth surface conveying a calm facade. Hatchet Face, who is supremely bored, slightly tense. Some girl whose name I don't even know they acquired recently, I think, playing with a lighter and looking even moodier than she feels. And then I finally go wait what, panic because oh fuck where's the Siberian, and then... well. She's actually holding one of Bonesaw's hands, looking vaguely pleased (nothing there no feelings at all) and it's pretty embarrassing I didn't notice her at all before then.

Then I realize what I thought were animals hanging about are actually metal-and-flesh spidery constructs when one goes running up to Bonesaw, carrying a dead (No, wait, it's still alive, I can sense it, it's panicking I guess it's paralyzed?) squirrel in its, uh, forelimbs? I'm put in mind of a dog bringing back a ball, including the feelings it experiences. (And isn't it creepy, that Bonesaw made them able to feel in the first place? Why?) And oh jeeze we are like six feet out from three of the damn things, if we'd creeped just a little bit closer we'd have practically bumped into one of them, they're scarily stealthy.

I signal to the Boss to back up and do so quietly, because fuck this is scary. She signals back that she's returning to base (ie the truck) and I'm utterly fucking bewildered because I thought I was going to have to talk her into not attacking the Scary Doom Capes while they're all clustered together, not that she'd spontaneously back off on her own. No, she's not afraid, either, this really is some kind of tactical withdrawal, no 'advancing to the rear' for the Boss.

I mean, cool, but, um, what?


Back at the truck I take off the helmet so we can talk. (Though I'd have done so anyway even if it wasn't strictly necessary, just to avoid stressing the dying speakers)

"So I'm glad we're having an attack of common sense, but, um, why?" Blunt! Because blunt has worked better with Taylor than being indirect or subtle. And also because... seriously. What?

Taylor gives me a vaguely unimpressed look. Not offended -I think she's sort of resigned herself to me being obnoxious- but like '2/10 try again troll'. Which. Fair. Not my best work. Then she actually answers the question. "The Siberian isn't worth engaging." This admission obviously bothers her, even before I can directly see the seething fury. "Crawler... I have an idea, but I'll be surprised if it works." A pause. "And I work best against isolated targets." There's a stab of aggravation, followed by a smaller spike. "We need to wait for them to do their grand thing, hit a big city and split up to make nominations, and start killing them then."

I blink. Stare.

Raise a finger in objection, then lower it.

"... so we're actually going to do that whole 'sacrifice a few to benefit the many' thing? Because I am totally down with that, but, uh, I thought I'd be trying to talk you into it, or something."

She frowns, and her eyes slide to one side, bothered, her emotions jiving with that, but she nods, jaw set. After a moment she meets my eyes again and speaks. "If I screw this up, let them know I'm coming without killing any of them, then the blood of all the people I could've saved by not screwing up is on my hands. I'd rather attack now and kill them all, but I can't, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise." A pause, pensive. "This world isn't fair, or just. Acting like it should be won't make it so, and acting like it is makes it even less so."

Okay whatever I do not give a fuck about her big-picture morality shit.

I clap her on the shoulder instead of reacting to her downer whateverness. "So what sounds better: the Slaughterers of the Nine, or the Slaughterer Slaughterers? You know, for when we brag to the world about how awesome we are and how they should shower us in accolades."

She gives me another unimpressed look, successfully not reacting on the outside. But. You know. I'm me.

I make a mental note: Slaughterers of the Nine it is. Sweeet.

I can't wait.

5.3

Okay. The Nine.

We've found them, so now it's time to kill them.

... once they do their stupid grand challenge/nomination thing. Not happy, but I only get one shot at doing this with them unaware.

Time to stalk.


This takes time, and in that time Cherie picks up on things. Some of them I could've gone my entire life without knowing. Others are startlingly mundane, like that it turns out Crawler still has a need for privacy when, erm, 'going to the bathroom'. Which would be more useful if Crawler was one of the Nine I actually thought I could kill reasonably quickly...

... but by far the weirdest thing is discovering the Nine already have a stalker. One person. We check it out -carefully- and it's nothing special, no skull trophies or anything else suggesting a connection to the Nine or an admiration of them. Just... a guy. Male, confirmed by eventually catching him going outside to take a piss.

I sort of want to kill him on the principle of the thing, but we really have no way of knowing that it's actually justified. He's just... odd. Cherie isn't sure what's going on with his emotions, either. He's apparently a lot more complicated and engaged than a hobo in a vehicle should be, and he's looking forward to... something. Cherie's working theory is that he's somehow gotten cameras on the Nine and is looking forward to them butchering people. I'm more inclined to suspect that he's got a power rather than cameras, though that's a worrying possibility since we don't know what he does or does not know. Which brings me back to wanting to kill him, just in case. But he could be innocent. He could even be someone stalking them with intent to do something about them, like we are.

The Nine pass through a small town. The mysterious hobo stalker is 'vindictively delighted', according to Cherie. He ends up pulling ahead of us after the Nine are done, and apparently loops around the edge of town. We instead go right on through, with me going on ahead, out of costume. I end up giving a mercy killing to a head stitched onto a dog's back for some reason. Bonesaw. I also end up losing my entire right arm to some kind of acid trap, ruining the shirt I was wearing at the time. It would've been worse, but Cherie was quick to close her eyes, sitting back in the truck, driving it, at which point the stuff slid off a couple of limbs... which were still burned and scarred by its passage. Scary stuff. I make a mental note to take Bonesaw seriously, little girl or no.

After that we back out the way we came and loop around the edge of town, just like the creepy hobo did before us.

It's sort of interesting hearing Cherie relay the dynamics of the Nine (Siberian aside, since she's apparently immune to Cherie's power on top of everything else she's immune to. Is there anything she isn't immune to?) as they go about their business. Jack Slash was calm, enjoying himself, when they were in the woods. He apparently got a lot more tense once they hit that small town, only relaxing once all the Nine (Guessing on the Siberian) had reassembled on the other side. I always had this impression he thought of himself as invulnerable, but it seems like he's very aware of his mortality. Which... will make it harder to ambush him, I suspect. Bears thinking. Cherie isn't entirely clear what he gets out of all this, either. He really doesn't seem to enjoy the actual confrontations, and he doesn't seem terribly satisfied when everything is said and done. Maybe he'd make more sense if we surveilled him during a hit on a big city?

Crawler has one spike of excitement during the attack, which Cherie thinks was him encountering a local cape. Presumably someone who could actually hurt him. Otherwise he's just... passing the time. He's fine with killing people to fill time, but he's not getting a lot of enjoyment out of it. It just staves off boredom. It makes me sort of curious as to why he sticks with the Nine. I mean, obviously the Protectorate wouldn't take him in now, but he could go attack Ash Beast or something, couldn't he? Nobody's managed to stop him so far, he could really do whatever he wants, and it doesn't sound like he places much value on the social part of being a member of the Nine, as Cherie indicates he barely interacts with them. Odd.

Shatterbird seems to have a vicious streak. Cherie narrates her playing with people, letting them get some distance, think they might escape, and then cutting them off, basking in their despair, and then killing them. She does this repeatedly. Cherie's opinion is that the woman is glorying less in the violence and more in the dominance or something of the sort. She kills people to make herself feel powerful? It's... it actually bothers me a lot. Shatterbird is feeding some need by killing people that doesn't require killing people. She, what, thinks she can get away with it? I'm reminded vividly of being bullied, only taken to the nth degree. I dunno. Maybe I'm just projecting. I hate her anyway.

Hatchet Face is... odd. He seems to get mad at his victims, pursue them relentlessly, and then feel... satisfied? Relieved? Cherie is a bit vague on that part. There's some positive emotion that's not straightforward enjoyment when he kills them, is the point. I'm not sure what to make of that. It seems... a bit simple. Not, "I'm a murderous sociopath," simple, like... shortbus simple. Puts a different spin on his taciturn nature. It actually makes me feel kind of like I'm a jerk for intending to kill him. He's been a member of the Nine for so long though... I'm doubtful he can be redeemed, and if Cherie's suit breaks down at an inopportune moment it becomes a lot harder for us to kill him. I don't think it's worth risking trying to see if he's willing to repent. Especially since the Nine all have Kill Orders anyway...

Bonesaw is... I'm kind of horrified to learn she seems to be genuinely innocent. I always thought she was, like, one of those bright kids who knows how to act cute and innocent who actually knows exactly what they're doing. But if Cherie's reading this right, she trusts and respects Jack ("Like a child looking up to a parent they actually like," she says) and has some fairly intense fondness for... probably the Siberian, Cherie guesses. Creepy. She seems to basically like everyone in the group, but those two are her strongest relationships. She apparently takes a lot of cues from Jack, and since the Siberian is invisible to Cherie it's hard to say if she's exhibiting any independent decision-making. I'm not sure how to handle this. She's too dangerous, she's arguably the most dangerous of the Nine when you count the plagues, but I don't really like the idea of being someone who murders innocents because it's convenient.

The new girl -some kind of fire power- is unstable. Sometimes she's sad and full of self-loathing and clearly afraid of the other Nine, sometimes she's so unemotional Cherie has trouble tracking her. It's probably something to do with her power, but with how we're hanging back, relying on Cherie's emotional surveillance for information, it's difficult to form real theories. We try even harder to keep a safe distance once she hits the first town -she's some kind of teleporter, and with how Cherie can have trouble tracking her at all, she could far too easily end up teleporting into our midst with no warning. It makes an already-tense stalking mission insanely nervewracking. The worst is when Cherie is asleep, and I've got nothing better to do than either poke around on the laptop, vulnerable, human, or go... murdering squirrels or something. I think if I still slept I'd be having nightmares.

Small mercy that I don't sleep.

We do the same circle-around thing for the next town the Nine pass through, too, though the Nine actually don't kill that many people this time. Cherie and I aren't sure what's up with that. In fact, they kill exactly eight people -one for each of them. Some kind of sick game?... Cherie doesn't linger overly long on Shatterbird's part of this. Presumably she knows Shatterbird upsets me, but if she's avoiding the topic... I might be underestimating my loathing. In any event, the Nine pick up a companion, which... seems to be Bonesaw's gruesome work. Or maybe she just saved them and they joined the group for their own reasons. It's a bit unclear. They got knocked unconscious during this hit, and when they awoke they liked Bonesaw and followed along happily enough, her having been intently doing something in their vicinity beforehand.

It's useful, I think, to be hearing how they work when stalking a specific target. Seems likely to be important to when they do a Big Thing and make nominations. Crawler is straightforward: pick a target, go after it. Shatterbird scares her target with a big reveal, and then harasses them, following them relentlessly and, Cherie thinks, inflicting harm periodically. Cherie thinks she's 'nearly missing' deliberately, just barely clipping her target with glass, give them the illusion they can escape her if they push themselves that little bit harder. Ugh. I was expecting Crawler to 'play with their food'. Jack Slash... apparently manages to blend in with the crowd, slip into his target's house (?), have probably some kind of conversation with them, and then, according to Cherie, grow bored and kill his victim.

Hatchet Face skulks about. I'm not sure if I should take that as representative for when they hit a big city or not, as they actually seem to be trying to get through the town without anyone but their victims knowing anything is wrong. Shatterbird herded her target toward the edge of town, Crawler went after someone who was already far out from town, and now Hatchet Face is apparently trying to go unnoticed. I have my doubts he'll be so careful when they do their dramatic thing with Shatterbird's scream and all. He didn't seem to be concerned with stealth in the first town, at least. Mannequin is insanely sneaky, and apparently knows it, passing pretty much right under people's noses without being noticed and feeling completely relaxed about it. Or as relaxed as he gets, as Cherie informs me he's actually a pretty miserable person when he's not in the middle of killing someone. Really miserable. So miserable he'd probably be happy to be put out of his misery.

I suspect Cherie is trying to insinuate it's okay for me to be unable to feel guilty about killing him. Which is. Sort of cute? I actually wasn't really planning on giving him a second chance or anything. He doesn't talk, can't talk as far as I know, he's known to actively seek out and kill tinkers who are trying too hard to make the world a better place, he's so committed to his path he surgically altered himself into a killing machine... maybe there's someone who has the power to magically determine how to redeem such a person, but it certainly isn't me. I'm fine with killing the man unceremoniously. So Cherie thinking I need reassurance?... cute.

Bonesaw's behavior initially mystifies me in this second town, because she doesn't go after a target herself. She goes and, as best as Cherie and I can guess, sets herself up a lab. Things become clearer when Cherie mentions that her horrible spider-robots are converging on someone, someone currently isolated. Neither Cherie nor myself are entirely certain how, but six of the dog-sized things, after paralyzing (?) their target somehow arrange to drag them back to Bonesaw's temporary lair/lab/whatever is going on there. I'm being literal when I say drag, in this case, as the individual -apparently awake and aware enough to panic, but unmoving- is a couple of feet behind the pack of spider-things and is apparently at the same height as them most of the time. Do they have ropes of some kind? Something to keep in mind when I confront Bonesaw.

The fire girl is... odd. She experiences a lot of anxiety initially, and then the thing where her emotions flatline partially happens? I'm not sure what Cherie is trying to say, and she struggles to clearly explain it, but the net result seems to boil down to the girl not experiencing severe anxiety but not going full-on-no-emotions either. Then she kills her target, her emotions damp down, but she apparently... deliberately?... tries to avoid flatlining entirely. We're both thinking at this point her emotions are influenced by using her power, or something. Once she's done she goes to where the Nine are meeting up (How did they decide where to meet ahead of time?) and slowly scales back the flatlining effect until she's basically normal, according to Cherie. The girl apparently feels pride, pushed back by shame anytime the pride inflates too far. I feel... empathy, I guess. Seems like fire girl has a power kind of like mine, in that it's damaged her ability to be a moral person. I'm not sure what to do about her. I kind of have the impression she doesn't want to be with the Nine? Then again, she is taking pride in killing someone, even if she apparently doesn't like being too aware of this pride or something of the sort. I'm not sure how practical it would be to try to get her... non-evil, for lack of a better phrase. And just being a member of the Nine means you have a Kill Order on you, so is there even any point? I guess I could try to recruit her?...

We can only make the most indirect of inferences of what's going on with the Siberian. That said... the hobo seems to be focused on her. He feels squicky (Cherie's words, which kind of scares me) satisfaction when someone starts suffering and ultimately dying for no reason Cherie can detect, which is almost certainly the Siberian, and doesn't seem to be reacting so much to the other Nine's antics. Like Shatterbird, the Siberian seems to go for the drawn-out torture of their victim before actually killing them, though since Cherie can't read her feelings we're basing the idea that it's deliberate on how crazy-lethal the Siberian is known to be. It's strictly possible it might be some kind of psychological limitation, though, or that her power has rules we're unaware of. (She can't actually be completely invincible, can she?) I doubt it, but something to keep in mind.

The hobo is responding in real time to what's going on with the Nine this whole time, probably overall focused on the Siberian though it's difficult to be sure. Almost like he's present, really. He's clearly enjoying their antics. By the time they hit a third town I'm leaning toward, yes, killing him. I mean I guess it's a bit... judgmental? If he's just a parahuman wandering around, following the Nine and treating them like gory television... that's grotesque, but I guess you could argue he's not doing anything wrong? It's not like I'm going to kill people for liking to watch gory movies, after all. I dunno, though. I think it's a bit different when you dedicate your entire life to watching actual people actually torture and murder people for no good reason. That goes a bit past catharsis or whatever.

I waffle on that for a while after the third town. (It was pretty similar to the first, just they're all more bored, basically. With the exception that Crawler confronted someone, didn't kill them, and a couple of days later I ran across... a photo uploaded on that day of Crawler's latest mutation. Some kind of mouth-thing, no idea what's different about it from his other mouths) I really do have a problem with this whole not trying to kill people, end up killing them anyway thing, killing the Dragonslayers seems to have been a mistake, my attempt to kill Kaiser didn't do what it was supposed to and I'm still not entirely sure who I- er, who Pride killed. I mean, should I really be reinforcing the habit by killing someone who is doing nothing truly heinous? Really, how far off is that from killing people for enjoying porn?

Ultimately I put it on the backburner. It should keep until after we've dealt with... er... most of the Nine. If we pull this off. Which, I mean, the Triumvirate failed... but I dealt with Nilbog... but it was basically blind luck that incident didn't become a disaster... ugh.

... that goes on the backburner, too.


So here's the basics of the plan.

First, I'm going to hit Mannequin while Cherie goes and talks to firegirl, possibly ending in exploding her head. I should remain the monster in the face of Mannequin -I don't know how he senses things but I'd be shocked if it's remotely like ordinary human vision- and the firegirl might be an asset for fighting the other Nine, if only by providing insight we haven't gathered on our own, while I'll probably be of questionable utility against her. Well-lit environment -because fire- against a teleporter with ranged attacks? Practically a death sentence for me.

Once we're done with our respective targets, Cherie links up with me and helps guide me to Jack Slash. I confront him, see if he's willing to turn himself in or the like, and if not we kill him. Then repeat for Shatterbird and Bonesaw, have Cherie snipe Hatchet Face somewhere in there, hope we dodge the Siberian the whole while, and... not sure about Crawler. I think Cherie might be able to use emotional shenanigans to neuter him? But I'm not that confident, and if we get a "partial success" we're just making things worse. I'm sort of hoping firegirl has a better idea. Maybe he's conspicuously avoided contact with... radioactive materials or something? It's a thin hope, but I'm really not sure what to do about him. I'm... okay with that, when it gets down to it. If we can reduce the Nine to the Siberian and Crawler, I think they'll lose their momentum. Crawler, from what Cherie has been relaying, doesn't really strike me as charismatic material.

The goal here is to break this pattern of the Nine being a roving, intelligent disaster. Cleaning the group up entirely would be nice, but it's not the actual mission objective. If Crawler and the Siberian continue on but stop recruiting, I've accomplished my primary goal.

Important I don't forget that -and that Cherie is kept in the loop. She's... pretty prone to just doing as I say and not asking too many questions, now that I think about it.

... I feel uncomfortable now.


Finally finally the Nine start getting hyped up (except firegirl, who the internet tells me was an inmate for a psychiatric ward. It also tells me she's called Burnscar. Her anxiety spikes, instead) and we make a point of trailing further behind them, in hopes of protecting our stuff from Shatterbird's scream. I'm... not entirely clear on how her scream works, but we can't risk losing the Nine. It would be unfortunate to lose our tinkertech and to have the truck's windows shattered, but they're lesser priorities than staying on the Nine. Really, I'm not even all that happy with staying back as much as we are, but if we're on top of them we'll definitely lose important parts of Cherie's suit and it'll damage the plan at step one.

Risks all around.

It actually takes two days before they reach the city they'd picked out.

Chicago.

That delay gives me some time to read up on Chicago and the area around it via the tinkerlaptop. (Which has started crashing intermittently in the last week. I have no idea what's causing it. I don't like how the generator's sound has changed recently, either) We're coming from the southwest, while the city itself has a clearly defined east/northeast border thanks to the Great Lake. That... should limit the directions the Nine can flee, since I'm pretty sure... well, Jack, at least, shouldn't be able to flee through the lake. I think. Ugh, I don't even know what Bonesaw can do. Maybe she's installed gills in him or something. Ugh. Actually, maybe herding them toward the lake is a good idea? I'm perfectly functional underwater, and if it interferes with sight enough?...

Food for thought.

One of the first things I hit upon in looking in more detail is that the Nine will probably be starting out passing through 'South Side'. Aside from learning interesting-but-irrelevant-to-me tidbits about Chicago's history (I had no idea freed slaves moved from the South to Chicago en mass after the Civil War, and it's sort of interesting to me that Chicago gangs, if Wikipedia is correct, led the charge of gangs becoming more female-friendly in the US. Yay for equality?) the more relevant bits to me are: the gangs of Chicago are apparently focused in South Side, South Side is overall one of the worst concentrations of poverty in the city, and the South Side is slanted toward a black population with racism being historically quite bad. Now I'm worrying -cynically?- that the PRT will be slow to respond if the Nine hit there. I'd... dismiss it as paranoia, but the Nine -Jack Slash in particular- didn't get this far by being stupid. (Well. Maybe Crawler and the Siberian are stupid. Their powers are just unfair) So I can't shake the feeling that the Nine are intending to exploit racism, are expecting the PRT/Protectorate to give less than 100% so long as the Nine stay in South Side.

Ugh, so many historical landmarks and major pieces of art for them to deface.

The West Side isn't really much better, if the Nine curve around to hit it instead. More racially diverse, at least, so... if the Nine hit it, they probably aren't expecting to take advantage of racism. I think. Been a lot more violence, if I'm reading this right? There was historically major gang activity in the area... and parahumans arriving didn't so much make it go away as make it more focused. Fewer gangs, headed by some parahumans, which tend to get into fewer fights but they're more intense. I guess the Nine are here to try to recruit from the parahumans of the gangs? I mean, they have nominated Protectorate members before, but it's not typical, so I guess this is a bit obvious?...

Well. I guess that pretty much guarantees they're targeting South or West Side. That... helps? Kinda. I mean, not a ton, but it means I can be fairly confident they're not going to... loop around through the lake or something.

Next: parahumans. The Nine are going to be nominating people, so I need to look into the locals, both to guess at where nominees might be located (I still have no idea how they pull off their nomination proceedings so consistently) and to minimize the odds that I get myself into trouble with a local parahuman and botch things because I don't know their abilities.

Myrrdin, of course, local Protectorate head. Other than the 'wizard' theme, I'm not clear what he does. I... rather doubt he'll be nominated. I might encounter him, but I'm not expecting that to turn into a fight. I'm okay with prioritizing other research.

In looking into the parahumans of Chicago, I discover the PRT has two headquarters in the city. Huh. One seems to be placed to more-or-less straddle South and West Side at the same time, while the other is placed more northerly. That seems a bit uneven, in terms of ability to deal with crime, but I haven't looked much into... is it actually called North Side? Hm. Yes? Anyway, maybe there's a lot more parahuman crime in the North Side than I'm intuiting from my other reading. Or maybe it's some kind of PR thing, trying to avoid looking like they're oppressing the less well-off districts? Ugh, I don't know. Brockton Bay divides up the PRT and Protectorate and that's why there's two facilities, but Chicago seems to just base the Protectorate members out of the same buildings as the Troopers. And there's only one PRT Director for Chicago? Chicago is weird and I don't understand what I'm looking at.

Anyway.

Revel. I'm fuzzy on what she's like, and trying to pull together an idea via news articles proves impractical. Her power doesn't seem like the kind of thing the Nine would go for, though. It's more a defensive power that punishes people who use 'energy' attacks than a way to inflict suffering.

Then again, I wouldn't have pegged Sphere as someone with long-term potential as a member of the Nine, back before he turned himself into a plastic serial killer cut out of someone's nightmares.

In any event, I'm not too concerned about her. Cherie's suit might be hampered by Revel's ability, if her 'lantern' can absorb the suit's shots, but I really doubt Cherie or myself have any absorbable aspect of our powers.

Shuffle is... well. Basically, I don't know if his power is actually Manton-limited or if he just isn't willing to kill people by swapping a hill so that they're buried alive. He could be terrifyingly problematic or he could be limited to a supporting role. His history could go either way. My gut instinct is that he can't trap people with shuffled terrain like that, but I can't count on it. I really have no idea whether the Nine would go after him or not.

There's a Tinker called Stardust, only recently gone from Ward to full Protectorate member. She's made a few vehicles, sort of like if Squealer was a Protectorate hero. (heh) Real stand-up lady, I'm never entirely clear how tinkers work, they seem too adaptable, but Stardust seems focused on the vehicles? She doesn't focus overly much on fighting parahumans, either: she fights fires, helps cart away rubble, drives people to the hospital -when her onboard medical facilities are insufficient!- and just generally tirelessly helps people during her patrols.

I think I know who Mannequin is going after.

Or... shit. Maybe not. There's a Rogue tinker who provides 'patches' that help people alter their behavior. Like, someone who should clean up their house regularly but can't motivate themselves or can't reliably remember goes and buys a patch from 'Wetworks' and the patch goes on a shoulder and for a couple of weeks afterward they'll compulsively do the thing. The patches break down at some point, but the habit usually remains after it's developed, albeit in a less compulsive form. She... seems worryingly like both someone Mannequin would hate and like someone who could be a pretty horrifying member of the Nine, since the patches are apparently a form of mind control. And now I'm imagining her teaming up with Bonesaw.

... definitely going to hunt down and kill Mannequin first.

While I'm at it, I shoot off an email to Wetworks. As a Rogue running a business, she's got a public email right on her website, and it would be nice if she was... I dunno, taking a vacation when the Nine show up. I don't have high hopes that she'll listen, but it would be nice.

I end up skimming the Wards. It... takes until sometime after I've already looked into Tecton and Campanile a fair amount -wasted like 45 minutes on them, dammit- but it eventually dawns on me that the Wards of Chicago mostly... don't actually fight parahumans? This leads to a twenty-minute diversion of me digging around, and I'm really surprised to discover Brockton Bay is weird for having the Wards as junior members of the Protectorate. Most Wards are just... babied? They patrol and all, but it's literally more in the vein of helping old ladies cross the street than in the vein of fighting minor villains. Oh, Tecton took down a villain just a month ago, but we're talking a villain whose power was touch-based against a guy in powered armor. And it was just a power to put people to sleep with a touch, at that, which... I mean, the woman put it to fucked-up use, but if Tecton had (somehow) gotten into trouble against her he would've just needed a rescue, he wouldn't have needed medical attention afterward.

It's sort of disquieting to realize Brockton Bay is the exception, not the rule. I'm not even sure why it bothers me.

I end up moving on, instead, deciding I can probably ignore the Wards as they're probably not going to be deployed against the Nine and I'm pretty sure the Nine won't be interested in them? I mean, I don't ignore them entirely, but the skimming doesn't have anything leap out like 'makes tinkertech from dead things' or whatever.

Instead I move on to independent Heroes.

I'm sort of expecting to run into a group like New Wave. I mean, not in terms of doing away with secret identities, because that worked so well for Fleur, but in terms of a decent-sized team of good people who nonetheless are not government agents. Instead I just get a half dozen individuals? And then it turns out that two of them are dead and one of them left for Florida recently, so actually there's only three indie heroes in Chicago. Weird.

A brute/shaker calling herself Tidal. She apparently manipulates water and uses it to enhance and heal herself, but she can manipulate it in a fairly large area and even 'set' shapes that will linger long after she's not only stopped paying attention but even when she's left the area. When she does this the water behaves like... either a solid object or a sticky mass of jello, I'm a bit unclear. They've been known to last for two hours, possibly more, though it's a bit unclear. She likes to 'Spiderman' her foes ie beat them up and then entrap them with a note attached for authorities. Unsurprisingly, she mostly operates relatively near the shore... aaaand of course the internet is filled with menstruation jokes about her. Classy. She doesn't seem that noteworthy, but I guess I could see Jack nominating her? I really don't understand his priorities at all.

A mover/stranger (as far as anyone can tell, anyway) calling herself Haunt. The internet is... a bit fuzzy on exactly how her powers works, as she's not exactly someone fond of open combat. She's known to do stuff like attack villains who have retreated to a rooftop and get into rooms that were locked and, as far as anyone could tell, sealed against human intrusion, but she's also just plain difficult to keep track of through some mental effect. There's a part of PHO that's convinced she isn't a Mover at all, actually. In any event, as far as I can gather she's untraceable if you aren't looking right at her and probably has some form of enhanced mobility. She's spooky enough to have generated some dumb memes ("Haunt is watching you pee," etc etc) but as far as I can tell she's actually pretty restrained. She doesn't use guns or knives, and tends to give people a chance to give themselves up to the PRT instead of going straight to the violence, and even when she is violent she focuses on taking a baseball bat to the legs to disable them. I'm sort of vaguely surprised the PRT department considers her to be an indie hero? In any event she seems like a probable Nine nomination, though... I have no idea how they'd find her?... but the Nine's nomination process has always kind of baffled me with its success anyway? Ugh, whatever. Haunt is going to be a complication, really.

A blaster/thinker who fires projectiles that rebound three times while traveling in straight lines without regard to gravity or friction and only deliver any impact on the final hit, calling himself Trickshot. The Thinker rating is inferred, because it's pretty normal for him to fire a shot that hits his target several blocks away on that fourth hit, too consistently to be luck or merely-human skill, but nobody actually knows what the mechanics are. He might be a precog, or he might have supersight and be great at calculating shots, or any number of possibilities. Dude's got some anger problems, but is apparently playful and funny most of the time.

Then I move onto the Rogues. I mean, aside from Wetworks. There's a good dozen of them, and unlike the indie heroes that seems to actually be an up-to-date number. Was the Rogue scene this busy in Brockton Bay? I don't remember.

I end up cutting this short when I realize we're not that far out from Chicago and a quick glance shows that there's like sixty villains running around in Chicago, roughly. It's hard to estimate because apparently there's a lot of churn, people who die in gang wars, people who leave the city, people who turn themselves in (?), people who drop off the face of the planet...

Still, there's apparently been a few people who have stuck it out. A guy called Topsy, for instance, who's been acting as some kind of... go-between?... I'm a bit unclear on the details. Anyway, he's been here for nearly a decade, and all he does is set an area as having arbitrary gravity. He's not very notable himself, he's a lot more notable for his tendency to hire an ever-shifting crew of mercenaries of all sorts. I actually doubt Topsy will be nominated, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't get caught up in the chaos when one of his people gets nominated. Or multiple of them.

A guy called Watch, who... well. The PRT's own website basically just warns you to avoid if at all possible. I have to dig around in PHO to get the details, and he sounds pretty horrifying, most notably for his ability to reach inside people and screw up their nervous system permanently. And he apparently has 360 degree vision? Ugh, not someone I want to get in a fight with, myself. Bad, bad matchup. I will be amazed if no Nine member nominates him. Maybe Shatterbird? The picture Cherie's painted is more of an unrefined brute than the aristocratic figure she seems to present in what little I've gathered elsewhere, so... maybe? Ugh, I dunno. A guy to watch out for, and worse he doesn't even seem to go in for the whole costume thing. Just an awful superpowered gangster. He won't leap out, visually. How does he manage to have a normal life, anyway? He's been around for a depressingly long time, too. Honestly, I'd run him down and kill him if I wasn't busy with the Nine and thought I could handle him, because he's just... he cripples people for life with excruciating pain and I'm not even sure why, with the grab-bag he has. I can only guess simple cruelty, but I'm not even sure that's the most plausible nor most horrible possible answer.

Anyway.

Turns out there's a chapter (Is that what you call gangs?) of the ABB in Chicago. I never knew. The relevancy is that their current head, while not nearly as scary as Lung, is still a woman whose reaction to being killed is nope. Like, you kill her and she walks out of a nearby closet and then breaks you with her bare hands. Calls herself Di Fu Ling? She's scary, and nobody has gotten enough of a handle on how her power works to be sure how to deal with her. When the PRT has managed to foam her, she snaps her own neck! Might be off the mark, but I'm guessing a nomination from one of the Nine.

The Chicago ABB has four other parahumans, but they don't really stand out. A boy who is, to all appearances, just a martial artist who is a touch outside human-possible, a girl (whom the internet waffles as to whether they're siblings or boyfriend/girlfriend. Thanks, internet, I really needed that) who is immune to fire and can leave a trail of fire in her wake (Hm. Maybe a Burnscar nomination? Dubious connection point, but I don't have any clue what Burnscar is actually like in priorities and her power messing with her head makes it even harder to pin her down, even with Cherie's help), a woman who can fly and control ribbons (?), and another woman who can draw a circle on the ground which, so long as she remains in that circle, she's impossible to harm, and the circle itself has proven impossible to destroy so far. Which is impressive until you realize there's nothing preventing you from shoving her out of the circle. She's been experimenting with ways to trap herself in the circle, relying on her invulnerability to make it safe, but she's also got no offensive power so without a gun she's pretty helpless.

There's a gang that used to be called the Gangster Disciples but at some point parahumans came along and things went sideways for them. They live on, more or less, but now they call themselves the Human Disciples, which... is a strangely non-badass name? Then again, some of the gangs that didn't survive apparently had names I really wouldn't have expected from people trying to emphasize they're scary badasses who will cut you. Anyway, the Human Disciples are apparently overall in control of South Side, in part relying on single-shot tinkertech weapons apparently being mass-produced by a currently-unidentified tinker and passed out to the non-parahuman members to maintain this dominance. They're actually mostly less-than-lethal weapons, which maybe explains why the PRT hasn't cracked down on them?

In any event, their overall head is a man calling himself Lucky Lou, whose only concession to cape culture is that he wears a custom-made hat depicting assorted gambling-related things like cards, dice, and chips. All in green, some kind of Irish pride thing? This seems to be a bit of misdirection, though, as the PHO wiki page asserts that he appears to be able to temporarily grant enhanced reflexes, enhanced speed, enhanced strength, and a sort of force field that can tank a couple of bullets and isn't visible until it fails in a gaudy burst of red sparks -and he grants these all at once, and there's no observed limit to how many people can benefit from the effect. His main limitation seems to be that for whatever reason he's apparently trying to hide that this is his ability, as he's only been caught in the middle of providing the effect a handful of times. It's not like the mechanism is embarrassing or anything, either, he just seems to need a brief touch, not even skin-to-skin.

The Human Disciples have a half-dozen other parahumans, as well, but the only other one that sticks with me is a girl -she can't be over 18- calling herself Black Bishop. I think it's a chess reference? I'm not sure, because she's a black girl and she's got a cross necklace I don't think is meant to be part of the costume, but overall her costume makes me think vaguely of a chess bishop, the rounded/pointy hat-thing she wears in particular suggesting it to me. She can perform point-to-point teleports and her arrival is marked with a burst of blue that tends to knock down and outright stun people with some kind of electrical-looking energy, and it's unclear what the exact mechanics of her teleport are: people are quite certain she doesn't need to be able to see her destination, or perhaps she does but not with her actual eyes, but she clearly has some kind of limits vaguely resembling line-of-sight because she's never teleported right through a wall. Windows, yes, fences, yes, but not solid walls. She's vicious, is really the main reason she leaps out to me, to the point she has been repeatedly reined in by her own people! I... find it a little too easy to imagine her joining up with the Nine of her own volition.

I'd love to be memorizing all the gang capes, but in addition to the eight-ish 'major' (The Brothers of Steel and the Saints of Wrath are major gangs if you ask some people and jumped-up minor gangs if you ask other people, apparently) gangs of the city there's something like fifty minor gangs that have one or two parahumans or occasionally have no parahumans at all but have stuck it out anyway. Which... is apparently a huge drop from pre-Scion Chicago. Yikes. And I thought Brockton Bay had a gang problem. There's just too many capes to keep track of.

I guess this is why there's two PRT headquarters in the city.

And then Cherie wakes up and I'm out of time to be looking up this stuff and it's the day and I'm... I don't know. Something.

Whatever it is I'm feeling, Cherie grins, slaps me on one shoulder, and says, "This is gonna be great, don't you worry."

The comfort is nice, but the fact that she feels the need to comfort me is unnerving.

(I deliberately ignore how she rolls her eyes)


We stop a lot further out than I'd really like to be, because Chicago is big.

(I retract all my confusion as to why Chicago has two PRT offices, even if I'm less sure about their placement)

We're not entirely sure how Shatterbird's 'scream' works. As far as I can gather, it tends to hit a whole city without any real regard to its size, and then stop somewhere at the edges of the city proper. So we're playing it safe and having Cherie stay with the suit and the truck out in what amounts to woods. Which is where Chicago being big leads to us being further out than I'd like, because I'm not remotely confident we could drive into, say, one of the larger parks and save the tech that way.

We end up having a short discussion about the creepy gorn hobo. I'm still of mixed feelings about them, and I'm pretty sure Cherie just wants something to do while she waits for the scream to happen, so she's pushing for me to give her the go-ahead to deal with him right now, before the Scream, and I'm not resisting as much as I maybe should. Eventually I give up: "I can't actually bring myself to approve this, but I can't bring myself to say you shouldn't do it. So... whatever. Just don't lie to me afterward."

She pouts a little, even though I've basically given her tacit permission. I don't get her. "A kiss, for luck?" is what she asks when I move to start putting on my costume, but I don't even dignify that with an eyeroll. To my surprise, she doesn't move to get into the suit. She doesn't put on her costume, either. She dresses... well, basically normal, with that large-ish purse and a lot of red. My confusion of course shows through her senses, and she casually gives an explanation. "Gornboy is way, way too cautious. If he has a proper combat power I will eat a hat. Two hats." She pauses, looking thoughtful. "Twenty hats." Then she pulls out a compact -wait she still has a compact?- and starts making up her face while I finish strapping on the bicycle helmet, and finishes up with, "So instead of being a scary obvious cape he might try to drive away from, I'm just going to be a girl on the town, who just so happens to make him feel things, and then I'll slit his throat in the privacy of his gornmobile."

It actually takes me a second to put the whole thing together and get her insinuation. I... haven't really thought about how comfortable Cherie is with using her attractiveness as a weapon, before. I'm sort of uncomfortable with the idea.

Cherie rolls her eyes and then applies something to make her eyelids darker. "You have your talents, I have mine." Then she waves cheerily, and off I go.

Before all that, Cherie gave me a quick, basic rundown. The Nine have already split up in making their way into the city. Crawler is actually looping around the edge of the city, apparently intending to come in from a different angle, or maybe just spending time on something better than waiting prior to the scream. Mannequin is fast, and continues to be eerily, creepily stealthy, somehow wandering around in broad daylight without being seen. Bonesaw and Jack are, Cherie thinks, aboard a train, presumably using her plastic surgery skills to fool whatever security is in place, as they're together and traveling insanely fast while completely calm alongside a large number of people in the 'general shape' of a train, and Bonesaw's creations have somehow hidden themselves nearby/aboard. Creepy. Shatterbird seems to be using the bus system, which the guts boggles the mind, but then no one has photographed her face successfully, and... Bonesaw plastic surgery. Burnscar is flitting about, seeming to stick to rooftops, and she's already drawing attention, though nobody seems to have panicked in response to her as yet. Hatchet Face is somehow walking among people without scaring them, and Cherie is pretty sure he's delighting children as he goes along. I have no fucking clue, and Cherie just shrugged.

The biggest worry is the Siberian. Can't track her, can't guess at how she thinks, and if she finds me at any point I'm probably dead. There's no inexplicable injuries, deaths, or scaredy-cats for Cherie to work out a trail, even.

My target is Wetworks' store. It's actually a public business, not any kind of black market nonsense, and it means I can try to ambush Mannequin rather than trying to track him without Cherie's help, which would be liable to be utterly, totally fruitless. And if he doesn't show... I dunno. Cherie'll meet up with me eventually, and I think I can at least guess at Shatterbird's location after she screams? I mean, I'm assuming there's some kind of indication of the scream's propagation here, and I don't actually know that this is so...

As it happens, Wetworks' store is conveniently only a block from one of the rivers running through Chicago... and we stopped the truck not far from a river running southwest-ish that cuts through the main of the city.

Take a walk, Taylor.


Traveling through the Chicago River system is weird. And gross, if I think too hard on the shit I'm stilettoing through. But mostly it's weird.

Unlike when I experimented just offshore in Brockton Bay, here I get a very clear sense of how fast the monster travels underwater, and it's fucking fast. I keep dipping up to the surface periodically to check my environ, compare street names to what I looked up and reference myself against the Sears Tower when it's not hidden by other structures, and I'm always sort of shocked at how many blocks I've traveled. With how far ahead Mannequin started and how fast he is, I... well, I didn't think this would actually work, in no small part because, prior to doing all my research, I didn't even realize Chicago had major rivers running right through downtown. I was imagining myself roofhopping in daylight, and having a repeat of the botched attempt to kill not-actually-Kaiser.

So it's a very pleasant surprise when I come up and I spot South Ashland Avenue going over the river, which was my mental marker that I'm near the Bridgeport community -which is where Wetworks' shop is set up- and the scream still hasn't happened. That's good, because I have my doubts Mannequin is actually planning on waiting for the scream before he nominates/executes Wetworks.

I end up going further south than I'd originally planned before I come out of the river, startling a family who were picnicking near the river. Their four kids seem delighted to see a blatant cape simply walk up out of the water as if there was no difference between water and air, but the parents are warier. The father has one hand at his hip, though I see nothing there -an off-duty cop?- but I just wiggle the fingers of my left hand at them in a half-assed greeting as I keep walking. That actually seems to calm them down, though the mother still grabs the collar of her smallest daughter when the girl makes a move in my direction.

So yeah, I've abandoned stealth at this point, and am operating on the brazen confidence only someone who has nothing to hide should be evincing. Like Armsmaster or Miss Militia, who hide their faces but still walk tall and proud. Or Lung, who went toe to toe with Leviathan and didn't lose.

It works surprisingly well. People react to me, but mostly they're sort of curious. I'm walking with purpose, and I guess since I'm not waving a weapon or offensive power around while saying and then those fools at the university will see! They'll ALL see! I just don't register as someone to fear. It probably helps that I wasn't that well-known in Brockton Bay, and I've dropped out of the public eye for more than two months. I'm not like the Nine, where everybody knows at least the faces of the members who just won't die, and certainly not like the Triumvirate, where even people living under rocks know them on sight. To most people, I'm just an unknown cape with, perhaps, an edgy costume.

I think I might be less edgy than some of the commercial Rogues here, actually. So maybe Chicag...ans? Ites? Whatever, Chicago citizens maybe have a different idea of what constitutes so much edge you can cut yourself on it, too.

A police officer notices me, and starts making their way toward me in a relatively subtle way, but I don't see them talking into their radio or keeping their hand closer to their gun than usual, and they're not trying that hard to catch up to me. A couple of men in the press of bodies call out something rude, but I ignore them. A woman picks up her child and diverts off a different way. Eventually I notice I actually have a small bubble of personal space that largely goes unviolated, like people don't want to risk touching me.

Then I'm in front of Wetworks' store.

It is gaudy as hell.

Neon lights are announcing Tinkertech personality makeover! Bring out your inner good self! I mean, the website was a little ugly, but wow. It... it actually looks like what I imagine a red light district does. I'm sort of surprised there's no sleazy imagery of Wetworks herself on display.

This makes a bit more sense when I slip in and see Wetworks in person (Only person in costume here), just behind the counter, leaning over one of her patches.

To be blunt: she's obese. And her costume is awful and does nothing to downplay it. Actually, the costume probably deserves a Darwin Award, or whatever you'd call the fashion version of such. It's pink and yellow and just ugly. There's what I think is intended to be a circuit-board pattern effect on it, but where it looks good on Battery's costume on Wetworks' costume it looks like someone let a demented four-year-old take crayons to a suit and then called the result modern art, you wouldn't understand. Her mask manages to call attention to how her cheeks bulge. I'm left wondering why she bothered with a costume. Not every commercial Rogue bothers with the setup. What's her reason?

I'm sort of disappointed she didn't heed my email, but not terribly surprised. I probably wouldn't have listened if an anonymous internet stranger told me the Nine are coming to get you. Get out of town. (In retrospect, that sounds more like a threat than advice. Dammit) Still, she's not dead yet. In fact, her reaction to my arrival is fairly understated: her head tilts just enough to see me, she comments, "Another reforming offender, then?" and keeps doing... something... to the patch. Which... okay, I guess my costume is a little on the villainous side. I should maybe work on that. Or build on it, now that I'm on a worldwide road trip to kill horrible people? Do... villains get scared by scary costumes?...

Never mind, getting sidetracked.

I look around. If I were Mannequin, where would I-? thump

glurtch

Then I'm shoved from behind and I hit the floor, drowning in my own blood.


The next... two minutes, let's say, are very, very stressful.

I keep thinking I'll be fine, I just need one second alone, that's all. I keep not getting that second. I'm face-down on the ground, clutching at my slit throat, which doesn't help any because Mannequin stabbed me from behind into my lungs right between my ribs the bastard. People are screaming, and it's pretty clear everybody's attention is on Mannequin, but apparently there are too many people who can clearly see me. Fuck the floor plan for this place, in its horrible, Verizon-esque open glory. I try crawling toward a desk, but when I'm nearly there Mannequin hooks me in passing and pulls/pushes me pretty much right back to where I started, taking a moment to silently wag a finger at me before he goes back to killing civilians and scaring the shit out of Wetworks.

I'm only hearing half a conversation, which frankly I wasn't expecting there to be even half a conversation in the first place so... what?

"Oh jeez! Oh fuck! I-I-"

Metal scraping against concrete, I think.

"I can fix the guilt! I-I swear, if you... if you want to forget, I can fix that, or-"

click

"Nonononono-"

clickety-clack

Then there's gunshots. I find myself vaguely wondering if it's that police officer from before. There's also a lot of screaming, which largely seems to be moving away. I think Wetworks is whimpering, and if it's her I'm hearing she's not moving. I'm disappointed, again. I'd been hoping she didn't flee because she was confident in her ability to defend herself, honestly, but she's just... cowering, and she was pleading earlier. I dunno if she can defend herself but isn't trying or if she's just that limited as a tinker, but either way it... frustrates me.

Things are starting to go fuzzy around the edges. I find myself thinking shouldn't this concern me? but the thought doesn't stick. Like... yeah. I'm dying? And your point is?

I rouse a little when I start hearing a rattling, like a window being shaken in its frame by wind. It takes a long, long time to put that together in a meaningful way, the world seeming slow and lazy to match my crawling thoughts.

Shatterbird.

Then things happen fast.

Mannequin zips through my vision, leaping over a counter and vanishing, and I vaguely wonder when and why the gunshots stopped. Then the world explodes, and it hurts, and there's screams and screams and-

-I'm the monster.

There.

I ignore the impulse to look outside and see the havoc Shatterbird has wreaked. I can't spare the time or attention. Luckily, Mannequin is already unfolding from behind the counter, and even more luckily when his gaze swings my way I remain the monster, as I'd hoped when planning this. My lunge completes and I stab and stab, but while Mannequin seem to be basically human in his reaction times, my limbs initially skip off his white surface. He takes a swing at me, and I ignore it -the blade skims right off my skin to no effect. He springs upward smoothly, grabbing onto a lamp dangling from the ceiling and folding himself up, but I lunge up and strike the lamp's cord, and he drops like a stone. He unfolds smoothly, and when he impacts the ground he breaks apart into segments, connected by chains. I don't remember reading about that. I put a stop to that, a limb stabbing through each chain and into the floor, and I've still got limbs to spare, which I use to stab into other gaps in the links and start pulling them apart.

There's bending, twisting, not quite breaking-

-and I'm me. Fuck.

Mannequin pops back to his feet, reconnecting. His left hand fails to slot in properly, and he appears to glance at it for a moment. It pops off, hitting the ground with a clatter and he looks back at me and wags one finger on his remaining hand. I'm backing away, trying to look around, figure out what the problem is, my attention only half on Mannequin. He cocks his head, aimed a little lower than 'meeting' my eyes, but I'm not sure what he's looking at. Finally, I spot Wetworks, who is peeking just over her counter, staring right at me-

"Get the fuck down!" I snap out.

Mannequin's gaze slides to her for just a moment before a trio of blades pop out of each wrist and begin spinning while he lunges but Wetworks eeps and ducks down and I'm the monster.

To Mannequin's credit, he smoothly turns his attack into bouncing away, shaking his head at me like I'm a naughty child. I manage to scratch his chest fuck he's trying to get outside! I slam him to the right, where he hits a wall, spasms into separate parts, and drops to the floor. I'm reorienting after the awkward shift in my aerial momentum, and there's a heart-stopping moment where I'm me again but then I'm the monster and Mannequin pops back up with a hostage, handless arm threatening to bring those rotary blades through the man's throat on a moment's notice. The man is staring at me, gulping convulsively, and... ugh. One eye has a piece of glass driven into it. I see other minor cut wounds, here and there, but mostly his clothes seem to have protected him well enough. I think he starts to say please, but he can't complete it so I'm not sure and my attention is on Mannequin, who is exaggeratedly looking back and forth between the man's head and me.

I hold still, myself again. Mannequin adjusts his gripping arm so the elbow is holding the man in place rather than the hand -his long limbs make this disturbingly easy- and then he waves his one hand in front of the man ("no I di'n't do nuthin' ple") back and forth, back and forth, palm open like someone doing the, "Earth to Taylor," routine to the man. He's clearly watching me transform, back and forth.

Shit.

The hand shifts to just the pointer finger held out, though the motion remains unchanged. Naughty naughty. Then Mannequin stands fully up, lifting the man as he goes and keeping the man's head pointed my way with his one hand and then-

the man closes his eye and starts murmuring prayers to God

-I lunge and Mannequin drops the man with an unceremonious shove in my direction but the man's eye remains closed and he hits the ground bonelessly ("ple, jus' thi' once") while I effortlessly redirect and then Mannequin dives to his right and I swear I hear springs but I'm faster and I manage to block his motion with my body and we land in a tangled mess of chains and cutting limbs and he abruptly tightens against me, the slack in the chains gone and his limbs tied around each other, but I don't feel anything and I take the opportunity to barrel toward an Employees Only door while hooking my limbs into the links of his chains -I try to go for the ones I've already stretched, but only catch one, but it's fine- and I put pressure on him and keep going and we hit the door but a couple of chains pop loose and abruptly most of his body disengages from our tangled mess.

I stall for a moment, caught on the fact that his head was left behind, that can't be right, but the rest of his body -got two legs and an even shorter arm, but he's still wagging one finger on his complete arm- is making its way without apparent issue toward the nearest window. No. I hurl the bits he's left behind toward him, aiming for his legs and I chase him, but he simply jumps away before the assorted parts can hit him and he's getting away! No!

He rebounds, as if there's still glass in the window. There's a brief moment where I see purple sparks, and then the effect fills in as an opaque, purple barrier resembling thick glass. I distantly hear a voice calling out, "Cage match, motherfucker! See how you like it!" and all the other windows, as well as the door, seal in the same way, one after the other so fast I'm not sure I'd have realized it wasn't simultaneous if I wasn't the monster. Everything drops into that state where I can tell I'm seeing right through shadows, and it dawns on me the lightbulbs must've exploded. Duh.

Mannequin's body turns to face me, and then he leans down to scoop up one of the bodies on the floor but I'm still faster and I slam into him but then I realize he planned for that because he somehow arranges for the momentum to launch him closer to a panel missing from the ceiling I didn't notice earlier, I think it's right about where I was standing when he shanked me, and it takes a moment for me to reorient myself but it's fine.

It's fine.

He thinks I can't follow, because I'm bigger than him.

But I can, and I do, and now that we're in this crawlspace?

He can't dodge.


I take the time to tear open and shred every single white segment's fucked-up organic insides. (The main body is actually two separate segments, and his brain is in the righthand one. It's nowhere near where even someone with flipped organ positions would have their heart, if he were human) It's hard, even as the monster, but I figure out the trick of prying at the connection points to get started, and once I've got that figured out it's a lot easier. Since everything is dark, I don't even have to worry about Wetworks -or one of the civilians- reverting me to myself and interrupting the process.

Though everybody keeps making horrified sounds every time I manage to tear open and tear into one of the bits of Mannequin.

Once that's done, I feel... satisfied. I did good. I definitely did good. Now I just need to get out, see if I can... hrm. Dammit, I was bleeding out when the Scream happened. I didn't notice at all if it was going in a particular direction. Maybe I'll be able to see it if I get outside?... but I need to get outside, first, and the cape hasn't dropped the barriers.

Hm. Can't talk as the monster. If I try to break out, she'll... probably just cover it with another violet wall. Can't really afford to burn time on just waiting, or else the Nine will be too prepared for me. I need out now. And... since I can't talk, not a lot I can do to convey to these people that I'm not Mannequin. Oh, ew, they might think I am Mannequin. Gross. Now I need brain bleach.

Fuckit.

I go through the Employee's Only door, tear through what looks to me like drywall, and whatever it is it definitely works and I've got a hole into another store and I'm me, a couple of people looking up from the injured they were in the middle of bandaging. I mean, these people are injured too, but it's not nearly as severe as the people on the ground. Oh god. I think this was a store selling glass ornaments.

I start marching past. "Mannequin's dead-" Jaws drop, but they don't really look like they believe me. I think it's more that someone would have the gall to claim it that's what they're reacting to. "-somebody needs to let purplemisswall-"

"Banger? She helped?"

Ignoring that. "-know that she needs to drop the barriers so the people inside can get medical attention."

And then I'm out the door, glass crunching most every step. And... it's really hard to tell, because there's so much glass so many places... but I think I see a pattern. I think she's... north-northwest. Huh. Deep into downtown. I guess that makes sense.

I start running, ignoring the chaos and death around me. Later. I mean, I can't even feel guilt anyway, but this is most certainly not the time. I can't let myself be bothered by the bodies. The car wrecks. The way people have been shredded by glass. The way there's blood everywhere.

I can't.

A cape with gold teeth tries to hail me, but I ignore him too, and he can't catch up before I dive into the river.


The river has some bodies, now. Not many, but enough to make this feel very different from when I was using it as a superhighway earlier.

I blot that out, too, and just... run.

I spot Shatterbird during one of my hops to the surface. She's not where I thought she'd be, though she's also engaging in a running fight with a man whose arms seem to be shapeshifting silvery blades/whips/whatever. I walk closer, trying to think this through, taking my time. There's too many witnesses. I can't be the monster like this. I need a plan.

For a moment I'm thinking the man will actually win, when one of his blade-whips slams into Shatterbird's arm, like it's going to go through, but... it just stops. There's not even that much blood, and Shatterbird barely reacts. Physically. She's pretty clearly done with him, because Shatterbird pulls a bunch of glass straight at him, from every direction at once. He tries to shield himself, his arms expanding into something like a dome, but it doesn't work. By the time I'm close enough to see Shatterbird's lower face -the upper half is under a stained-glass helmet- he's already fallen over, dead. She looks... gleeful.

Without even looking my way she comments, "Don't think I didn't detect you, little fool."

Well, shit.

She rotates to face me, wings also of stained glass, and a stained-glass 'suit' completing her image. She... looks like she's just wearing fancy clothing, no protection at all, but I notice that only her lower face and hands are actually exposed flesh. I'm standing in a shadow, and I'm not the monster. I glance about, but there's too many people, too close, their attention on me the instant Shatterbird's turned to me. The ones further out try to leave, but then they jerk and cry out. One hits the ground, clutching at the back of her ankle. Shatterbird, preventing them from leaving with the glass, with cutting them.

This was a mistake.

In a voice that carries, Shatterbird remarks, "You know, before you took a vacation Jack was talking up your work, dear."

Um. What?

Shatterbird nods. "Silverstreak there... he disappointed me. Not a vicious bone in his body, ganger or no." Uuuuuh.

Shatterbird smiles, and it looks... off. "So I'm thinking I'll be nominating you, dear Monster."

What.

The smile turns ugly, vicious.

"So here's my challenge to you, dear:"

"Run run, as fast as you can... oh, but not too fast, or else these poor dears might be lost! Twelve hours, and you'll be as good as one of us! So."

"Run."

5.4

A-alright.

Fuck.

I back up a step, not really thinking about it. Shatterbird laughs a little behind one hand. Is that something people actually do? Okay apparently Shatterbird does it fuck what do I do.

"Oh don't be in such a hurry, child. I haven't even explained the rules here."

I can't attack her. There's too many people looking at me, too many of them, I can't... even if I were willing to just cut them down as a solution it wouldn't work. For so many reasons.

"No assistance, of course. Oh, I won't hold it against you if some sap throws himself to his doom in a misguided effort to help you, but if I catch you signaling for help?" Glass leaps up and holds itself to the throats of people for a moment. "You get the idea, I'm sure." The glass drops to the ground without a sound.

Whatever, you're just going to kill them anyway, I'm sure. I've already got a pretty good profile on you from Cherie, and I don't think it fits your MO to threaten people and then let them go free.

"You can't leave the city, either. You flee into the ocean? I do another scream. You get out of my sight for more than, oh, let's say one minute. Then I do another scream."

She can do more than one scream per city?

FUCK.

That... makes her a lot higher priority of a target. Like, just below Bonesaw.

"Now don't you worry about playing rough. I promise I'll forgive you if you get blood on my glass-" I think she's serious. She can't be serious. I think she is. "-and we'll be the best of friends, I'm sure. I can appreciate a bit of ruthlessness in a girl. Or a lot, in your case."

Wait. Wait a goddamn second.

This isn't for me, it's for our audience.

Which means if I don't beat her rhetoric, I lose the war even if I win the battle. If I kill her, but she's poisoned everyone into thinking of me as worse than a member of the Nine, there will be no going back, no penitence, no explaining that I was trying to help.

And yes, the people looking at me are... earlier? They were afraid, and they were looking at me, but those were unrelated. Now they're looking at me with fear.

How am I supposed to fight what I can't cut?

Ugh. Um. What would Cher- no that's an awful idea Cherie is Cherie. Obviously she'd try to sed- oh god.

Oh god.

This is either the best idea or the worst idea.

I blurt out, "You're hot." Goddammit Taylor you are fucking retarded.

The people on the ground look horrified. Some of them recoil like they've been slapped. Shatterbird stops, and just looks at me for a second. "Excuse me?"

Damn the torpedoes! "You totally are." Oh no I sound like Emma with a crush. No, now I need brain bleach. Again.

Hm. Now Shatterbird looks offended, mouth twisted into an unhappy grimace. "Lesbian." She spits the word out in such a disgusted manner I half-expect to actually see some kind of horrid thing come out. Odd.

Wait no I'm not! "!" Wait shit the plan calls for me pretending I am. Oblivious, oblivious, come on oblivious, time to channel Cherie. "Well, duh. Why else would I have come to the ends of the Earth-" Okay Chicago isn't actually that far away from Brockton Bay but it's a Cherie thing to say. "-after a totally hot babe if I wasn't willing to hit that."

Oh now she looks pissed. Or maybe she's blushing. "You disgusting little whore."

"Okay cool you like dirty talk I can totes do that for you honey." Somebody in the crowd cackles at that. Then he drops, shrieking in pain. Shatterbird doesn't even turn to look at the guy.

"I am going to enjoy this." She's floating ominously toward me as hundreds of shards of glass float up around her. It's clear she's trying to be threatening.

Which is exactly why I give my brightest, most idiotically thrilled, "Me too! I'm so glad we're on the same wavelength. It's like we were made for each other!" while smiling as wide as I can and holding out my arms like I intend to hug her.

She stops, brought to an abrupt halt. "Y-you're serious. Girl, do you know who I am? I am Shatterbird, ruiner of-"

"Beds, yeah, totally. I'm sure I'm not your first action." Then I add, on impulse. "You'll be my first, though."

I think I'm starting to see why Cherie does this. Shatterbird is agape and if I could take a picture of this moment I would, so it's a good thing I can't because that would totally ruin this utterly idiotic plan. Hahaha it's a good thing being happy is a part of the act or oh god I'd be fucked.

I wink at her. She stammers. I think it's actually outrage, but I pretend to misunderstand it anyway. "Yeah, I know, I'm too hot. We're a matched set!" No I'm not hot but this is working. And funny. But more importantly it's working. She's totally and completely forgotten her train of thought and is just blue screen of deathing at the stupidity of what's in front of her. The absurdity of it. Also she seems to have a thing against lesbians so possibly the fact that a girl is hitting on her is mashing some berserk button of hers. That works too.

Ah, but apparently I've finally gone too far because she stops posturing. A single glass shard shoots along, cutting right through the scarf and leaving me with a ragged cut through my right cheek, and she hisses out, "Know that you brought this on yourself, little bitch." Well, yeah. I could've not stalked the Nine, or just not run after Shatterbird with no real plan like an idiot. Glass flies up to complete her 'helmet', adding protection for her lower face, and many many more shards rise up, pointed toward me, rotating slowly and lazily.

My attention hasn't been just on baffling Shatterbird, and I've spent my time identifying a storefront and planning out a route, so with one last, "Oh, don't deny the attraction, babe," I dash as fast as I can on merely-human legs, cutting around cars and semi-randomly hopping to dodge attacks. I hear more than see glass shards launched like bullets at me, which keep missing. If I didn't have Cherie's aid, I'd probably be wondering right about now why she's so bad at this, but as-is I'm pretty sure she's trying to force me into being a scared victim she can feel good about dominating. Hm. Cherie would turn that into innuendo, I should keep that in mind.

I'm also actually getting cut up, but it's always 'close calls', and I still manage to occasionally become the Monster for just long enough to heal it off so it's not really a problem. Stings a bit, I guess.

Then I throw myself inside a storefront. I was sort of hoping to become the monster, but no there's people hiding inside and several of them are locked on me. That's okay. I keep going, stop for a second to grab a blanket whose plastic container seems to have been slashed open by the Scream, and I get to an emergency stairwell currently open and now I'm the monster, rushing up to the second floor, where I rush a window and go diving out blanket-first.

I slam into something and I have a few moment as the monster to stab as many times as I can, but it's... odd. I punch through what's probably the glass easily enough, but then I hit something below the skin and my limbs stop, sometimes catch, slowing me down and then the blanket has fallen away enough that some of the hostage audience can see me clearly so I am myself again and I clumsily try to grab onto Shatterbird and say, going for hot and breathy and probably failing, "You like to play rough, babe."

Shatterbird shrieks, as in people flinch and wince away while scattered shards of glass explode like grenades and I'm the monster just long enough, in the open, to stab her in the throat right through her glass and... that's less blood then there should be. A lot less blood. And a rather shallow wound.

Then I'm myself again, dangling, my arms wrapped behind Shatterbird's neck. She's looking right at me. She speaks through the glass helmet, somewhat distorted, but sounding conversational rather than angry. "Good effort, nice out-of-the-box thinking. I stand by my nomination, bitchling."

Goddammit.

On impulse I lean forward and make like I'm kissing her helmet and she punches me in my left ear. "That's enough of that. I can appreciate psychological warfare, but you lack creativity and finesse. You are boring me. Keep this routine up and the deaths will be on your conscience."

Ow. That doesn't feel good at all.

I drop to the ground, landing awkwardly. Shatterbird wasn't flying all that high up, so I don't break anything, but it's not a pleasant fall, and I don't really land right. Something is off, probably from the punch. Ow. Was not expecting her to punch me. She doesn't seem like a puncher. At least I didn't land on any of the captive audience. Ow.

I stagger around for a moment. Then a member of the crowd shoves me, hard, and abruptly things shift from me vs Shatterbird to me vs an angry crowd of civilians. People are scared, and I could sort of be viewed as at fault, if Shatterbird is keeping her circle of hostages purely to have eyes on me, so I sort of understand, but it doesn't change the fact that I'm a teenage girl with a crowd of people dogpiling onto me and it vaguely reminds me of the locker with the dark and I'm being compressed and people are yelling and calling out names and I-

Wait.

The guy hunched directly over me is holding a finger to his lips in a shhhh signal. What?

"Ah, humans at their most primal." Shatterbird seems to be trying to sound conversational, but she has to shout to be overheard so it loses something. "Can't trust anyone to not turn on you in anger and hatred, can you? Oh, but here I am talking to a corpse. Yes, good job people, you've earned your freedom. As promised I will not touch a single hair on your heads from now on. Go along now."

I get the idea, finally, and relax, lay as still as I can with my eyes closed so I won't be blinking.

Shatterbird's voice comes from a lot closer. "I appreciate the artistry of a good beating, you know."

Then there's the sound of rushing air, and I hear... I'm not sure what, exactly. There's a chaotic racket, and then a man's voice hissing in pain. Then Shatterbird talks. "Oh no no no, Protectorate boor. You're not a part of the game, I'm quite certain of that. Not even Hatchet Face would pick you, please. You're not near-"

whoosh and then something like fire burning.

"-as I was saying, you are not nearly in my league. Go home and play with your dolls, little wizard, because it is only my infinite graciousness that keeps me from enacting a penalty. Oh, hello Burnscar. Sorry, I picked Monster first, and she disappointed. Why are you-"

I am getting really tired of laying around, not knowing what's going on properly, while stuff happens around me. And... what?

Then there's a burst of heat and oh shit that feels close I scramble to my feet-

"Oh you little shits."

-and Burnscar is hurling fireballs, teleporting away from Shatterbird's glass projectiles to appear from other patches of fire, and holy shit I can see glass melting in some of the deeper fires and oh god I'm going to be cooked alive aren't I.

I dash for a comparatively open space, but glass jams itself into my back with enough force I botch a step and faceplant into the asphalt and I catch a glimpse of Myyrdin doing something aimed at Shatterbird and Shatterbird is going up, up, up some more, but Burnscar keeps lobbing fireballs at anything vaguely flammable up in buildings so she can teleport up from some precarious perch and if she falls she just teleports in a burst of flame. Sometimes a standing fire just whooshes higher for no real reason and then, in all the chaos of fire and smoke finally I become the monster and immediately dash out of the 'ring' of fire to relative safety and what the fuck why is Cherie here and not in costume or in her suit.

I don't stop being the monster until I'm practically on top of her -she's on a motorcycle- and she opens her eyes, grinning like a loon. "What the fuck, Cherie."

Her grin widens. "Burnscar is iiiinteresting, boss. I can still generate feelings in her, temporarily, enough to influence her direction, and oh man she gets more impulsive the more fire there is in the area." I make a go on motion, impatient. Cherie's grin is now so wide I don't think it can go any further. She looks like a nut. "So I managed to talk to her, because she's quite the talker-" CHERIE CONFRONTED BURNSCAR OUTSIDE OF HER FUCKING SUIT? The grin falters for a moment. "-oh come on don't be like that I totally knew what I was doing. So anyway! I got to talking and it turns out her relationship with the Nine is not so good but Shatterbird in particular apparently grates on her for whatever reason mass-murdering psychopaths get mad about when they're roomies and so I just... made her mad every time Shatterbird's name got mentioned. And then she had this idea aaaall by herself that she'd go and kill Shatterbird. Two birds with one stone!"

I stare at her for a moment. That pun was not an accident.

Cherie rolls her eyes. "You're just jealous of my kickin' rad skills." Then her grin comes back, a lot more genuine. "Oh, and I totally killed the gornhobo. I mean, I had to quit with being flirty because I reminded him of a wife or daughter or something of the sort but then it was just a matter of making him feel even more sad and then going in, listening to him cry about blah blah witch's brew and 'fate of the world' and other crazy hobo nonsense while I made sympathetic noises until he was finally so far gone I could slit his throat without him noticing or, really, caring that much." She pauses for a second. "There was this totally weird flickery effect nearby for a bit, all white and black and stuff, but then I jammed the knife into the base of his skull and that stopped. So yeah he definitely had some kind of power, but I win. No twenty hats of eating for me. What's my prize?" She holds her arms out wide, like she's expecting a hug.

Whatever. Not a member of the Nine, not important. Not indulging Cherie's... Cherieness right now, either.

"Cherie, the idea is we'd deal with Hatchet Face using the suit's gun. Neither of us can deal with him on our own."

She waves her hands wildly. "No no, boss, you got it all wrong, we've got Burnscar now! I just need a minute to aim her at the guy after Shatterbird is toast -heh- and she'll reduce him to ashes without ever getting into his stupid radius." She pauses. "Unless Crawler gets here first, I guess."

My eyes bug out. "Crawler is coming here? Now?"

Cherie waves a hand dismissively. "Yeah, I think he noticed Shatterbird and Burnscar are fighting each other and got curious. We got a bit, though, he's not that fast." Pause. "Okay admittedly I thought Shatterbird would already be de- shit."

I don't like that expression at all.

"Okay onto the bike let's go!"

I hop to because after all these fearless stunts if Cherie is worried it's gotta be bad. I end up behind Cherie, which means I end up the monster, which means the motorcycle is not that workable.

"Shit. Okay, um, I guess you can follow behind for the moment."

I hop off backward, still the monster, watching how the motorcycle noticeably rises up now that my weight is off of it, and then Cherie guns the engine and starts driving -she's driving on the sidewalk, come to think- and I'm following. I don't even know where we're going, other than away, but it looks to me like Cherie is moving with purpose. Then after a couple of blocks I'm myself again as we enter a region with more people and less smoke and fire, and Cherie has to stop too, not only to wait for me but also because a wrecked car is actually blocking off the sidewalk such that she doesn't have a good path for driving full speed in the first place.

Once I catch up on human legs, I climb aboard the motorcycle behind Cherie and she starts talking while maneuvering the motorcycle through a gap, the bike going painfully slowly. "Shatterbird killed Burnscar, not sure why that match went that way, and now she's hunting for probably you and she is pissed. I thiiiink she might be considering a Scream, honestly, which I thought she could only do once-"

"She threatened me with more Screams if I didn't toe the line."

"-damn. Damn damn damn. Okay, we should get to cover." Pause. "I should get to cover, I guess."

Then we're on the other side of that impromptu barrier but Cherie still has to go slow because there's a distressing number of people lying around, not actually dead, or moving about, trying to attend to the wounded. In fact, I think this might be?-

I startle, noticing a vaguely star-themed vehicle-

"Oh nice Batmobile. But gold. I love it."

-which... I guess Stardust's tinkertech isn't vulnerable to the Scream? So. Shit, we're intruding on what amounts to a makeshift hospital. I hiss at Cherie, "We need to go, this is a hospital."

I can't see her actually doing it, but I'm certain Cherie is rolling her eyes. "Okay fine Boss."

Then there's a goddamn knife against my throat held by someone standing just behind me. When did that get there? Cherie startles, head whipping around.

A female voice, either an older teen or a younger woman, speaks from right against the back of my skull. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you."

Cherie frowns. "Hey come on, she's fighting the Nine."

The voice sounds unimpressed. "Sure looks like a fanboy." Goddammit I am not that masculine-looking. And my costume isn't that edgy. Is it?

So then I speak up in my defense. "I'm not here to join the Nine. I'm here to kill the Nine." Pause. Amend that. "Most of them, I mean."

Cherie 'helpfully' chimes in with, "Boss totes means it, you know."

"Very convincing."

I frown. "Look, if Ch- Pride wanted to, she could make you trust us and back off without you even realizing it. Can you just accept we're not the bad guys here?"

Cherie wiggles a hand at the woman -Haunt?- and widens her grin. After a moment the knife disappears -literally- and the woman grudgingly says, "Good enough, I guess."

Not comfortable with how we're just sitting around at the moment. I want to move. Hate that the Nine kicked this off noon-ish. It's going to take so long for the sun to go down, far far too long. Actually, a thought occurs: I lean toward Cherie's ear and whisper, "Any sign of the Siberian? She anywhere near us?"

Cherie shudders a little, then pastes a smile on her face. Then it gives way to a genuine-looking frown. "Huh. I... haven't heard anything suggesting she's running around at all. At any point. Weird."

That's... disturbing. Why would the Siberian, of all people, be sneaking about?

"Shit." I don't recognize the voice. "Everybody take cover!"

Um. I glanc- oh. The glass is vibrating. Oh shit the glass I forgot!

I throw myself over Cherie, trying to protect her with my body. I can take hits and heal them, she can't. She squeaks, and after a moment seems to catch on and closes her eyes. There's still -there we go, I'm the monster. Yeah, everybody who can't get to cover from the glass shards is curling into a ball, covering their face as best they can with jackets/arms/etc, and squeezing their eyes shut in anticipation, and that's why I'm the monster.

Which is good, because after a few more seconds of vibrating, the assorted glass shards explode into smaller shards like grenades going off. I abruptly realize my awareness is accelerated as the monster -I've been taking it for granted that I could keep up with my own speed, outside of my strikes, and it's only now that I'm seeing the shards fracture, shoot apart as discrete little knives of glass, and keep going that I really appreciate how my mental state is accelerated as the monster. I think as Taylor I'd have just known that a shard exploded, not seen it in any real detail. I'm even able to move to intercept a handful of specific shards that would've shot between limbs and hit Cherie, that's how fast I am.

Wow.

"Amazing, huh?" Cherie quips, eyes still closed.

The screams and moans start up. A lot of people got to some kind of cover, but there's tons of injured.

Shit. This is my fault. I should've stuck around. Shatterbird did this because of me, she said she'd do more Screams if I strayed from her sight, and okay yeah Cherie sicced Burnscar on her but it didn't work. (Why didn't it work? I'm surprised Shatterbird isn't dead. I saw her get hit with at least one stream of flame, I could've sworn) I need to go back.

"Cherie, point me to Shatterbird."

"What? No! You are not a good match for her, boss! Not with her taking hosta-" Cherie stops abruptly, and then a wide, cruel grin takes over. "You know what? Never mind, she's an idiot, let's go."

I blink, confused, but obligingly stay aboard the motorcycle as Cherie takes off. It's not in the direction we just came from, and I have a moment of doubt-

"Oh god come on Boss she moved." I can barely hear her over the wind.

-but yeah, that makes sense.

We take a confusing, twisting path I don't really understand, and come to a halt just past the edge of a building -at which point I spot Shatterbird, and she apparently spots us, as she starts drifting our way while pulling glass in her wake, a cloud of glittery death. I notice she's not keeping any hostages. Strange.

Cherie's muttering aloud, and I'm not sure if it's for my benefit or if she doesn't realize I can hear her. "Come on come on madder don't think just follow you're super-pissed yes, madder, madder, almost, yes."

Abruptly she starts the motorcycle moving again, taking the moment to flip off Shatterbird. I think she giggles. Shatterbird, meanwhile, accelerates -though I note she doesn't seem to go that fast- and pursues, glass shards shooting forward like bullets. We exit her line of sight, and keep going, Cherie crowing aloud, "Come on Boss, trust me here!"

I... okay, fine. Cherie has a plan. Of some kind. I'll... go along.

I flicker back and forth between being the monster and not being the monster as we go along, which Cherie struggles to compensate for. I keep expecting the motorcycle to finally skid or something. For that matter, I keep expecting to run over someone in the process, but we're mostly not even seeing particularly large groups and people keep freaking out and rushing to get out of our way- oh. Clever. She's jolting them with fear or something so they notice us on their own and hurry to get out of the way. The ones who can't, Cherie maneuvers around.

For someone so bad at driving the truck, she's surprisingly good with this motorcycle.

Finally I have an inkling of what Cherie's driving at: an enclosed art gallery for blown glass, which she drives right inside, where everyone is very obviously very dead. Cherie brings the motorcycle to a stop, hops off, and as she's running off to hide in a closet -literally- she calls back "You do your thing while I do mine!"

So... basically the plan was make Shatterbird so pissed she didn't stop to think and realize this is an obvious ambush? And with nobody alive in here, even though there's skylights keeping it fairly well lit, she's got no hostages unless she herds people in, so nobody to keep an eye on me, prevent me from being the monster except Shatterbird herself. But... she can see me.

I'm back to being skeptical of Cherie's plan.

Right up until she wedges her way into the room, looking directly at me through her stained glass helmet of course! I remain the monster, and I lunge as she's snarling, "-going to make you regret ever being born- wait."

I can see, through the fractured, distorted glass helmet, her eyes widening as it dawns on her that I'm still the monster, and she- narrows her eyes, pissed off, and instead of retreating like an intelligent person she moves to meet me, hurling glass ineffectually against my surface. In fact, she starts shrieking invective and hurling insults and abuse, and at one point starts hitting me with her fists. She's astonishingly hard to put down, and eventually I realize there's some kind of armor underneath her skin, over her bones -and muscles?- that's protecting pretty much everything that matters, and I adjust my technique to account for that and start tearing at the armor.

Eventually a strike goes through her heart -and she coughs up blood, but just keeps swearing. Goddamn Bonesaw. It has to be Bonesaw's work. So then I widen that hole and start pulling out every individual organ -and several of them are protected by their own personal layer of this fucking ridiculous armor, slowing things down- and tearing apart anything that looks vaguely technological. Shatterbird is literally spitting mad, though it's more blood than spit at this point, but finally her glass falls away, even her helmet collapsing into an incoherent mess of glass shards hiding her face. She's dead.

Fucking hell.

Cherie bursts back out of the closet, and makes a rude gesture in Shatterbird's general direction. Then she turns to face me, and I'm no longer the monster. A glance at my hands, expecting blood, finds them... well, the gloves are cut up, but there's no blood. I'm strangely clean. I always am, but it feels really weird after literally digging out a woman's vital organs with my bare ha- limbs.

"You made her too mad to think, right?" I ask. Cherie nods, looking extremely self-satisfied. I nod back. "Good plan. I... I fucked that up, and you salvaged it. Good job, Cherie."

Aaaaand now she's got the widest goddamn grin and my skin is crawling.

Before I can say anything she abruptly says, "So Jack next, right? We're not far away, and he finally separated from Bonesaw like fifteen minutes ago.."

I abort my intent to bring up the creepy grin. Later. The Nine are the goal right now.

I gesture toward the motorcycle, and we go.


Jack, it turns out, is merrily cutting his way through a mall. By the time we arrive, Bonesaw has wandered quite far away. Crawler is... somewhat uncomfortably close, wandering in our general direction, but he keeps getting into fights and it's such a meandering path Cherie thinks it's just a coincidence he's coming our way. Hatchet Face is actually in the middle of killing what Cherie is fairly sure is a Protectorate cape -I wince, and again wish Cherie had stuck to the goddamn plan and brought the suit so we could snipe the bastard- and... that's it. Jack Slash seems to be semi-skulking about. He's being fairly open about just... hunting down and killing civilians, but he's tense as hell and when other capes fly nearby -usually heading toward Crawler or Hatchet Face, apparently- he arranges to go unnoticed. He's apparently rather good at it. It gives me some idea of how so pathetic a man has lasted so long all these years. He's not as ridiculous as Mannequin was, but you'd still basically need a fairly impressive sensory power to chase him down as easily as we are.

"Like me," Cherie remarks. She smiles, and drops me off with instructions on how to find him, while she goes around to a different entrance to start peeling away potential victims and/or flank the man.

Alright. This... my mind says this will be easy, my gut says that a man who lasted twenty years as part of the Nine has to have a trick or twenty up his sleeve.

We'll see which is right.


"Oh, hello there Monster. I don't suppose you know where Haunt has wandered off to? Silly girl, she hasn't stuck around long enough hear out the rules of this game."

Jack Slash, looking casual, toying with a knife. I was trying to sneak up on him, come up behind him and ambush him, but he must've heard me or something because he's facing right toward me as I turn the corner. Damn. And this mall has significant skylights, so it's not nearly as dark as I thought it might be.

I shrug. "She's slippery." Then I gesture at him, trying to go for a commanding tone. "Are you willing to repent, Jack?"

He cocks his head, and I notice his eyes are... on his knife. Hmmm. Is he looking at the reflection to see behind him? That's a rather nicely polished knife he has there. "You know, I have rather a lot of respect for your work, Monster."

I blink. What? No, wait. My lips curl into something ugly and angry. "I'm killing people like you to make the world a better place, Jack."

An eyebrow goes up. "Funny. You seem like the rulebreaker from here, dear child. Unwritten Rules? Ring a bell?" He makes an odd, wavey motion with the hand not playing with the knife.

I stare blankly at him. That's a laugh. "Just answer the damn question."

He ignores me, eyes still focused on the dancing knife rather than on me. "See, I was rather looking forward to seeing how you might perform as part of our art, as you? You cut to the heart of things." He smirks a little. I think the pun was deliberate. There's... no way he knows about me having killed Shatterbird, is there? "Ah, truth, justice, and the American way. A merry set of lies, no?"

If he doesn't answer the damn question I'm just rushing him.

"When really it's all about power. Those who can, murder. Those who can't, talk. Right? Right, I think anyone can see that by looking at parahumans, let alone politicians, and it's such a delight to see one so young as yourself -darling teen that you are- recognizing this truth. So many buy into the nonsense people like the Protectorate are sell-"

I charge, throwing my cape at him. A cut forms in it, but the momentary visual block is enough to-

-Shit, where'd he go?

He lands on me, having been apparently hanging from something above me. He jumped. Goddamn Bonesaw. The knife goes to my (currently human) neck.

"Rude. Don't interrupt your betters, child."

He blinks, and in the split-second I'm the monster I've bucked him off. There's a moment, as he's twisting through the air, where he's facing away from me, and I rush him and slam limbs into his back and shove him against a wall. He swings his knife blindly behind him, but I barely feel the projected cut skittering off my surface, and I knock it out of his hand. And the following one, when he grabs another from inside his jacket. This happens twice more before I just tear the jacket apart, and jeez that's a lot of knives.

I wait a moment, honestly expecting him to reveal a trick-

"Help! There's-"

I jam a limb between his teeth.

Alright, point. Drawing people to here to see me and revert me would be smart, if Cherie wasn't busily manipulating people away from Jack Slash's direction. It's... honestly a really creepy trick she has, but so useful here, where she can make people feel antsy if they're not going the way she wants and then make them feel relief as they move the way she wants and she can do this on multiple people at once, and so she's not even having to talk to them or anything. She just gets 'line of fire' on them and they start going. So, ahead of Jack Slash? Nobody. Behind him? The brutalized dead he's killed for... whatever fucking reason. I don't know. I don't care.

Still. I was expecting him to have another power. He couldn't have gotten by with just... this knife projection power, right? That's ridiculous.

Nonetheless, I tear out his eyes, and start work on surgically taking him apart. It's actually harder than with Shatterbird, and at one point stabbing into something causes a squirt of acid that melts the tip of the stabbing limb off, which for some fucking reason doesn't do anything to his flesh. I'm getting really concerned about the Bonesaw confrontation. Tinkers usually reserve their best stuff for themselves, I think. It seems logical, anyway. If so... wow. I don't even want to imagine what she's got.

I still need to figure out how to prevent her from unleashing a plague in the process of killing her.

I'm halfway through taking him apart, with no truly nasty surprises, when Cherie walks up with her eyes closed. "Dude's turned off his pain receptors, I think. He's weirdly calm about this, so he can still come back from what you've done, I'm guessing. Probably Bonesaw can fix him."

Hm. I haven't gotten around to tearing into his cranium, because I figured it wasn't really necessary and the skull is reinforced and my limbs keep wanting to skitter off of it, but with this information I suspect I need to destroy the brain. I forcibly turn his head about -a pain, with how the spine has been reinforced- and use the eye sockets as leverage. Punch a limb into each one, push, and while I'm at it work at tearing apart everything else.

I'm tense, honestly expecting the Siberian to show up any moment now. Maybe the reason he just won't die is she likes him, swoops in and rescues him when this kind of thing happens. It's one of the more obvious possibilities, and frightening from where I'm standing.

Something goes crack, somewhere inside the skull, and Cherie reports, "Now he's panicking proper. He still thinks he can be rescued, I suspect, but he's no longer thinking you're failing to actually kill him."

It takes five minutes, but...

"Aaaand there he goes."

... finally the half-metal mess inside his skull is even more of a mess, nothing left even slightly intact.

I step back, letting Jack Slash's ruined corpse collapse to the ground, staring at it.

Well.

That...

That's an end of an era.

An era that should've ended a long time ago, but it still feels strange. I'm the one who killed Jack Slash -with Cherie's help, mind- and it just feels... it can't be that easy, can it? It's like finding out you can kill an Endbringer with hairspray. No, the mind goes. That isn't difficult enough. Someone would've done it a lot sooner. You're not special enough for it to be this easy.

"Hey, hey Boss. We need to go. Crawler's getting closer, and Bonesaw is... I'm not even sure what, but it can't be good."

I jerk, myself again. "R-right. Yeah. You're right, I shouldn't be wasting time on this." I take a deep breath. Pause. Look around at the bodies around us. "Wait a second, these are all Human Disciples. Jack indicated he'd nominated Haunt, though." I rub at my face. Okay. It's strange, but not important -though. That reminds me.

"I don't suppose you've identified Di Fu Ling. She's probably relatively obvious, and the firewalking girl might be useful for dealing with Bonesaw's plague."

Cherie cocks her head. "Don't think so, no, but if you're looking for-"

Cherie jerks, and Haunt's voice comes from behind me. "Ya know, Tidal is probably a better choice for containing a plague, or-"

Cherie shrieks. "How do you keep doing that and why?!"

Haunt ignores Cherie as I turn about to face her. "-maybe Banger, I'm not sure how permeable her shields actually are-"

I cock an eyebrow and interrupt. "I thought you didn't believe us?"

She gestures at the messy remains of Jack Slash. "He was basically the leader, ya? So basically either you meant it, or you're trying to take over, and you'd be planning on crowing to the world if it was the latter, right?"

I pause, thinking on that. "I guess."

She nods, ignoring how Cherie is making throttling motions in her general direction. Chill, Cherie, wow. "So I believe you, maybe. Anyway, Black Bishop is good if she didn't die in this mess-"

Both eyebrows go up. "What?" Black Bishop is about the last local cape I'd expect to be relevant. Well. Okay, after Campanile.

Haunt leans back, hip cocked. Odd stance. "Her teleport isn't just a stun or teleport. It's actually got a Trump effect, even works on Tinker gear, makes sure she's always safe on arrival. 's cool."

I pause. "Wait. You mean she can... un-tinker a Bonesaw plague?"

Haunt gives two thumbs up. I notice they're aimed at Cherie, who hasn't stopped trying to hate Haunt to death. "Exactly!"

Well. Okay. "Cherie, teleporters."

Cherie pulls herself together, gives me a cocky grin and a salute, and then glances over at Haunt and her expression falters. I look- she's gone. Right. Okay.

That's... creepy.

Aaaanyway. Cherie visibly pulls herself together. "Y-yeah, got... two teleporters, I think. Errr. Well, actually there's this one guy who's teleported other people, but-"

I interrupt her. "Whichever's closer."

She wrings her hands. "Errr. She's... actually in the fight against Crawler. If it's her, I mean."

I sigh. Great.

Abruptly Haunt is behind Cherie. "Yeah, that's her."

Then she's gone before Cherie can twist around, yeeep!ing and stumbling backwards into me-as-the-monster.

... all right. Wait. That's not what the internet said Haunt's power worked like. No, never mind, not important. Not a member of the Nine, so I don't care.

Fuck. Risk a Crawler fight to maybe get an assist for Bonesaw, or go to Boneasw post-haste and hope things go as smoothly as they did with Jack, or deal with Hatchet Face... or I suppose I could call this a win, leave and let other people handle what's left. I mean. Shit, I've killed three members of the Nine personally. That's insane. And Burnscar went down due to Cherie shenanigans, so that's four of them dead in one day thanks to us. Christ. Maybe 'Slaughterers of the Nine' is justified as-is.

... but no, one chance. The others... should still be unaware of me, unaware most of them are dead, and I don't want to waste that opportunity, I really really don't want to spend the rest of my life feeling like I could have killed Bonesaw and Hatchet Face and didn't. I... don't know how they normally keep track of each other... Hmm.

"Cherie, do the remaining Nine seem like they're moving toward a rendezvous point?"

Cherie looks thoughtful, tapping at her chin. "You know... I think they might be. Crawler's been drifting northwest for a while, Bonesaw is northwest of him, and Hatchet Face started moving west a couple minutes back, and he's east of her." She pauses again. "Actually, no, Bonesaw is moving toward us now." A pause. "I think they might be coming to this mall, actually."

Huh. Huh. Jack Slash was... waiting for his buddies to meet up? Is that why he was expecting to make it out of the fight? That they'd have shown up and Bonesaw would've revived him, if I hadn't taken him apart so thoroughly?

... shit, does that mean the Siberian's coming our way?

"Cherie, any sign of the Siberian?"

She makes a baffled sound. "No. Nothing. Seriously, nothing, ever. I don't get it."

Fuck, what is the Siberian doing?

...

"Executive decision. We're going to try to ambush them here."

Cherie grins crookedly. "Sweet, Boss. Sounds awesome."

Okay, traps. Bait. Ambush. "Who looks like they're going to get here first?"

Cherie makes a thoughtful humming sound. "Dunno. Bonesaw's moving erratically, Hatchet Face keeps getting distracted, Crawler keeps getting distracted... could be any of them."

Fuck.

Ugh.

"So hey I already let Black Bishop know. You can thank me later."

Jesus fuck!

Cherie actually throws a punch, but Haunt's gone by the time the punch swings through where her head was.

...

I don't think I like being on this end of Spooky Mobility Shit.

...

I... I guess we wait. I'm not sure there's much point to doing anything else. I mean... it's really really stupid of us to stay here. But. It's what I want to do.

...

Though- "Cherie, you don't have to stay if you don't want to. It's entirely possible the Siber-"

"Fuck no Boss I'm staying here with you."

...

"Okay."

5.p

Amy Dallon

Amy Dallon was exhausted. Walking home from school, wondering for the nth time why she hadn't taken the bus today (Answer: because people tried to talk to her on the bus, if Vicky wasn't there, which she wasn't), drove home how tired she felt. What she wanted to do was lie down and sleep for the next seven years, but she pressed on, backpack filled with homework, books, and still-incomplete schoolwork leftover from the Ellisburg thing.

Ugh. She understood why the Protectorate had... downplayed things, but it was horrible for her. It had taken a week to be reasonably sure every 'surprise' Nilbog had hidden away was dealt with, and she'd been on-site the whole time. Not what she'd been expecting when she was called up for a 'local emergency'. She couldn't exactly tell the school she'd been busy making sure no death-plagues took over the United States, so even with Arcadia's fairly understanding policies she was still being given some hell for how behind she'd gotten in her schoolwork. She still wasn't done catching up.

Nor had she fully caught up on her sleep. There'd been other people available, but none of them were as good as her at being certain a given problem at Ellisburg had been dealt with. Mostly she'd gotten any sleep at all by virtue of other people either 'creating' time for her to sleep -four hours of sleep in five minutes- or 'freezing' a problem until she'd had a rest. And even then she'd basically only slept four hours each night.

The two problems fed on each other, of course. She was tired, so homework and missed schoolwork took a while to do, and she made dumb mistakes. But since it all weighed heavily on her mind, she didn't get to bed as early as she ought to, to recover. Ha, 'doctor, heal thyself'. Can't take her own advice on getting plenty of bedrest and all... the guilt was gnawing at her too. She'd visited the hospital less than she usually did, because instead of laying in her bed, tormented by guilt, she was collapsed of exhaustion, out like a light.

Vicky's efforts to cheer Amy up hadn't helped much. The 'double-date' had just meant less time to solve problems, and clothes shopping was never fun for her anyway. (That she enjoyed seeing Vicky get dressed up did not mean she enjoyed the shopping trips, even before the guilt got factored in) Dean's sympathy had been a little nice, but he'd gotten uncomfortable after five minutes and re-focused on Vicky for whatever reason, and none of that made her any less exhausted.

Normally she'd be vaguely resentful of the fact that Carol had somehow talked the two families into going on... some kind of day off and arranged for her to not be included, but honestly? Right now she was glad that she'd have the house to herself for a few hours. Unless Mark was there. She wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be or not, and sometimes his depression derailed plans anyway.

"Hey!"

Okay, she was still way behind on math, and almost as behind on history. Should she finish getting caught up on social studies, or focus on making the worst ones less bad?

"Heeeey!"

Social studies. It tended to make her feel more relaxed. Part of why she was mostly caught up on it. She could use less stress, and having something done might help too.

"Miss, can I ask you a question?"

A gloved hand clapped against one shoulder, startling her.

"Anybody home in there?"

Still only half-paying attention, Amy fell back on her default: "I don't do autographs or requests." Being brusque was enough to drive off most people, whether by them becoming apologetic and understanding or them becoming offended. The remainder generally got scared off by ominous references to Carol's lega-

"I know."

Amy turned to face the woman bothering her without stopping her walk home. The woman was smiling. Something about the smile set Amy's teeth on edge. Even so. Amy frowned. It was easy, because she genuinely felt irritated, but it was also affected. "Then why are you bothering me, miss?..."

"I'm Monster's biggest fan, and I figured if anyone knew how to get in contact with a hero, it'd be another hero, and, well, I recognized you..."

Amy was burnt out enough it took her several seconds to realize the woman had sidestepped the question of her name. Odd. Not alarming, not yet, but odd. Then the actual sentence came together. Her frown got deeper. 'Monster'? She didn't know a cape named Monster. Didn't she? A thought tickled at the back of her brain. It sounded familiar... no, she couldn't remember it. So she shook her head, pasted an appropriate level of sympathy onto her face, and said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know who you're talking about."

The nameless woman's smile held, and she shook her head back and forth slowly. The unsettled feeling clenched Amy's gut. "I think you do, honey. And I really, really want to meet her. Be a pal for a gal?" It occurred to Amy that the hand on her shoulder was... gripping rather tightly. Something in the woman's eyes made Amy think of some deranged 'fans' she'd had the misfortune of meeting.

Shit.

Trying to look like she wasn't looking, she glanced over the woman's outfit. Yeah, the only place the skin was fully exposed was her face, and she had a scarf obscuring the lower portion of that. She was also wearing some kind of red beret, oversized. Somehow the woman made it look stylish, rather than like a hand-me-down. For that matter, the pink scarf was clearly massively outsized, and the gloved hand not gripping Amy's shoulder was idly playing with the end of the scarf, dangling down near her waist. So basically she could cover her face on a moment's notice, too.

Amy's right hand, out of the woman's sight, spasmed. She swallowed nervously, abruptly wide awake. Some part of her mind began rattling off the physiology underlying the process, the stress hormones being dumped into her system. Not that her power worked on her own body, but she saw it in other people often enough it was almost like it was burned into her mind. Also: not actually helpful. Disturbingly, the nameless woman's smile widened just a little, became somehow more genuine.

Need to stall for time. "Maybe if you described them to me, I'd remember?"

Amy's eyes darted around. No, nobody had noticed this little moment. The woman was probably a parahuman, too. Couldn't assume that breaking away and screaming for help would work. It might, or it might simply provoke the woman. Or it might work and get a chunk of bone hurled supersonically through her skull, availing her nothing. The woman felt like the right kind of unhinged for that.

The woman smiled fully, mouth full of perfect teeth. It didn't reach her eyes. "She's new on the scene, dresses in dark colors. I hear she got rid of Leet a bit back? I wanted to thank her, um, personally." The fluttered eyelashes and the tone made Amy think the woman is trying to pull off innuendo. Having seen real fans really do that, it looked fake to Amy. Like she was trying to obscure her real intentions.

But the words reminded her of something. Dean talked her into looking at Leet's... remains... a while back. Nobody was sure whether he was dead or not; the sphere kept dripping blood. Fresh blood. Apparently Armsmaster had taken a look, couldn't figure it out, gave up because he didn't want to kill Leet by taking it apart if Leet was actually still alive? Amy hadn't been able to determine anything, herself, beyond affirming that the blood was fresh -if she'd touched Leet before, she'd know whether it was his or not, but she hadn't, so she didn't. But... something...

... ah, yes.

That was where she'd heard the name 'Monster'. The woman who'd (Probably) killed Leet, supposedly by accident. It had come up once in the conversation with the PRT agent who'd shadowed them during that particular trip. That was why she didn't remember it before.

"I've never met Monster myself, and I don't know her... number or anything. I've only heard her name once, myself. I'm sorry, but I really can't help you." Amy winced, half-expecting the psycho to turn violent.

But no, she tapped thoughtfully at her lip with the hand that had been fingering the scarf, looking up.

Abruptly the pressure on Amy's shoulder -upper arm, really- vanished. Then she was clapped on the shoulder with a thwack! and a cheerful, "Your support is appreciated, citizen!"

Then the woman began to pull forward. Amy didn't relax. She was a little too confused to relax. Then the woman about-faced, began walking backward, maintaining pace with Amy, and in a voice of idle boredom said, "I like you. You're interesting."

Abruptly the face she wore was Amy's own face.

"I̴'v͝e n̶e͘ve̴r̕ m̵et ̕a̡n̡y͝one͢ w̡hose wor͏st͠ fea͡r ̢w҉as h҉e̴rsel̨f.̶"

Amy -the original Amy- heard the words, but what she saw was the other Amy growing what she knew would be a mind-control plague, one that would turn Amy herself into empress of all humanity. Her heart thudded too loudly in her chest-

"Ta!"

-and the woman wasn't Amy and there was no plague.

The woman turned and clicked ahead on her high heels.

Amy realized she'd stopped walking at some point. She looked around, but nobody else seemed to have noticed anything. Two people seemed a little unsettled, but that wasn't that unusual. Sometimes more blatant E88 gang members came through the area -yes, there were two thugs right now, carrying a boombox on one shoulder. The music sounded classical, though Amy couldn't have named it.

She looked back to where the nameless woman had gone, but couldn't find her.

Amy rubbed at her eyes tiredly. Sleep. Sleep is definitely the first thing I'm doing when I get home.

At least it wasn't the waking nightmare where, in a moment of exhausted weakness, she gave in and made Vicky into a lesbian. That one... too real. Too horrible. This was just surreal. She could deal with surreal.

She hurried home regardless.


Mark wasn't home. Probably. She wasn't going to look everywhere for him, and if he didn't respond to an, "I'm home!" he probably wouldn't go looking for her in her bedroom.

Which is where she went.

Unfortunately, she couldn't sleep. Even once the adrenaline wore off, she still felt wide awake. Exhausted, but wide awake. What she needed to do was relax. Then she'd be able to sleep.

She locked her bedroom door.

One good thing had come out of that whole Ellisburg thing, though. She'd found... something she didn't have words for. Satisfaction? Vindication? It was hard to say. Ellisburg had pushed her, pushed her to be creative, pushed her to be fast, forced her to make things she'd never have imagined if she wasn't desperately trying to beat bizarre, engineered plagues. It had been exhausting, but there'd been something... Zen about it. She'd realized that using her power didn't tire her out. Not really. Not if it wasn't the same old, same old. She felt a little guilty, a little weird, to think of dispensing miracle cures to the incurable as the 'same old, same old', but it was. Healing people was always aiming for the same general result, and plenty of cases she'd done essentially the same thing hundreds of times, a blur of patients who all had the same basic problems. In retrospect, it had often been a tiny relief when it turned out someone had some undiagnosed problem, hidden by the problem she was supposed to be treating -at least those little surprises required her to think for a moment. (Only a moment, though)

So she retrieved the fuzzy ball from under her bed. It was in hibernation right now, as it usually was. Anybody who picked it up would feel it was room temperature, and that its fuzz was like nothing that grew on any animal. It looked like a toy, the sort she'd long since lost interest in but nobody had gotten around to getting rid of. It wasn't wrong to say it was a toy, either. Amy's toy. Panacea's toy? A little lump of living flesh she sculpted, re-sculpted, experimented with. Could she make it grow a carapace? Yes, easily: its hair was easily adapted to the task. Feathers were a little harder, complex and delicate, but she could make an urchin of feathers. For that matter, she could probably make an urchin outright, but she didn't feel like being poked by spines.

She avoided giving it anything resembling a complex brain, but she experimented with muscles and nervous systems. How complex could she go without having real thoughts directing the thing? Pretty complex, it turned out, though getting any kind of coherent whole was harder. Especially since she didn't want the thing launching itself from her hands. Nobody was home right now, but she lost herself in these times. It would be too easy to get caught up in trying to work out if she could make a thing fly without feathers or membranes and completely fail to notice the rest of the Dallons coming home. Then there'd be somebody investigating what was making thumping noises in her room as the damn thing mindlessly zipped around in whatever direction it was pointed or bounced to until she finally caught it and... ugh.

So anything mobile and able to knock it out of her hands was also something she was careful about. Had remained careful about this whole time. She focused on the less visible things. Could she make it basically treat hydrogen like oxygen, as far as how it used it biomechanically? Sulfur? Bone options: she knew, vaguely, that there were fish with a skeleton that wasn't calcium-based, and of course insect exoskeletons are made of chitin. So what could she use that provided strength and stability? It was interesting exploring that space, and what creations of Nilbog's she'd had cause to touch while still alive had been... intriguing.

Not that she was supposed to be anywhere near most of his monsters, but the things were, for the most part, obscenely hard to put down. A lot of the ones that had been down hadn't been out -though most of them had hated the cold, and wouldn't live out the night regardless. It had been easy to brush her hands over the 'corpses' she'd been escorted past, the ones hanging from roofs or so large they loomed even as they lay. Seek inspiration. Not all of it had been anything she could really make sense of, made of materials that made no sense to her or living when her power told her they shouldn't, but she'd understood enough to produce super-tough hides from trivial materials, among other triumphs.

The only truly tricky thing was keeping the 'toy' alive long-term. Alive and the same size. So far she'd relied on periodically turning it into a trap designed to lure some insect or another inside, honeypot-style, before she used her power to simply combine the two into one whole thing, but the house seemed to be running out of cockroaches. (The bizarreness of this thought registered on her, but only dimly: she really did need to sleep) While her power let her cheat to a surprising extent, she couldn't actually generate mass from nothing, and bacteria-integration was too slow. If she spent more time with the thing? Sure. But as-was, she was spending at most a couple hours on a given day, and not every day let her play with the thing at all.

(She still hadn't settled on a name for it. To an extent she was worried that naming it would be a mistake. Right now, if she got rid of the thing, she was certain it wouldn't bother her. Naming it might make it too real)

Mostly the scenario bothered her because she didn't want to repeat the original process for creating the thing. Cockroaches were gross, and realizing just how many were crawling around in the Dallon household was nauseating. Especially since she'd seen them come crawling out of the pantry. She'd thought the pantry was safe from cockroaches, but apparently not. She couldn't get sick, but she still found herself thinking twice before biting into anything that came from an open package in the pantry, since she'd made the ball.

So far, she'd refrained from mentioning the roach issue to anyone else. Partly because she was, incidentally, dealing with the problem, and partly because she didn't want them asking why she knew about it.

Eventually, the tension left her... everything. The sleep-deprivation-induced hallucination was behind her. Speaking of... she returned the 'toy' to its default, camouflaged state, hid it under her bed, and flopped onto said bed.

Homework could wait.


She woke from a nightmare.

At least it had been a proper sleeping nightmare. It was easier to cope when there was that line in the sand: you're awake, so what just happened was a dream. Not that it was fun to be mixing up images from Ellisburg, herself standing at the back of the creatures, exhorting them onward and building more, weirder things, but she could firmly tell herself it wasn't real. More importantly, she could believe it.

It helped that she really thought Nilbog's things were pretty disgusting. What she understood of their biology? Weirdly beautiful, sure. The overall picture?... ugh. So no, she wouldn't be heading some horrid army of Nilbogian monsters.

(She'd be heading better beings)

That was stupid.

Amy pulled herself to a sitting position. Oh, right. She was still in regular clothes. School clothes. Okay, she hadn't really expected to sleep the whole night away anyway, but she could've at least taken off her jacket. But no, dumb tired Amy had just... laid down once she had her fun.

Speaking of...

She retrieved the 'toy' again. Vaguely, it occurred to her that a comparison could be made to stress balls. The kind you squish with as much force as possible in an attempt to calm yourself down. The thought made her giggle. Then she wondered why she'd giggled. Then she remembered that she was probably mildly hysterical from insufficient sleep and all the physical effects resulting from that.

Then she giggled again.

Okay, enough is enough.

Salt. She should get herself some salt.

Back the 'toy' went under the bed. Then to the kitchen. Don't get yourself killed on the stairs. Cupboards. Ah... crackers. That'll do.

It took a few minutes, but the urge to giggle did die down as she munched on crackers. She felt... a little calmer, too. Probably.

Back to the bedroom she went. Lock door. Grab 'toy'.

Relax.

Really, for all that she was still recovering from the Ellisburg incident... Amy found herself craving something of what happened there. Not the unending days of stress, obviously. Not that. That part was like being at the hospital, but worse. No, the... creativity. The Zen of solving novel problems. She wondered... maybe she could take the 'toy', change it, flush it down the toilet, and have revolutionized the waste disposal industry.

Though at the same time she found herself worrying that, even if she denied them any reproductive tools, mutation would create problems. Bacteria exchange genes, even across 'species'. It was always possible something she released would turn into an abomination out of her control, out of sight until it's far too late to readily stop it.

... really, that fear was the only reason she didn't run off and do it the instant the idea came to mind. The thought was so tempting. Many of her experiments had been basically self-indulgent (How strong a bone structure can she make? Can she make something like a chameleon's camouflage?), but she'd also successfully made an organism that naturally produced a powerful coagulant/glue-esque material for sealing wounds, another organism that basically acted as a human blood donor with none of the problems of actual blood donations, and another one that should act as, basically, a replacement liver you simply swallowed whole to integrate into your body. (That was an interesting challenge, though without actual testing she didn't know whether it worked)

But... her rules. And Nilbog.

Yeah.

And if she just makes creatures that demand her constant oversight... then that's sort of... missing the point. Multiple of them. Stealth-helping would take pressure off her -if she was making things and taking them to the hospital and everything went well, expectations would just go up. Spreading organisms to do the work for her also gets to more people than she can reach anyway. If she made one people can breed, then it would outlast her efforts even if she died. (Or, less morbidly, retired) The benefits would go on.

Still. There was that fear...

... and then there was the behavior thing. Engineering anything that isn't just passive -so anything with long-term viability- is getting into the muddy waters of the mind. She was hesitant to cross the line at all. Too easy to become a slippery slope. But there was also the point that she... really couldn't actually model the mind perfectly. (A relief, in some ways) Even something as simple as bacteria coulf defy her expectations. The idea of making something more the size of a cat, even with a brain the size of a walnut... too easy to imagine making a dire, dire mistake. One invisible to her when she made it.

Amy sighed. She'd run in these circles every day since... two or three days after she came back from Ellisburg. (She didn't remember clearly. She really needed more sleep) Pointless, aggravating. Do or don't. So many reasons to want to Do. So many reasons why Don't makes sense.

She'd thought about talking to someone about it, but who? Vicky was just... no. Carol wouldn't listen, probably. Mark... would probably be no help. The Pelhams weren't as close to the Dallons as the public thought. She had no friends at Arcadia, really. Dean was... sort of a friend, they spent so much time around each other, thanks to Vicky, but he was a Ward. Amy couldn't help but worry he might be forced to report the situation if she spilled to him. He was too dutiful for her to imagine he wouldn't, if it is a rule, too. Some hospital staff are willing to be sympathetic, but a cynical part of her suspected they'd push for her to use her power this way for their own selfish reasons, no thought given to whether she should.

It felt like there had to be some in-between step, something between taking the plunge and doing nothing, but she couldn't see anything. She'd thought about maybe making something for her private use -something that cleaned her room?- but she always came back to the potential for it to go wrong while she wasn't at home. She could mold it when she got home and then un-mold it when she left, but what if it escaped, or what if she forgot, called away suddenly?

None of that even touched upon how the PRT might react. She was living in dread of the moment a PRT officer came around and informed her that she now constituted an S-class threat and would be dealt with appropriately. With what she'd done at Ellisburg, it was obvious she had the potential to create creations that could create more of themselves. She wasn't really that different from Nilbog, when it got down to it. (That would be a depressing thought, except she was already worried she was a monster. It was almost like a confirmation she was, to make that connection, and it was a relief. She didn't really understand that, didn't want to poke at it too much)

It hadn't happened yet, but it seemed like it had to be inevitable.

The front door slamming jerked her out of her thoughts, the 'toy' ended up dropped. She scrambled to retrieve it, to push it back to its stealth mode, trying to decide whether she should be pretending to have been asleep -she had been, until just a few minutes ago- or pretending to have been doing her homework. Which was more plausible? Sleep. She locked her bedroom door when she slept, not when she was doing homework. (Then she hit herself a few times, mentally: she'd had this exact train of thought three times before)

Wait. What?

She was hearing everyone talking. What were the Pelhams?... oh. It must be New Wave business. Something must have happened.

That actually was a relief. She was almost never included in bi-family business. She wasn't a participant in fights and she wasn't that interested in the political stuff, so she usually had nothing to contribute. It had become a pattern that she just... didn't join in. Probably nobody would bother her. She could get some more sleep or...

She heaved a sigh, gazing longingly toward her bed. (Really, toward the toy underneath it, hidden by the shadows)

... do more homework.


Homework won out. Now she was only three days behind on History. She couldn't quite muster the enthusiasm for even a sarcastic 'hooray' in the safety of her head.

Everybody else had what seemed like a fairly heated discussion, and then left. Vicky didn't even drop in and let her know what was up. Amy felt ignored, and saddened.

Amy frowned, suddenly remembering. Not necessarily. Sometimes she just texts me.

It took a minute for her to find her phone and turn it on. She usually left it off, because people kept finding her number and she got so tired of answering the phone only to discover it was somebody ignoring her no requests rule. It was burdensome and horrible and she hated having to tell them no, and don't call this number again. Or, as Vicky had suggested once, pretend they'd gotten a wrong number. (It hadn't worked very well, and lying just made her feel guiltier) Lo, there was a text from Vicky! Multiple of them, actually. All fairly recent, so recent they'd probably been sent from under a table while she was participating in whatever had happened.

Met Monster & Pride -V

Cps, yno -V

Asholes -V

Gt away -V

Gota pln -V

ttyl -V

... okay, that wasn't very informative. And... hadn't she had that weird incident and/or hallucination, earlier, with a woman asking for Monster? Kind of weird how Monster was suddenly a person of interest to people in her life.

Oh, whatever.

Back to homework she went.

Yay.


Nothing much came of the meeting. Vicky talked about it, how they'd been discussing options for trying to deal with Monster and Pride, but the pair had dropped off the face of the planet as far as anyone was concerned and it just... mostly amounted to Vicky complaining about it.

Mostly because Vicky had gotten herself burned by one of them, honestly. Amy had winced when she saw how the costume and flesh twisted together, and scolded Vicky about how she should've come to her right away. Burns like this were serious!

Vicky waved it off. She could fly without much pain, and she knew Amy would handle whatever came of it. It was fine.

Amy didn't like that response, but didn't have a good answer to it. It was careless of Vicky, but essentially true.

Amy slowly caught up on her homework. So slowly... but a month later? She'd done it. Mostly. She'd actually been given a handwave on a couple of assignments... but she couldn't bring herself to feel guilty about that, not when it got down to it.

Going to the hospital, she was honestly almost in a good mood. She hadn't needed the squooshy ball as much for the last week. In fact, she was leaning toward making it disappear, doing without.

... was, prior to her first patient at the hospital.

On the face of it, it was pretty ho-hum by her standards. A woman who'd been in a car wreck, and lost most of her intestine, damage done to other vital organs. She'd need twenty minutes to get the woman in a condition to not need further attention from her -aside a follow-up visit to return her biochemistry to its usual baselines, later- and it'd all be good.

The problem was what was inside her.

A bloodborne parasite, which produced offspring that came out in the sweat. Depressing, but not really disturbing... except Amy couldn't see it properly, parts of it opaque and incomprehensible. Like Nilbog's creations.

They'd missed something, and it had made its way to the Bay.

She was going to need her stress-ball tonight, while she made a very, very hard decision.

She could go to the PRT and they would manually do a sweep, find the outer edges of this plague and roll inward until it was gone -assuming it wasn't already in the Great Lakes or something, which it probably was- and she'd go back to the post-Ellisburg cleanup, but for longer, and probably break...

... or she could... try to make a 'counter-plague'. Something at risk of breaking her rules. Of breaking the PRT's rules. Of turning into something else, down the line, out of her control, possibly worse than whatever Nilbog had cooked up. Risk becoming Nilbog the Second.

She felt sick.

5.5

"So I don't suppose Haunt can get us a working camera so we can get sweet pictures of us posing in front of Jack's corpse? Man, first time I've wished I was male."

I blink at the non-sequitur. "What?"

Cherie gestures at the remains of the body. "So I could piss on his corpse while we took the photo."

I wrinkle my nose. "Then I'm glad you're not male."

She grins at me. "Ooooh are you now?" She pauses, grin fading into puzzlement. "On a related note, what was up with you and Shatterbird there? She was all flattered and offended and it was really confusing listening in 'cause like I was expecting her to be gleefully attacking and reveling in your pain and I just have no idea what to make of that."

Um.

...

Her grin returns. "Dish! It's gotta be interesting if you're reacting like this!" Oh god no. Okay, do I tell her or try to dodge the question? She looks offended, slightly hurt. "Oh come oooon it's not like we're doing anything anyway."

No, that reminds me. Not now. "Check. Are there any obvious capes we might be able to talk into helping with the ambush, who are near enough we can make the trip and bring them back before any of the Nine arrive?"

Cherie looks hurt. Nonetheless, she starts talk-

"Y-you actually killed him!" Goddammit how do people keep sneaking up on us? Who even is this man, and why is he covered in... is that netting? It's crumbling into dust even as I'm watching, whatever it is. I see Cherie gaping at him, looking faintly offended. So yes, I'm pretty sure she didn't see him coming. The man sounds utterly shocked, staring at Jack's messy corpse. I'm pretty sure he's staring. Difficult to be sure with those orange goggles embedded in his helmet.

Cherie cuts in, sounding irritated. "Who are you?"

The man startles slightly. "Oh. I'm sorry, I just- Jack Slash is dead. It's- manners, right. I... well, Lou says I'm supposed to introduce myself as Fab? And you girls would be?..." he trails off leadingly.

"Monster," I oblige, glancing sidelong at Cherie, who's currently keeping herself angled where she can see me cleanly. Hadn't even thought about it until just this moment.

She shrugs. "I'm just the boss's anonymous assistant."

"So, uh, nice to meet you? Really, are you sure he's dead?" He's still staring at Jack Slash's remains, not looking at us at all. "Because it just feels-"

"-unreal," I interrupt with. "Yeah, as sure as we can get without having someone with a more destructive power obliterate what's left."

Somewhat absently, fiddling with -wait, is that a cell phone? How is it intact?! Regardless, he comments, "I was thinking 'impossible'. You don't kill Jack Slash."

Okay, whatever. "Look, are you going to help us ambush the Nine, or are you going to get out of here before they get here?"

He startles again, finally looking at us with those orange goggles. "I'm not supposed to get involved! Lou said I'm supposed to hide and let other people fight, I, I gotta get out of here." Then he stops, clutching at the mystery cell phone. "Oooooh, but this was the backup plan." He looks at Cherie, something about his face making me think there's hope going on there. "I don't suppose you could point me to Lucky Lou, um, ma'am?" Cherie snorts, and it takes a second for it to occur to me that he's probably like twice her age. Okay, yeah, that's kind of doofy.

She makes a dismissive motion with one hand. "Nope, sorry, not got him worked out. Too many people drawing groups to single him out, in specific. Probably most of them are medical anyway."

Fab cringes, clutching at the phone. "W-well, do you at least know which way is away from the Nine?"

She points, and he bows, scrapes, and flees -with one last look at Jack Slash's body, muttering to himself. Then he's gone, but for the sound of his shoes slapping against the floor as he goes at a good jog.

Alright, that's dealt with. So. "Back to my previous question-"

Cherie frowns, putting a hand up, palm forward, obvious stop signal. "Wait, hold up, Bonesaw's done with... er, whoever she was working on, she's coming this way. I think... if Crawler and Hatchet Face don't pick up speed, she'll be here first. Probably ten minutes, maybe fifteen, depends on terrain I can't see directly. I... don't think we have time to really go grabbing anyone aside from Black Bishop having been handled by Haunt." She pauses. "I don't suppose Haunt is still haunting us and will retrieve whoever the boss would like?..."

Conspicuous silence.

Damn.

Cherie turns to face me full on. "Alright, 'kay. So what's the plan for dealing with Bonesaw, beyond hoping Black Bishop makes everything better?"

I frown. "Well, first I was going to try to talk to her. She is a young, impressionable girl. Maybe Shatterbird was acting as a mother fig-" Cherie bursts into laughter, slapping at her knees. I'm cut off more by the fact that her eyes are shut, tears in them, and she's looking down, turning me into the monster, than by the interruption per se. Annoying. I look around, wondering if we missed any other irritatingly well-hidden parahumans in the area, trying to do something vaguely useful with the time, until finally Cherie is down to giggles, flicking the tears away with one finger. Oh, she looks awful now, her makeup is running and it's like she's crying dirty blood. I think she must've used some kind of blush.

I wrinkle my nose the instant I have a nose to wrinkle. "Point being, Bonesaw might be resolvable by being kind. It would deal with the whole thing of her using plagues as a deterrent, and honestly if we can turn her to good use that would be pretty impressive." I pause a moment. "I... sort of figured we'd turn her over to the Protectorate and they'd sort her out, but I'm not sure how they handle people with Kill Orders who turn themselves in."

Cherie snorts. "They kill them and say they couldn't risk the possibility of it being a trap."

I blink, surprised. "Oh." Wait. "How do you know that?"

Cherie waves off the question. "Daddy wanted to know. He was wondering if he could turn himself in to get close to somebody like Narwhal, and was reeeeal disappointed when Guillaume dug up that piece of info. Settled for a non-parahuman bimbo." Her brow furrows. "Think that was the porn star?..."

...

I should maybe stop asking Cherie questions that point toward her history.

Alright. I sigh. "Okay, I guess... if that works we'll be watching over Bonesaw ourselves."

Cherie raises an eyebrow. "You were refusing to trust me when all I do is emotional manipulation. Bonesaw can easily one-up me in control. And, you know, body horror."

I shuffle uncomfortably. Ew. My costume really needs to get cleaned up at some point. "I don't really have a better answer. I might be able to take her in a fight, but if I do, her backup plagues will just go off, and neither of us can do anything about that. It's basically either hope Black Bishop comes through, try to befriend Bonesaw, or give up and flee, hope somebody else handles the problem." My visage hardens. "I don't run away from situations I helped create."

Cherie blinks. Raises a finger in objection. Sort of vaguely... points behind her?... then throws her hands up in the air and makes a frustrated noise. "Okay fine whatever. So you don't plan on killing her? What's my role, then?"

I shuffle uncomfortably again, and look at my feet to avoid looking her in the eye. "I was thinking you could brainwash her."

I can't see the grin, as I'm looking down, but I can hear it in her voice. "Oh Boss, you really know how to please a girl."

I look up to give her a funny look. Yes, she's grinning. I... I have no idea if she's joking. She doesn't sound like she is, but what the fuck Cherie.

I sort of expect the grin to drop off her face as she detects my not-happy-feelings, but it stays firmly in place, weirdly serene. My stare just gets more confused.

Then she abruptly turns serious. "Okay, in that case, what's the angle here? I need to have an idea of your script before we get started."

I startle, thrown by the change in tone. "Script?"

She starts getting excited, bouncing on the balls of her feet and gesticulating oddly with her hands. I take a second to confirm she's not trying to make obscene motions, because Cherie. "Yeah, your script! I gotta know where you're going with this, how you're presenting yourself, what you're angling for Bonesaw to think of you. Are you going to try to impress her, play up your accomplishments while I'm encouraging her to feel all 'wow!' in response? Are you going to take a soft touch, offer acceptance and affection while I make her feel lonely and sad up until she gets a hug out of you? Are you going to appeal to her curiosity, while I ramp that up subtly? Play to her ego?"

My skin crawl-

She makes an exasperated noise. "Oh don't ask me to do this and then get all judgmental about how it works." Hands on hips, glaring at me.

I glance away. Is that shame?... no, that's not shame. Dammit, I should've tested that before. "I can't control how I feel, Cherie. You should know that better than anyone." There's a long pause, and eventually I get curious enough to look at her and- well. She looks a bit gob-smacked. Uh. Okay?... I carry on, in any event. "Honestly, I was just thinking I'd ask her if she was willing to repent or not and... yeah."

Cherie draws one hand over her face while making an exasperated, vaguely horrified noise. "Oh my god. Who taught you how to social, was it friggin' Behemoth?"

Hey!

She smirks, then smooths it out and turns serious. "We've got I think like three minutes, we gotta hurry. Seriously boss, that's a terrible way to operate. Nobody does anything because you make demands, not unless you've got the force to back it up, and you just told me you're not going to try to kill Bonesaw if she refuses."

... shit.

She keeps going, looking pleased. "You gotta have an angle for why she should want to join us, a motive." Then she gets a wicked grin. "Like how we can be a family for her, two mommies with their daughter." I give Cherie a flat stare. She makes a cherubic face of innocence, a who, me? Then she keeps talking as if nothing happened. "Gotta hurry, clock is ticking."

I stop. Think.

I'm going at this wrong. Why am I assuming I'll be doing the talking? Why is Cherie assuming I'll be doing the talking? She's the one who knows how to do this best, she's the one who can read Bonesaw's personality swiftly and accurately and change tack in real time without it looking manipulative. I'm just a girl who turns into a monster. I couldn't even handle my bullying situation, not really. This is Cherie's specialty, it should be Cherie's show.

I should just get out of her way.

"You'll handle it. Whatever you think works best, so long as it isn't convincing Bonesaw we'll be a new Slaughterhouse Nine or otherwise transparently lie to her." She opens her mouth and I just know she's going to make some stupid crack so I glare her down until she puts her hands up, palms forward, in a I give, okay? motion. "I'll be nearby, to fight if that proves necessary or practical, and to back you up if she doesn't believe you're working with Monster or something of the sort, but this is your show Cherie."

Cherie is sort of staring at me, jaw hanging slightly open.

I look behind me, but no, no Bonesaw, none of her creepy drones, nothing at all.

Look back. She's still staring. "Cherie, come on. You said we're nearly out of time, where do I stand out of sight that's nearby, given where Bonesaw is coming from?"

Cherie startles, and points wordlessly to a nearby pillar. I start walking over, but also make sure she clarifies where I should stand next to it.

Then I wait.


I hear metal scraping against marble -or whatever it is the mall floor is made from- with the occasional dull thud of an impact into flesh. Bonesaw's drones. Deliberately being noisy? Cherie's indicated they're often able to sneak right past people unnoticed... then again, this is an unusual environment for them. Not sure which.

Then a high, cheery voice calls out. "Uncle Jack, I got him! I'm calling him Tricksy!" Got who? "Oh, and I let Haunt know you were nominating her, but she just laughed. I'm thinking she's some kinda projector-" she cuts off abruptly, and the sounds of metal scraping cease. No, wait, I can just barely hear tiny scrapes, and... I see one skulking slowly through the darkness where the second floor blocks the skylights' sunlight. I can't see Bonesaw.

Cherie starts up. She sounds... surprisingly calm. I was worried, from how she'd reacted to me pushing her to handle this situation. "Jack ain't here, kid."

Bonesaw's voice is still approaching, aaand I only just realized I can't hear her walking at all. "Don't be silly. Of course he's here. Uncle Jack never breaks his word."

Cherie again, sounding... sly? Like she knows something Bonesaw doesn't know. I really hope this is a part of the profiling thing and not just Cherie being Cherie. "You know, you're right, he is here, in the strictest of senses." There's a bit of silence, while I watch the drone get closer. The thing is disgusting, now that I'm seeing one up-close. Then Cherie talks again, very casual. "You're not going to ambush me with your toys, Bonesaw. I know exactly where they are and can turn them off anytime I like." Hm. Not sure if Cherie is bluffing or not, there. The drone in front of me keeps creeping forward, albeit much slower now, so I guess Bonesaw believes her. I have to carefully compare it against its surroundings to be sure it is being slower... does this mean Bonesaw has silent remote control on them? Worrying.

I think I hear a pout in Bonesaw's voice when she responds. "Oh fine. Meany. Spoil my fun. Where is Uncle Jack, then? Didya talk him into letting you join?"

Cherie chortles. "Actually, I'm here to see if you want to move on to greener pastures."

Bonesaw, still approaching, though I think a bit slower now. "Uncle Jack would be sad if I left." I'm a little worried. Wasn't Black Bishop a teleporter, and supposedly 'on her way'? Why hasn't she shown up yet? Not that her interrupting this would be ideal, but it seems odd.

Cherie, sounding... is that pity? "I can tell every time you say his name there's a little surge of loathing and hatred. No point in pretending with me. Come on, k- Bonesaw. You can move on."

There's a bit of silence before Bonesaw responds. The drone is still creeping agonizingly slowly forward. I don't think it's noticed me. "You don't know me. You don't know him." She says it quietly, relative to how loud she's been, such that even though she's closer I have a little trouble hearing it.

There's a grin in Cherie's voice. "His insides are now his outsides. Nothing to know, and don't think I didn't notice that bit of hope."

In a weirdly cheerful-yet-casual voice, Bonesaw says something worrying. "You know, if you don't back off on the Mastering, you're going to activate my berserk mode, and nobody will be happy." There's a pause while this sinks in, and I seriously consider rushing her, never mind that it's a stupid and terrible idea all-around. "So you manipulate emotions and can read them... oooh, you must be one of Nikos'!" I'd wince if I could.

Cherie sounds... the tiniest bit shaken when she speaks. I'm not sure I'd be able to tell if I hadn't spent a few months with her now. "Yyyyeep. Cherie Vasil, here to do things that supposedly aren't fit for your ears but I'm pretty sure you know more things that would make me blanch than the other way around, right?"

Bonesaw, still closing, ever so slowly now, makes a squee of... excitement? "Oh, I like you. Can we keep her, Jack? She's funny and I haven't gotten to play with too many Masters."

Cherie's sounding irritated. "Okay seriously, the dude's dead. He is like twenty feet to my left, torn apart. I meant it when I said his insides were his outsides. Can you stop dancing around the topic?"

"Hmph." Bonesaw makes the sound very deliberately, artificially. "I can think of two capes who could do that and actually destroy the brain casing-" So that was the critical bit. "-in this city, and the Protectorate knows better than to call in outsiders. You don't have either of the two in here. I'd know."

Cherie sounds wry. "Oh, you have me all figur-"

I pick up and tear apart the drone that's been sneaking this way, the shriek of tearing metal accompanied by the crunch of bone and wetter noises as tortured flesh comes apart. The drone's reactions were fast, and it tried to stab at me with what looked like some kind of syringe, but I knocked it aside before it could make contact with my surface.

Cherie continues smoothly, and I can hear the smirk. "-ed out, dontcha?"

I hear a faint tinkling, metal clinking against metal, muffled. Bonesaw huffs. "Mind games are our thing!"

I'm starting to feel like Cherie is losing track of the goal here, turning this into a pissing contest against someone on her level of maturity. Unsure if I should intervene or hope I'm just not seeing her angle.

I end up waiting, listening in as Cherie starts talking again. "You're not one of the Nine, Bonesaw. I mean, for one thing, right now they're more like the Four, but more importantly I've been listening in on you for a while now, and you're just not into this the way the others are." She pauses. "Well, okay, Burnscar wasn't really into it either when nothing was on fire, but you know what I mean. But anyway! The point is that-"

Bonesaw giggles. Cherie stops talking. There's nothing but the giggling for a while, while I contemplate once more whether I should intervene. "Oh, you just don't understand the pure experience of art. Uncle Jack says I'm not so, um, crass-"

Cherie interrupts. "I know you're faking that hesitation. The innocent little girl routine is just an act. One you never drop out of? One you never drop out of, got it in one."

I have a suspicion, and move to get an angle where I can try to see if any drones are sneaking up on Cherie. No, not at the other side of... wait. What about on the second floor? Shit. Can I jump up there?

Bonesaw makes a noise. "This isn't fun anymore," and something about her tone sets alarm bells ringing and-

"Boss! She's attacking!" Cherie calls out, and I can hear her backing away from Bonesaw, slow and awkward with her merely human legs.

-I dive out into the central hallway where several of the drones are coming along in the open and I hear a ping somewhere distant and then a green ball trailing transparent versions of itself shoots from somewhere behind Bonesaw, cracks me in the head, knocking me down, and rebounds straight up, hits the ceiling, and comes back down and slams me head-first into the ground.

I think I black out for a second. I'm not sure. I jerk to my feet as soon as I can, but Bonesaw is further along than I'd thought and she's clapping delightedly, looking right at me. "Oh! You're Monster! I've been looking forward to meeting you for so long, but Uncle Jack wouldn't let me."

I blink, surprised. Uh. Stall. Where's Cherie, what hit me? "Pleased to meet you?"

Her delighted grin keeps going. "I was so looking forward to avenging Uncle Nilbog, you know-" oh come on I thought that wasn't widely known! "-but now I'm actually kind of grateful to you."

I don't like the sound of that, and I still haven't figured out what hit me, and the drones are closing in and I'm trying to back away without it turning into a run -though Bonesaw seems perfectly happy to let me back slowly away- and then I stumble on what turns out to be a corpse and a drone lunges forward and injects me with something right through my pants and where the fuck is Black Bishop! and my leg immediately starts locking up and with every heartbeat more of my body becomes less responsive. Then Bonesaw blinks and it stops and I hurl myself backwards.

Bonesaw frowns, the tiny little pout of a little girl whose mother refused to buy an overly-expensive toy. "Darn it. I was sure you didn't purge inorganic poisons. That makes this more tedious." I'm still scrambling away, Cherie's not around where is she what hit me in the first place. "But Uncle Nilbog! I really wanted to study more of his art, but Uncle Jack is right, if we went to-" she falters. Looks to her right.

Makes a small shriek I can't make sense of the emotions of, while I take the opportunity to tear apart three drones.

Runs up to -oh. Jack's remains. I keep destroying drones, most of which start fleeing into shadowy corners as I kill them and how many of these things does she have where does she even find the time to make them.

Then Bonesaw turns around from where she's crouching amid Jack's gore, tears in her eyes and. Uh. Tears that are sizzling and smoking and leaving dark trails down her cheeks. I remain the monster and destroy another two drones before she frowns, blinks three times, and the waterworks shuts off like a switch was thrown, and I'm suddenly me again. Bonesaw stands up. "Now you've taken two uncles from me!"

Goddammit.

Is there anything I can do to salvage this? Where's Cherie -I see her on the second floor, watching through a gap in the railing. Still no Black Bishop. Think, Taylor, think. I can't attack Bonesaw, she'll just set off her death plagues. I have to say something, recontextualize it all, make it more acceptable, palatable. Ugh, I don't know anything about her, and I'm not Cherie.

I'm still sort of giving her a deer in the headlights look as she stalks my way.

Cherie calls down in a sing-songy manner. "I hear your mixed feelings~"

She's interrupted by the green ball from before slamming her in the chest, knocking the air out of her. Bonesaw calls up, "Stop messing with my head! Stop making things complicated! Stop making my head hurt!"

Then she re-focuses on me and grins manically. "I was going to make you into a friend, you know, but now I think I'm going to make you suffer instead." She pauses for a moment while I'm scrambling to back away, have to get out of here, this was a giant mistake I should never have confronted her why did I do this- a drone lands on my back and injects something into my spine and I drop to the ground, spasming. Ow. My nose. Bonesaw watches carefully. It's fine, she'll blink. "Oh, I see what happened earlier. Gimme a sec to turn off the blink routine and turn on automatic moisturization."

Oh my fucking god.

Where is Black Bishop?! Where is Haunt?! The Protectorate? Anyone?

I want to talk, but it turns out my vocal chords are out of my control too. I just make an eeek sort of noise, only stuttering and horrible.

Bonesaw gets to keep talking while Cherie is wheezing for breath up above. "I'm thinking irony. Uncle Jack talks a lot about how irony is an important part of art. T-talked a lot." I can't see it, but it sounds like she takes some steadying breaths. "So I'm going to make it so Uncle Nilbog's plague works on you. Maybe just disable your power, maybe see if I can modify it into something really ironic."

But. They cleaned up all the plagues. All of them.

Bonesaw keeps talking. "I really like the idea of you just changing between two different monsters. It'll make your name fit even better! Convince your power to reset you into Uncle Nilbog's beasty, so you're only ever either a crazed animal that hates all non-Nilbogian life or trapped in your other form, aware of what you become anytime anyone can see you."

They got all of them they said they did it all worked out I didn't make a mistake.

"Ramp up your need for social contact, so you get lonely, oh so lonely, out where no humans can see you, and eventually you give in even though you know you shouldn't and someone sees you and you become the other monster and eat them. Art!"

They said they did I didn't make a mistake no no get me out of here I didn't bring this down

oh no

"Yanno, I only have this opportunity because you killed Uncle Nilbog, I'm almost sure. I was so surprised to find it here, in Chicago! Musta gotten into the Great Lakes already, if I could find it in the rivers. It's really neat, a parasite that crawls overland, around filtration... Uncle Nilbog was an artist. I could've learned so much from him, if you hadn't killed him."

Cherie is infected

Dad is infected

it's my fault

I made it happen my first act of heroism and it was killing a sad man who looked like Dad and now Dad is going to be sad and worse than die and it's my fault and Cherie is too and they're the only people in the world I care about and I did this to them by trying to help

There's metallic noises. "I usually skip anesthetic anyway, but I'm going to enjoy cutting into your head without it for its own sake this time. I might even add in some more pain sensors, so it'll really hurt. Jerk."

I can't get out my fault I did this trapped can't leave can't move it's the locker all over again it's the bullying all over again but I did it it's my fault everything is wrong and my fault

"Wait a- oooh! Dar-"


Destination.

Agreement.

Shedding shredding shattering melting spreading

impact


"-d-darn it I didn't have the monitors on her!"

I can move again. Bonesaw is laying on the ground, unblinking, on her back, thus facing up. She lurches to her feet as quick as possible, and swerves to look at me as soon as she can. She speaks. "No fair! I've been trying to get that data forever!"

I stare back, unafraid. I was afraid a minute ago, but I can't quite recall why. "You are going to fix this."

Bonesaw turns smug. "Kill me and my pla-" She stops. "Oh."

I loom, larger and stranger, rippling. Bonesaw is looking at me, and it doesn't matter. Her eyes widen, as the implications sink in.

She runs, and I stand before her, unburdened by human vision. She stops, and pulls a vial of some kind from one of her many pockets. The fluid is gray-ish, and when she throws the vial at me I catch it and inspect it more closely. It does not bubble or roil, sitting quiescently. I have no idea what it might be specifically, though I presume it's dangerous, and I vanish it for later, and return my focus to Bonesaw. "You are going to fix this, and we are going to be friends." I vaguely recall that's the plan.

I attempt a smile. Bonesaw winces, while Cherie calls down, sounding vaguely drunk, "Y-you tell'er boss!"

Bonesaw digs her heels in, while a set of mechnical spider limbs sprout from her back. I hear no cloth tearing. Strange. "You want me to ruin art! You can't make me do anything! No one ca-"

Cherie calls down. "'cept yer 'Uncle Jack' righ'? 'e can make ya do anythin'."

Bonesaw stamps her feet. "Shut up shut up!"

I shift behind her, enjoying my newfound freedom of movement. I grab at her spidery limbs, pick her up by them, vaguely curious. Are they connected to her spine? Is there -ah. I didn't notice the backpack. Bonesaw slips out of it and calls out something. I'm too focused on the suddenly-squirming backpack of hostile limbs to catch the details. I break them, pleased at how easy it is.

I lean down in front of Bonesaw once more, and there is the barest hint of a flinch. "You will fix this. This isn't a choice, kid-" her face hardens. I do not care. "-nor a demand. It is an inevitability."

She cocks her head, sounding curious. "Wait, are you a precog? I wouldn't have guessed."

I think for a moment. My power has changed all of a sudden. Do I suddenly have magical future vision or something?... no, no I don't think I do, and Bonesaw is misunderstanding me, focus Taylor. "I'm making it happen. Bend, or you will break."

Cherie calls out, still sounding drunk or something. "I'm reaaaaly likin' the horror monster routine ya got goin' on Boss, but Hatchet Face is nearly here."

My head tilts, considering. I'm certainly not going to kill Bonesaw, even if I'm capable of doing so, even if I decided I didn't care about her plagues, I need her to Fix Dad, Fix my mistake. Moving her and Cherie is... possible, but I'd rather be assured of Bonesaw's cooperation before trying to carry them both at the same time. Too risky as-is. That... basically leaves confronting and killing Hatchet Face, which... just a minute ago I would've dismissed as suicide, but... well, I look at my left hand, willing the hand to split into bladed monster limbs, watch it do so in maybe a second... yeah. I might be able to just... turn into the monster now, and expect Hatchet Face's field to just disable further transformation. If so, I can probably take him. So I ask Cherie, "Which direction."

Cherie points. Bonesaw cackles. I admonish her, shifting more completely, my voice turning strange, which is new and I'm not sure how to feel about it. I wasn't precisely attached to my voice the way I am to my hair, but it is my voice. "Don't run, Bonesaw." Then the change completes and I am fully the monster, striking and tearing and ruining all of Bonesaw's little metal creations, so she doesn't hurt Cherie while I'm gone. Then I shrink back upon myself, and a green ball pings me in the skull, hitting hard enough for an eye to be destroyed. Ow. Fucking- another cape who can hurt the monster? Goddammit I'm killing the bastard, I don't have time for this. As such, I flicker and burgeon and move to where it came from, the monster's body feeling somehow different, but a comfortable sort of different. Weird. Trailing the shot, I find a man, and after a moment I place him. Goddammit, Bonesaw had already gotten to Trickshot? Wait, hold on, Trickshot hits hard enough to seriously hurt the monster? Holy hell dude, how are you so small-time? Were, I guess. Fuck. I... don't know how Bonesaw is controlling him, I don't know if she can undo it if I do get her to fucking agree to follow me and Fix the goddamn plague, and looking at the metal driven into his skull I'm not entirely sure there's anyone to bring back in the first place. Yeah, I think I'm going to have to kill him. Moving stiffly like he's not in full control of himself or is resisting what an external force is making him do, he produces the ball between his hands, and dimly I notice it resembles a basketball, but, you know, green. What the hell, powers? Oh wait shit I end up blocking the throw with a limb like a fucking idiot, which results in the limb breaking, dangling uselessly, while I'm momentarily blinded by a burst of green I somehow missed when it slammed into my skull twice earlier. The ball rebounds to my left, hits a wall, and bounces for my skull again, just like before, so fast I don't think I can dodge. So I block again, a limb ruined. Whatever, I have plenty and now I can just reset at will. With that done, I charge Zombie Trickshot, tear and pull and stab, and it turns out his heart had no protection or backups because he drops almost immediately after I cut it out.

I stare at his body moodily for a moment, angry to have killed- fuck, I only half-remember my research. I think he was one of the indie heroes. Godfuckingdammit Bonesaw.

At least I consciously chose to kill him. I'm going to count that as improvement for my own sake.

Then I return, and naturally Bonesaw is running.

"I fucking said not to run, you little shit." Having said my piece, I lunge, the monster in full, tearing up her knees and ankles so she can't run. She can fix them, I know she's done so before, so whatever. I don't even suffer cognitive dissonance from looking like I'm attacking an innocent child, because she's got the bloodstains and the surgical tools and so on. Hell, she doesn't even seem to feel pain. Biotinker. I will my head back to something that can more or less talk, doing my best to ignore how my voice once again sounds weird and off. Not very successfully. Great. "Listen to me next time."

She bites down, and I hear something crunch, and she spits at me. It hits the gel that coats me as my head burgeons, and I flick it off to one side, deliberately aimed at Jack's remains because fuck Jack. Whatever she spat, it hisses and burbles and what's left of Jack's rib cage softens and sinks, smoke rising. Fuck, and I had a hard time doing damage to those, that could've been bad. That done, I pull back into myself and lean down to look her in the eyes, directly in front of her, vaguely recalling Mom doing the same to impress me on the seriousness of my error when... I don't remember, and it hurts to remember so forget it. Then I do The Cherie Voice, false cheer filling it. "If that's what I do to get you to hold still for a minute, what do you think I'll do about something I actually care about?"

She stabs with one hand, the fingers peeling open to reveal syringes. I breathe a sigh, burgeon, and break them. This is getting really irritating and tedious. "Don't make me break your other hand. You're going to need at least one to Fix the plague, right?" Then I smile brightly down at her, or maybe it's a rictus grin I'm not entirely sure and Bonesaw's stubborn stare of anger doesn't really clarify. Whatever.

I abruptly notice Cherie is standing, half against the railing on the second floor, swaying drunkenly. Is she concussed? "He's here, Boss, and I can't fuckin' dissuade him." Right, never mind, later.

I kick Bonesaw back to the center of this mall crossroads thing so I'll be able to see her clearly wherever she goes once I'm back, my leg three bladed serpentine limbs for a moment, long enough to put power behind the strike. Frustrated and irritated, I tell her, "One moment," and then dash off to where Cherie is vaguely gesturing.

I come to a stop, confused. That doesn't look like Hatchet Face. It's a mascot costume, a Pikachu actually, what the hell?... oh. Oh, it's covered in bloodstains and there's a cleaver in one not-remotely-adorable paw. Plus some rips in the costume, letting me catch glimpses of the man underneath. Yeah, that's Hatchet Face, and now everything Cherie was mentioning earlier makes so much more sense. Wait, where did he get it, though? "Are you a new friend?" interrupts my confused thoughts. That's... yeah. He sounds shortbus simple. Great. Super. I get to feel unhappy about failing to feel guilty about killing a man who is probably literally retarded. For my next trick, I'll be murdering a kid in a wheelchair, then offing an entire elderly retiree home, and then smashing into a psychiatric asylum or whatever they're called nowadays!

Fuck me why is everything so awful.

But okay, let's hope Hatchet Face is redeemable somehow. I'm 0 for 2 so far on getting the Nine to stop being murderous assholes for no actual reason, but... well. Maybe this is all a terrible, terrible misunderstanding and I can get Hatchet Face to see that he's part of a merry band of psychos and he'll recognize that's not appropriate and we'll wander off into the sunset happily ever after!

While I'm at it, maybe unicorns will fart rainbows and the Protectorate will give me a medal for killing Nilbog.

sigh

Let's... give it a try anyway. Fortunately, I'm still out of his radius (Or something), so I'm able to downshift and ask him, "What do you do with friends, Hatchet Face?"

He stops, and seems to struggle with the question for a moment. With the costume I'm not really sure I'm reading him right, but... I dunno, it seems right to me. Eventually he answers with, "It depends on if you're one of Jack's friends or one of mine."

Great. Super. Wonderful. I certainly don't want to claim to be a friend of Jack Slash, and I think I know where this is going. Resigned, I say in a dull, disappointed tone, "I killed Jack Slash." Fuck, I just realized I might need to clarify that this means I'm not friends with him, given the Nine. So I add, "No, I'm not friends with him."

After a pause that's just long enough to reinforce my belief that he's not all that bright (Fuck me, what kind of universe is it that I legit feel like it'd be heroic to put down someone who should be in a special needs environment?), Hatchet Face recoils, holding his hatchet in a more defensive manner. "Jack was fun! Why would you do that!" His voice quavers, sounding like I just admitted to killing his puppy and pissing on its corpse. God. The fact that I don't feel bad for him is so fucking frustrating. This is just sad, and I've got a yawning void of vague boredom and an urge to just kill him. Hate this so much.

I consider for a moment the possibility of having Cherie brainwash him. You know, like that'd be more moral and not taking advantage of someone's unfortunately limited intelligence. Like, it would be a giant pain in the ass, but given he hasn't jammed my power yet I'm pretty confident Cherie totally could work on him from outside his range. Ultimately I conclude with no small amount of relief (That should tinted with guilt but isn't fuck everything) that handling Bonesaw will be a huge burden as-is, and honestly it's a little too easy to imagine nightmare scenarios where his suppressing effect leads to him killing Cherie, or me needing to kill him later anyway, or something else awful. So I eye him up, trying to think of how to handle this, when abruptly I remember the vial Bonesaw threw at me. Hmmm. I vanished it early, barely even thought about it, it was easy. Can I?...

The vial obligingly reappears in my right hand after barely a moment's thought. I take a moment to goggle at the implications, and then clamp down on all the thoughts about how I'll need to go about testing this newfound capability because right I still need to deal with Hatchet Face.

So I make my hand split and grow into three limbs to hurl it with monster-level force directly at the Pikachu's neck, because even with Hatchet Face being larger than humans normally get I'm pretty sure the costume is still too large to be a natural fit to his body. The vial breaks on impact, and the gray fluid clings to him, growing and glowing with a bright red heat. Uh. Okay, that's not what I was expecting, and now that I think about it this would've been a really bad plan if it had been some kind of flesh-eating plague goddammit why am I so stupid fuck is this because I'm so angry over not feeling bad about how I'm handling Hatchet Face? Smoke rises as the costume burns, and Hatchet Face charges with a depressingly depressed cry, sobbing first in sorrow, and then shortly in pain. I don't know his field's range, so I back up while roughly keeping pace with Hatchet Face, feeling like possibly the worst human being in the universe until I remember that Bonesaw is behind me, reminded by some noise she makes, apparently intending to catch me unawares because when I turn around there's a vial of something red flying toward me, and I catch it and reflexively vanish it because it's unstoppered. Holy shit, how did Bonesaw manage to throw it such that it didn't spray everywhere? How bullshit is she?

After a moment of hesitation, reminded of how I was just thinking that throwing Bonesaw's shit at people is a terrible idea, it occurs to me that since the vial was unstoppered if it is some manner of airborne plague it's probably too late anyway, so I turn back around and reappear it and throw it at Hatchet Face, aiming for a leg. My throw is messier, red fluid splashing everywhere, and as it impacts solid surfaces it seems to sink into them, coloring them rapidly redder. Hatchet Face's right leg seems to stiffen and lock up, as he stumbles, but does not quite fall, up until I hurl one of the anonymous corpses at his head (With a mental apology to whatever gangbanger I'm using as an impromptu projectile), knocking him completely off balance as he's struggling to regain it. His arms flail, he hits the ground, the mascot head pops loose, and he sobs even harder as the gray material creeps toward his head. I note it doesn't spread along the ground, though it eagerly jumps to the corpse that hit Hatchet Face, fallen awkwardly next to him. He cries out, something about how no one understands him except Jack, but I'm already ignoring him, returning my focus to Bonesaw, vanishing the vial she is currently trying to pop open with her teeth without even bothering to look at it.

Right, where was I? "Last time, kiddo. Give up, Fix the plague. I'm not accepting any other answer." I smile at her again, then wonder why the hell I'm doing that and wonder if it's actually helpful to be doing so.

She spits at me, suggesting not. I initially assume it's another attack, but no, it's just saliva. Spite. Also, ew. "I'm not stupid. I already know I have a Kill Order on me. I ruin Uncle Nilbog's art, and you'll just kill me afterward, if you can." She pauses, while I wonder how to dispute that appropriately. "Which okay you did kill Uncle Jack and Uncle Nilbog and now you second triggered so you probably can. Fuck it!" I blink at the language, vaguely recalling PHO indicating Bonesaw is meticulous about using vocabulary appropriate to her apparent age. Also. Second trigger? This means nothing to me. Whatever, later. "Just kill me already!"

I tilt my head, genuinely a bit mystified. "I had considered the possibility that you were an innocent child twisted by those older and wilier than you, and was inclined to give you a second chance." And frankly in addition to the practical reason of me needing her to deal with the plague, because who the hell else am I going to twist the arm of into handling this, I'd really, really prefer to not stack 'killed a basically-innocent child' on top of 'killed a man with an actual factual mental handicap who probably didn't fully understand what he was doing'. I already hated myself for killing the Dragonslayers, killing Hatchet Face hasn't helped the self-loathing, and... seriously. Please.

Bonesaw makes a stubborn, disbelieving face, but before I can get worked up over it Cherie calls down. "Boss ain' lyin', Bonesaaaaw. Sooo funny. Heh." Cherie hiccups. I glance at her, wondering if the Nilbog plague is getting to her already. It shouldn't, otherwise I would have heard of the plague already. But she'll be fixed. Dad, too. So even if she is it... should be okay. Please. Bonesaw.

Bonesaw flinches, and then gets a canny look on her face. "I could always cook up worse and you wouldn't know until it was far too late." Hatchet Face's sobs and sounds of agony begin to fade. I glance his way as he attempts to lever himself up, but then he drops back down with a pained groan, the sounds of flesh cooking reaching my ears. Okay, good, he's actually going to die. (Fuck my life why don't I feel guilty about this?)

I lean down and ruffle her hair in a motion I remember my mother doing to me, when I was a little girl, wonder for a moment why I'm treating her like a child given she's not acting like one... and then it so very obviously irritates her that I impulsively do it again. "You could. I'll trust that you won't, if you say you won't. The Nine are monsters. But scrupulously honest monsters." They always have, it's one of those weird bits of consistency I used to think didn't make sense... but their threats of doing even worse if the rules they lay out aren't held to wouldn't work if they couldn't be believed that they'd restrain themselves so long as everyone else played by their rules. So. Yeah, in a bizarre way, I actually do trust Bonesaw's word, if she, like, swears it explicitly.

Bonesaw's jaw works a moment, while Cherie giggles and guffaws. Bonesaw speaks. "You make no sense!"

I ruffle her hair again, just to see her try to slap at it with her ruined hand. I think I have an idea of why Cherie is so obnoxious. Am I half this entertaining when I get mad at her? Maybe I need to rely more heavily on ignoring her. "So do we have an accord? Will you swear to fix the plague, and we'll be 'friends'?" I don't mean for the verbal air-quotes to be there, but they are, and I notice, and then keep talking and try to pretend I didn't do that. "I've killed a lot of people, and intend to kill more, so it's not that part of your history I'm begrudging you, if that helps."

There is a long pause, punctuated only by Cherie's giggling and Hatchet Face's dying noises and cooking flesh. I wrinkle my nose at the smell.

Eventually Cherie crows obnoxiously. Bonesaw mutters. "I'll need a lab."

I smile, knowing it looks wrong and not caring this time.

It will be fixed.

I like to think my smile turns a little more genuine, but I don't know.