AN: I'm going to be away from the internet for the next little while, so updates could be sparse for the next week or two.
With nothing better to do, I spent most of the afternoon shopping for a replacement game console. I wasn't going to be retrieving anything from the apartment any time soon. For once I was able to get through a shopping trip without a dramatic confrontation. At least until I was most of the way back to the hotel and a woman came walking around the corner looking very much the worse for wear.
She was wearing what looked like it had been an expensive suit, topped off with a matching fedora. The right half of the fedora was just gone. The right side of the suit was barely hanging on, a patchwork of rips and stains that seemed like it was being held together by a mass of melted fabric. Despite all of the damage to her outfit, the woman walked with an even stride and her head held high. I had stopped still in the sidewalk on seeing her, but she never hesitated. She looked me in the eye as she walked past and gave me a single nod without breaking stride.
She definitely had the sort of healthy athletic look common to heroes in this dimension and my own. Between that and her ability to power through whatever had happened to her clothes I suspected she was one of the local heroes. They could be touchy about secret identities, though, so I didn't say anything to her. Man, now that she had picked me out like that everybody was definitely going to expect me to take care of the monster.
I could feel my heartbeat picking up. Well, might as well get it over with. I took a deep breath, stepped around the corner, and promptly forgot all about the monster when I saw a familiar bald head in the crowd.
He looked around, briefly confused, then smiled when he spotted me. "King? I thought you were on a long term mission."
"Yeah, invading the monster dimension. Only, we ended up in the wrong place," I said, waving my arms around vaguely to encompass the world around us. "How did you get here? Finally find a good fight?"
I wouldn't put it past him to find some way to punch through dimensions. He's a little funny looking, but he's crazy strong.
"Eh, not really," Saitama said, looking a little bummed out.
"Well, there's some pretty cool stuff here. Check it out," I said, digging into my shopping bag and holding one of my prize purchases on display.
As expected, his eyes lit up when he saw it. "They made a second Street Fighter?"
"They made a whole series in this dimension. Want to try?"
Saitama tapped his chin. "You know, every time we played before you always had hundreds of hours of experience, but these games will be new to both of us."
"You think that will make a difference?" I asked.
Saitama cracked his knuckles. "Let's find out."
With that, we both made our way into the hotel. Our arrival caused a bit of a stir but the hotel staff were as professional as Armsmaster had promised and largely ignored the presence of heroes in their midst. When we got into the elevator Saitama raised the issue I had been half hoping and half dreading to talk about.
"Is the tornado around? I thought she was on this mission too."
I cleared my throat. "It's kind of a long story."
It didn't take much more prompting before I spilled the whole tale of my recent romantic misadventures. There weren't a lot of people I could count on to lend a sympathetic ear for stories about my personal life, and I guess I needed a sounding board. Saitama could be a little weird sometimes, but he usually had some wise advice to offer.
And so, a few minutes later, the only other guy on this world from my home dimension was rolling around on the floor of my hotel room, laughing uncontrollably. I just ignored him and unboxed the game console, checking to make sure that all of the components the manual said should be there were actually in the box. He seemed to be slowing down. I checked the input port on the TV and unpacked the appropriate connecting cable. By the time I managed to get the stupid packaging open he more or less had himself under control.
"The brat has feelings?"
I nodded. "She's a human being, of course she has feelings."
"You... you feel protective! Of the tornado of terror!"
With that, he dissolved into laughter once more. I sighed before getting back to work. Power cable. Check. Video. Check. Audio. Check. Caffeinated beverages. Check. Remote control. Check. Ah, auxiliary input channel, my old friend. You never judge me.
The title screen came up, and Saitama pulled himself up to settle back into the couch. He was completely unmoved by the mild glare I gave him along with the controller. I selected my character without delay, while he took his time checking out the available options.
"Well, I'm happy for you," he said, scrolling through the bottom row of characters. "Just don't invite me to the wedding and everything will be fine."
I just about choked on my soda. "Hey, you're assuming an awful lot there."
He scoffed. "Like you'd ever have the guts to break up with the brat."
That... was probably true. I could feel my heart rate picking up just thinking about how Tatsumaki would react to being dumped. Still, for the sake of the tattered remnants of my masculine pride, I couldn't outright admit it. Besides, he was missing an important point here.
"We aren't even dating. I told you that."
Saitama finally picked a character, and the fight began. We spent the first little while just testing out how the characters moved. Just as in real life, the start of a battle was no reason to stop talking, of course.
"Well, I haven't played as many dating games as you..." he began.
"But one thing I do know is that taking the mysterious guy who warns the girls away because he's dangerous is basically easy mode," he continued. "Aha! Low kick combo revised: sweep the leg strategy."
I smiled even as my character was sent flying back across the screen. I actually enjoyed these older fighting games. They emphasized strategy and precision more than super combos. The trick is to learn the size of your hitbox, the reach associated with each attack, and which attacks are given priority. Then you try to position yourself at the distance that favors your fighter and punish your opponent when they try to do anything.
Scrubs just try to find one ultimate attack and ride it to victory. I don't even know why they think that strategy would work.
I was starting to get a feel for the attacks in this game. I also had a sinking feeling that Saitama might have a point.
"That can't be right," I protested. Had I really put myself on the path of the brooding jackass love interest? That really should have come with a warning flag.
"What makes you think she's going to just give up?" Saitama asked. "Ha, I have you now!"
That was a fair point. On some level this wasn't even about me being attractive, but just about Tatsumaki not having something that she wanted. I worried at the tip of my tongue as I thought. The game was flowing smoothly now. Step back. Step forward. His defense is back up, so throw a low block breaking punch. Then my own sweep kick.
"What do I do?" I asked.
Step back. Step forward. Atomic piledriver. So much for round one.
"Hey! Hey! What happened?" Saitama said, then settled down as the fighters took their places for round two. "She likes you. You like her. Do you really need me to tell you what to do?"
"She likes the S-class hero King," I pointed out.
"That's you," he said. "All right, this time for sure!"
"You know what I mean," I said, then sighed. Who would have thought that living a life of lies could have this kind of consequence? Just when I started getting comfortable with the idea of monsters attacking me all the time, something new jumped out of the woodwork.
"Hmm, yeah," he said. "Ok, how about this: when you first meet somebody, you don't tell them all your embarrassing secrets right away, right? Over time they get to know the real you and accept the truth as they discover it. Every relationship is at least a little that way."
There we go, some of the deep wisdom that I was hoping for. He got in a few hits while I was thinking over what he said, but it was a small price to pay in exchange for a ray of hope.
"You really think that'll work?" I asked.
"With the tornado?" Saitama asked, before laughing. "No way. Mercy and understanding isn't exactly her specialty."
"Man, that's just mean," I said. Another missed low kick created another opening, and this time I exploited it ruthlessly. Soon the match was over.
Saitama leaned back and stretched. Then he turned to look me in the eye, a serious expression on his face.
"I can tell you one thing for sure. Whatever you want to happen, you can't make it happen by hiding in here," he said. "Now be quiet and let me focus, I almost had you that time."
Contessa slumped down in a chair in the hotel lobby. Her path to survival-HIDE!-told her she would be out of sight there. The prediction was only accompanied by a small amount of the fuzziness she had come to associate with capes from what she was coming to call Earth Terror. She had first been exposed to the effect when Tatsumaki appeared in Brockton Bay. That had led her to Brockton Bay out of an abundance of caution but she had grown more comfortable with the phenomenon over time.
When more fuzziness had appeared as she was planning the abduction of Caped Baldy, she had responded with appropriate care by ensuring that both Eidolon and Alexandria were present when the B-rank hero was portaled into the prison level of Cauldron's base. That was when things began to go horribly wrong.
The elevator let out a ding and Contessa sat up a little straighter as one of her power's predictions showed true: King and Caped Baldy knew each other. Their body language spoke of friendship and mutual respect as they walked out into the lobby. They made their way past the conveniently placed pillar that hid Contessa from view before pausing by the exit doors.
Caped Baldy scratched the back of his head before he spoke. "Man, I really thought I could beat you this time. I never really had a chance, did I?"
King chuckled. "Don't feel bad. Everybody starts out as a scrub."
Contessa briefly consulted her power. Talking about video games.
"You know nothing!"
"Are you going to need a, hm, ride back home? I can check-" King said, before Caped Baldy waved him off.
"No, no, it's fine. I'm going to take a look around first before I go," he said. "I've never been in a different dimension before."
"All right. Have fun out there," King said.
King sounded completely unconcerned about any danger that might threaten his friend while he was wandering around Earth Bet. Considering what had happened to Cauldron's base, that lack of concern was completely justified. It was another data point to suggest that the capes from Earth Terror had a reasonable handle on each other's abilities. Contessa pressed herself back in her chair as the two men shook hands in farewell.
The fuzziness that had been plaguing the path started to fade as Caped Baldy left the building. As expected, King's eyes widened when he saw her. He rushed over to stand in front of her, and for the first time Contessa felt the power of King's direct attention. It was an intimidating experience. Between his chiseled jawline, the mysterious scars over his eye, and his direct, piercing gaze, King looked every inch the hero.
"Hey, I saw you before. What happened?" King said, then shook his head. "No, that doesn't matter. How can I help you?"
Just an ordinary human. Paths spiraled through her head. Paths to King's death, whether at her hand or through an apparent accident. Paths to suborn King to her cause. To rebuild Cauldron. All of them practically begging to be carried out, all of them as simple to implement as just wanting it to happen.
"You only know what he wants you to know."
For the first time in years, Contessa completely disengaged herself from her power. She sagged in her seat, no longer able to hide the injuries she has suffered by masking them with perfect posture. Finally, she broke down and admitted the truth.
"I don't know."
King continued to look at her without saying anything. She thought she saw a flicker of compassion in his eyes, but it could have been a trick of the light. Contessa resolutely resisted the urge to find out one way or the other by consulting her power.
"What do you do?" she continued. "When you make a huge mistake and you can't fix it, what do you do?"
King's brow furrowed in thought. "I would say, listen to your heart and do what you think is right. You can't change the past, but you can do better in the future."
Contessa considered his response. Perhaps the worst part of the fall of Cauldron, other than the immediate terror and pain, was the effect on all of her long term paths aimed at preserving human civilization. They had all grown shorter, promising greater results for much less effort on her part. They were infected with the all too familiar fuzziness, but the conclusion was clear enough: humanity was better off with Cauldron gone.
For years she had not only worked herself to the bone, she had sacrificed every principle, crossed every line, all in pursuit of the survival of humanity. She had told herself that each atrocity would be paid off in time, that the ends justified the means. For all that her power let her carry out her paths flawlessly, it couldn't erase the weight from her conscience that accumulated with each path completed.
What if, after all that work, they simply couldn't influence the primary course of events? If they were nothing more than children playing under the benign gaze of adults. Able to hurt each other or help each other, but impossibly far from affecting world events. If that was the case, maybe she should just do what was right instead of trying to manipulate the whole world for their own good. Maybe that's what she should have been doing all along.
"Do you want me to call the PRT?" King asked, mistaking the grimace that accompanied her flash of insight for a sign of pain. Or perhaps not.
Contessa decided that the best way to avoid driving herself crazy with speculation about King was to avoid the use of her powers in a way that targeted him, specifically. Of course, that hardly meant that she would abandon her power completely.
"First, I'm going to need a new hat."
If she was going to dedicate herself to doing the right thing, she might as well look good doing it.