53

(The Hot Springs Episode)

"Okay, so the schedules have to be filed on Monday. Do not forget."

"Alright."

"And make sure you ask the Wards for changes on Friday, they're teenagers and they make sudden plans. If you can work any in that would be for the best."

"Got it."

"The Tinker review things you can ignore and I'll vet them when I get back, but if any power interaction reports crop up you need to address them ASAP."

"Yeah, yeah..."

"And there's weekly reports made to print off in my lab regarding the HQ's Tinkertech functions, I'll be transferring them to the general servers, so don't-"

Dauntless started laughing. He and Armsmaster were walking towards the time clock scanner and Armsmaster had an armful of files he was handing over, each with a warning or message as to its purpose. "Oh my God, seriously. I get it. I never knew you were such a mother hen."

Armsmaster stopped next to the time-out clock and glowered at Dauntless. Or at least, he assumed it was a glower- the Tinker's visor kept his eyes shielded and it was hard to distinguish one frown from the next. After a moment, Armsmaster's frown shifted a few degrees and he tapped at the side of his helmet. Dauntless raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong?"

"My wi-fi just went out. And I can't connect to either the internal network or the internet..."

"It's probably just an outage," Dauntless waved it off. "Really, I mean it. Things will be fine. You enjoy your vacation, everything will still be intact when you get back."

"But the internet-"

"Is just an ISP issue. Really. Just accept that things will be okay if you're gone for five minutes." Dauntless made an exaggerated shrug, compensating for the stack of files under one arm. "Really, what's the worst that can happen?

While neither could confirm it, it was assumed that the sky outside the Rig grew dark, as storm clouds clustered together and faded the sky from an easy blue to an ominous gray. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The sound was interrupted by multiple sets of quickened footsteps.

"Armsmaster!" Miss Militia called out as she jogged towards the pair, at least three different routers and a tangle of cords in her arms. "Disconnect your internet! Now! Don't open any text messages or emails! It's an emergency!"

Dauntless goggled at her. "What are you talking abou-"

"So hey, Bossman," Assault mentioned as he strode up to the now trifecta of heroes. In his arms was a young girl, maybe aged 5 or 6, with a pair of furry ears atop her head and a brown fox tail wagging from under her dress, "I kinda need an M/S alert, and a babysitter, because I'm pretty sure I adopted this girl?"

A red blur interrupted any response as Velocity joined the fray, out of breath. "Hey, Boss, I know you said not to bother you and I'm sorry, but my printer is doing that thing again, and-"

Bleep

Armsmaster swiped his badge through the time clock machine. "I'm out."

Hours Earlier...

Lung eyed the missive with a scowl. The Miko had sent a message along with Oni Lee, that she was cordially inviting the city's capes and the general public for the pre-opening of the hot spring; apparently, this meant a one-time only opening without needing a pass like the one Lung already possessed. It was still difficult not to think of the Shrine and its surroundings as his territory, and it made the fact that he would have to accept whatever capes showed up and leave them in peace all the more galling.

Not that there were many that he expected to show up. The Empire had had its parahuman resources torn out root and branch, and the city's mundane law enforcement were on a warpath against the unpowered rank and file. The Merchants, lowly as they were, had more or less dissolved completely- though he thought there was still a stray cape or two that was involved in the drug trade, most of the Merchant's brand of nihilism was upheld by the desperate and the spiteful. The rest of the city's cape scene was keeping a low profile in fear of Good Dog.

It chafed. He had no love for the other parahumans that had settled in Brockton Bay—in fact he despised most of them—but the idea that he must now pay some modicum of respect to the Protectorate was a sour taste upon his tongue. Respect...

Lung paused, turning the card containing the message between his figures. He didn't actually have to respect the heroes. He just needed to stay within the letter of the kami's law, and not too far outside the spirit of it. Nothing about the unfortunate arrangement he'd found himself bound to suggested he needed to respect the heroes, only that he not attack them. Aggravating and insulting them was fair game. A slow smile spread across Lung's face.

He called for Lee and searched for a scrap of paper, quickly writing a few details down upon it while the assassin answered. "Lee. Take this to the dollmaker cape near the Boardwalk. Pay her whatever you need to get it made."

Oni Lee took the scrap of paper and glanced over it. Instead of the expected bow, he saw his friend's eyes move behind his mask to settle a glare on him, somewhere between disappointment and incredulity if Lung made his guess. He scoffed. "Just do it, Lee."

"As you desire," Oni Lee responded, and a moment later his clone dissolved into ash.

"No. Absolutely not."

"But mom, it's a hot spring. And Brushstroke is a good person! And the Pawprint Shrine is neutral ground! I'll bet even some of the Protectorate will be there," Vicky pleaded. In her hand was a written flyer inviting New Wave to Pawprint Shrine's public 'onsen.' It had been hand-delivered to the Dallon residence and stuffed in the mailbox.

"We're not the Protectorate, Victoria, and New Wave is not going to endorse a business that would happily welcome Kaiser if he was still here." Carol Dallon shook her head. As far as she was concerned a simple 'no' should have been the end of it. But Victoria was stubborn.

"But he's not here, is he? And you and I both know that Brushstroke and Good Dog helped with taking the Empire apart."

"The answer is no, Victoria."

"Mom. Please." Her daughter set the flyer flat on the kitchen counter and looked Carol in the eyes. Her voice was uncharacteristically low and serious. "I want to take Ames there so she can have a hot soak and relax for once. It'd do her good."

"Trying to play a pity card isn't going to change my mind."

"Pity-!" Victoria's eyes widened, then her face flushed with anger. "Well, sorry for thinking you might be concerned!"

"Victoria!"

"I dunno why I thought so. You never do anything to help Amy when she's feeling down." Before Carol could say another word, Victoria spun in the air and zoomed up the stairs. There was a resounding crack as her door was slammed shut hard enough to break it. Again. She'd told her about being careful with her strength so many times...

Carol sighed and shook her head. She'd have another talk with Victoria after the teenager had called down. Honestly, neither of the girls were children anymore, they should know better than to trust random capes. And they should be able to take care of themselves, at least enough that they didn't expect Carol to hover around and tend to their every whim. Amy was fine. She didn't need Carol going out of her way to entertain her. Victoria did enough of that already, for everyone. Always doing little things or saying something cheerful. That sort of soft heart was going to get her hurt, someday.

A purr started up a familiar rumble near her legs, and Carol bent down to pick up Chekov. Even the cat had a tendency to wait on Amy when she was being moody, doing little things like pouncing on her robes or batting at the girl's face with his paws.

Little things...

A shadow of a nightmare passed behind Carol's eyes, and she hugged Chekov a little closer to her chest. Little things built up and up. Cheerful words, bright smiles, hugs.

Admonishments to be careful. Days too busy to interact. Old sentiments. Disappointed frowns. All just little things, that built up and up... until they formed a wall. Brick. By. Brick.

Chekov meowed at her, shaking Carol out of her dark thoughts. She scratched the cat's chin and found her eyes wandering towards the stairs, following the path Victoria had taken. You never do anything.

"No," she murmured into the silence. "I suppose I don't."

The atmosphere around the Pawprint Shrine wasn't quite up to festive standards, most likely owing to the cold, but there were plenty of people about. The bakery next door seemed to be doing good business, and a few food carts had set up alongside the opposite curb of the street. Assault took a closer look even as he pushed both Aegis and Clockblocker forward to distract the adoring fans who had noticed the Protectorate's arrival. Assault spotted a few other capes who had decided to attend Brushstroke's little gathering. Circus was loitering around the bakery, two of the Undersiders were near one of the food carts, and he was pretty sure he caught sight of Glory Girl carrying her sister Panacea in a princess carry into the new building that housed the baths. That was pretty much the only threat assessment... oh, no, there was Oni Lee inside the Shrine's grounds proper. The assassin was standing faithfully nearby a small girl that had to be Dinah Alcott, who was busy building a snow man.

The Undersiders he mostly trusted not to start anything, but Assault resolved to keep an eye on Oni Lee and Circus.

Assault wove into the crowd, cracking jokes and signing autographs, and regularly doing a quick visual scan of the area to keep tabs on the locations of the Wards and other capes in attendance. He'd been so excited about the prospect of Brushstroke's project being completed, but now that he was here he had to be the adult in the situation. It sucked.

Before he could mope too much a section of the crowd parted, and let Lung walk by. He'd come out from the baths- his bare skin was steaming in the cold December air. Assault kept an eye on him, because even if he'd gotten wrapped around Brushstroke's little finger he was still the most dangerous cape in the Bay, but all the gang leader did was nod at Oni Lee as he passed. A car inched through the thin crowd to pull up for him, and Lung got in. The car slowly reversed, turned, and left.

Dang. Lung had been here? He hadn't heard any screams or explosions so he had to assume the Dallon sisters were still okay. Physically, at least. They might be traumatized. He'd have to ask them later if anything had happened.

"Oh, you look like a curious one."

A voice just to his right made him turn and look. A Japanese woman in a formal kimono was standing way closer than he'd thought anyone had gotten. Once she saw she had his attention the woman smiled, and placed her hands on his bicep.

"We do love curious people," another voice said, this time to his left. Assault's head whipped around to find the same Japanese woman- no, not the same, just very similar. This one was wearing a different colored kimono, but all the same she smiled and placed her hands on his arm as well.

"Ah, excuse me ladies, but-"

"Curious enough he might be willing to make a little bargain?"

"We bought a little something from the sisters in the onsen. Maybe you'd be interested in seeing it as well?"

"A picture of that man."

"It's quite striking."

Assault was getting dizzy trying to follow the twins' dialogue. He stepped back and they released their flirtatious hold on him, but the smiles remained. One of the twins held up a cell phone.

"Just a little teensy favor, and it can be yours."

"An easy favor."

"Ladies, I can't-"

The woman with the cell phone turned it on and showed him the photo. As promised, it was a picture of Lung, reclining in the hot spring.

He was wearing the top half of his mask, a blue speedo with Armsmaster's insignia, and a smile.

Assault felt his brain blow a fuse. The twins smiled a bit wider. "What do you want?"

They grinned, and leaned in, each standing on the tips of their toes to whisper near his ear: "Fried~ to~ fu~."

"...'kay."

Within five minutes they'd sent the picture to his phone, and in return he forked over several bills to the cook who was running a fried tofu skewer truck. The women took their bounty of fried plant protein and vegetables with matching looks of gleeful expectation, then vanished somewhere in the crowd. That was fine. Assault had something critical to attend to. He fumbled his phone with shaking fingers and opened the chat messaging app.

Assault: MM!

Miss Militia: what?

Assault: You are nevr going to believe this

Assault: Look

Assault: Look and weep

sent attached image

Miss Militia: WHAT

Miss Militia: WHAT THW SHIT IS THIS

Assault: its beautiful

Assault: boss is going to explode

Miss Militia: he's going to DIE you idiot!

Miss Militia: He's going to get so angry he will literally DROP DEAD

Assault: the capefic on PHO is going to go nuclear

Miss Militia: NO

Miss Militia: he can't see this, ever! don't upload that!

Assault: I think someone already did, I'm not the only person with this pic

Miss Militia: oh god

Miss Militia: I have to stop this somehow

Miss Militia: after I destroy the internet I am coming for your ass

Something attempted to tug at the pant leg of his costume, and Assault looked away from his phone, then down to find a young girl in a shapeless dress, with brown hair and some truly crazy cowlicks. She had to be less than seven years old, and once she saw him looking at her she spoke in a high voice, "Can I have some?"

"Uh- sure. Hey, one more," Assault motioned to the seller, who obligingly handed over another tofu skewer in exchange for more money. Assault handed the fried snack to the girl, who made a happy sound and dug in immediately. Where were the girl's parents? Or, did she even have any? Well, once she was done eating he could ask and maybe get her taken to a shelter, or... or. Or maybe she didn't have cowlicks in her hair. Maybe she had ears. Fluffy, triangular ears covered in a soft brown pelt the same color as her hair. Motion caught Assault's eye and pulled his attention to the tawny brown tail wagging behind the girl.

"Ish sho good!" The girl spoke around a mouthful of food. "Thanks mister! You're nice!"

"You're welcome," Assault returned. In his head he was tallying up the possibilities. Was she a runaway who'd Triggered? An unusually photogenic Case 53? Did she just have parents who were way too casual about letting her walk around unmasked? "What's your name, sweetie? Do you have parents around here?"

"I dun' have one," she said, her voice turning sad. "An' no. I sure do wish I had a human family, though. It looks like fun."

Assault let out a breath. That was an... odd response, but maybe a Case 53? Case 53 honestly made the situation a bit easier. "Okay. Well, I can't leave you out here alone. Why don't you come with me to the PR-"

The girl perked up, ears going skyward. "Really?! You want me to go with you? Yay!"

Before he could protest, the girl latched onto his leg like a barnacle, hugging him. "Please take good care of me, papa! I promise I'll be the best daughter ever!"

"Wait-"

"Are you married, papa? Do I get a new mama too?!"

...Battery was going to murder him, assuming Miss Militia didn't do so first.