Disclaimer: DO THE HUSTLE~!


Ahem. And now for another diabetes-inducing chapter. Thank you all for being patient.




Worm: Babel








An email from Amy has confirmed her safe return to her family's abode. Her mother was not very delighted by the flower blindsiding Victoria with her own aura – apparently, the blonde Dallon sister was rather ruffled by the experience, much to my own vindictive amusement – but everything was smoothed over by New Wave's leader, Lady Photon: my dear Amy will keep the flower at the Pellham residence, so that Carol Dallon is not off-put by Amy's experiments into the unusual foliage I created for her.

Easily a better fate than having to throw it away, I agreed in my return letter to my dear frien-crush. If I have learned anything this day, it is that I would be lost, adrift, without Amy's wit and delightful presence in my life. Truly, I find myself looking forward to Dean's party, where I hope, with all my heart, that I may dance with Amy.

Whether they play rap, pop, or slow romantic songs, I did not nearly place Regionals in ballet by being clumsy on my feet. I will most certainly blow minds – preferably Amy's – with my ability to, as people say these days, work it.

Mimi and Elle are fast asleep. This has been a most trying day for them, to put the terrible events of the Asylum lightly. Luckily for us all, my execution of those dastardly murderers has landed my family a… rather robust windfall of money. Thus, with the agreement of Ms. Piggot, both Mimi and Elle will stay with either myself or Amy's team, until a better arrangement for certain members of the Asylum can be constructed.

Mr. Wallis – who I suspect is actually Armsmaster; the beard is a dead giveaway – confided that Dragon, the world's greatest Tinker, is preparing such a retreat for new Parahumans, Case 53s, and mentally impaired Parahumans, such as Mimi and Elle, in the mid-west; with the threat of the Slaughterhouse Nine gone, such a measure can be taken with minimal risk of outside interference.

Ordinarily, all of these things would fill me with great delight, the uplifting of all my friends. Certainly, I am quite looking forward to the fruits of Dragon's labor. Even more, on my dear sweet Amy's end of things.

Yet, sitting on the very same couch I began this most momentous of days upon, a cup of chamomile in my hand, gazing upon a folder containing the secrets of sublime wonders and terrible horrors…

I am troubled in my heart.

There are no illusions in my mind, there in my family's house: so many suspicious happenings have occurred this day that, in the end, I must reconcile an inescapable fact.

The Crawling Chaos has taken an interest in me.

Therefore… today… was a test.

A test of my mettle, my decisiveness, my ability to think on my feet when confronted with some of the myriad horrors that plague Earth Bet. How else might have Elle found my dreaming labyrinth, Babel, the Realm of the Word, if not for the interference of the Black Pharaoh? Verily, it is likely that the dark being has manipulated Elle as much as myself; whereas I have the First Language, the words of command that call all manner of strange beings from far-distant planes, or bend space that I may walk there in truth…

Elle, I surmise, must have been blessed by another Outer God, likely at Baat-ko-ept's insistence.

My fingers twist off the string that binds the folder closed, and I find the relevant page with ease: a drawing of colorful, strange globes, all flying from a core of prismatic light. Were it within me to do so, this page would be as detailed and of fraught beauty as the one I made of my labyrinth, and yet… I dare not.


The Gate.

The Key.

The Way.

The keeper of the Gate and Key and Way, it is the Gate and Key and Way, knows the Gate and Key and Way.

Only lesser than Nyarlathotep in deeds and actions, it is the lynchpin by which reality itself remains inviolate and lasting. Those who seek to walk the worlds enter its domain, and it will know them. The Gatekeeper may seem uncaring, allowing any who manage to travel from one world to the other to pass by unmolested…

The Hounds of Tindalos, the Dimensional Shamblers, and Nyarlathotep itself… they are the ones who seek and destroy those who violate the sanctity of the spheres.

Yet Elle may travel them, construct other places. She may touch planes which should, by all accounts, be denied by the Gatekeeper. Yet she lives.

I sigh, and take a sip of my tea. The thoughts and deeds of Outer Gods are not for mortals to comprehend. And is that not an interesting thought?

They play with us, these inscrutable, primordial horrors of the stars, and we must dance to their tune or die.

If they wish to play…

Daddy appears in the archway leading from the foyer. His glasses shine with light from the lamp in our living room as he looks at me, Grandad's rifle held in one hand.

We do not speak, the ticking of the cuckoo clock the only sound in the room.

I close the folder, and take another fortifying sip of tea. Daddy walks over, pushing the folder aside and laying the rifle on the low table; I set my teacup on the saucer, laid on the couch's armrest, and Daddy sits in front of me, on the table.

All is silent, sharp and terrible. I wonder what Mommy would think, were she still living…

Would she try to stop me? Would she yell at Daddy, or both of us?

…who am I attempting to deceive? She would be sitting next to Daddy, smiling proudly at me, nodding for me to continue with the plan we worked out, silently. On the surface, what is about to happen isn't defiance of the Crawling Chaos' plan; one day, maybe, but for the present moment, I must ensure Daddy's survival.

For the world is dark and full of terrors.

"I love you, Daddy," I smile up at him, blinking my stinging eyes.

He takes my face in a calloused hand, and I take a deep, shaking breath to steel my nerves. His lips on my forehead assist me greatly in this endeavor.

"Love you too, little owl."

I'm ready. No turning back.

His hand leaves my face. I do not feel cold. I do not hesitate.

Instead, I take my Daddy's hands… and begin to speak.




Anyone looking into the warehouse where the meeting was taking place would've thought it a cliché. Shadow Stalker certainly thought so.

A rough, pitted table was illuminated by a single light hanging from the steel rafters she was hiding in. Gangsters, most of them looking like every other skinhead she'd ever seen, lined the walls and the few catwalks that hadn't fallen due to age or cape fights of the past, just about all of them toting deadly weapons, from assault rifles to machetes.

Shadow Stalker always found that kind of ironic, that the E88 mooks used machetes, which were a farming tool, usually implemented in harvesting sugar cane in Hispanic countries. Not that she cared much; no one could see her, in her shadowed perch where two rafters met. Cricket wasn't present, either, which made Stalker's spying on the meeting that much easier.

The reason the Empire were meeting was obvious. Hell, everyone in the world knew the reason.

The S9 were dead, killed by a single cape. Annotator.

Problem was, the PRT wasn't letting any information on the new cape out. Stalker checked PHO earlier that day but, other than a bunch of tinfoil-hat speculation on how the murderhobos got whacked, no one was giving out anything solid on Annotator; the official PRT statement only gave a name, and that they were a Shaker/Master. No threat rating, no description of their power, nothing.

Hence, she decided to go fishing. Anyone who'd been on the cape scene in the Bay as long as Shadow Stalker had knew the PRT and cops were infiltrated by the E88 and ABB; how else did their mooks end up back on the streets so fast, or their capes escape confinement every time?

Just her luck she spotted Kaiser walking into an abandoned warehouse, with Krieg in tow.

Below Stalker's vantage, there were six Empire capes: Purity, Kaiser, Othala, Victor, Krieg, and Alabaster. And they were talking.

"Piggot doesn't want anyone making a threat rating for her," Victor was saying, "According to our insiders, Annotator scared her so much she admitted they were more dangerous than Nilbog or Legend."

"Interesting," drawled Kaiser, sitting on a throne of blades like the pretentious faggot he was, Purity floating next to him, "And what of Annotator's true identity? Do we have anything?" Othala glanced at Victor, who glanced back; both had a tense expression. They knew something.

Stalker leaned in closer, but not too far, lest she get detected. Krieg and Alabaster kept looking around, and Purity was bright enough to illuminate most of the building interior.

"…Yeah. But you're not going to like it, Kaiser."

"There is much about this situation that is unsettling, Victor," calmly replied the Empire's leader, "So long as she can be brought into the fold, it matters not who Annotator is… unless she is a subhuman?" Purity's light pulsed, and Krieg calmly stroked the gun holster on his hip.

Above them, Stalker ground her teeth quietly, but otherwise didn't move. Kaiser alone, she could probably take. Not all of them at once, not if she wanted to survive the experience.

"She's a student at Arcadia, a freshman, already an honor student," sighed Othala, looking into Kaiser's helmet, "Taylor Hebert, daughter of Danny Hebert, head of hiring with the DWU."


Sophia stared wide-eyed at the table beneath her, heart pounding in her chest. That… that little miss sunshine… was Annotator?! Bullshit. It was bullshit! That girl was the last person who'd ever go running into a fight with a starving cat, let alone the Slaughterhouse Nine! The girl ran away in tears after Emma and Sophia laid into her; that she took down the S9… impossible!

Okay, Sophia had to admit, the girl did manage to get Emma admitted to a really nice mental hospital out of town – in hindsight, a pretty good idea; even with Sophia's help, the redhead was still fraught, still having nightmares about the ABB. Girl needed a break more than anyone – so there must've been a deviousness to miss pigtails-and-dresses Sophia hadn't noticed, but the NINE?! By herself?


"The Dockworkers," a screeching of metal came from Kaiser after that coldly delivered statement, "You are certain?"

Victor nodded, "We've known where he lived for years, but… well," the man shrugged, looking pugnacious, "You know what those guys would do, if we went after their management. It's hard enough getting normals into the place."

"Mainly due to his interference," observed Krieg dismissively, turning to Kaiser, whose hands were steepled in thought, "They aren't subhuman, however. Perhaps, if we use the father, the daughter will be easier to mold to our own will?"

"I may be able to do it," airily reported Alabaster, "Krieg and Victor should be able to secure the father, while I negotiate terms with the daughter?"

When Kaiser didn't immediately reply, Purity spoke up, "What of her mother?"

"Dead," Victor said, sounding sour, "Car crash, little over a year ago."

"In light of all I've heard this evening," Kaiser finally spoke, slowly, measuring every word, "We will need more information on Annotator. Yes, there is no doubt she is powerful, but we have no details, and anyone, even rumored, who defeats not only Jack Slash, but Crawler and the Siberian, is not to be taken lightly… Her father is also not to be underestimated," he added, "No one, normal or otherwise, lasts as long as he has in the Docks by being weak or foolish. When we know more," he finished, standing, "I believe Purity should make initial contact; a woman's touch may be the difference between a new ally or Annotator's ire. Don't you agree, dear?"

As Purity flared a bit at Kaiser's fond – if cold – words, Shadow Stalker used her power to slip out of the building, flitting from rooftop to rooftop until she was out of the Docks… and within sight of Hebert's house.

She'd found the place, following the prissy princess home after the bitch ruined Sophia's plans with Emma – again, probably for the best; Winslow was a shithole, and Emma wasn't actually tough enough to handle that sort of thing.

It was a nice house. Unassuming. Just another house in decent condition among other houses in Brockton Bay.

Just like every other time Stalker laid eyes on the house, something crawled down her spine, telling her that going in there for any reason… wasn't a great idea. That she now knew that Hebert's old man was with the DWU, who usually sent ganger mooks to the hospital with their teeth in plastic bags… well, the feeling made more sense. Even Marquis and the Teeth didn't fuck with the DWU, back in the day.


I'm a hero. Heroes are supposed to help people.

And if Hebert really was Annotator…

The Empire were after her, for recruitment or elimination. Hebert wasn't all that strong; if Hookwolf or Purity came after her, powers or no, she wouldn't stand a chance.

Stalker looked around the neighborhood before heading home; there were five unmarked PRT cars in the area, two in line of sight of Hebert's house. At least one of those probably had an E88 mole, passing information to Victor and Othala.

After taking off her costume and climbing into bed, Sophia Hess laid awake, checking PHO for anything more on Annotator; there wasn't anything. No description of how her Shaker power worked, or what form her Master power took.

Frustrated, the black girl put her phone on the charger and huffed, staring at the ceiling, sleep eluding her.

What was she supposed to do?

The answer didn't come immediately, the teenage cape restless and anxious to the point of insomnia. When it did, only then did Sophia fall asleep.

She dreamt of dark catacombs and dark forests, and wizened forms with glowing eyes who shambled through hidden paths, unseen, unheard, but always watching.

And she flitted through the shadows with them, following a one-eyed cat with black fur.




Mimi woke up in a strange room. It wasn't her room, in the Asylum-

She stiffened. There was a warm weight on her chest; looking down, she saw the golden hair of her Elle.

The horrible events of the previous day came back to her, then the amazing events that followed waking up in the very bed she was laying in, and Mimi relaxed, tightening her embrace around her most precious person. Her Elle hummed and pressed herself tighter against Mimi.

A happy grin spread across her face. She was FREE! No more meds, no more bad doctors, no more cold rooms with awful tests! Taylor and her Amy saved them, her and Elle, and they were FREE!

…Mimi had to pee, though, and Elle was wrapped around her quite tightly. Poking her love in the nose woke her up, like it always did; big blue eyes blinked up at Mimi, followed by a watery smile of happiness and sunshine that made Mimi's heart melt.

"Mimi…" and Elle wanted to kiss her, Mimi knew, but Mimi had to use the bathroom, so she dodged her love and gave her a nose-nuzzle instead, making her Elle giggle and sniffle so cutely.

"Mor-rr-rning, Elle. Can you l-let me up? I gotta g-g-go," she wiggled her hips and made a face that Elle understood, and Mimi was free to get up.

The room was nice as ever, with an old TV they watched an amazing movie on last evening. The walls were a nice color, and the door was cracked just enough to let some light in; music was coming from across the hall – Taylor's room, thought Mimi with a happy, protective sigh – and the smell of delicious food drifted through the air.

So much better than waking up in the cold grey of the Asylum!

"Mimi. Ball," oh! Elle had the ball Taylor made for her, that would keep Mimi from wanting to burn stuff!

Taking it into her arms, Mimi gave Elle a peck of thanks, "Tha-anks Elle! I'll try not-t-t… to t-take too long," and flitted out into the hall, taking Elle with her to stand outside the bathroom and wait; Taylor had such a nice house, which meant paintings on the wall, which meant Elle could stare at a nice landscape until Mimi finished her business. The bathroom smelled so good, with its flowery shower curtain and soft mats that kept Mimi's feet from getting cold.

After she finished, she helped Elle do her morning business – because that's what being in love meant, helping the other person get through their day; Dr. Yamada and Sveta, the nicest people-who-weren't-Elle Mimi ever met at the Asylum, both thought so! They didn't have toothbrushes, though, but there was mouthwash, so Mimi used that to get rid of her morning breath, then helped Elle get rid of hers, as she was getting distracted by something in the plush carpet in front of Taylor's sink.

'Or is it Danny's sink?' Taylor's daddy, Danny, was scared for Taylor, because she'd fought the scary people who tried to turn Mimi into a killer. While that was strange for Mimi, because Taylor was super strong and kind and smart, Elle said that was how daddies were supposed to act; they were supposed to protect their daughters from hurtful things. Amy agreed, too, and Taylor clearly loved her Amy, so that must mean that Amy was a smart girl too!

Mimi wished, for a second, that her own mommy and daddy did those things for her, instead of turning her into… Burnscar… but then Elle was holding her hand again, and the world brightened!

Then Taylor shambled out of her room, looking like she'd just awoken, her usually-perfect hair a wild thicket of curls, glasses askew, wearing a blue bathrobe covered in yellow duckies and a pair of fluffy frog slippers on her feet; as the sleepy girl who saved them shuffled by, she grumbled, "G'mrn'nn Meemers, Ellers," and disappeared into the bathroom, leaving the other two Shakers to stifle their giggles.

As they approached the stairs, Mimi confided in Elle, who was held tight against her side – stairs were dangerous when Elle was distracted! – "I d-d-don't think Taylor's m-mm-much of a morning p-person."

"Froggies," giggled Elle, carefully stepping down the stairs, one step at a time, holding Mimi's orb for her so Mimi could use the rail.

But Mimi could still laugh, so she did, "I know! So c-cute!" she wondered if Taylor's Amy knew about the froggy slippers. If not… maybe Amy would spend time with Taylor soon – they were in love, so that meant they would spend lots of time together, just like Mimi planned to with her Elle – and then, once Amy was nearby, Mimi could ask!

Because Mimi was free!

Following the smell of breakfast – bacon, eggs, sausage and other, fantastic smells – they found Danny at the stove, with two plates of breakfast already set out, glasses of orange juice and real forks and butter knives next to them.

It'd been a long time since Mimi saw metal forks. The doctors wouldn't let her have any, because they thought she might hurt herself. Which was silly.

"Good morning, girls," greeted Taylor's daddy; Mimi was unsure about him, last night, but he was so welcoming and kind. She figured that's where Taylor got it from, "Go ahead and take a seat. I still have to work on my and Taylor's breakfast."

"G-Good morning, D-D-Danny," Mimi shook her head and led her Elle to one of the chairs, pulling it out for the blonde to sit; Mimi still had to guide her girlfriend to the chair, because she was distracted by something on top of Danny's head, but Mimi didn't mind. She liked helping her Elle! But… "Um, D-Danny?"

"Hm?" he glanced over his shoulder, smiling a little. Was there something different about him? Mimi couldn't tell.

"What a-are these things?" she poked one of the golden-brown wedges, in a pile next to her scrambled eggs – which had cheese and pepper in them!

"Those are hash browns, Mimi. Fried potatoes with seasoning. Taylor likes them," explained Danny while Mimi sat next to her Elle and took her orb back; Elle was still distracted by stuff, though. She couldn't grab her fork right, and was starting to get frustrated. That wouldn't do!

So Mimi scooted closer and tapped Elle's chin with a finger to get her attention. It worked, and, with a smile, Mimi started helping her Elle eat, which Elle really liked, because she started smiling really big.

After a little while, Elle patted Mimi's leg and pointed at the redhead's plate, "Mimi. You… too," as if on cue, Mimi's stomach growled. She was pretty hungry, so she started eating, keeping one eye trained on her girlfriend to ensure Elle didn't accidentally make a mess. But nothing happened, not even when Danny joined them at the table, smiling at them both; Elle just kicked her legs and hummed to herself, keeping one hand on Mimi's thigh.

The food… was so good! It was… better… than anything Mimi… ever…

She sniffled. Why did she want to cry?!

"Mimi?" she looked up at Danny, who looked a little concerned, "Is everything alright?"

"Mimi's fine… just. Happy," Elle said, staring at the ketchup bottle with a small smile.

Mimi nodded, swallowing and trying to talk, to explain, because Danny was so nice to her, "I-I-It's… ju-just really g-g-g-good food," she forced the words out, breathing past the happiness in her, "I've n-nnnnever had food so good!" and she went back to eating.

"Try some of the orange juice too. It'll help keep the food down," Danny said; he was right, too! And it was better than what the Asylum gave Mimi and all the other… inmates.

"Good morning everyone~!" Taylor's sunny entrance banished the black thoughts that were about to appear in Mimi's head; their rescuer was no longer all messy from sleep, but wearing a bright red dress with blue buttons and stockings, her pigtails now held by pink ribbons as she twirled into the kitchen and hugged her daddy, "Morning, Daddy!"

"G'morning… Taylor," Elle waved at the fridge; Mimi was feeling full, so she put down her fork, adjusted the orb in her lap, and went back to helping Elle eat.

"H-Hi, Taylor!" Mimi smiled hopefully at Taylor, who sat so nicely, making it look easy! "How d-do you do that all the time?"

"Do what?" Taylor looked honestly curious, like she didn't know how graceful she was.

"Um… the…" Mimi gestured at the chair Taylor was sitting in, making herself a cup of tea, "That."

"Oh! Um, well, I've practiced ballet for years, and I truly enjoy the profession ever so much, so I make sure to use the techniques I learned in the classes as often as possible, even though I no longer compete," and Taylor blushed a little, grabbing her toast to stop herself from talking so much.

Mimi wished she could talk like Taylor, be as graceful as her…

"What my daughter fails to mention," spoke up Danny with a smile while Taylor mixed her hash browns and eggs together, and Mimi cut Elle's sausages into smaller pieces, "is how many times she fell on her face practicing."

"Daddy!" cried Taylor, looking so embarrassed. Mimi tried to imagine Taylor falling on her face, but it was hard, having seen the pretty girl prance everywhere so easily. Elle giggled a little though, through the sausage stuffed into her mouth.

"And now you're one of the best dancers in the city. Even Amy thinks so," Danny complimented Taylor, who blushed and ducked her head again; yep, Mimi thought. Totally in love with her Amy, "So all those times you tripped were worth it, in the end." Taylor just grumbled something, but she was still smiling, so she wasn't really mad… or, Mimi didn't think so.

More words were exchanged, and Elle became less distracted as they ate more, so that meant Mimi didn't have to talk as much. The only time she did was when Taylor asked why she was stuttering more.

To which Mimi blushed and ducked her own head, "I-It's… um, I have a h-hard t-t-time, making sure all the w-worrrds are right in my head. I'm fine though!" Mimi insisted, looking right at Taylor, who was collecting the empty plates; Mimi had never felt so full, not for years, "I-I-I can deal juuusst fine!"

Holding her Elle's hand, rubbing her orb, helped keep Mimi calm. She was calm, nothing would burn, and her Elle was there.

Taylor just huffed and nodded, "Well, I imagine so! You're a very strong girl, Mimi, and Elle too."

"But I can't t-t-taaalk good like you…" Elle hugged Mimi and muttered, 'don't care, my Mimi's good.'

"Few can, but that means very little, Mimi," admitted Taylor with a small smile that… looked a little sad? Why was Taylor sad? "I can speak very eloquently, and learn other languages with a speed that boggles the mind, yes. Unfortunately, my skill with the spoken word means that I am very poor at most mathematics. Even the simplest culinary recipes are difficult for me to follow."

"You've been getting better at it, recently, kiddo," reported Danny, at the sink; he was washing the dishes pretty quickly, but wasn't making any mistakes that Mimi could see…

"Thank you, Daddy," blushed Taylor, who then looked at Mimi with a happy smile, "So, even if you have issues with speaking… wait," she frowned a little, "You weren't this bad, yesterday."

Elle squeezed Mimi's leg. The blonde love of Mimi's life gave her a serious look, then spoke to Taylor, "Mimi has… trouble… when she doesn't… use her power… for a long time." Mimi looked at Taylor too and nodded, stroking her orb. It was true; if she went without her power for too long, it'd get really hard to speak, which would make her frustrated, which…

Made her want to burn things.

"Oh! Well, we'll just have to figure something out, then!" Taylor looked happy? Why? "You have your orb now, which will help you control your flames; all that's left is practice," the pretty girl nodded happily, pigtails bouncing, "Practice makes perfect, after all! I was not always so verbose and graceful, you know."

"Falling on your face," giggled Elle. Taylor made a face that made Mimi stifle a laugh; she didn't want to be rude, or laugh at Taylor, but Taylor laughed too?

Still… if all she needed was practice…

"When can we? P-P- urgpractice. When c-can we?" Mimi asked.

"Taylor." All three girls looked over at Danny, who was done with the dishes, "I've been thinking about where to get your costume from, and," he smiled, "now that we have money, I think there's a solution that doesn't involve the Deep Ones."

When Danny explained his idea, all three girls cheered and bustled back upstairs to get ready for a day in the city. Mimi was a little nervous, but her Elle was with her, and Taylor wouldn't let anything bad happen! She promised, even!

On top of that, they were going shopping for dresses, would probably see a puppet show, and Mimi might get to practice using her power without having to worry about burning anyone! With Elle along for the whole time!

She hoped nothing bad happened, because if nothing yucky happened, it'd be the best day ever!




"All units, be advised: subject 'Voice' will be visiting the Boardwalk with subjects 'Phoenix' and 'Alice', for a shopping trip and entertainment; future powers testing was recommended, was agreed to with an open-ended date, possibly later in the day," Miss Militia's voice drifted to Colin's ears, the Tinker not looking up from the still images and equations on the monitors in his lab, "Subject 'Voice's' father will be chaperoning. Maintain distance and observe."

Colin rotated the 3-dimensional representation of Burnscar's Orb – the capitals were necessary – and frowned when the core's general shape continued to elude him. Magnification?

"Is subject 'Phoenix' in possession of the object?" queried Director Piggot over the radio. Colin looked between the image of the 'shoggoth' and the 'night-gaunt'. There was little in common with the Orb, which was vexing. He started running the video Legend gave him again, ignoring the itching behind his eyes that came with the ooze's movements; his eyesight wasn't being damaged, and all M/S screening was checking out.

Miss Militia responded after twelve seconds, "Subject 'Phoenix's' orb has been shrunk and converted into a necklace," Colin's head whipped around to stare at the radio in shock; what?! He stomped toward the device while Hannah continued, "It is hidden under her shirt to prevent any unfortunate incidents. All subjects appear to be in good spirits."

Colin was three seconds away from picking up the radio and demanding Annotator present herself, with Burnscar and Labyrinth, when a tone resonated from one of his monitors. Dragon was calling.

Torn between securing an interview with the annoying Shaker/Master/maybe Tinker, and responding to Dragon, Colin closed his hand into a fist and… reminded himself that Annotator might come to the Rig later in the day. He could put it off… for the moment. There would be other chances. She wasn't going anywhere.

Turning around – and ignoring Director Piggot sighing exasperatedly before telling Hannah to "Maintain observation." – Colin approached Dragon's monitor and blinked at the green dot on the top-right corner of the screen; maybe she'd had more success, with the scans he'd taken at Annotator's home, than…


"Dragon! Are you alright?!"

She looked like a mess; her hair was mussed, her labcoat was askew, and the pink headphones she sometimes wore were off-kilter! Colin had never seen his friend and fellow Tinker so discombobulated!

"I could ask you the same," Dragon hoarsely replied, looking Colin over, "You don't look like you've slept, Colin."

Blinking, Colin accessed his sleep log and… yeah, he'd missed a few naps. His beard felt a bit dirty too, and now that he was paying attention… he might need a shower. A long shower. Damnit, that was going to mess with his schedule something fierce. Damn Annotator.

"I haven't been able to. It's that Orb, the one Annotator made for Burnscar," he glanced at it again, then did a double-take; he'd set the graphics imaging program to slowly enhance the core of the Orb, but… his computer log said it'd made it to 500X magnification before the program crashed, "Motherfuck."

"Yeah, I've been saying that a lot, these past 12 hours," grumbled Dragon bitterly, rubbing her temples, "The thing doesn't make sense from a Tinker perspective, which means it's breaking more laws of physics than usual."

"Did you find out anything about it?" asked Colin, trying to stay calm as he rebooted the analysis programs. He might have to perform maintenance on their hardware, which would mess with his schedule even more. And there were mushrooms growing from the keyboard again. A capsule from his toolkit took care of that, and he got back to work.

"Only theories. I bounced a few ideas off some Thinkers I know, asked Masamune and Narwhal for their opinion, once you gave permission," …he had done that, hadn't he? Around 2 in the morning, yes, he remembered, "Best I've got is that it's a contained Shaker effect, or a placebo."

"Something this complex can't be a placebo, Dragon. I know it's not, because Burnscar has been reported to be agitated several times since the Orb was first observed; she hasn't produced a single spark of flame. What's more…" Colin nearly snarled, glaring at the stupid Orb with its stupid incomprehensible nucleus, "It crashed my magnification program after only 500X. That's never happened before." If he could just figure out how the damn object worked, he might not have been so furious about a teenage girl with pigtails showing him up at his own specialization!

Dragon was silent for 5.6 seconds.

Then she screamed and flipped her table, ranting after the video cut off, "How the FUCK did she make this accursed thing?! I REFUSE to believe she sang such a complex object into existence! IT MAKES NO SENSE, EVEN WITH SUPERPOWERS!"

"She might be coming in for powers testing later," fumed Colin over Dragon's continuing venting, zooming out of the image and rotating it again, looking for how the core influenced the crystal; like every other time, nothing jumped out at him, "If I can get her to let me examine the Orb with the equipment in my lab-"

A groan/scream of exasperation came from Dragon, right before she righted her table; maybe everything was bolted down. Efficient. Just another reason to admire her, "Given what this thing does to my own analytical programs, I suggest not putting it through hard tests, Colin. You might blow something up."

"How else am I supposed to figure Annotator's technology out?!" screamed Colin in frustration; he'd tried magnifying one of the outer edges of the surrounding crystal, trying to see if the core of the Orb was anchored somewhere, when his program crashed again. Calming himself with a few deep breaths, he apologized, "Sorry, I just… what the fuck did she do?"

"She's coming in for testing, right?"

"Maybe. I believe Miss Militia mentioned something about a shopping trip on the Boardwalk. They may come in after their purchases have been completed."

Silence, save for the hum of automated fans and machinery in Colin's lab, reigned for ten seconds.

"Annotator, Labyrinth, and Burnscar," Dragon's voice was weak with fear, "Are going on a shopping trip?!"

"Well, yes," Colin shrugged, "It's a logical decision. Labyrinth and Burnscar have no clothing or belongings of their own, and Annotator seems very invested with their happiness and goodwill," it was actually kind of sweet, as well as being a very efficient way of integrating both unstable Parahumans into modern society. His and Dragon's plan to create a retreat in the Midwest, for those Asylum patients who would thrive in low-stress environments, complimented this idea very well; the polls from the PR Department saw it as an excellent move.

Not everyone could fight Endbringers regularly, after all, and Colin would always welcome any boost to his – or Dragon's – popularity.

"Colin… all three of those Parahumans are Shaker 8 plus, and one of them drove the Siberian insane and devoured Crawler."

He waved her off, now looking at a spreadsheet detailing what confiscated Tinker-tech was in storage, "I've seen the video, Dragon. We have eyes on them, nothing will go wrong," maybe Annotator could repair some of Leet's more unusual tech, or disassemble it safely?

"…You live in the same city as Kaiser, Colin, who we both know doesn't respect the Unwritten Rules if he can get away with it. Ten new independent heroes, all of whom fought the E88, all found dead in their homes, in the past two years; these are not coincidences," icily hissed Dragon; looking over, he found his most trusted confidant glaring daggers at him, "Colin, I love you, but if you think that racist sack of shit doesn't already know who she is, you might want to revisit your excuses on whether or not the brain damage that comes from lack of healthy sleep patterns is affecting your instinctual threat assessment. IN SHORT," she yelled over him when he opened his mouth, "are you becoming so idiotic as to think that the megalomaniac Nazi who orders the deaths of children regularly won't try to kidnap Annotator just to increase his own power base, or, god forbid, her father?!"

Utter terror dripped through every cell in Colin's body, images of the Asylum's destruction – especially the ooze that caused it – along with the horrific implications of the night-gaunt – it was unaffected by friction – and Annotator's admission that both of these things were weak compared to what she could truly call from other realities…

All these memories flitted through his sleep-deprived mind in 3.4 seconds. The alarm in his domino mask alerted that it was time for his breakfast ration bar and cup of boosted espresso.

He slowly, with a fluidness that was only possible for someone who'd stayed awake for 2 consecutive days, reached up to his earbud.

"Thank you," mouthed Dragon, looking like she was on the verge of relieved tears. Colin understood and empathized with her relief perfectly. They didn't need another S-Class incident to add to the pile.

"Miss Militia," Colin was pleased by the confident, even tone of command in his voice, "Ensure the perimeter around the subjects is fully secure. Bring in other Protectorate members, independents if you must. This shopping trip is not to be interrupted for any reason. Use of deadly force is authorized for any villainous capes attempting to approach the subjects."

"Armsmaster, what the fuck?" was Director Piggot's immediate response.

"Director, imagine a certain megalomaniac Nazi, or worse, the child-slaving ragebeast, trying to kidnap Annotator, or taking her father hostage to make her compliant, or the deaths of either Labyrinth or Burnscar. Picture the damage any of these events could cause. Please."

"...Assault, Battery, you're up. Sweep the Boardwalk, make sure the subjects have the most gang-free shopping experience of their lives. Teams 12, 13, 14, 15, back them up. Dauntless, you're on overwatch, but stay out of sight. Anyone in gang colors, barring shopkeepers, are to be politely escorted out of the area…" she kept talking.

Colin slumped against the wall and slid down it, saying to the air, "Dragon, wake me if there's an incident, or in four hours, whichever comes first."

"No problem Colin," breathed Dragon in relief, "I've sent off an email to the Director, explaining the situation for you."

"You are an angel," he muttered before falling asleep.

It wasn't until he she woke him up that Colin realized Dragon said 'I love you'.






Tinkers: "Annotator is bullshit!"

Amy: "YOU SHUT UP ABOUT MY KOOL-AID! SHE IS PERFECT!" *strokes Prismatic Lotus and coos* "You will be great, one day. A flower that will change the world."

Anyway, there you all go! Sorry this took so long, but hopefully it was worth the wait.

Next time: Three Shakers walk into a dressmaker's, and Sophia becomes a crazy cat lady.