Chapter Six: Altered
They were dragged down into the darkness, through the many sewer tunnels that roved through Megakat City. Razor stubbornly held into the she kat as they were both yanked under. Refusing to let go of her, he gritted his teeth and used all his strength to haul her up next to him. With a blade from his Gloveatrix, he sliced at the vine wound around Black Kat's boot. With a squeal of pain, the severed limb retreated into the darkness.
Black Kat found herself in the SWAT Kat's arms, the tom panting under her as they both took a moment to enjoy the fact they were no longer being sucked down into the monster's lair. She listened to Razor's quickened heartbeat as they lay together in the silence. Then she raised her head and they were nearly nose touching nose.
"Thanks for coming after me. I'm starting to see the advantages of having a partner."
Razor plopped his head on the ground, his breathing slowly going back to normal. "I doubt T-Bone would like it if I took applications for a replacement."
"You two make a good team. I wouldn't dream of wanting to break that up," she approved with humor in her voice. She tried not to wince as she lifted herself off the SWAT Kat.
"You're hurt," Razor said.
Black Kat sat back stiffly on her heels. "An irritating discomfort, but I can put up with it for now."
Razor frowned and grabbed her chin, pulling the she kat's face close to his. It was difficult to make out her features in the darkness of the tunnel, but he stared at her as if her eyes told him all the answers. He knew she was hurt and, despite how undamaged she looked, he knew her wounds were worse than she let on. What he couldn't figure out was how she was hiding it. There was some piece of the puzzle that just didn't fit.
Black Kat just smiled at his intense gaze and leaned in to give him a quick peck on the nose. Razor's hand dropped in surprise and she took that opportunity to move away from him.
"Razor!" T-Bone's voice echoed somewhere in the distance. "Buddy! Can you hear me?"
"We're down here!" Razor called as he got to his feet.
Moments later, a light appeared up the tunnel before T-Bone appeared, panting lightly with a flashlight in his paw. "Hey, everyone okay?" He scraped his light over the the two of them and continued on to peer down the tunnel where the tentacle had gone. No sign of it.
"More or less," Black Kat shrugged while Razor eyed her with a calculating gaze. She ignored it and pulled out her own flashlight, stepping further down the tunnel.
"And where are you going?" T-Bone asked before Razor could.
"I'm going after that thing, of course. I need to find out what we're dealing with here."
"You're sticking with me," Razor said with an authoritative tone, taking her paw in his. "I'm keeping an eye on you."
Paws held, he pulled her into the tunnel. Black Kat gave T-Bone a whimsical look, as if his actions amused her, before she was led off into the darkness. Smirking, the larger SWAT Kat followed them.
They trekked silently further down the sewer tunnels, lights investigating every corner, footsteps silent. While there was currently no sign of danger, the trio couldn't help but feel they were in the lair of something beastly. The peril in the air around them made their whiskers twitch and fur stand on end. Something was near by, something unnatural.
Green vines grew all around, chocking the tunnels the further they went. Some clung to the walls without motion like a plant, others twitched and throbbed as if it were alive.
"What is this thing? Plant or animal?" T-Bone muttered to himself.
The tunnel opened up ahead. Razor slowly approached the entrance and looked down.
"Woah," was all the SWAT Kat could say.
Their path dropped into an open chasm where several runoff pipes all converged in a single drainage system. In the midst of it all was a gargantuan mass of writhing tendrils, like that of a thousand snakes all coiled together. Reptilian vines snaked all over the walls, stretching out and upward as if intent on swallowing everything around it.
"Woah, indeed," Black Kat agreed as she peered over Razor's shoulder.
T-Bone took his turn to get an eyeful of the monstrosity. "Crud. Can't exactly get the Turbokat down here to fight that thing... whatever it is."
Razor frowned as he began to hatch different plots in his head.
"We may have to triage this," Black Kat said as she leaned out, her flashlight flickering over the nightmare below. "As bad as that looks down there, it's not the most immediate threat to the city. All those zombified enforcers are what we need to take care of right now."
"Copy that," T-Bone said, taking another long look a the scene that would probably plague his nightmares for a while. "We need to regroup and come back with the right tools for taking on this thing anyway."
Black Kat sighed a little under her breath. "And still no closer to finding Vincent Bombay."
From amidst the writhing ball in the darkness, two massive, glowing eyes snapped open. All three kats jumped as that gaze stared right at them. Every living tendril around them froze. Then a deep growl reverberated all around them before all the vines came to life and everything exploded into chaos.
At Megakat biochemical, Lieutenant Felina Feral paced the floor with barely controlled patience. She didn't like all this science stuff. All the chemicals and calculations were not her thing. This was not how she took care of business. If she couldn't handle the problem with her fists or her gun, she felt very much out of her element.
Officer Pawsworth stood with her, looking just as uncomfortable. He didn't seem to have a head for this stuff either. Meanwhile, Felina's Uncle was nodding along with everything those science eggheads were saying. Even the Deputy Mayor seemed to somewhat get what was going on. All Felina was waiting for was the bottom line. How could she beat those slugs and get her officers back on their side?
"As you requested Commander, with the samples we've recovered from the last incident, we've been exploring all sorts of avenues to combat Viper's newest creations," Dr. Konway said as if he were giving a practiced presentation. Ever since he had discovered the correct mixture of anti-mutagens when Viper had flooded the city, he had been directly on the Enforcer's payroll and considered the leading expert when it came to negating anything the mad scientist could throw out.
"At first, we tried the antifreeze approach. It did indeed kill the parasites, but it could also harm the host body. I doubt that is what you would want."
"Not to mention that will take forever," Felina cut in. "We can't go around trying to take on one officer at a time. We've got an entirely infested city out there. We need something that will neutralize these things en masse."
"Ah, so I didn't completely bore you to death with my science talk, Lieutenant," Konway said with a knowing wink. "And you are right, it would be a lengthy process. We were exploring other possibilities in case there was a full citywide epidemic on our hands, as you ordered Commander."
"I'm impressed at the preparation," Callie said to Commander Feral.
"Unlike some, I'm not prepared to wait around for the SWAT Kats, in hopes they have some miraculous weapon that will save us," Feral shot back.
Callie frowned at him, though she knew this was not the time to start an argument.
"Through some of our experiments, we discovered that certain high pitched sounds also irritate the creatures enough that they will let go of their hosts," Dr. Konway continued. "Long term exposure to the sound will cause them to abandon the body completely in order to get away from it."
He produced a small device from his pocket and hit the red button. Every kat in the room instantly cringed at the high, grating sound. "It's not a pleasant noise to our sensitive hearing either, but the important thing is that it won't cause any permanent damage to the host."
"Really? A sound?" Pawsworth wondered. "Do those things even have ears?"
"It's not really the sound itself, but the vibration of the tone," Konway clarified. "Without eyes or ears, they use their skin to navigate the world around them. It's how they sense the body heat of their hosts. Apparently, certain sound vibrations overload their senses and cause them a great amount of pain."
Commander Feral was rubbing his chin, trying to figure out the most practical application for their newest weapon.
"Does that noise repel slugs even if used over a radio?" Felina asked.
"I'm not really sure," Konway admitted. "We never experimented with it before-"
Felina snatched the device from his paw. "Time to experiment now." She pulled the radio from her belt. "Attention all Enforcers," she said in a soft voice, one that would cause those listening to turn up their radios in order to hear her. "We have Dr. Viper in custody. If you wish to know where he is, pay close attention to the following message." She let the radio fall silent for a moment and all kats in the room covered their ears. Then she pushed the button and let that horrible noise blare over the radio for nearly three minutes.
Felina shook her head after she allowed silence to fill the room again. Now there was an annoying ringing in her ears.
"How do you know if it worked?" Callie asked softly.
"For the hours I was sitting as Viper's hostage, I never heard one peep out of a single kat that was under Viper's control. Not even my Uncle, and you know how he likes to talk," Felina threw him a playful smirk while Feral gave her a barely tolerant look. "I don't believe the host kats are capable of speaking when under the slug's control. Any response we get will be a good response."
She held the radio to her mouth once more. "This is Lieutenant Felina Feral. I need all available units- every uncompromised officer needs to sound off on the radio now."
Everyone waited, breaths held as they listened to the static of the radio.
She tried again. "This is Lieutenant Feral. If you are near a radio, announce yourself right now, that's an order!"
Felina growled, clutching the radio in her hand. It was worth a shot.
"This is... Officer Crowley," came a hesitant voice. "I'm not entirely sure of my location, but you're minus one slug over here, Lieutenant."
Felina and officer Pawsworth grinned at each other. One more officer was better than one.
"This is Officer Furson, reporting in," came another voice.
"This is Officer Kittish, over."
"Katson reporting in."
"Officer Smith, reporting."
And so on with several other voices responding on the line. Feral estimated a little over a dozen or so officers now on his side.
"It's a start," Felina said.
"Emergency, all units!" a frantic voice called over the radio. "Enforcer HQ is under attack! Officers are still in the building! It- it's being swallowed by some sort of-" A scream cut off the report and then the line went dead.
Dr. Konway immediately turned on a small TV in the corner. Anne Gora appeared on the screen, her hair blowing in disarray as she reported inside the Cat's Eye News chopper.
"-the ground splitting in front of the Enforcer building," Anne was saying in the middle of her report. Her voice wasn't quite so focused and calm as it usually was. "Something's coming out. It- it's huge! I don't even know how to describe it!"
The camera relayed what words could not. A countless mass of writhing tentacles was prying the very ground apart and squeezing out into the open air. Dawn sunlight streamed through the skyline to illuminate the horrible scene. The mass clung to the side of the enforcer building, stretching out to cover and swallow it all.
"Perhaps the most heart-stopping scene of it all is the fact that there isn't a single Enforcer helicopter in the sky," Anne's voice said. "Commander Feral has been missing in action for at least ten hours and there is no word yet from anyone. Not even the mayor's office could be reached for comment."
"Of course the mayor made himself scarce," Callie mumbled.
"We've got to get down there!" Felina barked. "We've got to do something!"
"What can we do Lieutenant?" Pawsworth asked. "We have a few patrol calls we could call to the scene, but all our vehicles, our ammo, our choppers are at HQ."
Callie immediately flipped open her cell phone.
"Calling the SWAT Kats in, I assume," Feral accused.
"Despite what you believe, Commander, I don't have them on speed dial," she retorted. Her secret communicator to the vigilantes had been left at her office. But as luck would have it, she had her cell phone in her pocket. "I do, however, have Anne Gora's number."
"And what good would that do us?" the Commander demanded.
Callie stabbed a finger at the TV screen. "Unlike you, she has a helicopter!"
"If we could get a few more of these things and some megaphones, we could start getting more of our guys on our side," Felina said, still holding the sound device.
Upon request, one of the other lab assistants produced a few more of he devices.
"What about that monster?" Pawsworth asked. "I don't think a little loud noise is going to bother something like that."
"If I had a sample, I could begin working on some sort of anti-mutagen to tear down the creature's molecular construction," Konway offered. "Without samples, all I could do is guesswork based on the previous mutations that have been brought in lately."
"Great, you and Uncle work on that," Felina called as she headed for the door with her collection of sound devices. "Pawsworth and I are going to scramble every officer we can to meet you at HQ."
She didn't even wait for approval before running out the door, the lower ranking officer at her heels. They returned to the parking lot and the awaiting police cruiser only to find the trunk mangled and popped open. Viper had escaped.
"Crud, that slippery snake is gone again," Felina hissed with a punch to the car. "Next time I see him, I'm going to ring his neck."
"Later Lieutenant," Pawsworth said, reaching in for the vehicle's radio. "We've got to call everyone in."
Felina suddenly remembered the small communication device she had in her pocket. The Black Kat had given it to her the previous morning. Had it really been less than 24 hours ago? It seemed like so much time had passed since then. Felina had meant to show it to her uncle, but had never been able to get around to it in all the craziness.
"Pawsworth, you get on the radio. I'm going to try and make another call."
There was an annoying beeping in her head. It rang through her ears and annoyed her into consciousness. Groaning, Black Kat blearily opened her eyes. The first thing she was aware of was a chilly breeze in her face, then she saw the bright red and orange of a sunrise splayed out in front of her in a spectacular view.
What was she doing out there? Her last recollection was being underground in the dark. How did she make it back to the surface? Then she saw she wasn't exactly on the surface, but higher than most other rooftops. With a gasp, she found her body wrapped up in several vines, suspended several stories above the ground, plastered against the side of the Enforcer building.
That insistent beeping was still going off in her ears. As she gathered her wits about her, Black Kat managed to press the flickering light on her wrist.
"Lieutenant, I didn't think you cared," she managed to put lightness into her tone.
"I don't," came Felina's flat response. "But I will accept your assistance if you're willing to help. We've discovered a sound frequency that irritates the parasites enough to cause them to abandon their hosts."
"Wow, I wonder what sort of sound that could be," the masked kat said before she realized her mistake.
Felina's response was to immediately flood the line with a horrible noise. It was ten times worse than nails on a chalkboard and raked through Black Kat's senses down to her bones.
"Ow!" she complained, trying to rub her ear on her shoulder. Even with the wind, it was a painful experience.
"It's the best we have at the moment," Felina then said. "We're going to be rocking it through all enforcer frequencies. Anything you can do to help-"
"I'm afraid extra assistance may be more than you can hope for, Lieutenant. To put it plainly, I'm a little trapped right now. But I have the sound recorded so I'll use it if I can get out of here."
"So where are you then?"
"Still where you left me, ground zero at Enforcer HQ. Thanks for that, by the way. I thought we were friends."
Felina ignored the extra comments. "Can you give me a report of the situation? Anything we can use?"
Black Kat shook her head, trying to get her thoughts in order. Her vision still blurred now and then. One too many hits to the head was really making this a difficult conversation.
"Well, you've got some sort of... massive squid thing choking the life out of your building. It may just tear your base apart. I'm afraid when it comes to my own repertoire, I am ill prepared to handle something of this size."
"What about the SWAT Kats. Are they still on the scene?"
Black Kat tried to remember what happened to all of them, but she was pulling a blank. She must have blacked out right away down there. "I wish I knew, but I have no idea-"
The whoosh of a jet engine screamed by the building, making whatever glass windows were still intact to shutter.
"Oh never mind, they're on site."
"Don't let them attack the building! There's still officers inside!"
"Believe me, Lieutenant, the last thing I want them to do is shoot at the building."
T-Bone steered the Turbokat around the Enforcer building to get a full look as to what they were dealing with. As he took in the full calamity of the situation, he wondered how things had gotten so bad in so little time.
Both he and Razor had been lucky. When the creature had suddenly surged forward, they immediately lost site of Black Kat as everything around them was ripped up. However, as the creature breached the surface, the team of pilots managed to make it topside as well. To their jet they raced, regrettably, without any sign of their previous companion. The only consolation for the situation was now they had their heavy artillery at their fingers and the monster was now exposed for a full assault.
"You know, Razor, it's actually kind of weird not having Enforcer choppers get in the way this time," T-Bone commented as he looked at the sky. Empty of back up choppers for miles in every direction. "Don't tell Feral I said this, but they were always like our safety net, weren't they? If we screwed up, at least we knew we weren't the last ones fighting."
Razor stayed silent, eagle eyes scanning the area. T-Bone knew his partner was worried about Black Kat. He was, too. Neither his masculine pride nor his heroic sensibilities would allow him to forgive himself if that she kat had been seriously hurt or worse, when she had been standing mere feet away from them.
"There she is!" T-Bone barked in triumph when he spotted the masked she kat. "Down there, Razor, against the side of the building."
Razor nearly conked his head on the side of the cockpit to see. Black Kat was trapped high up the building, pinned in place by several vines. Her eyes were wincing against the harsh wind, so at least she was conscious.
"I'm getting her out of there, then ugly is open for a free for all on anything the Turbokat's got."
"Roger that," T-Bone acknowledged, opening the cockpit as the jet hovered near Black Kat's bound form.
Razor stood and fired a grappling hook, swinging down to her. "Hold on, I'm going to get you out of here and then it's open season on this thing."
"You can't fire on the building," Black Kat said. "There's still Enforcers inside. They wouldn't have had the sense to evacuate with those slugs still controlling them."
"Crud, you're right," Razor hissed. "Just can't catch a break this time."
"If we can get in the building, I may have an idea."
"Did you hear that, buddy?" Razor asked over the radio.
"Copy that, I'll stand by out here. Keep in touch, Razor."
"Roger." Razor placed a small device on the window next to them. Then he used his body to shield Black Kat as the glass exploded. That was their way into the building. With claws gripping to the vines, he activated his buzz saw blade.
His first cuts into the vines holding the female vigilante caused a high squeal to echo in the air. The building moaned and shook as the main part of the wriggling mass shifted.
"Razor!" Black Kat urged as she saw the thing moving toward them.
Razor cut faster.
The mass surged toward them and Black Kat was horrified to see malformed features appear amidst the throbbing substance. Those same glowing eyes and a crooked mouth.
"You..." the thing growled, staring right at her.
There was a very familiar scar that ran from the eye down to the cheek of the malformed face.
Black Kat gasped in disbelief. She knew that scar well. "Vinnie Bombay." Her entire body froze at the horror that was hovering before her. Something unspeakable had happened to this kat. And now the monster he had become had nothing but hatred and death in mind for her.
"Your fault..." the deep voice hissed and moaned. Jaws surged forward.
Razor sliced at the last of the vines and she was free. He pulled them both through the broken window as the thing lunged. The two cats rolled along the floor as green tendrils surged in after them. Razor practically dragged his female companion toward the stairs. Vines raced around the circumference of the room, trying to beat him to the door.
The kats threw themselves into the stairwell, but Razor didn't stop there. Grabbing Black Kat, he jumped over the railing, plummeting several floors before his grappling hook caught on one of the above rails. Mere feet before hitting the bottom floor, the rope went taunt, sliding them both on the ground, out the door and into the lobby. The vines were still a few floors above them, but the building was moaning and falling apart at the invasion.
Razor instantly recovered, up and ready for more action. Black Kat was slower to respond. She winced as she tried to get her limbs to respond and get herself to her feet again. The floor where she had been laying was smudged in red.
"You're still bleeding," Razor said.
"It's not that much," she insisted. "I'll take care of it later."
Razor's emotions were fighting for dominance. He was irritated she kept trying to brush off his concern when it was obvious she was not okay. He was also afraid because he could not see how badly she was hurt. He was still trying to figure out how that was possible. With all they had been through that night, he was scraped, suit torn and nearly black with sewer muck. Black Kat still looked shiny and new. No filth on her suit, not a mark on her perfect face. And yet, she was bleeding on the floor. What was going on?
"No, you're hurt," Razor insisted. "I need to get you out of here. Maybe to a hospital."
"It can wait until we get everyone else out first," she insisted as she got to her feet. She forced herself over to the reception desk where, not too long ago, Felina had been tied up as Viper's captive. The phone/intercom was discarded on the floor and Black Kat replaced it on the desk and opened the PA system to every floor of the building.
Glancing at Razor, she warned "You may want to cover your ears, this isn't a pleasant sound."
Razor raised his paws to obey, then changed his mind. He stepped behind the she kat and covered her ears instead. "Okay, do it."
She gave him an affectionate look and then moved her wrist communicator in front of the speaker. With the push of a button, she replayed the same sound Felina sent her over every floor of the building. Razor winced at the horrible, grating sound as it tore through the speakers. Even the monster on top seemed irritated with the strident.
Black Kat let it play for about a minute before getting on the speaker herself. "Attention all Enforcers, evacuate the building immediately. Take anyone you can with you, get everyone out. Evacuate the building now. This is an emergency."
She let the harsh sound replay over the speaker once more. Even as she was repeating the message again, startled and confused Enforcers were fleeing their headquarters. Some officers were nearly carried out, sporting nasty, bleeding wounds on the backs of their necks where slugs were ripped out by comrades.
A big chunk of the ceiling fell in the lobby and Razor decided it was the best they could do. He picked up Black Kat without warning and carried her out of the trembling building. Only a few steps outside and he already heard the familiar whoosh of the Turbokat's engines.
T-Bone landed momentarily, opening the belly of the jet. Razor carried the she kat inside and gently set her down as the Turbokat took into the air again.
"You need to stay here and rest," he told her, gentle but firm.
"But-" Black Kat protested.
"You've done all you can," Razor insisted. "We'll finish the rest."
"Razor, get back up here," T-Bone called. "Something's going on."
"Stay there," Razor ordered of the she kat one more time before climbing back up into the cockpit.
He was able to see through the glass just in time to see the Kats Eye News copter enter the creature's range.
"What are they doing?" T-Bone dempanded. "They're getting way too close."
The side door of the chopper slid open and familiar broad shoulders poked out.
"Feral!" they both cried in surprise.
The helicopter flew fearlessly over the beast and Feral pushed out a large crate. It landed on the rooftop of the Enforcer building amidst the clump of plantlike mass. The creature didn't like presents dropped on it at all and immediately reached up for the chopper. Feral and the pilot abandoned the vehicle as it was snatched out of the air. The SWAT Kats watched as two parachutes deployed and seemed to be headed for safe ground.
"Looks like Feral's yelling at us some more," T-Bone said with a smirk as he watched the commander float toward the ground.
"I think he's actually trying to tell us something," Razor pointed out. Feral was pointing emphatically to the building, yelling something in the SWAT Kats direction. "I think he wants us to shoot that crate he dropped."
"Far be it for us to ignore a direct order." T-Bone maneuvered the jet so they had a clear shot of the object on the roof.
"Probably should use something nonexplosive," Razor commented. "That poor building's seen enough damage for one day."
He decided on a match head missile. More incendiary than explosive, it would at least decimate whatever was in the crate without tearing a chunk out of the building.
The missile hit its target dead on. Immediately after impact, a thick blue smoke swallowed the roof until all visuals of the creature disappeared. There was a pained, defeated cry that filled the air and, as the smoke drifted downward, the vines around the enforcer building began to shrivel up.
But before either SWAT Kat could let out a "Bingo!", their control panels told them the hatch below was being manually opened. Razor instantly slid back his seat so he could peer below.
"Hey!" he called as Black Kat stood over the open hanger door. The smoke covered rooftop waited beneath her. "Where do you think you're going?"
She glanced at him with a rueful smile. "Sorry, I started it. I need to see it finished."
"No! Black Kat! Don't!"
But she had already jumped down into the smoke cloud before Razor could stop her.
"Damnit!" He slammed his fist against the consul.
"Smooth your hackles, bud. She's not going very far," T-Bone said calmly, fully aware of how strange it was to be the collected one of the team this time. "As soon as that smoke clears, we'll land to check things out."
Amidst the smoke, a tortured, malformed figure gasped and writhed on the roof. The blue, chemical mist had withered all his limbs, sucking the moisture and life from his body until he was just a withered, gasping husk. The anti-mutagens had returned Bombay back to his normal size, but his body was beyond recognition, skin dried like a corpse with countless limbs flopping ineffectually from various parts of his body. It was clear he would not survive this condition much longer.
As he fought to pull in oxygen to his desiccated lungs, a figure stepped through the smoke. He narrowed his yellow eyes at her as she drew near. He saw her flawless face, a face he had grown to hate so much. He always dreamed he would see her death, gaping with eyes dull at his feet. This role reversal he never would have fathomed. But this was it. This was the end game. There would be no more cat and mouse between them.
Black Kat just stared down at him, her eyes stern and without sympathy. She made no move to provide aid. "It's over, Vinnie. You're done."
He pulled his face into a hateful scowl. Even though it felt like his skin was tearing every time his muscles moved.
"Why?" he hissed at her. "Why were you so dead set to ruin me? You hunted me for two years. Why did you single me out to destroy my life?"
Black Kat was stoic as she watched him die. Her paws slowly reached up to remove her mask. Even when her face was fully revealed, he still did not recognize her.
"Because," she said, touching the choker on her neck. She pressed a button and her voice changed. Her full facade melted away; the pristine suit, the flawless face, the blonde hair. They all disappeared and Vinnie Bombay recognized her instantly.
"You..." he whispered. "I can't believe..."
The she kat leaned in to whisper. "You ruined my life first."
The Turbokat landed on the roof, scattering the remaining mist with its engines. The SWAT Kats leapt out, Razor in the lead as he hurried over to Black Kat. He skidded in his steps when he saw her from behind. She did not look the same any more.
Now her suit was tattered and filthy, a thick matting of blood plastered her back. That high pony tail of impossibly thick blonde hair was gone. The she kat turned around, face no longer flawless, but bruised and cut. She had a ginger complexion, once blue eyes now gold.
"Tawny Furfax!" he blurted.
T-Bone had seen the revelation as well and had now pushed his way forward while Razor stayed back and gaped in complete shock.
"You! I thought you were dead," he demanded.
She looked at him tiredly. "I had to stage that car fire. Making everyone think I was dead was the only way I'd be free to hunt him down."
T-Bone's mouth moved up and down, his head swimming with anger and incredulity. "You- you should have told somebody or- you can't just do that! What do you think you're doing to the kats that care about you, making them think you're dead like that! All the while, you're out prancing around in the city like it's your personal playground! Do you think about anyone but yourself?"
She narrowed her golden eyes at him. "You don't have any room to judge me, Chance Furlong."
The burly kat balked at the sudden accusation. "How- how did-?"
"Jeeze, I've known you practically my entire life. Do you think I wouldn't recognize you because I can't see the top half of your face? And that time when you were still flying around with your hearing loss really tipped me off. So you don't really have any place to lecture me about keeping secrets from kats who care about you."
T-Bone deflated a little, realizing he didn't care, he was just relieved she was still alive.
The remnants of Vincent Bombay grabbed on to Tawny's boot, his voice forcing itself out in a weak hiss. "Damn you!" he cursed with his last breath. "How... one little girl..." Then his body gave out with a pained sigh. The dried husk fell lifeless and Vincent Bombay was dead.
Tawny let out a slow breath and gently removed her foot from his grasp. It was over.
"Can I ask why?" T-Bone asked softly beside her. "Why did you think the mask was the only option to you?"
Tawny looked at the black mask still in her paw and then over at T-Bone with a bitter smile. "Do you know that the Bombay family is also linked to one of the largest body trafficking cartels in the world? Women are kidnapped and sold at an alarming rate all over the planet. If Bombay had gotten a hold of me, he wouldn't have killed me like he had with Dad and my brother, my fate would have been much worse.
"I could not afford to wait until he hunted me down. I had to hunt him down first."
T-Bone stood there, mouth slightly open. "I... I don't know what to say. I'm sorry. I wish..."
She patted his arm with a bloodstained glove. "I know." She always did know what he wanted to say when he couldn't find the words.
Glancing behind her, Tawny caught sight of Razor, still keeping his distance. The way he looked at her made her quickly turn away and she suddenly couldn't stand being there any more. She was too exposed as her real self here. Time to hide again.
"Well, it's finished now," she said as she turned back to stare at the corpse and tie her mask in place.
T-Bone watched her as she pressed the button at her throat and her entire appearance instantly changed to that smirking blonde, not a blemish upon her. She shook her head as she thought about how far she had to go to finally see everything to the end.
Her voice took on the different tone of Black Kat as she spoke. "Megakat City, it's one hell of a town."
The whooping of several sirens sounded from below. The SWAT Kats glanced down to see a handful of patrol cars pulling up outside the Enforcer building. Felina stepped out of the first one, barking orders left and right as other officers hustled to do her bidding.
"Looks like the city is back under control of the Ferals," T-Bone said. "We can probably call it a day."
"Yeah," Razor agreed. "Time to go bandage-" He turned around, but Black Kat had disappeared. She was gone and out of his life, maybe for good.
They didn't talk about what happened on the flight home, but both pilots had it heavily on their mind. They landed back at the hanger and T-Bone glanced at his partner as they climbed out. How lucky he was to even have a partner in all this. How terrifying it would be to try to do it all alone. He didn't know if he would even have the guts to do this by himself.
Life at the salvage yard returned to normal, as it always did after their missions. The duo had long since become used to bouncing from a world of danger to the world of the mundane with a flick of the tail. There was still oil to change and lights to repair, engines to tinker with. Life still needed to move forward despite what happened while in their masks.
On Sunday, when the garage was closed to the public, a car drove up outside. Jake and Chance were already out in the yard, digging through the latest deliveries of scrap for anything useful. They both looked up when the car drove in, hoping whomever it was would see the big CLOSED sign on the garage and turn right around. Instead, the car turned off and the owner stepped out. The pilots recognized her instantly.
Chance was at the very top of the scrap pile. He slid down the perilous mountain of metal with a physical prowess that belied his profession. Jake trailed after him as they approached the she kat waiting patiently by her car.
"Chance, Mr. Clawson," Tawny Furfax greeted with her usual professional politeness. "A pleasure to see you again. How are you?"
"We're fine," Chance responded automatically. "How are you?" His tone took a deeper meaning, he wasn't just asking about her day.
Tawny removed her driving shades, her face without a single cut or blemish. She was wearing that choker again. "I'm doing quite well, thank you."
How difficult it would be to be a vigilante she kat. Especially one of her status. It would not go unnoticed if she walked in to work sporting cuts and bruises. Unlike the two mechanics. No one would look twice at a couple of dirty grease monkeys with a few extra scrapes. Jake suddenly realized why Tawny's clothes always covered her from wrist to ankle.
"I just wanted to drop by personally to thank you for your service," the she kat continued as if there were no deep secrets between them. "The contract is considered fulfilled and Mayven has told me she already sent you the first of your pay checks. You should be receiving final payments later this week."
She looked at them expectantly while the two pilots felt disappointed. She wasn't giving them what they had been hoping for.
"Any questions for me?" she pressed.
Chance sighed, this was how she wanted to play it? "So are you going back to Purrson Heights for real this time?"
He was rewarded with a secretive smile. "Yes, for real this time. I need to get back to my job."
He stared at her a while, willing more to come out of the collected she kat. But it was no use, her facade was snapped in place and it would not be broken. She must have had her reasons to continue to be this way and Chance let it slide.
"Have a safe drive," he said gently. "I'm... I'm happy to see you, thanks for stopping by. And if you need anything, just give me a call, okay?"
"I'll do that," she smiled, fishing for her keys. They slipped from her fingers into the dirt. Tawny bent to retrieve them and instantly winced. Her back was obviously still recovering from all the damage it took.
Jake darted in, fetching the keys and handing them to her. For a moment, the two stood toe to toe, looking into each other's eyes.
"Thank you... Mr. Clawson," she said carefully, voice barely more than a whisper. "It was a pleasure to meet you."
Jake scrutinized her face; the way she moved, the way she spoke. How could this be the same she kat that jumped from moving jets and wrestled with mutated monsters? How could she be the same one that batted her baby blues at him and smirked in such a way it made him tingle all the way down to the tip of his tail? It caused him to wonder exactly which version of her was real and which one was the mask.
"You're welcome," was all Jake's stupid, stupid brain could think to say to her.
Tawny tore her gaze away and turned to go. Then she paused as a thought hit her and she returned to Jake again, a card in her paw.
"By the way, Mr. Clawson, if you are ever in Purrson Heights, do drop by the facility. We've got all sorts of toys I'm sure you will be most interested in. I would be happy to give both of you a tour any time."
The invitation was for both of them, but the card was extended to Jake only. He stared at it for what seemed like a good several minutes. Tawny remained still, her face passive, but he saw her throat swallow. When he felt he had tortured her long enough, he slowly took the card from her fingers. She waited longer for him to say something, to offer a promise to see her again. He didn't. He was still trying to figure out how he felt about all of this.
When she received nothing else in return, Tawny nodded slightly and turned back to her car. Chance caught her before she could get in, arms around her shoulders.
"I'm glad you're still here," he whispered. And he didn't just mean in Megakat City.
Tawny was surprised at the suddenly show of affection. Then she smiled as she extricated herself from the large kat's embrace. Reaching up on her toes, she kissed his forehead and then moved away. With only a glance in Jake's direction, she got into her car.
The two heroes stood together, watching her drive off in a cloud of dust. They remained in silent vigil until that trail of dust left their city and disappeared over the horizon.
TO BE CONTINUED: I know this feels like it's the last chapter, but it's not. There's still one more action-packed chapter to go after this. So make sure you stick around for it :)