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XXX

 

Murder was bad. Her mother had never quite managed to give her the same visceral reaction as her sister once had, but Taylor didn't need to be afraid of her in order to learn stuff.

Alright, so she'd mostly ignored every single attempt to teach her to be polite, but that had been a very conscious choice on Taylor's part.

Taylor still didn't quite understand the idea that even murderers weren't ever considered 'outlaws', despite everything. They received a trial, where it was determined that they'd indeed been the ones to perform the act, and then they continued to be treated as regular citizens.

Sure, that wasn't so bad. Taylor could admit that it'd definitely lessened the amount of crime overall, since performing one crime didn't suddenly expel you into a position where you had to keep performing them to stay alive. Theoretically, at least.

People still didn't want to hire people with a criminal-record, so they'd always have an incentive to fall back into stealing if they wanted food on the table. But at least there was a kind of attempt at making things better.

No, Taylor was willing to grudgingly go along with these new laws. Until she started factoring in the 'villains' and their gangs.

Taylor had spent a lot of time and effort grilling her parents about it, and had come to the conclusion that villains operated exactly as an outlaw did. They'd perform crime upon crime upon crime, and then brag about how dangerous they were, even as they ran away from any law-enforcement that might stand a chance at bringing them in.

The fact that they built gangs around themselves, violent people who could be used as cannon-fodder and menial labor? It just smelled like outlaws and bandit-groups all over.

Taylor was guessing that society as a whole simply hadn't quite gotten around to figuring out how to deal with people like that. They must've known how to, once upon a time, because they had the words for describing them, but there'd clearly been a large stretch of time where that wasn't the case, and people considered 'outlaw' as an outdated term that most definitely shouldn't be how you dealt with the problem.

So 'murder was bad', and apparently even the people who really ought to be considered outlaws were included in that mess. Which was ridiculous, and Taylor would never understand it, but it wasn't like she was going to try going into politics in order to change things.

Taylor still wasn't even sure what an elected government did.

Obviously, royalty would run off and terrorize the countryside by beating up evil-doers whilst yelling about 'justice', Taylor knew that much. But what did a president do? What did regular politicians do? Taylor didn't have the faintest clue, and she was perfectly happy to keep it like that.

Just like she would've been happier to keep thinking of princes as handsome young men who traveled the world, sweeping young maidens off their feet, instead of giant hairy old men who acted just like their stupid daughters.

Taylor had very sensibly looked into what constituted as 'self-defense', and apparently you were supposed to stop hitting the assaulter the moment you got enough distance to run away? What the actual hell was that?

If someone came at Taylor with a knife, she was going to beat them up until they stopped moving. And maybe she'd kick them whilst they were down, and take their stuff, obviously. As payment for her mercy of leaving them alive.

'Self-defense', pfeh. What were they gonna do if she went 'too far'? Mark her as an outlaw? Oh wait, never mind, because outlaws weren't a thing.

Yeah, Taylor wasn't exactly going to go out and rob the gangs for pocket-change or anything, but that was honestly mostly because her father would worry endlessly about it. Also, Taylor wasn't entirely sure if her magic would work right.

She was pretty sure that she could still use the Giga Slave and the Ragna Blade, because they drew on the Lord of Nightmares – as in, the existence from where the worlds were born. But world-ending spells probably shouldn't be used against cannon-fodder, and Taylor wasn't entirely sure how this world held up in regards to the mazoku.

After all, her spells required her to borrow the power of a mazoku in order to spread destruction in their name. And if there weren't any mazoku around to borrow power for? Or if her deciding to borrow that power somehow opened a way for the mazoku to flood into the world and consume everything?

Taylor didn't really want to be responsible for that kind of situation. Especially not in exchange for a bit of pocket-change.

Now, on the other hand? Even Taylor's mature and perfectly reasonable patience had a limit.

Taylor wasn't particularly fussed about Emma deciding that they weren't friends any more. For all that they'd grown up together, Taylor hadn't ever exactly been able to 'connect' with the girl, seeing as she was just... a kid.

She hadn't disliked her, and she'd dutifully played with her as her mother had expected her to, but honestly the only thing about Emma deciding to 'cut her loose' that annoyed Taylor was the fact that puberty had hit at the same time. Puberty had hit and done nothing for Taylor, whereas Emma got curves in all the right places.

Taylor was willing to hold a bit of a grudge about that.

However, puberty wasn't Emma's fault, and so Taylor wasn't going to sock the girl in the face for it. She might've considered socking her dad in the face, since genetics dictated that he kind of was responsible for it, but even then it wouldn't exactly make anything better, so there wasn't a point.

If Emma wanted to break off their friendship? Sure, whatever. If Emma wanted to ascend to the highest social-class of high-school, and at the same time push Taylor into the lowest one? Sure, whatever, Taylor didn't really give a shit about high-school.

If Emma wanted to destroy her mother's flute?

Alright, no. That was it. Taylor wasn't going to let that go without retaliation.

So she'd punched the girl in the throat, punched her new friend in the throat, kicked some guy who tried interfering in the crotch, broken Emma's nose with a knee to the face, dodged some kind of shadow-attack from Emma's new friend, and hit her with pepper-spray in retaliation. As Sophia coughed desperately for air, her form flickering oddly, Taylor took advantage of the situation to kick the girl in the stomach.

Taylor dodged some thug coming at her with a bat, grabbed the bat out of his hands, and used it to hit Sophia in the head. The thug made some kind of protest, so Taylor hit him with some pepper-spray too, and then hit him in the crotch with her new bat. It was important to keep hitting them, keep the momentum flowing, otherwise Taylor might start to feel bad about beating the shit out of a bunch of brats.

Taylor stomped on Emma's hand, then kicked that first boy in the face – since he was still moaning on the ground about her kicking him in the crotch – before swinging her bat at Sophia's head again. This time it went straight through without contact, but that just meant that she could redirect the momentum and hit her in the back of her head on the return. Sophia was unconscious before she hit the ground.

 

XXX

 

“Eight people hospitalized, including a Ward, over a flute?” Piggot stared at Armsmaster over her desk.

“The flute of her dead mother.” Armsmaster nodded. Whether the correction was because he was defending the girl, or if he was simply stating facts, Piggot couldn't tell.

“And why exactly would our Ward, who's on probation, be one of her first retaliatory targets?” Piggot had a pretty good guess as to why, but for all that Shadow Stalker was difficult to work with, Piggot wasn't going to blame her for every problem that might crop up in her civilian identity.

For all that she knew, the girl had just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or she'd tried to step in and stop an assault happening in front of her, or she just happened to be in the same circle of friends as the actual perpetrator. There were a lot of potential variables, and even if it really wouldn't surprise Piggot at all to hear that Shadow Stalker had been pushing the boundaries of her probation by committing herself to a bullying-campaign in her free-time, she'd much rather be proven wrong.

Also, she wasn't going to accuse anyone, especially anyone that she was expected to work with, of anything that she couldn't prove. That'd be idiotic.

Armsmaster frowned. “At this time, that's unknown. Though there have been a few students who've named Miss Hess and two others as instigators in previous cases of harassment towards Miss Hebert. The faculty swears that they've received no reports of these previous incidents however.”

Piggot resisted the urge to sigh. Either the faculty was trying to cover their own asses, or Miss Hebert hadn't bothered with going to the teachers in the first place. Not that Piggot really thought that the faculty of Winslow would've really done much to help the situation.

“And where is Miss Hebert now?” She finally asked.

Armsmaster's frown grew more pronounced. “That is also unknown.”

This time Piggot did sigh. “I assume that the police is already looking for her at her home?”

“Yes.” Armsmaster nodded. “Currently, there have been no signs of her returning home. Nor any attempts to contact her father.” He paused, before amending. “That he's willing to admit to at least.”

“You think he'd be holding out on us?” Piggot raised an eyebrow at him.

“He's the head of the dockworkers union, it's unlikely that he wouldn't turn to a lawyer in this kind of situation, and keep his mouth shut until one could be provided.” Armsmaster admitted.

There was also the potential that he was perfectly willing to break the law outright, if it meant that his daughter would be safer. And even if Piggot doubted that wandering the streets of Brockton Bay at night was any safer than being in police-custody, Mr Hebert might not agree with her on that.

Still, the head of a union, even one as down-on-its-luck as the dockworkers union, likely knew quite a lot of different people. Which could easily extend to his daughter being able to show up at a lot of different doorsteps, and still be expected to find a place to sleep.

 

XXX

 

Taylor wasn't exactly inexperienced with sleeping outdoors.

She was a bit rusty, because she'd had a perfectly functional bed in this lifetime, but it wasn't like it was even winter yet.

Admittedly, her clothes weren't nearly of the same warm and practical quality as she'd relied on back then, so getting some kind of shelter was absolutely preferred. But there were plenty of empty buildings to nap in.

Oh, she'd needed to beat up some guys who'd been hunkering down inside of this particular building before her, but she'd only done that because they'd attacked her first. She would've been perfectly happy to back out and go to the next empty building, no questions asked.

Swinging a baseball-bat around was very different than a sword, but it wasn't too bad. It couldn't really compare to magic, or a gun, but then Taylor didn't really want to run around with guns.

She had a lot of faith in modern inventions, but she drew the line at holding onto a small metal object with an explosion going off inside of it. She knew perfectly well how a grenade worked, and she wasn't going to just assume that a gun wouldn't suddenly get jammed and take her hand with it.

She liked her hands.

Also, clearly guns weren't all that they were worked up to be. They certainly hadn't helped the guys who'd been hunkering inside of the building before her. There'd been nearly a dozen of the things, and not a single one had managed to hit her.

She hadn't even used any kind of magical reinforcement or anything. She'd just decided to not stand in front of the guns when they fired, or at least to stand behind one of the other guys when his friends were firing at her. And then they were all knocked out.

Taylor didn't really care about if a couple of wannabe-bandits decided to bleed out on the floor next to her. Clearly she was already a criminal, so she might as well just lean into it. Hell, maybe this way she could actually just not-pay for food?

Free food forever. Taylor hummed happily to herself. This was going to be great.

 

XXX

 

“This is the third cape that Miss Hebert has brought down.”

Piggot sighed, wondering silently to herself if she ought to be applauding the girl or wishing that they'd be fishing her corpse out of the Bay one of these days.

So far, there'd been no certain display of powers, but considering how she'd been decimating the local villains, robbing them for cash, and then showing up at random restaurants all around town? Food-powered combat-Thinker was the working assumption, though Piggot wasn't the only one who had doubts about that.

It was always difficult to prove the details of a Thinker's powers, but something about the girl's attitude just didn't fit at all with how a cape ought to be acting.

She went after villains, so she could maybe be assumed to be a vigilante, except she didn't seem to really be patrolling at all. If anything, it was like she would just randomly stumble across some gang-members and then beat them up, steal their pocket-change, and celebrate by picking a restaurant at random.

At one point early on in her haphazard rampage she'd done dine-and-ditching, but had quickly resorted to instead leaving large tips after the other restaurants had started banning her. Apparently, she'd even begged one restaurant on her bare knees to let her back in, promising that she'd pay double in recompense.

Taylor Hebert was a very frustrating person to deal with. In no small part because her only motivation seemed to be wholly revolving around tasty food, and how to pay for it.

As long as she'd been going after small-time thugs, that was one thing, but the gangs had started calling in cape-support against her, and that didn't even seem to be slowing her down. So now it seemed even more reasonable to assume that she was some kind of combat-Thinker herself, except-...

Except she didn't act like a cape at all.

There were no attempts to 'fight crime' as a hero, no attempts to 'establish herself' as a villain, no attempts to 'make money' as a rogue. She just wandered where her feet took her, beat up anyone who tried to stop her – including several police-officers by now – robbed them, and then meandered her way into some kind of restaurant.

It felt more like Miss Hebert was some kind of unholy version of a miniature natural-disaster instead of an actual person.

 

XXX

 

Lisa was pretty sure that she wasn't married.

In fact, considering Lisa's age and the fact that she didn't have any serious memory-issues, saying that she was 'pretty sure' was something of an understatement.

And yet-...

Lisa's wife of many years hummed happily to herself as she basked in having eaten a good meal.

Lisa clenched her eyes shut and tried to tell herself that no, they weren't married. They'd met for the first time earlier today, so they couldn't possibly have been married for years. That was impossible, no matter how certain Lisa's powers were about it.

The girl must have some kind of anti-Thinker power or something, because the more Lisa tried to figure her out the weirder the answers started to get. Though, admittedly, she'd been getting the 'you are her husband since many years'-error more or less from the get-go.

Lisa felt like she would've probably noticed if she'd been a guy, let alone somebody's husband. But again, apparently basic math completely eluded her power's abilities when Taylor Hebert entered the picture.

Of course Lisa knew who she was. Everyone knew about the crazy girl with a baseball bat and an obsession with food.

Still, Lisa was willing to cut the girl some slack, considering how she'd helped her when Lisa had been cornered by some mercenaries who'd been masquerading as security-officers. She just hadn't thought that it would go beyond paying for her lunch – and where the hell did all of that food even go?

Then Taylor had said something rude about Lisa being a dumbass, in a way that her powers informed her wasn't actually meant to be rude. Or rather, Taylor calling Lisa a dumbass was just normal, because they'd been happily married for years.

If Lisa hadn't felt like she owed the girl a favor for saving her, she would've probably cut her losses and just legged it out of town before her powers started gas-lighting her or something. However, for all that Lisa's powers seemed to be malfunctioning, Lisa got the impression that they were doing so in no small part because Taylor was kind of drifting in and out between her own perfect certainty that they'd been married for years.

So, even if her power was trying to gas-light her about it, it wasn't Taylor's fault. Or, at the very least, Taylor was as much of a victim to it as Lisa, so it probably wasn't malicious.

Lisa hadn't ever really thought about marriage. In the wake of getting her powers she'd kind of crashed and burned as far as romance – or even sex – was concerned. It was hard to keep some kind of 'romantic mystery' going when you couldn't avoid knowing every intricate detail of it even if she tried.

Also, she'd completely sworn off shaking people's hands. Because yuck.

So Lisa wasn't really sure what to think about her power suddenly trying to convince her that she was already married to another girl. Lisa couldn't remember having been attracted to girls before her powers, and even if that was prior to most of puberty hitting, Lisa didn't think that that had actually changed.

Taylor was pretty enough, especially if you liked sharp lines and lean muscles, but Lisa couldn't say that she was particularly interested in getting into her pants. Though trying to imagine Taylor in a wedding-gown wasn't a bad look for her, or anything.

Lisa took another deep breath, and very carefully tried to extricate her own thoughts from where her powers were probably trying to 'helpfully' chime in with how they were already married.

Lisa finally decided to swallow her own awkwardness at having her powers completely fail her, and ask the girl directly.

“Was the wedding in winter or summer?”

Taylor turned to look at her, confused. “What wedding?”

Lisa very carefully swallowed whatever explanation she could think of, and just shook her head. “Nevermind.”

 

XXX

 

A wedding, psh. As if Taylor would've ever let them make a big event out of it.

If she had, it would've been crashed by bandits wanting revenge, princes ranting about justice, princesses also ranting about justice, princesses laughing about how much bigger their breasts were than hers, some kind of demon-god popping out of the woodwork to destroy the world, and then Taylor's sister would stand over her shoulder and glare about wanting to be the maid-of-honor.

Honestly, Taylor would've rather jumped off a cliff. Even if she hadn't had magic to slow down her fall.

Besides, it wasn't like her idiot husband would've even remembered they'd gotten married anyway, so they might as well just elope like everyone else did.

Even if her sister had been rather upset about it in the aftermath.

It was still better than actually having the damn wedding.

 

XXX

 

Coil very emphatically didn't like Taylor Hebert.

The girl was a blind-spot in his plans, seeming to be somehow partially immune to his powers, which didn't make any sense unless he started to try figuring out exactly how his powers worked.

He could split a time-line between two options, for however long he wanted, and then pick the time-line that benefited him the most. In other words, as long as there was an opportunity to win, he could be expected to grasp it. As long as he only needed to pick between two options.

However, any time that he gave an order directly related to Taylor Hebert, one of his time-lines would destabilize. Sometimes it would be the one where he told his mercenaries to stand down, other times it would be the one where he told them to attack.

There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to which one collapsed, and it was driving him spare.

The fact that the girl had somehow recruited the Thinker that Coil had plans for, and was now squandering the potential asset by meandering around the city with a baseball-bat? That was just salt in the wound.

As far as the PRT was concerned, the girl was a villain. She'd after all responded to attempts to bring her in for questioning by attacking police- and PRT-officers.

The villains considered her more as a joke of a cape. Or, at least, that was what amounted to the official stand of the villains. Unofficially, quite a lot of them were rather upset with her and would've gleefully seen her dead by now. Except for some reason, they'd never managed to kill her, so instead they were feigning disinterest.

As long as they told everyone that she was a joke that wasn't worth paying attention to, nobody would think too much about how she'd already met most every cape in the city by now. And several of those capes had either been arrested in the aftermath, or been forced to flee.

It didn't make any kind of sense for a girl without any kind of Brute-rating to cause so much trouble with nothing but a baseball-bat, but that was Taylor Hebert in a nutshell.

And Coil loathed it.

 

XXX

 

Taylor took a deep breath.

She'd never wanted to save the world. She wasn't some hero of justice, trying to protect the innocents. She was just someone who lived on the planet.

After all, even if you're not really hero-material, it's not like you can just shrug if it's your house that's on fire.

Behemoth was attacking some city over in Europe or something – Taylor might not have been paying as much attention in her geography-lessons as she probably should've.

Even if Taylor went over there to fight him, there wasn't really anything she could do against an Endbringer with nothing but a baseball-bat.

But-... But even if it put the world at risk, wouldn't it be better to risk it all now, instead of pretending at ignorance and having the world slowly wither away underneath her feet?

“We're going?” Lisa asked.

She didn't sound all that enthused, but she didn't really sound upset about it. Which was to be expected, considering how often the two of them had been forced to save the world.

Sometimes, Taylor really wished that the world would just stay saved for a little bit. A few hundred years or so, at least.

“Yeah.” Taylor nodded. “We're going.”

And who knew, perhaps they'd be able to meet that most annoying one of their old friends again.

It wasn't like mazoku aged, after all.

 

XXX

 

Armsmaster hadn't expected Taylor Hebert to show up at the rendezvous.

As far as anyone knew, the girl wasn't even a cape. But at the same time, it wasn't like having one person more or less would really make all that much of a difference for their transportation-method, and she was accompanied by a blonde girl who was a cape.

A Thinker, if Armsmaster wasn't mistaken. And that could be useful, if she had a power that would let her guess at some kind of weak spot in Behemoth's armor.

Beyond Miss Hebert and her Thinker-friend, the only other people were Heroes, which wasn't all that surprising.

The ABB didn't care about the Endbringers, beyond adhering to the Truce. The Merchants were effectively much the same. And the Empire, for all that it claimed to always lend aid, were always very careful to pick their battles for the best amount of marketing.

The Empire didn't really have any capes who'd be able to survive Behemoth's aura, and the people fighting against it tended to either survive without injuries or die immediately, so there wasn't much point in them sending someone like Othala to help.

Despite that, Panacea still showed up. But then, she was a Hero, for all that New Wave were independent of the Protectorate.

Armsmaster shook those thoughts out of his head, focusing instead on the more important parts of how he might find some way to do damage against Behemoth. Energy-weapons were obviously not going to work, and the same could be said for kinetic-weapons. That left some kind of energy-cancellation, or something similarly esoteric, not that Armsmaster could really imagine how those would work.

And then Strider arrived, and they were off.



XXX

 

“Darkness beyond twilight, crimson beyond blood that flows.”

Lisa pushed the buttons to send the emergency message to everyone on the field. “Everyone! Get away from Behemoth immediately!”

Thankfully, they listened.

In the next moment, a second sun bloomed.

And when the smoke cleared, Behemoth wasn't there.

 

XXX



[Query] [Identification]

A cheerful smile. “That's a secret.”

Darkness.

 

XXX

 

Piggot took another deep breath. And then she took a third, just to be safe.

“We had that running around in our city?”

Armsmaster remained perfectly rigid, but nodded. “Yes.”

Piggot took an even deeper breath. “What's her status?”

“She's using the bounty-money to go on a world-tour of restaurants.” Armsmaster answered, sounding very unhappy about it.

“Any recruitment-pitches?” Piggot asked him.

“Yes.” Armsmaster allowed himself the smallest of smiles. “The CUI made a brief appearance. She responded with her regular baseball-bat.”

Piggot could already feel the headache developing, but at least the girl wasn't in her city anymore.

 

XXX