AN: With this, I have broken the 100k word barrier. I never thought I'd have a work this long, but here it is. With daily updates averaging 2.8k words, we're here.
With that said...this will likely be the last chapter for a bit. I unfortunately don't have Ryuugi's sheer stamina for writing, and there's been other things I haven't been able to get around to because I was driving myself to hit this benchmark despite this starting off as a project of just writing as things came to me. I'm really more of a sprinter than a distance runner.
I hope everyone's enjoyed the ride up to this point!
It had been almost a month since I had left my old life behind. Almost a month since I'd seen my father. Almost a month since I'd played Exalted with my brief friends. It had been a good month, though. A few dates with Amy and spending lots of time hanging out with Lisa both during the day and... at night. I'd also discovered it was basically unfair for me to be playing online strategy games with people. I'd had to tone down my APM a little after the first few games, but spending time with Noelle had proven very enjoyable as well.
Not that I could show my face in the world, any more. The official story was that the PRT had responded to a call to my house because Taylor Hebert had been kidnapped by the Shadow Broker. The "running theory" was that this was a ploy to apply pressure on the dock workers association much like the earlier kidnapping of the mayors niece.
It wasn't the strongest story in the world but civilians didn't care to question it and there weren't any Villains in the city that weren't under my control anyways. This largely meant the city in general by this point. Amy had come through by producing relay bugs when she had the chance and by now the entirety of the city was my dominion.
It seemed that my processing power truly had no upper bounds as I was no more stressed by being omnipresent over the city than I had been previously.
As there were no real villians left in the city to contest my rule, I'd divided the city up to my forces. I'd laid down ground rules on what crimes were permitted within the city and they enforced them. Occasionally we'd get in a little scuffle with the local Protectorate to put on a show for the civilians, but last I'd heard they were planning on shipping out a few of the Heroes as the city was largely concidered a non-risk at this point.
A less well thought out plan might have had us ruling the city openly but...that was a good way to draw heat. Why invite open warfare and conflict when you could achieve the same results without doing so? We'd opened a few lanes of the bay back up, driven down non-victimless crimes massively, and we hadn't hurt the PRT's position in the process.
The Shadow Broker was the enigmatic crime Warlord of the bay and everyone that mattered knew it. Petty criminals knew that if they committed a crime that had been banned they would be found. If it wasn't stopped, it would be avenged. Petty criminals played by our rules, now. Brockton Bay was likely the safest city in the country, if not the world.
Now...now none of my attention was on any of that. Instead, it was on the teen girl leaning against the doorway that led into my room, and all of my attention was on her in that moment.
"Aimei." I whispered as I stood from where I was standing before slowly walking towards her.
She groaned slightly and rubbed her head. "Urgh. I feel like I've been asleep for days. How's things out here?"
I closed the distance between us with a quick hop and threw myself into a hug. She stood stock still for a moment before slowly returning it. "Ah...I guess I've been out a bit longer than a few days?"
I sniffed and pulled away enough to wipe the wetness from my eyes. "Yeah. Just a bit." I returned with a slight grin. "Guess you needed the beauty rest. Look at that mug."
She raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" She touched her face. "I am the femine definition of beauty, I'll have you know. But I guess that's why you hooked up with Lisa instead of me. Got a little bestiality kicking around in there."
I smirked, catching the reference. "What can I say, I'm a foxkin at heart."
She laughed and tossled my hair before grabbing me and tossing me over her shoulder before carrying me to the bed and laying down next to me. I let out a yelp before giggling.
"So girl talk time. What's been going on?"
"Ah, not much. You know, took care of the Empire. Beat down Saint's crew when they attacked. Converted him to being pro-Dragon. Ohh. Turns out she's an AI, by the way, and she thinks I am one too."
I paused, and then with a shrug, finished off. "Amy came through with enough relay bugs I'm watching the entire city now. You know, just normal girl things."
She grinned at me and laid back to look at the ceiling while pulling me close. "I'm glad, you know? I was worried you were becoming dependant on me, but it looks like you've managed just fine. I guess I shouldn't feel bad about how things played out."
"I told you, didn't I? Feel bad about whatever you want, but not me, never me." I sighed. "I got unmasked during the deal with Saint and the PRT showed up at my house to confront me. I...left my old life. Not that it was much of a life."
She frowned at that. "I suppose...how have you been staying in touch with your dad?"
I looked away from her. "I...haven't. He chose to side with them over me."
"Oh, Taylor." She pulled me tight. "I'm so, so sorry..."
I pinched her and she let out a light yelp.
"No. I've made my choice. My life, my choices."
She sighed and shook her head. "Yeah...you're right. I don't agree with your choices but they are your choices to make. Expect me to voice my disapproval, but I won't try to persuade you otherwise."
I nodded. "Good. Lisa wasn't thrilled either, but she's dealing with it."
She grinned at me. "Speaking of you and Lisa..."
I smirked back at her. "Oh, we took your advice to heart. Tried to wake you up, but it seems like you didn't need those ear plugs at all."
Her grin grew and she poked me in the chest. "Ohhh. You've grown quite a bit to be trading barbs with me like that."
She leaned in close to tease me as usual, but I was ready this time. I moved at the same time and caught her lips in a lock. Shock held her for a moment and she didn't pull away for a few precious seconds...until she finally did.
Her eyes were widened slightly as she looked at me. "I see trading barbs isn't the only thing you've picked up skills in."
"Mmm." I murmured. "I'd wondered what that would be like for awhile now. I have to say, I'd thought it would be better than that..."
She cut me off by initiating the kiss this time with a primal intensity that gave me that "toes curling" feeling they mentioned in books before she pulled away and smirked at me. "I'm sorry, were you saying something?"
"Murhurm..." I mumbled and blinked myself back into sanity.
"That's what I thought." She stood up and made a dusting off motion with her hands. "Now come on. I felt like I haven't eaten in forever."
I nodded dumbly as I stood to follow her out and down a few hallways to the kitchen where Lisa was hanging out and browsing things on her laptop. "Sup bos..."
She blinked, taking in Shepard's appearance before slipping into her comfortable fox like grin we'd just be joking about. "I see that princess charming here woke you with a kiss."
A shook the cob webs out of my head as Shepard just smirked back at her. "Yeesss. Jelouse?"
"Yup!" She slipped into a more friendly grin. "I thought for sure I'd land the first one."
Shepard chuckled. "Well, I'll owe you one. Afraid your girlfriend here just has more initiative than you."
Lisa stood from where she was sitting and walked over to wrap her arm around me and addressed Shepard with a wink. "She really does."
"Appreciate it." Shepard said, looking between the two of us as her mood suddenly switched to more somber and fond one. "Treasure the time together because you never know how much of it you'll have."
I kissed Lisa on the cheek and reached down to hold her hand. "Yeah. I appreciate Lisa and I do treasure our time together. Take nothing for granted, right?"
She nodded slightly. "Yeah. Never take anything for granted, or it'll just slip between your fingers."
I gave her a small smile and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I appreciate you too, Shepard. I don't want you slipping away any time soon."
She shook whatever funk that she'd gotten into out of her head and gave me a real smile. "You're right, of course. So, Lisa. How's things been?"
She shrugged lightly. "I assume Taylor's already informed you of the important parts, so I guess it's up to me to handle the day to day things then?"
Shepard nodded. "Yeah. Taylor's a bit more focused on the bigger details these days."
Lisa grinned, and I nodded slightly. She wasn't wrong. My attention was even now filling the scope of the city and keeping tabs on everything. Every jay walk, every littering. Paying attention for the more serious crimes I'd need to dispatch whoever was closest to deal with. Special attention was further given for any potential new parahumans showing up either via trigger of from out of town.
An invasion of privacy, yes. But not one that would be acted on if they kept their noses clean.
"Well. On the less serious side of things. Now that you're awake, we'll be starting up another Exalted game so Taylor here doesn't go crazy." She gave me a teasing smile. "And I've been keeping her occupied. With her ability to multitask she literally sacrifices nothing by enjoying things with her physical self."
I grinned. "Yeah. Lots of cuddling, movies, video games, reading. I've actually caught up and learned most of what I would have needed to graduate legitimately, just maybe another month or so before I'd be competent taking it without cheating."
Shepard held out a hand and waggled it a bit. "I'm not sure how much it's cheating, really. Your swarm is part of you. Being tapped into the internet is part of you. It's good to have data downloaded directly on your hard drive just in case but...I know this is backtracking on what I said earlier but you might want to prioritize on useful information for situations you may find yourself without a swarm connected to the internet."
"Hm." I tapped my chin. "Things like survival skills in case some freak accident leaves me in the wilderness?"
She nodded. "Exactly like that, yes."
"On the other side of things." Lisa continued as she noticed that my attention was lapsing back into myself to think through what skills I should pick up for random situations that may demand I actually have knowledge in my physical brain. "I've consolidated our finances, have been monitoring Saint's activities, been keeping an eye on the PRT which required actually hunting down and removing some of the old gang's moles and taking over others..."
Another chuckle from Shepard. "Yeah, between the two of you the Shadow Broker role is well filled. I assume we already have mercenaries at the rate you two work? What about the boat graveyard issue?"
"Oh, we've got a pair of shipping lanes opened up in the graveyard. Taking care of it isn't difficult. Doing so and getting out before the PRT shows up to capture known Villains is the hard part. Still, the city actually is seeing a bit of revenue starting to trickle in through there. For mercenaries, we've got Coil's guys and his Tinker tech gear. Now that you're up, I'm assuming you can outfit them in something that doesn't require us to pay an exorbitant upkeep on?"
"Oh ho. A well trained mostly ex military unit? Yes, I can most certainly get them equipped and trained in some top of the line gear. Will take me a few weeks to get my manifacturing base up and running but we'll be good to go on that front once I do. Are the Travellers still working for us?"
Lisa nodded. "Yes. Sun Dancer is helping out with the shipping project and she's got some plans drawn up to generate large quantities of power to earn a living without being a criminal. We're more than happy to help her out with that. Ballistic is happy as long as he's getting a pay check, Genesis got patched up by Panacea, and I'm pretty sure Trickster and Noelle are both dedicated to Taylor for life."
"Daw." Shepard crooned. "My protégé is already getting her own minions. I'm so proud."
I rolled my eyes while Lisa just grinned. "Yup. And what effective minions they are. We went ahead and took care of Grue's issues so he doesn't have to do crime any more. He's been happy to deal with any crimes we point him towards, though, so he's more on the vigilante side now. We've currently got Brandish of all people working on a case for Bitch. Turns out she's something of an expert in trigger cases. Who would have known? And I think she takes the case personally because of the public identity thing there. Regent's enjoying himself and getting paid, but I think he's getting bored. We're likely going to be bringing him in to the Coil level layer of the organization as the Undersiders are basically broken up at this point."
Shepard gave a concenting shrug. "Should be fine. I know his type. A little muted but not a bad guy at heart. I get the vibe he's probably pretty loyal to what few people he actually cares about which probably includes you."
"Yeah. He liked the Undersiders. he's kinda bummed we're breaking up but he gets why it's happening. He'll be a good addition to this layer. I imagine the effective blindsiding and double cons we have running on our image will have him howling for awhile."
Lisa tilted her head to the side in thought for a few moments before shrugged. "I think that's about everything. So what about you? What's up now that you're up?"
"Not much. Going to get my industrial base set up so we can equip the murks. Probably run some training excersises with them to see where they're at. With my gear they should be a decent match for the typical level of parahuman you'll run into if they're using the right tactics so we'll be able to do something like what Faultline does and hire them off except to do vigilante work in different cities where the local government or PRT director is willing to call in some outside help."
She drummed her fingers. "Once we get a stead stram of money rolling in from all of our sources we can probably have a chat with the toy box and see about testing some different ideas for potentially dealing with the Endbringers."
I nodded at that. "Yeah, that's the big one. We deal with that and getting the rest of the world back into something resembling decent shape should be an, well, by comparison, easier task. Still a pretty huge undertaking but I think we might be able to pull it off. Thus far, Endbringer fights are basically grab all the parahumans that show up and toss them at the Endbringer while hoping something sticks. Tactics? Strategy? What the hell are those?"
"It's just a result of how fractured your society is. If it wasn't, you'd have collaborations and parahumans chomping at the bit to work with each other to come up with ways they think might work."
"Definitely something we'll need to look into, and something I'm hoping you providing an outside eye might give us some insights. I'm also pretty sure that actually applying Tattletale's power to people's power usages should give us some neat results. She actually PMed Kid Win his power specialty last week."
She grinned. "It was actually pretty easy when I bothered to think about it when watching him on a camera working one night. Just had a box of random parts he'd salavage through. Compared to Armsmaster and other tinkers I poked into that everything's very deliberate with. Plug and play modular is his focus, so I just let him know."
"And apparently he didn't leave the base for three days after that."
"Yeah. Having an outside eye to look at things, regardless of competence level, can provide insights you might miss from being too close to whatever it is. Having someone like Lisa here be those outside eyes is probably damned near guaranteed to provide some kind of useful data." Shepard observed.
"That's the thought. I'm hoping if we can get her in the general vicinity of an Endbringer, with you providing bodyguarding of course, we might be able to get something useful there."
Shepard frowned. "Don't take this the wrong way, but having you near and Endbringer is litterially the last thing I want to see happen."
Lisa frowned herself. "Not something I'm exactly pleased with, but my power works better when I'm up in the action."
Shepard blinked. "Hm. First hand, or?"
Lisa shrugged. "First hand is good. Me and Taylor compared notes. Both of out powers tend to work best when we're involved in something highly stressful like combat. My power picks up details quicker and cleaner. Her range extends."
Shepard spaced out for a second. "Hm. Stress induced or actually directly correlated with combat?"
Another shrug from Lisa. "Something that's on the agenda to investigate, but we've had other priorities."
Shepard nodded. "Yeah, I get that. Bigger fish to fry and what not. So what's the game plan today?"
I paused from the conversation. "Hm. Dragon's shooting me a message. Going to take this in person. You two play nice."
Lisa pouted. "What if I don't want to play nice?"
I rolled my eyes. "Then make sure you learn something from her. Aimei has technique for days."
I headed into my lair proper and activated the usual methods for chatting with dragon. Shortly after, she appeared on my screen.
"My apologies for contacting you given how things happened with Skitter..." She sounded legitimately appologetic.
I waved my hand dismissively. "I'm upset about the girls loss of a civilian life but she isn't too torn up about it. Suggests bad things about her psychological state but that's on Shadow Stalker and her cronies, not you. Just as Armsmaster's...attempt at recruiting is on him. I'm aware he legitimately thought he was doing a good thing which happened to coincide with his glory hounding. Still, something to worry about later. What can I do for you?"
She paused. "Myself and Armsmaster are prototyping a new Endbringer prediction system. We're showing a 90% of him hitting Boston in the next few hours. Is it possible that you'll lend your aid?"
I sad up, which my digital avatar interpreted as a widening of my eyes. "Yes, of course. I'll do what I can to help out. Do you have something in mind?"
Dragon nodded. "Yes. You're aware that I have limitations. One of them confines me to only running a single itteration of my platforms at a time. You have no such restrictions and I have several suits..."
My avatar began sprouting it's Cheshire grin. "Why Dragon, you certainly know how to woo someone. I'd be delighted to take them for a spin. I'll need some time to acclimate myself with the controls. Will they be compatable with my systems?"
She nodded again. "I'll be providing your base with a real time up and down datastream running straight from your line and ISP into my systems. You'll have between now and when the Endbringer hit's shore to familiarize yourself with the controls."
I nodded again. "Sounds good. If you also give me real time access to your coordination software I should be able to provide my abilities to that as well."
She blinked. "You'll have real time coverage of Boston by then?"
I snorted. "Dragon my dear, I can have real time coverage of anywhere on Earth within a few hours. Boston is a cake walk."
"Very well, Shadow Broker. We'll appreciate the help. i'll have your systems connected shortly."
"Thank you, Dragon."
"No, thank you. Will any of your team be coming?"
I paused. "I...may be sending Tattletale and N. Tattleale may be able to get something useful out of the Endbringer. I'd appreciate if you did what you could to make sure she was returned to me in one piece."
Another nod from the Dragon. "Of course. You have my word that I'll do everything in my power to make sure she returns."
"I have arangements to make, if you'll excuse me Dragon."
"Same. Looking forwards to working with you."
With that she dropped the call while I dialed Amy's number.
"Hey. Yeah, you got the call too? Think you can get me enough relay's together to connect Brockton to Boston and give me coverage of the city?"
There was a pause on the other end. "You're not coming?"
I frowned slightly. "Unfortunately not. I'll be running tactical observation from here and...Dragon wants me to fly a bunch of her suits."
A lengthier pause this time. "I can...see how that might be more useful than having you on foot. Alright, I'll take care of it."
"Thanks, Amy. Be safe out there."
"I'll do my best. We've got things to take care of here, so..."
"Yeah. Good luck."