Expansion 20. Ω (Interlude: Taylor)

Whoever it was had the same powers as he did, but Lee had always tried to carefully hold his negative feelings back, trying not to leak his emotions into the Insect Network, while this person burned with Displeasure/Disgust/Disappointment in a way that almost made Taylor flinch. And, then the petals of the flower opened up, the heat enough to register to her suit's senses, and she got a good look at what was going on.

And stared.

In front of her was a multi-story building, looking like some kind of business park, and it was completely engulfed in pitch black flames that turned it into an inferno which silently roared, glass distantly shattering without a sound, parts of it noiselessly collapsing.

Floating before that was a man, who was Lee, but was not.

He hung in the air, wings of black fire stretching from his back, wearing a suit so dark she couldn't see the folds in the fabric, and with Lee's prismatic eyes not only on full display, but so active they burned with rainbow incandescence all their own.

Held in front of the black suited figure, by his head, was a smaller man, bloody and battered, grey suit sliced to pieces and stained dark with blood, and it was only when not-Lee turned to face them fully, and turned the man he was holding as well, did Taylor realize that the injured man was Accord.

Looking at the winged man more closely, he was almost like Lee, but his face was different, limbs slight longer, with sharper features and a more aristocratic looking face, his expression not one that she'd ever seen on her friend, a cold disinterest that was complete at odds with the burning ocean of RAGE that poured off him in the IN, as he gazed down at them.

Next to her was Herb, who glanced her way, looking relieved, as well as a strike team from the PD, Neko Neko shooting her a questioning look, the cat-girl tilting her head to indicate The Morrigan, and Taylor spoke through the integrated comm unit in her armor, finding it now worked, to inform them 'Plant user is with us', the PD team shifting slightly to focus on the darkly angelic figure, no longer worrying about having to fight The Morrigan as well. Speaking of whom, the green-skinned woman was staring at this Not-Lee in confusion, otherwise utterly still.

Accord opened his mouth to speak, but was unable to, while the Not-Lee sighed in a put-upon manner, commenting with a too-deep, too-smooth voice, "Well, this is awkward."

Then, in a single motion, it killed Accord by casually squeezing the smaller man's head until his skull exploded in a burst of gore, metal and bone splintering, body from the jaw down dropping the twenty feet to the ground where it impacted wetly.

The suited man, untouched by the viscera that flew through the air, lifted his hand, in which he now held a crystal that, at the edges of Taylor's senses, seemed to click with the sound of clockwork, even though she heard no noise. Not-Lee considered it, then shrugged cavalierly and tossed what could only be Accord's Gemma, the bit of the Shard that let Accord connect to his powers, into his mouth, swallowing the bit of crystal whole.

She just stared as Not-Lee looked into the distance, seeing something no one else could perceive, and remarked, "Ah, of course," before his flaming eyes focused on them once more, coming to rest on Taylor. Then Not-Lee reached out with its copy of her power, in a forceful and domineering way that Lee never would have, cycling the helmet of her armor open, and revealing her face, the air carrying the notes of burning flesh, the heat sweltering, as she looked back at him undaunted.

"What have you done with Lee?" she demanded, taking a challenging step forward, still standing on the giant flower that The Morrigan had made, which wasn't wilting despite the temperature.

The thing that'd taken over her friend stared back, amused, the RAGE banking itself from an all-consuming blaze to a bonfire, the black flames behind him similarly lessening. Not-Lee smiled at her, replaying with a protracted hiss, but one she understood all the same. "Nothing he did not ask for, Assisting Arachnid," it stated, though there was an odd fondness to its words. "But it appears he asked in error. Pity, and I was so looking forward to breaking Rebecca. It would have been interesting to see if her morals stood up to. . . rigorous testing." It looked past her to The Morrigan, and nodded, "You have my thanks."

You're welcome? the other woman replied cautiously, and Taylor saw Break and the others all wince in near-unison.

Not-Lee smiled, one of dark amusement, then dropped, like a puppet with its strings cut, and Taylor reached out to catch it, growing a metal net, but its suit expanded outwards, making a cocoon of pitch-black threads, from beneath which could be seen hundreds of prismatic eyes that shut, one after another. The threads lightened to the white of Lee's Vejovis costume, then contracted, revealing Lee, curled up into the fetal position.

She didn't even realize she'd moved, but she was next to him, looking him over, trying to make sure he was okay, having no idea what was going on, but willing to press on until she was sure he was safe. Lee stirred, and she could feel his confusion/despair/loss in the network as he slowly opened his eyes, saw her, and froze.

"T-Taylor?" he asked, unsure, voice raw as he hissed out the words. "You're, you're alive?"

"Yeah," she replied, trying to smile even as she looked at her friend, who seemed just as bad as he had that night. "I am, The Morrigan pulled me out from Accord's attack. I-"

She was cut off as he grabbed her, pulling her close in a desperate grasp so hard it damaged her suit, and pulled her into a hug as he broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. Unsure what else to do, she just held him back, even as the building behind him continued to burn, and the others behind her stood around awkwardly.

"Uh, dude?" Herb finally said, breaking the pseudo silence of flames and tears, "What-" He was cut off as Lee froze, a dozen black flaming swords materializing into the air around him. "Uh, that's new," Break noted, a little nervously.

Lee shook, as if spasming, for a moment, and the blades dissipated into nothing. Taylor could feel him pulling himself back, almost wishing he didn't, as she felt she was helping him, being here for him, but he emotionally retreated behind his mental walls, to better deal with the others. "Sorry," he said haltingly, reaching out to her and, after a moment of asking without words, used her copy of Kaiser's power to shift and shape the woven steel net the two of them sat on into a metal couch.

He, haltingly, let go of her, but all she did was reposition herself in his lap, still holding onto him, and when he gave her an unsure look, she replied with one that she hoped said, 'I'm exactly where I want to be.' Lee still looked off-balance, so she reached over and picked up one of his arms to wrap around her waist, trying to not blush, and looked over to the rest of the PD as if this was perfectly normal.

Break smothered a laugh, and the others approached, The Morrigan carefully growing a path of grass under her feet with her powers as she did so. "So, uh, what the fuck?" Neko Neko asked, air-claws out as she gestured to the building. "We got called in 'cause 'Watch said we needed to save you? And, uh, what the fuck?"

When Lee blinked at her, confused, he turned and looked at the still-burning building behind them, and was visibly surprised by it. "Oh. . . uh. . . huh."

He looked to the side, and with a flex of his power that Taylor could somehow feel, if barely, Not-Lee showed back up, this time popping into existence through the use of Lee's Projection power. It looked at them, then sighed, "I hope you know you're ruining my exit." Lee pointed towards the burning building. "I'm not apologizing," it remarked. "They lacked sympathy, and taste. If you do not want a repeat, do try and be more careful," it chided, and Herb flinched as if he'd been hit. "I doubt you'll be so lucky twice," the Projected. . . whatever remarked, vanishing into the air.

Lee pointed to where it had disappeared. "What he said," he informed them, looking over to The Morrigan. "Hey," he smiled, though it was a hesitant one, waving the hand not around Taylor. "Thanks. A lot. I. . ." the arm around her tightened a little. "I thought I lost her, and you too. If you need anything, just ask." Lee chuckled. "I mean, you probably could've done that before, but. . . thank you."

We are allies, the green-skinned woman deferred, and this time, Taylor paid more attention to the others, who all winced again when she spoke. You have said you would come to my aid, if needed.

"And I will. Still," he shrugged, "thank you." Looking back at the burning complex, Lee frowned for a moment, before the entire building silently exploded into a pillar of black flame, reaching several hundred feet up, finally collapsing down into a smoldering hole in the ground, the unnatural fires shrinking, gone in seconds. "Okay, that's taken care of. Oh, Morrigan, were any of the people in there the ones who went after your father? I'm still wearing your leaf, so did you see?"

It was covered when you were. . . other, she told him. And the ones still inside were not in a state to be identified. You were very thorough.

"Not really me, but kind of? It's complicated," Lee sighed, like turning into not-people was just a . . . thing people did.

"Do you have a power that did that?" Taylor asked, concerned, and Lee shook his head. "Is it gonna come back?"

Sighing again, he tried to explain, "Um, not unless I want to. And, I, I, I'd rather not. I'm. . . I'm just glad you're safe," her friend smiled, looking pained, and tired, but still happy, hugging her a little, and she hugged him right back, surprised at his willingness to be so physically affectionate, but completely on board for it.

"Uh," Herb said, "Um, what's going on? For those of us who don't speak screech?"

"Screech?" Lee asked, confused, and Taylor started to answer, then hesitated, trying to figure out the right way to say it, her friend picking up on the issue on his own. "Oh, I'm doing the Voice thing again, aren't I? How-how's this?" he asked, in English.

"You knew?" she asked, glancing to Herb, both of them having agreed to not bring it up.

"My-" he paused, glancing to the PD, "my 'body-double' mentioned I was putting a bit of. . . emphasis on my words. But I wouldn't call it screeching." He blinked, as if in realization, then looked at the girl in his lap. "Wait, you're doing it! Your accent's kinda bad, but, it's not just The Morrigan and I!" he smiled, hissing out the name, though she wondered if she even knew he was doing it. "Isn't it so much clearer!"

"It-" she suppressed that sense of more, and tried again. "It is," she admitted, with a small smile, "But it's. . . not normal."

Lee just snorted. "Like any of us are normal anymore."

"I didn't mean you two, I meant her," Herb said, jerking a thumb towards The Morrigan.

I am sorry, the woman apologized, causing the gathered PD to all flinch in unison.

Herb waved towards the Case 53, "Yeah, like that."

"What?" Lee asked, confused. "She just said she was sorry." He paused, "Wait, why are you sorry."

"Lee?" Taylor asked, hoping this went well, "What language is she speaking?"

". . . English?" he questioned after a moment. "She's. . ." Lee looked at her. "You're speaking English, right?"

I am not, the Case 53 replied. I cannot speak.

He looked at her, eyes narrowed, "But you're speaking right now."

"Lee," Taylor said, hesitating again, and reached for a nearby swarm. Him hiding his powers seemed to have just. . . stopped being a thing, but she still didn't want to announce this to the world. ~You can feel sound waves. Listen with that.~ He frowned, but nodded, and she asked The Morrigan, "Can you say something, please?"

Something, the other woman replied, the others controlling their reactions, but still clearly not liking whatever it was they heard.

". . . oh," Lee said, dismayed. "There's no sound. Then when I speak like this-" he cut himself off. "What?"

Taylor was torn, and a little mad at herself, as of course he'd figure out he was doing too as soon as they brought it up to him. "We still understand you," she told him, doing everything she could to help him understand that it was okay. "The Morrigan had something happen when she Triggered, but we can help her."

"I. . . yeah," he sighed, smiling. "Yeah, we'll figure something out." He looked around. "Well, thanks for coming, sorry I kinda, uh, took care of things myself. I'm just glad you're okay, Taylor, and you too, Herb. I. . . how are Gauge and Dekotara?"

"Gauge is back at base," Starkind said, the man a Changer who could shift to a glowing Breaker/Mover/Blaster state and back at will. "Panacea was seeing to him, but his. . . Special Tinkertech only protected himself."

"His. . . oh," Lee said, voice shrinking, as he hunched a little. "Accord wouldn't've known about that but Sheryl didn't have anything. . . special. I. . . should've given her something."

"Dude, not your fault," Herb disagreed. "That was Accord's fault, not yours."

"But if I'd just killed the bitch instead of trying to recruit him-" Lee started to argue, but she cut him off.

"Then you wouldn't be you," Taylor disagreed, hugging him a bit tighter. "What if you attacked The Morrigan instead of talking to her?"

"That's. . . not the same," he sighed, "But. . . here's not the place, and now's not the time to talk about it."

Break nodded, looking relieved, joking, "I'm kinda surprised we're not balls deep in PRT right now."

"Oh, that's because I killed all but two," Lee off-handedly mentioned, and the others stared at him in shock.

"They tried to kill us," Taylor quickly explained. "And he means Protectorate. He only killed a squad of PRT. Or two. Maybe three. There were like a couple dozen of them with flamethrowers."

"They were corrupt anyways, working for Accord," he added. "But now we need to. . ." he trailed off, looking up. "Well, hello there."

Taylor followed his gaze, but didn't see anything for a long moment, but Herb did, swearing, "Are you fucking kidding me! Fuck this shit! Fuck this day! Fuck Boston! We're leaving! Vejovis, we gotta go! They fuckin' deserve it!"

Lee however, merely stood, gently setting Taylor down as she stood next to him, and he stretched. "No need," he remarked, hissing once more. "She's not here for that." Chuckling, he put a finger to his ear, "Ironic, given what we were talking about, but I don't hear a Song. Do you?"

Song, Taylor wondered, shifting her helmet to cover her face, so she could use its eyes, which had a telescoping function built in, and only then did she understand why Break was freaking out.

Because she saw what Lee had spotted instantly.

The Simurgh.

The angelic Endbringer was silently dropping down through the air, far faster than she did when she attacked, multitudinous wings wrapped tight around her body as she plummeted down, heading right for them.

Only then did the Endbringer sirens start to sound in the distance, long past the point they should have gone off, the PD getting ready for battle, but, from the way Lee was standing. . . "Don't attack," Taylor commanded, several of them looking at her incredulously, and she toggled open her helmet again. "You can't fight her, only Lee can. And he's not. Right?" she asked, looking to Break.

He glanced at her, then Lee, and grimaced, waving to the others. "She's right. Stand down. He's either got this, and we're fine, or he's Mastered, in which case we're already fucked. You're," he hesitated, looking to Lee, "You're not Mastered, right?"

"Pretty sure Mastering doesn't work that way, but Ziz doesn't Master people that way either, she tips the scales that I'm not on," he replied with a smile. "Though I do wonder why she's slipped her leash."

"Leash?" Taylor echoed, confused, but he just glanced at her, mouthing 'later' and she nodded.

A moment after that the Simurgh, still dropping, almost impacted them, flaring her dozens of wings at the last moment and coming to a halt, sending out a great gust of wind that moved past them, The Morrigan, and the PD without touching them. The Psychic Endbringer, which drove cities to madness, looked down upon them, no, at Lee.

Then she spoke.

It was a pure tone that shifted and echoed, multivariate, chaotic yet containing a thousand patterns, seeming to doppler back and forth while never moving.

G̶͉̀r̸͙̃e̶̢͆e̴̩͘t̸̰͂ī̷̧n̵̝͝ḡ̷̨š̸̝,̵̘͋ ̴̼͝E̷̛̲l̵̔͜d̷̻̋è̵̝r̶̺͘ ̷̟̏B̴͖̚r̸̢͋ó̴͓t̷̨̊h̷̝̃e̶͉̔r̷̖̚.̶̜̇

Wait, WHAT?

"Pretty sure we aren't related by blood," Lee replied, smiling at the Endbringer. "And trust me, if my mom birthed a pseudo-angel, she'd never shut up about it. Or even a girl."

Taylor listened closely, waiting for the Simurgh's reply. It was difficult, hard to decipher, but she'd just finished doing the same thing with The Morrigan, and this was just the next step up from that. Maybe two steps. Or six. It was still doable, and this time, the words were a little clearer.

N̶o̵t̴ ̷By̸ ̴B̷l̵o̸o̴d̴.̷ ̷B̴y̴ ̶Pu̶r̸p̵o̴s̶e̴.̵

"Purpose?" Taylor asked, as she could not have heard that right, and the Simurgh's head snapped over to look at her with unnatural speed, and she could almost feel something pushing on her, probing her, but unable to get a solid grip, like it was trying to squeeze soap, only managing a little pressure before sliding off. "Uh, can you not?" she requested. A moment later she felt Lee hold her tighter for a moment, and the feeling evaporated, coming back much more hesitantly, still unable to find any purchase on her.

S̶h̶e̷ ̷i̵s̸ ̶Li̶k̴e̶ ̴Yo̸u̵,̶ the Simurgh declared, and something clicked for Taylor, though her head started to hurt, the next words crystal clear. No, You Have Made Her More.

"In more ways than I thought," Lee remarked, winking at Taylor, while the rest of the Penumbral Defenders watched, clearly terrified, and The Morrigan just stared at the Endbringer in confusion, because of course the girl would've forgotten what the Endbringers were. "But I suppose you're not wrong about the purpose you wish to accomplish, instead of what you're forced to do," he sighed, which sent Taylor's thoughts spinning, because What? "But you're probably short on time until Goldenrod notices you're not in your corner, so what's up?"

The Future Ended. You Were Likely Responsible. I Came To Assist, the Endbringer remarked, opening her arms in a grand all-encompassing gesture.

"Uh, Lee?" Herb asked, looking between the two of them and the Simurgh. "What the fuck?"

"She came to help," Taylor translated, not believing what she was saying.

Break, meanwhile, just nodded. "Oh. Okay."

Behind him, Neko Neko looked at the man in shock. "Wait, Okay?"

"It's Lee," was the entirety of Herb's response, as if that explained things.

Only, it kind of did.

Also, I Came To Collect My Daughter, The Simurgh added, gesturing towards The Morrigan. Without Your Presence To Cloak Me, Elder Brother, I Would Have Had To Let Her Perish.

"Daughter?" Lee Echoed, then looked over to the Case 53. ". . . Morrigan, who was your father?"

The woman replied easily, He called himself Blasto. I only recently learned he might have had another name, but I do not know it.

Taylor stared, before realizing she'd completely missed the mark. Blasto was a bio-tinker, who specialized in cloning. He spliced in bits of plant-stuff into all his creations, so he could control them through the use of pheromones, but Taylor had Seen The Morrigan and she was way more than just a Tinker creation.

But if Blasto had used something as complex, as unknowable, as a bit of Endbringer as a base, then creating some kind of Endbringer-Lite was possible. And The Morrigan was certainly powerful enough to count. Amelia had gone on, at length, about how bullshit Endbringers were, how they were all technically organic crystals, and the bug controller learned from their experiments with the slowing crystals from the Green Zone how you could take a seed crystal and accidentally grow something similar, yet completely different than the original.

Panacea wasn't crazy enough to try and grow more raw Endbringer flesh from the samples they had, instead the biokinetic tried to understand them and implement what she learned into her creations, Taylor's own bio-armor's toughness partially derived from the other girl's studies. Blasto, however, must've been smoking something powerful to be dumb enough try to make another Endbriger, though, from the research she'd done into the man, looking to see if they could recruit him for Arachne Assemblages, that wasn't outside the realm of possibility.

Lee looked between her and the Simurgh, finally asking the Endbringer, "You left a bit of Wing behind on purpose, didn't you?"

In return, the Simurgh's normally impassive expression shifted ever so slightly, revealing the hint of a smirk.

"Of course," he sighed, looking back to The Morrigan. "And when you said you were twenty-two, you meant twenty-two. . ."

Weeks, the woman, who was part Endbringer, nodded. Twenty-three now. Lee put his head in his hands, and groaned. Is something wrong?

He meant it to be quiet, but Taylor could clearly understand his muttering of, "Why are all the cute girls I meet underage!?" She blushed, but pretended she hadn't heard anything, as he looked up, as if demanding an answer from god himself, before shaking his head. "Nothing's wrong," he told her, looking back to the Endbringer, then to The Morrigan again. "You can go with her if you want," he told her, "but you don't have to if you don't want to. We'll figure out another way."

The Mini-bringer considered that, thinking hard, even as Herb said, "Uh, dude? I'm only getting, like, half this convo, but are you sure? If this chick's related to-"

For a moment, Taylor felt the stirrings of what the other, Not-Lee had felt like, as a deep anger flared across the Insect Network, one that was quickly reigned in, but from the way Break paled, he'd seen something of it. "I'm not abandoning her because she was born wrong!" Lee informed the other man.

However The Morrigan came to a conclusion, telling him, I'll go with my mother.

"What? I- damnit Herb! Ignore what he said, if you want to come with us, we'll figure something out," he told her, but the green woman shook her head.

No, she is my mother, she disagreed. And coming with you would cause problems, would it not?

". . . probably," he ground out, "But that's not your fault!"

The Morrigan walked over to him, hesitating, before placing a hand on his cheek. Thank you. But I should go.

Her hand dropped, and he stared at her, grudgingly nodding. "Fine. If that's your decision, I'll respect it. But if you need someplace to go, a safe harbor, Eclipse in New Brockton Bay is open to you." Glancing over to the Simurgh, he added, "You too, Ziz. Though give me some warning if you can, and I'll teleport you in. People would misunderstand otherwise, and play nice with my people if you do."

The Endbringer nodded, ever so slightly. My Place In This Broken Cycle Is Watched. But It Is Not Constant. I May Visit.

"I'm sure we have some people that'd want to talk," he smiled, amused by the thought, "If you want to. Until then, good luck."

Luck Does Not Exist, The Simurgh remarked, but once more wore a slight smile, reaching out to The Morrigan, who floated up into the fake-angel's arms. Until We Meet Again. Be Careful, Elder Brother. The Future Exists Once More. But It Has Started To Shift. And Not All Shifts Are To Our Benefit.

With that, and a Goodbye from The Morrigan, the two took off into the sky in an instant, The Simurgh's wings arranged to hide her daughter as they ascended, vanishing from sight in less than a minute.

Only after they left, did the PD relax, though many were looking at Lee with apprehension, and fear, which wasn't fair at all.

Okay, yes, he'd destroyed Accord's entire gang, and their compound, by himself.

And an entire Protectorate team.

And had some kind of evil alter ego.

And could talk to the Simurgh.

And had talked to the Simurgh.

And was friends with the Simurgh.

And the Simurgh had called him 'Elder Brother'.

. . . Fine, she could get why they were worried, but they were wrong.

"Dude," Break said, shocked, "You invited the Simurgh back to HQ."

Lee just shrugged, "She's got a single city's worth of people to work with to try and keep the world from ending, it's just that everyone only sees her harshest methods and misses the rest. She also can't be nice about it, or else the Warrior will go nuts, so. . ." he shrugged again, laughing, "Shit sucks, could be worse, probably will be, welcome to Worm."

Herb stared at him, as did Taylor, his last sentence making no sense, but it obviously meant something to the other man, who argued, "But that doesn't make it right!"

Lee lazily looked at the man he once considered friend, "At this point, it doesn't really matter what's right, only what's left. That doesn't excuse everything, your employers are still wrong about that, but. . . I was wrong too." Break started to reply, but Lee added, "I thought I was being active, instead of re-active, but. . . I really wasn't. I was just trying to hole up in my own little corner until I was ready, but that's not how this place works."

Whatever the other man was going to say, it died on his lips, pushing Taylor to ask, "Then, what are we doing next?"

"Right now?" he asked with a grin. "Going the fuck home." His smile dropped, grim determination replacing it. "After that, I think I've rested enough. Had enough of a vacation. Sheryl died because of me, so I need to make sure it wasn't in vain."

She wanted to argue, but, from his look, he knew what she would say, and would press forward anyways.

All she could do was try and help him.

"No," he sighed, and she felt him reach out. In an instant they were all standing inside one of the Storage bays of Eclipse, and he took off at a moderate pace for the door. "No, it's time I stop being Vejovis all day, and start being Nephilim."

Shooting a sad smile back at her, as she hurried to follow, he told her, "And it's time we got to work."