I saw Penny today.
You talk to her?
So close. I'm just a few weeks away from a real, audible, connection.
- Dr. Horrible & Moist, Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
Years are comprised of a set number of days, weeks, months and trips to the laundromat. Whether or not any of these years are kind to anyone who happens to be experiencing the temporal cycle of the third planet from the oh-so-very originally named Sun, the passing of time does occur.
Moist knew that five or six years ago he had formed a friendship with one named Billy. He also knew, from old newspaper clippings filling a certain disused lair, that a wannabe villain named Doctor Horrible had mysteriously disintegrated every member of the old Evil League of Evil. Since then, things had been wonderful, terrible and then just plain strange.
Midday on a Saturday was the only time the Coin Wash was anywhere near vacated, probably because most people had better plans which involved inhaling food instead of fabric softener. Watching various pairs of underthings and socks tumble over each other in the dryer, Moist waited with baited breath and anticipation.
"It's coming," he promised the girl balanced on his hip.
She stared hard into the dryer.
One pink sock, riddled with holes and dark immovable stains so as to render it brown, splattered against the window.
"Mos! See!" she said, pointing.
"Yeah, I see it," Moist acknowledged. "Socky. That's a record isn't it? Three times in one minute."
"Penny!" Moist shouted back over his shoulder.
When no assuring voice approached him, he turned around to see his day's companion sitting on one of the benches, surrounded by shredded notepaper and scattered clothes. A plastic spork hung out of her mouth as she bent over a piece of paper to scribble on it in mid air.
Moist rolled his eyes. "Still working on that, huh?"
"Yes," Penny said out of the unoccupied corner of her mouth. She glanced about quickly to make sure they were no other customers in the laundromat. "Okay, you ready for this one? Perennial Pain!"
"Ouch," Moist muttered.
"That was the idea, Moist."
"Mos!" Billie added.
Moist's definition of strange: having to accompany Penny on a laundry errand to help look after her daughter Billie. What this was really code for was him looking after Billie and doing the laundry, while Penny tried to whisk up an application to the Evil League of Evil. He wasn't sure why she had invited him along in the first place all those months ago – or why, for the first few weeks, she lad let him carry the basket of clothes out the door even though they were soon bedraggled from Moist's proximity.
He'd never had to think about anything this weird during his brief stint as Dr. Horrible's right-hand man in the ELE – the reasons for his departure Moist had never been able to reveal to anyone, especially Penny. His...er...retirement from the table had meant slowing down things a little. Such as, taking a post as the head of the Henchmen's Union, which didn't even have a proper building. Just some random basement with a never ceasing lack of ink for the making of the bi-weekly newsletter.
It had a coffee machine, though, so that was a bonus.
"Perennial Pain...I don't know, Pen..." Moist said hesitantly.
"Too alliterate?" Penny asked.
"No, just...what's your power and/or gimmick supposed to be, again?"
"Still working on that."
Moist looked seriously at his unofficial niece for a moment. Her blue eyes were solemn. She nodded. He nodded back. "Maybe you should work on that first, then the name. And what's your plan anyway? World domination? Torture?"
"It worked for Billy!" she exclaimed.
Billie leaned over, reaching with one arm for her mother. Moist was more than happy to foist the terrible two-year-old back on Penny. Watching her curl back the girl's blonde hair behind her ears, Moist smiled and tucked his hands into his pockets. Strange, domestic, whatever – he didn't mind hanging out with the two main women in his life – sad as that was.
Come to think of it, he saw more of them than Billy these days. The only times he clapped eyes on his ex-friend were usually on the front page of some newspaper – and there were goggles involved, so he only really saw hair, a nose and a mouth. The red outfit was still strange to take in, a development that had occurred after they had parted ways.
Moist suddenly felt depressed.
"I'm sure you'll think of something," he supplied.
Penny smiled back at him. "I'm sure too. It's all to do with timing. But what about you? How's the Union going?"
"You asked me that last week."
"Well, I'm asking again."
"Uh, well we had a little supply problem in the stationary division and then someone we rejected for the Union blew up our photocopier. They've since applied for the League..."
"Wow. That's kind of scary."
"Yeah the newsletter was one day late. The editor has been bugging me for extra henchmen security on the new photocopier. Problem is, everyone wants in. Like that counts for evil hours."
Penny laughed lightly and set aside the paper, full of scribbled would-be aliases and just as many heavy lines crossing them out, before giving her full attention to her daughter. Or so Moist assumed – which is why her next line of attack surprised him.
"He misses you, you know," she said, green eyes needling him.
"He said that?" Moist responded in disbelief.
"Well, no," Penny admitted, looking away and hiding her expression with a careful flick of her red hair. "Actually, he hasn't said a lot in a while. I mean, he's probably just busy. And it'd be dangerous if too many people saw us visiting him, you know? But I wish someone would tell me what happened between you two."
"Dryer's stopped," Penny noted wryly.
Moist turned and sighed. Socky was in plain view and there would be no rest until Billie had her one precious sock. The rumour was that the sock had begun life on one of Pink Pummeller's feet, before his name change and outfit update. That was another one that Moist saw less and less of. It was much harder to gain an audience with The Pummeller. And it was even more problematic to do so without being thrown right through a wall.
No one had been more surprised than Pink P when he had finally grown into his punching power heritage. His grandmother had even given him a new set of gloves to mark the occasion. This development had made The Pummeller's appointment to the ELE less controversial than Moist's, a decision for which Dr Horrible had been lambasted by jealous villains who continually wondered why they hadn't thought to blow up the League and replace them entirely.
Moist walked slowly to the dryer, thinking. It wasn't like life sucked or anything. He had friends and he even had his own henchmen, kind of. He had a job. He had a place to live. The only things he didn't have were a girlfriend, a cure to his moisture problem...and his old friend.
Three metres from the dryer, the floor beneath Moist's feet rumbled.
Two metres away, he heard the screaming.
One metre – he was swinging around.
And the windows exploded.
Somewhere across town, a phone rang. Next to the phone, a pair of legs clad in skinny-jeans hung over the edge of a sofa. A head appeared, comprised of a tangle of wild dark brown hair and the very grumpy sort of expression that one might sport after being rudely woken from a power-nap one minute too early.
Wanda Plenn bent over her legs with difficulty and picked up the phone. "What? Johnny, I'm really tired. I don't want to hear it. Why should I turn on the news?"
She slipped a hand between the cushions of the sofa and extracted the remote, flicking on the television. Immediately, images of burning cars, broken shop windows and screaming people blurred across the screen. Wanda rubbed her forehead.
"You'd think they'd let us have one day off," she murmured. "The ELE need to stop working the weekends. Alright, give me a sec. I'll go find Hammer. Is there any reason for this attack? Are they robbing anyone? You don't know. Okay, fine. Fine. I'll meet you at that frozen yoghurt place. Bye Johnny. No I don't care what you wear."
Wanda rolled off the sofa and hurried into her bedroom. Two minutes later, the heroine Splendour darted out of the room, adorned in a garish sparkly blue leotard complete with painful green lycra leggings and equally offensive boots (bonus silver glitter sprinkled about the heels). It was kind of cheesy, but the kids loved it.
Splendour took root on the window sill, looked down and briefly baulked, then sprang off into the air.
Shards of glass and someone's lacy unmentionables went flying past. Moist spun and ducked as quickly as he could, but felt some nasty pieces of the Coin Wash windows embed themselves in his scalp. Grimacing, he poked his head up and looked frantically around for Penny and Billie. If Dr. Horrible ever found out that he'd been unable to protect them like a henchman should...
He saw them crouched in the next row of washers. They looked shaken up, but apparently not badly hurt. Briefly, Moist allowed the kind of compacted sigh that would have been far more enjoyable in a longer time than three seconds. He skittered along the floor, nicking the palms of his hands on broken glass as he went, and slumped beside Penny.
"So this is new for me," Moist muttered. "Is it new for you?"
"Take Billie," Penny instructed.
Blinking in confusion, Moist looked down at the toddler now perched in deathly silence on his lap. He wondered, with some despair, how she knew to keep so quiet. Then again, she was the daughter of an evil, mad, powerful, pie-like genius – maybe this wasn't so new for the girls after all. Moist supposed it was a good thing the media had no idea that Dr. Horrible had any sort of progeny...or his enemies, for that matter.
Pulling down the sleeves of the stretchy grey shirt that she wore under her dress, Penny wound the fabric through her fingers to protect them as she pulled herself along on her knees to the end of the row. Strands of red hair swung from behind her ears as she peered around the corner to the street beyond.
"There's a lot of people running," she noted. "But I don't see...I know that Billy wasn't planning anything – I'm sure he wasn't."
Moist nodded emphatically to no one in particular, knowing anything he said would betray the fact that he knew nothing. The girl on his lap scraped her teeth over her bottom lip as she met his eyes with blue defiance. So she wasn't scared – that was fine, because Moist was scared enough for all three of them.
"Mos," she said, very quietly.
Moist injected some bravado into his trembling voice. "Yeah, I'm here and Penny's here – so we're all good."
"Socky," the girl insisted, louder.
"You can have one of mine. You don't mind if it smells of mould, do you?"
The skin around Billie's forehead creased briefly, then her eyes slid downwards. She tipped one finger against his bloody palms and Moist winced when he saw the dark red smudge smothering her fingerprint. Hurriedly, he grabbed the bottom hem of his shirt and wiped both their hands.
"Penny, um, is everything okay?" Moist asked, realising that his friend was crouched almost preternaturally still.
He couldn't be sure from that angle, but he could swear he saw her eyes widen. It was also very easy to see the tears rending her jeans but Moist couldn't figure out if they were torn from the glass or if it was done on purpose. It was kind of the style.
"I..." Penny petered off, slowly sliding backwards along the floor. "I'm...I think we should get out of here."
"Well, I don't think just any laundromat would have a secret exit, Pen."
"This one does," she flipped at him without even meeting his eyes.
Moist gawked but managed to follow her back-wrenching scuttle along the floor to a grounded dyer tucked exactly into the corner. An out-of-order sign scribbled in permanent marker was splashed across the front. For Moist, the journey was difficult because he had to hold Billie wrapped underneath him to his chest and she was no longer small enough to play any games that involved her using him as her personal monkey bars. Unfortunately, Moist was the sort of monkey bar that made fingers lose their grip entirely. It was torture, trying to keep Billie from slipping and he was losing that battle.
Too embarrassed to interrupt Penny while she ripped the sign off the dryer and then began to pry open the door, Moist pulled himself along with one raw hand and then attempted to fall in relief against a washer when he made it – only to slip sloppily sideways, nearly bringing Billie down with him anyway.
"Are you okay?" Penny asked, resting a hand on Moist's shoulder.
Moist offered a wobbly smile. "Enough ink to print a month's supply of newsletter would make it okay. But it'd probably be a good idea if you carried Billie. I'm not the best choice for that."
She accepted this with a nod and gathered her daughter in her arms before squeezing herself into the dryer and then into a tunnel in the back that Moist would never have bothered to search for.
"Um, am I following or do you want me to hang here?"
Penny made a sound that may have been an exasperated laugh. Her shoes shook, at any rate. "Moist, get in here."
"Is it far?" Moist asked worriedly.
"Okay, I get that this is uncomfortable for you but, trust me, you'll have a much easier time getting through here with your moisture power."
He grimaced. "It's more of a social problem than a power but um... yeah. I'm following."
Flattening his shoulders and ducking his head against his sternum, Moist slapped his palms inside the dryer and heard them squish. His shoulders greased their way in a second or so later. He sighed and scrabbled his fingers ahead a foot or so and pulled himself in after Penny. Maybe this wasn't so bad, even though the noise was getting closer outside in the street. It could be a riot or something (the ELE was known to host such events to remind everyone that they were continuing to lurk in the shadows), but the occasionally booming sounds that signalled something worse were painfully more clear when echoing inside a metal tube.
"Moist?" came Penny's concerned voice from further down.
"Just give me a – aungh!"
Strong hands clamped over Moist's ankles and ripped him from the escape route. Crushed against the floor with pinpricks of glass doing their worst to cushion him, Moist could only stare up in disbelief as his assailant bent almost at the waist to inspect him more closely. Dark, deep eyebrows formed sharp lines that dug into the top rim of small crusted silver goggles with completely black lenses. Thin lips formed an unimpressed parallel line with the tips of the electronic sideburns that footed the scientist's face. The sweater vest and shirt looked as impeccable as ever, though the tie was tattered and apparently bitten in some places.
"Aren't you kind of dead?" Moist supplied when words finally agreed to come back to him – along with his heartbeat.
"Death is an obstacle to which I do not intend to be a party."
"Oh. Okay." Moist floundered, wriggling his shoulders against sharp glass. "You look good anyway."
His interrogator bared straight, boxy molars in the furthest corners of a fleshy mouth. "Now, where does that tunnel come out?"
Moist bit his lip and forced a deep frown. He wanted to give Penny and Billie as long as possible to get out of there, so pretending to stall might actually work as well as stalling. That's when he caught a whiff of the smell.
He gagged and his mouth popped open.
Clustered around his position on the floor, moaning and swinging their limbs above him but never touching their creator, the mutant zombies stared through him instead of at him. This was a tiny, bizarre relief because Moist was sure they would do far worse than drool if they really truly saw him. Patches of splintered bone popped from the occasional shoulder or knee, but it was the ghastly colour of the skin that disturbed Moist the most. Dirty, yellowed paper sprang to mind – though Moist would have snatched even the mustiest document to sniff instead of lying in the direct path of the horrid pong of the undead.
Moist doubted that the scientist noticed, nor cared, about the state of his minions.
"I surmise that you know a good deal less than the Doctor's whore," Professor Normal intoned. "Never matter. I will make you speak. Not about secret tunnels, perhaps, but you will speak of other things."
Panicked, Moist tried to expunge Billie from his mind. So maybe mind reading had never been an officially listed power of Professor Normal's, but that didn't mean he couldn't have picked it up in the afterlife. Then he realised that if Normal knew about Penny, he'd probably know about Billie too – but what if he didn't? And what if he suddenly did because Moist was thinking about it?
Professor Normal's expression remained frozen. Moist drew a breath through his mouth (the nose option was somewhat out of the question by this point) and rushed it back out.
"Sure, what can we talk about? I'm the um...the head of the Henchmen's Union. We have openings if anyone wants to..." Moist flicked his eyes around the very cramped skyline of zombie faces and silent washers. "It requires a written test. Well, it's multiple choice but you have to use a pencil and some of you might not...yeah. Maybe not."
"I see I should not bother here. Kill him."
Rows of needle-teeth shot out of receding gums and they lunged for him. Moist threw up his hands and closed his eyes tight, fearing the onslaught even more than his previous land lady.
Moments later, he heard multiple loud, sludgy thumps. A garrotted groan of protest rose so high it shook the glass around his ears. Moist peeled open his eyes and gaped around at the sopping collection of zombies, incapacitated into a heap that could only be described as an undead slushie. This was a little unexpected – slightly more so than the sudden sight of Professor Normal being held up by his throat against a line of dryers that dutifully shook off their brackets from the force of a mighty hammer.
Moist did his best to look invisible.
"Dammit, Johnny, you said your ice beam wasn't going to shoot water again," berated a woman.
"The cooling unit must be broken," grated a voice that Moist was unfamiliar with, though the excusing tone was one he had once heard often from Billy.
Lifting his head to sneak a better view, Moist froze when he saw the back of a dark shirt – it could have been any kind of shirt, except that it was paired with gloves and boots. Stunned that the hero was still alive, and apparently still capable of beating up villains, Moist kept his expression blank and his breathing very shallow. He failed to mask his presence when one of Johnny Snow's thick ugg boots planted itself on his rib cage. Moist oofed in complaint. The second boot was not an accident.
"Innocent bystander, Johnny!" the woman hissed – Moist noticed she was dressed in very bright shades of colour and it hurt to look at her for too long.
"Professor Normal!" Captain Hammer said in surprise. "I see your trip to Hades bore unexpected fruit for you, but lucky for me I can squish fruit."
A cruel, disturbing grin sliced up either side of Professor Normal's face. He curled the fingers of both hands into claws and scratched down hard on his attacker. Howling in indignant pain, Hammer dropped him and cowered behind a row of washers. Splendour rolled her eyes and zipped through the air to pounce on top of the recovering Professor, pinning him with a pincer grip on his wrists.
"I doubt you are able to squish, as you put it, even a miniscule ant without feeling the agony of human pain rising like a rash between your toes," Normal announced studiously, as though they were all attending a lecture. "Otherwise the question must be asked – why has your hideous visage not been paraded about in the press of late?"
"Just because he can feel pain now doesn't mean a sidekick can't kick your butt!" Splendour declared.
This was news to Moist. It also explained why no one had seen the guy for three years and here he was with a back-up squad. The last time he'd seen Captain Hammer, and also the last time that Moist had ever held a position on the ELE, there had been an audience of screaming mothers and children in Duly Park. And Bil-Dr. Horrible had been using that new ray and everyone assumed it didn't do anything until it flattened Captain Hammer who ran, shouting something incomprehensible...
Carried away with his thoughts, and completely missing the greater part of a taunting match between the heroes and Professor Normal (God, wait until Billy heard about that one), Moist let his head sink to one side, somehow unable to hold it up on his neck. He was so tired...so tired...and he needed a drink...wait, why was he thirsty? After he discarded that thought, his gaze lay lazily among the shivering pile of foul-skinned, pock-marked zombies who started to slowly writhe and wriggle. Moist gulped noisily.
He gestured towards the zombies that were reviving themselves and piped up towards the heroes, "Um, you might – "
"Shut up!" Johnny Snow hurled at him, brandishing his infamous Ice Beam – or a variant of, anyway.
"I'm just saying – "
The heroine swivelled her head in Moist's direction but Professor Normal squirmed and slithered a hand out from under her grasp in an attempt to tear at her costume. Her attention thusly stolen, she pounded down hard with her elbows. A weedy chuckle trickled out of the villain's lips.
"Regale me with the true story of how Captain Hammer lost his powers," he invited. "Or are you unaware? It was his fault."
"Dr. Horrible hurt him – wait, why am I even arguing this?"
"MOVE!" Moist shouted and threw himself in front of the grappling pair.
He threw up his hands again – just to see if it hadn't been his imagination the first time – and a torrent of sticky water escaped him, smacking into the horde and flattening them again. Not wholly surprised, Moist blinked. He staggered. He nibbled his parched tongue. He sat down and patted his now very dry arms and legs. He touched his face and found the only moisture there in the form of one tear leaking from his left eye.
"I don't...don't believe it," he said with a broad, stupid grin.
He passed out.