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After a decade or so of bounty hunting (not to mention all those years in the Crusades, and even before that) Sol Badguy was pretty sure that he had seen everything that the Gears had to offer. Giant, flying monstrosities that could spray dust capable of killing a horse in seconds? Why not. Poison-quilled echidnas ten feet tall with the head of a bear? Sure. Mammoth-sized abominations of twisting, tangling limbs and a thousand eyes? Par for the course.

Despite all of that, the Gear had to stop and take a second look at the most recent addition to the bounty-hunting list. He’d only swung by the office to pick up the most recent issue. Business as usual- get the money for the last bounties and replace them with whatever they had new. It was a simple system, and it worked.

That still didn’t change the fact that he’d never seen anything like this mark in his life.

According to the report, it was humanoid, somewhere in the range of five feet. That much indicated a human-type, or just a very convincing normal-type. As for the rest of the description? The thing apparently had some sort of black-tech-looking device jammed into its back, topped with a set of fan-like blades. Rather than a face, there was a thick brown hide patterned with crossed lines, a mouth stitched shut, and the characteristic piercing red eyes.

Along with the dossier, there was a single, grainy photo. The details matched. The photo depicted the figure lunging towards the camera, sewn lips bent back in a screech. A set of what looked like needles extended from its palm, glinting ominously. Despite its small size, it looked threatening. Dangerous. Deadly. A freaky-ass frankenstein monstrosity.

“Sure, I’ll take it.”

++++++

According to the bounty list, it had been last sighted out east, somewhere in the woods. That much he expected. If it did resemble a human, it probably had at least some intelligence, and would run for cover. Based on the small size and numerous blades, being in a thickly forested area would be best suited for sudden, deadly attacks that would be hard to counter. Putting it on the defense would be the safest option.

Sol reached out to a nearby tree. Fingers traced a set of deep scratches in the bark. The marks didn’t resemble that of any animal or Gear that he had encountered before. He had to be on the right track.

As he trudged through the forest, he quickly became aware of how silent it was. Sure, he wasn’t expecting any people in a place this remote, but even the chitters and caws of animals were absent. Not even the rustle of leaves. Definitely a sign...or a warning.

His sensitive ears picked up a faint sound. Shuffling footsteps, a few disturbed leaves. Despite the creature’s attempts, he was easily able to trace the noise.

With a single hard slash, he severed the tree that it was hiding in, making the canopy crash to the ground. Under normal circumstances, he would have used the surprise attack to just kill a mark quickly. This one seemed strange, though, and he couldn’t help but be curious for a look.

A primal, animal-like screech echoed through the treetops. A small blur darted from the falling tree, off into the concealment of another. For most people, that would be a surefire sign that running for their lives would be the best option, but for Sol, it meant that he was getting exactly what he came for.

While it hadn’t been long since the last world-threatening event, and he really would have rather just stuck to quieter endeavors, Sol knew better than to leave this be. It was possible that this was merely a rare or secluded type of Gear, but if it was possible that they were evolving further, then he had to put a stop to it sooner rather than later.

The sound of metal cutting through air was heard a half-second before a trio of arrow-like protrusions shot out of the treetops. Sol managed to duck and let them crash into the dirt, where they stayed stuck. He realized that the metal extended all the way back to the creature’s perch, and he grabbed onto the metal. His gloves did an adequate job guarding the metal’s sharp edges as he yanked on it.

It made an infuriated screech as it was pulled on. Sol half-expected it to come flying down out of the trees and crash into the ground. Instead, the metal seemed to detach, and the shuffling noises hurried back across the canopy.

Ok, so detachable spikes. That was new. He dropped the discarded metal on the ground and tried to follow the sound of leaves rustling. This thing seemed to have enough brainpower for some sort of strategy. He couldn’t decipher how smart it was yet, but he knew he couldn’t be too reckless.

He was taken off-guard by the sudden appearance of branches crashing down in front of him. Sol managed to get his bearings enough to vault over the debris before he could trip over it. A flaming slash tore through the wood, sending chunks flying everywhere.

A mess of something sharp and metal came flying at him. He couldn’t make out all the details, but he didn’t need to. The Gear dodged the razor-like spindles as they shuffled past, only to watch them skid and turn around.

In the middle of the spikes and blades, he could make out a figure that they were all attached to. It definitely was the bounty in the photo- but the poor quality had done a terrible job displaying just how small, scrawny, and…sick the thing looked. It was all too easy to notice the unusual pallor it had, with prominent veins running along the surface like a heroin addict after too many injections.

Sol was puzzled, but he certainly wasn’t going to lay down his weapon in the middle of a fight. He managed to smack his opponent with the flat edge of his weapon, sending it skidding until it crashed into a tree.

He kept his sword at the ready, but it seemed that he’d landed a good shot. The creature struggled as it tried to stand back up, shaking like it was a moment away from snapping into pieces.

“S-stop...LEAVE ME ALONE!”

He recognized that tone instantly. It was the exact same kind of thing Sin used when he was trying to sound ‘tough’ and ‘manly.’ The pitch was comically deep for something so small. It was the sort of thing that could only be intimidating if you had no idea what you were fighting.

She (it certainly sounded like a ‘she’) managed to duck back into the trees while he was unfocused. Sol looked from treetop to treetop, trying to catch a glimpse. Somehow, he couldn’t spot her. Aside from the faint rustle of leaves, there was nothing. Cloaking, maybe? It was usually so easy for him to spot-

It suddenly made all too much sense why she was so hard to locate. He could sense other Gear cells to find bounties when they tried to hide. But this girl didn’t have a drop of Gear in her.

Whatever he was fighting, it definitely wasn’t what he’d thought it was.

He wasn’t sure if she’d be able to understand. He kept his sword at the ready. “You can come out.”

The forest went quiet. Sol kept his attention sharp, just in case she was going to attempt a sneak attack. And yet, nothing came.

“I made a mistake. You’re not what I’m looking for.”

For a moment, he could hear something skittering above him. “...Why should I believe you?”

If Ky were there, he probably would have made some dramatic, impassioned speak about seeing the good in all creatures. But Ky wasn’t here, so Sol had to think of something on his own.

“You took a lot outta me, kid. Fighting’s too tiring, anyway. I don’t wanna put in the effort if I don’t have to.”

There was a confused little noise overhead, more shuffling, and something dark dropped from the trees.

Sol was a tall man, and he towered over her by at least a foot. She still looked ready to jump back into fighting, but her posture was slumped and she looked more ready to run away, despite the impressive fan of blades jutting out from her back. He had to wonder how unpleasant it had to be with something so heavy-looking hanging off of her, especially since the only thing she was wearing was a white garment that offered no protection. He could tell that some of his hits had connected, leaving some ugly gashes along her arms and one leg that bled, though she hardly seemed to care. Nor did she seem to care about the various nails jutting from her legs and shoulders. Who had put those there? If she wasn’t a Gear, then why did she have all this metal sticking out of her?

“What’s your name?” He asked.

The girl eyed him oddly, aversive. After a few moments, she relented. “Painwheel.”

“That’s not a name.” His eyes hardened, though their anger certainly wasn’t directed at her. “That’s a designation. I want your real name.”

“...Carol.” She rasped, “my name is Carol.”

“Good.” Sol nodded. “You remember it. You’re too young to forget your own name.”

Painwheel took a few hesitant steps closer. “I told you mine. What’s yours?”

“Sol. Sol Badguy.”

“That isn’t a name, either.”

Sol couldn’t help but smirk. Smart girl. They really were alike. “Frederick.”

“Frederick...that’s a good name.” A bit of weight seemed to disappear off of her shoulders. “Are you...gonna kill me?”

“No.” To emphasize his point, he slammed the Fireseal into the ground and let it sit out of his reach. Granted, if he wanted to, he probably could still kill the girl with his bare hands. Though the thought of it just made his chest ache.

With the weapon out of the way, Painwheel took a few more steps, almost at arm’s length. “Why did you come here?”

“I’m a bounty hunter. People put out marks, and I take them down.”

He was well aware of how callous he sounded, made all the more obvious by the girl taking a hard step away. He considered stepping closer, but he didn’t want to frighten her. She was tense enough already.

“These ‘marks’...what do people want dead?”

“Monsters.”

Rather than the anger that he had expected, Sol could see a deep sadness in Painwheel’s eyes. She wrapped arms around herself, staring ruefully at the ground.

“You said you weren’t going to kill me…”

“And I’m not.”

The girl almost seemed shocked by that statement. Like she was used to being betrayed and lied to. Sol wanted to say something to assure her, but no words were coming to mind. He was never good at this sort of thing.

Painwheel opened her mouth, asking a single word. “Why?”

“Because we’re alike.” He adjusted his headpiece and brushed the unruly bangs aside, making his mismatched eyes far more visible. “You didn’t want to be turned into a monster either, did you?”

“Ah…” She looked at a loss for words. “You’re an ASG weapon? How did you escape from Lab 0?”

Sol ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I dunno what any of that means. But I assume that’s what you are. What was this ‘Lab 0’ trying to do?”

Painwheel looked like she had just been duped. Flinching, she looked down at the ground, away from Sol. “Creating soldiers. Superweapons strong enough to destroy the Skullgirl.”

“And that is?”

“...when a woman makes a wish on the Skull Heart, she becomes the Skullgirl- a monster far stronger than regular weapons.”

“So they turn people into weapons to fight it off?”

“Yes.” Painwheel held up an arm, showing off a bleeding slash that Sol had made. “I was an experiment. One of the few people that they could put Skullgirl blood into and stay alive. Then they jammed weapons into me and used mind control so I had to obey.”

Sol gestured to the helicopter-like blades. “Is that what this is?”

“They called it the Buer Drive.” She held up a hand, several needles piercing their way through the palm. “This is Gae Bolga. Synthetic parasites that I use to fight.”

“I don’t care.”

She flinched again, backing away. Instead of the swift pain that she was expecting, Sol knelt down in front of her. He extended an arm, something resembling a glint of sympathy in his expression.

“How old are you?”

“S-sixteen.”

“Sixteen.” The look in his eyes was pure, unfettered disgust. “A little kid, and someone decided to cut you open and stuff you full of weapons.”

Painwheel cast her vision to the ground. As Sol looked at her, he noticed that there was a visible edge to the dark, stitched-up plane of what he had thought was her face. “Is that a mask?”

“Yeah.” She kept her eyes focused downward. “I’m not supposed to take it off.”

“Why not?”

“I was told not to. And- and my face is scary. I don’t want to scare you.”

The man scoffed. “Trust me kid, I’ve seen it all. I doubt anything you do can freak me out.”

She still looked wary. Sol sighed. “If you’re really worried about scaring me, I can show you something scarier. Would that make you feel better?”

“I-I dunno. Maybe.”

“Alright, then.” He undid the latches on his metal headpiece, letting it fall off into his hand. He pressed his eyes shut, feeling familiar waves of energy wash over him as he stopped trying to shut them out. “Dragon Install!”

He could feel the heat radiating off of his body, along with the mild haziness that almost felt like a high. He knew that it was supposed to entice him into falling into mindless destruction, but he had enough willpower to keep his mind from floating away.

Sol looked at Painwheel. “Feel better?”

“You…” She fumbled over her words. “You’re really...pretty.”

He stared at her for a moment. A rough, gravelly laugh dragged itself out of his throat.

“Well, you’re the first to think that.”

“...I guess...I guess I can show you, then.” Hesitantly, she reached up and pulled on the mask’s edge.

It took a bit of tugging for her to remove it, but Sol didn’t even flinch at the sight. A pair of cross-crossing scars split her face, thick and colored dark from what he could only assume were awkwardly-done stitches. Her hidden eyes were a bright red, extremely similar to a Gear’s, but they had a definite softness, more like a scared puppy than a mindless killing machine.

“Heh. Would’ja look at that.” Despite how low and growly his voice was in this form, he spoke softly. A clawed hand very delicately reached down to pat the girl’s head. “Just a little kid.”

“Huh?” His reaction seemed to have taken her off-guard again. “Y-you’re not scared?”

He scoffed. “You blind, kid? Look at me. Most folks’d run away screaming if they saw this. I’ve seen some crazy shit in my lifetime. You’re nowhere near the worst. Not even close.”

The girl was silent, expression unreadable as he reaffixed the headpiece and shifted back into his human skin. After a moment, Sol noticed her harsh breathing and shaking shoulders, and let out a sigh. “Look at you, Carol. You’re exhausted.”

Painwheel looked at Sol, then down to her own trembling hands. “So what?”

“I am, too.” That was unusual for him. But Painwheel had been remarkably strong, even if she hadn’t technically ‘won.’ “Why don’t we take a rest?”

Hesitantly, she took a few steps forward. “How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?”

“What would I even gain from that?” Painwheel looked unconvinced, so he gave another sigh and tried again. “Look. You can lie right down next to me, with your propeller thingy right up on my neck. If I try anything, you can just turn it on and take my head off. Sound good?”

Without waiting for an answer, he turned and found a tree to sit under. As he stretched out, he realized what a pleasant day it was. The wind ruffled the trees to the returning sound of birds.

Painwheel seemed to notice it too, looking around nervously before she approached Sol on the ground.

“You...promise you won’t hurt me?”

Normally, he’d offer sarcasm, but he couldn’t bring himself to. “Of course I won’t.”

Taking one last look-over, Painwheel leaned over to sit in the man’s lap. With the large blades in the way, she laid down on her side, curling up on Sol’s legs like a cat. The Buer Drive was placed against his chest.

She sent him an uncertain look, poorly veiled in anger. “I-if you even think about trying anything…”

“I’m not gonna. Now I dunno about you, but I have a hard time talking and sleeping at the same time.”

She fell asleep almost too quickly. As soon as she settled down properly in his lap, she was out like a light. Sol nudged her just slightly, to see if it was some sort of ruse, but no. Painwheel was completely unconscious on top of him.

“Carol?”

She made a soft little noise as she was nudged, but otherwise stayed fast asleep.

Sol smiled, leaning back against the tree and letting himself doze off.