Paste Search Dynamic
  2. A/N: Every chapter in the first arc has been reorganized and a new scene added to 0.3 as of Dec. 3, bare that in mind when viewing the comments.
  3. ***
  5. Early Morning, May 1st
  7. Talyor opened her eyes and immediately winced in pain. There were lights everywhere. Shining brighter than neon lights, glowing on every surface and in the air. Shades of pink, orange, white, red, and yellow filled the room with a discordant collection of painful sights. Some lights pulsed, others wafted through the air and twisted, a few tangled with one another. Close to none remained still. Her head and eyes burned from the information and intensity from the light.
  9. Palms pressed to her face, Taylor groaned as bent forward in the bed. Blocking out enough light that the searing pain began to relax into a dull ache. After a few minutes, she collected herself enough to cautiously look up again. Keeping her eyes half open and her vision unfocused seemed to do the trick. All the strange lights were gone. Frowning, she looked around.
  11. She was laying in a hospital bed, judging by the plain white linens and the hard plastic guard rails. A steady fast-paced beep came from somewhere behind her and off to her left side. A heart monitor. When she strained her ears to listen, she felt them twitch a little. That... did not feel right she decided. She reached up and touched her ears, confused to find them long a pointed. The sound of something dripping made her realize an IV had been stuck in her arm near her wrist. The pain of the tube hadn’t registered with her until she noticed the needle stuck in her arm, now joining the ache of her head as a pair of strange pains. More faintly, she heard voices and shoes scuffing the floor. Someone heaved sighed and she heard it. Papers shuffling, electric hums, door hinges, and more all coming to her at once as if they were taking place in this very room. Taylor’s breathing became labored as her head throbbed. When her mouth opened, strange tastes flowed into her mouth. Immediately she closed her mouth and the smells faded. Taylor attempted to relax everything else. Her eyes half-lidded, she gently raised her hands and messaged her ears until the noises didn’t quite bother her. The colors had faded, growing fainter as she continued to get used to the feeling of relaxing her own vision. After several minutes of trying different techniques, she eventually found a way to open her eyes completely.
  13. The heartbeat monitor’s high pitched beep slower as Taylor finally sat up and took in her surroundings fully. It was a hospital room, or at least similar to one. There was no window, and the room had only here bed, two chairs near it, and two white doors matching the room's interior. A complete lack of any sort of decoration of curtains or anything to break up the plain empty feeling of the room made it feel like a cell more than anything.
  15. The door opened and Taylor attempted to turn towards it, only to wince in pain. All of her muscles were sore like she had never felt before. She looked down at her arms as if expecting them to be bruised. Only to be caught off guard by what she did see.
  17. “Taylor,” a gentle woman's voice called softly from across the room. “Glad to see your wake, are you feeling alright?”
  19. Taylor drew in a shaky breath and slowly looked up at the woman. Her deep violet irises looked at the doctor as she held out an arm, deep green scales seemed to absorb all light where they covered her arms. They started halfway up her forearm, covering only the top portion before enveloping her whole bicep. The shade of green was so dark that the scales on the otherwise of her arm, away from the light, seemed black.
  21. “What happened to me?” She asked, her voice catching in her throat. The heart monitor began to pick up again. The doctor, a tall and thin woman with short curly brown hair and tanned skin, glanced at the monitor and then back to Taylor.
  23. “You’ve had an accident. What’s known as a trigger event, and you’ve gained superpowers because of it.” The doctor spoke gently, but plainly. She walked across the floor, grabbing a chair from near the bed and moving it closer. She sat, smoothing the papers on a clipboard she carried. She was wearing a lab coat, but underneath wore a t-shirt with a logo Taylor felt like she recognized. A cape she thought she knew, but couldn’t grasp the name. “It’s not unheard of that power can change a person’s physical appearance. If you give me some time, I can explain it to you.”
  25. Taylor swallowed and nodded, but her heart rate did not slow.
  27. “My name is Rose. Donley. Can you… remember your name?”
  29. “Taylor Hebert.” Her response came hesitantly as she wrung her hands together in her lap. She fidgeted uncomfortably.
  31. Rose pulled a pen from her coat pocket. “And your mother and father’s names?”
  33. “Annette and Danny.”
  35. The doctor marked something on her clipboard. “What is the last thing you remember before you woke up here?”
  37. “I…” she started before trailing off. Her body stilled for a long time while she thought. Eventually, she spoke again and the fidgeting continued. “I think I was coming home from a summer camp of some kind, but I don’t think that’s right.”
  39. “Can you explain?” Rose asked, pen hovering just above the paper. A hint of trepidation leaked into her voice but went unnoticed by Taylor.
  41. “It feels like that happened a long time ago, but also recently.”
  43. “Would you be able to tell me the last thing you ate?”
  45. There was another long pause, and then she shook her head. “Sorry, no.”
  47. “Is there anything you can remember, anything at all? As recently as you can manage, please.”
  49. “... There are a few things,” Taylor admitted. “Small, like a gift I got once or finding a dollar on the ground. I’m trying, but it’s hard to just try and remember things for the sake of it. I-” Taylor frowned. “I think I remember leaving school early one day, but I don’t remember the school at all. I can’t think of the classes or people there except maybe… a computer? A computer class I think.” She shook her head and looked imploringly up at the doctor. “I’m sorry, but it all feels like it happened long ago.”
  51. “It’s okay sweetheart,” Rose soothed. She flipped a piece of paper and wrote something on the back of it. “Just one more question, if you don’t mind. Do you think you could do this math problem?” She turned the clipboard around and presented it to Taylor.
  53. “A math problem? I don’t understand.”
  55. The doctor explained. “It’s something a girl your age would have learned in class somewhat recently, within the last year.” Taylor’s eyebrows drew together and she frowned a bit more, but she took the board and pen. ‘How old am I’ was not a question she was ready to process. A minute or two passed before Taylor handed it back.
  57. “There, I’m pretty sure that’s right.”
  59. Rose looked it over and nodded. “Exactly right. Your memory seems spotty, but at least in regards to math, you seemed to have retained some information. There will have to be more tests to observe the extent of the lost, but it can wait. Now, I believe I owe you some explanation. Does the name Sophia Hess mean anything to you?” Taylor shook her head. Rose took a deep breath and then leaned back in her seat.
  61. “You and this girl, Sophia, were in a fight. We don’t know how it started, or exactly what happened. But our best guess is that you were severely injured and you triggered. That is to say, you gained superpowers. Do you understand that much?” Taylor gripped her bedsheets, looking at the scales on her arm. She didn’t respond. “We assume that it’s the power that healed you, but…”
  63. “But?” Taylor looking up, suddenly alert. Her eyes flashed and her vision suddenly shifted, filling her brain with all sorts of lights and movement. She squeezed her eyes tight and gestured to herself. “Look at my body!” She let out a nervous laugh, trembling just a little bit as she raised an arm for Rose to see. Her sleeve slid back a little, revealing the scales covering her bicep. “If my power didn’t do this, what did?”
  65. Rose took a breath. “We’re not sure, but we have reason to believe it might not have been the power. You see, there were others. Others who… had similar changes to you. We don’t fully understand what caused them, but it’s possible that your power is unrelated to your… physical condition.”
  67. Taylor shuddered a little, clutching the sheets harder than before. “You sound like you’re doing a really bad job to comfort me.”
  69. “I’m sorry Taylor,” Rose answered genuinely, a pained expression crossing her face. “How are you feeling?”
  71. “How am I feeling?” Taylor choked back a laugh. “I can’t remember what I ate last, or the school I’ve been attending, and my body is this- this- thing! And it’s not even my superpower? I don’t know what I’m feeling, but-” Taylor stopped herself there and shuddered, squeezing her eyes shut.
  73. “I’m sorry,” was all Rose could offer. She stood up and held her clipboard awkwardly in both hands. “How about I get someone to bring you some food while you rest. The PRT is doing everything it can to help you.”
  75. Taylor paused. “When can I leave?”
  77. Rose hesitated. “I don’t know. The PRT is going to want to run some tests, classify whatever abilities you have. And then they may talk to you.”
  79. “Are they going to ask me to join the Wards?” Taylor asked, her throat suddenly tight.
  81. The doctor hesitated a bit longer on the answer. “I… don’t know.”
  83. She seemed to consider that for a long moment before looking away from the doctor and at the far wall. As if afraid of what she was going to see. “You said there were others with changes like mine. Are they okay?”
  85. A long enough time passed that Taylor thought she might not answer. Then, with a reluctant sigh, Rose answered.
  87. “I can’t talk about other patient’s conditions.”
  89. “Ah,” Taylor seemed distant for a moment. “And, did you come in here without any precautions?”
  91. “... There are subtle Tinker tech deceives in the room and bed that, um, keeps people from panicking like they might if they woke up with handcuffs on.”
  93. “I understand,” Taylor murmured, implying more than what she said.
  94. ***
  95. "Okay, now bend your arm as far back as it can go."
  97. Taylor did as asked, only frowning a little. The room was large, longer than a basketball court with ceilings tall enough to accommodate the strange equipment that rose into the air. Everything in the room was white or polished stainless steel, with only the occasional discrepancy with odd bits of obvious Tinker tech. Devices with their own style or lack thereof in contrast to the standardized look everything else seemed to have. Taylor herself was sitting on what was, as far as she could tell, a plain padded examination bench. She wore a stretchy pair of shorts that ended far too soon down her thighs and were a size smaller she would have liked. They also gave her a sports bra that she found similarly uncomfortable. It didn’t help that they kept the room cold.
  99. But most of her discomfort was admittedly her own body. The scales on her arms didn’t end there. The dark green additions grew up her neck and across her collarbones, ending beneath her jugular where a tall collar might hide them. They coated the sides of her chest, ribcage, waist, and hips. Making something of a window of normal skin down the center of her body, bordered on three sides from her collar bone down to the beginning of her thighs. After that, the scales encased her legs until about halfway down her calf.
  101. The scales that took over half of her body might have been the most dramatic change, but there were others. Of the ones that could be seen, her ears had grown long and pointed, her eyes turned a deep violet, her fingernails were slightly longer with a deep purple hue, and hair had turned forest green. Of them all, that last one stung the most. The collection of weird changes would be almost bearable if she still had her mother’s hair. Something to root herself in. Instead, she was pretty sure even her proportions were different. Not in any extreme way, but she was very certain she had some curve where they’re hadn’t been before.
  103. The doctor, a short balding man with a wide face and humped nose, stood before her in a lab coat and a large device in his hand. It was about a foot long, held by black handles on each side. The side Taylor could see was a solid black plastic case. No lenses or other kind of senor was visible on the smooth cover. The doctor, however, raised his eyebrows at whatever it was he saw on his side of the device. He was pointing it at her elbow as Taylor slowly moved her arm from a right angle, to straight, and then even further. Without any sound or sign of discomfort, Taylor held her palm up to the ceiling and bent her elbow until the backs of her fingers touched her knee. Bent back as far as she could make it, she then rotated the forelimb in a circular motion at her elbow. It took focus and effort to make it move like that. It felt as though there was a thick rubber band attached to her hand pulling against her.
  105. "The range of motion in your joints is rather impressive." Doctor Trebish spoke with an odd sort of distance to his tone, as if he were speaking to his device instead of her. "Somewhat shared by your spine. Bone structure is similar to human, but with odd irregularities."
  107. "What does that mean?" Taylor asked in a tired tone. She had been here for hours with Trebish, testing nonstop through lunch. One test made her run as hard as she could on a treadmill with a mask put over her mouth and nose. That had worn her out. The test happened over two hours ago. Every test result prompted another test, usually in the same vein as the last. She had scales? What were they made of? How hard were they? What kinds of stress can they undergo? How do they react to heat? Electricity? Radiation? And on and on, each part of her body using a different machine or method. It was draining.
  109. Trebish fixed her with a pleasant smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. "It means that you would be a marvel contortionist." She didn't give him a smile, despite his attempt at lightening the mood. He looked at her a moment more as he tried to let his smile sink in, then he began again. "Your joints and vertebrae have been restructured to varying degrees to allow you to bent at extreme angles. The only joints that haven't been altered, oddly enough, are your ankles."
  111. "I see." She mentally braced herself for the next question she was going to ask. "And which victim did I give that?"
  113. The doctor seemed caught off guard by the question, even though it hadn't been the first time she had asked. Taylor knew they weren't supposed to tell her anything, but she wanted to know. The fact they didn’t let anything slip bothered her.
  115. “Look,” Trebish began with a shake of his head, setting his device to the side. He grabbed Taylor by the shoulders in an unusual display of direct attention from him. “I can only imagine the things going through your mind at the moment, but between you and me?” He smiled reassuringly, this time the expression seeming more genuine. “No one knows what happens, and most people don’t think you did a thing wrong. And,” he leaned in a little closer. “I’m not supposed to tell who anything about it, but all the signs suggest they’ll all live and make a full recovery. That’s got to be good to hear, yeah?”
  117. She appreciated the attempt he gave to reassure her, so she offered a little smile. He seemed to brighten. “Sorry,” Taylor replied with a bit of a mumble.
  119. “It’s alright, this is all kind of unusual. Most of the Wards have their powers for at least a few weeks before they end up here. And then it’s not even learning new things, but to get a rating for their files.” He seemed to debate something for a moment, then caved. “Here, how about we take a little break. I’ll explain what I’m allowed to, maybe a few things I’m not.” He winked in an exaggerated motion. “Then we’ll get back to testing, alright?”
  121. “Okay,” Taylor answered halfheartedly. She wondered if she could get him to squeeze in time for lunch before they got started again. Trebish strode across the floor and grabbed a black rolling chair from a table and wheeled it over. He faced its back to her and sat in the chair backward, crossing his arms over the top.
  123. “The best way for the PRT to make a clear determination on what happened that night is to figure out what your power is. Which is a little difficult.” He gave a small nod downward to indicate her body. Taylor ran her fingers along her arms, feeling the smooth scales underneath them. “Do you remember the first thing we did when you got in here?”
  125. “You examined all my mutations,” Taylor answered. It seemed like a simple thing, but now she wished it had all been that short and simple.
  127. Trebish nodded. “We’re working under the assumption that there are seven changes that are not your power.”
  129. Taylor frowned deeply at him. “But how would these changes not be part of my power, what else would they be?”
  131. “Well, as best we can tell, a survival mechanism.” He licked his lips and thought for a moment then tapped the side of his head. “Let me see if I can explain it without confusing you or revealing too much I’m not supposed to.” He thought for a moment then smiled.
  133. “It’s common knowledge among the experts that when someone triggers, even if their power doesn’t include a healing factor, they are often healed at least somewhat of injuries occurring before the trigger. What we think, based on your brain scans, the brain scans of the others, and the differences between your mutations and theirs, is that your power was broken before you triggered. Then when you did, your power didn’t know how to heal your injuries.”
  135. “So…” Taylor began slowly, struggling with the concept. “You think my power… experimented on others to heal me?” She looked at him questioningly. Trebish nodded.
  137. “There’s a lot of technical mambo jumbo that would only be confusing, but yes, we have reason to believe just that. And with that being the case, the seven changes to your body would be completely irrelevant to watch your power actually do.”
  139. “So now that you know I have seven mutations,” Taylor watched his face to make sure she got the number right, “You just have to test for anything not involving them right? Why all the stress testing of these scales or whatever the heck these are,” Taylor gestured to herself up and down to indicate them.
  141. “No so simple,” he answered. “What if you have durability as part of your power? How would distinguish that between the strength of these scales if we don’t test the scales separately? But, nearly all that is done. Would you like to know what we’ve learned so far?”
  143. Taylor hesitated, then nodded. He gave her a warm look and continued. “So yes, seven changes as far as we can tell. You have long green hair that seems capable of a little photosynthesis.”
  145. Taylor’s eye widened. “I absorb energy from the sun?”
  147. “Only a little bit,” Trebish assured her with a chuckle. “And it’s impossible to tell how the energy is getting used. It could perk you up in the morning, or it could fuel one of your other changes. Like your eyes.” He tapped the side of his head near his temple knowingly. “They did more than change color, they seem to be capable of seeing forms of energy as visual light.”
  149. “What about these?” Taylor tentatively reached up and touched her ears. Of all the changes, this one she felt would be the most problematic for her. Whereas her scales could be covered with long clothing, and her hair could be explained away with dye or something, there was no hiding these. They struck out of her head, angled slightly backward. They came to a long point, making them three times the length of a normal ear. It looked almost comical.
  151. “A pretty simple one, your ears are far more capable of hearing small and distant noises. They’re sensitive, but not overly so. Sounds that always bothered you will bother you more, sounds that didn’t bother you before now might. Not much beyond that.”
  153. “Do they have to be so…” She trailed off, still playing with the end of one ear with a finger. Trebish gave a soft smile.
  155. “I don't know, but they do seem to help you express yourself. I’ve noticed when you blush they flush as well. They also move up and down if you’re listening, or a little happy.”
  157. “Happy?”
  159. “I might have seen them raise a bit when I mentioned we were taking a break.” At the realization of that, she flushed just a little and felt her ear warm in her fingers. That only made her blush harder. It had to look ridiculous, she was sure.
  161. “Which brings us to your mouth. Your teeth are stronger, sharper. And your tongue can taste the air in addition to its added length. Not too much to say there, though it's interesting. Your fingernails, on the other hand, are quite the enigma to me. They’re stronger than your scales, the same dark purple as your eyes, and resistant to scratching. If they grow like normal nails, we might have a bit a time trying to trim them for you.” He gave her a wry smile. “As for the last two? Your scales and your joints. About your joints, although you can move them in odd ways you don’t really have the proper muscle structure to do so. You have an increased muscle and bone density, about thirty percent or so, that makes up for it a little bit. But I wouldn’t do anything too strenuous at an odd angle.
  163. “Now about your scales, something of a tricky situation. They cover roughly half of your body. Most of your arms and legs, continuing up your sides while leaving most of your torso. It covers your whole neck up to an inch and a half over your collar bone.”
  165. “How strong?” She asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
  167. “Not as strong as your fingernails have become, strangely enough, but I couldn’t say exactly. Let’s say, if you were punched, hit with anything blunt, or even cut at with a knife, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Anything trying to pierce through you though? Well, it might slow it down at best. So you won’t be catching bullets with them.”
  169. She was happy to note that the news didn’t interfere with any current plans she had.
  171. “So you know what the seven are,” Taylor pointed out. “Why not start testing me for anything that isn’t related?”
  173. He gave a knowing shake of his head. “If only if it were so easy. What if your power was a toughness of some kind? Or a sensory power? Without knowing the full limits of your body’s changes it would be rather hard to tell if you had a power like that. But at the very least, I’ve got some good news for you. We’ve finished the bulk of that testing, we’re ready to start searching for your real power. There is a theory on what that is, so we have a good place to start if you’re ready.”
  175. Taylor took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, she hadn’t been looking forward to that. Trebish paused getting out of his chair and shot her a sidelong glance.
  177. “Unless you’d like to grab something to eat first?” He asked innocently. This time, Taylor felt her ears perk up and immediately clapped her hands to her head to hide them. Trebish chuckled under his breath and she felt the heat rising up to her face.
  179. ***
  181. After a quick lunch, he Taylor led past the original testing room into a different part of the facility. Taylor was beginning to appreciate just how much of the building was underground after having gone up for lunch. Above, the hallways had been narrowed to accommodate less space on the street. There were multiple security checkpoints due to the wider variety of PRT staff moving about. Taylor had been given plain grey sweatpants and hoodie a few sizes too large and a featureless white mask that didn’t cover her chin to eat. Oddly enough, sitting at a strange cafeteria with strangers staring at her as she wore baggy clothing and a mask had been the most comfortable she felt all day.
  183. Trebish hadn’t taken the clothing away from her even though they had passed back into the restricted area where only he and a select few others were allowed. When she pointed that out to him he murmured distantly about needing them for the next test.
  185. He stopped in front of a plain white door with only the number four on a black plate above to distinguish it from others. Swiping a keycard over a slight indentation in the wall Taylor would have missed otherwise, the door opened to reveal a darkly lit room. Trebish led her inside, shooting back a reassuring smile to her.
  187. The room was narrow, and most of it taken up by several chairs bunched around a long window that took up most of the wall on the right side. While the room itself wasn’t lit, white light from the neighboring room penetrated the tinted glass enough to see. Taylor’s eyes widened as she saw a man in handcuffs. He wore an all-encompassing black helmet adorned with thin electric blue lines running along the edges. Besides that to cover his face, he wore white clothing with the word ‘Sp. Inmate’ printed on them. The links of his cuffs ran through a metal loop built into the table.
  189. “Taylor Hebert?” A male voice spoke, echoing in the room. Instinctively, Taylor looked around for the source only to realize it was coming from a speaker somewhere. “My name is Armsmaster, and I will be observing you for this next section.” His voice came out flat and authoritative. Taylor almost thought it was a bit robotic, but put it down to the speakers distorting his voice just slightly. “We have reason to believe your powers will have something to do with affecting other parahuman’s abilities. What’s known as a Trump power. For that reason, in the next room you can see a supervillain known as Leet. Please, look at him and do not do anything. Tell us if you think you could do something, but do not try and affect him in any way.”
  191. “I, uh,” Taylor blinked, processing what he said for a moment, then swallowed. She knew Leet, though only a little bit. A few glimpses at his streams with his teammate, but not much else. She recalled he liked costumes with video game themes. “I’ll do my best?” She offered, not sure what else to say. Glancing back at Trebish, he gave her a confident nod and gestured to the window.
  193. Moving slowly, Taylor pushed the chairs around the window out of the way and stepped up to the glass. Leet seemed bored, idly pulling on the links of his cuffs with a hand. She looked at him carefully, searching inwardly if she felt anything different. She was sort of expecting it to be like a magic power in a book she read. An ability she felt inside that she could grasp. But there was nothing there.
  195. After a few minutes of staring, Trebish cleared his throat. “Taylor? Are you getting anything?”
  197. She frowned, tilting her head a little. “Not really, but let me try…” On a whim, she blinked and really Looked with her eyes. She winced as the world burst into a cacophony of intense vibrant light. This time, she was at least ready for it. The times she had used it in testing with Trebish meant she was starting to be able to block out some of the background energies she saw. It wasn’t easy though.
  199. In the dazzling collections of lights, there was one dark spot. She had never seen a dark spot before. Her eyes focused in on it. There, hovering just above Leet’s head was a shape. It looked like a dark blue cube, but it was shrouded by a shimmering haze like the air around it was hot. Looking closer, she saw a lighter blue color flowing out of Leet, disappearing into the air. Some went into the hazy shape, most just swirled in the air before disappearing in the other lights.
  201. Taylor’s fingers twitched.
  203. “I see something,” she finally stated after a long silence. Trebish took a step towards her, eyebrows raised in a hopeful expression. He pulled out a pen pad from his pocket.
  205. “Yes? What is it?”
  207. “His power,” she answered without thinking, only realizing it was true after she had said it. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as her stare drank in the room before her. “He’s got kind of a poor connection to it. And there is something missing? Maybe?” She wasn’t sure what gave her that impression at first, but then she saw the cube was rotating slowly. On the other face, beyond the haze, she could see dark shadows on it. Something missing or broken perhaps?
  209. “Without attempting to do so,” Armsmaster’s voice cut in, sounding more tense than before, “Is there anything you could do from where your standing?”
  211. “From here?” Taylor frowned. When she spoke again, her voice was distant. “No. If I could touch him I think I could maybe effect that light.” She reached out, touching a finger to the glass. “That… aura about him. It seems, off. I want to look at him.” She pressed against the window, unaware all five fingernails were digging into the glass. When cracks began to form, Trebish started.
  213. “Taylor, what are you doing? Take your hand away from the glass!”
  215. “I want a closer look at him,” she murmured. She wasn’t blinking.
  217. “Taylor!” Trebish grabbed her by the shoulder and yanked her back. Taylor stumbled back, blinking rapidly as she struggled for her balance. Trebish saw for just a moment her violet eyes glowing intensely before the neon-colored light faded as she blinked it away.
  219. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, putting her hands to her eyes and messaging them with her palms. “It was just so… interesting for a moment. I felt like I was lost in a good book. Forgot where I was.”
  221. “It’s alright, it's just a little crack in the glass,” Trebish answered her, smiling lightly.
  223. “Miss Hebert.” Armsmaster’s voice caught the attention of the two in the room. “Are you absolutely certain there was no possible way you could have done anythingslept well the one night to him from a distance?”
  225. She hesitated. “No, I don’t think so.”
  227. There was a pause on his end. “Good. Trebish, bring Miss Hebert up to the main conference room.”
  229. “Now?” He asked, eyes widening slightly. “We have to test this new power some more. Find out-”
  231. “It can wait,” the hero cut him off. “There has been a development. We need her brought up right away, her father is already here.”
  233. ***
  235. “Taylor!” Danny exclaimed in relief as his daughter entered the room. Her face brightened with a smile. Gingerly, she raised arms as if unsure she should be. Danny paused for a moment, caught off guard by his daughter’s eyes, hair, and even teeth as they gleamed pure white when she smiled. But he got over it quickly and wrapped her in a hug. Her squeeze was tighter than he remembered.
  237. “How have you been? They haven’t been treating you like a criminal or anything, right?”
  239. “No Dad, I’m fine.” She let out a sigh of relief and pulled back, giving her father an awkward smile. She raised a hand, showing both her unique colored nails and scales. “Guess I’ve got superpowers now. Surprise.” She wiggled her fingers. Despite himself, Danny laughed. He pulled her back into another quick hug before letting go again. His gaze moved over her for a moment, taking in her changes. The smile he wore wavered for a moment as he looked her over, lingering a bit longer on her ears and hair. It seemed like he was going to say something but then bit the statement back. Instead of going with,
  241. “I’m glad you’re okay.” He offered her a tired smile. It didn’t look like he had slept well on the one night she had stayed here. She was glad to finally be able to really talk with him, the two phone calls she had been allowed was restricted heavily. As much to prevent him from telling her any important details as the other way around. But she was was more relieved he had recognized her on sight. It was more reassuring than anything else had been. “So what do we do know?”
  243. “That,” Piggot’s voice cut in, “Is a matter of some discussion. Please, sit.” She walked into the room, a thin stack of papers in her hand. Three PRT officers filed in behind her, but remained by the door as she took a seat at the long oval conference table that took up most of the room. Fixing the two of them with an unreadable look when they hesitated to sit with her. After a moment, Danny put a hand to Taylor’s back and guided her gently to one of the chairs across from Piggot.
  245. As soon as they were both sitting, Piggot began. Addressing her father primarily. “Mr. Hebert, I understand the situation has already been described to you.”
  247. “Uh, yes.” He answered slowly.
  249. Piggot nodded and glanced at Taylor. “I understand you have some memory issues, is this correct?” Taylor nodded. Piggot pursed her lips. “Then allow me to explain where I do not believe you have been fully informed. Two nights ago, at approximately 10 PM, you attacked Sophia Hess and Madison Clements. Clements suffered a serious injury due to this attack, and Hess was incapacitated. However,” Piggot held up a hand as Danny began to speak. “Part of the assault was caught on camera. And we can say, in that portion alone, Hess responded with more force than necessary. She could be seen holding Taylor by the hair, striking her in the face, and doing various other things before the struggle took them out of sight of the camera.” Piggot laced her fingered together in front of her and looked at them seriously, making sure they paid extra attention to her next statement.
  251. “It is our assumption that due to Sophia Hess’s excessive use of force in response to you is what caused you to trigger. A little known side effect of some trigger events is a minot healing factor that is not part of the initial power. After some conference with some experts, we believe the damage to Taylor’s brain, specifically a portion relating to powers known as the Corna Pollentia, was damaged at the moment of triggering. Resulting in what happened next.
  253. “Seven people.” Piggot declared. Taylor wilted at the statement, looking down and her ears drooping. Danny was caught between staring blankly at Piggot and looking troubled. He glanced at Taylor and put a hand on her shoulder squeezing gently. “Seven people within ten miles of the fight were suddenly struck by rapid mutations. Almost all of these resulted in debilitating side effects and nearly killed each of them, saved only by rapid medical treatment. They are all currently stable, but it remains to be seen what condition they’ll be in. Sophia Hess was also incapacitated and suffered unique damage.”
  255. “A short time ago, with the results of your test and a small breakthrough in our investigation of that night, we’ve come to a conclusion on what happened.” Someone else might have paused for effect, but Taylor was thankful Piggot didn’t seem the kind to hold the suspension over them. “It's been determined that in regards to the seven victims the incident will be considered to be a complete accident that was out of Ms. Hebert’s control.”
  257. Danny let out an audible sigh of relief. Taylor’s feelings were more mixed, but she didn’t say anything. It was one thing not to remember any of these events, it was entirely different to have it said she attacked someone and didn’t remember it. She couldn’t even remember a time in her life she’d ever been physically aggressive, how did she go from that to attacking someone?
  259. “That’s not the end of it, unfortunately.” Her expression darkened as she looked between the two of them. “While we can conclude Taylor is innocent of that matter, there is another matter of attacking the Winslow students. On that, we have witness testimony it happened.”
  261. “Should I have my lawyer here?” Danny suddenly asked, immediately switching gears from elation to protectiveness. “And is one witness really evidence? Taylor would never intentionally hurt anyone, I find it hard to believe what you’re saying she did.”
  263. Piggot held up a calming hand. “I will assure you Mr. Hebert, nothing you say here is legally binding. I’m acting right now to make an offer before it goes that far. Please, listen to what I have to say, and if you don’t like it then you may contact your lawyer and we’ll handle this in a more official capacity.”
  265. Danny crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat, already not liking where this is going. “Continue,” he stated. His tone was almost demanding. Piggot paused and then did so.
  267. “Ms. Hess claims she was attacked by Taylor, and there is another girl who saw it and confirms the same thing. Taylor, as far as I understand it, you have no memory of that night at all, correct?”
  269. “I have no memory of a lot of things,” she answered cautiously. She didn’t like where this was going.
  271. “The point being, you can’t contradict these claims. We’ve searched for more evidence, all we found was a broken lock on the school’s baseball team equipment shed. It had your fingerprints on it.” Piggot leaned forward on the table, placing both her hands on it. “So Mr. Hebert, consider that if you were to go to a judge and he was presented with all of this, it's unlikely the court will see it differently. But worse than that, it's entirely possible that the court will want to review the seven related injuries and make a case for holding you responsible.”
  273. Danny’s eyes narrowed at her. “I thought you said it was an accident completely out of Taylor’s control.”
  275. “We do,” Piggot confirmed. “The PRT often views accidental deaths because of uncontrolled trigger events as out of the new cape’s hands. But that's only while the investigation is under our control. If it goes to a public court, under the pretense of your daughter assaulting another, an appeal can be made to bring the issue back up for review. And, despite supposed impartiality, it has to been noted that normal courts have a track record of harsh judgments in regards to parahumans. Even if the PRT threw its support behind her...” She trailed off, leaving the idea to hang in the air.
  277. “You said you had an offer,” Danny stated flatly. He was frowning deeply now, and not giving Piggot the same elated look from before. “What is it?”
  279. “If your daughter walks out of here today, she’ll be a civilian and the city will have to try her for assault,” Piggot stated. “Nothing I or anyone else in the PRT can do about that. However, if she walks out of here a Ward, it all remains in PRT jurisdiction.”
  281. With that statement, silence fell over the table as the other two processed what she said. Almost perfectly in tandem with each other, they both looked at the woman across the table with angry and furious expressions.
  283. “Are you trying to strong-arm me?” Taylor asked incredulously.
  285. “Is this how you get all your Wards? Extortion?” Danny demanded.
  287. Piggot held up a hand to try to silence them. “Please I am only-”
  289. “This is ridiculous!” Danny slapped a hand on the table. If Taylor hadn't been feeling similar, his anger would have startled her. “You accuse my daughter of attacking someone, and then suggest we better join your team or she’d be legally charged?! I think I’d rather try my luck in court.”
  291. “Enough!” Piggot snapped, standing up out of her chair. “I am just explaining the situation as it is and all your options. You can leave and best-case scenario, the absolute best-case scenario, she joins the Wards as part of her probation. Most likely it goes poorly for you. What I’m offering,” Piggot put one hand on her chest and one hand on the thin stack of papers she brought, “Is a way for your daughter to avoid any charges appearing on her permanent record by joining the Wards willingly as a full member. None of the restrictions she would get otherwise. Talk to each other about it, think it over. Let the front desk know your answer when you leave.” Piggot spun on a heel and stormed out of the room, leaving her little stack of papers behind.
  293. Danny and Taylor sat at the table, matching scowls.
  295. “I don’t like being forced.” Taylor began after a few minutes of angry silence. Her fingernails dug into her scales.
  297. “Me neither,” Danny grunted. “I thought the Wards was a hero team, not some upstart gang.” He drummed his fingers against the tabletop. “She made sure her way was the best option for us too. Damn.”
  299. “Irritating,” Taylor agreed, biting the inside of her mouth. Her sharp teeth made that a more risky move than it should be. They sat there for a while, contemplating what they were going to do. Taylor was the first one to reach across the table and start looking through the papers Piggot had left behind.
  301. Funny, if Piggot had just asked, Taylor could see herself agreeing to become a Ward. The idea of being a hero was appealing to her. Now she felt like she had been threatened and she was giving into it just by looking at the papers. The sensation she was giving into the power play made her feel more irritated, but she did her best to push it down. She wasn't considering it because Piggot forced her to.
  303. Maybe it was because she lost her memories of high school that warped her into someone who could attack two other girls, but the idea of being a hero, a Ward, was exciting in spite of Piggot. And, maybe it would work to balance out the lives of the seven people she had apparently changed.
  305. “I want to see they’re evidence,” her dad muttered, looking over the papers Taylor had passed him. “I’m no expert, but two witnesses and a broken lock doesn’t feel damning. Especially what she said about the video. Can you believe they have video of the other girl assaulting you and they believe you did it?” He shook the papers in his hand angrily.
  307. “Yeah, it doesn’t sound…” Taylor trailed off as she examined another section of Ward’s contract. “Hey, they want me to go back to school? Looking like this?”
  309. “And pay you minimum wage,” Danny grumbled, looking at another paper. “You would think those getting in the kind of danger capes do would make a little more.”
  311. “Looks like they’ve got some sort of trust fund thing set up,” Taylor pointed out, passing the corresponding paper to him. Danny took it a looked it over with a snort.
  313. “These terms are laughable. Look, they got strings attached to your school performance, your driving permit, cosmetic purchases, and…” Danny flipped through the same pages, “three more pages of things they want stipulations on? This is ridiculous. And they want permission to dock your pay as a form of punishment?”
  315. “Can they do that, when they already paying me the bare minimum?”
  317. Danny frowned. “I don’t know. It might be a formality they retain for all Wards, or it might mean docking this trust fund or any bonuses you get. If you get any bonuses. Either way…” He shook his head before lowering the papers. He looked at Taylor.
  319. “Look, um, this is all happening a little fast. I mean, Christ, it’s the first I’ve seen you in two days and now we’re wrapped up in all this. But, well, do you want this?”
  321. Taylor’s eyes widened. “You mean-”
  323. “The Wards,” he answered, nodding. “It sudden, but I mean, you don’t have to join the Wards. It’s up to you. But you’ve got powers now and I’m sure you’ll want to use them and I know I’ll…” he trailed off, but Taylor smiled.
  325. “Yes, of course, I want to be a Ward. But, ah,” she glanced at the now scattered contact. “Maybe make it so I don’t have to get to school, trying to hide… all this?” She reached up and tugged on her ear self-consciously and Danny smiled. He brought out a phone.
  327. “What are you doing?” She questioned curiously. Danny leaned back in his chair with a slightly smug expression.
  329. “I’m calling in a favor. I get the feeling they don’t want a trial, and that’s why they’re pushing so hard for you to just sign-on to avoid one. And they held you for over 48 hours without letting me see you, so I’m thinking we might have a bit of leverage here, especially if we threaten to go public with just how they’re trying to force this on you.”
  331. “You’re calling a lawyer?” Taylor asked. Danny smiled.
  333. “Not yet, better. I’m calling a union negotiator. See if we can’t fix this thing,” he gestured to the documents laid out on the table. “ and get it more to our liking. And if we have to go to court, I think we can. But first, they tried to twist our arms, let's see if we can’t do some twisting back, eh kiddo?”
  335. Taylor grinned as her father held the phone up to his ear.
  337.     #23
  339. Midmorning, May 1st
  341. Sophia bolted upright in bed, the restraints on her wrists snapping tight for a moment. With wide eyes and in a cold sweat, Sophia stared down at them. Electric, maybe Tinker tech, but more likely a magnetic lock of some kind. After a moment of blankness in her head, the memory of the night's events trickled into her mind. Her eyes widened and her heart rate monitor began to beat rapidly.
  343. They thought she did it, she immediately thought. She reached to grab her head, but the cuffs prevented her. She was under arrest, a step away from being sent to juvie. That bitch Hebert had probably already told them a bunch of lies they took as the words of a victim. It wasn’t fair. The one time she hadn’t actually done something and that was going to be what they nailed her on.
  345. She pulled on the cuffs harder on instinct, digging into her skin. The memories of that night played through her head as she tried to guess all the lies that Taylor probably told them. The heart monitor started beeping rapidly.
  347. Her power activated on instinct as her panic overwhelmed the knowledge of the electric restraints. She felt her body shift, but then something went wrong. Very wrong.
  349. It was like she was being stretched. It wasn’t pleasant, but at least it wasn't painful. It felt like her hold body was under this invisible strain that stretched and pulled her apart. Worse, she could feel her body drifting away from itself. Limbs and fingers spreading away from each other in a way that should have felt pain. The fact that it didn't was almost as scary. Looking down, she saw with rising panic her body wasn’t phasing like it should have been. She was turning into smoke.
  351. She jerked back like the sight of a swirling grey cloud had bit her. Only, her body didn’t jerk like she wanted, her muscles were wisps in the air. Instead, the intent to move made the cloud roll back across the bed and gather near the head board. She felt her sides spilling over the edges of the bed, sloughing onto the floor like a heavy fog. Her senses became confused with feeling of the cold metal of the bed frame and the smooth tiles of the floor. She tried to turn it off, but her power didn’t respond as it should. It wasn’t listening.
  353. No, that wasn’t true exactly. Fear burning in her mind, she tried to pull herself, her cloud, back into one space. Immediately it began to coalesce where Sophia felt like her chest was. When most of it had gathered she felt the familiar tug of her old power. She latched onto it and dropped onto the floor.
  355. Sophia Hess sat on the floor of a PRT infirmary room, clutching her knees to her chest and shivering. That’s how they found her when Piggot accessed the room’s security feed.
  357. “Hess?” The director started, uncertain for a rare moment. Sophia’s head snapped up, scanning the room and spotting a camera in the corner.
  359. “Director.” She scrambled to her feet, making her way for the camera.
  361. “How did you get out of your restraints? If you so much as step one-”
  363. “She attacked me!” Sophia screamed, getting as close to the camera as she could. “She came at me, with a bat! She was trying to kill me!”
  365. Piggot was silent for a long moment. When she did speak, it was slow as she gauged Sophia’s reaction with every word. “I’ve seen footage, Hess. You picked her up by the hair, and struck her in the face. Regardless of anything else, that was far beyond what could be considered self-defense.”
  367. Sophia’s eyes squeezed shut in a pain expression. Piggot could tell she didn’t say the next part easily. “I felt... Threatened. I only did what I thought would let me get away from her.”
  369. “Sophia, do you really expect anyone to believe that? She was considerably weaker than you.”
  371. “You didn’t see the look in her eyes,” she responded bluntly. “She had lost it, and fought like I had never seen anyone before. And you know what kinds of fights I’ve seen. Yes, I picked her up like you said and hit her. And she got back up!” Sophia slammed an open palm against the wall. “She fucked with my powers. I don’t think I can shift anymore. She did something to my head. I swear I didn’t start this. I didn’t even end it.”
  373. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
  375. Sophia looked up at the camera meaningfully. her face was a mixture of panic and worry. Surprising Piggot, she was so use to scowls and obstinate faces. “I passed out after I knocked her to the ground for the last time. My last memory is looking at her limp on the ground, and feel like something was being torn out of my skull. Next thing I know, I’m here and my power doesn’t fucking work!”
  377. ***
  379. Sophia sat at a stainless steel table in a plain room with tan walls and a single large one way mirror. An interrogation room so typical of what you’d see on television Sophia almost laughed when they put her in her. She didn’t though, she wasn’t in the mood. Her arms were crossed over her chest, no one feeling the need to restrain her even if they could. A similar parole officer sat on the other side of the table with a normal police officer standing in the corner. Here mostly for appearance's sake. Because parahumans were involved the normal police didn't need to do much besides stay informed. As far as he knew, she was just a troubled kid involved with the assault that led to the incident two days prior. Sophia was also confident he wasn’t aware her parole officer was appointed to her as one of the only people to know her full situation. Any PRT agents on the other side of the glass were clearly here because of the parahuman connection, and not because of her.
  381. Absently, Sophia wondered what new measures they were taking to prevent her from being able to escape.
  383. “Okay, Sophia, I believe we’re ready to begin,” the parole officer began. She was a tall, skinny woman with short blond hair and striking blue eyes. Her posture spoke of an ‘all business’ personality. Her eyes laid into Sophia while her face was mostly impassive, but Sophia detected the suspicion in them. Everyone gave her looks from the suspicious to the outright accusatory. It irked her.
  385. The officer rested her elbows on the table and interlaced her fingers. “Start from the beginning, what were you doing leading up to the altercation?”
  387. Sophia shrugged, looking determinedly at the table. “Hanging out with some friends around the school.”
  389. “At ten o’clock at night?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.
  391. “Yeah,” she responded immediately. “Track practice ran late, and I didn’t have anything going on the next day. Didn’t feel like going home, so we hung out.”
  393. “And what made you girls feel safe, being out like that in the city?”
  395. Sophia raised her gaze to meet her handler for the first time, looking at her sternly. “I can handle myself.”
  397. The lady’s lips pressed into a thin frown. “How exactly did you handle yourself that night?”
  399. This time, Sophia hesitated. “I… was walking. Away from school, finally headed home. When Taylor came out of nowhere. She got the jump on me, swinging that bat around like crazy.”
  401. “Out of nowhere,” she repeated, as if not quite believing it. “And what history do you and this Taylor Hebert have?”
  403. “Not a whole lot,” Sophia answered with a sigh. “I see her around school sometimes, but we don't talk. She’s an exfriend of one of my friends. We-” Sophia cut off when she felt something off. Like something was missing.
  405. She remembered her dealings with Taylor. Snide comments in the hallway, little bumps and shoves as they went past, the vandalization. Other things. There was a sense of satisfaction when she thought about them. Or at least, there normally was. Something was missing. The more she thought about it, the more she couldn’t really understand why she had been doing what she did to Taylor.
  407. Sophia knew she didn’t like her, she felt it every time she recalled how she looked walking around school. But for whatever reason, she couldn’t grasp why. There were plenty of people she could think of she didn’t like, but she had reasons. Their voice was annoying, they always blocked the halls by chatting, thought they looked tough just because they were in a gang. It was easier than blinking to think of people she didn’t like around school and why. But with Taylor, it was just… nothing. A lingering feeling of hatred with nothing to spur it onward. There was a strong feeling there was a justification, but she couldn't quite grasp it anymore.
  409. “That’s all?” The parole officer asked sharply. Sophia looked back up at her. Speaking slowly, she began to say things she hadn’t been meaning to say.
  411. “Not exactly.” She pursed her lips together. Why was she doing this? For Taylor’s benefit? No, she immediately dashed the thought from her mind and tried to crush it into dust. But then, why? For herself, maybe. Because she was confused and saying it out loud would help her understand, help her find that reason she couldn't grasp anymore. “We said stuff to her, a lot. Mean things, to hurt her feelings.”
  413. “Why would you do that?” The look the officer gave her a strange one. Sophia frowned as she struggled for an answer. Her gaze was locked on to her fidgeting hands in her lap.
  415. “I think we were trying to make her stronger. To get her to show some confidence. Look, is this really necessary?”
  417. The parole officer opened her mouth to speak, and then paused as if someone had interrupted her. She closed her mouth and leaned back in her seat, visibly changing gears.
  419. “No, I suppose that’s enough to go on,” she continued, eyeing Sophia suspiciously. “So, Taylor attacks you, then what?”
  421. She shrugged. “Then we fight, I don’t know? She hits me, I hit her, it ends with us both in a hospital room.”
  423. “Would you call what you did self-defense?”
  425. “Yes.”
  427. “Do you know some of the fight was caught on a house security feed? We have on camera you picking her up by the hair and punching her. Is that, self-defense?”
  429. Sophia internally winced. That little mistake was going to haunt her. “She attacked me, I got angry. She fought like crazy too. I got enough good hits in to make most people go down, or at least curl up or something. Nothing I did even slowed her down. After I grabbed her by that hair like that she kept attacking.”
  431. That much was true, enough so that Sophia felt confident saying it even if part of the fight was on camera. That night, Taylor was unrelenting no matter how many times Sophia laid her out on the ground.
  433. “I see.” The officer steepled her hands. “Can you give an accurate description of the injuries Taylor received when attacking you?”
  435. “Yes, um,” Sophia thought for a moment. “Once when she was on top of me I jammed my thumbs into her eyes. Once I wrestled the bat from her I hit her in the head a few times, as she had done to me,” Sophia quickly added, getting a cocked eyebrow in response from the officer. “Um, was hit each other, punches, scratches, just general brawling injuries. I think one of the hits with the bat made her mouth bleed.” That one was technically true, in reality Sophia knew Taylor has lost a few teeth. “Oh, when she still had the bat I bit her ear hard enough to draw blood. Then, the only thing I can think off was when I was trying to walk away, then she grabbed me by the ankle and wouldn’t let go. So I stomped on her hand and than tried to leave, to call the cops.” That last statement was a lie, she never had any intention to call the cops, but saying so made her look better, she thought.
  437. “Very good,” the officer nodded, her expression unreadable. “And just how did you under up unconscious?”
  439. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I felt something painful in my head, and then I passed out. Next thing I knew, I woke up in a bed.”
  441. “Thanks for your cooperation,” she lady stated, suddenly standing. “That’ll be all.”
  443. Sophia straightened in alarm. “What, that’s it?”
  445. “We interviewed some students around the school,” she replied, not looking at Sophia as she slowly moved for the door. “You and Taylor have a reputation. Taylor is known for being quiet, subdued. Not really the type to go out and attack someone in the middle of the night. With your record, I find it rather hard to buy into your version of events. Unless someone could confirm what happened then-”
  447. “Madison,” Sophia stated immediately, standing up in her chair. The other officer, who had been silent the entire discussion, moved away from the wall when Sophia moved. His hand instinctively went to his hip. Sophia dismissed him. “Madison Clements, she was there. In fact, Taylor hit her first before going after me. She saw it happen, just talk to her.”
  449. “Oh,” the officer was visibly surprised. “I don’t know why you didn’t mention that before but-”
  451. “There was never a chance,” Sophia interrupted. The officer shot her a sharp glance.
  453. “But if that is true, and this girl and corroborate what you say, then…” The officer seemed to think.
  455. “Then what?” Sophia demanded.
  457. “Then it wouldn’t be clear if you are guilty of any wrongdoing, we would need to review it. At worst though, if Hebert attacked you, then the worst you would be guilty of is antagonizing behaviour.”
  459. ***
  461. Two days later, Emma slipped up next to Sophia as she worked to open her locker, marveling at her.
  463. “I can’t believe they let you back to school already,” she stated unbelievably.
  465. “Not much left to do,” Sophia replied absently, jerking her locker open. A frown creased her face as she looked at the distinct lack of volume in the bag hanging and the low mound of papers at the bottom. Sophia shot a questioning glance at Emma. “Cleared out my locker?”
  467. “Just like you told me,” Emma said with a halfhearted sigh, more exaggerated than real. She was leaning against the other lockers, a loose bag hanging from her shoulders. Her makeup was put on a little heavy today. Sophia knew that to mean she had something planned today. She didn’t think Emma did it consciously, but it seemed she tried to make herself extra pretty on the days she went after girls with less fortunate features. “Madison let me know something happened, so I took the hint and got rid of your dirt. Phone too.”
  469. “You hid the phone?” Sophia was impressed. They had made the plans, but she never thought Emma would follow through on them as they said. She nodded disinterestedly, impatiently watching Sophia grab what she needed for classes.
  471. “Mads was really shaken up about something, convinced me to take it seriously. That’s and you didn’t answer either of your phones.” As she spoke, Emma dug in her bag and pulled out Sophia’s secret phone and tossed it to her. Sophia caught it and quickly looked it over. The phone was only for when she was out in costume and at home, it was a phone neither Sophia’s mom nor the Ward’s knew about. Half of her Ward’s pay went to it. A small price for a little bit of freedom to talk to Emma and Madison the way she wished.
  473. “Hm,” She pressed her lips together and then handed it back. “Better hold on to it. I think they’re done digging through my shit, but you never know.”
  475. “What did they find?” Curiosity touched her bored expression.
  477. Sophia’s face darkened. “Enough. Took me off the track team. Fuckers. They want to dock my pay, but think they can use it as a threat to twist my arm to get my grades up. Want me to get a B average before the semester’s over, can you fucking believe it.”
  479. “Yes. Are you ready yet?” Emma asked, rolling her eyes.
  481. “Yeah, whatever,” Sophia muttered, shutting the locker and shouldering her bag. “Where’s Madison.”
  483. Emma arched an eyebrow. “Still recovering, she said. That’s why I didn’t think you’d be back yet. She didn't tell you?”
  485. “Been busy,” she glowered. Emma grinned, as if she suddenly had a gift to show her.
  487. “Bad couple days huh? I think I got something that could make up for lost time.”
  489. Sophia cast her a sidelong glance, smirking. “Who’d you have in mind?”
  491. ***
  493. When lunchtime came, Sophia and Emma found their target on the far side of the school. Sitting with her back against the outside wall as the whole building shaded her. Sarah was a pudgy girl on the shorter side of things, and without awareness to realize that pigtails didn’t suit her round face. She wore shorts tight enough her heavyset thigh bulged out from under the hems. A boy was sitting next to her, a lanky boy with wild uncombed brown hair and a little bit of acne over his cheekbones.
  495. "Heyyy," Emma cooed as she led the way out to the pair. Her mouth twisted upwards into a knowing smile. Sarah jumped at the sound of the voice, and then scrambled to her feet when she saw Emma and Sophia started towards them. The boy looked at them wide-eyed and got to his feet as well. Slower, more carefully.
  497. "Nice pigtails, but I thought you were only supposed to have one." Emma maintained her warped smile as Sarah reddened slightly.
  499. "Fuck off," the other girl swore, stomping forward just a little. "We weren't bothering you."
  501. "Weren't you?" Emma asked innocently. "Trust me, you in those shorts bothers everyone."
  503. This time Sarah's face reddened more fully and she took a step forward. Sophia put herself between her and Emma, a smirk playing across her own face.
  505. "Careful Ems, charging hippos are almost as fast as humans."
  507. "Making fun of my weight, seriously?" Sarah did her best not to sound hurt, but her anger was more than telling. "Can’t even be original?"
  509. "Kind of hard to be original when you're such a boring person. Unless…" Emma cocked an eyebrow. "Micheal?"
  511. Sarah whirled around and gasped. The boy, Micheal was holding her book bag with a silly grin on his face. He strode forward, giving Sarah a wide berth as she gaped at him.
  513. "Micheal? Why would you-" Sarah was cut off when Emma started speaking. The book bag was in her hands now and she pawed through it lazily, as if the contents were unimportant to her.
  515. "Thank you, Micheal, I'll tell Julia she owes you a favor."
  517. A wicked grin spread over the boy's face. Emma's comment made Sophia look him over again. He wasn't a bad looking guy, if you got past the little bit of acne on his cheeks. Julia might even appreciate the opportunity. Or completely reject him for everyone else's amusement. The thought made Sophia smirked on instinct, but she didn't feel the sense of satisfaction.
  519. The brief smirk turned into a deep frown. Sophia looked back at Sarah as Emma continued to go through the girl’s things. The betrayal and anger on her face should have amused her. She looked at the bullied girl's expression harder. She was supposed to be feeling something. Why wasn't it there?
  521. "Oh," Emma intoned curiously. She withdrew a stack of papers and scanned them quickly, a smile becoming a grin. "You printed off erotica? And brought it to school?" She threw her head back and laughed. At that moment Sarah charged forward, opening her mouth to scream something. Reacting without thought, Sophia reached out and twisted one of her pigtails around a finger before gripping the full length of it and giving a sharp jerk. Sarah came to a halt, seemingly more confused than in pain. After a second, she swung her arm up to hit Sophia. The larger girl simply grabbed it and smoothly twisted it behind her back, not going far enough to hurt her.
  523. Emma was saying something, but Sophia wasn't listening. Her eyes were locked on where she held Sarah's pigtail. She felt nothing. Gritting her teeth, she chided herself. Sarah was weak, couldn't control her eating habits. Probably didn't exercise. Weak, prey, an easy target. It was her right, Sophia told herself, as the strong to eat the weak.
  525. But as she looked at Sarah's pigtail while Emma ready aloud some of the more embarrassing passages, Sophia didn't feel like she was holding onto prey. There was satisfaction with prey. A chase, a trap, and a reward. This? This was a teenage girl too stupid to not realize she looked ridiculous in her outfit. There was nothing for her in this.
  527. Sophia let go of her with a little push, heaving a sigh. "Give her the shitty fanfiction back, Emma."
  529. A confused frown formed on the other girl's face, like she was looking for Sophia's angle and not finding it. "Sophia?"
  531. "I'm bored, I thought you'd said you had something to 'make up for lost time'. I feel like I'm just wasting time."
  533. Emma hesitated for a long moment before tossing the papers over her shoulders and dropping the bag to the ground with a halfhearted smirk. "You're right, she's a waste of time."
  535. Sarah paused to shoot them each an angry glare before racing off after her papers, afraid someone else might discover them. She shouldn’t have bothered, in Sophia's opinion. The whole school would know about it before the day was over.
  537. "What was that?" Emma asked, her tone agitated.
  539. Sophia looked at way, back towards the entrances of the school. “I’m not in the mood Emma. Like I said, I was bored. Besides, my overlords probably want the school to watch me more closely. It was stupid to do this so soon after that shit with Taylor.”
  541. “I guess,” Emma admitted, suddenly looking a little embarrassed. “Then, did you want to go to the mall after school instead?”
  543. Sophia took in a deep breath and grimaced. “Can’t. I’m on punishment duty. Look, I’ll talk to you later. I’m… I want to get to class.” Emma looked on confused as Sopha walked away, staring down at the floor angrily.
  545. A few hours later, Sopha tapped her foot irritably under the desk as she waited for class to end. Impatiently. She sat slumped in her chair, one arm crossed over her stomach with the other outstretched over the desk’s top. Legs sticking out from under the desk and into the walkways on either side. Her eyes bore into the teacher, but as far back as she was in the classroom the aging history teacher didn’t notice. The man droned on in a monotone voice, holding a textbook in one hand as he slowly wrote notes on the whiteboard.
  547. She was trying to listen, knowing her future pay depended on her jumping a letter grade. But her mind kept going to what had happened earlier. It bothered her. It was something she knew she would have found entertaining just two days ago. But all of a sudden, it just didn’t.
  549. Eventually, the bell rang and everyone stood up to leave. Having done her level best to not look at the clock, she was caught off guard by the sound and began getting her stuff together while others left ahead of her. She wasn’t the only one. In the front corner of the room, farthest from the door, she noticed two boys laughing with one another. She knew them just a little bit. For a few months, Emma had made it her personal mission to get on their nerves but never succeeded. It never really mattered before, the two didn’t have a social circle outside of themselves.
  551. Sophia found herself walking towards them as they made their way out of the classroom. One boy was slightly above average in height with a wide build. He was overweight by at least a hundred pounds, if not more. The other one stood in stark contrast, shorter than she was with a skinny frame. He was already growing a small bit of facial hair under his shallow chin. He walked with a slight hunch, sticking his neck out as if to keep his chin from disappearing into his neck.
  553. When they stepped out into the hall, Sophia spoke. “Hey, you two.”
  555. They stopped talking to each other and looked back at her with blank expressions. Not understanding what she wanted, and not caring about who she was. That part got on her nerves, just a bit.
  557. “Uh, yeah?” The larger one asked.
  559. “I want your history notes.” Sophia crossed her arms, glaring at them.
  561. He blinked again at her. “Okay.” His response wasn’t questioning, or confused. Just a simple acknowledgment that he understood, but nothing else. Sophia got the impression that part of the reason these two didn’t have much of a social circle was back of him. She took a deep breath and held out a hand.
  563. “Give it.”
  565. He glanced down at her hand, and then back up to her. Cocking an eyebrow, he replied, “Why? I need those notes.” There was no irritation or attitude in his voice, it was plain he didn't understand the implicit threat. No wonder Emma struggled with him, he was too dense to pick up the hints.
  567. “You can have my notes,” the second kid offered, a silly grin plastered on his face. “But only if you do something for me first.” He gave an exaggerated wink.
  569. “I can twist your arms behind your back until they pop out of your sockets,” Sophia offered with a slight growl creeping into her voice.
  571. “Sounds kinky!” The boy waggled his eyebrows. “Though, I’d prefer if you started with my ankles. Makes walking painful the next day, give a guy something to look forward to the next day.”
  573. “Quit being weird Bernie,” the larger boy groaned, but he was grinning. That would be the second reason these two stuck to themselves.
  575. Sophia scowled at them. She reached out and grabbed the larger one by the shirt collar and tugged him closer. He outweighed Sophia, but it was clear he didn’t have experience leveraging that. He stumbled forward easily in her grip. Pulling his head down to her, she spoke harshly into his ears. “Shut up and give me the damn notes. I’ll even give them back to you, if I feel like it.”
  577. He glanced down at her grip. “Uh, no? Still kind of need my notes.”
  579. Sophia thought about twisting his ear, or grabbing his hair. He was a big guy, but he seemed like he’d push over without much effort on her part. It didn’t even seem like he grasped what she was doing, far from being angry or intimidated he simply seemed the slightest bit confused. His friend was still grinning. At best they both seemed indifferent, and that was pissing her off.
  581. Bernie leaned over and pretended to whisper in his friend’s ear while staying loud enough to be heard. “Say you’ll do it if she promises to spank you.”
  583. The big guy paused for a second, then looked at her. “I’ll, uh, do-”
  585. “Don’t finish that sentence,” she spat. She held onto him for a long moment, and then pushed him away with a sigh. She dug into her pocket and fished for a crumpled up note. “Give you five bucks if you just give me the fucking notes.” She held up the wadded up bill for him to see. He smiled and slipped his pack off his shoulders.
  587. After she had the notes and they were walking away, she heard the short one say, “You see the way she looked at me? It was like I was dirt to her, it was kind of hot.”
  589. The papers crumpled up in her fist and she took a step to go after him when she felt a hand grab her shoulder.
  591. “Sophia?” Emma asked. Her expression was utterly disbelieving. She looked like she wasn’t even sure it was Sophia was standing in front of her. “The hell was that? You could have kicked that guy’s ass if you wanted to.”
  593. “In the middle of the school hallway?” Sophia shot her a dry look. Emma rolled her eyes.
  595. “Not here, obviously. But why would you give Weirdo and the Perv money? Fuck, if you asked me we could have just taken their bags.”
  597. The line of questions caught Sophia off guard. Why hadn’t she done that? Not like they hadn’t done it before, it would have been easy. She shook her head, frowning.
  599. “I didn’t feel like it,” she answered dismissively. “I don’t feel like kicking anyone’s ass today, not when the teachers are supposed to be watching me.” Sophia nodded down the hall. One of the math teachers was standing at an intersection between hallways, her gaze scanning teenagers as they passed. The woman wasn't looking at them though. Perhaps unable to find Sophia among all the other students?
  601. Emma frowned, clearly not buying the excuse. But she waved it off and moved on.
  603. “Fine. I got something I want to pitch to you anyway.”
  605. “Do we got time for it?” Sophia crossed her arms, not liking where this was going.
  607. “It will only take a second, and you’re going to love it.” Emma’s frown shifted into a wicked grin in a moment. “You remember what you said at lunch, about Taylor apparently having lost her memories? Well what if I paid her a visit and…” Emma explained her plan to Sophia. She went wide-eyed at first, then glared at her.
  609. “No, fucking no.”
  611. Emma blinked, confused. “But it would work.”
  613. “It doesn’t matter, I’m not playing a part in that stupid fucking plan. It’s bad enough I’m being watched here at school, you know what they’d do if they found out I got close to Taylor like that?”
  615. “What the hell is up with you?” Emma demanded. “You’ve been fucking out of it since you got back. We don’t have to do this, but you don’t want to do anything else either. You gave those guys money for fucking notes. Something's up.” She crossed her arms in expectation of an answer. Sophia nearly rolled her eyes at her.
  617. “I’m just not in the mood,” Sophia insisted. “I’m already being punished, I don’t need to take stupid risks ontop of that.” She moved to walk forward, but as she passed Emma grabbed her wrist.
  619. “We don’t have to do all of that, we could just-”
  621. “Leave it alone, Emma.” The reply was far more curt than Sophia meant it, but her friend was beginning to piss her off. “I said I wasn’t in the mood. When I am, I’ll let you know.” She pulled her hand free of Emma’s grasp and stalked off, ignoring the wide-eyed expression she gave her.
  623. ***
  624. When Shadow Stalker entered Ward’s room, she felt a conversation suddenly hush as the three heroes in the room turned to her. They were gathered on the far side of the room where all the computers and monitors were mounted to be on full display for the tourists. It gave the whole room a more ‘base of operations’ feel than was strictly true. They relaxed here more often than not. Vista and Gallant were sitting in the chairs surrounding the largest screen. They stared at Shadow Stalker. Their masks were off, letting her see the accusatory looks they both gave her. Aegis stood in front of the two with a blue and white display of the city beside him. He was wearing his full costume, but she could almost feel the irritation radiating off him through his stance and how he didn’t blink as he glared under his mask. She pressed her lips together and took a stance, as if that would prepare her for what she was about to hear.
  626. “You’re late.” Aegis nearly growled. It was such a shift from the normal patience that it threw her off guard almost immediately. She glanced at the clock.
  628. “By five minutes.”
  630. “Thirteenth time this month.” Aegis’s fingers curled into a fist, squeezing the fabric of his costume hard enough it made a sound. “We’ve talked to you about it enough times. Now was a very bad day to do it again.” Shadow Stalker didn’t say anything, instead electing to stare at him silently while he waited for him to go on. He was silent for a full minute before he began again. “Monitor duty,” Aegis stated. She nodded, that punishment was about as predictable as it got. They all knew she hated that job, she wasn’t shy about complaining.
  632. “How long?” she replied shortly, intentionally breaking eye contact with Aegis like she was disinterested.
  634. “Two weeks, minimum,” he answered in a flat, agitated tone, clearly not impressed with her attitude. “Piggot gave me free rein to add on weeks as I see fit. If there is anything you don’t call, or you don’t inform us on patrol of, I’ll throw on another week until it sinks in. On top of that? Thirty hours of classes on how heroes are supposed to conduct themselves before you’ll even be allowed out in costume. Piggot doesn’t want you in combat situations until she says, so it will be only public appearances.”
  636. Shadow Stalker took a deep breath. Several things to say came to mind, but in a rare moment of restraint, she bit them back. However bitter she was to do it.
  638. “Anything else?”
  640. “Yeah, actually.” Aegis started walking across the room. “Piggot and I feel like letting you have crossbows has given you too much leeway for your violent tendencies. We don’t know what will give you, but you’ll be lucky if it's anything more than a slingshot. If that.”
  642. “Fine,” she finally snapped with a scowl. “I’ll get on the fucking monitors, and do all that other shit. We good?”
  644. She regretted the words almost as soon as she said them. The little bit of skin she could see around his eyes flushed red and he drew a breath so sharp she swore she almost felt the breeze.
  646. “No Sophia, we’re not good. You’re-” He stopped himself, thinking better of what he was saying. He looked her up and down one last time, then turned on a heel.
  648. “Remember,” he scolded as he walked away from her. “Every little screw up from here on out, I’ll tack on a week. Two if you annoy me. I’m allowed to go up to a year, don’t test me.” He turned his gaze towards the two silent Wards as he reached a door on the far wall. “I’m getting a drink, we’ll finish the brief in a moment.” He stepped out, closing the door behind him a little harder than necessary.
  650. Before the two of them could turn their attention to her, Shadow Stalker swept toward her small room and made a show of shutting the door behind her. She stood frozen on the other side for a moment, imagining the two staring at her door before looking at each other. When she thought their attention would be away from her, she let the door open just a crack.
  652. Sophia tore her hood down and flopped onto her bed, pulling off her mask in the same motion. Her foot moved back and forth rapidly at the end of the bed like her irritation was trying to escape through it. But angry as she was, she didn’t move as she heard voices coming through the crack in her door.
  654. “I don’t think I’ve seen him that worked up before,” Gallant said, uncertainty creeping into his voice.
  656. “He’s got a good reason.” Vista’s response was dismissive. “After what she admitted to, and then the little bit they found? Not to mention, what they conveniently couldn’t seem to find.”
  658. “I know, but he wasn’t annoyed at all before she came in here. It was like just seeing her flipped a switch in him.”
  660. “Shouldn’t it? Here we are, working hard, investigating the thing with the Merchants. And the crossbow bully comes walking in here like everything is normal. It pisses me off too.”
  662. “I know what you mean.” Gallant paused for a long moment. “Doesn’t it seem a little spiteful though? She was attacked, and we all heard how it might have cost her her power.”
  664. “So what?” her voice suddenly took a hostile tone. “She bullied that girl. If she lost her power because the girl fought back, then she got what was coming to her.”
  666. “You think being mean is a reason to lose your powers?” Gallant asked the question, but it was clear by his tone he was having a hard time advocating for Sophia even in this small way. He never said he didn’t agree with the punishment, it was a matter of severity to him. Typical for him to be obsessed with the justice of it all.
  668. “It’s not just about her being mean Gallant, we all knew she was. She joined the Ward’s because she nearly killed a guy. Now we find out she bullied a girl to the point she thought attacking Sophia was a good idea? Gallant, we’re supposed to be heroes.”
  670. There was the sound of a light thumping. Gallant patting her back, she speculated.
  672. “I know. Sophia… never really wanted to be a part of the Wards.”
  674. “She acts like a villain.”
  676. Sophia closed her eyes, letting herself become oblivious to the conversation. She was at a lost and let the words tumble in her head unsure what to make of them. What was she getting from this? A long time ago, she went out on her own and fought in the streets by herself. She remembered she enjoyed it. A lot. But just like at school, the reason was gone.
  678. No, it wasn’t quite accurate to say she couldn’t remember her reasons. Just that, the feeling behind them was gone. She held her mask up and looked at it. A stern woman’s expression stared back. Every part of the design of her costume was to intimidate and conceal. For what purpose? Well, to scare people really. That much she could still appreciate. But scare who? The fact she couldn’t immediately find an answer bothered her.
  680. She didn’t feel like herself. She didn’t feel like a hero, and was sure everyone else thought the same. That wouldn’t have bothered her a few days ago, why did it now?
  682. The idea almost slipped passed, but she latched on to it. She wouldn’t have cared if people thought she was a villain before, now she did. What changed?
  684. She had lost her power as it was. She had been beaten by Taylor of all people. She was weak. And she hated feeling weak.
  686.     #48
  688. Taylor smiled as the smell of bacon wafted in the air. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure her dad hadn’t come into the kitchen before sticking her tongue out. The taste of bacon was in the air, making her mouth water as she probed its scent with the tip of her tongue. It was an odd experience, but an enjoyable one.
  690. In the other room, she could hear her father talking sternly into the phone as he paced around the room. He didn’t sound angry to her, in fact, he sounded almost smug at times. It was the third day he had been having a phone conference with the PRT. In a technical sense, they had accepted the offered position on the Wards, but her dad wanted to negotiate the details. The first day Taylor could hear Piggot’s voice in the conversation. After that, she had left it to her representatives. Taylor had stopped straining her ears to Listen about halfway through the second day, it was mostly back and forth for hours until someone ceded the smallest bit of ground. Then it was more of the same until the call finished, taking a break before doing it all again the next day. Instead, she focused on lunch.
  692. She had noticed that she had something of an appetite since being home. Being too nervous every day she was at the PRT she didn’t eat quite as much. But now she felt her stomach growling deeply as she slid an egg over a thick hamburger.
  694. Danny entered the room with a sigh and pressed a button before putting the phone back on its charging station. He was still wearing his work clothes, having only just come home and immediately started a conference call.
  696. “Smells good.” He made a show of sniffing the air.
  698. “Well, it’s done,” she replied, smiling. She moved each stack of patty, bacon, and egg over to a set of bread slices she had prepared. A small bag of chips, the kind bought in bulk in big cardboard boxes, sat next to the plate. Danny raised an eyebrow at his daughter as he took a plate. “Sure you’re going to eat all this?”
  700. “Yeah, I’m feeling hungry,” she offered. Sitting down at the table, she noticed he was fixing her odd expression. “What?”
  702. “You’ve been feeling rather hungry ever since you got home. And you haven’t left the house at all, something up?”
  704. Taylor hesitated for a moment, out of habit more than anything. After a second to think, she realized she didn’t really have to hide anything from him. He already knew she had powers, and the changes she had because of them.
  706. “My power, I think.” She told him, picking up the burger in both hands. “I don’t know if I put on weight like I used to, kind of like how the power changed my shape a bit.” That had been the first of a lot of shocks as all the changes were uncovered. It wasn’t a significant change, but her hips were a little wider and all her stomach fat was gone. Her shoulders were also just a bit wider, giving off the impression of a more hourglass figure from the back. It didn’t change nearly enough to keep her from looking spindly, but it was noticeable.
  708. “Ah.” He bit into his burger, putting a brief pause to the conversation. She was glad he took all this in stride, now at least. The first day had been filled with pausing and hesitation every time the powers were brought up.
  710. As she bit into her own burger, she enjoyed the unique sensation of her teeth shearing through the thick stack of foods. There was no resistance, no effect of the ingredients getting squished before the teeth cut through them. They passed through smoothly like warm chocolate, giving her a bit more of a mouthful than she was ready to handle.
  712. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Danny said when he finished chewing. He gave her a wide smile, the kind usually given when someone you haven’t seen for a few weeks finally returns home. Relief and happiness rolled into a grateful look. “I haven’t seen you looking this upbeat for a while.”
  714. “Really?” Taylor asked, raising an eyebrow. She didn’t remember a lot of the last year, let alone the last couple of weeks, but it never occurred to her that she had been unhappy at that time.
  716. “Well, yeah,” he began slowly. A grimace crept across his face like he almost regretted that he brought it up. “You’d been kind of withdrawn. Not talkative, or… positive about much, you know? I always thought it had something to do with school, but you never said anything so…” He trailed off as he realized the connection he had drawn between what he had said and the girl Taylor had attacked. They were both silent for a minute as that hung in the air. She didn’t know what to think about it. School was as much a mystery to her as anything else but had it really been going that badly?
  718. It must have if she attacked that girl over it.
  720. “So what did the PRT say today?” Taylor asked, ready to steer the conversation in a new direction.
  722. Danny seemed to relax with the question. “We got them to relent on their weird school requirements. Can you believe they wanted you to go back to Winslow with all those physical changes? Like that wouldn’t risk getting you exposed each day.”
  724. She nodded. It had been in the documents Piggot had left them to read over, but she hadn’t quite believed that one when she saw it. “What did they expect me to do? Dye my hair and pin my ears back?”
  726. Danny grinned. “Tape, if you can believe it. They suggested you wrap your arms in bandages in case someone pulled your sleeves back, and that you paint your nails. Maybe even get colored contacts to help hide those.” He pointed at her eyes with a pinkie, the rest of his hand occupied with his food.
  728. Taylor rolled her eyes but smiled. “I can’t believe you’re able to talk sense into them. I always thought agencies like that didn’t do anything unless you have a team of lawyers.”
  730. “That was their mistake, I have something better than lawyers.” He winked at her. “Union reps. They probably thought because I wasn’t likely going to drop money on a lawyer for a big legal battle, they could bowl over us. Might have worked, if we were some other family. I’ve been calling in some favors though and I think they’re the ones bleeding cash fighting it. There are a few more points I think we can get them to budge on before we finally accept. I might have dropped the fact I’ve talked with the Youth Guard today to scare them a little bit. If they come on to consult...”
  732. Taylor smiled as he went on. It felt so… refreshing for some reason. To sit across the table from her father, eating, laughing. The odder elements seemed more distant as she was able to relax and listen. Like letting go after not realizing you had tensed up, the simple act of smiling as her father talked was something she reveled in. She could tell it hadn’t been like this for a long time.
  734. “Well,” Danny began, standing up and grabbing his plate. “I think I’m going to watch some TV before turning in for the night. Thanks for dinner, and I will see you-” he winked at her, “tomorrow, super kiddo.”
  736. It took every ounce of will power for Taylor to suppress a groan and give him a pained smile instead. Finished with her food, she retreated upstairs to her room. Slipping inside, she had a difficult choice to make. Because there had been something the PRT forgot to account for while testing her that made her first night home extremely dull. She didn’t need to sleep.
  738. She looked around at her room and placed her hands on her hips. It was a complete mess. Clothing on the floor, school papers, book laying open, and pens poured across the top of her desk. Drawers hanging out from said desk. Books lying open on the bookshelf doubling as a nightstand. The sheets on her bed bunched up and tangled.
  740. Taylor took this all in, realized that she’d be up all night with this mess, and then promptly dismissed it. Striding across the floor, Taylor picked up a hoodie and sniffed it to see if it was clean. Tonight would not be the night she straightened up this mess, she had decided. There was something more important to do. She had powers. Real, actual superpowers, and she was beyond ready to try them out. Maybe if she still needed sleep she could have waited until things with the PRT were resolved, but being awake through the night gave her too much opportunity.
  742. Finding some black sweatpants, she only needed a few extra things. A cheap pair of swimming goggles from one summer camp and two bandanas. The first one she used for the intended reason she got them, tying it around her head to hold back her hair. The second went around her mouth and nose. With them and the goggles, plus the hoodie pulled up, she was mostly unidentifiable. Not exactly a heroic look, but that was fine. This was just about going out and seeing what she could do.
  744. Gently, she opened her window and slipped out. There was a small porch overhang over their front door that her room was just to the side of. Hanging from the windowsill she was able to swing over to it. From there, it was an easy drop onto the grass. And then she was off.
  746. Not exactly sure where she was headed, she set her sights on the tallest building in Brockton Bay, the Stansfield tower. It wasn’t anything special when it came to skyscrapers, but it was more than a simple rectangle like a number of the small towers around it. It had a design similar to the Empire State Building, only growing narrow more gradually. Making it look more like a spike rising out of the center of the city.
  748. Taylor had gotten to the end of her neighborhood and was starting into the city proper when she felt her skin crawl. The neighborhood she lived in wasn’t that great. Part of it was just because it was in an area of the city considered to be part of the Docks. The other part was just how close it was to the outer portions of the city’s business areas. Most of the buildings were one story tall, not going above two stories until just past the mall some distance ahead. That combined with not many stoplights, multiple buildings abandoned, roads full of potholes, and many alleyways between the buildings, the whole area gave off a very bad neighborhood feeling. And some areas that feeling was more justified than others.
  750. That was something that Taylor was very aware of when she started noticing people hanging out on street corners and under street lights. She veered away from them, doing her best to stick to unlit areas to avoid attention. But the darkness made her feel more uneasy. She started looking for a way off the street and quickly found a rusted ladder leading up the side of a dilapidated clothing store.
  752. She pulled herself over the top of the building and started to look around. It was just the city from a slightly different angle, but it made her think. Taylor took a deep breath. She supposed it didn’t matter where she went, she was only going to be practicing some of these strange abilities. With that in mind, she tentatively turned on her Sight.
  754. Bright lights exploded across her vision, but not nearly with the intensity she experienced at the PRT building. The strange bands of energy that played across her Sight was spread out enough she could discern individual cords of power, shown to her as forms of light. Each colored flow of energy moved in its own way, twisting, pulsing, or lashing around rapidly. Taylor watched the lights near her for a moment, then spread her focus wider to the city in front of her only to find her view suddenly blocked.
  756. A massive bubble of interwoven cords of blue and pink energy was rising over the rooftops just a few blocks away, moving incredibly fast. She guessed about the speed of a car, a thought confirmed shortly after when the bubble made a sudden right turn. It’s center was following the streets. Taylor leaned forward as she watched start coming to a stop, just a few streets away. As soon as she was sure it was fully stopping, she leaped back onto the ladder and moved down it quickly. She had to know what made that kind of light show.
  758. As she darted back down through the alleys she left her Sight on, using it to notice people and avoid them. Ambient energies were lighting up the dark alleys better than the occasional street light, allowing her to find a more direct path than she would have otherwise taken. Only after a minute of slinking in and out of back alleys did she start to notice something odd. People were becoming more scarce, and those she did notice seemed to be in a hurry to be somewhere else. That was when she heard what they were hurrying away from.
  760. There was a high pitched squeal, something very synthetic sounding followed by a sharp crack. Despite being some distance still, she heard rocks falling and scattering on the ground. In fact, as she focused more on the sounds, she heard their footsteps. They were both unusually heavy, both metallic, and moving fast. Someone or something let out a roar, a sound somewhere between a really gruff man and a car crash. Taylor felt her heart begin to pound in her chest as she got closer. The strange energy ball, these weird sounds, her ability to see and hear things she hadn’t before, among all the other unexplained parts of her powers, it was all…
  762. Exciting.
  764. Taylor didn’t realize she was grinning when she rounded the corner and finally saw the source of the strange energy ball she had seen from the building top. It was some sort of motorcycle. Long, with lots of plating that didn’t allow you to see past its surface, including covering over half of each wheel. She didn’t see any handlebars or any other way of steering it. That, along with the massive ball of energy it admitted, confirmed Taylor's suspicions that it was Tinker tech of some kind.
  766. Suddenly someone came rocketing out of the cross street the bike had been left near, rolling across the asphalt with a metallic screech. Taylor immediately stepped back, ready to dart back into the alleyway when she saw the man get back up, a recognizable halberd in hand. Energy was flowing out of him just like his bike but on a smaller scale. Her heart leaped in excitement on recognizing him. It was Armsmaster, the hero she-
  768. Her thoughts were interrupted when a much larger man came out from around the corner. He was tall, well over six feet. Triangular scales were piercing through his skin and fire was raging around his hands. Lung.
  770. Taylor paled and stepped back, relaxing her eyes so her Sight wasn’t on anymore. The energies coming from the bike, Armsmaster, and Lung were clashing with each other in her Sight, making it hard to see. Once she switched it off, she realized she was standing completely in the dark and likely out of sight from the two capes. She quickly found the nearest alley to duck into when Armsmaster went on the attack.
  772. Armsmaster didn’t noticeably move at all when his motorcycle suddenly lit up and panels opened near the seat. In a fraction of a second, a device rose out of the compartment. Taylor only had a moment to look at it. It kind of looked like a gun of some sort.
  774. Lung exploded in a wave of fire at the same time some sort of yellowish-white spray erupted from Armsmasters’ bike. The force blew the spray backward, but Armsmaster was diving through the flames as they rolled out. Taylor couldn’t see what happened next, the fire still blocking her sight, but when it cleared Lung had a hold of Armsmaster’s halberd as the hero tried pushing it into his ribs. Electricity arced around the weapon, but if Lung was affected, he didn’t show it. He lifted the halberd and its owner simultaneously before throwing them backward, sending them disappearing back down the street they came on. Scales covered half of his body now, and he seemed taller, getting closer to seven feet. He strode towards where he threw Armsmaster, fire beginning to steadily roll up his arms and to his back.
  776. Taylor took a breath and Listened carefully, trying to judge how well Armsmaster took the hit. She heard his feet moving, sharp metallic grinding against what sounded like gravel. Then she heard moaning. Multiple people groaning, male and female, one person sobbing. Taylor frowned, turning her Sight back on as she edged out of the alleyway and towards the street the two had disappeared down. When she looked around the corner, she was met with the familiar flash of energy rolling off the two of them, but this time her vision was lit up with dozen warm red lights. People, or their heat signatures more likely, were everywhere. Some people were laying on the ground. But just past where Armsmaster and Lung were currently squaring off, the corner of the building had partially collapsed. Two floors had fallen atop each other and people were laying in the rubble.
  778. Lung let out a roar, far less human-like than his first, as Armsmaster’s Halberd cut across the back of his legs. The blade was glowing intensely with energy. Taylor studied it for the second she was able to, wondering if it was some kind of plasma weapon. Lung waved his hand and a column of fire erupted towards Armsmaster. He ducked and rolled out of its way, coming out of the roll swinging his weapon when Lung’s foot connected with his body and sent him rolling.
  780. She suddenly wished she had done some research on some of the local villains before coming out, even if she hadn’t intended to get into any fights. Because even if Armsmaster wasn’t getting thrown around like a doll, over a dozen people were laying injured or unconscious. And neither Lung nor Armsmaster seemed to care too much about them.
  782. That being said, she wasn’t going to stand and do nothing either. Kicking off into a jog, she continued down the alley. Watching Lung and Armsmaster closely through the buildings with her Sight, she got far enough behind them to feel safe before peaking out from the around the building.. This time Lung was on the ground, his legs caught tangled in some kind of chain while Armsmaster slashed at Lung’s arm. His halberd doing an impressive amount of damage to the villain's scales. After a second of watching them, she was caught off guard when she noticed their powers.
  784. It was similar to when she had been shown Leet from behind a window. Amongst all the complicated and conflicting bright energies obstructing her vision, dark bubbles stood out amongst it all, cutting through the brightness like it radiated its own dark light source. Armsmaster looked like some kind of pyramid with a kind of irregularly shaped chain around it, but it was too far to make out anything more than that. Lung’s looked like a creature, a dragon at first glance. But there were things off with it, small details that didn’t fit the traditional view of dragons.
  786. Taylor looked away, focusing on the task at hand as she darted across the street towards the building with the people. Armsmaster’s head snapped up immediately, taking a reactionary step back and raising his halberd defensively. Lung took the opportunity to roll back onto his feet. Taylor noticed the scales had been cut away from his left arm, and three odd long and thin devices stuck out of his exposed flesh. Armsmaster didn’t make a move to stop him from getting up. Maybe worried that she might be with Lung and would try something if he did?
  788. Taylor had slid to a stop when she neared the collapsed portion of the building. There were half a dozen men on the ground around the rubble, each bearing gang colors and some bad burns. She opened her mouth in shock at seeing some of the injuries, causing the taste of charred meat to assault her mutated tongue. Clenching her jaw shut and swallowing, she focused ahead of her. With her Sight, she found people in the fallen portions of the buildings and started towards them. They came first, she decided. She’d come back for the gang members if she could, but they were suffering from their own choices right now. These people hadn’t asked to be a part of this.
  790. Maybe it was because the building was only two stories tall, or made because it was a cheap construction, but all the people were near the surface. Requiring her to only move large pieces of drywall, or pry up splintered two-by-fours, to get to the first man she focused on. She could hear Lung and Armsmaster continuing their battle behind her. She hoped they would keep focusing on each other and keep their battle at a distance while she helped pull a young man out from the rubble. He was a little older than she was, dress only in a pair of boxers. He was bleeding from his forehead but smiled briefly as he thanked her. He glanced once at Lung and then started to turn when Taylor seized his arm.
  792. “Help me get out some of the others stuck in here,” she commanded, hoping she sounded stern. This would go a lot easier if she had help, and the sooner she got out of this mess the better. The young man looked sideways at Lung and Armsmaster, the latter of which had somehow scaled a building when they weren’t looking. From his new vantage point, he was firing things down at Lung as he dug his hands, now claws, into the building to go after him.
  794. “I just pulled you out of this mess,” Taylor reminded him. “You owe me, the least you can do is help me.”
  796. Reluctantly, the man nodded and muttered something under his breath. She would have heard it if she wasn’t devoting more attention to keeping track of Lung and Armsmaster. Taylor was hoping the hero had more of a plan than just fighting him, but this was going on longer than she would have liked.
  798. After pointing out another spot, the two of them dug out an older man, roughly in his fifties by Taylor’s guess. He walked with a limp, but he didn’t need convincing to help her. There were three more people, two pinned under the same pipe. Between the three of them, they were able to dislodge the pipe and get the couple out. She and the young man grabbed a woman by the arms and was dragging her out of the debris when Lung roared.
  800. Taylor cried out and clapped her hands to her ears, unprepared for how bestial and scratchy it was. She stumbled, her head spinning and her ears ringing. When she looked up again Lung was throwing Armsmaster off the rooftop. He was taller, wider, and flames were rolling off his back consistently enough to look like a cape of flame. The scales that covered the front of his body were crossed with cuts and holes where Armsmaster’s blade was able to damage him. More strange Tinker devices were protruding out of every wound. Lung stood on top of the building with one clawed foot encased in some kind of foam. Containment foam, Taylor guessed, but she hadn’t seen it in action before except on the occasional news broadcast. His other foot looked like it was wrapped in metal.
  802. But it was his glowing orange eyes that caught Taylor’s attention. They were bearing down at her.
  804. Taylor was forced to look away. The longer she studied him the more that strange representation of his power called to her. It was trying to draw her in as if the power itself wanted her to take a closer look. And she was afraid of what might happen if she went that far.
  806. She turned back to the last person caught stuck in the pile of rubble. All her help had abandoned her, running as soon as Lung’s roar disoriented her. But now, for whatever reason, Lung’s focus was turned on her. Moving faster than before, Taylor ran to where the final person was buried and started moving pieces of drywall as quickly as possible.
  808. The metal wrapped around one of Lung’s legs came free with a screech. Taylor spared a glance towards Armsmaster. His motorcycle had entered the street near them and he was pulling several items out of it. Taylor turned back to her task when she found a pair of hands. She grabbed them by the wrist and began to pull.
  810. Lung slammed into the ground, his weight cracking the sidewalk and road. Taylor uncovered a small boy’s head, covered in dust. He blinked rapidly, staring around confused as if he couldn’t process what was happening. She started digging out around him, all too aware of Lung’s footsteps coming towards her. Bands of energy crossed her vision as he approached, and a sound came from Armsmaster’s direction followed by several waves of energy. But she couldn’t spare the time to look back and see what was going on. She dug out around the kid’s shoulders and grabbed underneath his arms, then pulled as hard as she could.
  812. The boy slid out of the rubble pile with the final tug, causing Taylor to overbalance and tumble backward, kid in hand. When she looked up, Lung’s clawed and flaming hand was reaching down towards her and the child. The flames around his body were suddenly heating the air around her, making it difficult to breathe. She reached out a hand protectively as if she could stop him, but her eyes and hand were pulled towards that representation of his power. That creature, wrapped in chains and cords and nets of energy was looking at her with the same eyes as Lung. It wanted her attention, she could feel it.
  814. She squeezed her eyes shut, looking away from it even as she moved her hand towards it. Somehow, even though she was touching nothing but air, she felt her hand come into contact with his power. She gripped it and squeezed.
  816. The flames suddenly snuffed out around them even as Lung’s claws started to close on them. Taylor opened her eyes, willing her Sight off so as not to be tempted by his power. At the same time, she felt her grip on his power disappear.
  818. Lung had frozen for just a moment. His face was too distorted to make out a human expression, but his eyes were wider, unfocused. Confused? Taylor wondered briefly.
  820. A white ball-shaped device no bigger than a tennis ball struck Lung’s head. It stuck there, let out a high pitched beep twice, then exploded in a flash of white light. Lung rocked backward, a moment before Armsmaster came barreling into him and knocking him to the ground. Taylor swore as the light stung her eyes, but was thankfully spared the worst of it by Lung taking the blast. She struggled to her feet, letting go of the kid. Apparently more spooked than he had when the building fell around him, he took off. Screaming in and running at an awkward run away from the scene. Taylor almost went after him, to make sure he was safe, but she turned her attention to Armsmaster.
  822. He had Lung on the ground, a metal pipe in one hand and his Halberd in the other. In a smooth motion Armsmaster pinned the metal around Lung’s throat and into the asphalt, spinning his weapon around and pointing the bottom of the shaft at the metal. Sparks flew and Taylor looked away as he seemed to weld the metal into the road. All fast enough to step back as Lung reached up to swipe at him. He threw two devices that burst into icy blasts around one arm, freezing it to the road. Flames started to appear again around Lung, but they were weak and disappeared quickly agaist the ice. He waved his free hand around the metal at his throat, but his scales were disappearing. While Lung floundered, moving more and more sluggishly as time moved on, Armsmaster pulled pipes from the rubble of the nearby building and used his halberd to heat, bend, and then weld them around Lung until he was in a metal cage. He had stopped moving, his eyes closed. Armsmaster watched silently for a long moment, his expression hidden by his visor as Lung’s scales began disappearing.
  824. Then, he turned to Taylor. She stiffened, unsure what came next.
  826. “That was incredibly stupid,” He stated harshly. The words caught her completely by surprise, and before she could respond, he continued. “What, exactly, possessed you to get in the middle of a fight with Lung, of all people. Do you have no sense of self-preservation, or were you just deluded into thinking you could accomplish something here?”
  828. “I-” Taylor stammered in irritation. Did he seriously not see what she had done? “I was digging the people out of the building you and Lung collapsed. Isn’t that what you should have been worried about?” She demanded, then immediately regretted it. She saw the change in his posture, how he set his jaw. Everything about him suddenly became more defensive.
  830. “The people were fine, girl,” Armsmaster growled. “No serious injuries aside from his own gang members, who received burns that could be treated after Lung was dealt with. They were safer where they were while I drew Lung away, until you showed up and brought his attention to them.”
  832. “I was helping them get free while Lung was tossing you around! He was beating you until-” She bit her tongue, it just now hit her who she was talking to.
  834. “I was stalling while my tranquilizers took effect,” Armsmaster corrected, slamming the butt of his halberd into the ground to make his point. “Each dose I gave him was slowing his transformation by roughly ten percent, and he knew it. With my halberd able to expose vulnerable flesh, I was allowing him to strike me in order to dose him at the right moments. The only thing that could have ruined the whole situation is if a teenager in a hoodie and swim goggles drew Lung’s attention to the potential hostages that would allow him to draw out the fight. Letting his regenerative abilities to fight off the headway I had been making. So no, girl, you weren’t helping anyone. Now, all his victims are scattered to the winds and I’ll have to track them down to make sure they receive care and statements are taken. Lung nearly injured you, and could have potentially gotten out of this free. This is why we have the Ward’s program, to keep kids like you from just throwing themselves at situations like this.”
  836. “I was just-” Taylor tried to insist, but Armsmaster raised a hand and slammed his halberd into the ground again.
  838. “Do not argue with me kid,” Armsmaster shook his head. “I am going to have my hands full dealing with Lung’s detainment, I do not have time to list out all the points where you have gone wrong. So I’ll just say, Brockton Bay has a curfew that begins in twenty minutes. Go home, and I’ll pretend you weren’t here tonight. And that power of yours,” Armsmaster worked his jaw, his blank visor giving the feeling his eyes were boring into her. “In the three seconds your hand was stretched out towards him, his transformation ceased and his pyrokinetic ability suddenly vanished. I assume you took out his regenerative abilities, as my tranquilizers began to work ten times more effectively than they should have at that stage.
  840. “That’s a useful ability, whatever it was you did. So do yourself a favor, join the Wards, and don’t do anything stupid like this a second time.” He turned around without allowing for a response, strided over to Lung.
  842. Taylor opened and closed her mouth for a few moments, a flurry of thoughts and a few insults flying through her mind as she turned away and stomped in the other direction. Only the knowledge she was trying to get into the Wards stopped her from pushing her luck, but it stung. She had helped those people. Actually put herself in danger to help others, isn’t that the whole point of the hero things she was signing up for? Instead, she got scolded by none other than Armsmaster.
  844. She was fuming all the way home.
  846.     #70
  848. Taylor was sitting in her room, thinking over last night. She knew she shouldn’t be as stuck on what happened as she was, but she couldn’t shake the irritation she was feeling. Suddenly, her ears picked up a knock at the front door. Something she wouldn’t have heard otherwise. She put down the book she had been staring at blankly for the last twenty minutes. Striding across her bedroom, sidestepping piles of clothing on the floor, she cracked the bedroom door and listened as her dad answered it.
  850. “Emma?” His surprised voice let out. A smile crept across Taylor’s face, and she finally relaxed at little for the first time since she got home last night. “I haven’t seen you around here for quite a while.”
  852. “Yeah, school and modeling keep me busy,” she answered happily. “But I see Taylor at school, usually. I heard something happened to her, haven’t seen her at school in the last few days. Is everything okay?” Her tone sounded painfully worried. Almost too much for what she was saying. Had she been that concerned?
  854. “What? Oh, yeah. She’s doing okay now, but I don’t think she will be going back to school. She, urm…”
  856. “Can I see her? Ask her what’s up?”
  858. “I don’t know…” He sounded uncertain as he scrambled for an excuse. Emma’s voice dropped low as if she was worried someone would hear her. With Taylor’s ears, however, she was able to hear everything she said and then some. Even her heavier breaths stood out to Taylor's when she was Listening.
  860. “She’s got powers now, doesn’t she?”
  862. “What?” Danny asked in shock. Taylor felt her blood go cold. How had she known about that?
  864. “Taylor and I had been hanging out that night, and we had just split up, like, five minutes ago when a bunch of PRT vans showed up. Next day, there was a rumor going around the school Taylor had gotten into a fight. I made a guess, I think I’m the only one who knows.”
  866. “That’s… that sounds like a problem,” Danny finished. “I’m going to have to talk with the PRT.” He took a deep breath in and sighed. “But since you figured it out, I guess you can come in. At least until the PRT tells me what I should do about you. You want anything to eat? You can help yourself to the fridge while I grab Taylor.”
  868. But Taylor was already leaving, grinning widely as she went to meet her. The last thing she remembered doing with Emma calling her from nature camp that one summer. It would be interesting to hear what they had done since. Maybe she would remember something if Emma explained it to her? Either way, she was happy to finally have someone else to talk to to get her mind of Armsmaster and the Wards.
  869. “Emma!” Taylor said excitedly, meeting Emma halfway up the steps. She looked startled all of a sudden. Caught off guard by Taylor’s appearance. Taylor opened her arms up for her, just like she would have a year or so ago. In the back of her mind she hoped they hadn’t grown out of that. Emma’s expression struggled for a moment, until it seemed like she forced and smile and hugged Taylor back.
  871. “We’ve got a lot to talk about,” Taylor began, letting Emma go and stepping back. Emma seemed confused for a moment, but she caught up and smiled.
  873. “Right,” she agreed, nodding excitedly. “I want you to tell me everything.”
  875. Five minutes later they sat together on her bed, the only clear space in the room. Clothing, textbooks, and a few random papers littered the floor. Of all the paper, it was worksheets and handouts for the most part. Ranging from a few days old to a few weeks, both the papers and the clothing. Almost oblivious to the mess cluttering the room, Emma sat on the bed examining Taylor’s nails. Grinning as they talked.
  877. “Well, we could paint them over,” she offered.
  879. “Maybe with a color close to what they already are?” Taylor suggested. She was smiling. It felt odd, like the muscles were tired from the amount of smiling she was doing. She had never painted her nails regularly, and the few times she had it had been at Emma's suggestion. Those sleepovers felt like they happened long ago. Well, Taylor supposed they actually had been long ago, but the gaps in her memory made it seem much more recent. “That way if they chip or something it won’t be obvious.”
  881. “We could, but what are you going to do in costume?”
  883. Taylor made a face. “What do you mean?”
  885. “You’re going to be a hero aren’t you?” Emma shifted on the bed excitedly. Taylor hesitated, thinking for a moment she shouldn’t say anything, but Emma already knew what she looked like out of costume. Her joining the Wards would be soon, and that would eventually lead to her going out as a hero. Pointy ears, violet eyes, and scales would make her pretty easy to spot.
  887. “Yeeeeah,” Taylor drawled, not sure where she was going with this.
  889. “Then what are you going to do about-” Emma waved at hand up and down at her. “All that?”
  891. “I’m not sure yet,” Taylor admitted, she pushed against the bed so she could scoot up to the headboard and sit with her back against it. She had figured something out for last night, but she didn’t want to mention that just yet. “I’ve talked to my dad about it. We’ve had a few ideas, but nothing I’d consider concrete.”
  893. “Yeeeeeah?” Emma’s grinned widened. Taylor couldn’t say why, but there was something unsettling in Emma’s gaze when she looked at her. There was something… hungry in her expression. “Like what?”
  895. Taylor shrugged and looked away. “Ways to hide all these changes. Hoods, gloves, stuff like that. I kind of want to still be able to walk around town, you know?”
  897. “Hide? No, Tay, you look amazing now. You’ve got to show it off. I mean, what another kind of hero has scales?”
  899. Taylor blinked. “Doesn’t Narwhal have something like scales?”
  901. Emma waved a hand dismissively. “Not the point. You have a chance to really stand out, you should take it.
  903. “I don't know about that,” she hedged, unwilling to say she’d be happier if she didn’t stick out at all among the Wards. “I’ve been meaning to write down some ideas, but I haven’t really gotten to it yet.” Taylor shrugged sheepishly, keeping an eye on Emma’s face. For a brief moment, there was something ugly in her expression. But it was gone before Taylor could really think about it, replaced with a playful smile.
  905. “Seriously, you’ve been home- how many days?”
  907. “Two, or three counting this morning.”
  909. “Three days and you haven’t thought about your costume? What about your name?”
  911. “I’ve thought about it?” Taylor answered defensively. “Just not… a lot. If you want, we could find a notebook and brainstorm a bit. Creative things like this are way easier for you than they are me.”
  913. “Find a notebook?” Emma raised an eyebrow and looked around. She glanced down at the mattress they sat on. There was a sheet on the bed, technically, though it was bunched up underneath the blankets which were all pushed onto the floor. Only a small pile of pillows Emma had taken to leaning on occupied the bed with them. The blankets on the floor blended in with the rest of the room among the piles of clothing and papers.
  915. “How did it get like this, and what have you been doing since you got home if it hasn’t being cleaning this mess or coming up with ideas?”
  917. “Reading?” Taylor offered, smiling a little bit. Which was half true, that is what she did the first night she came home and found she didn’t need to sleep. The second night had been the fiasco last night she was trying to put out of her mind. “I don’t remember most of the books I’ve been able to find, so I’ve been doing that.”
  919. “Really?” Emma raise an eyebrow in a dry expression. “You’re going to become a superhero, and the only thing you’ve done the last two or three days is read?”
  921. She shrugged, smiling awkwardly. “I was kind of hoping one of the characters in the books would give me an idea for a costume. It’s easier to see how they’re cool rather than…” “Trying to think how I might look,” she finished in her head.
  923. “Did you?” Emma asked curiously. “Find anything in the books?”
  925. “A couple of things that might work,” she replied, noncommital.
  927. “Like?” Emma pressed.
  929. Taylor paused, considering for a moment. It seemed like Emma was set on discussing her hero costume. Which made sense when she thought about it. Your best friend becoming a hero is a rare thing. And getting a chance to help make their costume? Taylor figured Emma had to be more excited than ever right now.
  931. Taking a quick breath, Taylor smiled. “Alright. If you’ll help me brainstorm we can try designing a costume.” Emma’s grin widened and she sat higher in the bed, but Taylor raised a finger. “But we’ve got to find something to write down the ideas on.”
  933. “Deal,” Emma agreed without hesitation, sliding off the bed in a moment. “You’re always writing in notebooks, there has to be one around here. I’ll start over here and you can start on the other side of the room, yeah?” She had positioned herself between the thin strip of floor between the bed and closet, leaving Taylor the other two-thirds of the room.
  935. “Sure, so long we work towards each other.” Taylor strode across the room, moving to the far corner next to her dresser. She saw Emma opened her closet and began moving things around inside.
  937. She started rooting through all the drawers, just in case she missed it the last time she looked. Finding nothing, Taylor dropped to the floor and tried to see into the dark space under the dresser. The bottom length of wood was cut into a swirling pattern that only let her get about wrist-deep before she couldn’t go anymore. She groped around with her fingertips until she connected with something that felt like it could be a tight stack of paper. Digging a fingernail into its surface, she dragged it out. It was a composition notebook, untitled. She flipped it open and scanned through the pages.
  939. Math notes, it looked like. Something on almost every page, and a bunch of pages with only one or two things written near the top. It would annoy her a little, but it would be better than nothing if they didn’t find anything else.
  941. “I found one, but it's kind of full,” Taylor said, turning to see Emma sitting on the bed with another journal in her hand. Taylor could tell each page was filled with writing.
  943. “What’s that? She asked, walking forward curiously.
  945. “Oh,” Emma jumped a little, startled. She looked up at her, a bit wide-eyed. There was something off in her expression like she was apprehensive about something. Taylor couldn’t imagine why. Emma closed the journal. “Just, um, history notes. Really recent ones too, it surprised me.” She swallowed. Taylor cocked her head.
  947. “Are you alright? You’re acting a little… off.”
  949. Emma managed a reassuring smile, but only barely. “I’m fine, I just remembered I got to get home before dinner. Say, do you mind if I borrowed these?” She held up the notebook, the edges looked a little worn. “There is a test coming up in history, and I could use these. You always took way better notes than me.”
  951. Taylor smiled widely. “Of course! I’ll start writing down some ideas for next time. Tomorrow?”
  953. Emma grinned, color returning to her cheeks. “Sounds good to me, I'll come right after school.”
  955. ***
  957. “Sophia?” A nervous voice asked for somewhere behind her. Sophia shut her locker and turned around, her eyes widening when she saw who was standing there.
  959. Madison shifted awkwardly behind Sophia, not looking her in the eye. She reaching up and nervously rubbed the hair on the right side of her head where a large spot had been shaved off. There was a massive gash that was only mostly covered with a small bandage on her temple. Opposite that injury, a long jagged cut started at her cheekbone and went halfway up her forehead, crossing over her eye. Black stitches held the laceration closed, blue and red skin was beginning to fuse together into what would surely be a scar. A white, square eye patch covered the eye in the path of the cut. Gone was her normal strapless top and skirt, replaced by a turtle neck and skinny jeans despite it not being cold at all outside. Her good eye glanced at Sophia, wide-eyed.
  961. “Jesus Christ Maddie,” Sophia hissed under her breath. “The hell happened to you?”
  963. “I-It happened on that night,” she stammered. “When Taylor got us.”
  965. Sophia’s eyes narrowed a bit. “Taylor only hit you once. I saw you pass out on the ground after she came after me.”
  967. “Y-yeah, but it um,” Madison swallowed and glanced left and right. People were staring at her, muttering under their breaths in a way that suggested they didn’t want Madison, in particular, to hear what they were saying. “Look, I need to talk to you, about that night.”
  969. Sophia paused, then shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about that night. Why? What did you do to yourself?”
  971. “Do to myself?” Madison looked baffled. “I didn’t-”
  973. “I saw you,” Sophia insisted. “You got knocked out, but Taylor didn’t cause all of that. So either you had some other kind of accident afterward, or that’s some good make up.”
  975. “It happened that night. Look can we please go somewhere and talk alone. There’s something important I have to-”
  977. “Sophia!” Emma’s voice cut in as she stormed down the hall. “You won’t believe what-” she froze when she saw Madison. “What happened to your face?”
  979. Madison paled. “I don’t- I can’t-”
  981. “Madison, look,” Sophia cut her off. “It sucks what happened, but I don’t want to think about that shit show of a fight and I know Taylor didn’t get you that bad. So if you don’t mind?”
  983. “I’m sorry Maddie,” Emma added, not looking particularly worried or upset on her behalf. Instead, her eyes kept glancing at Sophia, like she demanded more attention. “But we can talk about what happened to your face later. I need to talk to Sophia, like right now. Alone.”
  985. Madison stared at the two of them, mouth open in disbelief. Her gaze shifted to Sophia, then hardened. Her lips pressed together and she crossed her arms. “Fine,” was all she said before turning and walking away.
  987. Sophia let out a sigh and shook her head before turning back to Emma. She had a journal in her hand and was shoving it toward Sophia.
  989. “You’ve got to see this.” Emma hissed under her breath, stepping close so only Sophia could hear. Apparently, it was too pressing to waste time finding a place other than the hallway. “I found it in Taylor’s room. She’s got everything Sophia, fucking everything. Every little thing we ever did, even the harmless shit. Emails, text messages, everything.”
  991. Sophia felt her blood go cold. Grabbing the journal, she snapped it closed and glared about, making sure noticed anything unusual. “You went to her house after I told the plan was stupid? Are you fucking insane?” Sophia snapped under her breath.
  993. “It’s a good thing I did!” Emma protested. “Could you imagine what she would do if she found it first?”
  995. “Emma if you saw Taylor, then the PRT are going to come get you, if they aren’t in the school already!” Her tone raised a fraction. “You have the cellphone and the journal on you, what the hell were you thinking?”
  997. “I was thinking I was helping protect you!”
  999. “Emma if they find this shit I’m done for. I can’t believe you would bring this to school. Give me the phone.” Sophia held out her hand. When Emma hesitated, Sophia motion her to move furiously until she pulled it out. Sophia snatched it from her palm and moved a step away. She stopped when Emma asked,
  1001. “What are you going to do?”
  1003. “What you should have done when you first found the thing,” Sophia snapped. “Get it as far away from here and destroy. You’re being stupid Emma. This was probably the dumbest thing I think you’ve ever done.”
  1005. “Sophia!” Emma was stunned. “I was just trying to-”
  1007. “You need to stop trying to do anything!” Sophia wanted to shout, but was straining to keep her voice under control. “You’re going to put me in jail if you keep trying to do shit. The only reason you haven't is because the PRT is even more incompetent than you. Just stop. Stop with the bullying, stop talking to Taylor, and- and,” Sophia waved her hands in frustration. “And stay away from me.”
  1009. She spun on a heel and stalked off, stuffing the phone and journal into her bookbag and making a beeline for the exit of the school. She’d get hell for skipping, but it would be better than what might happen if the PRT pulled her out of school with the evidence still on her.
  1011. She made it outside and rounded the building in a hurry, ignoring the people she passed. She was walking along the cafeteria side of the building where there were no windows. That part of the school was closest to the nearest road. She’d have to catch a bus and then figure it out from there.
  1013. Her mind was too busy thinking it all over in a panic to notice to a group of people surrounding her until someone stopped in front of her. A pair of hands shoved her shoulds back with enough force to make her lose her balance. She landed on her bottom and looked up, confused and angry. Instinctively, she swung an arm at the guy who dared touch her like that, but someone caught her by the elbow.
  1015. Sophia turned and saw Sarah, chubby-faced and pigtails still on her head. Another person seized her arm and a familiar voice taunted her.
  1017. “Hey there mistress, think you could step on me when this all over?” Bernie’s tone was mocking, lacking all the suggestiveness it had yesterday. Sophia looked forward and saw the big guy, Weirdo she remembered Emma calling him, standing in front of her. He was frowning, his arms crossed.
  1019. More hands grabbed her, pulling her to her knees and grabbing her shoulders as more hands seized parts of her arm. Her heart had already begun to pound, but whatever anger she still had turned to panic as she started to recognize more of the people grabbing her. They were all people she, Emma, and Madison had targeted at one point or another. The loners and awkward people, the ugly and fat, the weird ones. Weak people. Prey.
  1021. Sarah picked up Sophia’s bookbag and opened all the zippers before pouring the contents out on the ground with a satisfied grin. Sophia glared back up at her and growled,
  1023. “Let me go, I don’t have time for this.”
  1025. “Oh?” Sarah raised an eyebrow. “Well, not my problem. Now, let’s see how you like getting her stuff taken.” She started picking things up and handing them out with only a dismissive glance. Guys and girls stepped forward, or reached out with one hand if they were holding her, and accept what Sarah gave them. Sophia watched wide eyes as she grabbed the journal and passed it to Weirdo before picking up the phone. Bernie reach out a hand and took the phone with a grin.
  1027. “Whatcha got on here?” he asked. “Something embarrassing I hope. Maybe some… photos?” His waggled his eyebrows playful, then paused when he saw the phone screen was locked. With a shrug, he tossed it behind him like he wasn’t interested in it at such a minor hurdle.
  1029. “We should get this done with before someone notices,” a shaky boy’s voice stated.
  1031. “They’re going to notice we’re all not in class if it takes to long,” the girl holing her right shoulder agreed.
  1033. “Alright, alright,” Sarah answered, waving. “Do it now.”
  1035. All of a sudden, everyone let go of her and stepped back. Sophia was stunned for a moment, but then leapt to her feet. The smallest bit of freedom caused her anger flare intensely, but before she could think to hurt anyone or fight her way out, something cold splashed her in the face. Chilled and sticky liquid sloshed over her skin, assaulting her nose with fruity and rotten smells. It was dumped on her hair, thrown to her face, aimed at her chest, and managed to run all over her.
  1037. When it stopped she wiped her eyes and saw everyone was gone. On the ground, empty bottles of soda, cartons of old milk, and empty juice boxes were left behind where people once stood. Her bag and pieces of homework were soaked, her clothes dripping.
  1039. It was all so much Sophia stood still, eyes glazed over and unblinking. Feeling both angry, humiliated, and so, so weak. Pathetic.
  1041. ***
  1043. Emma stood at a distance, watching as the other kids surrounded Sophia. She could go help, or get help. But her chest stung with Sophia’s words, made all the worse that she knew she was at least mostly right. She had screwed up, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t pissed at Sophia too. Her friend had been at arm’s length ever since she got back, now she had gone too far. Told her to stay away. That irritated her.
  1045. Emma watched silently as Madison strode up to the group around Sophia and picked something off the ground. She moved behind a kid and tapped him on the shoulder and said something. The boy gave her a look and then gave her something. With the two things in her hands, Madison turned and started towards Emma. She held the cell phone and journal out to her as she approached. Emma’s eyes widened.
  1047. “Maddie, what are you-”
  1049. “I heard what Sophia said,” she interrupted. The wide-eyed, pleading look she had earlier was gone, replaced with something hard. Disillusion and annoyed. Her single eye glared at Emma with an emotion she couldn't read. She didn't like it. “I’m guessing she’s been like that for a while now?” Not knowing what else to say, Emma just nodded. Madison echoed the gesture and held the items out to her again. “The way I see it, the only thing that’s changed is Taylor.”
  1051. “What do you mean?”
  1053. “You two had an obsession with her,” Madison stated, an angry frown forming. “Without her, Sophia’s losing her touch. You two aren’t yourself without her to pick on, that’s just the kind of people you two are. So, if you get the target back on Taylor, maybe Sophia will come back?”
  1055. Emma finally took the cellphone and journal, her eyes widening as she pieced together Madison’s plan. “You want me to give Taylor the journal back?”
  1057. Madison’s lips twitched into a brief smile and then disappeared again. “The journal is the one thing Sophia wants more than anything right now. I’d suggest you use your money and get a cab, move fast.”
  1059. Emma swallowed, then nodded. Her mind was clouded with a swirl of emotions and betrayal, but she could seize Madison’s logic like a lifeline. She started walking, headed towards the street. Madison nodded to her and turned back towards Sophia.
  1061. ***
  1063. “Sophia,” Madison said plaintively. She shook Sophia by the shoulder. That seemed to bring the girl out of her stupor. Sophia blinked, then focused in on Madison. The juice stuck to Madison’s hand as she drew back and she made a face.
  1065. “What?” Sophia asked, dazed.
  1067. “Emma’s got the journal and cell phone.”
  1069. Immediately, Sophia’s focus sharpened. Her confusion almost visibly turned to anger on her face. Whatever else she was feeling at the moment was being overridden by a returning panic.
  1071. “What is she doing?” Sophia demanded. Madison gave her a wide-eyed look.
  1073. “She said something about giving them to Taylor, I think.”
  1075. “She what?” Sophia nearly shouted. Madison flinched a little bit and swallowed. “Why? Why would she do something so stupid!?”
  1077. “I think she wants you to attack Taylor. She was saying something about how you needed the revenge, to get back in touch with everything. She’s headed to her house now, I saw her climbing into a cab.”
  1079. “Fuck,” Sophia swore. She spin on a heel, her hair flicking juice outward. She took off running, leaving Madison behind.
  1081. ***
  1083. “What did you do?” A voice behind Madison asked, their tone cautious. Madison didn’t turn to look at whoever it was, instead she stared out toward the road where Sophia had taken off running. She didn’t plan to go to class, her parents didn’t even want her to go back to school yet. She was still healing. She insisted though because there was something she needed to do. Only, now it didn’t seem so important.
  1085. “I needed to talk to Sophia, and she brushed me off,” Madison answered the person sourly. “The first thing Emma said when she saw me? Asked me what happened to my face. So I decided, fuck ‘em.”
  1087. Sarah stepped next to Madison, keeping out of arms reach like Madison might strike her at any moment. “You don’t… care what we did to Sophia?”
  1089. Madison paused, then shook her head. “That’s what made me do it, seeing Sophia getting dogpiled like that really put things into perspective. I just needed to talk, and she was too good for it. I say she deserved it.”
  1091. “Talk about what?” Sarah tentatively asked.
  1093. Madison took a deep breath and shook her head. “About how I’m supposed to protect myself, to stop this from happening.” She gestured to her face, then her good eye rolled to look at Sarah sideways. “But I guess she’s no good for that.”
  1095. Sarah smirked. “Not anymore. You got Emma and Sophia to run off pretty easily. What did you say to them?”
  1097. “Not much, but when it comes to getting on people’s nerves and getting them to do things, well, I learned from the best.”
  1099.     #101
  1101. Time wasn't on her side, and she didn’t have the spare cash to get a cab like Emma. All she could do was run, her clothes already growing stiff as the various liquids settled into the fabric. All the anger she felt bubbling up grew more intense as her right shoe let out a squelch when she put her weight on it. People were moving out of her way as she ran, or else she pushed them with a hand and forced herself past.
  1103. Her lungs were already beginning to burn, she was going too fast. She needed to pace herself, but the knowledge of how fast Emma was moving drove her forwards. Dozens of thoughts swirled in her mind, none staying long enough for her to really think of them. All she knew was that she had to get that journal, stop Emma from whatever she was planning before it landed her in jail.
  1105. Her foot landed awkwardly on the sidewalk and she stumbled. Her breath hitched in her throat and she felt herself nearly fall to the ground. Forced to stop by her lungs and her legs, not used to going so hard so suddenly. She rested her hands on her thighs and worked to catch her breath. As she did, her thoughts caught up to her. Running wasn’t going to help stop Emma, no matter how hard she pushed herself. And where did Taylor even live? Sophia had started off in the direction she was sure it had to be, but she didn’t know exactly.
  1107. The thought of giving up crossed her mind briefly. The image of Sarah and kids surrounding her surface in her mind. Her heart sank for just a moment, dread was creeping over her. Playing at the edges as the reality of what was going to happen to her set in.
  1109. “No,” she mumbled to herself, curling her hands into fists. She was not just some average stupid teenager from Winslow. Emma’s cab could lead her to Taylor’s house, and she could stop Emma before she got to the door. All Sophia needed to do was find a cab, something of a rare sight in this area of town. Emma would have had to call it.
  1111. A plan taking form in her mind, Sophia crossed the street and slipped into an alley between two stores. Turning the corner and stepping behind a dumpster, she peeled the sticky shirt off her body. Having planned to go right to the base after school, she had worn a sports bra and track shorts underneath her normal clothes so she could jump right into her costume. They had been spared the worst of the assault, but that didn’t mean they weren’t moist and uncomfortable.
  1113. Sophia glanced around, making sure no one had followed her to the alley or was stumbling along accidentally. Seeing no one, she turned to smoke and began to rise.
  1115. It was slow going at first. She couldn’t jump or push off the ground or even grip the building with her cloud. It was all a desire to go up that moved this form, maybe pushed on faster by her serious need. She picked up speed as she went and kept the cloud in a tight humanoid form. As soon as she neared the top of the building body rematerialized and gravity suddenly gripped her again. Before she could fall, she had both hands on the lip of the roof and easily pulled herself up. Wasting no time, she ran in the direction she was sure Emma had to be going. The buildings here were all one story, sometimes several would all be connected like a strip mall. Where they weren’t the alleys were narrow enough for her to easily leap over. If there was a street to cross she might have to use her power. It was a risk, but the alternative was not catching Emma. That seemed like the biggest risk at the moment. All other consequences paling in comparison, she put everything she had into bounding across the rooftops.
  1117. She ran to the end block and thought she caught the glimpse of a brightly colored car with something bright white on top. It turned the corner of a block ahead of her before it could be seen clearly. The next block was across a narrow cross street, but not narrow enough to do in one jump. In moments, she weighed her options in her head and then changed her course. Sprinting diagonally across the roof towards a tall box truck waiting to make a turn on a cross street. When she got to the edge of the roof and made her jump, she desperately wished she had her old power to make the jumping and running easier.
  1119. She sailed across one lane of the street and dropped onto the box truck with a terrible shudder and a rumble of denting metal under her feet. The thought of the roof breaking passed through her mind fleetingly, but Sophia wasn’t going to stop to consider it. She bounded forward and leapt upward again, catching the next building’s edge by her fingertips. Her shoes gripped easily on the rough brick and she was running on the rooftops again in a moment.
  1121. When she got to the end of that block she saw the car again. Bright green with a white sign sitting on the roof of the car displaying the word ‘taxi’. The only one cab Sophia had seen in her run. It was stuck at a stoplight for the moment, no blinker to signal a turn. She considered a mental map of the area, courtesy of many patrols she had made. She found it was headed towards a residential area. There was only one that way, but it was large.
  1123. One single thin advantage was that it wasn’t straight ahead. If she had to rely on stoplights slowing the cab down enough for her to follow she’d probably be screwed. Instead, she turned on a heel and headed directly for the housing area. Thoughts of what she was going to do stirring in her mind.
  1125. ***
  1127. Emma had counted out the bills before they had come to a stop and all but threw them at the driver as she scrambled out of the cab. She took five rapid steps towards Taylor’s house when ideas of what she would say crossed her mind. Emma froze in her tracks as the full implications of what she was planning on doing started to dawn on her. What was she supposed to say to Taylor? ‘Hi, me and a couple of other girls bullied you for months before you lost your memory?’ What could she say that would take the blame off her, or at least lessen it? She could shift it all to Sophia, Emma considered. Say she pressured her to do it. And then-
  1129. The sound of thundering footsteps pulled Emma from her troubled thoughts. She turned to see Sophia storming towards her. Droplets of sweat were falling from her face and elbows she was so drenched in it. Her face twisted up in an expression of bitter determination. Emma’s heart suddenly thundered in her chest and she shot forward, as if Sophia’s appearance released a wound-up spring. She ran towards the house, holding up the journal and holding it tightly. All she needed to do was reach the door, then they would come out. Sophia wouldn’t do anything if they were watching.
  1131. A hand seized her by the collar of her shirt before her foot reached the first step. Emma overestimated how fast she could move, or underestimated how fast Sophia was running. The shirt choked her as she was briefly wretched from her feet, sent stumbling backward. She felt Sophia’s hand tugging at the journal. Emma grit her teeth and took a stance, gaining her balance and tightening her grip on it.
  1133. “Emma!” Sophia looked at her in furious disbelief. “Let go of the journal, what are you doing!”
  1135. “What am I doing?” Emma asked, half disbelieving and half troubled. There were too many things going through her mind, too many things she wanted but couldn’t articulate to herself or Sophia. “What we’ve always done. What are you doing?”
  1137. “Trying to stay out of prison damn it!”
  1139. Emma laughed incredulously and twisted away from Sophia, forcing the other girl’s arms at an awkward angled until she let go of the book. Breaking free, Emma skipped unsteadily three steps before whirling back around. She hugged the journal to her chest. Her eyes were beginning to sting.
  1141. “Why are you scared? You’ve been paranoid and have barely talked to me all week! I haven’t seen you outside of school since you got back!”
  1143. Sophia took a step forward but stopped without getting closer. She crossed her arms and scowled. Getting the journal was important, but unless she wanted to tackle her friend she wasn’t going to be able to simply grab it.
  1145. “I’m not scared,” she growled at her. “I’m looking out for myself.”
  1147. Emma swallowed and shook her head. “No. You’re- You’re-”
  1149. Emma didn’t know what she wanted to say, to accomplish. The whole reason she was here was to get things back to what they were. Emma and Sophia vs Taylor. That’s what things should be, need to be.
  1151. At a loss to what she could possibly do, she did the one thing that came naturally. She talked to nettle her, to make her react and do what she wanted
  1153. “You got ganged upon by a bunch of nobodies,” Emma said. Her voice started shakily but quickly became more certain. She looked at Sophia, a familiar feeling of disdain welling up. “You didn’t even hit one of them. And it's all Taylor’s fault isn’t?” Emma saw Sophia’s eye flash in anger, her muscles tensing. Desperately, Emma held out the journal. “That’s why I got to do this Sophia, if you have to beat Taylor to get this back, you’ll win. You’ll be even for what she did to you that night. Then we can go back to school and deal with those upstarts.” Emma chanced a hopeful smile when she saw a shadow of doubt cross Sophia’s face for a moment. She could see the idea of getting the last laugh at Taylor and the other student tempt her. Speaking again, Emma drove the point home.
  1155. “You won’t have to be afraid that you’re weak.”
  1157. Sophia looked like Emma had just struck in the chest with a bolt of lighting. First bewilderment, then a flash of anger at the accusation. Then absolute fury. Sophia’s arm jerked upward.
  1159. Emma didn’t even feel it at first, it was a loud thunk that rang in her ears as her vision went black. Then she landed on her back. The sky and house swam circles in her vision, her thoughts no less steady. Pain began to blossom around her nose, growing from a small string to a burning, throbbing cluster of agony.
  1161. She managed to turn her head and saw Sophia staring at her with wide eyes. Someone was shouting something. Another person entered her field of view, shouting something at Sophia while they knelt on the ground next to Emma. She tried to focus on her face, but they were so close their features swirled. By the long hair, Emma guessed it was Taylor.
  1163. Sophia took a step back and paused. Then she took another and paused again. She turned and disappeared from view. Taylor was tilting Emma’s head back for some reason. Unable to think straight she allowed Taylor to do what she wanted, thinking all the time how much she just wanted to lay still on the ground. Like it was the most comfortable thing in the world at the moment.
  1165. ***
  1167. Sophia was wearing her Shadow Stalker costume and was shoving things into a duffle bag when the door to her cubical room opened. She scowled when she saw Aegis and Gallant standing in the doorway.
  1169. “Shouldn’t you guys be at school or something?” she asked. Despite her attempts to make herself sound angry or determined, her voice wavered. She continued to go through her room and stuffing things in her bag.
  1171. “We could ask you the same thing,” Aegis answered gently. He stepped into the room slowly, as if he was walking on among shards of glass. “What are you doing?”
  1173. “None of you’re business. Why are you here anyway?”
  1175. Aegis sigh a little and raised his hands up to remove his helmet. His hair spilled out and Carlos looked at her with genuine concern. “I was reminded being hard on you had never worked before." He paused like he expected her to say something. When she didn't he continued. "But the last week you’ve been on time and did everything we told you. I asked Dean, he said something was up. I’ve wanted to talk to you, and I think you need it.”
  1177. “What happened Sophia?” Dean asked, pulling off his own helmet. “Piggot’s in a stir but she won’t say why. She’s said your name a bunch of times, but I don’t even think she knows you’re here yet.”
  1179. Sophia sighed and slowed down. Her muscles ached from her run and her head throbbed. Emotionally and physically exhausted, but unwilling to stop packing her things.
  1181. “I fucked up,” she stated wearily.
  1183. “What happened?” Carlos asked, looking her up and down uncertainty. It was clear he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say or do but felt like he had to make some attempt. Sophia shook her head at the notion. He tried too hard to be a team leader.
  1185. “Punched my best friend. Probably going to get busted for all sorts of bullying. I’ve got-” Sophia stopped herself and shook her head and shoved the extra socks into the bag.
  1187. “So what are you planning?” Dean asked, looking at her sympathetically. It was a look he gave a lot, Sophia was surprised she didn’t find it grating like she normally did. “Are you going to try and skip town? Pack everything you have and just leave?”
  1189. “Its the only way I can keep doing this,” Sophia answered quietly. As much as she just wanted them to leave her alone and let her pack in peace, she just didn’t have the energy to muster. No anger or frustration could rise up to meet them.
  1191. “Do what?” Carlos questioned, raising an eyebrow. “Beating up good people?”
  1193. “Carlos,” Dean warned. Despite herself, Sophia laughed a little bit.
  1195. “Good people? No, Emma was a class S bitch, believe me. In fact…” Sophia trailed off as she considered something.
  1197. “Yeah?” Dean pressed.
  1199. “I’ve got to leave,” Sophia said, suddenly zipping up the duffle bag. “I’m not giving up the costumed life. I’ll go somewhere else and be a hero there.”
  1201. “A hero?” Carlos asked, his eyebrow’s raising in surprise. Sophia swallowed and nodded.
  1203. “Funny thing is,” Sophia began, glazing at the two of them. They were blocking the door and she was too tired to fight them, so she kept talking and hoped they’d let her pass. “It felt good hitting Emma. She wasn’t a good person, I think I get that now. She was pissing me off because she acting cowardly, and when I punched her? It was the best I felt in weeks. It was more heroic than anything I have done as a Ward. So I'm going to keep doing that.”
  1205. The was a long pause while the two consider that. Dean cocked his head and scrutinized her. After a moment, he asked,
  1207. “What changed?”
  1209. She wondered what he saw because she certainly didn’t know how she felt. Was exhausted an emotion?
  1211. “I don’t know, but I can’t stay here to figure it out. I want to be a hero, so I’ve got to go.” She took a step forward, hoping to brush past them. Carlos moved just a bit, but Dean put a hand on her shoulder.
  1213. “Sophia,” he said quietly. “I know the last week has been hard for you.”
  1215. She shot him a look. “You only know how I reacted yo things, you have no idea what it actually been like.”
  1217. “It hasn’t been good,” he maintained. “But you don’t have to leave like this.”
  1219. “If I stay, I go to jail,” she responded pointedly.
  1221. “And if me and Carlos back you up?”
  1223. That caught Sophia off guard. She glanced at Carlos and found he was looking at Dean questioningly. It was hard to tell if he was against the idea, but he certainly didn’t look receptive to it.
  1225. “Why would you do that?” She demanded flatly. “I know nobody in this place actually gives a shit about me.”
  1227. “That’s not true.” This time it was Carlos who spoke. He wasn’t looking Sophia in the eyes as he ran a hand through his hair. “You’re… not the nicest Sophia, but you’re a part of the team. I could see you’ve been off your game the last few days, even before I talked with Browbeat and Dean. Believe or not, the others worry about you too.”
  1229. Sophia shook her head. “What are you trying to say?”
  1231. “We don’t want you to go,” Dean answered gently.
  1233. “If,” Carlos clarified, raising a finger. “You continue to show up to your shifts on time, and promise that you meant it when you said you wanted to be a hero. We’ll stick our necks out for you, just this once.”
  1235. Sophia stared at them. “Why?” It was all the words she could pull together in her utter disbelief what they were saying.
  1237. Dean and Carlos shared a look.
  1239. “Because… we’re heroes.” Carlos stated. “We can't let you go without offering to help. You can ignore us if you want, go off on your own like I know you've always wanted to. But we had to try and help.”
  1241. Sophia stared at them for a long time, tossing things over in her mind. Here were two people she had never given much respect to, offering to put themselves out there for her. And they’re reason? Because they thought it was right because they were heroes. Because they were strong and she was weak.
  1243. And that was the truth of it. Sophia knew it when they looked at her, they saw someone weak and needing help. Just another helpless person in the streets their gallant egos needed to protect. But the part of Sophia that was bothered by that, the part of her that violently objected to the very idea of weakness, didn’t rise to the occasion.
  1245. She was tired, sticky with juice, and had just punched her only good friend.
  1247. “What do you want me to do?” She hung her head in resignation.
  1249. Dean grabbed her other shoulder so he was holding her with both hands. “You go directly to Piggot, give yourself over, explain everything, and me and Carlos will try and convince her. If it comes down to it, we’ll offer to be responsible for any consequences that keeping you might cause.”
  1251. “You want me to fucking beg for mercy,” Sophia nearly spat.
  1253. “Sophia,” Carlos said sternly, stepping closer. “Even if you skipped town and tried to be a hero somewhere else, I doubt you could be a hero if you didn’t try to get forgiven.”
  1255. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, realizing it slowly. “Fine.”
  1257. The two began to lead her out of the Ward’s room and towards Piggot’s office. Sophia tried to scowl, or be angry at what she would have to do. But she was worn out, worn down, and maybe just a little relieved they had helped her.
  1259.     #130
  1261. Taylor stepped back as her dad took over with some paper towels to hold to Emma’s nose. She was still on the ground, staring at the two of them with increasing clarity as her brain caught up with her. As Taylor crouched down next to her, her father glanced over to share a concerned look. For Emma’s benefit as well as hers, he told her,
  1263. “I’ve called the police and informed them of what happened. They’re sending an ambulance to check her out and see if she needs any more care. It looks pretty bad.”
  1265. He pulled the towels back for her to see. Crimson blood had initially gushed over her face, covering her nose and cheeks, making it hard for Taylor to notice at first. After a second, she felt a chill go up her spine as she realized Emma’s nose had been bent horribly out of shape.
  1267. “Who was that?” Taylor asked, suddenly angry.
  1269. “Sofifa,” Emma muttered through the paper towels. She tried to sit up, and Danny instinctively tried to make her stay laying down. After a moment he thought better of it and helped her move into a sitting position.
  1271. “Here, you should sit forward. Breathe through your mouth. If it doesn’t hurt, pinch the bridge of your nose. I’ve called your dad, he said he’d be here as soon as he could..” Emma seemed dizzy. She reached around Danny to help herself remain upright.
  1273. “What were you two yelling about?” Taylor pressed. “I heard you two talking, but when I got to the door you were laying on your back?”
  1275. “Taylor,” Danny suddenly said, a tone of wide alarm overtaking his voice. “You need to get back inside!” She was confused for a moment, not understanding why he would tell her to just leave Emma. Then she remembered and went wide-eyed as well before slapping her hands over her ears. But it didn’t matter, she was wearing short sleeves and her scales were clearly visible. Not to mention her hair.
  1277. “I-,” she paused and pressed her lips together in a thin frown. “Fine. But as soon as you get the chance Emma, you call me!” Taylor stood back up and nearly ran inside. Thankfully he said something before anyone showed up. Now they just had to worry about neighbors looking out their windows at the wrong time.
  1279. Not able to do anything, but unwilling to leave, she sat by the window with the curtains drawn. Carefully, she Listened to everything Emma said, which wasn’t much. Even when she became more coherent she was oddly silent when Danny asked her questions.
  1281. The police arrived with the ambulance several minutes later. A pair of paramedics took over caring for Emma, letting Danny step away and talk to the police. As they started taking a statement, Taylor felt profoundly useless. Emma had been right outside, and she hadn’t been able to do anything until her friend had already been hurt. She couldn’t even give her statement to the police because of how she looked. He leg bounced restlessly as she focused her Listening on what the medics were saying.
  1283. Another police officer, the partner of the one her dad was speaking to, picked something off the ground near Emma. As he flipped through it she recognized it as the journal she had lent to Emma just yesterday. Taylor frowned. Had Emma skipped school just to give it back to her? No, that didn’t make sense, it wasn’t that important.
  1285. The officer walked to where his partner was standing and presented him with the journal.
  1287. “Check this out,” she Heard him say. She felt her ear twitch as she moved her focus away from the medics. As if they were trying to face a different direction. The first police officer flipped through the pages, skimming over them.
  1289. “Sir,” he said, addressing her father. “You said her name was Emma, right?”
  1291. “Uh, yes?” Danny answered, caught off guard a little.
  1293. “And do the names Sophia, Madison, and…” He flipped back a few pages searching for something, “Julia mean anything to you?”
  1295. He shook his head. “Can’t say they do. What’s this about?”
  1297. “Well, it looks to me someone has been keeping a log of sorts.” The officer flipped through the pages and spoke while looking down at them. “Dated entries of threatening emails, verbal harassment in school hallways, a few minor physical altercations. A bullying campaign, if I had to put a label on it. Emma seems to appear quite a bit in it.”
  1299. Taylor’s frown deepened. Emma, a bullying campaign? That didn’t make sense. She thought back on all of her interactions with Emma over the years. She was a little vain, judgemental some of the time. But never mean. Try as she might, Taylor just couldn’t picture the same girl that gave her makeup kits on her birthday do anything like the cops mentioned. ‘Minor physical altercations’? Taylor shook her head, Emma wasn’t like that. Anyone could probably overpower her.
  1301. “Can I see that?” Danny asked, drawing Taylor’s focus back to them. She narrowed her eyes at the journal. Why would a log like that be in one of her notebooks?
  1303. He took the book when it was offered to him and stared at the page it was open to. She saw the muscles on his face grow tense. His eyes glance over to Emma. The paramedics were putting her in the back of the ambulance.
  1305. “It’s my daughter’s handwriting,” Danny said in a tense tone. Taylor felt something cold drop into her stomach. That couldn’t be true. She knew Emma, it didn’t make sense!
  1308. Then she remembered one of the names the officer had said. Sophia. Taylor’s eyes widened. The girl she had attacked that night, a bully? Her bully? She remembered the night Emma found the journal. She had looked through it. She had to have known what was written inside but didn’t tell her. In fact, she wanted to leave with the journal as soon as she found it!
  1310. Taylor’s head was spinning. It didn’t make sense, Emma was her friend! But she had lied about the journal, took it, probably to destroy it. She’d only do that if she was guilty, but then why come back? Why bring the journal? Taylor was so confused by all the inherent contradictions in the idea of Emma being a bully she only loosely grasped the rest of the conversation.
  1312. “I see,” the officer stated firmly, taking the journal out of Danny’s hand. “We’re going to need to talk to your daughter about this.”
  1314. That made him hesitate for a moment. “I’m afraid you can’t see her.”
  1316. “Why’s that? She at school? If you’ll tell us which school, we can just go there.”
  1318. Danny shook his head. “No, she’s in the house. I just mean you can’t talk to her right now. She’s… preoccupied.”
  1320. The officer frowned seriously. “Sir. This girl was assaulted outside your house, and I mean to ask your daughter about what she was doing at the time. Now, for you’re own sake, I’d bring her out here to talk.”
  1322. “I called you,” Danny stated pointedly, crossing his arms. “I already told you, I saw who hit her and which way she ran off. She couldn’t have gone far on foot, if you go after her you might still catch up to her.”
  1324. The officer sighed and shook his head. “I’m sure that’s what you’d like us to do. But the way I see it? It seems like you’re buying your daughter time to clean herself up after hitting this girl. Now, either you bring your daughter out here or we’re going to have to take her into questioning as part of the investigation.”
  1326. “I’m afraid you can’t do that,” Danny stated firmly.
  1328. “Why a not?” The officer asked, nonplussed.
  1330. Danny held a steady gaze as he looked the officer in the eye. “PRT business.”
  1332. The officer paused then took in a deep breath. Grabbing the radio on his shoulder, he spoke into it with a resigned sigh. “We’ve got a code PH12. Moving to investigate the neutral elements of the scene while we wait for PRT response.”
  1334. “Copy that, contacting them now,” a female voice answered through the radio.
  1336. The officer looked back up at Danny. “I suggest you don’t go anywhere until you hear from the PRT.”
  1338. ***
  1340. Taylor stared blankly at the table in the PRT conference room as her dad talked to everyone that came through. Piggot herself came by at some point and explained the situation to them. How the journal had been entered into evidence, how parents and the school had been contacted, how an investigation of all the bullies was underway, how they needed to search her room for more evidence. She only partially listened to it all, because none of it told her why things happened today the way they did. Danny had asked Piggot if the evidence of the bullying would reopen the case of her attacking Sophia. It was the one question Taylor had really listened to. Piggot only shook her head and said the matter of the assault was settled, and only mattered to the other girl. After that, Taylor spaced out again.
  1342. When they left it was getting late in the afternoon. Danny shot her a concerned look as they got in the car.
  1344. “Taylor are you alright? You haven’t said a thing all day.”
  1346. She shook her head to help clear it. “I’m fine. I’m just confused about it all. I don’t remember high school at all. I don’t even know who Sophia is, let alone how Emma and I stopped being friends.” She wondered distantly if she had done something to break up their friendship, but she didn’t voice it.
  1348. “I know its probably all a lot to take in.” he put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. “Tell you what, why don’t we stop somewhere to get something to eat?”
  1350. She forced a smile on her face. “Sounds good, I’ve been hungry for hours.”
  1352. Despite the dismal tone of the whole day Danny laughed. “I’m sure you have. You eat more than me now.”
  1354. A little bit of warmth came on to her face at that, but it wasn’t much. The questions nagging at her mind didn’t let her easily forget what happened. Tentatively, she asked,
  1356. “Have you heard from Emma?”
  1358. Danny hesitated with a frown. “Alan left a voicemail while we were in the PRT building. He said she doing fine. She’s in the hospital with a broken nose and a mild concussion said she they were going to hold her overnight for observation.”
  1360. “You think I could go see her?”
  1362. “Taylor,” he sounded pained. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Whatever was going on between you and her- well, the police are investigating it now. You probably shouldn’t talk at least until they’re done.”
  1364. Taylor let out a sigh and shook her head. “I just want some answers.”
  1366. “And we’ll get them,” he reassured her. “As soon as they’re done investigating the full extent of what happened. But look at it this way, you don’t have to go to Winslow anymore and tomorrow? You start your first day as a Ward! That’s something to look forward to, huh?” His expression changed to a smile and he nudged her with an elbowed her from his seat in the car.
  1368. “It’s something,” she offered, giving him another small smile. She didn’t say much more after that. Instead, she began thinking. Thinking how she would straighten everything out in her head.
  1370. ***
  1372. When her father had gone to bed, Taylor stood at her window. The PRT had searched through her room, but it had been in such a mess already she hardly noticed a difference. They had found a second copy of the journal though, hidden in the metal rungs beneath her bed. She hadn’t been allowed to read that one either. Taylor grit her teeth. They hadn’t let her look at her own things, things that might have made sense of the questions running circles in her head.
  1374. Taylor opened her window. It was an almost perfect night. The day had been warm but the night air was bringing a cool breeze that cut the warm air with a pleasant sensation. Taylor opened her mouth to fill her lungs, ignoring the taste of city stench carried on the breeze. Reluctant to cut off the feeling of the air, she pulled her hood up and made sure her hair was stuffed inside. She swung her legs up onto the window frame. For a time, she sat looking out, wondering if she was really committed to this plan. She calmed herself and closed her eyes, considering it all one more time.
  1376. She had been bullied, leading her to attack this Sophia girl, leading to her trigger. Up until this morning, Taylor was more than willing to let that lie. To just accept those as the fact and move on, become a hero. But now her best friend was wrapped up in this somehow, and the PRT wasn’t giving her answers. They even seemed to personally be investigating the bullying matter. Emma would be able to answer a lot, Taylor knew. Maybe not everything, but a lot. The questions had answers, she only needed to go get them.
  1378. Shaking her head as if to clear her thoughts, Taylor gripped the window frame and spun around. When she was dangling by her fingertips, she let go and feel to the ground. She did her best to land with her knees bent in order to absorb the fall, but he impact rattled through her joints with a shock of pain. She nearly fell on her side, but held an arm out to hold her as she gasped. Standing up slowly, she counted herself lucky there was at least grass beneath her window and not concrete.
  1380. Taylor took one more deep breath before starting off at a light jog, thinking she could borrow a bike or something on the way.
  1382. ***
  1384. Traversing the city at night was far different than Taylor had expected it to be, but thankfully she didn’t have to go far. Emma would be at the nearest hospital to their house, which could only be a squat three-story building a few blocks away from the high school she had apparently been going to. The memory of the bus stop outside the place was vague in her mind, but it was something she remembered. Too bad the bus didn’t run this late at night
  1386. She had found what she had guessed to be a boy’s bike poorly locked up outside someone’s home. It was surprising it hadn’t been stolen already, maybe she’d leave a note to the kid when she brought it back? Even with the bike, Taylor guessed it had taken more than an hour, maybe even two. The time had flown past her, due to her keeping an eye on her surroundings and trying to get her questions sorted in her head.
  1388. Now she stood in front of the Northbay Medical Center, staring up the lines of windows of the wide rectangular building. Now she was faced with a bit of an issue.
  1390. She seriously doubted that even if they let people visit at all hours, they would let someone who just claims to be a friend to see her. And if they knew she was being investigated by the PRT or police, it would be even more doubtful. But more than all of that, she didn’t want to be seen. People would remember her eyes.
  1392. However, she didn’t ride a bike across the city for no reason. So with just a little bit of reservation, she opened her mouth flicked her tongue out at the cool air. Taking a dozen steps closer to the building, she finally tasted people on the air. It had been a warm week, and many people had their windows opens to let in the cool breeze she had found so pleasant at first. Taylor gingerly started walking the length of the building, careful to keep her distance, especially from windows with lights still on inside. As she walked, she could taste the mix of people changing. Some scents growing weaker or stronger as she past certain windows. Sometimes a sharp breeze would blast the smells away from her, requiring her to stop and wait for them to come back before she continued.
  1394. Suddenly, a familiar combination of perfume hit the air and she zeroed in on it. Gazing upward she eyed the windows until the scent was at its strongest. Taylor hadn’t actually been expecting to find her scent, figuring it was more likely she could use the scents to rule out the open windows. But now there not only a perfume she had definitely smelled before, but some kind of deodorant with a similar smell. And… shampoo? It was all very tropical, something Taylor remembered her friend being fond of. However, the scent that really confirmed it was the one she was most familiar with. After all, it was hard to recall all the things Emma had smelled like when she hadn’t taken note before, but Taylor remembered what Emma’s favorite food from her favorite restaurant smelled like. Teriyaki chicken from a Chinese place on the other side of town, her dad probably got it was a treat for her.
  1396. Taylor walled up to the brick exterior and the building and place her hand against the rough surface. Then she arched her fingers and sank her nails into the brick.
  1398. Her heart began to race in her chest as Taylor began pull herself upwards, following the scent with the occasional flick of her tongue. She had been considering doing this since she first came up with the idea on the bike ride over. Now that she was doing it she was beginning to doubt whether it was as smart as it seemed at the time. But she could hardly stop now.
  1400. Her fingers started to ache with the unfamiliar effort by the time she reached the second-floor windows. She was just thankful her powers had come with some extra muscle because she knew she would have never been able to do this without them.
  1402. Finally, she gripped the window frame the smells were coming from and pulled herself up enough to peer inside. Emma was lying flat on her back, pillow on her stomach while she stared into the bright light of her phone. The light reflected off the thick white bandages covering her nose.
  1404. Taylor paused when she saw Emma was still awake. She hadn’t counted on that, but maybe the brightness of the screen would blind her until she got into the room. With that in mind, Taylor observed the window. It had clearly been designed to prevent anyone from being able to fall out it. The window itself was a large square, with two panes of glass splitting it down the middle. The gap that was left by the open side looked just large enough to fit an arm through, so that’s what she attempted. She pushed her right arm through up to the shoulder, then gave it a little shove to get the shoulder inside too. Twisting her head she struggled to force it through as well, silently wishing she wouldn’t get stuck. To get this far only to be trapped in a window would be more than she could handle. The edges of the window scraped against her hoodie as her head popped through.
  1406. Needing to pull her left arm through now, she twisted her right arm backward, the joint in her shoulder bending far more than would be possible for a normal person. Using her abnormal joints to her advantage, she pushed against the inside wall with her right hand and pulled her left hand free of the outside wall. Bring the limb inside the window frame, Taylor bent her elbow backward in order to put a hand on the space just above the window. With a push, her other shoulder came through. Then she began to wiggle, her torso moving up and down in the frame. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had to laugh that her powers had added just a little bit a volume to her chest. As if to make this specific task more difficult. However, the change wasn’t significant enough to prevent her from pulling herself through the window up to her hips.
  1408. Taylor took a deep breath, now uncomfortably halfway through the window. Eager to have this over with, she twisted. Her torso willingly obliged her in allowing her to rotate enough to be parallel to the floor. She sank his nails into the tile floor and began bending her legs. Her left leg went up, turned around, and entered the room ankle first. Her knee, thigh, and hip still jutting out the window. Her right leg did similarly, only underneath her body. Taylor had never done the splits in her life, now she was beginning to appreciate her baggy pants in a whole new light. With most of her legs inside to help push, she made the final pull into the room and fell to the floor in a heap of her own oddly bent limbs.
  1410. It took her a confusing moment for her mind to catch up to what limbs needed to point which way before she started unwinding her self. She pulled herself up off the floor, looking at Emma to see if she had noticed anything.
  1412. Emma was sitting straight up in her beg, looking both nauseated and ready to jump up and bolt at any moment.
  1414. “Emma,” Taylor stated in a neutral tone. Now that she was here, she wasn’t sure how to go about asking what she wanted. She felt like she wanted to be angry, but she didn’t know why yet. If Emma was still her friend, she didn’t want to be upset with her. Yet at the same time, she was impatient for answers. In a moment, Taylor decided being direct would be for the best. She probably shouldn’t stay here for long.
  1416. Taylor took several steps towards Emma’s bed until the girl was in arm’s length of her. Emma looked almost petrified. “Why is there a journal saying you and two other girls bullied me? And why did you bring it to my house this morning? Why did Sophia hit you?”
  1418. Emma hesitated for a long moment. She seemed… shaken. “I-I was, um.” She swallowed, considered something, and then began speaking hurriedly. “Sophia and Madison started bulling you when high school started. They forced me to be a part of it, because me being your best friend would make it hurt more, yeah? And then, and then, ah, I wanted to tell you about it so I was bringing you the journal when Sophia found out. That’s why she hit me!”
  1420. Taylor frowned. “Why didn’t you show me the journal when you found it in my room?”
  1422. Emma’s eyes widened a bit. “Because I wanted to show the teachers at school! You had forgotten about everything and I… didn’t want to remind you of it because it would be painful.” A relieved smile flushed across Emma’s face as if she just gripped something to keep her from drowning.
  1424. Taylor studied her. Something felt… off. Emma seemed unnerved. Because of how Taylor had just come through the window? Maybe, but Taylor was her friend and Emma knew she had powers. As soon as Emma saw it was her, surely she would have relaxed. So why didn’t she?
  1426. Taylor Looked at her. It took her brain a moment to catch up to her as her vision switched and she saw a menagerie of color. Emma's skin glowed a reddish-orange, with darker shades around her core. Body heat, Taylor decided. She strained her ears next, Listening intently. In the quiet hospital room, she could hear the echo of heart monitors, muffled conversations, TVs playing late-night programming. Taylor tilted her head. If she listened really closely, it was just quiet enough to hear Emma's heartbeat.
  1428. "You're lying to me," Taylor declared. Emma's face heated up, her heart quickened. Taylor parted her mouth just a bit, swiping her tounge over her lips. There was a nervous sweat in the air. "You bullied me at school Emma, didn't you?"
  1430. Emma's eyes opened even wider as her breath caught in her throat. Taylor could see her own eyes glowing faintly in the reflection of Emma's gaze. Funny, she never knew her eyes glowed when she was Looking.
  1432. "Yes." Emma finally managed to say in a quiet, defeated tone. Taylor felt her heart sink. She had really been hoping it wasn’t true. That she hadn't had her best friend since starting high school was a hard pill to swallow.
  1434. "And Sophia, and Madison?"
  1436. "My… friends. I think."
  1438. "What happened that night I attacked Sophia?" Taylor wasn't sure what she felt, but it wasn't good. She stepped closer. Emma shuffled to the edge of the bed, glancing towards the door.
  1440. "Nothing! Or nothing, out of the ordinary." Emma ran a hand through her hair and glanced that the door again. "We might have pulled a prank on you that morning, but it was… normal. I guess you just snapped."
  1442. "So," Taylor nearly hissed as a feeling of icy betrayal speared through her chest and leaked into her tone. "You, my own best friend, bullied me to a point I snapped? Attacked someone? Why? Why would you do that?" Her own demanding tone surprised her, but she found she didn't care.
  1444. "I-I-I dont know. I met Sophia and we just-"
  1446. Taylor cut her off. "Why didn't you tell me when you came to visit me? Why did you take the journal and come back with it?"
  1448. Emma took a shaky breath and took a step off the bed, a number of cords attached to her body starting to pull tight. When it looked like she might not answer, Taylor stepped around the bed, putting herself between Emma and the door. Heer paled expression took Taylor in again and finally said,
  1450. "I was pretending we were still friends, to bully you more later on. And I was bringing the journal back so… so Sophia would go after you."
  1452. Taylor closed her eyes, trying to process the information. “After you pushed me to the point I snapped, you didn’t think you had done enough?” Taylor opened her eyes and glared at Emma. She hung her head. After a long bit of silence, she finally stated.
  1454. “Sorry.”
  1456. “Sorry?” Taylor laughed. It was so absurd. Hours ago, she had only been confused. Now it felt like her whole life had been flipped on it side, teetering on an edge she didn’t understand. She couldn’t tell if she should feel angry or just betrayed.
  1458. Taylor turned on a heel and purposely strode for the window. With a small amount of effort, she managed to force it open another inch beyond what it had been. She put one foot up into the window frame and then glanced back at Emma, standing still in the darkroom with a pale and stunned expression.
  1460. “You’re pathetic,” Taylor snarled at her, finally letting a bit of anger take root. And then, she slipped out the window with a small bit more grace than she had come in through it with.
  1462.     #150
  1464. “How are you feeling?” Danny asked, looking over at Taylor as they sat in the car. They were parked on the street looking straight ahead at the PRT building. She hadn’t ever taken the time to really look at it and notice the subtle differences in it and the surrounding architecture. Her eyes had glazed over as she considered the little oddities when her dad’s question brought her back to the moment.
  1466. “Alright, I guess. Just… considering.” She spoke in a tired tone. Last night’s events had worn her down.
  1468. “Considering?” He asked, smiling a little. “Thinking about what your first day is going to be like?”
  1470. Taylor shrugged and looked away, towards some of the small shops on the street around them. “Maybe.”
  1472. The way he was making it feel like she was a child starting her first day of elementary certainly didn’t make her feel any easier about it. Mostly, she had avoided thinking about anything to do with today. Somehow, all of a sudden the idea of becoming a superhero didn’t really seem all that special. And if that wasn’t a disappointing thought, she couldn’t imagine what was.
  1474. Her dad frowned and in a more serious tone, asked, “Still thinking about what happened with Emma?”
  1476. Taylor paused for a moment to think it over, then shook her head. She had thought about it plenty enough already since leaving the hospital.
  1478. “No,” she answered firmly. “I’m just ready to be done with all that. It’s like you said, I don’t have to go to Winslow anymore.” Sometime between getting home and leaving the house the next morning, Taylor had come to one solid conclusion. Even though she had forgotten all of her time at Winslow, she had had enough highschool drama for her tastes.
  1480. “Oh, well, good.” He answered with a hesitant nod. There seemed to be something he wanted to add, but he couldn’t quite get it out. Instead, he changed course. “So are you ready to head in?”
  1482. She took a deep breath and nodded. All of a sudden, there was some apprehension where there hadn’t been before. She pulled her hoodie up and slipped on a large pair of round sunglasses, the kind that covered most of her face. Idly, she thought they fit rather well with the rest of her face.
  1484. She was just reaching for the door handle when her father put a hand on her shoulder. Looking back, he was smiling at her kindly.
  1486. "Have a good day kiddo." There was more there than a goodbye, Taylor sensed. A wish maybe, or a reminder not to let things get her down on what should be an important day. She took a deep breath and smiled. Things shouldn't get her down, not when she already committed to putting it behind her. She decided then to go into this at least trying to be positive.
  1488. With a little bit more energy, she opened the door and answered her dad. "I'll do my best."
  1490. He offered her a little wave as she started on down the street. She returned it, adjusting the small backpack on her shoulder with the other hand. It contained the bundle of clothing that had been delivered to her house this morning along with instructions on how to go inside.
  1492. Her smile didn't go away when she left her dad behind and entered into the lobby of the PRT. As the instructions described, she walked to the gift shop and started weaving through the shelves. Looking up and down the merchandise as she made her way towards the restrooms in the back. Just to the left of the public restrooms, there was a narrow hallway leading to a single door designated by a black sign as the employee restroom. Without checking to see if anyone was looking, she started towards it and slipped inside without pause.
  1494. The room was a small, single-stall bathroom with a second door on the other side. A sign suggested it was a janitor’s closet, but Taylor now knew better. There was a pin pad on the door and she entered a shortcode. A light on it turned green and she pushed her way in. It did look like a janitor’s closet on its surface, but it was clear by sparse amount of supplies and the collection of dust on them that is was only for appearance sake. That, and she tasted a faint smell of pizza. Maybe someone had a quick snack in here beforehand? When the door clicked shut behind her, Taylor slipped the backpack off her shoulder and pulled a sealed plastic package out.
  1496. If there had been time, she would have liked to try on the costume at home. The package and instructions had arrived at her house just two hours ago. With some measure of enthusiasm, she ripped open the package and started pulling out clothing.
  1498. The roughness of the fabric caught her attention as she removed it. With a flick of her hand, some kind of shirt unrolled. She held it out in outstretched arms and examined it. It was a deep evergreen that in the dim closet seemed almost black. It came with a stiff high collar the felt like it had a strip of metal in it. She realized on closer examination there was a hood stitched to the inside of the heavy garment. It seemed more like a coat than a shirt, particularly with the heavy zipper concealed with a flap of fabric held down with buttons. Even so, she took off her current shirt to slip it on.
  1500. The pants were the same deep green and looked similar to leather. When she felt them it seemed more like fabric. She couldn't tell exactly what it was, but it at least felt breathable.
  1502. Slipping those on as well, she glanced at the remaining contents of the bag. It was a mix of items not having many similarities between them. But Taylor recognized what they were from all the times her dad discussed costumes and her identity with their PR agent over the phone. First, she pulled out a pair of black fingerless gloves. Originally, they had wanted full gloves to hide her nails. But if Taylor ever needed to use them for anything, the gloves would tear. Instead, Taylor resigned herself to painting her nails in her civilian identity. It would be a bit of work to get used to, but she'd manage.
  1504. The next items to come out of the bag were two wide leather straps with a few dozen hoops and pockets attached. Recognizing them, Taylor slipped one around her waist and pulled it tight. The other belt she slipped over her should like a bandolier. There was a loop on her costume's shoulders she buttoned around the belt. It wasn’t entirely clear what all the belts would be used for with all their pouches, but the designers must have had something in mind.
  1506. Or, Taylor considered, they just liked the look of belts.
  1508. She pulled a pair of black boots out from the bag and made a face. It wasn't until she removed them did she see how high the boots went. Inside the bag, the total length of the boot was flimsy material that wrapped around the much more solid foot section. Now that she had them out, it was clear these were much longer than anything she had worn before.
  1510. Moving to sit in the ground, Taylor stared incredulously as she pulled the boot more than halfway up her calf. If it wasn't for the loose material she would have never got her foot all the way down to the actual foot of the boot. The boot itself was heavy, and felt like it had a steel toe. But instead of a round work boot appearance, the tip of the boot was more of a rounded point. Once it was on, she tucked the leg of her pants inside and pulled some more straps tight. She was beginning to get the impression of whoever to design the details didn’t like string and laces.
  1512. All that done, she pulled the final item out and looked it over. The mask was a slightly lighter green than other parts of of the costume. It was meant to be secured over the lower half of her face. The sides were smooth, coming to a rounded point that formed a ridge from where the bridge of her nose would be down to her chin. It reminded her of a respirator.
  1514. Her Dad, paranoid for her safety, had pestered the man they were world with constantly with issues and concerns. Taylor suspected that was part of the reason she got rather thick material instead of something thin and stretchy. This part her father had been especially intent on. He worried over a dozen details about her hair, her eyes, and her ears. When it came to her mouth though, it was the PRT who came up with the idea of hiding it. They didn't want people knowing about her sense of smell. And small vents recessed in the back of the mask meant she could still get fresh air to breathe and taste.
  1516. There was a black visor that looked more like a pair of thin, sharply designed sunglasses with no supporting frame. The earpieces were inflexible lengths of hard plastic that wrapped around the backs of the ears and locked securely into the base of her mask just behind her jaw bone. If her hood didn't come off, you wouldn't be able to tell tinted lenses were all one solid piece.
  1518. All that done, Taylor stood up and looked herself over. It looked alright, she decided with a measure of finality. While her clothing was most deep green, it was all accented with black. Including the gloves, boots, and visor. In daylight, the green would be visible. But at night or in heavy shadows, she would appear dressed in black.
  1520. Without a single defining power, or even an idea of how her supposed Trump power operated, there was no good way to make a costume with a unifying theme to those powers. Instead, they chose an idea of how she might function as part of the team and built the costume around that. If her Trump power turned out to be more useful than they knew, it would serve to misdirect people's first impressions. If not, then she'd use all her minor powers to serve in the role they thought she could fill.
  1522. Stuffing her normal clothes in her bag, she took a deep breath, and then pulled open the false wall in the back of the janitor's closet. Revealing a narrow flight of stairs heading up. With a deep breath and an anxious smile hidden by a mask, Taylor started up the steps.
  1524. The stairway turned once and continued upward before ending at another small doorway. She placed her hand on a flat piece of metal, a scanner concealed as a normal door plate. For a moment, nothing happened. Then a single sharp click sounded through the door and it swung open by itself.
  1526. After she stepped through Taylor found herself in a narrow hallway with white metal walls all around. The boots she now wore echoed off the walls as she followed the directions she recalled. At the end of the hall there was a single flight of stairs that leading up to solid looking steel door.
  1528. She paused in front of it and took a breath. Reminding herself that was trying to stay positive, she managed a small smile and opened the door. A chorus of voices greeted her before it was even halfway open.
  1530. “Heeeeeey!”
  1532. The group Taylor found standing behind the entranceway all wore their costumes and stood in a rough semi-circle in the middle of the room. She couldn’t help but let her smile widen as she recognized each of the junior heroes in turn. Her phases of fangirling over heroes when she was young had never included any of the Wards, but seeing them all for the first time had a similar effect on her as if they had. Anxiousness turned into a nervous excitement she hadn't felt before and she became suddenly very glad for the mask she wore. She was grinning and felt her face heat up.
  1534. Aegis was the first to walk forward. He took his helmet off before extending a hand, revealing longer hair than she would have expected.
  1536. “Carlos,” he greeted with a welcoming smile. He a deep, steady tone of voice. “Team leader, not that it means much. Come on inside, see meet some of the others.”
  1538. “Uh, sounds good,” Taylor stated with a nod. He smiled a little wider and guided her in. Gallant and Vista walked up to her, taking off their own face coverings.
  1540. “I’m Dean,” Gallant stated with a smile and a nod. He tilted his head to gesture to Vista. “And this is Missy.”
  1542. Missy smiled up at Taylor. “You know you can take the visor off, right?” Missy’s height was oddly not as noticeable when she was just standing next to Dean as one of the taller guys. Stand in front of her though forced Taylor to look down at Missy, making it feel like one of them was unusually sized.
  1544. “Oh, yeah,” Taylor answered awkwardly. She reached inside her hood, pressing two release buttons on her mask that disconnected it from the visor. Removing both, she looked around the room. Now appeared much brighter without the lenses in the way. Pushing her hood back, she renewed her smile and said, “Taylor. Um, please to meet you.” She paused for a moment after to wonder if her phrasing had been weird, or if it sounded insincere because it was kind of cliche.
  1546. A slow whistle came across the room. The four of them turn to see Clockblocker sitting on the back of couch that was facing the other way. His helmet was off and was partway through a slice of pizza. It was then Taylor notice a few boxes of pizzas on a nearby table and realized that must have been where the smell from earlier came from.
  1548. “That’s some wicked looking hair,” he mumbled with a mouth full of pizza. He swallowed then grinned. “I’m Clockblocker, blocker of clocks. Also know as Dennis, niser of Dens.” He jerked a thumb to his right, referring to Kid Win who held a plate with three slices of pizza and one in his hand. “That’s Chris, he’s boring.”
  1550. “I can introduce myself,” he halfheartedly complained before taking a bite.
  1552. “You two couldn’t have waited?” Aegis asked with a sigh.
  1554. “Says the guy who just got here,” Dennis argued. “Its the end of my shift.”
  1556. “Mhm,” Chris agreed with a nod, not looking up from his pizza with a wide-eyed, sleepy expression. “Woke up late, missed breakfast.”
  1558. Aegis shook his head but smiled. Then he looked back as Taylor and grinned. “Go ahead, grab a slice, we got plenty. Then, maybe you’d like to talk about your powers? Higher-ups haven't told me anything concrete yet, only your name.”
  1560. Taylor nodded, following Aegis to the table with the food. He moved fast. In fact, everyone seemed pretty sociable. It felt like she was entering into a tightly knit friend group. Knowing she was expected to find her own niche here was uncomfortable.
  1562. Taylor knew she had never been very sociable in middle school, sticking to just Emma and whoever she brought into the group. But there was substantially more people here than in any of those situations. She wondered briefly if she had more luck in high school with social circles, and then remembered Emma and quickly purged that line of thinking.
  1564. “Speaking of names,” Missy interrupted, squeezing between Taylor and Carlos in order to get at the pizza. “Carlos won’t share your cape name. Like the costume by the way, green’s a good color.”
  1566. “Oh, its, ah,” Taylor hesitated as she saw everyone looking at her intently. “Pathfinder. I wanted Ranger or Scout or something, but Pathfinder its as close as we got.”
  1568. “So you’ve got some sort of reconnaissance power?” Dean guessed.
  1570. “Something like that, it’s complicated.” Taylor looked around. Carlos and Dean were looking at her with content expressions. The others weren’t looking directly at her, but seemed to be listening as they ate. “So, um,” Taylor began, looking to change the subject away from her powers. “Where are Browbeat and Shadow Stalker? I would have thought I would meet them too. Since the rest of you are all here.”
  1572. Carlos and Dean grimaced. Missy, Chris, and Dennis all suddenly seemed more focused on their pizza.
  1574. “It’s Browbeat’s day off and he’s pretty new to the team so he elected not to come. Shadow Stalker is… complicated.” Carlos frowned and glanced at Dean before continuing. “You see, Shadow Stalker has a bit of a history and,” he paused as if reconsidering his words. “We’re hoping you two never have to work with each other.” He finished awkwardly. Taylor frowned a bit and shot him a puzzled look.
  1576. “Why wouldn’t I work with her? We’re on the same team, shouldn’t we at least know each other?”
  1578. “That’s the thing,” Dean began. “You kind of do know each other.”
  1580. Taylor blinked. “What?”
  1582. Missy groaned and rolled her eyes. “Quit jumping around the subject, you’re not making it any better.”
  1584. Carlos nodded and sighed. “Right, right. You and Shadow Stalker know each other in your civilian identities. Her name is Sophia Hess.”
  1586. Taylor’s blood went cold. As Carlos moved to change the subject and show her more of the base, she was only partly listening. She couldn’t keep the smile or the positive attitude she had tried to have as a storm brewed inside her. Slowly, she was forming an idea, and coming to a decision.
  1588. Dean watched her with a troubled expression.
  1590. ***
  1592. Sophia frowned as she tied up the laces on her running shoes. The ankle monitor she wore wasn’t as big and clunky as she thought it would have been, but it still seemed like she might not be able to slip her boots over it. With a sigh, she pushed the thought out of her mind. She wouldn’t need to wear boots any time soon. Shouldering her bag, she pulled out her phone to check the time. No sooner had she pulled it from her pocket than came a knock on the door.
  1594. Sophia resisted the urge to smirk as she pulled up the door and found a boy about her age standing outside, hands shoved in his pockets. He was tall and broad, with a level a muscle depth that was well beyond toned but not quite what would be considered a bodybuilder type. She had seen him out of costume before, but the bright orange curly hair always managed to catch her off guard. It was at odds with the dark black and blue of his costume.
  1596. “You came.” She stated, raising an eyebrow. Browbeat, or Liam rather kept a relaxed expression as he took her in for a moment, then shrugged.
  1598. “I was assigned to it.”
  1600. “I mean you came when I asked,” Sophia replied with a roll of her eyes. She picked up the bag she had prepared, and made to step out the door but froze before she committed to it.
  1602. “I’m not here for a social visit, I’m just taking you back to base,” Liam stated sternly, his expression hardening a bit. He had intense green eyes that seemed to narrow in on anything he looked at with an analytical gaze. Sophia vague recalled him having freckles, but they weren't present anymore.
  1604. “Then why did you come early?” Perhaps it was rude since he did come as she asked him, but she couldn’t help trying to nettle him just a bit.
  1606. “Personally?” He asked, raising an eyebrow. “I think Dean and Chris made a mistake vouching for you, and Piggot made a mistake giving you a third chance.” Holding her gaze, he held a small round device near to his mouth and spoke into it. “This is Liam Shannon, escorting Sophia Hess back to HQ.” The devices released a high pitched beep. In response, Liam knelt and held out the device. Sophia extending her leg, bring the ankle monitor near the device until it let out two quick beeps in succession.
  1608. Liam stood up and started down the path in front of her house and down to the sidewalk. Sophia quickly grabbed her bag and hurried after him.
  1610. “I would have thought you’d be all on board for taking the high road, do the good thing, hero-like and all.”
  1612. “Just because I'm a hero, doesn’t mean I’m stupid. And I know people, know they don’t change unless something really life-changing happened, or they are really self-reflective.” He cast her a look that made it clear he didn’t think she was capable of the latter. “So yeah, whatever it is you said to Chris and Dean, I’m not buying it. You need a therapist, not more time in costume.”
  1614. Sophia shrugged and looked away. Instead of answering anything he said directly, she stated in a bored tone, “I have one now, actually. They’re replacing all of the time I used to do track with therapy sessions.”
  1616. Liam didn’t know how to respond to that so he remained silent. Smirking to herself, she counted it as a win. They walked in silence all the way until the bus stop and the full ride to the nearest stop near the PRT. Liam had set the tone when they set out, and Sophia really didn’t care enough to try and change it. Eventually, as they were walking in the direction of the PRT, Liam said,
  1618. “I’m surprised you're not trying to cover up the ankle monitor.”
  1620. Sophia glanced down at it. “Why would I? I choose to take this chance, this is just part of me trying to do better. I won’t hide that .”
  1622. ***
  1624. “Well, well, well.”
  1626. Emma shuddered at the sound of the voice behind her, but she wasn’t sure why. Turning, she saw Madison standing with three other girls and a taller boy in a semicircle close to her. The hallways were busy with students getting ready for the first class of the day, filling the hall with the noise of dozens of meaningless conversations. Emma swallowed as Madison took a step toward her. She was smiling, and her one good eye took her in with a wide look that seemed almost hungry.
  1628. “It looks like you got hit by a fucking bus.” The sudden and sure way she said it made Emma gawk. She knew that on the surface her looks hadn’t changed all that much, but her nose would always be a little crooked. It wasn't a major deformity, but it stung to have it pointed out within minutes of returning to school. It didn’t make sense that Madison would say that to her. Before Emma had time to process someone else added in,
  1630. “Looks like those modeling jobs of hers are over.”
  1632. “Good thing too,” the tall boy with them added. “I was getting tired of her ugly face being all over the mall.”
  1634. “Does that upset you?” Madison asked innocently, cocking her head and making a pouty expression. “Can’t put your fat head on the advertisements now?”
  1636. “Maddie,” Emma began. “What are you-”
  1638. “Don’t call me Maddie, Emma.” She sighed and looked away like she was losing interest. “Friends call me Maddie, and you don’t have any friends Emma. Your last one punched you when she found out how much a bitch you are.”
  1640. Emma stared at Madison for several seconds as the words sank in. Her heart felt heavy in her chest and it must have shown on her face because Madison broke into a grin. She took several steps back and laughed a little at Emma’s face. Those around her chuckled as if she had said something funny.
  1642. “Oh cheer up Emma, you look like your mother just died.”
  1644. As tears welled up behind Emma’s eyes, she managed to choke out a single question.
  1646. “Why?”
  1648. In answer, Madison only smiled. Her one good eye burning into Emma.
  1650. ***
  1652. Late that night, Taylor slipped into the abandoned ferry station through a window. The interior was dark except for just a bit of moonlight coming in through the windows. She considered trying the lights, given how the building was more well kept than other abandoned places in the city, but decided against it. She didn't want anyone seeing lights in here and coming to investigate.
  1654. Slowly, she walked the empty location, noting the windows and hollow spaces where small mini restaurants would have been built. Dusty benches where people would have waited for the next ferry sat back to back and end to end through the whole of the building, providing enough seating for hundreds. And that's just the inside, not counting the outdoor seating above the place.
  1656. It would take some work to turn this into place for her to work out of. She wasn't even sure what she would need for a base to work out of, or what she would be doing once she had such a base.
  1658. But she was sure of one thing. The PRT was a farce, caring more about having capes than having good capes. And if she wanted to be a hero, a real hero, she'd have to do it alone. Because no one that was Sophia's teammate could really be a hero.
  1660.     #212
  1662. ‘What does a hero do?’
  1664. It was the title of the class, or rather, the first series of videos and quizzes on said videos needed to complete as part of the initiation of a Wards. In preparation of taking notes, Taylor wrote it at the top of the first page of a brand new journal. But as the video played, she stared at the words and thought.
  1666. Taylor was wearing her costume, excepting the hood and mask. Sitting in the little private room put together for her, she had a small and simple laptop for doing Ward and school work. The room had a narrow twin size bed, a dresser, and a small desk. Leaving little room for anything else and only some wall space if she wanted to hang anything up. It was all very lifeless. The dresser was a sturdy black plastic, the desk made of metal with tan paint, and the bed with grey sheets. She would guess if she looked in the other Wards' room, she’d find much the same.
  1668. The first part of her morning was spent taking tests on every normal school subject, getting placement scores to be sent off and evaluated. Likely she would be getting a steady curriculum in the upcoming weeks, supplemented with more general training.
  1670. Taylor let out a long sigh. It was surprisingly mundane compared to what she thought of being a junior ‘hero’ would have been like, but she reluctantly knew it was a good trade-off for school. She came in at nine and had until four to do whatever work she had to do. All online, with calendars and to-do lists of both school assignments and PRT training courses. Even a place to set up meetings for training that can't be done online.
  1672. Then her thoughts drifted back to the paper and the header. Hero. A parahuman, cape, powered individual, who differed from villains… by some metric. Taylor bit the end of her pen as the image of Emma laying on the ground bleeding crossed her mind. Of a journal filled with over a year of a hero’s work.
  1674. “Knock knock.”
  1676. Taylor looked up and saw Missy standing in the doorway she had left open. She was smiling kindly, arms crossed and leaning against the doorway in a casual manner. Missy was young, and smiled easily. She wore her costume and had her visor hanging on her side. It wasn’t hard to imagine her acting in an over cutesy and innocent manner, but just from what she had seen so far, Missy was far from that.
  1678. And Missy was a hero. Was she like Sophia? No, probably not. But they are both heroes. Taylor chewed the end of her pen considering.
  1680. “Um…” she began, giving Taylor a funny look. “Is there something wrong with my hair?”
  1682. Taylor blinked, then shook her head clear and felt her face heat just slightly.
  1684. “Sorry, no. I was just thinking. The training video had asked a question and I was just, um, think about how you might-.” Taylor rolled her tongue in her mouth to make herself stop, then tried again. “Did you need me?” Figuring out how to carry a conversation with the other Wards had seemed like it would be an awkward task when she first met them. Now, it seemed all the more unnerving with the knowledge of what she did the night before. Well, she didn’t do anything terrible, besides probably trespassing. Even so, it felt like she had committed to something. Something that would definitely get her in trouble if they had some idea of it. That commitment alone was enough to give her a skittish feeling talking to any of them.
  1686. “You’ve been stuffed in here for hours,” she answered with a relaxed smile. Tucking a stray blonde lock of hair behind her ear, she gestured behind her. “Come on, I’ll show you where to get some lunch.”
  1688. Checking the time revealed it to be half-past twelve, surprising Taylor a bit. Then, almost as if summoned by Missy’s mention of food, her stomach suddenly felt very empty and made a strange noise at her.
  1690. Taylor paused the video she hadn’t been listening to and followed Missy, leaving her mask behind. She had been informed that while there were occasionally public tours of the Wards room, they would all be on stand by until she was ready to make her public debut. Missy took her out of the common room and down one of the several connecting hallways.
  1692. “So, hows the homework?” Missy asked. She trailed a hand across the wall as she walked.
  1694. “Huh?” The question caught Taylor off guard.
  1696. “The initiation videos,” she explained. “I remember having to do them. You looked like you were taking notes. Trust me, you don’t really need to. You could skip most videos and go right to the quizzes. Just pick the common sense answers, not too hard. The real fun part is when you get to the combat demonstrations.” She added the last part in a dry tone.
  1698. “Why’s that?”
  1700. Missy shrugged. “You spend several hours with one of the combat experts here and they’ll design a training regime for you. You and me actually get it easy, we’re girls. They don’t really expect us to win straight fistfights with grown guys. Clockblocker though? I can’t tell you how many times I got to see him get laid out by hand-to-hand experts.”
  1702. Surprised, Taylor asked, “They train us to fight like that? I would have thought they would have focused on cape fights. Maybe specific training for the local capes? Hm.” Taylor raised a hand and started chewing on a thumbnail. “Maybe they don’t want us fighting other capes? No, I've seen them fight on the news.”
  1704. “I can answer that if you ask,” Missy responded, casting an odd glance at her. She stopped in front of a door on the left side of the hallway. Apart from that, it didn’t look any different from any of the other doors in the base. Missy pressed her hand to the wall near it and the door opened to reveal a very normal looking eating area. Three round plastic tables with segmented benches connected by metal frames, the kind which wouldn't be out of place in a school, sat in the center of the room. A row of cabinets took up a good portion of two walls in one of the far corners from where she and Missy entered. Under the cabinets was countertop space with a sink, a refrigerator at one end, a dishwasher, two coffee pots, and a microwave Kid Win was currently standing in front of.
  1706. It took Taylor a longer time to remember his name than it did for Missy.
  1708. “We’re expected mostly to take on unpowered mooks and thugs, with the occasional small-time supervillain. We’re not supposed to get into a cape fight without another teammate to back us up. And when we do go after a cape it is usually someone like Uber and Leet or a new villain.”
  1710. “But,” Chris added, pulling some sort of pasta out of the microwave. Taylor made a face. She could taste the garlic from across the room. “This is Brockton Bay and even the fights we intend to get into go crazy sometimes.”
  1712. “Like what?” Taylor asked, suddenly curious.
  1714. “Oh, like…” Chris swirled his fork in the air as he walked to sit down at a table. Missy left Taylor’s side to start rooting through the fridge. Taylor stood still, uncertain if she should sit down or wait for Missy to tell her something else. “You don’t know that the rouge who was making life-sized folded paper sculptors was in debt to E88 and that’s the reason they started stealing from people. Then suddenly you chase them in an alley, thinking, ‘Oh, just some complicated paper, no problem, I’ve got fire things,’ next thing you know you get blindsided by fricking Purity of all people and loose the fire-spitting yoyo you spent all month trying to make.”
  1716. “He also got a wicked scar on his leg.” Missy contributed, pulling out a few packages of food. Taylor eyed what she brought out carefully. Soft tortillas, some sliced ham, cheddar cheese, and mayo.
  1718. “Could I, uh,-” Taylor paused uncertainly. She hadn’t considered lunch and didn’t know if she was asking for some of Missy’s personal stuff.
  1720. “Help yourself,” she answered with a dismissive flick of her hand. “The stuff in the fridges are for everyone, Carlos makes the grocery orders.”
  1722. Needing no more prompting, Taylor moved next to Missy and found a paper plate for herself. Missy eyed her with some interest as she filled four shells with lots of ham, and little else.
  1724. As they waited for the microwave to warm up their wraps, Chris spoke up from where he was sitting. “So Taylor, I hear you're doing your schooling through the PRT. That’s got to be rough.”
  1726. “Um. Don’t know yet. What about you two, shouldn’t you be in school?”
  1728. Chris blinked at the awkward pivot in the topic, and Taylor cursed herself internally, but he rolled with it.
  1730. “Rotating schedules,” he answered. "Arcadia has four day weeks, with different people having their fifth day different. On top of that, there are A, B, C, and D days. With classes shifted around each one of those days. Combine that with the fact each Ward has a free period, usually in the morning or afternoon, and we've got pretty good coverage for any day if the week. You'll be the only one here most every day."
  1732. "Sounds complicated for school." Then again, Taylor considered, she only remembered middle school. She couldn't really say what was complicated or unusual for highschool.
  1734. "Nah, you get used to it."
  1736. "The middle school is where things get stupid," Missy muttered. She took her food to the table to sit with Chris and Taylor followed with her own plate. Missy sat directly across from Chris, making Taylor consider where to sit for a moment. She ended up sitting at one of the other tables, sitting backward on the curved bench to face the other two with her plate in her lap.
  1738. "So," Taylor began when it felt like it had gotten quiet. Chris and Missy looked at her as they ate and Taylor hesitated and quickly tried to rephrase her question. "What made you guys join? The Wards. I mean, why not go solo or…"
  1740. Missy and Chris glanced at each other and shared a shrug. When they didn't answer immediately Taylor worried she might have asked the wrong thing. Was it odd to ask that when she had just joined?
  1742. "Lots of reasons," Missy answered, sounding surprised at the question.
  1744. Chris speared some food on to his fork and stated, "Hard to go solo as a tinker. Tinkers need tech, which often means money and a way for people not to track where you get your supplies from. Hard to do. Still I might have…. Nah, it's too difficult."
  1746. Missy watched Chris as he seemed to think aloud. When he finished, she sighed and shrugged again. "I didn't really know going solo was an option when I joined. Not that my parents would let me if I wanted to."
  1748. Taylor leaned forward. "Would you do it now though, if you got the chance?"
  1750. Missy hesitated before answering. "I- No, I don't think so. I'm pretty used to have these guys at my back, you know?"
  1752. Taylor nodded and took a bite of her wrap, her teeth shearing through a thick stack of ham with little resistance. Was it just an attachment to the team then? If she had never met them, would she answer differently? Chris at least seemed like he might have done it, if the difficulty wasn't so high.
  1754. "What about the others? Aegis seems like he could hold his own if he wanted to."
  1756. Missy stared at her with a puzzled expression for a long moment, then shook her head. “I couldn’t tell you, I’ve never thought to ask before. I know Dean at least always wanted to be an official Protectorate hero. Ward’s are an easy pathway to that.”
  1758. “Why are you asking anyway?” Chris cocked his head a bit at her. “Regretting joining already? I know the online courses are a bit of a drag, but I don’t remember them being that bad.”
  1760. Taylor shook her head rapidly and hurried to say something to try and change that idea.
  1762. “No, not that. I just, ah,” Taylor hesitated. “I guess I didn’t really get the choice or time to really consider being able to go solo. With the thing with Sophia and all.” And how Piggot tried to force her hand as soon as possible, Taylor added in her head.
  1764. Missy and Chris grimaced. It seemed like the topic of Sophia was a sore subject for them as well. They all ate in an awkward silence for a long moment after that, giving Taylor plenty of time to think about what she said and chided herself. First time interacting one on one and she basically interrigotates them about their motives and reminds them their teammate was the reason she was here in the first place.
  1766. “So,” Chris began after running out of food to distract himself with. “We still don’t know exactly what your power is. Carlos said something about a… Trump power, right?” He looked to Missy, who gave him a nod. Glancing back to Taylor, his eyes settled on her hair. “So how does the and hair and the, um, eyes play into that?”
  1768. Taylor nodded slowly and took more care picking her words as she answered. “They don’t, I don’t think. Well, my eyes do, but only partly. Though I did get them at the same time as-” She twisted her tongue in her mouth and then relaxed it. Taylor restarted from the beginning, not looking directly at the two. “As I understand it, when I got my power there was some sort of accident. It gave me my hair, eyes, sca- and some other things. But my power, my real power, I’ve never actually used. I sort of have an idea how I might, but…” Taylor trailed off as she realized Missy and Chris were staring at her incredulously.
  1770. Missy frowned at her. "You haven't used your power? Like, at all?"
  1772. "Well," Taylor paused. "No, not really."
  1774. The two shared a look and turned back to her.
  1776. "Would you like to try?" Chris offered.
  1778. Taylor blinked at him. "Now? Like, right now?"
  1780. He shrugged. "Why not? You should probably know before you're ready to go into the field. Between Missy and me, we could probably get a good idea of how your power works."
  1782. Taylor looked to Missy. She was biting the inside of her cheek and looking down as she thought it over. After a moment, she shook her head.
  1784. "I don't know about that Chris. Experimenting with powers, especially Trump powers, sounds like a bad idea."
  1786. "Really?" Chris stared blankly at her. "Why's that?"
  1788. Missy shot him a dry expression. "Because her power does things to us, tech head. Imagine if no one knew what Dean's power was and you offered to get shot with one of his beams to find out."
  1790. "Ah." Chris paused and reconsidered. "So… how do we…?" He frowned.
  1792. Taylor started to say something, and then she stopped. There was no good answer, as far as she could come up with. The one time she had used her power stuck out in her mind. She had Looked at Leet and saw his… power? Something to do with it, maybe. Followed by some form of compulsion to touch it, manipulate it, change it. Break it.
  1794. Taylor shook her head, but neither of the other two noticed. They had gone on talking to each other about different ways to test something potentially dangerous. Hesitantly, Talyor closed her eyes and braced herself. Looking towards the floor she opened her eyelids and immediately grimaced.
  1796. When Taylor Looked, she saw energy. And if there was something the PRT building had in excess, it was energy. Blindingly bright, strobing, undulating, twisting, and omnipresent. Opening her eyes all at once was like an ice pick through each eye and right into the base of her brain. Resisting the urge to squeeze her eyes shut, she tried to unfocus. After a minute the pain faded as she got used to the swirling visual in front of her. Finally, when she felt she was prepared, she looked up at Chris and Missy.
  1798. Missy's was larger. It was like a cube made of dozens of smaller cubes. They shifted constantly, moving with quick and precise movements like pieces on a track. Cubes on the surface moved inward while internal cubes moved to take their place. Strange, symbols made of lines that seem to bend in many directions at once. The whole thing rotated slowly. Dark purple energy rolled off the cube like a thick flame. Only the flame drift with the weight of a mist, with the tips of the flame turning green. The flames moved downward like a heavy fog, coalescing in tendrils that moved into Missy's body.
  1800. Taylor’s fingers twitched as the visual of Missy’s power seemed to consume her attention to the exclusion of all else. Lights of the room faded from her mind and the semitransparent burning cube shone brighter, bathing Taylor in its power and complexity. Incomprehensible symbols and lettering etched into the moving pieces. Not only on the outside and around them, but through them as well. The runic symbols twisted in moved, forming circles and loops and geometric shapes as pieces moved and connected, then moved and connected again. A dozen symbols become one. One symbol becomes dozens. Ever changing, always creating.
  1802. It called to Taylor. It demanded to be understood, to be taken apart, and recognized. It was a call-, no a challenge to free it from its bounds and face down its might without restraint. Towers Taylor had never seen in her life fill her head as clearly as if she built them herself. Black and silver obelisks with odd, asymmetrical windows stood against a starry sky. The towers broke, collapsed as if under an enormous weight. A vision of creatures beyond her comprehension are crushed in her mind. The splatter of their blood starting only for a second before the image is replaced by another. The image of a brilliantly white cloud of thousands of energies reaching out and touching a one being and many. A promise of more power than what one human girl was currently offered. A cage, a dissection, a reduction, a purification. A force of many forces cut and boiled until only a weak form of purity remained.
  1804. A drop of many condensed forces. And that drop was Vista.
  1806. Taylor bit the inside of her cheek hard and tried to ignore the blood that resulted. But the pain did its work and her vision was filled with the comparatively normal sight of energies flowing around the room and Missy’s power over her head. Taylor avoided looking directly at it. She felt it calling to her. In challenge and in promise. She knew though, somehow on some level, she would never see what she just saw again. Not from Missy’s power that was.
  1808. Chris and Missy hadn’t even noticed anything, their conversation having not gone far since Taylor last tuned into it. So continuing to sit in silence, Taylor stared at the floor while her heart hammered in her chest. Inspiration burned through her mind and she was beginning to ache for a pen and paper to write it down. Her hands yearned to reach out and touch Missy and the energy swirling around her. She desperately wanted to tell someone what she just saw.
  1810. Three equally strong compulsions. And unable to decide on anyone, she sat there tapping her foot rapidly as she considered everything she could do as soon as the day was over.
  1812. ***
  1814. Long after the sun had gone down, Taylor stood in the empty ferry station looking out a window. It was cloudy, plunging the inside of the ferry station into utter darkness. Out the window what little light there was reflected dimly off the gently moving water across the bay. Far on the other side of that bay, the heart of the city glowed brilliantly.
  1816. Taylor twirled a pen in her fingers, considering. Not all Wards were heroes. More likely, Taylor thought, the Wards was a sponsored club for those who need money, protection, and resources. The best costumes, toys, and marketing departments to help their image. Taylor had already sat through enough meetings with a PR rep to get that sense of things.
  1818. “Is there anything a hero does, that a Ward…” Taylor began aloud, then paused, lost in thought.
  1820. Shaking her head, she turned around. Taylor did not know what to make of the Wards, not in their eternity. But Missy at least seemed like a good person, someone that would be a hero with or without the Wards.
  1822. “So what's the point?” She spoke thoughtfully. Were the Wards different from independent hero teams? Somehow, Taylor doubted that New Wave would tolerate someone like Sophia being in their group.
  1824. She tapped the pen in her hand against her head as if to chastise herself for thinking, then grabbed a journal. Whatever the Wards were, it was only half the reason she was here.
  1826. Opening to a blank page, Taylor began rapidly jotting things down. Her eyes glowed in the darkness as she Looked in order to see.
  1828. Curtains for the windows, ways to block the entrances, some kind of costume, and…
  1830. Taylor paused as images came coming back to her. Ideas of strange writings, moving pieces, unknown energy sources, and a challenge. And in considering that challenge, Taylor had a thought.
  1832. She would need rats. Rats, and bugs, and- other things she wasn’t sure about. It had to be alive she was sure. It was hard to tell why, but the challenge rooted in her head was daring her to try and copy perfection. To recreate a nigh complexity.
  1834. With some experimenting, she just might.
  1836.     #223
  1838. Sophia stood in front of Winslow, tapping her foot impatiently. The three-hour session of special classes for ‘troubled’ students had ended recently. Now she stood rooted in place, unwilling to test the sensitivity of the ankle monitor by even a few steps towards a place to sit. The annoying device strapped to her let out a high pitched beep the moment the allotted school time ended. As soon as that happened, Sophia stopped moving despite the looks it got her from the normal students.
  1840. No one came up to talk to her. She didn’t see Emma, Madison, Julia, or anyone else. That was a relief to her, at least.
  1842. Sophia glared as Dennis strode up to her, hands in his pockets as he took a leisure pace. Looking around, up at the school, at the street, towards cars moving around the parking lot, at a pair of girls in matching tank tops who gave him a wink as he walked past. Anywhere, but at her. Sophia did not stop glaring even when he halted in front of her and finally looked at her. A goofy grin spread across his face.
  1844. “You’ve been standing awfully still the last fifteen minutes,” Dennis declared.
  1846. Her eyes narrowed at him. “If you’ve been watching me for fifteen minutes, why didn’t you come to get me?”
  1848. “Testing a theory,” he answered idly. He started casting about again, looking for anything interesting. “Say, you got vending machines inside? I’m feeling a little.. snacky.” He directed the last word as another female student walked past him. This one shot him a disgusted look, but Dennis was unperturbed.
  1850. “Who cares?” She scowled and crossed her arms. “Hurry up and let's go.”
  1852. “Mhm, maybe in a bit.” He smirked at her. “I think I’ll go talk to the tank top duo over there, and then maybe I’ll come back. Or go looking for that vending machine.”
  1854. Speaking through gritted teeth, Sophia growled, “Stop fucking around.”
  1856. “I don’t think so. I don’t have to be at work for a while, I wouldn’t have even left yet if it weren’t for you. Think of this as… compensation. Until then, why don’t you stand there and think about what you’ve done.” He smiled and tapped her lightly on the head before walking off.
  1858. Sophia fumed, but she didn’t move.
  1860. ***
  1862. Liam didn’t look relaxed. He sat in front of the computers positioned in one corner of the Wards room. Across three different monitors several camera perspectives were displayed for him to observe. His eyes darted between them, moving from feed to feed rapidly. One hand toggled different cameras on the keyboard, another tapped a pen against the desk with an irregular drum beat. He was chewing a piece of gum hard enough the smacking permeated his sealed lips. Both of his feet were tapping slightly out of sync with each other as one moved just a bit faster than the other.
  1864. Liam, however, was completely relaxed.
  1866. He could feel every muscle in his body stretching and contracting beneath his skin as he moved. The tendons in his fingers smoothly tapping the pen to some drum beat playing in his mind. He felt his teeth tapping together around the gum, and some days he would use his power to move his teeth slightly to see how they fit in different configurations. Liam could even feel the light striking his eyes, although a lot more faintly than any other feeling. There was some sort of reaction in the biology of his eye to light, but he couldn’t quite figure it out based only on feeling.
  1868. Gallant entered the room from one of the connecting hallways and Liam paused. After briefly considering him for a moment, Liam relaxed his mind. In his gut, he started processing the things he had purposely been holding off on. By the time Gallant sat down near him, the contents of his stomach started to diffuse through his system and Liam relaxed even more. He stopped thinking about the muscles in his body and how his eye worked and moved as his mental focus became… simpler.
  1870. Liam did not consider himself an intelligent person, but he knew he thought faster than most people. Not only fast, but he preferred to be thinking about multiple things at once. Before his power, that had been a struggle. Doctors thought it was a kind of hyperactivity, and Liam guessed it was in some sense, but rather than being easily distracted or energetic in anyway he just preferred to multi-task mentally. More often than not it meant he was just easily bored and often exhausted. It was like his mind was always overclocked, shifted in high gear most people didn’t have. And that could wear him out quickly.
  1872. When Gallant took a seat and spoke to him, Liam’s mind felt like it was dragging itself through mud. But he suspected that he was operating at what was probably normal for most people. Kind of like playing a video game where your character can move incredibly fast, only to get stuck in a normal walk during a scripted scene. Liam nodded to himself, he liked that comparison and noted it as something he would say if he ever got the chance to explain it to someone.
  1874. “Have you met Taylor yet Liam?” Dean asked, smiling as he removed his helmet. The other boy shrugged and shook his head.
  1876. “Passed her by, said hello. Introduced myself. Not much else. Why?”
  1878. Dean shrugged. "I was hoping to get your opinion on her."
  1880. "Throwing red flags?" Liam eyed Dean, watching his expression. A thoughtful look crossed Dean's face with a frown. More complicated than a red flag, Liam decided.
  1882. "Not… quite." Dean began. "When I first met her, she was normal."
  1884. "Most people are," Liam offered. Dean smiled a bit, but shook his head.
  1886. "No, I mean she was excited, hopeful, and a bit nervous. You know, standard fare for someone just joining the Wards. Then we told her about Sophia and something just…"
  1888. "Excitement and hope turn to complete and utter disappointment?"
  1890. Dean half-smiled, but it didn't meet his eyes. "Not exactly, but close. It isn't as bad as your hostility towards Sophia."
  1892. The other boy paused for a moment then shrugged. "I'm surprised she isn't more upset at her, the two had a bad history. So, what's the issue?"
  1894. "Well," Dean took a deep breath as he seemed to consider how to explain it. "Everytime I see her the emotions seem.. tinged with something darker. It's hard to describe because it's not an open emotion."
  1896. "Open emotion?"
  1898. "Ah, just a term I use." Dean waved a hand. "Open emotions are the normal ones, the ones I can read clearly. There are other kinds that are harder because they are not direct. Like… if someone really hated a band or a popstar and someone they like was wearing the merchandise or talking about their music. There would be anger and hate there, but it wouldn't be directed. That makes it harder for me to nail things down sometimes."
  1900. "Hm…" Liam stroked his chin thoughtfully.
  1902. "Well," Dean asked after a moment, looking at him curiously. "Have you thought of something?"
  1904. "Maybe," he responded slowly. "I'd want to talk with her before I gave you my theory though."
  1906. Dean nodded. "Well, when you get the chance, let me know. We were hoping to avoid problems by making sure the two were separated, now I'm worried we're going to have issues anyway." He started pressing on discret buttons in his armor, causing pieces of it to begin to unclasp from his body. Liam glanced at the computers and saw Sophia and Dennis entering the building.
  1908. With a sigh, Liam pulled his mask on over his head. “I think you should be more worried about what Sophia is doing.”
  1910. Dean frowned a bit, then shook his head and let himself smile. “I disagree. See you after school?”
  1912. “Sure. Where at?” Browbeat stood up from his chair and stretched widely. As he did so, the muscles in his body swelled just a bit. Enough for it to be noticeable but not quite up to the massive form he typically took in costume.
  1914. “The batting cages on Fisher street. Victoria likes baseball too, as it happens. Sound good?”
  1916. He nodded. “That’s fine. Hope she doesn’t mind getting shown up.”
  1918. Dean just smiled at that, and Browbeat did too. It couldn’t be seen under his mask, but if there was anyone who could have put it together it would have been Dean. He turned for the nearest door to leave when it suddenly opened. Sophia stomped in, maintaining a distance from Dennis as he strode leisurely in behind her. Browbeat scowled beneath his mask and didn’t miss the look Dean gave him.
  1920. “Welcome back,” Dean managed with a welcoming expression. He stood up and began collecting the gear he had removed. “How was the trip over here?”
  1922. “I want to kick his ass,” Sophia replied, jerking a thumb over her shoulder at Dennis. For his part, he gave Dean a shocked and scandalized expression that lasted for all of three seconds before it became a smug grin. “Other than that, just fine.”
  1924. Sophia stormed past him and out the door on the other side of the round room. There were a few moments of silence after she was gone before Dean finally let out a long sigh. Turning to Dennis he asked,
  1926. “Do you have to antagonize her?”
  1928. “I don’t see why not,” Dennis answered with a shrugged. “She’s certainly gone out of her way to bug us before.”
  1930. “Exactly, which is why you should be better than that,” Dean countered, his pleasant expression and tone dropping a little.
  1932. Browbeat shook his head and spoke before Dennis had a chance to shoot back. “I’m going on my patrol. Make sure she gets on her monitor duty like she’s supposed to. And don’t piss her off more, not when I’ve got to deal with her voice in my ear.” He directed that last comment towards Dennis. He just grinned back at him.
  1934. Browbeat mentally nodded to himself. Dennis was an easy person to socialize with. He liked being the most upbeat person in the room, so Browbeat tried to angle jokes and humor at him with a somewhat negative tint to them. It let Dennis play off them in a way he enjoyed.
  1936. As he left the building, he ran down a mental list of everything he talked with Gallant about while he was patrolling. Of course, none of it would be good discussion material with Sophia on the coms, but if Dennis decided to pull a double patrol sense he was here early…
  1938. He resisted the urge to sigh as he reconsidered how to broach each topic to Dennis. Dean was very straightforward and a genuinely good guy, the kind of person Browbeat got along with without putting a lot of thought into each action and statement. Dennis though…
  1940. Well, Dennis was a normal person, it was just that people were complicated. Browbeat knew people who responded better if he swore like he was back in middle school, while others would prefer if he didn’t or got creative in how he did. There was generally an optimal way to talk with anyone if you cared to look for it.
  1942. Unless that person was an immature angry superpowered teenager with a misplaced superiority complex. Browbeat clenched his hand into a fist.
  1944. He found his way to the roof of the PRT building and scanned the area around. The building itself was on its own little island in the streets. It didn’t sit in line with any of the surrounding buildings, allowing each face of the rectangular structure to face the streets approaching it. The nearest buildings were smaller and put a good distance away by excessive parking lots and wide streets. To one side the buildings continued to have grown shorter in stature until they reached the beaches and parts of the boardwalk. To the other side, the buildings grew into skyscrapers deeper into downtown.
  1946. “Shadow Stalker, are you on the comms yet?” He couldn’t keep the irritation out of his tone.
  1948. “Yeah, yeah, I’m here.” She answered, sounding bored. “What’s the patrol route today?”
  1950. “You’d know if you bothered to glace up two inches when looking at your assignment.” He thought to himself. “All our assignments are listed together so we all know.” Shaking his head, he sighed and answered,
  1952. “North end of the docks. Doing two circuits through the boat graveyard and trainyard, checking on the market as I pass through.”
  1954. “Merchant haunts?” She sounded a little surprised. “They been acting up or something?”
  1956. Browbeat bit back a sharp reply. It was another thing she would have known if she was paying attention to any of the briefings since she came back. So much for trying to turn a new leaf. But he wasn’t about to take jabs at her without good reason.
  1958. “The opposite,” he answered evenly, this time managing to keep the disapproval out of his voice. “For more than a week now, the Merchants have gone silent.”
  1960. Shadow Stalker paused before responding. “Completely silent? Even their drug dealings?”
  1962. He nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. “There have been no police reports having to do with drug dealing or any reported sighting of any of the Merchant capes. There has been a heavy increase of reports and arrests in the nearby E88 and ABB territories.”
  1964. “That… doesn’t make sense.”
  1966. “Exactly.”
  1968. A gang going silent was not unusual. It was typically a sign that the gang was pulling together its resources for a big push or were laying low after some big hit the PRT may or may not have been aware of. But the difference was those we the real gangs, the E88, the ABB, even the small pocket gangs known to form in disputed territories did it. But the Merchants? Their ‘territory’ was a street or two in the northern end of the city nobody wanted, and the Boat Graveyard and Trainyard was just where they dealt the most often. In all the ways that mattered, they were weaker than the pocket gangs that often paid tribute to one of the two major gangs just to exist. Hell, Uber and Leet have won fights against all three of the Merchant capes at the same time.
  1970. “We don’t know what’s going on with them, so we’ve increased our patrols until we do.”
  1972. “If the junkies are flooding into the other territories, then they must not be selling at all in their own territories.” Shadow Stalker murmured. “That’s not normal for any gang, let alone the Merchants. The drug trade is all they have.”
  1974. “Agreed. I’m headed out now.” With that, Browbeat took a deep breath and sped up his metabolism and made his blood pump faster. His cloudy mental state cleared in a moment and it felt like the world leaped into focus. He felt every muscle fiber in his body tensing and flexing as he readied himself to go. His body swelled, his suit stretching to accommodate him. His bones grew thicker, his marrow became more efficient. His tendons grew and stretched and hardened. His muscles grew as well, but to a lesser degree than was possible. Strong bones and improved tendons tended to be more of an edge than raw muscle mass. Particularly when he had the small telekinetic field around his body adding to his strikes. Normally he didn’t feel that layer of force surrounding his body, but as his mental gears whirled he felt everything. He could feel his organs working in his body, the movement of the wind through his telekinetic field, the pull of gravity that field effortlessly thwarted, the way every sinew moved, even the way his skin rippled as he flexed.
  1976. His mind was working at full throttle now, and he couldn’t help but grin as information flooded his senses.
  1978. Browbeat leapt off the PRT building, pushing against it was all of his power. He soared through the air, his body and mind soaring.
  1980. Shadow Stalker let out a long low whistle as she watched him through some camera or another. He didn’t care, not at the moment. As he neared a building, he pushed out with his field. It latched on to air at first, slowing his fall slightly. When he was inches from a rooftop the field slowed him even further before he landed with both feet in a run, striking with only a fraction of his previous momentum. He ran, pushing against the ground just like he jumped. Traveling dozens of feet with every stride and cross rooftops without effort.
  1982. He didn’t need his power to make his heart pound faster.
  1984. Ten minutes later, he had crossed a large portion of the city in the time it takes a car to move twenty minutes through traffic. He found himself along Lord Street. Being the main road through the city it had significantly fewer stoplights, being closer to a highway than just a thoroughfare. He kept for a building onto a city bus just getting on to the road. As fast as he was, vehicles were still faster when on roads like this.
  1986. “You’re pretty mobile,” Shadow Stalker commented, sounding impressed.
  1988. “Hm,” Browbeat grunted in return. Was she trying to make conversation? He found that an odd idea.
  1990. He stood silently for about a minute, feeling the wind resistance pickup as the bus moved into its traveling speed. Almost unaffected by it, he stood straight up using the field around his body to help keep his balance.
  1992. “I had never noticed before.” She stated, a little too firmly. Browbeat frowned. She sounds almost... awkward.
  1994. “I’m not surprised. It’s not something you would notice when you ignore everyone around you.”
  1996. She didn’t respond to that, letting him ride on in silence until the bus slowed near the market. He leapt off the bus, only putting in enough power to get him to the nearest building. He quickly found the tallest building near the market and scaled to the top of it. Kneeling down on the edge, he scanned the mill of people below. It was early in the afternoon and the crowds were only just beginning to pick up. Some people were only just starting to set up stalls in anticipation of the later crowds.
  1998. Browbeat decided it would be nice to have some binoculars right now to study the crowd more intently. He would need a place to keep them though. Maybe he should get a utility belt or something? He pondered that as he stood up and started moving north towards the Boat Graveyard.
  2000. “So what's your game plan?” Shadow Stalker asked suddenly.
  2002. “Hm, what?” He frowned. She was talkative today. That was… unusual.
  2004. “Your game plan,” she repeated. “How are you going about this?”
  2006. “I’m going to walk around to see if I find anything odd.” His frown deepened.
  2008. “So… you’re just going to hope you spot a Merchant or dealer out in the open.” She sounded a little disapproving. “You’d do better hunting them down. Boat Graveyard can be pretty mud sometimes with the waves. You can find footprints when it's like that.”
  2010. “Hunt them down?” Was that her idea of advice? And just what made her think he wanted her advice anyway? He was about to respond to her when something caught his attention. A scream.
  2012. His head snapped towards the direction it came from. Somewhere behind him in the maze of short one-story shops in the area. He darted that way, listening hard for anything else. He jumped across a wide street when he heard the scream again. It wasn’t a cry of pain, it was shocked. Or horrified.
  2014. “I, uh,” Shadow Stalker paused. “Someone just called in about an attack on Cutter Street, an alleyway behind a pawn store.”
  2016. Browbeat leapt off the rooftops and into the street below and ran to the nearest crossroad, stunning the pedestrians he stormed past. He was already on Cutter Street. So that scream…
  2018. Browbeat whirled in the direction he had been headed and saw a pawn store sign a block down.
  2020. “Clear the way!” He shouted as he barrelled forward. Stunned people took a step back as he raced past them, the wind whipping around him. In moments he rounded on the alley and froze as he took in the scene.
  2022. A group of three girls were standing at the entrance to the alley where he was entering. They must have been the ones to call. He pushed past them into the alley. Someone was sprawled on the ground. It was a kid, no older than Browbeat. There was blood all over his face and his shirt was cut up where it looked like a knife had grazed his sides and chest. He wore E88 colors. Three black arrow shafts stuck out of him, one in his shoulder, two in his right leg. The blood was dried.
  2024. Nervously, Browbeat put two fingers to the kid’s neck and held his breath. Then let it out with a relieved sigh. He was still alive.
  2026. “Shadow Stalker, call an ambulance. I’m going to see what I can do, but it looks like all the bleeding has stopped.”
  2028. “It’s already on its way.”
  2030. Browbeat paused, there was something in her tone that unsettled him.
  2032. “Shadow, are you looking through my suit cam right now?”
  2034. “Yes.” Again, the tone was weirdly subdued. Almost shaken.
  2036. “Are these…?”
  2038. “Crossbow bolts,” she answered. Browbeat clenched his fist.
  2040.     #234
  2042. It was early enough that morning and there was no one else in the Wards’ room. Taylor sat at one of the computers next to the comms station. A setup of three monitors with various camera displays. Her computer showed a different image, a map of the city portrayed in various colors. It showed the ABB territory in red and the E88 in blue, with small pockets like Coil or the Merchants with an assortment of other colors. There was an overlay available to show areas independent heroes and hero groups patrolled, but Taylor switched it off. That wasn't the info she was interested in.
  2044. The map had red dots circled in yellow placed all over the city. Hotspots of criminal activity. She could hover the mouse over one of the dots to see more information, even get access to police reports and witness statements where it was applicable. Despite herself, Taylor was impressed.
  2046. In the last few days, she had run into a problem when setting up her little base. Namely, a lack of… everything really. She only had some pocket change, and that wasn't going to get her sturdy locks for the ferry station. Let alone all the things she needed to begin experimenting. And that meant going out.
  2048. In preparation of that conclusion, she was gathering what information she could. And the PRT was turning out to be a very good source, with a database on nearly anything she wanted. Given a month alone with all this information and she’d be able to identify every cape that’s operated in the city over the last twenty years. She leaned forward, dragging the mouse across the most recent reports. She had an idea of what she was going to see, but even so a frown creased her face as she read.
  2050. “Brutal huh?”
  2052. The sudden voice made her jump in her seat and whirled to see Browbeat standing behind her. He reached up and pulled his mask off, surprising her with a shock of curly red hair. Liam gave her a wide smile that showed a number of perfectly straight and white teeth. His body posture was relaxed, leaning against the tables housing the computers. Yet, despite looking completely nonchalant, Taylor couldn’t shake the feeling his eyes were studying her intently.
  2054. “Sorry,” Liam apologized sincerely, shrugging. “Didn't think I'd spook you like that.”
  2056. “No, I- uh-” Taylor struggled for a moment. “I’m surprised I didn’t hear you.” Or smell him for that matter, she realized. Parting her lips slightly she took an experimental breath. Taylor suppressed the urge to frown. Liam didn’t have an odor to taste. Which, on the one hand, she was glad. Carlos, Dennis, Dean, and Chris were all a little hard on the senses for reasons she entirely did not want to learn the details of. On the other hand, it was strange for Liam to have no smell at all. Something to do with his power? She racked her brain to remember while prompting herself to keep the conversation going.
  2058. “You’re already in costume?” Taylor cocked her head slightly. His smile widened a bit and he nodded.
  2060. “We occasionally have costumes stored in off-site locations so we don’t always enter the building an hour before we go out in costume.”
  2062. “Huh.” She nodded, that made sense. Currently, Taylor was only wearing a t-shirt a size too big, and some jeans similarly oversized. Changing into costume was a bit of a hassle when she wasn’t going to be doing anything besides sitting through online courses.
  2064. “So,” Liam began after she let the silence hang for too long. He pulled out a chair and sat down near her, but out of arms reach. Almost like he was keeping his distance. “Looking at the crime map? Or just trying to find… that incident.” He gestured to the screen. Taylor glanced at the report she had been scanning.
  2066. “A bit of both,” she admitted. “I was- It can’t be Shadow Stalker can it?” She felt a little awkward being caught looking at the report, but Liam didn’t seem to find it odd. Instead, he nodded his head like it was a completely normal thing to be doing.
  2068. “They don’t think so.” His smile fell just a bit. “When she shifts into another state, everything she is wearing shifts with her. And if her ankle monitor shifts, it stops sending signals and we’d know.”
  2070. “They?” Taylor asked, unable to not jump on that phrase. “You don’t think so?” It was a bit more direct than she meant it to be, but she felt like it was important.
  2072. Liam paused, gave her a quick once over like he was reconsidering her, then nodded. “I… wouldn’t put it past her to find someone who could help get out of the monitor for a few hours. She’s..” he trailed off as he seemed to remember who he was talking to and frowned.
  2074. “And you think she would do this?” Taylor gestured at the screen, just a hint of irritation leaking into the gesture. It bothered her. Since Wednesday four days ago there had been three attacks on E88 members, all with black crossbow bolts and nearly dead. In addition to a dozen other cuts and bruises from the fight. All the victims were in bad enough condition that their statements were only taken recently and hadn’t shown up in the systems yet. Aside from those victims, there was only one bystander sighting of a black-cloaked figure fleeing the scene.
  2076. Slowly, Liam nodded. “Taylor,” he spoke carefully. “How much do you remember about Sophia.”
  2078. Taylor pressed her lips together. “Nothing, really. But I know what she did to me, second hand.”
  2080. “Ah,” he seemed disappointed, all semblance of his happy expression fading. A small part of Taylor’s mind kicked her for letting the conversation go this way. But Liam didn't seem to mind too much, shrugging a bit before responding, “Well, the attacks are more bloody than Shadow Stalker was before she joined the Wards. But it’s not… unbelievable.”
  2082. Her hands balled into fists against her jeans. Looking away from Liam’s face, she asked, “How can you guys stand to work with someone like that?"
  2084. Liam took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. He tried a little laugh to lighten the mood some. “Well, they didn’t exactly ask for a vote before putting her on the team.”
  2086. Taylor shook her head, but didn't say anything for a moment. She didn't mean to make the conversation so serious the moment he started talking to her, at this point it was becoming a bad habit. There was something about Liam that made it easy, she thought. He didn't seem bothered or uncomfortable with questions about Sophia the way the other Wards had been. She said as much.
  2088. "Your… oddly open about Sophia."
  2090. He smiled a bit. She couldn't help but notice he had a good looking smile. It fit his face rather well. "I don't think it helps acting like she isn't a problem. She always has been."
  2092. Not knowing what else to say to that, Taylor just nodded. There was a brief silence that gave her a bit too much time to reflect on the conversation and regret parts of it. When the pause went on too long, Liam spoke again.
  2094. "So how is the training going?"
  2096. "Uh, good. I think. I'm nearly done with all the online courses. I'll have to sign up for the physical courses now." She grimaced.
  2098. "You'll do fine," he reassured her. "The real awkward moment is when you debut." She looked at him and he nodded sagely. "The media will be there, special interest groups, people who make the merchandise. The director and at least one Protectorate hero will be there to introduce you. The director will give you the words you're supposed to say, blame Clockblocker for that. And then," he paused, seemingly for dramatic effect. "Everyone will want to interview you for the next month and every time you go on patrol the little kiddies will excitedly point out the newest hero!"
  2100. Taylor couldn't suppress a small groan, making Liam grin.
  2102. "I'll be honest," he continued. "The attention was cool for a couple days, but it gets tiring."
  2104. "Is there anyway I could just… not debut?"
  2106. "If only," he answered with an over the top amount of wistfulness to his voice. She looked at him more carefully. He was more relaxed now. Before he just leaned back in his chair, now he was practically sprawled out with his legs straight out and his left arm slung over the table. Was he getting more comfortable as they talked?
  2108. "Is that what it was like when you got started?"
  2110. He considered for a moment, then nodded. "More or less. It was a little different because I actually had gone out in costume before I joined."
  2112. That got her attention. "Really?"
  2114. "Yeah. Just a couple of times. Fought a villain too." He nodded as if that were completely normal, which it might have been. Taylor couldn't say.
  2116. "And you…" she stopped and considered her words for a moment. "You wanted to join the Wards after going solo? Why?"
  2118. For a long moment, he seemed to consider her. "To be honest? Because it was easier."
  2120. Taylor blinked. "Easier."
  2122. Liam nodded in agreement. "When I went out, it wasn't like I was patrolling or looking for a fight. I was kind of just playing around with my power. Even when I fought Hellhound it was kind of an accident. And I didn't really… care." Taylor gave him a confused look so he continued. "A better hero than me might have taken it personally, or seen it as their duty to stop her because she's a villian. Me? I just kind of, just saw her as a boss."
  2124. "A… boss?"
  2126. "An obstacle," he amended. "Something of a test.”
  2128. “A challenge,” Taylor suggested. He shook his head.
  2130. “I think calling it a challenge would still be making it more personal than it was. But I’m sure she saw it that way. And that’s when I think it really got through to me that going solo wouldn’t really be all that fun.”
  2132. “Hm. I haven’t really…” She stopped and thought about what she was trying to say. “I guess I didn’t think going solo was supposed to be fun.”
  2134. Liam snorted a little. “Why else go solo? No one is looking over your shoulder, you can use your power how you like. Don’t have to worry about protocol or paper work. That’s the whole reason I tried going it alone at first.”
  2136. “But you gave it up,” she noted.
  2138. A short sigh escaped his lips. “I figured out right after I fought Hellhound that going solo means making enemies with vendettas against you. Worrying about villains laying traps, or the normal people thinking you're not a very good hero.”
  2140. Taylor frowned at him. “Wouldn’t all that still be true as a Ward? I don’t think anyone is going to think I’m particularly effective once I get out there.”
  2142. His gaze found her eyes and Taylor got the unsettled feeling he was studying her again. Like he was reading into all of her expressions. “You’ll do fine, the PRT knows how to sell its Wards to the public. And as for your question, yes and no. See, technically, being a Ward carries all the same risks as being solo, but it's not my responsibility.” He grinned at her. “I have Carlos to call the shots, and everyone else to watch my back. I do what I’m told, file all my paperwork, and go home at the end of the day. If something goes wrong, well, I did my job.”
  2144. Taylor watched him for several seconds, thinking. He watched her back, looking for a reaction. She resisted the urge to frown, but it must have shown on her face because he stated,
  2146. “You think I’m wrong on some point.”
  2148. Taylor pressed her lips together. Liam’s eyes glanced just past her head a moment, making Taylor realize her ears were raised. That bothered her. It felt like she was being expressive against her will. She shook her head and took a deep breath.
  2150. “It's just.. The Wards aren’t what I thought they would be.”
  2152. Liam nodded slowly. “Understandable. But I think-” he paused as his phone rang in his pocket. He pulled it out and silenced it. “I have to go, Aegis is waiting for me on the roof, we’re going to patrol the areas this ‘Shadow Stalker’ keeps hitting. Hopefully we catch her before it becomes a real issue.”
  2154. Taylor waited until he was gone before looking at the map again. She had a plan in mind.
  2156. ***
  2158. Aegis was just touching down on the rooftop when Browbeat emerged from the access door. He smiled under his helmet as he saw him. Walking to meet him halfway, he held out a fist and Browbeat bumped it with his own.
  2160. “Thanks for coming a bit early, it really helps out.”
  2162. Browbeat nodded his head. “Whatever you need, boss.”
  2164. Aegis chuckled under his helmet a little. “I’ll let you lead the way and fly above. There's no one on the comms at the moment, so we should be free to talk.”
  2166. “Sounds good to me,” the other boy agreed. Turning around, his already large body swelled up to become larger than any normal man. Aegis took off into the air right after Browbeat leapt up into the air.
  2168. After they were a few minutes away from the PRT building, Browbeat spoke. “I talked with Taylor just a little bit ago.”
  2170. “Pathfinder,” Aegis corrected lightly. “Best get into the habit if your talking about somebody in costume.”
  2172. “Alright, I was talking with Pathfinder then.” Browbeat agreed. As a cape, Browbeat was pretty new, but Aegis noted he took corrections and orders in stride. A lot better than others usually did. “Gallant had asked me too.”
  2174. “Oh?” That got his attention. “And what did you think.”
  2176. “I think we’re fine,” he answered easily. He paused for a second as he came to a building’s edge and leapt up into the air. It caught Aegis off guard when he came high enough into the air to be next to him for just a moment before descending again. In one jump he went completely over a busy street and the building on the other side. “Gallant couldn’t get a bead on her, but I don’t think there is anything to worry about.”
  2178. “How so?”
  2180. Browbeat grunted as he hit the next building at a jogging pace. “Hm. Because the emotion he couldn’t figure out was disappointment.”
  2182. “Disappointment? With who? The Wards?”
  2184. “Are you surprised?” He asked dryly. “If learning Sophia was one of us wasn’t a good reason to be disappointed, I think we all forgot something.”
  2186. Aegis frowned. True, he and Gallant had talked at length about the issues having Taylor and Sophia on the team could cause. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t at all surprising that Taylor would be a bit disappointed. But if Gallant was asking for Browbeat’s opinion, then something else was going on. “And what’s that?”
  2188. “She doesn’t remember her highschool years.”
  2190. “... Okay?” He could hear Browbeat sigh.
  2192. “I don’t know how Vista was when she joined, but maybe she’s a good example. Her view of heroes is probably close to a middle schooler’s view of heroes. And the last two weeks she’s been doing paperwork, asking people why their heroes, and lets not forget learning about Shadow Stalker. It would be hard not to be disappointed with the Wards.”
  2194. “That sounds like it could be a problem,” Aegis stated seriously.
  2196. “I doubt it,” he answered dismissively. “We’ve all got to hit that point where the reality falls short of our expectations, she’ll get over it before too long. And then she’ll be just one of the team.”
  2198. “Hm, if you're sure.” Aegis wasn’t convinced. If she was really that let down… Well, he could always ask Gallant to monitor the situation. The last thing they needed was another Shadow Stalker situation.
  2200. ***
  2202. Taylor sat at one of the tables on top of the old ferry station, listening to the water sloshing nearby. The wind was picking up and the waters were getting agitated. It would probably rain soon, she reflected, and that might be a reason to call off her plan. But then she shook her head, it wasn’t like she had much else to do. She needed money, besides the small amount she was beginning to make through the Wards. The first paycheck dropped recently, but into a bank account her father controlled. Not to mention, they might be able to track how that money was spent.
  2204. Pausing a moment, she wondered if she was that suspect of things and people in highschool. But she shrugged it off as something that just made sense given the situation she was putting herself in.
  2206. With a sigh, Taylor stood up and pulled on her goggles. With her eyes covered, she grabbed at her hair and began pulling it tight before beginning to wrap it around itself. She had never really liked buns, there were only a few people they looked really good on and she, in her opinion, wasn’t one of them. However, her normal hair was gone and dark green was too notable. Pulling hard to make sure the bun was securely in place, she then wrapped a piece of black fabric around it tightly. She retrieved a small plastic container and unscrewed the cap to reveal a black waxy substance underneath. She dipped her fingers in it and started rubbing it into her hair at the roots.
  2208. When she was satisfied with the coverage, she briefly pondered putting some on her face. Like war paint or something similar. She dismissed the thought though. She was already wearing cheap goggles, best not increase chances she'll be seen as tacky or trying too hard.
  2210. All that done, she stood up and prepared to leave the ferry station. Wearing a black hoodie and black sweatpants, she exited the building with the hood drawn over her head. Maybe after tonight she could afford to buy a better costume. If her brief time at the PRT had underlined anything important, it was image. Taylor wanted to b a real hero, and she doubted that a hoodie and sweatpants would convey that.
  2212. She started up the street, towards the North end of the city. Towards the Merchant’s territory. The crossbow attacks crossed her mind, but that wasn’t what she was going there for. At least, not unless she got a chance.
  2214. Taylor shook her head and chided herself. Even if she had a chance, what was she supposed to do? Fight them? What if it was Shadow Stalker? Or even if it wasn’t, she would be attacking someone with experience and a ranged weapon! And here she was, no practise, only a small bottle of pepper spray for protection. Walking straight into gang territory at night.
  2216. At the same time though? Her heartbeat with a touch of excitement. She was going to be a hero, she just knew it.
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