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Just a Phase

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2.6

 

(Wednesday, February 9 2011)

 

Note to self: before getting blown up, make sure the next day isn’t a school day.

Still, even as I fell face-down and groaned into my bed after surviving another day at school, I couldn’t help but smile.  Last night I had successfully fought off two supervillains, and then managed to keep them occupied long enough for the PRT to capture them.  Except for the whole ‘getting exploded’ incident, I had managed to use my power to more or less avoid all of Snap and Split’s tricks.

Granted, I hadn’t performed perfectly.  Split had demonstrated that even after figuring out how to phase my taser through an opponent’s armor, I still had to be able to land a hit.  My fumbling with her little army of clones had made it very clear that I needed some sort of hand-to-hand training, or at least to work on my reflexes.

And my rather violent power interaction with Snap taught me something even more important — distractions could be deadly.  My precog sense gave me more than enough time, as long as I didn’t lock up in surprise that I had just cut someone’s arm off.  I would need to practice just reflexively phasing through effects that I didn’t immediately recognize as benevolent.

It did not escape my consideration that, without teammates, I should assume anything that pinged my power sense was enemy action.

I fought down a whimper as I tried to push myself up on the bed, but with my significantly more sore left arm (which I had probably landed on last night), I only managed to roll over.  An earlier check of the rules concerning searches of bedrooms for those Wards who lived on base had revealed that they needed a good cause and gave prior warning, which gave me clearance to start keeping a notebook of my heroic adventures.

Once I was able to pry myself up and into my chair, I spared the PRT a single grateful thought for providing such comfortable furniture.  Actually putting my ideas on the page relieved a pressure in my brain that had been building since I sat down in my math class this morning, as hardly a moment had gone past today that I wasn’t thinking about the fight or how I could have done things better.

In fact, school had almost been fun.  The loneliness hadn’t been quite so strangulating with something much more exciting to occupy my brain.

As usual, the PRT ruined my otherwise mostly good day by scheduling another tour block this afternoon.  I exchanged my glasses for contacts and a domino mask before grabbing tonight’s homework and shuffling towards the common area.  This time, Roulette and Reynard had replaced Flechette and Hunch, with the fox-garbed boy at the console.  Weld and Valve were here too; the latter was tinkering away with a small smile on her lips.

“English again?” the Tinker asked as I walked past her work table, though she didn’t look up.

“Sure,” I replied.  “Though I didn’t think you would be here.”

She tapped her device with a screwdriver.  “Tours don’t count towards Tinkering time restrictions.”  Valve finally tilted her head up to meet my eyes.  “You’re not the only one who uses rules creatively.”

I had to admit, that was pretty clever.  “Ok, well, come find me.”  She hummed in what was probably acknowledgement, leaving me to shuffle over to the big comfy chair in the corner of the common room and claim it as my own space.

Even off by myself and without Lily to pester me, I didn’t get much of my chemistry homework done.  Instead, I was writing notes to myself in the back of my notebook about how I would fight various parahumans or various ideas for an actual costume.  Pretending to be a ghost in my grey costume was far from ideal, and while I liked the name, I could definitely do with something more heroic-looking.

The mask-up buzzer came and went, signaling the first tour, and just like yesterday Weld had a script and stuck to it.  Sitting in the corner was a better conversation deterrent than I expected — although some of that was likely the tour guides steering the questions away from me — and I was able to get through the majority of the visitors with relatively little interaction.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the allotted time, Roulette apparently decided that I was being too antisocial for her tastes.  She must have suspected that I would resist normal efforts to chat more than was strictly necessary, because she motioned the rest of the tour group closer to the corner.  It was then that I discovered, to my moderate horror, that I recognized several of the teenagers in this group as my classmates.

“So, what’s your power?” one of those familiar teenagers asked.

“It’s a secret until my official debut.”  My pre-prepared answer seemed to placate them as usual, but Roulette was quick to express her displeasure.

“Her power is so cool ,” the other Ward said in a mock-whisper.  “Come on, Phase.  At least give them a hint!”

I stared dumbly at Roulette while I tried to figure out what the hell she was doing, but after a few seconds of thinking, I came up blank.  Thankfully, Weld was more on the ball than me.  “Actually, Phase is right.  We’re not supposed to say anything until she’s officially announced.”

“That’s no fun!” Roulette complained.

One of the other teenagers asked the obvious question.  “When is your debut?”

“We’re still working on scheduling,” Weld said smoothly, definitely unwilling to let me offer my own barbed rejoinder.  “There’s a lot of planning that goes into revealing a new Ward.”

While Weld explained and answered more questions about power testing, meeting PR, picking a costume, and so on, I slowly inched back towards my chair.  Roulette’s eyes would occasionally flick towards me, but she got swept into explaining her most recent costume alterations and thus couldn’t do anything else weird.

Given the public relations nightmare that yesterday’s tour had become, I considered Weld’s intense aversion towards forcibly including me in conversation a significant victory.  My comments about being signed up against my will and power testing had spread like wildfire on PHO for all that the PRT had apparently threatened legal action for releasing the videos online.  The PR department had even gone as far to retroactively invent a whole new rule for me: banning recording devices in the Wards common area due to ‘security concerns.’

The security of their ass covers, obviously.

Still, even without video, my ‘Unannounced Ward’ thread made it to nearly eighty pages of speculation and commentary on my situation before the mods locked it.  Unmistakable PRT shills had bombarded the thread, doing their best to shout the importance of ‘safety’ and ‘training’ while leaving unsubtle comments about the statistics surrounding teenaged vigilantes.  They downplayed my comments as ‘teenaged malcontent’ (likely an intern who forgot to rephrase the instructions from PR) and tried to imply that my issues were due to the Protectorate helping me escape a bad situation.

Their underhanded attempts to seize the moral high ground might have irritated me had I not visited some of the less-traveled websites and discovered something far more amusing — my trick of refusing power testing was being shared quietly among the vigilante communities.  Basically all of the independent heroes and villains that frequented those sites had reasons to avoid the PRT — otherwise they would just join the Wards or Protectorate — and my trick had enjoyed enthusiastic, if quiet, reception.

I was sure Jim’s colleagues would appreciate the opportunity to use that rule, but at the same time I hoped that this didn’t come back to bite me in the butt before I graduated.

An eternity later, the visitors had their fill of pointless Ward facts and left us alone.  The door had barely shut when Roulette jumped off of the couch and stalked over to me, clearly displeased.  “Phase, you’re not seriously going to dodge every question about your power, right?”  Then she turned her glare on Weld.  “And I don’t remember any rule about having to be announced!”

Weld sighed and ran his hand over his face.  “Gauss instructed us to keep Phase’s details quiet, which you would have known had you read the notes on the calendar event.”

“Yeah, but Phase could say something.  Why keep her power a secret?”

“Because it’s not our prerogative to reveal them,” the Ward captain replied.

Roulette crossed her arms.  “There’s no harm in asking.  And it’s not like telling the gawkers counts as power testing.”

“That’s not the point,” Weld said.

“It kind of is,” Roulette retorted.  “What’s the point of her being here if she’s not going to ever go through official power testing and become a Ward?  Why not just become a vigilante?”

I didn’t miss the side-eyed glances the diminutive Ward was shooting my way, even through her mask, nor did I miss the slight emphasis on ‘official’ and ‘vigilante.’  Weld opened and closed his mouth a few times before giving up on crafting a reply.  “Phase?”

“I don’t want to be a Ward,” I bit out, ignoring Weld’s concerned look.  “I said that on my first day.”

“And stop talking about Phase like she isn’t literally right here,” Valve interjected.  She had spun around in her chair to glare at Roulette.

“She screws up my power!” Roulette said, waving an angry finger in my direction.  “Which would be fine, I guess, if she was actually on the team, but —”

Weld interjected, raising his voice in a rare display of anger.  “Ladies, please.  Let’s change topics to something else.”

Valve went back to her Tinkering with a muttered, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”  Roulette shrugged, gave me a strange look, and walked back to the couch.  She flopped down onto it and pulled out her phone, already engrossed in something other than me.  Weld, on the other hand, almost seemed to want to come over and keep discussing before thinking better of it.

In that moment, I envied Reynard — he completely ignored the argument, and I somehow doubted that the console had held his attention the entire time.

Two more tours came and went without issue.  Roulette didn’t try to get me to talk about my powers and I didn’t recognize anyone else, so they were marginally better than the prior tour.  Even with the intermittent ogling, I was able to get a lot of my homework finished, though Valve was so engrossed in her Tinkering that we never did the English assignment.

As I was gathering my materials to relocate to my room, my phone dinged with another message.  Curious, I fished the device out of my pocket, only to discover that a new time commitment had been added to my schedule.  It was marked as a ‘team building exercise,’ and I was fairly certain that Jim and I had ruled out all of those activities when we last spoke.

Shit, Armstrong must have discovered another loophole.

Then I checked the event details and my lips curled into a smile.  “Hey Weld.”

My voice immediately grabbed the attention of the other Wards, and the captain said, “Yes?”

“What’s this about a group movie night?” I said, gesturing to my phone.  “Isn’t that kind of risky, doing this sort of thing in public?  Not to mention the fact that you and Hunch can’t come with us.”

A grimace passed over Weld’s face almost too fast for me to see.  “Well, as much as we would like to go, we figured that some group bonding away from HQ was more important.”

The implication was obvious: with the ‘success’ of the tour events, clearly what I needed was more time together with the Wards.  “I see.  Unfortunately…”  I dragged the word out, much to Weld’s displeasure.  Valve, perhaps predictably, just rolled her eyes, and Reynard tilted his head slightly.  “We have a movie theatre on base for this sort of thing.  You and Hunch can come, then, and I won’t get outed because I’m suddenly hanging out with random people after school.”

“That’s sort of the point…” Weld said, but he trailed off.  “I don’t suppose there’s a rule to this effect?”

“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal,” I replied.

Roulette, however, wasn’t so deterred.  “We can still go get dinner beforehand and come back, so it’s fine!”

“Same issue,” I retorted.  I picked up my books and walked towards the door, passing an obviously conflicted Weld.  Valve had also started packing up — probably to avoid Tinker time penalties — and caught me before I could go.

“Can I drop by after putting this stuff back in my lab?” she asked, gesturing at her pile of parts.  My single nod was met with a half-smile, and I was finally free to retreat to my room.

 

---

 

A short message to Gauss (and an even shorter reply) made sure that movie night would be relocated to the base, which meant I would be able to simply show up right before the scheduled time and leave immediately after the movie finished.  Even had I felt bad about the sudden reorganization, I had enough trouble keeping my identity secret that intentionally throwing fuel onto that fire seemed like a bad idea.  My classmates had already shown up for a tour; the last thing I needed was pictures showing up on the internet.

Connie showed up about an hour after the tour ended, English notebook in hand.  The scrawny Tinker was not much for small talk, which I appreciated.  In fact, even in our short time interacting with each other, she had never so much as broached a topic other than her Tinker projects or the homework we were working on.  Whether she was naturally shy or realized that I would prefer to just do the assignment, I probably wouldn’t know, but either way I wasn’t complaining.

Unfortunately, as soon as we had completed our essays and swapped to proofread, Lily knocked on the door.  “Taylor — oh, hey Connie,” she said, getting a raised eyebrow from me and a half-wave from the Tinker.  “I can come back.”

“We’re done,” Connie said, picking up her stuff.  “Thanks, Taylor.”

“No problem,” I said, and Connie left without further ado.  Lily stood aside to let her through the door, then stepped in and shut it behind her.  “Taylor, what the hell?”

“What what the hell?” I asked.

“Last night!” Lily hissed.  “You got into a fight that totally wrecked a store!”

“That was Snap!” I retorted hotly.  “His explosions —”

Lily cut me off with a sharp hand gesture.  “Taylor, you were the hero there.  It’s your job to keep collateral damage to a minimum, because it’s not like the villains have anything to lose by destroying more stuff.”

I crossed my arms and glared at the other girl.  “I captured them.”

“The PRT captured them,” she corrected, then steamrolled over my objection.  “With your help, sure, but I sincerely doubt you had a way to keep them contained without foam.”

A few ideas went through my head, such as phasing parts of their bodies into the ground, but I certainly wasn’t going to share those with Lily.  “What’s your point?  That was my first actual cape battle, so it’s not like I had any idea about how to do things.”

“That is my point,” Lily said.  “Taylor, please, let me help you before you get hurt.  Or, more hurt — I’ve been caught in an explosion before, and I know the signs of someone who is sore all over.”

“I’m fine,” I bit out.  “I just need practice.”

Lily growled in what took me a second to recognize as frustration.  “Look, I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you.  Can you at least sit there and let me explain some stuff that might save your life?  That way, even if you don’t pay attention, I can at least say that I tried before you did something stupid?”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” I muttered.

“No.  Taylor, you have a lot of good reasons to be angry at the PRT.  But please, for the love of god, don’t get yourself killed because you’re too stubborn to take advice.”  Lily’s voice was pleading by the end and the edges of her eyes were slightly red.  Did she really care that much?  What had I ever done to her to warrant this level of concern?

More importantly, would she go to Armstrong if I refused?

“Fine,” I said.  “But not tonight.  I want to lay down and get off of my aching legs.”

“Sure,” she said, obviously relieved.  “I’ll hold you to this.  Goodnight, Taylor.”

“G’night,” I replied.

Once Lily was finally out of my room, I came to the conclusion that no more homework was getting done tonight.  My head was too filled with thoughts of Nebula’s piercing gaze and Lily’s pleading offer; interestingly, I didn’t feel as though I needed to run away anymore.  Or at least, not because I was trapped by the Protectorate.

My patrols had shown that I wasn’t trapped.  I could leave whenever I wanted, in fact, but until I could figure out a solution to the whole ‘sustainable income’ problem, I was actually better off pretending to be a Ward.  The tours were less onerous than I was expecting and hopefully this little debacle with the movie night would get Weld, Gauss, and Armstrong off my back for a while.

I changed into pajamas and grabbed my phone before curling into my blankets, making sure I could use both hands.  There was one activity I could do even if my head felt too full of bees to function properly, and while it was easier on my desktop computer, I could fill out the forms perfectly well on my phone.

A flick of my thumb brought up some of the historical footage from PHO of the Brockton Bay Wards getting into fights with the local gangs.  Time to make sure their Youth Guard rep was aware of their escapades.