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Just a Phase

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(Thursday, January 13 2011)

 

In movies and books, moving to a new city and starting a new life was often depicted as exciting and liberating.

If only reality was like that.

I had long since tuned out the discussion my dad was having with Director Armstrong while they signed paperwork.  Gauss watched me with a worried frown on her face, which I had also ignored.  The Director, to his credit, had asked me my opinion of this whole process when we started, but then predictably ignored it and started helping my dad fill out the paperwork.

Dad, also predictably, didn’t listen at all.

Every time he flipped a sheet over it was like someone took a razor to my ears.  I had made it perfectly clear that this was unnecessary, that I didn’t want to associate with the PRT, and that I didn’t want to be abandoned in a far-off city to mollify his twisted fear of me getting hurt.  It wasn’t even about my safety, I had realized — it was entirely that he didn’t want to go through the pain of losing me.

So, despite my pointed insistence to the contrary, I was about to become the newest member of the Boston Wards.  Dad initially wanted me to become a Ward in Brockton Bay, but I told him flat-out that I would rather take my chances with the gangs than spend another minute in the presence of those two sociopaths.  Everything at school suddenly made sense after my disastrous meet and greet with the Wards.

Of course, Piggot had been more interested in telling dad nice things about Boston, ‘just an hour away,’ instead of acknowledging any of my complaints beyond ‘we will investigate.’ At least the PRT covered the hospital bills.

And as the final fuck-you cherry on top of the shitshow sundae my life had become, dad was technically giving up legal guardianship of me to the state.  I didn’t know if he asked for that or if the PRT twisted his arm somehow, but I suspected that in his haste to ‘protect’ me, he didn’t grasp all of the implications.  At the very least, it would make it easier to never talk to him again.

My soul-searching was cut off when I saw dad take the packet and flip it closed.  He had a relieved smile on his face, and Armstrong was telling him various comforting words that I didn’t believe in the slightest.  Gauss was giving me a hopeful smile, which I returned with a flat glare.  “Well, congratulations, Taylor!” she said cheerily.

I rolled my eyes.  “Just show me to my room.”

I stood up and started for the door, but dad intercepted me.  “Taylor…” he began.  He opened his arms awkwardly to give me a hug.

My angry glare stopped him short.  “Mom would be ashamed of you,” I said, voice arctic.  Then I activated my power and stepped through him.  I ignored his pained whine from behind me and strode down the hallway towards the elevator.

Gauss caught up with me just as the doors were able to close.  She dashed into the elevator using her power, and I mashed the door closed button several times.

“I understand that you’re upset,” she began.

“Were you even listening at the beginning of that meeting?” I snapped.  “Two Wards from back home tormented me for two years, culminating in my trigger event.  The school administration didn’t listen to me during the bullying, the PRT didn’t listen when I told them about the locker, my dad didn’t listen when I told him I didn’t want to be here.  And now you and the Director are two more links in a chain of people that don’t give a shit about me.”

Gauss rolled back on her heels slightly.  She was tall, considerably taller than me, so her slight sway was very noticeable.  “I think if you give us a chance—”

“I did.  Two years of chances,” I spat.  “For that, I got to spend hours trapped in a tiny box filled with rotting tampons.”

The Protectorate hero must have realized that I wasn’t going to talk more, because she didn’t try to draw me back into conversation.  Instead, she fiddled with a manilla folder in her other hand that held my keycard, orientation packet, and a few other odds and ends.  I had left it intentionally on the table in a fit of pettiness, but the irritating Protectorate member was too observant to leave it behind.

Part of my mind was cataloging and assessing the building as we walked through the spacious hallways.  Unlike back home, the Boston Protectorate building housed the Wards, as opposed to the PRT HQ across the street.  The Protectorate building was only seven stories, with the Wards common room and quarters on the third floor.  The nearest elevator to the conference room we had been using was on the opposite end of the building, so we had to walk a bit.

Gauss gave a short description of how to work the door mechanism, and I nodded dully in response.  Her lips twisted in worry again, but I ignored it as much as I ignored all of the other faux-concern that permeated the PRT.  Thirty seconds later the mask-up timer dinged, and I walked into the room that was my prison for the next two and a half years.

In retrospect, I should have expected a meet-and-greet. I still flinched when I saw them standing there and staring at me, memories flooding back about what happened the last time I did this.

“Hello, Wards,” Gauss said excitedly.  “I’d like to introduce you to your new teammate!”  She went to nudge me forward, but I let her hand pass through me harmlessly.  When she looked down in surprise, I glared at her through my domino mask.

I intentionally let the silence drag on.  “What’s your name?” Weld asked politely.  Armstrong had told me about him.

“Her temporary name is Phase,” Gauss replied.

“And teammate is a strong word,” I replied, continuing to glare at Gauss.  “I read my damn contract and the rules on the train down here.  You can’t force me to go through power testing.  But until I go through power testing, I’m only a Ward on paper.  No costume, no name, no patrols, nothing.  You can’t even make me do PR events, thanks to Youth Guard regulations.”

Gauss turned to me in shock, and I addressed the seven actual Wards.  “I’m not here to be a hero, or to learn about my powers, or whatever else bullshit the recruiters say.  I’m here because there's not a single other person in my life that gives a damn about what I want.  I fully intend to try to live my life pretending that this entire nightmare didn’t happen.”  I snatched my folder from Gauss’s limp hand.  “Now, where’s my room?”

Weld blinked a few times, confusion writ large on his face.  “Uh, that hallway,” he said, pointing.

I ignored the room full of concerned expressions and strode in the indicated direction.  The common room, at least as far as my quick glance showed, was pretty nice.  Couches, computers, bookshelves, a nice sound system, and a small kitchenette actually made the space seem livable.  Too livable, I realized — at least some of the other Wards must be effectively entrapped here like I was.  Probably the Case 53s, if I understood their situation correctly.

My earlier soul-searching returned with a vengeance now that I was finally alone.  Like all kids, I had dreamed about getting powers as long as I could remember.  In fact, up until my own trigger event, I was a bit of a cape geek.  I didn’t obsess over PHO or stalk my favorite capes, but I did enjoying learning about them and their powers.  Brockton Bay was renowned for its high cape density, and there was always something interesting going on in the local cape scene.

All of that enthusiasm had died as soon as I got my own powers.  I didn’t even know the names or powers of most of my teammates.  The only notable cape I knew about in Boston was the Butcher (she had made the news recently for killing the old Butcher and moving back north), and I sincerely doubted any information about her would ever be relevant.

I found my room easily enough.  The dormitories were clustered against one corner of the building, connected by an L-shaped hallway to the common room on the other corner.  The corner room was marked ‘Weld,’ which I guess made sense if he was the leader.  Mine was three doors down, next to ‘Flechette.’  There was an unused room on the other side.  Doors for bathrooms were obviously marked on the interior of the L.

A tired sigh escaped my lips when I fished out my card and let myself into my room.  Everything was new or like-new: the large bed in the corner, bookshelf, desk, and cabinets were all sparkling clean.  A fancy desktop computer sat on the desk, which made me smile slightly when I remembered the crap internet I had back in Brockton Bay.  The heavy-duty window let in the rapidly-dimming sunlight reflected by the city.

I pulled the door shut behind me and locked it, then flopped down onto the bed and started sobbing into my pillow.

Some indeterminate amount of time passed before someone knocked at my door.  I ignored that, along with the three additional attempts.  At some point, I knew that my suitcase full of clothes would be brought up, but I wasn’t in any rush to unpack.  Instead, I just stared up at the ceiling and let my mind wander.

To my moderate horror, my bed was close enough to Flechette’s room that my limited clairvoyance started to leak over.  I didn’t really need to know all of the things she kept on her desk or about the pictures on her walls, but my power told me about everything in a roughly eight foot radius around me.  I did my best to keep it clamped down during the day, but when relaxing it was easier to just see everything than ignore it.

This was… a problem.  I fully intended to keep all of the details about my power under wraps, given how strong I suspected it was, and asking to be moved down one room would probably require some explanation.  I had tried to be as careful as possible and not accidentally reveal the rather potent precognitive side of my powers, which hopefully meant that Weld didn’t know either.

On the flip side, I was going to spend more than half of my time over the next three years holed up in this room and probably relaxing on this bed.  I was quite certain that the PRT couldn’t compel me to do power testing, and that was necessary for everything else.  Patrols, PR, costume, reveal — all of it, legally, was supposed to happen only after power testing.

But, legally, Sophia and Emma should have been kicked out of the program years ago.  And once the PRT understood the implications of my powers, they would probably be tripping over themselves to get me into their labs.

Fuck.  Should I trust the system that had thoroughly and repeatedly screwed me over, or risk revealing something that I didn’t want to reveal?

Flechette herself entered her room while I was deliberating, and my need to fix this jumped immediately.  At my furthest extension, I could see her walk around near her desk and clothes cabinet.  I could practically guarantee that I was going to see something that I shouldn’t.

I sighed heavily and sat up from my bed.  I guess I would have to tell someone after all.

In a fit of terrible timing, Flechette exited her room at the same time I exited my own.  She turned and gave me a hopeful smile, then looked down in shock.  “Your, uh,” she said.

Oh, it was my luggage.  Instead of stepping over or around it, I had simply phased through it.

I gave her a flat look.  “I need to change rooms.”

“Oh?” she asked, curious instead of accusatory.  “Why?”

“Um, it’s a problem with my power.”

“Woah, really?  Like what?”

I grabbed my arms with my hands.  “I rather not say.  I, um, can’t share a wall.  With anyone, really.  Who should we talk to?”

She bit her lip, then looked up the hallway towards Weld’s room.  “Let me go ask,” she said, then darted down the hallway.  I didn’t bother following, but I did step out of my luggage and onto the clear floor.

“What’s this issue with your power, Phase?  Problems sharing a wall?”  Weld’s voice was deep and confident, and he gave me a smile as he followed Flechette down the hallway to me.

“Yeah,” I muttered.  “Need to have an open room between us, otherwise I…”

“Otherwise you?” Weld asked.

I looked around nervously.  “I…”  It was hard to describe what the problem was without giving away my power.  Weld had what was probably a comforting expression if not for the frown, and Flechette was obviously worried.  “Nevermind,” I muttered.  “I’ll just sleep on the opposite wall.”

I turned back to my door, but Weld spoke up.  “No, wait, Phase, it’s okay.  I understand that you don’t want to tell us about your power, but even if I disagree with that, you don’t deserve to be uncomfortable.”

“They probably can’t fix it until tomorrow,” Flechette said.  “I am staying here tonight, like usual when we have a patrol that ends late.  But it’s ok, I’ll just sleep on the couch.  Would that fix it?”  That wasn’t the greatest solution, but it would suffice for tonight.  I would just have to keep my senses clamped down until she was done in her room.

It took me a moment to realize I was staring at them.  I blinked a few times, then pushed my door open.  “Yeah, that would be fine.  Uh, thanks.”

Flechette gave me a sad smile.  “No problem,” she said. 

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I walked into my room and pulled my luggage in after me.  Right before the door closed, Flechette stuck her head around the corner and said, “Oh, wait!  Have you had dinner yet?”

“I’m not hungry,” I replied.  She made a confused noise, but let me go.  The door closed a moment later.  My response had been partially a lie — I did need to eat, I just wasn’t hungry.  With everything that happened today, I didn’t really want to find out the result of putting food in my none-too-pleased stomach.

My head felt like it was filled with molasses, and I flopped back down onto the bed and stared at the ceiling for a while.  Quiet time came to an end when my new smartphone beeped, apparently indicating a message; it took me a few minutes of fiddling to figure out how to unlock the infernal device and see what had caused the beep.  To my confusion, I had a whole bunch of messages.

The most recent was from some PRT-specific program, letting me know that Gauss was going to come by my room at 8AM sharp to take me to breakfast and continue my orientation.  There were also a slew of text messages from a number I didn’t recognize.  But based on the backhanded apologies and depressed ranting, they were from dad.

I deleted the texts and blocked the number.

This being my first cell phone, I took a moment to look through the programs list and check what else I could do.  Browsing the internet was hilariously fast compared to back home, and I took a moment to poke around on PHO.  My trigger event had not been particularly public, but there was still the chance that someone other than Emma and Sophia had seen me phase out of the locker.  The PRT claimed that they would help cover up for me if that was the case, but I trusted them about as far as I could throw the HQ building.

PHO ceased to interest me a few minutes later, and I went to my luggage to find a set of pajamas and a towel.  I didn’t usually shower before bed, but showers were relaxing and I wanted to get the scents of today out of my hair before I laid down.  Train-smell and Boston-smell would come out pretty easily, but PRT-smell was probably something that would harass me for the rest of my life.

The shower was closer to my end of the hallway than Weld’s, which was nice.  What was nicer were the showers themselves, since they had a seemingly unlimited supply of hot water and were tall enough for me to stand up straight.  After using the generic soap and shampoo, I did my best to relax and enjoy the fact that I wouldn’t need to get out of the shower any time soon.

It was, maybe, the only good thing that had happened all day.  Too bad I spoiled it by spending the entire time replaying the day’s events.

My skin was amazingly pruny by time I decided to finally finish up and head towards bed.  However, when I lifted my towel to dry my face, my nose was filled with the smells of my house back in Brockton Bay.  Of my favorite shampoo, the one mom always recommended.  Of hints of dad’s cologne, and the indefinably ‘my house’ smell that distinguished it from every other house.

I couldn’t help it.  I burst into tears.

“Are you alright in there?” Flechette asked, knocking softly on the external door to the shower room.

“I’m fine!” I snapped around my sobs.  “Just… just leave me alone.”

She must have gotten the message, because by time I got dressed in my pajamas and opened the door, she was gone.  I shook my head in irritation, and I had phased through my door and into my room before I realized that I should have used the scanner.

Eh, whatever.  Lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling of my cage, my brain refused to shut up and let me sleep.  Despite everything, I kept remembering playing heroes with Emma as a kid.  I had always wanted to be a hero when I grew up.

Just not like this.

I didn’t sleep particularly well.

Chapter Text

(Friday, January 14 2011)

 

I dreamed of my first attempt at joining a Wards team.  Emma was finally giving me a genuine, caring smile, except when she peeled her lips back, there were too many teeth.

Far too many sharpened teeth.

I woke up screaming at least once.

When my alarm finally dragged me kicking and screaming into consciousness at half past seven, my stomach hurt from not eating and my head hurt from not sleeping.  An unpleasantly familiar feeling settled into my gut as I stared at the wall opposite my bed.  I was filled with a quiet dread that had been haunting me for the better part of two years, every morning that I had to get up and brave whatever Winslow was going to fling at me that day.

Thinking about Winslow reminded me of the locker, so I thanked whatever entity thought it a good idea to put a window in my room.  There wasn’t much light this early, but it took the edge off of the claustrophobia.  I could look outside and see fresh air, even if I couldn’t smell it.  At least I didn’t have a roommate.  With the PRT, it was the small victories.

I had sweated enough in the night that I needed a quick shower before I could put on some clothes.  Part of me was looking forward to having a steady ‘job’ so that I could finally replace some of my ruined or too-small clothes.  Bulky hoodies were re-wearable, but I only had so many of them.  And going forwards, there wouldn’t be juice dumped on my clothes.

I hoped.

The remaining time until my escort arrived went past in a blur of PHO and other random internet.  Not that I ever had the means or security to buy one, but now I could really see why people were so obsessed with smartphones.  I poked around the PRT app a bit, trying to familiarize myself with the myriad of tools there.  They had even included a chatroom feature, if I ever wanted to message all of the actual Wards.

Gauss knocking pulled me out of my exploration.  “Phase, you ready?”

I didn’t bother replying.  My phone went into a hoodie pocket next to my temp ID card and I put on a domino mask.  I opened the door just as she was about to knock again.  “Ah, good timing.  Ready to go get some food?”  In lieu of a response, I just gestured her away.  If I was bugging her, she didn’t show it.

Gauss seemed content to avoid smalltalk until we got to the cafeteria.  It was up one floor, but on the same side of the building as the Wards section, so it was a blessedly short trip.

“The cafeteria is open from six to nine, roughly,” she said.  “The kitchen in the common area is also kept stocked, so feel free to go there if you’re hungry outside of cafeteria hours.”

The cafeteria was a buffet, and I followed Gauss as she loaded her tray up with pastries and fruits.  If I was being honest, the food looked really good, and given that I hadn’t eaten last night, I didn’t feel the least bit bad about taking a veritable pile of food.  A glass of what looked like freshly squeezed orange juice rounded out my breakfast.

I followed Gauss to an unoccupied table pretty far from the door.  The other patrons were mostly staff and a few officers, but I noticed one of the heroes reading a newspaper at one table and an exhausted looking Flechette at another.

Gauss seemed to be waiting for me to begin the conversation, so I started in on my breakfast.  The pastries tasted as good as they looked, and the fruit was fresh.  The bacon was a bit crispy for me, but the hash browns were perfect.  I found myself smiling for the first time in weeks, and If I had to guess based on Gauss’s grin, she intended it.

Still, I wasn’t particularly interested in morning conversation, so I waited until she went first.  “So, we’ll be reassigning your room, as you asked.  Don’t want you sleeping on the floor or anything silly like that.”

I couldn’t keep the resentment out of my voice.  “Oh?  No ultimatums?  No thinly veiled threats?”

Gauss pursed her lips, levity draining from her face.  “Phase, I understand that you have significant reason to distrust the PRT, but we’re really not your enemies.”

“Doesn’t look like it from here,” I bit out.

“You’re not doing much to inspire goodwill, yourself,” she retorted.

I sighed heavily and glanced down at the table.  “I don’t want to be a Ward.  I want to go home.  The PRT doesn’t have anything that I want.  All they’ve done is destroy the only relationship I had with, well, anyone.  And cover up attempted murder, by other Wards.  The most you could do right now is just leave me alone.”

“The other Wards—”

“Are obviously just trying to be my friend so that I go through power testing and become a good little Ward,” I replied.  “Look, let’s just finish our food and you can show me how to use the secret doors or whatever.  One of the few things I’m contractually obligated to do is go to school, and right now I don’t know how to leave the building.”

Gauss managed to go all of two minutes before trying again.  “When I graduated from the Chicago Wards, I picked Boston for a reason.”

“Lucky you.  You’re here of your own free will,” I shot back.

Mercifully, Gauss finally seemed to get the message and shut up.  We ate the rest of our breakfasts in tense, uncomfortable silence, and I could tell that she really had things she wanted to say to me.  It was probably more useless attempts to get me to open up to the PRT, so if she was quiet I hoped that it meant that she was giving up.

Before I could get an new, more permanent ID card, I had to have my picture taken.  Or rather, they tried to take my picture; by regulation, my official portrait had to include my costume.  But I wasn’t allowed to be given a costume until I had gone through power testing, on account of an accident a few years back where a bad interaction between costume and power left a Ward in the hospital with third degree burns over half of their body.  More importantly, a domino mask and hoodie did not constitute an official costume, so while Gauss had a vigorous argument with the facilities staff, I sat on my phone and browsed PHO.

The argument became even more exciting when it turned out that a permanent ID card also required my official cape alias and that too required power testing.  A Ward had been given a name, and due to some miscommunication with an affiliate team, been hurt rather badly.  It had not been difficult for the Youth Guard to tack this onto the ‘requires power testing’ list.

Her relief was palpable when I was finally given a longer-duration temporary ID (with temporary alias) and allowed to register my biometrics with the system.

I followed an uncharacteristically irate Gauss around for the next hour as she explained the various features of the Protectorate building.  From what I could understand, we were situated close to downtown Boston, and there were numerous tunnels to facilitate getting into the building without being seen.  There was even an official entrance that connected directly to the subway (called the T, apparently), which was understandably very popular in the biting Boston winters.

That was one of the biggest problems about suddenly moving to Boston: I was not at all prepared for the weather.

In a pinch, my powers made it easy for me to ignore wind, slush, and snow, but even I wasn’t bold enough to just go out in a t-shirt and expect no one to bat an eye.  Sure, there were big, burly men who proclaimed their bigness and burliness by underdressing as far as they could in the winter weather, but I was a skinny twig of a girl who would probably get blown away in a particularly strong snowstorm.

I did find it kind of amusing that I had to look up at Gauss.  There weren’t many girls taller than me, and certainly not by most of a foot.

“The doors are all RFID in addition to card and biometrics,” Gauss explained at one of those doors.  By the twist of her lips, she was still remembering her attempts to get me an ID card.  “Your Wards phone will trigger the sensors, and it also has a map of all of the ways into the building.”  She gave me one of her wild smiles.  “Just don’t do like I do and try to use your civilian phone.  It’s awkward.”

“I don’t have a civilian phone,” I muttered.

“Well, you should get one.  It’s bad form to use your Wards phone to talk to your friends,” Gauss started, but I cut off her irritatingly cheery voice.

“What friends?” I asked, and she gawked at me.  “No, seriously, what friends?  Your Wards drove them all away, and it’s not like I’m on speaking terms with my family, either.  Who, exactly, am I going to call?”

I took a bit of pride in the gobsmacked expression on what I could see of Gauss’s face.  I knew she knew all of this, because she’d been in the room when I’d explained the bullying in great detail to Director Armstrong.  Maybe it just hadn’t sunk in until now.

“So, uh, yeah,” she said awkwardly.  “Let me show you around to some of the recreational facilities.”

The first stop in the tour was the gym.  I was the furthest thing from a gym rat, but even I could tell that the Protectorate gym was loaded.  Machines of every shape and size, a basketball half-court, and a serious collection of weights filled the room.

“You can get the on-hand staff to teach you how to use everything,” Gauss said.  “Or, if you want, I can arrange for myself or one of the other Protectorate heroes to teach you instead.”

I almost rejected the offer out of hand, but I held my tongue.  I hadn’t been particularly active before Emma’s betrayal, but since then I had become positively sedentary.  Having the opportunity to exercise and run without having to leave my prison complex was actually kind of nice.

“I’ll probably take you up on that offer,” I replied.  “It’s not like I have anything else to do.”  Gauss’s lips thinned into a frown at the end, but she nodded nevertheless.

The next stop was a movie theatre.  Apparently there had been an issue a few years back where an entire Wards team got outed because they tried to go to the movies and someone had matched the heights and gaits to their heroic personas.  While the PRT couldn’t stop small groups, they encouraged ‘Wards movie night’ to happen on base instead of out in the city.

Our final stop wasn’t really a stop, because I couldn’t go in.

“We have a fully stocked pub,” Gauss declared with a grand gesture.  “For those terrible days when you have to smell the Teeth.”

I gave her a flat look, and some of her good cheer evaporated.  “Is that all?”

“For me, yes,” she said.  “But I need to take you to meet our Youth Guard rep.”

James Reed was not what I pictured a Youth Guard rep to look like.  He was huge, like ‘played linebacker in college football’ huge.  His sandy blonde hair was close cropped and he wore a pair of wireframe glasses.  “Hey there, I’m James,” he said as Gauss left the office.  “But you can call me Jim.”

I shook his outstretched hand, and his grip was surprisingly gentle.  “I’m, um… Taylor, I guess.”

“You guess?” he asked with genuine concern.

“I’m not really telling anyone my name,” I admitted.

“Ah,” Jim said, nodding in understanding.  “I looked over your file.  I understand your hesitation entirely.”

“You do?”

“Certainly,” he said.  “I can’t say a lot, but I can tell you that the Youth Guard is very interested in just what the hell is going on in Brockton Bay.  What happened to you should never have happened to anyone.”

“I…” I trailed off.  This was not at all what I was expecting from the Youth Guard.  I was expecting condescension or further pushes to get me onboard — not compassion.  Maybe he was faking it?

“As I understand it,” he continued, “you’re not comfortable going through power testing, nor are you willing to engage in the normal ‘junior hero’ routine.”

“That’s right,” I said slowly, bracing for impact.

“Good,” Jim said approvingly.  “If only more young parahumans thought the way you did.  If they pressure you for any reason, don’t hesitate to call me immediately.  You are totally within your rights to refuse them access to your power.”

“Then why am I here?” I blurted before I could stop myself.  “I told them I didn’t care, that I just wanted to go back to my life.  Why did Armstrong let my dad sign me up for this shit?  Why did I move across state lines?  Why any of this?”

Jim folded his hands on his desk, a serious expression on his face.  “Taylor, I’ll be honest.  The Youth Guard thinks the law is just as stupid as you do.  Our organization exists to protect kids like you from being used as tools, or worse, by the PRT.  And as long as you are willing to talk to me, I will fight tooth and nail to give you the opportunity to just grow up as a normal kid.”

“A normal kid who happens to live on a military base,” I muttered.

“Paramilitary, strictly speaking, but they pay well and provide you with everything you need.  We make sure of that.”

I was in an awkward self-contradictory situation with regards to living with the PRT.  My life had improved in many objective ways by moving out of my house, not the least of which was that I got away from my dad.  But the only reason I needed to get away was because they ruined our relationship anyways.

“I guess,” I muttered.

“Taylor,” Jim said quietly.  “You got screwed by the system, repeatedly.  And now the PRT is paying you to give you a second chance at what high school should be like.  You can basically ask them for anything you want and they’ll make it happen.”

“Apart from letting me go,” I said bitterly.

“Unfortunately,” Jim agreed.

We sat in silence for a few minutes while I processed that.  From what I had been told, the Wards were sent to one of the nicest high schools in Boston.  It was not far from downtown and semi-private, whatever that meant.  I was sure the computer in my room was not cheap, even if it was some sort of standard issue.  And they had allowances for clothes and books and stuff that were more than I ever had access to at home, without even bringing up the college fund.

Hell, if I was being totally honest, Brockton Bay was a shithole of a city.  Boston, on the other hand, was pretty nice, all things considered.  It wasn’t overrun by Nazis or sex slavers, or even really violent gangs in general.  I wasn’t going to get shot or mugged on my way to the waterfront.

All for the low, low price of my freedom.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Jim asked.

“Not at the moment,” I said.  “I read my contract pretty thoroughly, and I guess I need to look through the Youth Guard stuff again.”

“Charter,” he said with a smile.

“Yeah, that.  And you said that they’re already looking into Brockton Bay?”

“You didn’t hear that from me, but yes.”

I sat back in my chair, a small smile forming on my lips for the first time in a long time.  “I guess I’m good to go, then.  Are you here every day?”

“Indeed I am,” Jim replied.  He stood and offered me his hand again.  “It’s been a pleasure, Taylor.  And I’m sorry, again.”

“Thanks,” I muttered, shaking his hand.

With a little help from my phone, I was able to navigate my way back to the Wards area.  Instead of going through the main door to the common room, I found that the hallway with the dormitories connected to the main corridor via a hidden door.  It was marked as an ‘emergency exit,’ but I could trip the lock with my phone RFID, and so I didn’t need to brave the common area just to get back to my bedroom.

My room had been relocated while I was being dragged around by Gauss.  The ‘Phase’ nameplate still looked weird to me, but I did my best to put the moniker out of my mind when I went into my new room.

Unpacking my luggage was easy.  I didn’t have much in the way of clothes, and I hadn’t seen any point to bringing anything else.  I could have brought any number of my books from home, but I really didn’t want to be constantly relocating them.  About the only personal touch I had in the room was a small framed picture of just me and mom.  We were both smiling in the photo.

I wondered what she would say if she saw me now.  Probably disappointed that I was working for the government instead of out actually doing something good for society.  I wasn’t sure what, exactly, she would want me to be doing, but PR events and selling plushies was probably not it.

A quick glance at the clock revealed that it was nearly lunch time, and now that I knew where the cafeteria was, I could feed myself.  I did have to admit that the free all-you-can-eat buffet was a pretty sweet deal, and Jim’s words came back to me as I filled my plate with coleslaw and hamburger.  I was the only cape in the room to be dressed in civilian clothes and a domino mask, so I drew a few eyes as I found a corner table and sat down.

To my irritation, I was joined not five minutes later by a Protectorate hero I didn’t recognize.  His dark purple bodysuit looked like it had stars.

“Hello,” he said seriously.  “You’re Phase, right?  I’m Nebula, and I wanted to welcome you to the division.”

I stared at the outstretched hand until he retracted it.  “Yeah, hi.”  I took a bite of my hamburger.

Nebula stared at me with an unreadable expression, then started into his own lunch.  After a few bites, he turned his attention back to me.  “So, I understand that you moved here from Brockton Bay.”

“Yep.  Two of the three girls who caused my trigger event when they tried to murder me are Wards there, so I didn’t think it would work out.”  I didn't tell him what I had needed to say to convince my father of that fact.

The hero gaped for a moment, jaw flapping in the wind.  “That’s a serious accusation.”

I shrugged.  “It’s true.  But no one listens to me, so it doesn’t make any difference what I say.”

“I see,” he said, frowning at me.  “I assure you, nothing like that will happen here.”

“I’m sure,” I deadpanned, taking another bite.  This hamburger was actually quite good.

“I’ve heard you have an interesting Breaker power,” he tried.

“Not officially, and I’m not going in for power testing, so we’ll probably never know,” I said offhandedly.  When he frowned harder at me, I sighed.  “Look, I get it, now that I have powers, the PRT gives a shit about me.  But I just want to be left alone, so my apologies for not wanting to do the whole ‘hero’ thing.  I’ll be out of your hair in two and half years.”

Nebula stared at me so hard that I thought I was going to catch fire.  But he didn’t have anything else to say, so we ate our lunch in yet another awkward silence.  Much like Gauss, he seemed to want to talk, but repeatedly thought better of it.  I finished my food before he could come up with another question, and I gathered my tray.  “It was nice to meet you,” I said as I left.

“You too,” Nebula replied, but he was clearly distracted.

After lunch I went to the gym and had them explain how to use the fancy-looking treadmills.  Running was simple and easy, and they even gave me a whole bunch of brand new workout clothes to use.  I ran (really, jogged) for an hour, then went back to my room and took a shower.

The rest of the day I spent either reading things or screwing around online.  I knew it wasn’t a good habit to get into, and I would soon have homework, but there wasn’t anything else to do around my new home.  Dinner was likewise boring, but I was more relieved than upset that I was able to eat at least one meal in peace.

Eventually I decided that I had enough internet and went to bed.

I still didn’t sleep well.

Chapter Text

(Saturday, January 15 2011)

 

I woke up Saturday morning after another restless night.  Nightmares of the locker, of mom, of being abandoned by everyone featured prominently while I tried to sleep.  Based on the wetness on my pillow by my eyes, I must have spent some of the night crying.

It didn’t take me long to run through my normal morning routine.  Since it was the weekend, I didn’t feel bad taking a longer shower than usual.  I could tell that their provided shampoo wasn’t doing my hair any good, and I still needed a winter jacket, so I tentatively decided to go shopping today.  The PRT had given me quite a bit in spending cash in addition to money set aside for clothing and other essentials.

Unfortunately, I knew nothing about where to go shopping in Boston.  So, after getting dressed and making my way to the cafeteria, I once again found myself relying on my phone to tell me where to go.  One of the secret entrances opened into an alley behind a drug store, so that was good to know.  Finding a clothes shop was considerably more complicated, because I knew nothing about stores or brands or anything like that.

I scowled at my phone around my breakfast.  Part of me was frustrated by the needlessly complex search for a jacket, some shirts, and a hoodie or two.  Another part of me was frustrated by how much I enjoyed the breakfasts here in the cafeteria.  The food was quite good and there was a wide variety.  And the fruit was all fresh.

I let my gaze wander around the other tables while I finished breakfast.  The cafeteria was far less populated than it was on Friday morning, with maybe a quarter of the tables occupied.  Luckily for me, there were no costumed heroes around to come and interrupt my meal.  Once I was finished, I left my tray in the rack and walked towards one of the elevators.  A quick swipe of my ID meant I wouldn’t be joined by random people on my way to the basement.

The secret passages were actually kind of cool, if I was being entirely honest.  I walked for what felt like three blocks along an ordinary looking hallway before coming to a set of steps.  At the top was a reinforced door with the usual locking mechanisms, and I pulled my domino mask off before stepping outside.

Freedom.

Mostly.

I considered running, right then and there.  As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a damn thing they could do to restrain me.  My dad apparently didn’t care about me, I didn’t have any friends, and the PRT was hell-bent on getting me under their thumb.  I really didn’t have any compelling material reasons to continue to play their game, especially when they were rigging it so obviously in their own favor.

But, mom.  What would she say, if she saw me turn villain?  Would she be as disappointed in me for not being a hero?

I put the thought out of my mind.  As much as I liked to entertain the idea of me running away, it wouldn’t solve any of my immediate problems.  I still needed a place to stay, new clothes, and some reasonable guarantee that I could find meals.  I couldn’t become a vigilante without the PRT coming after me, and that meant turning to a life of, at minimum, petty crime.

Well, it was an option if they ever got really pushy.  I started walking down the alley, reflexively pulling my hoodie closer in the cold Boston air.  While I walked, a strange feeling registered in my precognitive sense.  It was a sort of ephemeral pressure, almost but not quite entirely unlike the sense I got from physical matter.  At a thought, I let whatever it was pass through me, and the pressure vanished.  What was left behind was my usual sensation that I was actively phasing through something.

Someone was using a parahuman power on me.

Not only had my disastrous first meet and greet with the Wards ENE saved me from years of torment, it had also revealed that I could phase through the effects of powers in addition to matter.  I doubted very much that Emma or Gallant had ‘helping Taylor’ anywhere on their list of priorities, but their always-on powers had done the work for them.

It was probably the only positive thing Emma had done for me in years.

I shook my head as I rounded the block and went into the drug store.  My hoodie got a few strange looks from much more bundled customers, but otherwise it was a quick in-and-out to get soap, shampoo, conditioner, a new toothbrush, and various other personal effects to supply the bathroom.  My PRT-issued credit card rang up with no problem, and I was out the door soon after.

The clothing store I had picked out was only a few blocks away, and I let my mind wander while I walked.  Boston seemed nice.  Certainly there were few enough places in Brockton Bay that were as nice as my immediate vicinity, and I started to second-guess my initial dislike of the city.  Sure, the Bay was objectively bad, but there was a certain sense of belonging from having grown up there.  It may have been a shithole, but it was our shithole.

I felt out of place in Boston’s pleasant ambiance, and not just because I didn’t have a heavy coat.  It was just too nice to be the place where I lived.

Another ping on my precog senses led to another effect ignored.  I wondered what the source of these effects felt when I used my power to preemptively dodge theirs.  Did they get anything useful, or did I just come up blank?  It almost made me want to go in for power testing.

I clamped that thought down hard and focused on my map.

I felt a pang of sadness when I finally arrived at the store.  Emma had loved shopping, enough to have enthusiasm for the both of us.  Even without the painful memories, I would have struggled to go shopping by myself, and the circumstances I found myself in were not helping.  I sighed heavily at the door, then pushed my way into the store and set about finding some more clothes.

The next hour alternated between my precog senses tickling and me searching for my style of clothes.  The biggest stumbling block on the latter was finding a long coat that fit that wasn’t too expensive.  The PRT would happily pay for it, but I could see them scheduling a meeting about my expenses if they went out of control.  And the more meetings I avoided, the better my chances of everyone forgetting that I existed.

I stopped twitching at my power sense after the second time.  My best guess was that the feeling was due to some sort of external parahuman power, probably something benign that just happened to people nearby, and my power was just letting me ignore whatever it was.  And if my power let me ignore it, then it probably wasn’t an issue for me at the moment.

Two hoodies, a jacket, lots of underwear, a few shirts, and some jeans later, I was staggering out of the store with two armfuls of purchases.  The tingling sensation came back as soon as I walked out of the front door, and I caught a few people staring at me from a coffee shop across the street.  They all averted their eyes when I turned to look at them.

The walk back to the PRT felt longer than it actually was, on account of the bags filling my arms.  By the time I opened the secret entrance behind the drug store and forced myself inside, all of my muscles were burning like no tomorrow.  I actually sat there on the steps for fifteen minutes while I recharged for the last leg of my journey.  Unsurprisingly, no one came through the door.

As I drew up to the elevator, it opened and a group of people walked out.  One was a tall woman with long, blonde hair.  She was accompanied by a shorter woman who was built like a tank and a fairly good-looking guy with black hair.  Their conversation died instantly upon seeing me, and they stopped to stare at me in the elevator lobby.  The elevator doors closed behind them, to my irritation.

“Can I help you?” I said, dodging around the shorter woman to press the elevator call button.

“Are you the new Ward?” she asked.  “Shouldn’t you be wearing a mask?”

“Right,” I muttered, pulling the domino mask out of my pocket.  “I live on a military base.  How could I have forgotten?”

When I put my glasses back on, the three of them were staring at me with vaguely disappointed frowns.  Once my elevator finally returned, I pushed past them without another word.

Luckily, I didn’t encounter anyone else on my way back to my room.  I took the tags off my clothes, put them away, and moved all of my toiletries to the bathroom.  I still had an hour or so until lunch could feasibly start, so I went to the blessedly-empty gym and did my hour of exercise.  A long shower with my new shampoo and conditioner followed, and I eventually made it to the cafeteria for lunch with slightly damp (but conditioned) hair.

I was only six bites into my salad when disaster struck.  Figured that it would be an attack I couldn’t just refuse to acknowledge.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, and it took me a second to place the foreign sensation.  No one I was still talking to had the cell number, so it had to be one of the heroes or staff that needed to contact me.  I pulled the device out, and indeed I had a PRT internal chat message.  I flipped it open and almost gagged on my salad.

Ampere: Hey Taylor!  I know that you probably don’t believe me, but I really want to apologize for everything over the past two years.  Is everything alright in Boston?  I couldn’t find you in the system and Armsmaster said it was because you hadn’t finished your power testing yet.  If you want to talk about it, or anything Ward-related, I’m happy to listen.

At that moment I was glad that I didn’t have super strength.  I would have crushed my phone in anger.

I took a deep breath, thinking through my options.  I was supposed to be free of her.  No more Emma, ever again.  It didn’t even occur to me that since we were technically Wards together, she could probably find all sorts of loopholes to keep abusing me.  And I didn’t know what she was planning with her ‘apology,’ but I already knew that I wanted nothing to do with it.

There had been enough ‘I’m sorry’ pranks to almost completely silence the part of me that wished she would go back to being my friend.

I thought about quitting, right there.  Activate my power and just start running.  It didn’t matter where I ended up, as long as it wasn’t here.  At this point, I didn’t care about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ or what anyone thought of me.  I just wanted to be done being systematically ignored and belittled.

Then I had a thought, and a small smile curled on my lips.  I had a phone call to make.

But first, I wanted to finish my lunch.  The salad was also irritatingly good, and I realized that if I didn’t get over my indignation about the food in the cafeteria, I would spend a large fraction of my day miserable.  So, I resolved to just enjoy it and stop complaining that something in my life was going well.

I waited until I got back to my room before looking through my phone contacts.  Given how many menus I had to traverse to find Jim’s number, I was sure that the PRT was making it intentionally difficult to contact the Youth Guard.   He picked up on the second ring once I eventually located his number.

“Hey Jim, this is Taylor.”

“Taylor!  How can I help you this fine afternoon?”

“I… How do I file formal complaints?  One of the girls that bullied me…” I had to fight back a hiccup.  “Bullied me, and worse… she’s a Ward.  And she sent me a message via the PRT app.”

Jim was silent for a few moments.  “That is totally unacceptable, Taylor.  I’m sorry that you had to deal with that.”

“Can we do anything?”

“Absolutely.  All of those messages are logged, and since you’re filing a formal complaint right now, I will have access to all of them.  I will also get in contact with my colleagues in Brockton.”

“Can you block her and Shadow Stalker from contacting me?"

“Easily.  I will contact Director Armstrong as soon as you hang up, okay?  It’s frankly ridiculous that someone in Brockton didn’t already read those two the riot act, but as I didn’t say before, that department is a mess.”

I stared at the phone in shock for a few moments.  His promises to do something might be so much hot air, but he just… believed me?  I didn’t even know what to do in the face of an authority figure who even paid lip service to caring about what I thought.

“Taylor?”

“Sorry,” I choked out.  “This is the first time in a long time that anyone has given a damn about me.”

He sighed heavily.  “That is a reprehensible state of affairs, and I’m sorry that it’s come to this point.  As soon as I know anything, I’ll message you via the app, okay?”

“Sure.  Thanks, Jim.”

“No problem, Taylor.  Have a good afternoon.”

I flopped down on my bed as soon as the call ended.  My brain was filled with Emma’s taunts and Blackwell’s condescending dismissals, with Madison’s vapid snipes and Sophia’s sneer.  The whole point of moving from home was to get away from this mess.  I had barely been here two days and they were already ruining everything.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.  It was the PRT, after all.

Was this what my life was going to be for the next two and half years?  If I managed to hold out on power testing, was I doomed to be tormented by practically everyone?  Heroes bothering me at meals, bullies messaging me over official channels, my dad leaving nasty messages on my phone, nonstop disappointed looks?

I should have just become a villain.  At least then they would have a reason to treat me like crap.

Jim messaged me back an hour later, and I hesitated before opening the text.  However, when I finally gave into my morbid curiosity, I could hardly believe my eyes.

James Reed: Good news!  Ampere and Shadow Stalker have been officially banned from interacting with you.  Armsmaster and Ampere have been dragged into sensitivity training, and this will be included on the official ENE report.

I admit that I read and re-read that message almost a dozen times.  Emma and Sophia getting more than a slap on the wrist?  I could hardly believe it.  It didn’t escape my notice that this was the Youth Guard, and not the PRT.  But Jim had come through for me, even in just a little way, and it was still more than anyone had done in two years.

That good mood carried me all the way through dinner and to bed that night.

Chapter Text

(Monday, January 17 2011)

 

Sunday flew past faster than I expected.  The only notable things were that one of the heroes tried to talk to me at the gym, and that I discovered the PRT had an agreement with several libraries.  The first was a vast irritant, but the second let me download and read ebooks on my phone and computer.

Suffice to say, I finally figured out how to spend my time while trapped in my room.

I also had to buy school supplies, but that was easily accomplished at the drugstore by the secret entrance.  I even bought myself a new backpack and filled it, with hopes that no one was going to pour juice on me.  It didn’t escape my notice that Emma and Sophia managed to set things up that I had to replace everything one last time.

Then, far sooner than I ever wanted, it was my first day of school.  Again.  Maybe it was natural that I dreamed about Winslow.  In the dream, I already had my power, and I used it to dodge every spitball, every upended juice container, and every chair filled with glue.  However, when I tried to go home, the doors wouldn’t let me out.  I couldn’t use my powers on them either, and I could see Armsmaster’s helmet through the scratched and cracked glass.

I didn’t know how long I spent trying to leave the school, but when I finally jerked awake it seemed as though I hadn’t slept more than an hour.  On my nightstand, the alarm clock ticked over and started making some unholy noise.  My arms felt like lead when I finally flopped a hand around and shut the damn thing off.

I forced my unwilling body and mind into exercise clothes and spent the better part of an hour in the gym.  Everything burned and I hated it dearly, but the warm shower afterwards almost made up for my pathetic performance.  My morning routine shortened slightly when I discovered that I could dry myself by just phasing through the remaining water, and I had never been one for makeup.  A quick check in the mirror revealed that I was as put-together as I was going to get, so I double-checked my bathrobe and stepped back out into the hallway.

I nearly ran into Roulette, or Dez out of costume.  She must have been on a late patrol last night.

After some deliberation — and a dislike of domino masks — I had decided Saturday night to ‘unmask’ to the other Wards.  They were going to learn my identity eventually, I was getting sick of domino masks, and it wasn’t like I had a social life that I was trying to protect.  Of course, even something as simple as unmasking had been turned into a whole affair when Weld managed to summon everyone but Flechette and Valve into the common room Sunday afternoon.

I think he had been hoping I would stay and hang out with the group.  Instead, we introduced ourselves (Weld introduced the missing members) and I promptly returned to my room.

“Sorry,” I muttered, stepping around her and phasing through my own door in my haste.  Roulette might have said something, but I didn’t catch it.

Five minutes later saw me dressed with my bookbag and getting breakfast in the cafeteria.  I claimed what was rapidly becoming ‘my’ spot, far in the corner and out of sight.  Thankfully, no one came to pester me, and I was able to not only eat in peace, but figure out exactly where I was supposed to be going.  St. George’s Academy was a short walk away, provided that I took the right underground passage so I didn’t need to backtrack.

I let one elevator go past when I saw that it contained Roulette and Valve, then grabbed the next and took it down to the secret passage level.  I followed them at a reasonable distance as we traversed the secret passage, exited into an alley behind a coffee shop, and trudged six blocks through surprise Boston snow to school.

My first thought was: wow, this was a nice looking school.

My second thought was: don’t accidentally activate my power despite the crowd.

The Academy was everything that Winslow wasn’t.  Clean walls, shoveled paths, and no obvious drug deals on the outside gave way to more clean walls, good lighting, and well-kept facilities on the inside.  I consulted a piece of paper that had been in my introductory packet to figure out how to get to the main office.  I did my best to maneuver through the quickly filling halls, taking care to avoid obvious puddles or getting hit in the face with a jacket as someone took it off.

I wasn’t surprised when the main office was as nice as the rest of the building.  Tasteful potted plants and extremely comfortable waiting area chairs helped me nearly forget where I was and why I was here before the secretary announced my name.  “Taylor Hebert?  Principal Williams will see you now.”  She showed me to a door and gave me an encouraging smile.

The principal was a stern-faced and slightly balding man wearing a tweed sweater.  His eyes glittered with a deep intelligence behind wire-rim glasses, and he gave me a small smile when the door closed.  “Taylor Hebert, I’m Andrew Williams.  I would like to welcome you to St. George’s Academy.”  He stuck out his hand, and I gave it a limp shake.

“Uh, hi,” I said, sitting down in the chair at his desk.  It was also very comfortable.

If he was put off by my lack of enthusiasm, he didn’t show it.  “I’ll cut right to the chase.  When I first received your records from the PRT, I was less than pleased about your high school academics.  Some digging on my part revealed a whole series of inconsistencies, especially given your junior high academic performance.  Eventually, I was able to get Director Armstrong to admit, off the record, that you have made allegations about severe bullying that were summarily ignored by the administration at Winslow.”

‘And the PRT,’ I added in my head.

He leaned forward and fixed me with an intense stare.  “Miss Hebert, I am aware of the nature of how parahumans get their powers.  I’m not stupid.  I don’t believe for a moment that the incident last week was a ‘prank’ or an ‘accident.’  Nor do I believe that you are an attention-seeking troublemaker.  Frankly, the entire situation reeks of either incompetency or bureaucratic malignance, which seems par for the course in Brockton Bay.”

“No shit,” I muttered.

Principal Williams cracked a small smile.  “Let me be entirely clear, Miss Hebert.  Bullying or harassment of any kind is not tolerated at my Academy.  What happened to you at Winslow was beyond unacceptable for an educational institution, and I give you my personal assurance that nothing of the sort will happen to you here.  Moreover, I believe that given an appropriate learning environment, you will meet and exceed all of the requirements for both your Wards enrollment and the standards we have here at the Academy.”  He sat back in his chair and watched me over folded hands, expecting some sort of response.

“Okay,” I said.

He frowned at that.  “That’s all you have to say?”

I shrugged.  “No offense, but I’ve heard a lot of variations on the ‘we’re here to help you, Taylor’ in the past week, only to get screwed over as hard as legally possible at every turn.  I’ll believe you about the bullying when it doesn’t happen to me.  Also, I hope you’re not expecting me to do anything in my official capacity as a Ward.”

“Yes, the Director informed me about your rather creative logjam in their on-boarding process,” Williams said.  “But no, we have no expectations of you other than those concerning your academics.”

I just nodded in response, and we lapsed into a temporary silence.

“Well, if you don’t have any further questions,” Williams said, sounding vaguely displeased that I didn’t, “my secretary will get you your class schedule, locker, and so on.”

“Thanks,” I said, before standing up and walking out of the office.  True to his word, Williams’s secretary indeed had all of my requisite school material, and in short order I found myself standing in front of a new locker.

My hands shook as I reached out to unlock it.

I couldn’t just carry everything with me as I had at Winslow, given that I had to bring my heavy jacket to school and it would often be wet due to snow.  Sophia wasn’t here to steal things out of my locker, and Emma wasn’t here to use it as an ambush point.  And I knew, intellectually, that I couldn’t be trapped again.  The issue of using my powers in public wouldn’t stop me even for a millisecond.

I would not be trapped again.

Out of pure paranoia, I loosened the reins on my power slightly.  I saw without seeing into my new locker, and unsurprisingly it was totally empty.  I also saw into the lockers directly adjacent to mine, revealing that they were perfectly normal lockers filled with books.  The lack of jackets in either of them suggested that their owners had not yet come in.

Even knowing that I was fine did not help reduce the spasms in my hands, which made it impossible for me to input the combination.  Cursing internally, I simply applied my power to the lock and phased it through the latch.  I had to suppress a wince when the door finally creaked open, but as I had seen the interior of the locker was completely empty.  Yet, I didn’t linger, hanging up my coat and stowing the books I didn’t need as fast as possible.  A quick consultation with my map and schedule told me how to get to my homeroom.

I was greeted by the apparently Mr. Delong.  “You must be Taylor,” he said as soon as I stepped into the classroom.  His wide smile and eager voice were immediately unnerving.  “Welcome to the Academy.  Were you able to find everything okay?  Don’t hesitate to ask for help, all of the faculty are here to make your transfer as painless as possible.”

“I, uh, I’m fine,” I muttered.

If he was put off by my disinterest in further conversation, he didn’t show it.  “Good to hear.  Do you want to say something to introduce yourself?”

“Not particularly.  I just moved here from Brockton Bay, that’s all,” I said.

Mr. Delong considered that for a moment before nodding.  “I understand.  I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

I had to bite my tongue so I didn’t snap that he was already making me uncomfortable.  There were a few students already in the classroom, and while some were asleep, the remainder were watching the little show up front as I attempted to deflect Mr. Delong’s questions.  “If I may ask, why did you move?  Apart from Boston’s superior weather, of course.”

Did he know?  I had no idea who all had been told that I was a parahuman (although I was going to ask the Youth Guard to find out), so I couldn’t tell if this was an opportunity to improve my cover story or a genuine question.  Either way, I gave him the truthful response.  “Family problems, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s fine, of course,” he said, appearing to weigh some options.  “Why don’t you just take a seat and look over your schedule.  If you have any questions, now is the time to ask.”

Disaster struck as soon as I shuffled over and sat down at my back corner desk.  “Hey,” a voice said, and I twisted in my seat and found the boy next to me looking at me with wide eyes.  “You’re Taylor?”

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

“I’m Joey,” he said, then gave me an inviting smile.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Hi.”  I had been subjected to enough variations on the ‘new friend’ routine by Emma and her hangers-on to be immediately suspicious.  The principal’s assurance about a bully-free education echoed in the back of my mind, but I had also heard several variations on that, too.  And I had seen enough new people show up at Winslow and get immediately sucked into the toxic social system there to be cautious.

While I debated and the room slowly filled with other students, Joey’s smile slipped and he tried again.  “So, uh, you’re from the Bay?  Is it as bad as everyone says?”

I rolled my eyes.  “It’s fine.  Everyone always assumes it’s a flaming hole in the ground or something.”

Joey spluttered awkwardly for a minute before the bell rang.  Based on the three-quarters full room that I was sitting in, I figured that it must have been a warning bell.  Joey must have noticed me twitch, because his smile was back.  “Five minute warning,” he said.

The remaining five minutes passed in relative silence while I reviewed the material for this class.  Math wasn’t my favorite class, but I was reasonably good at it, and after looking over the catch-up assignments that had been included in the bundle for this class, I was feeling much more comfortable.  We were starting ahead of where I had left off in Winslow, but the gap wouldn’t be a problem.

And so my first class outside of Winslow went pretty well, with the exception of Mr. Delong introducing me and prompting everyone else to spin around to stare at me.  I did my best not to huddle into myself under their combined gazes, and I even managed a small wave and a ‘hello.’  Luckily, staring at the new girl was not on the syllabus, and soon enough the lecture on trig identities was underway.

My next three classes were all equally good, and as I started towards the lunch room, I was feeling hopeful about my education for the first time in forever.  The teachers knew their stuff and genuinely seemed to care about my well-being.  I was actually starting to feel a bit guilty for brushing them off, but I hoped that if I just did well in class they would chalk it up to nervousness.

I was able to deduce how the lunch line worked with no issues, and soon enough I had a tray full of vaguely healthy food in need of a table.  The social lines in the sand were obvious, even to me, separating the various social circles that I could probably identify if I put more thought into the problem.  One thing did jump out, now that I was looking for it -- the people who went to this school were wealthy.  Maybe not in absolute terms, but almost everyone was wearing something that could qualify as ‘nice.’

The difference from Winslow was striking.  I knew that this was a ‘semi-private’ school, whatever that meant, but it had not occurred to me that this meant the students would have money, too.  I had been fixated on how the PRT was paying for this (along with everything else in my life) and never stopped to think about the implications.  Well, there was absolutely no way that I was going to subject myself to any of that nonsense, so I picked one of the sparsely populated tables at the periphery.

My sandwich was only half gone when I was rudely interrupted from my lunch.

“Hey, Taylor,” Flechette said, sitting down across from me.

It took me a second to remember her name, and a quick glance told me that we were alone enough to have this conversation.  “What do you want, Lily?” I murmured.

“Bad first day at school?” she asked as she pulled out her own lunch and completely ignored my scowl.  “Want to talk about it?”

I just shook my head and went back to eating.  This was getting vastly annoying, and I sincerely doubted that Flechette was here of her own volition.  The director must have told her to come and be friends with me, and since I wasn’t being introduced anytime soon it wouldn’t be too suspicious for her to suddenly take an interest in me.

“You don’t have to hang out with me,” I said after we ate in silence for a few minutes.  “You can just tell them that we’re friends or whatever and you can go back to your normal friends.”

Flechette considered that.  “Do you want to join us?”

“I’m fine here,” I replied.

“I don’t think you are,” Flechette whispered, obviously not intending me to hear.  I set my drink down with unnecessary force and glared at her.  “Look, Taylor, I know you’re not happy about this whole thing…”

“Not happy?” I hissed.  “They tried to kill me, Lily!  Then they all forced me to move away from home!”

Flechette gave me a tired, sympathetic smile.  “I know, Taylor, and it’s all complete bullshit.  That’s why you need friends.”

“Don’t,” I spat.  “Don’t talk to me like that.  I know that they’re telling you to this, to get me to do the thing, so you can go right back to them and tell them to fuck off with the head games.”

I didn’t want to give Flechette the chance to respond, practically jumping out of my seat and wrenching my tray off of the table.  By some miracle I didn’t spill anything on myself, although it would have been deeply appropriate.  Flechette managed to say something as I stalked past to toss my garbage, but my blood was pounding in my ears so I didn’t hear it.

The rest of lunch I spent in a bathroom, holding back tears.

Chapter Text

(Saturday, Jan 29 2011)

 

Unlike many of his colleagues among the PRT directorate, Kamil Armstrong did not resent the existence of the Youth Guard.  Parahumans were naturally driven to conflict, a trait most worryingly presented in teenagers, and the less scrupulous among the PRT brass would happily use that as justification to send kids into warzones.  So while the regulations could be somewhat onerous, as long as the department was acting within guidelines the Youth Guard usually had little reason to get involved.

Usually.

“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know?’” an irate voice came from outside of the conference room.

“Mr. Hebert, please just wait until everyone arrives,” Gauss replied, strain evident in her normally cheery voice as she led him and Weld into the room.  Kamil found it telling that the current situation strained the otherwise boundless enthusiasm of the Wards commander.  Even Weld was frowning as he settled into his customized chair.

Kamil studied Danny Hebert as the taller man eased himself into a chair.  On the surface, the Brocktonite was angry, though he was obviously trying to reign it in.  He was also disheveled, which was understandable given the surprise request to catch an early train down to Boston this morning.  His semi-casual dress spoke of a confusion about what, exactly, today was supposed to have entailed.

Underneath the surface, Danny Hebert was a mess.  Kamil did not regret for an instant that Taylor had been removed from her home situation, since there was really no good reason for her father to have let a bullying campaign reach attempted manslaughter without noticing.  Danny simply wasn’t capable of caring for his parahuman daughter; had Taylor had her way, Kamil was sure she would have immediately started sneaking out right under his nose.

That being said, Kamil was extremely sympathetic to Taylor’s plight.  That two Wards had caused her trigger event was beyond ridiculous, and it was entirely understandable that Taylor would harbor a deep-seated mistrust of the PRT and Protectorate.  Her animus towards the organization drove her further into isolation, which in turn made it harder to reach out to her.

Even before Kamil let himself think about her powers, he was racking his brain to find a way to bridge the trust gap with the young Ward.  The Protectorate members seeking her out had been repeatedly rebuffed and the other Wards ignored or actively avoided, leaving Jim Reed as the only person with whom Taylor had positive interactions.

Unfortunately for everyone else, their ‘positive interactions’ had generated a veritable flood of red tape and obstructions.  Most departments avoided the Youth Guard by obfuscation and misdirection; Taylor used the appropriate channels when she filed complaints, which let the Youth Guard cut through the bullshit and zero in on any reported problems.

And, as the ENE department had rather unhappily discovered, a loophole let Wards with ‘sufficient reason’ file complaints in departments beyond their own.  Based on Emily’s ranting during the last meeting, the Youth Guard had practically shut down her program while they investigated a barrage of claims.

Until today, Kamil had hoped that Department 24 would be spared.

Jim Reed’s arrival signaled the beginning of the meeting.  “Mr. Hebert, I want to thank you again for coming down on such short notice,” Kamil said.  “I’m sorry about the confusion surrounding your daughter.”

“You can thank me by telling me what’s going on,” Danny Hebert said, although the heat was rapidly leaving his words.  “I thought I was here to help Taylor with her power testing, but all that’s happened is that I’ve had guards called on me when I tried to see her.”

Kamil sighed, a sound echoed by the two parahumans.  “We don’t need your help with the testing, Mr. Hebert.  We need your help to convince your daughter to go in for testing.  It’s been two weeks, and while she is certainly within her rights to decline…”  Kamil ignored the Youth Guard rep’s wolfish grin.  “It would be in everyone’s best interest if we understood her power.”

“You mean if she understood her power,” Jim said, radiating smugness.

For once, Kamil didn’t completely agree.  Taylor was, based on eyewitness accounts, a rather formidable Breaker with the ability to phase through matter.  They suspected that her power included an extrasensory component as well, given that Gauss’s hand had passed through the girl without her seeing it.

But the fascinating and worrying part of Taylor’s power, and the reason that Kamil was increasingly interested in understanding it, was that she was a Trump.  After both Hunch and Roulette confessed that their power did not work on Taylor, Kamil had sent in a priority request to Watchdog.  Their response had everyone on edge: Taylor was invisible or otherwise immune to every targeted Thinker power they could test.

Hence, there was a renewed push from the other directors to get the girl into power testing.  A very vigorous push.

“I don’t give a damn about the power testing,” Danny said, voice weary.  “What I want to know is why there were guards at the door when I tried to see Taylor, and why you let them just turn us away!  I’m her father and I haven’t seen or heard her since she walked out of this same room two weeks ago!”

Gauss winced.  “She hasn’t called you?”

Danny seemed to sink in on himself.  “No, she hasn’t.  I bought a… a cell phone so that we could stay in contact, but she blocked the number.  She also blocked our landline when I tried that.”

“To answer your question,” Jim said, far too pleased by this turn of events, “when you signed Taylor up for the Wards here in Massachusetts, you also relinquished your guardianship of her and made her a ward of the state.”

“I… what?” Danny asked, and Kamil couldn’t help but feel bad about the sudden pain and confusion in his voice.  He had given those forms to Danny, specifically.  But Taylor’s well-being came first, no matter how upsetting it was to her father.

“You signed the forms, didn’t you?” Jim asked.  “You wanted Taylor to live here on base and be afforded the maximum protection of the PRT, and that meant making them her legal guardians.”

“Right, right, I remember now,” Danny said weakly.  “But you said everything would be the same, like boarding school.  That Taylor could come home on the weekends.”

“And normally everything would be the same,” Gauss interjected.  “You wouldn’t even have noticed the difference, except on your tax forms.  We still call you immediately in an emergency, she can go home as often as is feasible, she’ll be home for holidays, and so on.  The Protectorate is good at a lot of things, but we’re not and do not want to be replacement parents.”

“Sometimes, however, we have to step in and forcibly separate parahuman children from abusive or neglectful parents,” Kamil started, but was cut off by Danny’s shout.

“I’m not abusing her!” Danny yelled.

Jim made a soothing gesture.  “Please, Mr. Hebert, no one is claiming that you are.  But in those cases where there is acrimonious separation, there are regulations that can be invoked to protect the child from their parents.  Unfortunately,” he said in a voice that suggested otherwise, “those regulations are poorly worded; Taylor can claim ex post facto that your relationship was personally damaging and that she requires the PRT to keep the two of you separated for her own well-being.”

“And I don’t get a say in any of this?” Danny asked.

“The Youth Guard exists to protect her, not you,” Jim said with a thin smile.

Kamil sighed again, a sound that he was increasingly associating with his errant Ward.  “I am sorry that you came all this way only to be told you are barred from seeing your daughter, but the regulations are quite clear.”  Even if Kamil was gnashing his teeth at how poorly they were written.  “If we had been aware of the loophole, I would not have asked you to come down.”

Danny Hebert just sat back in his chair with a defeated look on his face.  “Is she safe, at least?  That’s the important thing.  She’ll forgive me eventually, but not if she gets killed by some villain.”

“She’s as safe as we can make her without knowing anything about her powers,” Gauss said.  “We haven’t been able to get her a costume, or a name, or have her do any PR events or patrols, so she’s been mostly going to school and keeping to the Wards area.”

“Really, just to her room,” Weld said sourly.  “She doesn’t interact with the rest of us.”

“Does she have friends?” Danny asked weakly.  “Taylor’s been so withdrawn, and with the problems at her old school…”

The others exchanged uneasy glances, and even Jim’s smug demeanour slipped.  “Again, I couldn’t tell you,” Weld said.  “We were hoping you could help her to come out of her shell.”

A ding sounded from Kamil’s phone, signalling the end of this increasingly awkward and frustrating conversation.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Hebert, but I meet with the rest of the Wards every Saturday morning.  Gauss will show you to the exit.  And I am sorry again about the confusion.  I’m sure Taylor will come around eventually.”

While the others offered the beleaguered Mr. Hebert their own goodbyes, Kamil turned his attention to Taylor.  Leaving her isolated was not an option; she would eventually grow sick of the PRT and flee in the night, and with no support network, she would be forced into villainy.  But she seemed determined to keep the PRT at arm’s length, viewing all of their overtures with suspicion.

Kamil couldn’t say he blamed her, in all honesty, but he yet held out hope that if she would just spend some time around the other Wards, Taylor would realize that they were the furthest thing from being forced to socialize.  Or that Gauss really did worry about her.  She deserved much better than the hand she had been dealt, if only Kamil could convince her to pick up her cards.

It might be time to ask Legal for a suggestion.

 


 

Emma had fucked up.

She didn’t need to meet the Ward’s accusatory gazes, confined to base as they were, to know that they were pissed.  Nor did she need her family’s disappointed frowns, nor the Youth Guard’s lectures, nor the director’s conflicted scowl.  If Emma wanted to see how bad she had fucked up, all she had to do was look at her phone.

Your message could not be delivered due to access control restrictions.

Even Sophia, the one person Emma could reliably count on to back her up, was pissed.  Beyond pissed, if Emma was being honest and the total lack of response to texts was indicative.

She had been doing so well.  After an initial rocky few months where Emma discovered that every one of Sophia’s misgivings about the program were true, Emma had finally come to understand the necessity of public relations and restraint when dealing with criminals.  She didn’t like it, and never would, but neither did she take out her frustrations with the organization on her teammates like Sophia did.  Up until two weeks ago, Emma even considered them friends.  

Emma closed her eyes and leaned back on the couch in the Wards common room with a thump and a sigh.  It was obvious, so painfully obvious to her now, where it had all gone wrong.  Pushing Taylor away before high school was despicable, sure, but that would have been recoverable.  Emma had just triggered; Taylor would have been understanding and accepting despite Emma not really deserving it.  She had even felt bad about it, after, and expressed that view to Sophia.

As innocuous at it had seemed at the time, that was the tipping point.  The moment of no return.

Taylor survived her mother’s death , Emma had argued. She’ll stand up for herself.  Just give her a chance.

Left unsaid was that if Taylor could do it, then Emma could do it, too.

Sophia took that as carte blanche to do anything necessary to get a rise out of Taylor.  To get her to fight back, to snap, to just show some of the goddamn backbone that Emma knew Taylor was hiding.  To do literally anything other than just take whatever punishment Emma and Sophia threw at her.  And yes, Emma did get involved.  Sophia was her friend and Emma desperately wanted Taylor to be Sophia’s friend, too.  And besides, she had to work her frustration out somehow, right?

It had not helped that the Wards had been everything that Sophia had taught Emma to fear — ineffectual slaves to a PR machine more interested in selling plushies than preventing innocent young redheads from being assaulted in alleys.  For the first few months when Emma walked out of HQ, Sophia would regale her with stories about how the vigilante was making a real difference, putting criminals out of commission.

And though it was hardly Taylor’s fault that being a hero was nothing like they had imagined as kids, she was the one who ultimately suffered for Emma’s bad attitude with a hurt expression on her face and resignation in her eyes.

Emma wasn’t sure when it had stopped being about getting Taylor to fight back and started being about having at least part of her life where she felt like she was accomplishing something.  If her dubiously well-intentioned mindset lasted more than two weeks, Emma would eat her costume.  By the time Taylor was avoiding her like the plague at a Christmas event their parents both attended, she was bullying Taylor because it made her feel better.  Secure.  Empowered.

Well, accomplish something she finally did.  Taylor triggered in that locker, passing through the door to collapse at Emma’s feet while she and Sophia mocked her.  At first Emma had been ecstatic, her mind simply dusting off the rationalization she had used nearly two years prior and reveling in the fact that Taylor could be her friend again.  She was strong, had what looked like a good power, and even Sophia would have to admit it.

Emma had been so excited that she had barely remembered to call an ambulance for the unconscious girl.  And Sophia had needed to stop her from going with Miss Militia to the hospital to meet with the ‘potential new trigger.’

If Taylor joined the Wards, they could be friends again!  Being a cape was hard; Taylor would certainly understand that it was stressful for Emma to just sit there and do nothing all day.  Besides, Taylor only triggered because of Emma, and that sucked but she had powers now and could be the hero she had always wanted to be.  It was just so hard to see weakness and do nothing about it, something Taylor would certainly understand now that she was a cape herself.

Now it sickened Emma to admit that she had believed even a fraction of that.  What kind of sick person got off on torturing someone who had been like their sister for stress relief ?  What the hell did ‘strength’ even mean?  Taylor was stronger than all of them put together; she had to be in order to just sit there and take their shit every single day for years.

What the hell had been wrong with her?

The answer was obvious: Emma had been mentally ill, unresolved trauma from her trigger event.  Sophia had vastly exaggerated the problem, nevermind that Emma’s power revealed opponents’ weak points by letting her sense their nerves.  Thank god the first thing the Youth Guard had done was require all of the Wards to see therapists as their first major change.

All of those excuses fell on flat ears when Emma remembered the look on Taylor’s face when they tried to induct her into the Wards ENE.  Taylor had been her usual hunched‐over self, shuffling awkwardly into the room behind Miss Militia.  She gave the Wards a wobbly smile that melted into fear, despair, and any other number of unpleasant emotions when she recognized Emma and Sophia before dashing back through the closed door with tears in her eyes.

That was the moment Emma knew she fucked up.  She had been, inexplicably, expecting Taylor to be excited to join the team and be her friend again.  The questions of how or why never even registered to her delusional brain, and it wasn’t until Miss Militia was chasing Taylor down the hall and Dean was yelling that Emma realized how badly she had hurt the other girl.

Emma almost wished that Piggot had kicked both her and Sophia off the team instead of sweeping everything under the rug.  Sure, Sophia had been benched pending an investigation and Emma had been given a few slaps on the wrist, but Emma had a sneaking suspicion that everything would be quietly (and internally) resolved.  But even if Taylor would once again be denied justice and ignored, at least she had still managed to get some measure of revenge on Piggot via the Youth Guard.

If benching the whole Wards team was bad, the nonstop meetings and paperwork generated by the separate Youth Guard investigators were worse.  Evaluations, schedule audits, therapy appointments, incident reports — the only solace Emma could find in the situation was that the PRT brass almost certainly had it worse than the Wards.  She would have been as angry as everyone else in the building if she didn’t feel worse for Taylor.

So now Emma sat around on base to avoid the cloud of disappointment that suffused her house.  The funny thing was that no matter how displeased her parents were, she hated herself ten times more.  The horrified expression on Taylor’s face when she recognized Emma was burned into her brain, all of the malice that Emma had visited upon her ex-friend crystallized in a single instant.

That her attempt to apologize had turned into even more Youth Guard nonsense was almost fitting.

“You okay?”  Dean’s voice caused Emma’s head to jerk up from where she had been staring at her hands.  Emma had worked hard over the past year to overcome the negative first impression she had made on the rest of the team, and Dean had consistently given her the benefit of the doubt.  He hid it well, but Emma was sure that the empath was more disappointed in her now than anything else.

Emma opened her mouth to lie and say everything was fine, but what came out was, “Did Weld get back to you?”

Dean pursed his lips in thought before replying.  “He did,” Dean started, before frowning and considering his words.  “In his words, ‘Phase is actively antisocial.’  I think Weld would have used more unpleasant language, but he is extremely worried about Phase himself.  He doesn’t think she ever intends on becoming a full Ward.”

“Oh,” Emma breathed.  “But she’s okay?”

“Does that sound ‘okay’ to you?” Dean asked, a rare edge creeping into his voice.  “Weld says that Phase doesn’t have any friends, that she avoids everyone in the Protectorate, and that even at school she’s alone.  Thankfully, she’s not being bullied there, too.  You and Sophia really screwed her up.”

Emma flinched at Dean’s admonishment, partially because he rarely made such pointed commentary and partially because it was a huge understatement.  Emma didn’t regret coming clean to the other Wards, even if they all hated her now; Sophia was pissed, but she didn’t care what they thought anyways.

“My advice is to just leave her alone,” Dean started, but Emma shook her head.

“No, I mean, yes.  Uh, I want…”  What did she want?  “I want… I want to apologize.”  She also wanted Taylor back.

Dean studied Emma for a long time.  “I believe that you’re being honest with me, but I doubt that Phase will believe similarly.  And frankly, I can’t fault her there.”

“Maybe I could ask Weld—”

“Emma,” Dean said firmly.  “Phase apparently believes that the other Boston Wards are being ordered to befriend her.  If you are serious about apologizing to her — because let’s face it, being friends is probably off the table at this point — then you’re going to have to wait until she opens up to some of the other Wards.  Whether they’ll be willing to help is a bridge you’ll have to cross when you get there.”

Emma sighed, tears coming unbidden to the corners of her eyes.  Dean was right; Taylor would probably not want to talk to her again.  And after she so totally ruined her reputation with the other Wards, would they go out on a limb for her?

She desperately wished that she could go on patrol and clear her head.

Chapter Text

(Thursday, Jan 27 2011 — two days prior to Interlude 1)

 

I crammed the last book into my locker and slammed it shut, using maybe just a bit too much force.  Unlike the lockers at Winslow, those at the Academy rarely got stuck or jammed, but old habits — and new fears — died hard.  Yesterday I had realized that I could unlock the lock by phasing the U-shaped part through the internal locking pin, so reattaching the thing to my locker was much more natural.  My hands weren’t even shaking any more!

It was the small victories, around here.

On my way out of school, I passed several clumps of people who were staying for one after school activity or another.  None of them paid me any mind, and it wasn’t because I was leaving instead of joining them for whatever activities they were doing.  No, it seemed that I had finally been granted my wish — people at school were more than happy to ignore me respectfully.

However, a comment by Jim from when I bumped into him in the cafeteria had stuck with my mind.  He had suggested, with great enthusiasm, that I should find some sort of after-school club to join, other than the Wards.  I wasn't a huge fan of the proposal for several reasons, but Jim had been strangely insistent that I ‘get out and enjoy my life,’ as he put it.  When I had tried to tell him that I already was spending weekends at the library, that just seemed to embolden him.

Eventually he had finished his food and left, but not before offering a small bit of additional (and at the time) unwanted advice: the Wards had protected time off for personal hobbies.

I spared a last glance down one of the Academy’s long hallways, noting again the various organizations going about their afternoon.  While I was completely confident that I could find a club that catered to my introverted tastes — they had three different book clubs, nevermind clubs for things as esoteric as gardening or catapults — I was not confident at all in my ability to actually mesh with the people in the club.

‘Hi, I’m Taylor.  I like reading legal documents, finding loopholes in Wards regulations, and getting my revenge on the ENE department by siccing the Youth Guard on them.’

Yeah, not going to fly.

Today was nice and most of the snow had melted, so I opted to take a slightly longer way home that didn’t involve the shortcut secret passage.  That also helped me avoid the other Wards, though admittedly they were mostly leaving me alone after two weeks of telegraphed disinterest.  Oh, Lily still pestered me at lunch occasionally and Weld would send me optional invites when the other Wards were hanging out, but by and large they were content to leave me be.

I hadn’t heard anything from the Director, either, though that made me more nervous than satisfied.  He was a busy guy and I doubt he had time to micromanage us, but at the same time he couldn’t be anything but displeased with the fact that I was still avoiding power testing.

Gauss, though, had tried again, ambushing me after dinner and making some argument about some upcoming cross-training exercise with the New York Wards that I could go on, and how much more fun it would be if I could use my powers.  However, even I could tell that some of her cheer was forced, and I felt kind of bad for telling her ‘that if attempted murder didn’t work, bribery probably wouldn’t either.’

She had not liked that.

A bitter chuckle escaped my lips when I turned a corner on the sidewalk and spotted Weld and Reynard — the latter in his fox mask and trapper costume — on the other side of the road.  Right, I had taken my time after school, but there were occasionally early patrols that set out almost immediately following the Academy’s last bell.  I thought back to Jim’s words, as it was obvious that the Youth Guard had pounded through that rule to make sure they couldn’t schedule patrols on top of —

Wait.

The aforementioned rule was, I had discovered, rather broad.  The Youth Guard really didn’t want the PRT interfering with kids’ ability to do sports or take piano lessons, but instead of an exhaustive list, they simply had blanket protection for ‘hobby time.’  Provided that one scheduled things properly, they had carved out eight hours of time per week that the PRT had basically no way to influence.

I had been wracking my brain all week to find a way to leverage this somehow, because the poor wording didn’t seem to account for the situation where my legal guardian — technically, Agent Janet Watkins, who I had only met once — was a PRT agent.  Reed vs. PRT had been early enough in the PRT’s history that they hadn’t yet started making government-seized parahuman children both wards and Wards, and there were more than a few clauses that hadn’t been updated later to reflect that policy.

After all, who would expect the PRT to need to pull their kid from piano lessons?

But until now I had not really found a viable way to use that regulation to my benefit.  I could just ask Gauss and she would happily let me take as much time as I needed for basically anything; I doubted I would cause trouble if I joined, say, the theatre club and forgot to schedule my time.  In fact, knowing my luck, there would be a Ward there already!

But seeing Weld and Reynard out gave me an idea: the rule was to stop the PRT from scheduling patrols during after school activities… so why couldn’t I have ‘patrol’ as an after school activity?

A flame that I had thought extinguished in the shit-tornado following my trigger event sputtered back to life in my chest.

I could be a hero.

I could be a hero without the PRT.

I could be a hero and the PRT couldn’t stop me.

I could use my power to help people and maybe accomplish something with my life.

I could get really fucking screwed if I wasn’t careful, so I needed to not get my hopes up until I could read the relevant laws.

For the first time in what felt like months, a smile crept onto my face.

Of course, the Wards had to spoil the moment.  While I had been off exploring in Thoughtsville, Weld and Reynard and crossed the street, coming up to where I was standing motionless on the sidewalk.  “Um, excuse me, miss?” Weld asked in his deep baritone.  “Are you alright?”

My nominal captain was giving me a very worried look, and I belatedly realized that his worry could directly translate into meetings.  “I’m fine,” I said quickly.  “Sorry for holding up traffic.”

I angled around the two of them and picked up the pace back to HQ.

 

---

 

“What do you mean, suspicious?” I snapped.

Gauss gave me an irritatingly concerned smile.  The heroine had accosted me almost as soon as the elevator doors opened to the floor with the Wards quarters, and despite my best attempts she had followed me back to my room.  I really didn’t want her in there, so instead we were arguing out in the hallway.

“Weld and Bill said you stopped dead in the middle of a moderately busy sidewalk, stared at them for a while, and then started smiling weirdly,” Gauss said.  “Obviously, I’m paraphrasing, but —”

“Let me get this straight,” I said quietly.  “You’re worried because I was smiling?”

Gauss’s smile turned hard.  “Taylor, it is my responsibility to make sure the Wards are cared for.  That includes making sure they don’t exhibit sudden, unusual behavior while out in public and near their teammates — like freezing randomly on a sidewalk.”

“Well, I guess me having a good day counts as unusual then,” I said acidly.  “Was there anything else?”

“I suppose not,” Gauss replied, and I was into my room before she had further complaints.

Even today’s Protectorate nonsense was not enough to damp my mood, however, and in short order I fired up my computer and filled the screens (I had two now, thanks PRT) with several pages about PRT regulations and vigilante laws.  My homework, which I would usually have started on immediately, sat forgotten in my bookbag as my mind was alight with possibilities.

Three hours of frantic searching and several pages of scribbled notes later, I concluded that plan ‘vigilantism as a hobby’ was actually viable.  Another ward of the state had run headlong into a similar ‘PRT guardians unable to do things’ regulation three years ago, involving the PRT’s attempts to stop a Ward from buying a motorcycle.  The law had been changed, of course — the PRT had oversight of my spending account, as I well knew — but it had taken months to get the case in front of the court, and longer still to change the laws once the Youth Guard got involved.

Interestingly, Congress had eventually rammed the change through on ‘oversight for taxpayer dollars,’ which I guess proved what people really cared about in the end.

I freely admitted that I wasn’t a lawyer or a judge, so my ability to interpret law was basically nil.  But from what I could understand, this would work.

The next key piece was the PRT’s regulations on vigilantism for Wards.  Obviously the PRT wanted to discourage us from heroing on our own time, but the interesting part was that those rules were buried in the byzantine labyrinth of Image and PR regulations.  Since the PRT controlled our ‘heroic persona,’ they dictated where and when we officially appeared.

Emergencies, to my surprise, were covered by an exemption clause, but the offending Ward would be up to their eyeballs in paperwork afterwards.  More importantly to me, we were explicitly forbidden from ‘maintaining a secondary persona,’ which was the rule that I would most likely be breaking with my plan.

Another thorough review of the Wards regulations would have to happen tomorrow, and I briefly considered asking Jim for help before realizing that he would hate this idea with the passion of a fiery sun.  In fact, I would probably need to keep this carefully hidden from him lest I lose his support.  Regardless, if I ever got caught, my best bet was to ditch my costume and try to appear as a civilian who had responded to an emergency.

The last key piece was much more worrying than the other two.  Officially, the Protectorate had no compunctions against unmasking vigilantes, or villains for that matter, but the former would apply to me.  But a series of searches on increasingly sketchy websites (the Youth Guard to the rescue, the PRT needed a warrant to read my browsing history) about why so few villains were unmasked revealed some extremely useful tips and tricks for new vigilantes, along with a set of gentlemen's agreements known as the Unwritten Rules.

Basically, don’t kill, maim, rape, unmask, or go after families.  Pretty reasonable, in my opinion.

Hell, if people actually listened to those rules, fighting parahumans kind of sounded fun.

When I put my plan into action — I was too excited to worry about why it had stopped being ‘if’ — the PRT would probably immediately realize that the new vigilante with my build and powers was me.  But they would be expected to play along with the farce, especially if I could make a name for myself quickly, and if worse came to worst I could just activate my power and flee.

That was… not ideal, but it was no different than any of the other ways they might twist my arm and get me into power testing.

At worst, I would just have to stop.  At best, they left me alone.

I sat back in my chair and dropped the scribble-covered papers onto my desk.  Seeing Emma and Sophia in the Brockton Bay Wards room had burned.  Was still burning, if I was being honest.  Knowing why those bitches had been allowed to torment me had been the first and brightest flame, and I doubted I could ever force myself to trust the PRT again, but as that had settled over the past month, I had realized a few other things.

Emma dropping me for Sophia burned brightly, as did seeing those two standing amongst actual heroes.  The personal betrayals were bad, but it was the way in which Emma had taken all of our wide-eyed wonder about superheroes, saving people, and doing good from our childhood and twisted it that had permanently scarred my dream of being a superhero.

But now, the PRT didn’t have to win.  I could be a hero, at least as long as the Protectorate was not willing to unmask my ‘secondary persona.’  Maybe some subtle hints about running away if they unmasked me?  I would have to look into Bastion and Armstrong’s records to see if I really had anything to fear.

 

---

 

Thanks to my newfound good mood, I managed to power through all of my homework before bed and make it to class on time Friday morning.  I was mildly distracted the entire day by thoughts of costumes and necessary supplies, but those same thoughts helped to stave off the creeping lethargy that always seemed to envelop me at school no matter how well I slept the night before.

My real consolation prize was that therapy appointments were biweekly, so I had this afternoon completely free to continue my preparation for my debut.  I didn’t want to rush or make any mistakes — that way lay power testing — but at the same time I felt like I was in a blizzard, huddled around my tiny pilot light of heroism.

A blizzard that roared like a yeti with a hearty knock at my door and Gauss’s too-cheery, “Hello Phase!”

I flopped out of my chair with a sigh and shuffled to the door, expecting Gauss’s armored white coat with swirling red and blue lines.  When it opened to reveal a willowy woman taller than me, with long blonde hair and a domino mask wearing a hoodie and jeans, my brain had to reboot in confusion.

“You’re in civvies?” I asked dumbly.  “Why?”

“I’m glad you asked,” she replied with a wide grin.  “We’re having a pizza party!”

“A pizza party,” I deadpanned.

“Yeah, and you’re invited!”

I stared at her for a long moment.  “I’ll pass.”

Gauss shook her head.  “Let me try again.  Phase, your presence is requested in the Wards common area for a pizza party.”

The twist of her lips and the tone of her voice made it clear — Gauss was not ‘requesting’ anything.  This was an order, from my direct superior: go to the pizza party.  My respect for Gauss inched up slightly, as she was able to give such a ridiculously stupid order with a straight face.  I would have been impressed if it had not been aimed at me.

Amazingly, this was the first time Gauss had actually tried this particular tactic.  Ordering the Wards around like she was doing now was discouraged in the handbook, mostly to avoid the parallels with child soldiers.  But even the Youth Guard admitted that following orders was important for future Protectorate heroes, and so the system hadn’t been defanged — yet.

All of that was academic to me, because at the moment I had to make the decision between going to a pizza party and possibly losing my college fund.  The ridiculousness of that statement was not lost on me, but I had spent the last several days up to my eyes in regulations and so I was quite well aware of the innumerable stupid things that could get me in trouble.

“Fine,” I ground out.  “Lead the way.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that my decision brought a smile to Gauss’s face, but it did.  She waited patiently while I double checked pockets for things, only to make a grand gesture of ‘after you’ when I stepped out of my door.

“What’s the occasion?” I asked.

“Nothing really,” she said.  “Do we need an occasion for pizza?”

I stopped and locked eyes with the heroine.  “Before I learned to cook, I would order pizza when my dad didn’t come home in time for dinner.”

Gauss winced.  Good, maybe she would stop trying to make awkward smalltalk.  I was starting to wonder if she actually liked the taste of her own feet.

The common room doors opened to reveal all seven of the other Wards chatting and eating pizza.  Their conversations died immediately, and I had to actively fight down the urge to squirm under their gazes.  I was reminded of my first day, and then in turn of Emma and Sophia, and —

A flash of green light lanced out of Lightspeed’s hand, hitting a can of soda on an end table and teleporting the drink directly into his waiting palm.

“Ph —” Someone started, but I was already back out the door.

Gauss caught up with me a second later, flying past me — literally — to land in my path.  Before she could launch into her obvious tirade, I hooked a thumb at the room.  “No power testing means no social events where people are using powers.  We could have a bad interaction and put people at risk.”

“Well, luckily he hit the can instead of you, right?”

Her cheery tone pissed me off, and so I let a vicious smirk curl on my lips.  “Doesn’t matter, the safety regulations are clear.  Since I’m not allowed to attend the pizza party now, I would like to go get my own dinner.”

I didn’t phrase it as a question, but Gauss understood after a few seconds of obviously displeased musing.  “Sure, fine.  Go eat dinner, Phase.”

However, when I pushed past her, she said, “Oh, one more thing.  Will you be around tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You might have a visitor,” she said cryptically, walking back to the common area and leaving me standing in the hallway, slowly filling with dread.

Chapter Text

(Thursday, February 3 2011)

 

Tonight was a momentous night in my burgeoning hero career — my first criminals apprehended.

Well, soon to be apprehended.

At the moment, I was phased most of the way through a wall and a stack of crates, hiding myself in the shadows between them that could not physically fit a person.  Two Teeth gangbangers and their unfortunate victim were located about halfway down the alley, the former pinning the latter up against a wall and speaking angrily to him.

“… or it’s into the fightin’ pits ya go,” the taller goon was saying.

“I ain’t tellin’ ya nothing’,” the victim replied.  I couldn’t make out much on him due to the angle, but he sounded strangely defiant.  I could have easily found a better vantage point, but even with my powers and their guarantee of my safety, I couldn’t force myself to hide in a dumpster.

“Maybe he needs ‘encouragement,’ yeah?” the shorter goon said.

I knew what I was supposed to do, here.  It was all laid out in a handbook that I had hoped I would never need.  Call in a crime in progress, request permission from console, confer with teammates, etc etc etc.

The guy in front of me didn’t have that kind of time.

So I phased back into the building and ran along the inside edge.  I probably wasn’t breaking and entering if I wasn’t completely in the building, right?  It wasn’t until I was running towards the mouth of the alley that I realized that I didn’t know quite where to come out of the wall.

However, as soon as I pulled out my pepper spray and unhooked the cap, the solution presented itself.  I let my pericognitive senses unfurl, which filled my brain with the location of everything nearby.

And I did mean everything — I don’t know how my brain handled it, but not only did I know the location of every flake of brick, grain of wood, stitch of cloth, and mote of dust, I could decide which of those to work my power on and which not when I came into contact with them.

It also let me know about the punch flying towards the face of the man I was trying to save.

I didn’t react in time to save him from the first punch, and I flinched as I saw the shorter goon’s fist connect with the man’s jaw.  When the taller goon pulled his fist back for his turn, I struck.

I phased my hand holding the pepper spray through the brick wall and straight through the victim’s face.  He screamed loudly enough to be heard through solid brick, but I ignored his discomfort and went to town on the eyes of his attackers.

Like everything else, my pericognitive sense showed me the dense spray of capsaicin as it exploded from the can and coated the eyes of the two goons.  They jumped back immediately, clutching their eyes with ineffectual fingers.

I phased the rest of me through the wall, and… the man I was saving had collapsed to the ground in confusion.  I paid him no heed as I stepped towards the downed gang members and aimed kicks at their knees.

“Cape!”

“No shit!”

As I had discovered during my admittedly limited power testing, I had relatively few options in terms of non-lethal takedowns.  The best plan I had come up with was to pepper spray or taser targets, then get them on the ground and zip-tie their limbs.  Actions like ‘remove their bones’ or ‘puree their internal organs’ were probably discouraged.

Unfortunately, the goons in front of me were not following the script.  My first kick hit the taller goon’s shin, causing him to stumble slightly.  The second goon tried to dodge my second kick, but his flailing and blindness sent him careening into his taller companion.  They went down in a tangle of limbs and pained shouts.

“You’re under arrest!” I said, trying to force as much authority into my voice as I could.

It didn’t slow their struggles in the least.

Some of that was probably due to my ‘costume,’ which consisted of a grey hoodie (with hood up), grey sweatpants, grey scarf hiding the bottom of my face, and a black domino mask.  I used my power to keep everything clean, but it was hardly the impressive armor or jumpsuits worn by professional heroes.

Regardless, once they were on the ground, I was able to phase my taser through their stupid bone-covered armor (costumes?) and to their skin safely.  As I pulled their arms back and zip tied their wrists, I realized that the pepper spray had been entirely unnecessary.  Between my peri- and pre-cognitives senses, I could have easily just walked up and tased them directly.

Tasering them in the eyes had crossed my mind, but that seemed to be a bit much, even for Teeth.

“Hey, are you alright?” I asked the man crouched behind me.

“Yesh,” he replied through a bruised jaw.  “I’m, uh, gonna go.”

“Don’t want to stay and give a police report?” I asked.  Based on my limited reading of the associated laws, the Boston police would not be pleased if I was left standing here with no recently-saved victim.

“Nah, you nevah shaw me here, got it?” he said.

“Uh, sure?” I replied.

“Good.”  Then, without another word, he practically bolted down the alley, leaving me confused and standing over his attackers.

Well, fuck.

I powered up my burner phone and punched in the police non-emergency line, but my thumb hovered above the call button.

Did I want this?

Being a hero had been a dream of mine since I had been a kid, one that I had mostly given up on by time I got powers of my own.  I still wouldn’t be caught dead in the Protectorate, but now that I had a taste of freedom I wasn’t going to just sit around until I was eighteen.  If worse came to worst, I would hopefully have a decent independent reputation built up when I ditched the Wards.

A groan from one of the Teeth at my feet reminded me what I was doing.  Even if I didn’t want to go back out again after tonight, I did need to make sure these two were arrested.  I jammed my thumb onto the call button.

“Boston PD,” came a bored voice.

My voice was level despite a sudden spike in my anxiety.  “I’m in an alley on the corner of Harrison and Berkeley, and there’s two Teeth guys tied up here.”

“Ma’am, I am dispatching officers to your location.  Please remain on the scene.”

In the course of my research, I had discovered that vigilante laws were surprisingly forgiving.  As long as I cooperated with law enforcement, gave the relevant statements, refrained from using excessive force, and didn’t hurt innocents, I was in the clear.  Legal missteps now would basically cripple my ability to keep going out and being a hero on my own terms.

I would also be screwed if I was unmasked, and I still harbored some doubts about the PRT’s willingness to abide by the Unwritten Rules.  My hope was that the blowback from unmasking an independent hero and a subsequent runaway Ward would be severe enough that they would accede to the polite fiction.

That solution was far from perfect, and I was technically risking my fairly cushy Ward-in-name-only lifestyle.  I knew this, objectively.  But after Armstrong’s bullshit with my dad and Gauss’s pizza party, I was increasingly certain that some authority would try something stupid, and soon.  This might be the only time I get to be a hero on my own terms for the next few years.

And if I didn’t take this opportunity while I had it, I wasn’t sure if I could forgive myself.  Being a Ward sucked.  Living on a military base sucked.  Being apart from dad… did not hurt nearly as much as it should, but that was his problem, not mine.  If I couldn’t arrange it so that something in my life didn’t suck, I would probably end up too depressed to function.

The police in Boston had much better response times compared to back home, and I was only left standing in the alley with the two unconscious Teeth for about five minutes.  Unfortunately, their arrival was heralded by a bright flashlight, and I reflexively flinched away from it when the two officers walked into the alley.

“Are you the parahuman responsible for capturing those Teeth?” one of them called.

“Uh, yeah,” I responded, squinting into the light.  “I’m Ghost, and, uh, I was nearby when I heard something happening in this alley…”

The officers, who introduced themselves as Brunswick and Stevens, were quick to stop my rushed explanation and have me start over after said introductions.  The former busied himself with handcuffing the Teeth while the latter took notes in a small notepad.

“Let’s just double check,” she said to me.  “You saw these two corner and assault a third person.  They punch him once, you pepper spray them, then taze them.  Third guy runs away.”

“That’s right, officer,” I said.  “He seemed rather eager to leave.”

“Indeed,” Stevens said.  “You said your name was Ghost?  Why didn’t you call the PRT?”

“Yep, and none of them were parahumans,” I replied.  A quick glance at my burner phone’s clock sent a jolt of worry through me.  “I kind of need to go very soon.  Do you need anything else?”

The second officer walked over from where he had been putting the criminals into the back of their cruiser.  “Good work tonight.  Both of those men had outstanding warrants.”

“Um, thanks,” I mumbled.  “Can I go?”

“Sure, kid,” Brunswick said with a smile.  “And thanks again.”

I offered the two police a wave and started running north on Harrison Street towards PHQ.  The whole debriefing with the police took longer than I was expecting, and I was nearing my eight hour time limit.  I would be damned if I went a minute over in my first week and gave Armstrong a reason to start asking questions.

I ducked into an alley a few blocks from PHQ to remove my costume, which consisted of turning my hoodie inside out to expose the black, fuzzy inside and phasing through the sweatpants to reveal a darker set of sweatpants underneath.  I stuffed the grey ones under my hoodie with the scarf and mask, making it seem like the hoodie was slightly lumpy.

As I walked back onto the main road, I had to suppress a grimace.  If I wanted to go out more than two nights a week, I was pretty tightly constrained by the eight hour time limit imposed by the hobby time regulations.  I could walk pretty far in an hour and a half, but if I had to stop for anything — such as calling Boston PD — that radius started shrinking rapidly.

In practical terms, unless I was willing to go north to Accord, much of the other crime was rather far away.  Boston was much safer than the Bay, as the PRT here was able to actually control large swathes of the city.  Even Blasto’s territory, west of pseudo-neutral Cambridge, was not that bad.  Only South Boston, recently infested with Teeth, really had issues.

Well, unless the Chain Gang went through the area, but they never really stuck around.

In any case, if my completely uneventful first two nights were any indication, I would have to spend a fair bit of my time traveling far enough south and west to find things happening.  Blasto and the Teeth occasionally traded blows around Fenway, but I would need to use the subway if I wanted to get in on that action.  Tonight I had been lucky that those Teeth goons were so far north.

Well, no one said it would be easy to be a hero.

An uncomfortably familiar tension settled into my shoulders as I booted up my Wards phone and waved it in front of the disguised RFID scanner protecting the secret entrance.  The tension didn’t lessen in the least as I walked through the passage, into an elevator, and finally into my room.  It was the same tension I had felt every day that I had been trapped at Winslow.

Tonight, though, I had been a hero, and I didn’t feel quite as chained down as I had before I set out.

A long, hot shower made me feel marginally better, melting away some of the stress that had built up this week.  I managed to stop a crime in progress and hopefully put some dangerous gang members off the street.  Luckily, I had avoided getting my hopes up about doing some huge thing on my first night out, and I was able to enjoy what I had done.

Unfortunately, my good mood was doused when I shrugged on my long, fluffy bathrobe and tried to get back to my room, only to discover Lily waiting in front of my door.  She had a conflicted expression on her face, and I considered just phasing through her and into my room.

“Taylor,” Lily said, interrupting my deliberations.  “Can I ask you a question?  Privately?”

I considered telling her to fuck off in slightly more polite terms, but the other Wards had finally seemed to get the hint and were leaving me alone.  Apart from Gauss’s pizza party and Lily’s occasional attempts to sit by me at lunch, I had barely seen the others over the past three weeks.  There was a limit to how nasty I could be to other people once they were finally off my case, and Lily was friendly enough that it probably wouldn’t hurt to hear her out.

“I guess,” I said, and Lily stepped aside to let me open my door. I beckoned her into my room, which was suddenly awkward when I realized that I should have asked her to come back after I had the opportunity to put on some pajamas.

“Do you want me to come back?” she asked with a wry grin.

“No, it’s fine,” I huffed, ignoring the blush on my face and folding.  She was here now and I’m not sure I’d let her in a second time.  “What do you want?”

“We had an interesting alert pop up on the console tonight,” Lily said, like she was discussing the weather.  “A new cape by the name of ‘Ghost,’ who walks through walls.  Sounds kind of familiar, you know?”

Unbidden, my pericognitive senses flared out while my more pedestrian senses felt like I had been dunked in the Charles River.  The only movement in the seconds after Lily dropped that bombshell was my eyes, desperately seeking a way out of this mess.

Lily took one look at my reaction before raising her arms and shaking her head.  “Wait, no, Taylor, I’m not going to get you in trouble,” she said quickly.  “I promise.  Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.  I phrased that poorly, I’m not trying to blackmail you or anything.”

I finally managed to pull in a heaving breath and nod, not trusting myself to speak.

“Sorry,” she said again.  “Look, Taylor, I’m just worried about you, okay?  Believe it or not, I’m not particularly thrilled with the PRT either.  I understand where you’re coming from.”

“Do you?” I bit out bitterly.

“Well, given that I was transferred here because the PRT finally got sick of my parents fighting over me, I would say so.  Apparently the PRT argued to a judge in New York that the constant bickering was impacting my mental health, and that afternoon I was dumped on a transport to Boston.  It’s my third new foster family in as many years.”

I suddenly felt self-conscious about using those rules to get rid of my dad on Saturday.

“My parents have always been kind of crap,” she continued.  “I’m actually much happier now that I’m out of that toxic mess, but it still pisses me off that Director Wilkins just up and decided for me.  So, yeah, I get it.  Weld won’t tell us anything about your situation without your permission, but you said something about attempted murder and family issues…”  She trailed off, obviously perturbed by the implications.

“Maybe you do,” I said, sitting down on the edge of my bed.  “I’m still not going in for power testing.”

Lily rolled her eyes.  “Taylor, please.  That’s not why I’m here.”  I tilted my head up, and she answered the unasked question.  “I don’t want to see you get hurt.  You have no training, no backup, no costume, and no idea really what you’re doing.”

I bristled at the accusation, because I had done my due diligence.  “Lots of independents do fine.”

“I won’t quote the stupid statistic at you,” Lily said.  “Because I know you must have heard it a bunch while you were being recruited.”

“Recruited implies I had the option to decline.”

Lily seemed to consider her words for a minute.  “Either way, that sort of solo stuff can be pretty dangerous.  You seem clever and determined, so I don’t doubt that you’ll make it work, but… please be careful?  I’ll give you advice if you want help.  Just to make sure, you know about the Unwritten Rules?”

I nodded absently at the question.  “Yeah, I found them online.”  I didn’t know how to process Lily’s offer.  Her face and posture screamed ‘honest worry,’ what with her lip-chewing and hand-wringing, but I was hardly unaccustomed to getting stabbed in the back by someone trying to ‘help.’

“Good,” she said.  “That is definitely the most important thing for independents to not screw up.”

“But the Protectorate gets a pass?” I said, waving my hand at her.

Lily actually winked at me.  “I mean, I never said that you were Ghost, right?  I just heard about a new independent in the area, and you’ve made your objections to the Wards clear.  I’m just worried if you were to leave and go independent, you might get hurt.  On a completely unrelated note, how was running practice tonight?”

It took me a moment to remember the excuse I had used when I had scheduled my hobby time.  “Fine.  A bit cold, I guess.”  I tugged on the sleeve of my bathrobe and glanced at the door.  “Um, can you go so I can change?”

Lily’s relief was quickly overwritten by embarrassment with that reminder, and she left immediately with just a small wave.

I didn’t want to stay awake much longer, but changing quickly and crawling into bed just left me with more time to consider my current predicament.  Tonight, I had been a hero.  Next week I could go out and try again; hopefully I would get more lucky than this week.  But Lily had recognized my powers immediately, so I had to hope that the rules I was hiding behind were strong enough to ward off the PRT.

For the first time in weeks, I actually slept pretty well.

I should have known that the peace was not to be.  As I walked to school on Friday morning, I got a message on my phone.  The only non-blocked people who had the number were the Protectorate and PRT, and I was mildly horrified to discover that the message was from the director himself.

Director Armstrong (Dept 24): Phase, please join me tomorrow (Sat Feb 5) in conference room 204 at 10:30AM.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

(Friday, February 4 2011)

 

I managed to make it all the way to my first period class before thinking about the message in my phone.  An excess of overnight snow made something as simple as ‘walking along the sidewalk’ an exercise in frustration, and coupled with the usual disquiet at using my locker, I didn’t have thoughts to spare until I sat down.

Joey had long since stopped trying to talk to me, but he gave me a polite nod as I shuffled in.  I nodded wearily back to him, completing the majority of the social interactions I would have today.  If anyone else noticed that I had arrived, they didn’t advertise the fact.

Right now, I almost wished that Joey did still talk to me.  It would be a welcome distraction from the tangle that my thoughts had become once I started considering the Director’s message.

First, I was pretty confident in my legal and contractual position, though I wasn’t sure how the Youth Guard would react.  Relying on the PRT to abide by the Unwritten Rules was a bit sketchy given their track record, but the fallout of breaking those seemed much more severe.  And if they didn’t, I still had… 

Second, I could always run if necessary, and if they took away my college fund, I would.

Third, I was pretty sure Lily had betrayed me.

I wasn’t completely sure about that last point, much to my frustration.  It was entirely possible that the Director heard through other means, and it wasn’t like he was completely in the dark about my abilities.  The PRT wasn’t incompetent, bullying apologia aside, and I knew from the get-go that they would be scrutinizing my every move.

Worse, Lily was the only Ward who still wanted to interact with me.  I couldn’t tell if she genuinely cared or if the others had determined that a concentrated push would be more effective (versus swamping me with a bunch of people), but Lily’s background with the PRT made her the natural choice.  I wasn’t to the point of believing that she was lying about her parental issues, but it was likely that I wasn’t getting the whole story.

I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone else about my background.

Still, I probably should have just ignored her last night, but between the fact that I had been excited about my first successful patrol and some residual loneliness, I had let her into my room.  Part of me wanted desperately to believe that Lily didn’t have ulterior motives for trying to worm her way into friendship with me, while the rest of me couldn’t shake the bone-deep paranoia instilled in me by both Winslow and the PRT.

I gave it even odds that Lily would try to talk to me at lunch.  She did that occasionally, and it was more effort to get rid of her than it was to sit silently and eat my food.  If it turned out that Lily had told Armstrong, I would probably have to find a new place to eat lunch.  Maybe I could phase through the door to the roof?

These thoughts filled my head and made it hard to focus on Mr. Delong’s lesson.  Matrices and vectors were interesting and all, but compared to me possibly needing to flee the Protectorate, they barely registered.  I managed to answer the one question he asked me more or less correctly, but otherwise I was left to my thoughts.

Venturing out into the crowded hallways at the end of class made my mood even worse.  There was a definite energy in the air on Fridays at the Academy, beyond the teachers’ casual outfits and pizza for lunch.  Excitement was the most prevalent emotion on the other students’ faces, even if it was under a glaze of exhaustion.

For me, the imminent weekend was bittersweet.

In the year after my mother passed, I had been an understandable wreck.  Part of Emma’s support structure had been making sure that I was not alone on the weekends, either by me going to her house or her coming to mine.  Those weekend sleepovers had been the only thing I had to look forward to during the week for several months, and once upon a time I had been as excited on Fridays as the other Academy students.

Then Winslow had happened and I had looked forward to the weekend purely because it let me escape my usual torment at school.

Now, the weekend had turned into the only real time I could get out of HQ and pretend that I had something approaching a normal teenage life.  The Boston Public Library showcased yet another way that this city was better than my home — instead of a crumbling monument to budget cuts, the Library here hosted the third largest collection in the country and was housed in a beautiful nineteenth century palace of learning.

Between the library, some minor exploration of the area around downtown Boston, and sampling the huge variety of restaurants nearby, my weekends might have passed for those of an ordinary teenager.  I was still alone, inevitably, but at least I was alone outside instead of at HQ getting pestered by Armstrong or being accosted by my father.

Luckily, my morose attitude was barely even noticed by the other students at this point.  The other thing that Fridays at the Academy emphasized was the relative wealth of the other students.  People tended to ‘dress down’ somewhat at the end of the week, wearing comfortable hoodies and jeans instead of nice blouses or khaki pants.  But even most of the other students’ casual wear was nicer than what I usually wore, and even I had realized it by this point.

To them, I might as well be invisible.

The worst part was that I would occasionally wonder what would have happened if Emma had not triggered, joined the Wards, and turned into a colossal bitch.  Would she take me shopping to make up for my lack of fashion sense?  Would we still be hanging out on the weekend?

Lunch eventually rolled around, and I had apparently lost the coin flip today.

“Hey Taylor,” Lily said.  The fact that I was sitting in the furthest corner of the cafeteria had yet to dissuade her.

“Fuck you, Lily,” I spat as soon as she sat down.  “You couldn’t even wait one fucking day?  Was everything you told me last night a lie?  Can’t you all just leave me alone?”

I stood up to leave, lunch be damned, when she said, “Wait, what?”  She tried to catch me as I walked past, but a quick use of my power meant her hand passed right through my wrist.  Lily, however, wasn’t deterred, and ran up to stop me.  “Taylor, what the hell?”

“Don’t bullshit me,” I hissed, leaning in to keep our conversation from prying ears.  “You told Armstrong about me, and now I have a meeting tomorrow morning with him.  He’s probably going to fuck me over in some way I haven’t even thought of yet.”

I tried to brush past her, but she sidestepped into my path.  I wasn’t quite willing to use my power like that yet, but when I tried to go around her she grabbed my arm.  “Taylor, wait.  I didn’t say anything, I promise.  I wasn’t kidding about being pissed at… them, and I won’t screw you over like that.”

“Then —”

“Same way I found out,” Lily said quickly.  “Come on, our pizza is getting cold.”

I resisted for a few seconds before allowing Lily to pull me back to our table.  Armstrong wasn’t stupid, and if the Wards had received a message about a new cape, I’m sure he had as well.  If I shook her hand off with unnecessary force, she didn’t comment on it.  Then, wonder of wonders, she let me eat mostly in peace.

“When’s the meeting?” she asked eventually.

“Ten thirty,” I replied.  “Why?”

“He meets with the rest of the group every Saturday at eleven, and orders lunch.  It’s not mandatory, since people do stuff on the weekends, but he makes the effort to touch base with everyone.”

“News to me,” I muttered.

“Yeah, well, the rest of us aren’t blind,” Lily said.  I cast a worried glance down the table, but the other students had already left to go be social with their friends in the halls.  “You want to be left out of… work stuff, so we won’t try to force you.”

“I wish Armstrong thought the same.”

Lily scrunched up her brow in thought.  “He just wants you to have friends —”

I snorted in derision.

“— but he specifically said he won’t tell us to do anything.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Yet.  After last weekend, it’s just a matter of time.  Thanks for the heads-up about the meeting.”

“Sure,” Lily said.  “See you later.”

“Yeah, see you.”

The rest of the day passed much like the morning, except that instead of worrying that Lily had betrayed me, I was wondering about what would happen when Armstrong told the other Wards to actively try to befriend me.  The worst part was, it might actually work — it wasn’t like I had any friends at school, and the loneliness was starting to get to me.

A bit, anyway.  I had been alone for a long time now… but friends didn’t make friends go in for power testing.

 

---

 

Naturally, my PRT-appointed therapist wanted to hear all about my confrontation with Lily at lunch.

As I closed the door to Dr. Namshen’s office, I was cursing myself internally for slipping up and mentioning the whole hobby time loophole.  She claimed that she wasn’t going to say anything and that our conversation was strictly confidential, but I was aware that there were exceptions to that rule.  I would just have to hope that the PRT couldn’t convince a judge to fork over my therapy notes.

Like all Wards, I had biweekly therapy appointments with the PRT’s rotating staff.  In our first meeting two weeks ago, I had initially struggled to open up to the current therapist on account of her being on the PRT’s payroll.  An explanation of medical privacy laws and a few oblique praises of my disinterest in becoming a child soldier, however, had gone a long way.

I wouldn’t say I trusted Dr. Namshen completely, but over the course of our three hours together so far I had slowly opened up to her and begun talking about some of my feelings concerning the Protectorate and my situation.  It felt good — better than I expected, honestly — to have someone who would just listen to my problems.  Jim was great for my professional troubles, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to him about vigilante stuff.

But, I could double-check with him about the confidentiality clauses, because I wasn’t sure Dr. Namshen wouldn’t go running to the PRT after what I had revealed.  A quick check of my watch confirmed that yes, he was probably still in the building.

Jim Reed gave me a characteristically large smile when I knocked on his door.  “Taylor, good to see you, as always.  I hope everyone has been behaving.”

“Hey, Jim,” I said, walking in and flopping down into the chair in front of his desk.  “The PRT hasn’t done anything since the weekend.”

The big man frowned at me over his glasses.  “That was amazingly underhanded of them.  I expected better, especially from Kamil.  He’s usually not that gauche.”

I thought back to my panicked phone call to Jim after Gauss had knocked on my door, and the yelling immediately afterwards.  Then I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, because I had more important issues at hand.

“Any idea why?” I asked.

“Hmm, I suppose… well, I can tell you , I guess,” he said, chuckling.  “I heard a rumor from the DC office that a ‘new, frustrating Ward’ was giving their Thinkers trouble.  Ring any bells?”

Interesting.  In the two weeks leading up to Director Armstrong’s attempt to use my dad as leverage, I had been subjected to a whole string of the weird phasing sensations.  Originally I had guessed that they were powers being used one me, though I hadn’t been able to verify that directly.  But based on Jim’s comments, I had been right.

Those fuckers.

Unfortunately, I had to clamp down on my rising anger as fast as it appeared.  If the Protectorate wasn’t already aware that I could ‘feel’ their attempts to probe me with their Thinkers, then I certainly wasn’t going to tip my hand.  That also meant that I couldn’t tell Jim, because I was pretty sure that he would want to go on the warpath on my behalf if he had concrete evidence.

His choice to use the word ‘rumors’ was telling, here — Jim didn’t know for certain.

“That’s news to me,” I said slowly.

Jim studied my face for a long minute.  “That’s a shame.  The Youth Guard has never really been comfortable with the way the Protectorate assigns threat ratings to the Wards, and since you’re not going in the field, it doesn’t make sense to give you one…”

I gave him a small shrug.  “I’m trying to stay out of the whole thing, don’t look at me.”  It was definitely not worth giving up my secret to fight this particular battle.

“Right,” he said, and the smile slipped off his face for a moment before coming back with a vengeance.  “Well, Trumps are rare, and power nullifiers even more so.  The other directors would probably not be pleased with a colleague that didn’t pressure such a Ward into active duty.”

Jim had a good point, there, and I felt my resolve to stay out of this particular fight waver for a moment.  He could probably leverage their assessment in the face of my stated disinterest into some pretty good political fuel, but it would cost me an important secret that I really didn’t want to reveal right now.  Then, once the PRT found a way around Jim’s hypothetical roadblock — and they would — the pressure to join would be even more fierce.

So, swallowing my anger at the DC Thinkers, I shrugged again.  “I guess.”

Jim scrutinized me for a moment before changing tracks.  “On a related note, I wanted to thank you for all of your help identifying issues in the ENE branch.  In retrospect, it was clear that Wards there were working anomalously long hours, being deployed to unsafe parts of the city, and in some cases, seeing actual combat.  I can’t thank you enough for officially bringing it to our attention.”

Once it had become clear that Emma and Sophia were going to get off scot-free for their crimes, I had begun searching for ways to at least get a little bit of justified legal revenge on them.  After all, if they were going to hide behind regulations that made it difficult to remove problem parahumans from the system, then they should actually follow those regulations.

“I didn’t do all that much,” I said, trying to deflect his obvious insistence.  “Shouldn’t your representative there be perfectly capable of figuring that stuff out for themselves?”

“Normally, yes,” Jim admitted, “but it seems that the PRT’s handlers were not cooperative and the Wards themselves were worse.  Your argument about the failings of those handlers leading to your own abuse was insightful, but it only underscores how bad things were in the ENE.”

I could see Jim gearing up to somehow connect this to the threat rating problem, so I said, “But I have a more personal issue to talk about.  The director wants to meet with me tomorrow morning, and I just admitted some stuff to the therapist that I’m afraid will get back to his ears.”

Jim actually scowled at that, his anger over the previous situation apparently forgotten.  “Don’t worry about your therapist, Dr. Namshen can’t legally tell them anything except if you plan on hurting yourself, at least without a court order.  Thank the Youth Guard for that one.”

“That makes me feel better.”

“Good.  You need to be able to speak in confidence with your therapist.  Now, let’s talk about tomorrow…”

 

---

 

I barely slept the night before the ominous meeting.  Jim didn’t think that the PRT had suddenly developed leverage that could get me into power testing, but my overactive imagination didn’t seem to care.  I did tell Jim that I was using my personal time for unspecified activities; he encouraged me to spend as much time off of base that I could.

I got the distinct feeling that his opinion would reverse if he knew I was being a vigilante.

Jim met me outside of the conference room Saturday morning after I had eaten and showered.  He pursed his lips when I walked up, probably in concern over my obviously sleep-deprived state, but thankfully he didn’t comment.  Between my slumped shoulders and the bags under my eyes, I’m sure I cut an appropriately miserable figure.

“Shall we?” he said when I drew up to the door, and we stepped into the lion’s den.

The conference room was exactly as I had remembered, including Armstrong sitting in the same chair and the manila folder of papers on the table in front of him.  He gave me a wide smile as I walked in, though it turned brittle when he noticed Jim.  “Taylor, Jim.  Thanks for coming this morning.”

“I didn’t really have a choice,” I pointed out as I took the furthest seat from him.  Jim sat on my left and produced his own manila folder.  “It’s not like I have friends to inconvenience by doing something else today.”

Armstrong grimaced.  “Taylor, believe me when I say that I sympathize with your disillusionment with the PRT and Protectorate.  What happened to you under the ENE Department’s watch was beyond unacceptable.”

“Do you?” I said.  “Because three weeks ago, I remember you sitting there and signing the papers that trapped me here against my will.”

“Taylor, let us be honest with each other.  Have you even tried to reach out to your fellow Wards?”  Armstrong’s tone was a friendly veneer over iron.  “I think that you would find that you are hardly ‘trapped’ by the PRT.  The other Wards genuinely want to get to know you, and I am sure they would be more than happy to include you in their activities.”

I sat back in my seat and scowled at the director.  “You all just want me to go in for power testing.”

To my surprise, Armstrong nodded.  “That is, unfortunately, true, but not for the reason you think.  Powers can be dangerous and unpredictable, especially when interacting with other powers, and the primary goal of testing is to ensure that you are kept safe.  The Boston Wards are not like those in the Bay — their primary goal is to learn to use their powers in a controlled setting, not to patrol near the edge of gang territory.”

I almost opened my mouth and told him that I wasn’t afraid of the gangs, but not only would that reveal a bit more about my power, it would make it all the more pressing for him to conscript me.

“Regardless,” he continued after not hearing an objection from me, “I cannot in good conscience leave you isolated from your peers, power testing or no.”

“Now wait just a second,” Jim said, but the director waved him into silence.

“Let me finish.  After discussion with Legal, I have identified a low-risk, no-powers PR event that you can attend.”

My brain ground to an immediate halt.

What?

This shouldn’t be possible.  Between my extensive search of the rules and Jim’s own preparations yesterday, I was pretty sure that we had covered damn near everything.  The Youth Guard had managed to lock down basically everything that required powers, and —

Wait, he said no powers.  But what Wards activities didn’t at least come with the possibility of using powers?  I couldn’t think of any.

“Taylor?”

The director’s voice yanked me back into the present, and I found him studying me with a concerned gaze.  My voice came out flat.  “What activity doesn’t have any chance of needing my powers?”

“There are public tours of the Protectorate facilities several times a week, and they can be scheduled to stop in the Wards common area.  Given that we can stipulate no power usage as a safety precaution, it does not fall under the catch-all safety clause requiring power testing for participation.”

It would have been much easier to stomach the realization that he was correct had the director been smug, frustrated, or condescending.  However, Armstrong’s voice held something like… compassion?  Or pity?

Did he honestly think this was helping?

Hadn’t he ‘helped’ enough?

I slumped forward in my chair and grabbed my face in my hands.  “Fuck.”  As a matter of course, I had read the relevant regulations several times, and this loophole was amazingly obvious in retrospect.  The carve-out for ‘casual costumes’ was obviously designed to give a more human element to the tours, and Wards were not likely to get attacked in the building.

“We can fight this if you want,” Jim tried.  “The Youth Guard —”

“It’s not worth it,” I mumbled.  After all, nothing said that I had to actually socialize with anyone.

Giving the Protectorate this victory might actually help my long-term position.  Since being put on display for random people was unlikely to improve my opinion of the program, they would hopefully think twice before trying to force me to do something similar in the future.  I wouldn’t even need to sabotage anything; as long as I avoided the other Wards and appeared busy during the tour…

Wait, I wouldn’t even need to appear busy.  I could just do my homework during the event, and if anyone complained, I could point out that seeing the Wards as normal high school students was part of the point of the tour.  And while I wasn’t going to go out of my way to make the Protectorate look bad, if the director wanted the public to see a Ward that was not being introduced, then he could deal with the fallout.

Yeah, I could deal with this.

Armstrong could have his little PR event, for what little good it would do him.

Once it became clear that I had no more thoughts on the matter, Armstrong moved onto his next point.  “There’s another thing I would like to ask you about, Taylor.  I saw that you registered some hobby time, and I —”

“Director, the rules about that protected time are very clear,” Jim said smoothly.

“I am aware,” Armstrong replied, and now there was a hint of frustration in his voice.  “I am aware that I cannot officially comment on Taylor’s activities.  However, I did want to point out that our gym has equipment for training long distance running, and that while Boston is a relatively safe city, running at night might be dangerous.”

“I like seeing the city,” I said, fighting to keep my voice level.  “And I lived in Brockton Bay until only a few weeks ago, so I know how to take care of myself.”

Armstrong fixed me with a worried frown.  “I am concerned for your safety.”

“And I am concerned that you are not giving Taylor the opportunity to grow up as a normal teenager,” Jim cut in.  “We appreciate your concern, but I’m sure Taylor can take the necessary precautions.”

Armstrong was decidedly not happy about that turn of events, but — at least for the moment — he seemed unwilling to push the envelope.  Maybe he thought having me sit in on the tours would make me want to be a Ward, and so annoying me now was unnecessary?  Or maybe he had something else in mind.

Either way, a predictable awkward silence settled over the room, only to be eventually broken by Armstrong.  “So, Taylor, there’s an optional Wards meeting in a few minutes, and I provide lunch.  It would give you an opportunity to talk with your teammates.”

“Optional, as in you aren’t requiring my presence?” I clarified.

“Correct.”

“I’ll pass,” I said, pushing my chair back and standing up.  “Unless there was something else?”

This time, some frustration did leak into his voice.  “No, that was all that I wanted to talk to you about.”

Walking out of the conference room, I discovered the rest of the Boston Wards waiting for their lunchtime meeting.  They were lounging against the walls or chatting amongst each other, only to go silent with wide eyes when they saw me.  Weld looked like he wanted to say something, but his mouth drew into a thin line when he saw Jim follow me out of the room.

I was down the hallway and in the elevator before any of them could say hello.

Chapter Text

(Tuesday, February 8 2011) 

 

The reflection staring back at me from my mirror wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.  Hoodie, jeans, hair down — with the exception of the domino mask and contacts, I could be dressed for yet another disappointing day at St. George’s.  If I added a few stains, I could be even headed back to Winslow.

I didn’t think I could come up with a less enthusiastic Wards debut outfit if I tried.

On paper, the event was simple: sit around for two hours while several tour groups come through, wave and nod at the appropriate times, maybe answer a question or two.  The groups would only be around for maybe fifteen minutes at a time, mostly to just see the Wards in their natural habitat.

Many years ago, Emma and I had gone on the same tour out on the Rig back home as a birthday present from my parents.  I remembered my eleven-year-old self’s wide-eyed wonder at seeing real heroes, some barely older than me, and wishing that one day I would get powers of my own.  When we got home, Emma and I spent hours discussing the adventure.

Now we were the heroes on display, and I couldn’t help but think that younger me would be disappointed to learn the truth.  I turned my attention away from the photograph of mom on my desk and back to the mirror, looking over my appearance one last time.  I was as ready as I was going to be, so I picked up my stack of homework and set out to the Wards common room.

And… yep, the Wards are staring at me.

“Hey, Phase, good to see you,” Weld said with a smile.  He was sitting at one of the round tables doing paperwork, and gave me an enthusiastic wave.

At the other round table was a scrawny girl with shoulder-length brown hair and a very elaborate steampunk visor over the top half of her face; like me, she was in a hoodie and jeans.  She mumbled, “Hello,” before her attention immediately returned to the pile of parts on the table in front of her.

It had been a surprise when I had discovered that Connie was in my English class.  Her heroic persona Valve wore a steampunk grey and yellow set of power armor in the field, making her look taller and far more intimidating.  She was the Ward I saw the least, and in fact I had only encountered the reclusive Tinker on base when she had needed to shower after something in her lab exploded and coated her in grease.

There were two other Wards attending our little PR stunt.  Sitting at the dreaded console — Jim had explained what sorts of punishments Emma or Sophia might suffer if anyone cared to do anything — was Hunch.  The young Case 53 was wearing his Sherlock Holmes-esque costume, and he gave me only a searching gaze before eventually refocusing on the monitors in front of him.  And lastly, Lily was loafing on one of the couches, watching TV with wireless headphones.

“Phase!” Lily said when she noticed me.  Her costume was much more modern — a dark purple skintight suit with platinum-white armor panels and a dark visor that let her straight dark hair flow freely.  I had managed to make it three quarters of the way to a cozy-looking chair sequestered in a corner before Lily darted over, a wide smile on her face.  “So, are you…?”

“Just here for the tours,” I ground out.  “I have homework to do.”

“Gotcha,” Lily replied.  I couldn’t see her eyes under her costume’s visor, but her smile flickered when she answered.  “Want some company?”

I hefted the books.  “Not particularly.”

“Well, if you sit on the couch, you’ll be more comfortable and won’t have to put your stuff on your lap.”  I had a sinking feeling that the other Wards would pester me either way, so after a moment of deliberation I followed her to the couch.  Lily flopped down at one end and patted the cushion next to her; I opted to sit on the opposite edge and laid my books down between us.  Three classes worth of homework should easily sustain me for the two hours I was mandated to be in this room.

Lily watched me with a conflicted frown as I opened the first book and started working.  

“So, Phase…”

“Hm?” I asked, not looking up from the worksheet I had already started to fill with calculations.  Ugh, matrix inversion.

A deep voice answered.  “Do you usually do your homework first thing when you get back from school?”

I blinked and looked up to find Weld smiling down at me from a few feet away.  “I have running practice tonight,” I replied.  “Don’t want to fall behind.”

“Ah yes, your scheduled ‘hobby’ time,” Weld said, and I could hear the faint emphasis on the word ‘hobby.’  “Isn’t it a bit cold to be out running?  Why not run inside?”

Well, if Lily had put the clues together immediately, it stood to reason that Weld would do so, too.  He almost certainly knew that I was lying about my ‘hobby,’ but I really wasn’t sure what his angle was, here.  Obviously he was upset that I was moonlighting, though I didn’t have any ideas beyond that.

“It’s nice,” I replied, turning back to my work.  “I don’t mind the cold.”

“Well —” he started, but was interrupted by the thirty-second mask timer.

My breath caught and my hand twitched, smearing pencil all over the paper.

Lily must have noticed, because she reached out and gave me a comforting pat on the shoulder.  I might have flinched had I not seen it coming.  “Don’t worry, Phase, everything will be fine.”

“I’ve heard that before,” I grumbled.

In the moment before the doors opened, I once again entertained the idea of running.  No more rules, no more expectations, no more ‘helping.’  No more dad, no more Armstrong, no more Wards.

No more feeling trapped.

Then the moment passed and I unofficially debuted as a Ward.

"And this is the Wards common area!" a professionally excited voice said as soon as the door slid open.  "The Wards relax here when they're not off learning to be heroes, and we even have a few of them here today!"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Weld turn and straighten his posture.  "Hello, and welcome to the Boston Protectorate," Weld said.  "I'm Weld, the current captain of the Wards, and I'd like to introduce you to my team."

Weld certainly knew how to play the crowd.

"You probably know Flechette, Hunch, and Valve already," he continued.  "Our newest member here is Phase, though we haven't yet introduced her officially."

I peeled my gaze up from my homework to find a gaggle of kids, teenagers, and parents staring right at me.

Fuck you, Weld.

I squirmed a bit under their expectant attention, acutely aware of their sudden intense interest.  Several teenagers even had phones out.

"Hi," I mumbled, giving them a halfhearted wave.  Mollified, the tour guide started up a description of the Wards program while Weld fielded a few questions from the visitors.

I paid no attention to the conversation and tried to refocus on my homework.  It was a futile attempt, what with the anxiety of being ogled by the civilians, but I still tried.

Multiply, add, multiply, add.  Good, it’s an eigenvector, so —

“Phase, you there?”

I looked up to find Lily leaning over my books, turned so that the tour group couldn’t see the worried frown on her lips.

“What?” I said.

“You were asked about your powers.”

Weld was talking to about half of the group about living on base as a Case 53, but a wide-eyed boy was staring at me with a curious expression on his face.  He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine.

“I’m, um, not supposed to say,” I said, trying not to feel too bad about the kid’s crestfallen face.  “Sorry.”

“Why not?” the kid asked.

“It’s supposed to be a secret until she gets introduced,” Lily said with a conspiratorial wink.  “Same with her costume.”

In what I could only surmise was an attempt to avoid even the slightest appearance of violating regulations, Armstrong had attached an instruction to the event on the calendar: no discussion of my powers or heroic persona.  Keeping it secret made it seem like the Protectorate was being overly careful prior to my introduction, which was true even if the public would mistake what, exactly, they were being careful about.

“Aw, ok,” the boy said, looking both excited and sad at the same time.

“When will that happen?” a teenage girl asked, drawing me away from my homework yet again.

I set the pencil down with a bit of unnecessary force.  “Not in the foreseeable future, if I have anything to say about it.”

The sudden cracks of anxiety fanning out across the tour guide’s professional mask almost brought a smile to my own face.  “Well,” she said, with that forced cheerfulness, “why don’t we —”

“Wait, why not?” one of the other teens blurted.  He was wearing a Protectorate t-shirt that could easily have come right out of the gift shop downstairs.  In fact, based on the second collar peeking out around his neck, he might have done just that.  “Don’t you want to go out and fight villains and stuff?”

The kid’s words twisted like an icy snake in my chest, because I wanted nothing more than for his wide-eyed optimism and simple worldview to actually reflect the realities of being a Ward.  Worse, his question dredged up painful memories of me and Emma standing right where he was and listening to Battery extol the virtues of being both a Ward and a hero.  Now I could only wonder if she, too, would look the other way and make excuses for Sophia and Emma like everyone else.

Lily, of course, tried to save me from the awkward question.  “There’s a lot more to being a hero than that.”

“But to answer your question, no, I don’t want to be here at all.” I cut in smoothly.  “My parents signed me up for the Wards against my will.”

Next to me, Lily froze, her earlier enthusiastic smile turned brittle in an instant.  The tour guide shot me an outraged look that was gone in a flash as she tried to cut off this line of questioning.  “Ok group, let’s —”

While the parents in the group seemed suddenly eager to be away and the little kids were confused, the teens clearly smelled blood in the water.  “Wait, they can do that?” the boy with the new t-shirt asked.

“That sucks,” another said, a smirk cracking through his ‘my mom dragged me here’ façade.

I gave him a tiny smile of my own and tapped on my worksheet.  “Tell me about it.  I just want to do my homework.”

The teenagers made exaggerated eye rolls.  “You don’t get some sort of pass for having to go out and fight villains?”

“If I did, I might consider actually going in for power testing,” I said sarcastically.  At a chorus of confused ‘power testing?’s, I explained.  “Yeah, we have to go through power testing to see what our abilities do, because otherwise you can have bad power interactions.”

“Like what?” one of the parents asked, suddenly interested.

“A Ward was hospitalized for third-degree burns all over their body because the Protectorate was too preoccupied with deploying them in the field to ensure they had a safe costume,” I replied easily.  That wasn’t a fair description of the event, but it was true enough.

From across the room, I saw Weld’s eyes get very large; next to me, Lily couldn’t interject quickly enough.  “Nothing like that happens anymore.  Power interactions are really rare and unpredictable.  The more we learn about powers and the way they interact, the better we are at keeping everyone safe.”

Lily’s comments left a chasm of silence as the tour group considered her words, and the guide leapt in headfirst.  “Well, there’s another group coming up behind us, so why don’t we say goodbye to our Wards and go meet the professional heroes?”

As prompted, the tour group gave us cheery waves before walking out as a group.  We returned the waves with a rather wide spread of enthusiasm, from Lily’s energetic flapping to Connie’s distracted half-wave.

When the door didn’t immediately open again, I was confronted by both an annoyed Weld and exasperated Lily.  “Phase, what the hell were you thinking?”

“I was answering their questions,” I said, turning back to my homework.  “Was I supposed to lie to them?”

The Wards leader sighed and ran his hand over his face.  “No, we’re not supposed to lie to the public, but giving responses like that makes the Protectorate look bad.”

“Hm, imagine that.  I’m not particularly concerned with the Protectorate’s vaunted ‘image.’”

“Phase,” Weld snapped, and the pure, distilled frustration in his voice caused me to glance up reflexively.  “You don’t get it, do you?  What you just did, telling people all of that stuff and airing dirty laundry like that —”

“Regardless if it is true or not,” Lily added.

“It just doesn’t just hurt you,” he continued.  “And it doesn’t just hurt the Boston Wards.  It hurts everyone, because it makes the Protectorate appear to be out-of-touch and only interested in us for our power.  The Wards cannot be seen as child soldiers.”

“Tell that to someone who wasn’t drafted,” I shot back.  “Feel free to order me to not answer their questions.”

“I’m seriously considering it,” Weld ground out.  “Just… don’t do that again, okay?”

I shrugged and went back to my homework.  “Maybe have them avoid asking me questions.”

To my amazement, neither Weld nor Lily felt it necessary to keep the argument going, and the next five minutes were blessedly silent; I managed to finish several problems.

When the second tour group was herded into the common room, the whole scenario played through almost exactly the same way.  Weld gave the same speech, introduced me again (this time I was expecting it), I waved, someone asked about my powers, and Lily told them it was a secret.

The tour guide, however, jumped in before I could respond to a question about my debut.  He explained how they were still working on my powers and costume, and his cheery tone was completely at odds with the smoldering vexation in his eyes when he looked at me.

With no one interrupting me, I was able to complete my math homework.

Once that group left, Weld announced that there would be a twenty minute gap due to some delay.  The other four Wards started a discussion about something that had happened in training while I continued to work, which suited me just fine.  However, the reprieve only lasted until Weld realized that I had been left out of the conversation.

“So, Phase,” he said, awkwardly trying to include me despite his earlier antagonism; when I looked up, however, Weld had been preempted by someone else.

Connie was standing a few feet from the couch holding a notebook.  “You’re in Mr. Shaner’s English class, right?” she asked, voice quiet but steady.  “Have you done the Scottish assignment yet?”

I stared dumbly at her for a moment before my brain re-engaged.  “Oh, Macbeth.  No, not yet.”

Connie gave me a bland look through her visor.  “That was an invitation to work on it together.”

“Oh, um.”  I glanced down at my increasingly disorganized pile on the couch.  Despite having an obvious cover for starting up conversation with me, the Tinker had never once shown the slightest interest in trying to force herself into my life.  In fact, she reminded me very much of myself, which wasn’t necessarily a compliment.

At the very least, I could probably trust that her desire to work on homework was genuine.  “Let me come to you, I guess.”  I extricated the relevant notebook and made my way to the table where Connie had been Tinkering, only to stop and stare at the mess of parts she was pushing aside.  “What are you making?”

“Improvement for my hammer,” she said, gesturing at the ineffable mechanical contraption.  “It does a one-sweep resonance analysis of whatever the head is pressed against, and then sets the impact driver to that frequency.  All analogue, of course, so I’ve been working on improving the damping coefficient to get better accuracy… And I’ve lost you.”

She wasn’t wrong, but something about her quiet intensity made me want to not make it seem like I was dismissing her work.  “I won’t pretend to understand, but what’s it used for?”

Connie’s lips quirked up in a smile.  “Breaking down rubble, mostly.  Or buildings.  Or Brutes, I suppose.  I think it might just liquify their organs, though, so… hm.”  She reached for a pad of paper and jotted a few notes down, but her head snapped up when I pulled out the chair across from her.

“Macbeth?”

“Right,” she said, setting her Tinkering notes aside for English.

We made decent progress for only having a short time, only stopping when the doors opened to admit the next tour group.  Weld immediately set about introducing everyone, but I wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to his speech.

The strange feeling was back.  Someone was using their power on me.

“Phase?”

As always, as soon as the strange feeling manifested in my precognition, I let it pass through me with barely a thought.  Then the effect ended.  And then it came back.

“Huh?”  The entire room was staring at me, and I reflexively pulled in on myself.

Weld gave me a concerned look.  “You were asked about your powers.”

My eyes found Lily, and she shrugged infinitesimally.  I guess she wanted me to say it.  “I, um, can’t say yet.  It’s a secret until my reveal.”

The questioner was apparently a blonde girl with a light smattering of freckles and green eyes.  “Makes sense,” she said lightly, though based on her self-satisfied smile, I had given her the key to Fort Knox.

Other people in the crowd started asking questions, but I tuned them out completely.  Someone in the group must be some sort of parahuman, and their power must affect people nearby.

Technically, I was supposed to report this sort of phenomenon to the captain of the Wards, a Protectorate member, or the Wards handler for the local PRT.  Even if the parahuman in question was completely benign, those rules existed to protect the Wards from external influences.

I glanced back over the tour group again.  Everyone there was either teenage or younger, or obviously their parents.  I even recognized two of the teens from school.  While it was entirely possible that the parahuman in question was one of the parents, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was one of the kids.

And there was absolutely no way I would subject some poor random kid to my own personal hell by ratting out their benign power to Weld.

I had to fight down a vicious smirk once I had a second realization.  Officially, I wasn’t supposed to be using my powers.  I would have to check what the regulations said about always-on or passive effects, but the stated rules were clear — I needed to avoid using my powers during the tours.  If Armstrong wanted me to act as a power detector, then he would have to wait until after I went through power testing.

Luckily, between my obvious preoccupation and the guide running interference, the tour group left me alone for the remainder of their visit.  The foreign power cut off the instant the doors closed, and Weld rounded on me immediately.  “Phase, are you alright?  You seemed distracted there.”

“I just have a lot on my mind,” I said, turning back to my English homework.  To my surprise, Connie fixed me with a very similar concerned look.  “I’m fine,” I said, slightly more forcefully, and she just shrugged.

Two more tours came through in the allotted time, and between them Connie and I managed to hash out the remainder of our English homework.  Even Hunch got in on the ‘ask Taylor if she’s okay’ interruptions while we worked, though none of them seemed interested in pushing further.  Hunch even used his power on me, to much the same effect as the parahuman in the tour group.

I did note that it felt slightly different from the earlier power in a way that I couldn’t easily describe.

As we were packing up our homework once the last group left, Connie took her visor off of her head and shook out her hair.  “That was much easier with a friend.  Mind if I knock on your door if I need help in the future?”

“Sure,” I said.  “I run sometimes at night, but it isn’t like I have anywhere else to go.”

“Sounds good,” she replied.  She turned her attention to carefully picking up her Tinker creation and tools, which gave me the perfect opportunity to slip out of the common room.  Weld watched me go with a complicated expression, but didn’t stop me.

I dropped my books onto my desk as soon as I got into my room, then flopped down into the chair.  My first official unofficial PR event was not quite the disaster I had halfway expected, strange power notwithstanding, but it was a far cry from the glamorous heroing I had imagined as a kid.  Being stared at and questioned was uncomfortable at best and brought up bad memories at worst.

I had better get used to it, though, because I was going to be doing this until Armstrong came up with a more creative punishment.

Those thoughts and worries were not useful for my activities tonight, so I pushed them out of my head.  As far as I knew, I was in the clear for my vigilante time, and so I wanted to make the most out of it.

Last time I managed to finally stop a crime in progress.  Maybe tonight I would find some capes.

Chapter Text

(Tuesday, February 8 2011)

 

Desperate times might call for desperate measures, but Dillon Reynolds never thought that the Protectorate’s PR team would be desperate enough to conscript their interns into fighting a media war with one of their own Wards.

Normally, Dillon’s after-school job was a lot of fun.  He had signed up expecting that most of his job would be gophering or making coffee, so it had been a wonderful surprise to find that the Boston Image department actually used their interns for something productive.  Dillon and the others never made any final decisions, but Chief O’Hannon (as his subordinates called him) was happy to solicit their opinions on teenage culture and have them sit in on meetings where they might be helpful.

Of course, nothing trumped actually meeting the various heroes!  Dillon had met the entire roster of Protectorate and Wards since starting last summer, and so far his favorite was definitely Roulette.  That was partially because the rambunctious young woman was in the Image offices adjusting her costume with some regularity, regaling the staff with the most recent weird stuff she had seen with her power.  The rest of the reason was that she had declared Dillon ‘bestest intern ever!’ after he spent an hour going to and from the fabric supply closet when Roulette decided that she wanted a completely new costume.

That had been fun, for all that the chief had nixed the new design.

Pressing refresh on several PHO windows to see if a new thread about Phase had been posted somewhere strange, Dillon reflected on the fact that, strictly speaking, he had not actually met all of the Wards.  Phase had arrived in Boston about a month ago, and apart from seeing her name attached to some meetings on the big scheduling board, their newest Ward had never appeared in the Image offices.

Rumors and speculation had run wild until the chief revealed that there were issues with her power testing, and until that was resolved she wouldn’t be coming by for a costume or identity.  That hadn’t stopped the rumors, only changed their subject matter, but Dillon had not given up on eventually meeting the enigmatic Phase.

Well, apparently not so much ‘enigmatic’ as ‘enormously frustrating,’ given the shitstorm she had kicked up.  At least the chief had ordered pizza for the office, as the repurposed staff had all missed dinner in their panicked attempts to spin Phase’s outburst.  From the interns all the way up to the head of costume design herself, everyone had abandoned their usual duties to contain the fallout from Boston’s newest Ward.

“Fuck a duck in a truck!  Channel 8 wants a statement!”  Dillon tried not to wince as their media relations coordinator, Bill Branson, slammed a phone down nearby with an audible crack.

“Tell them we cannot comment on an internal matter that might compromise a Ward’s secret identity,” Chief O’Hannon rumbled back.  From where Dillon was using the computer on his secretary’s desk, the intern was able to catch the displeased frown on the chief’s face.  Under more normal circumstances, that meant ‘someone was going to be stuck on postcard distribution for a week.’

Bill stalked around the corner a moment later, a fistful of notes clenched in one hand.  “Chief, what the hell were they thinking?  This has to be the most shitting back-asswards way of dealing with a Ward that I’ve ever seen!”

With the whole team spread out over the office and almost everyone in front of a computer either searching for threads or replying to them, Dillon supposed that it made sense that the chief would forget that there was an intern at the desk usually reserved for his secretary.  Thus, when O’Hannon pulled his infamously (and unfortunately) foul-mouthed subordinate into his office, Dillon was unintentionally able to listen in on the conversation.

“Please tell me Gauss is going to nail the goddamn kid to the wall for this fucksaster.”

“Neither she nor Kamil feel punishment is appropriate this time,” O’Hannon rumbled, sounding like he was quoting someone.  “Besides, this isn’t the first time we’ve had unruly kids join the Wards, and it won’t be the last.”

“Usually it’s not this much of a shitshow.”

“We’ve got it, no problem.  ‘Angry teen is angry’ hardly makes an interesting news story, and everything else Phase said is already in the public record.”

“That’s a horse of cartshit and you know it.  The media might buy it, but the Youth Guard…”

“The Youth Guard is already involved, Bill.”

Even to Dillon’s untrained ear, the media coordinator crammed a lot of shock into a short response.  “Oh.  What about Verthandi and Accord?”

The chief’s answering growl made his displeasure with the two local Thinkers perfectly clear.  “Not our purview.”

“Until it fucking sprays us in the face like an asshose full of —”

The chief cut him off with a cough.  “Yes.  Look, all we need to do is spin this as an angry teenager whose parents wanted her to be safe and sound in the Wards.  It’s close enough to true that no one will ask the wrong questions, and it makes the Wards program look like a safe place for deranged parahuman teens.”

“That’s all of them, chief.”

Dillon’s breath caught.  What?  Deranged?

“You don’t say.”  O’Hannon hummed to himself, a deep tone that was unnecessarily ominous.  “Look, the suits in New York and Washington want that girl showing the flag pronto, but neither Kamil nor Gauss are pleased with their meddling.  I don’t know much more than that, but they have put us on notice that Phase may do something stupid.”

“Again.”

“Yeah.  Now go call Channel 8 back and give them the party line, and hopefully by tomorrow this will have all blown over.”

The click of the door handle jarred Dillon back into motion, and he did his best to seem completely engrossed in his task.  Indeed, another thread had been posted in the self-help forum, and he only caught it because one of the keywords was ‘power testing.’  There was no reference to Phase, however, so he closed back out and resumed looking elsewhere.

 


 

To Lily’s amazement, the other Wards managed to keep their mouths shut for a whole minute after Taylor slipped out of the room.  Watching the other girl felt like nails being driven into Lily’s heart, what with Taylor’s habitual and determined avoidance of other people on top of her blindingly-obvious loneliness.

She sometimes wondered if anyone else had noticed that Taylor wasn’t hiding her soft, squishy feelings inside of an armored shell — she was the armor, scrubbed free of whatever friendly, pleasant exterior she might have once possessed.  The hints that Lily sometimes caught when Taylor forgot to keep her at arm’s length made her despise her idiot colleagues even more.

It had not been hard to put together Taylor’s assertion about attempted murder with Gauss’s preliminary comments about a new Ward that had ‘issues with her home department.’  Further information from either Taylor or Gauss had not been forthcoming, for obvious reasons, and Lily had considered it a minor miracle that Taylor kept her heroic tendencies.

“That did not go as planned,” Weld said, breaking the tense silence.

Connie huffed, most of her attention on cleaning up her Tinker mess.  “You don’t say?  Was it really necessary to have her show up?  We’ve all known for weeks that Taylor wants to be left alone, so was it surprising in the least that she would take umbrage with being forced into something she obviously doesn’t want to do?”

“Well, it’s not like you could have asked me or Dez,” Hunch said sourly, swivelling in the console chair to face the group.  “Her power is so annoying!”

Weld groaned.  “I know.  Trust me, I know.  I tried to tell them —”

“Who?” Lily interjected.

“Gauss, and the Director too,” Weld said, frowning at the interruption.  “I even tried her handler — Agent Watkins, before you ask — and they all just wanted to talk about ‘opportunities for socialization’ and ‘team integration.’  I think they honestly expected Phase to see the rest of us being friends and thus give into their requests.”

“Because that’s going to work.”  Despite muttering under her breath, Connie’s words carried in the suddenly quiet room.  When Weld rounded on her, she rolled her eyes.  “What?  It’s true.”

“You sound like you don’t even want her here,” Weld said.

“Who the hell cares what I want?” Connie snapped.  “Maybe we should ask Taylor what she wants instead, hmm?  But I guess there’s little choice in a barrel of rotten apples.”  She grabbed her pile of Tinkertech parts with more force than was necessary and stalked out of the common area before Weld could offer a retort.

The captain stared after the Tinker before turning back to his remaining teammates and sighing heavily.  “This is exactly what I was trying to prevent.  Phase’s bad attitude is going to poison this team, but the Protectorate doesn’t seem to care.”  He glanced at the big map screen on the console and shook his head.  “Worse, I can’t help but think about how great it would be to have her in the squad.  She could be a huge help against the minor threats moving into Cambridge.”

Lily winced and shook her head.  “Definitely don’t phrase it that way to her.”

“I know, I know.  I just…”  Weld trailed off, glancing around the room.  “I don’t understand why she refuses to trust us.  Those idiots up in Brockton, sure — but Gauss really does care and so does Kamil.  We could do so much for her situation before even talking about power testing…”

Hunch shrugged.  “Dunno, don’t look at me.  I’m obviously happy here.”

“Me too,” Lily added.  “And while I get that she’s angry for what are probably good reasons —” Weld nodded absently, which Lily found very interesting, “taking it out on tour groups is not exactly productive.”

Then again, if one of the Wards up in Brockton Bay really had tried to kill Taylor, then Lily would have to reconsider what constituted appropriate levels of force in this conflict.  Sure, Lily had issues with the PRT — serious ones, even, after being bounced around various departments for years — but nothing on the scale of attempted murder.  It still boggled her mind, almost a month later, to think something like that could happen.

It rankled Lily to admit that the Protectorate probably would cover up attempted murder, since she knew that their PR presence in the public mind did just as much to combat crime as actually stopping criminals.  Lily herself had been on more ‘new Ward’ PR patrols than she cared to think about; boring as they were, those patrols often had a noticeable impact on the community.

More than that, Lily had sat through enough PR classes and seminars to have the Protectorate’s all-important message burned into her brain a dozen times over.  Her first reflex was to come to the organization’s defense, because angry as Taylor might be, teenagers needed to feel comfortable joining the Wards.

But… would she feel the same if Wards had been responsible for her trigger event?

No wonder Taylor was angry.

Well, sabotage or no, Lily was not going to give up on her quest to at least be on pseudo-friendly terms with the recalcitrant Ward.  Gauss was right — Taylor did need friends that she could trust with cape stuff, which made Lily all the more frustrated when the PRT’s heavy-handed nonsense impeded her own progress.

Lily just hoped that she could reach the other girl before Taylor did something stupid.

Chapter Text

(Tuesday, February 8 2011)

 

As I rode along the subway towards tonight’s patrol destination, my mind wandered back to Brockton and the ‘no violence on buses’ rule.  It was a relic from the time of Marquis and the Teeth that had inexplicably outlasted either of their presences in the Bay, and I wondered if a similar rule existed here about the subway.

I didn’t have long to contemplate the question — I was only going two stops — before I was following a flood of young people out onto the platform and up the steps.  The crowd didn’t jostle me too much, although I did use my power to avoid stepping in something unidentifiable but obviously bad.  I barely noticed the warm air of the subway give way to the frigid February winds.  

Having never been to this area prior to tonight, I took a minute to get my bearings.  Cambridge was surprisingly lively for a Tuesday night, which was probably due to all of the nearby colleges and universities.  Bars were doing good business, stores were open late, and people seemed mostly unconcerned by the weather.  They moved in knots of three and four, many obviously tipsy, and I was suddenly reminded of the Boardwalk back home.

Also like back home were the criminals creeping in from the edges.  A few shady people lurked the mouths of alleys and eyed the more vulnerable members of the crowd, but the Cambridge PD had enough beat cops on patrol that trying anything was a risky endeavour.  As I watched, two cops were confronting three belligerent drunks and calming them down.

Ordinary criminals, however, were not what I was here for tonight.  According to PHO, a group called ‘The Travelers’ had recently vacated Cambridge, leaving a power vacuum that neither Accord nor Blasto seemed immediately interested in filling.  The Teeth were across the river, which made this area a bit of a stretch for them, and so minor villains had begun to move in.

And with minor villains came an uptick in petty crime.

I was hoping that by actually doing my research ahead of time, I might find more than one mugging in three nights worth of work.  More importantly, I spent most of the weekend and Monday afternoon experimenting with my powers in my room, so hopefully I would be slightly more effective than my last encounter.

First things first: find a good place to change into my costume.  I walked south from Massachusetts Avenue — the main street through Cambridge — and darted into an alley behind a Dunkin’ Donuts.  The lack of light was completely mitigated by letting my pericognitive senses unfurl completely, and with my power I hardly needed to see to get changed.

After quickly turning my hoodie grey-side-out, I unfolded my grey sweatpants and held them like I was sizing them up.  Then, I phased myself through them, only cancelling the effect when I knew they were around me instead of in me.  It had taken two hours of practice to accomplish this with any amount of speed, and I could hardly keep the grin off my face even as I covered it up with my scarf.

I took a second to pat myself down, making sure I had my burner phone.  Then I set off on my patrol.

Patrolling, as it turned out, was nerve-wracking.

It didn’t even occur to me until I was being approached by some obviously drunk college students that I had made an enormous miscalculation.  While my costume was admittedly just a hoodie and pants, the fact that everything I was wearing was uniformly grey marked me as a parahuman immediately.  The scarf and domino mask helped, too.

“Hey!  It’s a cape!” a young man not much older than me said with noticeable slurring.

“Danny —” one of his companions said, reaching for his friend, but if he said something else I didn’t hear it.  My brain screeched to a halt for a long enough moment for the drunkard to get within arms reach of me.

My brain resumed normal operations just in time to let his hand pass through my shoulder instead, which meant he was over-balanced and fell through me to the ground.  I took two steps sideways as his friends rushed to help him out, and it wasn’t until I got a clear look at their faces that I realized why they were practically tripping over themselves.

“Sorry,” a girl said, eyes darting away in what was probably fear.

Right.  I was a new, unknown cape with no reputation.  With how much petty cape crime was happening in Cambridge right now, they would be totally justified in thinking that I was a villain.

“It’s fine,” I said quickly, smiling first and then raising my hands when I realized they couldn’t see my face.  “Really, I’m a new hero.”

The tension drained out of the group immediately.  “Oh, thank god,” one of the guys said.  “I was afraid for a second there…”

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

“Ghost,” I said.

“'Cause you walk through shtuff?” the drunk Danny asked.

I looked down to find that, yes, I was standing in the middle of a snow bank without having obviously disturbed the snow.  “Yeah.”

“Cool,” the girl said.  “Well, we’re, uh, going to go now.”

“Sure,” I replied, offering them a small wave.  They returned the gesture with varying levels of enthusiasm, and as they walked away I noticed that our little encounter had drawn some eyes.  It was mostly more of the Cambridge night-lifers, but I did catch the eye of one police officer standing near a corner.

Apparently, by letting some drunk college students go, I was considered ‘not a threat’ by the authorities.  This persisted as I slowly made my way due northwest along Massachusetts Avenue, and for my good behavior I was rewarded with the occasional civilian asking who I was and what my power did.

It was kind of surreal, honestly, to be approached by wide-eyed young adults, not much older than myself, who wanted to interact with me.  A fair number of them were drunk, and based on the wary looks from their sober friends, their cavalier attitudes towards a new cape were not appreciated.

According to some of the things I had read about being a successful vigilante, this sort of ‘showing the flag’ was almost as important as actually taking down villains.  It had seemed rather counterintuitive at first, especially after I realized that this was the idea behind Wards PR patrols, but going out and being visible meant that potential criminals had to think twice before pulling something.

However, even knowing that uneventful patrols still helped did nothing to sate my curiosity for actually fighting other capes.  At least if they knew I was around, they might come looking for me.

If I was lucky, that would be tonight.

As I continued my patrol, I tried to get a sense for the area that was now under my ostensible protection.  The road was lined with little shops, restaurants, and bars, reminding me of the Boardwalk back home, but there were residential houses directly behind the commercial buildings.  The area wasn’t too run down, at least by Brockton standards, but there was definite room for improvement.

The exception, as I strolled along the sidewalk across from some very well-kept brick buildings, was Harvard.  I almost didn’t need to see the sign to identify the university.

Well, that was it for tonight.  I was only planning on going as far as the Harvard subway station.  On the whole it was disappointing, but —

The sound of glass breaking was music to my ears.

I immediately dashed south, towards the direction of the disturbance.  I didn’t have to go far — the break-in was at an electronics store on the next block.  What meagre crowd there was on this part of the street started running away from the crime; of course a few stayed with cell phones to record, but they had enough brain cells to stay far up the street.

My mouth pulled into a smile beneath my scarf as I stopped in front of the broken window.  Shards of glass were phased through beneath my feet, mostly forgotten as I looked in on the scene.

Supervillains!

Two, to be precise.  The first was in a form-fitting black bodysuit with red highlights, and as I watched his arm stretched like a rubber band to let him grab a laptop off of the far wall.  It went into a bag with what was obviously other stolen electronics.  The shop was mostly empty, as the displays were all on the far walls.  In the middle of the room, a pair of advertisement posters had been knocked over, their stands broken.

The second was also in black, but instead of a bodysuit she had a long coat with orange streaks over a dark shirt and pants.  Unlike her partner, she wasn’t polite enough to use her power where I could obviously see it.

“Heads-up, Snap, we got company,” the woman said.

Rubber band man turned, and while I couldn’t see his face behind his mask, he seemed to be appraising me.  “Sorry kid, this one’s taken.  Come back another night.”

It took me a second to process Snap’s implication.  “I’m not here to steal things,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice even.  “I’m here to stop you.”

My precog sense lit up almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth; an instant later Snap’s arm shot forward, passing through my stomach like it wasn’t even there.  If he was surprised, it didn’t show through his mask.

I barely had time to wonder about his partner’s power before my precog sense lit up again.  This time it was some sort of handheld device, and I was so confused about why it was coming from behind me that I barely managed to activate my power in time.  When I spun around, a smaller version of the unnamed villain was standing behind me and looking slightly frustrated.

Then she shrank again, and a second copy of her tried to swing at me with her fist.

I pulled my taser out of my pocket and reached towards one of the small clones, only to have it teleport a short distance away when I jabbed.  Their armor was irrelevant, now — I had figured out how to safely get the taser through armor and onto skin — but it was swiftly made clear to me that I had a bigger problem.

I simply couldn’t land a hit.  Between the teleports, their own dodges, and my own subpar reflexes, I was just flailing around uselessly while the villains ransacked the store.  It was extremely frustrating, especially given how easily I had taken down the last pair of villains.

A quick glance told me that Snap was ignoring my blundering while using his overly long arms to grab the last few laptops from the display.  Cloning-girl kept up her assault with several more copies, but my precognitive powers gave me just enough of an edge to phase through her flurry of attacks.  She also tried another, different handheld device from within her coat’s pockets, but it was just as effective as the previous device.

If I could get my hands on the loot, I could stop them from making off with it.  They only had one bag each, and all I had to do was get my finger on any part of the fabric.  Snap’s bag was closer, so I ran that direction.

Of course, my sudden mad dash towards Snap did not go unnoticed, and his hand shot past me, followed by an increasingly narrow arm.  It looked like taffy, stretched too thin, and it was only because I was paying attention that I managed to dodge his actual attack.

When his arm shrank to the breaking point, it exploded.

The heat and pressure washed over me with no effect, but it was a close-run thing.  My precog senses gave me just enough time to activate my power, and I was temporarily blinded by the light of the explosion.  However, my pericognitive power still worked, which I used to aim as I dove across the floor towards the bag.

Snap must have not been expecting me to dive.  He jerked the bag up, but I managed to get a single finger on the fabric in time to activate my power on it.  I phased the bag and loot out of his hand, though I fumbled for a second when the bag fell free.

“Fuck!” he swore as he tried to grab the handle and failed.  “You’re going to pay for that, you annoying little shit!”

While he tried and failed to interact with the bag of loot in any meaningful way, I considered phasing one of the free straps of the bag into the ground.  I could extract it later; since I worked my power on each little piece of objects I was touching individually, it was trivial to separate things once they were merged.

However, I really didn’t want to reveal that aspect of my power right now, and in any case, Snap had already given up on making off with the loot.  He made one last pass with his now-regrown other hand — the one that had been disconnected — before his partner lifted her own loot bag and called, “We gotta go!”

As I watched, Cloning girl halved herself and reappeared next to the hole in the window with her bag of stolen goods in her hand.  She was clearly beyond my reach, and when Snap’s arm shot past me towards that same hole, I had an instant, sobering realization.  My ability was powerful and versatile… provided that I was within arm’s reach of my targets.  Without a way to close the gap, I would just have to watch helplessly as they escaped.

Well, there was still at least part of a villain nearby.  His arm was stretched far enough out the hole that it was barely pencil thin where it passed by me… within grabbing distance.  My own hand struck out almost before I had finished the thought, touching Snap’s overextended limb and working my power on it.  I had arbitrarily fine control over what I was phasing.

Why couldn’t I phase part of an object?  Snap already detached his own limbs, after all.

A brief flicker of my power disconnected the front half of Snap’s arm from the half still joined to his elbow.  Between my surprise that my idea worked, the excitement that I might actually stop a villain, and the horror about the implications, I didn’t bring my power up in time to dodge the resulting explosion.

Something was very loud.  My world went white.

 

---

 

The next thing I knew, I was being shaken awake by a PRT officer.

“I’m awake,” I moaned, pushing myself up on loudly complaining limbs.  I felt as though I had been hit by a truck, and that was before the ringing in my head.

“You’re Ghost?” the officer asked, offering me a hand so that I could actually sit up.

“Yeah.  I was in the area and heard glass breaking, so I came to look.  I only got the guy’s name.  Snap, I think…”  I rubbed the side of my head.  “Ouch.”

“Snap and Split.”  The officer gave a mirthless chuckle.  “You must be unlucky, kid.  Snap isn’t usually this destructive.  Sure, he blows stuff up, but he never explodes the whole building.”

I very carefully did not admit that the explosion might have been an errant power interaction.

“Did you get them?” I mumbled.

A different voice answered.  “Luckily, we did.  We were just turning down the street when the explosion went off, and it seems neither of them were expecting the blast either.”  I looked up to find Nebula staring down at me.  “You’re Ghost?”

“That’s me,” I responded automatically, as my brain came to a shuddering halt.

The Protectorate was here.  There was no way they didn’t know the truth.

Had I really been stupid enough to think that my little charade was going to work?  Had I really believed that I could hide behind a flimsy rule about hobbies and expect the Protectorate to look the other way?

“I won’t say it’s a pleasure to meet you like this,” Nebula said, gesturing around the destroyed room, “but I should thank you for helping us capture Snap and Split.”

My everything hurt, but with some effort I eased myself up to a sitting position.  “Um, no problem?” I said unsteadily.  The hero offered me a hand up, which I took with some trepidation and pulled myself to a standing position.  I grit my teeth at the pain, and while I had practice concealing aches and bruises, having them everywhere was an unpleasant experience.

Nebula’s eyes did not leave my face, and I was once again thankful he didn’t have laser vision or something.  “Can you tell me about what happened here?”

Under his baleful glare, I recounted my night, starting from hearing the glass breaking to getting exploded by Snap.  Nebula didn’t really ask questions, even when I gave the rather understated explanation of my powers.  I claimed to be able to walk through walls and people, and while Nebula frowned something fierce at that, he didn’t press me.

“Have you considered the Wards?” he asked, once I was finished.

I tried very hard not to fidget.  “I prefer to stay independent,” I said slowly.

His pointed glance around the room was a dead giveaway on his opinion of that idea.  “While it is true that independents can do good work, the laws and regulations surrounding vigilantism can often be difficult for a layman to understand.  And while you may be in the clear right now, the Wards exist to help when you inevitably make a mistake.  It happens to all of us, and we would hate to see a young parahuman throw her life away over some annoying legal detail.”

I swallowed heavily.  Nebula’s warning couldn’t even be considered subtext, not delivered like that.  But… he wasn’t arresting me right now.  Based on his displeased grimace, I suspected that he would love to change that given even the smallest provocation.  

“Thanks for the advice,” I said after a minute.  “Um, if there wasn’t anything else?”

Nebula shook his head once.  “Thank you again for your assistance.”

I spared a glance for the vaguely person-shaped blob of containment foam in the corner before using my powers to clean off my costume.  Nebula watched with obvious interest as the flakes of plaster and dust came suddenly unstuck from my clothes, falling to the ground in a cloud to join the rest of the debris at my feet.

Hopefully capturing two villains would make up for the loss.

When I finally managed to stagger away from the scene of the crime and into a convenient alley, it took me three tries to get my hoodie back on without feeling like I was tearing off my arm.  By time I could finally get everything packed into my artificially lumpy inside-out hoodie, it was late enough that I had barely enough time to get back to HQ.

To my amazement, no one was waiting to intercept me when I got back.  With how angry Nebula had been, I had half-expected him to throw the rules to the wind and attempt… something.  The Protectorate couldn’t discipline me without cause, and they were heavily restricted from prying into hobby time, but I had still expected annoyed glares at the very least.  My loophole was probably infuriating to the hardliners, after all.

If anything, the Protectorate’s silence was suspicious, but I put that out of my mind as I got ready for bed.  Focusing on the results of my patrol was easy with how often my sore limbs were making their displeasure known to my brain, and I had to use my power to take off my shirt.

My victory hot shower never felt so good.  I helped capture two villains tonight!  Sure, the PRT had done the actual capturing bit, but I had kept them occupied until the officers could arrive and then inadvertently disabled them with my quick thinking.  Of course, had I been thinking more quickly, I could have avoided getting exploded myself, but some bruises were a small price to pay for the chance to actually fight some parahumans.

I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

Chapter Text

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.