Waking up was jarring in a way it had never been before. There was no sleepily wondering where I was, or why the bed was so warm. Even before I opened my eyes I knew exactly where every molecule around me was. And it was getting easier to take those thousand bits of information and 'map' them to my mental eye.
Mom was kind of crushing me in her sleep, but with a few minutes and a lot of effort I was able to slip out from her grip. I left the room as quietly as I could, slipping into the bathroom before heading to the kitchenette. Raiding the cabinets produced some Earl Grey; not my favourite, but beggars and choosers.
I had just set up two mugs to steep when my I felt movement behind me. I turned around and met mom's gaze from where she was leaning up against the door frame. She shot me a strained smile, which I returned weakly. We stood there awkwardly until I turned back to grab the mugs and silently offered her one. Her smile grew a bit as she murmured her thanks.
We migrated into the sitting area. Now that I wasn't panicking or in custody, I was finding myself a lot more intrigued by my new senses. I sat there absently going over every part of the small tv as I sipped my tea. I felt like there was just barely a sense from the parts I knew were electrified, not quite the way living tissue felt but definitely different from inert material; almost a niggling feeling in my brain.
I must have spaced out for a while, because when I came to it was with mom's hand on my shoulder and a bemused look on her face. I slowly blinked a couple times before speaking. "Sorry, I was distracted by the tv; what were you saying?"
She shot me a strange look before glancing at the tv where a rather bland man was giving a weather report. I almost wanted to explain, but before I could make that decision she turned back to me. "I was asking how you were holding up, owl."
Breaking out my childhood nickname twice in as many days meant she must be really worried. Honestly I wasn't sure why I wasn't freaking out more than I was; I vaguely recalled someone explaining to me years ago what it meant to go into shock. Yeah, that sounded about right. Apparently I had gotten lost in thought again, because the look on mom's face was becoming graver by the second.
"I'm uh. I'm okay? For now, at least." That didn't seem to reassure her much, since she just took my mug from my hands and set both our drinks on the table before wrapping me in a hug.
"Why didn't you tell me about the bullying Taylor?" I froze in her arms. I really didn't want to get into this right now, but mom probably wasn't going to give me much of a choice. I drew in a deep breath before I forced my body to relax.
"I didn't want to bring it home. The house was the one place I could ignore it and just pretend like life was normal. And when it started you were so tired from taking on extra classes after...after dad died. I didn't want to put another burden on you."
"Oh, my little Owl. I'm the parent here, it's my job to bear things for you. I am so sorry I missed this." When mom finally pulled back she wiped at my eyes, and I was surprised to feel tear tracks down my cheeks. When had that started?
"Now, as much as this conversation is not over, Rosalind texted me that she'd be arriving around seven with her guest, so we have about ten minutes to get ready."
She disappeared into the bathroom as I washed our mugs. None of the dry goods in the cabinets appeared very appealing, so I decided that breakfast could wait until after we got home. If we even made it home today. Pushing that thought away, I headed towards the stairs. It'd probably be best to do this downstairs, just like we had when we'd talked with Ms. Sinclair last night. I made sure there were four chairs set up before I made my way to one of the crates a little further into the warehouse.
It wasn't that hard to pull myself up on top of it. I did my best to get situated, and then sort of pushed my awareness outward. All this information was always floating around in the back of my head, and it wasn't as if I was ignoring it most of the time per se. But now I pulled it to the forefront, taking it all in and letting all else fall away.
It was nothing like my mundane senses. The detail, the scope, it was breathtaking. Yesterday I had let my fear and confusion cloud everything. I hadn't wanted to believe, acknowledge this new part of me. But there was no denying it. And unlike yesterday I could feel this pull, this tugging sensation to do something. Instinctually I narrowed in on a few particles in the air; It was dust, I realised after a moment. I pushed on those particles, felt as some bizarre form of pressure built up inside them. Until suddenly, like a dam breaking, I sensed that flash and the particles were gone.
My pulse raced. Armsmaster was right! I did have some form of control. I hunted around for some more dust, and pushed when I found it. Except this time there was no pressure, no flash. Frowning, I switched to a bit of the box I was on, and then a bit of the cement floor. No luck with either of those either.
I almost growled in frustration. Why wouldn't this just make sense! An amused snort almost sent me tumbling off my perch in surprise. I looked up and was caught in the gaze of the woman in front of me. She was at least a few years older than me, long thick hair done up in a braid, with a kind face and eyes crinkled in amusement. She wasn't wearing any makeup but it didn't detract from her looks one bit.
As if I hadn't already been through a rough couple of days, now some gorgeous stranger was laughing at me. I threw myself back across the crate with a groan; if only my embarrassment would just swallow me whole and spare my dignity. As if on command I felt my power flash across the crate underneath me. I had half a second to be curious about what had triggered that when a loud crack resounded through the warehouse, and then the top of the crate was collapsing inward, taking me with it. I may have yelped.
Thankfully this one was empty, so I just landed on a bunch of plank shards instead of a bunch of machine parts and plank shards. After I took a moment to pick myself up, I glared at the empty air as if I could pin my power in place and scold it. Again I was pulled out of my thoughts by that snort, only much closer this time. I whirled around to find her leaning against the intact side of the crate.
She gestured with her arms, and shot me a warm smile. I held back to make sure she wasn't going to start laughing at me, but ended up slowly returning the smile. When she spoke her voice was smooth, instantly making me relax. "Want some help getting out of there?" I sighed but nodded. The next thing I knew she had her hands on my hips and was lifting me wholesale out of the crate. I squeaked in surprise and my face was burning up.
She set me down gently beside her and gave me another of those smiles. I dusted myself off and cleared my throat before finally saying something. "Thanks. I'm still getting used to this whole...powers thing. Sometimes it seems like it has a mind of its own." I stuck my hand out at her like the good manners my mom had ingrained in me demanded. "Taylor, nice to meet you."
She gave me a weird look before shaking my hand "Nice to meet you Taylor. Not to seem rude, but you can just call me Censor for now." With that a couple things clicked into place. The blush from earlier came back twice as fiercely. The team leader. She was the team leader I was meeting and I had made a complete fool out of myself in front of her.
"Right," I replied after a beat too long. "I guess we should go find my mom and Ms. Sinclair." I turned away and quick stepped towards the chairs I had set up earlier. They were already present and chatting with each other. I took the empty seat next to my mom, who paused in her conversation to reach out and lay her hand on my shoulder comfortingly.
"Girls, thank you for joining us," Ms. Sinclair spoke up. "I suppose you've already nominally met now, but allow me to make formal introductions. Censor, meet Taylor; A new, rather public, trigger. She doesn't have a cape name yet. Taylor, meet Censor. She will be the leader of the team the NAF is putting together." Censor shot me what I was quickly coming to think of as her trademark smile, though this one was tinged with a bit of sadness.
"It's lovely to meet you Taylor, though I wish the circumstances were better. Trigger events are never easy to handle."
Taylor smiled back at her, but glanced between the two women across from her. "Thanks, but what exactly does that mean? What's a trigger event? Armsmaster mentioned something like that too."
Censor inhaled sharply and shared a look with Ms. Sinclair, silently communicating something before turning back to me. "A trigger event is something capes, like you and me, go through to gain their powers. It's often referred to as the worst day of their life," she spoke slowly and softly.
My blood ran cold as I was momentarily thrown back into the locker. Dark and filth. Mom squeezed the shoulder that her hand was still resting on, and the show of support was enough to drag me back into reality. The dancing motes of darkness were already calming, fading from the air around us. Censor was looking around with wide-eyed curiosity, flicking from the remaining motes to the bits of missing material in the ground and Ms. Sinclair's chair. That last one made me wince, but I resisted running off like I had last night. It wouldn't make a good impression and it wouldn't actually fix anything.
"That's amazing." My head snapped up at Censor's words. I looked for any mockery, or derision, but found her face completely lacking in either. She was running her finger across the now empty chunk of chair with a look of genuine fascination. It was honestly the first time anybody had made me feel better than 'uneasy' about my powers. She looked up and addressed me. "Once you have that under control I can't imagine what you'll be able to do with it." A shadow of worry disturbed the bright look on her face. "No wonder the PRT are trying to bag you."
Ms. Sinclair cut in. "Exactly. And as much as I wish I could tell you otherwise Annette, they're not going to leave Taylor be. It will start with harrassment, constant surveillance, and it's just going to escalate." Mom's look of disquiet about matched how I was feeling at that news.
Censor took up the thread from there. "The sooner you have your power under control, the less of an excuse the PRT has to use against you, and the better you'll be able to stand up against them if need be. We can help you build that control. Not only that, we have a powerful cape on the line that can act as a healer, so even if the worst occurs, we'll have somebody on hand to help. This is the safest option that doesn't end with someone hanging a sword of damocles over you Taylor."
In my gut I think I had already made my choice. But so much had happened in the last 48 hours. I just wanted a chance to sleep in my own bed and process everything. I was afraid they'd take it as a rejection though, and I think that terrified me even more than the PRT did. I gave my mom a pleading look and luckily she seemed to understand what I needed.
She straightened her posture, looked first Ms. Ms. Sinclair and then Censor in the eye, and then stated, "We'd be remiss not to take some time and think this over. I'm sure this will be the right choice in the end, but my daughter has just been through a trauma, and we're both exhausted. Give us a day or two and then we'll get back to you. I trust you Rosalind, but ultimately this is Taylor's choice."
Ms. Sinclair went to open her mouth, but before she could get anything out Censor cut in with her warm, soft voice. "Of course, take all the time you need. This offer isn't disappearing." She stood up, and the rest of us followed suite. "Your's was probably a fair bit worse than mine, but I understand just what kind of things push people to trigger. Recover as best you can for now, and then get back to us. Is it okay if I give you a hug Taylor?"
I nodded mutely, not really sure what else to do. Warm, soft arms encircled me, and I noted that we were actually somewhat of a height with each other. When she pulled back I was red on the face. She patted me on the arm, and then walked off back towards the entrance of the warehouse. Ms. Sinclair lingered for a minute, rummaging around in her purse. With a small noise of success she pulled out a slightly bulky phone and held it out for my mom.
"Take this with you. It's encrypted. Won't do much if they sic thinkers and tinkertech on you, but it should hold up under conventional means. Keep it off when you're not using it, and only call the preprogrammed numbers with it. I put both mine and Censor's in there, though only use hers if you're under immediate threat of harm." Mom nodded along as she talked, and Ms. Sinclair ushered us towards the entryway. "There's a car waiting for you outside that will drop you at mom. Please Annette, stay safe."
We had made it outside at that point, and Ms. Sinclair gave mom a quick hug before she turned to lock the door. We continued on to the car, where the driver was leaning against their door. It was the same person as the night before, and they gave us a grin and nodded before hopping into the car. We both slid into the backseat, where I leaned up against my mom, suddenly exhausted. I could sleep for twenty years at this point.
My attention drifted as we drove down unusually quiet streets. What Ms. Sinclair and Censor were offering was big. Their team sounded like a good fit, like they were trying to do what they thought was right. I was inclined to agree with them after my own time with the PRT. I shuddered as memories from that day swelled up. It took all my effort just to push them down again.
I had been idly staring out the window as I thought, but it was as we made another turn that I realised the same black sedan had been shadowing us for at least the last ten minutes. Ice ran through my veins as I recalled what Ms. Sinclair had said about being surveilled. I whipped around to say something to our driver, but they caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and gave me a nod.
"Black four-door, three cars back? Yep, they've been tailing us for a good while. Good catch, you have a quick eye." Mom looked startled at their sudden speaking up, but as soon as she processed what they were say her face darkened.
"What are we going to do?"
They shrugged. "Not much we can do without giving them an excuse to harass or arrest us. If we hit any yellows I'll try to lose them at the intersection, but otherwise it's best to just keep an eye on them. They're trying to intimidate us, try not to let it work."
Despite their words, I couldn't relax after that, regardless of how exhausted I was. I kept my body twisted at an awkward angle so I could try to keep them in sight for most of the ride, and it had the side benefit of keeping me awake. We did eventually lose them a couple of blocks away from the house, but I had a feeling it didn't really matter. The PRT knew who my mom and I were, there was no chance they didn't know where I lived.
My fears proved right when we pulled onto my street. It was almost laughably easy to spot: A cargo van advertising some sort of flooring company. It was too new; Not in all the years of my dad working for the DWA and with the various businesses that still ran in the docks had I ever seen a company vehicle that was so spotless. It stuck out like a sore thumb in our neighbourhood of worn down houses.
When I mentioned as much out loud, the dark look overtook mom again. "That's the point Taylor. If they didn't want us to know they were there then we wouldn't. Not with all the resources they have at their disposal." It didn't do anything to help with the churning in my gut.
I tried to catch our driver's name as they dropped us off, but they waved me away and wished us a good afternoon before gunning it down the street. I looked up at the house I had always called home. The paint was faded, the little patch of yard out front was a bit overgrown, and that death trap of a step was still broken. It was everything to me, and I couldn't wait to get inside and sleep for the next three days. The sudden fear of what might happen to it if things went wrong, if I lost control or somebody attacked us, gripped me. There were so many memories of dad here, I couldn't bear to lose it. Mom herded me into the house, but my thoughts were miles away, back in that warehouse with all the promises Ms. Sinclair and Censor had made to me.
"Fucking hell, this is just like before your father died. Except that was only the local police." Mom muttered, yanking the curtain back in place. It had been two days since we had come back home, and our street had been host to a rotating cast of fake company vans and blacked out sedans. We did our best to ignore them, and hadn't really left the house at all. Our pantries were devastated and I think mom was dodging calls from her boss.
Mom backed off from the kitchen window and went back to making tea for the two of us, grabbing the mugs and heading over to the table once she was once. I gave her a smile when she handed me one of the mugs, grateful for both the physical warmth of the tea and the warmth of sharing a moment with her. We had both always appreciated a good cup of tea, but ever since dad had died it had become somewhat of a ritual. She would make us both a mug, and we'd share a quiet moment at the table, no matter how busy or upset either of us were. Sometimes we'd speak softly about what was bothering us, but more often than not we'd just bask in each other's presence.
I honestly think it was one of the reasons mom was so upset I had hid the bullying from her; if I couldn't share it in these small moments with her, what else wasn't I sharing? But I hadn't wanted to shatter the tranquility of our ritual. I didn't want to taint this time away from everything with more of the same bullshit I was dealing with in school every day. I hoped she could understand that, that I hadn't ruined this with tension anyways.
She looked up from the steam rising off the surface of her tea and met my eyes, giving me a small smile. "Lacey's going to be coming over later, she's bringing us groceries." I smiled back at her and then sipped on my tea. Still a little too hot, I thought with a wince. I really liked Lacey. She'd been coming around since a week after dad's funeral. We had needed the support, and so had she, what with the argument with Kurt that ended with him leaving the city. It hadn't been a clean break, messy even. I knew she still wore her wedding ring on a necklace under her shirt, but then again so did mom.
I nodded in acknowledgement, but apparently mom had more to say. "Before she gets here though...I think we should discuss Rosalind's offer."
"Okay." I knew this was coming soon, and I was surprised by how calm I felt about it. Over the past couple of days I had taken bits out of all the big furniture in my room as I processed everything, and even in one case put a hole in my favourite hoodie. Or, well, my favourite out of the ones that had managed to be left unstained. Clearly I couldn't just keep going like this, even if I had wanted to; eventually everything in my room would've been reduced to tinder.
"I think you should take her up on this. I trust her, and her organization had a good reputation on the national stage, even if there are plenty of naysayers."
"I think you're right."
Mom blinked in surprise, scanning my face closely. "I'm not going to lie owl, I thought I was going to have to work at you a little bit to get you to agree. You were such a fan of Armsmaster and Miss Militia when you were younger."
I responded with a shrug. "I...want to help people. I want to be a hero. And after meeting with the PRT?" I shook my head slowly. "I'm not exactly convinced that's their top priority. I know that it might just have been the situation, but the look of that woman? I don't know, she just gave me a bad feeling. Who was she anyway?"
Mom quirked her lips. "Piggot. Director of the PRT ENE."
My mouth gaped a little. "Wow."
A shiver worked it's way down my spin. "Definitely liking the Wards as an option less and less."
Mom changed tack, raised an eyebrow at me. "what was your impression of this Censor? I saw you two talked a bit when she went over to grab you."
'Grab me' indeed, I thought as my mind went back to how easily she had lifted me out of that crate. "I liked her. She was...nice."
Mom had a twinkle in her eye that I didn't like. "Nice, huh? She certainly was striking," Mom teased me.
Pink spread across my cheeks as I remembered how softly she held me during our hug. "Mom! She's like almost twenty!" The laugh mom let out could only be described as a cackle, and I resolved to hide behind my tea mug and ignore her until Lacey got here.