Chapter 1: Comprehension
Forewarning this work is going to ignore some bits of canon and WoG, especially since I didn't bother to change Taylor's trigger event (and handwaved Scion sans consequences). There will eventually be relationships, but I don't know exactly how that's going to lay out yet, so I've refrained from adding any tags just in case things change
Filth. Darkness. Bugs. I gagged and shivered, somehow aware of every single molecule around me. I must have blacked out at some point. The locker door I was leaning against gave out suddenly, and I fell forward to sprawl across the floor. I could just barely register the lockers in front of me, that something was wrong with them. Like someone had carefully carved bits out of it at random. It was all too much. The tile and concrete of the floor. The metal of the lockers. Even the air around me, though it was the least of them. It all pressed in, overwhelming my senses. Trapping me. I blacked out again.
I was paralyzed. No wait, I could feel my muscles straining to move, but they were held in place. Restrained. I tried to open my eyes, but they felt like they were glued shut. I could breath, but it was like I was under a thick blanket. I started to become more lucid, and I realised I had that strange new sense still. It was a lot less overwhelming now, which I was thankful for even if it confused me.
Through it I could not-see that some of the filth from the locker still covered me, and I gagged from the thought. I forced myself not to vomit, unsure if I would choke from it like this. Slowly my awareness spread outward. I was covered in a layer of thick sponge-y material, secured to the top of some sort of platform.
As I could "see" further everything became clearer. I was...on a gurney? In a room? No, not a room. A few feet under the "floor" were sections of material I could only sense for a brief time before we moved out of range. A car.
There were two masses on either side of me that were different from everything else I had sensed so far. Where everything else had this inherent inertness, everything about these masses was in a constant dance of activity. Alive. They were people.
I realised they were both covered in a thick shell of material, and holding a length of something metal. I paled. People with guns, and maybe body armor. I started panicking, unsure what was happening here. Was I being kidnapped? How did they even get me? The last thing I remembered was blacking out at school.
I heard muffled noises from the two people, they both shot up and moved as far from me as they could. One of them pounded on the "wall" they were against, and the vehicle came to a sudden stop. I still couldn't move, but it didn't keep the g-force from making things very uncomfortable for me. I tried to open my mouth to call out, figure out what the hell was going on, but like the rest of me it was stuck in place. As soon as we were completely stopped the two shot past me and out of the vehicle, and what I realised was the driver fled as well.
Just like that I was alone again. Trapped in darkness. Covered in filth. No one was going to save me. I knew it was futile, but I couldn't stop myself from trying to thrash around. Anything to try and free myself. Just like in the locker it changed nothing.
Except something was changing? I realised it had been happening for awhile before it came to my attention. Some of the matter I could detect was...disappearing? Being annihilated, some core part of me whispered.
The only reason it had caught my attention was because the scale had changed. Where it had been like a couple of flies buzzing around the room before, now it was like a swarm of them blanketed above me.
The wild eyed panic that had gripped me began to lessen as I realised the material holding me was being eaten through, only to spike again when the effect slowed. It hadn't stopped though, which was the only thing that allowed me to not drop back into that state.
The sensation it was causing was...weird, to say the least. Every bit of matter it happened to went through a strange process that couldn't have lasted more than milliseconds. I concentrated on it to keep my mind off of the fact that I still had no clue what was happening.
I was distracted when I noticed somebody approaching the vehicle. As they came closer I noticed they were in a shell too, but it was...weird. Like the matter it was made from wasn't acting quite right.
That didn't stop it from getting tagged by the effect though. A small nickel sized portion of the outside annihilated in a process only slightly longer than normal. The figure paused it's stride for a moment, before continuing on towards the vehicle. They climbed into the driver's seat and in a second we were moving again.
The sponge-y material was still being eaten through, but it had slowed down. The effect was more sporadic, and they had spread out to tag random matter sometimes. I wanted to scream in frustration, but even that was denied to me.
I couldn't tell how long it was before we came to a stop again. The figure exited and came around to the back doors. I didn't need my new senses to tell that the gurney was moving. They did tell me I was being wheeled into a building though. As we made our way through it, I couldn't make out much about the layout. The only thing I knew for sure is we didn't pass a single other living soul.
We reached what could only be an elevator, and after some fiddling from the figure we started heading down. Another corridor, this one different from the previous ones. Different layout, different materials. Another stop to fiddle with a wall panel again, and the room we were in front of opened up. I was wheeled in, and then left. They hadn't left completely, just back to the other side of the wall, door closed behind them.
A mist started spraying from some weird apparatus on the ceiling, and where it came into contact with the sponge-y material, it caused it to dissolve. Nothing like the effect, more like it was turned into a rapidly evaporating liquid. It struck me how odd it was that I knew that.
Even with how much had been eaten away, it still took an excruciatingly long time for enough to melt away so my face was uncovered. As soon as I could I gasped in a breath of air. It wasn't what anybody would call fresh, especially with the smell of chemicals in the air, but it was still a lot better than being stifled under whatever that stuff was.
For the first time since I woke up I was able to open my eyes and actually see my surroundings. What I saw didn't exactly comfort me. All white room, a plastic covered cot, a weird trench in the floor with a spicket above it. Not to mention all the things I could detect above me and in the walls. I had seen enough tv to know what a cell looked like.
I panicked, trying to stand but managing to fall off the gurney instead. I scooted backwards until I was in the corner of the room and hugged my legs to my chest. What the hell was going on? Why was I here? I had a sinking feeling in my gut that it had something to do with me suddenly having a sixth sense.
Distantly I became aware of somebody shouting. My eyes darted around my cell, looking for the source. Instead I gasped as I saw a black wisp blossom into existence before fading away. It was as if a flame made from the void had sparked to life. A split second glimpse into nothingness. It was beautiful.
Motion caught me eye. The wall opposite me was glass. No, wait. I had felt glass, and this wasn't the same. This was stronger, denser. Beyond the wall stood the figure, the one that had brought me here. They stood holding down a button, and their mouth was moving. My eyes widened as I realised the top portion of their face was covered with a helmet, and recognition dawned as I took in the rest of him. Armsmaster. Leader of the local Protectorate. What. The. Hell.
"Miss Hebert! I need you to pay attention to me. It is vitally important."
"Wh-" My voice was scratchy and whisper quiet. How long had it been since I last did anything but scream or cry? I cleared my throat. "What?"
"Listen to me: Can you stop it?"
"Your power. Can you stop it?"
My mind froze. I had already started to suspect, but it was almost impossible to believe. Me, superpowers? It was like something out of a poorly written tragedy, I thought bitterly. I know he had just confirmed it, but...I needed to hear it again before I believed it. "What are you talking about?"
"You have triggered, Miss Hebert. So far it's very lucky you haven't hurt anybody, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. We had to clear out a portion of the building just to bring you in."
I shook my head. "What do you mean stop it though?"
He gestured to where one of the void sparks was already fading. "What? No, I'm not doing that."
I assure you you are," he said in the driest tone I had ever heard.
I shook my head "No, I'm just sensing things! I'm not- I don't know what's causing that." I said, desperation creeping into my voice.
He gave me a long stare. "You can sense them?" I nodded. "Then concentrate on them. Try to control them."
Reluctantly I closed my eyes and tried to hunt around for sparks. It wasn't hard to track them, almost as if I instinctually knew where they were once I was actually paying attention. Logically I shouldn't have been able to follow what was happening, it went so quick. The visual effect was more like an afterimage than anything. Somehow my new sense let me process it though. It was like...A quick build up, and then something burst, and finally a flash-except-not as it bleed off into...somewhere. Trying to describe it in words was an exercise in frustration.
Still, that was as much as I could do. There was no instinct for stopping it, or causing it. At least, not that I could tell. Not in the little time I had been doing it. If I was doing it, like he said. I opened my eyes and shook my head at him. "I can't do anything, it's just happening. I'm telling you it's not me!" Frustration had bled into my voice, but I snapped my mouth shut when I realised the sparks were coming a bit faster.
He seemed to notice this too, and nodded as if I had confirmed something. A panel on his forearm opened, and he removed a small device from within. "The working theory is that your powers are somehow related to your emotions. This is a sedative. Will you allow me to enter and administer it to you without struggling or attempting to escape? The other options available are...not as pleasant."
I swallowed and hesitated only a moment before nodding. Just the idea made me vaguely nauseous, but I really wasn't eager to find out what those other options were. He entered the room and approached me slowly, as if afraid I was going to attack him. As if I could. No matter what he said I wasnt controlling anything. When he reached me he motioned for me to hold out my arm. Armsmaster pushed up my sleeve and stuck the crook of my elbow. It wasn't any more painful than any other needle, and when he pulled it back out it didn't bleed even a little.
Already I could feel my heart slowing, my breathing ease. I was getting a little sleepy, but otherwise it just seemed to be calming me. Miraculously the void sparks had slowed, and eventually I was even pretty sure they had stopped. I reluctantly conceded that maybe he was right. Maybe they were connected to me somehow. It just seemed so utterly foreign to imagine.
We sat there as Armsmaster alternated between observing me and the room for the next couple minutes. When there hadn't been any more void sparks he nodded in satisfaction. "That seems to have worked for now. Follow me." He led me out of the room and back to the elevator. We went back up, though I was pretty sure the floor we got out on wasn't the one we had initially entered on.
This floor too was clear of people, all except for the room we were approaching. Armsmaster held the door open for me, and I could finally lay eyes on the people in the room. One of them was immediately recognizable by her army fatigues, and the american flag bandana covering her face. Miss Militia. Next to her sat a sallow, unhealthy looking woman with hard eyes. Across from them were two others, one a woman in a fancy looking suit, and the other-
"Mom!" I stumbled towards her as she rushed out of her chair to embrace me. She wrapped me in a hug so tight I thought she would break ribs. I didn't care, I hugged back just as tightly. She leaned back and took my face in her hands, checking me over as if reassuring herself I was safe.
Her brows furrowed when she met my eyes. Mom tilted my head to get a better look, and then checked my pulse. Her head snapped to Armsmaster and when she spoke there was fury in her voice. "Did you drug her?!"
Armsmaster didn't even blink when he started to say "She consented to-"
"She is a child! She can't consent to anything!"
"She is a dangerous parahuman who can't control her powers, we did the least of what we could have done under the circumstances," The sallow woman snapped.
"She is still my daughter and she still has rights!" The sallow woman just sneered in response.
For the first time since I entered the room the woman my mom had been sitting next to spoke. "Annette," she said gently, as if afraid of spooking mom. "Sit." She motioned to the chairs next to her. Mom pulled me over to them, making me take the middle chair so that the two women flanked me. I was vaguely reminded of a meeting with my teacher in middle school, wedged in between mom and dad.
I looked at this other woman, curious as to who she could possibly be. I had never seen her before, that was certain. Her demeanor transformed completely as she started addressing the three across from us. "Let's cut the crap. You have no right to hold my client. "
"Criminal negligence with a parahuman ability. Damage to government property. Assualt with a parahuman ability," The woman opposite of me practically barked out.
"Please, we both know that the only one of those that has any hope of holding water is the property damage, and even that occured during a trigger event, under duress and in self defense. And trigger events are such a legal grey area that even that wouldn't stick."
Miss Militia cut in. "Even so, this could have all gone very differently. Someone could have been seriously injured. What if one of her classmates had wandered into the area before someone realised what was happening? We could have had a dead child on our hands."
I felt a hot pressure in my chest that I distantly registered as one part annoyance at being talked about like I wasn't there, and one part dread at what one of my childhood heroes had just described. It was disconnected though, like the feelings weren't quite mine. I belatedly realised that the woman in the suit was speaking again, and turned my attention back to her.
"What, so the solution is to press gang another child? No. You have no leg to stand on. My client will stay free and clear of the Wards unless she chooses otherwise of her own free will."
"You should reconsider," Armsmaster spoke for the first time since the conversation had started. Unlike Miss Militia and the woman with hard eyes, he addressed me directly. "The Wards can provide a safe learning environment, resources, a team to watch your back."
My lawyer actually scoffed at him. "It also puts her under the direct control of a government organization who you've admitted views her as a dangerous threat, with minimal oversight. And the Wards in this city are anything but a safe environment; they're practically child soldiers." She stood up from her chair, and gestured at me and mom to do the same. "Now, unless you're actually going to charge my client with something, we'll be leaving."
Mom put her arm around me and directed me towards the door, the other woman right behind us. I felt sunken eyes on the back of my neck when the sallow woman spoke up again. "We'll be watching you Miss Hebert."
My lawyer froze in place, and when she spoke her voice was tight. "Are you threatening to out my client?"
"Oh, of course not. Though with how...public her trigger event was I'm sure the rumor mill is already at work. Teenage girls do love to gossip after all." A brief pause. "Armsmaster will escort you out the building."
Without another word we stepped out of the room, and headed towards the elevator. It was an awkward silence all the way down to the front entrance of the building. Right before we reached the lobby, Armsmaster motioned us to stop, which earned him a raised eyebrow from my lawyer. In answer he pulled a black domino mask from another hidden compartment and offered it to me.
"At that dosage the sedative will last another half hour at most; I suggest you have her in a secure location by then." Mom gave him a sharp nod in answer as she helped me adjust the mask over my face. It almost seemed like he wanted to say something else, but he just watched silently as my mom ushered me away.
The lobby was mostly empty as well, though this time there were at least PRT agents and employees around. Guards, at what I assumed were their standard posts. Someone was manning the front desk, and strangely enough someone was working the till at the gift shop. I wondered what the purpose of that was. Just to keep up appearances? Or did they expect me to stop in for an action figure on the way out? I let out a huff. Not likely. Everyone always says not to meet your heroes; I guess that applied in general too.
The reason for the mask became abundantly clear as soon as we stepped out of the building. There weren't a lot of them, just two or three really, but their cameras made them beyond obvious. Mom and...I really needed to learn her name...shielded me as best they could, but the reporters were intent on snapping some photos of me regardless. Luckily a car was waiting for us, windows tinted dark enough that we hopefully wouldn't have to worry. Me and mom crawled into the back seat while the other woman took the front.
The driver wasted no time in getting us out of there, and soon the PRT HQ was nothing but a fading image in the rear view mirror. Everything was silent for nearly a minute before the woman up front started cussing up a storm so big that dad's old dock buddies would have been impressed. Or at least, from what I could hear before mom clamped her hands over my ears. I rolled my eye; like she hadn't had her moments before.
When her hands finally came off the woman was taking a deep calming breath. She turned to address the person driving. "Okay. Are we being followed?" They shook their head. "Good. We're going to have to burn a safe house here; Take us to Pike Street."
I felt like maybe I should have been alarmed at the sudden change in tack, but mom was still calm so I decided not to worry. Not that I could have done much worrying even if I wanted to. Instead I just watched out the window as the city passed by, absentmindedly picking at the information that came and went almost too fast to register.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing I knew mom was shaking me awake in the parking lot of an old warehouse. It was kind of creepy, one of those silent beacons of how much the city was falling apart that everyone ignored.
"C'mon little owl, let's get inside." She must have noticed how hesitant I was, because she ran a hand through my hair and gave me a tired smile. Just that was enough to sooth me. "It's okay, I know Rosalind from work. I trust her." I gave her a slow nod, letting her lead me out of the car and towards the building. The driver didn't come with us, taking off back down the street instead.
Inside the floor had mostly been cleared, with just a few randomly placed crates to hint at its previous function. I could see a set of stairs leading up to what I could only assume were once the foreman's offices. This is where Rosalind led us, across the floor and up the stairs. That it had been refurbished at some point was obvious. In it's current state it looked more like an apartment, albeit a sparsely furnished one.
Gesturing to the door that led further into the makeshift apartment, she looked at me. "There's a bathroom through that room, and you should be able to find some clothes that fit you at least nominally." Her face pulled into a grimace. "The fact that they made you sit through all that in the state you're in is a tragedy, not to mention gross misconduct." I had to look down at myself to register what she meant. While some had come off under that chemical spray earlier, it was still obvious I was covered in grime from the locker.
Just that simple reminder made me shudder uncontrollably, so I hastened to follow her instructions. The door led into a bedroom, complete with queen bed, dresser, and desk. I was tempted to rummage through the clothes to take stock of what they had, but that sounded like a bad idea with the state I was in. Instead I locked the door behind me and made a bee line for what I could only assume was the bathroom. Like everything else it was sparse, almost ascetic in nature. Still, it had everything I needed to finally clean myself of the nightmare I had endured.
I don't know how long I stayed in the shower. Long enough that I scrubbed my skin pink and the water ran cold. The whole thing had been the most bizarre experience yet. Some distance down and in the wall, I could feel the water come up through the pipes, then out the shower head, through the air, and down my skin. It pooled at my feet momentarily before flowing down the drain and back into the pipes to be carried away again, washing away soap and dirt with it. I found if I focused a little I could even see all of the particulates in the water, the bits of iron it picked up from the pipes and natural minerals I couldn't identify off the top of my head.
Being naked of everything but a towel in a strange place was nervewracking, so as soon as I was out of the shower I rushed to dry myself and head back into the bedroom. The dresser there was pretty barren, containing only a few sets of cheap department store clothes. There were sweats though, and underwear still in the packaging, which I was more than grateful for. Once everything was on I took a deep breath before heading back into the room where my mom and Rosalind were.
As soon as I enter the room, whatever conversation the two of them were having stopped. Mom looked slightly worried, which made me worried, but she seemed to relax a little when Rosalind reached out to pat her on the shoulder. The two stood up, and Rosalind beckoned to me. "Come, let's do this downstairs. Just in case."
It took me a minute to parse what she meant by that. We were about halfway down the stairs when Armsmaster's words came back to me; surely with the car ride and my shower we were well past the half hour the sedatives were supposed to last. But when I cast about with my new senses, I couldn't find a single spark. Why? This was all so confusing, couldn't these damn powers at least come with a manual if they were going to ruin my life? Well, if my life could get any more ruined than what the trio had already put me through.
There was a stack of plastic chairs near one of the crates, those type that schools pull into the auditorium for plays and stuff, ones you can just look at and immediately know they're going to be uncomfortable. Still, they would be a step up from sitting on the dirty concrete. We set up with me and mom next to each other, with Rosalind across from us. We all took our seats and for a moment just stared at each other.
"Perhaps we should start with a proper introduction. My name is Rosalind Sinclair, and my organization does a lot of activity around the university campus. It's very nice to meet you Taylor."
"Your organization?" I had to admit I was a little suspicious; with how unexpectedly my meeting with the so called good guys went, I wasn't sure who I could trust.
Her eyes flicked to mom briefly before she nodded at me. "Yes, my organization. We're called the National Animity Foundation, and we work on behalf of capes to ensure their rights are protected and their abilities aren't abused." She grimaced. "Especially since the government has seen fit to strip them of their ability to hold office entirely."
"So...why are you here? What does this have to do with me? Other than the obvious."
At that she smiled. "Well for one, because your mom asked me to. She may try to wave it off as nothing, but there have been a few times we've gotten into a pickle with the administration that she helped us out of. It was an easy choice to make, repaying her help a little."
Mom snorted. "We both know the University President is a pompous ass, and I'm more than glad to put him in his place every once in a while. Still, I am very grateful for your help today."
Ms. Sinclair sent me an amused look that almost said see? I told you. But then she fell back into a more somber expression. "The other reason," she said, "Is that we were hoping to make you an offer." Mom immediately went tense, and Ms. Sinclair held her hands up in a placating gesture. "Hear me out Annette. You saw how the PRT reacted to Taylor earlier. They're scared of her. They want to control her. They suspect she's powerful and they'll do anything they have to in order to use her like the weapon they see her as."
I felt my throat constrict, brought back to being covered in that foam, helpless and clueless as to what they were going to do with me. She was right, they thought I was dangerous. I remembered the look on Piggot's face, the venom in her voice and the implicit threat of her last comment. That was a woman who would rather see me dead than on the opposite side.
I blinked a couple times, realised someone was calling my name. My mom was crouched in front of me, shaking my shoulder gently. "I need you to breathe little owl, deep even breaths, okay?" I did as she asked. It took a few moments, but eventually my pulse stopped pounding in my ears. Almost all that work was undone when I realised motes on darkness danced around us, occasionally catching a crate or the floor. I scrambled out of my chair, away from my mom, sick with what could have happened.
She called after me, stricken, but Ms. Sinclair caught her arm and said something to her. I couldn't hear what it was, too far away at that point having backed up until I was sure I could no longer sense them. My mom looked torn, but stayed behind as Ms. Sinclair approached me. When she neared the edge of my senses I let out a strained "Stop." Surprisingly, she listened. Knowing she wasn't going to get any closer allowed me relax just the slightest bit.
In that same gentle voice she used when I first met her, she spoke to me. "It's okay Taylor, everybody is okay. I didn't mean to scare you, I just wanted to impress upon you the way the PRT views you. This lack of control must be scary, huh?" I nodded at her hesitantly. "We can help with that. The offer is this: a team. NAF is putting together a team to better oppose wrongdoings by the PRT and their Protectorate lackeys. We can offer the same protection, the same chance to learn and train as the Wards. None of the chains of being under government control, no contract to keep you from changing your mind and leaving."
I looked at mom, who was chewing her cheek. She had come up behind Ms. Sinclair sometime during her spiel. The worried look on her face told me she wasn't thrilled with this idea, but the fact that she wasn't speaking up against it said she wasn't entirely opposed either. She knew we both had a strong sense of justice, and more than anything else today the PRT's treatment of me had probably made her furious. Ms. Sinclair caught my gaze and gave me a small smile. "You don't have to decide now, you don't even have to decide this week; all I ask is that you at least meet the person who will be running the team, and maybe your potential teammates."
I stewed over the idea for a minute, processing. She wasn't asking for a commitment, or even an immediate answer. And honestly meeting this mysterious team leader sounded like a good idea. At the very least it might give me some insight on what kind of dynamic the team would have. "Okay. When would this meeting be?"
"Best to do these sorts of things as soon as possible. If you don't feel it's too soon, how about tomorrow."
I was reluctant, but I nodded. She was right, it would be best. Maybe it would mean getting home sooner too. Ms. Sinclair looked very satisfied as she had a short conversation with mom before bidding us a goodnight and heading out of the building. I had calmed down enough that my power wasn't firing off anymore by this point, and the exhaustion was setting back in. That was still weird to think about, 'my power.' If you had told me at the beginning of the day day that I was going to get bullied into becoming a parahuman, I never would have believed you. I was pulled out of my bitter thoughts by my mom calling for me.
"Come on Taylor, I think it's well past time for us to catch some sleep." She took my hand and led me upstairs, ending a day that I thought never would.
Chapter 2: Comprehension 1.2
hey, finally a second chapter! As I mentioned in WNQSD, I've been living a hermit's life literally in a tent out in the woods (it's a nice tent), which accounts for most of the delay. I started focusing on putting this together as soon as I posted that last WNQSD chapter, but it still took me a while to catch enough moments where I had energy and motivation to actually write.
I was hoping to keep a steady 5k/chap word count, but this seemed like a good point to break at instead of continuing on with the team introduction! only a thousand words short.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
just to be up front, the 'to be tagged' pairing is not Taylor/Censor. She's a little too old for her with how the timelines worked out, this is just a (mostly) harmless crush that Taylor is developing on a pretty woman who is paying her attention