Note: This one is for fun. A few characters will be OOC, Sophia for instance. This is wildly an AU in the Wormverse. Thanks ahead of time for taking the time to jot something afterward.
"Jesus," Dad whispered as he rounded the corner into the kitchen and saw me finishing off my oatmeal. "Morning, kiddo. Most important meal of the day, huh?"
I let my eyes drop to the high protein four egg omelet, five rashers of bacon, and two pieces of wheat toast that I hadn't gotten to as of yet. Pushing the bowl aside I returned a subdued smile.
"Yours is keeping warm in the oven."
Without another word he went over and pulled out the two scrambled eggs, a single piece of bacon, and a single piece of toast. He didn't get nearly the workout that I put myself through every morning, but it looked somewhat pathetic compared to what I'd been eating since I returned from Yamatai.
Keeping my recently acquired superpowers from his notice was a becoming a bitch and a half. He already knew, of course, but I did pretty much anything not to flaunt them or give him any reason to suggest that I join the Wards. Outwardly, I didn't appear much different. I mean, I was fifteen and still technically growing. With the overly healthy eating, and the training room I've built myself down in the basement since I got back excuses the weight I've put on. I mean I wasn't bulked out or anything, but there was a definite difference between the girl that left at the beginning of summer and the one that returned a few weeks later.
Gone was the overly weedy, malnourished, flat-chested teen, and in her place was someone that looked like they'd been through something. What that something was could have been anyone's guess. I still sported a number of scars only three of which he'd seen: the cuts on my upper right arm and left shoulder, not to mention my left forearm and the ragged teeth marks from an overly vicious wolf. What he hadn't noticed was where I was impaled by a particular large piece of rebar, right under my rib cage, and the nasty scar left over from where I pulled a barbed arrow out of my left upper thigh. Strangely enough, I bled more from the thigh. That's why I had to cauterize that one in particular.
There's nothing more painful, in my experience, than sticking a red hot arrowhead into an open wound, all by myself, so I wouldn't bleed to death.
They say that the teenage years are some of the most trying times in a person's life. I'm here to say that they, whoever they are, don't know jack shit about trying times. I couldn't even imagine Emma Barnes stranded on Yamatai with me. She would have been dead before we reached the beachhead, like most of the crew of Endurance.
"What's your plans for after school?" Dad asked as he made himself comfortable across from me at the table.
"I need to pick up a few things from the store."
I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about returning to the monotony of Winslow High, but my therapist kept going on and on about returning to the familiar things in life – like I wanted to in the first place.
There's something to be said about being treated like a punchline for the duration of my freshman year. I had high hopes of toeing the line, dreams of gaining superpowers one day and becoming a hero. Joining the Protectorate was my goal. Like thousands of kids across the nation, I didn't really understand what it took to get those powers. Nobody really went into details online or anywhere else for that matter.
For me it was being marooned on a supposedly deserted jungle island in the Pacific and then being kidnapped, hung upside down in a smelly fishing net, and left waiting to die at the hands of some insane cultists. It was the worst day of my life – well, the worst at the time. That was a cakewalk compared to the days after when my life took a decided left turn into grimdarksville.
"Mmm," Dad commented after taking a bite of eggs. "Need any money?"
I shook my head. "I'm good."
He gave me one of those fatherly looks he's been honing over the last six weeks. "Taylor, if you don't save any of the inheritance Conrad left for…"
My fork came to an abrupt halt and shook a little at the mention of Roth's first name. I had to bite out, "I'm fine, Dad."
He took the hint and left the issue lay. Roth's name was a taboo subject around the Hebert household, not for anything he had done to me. It was just the opposite, in fact. He gave his life so that I could survive. Even the therapist couldn't get me to talk about him. For someone that took an axe to the back in order to save me from being skewered, Roth deserved better. The problem was I still wasn't able to eke out a single syllable where he was concerned without my throat closing up at the beginning of a panic attack.
Trying my best to get breakfast over with, I started shoveling bacon in my mouth. It was better this way. We'd move on. Contrary to what my therapist says, everything wasn't better when I talked about it. Bringing up those days on Yamatai only caused more grief and made me feel even more like a monster. Superpowers were supposed to help you arrest the bad guy so he could go to jail.
They weren't supposed to help you smack a guy across the face with the butt of your shotgun, so when he landed on the ground in a daze you'd have time to pump another shell and shoot him in the throat. They weren't supposed to help you see in low light in order to send an arrow thirty yards across the cavern to stealthily hit another guy from behind, between the second and third cervical vertebrae, severing the spinal cord so he wouldn't have the slightest chance of calling for help.
The eggs turned to ash in my mouth and my appetite left me, forgotten. Thankfully I was nearly finished; close enough to where my scraping the remains into the trash wouldn't be noticed too much. I could hear dad sigh again. Maybe he did notice. Maybe I thought I was doing such a great job of hiding my trembling hands when that wasn't the case at all.
"I'm going to head out early."
The excuse sounded lame even to my own ears, but it was too late to take it back. Before I made it out of the kitchen Dad stopped me one last time.
I stiffened and came to a stop. Please don't do this; not right before school.
"I spoke to the principal on Friday and asked her to make sure the teachers crack down on anyone pestering you for details about… well…."
A tight feeling in my chest lessened at yet another attempt from him to make things easier for me.
Dad had gone to bat for me when the PRT wanted to question me in Los Angeles. He even went so far as to tell Armsmaster to 'get the hell off my porch' when the hero showed up in an attempt to recruit me to the Wards. I nearly had an attack right there. What a great way to out someone who desperately wanted to stay out of the spotlight!
The local news had themselves a little field day when I returned home. None of the survivors had anything to say. Jonah, Reyes, and Sam owed me. They knew they wouldn't have made it off that island if it wasn't for me going all murderhobo with virtually every living thing that got in my way. We had plenty of time to get our stories straight, and it was the three of them that told it. With Dad telling the authorities to fuck off every five minutes there wasn't much else to say.
The media ran with it: big storm, shipwrecked, hostile cannibal inhabitants, Taylor saved us, the end. If you want any more details then go look for yourself. The PRT got the more detailed story and I got outed to them by one of their healers while they were taking care of my injuries. They've been after my recruitment ever since.
Turning around, I flashed Dad a small smile. "Thanks."
I wasn't holding out any hope for help from the faculty, but the thought of him doing what he could to make my recovery more stress-free made enduring the coming day that much easier.
While I hadn't been contacted by the press for over three weeks, I was still wary about going around in public with anything less than an oversized hoodie virtually covering my entire head. Nobody pointed me out on the bus; in fact I seemed to have returned to the non-entity status I used to dread only a couple of months ago. Even the few people that arrived early at Winslow hadn't pointed me out or given any indication that I was worth their time.
I was almost hopeful. Then again, Murphy and his Laws hate me with the burning passion of a thousand hells. It was probably only a matter of time until someone shot their finger out and screamed. Just to reassure myself I brushed my palm across the ASP hidden by my belt at the small of my back. It might technically be illegal to carry one, especially in school, but I wasn't going anywhere outside my home without the bare minimum of protection. Hidden pockets located on and in my backpack held a few canisters of pepper spray and two small punch daggers.
The screecher air horn, in my hoodie pocket, with my hand wrapped around it, was my first line of defense. It was legal, and would be impossible for any faculty to ignore if Emma and Sophia started up their bullying crap again.
I tried to go with less; I really did. Even this small amount was pushing things. The PRT confiscated my Berettas, my Ithaca 37, and the one that hurt the worst, my Ultimax 100 Mark 3. God, I loved that machine gun. I still have my axe. Nobody could pry that out of my hands until I was home and in the shower. Even then it was resting nearby, on the back of the toilet, just a foot away from the tub, with the handle in a quick grab position.
It was sad to know that what I carried on me was considered illegal, especially on school grounds, when I could conceivably open carry a pair of pistols pretty much anywhere else, even without a permit. There wasn't an age limit on open carry in New Hampshire. The problem was minors weren't allowed to purchase guns. I was still working on my dad to buy them for me, which was perfectly legal. No luck so far on that front.
Of course, people would be pointing and shrieking that the mass-murder was currently armed to the teeth, and I did have an issue with being recognized. I never said that my neurosis was consistent. Besides, I'd take a little attention in order to feel safe once in a while.
Granted, I've lived for fifteen years in Brockton Bay without a single life threatening incident. I haven't fired off the pepper spray Dad started buying me even once. Staying in crowded areas and following the most basic safety rules should have been enough, but it wasn't anymore. Just walking down the hall in school I felt the fine hairs on the back of my neck lift, giving me the impression that someone behind me was watching. Every ten feet or so I casually spun around or looked over my shoulder to find nobody there. Paranoia sucks.
When I entered Mrs. Knott's Computer class which doubled as a homeroom for me and typically twenty-one other students, I paused quickly and scanned the place: three windows on the wall across from the entrance, two were locked and one was opened a few inches to let out the stifling heat; five rows of five desks apiece, fourteen inch generic laptops secured to each desk; a single teacher's desk at the head of the class, occupied by one early-forties mannish looking woman with a reasonably kind smile on her face. So far, nothing out of the ordinary.
"Good morning. I'm Mrs. Knott, and who might you be?"
After running my tongue over my overly dry lips I told her, "Taylor Hebert."
Knott's face froze for a split second in recognition. Her smile faltered, but she recovered faster than most people did when they met me after Yamatai. The first thing I noticed when she started thumbing through the stack of schedules to pull mine out was the movement of her throat, a hard swallow.
That immediately put me on alert. She was bordering on being terrified of me. I know Dad said he spoke to the principal. As much as I love the man, he isn't that intimidating unless he's seriously pissed off.
As I've said before, the only people that knew generally about what happened on the island was the PRT. Through them I assumed the Protectorate was notified, and possibly the Wards as well. I didn't see and Protectorate capes around and everyone knew that the Wards went to Arcadia. That should be it. There was no way the staff of Winslow could know that I was the one that killed virtually every person on Yamatai, with the exception of a couple dozen attributed to Roth and the three survivors, maybe.
"Here we are," Knott announced in a false overly happy voice. "And by the looks of things I'll have you in my first period computer class. Take a seat wherever you like and you may surf the web until the first bell."
I narrowed my eyes at her suspiciously for a moment before reaching for the schedule with my free hand. "Thanks."
The back corner, closest to the door was my destination. There was no way I could have anyone at my back for any length of time. Frankly, I knew I'd have issues moving from class to class with so many students filling the halls, but that was an issue for later.
Fifteen minutes later and the room started filling up. I grit my teeth when all three people that made my social life such a hell over the previous school year showed up. It wasn't that I felt threatened by them in the slightest. They were the ones I blamed for getting me into this entire mess to begin with, Emma specifically. If I wasn't completely starving for attention and a change of scenery, I would never have considered Roth's offer.
The trip to some mythical island to film a stupid reality show was supposed to be a way to decompress from my freshman year. I'd earn some money, learn a little bit about what it takes to run a boat and even earn a credit on the show itself as a gofer or something equally lame. It's easy to see how I mustered the motivation to kill a number of villains; all I had to do was plaster Emma's face on every one of them, and then it was frighteningly simple to bury my axe into each of their skulls. I don't know how many morbid fantasies I fulfilled.
Oh, wait; yes I do: 433.
Some would think that I probably should have worked my anger out by this point.
The first bell rang and I X'd out of the third chess game I was about to checkmate the computer on when Sophia Hess took the seat to my left.
She just gave me a casual glance, probably not even able to penetrate the shadow my hood gave off which revealed only the lower half of my face.
"Where do you think she is?" Emma asked as she took the seat directly in front of her while Madison took the back seat another row over.
Sophia bristled. "I said drop the issue."
Something must have passed between the two of them, because Emma turned her attention directly to me and immediately frowned.
The crowded hallway after class wasn't too god-awful as long as I was able to keep to one wall for the majority of the time. Geometry was boring. World Issues was a joke. Lunch outside in the cold was somewhat peaceful, but I knew it wouldn't last. During it all I could see each and every faculty member keeping an eye on me as I moved about, and it wasn't in a protective way.
Something new this year was the apparent issuing of personal radios to the staff. I suppose this was to keep in contact with the office. It wasn't until third period that I noticed the wireless earbud when Gladly's fell out and he had to put it back in his ear.
It was a toss-up as to why they had them. Was it the presence of the E88 and the ABBs younger members or was it something more personal where I personally was concerned? If I compounded the wary and frightened looks along with the radios, I could only come to one conclusion. Like I said before, paranoia is a bitch.
The three terrors only popped back up again in two other classes and there wasn't one word said to me, not one push, not one semi-private conversation where I could accidently overhear them talking shit about me, and not one purposeful mishap involving any of my books, chairs, backpack, or person. It was almost as if they'd been warned to keep their distance or something, but only the heroes and the PRT were supposed to know anything.
My last class of the day was one of my electives: Strength Training. Physical Education was only a freshman requirement in New Hampshire, but a number of electives were offered for the upper years. If I was going to be stuck in school, missing one of my daily workout sessions, then I made it a point to include it in the mix.
From the materials the PRT gave my Dad, I knew that some capes have compulsions that fucked with their heads. I could blame my paranoia on the events that occurred on Yamatai, but I wasn't so sure about my constant desire to virtually live in the basement doing any manner of physical exercise. Maybe it was the fear of not being strong or fast enough if something like Yamatai happened again. All I know is that when I push myself working out, everything fades into the background. All my issues take a back seat to what I'm doing at the moment. I can forget.
Coach Billings had the radio; he also had a clipboard and didn't give me a second look, nothing different than he gave any other student. For that I was somewhat thankful. Officially, he was my favorite teacher for that action alone.
"You'll team-up in pairs," he said before looking down at the board. "One of you will be a spotter. Everyone makes a circuit around the room; three reps of ten each. Listen for your names, grab your partner and go dress out. Begin when you return with your partner. Anyone tries to go without a spotter will find themselves out of this class."
I grimaced. The rule was practical and probably part of some school district rule or something. That didn't mean I had to like it.
The fine hairs on my neck stood up again, causing me to look over my shoulder while the coach called out names.
"Hebert and Hess," he said at the exact moment I met her eyes while Sophia was staring at me.
I fucking hate alphabetical order bullshit.
My senses were screaming at me not to slip the ASP into my pack on the way to the locker room. I couldn't take the chance that Sophia would turn me if she saw I had a weapon. My more rational brain told me that I could still take her. A fist to the throat, followed up with the proper leveraged twist to the jaw and from the back of the head while she choked to death on her own blood and she wouldn't be a threat anymore. It would be easy, way too easy.
If I wasn't sure about Sophia's heterosexuality I might have been creeped out by how her eyes were raking my body. For that matter, I remembered I wasn't exactly sure about her preferences. It wasn't like I'd ever seen her with anyone but Emma and Madison. Yes, my mind just went there. Ugh.
The only thing that stopped me from imagining that coupling and then throwing up a little in my mouth was that I noticed she had her eyes on my scars right before she noted I'd caught her out.
"Looks like someone had a fucked up summer." When I ignored her, she pushed just a little more. "Are those teeth marks?"
I glanced down at my left forearm. "Wolf. I had to let it get in close before I disemboweled it with an ice axe."
Her eyes widened slightly while she took a better look at the scarring. "No shit?"
Firming my lips up, I gave her a menacing smile. "They're scrappy like that, the nimble ones. You have to let them get real close, confident that they've got an edge on you, let them smell the blood. They think their buddies, their pack, will have their back on the easy prey. Then they're wondering why their insides are all over their outsides. They've fucked up and figured out it's too late to back off; they're dead and they know it. Life here in high school is kind of like that, don't you think?"
Sophia's lips parted ever so slightly in surprise, but she'd been at the top of the heap far too long for it to really get to her.
"Did you just…." Her mouth stretched out into a bright grin. "Goddamn, Hebert – balls of steel. Great big, fifty pound…"
I wouldn't let her think this was some kind of boasting on my part. Everything I said was true. That's why I turned away and made for the circuit room before she could finish. She wasn't worth the effort it would take to give her my attention right then; not even close. Oddly enough, I didn't feel the least bit threatened with her at my back.
To warm up at home, I'd run on the secondhand treadmill I bought off a neighbor that never used it for more than a coatrack. Winslow had three stationary bikes that were already in use, so I moved to the pull up bar as I finished taping my wrists. It was mainly for cover. I wasn't too worried about getting injured, or I should say staying injured. Part of my power seemed to be rapid healing; at least that's what the cape who helped me in LA said. That explained how I took the rebar to the abdomen and still managed to plow through all those villains on Yamatai. What it didn't explain was why I scarred so badly afterward.
Sophia took her place beside me at her own bar. She didn't waste any time jumping up and pulling herself into position for the first set. I matched her without much effort. The last few weeks have really improved my overall conditioning. It probably helped that I still didn't weight that much.
"So, the meek little mouse is gone?"
I grimaced and ignored her, concentrating on my timing and trying my best to just zone out.
That didn't stop her from running off at the mouth.
"Good to see. Looks like you've been working out too."
With an annoyed sigh I shot her a look. "This is the one thing I really like doing, since I've been back. I'm not letting you take it away from me this time. So, do you think you can shut the fuck up and let me concentrate?"
"Hebert!" Coach yelled from across the room. "Less yapping and more working!"
I dropped from my bar after the first set and glanced over at him with an annoyed scowl. He took one look at me and I watched as his eyes flicked briefly to Sophia and then back down at his clipboard. Without wasting any more time I jumped up and grabbed the bar with my right hand and used my left to support the wrist, pulling myself up just as easily as I did with two.
The second rep went by without comment then I switched hands and finished off the last set with my left.
Bench press was next. It was one of only two resistance machines in the room; the rest were free weights. Sophia went first this time, setting the pin up a few notches from the guy before her. What was left was a respectable eighty pounds, probably three-quarters of her body weight. I stood on one side of the bench and waited until she was in position and ready. Three sets later and she had a very light sheen of sweat going. Odds were that Sophia was trying to intimidate me or something.
When she hopped up and shook her arms out, I moved the pin back down to add forty pounds. There was an amused grin on her face as if she knew something I didn't. Coach had a frown on his face. The clipboard was gone and he'd taken to walking around the room correcting posture and grips.
"This isn't a competition, Hebert," he said.
When I took my position I looked up at him. "The only person I compete against is myself."
"Good attitude to have with weights, but a hundred and twenty…." He trailed off as I pushed up without any visible strain.
When I finished my second set I noticed he was obviously a little impressed.
"Hess, add another twenty." He saw that I was going to complain. "I'm a professional trainer, Hebert. You're barely trying, and you're not even breaking a sweat."
"Good to go, Coach," replied Sophia.
Setting my hands back on the bar I started to lift and I knew it wasn't a measly twenty pounds she added. Sophia had a small smirk on her lips, obviously wanting me to fail. I couldn't be seen outpacing her in front of all these people. She had a rep to maintain. Fuck her and her rep.
Doubling down, I concentrated on the bar and pushed with a good amount of effort, smoothly lifting and returning, lifting and returning.
"That's more like it," Coach added. "I better see you pushing yourself like this in the future."
I never got to see what Sophia set the weights at before she had a chance to move the pin once I was finished with my last set. Then she seemed a lot more circumspect. Maybe after this showing she would think twice about screwing with me like she did the previous year. Then again, this is Sophia I'm talking about. Escalation might be more her thing.
She was the first out of the shower and I didn't see her again until I entered the locker room as she was tying off her shoes. One moment she looked confident, as if she had a plan of action, then she saw the scar on my thigh. It wasn't so much like something that was sewn up as much as it looked as if I'd been branded. I didn't even wait for her to ask this time.
"Barbed arrow to the thigh; I had to cauterize it myself while the guy who did it watched."
Sophia raised both eyebrows with suspicion. "He made you do that?"
I chuckled before opening my locker. "No. He rushed me. I didn't have a chance to shoot back, so I pulled the arrow out and shoved it through his neck. He was pretty much laying there while I took care of my leg. Have you ever heard a person drown when there's no water within a hundred yards?"
It was like she didn't understand the question for a moment, perhaps a single second, before she twigged as what I was describing. Locker rooms used to intimidate me. There were so many other girls that were so much further along puberty than I was. Before Yamatai, I'd pretty much consigned myself to the realm of the underdeveloped: no hips, no butt, and no breasts to speak of. The long curly hair that I inherited from my Mom was the one thing I was really proud of. Things were changing and I was finally starting to fill out a little, but that wasn't what had me ultimately at ease being underdressed in front of someone as developed as Sophia. It was knowing that I was better than her – finally. And she knew it.
Maybe I went a little too far with the second story. One was more than enough. Dammit! I wanted to intimidate her for once! It was the twitch of her lips when she got up to leave that alerted me that I'd screwed up somehow. At this point, I had no idea how, but stacking her weird behavior on top of all the strange things that were already going on at school, something was most certainly up at Winslow. That's why I got out of there as quick as humanly possible.
My early warning neck hair thing was pretty much constantly going, but there was nobody out of the ordinary in the area, so I took note that my paranoia was starting to go into overdrive.
The thirty-something blonde lady at the bus stop, reading the paper, eyed me before returning to her business. The redhead kid sitting sideways on his seat in the bus, poking at his smartphone, gave me a wink. The bus missed a couple of its scheduled runs. I thought the first one was a mistake, but when I caught a glimpse of a blonde, freckle-faced girl waving it down and then running after us before giving up, I figured enough was enough and tugged the exit cord several times.
I didn't bother waiting for the thing to stop; I just made my way up front.
"This isn't a scheduled stop," the goatee wearing driver said curtly.
Taking advantage of his distraction while driving, I leaned in. "Yeah, I noticed you missed your last two. You can either stop the bus or I can kick your ass for kidnapping me."
I caught a glimpse into the driver's mirror that hung above his station, and saw the blonde woman had risen from her seat and the kid had his full attention on both of us.
"Stop the bus now."
"I told you this was a stupid idea," the woman said as she approached warily.
Backing up toward the door I slipped my hand behind my back and pulled the ASP, flipping it out in a well-practiced movement.
"Shit," the kid whispered. "Can we please not poke Killdozer."
It was probably my eyes that informed him he spoke just a little bit too loud.
"What did you call me?"
"Dennis," the blonde spoke in a very calm tone. "Would you please stop talking."
Pointing the ASP at him I nearly yelled. "What did he call me?"
That was probably a stupid move on my part. The goatee guy hit the brakes and snapped his hand out for my wrist at the same time. I grabbed the closest steel rail to stop myself from flying out the front windshield.
When we bounced back to a full stop I let go and threw everything I had into a left cross to Mr. Goatee's face, landing it with a resounding crack! His head bounced off the window to the left before he slumped onto the seat.
The blonde raised her hands. "Okay, everyone stop and take a deep breath. Miss Hebert, nobody is kidnapping you. We just arranged for a direct path to your destination so I could approach you in public, so you wouldn't feel threatened. We did it this way so no civilians would be involved… to lessen the chance you'd take this the wrong way. As I told my associate there, it was a bad idea."
PRT most likely, but that didn't explain the kid. He couldn't be much older than me – fuck; I'm so stupid. He's obviously a Ward and these had to be either PRT or Protectorate capes in their civilian guises. While that was all well and good – or not – it wasn't the question that was still burning in the front of my mind.
"Why did he call me… that name?"
I thought I kept myself rather cool, in spite of the situation. My voice, however, sounded somewhat threatening.
The blonde sighed with irritation. "It was a new PRT recruit. Once your kill count on Yamatai became known… it was a nickname that got circulated. He's already been reprimanded, but you know how these things go. It's not on any official documents. Your temporary designation is Juggernaut."
When she saw my wince at the implications of that name, the blonde covered herself quickly. "I can change that if you prefer something different. It's a paper-pusher thing, Miss Hebert. They feel they have to label each new parahuman as soon as possible. It's not something I'm particularly fond of, but…"
A knot started building up in the back of my throat. "No, K-Killdozer is more apt. I'm not unstoppable. I just kill people real well."
Reaching back I hit the release for the door. The blonde took a step forward.
"Miss Hebert… Taylor. I've been where you are. That's the whole reason I'm here. I was younger than you when I killed my first man, and I didn't stop there."
I firmed my lips and took a step down. "Good for you. I'm already in therapy. I haven't hurt anyone since I've been back… well, except for him, and he started it with kidnapping thing. Leave me alone. I'm not saying this ever again. If you come after me one more time like this then I'm coming after you. Am I clear?"
Her shoulders slumped. "Crystal."
The redhead just nodded and gave me thumbs up with a very relieved look on his face.
"What do you mean? You want to see other people?" Emma whined.
I may have made a serious mistake making friends with this chick. "I just need some space, alright? I'm in some serious shit with all this Wards crap. I can't be doing the stuff we did before, especially now."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look, I'm on a special mission. If I can pull it off then it means that my probation is off the table. If I screw it up then you can kiss my ass goodbye – fucking two years and change in juvie. That means I gotta be cool – no fucking around, and I gotta land… fuck."
Emma face screwed up and I knew she figured it out before she opened her mouth. "This is about Taylor, isn't it? That's why you told me we're not picking on her this year."
If it was only that simple. "The reason I told you not to fuck with her is because she will end you. Period. More went on at that island on Japan than you know."
She scoffed. "There's not an island on Japan. Yamatai is south of there in the Pacific. And what's the big deal anyway? So she crashed some boat and spent a few days without a decent shower. How is that such a big deal? Why does she get all the attention?"
Girl's got serious issues. "Just drop it, okay. I can't talk about it."
Why do I do this to myself? It's like a compulsion to string little miss perfect along, feeding her tidbits of information, making her whine all that much more.
"Piggot made me sign shit. I can't talk about it or they put my ass in a hole, okay?"
Emma sucked in a breath. "She's a cape! Holy shit! Taylor mmmmph!"
I had to cover her stupid megaphone-like mouth before she announced it to the world. Maybe if I covered her nose a little more… it could be an accident. Nobody would have to know. I could just lay her down and walk away after. Hell, maybe they'd even blame it on Taylor.
"Hey, what the hell?"
I looked around to make sure we were alone. "Look, if I tell you, you can't say a single thing to anyone. It would mean my ass, and if it came down to me or you, who do you think I'd pick?"
She froze, thinking it over, but her damn curiosity won in the end.
"Fine, I won't tell anyone."
"No texts, no writing it in your little pink diary either. No nothing," I pressed.
I caught her off guard with that one.
"I don't have…," she stopped when I narrowed my eyes at her. "Fine, I won't write it in my diary or anywhere else. Now spill!"
With an annoyed sigh I looked around again. "A lot of shit went down on that island. It's been hushed up, because there was some super parahuman there or some shit – S-class."
Her eyes bugged. "Really?"
"With all the Endbringer crap they wanted to make sure the public doesn't hear about it – some chick that could control the weather, like on a giant scale – lightning, hurricanes and shit."
She got all confused. "I didn't think that was possible?"
With a shrug I leaned back. "It's not supposed to be, but there you go. She had a small army there defending her and there was some other cult around… cannibals or some shit – another couple hundred of guys."
"What? How… how did Taylor and those other three make it off the island alive? Shouldn't they be all crunch-n-munch poo right now?"
What the fuck? This girl has some serious issues.
I guess when she saw my expression she felt an explanation was in order.
"You know how when you eat too much crunch-n-munch your…."
I couldn't take any more of that shit. "Emma, shut up."
After rubbing my forehead and trying to get rid of that image of Emma getting up off the pot I said, "They kidnapped her after the boat crash. At least that's what the other survivors said. They were going to have a barbeque that night or something. Taylor was the main course. Chick took issue with it and killed'em."
"Huh?" It's like something didn't click in her head. "Taylor killed someone?"
I snorted. "Emma, Taylor killed them all. Everyone. The only thing left living on the island were a few deer, scared as shit and shaking in the bushes because they thought they were next."
She hung on to every word in that sentence and even froze a good five seconds after. "If you didn't want to tell me, you don't have to make stuff up, Sophia."
A laugh escaped my mouth – totally involuntarily and shit. "I'm not fucking with you. You remember seeing that axe thing she was holding? And the bow? She went all summer camp massacre on their asses. Some dumbass in the PRT nicknamed her Killdozer. Got his shit busted down to cleaning toilets in Alaska or something. Fucking Killdozer, Emma. They name Endbringers shit like Behemoth and Leviathan. Makes you think they're all fucking big and hard to kill and shit. But her, the PRT wound up naming her Juggernaut. You know like some kinda unstoppable mother-fucker! Damn! I want to go see what's left of that island!"
"But…." Yeah, Emma couldn't even think of something to say.
"They say she burned half of it down. I even talked to her in Strength Training. Next time you get close, check out her left forearm. Chick let a wolf gnaw on it so she could take one of those climbing axes and kill the fucker."
Emma when all white. "You… you sound like it's turning you on!"
"No. Seriously. You're turned… oh god. I think I'm going to be sick."
I smacked the side of her head. "Turn that shit down. I respect her is all. Girl's got game. Ain't no mother-fucker gonna give her shit and walk away with their liver still in their body. So you get me about leaving her alone this year?"
She looked all conflicted. "How many guys did she kill?"
With a shrug I answered, "Last count was 369, but two months later they're still finding bits and pieces that don't match up with the bodies they already found. I mean there were explosions, lakes of lava, a fucking mountain where all sorts of dead bodies could be lying there for nobody to find. I'm guessing mid-four hundreds counting the vaporized ones and shit."
Emma did the seriously loud gulp thing before asking, "W-what's her power?"
I shook my head. "Nobody knows. That's the thing. When they showed up in LA, the PRT took away all her shit: machine gun, shotgun, pistols, but she wouldn't let them take away that axe thing or her bow. That tells me a lot of that shit was up close and personal-like."
We sat there for a little while after that. Emma was probably pissing herself and I was still trying to think of ways to hook-up with the girl… not in that way though.
"Do you have to make friends with her?"
I shook my head. "No, just get her into the Wards somehow, or at the very least get her into the PRT building so she can be looked at, debriefed, that sort of shit, so they can do a threat assessment on her. They don't like unknown capes."
Right then, my PRT phone beeped at me and I pulled it out to read the incoming text.
Armsmaster down. Juggernaut responsible.
Briefing, my office. ASAP. Do not engage subject.
Emma just had to know what was going on. "What? What happened?"
"Hebert just took out Armsmaster."
She sucked in a breath. "He's dead?"
"What? No. She took him down. That means he's injured or knocked out, probably both. Big gigantic, titanium…" I trailed off. "I gotta go."
Emma just nodded, but I had to make sure of something before I left.
"Remember, not a word to anyone, and if you see her just turn around and walk the other way."
I was the last to arrive. Everyone was already dressed out and waiting outside Piggot's office when I got there, Protectorate ENE capes as well, minus Miss Militia. Needless to say shit was standing room only when she called us in.
Miss Militia was behind the desk in Armsmaster's normal position. That was telling. That meant she was in charge, at least for the duration.
"At approximately 3:51 pm local time," Piggot began. She was more red-faced than usual. That told me she'd been yelling at some point in in the last ten minutes. "Armsmaster, Miss Militia, and Clockblocker engaged in an off the books undercover mission to open talks with the parahuman temporarily known as Juggernaut."
I was wondering why Miss Militia had her scarf up, since everyone here already knew her identity. Probably to cover up the embarrassment of having her ass handed to her by a fifteen year old twig of a girl. Well, not so much with the twig thing anymore.
"Events went south after she rightfully assumed she was being kidnapped." Piggot took a moment to breathe. "Needless to say things did not turn out as well as Armsmaster thought they would. He's currently having his jaw wired shut after it was broken in three places, and being tended to for a concussion. He is being suspended for two weeks pending a review board for this ill-advised and unsanctioned mission."
Someone to my right whistled in surprise. I assume it was Assault. Nobody else really had the balls to interrupt Piggot when she was giving a speech.
She glanced to her left and then to the rest of us. "In the interim, you'll look to Miss Militia for your cues. I'm appointing Assault her second and lead with the Wards."
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what you get for disturbing the Director when she's talking. Shit duty watching a bunch of teen superheroes trip over themselves.
"Now, just so there is no misunderstanding. There will be no reprisals against Juggernaut. I'm just waiting for the PR shit-storm that will be crumbling around our heads if this gets out." She let that settle in our heads for a second before eying me. "The staff at Winslow didn't have anything out of the ordinary to say this afternoon. Shadow Stalker, are you ready with your report?"
Crap. "Uh, I haven't had time to write one yet."
"I've seen your idea of a written version. Let's go with an oral presentation. I think we'll get more out of you that way."
Bitch doesn't appreciate the short version. I mean how much can you write about a patrol when you don't meet up with any criminals? Aegis can go on for fifty pages about what routes he takes and how many times he cops a squat during a patrol. Me, one page: went out on patrol on the Docks. Nothing happened, just like every other night. The end. What more is there to say? Fucking kiss ass.
I cleared my throat.
"Hooked up with her in homeroom…." Of course Clockblocker had to butt in.
"You go to school with her? Jesus!"
Piggot sighed with irritation.
"Anyway, she's all closed off. Doesn't talk to anyone. Just moves from class to class all twitchy, like she's expecting the get jumped by urban cannibals and sh… stuff. There wasn't much to see beyond that until we got partnered together in Strength Training, our last class. I can tell you she's got a Brute rating."
That got Piggot's attention. "She displayed her powers?"
I shook my head. "Naw. I pressed eighty pounds and she wanted to one up me so, she took it up to one-twenty. Didn't even strain. Coach came over and noticed she wasn't trying. Told me to up it another twenty, so I upped it to two-twenty when nobody was watching. Bit… chick still pushed it up no problem, but I could tell it took more effort. She could have probably pressed the max if she wanted."
"That's something at least," Piggot commented.
"I also got two stories off the island." That got her attention.
"She actually confided in you?"
I shrugged. "I think she was just showing off, but it matches up with the reports. Wolf chewed on her arm, she killed it with that axe. And that burn scar on her thigh was from an arrow she pulled out. Cauterized it by sticking another arrow inside."
Someone whimpered to my right. Pussy.
Piggot nodded. "Excellent work, Shadow Stalker. Keep it up."
Fuck yeah, bitches! Finally, some appreciation around here. Who's the shit?
"Anyone other than Shadow Stalker approaches Juggernaut when there isn't a life on the line gets suspended and put up on review. Just to let you know, Alaska is in serious need of volunteers for their teams. Don't let your names make the top of the list. Dismissed."
The new Martin Hunter recurve bows were sweet. While compound bows were nice and all, they weren't that easy to carry around. Because of the wound up bow strings, you can't just throw it over your torso and run. Ken's Sports was one of the only stores in town that had an indoor shooting range. One just doesn't go in and buy any random bow I had come to find out. There were different grips, materials, tension strengths, not to mention a variety of styles that simply do not fit certain people, hence the shooting range.
It was right along my third shot with the second bow that I figured out how the PRT knew where I would be. I'd become too predictable, you see. Every afternoon for the past two weeks I had made my way to Ken's, painstakingly going over their stock, not just the bows.
Some might think I'd stay far away from things associated with my time spent on Yamatai. My therapist even warned me about inopportune flashbacks that might trigger violent reactions from me. Yeah, I had those. A smell, a sound, virtually anything could do it, then I'm back on the island and virtually frozen while I relived whatever nightmare my hindbrain decided to revisit. That was it though. I'd freeze up for a few seconds and then reality would fade back in.
Instead of freaking me out, the shop gave me focus. The items I brought back with me from the island were on their last legs. The bow was scratched and marred within an inch if its life, the string frayed and limp. The ice axe was battered and all wobbly. Frankly, I don't see how it lasted as long as it did with the punishment I put it through.
Bit by bit I replaced things, searching for top quality stuff that wouldn't totally break the minor inheritance I was given from Roth. This short of shopping calmed me, giving me something to focus on if life ever decided to drop me into another horror/adventure movie.
So you can imagine my disappointment in locating the perfect bow, only to find out a decent set package would cost me just short of a thousand dollars. Well, that didn't stop me from enjoying the feel of the grip in my hand and the quiet tension from the limbs as I lined up my fifth shot. I let my fingers go and the release was virtually silent. Perfect.
"Damn, Taylor," Carrie the storekeeper said as I hit my fifth bull's-eye of the day. "I think we've found a winner."
With a pained sigh I unstrung the bow and set it on the table. "Yeah. Too bad I can't afford it."
She shrugged good-naturedly. "So start saving. Only the serious hunters are going to be buying the top of the line stuff like this. If you want to put a down payment on it I'll set one to the side for you."
That would mean getting a job. Not a lot of people hire fifteen year old girls. I didn't even have any babysitting experience to put on any sort of resume. So that would definitely mean minimum wage even if I could score some kind of gofer position or something equally entry-level.
"I'll talk to my dad tonight."
Carrie nodded. "Well, we've got three of them, and only the one in the fifty-five pound draw weight, so let me know something by tomorrow and I'll set this aside until then."
Giving her a grateful smile I agreed. "Cool."
"She'll take it now," a girl's voice said from behind Carrie.
I moved to the side a little and saw the semi familiar blonde hair, freckled faced girl that missed the bus from earlier. She had a stack of twenties in her hand and was rapidly counting them out on the counter. My first thought was PRT again, but I didn't take into account her age – a little older than me, but not quite old enough.
"Carrie," she said. "If you could give her all the bells and whistles and a couple of minutes, I'd appreciate it."
Tightening my jaw, I knew Carrie would go for the sale before my personal comfort. "Sure. Twenty-eight inch shafts, right Taylor?"
"Make it a dozen," the girl replied.
Damn. Arrows weren't cheap. I know, because I was learning how to make my own for that reason alone.
When she went off to fill the order, the money girl held a hand up. "I'm not with the PRT, the Protectorate, or the Wards. If you give me fifteen minutes of your time after this, you'll probably never see me again, and I'll be able to help you out with your issues with them."
The offer was temping, but I've learned there is always a price. Before I even had a chance to say no, she cut me off.
"All you have to do is listen. I'll even answer any question you have after. Fifteen minutes, Taylor. For a top of the line kit like this it's not asking much, is it?"
I wasn't proud, and I really wanted that bow. "Fine, but I'm not joining any team."
She shot me an odd looking grin after that, almost predatory-like. "Sounds perfect to me."
What the hell? Why would anyone drop well over a thousand dollars for fifteen minutes of talking at me? Well, gift horse and all that. Ten minutes later I was walking out the door, loaded down with a brand new set up, and the girl was leading me to the café two doors down.
"Coffee," she asked. "No, you're a tea person. Pick a private table and we'll start the clock when I get there."
She assumed a lot. In the end it was my curiosity that got the better of me. I figured it was better to know who the unknown player was that wanted a piece of me this time. Since everything was supposed to be secret, this didn't bode well for the future.
A couple of minutes later, a cup of black tea was set in front of me and the girl started loading her coffee with sugar while I took note of the time.
"Let me start by helping you out. First thing is, the only way you're going to get the PRT off your case is to go in and give them something, anything really."
I sighed with irritation, but she held up a hand.
"I know, you're a private person and you just want to be left alone, but they aren't going to let you until you tell them how you made it off Yamatai with only a few minor wounds, leaving 380 bodies behind, not to…," she paused and tilted her head with that damn smile again. "There were more, weren't there? Wow. Anyway, not to mention the deal with the S-class threat you ended."
I shifted and took a sip of the tea.
"They don't like loose ends, but more than that, the PRT doesn't know what to make of you. They need a threat assessment, and right now they're flying blind."
"I'm no threat," I shot.
"To the average joe blow off the street, I agree. But you're an unknown quantity in a world that literally can't deal with anything more than it already has. Endbringers, Slaughterhouse 9, blah, blah, blah. You're a wild card. If the Docks get torched by Lung tomorrow, are you saying you wouldn't go after him to protect yourself or your dad from a future threat?"
Setting the cup aside I checked my watch. Damn. Time moves really slow when you want it to just speed by. "Twelve minutes."
She didn't even blink, as if she had this whole conversation already planned out to the second.
"My advice is to go in give them a very basic series of events, and tell them half of what you're capable of, maybe less. No physical testing, nothing in writing, and definitely don't sign anything. Barter your friend's pistols for the information. They'll give them to you if you push the issue. They're yours anyway and you'll get them eventually… maybe a year or two down the line. By then they'll already be rusted out from not being cleaned, and they'll be virtually useless. All that sea air and overuse on the island… not good for gun metal."
I was starting to get twitchy again. She shouldn't know details like this.
"How do you know so much?" I asked point blank. "Who are you with?"
"My employer provides me with intel. I take it from there. The fact of the matter is that we're on your side. You want to live the quiet life, we'll be backing you. Frankly he doesn't want you out on the streets messing up the balance. He wants what happened on Yamatai to stay nice and quiet. That means we need to make the PRT happy and you happy as well. Otherwise things get shaken up and not in a good way."
I was starting to understand the situation a little more. "So the bow and stuff is a bribe?"
She winced in good humor. "Not at all. It was the price to get you to sit down with me for a chat, a meeting of the minds. You get what you want and we get a chance to make things go a little smoother. Armsmaster will probably be quietly stepping down because of what happened a little while ago."
The girl grinned again. "You didn't know? He was the one driving the bus."
"Don't panic," the girl laughed. "He screwed up. They'll mostly likely drop him into a Tinker pit supplying the Protectorate with a lot of nice toys and pull him out when the Endbringers pop up. Probably put Miss Militia in charge. Things will be better in the end any way you look at it.
"That's one of the reasons you're in such a good position right now. You have them over a barrel PR-wise, but it won't last. The longer you wait, the less effective claiming this particular screw-up of theirs will be."
What she was saying made sense, I guess. I really would like to just let it be, but seeing what was going on at Winslow on top of today's bus ride, I doubted I'd be in a better position to bargain.
"What do you get out of all this?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Peace of mind? Whatever your particular skill set is: super-hunter, mega powered Brute, mid-level Thinker, or whatever, I'd prefer it if you kept to more productive uses. Taking out all the gangs in Brockton Bay over the weekend would be a waste, not to mention a lot of trouble and danger brought down on you from multiple sides. Why not use it for something that benefits you; archaeology for instance. You seemed to show a lot of promise figuring out the history of the island, or at least enough for you to complete your go… your goals."
That last stutter of hers lit up her face as if she'd won the jackpot or something.
She shook her head. "Nothing. I just figured something out that had been bugging me for a while."
"Anyway, my employer has access to some interesting stuff if you're interested – for absolutely nothing in return. Like I said, we want you happy and doing something you enjoy; nothing more."
Yeah, that last part didn't sound fishy at all, and considering the Bay was only a block away that was saying something. I watched her as she pulled out the receipt for from Ken's and started writing something on the back.
"This is my number. Anything you need, or if you're interested in putting your talents to good use, you let me know; even if you want to talk or something. Therapists and adults aren't really the only games in town. They forget what it's like to be young and have heavy shit thrust upon them."
Lisa, the note read.
"Well, my fifteen minutes are up. Enjoy the bow."