Note: Thanks again for your comments. They are always appreciated. This is the first half of Arc 3. it was becoming unwieldy and so I broke it apart in to two chunks.

3.1

After dropping the bow onto my bed, I peeled off my clothes with more than a little frustration. I don't know what I was thinking about staking out the area where I last saw Lisa. It was a longshot, I admit. There could have been any number of reasons she didn't show, the least of which was a daytime job somewhere or maybe even school. With my luck she probably didn't even live in the city proper, but she had to be close. Her accent was typical of the area: the missing R substituted with the AH instead.

Mom used to hate that. Her love of My Fair Lady reruns on TV was proof enough. She didn't love it for the story; it was for the diction lessons. She'd drilled me whenever I slipped into the local dialect. Even that was sliding these days around here. Rs apparently were back in style, for the most part, but Lisa was obviously raised by one of the old crowd of families.

It wasn't the waiting I minded so much. I learned the concept of patience and preparing for the right opportunity to strike on Yamatai. It was the damn rain. On the island it was merely annoying; in Brockton Bay it was cold and annoying. By the time school let out I'd given up and made my way back home. A very hot shower and a bowl of canned vegetable soup later and I felt almost normal – normal for me that is.

I spent the better part of an hour making sure all of my supplies and weapons were dry and if not, then cleaned and oiled if needed. An urge to slip into my dad's room and grab my Berettas had to be quashed. I could just imagine the condition they were in.

For dinner, I pulled out some ground beef to thaw, along with all the materials for spaghetti so I wouldn't have to run around the kitchen when the time came for Dad to get home. When that was finished I went out front to grab the mail. I got all of one foot out the front door when I noticed an express envelope sitting neatly out of the rain on a lawn chair that was usually folded up to the side.

Scanning the surrounding area, I came up empty. Nobody was out and about in this mess, and even if they were I wouldn't be able to see much past fifty yards or so. Enhanced vision or not, it didn't help, so I picked it up and looked for a return address. The thing was, beyond the normal FedEx logos, there was only one word neatly printed on the front: Taylor. There wasn't one of those processing stamps, routing numbers or whatever they put on normal parcels. Someone took the time to drop this off themselves.

There weren't any bulges or anything so I went ahead and ripped the envelope open in the appropriate place and looked inside. A single piece of paper was all that was included. After pulling it out I was rewarded with a picture, a drawing actually: a gold disc, intricate workings in the middle that gave me the impression it was more of a mechanical device than anything else; it reminded me of the inside of a windup watch. Three jewels set equidistant in a triangular fashion near the middle. I couldn't tell exactly what they were made of, but they looked large and expensive.

"Okay."

I was boggled. Why would someone personally drop something like this off on my front porch? With a frown on my face I looked around once more before stuffing the picture back in the envelope, grabbing the umbrella and went to visit the mailbox.

The bills went on the coffee table in front of the couch, the fliers went into the trash, and I set aside my subscription to Archaeology which Sam insisted I have for some reason. Nothing says thanks for saving my life more than a yearly subscription to her favorite magazine. She's a little odd that way. Sam means well, she just has a one track mind and thinks everyone else should be on that same track.

I really did enjoy it when she thought I was smart enough to follow everything she taught me on the trip over to the island, but I didn't know if I wanted to make a…

Ah, that's why Lisa brought the subject up; she wasn't kidding about her boss giving her information on me. I suppose it wouldn't be too awfully hard to figure out mundane things like a person's interests, their magazine subscriptions for instance. Dangling a little something in front of my face like that might have worked if my hobbies might have included ancient relics and their origins. Sam would have probably jumped all over that offer. Me? Dusty old stuff was a means to an end where I was concerned.

The sound of a key inserted in the front door lock alerted me that Dad was home early. Usually, he didn't make it in until six. That he was home early didn't bode well for the Dockworkers. Late days meant lots of jobs or opportunities for jobs; early days meant the well ran dry.

I was already near the kitchen, so by the time I had put water on to boil, Dad was peeking around the corner.

"Hey, kiddo."

Retuning his weary smile with a weak one of my own I said, "Rough day?"

"Eh," he commented as he laid his coat over one of the chairs. "Lost three more of the guys to some new gang downtown. Whoever they are, they're keeping a low profile."

I shrugged. "At least they aren't New Hampshire Nazis."

"Yeah, I think we have enough of those already."

He noticed the FedEx envelope and picked it up off the table. "Someone sent you a package?"

"Someone sent me a picture." In another pan I was browning the ground beef before looking over to see him pull out said sheet of paper.

"What's this?"

"No idea."

He pondered it for a few moment and then tucked it back inside with a general look of disinterest. "I'm going to take a shower."

With a nod I concentrated on the pan, but before he got too far I yelled, "Bring my pistols when you come out."

~O~

Dad sat on his recliner watching the news and I was on the couch reassembling the first successfully cleaned M9. I was right; they were in sorry condition. It took me the better part of an hour to get just one pistol in satisfactory condition: buffing rust spots off, detailing bits of mud, blood, and stuff I'd rather not think about out of every nook and cranny. When it was finished, it didn't look very presentable, but at least I knew it would work if needed.

It was when I set it aside that I noticed Dad looking at me.

"Uh… what?" I asked with some trepidation.

He jerked his chin at the table with a confused look on his face. "When did you learn how to do that?"

I glanced down and then back up at him. "Clean?"

"Take apart a gun, clean it and put it back together like you've been doing it for years."

Shifting a little on the couch I reached over and picked up the second. "There's not that many pieces."

He frowned and then turned to face me properly. "Did Conrad teach you?"

"Why does everyone think that everything has to be so complicated? I just did it; I picked the thing up, looked it over, and took it apart. It's a logical series of events. There's nothing mystical or sinister about a girl being able to do simple things like this."

Dad's eyes were wide at my low volume rant. "I never said anything about… what are you talking about, Taylor? I just asked if Conrad…"

"Roth," I snapped back. "He hates being called Conrad… hated…."

"Fine – Roth. I just asked if Roth taught you how to do it. I wasn't implying that you couldn't figure it out on your own. Hell, I wouldn't know what to do with one of those things. It's not like any of us grew up around guns or spent any time actually thinking about…." He stopped and sighed.

"I don't want to argue about this, Taylor. I don't think it's any shock to you that I don't feel comfortable with those things in the house, much less ones that are loaded."

"They're kind of useless unload, Dad."

He sent me a tight smile. "Exactly; less chance of anyone getting shot."

"Tcha," I spat. "You'll never pick one up, and that's fine; it's your choice. That leaves only one person that knows how to use them – me. The only people that have been shot by me have been deliberate; fifty-seven of them."

He flinched at the reminder that his little girl was a killer and only a small percentage of which were dispatched with the weapons on the table, one of which I had already disassembled without really even thinking about it.

"I'd do it again in a second if your life or mine were in danger."

"Taylor…"

On this topic I didn't let him get a word in edgewise. "The gangs, Dad. I'm sorry, but pepper spray can only go so far."

He turned away and rubbed at his face. In some ways he knew I was right, but I'm equally as sure he had a list of fifty reasons on how I was wrong.

"You're not…," he stalled for a moment, "… going out at night and hunting them, are you?"

I stopped swabbing the barrel assembly and glanced up at him.

"I know you have these powers," he said. "And…."

"No, I don't go out at night and hunt. I sleep at night." Sort of. "I don't want to be a hero or a vigilante or whatever, but if one of these people come at me, I want to make sure they never get back up again when I put them down."

We'd never really had a frank talk about everything that happened on Yamatai. He knew I killed a lot of people and saved so very few. I suppose in his eyes that was enough knowledge. Outside of the whackos on the internet, who really wants to talk about actual death? I'm not speaking about how someone conquered the latest video game or maybe some tabletop RPG. Hell, even theoretical discussions in History class about war don't really get into the details very much other than a general numbers game.

It's a seriously grisly conversation to have, but for some reason my mouth just won't stop spouting a deluge of crap buried in my psyche.

"I get that nothing like this has happened to us, but that doesn't stop the chance of me accidently pissing off any number of the junior gang members that go to Winslow that have something to prove."

His eyebrows drew together in concern. "Have they been giving you problems?"

I shook my head. "It's only been one day, Dad, but I'm older, they're older. Pretty soon they'll want to get up into the big leagues with their banger buddies, and the teachers aren't being subtle around me."

"What do you mean?"

Picking up the buffing pad I started in on some small rust spots.

"I mean that they know about me. The PRT told them, I'm pretty sure. They all have radios, and they're overly nice or extremely scared of what I'm doing all the time. Kids aren't stupid. Sooner or later they'll see what's going on and put two and two together."

Dad scowled. "Idiots. Maybe it's time to pull you out. We could do some of that home schooling or something."

That made me raise an eyebrow. It wasn't like I hadn't already thought about that a dozen or more times over the previous few weeks. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to school and be hounded by all the people that wanted to know what went on over on Yamatai. The thing was, nobody had mentioned a single word. Maybe it was because before all of this happened I was a non-entity in their eyes. Taylor Hebert's name pops up on the news and they probably dismissed it with a, "Who?"

In that situation, they are pretty stupid, but that doesn't mean Pappa-Nazi or whoever their parent is isn't. All it would take would be a little research online and my name and address would be right there for the taking. Lisa found me easy enough, and so did whoever delivered that envelope to my front door. Eyes were already on me from so many different directions and Dad was acting like nothing was out of the ordinary. It wasn't a question of if someone would come recruiting or try to prove to everyone I wasn't an unstoppable killing machine; it was simply a matter of when it was going to happen.

The best answer was to just leave Brockton Bay and start up somewhere new, somewhere that people didn't know who I was. The thing is, this was my house, my mom's house, my dad's house. Why should I be the one that has to go?

"No thanks. I'll deal."

No sooner had I made that little declaration when someone announced themselves with a knock at the front door. Dad looked at me with a questioning eye, and I answered it with a shake of my head.

"I'm not expecting anyone."

He frowned and looked down at the table. "Put the guns away. I'll get it."

I huffed while he was up and on the way over to the door. "Like that's going to happen."

Picking up the newly cleaned and loaded M9, I pulled back on the slide and jacked in a cartridge. No, I wasn't paranoid. Riiiight.

He looked through the peephole and turned back to me with his voice low. "You know a black girl about this tall with straight hair?"

My shoulders slumped. I suppose he could see upon my reaction that I did in fact know said girl.

Dad opened the door and of course Sophia Hess was standing there with a silly smile on her face. The only time she even uses that particular one was when she was dealing with adults and attempting to look innocent and helpless. I was very familiar with that load of crap.

"Hi, Mister Hebert. I'm Sophia, a friend of Taylor's at Winslow. Is she…."

Her eyes met mine and then dropped to the pistol that was generally aimed in her direction, but not so much with intent. With a practiced move I dropped the magazine out of the hilt and jacked out the ready round, catching it out of the air before it hit the table.

"What are you doing here," I asked with little friendliness to my voice.

Dad glanced at me and I shrugged before he stepped backward and opened the door further to let her inside.

She waltzed through the entryway in her blue and purple horizontal striped knit Henley dress that dropped about halfway down her thighs; that and the stylish ankle boots that boosted her height by another two inches. You'd never catch her wearing anything but overly tight jeans and stylish top of some kind at school, which made me wonder what was going on.

"Got a hot date tonight?"

She smirked and sashayed around the coffee table before taking a seat next to me, crossing her legs. Dad didn't look as if he knew what to do. The days of Emma coming over were long past, not to mention the weaponry that was lying on the table. So instead of making an issue out of things he helped himself to the only assembled pistol and gave us his fatherly grin.

"I'll be in the kitchen sorting the mail if you need anything… a drink maybe, Sophia?"

She smiled brightly. "Water if you have it, Mister Hebert. I'm in training."

He stopped and looked interested. "Cheerleading?"

I snorted, but she didn't rise to the bait.

"Track; cross country runner."

"Ah," he replied. "I'll go get that water."

When Dad disappeared I turned to Sophia. "Why are you in my house?"

She shrugged and looked down at the slide assembly I was working on. "Just keeping you up to date; Piggot wants you in the Wards."

"Not happening."

"I figured, but to keep my gold star – thanks for last night by the way – I have to look like I'm trying."

Dad reentered and dropped off a cold bottle before leaving again. Sophia unscrewed the top and took a small drink.

"Still not happening."

"I would have told her as much, but until my paperwork comes through I still have to play the game." With that said, she pulled out a smartphone and started tapping away. "Her bright idea is to get you to pick out a new cape name that'll make you feel all heroic and shit. Somehow – I'm still working this one out – this will change your mind. So how do you feel about… Diamond Lass? What the fuck is this shit?"

Even she didn't believe the crap that they came up with.

"Commander Positron? The Sapphire Crusader?"

"They really went all out for me, didn't they?" I said as I tried not to laugh. I didn't want to encourage her to stay any long than necessary.

Sophia rolled her eyes and dropped the phone back in her purse. "This is what I get for relying on the local PR department. They suck. The guy in New York knows his shit. We have the most capes per capita than any other city in the nation and we get the dregs."

She leaned back and started rocking her perched foot back and forth drawing my attention to her legs, which I promptly ignored in lieu of my buffing. "There, see. Mission accomplished. You turned down all their lame ass ideas. I can go in there tomorrow and say I gave it my best shot, but they suck."

"Great," I said with some enthusiasm. "Now you can leave."

"Nah, not yet. PRT van is out front." When she saw the look I shot her, Sophia explained. "I ain't walking all the way over here in heels, at night."

"Why didn't you just come over dressed normally?" I shut my eyes and shook off the feeling of impending doom. "You know what, nevermind. I don't want to know."

She told me anyway. "I'm supposed to be playing all my best cards, treating you like a VIP or something. They see I'm trying and…"

"I said I didn't want to know."

Sophia ignored me and pulled something out of the purse. "Homework; I picked it up for you. You coming to school tomorrow?"

With a scowl I looked down at the folder she was holding out and then proceeded to return to the cleaning. "Probably."

She dropped the folder on the table and used the opportunity to lean in and whisper. "Saw the damage you did at the PRT last night. Great big balls of steel, Taylor. Vista was craping her panties at the comm all stuck in foam. Even Assault got snagged on the can. Wall to wall heroes and PRT officers and only two people were bright enough to not get tanked. You and Miss M. That's why Piggot is bending over backward to get you onboard. She's surrounded by idiots."

I turned my head and met her gaze. Sophia was only inches away and I caught a hint of some exotic perfume I wasn't familiar with. Combine that with the outfit, the heels, the hemline that was exposing most of her legs and the feeling of raw wet concrete started settling into my stomach.

She's flirting with me.

Everything locked down on my body, frozen in place. Hold on – do I look gay? I mean I know I don't use a whole lot of makeup and I pretty much dress in unisex styles. Maybe she thought I was butch or something? No, hold that thought; it was probably the job, like she was pulling out all the stops to get me into the Wards like that. What do they call it? The Honey Pot something-or-other. Using charms to accomplish the mission? Was that how the PRT did their thing – using underage girls to get what they want? Granted, I was underage too, but still. The whole thing was out of the question.

I don't do girls… or guys for that matter. I don't do anything and that's the way it's going to stay, at least for the time being. My life is too screwed up anyway; I wouldn't wish me on anyone, boy or girl.

"I think it's time for you to go."

Sophia didn't even blink before looking down at her watch. "Yeah. I got homework tonight anyway."

She stood and smoothed out her dress, right in front of me. Gag.

"Bye, Mister Hebert," she called out to the kitchen. "Thanks for the water."

Dad stuck his head around the corner and wave. "It was nice meeting you, Sophia. Come around again anytime."

She shot him a bright smile. "Thanks! Bye, Taylor. I'll see you tomorrow."

It took all my restraint not to just flip her off right there. When dad closed the door behind her he looked over to me. "Well, she's a nice girl; well-mannered too. You don't see that much anymore."

I think I was starting to feel ill. Maybe I could get Dad to call in sick for me. He'd obviously believe it after witnessing that sham and thinking Sophia didn't have a billion ulterior motives for whatever she did. Then again, he didn't know her like I did.

3.2

Emma twitched every single time I even looked in her general direction, not including when we nearly brushed up against each other while entering homeroom. She literally bounced off the door trying to get out of my way. If the situation wasn't dripping with so much irony it would have been funny.

I took my seat in the back corner and scanned the room. Minor changes had been made: a few desks were shifted, a new screensaver had been added to all the computers, and a Ceiling Cat meme poster had been placed on one of the tiles above the teacher's desk.

Once I was settled in and saw that Emma was trying her best to ignore my presence, I pulled out the envelope that was sent to me the previous day and headed up front. Mrs. Knott gave me a weak smile as I approached.

"Yes, Taylor?"

"I emailed yesterday's assignment to you last night."

She nodded. "Yes, I received it. Thank you. I hope you're feeling better?"

"I'm fine." Opening the envelope I pulled out the drawing. "I was wondering if I could use the class scanner to upload this to my thumb drive."

She took a quick look and nodded. "Be quick if you would. Class begins in three more minutes."

Without wasting time I crossed to the corner and fed the sheet into the scanner port and connected the thumb drive. About a minute later I had everything I wanted and made way back to my desk with a nod to the teacher.

Sophia was already seated and eying me before I slid into place, popped the thumb drive into the computer and shot an email off to Sam with the image attached.

There; shiny objects that might interest a person that looks for these types of things, sent. Out of sight out of mind. Now I can spend more time in concentrating on things that are in my personal sphere of influence, like... ugh, MS Excel spreadsheet creation.

It took me all of fifteen minutes to finish the class assignment. I spent the rest of the time trying to hunt down websites, that weren't blocked by the school, that might carry a decent open carry gun belt that could handle a pair of M9s.

The one I wore on Yamatai was pretty much ruined by the rain, the crawling around in the mud, the sliding around cliff faces, not to mention the magically creeptastic lake of blood or whatever it was I fell into when escaping from the cannibal freaks. The light wasn't all that good at the time and what I remembered most of all was the stench. The water could very well have been red colored because of some clay deposits and the stench could have been methane escaping from an underground source. A good rationalization got me through that portion of hell-week without losing my mind – too much. The alternative explanation was that I actually did drop entirely into a lake of blood, waded around in it for about five minutes or so and then got out, without the ability to immediately bathe afterward.

How I managed to walk away from that island without catching fifty different diseases and infections was amazing, but I guess that was one of the perks of having my powers.

The bell roused me from my reflections too late to be one of the first ones out of the room. That meant I'd be stuck in the majority of the crowd between classes.

"Crap," I muttered.

Worse, Sophia hung back, shooing Emma and Madison away, and here I was yearning for my ASP that was still in PRT custody for the foreseeable future. I definitely need to buy a backup. That was going to break me for the month in terms of money. Those things didn't come cheap.

Fucking PRT. Oh, wait!

"Sophia," I called out as low as I could.

It didn't stop Emma from noticing and throwing a dirty look my way. She really needed to get over herself.

"Sup?"

I grimaced at what I was about to do, but it was either this or drop a hundred and change at Ken's for a new collapsible baton.

"Do you think you can get a hold of my ASP from Piggot?"

She looked confused for a moment. "You brought a gun into the PRT building?"

"What? No. It's a carbon steel baton, collapsible. It's what I used to take down the first guy near the elevator. Miss Militia said that they had to hold onto it for evidence or something. They're expensive and I don't want to go buy a new one."

"Ohh." She thought about it for a second. "Maybe a little give and take will grease the wheels."

Give and take… shit. "What kind?"

"Pick a new cape name." She fished out her cell and tapped the screen a few times. "I sent Piggot the list and she had the New York PR people send over some new ones this morning. Let her know you're kind of open to the idea, and maybe she'll bend a little."

Pressing my lips together I took the cell and looked the new list over.

Guardian

Amazon

Sentinel

Invictus

Artemis

Athena

"Uh…," I stalled. Actually pretty much any of these would be fine. "Pick a number between one and five."

"Two," she shot back without any thought.

No, fuck that. I'm not going by Amazon. They'll probably send me some red, white, and blue swimsuit costume that I'd never be able to fill out. What the hell am I talking about? I'm not joining the freaking Wards!

"Here," I handed it over. "This one."

She looked at it and then back at me. "You're sure? Once you pick it you're pretty much stuck."

I shrugged. "It doesn't really matter. I'm not going to be a Ward anyway, so they can call me Killdozer for all I care."

Sophia looked thoughtful as we made our way down the hall. The crowd had thinned out a little so we didn't have to look like we were trading girly secrets.

"I kinda liked Killdozer," she said. "I mean it's something that scares the shit out of a lot of people. Like, oh fuck! It's Killdozer! Run! Then they're all shitting themselves thinking that's gonna help. Then thump to the back of the head…."

I had to interrupt her or she'd be going on for hours. I swear the girl had no concept of time. "Sophia."

"Yeah, I guess it's not too heroic. You probably can't visit children's wards in the hospital and say, 'Hey kids, I'm Killdozer. Who wants a piggyback ride?' Now that I think about it, that'd probably rock. One of those little shits puked on my armor a couple weeks ago."

This explains so much about her general attitude about pretty much everything.

"Okay," I said, cutting anymore random crap from her. "So when can I pick my ASP up?"

"I'll text it to her and see what she says. I can't guarantee anything. It'd probably be better if I talked to her face to face. That way if Miss M is hovering over her shoulder I can counter her stuff."

Glancing up at the clock I saw I only had a single minute to get to class. "Fine. Do whatever you need. I have to go."

"Oh, hey," she said, stopping me before I hit the stairs. I threw a look over my shoulder. "You doing anything later tonight?"

Damn! Was she about to ask me out on a date? "Uh… I have to… um…" Wash my hair? No. Clean my weapons? No, she saw that last night. "… work out."

She looked somewhat surprised. "All night?"

"A lot of it."

Sophia licked her lips and appeared as if she was thinking it over. "Need a spotter? I could come by after I talk to her."

And this is why I said damn! She was doing me a favor this time and I all but gave her an invitation to my house. I really needed that ASP otherwise I'd say screw it and tell her to fuck off.

"Uh, sure. Come by whenever."

I really was planning on working out, and who in their right mind would want to hang around a sweaty person lifting weights? Not to mention that it was in my basement where the airflow wasn't the best in the house. Ick.

"Cool."

Actually, this might work in my favor. I'll just dress in my crappiest clothes and work up a serious sweat before she gets there. That will definitely turn her off. Oh! I'll jog home and get it started real early, maybe cook some cabbage soup and really stink the house up.

Brilliance, your name is Taylor!

~O~

I was thirty seconds late for Geometry. This was the only other class Emma and I shared for the day, and luckily enough she was seated on the other side of the room, scowling at me when I ducked in. The teacher gave me a look and then motioned to my seat without breaking stride in his lecture on postulates or whatever.

Emma's jaw pretty much unhinged when I didn't even receive a disparaging comment about being tardy from the teacher much less an official notice – three of which would send me to In School Suspension for a day. It was satisfying in a way, to see her with a minute taste of what it was like to be me for all of last year. Not that I totally approved of the preferential treatment, but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Every once in a while, for the remainder of the class, I glanced over at her. Gone was the calm cool façade that she used to portray to the world. Her cheeks went patchy red at times, and then they'd resume their normal color for a few minutes before reverting once more. She even had to get up twice to sharpen her pencil when the lead snapped.

Something told me she was a tad bit upset for reasons beyond me getting away with being thirty seconds late.

The bell rang, I jammed my folder into the pack before jumping up and slinging it over my shoulder, making my way out so I didn't have to get stuck in crowd once more. Imagine my surprise when Emma forced her way past two girls all in her attempt to bump into me. It was one of her old standby gags when she obviously ran out of things to taunt me with.

The most she accomplished was a brush against my hoodie. "Watch it, Taylor."

My eyebrows rose, because it looked as if Sophia hadn't given her the lowdown on my recent escapades, and maybe just gave her a simple warning instead. I didn't know what to think about that. Up until I stepped into the school for the first time this year I thought they shared just about everything, especially where it concerned me. It was most noticeable when Emma threw her usual taunts at me. Sophia never seemed surprised, as if she'd heard it all before. That she hadn't kept her up to date was telling; of what, I didn't exactly know. Still…

She ducked into the bathroom at the end of the hall. Call it morbid curiosity, but I just had to see what was going on.

I know; I shouldn't give a crap, and truthfully I really didn't. However, there was something nagging me in the back of my head and my curiosity won out in the end. Right before I got there the door opened and a wide-eyed brunette nearly ran me over on her way out.

I slipped inside and waited out of sight, listening to a litany of profanity being spewed, worthy of the guys at the Dockworkers Association. There wasn't any rhyme or reason to what was being said, just flat out cussing until I decided to round the privacy wall and see exactly what Emma was doing.

She leaned over the sink, grasping either side so hard her knuckles were turning white. The red patches on her cheeks had returned and thankfully the yelling had stopped. In its place was disjointed mutterings.

"I'm not weak. I'm the strongest person here. Fuck her. But why? Fucking shit!"

I watched as she took a deep breath and looked up into the mirror before letting it out. That's pretty much when she spotted me. She jerked around, opening and closing her mouth, before settling on a single emotion: hatred.

"What do you want?" she snapped.

Not waiting a single beat I replied, "Not much. I just wanted to see your world implode. It's not as interesting as I would have thought."

With that I turned and went back out the door, but not before hearing the sound of breaking glass. Okay; that made it a little more interesting. What's another broken mirror? This is Winslow after all. One would think they'd stick to polished metal ones by now.

On the way to World Affairs I made note of how I thought I'd be more satisfied, I suppose, about Emma getting her just desserts, whatever they may be. It just wasn't the case. There wasn't any satisfaction, or schadenfreude, or anything else. It was almost like she had basically become a non-entity to me. If she dropped dead of a burst aneurism in the restroom I still don't think I'd care. That was kind of sad.

Once upon a time, she was my best friend. Maybe that was the reason for my apathy. We'd shared so much. Maybe it was because she had utterly betrayed me solely for a higher position on the Winslow pecking order chart, that she took years of our friendship and used it like so much toilet paper, flushing it down the drain. Though that didn't explain the whole "weak/strong" thing she was babbling about earlier. At this point the whole subject was better dealt with by ignoring it, because if it came to the point that I really cared about Emma and her betrayal anymore, well then, things would probably be bad.

~O~

The final bell of the day rang when I just finished tying off my shoelaces. Sophia left a few minutes early for her meeting with Piggot, so I took my time packing everything away. It was Friday, and even though I had only been to school two out of three days it felt like an entire week had gone by. I was looking forward to the weekend as if it was already Christmas break, just nowhere as cold.

The jog home wound up being very cathartic, at least for the first few blocks, until I passed Hamilton Street and the bodega at the corner. The following alley was notorious for local drug dealers. That's why I crossed the street a block earlier, in order to avoid them even so much as looking at me when I took this route.

I wasn't overly worried, since I still had a number of weapons on me, but taking minor safety precautions like this is what kept me from getting accosted for fifteen years.

Glancing left as I crossed the alleyway, I could see the Merchants had wound their way around again into ABB territory; two of which were already pushing their shit to the locals and abusing one of them as I jogged past. It was a common enough sight: short of money, needing a hit, and pretty much taking whatever was dished out in order to get it. In this case it looked as if the guy wasn't getting squat except for a beating.

Not my problem, I said to myself as I moved on.

It was his own fault getting hooked on that shit. People knew better these days, especially dealing with crack. It was impossible to walk down any alleyway and not step on a pipe or seven before you made it to the other side. I was tired of it. One less addict on the street might just brighten the place up a little.

A shot rang out and I reflexively dodged to the side into the entryway of a brownstone, planting my back against the brick wall. My heartbeat slowed, my breathing evened out, and I focused my senses to take in the situation.

Seventy-three feet to the alleyway; two men-early twenties; both armed-small caliber pistols; traffic moderate; pedestrians spooked but not enough to run.

"Idiots. They probably think it was some dumbass popping off a firecracker."

My head was screaming at me to take them out as I pulled back. They weren't that far away from my house, mere blocks. Anyone I know could be their next victim; I could be their next victim, if they caught me unaware that is. I shook that shit right off.

Odds were that they'd run and not come back. The most likely reason they were there in the first place was because the ABB moves their people around on a weekly basis so as not to get overly predictable. The Merchants usually move in during those down times and feed like little parasites on people that don't know any better.

"They'll be gone. You won't have to worry about…"

A hand shot out from around the corner of the brownstone entryway and almost grabbed me, but I flinched away before he had the chance.

"I thought I saw someone spying…," was all he got out before he had the chance to bring his pistol around.

A left jab to the throat caught him, sending his eyes wide and a panicked free hand to reflexively feel if I actually crushed his larynx. Everyone does it, as if it would do any good. I grabbed his weapon arm and twisted it upward, squeezing his wrist with everything I had. He was too focused on breathing to fight me when I twisted his gun hand around and shoved the barrel under his chin. All he got off was a weak kick and a flailing slap at my head before I pushed my thumb against his trigger finger.

The top of his head popped open with a spray of blood and gray matter arcing up and then down onto the sidewalk. That's about when I dropped him and looked over to the alleyway.

Five-nine; brown hair; unhealthy pallor; most likely a user himself; identical pistol held in his left hand; Lorcin 380, six shots left before reload, accuracy at this distance very poor; threat level-low.

He kept looking down at his partner and back up to me, his gun hand shaking all the while. I lowered his threat level even further. Apparently the locals weren't supposed to fight back.

Again, my head told me to take him out. He'd seen me; he knows what I look like; he's a Merchant; they won't have any problems finding out who I am and hunting me down. He had to go down as well. The problem was that there were ten people staring at me from around the street, some of them on their cells, and even more from inside the shops. I couldn't just kill him outright.

He ran.

3.3

So there I was, sitting the PRT squad room, beside an overly utilitarian style desk, still in possession of my backpack with numerous weapons stashed all over it, and an excessively concerned female PRT counselor staring at me. The smell of coffee that had been sitting on the burner for far too long hung in the air, along with the frightened sweat of Villains long past soaked into all the chairs; specifically the one I was sitting on. Ick.

"Would you like a wet wipe?" she asked me, holding out a large container of said wipes. "You've got a little…"

Contrary to popular belief, victims of PTSD aren't all the same. It isn't a disease that exhibits a limited amount of symptoms which can be treated with a dose of penicillin. Every person out there has different reactions. Some people avoid anything to do with the triggering event, whatever it was. Some just act like it didn't happen. Some relive the time over and over again, unable to flush the memories from their minds, snapping at the least cause. Granted, there are general symptoms to look for that can alert a psychiatrist that PTSD exists. That's how I wound up being diagnosed.

Mine usually involve silent times where a smell or a sound stands out above the mundane. Since Brockton Bay thankfully isn't an island out in the Pacific Ocean, those familiar scents and sounds are few and far between. Having blood on my hands wasn't a big problem considering the amount I spilled on Yamatai. However, I did take a couple of wipes for the counselor's peace of mind if nothing else.

I really disliked it when people that know the telltale signs or can recognize PTSD give me a particular look. It's the one where they think any little thing they do might set me off and I'd whip out an Uzi to mow everyone down in the vicinity. Hollywood hasn't really done my particular condition any favors over the years.

She pointed to her left cheek and winced sympathetically. Exactly how long had she been a counselor where she had a problem with blood, especially in Brockton Bay? I wiped at my face regardless.

"Your father is on his way," she said in a nice calm voice.

I suppose she was waiting for me to break down and start blubbering or something. Yeah, I might have blown it by not acting like a typical fifteen year old girl. Maybe I could play it off as shock. It wouldn't even be all that difficult. Then again, I'm sure everyone in the area was well familiar with me and my record by now.

"Thanks."

When she held out a small trashcan for me, I tossed the now pink wipes away and leaned back a little.

"Would you like to wait for him or we could start your statement now… maybe some of the benign details?"

I shifted and looked over to the doors where Dad would appear when he arrived, and then over to a more official looking PRT guy leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. "Uh, I guess."

"Judging from your backpack, may I assume you just left school?"

Turning back to her I said, "Hmm? Oh yeah, Winslow. I was jogging home. Looked over, across the street, and saw them beating on some guy. A second or two later I heard the shot and ducked into that brownstone."

She nodded. "You didn't keep running?"

The leaning guy seemed more focused on me, but hadn't said anything.

"When someone is shooting and I don't know who they're shooting at? No. I took cover."

"Probably a smart move."

"I waited for a few seconds and then looked over to see if it was those guys that did it."

"And what did you see?"

Before I had a chance to reply, her phone rang. She held up a finger and answered while I looked toward the doors again and then back before hanging up.

"Your father is here. He'll be on his way up once he clears security. Do you want to continue?"

Seeing as how she kept asking that question I thought it best to just shut up and see what Dad had to say.

"I'll wait."

Leaning guy blinked, stepped away from the wall, and headed out the door.

"Who was that?" I asked.

"Investigative branch. Since you're under age he can't interrogate you, but he can be here while you're talking to me."

I looked up at her. "I thought you were a counselor; isn't there some sort of patient privilege or something?"

She smiled knowingly. "You've been watching too much TV. You're not my patient. I'm just a friendly ear in case you have issues with what you did."

Ah, I see what she did there.

"You mean when I defended myself against someone that most likely drugged up and most likely wanted to kill me?"

The calm and caring manner the counselor had been showing for the last few minutes melted away and a very plain analytical demeanor took its place. It was kind of creepy once I thought about it.

"Is that what happened?"

"Taylor!"

Heads around the various desks turned to him and then to me before going about their business. I wasn't overly fond of all the attention, pushing down the embarrassment of having my father announce my name to all and sundry. Not that they didn't already know who I was, but still. Seconds later he was hugging me and then backing away, looking me over.

"You're okay? You're not hurt?"

I shook my head. "I'm fine, Dad."

"Mister Hebert," the counselor interrupted. "Now that you're here, the Director will want to see you both."

He frowned for a moment in recognition and then looked back at me. "What happened?"

I moved to explain, but the counselor cut me off. "Taylor was on her way home and stumbled across a drug deal going bad."

I scowled. "I didn't stumble. I was jogging home on the sidewalk, in broad daylight."

Dad steered me away before I could start a decent rant. People really don't think about what they say when they speak. Stumble… whatever.

"You're really okay?" he asked as we made our way downstairs.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I didn't go looking for them. I even hid, but one of them saw me and…"

His eyes fluttered shut briefly and I just knew he was dreading the answer to his next question. "Did you…?"

"He shot himself."

Dad visibly paused, looking from me to the counselor and then back again.

"How did that happen?"

I was going to explain, but I knew I'd be saying this over and over if I did. "Would you mind waiting until we get to the Director's office? I can do this all at once and get it over with."

The counselor took that has her cue and swept a hand toward the door. "Director Piggot is expecting you.

We wound our way around to the elevator, following her while I scanned the area. It was a busy building during the daytime. No less than fifteen people passed us in the hall, all of them taking a nice long look at me, some of them even going so far as to giving me a polite nod as if they knew me.

On the street in Brockton Bay, it's not necessarily an everyday occurrence to see one of their vans or SUVs speeding by, loaded down with uniformed officers ready to do battle with whatever Villain of the moment. They were usually dressed in body armor, helmets, protective goggles, and weapons of various types. In house they were much more relaxed with only a few of them at strategic points in actual protective gear. I suppose having your base of operations infiltrated brings out the paranoia in all of us.

The elevator was overly large and decked out in visible tech: cameras, containment foam sprayers, and a couple of devices of which I had no idea what they did.

Miss Militia was waiting for us when we exited. I swear – when did she ever get any time off?

"Taylor," she said with a nod. "Mister Hebert."

Dad suddenly became all flustered, not knowing if he should smile, shake her hand, or go perhaps squee like a fanboy. I was quite familiar with the face he was making. It brought back memories of him sitting on the couch at home, when Mom was still alive, watching the latest cape scene on TV. I don't know how many times Mom used to poke him in the side and glare playfully at him. What is it about girls and guns that make guys IQ level drop thirty points?

Thankfully, he resisted the urge to embarrass me.

"It's, uh, good to meet you."

Her eyes crinkled up on the sides letting me know she was smiling, and probably far too use guys making fools of themselves in her presence. "Right this way."

When her back was turned, I poked him in the side anyway.

The woman behind the desk was probably in her forties and more on the heavier side than normal. I suppose that's what you get for sitting behind a desk for however long she had been assigned to Brockton Bay. The blonde pageboy haircut didn't do anything for the severe look she seemed to be sporting, well that and the dark suit. It almost looked as if she was purposefully downplaying any femininity whatsoever.

From what I knew of the PRT, it didn't suffer any glass-ceiling effect for their female members. It was headed by a woman in the top position for years.

She stood from her chair when we entered. If there was one word I'd use to describe her most of all, it would be confident.

"Director Piggot," Miss Militia started off. "Taylor Hebert and her father…"

"Danny," Dad interjected.

Piggot nodded and held her hand out for both of us to shake – very professional, at least.

"Pleasure, both of you. I'm sorry it took something like this for us to meet properly. Please have a seat."

"What exactly are we doing here?" Dad asked. "This seems more like a BBPD sort of issue."

She sat and adjusted her chair up under the desk. "Normally it would be. However, Taylor is a parahuman known to the PRT. Her name, along with any other known parahuman, is flagged by us with the BBPD. We're automatically contacted and someone is dispatched for retrieval. It saves a lot of time and paperwork. There are things that the average law enforcement officer isn't knowledgeable about or able to deal with when capes are involved, no matter how large or small the incident."

Dad shifted, uncomfortably. "So they know Taylor is a parahuman."

"Not exactly. They just know that someone at the scene sent up a red flag, nothing more." She directed the last part at me. "However, if your face starts popping up in conjunction with these alerts, I can tell you it won't take them long to make the connection."

I shrugged. "I don't actually go out doing these things on purpose."

Piggot leaned back and glanced at Miss Militia for a second. "We've already seen a recording confiscated by the BBPD. Because of the drug trade in the area, the apartments across the street have surveillance cameras."

Dad nearly jerked forward in his seat. "What does that mean?"

It was a good question, but I didn't get the "you're going to jail" vibe off anyone in the room.

"It means that we know Taylor defended herself against an armed drug dealing gang member, who was an accessory to murder, with measured force. He was armed; she wasn't; though it does put into question some possible side-effects of your powers, young lady."

That didn't sound too promising.

Miss Militia took a single step closer, taking the floor. "Sometimes you really don't have a choice in the matter, Taylor. There are a number of case studies over the years – certain parahumans are a focus for conflict. That doesn't necessarily mean they're troublemakers, just that if there is danger in the area, they're usually involved in some way – like magnets attracting each other."

Dad ran a hand down his face. Something told me he didn't like hearing that. It could just be me.

Of course, Piggot took advantage of the moment. "So, you'll understand why we encourage young parahumans to join the Wards. This is Brockton Bay after all. There's no end to gang violence, cape against cape in some instances, and there some very dangerous Villains out there that could make short work of your healing power, Taylor: Lung, Purity, and Hookwolf to name a few."

I twisted my lips to the side. It was the same old song and dance.

"We don't make it a habit of pestering people," she continued. "If you want to go Rogue or stay out of the spotlight altogether, you are of course, free to do so. However, taking the last few days into account, my very educated opinion is that incidents like this will only escalate, and sooner or later you'll make the wrong move at the wrong time."

"Taylor," Miss Militia slid in seamlessly. "Answer me this question if you can."

I looked up at her and raised my eyebrows with curiosity.

"Could you have disarmed that man and subdued him without deadly force?"

Dad didn't let that one go by without comment. "Hold on. What exactly are you implying?"

"The incident here, two nights ago," Piggot interrupted. "They were heavily armed. Your daughter didn't really have much choice in how things turned out when she encountered them. Today however…"

This wasn't going to turn out very well. Dad's blood pressure was already up there, and by the way his face was reddening it was rapidly climbing even higher.

"Are you saying Taylor purposefully killed him?"

"That's not…" Piggot began, but Dad didn't let her finish.

"Where's this tape? Show me."

Miss Militia started shaking her head. "I don't think that's a good idea, Mister Hebert."

"I disagree." Piggot picked up a remote from her desk and gestured to her left. "Sometimes we have to see things for ourselves before it really sinks in."

I took a breath and let it out before I said something I'd regret. "Dad."

He looked back at me. "I need to see this, Taylor."

It was gigantic, at least a sixty inch flat screen that lit up a moment after Dad said his piece. The scene was already frozen in place, telling me this was all a set up from the very beginning. They fully intended to show him what I was capable of and get him to twist my arm into joining the Wards. I had to give it to them; it was the perfect set-up.

There wasn't any sound, but I could plainly see me jogging along and then suddenly dart into the alcove of the brownstone, see how I peeked around the corner and then withdraw, and see how someone quickly entered the picture, running across the street to confront me. From the moment we encountered each other I guessed three seconds passed. I watched how he flinched, probably as I hit him in the throat, and then the top of his head exploded outward right after.

He collapsed and all that was left was me standing there, hands at my sides, totally still, looking across the street. There wasn't a panicked expression on my face like some might expect, just grim determination. I was somewhat surprised with how clear the picture was. From the nightly news I've seen bodega or ATM security cameras whenever they were robbed and the police let the public see the tape for identification purposes. It's never this clear; almost like it was put there for the sole reason of filming me in the act of killing someone.

No, I wasn't that paranoid. Close. But even I didn't think the PRT was likely to set up a banger to be shot by yours truly. Maybe it was a tinkertech thing that cleaned up the image or something.

Piggot froze the picture of me standing there with blood on my hands. I couldn't see where it had sprayed my face, but the scene couldn't get much more gruesome considering there was only one person who attracted my ire.

"Jesus," Dad whispered.

He was understandably spooked and I had to take control of the situation while he was staring off into space or I'd find myself in spandex in minutes.

"Am I being charged with anything?" I asked plainly.

Piggot grimly stared me down. "No. No DA would touch this, especially in this neighborhood, cape or no."

Standing up, I hitched my backpack a little. "Dad, let's go."

Miss Militia took a step closer to him. "Mister Hebert… Danny…."

Oh screw this. "Do you mind? Every time you've asked, I've said no. I am not joining the Wards. I've tried to be nice; please don't make me be not nice."

There was a low thump from above. I glanced up and didn't hear anything else.

"Kiddo, maybe we should hear what they have to say."

I couldn't believe dad fell for this crap. It was so blatantly obvious that they went for maximum effect with that stupid video.

With a pained sigh I turned around and made to open the door. "You stick around and listen, Dad. I'm going home. Oh, and by the way, Director Piggot. I'm sticking with Killdozer. That's my cape name, even though I'm not a cape. No Juggernaut, no Athena, like I told S… Shadow Stalker earlier. Maybe if the stupid gangs hear about the name they'll give me a wide berth."

That was when she stood up. "Miss Hebert, I've also tried to be nice, but the fact of the matter is your skill set has yet to be, not once, anything less than lethal. Even by your own admission, the man you attempted to incapacitate at the elevator downstairs wound up dead minutes later. I'm afraid without the proper training anyone you encounter in a violent manner will wind up the same way. Please ask yourself if this is what you want."

She paused for a moment. "Think, Taylor. Really think about the consequences of that moniker and your refusal to train yourself down to less violent methods. What would it hurt to learn to incapacitate instead of immediately going for the kill each and every time?

"I have no love for the Merchants or any other gang in Brockton Bay. I'll deny this if asked, but that man got what he deserved. The world will be that much nicer with his presence gone, but in the end it's not for you to be the executioner."

I frowned at what she was saying, and the trouble was she was making perfect sense with the information she had. It was just the way she went about getting to it I disagreed with.

"Taylor," she continued. "You have been given a power to make a difference. I'm not asking you not to protect yourself, but the cost to you in the end will eventually tear you apart. I've seen it happen to several good people during my career. What they turned into… I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Think about it, the person you were before you went to Yamatai and the person you are now then ask yourself this question: do you like the new Taylor Hebert?"

~O~

I barely reached a block away before Dad pulled up alongside me in the car. He couldn't have stuck around for much longer – probably enough to grab a dozen or so pamphlets on how awesome being a Ward could be, and how awesome teamwork is, and maybe one or two that showed how wrong being a Villain and a Vigilante could be. If I knew my dad they were most likely squirreled away in his back pocket for proper perusal later.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," I said when we finally got under way.

"It sort of brings it home. I had ideas, but… actually seeing it… seeing you do that."

I sighed and looked out the side window. "Would you rather me be shot?"

Thankfully we reached a red light and were forced to stop. "No; a world of no. I have enough nightmares about that as it is."

"And now that you've seen that tape, you'll have a whole different sort to deal with."

After the light turned green, he waited until we'd almost arrived at home before saying anything else.

"I think it's the whole idea of you having to protect yourself, about not getting an option. If what Miss Militia said was true, about the danger magnet thing…."

I cut him off. "Pretty sure it was just a ruse to make us feel helpless, so they can swoop in to make everything better."

He briefly conceded the point. "It's a possibility. Then again, it could be true."

Fair enough, I guess. "I'm still not joining."

"Taylor," he warned.

"How about I take some self-defense classes instead?"

That stopped his train of thought and tore up all the tracks. "Uh…."

"That way I can train in some obscure martial arts and the PRT has its legs cut out from under them. They'll have no more excuse to keep pestering me." I paused for a moment. "Who am I kidding? They'll probably think of something else I'm doing wrong and try another way."

It was Dad putting on the brakes that brought me out of my musings. I looked up and noticed we were seconds away from pulling into the drive. There was a shiny red sports car sitting in front of the house. Scanning the area, I saw movement on the porch.

"Sam!"