All Alone

Part Nine: Determinations

[A/N 1: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: The PHO segment was created using Conceptualist's PHO generator.]

[A/N 3: It's been awhile since I posted to this one, so here's a rundown on her power.]

Taylor's Power

Taylor has a Striker/Breaker power that manifests in two modes. Both modes cause outward physical alterations to her appearance.

The first mode is what she calls the 'shadow realm'. In this mode, her eyesockets are filled with a bright white glow. To her, the world is full of darkness. People appear as animated skeletons with supernovas for brains. Deceased people show the lights slowly going out. Objects are visible to her, but only via an analogue to X-ray vision (she can actually see through walls). People's voices are audible, but distant and with the suggestion of echoes.

In addition, this is the mode where she can raise people, and heal injuries in the ones she's raised (either way, this requires physical contact). Either act drains her of energy, especially if they were dead awhile or the injuries were comprehensive. Those people she has raised are faster and stronger while she's in this mode (she's actively feeding them energy). Their emotions are somewhat flattened, though they're fully aware of what's going on. She's also stronger, and has flattened emotions (and can heal her own injuries) in this mode.

People she has raised are the exception to her sight and hearing problems in this mode. She can see and hear them perfectly normally. They are also still of the same mindset as when they died. She cannot control the people she raises, but they are unable to perform any deliberate act that might harm her. If she makes the conscious decision to cut them off from her power, they cease to be animated and their brain loses all lights (does not require physical contact). Which means she can't reanimate them.

In addition, people she has raised have no heartbeat, don't need to breathe and slowly lose body temperature.

Capes she has raised can use their powers normally when she is in either mode.

The second mode is the 'real world' mode. In this one, her eyesockets are full of darkness, but she can see normally. She can't use her powers actively, and people she has raised are of normal strength and speed. Their emotions are less flattened in this mode as well. The main advantages of this mode are that she can regain energy just by resting, and she can see properly.

If she stays in the shadow realm mode for too long and uses up too much energy, she starts involuntarily flickering back to the real world mode until she transitions back deliberately.

Deputy Director Renick

"… and that was it for the interview. I'll write up my report in full once I get back to base."

"Understood," Renick replied. "Good work, Lieutenant. Now for your personal impressions. Do you consider that the girl or the people she reanimated might be a danger to the city?"

"No, I didn't get that vibe, sir. The man was forthright and calm, the other girl she'd animated was a little confrontational and snarky—that is, typical teenager—and the girl herself seemed tired and just over the whole thing. They spoke quite candidly about the lack of typical horror-movie zombie symptoms. I could walk past any one of them on the street and not see anything amiss. Apart from the eyes, of course."

"Yes. The eyes." Renick sighed. That's going to play hell with her secret identity if she can't turn that effect off. "You say that sunglasses won't help?"

"The effect covers the whole eyesocket in either situation and the light is rather bright, sir. One of our helmets might do it, but anything less would have as much effect as putting a domino mask on a Case Fifty-Three."

"Understood." The poor kid was doomed to being an open cape, and there was only one thing he could really do about it. "Do you think she might be amenable to joining the Wards?" Every warm body helped, after all.

Tellingly, Grant hesitated. "I … don't know, sir. It's possible, I guess. We can give her cover that nobody else can, and the very last thing we want is a power like that in one of the gangs. I just didn't want to make the attempt and push her away by saying the wrong thing. Also, can a parent actually make legal decisions about their child when they're technically deceased?"

Renick chuckled darkly. "That, Lieutenant, is a question I think the legal department is going to be pulling their hair out over." And they weren't going to be the only ones. Image is going to pitch a pink fit when they find out about her. A girl who raises not-zombies from the recently deceased. How do you even spin something like that?

That they'd try, he had no doubt. The Protectorate and Wards had borne witness to many a success story by the Image department, so they'd probably come in with full confidence that they had it in the bag. With the unique challenge presented by this girl's powers, even if she were willing to give them a chance, he wasn't at all certain of their success.

It would probably be highly entertaining while it lasted, though.

He spoke a little more with Lieutenant Grant, then ended the call. With another sigh, he set about typing up a preçis of the call for Emily when she arrived in the morning. How she was going to react to this, he wasn't sure. He was just glad that it wasn't going to be his problem.


"Let me see that again," Terry said, reaching for Sophia's hand.

"Get off!" she retorted, snatching it away. "Just because I stuck scissors through it doesn't mean you can wipe your grubby paws all over it."

"I just wanted to see where it was healed." His voice was plaintive.

"Right here. See?" Sophia held her hand out, palm forward. She held the pose for about ten seconds, then turned her hand around so he was looking at the back. Then, because it was Sophia, she gave him the finger. "Or would you like me to repeat myself?"

"Sophia." Mrs Hess didn't raise her voice, but Sophia paused in the act of bringing up her other hand to give her brother a double-barreled bird. "Enough."

"But Mo-om, he's treating me like a circus freak," Sophia protested. "I'm just dead, not a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine or something."

Mrs Hess flinched. "Don't say that." Her voice was quiet and full of pain. "Please don't say that."

"Shit." Sophia dropped her gaze to the floor. "I'm sorry."

It was as if she hadn't spoken. "I've been scared this day would come," her mother said softly. "From the first time I caught you with that costume. I was most worried of a police officer knocking on the door to give me the bad news. Second most of being called to the hospital to see you before you passed."

I tried to think of a way to comfort her, but between the lateness of the hour and my own overwhelming guilt, I couldn't come up with anything.

"Well, I haven't passed," Sophia said. Her mother and I both gave her a look. She had the grace to look abashed, then rallied again. "I just took a time-out on life for a bit, and now I'm back. I can even go home whenever you're ready." She flicked a glance at me that I had no trouble interpreting. I can, can't I?

"Well, yeah," I said as reassuringly as I could. "Just don't make any plans to leave the state, okay?"

"Right." She rolled her eyes. "Up until you said that, I was fine with not going anywhere. Now? I've got this urge to go visit LA or someplace … kidding. I kid."

"You think you're being funny," I said. "But you're really not."

"Hey, I leave the deep an' sophisticated humour to the nerds," she told me airily. "I'll handle the important stuff in life, like kicking ass and maybe taking names." Accepting the cup of coffee Doctor Cartwright handed her, she took a sip.

"Once again, that's what got us into all this." I shook my head. "Think you could maybe tone it down for a bit until we figure where we're at?"

"That's probably a wise idea," Dr Cartwright said from where he'd been sitting silently behind his desk all this time. "I know little to nothing about powers and how they work, but while you may now be inhumanly resistant to being shot or stabbed, I strongly suspect that Taylor is not. Also, while the part of her powers that makes her eyes glow also makes you stronger and faster, she cannot maintain it for hours on end."

"I'd noticed that myself," Dad agreed. "So while it's best for Taylor if she stays home safe and sound …"

"… it's best for Sophia if I go out and about with her and give her a boost when and if she needs it," I finished.

"And I'll be damned if I ever let you go out alone at night like that again," Dad added vehemently. "Also, body armour. You're going to be wearing body armour."

Wow, damn. This was the most protective Dad had sounded since … well, since forever. And somehow I knew it wasn't because if I died, he died. It was because I was his daughter and he was my father.

"I'm down with that," announced Sophia. "Hey, this coffee isn't bad."

"So, no ill effects from caffeine …" murmured Doctor Cartwright. "Do you feel better? Stronger? Faster?"

Sophia snorted. "Nah, that's only when Taylor does her glowing-eyes thing. Any other time? Nope, just normal old me."

I stifled a yawn. "How about we talk about this in the morning? I'm beat. Because, you know, I've been beaten."

"That is also a wise idea." Doctor Cartwright nodded approvingly. "Important decisions should not be made when tired or hungry."

"Yeah, well, I'll be heading home with my folks," Sophia said. She came over and put her hand on my shoulder. "See you tomorrow?"

"Absolutely," I said, yawning again, right in the middle of the word. "Dad, let's go home."

"Sure." He went over and shook Doctor Cartwright's hand. "And thanks for everything. I know I appreciate it."

"You're entirely welcome." Cartwright smiled. "And if anything else unusual crops up with your, uh, condition …"

Dad nodded. "You'll be the first to know. Come on, Taylor. Let's go."

I paused as something occurred to me. "Uh … how? The car's not here, and I doubt either of us has money for a cab."

"Mom can drop you off." Sophia looked at her mother. "Right?"

Mrs Hess sighed. "Okay, why not. It'll be cramped, though."

"Trust me," I said feelingly, "it's better than walking."

"I appreciate it," Dad told her. "When I get hold of my wallet, I'll give you gas money."

"No, never mind," she said, shaking her head. "I have a feeling we're going to be getting to know each other a lot better from now on anyway."

I met Sophia's eyes and we both shrugged.

It definitely sounded like a plan.


Okay, it's a plan, but can I pull it off?

He didn't know for a fact, but there was only one way to find out. He was the only one who knew and accepted the Truth about what was going on. Someone had to get the word out.

Irritatingly enough, Simon didn't seem to be bored enough to stop paying attention to him. He hadn't ever really paid much attention to the burly security guard before now, but the guy was definitely paying attention to him. Every time he swiped the mop over a new section of floor, Simon would get up from where he was sitting and move a few more yards down. His handcuffs, keys and torch thumped and jingled against the plastic chairs, but the guy didn't seem to care.

Rodney got all the way to the end of the corridor before he put his plan into action. Not to run for it; he'd seen Simon in action and he knew the big guy was a lot fitter than him. I have to out-think him.

So he cleaned the last section then turned to Simon, who was waiting by the stairwell door. "Hey, dude, before I start the next floor, could I hit the restroom? I need to take a wicked dump."

He'd tried to make his tone as casual as possible, but Simon still frowned at him. Then, slowly, the big man nodded. "Sure. I'll be right outside."

"Yeah, no problem." Rodney led the way to the nearest men's room. He and Simon both knew damn well there would be no sneaking out through the six-inch-square air ducting, or the eight-inch-high sealed window. The only way in and out would be via the door, and that was where Simon would be.

Still pretending to be casual, Rodney strolled in and went to the far end cubicle. He took care to lock himself in, then reached into the pocket of his scrubs and took out his phone. Feeling like a character in an old spy thriller, he held down the power button to wake it up. Just before the music tone sounded that would've betrayed what he was doing, he shoved the device under his armpit and started making grunting noises for extra verisimilitude.

"You okay in there?" called Simon.

"Yeah, just a big one!" Rodney called back.

"I do not want to know!"

Smirking, Rodney let the phone finish booting up, then opened a tab to PHO. Hastily, knowing his time was limited, he started to type.

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In: Boards ► Brockton Bay ► Non-Cape

RaffieStaffie (Original Poster) (Temp-banned)

Posted on August 28, 2010:

On mobile, so pls forgive any format crap.

Okay, guys, this is absolutely real. This isn't some Void Cowboy conspiracy stuff, its real as real. I saw it.

So i work in Brockton General and this chick came in, she'd been pretty beat up and stuff but her friend was worse, shed been shot. And some othe dude came in I think he was her dad or smth? I dunno.

Anyway, the shot girl and the dude are both in a rael bad way and they pass. It's sad but it happens. But this chick goes mental. tears the door off theroom shes in and frces herway into the morge and when i come in shes raised them both as zombies and she raised another one like a ganger or smth and her face is like a skull and im tryin to rase the alarm but the hospitals trying to cover it up so nobody nppanics but youve got to spread the word. zombies. Im serios zombies in bb. i got to

(Showing Page 3 of 3)

► Glory Girl (Verified Cape) (Cape Daughter) (New Wave)

Replied on August 28, 2010:

What did I just read?

► BrickFrog (Veteran Member)

Replied on August 28, 2010:

I'm not entirely certain.

Though that "I got to" cut off at the end is kinda ominous.

► LaserDream (Verified Cape) (Cape Daughter) (New Wave)

Replied on August 28, 2010:

Got to get back on their meds, maybe?

I mean, seriously? Zombies?

► 2ndAmendGuy

Replied on August 28, 2010:

Okay, I knew this day was coming.

Can capes help against a zombie apocalypse?

Like hell they can. All you'd get out of that would be zombie capes.

Time for a dose of good old Samuel Colt equalizer.

Lock and load, friends.

Lock and load.

End of Page. 1, 2, 3

Doctor James Cartwright

James closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "He did what?" With any luck, the answer would be different the second time around.

Simon, standing in front of the desk with his hand securely wrapped around Rodney's shoulder, cleared his throat with what sounded like embarrassment. "He made an excuse to go to the restroom and posted on the Parahumans Online Boards. I got suspicious when … well, when I couldn't smell anything. So I opened the door, and he had his phone in his hands."

"He didn't even knock!" Rodney protested. "He just unlocked the door! I could've been doing anything! And he took my phone, too!"

"How bad is it?" asked James, ignoring the young man.

"Could be better, could be worse." Simon waggled his hand from side to side. "He didn't name names, and most of the people who've responded so far seem to think it's a joke or a hoax. Of course, there are a few who are … problematic."

"Can you go on yourself and post the real story?" asked James hopefully. "Or delete his post?"

"I can't delete his original post without access to his account, and he shut his phone down before I managed to get it away from him." Simon glared at Rodney, who just managed to look stubborn. "But I can do the other thing."

"Do it," James ordered. "The last thing we want is a panic about zombies. That poor girl has been through enough already."

"Okay." Simon took out his own phone and turned it on, then he began to tap on it.

James kept an eye on Rodney, wondering what he was going to do with the young man. His heart was clearly in the right place, but his sense of judgement was just as clearly lacking. It looks like the disciplinary review board after all. James had been hoping to avoid that.

"Huh." Simon looked up from his phone. "Looks like they've reined in the crazy. I think we're in the clear."

"Really?" James leaned forward. "Let me see."

Obligingly, Simon held the phone toward him.

► Agent42 (Verified PRT Agent) (Veteran Member)

Replied on August 28, 2010:

We got a call from BB General earlier tonight. Four officers attended. The report states that although there was a trigger event involved amid unusual circumstances (details withheld to protect identities) there are zero, I say again ZERO zombies running around Brockton Bay.

So cease panicking, folks.

Save your panic for the actual threats out and about.

Good night and stay safe.

► ChaosDancer (Moderator) (Veteran Member)

Replied on August 28, 2010:

(Sigh) I go for coffee and this happens.

RaffieStaffie, have a temp ban.

Everyone else, calm your frontal lobes.

I am hereby locking this thread.


"Well, that's good … isn't it?" Doc Cartwright looked at Simon for confirmation.

"Yeah, it's about the best result we could hope for," the security guard agreed. "The PRT rarely weighs in on stuff like this, so people tend to believe them. And with the thread closed and Stafford here temp banned, the fuss should die away." He gave Rodney an unfriendly look. "What do I do with him?" With any luck, Cartwright's orders would involve the toe of Simon's boot and a ballistic arc across the parking lot.

From the look on the surgeon's face, he was having much the same thoughts, but then he sighed and shook his head. "Leave him to me. I'm going to need to have a long talk with him about whether he thinks he's really suited to this job."

"Sure thing." Simon stepped away from the desk, leaving Rodney standing there. "He's all yours."

As the door closed behind him, he shook his head. Better him than me.

The Next Day

I stretched and yawned myself awake, then swung my legs over the side of the bed just as memories hit me from the night before. "Shit!" I gasped. "Dad!" For all that I'd felt sure he would be okay when I fell asleep, I needed to know.

It took a moment to remember that I could shift into the shadow realm. When I did, everything was dark except for the vague shadows of matter in the air … and I could see through the walls. In the hospital, there had been far too many people around to fix on any one of them, but now I was looking for one in particular.

And there he was. If I was reading the house correctly—it was weird as fuck to be able to see through walls and floors like the place was a transparent 3D model—he was just coming in through the front door, carrying some objects that looked a lot denser than the walls. I couldn't see details from where I was, but I suspected they were a hammer and a bunch of nails.

"Are you up, Taylor?" he called out. "I can feel your boost."

Hastily, I opened the door and leaned out. "Yeah, I just woke up!" I yelled back. "How are you feeling?"

He started up the stairs; it was weird watching him climb the risers while at the same time hearing his footsteps. When he got to the top of the stairs and turned the corner, I came out of the bedroom and went to meet him.

As far as I could tell, he looked the same as he had last night. I couldn't see his brain-lights, but he was neither shambling nor slurring. All the same, I put my hand on his arm and pushed energy into him. Only a little went through, not even enough to make me light-headed, and I dropped back into the real world.

"Well, I was feeling fine even before you did that," he said with a chuckle. "But thank you anyway. I think I might've overdone the make-work jobs I set myself last night to get around boredom."

I frowned. "What exactly did you do?"

He took a deep breath, then stretched. Old habits died hard, it seemed. "Well, after I fixed the door where the Merchants kicked it in, I lay awake for an hour then I got up and washed the dishes, swept and mopped the floors, cleaned out the basement, scrubbed that stubborn stain out of the downstairs bathroom cubicle, then went and got some lumber and replaced that rotten step."

"Wow." I blinked, impressed. "So … if you keep on not being able to sleep, what are you going to do tomorrow night to keep yourself active?"

He sighed. "I'm thinking I can finally justify getting cable at last. Spend my time watching documentaries or other educational shows. Or maybe I'll buy a typewriter and start writing a novel or something. There's a lot of stories my dad told me about Brockton Bay, back before powers were a thing, that people might like to read about."

I grinned at him. "If I bought a copy, would you sign it?"

"Sign it? I'd dedicate it to you." He snorted and shook his head. "I've heard the old saying about 'when a door closes, a window opens' but this is patently ridiculous. I know I should be mad about being attacked in my own home, and I am, but to be honest? I've always thought there weren't enough hours in the day, and now there are."

And there was the guilt again. "Dad, I'm so, so sorry that I got you into all this. If I hadn't been carrying something with my name on it—"

He wrapped me up in a hug. "Taylor. It's not your fault. You've been under a huge amount of stress, and Sophia came along at just the wrong time."

Ugh, dammit. I didn't want him blaming Sophia. "Not really her fault, either. It's a fact that people who know how to do something automatically think other people can do it too. I could've said no to going out as her sidekick."

"And yet, you did not." Dad released me from the hug and put his hands on my shoulders. "What I said last night about wearing body armour still goes, young lady. I am not going to let you go out as a costumed vigilante without at least a modicum of protection."

Remembering what had happened to Sophia brought the truth of his words home to me. "Okay, Dad. Any idea where I can get some from?"

"Now that, I'm not sure about." He rubbed his chin. "I could ask around the Dockworkers. Some of them have pasts I've been careful not to dig too deeply into. Pretty sure a few of them have worked for villains before now. If anyone would know how to get body armour in your size, they would."

He went downstairs to make breakfast while I went to take a shower. Checking my face in the mirror revealed that the broken-and-fixed nose still had a bump in the bridge, and the other marks from the beating and torture were also there. It appeared that my power had repaired the damage without resetting things, which I supposed I'd have to deal with. It wasn't like my looks had been anything to write home about before all this.

Shower done, I had just emerged from my room with a towel wrapped around my hair when I heard a brisk knock on the door. Just on a hunch, I went into the shadow realm and saw (through two walls and the floor) Sophia standing on the front porch with two living people behind her. One of the two was carrying a much smaller third person. Her mother, brother and sister. Of course. As I watched, Sophia raised her hand and waved.

"I got it!" I called out, and went back to the real world, then trotted down the stairs. When I opened the door, Sophia was just raising her hand to knock again. "Hey," I said, slightly out of breath. "When you said you'd come over, I didn't realise it would be this early."

"Hey, you," she returned with a smirk, reaching out to punch me lightly on the shoulder. Her knuckles didn't quite make contact, and the smirk dimmed somewhat. Making the clear decision to pretend that hadn't just happened, she forged on. "Well, I didn't know how absolutely goddamn boring it would be, stuck in the house when you can't sleep. So as soon as I felt your boost, I knew you were up."

"And then she bitched and whined to Mom until we brought her over," Terry put in from behind her. "As far as I'm concerned, you can keep her."

"Terence Luther Hess," his mother admonished him. "That's not a nice thing to say, even if it is a joke."

"Who says it was a joke?" He rolled his eyes. "The only thing worse than a bratty teenage little sister is a bratty teenage little sister who can't sleep."

"Well, I was just talking with Taylor about getting cable installed," Dad said from behind me. "You're more than welcome to come over some nights and we could watch documentaries."

Sophia wrinkled her nose. "Documentaries? Really? Can't we watch something more interesting?"

Even when I wasn't looking, I could hear Dad's shrug. "My cable, my rules."

"Ugh, fine." Sophia rolled her eyes. "I'll watch the boring documentaries. They might have something cool."

"I'm glad you approve," Dad said dryly. "Anyway, we're being rude, here. Would you all like to come in?"

With that hint, I stepped aside. Sophia came in first, looking around with interest. Terry let his mother precede him, then he followed her while carrying his baby sister.

Dad led the way into the living room and waved the Hesses to the sofa. "We were just making breakfast. Would you like some coffee or tea?"

"No, we can't stay long," Mrs Hess said. "Sophia insisted on coming over, but if this is an awkward time, she can come back later."

"Mom!" protested Sophia. "What the heck? How about I get to make my own decisions?"

"Because you've done so very well with those in the last few months," Terry snarked at her. I decided I liked him, and not just because he was big and buff.

"Hey, I don't see you going out there and keeping the streets safe!" she fired back at him.

"As I said, you've done such a great job of it." His deadpan delivery was perfect, not even needing to point out me and Dad.

"Enough." Mrs Hess didn't shout, but the tone of her voice brought both Sophia and Terry up short. "I didn't bring you here so you could argue in someone else's home. Terry, leave your sister alone. Sophia, you don't want to wear out your welcome here."

"Well duh, that's not gonna happen," Sophia declared boldly. "I'm the superhero, here."

Dad raised his eyebrows. "What was that about not making decisions for people, again?"

"What?" she stared at him, a look of betrayal in her eyes. "But I—but you—"

I laughed and put my hand on her shoulder, a moment before Dad's grin broke through. "Chillax, Soph. Dad's just yanking your chain. I'm good with you coming over. We both are."

She tried to glare at us, but her heart clearly wasn't in it. "You assholes. You really had me going for a minute there."

"Just goes to show," I said with a smirk of my own. "Making unfounded assumptions will bite you in the ass at the worst possible time."

Although I hadn't meant the words to cut, Sophia winced anyway. It was basically her assumptions and decisions that had led to this whole situation, and we both knew it. Yes, my own choices had contributed, but she'd been the driving force. And now she and Dad were both dead because of it. In a staggering turn of irony, she was being forced to face the consequences of her actions after they had killed her, whereas for most people death was the end of their problems.

Of course, my life was not without its own complications. My new best friend was dead and my father was dead. The fact that they were walking and talking, and would be for the foreseeable future, was only a detail. They were still dead, and the responsibility for their deaths—and their lives, or the simulacra of life that they now possessed—was now at least partly mine. Even with them at my side, I was alone in a way few people were.

"Yeah," Sophia said heavily. "I got that, thanks."

I took a deep breath and knelt beside the sofa, sliding my arm around her shoulders. "Hey," I said. "We're in this together." Pushing myself into the shadow realm, I directed healing energy into her. It took more of a jolt than I'd needed for Dad, and I gave her a quizzical look. "What've you been doing to yourself?"

"Hah! Check it out," she crowed, and pulled up the leg of her sweatpants. "Yes! It worked!"

"Worked? What worked?" Dropping back into the real world, I leaned over to see what she was doing. Down the length of her calf was tattooed the word 'BADASS', dark blue ink standing out against the dark brown of her skin. I was pretty sure she hadn't had a tattoo like that before … "Wait. Did you do that? Last night?"

Terry sighed. "At about one AM. Ruined one of our pens to do it. Took her forever to get it done."

"Well, if you'd helped me do it, it would've taken a lot less time," she sniped back at him.

"And once Mom found out that I'd helped, I'd be—" He cut himself off, probably just before saying the word dead. "Grounded for life," he substituted.

"What makes you think you're not?" Mrs Hess asked rhetorically.

"Wait, what?" he said. "How is that fair?"

She gave him a hard look. "You're the oldest. You're supposed to be more responsible than that."

"She's the superhero!"

"And you're still the oldest." Her tone said that the subject was closed.

"Well, that sucks," he muttered.

Mrs Hess gave her elder daughter a hard look. "You're lucky you're not grounded right alongside him."

We all knew why she wasn't, and why nobody was talking about it. Being dead was kind of the ultimate 'what more can you do to me' situations. "So, did it hurt?" I asked, curious despite myself. It seemed that she and Dad were more or less impervious to pain from being punched and kicked, but actual stabbing wounds were another thing altogether. There had been the 'scissors through the hand' trick but Sophia was a bit of an edgelord, so she could've held it together for that.

"Nope. No more than it hurts when you write on yourself," she said airily, stretching out her leg and admiring the tattoo. The lettering wasn't perfect, but I'd seen pictures of prison tattoos that were more clumsily done. "Would've sucked if it just pushed all the ink out again, though."

"Well, don't do it too often," I chided her. "Even doing that takes it out of me when I heal you. I'd prefer to only have to fix the unavoidable stuff."

"Yeah, okay, sorry." She slapped her thighs and rubbed her hands together briskly. "So, Mr Hebert. How do you feel about giving Taylor and me a lift to the Lord Street Market?"

Dad and I glanced at each other. This sudden sharp left turn in the topic had me moderately puzzled, and I was pretty sure he was wondering what she had in mind as well. "It's doable," he replied cautiously. "But if you wanted to go to the Market, why didn't you just have your mother drop you off there instead?"

"Because I need both of you there as well." She looked at me, then at Dad. "What, don't you get it yet? Costumes. Well okay, not the high end stuff, but clothing that's got some sort of theme and you can use it to hide your identity."

"Uh, I didn't think I was going to go out—" I began, just as Dad started talking as well. I stopped and waved for him to keep going.

"Thanks." He gave Sophia a stern look. "Taylor will have enough trouble hiding the fact that she's a parahuman before she even gets to the Market. And while she's stronger when she's in boost mode, she can't keep that up indefinitely, and she's still vulnerable to stuff that you and I can just shrug off. I do not want her going out until she's as protected as we can make her, and that requires body armour. Which I still haven't had a chance to source. But right now, with her eyes the way they are? Everyone and his dog will know she's a parahuman on sight. We don't need that sort of complication."

"So she wears sunglasses," Sophia said with a throwaway gesture. "Just, you know, don't walk like you're trying to hide something, because that makes everyone look at you. Put on a rockin' pair of shades and walk like you own the pavement, and people just get out of your way."

"And if I had to go into the shadow realm?" I couldn't think of a good reason why I would, but I had to ask the question anyway. "From how bright you guys described my eyes are, not even mirror shades would cut it."

"Uh …" Sophia stalled, stuck. It looked like she hadn't anticipated all possible questions.

"Wear a scarf," Terry said unexpectedly. "If something happens so you have to do that, pull it up over your eyes. You can see right through it, yeah?"

Well, it seemed someone had been paying attention. Also, it was a solution. Not a perfect solution, but we'd left 'perfect' behind long ago and were dealing with 'maybe good enough'. And he was right; if I had to go into the shadow realm, it would be because shit was going sideways and Dad and Sophia needed the boost.

"Yeah," I agreed, albeit reluctantly. I wasn't in love with the idea of using a scarf over my face as a mask, but it could be a lot worse. "But what are the chances of something going wrong at the Market? Who'd even attack that place, anyway?"

Sophia drew a deep breath. "Merchants, ABB, Empire Eighty-Eight, Uber and Leet, and basically anyone who thinks they've got a reason. The Enforcers are good for dealing with shoplifters and anyone who wants to start a protection racket, but anyone who's got actual powers can walk all over them. So we don't go there expecting trouble, but we make sure we can deal with it if it happens. Okay?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dad's fist clench at the mention of the Merchants, which didn't surprise me. I had a few scores to settle with those creeps, myself. We all did. I found myself not so much hoping they'd show up while we were at the Market, but being totally okay with the idea if they did.

Slowly, Dad nodded. "Okay, you've convinced me. Taylor and I need clothing that will pass for a costume until we can get something better, and the Market is as good a place as any to get that." He turned to Mrs Hess. "If that's alright with you, that is."

For what seemed like about an hour, but couldn't have been more than twenty seconds, Sophia's mother considered her answer. Eventually, she sighed and nodded. "Just don't let her run too far out of control," she advised Dad. "You've already seen how she'll push boundaries."

"Hey, I do not run out of control!" protested Sophia. "Or push boundaries!"

Dad, Terry, myself and her mother all gave her a very dry look. "Yes," we said at once. "You do."

Startled at the fact that we'd all said the same thing at the same time, I giggled as Sophia gave us each a phenomenally dirty look. "You all suck," she mumbled.

Ignoring her bad temper, Dad nodded to Mrs Hess. "I'll drop her off at your house when we're finished," he assured her.

"That sounds okay." She gave him a smile. "I'm not exactly onboard with what's already happened, but I'm glad I have a fellow responsible adult to help keep an eye on her now."

I was about to protest; something along the lines of hey, I'm pretty responsible. Then I remembered how we'd gotten to where we were. Oh. Right.

"Well, then." I dusted my hands off and stood up. "Let's go see what the Market has to offer."

Sophia grinned and got up as well. "Let's do this."

End of Part Nine