Alea Iacta Est
A Worm AU Fanfic
A/N: The title refers to Caesar's quote as he prepared to cross the Rubicon and enter Rome: "The die is cast".
A/N 2: 'Oracle' changed to 'Navigation Cluster' at suggestion of Biigoh
1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
3) I will accept any legitimate criticism of my work. However, I reserve the right to ignore anyone who says "That's wrong" without showing how it is wrong, and suggesting how it can be made right. Posting negative reviews from an anonymous account is a good way to have said reviews deleted.
Part One: Discovery
The entity prepared the shards and sent them forth. The Administration shard would go to a leader of men, to be passed to a girl child near to him when the conflict around her became too much.
The Navigation Cluster shard also went to a man who gave other men orders. He also had a girl child close to him, surrounded by conflict, ripe for a trigger.
Thus seeded, they awaited final activation.
"Merry Christmas, Taylor."
"Merry Christmas, Dad."
The rustle of tissue paper being unwrapped from gifts was loud in Taylor's ears; too loud. There was no other sound to compete; no happy chatter, no banter between ... between ...
Looking back, Taylor could mark the points when her family began to disintegrate. First was that terrible day, two and a half years before, when she learned that her mother was dead in a car accident. Emma had been her best friend then, as close as a sister. Her parents had taken Taylor in, until Danny had recovered enough to function. Taylor had still grieved, of course, sobbing into her pillow far into the night, but deep down there was the knowledge that Emma, her friend, her confidante, would always be there.
And then, she wasn't. Between one week and the next, while Taylor was at summer camp, Emma turned away from her. But the true nature of the betrayal only showed when they began high school; Emma joined forces with other girls to torment, to pester, to bully Taylor, until she didn't know which way to turn.
She lost the friend who was as close as a sister, then. A part of what she saw as her family, breaking away, distancing itself. And during school hours, returning to attack, to harass, to single her out and to hurt her with well-chosen barbs.
That first Christmas had been the worst, but at least Emma and her family had been there. On the next one, Alan Barnes had made excuses; the mutual Christmas get-together, tradition for so many years, vanished without a trace. Taylor had no doubt but that Emma had been behind it; perhaps she was uncomfortable with the idea, or perhaps she just wanted to deny Taylor even that level of happiness. Worse, Danny had barely noticed, caught up in his own troubles, when he wasn't remembering her mother, his wife. On what was supposed to be a day of jollity and togetherness, Taylor and Danny had been alone; the two of them certainly together, but still very much alone. Danny brooded, while Taylor was still trying to come to terms with what her best friend had become. Neither of them was in possession of the support, the emotional toolkit, that would have helped them accept it, assimilate it, put it behind them and move on.
And now it was Christmas once more, their second as just father and daughter, without wife and mother, without friends of whatever age. This year, they'd barely made the effort; a ratty tree in the corner, a couple of wrapped presents. Yes, it's Christmas, let's get it over with. No egg-nog, no Christmas carols. When the day was done, Danny would pack the tree up and store it back in the basement until next year; privately, Taylor doubted whether it would even make an appearance again.
She'd done her best to get him presents that she thought he'd like; a history of Brockton Bay and an antique-looking pocket watch. In return, she got a silver locket – while pretty, she couldn't wear it to school, or it would disappear, just as surely as her mother's flute had disappeared – and a detective novel that she'd already read. But she didn't want to hurt his feelings on this day of all days, so she put the locket on, and began to read the novel with every evidence of interest.
"Remember how your mother used to decorate the house?"
Taylor looked up, a little confused; that had come out of nowhere. Danny was smiling a little sadly as he handled the pocket watch; perhaps it reminded him of quirky gifts from Christmases long gone. "Uh, I guess?"
He seemed to come to a conclusion. "This isn't the sort of Christmas we used to have, sitting around all gloomy. We can do better than this." Stowing the watch in his pocket, he stood up.
For a moment, she thought he was going to suggest decorating the house after all. This could be good, or it could be bad.
But he had something else in mind. "Want to get the photo albums down, look at the ghosts of our Christmases past?"
No. Say no. "Sure, Dad. That sounds like fun." Coward.
The next-but-last thing she wanted to do was trawl through the static, frozen memories, to recall moments painful in their emotional clarity. To happen across a candid shot of her mother – or worse, Emma – happy, smiling, laughing, unaware of the changed circumstances that three or four years would make.
But the very last thing she wanted to do was to hurt her father's feelings, and so she sat down with him, and they paged through the albums. Christmas decorations aplenty, a tree almost scraping the ceiling, weighed down with the tinsel that a younger Taylor, an Emma as yet innocent of betrayal, had competed to hang upon it. Silly expressions, funny hats, people wearing odd hand-knitted sweaters from obscure relatives; they all reminded her of days forever gone.
Tears welled in her eyes at the happiness that she had lost, that had been torn away or leached out of her life; not understanding, Danny put a comforting arm over her shoulders. "It's okay to cry, kiddo. I loved her too."
She couldn't explain; he wouldn't understand. Or worse; maybe he would. He might call Alan Barnes, demand retribution. She did not want this day to be spoiled even further with anger, recriminations. And besides, she's been easing up. Maybe she's lost interest.
Later that night, she lay in bed, memories swirling around her. Memories of a mother who was gone, and a friend who may as well be; of a family torn apart by death and betrayal. She had trouble comprehending how thoroughly her life had gone downhill in less than three years.
If I knew then what I know now ... It was a familiar lament, but none the less true for it.
With that thought troubling her, she rolled over and sought elusive sleep. Eventually, she found it, or it found her.
Dreams came to her, dreams that she would never remember.
Morning came, and with it, a strange obsession. She found herself flipping coins, silently calling the throws, getting it right, time after time. More; she needed more. "Dad, where are the board games?"
Danny looked up from where he was browsing the book that he had gotten her. "You want to play a board game?"
"No, I just want to get the dices."
An odd look. "It's 'dice'."
"Singular is 'die', plural is 'dice'. What do you want them for?"
"It's hard to explain." It was more than that; it was literally impossible for her to say why she needed them; the explanation was on the tip of her tongue, but the words would not come to her. "I just need them."
A shrug, as he carefully marked his place in the book and put it down. "Let's go find them then."
She wanted to tell him why she needed the dice, but the words refused to form themselves, so instead she gestured back at the book. "You like it, Dad?"
He smiled and ruffled her hair. "It's pretty good, kiddo."
The warm feeling from that lasted while they located the board games – some, rat-chewed, in the basement, while others resided in the closet in the spare room – and extracted the dice from those games that had them. The dice were of the standard type; six-sided, white with black dots. She weighed them in her hand, felt them moving around in her grasp.
Downstairs once more, Danny eyed the half-dozen dice she held. "So what are you going to do with those?"
She didn't answer, just threw them; they landed on the kitchen table. Every one turned up a single dot. Snake-eyes times three. Danny's jaw slowly dropped.
"How … how did you do that, kiddo?"
She shrugged, retrieving the dice. "I just do it."
"Can you do it again?"
"What would you like?"
"Uh … all sixes."
She threw; boxcars as far as the eye could see. She picked the dice up again.
"Okay, now from one to six."
Without apparent effort, she threw one more time. The dice were scattered on the table, but each one showed a different face. One through six. Danny pulled out a chair, sat down, staring at the dice. "Holy shit. You know what this means, kiddo?"
"That I could make a fortune at Vegas?"
He barked a short laugh. "Hah. No. They'd have people on the lookout for that exact thing. I doubt that you're the only person who's ever been able to influence the roll of a die. No, but this does mean that you're a parahuman. What you just did … that was virtually impossible. Three sets of six, each one called."
She drew out her own chair, sat down. The dice spilled from her hand, rolled into a circular formation. "Yeah, but I can't see being able to roll dice being a world-beating superpower. I can just see it; I go out in costume and challenge bad guys to best-of-three."
"Maybe it means that you're a telekinetic," he suggested. "Try it with something else."
A spoon lay near her hand; she concentrated on it. Nothing happened; she picked it up, dropped it. It bounced once, lay still.
Danny shrugged. "Something smaller?"
Toothpicks failed to bend to her will as well; as with dice, she could make them neither levitate from her hand nor move without her touching them. She could make them land wherever on the table she wanted, but that didn't promise to be very important.
They went back to the dice, ascertaining that she could indeed throw them, for whatever result she desired – to a point. They would land either showing the numbers she wanted or in the formation she wanted, but not both.
"Great," she declared at last. "I can totally cheat at Yahtzee. Wonderful." Morosely, she set a die to spinning on one corner.
Danny suddenly got up. "I'll be back in a second, kiddo."
"Okay." Taylor watched the die spin down. Six, she thought. It landed on a six.
Danny came thumping back downstairs with a cardboard box in his hands. "I haven't even looked at this stuff since your mother and I started going out, but you might be interested." Blowing the dust off of it, he lifted the lid.
Inside were pencils worn to a stub, three-by-five index cards with arcane scribblings on them, and folded sheets of paper. Underneath that, as Taylor lifted out the papers, were red books, softcover, with imaginative pictures of dragons on them. But she didn't have eyes for that; also scattered from one side of the box to the other were dice. Lots of dice. Dice of a sort that she had never seen before.
"Dad," she breathed. "What are they?"
She sat with the odd-shaped polyhedrons before her in a row. The 'd-four' – Danny had explained the terminology to her – looked like a triangular pyramid while the d-six was the standard die, though these had numbers rather than pips. Then there was the d-eight, the d-ten, the d-twelve and the d-twenty. Each of them performed as readily the original dice she had gotten; the d-twenty rolled naturally off of her palm and ended up on whatever number she wanted.
But it was the d-tens that caught her attention. "Why do some of these have one number on each side, while others have two?"
So then he explained percentile dice to her; once she understood that zero-zero-zero equalled one hundred, while zero-zero-one equalled one, it all became clear. She rolled the percentiles, and each time, the number came out at whatever Danny called it.
And then she had a thought. "Dad, write the number down. Don't let me see it."
He did what she said; she rolled the dice. His number came up.
"Are you reading my mind?" His expression was a little concerned, not very much to her surprise. The only known 'real' telepath in the world was the Simurgh; to be associated with the angel-winged Endbringer in any significant way was a very bad thing. The upcoming trial of the parahuman singer known as Canary was proof positive of that.
"Not that I know of," she told him. "I was just thinking 'whatever number he wrote down'."
"You still could have read my mind and not consciously known it," he mused. "Okay, let's try something else." He tore out three pages from a notebook he found in the box. "Write a number on each of them, then fold them so I can't see. I'll mix them up so you don't know which one I've picked."
Duly, she wrote the numbers; 23, 54 and 71. Behind his back, Danny scrunched up each folded paper into a ball, then placed one on the table. Taylor rolled; the dice came up fifty-four. Carefully, Danny opened up the piece of paper. It was the one with 54 on it.
"Okay, that rules out telepathy," Danny noted with some relief. "So you're using clairvoyance?"
"I could still be using some sort of hyper-effective recognition," Taylor objected. "Really tiny patterns on the paper, even though I folded it and you crumpled it."
"Do you think you are?"
Taylor shrugged. "I don't know. It feels like I'm just throwing randomly; if I want the dice to roll one number or another, I get that number, but when I'm trying for an outside result, there's no actual answer in my mind until the dice land."
"Mm. Okay." Danny held out both hands, closed into fists. "What's in my right hand?"
She rolled the dice, and frowned at the result. "No, that's not right. I didn't write down a hundred."
Turning his hand over, Danny opened it; it was empty. "Not a hundred, kiddo," he pointed out. "Zero zero zero. The dice were telling you that there was nothing in my hand."
"Huh." Taylor eyed the dice. "They're smarter than they look."
"They certainly are." Danny handed her a third die, also a d-ten. "I'm going to try something. Roll the dice but don't let me see the result. I'm going to go and open that book you gave me at a random page."
She frowned. "How's that different from me writing the numbers down?"
"Just humour me, okay?"
"Okay." She picked up the dice. "Let me know when."
He entered the living room. "Okay!"
The dice clattered on the table; although they landed in a rough triangle, she had no trouble in reading the order; three two five. Covering them with her hand, she called out, "Okay, what did you get?"
He re-entered the kitchen with the book in his hands, unopened. As she watched, he closed his eyes, opened the book, riffled the pages, and put his finger on a page. Opening his eyes, he read off the page number. "Three hundred and twenty-five."
"You opened the book after I rolled."
He nodded. "Yes."
"The dice predicted what page you were going to open the book to."
This time, he shook his head. "No. You made the prediction. You just rolled the dice to get that number."
"But I didn't know what page number it was going to be, before I rolled!" she protested.
Reaching out, he tapped her on the top of the head, not hard. "You didn't. The part of you that knows how to roll dice to order ... that part did."
"That doesn't make sense," she complained.
"Legend can make lasers that go around corners and freeze water," he retorted. "Name one thing about super-powers that does make sense."
She stuck out her tongue at him.
"Okay," he decided, some little time later. "Random page numbers are easily predictable by you. When I roll dice, you can roll exactly the same numbers before I roll. You're a precog, sure enough. But is thatall you can predict?"
She frowned. "What are you getting at?"
"Simple." He gestured through the open door at the TV in the living room. "I'm going to go through there and turn on the weather channel. What's the temperature going to be?"
"I dunno," she responded, and rolled the dice. "Sixty-five." She frowned. "Does that sound right for you?"
"We'll see." He got up, and Taylor followed him into the living room, bringing the dice with her. Picking up the remote, he turned the TV on, then flicked it over to the appropriate channel.
"- and we've got a warm front moving up from the south, bringing the temperature up to a balmy sixty-five for today - "
On the screen, the weather announcer was gesturing to the state map, with '65' over the area of Brockton Bay. Danny switched the TV off again. "Well, looks like that works too."
Taylor stared at the dice in her palm. They looked so innocuous, so normal. But they allowed her to do things that she'd never been able to do before. And still, something was nudging at her.
"What?" Danny was looking at her.
"Percentiles. They can be used to determine the chance of something happening, right?"
"Uh, yes?" He blinked. "Holy crap, yes. Taylor, you're a genius."
"But how do we determine the actual percentage chance of something happening, so we can test this?" she asked practically.
He grinned. "By picking something we already know the percentage chance of first."
"And where can we find something like that?"
"You'll see." He led the way back into the kitchen. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a quarter. "Sit down and get ready to roll. Grab two more d-tens."
She did as she was told, cradling the four dice in her hand. "What am I predicting this time?"
"The chances of me getting heads every time if I flip this coin five times in a row." Taylor paused to try to calculate that in her head, and Danny clapped his hands. "Don't think, roll!"
Instinctively, she rolled the dice. Percentage chance of five heads in a row.
They tumbled across the table, and rolled to a halt. Three – she instinctively knew that there was a decimal point there – four five zero.
Danny was staring at the numbers. "Is that right?" she asked. "Is that what you expected?"
"No," he declared with a frown. "It's not. It should be three point one two five."
Taylor applied her mind to the math, and nodded. "Yeah," she agreed. "It should be … but … "
She pointed at the coin he was holding. "What if that coin wasn't absolutely true? It might have a marginal bias toward heads. That would throw things out, and give a higher number, right?"
He scratched his chin. "Huh. That could explain it. Okay. Percentage chance of getting heads on one flip of this coin."
She rolled the dice; they came up as fifty-one percent. "That look about right to you?"
"As close as we're going to get, I guess." He dropped the coin and picked up the d-twenty. "Odds of rolling this five times and getting evens every time."
Taylor rolled her dice. This time, they agreed with Danny's initial summation; three point one two five percent.
"Well, damn." Danny summed up their thoughts quite neatly. "You can predict the odds of something happening. To decimal point accuracy. That could be … "
"Scary." Taylor didn't even need to think about that. "Really scary."
Danny nodded. "We tell nobody."
Taylor agreed silently. It's not like I've got anyone to tell.
That evening, Taylor sat cross-legged on her bed and stared at the innocuous-looking dice that lay in the palm of her hand. This is a lot of power, right here. Do I dare use it? What can I use it for?
Drawing a deep breath, she grabbed a magazine and laid it on her bed to make for a rolling surface. For a few moments she sat, eyes closed, as she tried to think of what questions to ask.
Will Emma ever be my friend again? Opening her eyes, she rolled the dice.
Five point one three four percent.
This time, the deep breath was more like a sigh. Well, it's not entirely unexpected.
She concentrated again. Chances that Emma and the others will leave me alone?
The dice left her hand, rolled on the magazine cover. One point zero one three percent.
And there's my answer for that.
She paused, eyes opening slightly as the possibilities finally clicked into focus. Wait a minute. Chances that they'll pull something on me before lunchtime.
The dice rolled across the magazine. Ninety-nine point nine six percent.
Shit. Fuck. Chances that it will happen before third period.
Ninety-nine point nine six percent.
Chances that it will happen before second period.
Ninety-nine point nine six percent.
She was starting to feel panicky. The same numbers kept cropping up on the dice.
Chances that it will happen before first period.
Ninety-nine point nine six percent.
Her heart was hammering now. How bad will the prank be, on a scale of one to one hundred?
This time, she rolled just the two dice. They came to a stop. Zero zero zero. One hundred. Fuck.
Leaving the dice where they were, she flopped back on the bed, letting her head fall on the pillow. Oh god. If I'm to believe this, they've got a prank set up to spring on me before first period on the third. And it'll be worse than everything else they've done.
What do I do?
Closing her eyes, she reviewed her school route. Bus. They don't ride on the bus with me. But they might. Or they could get someone else to. She opened her eyes and sat up. Chances that the prank will happen on the bus? She rolled the dice.
Zero point zero one zero percent chance.
Not the bus. Okay, at the school proper. Um … walking across the parking lot.
The dice rolled once more. Zero point one three nine percent chance.
Not the parking lot, then. She tried to think hard. Before first period … my locker?
She watched as the dice rolled off of her palm. For a moment she thought they were going to settle on to another low-probability number, but then they rolled into position.
Ninety-nine point nine six percent chance.
A chill settled around her heart. Fuck, they've done something to my locker.
Will this prank harm me? Surely not … But she rolled the dice anyway.
Forty-three point seven six percent chance.
Chances that there'll be something in my locker that I didn't put in there?
Ninety-nine point nine six percent.
She picked up the dice and dropped the magazine on the floor, then lay back on the bed, thinking hard. Okay, they'll be putting something in my locker – or they've already done it – that's got a chance of harming me, and it'll be the worst prank that they've ever done to me. What the fuck do I do now? What can I do with this information?
Rolling over, she leaned over to look down at the floor. Chances that the prank will happen if I don't open my locker?
The dice rolled across the magazine. One point three zero four percent.
Okay, that would be good news if I didn't need my books.
Another point clicked into place. Chances that I can prove they did it?
Two point zero nine four percent.
She didn't like this next idea, but she had to know. Chances that I can prove they did it if I let them pull the prank on me?
Ten point six one percent.
Damn. Okay, good to know. No sacrificial play for me.
She thought about it for a moment. Chances of being transferred to Arcadia because of this?
The dice rolled to a stop. Seven point four nine three percent. Not great.
And then she had another thought, and she rolled the dice.
This time, she smiled when she saw the result.
Getting up, she put the dice carefully on her dresser, before switching off the light and climbing into bed.
I'm going to need to run some more numbers, but I think I can work this out.
Danny looked up from his perusal of an ancient yellowed set of rules. "Yeah?"
"I've been … using my power."
He put down the rules and looked at Taylor. They had decided to give one of the board games a whirl, now that they'd unearthed them – they'd picked a non dice based one, for obvious reasons – but Taylor's expression was more serious than normal. "And what did you find out?"
"Some pretty serious stuff." She took a deep breath. "I've been … getting bullied. At school. It's pretty bad. And it's going to get really bad when I go back."
"What?" He had trouble getting his head around this. "How? Kiddo, if you're having trouble, get Emma to back you up."
"I can't." Her expression was pained. "Emma's behind it."
The words didn't register for a moment, then he shook his head. "That can't be right. She's your best friend."
"Not since we started at Winslow, Dad." Her voice was dead level. "She's changed. She's a bitch, and she's been bullying me ever since."
"Fuck." It was starting to make sense; Taylor had been becoming more withdrawn, uncommunicative. Come to think of it, she hasn't been spending any time out of school with Emma …
Danny cursed himself for being a blind fool. "I'm going to call Alan right now and -"
But she was shaking her head. "No, Dad. That's got a less than nine percent chance of working."
"You've run the numbers?"
"I've run the numbers."
"So what can we do?"
Principal Blackwell turned over the pages of the thick document, reading a line here and a line there. Finally, she put it down and looked at the man across the desk from her.
"Mr Hebert, this is potentially very serious."
He looked almost offended at the phrasing. "Potentially? Principal Blackwell, that, right there, is what has been happening to my daughter since September. And what she says has been happening to her for a year before that."
She cleared her throat. "What she says and what might have happened are two different things. I need proof to take action."
"Fine," he retorted; she could tell that he was less than thrilled, but he held his temper well. "What you've got there, does that constitute proof enough that she's being bullied?"
"It could," she allowed; in truth, it was dauntingly thick. "With an admission from one of the people named here, or eyewitness evidence from a third party, it could definitely be classed as such."
"So my daughter's word that she wrote down just what happened to her isn't enough?" he asked, allowing just an edge of sarcasm to colour his voice.
"Mr Hebert, bullying is a very serious matter," she replied. "As such, false accusations of bullying can get innocent people in deep trouble. And so we must investigate such allegations carefully before deciding punishment."
"What if Taylor didn't want the bullies punished?" he asked. "Just for her to be transferred to Arcadia?"
Carrie Blackwell was taken just a little aback. "I – there are procedures - "
"The Christmas break has just ended," he pointed out. "It won't interrupt her education."
"I'm not sure if I could support -"
" … or, you know, if it was proven that the staff of Winslow were criminally negligent in letting this go on, I think I could have the school sued pretty damn hard," he went on. "I have a friend in the media. We could get a guilty verdict before it ever gets to court."
She swallowed. "That's a serious threat."
"I'm serious about my daughter's safety." He met her eyes, and, weak chin or not, she flinched.
"I – we'd have to set up a meeting - "
He flicked a glance at his watch. She had noticed him doing this before, and had thought that he was anxious to get out of there. But he seemed in no hurry to end the meeting.
"Tell you what," he suggested easily. "Why don't you and me go and talk to Taylor? She should be getting in just about now. Maybe she can point out people to ask about whether this is all true."
Blackwell hesitated; his words, his actions, seemed almost rehearsed. But then, if it would get him out of her hair …
Taylor swallowed and checked her watch. Almost go time. She climbed the front steps of Winslow and entered the main doors. Ahead lay the harsh fluorescent lighting, the classrooms, the bullies … her locker. Behind lay the parking lot, the bus stop … I could walk away now.
I can't. I need to make this work.
Resolutely, she moved forward. Her heightened state of awareness seemed to encompass everyone in the hallway. Moving, laughing, pushing, jostling. Ignoring her. Except for a select few. They didn't move as much as the others, and their attention was covertly on her. As she moved toward her locker, they moved as well, zeroing in on her through the crowd.
She pushed her hair back from her face, sneaking a glance at her watch. Almost …
Her locker was coming up; she let herself be jostled, losing a step. Moving around a couple of rowdy seniors, mumbling an apology that they never heard.
As she came closer to it, she could smell the reek; people were actually avoiding it. That it was her locker, she had no doubt. On a scale of one to a hundred … one hundred. Whatever the prank they were pulling was, it had to be horrendous to actually rate a forty percent chance of doing her harm.
What have they put in my locker? It had to be something pretty noxious; she hadn't been able to figure out how to narrow down the exact thing or substance. But just knowing it was bad was enough.
Out of the corner of her eye, only because she was looking, she could see Emma and Sophia. Madison was probably there as well. She paused at the edge of the empty area, took a deep breath of relatively clean air, held it. Stepped toward her locker. Bent over the combination lock, and fumbled with it. First number in place. Click. Second number in place. Click. Third number in place. Click. Fourth number.Click. The lock opened. She pulled the locker door open.
Reeking muck sludged out, on to her feet. She did not take a breath; even so, the smell assaulted her nostrils. It looked like … pads. Tampons. Used ones. Covered in bugs of all kinds. Crawling, buzzing, fluttering out.
Fuck, they went all-out.
She was expecting it, but even so, when the hand grasped her hair and shoved her toward the locker, the other hand in the small of her back, she was almost taken by surprise.
'Almost', however, was not enough.
Her arms were up, braced against the sides of the locker, and she shoved back, turned, turned her head, so that her assailant – Sophia Hess – was no longer pushing against her, but instead awkwardly pulling sideways. Sophia adjusted her balance, her teeth set, and shoved Taylor toward the locker again. Taylor, losing her footing due to the gunge on the floor, fought back, but it was a losing proposition -
- until the arm went around Sophia's neck from behind. The adult arm. Sophia was strong, for her age and size, but she had no chance against an angry father. Especially one with an unexpectedly strong arm locked around her throat from behind, lifting her off the ground. She was dragged back, the arm tight around her neck, unable to get her own footing. Taylor followed, left the suddenly increased radius of stench before she finally took a breath; even tainted, air never tasted so good.
"Mr Hebert, you can release Ms Hess now." Principal Blackwell had never looked so angry. She raised her voice in the sudden hush. "Ms Hess, Ms Barnes, Ms Clements, my office, immediately. Ms Hebert, you as well." Her eyes went to Taylor's feet. "Wash your shoes first, of course."
Taylor kicked her shoes off, then peeled off her tainted socks and left them there. The vinyl flooring was cold under her feet. "I think I'll just go barefoot."
"As you wish." She turned and started toward her office. Taylor followed, along with Danny; the other three girls trailed along behind. After a few paces, she took his hand; he squeezed it, hard.
Emma stepped past them, moved up alongside Principal Blackwell. "My father … "
"Will be contacted." Blackwell's voice was hard-edged. "And I will tell him exactly what I saw."
"But I didn't -"
"You were there," Blackwell snapped. "And you were watching. And you were not helping Ms Hebert. Now, be silent, or I will start handing out detentions."
Silence fell, until Danny cleared his throat.
"Yes, Mr Hebert?"
"When we get there, I would like you to call the police. This was a clear case of criminal assault."
"Surely we can keep this as a private matter … ?"
"No." Taylor's voice was firm. "If Dad thinks it can go to the cops, then by all means, call them. I'll testify against Sophia myself."
"I need to make a phone call." Taylor's head turned; it was Sophia speaking.
"No, you do not." Blackwell.
"Yes. I do."
What the hell? Taylor knew that she wouldn't talk to the principal like that, so why did Sophia think she could?
Blackwell stopped and turned. Held out her hand. "Your phone, Ms Hess. And yours, Ms Barnes. And yours too, Ms Clements. Now. I will make all the phone calls that I deem necessary."
"My social worker -" began Sophia.
"- will be contacted. As will your mother. And everyone's parents. And the police. And anyone else I need to call." Blackwell's voice was harsh. "Phones. Now."
Silently, the phones were handed over; Madison meekly, Emma hesitantly, and Sophia brimming with a rage that seemed only barely concealed.
They continued on to the office.
"But surely we can reach some sort of arrangement -"
"Yes, we can, Mr Barnes. But not one that involves your daughter walking free and clear." Principal Blackwell's voice was adamant. "We won't be pressing criminal charges against her, not unless Ms Hess decides to name her as a co-conspirator, but she will be undergoing in-school detention until such time as we've either decided that she has been sufficiently punished for her indiscretions, or we decide that we no longer need her in this school." She gestured to where Madison sat silently, subdued, with her parents. "The same goes for Ms Clements."
Alan Barnes' hand came down hard on the conference room table; everyone jumped. "This is ridiculous! You're taking one girl's word against three?" He gestured to the stack of papers that sat before Blackwell. "That could have been concocted over the Christmas holidays. Taylor's been barely speaking to Emma recently. Maybe she decided to prank her. Maybe she decided that she was no longer Emma'sfriend."
"Shut up, Alan." Danny's head came up.
"Danny, keep out of this -"
Danny stood. "No, Alan. I won't. I wondered why you didn't want to spend Christmas with us. And the year before. But it was Emma, wasn't it? Didn't want to spend time with Taylor, her ex-best friend?"
"I, uh -" Alan's eyes cut to Emma, and he hesitated, for a fatal moment.
"Right." Danny's voice was cutting. He sat again. "Emma hasn't been associating with Taylor outside of school for more than a year. They used to sleep over all the time. Not since they started high school. Not since Emma met … that one." His voice was full of distaste as he looked toward Sophia.
Sophia returned the gaze venomously; she opened her mouth to retort, but the blonde social worker beside her murmured something, and she shut her mouth again.
"So this isn't just a one-time thing." Blackwell's voice was contemplative, as she looked down at the pages in front of her.
Alan Barnes tried again. "There's no way you can try and convict these girls on one person's say-so, and on the evidence of something that could be so easily faked."
"Mr Barnes." Blackwell's voice was hard-edged again. "The only trial and conviction will be of Sophia Hess. The police are on the way, to take her into custody. But as for these papers, I've checked Ms Hebert's email accounts; she's had seventeen of them filled up with horrific abuse since September of two thousand nine. This speaks to a protracted bullying campaign. These papers are not the primaryevidence against your daughter and Ms Clements, but they are corroborative evidence; in short, they back up what Ms Hebert's been saying, and what I myself saw. That is, Sophia Hess trying her best to stuff Ms Hebert into her own locker, which was contaminated with toxic waste, and both Emma and Madison standing by, watching, with every evidence of enjoyment."
"But you can't prove that Emma had anything to do with -"
"No, I can't," Principal Blackwell replied. "Which is the only reason that she's not being charged as well. However." She tapped her finger beside the three phones that she had laid out on the table. "These will be handed in to the police as evidence. A court order should be able to get permission to open these phones for inspection, and any cross-talk referring to plans to bully Ms Hebert might just change matters." She leaned forward. "Mr Barnes, I suggest that you avail yourself of a good lawyer. You might just need one."
"I am a lawyer." His eyes locked with hers; the threat was implicit.
To her credit, she didn't blink. "Like I said, a good lawyer."
Her phone rang; not taking her eyes from Alan's, she answered it. "Yes?" A murmur. "All right. Send them in."
The door to the conference room opened, and two police officers entered, a man and a woman. Blackwell rose and rounded the table to meet them. "I'm Carrie Blackwell."
The male officer shook her hand. "Sergeant Lawrence. What's the exact situation here?"
Blackwell took a breath. "Well, you would have seen the mess in the hall?"
From the look on his face, Lawrence would have been happier not seeing it. "Yeah. We've got officers investigating it right now." His whole bearing suggested Better them than me.
"The locker belongs to that girl, Taylor Hebert. The mess was placed inside of it by a person or persons unknown. We have our suspicions, but no proof."
Lawrence nodded. "Understood. If that's the case, why have we been called in?"
Danny's voice was flat. "Because we caught that girl, Sophia Hess, trying to shove Taylor into the locker. Into the mess."
The female police officer spoke up. "They found a pair of shoes on the scene."
Taylor nodded. "Mine. I was that close to being pushed in, yes."
"And you're pressing charges against Sophia Hess?" Lawrence looked at Sophia.
"We are, yes, on behalf of the Heberts." Blackwell spoke firmly.
The female officer looked at Taylor. "You're willing to testify?"
"Oh god, yes." Taylor's voice was flat. "In a heartbeat."
"Good." The female officer moved over to where Sophia sat. "On your feet."
Reluctantly, Sophia stood.
"Your name is Sophia Hess?"
Even more reluctantly, she nodded.
"I'm going to take that as agreement. Sophia Hess, I'm placing you under arrest for aggravated assault, attempted deprivation of liberty, and suspicion of placing toxic waste in a public area." She pulled a card from her pocket. "You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right … "
Taylor watched as Sophia was read her rights, and then led out the door. The social worker rose and followed; Sergeant Lawrence took the phones with him.
Blackwell turned to Alan Barnes. "Go. Take your daughter with you. She is suspended for the rest of the day, and begins in-school suspension tomorrow." She gestured toward Madison's family. "Her, too. Go. I just need to speak to the Heberts, now."
"This isn't over." Alan Barnes just had to have the last word.
"No, it isn't." Blackwell's tone was biting. "I may just have Emma charged as well."
Mrs Barnes – Zoe – tugged on Alan's arm, and they left, following the Clements', who had already gone. The door closed behind them.
Principal Blackwell turned to Danny. "Is that enough?"
"Not quite." Danny leaned forward. "I think this has proven that Winslow is an unsafe environment for my daughter."
"But Sophia is being charged – the other two are suspended - "
Danny nodded toward the pages before Blackwell. "I think you'll find that they were not the only ones. And being in in-school suspension means that they will have plenty of time to plan revenge. Taylor needs to leave Winslow."
"But – where will she go?"
Danny smiled grimly. "Arcadia, for preference."
"There's a waiting list -"
"I didn't want to do this," Danny told her quietly, "but when this hits the media, how would you like it spun? 'Beleaguered principal doing her best for her students'? Or 'Uncaring school administrator blind to the crimes of her students'? Because it can go either way."
Blackwell's expression was suddenly hunted. "This is extortion -"
"Let's put it this way," Taylor observed. "When Dad's media friend interviews me, I'll be able to give them some really good soundbites." She looked Principal Blackwell in the eye. "It's up to you how they go."
"So you're going to Arcadia."
Taylor grinned. "I'm going to Arcadia."
"But first, we have to go to the precinct and give our statements."
"I'm fine with that."
Danny put his arm around his daughter's shoulders. "You worked all this out with your powers?"
"Looks like they came in handy after all."
"Yeah." Taylor leaned against her father as they walked out through the corridors of Winslow. "They did."
I wonder what else I can do with them.
End of Part One