[I shall attain all the virtues of heaven.]
There were plenty of people who had it much worse than I did — kids in Africa being used as child soldiers by a superpowered warlord, the people of Japan who had lost their lives, livelihoods, and homes when Leviathan turned Kyushu into a modern recreation of Atlantis, and basically anyone who had ever been a victim of the Slaughterhouse Nine — and that thought did help me make it through the day, sometimes…
But it didn't make me any happier, and it didn't make my situation any less terrible. Having your best friend dump you and make it her life's mission to torture you in whatever way she could get away with did not somehow suck less just because there was someone else out there who had gotten his arm shot off or his house blown up.
Take today, for instance. Sure, it wasn't the absolute worst thing they'd yet done to me, but Emma and her two cronies had just finished dousing me in grape juice and soda, laughing as one of them — had to be Emma — held the door of my bathroom stall closed.
Ever had soda in your eyes? Take it from me, not fun.
I couldn't even say anything as the pressure keeping me from escaping vanished, the door finally swung open, and I came face to face with my own personal Judas. Every time I'd tried before, Emma had managed to turn it back on me later. It was just more ammo for them to use against me.
They didn't need to say anything, either. The grins on their faces, the sounds of amusement they made each in their own way that echoed off of the walls — my trio of archenemies had won this round, as they had every other, and no words could rub it in any further than they already had.
They disappeared when I turned my back to check on my equally wet bag, and I heard their laughter cut off as the bathroom door banged shut like the final nail in a coffin, leaving me alone, soaked, and dropping rapidly from the contentment of what I had thought — perhaps stupidly — would be a day free from bullying. Chilly droplets of the soft drinks now coating me dribbled in rivulets over my cheeks and down the back of my shirt, and my soaked hair clung to my scalp, neck, and shoulders.
Slowly, carefully, with trembling hands, I made my way over to the sink and stared at my reflection through the prismatic, multicolored splotches splattered over my glasses, and the wide-mouthed, thin-lipped, gawky teenage girl looking back at me from the scratched, stained glass seemed to show none of the emotional turmoil roiling about in my belly.
I forced myself to let out a deep breath and grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser, then I tried to rub the splotches away from my glasses. It didn't work. The streaks and residue left behind made it, if possible, harder to see.
I tried again with a wet towel, but it was no good; the streaks stayed stubbornly in place as if taunting me.
The frothing sea boiled over. Three months of controlling my temper evaporated like so much steam, and as a wordless scream of fury and frustration found its way past my lips, I wound up and slammed my fist as hard as I could into the mirror.
Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic. The mirror cratered around my fist, shattering and fracturing until a spiderweb of cracks stretched all the way to the top, and even though I knew I shouldn't have, the tension inside of me that unwound then and there just felt so good that I couldn't bring myself to care. Maybe it wasn't the healthiest way of blowing off some of the stress that was my daily life, but damn if it didn't feel satisfying in the moment.
When I pulled my fist back, unbloodied and unscratched, bits and pieces of the mirror came down, too, falling into the sink bowl and clattering as they broke into tinier shards. In the mirror itself, there was an indent the size of my fist about two inches deep, cutting into the wall behind it, and radiating outwards from it was a starburst of missing glass.
I looked down at my arm and my unscathed hand, which had already started to transform into my base Breaker state. The thin layer of golden energy that wrapped around it like the personal shields on the power armor from one of those video games was invisible but for the barely there shimmer as light refracted through it.
For a moment, I considered changing my arm back and just leaving things the way they were, letting the trio stew as they discovered it and realized exactly how badly I could have hurt them without my self-control, but I knew that was too dangerous. Breaking a mirror wasn't that extraordinary a thing, but leaving craters in walls required arm strength that a normal teenage girl, especially one as scrawny as I was, simply didn't have.
There were quicker and more satisfying ways of doing it if I wanted to out myself as a parahuman.
So, I let out another breath, reached deep down inside of myself, and pulled on the well of energy that powered my superpowers.
The change washed over me like being dunked in warm water, and when I opened my eyes, my costumed self stared back at me in the cracked mirror. This wasn't enough, though. My base Breaker state wasn't really anything to celebrate — just strong enough and just fast enough for me to leg it to a safe spot to finish the transformation into one of my more powerful states. Maybe a low level brute and mover rating, but nothing on one of the famous Alexandria packages.
I looked deeper inside and rummaged through my knowledge of different Heroes, looking for one that could do what I needed it to do. Luckily, I'd had a situation like this before, one where I needed to repair a toaster or microwave I'd broken accidentally with my power — thankfully, Dad had never noticed the difference — so I selected her, grasped her with my metaphorical hands, and pulled her to the surface.
Power rushed through me. That was really the only way to describe it. It was power, pure, unadulterated, and massive beyond imagining. If my normal human state was a puddle and my base Breaker state was a pool, then what surged through me as I called upon that Hero was an ocean. In the beginning, just holding onto a fraction of that much power was like trying to wrangle a hurricane or a tsunami or an erupting volcano.
It was intoxicating. I'd experienced what they called "runner's high" quite a few times in the past three months, and even that paled in comparison. I didn't have any experience, so I had no idea how good sex felt, but "orgasmic" probably wasn't that far off. It was like every nerve in my brain was being flooded with dopamine and serotonin.
If that was what being high felt like, I could understand why people had such a problem with addiction.
I didn't need to look in the mirror to see the purple dress and the cowled black cloak that now wrapped around my body. There was no time to admire myself, either — anyone could come in here at any moment. So, I lifted my hand, pulled on the knowledge of the Hero I had Installed, and spoke.
The language shouldn't have made any sense to me. To the modern ear, it was probably gibberish. To me, however, it was power, it was control, it was dominion. I knew the words, knew what they meant, knew how to use them. Why shouldn't I? Though it was knowledge borrowed, it was still mine as long as I held onto it. If I tried, I could even grasp at the memory of having learned it, these Divine Words that shaped the world.
And, as I watched, the hole in the wall filled back in, and the shards of the mirror fell upwards and back into place, like a waterfall in reverse or playing a video backwards. A moment later, the cracks sealed up without a trace or seam, and it was as if I had never punched the mirror in the first place.
Then, I let the power go, felt it slip through my imaginary fingers like sand, and I was back to being Taylor Hebert, dressed in bland clothing and soaked to the bone with juices and sodas. Yeah, the sucky thing about my power? I left my Breaker state in the same condition I entered it in. I hadn't had enough courage to test whether or not wounds carried over, but in all likelihood, they probably did.
My life sucked too badly for me to catch that kind of break.
Either way, seeing myself in the mirror again, looking through glasses that were still smeared with rainbow streaks, set my anger back to simmer. The brief high of channeling such enormous power through my human body evaporated almost as soon as it had the chance to settle.
I couldn't go to my afternoon classes like this, looking like I'd botched a try at tie-dyeing everything I owned. Just imagining the self-satisfied smirk on Sophia's face was almost enough to snap my control again; I might actually punch her if I had to see it for real, and that wouldn't do me any good at all.
Worse, our midterm art project was due, and if it was still intact and not ruined after my unwelcome, impromptu shower, I still couldn't — wouldn't — go to class soaked and sticky from juice and soda. But I couldn't just skip out on the project, either. My grades were already plummeting because of "lost" assignments and homework that was stolen so Madison or Sophia could claim it as theirs, and my attendance had dropped to virtually delinquent levels because of days like today where I just couldn't convince myself to stay for the rest of my classes.
What would my mother have thought, to know that her daughter couldn't even care enough about school to get a decent education, simply because a few girls were pushing her around?
The roiling sea in my gut began to boil again. I leaned forward over the sink, gripping the edges of the bowl to keep myself from punching something again. My entire body shuddered, half from the cold and half from the storm brewing inside me like a hurricane.
It would be so easy to go Carrie on the whole school, upend the paradigm that had been my life for nearly two years. How easily I could make those three bitches regret every ounce of suffering they'd heaped upon me, every malicious prank and every foul word. There were so, so many Heroes in my repertoire that were famous for their tempers, for the righteous vengeance they had delivered upon the vile and the corrupt. God slayers, demon slayers, dragon slayers, monster slayers, all kinds of Heroes who had brought justice to those who escaped it.
Or maybe just I should just give form to the inarticulate rage that seemed always to simmer just below the surface, these days. There were plenty of Heroes known for going mad, for losing their minds and raging out of control. Berserkers whose only thoughts were death, destruction, mayhem, or revenge. Any of them could embody my anger and frustration, tearing through Winslow and obliterating everyone who had ever wronged me. I could practically feel some of the stronger ones offering themselves up in service, howling their madness through my soul.
I would be caught and arrested, sure, but could the PRT or the Protectorate even hold me? They had some of the best facilities in the world, more secure by orders of magnitude than ordinary prisons, but could mere Brute restraints hold back the fury of an angry demigod who had, in his legend, held the world itself on his shoulders? Could their countermeasures stop a rain of light or catch the fastest Hero who ever lived? Could they restrain a man who was two steps shy of a Sun God?
Of course, even if I escaped, my civilian life would be over — like that was any loss. The only things worth losing were my father's respect and love, and some days, even those things seemed like an acceptable sacrifice.
I let out a shuddering sigh.
Except I was better than that. My mother had raised a better daughter than that.
I carefully backed away and picked up my bag, then left the bathroom, my shoes making obscene squishing sounds with every step. I ignored the laughter that followed me, the giggles and jeers as people witnessed the results of another of the trio's successful pranks, and stopped only long enough to drop off my (thankfully intact) art project, which would hopefully remain intact long enough to get graded, along with a note explaining that I wasn't feeling well and had to head home early, but I didn't want to miss turning in my midterm project.
Yeah. Like the teachers wouldn't know exactly what happened before the day was out.
I made my way out of the school, after that, and caught the first bus that was headed in the general direction of home. The chilly, early Spring air was only compounded by my soaked clothes and hair, and I half wished I'd just kept my Install and teleported back to my house, but that was just a fantasy. If someone had been outside the bathroom watching for me, there weren't many leaps of logic you could go to when someone went into a bathroom and disappeared without coming out.
I was going to be a superhero. I was going to do good in the world, in spite of Emma, Sophia, and Madison, in spite of their pranks and insults, in spite of their hangers-on who parroted them like some sort of demented echo, in spite of all the bad things that had happened to me. I was going to be a superhero, and I had one of the most heroic powers in the world to do it with.
After all, what power was more heroic than being able to call upon the strength and abilities of every hero ever immortalized in myth and legend?
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
I tried not to think of Emma or her cohorts on the bus ride home, of how my best friend had turned into my worst enemy, of how she used the deepest, most intimate secrets I had ever told her to ruin every day as best as she was able. I tried not to dwell on the fond memories of our childhood together, now tainted by betrayal and cruelty, or how much I longed for the best friend I had lost to…I wasn't even sure what.
I tried not to think about it, so naturally, that was all I could think about.
I turned to my ruined bag to find something else to focus on and started rummaging through it to take stock. As I feared, nothing inside had escaped the grape juice that had, I began to suspect, been aimed specifically for my bag. All of my textbooks and notebooks, plus the two novels I carried with me, were at least partly damaged. Some had been lucky enough to catch only on the edges, but as I inspected each one, it became increasingly clear that most of them had gotten pretty badly soaked, with up to half the pages stained through with purple, and already they were beginning to turn wavy as they dried.
The truly sad thing was that most of it wasn't that bad, to me, because I'd already had to have my textbooks replaced a few times.
The heaviest blow, and the one which had my heart sinking as I inspected it, was the notebook with the black and white speckled cover. My superhero notebook, the journal I was using (encrypted, of course — didn't want that ending up in the hands of a monster like Sophia or Emma) to brainstorm cape names and applications of my power, was thoroughly ruined. The juice had diluted the ink, making the words illegible, so that even if they hadn't been coded with a cipher, they were completely unreadable.
I'd already had to copy my notes over once, back when my last backpack had been stolen and dropped into the trash — that was the reason I had decided to encode them in the first place — and with this notebook ruined, I'd have to do it all over again. If I could remember what was on all of the ruined pages, that is, and I didn't really hold out any hope of that.
The closest stop the bus made to my house was still a block away, and I got off there, trying to ignore the stares and not think about what was running through the heads of my gawkers. In spite of everything, even the cold that bit into me in my still-drying clothes, I started to feel better as I made my way home and let myself into the house. Being able to drop my guard, not having to keep my eyes peeled and my senses honed to watch out for the next attack, was like having a huge weight taken off of my shoulders.
The shower was the first place I went. I didn't even bother taking off my shoes or my clothes or setting my bag down until I made it to the bathroom, and even then, I kept everything else on as I set the water just shy of scalding and stepped under the stream. Only then, after taking a moment to enjoy the heat, did I start peeling off my clothes, one layer at a time, and dropping them to the floor of the tub. Maybe the shower might wash out the worst of it.
For a long time — a few minutes, but they felt like hours — I let my mind fall blissfully blank. The shower heated me on the outside, and the hum of my power heated me from the inside. It felt like everything unnecessary was being melted away.
Unfortunately, the real world wasn't that nice. Once I let myself start to think again, my mind kept winding itself in circles back around to my ruined 'superhero notebook.' I couldn't seem to think about anything else.
I turned off the shower and toweled myself dry, then wrapped the towel around myself and turned to look in the mirror. Gawky, teenage Taylor Hebert, with her beanpole body, her too-wide mouth, her thin lips, and her father's large eyes, frowned back at me.
A moment of concentration was all it took, and I was in my Breaker state. Covering my face was a royal purple mask, with big, reflective gold lenses over the eyes — miraculously, the same as my prescription for my glasses. It left my mouth and the top of my head open, curving around the outside of my cheeks in such a way as to completely transform the shape of my face, and my long hair came down over the back and the sides, where there were cutouts for my ears.
A sleek, skintight black bodysuit hugged every inch below my jaw, and overtop it was a sleeveless, gold-trimmed purple vest (complete with tails on the front and back that hung down to my knees) and a matching pair of pants. Black gloves (or maybe they were just part of the bodysuit) disappeared into a pair of gold-trimmed purple vambraces — incredibly flexible and remarkably robust, as I'd discovered through testing, despite looking more decorative than functional. To complete the pattern, the boots were black knee-highs trimmed at the top with more gold.
If you squinted and tilted your head, I looked almost like a Magical Girl from one of those Japanese cartoons from the nineties. Or maybe like one of those female superheroes from those old comic books from the sixties and seventies.
I turned around and examined the outfit from other angles. At first, back when I got my powers, I'd been a bit upset about how it looked, but it had grown on me. The overall design might come across as a bit stylized or dorky, but when you considered the color scheme, it was actually a very good middle ground — not too dark and edgy, but not blindingly bright and cheerful. It wasn't as elaborate or professional-looking as Armsmaster's power armor, but it also didn't look like something I'd picked up at the mall.
I turned myself back to the front, tilting my head just so and squaring my shoulders. I tried to imagine how I might look to a bad guy, stalking out of the dark in this outfit, gold lenses and trim glowing while the rest blended into the night.
What I'd realized as I stood under the spray of the shower, thinking about my ruined notebook, was that I was procrastinating. The original plan had been to wait to break out onto the hero scene until summer vacation, when I wouldn't have to worry about school and everything that came along with it. I could plot and plan and prepare until then, double and triple-checking everything to make sure I was as safe as being a superhero could be. I could expand my range, push my limitations, add more heroes to my repertoire, and just keep getting better and better…
But there would always be more I could do, more ways to push myself and my powers to new heights. There would always be contingencies to consider, obstacles to think my way around, possible problems to solve… If I delayed everything just to rewrite my notebook, I'd always find another reason to wait, another reason not to go out until I could study this or test that. I'd keep procrastinating, maybe even never go out at all.
So, I was going to stop waiting. My notebook was ruined, beyond repair — good. Without it to hold me back, there was nothing to keep me from going out. In fact, I'd do it next week — no, this weekend.
I was going to be a superhero. Things like indecision had to go.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
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