A/N: This almost marks the end of my prewritten stuff. I am unlikely to get as much written as I would like in the near future due to currently supporting my SO through a familial tragedy. I appreciate your understanding as you bear with me through this. Disclaimer may be found on chapter 1.
Tuesday morning I woke up late to the sun shining on my leg where it stuck out of my ridden up pant leg. I must have moved around a bit in the night. I got up and realised what day it was and how late I was for school. I scrambled to get ready before rushing downstairs to get some breakfast because I was hungry, hungrier than I'd been in a while. Once I was downstairs I saw the cold bacon and hard boiled eggs my dad had laid out with a note letting my know he had called the school and let them know I wouldn't be coming in today. He also told me a PRT agent would be by to pick me up around 1:00 PM for my appointment at 1:30. I breathed a sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to put up with the Trio today, and set to chowing through breakfast. I had about two hours before the agent picked me up, so I tried to study a bit and do some homework.
Predictably I ended up reading story after story about how Armsmaster and the mysterious new cape Melino had taken down Lung instead. The PHO was full of speculation about my powers and whether I was a new Ward, with several people chiming in and saying they had seen me on the Wards tour, and even the verified Wards confirming my having joined. There was still some concerned speculation that I was a villain infiltrating the Wards, but this mostly seemed to be treated as paranoid, which was a relief. I ended up going through all the leftovers from last night by the time 12:45 rolled around and I found myself scrambling to assemble my gear. My costume was still in the old gym bag, so I just changed into a new set of clothes, a clean one, and was waiting by the door when the agent arrived to pick me up.
The agent was a tall Black woman wearing a solid pair of sunglasses and a grey suit. She made some polite small talk as we drove to the PRT building, and handed me off to Agent Kelley once we were through the doors. Agent Kelley and I chatted about nothing as she led me down some halls to a door marked 'Public Relations and Equipment: Wards', through which was another hallway with three doors off it and a window at the end. We went through the door on the left of the hall, labelled 'Costumes office'. Inside was a large room with tables laid out with various tools and materials, and a youngish looking man sketching in a notepad.
He looked up as we entered the room and bounded to his feet. "Ah, good, you're here. My name is Adam Steinbeck, and I'm one of the primary Protectorate Costumes Consultant. They brought me up from New York today after putting out a call for someone to work on your costume with you." I tentatively shook his outstretched hand. I wasn't sure why my costume needed work, it was homemade but still. "Is your first draft in the bag?" He asked and, at my confirmation, took the bag from where I'd set it on the table near the door. He rifled through it, setting each piece out on a space he cleared on a nearby table, talking all the while. "Nice touch with the hat/bandana combo, people don't realise how distinctive hair and a forehead really are. Oh! Metal plates in the coat? Clever if a bit poorly executed. Good boots, especially for working with what you had lying around. I can understand the need for pockets, but cargo pants? Clever padding it out with a thick shirt like this. Now here, on the gloves, that seems like the spot for armour from the powers debrief they gave me, but there's a reason I call this a first draft. Oh! Now that's a good set of tools you've got in there. Alright! So, question time!" He finished with a clap of his hands startling me from the almost trance his nonstop stream of words had lulled me into. "What sort of aesthetic are you going for here? It looks like you are angling for some kind of darker palette and a bit of a cowboy look? Is there another aesthetic you'd consider?"
I realised I was blushing with embarrassment as I hadn't even thought of how cowboy my costume had looked. Hastily I answered him, "No! I mean, I'm not going for a cowboy look, and I was thinking the darker colours would help me blend in at night when I'm visible. What sort of look would you suggest?"
He seemed to think for a few moments, and I noticed Agent Kelley had taken out a sheaf of papers and was reading through them. I looked back towards Mr Steinbeck as he started speaking again, "With a name like Melino and your abilities, I would almost go for a hood and scarf combo, maybe with some dark glasses. Of course, inside the hood would be a proto-retribushium micromail layer, and likewise for the 'scarf' which we can also secure inside the hood and have it attach to the shaded glasses. Those can likely be outfitted with reactive and self contained tech to protect your eyes from flash bangs and such. I will consult Armsmaster about it. Then for the body... would you prefer armour or armoured clothing? Armoured clothing offers less actual protection, but more mobility, which I think may suit you more. That said, armour lends better weight to punches... thoughts?" He was looking at me expectantly, I'd mostly been nodding along and letting him ramble. I considered what he was saying before deciding.
"I think armoured clothing might be best, so I can get changed quickly and easily." I said after a beat while I considered.
"That is a good point. I will see if I can design the headpieces to be easy to assemble and remove as well. And for colour, how does grey and dark blue sound? Good? Splendid. Alright. I should have a suit made up for you by tomorrow afternoon. Lovely to meet you Melino, enjoy your day." And just like that all the energy and bustle was focussed on his sketch pad and tablet.
It was clear the Agent Kelley and I were no longer needed here, so I tapped her on the shoulder and said, "I think we lost him." Gesturing over to Mr. Steinbeck, sketching madly.
"Ah, right. Well, lets go forth into the breach. Time for your official introduction to the Wards and orientation as to what being a Ward involves. It's mostly just about two hours of presentations you have to sit through." Great, that was going to be just riveting I was sure. I followed her through a few halls and recognised that we were coming to the area with the Wards common space. Just before the elevator we went through a door into a conference room or lecture hall of some sort. I was directed by Agent Kelley to wait in the small green room (the walls were actually a deep emerald shade, it was very soothing) as she assembled the Wards, I pulled out the book I was reading for English and settled in for a wait. A few minutes later, just when I was starting to be able to focus properly, I heard a knock and Agent Kelley stuck her head through the door to let me know the wards were collected. "You ready?" She asked.
"I met almost everyone yesterday anyway, it should be easy enough." I said with a nervous laugh.
"That's the spirit!" She replied with a brief grin.
I stepped from the green room onto the platform at the front of the small room and froze. What the fuck was she doing there? Sat right at the left hand side of the room was Sophia goddamn Hess. Without even meaning to, I vanished into my shadow world as I began to hyperventilate. After a moment I steeled my resolve and shifted back into a room in uproar. Well, muttering. Missy was whispering to Carlos, Dennis was making some joke to Chris, Sophia was glaring at me like I was a fly on her sandwich, and Dean was looking deeply concerned as he glanced between us rapidly. I stepped forward and said, "Hello Sophia. Why'd they let a bitch like you in here?" A stunned silence briefly descended, Sophia recoiling in shocked surprise at my question. Then Dennis went and ruined it by bursting into laughter that was echoed by Missy, even though you could tell she was actually trying to restrain it.
Sophia turned a glare on them both but was prevented from saying anything by Agent Kelley's timely intervention. "I see you two are acquainted. Taylor, would you care to explain that comment? There had better be a good reason you used such language towards a fellow Ward the first time you officially meet them." She sounded significantly less cordial than she had been earlier.
"Sure," I said, the anger rising in me as I pushed back the fear, "Sophia Hess has been bullying me relentlessly for almost two years now, and was at least partially responsible for the situation I got my powers in. She is a vicious bitch and I'm done with putting it any more politely." I was seething with rage at this point.
"If I helped you get strong, you should be thanking me you pathetic waste of air. It doesn't seem like it though, what do you do? Turn invisible like we've all wished you would for years?" Sophia sneered at me, going by the resigned expressions on the faces of the other Wards, this was less than unusual behaviour.
"Miss Hess, you are not helping your case in the slightest." Agent Kelley interjected frostily, "The trauma of trigger events is not a laughing matter as I am sure your fellow wards would agree." Tight lipped nods of agreement were the only answer. "Additionally, while you have a plethora of missions and take downs under your belt, Shadow Stalker, none of them quite match up to the singular escapade of Melino here." At hearing my cape name Sophia flinched in shock, her mouth dropping open before her face twisted in anger.
"You're telling me that Taylor the worthless worm Hebert supposedly had something to do with taking down Lung? Give me a break." She exclaimed in a tone of disgust.
"You know what? And I'm sorry Agent Kelley but I've got to say it, fuck you Sophia. If you don't believe it, then ask Armsmaster."
"Alright, that does it!" Agent Kelley smacked the desk at the front of the room with a crack like a gunshot. "You two will behave yourselves so long as you are members of the Wards Program or, so help me, I will write you both up and get the Director involved!" Everyone winced at that. Agent Kelley glared around the room before saying, "You've all got your shit, I get that, but fighting amongst yourselves like that is not permissible. Sophia, you have been warned before and you've got one more incident like this before a full write up is the only option. Taylor, I will expect better from you in future. Rest assured, both of you, that the PRT will be making inquiries as to these allegations of Sophia causing Taylor to trigger. But until we have conclusive findings, neither of you are to attack the other like this again. Am I understood?" We made sounds of assent and Agent Kelley seemed satisfied.
"Now," she continued in a more relaxed tone after gesturing for me to take a seat, "since you are all so evidently familiar with each other, I consider the introductions portion of this to be completed. Taylor has to sit through the orientation videos, but the rest of you can stay or leave at your discretion."
Over the next few minutes almost everyone left, Agent Kelley set up the videos on the large screen before telling me to press the blue button by the door when they were finished, and Carlos stayed behind but didn't say anything until part way through the first video, it was about the way Ward pay was calculated and held.
"Did Sophia actually cause your trigger event?" Carlos asked suddenly, he must have noticed I'd stopped paying any real attention to the video.
"What's a trigger event? I've seen the term on the PHO here and there, but usually it gets flagged as conspiracy or conjecture..." I answered while trying to think of some way to get out of this conversation.
"Ah. Uh, right..." Carlos looked deeply uncomfortable all of a sudden. He pushed through though, "Trigger events are what we get our powers from. Powers manifest when certain people with the actual potential to trigger is put in a situation that pushes them so far beyond, so deeply into crisis, that it makes their power switch on. It's the worst day of the person's life, usually. My own trigger was when a truck smashed into my parents' car while we were on a trip a couple years ago, they were wearing seatbelts, I wasn't. I was sent flying through the window, shredded my face and pierced my lung. I found I didn't even feel the pain after I woke up from smashing into a tree and blacking out briefly, just in time to see a second truck fail to stop and start spinning towards my parents, I literally flew over to them and dragged them out of harm's way. The truck drivers were both fine, though one of them was drunk and got charged. It was the worst day of my life until then." Why was he telling me this? It was so... personal. I didn't know what to say.
"Wow... that's awful. I'm glad you got your parents to safety though." He winced, so I pushed quickly on. "And yeah, Sophia and two of her friends shoved me into my locker after having left it over the break full of... used sanitaries." The disgust on his face was both gratifying and, shockingly, hilarious.
"That's... horrific. Like, the kind of thing they wouldn't put in a horror movie levels of horrific."
"Oh, it gets worse. I was there for about three hours before I got my power, then it took another two for someone to actually let me out." I almost relished the horror on his face as his jaw literally dropped.
"That is seriously fucked up. And I've literally pulled pieces of rubble out of my own chest cavity." Well, now I was the one feeling sick. Great.
After that we mostly just watched the videos, since the finances video was ending and the rest covered law and policy and Carlos said they were actually surprisingly informative. While I could definitely see his point, it didn't help with the boredom nearly as much as the truly terrible puns he started making part way through the second video. I almost wished it didn't take me until the last video to start joking back. Afterwards I was issued my Wards cellphone and told to keep it on me at all times. I felt weird having one for the first time, but after being shown how to use it, I kept it in my front right pocket. That night I told my dad a fair bit about what was in the videos, but I didn't really want to talk to him about Sophia. It would just mean talking to him about Emma, and I wanted to avoid that for at least a few more days. We'd just have to see how tomorrow went.
A/N: please do review if you've anything to say, and to address something oft brought up so far: Taylor at this point views herself in fundamentally the same way she did before ever joining the Undersiders, she considers herself to be at least someone who tries her hardest to be a Good Person with all the nuance and complexity that such a notion has in the mind of a fairly average 15 year old kid. Does she have a nearly boundless capacity for ruthlessness and lack any discernible ceiling on her willingness to escalate situations where she feels the need? Of course, this is still Taylor. That's as much a part of who she is as Amy Dallon's complex relationship with altruism. However her power both makes her a perfect assassin (popping out to kill and vanishing beyond harm without even a splatter of blood on her face, unable to be kept out by any wall or lock, etc.) and also less likely to be pushed to that point as quickly (every moment that Taylor looked for an escape, a way out, this Taylor has one). It's still the world of Worm, so that she will be pushed there is essentially inevitable, though if she has ways to avoid it, I won't overly contrive ways to force her into it, but for now she is just not at that point. Could her burning desire to make the city a safer place again drive her there on its own? Probably over time. TL;DR: her convictions are, just like at the start of Worm, what is holding Taylor back from becoming some super assassin executing her every inconvenience from the shadows. How long that lasts is yet to be seen.