I wrote a bunch of snips about a really out-there M/S/Th power that I wanted to do more with, so I'm starting this. We'll see where it goes. I. Taylor had never thought she'd be the type to watch the news. She still wasn't, really— and what she was doing was only 'watching' in the very loosest sense of the word— but it still felt odd. Her sitting at her desk, headphones in, staring at a severe-looking bearded man with skin the color of burnt sugar as he rattled off the day's highlights—it was daythere, about ten in the morning— for somewhere thousands of miles away. Occasionally they'd show a picture or video clip, the man gesticulating to a popup onscreen for emphasis, making sure to hammer home the importance of this person or that quote and so on, and so on, and on... But Taylor didn't really know about that, nor did she care. She wasn't watching the news. She was stealing the words. Newscasts, she'd learned, were one of the best ways to build her rapidly-expanding collection. What better place to get a language from than anchors who were literally paid to be pleasant and accessible? They weren't perfect, of course: those anchor-words were the lexical equivalent of celery. They had substance, but no taste, no flavor, drained dry for easier and more efficient consumption. Taylor knew she wasn't going to pick up on any of the dialectic quirks or colloquial accents from the news alone, so she'd learn to supplement her diet: she'd watch candid videos, podcasts, poetry, music, anything and everything she could. But tonight, she watched the news. The man on screen was pointing at the floating image of some important dignitary, seeming just as unenthused as when he'd been talking about... whatever he'd been talking about before. Not that it mattered. She was here for one thing, and one thing only. Taylor closed her eyes, taking a breath in through her nose as the anchor's voice flowed in through her headphones, surrounding her. She felt the sentences form up like little self-constructing bridges, phrases and syllables linking themselves together by context and association. She knew most of them by now, could feel what they were supposed to represent—but every so often, she'd get a treat. An odd turn of phrase, some unfamiliar grammar, or even, if she was incredibly lucky, a new word. Then it was off to the races, her scalp tingling as all her carefully-constructed hierarchies rubberbanded themselves around her head, scrambling to contextualize the new piece of data, comparing and cross-referencing and drawing hundreds of false chains until,until, it would snap into place, and she'd scramble to catch up with the rest of the sentence, giddy and mentally breathless. She'd placed seventy-one new nodes so far tonight, not to mention the uncountable amount of tiny readjustments to her web of understanding. Not a record, of course—those usually happened in the first few days of starting something new—but not bad, either. She was hoping to break a hundred by the end of tonight. Not for the first time, she felt a twang of pity for the poor saps grinding quizzes on Duolingo. Her way was so much better. The anchor continued, switching from the diplomat to some kind of incident that had happened in a nearby neighborhood, and Taylor felt her heart jump as the camera flipped from the sterile news background to a live shot of a dusty street, stark blue sky overhead. A more rumpled-looking man was standing there, talking into a microphone, and the tingles hit in full force as she heard his voice, his accent: they were new. The words were almost the same, vaguely familiar, but his prosody and pronunciation and everything else was so utterly different from the newscaster, even she could just barely keep up. Taylor shivered in her chair, interweaving the new information as fast as she could get it, and by the time the interview was over, she felt utterly drained in the best possible way. It was actually hard to tell how many new nodes she'd added to her Web—that was how fast they'd come—but it was easily over fifty, and she could already feel a mild headache coming on as the anchor and his fancy background appeared again. It would pass, she knew, and she could probably go for another hour or so before hitting saturation. She sure as hell felt like she could. The screen had changed, Taylor realized with a frown. Red script on a blue background, with hymnlike music in the background. Her reading was painfully underdeveloped compared to her speaking, but she'd seen this one before: the break for midday prayer. Back in Brockton Bay, seven hours earlier, that meant... Taylor groaned softly, closing the tab as the PC's clock confirmed the inevitable: 4:58 AM. If this had been the first night she'd burned like this, lost in her Web, she wouldn't have cared. But it wasn't. It wasn't even the first this week, and today was technically Wednesday. A full day off was out of the question; even missing her morning classes would raise some eyebrows. Dad's eyebrows. But now, away from the constant stream of glittering brain-sparking input, she could the exhaustion setting in, right down to her core. Another day with two hours of sleep was Not Going To Happen. Full stop. Taylor pushed her chair away from the monitor with a heavy sigh, trying not to look at the shards of early daylight coming through her blinds. I missed the bus. Dad was already at work. I had to get a city bus to a stop close by and walk. The excuse played out in her head, crystal-clear, as did the office lady's disapproving tongue-clicking. A rueful smile pulled at her lips as she collapsed onto her bed, pulling the covers to her neck. Taylor rolled over, turning away from the window, and dreamed of jet trails, thick and fluffy-white, looping and crisscrossing an endless blue sky. The morning had been terrible, but Taylor had expected that. A few granola bars and a nauseating amount of coffee had kicked her up from 'zombie' to 'functional', but she could still feel that deep-set sense of tiredness, crawling around behind her brain and weighing down her body. She knew the feeling well; the only thing that really helped it was sleep. But it was fine. She'd nap after class. Or during class. Or both. The bus Taylor stepped onto was surprisingly empty—then again, 9:30 was a weird time to go to work. The driver gave her a look as she fumbled with the bills and slouched off to her seat, but didn't say anything. She thanked him silently, settling down against the ugly-patterned seat and pulling her headphones from her bag. Small blessings. Sleeping wasn't an option, not with the dull roar of the engine and the hissing pop of pistons, so Taylor shut her eyes, pressing Play on her MP3. Her headphones crackled to life, picking up where she'd left off: the middle of something brooding and choral, in— Russian? No, Ukranian. The song itself wasn't really to her taste, but the lyrics were something else entirely, soaking into her brain like tiny undulating sparks. Music was starkly different from everything else Taylor had tried: it was wonderfully overwhelming, a face-punching shotgun blast of thousands of years of linguistic history, with double meanings and metaphors and intricate little aberrations scattered across the verses like tiny bits of gold. Most of it was terrible for actually learning words, but you didn't eat candy for the vitamins and minerals. As the trip continued, the bus slowly filled with people. Taylor turned down her music, hoping to catch some juicy shred of conversation— not in the gossipy way, god, she didn't care about that— but the closest she got was a surly-looking twenty-something arguing on his blackberry. His voice was short and clipped, with a couple repressed consonants, but she'd heard that before, and his vocabulary was boring enough that she lost interest fast. Five songs and zero interesting conversations later, she stepped off the bus near Winslow High. 'Near', in this case, meant about half a mile, but Taylor didn't actually mind the walk, weary as she was. It gave her more time for music. The next half-hour played out exactly like she'd imagined— she had to stop herself from clicking her tongue along with the office lady as the green late slip slid across the desk. 10:02, it said, in loopy red pen that somehow managed to look disapproving. Just in time for Spanish. She smiled a little, angling her head so Office Lady couldn't see. Spanish had been one of the first she'd learned. And today was... Wednesday, right? They had a presentation. Some group thing. That'd be fun—oh. Wait. Her 'group' was a pair. Her and Greg. Less fun. But the Trio weren't in the class either, so it evened back out to positive. That's what she told herself, at least. Taylor slid into her seat at 10:08, three minutes after the bell. Senorita Rosin nodded at her, barely even glancing at the incriminating green paper. She was youngish for a teacher, blonde-haired and fresh-faced, and seemed to genuinely care about her subject despite being whiter than a gallon of milk. Someone more jaded would say she just hadn't been teaching for long enough, but Taylor liked her all the same. "Buenos días!" she called out, her smile not even twitching at the much-less enthusiastic echo from the class. "You guys can have five minutes to prep before we start presentations, okay? And just so everyone's clear: the grading scale is vocab, grammar, and pronunciation in that order. Good luck! But you guys don't need it, right?" After a few weak laughs from some of the nicer kids, she retreated to her desk, and the room filled with a low buzz of conversation, most of which had nothing to do with Spanish prep. Taylor closed her eyes and laid her head on her desk, not really listening. For once, sleep took priority. "Hi Taylor, are you okay?" Words. Fast, animated, half-breathless. Greg Words. She stifled a groan. "Taylor? We should prep for the presentation, okay? I don't want to lose points. My dad says if I can get all As this semester he'll get me a bike, so—" "Sure," Taylor mumbled, cutting him off without lifting her head. "Okay, Greg." It wasn't like he was going to shut up either way. And a refresher wasn't actually a bad idea— if only so she could remember what they were suppose to be presenting. Something about the history of Brockton Bay? "Okay." She could picture his head-bobbing nod. "How about I read the English vocab, and then you say the Spanish word? And then you can do the same for me if we have time, I guess, but I know the whole unit already. So you don't need to." "Sure." Taylor exhaled, slowly levering her head halfway off the desk. Greg nodded again, bounce-bounce-bounce, and seemed to take that as his cue to start. "Okay." He peered down at the textbook. "Number one: now." "Ahora," she murmured, clamping down on a yawn. She could still feel the words bristling in her head, forming chains of meaning and association, but she was so tired they seemed to drift until her usual tidy web was more like alphabet soup. "Yes. Number two: soon," Greg enunciated, nodding to himself again. There weren't any numbers before the vocabulary lists. "Pronto." "Yes. Number three: recently." Greg's voice had somehow slipped from a strained rush to a comforting drone— or maybe she was just that tired. Either way, she could feel herself slipping. "Taylor? Taylor are you okay? What's number three? The word is 'recently.' If you don't know, I can tell you. I know the whole unit already." So tired. What was the word? Recently? She'd learned time, right? From the news reports. "مؤخر," Taylor replied absently, before almost clamping a hand over her mouth. Fuck. "I-I mean, uh. Recientemente." Greg frowned, staring at her like she'd just cursed his mother. "Yes. What was that other word, though? Can you say it again? It didn't sound like Spanish. Do you know another language or something? I—" "Time's up, estudiantes!" Senorita Rosin clapped her hands together, and the buzz faded to a low murmur as Taylor silently thanked whatever deities she could think of. "So! Any volunteers? Or do I have to start pointing fingers?" Greg's hand had shot up before she'd finished the sentence. Of course. Rosin smiled. "Greg, you're with... Taylor?" Bounce-bounce-bounce. "Greg and Taylor it is!" The room seemed to warp slightly as Taylor stood up, but that was probably just the blood rushing to her head. She slowly made her way to the front of her room, turning to stare at the back wall, over the heads of the class. "¡Buena suerte!" Senorita Rosin said, smiling at her. "Eight minutes starts... now!" Greg stepped forward stiffly, flick-flick-flicking his notecards, and gave an awkward-sounding cough before launching into a breathless introduction to the history of immigration in Brockton Bay. His Spanish was, Taylor noted with a hint of surprise, actually pretty good—in a vacuum, at least. Theterms were right, stringing themselves together logically, correctly, and he was definitely fast enough to sound authentic, but his accent was—well, it was a hyperactive East Coast kid doing his best to sound Latino. Even half-awake, Taylor could still pick out the little bits of Wrong: an unstressed syllable here, a dropped diphthong there. They grated on her Web like sandpaper, her jaw tightening slightly every time he slipped. At least he was blitzing through it. The less she had to hear, the better. Finally, after what felt like a teeth-grinding eternity, Greg wound to a stop, like a toy running out of battery. He gestured to Taylor, taking an exaggerated step back to give her the 'stage', and her eyes flicked to the clock: five and a half minutes left. Jesus. He really had burned through it. What had his last point been? Something about recent history. Right. That was her part. Twenty-five years ago to modern day. Easy peasy. She cleared her throat, her Web sparkling to life inside her mind, and began to speak. The words came out freely, beautifully, each one falling into the next with effortless precision. She glided between sentences and topics, doing her best to recall hazy dates and figures—she had studied, but that had been a few days and a couple near-sleepless nights ago. There were a few twinges of uncertainty too, niggling bits of concern, but she dismissed them, forging forward with as much confidence as she could muster. Just nerves. Her grammar was perfect, her vocab was rich, her accent was native. For once—perhaps the first in her life—Taylor Hebert felt like she couldn't possibly lose. The rest of the five and a half minutes flickered by, with her throwing every factoid she could into a vaguely-coherent summary of the various ethnic communities of Brockton Bay and wrapping up with about thirty seconds to spare. Taylor stepped back, smiling slightly breathless, and even took a stupid little half-bow. Bravery through sleep deprivation. Who would've guessed? For a few seconds after she finished, nobody spoke, until the silence was shattered by Senorita Rosin's enthusiastic applause. "Well done, Greg and Taylor!" she said, a little too loudly. "¡Fantástico!" Slowly, most of the class joined in, until Taylor was staring at the ground, red-faced but smiling all the same. As she half-collapsed back in her chair, Greg caught her eye, his face a mask of confusion. He opened his mouth to say something, but was—thank god—once again interrupted by Senorita Rosin. Even as Taylor laid her head back on her desk, she could feel his stare boring into her neck, making her insides wiggle with unease. She hadn't overdone it, had she? There was no way. And even if she had, who in their right mind was going to guess 'parahuman language powers' as the reason? Greg was just being Greg, she decided, adjusting her head to a more comfortable position on her arms. This victory was hers. She'd fucking earned it. As much as someone like her could, at least. Taylor spent the rest of Spanish half-asleep, with only the other students' halting attempts to match her performance and occasional bursts of mechanical applause keeping her from dozing off entirely. Eventually, things began to wrap up: she could hear the rustling of papers, the scraping of chairs. Her head rose from the desk, slowly and reluctantly, and she blinked a few times, letting the room come back into focus behind her glasses. "No homework tonight," Senorita Rosin was saying, smiling as the bell chimed. "But we're going to start on the subjunctive tomorrow, so if you wanna be an overachiever you can read up on that tonight. See you guys later!" She walked back over to her desk and settled down, tapping a stack of papers against the bottom and clearing her throat. "Oh. Taylor, could you stay here for a minute?" Taylor's heart dropped to somewhere around her knees. She nodded robotically, leaning back in her chair—Greg was still staring at her as he left, jesus christ—until the last of the students had filtered out. A few of them threw glances her way on their way out, some curious, some vindictive, none reassuring. She slumped down, staring at the fake beige grain of her desk as Senorita Rosin took a seat beside her. "You're not in trouble," she said gently, tapping Taylor's shoulder. She didn't move, her stomach twisting at the touch. "At least, I don't think you are? I'm pretty sure you didn't cheat, but... honestly, Taylor, I'm just confused." Rosin shook her head, her lips twitching upwards. "Where did you learn to speak Castilian Spanish?"