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Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern [Worm Fanfic]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Feb 26, 2019.

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    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yes, this is another story about an unpowered Taylor Hebert as an unpaid intern to a powerful organisation.

    But what if she interned, not for the PRT, but for Medhall? The Brockton Bay Heart of Darkness itself?

    While having no idea who was running the show, of course.

    (And no, this will not be a crossover with Slippery Slope. That story is that story and this story is this story).

    And just to spice things up, she's not the only intern on site.

    Without further ado ...

    Disclaimers:

    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 welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion.


    Index

    Part One: Introduction (below)
    Part Two: Highs and Lows
    Part Three: One of Us
    Part Four: Battle Lines; Drawn
     
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2020 at 2:46 PM
  2. Threadmarks: Part One: Introduction
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern

    Part One: Introduction


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


    The elevator ride seemed to take forever. Or maybe that was just because I was sharing it with Greg Veder. I mean, I didn't dislike Greg, but there wasn't much I liked about him, either. He didn't join in on the bullying, I guess. Though it didn't help when he was so clueless that he accidentally helped them out. At least, I chose to think it was by accident, because otherwise he was a better actor than anyone I'd ever seen before.

    I eyed the numbers as they crawled upward, and nervously straightened my skirt. It was a denim number that went to below my knees, because it was the only skirt I owned, and I didn't want to show up at my first day of work experience slash internship looking like a typical teenage girl. It wasn't that I had any particular yearning to get a job at Medhall, but I really, really wanted this work experience gig to go on for just as long as I could stretch it out. Three half-days a week away from Winslow and the three girls who spent all their time making my life a slice of hell? I'd have to be insane to want to screw that up.

    Of course, that was the problem with Greg. He was good at screwing things up for me, and nobody ever gave me a do-over. I'd been cautiously optimistic about my chances of remaining at work experience for the entire period until Christmas, right up until I'd heard that he was doing it with me. Now, I gave myself a week, tops, before he managed to screw this up, too.

    “So hey,” he said almost breathlessly, even though neither one of us had been talking up until then. “Did you hear the latest about Shadow Stalker?” The tone of his voice suggested that he was the only one who knew the news, and that it had potentially world-shaking consequences. I had my doubts on both points.

    “Let me guess,” I said sarcastically. “She captured Lung and Kaiser on the same night, and she's being inducted into the PRT Hall of Fame?” Shadow Stalker wasn't someone I held a lot of admiration for. She was a teenage vigilante whose exploits showed up sometimes in the papers, usually with the notation 'badly beaten' or 'crossbow arrow' attached. Not exactly someone I saw as a role model. Now, if she could come to Winslow and clean the place out a little, I could get behind that. Maybe dangle Sophia Hess out of a third-floor window by her ankles for a little bit.

    Well, I could dream.

    His expression was startled. “No! Where'd you hear that?” Before I could tell him I was joking, he went on. “No, I found out from PHO this morning that she's joining the Wards. She's always been pretty kickass. Now she'll be even cooler, with the tech the PRT can give her.”

    I shrugged. “I guess. Wonder how she'll get along with the others?” Shadow Stalker had been on her own for some time, while the Wards were by all reports a close-knit team. I hadn't seen any news stories about her teaming up with them which might've led to this development. Then again, I was pretty sure there was stuff going on behind the scenes that I was never going to learn about.

    To my everlasting relief, just as Greg opened his mouth to reply, the elevator doors dinged and slid open. I stepped out of the elevator, clutching my shoulder-bag close to my ribs, and looked around to see who I should be reporting to. Greg hurried after me, somehow managing to look dishevelled in his freshly ironed shirt and slacks (I made a bet with myself that he hadn't done the ironing) and semi-neatly combed hair. I guessed it was just his general air of uncoordination.

    “Miss Hebert, Mr Veder.” The voice was female and filled with authority. “You're late. I was expecting you ten minutes ago.”

    Oh crap oh crap. I refrained from checking my watch as I turned toward the person who had addressed us. She was in her forties, wearing a severe business suit and an even more severe expression. Black hair was pulled back over her scalp and bundled into a bun that bullets would probably bounce off of. She was also carrying two manila folders. “Uh, ma'am, I'm sorry. From the clock in the lobby I thought we could get here with time to spare—”

    She countered my apology with a sniff that brought me up short. “Here at Medhall, we are on site and ready to start, at fifteen minutes before time. You would do well to remember that.” Stepping forward, she stopped before us and subjected us to a glare that should by rights have seared us down to the bone. Her expression of disdain never wavered; in fact, I was pretty sure that it had intensified. “Understand this. The internship program is contingent on a tax break for Medhall. This is the only reason you are here. Moreover, it's not a large tax break, so if we decide that either or both of you are more trouble than you're worth, then we'll write it off. And you with it.”

    Beside me, I heard Greg gulp audibly. Either I was made of stronger stuff than him or I was just plain used to being looked down on, because her scathing words didn't really bother me. It wasn't as if it was personal. She probably loathed us because we were interns, not because she knew us. It was almost comforting.

    She leaned slightly closer, making me think of drill sergeants in war movies. I had no doubt that she'd have recruits wetting their pants in less than ten seconds. “Do you understand what I just said, or do I have to repeat myself?” Her tone made it abundantly clear that making her repeat herself was a very bad idea.

    “Ma'am, I understand what you said,” I replied quickly, restraining myself from trying to go to attention, because I had no idea how that was really done, and she'd probably think I was making fun of her. Or she'd critique my attempt, which would probably be worse. I didn't even try to include Greg in my statement; let him sink or swim on his own. Heartless that may sound, but only to anyone who'd never tried to do a class project requiring his input to succeed.

    Beside me, Greg made a strangled noise that she obviously chose to interpret as agreement with what I'd said. The decision was a lucky one for him; if she'd let his brain get into gear, the gear of choice would be Reverse. I'd heard him speak when he was relaxed and in familiar surroundings, and that was bad enough. God only knew what idiocy his malfunctioning brain-mouth filter would let through under these circumstances.

    “Good.” Her forbidding demeanour relaxed ever so slightly. Now she only looked as though she beat up muggers for light exercise, as opposed to terrifying them into submission by sheer force of will. “My name is Ms Harcourt. You will call me Ms Harcourt or ma'am. I will be your supervisor. You will come to me for instruction. You will not speak to any of the executives in this building.” She held out the two folders. “These are your induction folders. You will read through the material in them, fill out your details where necessary, and initial each page after reading to confirm that you have understood the material.” She pointed at an open door; there was a table visible inside. “You will do your reading in that interview room. Once you have completed your induction, you will report to me. My office is that one over there.” She pointed at a closed door with HARCOURT embossed on it. “Is there any part of this that you do not understand?”

    “No, ma'am,” I said crisply. I was starting to get the hang of this place, I hoped. Turning, I headed for the interview room.

    “Miss Hebert!” Her voice cracked across the room like a whip. I froze, mid-step. Oh, crap. I didn't asked to be dismissed, or something. Well, there went my work experience and with it, my reprieve from Winslow.

    Slowly, I put my foot down and turned back toward Ms Harcourt. “Yes, ma'am?” Whatever she said, I was going to put a brave face on it. Even if she said I was being fired from my job of unpaid menial labour.

    “You forgot to ask me for a pen,” she snapped. “You'll need one for your induction papers.” From a hidden pocket—she certainly didn't carry them in public—she produced two retractable ballpoints.

    “I don't need one, ma'am,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “I brought my own.” Greatly daring, I patted my shoulder-bag. From the hangdog look on Greg's face, it seemed that I was in a minority of one; sheepishly, he reached out and took one of the pens and mumbled something that might have been thanks.

    “Hmm.” She narrowed her eyes, possibly trying to figure out what else I had up my sleeve. I tried to look helpful and intelligent and prepared. “You think ahead. Good.” For all that the praise was grudging, it sounded genuine. “Commence.” Turning, she strode toward her office.

    After a moment, I had to remind myself to breathe. I wasn't being kicked off work experience! And my new boss had said something nice! As I turned toward the interview room, I let myself feel something I hadn't experienced in some time; hope.

    This might actually work.

    <><>​

    The interview room contained several chairs and a water cooler in the corner. I pulled out a chair, sat down, and opened my folder. My bag went on another chair beside me, and I began to rummage through it for the zippered pencil case. As I found it, I heard a trickling noise. I looked up to see Greg at the water cooler, running himself a cup.

    “Greg!” I hissed. “What are you doing? Didn't you hear Ms Harcourt? We're supposed to be getting these pages filled out and initialled, not goofing off!” Unzipping the case, I picked out a pen I knew to be reliable.

    “Oh, relax, Taylor,” he said, sitting on one chair, then half-turning it so he could put his feet up on another one. “We can take our time at this. She just wanted us out of her hair. I bet she's like Blackwell, all shouty when we're in front of her, doesn't give a crap when she can't see us.” He leaned back in his chair and took a slow sip from his cup. “I interned for my uncle’s firm last summer. Trust me, I've got this crap nailed.

    He sounded very sure of himself, but I wasn't so certain. “What if she comes and checks on us? I mean, she just told us to fill out these papers and get back to her.”

    “What, she's gonna come over here from her office just to make sure we're doing it as fast as we can?” He took another drink from his cup. “I doubt it. Anyway, I can see her office door from here. You worry too much.”

    Something caught my eye, and I looked up into the corner of the room behind Greg. A clear glass dome held a security camera, with a glowing red light next to the lens. It moved very slightly, angling down toward Greg. My eyes widened and I opened my mouth to say something, but before I could, the camera waggled from side to side in an unmistakeable motion.

    A lot of things became clear to me. We were under observation, and I'd probably passed some sort of test for noticing. But whoever was on the other end of the camera didn't want me telling Greg about it. If it wasn't Ms Harcourt, I would've bet every dollar I owned that she knew about it. The next question was simple: did I risk my internship by sticking with Greg and giving him the heads-up, or did I do what I was told? The answer was depressingly easy to arrive at; I kept my mouth shut and started to fill out the first page. I'd come to Medhall to do work experience. If Greg wanted to goof off, that was his look-out. I wasn't getting in trouble for him.

    “Hey, do you play Space Opera?” he asked as he poured himself another cup of water. “It's an online space game, where you can—”

    “No,” I said briefly. “We've only got dialup at home. And I don't have time to play games like that.” Or the inclination, I added silently. “You really should be filling out your form.” Focusing back on the paper, I returned to filling out my details. Wonder of wonders, my curt tone must have gotten the message across, because he shut up then and drank his water. Or maybe he was just thirsty.

    I was about halfway through my paperwork, learning about the safety regulations as they applied to mere interns, when Greg finally deigned to start looking through his folder. He muttered and mumbled as he filled out the personal-details sheet, causing me to grit my teeth. I knew from experience that pointed glances wouldn't work, and I suspected that Ms Harcourt would object if I hit him with one of the chairs—if only for the sake of the chair—so I ignored him and carried on.

    It took me another ten minutes to finish, while Greg seemed to think that filling out his details was enough work for the time being, given that he settled back in his chair and put his feet up again. At least he wasn't muttering to himself any more, which I considered to be a bonus. I kept on reading, studying each sheet in turn. When I figured I understood the contents of each, I initialled it and turned to the next one.

    I had to hand it to Ms Harcourt; the induction folders were comprehensive. Not only were there ample safety regulations, but I had floor plans to study so that I knew where the bathrooms were (among other things), and also a list of the executives along with photos so that if one happened to address me, I knew who it was. Topping the list, of course, was Max Anders, CEO of Medhall and someone with whom I was entirely unlikely to interact.

    I was on the second to last page (a list of the parahuman villains of Brockton Bay, and the required procedure for responding to an attack by each one. The procedure for a depressingly large number of these was ‘run and hide’) when a rustling sound caught my ear. Looking up, I saw Greg was simply flicking through the sheets and scribbling his initials as fast as he could. Unless he'd acquired a page-at-a-glance speed-reading ability in the last hour, he certainly wasn't taking any of the material in.

    “Greg, you're really supposed to read those before initialling them,” I muttered, trying to get my exasperation across without raising my voice. “Those are important safety regulations you just skipped straight past.”

    “Wow, relax, Taylor,” he said confidently. “I told you, I've done this before. Nobody ever expects you to actually learn anything from an induction. If there's an emergency, they'll tell us what to do. I mean, seriously. We're just kids. Nobody expects us to actually be responsible.” He tapped the stack of papers with his pen. “This here's just for insurance purposes.”

    I'd been warned not to tell him about the camera, and I'd tried to warn him without telling him about it. If he didn't want to listen, that was no skin off my nose. So I initialled the page and turned to the last one, which was basically a document requiring me to assert that I'd read and understood the rest of the induction package before I signed it. I ticked the box that said 'YES', then signed. With a sigh, I closed the folder and stood, bending backward to work the kinks out of my spine. Greg went back to skimming the induction papers, dashing off his initials as fast as he could turn the pages.

    It would, I decided, be very irritating if he turned out to be correct.

    Greg completed the last page of his induction folder at just about the same time that I finished putting my pencil-case back in my shoulder-bag. “There, see?” he said smugly, bouncing to his feet. “One-tenth the effort, and I got it done in the same time you did.”

    I refrained from carrying out the impulse to dope-slap him and point out the camera. Months of bullying had honed my situational awareness (or so I liked to think), but he was still as clueless as when he’d walked into the room. “Let’s just get this over with,” I said as I slung the strap over my shoulder.

    Picking up the completed folder, I left the interview room and made my way across to Ms Harcourt’s office, with Greg sauntering beside me. He was gracious enough to let me get to the door first, or maybe he’d realised that I was perfectly willing to elbow him in the throat if he jumped in front of me. Raising my free hand, I knocked on the door.

    It opened almost immediately, confirming my supposition that Ms Harcourt had been watching the video feed. “You’ve finished already?” she asked, her brow creasing heavily in suspicion. “That didn’t take long.”

    Doing my best not to grit my teeth at Greg’s almost palpable air of told-ya-so, I offered her my folder. “I’ve read every page through carefully, ma’am. If you believe I need to study it more, I will.”

    “Hrm.” Without taking it, she turned her attention to Greg. “And you? Have you read your induction paperwork through carefully?”

    Anyone but Greg (and I meant that literally. Anyone.) would’ve spotted the bear-trap lurking in the undergrowth. But he just stomped right ahead without a care in the world. “Sure did, Ms Harcourt. It’s all right here.”

    As he offered his folder with a flourish, I cringed inwardly. On a scale of one to ten for ‘ominous foreshadowing’, Ms Harcourt’s question hit about eleven and a half. If my instincts were correct, a ton of shit was just about to land on the back of Greg’s neck. I just hoped that I wouldn’t be caught in the splash radius.

    “Very good,” she said with a contortion of her face I belatedly realised was supposed to be a smile. “Come on in. There are just a few things left to do.”

    My brain registered her words, but refused to process them. He’s going to get away with goofing off like that? Oh, that’s just not fair. Doing my best to ignore the smug look he gave me behind her back—because the alternative was grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and bashing his face into the doorframe—I followed her into the office.

    Things just didn’t add up. The camera, the leading question … I didn’t get it. The moment Greg opened his mouth and lied to her face, Ms Harcourt should’ve been all over it like a school of piranha. Or maybe a great white shark. But she’d accepted his words at face value. This internship suddenly began to look sucky all over again; not because Greg would get me ‘fired’ but because he’d be breezing his way through it while I didn’t dare not do everything by the book.

    “Mr Veder. Miss Hebert. I have one more thing for you to do.” Ms Harcourt’s clipped voice brought me back to the present. She was standing next to a large metal trash-can beside her desk. From where I was, I could see that it was mostly full of papers. The thought Wow, she uses a lot of paper in one day clashed with the secondary thought Right, so we’ve got to empty that. Yay.

    She turned toward us and I registered two things. The first was a faint smell of lighter fluid. The second was a lit match in her hand. My eyes opened wide as she tossed the match. It described a perfect parabolic arc into the centre of the trash can.

    I hadn’t been imagining the lighter fluid. The instant that match touched down, everything caught. Within a couple of seconds, the trash can was alight from side to side, flames leaping a yard into the air.

    “Fire!” yelped Greg. “Fire! Fire!” With an admirable turn of speed, he bolted from the office, leaving his induction folder flopping to the ground and spilling paper everywhere. “Let me outta here!”

    I was also halfway out the door, but not to seek refuge. Fixed in my mind was one of the pages I had carefully studied. Entitled ‘Fire Safety’, it had clearly shown the fire exits, the WIP phones (I had no idea what the acronym stood for), the locations for the manual fire alarms … and the fire extinguisher closets.

    The closest of these was only a few steps away. I reached it and dropped my shoulder-bag and folder to the floor before wrenching the door open. Within hung a large red fire extinguisher. I couldn’t recall what the green triangle meant, but they had to have anticipated paper fires when they equipped the closet. With a grunt, I took up the extinguisher—it was heavy!—and lugged it back to the office.

    By the time I got there, Greg had run straight past the clearly marked fire exit door not once but twice, and was pulling open random office doors, apparently in the hope that the fire exit might be concealed in one of those. I put him out of my mind, having more important matters to deal with.

    Ms Harcourt was standing in the office doorway with an electronic device in her hand. Her thumb was hovering over a large red button when I edged past her. Inverting the extinguisher—I’d read somewhere that you had to do that—I pulled the pin, awkwardly aimed the nozzle at the roaring blaze, and squeezed the trigger.

    With a blaring hiss, it blasted white powder over everything. Some settled on my glasses, but I had no hands free to wipe them clear. I just kept moving forward until I was firing the stuff into the trash can itself. Smoke and ash billowed up, making me cough, but I didn’t let up until the extinguisher ran dry.

    I stopped to catch my breath and take stock of the situation. The fire was definitely out. I’d plastered that entire side of the office with white powder, and gotten more than a little of it on myself. Smoke filled the office, forcing me to stumble back to the door, then a few steps beyond, to get a breath of clean air.

    “Well done.” Ms Harcourt loomed up beside me, even as men wearing high-vis gear and breathing apparatus ran into her office. “You can put it down now.” She held my folder and shoulder-bag.

    I blinked, then realised she meant the extinguisher, which I was still clutching like a protective talisman. It felt quite a bit lighter now, probably because I’d emptied it all out on her test. Releasing the cylinder, I let it swing by my hand for a moment then dropped it to the carpet with a dull thud. The last of the smoke scratched at my throat and I coughed. “I’d speak to maintenance if I were you, ma’am,” I said. “There’s a fire sensor and a sprinkler head in your office, and they both failed to go off.” I knew why, of course. She’d probably had them both disabled for this test. But in order to pass the test, I couldn’t act as though I knew it was a test. In fact, even though there was smoke spreading across the ceiling, none of the fire sensors were going off.

    “Quite,” she replied, sounding almost amused. I was pretty sure she knew that I was playing along. “I’m going to need you to visit the infirmary, to ensure that you’re suffering no ill effects from smoke inhalation, before we go on.”

    “Sorry about the mess I made of your office,” I said instinctively. I knew which floor the infirmary was on, of course. It was going to be a pain getting rid of all the powder.

    “Oh, that’s not my office,” she said as she led the way to the elevator. “We maintain a dummy office area, which we use for training situations such as this. Our in-house emergency crews need to be kept on their toes, after all.”

    As well as your interns, it seems. But I didn’t say a word as we stepped into the elevator.

    <><>​

    I lay back on a bed with my shoes off and an oxygen mask on my face. Air that was slightly cooler and drier than I was used to breathing wreathed its way into my lungs. I felt a little light-headed, but that was probably due to the fact that I was breathing almost pure oxygen. When I’d first put it on, the doctor had encouraged me to inhale as deeply as I could, which had started a coughing spasm. This had passed quickly, though. Now I was just lying back and enjoying life.

    “How do you feel?” The doctor came over to stand by my bed. I gave him a thumbs-up. He offered me a professional smile; I vaguely wondered how many people he’d seen high on oxygen. The idea made me want to giggle.

    There was one of those clothes-peg thingies on my finger. The doctor checked a readout on the monitor next to me, then unclipped it. “Blood oxygen nominal. Pulse strong.” Leaning over me, he examined my eyes. “Look up. Look down. Look left. Look right.” He made a notation on the clipboard. “The redness is going away nicely.”

    “Thank you, doctor. You can go now.” Ms Harcourt stepped up alongside him. For a grown woman, she could move very quietly. She looked down at me, and a small frown appeared on her brow. “You surprised me, you know. I expected you to show Mr Veder the fire exit and to seek safety, but you went above and beyond. Why didn’t you just pull the fire alarm and leave?”

    Reaching up, I took the oxygen mask off. Breathing the purest air I would probably experience ever had given me a level of mental clarity I was unused to. “Because the fire extinguisher was closer,” I said. “Do you do this with all your interns?” Inwardly, I winced. Apparently, increased clarity came with reduced judgement as to what I was about to say.

    Her lips compressed slightly, though I didn’t know whether it was due to what I’d said or something else. “Given that you’re the first two interns we’ve taken on in some years, the answer would be ‘yes’. Do you feel fit to start work?”

    “I suppose so.” I pushed myself to a seated position and swung my legs off of the bed. My head didn’t spin, so I slid off the bed and landed on my feet. I nodded at Ms Harcourt. “I feel all right, though I’m going to have to look up the contract Dad signed for me to come in here. Because when he finds out what happened, he’s gonna get very unhappy, very quickly. Just saying.”

    She tilted her head to one side. “Mr Veder is saying much the same, though in somewhat stronger language. The word ‘lawsuit’ keeps cropping up. But you aren’t saying it. You don’t even seem particularly put out. Why is that?”

    “Part of it’s the oxygen high, I think. I knew that I wasn’t in any real danger. And I’m reasonably certain a big-name company like Medhall wouldn’t pull a stunt like that unless you had every safety precaution in place and your lawyers had all their bases covered.” I shrugged. “Which is why I want to see the contract and figure out how you worded it.” I found a chair and sat in it to pull my shoes on.

    There was the other aspect, of course, but I managed not to talk about it. Being able to step up and fix a problem had felt exhilarating. It wasn’t just firefighting, but solving problems in general. Is this how superheroes feel? I didn’t know, but I liked it.

    Also, I found I was willing to put up with quite a lot to keep my internship from going belly-up.

    “Very well.” Either I was getting used to Ms Harcourt’s manner, or she was deliberately being less intimidating toward me. “Come with me, and matters will be explained.”

    <><>​

    “When my mom hears about this crap, she’s gonna sue you guys into the bedrock! I’ll probably end up with a controlling interest!”

    I heard Greg’s voice before I saw him. He sounded more agitated than I’d ever seen or heard him before. When I opened the door and entered the room, I was a little surprised by his appearance. I shouldn’t have been; the ranting had given me plenty of warning.

    His previously-combed hair was all standing on end, probably from running his hands through it. Somehow, his clothes had gone from ‘neatly ironed’ to ‘salvaged from the bottom of the laundry hamper’. It must have been a boy thing.

    I’d caught him in mid-pace alongside a table. On the other side of the table sat a woman in a business suit, with a briefcase on the table in front of her. He turned to face me. “Taylor!” he exclaimed. “You’re all right!” Two paces toward me, he stopped. “You are all right, aren’t you?”

    “I’m fine,” I said lightly. “How are you? You look … rumpled there.”

    “Oh, I’m great!” he said, his voice tinged with hysteria. “Couldn’t be better! I come to do a nice easy internship, and on the first day I’m catapulted into a life-threatening situation, masquerading as training!” He stomped over toward Ms Harcourt. “You guys are so sued, I’m telling you that!”

    “You will sit down, Mr Veder.” Ms Harcourt didn’t raise her voice, but she didn’t have to. It wasn’t so much a command as a prediction.

    All of Greg’s bluster and fire … vanished. Hastily, he drew out a chair and sat down in it. Before I needed to be asked, I also pulled out a chair and took a seat.

    “Thank you, Miss Hebert.” Ms Harcourt turned to the business-suited woman and nodded. The woman took the briefcase and snapped the latches open. She lifted the lid, took out a familiar-looking document, and slid it over to me. A moment later, a similar document was skated across the table to Greg. “Do you recognise these forms?”

    I picked mine up and scanned it. “Yes, ma’am. It’s the form my father signed to allow me to intern at Medhall.”

    Greg looked over his more carefully, then went back through, scrutinising each page as if suspecting forgery. Ms Harcourt let him go on like this for thirty seconds, then cleared her throat.

    “Oh!” He jumped as if he’d been shot. “Yeah, this looks like what my mom signed. Doesn’t get you off the hook, though. There’s nothing in here that says we’d be exposed to life-threatening situations.”

    Ms Harcourt ignored the threat. “Clause twelve. It states that interns will undergo the same safety training as regular employees. Correct?”

    “Well, yeah, but …”

    I didn’t say anything. Turning to clause twelve, I found a notation that referred me to Appendix G at the back of the form. I flicked back to Appendix G, which stated that regular employees agreed, by virtue of signing, to undergo ‘regularly scheduled* emergency drills’ including (but not limited to) simulated chemical spills, earthquake, supervillain attacks … and fires in the office space.

    I almost skimmed over that asterisk, but then my eyes were drawn back to it. Frowning, I looked down toward the bottom of the page, and there it was.

    * Including at most one (1) unscheduled surprise drill to be carried out once per employee per calendar year, at the discretion of Medhall upper management. Results of unscheduled surprise drills to be assessed as per any standard drill.

    “But nothing, Greg,” I said out loud. “They’re covered. That was an unscheduled surprise drill, which we actually signed up for.”

    “What?” he yelped. “But … no!” Frantically, he paged through the form until he found clause twelve, then followed the same path I had to Appendix G. Finally, his eyes went to the bottom of the page. For a good thirty seconds, he sat there while his eyes flicked back and forth along that single paragraph, looking for a loophole.

    “No, that’s not right,” he protested. “Taylor got smoke inhalation. I’m mentally scarred. We’ve suffered harm from your stupid surprise drill. We can still sue.”

    The woman with the briefcase lifted out a weighty tome and dropped it on the table; Greg jumped at the solid thump. The title read simply MEDHALL COMPANY POLICY.

    “Part D, section three, subsection four-B,” said Ms Harcourt. I had zero doubt that she was quoting verbatim. “Any Medhall employee, contractor, temporary employee or otherwise signatory to the Medhall Company Policy, having suffered injury or malady as a direct result of Medhall policy being enacted, will be compensated immediately and without contest, with the full cost of external medical treatment necessary to treat the injury or malady. A bonus sum of one thousand dollars will be paid out upon completion of treatment. Should the injury or malady be sufficiently treated in-house, or should there be no lasting effect upon the person of the signatory party, the sum of one thousand dollars is still payable.”

    I blinked, wishing I was still under the oxygen. My brain had worked so much faster then. “Does that mean … we get a thousand bucks?”

    Ms Harcourt nodded once, curtly. “Each, yes.”

    The lady with the briefcase took her cue once more. Taking two thick envelopes from the briefcase, she slid one to each of us. I took mine up and opened the flap to determine that it definitely contained money. Not bothering to count it, I slid it into my shoulder-bag.

    Greg was less restrained. Pulling the money out, he fanned it wide, then stuffed it back into the envelope and whistled. “Score!” Turning to face me, he winked elaborately, apparently trying to hide it from Ms Harcourt. I had no idea what the wink was supposed to signify, but Ms Harcourt was on the ball.

    “Mr Veder,” she said freezingly, “if you are considering launching a lawsuit anyway, be aware that your acceptance of the money specifically indicates that you consider there to be no lasting effects on you from the incident.”

    For a long moment, Greg blinked at her. “ … what?”

    “If you’re gonna try to sue them anyway, Greg,” I said impatiently, “you gotta give the money back. Keeping the money means you don’t think there’s anything wrong with you.” Taking my envelope out of the shoulder-bag, I ran my thumb over the edges of the bills. “I know I’m keeping mine.”

    “But I’m a minor!” He looked from me to Ms Harcourt. “You can’t hold me to any agreement like that!”

    “Sure,” I agreed. “You think your mom’s gonna let you keep a thousand bucks you got paid under the table?” I smiled tightly at him. “Won’t happen. Especially once she understands how the company policy is worded.”

    Now he looked betrayed. “You wouldn’t tell her, would you?” Friends wouldn’t do that to friends, he didn’t quite say. Which was fortunate, because he probably would’ve been offended if I laughed in his face.

    “I wouldn’t have to,” I said bluntly. Turning to Ms Harcourt, I went on. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

    She favoured me with a brief nod, then fixed Greg with a gimlet eye. “Miss Hebert is essentially correct. Attempting to keep the money and also launch a lawsuit will involve a countersuit for fraud. If you wish to be free to sue … return the money. Now.” She held out her hand commandingly.

    “But … my money!” Greg clutched at the envelope in a way that reminded me of a certain wizened little character in a fantasy movie. My precious …

    It was quite possible that he’d never held so much money in his hands before; I certainly hadn’t. And while the smoke inhalation hadn’t been exactly pleasant, they’d certainly gone all-out to ensure my well-being after the fact. “Greg, for God’s sake. If you really think you’re going to sue them, leave the money. Otherwise, take it.” I caught his eye and mouthed the words, You’ll lose. Emma’s dad had talked about how companies beat lawsuits like this; they just kept appealing until the little guy ran out of money. And Medhall had the resources to appeal until Doomsday rolled around.

    Greg let out a pained sigh. This was apparently the signal that he’d given up on getting a controlling interest in the company, because he tucked the envelope in his pocket. “Okay, fine. You win.”

    I personally didn’t think getting a thousand bucks in the hand exactly constituted ‘losing’, but then I wasn’t Greg. Thank God. “So, um, Ms Harcourt, what happens now?”

    “Now, Ms Hebert, I will assign you your positions.” Ms Harcourt looked sternly at me. “You showed initiative, but you also ran into a room where there was a fire without any sort of protective equipment. I think I need to keep a close eye on you, so you will be working for my personal assistant for the duration of this internship.”

    I nodded meekly. “Yes, ma’am.” If not actually nice, Ms Harcourt had basically been fair with me. If I kept on my toes, I figured I could handle this.

    “And as for you, Mr Veder.” She bent her gaze upon Greg, and her expression was considerably more disapproving. “You failed utterly to take note of anything in the induction folder, including the locations of the fire exits. Then you lied to me. Until you can prove to me that you’re capable of anything resembling actual responsibility … you’ll be assisting the janitors.” Her frown deepened. “And I will be getting a daily report from them.”

    Greg stared at her, his jaw dropping open. If I had to venture a guess, this was not how his previous internship had gone. “Janitors?” he squeaked.

    “Janitors,” she confirmed. “And be aware: we like our bathrooms sparkling.”

    It seemed, after all, that Greg’d gotten one thing right.

    He had this crap nailed.

    Just not the way he wanted.


    End of Part One
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2019
  3. Threadmarks: Part Two: Highs and Lows
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern

    Part Two: Highs and Lows

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


    Ms Harcourt’s personal assistant was a blonde lady about five years older than me. Her perfect makeup, clothing and figure made me feel absolutely inadequate within seconds of meeting her.

    “Hi,” she said warmly, shaking my hand. “I’m Tracey Grimshaw. Your name is Taylor?”

    “I, uh, yes, Ms Grimshaw,” I mumbled. I wasn’t used to people being friendly.

    “Pfft, call me Tracey,” she said, though I suspected she was pleased I’d gone with the formal greeting first. “Everyone else does around here. So, Taylor, has Ms Harcourt told you what you’re going to be doing today?”

    Numbly, I shook my head. “She just said to do whatever you told me to do. And if there’s a real emergency, to leave quietly by the fire escape so the professionals have something to do.”

    Tracey laughed delightedly. “She said that? Wow, you must really have made an impression on her.” She gestured toward the small side-desk in her office. “That’s where you’ll be working. I’ve never had an intern assigned to me before, so I’m afraid we’re just going to be making it up as we go along.”

    “Well, I’ve never been an intern before, either,” I confessed. “So what do you want me to do first?”

    “First, I think I’ll show you where the coffee machine is, and then … hmm.” She seemed to consider her options for a moment. “You can use computers, right?”

    “I’m not an expert,” I said hastily. “But yes, I get good marks in Computer Studies.”

    That seemed to satisfy her; she beamed.

    After an introduction to the break room coffee machine, and a brief course of instruction in how to make coffee the way Tracey—and Ms Harcourt—liked it, I was ushered back to what would be our shared office. With what came across as almost unseemly satisfaction, she carefully arranged the transfer of a laptop and a flatbed scanner across to the desk I would be using. Most of the problems involved ensuring that the cords didn’t get tangled or unplugged, but eventually we had matters arranged to our mutual satisfaction. After that, I moved a large box of paper files to a spot beside my desk. A second box, this one empty, went beside the first.

    “All right,” she said, dusting her hands off, despite the fact that I’d done most of the heavy lifting. I didn’t hold that against her; unlike my clothing, I doubted her apparel would stand up to any sort of exercise. “This is what you’re going to be doing. We went fully digital with this sort of thing years ago, but someone found a few boxes of old files at the back of a closet somewhere, and now we have to integrate them with the rest of our records.”

    “So you want me to scan the files?” I wasn’t quite sure what she wanted me for. Any idiot could work a scanner. Then again, right then I was probably the ‘any idiot’ they were looking for.

    “Not just that.” She indicated the laptop. “That’s been set up to receive the input from the scanner. The optical-character recognition software is supposed to render the filled-out forms into the digital format we’re using these days, but OCR has been known to throw up glitches. So you scan the files, then eyeball them to ensure that everything translated across OK, and enter any corrections. Then you check with the main system to see if they’ve already got that client number on file. If the system is working right, it will take the data you’ve entered and integrate it into the correct file.”

    “And if it isn’t working right?” Because with my luck, it wouldn’t be.

    She gave me a brilliant smile. “Then it’ll throw up a query and between the two of us, we’ll try to figure out what’s gone wrong. Any questions?”

    I frowned. “Yeah. Isn’t this sort of thing confidential? Won’t I be breaking laws just looking at it?”

    “Nope.” She shook her head definitively. “We already had someone from Legal check it over. This is old data, stuff that’s no longer current. There’s nothing there that could be used against anyone.”

    “Oh, good.” I eyed the box. It seemed to be quite full. “I guess I’d better get started, then.” Sitting down in the office chair that had been provided, I leaned down and took out a stack of files. When I dropped them on to the desk beside the scanner, dust rose and I sneezed.

    “Bless you.” Tracey retreated to her own desk, waving her hand before her face.

    Taking a tissue from my bag, I blew my nose. “Thanks.” I opened the first folder and took out the file it contained. This was going to be boring makework, I knew, but at least it was boring makework away from Emma and her coterie.

    I’d take that all day long.

    <><>​

    “Ugh.” Greg slumped into the seat opposite me in the staff canteen. “Hey, Taylor. So, how’s your day been?”

    My nostrils twitched at the smell of bleach wafting off him. It made a change from that of dusty files. Not necessarily a welcome change, but definitely a change. “Hi, Greg. My day’s been … okay, not as interesting as the induction was, but it’s definitely bearable. How about you?”

    Cleaning.” He groaned. “Do you have any idea how many bathrooms there are in this building?”

    “I … uh, no.” I did actually have an idea, from the floor-plans that had been part of the induction package, but I decided to let Greg have this one. “How many?”

    “Too many.” He groaned, running his hands through his hair. “I lost count. I am getting really, really good at scrubbing them. Even when they’re clean, I still have to scrub them.”

    I suspected that his idea of ‘clean’ wasn’t the same as that espoused by the janitorial staff; they may have been deliberately hazing him from time to time, but some of it was almost certainly justified. “Hey, it’s all valuable work experience. Even if the experience just serves to teach us exactly how boring life is in the workforce.” That was something Tracey had said. I was pretty sure she thought she was joking at the time.

    “But I thought it would be more exciting than this. Or that they’d let us, you know, sit back and do nothing.” He actually managed to look righteously upset.

    “You had to know not all internships would be like your uncle’s business,” I reminded him. “Some places might actually make you do the work.”

    He gave me a dirty look, which only intensified when I smirked.

    “Not fair,” he muttered. “What’ve you been doing?”

    “Making coffee and scanning.” I rolled my eyes and took a bite from my pita wrap. I had to pause to chew and swallow, then I continued. “So much scanning. I never knew optical-character recognition could get so many things wrong.”

    He snorted, then glanced around. Maybe because we were interns, or maybe because Greg reeked of cleaning products, all the nearby tables were empty. Nonetheless, when he spoke, his voice was lower than before. “Talking about getting things wrong, maybe I’m getting things wrong, or ….”

    “Or, what?” I looked quizzically at him. “Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts about this whole internship thing.”

    “No, no, it’s not that.” He leaned in closer. My eyes began to water from the reek of ammonia. “Some of the guys, the jokes they’ve been telling while we’re cleaning the restrooms … they’re a bit, you know, racist.”

    “What?” I stared at him. “Is that all?” I didn’t tell jokes like that myself, but I had no idea what Greg considered racist. Some of the more off-colour jokes the Dockworkers had been known to tell were a little racially insensitive, but I knew the guys weren’t about to down tools and take up with Kaiser.

    He seemed taken aback by my dismissal of his concerns. “Well, yeah. I just … I just thought you should know. But I guess it’s nothing.”

    I sighed. “Do you see anyone being harassed or taking offense at the jokes? That’s when you need to say something. And by that, I mean speak to your supervisor on the quiet so they can say something. Okay?” Because if there was a faster way to get kicked out of an internship than by openly criticising your workmates’ sense of humour, I wasn’t exactly sure what it might be.

    “No, nobody’s being upset by the jokes,” he conceded. “And they are pretty funny. I guess I was concerned over nothing.”

    “Mm-hmm,” I agreed, taking another mouthful of food. In between doing the file scanning—I was halfway through the first box already—and fetching coffee, Tracey and I had been getting to know each other. She was nice, and friendly, and efficient. I liked her, and she didn’t talk down to me. The endless scanning (and the occasional bug lurking in the paperwork) aside, I was really starting to enjoy the internship.

    We chatted casually as we finished our respective meals, then dumped our trays and headed back to our duties. Greg was a little more reluctant than me; I got the impression the janitorial staff were enjoying putting him through his paces. Well, as I’d already told him, it was all valuable experience. Boredom, after all, was also something that one could experience.

    <><>​

    When I got back to the office I was sharing with Tracey, bearing a steaming cup of coffee for each of us, I found she had a visitor. A good-looking guy in his mid-twenties was perched on the corner of her desk and flirting with her so blatantly that a flashing neon sign couldn’t have made it any more obvious. From all appearances, she was flirting right back. They looked around as I entered the room.

    “Oh, uh, sorry,” I said, reversing course. “I can go away for five minutes—”

    “No, it’s okay.” Tracey shook her head, still giggling at whatever he’d said just before I came in. “Justin was just leaving. Weren’t you, Justin?”

    His mouth twisted in a wry grin, then he nodded. “Yup. Places to go, people to do. See you ’round, babe. We still on for Friday night?”

    “Sure,” she agreed, then reached out and prodded him in the chest with her forefinger. “But if you stand me up again, you can whistle in the wind for all I care.”

    He captured her hand and kissed her knuckles, eliciting a giggle and a blush. “I’ll be there. Even if I have to tell the boss where he can shove his overtime.” Sliding his butt off the desk, he straightened up and turned to me. “And good afternoon to you, Miss …?”

    “Hebert,” I said, startled that he was addressing me. “Taylor Hebert. I’m just the intern.” As if he needs to know that, I chastised myself.

    As he looked intently at me, I felt a blush of my own begin to rise in my cheeks. He was good-looking, after all, and there was an attractive sort of roguish charm about him. “Well, now. I’d heard we had a new prodigy in the office. Harcourt’s been singing your praises over how you handled induction.” Without giving me a chance to respond, he ducked past me. “I’d love to talk more about that, but duty calls. Oh, coffee. I’ll take that, thanks. Bye!”

    And with that, he was off down the corridor with my cup of coffee in his hand. I stared after him until he vanished around the corner, then at Tracey. “What just happened?”

    With a tolerant smile, she got up and took her coffee from me. “That was Justin. He works in Advertising. To hear him tell it, he’s their new rising star.” With a roll of her eyes, she sat back down. “Just keep in mind that ninety percent of what he says is bullshit, and you’ll be fine.”

    “And he’s your boyfriend?” He wasn’t totally my type. Not enough muscles, for one thing, and he was maybe ten years older than me. Plus, he’d stolen my coffee. But all that aside, the look he’d given me had been enough to make me feel just a little weak in the knees.

    “Pfft, hardly.” Tracey took a sip of her coffee, then chuckled softly. “That man will never let himself get tied down by anyone. We date occasionally, then he does something outrageous, then I forgive him and we date again.” She held up the cup in mock salute. “Nice coffee, by the way. You’ve gotten it just right.”

    “And he got mine just right,” I grumbled.

    She waved off my complaint airily. “Oh, he does that to everyone. Steals mine too, when he can get away with it. Go, make yourself another cup. The files aren’t going anywhere.”

    I was beginning to see the funny side of it as I went to do what she’d said. He’d been polite to me, though (given what Tracey had said about the ninety percent bullshit) I was going to take what he’d said about Ms Harcourt with a large grain of salt. But even if he was Tracey’s on-and-off boyfriend, I could still look at him as he walked past.

    Interning at Medhall, I decided, was getting more interesting all the time.

    <><>​

    “Three o’clock!” sang out Tracey as she stood up from her desk. “Time’s up, Taylor. You can go home now, unless you want to stay back with us wage slaves. Or you’re bucking for overtime.” She grinned at me. “Unpaid overtime, in your case.”

    “That’s because I don’t get paid in the first place,” I agreed. “Double nothing is still nothing.” I finished closing the laptop down, and gave the stack of folders—greatly reduced from when I’d started that morning—a proprietary pat.

    I was actually getting pretty good at it, I figured. More to the point, I’d belatedly realised where I’d gone wrong with a couple of earlier files, so instead of bothering Tracey with it, I’d figured out how to get back into the system and fix my mistakes. I was also learning the laptop’s quirks, such as how the OCR seemed to recognise words and letters more readily if the page was scanned on a very slight right-hand tilt.

    “So, how did you enjoy your first day here?” asked Tracey as we headed along the corridor.

    “Well, from here on in I’ll only be doing half-days,” I pointed out. “But yeah, it was fun. In an oh-god-work-work-work sort of way.” It had definitely been far preferable to spending the same amount of time at Winslow. The three half-days per week, I decided, could not come fast enough for me.

    “Good,” decided Tracey. “It’s amazing how much work I got done for Ms Harcourt, while you were taking care of those files.”

    We reached the elevators where a burly uniformed security guard stood, arms folded. “Ms Grimshaw,” he acknowledged her with a nod. I couldn’t help but notice his scarred knuckles. This was a man who knew how to handle himself.

    “Bradley,” she replied, and favoured him with a beaming smile. “Taylor here’s just going home for the day.”

    “Sure thing,” he said gruffly, and pressed the elevator button for me. The doors opened almost immediately.

    “See you Monday, Taylor,” said Tracey as I stepped into the lift and pressed the button for the lobby.

    “See you then,” I replied. Once the elevator doors had closed, I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes briefly. A sigh escaped me. Tension began to unravel from my shoulders.

    The elevator arrived at the lobby and the doors opened. I headed out past the security desk, through the sliding glass doors, into the afternoon sun.

    It had been a fun day overall, but the whole time I’d been wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. Was I going to say or do something that got me kicked out of the internship? Were they going to suddenly realise that they’d made some mistake, and they were replacing me with one of Emma’s friends? Would I be changing places with Greg?

    But now I was done with the day, and nothing like that had happened. Sure, Ms Harcourt had done her best to put the fear of God into us, but Tracey had been sweet, and even Justin and Bradley had been polite to me. And I had a thousand dollars in my bag. My head came up. I had a thousand dollars in my bag!

    “Taylor!”

    I looked around, instinctively clutching my bag closer to my body. Greg had just emerged from the building, looking somewhat the worse for wear. His clothing had gone from bottom-of-the-laundry-hamper to something even Goodwill would’ve turned down. The expression on his face was one I’d only seen in veterans in war movies, or capes after Endbringer battles. In short, he looked like he’d been chewed up and spat out.

    “Oh, hi, Greg,” I said, wondering if I should smile or if he’d think I was laughing at him. “What … uh, what happened to you?”

    “They’re mean,” he said feelingly. “They’re mean, horrible and nasty, and I don’t think I want to work there any more.”

    “Why, what did they do?” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know, then I decided that I did. Just in case.

    “Well, after we cleaned all the restrooms, we started doing repairs around the building. And they kept sending me down to Stores to get stuff they had to know wasn’t in stock.”

    I could guess the rest from his aggrieved expression, but I raised my eyebrows enquiringly anyway. “What sort of stuff?”

    He began ticking off items on his fingers. “Well, they were fixing the automatic closer on a door, and it closed to the left, so they sent me down to get a can of left-handed elbow grease. I was halfway down to Stores before I realised they were joking with me.”

    “Well, duh.” I’d first heard that old chestnut when I was about six years old, listening to Dad and Kurt talking about Dockworker pranks.

    “Yeah,” he said. “So I went back up and told them, there’s no such thing as left-handed grease. So they said yeah, our mistake, and told me to get normal elbow grease. But when I got down there, the guy said he was fresh out of stock.”

    “I see.” I didn’t say anything more, because I didn’t want to laugh in his face.

    He didn’t seem to notice the way I was pressing my lips tightly together. “So when I got back to where the guys were, they sent me down again. If they couldn’t get the elbow grease, they needed to balance the closer somehow, so they told me to go down there for a short weight.”

    I did my best to disguise my chuckle as a cough. “And I’m guessing the guy didn’t have any in stock?”

    Greg looked disgusted. “No. He just had me sit there for a bit while he looked around, then he sent me back upstairs.”

    It was too much; I couldn’t resist. “So he made you stay for a short wait.”

    He stared at me. “No. Weren’t you listening? He didn’t have any. He ….”

    I waited, watching with interest as the enlightenment dawned on him. He actually mumbled the words ‘short wait’ a couple of times, then he stared at me, eyes and mouth opening wide.

    “What?” I asked innocently, only to totally spoil it by snorting with laughter.

    “You knew!” he said accusingly. “You knew! You let me tell you all that, and you knew!”

    I was giggling hard by then. Briefly, I managed to get it under control as I held up one finger. “Elbow grease ….” I sputtered.

    “What? What about elbow grease?”

    “Doesn’t come in cans!” It was lucky we were at the bus stop by then, because I was laughing so hard I had to sit down.

    He sat beside me, rolling his eyes. “And I suppose there’s no such thing as spray-cans of striped paint, either?”

    At this point, tears were rolling down my cheeks. All I could do was shake my head.

    “Arrgh!” He ran his hands through his hair for what must’ve been the fiftieth time that day. “I feel so stupid! How do you know stuff like this, Taylor?”

    Asking me that question at that point was useless. It took me a good five minutes to calm down before I was able to answer him. “Dockworkers,” I explained succinctly. “My Dad works in the office. I’ve heard chapter and verse on every prank they’ve ever played on each other. Including the time someone zip-tied an air-horn to the underside of his chair. When he sat down, the air-horn went off and he nearly went through the ceiling. Kurt said later that he spent ten minutes chasing the perpetrator around the site with the air-horn, vowing to shove it someplace unpleasant.” Though Kurt had never actually revealed who the perpetrator was, which made me wonder.

    The bus pulled up; it was the line I wanted, so I stood up. Greg came with me. “Okay, at least please tell me that it was legit when they made me get a steam sample with a garbage bag.”

    I raised both eyebrows and gave him a frank stare. “Do you really want me to answer that?” Climbing on board the bus, I flashed my pass.

    “Wait.” Greg got on behind me. “So you’re telling me that everything they made me go and fetch was a prank?”

    “Unless there’s stuff that was actually in stock, pretty much, yeah,” I said. I found a seat and sat down. Greg sat beside me. “So what are you going to be buying?”

    “What?” He looked at me as if I’d just invented the word. “Buying?”

    “I got on this bus so I could go and buy some proper office clothing,” I said patiently. “So I can fit in better there. Why are you on this bus?”

    “Oh. Uh.” He looked around, startled, as the bus moved off with a jerk. “I was, uh, I was talking to you?”

    “Well, now you’re talking to me and you’re on the wrong bus,” I said with a certain amount of acerbity. “Well done.”

    “Um.” He seemed to think about this. “Maybe I should buy something to wear at work, too …?”

    “Well, that depends.” I raised my eyebrows. “Are you going to keep on with the internship, or are they too mean and nasty for you?”

    “Oh. Right.” He shrugged, apparently over his irritation from before. “Sure, I can go back. I mean, they’re not gonna catch me with those pranks the second time around.”

    I seriously doubted that they’d used all their pranks up on the first day. After all, I had no idea how long they’d gone without new blood to inflict their fun on, but learning curves were a thing. “Sure,” I encouraged him. “And if you were a good enough sport the first day, they’ll probably let up on you from now on.”

    The janitorial staff of the Medhall building, I reasoned, were unlikely to treat Greg as horrifically as Emma and her friends treated me. Sending him on a wild-goose chase around the building was nowhere near as nasty as what happened to me on a regular occasion at school. As safety-conscious as the building management seemed to be, I couldn’t see the staff being permitted to do anything that might physically endanger a minor, or even threaten serious humiliation. Like I’d said to him earlier (albeit jokingly), he might even learn something about how the world worked.

    We rode on in silence. Or at least, I was silent. Greg lasted for one stop, then he started chattering about Space Opera; the levels, the capabilities and the various cheats and tricks to level up faster. It really seemed like his bad mood from earlier was gone, as though it had never been. If I’d been at all into computer games, it might have even been interesting.

    The bus pulled up at the Weymouth Mall, and I got off. Greg did as well, though by this time he was well into a convoluted tale of how he’d somehow ‘owned’ someone on the PHO boards with information about some obscure cape or other. I knew that PHO stood for ParaHumans Online, but I’d never spent more than five consecutive minutes on there. My account might even have lapsed; I had no idea, nor any desire to find out. After all, I was never going to be a superhero, so what was the point in looking?

    Once we got into the mall proper, I planted myself in front of Greg and waited until he ran down. To his credit, it only took him a few seconds. “What?” he asked. “Why have we stopped?”

    “Because I’m going shopping for women’s clothing,” I said patiently. “Including underwear.” After all, I had a thousand dollars to spend now. I figured I may as well splurge on something that fitted me properly rather than ‘eh, good enough’. “If you’re going to buy something for yourself, I suggest you go find it. The mall will be closing soon.” Mentioning underwear to him was a calculated gamble. With some boys, it would draw them on. No doubt Greg had his share of teenage hormones, but they weren’t distributed in that fashion. When I mentioned the dreaded word, he visibly blanched.

    “Oh, uh, right, yeah,” he stammered. “I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later. Monday.”

    “See you then,” I agreed, putting up my hand in a brief wave. Turning away from him, I headed off to find a store that catered for my wishes. I decided that I also needed new shoes; either sensible flats, or maybe something with just a little rise to them. Nothing too dramatic; I was already taller than Tracey, and I didn’t want to look like I was trying to tower over her.

    (Physically, I was taller than Ms Harcourt, but I’d never be able to prove it. With her presence alone, that woman would have King Kong whimpering in the corner in about ten seconds flat.)

    First, however, I wanted to test the adage ‘clothes maketh the man’; or in this case, woman. A selection of feminine businesswear in one window caught my attention, and I entered the shop. I was already wearing my best effort at business attire, so the saleslady came over immediately. Cynically, I wondered how long it would have taken her to ‘notice’ me, had I been wearing my preferred hoodie and jeans.

    I was still riding a high from my first successful day as an intern, so I put my best face forward. “Hi,” I said, trying to present myself as Tracey would. “I just started an internship with Medhall, so I was looking for something appropriate to wear to work …?”

    “Oh, well done!” she said, her face lighting up. The name ‘Medhall’ was definitely one that opened doors, I decided. Then she must have realised that I was still only a teenager. “You do realise, our prices are in the upper range for business attire ….” Thus giving me the option to gracefully slink out of her store with my dignity mostly intact.

    I was slinking exactly nowhere. “Yes, that’s why I’m here,” I said, matching the steel in her smile with one of my own. “You see, they paid me an up-front cash bonus to get outfitted. And I’m choosing to spend it here.”

    None of which was actually a lie. They had paid me up front, and if I opted to use it to get outfitted, then that was what it was for. One glimpse at the envelope with the stack of cash inside, and I was ushered into the back rooms.

    <><>​

    An hour later, I exited the shop, a pair of bulging shopping bags in hand. Once the saleslady had determined that yes, I intended to spend serious money in her store, she’d gone all-out. I had tried on half a dozen different outfits before they were satisfied, and we settled on two. Serious consideration had gone into which colour went best with my hair and my eyes, and my feet had been poked and prodded by a woman who then sorted through no fewer than fifteen boxes for a single shoe.

    In the end, however, all the effort had been worth it. I now knew what truly comfortable underwear—and truly comfortable footwear—felt like. Both, it had to be said, supported me in all the right places. My purchases included two sets of business attire—one to wear and one to wash—plus a pair of shoes and a few sets of underwear (no way was I walking away with just one set). My thousand dollar payout was now sadly depleted, and I was wearing my ordinary clothing again (over the new underwear, because duh) and my new shoes (double duh). I didn’t quite break into a dance routine as I stepped out into the corridor, but it was a near thing.

    Believe it or not, I’m walkin’ on air/ I never thought I could feel so free-ee ….

    Weymouth was now closing, so I made my way to the closest exit. Moving with a confident stride, I stepped out into the open air.

    Right into trouble.

    I hadn’t seen them through the glass doors, mainly because I hadn’t been looking out for them. But Emma, Sophia and Madison had obviously seen me, or perhaps they’d been shadowing me since I came out of the store. Because I couldn’t imagine them noticing me going into the store and not figuring out some way of making trouble for me.

    “Hello, Taylor.” Emma’s greeting was as sharp and bright and deadly as an unsheathed blade. Her teeth, as she smiled at me, were almost as sharp. “What have we told you about shoplifting? Really?” Her voice was pitched loudly enough that nearby people turned their heads.

    “I haven’t been shoplifting!” I protested.

    “No sense denying it, Taylor,” Madison spoke over me. “It’s quite sad, really. You just keep doing it.” She gestured at my bags; while I was distracted by the motion, Sophia darted in and snatched one from my hand.

    “Hey!” Hampered by my need to hang on to the shoulder-bag and my other bag, I tried to grab it back, but failed. Madison ‘blundered’ into my way, while Sophia handed the bag off to Emma. “Give that back! It’s mine!”

    “As if,” sneered Emma, lifting one of my two suit jackets from the bag. So of course Sophia had grabbed the bag that didn’t have my original underwear and shoes in it. “You never owned something this classy in your life. You could never afford anything this classy. Why did you even bother stealing it?”

    “I didn’t steal it!” I was starting to get upset, my voice becoming more and more high-pitched. This made me sound guilty, even when I wasn’t; even when I didn’t feel guilty. Emma was a past master at manipulating matters so that she came off as the good guy. All she had to do was push me off balance just a little, emotionally speaking, and I was easy prey. “I’ve got a receipt!”

    A second later, I regretted saying that; it would’ve been smarter to get the attention of security or the cops and show them the receipt. But that was why they’d waited till I came outside. All the security was inside, where they couldn’t provide any kind of inconvenient assistance. The adults on the outside with me were all watching the show but the problem was, they were leaning toward support for Emma and her friends.

    “Receipt?” Emma dived into the bag and came up with the slip of paper. Examining it, she shook her head. “It’s not real. I could make a better one up in my sleep.” Her tone was so convincing that even I was taken in for a split second. Did the store give me a fake receipt for some reason?

    “Are we surprised?” Madison shook her head, so sweet and petite I could’ve strangled her. “That’s Taylor all over. She never thinks things through.” She gave me a pitying smile.

    “Give me that!” I tried to reach forward and grab the receipt, but this time Sophia intercepted me. She knocked my hand up and away, then slugged me in the stomach when I tried to push past her. I doubled up, gagging. Madison tried to grab my other bags from me, but I clung to them.

    “No getting rid of the evidence, Hebert,” she growled, then turned to Emma. “I know people on the force. I think we should take this stolen property to them.”

    “Stolen property?” I wheezed. “You’re the ones who’re stealing my property.” I turned to the people around us, trying to appeal to them. “Can’t you see it? They’ve been doing this stuff to me for months.”

    “I’m sorry, folks,” Emma said sweetly, once again stealing the initiative from me. “We try so hard, as her friends. It’s so easy to believe her, unless you know what she’s really like.”

    “If she’s been shoplifting, as you say, maybe we should hold her for the the police,” said one man uncertainly, taking his phone out.

    Madison tried again for my bags. I pushed her away, but Sophia tripped me. As I put my hand down to catch myself, she grabbed the second one from the shop and yanked it out of my grasp. I clung to my shoulderbag and managed to hang on to that, at least.

    “No, don’t bother,” Emma said with all the authority of someone with a lawyer for a father. “It won’t help. She’ll just get a slap on the wrist. We’ll just turn these over to the authorities, and they can return them to the store tomorrow.”

    “They won’t be wanting these,” Sophia said, digging into the second bag and pulling out the shoes and underwear I’d been wearing when I walked in. I cringed as she tossed them to the ground beside me, but not for the reason everyone seemed to be assuming. I didn’t need anyone to see my used underwear.

    “Eww!” shrieked Madison delightedly. “How long have you been wearing those, Taylor? A week?”

    I couldn’t win here. Every time I opened my mouth, Emma or Madison overrode me. Everyone was looking at me as though I was the thief and they were the tolerant friends trying to the right thing by me. Grabbing my shoes and underwear, I scrambled to my feet and ran for it. A couple of people tried to grab me on the way through, but I pulled free and kept running.

    “It’s the drugs, you see ….” Emma’s voice, bright and piercing, faded into the distance behind me.

    As comfortable as they were, my new office shoes weren’t the best for running in. I stopped halfway down the block and changed shoes. As I walked, I tried not to cry, and failed.

    I’d thought nothing could ruin the great day I’d been having. The first day of my internship had gone perfectly. I’d aced the induction, I’d impressed my boss, and I’d even met some nice people. Tracey was nice, and Ms Harcourt was scary but fair. And then, just as I thought everything was going just right and I’d be able to show up in clothing worthy of a Medhall internship, Emma had managed to fuck things up for me yet again.

    So much for being able to get away from her and the others for three half-days a week. Even outside school, I can’t avoid them.

    I took the bus home, curled up around my own misery. The bruises from Sophia’s manhandling were painful, but hardly a problem. What hurt more was the loss of the money; or rather, the clothing I’d bought with that money. The clothing wasn’t even for me, as such. It was so that I’d feel more like I belonged at Medhall.

    By the time I stopped crying, I had coldly decided that I wouldn’t tell Dad about anything that had happened. I wouldn’t tell him about the induction, which meant I didn’t have to tell him about the thousand dollars, or about Emma stealing my clothes. One set of underwear and one pair of shoes had survived the debacle, and I would by God wear those shoes to my internship at Medhall.

    If I told Dad … I had no idea how I would do it. I knew I was holding too much back from Dad these days, but … he had too much on his plate already. Even at his best, he still wasn’t over Mom. And at his worst, he was barely functional. Not as bad as the first few weeks after Mom died, but not good either. If I dumped this on him as well, I had no idea how he’d handle it. Or if he’d be able to handle it.

    <><>​

    So I went home, and I said nothing. I carefully wiped down my new shoes, and put them away. Taking the Medhall safety manual from my shoulder-bag, I read it from cover to cover over the weekend. And I took all the anger and pain and hurt from the theft and I put it away in a box, because I would not and could not let Emma see it in my eyes, when she saw me next.

    On Monday morning, I went to school. If I didn’t go to school, Emma would win, and it would be easier to not go, the next day. I had my shoes in my backpack, along with my shoulder-bag and the clothing I’d worn on my first day at Medhall. If I wore them to Winslow, Emma and her crew would stop at nothing to ruin them by midday; knowing full-well where I’d be going after that.

    Fortunately, it seemed that she thought she’d screwed me up sufficiently by stealing my office clothing. I saw her mocking expression as she looked over the ratty hoodie and jeans I was wearing. That wasn’t enough to break through my reserve, but when I saw Madison wearing one of the tops I’d picked out to wear under my suit jacket—of the three, she was the only one petite enough to pull it off—I nearly lost it. Only the certain knowledge that they were waiting for me to react let me keep my cool.

    I went to home room. Computer Studies followed on, and then World Issues. The first was no big deal, as I didn’t share it with anyone who had a problem with me. The second was more of a problem, given that Julia and Madison were both interested in making my life all sorts of hell. There was juice on my chair, of course, so I took another one at the back of the room.

    The trick to dealing with it was not dealing with it. I didn’t open my book, because that would invite Madison to dump pencil shavings over it. When Mr Gladly spoke, I listened with half an ear, keeping the majority of my attention on Julia and Madison. I wouldn’t have put it past them to open my bag and pour juice inside. What was in there was more important than my grades, right then.

    Time crawled toward midday. With every minute that ticked by, there was less time for Madison and Julia to pull a prank on me. I watched them; they watched me. Mr Gladly blathered on, trying to interest us in his subject when he had to know that more than half the class was watching the clock. Half past eleven. Twenty-five before twelve. Twenty to twelve.

    Finally, the bell rang for lunch. I was out of my seat, yanking my over-full backpack on to my desk to shove the World Issues textbook back inside. That done, I headed for the door.

    “ … Taylor Hebert to the principal’s office … Taylor Hebert to the principal’s office …”

    Still heaving the backpack on to my shoulder, I froze and turned. Madison and Julia looked back at me, cruel triumph in their eyes. It was obvious that they were behind it; them, and Emma and Sophia. Equally obvious was the understanding that no matter what I said, no matter how I protested my innocence in whatever bullshit scenario they’d cooked up, I would not get away from Winslow before the next bus went. Maybe the next after that. It would be just like Blackwell to keep me waiting for twenty minutes, just because.

    I would be late to my Medhall internship, on my second day. Depending on how long they drew it out, I might not even make it there at all.

    That was Emma’s plan. That was why Madison and Julia hadn’t bothered fucking with me. They’d just let me sweat, knowing what was coming.

    Fuck. That.

    Pivoting on my heel, I plunged out through the classroom door. To get to Principal Blackwell’s office, I would have to turn left.

    I turned right.


    End of Part Two
     
  4. Threadmarks: Part Three: One of Us
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern
    Part Three: One of Us

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
    [A/N 2: Due to the large number of people left less than happy about the ending of the last chapter, here’s the next one. Cheers.]



    As I crossed the parking lot, I saw Sophia run around the corner of the building. She spotted me a moment later, and headed straight for me. I increased my pace; fortunately, I had a significant head start, and the bus was just pulling into the stop. Still, it was close. I climbed up the steps just before she arrived at the bus.

    “Come on, Hebert,” she said, following me in. “Get off the bus. Blackwell wants to see you.”

    I looked at her, and I looked at the bus driver. He gave me the same look the people outside the mall had given me on Friday evening; I don’t want to get involved. It hadn’t mattered that I’d been in the right, or that Emma and her friends were blatantly stealing my property. They’d loudly proclaimed that they had good reason to do it, and the people had accepted it, and so they got away with it. As they always did.

    Sophia took hold of my arm. “Come on, I said.”

    The driver nodded toward the school. “Maybe you should go, kid. Whatever you’re in trouble for, running away’s not gonna help any.”

    I looked at him, then I looked at Sophia, and I decided, fuck it. If ever I was going to draw a line in the sand and say this far and no farther, now was the time. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the small canister of pepper spray Dad had given me a while back, just so I’d be safe while I was out and about. I hadn’t had it on Friday because my denim skirt didn’t have pockets.

    When Sophia saw it, her eyes widened, which was the exact wrong thing to do. Maybe she expected me to flinch, or choke, or just fold and go meekly. Nine times out of ten, I would have. Scratch that; ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But this was that one percent of situations where I was not prepared to cut my losses and walk away. I had tasted something new with my internship; the chance to be in a situation where things could be better. Even as she was reaching for it, I gave her a half-second spray, full in the face.

    Coughing and choking, she fell backward out of the bus and rolled on the ground, scrubbing at her eyes and mouth with the sleeve of her track suit. Inwardly, I winced; my reading on the subject had indicated that rubbing the afflicted area only made it worse. Well, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I turned to look at the driver as I put the spray back into my pocket. “Can we go, now?”

    “Listen,” he said. “Like I said, I don’t know what sorta trouble you’re in, but that ain’t gonna help at all.”

    “And when I want your attention, I’ll ask for it,” I muttered, and dug in my backpack, reaching into my shoulderbag. My questing fingers found the Medhall pass-tag they’d issued me on Friday, and I pulled it out.

    The driver looked at it, and his eyebrows rose. “Aren’t you a bit young to be working there?” he asked.

    “Who are you, the age police? I’ve got an internship,” I explained. “I don’t want to be late. Any other dumb questions?”

    “Right, right.” He pulled the lever to close the doors and hooked his head back to the seats behind him. “Siddown. You always pepper-spray your friends?”

    “She’s no friend,” I explained tersely. “Anyway, who are you to care? Just shut up and drive the bus already, will you?”

    “Right, right, fine.” The driver shook his head and muttered something along the lines of ‘fucking Winslow’. He’d just started the bus and put it into gear when I saw movement at the school doors. For a moment, I thought it was Emma or even Blackwell, looking to bodily drag me off the bus where Sophia had failed. Honestly, at this point I wouldn’t have ruled out them calling the cops on me. Well, the pepper spray canister still had some of its contents. I wouldn’t go down without a fight.

    But then I recognised Greg. “Wait,” I told the driver. “Can you hold up a moment?”

    He looked dubiously back at me. “Is that another one of your not-friends? Because I don’t want any more pepper spray in my damn bus, thanks.”

    “No, no, this one’s an actual friend. He’s doing an internship, too.”

    For the longest moment, I thought he was going to drive off anyway. But he pulled the lever to open the doors again, and waited. Sophia, writhing on the pavement outside, choked out dire threats in between fits of coughing. She was unable to stand, much less come into the bus and attack me again, but I was still relieved when Greg came puffing up.

    “Th-thanks,” he managed, clambering up the steps into the bus. “Thought you were gonna leave me behind.”

    “I was,” said the driver laconically. “Thank your friend there that I didn’t.” He closed the doors and started the bus moving as Greg was just sitting down.

    “Whoof!” grunted Greg, flopping into the seat. “Wow, that was close.” He paused. “Wait, was that Sophia on the ground outside? She looked like she’d been maced.”

    “Sure was,” I confirmed, not sure if I wanted to know how he knew what the effects of pepper-spray looked like. “She didn’t want me to go to Medhall.”

    “But why not?” He looked confused. “She hates you. I mean, even I know that. I would’ve thought she’d be glad to see you out of Winslow, at least for a half-day.”

    I rolled my eyes. Greg was as oblivious as ever, it seemed. “Yeah, she hates me, just like Emma and Madison do. Me doing this internship is good for me. I might even get a great job out of it. They don’t want me having anything nice. So they’re going all-out to fuck it up for me.” I slumped back in my seat, arms crossed. “You wouldn’t believe how far they’ve gone already.”

    The metaphorical light-bulb that popped into existence above his head would’ve blinded me, if it were real. “Oh, so that’s why you got called to the office! That was them!”

    “That was them,” I agreed sourly. “So I’m in the shit tomorrow. Especially since Sophia’s gonna absolutely complain about me pepper-spraying her. But if I let them hold me back today, I wouldn’t get to go anyway.” It was beginning to dawn on me that as cathartic as pepper-spraying Sophia had been, I’d probably shot myself in the foot. Still, it was almost worth it.

    “Yeah, no.” He grimaced. “That’s really, really sucky. I wish they’d just leave you alone.”

    “Trust me,” I said, “I wish that every single damn day.” I also wished he’d offer more than ‘I wish this would happen’, such as any kind of actual assistance, but I couldn’t have everything. To take my mind off darker matters, I looked him over. His clothing looked more practical for janitorial work; less white collar and more blue collar. “Ready for a hard day fetching left-handed screwdrivers?”

    He blinked at me. “Is that a thing?”

    I snorted. “Not usually, no. If they send you down to get something and it sounds weird, look them in the eye and ask them if they want a DVD rewinder with that. If they’re just hazing you, it’ll clue them in that you’re awake to it. If not, they’ll say no, they actually want whatever it is. I’m not saying it’ll fix the situation, but you might actually get to do some work instead of running around in circles.”

    Of course, they might just ignore his attempt to straighten things out and keep hazing him, but there was a limit to what they’d be allowed to do. Or at least, I hoped there was. In any case, it was the best advice I could give him.

    Ironically, I’d actually seen a DVD rewinder once. Kurt had given one to Lacey as a gag gift, once upon a time, and I hadn’t stopped laughing for two hours. From the look on his face, Greg must have thought I was pulling his leg. “Really?”

    “Really.” I shrugged and turned away to look out the window.

    Though the sun was shining—it was actually a nice day outside—my thoughts insisted on going down a dark path. I had no idea what story Emma had spun to get Blackwell to call me to the office, but it must have sounded good on the surface. Momentarily, I wondered if she was pushing the ‘shoplifting’ scam all the way, attempting to get me in trouble with the police, but I discarded that notion due to the lack of cop cars outside Winslow when I left. Of course, there may have been plainclothes officers on site; I had no way of knowing.

    Either way, between ignoring the bogus summons and pepper-spraying Sophia, I had no doubt that Blackwell was going to be seriously pissed with me when I got to school on Tuesday, and that would be without Emma and the others gleefully stoking the fire. Thinking about the police made me briefly wonder if I should reconsider my instinctive decision on Friday not to bother going to them. On the one hand, what Emma and the others had done constituted flat-out theft. If I’d had any support from the crowd at all, I could maybe have had the chance to contact mall security and have them take the receipt into the store I’d bought the clothing from. From there, I could maybe call the cops and report the theft.

    But Emma was all too good at convincing people that her side of events was the only side that mattered. No matter what I said, she had plenty of practice at twisting my words, or making them seem inconsequential. Plus, her dad was a lawyer. If I called the cops on Emma, Mr Barnes would get involved and that meant Dad would find out. And while I knew he’d back me up, I honestly could not be certain if the cops would take my side over Emma and her father. It wasn’t like any other authority figure I’d turned to had ever helped me in any meaningful way. And if it went bad, Dad would probably lose his temper at some point and then he’d get in trouble, all because of me.

    At least Emma couldn’t get me ‘fired’ from Medhall. It wasn’t Winslow, so she couldn’t bat her eyelashes at the security guards and get them to throw me out. (And if she tried it on Bradley, he would probably loom at her until she slunk away with her metaphorical tail between her legs). I was pretty sure her father had no influence there either, so he couldn’t call Max Anders and have me dropped from the internship.

    My train of thought skidded to a halt.

    He wouldn’t call Medhall … but Emma might. She’d already shown how intent she was to cost me my position there. A simple phone call, purporting to be me … once upon a time, she’d actually been pretty good at imitating my voice ….

    “Shit!” I sat bolt upright, scanning the street ahead. Phone box, phone box, phone box … come on, where’s a phone box when I need one?

    “What’s the matter?” asked Greg, looking at me with concern. “Is there a cape fight or something?”

    “No, I just need to make a phone call, and if I stop the bus at a pay-phone, he’ll probably drive on, and I’ll be late to Medhall anyway.” I scrubbed my hands over my face, trying to prevent myself from crying. No matter how hard I fucking tried, Emma was going to win. Because being me was suffering.

    Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.

    “Use mine.”

    “What?” I didn’t look around, too busy trying to scan both sides of the street at once.

    “Use my phone.” Something bumped my shoulder, and I looked around. Greg—beautiful, glorious, wonderful Greg—was holding out a cell-phone. It was already open to the main screen, the wallpaper portraying … well, okay, I hadn’t known people had done artwork of Alexandria in a bikini. A very skimpy bikini. But right then, I didn’t care.

    “Thank you,” I babbled. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I may have taken the top layer of skin from his fingertips with the speed that I snatched the phone from his grip. Pulling my purse from my pocket, I found the contact card for Medhall and dialled the number with shaking hands.

    “You have reached Medhall Corporation,” an impersonal female voice answered. “How may I direct your call?”

    “Uh, yes, my name is Taylor Hebert,” I said rapidly. “I’m supposed to be interning for Tracey Grimshaw this afternoon. Could you please put me through to her?”

    “Certainly. Ms … Herbert, was it?”

    “Uh, Hebert.” I spelled my name out as slowly as I dared. “She’s expecting me to come in soon.” I hope.

    “May I ask the reason that you are calling?”

    “I just need to talk to her. Please.” I tried not to let the desperation strangling my chest through into my voice. The very last thing I wanted was for her to think I was a crazy and hang up.

    “Contacting Ms Grimshaw now.”

    Then I heard the ring-tone of Tracey’s phone. It rang once, then twice. Pick up, I silently urged. Please pick up.

    On the third ring, it was picked up. I heard Tracey’s voice. “Hello?”

    “Tracey, it’s me!” I said urgently. “I need to talk to ….”

    My voice trailed off as I realised she couldn’t hear me. Instead, the anonymous lady on the switchboard was talking to her. “I have a Taylor Hebert on the line for you, Ms Grimshaw. She says that she is coming in for her internship, and insisted on being put through to you.”

    When Tracey answered, I heard honest puzzlement in her voice. “Taylor? She’s coming in?”

    My hand clenched on the phone until I could hear plastic creaking. Emma must’ve called and left a message. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck.

    The switchboard lady was as calm and professional as ever. “That is what she told me. Do you wish to speak with her?”

    To my profound relief, Tracey didn’t hesitate more than a second or so. “Sure, put her through.”

    “Hello?” My voice nearly failed me, but I managed to squeak out that one word.

    “Hello, Taylor.” If I wasn’t much mistaken, Tracey’s tone was somewhat on the cool side. “I’m a little surprised to hear your voice, after the message you left earlier.”

    Oh, God. “What did the message say—no, don’t worry about that,” I hastily amended. “That wasn’t me. I’m coming in. I should be on time, but I’ll just need to change and ….” I grimaced, wondering exactly how well my blouse had survived (however carefully folded) in my backpack with my books and shoulder-bag. “Uh, do you have a place I could maybe iron my top?”

    After a brief pause, during which time my heart began to plummet in the direction of the Earth’s core (do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars) she chuckled. “Well, that’s definitely the Taylor I recall from Friday. Sure, we’ve got an iron in the break room. I’ll get the board set up and the iron hot for when you get here.” Her voice became serious. “But I’m going to need you to tell me what’s going on here. If that message wasn’t from you, who left it and why?”

    The massive knot of tension that had somehow replaced most of my internal organs was slowly dissipating. I felt tears of sheer relief standing in my eyes. “Trust me, I will fill you in on everything when I get there. I’m on a borrowed phone right now, you see. But we’ll be there soon. Me and Greg.”

    She sounded bemused when she answered. “I’m definitely looking forward to it. See you then.”

    “See you soon,” I said, and hung up. With a shaking hand—the amount of adrenaline that had been coursing through my bloodstream could probably have lifted a rocket into orbit—I handed the phone back to Greg. “Thank you,” I said softly. “You have no idea how much that meant to me.”

    “Hey, we’re friends,” he said simply. “It’s what friends do.”

    I leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Yeah,” I said. “It is.” Greg, I decided, might come across like a barely housetrained puppy from time to time, but maybe that was because nobody had taken the time to housetrain him. He’d saved my bacon in no uncertain terms; being his friend in return was the least I could do.

    <><>​

    “Wow,” Tracey said when I showed up at her office. “You look terrible, Taylor. What happened?”

    I tried not to take offence. After all, I had been through a thoroughly crappy weekend and morning. “My life,” I said simply, putting down my backpack so I could pull out my shoulder-bag and under it, my skirt and blouse. True to my expectations, the blouse was somewhat creased. The skirt was less so; denim was good like that. Last, I pulled out my new shoes.

    “Ooh, those are nice. May I?” Tracey zoomed in on the footwear.

    “Sure.” I shook out the blouse and took it over to the ironing board that had been set up in the little break room. “Thank you so much for being so understanding. And for taking that call.” Spreading the blouse over the board, I checked the settings on the iron then started to work it over the yoke. The act of ironing was calming, requiring care and attention, and deliberate movements. It helped settle me down.

    “Well, to be honest, I nearly didn’t,” she confessed. “Your message—whoever left that message in your name—was mean and spiteful, and made it clear that you didn’t want to work here. Whoever it was even sounded like you. I just …” She shook her head. “Deep down, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that the smart, professional girl who was here on Friday could have such a drastic turnaround. So I held off on informing Ms Harcourt. And then you called, and I wasn’t sure if you were back for more abuse, or … what. So I took the call.” She put my shoes down on the bench and spread her hands with a smile. “And here we are.”

    I sighed. It had been a long time since Emma had pranked someone by impersonating me over the phone. The impression wasn’t perfect—it wouldn’t fool anyone who knew either of us at all well—but Tracey had only known me for one afternoon, two days previously. She could’ve been excused for accepting the act at face value, but she’d had her doubts. For which I was profoundly grateful. Also, she’d called me smart and professional, which put a tightness in my chest and my throat. To have such a compliment from someone who embodied those characteristics brought tears welling to my eyes.

    I started on the sleeves, concentrating on getting the creases just right. Tracey moved to stand opposite me, across the board. “Okay, so what’s going on?” she asked softly. “When you started here on Friday, you were so shy and withdrawn, it took me all my time to get you out of your shell. By the time you left, you were on top of the world. Today, you’re ten times as bad as you were Friday morning. What happened over the weekend, and why did someone leave a message, pretending to be you?”

    When I thought about burdening Tracey with my woes, I felt a sharp pang of disquiet. She was my friend now, but if she got any sort of hint of the absolute shit my life had become, there was a good chance she’d dump me like the hot mess I was. What if she decided Medhall didn’t need an intern with my problems? I shook my head. “Can we not talk about this? It’s just personal stuff.”

    “Nuh-uh.” She crossed her arms. “I’m your supervisor. Anything that impacts the quality of your work here is my job to know about, and this most definitely threatens the quality of your work. So I want to know who has it in for you, and I want to know why. And most of all, I want to know whose ass to kick for making you show up here today on the verge of tears.”

    I took a deep breath. If I could talk to anyone, I could talk to Tracey, right? “You might want to sit down. This is gonna take a while.”

    Now we’re getting somewhere.” She pulled out a chair and sat, then rested her elbows on the table and her chin on her interlinked fingers. “Spill all, and don’t miss a detail.”

    I ran the iron over creased cloth, transforming it to a smooth expanse. “I once had a best friend called Emma Barnes ….”

    <><>​

    By the time I was done talking, Tracey was leaning forward on her elbows, her eyes hot with indignation. I rounded it out by telling her how Greg had loaned me his phone, then I put my hands over my face—I’d long since finished ironing the blouse—and leaned back in the chair. “Now you know,” I told her. “I’m sorry to put all this crap on you.”

    “How in God’s name does this even happen?” she demanded. “If I didn’t know better, I’d assume someone set up your life to garner the maximum amount of pain for the least amount of effort. I mean, seriously, when they stole your clothing bags, you didn’t even try to get the cops?”

    “Why bother?” My voice was hopeless. “It never helps. Every time I’ve had stuff stolen, I’ve complained to the teachers and I’ve complained to the principal. Nothing ever happened. If I told a cop that some girls stole my brand-new office clothing, along with the receipts—that I’d paid for with cash, so there was no card number in the shop to go off—would he even bother checking? All they have to do is say they didn’t do it.” It was how things had always turned out before.

    “It really doesn’t work that way.” Her voice was firm. “Which shop did you go to in Weymouth, anyway?”

    “Beautiful Me,” I said. “They’re amazing.” I nodded toward the shoes, now on the floor. “That’s where I got those.”

    “I thought so.” Tracey smiled and brushed her hand across her own lapel. “That’s where I shop.”

    I blinked. “I thought the cut of the clothing looked familiar. Wow. They’re really, really nice.”

    “They are.” Tracey paused, looking thoughtful. “So you spent nearly all the payout in that one store, just so you’d look more professional here?”

    “Yeah.” I nodded heavily. “I wanted to fit in better. See how well that worked.”

    “No, no, it was a good idea.” She smiled brilliantly. “But we’ve spent enough time getting to the bottom of things. We might need to go and do some work before Ms Harcourt turns up and demands to know what she’s paying us for.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, me, anyway.”

    It was a fairly weak joke—I wasn’t being paid, of course—but I managed a watery smile anyway. Getting up, I went and got changed into my office clothing; such as it was.

    At least the shoes were as comfortable as I remembered them to be.

    <><>​

    It was almost a relief to get back into the routine of scanning documents and checking the OCR results. I was a little rusty with the first few, but I quickly got into my stride once more. Tracey had her own work to deal with, then she made a series of phone calls. At one point, she gave me a smile and a thumb’s-up, which I took to mean that she was pleased she wasn’t dealing with the scanning of dusty documents. Especially when silverfish and daddy-long-legs ran out from between the pages and across my hand. Eugh.

    But random arthropods aside, I actually managed to lose myself in the work. Scan; check; fix. Scan; check; fix. It was amazing how a flyspeck in the wrong spot could change one letter to another. I actually found myself smirking once, as the OCR managed to translate a perfectly harmless word into quite a rude one. “Away with you,” I muttered, changing it back.

    “Taylor.” A pause. “Earth Bet to Taylor. Come in, Taylor.”

    At last, I registered that Tracey was calling my name, and I looked up somewhat guiltily from my screen. “Sorry,” I said. “I was in the zone.”

    “You certainly were.” The speaker was a tall blond well-built man in his late twenties or early thirties. His very posture shouted out that he was someone of note. He smiled warmly at me and extended his hand. “Alexander Grayson. I’m from Legal.”

    “I, uh, I’m pleased to meet you,” I said, as my hand was engulfed by his. The cut of his business suit could not disguise the fact that he was fit as hell, and I wondered what sports he played. Then I wondered if there were any he didn’t. And if he’d teach me some. Bad Taylor! Down, girl! No ogling the hot guy from Legal! “Uh, is there a problem?”

    “None for you,” he assured me, his smile making the corners of his eyes crinkle. “I understand you’ve been having troubles of a criminal nature with other girls at your school. Winslow, wasn’t it?”

    I was beginning to feel a certain amount of envy toward Tracey, for being allowed to work at a firm with all these hot guys just dropping into her office whenever she needed a chat. I dismissed it as being unworthy; we needed to deal with the problem at hand. “Winslow, yeah. There’s three ringleaders, and maybe a dozen hangers-on. And about three dozen who help out if they’re asked.” It put a certain thrill down my back to hear what they’d been doing to me described as ‘criminal’, but I figured he knew what he was talking about.

    “Hmm.” Slowly, he rubbed his chin with thumb and forefinger. It was probably a calculated move to make him look thoughtful, but god damn, it worked. I wondered if he did any work in the city as a lawyer, because if he did, he’d blow Alan Barnes out of the water. I could see him captivating a jury within thirty seconds, and have them voting whichever way he wanted inside of five minutes. “In your personal opinion, if the initial three were removed from the equation, so to speak, would their confederates continue this campaign of targeted harassment?”

    Wow, he can get them expelled? I didn’t doubt it for a second. “Uh, maybe? They pretty well don’t do anything if Emma and her friends aren’t there to see it. Except for the emails, of course.”

    “Emails?” He raised his eyebrows.

    “Hate mail.” I grimaced. “It gets pretty nasty.”

    “Can you log in and show me?” he asked, gesturing to the laptop I was using.

    “Sorry.” I shook my head. “I don’t know how to get into the outside internet.”

    “That’s because it’s not set up for it,” Tracey said briskly. “Here, use mine.” She clicked her way through a few menus, then stood up from her chair to make way for me.

    “Uh, wow, thanks.” I stood up and made my way around to her desk. “Winslow’s got its own proprietary email servers. Each address can only handle about a thousand messages before it clogs up, and you have to open a new one.” As I spoke, I navigated my way to my email address. “I go through about one email address a month.”

    “What, because the school assigns you so much homework?” From the sound of her voice, Tracey didn’t believe that. But she wanted to.

    “Nope.” I opened the latest email folder and got up to make way for Mr Grayson. He sat down with murmured thanks, and began to click on emails. Tracey, reading over his shoulder, went pale after the second one, and turned her head away after the sixth. Machine-like, Mr Grayson read each email at a glance, even the ones that covered a page with vituperation. He clicked his way through them, the only change in expression showing as a certain tightening in his jaw.

    Finally, after he’d read over a hundred, he closed the folder down and swivelled Tracey’s chair to face me. “I am satisfied that you’re being unduly and unreasonably harassed for no fault of your own,” he pronounced. “To an extent that we could prefer criminal charges, if you so wished.”

    “What?” I blinked. “You mean … they could go to prison?” I definitely hadn’t thought that far ahead.

    “Juvenile detention, certainly.” He smiled broadly, showing an even expanse of gleaming teeth. “This sort of thing has been known to drive the victims to depression and even suicide. Coupled with the malicious and deliberate attempt to break you off from the internship, and the criminal assault which resulted in the theft of your clothing, just to name the most recent incidents, I could certainly make a case that would see all three of the ringleaders indicted and charged, and possibly tried as adults. If we can link them to any of the emails, that’ll be icing on the cake. Jurors love the written word. It’s so definite.

    Tracey grinned. “And if the trial was loud enough, their hangers-on would evaporate like fog on a summer morning. Nobody wants to be linked to something like that.”

    Mr Grayson gave her a measured nod. “That would also be a desirable outcome. So, Taylor. If you can give me the names of the ringleaders, I can set proceedings in motion.”

    “Um, sure.” I took a deep breath. “Emma Barnes. Her father’s Alan Barnes, a divorce lawyer.”

    There was the faintest hint of a derisive snort from Mr Grayson. “So noted. The second one?”

    “Sophia Hess. I think she gets away with stuff because she’s a track star.”

    Mr Grayson’s brows rose. “Interesting. Is there more than one Sophia Hess at Winslow? On or off the track?”

    I shook my head at once. “I’ve never heard of one. Why, do you know her?”

    “I personally do not.” Mr Grayson looked mildly interested. “A young lady of my acquaintance, around your age, has mentioned the name. An African-American girl, as I recall. She’s known among the high schools as quite the athlete. And the third one?”

    “Madison Clements,” I said. “Emma’s the one who pulls out details from my life to hurt me, Sophia’s the one who uses physical force, and Madison thinks up pranks.”

    “I believe I understand the dynamic. An unholy trinity, so to speak.” Mr Grayson stood up. “Thank you for reaching out to me, Ms Grimshaw. I will be in touch with any developments.” He favoured me with a brief nod. “Taylor.” Turning, he strode from the room like a conquering hero.

    “Wow,” I breathed, once I was sure the door was closed behind him. “Is he married?”

    Tracey snorted with laughter. “Unfortunately, yes. His wife’s a lovely lady who subs as a nurse in the sickbay when needed. Just a word to the wise, though. Don’t call him Alexander the Great.”

    “Why not?” The name had already popped up in my brain as a perfect nickname for him, especially given how he owned a room just by stepping into it. “Does it offend him?”

    “No.” She shook her head and chuckled. “He loves it, and he actually hams it up even more.”

    “Oh. I see.” It was an interesting glimpse into Mr Grayson’s personality. “Uh, should I have told him about how I left Winslow today? I don’t want you guys being blindsided by any blowback from that.”

    “Don’t sweat it,” she advised me. “I already told him and Ms Harcourt about that, and the circumstances behind it. If there have been any calls from Winslow, they haven’t trickled down this far yet. Which means that either your Principal Blackwell hasn’t tried doing anything about it yet, or she has and Ms Harcourt pinned her ears back for her.”

    I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall for that, but there were still problems I was worried about. “I pepper-sprayed Sophia, though. That’s criminal assault.”

    “You were assaulted and robbed by Sophia Hess, three days ago,” Tracey pointed out accurately. “You knew you hadn’t done anything to warrant being called to the principal’s office, and the timing there is extremely suspicious. In fact, as of the end of that lesson, you were no longer officially part of the student body. You were leaving. Sophia laid hands on you, which is assault in and of itself, especially given that she’s not an authorised truant officer, and tried to prevent you from attending a legitimate workplace experience. If anyone can spin all that into a case of ‘not guilty due to fear of further assault, your Honor’, it’ll be Alexander Grayson.”

    “Okay, this is what I can’t understand,” I said helplessly. “Why me? I’m just a temp. An intern. I’m nobody. I’m eminently replaceable. Why are you all going to this effort for me?”

    “For one thing, you’re not nobody.” Tracey put her hands on my shoulders. “You’re Taylor Hebert. I’ve seen your induction scores, including the security footage of you filling out the form. Remember the trash can o’ flames? We have a blooper reel of people reacting badly to it, and we have a training reel for how to do it right. You’re on the second one. You’ve got the third best time ever of getting the fire put out, and that includes trained firefighters. Then you wanted to know how we worded the form rather than how much money you could gouge out of us. And then you went and spent the money on clothes to make you fit in with the rest of us.”

    I blinked. All of this praise coming from left field was making me dizzy. “I … I don’t know what to say.”

    Tracey smiled and ruffled my hair, ignoring my half-hearted protest. “Say you’ll stay. All of that aside, you’re good company and you’ve definitely got an eye for detail.” She leaned in close and lowered her voice. “Now, I wasn’t going to spring this ’til later, but just between you and me and the inevitable listening bugs, at the end of the month, we’re going to offer you a part-time salary to keep doing what you’re doing. Now, at the time, you can act as surprised as you like, but what do you say?”

    I stared at her. “B … b … bwah?” Salary? My brain gibbered and ran in circles. I could do this as a job?

    Raising an eyebrow, she tilted her head as she looked at me. “Sorry, was that a good ‘bwah’ or a bad ‘bwah’? I can never tell the difference.”

    “Um … um … um … can I think about it for a second?” My head was spinning so fast I was surprised I wasn’t generating miniature tornadoes.

    “Sure, take your time.” She reclaimed her chair and spun idly in it, looking up at the ceiling. “You’ve got all month, after all.”

    There was a knock on the office door. Grateful for the opportunity to break my brain out of spin cycle, I headed over and opened it. A guy from a courier service, about eighteen years old or so, was standing there. “Taylor Herbert?” he asked in a nasal voice.

    “Um, Hebert, but yes,” I said. If I had a dollar for every time someone mispronounced my name … I’d have a few dollars. Just saying. “What’s this?”

    “This’z-f’you,” he said, shoving a paper-wrapped object into my hands. “Sign-’ere.” Off his belt, he pulled an electronic terminal.

    Wondering what the hell I was getting at my workplace, by courier even, I precariously balanced the parcel on one hand and signed with a scribble that was almost but not quite entirely unlike my regular signature. The delivery guy didn’t look, or even ask for ID to compare. He literally didn’t care. “’Ave-a-nize-day,” he said over his shoulder as he headed off down the corridor.

    “Uh, thanks,” I muttered. Stepping back inside with the parcel—about twice the size of a football, and even heavier—I bumped the door closed with my butt.

    “So what is it?” asked Tracey, standing up and coming over with curiosity in her eyes.

    “I have absolutely zero idea,” I said. “Who even knew I was here?” A quick flash ran through my head, of Emma and the others devising some sort of prank like a stink bomb, and sending it to me. “Oh, shit. What if it’s from Emma and her friends?” Because there was no way I could rule that out, and I didn’t want Tracey getting hurt because of me.

    “Nah.” She shook her head definitively. “We’ve got pretty good security here. Nothing dangerous gets through.” Producing a box-cutter, she handed it to me. “So open it. What’s in it?”

    My own curiosity was also nudging me, so I carefully slit the paper and pulled it back. Within was some very familiar-looking tissue paper, and within that ….

    “Oh, my God,” I gasped, putting the box cutter down on the desk, and taking the coat out of the scented tissue paper. On the inner wrapping was the logo of Beautiful Me, the store I’d originally bought my business wear from. A quick check ensured that yes, it was the same cut as before. Beneath it was the top I’d picked out for it. “How … I mean, how …?”

    Tracey rubbed her finger over her lips. “Well, it may just be that someone had a word with Ms Harcourt about your dedication to Medhall. And we may have disbursed funds from petty cash to replace your stolen goods. Most of us shop there, after all, and they were quite happy to check your original order and replicate it. So what—oof!”

    I had taken the time to lay the coat down carefully before I tackled her with a hug. “Thank you,” I said fervently. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

    She returned the hug. “That’s all right.” Gently, she touched her forehead to mine before we let each other go. “This is Medhall. We look after one another, here.”

    “Wow, yeah.” I held up the coat, then impulsively pulled it on. It draped neatly on my shoulders, feeling like a second skin. “How do I look?”

    A familiar smile spread across her face. “Professional. And smart.”

    I returned the smile. “Thanks.” My cheeks were starting to hurt from all the smiling I was doing. It was a burden I could definitely bear. “So … you weren’t joking about the part-time job?”

    “Not in the slightest,” she assured me. “Have you reached a decision yet?”

    I whirled in place, so that my suit coat spun out from me. “Well, duh,” I said, then paused.

    She raised an interrogatory eyebrow, but from the incipient grin, she knew what I was going to say.

    I spread my hands wide, to encompass the office. “I’ll take it.”


    End of Part Three
     
  5. Threadmarks: Part Four: Battle Lines; Drawn
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern

    Part Four: Battle Lines; Drawn

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

    I managed to hold out for a good half-hour before I finally gave in to temptation. "I'm gonna go change," I said, grabbing up the package that held the rest of my newly-replaced business attire.

    "Well, finally," Tracey retorted with a grin. "I was beginning to think you were made of stone or something. Literally every other woman I know would've disappeared into the bathrooms in about three point two seconds to change into the new outfit."

    I raised an eyebrow. "Every other woman? Are you including Ms. Harcourt in that? I can't see her giving in to temptation of any kind."

    "True," she agreed. "She'd just glare at the package and the clothing would spontaneously dissolve and reform around her, out of pure fear of what she might do if it didn't."

    "Oh, good," I said in tones of fake relief. "I'm not the only one who thinks she's the most terrifying person in the building, then. At least, among the ones I've met."

    "Oh, no, no," she replied with a smirk. "Many people you haven't met are also of the opinion that she's a very bad person to cross. But she's not a total ogre." A gesture pointed out my suit jacket, which I was still wearing. "That, for instance. I mean, if you screw up, yes, she will tear you a number of brand-new orifices proportionate to the magnitude of your idiocy. But I've also seen her go to the mat with Mr. Anders himself if she thought one of her people was being unfairly treated."

    "Ah. Right." It took me a few seconds to register her pleased expression. "Wait, she spoke to him about me?" To say I was startled would've been an understatement.

    "Sure she did." Tracey snorted lightly. "You don't think she put all that together unilaterally, including getting Alexander in on the act, do you? Even a good sergeant-major knows when to punt a request up the line."

    "But … Mr. Anders?" I was having trouble getting my head around that little tidbit. Before this day, I would've given long odds that Max Anders didn't even know I existed, let alone that I was interning in his company. But now he knew who I was, and he'd obviously given Ms Harcourt the go-ahead to repurchase my stolen clothing and bring the amazingly-fit Alexander Grayson into the deal.

    Of course, Tracey's description of Ms. Harcourt as a sergeant-major definitely fit with my own observations of her. I wondered briefly why the woman wasn't in the military or the PRT, then decided she probably wouldn't find it challenging enough.

    "Don't sound so surprised." Tracey put her arm around my shoulders in an unexpectedly welcome side-hug. "If I know her, she requested a meeting and laid it out for him. He's not a stupid man. I bet he had all the angles figured out before she even finished. Trust me, Medhall will be getting just as much in the way of PR benefit out of this as you'll be getting material benefits. They will not be the losers in this. Neither will you." She didn't have to explain who the losers would be.

    "Wow." I shook my head. "Don't get me wrong, but … well, I've never had anyone step up for me like this before. It's entirely outside of my experience. If Medhall gets a bonus out of it too, I'm totally glad. I mean, you guys have been absolutely nothing but amazing to me. Even Ms. Harcourt was tough but fair about the induction. And you're going to be paying me to intern here?"

    Tracey's laughter was high and clear. "I'll be honest with you. Internships are so we can look prospective hires over and decide if we want them in the company or not. That said, unpaid internships don't usually go anywhere, while over sixty percent of paid internships generally end up with an actual job offer. We started with the unpaid internship to weed out those who are just in it for the money and don't see a future with the company. But you've made your mark, so that's why we're transitioning you to a paying position. So, if we think you're worth giving you real money to work here, we're going to want to protect our investment. Does that sound too mercenary to you?"

    I blinked. The idea of someone (apart from Dad) actually considering me of having real worth … I couldn't get my head around it. "I, uh … is it okay if I say I think it's pretty awesome that you think that much of me? Seriously, I don't think that much of me. Ever since you told me I'm gonna get paid, I've been worried that you're gonna change your minds as soon as I make my first screwup." There, I'd said it. It was out in the open. I knew Tracey wanted me to be honest, so that was as honest as I could get.

    The reaction I got was not the one I'd expected. Either she'd brush it off or laugh about it; but she did neither one. Instead, she gave me a sober, serious look. "You ought to quit that sort of thinking right now, Taylor." Her voice was just as serious. "If you believe that of yourself, sooner or later, you start believing that you should fail. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the moment you talk yourself into screwing up, you'll be telling yourself 'I told you so!' and you'll never try hard for anything again, because you'll already have yourself convinced you'll never be anything but a failure." She put both hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. "Gauging from the work ethic I've seen from you so far, the only way you could ever be a failure is if you deliberately set out to be one. And just between you and me, I don't think you're the type of person who chooses to fail."

    There was literally nothing I could say to that. She'd seen my self-doubts, grabbed them, shredded them, and shot the shreds on a rocket into the sun. This was Tracey. She was not only my boss, but she was also the person who'd prised the confession out of me as to what had happened, and who'd actually done something about it. I so wanted to be like her. But even more so, I wanted to not disappoint her.

    As I stared at her, not sure whether to flee into the bathroom and start crying or just hug her, she let a gentle smile cross her face. "Of course, it's up to you. Do you think you're a failure?"

    Well, shit. I was going to have to answer her now. And of course, there was only one answer she'd be willing to accept. To tell the truth, after the lengths Medhall had gone to for me, there was only one answer I'd be willing to accept as well. "No. I don't. I'm not a failure." I didn't necessarily believe it, but I was willing to work hard enough to make it true.

    From the look in her eye, I suspected that she'd read at least part of what I was thinking in my face. But she didn't call me on it, for which I was intensely grateful. Everyone needs some secrets in their life. "Well, good." Lifting one hand from my shoulder, she patted me on the cheek. "Now go on, get in the bathroom and change. Also, you might want to wipe your eyes. Just saying."

    My eyes? I wasn't sure what she was talking about, until I realised tears were spilling down my cheeks. It looked like my 'flee into the bathroom and start crying' option had chosen to manifest anyway. But her expression wasn't mocking. It was sympathetic. "Thanks," I mumbled. Grabbing my business clothing, I … well, I fled into the bathroom.

    I took the time to get it just right and run a brush through my hair. In the process, I stared myself down in the mirror and told my reflection firmly that I was smart, I was successful, and I did have a right to be there. My reflection looked dubious, but I told it to shut the fuck up. What did it know, anyway?

    When I came out of the bathroom, Justin was there again. I nearly did a U-turn right then and there; I wasn't at all sure that my newly restored confidence was up to a real test yet. But as it happened, he saw me first. "Damn, Taylor," he said approvingly. "When Tracey told me you got yourself outfitted for Medhall, I thought maybe a nice hairband or a new top. But you've really gone all-out. That's what I call dressing for success."

    I blushed to the roots of my hair at the compliment; Tracey elbowed him in the arm, not gently. "Leave her alone," she told him. "She's had a rough few days already. She doesn't need you making it worse with your idea of a sense of humour."

    "I wasn't joking," he said plaintively. "I'm actually trying to be nice, here. You know how hard it is to give a teenage girl a compliment, especially about her clothes, without sounding like a creeper?"

    "I'm not offended," I assured the both of them. "And thanks, Justin. I appreciate the compliment. It's just that …" I shook my head and stopped what I was saying. It's just that I don't get compliments, especially from nice-looking guys. There was no way I could finish that out loud without sounding both pathetic and like I was fishing for more compliments. It was startling to realise just how hungry I was for them.

    "I'm not going to ask 'It's just what?' because I've got no desire to get dragged down that particular rabbit-hole." Justin grinned engagingly at me. "As far as I'm aware, girl code changes every time a guy figures it out, but I know enough that if you don't want to tell me, I'd be making an idiot of myself if I just tried asking you. So I'm gonna be happy you're okay with the compliment and leave it at that."

    Startled into a smile, I decided I could see why Tracey liked the man. He was charming, irreverent and smart enough not to push things. The fact that he was an incurable rogue only added to his charm. "Thank you," I said. "Would you like some coffee before you go? I was just about to make some. Fair warning; you'll get it the same way I like it myself. You know, like the last cup you stole from me."

    "Ooh, zing," he returned with a broad grin. "Tracey, have you been feeding her red meat? I like it. And sure, you make a pretty good cup of joe. Every time they transfer some poor idiot into my department, we have to train them how to make proper coffee all over again." He paused, looking thoughtful. "Hey, Taylor, would you be interested—"

    "Don't you damn well dare, Justin!" Tracey's eyes flared in mock anger as she put her arm around my shoulders. "I am not about to let you poach my intern just so you can get a good cup of coffee."

    "I give, I give," he said with a chuckle, putting his hands up in surrender. "I'll be good. No more poaching attempts. Besides, can you imagine what Harcourt would do to me? It doesn't bear thinking about."

    "Fancy that," Tracey said with a smirk. "A woman in this company you can't wrap around your little finger with a charming smile and an empty promise? Wonders will never cease."

    "Don't think I haven't tried." He shuddered theatrically. "Once, and once only. It was only a teensy favour, too. By the time she finished verbally flaying me alive—without raising her voice or using profanity even once, I might add—I was ready to ask Bradley to put me out of my misery."

    "Bradley? The security guard? He doesn't wear a pistol," I said with a frown. At least, I hadn't seen one on his hip. Did he have one in a shoulder holster?

    "Figure of speech," Justin assured me. "However Bradley chose to end me, it would've been a mercy after that godawful shellacking. I don't have many rules, but number one is now Don't mess with Ms. Harcourt. Just saying."

    I shook my head with amusement as I went off to start the coffee going. "I made that my number-one rule about ten seconds after I met her," I said over my shoulder.

    "Now you can see why I wanted to poach her," he said to Tracey. "She's capable and she's smart. And, not being a creeper here, but I like her dress sense."

    "That's because she bought her outfit at the same shop I go to," Tracey said, gentle exasperation in her voice. She didn't go on to elaborate the troubles I'd had with that outfit, which I appreciated. Justin was funny and cool, and he didn't talk down to me like a lot of adults did, but I didn't need everyone in Medhall knowing about my problems.

    "Oh, no wonder then," he said with an impressive recovery. "Because your dress sense is pretty amazing in its own right."

    I was beginning to see why she dated him on an on-again-off-again basis. No matter how many times he put his foot in his mouth, the guy just never gave up.

    <><>​

    "Three o'clock, Taylor," Tracey said cheerfully. "Time for you to escape into the wilderness once more."

    "Almost done here," I murmured. "Two more files and I'm finished. Which will give you until Wednesday to find some other way to keep me out of your hair." As I spoke, I readied the scanner, then positioned the sheet just so on the glass.

    "Pfft, as if I need to keep you out of my hair," she chided me playfully. "You're good company, and you make great coffee. I'm beginning to wonder why we didn't do this intern thing years ago."

    "I suspect the company did, and it flopped," I suggested absently, then hit the start button on the scanner. As it hummed through its process, I carefully watched as the image appeared on my screen. It seemed to be clear and sharp, but I didn't want to take my eye off it for a second. "This sort of thing isn't for everyone."

    "You're probably right," she sighed. "Well, I'm glad it's working out for you. And as far as the internship program is concerned, your gain is our gain. So it's a win-win situation."

    The OCR was just starting to do its magic, so I didn't answer, focusing intently on the screen instead. Taking the sheet from the scanner, I did a quick eyeball comparison, then nodded approvingly. "Okay, that one's good." Looking up at Tracey, I nodded again, this time in agreement with her words. "Oh, absolutely. I'm totally in favour of anything that gives Mr. Anders an incentive to let me keep working here."

    We chatted while I ran the last file through the scanner. I made sure to check it as thoroughly as I had the rest of them. Tracey's words about my work ethic should've given me a sense of complacency, but they'd instead made me even more determined to prove that it wasn't just a fluke, that I deserved a place at Medhall. But finally, I was able to save the file and shut the terminal down. Standing up from the desk, I rotated my shoulders to crack my back. "Whew, that's a relief."

    "I'm actually pretty impressed," Tracey confessed as she stood up as well. "Those files have been sitting around for longer than I've been working here. When I was starting out, we made a few stabs at digitising them, but the effort never lasted. There was always something with higher priority. It's very satisfying to see them finally put to rest."

    "Well, I guess that's what I'm here for," I said. "Do the incidental stuff that frees you up to do the important stuff." I located my backpack and started getting ready for the trip home.

    "True, though doing the incidental stuff is almost as important as the 'important' stuff," Tracey reminded me. "Someone's got to do it, and before you got here, it was me doing it. More importantly though, you got it done without needing supervision or wasting my time." At my blank look, she shook her head. "You have no idea how irritating it is to have someone who's supposed to be helping me do more work but who spends their time asking for help in doing their work. And how satisfying it is to have an assistant who can actually assist."

    The warm feeling that spread up through my chest choked me up and brought tears to my eyes. Impulsively, I hugged her. She hugged me right back with a warm chuckle. "I just want to say," I told her. "These two days have been the best days I've had in years. Bar none. Thank you for that."

    Gently separating us, she looked into my eyes with a smile. "Well, let's see if we can't keep that going on Wednesday, shall we? And, uh … if I get any more problematic phone calls, supposedly from you, perhaps we should have a code phrase or something, so I can make sure it's not from you?"

    "Oh. Oh, yeah." It hadn't worked this time, but that didn't preclude Emma from trying again. "Um …" I tried to think of something that Emma wouldn't be able to second-guess. My eyes lit on her coffee cup and I nodded. "Got it. You challenge me with 'coffee', and I say 'Justin'." Because by now, the two words were linked in my mind.

    She giggled. "That'll definitely work. Nobody outside this office would have the faintest idea of what we were talking about. Can you believe the nerve of that man, trying to poach you right out from under me?" Her tone was more amused than outraged.

    "Oh, I can definitely believe his nerve," I said with a smirk. "I get the impression he does what he damn well pleases and gets away with it most times. But don't worry. He's nice to look at, but I'm happy right here."

    "Which means he'll probably be dropping by more often, just to get coffee the way you brew it." She shook her head in fond exasperation.

    I wiggled my eyebrows suggestively. "Which I've never heard you complain about."

    A snort of laughter escaped her. "Oh, go on. Get out of here. We've corrupted you enough already."

    "Yeah, but what a way to go." I picked up my backpack. "See you Wednesday."

    "See you then, Taylor." She gave me a wave as I headed for the door.

    After I signed out, I headed for the elevator. Bradley nodded politely to me as he pressed the button. "Did you get your package, Miss Hebert?"

    "Yes, thanks, Bradley." I held down the urge to do a twirl in front of the beefy security guard to show off my business clothes; he probably didn't care, and I'd most likely turn an ankle. So I smiled at him instead. In return, his granite visage cracked very slightly. The elevator opened and I stepped inside.

    Greg was waiting for me as I stepped out on the ground floor. He didn't quite have the same reek of cleaning products on him as he had on Friday, and his expression wasn't as haggard. "Hi, Greg!" I greeted him. "Thanks again for letting me borrow your phone. You're an absolute life-saver."

    "So are you, Taylor," he said unexpectedly. Side by side, we walked out through the main doors onto the street. "They started in on me today, and I tried the DVD rewinder line. When they stared at me, I thought oh shit, now I'm for it, but then Frank laughed and slapped me on the shoulder and said I was all right." He rubbed his shoulder ruefully. "I think I've got a bruise there."

    "Yeah, well, blue collar humour is a bit more physical than normal," I agreed. "So your day went okay?"

    "Oh, yeah," he said enthusiastically. "I mean, they didn't let me slack off, and they made me read bits of the safety manual and then quote them back when I wasn't doing anything else, but I learned so much more than I did on Friday. We were doing maintenance all over the building, and I'm skinnier than the rest of the guys, so I could wriggle into places they couldn't get into comfortably." He held out his hands, and I could see skin missing off most of his knuckles. "I tightened so many screws and nuts today, in places you'd never think they'd have screws and nuts."

    "It's a big building," I said helpfully. "I wouldn't be at all surprised what they've got up in there."

    "Oh, trust me," he said with a confident chuckle, "there's a lot more to that building than meets the eye. Just for instance, did you know there's maintenance passageways all the way through it? I mean, you're playing a dungeon game and there's hidden doors and secret passages and you're wondering why would someone put stuff like that there, right?"

    "I guess so," I said, vaguely figuring out what he meant from context. Trust Greg to relate everything back to video games.

    "Exactly!" he replied enthusiastically. "But in Medhall, it all makes sense. I know why the doors are where they are, and where the passages go. They're not to get around without being seen, but to get to systems that aren't directly in public view. Like all the plant rooms. Did you know, every floor of that building's got a plant room?"

    I blinked. My first mental image, of a room full of plants, seemed off somehow. Why would Medhall have even one room like that, much less one per floor? "Uh, plant room?"

    "Oh, sorry." He visibly reined himself back in. "A plant room's where they keep the machinery for water pumping and air conditioning and stuff like that, for any given floor. Some of 'em can be really big and loud, but they soundproof them and design the buildings so nobody notices that there's a chunk of the floorplan that's just missing."

    "Oh. Huh. I guess that makes sense." I gave him a smile. "You have been learning a lot today, haven't you?" I was kind of proud of him. He'd really grown up from the careless idiot who'd half-assed the induction on Friday.

    "Oh, man. Have I ever." He looked at me. "Oh, hey, those clothes look really sharp. You weren't wearing those on the way in … were you?" A frown crossed his face. "Or am I missing something?"

    "No, you're not missing anything." With great glee (it was far easier to feel it after the fact) I related the story of how Tracey had wormed everything out of me, then arranged for my entire outfit to be replaced on the spot. I didn't tell him of the visit from Alexander the Great (I was allowed to call him that in my own mind, surely?) because it was a lot easier for legal matters to go through if the other side wasn't forewarned. And while Greg was a lot better than he had been, I still didn't know if he could be trusted not to taunt Emma and her coterie with their impending comeuppance. I knew I was going to be seriously tempted.

    "Whoa …" he breathed as I finished my tale. "Okay, that beats my stuff hands down. High-five!" He held up his hand and I slapped it. "Sounds like your boss is even cooler than mine."

    "Nah, Frank sounds pretty straight-up for a maintenance guy," I disclaimed. "Tracey's pretty amazing, but her kinda-boyfriend loves to steal my coffee. So I gotta make two cups when he comes over."

    "Really?" Greg burst out laughing. "Is he at least nice about it?" he asked, once he recovered. I had to give him that; it was kinda funny.

    "Oh, he's a perfect charmer," I said expansively. "Eye candy for days." I related the story of how he'd tried to poach me from Tracey for my coffee-making skills, and how she'd reacted. By the time I was done, we were both laughing.

    "Oh, hey, here's my bus," he said. "See you tomorrow, Taylor. Have a good night."

    "See you, Greg." I gave his shoulder a squeeze. "And please don't tell anyone at Winslow about my new outfit. You know they'd only try to ruin or steal it."

    "Yeah, nope," he said, his tone serious. "Screw that. Go, Medhall!" He held up his hand and I gave him another high-five.

    I watched him get on the bus and waved as it drove away. As I sat waiting for mine, I couldn't help but wonder at how my life was turning around every time I went to work at Medhall. I had a great boss, friendly co-workers, and my one acquaintance from outside work was actually turning out to be a pretty cool guy, once I gave him a chance.

    I could really get used to this.

    <><>​

    The next day on the bus to school, I was a lot less sanguine. It wasn't a day I'd be attending Medhall, which meant that I'd be stuck at school for the whole day, giving Emma and Sophia and Madison free rein to screw my life up any way they could manage. Sophia, I knew, would be apocalyptic over being pepper-sprayed like that; despite the assurances I'd gotten from Tracey and Mr. Grayson, I was not at all sure the school would see the law in the same way, or even apply the rules in a fair sense. It wasn't as if they had any track record of doing so in the past. And while Medhall was on my side, they were at Medhall and I was going to be at Winslow.

    So it was with a certain sense of trepidation that I got off the bus and trailed my way toward the front entrance of the school. I'd wanted to wear my work shoes, but common sense told me that Emma and her crew would stop at nothing to scuff, scratch, or flat-out steal them before the day was out. So I was wearing sneakers, and my most-worn hoodie and jeans, on the principle that I could easily replace or clean any of it without fuss. The books in my locker were less replaceable, but at least they hadn't started vandalising that on a regular basis. Even though I still couldn't figure out how they were getting into it to steal stuff. I would've skipped school altogether, but I was fairly certain one of the terms of my internship was that I also kept my grades up, and I was not going to give them the opening to screw me out of the best job I'd ever held.

    Not that I'd held many jobs at that point, but it was the principle of the thing.

    As I reached the top of the steps and started into the school, my worst fears came true. Well, second worst. There were no police officers waiting for me (I had no doubt by this point that if Emma could've arranged for them, she would have) but all three of my nemeses were there instead. All looking at me, and it seemed I'd been correct. Sophia was pissed. Even a day later, her eyes seemed a little red and swollen, and the glare she gave me made me happy she wasn't a cape. If she'd had eyebeams right then, I would've been cut in half.

    I gulped a little, and squeezed the canister in my pocket for reassurance. It was the one I'd used on Sophia, and I hoped it still had pressure in it; I had no idea how to tell Dad I needed a new one without telling him how I'd used the old one.

    Seriously, the number of secrets I was holding from Dad was becoming ridiculous. We were going to have to sit down sometime and have a proper father-daughter chat. After which I'd probably be grounded for life, just for not telling him stuff that I should've. Which was technically fair, I figured. I just didn't want to do it.

    Screw it, I decided. I wasn't going to let the Bitches Three intimidate me anymore. How would Ms. Harcourt do this?

    She'd glare at them and they'd melt away into the woodwork.
    That wasn't going to work for me.

    Going to Blackwell was out. I'd tried that before, and it had never worked.

    Okay, let's try direct confrontation. I marched up to Emma. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Madison was wearing the other blouse she'd stolen from me, and I nearly faltered. Well, no, I nearly dived at her to force her to give it back. But I had a purpose in mind, and that purpose was to talk to Emma. Madison, I told myself, was inconsequential.

    "Emma," I said firmly. "We've got to talk."

    I figured she'd expected me to try to sneak around her, so walking straight up to her threw her off her stride a little. But she rallied and came out with a sickly-sweet smile that hid a sneer. "What would I want to talk to someone like you about?" she riposted.

    "Normally, that would be my personal hygiene, my weight, my morals and whatever drugs you want to decide I was taking at the time," I shot back. "But we're done. I'm walking away. You're walking away. Find some other hobby, bec—"

    My first mistake, I decided later, was taking my eyes off Sophia. My second mistake was not watching my back. Emma had more than a few followers and hangers-on, but the vast majority weren't in it for the possibility of violence. However, Sophia ran track, so it seemed she'd asked a few of the male track team members to show up to this meeting. They crowded in close, so that when Sophia hit me, nobody saw it. I barely saw it myself; she was just too fast. But I sure as hell felt it.

    I was just getting into my stride in my rant at Emma when Sophia came in low and fast, burying her fist in my stomach. Pain exploded outward from the impact, doubling me over and sending a wave of nausea through my body. She buried her hands in my hair, then lifted my head up and brought it down again. Helpless from the blow, I couldn't raise my arms above my midsection. Her knee came up, hard and direct. It slammed into my cheekbone, blasting stars throughout my vision. She raised my head again. This time, I knew through the spinning in my head that it would be a direct hit. My nose, my lips, would all be destroyed.

    "No!" Emma stopped her just before my face would've made contact. "Not like that. Facial injuries are sympathetic." She said it in a cloying tone. "Besides, she doesn't have any looks to fuck with. Keep it to body punches."

    "No, I got a better idea." Sophia took hold of my arm and twisted it in a certain way. "Come on, Hebert. We're going for a little walk."

    "Oh, hey, me and the guys gotta go," said a male voice. "See you in Track?"

    "Yeah, yeah, see you in Track." Sophia's voice was distracted.

    No, I wanted to say. Don't go. They'd stopped anyone from seeing what Sophia was doing, but surely with witnesses she couldn't intimidate, Emma wouldn't go too far? I tried to make eye contact, tried to call out. But the guys were looking away from me and the loudest noise I could make was a wheezing groan. They headed off down the corridor with not a single backward glance.

    With Emma and Madison bunched around us for camouflage, so nobody could see how Sophia was holding me, we walked through the corridors of Winslow. Or rather, I stumbled, Sophia supported me, and the other two walked as if they had not a care in the world. As my head cleared, I looked around for anyone who might render assistance. But all I saw were gang members doing gang business. One and all, they glanced at me, then looked away, uninterested.

    Then I saw Greg.

    He saw me at the same time, and frowned, as if wondering why is she walking with them when they hate her? But then he looked more closely, and I saw the lightbulb go on over his head. Do something, I urged him silently with my eyes. Say something. Raise the alarm. Go to Blackwell. Get a teacher. Get someone!

    But then we were past him, and he was still standing there. Doing nothing.

    My heart sank. I thought I could depend on him.

    At first I thought they were going to take me to the bathrooms where Sophia could work me over properly. Hopefully it wouldn't be so bad that I'd still be able to report to work on Wednesday. I was beginning to see those half-days at Medhall as a Promised Land, rewarding me for the crap I had to endure at Winslow. Maybe I'd even get Tracey to get pictures of the bruises or something, to prove that yes, Winslow sucked.

    But we didn't go to the bathrooms. In fact, we ended up in a corridor alongside a familiar row of lockers. Not many kids were here; the few that were getting their books from their lockers gave me the same eh, who cares look and went back to what they were doing. I wanted to call out to them, but their probable response (nothing) and Sophia's reaction (twisting my arm) held me back. Besides, my breath was still a bit wheezy.

    Sophia stopped me alongside my locker. "Combination," she demanded.

    "What?" I managed. "No. Not having my combination." Handing that out to them was basically inviting them to steal me blind rather than take individual things.

    "Suit yourself," Sophia murmured, then let go my arm and slugged me in the stomach again. Gagging, I doubled over, doing my best not to retch on the floor. Emma's shoes, that would be a different thing. For those, I'd shove my finger down my throat.

    Sophia turned her back on me—and on the others—and fiddled with my lock. "Huh," she said. "It's almost open. I can feel it." With a few more rattles of metal on metal and the sounds of the combination on my lock turning, she said, "Bingo!" Stepping back from the locker, she slid the lock into her pocket and pulled the door open.

    "Wow, you can pick locks too?" Madison sounded envious.

    "I'm just good." Sophia sounded smug. I wanted to explain to Madison that guessing someone's combination was totally different from picking a lock, but now was not the time.

    "Emma," I wheezed instead. "You really don't want to do this. You really don't." It was true, in that whatever they did would be likely added to the legal troubles being drafted for them by Alexander Grayson and his team, but what I really meant was that I didn't want them doing whatever they had in mind.

    Now that there was just us to see it, the sneer came out in full force. "Taylor, how about you stop telling me what I want and don't want, huh?" She looked at Sophia. "What are we gonna do? Lock her in there?"

    I was weak as a kitten from the repeated gut-punches, so I couldn't resist as Sophia turned me around and slammed me face-first into the next locker over. "Yeah, but first I wanna check something …" Brisk, professional hands searched me, and I felt the pepper-spray being pulled from my pocket. "Hah, yeah. Perfect."

    Why didn't I spray them when I walked up to them? I raged in the quiet of my own mind. Sophia, at least. But I knew the answer. If I attacked them without provocation, I'd be in the wrong. It might screw the whole legal case. But now Sophia had the pepper spray, and I knew damn well she'd use it on me all day long if she got the chance.

    "What're you gonna do, Sophia?" Madison's voice was bright and eager.

    Sophia's chuckle was cruel. "Well, you know how stoners get in a car or a van and they wind the windows up and all light up and fill it with smoke? They call that hot-boxing. I've just invented something I'm calling 'pepper-boxing', and Taylor's gonna trial it for me."

    Now I was really starting to panic. I started to struggle, but a sharp blow to my kidneys took the fight out of me yet again. I slumped against the locker, only supported by Sophia. "No …" I mumbled. "No … please …"

    "Oh, hey," Madison suggested. "When it's empty, wipe the prints off it and put it in there with her. That way we can say she did it to herself."

    "Whoa, damn," Sophia said admiringly. "I am fucking impressed, Mads. You come up with the best plans." Taking me under the arms, she hoisted me up and aimed me at the empty locker. "Time to try out your new accommodations, Hebert. Might be a bit cramped, but you'll have time to get used to it."

    "Let her go!" The voice belonged to none other than Greg Veder. He strode toward us purposefully, finger up and pointing. "Emma Barnes! Madison Clements! Sophia Hess! Let Taylor go! Right now!"

    "What the fuck?" That was Sophia. She sounded utterly baffled, and I didn't blame her. We'd walked right past him, and he hadn't done a thing. Had he been wrestling with his conscience all this time?

    "What the fuck, Greg?" Emma didn't sound like she believed it either.

    "Greg?" Madison shook her head. "What do you think you're doing?"

    "Shut the fuck up." He pointed at Sophia. "Let her go right now, or you're in big trouble. I mean it!"

    It was the 'I mean it' that broke the spell. Emma began to giggle and Madison started tittering. Even Sophia shook her head with a snort of laughter. "And what the fuck do you think you're going to do, Veder?" she asked derisively. "I don't see any teachers, and I don't see Blackwell. And who's gonna believe your word against ours?"

    Greg was shaken, but he didn't pause from his advance. "It'll be Taylor and me, and they'll believe us! You'll all be in deep shit if you don't let her go right now!"

    "Oh, for fuck's sake, just spray him already," Emma snapped.

    "No, I want to save it all for Hebert," Sophia growled stubbornly. "You two hold Hebert. I got this." She let me go; I slumped against the locker and tried to claw my way upright again, but Emma and Madison were there before I could do it.

    "Where do you think you're going, Taylor?" asked Emma faux-sweetly, as Sophia advanced on Greg. Her nails dug into my arm.

    "You're not going anywhere, except in your locker," Madison added. "Maybe after Sophia's finished beating the shit out of Greg, he can join you in there. He's obviously got the hots for you, after all."

    "Fuck, Madison, I think he really does," Emma said, dropping the mocking tone. "He's not running away."

    You idiot, Greg, I thought as loudly as I could. You should've brought back someone. Anyone. Not tried to take on Sophia yourself. I was already feeling the effects of Sophia's close and personal attention. Tomorrow, I was definitely going to have bruises.

    Finally, as Sophia closed to within a few yards of him, Greg seemed to think better of his ill-advised venture, and began to back-pedal. She followed him about ten yards down the hallway, with him steadily retreating before her, before she stopped in disgust and turned away. "That's right, Veder," she said with a sneer. "Run and hide."

    She started back toward us. I clenched my jaw in an effort to suppress my fear. I was going to be shoved in my own locker, and deluged in my own pepper-spray. This was going to suck far more than anything they'd ever done to me—

    Whether Sophia was fixated on her delayed revenge with me, or had simply written Greg off as a potential opponent, I would never know. But she had totally turned her back on him, and he … he was running toward her!

    Emma and Madison realised what was happening a second too late. Just as they opened their mouths to shout in warning, he collided with her solidly, and they both went over. My jaw honestly dropped open. I'd never thought Greg was suicidal before. But there it was; he'd just crash-tackled Sophia Hess and brought her to the ground.

    Rolling apart, they both stood up. Greg was on the defensive, but it didn't matter. Sophia was beyond merely pissed, beyond angry. She was even more enraged at him than she was at me. Her first punch blasted through his feeble defence and collected the side of his face. He staggered up against a locker, nearly went down, then used it as a prop to stand up again. "I said, leave Taylor 'lone," he slurred.

    She wasn't listening. One punch smashed into his stomach, and I reflexively winced—I knew how that felt—then again as she kneed him in the nose. I heard the crunch from where I was. He stood up, more from the impact of the knee than any real capability to keep fighting, and she kicked him between the legs. With a high-pitched shriek, he collapsed, clutching at himself.

    I roused myself as Greg went down. Yanking my arm out of Madison's grip, I elbowed her in the jaw. Then, ignoring the searing pain from my elbow, I turned to Emma and punched her square in the mouth. She let me go and staggered back, then sat down hard, staring up at me as if I'd just grown horns and hooves. Madison was sprawled half in, half out of my locker. I didn't care.

    As Sophia drew back her leg to kick Greg in the face, I yelled, "Leave him alone!" I still wasn't in the best of shape, but I managed a shamble toward her. She might still shove me in the locker, but I wasn't going to let her kick my friend's teeth in.

    "Oh, you want some too, do you, Hebert?" Sophia's voice was as deadly as her fighting capability. Where a high-schooler learned to fight like that, I had no idea, but she'd utterly fucking demolished Greg Veder in about four hits.

    I saw something behind her and blinked, then grinned savagely as I focused on her again. "Come get me, Sophia. You might find that one-on-one's a lot harder than three-on-one. It won't be as easy to shove me in the locker with just you, either."

    "I can get you in there with just one hand," Sophia promised, sidling closer to me. "And I can always say you broke your hands on the inside of the locker. After you emptied your own pepper-spray canister in there with you." She took out the tube and shook it. "Hebert, you are so fucked. There's no way you can win against me. Why don't you just admit it?"

    "Because she knows better." The voice from behind her made her spin around. Alexander Grayson was strolling down the corridor, one hand in his pocket and one holding his phone, as if he owned the entire building and was considering making it over into a mall or something similar. Behind him was the reassuring bulk of Bradley, the guard from the elevator. "Miss Hebert, are you all right?"

    "I've been better," I admitted. "Greg might need medical attention, too. Did you get all that?"

    Grayson turned his phone around, showing me a moving image on the screen. "Audio as well as video," he assured me. "Of course, if it wasn't for Mr. Veder's quick thinking, as well as his incredibly noble sacrifice play, we probably wouldn't have gotten here in time."

    "What the hell?" burst out Sophia, eyeing Bradley very cautiously indeed. "Who the hell are you guys?"

    "Oh, we're from Medhall. I'm Grayson, from Legal." Mr. Grayson gestured toward the big guy. "This is Meadows, from Security." He paused to chuckle, apparently finding the next words rather amusing. "I suppose you could call us the cavalry."


    End of Part Four
     
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