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Wyvern - Worm AU fanfic

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Aug 4, 2015.

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  1. Threadmarks: Index
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yet another Altpower!Taylor fic. She gains yet another set of powers in the locker; it now remains to be seen what she will be doing with them.

    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, then 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: Inception (below)
    Part Two: How to ... Yeah, Not Going There
    Part Three: Handling Matters
    Part Four: Escalation
    Part Five: Discussions
    Part Six: Meddle Not in the Affairs of Dragons ...
    Part Seven: ... For You Are Crunchy, and Go Well With Ketchup
    Part Eight: All Dressed Up
    Part Nine: Stinger!
    Part Ten: Changing Fortunes
    Part Eleven: Show and Tell
    Part Twelve: Bugging the Dragon
    Part Thirteen: Growing Pains
    Part Fourteen: New Developments
    Part Fifteen: Hidden Conflicts
    Part Sixeen: That Went Places
    Part Seventeen: Escalation Central

    Omake: The Hand that Feeds ( SwiftRosenthal )
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2021
    udkudk, rifern, Omni and 13 others like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Part One: Inception
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part One: Inception


    Flying.

    I was flying, chill air flowing past stretched membranes. Gliding, then flapping again, arm and shoulder muscles aching.

    I've never done this before. How do I know how to do it? Instinct?

    I hope it gets easier.


    Below, buildings slid past. A city. The buildings were old, decrepit. Somehow, I knew that I was flying east. Toward the ocean that beckoned.

    Why am I flying? How am I flying? Why are my arms wings now? Why am I flying toward the ocean?

    I stopped flapping for a few moments, allowed myself to glide once more. The wind drummed over the expanse of red-gold membrane that made up my wings, stretched between what had once been my fingers, my arms. Covered in fine scales, of the same colour as my wings, that winked back pinpoints of light in the weak January sunlight.

    What happened?

    I didn't know. I wasn't sure of much. I had only been flying for a few minutes, but where I was flying from was less certain than where I was flying to.

    Even who I was was uncertain. My name …

    “Who am I?” I tried to ask out loud. My jaws opened; I got the impression of a muzzle, and a croaking screech was all I heard. My tongue tasted the air, then ran over my teeth. Fangs, rather; all sharp, and far more than I'd had before …

    How do I know that?

    I didn't know how I knew. I knew I was human, despite my current shape. Which I knew little enough of, to be honest. Arms turned into wings, check. Red-gold scales, check. Muzzle, check.

    The buildings below were beginning to get uncomfortably close. I summoned up more energy, began flapping once more. A cross-wind buffeted me; I shifted to compensate, using my tail as balance and rudder both – tail?

    A glance over my shoulder showed that yes, I had a tail. Looking down and under myself showed legs, folded up beneath me, covered in … something. Something that stank.

    I now knew why I was flying toward the ocean.

    I needed water.

    Lots of water.

    The ocean was close, now. This was a good thing. My arms were tired. A joke surfaced in my mind – I just flew in from New York, and boy my arms are tired – and it didn't seem so funny any more.

    In the ocean ahead, in the bay – Brockton Bay, I recalled. The city below was named for the bay – was a technological citadel, a home for the Protectorate. I blinked, eyelids moving in odd ways, as memories slotted into place. That long street is called Lord Street. And that's the Boardwalk.

    “Hey!”

    I jolted in midair as the voice called out beside me; so focused had I been on my own emerging thoughts that I hadn't paid attention to my surroundings. My wings lost purchase on the air and I dropped a dozen feet before I corrected that. When I was gliding properly once more, I risked a glance sideways.

    There, paralleling me, was a teenage girl; white-clad, wearing a tiara over her blonde hair. She was keeping pace with me fairly easily, almost lounging in the air. Right. For her it's easy.

    A name surfaced in my memory. Glory Girl.

    Okay, so I can remember everyone else's names. Why not mine?


    Forgetting my inability to vocalise, I tried to reply. “Uh, hi?”

    What I got was, “Ooo-ah?” In a sort of screechy, velociraptor sort of accent.

    She frowned, marring that perfect brow. “Can't talk English?”

    Closing my muzzle – not wanting her to think that I was about to try to attack her with my startlingly large collection of needle-sharp teeth – I nodded firmly, then shook my head.

    “Yes, no?” She paused. “Can't talk, can understand?”

    This time, I nodded vigorously.

    “ … ah, right. Okay, gotta ask you to land, so I can talk to you, okay?”

    Looking down, I saw that we were crossing Lord Street. I angled my wings into a dive.

    “Hey!” she shouted, catching up, even as I accelerated. “I'm talking to you, here!”

    How do I say, “I know, but I've got to do this?” in dinosaur? It was a conundrum.

    The cool waters, twinkling in the morning sunlight, were just ahead, coming up fast. I angled into a steeper dive.

    “Hey!” yelled Glory Girl, reaching for me. I twitched my wing out of the way, rolling smoothly to the side. Huh, something I can do.

    She tried again; I barrel-rolled over her, and folded my wings back.

    “You can't dodge forever -” she began, and then we hit the water.

    <><>​

    Cool silence surrounded me. I spread my wings once more, letting myself float in the dimness. The dreadful things that had been clinging to my legs drifted off, floated away, as I kicked. I rolled my eyes upward, the nictitating membranes allowing me to see clearly, even under water. Glory Girl was gathering herself, flying upward, leaving just ripples behind.

    I would have to follow soon; although at home in the water, I didn't have gills. So I folded my arms against my sides once more; my legs kicked and my tail waved, and I started toward the surface.

    As I moved upward, so did more memories emerge from the darkness.

    <><>​

    Hey, there she is.”

    Fuck, I nearly didn't see her.”

    Is it just me, or is she even skinnier than before Christmas?”

    Anyone else has a Christmas dinner – Hebert has a Christmas puke.”

    She just has to look in the mirror.”

    I ventured through the halls of Winslow, seeking my locker. I had imagined that they were letting up over November and December, but it must have been a ploy to get my guard down. They certainly weren't letting up now.


    She's so skinny that she has to run around in the shower to get wet.”

    Mustn't do it all that much. I can smell her from here.”

    Pee-yew! She probably took a puke just before she came in here.”

    Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but I could smell something horrible now, too. My cheeks burning from the hurtful words – I never asked to be skinny – I hunched my shoulders and walked past them.


    So how old do you think she'll be before she actually grows breasts?”

    I don't think there's that many years on the calendar.”

    Well, it's not like she'll need them – she's too ugly and skinny to ever get a boyfriend.”

    I hear that when she goes for a walk in the park, all the perverts button up their raincoats and go home.”

    She'd need a boob job just to get the tits of a twelve year old.”

    A twelve year old boy.”

    Trying not to listen, I reached my locker. A rancid smell emanated from it. I knew, with a sinking feeling, that they had done something to it. Something horrible. But, just as it's almost impossible to look away from a train wreck, I couldn't not see what was inside the locker.

    Bending over the lock, I entered the combination. Concentrating on ignoring the stink, I didn't look behind me.

    That was my mistake.


    <><>​

    I emerged from the water feeling much cleaner; my speed put me a good body-length above the water. This gave me the chance to get my wings into operation; spraying salt water in all directions, I rose into the air.

    “Hey.”

    This time, I was less than surprised; Glory Girl hovered there, looking a little more bedraggled than before. Her skirt hung damply, her blonde hair was flat against her head, and she had lost the tiara. She also looked less than impressed.

    I gave her my best inquiring look. She pointed toward the beach. "Land. Now."

    She could fly faster than me; although I was much better under water, I didn't really want to tangle with her. Angling forward, I glided toward the beach. Fortunately, this being January, it was almost totally unpopulated; I came in for a neat landing on the hard wet sand just above where the tiny waves washed back and forth, and folded my wings. Due to my odd body shape, I had to lean forward a little, large clawed feet gripping the sand and my tail balancing from behind.

    Glory Girl alighted beside me and looked at me, folding her arms. Carefully, I straightened up so that we were eye to eye. "Okay," she asked, "so who are you?"

    Opening my mouth, I replied with an unintelligible screech.

    Closing her eyes as if in pain, she rubbed her forehead. “You can't speak any English at all?”

    That was easy; I shook my head.

    “Uh … okay. You're human, yeah?”

    After a moment of hesitation, I nodded.

    “Are you a case fifty-three?”

    I paused, blinking. Then I shrugged; with wings that could cover maybe twenty feet of span, and elbows that now almost touched the ground, I could really shrug.

    “Okay, let's make that a maybe. Do you remember who you are?”

    <><>​

    I was trapped inside the locker, unable to get out. Taunting laughter from outside, fading away. I couldn't get out. I struggled, screamed. I wasn't good enough to get out. Not strong enough.

    Too skinny and ugly ...”

    There was a moment of discontinuity. Things began to change. I began to change. I had strength now; I had muscle. I pushed at the door, ripped at it with the talons on my feet. It resisted. I opened my mouth, inhaled the noxious fumes.

    What came from my mouth was more in the nature of an explosion than mere flame; perhaps I was igniting something in the mess beneath me. In any case, it wrecked the locker, bending the ones on either side to hell and gone. I sprawled on the floor, struggled to my feet. My clothes were gone; I wore a new form. Red-gold scales, arms lengthened into wings, a strong tail behind. I did not fit any more into any reasonable definition of 'human'. I had to get out of here. I had to clean the stink of Winslow from me.

    I ran, scuttled, down the hallway. Burst out through the doors. Spread my wings for the very first time.

    The ocean was east. I flew that way.


    <><>​

    I reached out with a wingtip, and in the hard sand, I wrote, MY NAME IS TAYLOR HEBERT.

    As she absorbed that, I added three more words.

    PLEASE HELP ME.


    End of Part One

    Part Two
     
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2015
  3. Threadmarks: Part Two: How To ... Yeah, Not Going There
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Two: How to … Yeah, Not Going There


    Hello, Dockworker's Association, Danny Hebert speaking.”

    Mr Hebert, this is Carrie Blackwell, at Winslow High School.”

    Danny sat up at Blackwell's sharp tone. “Principal Blackwell. How can I help you?” He blinked, worry starting to spread through him. “Has something happened to Taylor?”


    Something has certainly happened. We're not sure what.”

    I … can you explain that?”

    It appears that your daughter came to school today, didn't go to class, set off a bomb in her locker, and decamped.”

    Of all the things that Danny had expected her to say, this was not one of them. “A … bomb?”


    Yes. Some sort of explosive or incendiary device. It destroyed her locker as well as the lockers on either side, and it damaged two more, as well as the floor and the ceiling, and it embedded the locker door in the wall opposite. It also set that part of the corridor on fire. Were you aware that she was planning this?”

    I … no. No, I don't believe that Taylor did this. She … I don't even believe that she knows how to make a bomb, much less one that would destroy her locker. Are you sure someone else didn't do this to her?”

    Well, we have police and emergency services on site; the entire school has been evacuated and a complete roll call has been taken. Taylor is not here. The conclusion is inescapable.”

    I … could she have been caught … in the explosion?”

    No, the emergency services have been combing through the wreckage. There are no human remains, although there is evidence that she was also storing large amounts of toxic waste in her locker. Can you explain this?”

    Danny's head was spinning. “I can't … I don't … “ A blinking light distracted him. “I have a call on another line. It's probably the police. I have to take this.”

    Without giving her a chance to demur, he pressed the button. “Dockworker's Association, Danny Hebert speaking.”


    Mr Hebert, this is Sergeant Andrews, Brockton Bay PD. Do you know of your daughter's whereabouts at this moment?”

    Danny put his head in his hands. This was going to be a very long day, and he had no idea what had happened to Taylor.


    <><>​

    “Come on, it's just a little bit farther.”

    I let out a disapproving screech; flying was easy for her. She didn't have to actually claw at the air with wings that used to be her arms, for every foot of movement. For her, flying was a matter of saying fuck-you to physics and just coasting in whatever direction she wanted to go.

    “Oh, don't be such a whiner.” She was certainly picking up on my tones; I was pretty sure that she was joking with me in return. “Seriously, you're a dragon. How cool is that? Ames is gonna be so jealous that I brought you home.”

    That made me blink, with that weird double-blink that my nictitating membranes gave me. I'm a dragon? I thought I was a dinosaur. Some sort of pterodactyl velociraptor thing. How did I end up as a dragon?

    Okay, well, yeah, breathing fire to blow my locker door off might have been a hint.


    “Come on, pick those wings up. Don't slack off now. You're nearly there.” She drifted past me again, waving her fingers at me teasingly. I flapped harder, swooped at her, snapped my jaws in her general direction without any real intent to actually get her. Laughing, she rolled out of the way. “Eek! Help! There's a dragon after me!”

    The laser bolt smashed into my chest; I tumbled through the air, stunned. My thoughts were disorganised; I couldn't focus. Instinct took over, and I rolled; another blast ripped past my wingtip, the air crackling in its wake. All fatigue had left me, replaced by adrenaline; I pumped my wings, powered into a short dive, then flipped up and over in a hard loop. A sharp turn at the top of the loop, avoiding a third laser shot, then I was arrowing in on the flying form that had attacked me. Opening my jaws, I prepared to send an answering billow of flame -

    “No! Don't! It's only Aunt Sarah!”

    Glory Girl was in front of me, blocking my path. I angled hard, changing direction so that I didn't hit her, swallowing the flame back. Friend. Do not attack.

    The other one wasn't a friend, though. Just for a moment, we both hung in midair, me beating my wings, her just hovering there. A glow built up around her hands; I gathered flame in my gullet.

    And then Glory Girl was between us again. She flung out her hands in both directions, and I felt her aura, calming me. “No, don't! Don't fight! Aunt Sarah, why did you attack her?”

    “I … it was attacking you, dear,” the flying woman responded. “Wait … 'she'?”

    “Yes, 'she',” Glory Girl stated flatly. “She's not an 'it'. She's a 'person'. She's had her trigger event and changed. I think she might be a case fifty-three. She can't talk, but she can understand English, and write it.”

    There was a long, somewhat embarrassed pause; I let the anger ease out of my posture. My chest still hurt, though. The woman – Glory Girl's Aunt Sarah; I seemed to recall a Lady Photon, real name Sarah Pelham – addressed me directly. “I'm sorry. I reacted badly. I apologise.”

    I nodded, let out an acknowledging chirp. She eyed me, then glanced at Glory Girl. “What did she say?”

    “I have no idea. You think I speak dragon?” Glory Girl shrugged. “But it sounded like, 'eh, what the hell' to me.”

    I nodded again; for someone who didn't speak dragon, she was doing all right so far.

    “All right, so where are you taking her?”

    “I, uh, thought I'd bring her home.”

    What? Honey, no. You shouldn't just bring home every strange cape that you meet.”

    “Aunt Sarah, look at her. She's a dragon. How cool is that? Also, she needs help. She asked me for help.”

    “So take her to the PRT or the Protectorate. Surely they're better set up for this sort of thing.”

    Glory Girl rolled her eyes. “They'd just poke her and prod her and make her join the Wards or something. Or put her in a Case Fifty-Three program. And she doesn't want that.”

    Which was true; when she had proposed the idea, I had made it quite clear that I was not in favour of it. I wasn't quite sure why; I just didn't want to go there. Besides, I didn't feel like being probed by anything, ever.

    “So you're taking her home?”

    “Sure, why not?”

    “Okay; your mother will pitch a fit -”

    “She'll get over it.”

    “And what about the rest of your family?”

    Glory Girl shrugged. “Well, Dad might actually show some interest. And Ames will probably want to keep her forever. I mean, seriously, a dragon.”

    Lady Photon frowned. “And what about you? Why aren't you at school?”

    “Heard about a weird thing flying over the city, went to investigate. Found Taylor here.”

    “Her name's Taylor? How do you know that?”

    “Duh, she can write.”

    “Oh. Of course.”

    “Well, then. I'll see you two home. Then I'll call your mother. Because this is not a surprise that Carol needs to find out about by walking in through the front door.”

    Impulsively, Glory Girl hugged her aunt. “You're the best!”

    A grimace. “Still not entirely sure that this is the right course of action, but … okay, Taylor. Let's get you there, then see what needs to be done.”

    I answered with a screech, then stretched my wings out; as Glory Girl led off and Lady Photon paralleled me, I flew on.

    <><>​

    The house was modest; a two-storey structure in suburbia. We came in for a landing outside the front door; I flapped my wings hard to kill forward momentum, then folded them close to my body. Lady Photon watched the manoeuvre with interest, then observed how I leaned forward and used my tail as a balance.

    “Where were you going to have her sleep?” she asked, as Glory Girl opened the front door.

    “Floor of my room,” was the reply. “We can put down a mattress.” Glory Girl went inside. “Dad! Visitors!”

    “What if she doesn't sleep that way?” Lady Photon stepped back, allowing me first entry. “What if she hangs upside down, like a bat?”

    “Then we set up something to let her do that. Hey, Dad, check it out. Look what I found.”

    Grinning, Glory Girl gestured to me as I entered the front door, just as her father – Flashbang – came in from the kitchen, with a sandwich in his hand. He stared; I tensed. But he didn't attack. He just … looked at me.

    “Okay,” he ventured at last. “I give up. What is it?”

    I blinked; that was the most apathetic reaction to my new appearance that I had encountered yet.

    “For one thing, she's a she, not an it,” Glory Girl explained patiently. “And for another thing, she's a person. Her name's Taylor. She needs help.”

    I chirped in agreement, nodding my head.

    “As far as I can tell, Victoria is correct,” Lady Photon noted, closing the door behind us and stepping past me. “Taylor doesn't appear to be hostile, and seems to understand what we say.”

    “So why not hand her over to the PRT -” he began. I shook my head.

    “She doesn't want to go to the PRT or to the Protectorate,” Glory Girl elaborated.

    “Okay, fine,” he sighed. “Taylor, is it?”

    I nodded, and gave a chirp of agreement.

    He blinked, seeming a little taken aback. “Well, uh, make yourself comfortable, I guess. Are you hungry?”

    I snuffled at the air; if my nose didn't deceive me, he had a fish paste sandwich. I nodded, just a little. Hungry, but not starving. Of course, flying across the city had a way of sharpening the appetite.

    “Okay, uh, get comfortable. Sarah, could you keep our guest company? Vicky, a word in the kitchen, please?”

    Flashbang – Mark Dallon; Glory Girl's real name was Victoria Dallon – left the room. I felt a little sorry for her, as I figured she was about to get a parental interrogation. I'd had one or two of those in my time.

    “So, uh, can you even sit on the sofa?” asked Lady Photon.

    I eyed the piece of furniture, and tried to work out how to sit properly. With my new body, I wasn't at all sure I could manage it. But by curling my tail out of the way, I managed to ease my way down, tucking my folded wings in close to my body. But I found it hard to sit upright; it was easier to let my weight fall to one side, to lie down. To curl up, with my tail wrapped in close to my body, my wings partly wrapped around me.

    My head rested on the arm rest at the end of the sofa. I sighed; this was actually comfortable. The nictitating membranes flickered once or twice across my eyes, and then I closed my actual eyelids. I had been going non-stop since the locker, since the change, and it felt so good to relax.

    With my eyes closed, I felt myself drifting away …

    “Oh my god!”

    My eyes flew open at Sarah's exclamation. Everything was blurry; why was everything blurry? I tried to flick my nictitating membranes across my eyes to clear whatever the problem was, but they didn't respond. I could make out her form, though, standing and staring at me. A white and gold form dashed in from the other room, also stopped and stared.

    What's the matter? What's happened? What have I changed into now?

    Using my wings, I pushed myself into an upright position. Opening my jaws, I let out an inquiring chirp. “What? What's up?”

    That was my voice! I slapped my hand over my mouth.

    My hand. My mouth.

    I was back to normal. I looked down at myself.

    Oh yeah, back to normal, all right. My body was all there. I could see it plainly, within the limits of my short-sightedness. Arms, legs, no tail, lots and lots of pink skin.

    Yes, I was back to normal. I was also very naked.

    Grabbing a sofa cushion, I held it over myself.

    “Uh, some clothes, please?”


    End of Part Two

    Part Three
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2015
  4. Threadmarks: Part Three: Handling Matters
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Three: Handling Matters


    But Taylor knows nothing about explosives,” Danny tried to explain, for the third time. “For that matter, I know nothing about explosives. She couldn't have made any kind of bomb.”

    The police officer sitting on the other side of the interview table didn't seem to have heard him. “Our kids can surprise us, Mr Hebert,” he stated without any real kind of inflection. “Did you keep books on chemistry or the making of explosives in your house? Did you store chemicals of any sort?” He consulted a list, then handed it over to Danny. “Any of these?”

    Danny took it, frowning. “No, we never had books on bomb making,” he replied. “Chemistry books, yeah. She does high school chemistry. As for these chemicals … I think we have drain cleaner, yeah. And detergent.” He put the list on the table. “But anyone could have these chemicals. Someone who knew how to make a bomb. Why are you picking on Taylor in this?”


    Because the roll call post-evacuation indicated several students not present, one of whom is your daughter,” the police officer informed him. “And your daughter's locker is the one that was blown up.”

    So one of the others -”

    The others are, without exception, those with reasonable excuses to be out of school, or those with a regular habit of skipping classes. Your daughter is the only one with anything like a regular attendance record who should have been there, but wasn't.”

    Well, maybe someone else blew her locker up,” Danny suggested. “Did you think of that?”

    Her locker door was blown off of its hinges. We found it embedded in the opposite wall,” the officer stated flatly. “The explosion almost certainly originated within the locker. Does your daughter share her locker combination with anyone else?”

    Emma, maybe?” Danny hazarded. “But she's Taylor's best friend. She wouldn't do something like this to her.”

    The police officer made a note. “Last name of this Emma, sir?”


    Uh, Emma Barnes,” Danny supplied. “Her father's name is Alan Barnes. But she wouldn't have done this. Taylor's known her since grade school.”

    Is that with an S or an E-S?” asked the officer.

    B-A-R-N-E-S,” Danny supplied. “Maybe I should ring Alan and ask him if Emma even saw Taylor show up to school today.”

    Leave us to make the enquiries, sir,” the officer reproved him gently. “Now, do you know if your daughter had any problems with anyone else at school? A teacher, perhaps, or another student?”

    I have no idea.” Danny shrugged helplessly. “She never talks about school. We barely talk at all.”

    Perhaps her mother might know more, sir?” suggested the officer.

    Danny shook his head, feeling the old pain. “Her mother is dead. She died in a car accident about two and a half years ago.”


    My condolences, sir,” the officer told him automatically. “Has your daughter's behaviour changed recently? Has she exhibited odd habits?”

    I don't know,” Danny told him, feeling shame that he had to confess this. “We really haven't been close, recently.”

    <><>​

    The sides and top have been peeled back from the force of the explosion; the lockers on either side have suffered catastrophic damage. There appear to be the remains of toxic waste within the locker, and spread on the floor around it.”

    Explosives expert James Doherty ceased narrating into the recorder, and leaned down to gingerly pick up a small blackened item between gloved thumb and forefinger. He dropped it into an evidence bag; despite the filter mask, his nose wrinkled from the smell.


    What is it?” asked his assistant, closing the bag carefully.

    Best guess, a used tampon,” Doherty replied. “A bit charred, but still mostly there. There were a lot more of them, I would guess, as well as other similar items, but the explosion destroyed most of them.”

    That would seem to defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?” asked his assistant, whose name Doherty had never bothered to remember; a bright lad, he nevertheless still had a lot to learn about the business.

    That's presuming that the purpose of the explosion was to spread the waste,” Doherty agreed. “But it wasn't.”

    It wasn't?”

    That's what I said,” Doherty stated. “The explosion took place about … here.” He leaned in, putting his gloved fingertip at about chest level, just inside where the locker door had once stood. “Whereas the toxic waste was all down in the bottom of the locker. If the purpose was to spread the crap around, it was about the worse possible location for it.”

    So what was the purpose of the explosion?” asked his assistant. “Lockers don't just explode for no reason.”

    And that's the right question,” Doherty agreed with a nod. “”What did the explosion do, above all else?”

    Blew the locker to hell and gone?”

    Doherty allowed himself a slight smile under the mask. “Specifically. What was the one real effect we have here?”

    There was a moment of intense cogitation, then his assistant pointed at the door, which had been carefully pried out of the wall, to allow for closer examination. “Blew the door off.”


    So let's go look at the door. Something's been bothering me, and I just realised what.”

    They stood side by side, looking at the door. Doherty pointed. “That's where the explosion took place.” It was fairly obvious; the metal had been distorted, the paint scoured down to the metal. Annealing patterns threw back rainbow reflections.


    Right where you said it would be,” his assistant agreed. “So what was bothering you, before?”

    Doherty pointed, farther down. “What are those marks?”

    Almost hidden, camouflaged by first being blasted off of the locker, then slamming into the wall opposite, several sets of parallel gouges could just barely be seen in the metal. “They look like … scratches.” The assistant paused, frowning. “Shrapnel?”

    Doherty shook his head. “No. Shrapnel would have spread directly away from the epicentre. These are overlapping lines, each set parallel in itself, but each set is aligned in a different direction. And there are three in each set. What does that remind you of?”


    I – I'm not sure -”

    Think. Ignore the explosion. Ignore the rest of it. Where have you seen marks like that before?”

    The assistant blinked. “Claw marks. There was an animal in the locker?”


    They didn't find a body,” Doherty pointed out. “Human, animal, whatever. Whatever did that was low to the ground. Also … “ He crouched, and touched his gloved fingertips to one set of gouges. They had to spread, just a little, to each touch a separate groove. “Whatever made these wasn't any house cat.”

    So what does this mean?”

    Doherty stood, and dusted his hands off. “We wait for the lab results to come back regarding the samples and residues they took in. And if it turns out the way I think it will, we'll be off the case.”

    The assistant tilted his head. “Why is that?”

    Doherty felt a wry grin twisting his lips under the mask. “Because it'll be the PRT's problem, then. And good luck to them.”


    <><>​

    "Wait right here," commanded Glory Girl. "I'll be right back." She dashed into the kitchen. "Dad," I heard her say, "don't go anywhere. Especially not the living room, okay?"

    "Why?" he asked.

    "Clothing emergency. Just stay in here, all right?"

    I heard a grunt that I assumed to mean assent, then she emerged once more, and dashed up the stairs. Moments later, she reappeared, bearing a huge fluffy pink bathrobe. I stared at it; it looked large enough to use as a hang-glider.

    "What?" she asked, her cheeks going nearly as pink as the bathrobe. "I like it.'

    "I wasn't going to say a word," I assured her, truthfully enough, and swapped cushion for bathrobe. It covered me; more to the point, it enveloped me. I was covered from neck to ankles in fluffy pink extravagance.

    Glory Girl – or Vicky, as she insisted that I call her – took me upstairs and fitted me out in new clothes; or rather, some of the clothes that she was thinking of giving away. A pair of her skinny jeans – not so skinny on my lanky frame – went well with a t-shirt that showed just a little tiny bit of my belly, given that I had a few inches on the teen superhero.

    “Well, you're dressed,” she declared with satisfaction as I put a borrowed headband in my hair. “And you're human again. How did you do that, anyway?”

    “I'm not sure,” I confessed. “The sofa was so comfortable that I kind of lay down and drifted off. When your aunt cried out, I woke up and I was me.”

    “Huh,” she mused; I got the impression that she was a little disappointed that she couldn't show off dragon-me to her sister Panacea, or 'Ames' as she referred to the healer. “Have you tried to change back?”

    “Um, nope,” I told her. “Realising I was a dragon was scary enough the first time around.”

    “Well, we know you can,” she insisted. “Go on, see if you can change back again.”

    Frowning, I concentrated. There seemed to be something there, but I couldn't really reach it. “I guess I'm too comfortable,” I confessed. “I think I changed back to human when I started feeling comfortable and relaxed.”

    “Oh,” she replied, and turned away. “I guess then – boo!”

    I jumped a little as she threw up her hands at the same time as shouting the word, but nothing else happened.

    “It's not exactly something that can happen with a fright,” I told her severely.

    “Well, how did it happen, exactly?” she asked.

    So I told her; arriving at Winslow, being taunted for being too tall, too skinny, too ugly. Every word striking at the core of my being, even as I tried to ignore them. Arriving at my locker, opening it, being shoved in, locked in. I choked then, and began to cry. Vicky held me, stroked my hair as I sat on her bed.

    I was vaguely aware of someone arriving at the doorway to Vicky's room. Vicky's aunt Sarah, by the sound of her voice. She was asking, I thought, about what was going on. Vicky repeated to her what I had said, more or less, and then Sarah went away.

    “Hey,” murmured Vicky. “Hey, hey. It's all right.” I felt a warmth enfolding me, a blanket made of pure love and affection. Belatedly, I realised that it was Glory Girl's aura, even as I felt myself calming down.

    A tissue was offered to me, and I took it, blowing my nose loudly. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “I just … “ I trailed off. You weren't there; I can't even begin to expect you to understand.

    “It's all good,” she insisted. “Trigger events are going to hit anyone hard.”

    “Trigger what?” I asked, distracted despite myself.

    “Trigger events,” she explained cheerfully. “One minute you're boppin' along, smelling the flowers, having a good day. Next thing, bam! Worst day of your life. And that's what causes trigger events. You obviously had one, right there.”

    “ … oh.” I peered at her with my blurry eyesight. “Was your trigger event that bad, too?”

    “Nope, thank God.” She shook her head with a chuckle, her blonde hair waving back and forth. “I'm second generation. Me and Ames were always going to trigger, and second gens got it really easy. I got fouled in a basketball game, about one second before I was gonna score. The ref didn't even see it. So I got up, grabbed the ball, flew over to their hoop, and jammed it through so hard that I ripped their hoop right off of the backboard. It was only afterward that I realised that I'd triggered.”

    “Wow,” I murmured. “That must have surprised the heck out of them.”

    “Annoyed the crap out of me, let me tell you,” Vicky confided. “If they'd let me keep that score, we would've won the game.”

    I went to smile at the dryness of her tone, but I ended up biting my lip. “Why do people do this sort of thing?” I asked. “Why do they choose to hurt someone, just because they can?”

    “I have no idea, Taylor,” Vicky told me solemnly. “But it's because people act that way that I go out and kick ass on a daily basis. If they think it's okay to treat people like that, then it has to be okay for me to treat them that way, right?”

    Her tone was so bright, so upbeat, that I smiled involuntarily. “Sure, I guess,” I answered.

    She shook her head; again, the golden hair bounced. “None of this 'I guess' bullshit, Taylor. You're a cape now too. You've got to understand the responsibility you've got here.”

    “Yeah, great.” I rolled my eyes. “I'm a cape who doesn't know how to change into my powered form. Next up on the news: Taylor Hebert, the girl who turned into a dragon, then forgot how she did it.”

    Abruptly, Vicky stood up from the bed. “I refuse to believe that,” she declared, pacing across the room. “I believe in you. I believe that when you think you have to change, then you will. I believe that you're going to change – now!”

    And as she turned, shouted, pointed … a wave of dread swept across me.

    Too late, I realised what she was doing. Her aura. She's using the aura on me.

    Too late, I protested. “Wait -”

    <><>​

    I'm sorry, who did you say you were?”

    Sarah Pelham,” she repeated patiently. “Lady Photon. Of New Wave. You do know who I am, right?”

    I've heard of you, yes,” he admitted. “And you say you've got news of Taylor? Because I've just spent far too long at the police station, and they've got no idea where she is.”

    I should say so,” she replied with relish. “She's upstairs with my niece Glory Girl right now.”

    Is – is she all right? The police say that there was an explosion -”

    I don't know anything about an explosion,” she replied, wondering what the heck that was about. “But Taylor is fine. A little confused, certainly, but she's not injured in any way.”

    Why does New Wave have her?” he asked next. “Has she committed a crime?”

    Not … exactly,” she replied. “Listen, I can take the phone up to her if you want. Vicky's just giving her something to wear.”

    Yes, please.” A pause. “Uh … what happened to her clothes?”

    I think I'll let her explain that one to you herself,” she prevaricated. “It's … complicated.”

    Oh, god, was she attacked -”

    No, she's perfectly fine. She was not attacked.” She climbed the stairs and started along the corridor. “She can tell you -”

    The wave of dread and horror smashed through her, and she nearly dropped the phone. She had only been subjected to it once or twice before, by accident, but she knew exactly what had caused it. At the same time, she heard a reptilian screech, and the tearing of cloth.

    Recovering from the aura, she got to the door of Vicky's room and looked inside. There, shaking itself free from the remnants of what had once been a pair of skinny jeans, was the human-sized dragon, resplendent in red-gold scales. Vicky was standing off to the side, her expression jubilant. “Hah!” she declared. “I knew that would -” Turning, she saw Sarah peering through the door. “Oh, hi, Aunt Sarah.” Her 'innocent of all charges' expression needed work.

    The dragon turned too; one enormously elongated finger, now forming a wingtip, pointed directly at Vicky. Sarah didn't need any dragon-to-human dictionary to decipher the screech that Taylor gave then: “She did it.”

    Sarah sighed and put the phone to her ear again. “Uh, maybe you'd better come over instead. And bring clothes.”



    End of Part Three

    Part Four
     
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2015
  5. Threadmarks: Part Four: Escalation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Four: Escalation


    Danny Hebert pulled up in front of the address that he had been given. A two-storey house, it looked perfectly normal; the lawn needed a little bit of a trim and the frontage could have done with a touch of paint, but that was not exactly uncommon in Brockton Bay. Grabbing the plastic bag of clothes, he got out, locked the car, and hurried up the front path.

    As he did so, he heard the strangest sound; somewhere between a screech and a squawk, it reminded him of an angry parrot or perhaps one of those dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. More interestingly, it appeared to emanate from one of the upstairs windows. Taylor must be watching a movie, he decided. Well, if she's doing that, she must be all right.

    He knocked at the door; a moment later, Lady Photon answered the door. Up close, she looked just a little harried. Having two teenage superheroes in the household would do that, he figured. Even if you
    are Photon Mom.

    "Uh, hi," he greeted her. "I'm, uh, Danny Hebert?"

    "Sarah Pelham," she greeted him warmly, offering her hand to shake. "I'm pleased to meet you. Come in, please."

    "Thank you." Stepping past her, he found himself in a modestly-appointed living room; a man in casual clothing, around his own age, was sitting on the sofa. However, Taylor was nowhere to be seen.

    "Taylor should be down in a moment," Lady Photon – he had the hardest time thinking of her as Mrs Pelham – informed him as she moved past him. "She's just changing."

    "Oh, sorry," the man on the sofa apologised, standing and offering his hand. "Mark Dallon. You're Taylor's father?" Flashbang. This is
    Flashbang, and he was just now sitting on the sofa, watching TV.

    Danny marvelled that he'd never shaken a superhero's hand before, and now it was two in one day. "Uh, yeah," he managed. "You said she was okay? Not hurt?"

    "No, not hurt that I could see," Lady Photon assured him.

    "Then what aren't you telling me?" he asked. "When I spoke to you on the phone, you told me to bring clothes. And now she's having to change her clothes again? What's going on?"

    But even as she opened her mouth to answer him, he heard the noise again; an angry screech, followed by a teenage girl's voice. "Calm down. Come on, you can do it. He'll be here any minute now."

    There was another screech, or squawk, or whatever it was, and Danny turned to Lady Photon. "Are they watching a movie up there or something?"

    If anything, she looked a little more harried. "Uh, or something?"

    "What the hell's going on here?" he demanded, then raised his voice. "Taylor! It's me! Are you all right?" That got a reaction; there was another, more urgent, screech and a thumping sound. "Taylor?" he called again.

    Lady Photon put her hand on Danny's arm. "Mr Hebert, there's something you need to know. Something about Taylor."

    "What about Taylor?" He pulled free from her grip and started up the steps. She followed him up.

    "She might not be the same as you remember her." Her voice was urgent.

    Stopping, he rounded on her. "I thought you said that she was all right!"

    "I said that she wasn't hurt," she corrected him. "But she's ... undergone changes. She's a little different now."

    "Different how?" He turned away from her, and stormed up the staircase. "Taylor!"

    As he reached the top of the steps, a door opened, and something like a lizard's head, covered in red-gold scales, poked out. He had enough time to register that it was about the same size as his own head, and about four feet off the floor, before it turned to look at him. The eyes widened, then the mouth widened even more. It had a great many teeth, all very white and very sharp, as well as a startlingly-pink tongue. A crest atop its head erected at the same time; it made one of those dinosaur noises, apparently in alarm, then pulled back into the room.

    A moment later, a teenage girl with long blonde hair stepped out through the same doorway; she wore jeans and a T-shirt bearing the logo 'Daddy's Princess'. "Hi!" she greeted him cheerfully. "I'm Vicky. You're Taylor's dad?"

    "Yes," he replied grimly. "Where is my daughter, and what was that thing?"

    "Uh, yeah, funny thing about that." Her cheerful grin was still steadfastly on her face, but she was having to work at it. “They're kind of … one and the same?”


    What?” Her statement made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

    Okay, long story short? Taylor can kind of turn into a dragon. But she has trouble changing, and she has trouble changing back. Right now, she's a dragon. I've been trying to get her to relax so she can change back, and it's not working.”

    From within the room, there came another burst of the weird dino-screeching. Vicky – he had to presume that this was Victoria Dallon, aka Glory Girl – turned her attention to the doorway. “Okay, yeah, I got it. It was my fault. How was I to know that you couldn't change back as easily?”


    <><>​

    I made a grumpy noise and folded my wings again. It had been rather a shock to come face to face with Dad when I was still like this; I'd been trying to change back since Vicky had hit me with her fear-aura, and even curling up on her bed hadn't worked.

    “Wait,” Dad's voice came from the corridor. “That was … Taylor?”

    “Yeah,” Vicky told him enthusiastically. “You should see her flying. She's awesome.”

    “She can fly?”

    “Well, duh, she's got wings.” She reached out of my view. “Come see.”

    Dad came into view, stumbling to a halt, then stared at me. I stood up to my full height and unfurled my wings, spreading them out as far as I could in the confines of Vicky's room. Then, after I folded them again, I leaned my head toward him, my tail stretching out as a counterbalance, and made an inquiring noise.

    He blinked rapidly behind his glasses, and his mouth opened and closed several times.

    “Taylor?”

    I nodded.

    He looked at Vicky. “Did it … did she … just nod?”

    “Yeah,” Vicky assured him. “She's still in there, Mr H. She can understand English.”

    “Ah.” He looked back at me. “You're a … how did you become a dragon?”

    I gave him one of my patented shrugs and made a noise of exasperation.

    “She can't speak?”

    Vicky refrained from rolling her eyes. “Sure she can speak. She just can't speak English.”

    “Oh. Yeah.” A thought apparently struck him. “But how do you even know who she is? It's not like she can introduce herself.”

    “We were down at the Boardwalk. She wrote in the sand. With her wingtip.”

    When he looked at me, I unlimbered my right wing and pretended to write on the carpet with my index finger/wingtip.

    “Oh,” he observed. “I see. That's pretty smart.”

    “Oh,” Vicky repeated, her eyes going wide. “Oh!” She jumped to her feet. “Wait one! Got a great idea! I'm a freaking genius!”

    “What?” asked Dad, but she had already darted out the door. He looked back at me; I shrugged. I have no idea.

    We stared at one another for a long moment. “So,” he commented. “You're Taylor.”

    I nodded, letting out a chirp of agreement.

    “And you're a dragon.”

    Another nod, another chirp.

    “And you have no idea how you got that way.”

    I paused, then shook my head.

    “Wait,” he stated. “Is that 'no, I have no idea', or 'no, you are wrong, I have an idea'?”

    I had no idea how to answer that, so I made a questioning noise.

    “Okay,” he realised, lightly slapping himself on the forehead. “Left hand for 'I don't have any idea', right hand for 'I have some idea'.”

    I hesitated, then held up my right wingtip. Then, to make it clear, I reached across and tapped his right hand with what had once been my index finger.

    “So you have an idea,” he decided. I nodded, and chirped agreeably.

    “But you can't tell me, because we have no language in common. I speak English, and you apparently speak only Dragon, or whatever that sound is.”

    Once again, I chirped in agreement, slumping, my whole body drooping. I can't even talk to Dad. The thought was amazingly depressing. I'd give all this up, just so I could talk to him.

    “Hey,” he murmured, apparently reading my posture much more readily than he could decipher my utterances. “It's gonna be all right. We'll work this out. You're still my daughter.” Pulling the comforter off of Vicky's bed, he wrapped it around me, wings and all.

    It was warm, but that wasn't the best part of it. The best part was when he hugged me, his arms around the comforter, holding me close, his embrace making me feel safe and loved. I wished my wings were up to hugging him back, but then again, right at that moment I didn't care. Laying my head on his shoulder, I closed my eyes. Laying his head on my head, he apparently did the same.

    “Hah! Found it! Knew it was around here some – oh, come on! Seriously?”

    Dad and I looked up as Vicky re-entered the room, bearing a printed sheet of plastic, her expression altering dramatically from triumph to exasperation.

    “What?” he asked. And I echoed him.

    I was human again.

    <><>​

    Okay, what am I looking at?” James Doherty held up the readout and peered at it.

    The chemical makeup of those samples you sent me.”

    Doherty looked at the lab tech in some surprise. “This fast?”


    Hey,” she replied with a shrug. “A bomb going off in a school gets fast-tracked. Who knew?”

    Okay, so what do we have here?”

    Some really interesting results, I have to say.” The tech pointed at the readout with a pen. “Check it out. You've got some pretty exotic compounds here. Some of them, I've never seen outside of a lab.”

    Doherty frowned. “So, not the result of an explosion?”


    Oh yeah, definitely the result of an explosion,” she contradicted him. “But it's the type of explosive that's really weird. Not nitrate based.”

    Okay, that is weird,” admitted Doherty. He could think of ways to cause an explosion without using nitrates, but most of them involved an admixture of oxygen and one flammable gas or another. Not really something that could cause the localised detonation that had taken the locker door off. Though there was plenty of flame involved …

    He looked again at the readout. “So, the types of explosives we're talking about here … would your average high school student be able to get the ingredients for them?”


    A Tinker might,” she mused. “One who was based around chemistry or explosive making. Like I said, that stuff's pretty damn exotic. Also, expensive.”

    So that's a no for a student, then?”

    That's a no,” she agreed. “Unless the student was a Tinker, like I said.”

    Or, you know, could exude explosive compounds from their body at will,” he pointed out. “All of those compounds you've got, they're organic, right?”

    Organic, yes,” she confirmed. “Some of them would be pretty damn caustic in their original form, though.”

    I don't think that actually bothers parahumans,” he pointed out.

    You think that's how it happened?” she asked.

    That or the Tinker idea. Anything else is a little far-fetched, yeah?”

    Reluctantly, she nodded. “Great. So it's not a baseline crime after all. It's a parahuman thing.”


    Afraid so.” He shrugged. “Sorry.”

    And after all that work I did.”

    Buy you coffee to make it up to you?”

    Have to be some damn good coffee.”

    He grinned. “I know a place.”


    <><>​

    Vicky held the comforter around me while Dad discreetly retired from the room; opening the bag that he had brought over, I started getting dressed. Again.

    “Seriously, do not use that fear aura on me again,” I told her as I stepped into my second favourite pair of jeans (my favourite jeans had perished in the locker, alas). “Or I'll set fire to all your good outfits.”

    She wrinkled her brow. “Set fire?” Then her eyes widened. “Holy crap, you can breathe fire too?”

    “Well, duh,” I agreed. “Dragon, remember?” I wrinkled my nose at her. “I was just about to tell you, before, when you made me change back.”

    “Tell me what?” Her eyes were alive with interest. “You actually breathed fire?”

    “Wait one.” I pulled my t-shirt over my head. It was black, a little faded, a bit worn down on one side, but I liked it. “Yeah, how do you think I got out of the locker?”

    “Well, I had thought you went 'rawr, dragon smash' on it and just busted out,” she confessed. “But that's not what happened, I'm guessing?”

    “I tried to go 'rawr, dragon smash', but it appears that school lockers are tough enough that they don't have to worry about that sort of thing,” I admitted. “So I fireballed the fuck out of it.”

    Vicky blinked. “ … you what?”

    “Hit it with an exploding fireball,” I told her. “Before you ask, I don't know how I knew to do that. But I did. And it kind of blew the door clean off. Left me a bit dizzy too. But I still had all that shit on me from the locker, so I went outside and took off, heading for the ocean.”

    “Which is where I came in,” Vicky agreed. “Well. Wow. Holy shit. That beats the living crap out of my trigger event story.” She brightened up. “Can I see?”

    “See what?” I caught on a second later. “No. Hell no. Don't make me change while I'm wearing clothes. Not while my Dad's here. No. Just no.”

    She pouted. “Spoilsport. Okay, fine. You're all dressed now. Let's go downstairs. I'm pretty sure your dad will want to know everything you've been up to.”

    “Yeah,” I sighed. “That's what I'm afraid of.”

    <><>​

    Control to Armsmaster. Come in, Armsmaster.”

    Armsmaster here.” Colin banked his bike around the corner, heading for the Boardwalk. “What's up?”

    Got something for you to check on,” the PRT staffer on the floating base told him. “Explosion at Winslow High earlier today. Forensic techs have determined that it wasn't a standard IED.”

    So we're looking at a Tinker then?” He pulled the bike to a halt and parked it. Stepping off, he trod over the boards of the Boardwalk, then looked down toward the sand. At this time of year, the only thing inhabiting the beach were hordes of seagulls and other aquatic birds.

    That's a possibility. Or a parahuman who can create exotic explosives from nothing.”

    Great. One more thing we have to worry about. Do we even have any explosives Tinkers on the books?”

    Not that I know of – Tinkers specialising in explosives, that is. Any number of Tinkers who use explosives in their gadgets. Stinger, for instance.”

    Get someone to check for me. It might be important. Also, did the cameras happen to pick up a thing like a big red bat or bird flying over the Boardwalk at any time today? I'm tracking down some sightings. People said it was coming this way.”

    Just one second.” A pause. “While we're waiting, want me to squirt you the details on the Winslow bombing?”

    Go ahead.”

    As the files came in, he flicked them to storage, pulling crime scene photos aside to study at his leisure. A skim of them showed a metal locker opened like a flower, the ones on either side destroyed. Extensive fire damage; the locker door embedded in the far wall.


    Okay, I've got an answer. Yes, they did pick something up. Something red, with wings, flew in over the rooftops and dived into the ocean. And here's the interesting part. Glory Girl was hot on its tail.”

    Odd that she didn't at least call in the sighting.”

    She went into the water too. It would have destroyed her phone. But then they both came out of the water, landed on the sand for a bit, then flew inland again.”

    Where did they land? Relative to my position?”

    One second. Uh … hundred fifty yards south of your position.”

    Hundred fifty yards, got it.” He got back on to the bike and motored a hundred and fifty yards, as noted. Climbing off the bike once more, he descended the steps. It only took him a few minutes of searching before he found what he was looking for. The sand was firm and solid, and there were fresh footprints clearly visible in it. Also visible were what looked like the marks of claws, digging into the sand.

    His helmet cam took clear pictures of the claw marks, but then he saw the other things. Lines, drawn in the sand. Lines forming letters. Letters forming words. The everpresent sea birds had trodden over some of them, obscuring them, but he managed to make out the words 'my' and 'please'. Other words could be inferred, but not known for sure.

    He took more photos of the lines, both trodden on and clear, and then trudged back to the stairs up to the Boardwalk. “Control, give the Dallon house a call. See if Glory Girl went there. And if she's still there. I want to talk to her.”


    Roger that. I'll get right on it.”

    Let me know when you've got something.”

    Will do. Will you be taking on the Winslow bombing?”

    What's the name of the primary suspect?”

    The locker was used by one Taylor Hebert. She hasn't yet been located. Her home address is in the file I sent you. So is her picture.”

    I'll check her home first,” Colin decided. “Fugitives – especially children and teenagers – tend to run to familiar places. Home, for a start.” He kicked the bike into life.

    Understood.”

    <><>​

    “They shut you in your locker?” Dad was aghast.

    I nodded without speaking; Mrs Pelham had given me a cup of black tea, and I sipped it gratefully. On the coffee table, a plate of cookies was gradually dwindling under a determined assault by myself and Vicky.

    “So who did this?” he demanded. “I'll get them suspended. Expelled. God, I'll have them arrested.”

    “Dad, no, just wait a second,” I told him. “If it comes out that I was in the locker, I'll be outed as some kind of parahuman. And … this is Winslow. They don't care. I tried and tried to get someone to listen, and they just … don't. Or they've been told not to. I'm not sure which.”

    “Wait, what now?” Dad was staring at me. “You mean, this isn't the first time this has happened?”

    I shook my head. “No. Dad, it's been going on since I started there.”

    “But why didn't you tell me?”

    The shock on his face was killing me. “You had problems of your own, Dad. Mom had only been dead a year. You were still hurting from that. I was still hurting from that. I didn't want to add to your problems, not right then.”

    Removing his glasses, Dad scrubbed at his face with his hands. “Okay, I can kind of see that,” he admitted. “But why didn't you get help? Tell a teacher?”

    “I tried. But if you show up as a snitch, they ostracise you, so I stopped snitching. Not that it did any good. So I waited for the teachers to notice that it was happening. They never did. Either the ones that were doing it were always careful not to be seen, or the teachers didn't want to see it.”

    “Oh god,” he muttered. “You've gone through all this, and no-one's been helping you? Why didn't you ask Emma for help, to back you up?”

    I took a deep breath. “Dad. She's behind it.”

    And then it all came out; the harsh words, the subtle taunting, the physical stuff, the pranks. Dad listened, open-mouthed, to my litany of woes. Mrs Pelham and Vicky also listened; one with steadily tightening lips, the other with blazing eyes.

    <><>​

    The Hebert house was a little shabby, a little run-down. But it was in a shabby, run-down section of town. No car was in the driveway; Colin was willing to bet that nobody was at home. Of course, if Taylor had gotten back here, she could be hiding in her room, in the basement, wherever, and nobody would be the wiser, until her father got home.

    Any luck with contacting her father?”

    Not yet. We've tried the home phone, but nobody's answered so far. The person who we got on his work phone says that he was called away on a family emergency. No other details.”

    Does his wife work?”

    He's a widower. Wife died about two and a half years ago.”

    No other children?”

    None of record.”

    So a 'family emergency' would almost have to be his kid. Now, where would he have gone?”

    There is the possibility that after the Winslow incident, they just left town.”

    Colin shook his head, although the PRT operator would not be able to see it. “I don't buy that. If that was the case, they'd still be here, packing. I'm guessing that she went to ground, and then called her father. Probably he's trying to convince her to face up to what she's done.”


    So what are you going to do now?”

    Wait till one of them shows their faces. In the meantime, I'm going to follow up on these sightings of this big red bird. Any response from the Dallon household?”

    Yes, actually. We got Flashbang. He confirmed that Glory Girl was indeed home, but that she was talking, upstairs, with a friend.”

    Good. I'm on my way there now.”

    Understood.”

    <><>​

    “Dad, no.” For the fourth time, I tried to dissuade him. “Winslow doesn't care. If they care at all, it's about the fact that Mr Barnes is a lawyer. Emma and her friends get away with everything short of murder, there. If we go up against them, the school will take their side. They have every other time.”

    Dad shook his head. “I don't buy that. I can't believe that.”

    I tried again. “Look. They didn't start on me immediately. They took the time to get themselves established as the 'good' girls, the popular girls in our year. Emma makes friends really easily, and she made friends. A lot of friends.”

    I paused for a sip at my tea. “I'm just as happy being on my own as being with people, and Emma was keeping me at arms' length, so I pretended it didn't matter, and spent my time reading in the library or something. But then they started bullying me, but they always had excuses if I retaliated. Always the witnesses, always the agreed-on stories. I was the loner, I was the troublemaker. I was the one who got detention, told to behave myself.”

    Vicky moved to sit next to me, and gripped my hand. “That sucks.”

    I spared a smile for her. “Thanks.” Another sip at my tea. “Pretty soon, they were golden. If I said anything, I was already discredited. They had it all sorted out. Kids are pretty insecure; if there's something they can join in on for little risk, they will. That was the sport of bullying me.”

    “And none of the teachers are willing to help, to believe you?” Mrs Pelham sounded like she couldn't believe it.

    “Well, there's my home room teacher, Mrs Knott,” I told her. “She's listened a few times, but each time she's taken anything to the principal, she's been really quiet the next few days, and nothing's ever been done. So now she's nice to me in class, but that's about it.”

    “Dad,” Vicky spoke up. “Can I transfer to Winslow? At least on a temporary basis?”

    Mr Dallon looked up, somewhat startled. “Uh, why? From what Taylor's saying, Winslow's a really, uh, -”

    “Crappy place, yeah,” she agreed. “That's why I want to go. I'll get myself put into all of Taylor's classes, and see if those bullies want to try bullying her with me around. Fuck 'em.”

    “Language!” chided Mrs Pelham, but there was a glint in her eye. “In my experience, bullies tend to fold, once there's someone stronger there. In the meantime, Carol can approach the school with the threat of legal action unless Taylor is transferred out. After all, if the bullying is bad enough to trigger for super-powers … “ She paused, dwelling for a moment on something that only existed in her mind's eye. “ … then I would not want anyone to suffer it a moment longer than absolutely necessary.”

    “But … why would you all do stuff like that for me?” I protested. “You barely know me. Vicky, you only met me today. This morning.”

    Vicky let go my hand, but only so she could put her arm around my neck and give me a quick noogie. “Because you're awesome and you can turn into a dragon,” she pointed out, once she had let me go. “And you can breathe fire, and I so want to see that.”

    That got people looking at me from all around. A collective 'What?' followed that up, even from Mr Dallon.

    “Uh, yeah, it's kind of how I got out of the locker,” I pointed out. “I kind of blew the door off with an explosive fireball. That I breathed at it.”

    “Which the police have been questioning me about, kiddo,” Dad replied dryly. “I had to tell them about a dozen different ways that neither of us knows a damn thing about explosives.”

    “Which does raise the next question,” Mrs Pelham posited. “Taylor, you have powers. These powers are not entirely under your control. What do you intend to do with them?”

    Just as I opened my mouth to reply, there came a knocking at the door.

    Dad looked at Mrs Pelham. “Were you expecting visitors?”

    “Uh, no.” She frowned. “Let me go see.”

    Getting up, she went to the door. There was a tiny screen inset into it, which she tapped. An image came up, and she blinked. “Okay, what's Armsmaster doing here?”

    “Armsmaster?” echoed Vicky. “Taylor, you didn't buzz the PRT building or something when I wasn't looking, did you?”

    “Uh, no,” I told her. But I was pretty sure that whatever he was here for, I was involved. So I got up as well, and wandered over, standing off to one side from the door.

    Mrs Pelham opened the door. “Armsmaster,” she greeted the armoured hero. “What brings you out our way?”

    “I'm here to speak to your niece,” he replied bluntly. “Or rather, to whoever or whatever she brought home with her.”

    My head came up. Wow, holy shit. How did he find out about me? My heart began to pound.

    Mrs Pelham glanced sideways to me, and I nodded; she stepped aside.

    “You're in luck,” she announced. “Here she is.”

    I stepped into view of the doorway; Armsmaster indeed stood there, imposing in his silver and blue armour. In contrast, I was tall for my age, but anything other than imposing.

    “Hi?” I greeted him. His head came up, and I had the distinct impression that he was staring hard at me, despite the fact that his visor was opaque.

    “You're Taylor Hebert,” he announced, surprise in his voice.

    “I … yes, I am,” I admitted.

    “You blew up your locker at Winslow, damaged other lockers extensively, and set the school on fire.”

    “I, uh, did, I guess, yeah, but -”

    His voice was grim. “In doing so, you endangered the lives of your fellow students. People could have died. I'm going to have to ask you to come in for questioning about this matter.”

    I heard Mrs Pelham's voice off to the side, but not what she was saying. My blood pounded in my ears. This time, I felt the change coming on. No, no, no, no -

    Arms lengthened into wings, and membranes grew between my fingers and my arms. My t-shirt was gone, torn to shreds. My jeans – I was going through them at a phenomenal rate, just today – tore and split away from my growing tail, my changing legs. In just a few seconds, in my draconic form, I crouched before Armsmaster, mouth open and wings spread in an unconscious threat display. I couldn't roar, or perhaps I had not yet figured out how, but I was making a pretty loud noise anyway.

    He reached behind his back, there were several rapid click-click noises, and his halberd was in his hands. It was perhaps the most versatile weapon in Brockton Bay. Everyone knew that it could cut through steel like soft butter. And he was threatening me with it.

    “Stand down!” he shouted. “I will use all necessary force -”

    Flame roiled in my gullet, my head dipped low, and I spat fire. Not the explosive fireball that had opened the locker for me, but a tight, controlled burst. Blue-white at the core, blue around the edges; it illuminated the room with actinic brightness. Armsmaster ducked away, but it wasn't aimed at him. When he next looked at his halberd, the head was simply gone, with just a drooping blob of metal at the tip. Behind him, a line of globs of molten metal sizzled on the lawn.

    Stepping back carefully, I brought my wings in close to my body, and closed my mouth. Your move.


    End of Part Four

    Part Five
     
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2015
  6. Threadmarks: Part Five: Discussions
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Five: Discussions


    Colin climbed off of his bike, and spent a moment re-straightening his spine. After ensuring that everything was in order, on the bike and on his armour, he trod up the path toward the Dallon house.

    He wasn't quite sure where this 'big red bird' thing would lead to. Probably a Case 53, with my luck. Talk to it, find out where it stood on the 'law and order' front, find out if it had useful powers. If it was a teenager – entirely possible, considering that Glory Girl had apparently befriended it – see about inducting it into the Wards.

    Such were his thoughts when he knocked on the front door.

    The door opened after a few moments, to reveal Lady Photon standing there. She must be visiting.


    Armsmaster,” she greeted him, cordially enough. “What brings you out our way?”

    No sense in beating about the bush. “I'm here to speak to your niece. Or rather, to whoever or whatever it is that she brought home with her.”

    Lady Photon glanced sideways at something out of Colin's view; after a moment, she stepped aside.


    You're in luck,” she announced. “Here she is.”

    Colin had just enough time to wonder She? before a teenage girl stepped into view. “Hi?”

    She was tall, skinny, wore round-framed glasses, had long curly hair … wait a minute. His head came up as he flicked to one of the file photos he'd been sent. He hadn't had time to do more than skim the notes on the ride over, but that face looked really familiar.

    And he was correct. The picture was a match, down to the T-shirt she was wearing. What the hell is
    she doing here?

    You're Taylor Hebert.” He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.

    I … yes, I am.” Her voice was nervous, uncertain. Time to press the advantage.

    You blew up your locker at Winslow, damaged other lockers extensively, and set the school on fire.”

    I, uh, did, I guess, yeah, but -” He wasn't good at reading expressions, but that was an admission of guilt in anyone's book. The 'big red bird' could wait. She's the Winslow bomber.

    Time to let her know just how much trouble she's in. It might just keep her from trying to act out on the way back to base.


    In doing so,” he informed her, his voice as grim as he could make it, “you endangered the lives of your fellow students. People could have died. I'm going to have to ask you to come in for questioning about this matter.”

    Uh, Armsmaster,” began Lady Photon, “I really don't think -”

    He began to turn his head to look at her, but then his attention snapped back to the Hebert girl. She was … hunching over? In pain? He frowned, trying to figure out what was happening. Was she having a fit or seizure of some sort?

    In the next second or so, his questions were answered, very dramatically indeed. He had seen animations of creatures evolving from lizard-like forms to mammalian forms; this was more or less the reverse, only it was happening right there in front of him.

    Her face elongated and became a muzzle; her arms lifted out from her sides, the bones stretching impossibly, the hands enlarging, the fingers becoming long and spindly. Membranes erupted from her skin, filling in the space between her fingers, between her arms and her body. In the process, her t-shirt was shredded, cast off from her body, which was now covered in red-gold scales.

    Christ. She's the 'big red bird'. Only, she's no bird. Not a Case 53 either. She's a Changer. Some kind of … dinosaur?

    Her jeans were likewise split and torn as her legs reshaped to become digitigrade, her feet growing wicked claws – he had seen the marks those claws made in the sand – and a long tail came out from behind. She was no longer human; those arms-become-wings, with their magnificently-coloured red-gold membranes, were stretched out to each side, held up to show the most amount of surface area. A crest arose on her head, displaying the same red-gold membrane, making her look taller, more fearsome. It was a threat display, simple but extremely effective.

    As she crouched before him, her mouth opened farther than it should have been able to. In the process, it managed to show off a startlingly pink tongue, as well as an inordinate amount of extremely sharp dentition. With those jaws and those teeth, he decided absently, she was quite possibly able to take off a man's hand and wrist, all at the same time. The creature that had been Taylor Hebert – is she even
    in there any more? -let out a long screech of pure menace.

    Colin Wallis was not one to put much stock in the concept of genetic memory, but this sight, this sound, bypassed his higher logic centres, ran down to his hindbrain, and started setting off all kinds of alarms there. Danger, his every instinct screamed. Danger danger danger.

    Even as his brain manufactured excuses – if she's still sentient, then she's deliberately menacing me. If she's not, then she may well see me as a threat and attack without provocation – he reached back and retrieved his halberd. It unfolded and opened out to its full size; however, he deliberately did not direct the spear-pointed head toward the creature before him. Instead, in his own form of a threat display, he held it up so that the head was silhouetted against the light coming in from outside. I have a weapon. Here it is. Attack me at your peril.


    Stand down!” He put all the force he could muster into that command. “I will use all necessary force -”

    Her head dipped low, her mouth opened a fraction wider, and something erupted from her throat, something that tore past his head, far too close for comfort. He was aware of actinic brightness, as of looking directly into a welding arc, even as his visor adjusted for the glare and he ducked away. Then he felt the radiant heat; his HUD showed hot spots in his left arm and shoulder, and the left side of his chin felt a little singed.

    The blast – what
    was that? Did she just breathe plasma at me? - had missed him, thank Christ. His left eye had been somewhat dazzled, but the orange spots were starting to fade. He had the extremely uncomfortable feeling that had she hit him in the head with whatever that was, he would now be missing his head. Was that a warning shot? Or is her aim that bad?

    And then the alarms in his helmet display caught up with him, and he turned to look at his halberd. Or rather, what was left of his halberd. The head was … gone. Melted, disintegrated, whatever. All that was left was a blob of cooling metal. Holy
    Christ. His head snapped back around to the … the dragon. There was no other name for it.

    But she was no longer threatening him; she had backed up, folded her wings, and closed her mouth. Her eyes – disconcertingly intelligent eyes, now that they were no longer blazing with fury, or fear, or whatever it had been – watched him unwaveringly.

    Before he could decide what to do next – call for backup, call on Lady Photon for assistance, pull out a secondary weapon – the decision was taken from his hands. A shimmering field popped into existence between him and the red-gold scaled creature.


    <><>​

    “Okay, everyone take a breath!” snapped Mrs Pelham as she stepped up. “Armsmaster, that means you, too!”

    Still holding the headless halberd, the armoured hero opened his mouth. The beard on the left side of his jaw seemed to be a little patchy, the skin there reddened. “I – but -”

    “But nothing,” Mrs Pelham told him, even as Vicky darted to my side. “Taylor did nothing wrong. She's just had her trigger event, today. Inside the locker that she blew up. Take a moment. Connect the dots.”

    “Holy crap, that was awesome!” Vicky enthused, as she hugged me, wings and all. “I can't believe that you just wrecked his halberd!”

    “I can't believe it either,” Mrs Pelham commented dryly, over her shoulder, even as she kept the force field up. “Taylor, I think you owe Armsmaster an apology, for melting his halberd.”

    I didn't think so – I had felt very threatened at the time – but as she was my host, I nodded. Raising to my full height – not so much shorter than Armsmaster – I dipped my head, and gave him my best attempt at an apologetic chirp. Vicky whispered in my ear – something about 'penis substitute' – and I found out that, yes, dragons can snicker. But they can't giggle. Which sucks.

    Mrs Pelham cast a sharp glance at us; we subsided. “And Armsmaster,” she continued in what I could not help but think of as her 'Photon Mom' mode, “Taylor deserves an apology for you just accusing her without actually asking her why she did it, or even how.”

    Armsmaster cleared his throat. “I, uh, may have acted precipitately,” he muttered grudgingly. “Perhaps I should have asked more questions before jumping to conclusions.”

    It was about the most backhanded apology that I had ever gotten, but I nodded magnanimously and gave him a chirp of agreement.

    “So we're not going to fight any more?” asked Lady Photon meaningfully. “Because I will put the both of you in time-out corners if I have to.” Oh yeah, definitely Photon Mom.

    I ducked my head in submission. No trouble from me.

    “I … there are definitely aspects to this case that I could stand to learn more about,” Armsmaster conceded. “If I may come in, I would like to discuss it with you, uh, Taylor.”

    Mrs Pelham glanced at me; I nodded. The barrier vanished.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster looked at each of us in turn. "All right, let's take this from the top. I will be recording."

    He and I were the only two not seated; him because the weight of his armour threatened the integrity of any ordinary chair in which he sat, and me because I had found that my tail got in the way of sitting normally. Thus, I crouched on my haunches with my tail as a prop, and found it comfortable. Not entirely by coincidence, I had situated myself between the armchairs in which Dad and Vicky sat; Mrs Pelham sat on the sofa with her brother-in-law, and Armsmaster stood off to the side where he could see us all. Most particularly me.

    That was fine with me; I was watching him just as intently.

    When nobody objected, he continued. "Taylor, I am told that you were in the locker that was blown up, and that you triggered there. Is that true?"

    I chirped agreement, and nodded my head vigorously.

    "Hm." Armsmaster seemed to be studying me. "You can't talk in this form, can you?"

    I shook my head firmly, while chirping a negation. No, duh.

    "Perhaps we should hold up while you go and change back?" He paused. "Why haven't you changed back, anyway?"

    I looked toward Mrs Pelham; she took a breath. "Because it seems that Taylor's Changer ability has a strong emotional trigger. She tends to transform, involuntarily, when placed under high stress." A pause, to let the words sink in. Yes, you're to blame. "The change back doesn't tend to happen unless she's calm, unworried, relaxed, and feeling totally comfortable. That is, no stress. Which I don't see happening any time soon."

    "Hm. This could be a problem.” For a moment there, I thought he was referring to my difficulties in changing from one form to the other, but then he kept talking. “We can determine 'yes' and 'no', but anything more complex ... "

    "Victoria told me that she's perfectly capable of writing," Mrs Pelham pointed out.

    "Not with a pen, surely," he commented, looking at my wings; even furled as they were, it was immediately obvious that I would never hold any normal writing implement with them.

    "Well, no," Vicky conceded. "With her wingtip, in the sand. Down at the Boardwalk."

    "Ah, yes, I saw that," he noted. "Well, we're kind of lacking anything to write in at the moment -"

    "Hah!" Vicky exclaimed, making me jump. "And I'm still a genius!"

    "Victoria?" inquired her aunt.

    "Back in a second," Vicky told her, bouncing out of her chair. "You'll see!"

    With that, she darted upstairs, leaving us mystified in her wake. Mrs Pelham looked at Dad, who shrugged. "I have no idea," he admitted.

    Moments later, Vicky reappeared, leaping from the top step to the bottom in a single jump. Mrs Pelham cleared her throat sternly. "You shouldn't be flying in the house," she admonished her niece.

    Vicky gave her aunt a cheeky grin. “I wasn't really flying. Just, you know, falling kinda slow. Anyway, check it out and tell me I'm not a genius."

    With a flourish, she spread out in front of me the sheet of plastic that she had retrieved from her bedroom. If I wasn't much mistaken, it was the same one that she had gone to get, just before Dad helped me change back the last time. I wondered if he could do it again. Or if I could change back under a nice soothing shower …

    “Okay, yes, I see where you're going with this.”

    At Mrs Pelham's comment, I brought my attention back to the present. The plastic sheet was obviously intended to be used for educating younger children; it held a complete alphabet, with upper and lower case letters, as well as the numbers from zero to nine. There was also a colour wheel, and a simple multiplication table. But it was the alphabet that got my attention.

    With a triumphant chirp, I reached out and tapped letters in sequence: Y-E-S-Y-O-U-A-R-E-A-G-E-N-I-U-S.

    Vicky grinned at me. “Told you.” She waved a notepad and pen. “I'll even keep note of what you've already said, here.”

    G-O-O-D, I tapped out, then I looked at Armsmaster. A-S-K-A-W-A-Y. Vicky scribbled the letters as I tapped them, mumbling to herself.

    “Very well,” he replied. “I've been reviewing the photos of the remains of the locker, and I found scratches on the lower part of the door. Was that you?”

    I nodded, and chirped an affirmative.

    “Understood.” He paused. “Do you know who put you in there?” I took a deep breath, and reached out to the plastic sheet. 3-B-I-T-C-H-E-S.

    “Can you tell me their names?”

    I nodded again. E-M-M-A, pause, B-A-R-N-E-S.

    “Wait, I've seen that name,” he interrupted. There was a long pause, during which he seemed to zone out. “Ah, right,” he noted at last. “Mr Hebert, you told the police that Ms Barnes was your daughter's best friend.”

    “I thought she was,” Dad told him helplessly. “I only just found out today that she's actually spearheading the bullying campaign on my daughter. Her father's been one of my good friends since forever.”

    “Hm,” Armsmaster commented. “Well then. Taylor, do you have other names?”

    I nodded. M-A-D-I-S-O-N. Tap-tap on the edge of the plastic. C-L-E-M-E-N-T-S. Tap on the number 3. S-O-P-H-I-A. Tap-tap. H-E-S-S.

    “Wait, that last name,” Armsmaster interrupted. “Are you sure of that one?”

    I nodded emphatically. B-L-A-C-K G-I-R-L T-R-A-C-K S-T-A-R R-E-A-L B-I-T-C-H.

    Armsmaster nodded. “All right. Understood. You're sure that they are the ones who put you in there?”

    I-V-E B-E-E-N B-U-L-L-I-E-D F-O-R A Y-E-A-R I-T-S T-H-E-M.

    “I see,” he murmured. “Okay, then. As for your getting out of the locker … “

    Bit by bit, he led me through the incident, up until I met Vicky. She was able to fill him in from there, cheerfully describing how she had failed to pull out in time, and ploughed into the ocean.

    “Can you do something about this?” Dad asked him, after we had gotten the narrative up to the point that Vicky and her aunt got me back to the house. “I mean, what those girls did, it's got to be a criminal act.”

    “I'm not the police, Mr Hebert,” he told my father. “I can subdue and restrain normal criminals, but I have to hand them over to the normal police. I can't arrest them, and I can't perform normal criminal investigations. The PRT and Protectorate have enough to do with parahuman criminal activity as it is.”

    “So what can you do?” Dad asked plaintively. “I'd go there myself, but apparently the teachers there have refined apathy to a fine art.”

    “I personally can't do much,” Armsmaster replied. “The information can be passed on to the school principal. However, I can't actually guarantee that any action will be taken, now or later.”

    “Emma's father is a lawyer,” Dad pointed out. “He might be the reason that they're letting her get away with so much.”

    “That could be the case,” agreed Armsmaster. “Taylor, if you want to take a break now, I need to check in.”

    I nodded, and chirped in agreement. As Armsmaster headed outside, I turned to Vicky and indicated the sheet; she readied her notebook. H-O-T-S-H-O-W-E-R-T-O-R-E-L-A-X, I tapped out, forgetting to add in spaces. However, she was on the ball, and nodded thoughtfully.

    “We can definitely try it,” she agreed. “I'll get you some more clothes.” A pause, and she grinned at me. “Try not to wreck these ones too, huh?”

    I made the rudest noise that I could manage.

    <><>​

    “So, are you still a dragon?”

    I tried to ignore her, allowing the hot water to cascade over my scaled body. It felt good; not as good as it did when I was human, for instance, but still good. However, the temperature seemed to be a little on the low side; with the aid of my wrist, I managed to move the lever in the direction that I wanted it to go. The water pounded on my upturned muzzle; I let my jaws sag open so that the steaming torrent could trickle hot and delicious down my throat.

    It was working, I could tell; the tensions were easing out of my body. Turning around, I let it cascade over my back; opening my wings a little, I could feel it drumming on the membranes between my body and my elbows. Standing forward, I moved my tail back and forth through the flow -

    - and abruptly, it was as though boiling oil was being poured over me. I yelped and ducked away from the scalding flow, feeling for the lever and slamming it all the way closed. The flow reluctantly petered out, leaving a stinging sensation across my backside.

    “Ah-ha!” Vicky's triumphant voice sounded from beyond the steamed-over shower cubicle. “I hear the sound of one Taylor yelping.”

    “Ow. Shut up. Ow.” I pulled open the cubicle door. “It worked, but apparently dragon me likes her showers in medium boiling.”

    “Ouch,” she replied sympathetically as she handed me a towel. “Where'd you get burned?”

    I turned around as I started drying my head and shoulders, to let her inspect the injured area. “Right on the butt. The universe hates me.”

    “Wow, that's red. That's not gonna be fun, sitting down.”

    “Oh, shut up.” I flicked her with the towel.

    “But at least you're human again.”

    “Yeah,” I agreed gloomily. “I wonder how long I'll last this time?”

    “What I'm curious about,” she added mischievously, “is what your body considers its natural form. When you go to bed, are you gonna wake up as a dragon or a human?”

    “And here I was thinking the day was looking up.”

    “Yeah, that's gonna happen.”

    “Shush, you.”

    <><>​

    Director Piggot speaking.”

    Armsmaster here, Director.”

    Armsmaster. I was just wondering where you had gotten to. Have you made any headway on either of your cases?”

    Actually, I've more or less solved both of them.” His voice held a perhaps excusable level of pride.

    I'm impressed. How did you manage that?”

    Because they both involved the same person. A new Trigger, with a Changer ability. She was locked in her locker at Winslow, and Changed into … well, into a dragon. Human sized. According to her, she blew the locker door off with an explosive fireball. Then she escaped the school, where she encountered Glory Girl, who invited her home.”

    I … see. What's your assessment of this parahuman. A girl, you said?”

    Yes. Taylor Hebert. She's the owner of the locker. She seems to be a reasonably balanced individual, but her Changer ability isn't necessarily under her control. And her other form possesses a great deal of destructive potential.”

    These explosive fireballs you mentioned?”

    Plus a plasma jet that melted the head of my halberd and gave me a sunburn on the left side of my jaw.”

    Piggot paused for a long moment. “You … fought … her?”


    It wasn't a fight, so much as things got a little out of hand, before Lady Photon stepped in. Nobody was hurt, and there was no property damage. Apart from my halberd.”

    I see. Well, what's the situation there now?”

    We're talking. I'm getting information. She can't talk, not in her Changed form, but we've found a workaround. But there is something that you do need to know.”

    The Director sighed. There was always something new. “Yes?”


    She has positively identified Sophia Hess and Emma Barnes as two of the individuals who forced her into the locker. Gave enough of a description of Hess that she can't be mistaken. Says that Hess has been bullying her for a year.”

    Sophia Hess,” repeated Piggot. “Shadow Stalker.”

    Yes. I thought you should know.”

    And she caused this girl to trigger.”

    Yes.”

    Christ. Right, leave it with me. One more thing.”

    Yes, ma'am?”

    What's your assessment of this girl's chances of assimilating with the Wards?”

    There was a pause, then he replied. “With a few minor problems ironed out, she could be a definite asset.”


    One of those problems being her erratic Changer ability?”

    Yes, ma'am. The other is that, immediately after she Changes to, uh, dragon form, she seems to act instinctively at first. I – she was under stress when we came face to face, and she Changed, and went directly into a threat display that nearly precipitated a fight.”

    And she attacked you with this plasma jet?”

    Not … as such. I had my halberd out, to demonstrate that I was willing to meet force with force, and she targeted it, and destroyed the head, utterly.”

    Do you think she was aiming for it?”

    I think it a strong possibility. Absolutely nothing else was hit. Including me. And I was holding it.”

    Can you replace it?”

    I have several spares. I'll just have to bring one of them up to scratch.”

    Good. In the meantime, keep me updated on this dragon girl. And work on a proper cape name for her. 'Dragon' is already taken, of course.”

    Well, it's not like there are many other dragon-themed capes around. I think she'll be spoiled for choice.”

    True. And if you think she's even vaguely suited for the Wards, try to get her in. We need the manpower. And we don't need more teenage independents roaming the streets. Especially ones who can melt steel by breathing on it.”

    Understood, ma'am. I'll keep you posted.”

    Piggot hung up, and ran her hands over her face.

    God almighty. Dragons in Brockton Bay. What next?


    <><>​

    Armsmaster was back inside by the time that Vicky and I descended the stairs once more. I was once more wearing the spare glasses Dad had brought over. The soothing cream on my butt seemed to be doing its job, but Vicky seemed to be unable to look at me without giggling. I knew what the joke was – as a dragon, I had melted Armsmaster's halberd. As a human, I had burned my own butt in the shower – but I really didn't think it was all that funny.

    “You're human again,” he observed, as I came into view.

    Thank you, Captain Obvious. “Uh, yeah. I had an idea about having a hot shower, and it worked.”

    Dad rose to come hug me; I returned the favour as Armsmaster kept talking. “So you've got the Changing problem fixed?”

    “Not necessarily a perfect fix,” I allowed. “Call it a work in progress. And we've still got the problem that I go through more outfits than, well, a Brute with anger problems.”

    “Hulk smash,” Dad muttered as he went to sit down again; I didn't get the reference.

    “Well, in any case,” the armoured hero continued as Vicky gestured me into her chair, and perched on the arm, “we need to talk about your powers.”

    “What about them?” I asked. “If I can stay out of high-stress situations, they don't activate. Unfortunately, one day at Winslow is all the Bitches need to set up something that will drive my blood pressure through the roof. And if I ignore them or don't react, they come back with something even worse, to force me to react.”

    “That's a problem that can be addressed,” Armsmaster noted. “But right now, I'm pegging your Changed form as Mover, Blaster and Brute. Exact numbers to be assigned later, with testing, if you're up to it.”

    “Wait, wait,” Vicky protested. “Mover, sure. Blaster, definitely. But Brute? She couldn't even rip her way out of that locker.”

    “You forget, I have all the files on that locker, right here,” he informed her, tapping his helmet. “She didn't burn the locker door off; she blew it off. With a fireball that exploded inside the locker, within inches of her own body, spraying fire in all directions, hot enough to damage the floor and set fire to the ceiling and the wall behind. She withstood the concussive blast within the locker, and the attendant fire, without suffering appreciable harm.”

    I raised a tentative hand. He nodded in my direction. “Uh, when I was having the shower,” I ventured. “As a dragon, I felt that the water just wasn't warm enough. I took it all the way up to as hot as it would go without feeling any particular discomfort.” I carefully didn't explain what had happened when I had gone back to being human, under that scalding spray.

    “Well, it makes sense that you would be resistant to heat,” he agreed. “It remains to be seen, however, whether you are resistant to any explosive effect, or just ones that you generate.”

    “Or maybe she just gets better,” Lady Photon observed. “Taylor, when I first saw you chasing Victoria, I shot you with a laser bolt. I haven't seen any sign of injury on you.”

    I frowned. “That stung for a little bit, then stopped. I kind of forgot about it. A lot's happened since.”

    “Well, in that case, some level of regeneration seems to be indicated.” Armsmaster nodded. “So, Changer with Brute, Mover and Blaster capabilities. So far, you've made use of two different types of breath weapon. Do you have any more?”

    “I have no idea.” I shrugged. “I didn't know I could do either one till I needed to. I guess I could work at figuring what else I can do with breathing fire, and see if I could make it work.”

    “Make sure you have a good solid backstop,” he advised me. “Actually, we have excellent facilities for just this sort of thing in the PRT building. It's designed for people flinging high-end attacks around.”

    I tilted my head. “Maybe. We'll see how it goes. Right now, my bigger problem is my unmatched capability for destroying clothes every time I Change. At this rate, I'll be all out by tomorrow night.”

    “The PRT has many contacts among the parahuman community,” he responded. “Say the word, and we'll find a Tinker who can do the job of creating clothes that you don't lose when you Change.”

    “And I'm guessing that the 'word' is agreement to join the Wards?” Mrs Pelham sat up from where she'd been leaning back. “Don't think I haven't noticed your hints.”

    “Yeah, nope,” Vicky protested, putting her arm around my shoulders. “If she goes into a superteam, it should be with us. Because we're awesome, and so is Taylor.”

    “The PRT can help you get a handle on your powers, Taylor,” argued Armsmaster.

    I shook my head. “No, I don't think so.”

    Dad turned to me, looking puzzled. “What? Why? It sounds like a great deal.”

    “I can't explain it, Dad,” I told him. “When we were on the beach below the Boardwalk, Vicky asked me if I wanted to go out to the Protectorate base, and they could investigate what's happened to me. But I don't want to be poked. I don't want to be prodded. And I've got this feeling that once I get signed in there, I can be ordered to allow them to poke and prod me.”

    “Is that true?” Dad asked, turning to Armsmaster.

    “She's a danger to the public as she is,” the armoured hero replied evasively. “All it takes is for one person to stress her enough to Change in public, and then her cover is blown. Not to mention the people who might get hurt, either through panic, or if someone in the crowd has been getting in her face, and she reacts automatically, and turns him into a charcoal briquette.”

    “I aimed at your halberd,” I informed him bluntly. “That threat display, yeah, that was me on autopilot. But the rest of it? All me.”

    “That was a very valuable piece of equipment,” he told me. “You're still liable for its destruction.”

    “You had it out, and you were threatening me with it,” I retorted, as steadily as I could. “I took care of the threat in as non-harmful a way as I could manage.”

    “You could have just surrendered to lawful authority,” he pointed out. “You would have been treated well.”

    “Hell with that,” I shot back. “I've had it with all this bullshit. You automatically assumed that I blew up my locker deliberately. You didn't ask why. Lady Photon asked why.”

    <><>​

    I still think that if you go into the Wards, the PRT can handle any legal problems, in case your powers cause some level of damage in public. Also, we have access to people with professional training in dealing with problematic powers.”

    She shook her head. “Poking and prodding. Not a fan.”


    Then where will you go?” he asked. “It's not a good place for an independent out there, right now. And you have the twin troubles that if you go out as human, you have to bank on being able to Change to dragon form at a moment's notice. If you go out as dragon, then it's really obvious as to who you are.”

    She paused, and he thought that perhaps she had seen reason. But then Lady Photon broke in. “That's easy. She can join New Wave.”

    Everyone looked at her. Even Flashbang stared at her for a moment.


    Oh, hell yes!” exclaimed Glory Girl. “We'll be the only team in town with a dragon! The others will be so damn jealous.”

    Lady Photon smiled gently. “That's not exactly the reason for the offer, dear,” she told her niece. “But it seems to me that Taylor might need a helping hand. Plus, her powers could be extremely useful at the right time and place.” She turned to the Hebert girl. “What do you say, Taylor? Want to join New Wave?”


    Uh, do I have to tell everyone who I am, and who my dad is?” the girl asked.

    Well, just show up in your dragon form, and you'll never need a mask,” Glory Girl pointed out cheerfully.

    Danny isn't a cape, and revealing your name would put his at risk,” Lady Photon mused. “And you're just as vulnerable when you're not in your Changed form. I think we can make an amendment to the rules for your case; you won't wear a mask, but you'll only show the public your dragon form.”

    Wyvern,” Flashbang commented unexpectedly.

    What?” asked the Hebert girl. “Uh, Mr Dallon.”

    Flashbang looked at them all. “A dragon with two legs and two wings is called a wyvern, not a dragon. It's a mythology thing.” He subsided back into silence.

    The Hebert girl looked at her father and shrugged. “It's as good a name as any. Wyvern it is.”


    I'll have to check to make sure that it isn't already taken,” Armsmaster pointed out.

    Well, if it is, I'll find something else,” she decided. “And yeah, I think I'd like to join New Wave. If the others don't mind, that is.”

    Glory Girl laughed out loud. “Mind? Ames will be so damn jealous that I met you first.”

    Lady Photon smiled, and reached out to take Taylor's hand. “Welcome to New Wave,” she told the girl.

    Director Piggot, Armsmaster knew, would not be happy. But at least the girl was joining an actual, established team.

    That had to count for something.



    End of Part Five

    Part Six
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2015
  7. Threadmarks: Part Six: Meddle Not in the Affairs of Dragons ...
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Six: Meddle Not in the Affairs of Dragons ...


    Armsmaster paused in the doorway. “You're certain that you want to join New Wave.” His voice held what I took to be a note of hope, that I might say no.

    “Totally,” I told him. “They're nice people. And they don't want to poke and prod and scan me.” Unlike you, I didn't have to say.

    “You've only met two of them,” he protested. Dad cleared his throat, and motioned toward Flashbang on the sofa, still watching TV; he'd muted it for us, but was otherwise ignoring the discussion. “All right, three.”

    “And I like all of them. Which, to be absolutely honest … “ I paused. “I mean, I don't dislike you, and I think you're a great hero and all, but really, I still think that you're at least partly to blame for me melting your halberd like that.”

    Reminded of that particular incident, he glanced at the now-cooled blob of metal that adorned what had been perhaps the single most respected weapon in the city. His tone was a good bit cooler when he replied. “Just be aware, Miss Hebert, that destruction of property is still an offence. Your powers when in, uh, wyvern form are quite dangerous. Take care that you don't abuse them.”

    “I beg your pardon, Armsmaster?” I heard from behind him. “Did I just hear you use an intimidating turn of phrase toward a freshly-triggered parahuman?”

    He turned and looked; I saw, standing on the path, a woman with similar features to Lady Photon, dressed in a suit and holding a briefcase. It didn't take me very long to connect the dots; this would be Vicky's mother, Carol Dallon, otherwise known as Brandish. Superhero and lawyer at the same time; I was fairly certain that no-one directed death threats at her for failing to get them off their charges.

    “Uh, no, Mrs Dallon,” he replied. “She did destroy my halberd, as well as being the precipitate cause of a certain amount of damage at her high school. Her powers are obviously quite destructive, if used recklessly. I was merely cautioning her to that effect.”

    “I'd be interested in hearing her side of the matter before you made any more comments of that nature,” she replied dismissively. “If she triggered just today, then trigger events can cover quite a lot. If you don't mind?”

    Hastily, he stepped aside, and she entered the house. “Vicky,” she greeted her daughter. “You're home early. And Sarah. What brings you here?”

    “Vicky and Taylor, to be honest, Carol,” Sarah replied, crossing to where her sister stood and giving her a hug. “Taylor was flying over the city, Vicky heard about it and went to investigate. She ended up inviting her home, and I encountered them on the way there.”

    Mrs Dallon looked at me, her face expressionless. “So you're Taylor. The dragon girl.”

    “Yes, ma'am,” I agreed, with a nod. “Taylor Hebert. I'm pleased to meet you.” I put out my hand; after a moment, she shook it briefly, then looked at Dad. “And you are … ?”

    “Uh, Danny Hebert, ma'am,” he replied. “I'm her father. Lady Photon called me in, as soon as they had Taylor settled.”

    “I see.” She looked me over again. “You don't seem to be exhibiting many dragon-like qualities, Taylor. Do you need to Change?”

    “Uh, kind of,” I admitted. “But not right here, please.”

    “It wrecks her clothes, Mom,” Vicky explained. “She's been through two outfits since she got here.”

    “To be precise," Dad added, "she's on her third outfit since she got here. And I'm guessing another one got destroyed in the locker."

    "Locker?" Mrs Dallon looked puzzled. "Where does a locker come into it?" She turned to me. "Is this to do with your trigger event?"

    "Uh, yes," I replied. "Some girls at my school locked me in my locker with some really horrible stuff."

    "What sort of horrible stuff?" asked Mrs Dallon, then immediately held up her hand. "Wait, let me sit down first. I suspect that I'm going to need to take notes on this."

    "I've recorded everything," Armsmaster told her. "I can - "

    "- leave now," she advised him sweetly. "I've got this, thanks."

    "I really think -"

    "No, Armsmaster," she cut him off, her voice never losing the sweet tone, "I really think it's time for you to go.” She turned to me. “There is the strong potential for a lawsuit here, Taylor. Would you like me to represent you, or help you find a suitable representative?”

    “I, uh -” I began.

    Dad spoke at the same time. “Lawsuit?”

    “Yes,” she answered. “Against whoever locked you in that locker.”

    “The PRT has lawyers -” began Armsmaster.

    “The PRT also has self-interest,” Mrs Dallon shot back. “Taylor?”

    I blinked, and glanced at Dad. He looked at Mrs Dallon. “We can't afford much -”

    “Money won't be a problem,” Mrs Dallon assured him. “Not with the sort of damages we could get out of whoever did this to you, and probably the school as well.”

    After a moment, Dad nodded. “Okay. Taylor?”

    “Uh, sure,” I replied. “But I don't want anyone hurt too badly. Financially, I mean.”

    “As badly as they hurt you emotionally?” asked Mrs Dallon. “How long has this been going on?”

    “Since September of the year before last,” I admitted.

    “Really?” Her eyes narrowed. “Then there's a lot of leeway between 'not badly enough' and 'too badly', isn't there?”

    “I … guess,” I agreed tentatively.

    "Good," she stated briskly. "So, do you accept me as your attorney until further notice?"

    I nodded. "I - yes. Yes, I do."

    "Excellent." Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out what I presumed to be some kind of recorder. "I am now recording. Armsmaster, I'm invoking attorney-client privileges. Please leave. This is out of your hands."

    He tried one more time. "She's a potentially dangerous parahuman -"

    "That's not the issue at stake here," she snapped. "The issue is that these girls saw fit to bully her until she became a potentially dangerous parahuman, and the school saw fit to let them do it. So will you be leaving, or will I be reporting you for harassing my client after you were asked to leave?"

    It was obvious that he didn't want to go, but she hadn't left him any leeway. So, reluctantly, he stepped out through the doorway, and walked to his bike.

    <><>​

    Mrs Dallon waited until the sound of the motorcycle had faded into the distance before she turned to me. "I'm going to need all the details," she told me. "Your locker, Armsmaster's halberd, anything else that you may have damaged -" She paused. "The lawn. There was a line of black spots on the lawn. Was that you?"

    Vicky went over to the door and peered out. "Oh my god," she reported, her voice full of horrified delight. "Taylor, you have to see this."

    I went to look; there was indeed a line of black spots on the lawn. Each of them consisted of a lump of metal, surrounded by a circle of blackened, burned grass. The line stretched directly away from the door, petering out before it quite got to the curb.

    "Uh, yeah, that was me," I admitted sheepishly. "That's bits of his halberd, I guess."

    Mrs Dallon was looking up at the doorframe. "The paint's scorched here," she noted.

    I looked also. "Uh, yes. The flame jet kind of came pretty close. I think it may have also given him a sunburn. And singed his beard."

    "Well, I'm quite impressed that you managed to destroy the halberd with such precision, and without burning down the house," she observed, "but please, for everyone's sakes, employ a little more discretion in future. Specifically, no insurance company in the country is willing to cover us for parahuman-related damage, so don't breathe fire inside my house. Ever again."

    I nodded meekly. "No, ma'am, I won't. If I'm going to be a part of the team, I know -"

    "- wait just a moment," she interrupted me. "Part of the team?"

    "Well, yeah, Mom," Vicky explained. "She's a new cape, she's a dragon -"

    "Uh, wyvern, apparently," I pointed out.

    "Still a type of dragon," Vicky forged on relentlessly. "Big scaly wings, and she breathes fire, and she looks all kinds of totally awesome. I mean, how can we not have her on the team?"

    "Sarah?" asked Mrs Dallon. "Do you support this idea?"

    "Actually, yes, I do," Lady Photon told her. "Taylor needs team support. For one thing, she can't enunciate English words while in wyvern form. For another, she can't do anything that requires really fine manipulation."

    "All right then, that changes matters a little," Mrs Dallon decided. "Legally speaking, Taylor, I shouldn't really be acting both as your attorney in this matter as well as your teammate."

    "So what does this mean?" asked Dad.

    "Either I take a temporary leave of absence from the team, so I can concentrate on the case," she informed us, "or I refer your case on to someone else."

    "Whatever happens, it's going to come out that I'm a parahuman, right?"

    "Unless we concentrate on the bullying angle and leave the parahuman aspect out of it altogether," she agreed. "Which would weaken our case, but not too badly ... wait. You're joining New Wave anyway, aren't you, Taylor?"

    "She is," Lady Photon assured her, "but she wants to keep her human identity secret for her father's sake."

    "She won't be wearing a mask as Wyvern," Vicky put in. "It's just that they won't know who she is when she's not Wyvern."

    "I'm not sure I'm totally on board with that," Mrs Dallon observed. "After all, transparency is what the New Wave concept was founded upon."

    "I'm pretty sure that Lightstar would argue about the validity of that," Lady Photon pointed out gently.

    Mrs Dallon's expression hardened. "Fleur's situation was different."

    "This is true," Lady Photon pointed out. "Fleur was powered, as are the rest of us. She still died."

    "Our children weren't -"

    "And if you don't see what a huge risk we were running at the time, then you need to think some more about it," Lady Photon snapped. "Danny has no powers, and nor does he live with someone who does.”

    “Taylor -” began Mrs Dallon.

    “- either has no powers at all, or looks entirely inhuman. And her Change is sufficiently unreliable that she can't guarantee to have access to her powers, even if she really needs them, or if someone catches her by surprise.”

    "So why can't she go to the Protectorate?" asked Mrs Dallon. "It seems to me that they're better set up for this than we are."

    I cleared my throat. "Still here," I reminded the both of them. "For one thing, I'm scared that the PRT will prod me and poke me and scan me, and then decide that I'm too dangerous and lock me away or something.”

    Lady Photon glanced at Mrs Dallon. “Not entirely an unwarranted fear, you have to admit.”

    “No,” Mrs Dallon admitted after a moment. “It's not. Though you're not saying everything, Taylor.”

    I nodded. “For another thing, I don't want to. I mean, in human form, I've got no real problem with it, but when Vicky suggested it and I was in wyvern form, I just knew somehow that I really, really didn't want to do it.”

    “Hm.” Mrs Dallon rubbed her chin. “Well, if you don't want to, then you don't want to. It might be some sort of instinctual thing. In any case, I wouldn't force anyone to be in the Wards who didn't want to be.”

    “So she can be in New Wave?” Vicky's voice was hopeful.

    “About the secret identity thing?” Mrs Dallon looked at Lady Photon.

    “Well, given that there's the presence of a non-powered family member, plus a certain unreliability about the availability of your powers, and the fact that you're pretty well unable to hide who you are once you become the wyvern form … “ Lady Photon paused. “I think I can amend the rules in this particular case.”

    “That sounds reasonable,” Mrs Dallon agreed. “Very well. Taylor, you'll be joining New Wave, but will not be revealing your real identity. So the lawsuit will be specifically to do with your being shut in the locker.”

    “ … which could pose a problem,” I told her.

    “What problem?” she asked.

    “I blew up my locker. The door ended up jammed in the far wall. I set the school on fire. If we're going to separate the fact of my being locked in the locker from the fact of my being Wyvern, how do we present it? I was locked in my locker, which was then blown up by persons unknown?”

    “Worse,” Dad pointed out. “More than one person knows that Taylor was in that damn locker. It's got to be the most open secret in Winslow by now. Half of them must think that she got out and then blew it up, while the other half have to be thinking that the locker was blown up with her in it.”

    “True,” she agreed, brow furrowed. “The explosion and fire are inseparable from the fact that Taylor was locked in the locker.”

    “Okay, how about this?” asked Vicky. “Taylor is in the locker. Someone lets her out. She staggers away to get clean, and the person who let her out sets off a bomb in her locker.”

    “Which begs the question of who let her out, and why did they explode the bomb?” Mrs Dallon had a pen and paper, and was writing as she spoke.

    “Hey, I can't think of everything,” Vicky protested. “Taylor?”

    “We can't make Wyvern out to be the bad guy either,” I decided. “Even misunderstood. I've read enough on the PHO boards to know that once a hero gets even the slightest hint of impropriety, it sticks with him for years. Plus, it'll reflect on New Wave's reputation.”

    “In any case, we need a narrative that diverges as little from the truth as possible,” explained Mrs Dallon. “Whatever we say has to be supported by the available evidence.”

    “Which all points to me blowing up the locker,” I groaned. “Because I did.”

    “So, our only real options for a lawsuit are, on the one hand, out Taylor and run the whole deal through the courts, which will almost certainly nail their hides to whatever wall we see fit,” Dad summarised, “or minimise the locker thing, and try to get them for whatever they did to her before that point.”

    “What happened today certainly brings it all together,” Lady Photon agreed. “Without it … they get away with a truly horrible act, and they may get away with the rest of it, depending on the throw weight of whatever legal talent they get on their side.”

    “Great,” I muttered, “and Mr Barnes is a lawyer too.”

    “I beg your pardon?” asked Mrs Dallon. “Did you say 'Mr Barnes'?”

    I nodded. “Alan Barnes. Emma's dad. Emma used to be my best friend. Mr Barnes and Dad have known each other forever.”

    “If he knows about what she's been doing to my girl, and hasn't done anything about it, then I don't know him nearly as well as I thought I did,” Dad observed, mainly to himself.

    “Really. That's very interesting.” Mrs Dallon made a note. “Alan Barnes and I work for the same law firm.”

    Dad and I stared at her. “Uh, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I asked carefully.

    She considered the question. “That depends. Probably a good thing. I'll have to see.”

    “Wouldn't that be some kind of conflict of interest?” asked Dad. “If you're both working for the same people, that is.”

    “As I said,” Mrs Dallon told him, “I'll have to see.” She looked around. “Now, I think it best if we took this to my study.”

    “Can I come?” asked Vicky. “I promise I'll be quiet.”

    Personally, I had my doubts.

    “Sorry, Vicky,” Mrs Dallon replied. “We're going to be discussing important information about the case.”

    Vicky rolled her eyes. “Aww.”

    “Don't complain too loudly, young lady, or I might find myself compelled to ask you why you aren't back at school already,” Mrs Dallon warned her.

    “Being quiet.” Vicky hastened toward the kitchen.

    “Good.” Mrs Dallon turned to Dad and I. “Shall we go?”

    <><>​

    “Take a chair, each of you. This might take a while."

    Following Mrs Dallon's directive, I sat in one of the chairs in front of her desk. Dad sat beside me.

    Putting the recorder back on the desk, she pressed the button. “Carol Dallon, recording,” she stated out loud. "Now, Taylor, this is very important. Can you identify your assailants?"

    I hesitated. "I can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was them, but I'm pretty damn certain."

    "What makes you so certain?" she asked.

    "Because they've been making my life hell for the past fourteen months," I snapped. "It's the same three, over and over, and if it's not them, it's one of their friends." My voice had risen, and I could hear the bitterness in it. I took a breath. "Sorry. But it just keeps happening, and nothing ever stops it."

    "Can you at least state with certainty that they were there?" Her voice was almost gentle, and I realised that this must be how she treated her witnesses on the stand.

    "Oh god yes. They were right there, making comments about my height and weight, and how I must throw up to stay so skinny, and how I must have thrown up just then, because of the smell."

    "Which was whatever in your locker?" She paused. “What was in the locker, exactly?”

    I drew a deep breath, and took Dad's hand. He squeezed it reassuringly. “A lot of rotten tampons and sanitary pads from the girls' bathrooms. But I didn't know that then. All I knew was that something stank."

    "All right, so these girls – all of them are girls, right? – what are their names?"

    "Yeah, they're all girls. Some boys are in on it, but they're just hangers-on. The three main ones are Emma Barnes, like I said, as well as Madison Clements and Sophia Hess."

    "Armsmaster seemed really interested in that last one, Sophia Hess," Dad commented. "He asked if Taylor was sure."

    "Yeah, I noticed that, too," I agreed. "I wanted to ask about that, but I was a wyvern right then."

    "Really?" asked Mrs Dallon. "But you're non-verbal in that form, aren't you? How were you communicating?"

    “Vicky brought out a plastic sheet with the alphabet, and I picked out letters on it,” I explained. “It was slow, but we made it work.”

    Mrs Dallon nodded. "Very clever. So Armsmaster was interested in this Sophia Hess, was he?"

    "It sure seemed that way," I agreed. "I don't know why."

    "I'll make a point of asking him, next time I see him. Now, Emma Barnes is definitely the daughter of Alan Barnes? Big man, red haired?”

    “That's him,” I told her. “She's got red hair too.”

    Mrs Dallon's eyes were focused on me. "Okay. So you're telling me that the daughter of Alan Barnes, a man I work with, is bullying you, has bullied you badly enough to cause a trigger event?”

    “That's exactly what we're telling you, yes.” Dad's voice was steady, but he squeezed my hand again. “I thought he was a friend. Now, I'm not so sure.”

    “That would depend on if he knows about it, surely,” she observed. “Do you know, one way or the other?”

    “He's friendly enough when we meet,” Dad mused. “Talks about Emma. Asks about Taylor.”

    “But you and Emma haven't been friends for a while?” She looked toward me.

    “For more than a year,” I agreed. “For all I know, she's telling him that I broke up the friendship, not her.”

    “We can't use that in court,” she cautioned me. “Conjecture holds no weight as evidence.” She looked to me. “What sort of bullying has it been? Physical? Emotional? Verbal?”

    “All of that and more,” I sighed. “You name it, they've done it. Sophia handles the physical side of things, tripping me down stairs or in the hallways, things like that. Madison's good at pranks. Leaving juice on my chair, dumping pencil shavings on my desk during class. Emma knows all my secrets, all the ways to hurt me, and she uses them.”

    “Physical abuse.” She zeroed in on that. “Do you have proof? Bruises? Scars?”

    My voice was full of regret. “Nothing visible.”

    “Damn.” She leaned back in her chair.

    Tentatively, I cleared my throat. “I've been keeping a sort of journal.”

    “What?” She leaned forward. “A journal?”

    “Kind of a list of what they've been doing to me. Since the start of school last year,” I explained. “I wanted to try to get the teachers to listen, to help, but they never did. So I haven't shown anyone.”

    “What's in this journal of yours?” she asked.

    “Uh, day by day of what they did. All dated. Emails I got sent, by them and by others. Stuff that was sent from the school computers, during school hours. I've spent hours printing them out.”

    Dad was looking at me. I looked back. “What?”

    “Why didn't you show this to me, Taylor?” he asked. “Tell me about it. I could have done something.”

    “The school doesn't do anything, even when it happens right in front of a teacher,” I told him bitterly. “I'm the weird loner. They're the popular kids. That would just have gotten me more attention, and not of the good type.”

    “Then you could have told me about Emma,” he protested. “I could have spoken to Alan.”

    “And said what, exactly? That I said she was bullying me? All she has to say is no, she's not. And she could pull a dozen alibis out of her pocket.”

    “All right, this is what's going to happen, Taylor,” Mrs Dallon stated. “Once Winslow opens again, you're going to go back to school, as if nothing happened. Nothing will happen to you, because the PRT doesn't out new parahumans. The story will be something along the lines of a gas leak. You were never in the locker.”

    “How do you know that about the PRT?” asked Dad.

    “Because we've assisted in this sort of cover-up before,” she told us briskly. “So, Taylor. Pretend that nothing happened. But carry a voice recorder. I have a spare. Record any time that someone's giving you any sort of trouble. Identify them by name on the recording. In the meantime, I'll need your journal, so I can start building a case.”

    “So we're skipping the locker.” Dad didn't make it a question.

    “We're skipping the locker,” she agreed.

    “Uh, about school,” I began.

    “About school?” She looked at me. “What about school?”

    “My powers,” I pointed out. “If they corner me and start working on me, I'll out myself in less than a minute.”

    “Hmm.” She bit her lip, and switched off the recorder. “Explain.”

    "I, uh, still don't have much in the way of control over my Changer ability. So far, all my changes into wyvern form have been pretty well involuntary." I paused. “Vicky's seen them; she can help explain.”

    “Very well.” She rose and went to the door. “Vicky, could you please come in here a moment?”

    Vicky didn't quite cause a sonic boom with her arrival, but she got there pretty quickly, anyway. “What's up, Mom?”

    “We're discussing Taylor's Changer ability. She says she doesn't have much in the way of control over them. Is this true?”

    “Uh, sure,” Vicky agreed. “I didn't see the first one, but I saw all the ones after that.”

    “So what happened with the first one?” Mrs Dallon's eyes were intent; I was very aware of the notepad.

    "They locked me in my locker. You know what was in there with me. I must have triggered pretty quickly. I tried to claw the door open, but I couldn't. So I blew it off the locker with an explosive fireball. Which blew up my locker plus the lockers on either side, and damaged the lockers on either side of that."

    Mrs Dallon made notes. "What did you do then?"

    "I got out of there and flew toward the ocean. The second time that I changed -"

    "Wait," Mrs Dallon interrupted. "You didn't go after your tormentors?"

    "Uh, no," I confirmed. "I wasn't really thinking about that. I just wanted to get the mess off my legs. So I flew to the ocean."

    "Right. So tell me about the second time you Changed."

    "Uh, Mom, that was sort of my fault," confessed Vicky. "She told me how she first changed, and I wanted to see if my fear aura could do the trick."

    "Which it does," I pointed out. "Very dramatically. Mind you, I kind of destroyed the clothes I was wearing at the time." I wrinkled my nose at her; she cheerfully ignored it.

    “I see,” Mrs Dallon replied, raising an eyebrow. “Did you damage anything other than your clothes when this happened?”

    I looked at Vicky; she looked back at me. “Uh, not that I know of,” I confessed. “Vicky?”

    “No, you just changed,” she agreed. “Though the look on your face … “

    “I was a dragon at the time. What look on my face?”

    “The 'oh crap, I'm a dragon again' look.” She snickered. “It was priceless. Though the look when your dad called out was even better, I have to admit.”

    Mrs Dallon cleared her throat sharply; we both looked at her. “As I was saying,” she went on. “You say that no damage was done the second time. What about the third time? What happened then?”

    “Armsmaster happened,” supplied Lady Photon, leaning in the doorway. “He accused Taylor of trying to burn down Winslow -”

    “- not that it wouldn't be an improvement,” I muttered.

    “Taylor, did you actually try to burn down Winslow?” asked Mrs Dallon.

    “Uh, no. I just wanted out of that locker.” I pointed at Vicky and Lady Photon. “Ask them. If I wanted to really set fire to something, it would still be on fire. Right?”

    Vicky nodded vigorously. “Mom, you didn't see her melt Armsmaster's halberd. It was awesome.”

    “I have to agree – not about the 'awesome' part, but about her capabilities,” Lady Photon commented. “If she had truly wanted to set fire to Winslow, it would still be very much aflame.”

    “So the fire that did happen was due to your … “ Mrs Dallon checked her notebook. “ … explosive fireball, right.”

    “That's right, yes,” I agreed.

    "Hmm, good." She wrote a few words, then looked up again. "All right. It sounds very much like your Changer ability is stress-based, as you've no doubt worked out for yourself.”

    “I had pretty well figured that, yes.” I tried not to make it sound sarcastic.

    If she took it as such, she ignored it. “I'd suggest taking the week off, if the school isn't closed that long. Work to learn control over your power. Learn the signs of an upcoming change, see if you can't head it off. Once you can avoid Changing in a stressful environment, then go back to school.” She paused, and smiled slightly. “Because trust me, even though setting fire to them might feel really good in the short run, it won't help much in the long run.”

    “Wow, Mom, was that a joke?” Vicky's eyes were wide. “Holy crap, Mom made a funny. Wait till I tell Ames.”

    “It wasn't that funny, Vicky,” Mrs Dallon told her reprovingly, but her heart wasn't really in it. “Now, Taylor.”

    “Uh, yes, ma'am?” I asked.

    “I'm going to want to see your, uh, wyvern form at some point. I suggest that you and Vicky go somewhere so that you can work on your power control.”

    “Sure thing, Mom,” Vicky agreed at once, grabbing my hand. “Come on, Taylor.”

    “And I need to make a phone call, so if you can entertain Danny a little longer for me, Sarah?” asked Mrs Dallon.

    “I can do that,” Lady Photon responded, stepping aside as Vicky more or less dragged me from the study. “Another cup of tea, Mr Hebert?”

    “Don't mind if I do, Mrs Pelham,” he replied gravely.

    <><>​

    Vicky paused at the bottom of the stairs, and raised her voice. “All right, power testing in progress. No-one goes into my room, okay?”

    “We hear you, dear,” replied Lady Photon's voice. “No-one's going to barge in.”

    "And what are we going to do, exactly?" I asked.

    "We'll think of something." Vicky tugged at my hand. "C'mon."

    I resisted momentarily. "Not that damn fear aura again, okay?"

    "Chicken." But she was grinning as she said it. "Okay, fine, no aura."

    "I'll give you 'chicken'," I muttered, but followed her anyway.

    <><>​

    This is Franklin Rogers. Make it quick.”

    "Mr Rogers, it's Carol Dallon."

    "Carol?" He frowned. "This is not a good time for you to be away from the office.”


    It's never going to be a good time, sir.”

    No, seriously, someone set fire to Winslow High, and three different people had to go and pick up their kids. Now there's rumours about terrorist plots to firebomb all the schools in Brockton Bay. Why did you head out anyway? You don't even have any kids at Winslow.”

    "It was a family matter."


    By family matter, do you mean ordinary family matter, or your type of family matter?”

    Actually, as it happens, sir, both.”

    He waited, but she didn't explain farther. "Okay, if you say so. What's up? Why are you calling me?"

    "I want to warn you of a potential conflict of interest within the firm.”

    That got his attention. “What sort of a conflict of interest?”


    I'm likely to be going head to head with another employee of the firm regarding a lawsuit I'm looking to pursue.”

    Who is it?”

    I'm sorry, sir. I can't tell you that quite yet. Once I've got the paperwork filed, I'll get the appropriate details to you. This is more in the nature of a heads-up.”

    Very well, I'll tell you this for free, Carol. You can pursue outside cases, so long as they don't impinge on the firm's business. If you're going against another member of the firm, then both of you are on your own. You can use our facilities, but we won't support either one against the other.”

    That's fine, sir. I have no problem with that.”

    However, before it comes to that, perhaps mediation could be attempted first. It would look bad in the papers if two of our members started squaring off in the courts.”

    Normally I would not argue with that, sir, but this is a case for damages. Quite extensive damages, I'm afraid.”

    Is this likely to bring the other person's good name into question?”

    If that person chooses not to settle out of court, this is quite likely, sir.”

    And the name of the firm?”

    Won't come into it, sir.”

    Hmm. Thank you, Carol.”

    Thank you for hearing me out, sir.”

    You're one of our best people. Don't go biting off more than you can chew.”

    I'll try not to, sir.” There was a faint noise in the background, one that he couldn't identify. “Ah, I have to go, sir. I'll let you know more when I find out.”

    You do that.”

    <><>​

    “Okay, what happens now?” I asked Vicky, after she closed the door to her room.

    “Well, first, you take your clothes off,” she explained, in a very matter-of-fact tone.

    Vicky!” I protested, blushing scarlet. “Seriously? No!”

    She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Taylor. Every other time you've Changed into your dragon form -”

    “ - wyvern,” I corrected her.

    “Okay, wyvern,” she agreed. “Anyway, every time you've Changed, you've lost all the clothes you're wearing. So, take 'em off first and you don't have to worry about that.”

    “Well, give me something to put around myself,” I objected. “I know you've already seen me naked -”

    “- couldn't really avoid it, to be honest,” she agreed cheerfully. “But you don't have to worry about me making moves on your skinny butt. I'm interested in guys first, last and always.”

    “Best news I've heard all day,” I replied, reluctantly beginning to remove the clothing which she had given to me. “Get me a towel or something?”

    “Sure, here you go.” She handed me a hand towel.

    I looked it over. It would cover my front, or my back, but not both at the same time. “Oh, very funny.”

    “Actually, I have a theory,” she proposed. “If we don't cover you up, maybe the discomfort and stress will cause you to change back into the dragon?”

    “That's a stupid theory,” I told her. “And anyway, it's a wyvern. Come on, give me a real towel.” I shivered as I began to remove the last of my borrowed clothing; her room was warm, so it must have been a psychological effect.

    “Huh. Your butt's looking better from that burn, earlier.”

    I twisted, trying to get a look at the site of the burn. “Huh, so it is.”

    “Good thing, too,” she grinned. “You might have gotten all butt-hurt over it.”

    I stuck out my tongue at her. “That was a terrible joke. Now stop looking at my butt and get me a real towel.” I held up the hand towel between me and her; it made a great apron, or about half of one of those draughty hospital gowns.

    “If you can turn into a dragon,” she pointed out, “you won't need a real towel. Now come on, concentrate. You can do it. Make the Change. Show your powers who's boss.”

    “Wyvern.” I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to hold the towel in place. Uncomfortable, I definitely was. This definitely had points in common with the other times I had Changed.

    Huh, maybe Vicky's got the right idea after all.

    I began to concentrate, to form an idea in my head of what it was like to be the wyvern – or, if it was to be my cape name, the Wyvern – and try to slot myself into it. It wasn't easy; the effort was not unlike attempting to pick myself up by my own shoelaces. The discomfort was indeed helping; with the lack of comfort came increased focus. At that moment, I desperately wanted to Change into the wyvern form, if only to get rid of the goosebumps that were now decorating me in plague proportions.

    It was there, I could almost feel it. All I needed was that little extra effort, to kick my body to Change from one form to the other.

    And if I can learn to Change to the wyvern at will, maybe I can learn to reverse it without needing a hug or a hot shower?

    Gritting my teeth, I concentrated.

    <><>​

    Amy trudged in through the back gate. She didn't often take the bus; it was easier to get a lift home with Vicky. But Vicky had had to go off somewhere in a hurry, and she'd never gotten back to Arcadia, and so Amy had ridden the bus home.

    Climbing the back stairs, she let herself in, closing the door quietly behind her. She opened the fridge to grab an apple, then headed through to the living room. It was a little bit of a surprise to see Aunt Sarah there, as well as Dad and some guy she'd never met before, but she wasn't in the mood for meeting strangers right at that moment.

    Still, politeness was a good thing, so she wandered over. “Hi, Aunt Sarah. Hi, Dad.”

    Mark raised his eyes from the TV long enough to give her a vague smile and a wave; he'd forgotten to take his medications again.


    Hello, dear,” Aunt Sarah greeted her. “This is Danny Hebert.”

    Hi, Mr Hebert.” She looked back at her aunt. “I'm looking for Vicky. Is she in?”

    Oh, yes,” Aunt Sarah told her. “In her room is what she said, but -”

    Okay, thanks.” She smiled warmly at her aunt, and politely at Mr Hebert, and headed up the stairs.

    Amy dear, make sure to knock,” Aunt Sarah called after her.

    Yeah,
    that's gonna happen. Vicky hadn't knocked on her bedroom door after about the first day of them sleeping in separate rooms, and she'd gotten out of the habit herself. Amy headed along the passageway, opened Vicky's door and stepped inside.

    Say, Vicky, why -” she began, before her mind locked up. Because Vicky was standing, facing her. But between Vicky and Amy, facing Vicky, was a total stranger, about her age, with long dark curly hair. Vicky was fully dressed. As far as Amy could tell, the other girl wasn't dressed at all.

    Amy couldn't think of a single good reason as to why Vicky might have a girl in her room, particularly one without clothes on. Many bad ones cropped up, tumbling over one another to make themselves heard. But all she could hear herself think was, Oh god, why not me?

    And then the girl turned, and Amy saw that she was holding a small towel over her front; at the same time, the girl screamed in fright, grabbing for a sheet off the bed. Reflexively, Amy screamed right back, retreating from the girl, from her rival. The girl screamed again; this time, somethinghappened to her body.

    Her face changed, pushing outward from her head. Hair retreated into her scalp. Arms, already skinny, lengthened as membranes spread between them and her body, her fingers shooting outward and growing more membranes. Her skin grew red-gold scales, a tail lengthened from behind her and her legs became digitigrade, with wickedly clawed feet. The scream turned into a high-pitched screech of alarm, while a red-gold crest raised on the saurian head. Both the towel and the sheet fell to the floor, but that didn't matter any more.

    The girl had Changed into a dragon. There was a dragon in Vicky's bedroom. A dragon, which had previously been a teenage girl.

    Backing up, Amy found that the door had swung shut behind her. Trapping her in the room with the dragon.


    <><>​

    Stunned, I watched as the teenage girl – I strongly suspected that this was 'Ames', otherwise known as Panacea – backed up against the door, eyes wide.

    “Hah!” Vicky's exclamation of triumph made both of us jump. We turned to look at her; she pointed at my face, or rather, my muzzle. “That expression, right there. That's what I'm talking about.”

    Lowering my head, I put my wing over it, in lieu of performing a proper face-palm.

    Oh boy.


    End of Part Six

    Part Seven
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2015
  8. Threadmarks: Part Seven: ... For You Are Crunchy, and Go Well With Ketchup
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Seven: … For You are Crunchy, and Go Well With Ketchup



    “Dragon.” Amy Dallon stared at me, eyes wide.

    I'm a wyvern, I thought crossly.

    Amy was obviously no telepath. “Dragon. Room. Why?”

    Vicky stepped over next to me, putting an arm affectionately around my neck. “Because it's awesome, that's why. Taylor, meet Ames. Ames, meet -”

    Thundering footsteps up the stairs and along the passageway interrupted her introductions; Amy moved away from the door just before it was flung open. Mrs Pelham was first through the doorway, followed by Dad, and then Mrs Dallon.

    “We heard screaming,” Dad burst out. “What happened?”

    Vicky grinned. “Well. Ames came in to say hi, and Taylor had sort of taken her clothes off … “

    “Why?” interjected Amy again.

    “Because if she's wearing anything when she Changes, she destroys it.” Vicky grinned at her sister. “Geez, try to keep up. So anyway, Amy was kind of surprised to find someone in my room without any clothes on … “

    “I think anyone would,” offered Dad. I nodded vigorously in agreement.

    “Yeah, I suppose me too,” agreed Vicky. “Anyway, Amy sort of screamed, then Taylor screamed right back, and Amy screamed again, and then Taylor Changed … and yeah, Mom, this is what she looks like.”

    Mrs Dallon stepped forward; behind her, I saw Vicky's father peering in through the doorway. I stood a little straighter as Vicky's mom looked me over, turning my head as she walked around behind me and stepped over my tail.

    “Taylor,” she addressed me, “can you understand me?”

    I nodded, and added an agreeable chirp.

    “That means yes,” Vicky supplied.

    “Thank you, Victoria, I think I got that,” Mrs Dallon murmured. “Taylor, may I see your wings?”

    Again, I nodded, then turned slightly so that I had the room. Unfurling my wings let me reach both walls before I got to full extension, but they still looked pretty good, I thought.

    “Wow. Seriously. Dragon. Big wings.” Amy seemed to be getting over her initial shock, although she still wasn't speaking in complete sentences.

    Dad cleared his throat. “I think we agreed on 'wyvern', actually.”

    “Huh?” asked Amy.

    Her father leaned over to her. “Dragons have four limbs and two wings. Wyverns have two limbs and two wings. It's a fantasy thing.”

    “Okay, right.” Amy looked at Vicky. “But why your room?”

    Vicky shrugged. “Because she needed someplace to Change.”

    “Argh. No. Sorry, I'm not saying this right.” Amy dug her hands through her hair. “Why did she have to be in your room, without anything on, with you there? Why couldn't she just Change on her own? And why was she just standing around like that?”

    “Oh. Right. Sorry.” Vicky looked enlightened. “She has trouble Changing. She needs a little bit of a boost to go from one form into another.”

    “And you may recall that I did suggest that you knock before entering,” Mrs Pelham reminded her.

    “Pfft, that's never gonna happen,” Vicky told her with an airy wave. “Ames and I barge in on each other all the time.”

    “Anyway, it's a stress based Change,” Dad told Amy. “I'm guessing the surprise of having you burst in on her is what tipped the balance in this particular instance.”

    “Oh.” She stared at him. “And who are you, exactly?”

    “Your aunt introduced us, remember?” He extended his hand. “Danny Hebert. Taylor's father. It's an honour to meet you, Panacea.”

    She shook his hand almost by reflex, or so it seemed. “Yeah, nice to meet you too.” Turning, she moved over to where I stood, re-folding my wings just so. “And you're … Taylor, right?”

    I nodded and made the same agreeable noise that I had given her mother.

    “And how long have you been able to Change into a … what did you call it? A wyvern?”

    I shrugged; Vicky leaned in. “She can't actually talk like that,” she explained. “As for how long it's been … well, today, basically.” She grinned broadly at Amy. “But how cool is this? She's joining New Wave!”

    “Wait, what?” Amy asked. “Joining the team? Is that a good idea?”

    “Yes, we think so,” Mrs Pelham told her. “She's a new cape, she's quite powerful in her own way, she doesn't want to be involved with the Protectorate, and she needs support in her Changed form.”

    “Yeah, you should've seen her melt Armsmaster's halberd,” Vicky added enthusiastically. “It was awesome!”

    Amy stared at me; I felt like putting my wing over my face again. “She melted Armsmaster's halberd? Wasn't he mad?”

    Vicky grinned and nodded. “But there wasn't much he could do about it … because, you know, she'd already melted his halberd.”

    “And she's got lots of teeth, and … yeah, I got it,” agreed Amy. “Wow. I wish I'd been here.” She paused. “How did she even end up here?”

    “Okay, you know how I just blew out of Arcadia? It was because I'd heard that a big weird red thing was flying over the city. Turns out it was Taylor here.” Vicky wrapped an arm companionably around my shoulders. “I went to investigate, we kind of fell in the ocean, I talked to her, and we came back here.”

    Amy nodded. “So basically, she followed you home and you want to keep her. Because dragon.”

    Vicky tried to look innocent, and failed. “Maayyybe? Anyway, since then, she's been popping back and forth between wyvern and human form. We've kind of got the wyvern-to-human part down, but the human-to-wyvern part is a bit more complicated.”

    “You said it's a stress-based change,” Amy noted; she was looking thoughtful. “Do you know that for a fact, or is it just a theory?”

    “Oh, it's pretty well established,” Vicky chuckled. “Like when I hit her with my fear aura. She changed pretty darn fast then.”

    “Which also caused her to destroy the clothing she was wearing,” chided Mrs Pelham. “Which you should have thought of beforehand.”

    Vicky waved that away airily. “It was in the cause of scientific experimentation. Besides, they were my old clothes anyway. I got more where that came from.”

    “If you think I'm going to just keep buying you new clothes, you're sadly mistaken,” Mrs Dallon informed her tartly. “But we do need to find a solution to both problems.”

    “What, the destroying-clothes-when-she-Changes problem?” asked Dad.

    “And also the Changing-at-will problem,” Mrs Pelham filled in. “Not so sure what to do about the second one, but I have an idea for the first.”

    I looked at her inquiringly; she seemed to interpret my interrogative chirp correctly. “I'm going to make a phone call, and then we've got a visit to make. Up for another flight?”

    While I was thinking about that, Vicky grinned. “Ooh, ooh. I know who we're visiting. Is it -”

    <><>​

    “- Parian,” Mrs Pelham, or rather Lady Photon, explained as we flew over the city. “Apparently, the name refers to a type of doll, which is apropos, given her costume.”

    I nodded. Yeah, I've heard of her. There wasn't much more I could convey, given my lack of language capability in wyvern form, but that seemed to satisfy the older hero.

    “She's a rogue,” Vicky went on from the other side of me. “Doesn't do the hero thing. Uses her power to make money. Which is a cop-out, if you ask me. I can totally see her using those animated stuffed animals to stop a bank robbery or something.”

    “Now, now,” Lady Photon pointed out, “not everyone with powers wants to fight crime. They're her powers; she's allowed to do whatever she likes with them.”

    “But I just don't get the whole asking for money for using your powers bit,” Vicky told her. “Being a hero's all about helping people because you can, right?” She gestured toward Amy, being carried bridal-style in her aunt's arms. “I mean, what if Ames suddenly started charging for healing people?”

    Amy looked taken aback. “I … never really thought about it before. Charging money … that's not really how we do it in New Wave, right?”

    Maybe you should think about it, I thought, but the screech I let out couldn't really convey that. Darn nonverbal form.

    “Well, this is true,” Lady Photon assured her. “We're heroes, dear, not mercenaries.”

    “But … doctors charge money, right?” Amy was still working her way through it. “And they do a lot less than me, and spend more time doing it. It's not like I'd be doing anything they don't do. Or even anything illegal.”

    “Wow, Ames, where did this come from?” asked Vicky, blithely ignoring the fact that she'd brought up the topic in the first place. “You're Panacea. You're my awesome little sister who cures cancer and heals people because it's the right thing to do.”

    “You're right,” Amy agreed. “Heroes gotta be heroes, right? Rogues get no respect.”

    I thought I detected the echo of Vicky's voice in Amy's words, but I was unable to make a comment at that particular moment. However, I didn't get to think more deeply about the matter, as gunshots sounded from below.

    “Where did that come from?” asked Lady Photon, her force-bubble popping into existence to cover herself and Panacea.

    “Down there, I think.” Vicky pointed and dived; almost instinctively, I followed.

    “Taylor!” shouted Lady Photon. “Wyvern! Stay back! You might get hurt!”

    I heard the words, but I wasn't processing them; a deeper, more primeval urge was pushing me on. Folding my wings back, I accelerated, straining to catch up to Vicky. Now I saw what she had seen; a car outside a shop, a police car across the street. Men shooting at the police officers. One officer was down; I growled, deep in my throat.

    Vicky whipped down out of the sky, slammed into the street on one knee. One fist planted in the now-cracked asphalt, the other arm held back up out of the way. It looked extremely badass; I wondered how long she'd been practising that landing.

    I spread my wings, slowing my descent, changing my plunge into a swoop; Vicky looked as though she had the situation in hand. Rising to her feet, she moved toward the three men behind the car. Bullets were fired at her; one or two might have struck, but to no particular effect. Even from where I was, I could feel her aura. For me, she was impressive; for the criminals, terrifying. I know how that feels.

    Moving with fluid ease, she vaulted the car and grabbed the nearest man; while she was thus occupied, the other two ran back into the store. Oh no, I thought. You do not get away that easily.

    My swoop carried me over the building and I rolled in midair; a fast loop bled off speed, and I spilled air from my wings to land on the building opposite the back door.

    Not a moment too soon; the door burst even as I did so, and the two tumbled out into the alleyway. Inhaling deeply, I unleashed a flame similar to that which had destroyed Armsmaster's halberd. The blue-hot jet traced a line across the alleyway that liquefied the corner of a dumpster, set fire to a stack of wet newspapers, cleanly bisected a trash can plus all of its contents, and scored a four-inch deep glowing red gutter in the concrete.

    Quite understandably, they halted, looking up at me and then back down at the line I had marked. If they wanted to get out of the alleyway, they would have to cross that line. Nonverbal I might be, but I was pretty sure that they got the message. But just in case …

    Flapping my wings once, I took off from my perch and landed on the far side of the line. Wings spread and jaws agape, I repeated the threat display that I had used on Armsmaster; my screech echoed between the walls of the alleyway.

    One of the men blanched and bolted back inside, while the other raised his pistol. I had no desire to see how bulletproof, or otherwise, I really was, so I spat an explosive fireball at him. Just a little one. Barely there at all. The detonation knocked him on his ass, stunned him, and removed all the hair from the front of his head. It also set fire to his shirt, but that went out a moment or so later.

    He was still sitting there, blinking, touching his face to see if it was still there, when Vicky came out into the alleyway. She took one look at my stance, then at the criminal, and burst out laughing. He didn't resist when she disarmed him and took him in hand, which was a good thing, because she was nearly helpless with giggles herself. I followed along behind them; it wouldn't be a bad thing, I figured, to be seen with Glory Girl.

    “Oh god,” she chortled after handing the hapless thief over to the police, “he looked exactly like a cartoon character after a bomb's gone off in his face.”

    I shrugged and nodded; that was more or less what had happened, after all.

    Lady Photon had landed, and Panacea was seeing to the wounded officer. I was introduced as 'Wyvern, our newest member,' which garnered startled looks from the other police officers. After a moment, they nodded respectfully in my direction, and I nodded back.

    After Vicky gave her statement – she helpfully explained that I didn't talk – we took off again on our interrupted trip. Fortunately, the rest of the journey passed without incident.

    <><>​

    I stood, wings raised a little and partly unfolded, as Parian walked around me. It was much easier for her to do so than it had been for Mrs Dallon, back in Vicky's bedroom; the loft we were standing in was wide and airy, with a high ceiling. It was sparsely furnished, with a worktable, a couple of chairs, and several dressmakers' dummies. Vicky and Amy were checking their phones, off to the side.

    Parian herself wore a sort of frilly dress that had been out of fashion in the real world for maybe a hundred years. She was covered up almost totally, even down to gloves to go with the dress. About the only thing that I could tell about her was that she was blonde; a mass of golden curls tumbled down her back from the totally-not-creepy porcelain doll's-face mask that she wore.

    “So what exactly are you looking for, here?” she asked. “I can make something up to fit Wyvern easily enough, but that's not a real challenge. Anyone with a sewing machine could do that.”

    “You're right,” Lady Photon agreed. “We're after a costume that will give her modesty once she changes back to human form. One that she can wear under her clothes when she's in human form, just in case.”

    Parian rubbed her chin under the mask. “Something that will fit her in both forms? Hmm. That is a challenge.” A measuring tape lifted off of the worktable and drifted over to me; I restrained the urge to snap at it as it wrapped itself around my leg.

    Lady Photon raised her head. “So can you do it?”

    “I won't know until I've seen her human form, and the Change in between,” Parian stated. She observed the measurement; beside her head, a levitating pencil took notes in a similarly floating notepad. I watched with fascination. “If she simply flashes from one form to another … “

    “She doesn't,” Vicky informed her. “It takes a few seconds. She actually alters from one form to the other.”

    “Well, that makes it possible, at least,” allowed the doll-faced rogue, as the tape took its measurements. “But I'll still need to see the human form, and observe the Change.”

    “Yeah, that's a bit of a problem,” Vicky noted. “Changing back only really happens when she's totally relaxed, and she won't be wearing anything when she does.”

    “Which is why you need the costume in the first place,” agreed Parian. She turned to address me. “Well, Wyvern, you understand that I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. But if we don't do this, then I can't help you with the costume. Yes?”

    I nodded and made my agreeable noise, then stood a little straighter and brought my wings around to cover myself.

    “Got anything we can wrap around her?” asked Vicky; she was picking up on my body language.

    “I've got changing screens over there,” Parian offered, pointing to a corner of the loft. “And a robe she can put on … she's not really buff, in her human form, is she?”

    “Pfft, hah, no,” snorted Vicky. “She's about your weight, but a bit taller than me.”

    Parian seemed to look her over. “Huh,” she observed. “On the skinny side, then. Good, that'll make this easier. I hope. Come on, Wyvern.”

    I followed her to the changing screens; they were taller than Parian herself by a good six inches, though in my normal form, I would just about be able to peek over the top. On the way, she grabbed a long silk bathrobe; gesturing me behind the screens, she draped the robe over the top. “Put this on once you've Changed,” she advised me. “Then we can see how your measurements have altered.”

    Again, I nodded, and gave her a friendly chirp. She nodded back as I sidled behind the screens, keeping my wings in so as not to knock them down. Because that would make my day just perfect.

    Okay, I told myself. Time to prove I can Change back. Nobody can see me, and I've got clothes right there. It won't be embarrassing this time.

    It didn't happen at once, which didn't totally surprise me, so I breathed deeply, trying to relax myself, get rid of the tension in my muscles. The first time I'd done this was when I had been drifting off to sleep on the sofa. Feeling safe for the first time. Closing my eyes, I tried to recapture the way I had felt. Safe … warm … no danger … comfortable …

    I opened my eyes. Nictitating membranes flicked across and back, a familiar sensation. I still had a muzzle, still had wings. I was still a dragon.

    Okay, let's try that again.

    The next time … Dad had wrapped me in the comforter, and had hugged me. I had felt so safe, so warm in his arms. So accepted. Even though I had become a creature out of fantasy stories, he had never hesitated to comfort me. Once more I closed my eyes, wrapping my wings around myself, trying to feel like that again.

    And … nothing. No matter how I tried to force myself into human form, no matter how I visualised changing back, I was missing something. Missing a vital key.

    “How you doing back there?” called Vicky.

    I replied with a frustrated snarl. There were no words in it, but then, the message was in the content.

    “Keep trying,” Lady Photon urged. “You'll master it. I have faith in you.”

    “Maybe I can help?” That was Amy. “Trigger the feeling of relaxation?”

    “Ames, you don't work with brains,” Vicky protested, even as I heard the healer's footsteps growing closer. “You can't.”

    “Relaxing has to do with more than just the brain,” Amy replied to her, now quite close behind the screen. “I can give, uh, Wyvern a sense of well-being without ever needing to touch her brain.”

    I let out a questioning chirp.

    “Wyvern?” she asked from just a few feet away. “I'm going to need for you to put your wingtip or something over the top of the screen, so I can get physical contact with you.”

    There wasn't much in the way of choice, so I did as she asked, raising my main wing-finger so that it protruded over the screen. Almost immediately, I felt her cool hand closing over it.

    “All right then,” she told me, “I need your permission to affect your body. It won't be permanent; I'll just temporarily adjust some hormonal balances, all right?”

    I chirped again, trying to sound agreeable.

    “That means yes!” Vicky called out.

    Panacea sighed. “Uh, a chirp for yes, a loud squawk for no.”

    I chirped once, then waited.

    “I'm going to take that as permission. Okay, here we go.”

    At first, nothing seemed to happen, and then I felt knots of tension just unravelling and draining away. The feeling of relaxation spread throughout my body like a steady tide, pushing all tension before it. And it worked; I began to Change.

    This time, I was aware of the Change as it happened, aware of the sensation of my body shifting and changing in various directions. In a word … it was bizarre. My muzzle retracted, my spine straightened, my tail retracted, as did the flight membranes. In just a few seconds, I found myself once more standing on human feet, not reptilian claws. And my hand was on top of the screen, with Amy Dallon holding my index finger.

    I cleared my throat as I pulled my finger free of her grip. “Okay, that's always weird.” Tugging the robe down from where it was draped, I put it on and tied the belt firmly around my waist. Parian needn't have worried; the robe could have gone around me three times.

    “Hi, it's nice to meet you in person,” Amy told me as I came out from behind the screen. She held out her hand.

    I shook it; we both grinned self-consciously at the formality. “Nice to meet you too,” I replied.

    “Thanks for letting me help you Change,” she noted. “I've never had the chance to see how a Change actually works before now. It's really fascinating.”

    “Well, thanks for kicking it over for me,” I replied. “And let's hope Vicky doesn't decide to fear-aura me again when it comes time for me to Change back.”

    “She really did that?” Amy paused, and nodded to herself as she eyed her sister. “Yeah, you'd definitely do that, wouldn't you?”

    Vicky grinned at Amy's tone as she came up on my other side, hooking her arm through mine. “Sure. It worked, didn't it?”

    “Seriously.” Amy rolled her eyes. “Brute force isn't the answer to everything.”

    “Is for me.”

    “Girls. Enough.” Lady Photon clapped her hands once, gently. “Let Parian get her measurements in peace.” She handed me my glasses, as well as a simple cloth mask; I put them on gratefully, and the loft came into focus once more. I noticed that Parian had been averting her eyes until my identity was concealed, for which I was somewhat grateful.

    Then I had to hold still as Parian took the same measurements that she had before. Her impersonal air, and the fact that the measuring tape didn't need her to hold it in place, made it a somewhat less embarrassing experience than it could have been.

    Finally, she was finished, and I was allowed to take a seat on one of the chairs. Amy sat on the other, slurping at a chocolate shake. Silently, she handed me another one; Vicky had apparently taken it on herself to go on a snack run. I didn't mind in the least.

    “Hmm,” murmured Parian, studying the two different sets of measurements. “This is interesting. I think I can do something with this, but I'm going to need to do one final set of checks.”

    “What have I got to do?” I asked; this sounded ominous.

    “I'm going to need you to Change back, but first I'm going to have to put marks on your body so that we know which way it's altering shape.”

    “Marks … on my body?”

    “Sure.” She crossed to the work table and picked up two markers; one black, and one fluorescent blue. “These should show up best against your scales.”

    “And where do these marks need to go?” I was getting a sinking feeling about this.

    “Oh, uh, around here,” she told me, gesturing to her body between her neck and thighs. Which was what I had figured.

    “Yay,” I muttered. “Wonderful.”

    <><>​

    She didn't want to do it immediately; instead, she bent over the worktable with Lady Photon, sketching on a piece of paper, and discussing options. I was happy to leave them to it, so I sat on the stool and chatted to Vicky and Amy. The latter was interested in how I had triggered; I gave her what details I could stand to give. Then Vicky gave a highly colourful account of how we had met, and subsequently ended up in the ocean; Amy came close to snorting chocolate shake out of her nose.

    We told her about how I had managed to ruin two changes of clothes after getting to the Dallon household; Vicky's description of how I had destroyed Armsmaster's halberd had Amy looking at me with a certain amount of respect. She nodded when Vicky mentioned the plastic sheet; apparently she recalled it as well.

    “I'm sorry for screaming when we first met,” she went on, “I was really, really surprised to see you in Vicky's room. I walked in, and all I could see of you was a lot of hair and a bare butt.”

    I snorted. “My butt's not that big, is it?”

    “Well, no,” admitted Amy. “But when you're not expecting to see one, it certainly draws the attention.”

    “Hah, true,” Vicky agreed, and began to tell a story about an epic costume malfunction that had made it online after a cape battle in Detroit. Amy and I were both giggling madly by the time Lady Photon and Parian came back over to us.

    “All right then,” Parian stated, holding up a piece of paper. It held a sketched silhouette of what I guessed was me. Lines were overlaid on it, in a rough grid pattern over the torso. “Once we trigger your Change back to wyvern form, I'll be able to compare these, and work out how to make your costume so that it fits both forms.”

    In the end, I allowed her to inscribe the lines on me, but we did it behind the screens, and I had her make me some underwear so that it didn't have to be totally embarrassing. I held up my arms as she traced lines around my ribs, and worked at not moving too much as the grid-lines took shape. Just above my butt, she drew a much tighter set of gridlines, which piqued my curiosity.

    “What's that for?” I asked, looking back over my shoulder.

    “Your tail,” she pointed out. “I'm going to have to put a gap in for it. This will tell me where.”

    “Oh. Right.” Having a tail was a relatively new experience; I was glad that someone was paying attention.

    Finally, she finished her latitude and longitude markings, as I privately thought of them, and retreated from behind the screen. “Any time you're ready,” she called.

    “So how's it look?” Vicky interjected.

    I looked down at myself. “Like some sort of motion-capture effect for the movies. Or really, really unimaginative body art.”

    “It's actually the same principle as motion capture,” Lady Photon pointed out. “So, are you ready to try to Change yourself, or do you need assistance?”

    “Gimme a few,” I requested. Taking off my glasses and mask, I hung them over the edge of the screen.

    “Okay,” Vicky called back, “but if you're not out in five minutes, I'm coming in with a camera.”

    I was almost certain she was joking, but I concentrated on regaining the Wyvern form anyway. It was there; I knew it was there. I could Change from one to the other without meaning to already; I needed to be able to do it on purpose.

    Stress, I told myself. Stress. I need to Change. I need to feel stress.

    And then I realised that I knew what I had to do in order to Change; I just didn't want to do it.

    Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath; before I could talk myself out of it, I delved into the worse memories of the last year. Everything that Emma, Madison and Sophia had done to me. All of the dozens of hurts, physical and emotional, that I had endured at their hands.

    The pain, the humiliation, the anger that I had swallowed, it all came back to me. I took another deep breath, and another. Distantly, I felt momentary constriction, but it loosened again almost immediately.

    I opened my eyes; nictitating membranes flashed across and back as true-lids blinked. Flexing my wings, I opened my jaws and let out a triumphant squawk. I'd needed to relive times that I really, really didn't want to go back to – even now, I was simmering with anger at the reminder of what Emma and her cronies had put me through – but I had succeeded in Changing voluntarily. The makeshift underwear had paid the price, but that was what it had been there for; the robe, on the other hand, was safe.

    Now, if only I could learn to Change back just as easily.

    I strutted out from behind the screens, head held high; Vicky grabbed me in a hug. “Wow, that was fast,” she exclaimed. “You must've been really worried about the camera.” I pretended to snap at her; she laughed as she danced away.

    “All right then,” Parian declared. “Let's see how well this worked.” Obediently, I stood still as she examined the markings, correlating them to the sketch she held. Occasionally, her measuring tape laid itself up against me, and she jotted down a number. Lady Photon watched the process with interest, while Vicky and Amy chatted with each other. The majority of their conversation seemed to have to do with school and boys, not necessarily in that order. Vicky was showing interest in Gallant, from the Wards and didn't care who knew it, while Amy was more reserved; she didn't seem to care about such matters.

    As riveting as the gossip was – Arcadia sounded vastly different to Winslow, in basically every way that mattered – I was glad when Parian's examination of the markings came to an end. “Okay,” she told me. “Go Change back if you can. I've got enough to go on with.”

    I made an enquiring chirp. “What does that mean?” asked Lady Photon, apparently of the same mind as myself.

    “It means that I'm ready to start making the costume,” Parian told us. I couldn't see her face, but she sounded quite pleased with herself. “Hopefully, it'll be easier than I thought it was going to be.”

    Once more, I traipsed behind the screens. My glasses and mask were still there, as were the destroyed remains of the underwear that Parian had stitched together to give me some modesty. The robe was also where I had left it, which meant that I wouldn't be left without clothing once I Changed back. It was amazing how reassuring that was to me, given the day that I'd just had.

    Okay, I can do this, I told myself. I can Change to a wyvern, so I can Change back to a human. Easy peasy.

    I closed my eyes and reminded myself what it felt like to be human. Two legs, two arms, no tail. No flame breath. Being able to talk.

    Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and did my best to relax, to let myself slip back into what was (I hoped) still my natural form. I did my best to remember better days, the good times I'd had with Mom and Dad. But every good memory seemed to lead to a bad one; Mom dead, Dad distraught.

    I tried again; this time I focused on Vicky and Amy, on Flashbang and Brandish and Lady Photon. The acceptance they had shown me when they could easily have rejected me, turned me away.

    It gave me a warm feeling, a good feeling, but there wasn't enough of it. It was still too new; deep down, I wasn't sure if I could trust it. Too many good things had gone bad for me in the past.

    Eventually, I leaned around the screens and chirped to get their attention. Amy's head came up.

    “Do you need my help?” she asked.

    I nodded and chirped in the affirmative.

    “Okay.” Smiling, she hopped off the stool and strolled over; I went back behind the screens again, and extended my wingtip up and over. She was getting better at it; this time, it only seemed to take a few seconds before the Change kicked in. Once I was back in human form, I donned the robe, glasses and mask, and came out from behind the screen.

    Parian had not been idle; the costume was taking shape, with small razors shaping the cloth before needles and thread fastened it together. It was being assembled on an adjustable dressmaker's dummy that had been cranked to 'tall and skinny'. Lady Photon and Vicky were watching with some interest as Amy and I joined them.

    “It's fortunate that your wyvern form is relatively humanoid,” Parian informed me. “I've heard of some Changers who take on utterly weird shapes. I couldn't do this with them.”

    “There is some change in proportion,” Lady Photon commented, in what I considered to be masterful understatement. “Are you able to allow for that?”

    Parian nodded. “The fabric has some give in it; not much, but some. So long as it's not damaged in battle, it should supply Wyvern with sufficient modesty if she happens to turn back to human in public.”

    “Modesty is good,” I noted. “I like it.”

    Vicky snickered. “Says the girl who's destroyed her clothing how many times today?”

    I rolled my eyes. “Says the girl who was responsible for at least one of those times, and had far too much fun with the others?”

    She grinned at me; I stuck my tongue out at her.



    End of Part Seven

    Part Eight
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2016
  9. Threadmarks: Part Eight: All Dressed Up
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Eight: All Dressed Up


    Parian's voice sounded from beyond the partition. “Okay, so how does it fit?”

    I hesitated, then called out, “Uh, there's not much of it.”

    “Just think of it as a swimsuit,” I heard Vicky respond cheerfully.

    “I'm not much into swimsuits, either,” I replied.

    “Are you decent enough for me to come back there?” asked the seamstress.

    I looked down at myself. I was covered. Besides, she saw more of me when she was drawing those damn lines on my body. “Okay, sure, come on back.”

    A moment later, she appeared around the screen. She paused to look over the swimsuit – that is, costume. “What's the matter?” she asked. “It fits all right, doesn't it?”

    I fluttered my hands over my body. “I guess I don't like the idea of running around in something that's this … uh, well, skimpy.”

    Her voice was sympathetic, even if I couldn't see her face behind the porcelain mask. “I can understand that. I feel much the same way. But there's not much more I can add that won't either hamper you or get torn the first time you Change.”

    I grimaced. “Something, anything. I feel kinda almost undressed here. Below the waist, it's like I'm wearing just underwear in public. And up the sides, it kind of gapes. If I bend forward -” I demonstrated, holding it in, “- there's a good chance that people will get a lot more than a glimpse of side-boob, if you know what I mean.”

    “Hm. That is kind of a problem.” She put her head to one side, resting her chin on her knuckles. “I had the idea that it would hang together more closely, but it's obviously not doing that. There are static-cling materials out there, but they cost an arm and a leg.”

    “Which I can't afford and I don't want to put that on you or Lady Photon,” I replied.

    “Wait a moment.” She snapped her fingers. “I have just the thing. How about zippers? Heavy zippers that can be pulled up the moment you change to human. And when you Change back, they get pushed down again.”

    “That could work,” I conceded. “But what about down there?” I gestured at myself. “I keep wanting to cover myself. And guys will be able to stare at my butt. Or rather, see how skinny my butt really is.”

    “Hm.” Her voice was serious, for all that I thought I heard a tinge of amusement there. “Well, okay then. Glory Girl wears a skirt over bike shorts. Why don't we put a skirt on this thing? Short enough that it won't hamper you when you're in wyvern form and long enough that it'll drape down and give you a little modesty when you're in human form.”

    Looking down at the costume, I thought about that. “Okay, we can try that.”

    “Well then,” she agreed, moving back to give me privacy. “Get back into the robe and I'll see what I can do.”

    <><>​

    “Well, what do you think?” I asked, stepping out from behind the screen.

    Parian's gaze was impassive, but the other three showed signs of interest. Lady Photon stepped forward and gestured in a circle. “Turn around,” she requested.

    I turned in a circle; as I did so, Vicky and Amy stepped up, checking over every inch of the costume.

    “Huh, I don't know what the fuss was all about,” Vicky snorted. “If that's a swimsuit, it's from about a century ago.”

    “Yeah, well, your swimsuits could be made from the off-cuts from this one,” Amy sniped cheerfully.

    “There were barely any off-cuts.”

    “My point still stands.”

    “Girls, shush,” Lady Photon chided them gently. Vicky stuck her tongue out at Amy. “Wyvern, how do you feel? Does the skirt work?”

    I looked down at myself, at the skirt that now hung from the costume. It only covered me down to mid-thigh – less at the sides – but there was now the illusion of modesty, backing up the actual modesty of the costume itself.

    “Yeah,” I admitted. “It does work. I like it.”

    “The skirt does kinda finish it off, doesn't it?” Amy mused.

    I think it'll look kinda funny when you're in wyvern form and you're still wearing a skirt,” Vicky pointed out.

    “Well, that's what we can find out now,” suggested Lady Photon. “Wyvern, would you like to Change for us?”

    “Sure,” I agreed. “One second, I'll just go behind the screen.”

    “Why?” asked Vicky. “You're wearing the costume now.”

    “Yeah,” I replied, “but what if something, you know, goes wrong with it?” I gestured. “Riippp.”

    “So what if?” She shrugged. “You'll be the wyvern.”

    “Hm.” I considered this. “Good point.”

    Putting the glasses on the table but leaving the mask in place, I worked at summoning up the dark memories. The endless tormenting. The flute. The locker. My blood ran cold, there was a lump in my throat and I wanted to cry.

    But I didn't. Instead, I found myself Changing, altering form. My arms grew longer, membranes stretching out to match my elongating fingers. The zippers on each side of the costume came into their own now, sliding down and allowing the wing membranes to form naturally. At the same time, my emerging tail poked out through the slit in the costume just above my butt.

    While my overall shape changed dramatically, my basic form did not; I ended the transformation still bipedal, still with two legs and two arms. My legs were wider; the material there and elsewhere had obviously been selected for its give. I checked as carefully as I could; nothing was torn, nothing damaged. The skirt, as Vicky had noted, looked faintly ridiculous, but I could live with ridiculous if it meant that I knew nobody could stare at my butt in a skin-tight costume.

    Opening my mouth, I let out a triumphant squawk. Turning in a circle, I spread my wings wide so that they could all see the costume.

    Lady Photon nodded. “Well, now. That works. It works very well.”

    “Hell, yes,” Vicky agreed. “And the skirt doesn't even look as silly as I thought it might.” I turned my head toward her and made a rude noise; she grinned at me.

    “Definitely, yes,” Amy stated. “I kinda like it.”

    Vicky elbowed her in the ribs. “Maybe we should get you out of that burqa and into something more form-fitting too, sis. Show off that bod for the boys.”

    “Yeah, no, I'll pass,” Amy demurred. “Me and my burqa are doing quite well, thanks.”

    “Your loss.” Vicky turned to me. “So, uh, Wyvern, now you got your costume. Wanna blow this popsicle stand and go scare up some trouble?”

    “Wait, wait,” Lady Photon interrupted before I could reply in any meaningful way. “We need to discuss options now.”

    “Options?” asked Parian. “What do you mean?”

    “Different colour costumes, for one.” Lady Photon pointed at the one I was wearing. “Basic black works well, but I was thinking of one in white, with maybe some sort of symbol, to fit in with the basic New Wave theme. Also, perhaps one that matches her scales.”

    Now Parian was nodding. “I see what you mean,” she agreed. “Now that I've got the pattern, that'll be easy.”

    “Also, because of her particular needs,” Lady Photon noted, “maybe a couple of pouches. One to carry a pair of glasses and one to carry a mask.”

    “Phone,” blurted Amy. “A phone, in case she needs to call home.”

    Lady Photon nodded to her. “Good thinking, Panacea. A third pouch for a phone.”

    Parian didn't seem to be doing anything, but a pencil was scribbling on her notepad in midair. “Can I make a suggestion?”

    “Of course,” Lady Photon agreed.

    “If we put the pouches on a belt, she won't need to worry about what's being held on which costume.”

    “A belt, yes, of course,” replied Lady Photon. “That should definitely work.”

    “Wow, geez, and I wanted to get out of here sometime tonight,” groaned Vicky in a distinctly exaggerated tone of voice. “How long's this gonna take?”

    Parian held up a finger. We couldn't see her smile, of course, but we could hear the satisfaction in her voice. “Give me ten minutes.”

    <><>​

    “That was more like twenty minutes,” grumbled Vicky as we flew away from Parian's workshop. I wore the costume, slightly adjusted to accommodate the belt which Parian had whipped up on the fly. My glasses reposed in one of the pouches and the cloth mask in another. The third lay empty, awaiting a phone.

    Lady Photon shook her head. “You do realise that patience is a virtue, right?”

    “Yeah, but not when there's bad guys out there just begging to be Wyverned to within an inch of their lives.”

    Amy, resting in Vicky's arms, frowned. “Did you just use 'Wyvern' as a verb?”

    “And what if I did?” Vicky adopted a stuck-up tone of voice. “'Wyvern': verb. To inflict upon one's foes the absolute terror that rightfully comes from understanding that you've just pissed off a fire-breathing dragon. Also, to breathe fire on objects in such a manner that absolutely destroys them and leaves no doubt that a wyvern was involved. Halberds belonging to overly pretentious superheroes, for instance. Occasionally used as a noun. As in, Dammit, the wyvern just melted my halberd.”

    I let out a screech of laughter, while Lady Photon smiled tolerantly.

    “Okay, yeah, I'll give you that one,” agreed Amy, trying not to giggle. “That's a good one. I like it.”

    “Okay,” Vicky decided briskly. “Once we've got you home, Ames, me and Taylor can go out and show Brockton Bay that there's a new hero in town.”

    “Don't stay out too long, dears,” Lady Photon advised. “It is a school night after all.”

    At the mention of 'school', I let out a disapproving screech. She must have picked up on it, because she looked over at me. “Now, Taylor, don't worry too much. Winslow will be closed for at least a day while they make sure that the building is still structurally sound. Maybe more time than that. In the meantime, you'll be working on your Change control, as Carol suggested.”

    Oh. Right. Yeah.

    “Hey, I got a great idea!”

    We all looked at Vicky. I wasn't sure what was going through everyone else's minds, but the thought that crossed mine was Uh oh …

    “And what is this idea, Vicky?” Lady Photon's voice didn't betray any trepidation at all; that made her braver than me. Or maybe she was just a really good actor.

    “Taylor can come to Arcadia with me and Ames,” Vicky responded enthusiastically. “She can meet everyone.”

    There was a long pause while each of us tried to fit our heads around the concept. I stopped flapping and glided for a few seconds.

    “Uh, Vicky …” That was Amy. “Taylor's going to kind of have a secret identity, remember? Bringing her to school is not the best way to maintain that sort of thing.” Gliding alongside, I nodded to show that I agreed.

    “No, no,” Vicky protested. “She can come to the school as Wyvern.”

    <><>​

    Staring at her, I let out a startled screech. Half a second later, the other two joined in; Lady Photon was a fraction ahead of Amy.

    “What?”

    “You've got to be kidding!”

    Lady Photon got her composure back before Amy did. “Victoria dear,” she began again. “How is that a good idea?”

    “Well, it gets people used to her,” Vicky pointed out. “She gets used to being the wyvern among people. I'll be there to slap anyone down who wants to be mean to her. But it'll still be just a little stressful, so she's unlikely to Change back in front of everyone.”

    “So it'll be more of a show and tell than actually Taylor attending classes,” Amy decided. “Admit it, you just want to show off the fact that we've got a dragon on the team.”

    “Wyvern but hell, yes,” declared Vicky. “I mean, seriously, Ames. Isn't this about the coolest thing that's ever happened to the team?”

    Amy sighed. “Yeah, it is pretty cool. I mean, I'm not as dragon-mad as you are, but I like them pretty much. And Taylor? I like you as a person too. Even if, the first time we met, I thought you were making moves on my sister.”

    <><>​

    There was a stunned pause, then Vicky started laughing. Taylor joined in, making odd screeching noises, apparently trying not to lose control of her flight and tumble from the sky. Aunt Sarah took the initiative and landed on a rooftop below; Vicky landed with me then let me go and bent over with her hands on her knees, still laughing. Taylor's arrival was more of a controlled crash; she sprawled on the gravel then rolled on to her back, still making those odd screeching sounds.

    My goodness,” Aunt Sarah commented to me as we watched the other two cackle with mirth. “You really thought that?”

    I flushed. “Well, yeah, kinda,” I admitted.


    I see.” Her eyes searched mine; not for the first time, I was glad of the scarf that I habitually wore over the lower part of my face as part of my costume. Still, she seemed to see something. “Hm.”

    What?” I asked defensively. Please don't ask. Please don't ask.

    “ … nothing,” she replied after a pause so long that my heart nearly stopped. “But Amy?”

    Uh, yeah?”

    Her eyes seemed to bore into mine. “If you ever need to talk to someone about anything, anything at all … you know you can talk to me, right?”


    I … yeah, okay. Thanks.” I turned away from her, not at all sure what she'd seen in my face, heard in my voice. I didn't know if I'd ever take her up on it. But the fact that the chance was there, the option to tell someone … I felt just a little of the hard knot of tension inside me loosening up, ever so slightly.

    All right then!” Aunt Sarah's voice cut over my thoughts as she clapped her hands. “It wasn't that funny, you two. Come on, Amy's still got to get home before you two delinquents go on patrol.”

    Tears were running down Vicky's face when she straightened up. “Me and Taylor talked about that, up in my room. But she was worried about me making moves on her, so I explained that I was a lot more interested in boys than in her skinny butt. It just sounded so funny when Ames mentioned it too.”

    Taylor – or rather, Wyvern, in that form – scrambled to her feet and nodded in agreement, adding one of her weird sounding lizard chirps. I had to admit, she was very cool looking indeed, especially when she spread her wings. I didn't know if I was as smitten with her as Vicky was – in a good way, of course – but I was a tiny bit envious that I hadn't met her first.

    Of course, I could never show this. For years I had followed Vicky around like a shadow, doing everything she did, until I realised how I really felt about her. So now I was trying to prove that I could have my own likes and dislikes, be my own person. Maybe if I didn't shape my world around Vicky, I could stop being quite so jealous when I saw her with Dean.

    Well, I could hope.


    <><>​

    Lady Photon and I took to the air while Vicky and Amy were still getting organised; they caught up shortly afterward, given that my top flying speed was nowhere near Vicky's, even when she was laden down with her sister. I felt better as I sculled through the air; having a good laugh was quite therapeutic in its own way.

    If I wasn't much mistaken, I was actually getting better at flying, too. As far as I could tell, I was getting where I wanted to be with less wasted effort, my wings moving more efficiently. I still wasn't much faster, but I'd be able to fly farther now. Which was definitely a good thing.

    Still, I had the obscure feeling that Lady Photon and Vicky were cheating somehow; while I had to expend actual energy to get up to altitude and stay there, they just cruised along effortlessly. On the other hand, I could use the large surface area of my wings to do things that they couldn't, at least not easily. Flaring my wings, I pulled a hard barrel roll, ending up on the other side of Lady Photon from her two nieces.

    “Hey, wow,” the healer exclaimed. “You never told me she could do that.”

    “Ignore her,” Vicky advised her sister. “She's just showing off.”

    “Showing off or not, that's quite impressive,” Lady Photon pointed out. “I suppose that because you have to work harder at flying, you think more about it and what you can do with it.”

    I nodded; that seemed to be about right. Plus, although I couldn't convey this, there seemed to be an instinctive flying capability that allowed me to pull off complex manoeuvres with relative ease. Or maybe I was just talented; who knew?

    We glided down to a landing outside the Dallon household; from above, it was easy to pick out the row of dark spots caused by my destruction of Armsmaster's halberd. I was torn between regret that I'd done it and pride that I'd managed to pull off something so impressive.

    <><>​

    Dad greeted us at the front door; he looked my costume up and down with some bemusement. “And this fits you when you're human?” he asked.

    I nodded, chirping agreement.

    “It really does,” Vicky told him. “It looks like something you'd wear to the beach if you had no sense of adventure. Or to the mall, even.”

    I shook my head. I would not be wearing it to the mall. Vicky, apparently divining my thoughts, grinned at me. “Wuss.”

    Ostentatiously, I ignored her, turning to Amy. Holding out my wingtip to the healer, I made an inquiring chirp.

    “Oh, you want to Change back?” Amy took hold of my wing, but waited until I nodded. Then she seemed to concentrate very slightly; I felt the soothing waves spreading through my body as the Change began. It went smoothly enough; when I was fully human, Amy let my arm go and I pulled the zippers up on either side of my body.

    “Thanks,” I told Amy, then turned to Dad. “See? It works.”

    “Huh, so it does,” he agreed. “I wasn't sure how it could, but Parian obviously knows her stuff.”

    “And get this,” I told him. “Belt pouches.” Opening one pouch, I pulled out my glasses and put them on, then opened the next one and showed him the cloth mask that Parian had made up for me. “See? All equipped and ready to go.”

    “Except for a phone,” Lady Photon reminded me. “We've still got to get that for you.”

    Dad nodded. “I can sort of see the reason why,” he conceded, turning to her. “I don't like mobile phones – personal reasons – but as a superhero, Taylor will probably need one.”

    “Well, to be honest, I won't even be able to use any of this unless I'm in human form,” I pointed out. “But if I am in human form, I'll almost certainly need it.”

    “And you'll be able to wear the costume under your clothing if need be,” observed Mrs Dallon; she had emerged from her study just in time to see the transformation. “That's good. Very useful.”

    “Oh, hi,” I greeted her. She was Vicky and Amy's mom and she was nice to me, so I wanted to be polite, but she still didn't come off as approachable as Mrs Pelham. “Thanks. I'm still getting used to it, but it seems to work. Parian says she'll be making a couple more in different colours.”

    “That's probably a good idea,” she replied. “Now, I'm going to need to see your log of events at Winslow before I can do any more preparation. And you're all going to need to not contact the Barnses or anyone else regarding the matter until I'm ready for the case to move ahead. Is that understood?”

    “Perfectly,” Dad assured her. “They'll probably be closing the school for a few days anyway, so Taylor won't even need to see Emma.”

    “Actually, about that,” I observed. “Vicky wants me to come to Arcadia with her and Amy. As the Wyvern, not as me.”

    He blinked, startled. “Is that really a good idea?”

    Mrs Dallon rubbed her chin gently. “Actually, it's not a terrible idea. Vicky, you know the Wards, right?”

    “Uh, yeah, some of them,” admitted the blonde. “The ones that go to Arcadia, anyway. I don't know who Shadow Stalker is yet. Or Vista. I think they go to different schools.”

    “Well, we can't have everything,” Mrs Dallon decided briskly. “If you weren't already thinking of doing so, you could introduce Wyvern to the Wards -”

    “Uh, wait,” I interjected. “I don't know if I'm comfortable with finding out their secret identities.”

    She shook her head. “You don't have to. Vicky has many friends at Arcadia; the Wards are a small number among them. Unmasking to you is their choice. But doing this will go a long way toward integrating Wyvern into the team as far as the Protectorate is concerned.”

    “Oh, okay.” That made sense. “Yeah, I can do that.”

    “Good. Excellent. Cool.” Vicky stepped up. “Can Taylor and me go on patrol now, please?”

    Mrs Dallon frowned. “I'm not so sure about this. She's a very new trigger. We haven't really explored the ramifications of her powers yet.”

    Vicky rolled her eyes. “Mom, she flies and she breathes fire. You should've seen how she dealt with those perps at the shop today. Scared the living crap out of them and only gave that one guy minor burns.”

    The frown deepened. “She burned someone?” She turned to me. “You burned someone?”

    “Uh, yeah,” I admitted. “He had a gun, so I hit him with a really weak exploding fireball. It knocked him on his ass and set his shirt on fire. It went out pretty quickly, though.”

    “Hmm.” She rubbed her chin again. “And nobody else got hurt?”

    No, Mom,” Vicky insisted. “Nobody else got hurt. Taylor's good at this. And you should see her fly.”

    I felt the beginnings of a feeling of love and awe toward Vicky. It puzzled me for a second, but then I twigged; she was using her aura, consciously or otherwise, to influence her mother. Clearing my throat, I nudged her; she blinked and the aura receded.

    Mrs Dallon showed no signs of having noticed it, though Dad was looking a little stunned. “ … fine,” she told Vicky. “Take her for a familiarisation flight around the city. If you see anything happening that you can't handle, don't assume Taylor's up to the task. Call the rest of us in. Do you understand?”

    “Yeah, yeah, got it,” Vicky agreed, nodding rapidly. “Okay, Taylor. Ready to rock and roll?”

    I took a deep breath. “Sure. Just give me a moment to Change first.”

    “I can help, if you want,” Amy offered.

    I shook my head. “No, I've got to learn to get this down pat. Thanks for the offer, though.”

    “That's okay,” she replied. “Any time.”

    Removing the glasses, I tucked them into their pouch, then made sure that the one holding my mask was securely closed. Then, taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and concentrated. I knew the form that I wanted to be in; the Wyvern, strong and powerful. Nobody would tease or torment me in that form, for fear of my fire breath, my teeth, my claws. Nothing Emma or Madison or Sophia did would be able to affect me.

    As I touched on their names, I recalled things that they had done to me; small matters to them, no doubt, but big problems for me. Juice on my chair, causing people to make jokes about wetting myself. Being pushed down the stairs, causing me to break my glasses, but nobody was willing to say who did it. Being reminded of my mother's death in the cruellest ways possible. They had done all of these things to me and much more. Each incident had been another straw added to the pile on the camel's back.

    But now, things would be different. Now, I would be different.

    <><>​

    I opened my eyes; nictitating membranes flashed back and forth over my eyes. My wings flexed and opened slightly as my tail moved behind me, balancing my stance. I was aware of all this and more, aware of the fire roiling in my gut. For now, it was banked, but it would be easy to call on it when needed.

    “I think that was even smoother than the last time you did it,” Amy noted. “Though it looked kind of painful.”

    I shook my head; there was no real way I could explain the emotional trauma that I needed to recall in order to force the change. Instead, I turned toward Vicky and let out an interrogatory chirp.

    “Right, sure, let's go,” she agreed, moving toward the door.

    I followed her, pausing by Dad and awkwardly wrapping my wing around him in a kind-of hug.

    “Take care out there, okay?” he asked, putting his arm around my shoulders. I nodded and made what I hoped was a soothing noise.

    “It's okay, Mr H,” Vicky assured him. “She's tough. And I'll take care of her.”

    Letting go of Dad, I headed to the door; Vicky opened it and I stepped outside. It was early evening by now and the street-lights were just starting to come on. I spread my wings and took a deep breath of the chilly air. Mrs Dallon and Mrs Pelham came out on to the porch, while Dad stayed discreetly inside.

    “Come on then, slowpoke,” Vicky called to me, launching herself skyward. I flapped my wings, lifting off of the ground, gaining altitude and speed with every stroke. As on the trip back to the house, the costume moved easily on me, neither hindering me nor being damaged by my movements.

    Finally catching up to her, I moved alongside Glory Girl and we set out on our first patrol together.

    <><>​

    “You know the Boat Graveyard, yeah?” she asked as we soared over the mismatched collection of ships. Some were large, some were small and some were half-sunken at their moorings. All were showing signs of disrepair.

    I nodded and let out a screech, hoping to get across the meaning, Yeah, doesn't everyone?

    “Okay, I'll take that as a yes,” she replied. “But what you probably don't know is that there are people living in the various hulks. Some are capes, some aren't. Homeless people, villains who are new to town and yet to establish themselves, vigilantes looking for a convenient lair, people on the run from the law or from a particularly vindictive villain … of course, when everyone else has already taken up the good positions nearest the shore, there can be some pretty intense shoving matches. But they keep it down so the Protectorate and the PRT don't take much notice.”

    I tilted my head. Huh.

    “But nobody usually gets hurt, so I generally just do a flyby once in a while, let 'em know that we know they're there.” We swooped lower; I peered down at the ships, now cloaked in dusk. I thought I saw one or two people moving around, but I couldn't be sure.

    “Okay, so how are your wings holding up?” she asked. “If you're tired, we can land for a bit.”

    I shook my head and gave a negatory screech. To emphasise my point, I flapped harder, gaining a little altitude.

    “Okay, you're fine,” she conceded, easily matching me. “So where do you want to go now?”

    My screech managed to put across the question why are you asking me? fairly effectively; she grinned sheepishly. “I keep forgetting you can't talk,” she replied apologetically. “Let's see; the ABB are fun to play with, but Inago and Oni Lee are both raving mad nutcases and Aunt Sarah would make Mom ground me for a week if I even risked meeting them on your first patrol.”

    She paused, hovering in mid-air while she thought about the situation; experimenting, I found that I could hold steady as well. “The Empire Eighty-Eight are racist douches, but they've got some big hitters. I've heard rumours that Purity's split off from them, but I'd hate to find out that's wrong the hard way.”

    “I know.” She brightened. “Let's go roust the Merchants. They're douches and they don't have any fliers, so you should be pretty safe.” So saying, she turned in mid-air and started off.

    I followed, flapping my wings harder to keep up. From what I recalled, the Merchants were in the northern area of the city, so we didn't have too far to go, overall.

    And then, from below, there was a tremendous BOOM as the side of one of the rusting hulks exploded outward. Startled, I back-winged and looked down; Vicky stopped also.

    “What was that?” she exclaimed.

    I shrugged as best as I could while flying. My screech was intended to convey how would I know, along with it wasn't me this time. Finally, I thought, there was destruction in the vicinity and it wasn't my fault.

    “Well, whatever it was, there's something going on down there,” she decided. “Let's go see.”

    Suiting action to word, she dived. For a moment, I paused, wondering if this was the best plan of action. What the hell. I folded my wings and followed Vicky down.


    End of Part Eight

    Part Nine
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2016
  10. Threadmarks: Part Nine: Stinger!
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Nine: Stinger!


    “Oh, you have got to be kidding.” I put my hand over my eyes. Well, I put my power gauntlet over my helmet visor, but it came to much the same thing. “Seriously? What part of 'press red-red-green to disarm' did you not understand?”

    “Sorry, boss,” Winston babbled. “I musta heard wrong. I thought you said 'green-green-red'.”

    “Which is the firing sequence, you technology-illiterate australopithecine.” I gestured at the missile test rack, which was notably empty, then at the side of the derelict vessel, which was just as notably decorated with a large flame-rimmed hole. “And now, not only have you managed to waste a missile that was worth significantly more than your annual salary, but you've also sent up a huge red flag to any do-gooders that might happen to be in the area.”

    “That's, like, not too much of a problem is it, right, boss?” Winston looked at me hopefully. "I mean, Brockton Bay's smaller than San Francisco, right? Less heroes, yeah?"

    I sighed, not even bothering to correct 'less' to 'fewer'. “Winston. Please try to keep up. You are indeed correct that we're not in San Francisco any more. Being there would be an improvement. In case you weren't aware, this city has the seventh highest cape-to-normal ratio in the United States. If some hero isn't on their way to investigate right now, I will be extremely -”

    “Surprise!”

    The voice was bright and cheerful. It promised a very chirpy beating at the hands of the teenage girl who had just swept in through the flaming hole that my idiot minion had thoughtfully opened up for her. She paid no attention to the fire; that, and the details of her costume, clued me in that I was now up against Glory Girl, of New Wave.

    New Wave. I ask you. It's bad enough that Brockton Bay has independent capes patrolling the city, but an entire family of them? Whatever is the world coming to?

    In any case, I already had my right arm pointing at the hole – not entirely by chance, I assure you – and so it was a simple matter to send a welcoming gift her way. In this particular instance, I judged that a flash-bang with a good solid HE punch to it – sans shrapnel, thank you very much – would be just the ticket. Such a missile was one of four already queued up, once again due to foresight on my part. The carousel in my right-hand missile housing rotated a quarter turn, lining the missile up with the launch rails.

    Glory Girl, it was well-known, was an Alexandria package, so I had no qualms about shooting her with such a payload. After all, I may be a ruthless villain who can't see a bank without wanting to rob it, but I'm not a complete monster.

    The missile left the carousel and scorched off the rails approximately half a second after the teen hero made her appearance. I had just enough time to appreciate the look of startled shock on her face, transmitted via the tiny camera in the nose-cone. She tried to dodge, of course; unfortunately for her, I have redefined the term 'smart missile' several times since I got my powers. The missile followed her all the way, matching her every move with precision and grace.

    As intended, the explosion blew her back out through the hole in the side of the ship. With anything resembling luck, she would be stunned and deafened for the next few moments, enough to buy us a breathing space. I intended to make full use of that time.

    “Winston!” I snapped the order, and my minion looked around vaguely, shaking his head in an odd fashion.

    “What, boss?”

    I suppressed a groan. He had neither covered his ears nor looked away from the explosion, two extremely simple precautions which I had thought that I'd long ago drummed into his admittedly idea-resistant skull. As a result, as well as being hard of thinking, my idiot minion was now suffering from a ringing in his ears and spots in front of his eyes.

    Neither of which was bothering me, of course; my visor was designed to darken in the case of bright flashes of light, and the sound pickups had cutouts. As I said, simple precautions. But this had rendered Winston even more useless than he normally was, which I had to admit was quite a feat.

    Some may be asking at this point, why exactly do I keep Winston around? To even the most casual of observers, it would be plainly obvious that he is a millstone about my neck, an obstacle to the smooth execution of even the simplest of plans. Virtually any other villain would have given the boy his marching papers by now; indeed, some of the less ethical would have included a nine-millimetre lobotomy in the deal.

    There are three main reasons that Winston remains in my employ. The first is simple; a Tinker such as myself quite often requires a second set of hands. This may be to hold components in place while I apply the soldering iron, to fetch another tool when needed, or even to simply stroll to the nearest coffee shop and bring me back my chai latte. Whichever way, such assistance can be absolutely crucial at the right moment in time.

    The second reason is a little less obvious, but essential all the same. Once in a while, even such an outstanding mentality as mine needs a sounding board. Devising new schemes for extracting my unfair share of wealth from the financial institutions of California takes up a not inconsiderable amount of my time. In order for such time not to be utterly wasted by an overlooked error in the planning stage, I habitually run my plans past Winston before I set them in motion. If he can pick out a flaw that I cannot compensate for, I ditch the concept before ever setting it in motion. He does not find flaws in every single one, of course, but this practice tends to save me slightly more time, expense and aggravation than I suffer in cleaning up after his blunders. He is, in truth, rather like a not quite housebroken puppy, only less appealing.

    As for the third reason … well, I will merely say that his original employment was a favour to my sister to get him out of her basement, and leave it at that. May we close the topic now? Thank you.

    “Pack. The. Equipment. Away,” I told him, leaning close and increasing the output volume on my speakers. “I shall hold off the scary teenage girl until you are finished.”

    I was being sarcastic, of course. There were several more missiles queued up that would be perfectly satisfactory when it came to subduing even an Alexandria package. I doubted that she was in the company of the rest of New Wave; even as durable as she was, it was unlikely that the adults would have sent her in first. So, given that she was almost certainly flying solo this night, I foresaw little in the way of difficulty in keeping her occupied while Winston bumbled his way through the packing-up process. Especially given that there weren't any more live missiles on the test rack.

    A moment later, I was reminded of the old axiom regarding assumptions making an ass out of all concerned. For through the hole swept not Glory Girl, but something quite outside of my experience.

    What in the name of Einstein, Tesla and Rutherford is that thing? But even as my mind threw up the startled query, I was reacting.

    The creature was in no way human. It was … I hesitated to use the word 'saurian', but there it was. Lizardlike head with an erect crest, widespread wings, red-gold scales, and a long whip-like tail. Where it had come from, I had no idea, unless it was one of those Case 53s I had been hearing about. Opening its mouth to display an inordinate amount of undoubtedly needle-sharp dentition, as well as a remarkably pink tongue, it unleashed a threatening screech. I am neither a superstitious man, nor one given to baseless fears, but that screech ran straight to my backbrain and gave me chills all the way down my spine.

    Shoving Winston down so that he sprawled alongside the workbench, I ignited my flight pack and took to the air. The ship's hold in which I had set up my temporary base was not tremendously spacious, but I was able to fly around to a certain extent. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it needed to use wings, the aerial intruder also seemed able to manoeuvre freely within that space.

    As I had intended, my sudden movement drew the creature's attention away from Winston and toward myself. Even as it banked toward me, I designated it with the target pipper and fired off a containment-foam missile. My initial estimation was that one should do the job – the creature wasn't that large, after all – but I followed up with a second one, just in case.

    My precaution was proven timely as, just a moment later, the creature spat a small bolt of fire from its open mouth. Considerably surprised, I revised my earlier judgement. It's not a dinosaur. It's a dragon.

    The fire bolt was obviously aimed at the first missile; I allowed myself a confident smile, as there was no way that my missiles would permit themselves to be decoyed into just such a mutual-destruction ploy. Fulfilling my faith in my programming skills, the missile being targeted jinked aside so as to skim past the oncoming attack … which promptly exploded into a small but intense burst of flame, destroying it anyway. Oh, that's just rude.

    The second missile, having been given more lead time to respond to the dragon's fire breath – not a phrase that I had ever thought I would need to make use of – swung out wider, evading the perimeter of the fiery burst. Given the relative motion of the missile and its scaly target, the draconic interloper was through the area where the first missile had been destroyed before the second one had begun to swing back in.

    This was actually a good thing; by the time the missile reacquired its target, it was actually behind the flying creature, in a tail chase. Such a pursuit would be necessarily brief; manoeuvring space was limited, the missile was obviously much faster in straight-line flying than the airborne lizard, and the thing would have had to look back over what passed for its shoulder in order to target the oncoming attack.

    Still, I did not allow myself to become complacent; the creature had already surprised me twice, after all. Just a moment later, my caution was rewarded as it increased its speed, arrowing toward me, pinions beating faster than ever.

    My armour is almost certainly proof against its claws and possibly resistant to its fire breath, but if it engages, then we both get struck by the missile …

    That was a sub-optimal scenario. I popped a cloud of smoke and veered to the left so as to clear its path. My helmet switched to IR tracking, of course; for a flying reptile, the thing was remarkably warm. Behind it, the pursuing missile was a smaller, brighter spark.

    The dragon-thing plunged into the cloud of smoke where I might have expected it to fly around; to my astonishment, it swerved toward me. I flung out my arm defensively; there was a wrenching impact then it was gone, out the other side of the smoke. Warning messages began popping up in my HUD, even as I became vaguely aware that the draconic creature had altered its course to put me between it and the missile that was still gaining upon it. Its intent was clear; the missile was supposed to be decoyed into hitting me.

    Less than a second later, the missile whipped past me, following its own curving path to line up once more on the interloper. I permitted myself a brief smile – haven't heard of IFF, have you, brute? - but there was precious little to smile about in the messages on my heads-up display. On its way past, the flying reptile had latched on to the missile housing on my right arm and torn it completely off of my armour.

    By now, I was revising my initial impression of the dragon-like creature. It was in no way a dumb animal, appearances notwithstanding. By its very actions, it was fully capable of recognising a threat, acting to deny me of a weapon and even attempting to turn said weapon on me. There was a human intelligence at work behind that scaly brow.

    Talking of human intelligences, I turned my head to check on Winston. He was just at that moment pulling himself to his feet by way of the workbench, looking around dazedly to see what was going on. I watched as the draconic being swooped low over him, causing him to duck again. The missile, following the creature, also swooped low … and exploded, delivering its payload to Winston. Blobby yellowish foam scored a direct hit on my hapless minion, attaching him firmly to the floor and the workbench. Perhaps, in future, I would equip him with an IFF as well.

    With what I had no trouble in interpreting as a screech of triumph, the creature began a long swooping turn, obviously intending to get back to grips with me. And well it might feel triumphant; in its first pass, it had defeated two of my attacks, removed the launcher housing from my right arm, and rendered my minion hors de combat, using my missile to do so. However, I still had a few tricks that it had not yet seen; with a grim smile of my own, I sent the self-destruct signal to the missing launcher housing.

    The housing exploded, all the remaining missiles inside adding their propellant fuel to the detonation. Enveloped by the massive burst of flame that resulted, the interloper was flung through the air by the shockwave. It hit the deck plates and rolled over and over. I could not determine the extent of its wounds, but at that moment, I was not feeling particularly charitable.

    And then, yet another surprise occurred. As the dragon lay sprawled upon the deck-plates, it began to shift and Change. Within moments, an unconscious teenager lay there, skinny and lanky but undeniably feminine. She wore a costume not unlike a bathing suit in basic black; thinking back, I recalled seeing the black colouration on the draconic being and assuming that it was part of the creature itself. This was obviously not the case.

    The fact of her being human, at least part of the time, changed matters considerably; I began to descend toward the floor, to see if she was badly hurt.

    “Leave her alone, you bastard!”

    Too late, I recalled the other half of the equation; specifically, the Alexandria package known as Glory Girl. She came rocketing in through the hole in the side of the hull; I found myself suddenly overcome by fear and trepidation, quite unlike my usual sang-froid.

    With an impact that rang throughout my armour, she slammed into me and drove me across the width of the hold, toward the far bulkhead. I still felt the terror, but I seemed to recall that it was actually part of her powerset, to make her foes fear her. In short, I was being made to experience these emotions.

    I am my own man. I will not be made to do anything.

    At the last instant, I activated the side-jets on my flight pack, driving us around in a half-circle. She reacted too slowly, obviously driven more by emotion than careful planning. Before she could bring us to a halt, I had slammed her into the bulkhead, driving quite a respectable dent into it. To aid in keeping her off balance, I ejected a series of flares into her face before backing off.

    As I had suspected might happen, with her confusion came a slackening in the desire to run away and hide. It was still present, but not in the near-overwhelming levels that I had been feeling before. However, she still posed a not inconsiderable problem for me; someone who was able to make me feel emotions not my own, and also physically match up to me, was in no way my preferred opponent. With that in mind, I levelled my left arm, and the missile housing mounted on it, at her; a containment-foam missile, I judged, should suffice to immobilise her for long enough for me to collect Winston and vacate the premises.

    An actinic streak of blue-white plasma cut across my field of vision; my visor managed to block most of it out, but I was still left with a blob of orange in front of my eyes. This was not enough to block me from seeing the new error messages now popping up on my HUD; to my now-increasing annoyance, I saw that I had now lost the other missile housing.

    For variety, this one had not been torn off; instead, the plasma burst had cut it in half. In addition to loss-of-function messages from the housing itself, I was also getting excess-temperature readouts from the servos in the left arm of my power suit. That plasma blast had been hot.

    Looking around, I saw that the teenage girl was back in her beast-like form; crouching, she had her wings spread and her mouth open, aimed in my direction. Judging from the temperature readings I was getting from her throat, there was little doubt regarding the origins of that actinic plasma stream. Well, she's all right. That's a good thing – I suppose.

    I was beginning to regret ever having come to Brockton Bay. Not that I had been intending to commit any crimes here; given that the city held so many villains, I suspected that I would have to make an appointment to rob the local bank. As it was, my presence was more to do with making deals with some of the local criminal element. My overall aim had always been to return to San Francisco once my business in Brockton Bay was done; however, it seemed that said business was going to come to an end much sooner than anticipated.

    The time had arrived, I judged, to go from an offensive stance to a defensive one. With undamaged armour and free flying room, I believed that I would be able to match up to Glory Girl on her own. Against her draconic companion, I would have more of a problem, but at the very least, I would be able to outdistance the creature so long as my fuel held out; this was the advantage of flight pack over wings. But against both of them, lacking my primary missile launchers, I was at a severe disadvantage.

    With this in mind, I turned away from Glory Girl and cut in full power on my flight pack, heading for the hole in the side of the hull. I did make one slight deviation in my trajectory, to pass over Winston on my way out. As I did so, I sprayed him liberally from a nozzle secreted in the left arm of my powersuit. Within moments, the imprisoning foam would dissolve and release him to complete the evacuation procedures, as he had been drilled.

    Why, yes, I do keep a reservoir of containment foam dissolver in my armour. I, like the PRT, make use of containment foam; to have the means to counteract it is merely a sensible precaution.

    Knowing that I had done all I could on that front, I aimed for the hole. It really was quite impressive; I was heartened to learn that my calculations regarding the missile had been accurate. Now, all I had to do was reacquire the components to build it, and I'd have something capable of punching through the side of the average bank vault.

    Of course, to do that, I would first have to extract both myself and Winston from this predicament. Step one was to take the fight outside and away from him. Step two would be to either win the fight or evade both of my erstwhile opponents; I was not overly optimistic about the former, but reversals had been known to happen. However, the latter was always a good Plan B.

    Step three, of course, was to rendezvous with Winston at our prearranged location, so that I could forever shake the dust of Brockton Bay from my boots. Most of the heroes I was prepared for, but going up against a teenage girl masquerading as a fire-breathing dragon was not in my life plan. Especially since said dragon had already done a remarkably good job of disarming me of both primary missile launchers.

    This was not to say that I was entirely unarmed; even as I flew out through the hole into the night air, my secondary missile pods motored from their stowed positions on my back up on to my shoulders. Each held three missiles, which could be ripple-fired or independently launched.

    The upside of this confrontation was that both of my opponents seemed to be rather durable; I would not have to worry so much about pulling my punches, either figuratively or literally. The downside was that I had two opponents and six missiles to go between them. After the admittedly brief confrontation, I did not trust the capability of my missiles to perform a one-shot disable on either Glory Girl or the dragon. Moreover, with the dragon's flame-breath capability factored in, I was less than confident that I could even hit the creature, much less disable her.

    A lesser man would have chosen surrender at this moment, while a more stupid man would have chanced an all-or-nothing attack on them as they emerged from the hole. I did neither, having acquired a certain amount of respect for the both of them. Instead, I went for distance, not wanting to delay their exit. Winston would be free of the foam soon, after all, and the last thing I wanted was for them to realise this.

    Once more, I was proven correct. A tiny fireball emerged from the hole, travelling a little way before exploding with quite surprising force. Had I been waiting nearby to ambush them, I would have been caught in the explosion and accompanying fireball, quite likely to my subsequent detriment. It appeared now that the dragon girl was not limited to small explosive bursts, making her all the more formidable an opponent.

    As the fireball dissipated, the dragon emerged from it, not unlike a phoenix arising from the ashes. She let out a loud screech; in response, Glory Girl flew from the hole and rose to join her. From my vantage point, I targeted each with a flash-bang/HE missile, but did not fire as yet. I wanted to draw this out as long as possible.

    A screech from the dragon-like creature – I refuse to believe that actual dragons exist – alerted me to the fact that she was aware of my whereabouts. This was quite impressive, considering that I was at that moment crouching in the shadows behind a large winch on the deck of another ship altogether. I was right. She does have some kind of sensory enhancement. Her attack on my missile housing in the smoke had not been a lucky fluke, after all.

    She began to fly directly toward where I was concealed; Glory Girl quickly caught up, then flew ahead. I triggered both of my previously targeted missiles, then launched myself away with my flight pack.

    The missiles swiftly closed with their designated targets, but the dragon girl was swifter still. She banked aside so that Glory Girl was not in her line of sight, then unleashed another one of her fire-bolts. I had planned for this; both missiles detected the oncoming bolt and performed evasive manoeuvres. Glory Girl did not slow down; the fire bolt sped ahead of her and detonated, missing both missiles and dissipating just as she got there. But her missile was now streaking in from the side, and the other was still on course for the dragon girl. Who are you going to save now, yourself or your friend?

    For the longest moment, I thought that the answer would be 'neither', as the dragon girl merely banked sideways. Right up until the moment when she vaporised both missiles with a single actinic tongue of blue-white flame. Well then, that answers that question.

    One-third of my remaining armament having been disposed of with almost contemptuous ease, I decided to go with the adage of discretion being the better part of valour. Activating my terrain-avoidance software, I got down to deck level and aimed myself at the nearest large freighter.

    All three of us could fly, which negated that as an advantage. However, in order to capture me, they would have to catch up with me. If I made that too risky, then the chances were that they would break off the chase sooner or later. In the case of the dragon girl, I hoped for 'sooner', given that there was the distinct chance that she was still annoyed with me over the exploding missile housing.

    Glory Girl was close behind me when I reached the ship, with her draconic partner some little distance behind. We raced over the deck, between masts and containers and what-have-you, my terrain-avoidance software kicking in my guidance jets at just the right times. The teenager was less agile, but she was able to keep up through sheer recklessness and bull-headedness. Until, that is, I used one of my remaining missiles to target a winch. As I rocketed past, the end of the cable spool blew off, spilling coils of metal cable into a great tangle. I heard her curse as she flew headlong into the metal snarl, and I smiled to myself.

    As it happened, I was celebrating too soon. One of those all-too-familiar firebolts exploded on the deck ahead of me, forcing me to swerve hastily. With a loud screech, the dragon girl dropped in behind me, uncomfortably close. I tried to accelerate, but that overtaxed my terrain-avoidance systems; clipping a corner, I nearly flung myself into a wall, but managed to recover and correct in time. Despite the close quarters, the dragon girl didn't seem to be overly hampered; at least, the flapping of her wings behind me did not falter.

    I targeted my next missile at the base of a radio antenna; this should, I calculated, fall into the laneway behind me, blocking all passage, whether by humanity or annoyingly-persistent teenage dragons. At the triggering signal, the missile launched away, dead on target. The muted explosion showed that it was dead on target; the antenna began to fall.

    A firebolt shot past me, toward the a point above the toppling antenna. Her aim's off if she wanted to delay that thing from falling …

    Too late, I realised that her aim was precisely on target. The explosion propelled the antenna downward, blocking off the through-way to me as well as the dragon girl. There was just one place to go; upward. So I went upward. Right to where Glory Girl was waiting for me.

    “Hi,” she greeted me brightly. “Give up?”

    At this point in time, a stupid man would have kept fighting. I had been outwitted and outmanoeuvred; with a sigh, I raised my hands.

    I would be transported back to California, to face trial for my crimes there. On the way, there would undoubtedly be opportunities for escape. Winston, I was reasonably sure, would meet me at one of my safe houses, once I had freed myself.

    But there was one thing of which I was certain.

    You couldn't pay me to come back to Brockton Bay.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Well, that was fun,” Vicky declared brightly as the PRT officers loaded Stinger into the back of the transport van. “What did you think, Wyvern?”

    I let out a non-committal chirp, looking down at my now-tattered costume. While it wouldn't quite be indecent when I changed back, there was somewhat less of it than when I had started the night.

    “Oh, come on,” she chuckled, slapping me on the shoulder. “Costume damage happens. I lose my skirt all the time.”

    Yeah, but you wear bike pants underneath. My squawk wasn't quite as nuanced as that, but it got the message across.

    “I guess you have a point,” she agreed. “My force field protects my clothing pretty well. On the other hand, you're just tough. When that thing exploded, I thought you were really badly hurt.”

    The concern in her voice touched me; I put a wing around her shoulders. I had been knocked out for a moment, and had woken up in human form. When I saw Vicky in peril, my Change had been swift and immediate; I hadn't even had to think about it.

    “So anyway,” she went on, “that was awesome, what you were doing with your flame-breath. Did you figure all that out before you did it, or was it spur of the moment?”

    I shrugged and let out another chirp. A bit of column A, a bit of column B.

    She was getting pretty good at guessing what I meant. “Yeah, I suppose so. But anyway, one more question before we head home.”

    I tilted my head interrogatively, looking down at her slightly.

    “Didn't you used to be shorter?”


    End of Part Nine

    Part Ten
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2017
  11. Threadmarks: Part Ten: Changing Fortunes
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern


    Part Ten: Changing Fortunes


    I stared at her, letting out a startled squawk. My wing was draped around her shoulders, which normally I wouldn't have been able to reach in my draconic form without stretching to my tip-toes. How did I not notice this before?

    “Hey, calm down,” she said hastily. “There's probably a perfectly normal explanation for this.”

    This time, I gave her a very dry look; despite the difference between my human face and my Wyvern face, she picked up on it without any difficulty at all.

    “Okay, fine,” she admitted. “There's not much about this situation that's normal.”

    Thank you. With another screech, which may or may not have conveyed that thought, I stretched my wings out and leaped into the air. Vicky followed, keeping up with ease.

    “Where are you going?” she called out.

    I couldn't really shrug while flying, so I let out a non-committal squawk. Somewhere I can figure this out.

    “Sorry,” she said, “I must've left my Wyvern-Human dictionary in my other costume. Can you be a bit clearer?”

    I couldn't talk, and I didn't feel like acting out charades to get my message across, so I turned my attention to flying. To my gratitude, Vicky didn't push it. She merely flew alongside me as I flapped steadily across Brockton Bay.

    It was going to take a little while to reach my chosen destination, but I didn't mind. I had a lot to think about, including what I was going to say once I returned to human form. If I even could. Oh god, what if this size change stops me from ever turning back?

    The city stretched out below us, skeins of street lights making the place almost beautiful. I wished that I was down there, mundanely human, instead of up here, trying to run away from my problems. Given that my problems were part and parcel with my powers, the odds of me pulling this off were between zero and none, but I was still willing to give it a shot.

    The sound of electronic tapping interrupted my thoughts; I looked over to see that Vicky was texting on her phone while flying on her back, not even looking where she was going. I screeched at her.

    “What?” She looked up from her phone. “What's the matter?”

    I nodded toward her phone, then pointedly turned my head to look forwards.

    It took her a couple of seconds to catch on, then she laughed and rolled over in the air so that she was at least facing the same way as me. “Oh, that? I knew you wouldn't let me fly into anything.”

    She was right, but I still thought she was being very irresponsible. My squawk might have conveyed that, but I wasn't sure.

    To my relief, she didn't do anything like that again, although she did keep texting. Finally, she put the phone away and gave me a beaming smile. “I was just letting Mom and Ames know we were going for a flight. I haven't told them about the size change yet.”

    I chirped in relief; it was something that I would rather have told them myself. First, though, I wanted to try to deal with it on my own. With Vicky there to help, of course; I was reasonably sure that I wouldn't be able to make her go away. Even if I wanted to.

    Finally, our destination loomed ahead. It was further than I had ever flown before, but while my shoulder muscles were burning slightly, I felt that I could have kept going if necessary.

    There was nobody in the carpark for the Captain's Hill observation area, for which I was profoundly grateful. The last thing I wanted or needed was for someone to post photos of me on to PHO or something before I had my size issues resolved. Flapping my wings, I came in for a landing on the observation area, putting down my 'elbows' to prop myself up as Glory Girl touched down beside me.

    “Okay, let's see if that was a temporary thing,” she said brightly. I straightened up as much as I was able in that form. To my dismay, she was still half a head shorter than me. I let out a sound of dismay.

    “Hey, hey, it'll be all right,” she assured me. “We'll get through this. We're friends, right? We'll work it out together.”

    Friends.

    I had to stop and think about it. We were definitely more than just fellow capes or even teammates. Vicky had, in her own inimitable fashion, gone above and beyond for me. From the moment that she'd found out that I was more than just a scary monster, she'd done her best to help me solve my problems. Sure, she'd had a lot of laughs over my mishaps, but she'd never been cruel or vindictive.

    It was hard for me to take in. I hadn't had an actual friend for … more than a year. And to gain one through a malicious act engineered by my last best friend … it was hard for me to get my head around that. It had been so long since anyone who wasn't my dad had even cared.

    “Hey, you're shaking. Are you all right? You're not cold, are you?”

    I raised my head and looked into Vicky's concerned eyes. If I could cry in that form, I would have, but instead I was shaking, with my wings wrapped around me. I shook my head. No, I'm not cold.

    “Then what's the matter, Taylor?”

    I couldn't answer her with words, so I just shook my head again. Even if I'd been human, I probably wouldn't have been able to give her a coherent reply. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to deal with this.

    A pair of arms, far stronger than they should have been, wrapped around me, wings and all. I let out a startled chirp, but she didn't stop hugging me. “Hey,” she soothed me. “Hey, hey. It's all right. You're going to be all right. 'Cause Glory Girl is here, and that's what I do.”

    I managed a series of chirps approximating laughter, but the truth was that I was feeling better. The hug was just what I needed to get my head in order and stop the thoughts spinning around at a thousand miles an hour. I began to relax, little by little.

    That was when she turned her aura up. From enjoying what could have been a totally awkward hug but wasn't, I went straight into everything is awesome! land. Vicky was my friend, and that was more than okay, it was terrific. All of my worries and angst about my size change melted away, because Vicky was there and she was amazing and everything was gonna be just okay, and …

    I was crying. I realised that, after a moment. I was holding on to Vicky with my arms, and I was crying into Vicky's shoulder, and she was patting me on the back and saying something soothing in my ear.

    The aura toned back down to its normal almost-not-there background buzz, and I pulled away from Vicky slightly. “Wait, did you just make me turn back with your aura?”

    She nodded, grinning broadly. “I figured, if we can turn you into the wyvern with my aura, we should be able to make you turn back with it too. And it worked. High-five!” She held up her hand.

    I smiled through the tears still on my cheeks and gave her the high-five. After all, she had kind of earned it. “It definitely did,” I agreed. “And wow, your aura's really powerful this close. How the hell do you not have legions of adoring fans sending you love letters by the metric ton?”

    She gave me a conspiratorial grin. “Maybe I do. You never know. But I think your wyvern form's more susceptible to it or something. You definitely seem to react more strongly when you're in that shape, anyway.”

    Swiping tears from my eyes, I nodded. “Well, thanks. And sorry for crying on you.”

    “Pfft,” she said, waving away my apology. “You were kinda worried and stressed out. And hey! You're back to normal size again!”

    I blinked, then opened the pouch holding my glasses. Unfortunately, the fight had not been kind to them; I guessed that it was the close-up explosion that had left the lenses in pieces. All I knew for certain was that when I pulled the glasses out, they didn't have much glass left in them.

    “Geez, wow,” Vicky observed when she saw this. “Sorry about that. That's gotta suck.”

    “Yeah, well, it's not like I'm gonna need them to fly back with, right?” I said, trying to put a brave face on matters. “Anyway, I can tell that I'm back to normal without them. You're still shorter than me, but not any shorter than usual.”

    She made a rude noise. “Just because you're built like a giraffe on steroids ...”

    I snorted. “Giraffe on steroids? Really?”

    “Hey, gimme a break. Normally I get more time to think up my zingers.”

    Shaking my head fondly, I draped my arm over her shoulders. “Well, I appreciate you sticking by me. And I really appreciate you as a friend. I haven't got many others. Well, apart from Amy, I haven't really got any other friends.”

    “Yeah, well, I'd like to punch Winslow in its stupid face for pulling all that crap on you,” she muttered.

    “Who?” I asked, interested. “Blackwell, Emma, or Sophia?”

    Yes,” she retorted.

    I couldn't help it; I had to laugh out loud. “Not that I wouldn't love to see any or all of them get punched in the face repeatedly, but I'm pretty sure that doing anything like that would screw up the case that your mom's preparing.”

    She sighed. “Yeah, you're right.”

    I ruffled her hair playfully. “Cheer up. I'm sure we can find someone else for you to punch in the face if we really try.”

    “Yeah, I like the sound of that,” she said. “You up for any more night-time shenanigans, or should we head home?”

    “Well, home, I guess,” I said. “Dad can pick me up from your place. But first, we've got that other thing to do.”

    “Other thing?” she asked.

    “Find out if the size change was permanent or temporary,” I reminded her. “And what happens if I keep sizing up each time I get into a fight? Pretty soon, even Parian's costumes won't fit me in both forms.”

    “Ugh.” She grimaced. “You make a good point. Unwelcome, but good.”

    I sighed. “Okay, I think I've stalled enough. Time to kick this over.”

    “Need me to force it for you?” she asked; I could feel her aura starting to ramp up.

    “No,” I said, shaking my head hastily. “I need to learn to do this as fast as possible, and I won't always have you around.”

    “Okay, good point,” she agreed. The aura eased back down again.

    I turned away from her, suddenly aware that the rough gravel was hurting my feet. Come on, I told myself. I can do this. I've done it before. It was true, and I knew it. I just didn't want to do it.

    Come on, I told myself. I've got to stress myself to make the change. Stop wimping out.

    The prospect wasn't fun, but eventually I managed to force myself to bite the bullet and concentrate on the memories and feelings that I needed to experience. Closing my eyes, I clenched my fists until the nails bit into my palms.

    It was ironic, some corner of my mind reflected bitterly even as I tried to focus on the Change. Super-powers were supposed to make your life easier. Popular culture said so. But I had gotten mine through an act of supreme cruelty, and to even access them, I had to force myself to recall and relive the worst experiences of my life. So much for making things better. I wondered if that had ever been true for any cape. Or if I would ever be truly free of the torments that had put me where I was.

    Opening my eyes, I turned toward Vicky to ask her where she stood on the matter, but all that came out of my mouth was a curious chirp. Once more, I had managed to Change without even noticing that I had done so.

    "Woo!" Vicky gave me a thumbs-up. "Normal size. Nicely done."

    I hadn't actually done anything, but I preened just a little anyway. I had to admit, I was somewhat relieved; the prospect of my wyvern form growing ever larger with no end in sight was somewhat daunting, to say the least. But now I was looking up at Vicky, due to the unavoidable stooped posture of the wyvern form. It was amazing what I was beginning to find comfortably familiar.

    I raised my wrist-joint to her in a kind of high-five; she grinned and slapped it. My return grin was extremely toothy, accompanied by a chirp of triumph. Now that I was back to normal size, I found that I wasn't worried so much about enlarging during fights. All I have to do is Change back to human, then to wyvern when I'm not in danger. No biggie.

    "So, race you back home?" Vicky's eyes were alight with mischief.

    I gave her a rude noise in return. Like I could ever beat you.

    "Okay, okay," she conceded. “We'll fly back together. But if we spot any bad guys, I've got dibs, all right?”

    I rolled my eyes. So greedy.

    “Well?” she pressed.

    Snorting with amusement, I nodded, then chirped in agreement. Fine. But if any get away, they're mine.

    “Cool! Let's go!”

    She lofted into the air and arrowed down into the darkness overlaying Brockton Bay. She was quickly out of sight, or would have been if I'd been dependent on ordinary light. However, as I had already discovered, I could see some distance into the infra-red, which revealed her to me as if she was lit up like a halogen lamp.

    Flapping my wings hard, I took to the air myself and let myself fall into a swooping glide down the face of Captain's Hill. I couldn't match Vicky's pace, but I could certainly follow her; the night wind felt soothing as it keened over my wings. Glancing over her shoulder, Vicky slowed down, letting me catch up with her.

    As I slid up alongside her, I let out a disapproving squawk. Not fair! You said we wouldn't race!

    “Sorry,” she called back. “I kinda got carried away for a moment.” Her teeth shone white in the moonlight. “I'm not about to leave my partner behind, after all.”

    Partners. The warm feeling lasted me all the way back to the Dallon household.

    <><>​

    “Are you all right?”

    That was Dad's greeting for me when he came in the front door. Not 'how are you?' or 'good to see you' but 'are you all right?'.

    I was a little torn between irritation – I can take care of myself! - and happiness that he actually cared. Of the two, I wanted to go with happiness, so I did. Plastering a smile across my face, I hugged him.

    “Of course I'm all right, Dad. I've got Glory Girl backing me up, and Panacea making sure that I'm always in tip-top condition.”

    <><>​

    I wasn't actually exaggerating much there; Amy had more or less ambushed me, even before I'd managed to change back to human form, to make sure that I was healthy. It turned out that I was indeed in top form, so much so that she managed to look slightly disappointed.

    “I saw the aftermath of the battle on TV,” she complained after I was changed, dressed and we were sitting on the sofa. “There was lots of damage. How can you have gone through all of that without a scratch? Especially with your costume in that shape?”

    I blushed a little. The costume hadn't been that badly damaged, and it had covered what it needed to cover, but I had still arrived at the house showing more skin than I was used to. “Um, Vicky and I have a theory that I regenerate. Especially between Changes.”

    “And that's another thing!” she blurted. “You altered your Changer shape, and I never got to see what it looked like! Do you know how often I get to deal with someone who's got a non-human form? Especially multiple non-human forms? Come on, seriously. I need a challenge, here!” She paused to take in what I said. “Wait, you regenerate? Oh, come on now. That's just not fair!”

    “Well, I don't want to have to keep running back to you to get healing,” I pointed out. “That's not fair on you, you know.”

    “Yeah, but I'm almost certain you're pulling mass out of nowhere to make your Change,” she said. “Maybe if I could look at you when you're larger, I could figure it out one way or the other.”

    Vicky, grinning broadly, spoke up then. “So what you're saying is that you're less worried about Taylor's well-being and more about how her power reacts weirdly with her biology?”

    “No!” Amy protested. We looked at her sceptically, and she flushed. “Well, maybe a little?”

    I rolled my eyes theatrically. “I knew it! You're only interested in my body.”

    Vicky burst out laughing. Amy went beet red from hairline to neck, and threw a cushion at me. I retaliated, and then it was on.

    <><>​

    “I dunno,” Dad observed slyly. “I walked in the door to see Panacea beating you about the head with a cushion. I'm not sure how this sort of thing works in the cape world, but is that really how your healers treat their patients?”

    “Only the ones who regenerate, Mr H,” Vicky interjected shamelessly. “Turns out that your daughter's either a lot tougher than we thought, or she heals really fast. Or maybe both.”

    “Plus, it's a good way to get me used to ordinary stress,” I said. “If being smacked in the face with a pillow doesn't make me change involuntarily, then tripping in the corridor won't do it either, you see?”

    “Uh huh. And of course, we're not taking into account the fact that pillow fights are just plain fun, right?” Dad's voice was very dry. “I might be old, but I'm not that old.” His voice turned serious. “You regenerate? Is that dangerous? Are there side effects? How do you even know that you regenerate?”

    I shrugged, flopping back down on to the couch. “Well, you know that we talked about it before. This time around I got caught in an explosion again, which knocked me out. Vicky says that I changed back for a moment, then I woke up, changed again, and got back into the fight. I personally don't remember much of the fight. It was all a blur.”

    Dad looked startled. “Whoa, hold it right there. Time out.” He even made the 'T' sign with his hands, a thing he hadn't done in years. This should have clued me in to how agitated he was. “Explosions? What the … No!” He shook his head almost angrily. “This was not what I agreed to.” Turning his gaze to me, he more or less pinned me to the couch with his glare. “Explosions?!”

    I could tell that he was on the edge of an explosion of his own, and I tried to defuse it. “It's all right, Dad. I wasn't hurt, really. It was like the last time, when I blew up the locker.”

    “You. Got. Knocked. Out. This. Time.” He gritted the words through clenched teeth.

    “But I got back up again,” I pointed out. “Straight away, even. Look, not a scratch!” I slid the sleeve of my t-shirt up my arm and showed him the unmarked skin. “Nothing at all. I'm all right, Dad!”

    I don't care!” he screamed. “You still got hurt!”

    “I'm a superhero now!” I yelled back at him. “I'm not a little kid any more!”

    “You're my little kid!” He took a sharp breath, then continued before I could interrupt. “And until you turn eighteen, you do not get to risk yourself like that!”

    “Hey, hey,” interjected Mrs Dallon from the doorway to her office. “What's going on here?”

    Dad swung toward her. “Explosions that knocked her out!” Even though he wasn't looking at me, his finger swung unerringly to point in my direction, stabbing at me with every word. “Is that your idea of a safe introduction to being a superhero?”

    “No. It isn't.” Mrs Dallon's expression was never the warmest, but now her voice hit sub-zero temperatures. “Victoria, you didn't tell me about any of this. It was supposed to be a shakedown flight, not a patrol for crime. You knew you weren't supposed to do anything dangerous on Taylor's first flight as a member of New Wave.”

    “First and last,” muttered Dad. “If I don't get an ironclad guarantee that this is never going to happen again.”

    “Dad -” I ventured.

    “No!” His voice could have carved plate steel. “I lost your mother. I'm not losing you!”

    “Mom. Seriously.” Glory Girl spread her hands, the very picture of innocence. “The guy blew out the side of a ship while we were flying over it. What were we supposed to do?”

    Dad swung toward her, his expression furious, but Mrs Dallon got there first. “Victoria. Go to your room. Now.”

    “But -”

    Now.”

    Vicky began to float up from the sofa; Brandish cut in sharply. “And no flying, or you're grounded for a month. Literally.”

    Not daring to say a word, I watched as Glory Girl dropped to the ground and trudged toward the stairs. She was halfway up them when her mother turned to me. Mrs Dallon's voice was still stern, but held less of an edge as she spoke to me. “Taylor, please join her. This is between your father and myself.” As I stood up, I saw her glance at Amy, then toward the stairs. Looking resigned, Amy stood up as well.

    <><>​

    I joined Vicky in her room; as I closed the door, she flopped on to the bed with a gusty sigh. “So, what do you want to do tomorrow night?”

    I stared at her, not quite sure if she was pulling my leg. “You have got to be joking.”

    “No, seriously,” she said, lifting herself on to her elbows and looking at me. “It'll all blow over by then. So what do you want to do? Hit the Merchants for real?”

    Leaning against the wardrobe, I slid downward until I was resting on the floor. “This is not going to blow over any time soon. I can't remember the last time I saw Dad this pissed. Like, ever. I'll be lucky if I'm allowed out as a superhero before my wedding day.”

    She frowned at me. “I didn't know you had a boyfriend?”

    I glared right back. “I don't.”

    “Oh.” She took a moment; I hoped that she was beginning to realise the level of trouble we were in. “Um. So, um, how bad do you think it's gonna get? Grounded for a week?”

    I facepalmed. She still didn't get it. “Pretty sure that I'm out of New Wave. For starters.”

    “Wait, what?” She sat up in horror. “But – but, that's not even fair! You weren't even hurt!”

    “Do you think that's gonna matter to him?” I shook my head. “You heard him down there. My mom died a few years ago. Even the suggestion that I might get hurt's going to set him off. Telling him I got knocked out was a mistake. A huge mistake.”

    There was a soft tap at the door. Vicky raised her head. “Come in, Ames.”

    The door opened briefly as Amy slipped inside. “Oh, good,” she said. “You're dressed.”

    As a joke, it fell kind of flat. From downstairs, I heard my father's voice.

    - no way in hell I'm gonna let -”

    It closed again, cutting off his tirade. I looked between Vicky and Amy. “So, how good a lawyer is your mom? Because it's gonna take a really good one to get around Dad when he's in a mood like this.”

    “What are you talking about?” asked Amy cautiously. “Your dad's gonna calm down some time soon, right?”

    “Nuh uh.” I shook my head. “He's got a temper. Doesn't show it off much, but when he goes off, he goes off big. First time I've been on the wrong end of it, though.”

    “Mom's a pretty good lawyer,” Vicky said complacently. “She should be able to work around your dad pretty easily.”

    Amy pulled the chair out from the desk and turned it around, sitting down and resting her arms across the back. “Taylor, isn't your dad in the Dockworkers Association or something?”

    I nodded. “Yeah. He's head of hiring.” I looked over at Vicky. “And before you ask, he's done his share of negotiations.”

    “But nothing in the courtroom, right?” Vicky's voice was hopeful.

    I snorted bitterly. “He doesn't do courtroom rules. Why is it, do you think, that none of the gangs in Brockton Bay have ever gotten a toehold in the Association?”

    Vicky opened her mouth and closed it again. No-one spoke. The silence in the room was so complete that I could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall over the distant sound of raised voices from downstairs.

    “ … none of them?” Vicky had found her voice at last. “Really?”

    “Really.” I looked her in the eye. “So I'm not so sure that your mom's gonna win this one, you know?”

    “If he makes you quit New Wave, what do you think you'll do?” asked Amy.

    I shrugged. “Dunno. Go back to Winslow, I guess. I can't see your mom pushing through my case if I'm not in New Wave any more.” The admission pained me even more than the idea of being forced out of the team that I'd just joined, but I couldn't see any way out of it.

    “She wouldn't do that … would she?” Vicky stared at me. “I mean, you need Mom's help on this.”

    “And if it was a superhero thing, she'd probably jump in to help me,” I said. “But this is a lawyer thing. Something she usually gets paid for. And I'm pretty sure that Dad can't pay for her time on this sort of thing. I know for a fact that I can't. So, case closed. They win. Hell, Emma won't even know that there was a court case to begin with. Fuck.” Closing my eyes, I bumped my head backward against the wardrobe.

    “Mom said it was for damages,” Vicky reminded me. “You and your dad don't have to pay up straight away. She'll just take her cut from what you guys get out of the girls and the school.”

    I grimaced. “Not if Dad pisses her off so much that she decides not to take the case after all.”

    “You could still try to apply for Arcadia anyway.” There wasn't much optimism in Amy's voice, but I gave her a weak smile for trying.

    “Yeah, I could.” I sighed. “I mean, Winslow'll be closed for a few days. It might be worth a shot.” My grimace deepened as a thought occurred to me. “Of course, Emma and Sophia and Madison could also apply to Arcadia. Which means nothing changes.”

    “Hell yes, something changes,” Vicky said. “I'll be there. So will Ames. And a lot of my friends. I'd like to see this Emma bitch trying anything on you with them on your side.”

    “Until she gets them on side and turns them against me.” My prediction was gloomy, but I had bitter experience to back me up.

    Vicky shook her head. “Not gonna happen.” Her voice was filled with confidence. “My friends are better than that. Tell her, Ames.”

    Amy didn't hesitate. “She's right about that. Her friends are about as likely to turn on you as Kaiser is to give up crime and open a kosher hot-dog stand in partnership with Inago.”

    “Wow. That's pretty unlikely, all right,” I admitted.

    Vicky tilted her head. “Your dad's not yelling any more.”

    I turned my head, listening. “You're right. Though I'm not so sure that it's a good thing.”

    “I think -” Amy paused, then kept going. “I think someone's coming upstairs.”

    I had the impression that she'd been about to say something else, but she was right anyway. Moments after she spoke, there were footsteps in the corridor outside, then a brisk knock on the door. Amy got up and opened it.

    Mrs Dallon stood in the doorway. I tried to work out how the argument had gone from her expression, but she gave absolutely nothing away. “Taylor, Victoria, please come downstairs now.”

    It's not gonna be good news, is it? Slowly … reluctantly … I climbed to my feet. Vicky made a move as if to levitate directly off the bed, then caught her mother's gaze. Carefully, she planted her feet firmly on the floor and got up that way.

    I was the first downstairs, followed by Vicky. Mrs Dallon followed us, with Amy trailing in the rear. Dad stood in the living room, his hands behind his back as he faced us. From what I knew of him, given the tension of that posture, his hands would be clenching each other tightly enough to cut off the circulation.

    “Sit.” Mrs Dallon pointed at the couch. Vicky and I sat. Wonder of wonders, Vicky didn't even try to argue. “Now, Vicky. Tell me what you did wrong.”

    This wasn't what I was expecting. From Vicky's expression, nor was she. She opened her mouth, then shut it again. Even though I'd known her for less than a day, I could imagine the phrase but we didn't do anything wrong trembling to be let out. However, I knew beyond a doubt that this would be the worst possible thing to say. I hoped that she did too.

    Vicky's expression was agonised. She wasn't stupid – far from it – but it seemed to me that she wasn't used to being called to account on her actions. Trying to figure out what she had done wrong, instead of blithely assuming that she was free and clear on all accounts, was obviously new territory for her.

    “I guess …” Vicky paused, feeling her way. “Attacking Stinger like we did … we should have called for backup?”

    Mrs Dallon folded her arms. “Correct. You should have called for backup. Or called nine-one-one. Or waited and observed. More or less anything except dive right in. Which is what I'm guessing you did do.”

    I had to admit that she knew her daughter pretty well. But I had dived in after Vicky, so I felt obliged to back her up. “Uh, may I say something?”

    “A moment, Taylor.” Mrs Dallon didn't shift her gaze from Vicky. “Are you aware of how badly things could have gone in that fight? You could have been hurt or killed. Taylor could have been hurt or killed. You're just lucky – both of you are – that you encountered a villain who was relatively easy to beat, and that Taylor's power allowed her to survive the explosion.”

    Vicky mumbled something under her breath.

    “Speak up,” snapped Brandish.

    “Taylor's immune to explosions,” Vicky muttered. “She blew up her locker with her in it. She survived that.”

    There was a crackle and a snap as Brandish created a thin blade of pure energy from her own hand. Dad and I stared at it; it was a stark reminder that Vicky's mom really was a superhero in her own right, and was speaking from experience. With a quick, brutal movement, she stabbed the blade into her other palm; it fizzled out on contact. “Taylor may be immune to her own power, but you had no way of knowing that she was immune to explosions in general. In fact, we still don't know if she is, or if it's just her regeneration that allowed her to survive this one. Do you see my point now?”

    Vicky's eyes were wide. “Uh, yeah,” she managed, then swallowed. “I screwed up, didn't I?”

    “Uh, Mrs Dallon?” I raised my hand this time.

    Mrs Dallon ignored my interjection, keeping her eyes on Vicky. “Yes. You did.” Only then did she turn to look at me. “Yes, Taylor?”

    My mouth had unaccountably gone dry. I tried to moisten my lips. “Uh, I just wanted to say that the guy – Stinger – was pretty slick. If we'd waited around, he would've been ready for whoever came after him. I could be wrong, but I think hitting him as early as we did made it a lot harder for him to prepare a response.”

    “That may well be.” Mrs Dallon was well into Brandish mode by now. “But there's a time and a place to engage the enemy. Victoria should not have done what she did. Taking an inexperienced teammate into battle against an unknown foe, as she did, was foolish in the extreme. It would have been better if she'd gone in alone and left you outside. Not much better, but some. Because I'd prefer he gets away than either one of you gets hurt or killed.”

    I saw her point. We had been reckless, and it could've gone badly wrong. “Oh. Oh, yeah. I see what you mean.”

    Her expression was more like a smile than a frown, but only just. “Good.” She turned and gestured to Dad, who hadn't moved from the spot. “Danny, you had something to say?”

    I began to wonder what was going on here. This didn't sound like the preamble to me being removed from New Wave.

    Dad stepped forward. To my relief, he didn't look quite as angry as he had been before. But that wasn't to say that he looked happy. He cleared his throat roughly. “Mrs Dallon and I have had an in-depth discussion over your future in this team, Taylor.”

    My future in the team? Hope burst inside me. “Does that mean -” I began.

    He held up his hand, palm out, and I shut up.

    “Now, I am not in the least bit thrilled that you'll be going into danger.” His hand went back to his side, and I saw his knuckles clench. “But Mrs Dallon has impressed upon me the fact that unless they're given an outlet, your powers will manifest and you will use them, and not necessarily on purpose.”

    I hadn't known that. Daring to glance sideways, I caught Vicky's eye. Is this true? She gave me the slightest of nods. But Dad was still talking. I got the strong impression that he didn't want to say what he was saying, but that he knew that he had to.

    “We talked about putting you in the Wards, but she pointed out in the strongest possible terms that forcing you into a team, where you would very likely resent both them and me, would be worse than simply having you on your own.” He paused. “Unless you want to join the Wards?” His tone was hopeful.

    As opposed to joining New Wave? I shook my head swiftly. “No. They'll want to poke and prod me. They might not even let me be a hero.”

    From the look on his face, he wasn't averse to me being kept out of the line of fire. “We didn't think so.” But it was worth a try. He didn't say the words, but I heard them loud and clear anyway. “So, the only other option is to let you stay in New Wave.” He didn't sound happy, but nor did he seem angry about it any more. His tone was more resigned than anything. “But there's going to have to be some conditions.”

    I had been just about to leap up and hug him, and then maybe Vicky – Mrs Dallon did not come across as the most huggable of people – until he said those last words. They were more than a little ominous. “Uh, conditions?” I ventured.

    Mrs Dallon stepped forward. “Your father has expressed his reservations about Victoria's level of judgement in the field.” For all that I knew nothing about the law, I was pretty sure that I could decipher her lawyer-speak. He thinks she's a reckless idiot. Vicky shifted uncomfortably on the couch beside me; I figured that she'd heard the same unspoken judgement as I had.

    “However,” Brandish continued, “you do work well together, so we've decided to let that state of affairs continue. With, as your father said, conditions.” She fixed me with an unrelenting stare. “You're home by ten every school night. You pay attention to your grades. And when you do go out, someone else goes with the pair of you. Someone responsible.”

    “Oh, that's easy,” Vicky said, perhaps a little too hastily. “Ames can come along.”

    “I hardly think that Amy could keep you in check if you decided to go your own way,” her mother corrected her. Vicky slumped very slightly; I suspected that she'd had that same thought herself.

    “No.” Mrs Dallon's voice was firm. “We had in mind someone more adult. A flyer would be ideal, given that both of you are also flyers.”

    “So, Crystal or Aunt Sarah then.” Vicky looked back at her mother. “Have you asked them if they want to chaperone us?”

    “If they're unwilling, then the choices are either Manpower, your father, myself or not going out at all.” Brandish wasn't giving an inch. “Those are your options. They are not negotiable.”

    “Uh, I'm good with someone coming out with us,” I said quickly. “I am really new to this, so I'll take all the pointers I can get.”

    “Uh, yeah, what she said.” Vicky didn't sound enthusiastic, but at least she was agreeing.

    “Very well, then.” Mrs Dallon nodded in curt approval. “We'll give you your chance.”

    Unspoken were the words: Don't screw it up.

    I didn't intend to.


    End of Part Ten

    Part Eleven
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2017
  12. Threadmarks: Part Eleven: Show and Tell
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Eleven: Show and Tell



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



    Dallon Household
    The Next Morning


    “Taylor, what's the matter?” Vicky's voice was full of concern. She hovered over me, almost literally, while I paced back and forth. I was wearing the bathrobe she had given me; if it was any fluffier, I might just have drifted away on the breeze.

    “I don't know,” I said. “Everything. Maybe. Fuck!” My thoughts whirled in my head. “I'm going to to your school today. To Arcadia. As the wyvern.” As my agitation grew, I found myself speaking in shorter, choppier sentences. Ugh. Me caveman. Me no English good.

    “Yes,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “What's the problem with that? It's not like you'll have to stand up and make a speech.” That wasn't my problem at all, but before I could articulate that, Amy cut in.

    “Even if she does,” Amy said, spraying a few crumbs on the table from the muffin she was eating, “it'll go something like this.” Pursing her lips, she let out a series of weird noises.

    A few seconds later, I got what she was trying to do. “I do not sound like that!” I said hotly. “I don't, do I, Vicky?” Looking at the blonde, my heart sank; she was giggling.

    “You kinda do, actually,” she admitted. “A little bit, anyway.” Breaking into a smile, she hugged me, bathrobe and all. “But they'll be more interested in the fact that you're a dragon.”

    “A wyvern,” I corrected her, but my heart wasn't in it. “There's a difference.” A difference that I hadn't been aware of two days ago, but still a difference.

    “I know that, you doofus,” she said fondly. “But they won't. I'm betting you're gonna have to explain the different about two dozen times.” My heart sank. Surely she wasn't serious. I'd thought people going to Arcadia were smart.

    “And three times just for Dennis' benefit,” Amy put in cheerfully. That surprised me; I'd thought Amy was nicer than that, even if she was just joking. “And even then he'll want you to prove it by setting fire to something.”

    I frowned, not sure that I liked where this was going. “Um, I really don't think that I should do that. People might get hurt.”

    Amy's eyes were alight with mischief. “Well, you could set fire to Dennis. That would prove you can do it, and stop him from bothering you. Win-win situation. And I'd heal him afterwards. Maybe.”

    “Amy!” I protested. “You're joking, right?” I really hoped that she was. Because if she wasn't, then this Dennis guy must really deserve it. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in the same school as someone like that. “Vicky, tell me she's joking.”

    Vicky let me go and put her finger on her chin. “Hmm. You know what? Feel free to set fire to Dennis. I'm good with that idea.”

    I stared at her. “You're not serious.” She had to be messing with me. Both of them did. I'd spent way too much time with them to think anything else.

    A moment later, I was proven right as Vicky burst into giggles. “No, we're not. Dennis isn't that bad. He's just a bit of a boy sometimes.”

    “Most boys are, in my experience,” I replied dryly. “Is this guy one of your friends?” One of the people they swore would not turn against me?

    “Actually, yeah, he is.” Vicky's voice was blithe. “I mean, he can be annoying as crap, but his heart's in the right place.” She smiled at me and spread her hands. “I think you'll get along with him. With all of our friends.”

    “That remains to be seen.” I wasn't holding out much hope. Prior experience had given me too much reason to be pessimistic.

    “Well, this time around, you don't have to worry about talking to anyone,” Vicky said brightly. “Just be yourself. And, you know, don't bite anyone. Unless you really have to.” I had to admit, she could do the innocent tone of voice really well. She almost sounded serious.

    “I've never bitten anyone,” I reminded her firmly. “Not even as the wyvern. Jeez, I could take someone's hand off.” I shuddered at the thought.

    “And then cauterise it straight away,” Amy pointed out. I shot her a sharp glance; she innocently took a bite out of her toast. Her poker face was a lot better than Vicky's.

    “So it's going to be fine,” Vicky assured me. She put her arm around my shoulders. “Me and Ames will be with you all day. Where's the problem?”

    I took a deep breath. “The problem is that Stinger's explosions kind of put some holes in my costume. As if you didn't already know. And I am not going to school in that, even if I never turn back to human for the whole day.” Almost unconsciously, I clutched the bathrobe a little more tightly around myself.

    “Oh, is that all?” Vicky burst out laughing. I stared at her. This wasn't something to laugh about. This was serious, damn it.

    “Yeah,” I said. “That's all. I don't want to have my first appearance at Arcadia be in a costume that's all tattered and …” My voice trailed off as Vicky reached into her bag, which was sitting on the counter. Triumphantly, she produced something made of cloth; with a flick, it unrolled on to the table.

    “You were saying?” she asked smugly. Which, to be honest, she'd earned. On the table in front of me was a copy of my damaged costume, only in white. On the front was a silhouette of me – or at least, something with a long tail and widespread batlike wings – in red, with gold edging. “Flew over there and picked it up this morning, before you woke up.”

    I looked down at it, then back up at her. If her grin became any wider, I figured she'd need Panacea's help to get it back to normal. “You cheeky cow,” I accused her. “You knew I was freaking out about the costume all the time. And you let me get all worked up anyway.”

    Vicky's level of smugness went up another notch. “Yup. It was all for a good cause, honest.”

    I rolled my eyes as I picked up the costume. It looked like it would fit, and the heavy zippers down each side seemed to be the same as on my first one. But I was still a little pissed at Vicky. “Oh, this should be good.”

    “Well, it seemed to be a good idea to see if you'd turn into the wyvern if we were teasing you just a bit,” Amy put in from where she was sitting. “Better than having it happen if you got stressed out at the mall or something, right?”

    I stared at her, feeling just a little betrayed. Amy had seemed to be the safe one, the quiet one. “You too? I'd expect this sort of shit off Vicky. But you?”

    Amy shrugged just a little. “Hey, I like a joke as much as the next person.”

    “And you have to admit, it was for a good cause,” Vicky reminded me. “Unlike us, you've got a secret identity to maintain.” She wasn't grinning any more; her voice was totally serious.

    Even if I didn't want to admit it, she had a good point. “Yeah, but you both still suck.” I ran the costume through my hands. “Anyway, thanks. I appreciate it.” Even so, I decided that I would get my revenge at some point. Once I figured out how.

    <><>​

    Arcadia looked weird from the air. The buildings were pretty high, but instead of one big solid block, they were kind of like a giant skinny capital 'H'. There was a substantial fence around the whole school, including the playing fields, which looked reasonably well-maintained. Winslow had a fence too; it was a lot lower, and whole sections of it were basically non-existent. As were the playing fields.

    From the air, the school actually looked kind of pretty. I had no doubt that it would be somewhat less so, once I got down to ground level. That was true for anywhere, not just Arcadia. The urge was strong just to keep flying, to bypass the school altogether and go … where? Home? Dad wouldn't be there, and I couldn't guarantee to be able to change back to human form. Even if I didn't out myself, I would certainly draw unwanted attention.

    “So you ready for your big debut?” Vicky, flying alongside with Amy in her arms, sounded absurdly cheerful.

    I replied with a screech that I hoped got the message across. I've already debuted. Twice, even.

    “What did she say?” asked Vicky, looking down at Amy.

    The healer shrugged. “Um … maybe something about how this isn't exactly her first time out in public?” She threw me an apologetic look. “Just spitballing here.”

    Well, you basically got it right. I nodded, adding a chirp of agreement.

    “Well, duh,” Vicky agreed. “But this is the first time you're actually deliberately meeting the public as a member of New Wave.” She slowed and began to descend toward the main gates. I flared my wings and followed her down.

    “Uh, well, there was that -” began Amy tentatively.

    “As a fully costumed member of New Wave,” Vicky amended her own statement. “In public. With no criminals to fight, powered or otherwise.”

    “Wow, gee, specific much?” asked Amy dryly. She grinned as Vicky poked her tongue out at her. “Just saying.”

    “Well, if you're going to be nitpicky,” Glory Girl said, and pretended to be about to drop her. Amy shrieked in mock fear and clutched her sister around the neck.

    Snickering to myself, I glided in for a landing; when I was just above the ground, I backwinged to stop my forward motion, landed relatively neatly, and furled my wings. In the meantime, Vicky had landed nearby and dropped Amy on to her feet.

    “That was mean,” Amy said. “I'm going to tell Dean on you.” She glared at her sister, although I could see that she had a grin lurking on her lips.

    A tall blond boy pushed his way out of the crowd that had surrounded us. “Uh, two questions,” he said, looking just a little uncertain. “One, what were you going to tell on her about? And two, what exactly is that?” Oddly enough, the longer he looked at me, the less worried he seemed to be.

    “Dean!” Vicky more or less leaped into his arms and gave him a smacking kiss. “Dean, I'd like you to meet Wyvern, the newest member of New Wave. Wyvern, meet Dean Stansfield, the best-looking guy in Arcadia, and my boyfriend.”

    Because of course she's dating one of the richest kids in town. I'd never met Dean before, but I knew of the Stansfields. They were one of Brockton Bay's high-society families, along with the Christners and the Anders'. I eyed him, not exactly jealously, because there was no way in hell I'd even have a chance with a guy like that. But I was feeling a certain amount of envy, because there was no way in hell I'd even have a chance with a guy like that.

    “Wait,” one of the other kids crowding around said. “This is your new teammate? You've got a dinosaur as a teammate?” His voice sounded more incredulous than disbelieving.

    I turned and gave him a hard stare. He stepped back a little; apparently, as a wyvern, I was really well equipped to give menacing looks. Perhaps it was the crest … or maybe the teeth.

    “No, Carlos,” Vicky said, almost wearily. “Weren't you listening? She's a wyvern, which is a type of dragon. Not a dinosaur. Sheesh, people, crack a book sometime.” She pointed at me. “She's wearing a costume and everything.”

    A red-headed boy decided to stick his oar in at this point. “Okay, so she's a wyvern, which is a type of dragon. Where did you even get a dragon from? And what's the point in dressing her up in a costume? It's not like she'll be going out fighting crime with you, right?”

    “Because she's not just a dragon.” It was Dean. “She's a Changer, right? This is just one of her forms?” He was still staring at me a little oddly, but I didn't care. Giving him an affirmative chirp, I followed up with a nod.

    Oh,” the redhead said, his eyes open wide with realisation. “So when you say she's your teammate, you actually do mean that she's your teammate.”

    Amy had been quietly standing by, not saying a word. I suspected that she preferred it this way. But now she marched up to the redhead and grabbed him by the collar. He was a few inches taller than her, but she hauled him down until her mouth was level with his ear.

    “Yes, Dennis,” she said, the tone of her voice clearly indicating that what little patience she had was rapidly eroding. “She really is a wyvern, and she really is our teammate. And Dean's right; she's a Changer. Now, did you have any other stupid questions you wanted to get out of the way?”

    He paused for a moment, then opened his mouth. She yanked on his collar. “Any questions to do with Wyvern, right here, right now?” I was a little surprised by the suppressed anger in her tone, but it certainly did the job; he closed his mouth again.

    “Okay, gotcha,” the boy called Carlos said. “So when did this happen, Vicky? Yesterday? I remember you blowing out of school during home room, and you didn't get back all day.”

    “Yeah, there was kind of an incident with Wyvern, here,” Vicky told him. “I had to get it sorted out. The Protectorate kind of got involved, but Wyvern ended up joining New Wave.” She gave the assembled crowd a beaming smile. “I'm sorry, folks. I can't tell you any more. Cape business.”

    “Okay, sure, but why bring her to Arcadia anyway?” asked the redhead. He looked apologetically at Amy. “I'm sorry, but it's a legitimate question. It's not like she can really do any schoolwork.”

    Amy sighed as she released Dennis' collar. “I'll get this one, Vicky. Guys, Wyvern is new to her powers. She's joined New Wave in her Changer form, but the public's probably not ready for a fire-breathing dragon flying unattended around the city. So we're bringing her to school so she can get used to people staring at her, and so that people will pass the word around. Wyvern is one of the good guys.” She flushed a little as everyone stared at her. “Well, it's true.”

    “ … wait.” Dean raised a finger in the air.

    Vicky gave him an odd glance. “What?”

    “Uh … did Amy say fire-breathing?” Dean's eyes flicked from Vicky to me. “Wyvern can actually breathe fire? You're not just pulling our chains?” He sounded as though he really wanted this to be true. Which it was, although I wasn't about to demonstrate right then.

    The grin that crossed Vicky's face was composed of pure smugness. “She sure can. You should see what she did to Armsmaster's halberd.”

    “Why, what did she do?” This was the red-headed boy, his expression composed of equal parts interest and cautious anticipation.

    “Glory Girl!” Amy's voice was sharp. “Remember what Brandish said about that!” I winced; Mrs Dallon had been rather explicit about the need for discretion. We don't need anyone knowing about that particular confrontation, she had stated. I had agreed with her, although I didn't need to worry about spilling the beans, given that my Wyvern form was non-verbal.

    I wasn't mute, however; turning my head, I chirped in agreement with Amy's words.

    “Did she just … agree with you?” asked Carlos. “Oh, wait. Of course she did. Sorry, Wyvern,” he offered. “I'm not used to talking to people who look like they belong on the set of the next Jurassic Park movie.” His face flushed dark with embarrassment. “I'm gonna stop talking now, before I make an even bigger idiot of myself.”

    Vicky smirked. “Well, that would be kind of hard to do.” She tilted her head toward me. “You ever been inside Arcadia before?”

    I shook my head. Nope. Drove past a few times, though.

    “Come on, then.” She strode onward while I did my best to keep up. It was useful that people moved aside, often with some haste, when they saw me. Less helpful was the fact that I wasn't actually good at moving fast on my hind legs. Fortunately, however, the wyvern body had a work-around. Using my 'elbows' as makeshift forelegs, I was able to maintain a reasonable pace, even though it probably looked ridiculous.

    “Hey!” It was Dennis, behind us. “I want to hear about what happened to Armsmaster's halberd!”

    Amy caught up with us, breathing slightly faster than normal. “Nice going, Vicky.”

    The blonde looked over at her sister, her expression irritated. “Hey, it just slipped out. Think he'll figure it out?”

    “Hope not,” Amy said, her lips tightening a little. “We both know it puts her secret identity at risk.”

    Vicky nodded. “Right.” She turned toward me. “Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to let it out, but it is an awesome story.”

    I rolled my eyes and gave her an irritated squawk. This was only partly because of her faux pas; the rest of it was because she was walking so fast.

    “I said I was sorry,” she muttered. With a worried expression, she turned back to Amy. “Do you think he'll start bugging, uh -” She coughed, then cleared her throat. “- you or me about it?”

    Amy shook her head, her lips set in a straight line. “How can he not? You know what that boy's like when it comes to things like that.”

    At that moment, the bell went, causing me to raise my head in surprise. At Winslow, they made use of the geriatric PA system to transmit the sound of a siren around the school; the unspoken joke was that more kids in the school would react to the sound of a siren than a bell. At Arcadia, it was a proper bell; clear, crisp and brassy.

    “Well, that's the home-room bell,” Vicky said with some relief. “See you at lunch, Ames?”

    The brunette shook her head. “Sorry. Field trip with Mr Jankowitz, for History. We're visiting the Isaac Lord Memorial and the museum.”

    I was a little envious at that; I rather liked the Brockton Bay Local History Museum, but the last time I'd gone had been years ago, before Mom passed. And the closest that Winslow had to field trips was when one student or another was arrested and taken down to the precinct house.

    Apparently, Vicky didn't share my opinion of it. “Oh, well. Your loss. Come on, uh, Wyvern.”

    “This isn't over yet,” Amy said as I started to follow Vicky off down the corridor. “If Dennis says anything, you're gonna be in so much trouble.”

    Says anything to who? The puzzle occupied me all the way to Vicky's home room. It wasn't like he could get answers out of me.

    <><>​

    “ - Wyvern,” Vicky said patiently. “That's because her Changer form is a wyvern.” She pointed at my wings. “See how her arms are her wings? That's the difference between a wyvern and a dragon.”

    The group gathered around us in the English classroom nodded or made various noises of assent, though I doubted that they'd followed all of that. Most of them seemed to be more worried that I might bite them or something.

    “So, it, uh, she, really breathes fire?” asked one of her classmates. “I mean, actual fire?” He looked down at me; at that moment, I was resting back on my tail, which allowed me to keep my head up without causing my neck to start aching. “Because biologically speaking, unless her diet allows her to build up concentrations of flammable gas -”

    I snorted with amusement. Vicky echoed me, but then she actually burst out laughing. “Oh, my god. No, seriously. Just no. Breathing fire is a power for her.”

    “Oh, right,” he said. “So how -” He looked around, breaking off as the door opened and the teacher entered.

    “Sorry, all,” he said, not even looking around as he headed for his desk. “Last-minute teacher conference. Apparently there's a new cape in school, and she's fairly … what the hell is that thing?”

    I covered my eyes with my wing. It looked like this was going to be happening a lot. It also didn't raise my expectations of being treated as 'normal' if the teachers were going to be blurting out stuff like that.

    “Mr Robertson,” Vicky protested, “this is New Wave's new recruit, Wyvern. She's a person, not a 'thing'.” The hurt in her voice warmed me. She cares. She actually cares.

    I lowered my wing just in time to see the look on the teacher's face. As far as I could tell, it was somewhere between you have to be shitting me and how long till retirement, again? “Wait … this is your new teammate, Glory Girl?”

    “Yes, sir,” she said promptly. I added an agreeable chirp, and nodded.

    He closed his eyes, as if hoping that I was a passing hallucination. Opening them once more, he slowly shook his head. “Well, Vice Principal Howell said she was likely to be distinctive … I'm going to have to congratulate her on a truly masterful use of understatement.”

    “I don't know about that, sir,” Vicky said; I could tell she was trying to hide a smile. “Wyvern hasn't actually met the Vice Principal yet. Mom said she was going to make a call before she went to work.”

    He shook his head again. “Well, I can tell that it's not going to be a boring day today. Everyone, take your seats, and have your homework ready on your desk … ah, yes, Miss Dallon?” From the tone of his voice, I figured he knew what she was going to say next.

    Vicky grimaced, just a little. “Uh, sir, I had to go and deal with matters yesterday, that kind of resulted in meeting and recruiting Wyvern, here. So I … kind of … didn't get the homework?”

    Mr Robertson sighed. “Very well. It's clearly obvious that you're not making it up.” He looked at me over his glasses. “Though I have no idea what to do in this specific circumstance. Miss, uh, Wyvern, can you just do me a favour and not disrupt the class too much?”

    I nodded and gave him another agreeable chirp. A vaguely pained expression crossed his face, as if he were uncertain about his own mental stability.

    “Thank you.” He turned back to Vicky. “I won't report you this time, but this must not happen again. So I'll be assigning you extra homework tonight, to make up for it. Superhero or no, a good education is absolutely essential in this day and age.” He seemed to have recovered from his surprise as he strode back up toward his desk. “Now, if those of you who have actually done the homework can pass it forwards, I'll be collecting it.”

    Extra homework? Ouch. I shot Vicky my best sympathetic look. She shrugged in return, looking resigned. I got the impression that this was not an unknown situation for her.

    Oh, well. At least me being here saved her from more trouble. I settled down to watch and learn as Mr Robertson began to call the roll.

    <><>​

    Glory Girl

    “So all through the class, he keeps sneaking Wyvern glances, like he thinks she's about to jump up and attack him.” Vicky grinned at the memory, then took a bite of her burger. Beside her, Taylor-as-Wyvern rolled her eyes, apparently just as unimpressed with the English teacher as Vicky had been.

    “So what happened then?” asked Dean. His eyes went from Taylor to Vicky and back again. “I get the impression that there's more to the story.”

    “Well, Wyvern may have decided to mess with his head, just a little,” Vicky allowed, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “Every time he looked away from her, she changed posture. She's really good at moving quietly if she has to.” It had been funny as fuck. The changes had been minor to begin with, then more and more blatant. And every time he'd looked at her, Wyvern's eyes had been fixed on him. Robertson hadn't quite run screaming from the room, but he'd been more than a little unnerved by the time class ended. And he'd forgotten to give Vicky the extra homework, so that was a win too.

    “So what was that you said earlier about Armsmaster's halberd?” Dennis put in, his flaming red hair in disarray. He looked for all the world as if he'd been obsessing over the question since class started. “What did she do to it? Did she steal it and bury it?”

    Vicky rolled her eyes. “No, and stop asking about it. I'm not going to tell you, because it's not something that needs to get out.” She gave the importunate Ward a medium glare. So don't go asking Armsmaster about it, either. “What happened was between Wyvern and Armsmaster, and nobody else needs to know about it.”

    Dennis held up his hands, the very picture of injured innocence. Vicky would have been taken in, except that she knew the boy, and didn't trust him an inch not to do something that he thought was funny. Such as declare his name as 'Clockblocker' in front of a live TV interview.

    “I get it, I get it,” he assured her. “But, you know, it's easier to keep a secret if you know what it is that you shouldn't be talking about.” He tried his best to give her puppy-dog eyes, but he just didn't have the wherewithal to pull it off. It didn't help that his mouth kept trying to curl into a grin.

    “You know what Benjamin Franklin said about secrets?” Vicky asked, leaning across the table toward the redhead. Lowering her voice, she made the question sound conspiratorial.

    Dennis looked puzzled. “Uh, no. What did he say?” Out of his line of sight, Carlos's eyes opened with sudden realisation. Beside her, Taylor started snickering, wyvern-style, which sounded positively creepy. She's heard this one, too.

    Vicky locked her eyes with the Ward's. “Three can keep a secret,” she quoted, “if two of them are dead.” Right on cue, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Taylor lean forward as well and bare her teeth. They were very sharp and very white, positively gleaming in the overhead lighting.

    “Whoa, hey, let's keep this friendly, huh?” Dennis backpedalled so hard he nearly fell out of his chair. “I'm really not all that invested in knowing about Armsmaster or his halberd. In fact, what halberd? I've never even heard of such a thing. No idea what you're talking about.”

    By the time he finished babbling, both Carlos and Dean were chuckling. Carlos turned to Vicky. “Any chance she can hang around with us for a while after school? I've never seen anyone shut Dennis up so effectively before.”

    “Hmm, might not be such a great idea,” Dean said seriously. “You know Missy will be there. And as adorable as she is, how do you think she'll react to Wyvern? Be honest, now.”

    Vicky began to giggle, imagining the scene, as Carlos and Dean both eyed Wyvern gravely. Taylor, for her part, obviously had no idea what they were talking about; she glanced at Vicky with a questioning chirp. Putting her hand over her mouth, Vicky managed to muffle her giggles, though she was in no state to actually answer the unspoken question.

    “Well, I think the first sign that Missy has seen Wyvern will be a high-pitched squeal,” Carlos decided; his mock-serious tone was spoiled only slightly by the grin tugging one corner of his mouth upward. “And then I think she'd shriek 'Dragon!' at the top of her lungs.”

    “Even though she's actually a wyvern,” Vicky managed, just as Taylor flared her crest in irritation.

    “Well, of course,” Dean agreed, the grin growing on his face. “And then I think Wyvern would find herself being glomped by a force of nature masquerading as a thirteen year old girl.”

    “Demanding a dragon ride,” Carlos forced out, before he started laughing in earnest. By rights, he should've fallen off his chair, especially when Taylor squawked angrily and nudged him in the ribs with her … wrist? Major wing joint, anyway. “Sorry,” he amended, wiping tears from his eyes. “Wyvern ride.”

    “Pretty sure that Wyvern isn't actually built to ride on,” Vicky pointed out. “Even if she was big enough. Which she isn't.” Taylor, apparently not on board with the idea of giving rides, nodded vehemently in agreement.

    “But they'd look so cute, posing together,” Dennis put in. Vicky had to admire his fortitude.

    He wasn't wrong, though. Art class had come after English. Mr Francesci had adapted to the idea of having a real life wyvern in his classroom much more readily than Mr Robertson had. He'd even been aware of the difference between wyverns and dragons, which Vicky supposed that she shouldn't really be surprised at.

    Taylor had ended up posing for the class, something to which she had taken to rather more readily than Vicky had expected. It seemed that in her wyvern form, shyness was not something she suffered from. Francesci had asked – almost begged, in fact – Vicky to bring Wyvern back at some point so that he could render her in oils, something that had surprised Vicky. If she was any judge, Taylor wasn't sure what to think of it either. It was definitely something different.

    “And I can guarantee nobody would bother Missy when they were out and about, either,” Dean agreed. “I mean, wow, those teeth.” He paused for a moment. “And does she actually breathe fire?”

    Vicky rolled her eyes. “Everyone asks that, and yes, it's true. She really does breathe fire.” When you see it, you won't be asking twice, she thought with amusement.

    At that moment, Carlos' phone went off; a moment later, so did Dean's and Dennis'. That was the first intimation that Vicky had that something was wrong. Carlos got his phone out first, and answered it, just as Vicky's phone pinged with a text from Amy.

    She read it, a cold feeling crawling down her back.

    At museum. Merch & ABB clashing. We're in the middle. Come quick. Bring Wyvern.

    Amy would be smart enough to silence her phone. She tapped out a quick reply. On way. Hold on.

    Shoving her phone away, she stood up abruptly. “We've got to go. See you guys around?”

    Carlos nodded, already putting his own cell phone back in his pocket. “Yeah. Got stuff to do.”

    I just bet you do. She had no doubt that she'd see the Wards on the scene. But right now … “Come on, Wyvern.”

    Taylor had obviously picked up that there was something wrong, but even though she was mostly in the dark, she didn't hesitate to follow. Which was good, because Vicky wasn't waiting around.

    Her priorities were simple. Costume up. Go and save Amy.

    And God help anyone who got in her way.



    End of Part Eleven

    Part Twelve
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2017
  13. Threadmarks: Part Twelve: Bugging the Dragon
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Twelve: Bugging the Dragon



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



    Wyvern

    I let out a screech as Victoria opened her locker. The blonde was moving fast enough to accidentally rip the door clean off though to her credit, she hadn't actually done that yet. Reaching into the metal box—I still had unpleasant memories of my locker—Vicky grabbed a familiar-looking set of folded clothing, with a tiara on top. Irritated at being ignored, I screeched again.
    “What?” Vicky whipped around to face me. “Amy's in trouble. Whatever it is, can it wait?” Her aura pulsed back and forth, making me feel almost palpable waves of fear interspersed with saccharine levels of adoration. Fortunately, the latter didn't last long enough to trigger my change back. Even if they could, given my current agitated mindset.

    This was the huge problem with the wyvern form; specifically, my inability to communicate in any meaningful way. Right now, the only messages I could get across with ease were 'yes', 'no' and 'I have lots of sharp teeth, so don't mess with me'. Anything more required time that I just did not have. Unfortunately, the message I was trying to get across was you can fly a lot faster than me, so I'd better start right now, but I have no idea where you're going. Hoping against hope that Vicky would figure it out, I reached out with my wingtip and traced the letter 'W' on the floor.

    “What?” Vicky stared at the letter, then up at me. “What's a 'W' supposed to mean? Why am I costuming up? Who are we going to save? You know all that.” She lofted off the ground, preparatory to flying down the hallway—which I was almost certain was forbidden within the grounds of Arcadia—but I spread my wings to block her way, letting out another screech. This one was louder and more forceful than before, and included more sharp teeth. Pay attention to me. Again, I traced the letter 'W' on the floor.

    “What the fuck's gotten into you?” Vicky seemed about to barge past me anyway, then paused. “W …. um … who, when, where, why—” She stopped as I let out yet another screech before waddling awkwardly backward a step on my digitigrade legs. “Um, back? Back! Why … where! Fuck, I'm an idiot. You want to know where she is.” I nodded and let out my most encouraging chirp. “Isaac Lord Museum. You know where that is?”

    Finally. I nodded enthusiastically, then turned and scuttled off down the hallway. My clawed feet scrabbled at the plastic floor tiles and my 'elbows' ached slightly from thumping against the floor, but I still managed a fair turn of speed. Students scattered out of my way, whether from courtesy or fear I wasn't sure. Just so long as they actually get out of the way.

    The front doors slid open in front of me, and I burst out into the courtyard. A van with PRT markings was just pulling up at the gates, but I ignored it. Spreading my wings, I leaped into the air, beating them strongly for altitude. As I passed over the outer wall, I saw an armoured man get out of the van, his helmet faceplate tilted up toward me. I suppose he doesn't see a wyvern fly overhead every day of the week.

    Perhaps it was the urgency of the matter, but I felt no strain on my muscles as I pushed myself to fly faster and faster. While I hadn't known Amy for long—only a few hours less than I'd known Victoria, after all—the occasionally-snarky healer was someone I had decided I liked having as a friend. This was quite apart from the fact that she was Victoria's sister. The idea of her being put in danger by a bunch of gangsters and drug dealers made me … angry. Very angry. They're not going to hurt her if I've got anything to say about it.

    I'd spent my entire life in Brockton Bay and I liked to think I knew the city fairly well. The Isaac Lord Museum was a place I knew rather better than that; Dad had a fondness for local history and he'd dragged me along to the place about once a year until I left middle school. Based around the life and exploits of the man after whom Lord Street and Lord's Port was named, it wasn't particularly fancy or upmarket. Isaac Lord was one of the pioneers who had opened up the Brockton Bay region for settlement, so his name was well-known in the local area, but not so much anywhere else. As such, the museum had been gradually declining in the last few years, subsisting mainly on donations from local residents and a few patrons of cultural history.

    Fortunately, it wasn't all that far from Arcadia as the crow—or the wyvern—flew. I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do when I got there, except for the broad strategy; chase off the gangsters, save the innocents, make sure Amy was okay. If that involved scaring the living bejeebers out of a few dozen low-lives, or even inflicting minor first-degree burns on a few of them, I didn't mind. First-degree burns were survivable, after all, and would make the experience all the more memorable. And if me being memorable meant they wouldn't try this shit again in a hurry, then I intended to be as memorable as fuck.

    I was about halfway there when I saw the flying form in front of me. For a second I thought it was Victoria, and wondered how the hell did she get ahead of me? Then I got closer and realised it wasn't her. For a start, the figure was wearing rust-red armour. And of course, there was the whole 'big muscular guy' thing. He was travelling on the same course I was, which indicated that this was either a huge coincidence or he was also going from Arcadia to the fight at the Isaac Lord Museum.

    By the time I figured that out, I was almost up alongside him; he turned his head to stare at me. I figured it out just before he spoke; this was Aegis, of the Wards. He was their only innate flyer, as far as I knew, though there was footage (mainly shown on the PHO boards) showing Kid Win zipping around on a flying skateboard. And falling off of it too, which made for much more entertaining footage.

    I wasn't sure what was going to happen next, but nothing was going to stop me from going to save Amy. Whatever he did or said, I was going to basically ignore. Amy's welfare was more important. Besides, it looked as though I could fly faster than him. Which seemed odd, seeing that Vicky could fly faster than me, but who was I to argue? Maybe he'd gotten his version of bullshit no-effort wingless flight from the dollar store.

    As he turned to look at me, I made a private bet with myself. Either he'd say what the hell are you, with or without a panicked scream, or he'd decide I was an animal and treat me accordingly. After all, that was what most people I'd met in wyvern form had done. It was actually kind of depressing.

    “Oh, hey,” he said. “You're, uh, Wyvern, aren't you? Armsmaster briefed us on you.”

    Or he could just say hi. For some reason, I hadn't considered that possibility. I let out a friendly chirp and nodded my head. It was nice to meet another parahuman who didn't consider me a dangerous monster. In fact, it was nice to meet another person who didn't consider me a dangerous monster.

    “Yeah, he said you were nonverbal,” Aegis noted. “Also that you could breathe fire. Please don't kill anyone with fire, okay?”

    Now I was just plain surprised, though I really shouldn't have been. Armsmaster had passed on what he'd learned about me, and Aegis had actually listened? Did this mean I wouldn't have to beat him up until he paid attention to me? This revolutionary concept went against every comic book I'd ever read, not to mention most of my real-world experience to date.

    Unsure of what else to do, I gave him a toothy grin and a shrug. I could see that my conversational inputs were going to be fairly limited, unless he asked me some extremely specific leading questions. Fortunately, we were going in the same direction and I was pretty sure he was on my side. The trouble was, I had no way of articulating Panacea's in trouble and I'm trying to save her without either landing or carrying out some remarkably improbably charades in mid-air.

    “Wyvern! There you are! Oh, hi, Aegis. Sorry, can't stay to chat. My sister's in the middle of that gang fight, and I'm gonna get her out.”

    Or Vicky could tell him. That works, too. I looked around and let out a screech of welcome as Glory Girl swept up between us.

    “You ready to go toast some gang butt?” Vicky gave me a remarkably vicious grin. For a human teenager, her teeth looked almost as sharp as mine. “I figure if you fold your wings, I can give you a lift.”

    That … actually sounded like it could work. I began to nod vigorously, then paused, remembering the meeting of the previous night. Mrs Dallon and Dad had agreed that we could go crime-busting so long as we had a chaperone. Preferably a flyer. While 'but Amy was in trouble' could possibly serve as a good excuse for going in two-fisted, the fact was that we had a ready-made chaperone right there.

    Before I could talk myself out of it, I pulled one of my patented snap barrel-rolls, ending up on Aegis' back. This was obviously something he hadn't been briefed about—probably because Armsmaster hadn't observed me in flight—and he yelped in surprise as my prehensile feet latched on to the heavy belt he was wearing. “Wait, what are you doing?” he shouted. “Glory Girl, call her off!”

    I had to say this about Vicky; she wasn't slow on the uptake. Quite possibly, she'd been aiming to violate the terms of the agreement by omission—sorry, Mom, but it totally slipped my mind, and Ames was in trouble—but I'd dragged it out into the open. So to speak.

    “Aw crap,” she said, even as she facepalmed. “Okay, fine. Aegis, we're gonna need you to stick with us. Mom's decided we need a minder, and you're the closest thing we've got at the moment.”

    “Sure, fine,” he said; for a flying Brute, he certainly sounded more than a little nervous. “But can you make the nice fire-breathing lizard girl let me go, please? I don't know what she's doing back there, and I'm not sure I want to.”

    “I'd love to,” she replied sweetly. “But she's got the right idea. Say, if your spine dislocates, you'll get over it, won't you?” As she spoke, she swung up behind me. I crouched, clenched my claws through Aegis' belt, and furled my wings.

    “Yeah, but whaaaaaahhhhhhh!” he hollered as she wrapped her arms around me and piled on the pace. From the pitch of his voice, I suspected that I might've been inadvertently giving him an armour-wedgie but as Victoria had said, he'd get over it.

    Even with me and Aegis as dead weight, Vicky managed to accelerate to speeds that I could only normally reach in a dive. I flicked my nictitating membranes across my eyes and left them there; while they made things a little blurry, I could still see where we were going. It helped that Aegis had stopped struggling and stretched himself out in an effort to be more aerodynamic. I appreciated the effort.

    “It's up ahead!” Vicky called out. “Aegis, stay with Wyvern! She's the rookie here!” As she let me go, I reflexively spread my wings and released the grip I had on Aegis' belt.

    “What are you going to be doing?” asked Aegis. “My orders were to observe but not engage until backup arrived.” I could kind of see his point. The gangs were definitely out in force today, with Roadhog and her crew occupying one street and the ABB in the other. The museum was on the corner where these two streets converged, and the intersection was by now a no-go zone. Unfortunately, it would only be a matter of time before some overly-sneaky gangbanger decided to go through the museum to ambush their rivals on the other side. Unless, of course, they already had.

    “Saving Amy,” Vicky stated through clenched teeth. “And oh, look.” She pointed at me. “Backup.” That seemed to be all the words she was willing to use, as the last one was punctuated by her abrupt departure.

    Aegis watched her dive toward the museum, then turned to me. “Okay, um … have you done this much before?” Implicit in his question was the subtext I'm not being paid enough to try and stop her, and I don't think I could even if I was. I kind of sympathised with him; Victoria Dallon was a force of nature unto herself. While there were probably things on Earth Bet that could make her reconsider, once you got past the Endbringers and the Triumvirate they'd have to be few and far between.

    Irritated, I shook my head. You'd think Armsmaster would've covered that bit as well. Unless he's been holding back on my trigger details so as to keep my identity secret …. huh. Maybe he's not such a dick after all. But I was still irritated, if only because Vicky had ditched me so I could watch Aegis' back while she went to find Amy. Down below, there was a distant crunch; going by the brand-new hole in the roof of the museum, Vicky hadn't bothered finding a window or door. Well, that's definitely her, all right.

    “Um, okay.” Aegis seemed to come to a decision. “We need to maybe disperse some of these gang guys before they get the idea to take cover. Or hostages. Follow me and act scary.” Looking a lot less sure about what he was doing than Vicky had, he dived toward the street below where Roadhog's Merchants were tussling with Inago's ABB. I followed, not because of anything he'd said, but because Vicky was trusting me to not let him get killed.

    He swooped down over the street, about a dozen feet over the heads of the gang members. With my superior speed and manoeuvrability, I was able to match my speed and course to his while staying alongside him. Follow him, my scaly wyvern ass. As per his suggestion—I certainly wasn't taking it as an order—to act scary, I opened my jaws wide and let out the loudest screech I could pull off. From the way Aegis recoiled sideways, he hadn't been expecting that.

    Nor had the people beneath us. With matching screams, they fell away before us, some of them not even looking around before scrambling for safety. A few brave souls fired guns at us but they must have missed us altogether, because I didn't feel anything hit me. Aegis, of course, was wearing armour and he was a Brute anyway.

    Our path led us to the intersection, where the front-line capes were clashing. Roadhog's latest mechanical abomination, looking like the illegitimate offspring of a Mack truck and a centipede, was attempting to climb all over what looked like an honest-to-goodness giant robot. I'd never seen a robot of this type in Brockton Bay before, which made me wonder who the ABB had recruited as a Tinker. Inago's been holding out on us.

    “Whoa, hey!” Aegis pulled up in a steep climb to avoid the oversized combatants. I couldn't see the rest of the ABB and Merchant capes, but I knew they had to be around here somewhere. Inago wasn't one to watch from the back lines, and while Skidmark was no longer alive, Roadhog still had a few capes to call on. The word on the street was that he'd died when she backed up over him with one of her vehicles; the sixty-four million dollar question on the PHO boards was 'accident or assassination?' Whichever one it was, she'd renamed herself (from 'Squealer', believe it or not), taken over the team, and started a program of active recruitment to bring the Merchants into the big leagues.

    One of the large picture windows in the side of the museum exploded outward, and Vicky came flying out, backward. A massive cloud of bugs poured out after her, and just like that, I knew exactly where the leader of the ABB was. Also, from the way Vicky's limbs flopped bonelessly, she was in a bad way. Twisting in mid-air, I swooped down with all the speed at my command. I had less than a second to catch her before she hit the ground. Normally I wouldn't have worried, but something had disabled her, and I didn't know if it had gone through her invulnerability or if her invulnerability was down.

    There were still some gang members on the street when I came back through. They didn't bother trying to shoot at me a second time, which showed that they could learn after all. I paid them no heed at all, straining forward with my wings beating furiously. It was going to be close; too close. Far too close. I wasn't going to be able to catch her and still pull up, so I did the next best thing.

    A fraction of a second before she would've hit the curb on the other side of the street, I caught up with her. Wrapping my wings around her body, I curled the rest of myself into as close to a ball as I could manage. The impact was massively bruising; we hit the curb, then bounced over it and demolished a mailbox. Loose letters went everywhere as we kept going. I closed my eyes as we smashed into a storefront in a hail of broken glass. After we rolled to a stop, I cracked an eyelid to see what was going on. Pieces of glass were lying everywhere, but nothing seemed poised to fall on us quite yet. For a mercy, it appeared that the storefront wasn't in use right at that moment.

    “Shit, are you guys all right?” Aegis swept into the store then crouched down beside us, heedless of the broken glass. I ignored the pointless question and unwrapped myself from around Victoria. Despite the fact that every inch of my body was sending me urgent messages about not doing that again ever, I reserved the hiss of horror for when I saw Vicky's face.

    She looked like she'd been on the receiving end of a pile-driver, repeatedly. One eye was swollen shut, and it looked like her jaw was broken. Blood was leaking from both nostrils, and lumps and welts covered every free inch of her skin. Worst of all, her mouth was wide open and she was trying to breathe but from the sound of the choked gasps, nothing was going in.

    “Shit!” Aegis stared at her. “She's choking.” He grabbed her jaw and pulled it open a little farther, then hooked two fingers into her mouth. When he pulled them out, I saw a couple of fat black bugs fall on to her face, then scuttle back toward her mouth. With a growl, I darted my head forward; my teeth clamped on to the bugs and I bit down hard. With a pop, they dissolved into a bad-tasting gas. I shook my head in confusion. What just happened?

    “It's Inago,” Aegis muttered. “They're his bugs. She's got them in her lungs. She'll suffocate if we can't get them out.” Taking a deep breath, he crossed one hand over the other and shoved down hard on her sternum. She coughed convulsively; bugs flew out of her mouth, but most of them buzzed straight back in on the inhale. I snapped at another one, just as Aegis tried to grab a few; at the last instant, I pulled back before I would've taken his hand off at the wrist. Or broken some teeth on his armour, whichever happened first.

    Scrambling out from under Vicky's body, I chirped to get Aegis' attention, then nodded at Vicky. Take care of her. He stared up at me, his eyes wide behind his visor, as he prepared to repeat the chest compression. “What are you going to do?” he asked.

    I didn't bother trying to explain. Turning, I lunged out through the broken storefront window. Vicky's only got so much time, even with Aegis doing CPR. I've gotta fix this shit. My wings spread wide as I took to the air, but I didn't fly too high. My target was just across the street, after all.

    <><>​

    Panacea

    A Little Earlier

    Amy Dallon knelt on the floor of the museum in the middle of the timeline exhibit. This was where the teachers had made them gather when the shooting started, as the bulky stands actually provided cover from all sides. When the ABB had burst through, looking to ambush the Merchants, they had merely huddled up a little closer, on the principle that if they didn't look like a threat, the gangsters wouldn't bother them. That had worked, up to a point.

    This point had come when Inago himself strode through the museum, his steel bug-mask gleaming in the overhead lights and the long black coat flaring behind him. He looked over the teachers, obviously dismissing them almost instantly. His gaze similarly raked over the students, and he pointed at the two Asian students in the group, beckoning them to come to him. Hesitantly, Chet and Kayla did so, and Amy's heart sank. Inago had already built a reputation for recruiting or killing off all the Asian gangs in the surrounding cities. She had no doubt he was about to make them an offer they couldn't refuse, as the old saying went.

    “Leave them alone!” she had shouted, standing up. “Leave us all alone!” Guns were levelled at her, but Inago knocked them toward the ceiling; he, at least, recognised her. Recognised that hurting or killing Panacea would paint a huge target on the ABB's back. Of course, she realised a second or so later, it may not have been the smartest thing after all to reveal herself to him.

    “I will leave them alone,” the gang lord said in accented English. “You will heal my men.” Raising a hand, he barked an order in some other language, and men scurried to obey.

    “No,” she'd told him, with a boldness she didn't feel. “I won't. You can't make me.” Go ahead, she dared him silently. Touch me. I'll make you sorry you ever came to Brockton Bay.

    Inago didn't hesitate. He reached out and grabbed the Asian girl by the throat. Her feet lifted from the floor and he began to squeeze; Kayla began to let out the most horrendous choking noises, her hands vainly pulling at his iron grip.

    Amy's eyes widened. “No!” she shouted. “Stop! Don't kill her!”

    The girl continued to choke and thrash, although her movements were becoming weaker. Inago ignored her, staring directly at Amy. “You will heal my men.” His tone was implacable. The sky is blue, water is wet, you will heal my men.

    There was no way out of it. Even if she let Kayla die, there were dozens more in the class. She had no doubt but that he'd butcher his way through every last one of them if he had to, in order to get her to cooperate. “I'll heal your men,” she said, hating the sound of surrender in her voice.

    “Good.” He opened his hand and Kayla fell to the floor, coughing and choking and clutching her throat. Amy wanted to go to her but she felt eerily certain that if she did, Inago would end the girl as an object lesson. She's breathing. I'll heal her after all this is over.

    After that, it had become a nightmare of one wounded man after another; bullet wounds, knife wounds, more bullet wounds. Amy wanted to sabotage her own efforts in some way, but short of screwing with their brains, she couldn't think of a way to make it so that these men couldn't fight without alerting Inago of what she was doing. And all the while, she could feel the accusing stares from her teachers and classmates, silently asking why are you helping them?

    The crash as Vicky came in through the roof came as both a total shock and a welcome surprise. Her sister's aura swelled in response to her anger, causing the men with the guns to cower away from her. Vicky took advantage of this opening with vicious glee, punching out all three armed guards before they could react. Inago was the next to feel her wrath; her next blow sent him flying through a stand in a shower of rubble.

    “Okay, Ames,” Vicky said, landing next to her sister and extending a hand. “Let's get you—”

    She didn't get any farther because a mass of black, buzzing bugs enveloped her, hiding her entirely from Amy's sight. Two of them alighted on Amy's hand and she instinctively tried to exert her power on them. Absolutely nothing happened; there wasn't even a life signal from them.

    That was when Inago came out of the cloud of bugs, even more of them buzzing around him, and back-handed Vicky into an up-till-then unbroken display stand. The stand broke and Vicky started making horrific choking noises, her bug-covered arms clawing at her bug-covered face. Amy felt Vicky's aura flickering wildly as Inago strode over to her and smashed her to the floor in a single punch. His foot met her head on the way down, snapping it back so hard Amy thought Vicky may have fractured her spine. Reaching down, he picked Vicky up, her limp form dangling from his hand like a doll. The bugs began to leave her. As he reared back, Amy saw her face; her eyes were closed, blood running from her nostrils. Amy couldn't tell if she was dead or just unconscious.

    When Inago threw her, Vicky flew through the air in a flat ballistic arc. She struck the plate glass window in the outside wall, shattering it and continuing on with barely any reduction in speed. Amy lost sight of her sister then. She wanted to scream and run after Vicky in the hope that she'd survived the brutal beating but she knew exactly what would happen to the other hostages if she did. Kneeling on the floor of the museum, she wrapped her arms around herself and wept for her heroic sister. I'm so sorry, Vicky. So very sorry.

    “You will heal my men.” Inago's voice was as relentless as ever. She ignored him, clutching herself more tightly. Vainly, she tried to will away the emptiness that grew inside her, threatening to envelop her very soul. A sob was wrenched from her throat.

    A scream jolted her attention back to the here and now. Raising teary eyes, she saw a cloud of bugs descending on the hostages, who were thrashing and rolling on the floor in an effort to get away from them. Inago stepped forward, as if there was a chance she would think someone else could control such a swarm. “You will heal my men. Now.”

    The screech cut through the screams of the hostages like a knife through hot butter. In a totally unconscious reflex action, Amy threw herself flat. Terror twisted her guts into a knot as the sound grabbed every primitive atavistic instinct she had and yanked on it, hard. Looking up, she barely had time to register a red-and-gold blur before it was gone again. Something metallic hit the floor with a clatter, rocking back and forth slightly. She stared at it; it was Inago's mask.

    <><>​

    Aegis

    Fuck, I'm losing her. Aegis tried to compress Glory Girl's chest again, but the bugs were too far down her throat, filling her lungs. Her heartbeat was thin and thready now, her finger relaxed against the floorboards. He gritted his teeth and tried again, refusing to give up hope.

    Suddenly, the breath whooshed out from her lungs; he caught a whiff of it, and started to cough at the acrid taste. Poising himself over her, he pushed down on her chest once more. This expelled more of the noxious gas, allowing her to inhale life-giving oxygen.

    “Vicky!” he heard a familiar voice calling from outside. “Vicky! Oh god, where are you?”

    “In here!” he called out, not pausing in his efforts. Glory Girl still wasn't out of the woods, but he wasn't going to let her die on his watch. He could hear the sounds of ongoing combat, but this was more important.

    Panacea came scrambling in through the shattered window, moving carefully to avoid the shards of glass. “Vicky!” she nearly screamed. “Oh, god. Is she—?”

    “She's alive,” he assured her. “Just. There's some crap in her lungs—”

    In the next instant, she was on her knees beside her sister, cradling Glory Girl's hand in hers. The blonde hero convulsed, inhaling deeply, then coughed. More acrid gas came out of her lungs, then Amy triggered another deep breath. And another.

    Thank God. Aegis slumped back against the wall. She's going to be okay.

    <><>​

    Wyvern

    We smashed our way out through the plate glass and into the open air. Immediately, I turned my muzzle skyward and tightened my grip on Inago's arm. I was going to make him so very sorry for hurting my friend and frightening her sister. A fall from twenty thousand feet, I figured, would be a good start.

    Inago, as it turned out, had other ideas. He wriggled and twisted, causing me to jink oddly in my flight, but he couldn't break my grip. That is, until the sudden weight fell on my back. That came as an unwelcome surprise, as did the blade across my throat. Oni Lee, I presume. As he tried to slice my neck open—it seemed that even my soft underbelly was proof against ordinary blades—I twisted my head around and snapped at him. Coppery-tasting blood filled my mouth as my teeth crunched through flesh and bone alike; the weight vanished once more. All except for an itch right in the middle of my back; a second too late, I realised that—

    BOOOM

    I came to with wind rushing in my ears. As with the last time I'd been knocked out by an explosion, I found myself in human form. Unlike the last time, I was still in mid-air, falling. Inago had wriggled free while I was engaged with Oni Lee, and had presumably already hit the ground. My costume was flapping about me in a rather less than intact manner, but I wasn't even worrying about that. Looking down, I could see the blurry ground rushing up at me. And Inago—at least, I presumed it was him—watching as I fell to my death.

    Not gonna fuckin' happen. I took the surge of rage and rode it through the fastest Change I'd ever experienced. My wings spread and flapped mightily, catching me just yards above the ground. As I looked down at Inago, my jaws opened and I let out a screech of pure challenge. I found that I didn't care about the Merchants or Roadhog. The ABB had threatened Vicky's sister, and Inago had tried to kill Vicky herself. They were going down.

    Inago opened his mouth and replied with a chittering screech that was nothing like mine. It was like the combined, concentrated sound of every biting, stinging insect I'd ever heard. As I watched, his mouth opened wider and wider, and mandibles began to push out from inside somewhere. By now, his eyesockets were filled with bulbous black masses. Compound eyes, I guessed.

    From his open mouth poured more of the bugs, swarming up toward me in an almost impenetrable cloud. I flapped my wings, gaining height. The bugs followed, until I had them right where I wanted them. Inhaling deeply, I released a long, rolling burst of flame. The cone blasted downward, overwhelming the upward-moving swarm and reducing them to nothing but immaterial ash. It also hit Inago, setting fire to his long-coat.

    He didn't seem to be overly worried by the fire, even as the coat burned around him. I bared my teeth and prepared the cutting flame; if it could melt Armsmaster's halberd, it could surely fry Inago where he stood. Furling my wings, I dropped into a dive; while I could easily target him from higher up, the distance might attenuate the flame.

    Again, I felt the weight on my back at just the wrong moment. However, this time I knew what to do. Altering my focus, I spat out an explosive fireball. I didn't spit it far, and it was quite short-fused; less than half a second later, it went off … just as I was passing it, with my unwelcome passenger on board. He screamed and fell off, his costume on fire. I didn't care; all my attention was focused on Inago.

    When I saw the long dark shape covering his back, I began to wonder where he'd found another coat. My mistake was revealed a moment later when the dark wing-cases opened and long, gossamer wings emerged from just behind his shoulders. Chitinous plates had grown over most of his body by now, with a second set of arms emerging halfway down to his hips. He was getting more and more insectile by the moment, and this wasn't a good thing. If I wasn't much mistaken, he was also about nine feet tall by now.

    My jaws opened wide and I let out a blue-hot cutting flame. It lanced toward Inago as I closed with him, but at the last minute, his wings started beating with an audible thrumming sound, lifting him out of danger. He vomited another swarm of faux bugs toward me; almost contemptuously, I toasted them with a wide-stream blast of flame. I'd hoped that my fire would also wreck his fragile-looking wings, but no such luck.

    The preliminaries over, we closed with each other.

    I let loose a stream of blue-white cutting flame, but he dodged it; while he wasn't as agile as me in the air, it seemed he wasn't exactly clumsy either. His bugs swarmed at me, but they couldn't get through my scales and any that got as far as my mouth were incinerated by the flames escaping from between my teeth. Some tried for my eyes, but my nictitating membranes sufficed to sweep them away and keep my vision clear.

    We slammed together, clawing and tearing at one another. I had to use my wings to stay aloft, which meant that he had two sets of limbs to bring to bear as opposed to my single pair. On the other hand, my neck was much more flexible than his, and my teeth were a good deal sharper than his mandibles. Locked together, we tumbled over and over in the sky. I wanted to toast him, but if he dodged my blast as he had before, it could endanger others. So I tore at him with my claws and crunched his chitin between my teeth.

    When he got his mandibles around my neck, I had a bad moment. I didn't have the leverage to pull free, and he was squeezing almost hard enough to cut off my air supply. Fortunately, they were only sharp on the tips and not the inner edges, giving me enough time to claw frantically at his abdomen with my foot-talons. For the most part they just slid off, though I may have cracked or broken one or two chitin plates.

    Useless as my efforts may have been, they stirred a memory. I'd been trapped once before, and my claws had failed to help me there as well. But I'd gotten out of my locker in a different way. If I could do the same here … this would take some doing.

    I latched on to his lower abdomen with my feet and pushed upward as hard as I could, jamming a thicker section of my neck up into the vice formed by his mandibles. This forced his mandibles apart slightly, and gave me more of a chance to take a deep breath. Capitalising on that, I twisted my neck almost into a knot, until my muzzle was nudging at the gap between myself and Inago. Then I spat out an explosive fireball.

    The concussion left my ears ringing, even as we were flung apart. Though I knew I couldn't let up for an instant. Inago was too powerful for me to gradually wear down; I had to take him down hard and fast. The memory of what he'd done to Vicky flooded my mind with anger and resolve, and the last of the fuzziness disappeared.

    Inhaling deeply, I launched another explosive fireball; it flew straight and true, detonating right next to him. Weathering the blast wave, I flew at him as he tumbled through the air. Not giving him time to get oriented, I sent another blast of fire at him. This one was perhaps the most intense cutting flame that I'd produced yet; he barely had a chance to dodge before it seared off one of his wings.

    Out of control, unable to fly, he began to plummet toward the ground. Given what he'd endured at my hands—teeth, claws, whatever—I strongly suspected that he'd survive the impact. I didn't intend to make it that easy for him.

    Arrowing in at him, I latched on with both feet. His compound eyes could convey no more emotion than the mandibles, but I thought I detected both fear and anger in him. I didn't care any more; opening my jaws, I lunged in and clamped them on to his right upper arm. He screamed, a high insectile screeching, as I clenched my teeth together and wrenched hard with my neck. Chitin crunched, bone popped, and flesh tore; I came away with his arm in my mouth.

    As I spat it out, I realised the ground was getting very close indeed. As I released my grip on him with every intention of flying up and away, his other three arms latched on to me. I flapped once, but when I failed to break his grip, I went with Plan B. Grinning a very draconic grin, I treated him to an explosive fireball. You'd really think he'd have learned by now.

    The explosion was probably just as jarring as hitting the ground would have been. For my part, that is. My spread wings caught a lot of the blast, pushing me up and away. Inago, on the other hand, got slapped down hard, then stopped just as hard by the asphalt. I hovered over him, staring down at his crumpled body as it began to shrink and shed shattered chunks of chitin. It looked like he was unconscious at last. Still, he was dangerous as long as he lived. Better that he end now rather than—

    “Wyvern, no!” It was Vicky's voice; a moment later, she flew in between me and Inago, holding her hand out toward me. I swallowed back the fire I'd been intending to unleash, a cutting flame that would've bisected Inago from crown to crotch. Vicky stared up at me with earnest, anxious eyes. “Wyvern, he's down. You can stop now. I'm okay.”

    I took a breath, and let myself relax just a little. Vicky looked so small, but she also looked … well, a little ruffled, but alive and well. Her tiara was missing, though that was no big deal—she'd shown me her collection of spares—and she looked like she'd been dragged through a hedge backward, but she was alive. I let out an inquiring chirp.

    “Aegis kept me alive until his bugs vanished,” she explained rapidly. “Then Ames got to us and made sure of it.” She flew up and put her arms around my neck, which seemed to be wider than her whole body now. This seemed odd, but I couldn't figure out why. “You saved my life.”

    Gently, I came down for a landing beside where Inago lay. He was down to human form now; that is, a lot smaller than me. Once my wings were no longer needed for flying, I used them to hug her in return, then let out a friendly chirp. You're welcome. Then, remembering the rest of the fight, I looked around.

    The giant robot and the centipede/truck combo were no longer fighting. Nor were the gang members clashing. In fact, most of the latter seemed to have vacated the field of combat. I couldn't even see the Merchant capes. Glaring at the mechanical monstrosities, and by proxy the people driving them, I drew in a deep lungful of air. Letting Victoria go, I took up the same pose as when I'd confronted Armsmaster; crouched, jaws wide, wings spread. I didn't spit fire this time, however; these two hadn't attacked anyone I cared about. Instead, I went to let out a screech. What came out, however, was nothing less than a full-blooded roar. Fuck off. When I want to deal with you, I'll come looking. As the echoes died away, I could hear car alarms going off up and down the block.

    They got the hint, breaking off from one another. The giant robot ignited some sort of flight pack and roared off over the rooftops, while the centipede-truck thing scuttled away down the street. Another glance around told me that the remaining gang members were likewise decamping at best speed. I didn't really blame them; after the show I'd put on with Inago, I really doubted they wanted to push me at that moment. I'd not want to push me at the moment.

    “Well, crap.” Aegis' voice startled me for a moment. “I thought you were scary before.” I swivelled one eye his way, noting that Panacea was standing beside him, and let my teeth show for a moment in my version of a grin. He grinned back and indicated where Roadhog and the giant robot had been. “I'm pretty sure they'll both be changing their underwear when they get back to base.”

    Vicky snickered, and I echoed her. The imagery was kinda funny. She looked up at me, while leaning against my shoulder in a familiar fashion. “So, I'm gonna take a stab in the dark here and guess that you got kinda mad when you were fighting him?”

    Twisting my neck, I looked down at myself. Compared to her, I realised, I was kind of on the large side. At least twice as long as our car, I figured, and tall enough that even Aegis only came up to my lower chest. Nodding my head, I chirped in the affirmative, then shrugged. Fighting someone like that, what can I do?

    “So wait, you don't normally get this big?” Aegis looked up at me, with something approaching respect in his voice. “I guess you scale up according to the threat you're facing?” Looking down at Inago's unconscious body—still missing an arm—he nodded slowly. “Seeing how powerful he is, I'm kinda not surprised you got this big this fast.”

    “Can I see, please?” Amy stepped forward, hands twitching as she reached out toward me then pulled back again. “You're a lot bigger than you and Vicky described. I mean, wow.”

    I gave her another wyvern-grin and an agreeable chirp, then extended a wing toward her. She took hold of it, her eyes widening as she stared at nothing. “Wow,” she breathed. “Wow. Your whole system's reshaped itself on the fly to be more efficient at the larger size. I can't believe … wow. How hot is your flame, now?”

    I gave her a helpless shrug. Not only could I not talk, but I had zero idea about how to measure the heat of something that could melt concrete and slag Tinkertech weapons. All I knew was that it was hot enough. Also, I had no idea where the cone of flame had come from, but it had definitely been handy against Inago's weird bug-swarm.

    “I got a better question.” Vicky's grin was downright mischievous. “Where's your costume?”

    The answer was simple: 'gone'. As the first PRT van screeched to a halt, I closed my eyes and covered my face with my wing.

    This day was just getting better and better.



    End of Part Twelve

    Part Thirteen
     
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2018
    Eryk, Zhen_Electric, udkudk and 56 others like this.
  14. Threadmarks: Part Thirteen: Growing Pains
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Thirteen: Growing Pains

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



    Taylor

    “Holy. Shit.”

    The words were spoken softly, almost reverently. I thought I recognised the voice. Lowering the wing which I'd been using to cover my eyes, I discovered that Vicky and Aegis had been joined by other costumed teens. Specifically, the Wards. Amy, I could see, was off ensuring that the gang members who'd been too injured to run were going to survive to see trial.

    Which wasn't my problem. My problem was that I happened to be in danger of adding to my teenage fan club—currently consisting of Glory Girl, with Panacea and possibly Aegis as honorary members as far as I could see. Five of the six Wards standing before me seemed to be staring at me in awe; Aegis, of course, being the exception. Glory Girl, hovering alongside me, was radiating smugness so hard it almost formed a separate aura all of its own.

    The voice had been that of a teenage boy, which didn't narrow down the options very much. There was only one female Ward in attendance, being Vista; at least, I assumed it was her from the costume. I inhaled deeply, and found familiar scents hitting my nostrils. Before, when I was a smaller size, I hadn't been consciously aware of sampling scents. Now, it seemed the world was full of them.

    “You said she was big,” went on the speaker. From the slight echo, and the fact that I couldn't see anybody's lips moving, it had to be Clockblocker who was talking. “You didn't say she was this big.”

    “Wooooow,” breathed Vista. My infra-red vision could see her increased heart rate, but she didn't smell scared. She smelled excited. “This is so damn cool.” I half-expected her to put out her hand and try to pet me, but she'd obviously been told that I was a person, not a thing. “You look awesome.”

    Well, that sort of attention I could get used to. A currently airborne Vicky draped one arm over my neck as I preened just a little. If I knew her at all, she was grinning from ear to ear. With an agreeable chirp, I nodded toward Vista, who reacted by darting forward and hugging me, or as much of me as she could reach. I looked quizzically down at her, then tilted my head toward Vicky.

    “It's a dragon thing,” she explained cheerfully. “Or rather, a wyvern thing. Teenage girls like 'em. Don't tell me you didn't know that?”

    I considered her words. There had been a phase when I'd worn a sparkly dragon T-shirt almost obsessively, to the point that Mom had to resort to threats to get me to let her wash it. But I'd thought it was just me; Emma hadn't had the slightest interest in dragons at the time. And now I had a teenage Ward, only a bit older than I'd been then, hugging me just because I was a dragon. Or rather, a wyvern. Life was strange sometimes.

    Which reminded me of something that had occurred to me after the fight. Experimentally, I generated some flame in my gullet then snorted. A little flame and rather a lot of smoke came out through my nostrils. All the Wards recoiled slightly, and Vista looked up at me. “Sorry,” she said hastily. “I didn't mean to upset you.” Letting me go, she backed off hurriedly.

    “No, it's okay,” Vicky told her. “I don't think she's angry.” She turned to me. “Are you?”

    I shook my head, then peeled back my lips to show them a wyvern-style grin—they collectively took another step back—and snickered slightly.

    Vicky rolled her eyes. “Okay, I get it. You think it's funny. You realise you're scaring children here, right?”

    Half of these 'children' are older than you. I nudged her with my nose, then blew smoke all over her. She flew out of the cloud, coughing, then glared at Clockblocker when he started laughing.

    “Not funny,” she said indignantly, then switched her glare to me when I snickered again. “I mean it. That wasn't funny at all.”

    “Actually, it kinda was,” Aegis pointed out, a grin lurking on his face. “The look on your face was priceless. I—uh, hi, sir.”

    Vicky and I both turned our heads. Armsmaster was approaching, and from what I could see of his mouth, he wasn't very pleased. Of course, the man never seemed pleased about anything that I could tell.

    “Aegis,” he said curtly as he came up to us. “I'm sure the Wards would be more useful with helping police the situation than standing around gawking at a new cape.” Though his words were phrased as a suggestion, the tone said something else altogether.

    “Uh, yes, sir,” Aegis replied hastily. “Come on, Wards. Vista, you go with Clockblocker to check out the museum …” His voice faded away as he retreated with the Wards.

    Armsmaster turned to me. He looked at Glory Girl for a moment; I suspected he wanted to be able to order her to leave too. Of course, as we were both members of a team quite separate from the Wards, I also suspected that she'd tell him to go to hell if he tried.

    “Did you want something, Armsmaster?” she asked sweetly. Her irritation at my smoke prank had apparently vanished almost as fast as the smoke itself, for she casually leaned against the side of my neck while standing on nothing.

    His expression became just a little more sour. “I'd hoped for a private talk with Wyvern, Miss Dallon,” he replied gruffly.

    “Nope,” she said, just as sweetly as before. “Mom wants to make sure she's got a responsible member of New Wave nearby at all times.” She hooked her thumb at herself. “That's me.” I nearly snickered again at the thought of Vicky considering herself 'responsible', but stopped myself in time. Armsmaster might take it the wrong way.

    “Very well,” he said, not sounding happy at all. “Wyvern, you appear to have increased in size. How did this happen?” As he tilted his helmet back to look up at me, I could see his fingers flexing slightly, as if he wished he was holding his halberd. That particular weapon was securely racked on his back, which didn't surprise me. If he couldn't intimidate me with it when I was human sized, there wasn't much he could do with it when I was this big. Well, except for start a fight, which would almost certainly go very badly for him.

    Of course, I couldn't exactly answer the question, so I deferred to Vicky with a tilt of my head. She glanced at me, then at Armsmaster. “I'm sorry, what was the question again? How did Wyvern get so large?” With an effort, I stopped myself from grinning at her innocent tone. Vicky was milking this for all the amusement she could get out of it.

    “Yes,” gritted Armsmaster. “She was already quite powerful and somewhat impulsive. I need to know what happened to cause this change.”

    And then Vicky reached into a pouch on her belt and pulled out my busted glasses, minus the glass. As primly as any librarian, she perched these on her nose and assumed a professorial air. Inside, I was already cackling with laughter, but outwardly I did my best to maintain a stolid expression for Armsmaster's benefit.

    “Sources vary on the exact cause of my teammate Wyvern's sudden and perhaps inexplicable alteration in size and mass,” she intoned solemnly. “Personally, I favour the hypothesis that if one angers a dragon and said dragon happens to increase in size and bites one's arm off, then one deserves whatever one gets.”

    “So it happened during the fight with Inago then,” he said, with the air of a man hanging on to his temper by a very thin thread. “Was it a sudden change, or did she gradually increase in size?”

    “I wouldn't know,” Vicky said, dropping the faux professor tone. “I was unconscious for most of the fight, after Inago beat the living crap out of me and filled my lungs with his bugs.” She gestured toward where the villain himself was being treated prior to being taken away. “If you want to find out, ask him.”

    “Inago is unconscious, and likely to be so for some time,” Armsmaster said flatly. “He's been dosed with Brute-scale tranquillisers. This should hold until we get him into a secure cell. Even if he he was willing to give us any answers, he wouldn't be able to supply them any time soon,.” He took a step closer to me. “This growth is a potential indicator of a concerning trend. If you get much larger, you may end up being an inadvertent danger to the city. I would like to strongly recommend that you come with me to the Protectorate base, where we can study—”

    Leaning down so that my muzzle was barely a foot from his helmet, I opened my mouth to give him a good long look at the extremely impressive array of teeth that my tongue told me was there. NO, I thought as hard as I could, while giving voice to a chirp that would hopefully get the message across.

    No,” a deep voice rumbled.

    What?

    Where my teeth had failed to scare him, that voice did the trick. Armsmaster took not one but two steps back, while Vicky whirled in midair and stared at me.

    “You talked!” she blurted/“You can talk?” he demanded.

    If I hadn't been so astonished myself, I might have laughed at the look of sheer bogglement on Glory Girl's face. Armsmaster's helmet visor covered most of his face, but I was pretty sure he was equally surprised.

    I coughed a couple of times, sending puffs of smoke into the air. Then I took a deep breath and concentrated, trying to figure out how I'd done it. I guess, I thought really hard. This is kind of new. As I concentrated on the words, I voiced the chirp.

    I guess,” rumbled the voice. It wasn't my voice, not really. Even though I could feel the vibration in my chest as I spoke the words, that voice did not belong to Taylor Hebert, fifteen year old nerd. It was as gravelly as ten miles of bad road, and so deep it sounded like the voice-over for an advertisement about extreme off-road skeet-shooting, or some other intensely masculine (read: unnecessarily dangerous) pursuit. “This is kind of new.”

    “Yeah, no crap it's new,” Vicky exclaimed. “And wow, I think your voice is deeper than Uncle Neil's.” An evil grin spread over her face. “Oh, god. I so want to see Amy's face when you talk in front of her. She'll blow a fuse for sure.”

    “Why can you talk now but not earlier?” demanded Armsmaster. From his tone, he suspected he was the victim of a massive practical joke. “Are you trying to claim that the increased size has enabled you to talk?”

    I took another deep breath. This wasn't like talking normally. It took all my concentration and a certain amount of effort, and I had to think out what I wanted to say in advance. But I could talk, which was kind of amazing. I'm not claiming it. I'm saying it.

    I'm not claiming it,” my wyvern voice rumbled. “I'm saying it.” It was a relatively long speech for me, and I felt a breath of smoke come out with it, as if a rush of flame was about to follow. I wasn't even going to think about how I was managing the nuances of human speech without normal human speech apparatus to make it work. The fact that I now had a wingspan wide enough to reach right across the street if I angled it right merely indicated that my life had become far too weird for ordinary human logic to work out.

    “Which only proves my point,” he argued. “Your unexpected size change, coupled with new abilities, indicates that there are aspects about your powers that nobody understands yet. For your safety—for everyone's safety—I really think you should—”

    Now I was getting angry. Toasting him in his armour would be a bad idea, for several reasons. So would biting his arm off, as I'd done with Inago. He didn't have his halberd out for me to melt, which had shut him up before, if only by accident. But now I had a new tactic to use; speech. If I could just tell him to go away and leave me alone—

    This time, I didn't have time to think about the words. I didn't need to; they just came out all by themselves.

    FFUUCCKK OFFF!”

    Previously, I'd been speaking at a relatively moderate tone; say, that of a big man raising his voice slightly. Now, it was more like the same big man shouting into a megaphone the size of a city bus. My voice boomed down the street. Those few birds which had just come in for a landing after the fight scattered into the sky once more. Everyone turned to look at us. The driver's side airbag in the PRT van spontaneously went off with a bang. Over at the museum, three bullet-holed windows gave up the ghost and collapsed into shards of glass.

    I was pretty sure they'd heard it halfway across the city. In fact, I suspected they might've heard it in Boston. Which meant that every Ward on site, along with every PRT soldier and Protectorate hero, had just heard me drop the mother of all F-bombs on Armsmaster.

    On the upside, the man had it coming. On the downside, I didn't think I was ever going to change back at this rate. Especially with that memory coming back to haunt me every time I tried to relax and pretend everything was going to be okay. And it would come back to haunt me; I could almost guarantee it.

    Vicky tapped me on the shoulder. When I looked around, she pointed upward, then flew in that direction. That was a good idea, I figured, and brought my wings down to fly off. What I hadn't considered was that the downwash of air was the last straw for a man who'd already been knocked off balance by a massive sonic assault to the inner ears. When I last saw him from a hundred feet up, he was sprawled on his ass, shaking his head dizzily. Oh, shit. I just cursed out Armsmaster, deafened him, then knocked him on his ass.

    He is gonna be pissed.

    Well, there was nothing I could do about it, so I set course to follow Vicky.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    Colin had just regained his feet when the first PRT soldier reached him. His ears were still ringing, a warm feeling on his upper lip told him that he had a nosebleed, and several of the more delicate systems in his helmet were malfunctioning. On the fourth try, the speech-to-text function kicked in, although half the HUD was flickering intermittently.

    … ALL RIGHT, SIR?

    “I'm fine,” he enunciated carefully. “My armour protected me from the worst of it. I'm temporarily deaf, though.” That shout, he suspected, would have broken capillaries and caused mild surface tissue damage to an unarmoured person. He was lucky his eardrums hadn't burst altogether.

    The soldier pointed at Colin's mouth. YOU'RE BLEEDING, SIR. DO YOU REQUIRE MEDICAL ATTENTION?

    “No.” He shook his head, wincing as he felt something rattling inside the helmet where nothing should've rattled. I'm going to have to tear it down and rebuild mostly from scratch. It seems every time I encounter Wyvern, she ends up destroying my equipment. “It's just a nosebleed. I'll be fine once my hearing comes back.”

    YES, SIR. The soldier moved away from him and Colin turned his attention to the helmet. Not all of the heads-up display options were working at the moment but with a little effort, he managed to coax it into doing a self-test. Red flags began to pop up immediately, with more showing every second. He'd designed the helmet with a certain amount of redundancy, but the damage wrought by Wyvern's bellow had apparently overwhelmed even some of the more robust systems.

    It was only partially his fault, Colin decided, for not being more cautious. He couldn't have known ahead of time that she'd be able to talk, although he had gotten the report on the volume of her roar. The damage perpetrated by her shout, however, seemed to be more than the roar had done. Perhaps because the roar had been more drawn out and thus less intense?

    This only proves my point, he told himself. Any self-respecting cape should have been more careful when using a new ability, even one so innocuous as speech. It wasn't the first time he'd been told to fuck off, of course. Though Wyvern could not have been expected to know about the sheer damage potential inherent in a simple shout. Triumph aside, of course.

    Has she ever met Triumph? I'll have to check that. If I can get her into the Wards, perhaps he can give her some pointers on not being so destructive.

    DO YOU NEED HEALING? The words scrolled across his HUD, and he turned to see who was speaking. If it was the soldier from before, he intended to have words with the man about respecting boundaries.

    But it wasn't one of the soldiers. Instead, it was Panacea herself. She was grimy, with bloodstains on her clothing and hands and a weary look in her eyes. She looked back at him fearlessly. Her lips moved, and a moment later the words scrolled across in front of his eyes. SOMEONE SAID YOU HAD LOST YOUR HEARING AND HAD A NOSEBLEED. DO YOU NEED HEALING?

    He sighed. There was a time to be self-sufficient and a time to bow to the inevitable. Holding out his hand, he triggered the control that folded back the pad over his index finger. While biometrics could be made to work through his armour, it was easier with bare skin. “Will this do?” he asked carefully.

    YES. HOLD STILL. She took his hand and pressed her thumb to his bare forefinger. Despite having been healed by her before, he still somehow expected to feel some kind of sensation. But with Panacea, all he felt was a spreading nullification of the aches and pains that invariably built up over the day. When the wavefront of her power reached his head, he felt rather than heard a sharp popping sound, then his hearing returned.

    “Your eardrums weren't burst, not quite, but your ears were severely traumatised,” she told him firmly. “You also had burst capillaries around your mouth, covered by your beard. Next time, get medical help immediately. Loud sounds can cause serious injury, up to and including brain damage. Which I can't help with, as you know.” She released his hand and touched her upper lip. “If I was you, I'd wash your face. There's blood in your moustache.”

    “Thank you, Panacea,” he said automatically. Always thank your medic. “I'd like to reiterate my suggestion for a therapist. If your inability to affect brains is a mental block, and I don't see why it shouldn't be, then perhaps they can help you get past it.”

    “No, thank you,” she said sharply. “It is what it is.” Turning away from him, she started back toward the museum. He watched her go, wondering briefly at her attitude. If he had her power, he'd move heaven and earth to make it as efficient as possible. But she wasn't even willing to talk to someone about her problem. I guess I'll never understand people.

    His radio was still working, albeit seriously damaged. He could only hear every third word, and he couldn't transmit at all. With that in mind, he located Aegis, who was helping stand guard over one of the groups of captured gang members. From the torn and bloodied clothing, he guessed these people had been injured too much to fight or flee. The fact that they were standing without effort meant they'd since been healed, probably by Panacea.

    “My equipment's damaged,” he told the second in command of the Wards bluntly. “I'm heading back to base to deal with it. You'll take your orders from the ranking PRT officer on site. Understood?”

    Aegis nodded. “Understood, sir.” He was a good kid, as far as Colin knew about teenagers. The few reports Colin had bothered to review stated that Aegis was conscientious and scrupulous with his duties. This was a good thing, as Triumph was due to graduate from the Wards in a couple of months. The sound Blaster had already expressed his intent to jump straight into the Protectorate, leaving Aegis to take over the team in his absence.

    Without another word, Colin turned and headed back to where he'd left his bike. Fortunately, the vehicle had sensory systems he could connect into while he was riding, which would reduce the load on the damaged electronics in his helmet. And if he set the autopilot, he could use the ride back to base considering what he was going to do about Wyvern.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    It was only when I was circling Vicky's house preparatory to landing that the next big obstacle raised its ugly head. Or more specifically, it was a recurring obstacle that had chosen to show up at exactly the wrong time. Because fuck my life.

    Vicky,” I said, trying not to speak so loudly that all of her neighbours heard it. “Problem.”

    “Oh, crap, what now?” she asked, flying closer to me. “You're not getting bigger, are you?” Measuring me by eye, she shook her head. “I don't think you're getting bigger.”

    No.” I'm not getting any bigger, but I'm not getting any smaller, either. I shook my head and concentrated. This was going to be a long one. “How do I get inside?”

    “Oh,” she said. “Oh, crap. I didn't think about that.” She looked at me and then down at the house, and I could see her trying to figure out how I was supposed to get in through the front door. I was pretty sure my shoulders were wider than the doorway itself, even if I crouched low enough to get under the lintel. My head would fit inside, I figured, but the rest of me would be out of luck.

    Me too,” I managed. “Big as a car.” Well, my torso was, or thereabouts. I had no idea how much I weighed, or even where to find a set of scales that could take my weight at the moment. 'Skinny' was not a word that described me right then. Nor was 'petite'.

    “Hah! That's the answer!” Vicky snapped her fingers. “Land on the driveway! I'll be right back!” She glided down and landed next to the front door.

    By the time I managed to backwing and land—being ultra-careful not to hit the house or the nearby telephone pole with my wings—she was inside. I wasn't quite sure whether either structure would break before my wings did, but I didn't want to take the chance either way. I seemed to be inordinately tough in wyvern form, but there was such a thing as reckless negligence. As it was, I heard a clatter as the great gusts of wind from my wings knocked over a garbage can two houses down. I decided to leave it be, as the only manipulator I had was my mouth, and I did not want to accidentally bite a filled trash can in half. Even from where I was, I didn't like the smell.

    I didn't know what Vicky was up to, but I felt faintly ridiculous standing on the driveway of a suburban home in wyvern form. Some deep instinct told me that I should seek a desolate mountain cave or the caldera of a volcano to make my home. I told it to go away and stop bothering me; I was human first and wyvern second. Even if I was starting to gain a distinct understanding of Alice's conundrum when she was too large to fit through the door into freedom.

    And then, with a rumble, the garage door rolled up. Vicky stood there, beaming at me proudly. “I said I was a genius before, and I'll say it again. Car-sized wyvern, meet car-sized door.”

    I had to admit, she was right. It was an ingenious solution, and one that I should've thought of myself. “Yup,” I agreed. “Genius.” Carefully furling my wings closely at my sides, I ducked my head and waddled forward into the one car-space that was free. I suspected that it belonged to Brandish, while the other car was probably Flashbang's. If I kept my head low and made sure not to erect the crest on my head, I figured I could fit inside.

    “Okay, that's good,” Vicky said cheerfully. “Now the tail.” I felt her nudge that appendage, apparently with her elbow. Turning my head, mindful not to bump Mark's car with my jaw, I carefully brought my tail all the way into the garage. The moment it was out of the way, Vicky started the garage door rolling down again.

    Which got me out of the public eye, a move I approved of. But now I was stuck in a garage, surrounded by remarkably fragile—and remarkably expensive—obstacles. “Okay. Now what?” Changing back would be a chore, given my feelings of guilt over having yelled in Armsmaster's face. Well, I felt kind of guilty. I hadn't meant to yell that loudly.

    “Hey, I got your back,” she assured me. “Or rather, I got you your favourite bathrobe.” With the air of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat—or, for the more upmarket ones, a hat from a rabbit—she levitated over the car and retrieved a lumpy bundle from beside the door leading into the house. It was bright pink, which should've clued me in on what it was. In my defence, it was folded Vicky-style, which meant 'this goes there, and that goes anywhere, and forget it'. She dropped it on the hood of the car beside my head, and rubbed her hands together. “Now for the fun bit.”

    I figured I knew what was coming, and mentally braced myself. Vicky's aura always made me feel a little weird afterward. Whether this was from the emotional aftertaste of the feelings she made me experience or the intellectual knowledge that she was in some small way controlling my mind, I wasn't totally sure I liked it. Which was why I wanted to learn how to reliably force the change myself, and not depend on either her or Amy.

    The wave of love and affection washed through me, as it always did. I tamped down the impulse to spread my wings and surf on the almost palpable emotions; if I did that, I might just put my wing through the garage wall. Not to mention Flashbang's car. But it was definitely doing its job. Second by second, the tension was melting out of my body.

    I felt the change coming before it actually began, and closed my eyes. Deep within, there was a pull, drawing me back toward my human form. Toward being Taylor Hebert. I swayed on my feet as it began. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel my body changing. My wings shrank; my tail retracted toward my butt; my torso contracted, losing mass in a way I found most disconcerting. Not least because this was the first time I'd felt the change in size and mass so vividly.

    As my weight distribution shifted, I stumbled. Hastily, I opened my eyes so I wouldn't fall into anything I couldn't afford to pay for, and saw my hands clutching on to Flashbang's car. I still felt weird, but looking down at myself revealed that I was human once more. Nothing dragony, nothing scaly; all original issue.

    “Oh, good,” I mumbled, and passed out.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    Travelling at a steady seventy-five miles per hour, Colin's bike thundered down the road toward the Bay. To the uneducated observer, this particular street wouldn't seem to have any real purpose, as there were no businesses that fronted on to it. A stop sign, combined with AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY and NO TRESPASSING, marked where it turned off from the main thoroughfare. The PRT logo was affixed to the authorized-vehicles sign, making it clear exactly which organisation was setting the street aside for their private use.

    Those in the know, as Colin was, would be aware of the PRT strike squad permanently quartered in the unassuming buildings on either side of the street. It was their job to monitor the state of the road on a twenty-four hour basis, and to discourage any unauthorised vehicles from making use of it. Given that any such vehicles would trigger tyre-shredders at regular intervals down the street, this was more for the safety of the public than anything else.

    Colin's bike, of course, was authorised. The IFF chip he'd built into the bike deactivated the tyre-shredders before he ever reached them. At the far end of the road, butting on to the water itself, was a row of bollards. When he passed the fifty-yard mark, the bollards began to smoothly retract into the road to clear the way. At twenty-five yards, they were mostly done. At ten yards, as their tops became flush with the road surface, the force-field bridge sprang into existence. Straight as a ruler, it led directly out toward the Protectorate base in the middle of the bay.

    Assault had once referred to the bridge as Bifrost, citing its colour (the same shifting rainbow hues that typified the bubble around the base proper) and the fact that it connected the realm of the gods with the world of ordinary men. Colin considered this, then told Assault that the reference was fanciful at best and counterfactual at worst, considering that more parahumans (yes, he did actually get the reference; he just didn't think it was valid) could be found in and around Brockton Bay than ever resided on the base. More to the point, did Assault want the Empire taking note of the Norse connotations and getting the impression that the Protectorate considered themselves Aryan in nature? The only response he got from Assault was a long stare and a shake of the head. Nothing more was said about Bifrost, or any other classical allusions to do with the base or the bridge, which suited Colin quite well.

    The bike, still on autopilot, began to slow as he approached the end of the bridge. Once he reached the repurposed oil rig that served the Protectorate as a base in Brockton Bay, he took over control once more and cruised up the long curving ramp. Behind him, the bridge winked out of existence, but he was no longer paying attention to it.

    By the time he reached the vehicle level, which only took a few seconds, he'd decided to check the bike over for any signs of damage. It might've been much farther away from Wyvern than himself or even the PRT van, but there was still the chance that the overpressure wave had caused damage to its more delicate components. So he steered the cycle into the maintenance area he'd set up to keep it up to scratch.

    Stepping off the cycle, he plugged a diagnostic cable into it and activated the 'test all' function. This would take about fifteen minutes to complete, so he headed into his workshop proper, the one where he built all the other equipment he used in the field. On a rack over the workbench was the sad-looking remains of his previous halberd, the melted head drooping off of one end. He was still working on cannibalising its systems for use in the replacement, but he figured to be done by the end of the day. Or rather, considering this setback, sometime the next morning.

    Removing his helmet, he placed it on the stand he'd designed for it and set that up to run a diagnostic as well. Then he took the current halberd off of his back, and began to remove his armour.

    He was halfway through his task, sliding the left-hand vambrace and gauntlet off his arm, when his phone pinged. “You have a call from … Director Emily Piggot,” it announced in a gentle tone. Not unlike the one Dragon used, actually, though he wasn't quite sure which had come first.

    “Accept,” he said absently, pulling his hand out of the end of the vambrace and placing the armour section on its rack. “Hello, Director. What can I do for you?”

    You can tell me what happened at the Isaac Lord Museum.” Piggot's tone was abrupt. “Specifically, what you said to Wyvern that made her tell you to fuck off in front of thirty very impressionable schoolchildren. Some of whom recorded the confrontation. Would you like me to tell you how I know this?”

    He could definitely hazard a guess. “They've put it online?”

    Precisely.” There was no video feed with the call but from his previous association with her, she had to look like she was sucking on a lemon right then. “I realise that she was the one who did the swearing. Believe me, if it had been you, we'd be having an entirely different conversation right now. But to anger someone who'd just beaten up Inago and scared off two other gang capes was not the brightest move in the world. So what did you say, and why did you say it?”

    Colin took a deep breath. “Well, to start with, you're of course aware that she can now speak. Were you also aware of how she's now much bigger than she was before? Or how these two changes may be related?” He began working to disconnect the other vambrace.

    I was a little perplexed by how she seemed to be larger than your previous description and imagery would have suggested, yes,” she agreed. “When did this happen, exactly? Did she enter the fight at that size, or did she transform and then increase in size during the fight?”

    “I asked those exact questions,” he said, doing his best not to sound irritated. He didn't want her to think he was angry with her, after all. “But Glory Girl didn't know, and Wyvern apparently hadn't realised she was verbal at that point.”

    Aegis's report should clear a few things up, considering he was present for the entire conflict,” she replied. “Unfortunately, he's still there at the moment. In the meantime, how certain are you about the link between Wyvern's size and her ability to speak?”

    “I'm not,” he answered candidly. “It's based off of what Glory Girl and Wyvern herself have alleged, but the only evidence I have for that is the fact that Wyvern has been non-verbal to this point. It may be that she really needs to achieve this size before she can speak, or she might simply have been faking inability to speak the whole time to put me off my guard. I can't say, one way or the other.”

    It would seem a little out of character for Glory Girl to go along with such a ruse unless she was taken in as well,” the Director mused. “Let's assume for the moment that they're telling the truth about Wyvern only being able to speak while enlarged. That said, you still haven't told me what you said or did to make her angry.”

    He hadn't been looking forward to this, but it had to be said. “I was trying to impress upon her the gravity of the situation,” he explained. “Her sudden changes in size and capabilities indicate that there may be more changes in future. She went from the size of a human to the size of a car over the course of several days and a few combats. Inago isn't the only tough opponent in Brockton Bay. What if she ends up in combat with Fenja and Menja, just as an example, and decides that she needs to grow even larger? The destructive capability of her flame breath is notable enough at normal size. If her powers go out of control, she could destroy a significant chunk of the city without even meaning to.”

    Let me see if I can figure what happened next,” Piggot said. “You urged her to come in for power testing, despite her extremely blunt refusal to do that the last time the subject was raised. She refused once more; you wouldn't let the matter drop. So she yelled in your face, then flew away. Is that about right?”

    “That sounds … accurate,” he admitted. “Though the sheer intensity of her shout damaged, a number of my helmet systems, including the total destruction of the recording equipment. Over and above that, it also caused me a few minor superficial injuries. Panacea healed me, but I'm currently in the process of ascertaining what I need to do to get my armour back to working order.” He hesitated, then spoke up. “I believe that Wyvern has the potential to be an extremely loose cannon, especially considering the damage she can inflict and the lack of any real oversight from New Wave.”

    Yet you want her in the Wards.” It wasn't a question.

    “I do.” He removed the other vambrace. “We can study her powers and determine how they propagate. With proper training and discipline, we can ensure that the full scope of her power is kept in check for when it's truly needed—and determine how to bring it out when it is.”

    There was a long silence from the Director's end, such that Colin checked the phone to see if she'd hung up. The signal was still strong, so he went back to removing his armour.

    Finally, she spoke again. “You think if she can be made strong enough, she could battle Endbringers, and possibly win.” He couldn't interpret the tone in her voice, but it didn't sound like unconditional agreement.

    “There are risks to the idea, of course,” he said to forestall any protests. “Her power may have a hard ceiling. And of course, to reach a size capable of seriously threatening any one of the Endbringers, she would need be powerful enough to level any city she fought in. So we'd have to be absolutely certain she can do it …”

    If I had a dollar for every cape who was absolutely certain his ability could one-shot an Endbringer, I'd be able to retire rich,” she observed dryly.

    “Yes,” he conceded. “Or … it would have to be a last resort. One where we don't mind losing the city, so long as the Endbringer goes down.”

    You're banking a lot on the idea of a teenage girl being the one cape who can solo an Endbringer,” the Director noted. “It's never happened before. Why do you even think she can do it?”

    “Well, I don't think she can,” admitted Colin. “But the possibility exists, however slight, that she might be able to. Given how much she ramped up to fight Inago, and how hard she took him down, there exists the outside possibility that she powers up to meet and exceed perceived threats.”

    And there exists no greater threat than the Endbringers,” agreed the Director. “Did you actually have a plan for testing the limits of her powers without actually destroying the city in the process?”

    “Not … as such,” Colin said. “I wanted to gather data first. See how her power works, and if I can gauge its strength that way. There are a lot of variables involved. But I can't do any of it unless I can actually get access to her.”

    Well, my office has been informed that she's officially a member of New Wave,” the Director stated. “Which means that unless her legal status changes a lot, or if she specifically gives permission, you're unlikely to get that access.”

    “About that.” Colin didn't want to go down this path, as it opened the way for potential backlash in future, but he felt he owed it to himself just to see what the Director thought about it. “When she shouted at me, I suffered injury, and my armour was damaged. That could be construed as an attack on a Protectorate member with a parahuman ability. If we pressed that as a charge …”

    Again, Piggot was silent for a few moments. Colin didn't bother trying to interpret it, but instead concentrated on taking the last of his armour off. He was just racking his chestplate when she spoke again. “As much as I hate to say it, if she belonged to any other team, I'd think about it. For the record, in my opinion the entire concept's a dirty trick of the highest calibre. Consider yourself unofficially reprimanded.”

    He wasn't sure if the feeling in his chest was disappointment or relief. “Any other team? What's so special about New Wave?”

    Brandish. Or, more specifically, Carol Dallon. With her daughter as witness, she could tear apart any justification we had for impressing Wyvern into the Wards. No, the only chance we have of getting our hands on her is if she actually commits a real crime and gets caught for it.” Piggot paused. “Or, of course, volunteers. But after today's little debacle, that's becoming less and less likely by the second. Just by the way, I'm giving you an official reprimand to go with the unofficial one.”

    “What?” He'd thought the day was bad enough. “Why?”

    You pushed the recruitment attempt beyond first refusal and got her angry enough to shout at you and fly off, thus making any further attempts that much harder.” Her tone was flat. “The damage to yourself and your armour is thereby your own fault. As such, repair costs will come out of your Tinker budget. Is that understood?”

    He'd seen her like this often enough. There would be no arguing with her. When Emily Piggot set her mind on an outcome, that outcome happened. No matter how much it hurt to have his Tinker budget curtailed in such a fashion. “Yes, Director.”

    Good. Now fix your armour while I see what I can do to straighten out your mess.” There was a beep as the call disconnected.

    With a sudden surge of anger, Colin punched the workbench. The pain helped to centre him, and he hissed as he shook the stinging sensation out of his knuckles. He didn't know which was worse; the fact that he'd failed with Wyvern, or that Piggot now knew he was capable of such failure.

    As much as he resented Dauntless for his steadily (if slowly) increasing power capability, Colin was a realist. The Endbringers were a danger that had to be defeated, somehow, someday. He had a few ideas for weapons that might do it, but the problem was that such weapons could only be tested against an Endbringer. On the other hand, once Wyvern came into the Wards, he could take over her training. With him as a mentor, she could learn to use her abilities tactically and they could fight as a team; him as the brain, her as the brawn. And if they succeeded? He'd be happy with half the glory of defeating an Endbringer.

    And of course, he'd always wanted to partner with a dragon.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Ugh, my head.”

    I barely recognised the voice as my own. My throat was so rough and scratchy, it felt like I'd been gargling sandpaper. The taste was indescribable. I hurt everywhere. My head, my arms, my legs, my body; everything felt as though I'd been beaten with a baseball bat.

    “Ah, you're awake. Wow, you've been asleep forever.” Bright and chirpy, the voice could only belong to one person. I tried to open one eyelid; after several attempts, I managed to break the seal and crack the gunk that had glued it shut. Even that hurt.

    “Vicky,” I croaked. “Water.” Right then, I was ready to kill for a drink. Fortunately, it turned out that I wouldn't have to resort to such drastic measures.

    “Right here,” Vicky told me cheerfully. I watched her blurry form pouring water from a pitcher into a glass (or so I gathered from the gurgling noises) and then she leaned over me, coming more into focus as she did so. “Okay, up you come.” One strong hand slid down behind my back, lifting me effortlessly into a sitting position (a passing thought suggested that Vicky would make an amazing nurse) while the other guided a straw to my lips.

    Opening my mouth, I took the straw between my lips and greedily drank. The water soaked into my parched tissues, dissolving the evil-tasting slime and washing it away down my throat. Let my stomach acid deal with it, I figured. As thirsty as I was, I figured it wasn't a good idea to choke on the water, so I did my best to take it slowly. It wasn't easy, but I managed it. The water was cool but not chilled, and felt heavenly to my throat.

    When the glass was empty, Vicky let me lie down again. “Want more?” she asked. “Ames said you'd want one, but only to give you more if you really wanted it.”

    I considered that. With the initial edge taken off my thirst, I felt like I could do with more, but not so much that it was a burning obsession. “I'll see how I feel in a bit,” I said, my voice much more like my own. “Could I have a wash-cloth or something? I need to clean my eyes out.”

    “Sure,” she said, and zipped away. I wasn't even certain if her feet were touching the floor at this point. Not that it mattered; if it got me that wash-cloth a moment sooner, I didn't care if she flew through the wall. In the meantime, I relaxed into the nice soft mattress, trying to figure out what had gone before.

    I remembered the fight, going up against Inago. I'd gotten big. Bigger than I had against Stinger, by a considerable margin. With that size, I'd brutalised him. Of course, he'd been trying to hurt or kill me in the process, and Oni Lee had also been attacking me, so I'd been probably justified in hitting him so hard.

    I frowned slightly, then winced as that hurt, too. What had happened with Oni Lee? I remembered biting him at one point, but whether that had been him-him or one of his clones, I wasn't sure. And then he'd been on my back when I detonated a fireball right next to us. Had he survived the battle? Was he fine, or badly injured? There was so much I didn't know.

    And then, of course, there was Inago himself. We'd gone at it hammer and tongs, but as big and strong as he'd gotten, I'd been bigger and stronger. His 'bugs' had not survived my flames, and I suspected he'd only just survived losing an arm (I'd bitten his arm off! What the fuck, wyvern-me?) and then being blown up. I'd been on the brink of ending him once and for all when Vicky showed up.

    All of which gave me severe cause for concern. I'd been aware that as a wyvern, my emotions were more … raw. I had less control over my reactions. It wasn't that I was an uncontrollable beast, just more … instinctive. When I saw a threat, I acted to end it. Amy and Vicky had been in danger, so I went all-out to save them, not even hesitating to use lethal means to do so. Even when an enemy was down, I was more inclined to make sure they couldn't get up again than to leave them for the authorities.

    Which led me to Armsmaster. I didn't want to think about what had happened with Armsmaster, but there wasn't much I could do about that. I saw him as an overbearing, pretentious halberd-swinging adult, while he no doubt considered me to be an immature, dangerous child. He'd been one of my heroes, growing up. Never in my worst nightmares had I imagined that I'd ever tell him to fuck off, for any reason. And I'd not only done that, but I'd done it with a voice that could break glass. And knocked him on his ass when I flew off.

    Once he got over the ringing in his ears, he would've been seriously pissed with me. To make matters worse, he knew who I was and where I lived. Thinking about it, I was just a little surprised (but in no way disappointed) that it was Vicky sitting beside me when I woke up, and not a cop. What was the penalty for telling the local head of the Protectorate to fuck off, anyway? I couldn't imagine what I'd done was legal.

    Vicky came back into the room just as I reached that particularly depressing conclusion. “Wash-cloth,” she announced. “Want me to do it for you?”

    “No, I'm good,” I said, glad of the interruption. “Help me sit up again?”

    “Sure,” she said, handing the cloth to me and lifting me up once more. With her help, I shuffled backward and leaned against the headboard with the pillow behind me. Once I was stable, I set about cleaning my eyes out and giving my face a general wash. It felt amazing.

    When I lowered the cloth, Dad was standing beside the bed.

    <><>​

    Danny

    Taylor jumped a little, and squeaked in surprise. Then she dropped the cloth and reached out for him. Kneeling down beside the bed, he gathered her into his arms. She clung to him, her face burrowed into his shoulder, for the longest time. For his part, a few tears trickled down his cheeks. A small part of him was glad that Glory Girl had given them some privacy.

    When he let her go, she was sniffling. There may have been a tear or two on her face as well, though he doubted she'd ever admit to it. “You okay?” he asked her, a catch in his voice. “I didn't see the fight, but Glory Girl has described it in quite some detail.”

    She nodded quickly, then after a moment changed her mind and shook her head. “I don't know,” she said. “I didn't know I was going to get that big. I didn't know I was going to be fighting someone so tough. I didn't know I could get that brutal. And I really didn't know I was going to swear at Armsmaster like that.”

    “Well, I wasn't asking about that, but we can get to that in a moment,” he acknowledged. “It's just that Glory Girl said you were wincing a lot when you first woke up.”

    “Yeah, I feel like I've been used as a piñata,” she said ruefully. “It's no fun at all. I guess it's an after-effect of pushing my powers so hard?”

    “Well, you know about as much about that as I do,” he pointed out. “But I'm just glad you're here and you're all right.” He hugged her again. “When Brandish called me and said you'd passed out at her house, I was a little worried. But when Panacea assured me it was just natural sleep, and you needed it to recover from the exertion, it made me feel a bit better.”

    “Wait, how long have I been out?” The look of almost comedic alarm on her face tempted him to answer something like six months, kiddo. Happy birthday. But this wasn't the time or place for jokes like that.

    “It's been nearly twelve hours,” he said. “I took the liberty of going online and checking out the ParaHumans Online boards. There's a few pictures of you fighting Inago, and a lot of footage showing you cursing out Armsmaster.”

    “Oh, god,” she groaned, running her hand over her face. “I'm gonna be the most despised cape in the city, aren't I?”

    “No, that's still apparently L33t,” he replied with a grin. “In fact, there's a lot of support for you. Nobody really knows what he said to set you off, but the fact that you just told him to eff off instead of biting him in half or turning him into a charcoal briquette has earned you quite a few fans. On top of the fact that you turned Inago into a lefty for a few days, that is.”

    From the sour look on her face, she'd apparently managed to forget that little fact for a moment or two. “Yeah, great,” she muttered. “But I still swore at Armsmaster. I can't imagine that there's not going to be any fallout over that.”

    “Oh, there probably is,” he agreed. “But if there was going to be anything official, it would already have happened. So officially, I suspect they're going to pretend it never happened. Unofficially, you may cop a little grief from Protectorate capes. Or high-fives, depending on how they feel about Armsmaster.” At her somewhat surprised look, he shrugged and tried to look innocent. “What? I've been talking to Brandish.”

    She snorted. “Yeah, that makes a lot more sense than my Dad suddenly becoming a cape expert. Anyway, so it looks like I can grow to the size of a minibus, totally wreck high-tier villains, then pass out at the end of it. Also, I'm gonna need some way to work out a costume that can survive me growing to that size again. And Armsmaster wants me to turn myself over to the Protectorate for poking and prodding.” The tone of her voice made it clear how little she thought of that option.

    He sat down on the bed beside her. “Well, I don't have powers, but I'm here for you. Whatever you want to do with your powers, you have my full support.”

    “Thanks, Dad. That means a lot to me.” She put her arms around him and hugged him again.

    “Anytime, baby girl.” He paused, then decided to shift the topic to something that had been puzzling him. “So when did you realise you could talk in wyvern form?”

    She shrugged. “Not until I actually said something. See, Armsmaster was being a dick …”



    End of Part Thirteen

    Part Fourteen
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2019
  15. Threadmarks: Part Fourteen: New Developments
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Fourteen: New Developments


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


    Taylor

    “Ow.”

    It wasn’t that I was feeling pain in any particular part of me as I carefully walked downstairs. It was that I was feeling aches and pains everywhere. I looked beseechingly at Amy, who was waiting at the bottom. “Can you, uh …”

    She folded her arms. “I’m not your personal Aspirin,” she declared heartlessly. “I already checked you over. You're fit and healthy. More fit and healthy than you really should be after fighting Inago and Oni Lee, to be honest. No open cuts, no bruises. No lingering damage at all, actually. And I remember you being knocked out by an explosion at least once, and going toe to toe with the asshole who nearly killed Vicky.”

    I seemed to recall that she'd chosen not to heal Inago’s arm, for which I didn't really blame her. He'd probably grow it back anyway, eventually. I didn’t blame her for taking things personally; from what I’d seen, she cared a whole lot for her sister.

    “So why do I hurt everywhere?” I asked, taking the last few steps. “My toenails hurt. Why do my toenails hurt?”

    “As far as I can tell, it’s your powers adjusting you to the fact that you can now grow to the size of a minibus and roar loudly enough to be heard a mile away.” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s making changes to make the next transition easier. When you got that big, your entire biology altered dramatically; to change up and then down again like you have been has got to be putting a strain on your system.”

    “So how much bigger am I going to get?” I made my way into the living room and lowered myself to the sofa. “And is this going to happen every time my powers enlarge my wyvern form?”

    “File the first one under ‘I have no idea’,” Amy snarked. “As for the second, I guess … maybe?”

    “Let’s try not to have a fight that nasty again, huh?” Vicky wandered in from the kitchen. “I mean, shit, Inago nearly killed me.”

    “I understand they’re pushing for the Birdcage.” That was Carol Dallon, entering the living room from her office. “Oni Lee hasn’t been seen since the battle. There’s been mention on the board that the ABB has a new Tinker cape, the one that was piloting that giant robot. The name making the rounds is ‘Geonchugga’.” She crossed to where I was sitting. “How are you feeling?”

    I snorted. “I hurt everywhere it’s possible to hurt, but I’m in one piece. Geonchugga? What’s that even mean? Is the robot steam-powered or something?”

    “Got me beat,” Vicky said. “I’m sure we’ll find out sooner or later.” She perched on the sofa arm and poked me in the shoulder. “Meanwhile, is nobody talking about the development of the century? You can speak in wyvern form. Does that mean you can talk as the wyvern no matter what size you are?”

    “We’d have to see, but I don’t think so,” Amy said. “I strongly suspect that the larger your wyvern form becomes, the more versatile your exobiology gets. Which may be why you could only generate that cone of flame once you sized up.” She plonked herself down on the sofa next to me.

    I hadn’t been keeping track of the exact sequence of events, but I decided to take her word for it. “So if I wanted to use it again, I’d have to get that big again?”

    Amy shrugged. “Signs point to yes? But hey, on the upside, based on previous information, I’m guessing that getting to that size will be a lot easier the next time around.”

    “Hmm.” Somehow, that didn’t actually go a long way toward making me feel better about the situation. “So what happens if someone goes to mug me, and I blow out to something that can eat him in one bite?”

    Vicky laughed out loud. “Well, for one thing, an experience like that would probably put him off mugging anyone ever again.” She ruffled my hair. “I think you’d scare the asshole worse than I ever could.”

    Amy joined in the laughter, flapping her elbows to make wyvern wings. “Rawr.” She smirked at my betrayed expression. “I never even knew you could roar like that, before today.”

    “You think I did?” I raised my eyebrows. “Every time I go out, it seems like I learn something new about what I can do.”

    “So why didn’t you go with Armsmaster’s suggestion?” Vicky spread her hands as I looked at her sharply. “Hey, I’m not saying you should have. I mean, I wouldn’t. But it’s an option, especially when your powers are changing almost on an hourly basis, yeah?”

    “Every time I think about it, all I can see is them deliberately inducing the wyvern form and then studying me endlessly instead of letting me go out as a hero,” I said with a shudder. “Poking and prodding. Screw that. I might not have all the answers, but I’m a lot more comfortable this way than that way.”

    “I can see their point,” Carol said. “But I can see yours, too. The last thing I want to do is push you outside your comfort zone. Yesterday proved that you’re learning to use your powers, which are both versatile and useful. As a member of New Wave, I’m sure you’ll be able to do a lot of good.”

    “I’m just glad you’re still letting me be a member, after I swore at Armsmaster,” I confessed. “He might have been annoying, but that’s still not a very heroic thing to do.”

    “Well, getting in your face after you bit off Inago’s arm and scared the crap out of two entire gangs wasn’t the smartest thing he could’ve done,” Vicky pointed out.

    “Not to mention, the last time he got in your face, you melted his halberd,” Amy said brightly.

    “Doesn’t help,” I muttered.

    Amy smirked, but there was an edge to it. “He deserved it. He’s the sort of guy who thinks he knows better than everyone else what they want and need.” There was an undercurrent there that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to delve into. Of course, given my interactions with the man, I couldn’t argue with her analysis.

    Deciding it might be a good idea to change the subject, I sat up and looked around. “Uh, where’s Dad?”

    “He said he was going home,” Carol informed me. “Given that you seem likely to be sleeping over here for at least a while, he’s picking up more of your clothing.”

    “Oh, good.” I shot a glance at Vicky. “Not that I’m not grateful for you loaning me your clothes, but …”

    She waved it away. “Hey, it’s all good. You needed it when you needed it. So you want to go shopping for more, sometime?”

    “Not everyone wants to go clothes shopping at the drop of a hat,” Amy said. “Just saying.”

    “Depends on the hat,” Vicky riposted. “I’m just thinking, with the way Taylor’s been destroying her outfits …”

    “Gee, thanks,” I deadpanned. “Because that’s exactly why I wrecked something like six sets of clothing yesterday. To make more room in my closet.” I rubbed my eyes, which had started to water from the effort of trying to focus on everyone. “And I hope he can find me a spare pair of glasses, too.”

    “Oh, yeah, I forgot.” Vicky actually looked contrite, as far as I could tell. “The last couple of days have been pretty hard on those too, haven’t they?”

    “Yeah. And the insurance only covers one extra pair. After we get those, we’ve got to pay out of pocket for any more.” With the events of the previous day to go by, I wasn’t optimistic about the surviveability of my eyewear, going forward.

    “I could maybe help,” offered Amy diffidently. “Fix your eyes, I mean. So you don’t need glasses. Seeing as you’re a member of New Wave now and all.”

    I blinked at her. “I didn’t know you could do that. I thought it was injuries and disease and stuff.”

    “There’s a lot of stuff a lot of people don’t know about my powers,” Amy said. “But yeah, I can reshape your eyes so you can see properly, if you want.”

    “Are you certain that the changes won’t cause problems with her eyes in her wyvern form?” asked Carol. “The last thing we want is her mis-targeting her fire breath.” She turned to me. “I’m sorry to have to put it like this, but if it comes to a choice between your eyesight and the wyvern’s eyesight, we’re going to have to put a premium on the Changer form. You, we can fit with glasses. The wyvern, not so much.”

    I nodded. “I get it. But we can try it out anyway, right? We’re going to have to test the wyvern afterward, so if it changes anything, Amy can change it right back.”

    “That’s if Amy’s power even works on the wyvern … oh, wait.” Vicky facepalmed, but gently. “You’ve been helping her change back. Of course your power works on her.”

    “Well, duh.” Amy nudged me. “Dope-slap her for me, will you? I can’t reach.”

    I sighed. “I am not dope-slapping anyone. But if you could even try, I’d really appreciate it.”

    “Okay, then.” She took my hands. “So, are you short-sighted or long-sighted?”

    The question puzzled me. “Short-sighted, but shouldn’t you already know that?”

    She gave me a dry look. “I can tell if an eyeball is working after I can piece it back together. How good a picture it gets is something else altogether. Okay, I’m going to be extending your focal length … I hope. Not an optometrist, here. Just your average garden-variety biokinetic.”

    “How do I tell if it’s working?” I asked.

    She turned her head sideways and nodded. “Look at something across the room. Tell me if it’s getting sharper or fuzzier.”

    “Okay.” There was a picture on the wall in the kitchen, visible through the archway from where I was sitting. At least, I assumed it was a picture; there was a rectangular frame, anyway. What was in the frame, I had no idea. I fixed my eyes on it.

    And then everything went fuzzy. I couldn’t see a thing. “Whoa! Wrong way, go back!” Even nearby objects were indistinct blurs.

    “Whoops, sorry.” She sounded apologetic, at least. “Okay, this should work better.”

    As I watched, the fuzziness decreased noticeably, back to where it had been before. Then it kept on going, the picture in the frame—a photo of Brockton Bay from above—becoming sharper and sharper by the second. “Wow, that’s pretty good.”

    “Good.” The improvement paused for a moment. “I’m going to slow it down now. Tell me when it’s just gone past the point of maximum improvement.”

    “Okay.” I watched with wonder as the world unfolded around me without the need for glasses. Everything was becoming crystal clear, not only the picture. I kept opening my mouth to tell her to stop, but even at the infinitesimal crawl she was doing it at, I could tell my eyesight was still improving.

    Finally, it stopped getting any better. “That’s it,” I said. “back it up a little.” I paused, then closed my left eye. Then I opened that one and closed my right. “Uh, it’s perfect with my right eye, but my left still needs a little work.” A few seconds went by, then I nodded. “Yeah, that’s got it.”

    “Are you sure?” asked Amy.

    “Certain.” I nodded, then looked around the room with both eyes open. “Wow, did you spice up my colour vision, too? Everything looks so bright.”

    “No, but I suspect your prescription was a little out of date,” she said. “It’s amazing how much you don’t realise you’re missing when your eyes are even slightly off.”

    “I’ll say.” I shook my head as I took in her appearance. “I never knew you had freckles before.” They’d been easy to miss before, a light dusting across her nose, but now they were as plain as day to me.

    “All right, then.” Carol clapped her hands. “Time to see if the alterations have affected your Changer state. Taylor, will you need assistance?”

    “No, I should be able to do this on my own.” I gestured at the bathrobe. “But I don’t want to ruin this.”

    “So take it off.” Vicky waved her hand negligently. “I’ve already seen everything you’ve got, and Amy’s seen most of it, and I’m pretty sure Mom doesn’t care, right?”

    I couldn’t believe how casually dismissive she was being of my concerns. “I care.” I clutched the robe more tightly around me. “I know it’s a stress-based change, and standing there in the altogether in front of all three of you would probably force the change in a heartbeat, but I don’t want to do that.”

    “Oh. Okay.” Vicky paused, then her face lit up again. “I know! Back in a sec!” Jumping up from the sofa arm, she dashed from the room. I watched with bemusement as she ran up the stairs, only using every third or fourth step. Was she cheating by using her flight? I couldn’t tell, but I wasn’t about to bet against it.

    I turned to Amy. “I’d ask if she’s always like this, but that’s a silly question, isn’t it?”

    “Extremely.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s a good thing, really. With Vicky, what you see is what you get. Always and all the time.”

    “So I’m learning.” I snorted and shook my head. “I couldn’t have got much luckier with people to run into flying across the city, huh?”

    Carol nodded in agreement. “Victoria may be flighty, in more ways than one, but her heart is definitely in the right place. She saw the person in you where others may have dismissed you as a wild beast.”

    I was privately more appreciative of the fact that she’d changed her mind after I made it clear that I didn’t want to disrobe in front of all three of them. A force of nature she could be, but she was also willing to admit when she was wrong. I’d had far too much of people forcing their ideas of how things should go on me.

    “Ta-dahhh!” Vicky came down the stairs, sliding side-saddle on the rail. Clutched in her hands like a giant fluffy banner was a bath towel; the sort that could wrap around me twice and still have enough surface area for a medium tent. Jumping off the rail at the bottom of the steps, she strode over to me with the air of a conquering hero. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d practised in front of the mirror. “Wrap yourself in this, drop the robe, you Change, and nothing’s damaged. Genius, that’s me.”

    It was a good idea. I took the towel and gave her a smile in return. “Thanks. But I can’t help noticing that you’re claiming the title of genius quite a lot around here.”

    “Hey, if you got it, flaunt it.” She tossed her head so her golden curls fell about her face in a becoming fashion, then preened. “And baby, I got it.”

    “Yeah, but we’re still trying to figure out what it is you ‘got’,” Amy snarked from beside me. “Is it delusions of grandeur or just plain megalomania?”

    Vicky poked her tongue out at her sister. “Jealousy,” she proclaimed, laying the back of her wrist against her forehead and striking a tragic pose. “Alas, it is a terrible thing. Turning family against family, sister against sister, hero against villain, cat against dog …”

    “Enough, already.” Carol shook her head. “I’m already regretting signing you up for that drama course. Taylor?”

    Trying not to grin too widely at Vicky’s clowning around, I got up from the sofa and moved to the centre of the room. Shrugging my arms out of the robe, I used the towel as a screen and let the garment fall to the floor. Then I wrapped the towel around myself and held it securely.

    The dark thoughts seemed easier to call on, now. I wondered vaguely if Emma had somehow been jealous of me, and if that had been what turned her against me. Then I decided that it didn’t matter; if she’d had a problem, she should’ve been willing to talk it out. That was what friends did.

    Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the Change, trying to distil all the hurt and pain and anguish that had dogged me over the past year into one singular moment, so as to experience it and be over and done more quickly.

    It hurt; it always hurt. I felt my heart rate rise and the tears start to my eyes, and then I felt the shift happening. When I opened my eyes, my nictitating membranes were flickering back and forth across them, and my wings were being held in a protective screen in front of me. Quickly, I glanced around the room. There didn’t seem to be any reduction in my visual acuity.

    Then I tried to talk. Okay, my eyes are clear. But all that came out was a triumphant chirp. Oh, for fuck’s sake.

    “Okay …” Vicky put her finger on her chin. “I’m guessing … your eyes are good, but you still can’t talk at this size.”

    I rolled my eyes, but nodded to confirm her supposition. It wasn’t exactly rocket science, after all. A moment later, I realised something else was different; the all-over body ache I’d been feeling was gone. That was good, but also potentially bad. Was I going to be in pain every time I Changed back to human? Or would it only be the case when I’d undergone a size shift?

    Which also reminded me that the last time I’d Changed into my wyvern form, I’d been wearing a spare costume, fetched by Vicky from Parian’s shop. No such costume was in evidence now. Which meant that, in the absence of someone holding a towel around me, my modesty was going to be seriously challenged when I Changed back. Nope, not Changing back any time soon. Down here, anyway.

    “So, I was thinking,” Vicky said chattily, as if continuing a conversation, “me and Ames and Taylor could go to Arcadia again today. Nobody’s gonna give her any crap at all, because the footage of her kicking the absolute crap out of Inago’s all over PHO. And it’ll get them used to her being around in base form.”

    I cringed, and let out an inquiring chirp. Everyone looked at me, and I racked my brain for a way to communicate the question. Finally, I used my wing-finger tip to trace an ‘O’ in the air.

    “O?” asked Vicky, not quite getting it.

    PHO?” Amy filled in. “You want to know what’s being said on the PHO boards?”

    I nodded. It would probably be a good idea to find out if I was being seen as a dangerous animal or not.

    “Sure, we can do that.” Vicky pointed toward the stairs. “To the Wyvern-computer!”

    Amy and I stared at her. Even Carol folded her arms and joined in.

    “What?” asked Vicky. “I had to say something. And it sounded cooler than, ‘let’s go online and see’, right?”

    I snorted derisively. Carol shook her head and turned away, muttering something under her breath. I caught the word ‘bat’, which didn’t mean anything to me at all. Amy just rolled her eyes. “Vicky, you’re getting weirder all the time. And that’s not a compliment.”

    “Is if I say it is,” Vicky said airily, leading the way upstairs.

    She and Amy found stairs relatively easy, of course. I could navigate them with judicious use of my tail and wings, but it was tedious. By the time I got to Vicky’s room, she and Amy had her laptop booted up and signed on to the PHO boards. I’d only ever gone on occasionally to lurk and read about cape doings when I was bored; as far as I could recall, I’d never actually made a post.

    “Oh, hey, I know what we should do,” Vicky said as she moved aside to give me room to look over their shoulders. “We should totally set up an account for Taylor as Wyvern.”

    I gave her an irritated chirp and held one wing up for her inspection. There was no way I’d ever be typing with those things, and unless they made reinforced keyboards, my feet were pretty well out, too. I guessed maybe I could hold a pencil in my teeth or something …

    “Not for use while you’re the wyvern,” Vicky pointed out. “That’s kind of silly. For when you’re human.

    Oh. Yeah. There’s that, too. I felt stupid, and did my best to face-palm with my wing.

    “We really could,” agreed Amy. “We can submit a couple of photos for verification, with you and me in them.”

    Verification? I chirped a query. When I’d set up my own account, I didn’t recall any need for verification photos.

    Amy frowned. “I don’t know what you’re asking. Why don’t we get these photos taken, then you can Change back, and we can set the account up?”

    I was kind of tired of playing charades without working hands, so I nodded. First, Vicky posed with me while Amy snapped a photo, then I got one alongside Amy. Then Vicky headed out of the room to grab the discarded bathrobe while Amy set up a photo of me on my own.

    “Can you maybe blow a puff of smoke from your nose, like you did back with the Wards?” she suggested. “And some fire?”

    I thought it was needlessly dramatic, but she was the boss here, so I did as she said. A little fire in the back of my throat produced the smoke I wanted, then I erected my crest and grinned toothily at the camera, wisps of flame leaking out through the gaps between my teeth.

    As Amy tapped the phone screen to take the photo, I heard Carol call out, “And the towel too!”

    “Yes, Mom,” answered Vicky, with a put-upon sigh.

    “And no flying in the house!”

    “No, Mom.”

    Amy leaned close to me. “She always flies in the house,” she murmured with a smirk.

    I grinned back—showing a lot more teeth than she had—and nodded. That was something I’d already figured out for myself.

    “We’ve got to take photos,” Amy went on as Vicky re-entered the room and closed the door, “because otherwise anyone could pretend to be a cape online. Some people have, especially with capes who don’t do PHO. It’s caused problems on occasion.”

    I chirped agreeably; Amy had answered a question I had from before, but now I couldn’t ask the question that had since occurred to me. Moving away from the desk, I let Vicky drape the bathrobe over my back. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated on all the good things in my life.

    Vicky was my friend. She’d proven that, over and over again. Amy had been a little standoffish to begin with, but she was starting to warm up to me. Even Lady Photon and Brandish—Sarah and Carol—were nice to me. Dad was letting me stay in New Wave. I was going to be a genuine bonafide superhero.

    The warm feeling was growing in my chest. I fed it with more memories. Meeting Vicky’s friends at Arcadia, and being accepted by them. Winning the battle against Inago and saving Vicky’s life, then meeting the Wards. Carefully, I pulled up short of what had happened next, focusing instead on Vista’s sheer wonder at meeting me.

    I’d enjoyed myself. I’d had fun.

    “Uh, Taylor? You can put the robe on now.” It was Vicky’s voice.

    I looked up and around, belatedly realising that the robe was now draped over my shoulders as I half-crouched on Vicky’s bedroom carpet. So deeply had I been delving into my memories that I hadn’t even felt the change happening. With a sheepish grin, I slid my arms into the sleeves, then pulled the robe shut around me and stood up straight.

    “Nicely done,” Vicky said with a thumbs-up. “I didn’t even have to use my aura once.”

    “This is a good thing,” Amy agreed. “Vicky and I probably won’t be around all the time when you need to change back. How did it feel; Changing unassisted, I mean?”

    “I have no idea,” I confessed. “I was concentrating so hard on making it happen, that I didn’t notice when it did happen.”

    “Does it even matter?” asked Vicky. “She can Change on her own. What’s the big deal?”

    “It’s not just a big deal,” Amy challenged her. “It’s a huge deal. Right now, she’s got a grand total of one deliberate unassisted Change of wyvern to human under her belt. If she can feel the onset of the Change and work with it until it goes all the way through, instead of blindly concentrating on good or bad feelings until something happens, she can make this work a lot more efficiently.”

    “Now you sound like Armsmaster,” Vicky said with a giggle. “Seriously, the man is so obsessed with efficiency.”

    “Bite your tongue.” Amy rolled her eyes. “Efficiency and effectiveness are valid goals. Ever heard of time and motion studies?”

    “I’ll time and motion you,” retorted Vicky, grabbing Amy in a headlock and applying a noogie. Amy squawked and struggled, but I noticed that she was able to force Vicky’s arm aside to free herself. I was pretty sure she wasn’t using her powers. In short, the two were just horsing around; either from general high spirits, or to try to put me at ease, I wasn’t sure. Whichever one it was, it put a grin on my face.

    “Vicky, leave her alone,” I chided gently. “So, Amy. You think if I can get a handle on how the transformation feels, I should be able to guide it?”

    “Well, yeah,” the healer said breathlessly, pushing her hair back from her face. She placed her other hand on Vicky’s face to push her away. Vicky blew a raspberry against her palm, causing her to jerk her hand back and wipe it on her shirt. “Ew, gross. Do you have any idea how many germs there are in your mouth? Because I do.

    “Huh.” It was a totally new concept for me. Up until now, my Change had just happened. The idea of triggering it deliberately instead of relying on painful memories (or trying to focus on happy ones) was fascinating. “Does this mean I could stop it from happening if I don’t want it to?”

    Amy shrugged. “Theoretically, sure. I can see the signals in your body that trigger the change, so you should be able to affect them. Even before capes came on the scene, people were learning how to slow down their heartbeats and gain limited control over other supposedly automatic body functions. Biofeedback is a thing.”

    “Damn.” I was definitely going to have to revisit this idea, once the time came to change back to the wyvern. But that wasn’t what we were doing right then, so I shelved it for the moment. “Thanks, Amy. I really appreciate the help you’re giving me.”

    She shrugged again, but her cheeks flushed pink. “Always glad to help a fellow member of New Wave.” Taking the phone off the desk, she handed it to Vicky. “Photos are on here. Do your magic, sister of mine.” Then she turned to me. “What username did you want to use? Wyvern?”

    “If it’s available, yes,” I agreed. Then something else occurred to me. “Uh, I actually have another account, under my own name. Aren’t dual accounts banned on PHO?” I’d heard that sort of thing was frowned upon; something to do with pretending to be someone else agreeing with whatever opinions you were espousing.

    “Sock puppets?” asked Vicky, tapping away on the phone. “Whoa, that avatar pic’s scary as fuck. I love it.” She paused, possibly trying to recall what she’d just been saying. “Uh, yeah, normally. But they usually make an exception for capes, because of secret identities. Me and Ames don’t get to do that, for obvious reasons. Which I still think is total bullcrap.”

    “Suck it up, sister mine.” Amy hit Enter and sat back as the screen refreshed. “If that’s the worst thing that ever comes out of being open capes, then we’ll both be extremely lucky. Okay, then. Account has been set up. Soon as Vicky gets the photos in place, we can set up your avatar image, and the other two we’ll send in to the mods to prove you’re the real deal.”

    “Cool.” I pulled out one of the two chairs and sat down in it, wrapping the robe around me more securely. “So have they really been talking about me very much on the boards?”

    Have they!” Vicky rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Can you say ‘slow-motion explosion’? First, there were a few comments about your first appearance. People got pictures of you flying over the city, then other people saw me and you and Aunt Sarah, and thought you were a monster we were fighting.”

    “Because she shot lasers at me.” I nodded. “I can see how they’d misunderstand that.”

    “You wouldn’t be the first, and won’t be the last,” agreed Amy. “There were a few good pictures of you with that convenience store robbery, but everyone thought you were just a big flying lizard that we’d picked up somewhere. At that time, the general consensus was that you were a Case fifty-three.”

    Which was also a reasonable conclusion, considering the situation. “Yeah, I can see that,” I said. “So, did they notice when I was bigger after fighting Stinger?”

    “Funnily enough, the mainstreamers didn’t.” Vicky grinned and shrugged. “The tinfoil-hat brigade tried to present it as evidence that you were a hoax or a hologram or something. Basically, ignoring the fact that first responders and cops were standing right next to you.”

    I rolled my eyes. “Geez. All I need is the nutcases coming out of the woodwork over this one.” I’d looked into the section of the boards officially labelled ‘Cape Speculation’ but collectively known as the ‘tinfoil-hat’ section once in a while. Even the milder hypotheses coming out of there were weird as crap. Scion was an alien, Dragon was an AI, a shadowy cabal called Cauldron was secretly running the world … there was no end to it.

    “You’re a dragon. Sorry, wyvern.” Amy gave me a sympathetic look. “Pretty sure you’re not going to be able to dodge this one. The tinfoil-hats are going to be spawning theories faster than we’ll be able to knock them down. We just have to hope the mods are on their A-game. You’re gonna want to be able to communicate meaningfully with those of your fans who are actually sane, after all.”

    “So what’s the result of the latest thing?” I asked. “Even Dad seems to have read it, and he never goes on PHO.”

    Vicky laughed out loud at that one. “Everyone who’s even heard about PHO has been on to check that one out. The memes of you swearing at Armsmaster are going viral. And the number of jokes about how you were able to give him a burn without ever breathing fire at him are spreading like …” She gave me a sly look. “ … well, wildfire.”

    I gave her a dirty look. She let it slide right by. “Okay, so is it generally positive or negative?” I asked.

    Amy fielded that one. “Positive,” she said definitively. “In an oh, god, please don’t burn me alive kind of way, sure, but still positive. Inago was a really big deal in Brockton Bay. Well, technically speaking, he still is. And you basically tore him a brand new one, in a way that nobody ever has before. Plus, you went from medium-sized to mega-sized during the course of the fight. People seem to like you, and hope you’re on our side. Because fire-breathing dragons are kinda scary. Just putting that out there.”

    “The interaction with the Wards was pure gold,” Vicky added. She didn’t mention that she’d been there at the time … but then, she didn’t have to. “There are more memes about Vista hugging you than you swearing at Armsmaster. It’s very cute, by the way.”

    “Also, the footage where you blew smoke all over Vicky?” Amy grinned wickedly at her sister. “Gaining views by the second.”

    Vicky chose to respond in an extremely mature fashion, by poking her tongue out at Amy. “I still say that wasn’t in the least bit funny.”

    “PHO disagrees,” Amy pointed out. “All the Wards have written up their own versions of what happened. Vista’s is kinda incoherent, but are we surprised? Aegis’ is extremely detailed, and very respectful.” She stifled a laugh. “Clockblocker’s is … well, Clockblocker.”

    I leaned forward to read the section of text she’d just hovered the cursor over, and burst out laughing. Clockblocker had narrated it like the action from a blockbuster movie, with so much purple prose that his keyboard should really have seized up.

    “So where do we go from here?” I asked. “Should I introduce myself? Tell people that I’m really not here to seize the city as my domain, or whatever the tinfoil hat people are saying?” I was guessing, but the look on Amy’s face made me blink.

    “Actually, some of them are saying almost exactly that,” she said. “Others are saying that you’re Dragon’s real form, out and about for the first time.”

    I shook my head. “How much more ridiculous can they get?”

    “Don’t ask,” Vicky warned me. “Trust me, that rabbit-hole goes down forever.”

    Before I could ask another question, I heard my name being called from downstairs. Getting up, I went to the bedroom door. “Yes?” I called back.

    “Your father is back.” It was Carol.

    “Dad!” Leaving the door open, I bolted downstairs. Dad had indeed returned, holding a large bag; clothes and toiletries, I presumed. Throwing my arms around him, I gave him a heartfelt hug.

    “Hello to you too, Taylor.” His voice was amused as he hugged me in return. “I see you missed me.”

    “You weren’t here when I got up,” I explained. “Ever since this thing happened to me, I’ve been really grateful that you’re here for me, no matter what. I mean, some people might have just walked away. Having a daughter who occasionally turns into a wyvern might be seen as a bit of a strain for some.”

    He ruffled my hair fondly. “Some people might be idiots. You’re my daughter, and that’s final. So, how have things been while I was away? Any new developments?”

    I shrugged faux-modestly. “I managed the Change to Wyvern and back without wrecking any clothing or needing help to do it. Amy thinks I should be able to eventually make it happen, or not, at will. And Wyvern now has a PHO account, courtesy of Amy and Vicky.”

    “That’s really good news,” he said, and I could tell he meant it. “Well, apart from the PHO thing. How are the people online ever going to recover from being able to chat online with a real live wyvern?”

    Rolling my eyes at his teasing tone, I shook my head. “You are so bad. Thanks for bringing my clothes over. I really appreciate it. Vicky wants to take me clothes shopping later, but I don’t know when that’s going to be.”

    “That’s my Taylor,” he chuckled. “Any other teenage girl would be going, shopping? When? Where? But you’re more like, shopping? Meh, if I feel like it.

    “Hey, I just feel that I’ve got more important priorities right now,” I pointed out. “Like getting a costume that I won’t wreck, especially now I’ve proven I can become human again of my own accord.”

    “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” he said hastily. “Only that it’s not really the point of view of most teenage girls.”

    “Well, I’m not most teenage girls,” I reminded him. “I’m me. Besides, I won’t need new clothing when I go back to Arcadia today with Vicky and Amy, as Wyvern.”

    He held up a finger. “Ah. I’m glad you reminded me. While I was picking up your clothing, I got a phone call. Winslow’s opening again, and Principal Blackwell wants a word with you.”

    “Wait, what again now?” I blurted. “My locker was destroyed! So were the lockers on either side! Surely they can’t have rebuilt that whole section!”

    “From what I understand, they didn’t.” He shrugged, as if he had trouble believing his own words. “The work is ongoing, but for now they’ve got the damaged section cordoned off from the rest of the school. Just that corridor, apparently. Everyone who had lockers in that area is having their belongings moved to other lockers.”

    “Except me.” I didn’t even really need to say it.

    “Except you.” Her father shook his head. “Everything in that locker was drowned under muck, then exploded, then burned. Whatever’s left isn’t anything that you want to even think about claiming.”

    I grimaced. By which he meant the stuff they’d actually put in there. He was right; I didn’t want to think about it, full stop and end of sentence. “So what’s the general consensus in the school about what happened? What are they saying about me, and the fact that I haven’t been there in days?”

    “That, I think, is what Principal Blackwell wants to talk to you about,” he said. “The police investigators found evidence that it was a parahuman thing, so they handed it over to the PRT. For their part, the PRT is running it as a gas leak; they know who you really are, of course .”

    “Armsmaster,” I muttered. I was still feeling a little bit of regret for melting his halberd. Not much, considering what a pushy jerk he was, but some. The f-bomb I’d dropped in his face was another source of regret, but I felt more than justified in that particular instance.

    “That, and they can connect the dots with ease. Your locker blew up, you can’t be contacted when Wyvern is around, and there’s evidence of parahuman activity where the locker used to be.” Dad shrugged. “Don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to solve that one.”

    “Okay, so when does Blackwell need me to come in?” I asked. I wasn’t looking forward to that particular conversation. In fact, I was dreading going back to Winslow at all. There was no combination of factors I could think of that would make me want to go there.

    “Today, if possible,” Dad said. “I know you don’t want to do this, but this sort of thing won’t go away, and getting it over and done with quickly is better than letting it fester.”

    I groaned. “Do I have to? I just got used to being a cape. You know that if I’m there and Emma and the others start on me, I’ll probably blow up into Wyvern again. If she gets far enough under my skin, I might end up biting her head off, and not in a metaphorical way.” Even I didn’t know if I was being serious or not.

    He winced, no doubt recalling what I’d done to Inago. “Please, do not attack anyone,” he said, very seriously. “There would be so many downsides, and very few upsides. For one thing, I doubt your membership in New Wave would survive the backlash.”

    Helplessly, I spread my hands. “If I go into that hellhole alone, there’s literally nobody there who’ll be willing to watch my back. Not the teachers, not the staff, definitely none of the students. Emma won’t know that Mrs Dallon is preparing a case, so she’ll think she can hammer me all she likes, and there’ll be no come-back. And if I do lash out, even if I don’t end up treating her like a chew-toy, I’m basically guaranteed to wreck the case against them. Bad idea, Dad. Really bad idea.”

    “I tend to concur.” Carol Dallon emerged from her office. “Initiating powers-based violence will definitely put any case we have into serious hot water. We need Taylor to have the appearance of being pure as the driven snow. The fact that she’s just that, as far as I know, will go a long way toward helping me do my job. If she happens to turn into the wyvern and attack anyone, no matter how badly she’s been provoked, it will make life difficult for both myself and her, for obvious reasons.”

    “But if she doesn’t show, that makes her look like a delinquent student,” Dad said with a frown. “Principal Blackwell was adamant about that. It also strengthens the connection between her and the exploded locker.”

    “Well, not really,” I said as an idea occurred to me. “I can say I was nearby when it did explode. I was hurt and dazed, and staggered out of the school, then somehow got to the hospital. I’ve only just now recovered.”

    “Which can work, but you still have to show up.” Dad’s expression was unhappy. “I’m not sure why she was so insistent about this. Apart from the whole truancy thing, of course.”

    Carol frowned. “I may have an idea about that. It’s based entirely on supposition and cui bono, so if anyone can poke holes in it, I would appreciate that.”

    Cui bono?” I asked, not understanding the term.

    “‘Who profits’,” Amy said briskly. “Okay, what’s your idea?”

    It took a few moments for Carol to answer. “We’re reasonably sure that Armsmaster would love to have Taylor join the Wards, correct?”

    Dad and I nodded. “Correct,” he said. “But—”

    “I’m not finished,” she interrupted. “Now, for the purpose of this mental exercise, let us presuppose that Armsmaster has some kind of leverage over Principal Blackwell. He says to her to request and require Taylor to come to Winslow. He knows Taylor is Wyvern, and that her Changer ability is stress-related. She thinks Taylor may have had something to do with the exploding locker, but not that she’s Wyvern, nor about the stress aspect.”

    “So she does what he says, not thinking about the potential downsides …” Dad said slowly.

    “But he knows!” I burst out. “He knows that as the wyvern, I tend to react! I knocked him on his ass!”

    Carol nodded. “Now, what happens if you go to Winslow and the bullies corner you, and you turn into the wyvern and lash out?”

    I winced, and nodded; the chain of events was clear. “I’m outed. New Wave has to disavow me or be caught in the negative publicity. Armsmaster can then strongarm me into the Wards at his leisure.”

    Slowly, Dad shook his head. “That’s cold.” He stared at Carol. “The man’s a hero. Would he come up with a plan like that, and actually carry it through?”

    “A hero he may be, but he’s also head of the local Protectorate, and he’s had to work twenty-five hours a day to maintain his status,” she said bluntly. “He’ll do anything he can to get a little extra personal glory. Signing a powerful new Ward? In a heartbeat.” She shrugged. “Putting teenagers at risk? Shadow Stalker’s in the same school. She’s probably been alerted to watch out for problems. No doubt he’s convinced himself that it’s all for the greater good. And of course, there’ll be no way to prove that this was his intent the whole time.”

    I shook my head. “Screw him. I won’t go. They can’t provoke me if they can’t get to me.”

    Dad looked dubious. “I don’t know what he’s got on Blackwell, but she seemed hell-bent on getting you into that school. The phrase ‘truant officer’ came up.”

    “I didn’t know Winslow had a truant officer,” I said. In fact, I was sure it didn’t. Nobody had cared every other time I’d skipped.

    “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it does now.” Carol shook her head. “Mind you, this could all be a total coincidence. Armsmaster could be innocent in all this. I have no proof, after all. Just a suspicious mind. Can anyone knock holes in the idea?”

    Silence fell, as we looked at each other. Given how pushy Armsmaster had been, I reluctantly found it all too easy to believe.

    Dad took a deep breath. “So what are we going to do?”

    I shook my head. “I dunno. Whether he’s behind it or not, if I go into that school, I’m screwed. I have no idea how I’m gonna get out of this one.”

    “I do!” Vicky came strolling down the stairs, looking like the cat that had recently imbibed the cream and was donning a bib in front of a cage full of canaries. “I’ll go to Winslow with you. Let’s see the little shits bother you then.

    I blinked and looked at her. The idea of Vicky confronting Emma was … compelling. “That could definitely work.”

    “No.” Dad shook his head definitively. “It won’t. All the girls have to do is complain about her presence—her aura, if nothing else—and Principal Blackwell can order her to leave.”

    “But I’ll be there as a superhero,” Vicky protested. “Tell him, Mom!” She looked upset at the idea of her grand plan being shot down so easily.

    “Sorry, dear,” Carol said. “She can and she will. You’re not a student there, and it would take too long—and far too much paperwork—to effect even a temporary transfer. If she decides you’re a trespasser, then you’re a trespasser.”

    “So Taylor doesn’t go.” Dad set his jaw. “Screw Blackwell. Taylor can stay here for the time being, so even if Armsmaster himself decides to play truant officer and kicks down my front door, she won’t be there.”

    “He knows Taylor’s joined the team, though,” Amy said. “What’s stopping him from coming here?”

    “Because here is linked to her cape identity, and she’s a hero who hasn’t committed any deliberate felonies,” Carol pointed out didactically. “Yes, the PRT can and will play fast and loose with the so-called unwritten rules, but I will nail anyone’s hide to the wall if they choose to try to search my house without both a warrant and due cause. And I’m dubious about him being able to get Director Piggot to sign off on any kind of scheme like that. I’m personally certain that he’s relying on it being easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, especially if he manages to get Taylor to sign on the dotted line.”

    “Taylor will just melt his halberd if he tries, won’t you?” Vicky smirked. “Or maybe you’ll just bite it in half like a breadstick.”

    “I’d much rather not antagonise Armsmaster any more than I already have,” I said with finality. “I still get the shakes when I think about how many people heard me tell him to eff off. I wish he’d just go away and leave me alone.”

    Carol stared at me, then slowly blinked. “On second thought, maybe you should go to school.”

    We all stared at her. “Mom?” asked Vicky. “Are you feeling all right? Do you want to lie down?”

    “No, no, hear me out.” Carol rubbed her hands together. “But we’re going to be doing more than just getting evidence on the girls who’ve been bullying you, Taylor. We’re going to be going after Armsmaster himself. If he’s willing to bend the rules this hard just to get you over a barrel, Taylor, who knows what else he’s ready to pull. All in the name of ‘the greater good’.” She said the last three words in tones of deepest disgust. “So yes, you’ll be attending Winslow. But we’ll also be taking certain precautions …”


    End of Part Fourteen

    [Mwahaha. Evil cliffhanger is evil.]
     
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2019
  16. Threadmarks: Part Fifteen: Hidden Conflicts
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Fifteen: Hidden Conflicts

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



    “Precautions?” I looked at Mrs Dallon with a certain amount of curiosity. “What sort of precautions were you considering? ‘Not showing up’ was the best one I could think of.”

    She gave me a brief smile to acknowledge the weak joke. “Taylor, in the legal field as in any other competitive business, it’s widely known that the ideal position to be in isn’t always one that’s possible to attain. You not appearing for this meeting would almost certainly trigger legal action aimed at your father. Showing up will disarm that trap.”

    “And leave her wide open to another,” Dad said. “As you well know.” I noticed he didn’t dispute the point.

    “This is true.” Mrs Dallon grimaced. “If my supposition is correct, Armsmaster is attempting to railroad you into a felony powers assault charge, which he then intends to use as leverage to press you into the Wards. All the while acting as the good cop, of course.”

    “By remote control, even.” Vicky looked suitably angry. I was pleased she was keeping her aura under control. The last thing we needed right then was another wyvern incident. “I bet he won’t even show up until you’ve set fire to the other half of the school.”

    “Which we intend to avoid.” That was Dad. “I’ll have to go in.”

    “That can only be a stopgap,” Mrs Dallon noted. “And if the Blackwell woman compels Taylor to return to class after the meeting, which is what I’d do in her situation, you can’t go with her.” She went into her office and pulled open the drawer to a cabinet. “But I’ve got something around here that should be just the thing …”

    From where he sat watching TV, Mr Dallon snorted. “You’re going to pull a bait and switch on them, aren’t you?” he called out.

    “That’s not its name!” she retorted, pulling an object out of the drawer in triumph. “Behold: the Decoy!”

    We stared at it. It was rectangular and made out of some kind of bright yellow plastic. About six inches by four inches by two inches thick, it had a row of buttons along one edge and a semi-transparent window on one side. Barely visible inside the window were two wheel-like objects.

    Dad accepted it from her and turned it over in his hands while she retrieved something else from the drawer; it was sleeker and made of black plastic, and looked a whole lot more modern.

    “… it’s a tape player.” Dad hefted the ‘Decoy’ in his hand. “A heavy tape player.” He frowned thoughtfully. “I understand the idea of giving her a recording device, but the last I heard, we were an all-party state. Everyone who’s being recorded needs to know about it. Which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. And if we were going to sidestep it, this thing’s not exactly discreet.” He looked around at the girls. Amy was smirking, and Vicky was outright snickering. “Okay, what am I missing?”

    Mrs Dallon’s smile showed her teeth. “The same thing everyone else who sees it will be missing.” She held up the sleek black object. “This is the key.” Handing me the ‘key’, she went on. “Now, this is how you’re going to proceed …”

    <><>​

    Dad and I entered Winslow High School an hour later. The lunch bell still had some time to go before it rang, so there wasn’t anyone in the corridors. I counted that as a bonus. My backpack was on my back, and the ‘key’ was in my pocket. I tried to keep my expression calm, but some level of my nerves must have betrayed themselves, because Dad glanced down at me. “You okay there? We can always go home.”

    “And give Blackwell and Armsmaster a cheap shot at you?” I shook my head. “Nuh-uh. Ain’t happening.” I strode forward with extra determination. My life hadn’t been the best to date, but since the horrors of the locker, I was actually connecting with Dad again, and I had a whole superhero team to fall back on. Also, Vicky was hilarious and Amy was pretty cool too. I hadn’t actually met the other members of New Wave yet, apart from Mrs Pelham, but I was looking forward to it.

    Long story short: my life was looking up, and there was no way I was going to let some jumped-up bureaucrat collude with a so-called hero to pull me down again.

    When we reached Blackwell’s outer office, I stepped aside to let Dad go first. He knocked briskly, then opened the door and strode in without actually waiting. I went in behind him, ready to follow his lead.

    “Ah, hello,” said Blackwell’s secretary. I didn’t like her much. She’d taken every single complaint I’d given her about Emma and the others, and had never offered me so much as a shred of comfort or understanding. I had the impression she’d decided early on that I was a troublemaker, which made me wonder exactly how far through the system my complaints actually got. “Who are you?”

    “Danny Hebert.” Dad’s tone was not quite abrupt enough to be rude. “This is my daughter Taylor. We’re here to see Principal Blackwell.” He started to move toward the inner door.

    “You can’t just go in!” squawked the secretary. “She’s on a call. She can’t be disturbed. Important business.”

    “This is important business too,” Dad said, his tone harsher than I’d heard it before. “She said she had to see Taylor today. We’re here. It’s today.”

    “Yes, but she has other business.” The secretary pointed toward the chairs at the side of the office. “Take a seat. She will be ready to see you soon.”

    Dad checked his watch. “We will wait exactly five minutes. Then you will sign a statement to the effect that Taylor attempted to show up for her urgent appointment with your boss, and was made to sit and wait. Then we will leave.” He placed his hands on the desk and leaned forward. “I know how these power-plays work. I grew up on them. Five minutes. No more.” Then he went to a chair and sat down.

    I sat beside him, not sure if this would achieve anything, but glad he was there to do the pushing for me. When I was being the wyvern, the world was easy to understand. There were good guys, and there were bad guys. And if the bad guys needed a little scorching, everyone understood. In this situation, the difference between pushing too little and pushing too much was a knife-edge, and before I even started I needed to know how and where to push.

    We didn’t have much to say as we sat there. About thirty seconds in, the secretary got up and went through the connecting door into the inner office. She wasn’t there long; when she came out, she gave us a suspicious look and resumed whatever she was doing. Dad caught my eye and gave me an encouraging smile. I nodded in return, but was too tense to smile.

    Without making it too obvious, Dad had his eye on the clock behind the secretary’s desk. So did I. With thirty seconds to go, Dad stood up. I got up as well. While the secretary pretended to ignore us, Dad made a production of stretching, then patting down his pockets. Finally, he reached into an inside pocket and produced a folded piece of paper.

    “Excuse me,” he said politely. “I’m going to need you to sign this for me.”

    “What is it?” asked the secretary frostily.

    “Acknowledgement that Taylor showed up as requested, but Principal Blackwell refused to see her, despite being given five minutes to conclude whatever business she has going on in there at the moment.” Dad’s voice was deadpan, but he had his Dockworkers expression on. The one that said, ‘this far and no further’. “If you refuse to sign it, I’m going to have to take a photo of you, the clock on the wall, and the unsigned note, to prove your unwillingness to do your actual job.”

    “I do not consent to a photograph being taken of me,” she said almost automatically.

    “Your lack of consent is noted,” Dad shot back. “I do not consent to have my daughter bullied in this school, whether it’s by the students or the staff. So far, that hasn’t gone too well either. Feel free to hold a book in front of your face. Proof of your presence in that chair will be good enough for me.” He tapped the piece of paper as it lay on the desk. “Or sign the note. Your choice.”

    “One moment,” she said, and got up from the desk. Pushing open the inner door, she went into Blackwell’s office.

    As soon as the door closed behind her, Dad took up the note and followed her. Fascinated by the way things were turning out, I followed close behind.

    “—should I do?” hissed the secretary in tones that would’ve been too low to penetrate to the outer office. She and Blackwell looked around as Dad entered.

    “Maybe not stonewall us every chance you got?” Dad stepped up in front of Blackwell’s desk. “Good to see that you’ve prepared for this meeting.” He glanced at the secretary. “You can go now.”

    “Prepared—” Blackwell caught herself, and started again. “What are you doing in here? I’m in the middle of something important!”

    “Your phone’s not on hold, and that’s Taylor’s file you’ve got open on your desk there.” Dad’s voice was implacable. As Blackwell went to cover the pages with her hand, he smiled coldly. “Why yes, I can read my daughter’s name upside down. And as you required her presence here today, and you have her file open right now, here’s something you might wish to add to it.” He held out his hand. “Taylor?”

    I was ready for this. Opening my backpack, I handed him my journal; or rather, a photocopy of every page. Mrs Dallon had the original in her safe. She’d personally numbered and signed each page of the photocopy, so we’d know if any sheets went missing. I was a little jealous that he got to do this next bit, but this was his show, so he got to grandstand. Taking the block of paper, he slapped it down on Blackwell’s desk with a flat crack, making her jump.

    “What in God’s name is that?” she demanded.

    “Taylor’s latest complaint.” Dad gestured to it. “Don’t worry, we’ve got a copy. You can keep that one. Oh, and just so you know, we brought this along too.”

    I brought out the Decoy, and ostentatiously pressed the button marked RECORD. Inside the scratched and smudged window, two reels began rolling. Blackwell stared at it. It was certainly garish enough, with the bright plastic cover, not to mention the black-and-yellow tape with YOU ARE BEING RECORDED printed in red on both sides of the Decoy. Beneath that was another strip of tape with PROPERTY OF TAYLOR HEBERT printed loud and proud on it. It was visible from across the room; I was pretty sure that it would be visible from Captain’s Hill.

    “Is that a recorder?” Her eyes shot to me and then Dad. “I don’t consent to being recorded.”

    Dad nodded. “As I told your secretary outside, your lack of consent is noted. However, this is a meeting that I do want an independent record of, and you are aware of the recording. We’ve fulfilled the legal requirements of the state legislation, so let’s talk about Taylor’s complaint. What are you going to do about it?”

    Blackwell pointed at the Decoy. “Take that away first! Turn it off!”

    With a sigh, Dad took up the Decoy and stepped away from the desk. “Well, this meeting’s over. You know what they say about anyone who doesn’t like their own words being quoted back at them.”

    That was obviously a straight line, so I took him up on it. “What do they say, Dad?”

    “Can’t trust ’em worth a damn.” He indicated the door. “C’mon, Taylor. Let’s go get something to eat, then I’ll drop you home. You’ve fulfilled your obligation to show up. It’s not your fault if your so-called educator isn’t willing to carry out her end and have a meaningful conversation about your complaints, one that’s on the record. Until that happens, I don’t believe your needs are being met here.” He gave Blackwell a significant look and hefted the Decoy.

    Several expressions chased themselves over the woman’s face, before she sighed with irritation. “Very well. But you will not release this recording into the public domain without my express permission.”

    “Or unless compelled to release it for legal reasons,” he replied immediately.

    “Or that too,” she conceded.

    “Good enough,” he said, hooking a chair over with his foot. “Taylor, have a seat.” He grabbed one for himself and dropped into it. “Now, have a good hard look at the bottom corner of that document. What do you see there?”

    Reluctantly, Blackwell eyed it. “It’s got a signature. Whose signature is that?”

    “Carol Dallon,” Dad said casually. I didn’t miss the way Principal Blackwell’s shoulders tensed. “You’re familiar with the name?”

    “She’s the superhero Brandish,” Blackwell confirmed. “But why—”

    “She’s also a lawyer,” Dad reminded her. “This is your official notification that the school will be getting a lawsuit filed against it regarding your criminal negligence in failing to prevent bullying against my daughter, despite her reporting it to you more than once.” He indicated the sheaf of papers. “And if you refuse to look into it even now, I’m reasonably sure they can justify a charge of depraved indifference against you and your entire faculty here.”

    “Fine, I’ll look at them,” grated Blackwell. She pulled the papers toward her and eyed them dubiously. I could see why; at fifty-some pages, the stack was actually thicker than the entire file they had on me. “But before I do, how do I know everything that’s in here is actually true?”

    Slowly, Dad stood up. His knuckles turned white as he clenched them and leaned on the desk. When he spoke, his voice was soft, but it was in no way gentle. “Are you, to my face, with everything that’s happened, daring to call my daughter a liar without even finding out what the charges are first?”

    “I … she’s a known …” But even Blackwell wasn’t so brazen as to finish that statement with Dad looming over her.

    “Troublemaker, I believe you were going to say?” Dad raised his eyebrows. “May I remind you that her locker exploded the other day, and they found traces of used feminine hygiene products in the aftermath. Tell me, who blows up their own locker?” Gradually, he sat down again.

    “People have been known to do odd things to get attention,” she ventured.

    “Yes,” I said acidly. “Such as bending space and time to put glue on my own chair in the classroom before I even get there. Or maybe filling my email inbox with abuse from a dozen different accounts, some of which have timestamps placing me in class where I don’t have access to computers. It’s a wonder I have time to even attend school, with all the effort I must put into faking all the evidence of people bullying me.”

    “Taylor,” Dad said gently, and I subsided. “I apologise for her outburst, but she’s not wrong. Do you ask anyone else for independent proof that they’re being picked on? Do you force anyone else to adhere to rules of evidence more stringent than the police require, just to start an investigation? Or do you play it by the rule that the popular kids are more trustworthy than anyone else, just because that makes life easier for you?”

    “I assure you,” she said freezingly, “that every student in this school is treated equally.”

    “And I assure you that I don’t believe a single word of that,” Dad retorted. “If you’d given Taylor anything like the considerations you’ve been giving Emma Barnes and her little friends, we wouldn’t need to be having this meeting.”

    “Emma Barnes?” I didn’t play poker, but even I could tell that Principal Blackwell would make a crappy player. Still, she gave it her best try. “What does she have to do with any of this?”

    Again, Dad indicated the sheets. “Quite a lot, in fact. You’ll find her name cropping up in those complaints. Over and over and over. As well as Madison Clements and …” He paused, fixing his attention squarely on her. “… Sophia Hess.”

    While she’d twitched a little at the mention of Emma’s name, the reaction had been less for Madison. But she visibly flinched when Dad said Sophia’s name, which made me wonder why. Armsmaster had also been interested in that name, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what they both had in common with Sophia, with the exception that they all liked to throw their weight around with me.

    “I’ll look over them later,” she said, pushing the sheets aside. “We don’t have time to go through every page today.”

    “Just like you didn’t have time to pay attention to any of my complaints,” I said bitterly. “Like Dad said, if you’d spent a little more time—”

    “Taylor.” This time, Dad put his hand gently on my arm. “Principal Blackwell, Taylor makes a good point. If you’d spent any time at all paying attention to her initial complaints, you wouldn’t have these ones to deal with right now. For your own good, I would strongly urge you to give them a solid read before you choose to dismiss them out of hand. Look for the one where Emma assures Taylor that it doesn’t matter how much Taylor complains, you’ll never listen to her.”

    I wondered for a moment what he was talking about, then as Blackwell’s expression edged toward panic, I got it. There was no such complaint in there, because I’d never put one in. But now, Blackwell would be certain to read it from end to end, looking for that one reference. I wanted to burst out laughing at the mental image of her face when she realised how badly she’d been played, but that would of course give the game away.

    Shoving the stack of papers into the manila folder containing my file, she dropped the lot into a desk drawer. “I’ll be reading it all the way through, tonight,” she said. “Of course, I can’t make any promises until I’ve seen everything that’s in there, but I will look at it.”

    “I’m certain you will,” Dad said, though I had no idea how he managed to keep a straight face. “So, you wanted Taylor in here to speak about her school attendance?”

    “Well, initially to ask if she knew anything about what happened with her locker,” Blackwell said. “Given her lack of injury, I’ll accept that she wasn’t anywhere near it when it happened, and I understand there was a gas leak involved … but where were you?” She turned and looked at me.

    “I didn’t want to go to school,” I said, apropos of nothing. I was being truthful, of course, but there was nothing wrong with also being misleading as fuck. “So not long after I got in, I left again. I spent some time down at the Boardwalk, then went and visited friends.” I raised my eyebrows questioningly. “Given what happened with my locker, I think it was a really good idea not to be in here on that day.”

    Dad gave me a bemused look, as if to say, well done. We hadn’t actually rehearsed anything for this, which was probably a good thing. I didn’t want to get all nervous and flub my lines. Blackwell, on the other hand, looked sharply at me. I suspected she knew the truth but had been told in no uncertain terms to not even think about revealing it.

    “I would have to agree,” she said. “However, now that we’re open for classes again and you’re obviously fit to attend said classes, I believe it would be best all round if you got back into the schedule as quickly as possible.”

    I cleared my throat. “Principal Blackwell, as you can see by the written record I just gave you, I’ve been suffering a large amount of bullying at this school. In all honesty, I do not feel safe or secure here. I mean, this time my locker exploded and the only reason I’m not being scraped out of the middle of that mess is that I decided to go to the beach. What’s going to happen next time?” I leaned forward slightly. “And you can’t tell me there won’t be a next time. If I’d asked you before Christmas Break started, you would’ve assured me beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no way someone could sneak that horrific trash into my locker, or that my locker would somehow explode. How can I anticipate what they’re going to try on me next?”

    Looking slightly hunted, Blackwell glanced from Dad to me. “Well, the teachers are all trained to look for signs of bullying—”

    “Which so far they’re doing a truly bang-up job with,” Dad interrupted. “No matter what else happens, no matter what you decide is true or not in Taylor’s journal, you can’t deny that the police found some unpleasant materials in her locker. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I am making a formal request, here and now, to have her transferred to Arcadia. She’s only missed a couple of days. It’s not like she’d have much to catch up on.”

    “Especially when my homework isn’t being stolen on a regular basis,” I added, then glanced at Dad. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to butt in.”

    Blackwell shook her head. “I, uh, can’t simply transfer you today, but I can make some calls?” The tone of her voice made it a question.

    “We would love you to make some calls,” Dad said warmly. “Let us know when you’ve done it, so we can check with the Arcadia administration to see how the transfer paperwork is proceeding.”

    I nearly smirked at that. She’d floated a possibility that I would’ve bet she never intended to carry through with, and Dad had turned it around on her. Now she had to make the actual calls, and it would be up to Arcadia to decide whether or not to take me.

    “Of course,” she said, as though she’d intended that result all along. “But in the meantime, Taylor can’t miss school. So she’s going to have to continue attending here at Winslow.”

    “We’ve already established that your faculty are all too overworked to keep an eye on one girl,” Dad noted. “So she gets to carry that with her. Everywhere.” He pointed at the Decoy.

    “Record other students?” Blackwell drew herself up sternly. “Out of the question.”

    “According to the latest Supreme Court ruling, school corridors and classrooms are not places which have a significant expectation of privacy,” Dad paraphrased. “The item is very noticeable and warns anyone around her that they are being recorded. If they don’t want their private conversations to be recorded, all they have to do is walk away from her.”

    “I can guarantee, I don’t want to know about anyone’s private conversations,” I added. “I would like to be left alone, just this once. If anyone comes up to me and starts talking, I’ll wave it in their face. If they don’t walk away, then whatever gets recorded, gets recorded.”

    Blackwell drew herself up freezingly. “And what about private conversations in the classroom?”

    Dad raised his eyebrows. “Really? You’re going there? Since when did you ever condone students having private conversations while in class?” He pointed at the Decoy. “I’ll say it again. They’ll know they’re being recorded. If they still want to have a private conversation, they can damn well pass notes.”

    “This is a government institution—” began Blackwell.

    “Which does not exempt it from being a public place,” Dad interrupted. “As such, you’re a government employee, but you’re not the owner or operator of this building. The school board is. They can decree that no personal recorders can be used within the building but until they do, the law says Taylor is allowed to carry a personal recorder so long as everyone around her is made aware of its presence. Confiscate it, and I will sue you personally for removing a device she needs to keep her safe in this school.”

    “Very well,” Blackwell said in an I-wash-my-hands-of-this tone. “Taylor can carry the recorder with her. But if she takes it into anyplace that does have an expectation of privacy, such as a bathroom, she will need to turn it off.”

    I wrinkled my nose. “Yeah, like I want to record what I do in places like that.”

    “I’m going to need that in writing,” Dad pressed. “If I’m not with Taylor through the day, one of her teachers may take it on themselves to confiscate it, and we’ve already seen how much attention they pay to her welfare.”

    Blackwell twitched, but did as he said. Taking a fresh sheet of paper, she wrote on it in a strong clear hand, TAYLOR HEBERT IS PERMITTED TO CARRY AND UTILIZE HER RECORDER ON SCHOOL GROUNDS. NO RECORDING MAY TAKE PLACE IN BATHROOMS. Then she signed and dated it.

    “Is that good enough for you?” she asked, handing it over.

    Dad scrutinised it, then nodded. “For the time being,” he said. Folding it, he handed it to me. “Keep this one safe. Don’t let anyone take it off you.”

    “Well, yeah, no,” I agreed. As soon as I lost the paper, I lost the authority to tell teachers I could keep the Decoy on me.

    Blackwell gave us both a tired look. “Was there anything else, or can Taylor attend classes now?”

    I checked the clock on the wall, then looked her in the eye. “World Issues has another forty-five minutes to run, but I don’t have any textbooks or school supplies. Because they got covered in gunk then exploded. In your school. Can I have some more?”

    By now, I was fairly sure, Blackwell was going to agree to just about anything to get Dad (and me) out of her office. “Yes, of course,” she sighed. “Give Miriam a list of what you need, and she will fetch it for you, from stores.”

    I assumed Miriam was the secretary in the outer office. I’d always seen her as more of a Dolores or maybe a Grimhilde. “Thanks,” I said, with as much politeness as I could muster. At least I didn’t have to pay for these ones, as I’d done with every other textbook of mine Emma and her friends had destroyed or damaged.

    “One last thing.” Dad’s eyes held a razor glint behind his glasses. “Just a reminder that if you speak to the Barneses, the Clements’, or the Hesses, or any of their associates, about the upcoming lawsuit, or if it’s found that you destroyed school records that could incriminate you in the charges, criminal charges can apply. You don’t want matters to go there.”

    Blackwell looked like she’d bitten into an orange and found a lemon. A rotten one. “Understood.”

    “Good.” Dad stood up. It struck me that if I’d spoken to him about this a lot earlier, maybe some of the crap could’ve been avoided. Or maybe we would’ve been dealing with different crap. The road not taken, and all that.

    “Hello again,” he said pleasantly when we got to the outer office. “Taylor needs textbooks and other school supplies. Principal Blackwell said that you can get them from stores for us. Immediately, please. Taylor needs to get to class.”

    Miriam began to puff herself up. “You’ll have to pay for it—” she began.

    “No, in fact, we won’t.” Dad’s voice was quiet but firm, and he overrode her as if she wasn’t even there. “Her books and the rest of her school supplies were destroyed because of the negligence of the school, and the school will replace them. Unless you want to argue with your boss about this?”

    “Fine.” She bit the word off. “What exactly do you need?”

    Dad took out his notebook and wrote the textbook titles and other things down as I rattled them off, then he tore off the page and handed it over to her. “This will be all, thanks.”

    She looked the list over, but made no move to get up. Dad raised his eyebrows but said nothing. I waited. After about thirty seconds, she looked up and pretended surprise that he was still there. “Yes, can I help you with something else?”

    “No, I’ll be fine once you fetch Taylor’s things for us,” he replied imperturbably. “Taylor needs to get to class as soon as possible. She can’t do this without school supplies and books. You’re the one holding her up. Do you really want to be that person?”

    She glared at me and Dad. I would have bet a lot of money that she was trying to figure out how to tell us to go away and come back tomorrow, but it just wasn’t coming to her.

    Dad cleared his throat and took out the piece of paper he’d produced before. “If you want us to go away, all you have to do is sign this, and take responsibility for Taylor’s absence.”

    She didn’t like that option, either. Finally, she got to her feet and headed into the inner office. I didn’t hear any of what happened next, except for Blackwell’s raised voice at the end. “Just get them the damned supplies!”

    Miriam opened the door and came out, giving me and Dad a Look along the lines of ‘if you laugh, I will kill you’. Dad gazed back with a straight face, and I covered my grin with a cough. She passed us by, steam all but leaking from her ears, and opened a side door. Now it was Dad’s turn to cover a chuckle with a cough, and it was all I could do not to burst out in giggles. Of course, as I was holding the Decoy, I couldn’t do anything so undignified so I kept them in.

    Dad’s eyes wandered to the copier beside Miriam’s desk, and he turned to me. “Give me the paper for a second.”

    I saw what he was up to, but I would never have dared myself. Of course, this being Dad, he went straight past ‘never dare’ and went for the burn. Taking the folded sheet from me, he flattened it out on the copy machine and ran off ten copies. The original, folded, went into his wallet, and he handed me the rest. Those went into my backpack just as Miriam emerged from the storeroom with the textbooks.

    I had to hand it to her; she’d gone all-out to find the shabbiest, crappiest returned copies that she could locate in there. They weren’t quite falling apart, but signs of wear and tear were obvious. I glanced at Dad and he shook his head very slightly. It wasn’t worth complaining about, not right now. Besides, free books were free.

    She’d had a harder time finding old pencils and pens and the like, but everything I needed was there.

    “Thanks,” I said, stuffing them into the pack on top of the sheets of paper already there.

    “Did you use my copy machine?” she asked suspiciously.

    “Only to get backup copies of an essential document,” Dad replied imperturbably. “Come on, Taylor. Let’s get you to class.”

    I led the way out of the office and waited until the door closed behind us before I started giggling. Dad shook his head. “That’s what you get when power goes to your head. Taylor, don’t ever get like that.”

    “I’ll try not to.” I did my best to smother my giggles. “Just get them the damn supplies!” I quoted, then snorted with laughter. “Not gonna lie, this made my whole day.”

    “Just remember, you’ve still got to get through the rest of today,” he said seriously. He nodded to the Decoy. “Don’t let anyone else take it off you, and don’t put it down where anyone can just grab it.”

    “Theft? In Winslow?” I tried to sound shocked. “How could anyone think such a thing?”

    “I’m not even going to touch that one.” He put his hand on my shoulder as we walked. It felt warm and comforting. “You’re strong, Taylor. We both know that. You can get through this. All of it.”

    “Thanks, I appreciate it.” I indicated the classroom we were coming up to. “This is Mr Gladly’s classroom. World Issues.” From inside, I could hear Gladly himself expounding excitedly on some topic or other.

    “Okay, then. I’ll leave you here.” He gathered me in for a quick hug. I won’t lie; it felt good. “See you tonight.”

    “See you then.” I dug in my backpack for one of the sheets he’d copied off for me, hitched the pack up farther on my shoulder, made sure the Decoy was firmly tucked under my arm, and opened the door.

    As I stepped inside, I was thoroughly aware of every eye being turned in my direction. When I’d first gotten my powers, this alone could’ve caused a panic attack that would have triggered my Change. But now it was a lot easier to push through. I’m a hero. I’ve beaten up villains. I’ve saved lives. Could any of them say that?

    “Taylor,” said Mr Gladly, looking a little confused. “I see you’re back.”

    “Yes, Mr Gladly, I am,” I replied, pitching my voice so the whole class heard it. “I apologise for missing the last couple of days, but someone filled my locker with crap and then it blew up. I’m just glad I wasn’t here for it.”

    “I see,” he said dubiously. “What’s that under your arm?”

    “Ah, yes, this,” I said, holding the Decoy up and turning it so that the stickered warnings were visible to one and all. “As I’ve been getting bullied over the last year and a bit, I’ve decided to be proactive about it. The microphone’s good to about three yards. It is recording right now, and will continue to record until I leave school grounds. Any questions?”

    Gladly took a breath. “I don’t—”

    “Consent to being recorded, I get it.” I held out the sheet of paper. “Neither did Principal Blackwell. She changed her mind.”

    He took it and read it, then frowned. “That can’t be right. Privacy laws …”

    “The Supreme Court says that there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in the classroom,” I said, trying to repeat what Dad had said, in the same bored-but-confident tone. “I’ve made everyone here aware that we’re being audio recorded. That satisfies the letter of the law.”

    “Oh, uh …” He paused and looked at the paper again, then nodded sharply. “We’re doing a class project.” Big surprise there. “Go and sit with …” He looked around the room. “Greg and Sparky. They don’t have a third member.”

    I nodded. It could’ve been worse. I might have been told to sit with Madison and Julia. As it was, I watched them track me with their eyes as I cross the classroom. I made sure not to go too near where they sat; if someone stuck their leg out to trip me, an audio recording wouldn’t prove who did it.

    Pulling a spare chair over to where the two guys sat on their own, I put my backpack down and got out the textbook and an exercise book. When I went back for a pencil and looked up again, I saw that Greg had picked up the Decoy from where I had put it on the desk and was looking at it.

    “Greg, give that back,” I said, holding my hand out. Dad’s words, don’t put it down where anyone can just grab it, came back to me. “That is my property, and I want it back right now.”

    “I was just looking at it,” he said defensively. “It’s really solidly built for a tape recorder, isn’t it? What sort of batteries does it use? How long can it record for?”

    “Heavy ones, and long enough,” I told him. “Now—”

    “Hey, Greg, can I have a look at that?” asked Julia, who had somehow materialised at Greg’s side. “Pretty please?”

    “No!” I snapped, loudly enough that heads turned. “Greg, hand my property back to me right now.”

    “Geez, overreact much?” he mumbled, giving the Decoy back to me. “It’s just a stupid tape recorder. Nothing to get bent out of shape over.”

    I breathed in through my nostrils and out through my mouth, trying to calm myself down. Before I could speak, Mr Gladly had come halfway down the classroom, irritation etched on his features. “Taylor, why are you shouting in the classroom?”

    I pasted a smile on my face. “Ah, Mr Gladly. Good to see you’re paying attention. Greg just took this without my permission and then was going to give it to Julia.” I tapped the sticker on the side. “As you can see, it’s very clearly marked ‘Property of Taylor Hebert’. Perhaps you should speak to them about the impropriety of taking other peoples’ property without first asking permission?”

    Irritation was rare on his features, and a frown was downright unheard of, but there one was, right on his face. He looked down at me and the Decoy. “I understand that you’ve been having problems, but disrupting the class is not the answer. Perhaps I should take that—”

    I stood, suddenly enough that he took a step back. Mr Gladly was about my height, or maybe a little shorter. “So when other people want to take my property and I make a fuss about it, I’m suddenly the problem?” I shook my head. “I’ll be quiet. So long as nobody else tries to take my stuff.”

    He hesitated, clearly not wanting to escalate matters, until I sat down. Then he headed back up to the front, doing his best not to make it look like a retreat. I didn’t care. While I was fully aware of the glares of Madison and Julia—who had managed to slide back into her seat while Gladly was occupied with me—I didn’t care about that either.

    What I did care about was what the rest of the day was going to be like. I didn’t have any of the bullies in my art class, which helped, but Emma shared Mr Quinlan’s math class with me. By then, I knew for a fact, Madison would’ve given her chapter and verse on the Decoy—what she knew of it anyway—and as the daughter of a lawyer, Emma was going to come in firing on all barrels. Or was that cylinders?

    Either way, they weren’t just going to roll over and leave me alone. Not that I’d ever thought they would.

    I could only hope that Mr Gladly’s brand of help-without-actually-helping was the worst I’d get from the teachers. If he’d pressed the issue, it wouldn’t have been Greg and Julia who needed rescuing from an angry wyvern. How could an adult be so blind to what was happening right in front of him? To what he was enabling to happen? I noticed he hadn’t spoken to either Greg or Julia about trying to take the Decoy. Because of course he couldn’t let go the façade of being Mr G the cool teacher.

    With my elbow resting firmly on the Decoy, I turned to Greg. “So now we’ve got that settled, what are we actually working on?” I could see he had about a quarter page of notes, but I couldn’t read his chicken-scratchings upside down, while Sparky was drawing doodles of what I presumed were electric guitars. So, par for the course.

    Greg blinked at my mild tone. “Uh, we’re supposed to pick an Endbringer and list ways they’ve affected world markets, and define whether those ways are positive and negative.”

    “So, not just how many people they’ve killed, then.” Which was where most discussions of them went.

    “Well, yeah, but only in terms of how it’s affected how people spend money,” he corrected me. “The death tolls themselves aren’t what we’re looking at here.”

    “Ah, okay.” I figured I had an idea of what we were supposed to be doing. “So who did you and Sparky pick?”

    “Behemoth.” He frowned. “We wanted Leviathan, but too many people picked him.”

    I could see why. Most people seemed to think Leviathan sank ships willy-nilly out in the open ocean, but Dad had told me this wasn’t the case. The shipping trade was down because Leviathan tended to attack port cities, which affected the trade going in and out of those ports. “Well, this means we have to think in different ways.”

    “Yeah, but what’s Behemoth done to hurt the economy, really?” He ran his hands through his already-disarranged hair. “The Middle East oilfields suffered a lot from his first attack, but that’s about all I can think of.”

    “He’s given the coal industry a boost,” I suggested.

    Greg frowned, looking at me. “How do you figure that?”

    “Since what happened in Russia, everyone’s scared of him coming up in the middle of a nuclear power plant,” I explained. “Not that it really means anything, because he’s a walking nuclear disaster, with or without a power plant. But radiation is a scary buzzword, and people react en masse to stuff like that. So nuclear power plants are becoming less popular …”

    “… so coal is becoming more popular.” He scribbled frantically on his page. “That’s great. Got anything else?”

    “Uh yeah.” I leaned back in my chair, slowly flipping the Decoy over and over in my hands. “The construction industry. Dad once told me that buildings weren’t made as solid as they are now, before capes and Endbringers showed up on the scene. And Leviathan might knock a few buildings down, but Behemoth is the all-time champion for it.”

    “And Endbringer shelters, too.” Greg nodded energetically. “That’s all construction as well.”

    I blinked. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t think of that.” I had no idea how many shelters there were around the US, but if Brockton Bay was any indication, there were a lot.

    “This is good stuff,” Greg said happily. “What else?” He’d gone from bored and detached to focused and engaged. I would’ve been impressed, if I hadn’t also seen him go the other way at the drop of a gaming reference.

    “Computers,” I said, trying to stretch my brain. “Seismic sensing. Research and development. The earlier they can predict his movements and decide where he’s coming up, the faster they can get heroes on site to fight him.”

    Which made me wonder in turn whether I’d end up fighting Endbringers. I’d done okay against Stinger and Inago, but something like Behemoth would be a whole other level of terrifying.

    Sparky dozed, and Greg and I swapped ideas (or rather, I came up with ideas and Greg wrote them down). A few of Greg’s ideas were a little on the tinfoil-hat side of things so I vetoed them, but overall we came up with a good list.

    I started writing them down when we had ten minutes to go, so I was finished by the time Mr Gladly announced the end of the class. We had until Monday, he said, to flesh out the ideas we’d come up with and present them to the class.

    His words only vaguely registered on me, because I was once more focused on Madison and Julia. Seated with Greg and Sparky, I wasn’t where either of them could walk past and dump stuff on me without a good excuse, and I’d already shown that I was willing to raise my voice a lot more than I had in the past. This meant they hadn’t been able to harass me past the initial effort to steal the Decoy, but it didn’t mean that they were about to give up. All the way through the class, Madison had been sending off texts right and left; I had precisely two suspects as to who the recipients were.

    With that in mind, I hitched my backpack onto my shoulder and headed for the door. Normally I would’ve tried to find some out-of-the-way place to eat my lunch, but today I didn’t give a damn. If I could make it to the cafeteria before the main crowd arrived, I could be well situated in a corner table by the time Emma and Sophia arrived to back up Madison. And if I knew Emma, she would be throwing out every half-assed legalism she’d ever heard her father say, whether it applied to the situation or not.

    So, of course, Gladly stopped me.

    “Taylor, before you go, can I have a word?”

    Sure. How about ‘incompetent’ or ‘counterproductive’? But I didn’t say what I was thinking. “Sure. What’s up?”

    He assumed what was probably intended to be his ‘concerned adult talking to troubled student’ expression. It made him look like he’d just realised he’d left his oven on. “I can see you’ve been having problems, Taylor.”

    Really? What gave you the hint? My locker being trashed and then exploding, or me walking into class with a recording device I could use to beat Inago to death with?

    I took a breath to chase away the things I wanted to say. “I’m glad you’ve finally noticed. What do you intend to do about it?”

    My response, probably a little sharper than I’d really intended, put him on the back foot. “I, ah, well, if you wanted to come to the office and supply a list—”

    I cut him off with a sharp chop with my free hand through the air. “Already done. Now, if you wanted to supply a list of your own to Principal Blackwell, I’m sure it would be well received. But right now, this little impromptu meeting is cutting into my lunch schedule. Was there anything else?”

    “I … no, Taylor. That will be all. You can go now.”

    I wasn’t sure if he’d said that last part to me or for his own benefit, because I was already halfway to the door. Then I stopped and turned. “Oh, there is one thing you can do for me.”

    “Yes?” I hadn’t addressed him as either ‘Mr Gladly’ or even the ‘Mr G’ he preferred, but he turned back toward me, ‘cool teacher’ mode ready to roll.

    “If you see me, or any other unpopular kid really, being bullied … fucking do something, instead of asking them if they want to go to the office and name names. You’re the adult here. You’re the teacher. It’s your responsibility. Live up to it.” Shutting my mouth before I could yell at him anymore, I turned and headed for the door.

    “Taylor,” he said to my back. I ignored him. He tried again. “Taylor!” I stepped out the door and left the classroom behind.

    He didn’t call out again. Which, all things considered, was probably a wise move. I was in just the right mood to rip him a couple more brand-new assholes if he kept getting in my face.

    Fuming, I headed off down the corridor toward the cafeteria. Maybe there was still time to line up and get something to eat before shit went down, but I doubted it.

    A group of people blocked my way.

    Called it.

    Emma stepped to the forefront. “Hello, Taylor.” Her voice was deadly sweet. “I haven’t seen you around school, the last couple of days.”

    The words were undoubtedly supposed to put me on edge, awaken terror in me. All I could think of was how I’d faced far worse than her in the last forty-eight hours.

    Inhaling deeply through my nostrils, I fancied I could smell smoke, way back up in my sinuses. My eyes slitted as I looked at her. Not as prey, but as a predator.

    Let’s do this.



    End of Part Fifteen
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2020
  17. Threadmarks: Part Sixteen: That Went Places
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Sixteen: That Went Places

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



    As satisfying as it would have been to smack Emma around the head with the Decoy, I managed to refrain from doing just that. Neither did I allow myself to wallow in my anger at the three bullies. That way led to the possibility of an involuntary Change, thus outing myself to not only the three people I least wanted to know my deepest secrets, but also a good chunk of Winslow’s students. This would almost certainly lead to potential ‘recruitment’ attempts by one gang or another, with Dad in danger as a result. Precisely the situation I’d been trying to avoid since I first became the wyvern. No thanks.

    So instead I kept my face blank of all emotion and turned the Decoy so they could see the stickers emblazoned on it. “Hello, Emma. Hello, Sophia. Madison, you already know this, but the others don’t. You’re currently being recorded.”

    Emma, predictably, opened her mouth. “I don’t—”

    Normally, I would’ve let her dominate the conversation. This time, I didn’t give a shit, so I raised my voice over hers and kept talking. “Yes, I get it. You don’t consent to being recorded. That doesn’t actually change matters. You’ve been informed. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get to the cafeteria before the mystery meat is all gone.”

    Of course, Emma couldn’t let it go. “Seriously, Taylor, you’re breaking the law so badly there. Do you really want to be arrested? My father—”

    I couldn’t help but laugh in her face. It was too funny. “Emma, your father has boasted about how he can make or break a divorce case on recordings that were taken without the other partner’s knowledge. So, don’t tell me about breaking the law. Now, as I said, I’m going to the cafeteria. You can follow along if you like, but whatever you say to me will be recorded.”

    “Illegal recording is a felony,” Emma stated brightly, and a little too loudly, probably to ensure her voice made it to the microphone. “If Taylor’s committing a felony, we can perform a citizen’s arrest and confiscate it.”

    Huh. So that’s their angle. I shook my head. Carol Dallon had briefed me on this one. That didn’t count if the person recording was party to the conversation; then it was only a misdemeanour. Citizen’s arrests couldn’t be performed for a misdemeanour. “No, it’s—”

    I didn’t get past two words into the sentence, because Sophia glided in and unloaded a powerful blow into my solar plexus. If I’d been holding the Decoy two inches lower, she would’ve hit that instead, but as it was I felt every molecule of air rush out of my lungs. As if they’d rehearsed it (and who knew? They may have) Emma and Madison stepped in and took my arms. Not to hold me up, but to pry my fingers from the Decoy. I tried to protest, but right then I couldn’t make any noise past a pained, breathless squeak.

    “What’s that, Taylor? Can’t think of what to say? Oh, well, you’re a boring conversationalist anyway.” Emma smiled at me as she dug her nails into my wrists to make me let go. I tried to hold on, but with three on one, Sophia wrenching at it as well, it was a losing battle.

    Besides, it was taking all my effort not letting the wyvern rise to the top. For the first time I could feel it, just under the surface, bubbling with rage. It was almost like a separate entity or another personality, one that would quite happily burn the school to the ground.

    I was more or less in agreement with it at this point in time, but I had another agenda.

    My fingers lost their grip on the Decoy and the girls pushed me against the wall and stepped back. Emma waved it tauntingly in front of me. “You deserve to lose this,” she said. “You deserve to lose everything.” Then they ran off down the corridor, laughing.

    I stayed where I was, half slumped against the wall, until I could breathe properly again. It was entirely possible that I could’ve recovered a lot more quickly if I’d allowed myself to give in to the Change, but that wasn’t the plan. The deeper I allowed Emma and the others to dig themselves into the hole, the better.

    A couple of minutes passed before I was able to push myself to my feet. My stomach still hurt, but that would pass. I looked at my hands, where Emma and Madison had gouged at my sensitive points to force me to let go of the Decoy. The marks were nice and red, which was good. I wasn’t sure if I’d have a bruise from Sophia’s punch, but it was always worth a shot. Briefly, I thought of getting a can of soda from the vending machine to hold against my stomach and ease the soreness, but I decided against it. I could hack it.

    As part of the plan, I headed for Principal Blackwell’s office. As another part of it, I pulled out the cell-phone Dad had bought for me and dialled his number.

    “Hello?”

    He would, I knew, be recording. An ordinary hand-held tape recorder, this time.

    “Dad, it’s me. Can you come to the school, please?” I put a quaver in my voice.

    “Taylor? What’s up? What happened?” I had to admit, his ‘concerned parent’ voice was spot-on.

    “I was attacked. Three girls stole my recorder. It’s the bullies that have been doing it all the time, Dad. They aren’t going to stop. They’re never going to stop.” I didn’t go so far as to pretend to sob—those sound horribly fake to me, even when they’re not—but I let the quaver continue.

    “Goddamn it. I’m on the way. Are you hurt? Did they hurt you?”

    “Uh huh. I’m okay, but they punched me in the stomach and scratched up my hands trying to make me let go of the recorder. Dad, can you come here quick please?”

    “I’ll be there soon. You just hang tight.”

    “Okay, Dad.”

    We ended the call, and I found an out of the way place near the main entrance to sit and wait. In scripting this scenario, we’d considered having me go to Principal Blackwell so I could have a rejection under my belt before Dad arrived, but Carol had rejected the idea on the grounds that it added too many random factors. Besides, Dad wanted a recording of the second meeting. Every little bit of supporting evidence helped.

    When he arrived, I got up and showed him my hands. He frowned as he looked them over, and carefully took photos, front and back, with his phone. This wouldn’t mean much on its own—after all, I could’ve done it myself—but it would add up with the rest.

    We agreed that my potentially bruised stomach could be left for a medical professional to examine. Then I pulled out the other electronic item that Carol Dallon had given me, and checked it. It was getting a nice strong signal, which was good. We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off in Arcadia, with the Faraday cages around the buildings.

    Of course, in Arcadia, we wouldn’t have had to pull this off at all.

    Blackwell’s secretary looked up with surprise as Dad stomped into the front office, jaw set and head down like a bull. “Where is she?” he demanded. “This is the last goddamn straw!” He was doing all but snorting steam and pawing at the ground. I wasn’t entirely sure it was an act.

    “Oh, ah,” she said. “You’re back. Why are you back?”

    “Because my daughter was attacked in your goddamn school, and three of your students stole the device she was carrying to make it harder to bully her!” he yelled. “You’re really, really not improving my view of your school here. Just saying.” He held up his hand-held tape recorder, showing that the reels were winding slowly over. “I’m recording this, by the way. It seems to be the only way to get things done around here.”

    “They, uh, said they were confiscating it because I was committing a crime with it,” I ventured. “Has it been handed in?” I knew it hadn’t, but this was yet more evidence.

    The secretary stood up. “I’ll just go and—”

    Principal Blackwell opened her door and stared at us. “You, again,” she snapped. “What is the meaning of this? Why are you creating a disturbance in my front office?”

    I took a deep breath. “I was cornered after World Affairs class by Emma Barnes, Madison Clements and Sophia Hess. Sophia punched me in the stomach, then the other two ripped the recording device from my hands, after I informed them that they were being recorded. Then Emma said something very hurtful and they ran off laughing. They also said something about a citizen’s arrest and confiscating it for committing a felony, but they haven’t handed it in yet, have they?”

    “Well, I’d have to check—” Blackwell made a motion toward her office.

    “Don’t bother,” Dad said briskly. “I’ve already called the police. They should be here in about five minutes.”

    Blackwell stared at him. “The police? Why?”

    He put the tape recorder on the desk and ticked off points on his fingers. “Because one, my daughter was assaulted and robbed and neither one of you has yet to show even the slightest sign of concern for her well-being or the property that was stolen. Two, I want the people who did this to actually pay for their crimes, not take a gentle slap on the wrist as a suggestion not to do it again. Three, I don’t trust you one inch where it comes to doing anything for Taylor that you aren’t being forced at gunpoint to do.” He raised his eyebrows in Blackwell’s general direction. “Have you even looked at the list of their crimes so far? It’s pretty extensive. You might want to get to it.”

    “I was going to do it tonight,” she gritted. “As you may have noticed, it’s not a small document.”

    “I know,” I replied flatly. “I compiled it. Remember?”

    As a verbal gut-punch, it went across pretty well. Blackwell deflated somewhat and retreated into her office, mumbling something about writing up an incident report. Dad and I waited in the outer office, much to the secretary’s discomfort.

    About seven minutes later, the police showed up. Far from the single officer I’d expected, there were four of them, all in body armour. Winslow, I realised belatedly, had something of a reputation. I sat meekly in the background as they spoke to Dad, then the sergeant—it was only when she spoke that I realised she was a woman, so bulky was her armour—asked to see my hands. She examined them and took more photos, then wrote down my statement.

    “And you’d be willing to testify in court to all this?” the sergeant—her name was Gainsford—asked for about the third time.

    I nodded. “Absolutely. These three and their hangers-on have been making my life hell for the last year. If you think I’m worried about repercussions, that’s not a thing. They already blew up my locker. What are they going to do, blow it up again with me inside it?”

    “Oh, it was your locker that blew up?” She raised her eyebrows. “I heard about that. I also heard …” She stopped talking. “Sorry. Never mind. I just wanted to make sure you were okay with testifying. We have enough hoops to jump through with minors giving evidence that I wanted to make sure from the start.”

    “Oh, that’s totally okay,” I assured her. “So, can we go and find my stolen property now? I mean, if one of them has it on them, that will really make this thing open and shut, right?”

    One of the other officers must have overheard me, because he cleared his throat. “Uh, kid, this isn’t the movies. We’re not gonna be able to find it in half an hour. I mean—”

    Sergeant Gainsford waved him away. “Ignore him. The trouble here, Miss Hebert, is that Winslow is a really big school and something like your recorder isn’t that big. We’d need to get warrants to search anywhere that’s not a trash receptacle or a public area.”

    “What about Emma, Sophia and Madison?” I asked. “What if one of them’s got it in her bag?”

    “Well, if it’s the size you say it is, we can do a feel check on the outside of the bag and if we have a reasonable suspicion that it’s in there we can then have them empty the bag,” she said carefully. “I doubt they could conceal it on their persons, which dodges a huge bullet about searching minors.” She mimed wiping sweat off her brow for my benefit, and I smiled slightly.

    “I can have them called to the office,” Principal Blackwell said hopefully. “This should clear the whole thing up.”

    “Not a good idea,” said Dad. “It would be the easiest thing in the world for them to dump it on the way. We want to catch them red-handed.” He smirked at that, as did I.

    Sergeant Gainsford looked at me, then at him. “I’m missing something. What am I missing?”

    I pulled the remote out of my back pocket. “Well, for one thing, what they took is a decoy, a remote microphone. The real recorder's right here. Also, it's got a tracking beacon which works like so.” Pressing the appropriate button, I brought up the status light (still glowing green for ‘operational’) and a compass-like needle. “Shall we?”

    “Oh, definitely,” Gainsford said with a smirk of her own. "Lead on."

    <><>​

    Class had gone back in by the time we set out. Principal Blackwell came with us, while one of the officers remained with the secretary. In the meantime, the secretary had been tasked with calling the parents of each of the three girls and asking them to come to the school as soon as possible. I personally was not a fan of giving them a chance to give their kids a parental heads-up, but I wasn’t in charge of that detail.

    As we headed down the corridor, I still had the remote, but I was flanked on one side by Sergeant Gainsford and on the other by a guy called Callan. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist.

    Gainsford, however, was. “So this whole thing’s a sting operation? Where’d you get all this tech from?”

    “Carol Dallon,” Dad supplied. “Taylor knows her kids.”

    “You mean Brandish.” Gainsford looked at me with raised eyebrows. “You’re besties with Glory Girl and Panacea?”

    “Vicky and Amy,” I corrected her. “I’m hardly the type to put on a cape and go flying off to stop a bank robbery. And Mrs Dallon is a lawyer too, remember. She uses this sort of thing to make people entrap themselves. According to her, it’s amazing what people will admit to if they think it’ll never get back to them.”

    “Ah.” Sergeant Gainsford nodded sagely. “Legally obtained recordings are hell to get hold of, but so worth it. And juries love video evidence.”

    “Tell me about it.” I rolled my eyes. “The number of people who’ve told me just today that they don’t consent to being recorded was amazing.” I glanced at the remote. “And it looks like we’re here.”

    ‘Here’ was a locker, one among dozens of others. I waved the remote back and forth several times, and it stubbornly pointed to the metal door. “It’s in there.”

    “Whose locker is that?” asked Gainsford, looking at Principal Blackwell.

    “Uh … I’m not sure.” There were beads of sweat on her forehead, and her eyes were flickering everywhere as if seeking an escape route. She knew damn well whose locker it was.

    Gainsford keyed her epaulette microphone. “Gainsford to Henderson, come in?”

    A moment later, the officer who had been left to watch the office replied. “This is Henderson, any problems?”

    “Not yet, but I need you to find out who’s using locker number two six five seven. That's two six five seven.”

    There was a long pause. Blackwell sweated some more. Henderson came back on the line. “Two six five seven, please confirm.”

    Gainsford rechecked the number stamped into the metal. “Yes, that's right.”

    “Okay, it's owned by one Sophia Hess.” He paused. “Wait, is that …

    I barely refrained from performing a high-five with Dad but if the look in his eye was anything like mine, we didn’t need to.

    We had her.

    Callan stepped forward and rattled the handle on the locker, then he tugged on the padlock. “Locked,” he reported unnecessarily. “We have direct indication that there is stolen property in that locker.” He reached into his belt—he had everything on that belt; I wanted one for my costume—and produced what looked like a short metal bar. “I figure I can get the padlock off with this.”

    Gainsford shook her head. “Let’s do this by the book.” She keyed her radio again. “Henderson. Instruct the secretary to call Sophia Hess to her locker immediately.”

    “Ten-four. Sophia Hess to report to her locker.”

    A moment later, the aged PA system crackled to life. The secretary’s voice came across with the precise instructions that Gainsford had given, then lapsed into silence once more. We looked at each other.

    “Think she’ll run?” ventured the fourth officer, a man called Peterson. He sounded supremely uninterested, as if watching an uninspiring crime drama on TV.

    Callan shook his head. “Doubt it. That sort of person, been getting away with this for so long? Chances are, she thinks she’s untouchable. I’ve seen it a dozen times before.”

    I caught Gainsford’s eye and gestured with the remote. “Uh, there's one more thing I forgot to mention.”

    “I’m listening.” I got the impression she really was.

    “The other end of this has a UV lamp.” I switched ends and showed her how to turn it on. “We sprayed the Decoy with a non-toxic UV-reactant dye before I came to school.” Pointing it at my own hand, I showed her how my fingers glowed.

    She caught on fast. “So it’ll be all over the lock and her hands, if she handled it. You really wanted to catch her at it, didn’t you?”

    I shrugged and handed the remote over. “Well, wouldn’t you?”

    “True.” She took the remote and pressed the button to activate the lamp. Bright fingermarks clearly showed up on the padlock and hasp, and on the edge of the door. “Well, well. That’s interesting. Callan?”

    “Getting photos now,” Callan reported, carefully aiming his phone. “Pretty tricky, kid.”

    “I’d love to say it was my idea, but it really wasn’t.” I shrugged. “Mrs Dallon’s been doing this for awhile, I guess.”

    “That she has.” Gainsford looked around and shut off the UV light. “Hello. You’d be Sophia Hess?”

    Sophia approached, eyeing the police with extreme suspicion. “Who wants to know?” She shot a side-glance at me, which I returned innocently.

    “Sergeant Gainsford,” the police officer replied, holding out a card with her name on it. I already had an identical one. “Are you Sophia Hess, and is this your locker? The school says it is. We’d just like confirmation.”

    Reluctantly, Sophia nodded. “I’m Sophia Hess. That’s my locker. What sort of bullshit story has Hebert been telling you? Because she’s been trying to make trouble for me for the last year, all because her best friend likes me better now.” She snorted in derision.

    “This best friend would be Emma Barnes?” I had to hand it to Sergeant Gainsford, she could make a leading question sound utterly harmless. Just the facts, ma’am.

    Sophia shot me another suspicious look. “Yeah, that’s her. Her dad’s a lawyer. What do you want with my locker, anyway?”

    “Well, we have reason to believe there might be stolen goods in there. Also, may I see your hands, Miss Hess?”

    Now she looked downright paranoid. “My hands? What for?”

    Gainsford closed for the kill. “The stolen item had been coated with a UV-sensitive dye. Whoever stole it opened this locker. This is your locker. May I see your hands, please?” Her voice became harder, more commanding as she spoke.

    Sophia put her hands behind her back. “I don’t have to show you—”

    Dad pulled me back out of the way as both Callan and Peterson pulled their sidearms and aimed them at Sophia from a distance of five feet.

    “Show us your hands!” shouted Callan. “Now-now-now!”

    “Slowly!” warned Peterson.

    Blackwell let out a little shriek and I nearly screamed myself as my heart rate suddenly tripled, or so it felt. Would they actually shoot Sophia over something like this? I didn’t like her, but I didn’t want to see her dead either.

    “Hands,” repeated Sergeant Gainsford. “Slowly.”

    With exaggerated care, Sophia brought her hands around in front of her again. They were empty but, as Gainsford shone the UV light on them, they glowed brightly.

    “Okay,” I said. “That’s proof she handled it.”

    “It is indeed.” Gainsford nodded at the locker. “Miss Hess, open that, right now.”

    Even looking a little shaken, as I was willing to admit she had a right to be, Sophia was still a hardass. “You got a warrant for that?” she asked.

    Callan put his pistol away. Peterson didn’t, but he lowered it to point at the floor when Gainsford gestured to him. She turned to Sophia. “The stolen item has an electronic tracker in it. Miss Hebert?”

    I held up the remote, activated the tracker, and waved it around. The needle remained pointing steadfastly at the locker. “It’s in there,” I said.

    “Which is all the reason you need to open your locker right now, Miss Hess,” Gainsford said. Her tone hardened. “Or you can refuse, we can put you under arrest, and we break the lock. Your choice.”

    “Fine,” she muttered. “But when you see there’s nothing in there, I’m gonna laugh my head off when Emma’s dad sues your department and Hebert’s dad, for pulling this shit on me.” Leaning over the lock, she fiddled it for a moment, then opened it. Swinging the door wide open, she stepped back. “Read it and weep, assholes.”

    I looked into the locker, along with everyone else. The hanging space, with a few sports shirts. Shoes and other paraphernalia in the bottom. On the other side, shelves, but nothing stuffed so deeply that the contents could hide the Decoy.

    It wasn’t there. I began to have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The locator had brought me directly to this location. How could this be? It was Sophia’s locker.

    Callan leaned in, a small but powerful flashlight illuminating all the way to the back of each shelf. “I can’t see it.” He knelt down, bringing his face up close to each one, nudging items aside with the metal bar from before. “How big was it again?”

    “Six inches by four by two,” Dad recited automatically. “Bright yellow. Reflective stickers all over it. It should be lighting up the inside of that locker like a disco ball.”

    “Wait a second.” Gainsford looked at the remote, showing a steady bearing toward the locker. “Turn that thing sideways.”

    “What, like this?” I brought it around ninety degrees, to point at her. The needle still pointed at the locker.

    “No, no, give it to me.” She snapped her fingers and gestured.

    I handed it over willingly enough. “What have you thought of?”

    “This.” She pointed it at the locker then rotated her wrist so the remote was on its side. The needle angled upward slightly, so she lifted it until it was level with the top, largest, shelf space. Also, mainly empty. A few small items, deodorant and other toiletries. Certainly nothing big enough to conceal the Decoy.

    “I still can’t see it,” I said doubtfully. Is it invisible somehow?

    “Me neither.” She turned the remote around. “Let’s see if this gets anything.” The light clicked on, and a faint glowing rectangle sprang into existence on the back wall.

    I stared at it. Six inches by four. “Do you see that?”

    “I do.” She swapped ends on the remote once more. “Signal’s definitely coming from there.” A frown creased her brow. With her gloved fingers, she prodded the glowing area. Metal flexed slightly, but held strong when she pushed harder. “What’s going on here?”

    “Wait, wait, what if it’s behind the locker?” I asked. “Some kind of secret hatch? She rested it against the back wall for a second which made the imprint, opened the hatch, and put it back there?” It sounded thin to me, but it was the best explanation I could think of that fit the facts.

    “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I heard about something like that.” Gainsford turned to Sophia. “How about it, Hess? Want to get yourself some leniency by coming clean and opening the hatch? Because there’s no way on God’s green Earth that you set this up just for that one thing. We’re getting behind there and accessing your stash one way or another, and whatever it is, you’re going down for it. So, make it easy on yourself. Cooperate now and I’ll have my captain put in a good word with the juvey court. Reduce your sentence.”

    Right then we were lucky that Sophia wasn’t some sort of laser-vision cape because if she was, we would’ve been dead on the instant. She gave me and Dad a searing glare, then turned to Gainsford. “Need to talk to you, privately,” she said. “You and me. Nobody else.”

    “What about?” Gainsford raised her eyebrows.

    “What’s behind that locker. Trust me, you want to hear what I have to say before you open this can of fucking worms.” Sophia tilted her head, indicating a spot a ways down the corridor.

    Gainsford looked at her, then at the locker. “Figure out how to get it off the wall, but don’t actually do it. I’ll be back in a moment.”

    She handed me the remote back, and I watched as she headed off down the corridor with Sophia. Peterson also kept an eye on her. I noticed his firearm was still in his hand, aimed at the ground rather than holstered or pointing downrange. His finger was outside the trigger guard, but that could change in an instant.

    “What do you think that’s about?” asked Dad quietly.

    “Not a clue,” I responded just as softly. “Some sort of bullshit story about how I’m always bullying Emma or something, I bet.”

    “From what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised.” I looked around to keep from staring at Sophia and Sergeant Gainsford—now would be a great time to know how to read lips—and spotted movement at the other end of the corridor. Very familiar looking red hair, even. Emma. “Shit.”

    “What?” Dad looked up the corridor as well, but Emma had ducked back around the corner. “I don’t see anything.”

    “I’m pretty sure I just saw Emma,” I said. “I’m going to go see what she’s up to.”

    We’re going to see,” he corrected me. “There’s no way I’m letting you wander off on your own.”

    I didn’t argue with him, and we headed up the corridor. As we got close to the corner, I heard Emma’s voice in an intense whisper. “Dad, shut up and listen! There are cops at Winslow, and it looks like someone’s trying to frame Sophia for something! You need to call the PRT and—”

    PRT? What the fuck? This was getting weirder by the second.

    Just then, Emma stuck her head around the corner, more or less right in front of us. She let out a little shriek and nearly dropped the phone; in the smoothest move I ever saw, Dad reached out and plucked it out of her hand.

    “Alan?” he said conversationally. “Yeah, hi, it’s Danny. Yeah, I’m at Winslow with Taylor. Yeah, we called the cops on Sophia because she helped Emma and that friend of hers? Madison? Yeah, her. Well, they ganged up on Taylor and beat her up because she had the absolute gall to bring a recording device to school because people were bullying her. I mean, how unfair is that? It’s like she doesn’t actually want them to bully her or something.”

    Emma made a grab for the phone at this point, but his arms were about a mile longer than hers and he fended her off easily.

    “So hey, I couldn’t help but overhear Emma telling you to call the PRT about Sophia. What I’m curious about is why. What possible interest could the PRT have in an ordinary high school student? Actually, I’ll tell you what. I’m just going to go back down the corridor to where the nice officers are investigating Sophia’s locker, and I’ll give the phone to one of them, so you can explain to them why Emma was trying to use you and the PRT to circumvent their investigation. That okay with you? Excellent.”

    He held the phone up over his head where Emma had zero chance of reaching it, and started back down toward the police officers. Faintly, I could hear the tinny sounds of Alan Barnes babbling questions, but Dad wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. Farther down, I saw Sergeant Gainsford returning with Sophia, her brow furrowed with some kind of problem. From what I’d just heard, I thought I could make an educated guess, but I had another fish to fry first. Emma was still making futile jumps to grab her phone, and I stepped up alongside her. As she held her hands up, I shone the UV light on them. They glowed brightly, of course.

    “What was that?” she yelped. “What did you do?”

    “UV light,” I explained cheerfully. “That thing you stole from me? Coated in UV dye. It’s gonna take a couple of days to wear off. The inside of my bag’s gonna be glowing like that forever. Proves you helped steal it. I bet Madison’s hands are the same as yours.”

    She stared at me, then at her hands, then shoved them under her armpits. “You can’t shine that at me without my permission!” she declared. “That’s illegal search and seizure!”

    “No, actually, it isn’t,” Sergeant Gainsford corrected her as we got back to the group. She nodded at Emma’s hands. “Got the dye on them?”

    “She could help planes land at the airport,” I confirmed.

    “So, introductions,” Dad observed. “This phone belongs to Emma Barnes, this young lady. Looks like she sneaked out of class to come see what was happening. Then she called her father, Alan Barnes, and told him to contact the PRT about something. Does anyone want to talk to him about that?”

    “Absolutely.” Gainsford took the phone and held it to her ear. “Good afternoon. Sergeant Gainsford, Brockton Bay Police Department. Am I talking to Alan Barnes? Oh, good. If you could just help me clear some things up …” She wandered away, still talking.

    I had to admit, this was getting to be a lot more exciting than I’d expected. Sophia was glaring at me—well, that part was quite familiar, to the point that I could look back at her without much in the way of worry. It gave me time to think.

    Sophia was athletic as hell. The star of the Winslow track team, she was a minor celebrity within Winslow. It didn’t hurt that she was also friends with Emma and Madison, the most popular girls in my class (and who held a certain amount of influence with the freshmen as well). She was also a sadistic bully who enjoyed inflicting pain, and looked at me with a level of disdain that I had trouble understanding. It wasn’t like I’d ever done anything to her.

    So was the situation what I thought it was, or was I totally on the wrong path? If I was right …

    I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be right.

    “What are you looking at, twerp?” she snapped. “Take a photo, it’ll last longer.”

    “Huh,” said Callan. “That’s how.”

    “What’s how?” asked Peterson.

    “The bolts holding the locker to the wall. Someone unscrewed the nuts then screwed them back on. The paint on them’s all scuffed. I figure I can get this off pretty easy with the right socket set.”

    “I got a multitool with a crescent wrench on it,” Peterson offered.

    “You really don’t want to do that,” Sophia warned. She nodded toward where Sergeant Gainsford was still talking on Emma’s phone. “You watch. She’ll come back and tell you to leave it all alone.”

    “It’s really not on you to make that call, miss,” Callan said bluntly. He held out his hand and Peterson slapped a frankly impressive multitool into it. “Yeah, this’ll definitely do the job.”

    “Whatever this is about,” Emma said, “Taylor’s lying. She always lies about stuff, trying to get me or Sophia or Madison into trouble.”

    “Well, so far, miss, everything she’s said has panned out.” Callan loomed over Emma and she shrank back. “I’ve got to ask, why are you out of class right now?”

    Emma’s mouth worked as she tried to generate what was likely to be a phenomenal lie, but some level of self-preservation kicked in, possibly because she didn’t know for a fact what I’d told the police. Or, likely more important, what Sophia had told them. Truly, it was an unfair world when she had no idea what lies she should tell next. I almost felt sorry for her.

    Well, almost.

    Just as I was about to say something, Dad nudged me and shook his head. A moment later I got it; Officer Callan knew damn well what was going on but was trying to get her to admit it herself. Belatedly, Emma seemed to realise this, and shook her head. “My Dad says I shouldn’t talk to police when he’s not there.”

    “It’s a simple question, Miss Barnes.” Callan had a fairly good fatherly tone of voice. “You’re supposed to be in class. Why aren’t you?” He raised his eyebrows. “You do know that interfering in a police investigation is a crime, right?”

    “I-I needed to go to the bathroom,” she blurted. “Then I heard voices, so I came to see what was happening.”

    “Hmm.” He looked at her and then at the locker. “Do you know Miss Hess, here?”

    The two girls glanced at each other, then at Callan. Finally, Emma looked at Officer Peterson. “Can you make him put his gun away? He’s making me feel nervous, holding it like that.”

    Callan’s mouth twitched. We could both see the obvious power play for what it was, but he nodded to Peterson anyway. The pistol went back into its holster. “Answer the question, please. Do you two girls know each other? Are you friends?”

    Cautiously, Emma nodded. If she’d tried any other tack, I would’ve called her a liar to her face. More to the point, Sophia was right there. “We’re friends, yes.”

    “Good, good.” He made a note in the pad he was holding. “So, do you have any idea why she might have hollowed out a space behind her locker, and how to get into it?”

    “She hasn’t got any space hollowed out behind her locker!” Emma’s tone was strong and confident, and if I hadn’t seen the locator signal myself, I would’ve believed her. “Why do you think that? Did Taylor tell you? She’s always lying about us, trying to get us in trouble.”

    Once again, I wanted to speak, to rebut her, but Dad nudged me and I stayed silent. Emma hadn’t dug her own grave yet, but she was definitely playing with the shovel.

    “Ah, whose phone was this again?” asked Sergeant Gainsford, rejoining the group. “Mr Hebert, didn’t you say it belonged to Miss Barnes?”

    Dad nodded. “I did, yes.”

    “He stole it!” Emma exclaimed, finally spotting a way to get us in trouble. “I was talking to my dad and he stole it!”

    “And promptly handed it over to me,” Sergeant Gainsford reminded her.

    “But theft is still a crime!” Emma was on a roll now. “I want you to arrest him for that!”

    Sergeant Gainsford clearly restrained herself from sighing. “Miss Barnes, theft is the act of taking something with the express intent of permanently depriving the owner of its use. He handed it straight to me, identifying it as yours. It is now back in your possession. You can have him charged with theft, but it wouldn’t even make it to court. Now, you’re absolutely certain you have no knowledge of any empty space behind your friend Sophia’s locker?”

    “If Taylor says there’s an empty space behind Sophia’s locker, then Taylor’s lying,” Emma said boldly, but avoided Dad’s eye as she spoke. I was reluctantly impressed; faced with authority figures as well as my father, she was setting her course and sticking to it. It was a given that she would no longer be able to pretend to her parents that she was still friends with me, and she was owning that.

    For Dad’s part, the look on his face showed that he was finally starting to assimilate the new truth in his life, that Emma had chosen to reject me altogether in favour of Sophia. From the tic in his jaw, I could see that he was doing his best to hold his anger in now that he was incontrovertibly faced with it, but it can’t have been easy. Emma and I had been best friends for a good twelve years, and then she’d chosen to throw it all away for no reason either of us could see.

    Sergeant Gainsford made a note on her own pad, then turned to Sophia. “Principal Blackwell knows?” She didn’t say what it was that Blackwell was supposed to know.

    “Yeah, she knows.” Sophia didn’t ask.

    “I see. Well, we’re still going to look.” Gainsford turned to Callan. “Undo the nuts and help me move the locker.”

    “But you can’t!” For the first time, I saw actual alarm on Sophia’s face. “At least wait for the—” She paused and leaned in close. We all heard her whisper anyway. “For the PRT.

    “The PRT has no jurisdiction over a simple case of theft, and I’m sure Principal Blackwell is interested in finding out exactly what is being stashed behind one of her lockers,” Sergeant Gainsford said firmly. She raised her eyebrows. “Unless you’re trying to tell me a cape’s involved? A supervillain?”

    By now, I was definitely sure a cape was involved. Unless I was totally barking up the wrong tree, in the wrong forest even, Sophia was a cape, and there was something behind her locker that would out her. Which cape she was, that was more of a puzzler. I couldn’t see her as a hero, and the largest villain gang in Brockton Bay consisted of white supremacist neo-Nazis, so she wasn’t Rune or Purity.

    (Though it would’ve been hilarious for them to find out after all this time that Purity was actually black, I’m not gonna lie).

    I knew she couldn’t be a member of the Merchants, mainly because she was a good athlete. That sort of thing doesn’t mix well with recreational drug use.

    (Maybe she should’ve started. It might have mellowed her out).

    The only other gang I could think of was the ABB. I was about to nix them too, given that all of the gang’s cape members were male, but then I had a second thought. Inago was Inago. She couldn’t pass for him without Hollywood levels of makeup (also, she had both arms). But Oni Lee … nobody had ever seen his face, had they? What if he wasn’t Asian behind that mask? What if he wasn’t even male behind it? She was athletic, he was athletic. She was a vindictive bitch, he was a teleporting serial suicide bomber.

    The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Though what didn’t make sense was why Sophia was insisting that the PRT be present. Maybe she wanted to surrender to them? I didn’t get it.

    While Sophia tried to argue with Gainsford and Blackwell looked on with what seemed to be paralysed apathy, Officer Callan worked away on the nuts holding the locker to the wall. Eventually, he finished the last one and stood up, dusting himself off.

    That was about the time Alan Barnes came striding in, accompanied by a contingent of PRT troopers and none other than Miss Militia. Her weapon of the moment happened to be an elaborate compound bow, which she held with competent ease.

    (Her action figures sold more weapon accessories than any Tinker in the Protectorate. Just saying).

    I wondered where Armsmaster was. His absence suggested to me that whatever plan he’d cooked up, he hadn’t cleared it with his superiors, so he wasn’t automatically assigned to the case. And a call regarding Sophia Hess might not have pinged his radar, where a call about an enraged wyvern destroying the school would have.

    “Okay, what’s going on here?” asked Miss Militia, singling out Sergeant Gainsford by way of some kind of officer radar.

    “She—” began Sophia.

    Miss Militia waved her away. “Miss, you will have to wait until I have spoken to the police officer on site.” Leaving Sophia fuming, she walked a few steps away and they had a quiet conversation. In the meantime, the four PRT troopers (two holding foam sprayers) merely stood there and loomed at us. They were fairly effective at it. Callan and Peterson tried to look professional in return, in a kind of silent dick-measuring contest. They were outclassed, but they did their best anyway.

    I glanced at Dad and he shrugged. Neither of us had any idea how this would turn out, but it was getting more and more complicated by the second. And I still had no idea who Sophia was as a cape, unless she really was Oni Lee. Baggy clothes were easy to hide a gender identity under, after all.

    “Danny.” Alan Barnes didn’t look happy.

    “Alan.” Dad looked even less so.

    “What’s going on? Why is Taylor accusing Emma of bullying her?”

    Dad gave him a level stare. “Maybe because she is.”

    Mr Barnes shook his head. “I have trouble believing that.”

    “Believe what you want.” Dad turned his back on his old friend.

    “Well, then.” Miss Militia had returned. “We have a case of theft, and the stolen item traced to this locker. Specifically, a space in the wall behind this locker.” She looked at Sophia. “I understand this locker belongs to you, miss?”

    Sophia nodded. It wasn’t like she could deny it now. “Yeah, but I need to talk to you.”

    Miss Militia exhaled through her nose, as if to say, ‘You’re not doing your secret identity any favours,’ but she nodded. “We can talk.”

    So then they went and had a quiet chat. Or rather, Miss Militia was quiet, while Sophia became more and more animated. She kept her voice down, though I heard the occasional word. Nothing that made sense, unfortunately.

    Finally, I’d had enough. All this dancing around was getting up my nose. “Seriously?” I asked out loud. “Is everyone going to just keep ignoring the elephant in the room? Is that what we’re going to do?”

    Everyone looked at me. Dad nudged me again, but I ignored him. The wyvern was getting more and more pissed off, and I got the impression that if I didn’t do something, it would. Miss Militia’s expression was hard to read from just her eyes, but Sophia’s was outright rage. The wyvern had her beat, though.

    “Taylor, I think—” began Mr Barnes.

    “No!” I snapped. “It’s past time for thinking! Thinking got us into this. Me thinking that Emma might still be my friend again someday. Emma thinking that she can get away with anything. Sophia thinking that she can hide whatever’s behind that damn locker. Everyone thinking that they’re the only one who knows Sophia’s a cape. We all know it. Just admit it. Now can someone move the locker so we can prove that Sophia stole my property? That way, we can arrest her and Emma and Madison, and I can get on with my goddamn day.”

    Silence fell after my little outburst. Everyone looked uncomfortably at each other. Then Sergeant Gainsford pointed at the locker. “Callan, Peterson. Move the damn locker.”

    “Sergeant, there’s still—” began Miss Militia.

    “We’ll all sign NDAs,” Gainsford interrupted. “We’ve wasted far too much time catering to the wishes and desires of a teenage delinquent who may or may not be a member of the Wards for me to give a shit anymore. Move the damn locker.”

    “Sergeant,” responded Callan, and he and Peterson took hold of the shelves. A bit at a time, they edged the metal box out from between the lockers on either side.

    At the same time, I was re-evaluating my entire thought process. Sophia wasn’t Oni Lee. She was a Ward. Holy shit, it all made sense now. This was why she wanted the PRT in on it, to cover up for her. How long had she been a hero? Which one was she? Frantically, I tried to go through the roster in my mind, but I kept hitting blanks. Vista? No, she was too young, and too white. Maybe Clockblocker? Nobody could see his face, after all. No, Sophia was too, uh, feminine to fit into that costume. Dammit, who else is in the Wards?

    Finally, the locker scraped free and was pulled to one side, and I leaned over to look. Sophia tried to dart into the space just revealed, but Miss Militia snagged her shoulder. And then I saw it. Them, rather. There was indeed a set of crude shelves hacked out of the wall. On the top one sat the Decoy. It had suffered some damage; there were chips in the industrial plastic, and someone had tried to scrape the stickers off, but enough of them remained to be still readable.

    But it was the lower shelves that caught my attention. A bundled piece of dark cloth, with a black-painted metal hockey mask. And a pair of hand-crossbows, with a bunch of very sharp-looking arrows.

    “Well, fuck,” I said, as the name finally popped into my head.

    Shadow Stalker. Sophia Hess is goddamn Shadow Stalker.

    It explained so very much.



    End of Part Sixteen
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2020
  18. Threadmarks: Part Seventeen: Escalation Central
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Wyvern

    Part Seventeen: Escalation Central

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



    “Well, fuck.”

    My words seemed to resonate with everyone there, and for a split second, nobody moved. At least some of them were very likely thinking exactly the same thing, though almost certainly for entirely different reasons. I could only hope that Sophia was thinking, well, fuck, I can’t get out of this so I may as well give myself up now. Though she probably wasn’t.

    Personally, I stood there like an idiot, trying to come to terms that the girl who had at least co-masterminded all the horrific shit (some of which was literal) that had come down on me over the last year wasn’t actually a villain. Part of my brain tried to argue that she had to be an established villain; no hero would ever stoop to such activity. It was more or less the definition of being a hero; standing up against bullying wherever it might be found.

    Except, she had done exactly that. She’d punched me, kicked me, pushed me down stairs and shoved me in my damn locker. Sophia Hess was a bully. Sophia Hess was Shadow Stalker. Shadow Stalker was a hero. Heroes didn’t bully, or condone bullying.

    One of those statements was not like the others.

    One of those statements was a lie.

    Shadow Stalker was never a fucking hero.

    Just back of my breastbone, the wyvern snarled and raved, seeking to break free and burn Sophia Hess to a fine ash. Too-hot air drifted from my nostrils, thick with the tang of whatever my wyvern form used to ignite its flame. The Change was altogether too close to the surface.

    It would be all too easy to ease up on my self-control, to just let it happen. But I’d been learning. Learning not just to force the Change from one form to the other, but to also refrain from Changing when it would be bad to do so. If I let it happen here and now, the least of the repercussions would be that I would be outed as Wyvern, and Dad would potentially be put in danger. I could think of much worse outcomes if a fight actually broke out in this corridor; as Wyvern, I was fairly durable. Dad wasn’t, and the cops were only wearing basic body armour.

    Worse, if I attacked Sophia, would Miss Militia stand aside, or would she defend Sophia? What would the PRT troopers do? They had containment foam, which I wasn’t at all sure I could break out of.

    And if they captured me after attacking Sophia (and by association, Miss Militia and the PRT) then I’d be their prisoner; in their power both legally and physically. Right where I had no desire to be. All the legal leverage Carol Dallon could bring to bear would be of little use; the PRT had a small army of lawyers, and they’d have the upper hand by a long way.

    The frozen moment ended, and shit commenced to go sideways.

    Sophia screamed with incandescent rage—yeah, who would’ve seen that coming?—and went on the attack. Not at me, or Dad, or even Blackwell or Emma. She vanished into smoke, then flowed around Miss Militia even as the flag-clad hero discharged what turned out to be a taser. Briefly turning solid, she swung a two-handed elbow-strike at the back of Miss Militia’s neck. She missed her mark, but only because Miss Militia was already turning, the taser coming up faster than I would’ve expected.

    Mental note: never test my reflexes against Miss Militia. I will lose.

    Sophia’s elbow instead caught the side of Miss Militia’s jaw, snapping her head around with brutal force. Miss Militia staggered and utterly failed to get out of the way when the PRT troopers discharged their foam sprayers at Sophia. I didn’t see if they hit their intended target, because the rapidly expanding yellow foam caught Emma, Principal Blackwell and Mr Barnes almost immediately; then Dad, me and the cops half a second after that.

    It billowed around us, sealing us into a translucent prison, yellow light filtering through along with just enough air to breathe but no more than that. I’d read accounts by people who’d been trapped in containment foam, but reading about it and experiencing it were two utterly different things. Vaguely, I wondered if the foam would continue to hold me if I were to Change, but I didn’t want to try. I wasn’t being held rigidly; it was more like a rubber cocoon. I could move a little bit, but I couldn’t go anywhere.

    The wyvern hammered at the bars of its cage. She’s getting away, and I’m the only one who can stop her! My mind turned to the fire I could produce while in that form; while I was sure I could burn away this crap, at least from around me, I couldn’t be certain the other people in there with me wouldn’t get hurt as well. And doing that would absolutely out me to the very last people in the world I wanted knowing about my secret.

    Miss Militia very probably knew already, and I would’ve given fifty-fifty odds that the PRT guards had been briefed on a potential Wyvern incursion. The cops didn’t, but they’d been pretty cool, so I didn’t have any worries from that side of things. Dad, of course, knew everything.

    It was Emma, her father, and Principal Blackwell whom I didn’t want knowing about this. Between their amazingly shitty character judgement where it came to Sophia and their resulting treatment of yours truly (either from ignorance, malice or somewhere in between), I wouldn’t have trusted them with the care and feeding of a pet rock. Much less something this important to me. So I held firm. The foam around me might have been heating up, but I refused to Change. I was the boss of this power, not it of me.

    “Dad?” I called out. “Are you okay?” It was like shouting through a pillow, but at least I made some noise.

    “Yeah.” Though his voice was distant and indistinct, I could hear him. “What about you?”

    “Wondering what’s going on. Can you hear anyone else? What’s happening?” I didn’t want to worry him, so I kept the problem of the wyvern trying to break free to myself. Besides, I still had a secret identity and I didn’t want anyone hearing me talking about it.

    “Nothing I can make out. I have no idea what’s going on.” He sounded like he was trying to conceal worry. “They should’ve let us out by now.”

    That raised a whole new series of spectres for me to think about. What if this whole thing was an elaborate plan intended to spirit me away into the depths of the PRT, and strongarm me into working with them? My heart rate rose, and it became harder to breathe. This didn’t make it even slightly easier to keep my Change under control.

    Stop it. I forced myself to think logically. They had to know that trying to force me into the mould of being their tame little superhero would backfire more spectacularly than Armsmaster pointing his halberd at me that one time. If I ended up in a cell against my will, I would Change, and if it came to a contest between my dragonfire and them, I’d bet on me. Added to which, every time I got hurt and changed up, I seemed to improve my ability to use fire in different and interesting ways. And if fire didn’t work, the wyvern was good at wrecking shit with its jaws.

    The PRT might be a monolithic and bureaucratic organisation, but they weren’t stupidly suicidal; neither were they blindly moronic. They had to know that kidnapping me would be an immensely bad idea. So why are we still stuck?

    A long-ago piece of advice from Mom drifted through my head. If you can’t change the situation, try to use it to your benefit. Well, I couldn’t get out … but hey, this stuff was pretty supportive. I relaxed, letting my body just hang in the foam. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was actually being held prisoner by it, it might even have been fun, or at least restful.

    “So, Shadow Stalker, huh?” It felt really weird to be having this conversation with my father, who’d been right next to me, yet I couldn’t see him and he sounded like he was dozens of feet away. Still, what else was there to do until they got us out of this? “Gotta admit, I didn’t see that coming.”

    “Really?” He sounded mildly curious, but that could’ve just been the muffling effect. “So that’s who she is. Huh. Well, it kind of makes sense, in a really ass-backward way.”

    “It does?” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice. “I really thought she was maybe Oni Lee. You know, a villain.”

    He laughed then, briefly. “I can see why you’d think that, but no. You probably missed it on the news, but I heard from one of Kurt’s buddies that Shadow Stalker didn’t join the Wards voluntarily. The word is that she got too violent out there, and the PRT decided to rein her in. They only called her a hero because she went after criminals.”

    “Oh.” A few things started making a lot more sense to me. Far from being a misunderstood vigilante, Sophia was just a violent person who got her kicks from hurting people. She’d pretended to be a hero to keep out of the way of the law, but even then she’d fucked up. It fitted more or less exactly with what I knew of her. Which made me wonder exactly how she’d gotten her claws into Emma so thoroughly; my ex-best-friend was generally more savvy than that. “Well, she’s definitely gone and fucked that up now. What do you think they’ll do with her?”

    He was silent for a long moment. “Best case, they shove her into the cape version of juvey so fast it’ll make her head spin. Worst case, they outfit her with a new costume and cape name, and ship her to some other part of the country. Force her to keep her head down and toe the line.”

    I hated the second idea. It didn’t help that I figured she’d hate it just as much. “So, do we get any compensation for all the shit she pulled on me? I mean, they dropped the ball here pretty badly, right?”

    Again, he took a little time to answer. “I’m thinking Mrs Dallon would be the best person to address that. Somehow, I can see the PRT ducking and dodging around secret identities, and trying to hold out some sort of deal for you to join the Wards in return for full compensation. But she might pull a rabbit out of the hat anyway. She’s very switched-on.”

    Just as I was about to answer, I heard a weird deep thumping sound, like someone beating on a drum. There was no rhythm to it, just very fast and staccato. But it finished before I could put a name to it.

    “Did you hear that?” I asked.

    “Yes.” He sounded puzzled and concerned. “Not sure what it was, though.”

    “I guess we’ll find out when they let us out of this. Anyway, like I was saying, I’m not about to join the Wards in any way, shape or form. Not in this century or the next, anyway. Besides, I’m already a semi-official member of New Wave. They can’t just go poaching me. Every independent team in the country would jump up and down at once.”

    “Yeah.” But now he sounded distracted. “You smell that?”

    “Smell what?” Up until now, all I’d really been able to smell had been hints of whatever chemicals my Wyvern form generated to make fire; that, and containment foam. But now I deliberately sniffed, inhaling deeply through my nose. And I smelled it.

    Smoke.

    “Shit, is that what I think it is?”

    “Yeah.” His voice was tensely urgent. “That’s not you, is it?”

    Have you set fire to something, he was asking. I would’ve been insulted, but setting fire to things was rapidly becoming my go-to method for dealing with them, of late. My imagination popped up an image of me setting fire to Sophia, but I told it to hold off on the wishful thinking until the current crisis was over.

    “No!” I shouted as loudly as I could. “It’s not me!” Not yet, anyway.

    Was the foam beginning to get hotter? Up until now, I would’ve thought this was due to me, but the smoke disabused me of that notion. Unless I was badly mistaken, something was seriously wrong out there.

    “Taylor …” Now he actually sounded worried. He didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t have to. It’s time for you to do something, he meant. Time for you to be Wyvern.

    The trouble was, I totally agreed with him. So did the wyvern. There were more important things at stake than my secret identity.

    I barely had to relax my control before the Change began. It felt different to every other time I’d done this, somehow more robust and forceful. Maybe it was because of the stuff I was currently encased in; I had no way of telling for sure.

    My face became a muzzle, pressing outward. The yellowish material resisted, tore, re-stuck to my skin. I could feel it having similar problems as my arms stretched and became wings; even my flight membranes sliced through it with relative ease. My tail emerged and burrowed through the foam, finally popping into the open air and waving around. It thwacked against something solid, but I didn’t have the time or patience to find out what.

    My next problem showed itself relatively quickly. Even fully Changed, I was still trapped. If I was going to find out what was going on and do something about it, I needed to free myself. Okay, then. Let’s see what some fire does.

    Drawing in as much air as I could, I let flame spill out of my mouth. As planned, it followed the path of least resistance, washing along the boundary between the foam and my scales. Given the speed with which it unstuck and peeled away from my muzzle and head, I got the impression that it wasn’t intended to face high temperatures at all. I still wasn’t out, but now I could move my head freely.

    Downside? Melted containment foam reeked. Like, dirty socks left at the bottom of the laundry hamper for a solid month reeked.

    Other downside: there was still some around my head. I spat out a tiny explosive fireball into the space in front of me, flickering my nictitating membranes over my eyes as it detonated. Just like with the ones I’d stopped the criminals with that time, it was barely worth the name, but it surely did the job. There was a brief instant of overpressure (I vaguely recalled the same thing happening in my locker, once upon a time) and then it was gone, splattering away in all directions. I was free from the mid-torso up, though my wings and lower body were still trapped.

    And the school was on fire. Well, there was a cloud of smoke percolating out of the ceiling, and I could hear the crackling of flames.

    I was pretty sure that wasn’t my fault.

    <><>​

    Shadow Stalker

    A Few Moments Previously


    Hebert was still blathering on. “Everyone thinking that they’re the only one who knows Sophia’s a cape. We all know it. Just admit it. Now can someone move the locker so we can prove that Sophia stole my property? That way, we can arrest her and Emma and Madison, and I can get on with my goddamn day.”

    Sophia couldn’t believe what was going on. Why were they even listening to the skanky dweeb? Why wasn’t Miss Militia shutting her down, or (for preference) pulling out a big-ass gun and shooting her?

    Or was all that shit about Wards’ identities being protected just that; shit? An excuse for them not to unmask to me? Well, fuck them, and fuck the PRT and Protectorate as well, if they won’t step up for me.


    The female cop who Sophia had carefully explained to that she was a cape raised her hand and pointed. “Callan, Peterson. Move the damn locker.”

    Rage swelled in Sophia’s gut. Didn’t the bitch care? She was on the verge of outing Sophia as a cape, and she knew it, but she was still doing it. When this was over and done, Sophia was going to swallow her pride and talk to the Director, and get that stupid cop’s badge taken off her.

    “Sergeant, there’s still—” Just for a second, Miss Militia seemed to be about to justify her existence, but then the cop talked right over the top of her. Or maybe Militia let her.

    “We’ve wasted far too much time catering to the wishes and desires of a teenage delinquent who may or may not be a member of the Wards for me to give a shit anymore. Move the damn locker.”

    Everyone’s fucking against me. Everyone.

    Rage surged through every fibre in her body, making her want to strike and rip and tear and make them bleed. But she chose to hold it back until she was certain that Militia was betraying her. The cop blathered something about NDAs—as if that would stop people from talking if they really wanted to spread the word around—though what she’d said really put her onto Sophia’s shit list. Not that this was hard, right now, but this cop was now right up near the top, just under Hebert.

    As the uniformed idiots followed the stupid orders of the interfering cop, Sophia figured she had one last chance to walk away from this with some semblance of her life intact. They’d figured out she was a cape, which was bad, but only some of them knew which cape. If she could just grab the bundle and get it out of sight, she’d wear whatever punishment Militia doled out, then go find the cop one quiet night. It was amazing how many gangbangers in Brockton Bay would be happy to kick some interfering cop to death, or at least take credit for the act.

    Muscles taut, she prepared to leap forward the moment the locker came away. But then, even as the weight came off her front foot, Miss Militia grabbed her by the shoulder.

    It wasn’t a light grab, either; Militia really dug her fingers in there. By an effort of will, Sophia didn’t go to shadow and grab her stuff anyway. There was still a chance she could skate away from all this if she didn’t just publicly out herself. So long as she played Militia’s game and kept in good with the PRT and Protectorate, she could do what she wanted and Hebert had zip.

    Except that there was no more time. That stupid recorder was right there in plain view, but it didn’t mean jack shit if the PRT said it didn’t. The trouble was, the rest of her stuff was also right there; the cloak, the mask, the arrows, and the crossbows, all bundled up together. Right where everyone could see it.

    Why the fuck did Militia stop me from grabbing my stuff? Does she want everyone to see it?

    Is she even on my side with this, or did she just come here to throw me under the fuckin’ bus?
    It was sure as fuck starting to look that way.

    And then Hebert spoke in a tone that told Sophia she’d seen enough, and the dots were now well and truly connected. “Well, fuck.”

    Sophia’s mind raced. Militia’s got a plan to salvage this shit. She’s gotta have a plan. Turning her head slightly, she looked for a signal from the senior hero, something for her to go on with.

    She saw nothing. Just anger and pity. And that was when she figured out Militia’s plan.

    I was fucking right. She was always going to throw me under the fucking bus. The Director sent her here to make sure I went down all the way. They’re probably going to make up some stupid fucking excuse and rig the trial so I go to the Birdcage, because they hate me for making them look useless.

    In that moment, she realized that she had nobody she could depend on. They were either too weak or had already betrayed her. The rage, temporarily in abeyance, blazed up in full force.

    With a scream of full-throated wrath, she went to shadow. Miss Militia reacted with worrying speed, already turning as Sophia flowed around her and reformed on the other side. The endlessly mutable weapon that Militia carried shifted and changed into something that looked ominously like an oversized taser.

    Sophia didn’t wait for her to bring it into line. She was already swinging her elbow, bracing the blow with her other hand. Militia somehow saw it coming and ducked aside. Sophia’s elbow missed the back of Miss Militia’s neck but got her jaw instead. While her elbow felt like she’d just smacked it into a rock wall, Militia was staggered, the taser drooping. Not perfect, but good enough.

    The gurgling hiss of a sprayer warned her, and she went to shadow just before four streams of containment foam criss-crossed through where her body would’ve been. As the yellow shit splattered over everything and everyone—including Militia, take that, you backstabbing bitch!—she lunged sideways toward where her gear was sitting on the shelf. The way the stuff expanded once sprayed, everything on those shelves was likely to be buried in seconds, so she eased out of shadow just far enough to grab the entire bundle.

    The plan was already coming together in her mind. The PRT was kicking her to the curb, but there was no way she was gonna be bending over and letting them fuck her life up without a fight. Her entire vigilante career before the Wards had been made up of hard decisions—usually some variation of, hit the muggers now, or wait until they’re distracted by their victims?—so she didn’t find it hard to make one now.

    It’s me or them. I choose me.

    It was a step she’d never had to take before, but maybe if she had, she wouldn’t be in this situation now. Something to think about. Later, after she was finished here.

    All of the troopers had stowed their foam sprayers by the time she looked around. They’d laid down an impressive volume of the stuff in a very short time, trapping everyone apart from Sophia like flies in amber or some shit like that, but it had to be clear to them that they weren’t going to be getting her that way. As she watched, two of them pulled out tasers. Because of course they’d been briefed on her weaknesses.

    Extracting one of the arrows from the bundle, she launched her shadow form toward those two, flowing around and past them. Momentarily, she went to full solidity while standing behind the first one, holding the arrow so that the head and a section of the shaft materialized inside his spine, just at the base of his skull. He jerked uncontrollably and began to collapse, but she was already shadow again and flowing out of the way of the gleaming taser wires that had just been shot her way.

    Fighting these assholes was a lot harder than punching out druggies, mainly because druggies rarely wore body armour or carried tasers. She had to duck and dodge like crazy to avoid being zapped, before she got close enough to bury the arrow in his forehead through his faceplate. That asshole went down, leaving her with just two obstacles in the way of completing her plan. Thank fuck nobody’s invented a rapid-fire taser yet.

    Number three was going with the ambitious plan of a knife in his right hand and a taser in the left. She dodged the swipe of a blade, then lodged an arrow in the guy’s knee, eliciting a scream that she heard through the helmet. As he lurched, off balance, she jammed another arrow up under the front edge of his helmet, into the soft part of his throat. Warm blood spilled out over her hand, then he toppled over onto his side.

    Up until now, the fourth trooper hadn’t even gotten into the fight; when she looked, she found out why. He was spraying the contents of a can of foam dissolver over the mound before him, converting great swathes of it into a dirty yellow liquid that she knew from experience took forever to wash out of hair and clothing.

    He’s trying to free Miss Militia. Oh, fuck nope. Sophia was good, but she freely admitted that Miss Militia was better. While she could just about handle herself against regular PRT goons (and fuck, did it feel good to not have to hold back in a fight anymore) if Militia had even one goon to run interference, going up against her was an extremely shitty proposition.

    Pulling another arrow from the rapidly-depleting store, she went to shadow and lunged toward the guy. When will these idiots learn not to turn their backs on me?

    During Sophia’s time with the Wards, Triumph had done his best to instill in her a sense of honour when she was in a fight. She’d pretended to pay attention, even though she knew for a fact that going easy on your opponent in any way was fucking moronic at best, and outright suicidal at worst. There were too many rules that they expected her to follow, to live by. It was bullshit. The world needed fewer rules, more action. It was the only way to survive.

    The guy started to turn right at the last second, but it was too late; she phased the arrow into the back of his head. He went down like the rest of them, leaving the spraycan stuck in the containment foam.

    Sophia paused to take a breath and nock an arrow into one of her crossbows, while she looked around for more adversaries. Nobody was in the corridor; all the troopers were dead, or nearly so. That just left the witnesses in the foam itself. They were gonna have to go, of course. Snitches got stitches. Or in this case, closed coffin funerals.

    Fortunately, she had a way to kill them all without actually having to individually release them from the foam and top them one at a time. She could do it that way, but it would take way too long, and there was always the chance that someone had sent off a distress signal. Better to go with the original plan. Leaping straight up, she went to shadow and passed through the drop panels into the ceiling space beyond.

    When she first started at Winslow, she’d spent about a week scouting the place out after hours, until she knew all its little secrets. Such as the fact that the fire alarm system was connected up but the sprinkler tanks were dry, and had been for years. Also, in the ceiling spaces between floors, the building was constructed mainly of wooden beams rather than concrete. Old, dry wooden beams.

    Extremely flammable wooden beams.

    The second part of this phase of the plan had to do with the fact that the first time she’d happened on a drug operation as Shadow Stalker, she’d wanted to destroy the drugs but she’d had no means to do so. So she’d started carrying road flares in what passed for her utility belt. Ironically, she’d moved on to stopping street crime instead of hunting drug dens (besides, it was really hard to find them) so she’d never had cause to use them.

    Until now.

    Crouching on one of the beams, she set down the crossbow then rummaged through her utility belt until she found the tiny penlight. With the light to assist her, she took one of her last arrows and used the razor-sharp head to shave pieces off the side of the rough wood, then rip off strips from the bottom edge of her cloak. Collecting it all in a little pile, she laid the road-flare on top then pulled the tab. The bright light nearly blinded her, but the heat was amazing. Pulling the tab on another flare, she tossed it down into the rat droppings and other crap that had accumulated in this place over the last thirty or forty years. One way or the other, this place was gonna burn.

    Containment foam didn’t catch fire, as far as she knew, but once melted it could give third degree burns, not to mention the noxious fumes it gave off. And of course, being trapped in the foam while the school burned around them would almost certainly kill everyone in the corridor below. Which was only what they deserved, for trying to fuck her over and get her sentenced to the Birdcage.

    Well, not everyone. Emma and Alan Barnes hadn’t betrayed her, she admitted to herself. And Blackwell had done her passive-aggressive best to not let anything come between her and the appearance of a smoothly run school. But they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like the mugging victims she didn’t bother rescuing ahead of time if they didn’t even try to fight back.

    Put simply, if they couldn’t survive on their own, they were of no use to her, and the PRT might even manage to coerce witness statements out of them. Like it or not, they were witnesses. They knew too much.

    Again, the thought went through her head, and she hardened her resolve. If it’s me or them, I choose me.

    It looked like the fires had caught nicely. Time to drop back down, retrieve the arrows from the men she’d killed, and fuck off out of there. The costume and other gear could be stashed somewhere else until the heat died down (so to speak) and as Sophia she could join the other students as they evacuated the school. Then all she had to do was walk away, vanish into the crowd. The plan after that was a little nebulous, but at least she would’ve gotten rid of anyone who might outright accuse her of shit instead of just keeping their heads down as they should.

    Activating her power, she fell through the ceiling.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    Trapped as she was, Hannah couldn’t even activate her radio and call in a distress alert. She had no idea what was going on, just that Shadow Stalker had gone nuts. Also, depending on how nuts she was, this could be a very big problem. Her guys were good, but there was a reason capes had threat ratings assigned to them. Without powers, they’d smack her down hard and fast; with powers, she could pull stuff they just couldn’t match.

    She could hear distant voices, either coming from outside the foam or within it, she wasn’t sure. Neither could she make out what they were saying, or who was saying what. Methodically, she tried to work through her options for a weapon that would help her get out of her ad hoc prison, but there were very few options indeed that wouldn’t actually do her serious harm as well.

    And then the grip of the stuff on her left hand lessened; she found she could wriggle her fingers. A smile spread over her face beneath the scarf. They won, she realized. And now they’re spraying me free. Good going, guys. I am so putting you all in for a group commendation when we get back to base.

    When the spraying ceased and the can was pressed into her hand, she was momentarily puzzled. Sure, she could get herself out, but it would be much easier for whoever was using the can to do so. But there it was. Hey, maybe they had to pay more attention to handling Shadow Stalker. At least they left me the can.

    Twisting her wrist, she set about freeing herself; with each pass, it became easier. She hated the smell of the stuff, and it usually took about a week of washing her hair to get it all out, but right now she could not have cared less. What really concerned her, once her head was clear, was that all four of her men were down, apparently dead. And that the cause of death was abundantly clear. Crossbow arrows, protruding from their armour and helmets. Shadow Stalker.

    She wasted no time in freeing herself all the way, keeping a lookout in case the renegade Ward made a reappearance. As soon as her other hand was free, she activated her radio. As was procedure in this sort of situation, she kept her voice down.

    “Miss Militia to console, I’m calling an emergency situation at Winslow High. Shadow Stalker has gone code purple. I say again, Sierra-Sierra is code purple. Four troopers down, possibly deceased, over.”

    Code purple was something nobody liked to hear. It designated a ‘blue’ (friendly) cape becoming a ‘red’ (hostile), with all the security problems that entailed.

    There was a momentary hesitation, then the PRT console operator responded. “Console to Miss Militia. Please confirm Shadow Stalker code purple, over.”

    “That’s an affirmative.” She finished freeing her legs and stepped away from the mound of foam. Setting the can on the floor, she manifested a large shotgun in her free hand. “Checking troopers now. Wounds appear to be fatal, consistent with Sierra-Sierra Breaker power, over.”

    “Console copies troopers deceased. Informing Director now, over.”

    “I copy.” She quickly checked each of the troopers, going by feel while she kept an eye on her surroundings. None of them had a pulse, which didn’t surprise her. The one next to where she’d been imprisoned had been stabbed in the back, probably while trying to free her. You’ll get your commendation, damn it.

    Just as she checked the last trooper and straightened up, a flicker of motion from the corner of her eye caught her attention. Turning fast, she brought up the shotgun by sheer instinct as a shadowy form dropped from the ceiling. There was no time to change weapons; she opened fire.

    <><>​

    Shadow Stalker

    The double-ought buckshot tore through Sophia’s shadowy form, disrupting her in ways that were unpleasant in the extreme. She twisted around without changing back, to see Miss Militia standing over the dead troopers, throwing shot after shot at her as though ammunition was on special.

    Fuck, she’s free. Okay, that’s it. I’m out.

    Cowardly was the last word Sophia would use to describe herself, but there was brave and then there was suicidally stupid. Taking down Miss Militia from surprise was one thing. Trying to drop her while she was upright and aware, with her power ready to roll, was entirely another.

    Hoping and praying that there weren’t any electrical lines in the wall beside her, Sophia changed direction and lunged in that direction just as yet another blast shredded part of her shadowy body. It wasn’t a lasting injury, and would soon reform, but it hurt on a fundamental level. She knew she’d be bruised there, after.

    Passing through the wall, she resumed solid form. When she landed on her feet, she stumbled, but recovered. Her side felt like she’d taken a sucker punch from Aegis, and she figured that the bruising was making an early start.

    Okay, pretending innocence is a no-go. There’s zero chance she hasn’t already snitched to the Director already. I’ve gotta get the fuck out of here. Fortunately, the far side of the room—one of the Art classrooms—had nice big windows that she could pass through with ease; the bars covering them (this was Winslow, after all) would constitute no obstacle whatsoever. She started making her way toward them, favouring her bruised ribs.

    The classroom door was kicked in. There stood Miss Militia, hefting a taser that looked like it could bring down a bull elephant and still have enough juice left over to barbecue the carcass. “Shadow Stalker!” she shouted. “Not one more step!”

    Sophia didn’t hesitate for even an instant. Turning, she triggered the hand crossbow she’d kept loaded all this time. The arrow whipped across the intervening space in a split second, and took Miss Militia in the stomach. With a muffled scream, Miss Militia fell, but as she did so, she triggered the taser.

    Both prongs hit home, sending bolts of white fire through every single nerve ending Sophia had. She convulsed, then dropped everything and ended up on the floor. Unconsciousness claimed her.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    I looked around wildly. Clouds of smoke were rolling down the corridor, and I could hear the crackling of flames, overlaid by the distant ringing of an alarm. It might have been hot, but I could never tell as the wyvern. Everything was either cool or comfortably warm, as I’d found out under the shower (to Vicky’s immense amusement).

    “Taylor?”

    Looking around, I saw Dad staring at me. Some of his coating of foam had been blasted away in the same detonation that had partially freed me, uncovering sections of his head and shoulder. He looked worried which didn’t surprise me, given that he was trapped and unable to escape from a building fire.

    I chirped affirmatively in reply. Pausing only to make sure of my aim, I washed a gentle wave of fire over my lower torso and wings—I had to admit, having a flexible dragon neck was very handy indeed—and stepped out of the foam as it melted away from me.

    My next problem was getting Dad out of the foam as well. I couldn’t just melt it with fire; even if I managed to aim well enough to avoid hitting him directly, the melted globs of foam could easily give him third degree burns. I had half an idea that the PRT had something that dissolved the foam (I mean, why wouldn’t they) but the only troopers I’d seen on site were on the other side of the mound of foam, and that had been before the shit hit the fan. Where they were now and what they were doing (instead of letting us out), I had no idea.

    Which left Plan B: Brute Force.

    Leaning in, I laid hold of a chunk of the foam, feeling it trying to adhere to my teeth and tongue, then braced myself and tore it away from the main mass. It tasted almost as bad as the melted stuff smelled, and I hastily spat it out. But the chunk I’d pulled away had been part of the stuff holding Dad in place, so I did it again and again. A couple of times I had to ‘wash’ my mouth out with fire to get rid of especially clingy bits, but I had Dad free in less than a minute.

    During this time, the fire got louder, sparks and bits of ash were falling from above, and the smoke only became thicker. It wasn’t bothering me, but Dad was coughing more or less non-stop. I let out a screech to get his attention, then moved aside and opened my mouth once more. Getting out would be a real problem if we had to navigate a smoke-filled Winslow, but I happened to know that two walls that way lay open air.

    He ducked aside as I released my cutting flame, slicing through the locker and the wall beyond with almost insulting ease. It set the wall on fire as well, but that wasn’t exactly making things worse. When I’d cut out a square, I swung my hips and smashed my tail into the middle of it, sending it crashing into the next room over, which happened to be one of the Art classrooms. Offering Dad a come-on chirp, I stepped through the hole … and froze.

    Over near the window lay Sophia, a small crossbow next to her. Also next to her was Miss Militia, leaning against the wall while she worked at applying a dressing to her stomach, around the protruding shaft of an arrow. The veteran hero’s camouflage costume was dark with blood around the wound, while more of it led in a trail from the kicked-in door to where she was now.

    Miss Militia looked up at me, with the most unconcerned expression regarding my presence that I’d seen yet. “Wyvern. Glad that you’ve finally joined us. How many others are out of the foam?”

    “Just me at the moment,” Dad said, stepping out from behind me. “How did you get out?”

    “The troopers are equipped with cans of solvent,” she explained briefly. “How bad’s the fire?”

    “It’ll get worse before it gets better.” Dad nodded toward her. “How bad off are you?”

    “Can’t walk. I think I’ve got the bleeding stopped. I’ve called ambulance and fire department.” She waved toward the corridor. “You need to get them out of that before the fire gets to them.”

    “On it.” Dad hurried toward the door that hung off the hinge. “Taylor, come on.”

    I dithered for a moment. Part of me wanted to stay and help guard Shadow Stalker, but there wasn’t much I could do if she went to shadow as soon as she woke up. Finally, I hurried after Dad.

    When I got to the doorway, he held up his hand to keep me there. “Watch Miss Militia,” he advised me. “Let me know if anything happens with her. I know you want to help, and it’s not like you’ll be able to change back any moment soon.”

    He was right. I hated to admit it, but he was right. Turning my head, I fixed my vision on Miss Militia and Shadow Stalker. If Dad wanted me to guard them, I’d be the best damned guard there was.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    Colin accelerated his bike toward Winslow High. He’d finally gotten the call that fire services had been requested at the school, which was his cue. If his mystery informant was correct, Taylor Hebert would be there, laying waste to the place, giving him the perfect opportunity to swoop in and snap her up for the Wards. While he wouldn’t have minded knowing who this civic-minded person was, and how they knew where the girl would be and that she was going to go off the deep end, he was also fully cognizant of the old saying about gift horses and mouths.

    After all, members of the public passing on information covertly to superheroes was a time-honoured tradition. No laws were being broken that he could see, save perhaps by Taylor herself. And if she was tearing up Winslow, giving him the opportunity to get her into the Wards, that would be a large feather in his cap … so to speak. The fact that she didn’t even want to go into the Wards wasn’t something he spent much time thinking about; neither would it have bothered him overmuch if it was.

    He’d registered and logged the Code Purple, noting that Shadow Stalker was involved. He didn’t know the Ward personally, having rarely worked with her, but he seemed to recall that she’d been a vigilante before entering the Wards on a provisional basis. Something about nearly murdering someone? He’d have to check the files when he had the chance.

    In any case, they’d tracked her down once, and they could do it again. But the crime was done and while it was a tragedy to lose men in the field, he had a more important situation to deal with. Winslow was on fire, Taylor Hebert was almost certainly responsible, and this was the opportunity he’d been looking for. She needed to be made to see that this was an opportunity for her as well, to learn the hero trade under a veteran such as himself.

    There were already others en route to Winslow, especially since Miss Militia’s second transmission to Console. Shadow Stalker had been captured, which was good; that meant he didn’t have to waste time on inconsequential details. Miss Militia being injured was a potential problem, but help was on the way so again he wasn’t needed to deal with that. She’d reported that members of the public were trapped in confoam, but they were also currently being freed by helpful civilians, which was good.

    She hadn’t mentioned the presence of Wyvern, which he was actually pleased about. He didn’t want anyone else getting the same idea he’d had, and poaching her before he had the chance to make his case. Oh, he knew she was technically a member of New Wave, but he was sure the Dallons and Pelhams would not want to be connected to someone who’d gone on a rampage and set fire to a school twice. They’d probably be pleased for him to take Wyvern off their hands and into the Wards program.

    Since the last outing against Inago, he’d become convinced that if her power built up with every new challenge she overcame, she might just end up being able to fight Endbringers. As Brockton Bay’s premier Tinker, he was just the person to train her for this; after all, he wasn’t the local leader of the Protectorate for nothing. And of course, having her as his protégé could only help his reputation as well as hers.

    It was for the greater good. For him and for Brockton Bay.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Thomas Calvert leaned back in his comfortable office chair and indulged himself by steepling his fingertips just a little. He didn’t go so far as a maniacal cackle; he had some standards, after all. Passing the message to Armsmaster in an untraceable manner had been simplicity itself, and now he could sit back and watch the fireworks.

    It had been just as easy to pull the right strings and have Taylor Hebert coerced into returning to Winslow High. She was worried about facing her tormentors again, in case they forced her to Change to her draconic form in public? Calvert was very much a “let’s see what happens” sort of person. Especially when there’d be no repercussions to him.

    He hadn’t even had to keep back a safe timeline, in case it went wrong. No matter how it blew up, whether Hebert torched the school or Armsmaster tried and failed to recruit her yet again, the PRT and Protectorate would come out of it with egg on their faces, and he’d be golden.

    It really was a win-win situation, the type he liked the best.



    End of Part Seventeen
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2021
    poiu18894012, Eryk, udkudk and 37 others like this.
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