Arc 3: Firing—3.01

AN: Went back and made minor changes to previous chapters. Not necessary to go back and read, though.

~~~Railgun~~~

"All right, people, I'm calling this meeting to order. As all of you know, we're here to discuss a new and concerning Parahuman, Tesla. To those of you who are behind the curve, last night there was a major battle in the Docks area of the city involving the Merchants, Empire 88, and Tesla. There were at least eight fatalities. I say at least, because they're still trying to match up body parts. It could go higher."

Director Piggot paused a moment, then turned to Colin. "Armsmaster, if you would provide the briefing on exactly what occurred."

"Of course, Director." Colin scanned the faces around the table, which ranged from Miss Militia and the rest of the Protectorate ENE members, to Assistant Director Adam Resnick of the PRT and Thomas Calvert, a consultant that had been providing his expertise on small unit tactics against Parahumans to the PRT troops. He was actually considering having the man give a few lectures to the Wards on the same subject, specifically on how to help them counter those selfsame tactics when used against them. Given how many unpowered members there were with each of the three major gangs in the city, they were encountering large groups of armed, but unpowered, gang members far more often than Parahumans.

Currently, he was only holding off because of a certain amount of friction he noted between Calvert and the Director. Until he could see how that dynamic played out, he didn't want to further push Piggot any further. At least, that is, until he could finish his most recent campaign.

Taking a deep breath, Armsmaster began, "Last night, at approximately 0100 hours, there was a 911 call that indicated that there was a cape fight taking place in a building on the corner of Lockett and Stasney, deep in the Docks area. By the time PRT and Protectorate forces arrived on sight, there was substantial damage to the building, as well as to the surrounding streets.

"It appeared as if fast moving objects struck each of the streets surrounding the Merchants' hide out approximately midway down the block, the resulting release of kinetic energy causing a great deal of damage to the surface. Additionally, the immediate surrounding electrical grid was shorted out, although there turned out to only be minor damage to one transformer. The power company was able to restore power by 0300 hours. The damage estimate is at one point two million dollars.

"Myself, Miss Militia, and two squads of PRT troops deployed on site at 0115 hours. Moving inside, we almost immediately encountered an unknown cape. When asked to identity themselves, the cape indicated that her name was Tesla. When asked about what had happened, she indicated the surrounding damage was due to a fight between the herself, the Merchants, and Empire 88. She also indicated that she'd used an EMP to destroy Squealer's vehicle, causing most of the fatalities. There-"

Assault interrupted Colin, curiosity in his voice, "You keep saying 'she', Armsmaster. I take it that Tesla's a girl?"

Colin gave the man a sharp nod. "Yes. To be exact, both Miss Militia and I believe that she's a teenage girl between fourteen and seventeen years old based upon the intonation and phraseology of her speech. She only spoke a few sentences, but it was clear that she is someone who belongs in the Wards, not out on her own, making poor judgments calls."

He was focused on staying in character as much as possible during the briefing. In the past, he would have acted exactly this way, toeing the line on law and order, and pushing for recruitment. That he had other ideas for this new cape would remain hidden for now.

The Director wore a frown as she asked, "Exactly what poor judgment calls are you talking about?"

He waited a beat, then launched into a quick explanation, "Even exempting the incident at Arcadia, what I observed at the site of her battle with the Merchants was an excess use of force, as well as being unprepared for the tactics her foes used against her.

"Additionally, it would appear that she must have come to some form of accommodation with the members of Empire 88 who were present as they left shortly before we arrived on site."

From the way Director Piggot's lips pursed, Colin knew that she was going to want more details. Something which she made clear a moment later.

"What evidence do you have that leads you to believe she reached an accommodation with them?"

What evidence did he have? None, really. It was more of a gut feeling. But Colin had been in the game more than long enough to know when someone was hiding something, or in Tesla's case, fleeing to avoid answering questions, to be able to discern hidden meanings. Not that he could tell the director that if he wanted to maintain a sense of legitimacy. Plus, it wouldn't advance his agenda.

So instead, Colin merely stated, "I based it on the timeframe of the fight, plus the scope of damage, which while severe, was not absolute enough to indicate a true, three way battle. Based upon my detailed analysis of the fight's aftermath, Tesla arrived first, burst in, was quiescent for a moment, possibly subdued by Squealer's sonic cannon. A short time later, Empire 88 arrived, also engaged in combat with the Merchant's leadership, after which events went extremely awry with the explosion of Squealer's vehicle killing all three of the their Parahuman members. An explosion which was caused by an EMP set off by Tesla. Shortly thereafter, Empire 88 fled, apparently uncontested, whereupon we arrived on scene, meeting Tesla almost immediately."

Director Piggot shuffled some papers on front of her. "I don't see where Mush was killed by the explosion. I remember the analysis which indicated some of the body parts recovered belonged to Squealer and Skidmark, but not their teammate."

"Director, if you'll turn to page six of the report, the third paragraph down, you'll see the notation where a body was recovered from a rather large pile of loose debris which we believe to be Mush's. The man was impaled by several large pieces of shrapnel from the explosion. However, we don't have his DNA on file, so it's only an educated guess based upon body type, as well as a handful of other clues."

Director Piggot nodded. Then she turned to Colin's second in command. "Miss Militia, you have something to add?"

Colin met the glance sent his way with cool equanimity and gave her a nod in return. "With all due respect to Armsmaster, I do. While I can't comment on his analysis of the battlefield, I did spend time talking to Tesla. Based upon our conversation, she appears to have a strong sense of right and wrong. Additionally, she took the time to stabilize several of the injured, otherwise there would almost certainly have been at least twice as many deaths.

"While I did not find out the reason from her for why she used the EMP, it would appear to be a valid tactic against a Tinker. I believe that Armsmaster has used them himself in the past against villainous Tinkers."

Colin gave a curt nod at the inquiring looks sent his way. He had used EMP's in the past, even against Squealer. Of course that was only after he had made an analysis on the tech involved. He wouldn't have used one against a vehicle with an unstable quantum power source, even assuming any EMP that his gear was capable of generating would be effective against it. With the Merchant Tinker, he hadn't been able to employ such tactics for almost a year, as her gear had grown increasingly well shielded and stable as time went on.

It was actually a bit of a sore point that Tesla had been able to succeed where he had failed. Not that he really held it against the other Tinker, but he desperately wanted to know exactly how she'd generated one with such intensity, capable of not only destroying Squealer's vehicle, but sufficient to knock out the local power grid temporarily for nearly a mile in all directions. It had even heated and deformed various metallic debris near ground zero, from handguns and crowbars to the molten remains of wiring in the walls. That intensity over that small a range was extremely impressive.

Not that Colin planned to bring any of this up at the meeting. No, he would need to stay firmly on the side of the regs. He was actually glad that he could count on Miss Militia being the voice of reason here. While he would continue to act as the martinet, his second in command would be cool and reasonable, which would only lend her judgment more weight.

Aware that the director had asked something else, Colin had to do a quick mental review of what had been said while he was in his reverie. To stay in character, he reluctantly agreed with his second's assessment, "No, Director, I don't see anything that happened completely barring Tesla from joining the Wards. While there was far too much collateral damage in this and her previous fight, that is exactly what the Wards System is for, to train young Parahumans in the use of their powers so that they can use them for the betterment of society. She would need to be placed on some form of probation, however."

He paused a moment, then went back to his report. "Additionally, I wanted to bring up the last page in the report. My analysis of Tesla's armor was by necessity a quick one, as she left the scene shortly thereafter. I did not read any power source there, which leads to either of two conclusions. First, the armor may have been so well shielded that the instrument package in my halberd couldn't penetrate it. Or, it's possible that the magnetic and electromagnetic effects generated came from her body."

The points he was making were important. He didn't want anyone to be able to later say that he'd hidden anything. Or done less than his due diligence on his analysis of the site and the implications therein.

"While I still lean towards Tesla being a Tinker, the second possibility is a valid theory. While there has never been an electrokinetic or magnetokinetic of that strength registered before, Tesla may just turn out to be the first."

He leaned forward to emphasize the next bit. "Also, in Subsection C of my report, you'll note a very important finding. It's regarding the building's structure. Apparently concerned that the building was unstable, Tesla indicated that she had engaged in some form of material conversion in order to strengthen the structure. The result I observed was that many of the ground floor's steel framework had been changed substantially. It's-"

Looking impatient, Director Piggot interrupted him. "Armsmaster, can you please cut to the chase? What is the significance of the changed material?"

Running some quick numbers in his head, Colin said, "Director, if my calculations are correct, whatever it was that Tesla did to the steel of the building's framework in the immediate area surrounding the blast increased its tensile strength by more than one hundred times. That's ten thousand percent. I've already put in a request to obtain a larger sample of the material when the building is condemned and demolished. With a miracle material like that, there are untold possibilities for its use. Including in that is armor and weapons for use against Parahuman villains and in Endbringer battles."

He could see that he'd made his case in the widening of Piggot's eyes. Now looking incredibly thoughtful, she turned to Miss Militia. "Do you think that Tesla might be open to working with the PRT? Anyone who can change the material composition of metal in such quantities would be hugely valuable to our side."

Of course, what went unsaid was just how well someone of her power would synergize with someone like Kaiser if Tesla chose to turn villain. The thought of fighting Kaiser if he and his people were armed with metal weapons that he'd produced and that had been treated by Tesla's power was enough to raise the hackles of anyone with an iota of sense.

Miss Militia nodded cautiously. "It's possible, Director. While she did practically run away that night, I believe it was more from the situation, including the various deaths involved, than because of anything that was said to her. In a calmer, more sedate setting, she would likely be far more open to recruitment. Perhaps we could use the Wards to approach her, as they're closer to her in age and she would be able to relate better to them."

Director Piggot's reply was a clipped. "Agreed. Does anyone have anything else to add?"

Deciding that now was the best time to make his next move, Colin asked, "Do you plan to put Tesla in for the bounty for the execution of the Kill Orders on the three Merchant capes?"

He didn't need to see the Director's scowl to know that he'd overstepped his bounds. But the words, once said, couldn't be withdrawn from the record. Nor could she ignore them. Grudgingly, she said, "For the two capes that we can see were clearly killed by Tesla's actions, I'll petition the PRT Financial Department for disbursement. However, since Mush's fate is still unclear, we won't be paying out any reward. Dismissed."

Colin rose to his feet, glad he'd spoken. If he hadn't, it was likely that Director Piggot would have pushed hard for Tesla's recruitment, trying to bring her aboard prior to young Parahuman putting in to collect any bounty. If she became a Ward before she tried to collect the bounties, the point would have become moot, as no one in the PRT or Protectorate were allowed to collect on kill orders or bounties of any kind.

Instead, the money would have been added to the general revenue fund to be divided among all PRT offices at the end of the year.

While the bounties, at roughly five million dollars per Merchant cape were small time compared to those levied on groups like the Slaughterhouse Nine, it still meant as much as fifty thousand dollars to every single PRT office in the country.

However, now that it had been officially stated on the record by the Director of the PRT ENE that the independent cape Tesla was both entitled to the bounties on two of the Merchants and that she would begin the paperwork to that effect, it effectively reduced the amount of money going to the general revenue fund by two thirds.

It also gave an up and coming cape, one who very like was a Tinker, a significant financial shot in the arm. The likelihood of someone turning to crime under those circumstances was significantly lessened, and it could very well increase the possibility that they would be open to future recruitment by someone who could demonstrate that they'd been looking after the welfare of said cape.

Of course, if Colin were entirely truthful, that wasn't the only reasons he had done it. The opportunity to tweak the director, with her well known distrust and dislike of Parahumans, was one of those. He had counted coup in their eternal game of oneupmanship.

But the deeper reason for what he'd said, one that he had yet to put in any report, involved the material the other cape had transmuted. The metallic composition of the steel girders in the factory that had been changed were clearly related to the samples he'd received from Director Piggot approximately a week ago.

Those samples had been of a beautiful shimmering cloth, one that he'd evaluated for the purpose of creating costumes for Protectorate heroes, and possibly even ordinary body armor for PRT troopers, depending on cost. Unfortunately, the samples, while possessing amazing material qualities, weren't exactly what he wanted for improvements to his own armor and weaponry.

For those, he needed to obtain replacement armor panels made from the same, or at least a similar material. He had planned to consult Parian directly as to her source to see if there was any possibility of obtaining such.

However, once Colin had matched the girders to the metal cloth samples, he knew the solution was so much simpler. It was not only possible, but was actually likely the other cape could make the changes on the fly to one of his current armored suits. The idea of being able to obtain a suit of armor capable of going toe to toe with almost any Brute in existence made him absolutely determined to accomplish that feat, no matter the cost.

There would be challenges involved. Of course there would. He would need to account for the superconducting properties of the material for one thing. For another, he'd need to conduct tests with Tesla where she changed other metals to see if those also exhibited the same properties or even more exotic ones.

Additionally, if anyone believed that he'd hidden his analysis of the relationship of the two materials, it could be a problem.

However, Colin had made sure that nothing of that nature existed in the experimental data. The link between the two lay in the nature of the alignment of the iron's atomic structure, something which he was quite certain no other Tinker involved with the PRT possessed the technology and instrumentation to detect.

So long as he was cautious in his approach, and managed to, if nothing else, get Tesla to work with the PRT and Protectorate, he would come out of this with an increase in reputation, as well as a substantial improvement to his own armament.

Even those factors, as important as they were to him, were not his sole reasons for this approach. It was also the thought of someone like Tesla wasting her time making material to decorate the bodies of the wealthy. It was like a punch in the gut for him. Yet that had been the true source of the metal cloth. It was part of a sample package that not only had the PRT received, but several high end fashion houses as well.

It was the definition of insane to drape some rich man or woman with material that could stop bullets and absorb lasers and other forms of thermal emissions just because they could afford to buy it. Especially when it could be used to keep safe the capes who protected those same individuals from unimaginable threats.

With the money she would receive in the very near future, Tesla would not need to work. She would be free to synergize with Colin and other Tinkers, possibly even Dragon, on uses for her super materials. Tinker or no, she could accomplish great things.

Now, he only needed a way to contact her, to repair the damage he'd done to their relationship with his initial heavy handed contact. Leverage the fact he'd gone to bat for her receiving the bounty on the Merchants. Colin didn't regret many things, but that he hadn't managed to make a good impression on Tesla during their short first meeting was one of them. He would do better in subsequent meetings, using his studies of how others interacted to create a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

He had to if he were not to fall behind.

~~~Railgun~~~

"Taylor, wake up. Time for breakfast."

I pulled myself out of the safety of oblivion and into the harsh light of day. Not that the faint sunlight coming in through my bedroom window was all that terrible. Instead, it actually seemed to herald another beautiful Spring day.

Not that it should have. No, the day should have dawned wet and dreary with gray clouds overhead. It should be cold, the world around me still in the depths of Winter.

I had fucked up last night. I had gotten people killed. I had killed people, at least indirectly. I was an idiot and the bitterness of learning that little factoid was overwhelming.

"Taylor, stop beating yourself up over what happened. Get out of bed. Take a shower, but keep your bandage dry. I expect you down for breakfast in twenty minutes. Okay?"

I stared at the doorway where my dad stood, his eyes kind, but firm. Hesitantly, I nodded. He disappeared from the doorway, and I watched for a moment as he headed downstairs toward the kitchen to cook breakfast.

I forced myself to get out of bed. Then I went through my morning routine, although technically, I'd already violated that by not going on my morning run.

But Dad would never have stood for me going running the day after I got hurt. Not that it was that bad of an injury, the cut, while long, wasn't all that deep, not quite requiring stitches. The blade that had made it had been long and thin. Maybe if it had gone in at a different angle, the Merchant who had been holding it might have been able to stab me instead of just giving me a cut.

At the time it had been terrifying, being cut while inside of my 'invincible' suit of armor. I'd been as helpless as an upside down turtle, sick and stuck and doing my best to just try to survive.

My armor had been just the first of many mistakes I'd made. My undershirt, made of the same metal cloth as what I'd started to wear, covered only slightly more than those metallic t-shirts and tank tops. It hadn't quite come up high enough on my shoulders to completely protect me.

Instead, the Merchant had managed to wedge his blade up under my armor's pauldron, closets to my helm, then actually thrust it under the metal cloth of my undershirt. I had been injured because I was an idiot.

What I should have done was make sure that my under armor ran from the top of my head out to my fingers, then down to my toes. I should have made sure that nothing small could get through. Designed the helm and gorget so that nothing, no matter how small, could be slipped up underneath it and into me.

I had thought I was so smart, making my faceplate one solid piece, the armor glass there almost as tough as the metal itself. I had thought that I was invulnerable, that with my eyes and head protected, I couldn't be touched. It had never occurred to me that I might find myself helpless, at the mercy of foes who had none, while they had all the time in the world to probe my armor for weakness.

While I had been deep in thought, my body had continued doing my morning ablutions pretty much on auto pilot. I was now clean and dry, just needing to get dressed.

I hesitated just a second, then tossed on a silver metal cloth shirt and my black metal cloth pants over my underwear. Staring at myself in the mirror, I made sure my shirt covered my shoulder bandage, which, fortunately, it did. I smiled at my image in the mirror, then frowned at the ghastliness of my expression.

Time to face the music.

Running downstairs, I headed into the kitchen. "Good morning, Dad."

He gave me a carefully neutral look. "Taylor. Breakfast's ready."

It was odd, but Dad had pulled out all of the stops. There was bacon and eggs, and even biscuits, which if not quite from scratch, tasted almost as good even if only made from Bisquick. I filled a large glass with orange juice and began eating.

It turned out that I was hungry. I hadn't eaten since dinner the night before and had burned up a lot of calories the night before. I polished off all of my well-salted eggs, a half dozen pieces of bacon, and four biscuits, each slathered with both butter and blackberry preserves, although again well-salted.

Finally full, I sat across from Dad, waiting for the ax to fall. And waited. And waited.

Finally, growing impatient, I asked, "So, when are you going to tell me that you're forbidding me from going out again as a hero? I know that's what's on your mind."

Across from me, Dad sighed, then quietly asked, "If I did forbid you to go out and use your powers again, would you obey me?"

His words were like a punch in the gut. Because Dad was right. It was highly unlikely I'd obey him for very long if he did what I'd asked about. I knew myself that well. Even though our relationship was improving my leaps and bounds over what it had been since Mom died, it wasn't strong enough that he could pull me back from what I considered my destiny. Truthfully, I wasn't sure anything could.

Feeling the pressure of his stare, I shrugged. My voice was small as I said, "I don't know."

Dad continued to stare at me until I couldn't take it anymore. Sharply, I shook my head and said, "Okay, fine! I would go out anyway."

"I figured. You get that from both your mom and me."

Jaw dropping that he didn't even appear to be mad, I stupidly asked, "I get what?"

Dad held up a hand, which began to sprout fingers, one by one as he spoke, "Let's see: stubborn, hardheaded, self-righteous, impulsive, and having tunnel vision."

My expression must have given away how much his analysis hurt as Dad hurried added, "You also get a lot of good qualities from us, like loyalty, courage, empathy, character, and integrity. You're a good kid, Taylor, you just need to listen and look before you leap." His eyes, as he stared at me, were full of empathy.

I got up from my seat and went over and hugged Dad. He hugged me back just as hard, which stung my cut, but I didn't really care. My voice muffled, I said, "I'm sorry, Dad."

He hugged me a moment longer, then gently pushed me away. When I sat back down, he said, "Taylor, which of the rules that we came up with did you violate last night?"

We? Examining his grave features, I decided not to argue. I shrugged. "Uh... the first and the second?"

Dad smiled. He teased, "Way to go for the only two that you could have violated. But yes, the first and second rule are the ones you didn't follow. How did you not follow them?"

I hazarded, "I didn't sit down and plan what I was going to do with you? Uh... and I didn't call you?"

"Exactly, although I'd argue that you should have called the PRT, not me, when you spotted Skidmark last night. Instead, you took for granted that you could defeat him just because you'd managed to do so once."

"Twice," I murmured.

Frowning, Dad nodded. "Fine. Twice."

As we continued to talk, to discuss how things could have gone better last night, what I could have done differently, for the first time, I began to see Dad as an actual part of what I was doing, and not just an unwelcome intrusion into my hero career.

By the time I arrived at school, I was feeling a lot better about last night. Dad had reminded me that there were even Protectorate capes that had had battles that had gone at least as badly as mine. Many had gone far, far worse. And that was with the supposedly best Parahuman training possible.

My issue lay in inexperience and poor planning. I should have talked with Dad before going out and told him what I was wanted to do. Then we could have figured out a strategy together, one that didn't involve random railgun blasts around a building. Based upon our discussion, Dad had wanted me to lead with an EMP on the building. One as powerful as possible. If Squealer's truck had blown from that, so be it.

I would have been safe, not getting ganked by her sonic cannon, which, after all, had been capable of taking down Glory Girl. So it wasn't the fact that I couldn't stand up to Squealer's weapon that was the problem, but that I ever allowed it to be fired. Next time, I'd do a whole lot better.

I was pulled from my dark thoughts by someone yelling my name. "Taylor!"

Turning, I saw Victoria Dallon hurrying my way. I raised a brow at the look on her face. Tentatively, I said, "Hey, Victoria. What- oomph!"

That last part was because I was getting hugged by a Parahuman who could bench press a car. Fortunately, she let go a moment later without crushing me completely. Bemused, I stared at the girl who wore an outfit that almost matched my own, only the red of her top differing from mine. Although she definitely was not wearing a bra.

"How are you, Taylor? I haven't talked to you since Saturday night. I didn't come in yesterday because... you know. Look, I know Amy healed you, but are you really okay? I mean, you're not having nightmares about what happened Saturday, are you?"

Nightmares? Me? Actually, thinking about it, I hadn't had any nightmares that involved the events of Saturday, at least yet. I frowned as I wondered what kind of person it made me that I'd killed several people recently, yet I wasn't even having nightmares about doing so.

Of course, Victoria misinterpreted my expression. "It's going to be okay. I promise. Just give it time. Be-"

I interrupted her. "Victoria, I'm fine." At the doubtful expression on her vivacious face, I nodded firmly. "I haven't been having nightmares."

In an effort to change the subject, I asked, "Where's Amy?"

Spinning around, Victoria cursed. "Dammit! She was right here just a minute ago. She's probably hiding out in the library again. Where are you going?"

Summoning my courage, I looped one of my arms through hers and tugged firmly. "We're going to the library to find her. I haven't even thanked her yet. She probably saved my life."

Her tone blunt, Victoria said, "I'll say. You looked like hamburger for a while there, according to Chris."

No wonder he had freaked out at the dance. Although he had apologized the day before, we hadn't really talked much. I'd left as soon as my interview was over. Now though, I wondered if maybe I owed him another apology.

Realizing that the silence had gone on a bit long, I blurted, "I didn't know I was hurt that bad."

"You were. I just wish I could thank Tesla for showing up and teaching those Merchant jerks a lesson. Which reminds me, did you hear there was some big blowout last night? Supposedly, the Merchants are finished as a gang here. My mom said it looks like their leaders are all dead. Taylor, are you okay?"

I murmured, "I'm fine."

I was, too. Well, mostly. Truthfully, I was more worried about possessing sociopathic tendencies than about the people I'd killed. Or my recent near death experiences.

Victoria gave me a doubtful look as we cruised through the library doors. I had already spotted Amy and her small entourage while walking up, having the ability to see through walls being pretty handy, but made a production of searching for her anyway.

Next to me, Victoria said, "There she is. Told ya."

Together, we walked over to Amy, who was sitting at a table with Chris and Dennis. Victoria exuberantly said, "Hey guys! I found Taylor. She was trying to hide, but I sussed her out."

Dennis rolled his eyes as he looked me over. There was more than a little sarcasm in his voice as he said, "Yeah, I can see why you would have trouble spotting her. She's only wearing iridescent silver. Blends right in."

"Hey, Taylor."

I looked at Chris, then mumbled my own greeting, "Hey."

Wanting to avoid talking to him just a little longer, I turned toward Amy. I pulled her to her feet, then into a hug, feeling the stiffness in her body. After a moment, she seemed to relax and hug me back.

Not trying to hide my voice or the emotion there, I said, "Thank you so much, Amy, for healing me. I really appreciate it. You saved my life and I won't forget."

Realizing I was on the verge of tearing up, I pushed her back to arm's length, surprised by the shocked look on her face. Apprehensive, I asked, "You okay? I didn't bug you did I?"

Amy didn't speak for a moment. On the other hand, Dennis drawled, "She's probably just not used to being thanked. Our Amy's too often taken for granted." There was an undertone of bitterness there, one that I almost missed. It made me wonder just what he knew.

It also made my eyebrows approach my hairline. In front of me, Amy shrugged. She muttered, "No, it's not that. Most people do thank me. But it's all so... I don't know, repetitive? Sometimes it just feels like I'm repeating the same day with the same group of problems, the only differences being the faces. And even those sometimes blur together."

Victoria put an arm around her shoulders. "Well, healing Taylor can't be the same as anyone else you healed recently. She's practically a hero."

Amy hissed, "Victoria!"

Looking surprised, Victoria said, "I did say hero, right? I mean, she saved two people's lives. What could be more heroic than that?"

I stood there, my cheeks burning as the silence around me lengthened. Finally, Dennis put me out of my misery. "Vicky, while you're a lovely girl, tact seems to have escape you. You said 'practically a hero'. I'd guess because she doesn't have powers like you."

Looking incredibly chagrined, Victoria muttered, "That's not what I meant." Turning to me, she must have read something in my face as she said, "That is not what I meant, Taylor. You are a hero, Parahuman or not. I mean, you did more to protect people than I did. Or most of the Wards."

Maybe if I hadn't known that at least Carlos and Dennis were Wards, I would have missed it. Since I did, I caught the flash of anger that went across Dennis' face at her words. What I hadn't expected was the matching one that Chris wore for just the briefest moment.

It sealed the deal for me. Deciding I'd had enough teenage drama for the moment, I made my excuses. "Look, guys, I really need to talk to my Chemistry teacher about where I'm at in his class. I'll see you later."

With that, I hurried off, refusing to think about the hurt looks on the faces of several of my so-called friends.

That day at lunch, I sat at a table with Carla and several of her friends, ignoring Victoria's waves to join her. It was probably the first time anyone had ever snubbed her, but I wanted to think about the connotations of being involved with a Ward and other heroic Parahumans when I was anything but a sanctioned hero.

Last night, Armsmaster had wanted me to come in for a 'debriefing'. What I read from his tone, though, was that he were thinking about arresting me, possibly charging me for the deaths of the Merchants in that factory.

It wasn't something that I was going to allow to happen. Clearly, I needed to focus more on developing my powers and techniques, especially my iron sand one, while at the same time avoiding the drama of cape politics, starting with those my own age.

While I liked Victoria and Amy, as well as the other kids who I was pretty sure now were Wards, I couldn't risk my freedom and future as an independent hero by allowing them to get too close to me.

After school, I was planning on talking with Dad to see what he thought about all of this. The one thing I hadn't shared with him so far were my suspicions on the civilian identities of Dennis and company. I'd rectify that omission and get his viewpoint. Dad had a way of cutting through the bullshit to the heart of the matter. Maybe he could figure out a path going forward. I was sure as hell not having much luck doing that.

~~~Railgun~~~

Victoria Dallon leaned against her boyfriend, Dean, looking miserable. "I really didn't mean to insult Taylor. Do you think she's mad at me? She didn't sit with us today at lunch."

Dean spoke reassuringly, "I'm sure she's not. Taylor probably just needs time to process what happened on Saturday. After all, it's not every day that you almost get killed."

Dennis sat across from the couple doing all that he could to not snort. Trust Vicky to figure out a way to make this about her. Not that the girl was a bad person, but she could be incredibly self-centered at times, so focused upon herself that she missed seeing the people around and how her actions impacted them.

Like now. He'd seen the look on Taylor Hebert's face when she'd bolted. While she may have been less than enthused by Vicky's comment on how she classified her actions Saturday night, that hadn't been why she'd left. No, that was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the other teen's exit.

It was funny. Dennis had only been vaguely aware of the girl when Chris had introduced them in the hallway a while back. Oh, he'd registered the presence of the string bean of a girl, but saw her practically as a nonentity.

That is, he'd done so until the day she'd come to school dressed in something made her look like a peacock among lesser birds. On that day, Dennis had actually looked and seen the real Taylor Hebert. He'd seen sweetness and vulnerability, as well as a sort of general decency that had drawn him to her. She'd been kind and funny, goofy and awkward, but at the same time, really pretty in a brain girl-next-door kind of way. He'd actually been fighting an attraction toward her ever since.

Not that he planned to do anything about it. Even if Chris hadn't already liked her, Dennis had more than enough on his plate dealing with being a Ward as well as his father's illness. Sometimes, he wished that he could trade places with Amy Dallon so he could heal his dad as well as others, treating her ability as it was meant to be treated; as a gift, instead of the burden that she clearly saw it. At the same time, she could take his time power and go out alongside her sister, fighting criminals and villains, something he'd tired of long ago.

It just seemed like such a ridiculous waste of time, the endless games of cops and robbers that the Wards and the Protectorate engaged in. Fight a group of villains, only to see them run away after stealing something or wrecking the landscape. Even when they did capture a villainous criminal and manage to bring them to trial, far too often they would escape on the way to prison or the Birdcage.

Hookwolf, for example, had done it twice. The convicted murderer should be rotting away for life in the Birdcage right now, but because no one seemed to really care about his crimes so long as there was a chance he might help in the next Endbringer attack, he was walking around free.

He wasn't blind to the fact that villains in most cities across the US, outnumbered heroes two to one. However, in Brockton Bay, that number was substantially lower, almost one to one. That is, if you counted in independents like New Wave, Green Mile, and Hard Times.

Plus, the gangs were at one another's throats, constantly involved in an eternal game of oneupmanship. They didn't cooperate with one another, not was there much of a chance they ever would, their agendas were simply too far apart, especially when it came to the two most powerful, Empire and the ABB.

Of course, for the ABB, you might as well just say Lung. While they also had Oni Lee and a recently recruited Tinker, Bakuda, those two really weren't much of a threat. No, it was the man dragon who'd once fought Leviathan to a standstill in the ruins of Kyushu that made the people in charge of the PRT and Protectorate overly cautious, unwilling to risk a confrontation.

More than most, Dennis was aware of the things that Lung and the ABB were involved in, from prostitution and drugs to human trafficking. Perhaps Lung didn't quite have the body count of most capes who received Kill Orders, but he was responsible for at least as much, if not more, misery than almost any other Parahuman in the US. Yet, here he remained, safe and sound in Brockton Bay.

Empire 88, on the other hand, were the diametric opposite of the ABB. Despite possessing large numbers of powerful capes, some of their number had been brought to trial, even convicted of crimes. But like Hookwolf, who he'd considered earlier, none of them had actually done any prison time, escaping, with help, before they were incarcerated in a facility.

Could they be taken down by the current rosters of the Protectorate and New Wave? Dennis thought the answer was a clear yes, especially if the powers that be allowed the Wards to join in. He, himself, would like nothing more than to freeze one of their ilk in time, only for that self-same person to come to their sense in jail.

But that would never fly. Escalation, they called it.

Dennis had joined the Wards with such conviction. Had it really only been less than a year ago? Certainly it seemed like a much longer span of time that he'd spent patrolling at least four times a week. Constant training, trying to develop his power, and it was a good power, time limit or no, put so much pressure on his time.

Between school, the Wards, and now his dad's cancer, Dennis often felt like he was being stretched far too thin, like a piece of spaghetti. Those rare moments when he could go out for a burger, or hang out with his friends, were few and far between, especially lately.

Dennis frowned, aware that he was becoming far too close to the kind of whiny, angsty teen that he utterly despised. Plus, his thoughts had drifted from their target.

He'd been thinking about Taylor Hebert before he grew... distracted. And he needed to stay focused. Because unless he was an idiot, he had a rather strong suspicion that Taylor somehow knew that he and Chris were Wards.

It wasn't any one thing. It wasn't as if she'd come out and announced it or accused them of having secret identities.

Rather, it was a host of small things. Despite not really registering her as anything more than something to tease Chris about that day at Fugly Bob's, Dennis had still seen the look that Taylor had levied on their group. It hadn't been one of curiosity, questioning why they were all friends, rather, it had been one that seemingly wondered what was wrong with all of them.

At the time, or even later, Dennis hadn't questioned it. Nor did he question how uncomfortable Taylor sometimes seemed around them, almost as if they gave her goosebumps or the like. After all, having Victoria Dallon's attention was enough to make anyone uncomfortable.

Still, the idea had been percolating around in his subconscious for a while. He hadn't really consciously thought about it, even in passing, because the very idea seemed ludicrous. Until today, that is.

Today, when Victoria had made a nasty dig at how ineffectual the Wards had been at the dance Saturday night, something which had momentarily pissed him off to high heaven. Dennis could tell that Chris, too, was extremely angry at the blonde for what she'd said. Certainly, he'd complained enough about it later even as Dean tried to play peacemaker.

But the kicker had been the way that Taylor's eyes had flashed unerringly from Dennis' face to that of Chris' and back when she'd heard the word 'Wards'.

Maybe if Dennis weren't so aware of her, he wouldn't have noticed. Maybe. But while he had the reputation of a jokester, the person who didn't take anything seriously, the truth was that Dennis noticed a lot of what was going on around him. He had to. His power didn't really give him a choice.

After all, freezing things wasn't as easy as simply touching something and activating his power. If that was all that Dennis did, there would be a constant stream of casualties every time he got involved in a combat situation.

No, because of his power to freeze something in time, Dennis had had to develop a strong situational awareness. All the Wards had to, in one way or another. He believed, however, this his was stronger than any of his teammates. And with good reason: It had to be.

After all, if Missy opened a too wide space between her and a villain, the only consequence was that she, or her teammates, were even safer. If Chris shot someone with one of his hard light pistols, they might be bruised, or at worst, knocked unconscious, but little more.

On the other hand, if Dennis unthinkingly froze someone in the street, they could wake up directly in the path of an oncoming car. Or just as bad, the vehicle could strike them when they were still frozen, the ultimate immovable object, killing all within.

Or he could freeze an object that was moving rapidly in some direction, only for the landscape to change dramatically in the interim before his power wore off, other heroes, or God forbid, civilians added to the mix. In that case, someone could unthinkingly be standing in the objects path when it was released back into the time stream, and they could be killed.

He had to know what was going on around him, while at the same time, projecting those activities up to ten minutes into the future.

Situational awareness. It had been hammered into Dennis again and again. Everyone from Armsmaster to Miss Militia to Velocity had beaten it into his head until he breathed, ate, and excreted situational awareness.

So while Dennis had been aware of how angry his teammate was at Victoria Dallon's words, he'd also been equally aware of how Taylor had responded to them.

It presented him with a problem. Did he report this... suspicion to anyone? To Miss Militia? While Armsmaster was the leader of the Protectorate ENE, and his nominal boss, the man was anything but approachable. Quite possibly the most intense and driven individual that Dennis had met in his entire life, the man was utterly focused upon his own training as well as improvements in his gear. As well as utterly without humor, an equally important character flaw.

Also, while Armsmaster did make time for Chris on a regular basis, he tended to be somewhat short with non-Tinkers who tried to talk to him outside of a training situation. So bringing it up to him was pretty much out of the question.

He could talk to Miss Militia. Second in command of the Protectorate ENE and an experienced hero, she was a great deal easier to approach to than her boss. Dennis knew she would make time to see him. And she would listen. The only problem was that after listening, she would take this to their ultimate boss.

Piggy.

If Armsmaster was the head of the Protectorate ENE, he still reported to the head of the local PRT, Director Emily Piggot. And if he were without humor, Piggy was just plain mean.

The Wards often joked among themselves that the reason Piggy hated Parahumans so much was because one had been responsible for making her fat, probably because after she broke up with one, she ate herself into the shape she was in.

Dennis had no idea if that were true or not, likely not, but it was funny. And it highlighted the struggle he was feeling about knowing anything he told Miss Militia was going to be reported to the PRT Director. Hell, he hated the bitch, having been on the receiving end of more than one lecture about propriety and decorum. Not to mention the hell she'd give him over the cape name he'd picked in violation of the so-called naming conventions for Protectorate capes.

Maybe he would just let it lie for now. After all, it wasn't anything more than a suspicion, really. He could always say that he hadn't realized what Taylor did or did not know until much later. Or he could just keep quiet. In so many ways, his theory was still without legs.

Of course, Dennis was almost certain that if he asked Taylor, she would almost certainly tell him the truth, no matter how unpalatable that truth was. After all, the girl was a hero, so ridiculously brave she'd thrown herself into danger not just once, but twice on Saturday. All without any powers of her own. It was one of the reasons he thought he could trust her. So for now, he would keep his peace, remain watchful, and be ready to react if something happened.

~~~Railgun~~~

Sabah stood at the counter to her shop, the sign on her door turned to CLOSED. She was working furiously to finish sorting out the various outfits she'd needed Taylor to put together before Friday.

All told, Taylor needed to cut out and assemble twenty-five more outfits, which when sold, would result in just under a quarter of a million in sales to be split between the two of them. Combined with the multitude of outfits already present, it represented a mindbogglingly large amount of money and she couldn't help the proud smile that curved her lips.

They were already talking about Parian Designs as an up and coming design house. Of course, Sabah wasn't sure if she would have been able to make the same impact with her designs if she hadn't had such a unique material to work with or such an interesting partner to synergize alongside.

Electra. Good God, Sabah had no idea what the girl was thinking, coming up with a name like that. She certainly hoped that the girl didn't have the same issues that the mythological figure did. If so, she was a train wreck waiting to happen.

Maybe she should have a word with her? After all, she was going to be partners with the girl for the foreseeable future. Sabah could just see giving an interview and talking about her mysterious partner, then having to tell the interviewer that her partner's name was Electra. The word would stick in her throat.

Rolling her eyes, Sabah turned her attention to the front room of her shop. Whereas before, it had been rather plain, dominated by the information she posted on her own ability to provide animated figures for parades and other events, now it was truly elegant. She'd spent a substantial portion of her hard earned savings having it remodeled for the wealthy clientèle that she expected to see walking through the door. It was a risk, but one that she fully expected to pay off once business took off.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on her shop door. Still busy, with her mind focused upon her business and the future, Sabah ignored it.

Then there was a louder knock. A few seconds later, there was another. Finally, a voice called, "Parian, this is Armsmaster with the Protectorate. I know you are in there. I need to talk to you about something important."

Heart suddenly racing, Sabah peered through the blinds covering the door. A figure clad in blue and silver armor stood outside, his trademark halberd held aloft in one hand. The head of the Protectorate ENE was really standing outside her front door. Feeling faint, she unbolted the two main locks, disconnected the alarm system, and opened the door.

Staring up at the armored figure towering over her, Sabah worked hard to keep her composure. "Armsmaster? Can I help you with something?"

He was terse in his language, only saying, "Yes."

After a moment, he grudgingly added, "We should speak inside."

Since refusing entrance to the local head of the Protectorate into your business when you were a rogue who depended upon them for your business license was incredibly stupid, Sabah turned and gestured him inside. After he walked in, she bolted her two locks, but left off the alarm.

Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Sabah turned around. "What can I do for you, Armsmaster?"

He started to speak, then stopped. After a moment, he quietly said, "I need to speak with Tesla, Parian."

Who the hell was Tesla, Sabah wondered? Surprised by the unexpectedness of the request, she blurted, "I don't know who that is."

Momentarily, Armsmaster looked angry, his mouth a thin line beneath his visor. He seemed to force himself to calmness, an act which might just be scarier than his anger. "Perhaps you know her as someone else. I am referring to the person who is supplying you with the material for your new line, the one you sent samples of to Director Piggot."

Sabah felt a sense of excitement. If selling clothes to wealthy people was lucrative, selling costumes to Protectorate heroes was quite a bit more so. She would be able to charge the PRT nearly ten times as much for an outfit that was only slightly more complex than one of her regular designs if only because it was meant to be worn by a hero.

Of course, each costume would need to be a one off, but that wasn't really a problem, not with the money involved.

Trying to keep the excitement out of her voice, Sabah said, "Armsmaster, if you're looking to hire Parian Designs to make costumes for local heroes, or anyone else, I'm actually the person you want talk to. I can set you up with details such as price, time frames, available designs, and so on. I-"

Armsmaster interrupted her. "Parian, I am not here to talk about costumes."

Again, she received the impression that he was carefully controlling himself, because his voice turned almost charming a moment later.

"I have submitted my report to Director Piggot, and I am certain that she will be contacting you at some point in the future regarding using your firm. Myself, I need to speak directly to Tesla, who is most certainly your partner. Your aid in this matter is important and you would have my personal gratitude for doing so."

Sabah felt torn. She had the phone number for the burner phone that Electra had left her, but that was it. However, she was loath to provide even that much help to the Protectorate if it meant her partner might get into trouble. Their partnership wasn't something she wanted to risk.

Deciding to try to find out more information, Sabah pushed her fear and worry aside, and calmly stated, "Armsmaster, if you could tell me a bit more about why you need to speak to my partner, then maybe I could help you."

The armored figure studied her a moment, and Sabah got the impression that he was using more than human senses to do so. There were a lot of rumors about the man's armor, as well as the weapon he wielded, including that with his visor he could see through clothes, and that his halberd could sort lies from the truth.

While Sabah discounted most of that, she felt increasingly uneasy as the silence lengthened. Finally, though, Armsmaster nodded. "That is fair. Last night, Kill Orders were issued on the Merchants. Your partner, Tesla, confronted them in the lair they'd carved out in a factory in the Docks area. During the resulting battle, at least two of them were killed. I was attempting to contact Tesla in order that she might claim the bounty on those two capes, which is substantial. Now, will give me her contact information, please?"

Despite the time he'd taken to explain and his general pleasantness, there was an 'or else' that was implied at the end Armsmaster's speech, one that was impossible for her to ignore. Heart sinking, Sabah felt almost faint at just the thought of refusing. Then her thoughts turned inexorably toward Electra. You stupid girl, she thought, what the hell have you done?

~~~Railgun~~~

After school, I headed home. I'd spent the rest of the school day after lunch avoiding all of the people who I really didn't want to talk to. I'd decided earlier than even the 'new' Taylor needed a break from having to deal with the drama of others.

Once home, I put away my books and headed out to the back yard. I was utterly determined to work on my black sand technique. Dad had been especially right about one thing from the past few days; I needed a way to protect myself if I wasn't in my armor.

Sitting down crosslegged in the grass at the back of the yard facing the house, I closed my eyes. I allowed my senses to roam out, looking for the tiny bits and pieces of metallic material I'd sensed before.

After finding far more than I expected, I began pulling them out of the ground, bringing them to hover just in front of me. I focused upon this for an unknown length of time, but it had to be at least ten to fifteen minutes. Finally, I opened my eyes to see what I'd accomplished.

I could feel shock ripple through me at the sight of a mass of hovering black particles at least three feet in diameter. There had to be tens of thousands of them. How the hell-

I could feel them, each and every one of them. I had been able to from the moment I began pulling them out of the ground. My conscious mind hadn't registered just how many of them that were present. But now, at the time of them, everything fell into place.

Tentatively, I rose to my feet, bringing up the mass of particles higher as well. Using my magnetism, I quickly began forming the particles into various shapes, starting slow, but as time went on, they began forming faster and faster and faster.

Square. Triangle. Sphere. Pyramid. Trapezoid. Dodecahedron. Stylized DNA molecule.

The shapes grew more complex and interesting as I honed my power. Aware of perspiration beginning to form on my brow, I pulled heat and radiated it more than fifty feet away. Using the particles, I created a fan with blades and set it spinning to blow cool air over me.

Smiling at the sensation of a cool breeze on my skin, I considered the circumstances of what I'd just done.

Last week, it had been incredible difficult to even find many of the black metallic particles that I had spinning before me. Today, it had not only been easy, but I'd found at least a thousand times as many, maybe even more.

What had happened in the interim? My thoughts immediately flew to the two battles I had been involved in against the Merchants. At the dance, I'd pushed my power harder than I ever had in training, first creating the immense coronal discharges as a distraction, then creating that EMP. Finally, I had snatched those nails out of midair, and flung them back at their source, killing two people.

At the time, I had through it felt like something was tearing inside of me, but just a short time later, I'd felt fine. My power hadn't, at any point, felt weakened or difficult to use.

At the Merchants' hideout, I had been taken down by Squealer's Sonic Cannon. For a time, I hadn't been able to access my powers. At the time, I had thought that it was because of my inner ear being upset, certainly I'd vomited copiously from the exposure.

However, thinking about it now, I wondered. Glory Girl hadn't been able to fly for a while after getting hit by that same weapon. While she, too, had been ill, vomiting herself empty, why would that stop her from being able to fly?

I was beginning to have the beginnings of a theory. Had Squealer's weapon had some form of power suppression as a part of it? Was that why it had felt for just a moment as if my powers had deserted me?

And if so, when I had finally been able to penetrate the interference and grasp them once more, had it made my link with my powers stronger?

Unfortunately, there was no real empirical evidence. Only the huge mass of black sand still going through its ten thousandth permutation indicated that something was different.

However, in my heart, I was convinced. I had gotten stronger, most likely by pushing my powers harder than I had ever pushed them before. Even the EMP I had set off last night had been stronger than any previous usage of my power by at least a factor of ten, if not more.

My mind still focused on my power's possible growth, I brought the black sand to a hover right in front of me and formed it into a sword. It was something I'd been wanted to attempt for some time. Still using my power, I set the iron particles around the sword's edge to oscillating back and forth as fast as I could.

Walking over to the old stump that I'd once used as a table for tea parties back when I was little, I swung the sword down one side of the stump, watching as it sliced off a sizable piece of the wood. Then I did it again. And yet again.

I felt no real form of resistance and afterward, when I looked over the wood itself, I noted the smoothness of the cut wood. Impossibly smooth. As if the sword was ridiculously sharp.

Staring at the sword in my hand, at the blade that was beginning to glow as the particles there heated up from their continuous motion, I knew I needed to go out tonight and test this new ability. Find out what its limits were.

Dad wouldn't like it, but I thought he'd go along so long as I took precautions. I already planned to rework my armor's undersuit so that it covered me fully. Maybe if I played my cards right, I could even get Dad to come with me to my lair and rig up some lights like he'd suggested.

Deciding I'd spent enough time working on this technique, I allowed the black sand to collapse, pushing it back into the ground. It was time to work on dinner. After all, Dad was always easier to talk to on a full stomach.

With that little thought in mind, I headed inside.

~~~Railgun~~~