Notes: Okay, so first of all don't worry. There will be more of Atonement. I was simply in the mood to try something different in the same universe to give myself a chance to write from the start again with a slightly different concept. This story, Intrepid, will run concurrently with Atonement, though the two are completely unrelated. There will be four separate POV subjects in this story, each following a different character with a different group. They will be: Emma with the Undersiders, Madison as an independent, Sophia with the Wards, and Taylor with Faultline's Crew. How all of that comes about will become more clear as things go on.

In any case, have fun reading, and please let me know what you think.

1-01 – Emma

April 11th, 2011

"Hey, Woody, Sophia's on the phone. Again." That was my older sister, Anne, of course. She was the only one who called me Woody, after the old cartoon woodpecker. He had been my favorite character when I was a kid, since his hair was like mine. I'd wanted to be just like him, so when Anne had started calling me by the name, I had actually enjoyed it. Still, it was our thing.

Well, ours and one other person's, one other girl who had been allowed to call me Woody along with my sister. She had practically been a sister. Before I fucked everything up. Before I ruined everything.

Anne was at the doorway of my bedroom with our family's little used cordless in her hand. I wasn't sure why we still had that thing considering we all had our own cells. Pretty much the only people that called on it were telemarketers or scammers. Not that there was much of a difference.

Standing with the phone held out, Anne added, "She said she tried your cell and couldn't get through."

Oh, right. And people we didn't want to talk to on our cells. They used the house phone too. And now that Anne had so graciously made it obvious that I was here, I had no choice but to rise from the bed where I had been sitting and step over to take the handset from her.

"Look," Anne kept her hand over the receiver before I could take it. "I don't know what's going on between you two, or if it has to do with what happened to Taylor. But if you don't want to talk to this girl anymore, you need to make it clear to her instead of just not picking up the phone."

"Gee thanks," I snapped without thinking. "Do you have an advice column I can subscribe to?"

Anne's expression changed and she released the phone before spinning on her heel to walk out of the room. I regretted what I'd said immediately and called after her, "Wait, Anne, I was just-" But my bedroom door closed behind her, leaving me facing the tall mirror that was mounted to it.

For a second, I just stared at myself. A detached part saw what other people noticed when they looked at me, a sixteen year old girl with red hair and curves in all the right places. Not so long ago, I had thought that my appearance, the fact that people thought I was beautiful enough to model, meant that I was somehow better than others. Better than her. I had reveled in their looks of admiration, secretly pleased at the knowledge that boys liked to sneak glances at me when they thought I didn't know.

My hair wasn't long anymore. In a fit of frustration and emotion, I had hacked about half of it off shortly after... after everything had gone wrong. I had spent almost an hour just staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, wondering who exactly was staring back at me, my mind spinning through everything bad I had done, every betrayal I had committed to get to that point. Finally, I had stormed from the bathroom to the kitchen, grabbed my mother's fabric scissors, and started hacking away at the long, glorious red hair that I had been so in love with for so long. Snip after snip, I'd wanted it all gone.

I'd butchered the job, of course. The cuts had been jagged and uneven, with part of my hair still reaching my shoulders while other parts were cut up around my ears. I had been sobbing, hacking away at my hair with such blind vigor that it was a wonder I hadn't cut myself. All I'd known was that I desperately didn't want to be me anymore. I wanted to be anyone else.

Maybe I would have cut myself, maybe I would have done even worse things with those scissors, if something else hadn't happened first, if my life hadn't changed in a completely different way. But something else had happened, the person I was had been changed to make me fundamentally different from the person that I had been before in a way far beyond a simple haircut.

My parents had been horrified, of course, though neither of them really said much about it. My father gave me the money to get my hair fixed into the pixie cut that it was now, and my mother said that my emotion was 'understandable'. Still, I heard them talking to each other when they thought I couldn't hear them, and I knew that they thought there was something terribly wrong with me.

If only they knew what kind of girl I was, what kind of evil I'd done. If only I could tell make them understand.

Realizing that I had been standing there for several seconds now, staring at myself in the bedroom mirror, I lifted the phone to my ear. Still, it took a moment before I found my voice. "Hello."

"Jeeze, there you are." Sophia's voice came through. I could hear the annoyance that she was trying to mask. "Are you sure you didn't move to Mars or something? It's so hard to get hold of you lately."

For a moment, I said nothing. It took a couple of seconds for me to adapt myself to the personality that I needed Sophia to hear. Staring at myself through that hesitation, I breathed in and then out before pitching my voice to sound harried and annoyed, but cheerful. "Oh god, you have noooo idea. I'd love to go to Mars, maybe I wouldn't have to work at the damn hospital so much."

Sophia groaned in return. "You too? Shit, you should see how much work they've got me doing in the PRT building. Fuck, with the way they're acting, you'd think we killed the little freak or something."

No, we hadn't killed Taylor. But in some ways, what we had done was worse. At least death was a release, an ending. The Taylor that had come out of the locker full of bloody tampons that we had shoved her into hadn't been the same Taylor that had gone into it. When the janitor had pulled her out of that horrible place, she had been... wrong, broken. Something inside her, something inside the girl that had been my best friend before I betrayed her, had snapped. Taylor had become catatonic, never reacting to what anyone said. She just stared off into space, hardly blinking, hardly moving save for occasionally curling herself into strange, awkward positions that looked horribly uncomfortable. She didn't feed herself, and gave no indication that she knew who anyone was or what they were saying. She wasn't dead, but she was, for all intents and purposes, gone.

"Hey, yo." Sophia's voice was louder, calling me back from my wandering thoughts. "You there?"

"Yeah," I replied, shaking myself out of it and forcing my voice into as casual of a tone as I could make it. "Sorry, just making sure I've got everything ready to go to the hospital tonight."

"Fuck, seriously?" Sophia sighed. "They're really working you to the bone, huh? Hey, did you ever get a chance to ask that doctor guy who gave us up? It was Madison, wasn't it? I knew she was a pussy."

She was right, in a way. It had been Madison who had told the authorities about what we had done that led to Taylor's current state. But I had been there as well. We had both told the truth and the result had been... probation and community service. We'd gotten a slap on the wrist. I'd been assigned to the hospital, Sophia was doing extra work around the PRT building where, as one of the Brockton Bay Wards she spent a lot of time anyway, and Madison was assigned to the local parks where she picked up garbage, pulled weeds, and trimmed the grass, among other things.

They had not removed Sophia from the Wards team. Of course not. After all, Taylor hadn't died, and she wasn't able to complain now. To them, it was a case of a prank gone too far, hardly something to remove one of their super-special teen superheroes from her position.

Sophia didn't know who exactly had told the truth about what we'd done. The authorities had kept that much secret, saying only that it was an 'anonymous source.' I think they did that because they felt at least a bit bad about the fact that they weren't doing anything more to stop Sophia, and knew how she would react if she knew that Madison and I had been the ones to 'betray her.' They were throwing us a bone by 'protecting us', for whatever that was worth. That or they were afraid of my dad's reaction. He was a lawyer, and he had been fanatic about protecting his little girl, even from herself. He refused to let me testify without him there, and he'd constantly ordered me not to answer questions that I wanted to answer. He'd said it was for my own good, but we still hadn't talked much in the last couple of months. I couldn't stand to look at him and know that he was part of the problem.

I would have preferred if they had thrown us all into juvenile detention. At least that would have been something. At least that would have shown that Taylor mattered. But this? This was wrong. So wrong.

That had been the day before I freaked out and started cutting my hair off. After all that had happened, finding out that they were only giving us community service had made me take those scissors and ruin one of my most defining features. It had the thing that drove me into a state where I might have done worse things with those scissors, if my life hadn't changed in a completely different way.

"No," I shook my head before Sophia could press me again. "It wasn't Madison. She's in trouble just like we are, remember?" Part of me wanted to scream that it had been both of us, that Madison and I had both told the truth and that I never wanted to see her psychotic face again. But I didn't. Not because I actually wanted to be friends with Sophia, but because I didn't want her to know just how much I despised her, and myself. I didn't want her to know that until I found some way of getting Taylor the justice that she deserved, the justice that the PRT and the authorities had refused to deliver.

No, this was justice that I was going to have to find on my own, without any help. Luckily, that wasn't impossible, not anymore. It was going to take work and training, but that was part of why I had been so impossible for Sophia to reach lately. When I wasn't working at the hospital, I had been busy preparing. And tonight would be the first test, the first trial run to see if I was ready for the next step. It would be my first night going onto the streets and trying to help people who couldn't help themselves.

I was so nervous I felt sick inside. Part of me wanted to put it off for next weekend, but I knew that if I did that, I would keep doing it. I would put it off to the next week, and then the week after that. No, it was time. If I was serious about this, if I was serious about being a better person and finding a way to help Taylor the only way that I could, I needed to go outtonight.

"So you reaaaaaaaally don't have time to hit the mall?" Sophia cajoled. "We could hit up Frederick's and then get some ice cream. You know you want it. C'mon, it won't take that long."

"Sorry." I wasn't. "You know how they get when I'm late. Maybe tomorrow or something."

Murmuring an apology in response to her obvious disappointment, I disconnected the phone and dropped the handset onto my bed. After checking to make sure my door was locked this time, I crossed to the closet and opened the door. Digging into the back, I found what I was looking for, the costume that I had put together out of what I had been able to both scrounge and order with the credit card that my father provided. He'd been happy enough thinking that I was getting new clothes, and hadn't bothered to pay attention to what I was actually ordering.

It wasn't a complicated affair, because I had been worried about attracting attention. The base part of the 'costume' itself mainly consisted of a pair of dark red pants, red running shoes with black laces and soles, and a black long sleeved shirt with a sort of red pattern sprinkled over it almost like glitter. It looked a lot like bright red dust that had just been dumped over the shirt in a random pattern.

To that, I had added a black ski mask that had a pair of plastic, eye-protecting lenses built in. The lenses looked red on the outside, and were too dark to see through. On the inside, however, the view was as normal and clear as looking through a clear window.

Besides the mask, I also had a pair of what were apparently called SAP gloves. They were red leather, and had some kind of powdered metal built into the knuckles. It was like wearing brass knuckles, except that they were much more subtle. Plus, the SAP gloves supposedly distributed their concussive force evenly to help ensure a knock-out from the blow, as opposed to the brass knuckles themselves where the point was to concentrate the force into a small area in order to do tissue damage.

I had done a lot of reading on subjects like that over the past couple of months, along with the self-defense lessons that I had needled my parents into letting me take, ostensibly just so that I wouldn't feel helpless. But tonight, there would be no more reading. Tonight, I was going to actually do something.

At least, I was going to do something if any opportunity cared enough about my first night 'on patrol' to actually show itself. Instead, I had been wandering along the Docks area of town, a part of the city that my parents constantly forbade me from going, looking for people to help. Thus far, the sum total of my experience amounted to two different hookers propositioning me, another one shouting at me to get the hell off her turf, a homeless guy begging for change (I gave him the ten dollar bill that I still had buried in my pockets from getting lunch the day before), and a pack of wild cats that took severe offense to my presence in their alley.

Being a cape was harder than it looked. Harder than Sophia made it seem, that was for sure. All I'd heard from her for years now was how many thugs she had to beat the crap out of every night. She had made it sound as though she and she alone was holding back the tide of a crime wave about to topple the city into anarchy.

I, meanwhile, was seriously considering calling it a night and going home.

"Where are those little bitches?" The voice coming from the opposite end of the alley that I was walking through startled me, and I looked up to see a group of Asian guys standing around the mouth of the alley.

They hadn't noticed me yet. Another of the men used a bat that he was holding to smack the nearby wall with a clang. "All I know is, I'm gonna break that cocky Gweilo's face open with this. See how much she wants to talk about my mother with a broken skull."

"Fuck that," Another man spat. "I just want to put my knife in her throat. She won't talk so much then."

Oh god. Oh jeeze. A bunch of armed Asian gang members? This wasn't a couple random muggers, this was the ABB. This was far beyond what I had been looking for. And yet, they were talking about hurting people, about killing them. Could I live with myself if I didn't try to do something?

The police. I had the disposable cell phone that I had bought. I could call the police.

Unfortunately, before I could do more than take a single step backward, someone shoved me hard from behind. I went sprawling forward with a yelp, turning over to see another of the Asian men standing there with a metal pipe in his hand. He laughed and called out something in a language that I didn't understand, then pointed at me with the pipe.

"Doesn't look like one of them," one of the others called back after giving me a brief look. "Doesn't matter though. Put her down and we'll toss her in with the rest of them."

The man with the pipe shrugged and then reared back. He brought that pipe down toward my head while I lay sprawled on the ground, frozen in fear.

At the last second, I remembered that I wasn't helpless. As that pipe came whistling down, I focused.

The sensation that came over me was similar to diving into a cold pool. A shiver went through me, and I stared for a brief second at the pipe. It hung suspended in the air, frozen along with the man who held it. His face was twisted in dismissive arrogance that was clear even through the faint red haze that hung over the entire area. Everything looked like I was seeing it through a red filter, from the man frozen with the pipe in front of me, to the equally frozen men a short distance away.

Meanwhile, my own body looked normal, except for being somewhat transparent. I could, if I squinted, see through myself. I had also found that it was possible for me to go through objects, similar to the way that Sophia did. And I was weightless, able to float at will.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of downsides. I couldn't interact with anything in this state, for one. For another, I couldn't breathe. I could only 'hold' the state for as long as I could hold my breath. And similar to doing that, I needed a few seconds of recovery after doing it once to catch my breath and do it again. The more often I did it, the more tiring it was. At first I had only been able to do it once or twice every fifteen minutes or so, but like any muscle, it got better the more I stretched it. Still, I couldn't use it indefinitely, and I needed that few seconds in between uses to collect myself.

Rising from the ground, I moved straight through the pipe with my ghost-like form, along with the man himself. Turning once I was behind him, I let the effect drop.

The view turned back to normal, the red haze vanishing. Air rushed back into my lungs, and the man yelped as my body seemed to, from his point of view, abruptly vanish. His pipe clanged off the ground where my head had been, and he stumbled forward.

Before he could recover, I took two steps forward and kicked him as hard as I could between the legs from behind. My foot made solid impact, and he went down with a squeal, dropping the pipe in the process.

"Well lookie there." One of the men said, ignoring the fallen man. "Looks like we do have another cape to deal with after all. Teleporter, huh? Guess what, we got one of those too."

The men parted to reveal another figure, who stood staring at me from behind one of those evil-looking Chinese demon masks with the leering smile. As soon as I saw him, every thought that I might be able to get through this all right dropped out my head with an almost audible thunk.

Oni Lee.

I was so dead.

1-02 – Emma

The instant after I saw Oni Lee, there was only one thing on my mind: getting away without being maimed or killed. He was so far outside of my league that it would have made me cry if I hadn't had so much energy tied up in trying not to pee myself. He was a trained, deadly assassin. I was a stupid girl with a parlor trick who thought she could do some good by wandering aimlessly on the streets.

I was an idiot, and I was about to get myself killed for it.

The by now familiar red filter fell over my vision as I retreated into my time-stop space. My fear of the man in the demon mask drove me to spin around, intending to escape. In the back of my head, I told myself that if I got far enough away, I could use my phone to call the cops, or even report the presence of a villain cape to the PRT. That would be helpful, right? I didn't actually have to fight this psychopath.

Unfortunately, spinning around brought me face to face with the very same leering demon mask that I had been trying to run away from. Oni Lee had already teleported behind me, and his hand was frozen in mid-motion on its way down toward my face with one of his many knives clutched within it.

Obviously, spinning to flee from a monster in what was pretty much already toeing the line toward blind panic, only to practically run face first into the knife he was using to stab you from behind was utterly terrifying. My heart leapt into my throat and I let out an squeal while literally falling backwards.

Even worse, my surprise made me lose focus, so the real world snapped back into real time. The only thing that saved me from taking that knife right to the forehead and prematurely ending my career as a cape within thirty seconds of it starting was the fact that I was already falling down.

To Oni Lee, it must have looked as if he was bringing his knife into the neck of an unsuspecting girl from behind, only to have her abruptly switch positions to be facing toward him while also falling onto her ass. And screaming, because obviously all the best heroes scream when faced with danger.

The good news was, naturally, that I wasn't dead. The bad news was that I hadn't avoided the knife entirely. My arms had reflexively flailed upward to shield my face as I fell, and that blade had sliced straight through the sleeve of my shirt, cutting into my arm just above the elbow. Compounded with the fact that I had fallen hard enough onto my backside to leave bruises, and this fight was going about as well as a teenage girl versus a trained assassin could go.

Actually, with that in mind, I was doing better than I should have. Go me. A whole three seconds into this and I wasn't dead yet.

Of course, that particular fact was something that Oni Lee apparently meant to correct. I'd barely had time to hit the ground and register both the pain in my back and the pain in my arm before I caught a glimpse of the masked man snapping his hand down.

Reflex saved my life then, as I jumped back into my time-stop state just in time to find myself face to face with that knife once more. The man had expertly thrown it at me, and I had stopped time just before it would have gone straight through the red lens of my ski mask to embed itself in my eye. It was so close that if I hadn't been wearing that mask (and been incorporeal), blinking might have shaved off some of my eyelash. A fraction of a fraction of a second later and I would have been dead.

Miraculously, this time I avoided losing my focus. Rolling away from the knife, I came to my feet and looked around. Those men with the guns were still at one end of the alley, and as I looked the other way, I saw another group coming around the corner. The alley was too long for me to get past either group and completely out of sight before they could react. And as if that wasn't bad enough, my panic was making it harder to hold my breath for as long as I'd been able to during practice. Apparently there was a rather massive difference between not breathing in the safety of my own home or school, and not breathing in the middle of an actual, genuine fight. I was afraid, and so my body wanted to hyperventilate. Instead, it was forced not to take any oxygen at all. That wasn't working very well, and it was making it harder for me to think straight, which was making that whole breathing thing worse.

Finally, I thought to look up. Spotting a fire escape, I let myself float up and off of the ground. This was a trick that I hadn't been brave enough to test very much, but lifting myself vertically wasn't all that hard. I pretty much just looked at the direction I wanted to go and... went, even if that direction was up.

Making it as far as the second landing of the fire escape before my lungs felt like they would burst, I dropped onto it while letting time go back to normal.

Below me, there was a metal clang as the knife that Oni Lee had thrown rebounded off of the sidewalk. One of the men shouted, wanting to know where I went, and I could see the assassin himself fall into a pile of white ash. He had already teleported somewhere else.

Intent on getting out of sight, I pushed myself up and took a few deep breaths, preparing to use my power again. Unfortunately, one of the men below spotted me before I could, shouting something in what I thought was Mandarin that probably amounted to 'the idiot is on the fire escape, kill her!'

Here's the thing, gunshots are loud. In the confined space of an alley, they're even louder. I heard something like a car backfiring several times, and something ricocheted off the metal bar of the fire escape within a few inches of my head. They were shooting at me. They were shooting at me.

The fact that that was only the second most terrifying thing to happen to me so far in the last two minutes said some pretty horrible things about how this night was going.

And speaking of things that were even scarier than being shot at, I felt the metal of the fire escape shift suddenly as Oni Lee's weight settled onto it just ahead of me. The man lashed out with a blindingly fast kick. I could stop time, but I could only do that at the speed of my own thought and reaction. In that moment, I was too busy being terrified, so the kick took me right in the chest. The metal railing smacked me hard in the waist as I was thrown backwards, and then I was tumbling off of the landing with a cry, falling back toward the ground.

Freezing time once more, I found myself floating in the air, fighting the urge to throw up from the hard kick to the chest, to say nothing of the blind fear that had taken hold of me.

Rolling over in the air, I brought myself closer to the ground. Ahead of me, I could see the gathered men all aiming their guns up toward where I had been. A couple of tiny metal objects in my path showed that some of them had already been shooting. If I hadn't frozen time right when I had, I wouldn't even have lasted long enough to actually hit the ground.

Behind the men I could see a different figure, the exact same figure that had just kicked me off of the fire escape. Oni Lee had already abandoned his place up there, probably because he was about as eager to be shot at by these trigger happy assholes as I was. He'd kicked me out into their path and then jumped back to safety.

Knowing that I wouldn't be able to hold my breath for that much longer, I dropped straight to the ground. Feeling my lungs shouting their complaints, I aimed for the nearby dumpster. At any other time, I probably would have been grossed out by what I was about to do. At that moment, however, all I could think about was getting out of sight. Passing through the closed lid, I found that the good news was that the dumpster wasn't full. On the other hand, it wasn't empty either. This was going to suck.

Fortunately, I wasn't so vapid (anymore) that being in a garbage can or being shot was some kind of hard choice. Releasing my power, I breathed in air. Which I immediately regretted, because this particular air wasn't exactly spring fresh. Still, I forced myself to breathe, while listening to the gunfire outside along with the shouts of the confused men. My foot brushed something sticky, while my hand was shoved against what I could only hope was a half eaten hamburger. God, I wanted to cry.

Outside, I heard one of the men call out a single word in another language that apparently meant for them to stop. Then someone said in English, "Fuck it, let's just put a few bullets in those stupid kids and call it a day. If the baita shows up again, she'll get it too."

Kids? The people they were trying to kill were kids? Oh man. Damn it. I couldn't hide from that. No matter how terrified I was, I just couldn't let them leave now. Not if I wanted to live with myself afterward. Abandoning Taylor... no, worse,betraying Taylor had been bad enough. I already deserved no more respect or care than the garbage I was hiding with. If I hid and did nothing while these guys killed some children, I would be worse than scum. I wouldn't deserve to live.

So, after closing my eyes and breathing a couple more times (because I just hadn't had enough of that dumpster air, yum), I used my power again. The world went red, and I stopped feeling the awful, sticky sensation of the rotting garbage around me.

Floating through the side of the dumpster, I found myself back in the alley once more. The men were all frozen in the motion of turning to leave, their two groups merging into one larger whole on their way to, apparently, murder some kids.

Or rather, most of them were. The man that I had kicked between the legs was still leaning against the nearby wall, gathering himself. Spotting what I was looking for on the ground at his feet, I floated that way and went down to one knee. Putting a hand right over the metal pipe that the man had used to attack me, I braced myself and then let time go back to normal. I had to do that so that I could interact with the pipe, or my hand would have gone right through it.

Normal color and sound came back into the scene, but only for a moment. I closed my hand around the pipe while simultaneously taking a deep breath and then immediately used my power again, shutting time down and freezing everyone once more.

Hurrying down the alley while holding the pipe tight in one hand, I literally ran right through the men until I reached the front of the group. Oni Lee was there, that demon mask making my heart thud heavily in my chest, the pain of which reminded me of just how hard he had kicked me.

For a moment, I did nothing but stare into the painted face of that leering demon. Somehow, that ear to ear smile, the mocking grin, morphed in my head to become my own smile. I saw myself in that monstrous visage, as Taylor must have seen me toward the end. In that evil, demonic smile I saw what Taylor had probably seen whenever she turned a corner to find me waiting.

Somehow, without planning it, I took that pipe into a two-handed grip and swung as hard as I could. In mid-swing, I let time go back to normal and screamed as loud as I could. It was a shout that was filled with as much fear as it was anger. Fear of myself, fear of what I had been, of the man in front of me, of the situation I had put myself in, and of what would happen if Taylor never got better. My terror and revulsion toward the monster that I had been drove my swing.

Oni Lee didn't even have a full second to realize what was happening, because by the time the world shifted back to normal, my borrowed pipe was already about six inches from his face. It connected hard, and I saw the mask crack under the blow as the man himself was pitched to the ground.

Before the men around me could fully react to that, I closed my mouth to stop screaming and took a deep breath. At the same time, I swung the pipe the other way, connecting with the wrist of the nearest ABB thug which knocked the gun from his hand. Then I jumped back into my time freeze just long enough to literally throw myself through the man to my left that was bringing his own gun up to point at where I had just been.

Dropping down while letting time snap back again, I heard the gunshot go off from the man that I was now behind. It was loud, and I felt like screaming again but managed to stop myself. Screaming took up air, and I needed air to keep using my power. Otherwise, I was dead.

From my crouched position, I swung my pipe hard into the back of the man's knee, dropping him to the ground with a cry. His gun skittered across the pavement, and I jumped back into the time freeze yet again. Even now, I could feel the wooziness that came from using my power too often. I had to keep pushing myself, but I wasn't sure how many more times I could do it.

No choice. I had to keep going. Pushing myself into the air, I pivoted to see Oni Lee back on his feet and standing behind me. His mask had a large crack in it, revealing part of his face. It was not a happy looking face. Again, I swung my pipe two-handed and let time go back to normal.

Unfortunately, this time the pipe passed right through the man as he collapsed into white ash. Realizing what that meant, I froze time again and spun back the other way. Another Oni Lee was behind me, but before I could do anything about that fact, I lost hold of my breath. Time rushed back to normal while my traitorous body sucked in oxygen just in time for the man to nail me with another kick that put me back on the ground.

Apparently he was done playing with me, because he didn't draw a knife that time. Instead, the man yanked a small spherical object that I belatedly realized what a grenade from his bandoleer.

A grenade? Seriously?

My eyes widened with shock behind my mask, knowing that I wasn't ready to use my power again. Not after it had just failed on me only a few seconds earlier.

Then, rather than drop the grenade on me, I saw the man's arm jerk suddenly to the side. The grenade went flying off down the alley, scattering the men who saw it coming. There was an explosion of noise that made the gunfire sound like the little white popper fireworks that Taylor and I used to play with as kids. The dumpster that I had hid in went flying with a hole in the side.

Before I could even try to figure out what Oni Lee had found so much more threatening about that dumpster than me (besides absolutely everything), his body faded into white ash again.

I still couldn't hear properly, but my eyes were working just fine. Though my brain disputed that fact as I saw a monstrous creature, as big as a truck, land on the pavement between me and the surrounding ABB soldiers. It looked like some cross between a jaguar and a lizard, and I couldn't help the cry of fear that escaped me.

"Take my hand!" A voice demanded from somewhere on top of the lizard... animal... thing. I finally lifted my gaze to find a figure in black motorcycle leathers with a matching helmet that had a skull stylized on the front of it. He was holding his arm out toward me from his perch on the back of the creature.

Gaping for another second, I slowly reached my hand up and took his. The man in black hauled me up and off of the ground easily. I found myself suddenly plopped onto the back of the monster, behind the guy in motorcycle leathers. There was someone else ahead of him, but I couldn't make out more than what looked like a white mask and some kind of crown on his head.

"Go." The man in black urged, and the monster we were on took three bounding steps away from the ABB members, nearly knocking me off in the process.

"Hold on," the guy who had pulled me onto this monster urged. "It's not the ABB we have to worry about now, it's getting away from those guys."

He pointed, and I turned to see three police cars and PRT van parked not ten feet away. The officers had their weapons out as they stared directly at us. One of them shouted for us to stop, but the monster I was sitting on leapt all the way up and over the gathered vehicles. I screamed in spite of myself and grabbed onto the waist of the guy in leather.

Behind us, the police cars reversed out of their spots and turned to follow.

"Why are they chasing us?!" I managed to get out, my head spinning.

It wasn't the guy in leather who answered, but the other, the one wearing the crown. "Man, you must be new at this. Chasing is usually what they do to bad guys. It's kind of their job."

Bad guys? Wait... wait...


1-03 – Taylor

My wings beat the air rapidly as I climbed higher, away from the tree that I had been perched on for the last several minutes. Someone walking past beneath my branch had disturbed me, so I flew with fast, hard wing beats to the next tree over before pecking once at a caterpillar that was inching its way along the bark. One snap of my small beak and the bug was gone.

As the still wiggling food made its way to my stomach, my head cocked backward toward the thing that had unwittingly driven me from my previous perch. At the same time, I let out a shrill chirp of warning to stay away. My searching eyes found a man in a drab gray business suit, walking hurriedly toward a car in the nearby lot while talking rapidly on his cell phone. As I chirped again, louder, the man turned his head slightly to look up at me. Our eyes met.

A girl sitting in the corner of a room, the lights dimmed to allow her the opportunity to sleep. Her eyes gaze at a tiny spot on the wall, while a tiny spot of drool dots the corner of her lip. Long, dark hair, her one source of pride in her appearance, lays limp against her shoulders. She is alone.

I'm walking at a brisk pace along the sidewalk after turning away from the bird that had been disturbed by my exit. As I strode toward my car, I continued to berate the person on the other side of the phone that was held to my ear. No, I didn't want to go to over to Dan and Margaret's for dinner. Didn't she know the game was in a couple hours? No, I can't watch the game there. Dan's television is the size of a god damn postage stamp. Can't they come over to our place? Well, how was I supposed to know the stove still wasn't working? Order out, we'll eat Thai or something. Yes, I know what your mother said. Of course I want to talk to you, as long as it's not in the middle of the game.

By the time the phone call had ended, I was in my car, reversing out of the lot with a frustrated sigh. Making the turn onto the busy road took even more time, which I spent drumming my fingers along the steering wheel, loudly complaining to myself in the empty car.

Just as I was about to pull onto the finally clear road, a boy on a skateboard came rolling out of nowhere across my line of sight. My foot stabbed at the brake, jolting the car to an abrupt stop while I leaned on the horn and bellowed after the dumbass kid for nearly making me hit him. The boy rolled onward, turning a bit to gaze back at me while lifting his middle finger lazily. Our eyes met.

"Taylor?" A male nurse crouches next to the corner where the girl has moved herself. She doesn't move often, but when she does it's almost always to put herself either in this corner or the one next to the doorway. He doesn't know why she likes it in the corners so much, but if it makes her even a little bit happier, they don't question it too much. The doctors aren't even sure exactly what the problem is. She isn't strictly catatonic, because she will eat if food is pressed into her mouth, and guiding her to the bathroom will result in the appropriate measures being taken. But other than that and occasionally pushing herself from the bed to these corners, she shows little to no reaction to stimuli.

"I've got your dinner here, Taylor. Are you ready to eat?" His eyes watch her for any signs of reaction. There are none. Still, he presses on. "Let's see what we've got tonight, huh? Ooh, looks like chicken pasta. Here we go, can you take a bite for me?" The plastic spoon hovered in front of the girl's mouth and lightly touched against it. Obediently, her lips parted and she took the food before mechanically.

I'm rolling along the sidewalk on my board after shooting the red-faced driver of that sweet Pontiac a quick bird. What kind of guy could have a car that cool and still get so pissed off?

The sound of the wheels on my board rhythmically hitting the cracks in the sidewalk has a nice lulling effect, and I forget the angry man. Coasting down the next hill, I easily swerve to avoid the woman walking her dog, greeting both her and her four-legged companion by name while giving her golden retriever a casual two finger salute. He barks once, and I look back that way. Our eyes meet.

The nurse is telling the girl about his day. It's a ritual they have, even though the girl never responds. He feeds her patiently, lifting the spoon for her to take one bite at a time, all the while telling her about the sweet new PC rig his roommate bought the day before. He tells the girl about how long his roommate has been saving up for that particular computer, and how long it took them to get it set up.

I'm trotting along next to the woman holding my leash. My nose sniffs the ground eagerly, hunting for just the right spot to do my business, an unmarked, unclaimed area. Finally finding an appropriate stretch of fence, I pace around it a couple of times, then lift my leg and...

Taylor. Taylor. I'm Taylor. I'm not a dog. I know who I am. I'm Taylor Hebert. My father is Danny. My mother's name was Annette. She died in a car crash. I'm a person, a human being. I'm not here on the sidewalk with this dog and the woman walking him. I'm in the hospital, at the psychiatric wing. My vision was here, but my body, my person was back in that hospital room.

I know those things. I know this isn't real, that the people and animals whose bodies I find myself a helpless passenger in aren't me. It's just... hard, so hard to focus. It's so easy to forget and let myself be carried away. Sometimes it's only for a few minutes, while other times days pass before my consciousness struggles to the top, like an ocean diver finally surfacing.

I am the dog, yet I'm not. I see through the dog's eyes, feel what it feels, smell what it smells, and so on. I see everything through the point of view of the dog, which makes it so hard to cling to my own thoughts. They drift, and minutes pass before my struggling mind forces another coherent thought: Dad. Where is he? Is he okay? Has he already visited me today? Did I miss it? How long was I gone this time? How long was I away on this latest episode?

It takes effort, more than I can muster some days, but somehow I muster the concentration to force my point of view to change. I need to go back. I need to go back to my body.

Something like a blink comes, and then I'm there. Or at least as close as I can get. I can see my body. Rather than seeing through my own eyes, my point of view somehow encompassed the entire room. It was like standing in the middle of an area and having three hundred and sixty degree vision, yet somehow even more than that. I could see everything at once, no matter what direction someone was facing. I was able to simultaneously watch every part of this space. Even when someone is looking down, or in the opposite direction from what should have been my point of view, I can somehow see their face. If they're inside my sphere of attention, I can see everything.

I see the male nurse feeding me, and taste the food in my mouth. Yet unlike the dog, the skateboarder, the angry man, or the bird, I can't see through my own eyes. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I focus, I can't force myself back into my own body. Instead, I have this strange, perfect view that shows me the entirety of the room. Yet I can't jump back into my body. I can't open my own eyes and see through them, the way that I can see through the eyes of so many others.

I can control it... somewhat, very little gestures that are almost as frustrating in their futility as they are encouraging by the fact that I actually made them happen. Ten minutes of intense work was enough for me to lift my arm the last time my dad visited, yet it was too little, too late. Ten minutes of struggle to give my dad what he'd wanted, a sign that I heard him, that I was alive and conscious in there. By then, it was too late. I'd missed my chance, and he'd already had to leave. My arm had been raised in the middle of a dark, empty room, and I didn't have enough control over my own body to cry.

Sometimes I was even able to exert enough control to order my body to get up and move. Unfortunately, not only did that take hours of undisturbed focus, I could also never control where my body actually went. It was so hard to even make it stand up and move that trying to control the direction or duration was completely beyond my capability.

Not that that was going to stop me from trying. Every night for months now, or at least every night that I'd been able to focus and wasn't lost behind someone else's eyes, I had spent working on making my body move. Fifteen minutes spent forcing my index finger to slowly extend upward, then slowly lower itself. Not much of an achievement, but a hell of an improvement over the half hour it had taken me a month earlier, and an even bigger improvement over the nothing that I'd been capable of at first.

That had been a horrible time. I'd had no idea what was happening to me. My vision had kept jumping between the first person view of the doctors who were examining me, to the overhead view of my own body laying helpless and seemingly empty. At first I'd thought that I was dead, that I'd died in that locker that the trio had shoved me into. Their laughter, their ugly, horrible laughter haunted me. I could still hear it sometimes, the sound muted as though through the walls of the locker that had confined me.

It hadn't taken long for me to realize that I wasn't dead. I had little to no control over my own body, but I wasn't dead. I was a parahuman, a cape. That was the only explanation, even if I didn't understand how to use what I could do. Even if it was a 'gift' that made it so hard to control my own body, it was still a gift. I just had to figure out how to use it. I just had to force myself to focus long enough to understand my own abilities. I just had to put the work into making my body move.

And I would make it move. If it took me another month, or a month after that, or a month after that, I would figure out how to control my own body. I had gone from half an hour to move my index finger, to fifteen minutes. I'd managed to lift my entire arm in ten minutes, spurred by my desperation to communicate with my father, to let him know that I was here. It had been too late, but I'd done it.

No matter how long it took, I would learn how to control my body again.

The nurse continued to feed me while he talked. With each passing moment that I spent this way, viewing my own body from above, the area that I could see grew. It was a slow, steady expansion in each direction. What began as a view of only my own little hospital room grew to encompass the rooms on either side of me, as well as the rooms above and below. Somehow, in a way that I couldn't really explain, I could see everything and everyone in those rooms as easily as if I was standing inside that room. From experience, I knew that the sphere of influence, the area that I could see things in, would continue to grow. One time it had grown large enough to encompass the entire hospital. I had been able to pay attention to any particular part of the hospital that I felt like focusing on.

Then my mind had jumped into a passing doctor on his way out to his car, and I had spent hours having my point of view switch into every passing subject that met my gaze. By the time I managed to force my way back into this encompassing view once more, it was back to being only the size of my room.

That was how it worked, I'd come to realize. The longer I maintained the three hundred and sixty degree view, the larger it got. I couldn't focus on everything at once within that view. Rather, it was like a massive screen that kept getting bigger. I could focus on one part of the screen at a time, any part, and experience everything happening within that area. I could focus on one corner and see a janitor mopping the floor on the third floor while he listened to music in his headphones, music that I could hear. Or I could shift my attention up to the fourth floor and watch the kids in the pediatrics ward tell ghost stories. As long as it was happening within my sphere of attention, which got larger with every passing minute, I could be there and experience it.

On the other hand, I could also throw my consciousness (usually involuntarily so far) into a specific person, and experience things through their eyes. I couldn't control them, as much as I'd tried, but I saw, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled everything that they did. When I 'switched modes' back to my sphere of attention, it would be back to a small area that would then gradually build up once again.

"Listen, Taylor." The nurse was talking again. I could see his eyes staring intently into mine while simultaneously seeing my own eyes gazing listlessly. He pressed on in spite of my non-reaction. "Remember what I said yesterday?" I didn't. I had been lost on one of my trips the day before. "I'm going to bring her in now, okay? I think... if I'm right, I think she can help you. A friend of mine, she says that this woman has been helping someone else that might have been similar to you. Maybe I'm just being stupid and you're really... catatonic or whatever, but if I'm right, she can work with you.

Wait, what woman? What was he talking about? He knew there was something different about me?

The nurse rose and moved to open the door. My attention drifted through my growing sphere to the hallway on the outside. There, I could see two figures making their way through the hall. From their manner of dress, it was easy to tell that they shouldn't have been in the hospital. The first wore some kind of combination dress-riot gear, and her face was covered by what looked like a welder's mask with a dark pony tail sticking out the back. Meanwhile, the other person was also female, a girl wearing a red and black costume and a gas mask. The two of them had come up the back stairs. How they'd gotten in without attracting attention was beyond me.

They met the nurse in the hall, and he led them back to my room. Standing in the doorway, the girl with the gas mask addressed the nurse by his name, Teddy, and introduced the woman she was with as Faultline.

Faultline. I knew the name. I knew this woman. She was the leader of a group of cape mercenaries that toed the line between hero and villain. But what were they doing here?

After a few seconds of conversation, the woman in the welder's mask stepped into the room. The other two stayed in the doorway.

Faultline crossed the room and sat down across from me. For a moment, she did nothing. Then her hand lifted to push the mask up so that I could see her face. Her intelligent, calculating eyes watched me patiently. How long we sat there in silence, no one speaking, I couldn't say.

Finally, the woman lifted her gloved hand and cupped my cheek. It was a touch that was so gentle, so... caring, that it reminded me of my own mother.

"Your friend here thinks you aren't a normal patient, Taylor," Faultline said quietly. "He thinks you're one of us, a parahuman. He thinks you're trapped in there, somehow. He thinks there's more to this than the doctors can handle, that you need another kind of help."

Her fingers gently brushed my hair back, her voice lowering. "I think he's right. You're in there somewhere, but whatever power you've got, it's holding you back somehow.

"And I'm going to help you."

1-04 – Madison

"Seriously, dude? I'm a teenage girl in a mask wandering around the city in the middle of the night looking for people to punch in the face, and even I think you've got issues."

Weak, flickering fluorescent lighting overhead gave the long hallway that I was standing in at the moment an eerie presence. The set of stairs at my back that I had just climbed to reach the third floor of this apartment building were actually somewhat better lit than the corridor itself, meaning that I was more visible standing there than the person I was talking to.

That particular pillar of society and shining example of restraint pivoted on his heel to glare at me with eyes that I knew were bloodshot from both alcohol and anger, even though I couldn't make out his face that well in the weak light. At the man's feet cowered a boy that wasn't that much older than I was. Actually, he was about four months older than I was. His name was Ken and he went to my school. We even had a couple of classes together, but didn't know each other well enough that he'd recognize my voice that easily. At least, I really hoped not. That would have been a rather awkward conversation later: 'Hey Madison, did you beat the crap out of my dad last night after thoroughly mocking him?' 'Err, no, Ken. No way. I was totally busy... gardening in...Venezuela.'

Yup, the sad and kind of dispiriting truth was that the bat-wielding man wasn't some random thug. He was Ken's father. And the scene before me, with Ken cowering on his knees with his head tucked under his arms while his father waved that bat around wasn't new. From what I'd been able to find out, this was a fairly typical weekend for the two of them. Father-son bonding it wasn't.

"Who the fuck are you supposed to be?" The man demanded finally, his words slurred only a little bit considering the amount of alcohol that I was pretty sure he'd put away.

I let my head cock to the side at that, knowing what he was seeing as he looked at me. I wasn't exactly dressed as awe-inspiringly as the Protectorate-affiliated capes did. But seriously, with the materials and allowance that I had to work with, I was lucky my outfit was even color coordinated.

Essentially, the thing that I so optimistically called my 'costume' was little more than a light blue windbreaker with a white symbol on the front left side that looked like a mathematical 'less than' symbol that was open slightly more than normal, or a deformed sideways V. In actuality, it was the Kenaz rune from the runic alphabet of ancient Germanic tribes. The simple meaning of Kenaz was a torch, and it was supposed to illustrate knowledge being revealed, or sudden insights.

Besides the windbreaker I also wore white sweatpants, a matching pair of hiking boots, and gloves that were light blue with a bit of white mixed into a cloud-like pattern. I wore the hood of the windbreaker up and tied closed to cover my hair, while my face was hidden by a white plastic mask with its own facial features and holes for my eyes. In all, I looked more like a person who had thrown together a Halloween costume at the last second out of things that had been left in the bottom of the costume store bargain bin than an actual cape. Which was probably why Ken's father didn't seem too concerned about my sudden arrival when he had been a single swing away from breaking his son's arm yet again.

I adopted a thoughtful posture, tucking my fist against my chin while drumming my fingers over my head. "You know, I thought long and hard about that, and I think I've got a good one but I really need an outside opinion. How does the name Archive grab you?"

Growling angrily, Ken's father took a few stomping steps toward me, bat raised. "Look, kid, I don't care what kind of game you think you're playing out here. Go fucking play it somewhere else. I'm busy."

My response to that was to hop up and down a couple times, clapping my hands. "Oooh, are you playing a game? Can I play? Let me guess, he's the stalwart secret agent, and you're the horrible German interrogator trying to beat his secrets out of him? I could totally be your assistant." I adopted a purposefully awful accent then. "Now, you vill gif oos dze plans for dze deas ray, oond ve vill break your kidneys. Oops, ah ah, I meant or ve vill break dzem, oof course. Ah hah hah."

For a second, the man just stared at me, until I leaned a little closer to stage-whisper. "Pssst, your line is 'Oond dzen, ve vill put your family onto dze rocket oond shoot dzem into space.'"

Apparently unamused (philistine), the man seemed to be trying to work that out for a second. Then, after either giving up on that or realizing I was mocking him, he bellowed in frustration and swung that bat in a powerful backhand swing that was aimed right for the side of my head.

Fortunately, while my costume itself was horribly lackluster, I was prepared for that. As soon as the man began to swing, I focused. An almost electrical tingle immediately spread out over my body. The instant the bat hit the invisible field that I had created about two inches out from my body, it vanished.

The man stumbled forward, taken by surprise by the sudden lack of weight in his hand. He stared down at it uncomprehendingly for a second. "What the..."

"Whoopsie!" I held my hand out, and the bat appeared there, balanced on my palm. "I'm sorry, were you looking for this? I'm just horrible about taking things that belong to other people." When he lunged forward to grab for the bat, I made it disappear once more with a brief activation of my field. Flailing at empty air, the man almost fell into the nearby wall.

Blinded by his anger by that point, Ken's father spun back on me and screamed inarticulately while charging forward like some kind of drunk bull. No longer focused on his bat, the man was clearly intent on barreling straight into my much smaller form and pummeling me with his big, meaty fists.

Rather than let that happen, I dropped into a sideways roll while holding my hand out. A long rope, with one end already coiled into a lasso appeared there. Within two more steps, the man's feet were tangled up in the loop, and I yanked hard on the other end. The force hauled me off the floor and taxed my shoulders, but the man himself was hauled to an abrupt stop in mid-lunge before crashing downward to slam into the floor with a bellow of anger and surprise.

Before he could recover, I pounced on the man's back. He flailed a bit, but the impact had stunned him somewhat, so I was able to get hold of his wrists and tie them together with the other end of the rope.

Jumping backward off of the man while he flailed and flopped around with his arms and legs tied, I gave him a poke with my foot. "Now see, I wasn't really sure about switching from super spies to playing rodeo. But I've gotta hand it to you, that was pretty fun."

"Stupid... fucking... bitch!" The man bellowed, struggling in vain to free himself. "This isn't a game!"

Finally, I dropped my playful tone. "Oh, I know." The bat reappeared in my hand before I poked the man with it. "It's definitely not a game. But see, I figured that only a stupid, immature little child would think it was okay to beat up his own son with a god damn baseball bat in the middle of the hallway just because the kid got home late. Or what was the reasoning last week, because he had a C on his report card? Or the week before that, when he dropped a plate? The way I saw it, only someone with the maturity of a fucking four year old would think that was okay. So I was playing down to your level."

Turning away from the man then, while he thrashed and impotently threatened me, I turned back toward the spot where Ken had been cowering. He was standing now, staring at me with wide eyes. There was also an older woman standing somewhat beside him, with one hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Ma'am." I nodded to her. "You live on this floor?" She nodded back toward the door across from Ken's apartment, and I asked, "You know what this guy does to his son?"

In response, the old woman spat at the man on the floor. "Bellowing pig." She tightened her grip on Ken's shoulder, clearly protective. I didn't think they were related, but she clearly cared about him.

Flipping the bat over in my hand, I extended it that way. "Call the police. Tell them the truth about what he does." To Ken, I added, "You hear me? Tell them the truth. Don't let him intimidate you anymore."

He hesitated, clearly hearing his father's threats in the background, but finally nodded.

"Good, go with her." I nodded to the old woman. "I'll stay until the cops arrive, make sure he doesn't go anywhere." Belatedly, I asked the woman, "If that's all right?"

Once more, she spat at the man on the floor before nodding. Her hand tugged Ken backwards, but not before he blurted, "Why'd you do all that? Why are you here? This isn't what capes do."

"Your father's a bully." I answered quietly. "I really don't like bullies."

Walking along the sidewalk about twenty minutes later, I thought about how stupid those words would have seemed only a few months earlier. Maybe they still were. I hated bullies? I'd been a bully, one of the worst. I'd had fun making another girl's life completely miserable for more than a year. Not a single school day had gone by that I hadn't either helped make Taylor Hebert's life a living hell, or made plans for how to do so. In hindsight, we had been, among other things, fucking obsessed.

And it wasn't as if I had an excuse, like Ken might have if he'd been the type to lash out. My home life was pretty good. My parents doted on me like I was their princess. Sure, I didn't have much of a relationship with my older brother, Trevor, but he was going to college anyway. Honestly, I was a spoiled little brat, and my way of acting out was helping two other girls humiliate a classmate.

So no, I had no excuse. I was a bitch, and because of me, that girl was laying in the psych ward of the hospital right now, completely catatonic. We'd pushed her too god damn far, and she had paid the price.

It should have been us. Hell, Emma and I had tried to tell the truth about what happened, about what we'd done. Unfortunately, as it turned out, Sophia was a member of the local Wards, and they weren't exactly eager to toss away one of their own. They had basically given all of us a collective slap on the wrist involving a bunch of probation and moving us to different schools. Sophia had gone to Arcadia, which was typical considering from all accounts that's where the Wards went anyway. Emma had been moved to Clarendon, while I was left at Winslow. Basically, they acted like what had happened had been little more than a prank gone wrong, leaving out all the additional facts. It made me sick.

I meant that literally. I'd been so upset over the fact that I couldn't do anything for Taylor, that I didn't know what to do, that I'd literally made myself sick. I spent several days in my room, lost in grief and confusion over my total helplessness. It was during that time that my power had manifested.

I summoned it now while shrugging out of my jacket and tugging the plastic mask off my face. The familiar electric tingle came, and both objects vanished from my hands.

I wasn't sure yet where they went, only that they were in some private other-space that wasn't accessible by any means other than the invisible field that I could erect around myself at will. I could extend it as far as a foot away from me, or shrink it to be nearly flush with my own skin. That had been fun to find out, and only the fact that I had been completely alone in my room the time I first shrank it and made my clothes disappear had saved me from an entire lifetime of embarrassment.

It didn't work on living things, only objects and things like water. I'd drained several bathtubs of water while experimenting, and was even able to shoot that water back out again in a steady, high powered stream. I'd also used it to walk through a solid cement wall simply by extending my field and letting it vanish away the material while I walked forward, leaving an outline of myself behind almost like a cartoon.

But that wasn't the craziest part. Somehow, I was intuitively aware of absolutely everything in the space. I knew exactly what was in there and how much, from the exact amount of water I had taken in, to the number of pens and loose change I had made vanish while experimenting.

What's more, I knew everything about them. If I took my father's hammer from the garage and absorbed it, I knew everything about it. I knew how to use it properly, and I gradually became aware of every way that it had been used.

As long as the hammer remained in my other-space, I could recall at a whim every way that it had been used in the past several days. The longer I focused on it, the further back the memories went. It seemed to come out to one year per day the item was in that space, which reset once it was let out again. The same went for the baseball bat that I had taken from Ken's father. I had immediately known both how to use the bat for its intended purpose, the batting skill somehow manifesting inside my head, and exactly how he had used it within the past several hours, the latter being knowledge that I really hadn't wanted.

And the books. God, that had been a shock. Any book that I put into my other-space, I somehow knew the contents of just by focusing on it. As long as the book stayed in there, I could access any of the information in it after a few seconds of thought, like using the internet to look something up, only in my own head. It was almost like I had a virtual copy of the book in my mind that I could summon up and read through whenever I wanted to.

For a long time, I hadn't known what to do with this ability. Part of me wanted to go to the Protectorate, but after they'd covered their asses on Sophia and done nothing for Taylor, I'd decided against that.

I even avoided talking to Emma about it, since she had still been hanging out with Sophia. That much had disgusted me. It was like she'd just given up after our attempt to go to the authorities hadn't panned out, and had gone right back to hanging out with that psychopath.

Which meant that I'd been on my own. So I'd spent the last couple of months practicing with my power and planning out what I might be able to do to help people the way that no one had ever helped Taylor.

Learning exactly what caused the bruises and occasional casts that Ken kept showing up with had been my deciding factor. I had to put a stop to it.

In spite of how it might have seemed, I'd been nervous as hell. Mostly I had talked to fill up the air with noise, and because mocking the big, stupid jackass had seemed like the right thing to do.

Shaking my head, I stepped out of the alley just in time to hear a boy shout, "Incoming!"

Spinning on my heel, my eyes went wide as some monstrous beast came charging up the street toward me. It looked like a cross between a lizard and a tiger, if they were both bigger than a car. I caught only the briefest glimpse of what looked like at three riders, and then the beast was leaping up and over me while I simultaneously hit the ground with a yelp.

Whatever the monster was, it hit the ground on the other side of me and tore off down the street, leaving me laying on the sidewalk, staring after the thing with my heart hammering a million times a second. The beast, and its riders, disappeared around a corner a moment later, but it took me a bit longer than that to finally pick myself up.

"Okay," I finally spoke aloud, my voice loud against the previous stillness. "What... the hell... was that?"

1-05 – Sophia

I remember the day that my mother brought Steven home for the first time. I remember the way that he stood somewhat awkwardly in our living room as nine-year old me and my older brother Terry came down the stairs at the sound of mom's call. The suit that he wore was too big for him, with worn patches. I found out later that he'd bought it used at one of those secondhand clothing stores.

This, mom told us, was her new boyfriend and she expected us to behave around him. He wasn't a very tall man, as far as that went. He wasn't well-built or anything. But he did have a nice, charming smile. I could always picture it with crystal clarity in the years that followed, even long after he was gone. It was an expression that made both me and Terry smile back at him in spite of his obvious awkwardness.

From that first moment, when the uncomfortable, awkwardly dressed man smiled at us and we smiled back, Steven was almost a constant presence in our home. Not that I minded. Hell, nine-year old me thought he was the funniest, best person ever. He'd tell gross jokes when mom couldn't hear, and when they went out together he always left the babysitter money for pizza.

In fact, for most of that first year that I knew Steven, things were pretty great. So when mom said that he was going to live with us and that they were getting married, well, I had no real objections.

The thing is, in some ways nothing changed. Steven still told gross jokes when mom couldn't hear, and they still went out. He still gave me lots of good ideas for my school projects, and when he was having one of his good days, he was the funniest person in the room. He could make me laugh so much I cried.

But the thing about living with someone instead of just letting them visit is that you have to see them when it isn't one of their good days. Because the thing that none of us had realized before Steven moved in was that we only saw him on his 'up' days, rather than his 'down' days. When he was 'up', the man was funny, charming in a sort of awkward way, and definitely a lot of fun. When he was 'down', it was pretty much the opposite. I used to walk in from school and find Steven sitting in a corner of the kitchen with his legs drawn up so that he could bury his face against his knees and cry. A grown man, hiding in the corner of the kitchen floor, sobbing for no fucking reason.

On the 'down' days, Steven's moods were horrible. He'd cry at the drop of a hat, get angry just as easily, and act like the littlest thing was the world ending. And as creative as he was when he was 'up', that same creativity applied when he wasn't. Sometimes when Steven was in a bad mood, he could be flat out mean. Never physically abusive, just... horrible. He'd snap and go on a five minute rant about how fucking stupid and worthless I was, before breaking down into tears. Then he'd hug me, tell me it wasn't my fault, that the world was just such a violent, brutish little planet and he couldn't stand it.

It was impossible to tell which 'Steven' we'd get from day to day, to the point that it was like dealing with a fucking comic book villain. Steven always had grand ideas and plans. When he was 'up', things were never fucking boring, and he had a way of just sucking everyone into his ideas and getting people involved. He was energetic, and had a personality that made people just want to follow his ideas.

But in the midst of following those ideas, Steven would, without warning, suddenly experience a personality shift. One second he would be enthusiastically helping everyone bake chocolate chunk fudge muffins because he had this grand idea about surprising the track team with them the next day, and the next second he'd lock himself in the bathroom and turn on the shower. But in spite of what we all pretended, the water was never loud enough to completely drown out the sound of his crying.

Over time I figured out how to recognize which mood Steven was in very quickly. I adapted, slipping out of the room the moment it became clear that he was depressed again. It wasn't a perfect system, especially once he realized what I was doing and started ranting about what a stupid little bitch I was.

He was a sad, angry man without much outlet considering he was also a fucking coward. People like the god damn PRT shrinks like to ask if my step-father ever hit me, or touched me inappropriately. I laugh in their faces when they ask that shit. Steven wasn't the type. He may have called me an idiot, or snapped at me in other ways, but deep down, he was a coward and a crybaby. He wouldn't dare raise his hand to me, even the stupid, naive child version of me that I tried to forget about most of the time..

So no, Steven never hit me. The worst he did was stuff like make me sit in a chair while going on for several minutes about how incompetent I was, how I was a pathetic retard who was going to fail out of high school because my real dad used to drop acid or something. But mostly it was a lot of crying over how fucked the world was and how bad he felt about everything. In some ways, I preferred the insults.

But it wasn't until that night, that one very specific night that anyone really understood how fucking crazy Steven was.

January 10th, 2006

"But why are we going to your office?" I shivered a bit in the cold while hurrying to keep up with Steven, who was walking with long, sure strides across the empty parking lot. Not that I had much of a choice about keeping up or not, considering the tight grip that the man had on my hand.

For a moment, Steven said nothing. I glanced up, watching his tear-reddened eyes as we walked. If only I'd noticed that he had been crying when he abruptly tossed my coat to me and declared that the two of us were going somewhere while mom and Terry were busy.

Instead of answering my question, Steven stopped there in the middle of the lot, tilting his head back to gaze at the sky. "You know there was another Endbringer attack a couple days ago?" Before I could answer, he pressed on. "They just keep coming. They just won't stop." There were tears in the man's eyes once again, and he sniffed while poking at the keypad beside the door that led into the back of his office building. "Newfoundland was a year ago, a year and it wasn't enough for them. Half a million people, Leviathan killed them all and it wasn't enough. They're gonna ruin the world, kid. They're gonna kill everybody." Considering I was fucking eleven years old, I had no idea what to say to that.

With his hand tight on mine, the man walked to the elevator, pulling me with. Rather than hitting the button for his office, however, he pushed the top button. When I asked once again what we were doing, he just smiled sadly. "They're gonna kill everyone, kid. Every last person. You want them to kill you? You wanna burn up when Behemoth comes, or drown if it's Leviathan? You wanna go crazy and kill your brother when the Simurgh fucks with your head? Or if it's not them, it'll be the Nine. You want that? You wanna be the next one they string up and cut all your heart out while you watch?

Eyes wide, I shook my head as hard as I could. "N-no. No."

"Of course not." He nodded then, as if my answer had reaffirmed a decision he'd come to. His hand came down on my shoulder and he squeezed it while speaking in a softer voice, a voice tinted with sad resignation. "Of course not."

From the top floor, he led me to the stairs with roof access. Again, a quick pass code typed into the numerical pad unlocked the door and let us walk right up and into the cold winter air once more.

"Steven?" I remember asking again as the man walked with me to the edge of the roof. I didn't know what he was doing, but I didn't want to be there. "Why are we here? Can we go home now, please?"

"Don't be such a whining little idiot!" He abruptly snapped. When I drew back, my eyes wide, he immediately softened and pulled my resisting form to him into something resembling a hug. "Aww shit, no. No, I'm sorry, kid. This wasn't how I wanted it. That was all wrong. You're my favorite, Sophia. You're my favorite, I didn't mean to snap at you." He was crying again. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It's just... this world. It sucks. I can't imagine being you. How awful it must be, knowing they expect you to grow up in this shitty place. All the monsters we have in the world, everything's getting worse and you've got nothing to look forward to, do you?"

"Umm..." I couldn't think, he had me crushed against his chest in such a tight hug. "I... think Tracy's gonna invite me to her birthday next week."

"Oh kid," Steven's voice was quiet. He stood, still holding me against his chest. "Trust me, you'll be better off than Tracy. She has to grow up in this piece of shit world. I love you, kid. You're like a daughter to me. I couldn't..." He sniffed again. "I couldn't do that to you. I couldn't abandon you like my old man abandoned me. Not you. We're buddies, right?"

"Does... does that mean we can go home now?" Eleven-year old me asked with pathetic hopefulness.

That earned more tears against my hair as the man began to sob openly once more. "My Sophia. If only. If only it was that easy, huh? If only this world of ours wasn't so violent and brutish. This is better than home. We don't have to hurt anymore, you and me. No more pain."

He took a step then, and I realized how close we were to the edge of the roof. Twisting my head, I saw that he was actually standing right up on the short lip that ran around the very edge itself, and the ground loomed up at me from more than a dozen stories away.

"St-Steven?" I suddenly thrashed. "No—no! Let me go! Let go of me! Put me down! Steven, put me down! I don't want this, I don't want it! Let go of me! Let go!" Panicking, I twisted and writhed.

Yet Steven didn't let me go. He held me tighter, closing his eyes as he ignored my panicked begging. "It's okay," he said quietly while I screamed and begged for him to let me go. "Everything will be all right, kid. Trust me. No more pain. No more being hurt, or sad. It's all right."

His eyes closed, and he murmured what sounded like a prayer. I wasn't sure what happened next. I passed out for a couple seconds or something, because the next thing I knew, we were in freefall. He had jumped from the roof and brought me with him.

April 11th, 2011

I didn't die back then, obviously. My powers had emerged while in freefall, transforming me into a nearly weightless, almost entirely intangible form that allowed me to both escape the psychopath's grasp and survive the experience. Steven, on the other hand, died on impact.

He had been a coward, who took the coward's way out. He was an asshole who very nearly killed me because he thought I was same kind of coward as him. So no, he didn't abuse me. He did what he did because of some stupid fucking idea of what 'love' was, and because he wanted to save me or some other fucked up garbage. Point was, he was a loser who wouldn't fight back against what life threw at him. He was a piece of shit whose answer to any kind of trouble was to roll over and cry about it until he finally threw himself off a fucking roof while holding onto an eleven-year old girl for company.

So yeah, maybe I have a few anger issues. Maybe I don't get along well with others. Maybe I have a thing about cowards who can't grow up and deal with their fucking issues.

But she wasn't supposed to actually get hurt, god damn it.

Standing on the edge of a very different roof than one that I'd nearly died from, I stopped staring at the busy street below me and looked up while talking out loud to myself. "Where the fuck did that come from?" I had no idea why that thought had popped into my head, or why I kept thinking about that son of a bitch Steven to begin with. And I definitely couldn't figure out why Taylor fucking Hebert wouldn't get out of my head and leave me the hell alone.

The fact was, I hadn't meant for her to get that hurt. It was a fucking joke. She was just a pussy that wouldn't fight back, wouldn't do anything to stand up for herself. She was a worm, and she just made it so easy to pick on her that I forgot where the line was. I mean, I did have a line. I wasn't evil or anything, I was just... blowing off steam. Fuck, if I'd actually wanted to hurt her bad, I could have. But I didn't. I was just trying to... she was just supposed to... the fucking bitch was...

Heaving a heavy sigh, I pushed myself up and stared down at the street once more, trying to focus. My attention was drawn quickly to a nearby alley. There was a girl backing rapidly away from four guys who were advancing on her. Her back hit the dumpster, and the girl shrank back a bit.

Would she fight back? I always wondered if the people that I rescued really deserved it, if they actually deserved the effort that I put into saving them. What kind of people were they? Were they cowards, like Steven? Were they going to quit, give up and jump off a building while clutching onto someone else?

That was why I watched, why I always needed to know for sure what kind of person I was dealing with, if it was at all possible. That and I was curious, I wanted to know how many losers were out there, how many pathetic freaks who would roll over and die if no one saved them.

"No, please!" The voice, pleading and desperate, reached me from where I stood. The girl wasn't fighting, she was curled up, hiding herself while openly crying in fear. Pathetic, a victim.

And yet I was in the air without another thought. My body turned intangible and almost weightless, while every aspect of what might be called 'life' in a human being was put on pause. I didn't breathe, my heart didn't beat, my stomach didn't process food, I didn't even need to blink. I was, for all intents and purposes, a living shadow.

While falling, I produced both of my crossbows and aimed at two of the four men. The tranquilizer bolts that the PRT had insisted I use when I was forcibly inducted into their Wards program struck home, dropping both of my targets as thoroughly and quickly as if someone had literally just flipped a switch.

I turned solid and landed in between the two still-standing men while they were spinning around to see what had happened to their companions. Twisting around on one foot, I lashed out with the other to kick the side of the first man's knee. His leg went out from under him. As he fell, I caught the arm that held his gun, stripping it away with a clean twist before letting it fall to the ground.

By that time, the other man had turned toward me. He brought his own gun up, but I used his buddy's kneeling form as a launching point. Planting my foot against his chest, I shoved up and off, turning intangible for a brief second in mid-air. The force of my foot kicking off of him knocked the kneeling man backwards into the wall, while I went up and straight toward the remaining man.

He fired twice, both of which went straight through my shadow-form. Turning solid a moment later, I lashed out with the palm of my hand, planting it straight in the man's face. His nose shattered under the impact, and I dropped to my feet.

Blind with anger, the man flailed at me. I evaded or blocked each strike, or just turned intangible and let him whiff. After letting him have a few pointless shots at me, I caught his arm and twisted it in mid-blow before using it to flip myself up and over. My legs locked around the man's neck, and I yanked down hard, using the weight of my body and the force of my flip to bring him to the ground, where I kept my legs locked tight so that he couldn't breathe.

He was out like a light before long, and I rolled over and up to check on the other guy. He had hit his head, but it didn't look like there was any permanent damage.

"Tha-thank you."

The voice of the would-be victim startled me, and I blinked that way. "What?"

"I said... thank you?" She was some party girl college student. "For saving me."

My mouth opened and then shut behind the mask of a scowling woman that I wore. No complaints? No bitching that I hadn't saved her sooner?

Then again, I had jumped in almost immediately. I'd meant to wait, to just watch and see what the girl did. But the instant she'd cried out, the second that she'd begged them to stop, I had acted. I had stepped in, but why? Why did I suddenly feel the need to act instead of watch? Why did I jump in without a plan, without fully assessing the situation? What the hell was wrong with me?

And why did I keep fucking hearing Taylor god damn Hebert's voice whenever someone cried for help?

Interlude 1 – Kaiser

Max Anders was alone in his office, business hours long over. The room was dark behind him as he stood in front of the floor to ceiling windows, gazing out to the lights of the bustling city beyond. His suit jacket lay over the back of the leather chair at his desk, and the sleeves of his blue silk shirt were rolled back to expose his toned and evenly muscled forearms. In one hand he held a glass whose golden amber contents swirled slightly as it was brought to his lips. He lowered his eyes a bit then, gazing at the liquid within the glass in the glow from the city lights for a moment before taking a sip. His eyes closed at the taste while a soft sigh of appreciation escaped him.

The city before him, those lights that shone as beacons through the darkness, was spiraling. He knew that. The crime rate was obscene, driven higher with every passing day as the worst dregs of an already dilapidated society drove their claws deeper into the bones of the decent, hard-working citizens who wanted nothing more than for their families to live their lives in safety and prosperity.

Brockton Bay needed help, real help that the Empire Eighty-Eight could provide. His people, his soldiers, could clean up this city. They could show the rest of the country what might be achieved when the lawless were brought to heel, when the minor races understood that it was not out of malice that they were restrained. After all, was the father who spoke a harsh word and brought his rambunctious child back into line considered a monster? These other races, they wondered why their neighborhoods fell into disrepair, why their youth filled the prisons, and why their lives seemed to be filled with nothing but hate and violence. Yet in the same breaths, they spat on the guidance and security offered by the whites, those who had originally built the golden civilization that they meant to emulate. The son showed his father deference by obeying his rules, and in so doing, learned enough to stand on his own. In time, with the proper obedience and observation of their civilized forebears, perhaps the minority races could also 'grow up' and expand civilization rather than leech off of it. His eventual grandchildren, or great-grandchildren might live to see such an event. But that would take time and effort that most were not willing to invest when it was much easier to simply complain now.

Some called him a monster. They thought he was heartless. Yet who was truly heartless, the one who fought, bled, and struggled to educate and civilize the ungrateful savages, or the one who simply allowed them to run wild, killing one another at a whim? If one father allowed his child to play in the freeway, while another father smacked the hand of his own child for trying to do the same, who would the shrill and judgmental masses consider to be the true monster once tragedy inevitably occurred?

So no, the efforts of his Empire, inherited from his father, would not be appreciated any time soon. Their work would be derided, their characters attacked in all of the press. Their kind, their beliefs had been so ingrained within the national consciousness as 'evil' that few would bother looking further. Even many of those who, given a moment of actual consideration and thought would find that they actually agreed with the complaints and goals of those that they scorned, would simply see 'Nazi' and have their minds made up for them before they knew anything else. The term itself was enough.

That particular thought amused Max to no end, drawing a faint chuckle. His people were being judged unfairly based on a preconceived notion of guilt stemming from personal beliefs. Perhaps he should file complaint with the ACLU? It might have been worth it, just to see the reactions it would evoke.

"Something funny over there?"

The voice was unexpected, and only a lifetime spent controlling his reactions prevented Max from flinching. That, of course, was what the man standing in his doorway was hoping for. He wanted to see Max react, to know that he had gotten to the man in charge and made him blink.

Instead, Max raised the glass once again to take another sip. It was a simple, reflexive action that masked the time he needed to collect himself so that his voice would sound as calm as he needed it to. At the same time, it gave the impression that he was in no rush, and that his guest's interruption would not alter his own plans. People operated by the schedule of Max Anders, not the other way around.

He also made a mental note to have glow panels installed in the entrance-way that would be connected to motion sensors. That way, the next time someone came close enough to his office door, the panels lighting up would give Max forewarning.

No, better to have the motion sensors attached to some subtle notification within the room itself. A light near his desk, perhaps? Or a small fan that could provide a gust of air so that his future guests could not associate the light turning on with their arrivals. Best that they believe he simply knew these things.

It was worth looking into, and he would have Erica look into a few possibilities in the morning.

Finally, he spoke without turning. "I'm fortunate enough to find many things amusing, Brad. Few of which I could share outside of select company." After letting that hang in the air just long enough for the man who called himself Hookwolf to wonder just how selective that list was, he turned and smiled while continuing. "In this case, I was considering what sort of reaction the people who claim that every lifestyle and birth has merit and value would have if we were to take them at their word."

It was a calculated action, as was everything that Max did. By stating that he could share his amusements with a few and then deliberately doing that very thing with Brad, he was allowing the man to see himself as part of that inner circle. It worked to reinforce his loyalty, and required nothing more than a brief moment of time and a few words. Maximum return for minimal effort.

Brad, his large form filling the doorway, chuckled darkly. He set one fist into his opposite palm and cracked his knuckles. "Don't really think the bleeding hearts would care much for that."

"No, I doubt they would," Max agreed before speaking clearly. "Lights, thirty-five percent." At his command, the office was lit by a glow just bright enough to see through without forcing a moment of blindness by the sudden switch from dark to fully lit. It gave his darkness-attuned eyes time to adjust.

"You're back early," he observed while stepping around from his desk. Using two fingers as he passed the back of his chair, he tugged his suit jacket up and slipped it on though a carefully orchestrated exchange of the glass from hand to hand. Shrugging his shoulders into place to straighten the jacket finally, he added in as calm a voice as he could manage, "Was there a problem?"

Brad shook his head, the long ponytail that his dirty-blonde hair was pulled into waving with the motion. "Hell no. Matter of fact, we had a little bit of help from Lung and the Protectorate."

Eyes going up at those words, Max saw amusement in the big man's gaze. "Explain." It was not a question or a request, it was a statement of fact. He wanted answers, and Hookwolf would provide.

"Lung was getting all riled up down by the docks," Brad waved a hand dismissively. "Seems like he was trying to hit one of those new upstart groups, the Insiders or some shit?"

"Undersiders," Max corrected. "They hit the casino not that long ago. I have Erica working on a dossier to give to the troops since they seem to be trying to expand into the big leagues. Best to be prepared."

Nodding in agreement with that, Brad went on. "Anyway, Lung's pissed off at them for some reason so he was trying to throw down. Got his people all set up and everything. Only the Undersiders hit his secondary squad with Oni Lee before they could all meet up. Took out some of his men and delayed Lee long enough for the Protectorate to get wind of Lung and the rest of his boys. Big nasty brawl happened with the white hats trying to keep old Chinky Chong away from civilized folk." He was grinning by the end. "I tell you, I was pretty tempted to stick around and ask if they wanted a hand."

"Perhaps at some point, we can thank them properly for their assistance." Max mused idly before focusing. "So the Protectorate was busy with Lung and his men, and you took advantage of the distraction to do the job." When the blonde man nodded, Max rewarded him with a smile. "Good."

Stepping back out of the doorway as his boss approached, Brad grunted. "Yeah, so we're all set up downstairs. I've got Rune and Othala with 'em. Figured that was best."

"Also good," Max nodded in satisfaction. For all his thuggish appearance, there was a strategic mind inside the head of Brad Meadows. He was far from a genius, to be sure, but he was tactically gifted, and could be trusted to think these things through given a little bit of guidance and reinforcement.

Together, the two men strode out of the office and toward the elevator. Max finished the last bit of his drink and set the glass on Erica's desk on the way out. She would take care of it in the morning. His mind was on other things. "Our guest is comfortable then? There were no... injuries?"

"Nah, in and out, just like you asked." Brad stepped onto the elevator and chuckled under his breath. "I think Stormtiger was disappointed. He was hoping for a little excitement, not this easy street shit."

It was a complaint, though a minor one, even if Hookwolf was using his companion's disappointment to voice it. Max knew that Brad and his people were fighters. They wanted open brawls where they could get bloody and prove their superiority, rather than the subtle actions he had requested. Still, the prize was well worth a small bit of annoyance on their parts, particularly if it paid off.

On the other hand, it wouldn't do to let them get antsy. "Don't you worry, my friend," he replied with an easy smile that invited trust and camaraderie. "Before long, there will be all the excitement you want."

The elevator doors closed, and Max pressed his thumb against the provided pad while keeping his head level. A second scan passed over his eye while he spoke the words clearly so that the vocal print could be identified as well. "Sub-basement two, passcode to follow. Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. End passcode."

The elevator began to descend after chiming acknowledgment, and Brad shook his head. "I still don't get why you've got some Winston Churchill quote for your passcode. You know he was the enemy?"

"He also won," Max replied pointedly without explaining further. Instead, he asked, "Are your people up for another excursion then, since this one was so successful?"

Showing his teeth in a smile at that, Hookwolf nodded. "Absolutely. You got some place in mind?"

"If Lung and Oni Lee are busy, their new tinker may be vulnerable. Particularly if they've tied up their forces with this failed assault." Max turned his head slightly to look at the larger man. "Take Stormtiger, Crusader, and Alabaster. Use Justin's ghosts to scout the place out. If you see an opening, take it. From all I'm hearing, this tinker's primary focus is bombs. That's a... distraction we don't need."

The smile on Brad's face grew wider. "Now that's what I'm talking about. Hit 'em hard or keep it quiet?" The latter question was obviously hard for the man who clearly wanted a brawl, but he knew better than to make assumptions.

"Keep it just quiet enough to hit the tinker before she has time for any surprises," Max instructed. "Once she's out of play or beyond your reach, do as much damage as you can on your way out. You know how to play it best, Brad. I trust your judgment. The tinker is the primary target. Collateral damage on the ABB's side is secondary, though still greatly appreciated." He afforded the man another brief smile. "Let's take advantage of the opportunity that Lung's blunder has given us."

By that point, the elevator had reached its destination, three floors below ground level, in an area that was so far off-limits to the vast majority of Medhall Corporation employees that they had no idea it even existed. As far as the nine-to-five workers were concerned, the regular basement was as far as the elevators went. The two additional levels didn't even show up on the registered blueprints.

As the doors opened, Max stepped off while looking toward the other man, who remained on the elevator. "If they're up for it, take Fenja and Menja. The two of them could use a little excitement. But keep them down to normal size until after you either deal with the tinker or confirm she's out of reach."

"Got it," Brad used his fist to hit the button for the ground floor. Before the doors closed, he showed that fist to his leader. "Let you know how it goes."

"Do that," Max agreed. Pivoting on his heel then, the man started down the hallway. He passed unmarked doors on either side, never slowing or breaking stride. Through what would have been a complicated maze of corridors in this subbasement, he navigated flawlessly.

Finally, he came to a door in a small side-hall. A teenage blonde girl slouched sideways in a comfortable arm chair beside the door, thoroughly engrossed in the book that floated in front of her face, while the girl's own hands were buried in the red and black robe that she wore.

Checking the title of the book, Max spoke up. "Emily Dickinson? I could have sworn you already had her material thoroughly memorized, Cassie."

Letting the book drop back into her lap, Rune jumped in her seat and cursed. "God fucking douche-jockeys, don't do that!" Looking up even as she blurted the words reflexively, the girl at least had the presence of mind to flinch when she saw who was there. "Err, sorry. I mean..." She picked up the book and shrugged, clearly self-conscious. "Sure, I know it all. I just like to re-read her shit sometimes. It helps me think."

"It's always good to think," he agreed before nodding to the door. "Is Vanessa keeping our guest calm?"

"Yeah," Cassie gave a vague wave of her hand before settling back with the book. "Figured she was better at that sort thing than me."

Smiling faintly, Max gave the girl a pat on the shoulder before stepping past her. "We all have our strengths." At her noncommittal grunt, he twisted the knob and stepped inside the room.

Othala glanced up when he entered and smiled at the only other occupant in what looked for all intents and purposes like an ordinary motel room. There was a bed, a television, a desk and computer, even an attached bathroom and a mini fridge full of snacks and drinks. He wanted his guest to be comfortable.

"And how are we doing so far?" He asked.

"I wanna go home," the person on the bed answered. "What do you want from me?"

Crossing the room, Max tugged a chair away from the desk and sat down to be on the same level as the new arrival. "What do I want?" He repeated her question before smiling. "I want to change the world.

"And from what I hear, I think you're just the one to help me do that, Dinah."