Part Fourteen: New Developments
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
It wasn't that I was feeling pain in any particular part of me as I carefully walked downstairs. It was that I was feeling aches and pains everywhere. I looked beseechingly at Amy, who was waiting at the bottom. "Can you, uh …"
She folded her arms. "I'm not your personal Aspirin," she declared heartlessly. "I already checked you over. You're fit and healthy. More fit and healthy than you really should be after fighting Inago and Oni Lee, to be honest. No open cuts, no bruises. No lingering damage at all, actually. And I remember you being knocked out by an explosion at least once, and going toe to toe with the asshole who nearly killed Vicky."
I seemed to recall that she'd chosen not to heal Inago's arm, for which I didn't really blame her. He'd probably grow it back anyway, eventually. I didn't blame her for taking things personally; from what I'd seen, she cared a whole lot for her sister.
"So why do I hurt everywhere?" I asked, taking the last few steps. "My toenails hurt. Why do my toenails hurt?"
"As far as I can tell, it's your powers adjusting you to the fact that you can now grow to the size of a minibus and roar loudly enough to be heard a mile away." She shrugged. "Maybe it's making changes to make the next transition easier. When you got that big, your entire biology altered dramatically; to change up and then down again like you have been has got to be putting a strain on your system."
"So how much bigger am I going to get?" I made my way into the living room and lowered myself to the sofa. "And is this going to happen every time my powers enlarge my wyvern form?"
"File the first one under 'I have no idea'," Amy snarked. "As for the second, I guess … maybe?"
"Let's try not to have a fight that nasty again, huh?" Vicky wandered in from the kitchen. "I mean, shit, Inago nearly killed me."
"I understand they're pushing for the Birdcage." That was Carol Dallon, entering the living room from her office. "Oni Lee hasn't been seen since the battle. There's been mention on the board that the ABB has a new Tinker cape, the one that was piloting that giant robot. The name making the rounds is 'Geonchugga'." She crossed to where I was sitting. "How are you feeling?"
I snorted. "I hurt everywhere it's possible to hurt, but I'm in one piece. Geonchugga? What's that even mean? Is the robot steam-powered or something?"
"Got me beat," Vicky said. "I'm sure we'll find out sooner or later." She perched on the sofa arm and poked me in the shoulder. "Meanwhile, is nobody talking about the development of the century? You can speak in wyvern form. Does that mean you can talk as the wyvern no matter what size you are?"
"We'd have to see, but I don't think so," Amy said. "I strongly suspect that the larger your wyvern form becomes, the more versatile your exobiology gets. Which may be why you could only generate that cone of flame once you sized up." She plonked herself down on the sofa next to me.
I hadn't been keeping track of the exact sequence of events, but I decided to take her word for it. "So if I wanted to use it again, I'd have to get that big again?"
Amy shrugged. "Signs point to yes? But hey, on the upside, based on previous information, I'm guessing that getting to that size will be a lot easier the next time around."
"Hmm." Somehow, that didn't actually go a long way toward making me feel better about the situation. "So what happens if someone goes to mug me, and I blow out to something that can eat him in one bite?"
Vicky laughed out loud. "Well, for one thing, an experience like that would probably put him off mugging anyone ever again." She ruffled my hair. "I think you'd scare the asshole worse than I ever could."
Amy joined in the laughter, flapping her elbows to make wyvern wings. "Rawr." She smirked at my betrayed expression. "I never even knew you could roar like that, before today."
"You think I did?" I raised my eyebrows. "Every time I go out, it seems like I learn something new about what I can do."
"So why didn't you go with Armsmaster's suggestion?" Vicky spread her hands as I looked at her sharply. "Hey, I'm not saying you should have. I mean, I wouldn't. But it's an option, especially when your powers are changing almost on an hourly basis, yeah?"
"Every time I think about it, all I can see is them deliberately inducing the wyvern form and then studying me endlessly instead of letting me go out as a hero," I said with a shudder. "Poking and prodding. Screw that. I might not have all the answers, but I'm a lot more comfortable this way than that way."
"I can see their point," Carol said. "But I can see yours, too. The last thing I want to do is push you outside your comfort zone. Yesterday proved that you're learning to use your powers, which are both versatile and useful. As a member of New Wave, I'm sure you'll be able to do a lot of good."
"I'm just glad you're still letting me be a member, after I swore at Armsmaster," I confessed. "He might have been annoying, but that's still not a very heroic thing to do."
"Well, getting in your face after you bit off Inago's arm and scared the crap out of two entire gangs wasn't the smartest thing he could've done," Vicky pointed out.
"Not to mention, the last time he got in your face, you melted his halberd," Amy said brightly.
"Doesn't help," I muttered.
Amy smirked, but there was an edge to it. "He deserved it. He's the sort of guy who thinks he knows better than everyone else what they want and need." There was an undercurrent there that I wasn't sure if I wanted to delve into. Of course, given my interactions with the man, I couldn't argue with her analysis.
Deciding it might be a good idea to change the subject, I sat up and looked around. "Uh, where's Dad?"
"He said he was going home," Carol informed me. "Given that you seem likely to be sleeping over here for at least a while, he's picking up more of your clothing."
"Oh, good." I shot a glance at Vicky. "Not that I'm not grateful for you loaning me your clothes, but …"
She waved it away. "Hey, it's all good. You needed it when you needed it. So you want to go shopping for more, sometime?"
"Not everyone wants to go clothes shopping at the drop of a hat," Amy said. "Just saying."
"Depends on the hat," Vicky riposted. "I'm just thinking, with the way Taylor's been destroying her outfits …"
"Gee, thanks," I deadpanned. "Because that's exactly why I wrecked something like six sets of clothing yesterday. To make more room in my closet." I rubbed my eyes, which had started to water from the effort of trying to focus on everyone. "And I hope he can find me a spare pair of glasses, too."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot." Vicky actually looked contrite, as far as I could tell. "The last couple of days have been pretty hard on those too, haven't they?"
"Yeah. And the insurance only covers one extra pair. After we get those, we've got to pay out of pocket for any more." With the events of the previous day to go by, I wasn't optimistic about the surviveability of my eyewear, going forward.
"I could maybe help," offered Amy diffidently. "Fix your eyes, I mean. So you don't need glasses. Seeing as you're a member of New Wave now and all."
I blinked at her. "I didn't know you could do that. I thought it was injuries and disease and stuff."
"There's a lot of stuff a lot of people don't know about my powers," Amy said. "But yeah, I can reshape your eyes so you can see properly, if you want."
"Are you certain that the changes won't cause problems with her eyes in her wyvern form?" asked Carol. "The last thing we want is her mis-targeting her fire breath." She turned to me. "I'm sorry to have to put it like this, but if it comes to a choice between your eyesight and the wyvern's eyesight, we're going to have to put a premium on the Changer form. You, we can fit with glasses. The wyvern, not so much."
I nodded. "I get it. But we can try it out anyway, right? We're going to have to test the wyvern afterward, so if it changes anything, Amy can change it right back."
"That's if Amy's power even works on the wyvern … oh, wait." Vicky facepalmed, but gently. "You've been helping her change back. Of course your power works on her."
"Well, duh." Amy nudged me. "Dope-slap her for me, will you? I can't reach."
I sighed. "I am not dope-slapping anyone. But if you could even try, I'd really appreciate it."
"Okay, then." She took my hands. "So, are you short-sighted or long-sighted?"
The question puzzled me. "Short-sighted, but shouldn't you already know that?"
She gave me a dry look. "I can tell if an eyeball is working after I can piece it back together. How good a picture it gets is something else altogether. Okay, I'm going to be extending your focal length … I hope. Not an optometrist, here. Just your average garden-variety biokinetic."
"How do I tell if it's working?" I asked.
She turned her head sideways and nodded. "Look at something across the room. Tell me if it's getting sharper or fuzzier."
"Okay." There was a picture on the wall in the kitchen, visible through the archway from where I was sitting. At least, I assumed it was a picture; there was a rectangular frame, anyway. What was in the frame, I had no idea. I fixed my eyes on it.
And then everything went fuzzy. I couldn't see a thing. "Whoa! Wrong way, go back!" Even nearby objects were indistinct blurs.
"Whoops, sorry." She sounded apologetic, at least. "Okay, this should work better."
As I watched, the fuzziness decreased noticeably, back to where it had been before. Then it kept on going, the picture in the frame—a photo of Brockton Bay from above—becoming sharper and sharper by the second. "Wow, that's pretty good."
"Good." The improvement paused for a moment. "I'm going to slow it down now. Tell me when it's just gone past the point of maximum improvement."
"Okay." I watched with wonder as the world unfolded around me without the need for glasses. Everything was becoming crystal clear, not only the picture. I kept opening my mouth to tell her to stop, but even at the infinitesimal crawl she was doing it at, I could tell my eyesight was still improving.
Finally, it stopped getting any better. "That's it," I said. "back it up a little." I paused, then closed my left eye. Then I opened that one and closed my right. "Uh, it's perfect with my right eye, but my left still needs a little work." A few seconds went by, then I nodded. "Yeah, that's got it."
"Are you sure?" asked Amy.
"Certain." I nodded, then looked around the room with both eyes open. "Wow, did you spice up my colour vision, too? Everything looks so bright."
"No, but I suspect your prescription was a little out of date," she said. "It's amazing how much you don't realise you're missing when your eyes are even slightly off."
"I'll say." I shook my head as I took in her appearance. "I never knew you had freckles before." They'd been easy to miss before, a light dusting across her nose, but now they were as plain as day to me.
"All right, then." Carol clapped her hands. "Time to see if the alterations have affected your Changer state. Taylor, will you need assistance?"
"No, I should be able to do this on my own." I gestured at the bathrobe. "But I don't want to ruin this."
"So take it off." Vicky waved her hand negligently. "I've already seen everything you've got, and Amy's seen most of it, and I'm pretty sure Mom doesn't care, right?"
I couldn't believe how casually dismissive she was being of my concerns. "I care." I clutched the robe more tightly around me. "I know it's a stress-based change, and standing there in the altogether in front of all three of you would probably force the change in a heartbeat, but I don't want to do that."
"Oh. Okay." Vicky paused, then her face lit up again. "I know! Back in a sec!" Jumping up from the sofa arm, she dashed from the room. I watched with bemusement as she ran up the stairs, only using every third or fourth step. Was she cheating by using her flight? I couldn't tell, but I wasn't about to bet against it.
I turned to Amy. "I'd ask if she's always like this, but that's a silly question, isn't it?"
"Extremely." She rolled her eyes. "It's a good thing, really. With Vicky, what you see is what you get. Always and all the time."
"So I'm learning." I snorted and shook my head. "I couldn't have got much luckier with people to run into flying across the city, huh?"
Carol nodded in agreement. "Victoria may be flighty, in more ways than one, but her heart is definitely in the right place. She saw the person in you where others may have dismissed you as a wild beast."
I was privately more appreciative of the fact that she'd changed her mind after I made it clear that I didn't want to disrobe in front of all three of them. A force of nature she could be, but she was also willing to admit when she was wrong. I'd had far too much of people forcing their ideas of how things should go on me.
"Ta-dahhh!" Vicky came down the stairs, sliding side-saddle on the rail. Clutched in her hands like a giant fluffy banner was a bath towel; the sort that could wrap around me twice and still have enough surface area for a medium tent. Jumping off the rail at the bottom of the steps, she strode over to me with the air of a conquering hero. I couldn't help but wonder if she'd practised in front of the mirror. "Wrap yourself in this, drop the robe, you Change, and nothing's damaged. Genius, that's me."
It was a good idea. I took the towel and gave her a smile in return. "Thanks. But I can't help noticing that you're claiming the title of genius quite a lot around here."
"Hey, if you got it, flaunt it." She tossed her head so her golden curls fell about her face in a becoming fashion, then preened. "And baby, I got it."
"Yeah, but we're still trying to figure out what it is you 'got'," Amy snarked from beside me. "Is it delusions of grandeur or just plain megalomania?"
Vicky poked her tongue out at her sister. "Jealousy," she proclaimed, laying the back of her wrist against her forehead and striking a tragic pose. "Alas, it is a terrible thing. Turning family against family, sister against sister, hero against villain, cat against dog …"
"Enough, already." Carol shook her head. "I'm already regretting signing you up for that drama course. Taylor?"
Trying not to grin too widely at Vicky's clowning around, I got up from the sofa and moved to the centre of the room. Shrugging my arms out of the robe, I used the towel as a screen and let the garment fall to the floor. Then I wrapped the towel around myself and held it securely.
The dark thoughts seemed easier to call on, now. I wondered vaguely if Emma had somehow been jealous of me, and if that had been what turned her against me. Then I decided that it didn't matter; if she'd had a problem, she should've been willing to talk it out. That was what friends did.
Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the Change, trying to distil all the hurt and pain and anguish that had dogged me over the past year into one singular moment, so as to experience it and be over and done more quickly.
It hurt; it always hurt. I felt my heart rate rise and the tears start to my eyes, and then I felt the shift happening. When I opened my eyes, my nictitating membranes were flickering back and forth across them, and my wings were being held in a protective screen in front of me. Quickly, I glanced around the room. There didn't seem to be any reduction in my visual acuity.
Then I tried to talk. Okay, my eyes are clear. But all that came out was a triumphant chirp. Oh, for fuck's sake.
"Okay …" Vicky put her finger on her chin. "I'm guessing … your eyes are good, but you still can't talk at this size."
I rolled my eyes, but nodded to confirm her supposition. It wasn't exactly rocket science, after all. A moment later, I realised something else was different; the all-over body ache I'd been feeling was gone. That was good, but also potentially bad. Was I going to be in pain every time I Changed back to human? Or would it only be the case when I'd undergone a size shift?
Which also reminded me that the last time I'd Changed into my wyvern form, I'd been wearing a spare costume, fetched by Vicky from Parian's shop. No such costume was in evidence now. Which meant that, in the absence of someone holding a towel around me, my modesty was going to be seriously challenged when I Changed back. Nope, not Changing back any time soon. Down here, anyway.
"So, I was thinking," Vicky said chattily, as if continuing a conversation, "me and Ames and Taylor could go to Arcadia again today. Nobody's gonna give her any crap at all, because the footage of her kicking the absolute crap out of Inago's all over PHO. And it'll get them used to her being around in base form."
I cringed, and let out an inquiring chirp. Everyone looked at me, and I racked my brain for a way to communicate the question. Finally, I used my wing-finger tip to trace an 'O' in the air.
"O?" asked Vicky, not quite getting it.
"PHO?" Amy filled in. "You want to know what's being said on the PHO boards?"
I nodded. It would probably be a good idea to find out if I was being seen as a dangerous animal or not.
"Sure, we can do that." Vicky pointed toward the stairs. "To the Wyvern-computer!"
Amy and I stared at her. Even Carol folded her arms and joined in.
"What?" asked Vicky. "I had to say something. And it sounded cooler than, 'let's go online and see', right?"
I snorted derisively. Carol shook her head and turned away, muttering something under her breath. I caught the word 'bat', which didn't mean anything to me at all. Amy just rolled her eyes. "Vicky, you're getting weirder all the time. And that's not a compliment."
"Is if I say it is," Vicky said airily, leading the way upstairs.
She and Amy found stairs relatively easy, of course. I could navigate them with judicious use of my tail and wings, but it was tedious. By the time I got to Vicky's room, she and Amy had her laptop booted up and signed on to the PHO boards. I'd only ever gone on occasionally to lurk and read about cape doings when I was bored; as far as I could recall, I'd never actually made a post.
"Oh, hey, I know what we should do," Vicky said as she moved aside to give me room to look over their shoulders. "We should totally set up an account for Taylor as Wyvern."
I gave her an irritated chirp and held one wing up for her inspection. There was no way I'd ever be typing with those things, and unless they made reinforced keyboards, my feet were pretty well out, too. I guessed maybe I could hold a pencil in my teeth or something …
"Not for use while you're the wyvern," Vicky pointed out. "That's kind of silly. For when you're human."
Oh. Yeah. There's that, too. I felt stupid, and did my best to face-palm with my wing.
"We really could," agreed Amy. "We can submit a couple of photos for verification, with you and me in them."
Verification? I chirped a query. When I'd set up my own account, I didn't recall any need for verification photos.
Amy frowned. "I don't know what you're asking. Why don't we get these photos taken, then you can Change back, and we can set the account up?"
I was kind of tired of playing charades without working hands, so I nodded. First, Vicky posed with me while Amy snapped a photo, then I got one alongside Amy. Then Vicky headed out of the room to grab the discarded bathrobe while Amy set up a photo of me on my own.
"Can you maybe blow a puff of smoke from your nose, like you did back with the Wards?" she suggested. "And some fire?"
I thought it was needlessly dramatic, but she was the boss here, so I did as she said. A little fire in the back of my throat produced the smoke I wanted, then I erected my crest and grinned toothily at the camera, wisps of flame leaking out through the gaps between my teeth.
As Amy tapped the phone screen to take the photo, I heard Carol call out, "And the towel too!"
"Yes, Mom," answered Vicky, with a put-upon sigh.
"And no flying in the house!"
Amy leaned close to me. "She always flies in the house," she murmured with a smirk.
I grinned back—showing a lot more teeth than she had—and nodded. That was something I'd already figured out for myself.
"We've got to take photos," Amy went on as Vicky re-entered the room and closed the door, "because otherwise anyone could pretend to be a cape online. Some people have, especially with capes who don't do PHO. It's caused problems on occasion."
I chirped agreeably; Amy had answered a question I had from before, but now I couldn't ask the question that had since occurred to me. Moving away from the desk, I let Vicky drape the bathrobe over my back. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated on all the good things in my life.
Vicky was my friend. She'd proven that, over and over again. Amy had been a little standoffish to begin with, but she was starting to warm up to me. Even Lady Photon and Brandish—Sarah and Carol—were nice to me. Dad was letting me stay in New Wave. I was going to be a genuine bonafide superhero.
The warm feeling was growing in my chest. I fed it with more memories. Meeting Vicky's friends at Arcadia, and being accepted by them. Winning the battle against Inago and saving Vicky's life, then meeting the Wards. Carefully, I pulled up short of what had happened next, focusing instead on Vista's sheer wonder at meeting me.
I'd enjoyed myself. I'd had fun.
"Uh, Taylor? You can put the robe on now." It was Vicky's voice.
I looked up and around, belatedly realising that the robe was now draped over my shoulders as I half-crouched on Vicky's bedroom carpet. So deeply had I been delving into my memories that I hadn't even felt the change happening. With a sheepish grin, I slid my arms into the sleeves, then pulled the robe shut around me and stood up straight.
"Nicely done," Vicky said with a thumbs-up. "I didn't even have to use my aura once."
"This is a good thing," Amy agreed. "Vicky and I probably won't be around all the time when you need to change back. How did it feel; Changing unassisted, I mean?"
"I have no idea," I confessed. "I was concentrating so hard on making it happen, that I didn't notice when it did happen."
"Does it even matter?" asked Vicky. "She can Change on her own. What's the big deal?"
"It's not just a big deal," Amy challenged her. "It's a huge deal. Right now, she's got a grand total of one deliberate unassisted Change of wyvern to human under her belt. If she can feel the onset of the Change and work with it until it goes all the way through, instead of blindly concentrating on good or bad feelings until something happens, she can make this work a lot more efficiently."
"Now you sound like Armsmaster," Vicky said with a giggle. "Seriously, the man is so obsessed with efficiency."
"Bite your tongue." Amy rolled her eyes. "Efficiency and effectiveness are valid goals. Ever heard of time and motion studies?"
"I'll time and motion you," retorted Vicky, grabbing Amy in a headlock and applying a noogie. Amy squawked and struggled, but I noticed that she was able to force Vicky's arm aside to free herself. I was pretty sure she wasn't using her powers. In short, the two were just horsing around; either from general high spirits, or to try to put me at ease, I wasn't sure. Whichever one it was, it put a grin on my face.
"Vicky, leave her alone," I chided gently. "So, Amy. You think if I can get a handle on how the transformation feels, I should be able to guide it?"
"Well, yeah," the healer said breathlessly, pushing her hair back from her face. She placed her other hand on Vicky's face to push her away. Vicky blew a raspberry against her palm, causing her to jerk her hand back and wipe it on her shirt. "Ew, gross. Do you have any idea how many germs there are in your mouth? Because I do."
"Huh." It was a totally new concept for me. Up until now, my Change had just happened. The idea of triggering it deliberately instead of relying on painful memories (or trying to focus on happy ones) was fascinating. "Does this mean I could stop it from happening if I don't want it to?"
Amy shrugged. "Theoretically, sure. I can see the signals in your body that trigger the change, so you should be able to affect them. Even before capes came on the scene, people were learning how to slow down their heartbeats and gain limited control over other supposedly automatic body functions. Biofeedback is a thing."
"Damn." I was definitely going to have to revisit this idea, once the time came to change back to the wyvern. But that wasn't what we were doing right then, so I shelved it for the moment. "Thanks, Amy. I really appreciate the help you're giving me."
She shrugged again, but her cheeks flushed pink. "Always glad to help a fellow member of New Wave." Taking the phone off the desk, she handed it to Vicky. "Photos are on here. Do your magic, sister of mine." Then she turned to me. "What username did you want to use? Wyvern?"
"If it's available, yes," I agreed. Then something else occurred to me. "Uh, I actually have another account, under my own name. Aren't dual accounts banned on PHO?" I'd heard that sort of thing was frowned upon; something to do with pretending to be someone else agreeing with whatever opinions you were espousing.
"Sock puppets?" asked Vicky, tapping away on the phone. "Whoa, that avatar pic's scary as fuck. I love it." She paused, possibly trying to recall what she'd just been saying. "Uh, yeah, normally. But they usually make an exception for capes, because of secret identities. Me and Ames don't get to do that, for obvious reasons. Which I still think is total bullcrap."
"Suck it up, sister mine." Amy hit Enter and sat back as the screen refreshed. "If that's the worst thing that ever comes out of being open capes, then we'll both be extremely lucky. Okay, then. Account has been set up. Soon as Vicky gets the photos in place, we can set up your avatar image, and the other two we'll send in to the mods to prove you're the real deal."
"Cool." I pulled out one of the two chairs and sat down in it, wrapping the robe around me more securely. "So have they really been talking about me very much on the boards?"
"Have they!" Vicky rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Can you say 'slow-motion explosion'? First, there were a few comments about your first appearance. People got pictures of you flying over the city, then other people saw me and you and Aunt Sarah, and thought you were a monster we were fighting."
"Because she shot lasers at me." I nodded. "I can see how they'd misunderstand that."
"You wouldn't be the first, and won't be the last," agreed Amy. "There were a few good pictures of you with that convenience store robbery, but everyone thought you were just a big flying lizard that we'd picked up somewhere. At that time, the general consensus was that you were a Case fifty-three."
Which was also a reasonable conclusion, considering the situation. "Yeah, I can see that," I said. "So, did they notice when I was bigger after fighting Stinger?"
"Funnily enough, the mainstreamers didn't." Vicky grinned and shrugged. "The tinfoil-hat brigade tried to present it as evidence that you were a hoax or a hologram or something. Basically, ignoring the fact that first responders and cops were standing right next to you."
I rolled my eyes. "Geez. All I need is the nutcases coming out of the woodwork over this one." I'd looked into the section of the boards officially labelled 'Cape Speculation' but collectively known as the 'tinfoil-hat' section once in a while. Even the milder hypotheses coming out of there were weird as crap. Scion was an alien, Dragon was an AI, a shadowy cabal called Cauldron was secretly running the world … there was no end to it.
"You're a dragon. Sorry, wyvern." Amy gave me a sympathetic look. "Pretty sure you're not going to be able to dodge this one. The tinfoil-hats are going to be spawning theories faster than we'll be able to knock them down. We just have to hope the mods are on their A-game. You're gonna want to be able to communicate meaningfully with those of your fans who are actually sane, after all."
"So what's the result of the latest thing?" I asked. "Even Dad seems to have read it, and he never goes on PHO."
Vicky laughed out loud at that one. "Everyone who's even heard about PHO has been on to check that one out. The memes of you swearing at Armsmaster are going viral. And the number of jokes about how you were able to give him a burn without ever breathing fire at him are spreading like …" She gave me a sly look. " … well, wildfire."
I gave her a dirty look. She let it slide right by. "Okay, so is it generally positive or negative?" I asked.
Amy fielded that one. "Positive," she said definitively. "In an oh, god, please don't burn me alive kind of way, sure, but still positive. Inago was a really big deal in Brockton Bay. Well, technically speaking, he still is. And you basically tore him a brand new one, in a way that nobody ever has before. Plus, you went from medium-sized to mega-sized during the course of the fight. People seem to like you, and hope you're on our side. Because fire-breathing dragons are kinda scary. Just putting that out there."
"The interaction with the Wards was pure gold," Vicky added. She didn't mention that she'd been there at the time … but then, she didn't have to. "There are more memes about Vista hugging you than you swearing at Armsmaster. It's very cute, by the way."
"Also, the footage where you blew smoke all over Vicky?" Amy grinned wickedly at her sister. "Gaining views by the second."
Vicky chose to respond in an extremely mature fashion, by poking her tongue out at Amy. "I still say that wasn't in the least bit funny."
"PHO disagrees," Amy pointed out. "All the Wards have written up their own versions of what happened. Vista's is kinda incoherent, but are we surprised? Aegis' is extremely detailed, and very respectful." She stifled a laugh. "Clockblocker's is … well, Clockblocker."
I leaned forward to read the section of text she'd just hovered the cursor over, and burst out laughing. Clockblocker had narrated it like the action from a blockbuster movie, with so much purple prose that his keyboard should really have seized up.
"So where do we go from here?" I asked. "Should I introduce myself? Tell people that I'm really not here to seize the city as my domain, or whatever the tinfoil hat people are saying?" I was guessing, but the look on Amy's face made me blink.
"Actually, some of them are saying almost exactly that," she said. "Others are saying that you're Dragon's real form, out and about for the first time."
I shook my head. "How much more ridiculous can they get?"
"Don't ask," Vicky warned me. "Trust me, that rabbit-hole goes down forever."
Before I could ask another question, I heard my name being called from downstairs. Getting up, I went to the bedroom door. "Yes?" I called back.
"Your father is back." It was Carol.
"Dad!" Leaving the door open, I bolted downstairs. Dad had indeed returned, holding a large bag; clothes and toiletries, I presumed. Throwing my arms around him, I gave him a heartfelt hug.
"Hello to you too, Taylor." His voice was amused as he hugged me in return. "I see you missed me."
"You weren't here when I got up," I explained. "Ever since this thing happened to me, I've been really grateful that you're here for me, no matter what. I mean, some people might have just walked away. Having a daughter who occasionally turns into a wyvern might be seen as a bit of a strain for some."
He ruffled my hair fondly. "Some people might be idiots. You're my daughter, and that's final. So, how have things been while I was away? Any new developments?"
I shrugged faux-modestly. "I managed the Change to Wyvern and back without wrecking any clothing or needing help to do it. Amy thinks I should be able to eventually make it happen, or not, at will. And Wyvern now has a PHO account, courtesy of Amy and Vicky."
"That's really good news," he said, and I could tell he meant it. "Well, apart from the PHO thing. How are the people online ever going to recover from being able to chat online with a real live wyvern?"
Rolling my eyes at his teasing tone, I shook my head. "You are so bad. Thanks for bringing my clothes over. I really appreciate it. Vicky wants to take me clothes shopping later, but I don't know when that's going to be."
"That's my Taylor," he chuckled. "Any other teenage girl would be going, shopping? When? Where? But you're more like, shopping? Meh, if I feel like it."
"Hey, I just feel that I've got more important priorities right now," I pointed out. "Like getting a costume that I won't wreck, especially now I've proven I can become human again of my own accord."
"I'm not saying it's a bad thing," he said hastily. "Only that it's not really the point of view of most teenage girls."
"Well, I'm not most teenage girls," I reminded him. "I'm me. Besides, I won't need new clothing when I go back to Arcadia today with Vicky and Amy, as Wyvern."
He held up a finger. "Ah. I'm glad you reminded me. While I was picking up your clothing, I got a phone call. Winslow's opening again, and Principal Blackwell wants a word with you."
"Wait, what again now?" I blurted. "My locker was destroyed! So were the lockers on either side! Surely they can't have rebuilt that whole section!"
"From what I understand, they didn't." He shrugged, as if he had trouble believing his own words. "The work is ongoing, but for now they've got the damaged section cordoned off from the rest of the school. Just that corridor, apparently. Everyone who had lockers in that area is having their belongings moved to other lockers."
"Except me." I didn't even really need to say it.
"Except you." Her father shook his head. "Everything in that locker was drowned under muck, then exploded, then burned. Whatever's left isn't anything that you want to even think about claiming."
I grimaced. By which he meant the stuff they'd actually put in there. He was right; I didn't want to think about it, full stop and end of sentence. "So what's the general consensus in the school about what happened? What are they saying about me, and the fact that I haven't been there in days?"
"That, I think, is what Principal Blackwell wants to talk to you about," he said. "The police investigators found evidence that it was a parahuman thing, so they handed it over to the PRT. For their part, the PRT is running it as a gas leak; they know who you really are, of course ."
"Armsmaster," I muttered. I was still feeling a little bit of regret for melting his halberd. Not much, considering what a pushy jerk he was, but some. The f-bomb I'd dropped in his face was another source of regret, but I felt more than justified in that particular instance.
"That, and they can connect the dots with ease. Your locker blew up, you can't be contacted when Wyvern is around, and there's evidence of parahuman activity where the locker used to be." Dad shrugged. "Don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to solve that one."
"Okay, so when does Blackwell need me to come in?" I asked. I wasn't looking forward to that particular conversation. In fact, I was dreading going back to Winslow at all. There was no combination of factors I could think of that would make me want to go there.
"Today, if possible," Dad said. "I know you don't want to do this, but this sort of thing won't go away, and getting it over and done with quickly is better than letting it fester."
I groaned. "Do I have to? I just got used to being a cape. You know that if I'm there and Emma and the others start on me, I'll probably blow up into Wyvern again. If she gets far enough under my skin, I might end up biting her head off, and not in a metaphorical way." Even I didn't know if I was being serious or not.
He winced, no doubt recalling what I'd done to Inago. "Please, do not attack anyone," he said, very seriously. "There would be so many downsides, and very few upsides. For one thing, I doubt your membership in New Wave would survive the backlash."
Helplessly, I spread my hands. "If I go into that hellhole alone, there's literally nobody there who'll be willing to watch my back. Not the teachers, not the staff, definitely none of the students. Emma won't know that Mrs Dallon is preparing a case, so she'll think she can hammer me all she likes, and there'll be no come-back. And if I do lash out, even if I don't end up treating her like a chew-toy, I'm basically guaranteed to wreck the case against them. Bad idea, Dad. Really bad idea."
"I tend to concur." Carol Dallon emerged from her office. "Initiating powers-based violence will definitely put any case we have into serious hot water. We need Taylor to have the appearance of being pure as the driven snow. The fact that she's just that, as far as I know, will go a long way toward helping me do my job. If she happens to turn into the wyvern and attack anyone, no matter how badly she's been provoked, it will make life difficult for both myself and her, for obvious reasons."
"But if she doesn't show, that makes her look like a delinquent student," Dad said with a frown. "Principal Blackwell was adamant about that. It also strengthens the connection between her and the exploded locker."
"Well, not really," I said as an idea occurred to me. "I can say I was nearby when it did explode. I was hurt and dazed, and staggered out of the school, then somehow got to the hospital. I've only just now recovered."
"Which can work, but you still have to show up." Dad's expression was unhappy. "I'm not sure why she was so insistent about this. Apart from the whole truancy thing, of course."
Carol frowned. "I may have an idea about that. It's based entirely on supposition and cui bono, so if anyone can poke holes in it, I would appreciate that."
"Cui bono?" I asked, not understanding the term.
"'Who profits'," Amy said briskly. "Okay, what's your idea?"
It took a few moments for Carol to answer. "We're reasonably sure that Armsmaster would love to have Taylor join the Wards, correct?"
Dad and I nodded. "Correct," he said. "But—"
"I'm not finished," she interrupted. "Now, for the purpose of this mental exercise, let us presuppose that Armsmaster has some kind of leverage over Principal Blackwell. He says to her to request and require Taylor to come to Winslow. He knows Taylor is Wyvern, and that her Changer ability is stress-related. She thinks Taylor may have had something to do with the exploding locker, but not that she's Wyvern, nor about the stress aspect."
"So she does what he says, not thinking about the potential downsides …" Dad said slowly.
"But he knows!" I burst out. "He knows that as the wyvern, I tend to react! I knocked him on his ass!"
Carol nodded. "Now, what happens if you go to Winslow and the bullies corner you, and you turn into the wyvern and lash out?"
I winced, and nodded; the chain of events was clear. "I'm outed. New Wave has to disavow me or be caught in the negative publicity. Armsmaster can then strongarm me into the Wards at his leisure."
Slowly, Dad shook his head. "That's cold." He stared at Carol. "The man's a hero. Would he come up with a plan like that, and actually carry it through?"
"A hero he may be, but he's also head of the local Protectorate, and he's had to work twenty-five hours a day to maintain his status," she said bluntly. "He'll do anything he can to get a little extra personal glory. Signing a powerful new Ward? In a heartbeat." She shrugged. "Putting teenagers at risk? Shadow Stalker's in the same school. She's probably been alerted to watch out for problems. No doubt he's convinced himself that it's all for the greater good. And of course, there'll be no way to prove that this was his intent the whole time."
I shook my head. "Screw him. I won't go. They can't provoke me if they can't get to me."
Dad looked dubious. "I don't know what he's got on Blackwell, but she seemed hell-bent on getting you into that school. The phrase 'truant officer' came up."
"I didn't know Winslow had a truant officer," I said. In fact, I was sure it didn't. Nobody had cared every other time I'd skipped.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised if it does now." Carol shook her head. "Mind you, this could all be a total coincidence. Armsmaster could be innocent in all this. I have no proof, after all. Just a suspicious mind. Can anyone knock holes in the idea?"
Silence fell, as we looked at each other. Given how pushy Armsmaster had been, I reluctantly found it all too easy to believe.
Dad took a deep breath. "So what are we going to do?"
I shook my head. "I dunno. Whether he's behind it or not, if I go into that school, I'm screwed. I have no idea how I'm gonna get out of this one."
"I do!" Vicky came strolling down the stairs, looking like the cat that had recently imbibed the cream and was donning a bib in front of a cage full of canaries. "I'll go to Winslow with you. Let's see the little shits bother you then."
I blinked and looked at her. The idea of Vicky confronting Emma was … compelling. "That could definitely work."
"No." Dad shook his head definitively. "It won't. All the girls have to do is complain about her presence—her aura, if nothing else—and Principal Blackwell can order her to leave."
"But I'll be there as a superhero," Vicky protested. "Tell him, Mom!" She looked upset at the idea of her grand plan being shot down so easily.
"Sorry, dear," Carol said. "She can and she will. You're not a student there, and it would take too long—and far too much paperwork—to effect even a temporary transfer. If she decides you're a trespasser, then you're a trespasser."
"So Taylor doesn't go." Dad set his jaw. "Screw Blackwell. Taylor can stay here for the time being, so even if Armsmaster himself decides to play truant officer and kicks down my front door, she won't be there."
"He knows Taylor's joined the team, though," Amy said. "What's stopping him from coming here?"
"Because here is linked to her cape identity, and she's a hero who hasn't committed any deliberate felonies," Carol pointed out didactically. "Yes, the PRT can and will play fast and loose with the so-called unwritten rules, but I will nail anyone's hide to the wall if they choose to try to search my house without both a warrant and due cause. And I'm dubious about him being able to get Director Piggot to sign off on any kind of scheme like that. I'm personally certain that he's relying on it being easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, especially if he manages to get Taylor to sign on the dotted line."
"Taylor will just melt his halberd if he tries, won't you?" Vicky smirked. "Or maybe you'll just bite it in half like a breadstick."
"I'd much rather not antagonise Armsmaster any more than I already have," I said with finality. "I still get the shakes when I think about how many people heard me tell him to eff off. I wish he'd just go away and leave me alone."
Carol stared at me, then slowly blinked. "On second thought, maybe you should go to school."
We all stared at her. "Mom?" asked Vicky. "Are you feeling all right? Do you want to lie down?"
"No, no, hear me out." Carol rubbed her hands together. "But we're going to be doing more than just getting evidence on the girls who've been bullying you, Taylor. We're going to be going after Armsmaster himself. If he's willing to bend the rules this hard just to get you over a barrel, Taylor, who knows what else he's ready to pull. All in the name of 'the greater good'." She said the last three words in tones of deepest disgust. "So yes, you'll be attending Winslow. But we'll also be taking certain precautions …"
End of Part Fourteen
[Mwahaha. Evil cliffhanger is evil.]