A/N: First time posting here. Let's see how this goes. As with everything I write, updates will be slow. But they will come eventually.


Alexis - Part 1


August 28th, 2007

A PRT officer led Mom, Emma and I into a hospital room that had clearly been repurposed for interviews or something. He gestured, and we took our seats.

The officer—Byers, according to his name-tag—perused a file for a few seconds, then looked up. "Alright," he said. "Let's get things started, shall we? My name's Roger Byers." He shook Mom's hand, then mine and Emma's too. "I'm a research assistant with the PRT's Parahuman Studies division." Not an officer, then. "I'm sorry for the delay, but we've been rather busy this week, for obvious reasons. You're the sixth group I've seen today. Now!" He brought his hands together, intertwining his fingers. "Taylor and Emma, is it? I understand you're here for the Super scans?"

"Yep!" Emma said before I could answer. I looked at her sideways; she just grinned wider, and Mom smiled. "We're gonna be heroes. Even if it says we can't be."

Mr. Byers laughed. "That's a good attitude to have," he said. "How old are you two?"

"Twelve," we answered in unison. We shared a grin.

"I see, I see. Well, I hope it goes well for you." He lowered his hands and looked at my mom. "Have you read the documentation we provided?"

"I have," Mom said, nodding, "as has my husband, and Emma's parents. We've already supplied their medical records, and signed the consent forms."

"Good, that's good. I hope you don't mind if I explain the basics again? It's protocol, I'm afraid."

"No, that's alright."

"Alright." Mr. Byers pulled a folder out of his bag and placed a few documents on the table. "First and foremost, be aware that the results of this scan will be recorded, regardless of the outcome, and that those records will be strictly confidential. This means that if either of these girls are eligible for the Super program, the directors of the Super program will be made aware of this, and the records will be available to all suitably ranked personnel of certain government bodies, such as the PRT itself.

"Second, these scans and tests are simply to determine eligibility. Actually entering the Super program at this stage is a significantly more involved process, which will be detailed after the results come in, provided they are positive. Note that applying for the Super program is entirely optional, and is not in any way required of you, should you prove eligible."

Mr. Byers crossed his arms on the table. "With me so far?"

Mom nodded. Emma and I nodded too, though some of it had gone over my head, and probably Emma's as well.

"Alright." Mr. Byers pushed one document toward us, and Mom picked it up and started reading it. I strained to see what it said, but the angle was bad. "You'll need to sign here." He pointed to a blank line on the document. "Just to verify you've understood. Now, the testing itself is a relatively simple process, but there are a few things to be aware of." He turned to Emma and I. "Are either of you claustrophobic? Afraid or uncomfortable with tight, enclosed spaces?"

We shook our heads. Emma certainly wasn't claustrophobic; I remembered the kind of places she hid during hide and seek. More specifically, I remembered being dumbfounded at how tight a space she could squeeze into.

"Good," Mr. Byers said with a nod and a smile. "The test is a simple brain scan. First we'll inject a contrast agent and a vial of nanobots into your bloodstream. Then we'll slide you into a tinker-built NRI machine. It'll fill up with an oxygenated neural imaging solution—specifically designed for human intake—that will enable you to breathe, and the machine will take a few pictures and work with the nanobots to scan your brain properly. After the scan is done, we'll withdraw the bots, slide you on out again, and the results will be ready in a few minutes. Don't worry; this is all one-hundred-percent safe. We've done it a thousand times."

Emma made a face. I knew what she was thinking before she even said it. "There'll be needles?"

"Yes," Mr. Byers chuckled. "But they're very small. Although, the agents can be taken orally, if you prefer, with water. It just means the test preparation takes a little longer."

Mom grabbed a pen off the table and signed the form on the dotted line, then handed it back to Mr. Byers and smiled at Emma and I. "Well, girls," she said. "I'm ready when you are."

This is the best day of my life.

Mr. Byers took us to a room built of white tiles, then left. A blonde woman in a nurse's outfit named Ms. Jones took his place; she handed us a pair of grey-blue hospital gowns—the ones with the cut down the side—and pointed us to a curtained partition for changing.

After we'd gotten out of our normal clothes—including underwear, which was horribly embarrassing—and into the hospital gowns, Ms. Jones sat me down—I was first. She asked if I was okay with needles, and brought them out when I said yes; after all, what kind of superhero was afraid of needles? Of course, that doesn't mean I was eager to look at them, no matter how small they were.

Ms. Jones explained what the actual test would be like and what each needle contained, saying a lot of what Mr. Byers had said, and told me I'd feel a pinch. Mom squeezed my hand, and Emma watched with her lip between her teeth. She'd always hated getting vaccinated at school.

The needles didn't hurt much. They injected the first one—the contrast agent—into my arm, then the nanobots in my neck, right at the base of my skull. Then a second nurse took me to a side room while Ms. Jones asked Emma if she was okay with needles. I smiled when I heard Emma say, "Superheroes aren't afraid of needles," just before the door closed.

This new room was empty and bare, except for a huge cylindrical machine in the centre and a dark-tinted window in one wall. The nurse led me over to the machine and pulled a long, narrow tray out of it, then gestured for me to lie down. I did so, holding the bottom of my gown in place with one hand. Once I was flat on my back, the nurse slid the tray back in and closed the hatch, leaving me alone.

I could see why Mr. Byers asked if we were claustrophobic.

The inside of the machine was tight, the inner walls smooth and grey—at least in what little light I had. The only exceptions were the black orb directly above my head and the small dotted speaker grill beside it.

I shifted a bit.

"Taylor?" a man's voice sounded from the speaker grill. "Are you feeling alright?"

I nodded, then remembered they couldn't see me. "I'm fine."

The voice chuckled. "Good. By the way, nodding is fine. We have a camera in there for monitoring purposes." I blushed, glancing at the black orb. "Yep, that's it. Now then, I'm Doctor Lee. We're just prepping the machine for your scan. We'll start in just a moment, okay?"

"Okay."

I waited, and continued shifting in place. I couldn't help it. This test was going to decide my future, and I had no control over the outcome. I couldn't spend more time studying like I would for an exam. I couldn't practice to improve like I could for a musical instrument. I couldn't exercise like if I were a member of the track-and-field club.

No, nothing I could do would affect the results. Either my brain was valid for the program, or it was not. All I could do was lie here, wait, and hope it would turn out the way I wanted.

I hated it.

The machine made a ca'thunk sound and started whirring. I heard liquid flowing and splashing beneath me.

"We're almost ready now, Taylor," Dr. Lee said through the speakers. "As soon as the capsule is filled with the imaging solution, we'll start." I felt the water rise to my legs, and looked down. It was clear. I took a deep breath and held it as the water level rose. "There's no need to hold your breath. The imaging solution is oxygenated. It will feel odd at first, but once it's in your lungs, you'll have no trouble breathing. Just relax."

Ms. Jones had told me the same thing, but I held my breath anyway. The water reached my ears, and then my cheeks, and I squeezed my eyes shut as it engulfed me completely. After a few more seconds, the whirring stopped.

I cracked open one eye; I could see fine. Still holding my breath, I opened both my eyes fully and looked around. It was impossible to tell I was underwater. I brought one hand up to my face and waved it around. It didn't feel like there was any resistance, as far as I could tell.

…Had they drained the water already?

"Taylor," Dr. Lee said. "We can't run the test while you're holding your breath."

Oh. Right. I released my held breath, bubbles escaping from my nose. That was a mistake. The water—which evidently had not been drained—rushed into my nose and travelled down to my lungs as I attempted to breathe again. I spluttered and tried to cough it out, but that accomplished nothing, since I was still underwater.

"Taylor! Taylor, relax. I know it's counter-intuitive, but you need to breathe normally."

I shook my head and pushed at the walls in vain. But I couldn't stop myself from breathing in another load of water, enough to fill me up. I thrashed for a moment longer, then stopped. I could breathe just fine. I took a second to build my courage, then took a deep breath. It felt weird.

"Huh."

"There you go," Dr. Lee said. "Not so bad once it's over with, is it?" I blushed; I'd forgotten he was there. And they have a camera! Oh god. Do they record these tests? I hope not. That wouldn't exactly be a great start to my hero career.

"Sorry," I said.

Dr. Lee chuckled over the speakers. "Don't worry, that's a perfectly natural reaction. It happens a lot. People aren't really designed to have liquid in their lungs." I smiled. "Now, are you feeling okay? Any discomfort or other concerns you'd like to voice before we start? If we have to stop part-way through, you'll need to go through the entire prep procedure again."

I shook my head. "I'm okay, I think."

"Alright. We'll calibrate the nanobots, first." The machine ca'thunk'd again, and a deep, low buzzing emanated from behind my head. "The imager will be rather loud, and it'll sound a bit like someone merged a drum kit with an old camera shutter, but there's nothing to be afraid of. Just try to relax." I heard a series of hisses and clicks as a light tingling sensation presented itself in my head, and the buzzing faded. "If you want to stop at any time for any reason, or you feel any discomfort or pain, just give the word, and we'll shut it off immediately. Okay?"

"Okay."

A moment of silence. "Starting now."

True to his word, a rhythmic thumping began, each thump emanating from a different side of my head and punctuated by a click. It was a little intimidating, but I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths and relax. Heroes were fearless, and I was going to be a hero, frailty issues be damned.

The tingling in the back of my head grew and shifted with each thump of the machine. I also felt a headache coming on, but I figured that was normal. I just closed my eyes and continued taking slow, deep breaths.

"Taylor?" Dr. Lee said. I opened my eyes and looked at the camera, belatedly realising the thumping had stopped. "The test is finished, now. Well done."

I blushed, and immediately felt like an idiot. Praise wasn't that rare.

"We're going to drain the imaging solution now, okay?"

I nodded, and a few seconds later I heard another clunk and the water began draining out of the machine. Getting it out of my lungs might actually have been worse than getting it in. Once it was empty, they opened the hatch, slid me out of the machine, and handed me a towel to dry myself off as best I could.

With everything finished, I was taken back to the prep room, where Emma was sitting, looking nervous, Mom holding her hand now. I smiled at her, and she jumped when Ms. Jones poked her with a needle. Then she was taken into the room I'd just left to be tested herself.

My clothes were returned to me, and I changed back into them, handing the wet hospital gown to an orderly. Ms. Jones asked me if I'd like my results now, or if I wanted to wait and hear them when Emma did.

I told her I'd wait.

"Taylor!"

Emma leaped at me and caught me in a hug, laughing when I jumped. I laughed too, even though she'd interrupted a conversation with my Mom.

"You're all wet!" I said, trying to push her off me.

"I am?" Emma said. She pulled back and looked down at herself, then glanced off to the side, looking sheepish. "Whoops. I forgot."

Ms. Jones fetched her clothes, and I pushed Emma over to the changing partition. She closed it behind her. Ms. Jones asked if she wanted to hear her results alone, or at the same time as me. She gave the same answer I did, and Ms. Jones told us it would be a few minutes.

Emma came back out of the partition, skipped over, and took a seat beside me. "So?" she said, grinning like a loon. "How'd it go for you?"

I smiled. "The test? It was fine. Kind of boring, though."

"Ugh, I know, right? And that sound was so annoying."

I glanced around. Mom was the only other person in the room, but I leaned in to whisper in Emma's ear anyway. "What did you think about the water?"

She grimaced. "That was awful. I mean, like, I know they told us that was gonna happen, but I still felt like throwing up."

I nodded. "Yeah, I—" I cut off as Ms. Jones came back into the room with a heavyset asian man beside her. "Dr. Lee?" I said.

The man smiled and bowed his head slightly. "Nice to properly meet you, Taylor, Emma."

"Are those the results?" Emma said, pointing at the folder he was holding.

"Yes, they are," Dr. Lee said, then turned to my mom. "But I'd like to speak with Miss Hebert for just a moment, if you don't mind?"

Mom quirked an eyebrow, but followed him into the side room anyway. I hope it doesn't take too long.

Emma bumped my shoulder. "Hey, Taylor," she whispered. "What power do you want?"

"Flying," I said immediately.

"Oh, that'd be awesome," Emma said. "Fire control would be pretty good, too."

I grinned and bumped her back. "You're a pyromaniac now?"

She returned the grin. "I would also accept water control."

After a few more minutes of deliberation, we decided flight and turning into animals—especially cats, birds, and dolphins—were in the highest tier when it came to awesome powers, followed closely by pyrokinesis, telekinesis, and hydrokinesis.

We were in the midst of discussing the minutiae of costume design, even though someone would probably do that for us if we got into the Super program, when Mom and Dr. Lee came back, and told us to sit down. Mom sat beside us and put her hand on my knee.

"So?" Emma said. "Did we pass? Are we gonna be superheroes?"

Dr. Lee sighed. "I'm afraid not." Emma and I met each other's eyes; she was frowning much like how I was. "Neither of you are eligible candidates for the Super program, and you're unlikely to trigger naturally, either."

I… What? I… can't be a superhero? No. No, that can't be right. I knew my bones weren't as strong as they should be, but what does that matter? I could still be a hero. I could still help people.

I looked at Emma. Her mouth was slightly ajar, her lower lip quivering every few seconds. Her eyebrows were no longer furrowed, but raised in the middle, just a smidgen. I felt my hand tremble, and grabbed Emma's to still myself—and her.

"I'm sorry, girls," Dr. Lee said, folding his hands over his stomach. "But… Taylor? I'm afraid I have some more bad news. I've already spoken to your mother, but I have to ask: would you prefer I give it in private?"

"W-what?" My mom gave me an apologetic look and squeezed my knee again, and Emma turned to me, worry plain in her eyes. "I don't… No. What is it?"

Dr. Lee removed a few images from the folder in his hands, and held them in front of me. They were blue-grey and not entirely opaque, and I couldn't make heads or tails of them.

"The scans provide detailed information of brain structure and chemical balance, among other things," Dr. Lee said. "That's how we determine suitability for the Super program; it's mostly luck of the draw. But in your case, the scans revealed data about your brain that was not on your medical records, presumably because you've never had a brain scan before.

"The scans indicate severe brain damage, especially in the areas responsible for the sensation of touch, long-term memory, and vision—" he pointed them out on the images "—that is, the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. Or at least, we assume those are the most heavily affected areas. In addition to the deformities, sections of your brain also seem to be in the… incorrect locations, for lack of a better term.

"This appears to have been caused by a growth in the centre of your brain, displacing the other lobes by several inches in some cases. The growth itself appears similar to the corona pollentiae and corona gemma, those responsible for parahuman abilities. However, there is no evidence of you possessing any parahuman abilities, and the neural structure of this growth differs greatly from that of the corona pollentiae and corona gemma, and it is also in a different location.

"This growth is not something I've ever seen record of, but discovering it now is actually a good thing. This kind of situation has happened before: in Arizona, they discovered a malignant tumour in one boy's brain during his Super eligibility test. They operated within the week, and it's very likely that discovery saved his life. The growth in your brain is too complex to be a tumour, and it seems to contain active neurons. However, it appears benign, and it is definitely not cancerous, but further observation and testing would be required to make a proper diagnosis.

"You also exhibit none of the typical symptoms of brain damage, which seems to indicate your condition is unlikely to cause you any real difficulty in the immediate future. All the same, if it is at all possible, I would like for you to come back in a few days for additional testing. Just because it appears benign does not mean it is not dangerous."

I sat stock-still, dead silent, slowly absorbing Dr. Lee's words. Brain damage? A… growth? And on top of that, I couldn't be a hero?

Mom squeezed my knee, caressing my back with her other hand. Emma wrapped her arms around me and sobbed into my shoulder.

This is the worst day of my life.

October 7th, 2011

I unlocked the front door and limped into the house, taking care to shut it softly behind me; I didn't want to break it again. I made my way through the lounge, passing by the dozen or so discarded beer cans on the coffee table as I moved to the stairs. I took them slow, one at a time, except for the broken step I had to jump over—which of course made my ribs twinge. I winced.

Fucking Sophia.

Eventually, I reached my bedroom, the cleanest room in the house—and, not coincidentally, the only room Dad never entered. Used to be I'd clean a different room of the house every day of the week, like Mom had, but I'd stopped bothering after the hundredth time Dad hadn't noticed. With a sigh, I dropped my bag against the door and trudged through to my ensuite bathroom. Once there, I stripped to my underwear, discarding my hoodie and jeans on the floor, and looked in the mirror.

Mottled bruises covered the vast majority of my body, each a different shade of purple or brown or yellow, each at a different stage of healing, but all awful to look at. I'd always bruised easily. Worse, I was bleeding. I'd pulled the stitches on my thigh, and there was a fresh gash running from the back of my wrist—right-hand side—almost all the way to my elbow. I had no idea how that had happened.

I glanced back the way I'd come, into my room, and saw droplets of blood forming a trail from the hall to my bathroom. And they probably continued down to the front door. Maybe even further. And there was a visible red patch on my jeans.

Shit.

A moment's consideration, and I figured I'd have enough time to clean up myself and the blood before Dad got home. Or rather, I hoped I would. At least there were no visible bloodstains on my hoodie; thank god for the colour black.

I filled up the kettle I kept in my bathroom cabinet and set it to boil. Then I fetched my medical kit from beneath the sink and popped it open on the bench, ignoring the twinge from my ribs when I bent over. I withdrew the needle and thread, bandages, tweezers and nail clippers, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a bag of cotton balls, and placed them all on the bench.

I left the razor where it was, untouched since the last time I'd chickened out.

While the kettle boiled, I cleaned the blood from my arm and leg with warm water from my sink. It was a little awkward, but at this point I was used to it. The kettle dinged just as I finished drying off, and I poured the boiled water into a metal dish. I dropped the needle, tweezers, and clippers in, and gave them a few minutes to sterilise.

I took the time to look over the rest of my body for any other open wounds I might've missed, and found nothing. But I did find a broken rib. My fingers moved further down my side and prodded again, and—yep. Make that two broken ribs. Great. Note to self: don't get pushed down the stairs again.

My elbow hurt like a bitch, too, but I wasn't sure breaking your elbow was actually possible. If it was, it probably would have happened to me already. At least I wasn't having much difficulty breathing.

But just to be safe, I wrapped a bandage around my midriff anyway. Once I'd hooked it, I took my tools from their dish, dried them off with a paper towel, and gave them a once-over with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. Then I took a seat on the edge of my bathtub—which doubled as a shower—and twisted my leg so it was easier to access.

I bent over my leg, again ignoring the twinge from my side, and got to work. Tweezers to lift the knot, nail clippers to cut the thread, then back to the tweezers to pull it out of my skin. Repeat until all the stitches were removed. It hurt a little, and blood welled at each suture point, but not enough to cause an issue.

When I'd finished, I grabbed my needle and thread and started reapplying the stitches. That hurt more. It probably didn't help that I was rushing a little.

Half-way through, I missed with the needle and stabbed myself in the palm. I stared at it, embedded half an inch into my skin—or possibly more—for a long, long minute.

And then I started crying.

I'd done up my stitches and applied bandages and antiseptic, changed into some fresh clothes and dumped by blood-stained ones in a bucket with some fabric cleaner, and massaged my bruises with warm water mixed with vinegar—I'd read online that it was supposed to help accelerate how quickly the bruises faded; it hadn't really done much yet, but I'd only been doing it a few days, and even a little bit would be helpful.

I had just finished cleaning my blood off the floor when Dad got home. I heard his truck pull up in the driveway, and scrubbed frantically to remove the last stain, then ran over to the sink to give the brush a rinse.

The door handle squeaked as it was depressed; then the door opened, and Dad was inside. I looked over my shoulder at him, but he didn't so much as glance in my direction, just deposited his bag and keys on the coffee table and dropped onto the lounge, in his usual spot. He popped open a can of beer, switched the TV on, and started channel-surfing, eventually stopping on a game of college football being broadcast live from our very own BBU.

I finished cleaning the brush, put a pair of frozen dinners in the oven, and went up to my room.

Dad didn't need me.

But of course, I needed him. If only to pay the bills. And I'd forgotten about the excursion for Mr. Gladly's World Issues classes. There was going to be a quiz afterward, and attendance was worth almost half my grade for some reason that only made sense to Mr. Gladly, so I couldn't skip it. Not unless I wanted to risk repeating the year; I was already in danger of failing art. I could forge my dad's signature on the permission slip, but I wasn't comfortable doing the same with his cheque book.

So, it was with great reluctance that I went back downstairs and interrupted his football game.

"Dad?" I said, tapping on his shoulder.

He grunted, not looking away from the TV.

"Uh, I need money. A cheque. It's for a field trip, for school."

He glanced in my direction, but didn't actually look at me. There was a moment of quiet. "Where's my cheque book?" he said.

I handed it to him, along with a pen, and tapped my feet against the floor.

Dad filled out the recipient details and signed it, then looked vaguely in my direction again. "How much?"

"Fifty dollars," I said, suppressing a wince at the amount.

Dad didn't care. He added the sum, tore the cheque out, and held it back to me. I grabbed it, but he didn't let go. Instead, he turned and actually looked at me. I couldn't remember the last time he'd done that. He looked down at my hand, and I realised the bandage on my wrist was visible. I pulled the sleeve of my hoodie down over it; hoodies were pretty much all I could wear these days, unless I wanted to risk people thinking my dad was abusive, which I didn't.

His gaze lingered on my wrist for a long moment, then he let go of the cheque and turned back to the TV.

That hurt more than the broken ribs and bruises combined.

It shouldn't have. He was always like this. We'd never been close, and the distance had only gotten worse after Mom died. He'd refused to look at me for weeks after she died, and I'd spent most nights at Emma's house, those first few months. And that had been over two years ago, now. He gave me money when I asked, and paid the bills, and never mistreated me, but I knew. I knew he didn't care about me. I was used to this.

It shouldn't have hurt. It shouldn't have surprised me.

But it did.

"Thank you," I said.

He didn't reply.

Four days later...

The bus ride was a shitty affair. Sixty high school kids crammed into a tight environment for almost two hours with nothing to do but… gossip. Ugh. I nabbed a seat right up the front; all the 'cool kids' gravitated to the back, and I wasn't about to risk sitting near Emma or Sophia. Or even Madison, for that matter. A stroke of good luck meant I was one of the only people that didn't have to share a seat.

But instead… I got stuck sitting across from Mr. Gladly. And boy, wasn't that fun. He spent the first half of the drive trying to draw me into a conversation, asking me how I was doing and what I was looking forward to most on this excursion—to which my answer was, "Nothing." I was only here for a passing grade; Mom would turn in her grave if I had to repeat a year. I stayed silent where I could and gave half-hearted, single-word replies where I couldn't, and he eventually got tired of me and left me alone.

We arrived in Boston around ten, and Mr. Gladly split us into three groups. Emma and Sophia went into one, I went into another. But I got stuck with Greg Veder, and Julia Daniels, and Alison Hunt, and Laura whatever-her-name-was. And Madison Clements. She was hardly the worst of my tormentors—the most she'd ever done was dump her pencil shavings or juice box on my desk; annoying, sure, but nothing compared to Emma or Sophia and their war-like approach to making my life hell—but she was still one of them.

I resolved to avoid her as much as possible.

A teacher aide—I think her name was Ms. Hudson—was assigned to chaperone my group, while Mr. Gladly went with Emma and Sophia's, and some other woman went with the third.

So there was one saving grace, at least. I wouldn't have to deal with him and his fucking pity.

Mr. Gladly's group went for a tour of the PRT headquarters, and the third group went to visit the Boston Tower, but my group's first stop was Boston's Museum of Heroes. Ms. Hudson let one of the museum staff take over and give us a tour, but she spent most of it fiddling with her phone—as did seventy percent of the group.

I didn't really blame them; the displays weren't the most interesting thing in the world, and the tour guide sounded unbelievably bored. Besides, if they were on their phones, they weren't bothering me. And I was all for that.

I let myself drag behind the rest of the group, hunching in on myself—though it didn't really stop people from noticing me. Madison and her coterie threw me several looks and whispered among themselves, giggling like idiots ten times a minute. Ms. Hudson glanced at me once or twice, but all she ever did was turn back to her phone.

The tour guide showed us some of the collaborative murals street artists had made after Behemoth's attack on Boston almost twenty years ago, depicting fallen heroes, some in-costume, some out—but none I recognised. There were even a few villains, as Greg was quick to point out. The murals themselves had somehow been moved from their original places and brought here to be put on display.

I bet they'd had to move them because someone wanted to knock down the buildings they were originally painted on. Probably to build a McDonalds. Heh. Capitalism at its finest.

Another exhibit focused on Boston's rogue community… but there wasn't much to speak of. I saw a few displays for the more 'well-known' rogues, though I didn't recognise any of them either, recounting what they had done for Boston's economy or whatever industry they had specialised in. It was kinda depressing; every single one of them was either dead or turned to villainy. Maybe they should have just stayed at home.

The next stop on our ever-exuberant tour guide's… well, guide… was similarly depressing: an exhibit dedicated to the Super program. There was one display detailing its conception, and another chronicling its downfall. A dozen little cube displays were spread about the room, each dedicated to a different Boston hero the Super program had birthed, listing their accomplishments and their origins, each punctuated by a quote from the lucky kid in question.

Or maybe not-so-lucky. After all, half of them were dead now, too, and it had barely been five years since the program started.

It brought back memories. Memories I was happier without. The months of invasive testing… how the local doctors had clamoured to do a fucking research paper on my brain and how we'd had to sue them to make them fuck off… the way Emma had started treating me differently after we found out—subtly, to be sure, but differently.

I scowled, resisting the urge to kick one of the exhibits to shit.

Not a day went by I didn't wish I was a normal person; that my body wasn't so fucked up, that my brain wasn't such an interesting fucking specimen. If I was normal, Emma might never have turned on me: her loveable, retarded friend—even though we'd proven long before that I wasn't actually impaired in any way, mentally, and she'd proven she had no love for me.

And I might even have been eligible for the Super program, all those years ago. I mean, sure, I might have gotten unlucky: I might have ended up as one of the kids who went insane, or one of the kids that started growing tumours the size of tennis balls.

But honestly? At least I would have done something worthwhile before I kicked the bucket, or had to be put down.

The tour wasted another half hour or so of my admittedly worthless time, which I spent kicking my feet and hating my life. After it was over and done with, we stopped for lunch. The cool kids bought takeout or a hotdog off one of the street vendors, but I just sat down as far as I could get from everyone else without drawing Ms. Hudson's attention—not that I thought she'd actually do anything even if I stood up now and hitched a bus to New York—then cracked open my lunchbox, and dug into my sandwich; but of course, the contents of said sandwich fell out the bottom, making a mess on my jeans.

I heard Madison's little sorority laughing at me.

I ignored them.

The group destinations rotated. The second stop for Mr. Gladly's group was the Museum of Heroes, while the third group went to the PRT HQ, and we went to the Boston Tower.

It was designed sort of like an airport tower—or at least, what I imagined an airport tower looked like; I'd never even been on a plane—a tall, thin, cylindrical shaft stretching maybe eight stories high, with a big, flat almost-ellipsoid shape stuck on the top. The outside was formed all of dark grey metal plates, the seams in between them barely noticeable. Black bands bordered the doors and windows.

The ground floor was tiny; there was a security officer, a receptionist, a couple tour guides, a toilet, and not much else. We signed in and grabbed a guide, then crowded into the elevator—though we needed two trips. There were stairs circling the elevator shaft, but they were for emergency use only, and I had no interest in climbing them anyway.

The top floor—though there were pretty much only the two—was split into two segments, an upper and a lower. The lower half was where the elevator came out, and was filled to the brim with art and displays and more little exhibits, the windows overlooking the park outside. There weren't many people there—few enough tourists that I could count them on my hands.

The upper half, from what I could see, was geared more for the tourist crowd, with a miniature food court and a gift shop that probably sold stupid shit like figurines and Armsmaster brand underwear. There were more windows, and a set of stairs leading to the roof.

Our guide showed us around and introduced some of the more intricate exhibits, though most of them were fairly simple. Oddly, this tour guide didn't seem to hate her life as much as she should. She was actually… peppy. But then, the Boston Tower was actually moderately interesting. Moderately.

Really, it was more of a monument than a tower, only nine or ten stories high in total, dedicated equally to Behemoth's attack and the Battle for Boston that followed. Many of the tower's displays weren't all that different to the murals from the museum, except that the paintings and exhibits here were clearly professionally done, and they depicted heroes I actually recognised.

I took some time to inspect a huge and incredibly well-done painting of the Behemoth fight. It depicted Alexandria, leading the charge against Behemoth with an army of capes at her back and Scion floating over them in the background. I'd always looked up to her. She'd been my dream. My inspiration. The reason I'd wanted to be a hero, ever since I was a kid. Emma's inspiration, too.

Between her and Behemoth, beneath Scion in the middle of the painting, lay Legend, his body broken and beaten. Golden rays of light shone down on him from Scion, and one last, huge, rainbow laser-beam was lancing from his outstretched hand toward Behemoth, adding to the hundreds of bleeding cuts already carved into every visible part of the Endbringer's body.

Legend had died before I was born, so I'd never had the chance to idolise him the same way I did Alexandria. But he'd gone out in a blaze of glory, and even though Behemoth had survived in the end, I respected him for it. As did Alexandria.

I heard sirens. Not Endbringer sirens, thankfully, just regular old police sirens.

I moved over to the nearest window and glanced down. A half dozen vehicles, both PRT vans and police cruisers, pulled up below the tower, sirens blaring. Men—and maybe women, too, I couldn't really tell from up here—piled out of the vehicles and took up places behind them, pulling their weapons out and holding them at the ready.

Were they doing a drill or something? A training exercise? Why would they do that here?

The elevator dinged. I turned. The receptionist was shoved out the doors and fell to her knees, sobbing. An average-sized man in a balaclava stepped out, dumped a sack on the ground, then pulled her to her feet and scanned the room. He held a pistol in his right hand, while his left hand was wreathed in a purpley-black fire. Their clothes were spattered with blood.

For a long moment, there was silence—broken only by the receptionist's sobbing and the sirens outside. Then one of the girls from my group shrieked, and everything sunk in.

"Shut up!" the balaclava guy roared, spittle visibly flying from his lips. He gestured with his gun toward the centre of the room and kicked the receptionist forward. "Everyone group up there! Now!"

You've got to be fucking kidding me.

Everyone jumped into action, running to comply with Mr. Crazy's demands. A few tourists up in the dining court area leaned over the railing to see what was happening, only to freeze when Mr. Crazy aimed his gun at them. "You too!" he shouted. "Everyone get down here!"

They hurried to obey, too. I joined the others on the floor, forcing myself to take deep breaths and trying not to freak out.

A security guard ran out of the gift shop and levelled his own gun at Mr. Crazy. "Drop the—" He cut off as Mr. Crazy gestured with his left hand, and a cloud of purple fire enveloped the security guard, almost in an instant. He screamed as flesh sizzled, and Mr. Crazy shot him. The screams stopped. The guard's body crumpled and fell over the railing, landing with a heavy thump on the metal floor. Someone wailed.

"Anyone else?" he challenged, glaring around the room, eyes darting as he searched for any other threats. "Didn't think so. Now sit the fuck down, and shut the fuck up!"

The last few tourists dropped to their knees in the centre of the room with the rest of us. I glanced over to the side; the girl who had wailed, Alison, had wrapped her arms around her body and was trembling violently, but she quieted down and made do with periodic whimpers.

Mr. Crazy spun and waved his hand toward the windows. The fire by the dining court railing disappeared, and walls of smokey purple flame burst into being against all the windows of the lower floor, save the one closest to us. Then he turned to us and waved his hand again, and another wall of fire—this one a lot smaller—flared into existence at the edge of our group, spreading out to encircle us completely as he moved his hand around. The people closest to the ring of fire cried out and shuffled as far back as they could.

He glared at us. "Nobody move," he said, then stalked over to the uncovered window, glancing back at us every few steps, and peered down at the police.

"Shit," he said. The fire went out on his left hand, and he ran it over his head. I could see it trembling. "Shit, shit, shit."

He looked at us over his shoulder, then walked back to our circle. "You lot, you're schoolkids, yeah?" Nobody answered. "I said: you're schoolkids, yeah?"

We nodded as a collective group, and for a moment he tapped his foot against the floor.

"Alright," he said, then gestured with the gun. "You there, the cute one. Come here." Nobody moved. "I said come here!" He reached into the middle of the group, right toward me. I shrunk back instinctively, but he extinguished the fire again and grabbed onto another girl's arm, pulling her to her feet. I couldn't hold back a sigh of relief.

"No!" the girl—it was fucking Madison—shrieked, scratching and scrabbling at Mr. Crazy's hand on her arm. "Help! Paul! Julia!"

Her friends said nothing, choosing instead to stare at the ground. Mr. Crazy growled, grabbing at Madison's legs.

"HELP ME!" she screamed. "Please!"

"Stop fucking struggling!" Mr. Crazy snapped, dragging her fully out of the throng and turning her around. Madison sobbed as he pointed the gun at her. "Stand up, and be quiet!"

It took her a second or two, but Madison managed to do as he said. She was trembling all over.

"You have a cell phone?" Mr. Crazy said.

Madison shook her head.

Mr. Crazy frowned, opened his mouth, and—

"She keeps it in her pocket!"

I snapped my head around. That had been a girl's voice—someone in the crowd. I scanned the people around me, coming to a stop over Madison's group of friends. Half of them were boring holes into the ground with their eyes, their hands over their ears, doing everything they could to pretend they were anywhere but here. The other half? They were staring at one girl with long blonde hair, done up in a ponytail—Alison Hunt.

She was smiling. It was clearly forced, but it still struck me. She didn't even seem to care that she'd just sold out her friend.

Bitch is too weak a word.

Looking back, I saw Mr. Crazy smirk. "Thanks, kid," he said, then glared at Madison. "Lie to me again and I'll set you on fire. Clear?" She jerked her head around from where she'd been staring at Alison, and nodded violently. "Good. Give me your phone."

She pulled a cell from her dress pocket with shaking fingers, almost dropping it, and held it out to him.

He snatched it from her hands. "Do you have any paper? And a pen? Remember, don't lie to me this time."

"I-I-I have a d-diary in my bag," Madison said. She was on the verge of tears. I felt my fists clench.

"Get it."

He gestured and a small section of the fire around us disappeared. Madison ran back into the crowd and grabbed a book and pen out of her bag, taking them back to Mr. Crazy. The fire reappeared after she'd left the perimeter.

"Write down your cell number," he told her, glaring over us and stilling the shifters. "Big numbers, so it's easily visible."

Hands still shaking, Madison did as he ordered and showed it to him when she'd finished. He nodded. "Good," he said, and grabbed her by the back of the neck. She shrieked and pulled away, crying openly now, but he stepped forward and pistol-whipped her in the face. "I told you to stop struggling!"

She wailed, a low, keening sound. But she quieted down when he hit her again.

It felt good, seeing her hurt like this. Cathartic.

I hated that feeling.

Mr. Crazy pulled Madison to her feet, then glared in our direction. "None of you move!" he said, as if we'd forgotten, then dragged Madison over to the one window he'd left unobstructed and shoved her up against the glass. "Hold it up so they can see," he said. Madison just sobbed, and he put the gun to her head. "Do it."

She put the book against the window. It felt like an eternity before a tinkling, musical chime sounded from the cell phone in Mr. Crazy's hand. He answered it and got to talking about his demands. He let Madison slide to the floor, but didn't move the gun away.

The rest of the… hostages… weren't in great shape, for the most part. Laura had her hands closed around a cross pendant and was saying something under her breath, eyes closed. Greg sat stock-still, barely moving even to breathe, his face pale and drawn. And Ms. Holder was rocking back and forth with her hands clutching her head. Even Don—who was almost certainly an Empire thug—was practically shitting his pants.

The other Winslow kids weren't much better, nor were the tourists. A few of them, though… they were whispering to each other.

"—a good idea," one male tourist said, just behind me. "He's a cape!"

"Doesn't matter," said a kid I recognised from Winslow. "Capes get taken down by regular people all the time. I've seen it on the news."

A third person—female—made an affirmative sound. "J-just gotta surprise 'im, is all."

My fists tightened. I felt a prickling pain, and warmth began leaking onto my fingers.

"Don't be stupid!" the first guy hissed. "You heard the sirens. The PRT are outside. He's talking with them now. And the heroes will be here soon. Let them do their jobs."

"Fuck the PRT."

"Fuck the—What the fuck is wrong with you? They're the police! This is what they do."

"I-I agree. But it'll take time for 'em to g-get into position, right? What if he k-k-kills someone else before that? What if he k-kills that girl? S-someone has to d-do something."

"Stop being an idiot. You'd only get yourself killed."

I found my gaze being drawn back to the painting I'd been viewing before Mr. Crazy showed up. Legend's heroic sacrifice. Alexandria's last stand against the herokiller.

I looked at Madison. She was a wreck—trembling violently, tears and snot making thin tracks down her face and ruining her makeup. A bruise was already forming on her cheek, just beneath the eye. She was barely recognisable as the girl that had ruined so many of my notebooks.

For some reason, I felt bad for her. Her friends had turned on her, ignored her cries for help, and now she was at the mercy of some psychopath. Almost a parallel to Emma's betrayal of me to Sophia.

I had been pitiful, then. I still was. But so was Madison.

And I didn't want her to die.

The thought came as a surprise, considering how often I'd dreamed of something like this happening to her or Emma or Sophia, or even one of their hanger-ons, like Julia. But now that it was happening, I only wanted it to stop.

A blaze of glory, huh?

I'd always dreamed of being a hero. Emma and I had built life plans out of it, when we were children. Get powers, revitalise the Bay, beat up the bad guys, destroy the Endbringers, rescue kittens from trees. The usual nonsense.

I thought I'd lost the chance forever after the revelations during my brain scans. But… nobody ever said you needed powers to be a hero.

I was standing before I even realised it.

Not like anyone will miss me anyway.

One step. Two steps. I heard people gasp and whisper around me, behind me. Someone reached out to grab my leg, but I stepped over them. Three steps. Four. I passed through the fire-ring, ignoring the heat against my legs. My legs were trembling; I stopped them. Five steps. I picked up the pace. Six, seven, eight, nine. I reached Mr. Crazy as he was demanding a helicopter from the police negotiator, and he turned just as I stretched out a hand.

The world almost seemed to move in slow motion. For a fraction of a second, I saw Mr Crazy's eyes widen before his face was obscured by my hand. I saw his body twist as he pulled both arms around in my direction.

My palm collided with his chin. It hurt. I felt something crack—maybe in him, maybe in me, I wasn't sure. His head snapped around, pulling his body with it, and smashed into the window, sending cracks spiderwebbing outward. A boom exploded beneath me. Searing pain lanced through my side, and I fell screaming with him.

I landed on him, but he recovered first, and hit me in the face with the hilt of his pistol. A second gunshot sounded, this one from above me, and I heard glass splinter. I flailed my arms at Mr. Crazy, feeling my hands slap uselessly at his chest and neck and hearing only grunts in return. Then he grabbed my wrist, and I screamed as my flesh sizzled beneath purple-black fire.

His other hand reached for my face, and I saw through the tears he was no longer holding a gun. Both hands were now wreathed in flame. I struggled, twisting my arms and body at uncomfortable angles and kicking my legs, trying to get away. His second hand missed my face, but it brushed my side, drawing another garbled scream from between my clenched teeth.

I pulled up as high as I could go with his hand on my wrist, then dropped back down and smashed my elbows into his gut. He made a strange noise—a half-grunt, half-scream—and backhanded me, leaving a searing mark on my cheek and sending me rolling across the floor.

I scrambled to stop myself and managed to grab the leg of one of the exhibit tables. The leg broke off and the table collapsed to the floor, the painting on top falling with it, but it slowed me down enough to enable me to stand. I spun on the spot, too fast, and I fell over again immediately. And not a moment too soon—a blast of purple fire zoomed over my head, the heat enough to make me uncomfortable.

The fireball flew past me and hit a window, shattering the glass and sending tiny bits of hot glass flying about the room at dangerous speeds, like shrapnel. I winced as a few shards punctured my legs, and again when I heard cries from the other hostages. Even Mr. Crazy flinched back, raising his hands to protect his face.

I got to my feet as quickly as I could, glass crunching beneath my shoes, then ran straight at Mr. Crazy before he could recover—and before my brain had time to catch up with what my body was doing and stop me.

My legs hurt. My arm hurt. My side hurt. My face hurt. I felt warmth running down my leg—I'd pulled my stitches again.

I ignored it all.

Madison had slid to her knees beside the window. She was screaming. No, her mouth was closed. I was screaming. I probably looked like an idiot. I didn't care. I doubted anyone else did, either.

A few hostages were rolling around on the ground, also screaming, slapping at purple-black fires on their trousers and jackets. Most were just sitting there, some with tiny spots of blood beading on their exposed skin and showing through their clothes, where the glass had struck. They were also screaming.

One middle-aged guy with a short-cropped beard ran at Mr. Crazy too. He pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and flipped it open, rushing forward, but Mr. Crazy recovered before the mystery man could reach him, and he set the man on fire. As close as I was, I heard it in sickening detail. Skin sizzling, hair crackling, bones popping, the mystery man's agonised wails. I could almost hear his flesh melting. He fell to his knees and toppled, raising his hands to his face and kicking frantically to no effect.

My legs locked up of their own accord, but I was moving too quickly to stop. I tripped and collided with Mr. Crazy, but I somehow managed to turn it into a tackle. He grunted as my shoulder impacted his ribs, my arms encircled his side, and I heaved as hard as I could—toward the window. I actually knocked him off his feet. We flew backward and into one of his walls of fire. Mr. Crazy hit the window hard, cracks exploding outward from the point of contact.

I'd thought having his hand around my wrist had hurt, but this was worse. And I wasn't even in it completely. The sleeves of my hoodie burned away completely, and my arms were agony. I pulled back and rammed into him again, slamming him against the window for the third time in the past minute. He grunted again, and smashed his elbow between my shoulder blades. My grip failed, and he shoved me off with his arm.

I fell back, landing on my side. He pushed out of the fire, clutching at his side, and screamed—sounding about as close to a roar as a human could get. His clothes burned from the flames, the fake-leather, plastic and metal of his jacket melting on his skin. The balaclava went up in smoke, revealing a surprisingly young face, contorted in rage.

The walls of flame disappeared, leaving only smoke behind as he jumped forward and kicked me in the gut. I went rolling across the floor and came to a stop beside Madison, dry-heaving and failing to recover my breath. He stalked forward and grabbed me by the collar of my hoodie, lifting me up into the air. I wrestled with him, slapping at his arm and kicking at his legs, but he stopped me with a fist to my gut. I moaned; my head lolled in Madison's direction.

She was staring at me, eyes wide as dinner plates, her face still stricken with tears and ruined makeup. I saw the blemishes she usually kept hidden; the freckles that spattered her face in a preposterous quantity, the tiny acne scars on her forehead, the cracks in her lips. She didn't look any better than I did when I woke up in the morning. In fact, she looked worse. She was borderline ugly.

Mr. Crazy reached out a flaming hand to my face, but someone punched him in the face, and he dropped me, spinning around to attack my rescuer. It was Greg. His face was white as snow, and he was trembling all over as he stumbled backward, clutching at his hand and making a low, keening noise.

I reached out and grabbed Mr. Crazy's ankle. He paused, glancing back at me for just long enough to kick me in the face, then moved on Greg again. I groaned, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Madison finally move. She dove to the side and reached for a shiny silver object beneath where the flame-wall had been. His pistol, that he'd dropped or discarded when I attacked him.

She pulled upright as soon as she'd grabbed it, then immediately yelped and dropped it, shaking her hand and crying again. The gun clattered to the floor beside me. I hesitated—but only for a split second. I snatched it from the floor and twisted in Mr. Crazy's direction, ignoring the searing heat of the metal—my hands were pretty much ruined already.

I levelled the gun at his back and pulled the trigger. The sound left my ears ringing, and it jumped in my grip, ruining my aim and hurting my hands. Blood spurted from Mr. Crazy's shoulder, some hitting me in the face, and he jerked from the impact, letting out a garbled scream and spinning around to glower at me. Greg turned and ran—at least I hadn't hit him.

I tightened my grip and fired again. Mr. Crazy dived to the side, but the bullet took him in the thigh, and he landed with another scream and rolled. I shifted my aim and pulled the trigger again. The gun clicked, but nothing happened. I tried again, and again, but got only clicks. I jerked my gaze down to the pistol, opening my hand—the grip had been crushed, imprints of my fingers plain on the rubber and metal. Had I—no, the heat must have melted it, weakened the metal. It was probably burning my hand even now—though I couldn't feel it.

I looked up again. Mr. Crazy was rising to his feet, one hand held to his leg, the other pushing him upright. I threw the pistol at him; it missed. Running on pure adrenalin, I pushed myself to my feet and began stumbling in a circle around him; if I tackled him again now, we'd probably land in the middle of the hostages.

I heard the elevator ding across the floor, and almost a dozen PRT troopers with blast shields, body armour and foam-guns poured out. The window exploded above us, more glass shards raining down—though these pieces were larger, and none penetrated my skin. A woman in a bright green-and-white leotard, with matching hair, sailed in through the hole.

"Villain!" she shouted, puffing out her chest and putting her fists on her hips in the stereotypical superhero pose. The word 'Leor' was printed on her chest. "You're under arrest!"

Mr. Crazy shot a few blasts of fire at her. She dodged and weaved through the air, a bright green cape spiralling about her as she twisted. She dived down, holding out an arm to clothesline him, but he dodged out of the way and fired another blast at her, clipping her side. She squawked and spiralled, narrowly avoiding crashing into a table, even as Mr. Crazy fell to one knee and clutched his thigh, where I'd shot him.

Leor recovered quickly, grabbing the table by the legs and spinning. She released it, and the table soared through the air—just past me—to smash into Mr. Crazy's side, knocking him away from me and the other hostages and closer to Madison and the windows.

I wasn't sure what to do. I'd been operating on instinct so far, but now there was an actual hero here, even if she didn't seem particularly capable.

Part of me said I wasn't needed anymore. Another part said she was stealing my thunder. A third part was crying and screaming, trying to convince me to run.

The last part told me that I'd started this, and I needed to see it finished.

I listened to that one, and kept circling, waiting for an opportunity to do… something.

A trio of PRT troopers stepped forward—the rest were protecting the other hostages—and aimed their foam-guns at him. He threw a pair of fireballs at them. One hit a trooper's blast shield and billowed around it, leaving scorch marks on the plastic but not harming the troopers. But the other blast hit a spray of foam, and it exploded, sending the troopers flying back.

Mr. Crazy stepped to the side and grabbed Madison by the collar, pulling her up against his body and looping an arm around her neck, eliciting a shriek. He opened his mouth to shout something, bringing his other hand around to her head, but Leor charged forward before he could finish. He fired a series of fireballs at her, but she twisted in midair and most missed, except for the one shot that singed her arm and set her cape on fire.

Then Leor kicked him in the sternum, sending Mr. Crazy crashing back into the window with a grunt and making him lose his grip on Madison. Leor grabbed her under the arms and jumped back, taking her to safety.

Mr. Crazy held out both hands in their direction, aiming at Leor's back.

I ran at him.

He turned and shot at me instead, but I managed to dodge it, and I smashed into him with my shoulder.

The window broke.

He fell through, but grabbed my hair as he went, and I fell with him.

He screamed as we fell. I screamed, too.

We twisted in the air and I saw Leor rocketing down toward us, stretching out a hand.

So much for a blaze of glory.

We hit the ground.