"Oh?" Mommy said, one eyebrow raised and a small smirk playing on her lips. "A hero, huh?" "Yeah!" The little girl squealed, childish glee etched onto her face. She'd been holding this in for so long, waiting to surprise mommy, hoping it'd give her a smile. "Like Alexandria?" The little girl grinned, shaking her head so hard her pigtails whipped round to hit her in the face. "No, mommy. Like you!"
"Yeah!" The little girl squealed, childish glee etched onto her face. She'd been holding this in for so long, waiting to surprise mommy, hoping it'd give her a smile.
The little girl grinned, shaking her head so hard her pigtails whipped round to hit her in the face.
"No, mommy. Like you!"
The girl threw herself into her mommy's arms, never noticing the woman's pained expression. ~~~~~
Mr. Jenkins droned on about the history of the first wards team, his voice its usual bored monotone. Half of the class were asleep, the other half whispering amongst themselves. Mr. Jenkins didn't seem to care.
Looking at the time on my phone, all I could think was:
Is mom going to be home for dinner tonight?
I sighed, trying my best to devote my attention to the lesson, even with the low hum of whispered chatter all around me. At least no one was talking to me directly. The two empty spaces on my left and the muscle-bound bodyguard on my right saw to that.
Ultimately, I gave up and rested my head on the desk, squeezing my phone back into my jeans pocket. Even if Mr. Jenkins were the most enthusiastic teacher on planet earth, I wouldn't have been able to concentrate.
Too much on my mind to give a shit about the first wards.
Mom had been busy as all hell for the last few weeks, following the Simurgh's attack on Madison. I could count on one hand how many times I'd seen her, and even then we barely exchanged a dozen sentences before she was off on her next errand.
I understood. I really did. She was one of the most important people in the world. The head of the PRT. She had commitments. Duties. The aftermath of a fucking Endbringer attack on American soil was obviously more important than me.
But I could still miss her, couldn't I? I could be selfish, here. She was my mom.
Even if the world was ending, I'd still come for you, Taylor, she'd said to me, once, after a particularly close call in one of my many attempted kidnapping ordeals.
Maybe it was wrong of me, but I was half hoping for some kind of crisis that would warrant her coming to my rescue, at this point.
The shrill chime of the school bell ripped me from my thoughts and brought me back into the present. Another sigh escaped my lips as Nameless PRT heavy #6 gathered my things into a backpack and slung it over his shoulder, before motioning towards the door.
I rolled my eyes. I'd told them they didn't need to carry my stuff, but they never listened. I wrapped Uncle Rick's scarf around my neck and strode from the classroom, my classmates giving me - or, probably more accurately, my bodyguard - a wide berth. Nameless PRT heavy #2 joined #6 as we exited the room, the two flanking me at either shoulder a few paces behind as I made my way to my locker.
When I got there, I found James and Tiffany waiting for me. I pulled my scarf up over my chin, using it like a shield.
"Hey, Taylor," Tiffany greeted me with a small smile. "Have fun in parahuman history?"
"It was Mr. Jenkins, Tiff," I replied, keeping my voice steady as I could. "He could make anything boring."
James raised an eyebrow, smirking. "Even sex ed?"
Tiffany swatted him over the back of the head. "Only you could get off to diagrams of the reproductive system."
"I have a creative imagination."
I smiled as I listened to them banter, taking a moment to take my bag from #6 and swap my textbooks out for the ones I'd need in afternoon classes. I was under no delusions that the two of them had first approached me out of their own free will, but they'd stuck around even when the other three - and didn't that leave a bitter taste - ditched me as soon as their 'assignment' was done and the threat had passed.
I mean, I was always technically under threat, hence the beefy bodyguards, but there wasn't a nationwide group of villains out to kidnap me for leverage against mom. Not right now, anyway, as far as I knew. Maybe there'd be a new one next week.
But regardless of the circumstances, I was pretty sure we were really friends, by now. At least on my end. I didn't know which Wards they were, but I actually preferred it that way. Like this, I could ignore the way Tiffany's eyes tracked anyone who came within ten feet of me. I could pretend James wasn't constantly on guard. I could imagine I wasn't stood next to a pair of parahumans, something I'd never truly be comfortable with no matter how much I tried.
I could feel like a normal high school girl.
I slammed my locker shut with a bit more force than I probably should've, startling Tiffany.
At least she didn't take a combat stance, I thought. All the martial arts training in the world wouldn't help me against a parahuman. Well, I didn't actually know her power, but it would probably give her some bullshit advantage that rendered my meager self-defense abilities useless.
"Tay? You okay?" James asked, looking me up and down. If it were anyone else he was staring at me like that, I would've taken his look as lecherous. But he knew #2 and #6 would report to my mom, and he was far too scared of her for that.
Taking a breath, I schooled my expression and nodded. "I'm fine," I said because I was. Just a dumb moment of frustration.
James' eyes lingered on me for a moment, before he shrugged and spun on his heel. "Cafeteria?" He called over his shoulder as he strode away without giving us a chance to answer.
Tiffany rolled her eyes and grabbed my hand to lead me after him. We were halfway to the cafeteria when my four companions suddenly froze at the same time. Tiffany's eyes narrowed, darting around our surroundings. James dropped back to take up a subtle position in front of me. #2 was speaking softly under his breath, his head bowed. #6 stepped forward until he was right behind me, ready to grab me and run at a moment's notice.
My heart started hammering in my chest, even as I tried to regulate my breathing and blink the blurriness out of my vision. I was more than familiar with these situations, I'd been through this same song and dance a hundred times. Even so, I couldn't fight off the chill that went through my body, the goosebumps prickling my skin, and the shiver that jolted my spine. I started tapping my foot, chewing on my lip as I waited for instructions.
Ten seconds passed. Then ten more.
After a full minute, two more heavies came barreling into the corridor as #6 grabbed me by the upper arm and pulled me away, in the opposite direction from the cafeteria. The others were by our side in the blink of an eye, moving as a group in a diamond formation around me. At some point, Tiffany and James had slipped away.
I regulated my breathing and tried to relax my muscles, knowing I needed to be unburdensome as possible. We paused at a ground floor fire escape, #2 still muttering under his breath with a bit more urgency now, one hand on his ear and another hand buried in his jacket. All four of my guards looked grim, their eyes hard as steel.
After a minute that felt like an eternity, #2 brought his arm down and bolted forward.
"Go, go, go!" He barked, all but carrying me as we sprinted out of the building into the front courtyard. It was deserted, a squad of PRT agents holding back any curious students. Falcon was floating in the sky above in his strange, vein-patterned bodysuit, his eyes glowing an eerie red as he tracked the crowd below. I gave him a small smile as I was rushed past, but I couldn't say for sure if he saw it.
The guards brought me out through the west gate of the school. A motorcade of armoured PRT vehicles awaited us, and I was bundled into the back of what appeared to be an armoured prison transport. I only realised as we got close that Praetor was crouched atop the vehicle, her green body armour making her look like one of Glaistig Uiaine's ghosts. She gave me a nod and a barely noticeable smile before I lost sight of her.
The inside of the vehicle was already full of armoured, fully armed PRT officers. All of them were carrying live weapons, not containment foam, belying the seriousness of the situation. I sat in the one empty seat without complaint.
The doors slammed shut and the vehicle was moving the moment my seatbelt was secured. I held out my arms to the side to allow one of the PRT officers to fix the body armour to my torso, while another secured a full face helmet to my head.
The ensuing half hour was filled only with the sounds of the PRT agents routinely checking their equipment, and the commander of the squad receiving updates over the radio. I kept my head bowed and my lips pursed, willing the tears to stay in my eyes. I was pretty sure I didn't manage it.
There were a few distant explosions and faint shouts along the way, and at some point, Praetor shouted something before I heard the boosters in her armour start up. But apart from that, it was almost a routine foiled kidnapping.
Still, I was on edge.
Something was wrong here.
Villains weren't supposed to act so soon after an Endbringer attack, even if the most recent one was on the other side of the planet. Judging by that, there were two possibilities: either we were dealing with foolish amateurs who had no idea how much shit they had gotten themselves in with this stunt, or we were up against people who thought taking a shot at me was worth the added heat.
The fact that we hadn't appeared to deal with any significant stoppages in the time we'd been on the road pointed to the former, but the fact the Thinkers had thought it necessary to strike preemptively and extract me from school in the first place?
That was why I was worried. It was extremely fucking rare for the PRT to actually take me out of school like this.
The only other times it had happened, things had gotten really bad.
Sure enough, not twenty seconds after I had that thought, our vehicle came to a violent stop. I was thrown against my harness to the side, jarring my ribs and neck. It took me a moment to shake off the dizziness from such a sudden loss of momentum, by which point the commander was already bellowing out orders, and two of the agents were practically acting as human shields, looming over me, making themselves as wide targets as possible.
My ears were ringing, and at some point, I'd lost my glasses. Everything around me was out of focus.
Damn your vision, Dad! I thought, a little hysteric.
I could just about make out the rhythmic tat-tat-tat of gunfire, and something more constant. A laser?
Apparently, the commander made the decision to exit the vehicle and continue on foot. Two agents threw open the doors, four more agents springing out onto the street and taking defensive positions. I felt someone shove earbuds into my ears and my glasses back onto my eyes just as the agents' guns started barking out shots, then I was literally being carried bridal style by a hunched over agent, moving faster than I could ever hope to.
The sudden appearance of sunlight stung my eyes, but I could still make out the destructive cape battle going down. I made out six heroes against eleven villains before the agent practically threw me behind cover; a four-sided square of Tinker-glass riot shields. Theoretically, I was safe from harm.
One of the villains, a towering man double the height of the next tallest man in the battle, ripped a captured PRT agent's head off with his bare hands. I felt far from safe. I was doubled over vomiting before I could even think to begin calming exercises.
From there, I barely understood what happened. The PRT agents crowded around my little fort in a military formation, some of them crouched, firing, while others stood, firing. I couldn't see through the mass of bodies, only hear the ongoing battle. There were frantic shouts and screamed orders, sounds of gunfire and lasers and explosions and hits and weird sounds that only fucking powers could ever hope to make. I scrunched my eyes shut and stuffed my head between my knees, curling up into a ball to make myself as small as possible, just like I'd been taught.
All my time spent running, training in combat with my PRT guards, working out to try and stop being so helpless, turned out to be utterly useless here.
I heard the desperate scream of a voice I tried not to recognise. Agents barking 'man down, man down'. At some point, the world descended into an endless stream of gunfire, as the PRT got the order to let loose. A hand grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the side, my body squished against the riot shield by another form. I heard the tell tale sound of a volley of bullets zipping through the air where I had just been, somehow ignoring my supposedly impregnable barrier.
I looked up just in time to see the back of my suit-clad guardian angel disappear through a gap in the air. It closed behind her, and I let out a shaky laugh.
There were fewer agents around me, now. I could just about make out the battle. The giant man was taking the brunt of fire, unable to properly advance past the four remaining heroes lest he end up exposing his nine remaining comrades to fire. Bullets and powers alike bounced off him like spitballs. At some unknown signal, the giant's head snapped round to stare right at me. The man caught my eye and grinned, sending a shiver down my spine. Suddenly my fort felt like a prison.
There was the bone-shaking crack of a sonic boom, and I snapped my head up just in time to witness Alexandria descend from the sky like a vengeful god. One minute, the Brute was a twelve-foot tall goliath of muscle and power. The next he was a puddle. She turned, her eyes lingering on me for a moment, looking me up and down, before she shot back into the sky.
Within minutes, the attacking villains were either dead or wishing they were. Alexandria appeared to have little interest in mercy, today.
I managed to catch sight of the mangled form of a villain in a blue suit before I was once again being dragged away by a squad of PRT agents. Before I knew it, I was back in a PRT prison transfer vehicle. I vaguely recognised the man on my left was Heavy #4, who I hadn't seen in a while, rubbing a circle at the top of my back between my shoulder blades as he whispered what I was sure was supposed to be comforting words.
I couldn't even hear him, the ringing in my ears was so loud. Some distant part of me knew I was hyperventilating, my heart beat bordering on dangerous, but I couldn't remember my breathing exercises.
I wanted to laugh. So many people had fought, gotten injured and even died for me, and now I was going to die from a fucking heart attack.
Even as I thought that, though, the circles rubbed in my back started to get stronger. The voice beside me started to make sense.
"In, two three four, out, two three four, in, two three four, out, two three four."
I let out a broken laugh as my breathing leveled and my surroundings made sense. I couldn't help it.
All this for me. All this ridiculous bullshit for me. My eyes stung and my stomach churned, but I stubbornly gritted my teeth and willed my body into a normal state.
It took a few minutes, and I probably didn't look anything approaching okay, but I eventually succeeded. I heard #4 sigh beside me and flop back into his seat.
"Sorry, Mike," I muttered, my voice hoarse.
#4 shook his head. "Nothing to apologise for, kid. Not your fault the world's full of scumbags."
I shook my head right back at him, but I couldn't think of the right words to rebuke him. Half of me wanted to ask about the casualties, but the memory of a familiar, terrified voice brought me up short. Shame coiled in my gut as the other, cowardly half of me kept me silent.
Mike gave me a look but apparently decided not to say anything.
That was fine. Good, even. I wasn't sure I could handle talking with anyone right now.
This ride was a lot more comfortable than the last one. The commander was still muttering under his breath here and there, but his communications were infrequent, though I could see he was still listening in. After a while, the vehicle slowed to a halt and the commander spoke up.
"Miss Costa-Brown, we have arrived at our destination. You will have two squads guarding you for the rest of the night, and you will listen to any and all instructions given to you. You will keep your phone, panic button, mace, baton, taser and firearm on you until you are told you can do otherwise. At least two PRT agents will be in the same room as you at all times. The squads include seven female agents, so you should have no problems. If you see anything suspicious, alert an agent immediately. If anything is out of place, alert an agent immediately. If there is a speck of dust where it should not be, alert an agent immediately. Clear?"
I nodded, well used to this by now. "Yes, sir. Thank you for your help, sir."
The commander nodded, then grunted an order. Two agents flung open the doors, then stepped out to join the squad of agents that were already present outside.
I rose from my seat, then hesitated for a moment and turned to Mike. He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Thank you, Mike," I said, my voice uncomfortably small. "Stay safe."
Mike just laughed at that. "No need to worry about us, Taylor. We're all far more worried about what the Chief-Director would do to us if you got hurt than any punishment a villain could dish out."
A collective shiver went through the agents in the van like a Mexican wave, with Mike at the centre, shivering hardest.
I giggled, though it sounded a bit hollow even to my ears. "Mom can be pretty scary."
"Give me grey boy any day," one of the other agents said, eliciting a laugh from the other troops. I joined in, sounding a bit more genuine now.
Sighing, I made my way to the exit of the vehicle. "Thank you, everyone. Sorry for the trouble."
There were a few denials, a few accepted, the commander glared at me and gestured towards the door. I left with a smile, letting one of the agents let me down.
When my house came into view, it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. My heart finally stopped racing, the ringing in my ears receded and my head felt light. Tears started streaming down my cheeks.
My cheeks flushed as I stomped up the driveway and opened the front door. I knew, on some level, none of the agents would judge me, but it didn't make my ugly sobs any less embarrassing.
I should be used to this by now.
But, then, how the fuck was anyone ever supposed to get used to shit like this? The memory of the PRT agent's head getting ripped from his body flashed through my mind, and I dashed into the living room and threw myself on the sofa, stuffing my face in a fluffy pillow to try and hide that I was rubbing my eyes. Still, my body shook with sobs.
Sometimes I managed to delude myself into thinking I could- should be doing more out there. Fighting. Helping. Doing more than being a helpless girl in need of protection. Wasn't that what I trained for? Wasn't that why I begged Mike for lessons?
There were times when I believed I could do more. Be less of a burden. But then a 'situation' actually occurred, and I was brought back down to reality. This was no different.
All my so-called training and people had still gotten hurt protecting me.
Would anything even change if I joined the PRT?
I buried my face in my scarf, trying to imagine it still smelled like it used to. It didn't, but it evoked memories of a happier time all the same.
I wasn't sure how long I laid there crying, but the sun was starting to go down by the time I'd calmed down enough to breathe without my chest shaking painfully. An agent was stood at each corner of the room, masks hiding their expressions. It was probably my imagination telling me they were judging me, but I still felt like shit all the same.
One of them approached hesitantly as if they were about to pet a wild tiger. "Taylor? Would you like to get cleaned up?"
All I could do was nod and let the agent lead me to the en suite in my bedroom. Two more agents appeared and took up corners in the room. I peeled off my clothes and stepped into the already running walk-in shower. It took me a moment to realise why everything was so foggy before I yanked my glasses off with a squeak of embarrassment and placed them outside the shower. Hanging my head, I finally stepped under the stream of water.
The warm water made me feel like I was being baptised and reborn anew. My skin changed from a grimy brown - and when the hell did I get so dirty? - back to a tanned hue before my eyes. My hair, caked in sticky I-don't-want-to-know-what, was the next to morph back into its usual silky black state, aided by liberal use of shampoo and conditioner.
My hair, mom's hair, was always my favourite feature. I loved how silky-smooth it was, though I could never get it as perfect as hers.
I had to clean out red flecks from under my nails, which almost set me to vomiting again. I spent a good twenty minutes in the shower, scrubbing myself and scrubbing myself and scrubbing myself, before the agent who had escorted me up here in the first place threatened to drag me out if I didn't get out soon.
I trudged out of the shower, feeling somewhat human again. All I wanted to do was flop into my bed and fall away from the world. There was a good chance I'd have nightmares, but equally likely I could have good dreams, too.
I dried myself off and threw on the first set of pajamas at the top of my drawer, even though they didn't match. Just as I was about to climb into bed, my door opened.
I spun around, and the waterworks started all over again. The ringing in my ears I hadn't realised was still there disappeared completely with a pop. For half a second, mom's expression was as severe and professional as it always was, then her eyes landed on me and she softened, transforming into a completely different person before my eyes.
One breathe, she was Chief-Director Rebecca Costa-Brown. The next she was my mother.
She met me halfway, barely moving an inch as I threw myself into her arms. I was a blubbering mess in seconds, barely able to form a coherent word. Mom's arms were safety. It was like she was made of steel, utterly immovable and invincible. As long as Mom was with me, there was nothing on earth that could harm me.
"Shh, it's okay. I'm here. It's okay. It's all over." She cooed soft words into my ear, sending a shudder through my body. Just her voice was enough to calm my hysterics, even if just a bit.
She gathered me up in her arms as if I weighed nothing and moved over to the bed, still whispering comforts.
I pulled back a step, giving her a moment to let her look me over. She spent a few moments patting me down, checking for injuries. She nodded to herself, then pulled me into a hug once more.
"Good girl, Taylor. You did great out there."
"I got people killed," I managed to choke out, somehow.
Mom's expression turned stern. "The Elite got people killed. Do not go down this road, Taylor. I did not teach you to be irrational." Her serious gaze remained for a moment, waiting to see the signs that her words had the desired effect. It only took her a few seconds; mom had always been ridiculously good at reading me.
I looked away and nodded, knowing she was right. It was still hard, though. The Elite - since that's apparently who was after me - had pulled the trigger, but those deceased today were only in the line of fire because of me.
I swallowed and took a moment to gather some confidence. "James?"
Mom's face was carefully neutral. "He will be transferring schools."
My heart dropped to my stomach. I wanted to blame myself again. Curse my status and my weakness. But I knew mom wouldn't tolerate that line of thought, even in my current emotional state, so there was no point. Still, I lowered my head, doing nothing to prevent the hot tears spilling from my eyes.
Mom gently cupped my chin and pulled me up to look at her. There was a soft understanding in her eyes, but no pity.
"Come on. You won't be getting any sleep. I'll make us some dinner."
In some small, bitter, irony-loving part of myself, I was overjoyed that I'd actually be getting to have dinner with mom tonight.