#AN: Continuing the trend of characters just sort of doing what they will, the day continues! And I didn't expect most of this!
Chapter 3: Taylor's Bazaar Adventure
Well, I had thought the rush wore off, at least. Once I got home, it was still pretty early in the morning and I couldn't sit still at all. Still giddy. Punch drunk, maybe. Either way, I couldn't stand being in the house any longer. So I grabbed a few things and left. I considered getting into my workout clothes, but the urge to wander was strong; my jeans and plain black hooded sweatshirt over a white and navy raglan tee would have to do.
I started walking in a generally southward direction, but quickly picked up speed and ended up jogging... for a while.
My mind wandered.
I stared at the plans, willing them to change. They didn't, so it was going to have to be the old fashioned way.
It's easy to think that, because it's all grueling hands-on work, that the creation of a sword isn't something that really involves a plan. And to be fair, to the accomplished swordsmith, roughing out a half dozen close-enough-to-identical blades from nothing but rote muscle memory in the course of a week isn't unheard of.
But the good ones, the unique ones, the ones for which you're proud they're stamped with your mark... Err, okay, okay, so there are insane hermit geniuses who can see the finished product in all its nuance in their heads and jump from "two ovals" to "the rest of the freaking owl" like it's no big deal. Anyway, where was I? Right, plans. For us mere mortals, drawings and notes and even scale models are kind of de facto practice.
But what we do is as much art as it craft, and the place where plans meet reality is the forge. I have a lot of latitude to change things when it's just a drawing. And I'd need every bit of it for this... abomination.
About six feet in length with a 2:1 blade to hilt ratio. Swinging that monstrosity would have taken the strength of a draft horse. And the notes made clear it was intended to be swung, though I couldn't imagine why: the "blade" was... like some sort of demented drill, this long spiral that formed a natural guard by virtue of being nearly six inches in diameter at the hilt and tapered evenly to a point. For some reason it reminded me of bone, which is decidedly not a metal. It honestly most closely resembled a jousting lance rather than anything a normal person would think of as a sword. As-drawn, it was pushing uncomfortably close to even my admittedly liberal notions of what a sword is.
On top of all that, it was ugly.
No, I decided, this will never fly.
That was fine, though. Whoever left that in my shop (because it wasn't mine! I could never come up with something so inane even in my most feverish of nightmares), I'm actually grateful: it gave me an interesting idea for a proper successor, a thrusting weapon that could be wielded in one hand for pinpoint strikes, similar to our modern rapier, but still much thicker. In truth, it would be a brutal weapon regardless of its size, the spiral flange curving down its length making it not unlike the spurs of an arrow upon pulling it out.
Yes, quite brutal.
But monsters walk the earth.
I stoked the fire and selected my stock. I had work to do.
The lilting strains of a busker brought me back to reality and it took me a several moments to get my bearings. These surroundings looked familiar...
Wait, this is almost the boardwalk.
Okay, I jogged for a long while. Wow. As I drew close to Lord's Market proper, I took stock of how I was feeling. All thoughts of trying to remember what was so satisfying about that daydream fled my mind as I realised there was a pleasant burn in my muscles, but I wasn't breathing especially hard. Heart rate... elevated, but not racing. Body... not sweaty and gross.
Jeeze, how long can I go?
Though it was still a bit early for lunch, thirst compelled me to...
...to stop and gawk at a store display.
It was one of those "outdoor chic" places where everything they sold was barely practical and way overpriced. The sort of place Emma would have taken me to, and I'd have enjoyed it even if I couldn't afford to buy anything.
But damn if I hadn't instantly fallen in love with that coat in the front window.
It was this long red number - a deep crimson, really, like freshly-spilt blood - that flared out a bit at the waist with a duster-style split. And though it didn't look like it closed all that well, being of the single-breasted style with only two buttons, it was at least a durable-looking material. It might even hold up outside.
Needless to say, I was really taken with the thing.
No good. I can't afford it and I can't justify dipping into savings. It's probably like a thousand bucks or something ridiculous. Right, no way I can afford that, nothing for it, time to walk away...
With great effort, I managed to tear my eyes off of it and take a halting step back.
Okay, me, I get it. It's fantastically striking and I would love nothing more than wear it out of the store. But you must understand, nothing that nice comes cheap. So we can't. I managed to jerkily turn my body part of the way with an application of will. Pfft, arguing with myself in the first AND third person. Good job, me. I must have looked hilarious as I navigated the treacherous waters of avoiding wanton consumerism. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught the tag.
This is the universe mocking me, isn't it. There was no question in my mind; just cold certainty.
Marked down from $800.
Shit, I need to check my sav-
That was when the noise and screaming reached my ear. It sounded like someone had a couple mopeds tearing up and down the way, being a bother. I tried to ignore it, but it was getting closer and... argh, so annoying! I tracked the sound as it came closer and when I judged the distance right I stepped through a gap in the crowd to stand in front of the ruffians that were disturbing my poor spending decisions, sending them a disapproving glare down my nose.
Seriously, isn't this the boardwalk patrol's job? Cow- That thought crashed to a halt as I noticed who precisely pulled to a pair of screeching E-brake stops a few feet from me. Cow. I am a cow. Moo.
Of all the days to volunteer myself for the fucking Uber and Leet show. What is it with my luck?! I wasn't about to out myself before I even had an identity. Which left me, a relatively ordinary teen girl, against... well, calling them "supervillains" might be kind of a stretch. But "super-rascals" sounds really silly. Whatever, not important. I was facing down a cape duo by almost accident and it wasn't even noon. If I live through today, I've earned that coat, I don't even care anymore.
In order to take my mind off of my swiftly rising panic, I sized up the one closest to me.
He was kind of startlingly... normal? Looking, anyway. Just a guy, maybe mid-30s, stubble that edged over from "roguish" to "unkempt". A touch of softness indicating a lot of time spent sedentary. Denim coveralls and a double whammy of shirt and hat coloured an eye-watering fire-engine red. The white "M" on it stood out in sharp relief. "M"? Did they get a new member?
Oh, and he had a ridiculous glued-on black moustache that didn't match his brown hair.
You can't forget that.
I know I never will.
The other one... was honestly similar. Only green instead of red with an "L" on the cap - obviously, this was Leet. Taller and more collected than his compatriot, with a bit of definition to his everything, he looked like more of a "frat bro" or a jock than I'd have expected. No sign of Uber.
Right, focus. The situation is what it is. Now what? Since he looked like a normal dude, I decided to just treat him like one and pretend really hard that all these people weren't scared witless.
This whole evaluation took a bit under half-second. Have I mentioned I'm a parahuman? I'll studiously ignore that I was only just discovering today that my mind could move like that, though after realising I had something like an innate feel for how people would move, I guess this wasn't much of a leap.
The one up front was first to pipe up.
"Hey, what gives! You got a death wish or something!?" He glared at me over the steering wheel, straining at the five point harness to emphasise that I was the one in the wrong. Maybe he thought I should have been more afraid, but case in point: I had seen from the movement of what torso was visible out the top of the go-carts and the subtle shift of weights that presaged their stopping the wheeled death machines they rode in. I was never in any danger to begin with because they were within inches of where I expected, having reflexively avoided vehicular(?) manslaughter through the weight of years of muscle-memory.
Yeah, maybe I was onto something with the "super-rascals" bit. I leaned forward and leveled him with an unimpressed scoff.
"I might ask you the same thing! I was having a nice day until you lot decided to raise a big fuss! Aren't you a little old for theses antics?"
"Antics? ANTICS!? This is one of the greats! Are you telling me you don't know who we are?" I furrowed my brow as though in thought. I mean, I didn't get the joke they were going for, so it wasn't hard to pretend things were going over my head.
"A guy having a midlife crisis and his buddy who hasn't quite worked up to staging an intervention?" When I thought about it, that probably wasn't too far from the truth for guys that seemed like they could do so much more than stupid videos.
I could see Leet struggling to avoid laughing as M gaped at me like I was a space alien. Can't let him get the wrong idea.
"Hey, green guy, why didn't you just... like, go to a race track or something?" I smiled indulgently. "I get that hobbies and stuff are important, but you look more responsible than him; you should know better." The sound of the crowd was getting annoying. I blocked it out.
"Dude, is this really happening?" M asked, craning his neck over to address his friend. "Like, she completely doesn't get it. She's not just making fun of us?" Leet looked at me funny and then back to M.
"Looks like it, bro." He was having a tough time keeping a straight face too. The crowd was getting restless and harder to ignore. I saw some of the boardwalk security cowards - after seeing those stooges up close, I decided my first impulse was the correct one - hanging around the edges. Leet noticed too, and suddenly looked really uncomfortable. "Shit, man, we need to get out of here before the PRT shows up. I think we have to use That." Use what? Huh?
"But it hasn't been tested! I don't know what's gonna happen!" That sounded... bad.
"I know, but do you really want to get caught like this!?"
"Okay, okay, let's just hope this works!"
"Wait, what are you tal-" *ZORTCH* "-king about?"
That sound, of course, was the one the world makes when I'm suddenly alone talking stupidly to empty air in the ring of bodies that had formed around us. I stared dumbly at the blackened spots on the cement as the crowd closed in, the show over for the time being. One of the security goons came over and confirmed I was okay before berating me for getting involved in a Cape incident. I just shrugged and told him it wasn't intentional. What was his problem? That just made him mad and I was headed the same way when someone grabbed my hand.
"Mel, there you are, I told you to be careful! Are you okay?" A girl's voice. Aimed at me. But that's not my name... "Sorry, she's from out of town! Never guessed I'd lose sight of someone so tall, but what can you do?" I turned to look, and there was... the top of a blonde head brushing the security guy off. Adjusting my angle, and it was a petite blonde girl with her long wavy locks bound up in a messy bun. A dusting of freckles across her nose and vibrant green eyes rounded out her "hometown charmer" look.
She's...! There was a flash of recognition when I saw her, this nagging feeling of familiarity that faded as quickly as it came. Why do I feel like I know her? The feeling bothered me, and fact that that fleeting moment was enough for me to let my walls down and play along bothered me. But I knew an out when I saw one, so I took it.
"Gosh, Tori, when you said the Bay is a nuthouse, you weren't kidding!"
"Melissa," she sighed, "what am I going to do with you?"
"Take me somewhere with tea next time, I hope?"
She grabbed my shoulder to pull my ear closer. "For the best entertainment I've had in months? You've got yourself a date."
"Sure, sounds good."
Hold the phone.
That's a joke, right? She's just fucking with me? I must have played my role perfectly despite (or perhaps because of) my realisation, if her peal of laughter was any indication.
Funny how a lack of malice makes that fun, playful ribbing instead of a hurtful barb that makes me want to curl up and die.
"Heh, you had me going there," I chuckled ruefully. "Lead on."
"Tori" was, it seemed, adept at navigating the press of bodies. Fortunately, my developing sense for "how things move" also applied here and I managed to match her pace, if not her grace. We finally ended up at a little coffee shop off the main drag with a weird German name that sounded vaguely familiar. It was quiet, though, and tastefully decorated. Most importantly, they had tea. And this fantastic raspberry tart to go with it. It was good enough that I could overlook the strong scent of curry that wafted from the kitchen.
What a roller coaster of a day. I looked at my watch and sighed.
It still wasn't even noon.
I looked across the small corner table at my "date" and studied her, trying to figure out... well, I honestly wasn't sure at that point. Something was strange, though. She raised an eyebrow at my scrutiny and I mirrored it. This earned me a grin that, these days, would have my instincts screaming as surely as if she had been the incarnation of some trickster goddess with more tails than sense. But given the way I handled the abuse heaped on me that entire prior year-and-change, I think we can safely say I was something of a social dullard at that point.
So naturally, I just plunged in unnaturally.
"So, 'Tori', if that is indeed your real name..." She grinned and shot back.
"Actually," I chuckled, "that's a good point: we haven't been properly introduced. I called you that because you reminded me of... someone... but now that I actually see more than the top of your head, you seem more like a... I dunno, Sarah?"
She coughed, nearly inhaling hot coffee.
"Wait, really?" Going with my gut has worked surprisingly well today!
I could see immediately that something had changed and my "luck" with that guess had been anything but. She looked... haunted. Like she was about to bolt. She recovered quickly and schooled her expression into a coldly neutral façade, but I knew what I saw. I'd seen it in the mirror often enough, after all.
She looked like me on the average day at Winslow.
I revised my earlier thought: Going with my gut has worked very poorly today! I took a calming breath and forced a smile that I hoped didn't come off as condescending.
"... Or not. Sorry if I touched a nerve, there; it was just a guess. On bad terms with your mom or something, I take it."
"What?" Well, confusion was a bit better than concealed mounting panic.
"Even I can tell you reacted really poorly to that name and I figure that means it's like one of those things you see in stories where the kid has some fundamental disagreement with the way of life their parents have tried to force them into, but later on someone mistakes the strong family resemblance and calls out something like 'Elizabeth, is that you? It's been ages!' and then the character snaps back 'Elizabeth is my mother. Who are you and why haven't you dropped dead under the weight of my angst yet?' and... and if your bemused expression is anything to go by, I'm making kind of an ass of myself. More of an ass, at any rate. I'll just be cutting my losses and shutting up now," I trailed off lamely.
Guess I accidentally revealed my power level.
She didn't laugh outright, but I could tell that my awkward rambling had smoothed out the "fight or flight" response she had been building toward. She stared at me in silence just long enough that I was starting to feel uncomfortable.
"No," she stated finally. "No, Sarah was my father's choice, but Lisa is what's on my birth certificate." There was clearly more to it than that, but I had the sense that both statements were true so I let it go. It was clear even to me that that was treading on dangerous ground. I attempted to inject some levity.
"Oh good, that was my next guess!" I winked exaggeratedly so she knew for sure I was joking. (Was I joking?) Her momentary vulnerability had unnerved me, and the warm mischievous smile that earned me was a vast improvement. "Anyway, pleased to meet you, Lisa. I'm-"
"Yeah, you're no Melissa."
... I'm interrupted. Okay.
The smirk was back. I think I did grimace a little at that point. "It's my turn, but I don't need luck. Watch and be amazed as I get it in under five guesses!"
She was off in her own world.
"Sam... no. Robin... nah. Tina? Not quite. Then it's gotta be Taylor!"
"What." For the second time that day in the same way, I found myself giving voice to the surprise I felt. "How..."
"I told you, I'm that good."
"So you're a Thinker." The words were out of my mouth before it even occurred to me that I shouldn't say them. She smirked indulgently.
"And so are you." I scowled at this. If she noticed... "Hey now, easy there girl, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who picked up on that; to everyone else, Uber and Leet were humiliated by a disgruntled normal." I wasn't sure that was any better. "And yes," she added in an aside, "that was both of them. Uber was the one in one in green."
"But that's stupid," was out of my mouth before I could even fully coalesce any real thoughts.
"Yes for both."
"So..." I trailed off, uncertain where this left us.
"So now that we've got that unpleasantness out of the way, I'm going to recommend you come up with a cape identity before you tangle with any other villains."
"But I wasn't really planning to be a cape," I protested half-heartedly.
"Of course you weren't. Just like you weren't eyeing that garish coat earlier. Between you and me, I think you could make it work, but it's a near thing."
"In the first place, what's a nice, obviously Hero-like girl doing out here in the middle of a school day anyway? Oh, could it be you walked out after some intense bullying? No, too proud for that. There is bullying, but you just grin and bear it. A betrayal in some fashion. So for getting one over on the authority, then. But you've suffered and still have that do-gooder smell about you. A rare sort. Though you're in for a bit of culture shock with that thinking." She was... taunting me. It wasn't the finely-honed nastiness of Emma, but she was under my skin anyway and hadn't I already established that I was done with that sort of bullshit?
"What the hell is your angle!?" I hissed. A low whistle cut through the haze of my sudden fury. I've replayed this scene in my head countless times and I'm still not sure at what point I moved. At the time, I was more concerned with where the steak knife I was holding to her throat came from. And not just any steak knife. Hand-carved rosewood handle, elegant curves, and a poor tempering that kept me mindful of being too harsh with it. Yes, we were well acquainted indeed. I ‹knew› this knife.
Hello there, Tiny Tim. Fancy seeing you here.
Tiny Tim was a tool, not an instrument of war to be wielded in anger. And yet, for that fleeting instant, blade in hand, I was awash with an ineffable sense of rightness. Something like... purpose.
An instant is definitionally short, though, and before I could even begin to process the profundity of all that, Lisa - you know, the girl with the knife to her neck? (That I was holding?) Yeah, her - Lisa shattered it with a nervous chuckle.
"H-hold on there, hero girl, I'm not your enemy." I blinked and my line of sight flicked about, assessing the situation before coming back to her eyes.
She was afraid.
Not in the dull, distant sense, like "oh, Behemoth ate another city, what a terrible time we live in", or even the incoming but guaranteed "I just got another D on a math test and dad's gonna flip" either. This was the sort of primal, visceral terror that leads to one's life flashing before their eyes. You could cut the tension with a...
You know what? I'm just not going to finish that.
But neither did I finish Lisa's story there, as simple as it would have been. I'm still not sure if it was a good idea, but I know that it was the ‹right› idea. Eyes wide, my own fear of who I was and what I could have just done finally capsizing the calm I was riding in the moment, I pulled back and relaxed, making a show of it as though she were a small animal instead of the cape who had been taking me for a ride and I was gonna-
I clamped down on the anger that threatened to push me into doing something I would definitely regret. A tear worked it's way down my cheek, as if it wasn't already a super-corny "I'm a monster"-type scenario.
I swear, my life sometimes.
I took the risk of turning my head, not breaking eye-contact with the knife I'd set on the table between us until the articulation of my neck demanded it. Miraculously, no one else in the quiet café had noticed a thing. Either that was quiet enough that no one thought to raise an alarm or patrons pulling knives on other patrons was just sort of a thing that happened at Café Ahnenerbe and all the regulars were critiquing my form.
I exhausted the left and the right very quickly, leaving the steak knife the sole point of both our focus, a bizarre form of common ground between unexpected victim, hands flat on the table moving rhythmically in some sort of calming exercise, and accidental unconscious assailant (that's me, by the way), sweaty palms rubbing small circles in the thighs of her bluejeans. In our own way, in our own time, we both wrested control back from the brink of base instinct.
I opened my mouth to apologise. She interrupted me just before I made a sound.
"Huh?" Wow, eloquent, Taylor.
"That. That right there. That just now. You wanted to know my angle?" She moved and my gaze flinched upward to meet hers reflexively. "Because I couldn't predict that. Nothing about that." Her eyes were a far cry from the brilliant lively green that reflected so much mischief before. "It was like... before..." she trailed off.
"Before...?" She wasn't making sense, and clammed up at the worst possible time. "Come on, Lisa, snap out of it! I'm sorry I've had a stressful day to endcap a stressful year, and I'm sorry I took it out on you - I don't even know what came over me, I've never done that before, honest! - even if you were being kind of a jerk about things. But unlike you, I can't read minds so if you want me to be more than a rubber duck in this conversation, you'll need to use words."
She took a deep breath.
"You guessed earlier that I'm a Thinker. And you're right: I'm a pretty damn good Thinker. I put together stray bits of information and inferences and evidence to make superhuman leaps of logic that are usually correct, or at least close enough that the model holds until I can gather more data. I can figure out most parahumans before they figure themselves out."
"Sherlock Holmes is a cute blonde. Got it."
"Close enough. The thing is, you're... weird. Hazy. I can't read you. Not well. One moment you're like an ordinary person - I only pegged you as a parahuman because you being normal was too implausible - and the next..." she gestured subtly at the knife. "I'd ask 'what the hell are you?', but your body language tells me you're as confused as I am right now. Did you not know you can... project? Summon? That thing kind of hurts to look at, so I'm not sure..."
That had been bothering me too. For all that it was the exact knife from my parents' gifted set, there was something about it that felt... fake. Yes, this was a ‹fake›. That label resonated with me in a way others did not. I nodded at Lisa's question and my conclusion at the same time.
"Yeah, I think you'd call it a projection. Though it has the precise existence of a knife from our drawer at home, it's a... copy."
"Right, well anyway, you have the distinct potential to be more scary than my... boss." She spat the word in a way that- "No, I don't like him, but he's kind of got me by the proverbial balls. Not my point. The important thing is... just... it's probably asking too much to tell you to stay out of the Cape scene here in Bay. It already found you once just by accident. But try to lay low and stay small. Whatever you do, stay off of Coil's radar. If you interfere with him the way you interfere with me, he'll try to kill you and you seem like a good person. How about we let that be my payment for the earlier entertainment."
She didn't say it or even imply it, but I could hear the weight of a tragic past in her warning. I felt some degree of solidarity with her, because she was someone I could become far too easily.
That was the moment I realised that Lisa, in her own way, though she might not have even been conscious of it herself, was begging to be saved.
And I couldn't do anything.