Taylor Hebert limped out of Winslow as one foot made squelching noises while she held her arm close to her body to keep it from moving. Today, one week since she got back from the hospital, her tormentors slipped back into action. One ruined assignment (and wet foot) covered in purple grape juice and also Sophia managed to elbow her hard enough to knock her down a short set of stairs just moments ago.
Arriving minutes late to her bus stop, she saw her bus turn the corner eight hundred feet away.
"Shit," she said with no particular emphasis. Taylor looked at the posted schedule (not even vandalized!) and noted that the next bus's arrival would be in thirty-five minute. A cold gust of wind decided it for her, she started moving.
The gray clouds darkened. She wanted to curse the cold January winds that cut through her old coat. But all she could do was hobble faster.
She made it four blocks before it started to rain. Fat drops fell in a pitter-patter that sped up over time. Taylor hobbled on faster even as she looked around for someplace to duck the rain. She moved under the eaves of a bookstore cafe, only to look over at two girls exiting a slightly older small four door car. Their complaints at the wet sounded mute during the cold rain.
Why wear sunglasses during a storm? Something about the style bugged her, as it did not look fashionable.
The ringing of the bell as a stout man ran out the bookstore startled her. Taylor turned at just the wrong time as his shoulder hit her's and sent her to sprawl on the ground with a cry of pain.
"Sorry!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Shit! My bus!" He ran as fast as he could, a fast waddle.
The slightly older, blonde girl walked over and held out her hand. "Hey, are you all right?"
Taylor felt something strange, a happy and caring feeling as she took the hand to help her up. "Um, I think so?" She hissed in pain as she tried to push off with her other hand, the one she landed upon. Twice, even!
"Jerk," the darker haired teen called out to the man as she walked over to Taylor. "Let's get you inside and out of the cold."
"Um, thanks." Taylor let herself be lifted up and guided inside to a seat inside.
"Victoria, would you get me a cup of coffee and a cheese bagel?" the darker haired girl said as she sat down at Taylor's side. She studied Taylor's face, noting her shadowed eyes. She frowned as the face looked familiar.
Taylor felt the weight of her gaze. She raised her uninjured hand to pat her hair and make sure it lay correctly. "Is- Is something wrong?"
"Sorry, you look familiar."
Taylor frowned as she tried to remember if she met the other girl. "Do you go to Winslow?"
"No, sorry. I'm Amy, by the way. That's my sister Victoria."
"Taylor. So you go to Arcadia or Immaculata?" she asked.
"Arcadia," Amy replied as she shoved her sunglasses up on her forehead. "Hmm. Were you injured and had to go to the hospital?" Amy blinked as the girl paled dramatically.
The taller girl nodded her head. "Y-Yeah. I got hurt after being shoved into my locker with some really-"
"Oh, right. You had some nasty infections," Amy interrupted in a casual tone.
"Huh." Taylor finally realized who the famous girl was. "Wow, I didn't recognize you." She frowned. "No one told me you healed me. Thank you. Thank you so very much." She shivered at the memory of the horrible waste in the locker. She started to hyperventilate.
"Whoa! Relax, girl!" Victoria said in her most soothing tone as she walked back with a tray with two mugs and two bagels.
A soothing feeling filled the traumatized girl. It felt... nice and caused her to blush.
Amy blinked, then opened her eyes wide. "Victoria!"
Taylor looked between them in confusion.
"Oh, sorry. My aura."
The bespectacled girl blinked and then breathed a sigh of relief as her heart slowed down. "Oh, I thought I had just found out I was gay."
Victoria started laughing hysterically at Taylor so she missed seeing the shocked face of her sister.
The Winslow student frowned slightly. That hurt a little. And why did Amy seem more upset than she was?
The blonde looked between the two. "You must be at least a little bi-curious. That's only happened to a few bi and gay friends at school." She had a huge, wide grin on her face.
"Victoria! That's horrible!" Amy said with her face flushed red. She slapped her on the shoulder, causing her hand to sting.
"Idol of millions, you know," Victoria said, then she took a bite of her sesame seed bagel and garlic spread.
Amy turned back to Taylor and sighed. "Do I have your permission to heal you?"
"Oh, sure. You always have my permission," the other girl said and held out her hand.
The healer lay her hand over Taylor's hand and started to scan for issues and repair them. She nodded to herself as she recalled rightly that the other girl did have a Corona Pollentia and Gemma. Wow, look at her neurons fire away. Lots of bumps and bruises and a badly sprained ankle. And walking on it guaranteed to make it worse. She stopped for a second at the deep, crushing depression the girl lay under. That she could not fix. Just like her adoptive father.
Amy hummed for a minute or two and then removed her hand. "You should be all better now."
"Thank you very much," Taylor replied as she fidgeted and put her hands back on her lap. "I'm glad you healed me the first time. I can't imagine how bad the medical bills would be without that."
The healer released a soft breath of air, not wanting to talk about it. "I'm glad that it helped. I couldn't help with your... episode, but at least the infection and scratches should have been perfectly fine after the first night."
Victoria raised an eyebrow as she saw the other girl pull back and almost shrank into herself. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know how-" Taylor looked between them, her eyes wide. "If you healed me, why am I still taking the last few pills of antibiotics for the infection?"
The two sisters both stopped chewing as they parsed the question.
"Amy?" Victoria asked.
"She shouldn't need to." Amy frowned as she thought to herself. "Say, do you think you could get a copy of your billing so we can double check it? Because you shouldn't need to take any antibiotics unless you picked up something else at the hospital." And she checked to make sure that didn't happen!
"Um, maybe?" the very shy girl said. "I could ask my dad. Should I mail it to you?"
"Heck yeah!" Victoria said.
Amy frowned. She pulled up her purse and then fished out some business cards wrapped in a rubber band. She took one out and with a pen from her purse scribbled her phone number. "This is my email and phone number." Amy looked up to meet the other girl's brown eyes. "Call it if you need my help and when you have the paperwork. If you need the other help, it's on the other side." She slid it over towards Taylor.
The youngest girl looked at the innocent rectangle of paper as if it planned to bite her. She picked it up and checked the back side. "Oh. Uh, thanks?"
A few days later, Taylor trudged into her house and closed the door behind her. She stood there and just took in the homey and... worn. She shuffled up the stairs to her room and dropped her used (new to her) backpack. She dropped her bag at the side of her small desk.
She flopped onto her bed and stared at the ceiling even as she had her black widows in the basement start up to try and make a piece of cloth. All that work, ruined by Madison with a broken pen that leaked all over her homework.
Five minutes later, she rolled off the bed and to her feet. She ambled slowly down to the computer in the living room. She turned on the ancient machine that her mother had used for her grading.
The machine wheezed to life and came up to the older operating system. She clicked on the new icon for the cheap internet she put there. She winced at the squeal it made as it connected and slowly opened the web. She checked her private email just for Amy Dallon.
And then she stared at the screen, stuck and conflicted. She finally started to type a reply with care.
Subject: Re: Paperwork?
So hopefully our bills will help you figure that stuff out. Do you really think they are charging people twice? Your mom is a lawyer, right? Are you guys thinking you might have to sue? I wish I had a lawyer that could help Dad and I with my school problem. They are back to doing stuff all the time and no one listens.
I talked with the suicide help line and I know they are trying, I just seem to be stuck. One of them suggested I exercise more and try to get more sun. (In New England in the winter? Crazy!) But I started jogging, but it sorta sucks.
Well, enough of that. Did you know that spider silk is supposed to be one of the strongest materials known? It stretches too much, but supposedly you could make really strong cloth out of it. And no, still not hurting any insects. They can just do so many neat things or have cool properties. I wonder how many more useful things they could do?
Do you have any funny stories from when you work? I bet you got training to get the best out of your power. Did you just have your family help you? Or did you have to get special help from the PRT because your power is so different from anyone else in New Wave? I bet new heroes have to figure out all that stuff on their own without any help. That would be really useful.
So what type of books do you like to read? I like to read science fiction and fantasy. I'm reading the Dragon Riders of Pern right now, which I really like.
She read over it several times, correcting spelling and grammar. Hopefully she kept her bullying situation low key enough. Amy did not need any more stress on top of her work at the hospitals.
Then she turned to read through PHO to try and lighten her mood.
Amy walked into her home behind her sister, noting Carol sitting at the dinner table.
Victoria did not quite bellow out, her adoptive sister noted with amusement.
"Hello. I've gone over that paperwork and then talked to Abraham in the Attorney General's office." Carol frowned at Amy, not even aware of her action. "Amy, you are grounded from going to the hospital. I've already called Brocton General to let them know."
"Grounded?" Amy said as she barely managed to control her temper.
"You aren't really grounded, of course. This is just so we can't be accused of entrapment. Those bastards even marked each invoice with a NWP for each of the ones you healed. No wonder Medhall has been so profitable for the last couple of years," the lawyer said as she tried to no grind her teeth in anger.
"So no healing unless Director Piggot calls?" Amy asked as she tried to wrap the odd concept around in her head.
"Not for now, no."
Victoria grinned at her sister. "Sounds like you get to lay around and read a book while I'm on my date!"
Amy hid her own frown. "Oh, okay." And so no patrol with Victoria, either. Drat.
"I'm going to get ready!" the blonde bombshell shouted as she shot up the stairs with her flight power.
"No flying in the house!" Carol called out. "I've got to get back to work on this case or things are going to get a bit tight here in a few weeks." She stood up and started to slide papers back into her attache. "There's frozen dinners in the freezer."
"Maybe I'll make something to eat," Amy mused as she felt at odds and unsettled.
Carol ignored her, out the door to her car.
She stepped over to the entrance to the living room where her father sat in his chair and watched some cable news channel. "Dad?"
"Yeah?" Mark looked over with dull eyes. He sat in a slump while wearing mismatched shirt, shorts, socks and a three day beard.
"I'm going to make some mac and cheese. Do you want some?" Amy asked him.
He stared at the TV commercial for hand soap for about five seconds. The football game worked as a distraction. "Can you just leave some out for me? I just-" Mark swallowed for a long moment. "The gym cut my hours again. I think the only reason they keep me on staff is because of Flashbang ." His costumed name sounded like a swear word in his voice.
"I thought you applied a couple of more places?" she asked as she slowly stepped back to towards the kitchen.
"Everyone knows that 'flexible hours' that I need means being able to leave the job to stop villain attacks or coming in to work at noon for only five hours. It's... I'm just not feeling very social, okay?"
"Well, at least you can still go to the gym to work out, right?"
"Yeah, I suppose."
Amy moved back into the kitchen, cooking a simple meal for her and mark. Victoria zoomed through in her latest dress and spiffed up to a T.
"I'll be back late," she hollered as she opened the door and then shot off into the sky.
The other girl tilted her head with a smile that showed her fondness for her sister and walked over to close the door Victoria failed to close all the way on her exit. Amy went back and finished her meal, leaving a plate of mac and cheese with a side of veggies for her father. Hopefully someone would put it away before morning. Well, hopefully Mark would actually eat it before he went to bed.
Amy checked her phone and nodded as it showed only half an hour until she needed to... not go to the hospital. Dammit. She frowned and then took a bite of her pasta and looked over to the living room where the sound of a football game commentator filled the background. Time to read a book? Maybe check her email? Do homework? Email, then a novel. And finally homework at nine o'clock.
She finished her lonely meal and cleaned her dishes. Then she wandered up to her room, inhaling the scent of Victoria's favorite perfume as she passed their bathroom. A small smile appeared on her face for a second, then she entered her tiny sanctuary from everyone but Victoria. She would be welcomed, of course. Amy hit the power button on her year old notebook, then wandered over to pick up a romance novel from the side of her book case blocked by the little nightstand as it booted up.
She checked her email and responded to a few acquaintances from school. The ones that wanted to be friends with Panacea . So she replied with distant politeness.
Then she read the email from Taylor.
Amy frowned, then bit her bottom lip. The thing with talking about bugs every email was weird, but maybe understandable if you knew that she had an active Corona Gemma. She probably could control bugs. Not really the most useful powers. Well, at first glance. The questions about PRT training... that made it sound like she wanted help with her powers. Amy leaned forward onto her elbow and thought for a minute. Taylor must be worried about someone reading the email and figuring out she was a Parahuman. So she sent as subtle a message as possible to try and get some help?
A thought then occurred to her. "Oh, no. She's being bullied and can control bugs. Crap." Amy imagined a large cloud of bugs the size of a basketball, stinging and biting her tormentors. Everyone would immediately label her a villain. She should warn the PRT...
Amy's thoughts screeched to a halt. That would break the unwritten rules about cape identities and betray the timid girl's trust. Ah, fiddlesticks. And the girl only sent email once a day after school. She had to do something. Didn't she?
Hmm. Well, she could just go talk to her. Probably before school, so she didn't have a chance to go all Carrie over her bullies. She'd get Victoria to give her a lift to Winslow and catch Taylor before she went inside. Then suggest she join the Wards. Amy did not want to have to heal her if she tried to go solo. Especially with only bugs for protection.
She really did not want to hear about another young hero being killed by Lung or Hookwolf.
So tomorrow morning.
A cloudy figure leaped forty feet and then landed in a controlled roll to leap off into the air in another burst of shadow mist. Shadow Stalker frowned as she searched the area again. That bastard had to be around here somewhere . She nearly had him last night and she really wanted to know if he had bled out. Her shadow splashed down onto the ground in an alley and reformed into Shadow Stalker, crossbow at the ready.
Her boots splashed into the puddles as rain pattered down from the dark sky. Something crashed down the alley and then a cat yowled even as she fired her crossbow. The twang sounded muffled and the bolt skittered off a wall.
"Shit. Dammit. Where the fuck is that Grue," she muttered to herself. No blood remained from the night before. She shook her head and realized she felt a bit punch drunk. She pulled out her personal cell phone and checked the time. Late!
No, very, very early. And she still had school to go to in only two hours. And a morning run to get ready for that track meet, if Piggie let her go out of the city. And didn't try another surprise inspection. Piggie suspected something. She could see it in her eyes. Questions about a large splash of blood in an alley.
Shadow Stalker leaped up with a shift into her shadowy form. She solidified for a second to push off from a wall and to the roof.
Forty minutes later she arrived home, flowing into her bedroom through the cracked window. She swayed and stared at her alarm clock. She jerked as she almost nodded off while standing. Sophia took off her mask (her real self!) and went to her nightstand and pulled out a few No-Doz.
She washed down the pills with one of her energy drinks, grimacing at the tasted. Wings. Right. She'd take a nap right after school and before she went back to base at the PRT. The cool predator learning all of their weaknesses while she planned.
She just had to make sure that they didn't learn of her plans.
Especially Piggie. She was the dangerous one.