AN: If you read about a truancy rant, that was the old version.

Let's Play a Game - Chapter 11

My breath hitches as my mind grinds to a halt and my heart begins to race.

My eyes bounce back and forth between the words floating in the air and the blond woman in the suit.

(?)
LV ? Carol Dallon/Brandish

"B-brandish?"

A super hero's talking to me…

A super hero's talking to me!

Shit! What do I say? What do I say?!

I… I… I…

Like a splash of cold water, I feel something clamp down on my feelings. My giddiness, panic, and other such emotions are suddenly muted.

In a flash, I'm calm and I can finally think.

I start to breathe normally again and my heart slows.

I feel Brandish's, or well I guess Carol's, hand pull back from my shoulder.

As I focus back on the super hero across from me, I see her scrutinizing me with slight concern.

Yeah, I was getting a bit overwhelmed there for a few seconds. Thank you, Gamer's Mind.

Luckily it happened before I could embarrass myself in front of her…

Much.

Okay… what is she even doing here?

I know she's a lawyer but…

She works here?

…Well, this is the largest law firm in the bay, and she is a local famous cape without a secret identity who's also a lawyer, so it makes sense…

Wait… didn't Mr. Barnes brag about working with her almost every other month?

Huh

I completely forgot about that.

As I focus on her, I can see the last bits of concern bleed into impatience. She's still waiting on me to say something.

First things first though. Why can't I see her level or title?

Observe.

Target resisted Observe!

Resisted?!

Name: Carol Dallon
Cape Persona: Brandish
Title: ?
Professions: Super-Hero & Criminal Law Attorney
Faction: New Wave
Sex: Female
Class: ?
Level: ? EXP: N/A
Age: ? Race: Parahuman

HP: ? MP: N/A

STR: ?
VIT: ?
DEX: ?
INT: ?
WIS: ?
LUK: ?

Status: ?

Biography: ?

Emotions: ?

Nothing but question marks…

What?

But that's… you just can't! Not my cheat sheet!

...

Did I even get experience from that?

Well that's another thing to worry about later.

Close.

Alright Taylor, you'll just have to do this without any foreknowledge or emotion list, like a normal person. Ugh. Just take this nice and smooth.

I let out a short exhale. "Ma'am… what were you saying? I kind of… " I trail off awkwardly.

One of her eyebrows goes up a little and there's an uncomfortable pause before she speaks. "I was asking you what you were doing out of school today. Miss… " She trails off.

Oh. Right. Introducing myself, that's kind of important. "Hebert. Taylor Hebert, Ma'am."

She nods slightly. "Miss Hebert, I'll be blunt, are you being truant today?"

I furrow my brow in confusion. "Truant?" I take a second to look around the floor of the law firm I'm standing in. "With me being… here?"

She nods, completely seriously.

I couldn't help the snort that worked its way out of my nose. She thinks I'm being truant… in a law firm, because that makes sense.

"Yeah, you caught me. I'm totally playing hooky! I decided 'Hey! You know what I should do instead of going to school? I should walk aimlessly around the largest law firm in the Bay for no reason! It's not like I have anything better to do with my time!' No Ma'am!"

Your "Taunt" skill has increased by 1!

My eyes widen, as I stare at the box that just appeared in front of me. Quickly I close it out, and my eyes meet with Carol's cool stare. She's giving me an unimpressed look, her lips pressed into a thin line.

I slump forward, blood rushing toward my face. "Oh god… I did it again… I'm so sorry!"

Her seriousness melts a fraction into slight confusion as she nods slowly and rigidly.

Slowly, I bury my face in my palms, and let out a muffled, pitiful "Oh god. Oh god… I just sassed a super hero. What is wrong with me?"

"It's called being a teenager…" She retorts near instantly. I hear her sigh. "If you aren't being truant, then why are you here, Miss Hebert? You've been wandering around the hallways for a few minutes now." She grimaces. "Please tell me you aren't a fan? Even if you have some business to tend to here, there are boundaries that should be—"

"I'm not here to see you!" I squeak out. "I completely forgot you even worked here! I mean Mr. Barnes used to mention it all the time but it just… slipped my mind."

"Oh?" I can hear the relief in that one word. "You know Alan?"

I nod slowly, staring back into her eyes through the gaps between my fingers. Slowly, I pull my hands from my face. "I'm actually here to meet with him. Well… not here here, but here in the building I mean. Aunt Zoe called ahead, I need to talk to him while he's still on his lunch break, and I..." I look down a little, my face still a bit red. "I... got a bit lost. I kept getting the wrong floor on the elevator, and I was just looking for the stairs and well…"

Slowly she mouths the words 'Aunt Zoe' before shaking her head. Her lips form the barest hint of a smile. "Aren't you a bit young to need legal counsel from Mr. Barnes?"

"What are you talking—"My eyes nearly pop out of my skull as my face flushes like a tomato. I shake my head vigorously. "Nonononono, I am not married to anyone and I do not need a divorce, an annulment, or anything like that! I've never even been kissed before let alone had a relationship!" I blurt out in a rush, my hands waving furiously in front of me.

She gives another raised eyebrow, but looks a tad bit amused.

"Mr. Barnes is expecting me and I just need to ask him a few questions about…" I trail off. "It's… personal, okay? I'm not comfortable talking about it to someone who's not involved. Look, I do have a doctor's note for why I'm not in school right now. It's… kind of related to why I need to talk to him too."

"Do you have your doctor's note with you?"

I raise a finger and open my mouth…

My finger then curls as my mouth shuts abruptly.

"…no, I don't." Shit…

She hums slightly in thought. "But you being out of school is a part of the reason why you need to speak with him, correct?"

I nod slightly.

She looks around the room a bit, clearly mulling the situation over. After a few seconds that feel way too long, she lets out a light exhale. "In the future… you should think about keeping your doctor's note and other such records with you for your sake and that of law enforcement. While a genuine explanation will give you a pass from most, there are quite a few truant officers that won't accept anything but proper paperwork, especially in the Bay."

She frowns sternly. "Normally, I would do the latter but, since Mr. Barnes is expecting you… I'll let it slide this once." She raises a finger imperiously. "Only if he vouches for you, otherwise I'm calling the police and they can take you right back to school. Understood?"

"Sure…" My eyes crinkle in confusion. "…isn't that being a bit…" What's a safer word than bitchy? "strict?"

"I'm both a PRT-affiliated hero and a criminal lawyer. Being a stickler about the rules goes hand in hand with both my professions."

I blink a few times.

"I have my reasons." She looks away slightly and lets out a small cough. "…Also, since my identity is publicly known there have been a few… incidents at the firm involving idiotic teens now and then. I was lax on a situation like this once before. That will be the last time."

Wait, what? Huh? "What kind of—"

"I'd rather not discuss it." She answers darkly, her eyes filled with fury at the past. I hear her mumble a bit, something about the firm's stupid security not doing their jobs, and their replacements not being much better.

Okay then.

She takes a deep breath, and I can see her relax slightly. "I'm assuming your parents aren't here with you?"

I wince a little, my heart stinging for a moment, and give her a nod. "My Dad is at work at the moment. My Mom isn't… with us anymore."

She nods slowly. "I see." She's quiet for a few solemn moments before speaking. "Follow me, Miss Hebert. I can take you right to Mr. Barnes." She turns behind her and shouts. "Jonathan, hold all my calls! I'll be back in a few!"

I see a man with glasses look up from his computer, giving her a quick "Yes, Ma'am", before turning back towards his monitor.

As she starts walking, I simply shrug to myself and follow her towards the elevator. Both of us remained silent for at least a minute, before she spoke.

"Is there a reason you didn't follow the sign to the Family Law floor then?"

I blush again. "...There was a sign?"

"There's a directory of the building right by the elevators on the first floor. You shouldn't have missed it."

Well, I did miss it. Probably because I was too focused on the power-created icon for Mr. Barnes and trying to follow it and old recollections of the floor number rather than doing the sensible thing… like looking for signs or asking for directions... Not that I could tell her that.

The map icons are nice in terms of where someone is in the city… but not really helpful in a multi-floor building.

Well, today I learned…

"…I didn't see it. I guess I wasn't paying attention."

"Were you too busy playing on your cell phone?" She asks with a hint of humor. We reach the elevator, and she taps the call button, and turns towards me with the barest hint of a smile.

I frown. "…I don't actually own a cell phone."

She blinks, confusion bleeding into her smile. "Wait… you don't own a cell phone… in Brockton Bay?"

"No I don't."

She shakes her head slowly in disapproval. "That's… incredibly reckless. If you were away from home and ran into any sort of trouble, you'd be completely isolated. You wouldn't be able to call anyone for help: Not your family, not the police, not the PRT. Even with the—" Her face tightens up slightly in disgust. "Enforcers on the Boardwalk and all the Protectorate patrols that's stillvery, very dangerous."

"Well… it's a bit personal."

"Your safety is personal. After they became teenagers, I made sure my daughter and Amy never left the house without them. Even now that they both have super-powers, I make sure that they have one on them all the time."

I look away from her. I don't want to get into that with someone I just met, super hero or not. "It's… kind of a sore subject for my family, alright Mrs. Dallon? I'd rather not discuss it."

When I look back, I can see her frowning at me. Great, now I feel a little bad. I will actually need one in the future. Not having a cell phone when someone needed an ambulance right by me was actually a bit frightening. If I want to be a hero, I will need a cell phone just so I can call 911 or the Protectorate.

"I'm going to see if I can talk my Dad into getting one for just those kinds of reasons, it's something I'm not particularly comfortable talking about with…" I chew on my lips for a second. "…well, a stranger. No offence."

"None taken…"

The door finally opens, to a thankfully empty elevator. We both enter. After Carol presses a button, we wait as the elevator begins its descent.

Neither of us speaks for the entire elevator ride.

…So much for smooth.


Only a few minutes later, we reach our destination.

The elevators themselves are in the center of each floor, with all the separate offices and conference rooms surrounding them.

As Carol guided me through the Family Law floor, I passed the time using observe on everything and everyone I could, but nothing interesting came up…

Ceiling Tile

Dimensions: 23.735" x 23.735"
Thickness: 5/8"
Resistances: Fire (Class A Fire Retardant)
Series: Cortega
Color: White
Standards: ASTM E1264
Material: Mineral Fiber
Noise Reduction Coefficient: 0.55
Light Reflectance: 0.82
Country of Origin: United States
Owner: Topher Law Firm.
Description: An unremarkable, every-day, average ceiling tile.
What did you really expect?

…Except my power having some sass to it again. Should I be worried that my power actually seems… alive?

I shake my head. Something to think about later I suppose. I frown. I'm starting to pick up a lot of things to think about later.

Carol led me down a hallway to the edge of the floor, and then started walking towards one of the corners.

I think this corner was kind of pointing to the North West?

Map.

Oh, North-East.

Well, I was close. Of course it figures that as a firm partner, Mr. Barnes would get a corner office.

As we approach, I can see a glass wall and door combo, with Mr. Barnes' name and position in big bold letters superimposed across it. Part of the glass has that frosted look to it, framed in an interesting design of wavy lines, a way to both look artistic and give the people in the office behind it some semblance of privacy.

Mrs. Dallon opens the door, and motions for me to go in first.

As I enter slowly, I see it's just a small entry office for the secretary, Mr. Barnes' private office presumably the room past this one.

A middle-aged looking woman (A glance above her head tells me her name is Janine Anderson with a level of 28) looks up from the sandwich she's eating at her desk and looks at me. She squints slightly and looks me up and down, before focusing on my face. She swallows, and puts the food down slowly. "Are you Miss Hebert?"

I hear the door close behind me, Mrs. Dallon's heels clacking towards me on the tiled floor.

I shoot a quick observe at Janine and glance over the mundane contents, before closing it mentally. Nothing currently relevant jumps out at me. She did recover from a small car accident last year though, and briefly scanning her face reveals some very light scarring. I probably wouldn't have noticed it without a blue box telling me about it.

Observe is a little scary when you think about it. Speed reading is too given that box took me only a second and a half to look over.

Putting my thoughts to the side, I answer her. "Yes Ma'am."

She nods. "Mr. Barnes is expecting you. Go on in." She turns towards my impromptu chaperone and blinks. "Mrs. Dallon?"

I start to head for the door, leaving the two behind me.

"Hi Janine, how many times do I have to let you know you can just call me Carol…" She pauses with a bit of a sigh. "Miss Hebert here got a little lost on my floor. I was concerned why she was out of school, and I feared it might have been another… incident."

I stop in my tracks, now focused entirely on the conversation. Damn my curiosity.

Carol notices and sighs.

"A December 11th of '09?" The secretary answers without a beat, a smile on her face screaming "I know something you don't know!"

Carol nods. "Well, yes, that fits, but I was thinking more of a May 14th of 2010 myself."

They havedates memorized about this?

The secretary shivers slightly in obvious disgust. "We do have a new security team, Mrs. Dallon. I'm sure something like that wouldn't happen again."

Carol just turns towards me. "Miss Hebert, did any member of security stop you on the first floor and ask you what you were doing out of school?"

I turn to face her. "Uh… no?"

Carol looks back at Janine. "I rest my case."

The secretary, Janine, frowns. "Oh…" Then she smiles awkwardly. "Well… on the bright side… at least the janitors were pretty fast… right? They had your office cleaned in less than three days, and considering the mess that's…" She lets out a whistle. "…a miracle. With that kind of cleaning experience, any future incident should only take a day at most!"

Carol groans. "Yes… the janitors were very…efficient." She pauses for moment, before speaking in a voice so low I could barely hear. "They even saved the upholstery. I really thought that was a lost cause…"

She blinks, and then her volume ramps back up.

"Regardless, I'd rather work in a firm where the security is more competent than the custodians... Just because I work here and am also Brandish doesn't mean the security should be lax! But nooo… It's always 'She can make… laser swords with her bare hands!' this and 'She's a super hero, she can handle it' that. I swear if I hear that damn nickname Lady Lightsaber one. More. Time..."

"Hey, those phrases are exactly what got the old team the boot. They were completely disrespectful and out of line. The new security contractors haven't said anything like that." Janine's face slowly goes slack as Carol just stares at her. "Right?"

"Well…no, but… " She looks towards me with the corner of her eye. "There's room for improvement."

I look back and forth between the adults. What the hellhappened here? Now I have even more questions!

…I'm kind of afraid to ask at this point.

I shake my head and turn towards Mrs. Dallon. "So… is this enough proof for you that I'm not some delinquent… who's also an idiot?"

She looks slightly behind me real quick before focusing on me. "I never suggested you were an idiot, Miss."

"You thought I was playing hooky… in a law firm. Who does that?"

"You'd be surprised."/ "Well actually…" Both Carol and Janine answer in unison, before sharing a look and nodding in agreement.

I look back and forth between the two. Fuck it. "Ooookay. Will either of you tell me what you're talking about? I mean… you've apparently memorized the dates and all…"

Janine looks to Carol as if asking permission. Carol just frowns and folds her arms. The secretary looks back at me and just slowly shakes her head.

"Seriously?"

"It's kind of funny actually."

"AH!"

I let out a squeak and nearly jump out of my skin at Mr. Barnes' voice right behind me, before the calming effect of Gamer's Mind kicks in. I turn around and see the man I once called Uncle.

(Topher Law Partner)
LV 32 Alan Barnes

Just like his wife, he has an arrow above his head from the ongoing quest, something only I can see. Beyond that, he looks almost the same since I last saw him: Big, tall, and full of red hair.

His hair is a bit different than the rest of his family, a few shades darker than his wife's and daughters' close-to strawberry blonde.

The only big changes I see are that he's a tad bit bigger around the waist, which given Aunt Zoe's cooking, is not surprising.

He also has a very big grin on his face from making me jump.

…Why did he intimidate me again?

The answer rushes back into my head. Oh, yeah, It's not the lawyers' looks that are scary; it's the paperwork they serve you.

…I did have a few weird nightmares involving him where after some of the bad days of Emma's taunting, I'd imagine him suing us for this or that on Emma's behest. In hindsight… they were pretty nonsensical…

Like taking Emma's spot in the lunch line or the last coke from the soda machine: trivialities like that. Nightmares didn't have to make sense to scare you though. I mean, the more horrifying ones involved my tormentors slowly becoming Endbringers in visceral and gory transformations, but there were a few memorable nightmares which featured Mr. Barnes.

Pretty sure I even had one where he was literally an anthropomorphic shark with a suit and red hair that ate Dad in a courtroom.

Though that was when I fell asleep on the couch during a Shark Week marathon… so, my fucked up imagination did have a weird fuel source.

…I'm rambling in my head again. I need to stop doing that… I shake my head a bit and focus back on Mr. Barnes.

"Mr. Barnes! Hi…" I take a deep breath. "Please. Please don't do that again."

He chuckles. "And let go of opportunities like this in the future? Not a chance kid."

He then smiles a bit… awkwardly, and reaches over for a "hug."

Not a heartfelt embrace like Zoe's. Not a loving one like Dad's. It was this weird… clumsy… thing.

His hands couldn't decide if they wanted to hug me by the waist or by the shoulders, so they just sort of decided to do both and did this weird rubbing motion to my back… and just...

What. The. Fuck.

It was kind of like one of those hugs at family reunions where people who don't know you but insist you have to hug because you're family, but it's still all kinds of weird since you've never seen them before…

I could barely contain my need to shiver.

What's with all the hugs today? Aunt Zoe, I understand, at least after what happened with her, but Mr. Barnes? Even if it is awkward… it's kind of… well, no, not sweet. The thought counts, but he loses points on presentation.

I awkwardly pat him on the back in return.

"I haven't seen you in so long, Taylor." He disengages and sets both of his hands on my shoulders. He looks me up and down, awkward smile still on his face, before placing a hand above my head. He whistles. "How tall have you gotten? I swear you were—"He takes his hand floating above me and moves it down by two feet to the side, "—this tall two years ago."

"I wasn't that short…" I shake my head a bit. "Did Aunt Zoe-" I see him flinch a little. "-tell you why I'm here?"

He nods slowly, the smile on his face becoming less genuine by the second. "Yes, she did. Something about Emma… bullying you?"

I nod.

"Wait, wait, wait…" I turn towards Mrs. Dallon, confusion and concern on her face. "You said you were out of school with a doctor's note, and you were here because of that… what does bullying have to do with that?" She looks over at Mr. Barnes. "Alan, do you know why she's out of school today?"

"I… actually don't… Zoe didn't mention anything about why Taylor was away from school. In fact, she didn't even think about today being a school day before I asked her." His face swivels to me. "Taylor, do you mind explaining why this couldn't wait until after school? I mean, I'm happy seeing you after all this time… but this isn't exactly the best time or place to have this discussion.."

Shit.

"I'm excused from school right now, but I did kind of forget to bring the doctor's note..." I wince slightly.

He frowns slowly. "…Why would you have a doctor's note if this meeting is about Emma's… bullying?"

His disbelief is palpable. As if it's beyond Emma's ability to be a bully. Great… already fighting uphill.

My eyes dart between the two lawyers.

"Okay. I need a minute."

If I tell Alan about Emma in full… he'll clam up and be against me, won't he? He's completely biased when it comes to her, and there's no way I can convince him otherwise at this point. If anyone can just dismiss my journals out of hand, it's definitely the lawyer, especially when he's the bitch's father.

…But if I don't say anything… Carol will probably try to do her "civic duty" and force me back to school…

That's something I'd rather avoid right now, even with powers possibly making it more tolerable. I'd lose out on leveling for the rest of the day and pretty much ensure I'd be going back to school from now on, losing out on even more time I can spend on my powers the rest of the week.

No. I'm not giving that up right now.

I'll just have to tell them… About the locker…

I can already feel my rising anxiety and nausea being smothered by Gamer's Mind.

I take a deep inhale of air, before gradually exhaling. It's nice to feel power-granted clarity kick in whenever I think about the more recent dark moments of my life.

Before, doing this in front of strangers would be impossible. Now, it's just another task, if a little annoying, to be completed in the course of my quest.

I look over to Janine, and then back to the two lawyers.

I could ask for privacy, but…

Why?

The hospital staff that oversaw my case already know. The police who investigated already know. The whole damn school already knows.

Really, adding two more strangers to the pile shouldn't be hard at all.

This is just to satisfy Carol enough to get rid of her and get my foot into Alan's door.

But, I have to be careful.

I can't mention Emma when it comes to why I was hospitalized, but I am here to talk about Emma bullying me. He knows that.

It's probably best if I don't mention the trio as a unit at all working under Emma.

I'll just have to focus on what Emma's done to me… verbally… psychologically, what Madison's done to humiliate me, and on what Sophia's done to me physically.

Given that track record, there's no doubt in my mind who shoved me in the locker.

He'll probably check with Emma later, and when she inevitably lies about it, he'll probably think I'm the liar in turn. Be that as it may, my goal here isn't long term. It's to ferret out the information for my quest and my own burning curiosity.

This isn't about actually beating the bullies. I have to remember that. That comes later.

"I'm being bullied, by a number of individuals at Winslow since the start of high school." I stare at Alan. "Emma… is a part of that, Mr. Barnes."

I see his face twist a bit into something ugly, tinges of red coloring his cheeks beyond his facial hair. Already getting angry… great. I need to defuse him before he blows up.

"She's been… using things she knows about me to hurt me. My insecurities and such. I don't know why. That's the main reason I'm here, to ask you if you had any idea why? She used to be a sister to me. I just want to know what happened?"

He's still getting redder, but it has slowed a bit... Okay, how about this? "I talked to Aunt Zoe, we compared notes, and from that, I discovered that this change in behaviour happened… after a certain incident in the summer of 2009."

Just like that, his angry demeanor melts. It's not instant, but over the course of several seconds, the red leaves his cheeks, and his shoulders slump. "Oh… I see."

I look over and focus back to Carol. So far, she's been quiet. I see she's focused entirely on what I'm saying. "As for the hospital… Emma's not the only bully I have. A whole gaggle of girls join in on the abuse, but there's two main ones outside of Emma: Madison Clements and Sophia Hess."

"Wait, what? Can you say that again?"

I blink and turn back to Alan. He looks… not necessarily alarmed, but more attentive for sure. Well, they are Emma's friends after all. "Madison Clements, and Sophia Hess."

He slowly nods, and then blinks. "Oh," He looks quickly between me and Carol. "Sophia's my daughter's be—" He looks apologetic for a moment. "—st friend." He pauses, before abruptly speaking again as if he forgot. "Madison is also another friend of my daughter's."

O-kay...

New best friend, huh? I snort to myself. No need to look sad for me there. That ship has already sailed, hit an iceberg, and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, ready to be a centerpiece for an overrated Earth-Aleph James Cameron movie. I'd love to tell that to his face right now, but…

Now's not the time.

I turn back to Carol. "Anyways, Madison and Sophia are more… active in their bullying, physically that is. Madison's favorite flavor of bullying is humiliation. Glue on my desk, my gym clothes missing, gum in my hair, etc. The hallmarks of annoying highschool harassment."

I close my eyes, and pause.

"Sophia's the more… typical bully. Tripping me in the halls and stairways, a rough elbow here and there, a shove to the ground, and so on. When something physically happens to me at school that ends with a bruise, ninety-nine percent of the time it's her. "

I open my eyes and look between the three adults. Time to bring it all in.

"I… don't have any proof though. No evidence. I've got journals full of me detailing everything that happened since last fall, with a few pictures and emails to boot. However, none of it by itself is incriminating. I know that's pretty much circumstantial at best, and at worst, nothing."

"Which is why you aren't here as a client, but here as friend of the Barneses? Because his daughter is involved?" Carol asks.

"Right. I don't have the money for that anyways. As for how all this relates to me having a doctor's note. I was… well, hospitalized. The bullies all liked to play off each other. Constantly escalating and one-upping each other on how to make my day absolutely miserable. I was a big game to them. A punching bag for their amusement."

I chew on my lips a little, looking down.

"Roughly two weeks ago… I was shoved into my locker. A rather cliche of bullying, I know, but a cliche I was never treated to before. Except it came with a bit of a… revolting twist. It was filled with… trash from the girl's bathroom: used pads, toilet paper, bugs, and more…"

I pause for a moment, taking a deep breath. Even with Gamer's Mind on full throttle, recalling everything in detail isn't pleasant.

"The contents were left to fester, to rot, and to decay there for the entirety of Christmas break. To make a nice stew for me before I came back after the holidays. So, I spent several hours covered in what has to be technically toxic waste screaming for help... Of course, nobody came. I could hear their footsteps between screams. I could hear some laughs. But no one helped. They just left me there. A janitor finally let me out at the end of the day after I had passed out from the smell, and called 911. I was in the hospital for a solid week; apparently I almost went to the psych ward after my stint in the ICU."

I take another breath.

"I don't know who's responsible for that…" I bring four fingers up for emphasis. "...'prank,' but I'm pretty sure Sophia's the one who shoved me in while I was in mid vomit. I'm pretty familiar with how she shoves. But again, I have no proof."

I stare back up. Janine looks a little pale. Mr. Barnes looks… both confused and a little mad. Less than earlier at least. Carol was just… odd, staring at me like I was a puzzle to solve.

I look head on into Carol's weird gaze. "You can call my Dad or Winslow to verify, but that's why I have a doctor's note about bullying, Mrs. Dallon."

Somberly, she nods, before sighing. "Miss Hebert… You deserved a modicum of privacy for this kind of discussion. I… hounded you earlier since I thought you were just another hooligan. Even after I was sure you weren't up to no good, I had to butt my nose into things to ensure you had proper business here. For that, I apologize."

...Huh. "Apology accepted, Mrs. Dallon."

She nods. "Will you please humor me for a few more questions?"

I… Uh… Fine. "Just a few. Then I really need you to go." I look at the nearby clock. "I've got like… fifteen minutes to talk with Mr. Barnes left out of the lunch hour."

"Actually…" I turn towards Alan, who, while still red in the face, seems to be keeping his cool. "...I did start my lunch a little late. Zoe called after you left our house, and I decided to wait a little while before officially going to lunch." He smiles a little, genuinely this time. "I even took care of my one o'clock appointment for you. We have roughly thirty-five minutes to talk."

Oh. "Thanks, Mr. Barnes."

He sighs and lets out a bitter laugh. "No problem, kid."

I turn back to Carol. "Alright, shoot."

She simply nods once again, and continues. "Are the police currently investigating your case? This isn't simple bullying, Miss Hebert. This has escalated to aggravated assault."

"Oh. Well… They were… but they stopped."

She arches an eyebrow. "...Pardon?"

I simply sigh. "The Winslow Administration apparently convinced the police investigating that it was simply a prank gone wrong and that it wouldn't happen again. Something to that effect at least. I only know about it since my father was very… vocal in his ranting while on the phone."

I see out of the corner of my vision, Alan simply nodding as if that makes perfect sense.

She sighs once more. "Listen, in the past, I used to do a few cases pro bono. At the current moment, I am… entirely too busy with both work projects and New Wave PR events to even consider taking up a case, especially one with no solid evidence at this time… but, I have a few people I can call in the police, see why the case went nowhere." She gives the barest hints of a smile. "It's the very least I can do for you."

...Wow. That's actually really nice of her. Doubt it'll do anything in the long run, but… that's nice. Slowly, I nod. "Thanks."

She nods at me, before looking at Alan. "I'm sorry for butting into your business as well Alan."

Alan laughs. "It's not the first time Carol, and I doubt it'll be the last. Enjoy the rest of your lunch…" He looks down at his watch. "...all 11 minutes of it."

She sighs, before heading to the glass door. A brief mutter about how she'll have to reheat her soup is the last thing I hear before the door closes.

Alan just stares at the door for a second, before turning to me, the red only now fully leaving his face. He looks at me for a few seconds too long, making me uncomfortable. He shakes his head a little, before looking over to Janine. "Mrs. Anderson, even if Taylor is not a client of mine, I would appreciate if you treated all the information you bore witness to as confidential, as a favor to me if nothing else."

Still a bit pale from earlier, Janine somberly nods. "Yes, sir."

Alan sighs. "Come on Taylor. We'd better take the rest of this into my office."

It's about time.

First thing's first now that I have a little time. As I walk behind him, I stare at Mr. Barnes' back.

Observe.

Your "Observe" skill has increased by 1!

Quickly, I skim through the entry in front of me. Only a few tidbits jumping out at me.

To Kill a Mocking Bird inspiring his law career, how he originally wanted to be a defense attorney before changing tracks into family law, the Barneses' "nights of passion," (Eww) and so on.

Apparently Anne was a "happy surprise." I wonder if they ever told her that? Slightly amusing, but it's not really a big deal.

As I read closer to current events, the "incident" that started the mess between me and Emma only got a brief nod that didn't add anything substantial.

The last few paragraphs did stick out though.

A few months ago he represented Shadow Stalker in her probation case, leading to her becoming Brockton Bay's newest Ward. While part of this was out of gratitude due to her role in saving his daughter from members of the ABB, a not-insignificant part was also due to the last embers of his original dream of becoming a modern day Atticus.

I paused for a brief moment there.

He represented Shadow Stalker, out of thanks for saving Emma and his original desire to be a defense attorney, sure, but it was for some kind of… probation proceeding which led to her becoming a Ward?

That's why she's a Ward now? I'd been wondering why she joined up recently. She was on her own for over a year at least, and seemed fine being independent. Before all the recent attention, she kept to the… shadows.

Ha.

As a cape, she barely had any time in the limelight.

Then, suddenly she decided to join the Protectorate as a Ward. Now she's marketed like any other Ward: merchandising; PR events; the works.

I always thought this transition from loner hero to Protectorate cape was her own choice. At least, that's what the news, PHO, and the PRT had been reporting. Apparently, there's more to it than that.

If she didn't join, what were her other options? If I take it literally, the only reason she's not in freaking juvie is because of this…

Did the PRT threaten an independent hero with jail time if they didn't join up?

…I guess the question is what was the probation for?

Either the PRT is taking too many notes from 1984, or Shadow Stalker did something really criminal here and is doing some kind of community service…

I don't like either option…

He is completely unaware of the current animosity between his daughter and Taylor Hebert. He was never as close to Taylor as the rest of his family once was. He was best friends with Taylor's father though, but that friendship had started to drift apart after the death of Annette and Daniel threw himself into his work. A combination of Alan never seeing Taylor at their house, nor spending time with Daniel, as well as his busy life at work and social gatherings managed to divert his attention away from the growing gulf between the two families.

Whenever he did have an errant moment to ponder it, he would sadly chalk it up to the inevitably of life moving on. He would conclude that some friendships, no matter how strong, could be worn away by simple time.

Emotions: Disgust. Fondness. Curiosity. Concern.

Well, I always kind of knew deep down that Aunt Zoe loved me more than Uncle Alan. Not that I really blame him or anything. I wasn't close to him either.

It's nice to know that he's concerned and fond of me at least.

So, in terms of why I'm here, the meat of this information is that Mr. Barnes was the defense attorney for Shadow Stalker, and that's why she's on the Wards right now and not possibly in jail.

That has to tie into when Emma was rescued.

Also, he has absolutely no idea what's going on at Winslow whatsoever. That's good too. If it had been the worst case scenario here where he was in on it… somehow, there'd be no point in even talking to him.

I focus on the outside world again; Alan just opened the door to his office and is letting me go in first. I walk a few steps in before returning to my thoughts.

The Shadow Stalker thing is still bugging me.

Alright, so… she was kind of… darker than other heroes. She only recently started using those nifty tranquilizer darts that were trotted out in all the new Wards merchandise and Q&As, but she's always had the crossbows apparently, at least going by PHO rumors. It's possible that she was being too rough on gang members with real crossbow bolts and the PRT decided to reel her in after too many people, criminal or not, got hurt.

There has to be a reason for why she hasn't been seen with normal piercing bolts as a Ward, even in fights against Brutes.

Maybe she missed and hit someone in their gut or their lung, or missed a shot on their limbs and hit an important artery. Maybe a bystander got hit by one of her bolts depending on her aim.

It had to be some kind of accident though. With something so inherently lethal, it would be easy to mess up on one bad night.

I still doubt anyone died from her stunts. She's a hero after all, sinister as she may be. There's nothing in the news about such a thing, and it's not like the PRT or Protectorate would recruit a murderer.

This probationary meeting is apparently a big secret since I've never even heard of it before. Last I heard from the press conference is that she decided she didn't want to go it alone anymore and wanted access to more support and resources.

Which is probably a big fat lie going by my Observe info…

It's not a lot to go on, and I'm probably making a few leaps in logic without any tangible evidence, but it makes sense.

But, how did Shadow Stalker know Emma's Dad is a lawyer? How did Alan even know she needed a lawyer?

That would only make sense if… Emma knew Shadow Stalker's secret identity.

"…Taylor?"

She would have to be someone Emma spent a lot of time with, a friend, to have that kind of connection. But everyone knows the Wards go to Arcadia, not shitty Winslow.

"Taylor?"

But wait, that doesn't actually apply to Shadow Stalker. Emma would have had to know who she was before that. When she was independent. And that would likely mean they knew each other from Winslow.

But… but that's completely ridiculous. Madison being Stalker? That's ludicrous. Sophia Hess the psycho being the super hero Shadow Stalker! That's just cra—

"Taylor!"

—zy. "Huh? What?" My eyes slightly widen as I stare at Mr. Barnes.

Alan just sighs. "Kid, you spaced out there for a second."

The quest mark above his head was visibly fading into nothingness.

Completed: Talk to Alan Barnes.

Which likely meant… Sophia… was Shadow Stalker.

For a logical deduction, your Intelligence has increased by 1.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm. Fine."


AN:

A few reviewers pointed out some problems the last chapter had. A few here and plenty at Spacebattles. There arguments were enough to convince me, so I decided to go back and edit the chapter a bit.

Yeah, after going back and doing a few edits, as I kept going, I decided I like this version much more than the first. So, rather than put it to a vote, I just decided to go ahead and upload it.

The old version is available as Apocrypha on Spacebattles and Sufficient Velocity, in case you wanted to read it.

Next chapter will still be an interlude, but obviously, a little different.

Again, big thanks to my Betas: Hometruck, Munchkinomatic, Metz, and Demifailure!

See you guys next time! Hopefully on a better foot! Please let me know if you think this is an improvement.