"Sara!" Mom shouted, for the tenth time. "Hurry up, you're going to be late for school!"
Ugh. Like I hadn't heard before. Just needed to finish the line, get my words down…
"I'm coming!" I shouted, my fingers dancing across the keyboard like giant droplets of water on a hot griddle. Each word a note in the melody of the paragraph. The staccato echoes of my keys backed by the bassline of Mom's footsteps thundering up the stairs.
There was a knock at the door. "Sara! Come on! I can't be late for work!"
"I'm on my way, just putting on pants!" I lied, punctuating it with a click of the submit button and grabbing my backpack. I ran across the room—almost tripping on the pile of dirty clothes and dying—and threw open the door. "See? Ready to go."
Mom, her face red from the harrowing journey up the stairs, made a peeved noise. "You can't miss class again or you'll get written up. Come on."
"Okay, yeah, sorry," I mumbled. Already, the phone in my pocket vibrated with a like notification.
My name is Sara Pratt, and I'm no ordinary 15-year-old girl. I have a hobby—no, an obsession, one that causes more chaos and discord than most supervillains. The bane of countless PRT Image departments across the nation.
As I shut the door, one last look at my monitor brought a smile to my face.
Your reply to the topic "Bonds of Love [m/m][Chain Link][Ley Line]" has been posted.
My name is Sara Pratt, and I am a fanfiction author.
Crisis point. A term still foreign to my mind, plucked from the camera phone uploads of a "misplaced" PRT operations manual. I'd downloaded the pictures just minutes before the would-be leaker's post was nuked from orbit by the PHO mods.
Still, knowing the phrase didn't stop the anxiety. Didn't stop my heart pounding in my chest. I was trembling, whether from fear or excitement, I wasn't sure. Someone honked their horn, making me jump and almost hit my nose with the phone I was holding too close to my face.
When people suffered something traumatic, the PRT paid a visit, usually with a cape, just to check in. Not that the PRT tours weren't fun, I went every chance I could, but actually talking to one of the Rose City's finest? My heart fluttered at the thought.
It was time. I couldn't back out, not now. Not when I'd gone so far. I started walking, taking deep breaths in a vain attempt to calm down. Calm. Peace. I mashed the volume up button on the side of my phone, the chorus of Alexandria: The Musical drowning out the sounds of traffic.
I slid my phone into my pocket. My walk became a jog as adrenaline started pumping, then a run, then an outright sprint down the sidewalk. I was getting closer, now, my astigmatic eyes slowly resolving the blurry red hand icon. I kept running, my feet leaving the sidewalk and bouncing off the asphalt.
Josephine Villiers' beautiful soprano voice blocked out the sound of the horns. I couldn't hear a thing, which was good. Otherwise I might've instinctively dodged the car that didn't stop in time.
My last thought, in slow motion as I saw the windshield my face was about to go through?
Hopefully they'd send Chain Link to check on me.
I woke up to the alarmingly-familiar sounds of hospital machinery.
Third time's the charm?
"Malhgfkjghl," I murmured, my mouth dry from anesthetics.
"Sara! You're awake, thank god." It was Dad's voice. My eyes flickered open. He was sitting in the ugly teal chair. Well, was, he'd moved to give me a gentle, worried hug.
"What… happened?" I stammered out, as if I didn't plan it out weeks in advance.
"You… you don't remember?" he asked. "You went to the gas station, and there was a robbery… we still don't know why, he got away and didn't even take anything."
"Oh my… is everyone okay?" I stammered, faux tears filling my eyes. "I'm so sorry, if I would've known…"
"Sara, it's okay. Everyone's fine. Just stay calm okay hun? You need to rest up."
And he complained that seventh-grade drama camp was a wasteful expense.
Still, getting stabbed did take a lot out of you. I let my eyes drift shut.
Sometime later. "Sara, honey? Are you awake?"
My eyes flickered open. Mom was there, her weary face filled with concern. "Sara?"
"Hey Mom," I said weakly.
"There's a visitor here to see you, are you up for that?"
"W...who?" I cleared my throat. Stupid flim.
Mom glanced to her left, out the door to the hospital room. The sound of footsteps, and… Oh my god.
Ley Line stepped into the hospital room. His green-grey yukata was short, cutting off at the thighs for easier movement. The speckled brown sash around his waist was adorned with various colored objects. It was a utility belt, but everything was colored in a dark, foresty hues. His pants were the only part that really changed, and led everyone to suspect that he'd kept his outfit as simple as possible in order to keep whatever pants on he'd been wearing at the time.
Of course, those were removed in his genderbender fic (my greatest shame as an author, not coming up with the idea first), and his mask was made far more coy in the fanart. Instead of the stolid, stern, earthen and bark face, it featured vines and coquettish eyes.
"H…hi," I stammered, feeling my face turn red. There was a beep from the heart machine, and I yanked the electrodes out of it, trying not to die of embarrassment. I'd had some stitches, not a triple bypass.
"Ms. Pratt?" Ley Line said, stepping forward and offering a gloved hand.
"Y-yep, that's me," I said like an idiot, shaking his hand. Warm.
"We were worried sick when we heard our biggest fan got hurt," he said, a tinge of… something… in his voice. "I was on a patrol and I thought I'd drop by."
"Oh I mean I don't know about biggest fan," I stammered (I totally was). "But really, you shouldn't have, not for little ol' me…"
"It's the least I could do," the superhero replied, smiling a PR-approved smile.
"You don't have to worry, sir," I cut in. "I get it. Crisis points and all that."
"Crisis points?" His voice had a touch of suspicion.
"Oh, I mean. Well, last time I was in here, a PRT man stopped in, and said it was a thing they did to check in, I guess? I get that it's part of the job, I mean."
"Well, that's not the only reason I'm here," the hero said, a hint of coyness in his voice. He glanced at Mom. "While you were asleep, your mother and I spoke some."
Oh god. I felt the blood drain from my face. "Oh?" Oh god she didn't mention the fic please tell me she didn't mention the fic. What if he read it oh fuck fuck fuck this is baaaaad.
"We'd like to offer you a job at the PRT."
"Well, 'paid internship', technically. You'd be helping around the office, after school and during the summers, if you were interested—"
"What?" I made a squeeing noise. "This can't be real? Are you serious! Aaaaaaaaaa!"
"I take that as a yes?" Ley Line asked. I could sense some relief in his tone.
"Yes!" I would've jumped out of bed and given him a hug, but I had stitches holding my stomach closed and about eight machines attached to me. And it woulda been kinda weird. "Thank you thank you thank you!"
He smiled I made a superhero smile oh my god and took a step backwards. "We'll talk more soon, okay Sara? For now, you should get some rest, before your nurse yells at me."
"Pfft, like she'd dare yell at a superhero," I grinned. "Thank you though."
"You said that already," Mom butted in, stepping over to follow Ley Line. "I'll be back in a second, okay?"
"Okay Mom." I leaned my head back onto the foam hospital pillow, still grinning. Mom and Ley Line stepped outside as I pondered the amazingness that had just happened. I'd be working at the PRT? As a job? That was… was… wow. I couldn't help but wonder if they'd get mad at me for writing fanfiction. Or were they sponsoring fanfiction?
I was so embroiled in my fifteen-year-old level knowledge of copyright law, that I almost missed the quiet conversation just outside the room.
"...said she had a black line earlier." Mom's voice, quiet.
"Yes. Not a good color," Ley Line replied.
"Is it still…"
"No. It's… orange, now."
"Is that better? It doesn't sound better." Oh, the voice of concerned mothers everywhere.
"It's… a mix. Good and bad. Good for her, certainly."
"And bad for…"
There was a long, uncomfortable pause before Ley Line replied. "Me. Very bad for me."
"Retinal scan failed."
Shit! Fuck! Stupid Tinkertech piece of junk!
I jammed my eye into the elevator wall once again, trying not to drop the tray of coffee cups I held in both hands. The retinal scanner shined a laser once again into my eye.
"Retinal scan failed. One attempt remains before lockout."
"Aaaaaaaaa why is this happening!" I shouted to myself, taking a deep breath and trying my other eye.
Slowly, the laser bounced its way over my eyeball. I could feel my butthole pucker up at the thought of the containment foam exploding out and filling the elevator. My first day, and I'd ended up spending half of it with my face smashed against the elevator control panel.
It had taken two months for the Wards team to stop calling me "Stranger 12". I was not about to relive that.
"Retinal scan passed."
"Thank you!" I shouted at the stupid robot, stepping back as the elevator lurched into motion. The lobby got the fancy smooth elevator, that you didn't even feel as it whisked you up and down at the speed of light. This elevator? Predated the building being PRT. I was fairly certain it predated capes. I was surprised it didn't come with a man in a top hat and vest to operate the controls.
Eventually, the service elevator shuddered to a halt, the door squeaking open. I stepped out, into the dimly-lit hallways of Sublevel 1. The PRT barracks and armory. The sour smell of body odor and the plastic scent of containment foam mixed with the bitter aroma of the coffee.
"Sara, there you are!" It was the friendly voice of Sergeant Cooper, squad leader for today's patrol.
"Hi!" I said, handing her her coffee and pretending not to notice her pull a flask out from under her body armor. Something was… wrong, though.
"Thanks!" she replied, returning her flask—full of creamer, definitely—to its hidey-hole behind the kevlar and chain mesh. Then I noticed what was wrong.
She was smiling.
The last time I'd seen Sergeant Cooper happy, it was because she got to shout for ten minutes at her squad because someone had left out a canister of confoam counter-agent. After that tirade, I didn't for a heartbeat doubt the rumors of her being an ex-Marine drill instructor.
"What'd I do?" I asked before my brain sent the shut the fuck up signal to my mouth. I couldn't help but notice the normally-rather-rowdy squad she commanded was being kinda quiet today.
"Coffee on the table," she pointed. I rushed to set it over, worried. A couple of the more addicted PRT officers flocked over like armored pigeons to a scattering of caffeinated breadcrumbs. I turned back around slowly.
She was setting out a spare set of PRT armor. "Remember that time you asked if you could go on a patrol?"
"I talked with Command, and they said you could tag along, just as a one-time thing."
"I… you're kidding, right?" I stammered out. What the shit is she being serious right now?
"Serious as a Shit Shaker," she quipped. "Come on, I need to make sure this fits."
"I… I… wow oh em gee are you serious?"
"Come on, we don't have all fucking day, kid." And there she was back to being the regularly scheduled Sergeant Cooper.
One of the troops slapped my shoulder hard enough to make me wince. Officer Juarez. He was nice. Once he'd let slip that he'd read Bonds of Love. Why a 35-year-old PRT officer wanted to read superhero yaoi was beyond me. "Congratulations Sara, after all the shit you put us through this summer, it's time for us to get even. Three layers of dark-colored armor in a Portland July ought to do it."
It took about ten minutes to get the armor on, with Sergeant Cooper (really, I was convinced her first name was Sergeant. I'd never heard anything else) helping get the buckles and straps tightened, and the helmet securely attached. They'd even made one of the embroidered nametags for me. If it weren't for the fact that I couldn't carry any weapons, and that I was five-foot-three, someone might even have believed that I was actually one Officer Pratt, Rose City PRT.
God, that was catchy though, wasn't it? Officer Pratt.
No, Director Pratt. Nobody had ever said ambition was a bad trait to have, right?
Still, surrounded by the squad of nine other PRT troops as we headed up the fancy elevator to the parking garage, I kinda felt like I belonged. It was totally normal for an officer to have their heart beating its way out of her chest, right?
"Squad Five, this is Valiant, radio check," Sergeant Cooper's voice came out of the radio. Since her voice also came out of her mouth a little more quickly, it made her very hard to understand.
"Outrider, all good."
"Zubat, loud and clear."
"Yo it's DJ Aftermath here, live on Radio PRT—" Officer Juarez's voice was cut off as Sergeant Cooper punched him. "...Aftermath, coming in clear."
"Cougar, loud and clear."
"This is Capitol, yo."
"Paladin here, you're coming in."
"Moxy Lady, hi."
Wow. That's a lot of callsigns. It was all so cool I didn't even know what to think—
Someone elbowed me.
"Saaaaara," Sergeant Cooper said in her grinning voice. "Radio check?"
Shit shit shit shit I need a callsign fuck.
"Uhhhhhhh…" What would I call myself? It was like that moment in an RPG when the game asked for your name, except I didn't have two hours to look up name meanings online. I was just here being a knockoff PRT officer. Wait…
"Knockoff here, I can hear you just fine!"
"I didn't hear that. Try again."
"Uhhh… is it working?"
"Are you holding down the button in your glove to transmit?"
Fuuuuuuuuuck. "Knockoff here, hi."
"There we go. Okay, we're going to be patrolling east of the river tonight, so mostly we're worried about the Teamsters. They shouldn't be causing any trouble, since our superpowered friends upstairs gave them a smackdown. Still, I want everyone to keep eyes out. Knockoff, you here?"
"Hi, yes hi."
"If there's so much as a pip of villain activity, you're to lock yourself in the van. You remember your Master/Stranger training?"
"Good. You know what to do if I call that out then. Ley Line will be riding along with us, and Powerplay will be up in the skies if we need her."
The elevator doors opened, and as a group we all stepped out, towards a pair of waiting black-and-purple PRT vans. Sergeant Cooper gestured for me to hop into the one that had the computerized foam turret attached to the roof.
Fuck, this is really happening isn't it?
It was surprisingly comfortable inside the van. Decent seats, good legroom. I'd only ever seen the containment vans before, the ones with the hard metal benches in the back. This was actually pretty nice. I was in the backseat, four other troops piling in with me. Officer Juarez was next to me, gloved hands resting on the joystick for the rooftop foam turret.
"Valiant here, van one ready to depart, just waiting on the cape."
"Moxy in van two," our driver radioed. "All set." She cut the mic before turning around. "Seatbelts and all that good shit on."
I'd already had mine on. Unlike three months ago, I'd stopped acting suicidal. I still wasn't sure if that was healthy or not, thinking about it that way, but in the end it'd gotten me the coolest high school job ever.
"Stop! Abort! Halt!" A new voice hopped on the radio. Ley Line, frantic. I glanced over at the turret's monitor, and from the rooftop camera I could see the superhero sprinting towards our van.
He threw open the door. I could hear his breath, heavy, like he'd ran down five flights of stairs and across the building to get here. That was where the Protectorate HQ was, so I figured it was a good guess.
"What's wrong?" Cooper's voice came over the radio. All business.
"Black… black line," he wheezed. Death.
"Shit! How many?"
"Just," a deep breath. It seemed like superheroes should've been in better shape. Especially when they were solid Thinkers who didn't have super-strength backing them up. "Just her." His finger was leveled at me.
"What," I said quietly. "Me?" I felt my heart sink into my stomach.
"Who?" Sergeant Cooper growled.
"Knockoff," Moxy replied over the radio. Her voice was worried.
"What the actual fuck. I'm coming over there."
"Black line? What do you mean?" I stammered. I knew what it meant. I just didn't want to...
"You have a black line," Ley said. "Black line. Imminent death. Something needs to change."
"Sara," Sergeant Cooper was at the van door, next to Ley Line. "Hop out real quick."
"I… okay," I said quietly, feeling a bit numb. I undid the seatbelt and hopped out, back into the PRT parking garage.
"What's it now?" Cooper asked Ley Line. The Thinker looked… not at me, but next to me, studying the empty air intently. "Well?"
"Quiet, it takes time for it to get a new reading," Ley Line snapped, pinching the bridge of his nose. I stood there, awkwardly, the fifty pounds of body armor feeling extra heavy under the entire squad's scrutiny. "It's fine now. Orange. I'll take what I can get," the hero finally spoke.
"Okay. Sara, I'm really sorry, but you're gonna stay put this time, alright? We'll take you out next patrol but I'm not risking your life." Sergeant Cooper knelt next to me, her eyes meeting me through our visors.
I simply nodded, a sick feeling in my stomach. "...okay."
"Next time, I promise."
"Yeah, sure, okay."
She gave me one final, long look, before standing up. Her voice blared in the radio, "Okay. Squad Five, Knockoff is staying home per the cape. Let's head out." She went back to her van, Ley Line took my place in ours, and within thirty seconds the two black-clad vehicles had pulled out, leaving me alone in the lot.
I left my helmet on so the security cameras wouldn't see me crying.
"Sara?" Dad said quietly. "Is everything okay? You've been quiet all weekend."
There was the crackling of the campfire. Right when I'd gotten home that night, they'd dragged me off. Weekend camping. No cell service, no laptop, no connection to the rest of the world. Just me and my thoughts for three days.
"Sara?" Dad repeated.
"Yeah," I said quietly.
"You know you can talk to your Mom and I, right?"
"You've been off, all weekend."
I didn't respond.
"Sara… is it those bullies again?" Mom butted in, looking at me with concern.
"No. It's nothing. I'm fine."
They looked at each other, then back at me.
"Can I just go to bed?" I asked, looking into the fire. "Sorry. I'm just tired."
"...Okay, get some rest hun." Mom's voice was hurt. I didn't notice.
The fire made a crackle as I stood up, sparks flying into the sky like a million dancing, dying fireflies. I walked over to the tent and ducked in, zipping it shut behind me. I didn't bother to get undressed before I slid into my sleeping bag.
Outside, there was the sound of crickets echoing through the forest, the gargle of the little creek we'd camped next to. The scent of pine was thick in the air.
Any other time, it would've been relaxing. Here, now, it just made me think back.
Black line. After months of delivering coffee and making photocopies, I'd finally had a chance, a foot in the door of my dream job. All thrown away at the last minute by a precog's premonition. Just like that. I'd jumped in front of cars, nearly drowned in the Willamette, planned my own stabbing… and I had nothing to show for it.
I was a fuckup, a disappointment. A fucking nobody loser who wrote smutty shipfics and bit off more than she could chew.
What if I hadn't gone far enough? My original plan, watered down to running through traffic. I should've stuck with the train. Tied weights to myself before I'd jumped into the river. Told the hobo to use a gun.
I was useless. Trash. A waste of energy.
I wondered if Ley Line would've seen a black line if he were here right now. I wanted him to. It was what I deserved, what I—
I was surrounded by a million fireflies.
That was the night my life changed forever.