A tall, thin man drove down the street. He didn't know where he was going. He just knew he had to keep looking.

His daughter was missing.

When the first explosions had rocked the Docks, he had checked with her school first wanting to make sure she was safe, only to discover that she had vanished at some point during the afternoon. None of her teachers had noticed until he had called looking for her.

His daughter had become increasingly withdrawn since his wife had died, but he had thought she was doing better recently. How bad had things gotten that no one thought it was unusual for his daughter to skip school? Why hadn't they called and let him know?

Danny Hebert brought the car to a stop and rested his head on top of the wheel. After the school, he had frantically driven home. When Taylor wasn't there either, he had called Alan, hoping she'd gone to Emma's house. He'd checked with the police - but the fighting was still going and they didn't have time to look for one missing girl.

Why had he been so insistent that the two of them never have cell phones?

A sharp series of pops brought him out of his reverie. It had been a few hours since the first explosions on the docks. The fighting between the capes seemed to have died down for now, but the non-powered gangsters were still having shootouts all over the city. He saw a couple of white guys with shaved heads go running past. One lobbed a bottle at a corner store and it burst into flames.

Danny knew that shop. It was a custom tailoring business run by an elderly Asian couple. He'd gone there a couple times when he'd needed to have a pair of pants hemmed or let out.

He drove past without stopping.

Danny had started his search closer to the Boardwalk and had slowly been radiating his way outwards. Now, he was moving towards some of the poorer parts of town. He couldn't think of why Taylor would want to come here, but he couldn't figure out why she'd been missing school to begin with.

Another sharp staccato sounded in the distance. He ignored it.

He shouldn't have.

A moment later, the car was swerving across the road. He tried to turn the wheel, to correct for it, but that just sent the car into a spin instead.

The car wrapped itself around a light post.

November 13th, 2010

I slowly let go of my Dad's hand. The faint, steady beat of the heart monitor was the only reassuring thing about all of this. My Dad was still alive. The doctors weren't sure if he would ever wake up, but he was alive.

It was so stupid. If he'd had a cell phone, the PRT could have called him. If he'd just stayed home and waited for news, he'd have been safe. If I hadn't ditched school, he wouldn't have had to worry to begin with.

If. If. If.

"We have the preliminary details as to what happened if you would like to hear them."

I wiped the tears from my eyes. "I don't think I need it. He was out looking for me and a stray bullet from a shootout caught his tire and made him spin out, right? I saw it. Just now."

Armsmaster went silent. It wasn't unusual for him, I was starting to learn. I waited half a minute before he finally replied, "A post cognitive Thinker ability. That is somewhat unexpected given your observed Shaker ability."

I smiled bitterly and explained, "It seems to come and go. I don't think I have complete control over when it shows me things." Earlier, I'd accidentally peeked into the affair one of the nurses was having with a doctor. Despite my best efforts, the vision hadn't ended until it had run its course. Another nurse had shown me her struggle trying to take care of her aging parents at home between working twelve hour shifts at the hospital.

There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it that I could figure out.

"That isn't unusual for Thinker powers. The fact that it is apparently clear and comprehensive means it will likely be a higher rated ability."

I wasn't sure how I felt about that. It was nice hearing that one of my new abilities was seen as useful, but it didn't feel that way to me. What use was there in seeing for myself just how badly I had fucked up? What use was there in randomly invading the privacy of people around me?

I scrubbed a hand across my face. "So what happens to me now?"

"Given that your Father is unable to care for you, you will become a ward of the State. Your parahuman status means that custody will be remanded to the PRT. In practice, this means that you will be placed with a PRT approved foster family."

"And I'll be sent to join the Wards?"

"Only if you wish to. Outside of special cases where a minor has been observed to be irresponsible with the use of their parahuman ability, involvement in the Wards program is strictly voluntary."

I frowned and looked back to my Dad. He looked almost… peaceful lying there. There was none of the worry that had creased his brow; none of the tired, vacant expression that had haunted him since Mom had died. For a moment, an uncharitable part of me wondered how much different it would actually be without him around. I quickly squashed that thought, disgusted with myself.

Even if he hadn't been the best Dad… I'd still loved him. The gangs had taken him from me. The desperation that drove the Merchants, the bigotry of the Empire, the wanton cruelty of Lung and the ABB. All of it was choking this city. All of it led to good people, people like my Dad, getting hurt every day.

My hands tightened into fists.

November 16th, 2010

I gazed idly out the window as the bus trundled down the road. I'd been on buses like this one for most of my life. Most of the seating had holes torn in the cushions. The siding had kid's names, gang signs, and various obscenities drawn on in permanent marker. Every time the bus slowed down, it was with a concerning rattling that left the whole bus vibrating. It, like most of Brockton Bay, had seen better days.

In the end, I'd been placed with a group home. There were another seven kids in the place, and the couple who lived there looked tired and harried every time I saw them. I was told that it was just a temporary arrangement until a more permanent foster home could be arranged.

I did my best to keep to myself. I had recognized a couple of the girls from Winslow. They weren't part of Emma's immediate circle, but I had no doubts my perennial bullies would rope them into some sort of prank if they caught wind of things. The faster I was out of there, the better.

The bus came to a stop and I gathered my bags before getting off.

There were the two major gangs that controlled most of Brockton Bay. On one side, the Empire 88, a group of white supremacist Neo-Nazis. On the other, the Azn Bad Boys, a group of disparate Asian communities that had been united under Lung's banner. There was a third, the Archer's Bridge Merchants, but everyone knew that they were losers and druggies. That wasn't to say they weren't dangerous, just that they weren't a major player compared to the other two gangs.

In a lot of ways, Winslow High School was emblematic of the city.

People shuffled past me towards the main building, barely even glancing at the fresh '88' that was painted in a stylized swastika just off to the side of the entrance. No one I'd seen at Winslow was quite so obvious as to outright shave their heads, but it wasn't hard to hear racist epithets thrown around in the hallways.

Asian kids wearing red and green dotted the population. ABB colors. I'd bet money that some of them had brought knives. The school had security cameras and metal detectors, but they'd been broken within a month after they'd been installed and they were never replaced. There were too many other things that needed fixing and not enough money to do it.

A group of boys were gathered around a locker. I didn't see any drugs, but all of them had that cadence to their voices that I mentally associated with people being high.

It was all business as usual at Winslow.

I grimaced as I approached my locker and saw a group of girls surrounding it. Emma was starting early today.

"Hey, there she is. We were starting to wonder if you would show after you ditched all last week."

I glanced at the speaker before ignoring her to open my locker. Everything was there, which was a relief. It wouldn't be the first time they'd managed to break in and steal things from it.

"Come on, Taylor, don't be that way. We were worried. After how upset you were on Wednesday, we thought maybe you'd run off to cut yourself again."

I'd never once cut myself, but the truth didn't matter much to these girls. I shut my locker. Before I could turn, however, a hand grabbed my shoulder and shoved me up against the metal.

"Hey, Loser. Emma was talking to you. Be polite and answer." The hand spun me around to face the trio that had surrounded me, before slamming me back again to bruise my back the same way it had my front.

I slowly let my gaze drift between the three. Madison Clements. Sophia Hess. Emma Barnes. Ever since I'd started high school a year ago, the three of them had done their best to make my life a living hell.

Madison was a cutesy brunette, who mostly focused on pranks and spreading rumors. She was the one I could count on to dump pencil shavings in my bag or shoot spitballs at the back of my head. She was something of a sore point for me too - Madison had been a late transfer into the school last year and hadn't started until the end of September. I'd thought she was my chance to make a new friend, someone who wasn't wrapped around Emma's finger. We'd hung out for all of about two weeks before she'd turned on me and started helping Emma out.

Sophia was simpler. She was a tall black girl, the school's track star. She was also the thug of the group, the one most likely to resort to physical violence. She was fast, strong, and a lot better in a fight than her lean frame would suggest. I'd seen her take down a couple of Empire wannabes once or twice, and she'd never had any compunctions about letting me know what would happen to me if I tried to get physical back. Sophia had been the one to slam me against the locker just now.

The worst of them however, was Emma. She was curvy redhead, beautiful enough to work as an amateur model. Emma didn't specialize in violence like Sophia or petty pranks like Madison. No, Emma always knew what to say to hurt me the most. She knew me the best of the three of them, knew exactly what would cut me the deepest. It would be hard for her not to. Emma had been my best friend growing up, after all.

I suppose that's why the thing with Madison hadn't hurt as much as it might have otherwise. Emma had done it first and done it worse. We had been inseparable; until one day, she decided we weren't. I still didn't know what had caused it. I couldn't figure out what I might have done to make her decide I was her enemy.

"Go easy on her, Sophia." Emma's voice snapped me out of my thoughts. "Taylor can't help if she's a bit on the slow side."

Sophia rolled her eyes, but stepped back and crossed her arms. Madison grinned however, a jackal seeing an opportunity. "Yeah. You know, I heard she has a D in English right now."

Emma let out a fake little gasp. "A D? What would your Mother think, Taylor?"

I bit down on my tongue. The sharp and sudden pain was the only thing I could use to keep myself from doing something I would regret in that moment. My Mom had been an English professor at the local university before she died. She had always valued my education.

I knew that the Trio were responsible for my tanked grades - they regularly trashed or stole my homework and had somehow gotten me accused of cheating on tests more than a few times. It didn't stop me from feeling the sudden flush of shame at having it brought up, like somehow I'd failed her.

"Hmm, she's still not answering." Madison tilted her head before asking, "Do you think maybe she's high?"

Sophia snorted. "I guess that's where she disappeared to last week. Decided to party it up with the Merchants, Hebert?"

"Maybe she finally got laid?"

"Please, Madison, not even a Merchant would-"

My patience ran out.

"Are you finished?"

A victorious smile flashed across Emma's face. As if, somehow, by getting me to speak, she'd won this little encounter. "I'm not sure what you mean, Taylor. We're just friends chatting, aren't we?"

"I have class to get to."

"Oh, right, the two of you have to go all the way to the third floor for Math don't you?"

"Yeah. Not sure why she bothers though," Madison chimed in, "She's too stupid to pass the class anyways."

"Probably gets it from her Dad. Did you know that her Dad's been trying for years to get that stupid old ferry up and running? I guess being useless just runs in the family. It's no surprise she'd turn out the way she did with a Dad as pathetic as-"

I punched Emma in the nose.

It wasn't any sort of conscious decision. My body moved before my mind caught up. I had a split second to register the look of surprise that flashed across her face before she went sprawling on the ground. I'd punched Emma. I'd always stayed away from physical violence, told myself that I would do things the "right" way, that I wouldn't stoop to the Trio's level. And yet… I couldn't find it in me to be disappointed with myself right now.

A fist drove into my stomach, knocking any thoughts of my head. Another followed to my jaw. My head snapped back and hit my locker before rushing to meet the ground. I had to get up. I had to… A foot caught my ribs and I was sent rolling over, my breath knocked out of me.

"Jesus. How hard did you hit her, Sophia?"

"Just shut up for once, Madison. You alright, Ems?"

"No. I f'ink she broke my nose."

"Yeah probably," Sophia replied dryly. "Guess you'll be cancelling your modeling gigs until it heals."

"Shut up. It'sh not funny. Fuck. Gonna haf to explain this to my Dad."

"Like your Dad won't believe whatever you tell him," Sophia scoffed. "Come on, let's get you to the nurse."

"Need to show the Prinshipal."

"Fuck that. I'm not sitting around to listen to Blackwell's whining again. You can suck it up like a big girl."

Their voices slowly drifted away. I slowly pulled my hands under me, forcing myself to at least get to my knees. Why had I been so stupid? I'd known what would happen if I hit her. Even if I had powers now, it wasn't as if they changed anything. I was still weak. Still useless.

At least it sounded like I wasn't going to get suspended over it. I'm sure Emma would find some way of taking revenge on me though. There was no way she'd let this go. The day Emma Barnes stopped being a petty bitch would be the day the Bay froze over.

I wiped the tears from my eyes and slowly forced myself to my feet.

( . . . . . )

Surprisingly, I was ignored by the Trio for the rest of the day. Even in the classes I shared with Emma, she just glared at me and didn't try anything. A bit less surprising was the fact that my teachers also ignored me, despite the rather obvious bruise forming along my jaw.

That had always been the way of things. Whenever I'd complained in the past, it'd just gotten brushed off. I'm pretty sure Emma had managed to convince some of them that all my accusations against her were just me seeking attention somehow.

It left a bitter taste in my mouth. Somehow, with everything that had happened - With my Dad, with Lung, with my new powers - it felt like things should have changed somehow. That I should have changed. Yet, here I was, in the same rut I'd been in before all of that happened. Stuck in the same shitty school, getting bullied by the same shitty people, with the same shitty gangs destroying the lives of good people in the Bay.

I sat down on the edge of the wharf and stared out across the water. I came out this way sometimes, when I didn't want to go back home. When I just wanted to sit and think. It's where I'd been headed last week when the city had turned into a warzone. From here I could stare at the water.

Near the entrance to the harbor was the Boat Graveyard, which had blocked shipping into the city for the last decade. A heap of rusted metal and useless hulks. To the south was the ferry station that had once carried people from one side of the city to the other. It had always been Dad's dream to get it running again. It had reminded him of better days, and maybe he thought that it would be enough to bring those days back if he could fix it.

I didn't agree. Fixing the ferry wouldn't do much. The city had been dying a slow death for a long time.

I pushed myself to my feet and began walking back south.

Fixing the ferry might not do much, but that didn't mean that the city was beyond saving. Archimedes had once said that given a long enough lever and a fulcrum upon which to place it, he could move the world. It was all a matter of applied force. Small things that could build into larger things.

I turned my gaze to the charred husks of buildings that had stood tall only a week before. The gangs thought themselves secure in their power. They thought they could do anything, hurt anyone.

I would tear them all down.

November 17th, 2010

"Are you alright? You looked like you spaced out there for a minute."

"Yeah, I'm fine." I forced a rueful smile onto my face for Miss Militia's benefit, but I'm pretty sure it just looked awkward. I'd been surprised to find myself a little disappointed when she'd been the one to meet me. I suppose a part of me had expected it to be Armsmaster again. "My power still catches me off guard sometimes."

My reassurance didn't seem to abate the olive-skinned woman's concern. At least, I thought it was concern. The American flag-themed bandana that was wrapped around her mouth made it difficult to tell sometimes. I raised a hand to touch the plain domino mask that covered my own face, suddenly self-conscious.

"You don't need to go through with this right away, you know. You just got out of the hospital. You can take some time to think things through and get settled."

I shook my head. "I want to do this." The sooner I got involved with the Wards, the sooner I could be out on the streets taking the gangs down a piece at a time. I stepped past her and opened the door.

The conference room inside was… plain, for lack of a better word. There was a long wooden table, drab carpeting, a screen for a projector. It was like every stereotypically boring business. The man sitting at the table wasn't much different from that impression - a black suit with a white shirt and red tie. Tall and thin, with close cropped hair that was streaked with premature gray. He stood up as I entered and offered his hand. "Miss Hebert? I'm Deputy Director Thomas Calvert."

His smile didn't suit him, I idly mused. His lips were too wide, the jaw a bit too narrow. It put me in mind of a snake.

"I'm a bit surprised," I said, testing the waters as I took his hand, "I wouldn't think someone already set on joining the Wards would warrant the attention of the Deputy Director."

"We take the induction of every Ward as a significant matter, Miss Hebert. If it weren't for the ongoing hostilities through the Docks taking her attention, Director Piggot would be here to speak with you herself."

"The gang war is still going?" I glanced back at Miss Militia. Did she really have time to be babysitting me if that was the case?

Calvert must have guessed at what I was thinking. "It has died down to isolated incidents at this point. Miss Militia will be called out if there are any major confrontations, but for now, it is largely the PRT and the BBPD handling things."

I… guess that made sense. Especially if they wanted to keep the Heroes in reserve in case any enemy capes showed up, instead of letting them be drawn halfway across the city by a couple of unpowered goons. It still left a sinking pit in my stomach to find out that people were dying in the city and the Heroes weren't being sent out to help.

"In any case," Calvert started, gesturing to a chair for me to sit down, "This is the standard contract for each Ward. Please take your time to look through it. I'm here to answer any questions that you might have."

I nodded and sat down, pulling the contract in front of me to begin leafing through it. My father had worked in the Union and he hadn't raised me to be an idiot. I planned on reading through the entire contract line by line.

( . . . . . )

In the end, I'd had a lot of questions. The Deputy Director had done an admirable job of answering them all, but it'd still left me with worry gnawing at my stomach. PR Events, mandated therapy sessions, a maximum number hours that Wards were allowed to work in a week.

Maybe all of that would have been a good thing for a normal teenager. I didn't want a clubhouse though. I didn't want somewhere I could go and be safe. I wanted to hurt the gangs. To put criminals behind bars where they belonged.

I'd signed the contract anyway.

I couldn't do this on my own. Even if the PRT was going to try and treat me with kid gloves, I still needed their help. My Thinker power seemed to come and go randomly, and I hadn't managed to recreate the shield I'd supposedly made while unconscious. If I was going to make a difference, then I needed to use every resource the PRT and the Protectorate would give me.

Including the other Wards.

The elevator came to a stop and we stepped off. There was only a small waiting room between the elevator and a steel door, the word 'WARDS' engraved vertically alongside it. Miss Militia swiped a card through the key reader next to the door and then entered a secondary code on a number pad. A brief alarm sounded and thirty seconds later, the small light above the door flashed green.

"Depending on the access level of the person visiting, an alarm will sound to let the Wards know to put their masks on," Miss Militia explained unprompted. "Normally, this wouldn't apply to me, but I thought you might appreciate the full experience of meeting everyone."

I shrugged and tugged at my hood. It and the domino mask were all I had to obscure my own identity and I wanted to meet the other Wards on at least somewhat even terms.

The room itself was nice enough. A large space with a circular couch and a coffee table in the center. A large TV with an attached game system. A fully stocked kitchen. Along the back ran a stairway up to a raised balcony overlooking the area, off which I could see several doors down a hallway that were decorated with stickers or posters of some kind.

In short, it was a place for kids to hang out. Dissatisfied, I turned my attention to the Wards themselves.

A boy wearing a red costume stood at the front, the shield emblem on his chest marking him as Aegis, the current Wards leader.

Off to the side were another two. One was dressed in a sort of power armor that would have looked much like a medieval knight's if not for the recessed blue light shining out from between the gaps. That would be Gallant, a Tinker according to the Internet.

The other was leaning against the back of the couch, not quite sitting, but certainly not standing straight either. His skintight white costume was inscribed with a number of spinning clocks. Clockblocker then.

At the top of the stairs, a short blonde girl in a costume with a skirt, all covered in swooping lines that alternated between white and forest green. She smiled as she noticed me looking at her, and suddenly she was standing in front of me instead, the space between us having been reduced to nothing. Vista.

She immediately stuck her hand out. "Hey there. You're the new Ward, right?"

"Um. Yeah. That's me. I guess." I awkwardly shook her hand and glanced at the others. "Hi?"

Aegis was the first to pull his mask off, exposing his long hair and a warm smile. "Welcome to the team. I'm Carlos."

"Dean," Gallant added. "I'm afraid you'll have to wait on my actual unmasking. This armor can be a little hard to get in and out of."

"And I'm Clockblocker!" Clockblocker chimed in shortly before letting out a grunt and putting a hand to his side. Vista drew back her elbow from halfway across the room.

"Ignore him, he's a doofus." She pulled her helmet off and smiled brightly up at me. "I'm Missy. Kid Win and Shadow Stalker are still out on patrol, but they should be back before too much longer."

I hesitated. Was I really okay with this? They were looking at me like I was normal now, but would that stay the same once I took the mask off? Or would I start getting comments about my bug-like eyes or what my wide mouth might be useful for? Memories of school - of Emma, of Sophia, of Madison - flashed through my head.

I forced them away. Even if things turned out just as bad as Winslow, it didn't matter. I hadn't come here with the goal of making friends. I would use the Wards. I raised clammy hands to my hood and pulled it down, the cheap domino mask following a moment later. I forced a smile onto my face.

"Taylor. It's… good to meet all of you. I don't have a cape name to share yet."

"Hey, don't worry," said Aegis. "You'll have a meeting with PR to help with all of that."

Gallant laughed, "Just don't pull a Clockblocker and switch names on them at the last minute."

"Hey, it's not my fault that none of our PR team share my refined taste."

"You're about as refined as bleu cheese."

"Is that your offer to paint me like one of your French girls, Dean?"

Clockblocker began making kissing noises from behind his mask. Gallant just sighed in response and shoved the boy's shoulder, sending him toppling backwards to sprawl on the couch. He lifted himself up a moment later, minus the mask he'd been wearing. "Anyways, I'm Dennis. Good to have you, Taylor."

I looked around. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Even when they'd been making fun of Clockblocker, there hadn't been anything mean-spirited about it.

It felt unreal.

It wasn't fake. I knew that it was genuine. It was just that I felt like I felt I'd stepped into some sort of Science Fiction movie, where everyone around me had been replaced with pod people. Is this what kids my age were normally like? Did normal kids just not have any of the venom, the hurtful words, the petty pranks that had been poured on me in Winslow?

What did that say about me that I had expected them to be different?

The elevator dinged and a moment later the door buzzed as someone swiped a key to unlock it.

"-Sick and tired of slowing down for your retarded ass, Kid."

"Don't blame me just because you lost Grue in his smoke, Stalker."

"Maybe if you weren't such a shit Tinker-"

Miss Militia cleared her throat, interrupting the two that had come in.

One was dressed in vivid reds and golds. His mask was a visor that left his tousled brown hair exposed. The two high tech looking pistols at his hips and the hoverboard tucked under his arm marked him as Kid Win.

The other was dressed in a skintight black bodysuit, with a long cloak wrapped around her. The crossbow strapped to her back marked her as Shadow Stalker. She'd already taken off her mask, but even if she hadn't, I would have recognized her from her voice alone.

I met eyes with Sophia Hess.