AN1: Worm is awesome, and you should definitely start reading it before reading this. I say start reading because it's roughly 1.5 million words... you shouldn't need to be all caught up to enjoy this story.
AN2: I appreciate all constructive criticism, but for this chapter (and the fic as a whole) I'd particularly like to hear if the school stuff rings true. I'm more comfortable writing superhuman conflict stuff than high school drama.
This story is a little bit AU. Changes from canon:
- Taylor triggered one month earlier than in canon; the story begins one month before canon started.
- As mentioned in the summary, Taylor is a smidge more proactive.
- Shadow Stalker is not yet a Ward. This may not actually be AU, but I thought I should note it.
I have tried in my way to be free.
Walking around Brockton Bay at night dressed all in black and staying out of sight, I'd seen a lot of things. Some of them I would rather forget, but some were pretty cool. The first time I saw a cape cut loose was definitely in the latter category.
I had read online that Shadow Stalker had the ability to convert her body into a "shadow state" that rendered her untouchable and unable to touch anything. The bolts from her crossbow while she was intangible would revert back to normal shortly after they were fired. It sounded like a pretty neat set of abilities, but I didn't realize how completely unfair it was until I saw a teenage girl beating the stuffing out of four grown men.
I guess everybody knows that real fights aren't like the choreographed shows you see in the movies. Still, on some level I expected to see something similar, if less graceful; Some kind of ebb and flow of attacks, counter-attacks, evasion, that kind of thing. There was none of that when Shadow Stalker fought.
It was actually very simple: whenever they tried to hit her she was in her shadow state, and they may as well have been trying to punch away fog. When she hit them, she was quite solid. When one of the men gave up trying to hit her and just tried to cover himself up, she started mixing it up a little. A punch that would have been blocked phased right through the man's face, lending momentum to a spin kick that knocked the breath out of him... and dropped him on the street once her leg shifted to intangibility and was no longer holding him up.
I felt a little sympathy for her targets. Just a little though, and it quickly went away. All four men were members of Empire Eighty-Eight, the white supremacist entry in Brockton Bay's assortment of street gangs, and before Shadow Stalker interrupted their night they had been hanging around on a street corner boasting to each other about their neo-Nazi bona fides.
She was taking her time with the last gang member left standing. He had also given up on trying to attack her, but rather than utilize her power to end the fight quickly she seemed content to slowly pick him apart. It looked like she was enjoying herself. In fact, it looked like she was so focused on what she was doing that she didn't notice when one of the other three stood up and moved to attack her from behind. The costume she was wearing looked like it offered some protection, but if she didn't know she was under attack she was as vulnerable as any non-cape vigilante.
Mister Sneaky was about to launch his ambush when his plans were rudely interrupted by a swarm of bugs. Mosquitos, houseflies, bees, some wasps-they didn't sting him, but they surrounded his head to the point that he couldn't see a thing. His cries of alarm alerted Shadow Stalker to his presence.
She finished off the fight she was focused on with some kind of complicated joint lock maneuver, then turned and, after eyeballing the distance for a second, took the last man standing back out of the fight with a roundhouse kick. I have to admit I was a little jealous. I was happy with the power that I had-controlling bugs comes in handy more often than you might think-but it didn't really lend itself to action girl heroics.
Shadow Stalker secured the downed men with some zip ties, then stalked out of the alley without a backwards glance. I had a whole speech planned for this situation, but something about the way she took everything in stride rubbed me the wrong way. Did she really think the bugs of Brockton Bay had just decided to help her out? I wound up calling out as she walked past the building I was leaning up against.
She stopped and turned to look at me, giving me my first close up view of her costume. She was apparently under the firm impression that black was the new black. Black pants, a black shirt, accented by pieces of black armor plating, all covered by a black robe and capped off with a flat black mask. None of her skin was exposed, and the overall effect made it difficult to read her body language, let alone her facial expression.
Of course, my costume wasn't particularly revealing either. I could picture in my mind what she was seeing. A mottled black and gray body suit, covered in strategic places with armor harvested from the hardier varieties of insects. A matching face mask with mandible-like armor placed to protect my jaw, a pair of yellow lenses covering my eyes. And, of course, the bugs.
I didn't have any illusions regarding my ability to take Shadow Stalker in a fight, so I was doing my best to make sure I could get away if the situation called for it. I had a decent sized swarm of insects crawling over my costume and flying around me, obscuring the shape of my body. If this turned hostile I would direct the bugs to block her vision and hoof it out of the area. In her shadow state the bugs wouldn't be able to harm her, but she still had to see just like anybody else.
"I had the situation under control," she finally responded. She sounded irritated, like my help was a hassle. I counted to three before I responded. All of my research suggested that Shadow Stalker was the rogue who would be most amenable to my plan, and I didn't need to get derailed into some kind of pissing contest.
"Cleaning up the streets," I said. It wasn't exactly how I'd written it down, but it was surprisingly hard to maintain my train of thought under that faceless glare. "That's why you do this, right, to get criminals off the streets, make things safe for the average citizen and all that?"
She just stared at me for another moment before turning and walking away. I bit back my instinctive need to call out right away; this wasn't going to work if it seemed like I was begging for her help. I let her take a good few steps away before I said anything.
"Kaiser will have their replacements out on the street by tomorrow afternoon."
Some villains went bad because of their powers, or because of the stress associated with their trigger event. Others were just evil bastards to begin with. There was no doubt where Kaiser stood. He had the distinction-if you could call it that-of being one of the top three contenders for the title of the most powerful white supremacist parahumans in the country. The other two worked for his gang. Hollywood attracted aspiring actors; Brockton Bay enjoyed a steady stream of aspiring skinheads.
"You think I don't know that!" Shadow Stalker snarled, spinning around to give me what I could only assume was an angry glare. "At least it won't be these particular assholes, and it might even fuck up Kaiser's day a little."
I was a little taken aback by her angry reaction. Sometimes people thought I was being sarcastic when I offered a sincere thank you; I was a little worried that I came across as being condescending when I was trying to be sympathetic. I mentally shook myself: there'd be time to work on my interpersonal skills later.
"How would you like to fuck up his day a lot?" I asked. She didn't answer, but she didn't move to leave, which I took as encouragement to continue. "Empire Eighty-Eight runs on two things: the parahuman power at the top, and money. Taking on their parahumans is a pretty tall order... but the money isn't so well protected."
"What are you saying?" Shadow Stalker asked, for the first time sounding a little curious instead of hostile.
"I know where Kaiser keeps his cash. His dealers are pretty careful about being followed, but nobody really notices an extra fly or two," I said, giving an unnecessary wave of my hand as I directed a couple of flies to do loop-de-loops. I didn't feel the need to mention the week of painstaking work re-tracing the path of the money every time it left the range of my communication with my bugs. "If somebody were to relieve him of that money, Empire Eighty-Eight might have a little trouble making payroll."
"You're talking about stealing," she replied, crossing her arms over her chest.
"The police call it asset forfeiture."
"The police get a warrant."
"I didn't figure you for the type to be a stickler about paperwork," I said. I hadn't expected to meet this much resistance, but I was starting to get a sense of how to get a reaction out of her. I shrugged, doing my best to keep any disappointment out of my posture. "If you're not up for it, I can handle the job myself."
I turned and walked away, keeping count in my head. One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three...
"I didn't say I was out," she said, the words bringing a smile to my face. I turned around, thankful for the mask that hid my expression. "What's your plan?"
"I'll show you," I said, turning back and resuming my walk. When I reached the mouth of the alley I dispersed most of my swarm around the street and nearby buildings, allowing them to travel parallel to me without attracting quite so much attention. I kept a cadre of wasps perched on my costume in case I needed them for personal defense.
"I don't know you. You have the creepiest fucking power I've seen in person, and you think I'll just follow you around town?" Despite her hostile tone, Shadow Stalker matched my pace, staying a few strides behind me. She was tangible, for now, so the mosquito I had settled on her cloak gave me a good sense of where she was.
"It'll be a lot easier to explain when you can see the situation for yourself. Unless you have some kind of secret weakness to bugs," I said, not bothering to turn around, "you don't really have much to worry about."
She didn't reply but she didn't leave. I figured was about as much I was going to get when it came to Shadow Stalker conceding a point.
In some cities, two teenage girls walking around town in superhero costumes might be heading out to go clubbing, to see and be seen. In Brockton Bay, deep in the heart of Empire 88 territory, the two of us were doing a good job of staying unseen. Between the broken streetlights and the grey on black design of our outfits, we were little more than shadows passing in the night.
Not that there were many eyes around not to see us anyway. Tourists didn't frequent this area even during the daytime, and by midnight everybody who wasn't a member (or a customer) of Empire 88 was safely in bed. Shadow Stalker had cleared out a few blocks' worth of gang members, and criminals had a way of vacating the immediate area when capes started throwing their weight around.
Still, I made sure to double check with my swarm that nobody was watching us before I turned off into the alley way that was my destination. Shadow Stalker followed without comment, apparently satisfied that I wasn't leading her to such an isolated spot for nefarious purposes-or that she could handle herself if I were. We reached a fire escape that I had prepared by leaving the ladder extended to ground level, and I indicated that she should head up.
She pushed off the ground and transitioned into her shadow state, easily floating up to the first story landing before transitioning to solidity and repeating the process to bound up the stairs. I stifled a sigh as I took hold of the ladder and climbed up one rung at a time like a normal person. Shadow Stalker was waiting when I finished climbing the four stories to the roof. Her full face mask prevented me from seeing a smirk on her face, but I was pretty sure it was there.
I ignored her invitation to a game of parahuman one-upmanship and retrieved the duffel bag that I had stashed near the air conditioning unit in the middle of the roof.
"Take a look across the street," I said softly as I returned to where she was waiting. "Look for the house with two skinheads hanging out on the porch."
You could tell that she'd been doing this for a while. She dropped into a crawl well back from the edge of the roof, and covered the last few feet on her belly. She probably could have gotten away with turning cartwheels on the roof-it was a dark night, she was in dark clothing, and her opposition was a couple of bored gang members who were either bored out of their minds or high-but I was glad to be working with somebody who had good habits.
She walked back and gave me a nod. Her scouting trip had given me time to fish a notebook out of the bag and turn to the page that I wanted. I clicked on my penlight and held the notebook so she could read it.
"The house is two stories plus an attic. There are three guards inside here, here, and here," I said, relaying the information my bugs were giving me. "The two on the porch have shotguns, the men inside have pistols. No parahumans-Empire 88's capes think guard duty is beneath them. This is plan B."
I held out my hand and directed five black widow spiders to gather on my palm. Once I knew she had seen them, I had some of my flying insects come down to give them a ride across the street.
"No killing," Shadow Stalker kept her voice down, but it was clear that there was no room for debate.
"Relax," I said, part of my mind focused on directing the progress of my infiltration squad. "One bite is almost never fatal. But it does make for a heck of a distraction, and I'd rather have a distraction ready but not need it than the other way around."
"Fine, then. You're the bug girl," Shadow Stalker said, shrugging. "What's plan A, then?"
"You take out the guys inside while I handle the two on the porch," I replied. "You can just poof through the walls, right?"
"The walls, no. The windows, yes," she said, leaning over to take another look at my sketch of the floor plan. "It should be doable. Give me a few minutes to work my way around behind the target."
She didn't wait for a response before turning and leaping away. She transitioned into her shadow state once she was in the air, easily covering a good thirty feet before landing on the building next door. I added that little trick to the mental file I was building on my temporary partner along with her earlier vertical leap and her inability to walk through walls. The more accurate my idea of her abilities became, the more confidence I could have in my future plans.
I had a hard time keeping track of her movements with my swarm. When she went intangible the bugs sensed her as nothing more than a gentle breeze, essentially indistinguishable from any other random air current. She went tangible briefly as she touched down and prepared to jump to the next building; the bugs nearby were able to detect the displaced air, but there weren't enough bugs positioned around her next landing point to keep track of her moves after that. I gave up on trying to follow her entire path and set up some bugs on the inside of the buildings' windows to act as a sort of tripwire. I wouldn't have much warning before the fighting started.
I wasn't particularly concerned about our lack of coordination. While the country was still debating whether parahumans were the next stage in human evolution, dangerous sub-human mutants, or simply normal people with special powers, one thing wasn't up for debate: pretty much every documented parahuman out there had nothing to fear from a non-parahuman in a straight up fight.
I hadn't been lying before when I had told Shadow Stalker I was ready to take care of this job myself. Just gathering bugs as I walked through the neighborhood had put more than enough bugs at my disposal to take out five normal humans without even needing to put myself in harm's way. The purpose of recruiting her was to lay the groundwork for future cooperation and someday, maybe, friendship.
It was a pretty poor reflection on my social life that this was the most viable pathway I had for making a friend, but I already knew that my social life was pathetic from whatever angle you looked at it. I was never the kind of person who had a big circle of friends, so when my best friend decided to dedicate her life to making mine miserable as soon as we started high school, I was helpless to do anything about it. I needed a fresh start if I was going to meet anybody who didn't think of me as the school's punching bag, and if I could fight crime while getting that fresh start, so much the better.
I was pulled from my musings when the flies resting on a second floor window felt a breeze coming from the solid glass. Showtime.
I had been positioning a good portion of the non-flying bugs in my swarm on the roof above the porch where my targets were sitting. I directed those guys to crawl around so they were clinging to the ceiling immediately above the two men. I then had the ceiling squad drop down at the same time that a mass of fliers came swooping in from the street and another horde of ground bound bugs came swarming up the steps.
I don't think it's oversimplifying things too badly to say that there are two basic ways that people respond to being covered in bugs. The first is to start screaming and flailing around in an attempt to dislodge the offending insects. One of the thugs decided to go this route, and it was a fairly simple manner to direct the bugs crawling over his body into his mouth and cut off his ability to breathe. Once he passed out I had my swarm clear his airway, while sensory feedback from the bugs resting on his neck confirmed that he still had a pulse.
In the meantime, my other target had decided to go down path number two: he kept his mouth shut and tried to proactively deal with the situation, in his case by going for his shotgun and trying to see past the bugs to find their source. I had a few of my wasps sting his hand to keep him from getting a solid hold on his gun while some of the smaller bugs crawled up into his nose. Eventually he had to open his mouth to breath, at which point I dealt with him the same way that I had dealt with his partner.
I had the spiders in my swarm work to secure my marks while I made my way down the fire escape. The gang members had fallen kind of awkwardly, and even the mass of insects I had assembled wasn't physically strong enough to move a human body, so I couldn't exactly maneuver them into the classic handcuff type position. Still, with enough spiders working together I was able to produce a pretty solid coccoon of silk securing each individual hand to the porch railing. I wasn't sure that it would hold against a determined escape attempt, but I didn't expect either man to wake up any time soon, or to be particularly eager to fight when they did.
Shadow Stalker's head popped through the door while I was double-checking my spiders' work. She took a quick look around before drawing her head back through the door and opening it from the inside.
"All clear inside," she said. "Not quite as much cash as I was expecting, though."
I smiled to myself as entered the house. Her powers might look better in a fist fight, but having a swarm of insects at your beck and call is a pretty amazing tool for information gathering. I walked through the house like I lived there, even though I had never set foot inside. Making my way to the kitchen, I ignored the loose bills on the kitchen table and opened up the cupboard that in better days had probably been used to store cereal.
I wish that I could have seen the expression on Shadow Stalker's face as I pulled neatly-wrapped bundle after neatly-wrapped bundle of cash from the cupboard and stacked them on the counter. With the help of my bugs I was able to grab every bit of cash without needing to feel around in the dark.
I also pulled out several zip-loc bags full of white powder. I'm not the most street savvy kid at Winslow High, but I was pretty sure Empire Eighty-Eight wasn't stockpiling baking soda. I dropped the baggies in the sink, turned on the water and had my bugs chew through the plastic to let the drugs wash down the drain.
"Holy shit," Shadow Stalker said, almost sounding a little scared. "This isn't a stash house... this is the stash house."
"I told you, I followed the money," I replied, trying and probably failing to avoid sounding smug.
"You realize that if we take this, Kaiser will absolutely fucking murder us if he gets the chance."
"Anything we do that hurts the gang will piss Kaiser off. If we're worried about making him angry, what's the point of all this?"
"Hey, I didn't say we should leave the money," she said, raising her hands in a placating gesture. "I just want to make sure you understand what you're getting into."
"I didn't put on this outfit to play it safe," I said. At first I was a little surprised at the conviction in my voice, but then I was mad at myself for being surprised: the whole point of this new life was to leave behind all the limitations that bullying had placed on my old life. The last thing I wanted to do was start placating a new set of bullies. "I'm not going to let the fear of some jumped up racist prick dictate my actions."
Shadow Stalker didn't say anything, but I thought I detected approval in her stance as I transferred the money from the counter to my duffel. When I finished I handed her the bag. She took it, but cocked her head in a silent question.
"We don't have time to split the cash evenly tonight," I explained, "and I figure you'll have access to better hiding places than I do."
"You trust me with this, just like that?" She asked. She almost sounded angry that I would be so trusting.
"I trust that you know that if you decide to screw me over, I won't invite you along next time," I replied.
Her body language shifted at that. I might have been engaging in wishful thinking, but it seemed to me like she was smiling. I felt an answering smile appear on my face.
We made arrangements to meet the next day-well, later on the same day, technically-and split up to head home. The closer I got to my house, the less cheerful I felt. It wasn't that I had anything against my home or my dad, it was more that taking off my costume, changing into my civilian clothes, and slipping back into my bedroom emphasized what I already knew. With the evening's excitement over, I was facing a situation more intimidating than any number of Empire 88 thugs: I was going to have to go to school.
School didn't start out too badly. None of the girls who took a special interest in picking on me-Emma, Sophia, and Madison-were in Mrs. Knott's computer class, my first class of the day. The other students might join in once somebody started picking on me, and they certainly wouldn't step in to help me, but they generally wouldn't instigate anything on their own.
I was in the class's fast track, which added a little more space between me and the people who would look to improve their social status by having a go at me. Not that I was some kind of computer genius; any student who came into class with a computer at home and some basic computer literacy qualified. We were just now starting on Visual Basic after a year and a half of class. I managed to put together a program that generated a "hello world" dialog box in about fifteen minutes, which left the rest of the period free for a little web browsing.
My first stop was the Parahumans Online message board. I didn't see anything new about Shadow Stalker, anything that could be a description of me, or anything unusual about Empire 88. It was about what I had expected: a fight in a deserted neighborhood that didn't even have parahumans on both sides was hardly newsworthy. I hoped that we would damage the gang's operation, but it was unrealistic to expect much of an immediate effect. I saw it as something like gradually draining the oil from a car's engine. Eventually the whole thing might seize up and destroy itself, but it wasn't going to happen right away.
I closed out the message board before I could get suckered into reading one of the various cape versus cape debate threads, instead turning my attention to the parahumans wiki. I did a quick flip through the roster of known members of Empire 88; it remained daunting, but no new information had been posted since the last time I had visited. I put them aside as a problem for another day and pulled up the page for the Azn Bad Boys.
Despite their juvenile name the ABB was the second strongest criminal organization in the city, and they were making a serious effort to move to number one. Their leader was the primary reason for that. Lung regenerated from any injury that didn't kill him, but that was only the beginning of his power set. He also grew stronger the longer he fought, gaining physical strength, protective armor plating, even the ability to create and control fire. The more powerful his opponent, the more pronounced the effect became. There were rumors that he had fought an Endbringer to a draw by himself. I found those stories hard to believe, but there were confirmed reports of Lung taking on entire teams of capes and walking away none the worse for wear.
The other notable parahuman working for the gang was Oni Lee. He was a teleporter, but most of his wiki entry was occupied by a red box warning members of the public to stay away. He was described as an exceedingly violent psychopath who was quick to anger and should not be approached under any circumstances. The accompanying photo didn't do anything to contradict the description of a cold-blooded killer. His costume consisted of a black bodysuit with a black bandolier and belt that held an assortment of weapons. The only color on him was an ornate Japanese-style demon mask, crimson with two green stripes down either side. The whole thing gave off a sort of demon ninja vibe, adding weight to the notion that this was a guy who could and would slide a knife between your ribs given the opportunity.
Beyond the two parahumans, the ABB was estimated to have about forty or fifty thugs working across Brockton Bay, largely drawn from the ranks of Asian youth. Lung wasn't particular about nationality, enthusiastically-even forcibly-recruiting kids with roots in many different Asian countries. The ABB was pretty unusual in its pan-Asian approach, and it was a testament to Lung's strength that he was able to hold such a diverse group together.
I kept the ABB page up while I turned my focus to what I might do if I came face to face with Lung or Oni Lee. I had the same basic problem to overcome in either situation: my power didn't do anything to make me stronger or tougher. I had done my best to protect myself with my costume-I knew it would protect me from knife attacks, and I hoped it was at least bullet-resistant-but there was only so much that a bodysuit could do.
Letting either of them see me while we were fighting seemed like a quick way to die. Oni Lee would just teleport behind me and put a bullet in the back of my head. Lung, on the other hand, could reach a state where he would be essentially immune to attack from insects, so his only dilemma would be whether to finish me off with fire or blunt force trauma. If I was going to have any chance to take them down I would have to hit hard and fast while keeping them from finding me.
Thinking that way made me ask myself just how far I was willing to go. When I was just starting to get a handle on my ability, my first thought for a potential combat application had been to use the stings and bites of venemous insects. It was still the most efficient approach I had come up with in terms of doing the most damage with the fewest bugs. The problem was that the line between an incapacitating dose and a lethal dose of venom could get pretty fuzzy.
I hadn't been lying to Shadow Stalker: a single bite from a black widow would almost never kill. The problem was that a determined opponent would be able to keep fighting after that bite. That was fine if we just needed a distraction to allow her to finish somebody off, but if I wanted to take them out of the fight myself I would have to direct the spider to bite a second or third time. At that point death started to become a real possibility.
It wouldn't be an issue with somebody like Lung, as his regeneration drastically reduced the effect any foreign substances had on his body; as far as I knew, he couldn't even really get drunk. But for Oni Lee, the more human of the Empire 88 heavy hitters, and the rank and file of both gangs, poison was the fastest way to take them down but carried with it the unavoidable risk of death.
I wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of killing even a hardened criminal. Beyond that, there were practical issues to consider. The Protectorate-the organization that employed most of the parahumans who worked in law enforcement-tended to treat parahuman criminals with kid gloves. Underage offenders in particular usually received probation or sentences of time served. There were even rumors that some of the currently serving Wards-the heroes-in-training that made up the under-18 wing of the Protectorate-had started out as minor villains. This leniency filtered down to the street level cape fights, which tended to be a lot less lethal than you might expect when you consider some of the abilities at play.
All of that changed if you started killing people. The Slaughterhouse Nine were a good example of what happened once the heroes took off the kid gloves. At any given moment the Nine were some of the most powerful villains around, and they got a kick out of using their powers in the most depraved ways they could think of. Despite that, the average member of their team lived for about seven months after joining. They only survived as a cohesive unit because their leader had the devil's own luck, paired with some kind of unholy charisma that kept drawing new psychopaths into his orbit.
I couldn't kid myself that I was even in the same neighborhood as Jack Slash when it came to being hard to kill, so I wanted to avoid doing anything that could possibly draw a kill order from the Protectorate.
I was drawn from my dark train of thought when the bell rang. Time for Mr. Gladly's World History class, which sent me down an entirely different dark train of thought.
Mr. Gladly was my least favorite teacher. He probably would have been surprised to discover that he was anybody's least favorite teacher. He always insisted that we call him by his first name, he usually ended class a few minutes early, and almost all of his classes involved group projects that were thinly disguised excuses to socialize. I wasn't sure if he just desperately wanted to be liked, or if he was just too lazy to prepare a lecture every day.
The popular kids probably did like him: they got to spend his class hanging out with their friends. For someone like me who didn't have any friends, it was a much less positive experience. His class didn't create the pecking order that had me placed firmly at the bottom, but it exposed it, and I couldn't help but hate him a little for that.
I got to his classroom without incident, and I was able to secure my customary seat up front by the door. Sitting near the front of the class provided a bit of a deterrent against any sort of in class "pranks," and being by the door let me beat the rush and avoid any of the casual cruelties that could be inflicted in the middle of a crowd. Things started looking even better when Mr. Gladly revealed that we would be watching a documentary on the end of the Cold War for today's class.
I was always glad for a break from group work, and it was especially welcome news after a night like last night. I watched the first few minutes of the movie to make sure I wasn't missing anything-seeing Volkshammer take his oversized mallet to the Berlin Wall was pretty neat, but they weren't telling us anything that wasn't in the text book-I tucked my head down on my arms for a quick nap. Usually I try to be a good student, but if Mr. Gladly was going to mail in a class session I figured I was entitled to mail in my attendance. Besides, I was still running off of about three hours of sleep after the time it took to take down the Empire 88 house, get home, and wait for my nerves to calm down.
The class passed without incident, and I woke up when Mr. Gladly turned the overhead lights back on. I gathered my things and was the first out the door when he dismissed us, and as I walked down the hall it only bothered me a little bit that I considered it a "good day" when I could get through two classes without being picked on.
Any chance that this might be a "great day" went away when I was shoved hard enough to send me tumbling down the last few steps on the way to the cafeteria. I had been lost in thought debating potential cape names-it was hard to come up with anything bug related that wasn't creepy or taken-and missed the approach of Sophia Hess. While I was down on my hands and knees, doing a quick inventory to make sure I had suffered nothing worse than some bruising, my concentration was broken by the shock of cold liquid pouring down the back of my neck. I looked up just in time to catch the last few drops of Coca Cola on my glasses as Emma finished emptying a can of soda on me.
"Oops, Taylor, didn't see you there. Sorry about that," Emma said, her voice too sickly sweet to be sincere. Then she started giggling. Sophia didn't join in-she wasn't the type of girl who giggled-but she did crack a grin at my discomfort. I didn't say anything, just staring at the two of them.
I could kill them.
The thought came from some dark part of me that was still riding high from the violence of the previous night. I had access to a couple thousand bugs in the immediate vicinity, and ten times that number were scattered throughout the school. Not the kind of numbers I would want for a serious fight with a parahuman, but more than enough to take down two high school girls. All I had to do was give the order.
I took a deep breath and pushed away the bugs that had started crawling out of the walls, and with them the crazy desire to lash out. Aside from the immediate legal consequences of that kind of action, I was better than that. I wanted to be a hero, not to start abusing others the way I had been abused just because I had some power.
I still felt a strong urge to punch them in the face, but I pushed that down with the ease of long practice. Emma was the golden child of the school; if she told the office that she had accidentally provoked me and I had overreacted, the school would come down hard on the dangerous loner. Sophia... well, I was pretty sure that no matter how much righteous anger I was bringing to bear, Sophia would lay me out in about ten seconds flat if I tried to start a real fight.
The only thing I could do was gather myself, stand up, and walk to the nearest bathroom with Emma's laughter ringing in my ears. I was able to rinse most of the Coke out of my hair, but my shirt was a lost cause. I had tucked a sweater in my backpack in case the weather turned cold before it was time to walk home, so it looked like I would be sweating my way through our afternoon classes.
When I had tidied myself up as much as I could, I took a deep breath and stared at myself in the mirror. Technically speaking, I didn't have to put up with this. Everybody knew that the Wards went to Arcadia High, the best high school in Brockton Bay. My power might not be so glamorous as to earn me endorsement deals like Glory Girl had, but it was useful enough that I was pretty sure the Wards would take me on. But then what?
If I was a loser at Winslow High, why would Arcadia be any different? The average student there was, if anything, richer, better connected, and better looking than the average student at Winslow. Sure, I wouldn't have anybody specifically gunning for me, at least at first., but I would still be at the very bottom of the social ladder. And then there was the whole issue of getting along with the Wards themselves. I was honest enough with myself to know that a guy like Gallant, for example, was never going to be caught dead hanging out with a girl like me. They wouldn't be able to vote me off the team, but I didn't really want to spend a lot of time with teenagers who were being forced to put up with me.
The other scary thing about joining the Wards was that there would be no going back. They would take down my name and my power and put them in some government database. They would insist that my father be informed. Right now, nobody had any idea that there was a connection between Taylor Hebert and some bug-controlling vigilante, and I liked it that way. The idea of breaking down the wall between my normal life and my life in costume was something I wanted to put off as long as possible.
Besides, it wasn't like I wasn't meeting new people, I told myself as I straightened my shoulders and prepared to face the school once more. Usually Emma backed off once she had gotten in her daily dose of making my life miserable, so the rest of the day should only get better. In the evening I would be meeting up with Shadow Stalker. I hadn't had a chance to show off my lair to anybody else yet, and I was really looking forward to it.