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Earning Her Stripes (Worm AU fanfic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jan 4, 2020.

  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Heinlein wrote about powered armour in "Starship Troopers" (the book) a few years before Iron Man came out.

    Batman has had power armour. Steel has power armour. Lex Luthor had power armour. Hell, when Superman lost his powers for a while, he wore power armour.

    Batman also has returning weapons, some of which bounce off his enemies.

    Xena threw chakram, which were even circular.

    Honestly, I would change Firebird's weapons, but I strongly suspect that everyone's decided that she's now Captain America and ignore any changes I made.
    Dennis Simon Kenny and Simonbob like this.
  2. steamrick

    steamrick Matter: protons, electrons, neutrons and morons

    Aug 29, 2014
    Likes Received:
    ... but the captain's powers aren't even all that similar to Emma's?

    Sure, low-level regen, but that's hardly uncommon and not what makes Emma scary.
    Cubbyhb1, Caerwen and Ack like this.
  3. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:

    She's as fit and strong as someone her build would be if they'd just that day completed a comprehensive physical training regime designed to bring every muscle to its top-range capability, and has been chowing down on the exact mix of vitamins and nutrients she needs to take in for the best possible health level.

    Cap's a couple magnitudes stronger than that. He can do stuff she can't begin to pull off.
  4. Threadmarks: Part Seven: Making Progress

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Earning Her Stripes

    Part Seven: Making Progress

    [A/N 1: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
    [A/N 2: This fic is deliberately based on short, sharp chapters. I will be writing more of the same type.]

    The Barnes Household
    Emma's Bedroom
    Thursday, September 2, 2010

    "So, are we gonna be ready by the first day of school?" asked Emma. She leaned against the headboard of her bed, while Madison lounged at the far end with a pad across her knees, and Sophia relaxed in the computer chair.

    "I'm gonna need to pull a few all-nighters, but we should be okay," Madison said, looking up from her pad. From where she was, Emma could see a half-completed drawing of some Tinker-tech gear. "I just need to upgrade to the Mark 2 and get my big gun built before we go fully public."

    Sophia rolled her eyes so extravagantly, Emma half-expected her to end up looking out her own earholes. "Oh, for fuck's sake, you two! You don't even sound like you care about the plan anymore!"

    "What's the hurry?" asked Madison. "Taylor'll still be there when I get the Mark 2 into action, even if we're a couple of days late. I've got a whole series of improvements I want to make from the Mark 1."

    "I still care about the plan," Emma said. "But like Madison said, why the rush? The news crews love us, the PRT officially approves of us, and the public thinks we're amazing. Besides, we did what no other team in town has done."

    "What, take down a bunch of druggies?" Sophia's voice was heavy with scorn. "Yeah, that was hard."

    "Nope." This time, Madison didn't look up from the page. "We took a gang all the way off the streets. They might've been only the Merchants, but we did it ourselves. The Real Thing is big news, right now."

    "And we need to keep up the pressure, before we're yesterday's news!" Sophia jumped to her feet. "We need to be on the spot when Brockton Bay's newest villain emerges, so we can take her down!"

    "This 'newest villain' being Taylor. The person we're going to make into a villain." Emma tried not to sound cynical, but it wasn't easy. Sophia was pushing really hard on this, and Emma didn't know why. It wasn't like she had to prove she was strong anymore; she was absolutely a kickass superhero.

    "Actually, I've been thinking about that." Madison put the pad down for a moment. "What if we did things a little differently, changed up the plan?"

    "What? No!" Sophia looked like someone had just taken away her favourite plushie: pissed, and ready to kill someone. "We're not changing up the plan. It's perfect as it is."

    "Well, I'm listening," Emma said, sitting up. "What's on your mind, Mads?"

    Madison glanced at Sophia, then back to Emma. "Well, I was thinking, instead of forcing her to drink the vial, what if we just … gave it to her? Told her exactly what it was, and if she wants to get in good with us, all she has to do is drink it. She gets powers, The Real Thing gets another member, and we're more kickass than ever."

    Emma considered it. It wasn't a bad plan, and it certainly had a lot fewer points of failure than Sophia's version—

    "No!" snapped Sophia. "Not gonna fuckin' happen!"

    "What?" Despite the earlier conversation, Emma was still surprised by her friend's vehemence. "Why not? It could work."

    Sophia stared at her as though she'd started quoting Sun Tzu in the original Chinese. "The fuck is wrong with you, Emma? If she joined the team, she'd be seen as the same as us, equal to us. Taylor Hebert does not get to be equal to us. Not now, not ever. She gets to stay down in the dirt, where she belongs."

    This was now doubly surprising to Emma. "But you always said that once we toughened her up—"

    This time, Sophia rolled her eyes again. "Seriously? Emma, I told you what you needed to hear, so you could move on from her. She's never been your equal. She'll never be as good as you and me. She sure as fuck doesn't deserve to be your friend, or a member of this team. All she'll do is be her usual nothing self and drag us down."

    "But—" Emma was pretty sure there was a flaw in her friend's logic there, if only she had a second to figure it out.

    "But nothing, goddamn it!" Sophia clenched her fists. "Who's the experienced superhero here? Me, that's who. Who got those vials? Me. Whose plan was this? Mine. And it's been turning out perfectly so far, right? Right?"

    Emma didn't want to piss Sophia off any more than she already was, and she did kind of have a few good points. Also, Sophia had the last vial, so it wasn't like they could really change the plan right now without her agreement. Still, she'd said something that wasn't quite correct. "Uh, I'm pretty sure Madison came up with the plan—"

    "The basic idea of the plan," Sophia interrupted. "I'm the one who's making it work. Jeez!"

    It still wasn't clear to Emma how that was the case, but she didn't want to argue. "Right. We'll stick with the plan. You okay with that, Mads?"

    "Eh, whatevs." The tone of Madison's voice could've meant anything from 'wasn't listening' to 'don't care'. She was already sketching again. "But if we're gonna be sticking with the plan as given, I need to have the Mark 2 up and running."

    "Fine." Sophia clearly wasn't fine with it, but they'd both already learned to not try to push Madison when it came to her Tinker work. After a certain point, she dug her heels in and was harder to budge than her power armour.

    "Okay, then." Emma turned and consulted the calendar over her desk. "It's Friday tomorrow, and school opens on … Wednesday, the eighth. That enough time?"

    Madison nodded without looking up. "Yeah, that should do. I still need to design the jump-jets, but I should be able to forge the components over the weekend, and assemble the Mark 2 over Monday and Tuesday, barring any complications."

    "Will it be ready by Tuesday night?" pressed Sophia.

    "It'll be ready when it's ready." And that was all there was to it.


    Monday Afternoon

    As she rode the bus home from the library, Taylor couldn't help the feeling of dread that was building up in her stomach. She'd been able to occupy herself over the school break, but with the start of the new school year, she'd be seeing Emma and Sophia and Madison again.

    By now, she'd almost lost hope that this was a passing thing. Every school break was a chance for them to find something else to do, but each time it let back in, there they were. It had been a couple of months by now, but she was sure she'd seen Emma and Madison while she was out and about, just … looking at her. They hadn't done anything, but she'd still been unsettled by it.

    Her only option, she'd learned, was to endure and ignore. Be a stone wall, let all the teasing and sniping and meanness bounce off her. If she didn't show how much it hurt, they wouldn't double down.

    Except that they did. Over and over again, even when she'd thought there was no outward sign of her pain, they'd hit her where it hurt (both figuratively and physically). Emma knew her secrets, and it seemed her erstwhile best friend had no compunction in spreading them far and wide.

    She didn't have anyone she could turn to, which was the worst part. Her dad was still hurting from losing her mom, burying himself in his work to hide his pain. Even if he believed her when she told him Emma had turned on her in such a way, she was scared that he'd lose his temper and do something rash. Better not to say anything at all.

    As for the teachers at school, there was no respite to be had there, either. Even though her school email inbox got filled up with insults and horrific suggestions mere days after she opened a new one (someone in administration had to be passing it out to anyone who asked, she was sure), not one of the teachers paid any attention to this. Any verbal complaints were ignored, and written complaints resulted in her being called to the office and lectured about trying to cause trouble for other students.

    So, there was little she could do except wait it out. Withdraw even further into herself, surround herself with an impenetrable shield of 'I don't give a shit', and hold out until the last day of her senior year. Then she could give them all, including the school, one giant middle finger, then go and do anything else with her life.

    Until then … it would be one day after the other.

    As usual.


    Winslow High
    Very Early Wednesday Morning

    It was dark—half the security lights around the school were malfunctioning, which was totally par for the course—but that didn't matter. Emma could see better in the dark since getting powers than she ever had before, Sophia had been running around on rooftops for months before Emma had gotten her powers, and she was pretty sure Madison had built night vision into her new power armour. It was definitely bulky enough.

    "For fuck's sake, quiet!" Sophia hissed yet again, as Madison stepped on a chunk of loose concrete and crushed it flat with a gentle crunch.

    "I am being quiet." Madison had her volume turned all the way down, but the armour's speakers still had a lot of bass in them. "Stealth mode only means so much when you weigh four tons, you know."

    "What, you couldn't make smaller armour?" Sophia seemed to be stuck on this point. "What's wrong with making shit that's light?"

    "That's not how my power works, and you know it." Madison seemed more than a little grumpy. "Light means breakable, and I don't do 'breakable'. It's not my thing."

    Emma had to give her that one. The throwing discs of 'good steel' had yet to pick up even a scratch on their pristine surfaces, even after she'd bounced them off concrete, steel I-beams and other unyielding surfaces. She also had protective plating on her costume, covering her toes, heels, knees and elbows, as well as a helmet. None of these were marred either, even after a solid workout that bounced every single one of these things off a concrete pillar. If anything, the pillar was the thing that was decidedly the worse for wear.

    "No shit." Sophia still seemed to be annoyed. It was her default state, these days. "You can't even make knuckledusters small enough for me to carry."

    That had actually been amusing. Sophia had requested a set of brass knuckles, and Madison had refused to make them out of anything other than good steel. The weapon she produced was more akin to a cestus, but it would definitely add a great deal of authority to Sophia's punch. Except that when Sophia tried to go to shadow while holding it … it didn't. To everyone's surprise, it slipped from her grasp and fell to the ground, leaving Sophia standing over it in shadow form.

    Sophia had been livid; Madison hadn't helped with a comment about how good steel didn't like being made weaker. Eventually, Emma had calmed Sophia down, and they'd let Madison get back to her construction process. Sophia had finally decided that she didn't need knuckledusters, and all was okay. Until she brought it up again, anyway.

    "Are we back on that again?" asked Madison. "It's not my fault your shadow state isn't strong enough to handle good steel."

    "Oh, you did not just say that," hissed Sophia. She looked like she wanted to jump at the eight-foot set of power armour and kick its ass, but wasn't sure how.

    "Guys!" Emma didn't want to shout, so she packed all the emphasis she could into the whisper. "Madison, concentrate on being quiet. Sophia, just ... drop it, okay?"

    "The fuck, Emma?" Sophia redirected her ire, but at least she kept her voice down. "You're not the boss of me. You don't give me orders. Who's team leader here, you or me?"

    "Actually," said Madison into the awkward silence that followed, "I thought it was Emma."

    "What?" It was the quietest squawk Emma had ever heard. She could've almost sworn she saw steam shooting from Sophia's ears. "No, that's not true! I'm team leader! I've got the experience! You guys would be nothing without me!"

    Another awkward silence fell, during which Emma recalled a quote she'd read in a short story anthology somewhere: 'Any man who must say, "I am the king" is no true king.'

    "You're totally team leader, Sophia," she said placatingly. She caught the side glance from Madison's power armour and shook her head fractionally. This wasn't the time or place for that kind of argument.

    It worked; at least, for the moment. Sophia fell into a sullen silence, while Madison picked her way carefully across the littered ground. Eventually, they reached their destination, a dilapidated shed out behind the main building. There was a tractor parked alongside the shed, with a dirty-looking tarpaulin draped over it.

    "Knew I'd seen that shit back here," Sophia declared with some satisfaction, the earlier argument apparently forgotten. "You needed a tarp, right?"

    "It makes things a lot easier, yeah." Madison stepped the Blockade Mark 2 armour up next to the tractor, then paused for a moment. Then the armour started folding down into its most compact form, pausing only to allow Madison to climb out through a front hatch.

    They watched it complete its transformation to a blank metal crate, then set to work hauling the tarpaulin off the tractor and draping it over the 'crate'. This wasn't to weatherproof it—according to Madison, it would be capable of walking across the bottom of the Bay unscathed—but to camouflage it from the casual observer. Emma noted that Madison did her fair share of the grunt work, the petite brunette having packed on some muscle over the past few weeks.

    "Whoo!" exulted Sophia as they left the scene. "Hebert is not gonna know what hit her!"

    "Yeah," Emma said, more to keep Sophia happy than in actual agreement.

    Madison said nothing at all.


    Winslow High
    Slightly Later in the Morning

    I am a fortress. I am impenetrable. Nothing they do can touch me.

    As she stepped off the bus, Taylor repeated the words over and over to herself. She wished she could believe them, but Emma had proven to her over and over that all the reserve in the world could be pierced by the right words, cruelly wielded. Still, she set her gaze firmly ahead and forced herself to work through the mantra yet again.

    I am a fortress. I am impenetrable. Nothing they do can touch me.

    She'd thought of skipping the first day of school altogether, but being marked down as absent would bring her dad into it at some point, and it would goad the three into heightened efforts once she did show up. Her dawdling had caused her to miss the bus she normally took, so she caught the next one. It would give her minimal time before she could get to class, but that was actually fine with her. The less time she spent wandering the halls was less time Emma could think of something to do to her.

    There was nobody in the parking lot as she crossed it. All the last-minute smokers were either inside already or up on the roof. Climbing the steps, she pushed the doors open and entered. There was muffled noise, distant voices and echoing footsteps, but the corridor she could see was clear of people.

    Shit. I must've cut it too close. Everyone's in home room already.

    Fortunately, she'd looked up her timetable already; her home room was Mrs. Knott's classroom, which was nice. She liked Mrs. Knott, as much as she could like any of her teachers. With luck, nobody Emma knew would be sharing that class with her.

    Hurrying her pace, she dashed through the school until she found her locker. The backpack full of books was weighing heavily on her shoulder by the time she got there, and she was panting for breath. Closing her eyes, she grabbed the lock and tried to recall what the combination was. She'd gotten a letter from Winslow informing her of what it was, just last week.

    4-5-4-2. Right. Got it.

    Opening her eyes, she dropped the pack on the floor and input the combination. The lock clicked open, she swung the door open, and—

    —at that moment, a bag dropped over her head. Shoved up against the locker next to hers, face pressed against the cold metal, a knee in the middle of her back, she felt her head being pulled backward with darkness in front of her eyes. There was no way to see what was going on, or even who had her.

    An arm went around her neck, forcing her head all the way back and squeezing tightly. Her hands were grabbed and pulled back so she couldn't struggle. Someone lifted the bottom edge of the bag, exposing her mouth. She tried to scream for help but the arm tightened abruptly, choking off her cry before it even eventuated.

    A thumb and forefinger dug into the sides of her mouth, forcing it open painfully. She had no idea what was going on, until a cold glass tube pressed against her lip, and a truly foul substance poured into her mouth. With her lips still held open, she couldn't spit it out, so she coughed and choked and swallowed until it was all gone.

    What the hell? Have I just been force-fed poison? Was that a laxative?

    Her whirling thoughts got no further than that as she was shoved face-first into her open locker. Her head hit the back wall painfully, then her butt and legs were forced inside and the door slammed shut. She distinctly heard the lock click closed again.

    Several imperatives impressed themselves upon her, more or less all at the same time. She wanted to get out; that was a given. Screaming for help, now that she was no longer being choked, was also up there on the list. Finally, she didn't know what she'd been made to swallow, but the aftertaste was truly horrendous, and she desperately wanted to throw it all up again before it took its effect on her.

    She got halfway through the first scream before the roiling feeling in her stomach expanded rapidly to encompass her entire being. After that, she was hallucinating too hard to utter even the simplest of words, though the visions she had vanished from her mind's eye and her memory at the same time. Even had she recalled what she saw, she would've made no sense of it, then or later.

    The unsteady sensation passed, as did the roiling. She was surrounded by a warm darkness, no longer constrained by the metal cage surrounding her. Standing upright, she felt the slightest resistance before something unseen in the impenetrable blackness parted above her head. She spread her arms out to the sides; again, the faint sensation of spiderwebs parting before her, though she could see and hear nothing whatsoever.

    She didn't know where she was, but she needed to find the light. Turning by instinct—as she recalled, she'd been facing the wall—she stepped forward and down a little, onto solid flooring, barely felt by the soles of her feet. Looking to the left and right, she saw nothing; not even a glimmer of light. It was getting uncomfortably warm, and she found herself panting for breath.

    "Hello?" she called out. "Hello? Is anyone there? I need—I think—I—help?"

    Her lungs were burning. She took one step, then another, then fell to her knees. Forcing herself to move on, her lungs straining to draw more air in and utterly failing, she crawled another few yards.

    What's happening? she asked herself, just before she passed out.



    They'd planned for everything, even down to having their friends answer with their names for attendance. On the first day, they'd figured, the teachers wouldn't know their faces yet.

    Despite her reservations about the plan, getting the vial into Taylor was easier than she'd expected. With Sophia front and centre, Emma holding one arm and Madison the other, the stuff was poured down her throat and she swallowed the lot. Then Sophia shoved Taylor into the locker and snicked the lock shut.

    "Go!" she hissed, too quietly to be heard from inside the metal box.

    Emma was committed now; she snatched up her backpack and dashed toward the nearest girls' restrooms. Sophia was right alongside her, while Madison bolted toward the back of the school, where she'd left her power armour.

    This was it. This was going to be their finest hour.

    They were going to fight a supervillain attacking a school.

    She tried hard to fight down the scraps of compunction telling her that she was helping set up Taylor to get powers in the school, that it wasn't Taylor's fault.

    Shut up, she told herself. I wanted to make Taylor strong. This is making her strong.

    Just as she was fitting her helmet onto her head, she heard the sound of tearing metal outside in the corridor. It was followed by the sound of crumbling concrete.

    "Fuck yes!" hissed Sophia, from the next stall over. "We got us a villain!"

    Emma snapped the throwing discs onto her bracers, stashed her backpack behind a ceiling tile—the jump onto the counter was trivially easy for her now—and headed for the door. Sophia, as Shadow Stalker, was right behind her.

    Out she came, throwing disc coming to hand, ready for anything.

    Anything, it seemed, except what she found.

    When Madison came tromping along the corridor, bending slightly to avoid bashing holes in the ceiling, they were still staring at a bunch of torn-open lockers, and one unconscious (and entirely unmarked) Taylor Hebert.

    "What the fuck?" asked Sophia. Emma knew what she meant. Taylor was supposed to be rampaging through the school so they could stop her. Not lying on the floor, out like a light.

    Emma shrugged. She didn't know either.

    It appeared they'd planned for everything, except for what had actually happened.

    Whatever that was.

    End of Part Seven
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2022
  5. TitaniumQuartz971

    TitaniumQuartz971 Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 5, 2020
    Likes Received:
    Wait, did QA just get Siberian-type forcefield limbs?
    Ack, KingCrimson1081 and january1may like this.
  6. january1may

    january1may Versed in the lewd.

    Apr 1, 2016
    Likes Received:
    Between that and the fic name? Sounds like she might have just became Siberian.
    luxus345, Ack and Gindjurra like this.
  7. KingCrimson1081

    KingCrimson1081 Versed in the lewd.

    Feb 27, 2022
    Likes Received:
    That implies she had a normal trigger event while being given a Cauldron vial which would probably have some interesting implication, while on the other hand her being given a Cauldron vial means she can't trigger normally which would probably piss QA off because now she can't get best host.
    Ack and Gindjurra like this.
  8. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Versed in the lewd.

    Aug 21, 2016
    Likes Received:
    Actually, that quote is wrong about that. The first thing that all kingdoms begin with is one person saying that - and having no one gainsay them. After that they are king. If saying that means you are not a king, then no kingdom could ever hold any validity.
  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    You're missing the context.

    If someone has already been named king and then still has to remind his subjects that he's the king, then he's not really the king to them.

    The quote is from Tywin to Joffrey (who had already been crowned king) but who was blustering, "I am the king! I will have you punished!"

    She doesn't have access to QA.
  10. KingCrimson1081

    KingCrimson1081 Versed in the lewd.

    Feb 27, 2022
    Likes Received:
    QA gonna smack someone
    PostwarGryphon and Cubbyhb1 like this.
  11. preier

    preier I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Jan 10, 2015
    Likes Received:

    Looked to me like two of the trio had become something more. I was wrong, you've written all three of them as the irredeemable would-be-killers of canon.
    Death by Chains and Ack like this.
  12. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    They were having second thoughts, but Sophia pushed them into going with the original plan.

    Heal-face turns don't happen in an instant.
  13. TitaniumQuartz971

    TitaniumQuartz971 Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 5, 2020
    Likes Received:
    The question is whether they will live long enough for the Heel Realization to set in before they are on the receiving end of an immovable object in motion.
  14. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    There will be some interesting interactions.
    Death by Chains likes this.
  15. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Versed in the lewd.

    Aug 21, 2016
    Likes Received:
    I think you mean unstoppable force, since immovable objects by definition don’t move.
    Ack likes this.
  16. TitaniumQuartz971

    TitaniumQuartz971 Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 5, 2020
    Likes Received:
    An immovable object in motion is an unstoppable force.
    Cubbyhb1 and Ack like this.
  17. Foxxin

    Foxxin Bark bark I'm a shark

    Jan 25, 2020
    Likes Received:
    Immovable objects by definition cannot be MOVED, they cannot have their vectors changed by forces acting upon them. That doesn't necessarily mean that they can't be moving by default.

    But yeah, ignoring the technicality of it, it's effectively just an unstoppable force.
    january1may and Ack like this.
  18. Cubbyhb1

    Cubbyhb1 Theoretically Capable of Sleep

    Oct 7, 2021
    Likes Received:
    So since Taylor isn't a projection, I wonder how her power will interact with things that can pop the Siberian.
    Ack and january1may like this.
  19. TitaniumQuartz971

    TitaniumQuartz971 Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 5, 2020
    Likes Received:
    I think it would be more like Vicky's force-field, only much stronger.
    Ack likes this.
  20. Momentei

    Momentei Getting sticky.

    Apr 6, 2021
    Likes Received:
    So this is about discount Captain America and Iron Man with the mentally unstable Redhood wannabe all hanging up on the new Siberian. I wonder if the real Siberian is still around and what shit is gonna go down if they meet.
    Ack likes this.
  21. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Not a discount Captain America.

    Not Iron Man.

    And no, Siberian is not around. (Jack Slash got his head blown off some years ago, due to this lack).
    blackstar1 and Cubbyhb1 like this.
  22. Cubbyhb1

    Cubbyhb1 Theoretically Capable of Sleep

    Oct 7, 2021
    Likes Received:
    Are you sure he wasn't killed by a normal adult grisly bear?
    Ack likes this.
  23. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:

    He kicked in the front door to the Davis household, and Riley's father blew his head off with a 12 gauge shotgun at close range.
  24. Cubbyhb1

    Cubbyhb1 Theoretically Capable of Sleep

    Oct 7, 2021
    Likes Received:
    Okay, that is a sufficiently poetic death for him.
  25. Threadmarks: Part Eight: Learning Process

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Earning Her Stripes

    Part Eight: Learning Process

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    Taylor woke up to a headache, and something covering her face. Flailing at the thing, trying to get free, she sat up with a rush, drawing in air for the scream building inside her. Instead, she heard a shriek that hadn't come from her own throat, which was enough to bring her up short. Pausing, she blinked to try to focus.

    She wasn't in the locker anymore. Instead, she was half-sitting, half-crouching on the examination bed in the Winslow infirmary, having clawed an oxygen mask off her face. Across the room, pressed back against a cabinet, was the school nurse. The nurse was holding a clipboard and one of those thermometers that go in the ear.

    "Uh …" said Taylor.

    "You're awake," said the nurse, panting. Her name was Frances; she actually had been a nurse at some point, but she was in her sixties and unable to handle some of the heavier duties, so she was now working at Winslow. Or that was what Taylor had heard. (She'd also heard rumours to the effect that the woman had a drug problem, but she was fully aware of how vindictive kids could get, so she took that one with a large grain of salt). "Please don't do that to me again. My heart can't take it."

    Taylor pulled the oxygen mask all the way off, and breathed deeply, trying to get her racing heart under control. "Sorry, I guess. I didn't mean to." The headache was starting to fade now.

    "That's okay." Frances stepped forward again, holding up the thermometer. "I just need to take your temperature."

    Taylor submitted to the minor discomfort, then dropped her feet off the side of the bed and just sat there, bracing herself with her hands on her knees. Too many things were whirling around in her head to try to fix on any one of them, until the memory of the cold glass and the foul liquid came past, and she snagged onto it. "Poison," she said out loud.

    Frances looked up from where she was writing on the clipboard. "Pardon?"

    "Before they pushed me into the locker, they made me drink something. I think it might have been poison, or a laxative, or something." She gestured at herself. "Can you do some tests or something?"

    "Uh …" This clearly wasn't something Frances was prepared for. "Are you sure? When you came in here, you were exhibiting all the signs of asphyxia, though without any indications of strangulation. We figured you'd accidentally covered the vent-holes in your locker with your back and hyperventilated until you passed out."

    Taylor frowned. That didn't sound like what she remembered happening, at all. Unless I hallucinated or something. Well, they did force-feed me that stuff. Maybe it was meant to make me go loopy. "I … I don't know. Did anyone see who did it?"

    Frances shook her head as she took Taylor's wrist and expertly counted off her pulse. After the minute had passed by, she had Taylor look into a penlight; first one eye, then the other. "No, dear. Nobody knew anything about it, until a bunch of passing superheroes heard you screaming from out on the street. One of them was a Tinker with high-powered microphones in his battle armour, apparently. They came in and the Tinker tore apart the locker you were in. Then they handed you over to us and left again."

    On the one hand, Taylor was pleased to have been rescued; on the other, it was a sad indictment on the school that she'd needed superheroes to save her from her own locker. "So, have the police been called?"

    "Not that I'm aware of. Say ahhh."

    "Ahhh," said Taylor obediently, allowing Frances to depress her tongue and shine the light into the back of her throat. She waited until the nurse took the depressor out of her mouth before she kept talking. "Why not? I was assaulted! They poured something down my throat! They locked me in my locker!" She felt tears starting to rise in her eyes. Didn't anyone care?

    Frances made another note on the clipboard. "Taylor—can I call you Taylor? —it's not my job to call the police with matters like this. That's the principal's call. As far as I can tell, you're in the pink of health, literally. Your colour's come all the way back, your pupillary reflex is normal, your pulse, respiration and blood pressure are all normal, there's no discolouration in your throat, and you're not even bruised from being in the locker. I'm simply not equipped to do any more tests, and every test I have done says you're fine. Now, I suppose I could refer you on to a hospital for blood tests and the like, but your parents would have to pay for those out of their own pocket."

    "That's not right," Taylor said. "Is it? I was attacked right here on school grounds. Aren't you guys responsible for things like that?"

    "I … that's not my job to say," Frances hedged. "You'll have to speak to Principal Blackwell about that."

    Taylor was hearing a lot of 'not my job', but she supposed that it was basically the truth. The nurse had been told it wasn't her job, so it wasn't. Fortunately, Taylor knew whose job it was.

    "Can I go and do that now?" she asked. "I mean, do you have to keep me in for observation or something?"

    "I've been observing you," Frances said with a hint of a smile. Had that been a medical joke? "You seem fine to me. How's your head?"

    Taylor rubbed at her forehead. The headache she'd had when she woke up was almost gone. "It's good. So can I go see Principal Blackwell?"

    Frances shrugged. "Well, I can't stop you from leaving, but she asked to be informed when you woke up, so she's probably on the way right now."

    "Oh." Well, that made things a lot easier. "Thanks."

    "It's really not a problem." This time, the nurse did smile. "It was a welcome change from stitching up stab wounds and telling my patients that the strongest drugs we have on hand are over the counter standard painkillers."

    Right. Because Winslow. "Yeah, well, thanks anyway." Taylor slid down off the bed and looked around for her shoes. "Where's my stuff?"

    Frances gestured at the outer door, which indeed had a large notice on it: WE DO NOT STOCK ANYTHING STRONGER THAN ASPIRIN. Taylor guessed that it was intended to keep out the aspiring drug dealers of Winslow, but wondered if they even bothered to read it. Or if they could. "Your backpack's in the waiting room. Shoes are right there, by the bed."

    "Thanks." As she leaned down to collect her shoes, she looked back at Frances. "Has anyone contacted my dad?"

    The nurse put her hands up in a semi-defensive manner. "Oh, ah, that's—"

    "Not your job. Got it." Taylor didn't even bother trying to keep the sarcastic tone from her voice, but moderated it when she stood up again. "Thanks for taking care of me."

    Frances' smile was weak, but present. "Yes, well. That part is definitely my job."

    Taylor returned the smile—it wasn't the nurse's fault, not really—and headed out into the waiting room. She knew all the hard plastic chairs were equally uncomfortable, so she picked the one next to her waiting backpack and sat down to put her shoes on. Just as she was tying her laces, the outer door opened and Principal Blackwell came in.

    "Ah, Ms. Hebert," Blackwell greeted her. If Taylor was any judge, the woman's smile was as fake as a three-dollar bill; the real measure of her thoughts was the razor-sharp stare. "It's good to see you up and around. I do hope you're feeling better."

    "Well, yeah. Nurse Frances said I'm totally healthy." Taylor took a deep breath. "But I really think the police should be called. And why haven't you called my dad?"

    "I did inform your father," Blackwell replied in a condescending tone. "Once we realised he didn't have a cell-phone number, we had to find his work number. That took time." Everyone should have a cell-phone, her tone seemed to state. Why doesn't he?

    "… oh." Taylor felt her initial outrage start to deflate. "And the police? Why haven't they been called?"

    "Because there's nothing for them to do here." The principal stated it as a given fact. "Your locker was destroyed, but that was done by the superhero who freed you from it. Incidentally, did you know it wasn't even locked?"

    Taylor blinked. "I … what?" It was locked! I know it was! "I … heard the lock click."

    "Yes, but not on the door." Blackwell took a familiar-looking combination lock out of her pocket and handed it to Taylor. "We found this on the floor, entirely separate from the hasp. If you'd jiggled the door enough, it would've popped open. Ms. Hebert … you weren't even locked in."

    "But … but …" Taylor took the lock and applied the correct combination. It popped open. Numbly, she scrambled the numbers, tugged at the shackle, then keyed in the combination again. Once more, it opened perfectly. "I heard it click."

    Blackwell's tone was relentless. "Nevertheless, unless you've been sharing your combination around—which, by the way, is against school policy—that lock was never used to secure your locker. When Blockade tore it apart, and the two on either side, as well as some of the wall behind, the damage could've been easily avoided by simply popping the latch off." She sighed theatrically. "And there's no point in calling the police about the property damage, because that was done in the name of saving you. Do you understand?"

    Finding herself severely on the back foot, Taylor grasped for her last straw. "Whoever shoved me in there poured something down my throat! That's assault or something, isn't it? If they tried to poison me or drug me or something, that's illegal."

    "Yes … if it happened." Blackwell tried to raise an eyebrow, and ended up half-raising the other as well.

    "If? What do you mean, 'if'?" Taylor felt herself becoming outraged all over again. "It happened! They put a bag over my head and held my arms! I couldn't stop them!"

    "Ms. Hebert." Blackwell sighed. "We've already established that you weren't aware enough to know your locker wasn't secured. You wouldn't be out here if Nurse Frances thought you were under the influence of anything. So, whatever it is has already passed through your system. Which makes me wonder …" She leaned forward and eyed Taylor intently. "Did you take something before you came here? Is that why you were late?"

    Taylor grasped the sides of the chair, fighting for self-control. She knew damn well that shouting in Blackwell's face would do her zero good whatsoever, and probably screw over her chances of getting any kind of justice. But this was typical of what she'd been facing over the past twelve months and more.

    In a kind of epiphany, she realised that Blackwell specifically didn't want the police involved because it would make it a lot more difficult to sweep things under the carpet, which was why the woman was pushing so hard against the idea.

    "I don't do drugs, and you know it," she said, her fingertips mashing against the plastic.

    "But I don't know it." If Taylor hadn't known better, Blackwell's tone could've passed for concern. "You came here with such good grades, but they slipped badly over the last year. I've seen this pattern before, you know, and it's nearly always drugs. People talk, Ms. Hebert, and I must say that I've heard some very troubling rumours about how you're getting high with the other problem students, and how you're paying for it."

    Taylor gritted her teeth. "But that's just not true," she insisted. "Those stories are all lies, made up to discredit me so when I complain about the bullying—"

    "Really, this again?" Blackwell didn't quite roll her eyes, but from the tone of her voice she may as well have. "Seriously, how long do you expect me to believe a bunch of teenage girls is going to keep bullying you for? Some of them don't keep the same hairstyle from week to week. I suspected it was a ploy for attention then, and now I'm certain of it." She shook her head. "No, I personally think there were no other students involved. Just some kind of illicit substance that you took before you even arrived. Befuddled, you stumbled into your own locker and the door swung shut on you. In your disorientation, you panicked and screamed for help, whereupon a superhero tore the locker open to let you out." She folded her arms and gave Taylor a superior smile. I'm on to you, it seemed to say. "I'm wondering if I shouldn't charge you for the damage."

    Taylor seethed at the sheer injustice of Blackwell's accusations. None of what the principal was alleging was true, but every time she tried to correct matters, Blackwell utterly discounted her words or twisted them to suit her own narrative. It was infuriating, to say the least. Her hands tightened on the chair.

    With a sudden crack-crack, two pieces of plastic broke off in her hands, one on either side of the chair. She stared at them, irregular dull-orange shapes sitting in her palms. Just how long have these chairs been sitting here, for them to get that brittle?

    Blackwell frowned at her. "Really? Ms. Hebert, you can't be satisfied with falling into your own locker? Now you have to resort to breaking more school property? Or are you going to claim that you didn't do that right in front of me?"

    Shocked out of her anger, Taylor stared up at Principal Blackwell. "No, I—I did this, but how—"

    "No. No more." Blackwell shook her head imperiously. "On your feet. When your father gets here, you're going home. You've just been suspended for a week. Maybe in that time, you can consider ways to get your life back on track. Do you understand?"

    Silently, Taylor stood up. She dropped the two plastic shards back on the chair and picked up her backpack.

    "Well?" Blackwell put her hands on her skinny hips. "I'm waiting for an answer, young lady."

    "Why?" Taylor dredged up one last bit of defiance. "It's not like you've actually been listening to anything I've got to say." She pushed past Blackwell and headed for the door.

    "Ms. Hebert!"

    Taylor ignored the outraged shout.

    "Ms. Hebert! Come back here!"

    Slowly, she stopped and turned around. "I'm on suspension. Make up your fucking mind."

    Blackwell looked like nothing so much as an outraged goth flamingo as she caught up with Taylor, complete with the flapping and squawking. "You are coming to the office right now to wait for your father."

    "No." Taylor put her backpack over her shoulder. "I'm going to wait on the front steps." She turned away from Blackwell and started out of the school.

    "Ms. Hebert! I said you will wait in the office, and you will wait in the office!" A hand clamped onto Taylor's shoulder.

    At this point, she would normally have given up and let the annoying adult have her way. Blackwell, it seemed, was well into her little power trip, and would not give up until she'd made certain Taylor knew who was boss. And it would cost her little, except what remained of her pride, to go back to the office and sit on one of the uncomfortable chairs under the beady eye of Blackwell's secretary until her dad got there.

    Normally, she would've caved.

    Normally, she didn't do conflict.

    This was not a normal day.

    Fuck it, some tiny part of her mind decided, and the rest of her couldn't be bothered arguing. Let's make the cow work for it. If she wants me back in the office, she's going to have to drag me.

    So, she kept trudging along, doing her best to ignore Blackwell's hand on her shoulder. The principal's nails dug in, but stopped just before they got painful. Taylor kept on walking.

    "Stop!" Blackwell's voice was a high-pitched shriek.

    Taylor kept walking.

    A sudden drag on the backpack she had slung over the other shoulder made her aware that Blackwell had latched onto that as well. Taylor's care factor was in the negative numbers already, fast-tracking toward values that could only be expressed using scientific notation. She kept walking.

    "Ms. Hebert!"

    It wasn't the principal's voice that got Taylor's attention, or even the tone of her voice, but the squeaking, squealing sound that overlaid it. Looking down and back, she saw that Principal Blackwell was being dragged bodily along, despite having her shoes braced against the vinyl flooring. Already, classroom doors were popping open and heads were peering out.

    Not my problem.

    Taylor kept walking. It appeared Blackwell was even skinnier than she appeared; towing her down the corridor was no great effort.

    Abruptly, Blackwell appeared to decide that a strategic retreat now was better than any further humiliation, so she let go and stepped back. Taylor didn't care; she kept walking.

    "Two weeks of suspension!" shouted Blackwell down the corridor. Without looking around, Taylor gave her the finger with both hands at once.

    She reached the doors and opened them, and stepped outside into the sunny November morning. It was nice out here; much nicer than inside, that was for sure.

    Maybe this suspension crap will actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. This way, I get two weeks away from them. Two weeks away from that utter shithole.

    A familiar car rolled into the parking lot, and Taylor shaded her eyes. Apprehension clenched at her guts just a little as she verified that yes, her father had arrived. Worse, he'd be looking for her as 'locker prank victim' and Blackwell was going to hit him with whatever bullshit story she'd concocted in the meantime. That Blackwell would lie her scrawny ass off to make Taylor look bad was no longer in doubt.

    Danny parked the car and came over toward her, long-legged strides eating up the ground. Behind his glasses, his eyes were worried, and his mouth was set in a serious line. "Taylor!" he called. "Are you alright? What are you doing out here?"

    She took a deep breath. "I'm out here because Principal Blackwell doesn't want any shit sticking to her precious school, so she's determined to blame me for being shoved into my own locker."

    He was halfway up the stairs when the full import of her words registered on him. His foot paused halfway between one step and the next as he stared at her. "… say that again?"

    Well, at least I've got his attention. Now let's see if I can keep it. She ran through what she recalled of events, finishing up with how Blackwell had basically accused her of doing drugs and refused to call the police over the incident. The part where she'd broken the bits off the chair didn't seem relevant right then—Winslow stuff was shitty, everyone knew that—so she didn't mention it.

    "Drugs?" He shook his head at the end of it. "That's ridiculous. I know what drug use looks like—we used to get a few users, back before we tightened the regulations—and you don't show any of the signs."

    "Try telling her that," Taylor suggested. "Though don't expect it to make even a little bit of difference. She'd decided what had happened before she even came to see me. According to her, I tripped and fell into my own locker, and didn't realise it wasn't locked." She rolled her eyes. "And pressed hard enough against the door to block the vents so that I used up all my air and passed out."

    He grimaced. "And these superheroes that got you out, they didn't hang around long enough for you to talk to them and maybe find out if they saw who did this?"

    "No." She shook her head. "Principal Blackwell said it was some guy called Blockade who tore the locker open with his power armour. But they were long gone when I woke up."

    "Blockade … yeah, I've heard that name." Danny frowned. "I think he's part of a new three-member team that's just hitting the news. They call themselves The Real Thing. The other two members are Firebird and Shadow Stalker. They're the ones who took down the Merchants for good."

    "Oh, yeah, I heard about that." Taylor hadn't realised it wasn't one of the established teams who'd done that. "I'm just glad they were there. Because no matter what Blackwell says, I was locked in my locker."

    "Which reminds me." Danny looked at her with concern. "You say they forced you to drink something weird, and nobody did anything about it afterward?"

    "Fetid is more like it," Taylor said with a theatrical shudder. "Think of rancid milk, month-old gym socks, rotting meat, and fresh dogshit from a really sick dog. Blend that all together into a liquid, and it still won't be one-tenth of what that stuff tasted like. And no, Blackwell decided it never happened."

    "Okay, I can talk to her tomorrow," he decided. "Get in the car. I'm taking you to get checked out, right now."

    "But I feel fine, and stuff like that's expensive."

    "Don't care. Get in the car."

    She got in the car.


    Somewhat Later

    Taylor restrained her impulse to rub her wrist where the Band-Aid covered the blood-draw site. "See, Dad? I told you I felt fine."

    He shook his head as they walked back toward the car. "I once knew a guy who was in a worksite accident. Said he felt fine, got up, took two steps, dropped dead. Your body will lie to you if it can get away with it. But yes, it seems you're okay as far as they can see. The blood work will be back in a few days, and we'll know for sure. At least he was able to rule out the most common toxins."

    "Could it have been a hallucinogenic? Because I felt really weird before I passed out."

    Danny rubbed his thumbnail across his lips. "It's a possibility. But we'll know for sure when we get the blood work back. In the meantime, I want you staying home, close to the phone, so if anything starts feeling off, you call me, okay?"

    She sighed. "Okay, fine."

    This was going to be boring as crap.

    End of Part Eight
  26. Threadmarks: Part Nine: Unbreakable

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Earning Her Stripes

    Part Nine: Unbreakable

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    A Couple of Days Later

    Taylor and her father sat in the offices of GS&T, watching as Mr Sacke paged through the collected sheets of paper, making notes as he went. Eventually, he finished it and sat up.

    "Well?" asked Danny. "Do we have a case?"

    "A very strong possibility of one," Mr Sacke replied guardedly. "You said you had the blood test results from the hospital as well?"

    "Yes. Here's a copy." Danny handed the envelope over. "They gave her a clean bill of health. No alcohol, no drugs of any kind."

    Mr Sacke opened the envelope and scanned the report. "Well, this is definitely something to keep in reserve for if Ms Blackwell chooses to allege Taylor came to school in an impaired state. But ..." He pursed his lips. "This says there were no foreign substances in her bloodstream at all."

    "Well, no." Taylor wasn't sure what he was getting at. "I don't drink or do drugs. If Blackwell wants to say I do, that'll prove she's making stuff up, right?"

    "This is very true, yes." Mr Sacke addressed her with the same professional tone he was using with her father, which she appreciated. "However, it throws another part of your testimony into doubt. Whatever it was they forced you to drink, it wasn't chemically reactive enough to show up on the blood test. If we bring that part up, the defense is likely to call on us to prove it happened."

    "But it did happen!" Taylor protested. "It tasted terrible!"

    "I believe you," he said soothingly. "Taylor, I'm on your side with this. But we can't prove what we can't prove."

    "There's no way something that horrible wouldn't be bad for me," she insisted. "What if it was some kind of delayed reaction poison or something?" The sheer foulness of it still haunted her.

    Mr Sacke chuckled lightly. "One of these days, I'll introduce you to wheatgrass. Taste is a poor indicator of what's truly good for you. Sugar, for instance, is terrible for you in large quantities."

    "But what about poison?" Taylor said. It was almost like he wasn't listening to her. She'd learned to expect that sort of behaviour from the staff at Winslow, but this guy was supposed to be her lawyer.

    "Ms Hebert. Unless the person or persons who assaulted you had access to Tinker-created substances, a delayed-action poison that doesn't come in pill form is purely a Hollywood creation." Mr Sacke tilted his hand from side to side. "And there are many harmless substances that taste utterly vile."

    Taylor wasn't about to let this go if she could help it. "Okay, but making me drink something tasting that bad has got to be against the law, even if it's not poisonous … right?"

    "Yes." His voice was more serious this time. "That's definitely assault. However, some sort of evidence would be useful. The container would be ideal, especially with fingerprints, but even just some residue would be good to go on with. But we don't have any of that, so my advice would be to leave it out of the narrative unless we can get something material to back it up. Okay?"

    "Got it." Taylor finally had it nailed. Mr Sacke wasn't doing this because he cared. If he really cared, he'd push for everything. He was doing it for the money, and he was making sure to only include charges he thought he could win big on. It wasn't exactly a ground-breaking epiphany, and she couldn't really blame him. But to know that if her father decided to not hire him after all, he would walk away from her case with never a qualm … that hurt, just a little bit, deep inside.

    "Excellent." Mr Sacke turned to the front page of his notepad. "Now, with this incident you've mentioned in October, just after you started this log of events, you're sure that a teacher witnessed it?"

    "Let me see." Taylor took her collected sheets. She was pretty sure she knew what he was talking about, but it was a good idea to refresh her memory. "Oh, yeah. Mr Gladly and Ms Marsden came around the corner just after Sophia shoulder-checked me into the wall and Emma took my backpack. I was still getting up, and they both looked at me, then kept going."

    "Hmm." Taylor couldn't tell if it was a good 'hmm' or bad 'hmm', but Mr Sacke made another notation on his pad. "Alright, then, about these emails. Which of these would've been sent during school hours?"

    "Oh, right." Taylor turned to the correct page and tapped the notation. "That there's the timestamp for when it was sent. I can highlight the right ones, if you want."

    "Oh, I see. No, that'll be fine. I have a secretary to do things like that." Mr Sacke chuckled again. "Depending on the volume that get sent during class, we might be able to nail the computer studies teacher for negligence."

    Taylor wasn't sure she liked that idea. Mrs Knott's class was her favourite time of the day. "Weren't we going to be focusing on Principal Blackwell?"

    Mr Sacke nodded. "Certainly. Every staff member we can present as being negligent in their duty of care strengthens our case against Ms Blackwell herself. If they're not doing their jobs right, she's not doing hers right. Understand?"

    "Damn right," Danny agreed. "So, have you made any headway in contacting the Real Thing? If they can testify they found Taylor actually locked in the locker, it would totally sink her lie about the door not being secured, right?"

    "Absolutely." Mr Sacke nodded. "I've put my feelers out and even asked the PRT for a contact number, but it appears they're not taking calls from the public yet. Still, I'll keep trying. Now, let's take a look at November of last year …"



    Danny got in the car and closed the door; Taylor already had her seatbelt fastened. "Hey," he said. "Don't look so down. This sort of thing is a process, not a one-and-done. Real world lawsuits don't get wrapped up in time for the credits to roll."

    "Yeah." Taylor looked across at him. "I just … for the longest time, I held all this back because I thought I could fix it myself, and then I thought I could wait them out, and then I just … letting them pull that crap on me became my go-to move, because nothing else had worked. The more it went on, the more it piled up, the more I knew it would hurt you when you found out. And you've got enough on your plate as it is." All this was true, but there was more to it. She just didn't know if she could bring herself to express it yet.

    "Taylor." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Honey. We're here for each other. I'm here for you. For the longest time I wasn't, and that's on me. I failed you, and we both know it. But that part's done. We're moving forward. I refuse to let them win."

    "Which 'them'?" asked Taylor, grinning despite her dark thoughts. "Emma and her asshole friends, or Blackwell?"

    He smirked and started the car. "Yes."


    That Evening

    Taylor finished her lasagne and pushed her chair back. "That was nice, Dad. Thanks."

    "You're welcome." Despite his light tone, he looked at her carefully. "Are you okay? You still look a little down."

    "It's nothing." She shook her head, not wanting to burden him. "But I think I might go for a walk."

    Turning in his seat, he looked out the window. Taylor followed his gaze; the sun was down, but it wasn't totally dark yet. "Just a short walk," he said. "And take your pepper spray with you, okay?"

    "I've got it right here," she assured him, pulling out the keychain canister that he'd given her. "I'm thinking I'll go around the block."

    "Uh huh." His expression was still concerned. "If you're gone more than fifteen minutes, I'm coming looking."

    "I'll be fine," she said. "This isn't Winslow. We live in a good neighbourhood. Nobody sells drugs, or steals cars, or even speeds."

    "Not exactly a high bar," he said dryly. "Look, I can put some walking shoes on and come with."

    "No." She shook her head. "I just need to … process. Everything. Get my head back in the game. And I can't do that with someone else there."

    Although it wasn't aimed at him, she still felt guilty when his face fell. "Okay, Taylor. Just remember. Around the block and straight back. No more than fifteen minutes."

    "Absolutely." Standing up, she slipped the pepper spray back into her pocket. She knew she only had a small window of opportunity before he thought of a reason to not let her go out, so she didn't waste any time. Thirty seconds later, she was letting herself out through the back gate.


    Two Miles Away
    Uber and Leet

    The engine rumbled under the hood with every press of the gas pedal, and blue flames shot out of the flared exhaust pipes. Uber glanced across at Leet, both grinning like maniacs. As they waited for the light to turn green, the Snitch flitted across in front of them, getting a good visual of the waiting cars.

    "Do you feel the need?" yelled Leet in his high reedy voice.

    Uber held in the clutch, slammed it into first gear, and revved the engine again. "The need!" he bellowed over the resultant roar.

    "The need ... for speed!" they chorused.

    Half a second later, the light changed, and Uber let out the clutch. As the Snitch smacked into Leet's outstretched hand, the car took off across the intersection in a howling maelstrom of tyre smoke and fishtailing.

    They roared off down the road at speeds that went straight past 'unsafe' and got the attention of 'downright perilous'. The other cars swerved out of the way, sometimes colliding with each other and occasionally running straight up onto the pavement, as they rocketed past in a cloud of smoke and a glare of blue exhaust flame. Leet cackled like a maniac as he hand-panned the Snitch from side to side.

    "Uh, oh," said Uber as flashing blue and red lights cut out of a side street they'd just passed, and accelerated hard after them. "We got the cops already."

    "What, seriously?" whined Leet. "We weren't even halfway through the run! Can you lose 'em?"

    "Bears, woods," Uber replied with a tight grin. "They can't match us with their cars, and they sure as fuck can't match me behind the wheel."

    "Aww, man," Leet bitched. "Now I'm gonna have to bleep that out."

    "Bleep whatever you need to," Uber retorted, throwing the car into a four-wheel drift to get around a corner. "Just make sure you catch me losing these losers."

    "Shit!" yelled Leet, pointing ahead, where two more cop cars had just turned on their bubblegum lights. "You're gonna need to lose those, too!"

    "Piece of …" grunted Uber, horsing the car around another corner, "… cake." Once more on the straightaway, he applied pedal to metal, and the car responded with gratifying alacrity.

    They were well into residential housing now, away from Leet's planned track, but that didn't matter. Blazing down empty streets, peeling around corners like they were on rails, that was what the game was all about. But the pursuing cops were still coming on; the sirens were audible even over the roar of the engine.

    "Cut across that park!" yelled Leet, pointing ahead to where a park had been built into the corner of a residential block. Directly ahead was a T-junction, so the park was their best chance of getting around the corner without losing too much speed. And if they demolished part of a playground going across, who cared? The car was built tough to deal with crap like that.

    "Got it!" Uber downshifted and swung the wheel, aiming to maintain enough speed to pull away from the cops. There was a swing-set in the way, but it wouldn't even slow them down.

    They didn't see the girl until it was far too late.



    The cool breeze whispered past her ear as she strolled down the sidewalk. It was nice out here in the lowering dark with street-lights coming on, along with the lit-up windows in the houses she was passing by. Alone at last, she was able to properly concentrate on what was bothering her.

    It wasn't the banality of the lawsuit, or even the fact that their lawyer was literally in it for the money; if someone else had hired him, he would be pursuing her and her father with an equal amount of zeal. This shouldn't have been news to her. She was old enough to know how the world worked. The only altruistic heroes out there were the ones in actual costumes, like the Real Thing.

    Reaching the point on the block farthest from her house, she looked across the street to where a small neighbourhood park sat silent and empty. When she was younger, her mother and Mrs Barnes had taken her and Emma to this park, where they'd played for hours while the two women relaxed and chatted. From what she could see, it was a little run-down from those days, but the nostalgia was still there.

    Making a snap decision, she checked both ways cursorily before crossing the street and entered the park. There was a convenient swing-set that she plonked her butt down into, making sure the pepper spray was ready to hand. Slowly, gently, she began to swing back and forth.

    Her problem was that, even with all the pain and suffering she'd undergone, there would be no genuine consequences for everyone who'd wronged her. Punishment in kind was just not going to happen. They'd call it justice but it wouldn't be, not really.

    Winslow almost certainly had some sort of fund they used to pay for lawsuits, and Alan Barnes probably wouldn't even miss whatever payout he was ordered to make. Or, they'd just keep appealing over and over until her father ran out of money or they got a verdict they liked.

    Even if I got the money, it still wouldn't make up for the shit I've been through.

    Back and forth, she swung. Back and forth. The sound of car engines drifted to her ears through some trick of the night air. She could hear sirens now too, but wasn't worried. Cop cars blaring sirens never came down her street.

    Sitting and brooding, she was caught utterly by surprise when the hotted-up car came roaring around the corner and down the narrow street toward the park. She froze, vaguely wondering what they were going to do when they reached the end of the street, because there was no way they'd be turning at that speed. And then the car swerved toward her.

    "Shi—!" Eyes widening, she tried to leap up from the swing, but fumbled her grab at the chain. In the last split-second as the front wheels came up over the curb and the car lanced across the playground to the swing-set, she had time to form the thought, Dad is going to be so pissed.

    The car smashed into her … and entirely redefined the concept of 'crumple zone'. The left-hand headlight shattered, its remains driven back into the body as the impact bent the chassis. Spinning around to Taylor's left, the car flipped up and rolled. With a final crash and shattering sound, the redirected vehicle demolished a merry-go-round and ended up on its roof.

    Taylor hadn't moved.

    "—it!" she finished, then blinked. Looking down at herself, she saw that part of the swing-set frame—and chain—was moulded to her body, the clothing underneath unmarred. She peeled it off, then headed over to where the car lay, one front wheel spinning gently in the night air. The sirens were definitely closer by now.

    "Hey," she called out, leaning down and pulling the nearest door clear off its hinges with a metallic tearing noise. "Anyone alive in there?"

    Groans answered her, and she nodded. Okay, they're fine. Good. I don't need to deal with this shit, on top of everything else.

    Discarding the door, she crossed the street again and continued on her walk. An intense curiosity was welling up within her as to exactly what had happened back there, but she firmly told it to shut up. The last thing she needed was that sort of publicity.

    As she strode along briskly, one thought kept running through her head.

    Powers. Holy shit, I've got powers.


    Sergeant Phil Goldman, BBPD

    Phil stood back and observed as the paramedics carefully extracted Uber and Leet from the wreckage of their car. It was totalled; the entire front driver's side corner had been driven back into the body like they'd collided with a wrecking ball or something. The problem was, he couldn't see what they'd hit. A concrete pillar was his first guess, but there was no such pillar nearby.

    And then he heard the sound which told him it Wasn't His Problem Anymore. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Armsmaster's iconic cycle easing to a halt at the side of the road. Not far behind him was a PRT van with its distinctive paint job.

    The armoured hero climbed off his bike and strode over to meet Phil. "Evening," he said. "How are they?"

    "Paramedics say nothing serious," Phil reported. "They had five-point straps, and their airbags went off just fine. A few muscle strains, maybe a couple of light fractures. Chances are, they won't even need the hospital. You'll be able to toss them straight in the cells."

    "Good." Armsmaster's jaw tightened. "Serves them right for driving dangerously in a residential area. What did they hit, anyway? That swing set would hardly have done so much damage."

    Phil pushed his cap to the back of his head. "Well now, there you've got me," he confessed. "They hit something, alright. That left front wheel looks about ready to fall off on its own. But I'm damned if I know what it was."

    "How long before you got here did they crash? And how did that door come off?" Armsmaster gestured toward the car door lying loose beside the car. "That damage pattern does not suggest it was torn off in the accident."

    "About forty-five seconds, maybe a minute." Phil shrugged. "Okay, chalk that up to another count of 'I have no idea'."

    "I do." Armsmaster led the way over the door. A purplish light sprang out of his gauntlet and illuminated the whole door, then narrowed down to a particular spot. "There."

    Phil leaned in and peered at the marks thus illuminated. "Are those … fingermarks? Did someone tear that door off?"

    "That's my guess. But they may have been wearing gloves, or generating a personal force field. No fingerprints." Armsmaster sounded mildly disappointed.

    "So it was a cape? A Brute?" Phil looked around at the swing set. "They were standing there when the car came around the corner, mounted the curb, and hit them. The car basically broke, then flipped over. This person ripped the door off, then … what? Flew away?"

    "It's a working theory. A non-flyer would've been knocked back, which would've reduced the impact. This person was basically like a stone wall." Armsmaster smiled tightly.

    Phil thought he knew where the hero was going with this. "An Alexandria package. Like Glory Girl."

    "Exactly like Glory Girl." Armsmaster held up a finger. "Excuse me. I need to make a call."

    As Phil headed back to his patrol car, he figured he knew exactly who Armsmaster was calling. And if Glory Girl had been out and about, and had left the scene before the authorities showed, she was probably going to be in a bit of trouble.

    Teenagers. He rolled his eyes. They were bad enough going out and crashing cars without powers.



    The back gate twanged while Danny was leaning out the front door, looking to see if he could spot where the sirens were coming from. He closed the door and hurried down the entrance hall to the kitchen, opening the back door just before Taylor could put her key into the lock from the outside. To his enormous relief, she looked hale and hearty.

    "Are you okay?" he asked, trying not to let anxiety tinge his voice. "There were sirens."

    "I'm fine," she assured him. "Some idiot was roaring around the neighbourhood in a souped-up car. I expect the police were chasing him. As soon as it started getting too close, I came home."

    "Good, good," he said, relief flooding his body. "Did you manage to work things out?"

    She smiled. "Yeah. I think I've got a new perspective on things now."



    "Console to Armsmaster. I've contacted Brandish, and she swears up and down that Glory Girl has been on patrol with her around the College campus for the last half hour."

    "Armsmaster copies," Colin replied. "I've managed to access the stored memory for the forward mounted cameras, and I have imagery of the unknown cape. Concur that it's not Glory Girl."

    He stared at the picture in his HUD, of a person—his software tentatively identified the visual profile as teenager, female—outlined in the headlights just before impact. To Uber's credit, he'd been turning the wheel to avoid the girl, but there just hadn't been enough time, distance or traction to do so.

    Of the girl herself, Colin could make out no details. Solid white, with some odd discolourations here and there, she was basically a girl-shaped blaze of white against the darkness beyond. More filtering of the image might help, but he wasn't confident about that.

    Who are you? he wondered. And just how strong are you?

    End of Part Nine
  27. Puck McSnuggins

    Puck McSnuggins Getting sticky.

    Aug 12, 2016
    Likes Received:
    Innnnnnnteresting. So Taylor projects Sibby onto herself much like Gloryhole's forcefield, except Taylor's doesn't crack under pressure.
  28. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Versed in the lewd.

    Aug 21, 2016
    Likes Received:
    That’s not just immovable object, that’s active repulsion of kinetic energy. If it had been just immovability and indestructibility, the car would have been wrapped around her like it hit a tree, and she’d have been trapped within it until she tore her way out. But it stopped and crumpled like it hit a flat wall!

    The next person to try to slap or trip her is going to break every bone in whatever appendage they make contact with - hand, foot, whatever. :eek:
  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    No, Uber was trying to swerve away so she only caught the driver's side front corner. That crushed all the way back to the axle (bending the chassis to hell and gone) and then momentum spun the car around her and flipped it over a couple of times.

    If it had hit her dead centre, yeah. She would've been basically wearing it. And U&L would've been sharing the front seat with the engine block.

    This is not to say that anyone trying to mess with her won't be in a world of hurt. Just not that bad.
  30. Threadmarks: Part Ten: Revelations

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

    Feb 12, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Earning Her Stripes

    Part Ten: Revelations

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by Fizzfaldt and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal].

    Friday Evening
    Barnes Household Garage

    I should really let Dad and Mom know that I'm an actual superhero these days. That way, I won't have to sneak around.

    Emma heaved the last piece of her ad hoc obstacle course into place, then paused to survey her efforts. Composed of empty crates, old tyres, ropes dangling from the rafters, and lengths of wood to balance on, it would be problematic for all but a professional parkour artist to navigate at speed. Except that was what she was, these days. As well as a professional everything else.

    Anything that required physical coordination or endurance—or both—she could do in spades, all day long. And while she wouldn't be as strong as a male bodybuilder of the same weight—she knew about unequal distribution of muscle mass—it was a given that she'd be able to kick the ass of said hypothetical bodybuilder if he tried to push her around. It seemed her power had gone inward instead of outward, boosting her to the next level and keeping her there. No single thing she did was actually impossible for a normal human to achieve … but she could do all of it, and keep doing it.

    She dusted off her hands and eyed the first crate, then launched herself onto it. Diving through the tyre she'd balanced on its treads, she did a handspring and a half-flip to end up balanced on top of the first beam. So far, all this was just going by the numbers; when she wanted to do something acrobatic, her body either did it or told her why it was impossible. Not a hell of a lot was impossible for her, these days, either.

    Running along the balance beam, she threw herself forward into a handstand and pushed off so that her legs encountered the first dangling rope before the rest of her body. As if she'd practised it a hundred times, her bare toes hooked around it and she wrapped it around her lower leg. This let her swing forward, then release just in time to perform a backflip and land on the next crate.

    That was when her phone rang. Not her personal phone, either. She'd paid attention to Sophia's advice on the matter, and gotten a cheap burner phone. This one was specifically for anything to do with the Real Thing; each of them had one, and nobody used their real name when texting.

    Jumping off the crate, she retrieved the phone and checked the number. It wasn't one she knew, but that didn't mean much. Silently promising that if it was someone wanting to sell her extra warranty on the car she didn't own, she would hunt them down and feed them their own phone, she swiped the answer icon. "Hello, Firebird speaking."

    "Ah, good evening, Firebird." The voice was that of a woman, but again not someone she recognised. "My name is Katarina Lombard; I represent KaLo Private Investigations, Incorporated. The PRT gave this to me for your team contact number. May I have a moment of your time?"

    Emma frowned. "That depends," she said cautiously. "What's this about?"

    Her father used private investigators from time to time, she knew that much. Even though they were in an all-party state when it came to using a recording in court, she also knew that non-police recordings could absolutely be used as evidence. So, she had to assume she was being recorded from the word go.

    The second thing she knew was that PI's didn't just blindly call people, hoping to learn something out of the blue. This Lombard woman was after something, and until Emma learned what, it was a bad idea to just relax and start talking.

    "I'd like to ask you about your rescue of Taylor Hebert from her locker at Winslow High School, the other day. There's a few details I need to clear up for my client."

    Emma thought fast. This could be good or bad. On the downside, they hadn't actually rescued Taylor from the locker, but as she'd fallen unconscious in front of it, claiming that they had was about the limit of credit they could draw from the situation. However, on the upside, private investigators didn't work for the cops. This woman's client was almost certainly Danny Hebert, possibly looking into a potential lawsuit against the school.

    That was fine with Emma. Winslow's a shitheap and a dumpster fire, and they really should've pulled us up before we went so far with Taylor.

    Her thoughts stuttered to a halt. Where the hell did that come from?

    She'd think about that later. Right now, the Lombard woman was waiting for an answer. "Go ahead and ask. I don't promise to answer. Also, just to check, you're recording this, right? In case you weren't aware, I haven't given my permission for that."

    The woman's chuckle settled it for Emma; she was definitely recording. "Understood. How did you know Taylor Hebert was trapped inside her own locker?"

    Emma drew a deep breath. Time to lie my ass off. Weirdly enough, she was better at that these days, too. "I didn't know her name before you told me just now. We were patrolling when my teammate Blockade picked up her cries for help via a Tinkertech microphone built into their power armour."

    "Mmm, okay. That must be useful. Just out of curiosity, why weren't you in school at the time?"

    Fortunately, Emma had already worked out an answer for that one. "Ms Lombard, I'm not about to divulge any information that might give an indication of my real age, or social situation. Please refrain from asking any more questions of that nature."

    "Ahh, I see." Well, she didn't, but Emma's subtle hint was intended to make to think she did. "What happened after you located the locker in question?"

    Emma was pretty sure she knew where this was going. Time to set sail on the USS Utter Bullshit. "Why did we wreck it? Well, it wasn't a huge locker, and we had no idea how tall the student inside was, so I gave Blockade the all-clear to peel away the obstacles from all sides, and then open it like a can-opener. Minimise the chances of hurting whoever was inside. As it was, she was unconscious by the time we got her out. Shock, I think. Personally, I suspect severe claustrophobia. Kids these days can be so cruel." An impulse made her add, "So, uh, how's she doing?"

    "I'm sorry, I'm not kept informed of that side of things. I believe she's recovering, though. So, I have to ask you, why didn't you just open the door and let her out?"

    This was where it got dicey. "Well, it had a padlock on the door, and I'm pretty sure that the door had a built-in lock as well." That last part was bullshit, but with any luck, Lombard wouldn't see it as suspicious. "So, we decided to go with the method we knew for a fact would work."

    "I see." There was a pause. Emma heard a rustle, as though a notebook page had been turned. "There was a padlock on the door? Are you certain?"

    Emma froze. Shit. The question was as good as a lit-up neon sign saying THERE WAS NO PADLOCK ON THE DOOR. And she couldn't just backtrack on what she'd just said. "Are, uh, are you saying there wasn't?"

    "That's what my client says the school is claiming. Are you saying there was one on there?"

    So, they weren't certain. Emma allowed herself to sag ever so slightly in relief. That gave her some leeway. "There sure was. I saw it with my own eyes. As for why the school might be claiming otherwise …" Time to lay a false trail. Because she could make a damn good guess what had really happened to the padlock she had put on the door.

    "I'm listening."

    And now comes the tricky part
    . She needed to ask questions to suggest that something had happened while not actually telling a single untruth. "You're probably aware that Winslow isn't actually a great school. In fact, it's a crappy school. Something like this happens? They're going to try to shift blame off themselves as hard as possible. Kids who get locked into lockers aren't the popular ones. They're the loners, the outcasts, the ones everyone else feels comfortable with bullying." She grimaced as she felt a twinge of unaccustomed guilt. I sure felt comfortable bullying her. But she couldn't dwell on that right now. "So, if one of these loners gets shut in their own locker, is the school going to try to find the perpetrator, or are they just going to try to make it go away? Up to and including faking evidence to 'prove' the victim wasn't really a victim after all? Such as unlocking a padlock when there's no witnesses around to say otherwise?"

    There was a long pause, then Ms Lombard came back on the line. "Are you saying this is what happened?"

    Emma knew what to say to that. "No, because I didn't see it happen. I'm offering it as a possibility. Because I know damn well there was a padlock on that locker when I got there."

    "Understood. Just a couple more questions. Did you see any containers lying around? Glass bottles or anything like that?"

    "No, there was nothing like that when we got there." Mainly because the vial, firmly stoppered, had been back in Sophia's bag by that point.

    "Alright then, how about Ms Hebert's physical condition. You said she was unconscious. Do you think that may have been the result of being drugged?"

    As tempting as it was to say yes, Emma knew there was only one answer she could give. "I'm sorry, I'm not an expert on that. We put her into the recovery position, waited for a teacher to show up, then left." Sneaking back into the school after that hadn't been hard, given the number of students milling around. Nobody had even suspected their absence.

    "Still, that's useful information. Thank you, Firebird. Would you be able to give me the numbers for your team members, in case they have any more details you may have forgotten?"

    "Sorry, no," she said firmly. "I've been chosen as the public-facing team member, so everything like this has to go through me." This way, we can keep our stories straight. Besides, Sophia didn't do so well with talking to the public, and Madison didn't want anyone knowing that it was a petite teenage girl inside the Blockade armour.

    "Alright, then. Thank you again; you've definitely helped clear up some points. Hopefully I won't have to bother you again."

    "It's not a problem," Emma said, though she wasn't totally telling the truth there as well. She did have a problem, but it wasn't with Katarina Lombard. "I hope your clients nail Winslow to the wall."

    There was a smile in Ms Lombard's voice when she answered. "I can't comment on an ongoing investigation, but I'll definitely pass that on."

    The call ended, and Emma sat glaring at her phone. What the fuck? I mean seriously, what the fuck?

    Given the strong likelihood that Sophia had removed the lock from the door as a fuck-you to Taylor (because she would absolutely do that), Emma was strongly tempted to call her teammate and give her both barrels, but she refrained for the simple reason that Sophia would blow her off all day long. She might even hang up if Emma started pushing too hard. This is going to have to be a face-to-face thing. With Madison there as a witness. Because for fuck's sake.


    Saturday Morning

    It was odd, knowing she didn't have to go to school for the next two weeks.

    Or, to put it another way, it was freaking awesome. For the third morning in a row (okay, it was Saturday, but that was beyond the point) Taylor indulged herself with a lie-in, then got up and had a leisurely shower before strolling downstairs to where her father was cooking breakfast. "Morning," she greeted him cheerily.

    "Morning yourself, kiddo," he said with an answering smile. "You're looking happy. That walk last night must've done you a lot of good."

    She shrugged. "Well, part of it's knowing that for the next two weeks I don't have to worry about anyone at Winslow pulling their crap on me, whether it's Emma, Sophia, Madison, Julia or that two-faced Blackwell." She'd had to swallow a few insults while she was saying that; not because she thought she'd shock her father, but because she didn't want to force him to not hear it.

    "You know, they still might decide to change it to an in-school suspension," he said, though the quirk of his eyebrows told her he'd probably picked up on what she hadn't said. "Which means you'd be back in the thick of it."

    "Screw that," she retorted immediately. "I'm not going back in there to give them a whole new series of chances to mess with me in ways I can't just walk away from. I'll read ahead in my textbooks at home, but if they try to tell you I've got to go in, tell 'em I don't feel safe in there."

    "I can do that," he agreed. "And honestly, I don't blame you. Their record so far has been appalling, and this latest incident is just the icing on the cake."

    "For a definition of 'icing' and 'cake' that's not fit for human consumption," she agreed so dryly that he snorted in amusement.

    "You're not wrong. So, would you like to come in to work with me today?"

    She shook her head. "I think I might take the bus in to the library, and get some study done there. It's nice and quiet, and their internet's better than ours."

    "That's fair." He started splitting up the bacon and eggs between them. "Just be home before dark, okay? That speeding car from last night utterly trashed the swing set in the playground at the other end of the block. They say it was Uber and Leet, but copycats are a thing, and I'm worried that they might have set a dangerous precedent."

    "Thanks," she said, accepting the plate from him. "No, the last thing I want to do is end up as a statistic because some meathead decided to do zero to sixty in a residential area with blind corners." Which was precisely what had nearly happened, but for her powers. Whatever they really were.

    "Mmm," he agreed. They ate breakfast in silence, Danny reading the paper in fits and starts, and Taylor mulling over her own thoughts.

    Afterward, Danny helped stack everything in the sink, then gave Taylor what she'd dubbed his 'smartass Dad' grin. "New house rule. People who get to stay home do the washing up."

    "Really." She rolled her eyes. "You were just waiting to roll that one out, weren't you?"

    "Mayyybe." Reaching out, he ruffled her hair, ignoring her attempt to bat his hand away. "Take care. See you tonight."

    "See you then." She watched as he went out the back door, then locked it behind him. The house was so old that an actual key was needed to lock or unlock any of the outside doors, but the key was hanging alongside it, so she'd be able to unlock it anytime she needed to. Filling the sink, she made sure the balance of hot versus cold water was just barely tolerable, then squirted in some detergent.

    Washing the dishes was a pleasantly mindless exercise that allowed her to plan her next move. She would go to the library as she'd told her father, but not immediately. First, she wanted to do something else.

    Once the dishes were dried and put away and the stove, countertop and table were wiped down, she paused in thought. There was a sewing kit on top of the fridge that had been there longer than Taylor could remember. Opening it, she found a needle she could use. Then she went down into the basement to find her father's old toolbox. Danny was an on-again/off-again DIY semi-enthusiast, but on the level of replacing the broken leg of a chair rather than remodelling the bathroom. Along with everything else, the box held a heavy ballpeen hammer, which Taylor thoughtfully weighed in her hand.

    The memory came to her of walking through the school corridor, with Blackwell literally hanging off her back, and not having to work any harder to move forward. I wonder …

    Dropping the hammer back into the toolbox, she took hold of the handle. From the volume of tools in it, she knew it had to weigh about as much as she did. There was no way she could lift it unaided.

    Bracing herself, she heaved upward … and stared in astonishment as she easily hoisted it off the ground.

    "Oh, no way," she murmured. Putting it down, she hefted it again, just as easily.

    Then she tried with three fingers, ignoring her thumb and pinky.

    It lifted off the floor yet again. She couldn't feel any extra strain.

    "Okay, let's see how ridiculous I can get," she said out loud, and hooked just her pinky under the handle.

    And lifted the toolbox.

    Despite everything that had gone before, she had to stare with incredulity at the metal box suspended from her pinky finger, five feet off the floor. There was no appreciable strain on her finger; she felt she could do this all day.

    "You've got to be shitting me," she began, flexing her finger. That was a mistake; her finger might have been able to support it just fine, but the grip wasn't perfect. "Shit!" she gasped, as the toolbox fell clear. Straight down, five feet, onto the bare toes of her right foot. The clang echoed through the basement.

    Taylor stared at where the toolbox lay across her toes. There was no pain, nor any other sensation other than mild pressure. The light down in the basement wasn't great; a yellowing bulb hanging next to the stairs. But if her eyes weren't deceiving her, there was something white covering her foot just under where the toolbox had landed on her.

    Keeping her eyes on the white covering, she reached down and hefted the toolbox away. She'd seen correctly; covering her toes, and a little way up her foot, was an undercoat of gloss white that followed every contour down to her toenails, almost as though she'd dipped her foot in enamel paint. Overlaid on the white, or so it seemed, were odd black lines that almost looked like the rainbow lines visible in oily water. She wriggled her toes; the white covering wriggled as well, the black markings shifting back and forth as if alive.

    Go away, she thought. The white covering vanished, as though it had never been. Her toes looked perfectly normal in its absence. Come back. It reappeared. The black markings were different again.

    Crouching, she used the needle to jab at the white covering. It stopped solid after giving her the tiniest sensation of pressure. Then she told the covering to go away, and jabbed again.

    "Ow!" The needle had punctured her skin, not far enough to draw blood, but definitely far enough to cause pain. It was clear that she could do something that hurt herself deliberately, but by accident? No.

    She stood up again, and imagined the white covering enveloping her feet up to the knees. An instant later—there was literally zero lag time between wanting it and seeing it—it was in place. Eyeing the toolbox, she gave it a light kick with the same foot she'd dropped it on.

    Flying across the basement, the toolbox crashed into the far wall. The lid came open, and tools cascaded everywhere. From the way it was lying, she could see the huge dent she'd kicked into the side of it.

    Her jaw dropped. "Well, I'll be fucked."

    Holding the needle up against the side-frame of the stairs, she pushed with her thumb. Where normally it would've dug painfully into the pad of her thumb, this time she was able to effortlessly push it into the hard wood up to half its length. Leaving it there, she went across to the toolbox and righted it. She smoothed out the new dents in the metal with her thumb—holy fuck, being a Brute on command is amazingthen she loaded all the tools back into it and stashed it back where she'd gotten it from.

    Okay, she decided. Let's see how hard I can really hit now. She'd never thrown a serious punch in her life, but she had a vague idea how it went. Folding her fingers around her thumb, she found the darkest corner of the basement—her father might notice a patch of cracked concrete anywhere else—and called up the black and white covering over her hand. Then she swung her fist at the wall with all her strength.

    With a tremendous crash that shook the house, she found her arm buried up to the shoulder in the wall. Pulling it out again was no real effort, and she noticed that the black and white covering had extended over her T-shirt sleeve, protecting it from the abrasion of the concrete. She stared at the hole disbelievingly, shaking her head. It had literally been like punching a barrier made of tissue paper. There had been zero real resistance whatsoever.

    "Holy motherfucking shitballs," she murmured. In the back of her mind, some part of her thought she should be freaking out harder than this, but she shrugged the idea off. This was big. This was huge. There was no time to run around in circles gibbering in shock.

    This is how I got out of the locker, she realised. In an instant, she called up the covering all over her. Just as she recalled, she couldn't see or hear a thing, and neither could she breathe. Need air, she decided, and breathing slits opened. And light. With that, she could see. Sound, too. Her ears suddenly worked again.

    "This is how it happened." The parting-cobwebs sensation had been far too familiar; smashing a hole shoulder-deep in the concrete wall had felt exactly like when she was in the locker, and had lost touch with the outside world. "It locked me off from everything until I passed out from lack of air."

    Excitement rose in her chest, along with bubbling laughter. It all made sense now. So very much sense.

    After a minute or so, she decided to get back to business. Dismissing the full-body covering, she reached out and plucked the needle from the stairs. Then she headed up to the kitchen.

    With the needle—amazingly undamaged, considering what she'd put it through—back in the sewing kit, she went into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Okay, she mused, if I got myself out of the locker, why did the Real Thing say that they did it? What have they got to do with all this?

    Putting a pin in that question, she dismissed it until such time as she had a member of the Real Thing to ask it of. Then she checked that the windows were curtained, and held her hand in front of her. Calling up the white covering, she experimented with the black markings; dispelling them altogether, creating a circuit-board pattern, bee stripes, skunk stripes, fish scales, cheetah markings, and then full black. When she decided on a pattern, it stayed, but when she didn't have one in mind, it tended to go back to the oil-on-water configuration. The other interesting aspect was that she could contour the white covering to make her hand look larger, give her webbing or claws, or even make it into an animalistic paw, so long as it didn't go more than an inch from her skin.

    This absolutely has potential, she decided with a grin of pure satisfaction. Now all I have to do is figure out exactly what I want to do with it.

    End of Part Ten
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2022