It wrenched open the locker, and caught me when I tumbled out, even if it dropped me right after and let out an audible "Eeuggh!"
"Ah- crap. Sorry, just- hm." the creature- its definitely not human, whatever it is, circles me, considering things, as it idly shakes one of its over-sized glove-clad hands. "Ah, whatever!" he lifts me up, and begins running.
"What's going on?" I ask, shocked, "Who are you, where are we going?"
"To the gym locker room." he replies, "First things first, you need different clothes, and a shower. Immediately." he says, before grimacing down at himself, "I need one too."
I feel a bit more relieved, and once I'm actually under the at least somewhat warm spray of water, I feel human again. The creature- my savior, whoever he is. Agh! Case 53, that's it. No wonder he helped me, he's probably a new Ward. Though I have no idea what he's doing here. This is Winslow.
In the girl's gym locker room.
I suddenly become a bit self-conscious, but, considering he might have just saved my life- I glance over to him, and he's not looking my way, focusing on rubbing the gunk out of his gloves. -I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Either way, even though I don't feel completely clean, I get out of the water.
And he's gone.
It's almost a week before anything else strange happens. The police were called, I was investigated. As soon as I mention the Case 53 who saved me, the PRT suddenly becomes very interested. There's a bit of investigation into who shoved me in, of course, but I know how these things go. It's already on record that I have repeatedly "falsely accused" the trio for their various bitchy acts of hatred, so I don't bother. Mainly, they ask questions about him.
I tell them everything I know, which isn't much. They pester me about him for a few days, but considering how little I actually know, they probably would have assumed I had made him up if it wasn't for the fact that even a glance at the locker shows that something pushed its fingers into the metal and tore it from its hinges from the outside, ripping the lock out with it.
As it is, things calm down.
I stay home from school for three days and come back on Friday. I avoid the girls as best I can, and get the number for my new locker from the office. I pointedly don't go near it when other people are in sight. Hopefully, if they don't know which is mine, they can't mess with it.
My hopes hadn't been answered, however, as when I do go looking for it, at lunch, I see Sophia and Emma talking to each other, wrapped up in their own conversation. Along with three of their hangers-on. It might be that they just happened to be hanging out, that they don't know this is supposed to be my locker, but when one of the hangers-on finishes writing something in a card, she hands it to Sophia, who slips it in through the space on the top without thinking.
Rage boils inside of me. Not even one week, after their last big 'prank', and they're already being assholes again. I consider just not bringing anything of importance with me to school. They steal my backpack so often, deface my books, anything I carry on me. The locker used to be my defense. Things I left in there would be safe. But not any more.
Nowhere at this school was safe for anything of mine.
"HEY!" I startle in surprise, the masculine voice coming from behind me. I whip my head around, and stare in shock at the Case 53, who actually isn't looking at me. He stomps past my hiding place, standing in the center of the hall where they can all see him. He narrows his eyes, glaring at them. "What the heck do you think you're doing?!"
The girls are deathly quiet. Until Sophia, ever fearless, walks forward. "What the hell do you think you're doing? This is a public school, and I don't see your visitor pass. Get out of here before I call the cops. A freak like you, they'll probably have the Protectorate come and beat your ass too."
The red creature, about three and a half feet tall, bristles up, the long dreadlock-like things on his head raising up in aggression. His fists clench. His oversized feet are planted firmly in the ground in front of him. "I asked you a question. What were you doing, just now? Writing get-well letters?"
"It's none of your fucking business, freak." she pulled up her cellphone, and made a show of typing in 9 1 1. "Now leave, before I call the cops."
He drops into a crouch, before- well, it's like the center of his chest becomes his new center of gravity. He begins spinning like a wheel, faster and faster, until I can't make out features, just a red blur.
"MOVE!" Sophia shouts, shoving girls to the side, as the Case 53 suddenly launched himself down the hall like a meteorite!
He comes to a screeching- literally, he stopped spinning and righted himself mid-air before digging his feet into the ground to slow himself down -halt in the middle of where they were clustered before. He then turned towards the locker, and punched it. The entire row shuddered with the impact. The locker door swung open, luckily still on its hinges, and dozens of white cards poured out. I can't see them from here, but the Case 53 can, and he grimaces, before rounding on them. "Get the heck out of here, before I teach you a lesson!" the girls begin screaming, running. A few of them are heading my way, so I dart into an open classroom and press myself against the wall. I don't want to be implicated in any of this right now.
I wait there, until the lockdown alarm begins sounding. I decide to just remain where I am, and let everything blow over.
I stick with the story that I had been heading towards my locker when I heard the lockdown alarm, and jumped into the nearest empty room and closed the door. I don't mention having seen the red Case 53, letting the other girls tell their version of the story.
And boy, was that delicious.
They had to explain why there were in front of my locker, of course, and who had been writing all the hateful messages.
Emma and Sophia themselves managed to either shift, or convince the other girls to take the brunt of the blame, but hopefully it'll act as a bit of proof on my side, should I ever try to convince anyone of the truth, again.
The current theory is that he's not a Case 53, but rather one of those Capes who can transform into something else, or some kind of monster summoned by a Cape. That the mystery Cape is someone who goes to this school.
The PHO boards are calling him the Red Menace. Its a simple, boring, name. But something that caught on. And it wasn't like it wasn't true. He was, very clearly, red. The cell phone photos and witness accounts all attest to that. And he was a menace. The school and the Protectorate thought so, anyway.
But I think he's a hero. Maybe not the capital-H hero, if he was, he'd be out there fighting the gangs, rather than in here fighting the cliques. But he's definitely a little-h hero. Whenever the bitches do something especially hateful, he's suddenly there, shouting at people, threatening them- he hasn't hurt anyone, but the adults don't like it. A lot of the kids don't either.
The Protectorate arrived, during one of his more public rants, and he simply gestured at the girls, shouted, "They're the real jerks you should be arresting!" before fleeing. He was out of their sight for such a short time, but it was enough to get away completely.
I was worried that he was a stalker. Stalking me. After all, it was when Emma and Sophia were tormenting me in particular that he appeared most often. Although, I did see him go after them when they were being particularly nasty to other people, so the more likely answer was that as their worst-treated victim, I was the one he rescued the most.
As the school became more wary of him, Sophia began backing off from the bullying, before being pulled from classes entirely. She wasn't the first for it to happen to. Parents didn't like the idea of an unknown, out of protectorate control, parahuman willing to jump at regular humans in their children's school.
Emma however, took Sophia's dropping out hard. She tried twice as hard, but it was bearable. She had broken out so many insults in the time since she first betrayed our friendship that I was more-or-less immune to them, besides the worse. Whenever things really got physical, it had been Sophia doing the urging. The Red Menace stopped appearing, so much, so often.
It was rarely ever, now.
I was feeling a bit better. More willing to wear bright colors. Emma still tripped me or tried to spill things on me, but it wasn't a daily thing any more. I still had to deal with a constant barrage of insults, but words were just words.
Life felt like it got less complicated.
It was seeing Canberra on the news that made me realize the truth.
Seeing what was happening on the news. The Simurgh, descending on the city, hundreds of heroes rushing to fight against it. Dozens and dozens of whom would lose their lives in the process. No matter how many Endbringer attacks you live through, no matter how many you watch, it still hits hard when you see it.
It made me angry, that something like that could even exist.
And then those thoughts vanished as the Red Menace appeared from nothing, right in front of the television.
"Ahhh!" Dad screamed, staring at him.
"What the hell?!" I joined in, jumping to my feet.
The Red Menace however, mostly ignored us, staring at the television. "...Too far away." he muttered, before looking at me, "How would I get to Canberra?"
"How did you get in our house?!" Dad asked.
"She brought me here, obviously." he said, gesturing at me, "Now. Canberra, how do I get there?"
"I... I don't know." I say.
He grit his teeth, "People are dying! Doesn't it twist you up inside?!"
"But what can I do? I don't- I don't know how to get there! What would you even do against- that?"
He glares at the television, before snarling and stomping off.
"What are you doing?" I ask, hurrying after him, "What are you doing in our house? Why have you been following me- helping me?"
"Taylor?" Dad asks, following after us.
"Quiet!" the Menace barked, climbing the stairs, heading for my room.
"Don't go in there! That's my room!" I say, only to be stopped when Dad grabs me, keeping me from following him upstairs.
"That's the parahuman whose been attacking students at your school?" he asks quietly, staring hard at the stairway as the Red Menace disappeared up into the loft.
"The one whose been attacking the bullies at the school." I murmured, "He's- not all bad. He saved me from the locker, remember? Please don't call the police? I don't think he'll hurt us-" I stop as I hear the door to my bedroom opening above us.
"I think he's rooting through your closet." Dad said into the silence, before glancing at the landline.
"If we report a parahuman in here, then we'll be getting the PRT and maybe the Protectorate instead of the regular police, Dad." I say, "They'll destroy the house. Let's just... leave, for now. If he wants to rob us, then we should just get out of the way, we can't stop him right now."
"The Protectorate won't be here." comes the voice of the Red Menace, coming back down the stairs, looking as if he's not sure whether to be amused or irritated. "They're all in Canberra, helping, remember? And I'm not going to hurt either of you." he said, sounding insulted "I'm a Guardian." he points at me, "Her guardian."
"Why are you here?" Dad asked, "What made you think my daughter needs someone guarding her?"
"I told you. She called me here." he sighed, "And since I can't stop what's hurting her right now-" he looks angrily at the television, "I can stop something else that has been." he throws- oh god.
"What's this?" Dad asks.
"That's private." I growl, suddenly brave, angry. "You have no right." I snatch up the notebook filled with recordings of the past year of abuse.
"Then talk for goodness sake!" he said, glaring first at me, and then at Dad, "Look. I'll make this simple enough for everyone to understand." he points at me, "Whenever you're furious at the injustice of it all, or terrified, or miserable, you call me, I appear, and I try to kiss-" he slams his knuckles together, shaking the entire room "-everything all better."
"I... I have powers?"
"Sure. Except I'm the real one with powers." he says proudly, "Look. Since I can't do anything about that monster, you're the one I have to do something about." he says, pointing to Dad now.
"Look, just- that's enough. I'll talk to him." I interrupt, looking at him, "You... you can go away."
"I don't take orders from you." he says, sneering, "If you were any good at protecting yourself, you wouldn't need me!" he shrugs, "But sure. I'll leave this alone for now. I'm sure I can find something to do until I vanish." he glances at the notebook, "If you're going to talk to him, do you want me to get rid of that?"
"...I'll hold onto it." the Red Menace shrugged again, before heading for the door. Opening it, stepping out into the street, and dashing away.
Dad stares at the open door, before walking over to it, looking a bit confused and numb, and closing it, then locking it. He turns back to me, and sits back down in the chair, before idly clicking a button on the remote to silence the television.
"...What was he talking about?"
"Dad, there's something I should tell you."
Dad didn't take it well, of course.
Explanations were made, about what happened leading up to the locker and afterwards. How the bullying became bearable, once Sophia was gone, but still present. Still a nuisance. Dad worked himself up into a rage, and it was somehow so sad, that the first time he managed to garner up some kind of emotional response for me since Mom is hatred for the people hurting me.
I wonder if Dad ever triggered, if he'd be a Red Menace himself.
Dad has paid more attention to me lately. I knew that the school wouldn't listen, so I didn't want to press for legal stuff, although Dad wanted to rip Blackwell and almost all my teachers a new one. He had a number of stressful, terse, conversations with Alan Barnes that more-or-less managed to remain civil.
Dad didn't threaten trying to take any legal action, and Alan didn't either. Just a quiet promise he would have a talk with his daughter.
School wasn't pleasant, by any means, but Emma quieted down a bit too. I was merely hated at school, rather than actively oppressed. Madison would occasionally mess with my books, but as Emma's vitriol died down, that did too.
Life... was okay.
Unfortunately, that was just the normal part of it. I was a Cape now, although one with-
Well not a useless power, but a very hard to manage one. I enjoyed having some modicum of control over things, but this power was anything but! I had to be extremely emotional just to make the Red Menace appear, and once he was there, he just did what he saw fit. He seemed to actively laugh whenever I tried to control him, either through outright "Do as I command, minion!" or manipulation.
I think he could read my mind, or at least, could remember what I remember, but I can't do anything similar for him.
But part of being a hero was being prepared, and I did want to be hero. That meant learning how my abilities worked. Learning how to force him into making an appearance was what I started with.
Luckily, I had plenty of memories to work off of. Working myself into a rage was almost pitifully easy. Finding out what the Menace can do is another thing entirely. His attitude is just... infuriating. I try to get him to show me his powers at the boat graveyard one night, but he remembered the area was controlled by the ABB, and so he just ran off to do what he wanted.
It took me summoning him at home and convincing him that me not being aware of his abilities would be dangerous for my health before he relented into actually talking to me and testing things out with me.
I wasn't that avid of a Cape fan nowadays, but if I was going to be a Cape, I should look into things. I checked out the PHO boards, to try and find details and things to compare against. As far as I can tell, he's a standard Alexandria package, if one on the weaker end, with a few other things.
He can't fly, really, but he can glide. Able to keep aloft for minutes at a time, falling as fast as he wants to, and being able to control the direction he can move. He can stick to walls like a spider, and was strong enough to easily punch through the steel hulls of the wrecks in the boat graveyard. He's an extremely fast runner, and has some kind of state where he could stop in mid-air to spin, increasing speed, before launching himself forward like a bullet.
He's also immortal.
He was very adamant about that. When I got around to awkwardly asking how durable he was, he told me flat-out to not worry about him dying. That was still an evening I didn't want to repeat. Letting him try to cut himself was just... gross. It felt wrong. He's more durable than a regular human, that's for sure. He even heals faster, or at least stops bleeding very quickly.
When he dies, he comes back without any ill effects. He doesn't look worn out, he doesn't carry the old wounds, he doesn't even seem very fazed.
Dad knows about my occasional trip to the boat graveyard, and while he doesn't much approve, he does understand that I want to figure out how to use my powers properly. I consider joining the Wards, but I'd like to get a better handle of what I'm actually supposed to and can do, first.
It helps that my power is literally "Instant Bodyguard."
I decide to head out for an actual attempt at super-heroing one night. My eventual plan is to join the Wards, but first, I want to get an idea of what I can do on my own before plunging into a world of teen drama exacerbated by powers.
As my power is really more of a long-range thing, I don't need a costume. I'm better served as only sticking around long enough that the Red Menace can get to whoever I want beaten up fast enough, and then getting out and not worrying about it. My power isn't suited for much else. To hide my identity, I have a wig, scarf, and hat. No one who sees me should think "Cape" or think "Taylor Hebert".
I bought myself a collapsible baton and some pepper spray, just in case someone attacks me while the Menace is already out and about somewhere else. And I head for ABB territory.
I had really been hoping for something small-scale.
I thought I found it, when I spotted the cigarette lighter briefly lighting up an Asian face, a flash of green and red colors decorating his clothes, among more people. More gang members.
As I moved closer, just a bit, I knew that this wasn't just a group of people who happened to be ABB just hanging out. These people were quiet, disciplined, waiting for something. More people were coming out of one of the nearby buildings, and I knew that this was a meeting, or something. Something big, anyway. Maybe bigger than I wanted to handle on my first night...
But then again, I could unleash the Red Menace, and walk away, without any real risk to myself. I was tempted. It wasn't how I think I liked to handle things, but it was something I could do. Maybe even what my power was best suited to.
I thought about what the ABB does. Is doing. The gangs make my father's life worse, make Winslow even shittier. They're a blight on the city, making girls disappear off the street.
I let myself get mad, and then the Red Menace is there. He acts just like he did in Winslow, before I knew he was my guardian. He doesn't look at me, even acknowledge that I'm there. He just starts walking forward.
I turn around, and begin to walk away, getting some distance. I won't run off completely, if he gets killed or runs out of time and disappears, I want to be close enough to remake him so he can keep fighting.
I hear shouts behind me, and the Red Menace's irritated, snarky, attitude-filled voice.
I'm only thirty feet away or so when the gunfire starts. I stop and get angry, to see if the Red Menace would appear, already, if he had been shot, but he doesn't. And then more gunfire follows, and more.
And then I hear the roar of flames.
Oh shit. Lung.
I stop where I am, and listen as best I can to the fight going on. I hear shouting of course, and footfalls, as gang members run this way and that. I hear crashes and the sound of fire.
I listen for nearly three minutes- I have a watch of course, the Red Menace will vanish in ten minutes regardless, so I need to know when to remake him -before I hear the horrible sound of someone- probably Lung's- mangled voice laughing triumphantly. How dare he. Let's see how he likes this!
The Red Menace appears, and glances at me, "Get out of here, but stay along the street." he orders, "In two minutes, send me again."
"I'm not going to be cocky and think I'll get more out of it." he says, sneering, "And we can't just cut and run. He said he was planning on killing kids."
"Two minutes, from... now!" he kicks off the ground, and runs back into the fray.
I did as he said, heading down the road, glancing at my watch. The sounds of fighting were getting worse behind me.
Three... two... one! I stopped, focused on the idea of Lung killing kids, and the Red Menace appeared a few yards away, rushing back towards the fight.
"Five minutes." he said, vanishing around a corner.
I sighed, before continuing to follow the road, looking for... is that a payphone? Good! I rush inside, and make a call to the police.
I head back up the street, aiming towards where I know the giant firey jerk is still kicking. Lung is nearly fifteen feet tall now. I scale a building in seconds, climb up to the roof, and begin charging up a spin dash.
I kick off, and shoot forwards, slamming into his back. He fall to one knee, but even as I keep spinning, burrowing deeper into steel flesh, he grows, heals, gets bigger. The flames grow hotter, spilling from the cracks in his armor.
I lose momentum, and I leap from his back, gliding away in time to avoid being ripped in half by his claws again.
"AH'LL KELL YU!" he snarled from a mouth that was growing more draconic every second.
I cling to a wall as I pass, climbing up, and jumping from building to building as he tries to land a fireball on me. I'm a bit worried about the fire spreading in my wake, but that just means I need to end this faster. I'm just... not sure how.
Darn it! Things are supposed to stay down when I'm the one doing the pushing! I drop to ground level, running towards his feet. He bends low to swipe at me, but I take the chance to jump, curling into a ball, and colliding with his head. Metal crumples, reforms, continues to crumple, and then I'm on my feet, on his reforming stump of a neck, and I turn, running.
The beginnings of wings are breaking through his back, and I take the edges of them as I run, pulling them until they're out of socket, and then even further- ripped out of his back entirely. He lets out a scream of fury, and sends a fireball careening in my direction.
Luckily, I have some big, heavy, new tennis rackets to send it back. He flinches in surprise as the fireball washes over him, but he's unharmed. Darn it!
Now, what can I- oops.
His tail had swung by and just about broken every bone I have.
He rounds on me, raising a foot, and I manage to grab a hold as he smashes me into the ground. When he lifts his foot, I'm clinging to it.
I begin spinning, mid-air.
Lung is sent spinning with me.
He digs through the ground, still growing larger, the flames surrounding him blazing hotter and wilder. You know, I thought the thing that was going to kill me was the internal stuff from being crushed, but I'm incinerated first.
Darn. Only lasted about three minutes, counting the running.
He vanished, and the leftover momentum ended up in Lung, sending the villain crashing further into the hole in the street he had already been melting his way down into.
I leave the payphone behind and start making my way back, if things start getting too dangerous, I'll turn back, but things seem to have cooled down at least a bit. The fires are still raging, and there are gang members milling about, but the sounds of a man made of steel screaming through a mangled mouth had died down significantly.
I stick close to doorways, avoiding the light, as I get closer. I consider heading up to the roof, but that might just end up making me stand out. But I do need to know if I should get closer to deploy the Menace again.
My thoughts are interrupted as darkness washes over me, and the world just vanishes. I can't see, everything feels off. I'm understandably spooked.
The Menace doesn't appear however. If this darkness or whatever hit me in particular rather than the area at large, I don't want them thinking they've found their girl. I huddle close to the ground, and grip my pepper spray. I'm utterly blind, but I still stare ahead into the darkness.
It clears up, eventually, and I'm facing a group of Capes. Ones I don't recognize. A ren-fair pretty boy, a muscular man with darkness billowing off of him, a girl in purple, and a blocky person with a dog mask, and a few dogs following her to match.
"She's the one who took down Lung?" ren-fair asks.
The Menace took down Lung?! Go little red jerk.
But if he did, where was he?
"Yep." the girl said, walking forward, "Hey there. We really owe you one."
"Wait... so those kids he said he was going to kill, were you guys? You don't look like any heroes I recognize."
"Oh, we're not. Have you heard of the Undersiders-" the girl blinked, "Uh, we'll be in touch! Bye!" she turned on her heel and began walking away, leaving the others looking somewhat confused. "Come on!"
"So you're villains?" I ask, thinking angry thoughts.
"Shit. Run!" the girl in purple shouted.
"I'm not going to run just because-" the one wearing a dog mask, another girl, began.
Then the Red Menace appeared, smirking, before slapping his fist into his palm, "You're a real trouble-maker, aren't you kid?" he said to me, before rounding on the Undersiders, "Come on!"
It was the beginning of a long career, as a hero, who made living life in Brockton Bay just a bit more bearable every time he was let out. They did their best.