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Wounds Not Quite So Deep

Chapter Text

I was first out the door as the bell rang for lunch, fleeing Mr. Gladly's class. I threw a look over my shoulder to take stock of Madison, but she was taking her time. She gave me a wicked smirk as I passed out of sight, and my stomach plummeted. Not a good sign from one of the bullies who had been making my life a living hell.

I smoothed down my curly hair as I moved down the hall, but it didnt do anything to sooth my mood. We had an hour break for lunch, and I had a feeling they had something planned for me. I cut for the stairwell, headed towards the third floor girl's restroom; my usual hideout nowadays.

When I made it there, my suspicions were all but confirmed. Emma was waiting with a gaggle of girls outside the bathroom, and Sophia was leaning against the lockers on the opposite wall. I clenched my fist as I realised this was a trap. A quick glance back showed Madison had followed to cut off any escape, and to join in on the "fun" no doubt.

Resolutely I decided to just keep on walking, staying as close to the middle of the hall as I could. It didn't matter. One of them managed to get a leg out in front of me, and before I could maneuver around it Madison rushed up behind me, a push to the shoulders sending me sprawling. The three bursted out laughing at me, and some of the girl's waiting on the bathroom joined in half a second later.

My glasses had gone flying, and the weight of everything in my backpack had been enough to undo the magnetic clasp and scatter it across the hallway floor. I tried to stand up, but a weight pressed me back down and knocked the breath out of me. Madison gave me a "Nuh uh uh," as she rested more weight on me.

Sophia came into my field of view, walked over to my art midterm project. She had a smug, self satisfied grin as she crushed it underfoot with an unconvincing "Whoops."

Emma, though. Emma, who had been my childhood best friend. The look she gave me, eyes narrowed, was the most malicious of the three. She swooped to grab the bag with my lunch in it, glanced at the contents before saying, "Awh, did mommy pack the little girl a lunch?" in a fake-cutesy voice, like she was talking to a toddler. I clenched my jaw enough to hurt, glared at her in fury before slowly forcing my eyes to stare past her.

The three continued to laugh and mock me while Emma took apart and dumped the contents of my lunch on me, finishing it off by emptying the drink all over my clothes. I stayed there as they left and waited until I was sure the hall had cleared out before I began getting up. I screamed in incoherent rage, kicked out at the closest locker. I shook with fury at the indignity of it all.

I fell to my hands and knees to start looking around for my glasses. It took a few minutes, but I eventually found them near the foot of the lockers, one lens popped out but otherwise unharmed. At least there was that. I couldn't deal with paying for a new pair on top of everything else right now. As I fixed them back onto the bridge of my nose, I pushed my awareness away from myself, disconnected from everything but my breathing. Deep breaths in and out, a technique they had taught me at the hospital.

I almost wanted to break something, rage at the world until something snapped. But as much as I wanted to I didn't let myself. The thought of how disappointed my dad would be in me helped stop me, and thoughts about a future past all this, past the cruel, petty high school drama allowed me to gather up what was left of my things. I marched through the people pointing and snickering.

I was a mess, and with my midterm project ruined there was no way I was going to face Sophia in art next period. Instead I made my way out the front gates and caught the first bus headed towards home. I was going to survive this. I was going to get out of this school, and I would leave those three behind. I wouldn't let them break me.

I practised my breathing exercises on the ride home. I pushed away everything I was feeling about Emma: the betrayal, the hurt, the heartbreak. Until all that was left was air filling and leaving my lungs.

We had been so close, all the way up through middle school. Best friends in every sense of the word, as close as you could be to a person at that age. That all came crashing down the summer before freshman year.

Even now I didn't have a clue why. I was out, Sophia (and later Madison) was in. When their popularity swelled, they leveraged it to make me public enemy number one. Emma took every piece of me I had ever given to her in confidence, turned them into weapons.

I didn't want to dwell on this any more, turned to take stock of my belongings. My project was in pieces, I had no clue what I was going to do about that. Beg for an extension and try to throw together a new one I guess. A couple of papers had been splashed with liquid, maybe salvageable at best, and one of my novels looked a little worse for wear.

Over all not the worst damage they had ever done, even including my soaked outfit. The sweatshirt I wore was becoming uncomfortably sticky as it dried against my skin, and the shirt under it hadnt fared any better. I didn't even want to know how long I'd be picking bits of food out of my hair for.

I got off a block from my house, ignoring the looks. Even with the possibility of my dad being there to question why I wasn't still at school, the closer I got to home, the more at ease I felt. The tension seeped from my muscles, and I let out a deep breath. Luckily it seemed my dad was absent as I made my way inside and upstairs towards the bathroom.

My mind turned toward another technique they had tried to teach me as I jumped into the shower. The notion of turning a negative into a positive. Were there any though? I was humiliated, my art project ruined, and I still needed to pop my lenses back into place. I had to admit it didn't really seem like anything positive could come from any of those. Almost every time, the tools they had given me to try and hold myself together fell short.

I stepped out of the shower, carefully combing my hair, trying my best to make sure I had gotten everything. I made my way to my room to get dressed, and then sat on my bed to fiddle with my glasses. Only two things they had recommended had really helped. Drawing and running.

My lens back in place, I reached for the notebook I had secreted away behind my nightstand. I flipped through the pages idly, the notebook filled with everything from absentminded doodles, to detailed character designs, to rough sketches for a graphic novel. My mom had been a literature professor, and I admittedly had a strong love of reading, but where I shined was with my art. Notes and thoughts filled the edges of the pages and the empty spaces between individual pieces. I hadn't settled into a specific plot yet, but I knew the genre: superheroes.

This more than anything kept me going. I took the moment to fill in some details on one of my favourite designs so far, Weaver. She was a bit of an alter ego for me, a self indulgence. Having Weaver to do the things I couldn't let me bear the weight of everything just a little better.

The other thing that helped was running. I had set myself a schedule of every morning and every other afternoon. By the time I had slipped my notebook back into its spot, it was later than I normally went out. A quick check showed that my dad wasnt home yet though, and I was still feeling off from earlier, so I slipped my things into my pockets and set off.

For the most part I had stuck to areas near the boardwalk and the blocks around my house, at my dad's insistence. Right now I wanted a change of scenery, so I ranged out from my usual paths, heading a little further into the Docks. The disparity as I moved from block to block was astounding. With more and more of the import and industrial work drying up, the divide between wealthy and poor became all the more obvious. Those with money could turn to biotech and banking, while those without were stuck with skilled labour that was quickly turning worthless.

There weren't many people out, and I avoided the ones who were when I could. I had my pepper spray and taser, but I'd rather not be given the opportunity to use them if I could avoid it. I was on autopilot, letting my brain path it's own course, when I realised I had gone further into the area than I meant to, and it was getting dark. Not far enough in that I was lost, thankfully, so I started back towards home.

It was getting dark quicker than I thought it would, and as shadows stretched, shadier people came out of the woodworks. I upped my speed, but kept as relaxed a stance as I could. It wasn't that I was scared, because I really wasn't. I didn't want to project any fear though, not with these people. But I wasn't stupid either. The chances I got hurt went up the longer I was out here.

As if that thought had summoned ill will to it, I was jerked suddenly to the side as I passed the mouth of an alley. I let out a yelp as I lost my footing and fell to the grungy cement. The man said something, but all my focus had zeroed in on a flash of steel, and I felt my blood go cold. Fear raced through me as I started struggling against his grip. I took several hits to the stomach, but still tried to twist and pry my wrist out of his grip. The blade swept down, and a line of searing pain lit down my arm.

My breath caught as he went to thrust the knife at me again, but as I braced myself he let out a cry and suddenly lost his grip on me. By the time my brain processed what had happened, the knife was on the ground and the man's forearm had been clamped down on by a german shepard. I scooted back from the now pinned man, who had stopped struggling when the dog gave a loud growl and a shake of its head. Right back into the legs of a second person.

I slowly dragged my gaze up a pair of legs clad in dark ripped up jeans, past a green army jacket, before finally settling on a squarish face with a strong jaw and thick brows. She had a solid build, but in a muscly way, and broad shoulders. 'Butch' is what came to mind, and in other circumstances I might have blushed. She paid me almost no mind as I got my shakey legs underneath me and stood, blood dripping from the fresh wound on my arm.

I was breathing heavy with fear and adrenaline, but beneath that anger roiled in my stomach. "Call him off," I demanded firmly. The girl just tensed, a low growl emitting from the back of her throat. It was strangely reminiscent of her dog's. I narrowed my eyes, and even more resolutely repeated myself. "Call. Him. Off."

She bared her teeth in a not-smile for a moment before finally letting out a sharp whistle. The dog let go of the man's forearm and retreated back to his master's side. The mugger had just opened his mouth to say something when my foot connected with his stomach. All this running was good for something after all. He let out a choked noise, and before he could recover any my taser connected to him. I watched with a grim satisfaction as I held down the button and the man convulsed.

Once I was sure he wasn't going to get back up any time soon, all the fight left me. I slumped down against the gross alley wall and clutched my legs to my chest. Holy shit. I just got mugged. I ALMOST got mugged, I corrected myself. Or worse. I looked up at the girl who's timely arrival had probably saved me. She had a look on her face that I couldnt read, and her dog still stood ready at her heel. I didn't smile, I dont think I had it in me at the moment, but I tried to convey my thanks with a look.

She must have come to a decision, because suddenly she jerked her head toward the road and gruffly said "Come on," before turning on her heel and walking away. I scrambled up from where I was sitting. Did I go with her? She was a stranger, in a not-quite-bad part of town. Who knows where she would lead me. But she had just saved me from a mugger, even if she had mangled his arm. I followed my gut and started jogging after her, wincing as some cuts and bruises made themselves known.

We stayed quiet as we made our way through dim streets, Rachel on one side of me and the german shepard on the other. I stumbled a few times as the adrenaline wore off, and every time she threw me a sharp look. I waved her off and grit my teeth, determined to get wherever we were going under my own power. After a couple blocks we turned up a street that looked even more abandoned than most in the docks. I couldnt make out much detail, but it looked bleak and in disrepair, like most of the docks were these days.

Our destination was a looming factory with a massive rusted sliding doors, probably designed to let trucks through. I hesitated for a second as she led us to a side door, but steeled my resolve and followed her into the pitch black. I heard a gruff "Over here," from my left before a small flashlight flicked on. they illuminated a spiral staircase which she gestured for me to climb up. She followed close behind, making sure to angle the light so I could see where I was stepping. Light seeped under the door at the top. Curiosity piqued, I swung the door open and stepped through.

It was a shock, compared to the rest of the building. A brightly lit loft with a red brick exterior wall and no ceiling beyond the warehouse's roof and metal girdings. It was divided into three sections, though with a layout so open as to barely matter. I had stepped into what was essentially the living room, and beyond that was a hallway with doors on either side, with what looked like a kitchen on far side.

A voice called out from the kitchen area "Hey Rache, wh-" but it cut off as its owner emerged from the hallway, caught sight of me, and froze. The smile was still affixed to her face, but the eyes had turned cold and calculating, seeming to take in every aspect of my person. The look melted just as quick as it had appeared when the girl- Rache? -elbowed past me with a grunt. the one that replaced it was that of irritated amusement. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "And who, exactly, is our new guest Rachel?"

Rachel just responded with a gruff "Got mugged," before heading over to sit at a table. The other girl's eyebrows both shot up this time, and her eyes darted back to me. The depth of their green startled me, and for a moment I was enthralled by her gaze. I gave her a weak smile and raised my hand to wave at her, before realizing it was the one with the cut and winced. "Rachel," she said sharply, "get the first aid kit out of the storage room."

As Rachel disappeared into one of the rooms lining the hall, the other girl led me over to the seat she had vacated at the table. "Let's take a look at this." She gently grabbed my forearm and rotated it around to examine the cut. It wasnt too bad, only a couple inches long but deep enough that something would probably have to be done. Her eyes darted up to meet mine for a moment. "It's funny, Rachel isn't really one to pick up strays. Well, ones that aren't dogs anyways. You must have left quite the impression."

I gave her a weird look. "If anyone left an impression it was her." I realised it was the first time I had said anything since the fight when I heard my voice come out as a croak. "I don't know if she saved my life, but she sure as hell kept me from getting stabbed." She gave me a measured look, and then let a small smile slip onto her lips.

Rachel came back with the kit, and the other girl set about pulling out what she need. "So mystery girl, do you have a name or should I just think of you as Rachel's newest stray?" she asked with amusement.

"It's Taylor." My tone was flat, but I couldn't keep a small grin off my face. It only served to make her's grow even bigger.

"Well Taylor, I'm Lisa, and this is going to need stitches." I winced a bit but nodded, and she got to work cleaning the cut before pulling out the thread and needle. Getting stitches wasn't quite like anything I had experienced, but luckily it went quickly. After she was finished she muttered out "thank God for Brian."

"Who's Brian?"

"A...friend of ours. Insisted I take a first aid course."

I flashed a smile at her. "You'll have to thank him for me. Honestly I don't know where I'd be without you two right now." I ran a finger over the gauze now covering my arm. At that point the german shepard ran up to me tail wagging. I reached out a hand, but then paused and looked up at Rachel. "He's your's right? Can I pet him?" For several moments all she did was give me a steely look, before finally giving a short nod. I slowly held out a hand for him to sniff and lick, and then started to scritch his head as his tail began enthusiastically wagging. When I glanced back up, Rachel's usual standoffish look had softened just a bit.

Lisa broke me out of the moment when she announced "It's getting late, you should stay here for the night. It'd be a shame if you were rescued from a mugging only to have something worse happen on the way home." I looked up in alarm at the high set windows to see that the last light had indeed faded from the sky. I was reluctant to stay overnight with virtual strangers, but...they had been nothing but helpful. For some reason, I felt strangely drawn to them.

"Shit. Can I use your phone?" Lisa nodded and led me into the kitchen area, leaving me there to call with some privacy.


"Hey dad."

"Taylor! Where are you?" He sounded almost panicked, which I guess was understandable. I can't imagine what he thought when I wasn't home before sunset.

"I'm with some friends. Do you mind if I stay over here tonight, actually?"

A beat, and then. "Are you sure you're okay Taylor? Nothing is going on?"

I held back a sigh. I know it had been a while, but was it really so weird to want to stay the night at somebody's place? "Really dad, I swear. I just lost track of time, and it just seemed easier to stay at this point." I felt a bit bad about lying to him, but there was no way he would take the news of me being mugged well. He'd make me stop running.

"they're good people?"

I smiled, thinking of Rachel saving me, Lisa stitching me up. "yeah," I said, "they are."

Chapter Text

I woke at 6:30 just like I always did. It took me a second as I stretched and yawned to remember that I wasn't in my bedroom at home. Instead, I was on Rachel and Lisa's couch, in some sleeping clothes lent to me by the latter. they were a little tight, but mine had ended up having more than a little blood on them (some his, some mine). I was reluctant to skip my morning run, but after last night I figured I could skip a day.

Instead, I busied myself trying to repay their generosity just a bit.

"Mmmh, now that smells delicious." I jumped and spun around, brandishing my spatula as a weapon upon hearing the unfamiliar voice. A smirk marked the face of a half dressed pretty boy, as far as I could tell clad only in a long flowing shirt and curly hair.

"Uh..." I didnt really know what to do here. "Who are you?"

His smirk grew just a bit. "I should be the one asking that. Why is tall dark and lanky making breakfast in my apartment?"

"wait, you live here too? I thought it was only Rachel and Lisa."

Now his smirk grew into a giant grin. "Oh hoho, Rachel AND Lisa? I never would have guessed."

Blush crept up my neck all the way to my ears, and I started stammering incoherently. Pretty boy just started laughing uncontrollably. Every time I tried to think up a defense-I wasn't even gay! Probably! Maybe?-my traitorous mind would flash back to strong jaws and green eyes, and I would start stammering and blushing all over again. Which only made pretty boy laugh even harder.

"Are you teasing our stray Alec?" came a voice tinged with amusement from the doorway. Lisa was there, leaned against a wall with her arms crossed. She was still in her sleep shorts and tank, and when she caught me looking she broke out in a smirk.

"Oh no," I said absentmindedly. That flush definitely wasn't going away any time soon.

"So, what's this?" Lisa asked as she walked over and jumped up to perch on the countertop right next to me.

"I uh, hope it's okay I raided your fridge. I wanted to do something to thank you and Rachel for last night." After a beat, I quirked an eyebrow at her. "And if he was teasing. what exactly was it that you were doing?"

She had a glint in her eye as she leaned forward. "Maybe I was staking a claim." This place was going to be the death of me. As I tried to formulate a reply, she snatched a piece of bacon and turned to address someone behind me. "Look Rachel! She cooked breakfast for us after all that strenuous activity last night." Lisa turned and actually winked at me before taking a bite out of the bacon.

I was pretty much on overload from all the...teasing? It couldn't be flirting, why would anybody want to flirt with me? The entire room felt ten degrees hotter and I don't think I had ever looked closer to a tomato than I did just then. Rachel was also still in her sleep clothes, which didn't help. Even just out of bed you could tell how powerfully built she was. What did she do to keep up muscles like those? Did everybody in the apartment walk around almost naked? It almost would have been easy to compare what was happening to what the trio did, but it wasn't. It was different, and even if it was meaningless, I liked it.

Luckily Rachel mostly ignored us. She didn't even ask Lisa to move when she went to grab a plate from the cabinet behind her, instead electing to stand pressed up to the counter between her legs. She piled her plate full of food and moved to the table that had up until this point been ignored.

"Thanks," she grunted, "S'good." I smiled at her, and she immediately tensed. Like she was ready for a fight. I was confused for a second, until I thought about those viciously sharp smiles the trio would throw my way. The dread that welled up in anticipation. It made me wince, imagining that she must have had some sort of similar experience. I carefully smoothed my smile down to a more neutral look and gave Rachel a nod. Slowly the tension melted out of her and she returned my nod.

Lisa drew my attention back to her when she started speaking again. "I guess we should have warned you about Alec, especially with his flair for dramatics." That last bit had been directed at the man in question, and he let out a faux-haughty sniff in response. "He's our third roommate. We used to have a fourth, Brian; I mentioned him last night I think. He moved out a few weeks ago though." She continued happily munching her way through the spare bacon as everyone got their plates and settled down to eat.

"Wow, so you all just live out here on your own? What about school?"

Lisa shrugged. "Rachel never went, Alec dropped out, and I have my GED. We don't have a ton, but we get by."

It was like a whole new door had opened, and I could see all these new possibilities. "Yeah," I said, "That doesn't sound so bad."

I left with a promise to come see them again. "Just stop by any time," Lisa had said, after I told her I didn't have a cell. I made up for missing my morning run by jogging back home, just a little bit more jumpy than I was before last night.

Dad was sitting at the dining room table catching up on paperwork when I came in. He looked up when he heard the door shut. I was glad that my sweatshirt had been washed overnight, the sight of blood would have immediately set him off."Taylor, how was staying over at your...friend's?"

After mom's death dad had entered a sort of haze, and never really escaped from it. My hospital trip had kicked him into a little bit more action lately, but even then it was like he was one degree removed from everything. He was obviously wracking his brain trying to remember if I had talked about making any new friends lately. Which I hadn't.

I had to fight the blush back just thinking of this morning."Good. I had to sleep on the couch, but it was nice to hang out." I wasn't going to mention that he didn't know anything about these people; I especially wasn't going to mention I had just met them myself last night. Better to leave him guessing about what he was supposed to know. "Anyways, I'm going to go shower and change. Love you!"

Freshly clean and away from my paradoxically overbearing and detached dad, I made sure to put fresh gauze over the cut on my forearm. I would worry about hiding it, but I had taken to wearing baggy sweatshirts ever since the trio had started harassing me anyways.

That taken care of, I pulled my notebook out and started to aimlessly doodle. It was what I normally did if I wanted to kill time or warm up for some more serious sketching. After about fifteen minutes I looked down at the page and huffed out a laugh at myself. It was covered in strong features and sharp eyes, bits and pieces of two girls I just couldn't get my mind off of. I mean, they DID save my life, or close enough. I started up again, this time purposely sketching out a pair of portraits as best I could from memory.

With Monday loomed the school week. I geared up as best I could to force myself to go. Skipping out had felt so good last week, but I knew if I didn't make myself go now it'd be twice as hard the next day. I spent the bus ride there sketching out more portraits. There was something about Rachel's demeanor that I wasn't quite managing to catch, but I was determined to get it down. I hadn't brought THE sketchbook, of course. There was no way I was letting the trio get their hands on that. Not after what they did to mom's flute.

I didn't have any of the homework due today, or the art project that was due last week; it had all been destroyed during Friday's incident. I was honestly finding it harder and harder to care. I always timed my arrival right before the bells went off, and luckily my first class was trio free, so I could relax for at least the beginning of the day. I spent the majority of Mrs. Knott's computer class browsing the web aimlessly, and by the end I had somehow ended up on a page about the pros and cons of getting your GED.

After that was Mr. Gladly's class with Madison. This is where things always started to go downhill, and I had a gut feeling about today. It started with glue on my seat (again), then snide comments made just low enough that the teacher didn't hear, and finally arranged it so that it looked like I had tripped her coming back to her seat. Like a cruel parody of Friday. Mr.Gladly held me back for a minute to scold me about "Keeping my limbs and belongings out of the aisle." By the time he let me go, the trio had gathered a group of girls to corner me in the hall.

They made snide remarks, not even directed at me but as if I wasn't even there, despite staring me down the whole time. Every time I tried to leave they would close ranks and crowd me back towards the wall, so I just put my back against it and endured as best I could. I felt the anger bubbling up, just beneath the despair and anxiety. It would be so easy to grab it, use it to throw a punch. But I knew if I did that, I'd be the one getting expelled. The trio would twist everything so it looked like they were the victims, and all these girls would just back them up.

Through the crowd I saw Mr.Gladly exit his room, and a little hope blossomed in my chest. It died just as quickly when the most attention he gave the crowd was a glance before he walked off. It almost felt like I was drowning for a moment, but then the anger was back. Like a fucked up life raft. I managed to shove my way through the girls, not caring at this point if they whined to the administration that I pushed them.

Fuck this, fuck them, and fuck the school. There was no way I was going to stick around, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

I was on my way to visit when I spotted a figure turn onto a side road just ahead of me. "Hey Rachel! Loft is the other way, where're you headed?" I jogged a little to catch up to her.

"Dogs." was all she said. I perked up, remembering the german shepard that was in equal parts sweet and scary.

"There are more? do you mind if I tag along?"

She looked at me warily, but eventually answered, "Sure."

We walked through the docks in silence. Rachel wasn't a big talker, I had noticed, and I didn't really feel up to small talk right then. We made a couple more turns, and I tried to keep where we were centered in my mental map of the area. We stopped at a building that looked only half finished, with a rusted crane still sitting on the property. There were plenty of properties like this in the docks, places that were in the middle of development when the shipping industry crashed.

I could already hear the barking from the street, and I was starting to think maybe there were more dogs here than I had anticipated. She removed a chain from the door and beckoned me in. There must have been two dozen of them in total, dogs of every breed you could imagine. They mobbed us, some of them trying to get to Rachel, some of them curious about the new human.

Rachel let out a shrill whistle and followed it up with a few commands for them to back off and settle down. Her tone brooked no argument, and even the ones that obviously didnt have as much training were held in line by the ones that did.

Gruffly, she began to introduce me to her dogs. First were the obviously most well trained. "Brutus, Judas, Angelica." Judas I recognized as being the one who Rachel sicced on the mugger, so I made sure to pay him extra attention before I moved on. The rest of the names were a bit of the blur, but by the time I was done my hand was covered in slobber and I'm sure I was already smelling like dog.

After that she directed me to dump a bag of food into a trough, while she made sure they had water. The fact that there was no snapping or growling as they vied for food showed just how well Rachel had been teaching them. When we both finished up I turned and asked her "What's next?" being very careful not to smile with anything but my eyes.

She stared me down for a moment, her face as stony as ever. Without taking her eyes off me Rachel motioned to the wall near an opening into the yard. "You can shovel shit."

My spine stiffened, and I felt just a flash of anger as I looked over to the shovels she was indicating. I took a moment to push away my emotions. I was sure the was some sort of test, somehow. "Sure," I said, keeping my voice level. "As long as you're shoveling too."

We locked eyes and stayed like that for a minute, until her gaze turned assessing and swept up and down me a couple times. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I kept my composure and waited for her next move. "Sure," she replied, and with that moved to go grab a shovel. I still wasn't positive what that was about, but I felt like I passed somehow.

When we had finished up caring for the dogs (and then playing with them until everyone involved was tired out) Rachel went into the back room and returned with snacks for the two of us. We ended up perched on one of the various stacks of pallets scattered around the edges of the room. When I finished eating first, I decided that this would make an excellent scene for a doodle.

Pulling my backpack over I dug out a notebook and pen, and set to work capturing the enthusiastic animals. We had started with a foot of space between us, but as I doodled Rachel slowly inched closer. She was intensely curious, and eventually ended pressed up against my side with her head perched on my shoulder.

Luckily she was on my nondominant side, otherwise that might have made things difficult. As it was it took all my willpower to concentrate on drawing, and even then I was sure she could feel the heat radiating off my face. We stayed like that for a long time as I continued trying to get down as many details on individual dogs as I could and she watched raptly.

Eventually though, the change in lighting outside made it clear that it was getting late. I cleared my throat and started to put everything away. Rachel jumped back a little as though breaking out of a trance, and I immediately missed the heat and pressure of her against my side. It felt like it had been forever since I was last that close to somebody. When was the last time my dad even hugged me?

"I have to head out," I said softly. "I enjoyed this though. Could we do it again sometime?" She seemed torn between keeping up her usual stoic facade and that seemingly rare softness. Eventually she just nodded her head and hopped down from our perch.

Before we left Rachel called over Brutus and hooked him up with one of the collar and leash combos she kept near the door. When we both left to go our seperate ways, I kept my eye on the two of them for as long as I could. My brain was swirling with all sorts of feelings I couldn't decipher as she turned the corner and disappeared into the late afternoon.

Chapter Text

School was quiet on Tuesday. All it did was make me more paranoid. The only time the trio backed off was if they were planning something big. Still, at least it was a bit of a reprieve from having my things destroyed. I even managed to turn in a couple assignments.

Dad wasn't home when I got there, but that wasn't unusual. He spent as much time at the office as possible these days. I think he used it as an escape. And it's not like they didn't need the help or we the money.

I made myself a simple lunch before switching out the stuff in my backpack. A quick note was left on the table to assure my dad of where I was when he got home. I chewed my lip and wondered if I should call first, but...Lisa had said to drop by any time. With that settled I set off in a jog for my friends' place. Visiting them after (or during) school was quickly becoming a habit, and I pretty much had the route memorized at this point. Sure, I could have taken the bus and gotten there quicker, but I couldn't pass up a good run.

Of course it was only when I was standing outside their building that I realised my mistake. I grimaced down at my sweaty body, only imagining what I looked like from the outside. Still, there wasn't much I could do about it now. Maybe I could grab a shower?

Everything was quiet as I climbed the stairs and approached their door. A tentative knock produced a faint call from further into the apartment. Hesitantly I opened the door and stuck my head in. Everything was off, and the only light came from the windows on the outside wall.

"...Lisa? Rachel?" I called as I closed the door behind me. Another muffled noise drew me towards one of the rooms off the hall. Instinct told me that I shouldn't enter someone's bedroom in a dark, empty house but I had already come this far. Stepping into the room revealed a figure on the bed drowning in a comforter and a washcloth covering its forehead.

I quickly but quietly rushed over to the head of the bed and perched next to her. Lisa cracked her eyes open and gave me a strained smile. "Hey," she croaked out as if she hadn't spoken much today.

"Hey," I replied, being sure to keep my voice low. "What's wrong? where is everybody?" I pressed my hand to the washcloth on her forehead. She closed her eyes and kind of sank into the bed as I did so. Somebody had wetted it, but by this point it had turned room temperature.

She started forward as I stood back up, but I just gently pushed her back into the bed and motioned for her to wait. I took the washcloth and headed to the bathroom. I made sure it was thoroughly rinsed and cooled before wringing it out and heading back. I returned to my previous spot and gingerly set the washcloth back where I had found it, though I did leave my hand in place.

"It's just a migraine." She sounded a little wry. "Honestly it's almost passed, you don't have to fuss."

I playfully slapped her arm. "you took care of me, let me take care of you." And then, in a softer tone, "Do you get them a lot?"

"...Only if I'm pushing myself. Stress brings them on more often. The others clear out and give me space when it happens."

"Do you...want me to leave?"

"No. No, like I said it's mostly passed. Just...try to be quiet." I nodded and went to stand, but instead Lisa shifted over some and tugged on my arm. I decided that there was just enough natural light so I grabbed a book from my bag before I settled in next to her.

A couple hours later and we were in bed, though our positions had shifted a little. At some point Lisa had decided that I made a better pillow than her actual pillow, and had curled up with her head in my lap. To be honest I hadn't read more than a couple pages in the last twenty minutes.

Instead I was concentrated on the girl in my lap, and where my hand was playing with her hair. I kept it steady and even, as if it was an absentminded action when it was anything but. This was fine to do right? this was something...friends...did all the time. I was pretty sure. It had been awhile since I'd had any friends, and Rachel and Lisa were confusing.

"I know for a fact it's not light enough for you to read anymore Taylor," Lisa teased. My hand froze in her hair as I tried to come up with an excuse. She sat up and flashed a grin at me. "It's okay, it was nice. I liked being able to just sit here in the quiet." I nodded as my face broke out in a blush again. I really needed to find a way to stop it from doing that.

"C'mon! I'm feeling much better and we need some food." She really did seem much more energetic than earlier. Or just much less in pain. I put my book back in my bag and followed her out into the kitchen where she had already started flipping lights back on. I went right to the fridge to look over what we had to work with.

It wasn't a lot, they definitely needed to do a grocery run, but I figured there was still enough that I could work with. When I finished pulling ingredients out I looked over at Lisa, who was staring at me with both eyebrows raised. "What?"

"We're two broke teenagers, I was thinking like ramen. Are you secretly a master chef and never told us?"

I flinched at the question, and tried to push away the ensuing emotions. "Well after my mom died, my dad was kinda out of it for a long time," still was, really. "If I wanted to eat anything that wasn't microwavable I had to make it myself, so."

Her eyes widened and she stepped forward to put a hand on my arm. "Shit Taylor, I'm sorry. Sometimes my mouth runs ahead of my brain and I can end up being a real bitch."

I just shook my head. "It's okay, you didn't know." After that I took charge of the cooking, telling her what to do and describing why I was doing what I was doing. It took a little longer than it might have otherwise, especially when Lisa decided to get a little mischievous, but it was fun working with someone else to make a meal.

Probably about ten minutes after everything was finished we heard the door open and the unmistakable noise of a dog running across the living room. This time it was Angelica, and I made sure to let her sniff my hand before I started giving her scritches.

"Look Rachel, our stray knows how to cook! Really well actually. We're totally keeping her."

I rolled my eyes at her. "Do you really have to call me that?" She just stuck her tongue out at me.

Facing school was still a challenge every morning, but the time I was spending with Rachel and Lisa was almost rejuvenating. It almost gave me the strength to face the day unimpeded. Almost. I'd still rather be anywhere else, particularly if anywhere else was with them.

Mrs. Knotts' class went about as expected, and after I finished my assignment early I did more digging on getting my GED. The hard part would be selling my dad on it. Mr. Gladly assigned a group assignment which was pure torture, but other than a puddle of paint on my seat Madison didn't bother me. Where did she even get that?

Lunch passed similarly without incident, and it was starting to get to me. I hadn't returned to the third floor bathroom for fear they'd be waiting for me again, but I also hadnt yet found a good spot to hid so I could enjoy my lunch in peace.

I knew something was up when I arrived to art and all Sophia did was flash me a vicious grin. It made my stomach knot and I was twitchy for the rest of the day. When the final bell rung without anything happening I thought maybe I had escaped my fate for a day, but I decided to hide out for a little while to be sure.

Once I was fairly certain the school was empty, I started making my way to the front gates. I was just passing by the outside stairs when something hit me between the shoulders and knocked me forward onto the ground. When I lifted my head up I thought I was covered in blood for half a horrifying minute before I realised it was paint. I looked up to see where it had come from right as the second impacted against me.

Droplets splattered my face, but by sheer luck none got into my mouth or eyes. Familiar laughter drew my gaze up to the second floor landing where the trio stood. Of course, I thought bitterly, who else would it be? Any attempt to get up was met with more paint balloons, and eventually I just curled up to try and protect my face.

I didn't know how long it had been when they finally ran out of balloons and mockery. The three voices faded into the distance as I tried to scrape some of the paint covering me off. It had already started drying in places. I resisted the urge to cry as I started walking home; there was no way they were going to let me on a bus looking like this.

The house was empty when I finally made my way home. Suddenly I was very thankful for my dad's late nights. The clothes were trashed, there was no saving them. I just had to hope my dad didn't spot them somehow. Next I spent a very long time using up all the hot water, scrubbing until my skin was red for a reason other than paint.

Once I was fairly certain I had it all, I pulled on a new set of clothes that honestly didn't look all that different than what the trio had ruined today. There was a reason I stopped wearing nice clothes and switched mostly to sweats. It was getting late at this point, but...I wrote dad a short note letting him know where I would be and headed for the bus stop.

I could faintly make out voices coming from the living room when I got to the door, and when I knocked it opened to reveal Rachel, who motioned for me to come in, and Lisa watching some sort of animal documentary.

"Hey," I said as I walked in. I tried to go for cheerful, but it was obviously strained. Lisa gave me a curious look before turning down the volume on the tv to almost inaudible and getting up. She made her way over to me as Rachel went back to where she had been sitting before.

"Hey! do you want something to drink? I think we have some left over pizza too."I nodded to her as she came to a stop in front of me. She tilted her head but otherwise made no move, while I did everything but look her in the face, eventually settling on the tv. Just as I was starting to wonder if maybe this was a 'help yourself' type of situation she moved, though not how I expected her to.

Lisa reached up and laid her hand on my jaw, making my thoughts stutter. She turned my head to the side and scratched behind my ear. I had no clue what was happening but I wasn't going to complain. Not after the day I had. And then my blood ran cold as she said "Oh hey, you have some paint back here. Decided to switch to oils, huh?"

"I thought you only sketched," Rachel spoke up from her spot on the couch. "Like pencil and ink and shit."

"I do." I was careful to keep my voice completely devoid of emotion. It wasn't enough apparently, since Lisa turned to look at me sharply.

"Taylor." she spoke very carefully, like she was angry but didn't want to shout. How my dad spoke when he found out about the locker. "Why is there paint behind your ear."

I pulled away from her, turned and hunched my shoulders so I didn't have to look them in the eyes. "Because somebody threw paint filled balloons at me." I tried to push all of my emotions away, detach myself from the situation. I did not want them finding out about this! But I couldn't lie to them. So now they'd learn just how pathetic I was and I'd never see them again.

My self loathing was interrupted by a tugging on my arm. I was stunned when Lisa spun me around and pulled me into a tight hug. "How long?" I screwed my eyes shut in an effort not to cry. When was the last time someone hugged me?

"Since highschool started." I let myself sound as tired as I felt in that moment. She only squeezed tighter for a long moment, before gently pushing me back far enough to look at me. Reluctantly I opened my eyes.

"Holy shit Taylor. That's almost two years." The fury from earlier was on the surface now, but it was tempered with blatant concern. Over her shoulder Rachel looked tense, like she was ready to pounce and attack but there was nobody to direct it at.

"It's gotten bad," I said dully. Lisa guided me over to the couch, positioning us so that I was wedged between her and Rachel. I curled up in her arms with my head under her chin. Hesitantly Rachel pressed up against me from the other side and began running her hand up and down my back. "They put me in the hospital last month."

Curled up on that couch with two girls I had only met last week, I let out everything I had been pushing down. They listened as I spoke and held me while I cried. It was the safest I had felt since losing my mom.

I didnt even bother with school the next day. Instead I went for my morning run, made breakfast for the two of us, and lied to my dad when he wished me a good day at school.

I went straight for the bus that connected to the stop closest to their place. I didn't want to push it by jogging there so soon after my morning run.

As soon as I was in the door, Rachel was in front of me, shoving a weird pair of gloves in my hand. "Here," She grunted before turning away, only to stop in the middle of the living room and spin to face me again.

"Uh...thanks?" I said as I looked them over. They had padding on the knuckles, and only came down to the last joint on each finger.

"Put them on," she demanded. "I'm teaching you how to fight." That got my attention. I looked back up at a very determined Rachel. I didn't see myself getting out of this.

"It's not that I don't appreciate it Rachel, but what brought this on?"

Her look turned sour, and I could see her clench and unclench her fists. "I'm not gonna let them push you around."

Oh. "Oh."

She nodded decisively. "So. I'm going to teach you to fight." I thought about trying to explain how getting into a fist fight would just end up with me in trouble, but I don't think she would've understood. The gloves were a snug fit.

By the time Lisa came out of her room 45 minutes later to finally investigate all the noise, I had a dozen new bruises and a very basic understanding of how to fight. Rachel's favourite lesson to teach seemed to be 'There's no such thing as a fair fight.' She had her perpetual smirk on display as she plopped onto the couch where Alec was playing videogames, setting her laptop aside. "Are you two out here getting rough without me?"

I couldn't have blushed even if I wanted to, I was already red in the face from exertion and breathing heavily. Rachel definitely didn't take it easy on me, even for our first session. She disappeared down the hallway for a while, and when she reappeared I fumbled the water bottle she tossed my way. Alec made a comment to Lisa that I didn't quite catch, but I assumed it was a joke at my expense. I was too busy gulping down gloriously cold water.

I actually let out a whine when the bottle was snatched from my grip. Rachel had a stern look on her face as she poked me in the hip. "Don't drink so fast, you'll make yourself sick." I sulked a little and rubbed at my hip, but gave her a nod regardless. She watched me for a couple of seconds after handing it back, making sure I was taking sips before turning away with a satisfied nod.

My shirt was stuck to my skin in some places, soaked with sweat. "Sweating sucks, why hasn't anybody invented a way to exercise without it," I complained.

"If it's bothering you so much, why don't you go shower?" Lisa replied.

"I don't have any clean clothes, and the only thing worse than feeling gross is feeling clean and then putting gross clothes back on."

Something about that amused her. She shrugged. "You can borrow some of mine. They might be a little small, but they should be passable."

I hesitated for half a second, biting my lip, before giving her a nod. She got up and motioned me to follow her down the hall. When we stepped inside her room I made sure to tale my time and look around. The last time I had been in here it was dim at best, and all my attention had been focused on Lisa. The first thing I noticed was the computer, though that didn't seem an adequate way to describe it. It was more like what someone in a scifi film would call a 'rig'. On the other side of the room a giant tack board was hanging from the wall, all sorts papers pinned to it. Otherwise it was pretty sparsely decorated, and just a little messy.

Lisa walked over to her dresser and started rummaging around, occasionally pausing to look at me consideringly before going back to what she was doing. Eventually she let out an "Aha!" and pulled something out from the back of a drawer before turning to me with a predatory grin. My knees might have quaked a bit.

The blush I had managed to avoid earlier had its revenge as she held up the clothing she'd dug up. "No way."

"Oh come on! you'll look great in these."

I let my eyes flick between the skirt and tank top and my body. With my scrawny frame and nonexistent boobs? I was dubious at best. Plus that skirt looked a touch too short. "I really won't Lisa. We both know I have a distinct lack of figure, and chicken legs."

Her eyebrows shot up as she gave me an incredulous look. "You realise you have legs for days right? Like women kill for legs like that. And you don't lack a figure, you just don't know how to best accentuate what you have." The look on her face changed to one I couldn't quite decipher, and her voice softened as she continued. "I get that you're more comfortable in your sweatshirts and baggy pants, that they've taught you to hide yourself away. But we're friends, right? You're safe here, and you can trust me when I say you're gonna look great in these."

I blinked several times, determined not to let any tears escape. I still wasn't quite sure I believed her, but...I averted my eyes and gave her a nod. She handed me the clothes and I hurried to the bathroom, thankful of the privacy it gave me to suck in a few shakey breathes and calm down.

When I was done I only hesitated for a second before rejoining the others. They each reacted in their own ways; Lisa gave me a brilliant smile, Rachel raked her eyes down my body before giving a slight nod (I blushed again when I remembered I wasn't wearing a bra. Not that I needed one.), and Alec cajoled me.

"So there is somebody underneath all those layers!" I just rolled my eyes and flicked him off, which got a laugh out of him. We spent a little bit hanging out while Rachel grabbed a shower herself. Lisa was absorbed with something on her laptop, so I played some cart racing game with Alec. It wasn't exactly my thing, but it was a fun enough way to waste a little time.

When Rachel rejoined us, Lisa caught everybody's attention with a clap. "We're going to the mall!" she declared, much to my dismay.

"Well as much as I'd love to darling, getting up sounds like entirely too much work for to little reward," Alec responded.

Her lips quirked. "You weren't invited anyways; girls' day." He mimed being offended before turning away and unpausing his game. Lisa turned to us. "Rachel? Taylor? Actually I'm not giving you any choice Taylor, sorry." She didn't look very sorry to me.

Rachel just shrugged and said, "Sure." The gleaming look in Lisa's eye gave me a sinking feeling, but I resigned myself to my fate as she dragged me to the door, Rachel trailing behind us.

Chapter Text

Taylor complained and tried to convince me to stay in all the way to the bus stop, but I just smirked; no way was I letting her get out of this. I has already gotten her into some more fitting clothes, now I just had to show her she wouldn't be ridiculed if she went out in public in them.

As we tried to find seats on the bus an idea occured to me. Maybe it was a bit mean, but I just couldn't pass it up. Taylor slid in, taking the spot closest to the window. Instead of taking the one next to her I just sat in her lap. She made a choking noise as I adjusted myself. Everything I had said about her legs had been completely true, but they were still thin, well muscled legs; not exactly the best seat. 

When I settled I turned to her with the most innocent look I could muster. "What? This way Rachel doesn't have to separate from us to sit on her own." Even though Rachel had in fact sat down next to us while we were getting settled, it was still bullshit. At this time of day, in this part of town, the bus was nowhere near busy. She could have easily sat right across from us in her own seat.

The delicious way Taylor blushed was worth it though. Even if she wouldn't look at me, eyes directed firmly out the window. It was a step in the right direction. Tentatively her arms came up and wrapped around my midsection, and I leaned back into her embrace. The ride passed peacefully as we sat there enjoying each other's presence. 

Eventually though we reached our stop, and shuffled off the bus with a handful of other passengers. I surprised myself with how reluctant I was to get up. It wasn't the biggest mall in Brocton Bay, but it wasn't small enough to be considered a strip mall. With how close it was to the apartment, and how much less expensive it was than the boardwalk, it was perfect for what I wanted.

I was tempted to try and get Taylor to go clothes shopping,, that would be too much too soon for her. Instead we just walked around and windowshopped at random stores, talking and making jokes. Rachel even joined in occasionally, much to my surprise and delight. Especially considering I knew she wasn't a fan of shopping, or people. I had never had much luck getting her to socialize for any real amount of time, but Taylor seemed to bring it out in her.

Rachel picked up some dog treats and Taylor bought a new (used) book, but mostly we all just had a good time hanging out together. And Taylor was standing taller. She wasn't hunched over to make herself look smaller, or trying to hide herself from the crowd as much. I let a self satisfied grin grow on my face. Obviously there would still be a lot of work to help my new friend repair all the damage that had been done by years of torture, but it was a good first step. 

We stopped once more for ice cream (I idly wondered if Taylor's preference for rainbow sherbet had any deeper meaning) before we started toward the exit. We were almost there when Taylor came to a dead stop, shaking with tension.

Chapter Text

The day had been going really well. Initially I was wary of going out dressed like this, despite Lisa's many assurance that I looked fine. And then the bus ride had been...nice, if a bit embarrassing. The weight of Lisa on top of me had been comforting, and I made my brain stop with that line of thinking before it made me short circuit. 

Hanging out with Lisa and Rachel was the most fun I'd had in...forever. Hell it was the first time I'd had friends to hang out with in almost two years. Which was kind of pathetic. But that's not how it felt, walking around with the two of them, cracking jokes and just being together. It was the most I had heard Rachel talk since I met her, even if it mostly seemed like she was humoring us.

And then, because the universe was determined to make my life a living hell, the worst happened. Just as we were going to leave, I looked up and locked eyes with none other than Emma. It was like time froze, half a second stretched to last a millenia. The malicious grin stretching across her face broke the moment.

Belatedly I realised she wasn't alone; Sophia trailed behind her as they approached. They snaked their way through the crowd as I stood shaking. Lisa and Rachel had realised something was wrong, and I could distantly make out someone asking me something. It wasn't enough that they had to ruin my life during school hours, now they were hunting me down outside of it too?

I registered that they were in front of me now, having made it through the crowd at some point while I spiraled. Emma sneered at me, her eyes flicking between Lisa and Rachel, and then down my body. "Taylor, what a surprise! You finally found someone as pathetic and desperate as yourself to take you in?" 

Her eyes lit up as if she had won the lottery when my bandaged forearm caught her attention. She affected a faux pout and said, "Though I didnt know anybody else existed on that low of a level," she gestured at her own wrist, "What happened, did it all get to be too much and you tried to take the cowards' way out? You're so pathetic you couldn't even do that right."

I was trembling. Part of it was anger. How fucking dare she try to use something like that against me, even if it wasnt true? Part of it was shame. Even if I didn't like admitting it to even myself, the thought had crossed my mind before. How couldn't it have, with all I've been through? Everything she's put me through? 

A length of solid warmth pressed itself up against the back of my arm and side. Almost instantly I could feel myself calm, knowing my friend was there supporting me. A low growl emanated from deep within Rachel's throat, though I was probably the only one who could hear it.

My hands curled into fists as the shame and fear slowly receded, and I retook control of my body. I almost started to draw away from my emotions entirely, but no. I wanted to be angry. I deserved to be angry."Actually," I said, making my voice as steely as I possibly could, "Someone tried to mug me. Tried and failed."

Apparently my change in demeanor wasn't lost on them. Sophia just looked kind of confused, but Emma looked unsettled and just a touch angry. She scoffed and said "Please Taylor, we all know you're too weak to do something like that. Your only instinct when you're attacked is to curl up and take it. I would know."

I bit back my reply and took a deep breath. You know what really sucked? She was right, as far as she knew. Every time she had done something to me at school I had held back, determined not to get in trouble. But we weren't in school now, and I was tired of not standing up for myself. If there was anything being around Rachel and Lisa had taught me, it was that I wasn't the weak pathetic thing Emma tried to convince me I was.

She opened her mouth, undoubtedly to throw some other barb my way, but I wasn't going to let it happen. Rachel hadn't taught me much in that single session earlier, but what I had learned I put to use. I adjusted my stance, made sure I was holding my fist correctly, and put as much force as I could into my swing. 

Sophia seemed to realise what was happening a second before it happened, but not quickly enough to do anything about it. Emma was completely caught by surprise as my fist connected with her jaw. Pain blossomed in my hand, but it was more than worth it to watch Emma reel backwards and fall to the ground. 

Sophia leapt for me, but Rachel stepped forward to block her. The two stared each other down, neither willing to commit to a full on fight. All at once it was like I came back to myself. I could hear the noise of the crowd again, some of which had stopped around us. I felt someone tugging on my arm, trying to get me to move. Suddenly I was exhausted; I swayed on my feet and clutched my throbbing hand to my chest.

"Taylor! Come on! We need to get out of here before someone calls the cops or gets security." I turned to Lisa and nodded, finally giving in to her tugging, letting her start dragging me to the exit. Rachel kept herself between us and Sophia the whole time, but she relaxed as we pulled further away.

This time the bus ride was much more quiet, but for an entirely different reason. There was no Lisa teasing me or sitting in my lap, just me curled up as close to the wall as I could get. Rachel sat at the end of the seat and eyed anybody who passed, as if she was guarding me from intruders.

The silence continued as we walked back to the loft, went up the stairs and stopped in the living room. Lisa gently pulled me to one of the couches and sat me down with my back to the armrest. She sat facing me, as close as she could get. Then, she reached out and punched me in the arm.

"Ow!" I rubbed my arm where she had hit me. She definitely hit harder than it looked like she could. Either that or I was a wimp. "What was that for?"

"That's for cold clocking a girl in the middle of a very public place! In front of a literal crowd of witnesses! Were you trying to get arrested?" Lisa exclaimed.

I sulked a little in response."You could have stepped in at any time you know."

She sighed. "I really wanted to rip her to shreds," Lisa admitted. "But it was your fight, you needed to do it. I just didnt expect it to turn into. Well. A fight." She gently took my hand, and I let out a small hiss of pain. I bit down on my lip as she poked and prodded.

"Well at least nothing seems broken." At some point Rachel must have gone to the kitchen, because now she was standing next to us offering Lisa a wrapped ice pack. "Thank you," she said as she took it and pressed it against my hand.

Rachel grunted in reply, and turned to look at me. "Your form was okay, but it's better if you aim for somewhere softer until you learn how to not hurt yourself." I snorted in amusement and nodded at her. Lisa tried to look annoyed by the comment, but she couldn't help the small smile that slipped onto her lips as she shook her head. Rachel moved to perch on the armrest I was sitting against and I leaned back into her, taking comfort in how solid her presence was.

Weariness warred with worry as I sat there, utterly exhausted. There was no way she was going to let me get away with this without retaliation. Would she go to the school? The cops? Or would the campaign of terror just redouble?

Lisa snapping her fingers in front of my face brought me back to awareness. "Hey, none of that," she said firmly. "While I might not have been wild about where it happened, that doesn't mean I think you did the wrong thing. Those bitches had it coming, and I'm proud of you standing up for yourself."

I nodded and sagged down into my seat. Careful not to jostle my hand too much, Lisa turned herself and pulled my legs into her lap. I let my head rest against Rachel's leg, and slowly began to drift.

Some time later I slowly began to awaken again. Voices murmured above me as I gently nuzzled into something soft but firm. As I became more aware one of the voices said something tinged with amusement, and a hand began softly running through my hair.

I turned my head and blinked owlishly up at Rachel. At some point I had been pulled further down the couch, and she had stolen my seat. I pressed my thighs into Lisa's abdomen, confirming she was still there too. She said something else that didn't process, still in that same amused tone. I groaned and buried my face back into Rachel's stomach; She hadn't stopped stroking my hair at any point.

"Kill me now," I whined, voice muffled by Rachel's body.

"But then we wouldn't get to tease you." Lisa sounded way to enthusiastic about the prospect. This was what my life was now; I still couldn't quite believe it. Spending the day having fun with friends. Getting into fights. Waking up cuddled in the lap of cute girls. I was very thankful my face was still hidden, I could imagine what Lisa would say if she could see it.

Eventually I pulled myself up into a sitting position, stretching my long limbs after being curled up for so long and trying to get rid of the crick in my neck. All the movement dislodged Rachel's hand, which made me kind of sad. "What time is it?" I went to go rub the sleep out of my eyes, but winced when I bumped my hand. Careful prodding showed it wasn't quite as bad as I had thought it would be, and the swelling was already going down.

"Oh, about seven. You were out for a while."

I raised an eyebrow. "That's almost five hours; you guys didn't move?" I was a bit incredulous. 

Lisa just shrugged and gave me a simple "you needed the rest." I searched her face for any kind of hint of amusement or teasing, but she just looked earnest. I felt warmth blossom in my chest, alongside a peculiar ache. It was odd how such a simple thing could mean so much. Just the idea of someone inconveniencing themselves for my sake seemed so foreign.

I was brought out of my thoughts when Lisa nudged me. "Hope you like chinese, we sent out Alec to play errand boy half an hour ago; he should be back soon." The noise my stomach made was response enough. I heard a snort from beside me and whipped around in surprise.

Rachel actually looked embarrassed for I think the first time ever, and I could just barely make out the barest of blushes. "What?" she asked defensively, arms crossed and body angled so it was partly facing me.

"No, I. I think it was cute." I laid a hand on her arm and caught her eye, making sure not to smile but keeping an open expression. She broke eye contact and gave a slight nod; I could feel her arm muscles relax underhand as she let go of the tension. 

The moment was interrupted by a rather exuberant entrance by Alec.

Dinner at the apartment was probably the most chaotic meal I'd had in two years. The tv was set to some primetime show and all the food set up on the coffee table. Rachel pulled plates out from the kitchen and containers were passed around from person to person.

Alec ribbed me about not being able to use chopsticks on account of my hand, which made Lisa launch into a story about the time he had sneezed while eating lo mein and ended up with noodles coming out his nose. Several people were playfully threatened with egg rolls in multiple instances.

It was good. It felt like family. It reminded me of mom. Meals at home had become quiet affairs since she died; half the time I ended up eating alone while dad was working late. But once upon a time it had been more like this. Mom and dad in the kitchen causing messes while I giggled from my place at the table. Mom teaching me the basics of cooking while dad watched us from the side, telling me about some of mom's disastrous cooking experiments. 

It hurt to think I had probably lost that permanently with dad, but I was glad I had found it again with this group of people. As everything wound down, I helped with cleanup, despite Lisa's insistence that I was a guest and if I helped Alec was just going to push his share onto me. I just shrugged and smiled at her. A small price for what they had just given me, I thought.

We ended up back on the couch afterwards. The tv had switched from shows to some horror movie, but I was only half paying attention to it as the three of us spoke softly about everything that had happened that day. They reaffirmed that they were proud of me for standing up for myself, though Rachel was insistent that we needed to have another, longer session soon. I thanked Lisa for the clothes she let me borrow, and both of them for everything they had done for me today. 

We sat there for a long while before one of us yawned, and it was decided it was time for bed. They insisted I stay the night, and honestly I didnt want to argue. Once again I borrowed some of Lisa's sleep clothes, and we all said good night, heading to our separate rooms.

The next morning reminded me of the first time I had stayed the night, in a lot of ways. I woke up before any of the others, and after a quick stop in the bathroom made my way to the kitchen. The fridge was slightly better stocked this time. I think it was Lisa's subtle way of encouraging me to cook for them more, which got a chuckle out of me.

This time when Alec was summoned by the smells I wasn't surprised. "I absolutely love having a live in maid, it simply can't be beaten."

"Oh haha," I replied flatly and flicked a leftover piece of ham at him. "I guess somebody isn't getting any omelet." He gave out a melodramatic sigh and draped himself across one of the table chairs. I just rolled my eyes and went back to putting the finishing touches on everything.

Eventually the smells drew out Lisa, and then Rachel. Lisa looked like she had stayed up half the night after we all separated, while Rachel just looked her normal grumpy self. I was getting the impression she wasn't much of a morning person.

The meal passed quietly, a stark contrast to last evening, but still not stifled the way meals with dad were. I got a few compliments on the food (and one comment on my cheese-to-egg ratio from Alec), which had me smiling. When it was done, Lisa insisted since I cooked I shouldn't clean, and then bullied Alec into doing it.

Both my clothes and the set of Lisa's that I had worn to the mall yesterday had been washed overnight. I went to go separate mine out, but Lisa just handed me the whole pile. When I gave her a questioning look she just shrugged with a little smirk.

"Keep them," she sounded amused. "They look good on you. Besides," she leaned in and her tone changed entirely. "I like seeing you in my clothes," Lisa whispered. I think my entire body was flushed, and I let out a choking sound. It took me several minutes to recover, and at some point Lisa had slipped off so I went to get changed. I almost put my regular clothes back on, but...I flushed again as I started grabbing the skirt and tank.

I was almost home when I looked up and paused at the sight of my dad's car still in the driveway. It was well past the time when he should have left for work. Shit, I hadn't called him yesterday, had I? There was no helping it now, I'd just have to explain that I got caught up in things and forgotten. 

Slowly I went up the steps, skipping the third, and slipped into the house. It was quiet, and I almost thought he wasn't here after all, but as soon as I stepped further into the room I heard him call out "Taylor," from the kitchen table. He sounded tired, and stern.

"Hey dad," I said cautiously, setting the bag with my clothes aside. "What are you doing home?"

"Excuse me young lady?" now his voice was tinged with anger. "You don't come home at all yesterday, and then you show up well after school is supposed to have begun, and you're standing there asking me what I'm doing?"

I winced. Okay, maybe that hadn't been the best thing to say. I opened my mouth to explain myself, trying to carefully think about how to edit what happened at the mall. He didn't give me the chance.

Quietly, but with just as much emotion, he said "The school called me." I breathed in sharply. "They said that they had been informed about an out of school altercation between two of their students. They said that you've missed a lot of school recently too." His face sunk down into his hands, and he pressed palms to his eyes.

I moved into the kitchen, across from where he was sitting. "Dad, I can explain-"

He cut me off. "you're suspended pending a meeting about whether you should be expelled. Not to mention whether they're going to be pressing charges."

"That's such bullshit!"

He slammed his hand on the table, and raised his voice to match mine. "You punched a girl Taylor! You punched Emma! Why would you do that, she's your best friend!"

"She's the one who's been bullying me!"

I stilled when I realised what I had blurted out. For the first time since I got home it was completely silent. When I finally looked back at my dad he looked stricken.

"Her, Madison Clements, and Sophia Hess. They've been doing it since the beginning of freshman year."

"Why? Why would Emma do that to you?"

"I don't know! Don't you think I would have done something by now if I did? Ever since I came back from camp that summer, it's been different; she's been different."

Dad looked like he was going to be sick. "The locker?" I just stiffly nodded. All the fight went out of him. "This is why you've been missing school?"

I hesitated before giving him a nod. "Yeah. Mostly."


"My friends...mean a lot to me. They've been really helpful, teaching me to stand up for myself."

He raised an eyebrow at that. "Teaching you to punch girls?"

I rolled my eyes at that. "It's not like that, really! I mean sure, Rachel's teaching me some self defense, but Lisa actually seemed kind of upset about how things went down at the mall." I left out that she was mostly upset about how many witnesses there had been.

"Rachel and Lisa, that's who you've been hanging out with? And their parents are okay with you just randomly staying the night without permission?"

I hesitated again. It would be easy to keep lying to him, make up some apathetic parents. But is that what I wanted to do here? Lie to my dad even more? How long would I be able to keep it up anyways?

" together. On their own." It didn't count if I just left out mentioning Alec, right? That would just make him freak even more, even if a niggling feeling made me think maybe it wasn't him dad needed to be concerned about.

And freak out he did, slamming his hand on the table again. "What! Taylor, how old are these people?"

"They're my age!" I said defensively. "They just don't have any family to support them, so they room together to help with rent."

He gave me a look I couldn't decipher. "Taylor," he said slowly. "How is it two teenage girls are supporting themselves in a city like this?"

I was bewildered. "What? I dont know, Lisa does something on the computer. Tech related or IT or something. at a dog shelter maybe? I don't know. It's not like their landlord could possibly be charging them a lot for that place. Why does it matter?"

"Jesus Christ Taylor, you don't think it's suspicious that there's a couple teenagers living on their own and you know nothing about their jobs?"

Now I was the angry one. "Who cares, they are literally the first friends I've had in two years! They're good people!"

"You can't know that!"

"They're the only real support I've had since mom died! They've been there for me more since I met them than you have in two years!"

Something in dad's expression broke at that, but it wasn't enough to stop me from storming off. I stomped up the stairs, going straight to my room and slamming the door behind me. I pulled an old duffel out from my closet and started shoveling clothes into it. I bagged my running shoes and shoved those in next. Finally I gathered up my sketchbook and all my drawing supplies, and carefully made sure they were secure. I threw the bag over my shoulder, grabbed my self defense items, and stomped back downstairs.

When dad caught sight of me he rose from his seat and called out. "Taylor! What do you think you're doing?"

My voice was flat when I said "I'm leaving." He took a step towards me, but paused when I held out my taser in his direction. "I'm going to stay with Rachel and Lisa, y'know, the people who actually care about me?" I felt bad, both for the jab and for threatening him, but it was a distant feeling and one that was easily pushed down. 

I stayed facing him as I made my way to the door. He looked like he wanted to say something, do something, but instead he stayed frozen. I slipped outside and was halfway down the street by the time he appeared in the doorway.

"Taylor! Taylor come back!" he called after me, but it was futile. I managed not to trip when tears started blurring my vision, and soon enough I was around the corner and out of sight.

Chapter Text

I sat looking out over the bay, losing myself in the gentle sound of the ocean. The smell of salt water had always calmed me, and my mind drifted back to days spent at the beach with my family. My family, I thought bitterly. There wasn't much left of it now. Mom, gone. Dad, as good as.

Was he right? How well did I actually know them? Sure, I had picked up little details here and there. The things you just gradually learned as you spent time with someone new. And we had had a couple late night conversations, the kind that delved into the deep and philosophical. Who they were at the core, though? How had they gotten here in life? A mystery. 

How did three unsupported teenagers end up together in their own apartment? How were they supporting themselves? I hated that he had summoned these thoughts up in me. Where did he get off making me doubt Rachel and Lisa? I wasn't lying when I told him they had offered me more support in the time I knew them than he had in the entire time since mom died.

I took a deep, calming breath. There was no helping it. I was just going to have to trust in myself. In them. It made my gut curdle uncomfortably. It wouldn't be a repeat of Emma, I told myself. They weren't going to betray me.

I grabbed the bag from where it was sitting next to me on the bench and stood. One of the security guards for the boardwalk was eyeing me in a way that made the back of my neck prickle, so I hurried my steps towards the bus stop. There was no helping it, I was going to have to take a leap of faith. I didn't have anywhere else to go. Let's just hope they were willing and able to catch me.

I stood fidgeting in front of their door. Had been for five minutes now. It was just, as soon as I had gotten here all that anxiety had flooded back. What if dad was right? What if he wasn't, but they just didn't want me? I had just started taking deep breaths, trying to push everything away, when the door surprised me by swinging open.

"Oh my gosh please just come in, you're making ME nervous at this point," Lisa said as she dragged me into the living room. She closed the door behind her and spun around to face me. Green eyes bored into my own, pinning me with a stare. Her features visibly gentled. "What happened?"

My first instinct was to deflect, brush off her concern. It's what I always did with dad, and that had worked out well enough. Until it hadn't. "I had a fight with dad," I admitted with a sigh.

She raised an eyebrow and gestured to my bag. "I know you two don't have the best relationship, but was it really this bad?"

"We both...may have overreacted." I said grudgingly. She pulled me over to a couch, tossing one of Alec's game controllers out of the way so we could sit. 

"The fight at the mall?"

"Yeah, and..." I worried by bottom lip. "And about you guys."

"I...didn't realise your dad would have a problem" She said slowly.

My face burned with heat. I definitely hadn't missed the implication there. "No!" I blurted out. "That's not. I mean." My arms waved around in an indistinct manner before flopping back down to my side. Quieter this time, "That's not what he had a problem with."

She reached over to rest her hand on my arm, encouraged me silently to go on. I took a deep breath and let it out in a heavy sigh. No helping it, I would just have to bite the bullet and ask. I shifted on the couch so I was fully facing her. "Where are you guys getting the money to pay for this place? Let alone the gaming consoles and the most insane computer set up I've ever seen outside a movie?"

She froze almost immediately. My gut wrenched. No. No, there was no way. I shot up out of my seat. "Taylor," she pleaded. "Taylor I have no idea what's going through your mind right now, but please. Please can we just wait until Rach gets back, and then we can explain? It's not as bad as whatever you're expecting, I swear."

I wavered. Part of me wanted to dash out the door and not have to face the possibility that I had run away for nothing. That dad had been right. A bigger part of me said to trust Lisa, that this wasn't another betrayal and that at the very least I should hear her out. And a tiny part of me, buried deep down, whispered that even if dad was right, even if the worst was true, it didn't matter because they had been there for me. Who cared if they were pushing drugs, or, or...I don't even know what!

I silenced that part of me, ignored the part that told me to run. They didn't just deserve for me to hear them out, I desperately wanted to. So I nodded at Lisa and sat back down. She deflated with a long, deep sigh of relief, sinking into the couch as the tension fled her body. "Thank you," she said, her voice quiet but earnest, not a trace of her usual teasing tone.

We sat there a while, both lost in our own thoughts. It wasn't awkward exactly, but it wasn't comfortable either. Eventually Lisa stirred and flashed me a wane smile. She gestured at my bag. "I'm assuming you were hoping to stay for a while?" I nodded. "Well how about you go set up in the spare for now? We finally cleared out the last of those boxes so you can finally stop tripping everytime you try to get to the bed." She stood up, and then offered me a hand up too. "While you do that I'll put together some lunch for us."

I raised an eyebrow as she helped me up. "I didn't know you were capable of such things," I tried to inject some levity into the situation. It worked, if only a little. She made a noise of objection. 

"I'll have you know I have been successfully feeding myself for years now," she said with faux offense.

I had seen what Lisa considered 'meals'. "Depends on your definition of 'feeding' I guess," I mumbled as I passed by her. It felt great to hear her soft laugh again.

Indecision struck me again when I made it inside the room. It had been Brian's once apparently, and when he had moved out, he left some beat up furniture behind. Namely, a bed and a dresser. The dresser is where my indecision came into play. I could unload my bag, put all my clothes away, but...what if I didn't like what I heard when Rachel got back?

For now I just decided to put my bag on top of it, and sit for a moment to try and catch my breath. This wasn't going the way I had imagined it at all. Despite the seed of doubt my dad had planted, I had expected Lisa to just...laugh off my concern. Assure me that between their three jobs they were making enough for rent, and smart saving explained the rest.

The fact that she hadn't, said what? That she could have but didn't anyways? There was obviously something to tell me, and whatever it was made her nervous. I guess if nothing else it was a good sign that she didn't want to lie to me when asked directly, but that was a bittersweet thought. I sighed; dwelling over this wasn't going to do me any good. 

I pulled myself up off the bed and headed back out of the room, turning towards the kitchen this time. I stopped in the entryway and leaned against the wall to watch Lisa flit back and forth through the room. I...wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to be making, actually. Oh wait. Grilled cheese and tomato soup? She had that burner up way too high. Still, it was funny and kind of adorable watching her run around.

By the time I pulled myself off the wall and made my way over to the stove, she had already charred the first sandwich. Not too badly, but you'd definitely be tasting it. One hand settled on her back between her shoulder blades, and the other reached over to first turn down both burners to a more manageable level, and then stir the soup. 

She looked up over her shoulder at me and- holy shit she was pouting. She was actually pouting! My eyes briefly left her lips to glance up to her eyes, but were drawn right back. As if it was an inevitability. I was suddenly aware of how dry my own were, and my tongue flicked out to wet them. It was an almost unconscious action. And then the pout was gone, replaced by her usual playful smirk. I was finally able to wrench my eyes away. 

When they met hers again I could see bright amusement dancing behind them. I was caught; there was no way she didn't know what I was thinking. That damnable blush decided to make its reappearance then. The only thing I could think to do was to bury my face in her shoulder and groan in embarrassment. That netted me a sparkling laugh, big enough that I could feel her body shake under me. Good, I thought with a smile.

When I has recovered enough to face her again, I raised an eyebrow and glanced meaningfully at the poor sandwich. The hand not resting on her back absentmindedly stirred the soup. "I think we've found something you're not good at."

She pouted again, but I resisted this time. Lisa grumbled something I'm pretty sure was her complaining about doing everything else in the house. I had her switch with me so she was stirring, and I started buttering more bread for a second sandwich. In no time we had two sets of sandwiches and bowls ready. Lisa sighed, looking down at her charred first attempt, but before she could take it I swooped in and grabbed it.

She opened her mouth to say something, probably something about her not making me eat this one. I didn't give her the chance to before I bit into the sandwich. It actually wasn't that bad, though I might've put more cheese on it; no matter what Alec said, there was no such thing as too much cheese. When I had finished my bite I said "Nope, sorry! This one's mine, you can't have it," before sticking my tongue out at her. Lisa rolled her eyes, but she couldn't hide her pleased smile from me.

The...teasing? Flirting? I still wasn't quite sure what to label it. In the kitchen had helped clear the air some, but after we were done eating there was still the low hum of tension between us. We ended up on the same couch doing different things. Lisa had her laptop out and had been steadily tapping at it the entire time. I had elected to grab my sketchbook to try and channel my anxious energy into something productive. 

I had started toying with adding two new heroes to my story not too long ago. Now I wasn't so sure. Were they antiheroes instead? Villains in disguise? The fact that they were vaguely familiar had absolutely nothing to do with it, I told myself. I continued on like this, sketching something, becoming unsure or dissatisfied, and then taking an eraser to it.

I was finally released from artist purgatory when the sound of someone approaching on the stairs reached our ears. One two legged someone and multiple four legged ones, I was pretty sure. Rachel confirmed my guess when she opened the door and led in two of her dogs. One was Judas, but the other I only vaguely recognized from my time spent at her shelter. Almost by mutual agreement me and Lisa put our things on the coffee table and turned to face Rachel over the back of the couch.

"Hey Rachel," Lisa greeted her roommate. "Taylor finally asked about"

Rachel grunted back, busy with unhooking the leashes from her dogs. When she straightened back up she asked "Did you tell her?"

Lisa looked slightly annoyed. "No, I was kind of waiting on you, so we could talk about it together."

Rachel either didn't notice or didn't care, she just shrugged and said "Okay," before joining us on the couch.

The tension had ratcheted back up, I sat there nervously twisting my fingers in my hand. Lisa took a deep breath, and finally after a moment to order her thoughts said "So..." Her mouth hung open as if she was going to say more, but nothing came out. 

Apparently I wasn't the only one going crazy with impatience, because Rachel let out a huff, turned to fully face me, and said very bluntly "We're criminals. We steal shit."
Lisa made a choking noise from the other side of her.

For my part I just sat there taking a moment to absorb what she said. I almost wanted to sigh in relief, if I was being honest. Still, I had to be sure.

"No drugs?"

"No drugs," she said firmly.

"No gangs?"

"Fuck no."

Now I DID let out a sigh of relief. It honestly
still wasn't great to find out that your new friends supported themselves by taking from others, but my mind had had plenty of time to cook up all sorts of ideas between my argument with dad and now.

Lisa leaned out from behind Rachel to chime in, apparently over choking on her words. "More specifically, I scam people with more money than brains and do some anticorporate black hatting on the side. If you ever see me take a super powerful electromagnet to my system don't be alarmed." The last bit was said with a wry smile that told me maybe I should run if I ever saw that happen.

"And you?" I asked, looking at Rachel. "I'm guessing you don't actually work at a dog shelter like I assumed."

"Of course I do." I couldn't tell if she was joking. As good as I had gotten at reading Rachel's body language, I still hadn't known her for that long in the grand scheme of things. I cautiously glanced at Lisa, who shrugged and nodded.

"And also I rob shit when I need to." Oh. Yeah, okay. That was more along the lines of what I had expected.

"But only the gangs or businesses," Lisa added hastily. "That's part of our deal. I help her cover her tracks, she only hits acceptable targets. It's more dangerous, but this way normal, everyday people don't get hurt." She paused. "Too hurt."

"Is...that something that happens often? Everyday people getting hurt?"

Lisa shrugged again. "Sometimes a cashier gets blamed for a holdup, or a system security expert gets canned, but that's not something we can really control."

"Unless you, y'know, stopped stealing," I said flatly.

Lisa hesitated before slowly shaking her head. "We don't really have a lot of choices here Taylor. We're both runaways without a lot of formal education, Rachel is wanted and I'm technically a missing person, and even if all of that wasn't true child labour laws would screw us out of making anywhere near enough money."

I sighed and pressed my face into the palms of my hands. I took one last deep breath before lifting my head to face them, and simply said "Okay. We're definitely getting into that missing person tidbit eventually, but okay."

"Okay?" Lisa asked, voice equal parts cautious and hopeful.

I nodded. "Okay. I'm still not happy with this, really, but you two mean too much to me to let this come between us." Lisa's eye's became shiny and she started blinking rapidly, while Rachel's expression softened in that way that always made me feel warm.

I twisted my body around so I could throw my legs over the arm of the couch and rest my head in Rachel's lap. "Now!" I exclaimed. "Please tell me I can stay here a couple days, 'cause I am way too exhausted to deal with the humiliation of crawling back to my dad after our argument."

Above me all the softness left Rachel's features, and instead the steely look I had only seen directed at the mugger, Emma, and Sophia replaced it. I could feel her muscles tense beneath me. "What the fuck? He kicked you out?" Judas, who had been resting at the foot of the couch, responded to her tone and posture by raising his hackles and letting out a low snarl.

"No!" I told her quickly. My hands reached up to grab one of hers, unfurling it from the fist it had curled into and holding it between mine. "No, it's not like that. I...left. Because he was being an ass. Because he was attacking you two without even knowing you. Please don't beat up my dad though, I can handle this on my own."

Slowly she relaxed back into that gentle state that I loved to see her in. Muscles unclenched, Judas stood down, and her other hand slowly unfurled from its fist. I figured we were good again when she brought that hand up to start running it through my hair.

Lisa almost surprised me when she spoke up again. "To answer your earlier question: of course you can stay. Officially consider that room yours for whenever and however long you need it."

I tilted my head back to meet her eyes, careful not to dislodge Rachel's hand. "Thanks," I said softly.

A beat passed where we seemed to share feelings without words, but then Lisa got a devious glint in her eye. "Does that mean I can't call you our stray anymore? Now that you've been officially adopted, that is."

I think I surprised her when I just smirked back and said "Where would the fun be in that?"

Chapter Text

It had been three days since I had argued with my dad and started staying with Lisa and Rachel. Staying with them had been...Wonderful. Torturous. Constantly being around my friends who I knew fully supported me had been more than I ever expected. Constantly being around my crushes who loved to fluster and tease me? More than I had ever bargained for.

And I could admit that to myself now. I definitely had crushes on both Lisa and Rachel. Honestly it still kind of blew my mind. I found myself going back over my memories, looking for clues almost. I definitely found them too. Celebrity obsessions, teachers I was shy around for no discernible reason, and...maybe even some former friends. I wouldn't let that line of thought continue though.

I still wasn't sure how they felt about me. Yeah, Lisa loved to tease and make innuendos. Sure, Rachel was very tactile. But that could just be who they were as people. It's not like I had occasion to see them around very many other people.

I sighed. As enjoyable as it was reminiscing over the past couple days, there was something I needed to do. I hadn't made so much as a phone call to him since we last spoke, but I knew I needed to talk to my dad soon.

Which is what brought me to outside our house at six in the morning, so I could catch him before work. I had kept up my morning runs, and it had been a simple enough detour. I made sure to skip the rotting step, fished the spare key out from its hiding place, and made a beeline for our ancient coffee machine once I was inside. I was going to need a cup no matter where this conversation went.

It was almost amusing, how dad walked right past me to the pot of coffee without even realising. Almost. He looked so haggard, dead on his feet. It reminded me of right after mom died, which sent a shiver down my spine. He was about halfway through making his cup of coffee when he froze. His brain must have finally caught up.

Cautiously he turned around, slumping against the counter when his eyes locked onto me sitting at the table with my own cup. "Taylor," he let out, sounding relieved.

I took another sip before addressing him. "You might as well finish making your cup, you'll probably want it in a few minutes."

He nodded slowly, but seemed reluctant when he turned back towards the counter. As if I might run again while his back was to me. I resisted the urge to snort. Sure, I didn't really want to have this conversation, half because he was partially right about our last one, but I was the one to come to him. Not that he could come to me.

A little while later we sat across from each other at the table, sipping our coffees in silence. Neither of us quite ready to broach the topic. Ready or not though, it had to be done. I took a deep breath, but the voice that came out was almost whisper quiet.

"When mom died, I lost both my parents. Or at least, I might as well have." He took a sharp breath and opened his mouth to respond, but I just shook my head at him. "She died and you just...checked out. You barely looked after yourself, let alone me. Hell, if we're being honest I looked after you." I wiped at my face and was surprised when my hand came back wet with tears. "Over the years you became a bit more...present, but you never actually started paying attention again."

It was silent for a while again as I tried to get my tears under control. I could tell dad wanted to jump up and come comfort me, but it seemed even now he couldn't push himself into action. When he spoke his voice cracked. "Taylor..."

When he didn't continue I let out a pained laugh. "Yeah." It was hard to keep the bitterness out of my voice. "So mom was dead, you were gone, and Emma was changed. It stayed that way, for two years, with me just barely surviving. Then." I paused there, took a moment to pull Rachel's jacket tight around me, almost as if it could protect from all the hurt I was feeling. I was so glad when she had thrust it into my arms without a word this morning. 

"Then I met Rachel. She saved me from a mugger y'know." I admitted. Dad's eyes bulged out a little. "She saved me from that mugger, and she brought me back to her place and Lisa patched my arm up. You didn't even notice anything had happened. But they saw me, and they brought me in, and they protected me from so much. They saved me." I spoke that sentence with clear conviction, and even if the next one was quieter, even if I looked away from my dad, it was spoken in that same voice. "I think I'm falling in love with them."

Again silence reigned in the kitchen. I couldn't bring myself to look at him, so I just huddled further into Rachel's jacket as the seconds ticked by. Eventually it was broken by a soft, "Oh," and followed by a long exhale. I chanced a glance at him, but there were so many emotions playing over his face that I couldn't tell what he was thinking. "Both of them?" I hesitated, but nodded. How could I not? They were so intertwined in my mind and heart that to choose one without the other made me shudder.

Now he looked awkward and like he was picking his words carefully. "Is...that why you went to them when you ran away? You said they live alone."

"Ew, dad! I don't want to talk about that! No!" My face burned with embarrassment. This is not where I thought this conversation was headed, and definitely not where I wanted it to be, so I tried to redirect it. "They don't even know I like them. No, I ran to them because above everything else they're my friends, and they were there for me." I didn't have anyone else anyways, I thought to myself.

Dad drained the last of his coffee, which had gone cold if the look on his face was anything to go by. The conversation lulled as he went to get more. When he sat back down he began to speak again.

"I'm sorry Taylor. You're right, I haven't been here for you like I should. I've failed you in so many ways. Maybe too many ways." He stared down into his mug. "Your mom would have been so much better at this." I bit my tongue before I could make some scathing comment about her not being the one here.

Instead I swallowed my pride, and shifted the conversation again. "You were kind of right, by the way," I admitted. "About their work. It doesn't matter though. It doesn't change who they are."

For the first time this morning he regained some of his sharpness. "Yes it does Taylor. People who do those kinds of things aren't good news. You know how hard I work to keep the Dockworkers' Association clean, to keep the gangs out. You don't let those kind of people worm their way in."

I shook my head. "They're doing what they do out of necessity, they aren't involved with the gangs or with drugs. They're not bad people dad."

"I raised you better than this Taylor."

"You haven't raised me in two years."

It was like a slap in the face to him. I almost regretted it, but it was true. He was going to have to face that. I did. I lived it.

"I did that myself," I continued quietly, "I think that makes me qualified to make this call myself." I stood up and rinsed my mug. "I'm going to stay with them, at least for another couple of days. I hope you can be okay with that."

"I'm not going to tell you I'm fine with this Taylor." He paused, and the fight seemed to leave him. "But I know there's nothing I can do to stop you short of chaining you to your bed. You have too much of your mother in you for that." I nodded and started heading for the door, but he called out. When I turned back he said "The school has set a meeting for this friday, will you come?"

I paused to consider, but really, I had nothing to lose. "Sure dad. I'll meet you here?" With that we said our goodbyes, and I headed back into the early morning. Back to my girls.

I was sprawled on the couch rubbing at my face when Rachel and Lisa came back later that day. I peeked up over the back just in time to see Lisa opening her mouth, presumably to say something snarky or teasing. I guess whatever she saw on my face gave her pause though, because she shut it without saying anything a moment later.

No matter how much I rationalized it to my dad and myself, every time I caught sight of them again I felt like I was reprocessing everything I now knew. My friends, the thieves. I got it, but there was still that voice in the back of my head that told me stealing was wrong. It sounded suspiciously like my dad.

Rachel stomping past broke me out of my reverie, and my eyes tracked her as she disappeared down the hall. The feeling of someone plopping down next to me drew my attention back to Lisa. She had a sympathetic look in her eyes as she took a moment to examine me. "Finally visited your dad today?"

I nodded minutely, and then let out a deep breath. "It's just so frustrating. He spent years barely caring about my existence, and then as soon as I get a life of my own, he what? Wants to step in and take control of things?" My shoulders slumped, and I went back to rubbing at my face. "I just want things to make sense again." A pause. "He apologized. We went back to arguing after, but."

When the silence became too much I took my hands away from my face. Lisa's head was tilted slightly, and I couldn't quite parse the look on her face. "Honey, you know it's okay to love and miss your dad, right?"

I sputtered a bit trying to come up with a response, but before I could say anything Rachel dropped into the seat behind me. She tugged on the back of my shirt, so I leaned back into her, grateful for the way her presence soothed my frayed nerves. I almost felt like I could purr when she started running her hands through my hair.

It took me a moment to come back around to what Lisa had said. "It's just...I don't know how to make him understand. And he's so hostile about you guys. How am I supposed to miss him w-when you two mean so much to me?"

"Fuck him," Rachel said abruptly. "Sometimes the people who are supposed to care just don't; it's shitty and it hurts, but you deal. You survive."

The look Lisa shot past my shoulder was a weird mix of annoyed and sympathetic. She slowly shook her head. "No, no 'fuck him'. Obviously Rachel is right, we all have our family issues to attest to that, but I don't think that's what's happening here."

Everything about this conversation intrigued me. Once again it occured to me that I knew almost nothing about about Rachel and Lisa's lives before Brockton Bay. Not that I was going to push, they obviously weren't happy stories. I took a minute to process. "I think you're both partially right. I'm not ready to just cut him out of my life completely, but I think maybe I need the space. Missing him or not."

I decided to switch tracks, took a moment to meet Lisa's eyes before turning and meeting Rachel's. "I know we've spent a lot of time on me, and that's not entirely fair. I just need you two to know that if you ever want to talk about your lives with me you can."

The telltale feeling of Rachel tensing against my back started before I even finished speaking. I tried to ease her by turning back towards Lisa, and catching one of her hands so I could entwine our fingers. It seemed to work, at least a little. 

Meanwhile Lisa waved airily at me. "All our shit is in the past Taylor, yours is actually happening in the here and now; no point in digging up old problems when we can do something about the ones currently plaguing us."

I held her gaze for a minute before reluctantly nodding. "Fine, just as long as you know."

We sat there silently in each others company for a few minutes, just being near each other. Eventually though, Lisa popped up out of her seat and clapped. "C'mon," she said cheerfully, "We should go out to eat. Ooh, maybe chinese! No? Cool, Indian it is."

Rachel grumbled something about them just having gotten back, but I simply gave her a soft smile and tugged on our joined hands as I stood up. Yeah, maybe my life was a mess. I had run away from home, and might be expelled from school. Somehow though, I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be.

I made sure to arrive at the house early so I could collect the journals I had recorded all my evidence in, print all the copies I made of their digital bullying. While I did that, dad took his shower, got ready, and put some coffee into a thermos. We barely said a word to each other.

As we stepped out to his old rusted truck I was glad Rachel had lent me her jacket again. Even with the days getting warmer, the amount of comfort it provided when I pulled it tight around myself was incomparable. The car ride over was just as haunted by the awkward silence. A number of times I saw my dad open his mouth in the corner of my eye, but the words never came.

I would almost say it was a comfort to see Winslow again, but too many painful memories lived there for me to ever be relieved by its sight. The secretary working the front desk directed us to wait outside a meeting room near the principal's office. We were the first ones there, which gave me plenty of time to fidget.

Emma arrived not long after, accompanied by Zoe much to my surprise. I had expected Alan to be there to defend his precious angel of a daughter. If the nervous look hidden beneath Emma's usual smug, confident exterior was anything to go by, so was she. Zoe flashed me a wan smile, but it faded when I didn't return it.

Eventually we were herded into the room by Principal Blackwell, where she took a seat at the head of the table with me and dad mirroring Zoe and Emma across from us. I took a deep breath and tried to emulate Rachel's posture, solid and in control. Dangerous. Lisa had given me a few tips about how to plead my case, so hopefully I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself. Even if I was unlikely to see any actual justice, I thought bitterly.

Blackwell shuffled a small pile of papers around before she looked up and addressed us. "Good morning, thank you all for coming in today." She glanced down at the papers. "We're here to discuss an assault that happened off-campus. When an incident like this involves our students, we're required to investigate and mediate in order to see if the encounter has been motivated by something on campus."

I scoffed loudly at that, which earned a withering glare from Blackwell. She turned to speak to Emma. "Miss Barnes, as you were the one assaulted, could you please recount your version of the incident for us?"

This was the type of situation where Emma shined, and I could see the moment when she pushed back the nervousness and put all her talents to work beguiling the room. Her eyes widened slightly, and her lower lip had the barest tremble as she started to speak. "Honestly Principal Blackwell, it came out of nowhere. I was just enjoying the mall with my friend Sophia, when Taylor stomped up and started yelling at me." 

She sent me a side-eye. "She's always been jealous of Sophia, since we became close around the same time me and Taylor started drifting apart."

I felt my anger bubbling up, but I kept a leash on it; my hands curling into fists in my lap was my only tell. I focused back in on her voice.

"The next thing I know she's slamming a fist in my face. Sophia tried to defend me, but Taylor's...friend started growling at us like some deranged animal and I just wanted to get out of there."

"That's such bullshit," I snapped out.

"Miss Hebert, please! Now, Miss Barnes, you say it was completely unprovoked? There were no encounters leading up to it either at the mall or school?"

She shook her head, eyes flicking toward me. "I mean, Taylor's never really gotten over the fact that I moved on, she's done some things to try and get attention before, but nothing like this."

I was seething, but I pushed it as far away from me as I knew how to do when Blackwell turned towards me. "Now, Miss Hebert, could you explain to us all why you assaulted Miss Barnes?"

I kept my face steely as I reached down and started pulling things out of my bag, and as she watched Backwell's eyebrows rose right alongside my pile. "What's all this?" she asked.

I opened my first journal and started reading out the entries, letting some of the frustration and bitterness bleed into my voice. "Six vicious emails, pushed down the stairs when I was near the bottom, tripped and shoved no less than three times during gym, and threw my clothes at me while I was in the shower after gym class had ended, getting them wet.  I had to wear my gym clothes for the rest of the morning.  I was cornered after school had ended and they took my backpack from me, throwing it in the garbage."

I felt a vicious satisfaction for the look of horror on Zoe's face. Her eyes kept on switching from me to Emma, who wouldn't meet her gaze.

Blackwell spoke up, pulling my attention back to her. She affected a sympathetic look that didn't convince me one bit. "I see. While that is all highly regrettable-"

"That's just September eighth," I interrupted. "I have entries for almost every day of the school year; I would have more but I only decided to start recording them last summer."

"You're claiming this was all perpetrated by Emma Barnes?" Principal Blackwell didn't try to hide how incredulous she was.

"Of course not, Madison Clements and Sophia Hess were also main instigators, and they convinced a number of other girls to play along with them."

Blackwell let out a low hum. "The purpose of this meeting is to resolve the assault, and seeing as neither Miss Clements nor Miss Hess are here to defend themselves, I feel it would be best to disregard this until a later date where we can further discuss this." Hearing it made me want to fling all my notes aside in frustration. I just barely held back, and by the time I had cooled enough to speak, dad had already started talking.

"Disregard?" Dad's voice was dangerous now, and I was almost surprised that he wasnt physically shaking when I looked at him. "My daughter shows you evidence of a prolonged campaign of harrassment, and you want to disregard that? Exactly what kind of clown show are you running here Principal Blackwell?"

"I'll thank you to be civil while you're here, Mr. Hebert," she said sharply.

My dad let out a short laugh. "In January, my daughter was subjected to one of the most malicious, disgusting pranks I have ever heard of. You assured me that the situation would be dealt with. Clearly, it has not. In fact, it seems like you never even investigated."

Dad took a calming breath. "I'll be withdrawing Taylor, effective immediately. Obviously the staff at this institution are in no way dedicated to providing a safe environment for my daughter."

I gaped up at my dad. My head spun as he stood up, and gestured for me to follow. I quickly gathered up everything in front of me, thankful that I had resisted the impulse to fling it across the room.

Blackwell's lips thinned, but she didn't protest the announcement. "Very well, Miss Hebert can collect her things from her locker while you grab the required paperwork from the front desk."

Dad ushered me towards the door, but paused at the last minute. "I have a friend in the media; I'm sure he would be very interested to hear Taylor's story." And then we were gone. I tried to order my thoughts as I walked down the hall. He had really stood up for me back there. He believed me and he went to bat for me against the school.

I was already halfway there when I remembered I didnt even really have anything worth grabbing in my locker. Just a pencil case and some spare notebooks really. Still, I was already headed that way, so I might as well grab them.

I had just closed the clasps on my bag when I heard footsteps behind me. My anger flared. She just couldn't leave me be could she? I spun around right as she reached me, the fire in her eyes as strong as it had ever been. The disgust on her face was evident as she scanned down my body.

Emma reached out as if to pluck at the collar of Rachel's jacket, but I moved back before she could. "You cant hide behind your dyke bitch of a girlfriend for forever Hebert," she spat with as much venom as she could muster. 

"neither can you," I retorted. She reeled as if I had punched her again. "Except that's the difference between us, isn't it Emma? I'm not the one that needs to hide behind a bloodthirsty psycho, or my lawyer daddy. I took all the shit you threw at me and survived. And you know what? I've finally realised I don't have to take it any more. You're less than nothing to me Emma Barnes."

She gaped at me, a wild look in her eyes. She wasn't worth engaging now that I'd said my piece. I shouldered past her and started back towards the office. I thought I heard her collapse against the locker, but I didn't spare the glance back. 

When I reached the office I was surprised to find Zoe still there, talking with my dad. I approached them cautiously, but it became clear it wasn't necessary when she pulled me into a hug. At my bewildered look she said, "For what it's worth, I'm sorry Taylor. I had no idea this was going on, and I am going to have a strong word with my husband and daughter later. Annette would be ashamed of the lot of us."

I nodded numbly, and let dad pull me away and out into the parking lot. The ride back was just as quiet as the one there, though most of the tension had faded away. It was almost comfortable. 

Chapter Text

Taylor hadn't come home last night.

The work day went a little long, which was really the norm nowadays. For a union recieving almost no work, finding that little bit we did get took a great deal of effort on my part. It was fine with me, really. It meant less time spent in that empty, haunted shell of a home. I always felt a little pang of guilt when I thought like that, but like always I brushed it off. Taylor was fine, she was a capable girl more than able to take care of herself most of the time. She didn't need me.

The work day might've gone even longer, if not for the phone call that interrupted the paper work I was doing. "Breach of the school's Code of Conduct," they said. "Assualt," they said. And most surprisingly, "Emma Barnes," they said. My vision swam and my whole world tilted on its axis. I didn't even know Winslow had a Code of Conduct.

A lot more was said, and I did my best to absorb it all and not let my anger lash out at the woman on the other end of the line. That Taylor had been missing school was news to me, and hearing it was enough that it might impact her grades this semester had me biting my tongue. They told me she was suspended, and that there would be a meeting between us and the Barnes' to determine exactly what had and would happen.

After the conversation was finally over I tried to finish the paperwork I was working on, but after five minutes of meaningless letters swimming around in front of my eyes I gave it up as a lost cause. I locked up my office and the building behind me, everyone else had headed home an hour ago.

I probably should have been paying more attention as I drove home, but I got there in one piece, so I put it out of my mind. I closed the back door behind me quietly, before calling up the stairs for Taylor. I kept my tone tempered and controlled at first, but when she didn't respond I let some of my anger slip into my voice. When I still got no response I stomped up the stairs to her door, and started pounding on it. "Taylor Anne Hebert you better come out here right now!"

Still nothing. Now I started getting a feeling in the pit of my stomach. Her door was unlocked, so I slowly opened it. Empty. I went down to the kitchen. Table, fridge, no note. Stove unused, no food in the fridge. Generally Taylor would have made herself dinner and put away leftovers for me to have when I got home.

That pit was growing. This was Brockton Bay after all. A destitute city where gangs ruled every dark corner, and plenty of the legitimate businesses. Any number of things could have happened to Taylor, none of them good.

I remembered those new friends of hers then, and cursed myself for never getting their numbers, or even their names. It just hadn't seemed important at the time. They might know where she was. If I was lucky, she might even be with them. As it was, I had no way of getting into contact with them. For the first time, I felt a pang of regret for our unspoken 'No Cellphones' rule. With a sigh, I settled in for a long night. Worse come to worst, I would rouse a bunch of the boys tomorrow and we would pound dirt asking after Taylor. Aggressively, if we had to.

I stopped even tasting my coffee after the third or fourth cup, I think. I hadn't left my seat at the kitchen table at all that night. Sure, the couch would have been marginally more comfortable, but the stiff seat helped keep me awake. I had ended up dozing off at some point, but it couldn't have been more than an hour or two. Hence the coffee.

The door shutting softly pulled me from my stupor. I took a deeply calming breath before I called for my daughter. I passively noted that she wasn't dressed in her usual baggy clothes. I wasn't actually sure the last time I had seen her in a skirt, or with her arms bare. The otherwise seemingly innocuous change set me on alert though. What was going on with Taylor? So much was changing so suddenly, something had to be prompting it.

Her initial response had my hackles up, and from there it only went downhill. The amount of things I learned was dizzying. Some of them made my blood boil, others just shocked. Sweet Emma, the one who had put Taylor in that disgusting locker? And these friends of Taylor's, Lisa and Rachel, there was something suspicious going on there. I was certain.

Taylor didn't want to hear it though. It was like everything had been twisted so she felt she could only rely on those two girls. She stomped up the stairs and slammed her door behind her, and I thought that was it for now. Until she stormed back down the stairs and out of the house. She actually pointed her taser at me, and I had to work hard to keep my promise never to direct my temper at her. Then she was out the door, and all my anger fled me.

I tried to call out, to get her to turn around, but she was gone. Back to those girls who had twisted everything around in my daughter's mind.

I had been pouring myself into work since Taylor ran away. Going in first thing in the morning, putting in even more hours in the evening. It was the only thing I could do. The cops? They'd laugh me out of the precinct, with how many missing cases they had. It's not like I had any information they could work with anyways.

The third day started like the others, me acting the zombie as I made my way into the kitchen to grab some coffee so I could start powering through the day. The pot of coffee was fresh, and I made it halfway through pouring my cup before realising I hadn't been awake to set it to brew before just then.

The sight of Taylor sitting there in her running gear, bundled up in this weird coat with a fur lined hood, was such a relief to my heart. She was safe. She was home. I looked for a way to start the conversation we needed to have, but Taylor beat me to it. The conversation was...shattering. Hearing the pain I had put her through, how she felt about me and how I acted, it made me sick. 

I wanted to object, say that it wasn't my fault that I had lost the most important person in my life. It wasn't my fault that it took all I had to just keep going. Just thinking it made me disgusted with myself. She was my daughter, she was supposed to be able to rely on me. I was supposed to take care of her. Forgive me Annette, you would be beyond ashamed of me.

Knowing I was right about those 'friends' of hers didn't make up for it. Hearing Taylor was almost mugged only made me want to lock her up in her room so I could protect her, and their role in hiding the whole thing only lowered my opinion of them.

Hearing that...hearing that Taylor thought she was in love? With both Lisa and Rachel? It came so far out of left field I had no clue how to handle it. There had been no signs that she had liked girls. And the only woman I had ever been in love with was her mother, so I couldn't even give her any advice there beyond 'stay away from those two'. Not that I actually said that. I didn't want our conversation to end yet, and that would definitely end it. Learning that they weren't having sex yet was a brief reprieve, but knowing that she had already lied about so many things and the fact that she was staying with them made it hard to believe.

When she said that she was going back to stay with them for at least another couple of days, I had to bite my tongue. But it wasn't a total loss. I did at least get her to promise to come to the school meeting with me. Funny how that was a win these days.

I glanced at the dashboard clock as we pulled back up to the house, surprised by how quickly that had gone. I could still get in a couple hours at the office this afternoon if I left soon. A glance at Taylor as we shuffled into the kitchen killed that thought. She was more important, I knew she was more important and I needed to start acting like it. I couldn't lose her too.

We hadn't said much on the ride back, mostly she kept her nose pressed in the hood of her coat. It was the same odd one that she'd been wearing last time we met, and one I didn't recognize. Curious. "That's an interesting coat," I said, trying to sound casual. "Where'd you pick it up from?"

"Oh. It's Rachel's jacket, she lets me borrow it sometimes." She buried herself deeper into the over large thing as she spoke. I had to force myself not to grimace at the girl's name; I knew if I did it would upset Taylor, and I didn't want to lose any progress we had made today. Even if her name made the ol' Hebert rage flare slightly.

When had I lost so much control over life that a simple conversation with my own daughter was considered a victory? The question was pointless, I knew exactly when. Down to the last second. All I could do now was dance around delicate topics and try to regain some of that control. Try to put our lives back together after a series of shattering mistakes. Try to keep her from slipping into the dark cracks of this city that seemed to widen every day.

Taylor went about making herself tea as I sat here stewing over all of this. How long had it been since she stomped out? A Week? It felt like so much longer, like her continued familiarity with everything in the kitchen was out of place. I vowed right then that I would do anything necessary to get her back in the house.

"Did you mean it?" she asked abruptly, back still to me.

"Mean what?"

"About having a friend in the media. About telling them about what happened to me."

I nodded even though she couldn't see me. "You know I do a lot for the DWA. I have more than a few odd friends in this city; I have to just to have the leverage to keep things running."

Finally she turned back toward me, tea forgotten to steep on the counter. She held herself so much like Annette these days, it made my heart ache and I had to force myself not to turn away. But even with that resemblance, she still tensed and fidgeted just like me. I could see it in her shoulders and neck, the way her fists clenched and unclenched. 

"I...don't think I want you to."

I simply asked "Why?"

She looked at me like maybe I should have already known, but I couldn't figure out how I possibly could. We barely spoke, she had only just told me about Emma earlier in the week. And I couldn't push her. Not now when she was already slipping away from me.

"It's not important any more. She's not important any more. Going public would just give her another spotlight to manipulate against me, keep me stuck in her world."

A frown creased my face. I didn't like the thought of that demon in a girls' skin getting away with this, but I didn't press it. "Okay. There's another thing we need to speak about though. I'm fully supportive of you never going back to that place, but you can't just not go to school. Your mother would have conniptions at the thought."

She tried to act nonchalant when she spoke next, but I saw right through it. "Lisa's been helping me look into getting my GED anyways."

I nearly blew a blood vessel. Distantly, I knew that feeling hatred for a teenage girl was ridiculous, but this Lisa was cutting it awfully close. What kind of ideas was she filling Taylor's head with? I took a few moments to cool down before I opened my mouth again. "Taylor, you know that isn't the same thing. It's already hard enough to find work in this city, to hamstring yourself like that..."

Stubbornness set in over her features, and I knew this was another conversation I had already lost control of before it had even begun. No matter how I tried it seemed like either I didn't know how to help Taylor, or she wouldn't let me help her. My shoulders slumped in defeat and I stared down at my hands. My melancholy was interrupted by a mug of coffee being pushed into view, and I looked up to meet Taylor's pained smile.

We sat across from each other waiting for our respective drinks to cool for a while. It was awkward, and tense, but at least she was here. For now, I would take what I could get.

Chapter Text

It had been a good day, surprisingly. After dad showing improvement and standing up for me at the school, I was almost reluctant to come back to the loft this evening. Almost. The way this space had taken on the warm aspect of home that had been missing from our house since mom died should have surprised me, but it didn't. The thought of spending more than a night away from it made my heart twinge with homesickness. I knew it was going to cause issues with dad down the road, but right now I couldn't bring myself to care.

He made a halfhearted try at getting me to stay the night, but I think we both knew it wasn't going to happen. Likewise I refused his ride to the loft. Maybe it was paranoia about not wanting him to know how to find me, maybe it was just about keeping the two things separate and untainted. Either way I ended up taking the bus as far as I could and walking the rest of the way.

Everybody was gathered in the living room when I slipped through the door, laughing and shouting as something played on the tv. Calling it heartwarming seemed cheesy, but that's exactly what it was. Even if Alec was an annoying dork. I just stayed there a moment, taking it in. Eventually though Lisa glanced over her shoulder and caught me watching them. I laughed when she reached out and made a grabby motion at me, but I nodded and motioned for her to give me a moment.

I was reluctant to give up Rachel's jacket, but it was easier when I knew the real thing was there waiting for me right next to Lisa. Still, I was determined to steal it more often from now on. I slipped into the small space between Lisa and Rachel, more than happy to be squished by the two. Not that they needed to know that. Not that I actually hid it that well. It was the principle of keeping it to myself though.

Their reactions were almost automatic. Lisa slipped her arm behind me to hold me around the waist, and Rachel reached out to start running her hand through my hair. It was heaven, and I just sat there basking in it for a while. Until a loud snicker from Alec broke the peace.

I barely cracked an eye (when had they even slipped shut?) and raised an eyebrow at him. His smirk had almost reached Lisa levels, which was never a good sign. "Honestly, could you be more of a bottom?" That just served to confuse me, and I scrunched my brow at him. Bottom of what? How did that even make any sense?

I opened my mouth to ask him what he was talking about, but my attention was drawn when Lisa let out a "Hey!" and lobbed something at Alec. "No teasing her about that, that's my job. Besides she hasn't quite worked that out yet." She turned to me. "So, how did the meeting go?"

I considered pushing it for a moment, but I decided to ignore the whole thing for now, along with Alec's "Ow!" as he rubbed at his forehead. I'd talk to Lisa about keeping things from me later, in private.

"They didn't believe me, of course. Or, at least, they didn't care if it was true or not. Still, it wasn't all bad. Dad actually stood up for me against Blackwell."

Lisa beamed a smile at me. "He withdrew you? Taylor that's great! But I'm guessing he didn't take the whole GED thing laying down?"

I nodded. "Yeah, he wasn't too happy about that, it seemed like he really wanted to argue, but he dropped it after a little bit."

Rachel dug her fingers into my scalp, making me bliss out a little bit. "Good," she said firmly. "He's learning not to fuck with you."

My response was quiet. "He's still my dad. I'm angry with him, but I don't want him gone from my life forever. Not like mom already is."

Vomiting noises from the other couch kept me from saying anything else. I favored Alec with a flat stare where he had thrown himself backward over the arm of the couch. "Enooouuugh with the touchy-feely." That last bit was accompanied by a wiggle of the eyebrows that made my distinctly aware of exactly how much of my body was pressed up against the girls on either side of me. "You've officially joined us in delinquency! This calls for a celebration!"

Lisa let out a long sigh. "I hate to say this, because he always gets highly insufferable when it happens, but Alec is right. You're free of that hellhole, and those girls can't fuck with you anymore. That calls for a party."

Alec sat up and spun himself around, leaning forward. I think it was the most excitement I had ever seen out of him, actually. Which would be a little flattering, if I didn't know it was all self motivated. "The Big Top. We have to go to The Big Top." The devious glee that filled Lisa at those words was more than a little foreboding. You were getting the idea that when Lisa and Alec started to scheme together, it was a very bad sign.

The Big Top, as it turned out, was a club in one of the less seedy areas of the docks. When I expressed worry about them letting us in, Alec just brushed me off with a "Don't worry about it." Lisa stuck her tongue out at him before explaining to me they knew one of the bartenders and owners. Apparently that was a bit of a misnomer since it was a co-op, which Lisa had also explained to me.

As the bus neared our stop, I took a calming breath and stared at my reflection in the window. I had borrowed some of Lisa's clothes again, and it had me blushing every time I remembered what she had told me after letting me keep that first set. It was a skirt again, albeit with a slightly different design, since Lisa was still a good deal smaller than me. Instead of a tank she had handed me an off the shoulder long sleeved top in dark green. It fit suspiciously well, but I opted not to see Lisa throwing a pair of tags into the trash while I put it on.

It wasn't all Lisa's. After some whispering with Rachel, she had disappeared and returned with Rachel's spare pair of combat boots. It took a little convincing ("I don't need any help being tall Lisa." "Trust me!" she declared.) She was right, it did kinda improve the whole look, especially when paired with the right socks. At the last minute Rachel slipped a necklace made of dark metal chain links over my head. I'd never seen her wear it before, so I had no clue where it came from, but I was more than willing to entertain her.

The jolt of the bus halting tore me out of my memories, and I was tugged along out onto the dimly lit street. Rachel and Alec were arguing about mixed drinks as we went, which had me curious. I leaned over to Lisa. "Will they really serve us? We aren't even eighteen, let alone twenty one."

She just waved her hand at me. "Circus doesn't really give a shit. It'll be overlooked as long as you don't try to overindulge." With a sly look and a cheeky tone, she continued. "So only one drink for, I've got you pegged as a total lightweight."

I wanted to object, but the truth is I didn't even handle too much caffeine well, so she was probably right. Still, I couldn't just let her get away with it, so I reached over and flicked her in the ear. She just laughed brightly and tugged me closer. The exchange must have garnered Rachel's attention, because a moment later she bracketed me on my other side, slipping her arm around my shoulder.

"Oh woe is me, cold and alone!" Alec called out from where Rachel had abandoned him ahead of us.

Rachel shrugged. "Maybe if you weren't such a dickwad, and accepted how wrong you are about vodka, you wouldn't drive everyone away," she said. Alec affected a look of faux offense that had me and Lisa laughing. It pretty much continued in the same vein all the way up to the venue.

The neon sign behind the glass marked it as our destination, and someone had spray painted "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!" on the facade above the windows. I raised an eyebrow at that. Pretty bold of them in a city like Brockton Bay. "Brian!" Lisa called to the guy I hadn't even noticed manning the door.

He was big. Not actually that much taller than me, but definitely more muscled. He held himself like he was ready for a fight to break out, which I guess was fair, considering his job. It took a moment for it to click where I had heard that name before. "Brian? Like your former roommate Brian?"

That got a dry chuckle out of him. "Lisa talking about me? That could never be a good thing."

Lisa made an affronted noise. "I actually have to thank you," I said. "According to Lisa, it was your insistence on a first aide course that meant she knew how to patch me up."

"Oh?" Brian said, sounding curious.

Lisa answered for me. "Attempted mugging, you know how it is around here. It's actually how we met." She squeezed the hand she hadn't let go of since we got off the bus.

"Ah," was all Brian said, and I was blushing again. What was that supposed to mean? I wish I could just get the courage to ask Rachel and Lisa what was going on with us. So many of the things they said and did just...couldn't mean what I thought they were implying. Not with me.

"Don't be jealous, It's your bed she spends every night in Brian," Alec cut in. I rolled my eyes. That's exactly how he would phrase it.

"Right, so what does that mean when anybody other than Alec is talking?"

"I stay over sometimes, and when I do I take your old room" I explained. His eyes darted briefly from me and to either girl next to me, but didn't say anything.

"You should join us if we're still here when you get off shift!" Lisa said. Brian agreed, and then I was dragged through the door. We had to disentangle a bit to get in, but both Rachel and Lisa were back into position before we moved on.

Stepping inside was like walking into a brick wall face first, the music was so loud. I could feel it reverb through my breastbone. It was weird, but I liked it, even if my eardrums were suffering for it. I tried to take in as much as I could while being dragged over to a booth. Off to the right was the bar and seating area, which was where we were headed. The left side of the building was taken up by a dance floor and DJ booth. Center to it all was a stage that jutted out into the middle of the building.

That was where most of the people in the club either were or were looking at. Something was happening on the stage, but before I could figure out what it was we reached our booth. After a little shuffling around, Alec ended up alone on one side (we all ignored his pout) and Rachel pulled me into her lap at Lisa's suggestion. It was fine. Why did they keep it so hot in here?

I drifted in and out of the conversation as I tried to keep looking around without dislodging Rachel's chin from where she had it resting on my shoulder. Whatever had been happening on that stage had apparently ended with the last song, to my disappointment. The crowd split itself between the dance floor and the seats around us. 

The people in here were really interesting; I don't think I'd ever seen that much leather at once. I tried making out some of the patches a couple people had on their jackets, but the lighting was too poor for that. And the hair! I'd never wanted to dye my hair before, but all the different colours here made it so tempting.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't my favourite group of teenage menaces!" While I had been watching the crowd, someone had slipped close to our table. The sight of her bewildered me, her outfit anything but normal. Exaggerated makeup was paired with what I could only think of as a jester costume.

A snort made me shift my gaze to where Alec was spread lazily across his side of the booth. "Says the one letting said group of teens drink at their club. Don't you have a liquor license to protect darling?"

The grin that had already been spread across her face grew wider. "We both know I have greater worries when it comes to being shut down than that." She turned to look at the three of us, eyeing me curiously. "Who's the new meat? You guys are usually a pretty closed off bunch."

Lisa's grin matched the one being directed at her, and I knew in my gut that leaving these two alone for any amount of time could be dangerous for all of our health. First Lisa, then Alec, now a third? And they all knew each other? How had the world not ended. 

Lisa laid one hand on my shoulder, and gestured at the jester. "Circus, this is Taylor, and Taylor this is Circus; they're the person I was telling you about." I didn't miss the slight emphasis, and it confused me for a moment why she was talking like that, but she knew better than me. Not that I could ever actually tell her that, but I'd ask about it later. For now I'd follow her lead.

Rachel sat up slightly so that she wasn't quite resting on my shoulder. "Picked her up after a fight, fell in together after that. She works well with my dogs."

That actually seemed to surprise Circus a bit, and her gaze turned from curious to pleased. "Not everybody survives Rachel's gauntlet of mutts, congratulations Tay." Sh- They clapped their hands suddenly. That was going to take some adjustment. "Drinks! I'll make sure someone knows to bring some over, but I'm due on stage. Enjoy the show!" They shot me a wink before heading off, which thoroughly confused me. Rachel's arm tightened around my waist and her chest rumbled silently beneath my back.

As promised, a server came over with drinks shortly after. The cider Lisa handed me had this sharp bitterness that I disliked, but she assured me it was "much better than the shitty beer you'd find at a high school party." Soon after, the lights on the stage came back on and people started gravitating back towards it. I peered up over the crowd as best I could, curious about what kind of show Circus would be putting on.

The track switched and they appeared from backstage. The closest I could describe the way they moved across the stage was interpretive dancing. Except a lot more, um, evocative. I stayed glued to Circus' as they moved slowly out to the part of the stage that jutted out into the crowd. When they started spinning around the pole I had dismissed out of hand on first glance, things began to click into place. When the first piece of clothing flew off, it sealed it in my mind. 

I leaned over and socked the blonde next to me in the arm. Her bewildered "ow!" was ignored as I hissed at her. "Lisa! Why are they taking off their clothes! What the hell! Did you take me to a strip club?" Alec cackled madly from across the table, and I could even feel the amusement from Rachel behind me. For all the teasing and confusion that happened back at the loft, I think just then was the worst I had ever blushed. My skin practically radiated heat and light for how crimson it turned.

"I think queer bar that hosts the occasional drag and strip show is a more accurate description." She tried her hardest not to burst out laughing, and I couldn't help the pout that took over my face.

"You could have at least warned me," I whined.

"Awh baby, but that wouldn't have been nearly as fun."

My stomach flipped. Oh wow. I liked hearing that way too much, that wasn't fair at all. "Fine, but I am so getting you back for this." It was exactly the wrong thing to say, because now she had a twinkle in her eye that practically screamed "you promise?"

I leaned back into Rachel and we both sat there watching Circus for a while, her thumb rubbing circles on my hip. It was definitely one of the weirdest experiences in my life, but it really did reaffirm the conclusion I had come to. I was really, really gay.

My attention shifted back to the table when Lisa and Alec's conversation was disrupted. Somebody rushed up, and leant down to whisper something in Lisa's ear. I tensed up immediately; I didn't like how they were acting, and I wanted them away from Lisa. After a few low words from Lisa they did exactly that, hurrying off into a different part of the club.

She turned back to us and made a calming gesture. "Just somebody that wants to do some business. I'm going to go talk with them, see about lining up a job."

A stab of worry bit at my heart. "You're just going to go off alone? That was super sketchy Lisa."

She gave me this look that was part incredulous, part contempt and part something else. "Taylor, I know you don't like it and try your best to ignore it, but we are thieves. Everything about what we do is sketchy. Besides, everybody knows not to try and pull anything in The Big Top; Circus literally has a giant hammer and they're not afraid to use it. Seriously, I don't even know how they swing that thing."

I struggled between trusting in my friend and her competence, and worry that something would go terribly wrong. Eventually I gave a reluctant nod. "Just, stay safe. Please?" She softened at that. Before I could react, she leaned over to kiss my cheek and then was off to track down her soon to be patron. I sat there gently holding my fingers where her lips had touched and stared at where she disappeared into the crowd for a long time.

Circus' routine finished at some point, but my interest there had waned. Brian finally made an appearance, garnering nods from me and Rach, and an exaggerated bow from Alec. He looked around, noting our absent member. "Where did Lisa get off to? Normally she wouldn't miss a chance to snark at me."

"Our oh so glorious ringleader is away on business," Alec explained.

Brian's eyebrows raised, but he just nodded. "Good luck with it, but that's all I need to know. I moved out of the loft for a reason."

"How's Aisha doing anyways, is she practicing like I told her to?" Rachel asked.

He rolled his eyes. "Surprisingly, yes. It's one of the few things she actually keeps up with regularly. She won't listen to me half the time, but apparently those exercises work for her. I'd be tempted to leave her with you when I had to, if I didn't think you'd kill each other after more than a couple of hours alone together. You wouldn't believe the things she gets up to when I'm gone; it's like she wants to get hurt or arrested."

My attention drifted as they continued to catch up, until Rachel nudged me. I twisted around in her lap to look at her. She reached up to entwine the hand not circling my waist in my hair, and scratched lightly at my scalp. It was unbelievably relaxing for reasons I couldn't explain. "Hey, quit worrying. Lisa can take care of herself. She's smart. And if something happens I'll smash somebody's face in."

I sighed and twisted back forward so I could press into her. "I know. All of this is just new to me, and I'm always losing people. It makes me worry." Brian gave me that same look he had out front, but I couldn't bring myself to care. 

When Lisa came back with a predatory grin and bragged about how big a score they were going to make, mostly I was just relieved. All the worrying had exhausted me though, on top of the cider making me hot and sleepy, and I was mostly quiet as the three caught up. The crowd got rowdier the later it got, and I was glad when we decided to call it a night and head back to the loft.

We said good night to Brian as we went our separate ways, backtracking to the same bus stop we had gotten off at. The ride back was quiet, excepting for the guy in the very back that kept muttering to himself. When we arrived at the loft Alec split off immediately towards his room, citing a need for beauty sleep. Rachel went off to tend whichever two dogs she was keeping here this time. 

Me and Lisa gravitated towards the couch, where I immediately scooted up next to her, wrapping my arm around hers and resting my head on her shoulder. I felt her own head come to rest gently on top of mine. We stayed like that while my thoughts drifted over everything that happened today. It was so much, it almost felt impossible that it was just this morning that I met with Blackwell. 

And the end of the night. I wasn't thrilled with the way Rachel and Lisa were living their lives, but I was confident that they were doing the best they could, under the circumstances. It didn't stop the sick feeling I got when I thought about one of them getting hurt, or arrested. I didn't know what I could do about that.

My eyes drifted shut at some point. Someone tried to rouse me, but I just buried my face deeper into soft skin. There was murmuring in my ear, and then strong arms were gently looped under my body. I was lifted off the couch away from the soft warm body I rested against. I made a noise of complaint, but even as I adjusted to lean against the one now holding me, I faded fully into sleep.

Chapter Text

Waking up at the loft was becoming the new normal for me, and I was more than okay with that. Nobody was using the bathroom, so I quickly grabbed my things and stumbled into the shower. Sharing a space with three other people meant you took what you could get in the mornings and evenings. 

I really didn't anticipate doing much today, so I just threw on some shorts and an oversized shirt I had stolen from Rachel. Damp hair still wrapped in a towel, I elected to skip breakfast for now to go see if anybody was up.

Lisa and Rachel were huddled together on the couch, Lisa pointing out something on her phone screen to Rachel. As soon as they caught sight of me the whispering stopped, and they leaned back away from each other.

My stomach twisted. I couldn't help it, it was almost like a conditioned response. Too similar to how Emma and her hanger-ons would take to whispering insults about me just loud enough for me to hear. How they would scheme in front of me, for the sole purpose of making sure I knew something was coming.

"Hey guys," I said in a flat, blank tone. I honestly didn't even register saying the words. So much progress, so much work with Rachel amd Lisa, but something so simple still set me back and made my paranoia flare. They shared a look with each other that I distantly registered as concern.

"Taylor?" Lisa asked. What if this was all for their amusement? What if all the teasing was just mockery? Did they make fun of my reactions when I wasn't here? Was that why they didn't warn me about the strip club last night? Were they laughing at me behind my back? Did this all just end in them hurting me? I couldn't deal with more hurt. I didn't know what I would do if it all happened again.

Someone was taking gasping, shuddering breaths, loud and painful sounding. My eyes felt weird and gummy, and hot wet tracks ran down my face. Piece by piece I realised I was sat on the ground, while Rachel knelt in front of me, hands on my shoulders. She told me to breathe, slow and deep, but my breath kept hitching.

It felt like it took forever for my awareness to put itself back together. For countless minutes I just matched Rachel's breathing and slowly calmed. I reached up to wipe away the tears, and blinked my eyes clear.

Rachel's eyes held unspoken worry as she say with me, and when my gaze drifted over to Lisa where she was kneeling beside us, she looked like she would shake herself apart as she fidgeted in concern. The tears that I had just managed to get rid of returned with a fury. How could I doubt these two wonderful people? It disgusted me that I could even think to compare them to Emma. What was wrong with me?

A choked sob escaped me, and I threw myself at Rachel. She caught me and held me in her arms, Lisa reaching over to envelope us both. We stayed like that until I cried myself out. Until I had no strength or energy left. Feeling this sort of bone-deep exhaustion first thing in the morning shouldn't be allowed.

Reluctantly, I pulled back from the two of them. Not that they let me go far, but at least now I wasn't pressing my face into them. They helped me up off the ground and we shuffled over to the couch before collapsing again, the two of them bracketing me. We sat silently, nobody wanting to break the almost sacrosanct quiet.

"She was my best friend, y'know?" I stared blankly ahead, not really seeing anything, even when the two girls shifted to look at me. "I loved her. I don't know in what way, exactly. I didn't get a chance to figure that. But she was always a cornerstone of my life. Up until I came home one summer. How are you supposed to get close to people again after something like that happens to you?" I closed my eyes, let out a deep sigh. "Every time it feels like I'm making progress, I backslide. I keep letting her do this to me."

A hand took mine, another rested at the nape of my neck. "Taylor, you have trauma. Someone did something to you and it left a lasting mark," Lisa said. Her voice trailed off for a moment, before she continued in am even softer voice. "You're not alone in that. You think any of us are here because we had happy and healthy lives?" 

A snort, her voice took on a bitter edge. "I found my brother after he committed suicide, and then my parents blamed me for it. Do you know what that does to a kid?"

My eyes shot open, and my head snapped over to stare at her. I might not be as good as Lisa at reading people, but even I could see the pain, the resentment on her face. And under that, the vulnerability.

I threaded my fingers through her hair and pulled her into my shoulder, silently thanking her for sharing even when it hurt. Rachel shifted beside me, and I could see out of the corner of my eye that was struggling to say something. I kept my eyes off of her, knew that it would make it easier for her to get it out, though I did reach out to grasp her hand.

"The system is fucked," she said in that monotone we shared when we were trying not to let emotion bleed into our voices. "I don't even know when I entered into it, I was so young. Neighbours found me half-starved, trying to use the stove to make food. No sign of mom, just left me there on my own." The monotone lost out to the anger as it built up in Rachel's voice.

"it was bullshit, they didn't care about us. The social workers, the foster homes. Just shuffled us off to whoever had space and wanted the money. They didn't care what happened to us, what they did to us." She clenched and unclenched her hand. "So fuck them, fuck Emma, fuck Lisa's parents. They don't get to stop you from caring because they're not shit. They don't get to have that sort of control over us."

I tugged Rachel closer and squeezed her tight. She buried her face in my hair, and we just sat there. What a trio we had, huh? But Lisa was right, we all had trauma, and Rachel was right too, we couldn't let that trauma cut us off from each other. It wasn't the right time, I didn't want the atmosphere sour them, but I still couldn't help mouthing three very important words to myself.

"What, uh...what were you two whispering about when I came into the livingroom?" I asked some time later. I couldn't help myself, even if it made the dark pit in my core writhe to even think about.

They shared a look, and for a moment I was convinced they wouldn't tell me. But then Lisa spoke up. "You know that job I mentioned last night? Joint job, I was talking with Rachel about the details. We know you're not really on board with the "criminal activity" thing, so I thought it's be polite not to talk about it in front of you."

"Told her that was dumb," Rachel grunted.

Lisa gave her an annoyed look. "Yes, thank you Rachel. You were right."

"What if I could get you guys jobs?" I said abruptly, to both their surprise. I continued hastily. "Rachel I'm sure you're strong enough to do just about any physical labour job the DWA gets, and I'm sure dad could something more on the technical side for you, Lisa." I felt the idea growing the more I thought about it. This was the perfect solution! Dad would have to give his approval once they proved good workers.

Lisa spoke carefully, but her words still dashed my short lived hopes. "Taylor, sweetie, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but...I actually like my job. I know that's not what you really want to hear from your criminal gir—from your friend. But it's true, plus I make way more doing this." I looked hopefully towards Rachel, but she just tilted her head in agreement with Lisa.

I took a deep breath. "Can you...explain that to me? I'm trying but I don't understand. You like hurting people? I don't think I can hear that right now Lisa."

She rapidly shook her head. "No. No, it's not like that. We're not hurting people. Hell we're barely hurting the companies we hit. Bloated entities built on greed, with way more money than they'll ever know what to do with."

I was skeptical to say the least. "What about the people who work for those companies? The ones who get blamed when you do a job?"

"They never really cared about their employees in the first place, view them as disposable labour to squeeze as much productivity out of as possible, before discarding them. It's all a game to them," Lisa dismissed. 

"To who?" 

"The rich. The powerful. it's all about how many zeroes they can accumulate. Which laws and regulations they can get away with violating. Who they can exploit without anybody caring. Which officials they can bribe or blackmail to make business easier. Where the best places to keep their money so the government doesnt know about it are. Believe me I've seen it from both sides, and they're sitting up there laughing at us."

Hearing that left me feeling torn. Becuase... it wasn't a totally that different from the things mom amd dad used to talk about. A feminist professor and a union worker? Yeah, I knew about the evils of exploitation. The methods though...

"Okay. What's this job, then?" 

At that Lisa looked reluctant. She looked at Rachel, who just gave a shrug and said, "If she wants to know, I don't care."

Her lips pursed; apparently that wasn't what she was hoping to hear. "It's better if you don't know Taylor," she said. "That way they can't charge you as an accomplice if worse come to worst."


The single word seemed to surprise her as much as it confused her. "No?"

I shook my head. "No. If I don't know what's happening I'm just going to be anxious and worried. I want to know what's going on." My firm expression cracked a little. "Please."

Lisa averted her eyes, muttered what might have been "Your dad is so going to kill me," before she looked back at me and said "Fine."

"It's information theft, closed system. That's why it's both of us, instead of me just hacking a server on my own. Rachel handles security, I get the info. The target is Ruby Dreams Casino, just outside of the city. We have five days prep time, with a lot of the planning info being provided by the client. Frankly I'd rather gather my own, but on such a tight time frame it'll have to do. Amy questions?"

"No, uh..." That was a lot of information. Just how much experience did Lisa have doing this? "No questions. I don't even know what would be the right thing to ask.

"Good. Now," Lisa flung herself across mine amd Rachel's laps. "Can we please just cuddle? Two big conversations before noon is all I had in me."

I laughed, bright and loud. "Yeah, I think that can be arranged." And then I ghosted my hand across her waist, making her wiggle in my lap.

Over the next five days Rachel and Lisa became a lot more open about their planning, trading details and working out ideas. Alec would comment with his opinion every once in a while, and surprisingly it was even constructive. Most of the time.

As the date drew closer, I became more and more nervous. I never fidgeted much, even before Emma drove me to be nonreactive, but I found myself bouncing my leg or tapping my fingers as I listened to their plans become refined. 

I already went with Rachel to take care of her dogs every couple of days, but that had become almost every day. When that wasn't enough, I pulled out my sketchbook.

I had been neglecting my art lately, which I felt a little guilty about. It really was a great outlet, and I would forever be grateful to the doctor who suggested it. Maybe it was nice to not have to lean on it so much lately, but that didn't mean I shouldn't keep up with it.

So that's what I was doing to distract myself in the hours before they left for the casino. Graphite and charcoal combined to make greyscale scenes of superhuman feats.I was so deep into my sketching that I didn't even notice Rachel approaching until her body was already pressed into my side. 

I continued sketching, filling out the details and shading of the scene as Rachel relaxed beside me. When I committed the last bit to paper I looked up, met her eyes. "Tell me about her," she simply said.

She had to wait while I sprayed a fixative and let it set, but once that was done, I turned to the page I kept all of her main character design on. "I call her Weaver," I said, tracing her name emblazoned in the top corner of the page with my finger. The pages showed both front and side views of her, close up views of some of her gear. She...didn't resemble me exactly, but I had definitely given her some of my more liked physical traits. My hair, my height.

"She's a superhero, or a vigilante, more accurately. Control over all insects. People like to mistake her for a villain, but she's only ever done what felt right to her."

"Why bugs?"

"I dunno. Maybe it was the appeal of this person so misunderstood connecting with this form of life that's also misunderstood most of the time. maybe there's comfort in thinking that even for those of us on the outside, there's still connection to be had"

"...I get it. So many people mistreat dogs. They're treated like possessions, or automatons. But they have feelings, like the rest of us. Simpler feelings, simpler desires, maybe. But that just makes them easier to connect to. Easier to love and be loved. That some people fail to do that? Confuses the shit outta me. Makes me angry."

We didn't say anything else. It wasn't necessary, really. These moments were some of my favourites, I thought. When we could

Of course, that didn't mean I liked the other moments any less. Lisa had apparently snuck up while we were talking, and she laid her hand on my shoulder. In a gently teasing voice she said "Nothing wrong with a good self-insert, Taylor."

I tilted my head back and stuck my tongue out at her, but it backfired when she leaned down to kiss my cheek and I almost bit it off. Trying to get my blush under control, I cleared my throat and looked back at my sketchbook. "Speaking of. Don't...get mad, but I've been working on a couple of new characters, and, well."

I flipped to another set of pages, each featuring their own hero. On the left, a shorter blonde in a sleek black and purple outfit, featuring a suit jacket and a fedora. She had a smug look on what you could see of her face under the mask. On the right was a bulkier girl in a very familiar jacket over tactical gear. At her feet were two oversized serpentine hounds, and on her face was an ornate devil dog mask.

I waited nervously for some reaction from the two of them. Rachel moved first, running her hand over one of the dog's designs. "Hellhound," she said, looking at the name printed at the top of the page. "I like it."

"And insight has a very snazzy design. It's amazing Taylor, you really are so talented. You could probably get a graphic novel published with this level of design." I tried to keep my cool, but I couldn't help the small grin that took over my face. It definitely didn't stop Lisa from looking like she knew exactly how much I wanted to beam at them.

Reluctantly, Lisa pulled back. "Okay, I hat to steal her from you, but me and Rachel have to go over some last minute details for tonight." I watched them both disappear back into Lisa's room, and my hand started itching again, so I turned to a blank page.

By the time they were ready to leave I had the preliminary layouts done for two new scenes. I quickly put everything away as they came out of Lisa's room. I met them by the door, and we all just stood there for an awkward minute. Finally I let out a huff and slipped into Rachel's arms. I held her tight and buried my face into her collarbone, didn't want to let go. 

I did though. I knew I wouldn't try to stop either of them from going. I turned and slipped my arms around Lisa's neck, kissed her on the cheek, and said "Stay safe."

After that they quickly left, not wanting to drag things. I turned back to the couch, but drawing didn't hold much appeal anymore. Instead I went and banged on Alec's door
It didn't take much cajoling to get him to play videogames with me, so we did that for the next hour or so.

When he got called away for something I was left to my own thoughts once more. I tried desperately to stay awake, so I could see them when they came back, but it had been an exhausting day. I slowly felt myself slip into unconsciousness, and my last thought was that this couch was decidedly way too comfortable.

The door banged open and startled me out of my sleep. I jumped off the couch and grabbed a game controller, ready to toss it at the intruders. Only the fact that I recognized them stayed my hand.

Lisa, darting around frantically like she didn't know what to do. Brian, with Rachel's arm him as he helped her into the loft. There was so much noise.

"Damn it Lisa, this was bound to happen! I told you!" He moved with Rachel into the kitchen, and sat her at the table. I followed behind them.

"The job was clean, there was nothing fishy about! How was I supposed to know it would go wrong?" She snapped back as she returned with the same medkit that had been used to patch me up.

"Maybe because it's your job? This is exactly why I got out. As soon as I'm sure Rachel is going to be fine I'm going home." That's when he pulled open Rachel's jacket and I saw what everyone was yelling about. A bloodied length of ripped shirt, pressed up against a spot on Rachel's side. When Brian momentarily lifted the cloth from the spot, there was no mistaking it: even I knew what a gunshot looked like. 

"Hey!" I shouted. That caught everyone's attention, and they shut up. "Someone tell me what the fuck happened," I said, my voice firm and dangerous.

Chapter Text

It was something like four in the morning. I wasn't exactly sure, to be honest. Bone deep exhaustion filled all of my limbs, and my head was a couldy mess. I guess that's what happens when you only get a couple hours of sleep and then wake up to find out your...your friend had been shot.

Fuck. Fuck! I knew in an abstract sort of sense that what they did could get dangerous. It was something else completely to see the consequences with your own eyes.

And it was like it didn't even matter to them. Rachel had just grunted and called it a flesh wound, before biting down on a strip of leather so that Brian could stitch her up. He was the only one that had made any sense in the moment, tearing into them about not being careful enough. Lisa had just given us a smug grin as she told us they still managed to get what they were looking for. "Besides," she said, "how was I supposed to know some gang lieutenant would be trying to extort the owner after hours."

They were going to get themselves killed. I knew it in my gut. Rachel, too headstrong. Thought she could power through anything with enough brute force. Lisa, too cocky. Always thought of herself as the smartest person in the room, but even she couldn't know everything.

What could I do, though? Me, gangly Taylor Hebert. The closest I had ever gotten to a criminal act was decking Emma in the mall, and really she had that coming. Sure, I was more fit than I had ever been after months of steadily working out. Sure, I was smart, no matter what Emma tried to tell me. But all I could do was worry about these two people I...I cared deeply about.

No. Fuck that! I stood and stomped down the hall, stopped in Rachel's doorway. Quietly, I opened it up and stood there staring at the figure resting within. I wanted so badly to wake her up, yell at her, ask her what the hell she was playing at. Grab her by the hair and kiss her hard.

Instead I silently padded into the room. I slipped into the bed behind her, careful not to jostle her. Rachel may be more brawny than I was, definitely thicker at the chest, but I was still taller than her. The bed was small, so I pressed myself against her back and wrapped myself around her. My hand rested on her hip and I let my thumb stretch up, ghost along the skin just under the hem of her sleep shirt. 

She made a deep-throated noise in her sleep, something between a purr and a whine. I buried my head into the nape of her neck, amd finally let myself drift off into sleep.

I woke up alone, and tried not to let the pang I felt in my chest get to me. A glance at Rachel's clock said it was just past noon. It was kind of shocking, I hadn't slept in that late since before—well, since winter break. 

I slowly pulled myself out of bed, reluctant to go back to dealing with everything from last night. I slipped from Rachel's room to mine, but not before stealing one of her shirts. There I grabbed a pair of shorts I had stolen from Lisa, and a towel. I rushed to the bathroom, careful not to catch anybody's attention. I definitely needed a long hot shower before I could deal with any of this.

The hot, steady pounding of water on my scalp was nice, and I let myself just stand there for a long time before I stepped out of the shower. Wrapped in my comfort clothes, I padded into the kitchen. All three of the others were there to greet me. 

My eyes scanned down Rachel, taking everything in and making sure she was okay. My gaze moved over to Lisa, who beamed back at me, and then dashed over to the stove. She pulled something and then moved over to me, a proud look on her face.

"Look, I made breakfast! And I didn't even burn any of it!" I just about melted as I took the player of food she had saved for me. I set it down on the table before I leant over to kiss her cheek, ignoring the voice in the back of my head freaking out about how close I got to the corner of her mouth.

"Thank you, it looks delicious," I murmured. I took a seat at the table, where Rachel silently passed me a thermos. My eyebrows shot up as I opened it and smelled what was inside. My favourite tea. If I didn't know better, I'd almost say the two of them were trying to make up for last night.

It was almost a little awkward to be honest, like I was being pampered. I wasn't even the one who was shot. That thought did admittedly sour my mood just a little. "How's your side doing this morning?" I asked Rachel quietly.

She carefully lifted the loose shirt shirt she was wearing to reveal the large pad of fresh gauze; they must have changed it at some point this morning "'s alright. Hurts like hell, but no more than when I broke my collarbone."

I didn't respond, just reached over and dragged my fingers along the skin above the pad. Her sharp inhale drew my eyes up to her own, and we both sat there staring. Reluctantly I pulled my hand back, wrapped it around my cup of tea instead. "Thank you for this, by the way."

After I had eaten and we had all spread back out a bit, I pulled Alec aside, while the other two were distracted. "Hey, do you think you could give us the apartment today?"

He raised a lazy eyebrow at me, but I just kept my expression firm and blank. "I suppose I could go bother Brian for a while. Maybe force him to take me down to the boardwalk. But you owe me." The last part said in a sing-song voice.

I rolled my eyes at him "Yes fine, I owe you one. Thank you." Maybe I'd regret that later when he called in his favour, but I would really be more comfortable with him out of the loft for this.

It didn't take long for him to clear out, though Lisa did give me a suspicious look when he called out his goodbyes. I gestured for her to sit on the couch, which only seemed to confirm things for her, and then called down the hall, "Hey Rachel, can you come here?"

She walked in and took her seat next to Lisa much more carefully than she normally would. The two of them exchanged a glance, and Lisa's eyes locked on to me where I was pacing in front of them. "Is this about the job last night? I know you didn't sign up for that kind of thing, but it's our lives."

My face wavered between emotions. "Yes. No. Kinda?" Rachel snorted in amusement over my stumbling. I shot her a look and took a deep breath. This would be so much easier if I didn't have to look them in the face while I said it. Wait...

I turned my back to the pair on the couch, ignoring Lisa's amused snort. "I don't know how to say this, so I'm just going to say it." My entire body was tensed, like I was about to explode. "I like both of you, a lot." The next part I almost whispered. "I think I like the two of you more than I've ever liked anybody else."

The next few seconds of silence were agonizing. No matter how much I fought it, there was still that little voice in the back of my head that said rejection was inevitable. They'd find my dual attraction disgusting, I'd be kicked out and have to go crawling back to dad, once more a broken person. It sounded remarkably like Emma.

Lisa's voice tore me out of my spiral. A simple "Taylor, come sit down," filled with so much emotion it made my heart keen. I turned, movements stiff. The two had slid apart, opened a space for me between them. I almost threw myself onto the couch, sinking into it, and they both immediately closed in to hold me.

I wanted to bask in their warmth, but the anxiety and uncertainty in my chest wouldn't let me. I think they could tell, because they both pulled back slightly. Just enough to exchange a look.

Rachel laid her hand on my jaw, turned my head to face her. "I like you." She said it like it was a simple fact, like there was no questioning her certainty. "I have for a while. But you kept pulling back, getting nervous. You don't force something skittish into a corner; it's how you destroy trust."

I resented the animal reference a bit, but I understood what she meant. I honestly don't what I would have done if this moment had happened earlier. It hadn't though, it was happening now. 

I surged up, pressing my lips to hers. The hand she still had on my jaw tilted my head back as she leaned into me. It was wonderful, my first real kiss. Not even comparable to the middle school "practice kisses" I had shared with Emma. I forced those thoughts away, not wanting them to sour the moment.

I pulled back with a small gasp, and rested my head on her collarbone, taking a moment to calm myself. I licked my lips, tasting Rachel on them. There were tears streaming down my face, but I couldn't do anything about them. A hand ran soothing circles across lower back as thick arms encircled my shoulders.

After taking a moment to calm down, I twisted around in Rachel's arms, careful not to break her grip. Lisa's hand shifted from my back to my hip. I couldn't keep the hope out of my eyes when I caught hers. Her voice was low and sympathetic as she said "Oh, baby." Hearing it made my stomach flip and tingle.

She moved almost agonizingly slow as she curled her body into mine, almost sitting in my lap by the time our lips met. Where Rachel had pressed herself enthusiastically into me, Lisa almost drew me back towards her. Tantalizing, making me be the one to press forward.

When we pulled away her eyes were filled with happiness. There was also something subdued about them though, and that had me worried. when her next words were "This is where it gets...complicated," it didn't help any.

She took a deep breath, like she had to prepare herself. "Do you know what aro-ace means, Taylor?" I slowly shook my head. Lisa fidgeted a little, looking away. "Right, not a lot of people do. It's an uncommon orientation, and in a place like Brockton Bay especially, those tend to fall through the cracks."

"It means," she continued, stretching out her words like maybe she could put this off forever. "That I don't experience attraction the way most people do. Sexual or romantic."

" kissed me? We flirt...don't we?" I asked, confused.

Lisa quickly nodded. "I did, and we do
it's—okay, it's like this. I will never look at a person and go 'Wow! what a hunk of meat, I want some of that!' it just doesn't happen." I couldn't help the bark of laughter that came out, but Lisa just gave me an amused slap on the arm. "It's true! I just don't experience sexual attraction like that."

"And along the same vein: sex? No thank you. I'm it exactly. But it's something I have no desire to do. Sure, I love the teasing part, you should know that by now," she added with a huge grin. "But other people touching me like that? No thanks. I'll leave that part to you and Rachel."

I couldn't fight the blush that spread over my face, and Rachel tightening her arms around me really didn't help. Still, this was important, so I shoved down my embarrassment at the open talk about sex and nodded. "Okay, I'm following you so far."

"Great," Lisa said, but her smile turned sad. I reached out and snagged her hand, gave it a comforting squeeze. "Now, I'm also what you would call 'grey-aromantic'." She braced herself, and I could imagine this must have been how I looked earlier. "I don't think I'll ever...fall in love, Taylor." Her voice had dropped almost to a whisper with that. "Not in the way most people mean. But. That doesn't mean I dont care about you. It doesn't mean we can' together. In our own way." She let out a hollow laugh and turned away, but not before I saw her eyes shimmering with tears. "If that's even what you want, still."

There was an anger boiling in my stomach. Who had done this to her? Made her feel like rejection was inevitable. Who was her Emma? I wouldn't let that last a moment longer. I pulled her completely into my lap then, and grabbed her face with both hands. "Of course I still want you, Lisa Wilbourne." I said fiercely.

Her mouth dropped open in shock, but for once she didn't know what to say. But I did. "Will it be exactly what I imagined? No, of course not. Reality never is. It'll be better than anything I could have thought up though, because it will be us, being our authentic selves with each other. Who cares if it matches up with other people's expectations Lisa, I—" My voice cut off and I took a deep shuddering breath. When I continued, the ferocity in my voice had faded and softened. "I care about you, deeply." I pulled her in tight and held her there as she shook, in turn being held by Rachel. 

We took a little time to catch our breath at that point. Lisa eventually stopped shaking, and I checked to make sure Rachel's side was okay. But there was still a tension in the air. We all knew that the talk wasn't done, and soon enough we were back to silently exchanging glances.

"How is this even supposed to work?" I finally blurted out.

Lisa gave me a sly grin and said "Well like I said, that will have to be between you and Rachel, but I'm sure she'd be more than happy to—" but she cut off with a laugh when I swatted her shoulder. It did a remarkable job of cutting the tension for me though.

"I've never had a girlfriend," I admitted. "Much less...two? I mean is that what's going on here, we all have two girlfriends now?"

Lisa made a so-so gesture with her hand
"Kinda? I mean, Rachel is great, don't get me wrong. I just don't think this ever would have happened without you in the mix."

I turned to get Rachel's opinion, but she just nodded in agreement. "You're kind of head of the pack here, Taylor." It bemused me to think about it that way, but I went along with it.

"There's actually a word that fits Rachel and I here. In polyamory—which really, that's what this is—your partner's partner is your metamour. Frankly I don't care if we all refer to each other as girlfriends for simplicity's sake, but really I think that fits our role towards each other best.

I nodded, testing the word out. "Metamour. Okay." I sunk back into the couch. "I have a feeling I have a ton of reading up to do."

Lisa let out a laugh. "Only you would start a relationship with two women and then immediately assign yourself homework, Taylor." She leaned over and kissed me. "Never change." I just knew I had a goofy grin plastered across my face. 

I almost couldn't believe how everything had changed over the course hour? It felt more like it had lasted days. And now suddenly Lisa was just leaning over and kissing me whenever she felt like it. In fact...

I remembered that urge I had the night before, to grab Rachel by her hair and drag her into a kiss. Nothing was stopping me now. My stomach flipped as I caught her lips and pressed myself wholeheartedly into her.

We stayed like that for the rest of the afternoon. Lisa demanded a sapphic romcom marathon, but it was mostly ignored in favour of slow, lingering kisses. We stayed absorbed in each other right up until the front door opened and a wolf whistle cut through the loft.

"So how much fucking did you do" Alec leered at us. The words had barely left his mouth before Lisa launched a remote at him, and he let out a yelp as he tried to dodge it. He fled down the hall to his room, cackling the entire way.

After a beat I muttered, "We are going to need a bigger bed," causing Lisa to let out a choked laugh, and Rachel to snort. I grinned to myself, pleased at being able to get them back for once.

Things were good. Great, even. I finally told Rachel and Lisa how I felt...mostly. I knew that there were still more talks to be had. Discussions to work out exactly how this would go. Not to mention, I was still determined to follow through on my decision about their criminal activities. Now more than ever, actually. Later, though. Tonight, at least, was for us. For basking in this newfound relationship and our feelings for each other.

Chapter Text

Spending the next few nights switching between Rachel and Lisa's rooms just reinforced the need for a bigger bed. Maybe it was greedy, but I wanted them both there with me when I slept. Even so it was nice, and the three of us slipped into a routine. 


It couldn't last forever. Eventually Rachel's side would heal. They'd take another job. I had to be prepared when we reached that point. 


That's what found me at a cheap cafe, waiting with a cup of something you could nominally call tea. I looked up from my drink as someone took the seat across from me. I gave Brian a tentative smile. "Hey." 


Brian returned the smile, but it was strained. "Hey." There was a beat of silence. "Listen I'm just going to cut right to it: why did you ask me to meet you Taylor? You seem nice enough, but we don't exactly know each other well." 


I took a sip of my tea; it hadn't gotten any better. "I had some...questions I was hoping you could answer." 


He folded his arms. "There's only one thing I can imagine you'd have questions about for me. You know I don't do that any more, right?" 


"I know, but...Listen for as much as I love things about Lisa and Rachel, I still know what they're like. Rachel would simplify things and leave out the details she thinks are unimportant. Lisa would maneuver the conversation around to keep things in a good light. I guess I could ask Alec, but he's Alec. And I don't actually know what he does?" 


"He's a grifter." 




"He's a grifter. Rachel is great at strong-arming people, Lisa is good with the technical stuff, but if you need somebody manipulated you go to Alec." 


"That's. I don't think I could actually imagine what that would be like." 


"It's kind of creepy actually. Alec is so emotionally dead, seeing him convincingly portray a normal person gives me the shivers." Brian picked up the coffee he hadn't touched since sitting down. After a long moment, he sighed. "What did you want to know?" He sounded tired, and it was almost enough to make me hesitate. Almost. If I was going to do anything, I needed information. 


"What's it like? What happens most of the time, exactly? Why do it?" 


"You're not holding back, huh? No, it's fine. I get it. Honestly, it was just a job for me. Most of what I did was simple: get in, get out, and make sure nobody stopped us. I did a lot of the planning to; Lisa can get lost in the details and need a voice of common sense sometimes. Extremely well paying, let me save up some money. The two jobs I'm working now don't come close to the same amount." 


"Why'd you get out?" I finally asked. 


"For the same reason you're getting in, I imagine. Someone I loved needed me to." I started to sputter out an objection, but he waved me off. “It’s cool, I’ve seen the way you all look at each other.”


He sat back and thought for a moment. “What you need to do is find your strength, but you also need to be strong: It’s all about reputation out there. Do you know why Circus can run their club in a city crawling with neo-nazis? It’s because they’re known for hitting back twice as hard, every time.” Brian shrugged. “Eventually, people stopped taking swings.”


That...made a certain kind of sense. I didn’t know how I was going to find my strength though; I was certain it wouldn’t be fighting, but I wasn’t even getting self-defense lessons now that Rachel was hurt. My eyes panned over Brian, before they drifted up to meet his questioning look.


I shook my head. “You know how to fight, right? With Rachel still healing, I’m out a teacher.”


He smiled, just a little. “I may know where you can go for that.”



The place was loud and smelled of sweat, but that could only be expected of the boxing gym Brian had told me to meet him at. I eyed some of the men as I passed by, but they kept to themselves.


Honestly the mood here was more cheerful than I expected it to be. The guys cajoled and chatted as they worked out and trained. I’d increasingly thought of Brockton Bay as this pit that consumed everything good over the years. Mom. Dad, in essence if not literally. Emma. I mean it was the nazi capital of new england, you really didn’t need to say more.


More and more though, I was seeing bright spots under all the grime. Maybe I just didn’t have a reason to look before Rachel and Lisa. Either way, it was good to see people refusing to shrink and become less in the face of their bullies. It gave me hope for myself.


“Taylor! Glad to see you made it,” Brian snapped me from my thoughts. I gave him a small grin, awkward as it was. We had talked some in the three days since I asked him to help me train, mostly trying to work out when he would actually be free.


We got down to it quickly, using our little space in the gym to first go over what Rachel had already shown me, and then slowly build off of that. It was almost uncomfortable at first. The type of physicality required wasn’t something I was used to, with the obvious exception. 


Training with Brian had none of the smoothness I was coming to expect from my girls. Nobody would call Rachel *soft*, really. She would probably be vaguely offended if you did. But all the calluses and muscle belied a steady gentleness that came out with those she was comfortable with.


Brian took advantage of my daydreaming to teach me exactly why you should always pay attention while in a fight. Repeatedly. Not that what we were doing counted as fighting, Brian assured me that would come later, but he would use my distraction to break my hold or disrupt whatever move he was trying to walk me through. Self defense stuff mostly, but important.


I lost track of time, but eventually we paused for a break and he led me over to a small lounge area. Mostly it was just vending machines and some seats, along with a water dispenser I was eternally grateful for. After sipping my way through a little disposable cup of water-something I learned to do the hard way following my first couple times jogging-I turned back to look out over the room.


“What’s the deal with this place? Why here?”


Brian grimaced, then shrugged. “My dad works here, so I know the place. It’s where he taught me to fight, funnily enough. It’s also why I took a bit to arrange this; didn’t want to run into him. He’s a hardass that could never quite leave the military behind. I love him, y’know? He just wasn’t built to be a parent.”


“Yeah,” I responded quietly, keeping my gaze out on the other patrons. “I know what that’s like.” We both sat there for a little longer, not saying much before getting back to it. I felt like maybe we both understood each other a little better after that though.



A week later, and I was making progress. We couldn't meet every day; Brian had work and family responsibilities, while I was spending a lot of time helping Rachel around the loft and with her dogs. Still, we were managing.


I dare say I was doing well holding my own during our set, when a voice shouted "Kick skinny white girl ass, Brian!" from right beside us. It spooked me and drew my attention away from what we were doing. Brian punished that mistake mercilessly and the next thing I knew I was down on the mat.


The person who had shouted was bent in half, cackling at my expense. I pulled myself back up to my feet, waving off Brian's hand. She straightened up and feigned wiping tears from her eyes. She was pretty, but her clothes were so eye-blearingly gaudy that you almost didn't notice. I half imagined that was the goal. That or she just liked getting a rise out of people who thought that everybody else should dress to their standards.


Brian let out an exasperated sigh. "Aisha." He used the same tone I had heard Anne use on Emma and I so many times growing up, and it gave me a good guess as to who exactly this girl was. "You know you're not supposed to be in here without either me or dad with you. You don't even like the gym, what are you doing here?"


She rolled her eyes. "I was bored at the apartment. Besides, I wanted to see what you've been getting up to with your new girlfriend. If I knew it was going to be this boring but just as sweaty, I wouldn't have bothered."


I turned a deeper shade of red and sputtered for a minute before managing to get out an "I'm gay!" I clamped my hand over my mouth in horror and looked around to see if anybody else heard me. It was a mix of paranoia and elation to actually say it out loud. You never knew of you were actually safe in Brockton Bay, but at the same time it was thrilling to tell people.


Aisha just raised an eyebrow at me and snorted before turning back to her brother. "You really know how to pick 'em. Anyways I'm bored, come buy me fugly's."


Brian let out another sigh, and said to me. "Sorry about her, she doesn't have any impulse control. Anyways, does that sound good to you? My treat, since it's my fault we're ending early."


"Oh," Being invited threw me a bit, having expected to be left behind. "Yeah, sure. I could go for fugly's."


It took us a minute to gather our stuff and get out of there, but soon enough we were on our way to the bus line that would drop us closest to fugly's. Aisha wasn't the type to stay still, I soon discovered. While Brian and I walked at a sedated pace, she bounced all over the sidewalk checking things out. She also kept up a pretty derisive commentary about all the people we passed. While it came across as kind of mean to me, it was also weirdly insightful. She was obviously picking up things that would have taken me work to notice.


One thing I did notice, however, was who was already on the bus when we went to board. Madison, and one of the trio's other cronies. Juliet, I think? She was inconsequential in the long run, but seeing the two of them still made my stomach turn. The two of them didn't notice me hidden behind Brian's bulk until I was passing them. Madison had a strange look of shock on her face once she caught my eye; it might have been satisfying to see if it wasn't so weird.


I was tense the entire bus ride. Brian and Aisha must have noticed, what with them sharing a look before him asking if I was okay. I brushed him off. It was only a bus ride, the trio had put me through much worse. I was fine.


Except it wasn't just a bus ride, because the two of them got off at the same stop as we did. They even headed in the same direction as we were going. I would dare say they were following us if it weren't for the fact that they were ahead of us.


My mood had affected the other two as well. Nobody was talking any more. The final straw was when Madison and Juliet stepped into fugly's ahead of us. I stopped on the sidewalk, my entire body tensed.


"Taylor? You don't have to join us if you don't want to. I just thought it'd be cool to invite you–"


"No." I interrupted Brian. "No, that's not it. I just saw someone from school that I...don't get along with. It'll be fine." I took a deep breath. "I'll be fine."


"The brunette bitch who looks like she should still be in pigtails?" I shot Aisha a questioning look, but nodded. She shrugged. "You wouldn't turn so she was out of your sight, and she kept looking at you too. Not a hard guess. C'mon, I'm hungry."


With no good reason to stay standing there, I took off after her. We grabbed a booth, and I was annoyed to find Aisha was right, I had taken a seat so that Madison was still in my line of sight on the other side of the restaurant.


I did manage to relax some after that. We ordered, shared stories, just talked. I probably would have been more offput by Aisha's attitude if I hadn't already known Alex, but as it was it was almost endearing. Those two should never be introduced. Still, it Sure, I spent plenty of my time doing similar stuff with Rachel and Lisa, but that felt different. Maybe it would be a good thing to expand my circle of friends, get out of the loft more.


All of that came crashing down when someone cleared their throat from beside the booth. Madison. The smile dropped from my face. I stopped emoting completely. Body coiled up as if ready for a fight. Which I could do now, I realized. Just a little, but it was enough. Enough for me to straighten my back and speak up.


"What do you want Madison."


"Taylor!" Her smile was strained, and her eyes kept darting between me, Brian, and Aisha. "Could we talk for a minute? In private."


Yeah right, like I was letting her get me alone. "Whatever you have to say you can say in front of my friends." Okay, maybe I had just met Aisha, but Madison didn't need to know that.


A look passed over her face that I couldn't read. "I just wanted to say...I'm sorry."


I froze. What? "You're sorry?"


She looked pained. "Yeah. What we did to you, that was horrible. Especially the locker. I want you to know I had nothing to do with that. It was all Emma and Sophia."


"You're sorry?" My voice was getting more heated. "You couldn't have decided that before you helped make my life a living hell? And don't even claim innocence on the locker, I saw you standing there laughing. You didn't let me out. Nobody even tried to let me out!"


"Emma and Sophia would have hurt anybody who tried!" She was quick to interject. "They were the ones obsessed with you. I don't know why, but even suggesting we ease up on you was a quick way to get on their bad side. I was just trying to survive, to stay in their good graces!"


"So you made my life a living hell for what, clout?"


She let out a strangled sound. "Yes," she whispered.


"Leave me alone Madison." I was so tired of this conversation. I just wanted her gone. "You're a pathetic excuse for a human being. Go crawl back to Emma. Just leave me alone."


I turned to address the other two. They had stayed silent through the entire affair, though I could tell Aisha was brimming with curiosity. "Thanks for the food, Brian. It was nice hanging out with you guys. I'm going to head back to the loft. I'll see you in a few days for training."


Madison still hadn't moved by the time I reached the door. I heard a shouted "Wait!" right as it closed. It flung back open before I was more than a few steps away. "You don't know?" Madison asked.


"Don't know what?" I was wary, almost expecting a trap.


"About Emma, about what happened to her."


I rolled my eyes. "I'm done with Emma, Madison. Whatever she got I'm sure she deserved." I was gone before she could say anything else.



It was nice to be home. And that's what this was turning into, I realized. A home. I caught Lisa coming back from the kitchen with a cup of coffee. "Hey," she greeted me, stretching up to kiss me. It immediately brightened my mood.


She wrinkled her nose playfully. "You stink, don't even think about crawling into my bed before you shower."


I stuck my tongue out at her. "Coffee, this late? Maybe I'll forgo your bed entirely if you're just going to keep me up all night." I was pleased with myself; I was pretty sure I was getting better at this banter stuff.


"No fair, Rachel got you all to herself last night. It's not my fault I have work." I grimaced at the reminder. It was still preliminary work, but they were already gearing up for the next job. I still hadn't brought up my idea to them. I felt like I wasn't ready, but it would have to be soon.


"I keep saying we need a bigger bed," I said, skirting around the work comment. "Maybe Rachel's idea of knocking out some walls and just making one super bedroom isn't terrible after all."


She gave me a scrutinizing look, but let the moment pass. "And I keep telling her, my lack of sleeping habits combined with how territorial she can be would spell disaster. we need your room as a neutral zone."


We spent the next few minutes playfully bickering before we parted. Lisa to get back to her computer and me off to shower, but not before we shared another kiss that left me glowing. It was good to be home.