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October 12th

Danny Hebert sets his dinner plans down on the kitchen table with a heavy thump: a stack of books purporting to be introductions to family law, fresh off library hold.

Food for thought.

He opens the fridge; stares at the solitary bottle of IPA from when Kurt came by last year.

He closes the fridge, turns to the kitchen counter for the kettle.

Tea is harder than he remembers: he stares at the wall for what feels like a few seconds before the kettle pipes at him, screaming shrill and insistent like a little baby bird.

Kettle comes off the burner; he fills a mug he's just cleaned with boiling water, tries to sink a teabag, ends up dunking it up and down like a fisherman with a cheap lure to get it to soak and steep.

He thinks back through his day. How the social worker had asked him to come in, to 'tell his side'.

How that had fallen apart as soon as he'd sat down, as soon as he'd opened his mouth and nothing he said made any difference to how she saw him, how he told her about trying to keep his Taylor safe, trying to do the right thing and she just looked at him across her desk.

He's reminded of when he was a kid, the dumbass stuff he did lost to memory, but he remembers the police officer who pulled him aside 'for a little talk', how there was that sense, that knowing that anything he said was just going to bury him, deeper and deeper.

He couldn't stop talking; had to explain, had to get across his side.

And the price he paid?

He looks in his mug, sees how amber's shaded darker than he intended.

Too steep, he thinks.

Honey doesn't help with the taste, but he needs it anyways: needs something to coat his throat, ease the rawness.

He takes the phone off the cradle, dials a number, lets it ring.

"M'lo," a man mumbles.

"Gary? It's Daniel. I know it's late on a weeknight, but-"

"Danny!" Gary's voice is friendly, warm like a good blanket and gently scratching with line noise. "No, no, it's all right. I gave you my number in case something came up?"

"Yeah." It's the only word he manages to get out.

Gary's voice softens, quiets. "Want to talk about it?"

"You were right." Danny tells him about the meeting with the social worker, how he kept trying, how he kept talking and it didn't seem to change how she saw him.

Gary's quiet, listens, gives Danny the space to form his words, connect things together at his own pace.

"This is something the PRT capitalizes on," Gary says, once Danny's stumbled to a halt. "They facilitate situations where your kid gets placed into conflict with you, something stressful happens and they use your child's welfare as a way to drive a wedge between you."

He pauses. Continues. "This isn't your fault, Danny."

"I'm the one who put her there, Gary." The plastic housing on the handset creaks under his fingers. "I've thought about taking her out, but-"

But then she wouldn't be safe.

"Danny, signing Taylor up for the Wards was the right decision. The PRT can give her that safety, can give her support that's outside your means... but just because it's the -only- option you had doesn't mean they should get to make unilateral choices. It doesn't mean they should get to leave you with the fear that if you don't do what they want, they're going to leave her unprotected."

"I know. I know." He passes a hand over his face, "I... god, I'm head of hiring for a union, I'm used to dealing with assholes. But this is..."

"It's different."

"Yeah."

"Because it's Taylor."

"...yeah."

"You're not the first person to go through this, Danny. The Guard's been here before. We've helped families in situations just like yours."

"We're here for you, Danny."

"Yeah," Danny says again, voice rough, eyes blurred.

"It's getting late. Have you eaten?" Gary finally asks.

"No, I... I just got home." He looks over at the pile of books. "I was going to do some dinner and reading."

"Which, anything good?"

"I went to the library, picked up some of the ones you suggested when we met."

"Oh. That's good, I'm glad you're being proactive about this... but I know this can be stressful, okay? It's okay to take the night off-"

"No." Danny swallows. "I- I need to get some kind of handle on this."

"All right."

"...you're a good man, Gary."

Gary chuckles, the sound crackly, ruffled with static. "Only as good as the people I help. G'night, Danny."

They hang up, and Danny sits down to dinner: reheated leftovers, a library book.

And across from him, an empty chair.

 


 

October 18th

Six days later, Danny waits outside Winslow's front doors, breath puffing in the cold morning air.

He watches a gunmetal sedan pull in, park; watches as two figures exit the car, start crossing the parking lot towards him.

He only has eyes for one of them.

Taylor.

It's the first time he's seen her in... God, it's been ten days, over a week since the last time he's seen her.

Over a week since she's been home.

Over a week since she left.

Danny looks her over: the knit cap pulled down tight over her head, jeans and a sweatshirt in shapeless earth tones and a bulging backpack that looks better suited for an expedition than a school day.

She looks... better, he thinks, but he's looking at her and he can't work out the why. The last he remembers of her, the last time he really remembers seeing her is when he opened the front door and found her on his doorstep, tear-stained, small with fatigue and trembling with emotion.

And that's it.

That's his basis for comparison.

Danny thinks of the months before now, the years before now, and Taylor's just a daughter-shaped blur in his memories, black curls and mumbled answers to questions he never put any energy into asking. He doesn't remember her-- hell, he remembers his wife better than his daughter, the thought of her like a brand in his mind.

He remembers Annette, the thing that looked like Annette, coming all to pieces in front of him, her laughter bitter and biting.

"There's nothing you can do to get me back."

He wrenches himself back into the now, realizes Taylor's about to walk past him, jaw clenched and shoulders set with more than the weight of her backpack.

"Are you doing okay? Taylor?"

The words slip out of him, and she freezes, turns, looks at him.

She looks at him, and her face is set in frustrated exasperation, the look of the teenager who doesn't need parenting,

She looks at him, and the distaste and revulsion in her gaze hits him with almost physical force.

And then she's gone, through the door and into the Winslow hallways.

Danny catches the door as it swings closed behind her, holds it for her handler, Ms. Sobol; she gives him an apologetic look, and he follows the two of them in.

He's distracted as he tails Taylor through empty, echoing halls, still struggling to understand the rejection he saw in her eyes.

He doesn't realize anything's wrong until they reach the principal's office, start to go inside.

He doesn't realize anything's wrong until he looks back, sees Taylor's face; until she looks up at him, eyes wide and scared like when his little girl came into their bedroom after a nightmare.

For a moment, they connect.

And then Sobol, her handler, interjects herself; pulls Taylor back, sits her down in a waiting room chair.

She has her describe the things around her, what she sees and hears and feels and smells; Danny watches as Taylor's eyes flit about the room, how her gaze slides off him like butter on a hot pan; how she shifts in her chair, hands sliding from one thing to another, the cant of her head like when she listens to birdsong.

Her handler has her close her eyes, has her breathe.

And Danny watches his daughter bury herself all over again. He watches her calm, watches her walls come back up.

He watches his little girl disappear inside the teenager who despises him, as his daughter turns into someone who looks to a stranger for support rather than him.

And he listens to her explain that she can't go in there. She can't.

Principal Blackwell stands in the doorway to her office, and Danny feels that sick sense of anger twist in him as she sourly comments about appointments and schedules and delays, at how she doesn't seem to care like someone responsible would.

Sobol's still there, next to Taylor. "We can reschedule-"

"Don't," Taylor says, her voice drained like she's three days into a fever. She looks up at the three of them, hugging her backpack to her chest like a shield.

And Danny listens to her explain that she doesn't want to schedule this all over again and have it looming over her. How she doesn't want to have to think about going in there again.

He watches her look at the doorway to the principal's office, how she looks to her handler. The hope in her eyes as she offers a suggestion: that they have the meeting without her. That she goes in, meets with Danny and Principal Blackwell while Taylor waits out here.

It's a moment before the other woman's hand finds his daughter's shoulder, palms and squeezes in measured reassurance.

"Taylor... it's important you're here for this. That you have a say, that... your input matters here, Taylor."

He hears Blackwell cough behind him.

And Taylor looks at her handler.

"You know what I need, though. This is why we had all those meetings in your office, why we had the talk in the car. To work out what my goals were, what I needed."

Danny sees the softness in her eyes.

"You know what I need as well as I do," Taylor says, her voice quiet. "I trust you."

And something in how she says it strikes Danny as wrong; her handler can't care, can't have her best interests at heart.

Not the way he does.

"Mr. Hebert?"

He looks back at Principal Blackwell, still in the doorway to her office.

"Is this acceptable? You're her guardian, it's up to you."

And for just a second, Danny wants to seize the moment: put his foot down, demand that the meeting include his daughter or not happen at all, just for the sake of provocation. Just for the sake of the look on her principal's face as he upsets her plans.

He's smarter than that, though; as appealing as it is, it's a plan that makes him no friends, that aggravates and delays and gains him nothing in the long run.

It upsets plans and it gives Taylor a say in the meeting that finally happens, and Danny knows his daughter well enough to know that wouldn't be good for her; he knows that Taylor's brooding, sullen, angry; that she's not in a place to make good decisions about her future.

"Okay," he says. Goes to rest a hand on her other shoulder, stops at the glare she gives him. "I'll see you in a bit."

And the three of them go into Blackwell's office; Danny looks back, sees Taylor watching as the door closes behind them.

It starts as a subtle thing; a creeping sense of unease, a sense of threat for reasons he can't pin down, how something about Blackwell's office feels wrong.

And then they all sit down.

Blackwell sits down, and her chair creaks the way it did when he laid Taylor to rest there.

Danny's mouth is suddenly very dry as he says, "I'm starting to have second thoughts about this."

Two pairs of eyes fall on him as he starts to lay out his thinking.

"How is Taylor safe here?" he starts, improvising as he remembers the wide whiteness of her eyes. "How can she be safe when she can't even come to you without having a panic attack? How is she supposed to learn if she's terrified?"

"...after the incident," Blackwell says, "we've started taking steps to make sure the situation doesn't escalate to this level again."

Danny notices she isn't a fiddler, her palms pressed down against a suspiciously-clear desk blotter.

"We've changed class schedules, separated the students to limit their ability to interact with each other."

Principal Blackwell looks at him and says, "Nobody wants this to happen again, Mr. Hebert. I'll be speaking with the faculty and the students so everyone understands the severity of the situation and the consequences of acting out again."

She never names names, never mentions Taylor or Emma or any of the other girls; she talks about 'student safety' without talking about how anything she's covered will make Taylor safe.

Danny stares at her, tries to maintain some level of professionality because this is a negotiation and he can't just retort, call her on her bullshit, rip into her for not even addressing his concerns.

"Danny. Danny?" He looks over at Sobol, who's got an encouraging smile just for him.

"I know you're worried about her... but you need to understand that things are different for Taylor, now. She's a Ward now, and that means her circumstances are going to get a lot more consideration."

She looks to Principal Blackwell. "We can work something out, I imagine? Use another office, or have a teacher or myself as an intermediary she can contact if she's having trouble?"

And even as Taylor's handler does this, even as she engages with him and folds his concerns into hers... Danny realizes it's all facile, superficial.

Danny realizes that he's an afterthought here.

That he's superfluous, that his presence here isn't to allow him to contribute, but to be informed.

That Sobol and Blackwell have already made their decisions, come to their conclusions, made policies determined through phonecalls and emails he wasn't privy to, through channels never meant for him.

That they haven't thought about him.

And he's furious, burning with realization; he wants to stand up and kick his chair away and howl truth at power.

He doesn't. He remembers Gary, lets that memory be an anchor: that he can't- well, he shouldn't, that Danny needs to maintain his image if he wants to convince people it's okay for Taylor to come home again.

He banks his fury, subsides, listens to them talk; listens to them lay out goals and action items that he would have been on board with if only he'd had a role in making them in the first place.

He makes himself smile, forces himself to look over changed class schedules as they go over the things that will make Taylor safe, point by point.

He listens to them as they enumerate the programs available to Taylor to help her improve her academics, as Principal Blackwell mentions the framework they already have in place for other students, the study halls and tutors that now have a place on her schedule.

And as things start to wrap up, Danny finally tries to put voice to what's been eating at him.

To contribute in a way that matters.

"What if none of this works?" he asks. "You're taking all these steps, all these precautions- what if they don't work out the way you expect?"

Sobol looks at him, her face set in sympathy.

"Danny... I know that you're worried for Taylor here, but you don't have to be. This- being here, this is something Taylor wants. A transfer's on the table, and she wanted to try and stick it out here."

She smiles at him. "She's stronger than you think, Danny. You should be proud of her."

And that appraisal, that appreciation, rankles at him; the idea that she knows his daughter better than he does fits like a keystone two sizes too small.

"Taylor stays at Winslow as long as she feels comfortable doing so. And if that changes, we'll make it work or we'll find an alternative."

Blackwell shifts in her seat, uncomfortable; her chair creaks again, and Danny rubs his hands on his slacks and tries to forget how his daughter's disintegrating flesh felt like greased satin under his hands.

"I guess that makes sense," he says.

The meeting ends with a handshake all around; Sobol's saying something to Blackwell about getting to talk with some of Taylor's teachers, but Danny can't care about that right now.

He comes out of the office like he's on the end of a spring, sees Taylor sitting right where he left her, bag open at her feet and a book open on her lap.

She looks up as the door opens.

She closes her book on a finger tip and she looks up at him; for a moment, something in her face reminds him of Annette, and he realizes:

She got through this without him.

Taylor looks up at him, and of all the things he could say, the words that come out are "When are you coming home?"

He watches a muscle in her jaw flex, sees the ease fade from her features as her shoulders set like concrete; her face looks the way his feels, hard eyes and thinned lips.

"I'm not."

Two words, and she fills them with loathing.

He's about to reply when Sobol puts a hand on his arm. "Danny, we can work on this; we can talk about this, but pressuring her isn't going to help."

"She's my daughter.' It's a plea, an attempt at justification.

And Taylor's handler smiles gently. "I know. Give me a call and we can try figuring out a visitation schedule when she's a little more... together."

He looks back at his daughter, and he sees the glint of satisfaction in her eyes as he backs down, as she smiles in vicious contentment.

"You have my number?"

He affirms, watches her go over to Taylor and update her on the meeting 'results': Changed classes, new schedule, tutoring period at the end of the day.

"Pretty much like we thought it would go," Taylor murmurs, and her handler nods.

"Are you going to be all right, being on your own for the rest of the day?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine as long as I don't have to go to the principal's office."

There's a hemp bite to her gallows humor, but her handler laughs anyway. "I know this is a big step for you, Taylor. If anything comes up..."

Something in Danny's gut twists at the look Taylor gives her, that over-familiar exasperation that isn't loaded with contempt.

"Nothing's going to come up. I'll be fine; it's been days since I let someone slip, and if something does happen-"

"-I'm here if you need me," her handler finishes, warm, kind, caring.

And the way Taylor responds to her, how the light in her eyes warms, how her lips pull into that gentle almost-smile-

It turns something inside him; he looks at his daughter and her handler and all he can think is that should be me.

He looks down at his daughter, says goodbye.

She doesn't.

Danny Hebert walks the empty hallways of Winslow, already planning a call to Gary to talk about visitation rights.

 


 

October 21st

"They're going to say that you need to respect your daughter's boundaries, that you need to give her the space she needs to work things through."

Danny Hebert sits in a PRT conference room, alone.

For now.

He sits in a conference room, alone, and he waits to see his daughter.

"The thing is, they're not wrong, Danny. Trauma like what she's gone through, you need time to work that out. Just a coincidence that it keeps her separated from you."

Taylor's handler was waiting for him in the lobby when he arrived; brought him up to the conference room, pulled out a chair opposite him.

"I'm sorry," she starts.

Danny listens as she tries to talk to him, about 'starting on the wrong foot' and 'wanting to clear the air.'

About how she believes he has a place in Taylor's life, how she wants him to see his daughter again.

How she wants this to work out between them.

And she's trying; trying to connect, to build that rapport between them.

Gary chuckles, and it's tinged with frustration. "A system is what it does, Danny. Don't forget that. Don't forget that she still needs you."

Danny forces himself to smile, a contortion of his mouth that doesn't touch his eyes. "Miss Sobol-"

"Kirsty." She smiles back at him. "Please."

"Kirsty, then." He fixes the smile on his face, feels himself slipping into the mindset he used for meeting with CEOs, lawyers: what Annette had called his 'urbane cowboy' facade, smooth and suave and untouchable.

"I appreciate what you've done for Taylor," he says.

He mirrors her concern, echoes her tone, gives her nothing as he mouths uncommitted platitudes, as he sympathizes without ever being sorry.

Blackwell would be proud.

He gets to say his piece; gets to watch as Kirsty's smile goes from genuine and open to fixed and plastic.

He gets to watch her realize that her words don't matter, that her overtures are falling on deaf ears.

So she changes tack, reorients. Throws him a bone, a manila folder blazoned with the PRT shield and stamped CONFIDENTIAL; leaves him with that 'while she goes to get Taylor.'

Danny opens the folder, begins reading; it takes him a minute to understand, to see FONT on a header and ANCILLARY in a paragraph and a government-standard photo of Taylor in her knit cap and eyemask, staring blearily at the camera.

He looks at the papers, but they don't hold any answers for him: master, stranger, mover, changer, a thousand enumerations and elaborations on what she can do, but not why.

There's nothing in there that tells him why she won't come home.

He re-reads through them again, work hat on: reading less for understanding and more for what Gary calls 'actionable material'.

And then he hears the latch click free; the door opens, and Kirsty returns, Taylor in tow behind her.

He sees Taylor and the urbane cowboy becomes a calving glacier, his icy professionalism cracking apart because she's his daughter, he's allowed to miss her.

She pulls out a chair opposite his, sits with ill grace; he's aware of Kirsty in his periphery, down at the far end of the table. Giving them distance.

Maintaining a presence.

He struggles, forces himself into composure now that Taylor's here, now that Kirsty's watching.

Burying himself in professionalism, because he's on the clock again.

"Visitation does double duty, Danny. They let you see your daughter, but they get to see you at the same time. They get to evaluate how you interact with her."

He tries to ignore Kirsty; focuses on Taylor, slouched in her chair, denim-jacketed shoulders hunched up to her ears, PRT ballcap pulled low as she stares down at the table.

She's wearing a mask, one of the stick-on ones with her glasses jammed in place on top.

He watches her fingers twist like dying things, nails picking and flicking at her cuticles in quick little spasms.

"You don't need the mask," he says; tries to ignore how she tenses, how she freezes at the sound of his voice.

He tries to keep his voice soft, edgeless, unthreatening. "I mean, I already know who you are."

The words hit and he watches as she lifts her head, glares at him with that impotent adolescent loathing-

Her gaze flickers to the far end of the table, back to him, and Danny watches as the glasses come off and the mask peels away.

She looks better, he thinks; better than she did three days ago, the softened dark under her eyes suggesting she's gotten some rest, some respite.

"How are things? Are they treating you all right?"

She nods, wordless.

"...do you need anything from home? Anything I can get y-"

"No." She throws the word between them. "I'm fine."

The words come out sharp, bristling; the conversational tack you'd take for a panhandler or a pamphleteer as you walked past with your hands jammed in your pockets.

And Danny founders, just for a moment; looks down at his hands, at the paperwork under them.

"They're calling you Font, now?" he asks, watches the brim of her cap incline in agreement.

"Yeah."

"Why'd they have you change it?" He keeps his tone light, leaves the door open for her to engage.

And it works.

He listens as she starts explaining that it was her idea; about the meeting with Mrs. Ryder over in Image she'd had a few days ago, about working out the themes she wants to convey.

That the name was her idea.

He listens and he smiles, because he knew it all along; it's right there in the file Kirsty gave him.

He hates that he has to do it. How he has to play the clueless dad to get her to open up, a gentle provocation, a white lie where he misses something and she gets to correct him, feel like she has the upper hand.

It's something he's meant to use in the boardroom, not with his daughter; plays of strength and weakness, gambits, calculated baiting.

But damn if it doesn't work: how she responds to his words like desert flowers after rain, grey and drab and now brimming with an almost-painful vivacity.

"I can get you in the door, Danny. I can pull some strings, get you in to see your daughter. But... you need to know, it's going to be like kindergarten, all over again." Gary takes a sip of his coffee, watches Danny through his half-rims. "It's not about what gets learned - it's about playing well with others. Showing you can get along."

"...also gets Clockblocker off my back with his 'antsy Larry' jokes." She's smiling, relaxed. Settled.

He can see his daughter, peeping through the edges; he can see something in her eyes, a sour twist to her voice as she mentions the other Ward.

"Everything's okay, there? With the Wards?"

And he watches her come back to herself - she looks at him, really looks at him, realizing who she's talking to, reminding herself of why she's here.

And he watches her enthusiasm wither on the vine, watches her face set like the fingers in a closing fist.

"It's fine."

She says she's fine, but he notices how her eyes flicker, how she glances at Kristy.

Parents notice things like that.

He knows she's hiding things from him, things he could help with if she'd only tell him what was wrong.

He could help; it wouldn't be like before, where she keeps things from him, holds them inside her until things fall apart and he sees her on the stairs, bare-headed-

He hears a sound, brashfully abrasive like a cockatoo concussing itself against one of those wooden xylophones.

Taylor reaches into her pocket, pulls out-

-a cell phone.

She looks down at the display, smiles to herself, and starts typing with her thumbs.

Starts texting in the middle of their conversation, sweet as you please.

She has a cell phone.

He remembers photos, a windshield spiderwebbed in stars.

It feels like that must have been, like high-speed photography capturing safety glass shattering: that disconnected sense of impact, the way the cracks spread faster than the shutter can capture.

Taylor has a cell phone.

He listens to the sound of keys clicking under her fingertips.

"Where did you get a cell phone?" His lips are numb, the words distant in his ears like he's listening to someone else speak.

She stops typing, looks up at him. "Oh, I got one because I'm a Ward." She smiles, thin and cold. "Thanks for signing me up, Dad."

"...who is it?"

Her smile widens as she says, "Oh, just a friend I made."

And the way she says it, the way she looks right into his eyes and says friend and made, Danny knows she's talking about one of her 'copies'.

Danny isn't stupid. Not by a long shot, he isn't.

He can see the pattern here: the timing, how all the elements come together. Interrupting their time together, using a cell phone, using her copy.

How the feel of it is almost rehearsed, how Taylor has this practiced nonchalance as she goes back to her phone when he knows she's never owned one before.

He glances at Kirsty, reads the surprise in her face and posture: she's paying attention to this, but she's not involved the way Danny is.

"Your behavior, how you react around your daughter, is a significant factor in determining when she comes home."

And understanding begins to gel; he looks back at Taylor and how she smiles at him, sweetness and light and tight vicious triumph, and he realizes that this is provocation, something intended to push his buttons, aggravate him into losing his temper over something as small as a teenager with a cell phone.

And the worst part is that it's working; she's dropped a brick on his gas pedal and he can feel how his heart is beating, how...

...how he has to sit there and smile as his daughter savages him and her handler looks on and he has to endure it, take the high ground and look like the better person so he can get his Taylor home.

So he can get Taylor home, where it's just the two of them, together again.

No handlers, no powers, no Kirsty or copies.

Just him and her and a chance to finally talk things out.

Like family.

Danny Hebert sits there and fixes a smile on his face and thinks about how that moment can't come soon enough.