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Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

Darya found herself floating in the ocean. She wasn't panicked. She felt quit calm. The salty waves buoyed her, jostling slightly this way or that, but never threatening to tip her over from her position on her back. The lines on her skin where the water stopped were oddly electrified, tingling with hyper-sensitive attention. For a while she just floated, allowing herself to be carried wherever the currents decided to go, feeling with her powers the endless depths below and around her. Her perception stretched seemingly forever, and she could “feel” the countless myriad forms of marine life swimming around, pushing the water around them and giving her a sense of pressure that let her know where they were. She knew, as her perception spread, that the awareness of her own body was disappearing, and she felt oddly okay with that. And then her water sense touched upon something massive, deep below her, moving fast towards the surface. Her awareness recoiled back into her body suddenly, and she let out a sharp gasp, taking the first breath she had in more than a few minutes, it felt like.

Rising from the water next to her, so smoothly as to not cause a ripple, was a gigantic serpent, easily the size of a skyscraper. A second followed the first, and then more, until she was surrounded. She though of the hydra from Greek mythology, but that felt wrong. And then it spoke, using all nine mouths at once. The voice was gentle, feminine, but echoed with power.

“At last,” the great beast spoke, and Darya knew it was Tiamat. “Even if it is in dreaming, you finally see me.”

“Is this real?” Darya asked. The goddess laughed.

“No more so than you make it. I am you, and you are me. I am that which you hold back. You released me but for a fraction of a moment in the bank, but now that you have, here in your subconscious dreaming we can speak, which may prove useful, even if you don't remember most of it.”

Darya floated, and thought. She knew this sort of thing happened, the mind creating shapes and figures to more easily relate thoughts and images, though she never imagined it would be so vivid and realistic. The form and setting all made sense now, though.

“So, if we're speaking, that means you, or my power I suppose, 'wants' something.”

“Indeed! I enjoy being used! Much like a muscle, it feels good to be used, to exercise. But now that you've had a taste, you must realise that your current setting is very limiting. The planet is covered by seventy percent of what you can control, and you sit in a dry and landlocked area. If you are to learn to use me effectively, you must move away from the family that is scared of consequences, the friends you worry could discover you. You must fight against evil, since that is the direction you wished me to form in. You must find more water.”

“It is weird, hearing you speak.”

The great creature's many heads laughed in unison, and the dream faded from Darya's mind, though the laughter remained. She gained true consciousness to find herself in a hospital bed, her arm bandaged and in a sling. The pleasantly warm feel of a cotton hospital gown and the comforting weight of the blanket made her realise that she had been de-masked, and she sat up straight, only to find herself extremely dizzy, and also that her face was covered by her rousari, wrapped so that her face was concealed. The laughter stopped, nad several people leaned over her. She recognised her uncle Yousef, and one of the police officers that she had seen at the bank, a Latino man with broad features. The third face she didn't recognise at all for a moment before her mind swapped out some missing parts and realised that Rocky was there.

“Ahhhh,” said Yousef. “You must not move to quickly, Tiamat. You have lost a lot of blood, although they tell me that the bullet went through cleanly and you will be fine in a few weeks.”

“Urgh” was all the reply she could muster.

“Ha!” said Rocky. She still couldn't tell why he looked so odd. “I remember my first good solid wound. It's a doozy, going from untouchable badass with super powers to realizin' you're still human.”

It seemed that Rocky and the officer were again consumed in some swapping of war stories. Yousef took this opportunity to lean down and whisper to his niece, “No one except I knows your identity here, though if this Rock Man is honest, he does for different reasons. The officer has stayed with you the entire time to make sure your identity stayed secret, and has been anxiously awaiting your awakening. He has only left when I came to remove your mask and put your rousari on.”

“Thank you, Yousef,” she replied, sitting up again, although this time slowly. “How are you explaining why you are here, then?”

“Easily enough. I am your manager, obviously. A sort of talent agent.”

Darya laughed, but cut it short and winced as her arm throbbed painfully. A nurse chose that time to come in and noticed she was awake. “Just one second, hon, I'll get the doctor!”

Rocky shrugged. “well, kid, now that you're up and about...Well, as well as you can be, I gotta head out. Broadway needs me back at base to deal with somethin'.”

Darya was about to ask if he was okay, but only managed to wave with her good arm before he stepped out of the door, narrowly avoiding crushing the doctor as she came in.

“Hi, I'm Doctor Ramirez, I am your attending surgeon.” She glanced over a clipboard while walking over to the side of the bed no currently occupied by Yousef. “Looks like we'll be able to get you out of here in just a few more hours, actually. Bullet barely did any damage, a clean through-shot just inside the silhouette. Stitching looks fine according to the last nurse visit, and you're very healthy, so everything should be fine within a week, and tip-top in another two, probably.”

The doctor looked over her glasses sternly. “That does not, however, mean go gallivanting around heroing everywhere, okay? Take it easy. You lost a good bit of blood, and tearing open the stitching could make it much worse than it has to be. While as a physician I can't say preventing the harm of others is bad, don't get yourself killed doing so, okay?”

Darya nodded sheepishly under her rousari, glad that it hid her blushing.

“Alright. I'll go get you discharge papers.” Her eyes shifted over to Yousef. “Are you driving her home?”

With Yousef's nod, Doctor Ramirez left without another word. The policeman stepped up to where she had been standing and smiled at Darya.

“Well,” he said, “I've got my own professional opinion about what a good job you did in the bank, but the official line is...” He checked a notepad he pulled halfway out of his breast pocket. “Let's see. 'While APD commends the valor and tenacity of the hero, we strongly encourage any other heroes to wait for the profesionals to arrive and do their jobs before attempting potentially dangerous vigilante actions. Today we were lucky that the incident ended before anyone was seriously injured. Next time we might not be.'” He rolled his eyes. “What a load of shit. They're just pissed you made us look bad.”

He handed her a business card that named him Sergeant Roberto Garcia. “I'm personally okay with not standing around as long as a hostage situation takes, and you managed to do it with only one shot fired on either side. Also less paperwork when you guys do it. Call me if you ever need a hand, okay? Everyone at the station thinks you're pretty much the greatest right now.”

Several hours later, Darya was home, arm still slung. They had taken a winding course back, and Yousef had actually dropped her off to be picked up by one of the aunts a few moments later. Apparently the entire family was very paranoid right now, both for exposure of Darya's civilian identity and in case the bank robbers had friends. At this point, she couldn't even muster the will to protest. She was still woozy from the injury and the painkillers they had given her, but she was also wide awake, lying in her bed.

The fear of discovery, the working with the FBI (who had been strangely absent in this case, considering she was fairly certain bank robberies were in their jurisdiction), and hero work in general, had all wound her a little tight, and she recalled some of her conversation in her dream. Her dream-self was right, really. If she was to be a hero, and if her family was to remain safe, she would have to leave Albuquerque, and working on the strike force to eliminate the terrorist group in some other location would be a perfect opportunity.

These thoughts continued to roll around, along with half-baked plans and dreams about what the ocean might be like, until at last sleep came and took her back into the dreamscapes, this time far more relaxed and silly, and she was soundly out until morning.

Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

Nicole watched out of the window of cab as she rode with Doctor Crawford. Apparently all the terrorist activity had people spooked, or maybe Lost Haven was just smaller than the two cities she had lived in, because there didn't seem to be many people out and about for the....morning. She grimaced and tried again. For...uhhh...eeiigghhtt? She felt a dull throbbing start up behind her eyes and nearly gasped. It was the first thing she had felt since what she was informed was called Pax Metahumana. She had almost forgotten what pain felt like, but she was only able to be fascinated by it for scant moments before it disappeared. She'd have to investigate that later, though she was annoyed that she would have to wait to figure out the whole time thing.

She did less sitting than she did leaning in the cab, with her right elbow resting on the bottom of the window and her chin on the meat of her shoulder, forearm and wrist folded up and over her face. Only her eye, nose, and the right side of her mouth weren't also covered by her ebon hair. She was irritated about having so cliched an 'angsty teenager' look, but aside from the unflattering and bland grey sweats the police had donated to her, she didn't have anything any more. The bike gear she had been planning to use for a uniform was lost in the bombing, what little she had had in her pockets was now scattered and lost in the bullet-scarred lawn of a wounded youth center, and everything else had been left behind or destroyed a month ago.

She was surprised to find herself okay with that, or at least not bothered by it. After all, she was basically the robot from that old movie her dad had loved, though she kept her skin (and she doubted some hydraulic press could do what a sniper round hadn't). Still, while she felt it would be nice to have clothes, there wouldn't be much of a point to nice ones the way her life was going, if that last fight was to be a trend-setting encounter. The lack of being able to do anything useful had bothered her more than the fact that her old life, and any reminder of it aside from her own memory, which struck her, as she thought of it, as rather rude to her family. But they were dead, and there was nothing she could do about it, even as powerful as her 'ability' was.

Shifting her head, she looked furtively through the screen of her hair at the man now in charge of her well-being. Doctor Crawford had at first seemed completely frazzled and ridiculous, a middle-aged man who didn't even know how to comb his hair, or was too much of a genius to care. But during the trip, while he had gone on at length about her powers and what they might mean (something Nicky had not bothered paying attention to for what seemed like the fifth or sixth time), he had actually managed to neaten himself up a bit. He must've woken up incredibly early from a phone call from the police and come down as fast as he could, and was now attempting to correct his look for the day. But he reminded her of someone she had known in school, geeking out hard about anything that was in his field.

She had to admit, she had heard some wild stories, but considering what her father had told her and her sisters about the media, she wasn't about to believe everything she heard. Most of it seemed way too fantastical to be true even now, knowing what she did about her exhaustive search for information about Icon and her own seeming indestructibility. But listening to Crawford speak, if anything she had missed some of the cooler stuff. He also seemed excited by the fact that magic was apparently a thing, but since Nicole had very nearly rolled her eyes out of her head when he mentioned something about fairies, he had dropped the subject. Still, he seemed to know his stuff, and her inner little girl fought for a while about riding unicorns before her mind would drop back to normal daydreams.

She looked back and noticed they were now in what seemed to be the worst part of town. She had thought it weird that the cab driver had looked at them with some sort of judgement when Crawford had requested a ride to Crown Ridge, wherever that was, but thought nothing of it. Now she understood. It reminded her a lot of the nastier places she had been warned away from as a kid in Manhattan, and picking up a disheveled older guy and a teenage girl with borrowed clothes from the police station and driving them here must have set off a lot of warning bells in the guy's head.

They pulled up to one of the less run down buildings and stopped. While they got out and Crawford paid the driver, Nicky examined the building. While it was faded, and had what seemed to be the ubiquitous graffiti on a lot of the surface, it looked fairly well maintained. That didn't cut down on the strikingly familiar look that the architecture had. Her face darkened as she realised this was one of the old asylums that had gotten closed down years ago, now relegated to ghost hunting shows. But this one had obviously been repaired and converted. The sign outside declared that it was the Oppenheimer-Lashley Institute of Science and Medicine, two names she didn't recognise at all, but whatever it called itself, it couldn't qite erase the foreboding and chilly look it had. The rest of the neighbourhood was similarly well-cared for despite the 'bad' feel the area had.

Crawford gestured her inside, and they walked across a slightly weedy lawn and through front doors that looked more appropriate to a prison than a science lab, made of high-carbon steel bars and reinforced glass and opened by way of a keycard. Inside, a sleepy security guard waved them through as soon as he saw Crawford's identification, and they made their way through a maze of identical, sterile white hallways. Periodically there would be a corkboard with announcements, notices, or messages, and Nicky would have to nearly walk into her escort before she stopped trying to read them. Occasional glimpes through a window would show people in labcoats and safety goggles doing what she had always imagined science labs did. Lasers, chemistry sets, and whiteboards full of equations seemed to be everywhere. Up two flights of stairs and they entered more of an office area, and Crawford steered her into his own office, which looked like any psychiatrists office, though the sheer amount of superhero literature seemed to throw the feel off.

“Apologies for the mess,” he said, sweeping a few comic books from his desk into a messy stack and setting them on a bookshelf that also held numerous books with dusty covers and indecipherable titles. “Have a seat! They're working on getting you a room set up and a security card so you're not locked in, but for now I'm afraid you'll be in here or at one of the labs. Don't have enough funding for a hotel room.”

“S'okay,” Nicky said, taking a seat on the offered chair. “Like I said, I don't sleep.”

“Hmmm. That may actually be more of a problem, then. I'm afraid we don't have much to occupy a teenager during off hours. We'll see about...well, why don't we start with that?”

The doctor pulled out the notebook he had had in the police station, and while he copied some of what he had onto a whiteboard on his wall, he continued speaking to her.

“Don't mind me, I'm just organising notes. Tell me, Nicole, what interests do you have? Hobbies? Sports? Do you like video games?”

“I played soccer and volleyball in middle school. I was okay, I guess. I liked playing. Video games are kinda dumb, though.”

“A sportster, eh?” He glanced back at her and held his gaze for a second too long. Nicky felt like she was being judged by her coach again. “We actually do have a gym here, but we'll be visiting that today anyway, and it might take up a good portion of your time.”

He stopped talking for a few moments, writing some sort of equation on the whiteboard and plugging in a few numbers from his notes. Nicky had no idea what he was trying to do. He stepped back from the board and crossed his arms, one hand stroking his chin, and stared at it for several minutes more, looking at her occasionally and shaking his head.

“I'm afraid I can't draw any good conclusions yet, though my hypothesis remains for now that you've been somehow destabilised.” There was that word again. Nicky didn't know if she liked it or not.

“I suppose we'll have to start with a baseline, though. Let's head down to the medical wing and see if we can't figure out what's going on physically.”

To Nicky, that sounded promising, almost as if he was looking for a cure, which she would take, if only to get rid of the fuzzy feeling in her head. She followed him out of his office and down to the second floor, and into what looked like a physical therapy room, something she recalled after a nasty ligament tear in her early sports years. Two people in scrubs and a woman in a lab coat were talking when they walked in, and the woman looked up at them, then gestured to the two others and they walked off to gather equipment. The woman met them halfway across the room and held her hand out for a shake, which Nicky begrudgingly obliged as she introduced herself.

“Hi! I'm Amber Grisham, head doctor here at the facility. You must be Nicole!” The lady's voice was squeaky with excitement, but she looked almost bored the way her eyes drooped. Nicky started as she realised the woman had what she knew as 'stroke face'. Her blonde hair was silvered in places, even though she looked like she might have made it to her thirties.

“Doctor Crawford called ahead and told me some of what was going on, so I've been looking forward to meeting you. Let's get started, eh?” Crawford nodded and leaned against the wall with his ever-present notebook, while the two nurses or techs or whatever they were rolled up an EKG machine and a couple of other bits to an exam bed. Nicky hopped up onto the bed at Grisham's prompting, and her face grew extremely warm as she realised one of them was a guy as he gently attached the blood pressure cuff to her arm with a well-tanned hand.

“All right, let's see,” Grisham muttered almost to herself as she watched various machines get attached to her young patient. Nicky started to feel her skin itch as no one did much but pay attention to her for a few...minutes? Hours?

“Huh.” Grisham glanced at the techs, who both shrugged.

”What's up, Doc?”

“Well, we're not getting many readings on you. Your blood pressure isn't reading, and the EKG is all over the place. Your heart rate is apparently one constant beat with no down stroke. Brain activity is negative or positive. Body temperature is reading I reading that right, Steve?”

The tech nodded. “Somewhere between thirty-two and a hundred and seven degress Fahrenheit, it won't settle, though your skin temperature feels normal, if slightly cooler than I would expect. Let's try a blood sample?”

Nicky waited for the inevitable, and was not surprised that the needle bent before her skin so much as dimpled.

“Um.” The techs looked stumped, and Grisham had less spunk to her step and voice. Nicky figured it had been at least half an hour based on their faces.

“Well,” said Grisham, “I don't suppose you've got to pee or anything?”

”I haven't needed to do anything like that in months.”


Nicky flushed again, glancing at Steve, who remained completely professional, if flustered by the lack of results. ”Uhhh. No. Nothing.”

“Alright, guess we're going to have to go with older methods.” The doctor picked up a scalpel. “Doctor Crawford tells me you're bullet proof, so I'm going to test that. Is that okay?”

”Feel free. A guy stabbed my eyeball this morning, so I think we're good.”

Grisham blanched, but shook her head and resumed. “Okay. I'm going to attempt to make an incision on the end of your finger. Tell me when you feel any damage.”

The woman tried every pattern of cutting she could think of, it looked like. Fast, grindingly slow, point first, light shaving. She moved up to Nicky's arm, then tried to cut a lock of hair. Absolutely nothing, though she had to suppress a laugh when they had to switch out scalpels when the first one went dull.

The doctor sat back, staring at Nicole, obviously thinking hard. Her brow didn't furrow, but Nicky imagined it might've if it could. Finally, she looked up at the techs.

“Okay, so I can believe she's undamageable. It's not any sort of reflexive ability that I can tell, Next we'll try fatigue. Carol, would you mind getting the weights? Steve, the air measure, please.”

Moments later, they had found out Nicky's maximum curling weight at forty pounds, and had her breathing into a little tube to lift a ball while at the same time doing the arm curls. She was supposed to let them know when she started feeling tired. She had no idea how long it had been before they signalled her to stop. At this point, Grisham was staring at her with some cross between admiration, fear, and wonder.

“Well, if were possible with our current technology, I would say you were the best robot facsimile of a human I'd ever seen, but even that would run out of juice eventually. Did you notice how long it had been? Doctor Crawford said you had problems with your sense of time.”

Nicky looked around and found that Steve and Crawford had both disappeared, and that it was getting late if the sunlight outside the windows was any way to judge. ”No, not really. If I try and figure out time, I get a headache.”

“Interesting, that's the first time you've actually acknowledged...well, we'll come back to that. You were straining to lift that weight, but it's been almost four hours of constant exercise and your breath hasn't even quickened.” The woman ran a spindly hand through her hair and stared out the window for a moment before turning back to her subject.

“Honestly? Medically, I am at a complete loss. There's some specialised tests I'd like your okay to do, things like laser spectrometry, an MRI and CAT scan, infrared and ultraviolet analyses. But that's going to have to be later, because I have other subjects I need to work with.”

”Is any of that going to help you figure out what's wrong with me?”

“Wrong?” Grisham's eyelids twitched, the most expression Nicky had seen in them. “You're the most healthy person I have ever met, I think. There's no telling what happened to you from a medical standpoint, if that's what you mean. Unless you think all of this is bad?”

”I can't...” Nicky realised midsentence why Grisham was sounding frustrated suddenly, and flushed deep red. “Sorry. I can't help but think I've been cursed, you know? Like, no sleep, no food, no anything. All I feel is pissed off, bored, or depressed.”

The older woman's face softened slightly at the corners. “Well, considering what Crawford said, that's not surprising, really. I would say you've probably got moderate to severe PTSD, and that can't be easy. But I wouldn't think of this as a curse, or a disease, or anything like that, Nicole. Applied correctly, I can see your accidental gift here being very useful, especially in cases like rescuing people from fires where the normal rescuers can't go.”

She stood up, holding out a hand for Nicky to help getting off the table. “Not really my field, though. You should talk about this with Crawford. He's helped quite a few figure out what to do with themselves after they developed powers. I'll help you figure out the limits, but he's the one to help you with direction, and with dealing with what you've already been through. He's waiting for you in his office, by the way, said he had some news.”

Nicky nodded, and began heading across the room. Behind her, Grisham called out, “I'll see you again tomorrow! Have a good afternoon!” And for once in a long while, she thought the person saying it might actually mean it, and was surprised to learn that she might actually do so.

Deep in the desert of New Mexico, near the US-Mexico border

Smoke curled up from the burning sage, leaving the entirety of the inside of the cave with it's earthy scent. The heat from the small campfire only accentuated the terrible, oppressive might of the sun raging outside on the canyon face, and its light did not reach the very back of the cave at all. The only sound other than the crackling of the fire was the small battery-powered radio that vainly tried to fill the space with its sound. Currently, the news was on, and a report about a bank robbery in Albuquerque was wrapping up.

At the mention of water powers and new heroes, unnaturally glowing green eyes snapped open in the darkness. The scrabbling sound of claws on stone rang for a moment, and then a coyote strode out of the darkness. Unlike most animals of its type, this one was huge, almost the size of a puma. It's coat was severely ravaged by mange, and it gave off just the feeling of being deranged and diseased. And then, as it approached the mouth of the cave, it's bones creaked and cracked, and midstride, if shifted into the shape of a well-muscled, disheveled man, wearing an old bear skin. Mucus ringed eyes that stared out into the waning afternoon light.

"So," he muttered, half to himself and half to the raging spirits that he felt around them. "One of them has finally appeared here, outside of the guarded lands. And with useful powers it sounds like." His awful mouth broke into a grin, revealing nothing but blackened stumps of teeth. "Soon, little hero, I shall eat your heart. And then I will have my revenge."

The coast of Maine

Fell light without source caused the salt-rimed rocks to glisten strangely behind Sebastian as he worked. His condition was not yet improved enough to stand, but he could work in a sitting position, and he was no longer close to death enough to avoid working any longer. Abaraxis shuffled gleefully from foot to foot behind his master, watching as the runes were painted painstakingly onto the stone walls of the cavern. Almost half of the surfaces of the cave were now covered, in maddening, twisting patterns. The scorched remains of his private notes were suspended in the air around him, and he frequently checked back on them, working half from those, and from memory where the damage was to great. Abraxis had almost not caught the remains in time to halt the removal spell the old lizard had done when he burned the book, so the time reversal only repaired so much of it.

Soon, he would be...well, not whole. Several sections of his flesh were pale and dead-looking. The right half of his face was mostly enchanted metal and bone at this point. The metal had been too precious to get much of, so his right arm up to the elbow and both legs, plus a massive section of his torso, were now made mostly of of stone, magicked to move like the flesh he had lost.

The twisted voice of his familiar reached his ears. "How soon before we can begin, master? How soon before I can claw the girl's face off? How soon befor eyou can reclaim the source?"

"Shut up you little wretched monkey," he growled, though not with much feeling. He understood his creation's feelings, however, and said slightly more patiently, "Shouldn't be long now. Maybe one more day and one more subject and it should be ready."

Lost Haven Police Headquarters, Downtown

The desk sergeant was not at all happy to be dealing with Ophelia, she could tell. She wasn't surprised, or concerned, that he was uncomfortable or intimidated by her. Many people were, these days. It had little to do with the powersuit, or the elaborate jewelry that adorned her neck and ears, or the intensity of her black eyes. It wasn't her Asian heritage scaring them with latent fears of being racist, or the expensive car she drove. It was her confidence, her self-assurance that whatever she did, it was right.

Ophelia worked for...well, she wasn't entirely certain on that point. She knew that her orders did not come from her nominal bosses, the board of directors for International Genetics Corporation. They seemed to only be a front for something else, but for the time being, until she knew how to move up in the company, she'd toe the line and be a good worker. And she was good. She had been assigned to the Acquisitions department, which she had originally assumed was the same department as in any other company and was going to be tasked with formulating mergers and buyouts. This was especially confusing considering her background in psychology and corporate espionage, but she had shrugged it off.

She was shocked to find that her actual job was to track down these new 'metahumans' and either recruit them to another portion of the company or, at the very least, obtain some of their DNA. She was very good at her job, which was what had led her here, to this hole-in-the-wall town that was apparently larger than anyone at the office had assumed. But their attention had been especially drawn by the rumours of an unkillable woman. The desk sergeant, however, was being particularly obstinate.

"I've told you before, lady, I'm not allowed to give out that sort of information on an ongoing investigation."

Ophelia sighed. "I understand that, Sergeant, but I am looking out for the girl's best interests. My firm has been trying to find out any information on her whereabouts for some time. She has quite the substantial inheritance coming her way."

"I don't know what else to tell you, miss. I could direct you to her current guardian or place of residence, but both of those are kinda up in the air at the moment."

"Alright, fine." Ophelia dug into her small purse and pulled out a business card. "Well, when the information becomes open, please have the detective in charge of the matter call me."

Somewhere over the Atlantic

Émile Lambert glanced over the documents for a third time, trying to figure out what the connection might be. This was her first job as what amounted to an apprentice for Interpol, doing sidework for them because of her abilities while she went to college to study criminal justice in Paris. This job, however, she had been specifically called in the help because her powers matched the suspect's so perfectly. She was, however, mostly relegated to information retrieval and interviews due to her age, and even then she was mostly there to collate, take notes, and observe.

Still, this 'Forge' they were after smelled almost familiar in her mind. The pattern of behaviour, the way they seemed to plan everything and then suddenly decide to go off an improvise when it honestly didn't seem necessary. Everything seemed off, somehow. But, since similar crimes had popped up in Italy, France, and England, the FBI had called Interpol in to try and figure out what, if anything, could be gleaned. In the meantime, she was going over the files for the dozenth time, trying to decide what, exactly, this training exercise (for her) felt so damn similar to something in her memory. For the millionth or more time in her young adult life, she wished Zoë was here. She would have pointed out some obvious connection Émile would never have spotted on her own.

But Zoë was gone, disappeared into the world, and Émile, along with the rest of her family, had finally come to grips with the fact that her estranged sister was most likely dead or drugged out, and nothing she could do was going to change that. She sighed, gazing out the window, and wondered how many hours before they landed in New York.

Lost Haven Police Department
8:40 AM

Nicole sat, glaring at the one way glass, chained the same way she had been before. It had taken ages for them to process the scene, and while Patricia had argued against it, stating self defense, the lead officer on the scene had had no choice but to take her in until they could sort though the carnage. And now she had been sitting here all day. She knew she had gone overboard, but it had felt good to exact vengeance on the fuckers that had killed those kids, and Patricia's partner. She didn't even know who they were, only that they had to pay.

The door click, and a man walked in. he looked tired, almost worn out like an old dishrag, thin in spots. His greying brown hair was not at all combed and stuck up at odd angles, he had stubble across his face, and glasses that hung oddly off his long and crooked nose. His jacket looked as worn as him, brown and faded tweed, and he was busy fixing a misaligned button as he sat down. Once he had finished, he cleared his throat and set a small file and a voice recorder down on the table between them, then fixed her with his gaze. Despite his appearance, his eyes were focused and somewhat intense despite being a muted grey-green.

“Okay, Nicole. I assume you realise there are some serious questions surrounding your behaviour and actions from last night at the bombing and this morning?”

Nicky growled, “I was just doing what had to be done. They shot kids. Were gonna fucking shoot more kids.”

“See, I understand that. But there difficulties, considering the current environment and the sheer amount of carnage you left behind.”

“I don't give a fuck about the 'current environment'. What the fuck does that have to do with me?”

“Ah.” The man frowned. “So you have no idea who those men were?”

“Some child killing fucks. Who cares? They're dead now.”

He sat back in his chair and studied her face for a while. Nicky, for her part, glowered at him from underneath her bangs, leaning forward onto her crossed arms. It was some minutes before he spoke again.

“Nicole, does anyone in your family know where you are? That you're even alive? We can't check, since you won't give us your last name, but you're quite obviously a minor.”

She remained silent, though her glower worsened a bit.

“I'll take that as a no. Can you tell me what happened?”

“I killed some child killing fucks. Before that, a bomb blew me off a building. What more do you want?”

“Well, for starters, why aren't you dead? We have some spotty video that shows you taking on what amounts to a small army, and all you have to show for it is some prison jumpers insetad of the clothes you lost.” He leaned forward, intent.

Nicky sat back, attempting to cross her arms but restrained by the cuffs. She sat, silent for several moments. When he didn't say anything else, she snorted and said, “Fine, since you won't drop it.”

She missed his confused look as she continued. “There was a huge flash of green shit, and a bunch of gang bangers blew up my apartment. My whole family was killed. Except me. And now I can't starve, or sleep, or get hurt. Nothing. I walked here from Philly because Icon was here and I figured he might know someone, or be able to tell me what to do, but all that useless shithead told me was to go be a kid at this orphanage for troubled mutants or whatever. They seemed nice, and I was thinking about staying, when those fuckers shot it the fuck up. So I killed them.”

The man sat back again. This time he was taking notes. “Rough time,” he said, almost offhandedly. “I take it all of this has left you fairly angry?”

“The fuck are you, some kinda genius shrink? Do I look like I am having the time of my fucking life!?”

He shook his head. “Well, how long do you think this conversation has been going on?”

Nicky was taken aback by the question. “What?”

The pen stopped scribbling. “I have a theory, but I need to know how long this conversation has been going. I haven't been keeping track.”

“Uhhh.” She glanced around. There was no clock in view. “I dunno, a couple of fucking hours? You were sitting there waiting for an answer for forever.”

“Hmmm.” He stood up, and took the cheap little digital watch from his wrist. “Do me a favour,” he said, sliding it across the table. “Put that on and tell me what time it says.”

Nicky caught it, and stared at him for several minutes, fairly confused, before finally putting it on. It was an awkward procedure around the cuffs, but her wrists were skinny. The face was nothing but eights when she looked at it.

“What, is this some sort of trick, giving me a watch like this?” Her voice took on a sarcastic tone. “It's apparently eight hundred and eighty-eight point eighty eight o clock, asshole.”

“Excellent.” The man was smiling at her. “Go ahead and take it off and slide it back to me, please.”

She followed these instructions. Her anger was fading, giving way to curiousity. As he picked the device back up, he glanced at it and wrote something down. Finally, he showed it to her. It read twelve thirteen in the afternoon.

“When I gave this to you, it read eight forty-five AM.” She shook her head, trying to make sense of what he was saying.

“I suppose I should introduce myself. I'm Doctor Robert William Crawford. I have PhDs in Theoretical Physics and Psychiatry, and I specialise in helping people like you get a handle on their abilities and their lives after it happens. I was called in because something is obviously very special about you, but the police do not want you running about murdering more people.”

Nicky didn't know what to think about this, so she remained silent. At least he wasn't treating her like a child.

“Now, while it will require far more testing than I can do in a single interview, I think I know what has happened to you and what your power is, though you might not. Nicole, you've been temporally destabilised.”

He sounded excited about this, like he had just discovered something miraculous. Nicky knew what those words meant, but it took her a second to put them together and figure out what he was talking about. Even then, it didn't make much sense, but he was already gabbing on again. She wasn't really paying attention until he said something about custody.

“...and so we'll take you in at our lab. We can have a cot set up until we have more permanent quarters established for you. Obviously the Home is in no state to house anyone right now, and the police really don't want to charge you. Honestly, they're half convinced you deserve a medal.”

“Wait, what? A medal? Does this have something to do with the environment thing you were talking about?”

“Oh, right! I had nearly forgotten you didn't know! Obviously, with what you said, you wouldn't have heard about it. The men you so...Ahem. Vehemently put down...There is a terrorist organisation currently attacking most of the country, attempting to purge the land of everything not purely human. The Center was another target. Unfortunately, they seem to have fairly thorough records as to hideouts and whatnot, and they are hell bent on attacking anyone they deem a threat, including those who are normal and are simply helping metas like yourself. Terrible business indeed.”

Nicky stared at him for a moment before the door opened again and a detective came in and they began chatting. Her head drooped and she stared at the table, lost in thought. She was temporally out of the world, but she was still in it. Well, if he was a physicist, maybe he could fix it. In the meantime, that kinda, sorta, didn't at all explain to her why she was bulletproof. But one thing was obvious to her. While she was bulletproof, or maybe everything proof, she should be helping out against these assholes who were attacking innocent people. She didn't know a lot about being a hero, but she knew those were the sorts she was supposed to fight.

“Hey,” she said suddenly, not looking up. Both men looked over at her. “How do I sign up?”

“Beg pardon?” the doctor said.

“These fuckwads who are killing people. Someone's gotta be doing something, right? How do I get in on that?”

The detective snorted. “You're what, fourteen? I can't let you know that sort-”

“Shut the fuck up!” Nicky was suddenly on her feet, yanking on the chains. A violent humming began filling the room, like a jet engine starting up. The doctor stared at her, fasincated, while the detective back against the wall suddenly.

“Just shut up! I'm fucking unkillable! It's not like I'd be in any fucking danger! Ask fucking Patricia, motherfucker! I can help, way more than your sorry ass can!”

Nicky's vision was blurring. Was she crying again?

The doctor held up a hand. “Please calm down, Nicole. We can talk about that at the lab. The detective here was not aware of what you can do.”

“The fuck can she do? Why is she blurring like that?”

Nicky stopped straining at the cuffs and looked down at her hands. Her vision cleared up, and she saw that the cuffs had severely malformed, stretched as though she had been pulling them apart. She heard the doctor whisper something under his breath, but she only stared.

What the fuck is happening to me?

Downtown Albuquerque

16:30 local

Darya fidgeted nervously with her backpack as she stepped off the bus, along with a few other riders, onto the scorching sidewalk of Montgomery Boulevard. The heat, which was withering to visitors in July, didn't bother locals all that much, as it was impossible to put of life and business until the cooler evening, and they dealt with it as best they could. Darya, for her part, opened up a mint green parasol and made her way down the I-25 byway and towards the FBI center of her home city.

The heat was intense, and she was unfortunately well aware of both how dehydrated she was getting and how much water was in her backpack alongside her costume. She knew that riding the bus in sweats was probably a bad idea, but she would much rather have dealt with sweating profusely than the awkward ride over in her full hero get up. And since Thunderbird had called her earlier and warned her that the agency would want a demonstration of her powers, she knew she couldn't afford to drink even a single one of the various water bottles or canteens, leaving her in misery as she walked.

As she approached her goal, she could see the red brick three story complex over the other buildings in the area. But as she rounded the corner, she noticed a small tent set up on the open space of dirt and scrub grass across the side street, with a single man underneath it. He sat on a simple folding metal chair, and a white card table loaded with paperwork on clipboards sat in front of him. To her surprise, he was actually dressed in what she had assumed all government agents wore: Black suit, thin black tie, white shirt, and black loafers.

Walking purposefully, she unzipped the main pocket of her backpack, pulling out her hood and goggles and hurriedly shoving all of her hair underneath it before approaching any closer. Immediately she regretted the colour choice her family had made. Black was not a good colour to wear in the high desert. Nevertheless, she strode forward. The agent behind the table stood up as she walked, and, seeming to read her mind, pointed off to the nearby fence around the FBI building, where three small privacy booths had been set. Darya felt her face glow with embarrassment as she veered off into the booths and changed as quickly as she could.

Coming back out, she was surprised to find another man and a woman standing behind the table. The second man was in some sort of gym outfit, while the woman now sat in a second chair, legs crossed and a clipboard across her lap. As Darya came up to the table, the first man spoke up.

“Alright, this is a new system, so we're going to do this as thoroughly as possible. First off.” He picked up one of the row of clipboards in front of him, pulled out a pen, and readied to fill blanks. “What do you go by when in that outfit?”

Darya's face heated up, but she mastered herself and said, “Tiamat.”

The man nodded. Both him and the woman scribbled something. The man in the gym clothes seemed to be examining her, which made her realise that her entire body outline, while compressed, was visible. She fought off the urge to cover herself.

“Are you willing to give your full legal name for records purposes? Before you answer, be aware that this will be kept confidential and will only be used for medical purposes or notifying next of kin.”

She shook her head. The man nodded and moved on without comment.

“What powers do you claim to have?”

This had been debated with her siblings before she left, and she said without hesitation what they had agreed upon. “Hydrokinesis.”

She noticed the gym guy and the woman look at each other for a second, though she couldn't decipher the meaning. The interview man pressed on. “On a scale of one to ten, how powerful would you say your hydrokinesis is?”

She couldn't detect any kind of sarcasm in his voice. In fact, he seemed to not care at all about the questions he was asking, though she chalked that up to bureaucratic efficiency.

“I don't know?” She said hesitantly. “I have never met another person with it, so I don't really have a measuring stick, you know?”

The gym guy nodded and the woman wrote something down. Following these questions were a lot of things that Darya had not been expecting, including queries as to whether she had health insurance and if she had next of kin she would like notified in the event of her death in the line of duty. She was well aware that they were trying to get periphery details on her so they could identify her later, and she resisted all of these resolutely, though she worried in the back of her mind that she may have accidentally given something away she wasn't aware of.

Finally, after half an hour of questioning, she was passed over to the gym guy. He made her stand out in the sunlight, and gave her another once over that made her self-conscious before he spoke up.

“Water powers, eh? So, tell me Miss Timid, what exactly can you do with water?”

Darya's eyes narrowed behind her goggles. She reached out one hand, and the water bottles in her bag, left thirty feet away by the table, moved on her command. The whole bag dragged across the sand, then accelerated into her hand. She unzipped the thing, taking each bottle one by one, opening it, and pouring it out. Instead of hitting the dirt, however, the water stayed in midair, forming a rough sphere that grew with each pour until she had a ball that was over two feet in diameter.

Staring at the man across the top surface of her sphere, she said, “It's Tiamat, thank you. Tye-ah-maht.”

The man grunted in recognition, and then paced around her ball of water. He poked it with a finger, which she made sure was dry when he pulled it out. “Alright, Tiamat, fair enough. You can make a ball. What else? I can't fight with a ball.”

“I don't want to hurt you, sir.”

“Then I suggest you control yourself. I don't need people who can't keep civilians out of the line of fire or avoid killing suspects. This isn't a military operation, we're not going in guns blazing, understand?”

Darya nodded, trying desperately not to stare at her feet. The man walked around the water ball, which was trembling slightly as her concentration faltered. He placed a hand on her shoulder, speaking much more softly than he had.

“Look, I know why you're here, and I appreciate that you've volunteered. This is dangerous, and I doubt you want to hurt anyone. It's why you put on the costume, right?”

She nodded again, staring at him through the goggles. He was a good foot taller than her.

“This is gonna be a bad time. I haven't seen a group like this before, and it's going to get bad out there. So we need to know you can handle yourself when the shit hits the fan, without endangering bystanders or the people you're working with. I don't foresee that being a problem with you, your power seems kinda on the weak end of what I have heard is possible.”

Darya bristled, barely controlling her temper. “I am not weak. I just can't carry around all of the water I can use on the bus.”

“Oh yeah? Well, let's see what we can do about that. What's your range?”

She blinked. Had she actually tested that limit? “Uhhhh. I guess a couple of hundred feet? I don't know. I'm. Um. Kinda new-ish.”

The man had left her side and sauntered back over to the opposite side of her water ball, which was distinctly more ovoid and had begun slowly rotating as her mind wandered. “Good, good,” he said, hands behind his back. “And how much have you found out you can use?”

Darya held her head a little higher, chin up. “I haven't found an upper limit yet.”

“Okay, good. I assume you can do more than just balls, you said that. Anything combat effective?”

Darya gestured. She knew she probably didn't have to, but it made it easier to visualise what she wanted. The ball of water quickly shifted into a flat plane more than six inches thick, blocking between her and him and covering her entire body. Another gesture and it shifted to cover her body completely, and then she lashed out with a basic punch into the empty air. The water flowed suit, moving like a snake strike across the gap and slamming past the man's shoulder, around his body without touching him, and then coming back to her. A few rapid fire punches threw fast moving, slightly hardened blocks into the dirt like shotgun blasts. She didn't want to show that the sand utterly killed her control, so she left those splatters where they were.

Lastly, she swept her leg out in a roundhouse and sent a sweeping sheet of water across the 'yard' and into the chain link fence, where it stcuk for a moment. To the untrained eye, it wasn't moving, but the grinding noise gave away what she was doing. The leading edge of it was paper thin, and the whole thing was rotating fast enough to give it the same cutting power as a low grade industrial saw. It swiftly broke through the fence before she called it back and reabsorbed it.

The woman was taking notes, now, she saw as she glanced over to the tent. No other heroes had showed up yet. The gym guy clapped to get her attention.

“Good stuff. That is certainly more than I expected. We can do some stress tests later. I noticed your body movements, though. You have martial arts training?”

Darya nodded. “Krav Maga, plus handguns, knives, and rifles.”

“That's great! We'll do a marksmanship test once we have the facility ready. I'm good with her, how about you Reeves?” That last part seemed aimed at the woman, who nodded and waived Darya back over to the table. The heroine let her water ball go, dropping it into the sand, and walked back. Reeves, she noticed, seemed to be in charge.

“Alright, Tiamat, everything looks in order. We'll notify you by phone call within the next couple of days as to where the training facility will be, once we've gotten more recruits. There, you'll be getting rudimentary training on working alongside governments agents both powered and unpowered, we'll do some stress tests on your powers since you haven't found some points we need to know, and then we'll be having a country-wide briefing from the Director.”

“So I am in?” Darya couldn't keep her voice from squeaking slightly in excitement. For her part, Reeves didn't seem to notice or care.

“Welcome to the team, Tiamat. Keep your phone close by.”

A cooling thunderstorm had rolled over during her interview, dropping the temperature swifter than she expected, so Darya was rather happy she had brought sweats. In a fit of high spirits, she decided to keep her costume on underneath them, and set off for downtown, aiming to hit up one of the eateries she rarely got a chance to go to. She was almost to Central Avenue, and fairly certain she wanted pizza of some sort, when she realised she hadn't brought any cash. Thankfully, her bank was only a block away, so she turned heel and made her way there.

The front of the bank was frosted glass, doors and windows both, facing out onto a small plaza with a massive fountain out front. This time of day, around five in the afternoon, not many people were here, but since the bank closed at six, a fact Darya was appreciative of just now, there was still a little business happening. As she walked in, she was suddenly aware of her need for a bathroom, so she looked around for the sign pointing the way. Two men were standing off to the side, discussing some sort of business, three people were in line at the teller's desk which was manned by a single put upon woman shorter than Darya, and a lone security guard sat at a desk. The guard gave her a longer-than-necessary glance, obviously suspicious of a girl in a rousari with a backpack, but she ignored his stare and located the bathroom, moving across the lobby with some haste.

A few minutes and some relief of her bladder later, Darya was washing her hands when she heard shouting from the lobby. She shut off the water quickly and listened, creeping silently towards the door. There were cries of terror and a few more shouts, and then everything sounded a little too quiet. Darya knew instinctively what was happening, and hoped she had enough time to do what she needed to before they figured out she was there.

Swiftly, she pulled her mask and gloves out and tugged them on, followed by her goggles. She turned on all three faucets in the bathroom, and with some distaste pulled the water out of the four toilets, both bowl and tank, adding to the growing puddle on the floor, because she was not sure about using the water ball form quite yet. She was pulling water from the pipes of the sinks forcefully, hoping they would hold up to the pressure, and moving it directly to the floor. When she had more than fifty gallons, she figured it was enough, but left the sinks flowing at less pressure to keep gathering, just in case. Thankfully, the robbers seemed to be too busy to have heard the bathroom overflowing, so she moved to the door, cracked it open just slightly, and peered out, careful to keep all of the water in with her and away from her feet so she didn't splash.

The bathroom was in a hallway coming off of the main hallway, so she had a view of most of the lobby from her position, though not of the desk or the doors. She could see two men pointing handguns towards the counter, and the shadow of someone else near the doors, highlighted by the afternoon sun. Okay, this is it, Darya. First solo mission. How do you disarm these guys with water? Her first thought was to simply cover them, but if they fired wildly in surprise, they might hit an innocent. She might be able to block the bullets. She vaguely remembered that water would do that, maybe a Mythbusters episode, but she didn't know how much it would take, and it would be a huge risk. And then she hit upon the idea of ice.

She had tried it before, and been surprised that with just a little extra concentration(which she had an odd amount of to spare, she had noticed, she could freeze quite a bit, and fairly quickly too if it was in smaller amounts. If she could somehow get enough onto the triggers of the weapons, she could block it up and stop them from firing. Getting into the barrels might be effective too, but far more dangerous, since she wasn't sure at all that wouldn't just send icy shrapnel into the civilians. The problem now was getting their guns to freeze before they shot her or the hostages.

Her thoughts were broken as the man near the windows shouted an alert. Apparently the police had arrived to either the silent alarm or some passerby noticing things through the glass front of the lobby and calling it in. Either way, they were here now. As the two men guarding the hostages moved to the front to see, Darya wasn't sure whether this new development was to her benefit or not. Adrenaline slammed through her system, causing her pulse to hammer in her ears and her breath to quicken. With them temporarily distracted, this was her chance.

She slid quietly around the corner, sparing a glance to the civilians and holding up a finger to her mouth through the mask, before looking at the three men at the front. Thank Allah, they haven't noticed. Water flowed along the ceiling of the hallways, gallons upon gallons of it, pouring up to the ceiling of the lobby fifteen feet above her. She moved quickly, along the wall and around the teller's desk, stopping when she heard voices.

A man was saying, “I know you've got a bunch of money around here somewhere, bitch. Tell us where it is if it isn't in the vault!”

“Sir,” a woman's voice said, quavering with fear. “I swear, we only keep enough money in the vault to cover a few days of activity. The rest is stored offsite. Look! We don't even have safe deposit boxes here, they're in Santa Fe!”

A thump and a cry made her wince. Someone had struck the manager. A second man's voice spoke up. “The cops are here, man, we gotta grab what we can and get the hell out.”

“Look around, maybe she's hiding another door or something.”

The last of her built up water now pooled along the ceiling. She was surprised to realise that she knew exactly how much she had up there, enough to fill the entire ceiling to a depth of two feet. It was essentially a wading pool that was currently spitting in gravity's face. The two guards had moved back to their positions and were yelling for the men in the vault. She had to move now, before she was discovered. The vault door was only a few paces from where she was, and when they cam out she would be in plain view.

Three streams of water shot down from her pool and slammed into the robber's gun hands as she rose up from behind the counter to see what she was doing. She used slightly more force than she expected, and all three dropped their guns in shock, yelling in surprise. One man's shouts were more of pain, and she realised she had broken his wrist. Quickly, the water still clinging to their hands froze over, and she directed yet more water at them, knocking them into the walls and freezing them to it. It didn't take much, since leverage was not easy to find when your limbs were stretched out. More water froze the dropped guns to the floor, encasing them enough to prevent their being picked up by anyone.

The two in the vault rushed out, one dragging a blonde woman in her forties with him by the hair. Both of them immediately noticed her, and one raised his gun at her while the other gave a vicious yank and hauled the manager around to face her. He was in the act of placing his gun to her head and making some sort of dire threat when both of them took the full force of two massive jets of water full to the face. She made the pressure as high as she dared, throwing them back into the vault with surprising force. Water kept pouring over them to keep them in place while she worked on freezing them down as well. When they were secured, she grinned under her mask I did it! Allah be praised, no one got hurt! The hostages poured out of the front door as she waved at the police to come in.

At first they were wary of her, but as she gently pushed the rest of her water out the door and held her hands up to show them she was otherwise unarmed and not a threat, they ignored her and moved over to the would-be robbers. Once they had guns at the ready and pointing, Darya let the ice go and melt off swiftly, allowing them to capture and cuff the suspects. A lieutenant walked up to her.

“I don't know who you are, ma'am, but you did good work. We might've been here all-” He stopped suddenly and shouted for a medic. Darya was confused, but looked down as she wavered on her feet, and as the adrenaline wore off she felt a stabbing pain in her upper arm. Looking down, she saw the blood and a hole through her costume, where one of the men in the vault must have gotten a shot of on her on reflex. She grinned at the lieutenant stupidly under her mask as he caught her and said, “Please leave the mask on. My family might be at risk, you know?” As soon as he nodded, she fainted.

Berenice had been busy fixing another fish skull to her lines when Charlie had come back to the cottage and told her to go away so she could do something. She hadn't wanted to, it was her nest after all, but Charlie had been nice to her and there lots of words she didn't understand, so she took off to go play in the wind.

This was one of her favourite day-to-day activities. The sea breezes along the cliff became quite strong a few hundred feet up, and she could hover and flip about and tumble much better than she could near the ground. The smell of the ocean and the clean air were wonderful, and she especially enjoyed feeling her feathers ruffle and move when the wind pushed against her. For a few minutes she just sat in place, buoyed by the breeze, staring out to sea and watching a pair of seals playing around a mile or so out to sea. Looking back, she saw some strange person hovering off near where Salamander was, but thought nothing of it. She twisted and spun to make a play dive at Charlie, which was when she saw her friend waving her down anyway, so she did so, landing on a section of the wall.

“Bought some time, we should get Salamander to set up some protections around the place so that imp can’t come back to spy on you.”

“If you need me I’ll be cleaning myself up outside.”

”Okay, Car-lee.” She hopped down into the main area and folded her wings up, waddling over near her nest and preparing to take a late afternoon nap, when she noticed the smell. Whatever it had been, it was awful. She reared up onto her talons, standing as tall as she could, and beat her wings, trying to fan out the stench. The wind this kicked up was far more powerful than she would have thought, and a loose chunk of wall stones came down, revealing something that made Berenice pause mid flap and nearly fall over.

Inside the wall, which was apparently hollow, there was a tiny person, staring at her in horror. No more than three or four inches high, they were dressed in normal people clothes, though they seemed to have been stitched together from scraps of cloth and leaves. In its...her hands, she held a tiny spear, made of a splinter of wood with a fishbone lashed to it. A folded up leaf seemed to be serving as a backpack of some sort. Both of them locked eyes on one another, and the tiny person seemed unable to move. Berenice, for her part, was torn between two instincts. On the one hand, she had a driving desire to catch and eat small things like this, but on the other, it was a tiny human-like creature, which she associated with kids and wanted to protect.

She hopped closer to it with her odd gait. The tiny girl didn't move, except to cower slightly. She hopped closer still, bringing her within grapsing range. This time the girl crouched low, seeming to develop a bit of spine, and brandished her spear. She said something, but Berenice couldn't hear her through the rushing of the breeze through the cottage ruins, so she moved closer still. Now within only a half foot from the tiny thing, she was rewarded with a fishbone spear thrown at her face. She blinked as it struck her nose off-kilter and bounced harmlessly to the ground. The tiny girl seemed horrorstruck by this turn of events and ducked behind a chunk of masonry that jutted up near where she stood, jabbering down into the wall in a rapid-fire language the siren did not understand.

Within the span of a few breaths, seven more miniscule people had appeared, brandishing a variety of weapons made from slivers of metal and bone. They seemed to range from teenaged to middle of their lives, all with black hair braided or pulled back, and all of them wore leaves and woven grass fibres as clothing. The largest of them, four and a half inches tall, strode forward to stand bravely in front of the rest, holding out a shard of glass with a woven grip that resembled a katana.

“Great bird woman, come no closer! Our tribe has done you no harm yet, but we will kill you if you force our hand!”

Berenice's sharp eyes noted a few smaller ones, perhaps their children, hiding just around the edge of the masonry, before one of the adult females dragged them out of her view. The tiny man noticed her eye movements and readied his blade.

Speaking very softly so as to not blow them over, Berenice asked, “How long have you lived in my nest?”

Since she did not seem to be threatening the children, the man relaxed, but did not sheathe his weapon. “Since the great thunder that birthed you. Your presence drives off many creatures who would eat us.”

”Why are you hiding, then?”

“We do not know you or your ways, and you are also a predator.” He gestured at her treasure lines, from which hung many bones among the other glittering things. “We do sometimes take from your scrap pile to fashion weapons and tools, but never from those.”

Berenice settled back on her talons, folding her wings over and staring at them. She didn't quite understand why these people were so small, but they were otherwise exactly like Charlie and the other humans she had met. And ever since she had first met the children, she knew that smaller humans needed protection. Why were these any different, other than being smaller and thus needing even more protection than the kids?

While she was mulling through this thought process, several of the other warriors were in whispered conversation with the brave man, who seemed to be some sort of leader. He nodded once, and then addressed her again. “Great bird woman, we must leave, now. You will not see us again.”

"What?” she squawked. ”Why do you have to go?”

“It is the way of our people. The giants find us and they want to catch us and study us, so we must flee now. This is the way it has always been.”

”I am not going to study you! Or eat you!”

“Your visitors may. We must go.”

”But...” Berenice was having a hard time articulating her thoughts. Thankfully, the little man paused. The warriors seemed to be ready to move, but they also stopped.

”Okay, so anywhere you go will be bad. Here is better, because the other animals don't come near my nest, so you are safe here, yes?” Her speech was rapid fire, almost like a sparrow chirp, but they seemed to be able to understand her fine.

“This is true.”

I will protect you from others, then, and you don't have to hide unless they come. I can bring you food, and you will not have to go.”

He glowered at her. “We can fend for ourselves. We always have.” The half dozen behind him nodded, though the first girl looked more thoughtful.

”But you could stay. It would be easier, yes? You have lived here long enough to have babies. They cannot be easy to move. And you've been here as long as I have, so this nest is as much yours as mine.”

The girl moved forward, and entered into fierce whispering conversation with the man. She was obviously braver than she had first appeared. Berenice waited patiently while they conversed, glancing around to make sure Charlie was not hearing what was happening. After a few moments, they seemed to finish. The man and his warriors moved off, leaving the girl alone to face the siren. She looked up into what must have been one of her worst nightmares, but seemed to hold her ground, even though she shook slightly.

“I am called Sunheart. We have decided to try this new thing, but if it's to work, we must do a few things first.”

Berenice smiled brightly, though seeing as how her teeth seemed to unnerve the girl, she quickly schooled her face. ”What do you need to do?”

“We must fix the wall here, though we should leave a window so we can speak. Before that however, to avoid violating the Laws, we must do something that has never been done before.” she took a deep breath. “We must make you one of us.”

”Am I going to become small?”

“No, no. But you must be one of the tribe, so that we can live with you without fleeing. You would be special, and be able to go out amongst the Big Folk, where we cannot. This has never been done, not in all the knowing of our tribe. My uncle, the one you spoke to, is informing the elders now. By moontime, we should know whether or not this action will be accpeted. If it is not, we will leave.”

”Oh. Okay.” Berenice thought for a moment. ”Why are you still here, then?”

The girl took another deep breath, and a barely perceptible gulp. “I must teach you what you must know before the ceremony, if it is to happen, and I must also become your companion, to know if you are worthy. If I deem you not to be, we also will leave.”

”How do you know if I am worthy or not?”

“I must judge by your words and deeds, to know if you are brave, and clever, and fast.”

”But how will you stay with me if you are so tiny and cannot fly?”

“Um.” The girl looked a bit dumbfounded. She had obviously not thought of this. “I don't suppose you would just...stay here?”

”I will get hungry.”

This thought clearly terrified the girl, but she steeled herself. “Then I must follow you anyway. However I can. It is my duty, and a great honour to be chosen to evaluate another. I will live up to it.” Her jaw jutted forward with pride.

Rather swiftly, however, the both of them were reduced to pacing back and forth, Berenice in the ruins and Sunheart on her little span of broken wall stones. It took several minutes before an idea came to the siren.

”Sunheart, what if you rode me like the fleas do?”

Sunheart stopped her pacing, and looked about to say something angry about being compared to fleas, but then stopped short and stared at Berry up and down, taking in her size and especially her feathers.

“It might work. I have ridden squirrels and grasshoppers before.”

Without so much as another word, Berenice hopped forward and extended her right wing so that the leading edge was within a step of the tiny girl. Hesitating for a moment, both due to her instincts screaming at her to run from an approaching predator and because of the thought of riding on a Big Folk, Sunheart swallowed hard. This would be probably the most terrifying experiences she had ever had. Then, glancing back at her home, she nodded to herself and leapt across the gap and onto the feathered surface.

Berenice waited patiently, not daring to move her appendage until Sunheart had scrambled across the slick surface of her flight feathers and made it onto her shoulder. It tickled very badly, especially as the girl moved down her side to find a spot near her waist, burying herself into the feathers and securing herself with a tiny woven rope. Berenice assisted her getting it all the way around the leg she was on, shifting to adjust as it went along the inside of the crook of her leg, and then waited again until Sunheart had tied herself down. They looked at each other at a very strange angle.

“Okay,” said the girl to the siren. “Let us begin.”

Best Hero: Voyager
Best Hero without Powers: Nicholas Church
Best Walking-the-Line: War-Pulse
Best Walking-the-Line without Powers: Legate
Best Villain: Mandate
Best Villain without Powers: The Cowl
Best NPC'd villain: Puck
Best New Character: FOUR WAY TIE(Because I am indecisive): Pantheon, Katarina, Terra Firma, and Gum

Best (most original) Origin: Berenice Katarina
Best Shipped Couple: Icon/Umbraxis
Most Interesting Use of Powers: Nemesis
Most Angry Character: Nicole MacNamara
Most Property Damage: War-Pulse
Best Team-up: Church and Cabbie
Most Unexpected Team-up ABSTAIN

Best Fight: War-Pulse/Evergreen
Best Post: Sooooo haaaaard. I guess the opening post of the HoH arc, since it set off so very many things.
Best Comedic Post: Ben's adventures with drugs (I thought his recovery was hilarious)
Best Story Arc: Witch Hunt
Most Fun Story Arc: The Game Genie thing
Best Story Arc with a Tear Jerking moment ABSTAIN

MVP: Two way split!
-For keeping the story going through sheer number of posts: Dedhead
-For being in so many collabs: Pixie Trix

Most Improved: Philanderer
Best Newbie: Crossword
New semester of college is not giving me a breather. If I'm this far behind, I may have to wait until a new timeskip to do much of anything with Rowan. That's likely the case, so I encourage you to not wait for me.

I would suggest just assuming Rowan is working the bar and only making small talk while she deals with the crowd. She's also far cuter and more awkward outside of the bar where she's not in her element.
Sorry, life happened suddenly. I'm working on it!
Rowan finally showing responsiveness to anything at all that isn't business or regulars. Unflappable my arse.

Also, I think I tagged everyone correctly this time around?
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