"Was this over before
Before it ever began?"
The conversation with Haven ended, and the two teens spent the remainder of their journey in silence. Weston left his hoodie down, enjoying the breeze tickling his short auburn hair. He did his best not to give the slim brunette next to him any further glances. Now that he realized how uncomfortable he had made her, Wes didn't want to repeat that mistake. Wes wasn't sure what he'd have done if Haven hadn't been as understanding.
Slipping his headphones back on, Wes thumbed the play button after lowering the volume to a whisper. He wasn't expecting any danger now that they were close to Aegis Center. The heavy instrumentals
swelled as he allowed his thoughts to turn toward what was about to become his new home.
Wes had heard of Alcatraz Island at some point. The name was familiar, and he was vaguely aware that it was once a prison. Anything more than that was a mystery to the young man. Despite its appearance, isolated and foreboding as it may be, Wes saw the complex built upon the island in a positive light. Four walls and a roof; reliable electricity and running water; a space to safely explore his abilities. Weston hadn't exaggerated when he told Haven it was like a castle.
His years without a home, spent in a community of those in similar situations, was not something he'd ever bemoan. On the contrary, Wes' time with the same community his grandfather had once dedicated his life to supporting had been very encouraging. While everyday life had been full of trials, and for most, just scraping by was a struggle, Wes had still been surrounded by those who cared for him. Who loved him. When they learned of his metahuman nature, they uplifted him instead of fearing him. They encouraged the young man to be his most authentic self. For that, Wes would always be eternally grateful.
However, this was a new chapter of his life, and the teenager was excited about all it offered. Weston had volunteered for the Juvenile Vigilante program to learn the skills necessary to use his abilities better. To better help those in need who couldn't support themselves. Though he had spent considerable time doing his own vigilante work, having been entirely self-trained, he was rough around the edges. Wes understood that. He also knew that there was much he didn't understand, like the full extent of his power. Aegis offered the chance to change that.
The fact that he'd be around others his age, to learn and grow with them, and to be able to socialize with another young adult for the first time since his grandfather had passed away, didn't hurt either. It was an incentive he had undoubtedly considered when contacting the program.
Weston's eyes briefly shifted to the girl beside him, her feathers ruffling slightly as the ferry chugged toward their destination. It was a nice incentive.
Once docked, Wes took the time to look over the rest of his fellows. He wasn't sure how, but he had entirely missed the hulking figure with stone-like skin. He looked like one of those marble statues shown in Wes' sophomore year Ancient History course. Weston wondered if the giant boy could feel anything through the hard exterior. Now that he paid mind, Weston could hear the subtle grinding of granite whenever the teenage behemoth moved his substantial frame and hoped that the grating caused no pain.
The girl in green, who looked comically short next to the granite giant, was just as energetic as she had been when he'd first laid eyes on her. Her eyes never seemed to stop darting from one figure or structure to the next. Weston realized that, like him, she might be new to this experience. Perhaps to her, too, the Aegis Center seemed like the start of a new, exciting chapter and not something to dread as so many others from the bus had appeared to do.
The one from the back of the bus was also there, with Aegis guard never too far behind. Wes found it interesting that they seemed more wary of the leaner boy with overly styled hair than the goliath, whose fists looked like they could shatter concrete. Not that he believed appearance equated to power, Wes, of all people, knew that wasn't true, but it did suggest there was a history there. Perhaps, unlike Weston, the boy had done something egregious to earn his place here. Regardless, Weston positioned himself to see the guard's hands and security belt while they waited for the second load of teenagers to arrive.
Then, there was the otter. Weston would have to apologize for writing them off as a pet one day. There was a clear intelligence present, and while Wes couldn't understand them, they were no doubt attempting to communicate. If he had thought his own experience had isolated him from socializing with others his age, Wes couldn't begin to imagine how isolating it must feel for them to be surrounded by people but utterly incapable of enjoying even the most straightforward conversations. A human being born an otter, while certainly a visual oddity, must also have presented many other issues for them growing up. Not the least of which was ignorant people such as himself dismissing them as an animal or novelty.
The rumbling of the ferry dismissed Wes from his reverie. The new arrivals had barely set foot off the boat before the guards began herding the collective group toward a set of gates. Urged into two lines, the Aegis personnel went to each teenager. Wes watched from his position toward the end of one line as the metahumans were stripped of their material items. Bags were removed and checked, and personal effects were confiscated. The red-haired girl had her fancy earphones and the device they came with taken.
Weston considered the items he'd brought. A plastic grocery bag tucked into his hoodie pocket that was stuffed with a couple of changes of underwear and socks; a single deodorant stick, toothbrush, and half-used tube of toothpaste; his MP3 player and headphones.
Wes turned off the device and removed the headphones as his time came. He carefully rolled up the cord to not further cause the exposed wire to poke through. Stepping up to the guard doing the inspections, he willingly handed the headphones over, then removed the rolled-up plastic bag from his hoodie and offered that as well. However, Weston held a firm grip when the man reached for the MP3 player. The older man nearly stumbled forward as he tugged on the gadget, while Wes didn't so much as wobble."I get this back, right?"
He asked softly.
"What?" The guard grunted. "Kid, just let it go.""You'll give it back to me soon. Won't you?"
The man tugged again. Harder. He planted his foot firmly behind him and leaned his body weight away while maintaining his grasp on the tiny MP3 player. "Yes. Just... let... go!"
Wes released his hold, and the guard tumbled nearly head over keister, landing roughly on the concrete. "Okay,"
he said. "Just take good care of it, please."
Weston stepped past the guard to join the Ju-V members waiting for their final numbers to clear the security checkpoint. The group was escorted through the outer facility once the last of the teens had gathered together. The area they were led to, marked as the Recreation Wing's sports court, was much larger than the gymnasium at his former high school. It was expansive and seemed to be well-funded.
Approaching the nearly twenty youths, an older gentleman announced himself as the facility's director. Virgil Rowell had at least four decades on the oldest of the group and stood with the most precise posture Weston had ever witnessed. He wasn't sure if it were possible to be more upright.
Weston stood far off to one side of the gathered teens, only half-listening to the man's greeting speech. The young man's attention was more captivated by the immaculate facility they stood within. He imagined himself spending a good deal of time within the Recreation Wing. Maybe the one with stone skin would be willing to spar with Weston one day. He'd never been able to test his body's limits against another metahuman before, and Wes was curious just how capable he truly was.
Just then, a startled cry pulled Weston's attention to the rear of the crowd. A haggard man, caught between youth and middle age, gaunt and covered with tattoos and scars, held a blade vaguely pointed toward Haven. It clicked for Wes later than it should: it wasn't a blade he brandished but one of Haven's feathers. A feather that had just been ripped from her wing.
Weston stepped forward, about to sprint at the assailant in world record-shattering time, but another had already moved to strike. Haven was quick. She pulled back her fist with a swiftness that impressed him, and Wes had no doubt a punch from her would be enough to knock down her scrawny attacker. She hesitated, though, and, in that moment, several security guards pounced. Well-placed stun guns brought the aggressor writhing to the ground.
Wes watched as the guards spun toward Haven, who hurriedly brought her arms up placatingly. Thankfully, they lowered their tasers, choosing to focus on the actual perpetrator. Haven stepped forward, recollecting her poached feather, then towered over the frail boy as he was subdued on the ground. She looked over him momentarily, then, without a word, she brought her palm down against the back of his head. Weston thought it less than he deserved.
Turning on her heel, Haven marched back toward the group. Weston noted her face was firm as she moved past him, and something burned behind her eyes. He opened his mouth to ask if she was alright, but just as he did, the tension between Aegis personnel and Ju-V inductees that had persisted since stepping foot on the bus broke spectacularly.
"She's vanishing!" A voice called out.
Spinning in that direction, Wes caught the last fleeting image of the green-clothed girl as she faded into nothingness. The guards had also seen as much and unclipped the canisters of pepper spray from their belts. This time, Weston was already moving when the chemicals were unloaded toward where the disappearing girl had once stood. Wes was nearly fifty feet from the girl's spot when he began moving. He covered more than two-thirds of that distance in just over one and a half seconds. Weston could feel the burning of the pepper spray as the chemicals entered his lungs, realizing too late that he'd not thought to hold his breath. His eyes were already watering. Wes tried to lock his gaze on the offending canister through his blurry vision. In just another second, he'd be on the guard and able to restrain the man before more harm could be done.
Director Rowell had other thoughts on the matter. "Hold!"
The order rumbled throughout the space like the roar of thunder. Weston planted his foot solidly in front of him and kicked off, pushing himself back and to the side before skittering to a stop. He didn't turn towards the director, who continued to give orders, instead keeping his eyes, now puffy and red, on the overzealous guard responsible.
The onslaught of chemicals had ceased, but the still-invisible girl was hacking and wheezing somewhere between Weston and the guard. The boy couldn't hold back his coughing for long, either, eventually forced to break eye contact as he gave in to the relentless fire growing within his throat.
When he decided to come to San Francisco to enroll in this Ju-V program, Weston had thought he'd pause his vigilante activities while he learned, studied, and trained. The countless nights in Philadelphia spent on alert, continually monitoring for threats to his city and community, would be in his past, at least momentarily. It dawned on the young man now, after witnessing two attacks on innocents from both within the program's attendees and without, that that would not be the case.
This place was a powder keg ready to blow, and Weston would need to be as vigilant as ever to keep it contained.