One More Trigger
Part Two: What Came Before
Sophia Hess slipped in through the upstairs window to her bedroom and stood before the mirror to admire herself for a moment. She liked the costume; it was what separated the weak from the strong, the quick from the dead, the predator from the prey.
But she'd screwed up tonight, she knew. For all that she'd found Emma, someone who wouldn't slow her down, someone to be badass with, somehow it had all gone wrong. She frowned. Emma was the same as her; she could feel it. They would work so well together, if only she could make Emma see that a partnership like theirs was the only way things could be. I'll show her, she vowed. She's seriously kickass already; she just needs me to show her the ropes, show her how satisfying it is to be strong in a world of weaklings.
But her father got my picture, she mused. When Emma and I get to be known and feared, he might use it. And I can't hurt him; she might not understand. She grimaced as she took the costume off and folded it away carefully. Well, shit. It looks like I'm gonna have to be a good girl for a while. Brockton Bay Wards, here I come. She grinned in the semi-darkness. He can't out me then; that's against the law. Her grin became sharp-edged. About time it worked in my favour.
Emma looked around at the school hallway. So this is Winslow High,she mused. I have to be here. Taylor doesn't. Taylor could have gone on to Arcadia; she was smart. But Emma knew that she had chosen to attend Winslow, to be in the same school as her friend. Emma smiled to herself. Now that's friendship.
Besides, her world had taken a sharp turn into the Twilight Zone just one month ago, and nothing would ever be the same again. Somehow, the whole 'pretty and popular' scene just seemed so ... shallow to her, now.
She didn't want vacuous girls and adoring boys crowding around her, telling her how great she was. Well, maybe one or two adoring boys ... She grinned to herself as she spotted a couple likely candidates in the crowd.
And of course, I don't think I could make it through without my real friends. She glanced sideways to where Taylor stood watching the crowd. "Well, Tails," she said cheerfully, "Winslow High. Our seat of education until we graduate. What do you think?"
Taylor grinned, her eyes happy and almost childlike behind the large round lenses of her glasses. "Well, I'm looking forward to it," she declared.
A hand slapped on to Emma's shoulder, and she spun around to see Sophia standing there, grinning at her.
"What the hell are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Good to see you too, Emma," said Sophia, without a hint of sarcasm. "I'm enrolled, just like you." She leaned close and whispered, "I'm in the Wards now. Sure you don't want to come out kicking ass with me?"
Emma shook her head. "No. Seriously, no. Go away, Sophia. Just ... go away."
Sophia put her hands up, surrender-style. "Going, going." Her teeth flashed white. "But I'm gonna be around a lot. You'll see. It'll be fun."
Taylor's eyes were troubled as she watched Sophia walk away, her entire posture an expression of arrogance and self-confidence. "What's she want with you, Emma?" She stared at her friend for a moment. "She isn't, you know, trying to …"
Emma shook her head, a chuckle escaping her lips. "No, she's not that way inclined." She took a deep breath. "No, there's something else she wants. Something I can't really talk about right now." Especially not right now, she realised. If she's telling the truth about being a Ward, then just telling Taylor who she really is would be breaking the law. She paused, a thought striking her. I'd better tell Dad to be careful with that picture.
"Is this anything I can help you with?" asked Taylor.
Emma looked at her fondly. She knew Taylor would do just that – help her with anything she wanted or needed, because she was that sort of friend.
However … she shook her head. "No," she said, hating herself for the flash of hurt in Taylor's eyes. "Sorry, Tails. This is something I'm going to have to work through on my own."
"But we're still … you know … friends, right?" said Taylor hopefully. She tended to be a bit of a loner; the geek girl who sat alone and read books. Emma figured herself to be Taylor's only real friend.
She laughed and hugged Taylor. "Of course we're still friends, you big dope," she chuckled, mussing Taylor's hair. "There's no force on Earth strong enough to change that."
Taylor grinned and hugged her back. "It's just that that girl …"
"Sophia," supplied Emma absently.
"Yeah, Sophia … it's just that the way she looked at me … she worries me."
"Me too," said Emma. She looked around, her arm around Taylor's shoulders. "But hey," she said. "Let's not get too frazzled yet. It's the first day of school. We've got plenty of other things to worry about."
"Seriously," said Emma. "Leave Taylor alone."
Sophia leaned casually against the wall. "I still don't get what you see in that loser," she said. "Look at her, she's all knees and elbows. Seriously, you don't need her. What does she do for you?"
Emma sighed. This was the part that she was starting to regret. She'd made the conscious choice to not be part of the 'in' crowd, and so she was now on the outs with most of the people she'd associated with, before. She had her circle of friends, but nor were they themselves very popular, and so when peer opinion turned against one of them, they generally found themselves very much alone.
Taylor was even lower on the social strata than Emma; however, Emma was known to be pretty and rich, even if she didn't make a big deal of it, and so most people left Taylor alone, as her friend.
Not so Sophia, and her little band of mean-spirited like-minded cronies.
Sophia was a rising star at Winslow. She had serious athletic capability, and she regularly placed in the track meets. This, and her attractive looks and aggressive personality, had gotten her a place in the 'in' crowd, which she had leveraged ruthlessly.
This part didn't bother Emma overmuch. She found it a positive rest cure to not have to worry about the day-to-day of whether she was still the most popular girl in school or not; a quiet hour spent with Taylor, discussing TV shows or reading old comic books was far more her speed these days.
The part that bothered her was that Sophia and her group had apparently decided that Taylor was persona non grata, and had begun harassing her on a regular occasion. She was pushed, shoved, tripped, and her bag had been stolen on occasion. Emma stood up for her, going so far as to physically interpose herself in front of Taylor. Sophia always called that sort of thing off before any teachers could see, and Emma herself was never touched. And quite often, Emma had been able to get Taylor's stuff back with little harm done.
Emma had tried complaining a couple of times, but the other girls always backed Sophia up, and in fact it wasn't always Sophia, and there were never any witnesses who were willing to talk.
She herself was not as diplomatic or persuasive as she had before the incident with the ABB; she ascribed this to the sudden realignment of her worldview. And so, when she pressed the case, she somehow found herself to be at fault, and being asked if she would prefer to be suspended for a time, until she cooled down.
Eventually, she would figure it out; the school, mindful of Sophia's status as a Ward, and as their very own track star, was willing to bend over backward to keep her in the curriculum and not going off to another school.
For herself, she didn't want to draw too much attention; as a parahuman herself, albeit with secret powers, she wanted to fly under the radar as much as possible. And that was the other problem; once that cat was out of the bag, it would never be stuffed back in. And there was always the possibility that Sophia would let it slip one fine day, and her life would be overturned. Again.
"I don't need to defend my choice of friends to you," she snapped. "Anyway, it's not about her. It's about you. Just leave her alone, okay?"
Sophia just rolled her eyes and stood up from the wall. "Someday you'll see the light, Emma. Someday you'll see I was right all along."
She strolled off, whistling off-key.
Emma watched her go. I could make her stop, she thought. But that … that could go very bad, very quickly.
Surely she'll see reason sooner or later. Before someone gets hurt.
"Emma?" said Taylor, looking into her locker. "Have you seen my flute?"
Emma looked around. "No. Did you bring it to school today?"
Taylor nodded. "I've been practising scales on it, and I wanted to show the music teacher. I'm sure I left it in my locker, and now I can't find it."
Emma frowned. She recalled the flute. It was a beautiful instrument; not intrinsically valuable, but Taylor had had it from her mother, who could coax music out of it that left Emma in tears afterward. Taylor wasn't that good with it yet, but she enjoyed working at it.
She got down on her hands and knees, looking around to see if it had been kicked under anything. "Can't see it," she said at last.
Taylor had been going through each shelf on her locker, lifting everything out, then putting it back. She even looked among the gym shoes on the floor of the locker, and ran her hand over the top, in case she had absent-mindedly put it up there. "It's not here," she said despairingly. "I've lost it. My mother's flute. It's gone."
The desolation in her voice hit Emma hard, and she enfolded Taylor in a hug. "I'm sure it will turn up," she said, trying to be comforting. "I'll keep an eye out for it. Maybe we can put up notices."
Taylor sniffled. "Thanks, but … there's not much hope, is there?"
Emma smiled, more confidently than she felt. "There's always hope," she assured Taylor.
And I think I know who did it.
The girls turned around at Emma's voice.
"Emma," said Sophia. "Come to say hi?"
"Taylor's flute," said Emma flatly. "Give it back, and I won't say anything more about it."
"Flute?" asked Sophia archly. "Do I look like I'd have anything to do with a flute?" The girls around her laughed.
"You took it from Taylor's locker," said Emma. "I want it back." She took a step forward.
The girls around Sophia went, "Oooo," in a mocking tone of voice. One even went so far as to say, "Ooh, she's so tough."
But Sophia straightened up from her relaxed posture, her eyes just the faintest bit wary. "Not that I'm saying I took it," she said carelessly, "but I did happen to see something that might have looked a little bit like a flute …" Her voice trailed off.
"Where is it?" snapped Emma. Something went pop, very quietly, between the tips of two strands of her hair. The girls didn't notice. Sophia did, and her eyes widened very slightly.
"Well, you did say something about nothing more said about it, right?" she said, trying for a casual tone.
"Yes, sure, whatever," Emma ground out. "Now spill."
"The big trash dumpster. Down the back, near the incinerator. Someone looking for a flute might find it there."
But Emma was already gone.
One of the girls looked at Sophia and pouted. "Aww," she said. "I wanted to see you make her beg for it."
Sophia gave her a flat look. "Sometimes, Marcy," she said, "you need to learn how to shut the fuck up."
Emma pulled back the lid to the dumpster, and gagged. The flute was on top of the pile of trash. But it was … what they'd done to it was …
She turned aside and dry-retched for a moment, before searching around for a plastic bag. I need to wrap it in something watertight and airtight, she told herself. Maybe two or three bags.
She never even once considered leaving it where it lay.
"Oh my god!" exclaimed Taylor. "My flute! You found it!"
She clutched the instrument tightly, and Emma scarcely less tightly.
Emma smiled. "You left it in the music room, you ditz," she said with a grin. "Someone else took it home by accident. I asked around, and finally got ahold of it yesterday."
The reality was slightly different. She had finally used her powers, picking it up with a tendril of hair that she faithfully promised she would cut off and burn once she was done. Finding a faucet, she had washed it off as best she could, then took it home and cleaned it more thoroughly. A music store she knew of had a repair shop out back; they had tut-tutted at the damage, but had done a bang-up job of fixing it like new.
It had cost her more than a little bit, but for Taylor, it was worth it. For the look on Taylor's face, it was definitely worth it.
"I'm sure I left it in my locker," said Taylor doubtfully.
Emma rolled her eyes. "And yet, it wasn't there," she pointed out. She hated lying to Taylor more than anything, but she didn't want Taylor confronting Sophia's gang directly. Without Emma there to intervene, Taylor might get hurt. And she knew that Sophia would hurt her.
"Uhh," said Taylor, with the mercurial change of subject that was one of the things that Emma loved about her, "what's with your hair? Looks like there's a little bit missing."
Emma grinned ruefully. "Accident with the scissors," she said. "You're not the only ditz."
"We need to take this to the Protectorate, to the PRT," said Alan Barnes. "If half of what you're saying is true, then the school's at least guilty of criminal negligence."
"No," said Emma, very reluctantly. "Dad, Sophia's careful. She has lookouts, and any time a teacher, or someone who's not part of their little in-group, or not scared of them, comes near, they're all innocent and nice."
She shook her head. "And if we push it, and let them know, sure as hell Sophia will out me. Even though I've never gone out and so much as saved a cat from a tree. And she'll spread it just as far and wide as she can manage, just to make my life hell."
He looked concerned. "Maybe you should apply to the Wards?"
"Hell, no," she said. "Sophia's a part of that already. That'll just make her think I'm subscribing to her twisted little world-view, and she'll creep on to me more than ever." She closed her eyes, then opened them. "I'm just going to have to stick it out, protect Taylor, and maybe next year we can go to a different school."
"Actually, I've had ideas for that," Alan said. "Protecting Taylor, I mean. I can sign you up for self-defense classes. They probably wouldn't help Taylor much, but you've got muscle tone you can put to good use. If you're willing?"
She nodded. "That'll be a great help, actually, Dad. But seriously, don't worry. I've got it under control."
He frowned, eyes troubled. "If you say so, Emma."
She nodded. "I do say so, Dad." She shrugged. "She hasn't done anything actually actionable yet," she added. "Just a lot of petty stuff, that they can pass off as school rough-housing. Most of which I've managed to intercept. So Taylor's not doing too badly." She grinned at him. "I've invited her over for a pizza and movie night, Saturday. Is that okay?"
"Sure," he said. "I'll call up Danny, ask him over too. Been a while since we caught up."
She grinned and hugged him. "It's all gonna be okay. You'll see."
He hugged her back. "I hope you're right, honey. I hope you're right."
End of Part Two