Shadow Stalker – Advent of a Hero

Part Two

"I still think you should join the Wards," argued Taylor as they headed down the street. "What happened the other day, they could have had backup to you in minutes." She stopped and hugged her friend. "I really hate to think of what could have happened to you if we hadn't been able to get to you."

Sophia accepted the hug; she rather enjoyed it, in fact, although the crutches did sort of get in the way. "Oh," she said, "I would have gone shadow if they'd gotten too close."

"So how long can you maintain your shadow form, if they chose to hang around and wait you out?" asked Taylor, as they started off again.

Sophia paused. "I'm … not sure. Never had to hold it more than a few seconds."

Taylor nodded. "Uh huh. And thus, my point is made."

"Okay, fine, I was in trouble and I know it," acceded Sophia. "That's why I called you. But I still think you need to have a costume, or at least a mask. So the next time you come to help me out, you're not Flannel Pyjamas Girl."

Taylor giggled. "The look on that guy's face when I tied the bar in a knot," she said.

"Hey, I was pretty damn impressed too," pointed out Sophia. "How high can you go, anyway?"

"What, jumping?" asked Taylor.

Sophia shook her head. "In amps."

Taylor paused. "Um … not sure? Never pushed it as hard as it would go. I just take what I need."

Sophia stared. "So … you can do more than catch bullets?"

Taylor shrugged. "Um, I guess?" She rubbed her forehead. "But seriously. If I miscalculate the level of amp I need, I could end up killing some jerk by sheer accident. And if I underestimate, I could end up dying."

Sophia sighed. "Taylor, you have what every military dreams of getting – dial-a-yield damage. With just a little research, you can adjust your amps to whatever enemy you're fighting."

"Well, that's the other thing," said Taylor. "I actually suck at fighting. I nearly got killed, remember? People don't duck my punches because they think I'm gonna hit like a girl. But once I hit the scene as the girl who can throw telephone poles like javelins –"

"Which would be awesome to see," put in Sophia. "Just saying."

"Until the first time I miss and take out a 747," retorted Taylor. "But after that, people would go, whoops, she can actually do damage, and dodge my wild and ineffectual swings."

"So get training," said Sophia.

"Where from?" asked Taylor. "And another thing. I'm no expert at the whole self-defense thing, but it seems to me that someone of my normal height and strength and weight would need an entirely different fighting style to when I'm amped up enough to lift a truck."

Sophia paused. "I see your point, but I don't see where you're going with this."

"Who do I go to," said Taylor patiently, "to get trained in how to use that strength and inertia effectively? There's not many places that train parahumans."

"Except, you know, the Wards," pointed out Sophia.

"Which you refuse to join," Taylor riposted.

"I will if you will," Sophia shot back.

Taylor paused. "Wait, what?"

"If you join the Wards, so will I," said Sophia slowly.

She had to stop and think about that. Wow, would I?

Yes, I would. If it meant Taylor would be there.

"But you hate the idea of giving up your independence, having to follow rules and regulations," Taylor protested. "You told me that. In detail. I still have the printed booklet you gave me."

Sophia burst out laughing. "I didn't give you any printed booklet."

"You may as well have," grinned Taylor. "You were emphatic enough."

Sophia rolled her eyes. Taylor could be so silly. It was one of the reasons she liked her so much.

"Well, if you won't come out and be my backup," Sophia said, "I'd be happy to be in the Wards if you were there too."

Taylor gave her a long look. "So you still …"

Sophia nodded. "Yeah. Not something I can turn off." She shrugged. "Not something I really want to turn off. It's new. Never felt this way before. I just wish …"

Taylor shook her head. "Sorry. I like you … a lot. A whole lot. But I don't feel comfortable about it, just yet. I still need to think about it." She gave Sophia a beseeching look. "Give me more time?"

Sophia smiled, squeezed her hand. "All the time in the world." She looked around. "So where's this Emma person live?"

Taylor pointed. "That house just over there. The big one."

"Huh," said Sophia. "Big, all right. Rich family?"

Taylor grinned. "Her dad's a divorce attorney."

Sophia rolled her eyes again. "Say no more."

Emma opened the door to Taylor's knock. "Taylor!" she shouted, and grabbed her friend in a bear-hug. Taylor instinctively amped up so that she would not be knocked over, but not so much that she would turn into a stone statue.

"Hey, Ems," she greeted the redhead, dropping the amps again. "Good to see you too. Wow, you're tanned."

"You should see my tan lines," grinned Emma. "I got this really tiny bikini – who's this?"

She had noticed Sophia for the first time as the dark-skinned girl made her slow progress up the steps.

"Oh, sorry," said Taylor. "Emma, this is Sophia. Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess."

"Hey," said Sophia, reaching the top of the steps. She constructed a smile for Emma. But all she could think was, She's so damn pretty.

And it was true. Emma had a radiant beauty about her.

Deep within, a primal part of Sophia's subconscious scented rival, and went on the alert. She gave Emma a hard stare. She seemed awfully huggy there.

Emma blinked. Sophia seemed to be a little hostile toward her. But I've barely even met her.

"Is it okay if we come in and sit down?" asked Taylor. "It was farther than I remembered from the bus stop, and Sophia's leg still isn't mended."

"Uh, sure," said Emma. "Come in, come in."

They sat on comfortable armchairs in the living room. Sophia stretched her injured leg out and sighed; it had been really starting to twinge. This armchair was very comfortable. She began to wonder if she'd ever be able to get out of it.

"So, I see you've been making new friends while I've been away," observed Emma cheerfully, bearing in a tray of drinks.

"Something like that," agreed Taylor with a grin. She handed Sophia a drink. "I got in a little bit of trouble, and Sophia was there to help out."

Emma nodded approvingly toward Sophia. "Well, thanks for that. I'd hate for something to happen to Taylor while I wasn't around to keep an eye on her." She nodded to the crutches. "What happened to your leg? Did you get hurt helping Taylor?"

Sophia sipped at her drink. It was some sort of fruit concoction; icy cold, and very nice. "Ah, no," she said. "That happened later. That was when I got in trouble, and Taylor helped me out."

Emma giggled. "Wow, this sounds like the plot of a bad cape sitcom. Mysterious injuries, people making obscure references ..." She leaned forward and grinned at her best friend. "Taylor, you haven't gotten powers, put on a costume and started prowling the streets beating people up, have you?"

The awkward silence that followed Emma's joke stretched a moment too long, before Taylor burst out laughing. "No, Ems," she said with a grin. "I can promise you that I haven't put on a costume and started going out to beat people up."

Emma looked at her and Sophia. There was a vibe there, an understanding between the two of them. She would suspect some sort of intimate thing, but Taylor wasn't showing the signs of that at all, and she didn't know Sophia enough to tell with her.

But there was something. After her mother's death, Taylor had been withdrawn, pulled in on herself. But now ... she was more open, happier, more free with her gestures and her laughter. More confident.

Emma had wondered if her friend would ever come back to her. It appeared that she had.

"Well, I'm glad you're both okay," she said. "Sophia, thanks for helping Taylor out. I really appreciate it."

Sophia ducked her head and blushed. She hadn't helped Taylor out, not really. And if Taylor hadn't triggered, if her power hadn't manifested, she would have been horribly injured or dead now, with a knife-slash across her stomach. She was fully aware that her inaction had nearly killed Taylor, and that her actions had not saved her.

And yet Taylor was giving her the credit, and Emma was praising her for it.

She liked the praise, a lot. She just didn't like the feeling that she'd cheated to get it.

She recalled the family group in the alley, two weeks ago. The Merchants had never seen her coming. She had taken down two before the third had a chance to react. He had turned and run. She'd considered shooting him, but a niggling feeling that Taylor wouldn't shoot someone in the back had stayed her hand.

But afterward ...

The mother had hugged her, and the boy had looked at her with hero-worship in his eyes. She wasn't used to that. It made her feel different. Strange.

I've always been focused on hurting the criminals, not helping people in need.

It was a strange thought. She wasn't used to questioning her own preconceptions; to be fair, few people are. But with Taylor's gentler nature as an example, she was starting to wonder if there wasn't something she might be missing.

It was something she'd have to think about.

"Thanks," she said out loud. "It wasn't really anything." She took a deep breath, tried to change the subject. "So, you've known Taylor since first grade?"

Emma nodded. "Oh yeah. Dad and Mr Hebert always used to say that Taylor's like another sister to me, and I was like another daughter to him." She grinned at Taylor. "Not that we didn't get in trouble. Remember the time, with the cat ...?"

Taylor fell back in the chair and burst out laughing. "Oh god, that was ... oh god, we got in so much trouble for that."

"Well, come on," said Sophia. "Give with the details. I want to hear this."

So, in between bursts of laughter, they told her the story. And then Emma told them about her holiday, and the oh-so-handsome pool boy called Jaime, and his amazing abdominal muscles.

"And then Dad comes right up behind him, and says ..." giggled Emma.

"If you value your employment, you will walk away from my daughter right now," broke in a new voice, from right behind Emma's chair.

Emma squeaked and jumped, and looked around, occasioning more laughter from the other two, who of course had seen the speaker coming. Alan Barnes stood there, heavy-set and red-haired, although his flaming thatch was starting to thin and grey slightly.

"Aw Dad, I was going to make it funnier than that," she protested.

He cleared his throat. "I would have made it more subtle, but I wanted him to be certain of my meaning." Stepping forward, he smiled at Taylor. "It's good to see you, Taylor. How's your dad?"

"He's fine, Mr Barnes," said Taylor happily. "It's good to see you again. Oh, and this is Sophia Hess. She'll be attending Winslow with me and Emma this year."

Alan leaned forward and extended his hand. Sophia shook it. "I'm pleased to meet you, Sophia," he said. "Any friend of Taylor's is a friend of mine."

"Thank you, Mr Barnes," she replied. "You have a nice house."

He preened a little, as will any family man when praised for his ability to provide. "Thanks. I suppose business has been good."

She noticed, with inner amusement, that he did not actually tell her what his business was.

"Well," he added, "I hate to leave you like this, but I have to run. Take care, you three. And it was nice meeting you, Sophia."

And then he was gone, and Emma turned to Sophia. "So you'll be attending Winslow with us this year, huh?"

"That's right," confirmed Sophia. "I've been in Arcadia up until now on an athletics scholarship, but the money kind of ran out, so I have to change schools. At least at Winslow, I'll have you two to keep me company."

"Athletics, huh?" asked Taylor. "You never told me you did athletics."

Emma leaned forward and eyed her. "Swimming?" she hazarded.

"Nope," grinned Sophia. She turned to Taylor. "Go on, you guess."

"Track and field," said Taylor promptly, and giggled at the look of disgust on Sophia's face.

"How did you guess?" asked the dark-skinned girl.

"I've seen the way you move, before you hurt your leg," Taylor grinned. "And I have never seen anyone quite so irritated at being on crutches as you can get."

Taylor and Sophia left a little while after that, amid mutual promises to get back together again, really soon. "I'll be over Saturday, okay?" Taylor called as she left, to an answering wave from Emma.

"Saturday?" asked Sophia, as she and Taylor headed back toward the bus stop.

"Oh, it's a thing we have," Taylor told her cheerfully. "We sleep over at each others' places most nights.". She giggled. "Paint each others' toenails, talk about our cape crushes, stuff like that."

Sophia looked very thoughtful. "Do you think Emma would mind if I came along as well?". The last time she had seen Taylor in her flannel pyjamas, Sophia had been in too much pain to really appreciate how adorably cute she was, but if she had a second chance, she intended to fully appreciate the view.

Taylor frowned. "I thought you patrolled most nights."

Sophia waved a crutch. "Until this leg comes good, I won't be patrolling anywhere."

Taylor shrugged and grinned. "Ah yeah, duh. Sure, okay. I can't see her saying no, but I'll check to make sure."

Sophia smiled. "Thanks."

Taylor helped Sophia on to her bus, then stood waving on the sidewalk as it drove off.

Sophia waved back, then leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. She had a lot to think about.

Ever since she had gotten her powers, she had been fixated on the idea that she had to earn them, by being the biggest, baddest tiger in the jungle. If tigers lived in the jungle. She wasn't sure about that bit. But anyway, it was all about predator and prey. She had shown defiance, she had gotten her powers. She had earned her reprieve from being prey.

I will never be prey again. I will fight, or I will die.

But with Taylor ... she had fought, and she had nearly still died. Only her newly-gained powers had saved her. And when Sophia expected her to embrace the fight-or-die ethos, Taylor had rejected it, very forcefully and with logic to back up her views. In fact, the scar that she had taken in proving her point would remain with her for the rest of her days.

Normally, Sophia would have defended her point of view with more dedication; after all, if she was wrong in Taylor's case, then she had been wrong before. And she really did not want to face that conclusion.

But there was something about Taylor Anne Hebert that derailed Sophia's most carefully planned arguments, even before she was well into them. Taylor had not wanted to fight, not against opponents in superior numbers, armed with better weapons. She had only lashed out in sheer desperation, and had she not manifested powers right at that moment, she would have been killed or worse.

Normally, Sophia would have dismissed the unwillingness to fight under such circumstances as weakness or cowardice. But her newfound insights into herself and her motivations did not allow her such an easy refuge for her ego, not any more.

She was willing to dive into such situations, not because she was braver or stronger or more fit to live, but because her powerset gave her a huge advantage over most opponents in a melee situation. Basically, she cheated. Which led to a very troubling question.

Was it really her right to decide the fitness of others if she only won her fights by cheating?

Before I met Taylor, I would not have been asking myself these questions.

Before I met Taylor, I would not have even considered asking myself these questions.

What does this say about the type of person I am?

No matter how she worded that question, she didn't like the answer.

"Barnes household, Emma speaking."

"Hey, Ems."

"Oh hey, Taylor. What's up?"

"Just wanted to ask you about something. You know the sleepover on Saturday?"

"Yeah," replied Emma. "What about it?"

"Would it be okay if Sophia came over as well?"

Emma hesitated. "Uh, Taylor, are you sure that's such a great idea? I don't think she likes me very much."

Taylor chuckled over the phone. "Oh, she's just a bit prickly, is all. She's really nice once you get to know her."

"Well," said Emma dubiously, "I guess. But only because you say it'll be okay."

"Sure,"Taylor promised her. "She'll be good."

"Actually, while I've got you on the line," said Emma, "can I ask you something?"

"Go ahead," Taylor invited.

Emma hesitated for a moment. This was Taylor, her oldest friend. She didn't want to sound like she was prying, or worst, disapproving.

"Um … you and Sophia … is there something going on between the two of you?" she asked at last.

Taylor paused. "What do you mean, going on?"

Emma tried to keep her voice level and calm and not get flustered. "It's just that while you were here, I kept getting this vibe between you, like there was something you knew, a really big secret, that I didn't know." She paused. "Are you and Sophia ... seeing each other?"

"What, like in a relationship?" laughed Taylor, the mirth unforced enough for Emma to believe it was genuine. "No, we're not." She paused. "Okay, I didn't tell you this, all right?"

"Okay," said Emma immediately.

"Sophia has ... a kind of crush on me. A big one. A huge one. And I kind of like her. But I'm still getting my head around this whole idea of being in a relationship. I mean, the closest I've ever been to being in a relationship is being friends with you."

"Oh," said Emma, flattered that Taylor was confiding this to her, and dazed by the implications. "Wow. So ... it's like, she's asked you to be her girlfriend, and you haven't said yes yet?"

A long pause. "I haven't said no yet either," Taylor said quietly. "I just want to make sure it's what I want. Because I don't want to hurt her."

"Oh wow, oh wow," said Emma, her head spinning just a little. This made her tale of the flirtation with Jaime of the amazing abdominals seem very small potatoes indeed. "So have you two ... done anything yet?"

Taylor chuckled. "Not really. We've been to eat a few times. And she's eaten at my place once. And she kissed me once. That's when I found out how she felt about me."

"A bit of a shock, huh?" chuckled Emma in her turn.

"Just a bit, yeah," agreed Taylor. "But it explained why she was so anxious to be my friend, and not to upset me or anything."

Emma paused for a moment. "So ... what was it like, kissing a girl?" she asked archly.

Taylor also paused. "It was ... nice. I can't compare it to kissing boys, because you know I've never had a boyfriend. But yeah ... after she kissed me, I could have said no right away, and I didn't."

Emma chuckled. "Well, that certainly explains the thing I felt between you two. And why she was a bit rude to me."

"Oh?" said Taylor. "Why?"

Emma laughed. "She thought I might be interested in you too, and didn't want me butting in between you and her."

"Oh my god," said Taylor. "Oh my god. She totally must have thought that, the way we grabbed each other." She started laughing helplessly. "I'm gonna have to tell her you're not interested in me." A wicked tone crept into her voice. "If you were, you've had plenty of chances to show it."

Emma giggled. "You're not wrong, there. No, your virtue is safe from me. I like boys too much. Let me tell you, if Dad had walked around the corner one minute later, Jaime would have gotten a bit more than the chance to put sunscreen on my back."

"Emma!" gasped Taylor in well-feigned shock. "You wouldn't!"

Emma giggled. "Try me."

They exchanged a few more pleasantries, then hung up; Emma went to find her mother, and let her know about Sophia coming over for the sleepover.

Sophia stretched out on her bed, looking wistfully at the wardrobe containing her Shadow Stalker gear. The pants had been washed and mended; it was a pity her own leg could not be so easily fixed.

Her mobile rang, and she glanced at the caller ID. Hebert household. Either Taylor or her dad. "You've got Sophia."

"Hey, Soph," Taylor's voice said cheerfully.

"Taylor!" Sophia sat up, the smile that crossed her face translating to her voice.

"Yup," Taylor answered. "You get home okay?"

"Sure," said Sophia. "I'm lying down resting my leg right now. I might try walking unaided tomorrow."

"Don't strain yourself," warned Taylor.

Sophia grinned. "I've been doing track and field since I was ten. I know about straining myself." She paused and asked the question that was burning a hole in her forebrain. "So ... did she say yes?"

"She did," confirmed Taylor. "So long as, you know, you refrain from trying to beat her up over me."

Sophia paused for a long moment. "So ... she noticed."

"It's all good," Taylor assured her. "She doesn't mind. She is, and I quote, too interested in boys, unquote."

"Oh, boys are nice," Sophia grinned. "But ... they're not you." I've never met a boy who could grab my attention as thoroughly as you can. Who I can respect.

"Okay, blushing now," giggled Taylor over the phone. "But yeah, it 's all good. Bring your own night wear and toiletries, and favourite pillow if you have one."

Sophia nodded, although Taylor of course could not see her. "Okay. See you then."

"See you then."

They hung up then, and Sophia lay back on her bed, a smile crossing her face from side to side.

Oh, man, she thought. This is gonna be epic.

End of Part Two