You know how when you're lost in thought, or off in a daze, and suddenly come out of it? It's like you've been there all along, and you know this, but somehow its still a disorienting transition. A jarring instant of feeling out of place.
This was a lot like that, if quite a bit more extreme.
I was in a car, modern and clean, comfortable seats and air conditioning, and I was sure I had never seen it before in my life. At the same time, it was completely familiar. Blinking, I looked to the left and saw a complete stranger in the driver's seat. A complete stranger who was also my father. He wasn't. My dad didn't look anything like that, and he was quite a bit older and a lot more grizzled. And yet he was, as though from a dream.
My phone rang. Kept ringing. The ring was what had jolted me back to reality in the first place. I answered on automatic, thumb hitting the touch screen despite the fact that it was a completely unfamiliar phone.
"Emma!" a girl's voice greeted excitedly.
I went rather extraordinarily still as I recognized the voice despite never hearing it before, my brain finally registering that the body I was looking down at wasn't my body. Those weren't my arms, those weren't my legs, those weren't my clothes, and oh yeah boobs.
I believe I can be excused for the momentary mental blue screen of death I experienced upon the revelation that I was Emma fucking Barnes. The fictional character from Worm.
"Emma? Can you hear me now?" came the voice that could only belong to Taylor Hebert.
I coughed. "Yeah. Hi, Taylor!"
"Ok I gotta talk fast because I only have two minutes and I need my other fifty cents to call my dad. We rowed across the lake this morning to this waterfall..."
I sat back and made myself listen as she rambled about her adventures at summer camp. I found my lips quirking in a smile. It was rather entertaining, and this was a side of Taylor that wasn't shown very much in the story. At the same time, I couldn't help but just... What the fuck? I was Emma Barnes! No seriously! What the fuck?!
I quietly pinched my thigh, hard. The pain was real, so that ruled out a dream. Despite my best efforts, I tuned Taylor out as I broke down the possibilities. Firstly, I wasn't in my own body, and that was a clue. The complexity penalty on any hypothesis that included what was effectively a brain transplant meant that my first guesses should be things more metaphysical than physical. Such as a new instance of a simulated universe that for some reason included my mindstate where Emma's should have been. Or, more likely, something involving time-travel or precognition, combined with a parahuman ability to create a personality whole-cloth, and an odd sense of humor, but in that case it would mean an Emma was effectively murdered -
I felt a hand on my wrist, pulling the phone away from my ear. Emma's dad. The car was stopped in the middle ofa narrow one-way street and a dumpster blocked the way.
Oh shit. I knew what this was. This was Emma's interlude, the day she met Sophia. Without hesitation, I hung up on Taylor and dialed 911. In the side-mirror I saw a white van blocking the street behind us and a group in crimson and pale green. ABB gang members, coming towards the car.
"Nine one one, state your emergency."
I almost raised the phone to my ear before catching myself. My heart thundered in my chest at the close call. Instead, I leaned down and whispered harshly. "Some ABB have us cornered! Send help!"
I didn't wait for a reply, dropping the phone down by my feet and putting it out of my mind. I looked up, and Emma's dad was giving me a sharp look.
"Good thinking. Hold tight," he said.
He idled the car up to the dumpster and then stepped on the gas. The dumpster didn't budge, and the clutch made a noise it probably wasn't supposed to make. I wasn't surprised that we wouldn't be getting away that easy.
Sitting tense, I glanced in the mirror again. The asian thugs had reached the car. I also caught a glimpse of my own face, or rather Emma's face, and the surreal duality of that's-my-face and that's-not-my-face distracted me until the window shattered.
I flinched badly as glass rained down on my lap. The guy's hands reached in and pain ripped across my scalp as he grabbed my hair and tried to pull me out of my seat. I felt something twinge in my neck as I strained to keep my face away from jagged glass, a lance of white-hot yet dull pain. I grabbed his wrists as my body strained against the seatbelt and my forearms exploded in agony as the much stronger asian thug dragged me against the remains of the window. I felt blood trickle towards my elbows. Only the denim jacket jacket I was wearing had prevented the cuts from going deep.
"Emma! No! Get your hands off my daughter! Emma!"
The pain brought a kind of cold clarity. It had been a long time since I'd... been any kind of victim. But the mindset returned with surprising ease. Resist but don't engage. Stay aware. Analyze. Don't show fear. No matter how much it hurts.
I noted the knife in a sheath on the thug's hip. I also noted the dark shape outlined against the sky, out of the corner of my eye. Shadow Stalker was already here.
"Leave her alone! Emma!"
A second pair of hands reached in to undo my seatbelt and I considered the merits of taking a chunk out of his wrist with my teeth, but the moment passed and I went with my first plan.
"No! Stop! Emma!"
"Hah, check this out. Daddy's screaming is head off but the girl's quiet as a scared little mouse."
They dragged me through the window, forcing a small grunt out of me as my denim-covered spine scraped along the glass. The moment I was halfway through the window, I yanked my legs up, accidentally bashing my knee on the frame but I ignored that, and kicked off hard.
It was surprisingly easy and it was kind of embarrassing to realize that pampered little Emma was in better physical shape than I'd been. Her body was more limber, and it moved smoother.
"Emma!" Alan Barnes screamed.
The guy holding me by the hair tripped and I twisted around to drive my right shoulder into his solar plexus as we hit the ground. I drew the knife from his hip and rolled, stabbing the other one in the gut.
And then stars exploded and I went blind. When I could see again I found myself on the ground with a snarling asian girl standing over me brandishing a knife. She must have kicked me in the head. She was wearing heavy boots.
"You fucking bitch!" she snarled. "Look what you did! Who the fuck do you think you are?"
I was in too much pain and under to much stress at the moment to bother with a verbal exchange. Silent and expressionless as I had been since the start of the fight, I waited for her to try to kick me again. I didn't have to wait long. I imagined the strike, felt the way my muscles would move in my mind, focusing everything on awareness of my own body, but made sure to give nothing away until the last moment.
"Emma!" Alan Barnes screamed yet again, out of sight on the other side of the car.
Thug girl's foot lifted, and once again Emma's body proved more responsive than my own as I shifted my weight and kicked as hard as I could. My foot smashed into her other leg just above the knee and she face planted on the asphalt with a satisfying crunch. Her knife fell from her hand, and I tried to snatch it out of the air, but it glanced off my fingers and opened a cut along my thumb before clattering away.
"Shit! Lao! You little bi - fuck!" one of the other thugs screamed as a black shape descended and drove him into the ground.
Shadow Stalker, right on cue.
I sat up and leaned against the side of the car, letting my head fall against the paneling with a thunk as I tried to catch my breath and get my heartrate down to something reasonable.
Shadow Stalker tore through the remaining thugs like a force of nature, and the last two, a guy and a girl, broke and ran. Shadow Stalker chased them down. Cut the girl and knocked her out. Literally nailed the guy's hand to a handy door with a knife.
Movement made me snap my gaze away, but it was just Emma's dad. He pulled me into a hug.
"Emma," he said. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm bleeding some," I said tonelessly. Seriously. I was too drained to bother emoting.
"You're in shock..." Alan murmured.
I was about to protest, but it was as good an excuse as any. Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could have pulled off Emma's personality long term. I have enough trouble with my own. I decided not to respond.
The police arrived eventually, and escorted us to Brockton General. Despite having somehow found myself in the Wormverse, I didn't get to see Panacea. I only needed a few stitches, so I guess that made sense.
The police took our statement. I didn't call Shadow Stalker by name, but I didn't bother to hide that there'd been a cape there the whole time, and she'd only helped well after we'd been roughed up a bit. I certainly wasn't going to do Sophia any favors. Self-righteous psycho.
Finally we went 'home'. That was weird. I'd never been in the house before, but I knew my way around, and I knew where 'my' room was.
I admit it. I went straight there and more or less hid. I needed to recharge a bit before I'd be at all capable of anything resembling social interaction.
I woke up and rolled over onto my front, reaching down to push my junk out of the way so it wouldn't get crushed, only to freeze as I felt some rather significant differences in my body from what I was used to. Jolting to full awareness, I sat up and stared at my body. My very female body. Emma Barnes' body.
"So... it wasn't a dream," I murmured. A light, girl's voice. "This is weird. I sound like this now. Sound. Sound. Sound like this. Heh."
I had to pee. Fortunately, Emma's body came with all the necessary reflexes and muscle memory. When I was done, I got naked and stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Slowly, a grin crept its way onto my face, and a giddy laugh bubbled up from inside me.
So maybe, however it had happened, I'd somehow been dumped into one of the crapsackiest worlds around. So maybe I was stuck in the life of Emma fucking Barnes. So maybe I'd have to endure high school again.
Everything else sucked enough to make me want to bash my head against the wall, but I'd also had my single greatest desire granted. I was a girl. The gender dysphoria that had been weighing on me for most of my life had lifted like a pressing weight had been taken from my shoulders and now I felt all floaty and awesome in contrast. That was one hell of a silver lining.
Emma's mom knocked on the door. "Emma? Taylor's on the phone. She's still at summer camp. Do you want to talk to her?"
I rolled off 'my' bed and opened the door. "Yeah."
She handed me the house phone and I offered her a small tremulous but reassuring smile before she left. I think I got it wrong, based on the way she frowned at me before she left. Emma's face was different enough from mine that I guess I didn't know how to make expressions correctly anymore.
"Hey Taylor," I said, going over to the mirrored closet door so I could watch my new face while I talked.
"Emma! I think we got cut off last time I called and I didn't get to tell you about..." Man, pre-canon Taylor really was a total motormouth.
I made noises of interest and giggled where appropriate. I'd been on the other side of this, excited about something to the point that I kinda forgot to pay attention to whether the person I was talking to was even interested in what I was saying. It was oddly endearing, coming from the person who'd become such a memetic badass.
"...didn't want to read it again for a third time so instead I..."
I wasn't the person Taylor thought I was, but then, at this point in time, neither was the real Emma. I only knew Taylor's older self from the story, but even so, now that she was a real person, I still knew enough about her that I couldn't help but care for her. I resolved to do my best to be the friend to Taylor that Emma should have been.
Over the next several days, I made tentative attempts to start interacting with Emma's family. I was mostly okay, after the incident, but they didn't need to know that. I hated the idea of being trapped pretending I was someone I wasn't, so I had to make them think that I was shaken up enough to explain a severe personality shift.
Mom and Dad - I'd decided to refer to them that way so I wouldn't slip up - had one of those very worried silent conversations when I came down to eat after I'd taken a pair of scissors to my hair, but I just mumbled something vague when they asked about it. Getting ready for school every morning with long hair had been enough of a pain the first time around. I wasn't keen on putting up with it a second time.
I was kind of used to being around people who thought they knew me when they really didn't. It was pretty much par for the course with my actual family, so it wasn't that strange with the Barnes. If anything, it was easier, since the Barnes had a legitimate excuse.
By the time my stitches were ready to come out and the bruises had faded, things were stable, if slightly strained.
I stood alone at the end of the narrow street.
It was a hard decision to make, but as despicable as Sophia was, I figured I shouldn't throw away opportunities. There were a number of possibilities that keeping with the way things had gone in the story could open up. The one in particular that was in my thoughts at the moment was the scene where Taylor came back and Emma rejected her in front of Sophia. I had no intention of doing that, of course, but it would be a good opportunity to deflect Sophia from Taylor. Then again -
Suddenly, there was another girl there. "Takes guts."
I mostly managed not to flinch. I turned around and gave her a once-over. She certainly matched the description of Sophia. I tilted my head and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Coming back," Sophia clarified. "The only reason you'd do it is because you were looking for revenge, or you were looking for me. Or both, but I don't think you're that cracked."
"I don't see it that way," I said idly. "There's nothing special about this street that makes it more dangerous than any of a bunch of other similar streets." I paused and decided to go with the script, so to speak. "Why did you wait so long? You were there from the beginning, but all you did was watch."
"I wanted to see who you were," Sophia told me. She must have practiced that line, to be able to make it sound that profound.
I stared for a long moment and arranged my features in an expression of incredulity. "You couldn't have just asked me on a date?"
I had to struggle not to laugh as Sophia reacted to that. Clearly not the reaction she was expecting. She nearly sputtered, waving her arms in denial.
"Whoa, hey, it's so not like that," Sophia insisted. "I'm not into that gay shit."
I tilted my head, feigning confusion. "Are you sure? Why else would you have been following me around all week?"
Sophia opened her mouth, paused, and gave me a considering glare. "How'd you know I was following you?"
I smirked. I couldn't help it. "I didn't, until you showed yourself. I very much doubt you've been hanging around this street waiting for me for a week."
Sophia looked annoyed at being caught out in a mistake like that. I honestly wasn't trying to piss her off, but I recognized it was a possibility since I wasn't about to walk on eggshells around the charismatic sociopath. That was why I had a flashlight in my jacket pocket, just in case.
"You're wrong, by the way," I idly commented, slowly walking down the street. "I'm not interested in revenge, and I didn't come here looking for you. I just wanted to confirm my suspicions."
The blood stain where I'd stabbed one of the thugs was still there. I turned and spotted the divot in the door where Shadow Stalker had nailed the other guy by his hand. After a moment, Sophia stalked along and grabbed my arm. I didn't resist as she spun me around.
"Look, there's two kinds of people in the world," Sophia said, and I gave her a very deadpan look as I realized that despite derailing the hell out of this conversation, she was giving the same damn speech anyway. "The ones who get stronger when they come through a crisis, and the ones who get weaker. The ones who get stronger, they're the survivors. In the end they'll always win out." She let go of my arm. "So which are you?"
"Whichever is more likely to get me what I want at the time," I said.
"That's not how it works!" Sophia visibly regained her cool. "It's a philosophy. The divide between winners and losers, predators and prey."
"A philosophy?" I repeated skeptically. "As in, what you get out of the human urge to make shit up when presented with a difficult question? That's not very convincing."
Sophia surprised me by laughing and making a dismissive gesture. "Maybe it doesn't matter if you're convinced I'm right. You are a survivor if I ever saw one. That's what matters."
I caught her eyes and said, "I'm a pacifist."
Sophia stared at me for nearly ten seconds before she burst out in great gales of laughter. "Hah. Haha. Hah, liar."
"No, I really am," I said in earnest tones. "I'm not trained to fight... or well-trained anyway. I'm not physically strong. I'm not even very brave. I just evaluated the situation and did what I thought had the best chance of getting me out of it intact. I would have gotten naked and let them have their way with me if I'd honestly thought that would result in a better outcome for me. The fact that I resorted to violence... really only says something about them."
"You can't be serious," Sophia said. "You were cold as ice and fucking vicious when you took those guys down."
"Of course I was," I said as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "There isn't a lot of middle ground between pacifist and kill them fucking dead when violence is my last resort and I'm not very good at it."
Sophia had developed a little lopsided smirk. "You're an odd one, Emma Barnes. I think I'll be seeing you around."
"Taylor got back from camp this morning," Mom told me over breakfast a couple weeks later.
"She did?" I asked, snapping out of my thoughts. Right. I'd been waiting for this. Station of the Canon, ho!
Mom nodded. "She might stop by."
"Cool," I said. "Any idea when?"
"Any time now, I think," Mom said.
I nodded and cleared my plate, heading upstairs to use the bathroom and get changed. I checked myself in the mirror before I headed down, and smiled.
Even after nearly a month, I still got a little thrill of giddy pleasure when I looked in the mirror and saw a girl instead of a guy. I'd had a chance to get clothes more to my taste by now, too. Tight-fitting black canvas capris, with a silver chain belt. An open black vest with faux-pockets over a black sports bra. My hair was still Emma's deep red, but it was short and feather-cut. No makeup. I've never liked makeup on other girls and I wasn't about to start wearing it myself.
I put on my shoes and headed out, and sure enough Sophia was waiting.
"Well if it isn't my very own stalker," I greeted.
Sophia rolled her eyes. "That joke is so old, dyke."
"And yet, you keep making it new again," I told her with a bland smile.
I looked around and spotted Taylor approaching. I recognized her immediately, in the same way I seemed to have Emma's reflexes and muscle memory layered over my own. She was tan, still wearing the bright blue shirt from camp complete with logo, shorts, and sandals. Her long dark curls were tied in a loose set of twin braids, one bearing a series of colorful friendship-bracelet ties at the end. I felt a grin on my face. She looked like a chibi JesuOtaku and it was adorable, even if she was taller than me.
"Emma!" Taylor called happily.
"Who the fuck are you?" Sophia asked.
Taylor's smile faltered and a brief look of confusion flickered across her face.
"Sophia," I said loudly. I put a cheerful smile on my face. "You will be nice to Taylor, or I'm going to put a cattle prod through your eye. I will go out and buy a cattle prod and carry it around just so I can jab you with it. Then I'll buy one for Taylor, and that'll be even worse, 'cause Taylor's a lot more creative than I am, 'kay?"
Sophia countered my aggressively friendly expression with a glower, before shrugging it off like she didn't care. "Whatevs."
Taylor watched this exchange like she wasn't sure if it'd be a bad idea to laugh. "I, heh um, love the haircut. You look really different like that, but I think it works for you."
I smiled at the girl I actually wanted to be friends with and offered a hug. Taylor glomped me. "Thanks, Taylor. You look different too. Check out this tan!"
(Yeah, I don't know what I'm doin' here. Seriously though. Wouldn't JesuOtaku be like the perfect person to play Taylor if Worm was ever adapted into a TV show or something?)