Taylor wordlessly slid her envelope onto Emma's desk. She didn't meet her eyes.
"You're not going to - loser - ask me how I'm holding up?" said Emma. "Endbringer attack and all."
"I didn't want to bother you, and..." Taylor trailed off. "I thought you'd want to look at your envelope first."
Emma's heart skipped a beat. She refused to let it show. "I'll look at it later. Did your dad make it out okay?"
"Yeah." Taylor didn't elaborate. Guilty that her father got VIP treatment from the PRT.
"That's wonderful, Taylor." said Emma, flashing her best smile. "I'm so glad. How about your house?"
"Mostly fine. The fence is gone, and there's some crap the waves dragged into the yard, but otherwise fine. Yours too. Your basement's probably flooded though."
"Oh. Good. Not that I can go home."
Taylor flinched. She chewed her lip and her power reset her body. A moment passed in silence.
Emma cleared her throat. "Can I take a seat next to the - loser - window? I want to watch the cleanup crews. Make it easier to talk to my family when they come by."
"It's Julia's turn for a window seat. Your turn is tomor-"
"I missed my turn yesterday. You didn't come." Emma chewed at her lip, a mirror of Taylor's tic. "I was afraid you'd died. That the Endbringer killed you. That you'd broken your promise and left us alone in here forever."
Taylor lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry. I was doing relief work. Digging people out of rubble, flooded buildings, stuff like that. You guys were safe here, so I-"
"No, I get it. You don't have to pretend. I'm sorry. You're still holding that against me. Still. After what we've been through since then. I know it's not my place to - loser - say, but I'd like to think this is enough punishment."
Taylor shook her head, but she was silent. She didn't deny it. 'I don't hate you.' 'I don't resent you.' 'After what I did to you, I forgive you.'You can't say it, can you Taylor? You know the words on your tongue will ring false the minute you let them past your lips.
"I'm not asking for much. A place to talk to Mom and Dad when they come for me. Please, Taylor."
Taylor glanced at Julia. The girl's nose was in a book, pointedly ignoring the two of them. "...Okay, Emma. You get the window seat today. Hold still."
Taylor's touch was electric on her skin. Not due to her power. An emotional reaction. The twenty three students could touch each other in any way they wished, free to act out their forty two second dreams no matter how wild or bizarre, but the consequences were erased as if they had never been. Only Taylor's touch was real, now.
Taylor put one hand on Emma's shoulder and the other hand on the back of her chair. She gently pushed her across the floor in her chair, the worn metal legs scraping against the floor. A second trip and she moved the desk to join her. Then Taylor put one hand on each side of Emma's temples and gently rotated her head on her neck to tilt slightly downward, a better posture for reading her books. A tender gesture, like a mother comforting her child.
Emma felt her heart beating madly in her chest. She took a slow, deep breath. Can't let her get to me like this. If she wasn't careful she'd be stuck like this. Resetting into a state of high physiological arousal, heart racing and blood pumping and eyes wide open, every forty two seconds until the next time Taylor touched her.
"Perfect." said Emma. "My books, can you - loser - do the flippy thing?" She made a flip-flopping gesture with her hands.
Taylor arranged Emma's books to put them side by side on her desk. Then she carefully timed her movements to the time loop's resets, holding each book open and splaying its pages. When she was finished, all of the books were being reset into a state where their pages were open and fluttering as if a girl was flippiing through them. It would save Emma time, letting her reach the page of her choice in two seconds instead of eight.
"Better?" said Taylor.
Emma looked out the window. Through a gap in the rubble she got her first look at the collapsed and flooded buildings around the school. It was as bad as the others had said, but somehow it didn't trouble her. After months of the same scenery day after day, the change of pace was refreshing.
It was time for the coup de grace. Emma nodded and licked her lips.
"Thank you." she said. A finely calibrated whisper, just loud enough for Taylor to hear.
Taylor's reaction was as sure as it was subtle. Her eyes went wide, her nostrils flared, and her head shook fractionally side to side as if to deny what she'd heard.
It wasn't much, but it was enough.
The first time Taylor had extended the time loop, from six hundred sixty milliseconds to eight seconds, she'd called Emma a bully and demanded that she apologize for her misdeeds. Emma had fallen apart. Panicked, desperate, completely out of her mind. She'd collapsed to the floor, hugging the solid ground like a child clutching at her mother, the first touch she'd felt in ten days. And she'd apologized over and over, crying pathetically, her tears resetting every eight seconds. She'd choked on her involuntary "loser"s and scowls and driven herself further into panic, terrified that she would drive Taylor away again. She'd made wild pleas and promises and thanked her like a supplicant prostrating herself before a goddess...
Taylor had taken one look at her and cried too. She'd told Emma not to thank her. That she didn't deserve thanks after what she'd done to her. She'd promised to save Emma, to save them all. And if she couldn't save them, then she'd promised to take care of them as best she could, even if she had to devote her life to the task.
Emma held her to that promise. But once in a while, when Taylor had missed a day, when the look on her face grew distant...Emma thanked her, again. Reminding Taylor of the magnitude of her crime. That she'd reduced her old bully and best friend to a gray shade of her former self, trapped in an eternal hell, pathetically grateful for a few seconds of her touch.
Emma didn't do it for revenge. Nothing so petty. It was for everyone's sake. For the twenty three shades of gray in the classroom. It was to make sure that Taylor kept her promise.
They could all see it. Taylor was growing more distant. After the accident their tormentor had tearfully apologized and promised to come every day to take care of them. Heartfelt promises that should have lasted a lifetime.
But Taylor didn't have to come back. There was no law saying she had to. With the work the heroes had her doing, traveling around the world with the big-name heroes to help them take down the worst threats, she always had an excuse. Her excuses were getting bigger, coming more frequently. Three days spent containing a classified threat in Pakistan. Full weeks spent trying to put down Ash Beast and the Blasphemies. Meanwhile her classmates slowly deteriorated, their quirks and fits and nervous breakdowns grew worse with every missed day of physical contact with the outside world.
It was only a matter of time before Taylor's superiors decided that she shouldn't be tied to Brockton Bay. That her time was better spent fighting their battles around the world than in giving comfort to the twenty three classmates she'd damned to hell. They'd pressure her, order her, feed her pleasant lies and platitudes about the greater good.
And Taylor would buy it, hook line and sinker. Her superiors had all the time in the world to convince her. Her classmates only had the hour or two a day she spent with them. And Taylor was ridiculously moral to a fault. The special kind of moral, the kind of person who was eager to sacrifice herself because she was convinced she had no worth of her own, who would lie and use dirty tricks and break her own promises for the sake of the 'greater good'.
It was inevitable. One day Taylor would abandon them to eternal torment and convince herself that it was all for the best. Convince herself that a few pricks on her conscience and a few sleepless nights was atonement enough. That would be that.
And the only person who could stave off the inevitable...was Emma.
They all knew it. Taylor had never cared about the others. She'd always kept to herself, seen her classmates as faceless figures to be ignored or avoided. She only came back to them out of a sense of duty.
Emma was the only one of them who had a genuine emotional connection with Taylor. She'd captured her heart for years. First as her best friend, and then as her worst enemy. She'd been the sole target of her attention, occupied her mind when she was awake and haunted her dreams when she was asleep.
Yes. Emma knew she was the only one who truly understood Taylor. No matter how much her classmates hated her, they all knew it was true. The task fell to her. It was her duty to fight for all of their sakes.
And so, when Emma saw Taylor react to her prodding, saw her eyes widen and nostrils flare and her teeth bite at her lip hard enough for her power to reset her body...she felt her heart leap. She'd bought her class more time. Taylor wouldn't miss a day for a week, maybe even a month.
"I told you not to thank me." Taylor muttered under her breath. Then, with a visible effort, she made herself meet Emma's eyes. "You're welcome."
Emma nodded encouragingly, but Taylor didn't say anything more. An awkward silence hung in the air. As usual. Taylor would be civil with her but she wouldn't take the initiative. Overly polite, not speaking unless spoken to.
Emma understood why. In a twisted way, Taylor felt more guilty about her than anyone else. Their classmates were a tragedy but they had been accidents. Collateral damage. Emma, though...in the moment Taylor had received her power, she'd meant to hurt her.
That was why Taylor ruthlessly quashed her feelings. Taylor refused to let herself feel even a hint of anger or frustration at Emma. She'd given in to those feelings just once, and her moment of weakness had condemned twenty three young men and women to a living hell. She wouldn't let it happen a second time.
Emma understood that. Respected it, even. Taylor had seen her life go to hell in a moment of weakness, so she refused to be weak ever again. Sworn to be a stronger person, even if it meant coming back to the scene of her weakness and confronting the very people she'd condemned to hell.
It had been the same for her and Sophia, before, after the alleyway. Now Taylor was following the same path, as a direct result of her actions.
It made Emma feel a sense of responsibility for Taylor, that she hadn't felt since they had been best friends what seemed like a lifetime ago. She'd made Taylor like this. That meant Taylor was her responsibility. Her...protege, of a sort. Emma couldn't touch the world outside her prison, couldn't affect it except in a few very limited ways, but Taylor would be her legacy to the world.
That meant she had one task left to do.
"Hey, Taylor." Emma grabbed her by the sleeve of her shirt, stopping her from moving to the next desk. Taylor turned, her eyes downcast.
"You really think you didn't make a difference?"
"Out there. Against - loser - Leviathan."
Now Taylor raised her eyes. "I was supposed to be the difference. That's what one of the men who trained me called me. Lumiere the difference maker. Gray zones an Endbringer can't break, in unlimited numbers with perfect targeting, a new zone every few seconds. They trained me for weeks. But I...I couldn't. I couldn't stop him. Could hardly slow him down for five minutes, ten minutes. Couldn't-"
"Don't give me that crap." snapped Emma. "I've been reading up on Endbringer attacks. I bet most of the - loser - capes went out in their fancy costumes and did nothing but get stomped. There were what, a hundred and fifty capes out there? How many slowed him down for more than a minute? Ten capes? Five?"
"Um. Six...no, wait. Seven. Alexandria, Legend, um-"
Emma waved her off. "Don't worry about the number. How many slowed him down as much as you did? Five or ten minutes."
Taylor paused, remembering. "Eidolon. Um. Alexandria, if you add up all the times she hit him. The team from the Guild, they had a tinker machine that they used with their forcefields to-"
"They're a team. So the answer is two. Two single capes did as well as you, and they're part of the freaking Triumvirate. You had them on your - loser - lunchbox when you were a kid. Now you're angsting out that you're only as good as them. You know, I..." I used to call you lame and depressing. I was right. "...think you're overdue for a look in the fucking mirror."
"It's not like that! With this power I'm supposed to do better. The others hurt him, they made him leave the city sooner. I couldn't hurt him at all, only trap him, and I couldn't even do that right! I wasted our time. Kept him in the city longer while he sent in his waves. Heroes died trying to hold him for me!"
"You did better than most. You didn't hurt him, but you distracted him so the other heroes could." The other heroes. You hear that, Taylor? You're one too.. "You saved heroes. Shielded them, pulled them out of the water."
Taylor looked down and chewed her lip. Her power reset her body.
"You resuscitated a hero. You know his name?"
Emma snickered. "For real? How old is the - loser - hero? A kid? A family man?"
"I don't know. He looked thirty five or forty."
"A grown man. Then there's a - oh god. Wait. Mouth to mouth. Was he your first kiss, Taylor?"
Taylor blushed. As much as she could blush. Her cheeks turned a darker shade of gray. After a few seconds her power came to her rescue and reset her body.
Emma smirked. "Then there's a chubby little man who's going back to his family because you gave him the kiss of life. A chubby wife and two point four chubby kids somewhere owe you a big fucking thank you. And a party with cake. All the parties."
"I'm pretty sure heroes don't work like that, Emma."
"Well they should. You saved his life. They owe you parties. At least. A party every anniversary of the day you saved him." Emma jabbed her in the arm with a finger. "Sophia saved my life and I became her friend, went on patrol with her, testified to get her in the Wards, the whole nine yards. The way you're talking you - loser - don't expect as much as a thank you card. You know what you should do? Show up on their doorstep a year from now, shouting 'Where's my party, Chubster? Where's my fucking party?'"
"You're, uh, you're acting weird, Emma. You said I should tell you if you're acting weird, if the loops are-"
"The loops aren't getting to me, st-" Stupid, "silly. You're the one who's acting weird. Being a hero and not calling yourself one. Stopping Leviathan as well as the Triumvirate and complaining you didn't do better. It pisses me off, to see someone strong who thinks and acts like she's a - loser."
Emma raised her book and waved it in the air. "I've been reading up on Endbringers. You'll do better next time. You learned Leviathan's tricks, you'll come up with a better plan for next time. Behemoth is a slowpoke. Easy to trap, if you don't blind yourself with tears of angst."
Taylor took a step backward. She didn't know how to process what she was hearing. "I...I have been thinking of plans. Making little gray zones a few inches wide. I can make them faster than big ones, and they can't trap people by accident, and they'll stop an Endbringer's charge just as well. But...I promised. I promised you I'd stop anything that attacked you, even an Endbringer. I promised all of you. They all said I could do it, I was supposed to-"
"Yeah, and if anyone here is mad you didn't 'redeem' yourself for what you did to them, screw them. Don't listen to those - loser - idiots. They're wrong." Emma caught sight of Taylor's expression and almost laughed. "Hey, what's up with that look? You can trust me on this, Taylor. I gave you nothing but crap for years. So when I say you did good, you damn well better believe it."
Emma gave her a lopsided smile and patted her on the hand.
Taylor went very still. For a solid minute she stared at Emma's hand on hers like it was a viper about to bare its fangs and inject its venom. She tried to steady her nerves. Clenched and unclenched her fists, closed her eyes, took a deep breath. Finally, she nerved herself to speak.
"T-thank you Emma. That was...nice of you."
Her tone was sincere, even sweet. Though Taylor couldn't entirely mask her distrust. Her mouth was a thin, hard line. 'Thank you, Emma, even if it is probably an underhanded trick'.
Emma airily waved a hand. "It was nothing. I couldn't bear seeing you - loser - drown yourself in tears for no reason at all."
It was true. In a twisted way, Taylor was her legacy to the world. She'd shaped her as her best friend. Then she'd shaped her as her worst enemy. She'd been the one who gave her powers. Now she had the opportunity to shape her once again, in a way that would touch the lives of thousands, of all the lives a world-class hero touched. Emma wasn't going to let it go to waste. Making Taylor - Lumiere - into a success story was a matter of pride.
"Seriously, take a look at yourself." said Emma. "You get to rub shoulders with Alexandria and travel the world every week righting wrongs. That was your dream since we were in fourth grade. Now you're living the dream, and you're - loser - immortal and invincible so it's not going to end anytime soon. Cheer the hell up. You'll do better with a smile."
Emma gave Taylor a wide-angled grin. The corners of Taylor's mouth twitched upward, the ghost of a smile. A sympathetic reaction. She couldn't help it even if the smile was on the face of her worst enemy.
"I'll, I'll try." said Taylor. "If this is a dream, it doesn't feel like a good one. But it's not a nightmare. Not like it used to be. You're right about that. Thanks."
"Anytime. Come back any time, Taylor." said Emma with a gentle smile. I'll always be here for you, she almost added. She caught the subtle guilt trip and quashed the words before they left her lips. This was no time to go back to old habits. She wanted Taylor to leave with a smile.
Taylor nodded. "I'll be back." Then she was gone, moving on to the next of her classmates.
Emma picked up the envelope Taylor had left on her desk. She considered opening it for a moment, then set it aside. She didn't want to let Taylor see her in a moment of vulnerability. Either her parents were alive, or they were dead. There would be time to deal with that later. She would wait for her classmates to open their envelopes, keep a clear mind while she observed and catalogued their reactions, before she took the plunge.
"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.
Patience. That was a virtue she had learned in her long months trapped in the frozen world of gray. Maybe the experts were right, and they were trapped here forever. Or maybe the Protectorate would find an answer and set them free. Either way, patience was key.
If she fixated on the chance of escape, spent twenty four long hours every day doing nothing but pining for freedom, she'd lose her mind and go mad. As too many of her classmates did, in their periodic vacations from sanity. Lame and depressing, indeed.
She refused to let herself go down that path. She'd learned to find purpose and meaning in this small piece of the world that was open to her. Not an easy task. All too much time on her hands, all too little stimulation with which to occupy it. An unchanging cast of twenty two classmates whose company got excruciatingly grating before the first month was out.
"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.
She'd turned to her one remaining outlet: the outside world. Her actions in the gray world were erased after forty two seconds. Only her actions that affected the outside world would last. Only the outside world was truly real.
Emma had decided to become a writer. They'd been setting up an interface before they were interrupted by Leviathan's attack. Computers rigged up just outside the gray zone with voice recognition programs to let them could control them by talking. Taylor would put her next to the window, and she would read and write to her heart's content. Twenty four hours a day, if she felt like it.
She'd already decided on her first book. It would be her autobiography. Twenty Three Shades of Gray.
It was a calculated gamble. To the public she was a dyed in the wool villain. The queen bitch of a bully who pushed Taylor Hebert too far and got her class condemned to hell. No one would believe a word she wrote unless she went through the socially demanded song and dance of absolution. It stung her pride to do it but she didn't have a choice.
So she'd tell the truth, after a fashion. She'd give the public exactly what they wanted. A story of sin and sinner. A victimizer and a victim, down to earth and yet larger than life. The best friend you could ever hope to have, and the cruelest enemy you could ever fear to cross. A flawed human being who learned her lesson too late for salvation and was damned for her sins. Who had the courage to send a message from the depths of hell, to plead with the living not to repeat her mistakes.
Were you ever bullied in school? You'd read it, for the catharsis from a bully learning her lesson, from her getting the most insanely over the top punishment ever devised. Were you a bully yourself? You'd read it to breathe a sigh of relief for the damnation you'd avoided, or to learn from the bully's mistakes so you wouldn't get caught in the same way by your prey. Were you a teacher, a psychlogist, a parahuman enthusiast, a parahuman yourself? Were you a fan of tales of true crime, of revenge, of redemption, of inspirational true stories? Were you a Brocktonite who'd heard of the infamous frozen classroom but never got up the nerve to visit? Were you saved by Lumiere on her journeys around the globe, or did you know someone she'd saved?
It would be a best seller. The public and the critics alike would flock to read it for its sensationalism alone. A book in shades of gray, with an emotional recommendation written by Lumiere herself on the back cover, with a pledge to donate the proceeds to non-profit organizations for fighting gang violence and school bullying.
"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.
If she did it right, she'd get a wide reader base for the books she wanted to write next. She'd always wanted to be a fashion model - she'd been a fashion model, a small-timer. Now she would settle for the literary equivalent of fashion, the style of fiction that drew on the same talents. Stories whose appeal lay as much in their style as their substance, stories that sold because of the author's talent at anticipating popular culture trends. Capturing the reader's fascination by expertly toeing the line between tasteful and tasteless, sensational and scanadlous, chic and avant-garde.
She had already gotten the inspiration for her first book of fiction from her favorite series of romance novels. She would take the harsh extremes of reward and punishment she'd discovered in the world of capes and translate them into the realm of romance. Most capes were too guarded about their secret identities to speak openly about their romantic lives, so she wouldn't have much competition. It would be a larger-than-life story, so maybe she should double the number in the title? Forty Six Shades of Gray? No, too awkward. If she was going to use a number in the title, better to make it a big round one...
"Loser." Emma scowled at Taylor's empty seat.
Taylor stood at the windowsill, tucking her notebook into her backpack. She opened the window and prepared to climb out. "I'll be back tomorrow morning. Nine AM. Back to the usual time. I'll keep you updated on your families. And..." She looked over the twenty three classmates who were giving her their undivided attention, who were her responsibility and legacy. She swallowed. "I'll do better next time. I promise."
Emma smiled at her own legacy to the world and gave her a farewell wave. "See you tomorrow, Taylor!"
Taylor looked at Emma, raised her hand halfway...then let it fall to her side. The great superhero who had stalled Leviathan for minutes, who fought alongisde the Triumvirate, couldn't bring herself to wave back to her old best friend. A gesture of equality, reciprocation, trust, that she didn't feel either one of them was worthy of.
Not yet, anyway.
That was okay. They could take it slow. They had all the time in the world.
Emma turned to page 244 of her book.