The Masks We Wear Chapter 01
They said it was a meteorite, that I was lucky to be alive; a miracle of the like that only capes can achieve. They thought I was a parahuman.
They were wrong.
I even agreed with them on the second point, though not for the reasons they thought. If the crater was caused by a meteorite, I most certainly would have died. I mean, what kind of meteorite doesn't stay in its own crater?
Anyway, I know what I saw, what I felt that night, in the woods. A brief glimpse of an ornate metal mask; like one of those old anatomy diagrams looming over my crumpled form. The golden metal cast in flickering shadow, illuminated by the fires of its impact. Echoes of emotions that were not my own as my body knitted itself back together and the pain fled.
And then a blinding light, piercing through my eyelids, a rush of displaced air, before the stillness descended once more. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital with my dad asleep beside my bed, contorted into one of the plastic chairs that seems only to exist to ruin your spine. As I blinked through my eyelashes, my mind exploded full of images, of masks not unlike the one I remembered from the forest. Masks of beautiful simplicity, of elegance, and those angular, more ominous. My dad took me home, not deeming the camp safe for me anymore. I think my brush with death hit a bit too close to home, losing mum and me both would have destroyed him. He was barely keeping himself together as he was, spending ever increasing days and weeks at work, so much that I barely saw him anymore.
After my close call he was better, less distant and we spoke again like we used to, before we lost mum. Instead of being two strangers living in the same house, we were approaching something like a family again. That saying, about the wealth of water and the well being dry? Couldn't but help but think that was what finally jolted us into cohesion again. Or the threat of it anyway.
I think that was what saved me, looking back, when Emma stared down at me, denouncing our friendship, eyes full of scorn and mocking. Throwing away the past years of companionship like trash without a second thought. When I ran home crying into my dad's shoulder, turning his shirt into a sodden mess, his warm arms around me, comforting me, I knew. I knew there was someone there for me, that I wasn't alone.
That night was the first time I had the dreams; the first time the ideas floating in the back of my mind became more than just that, ideas. The first time I realised they were something more than my mind dreaming up half-baked images based of what I remembered from that night at camp. That I realised for the first time that I may just have powers.
That I was a cape.
"You're calling me a liar?!"
I flinched, curling in on myself as I clutched my sketchbook to my chest, halfway down the stairs as I peered between the banisters.
"No Danny, hell, you wouldn't lie about this but, are you sure? We can hardly force them apart half the time! Now you're telling me my Emma won't even give her the time of day?"
It was the day after I'd been to see Emma. A day after my best friend had kicked me to the kerb for a reason I didn't even know. To say I was taking it well would be a lie. I hadn't cried like that since my mum passed. My dad didn't take it any better. Quite possibly the only reason he didn't go and storm the Barnes' home like some sort of Viking invader was the state I was in.
Well, let's see your best friend crush your heart into so much dust and keep your chin high.
Now it appeared my dad had called Emma's dad round to confront him over the issue. I wasn't really surprised. My family had a temper. My grandfather had it. My dad has it. My dad assures me I have it. My dad keeps his under tighter rein than some of the secrets in the Pentagon. I can't remember the last time he let it slip. I don't even think I have seen it, come to think.
"Well what else am I supposed to think, she goes off to your house fine and comes back like the bloody world is ending!"
"I didn't even know she was round my house Danny! God, how would I know if she was turned away at the door if she never said anything to me?"
"Well something must have happened! Something like this doesn't happen out of thin air! She mocked her for crying when her mother died for Christ's sake! Now I don't know her as well as you do, but that doesn't sound like the Emma I know."
Emma's dad stiffened at my dad's words, breathing locking up and his eyes widening. His hands started to shake, his entire body trembling, a vast difference from the sudden stillness of before. From my perch on the stairs I could see his face pale, as he seemed to see something that wasn't there, before coming back to earth with a jolt, visibly starting in shock. He stared at my dad for a long moment before collapsing onto the couch behind him, holding his head in his hands.
"You're right Danny, by God you're right." He choked out, voice wavering.
He visibly gathered himself, clasping his hands before him as he looked my dad straight in the eye. It occurred to me that I hadn't actually ever seen Emma's dad loose his composure before. Seeing him ruffled was not actually something that I'd thought I would ever see.
"The week you rushed off to that camp. The week Taylor was… injured." He spoke quietly, as if the volume would invalidate his words if he spoke too loud.
"We were on our way home, Emma and I, it was late and there was no-one around." He chuckled hollowly.
"No-one that we knew of."
"Everything was going fine, until there was suddenly a van blocking the road. And it wasn't as if there was a little area in front of the thing, no. The street was small. You know that one just off Fulmouth?" My dad nodded in acknowledgement. "Yeah, it was that one. Anyway, like I said; van across the road in front of me, no way forward and they'd roller those giant garbage bins out behind me. Before I could think of trying to mow my way through them, something came in through the window."
"Whatever it was missed me by merely an inch, but that wasn't the problem. Regardless of whether it hit me or not, I still crashed the car like they wanted anyway. The next few minutes are a lur, but the next thing I remember is this guy standing over me. Big, tough guy, maybe 5'11, six foot? Asian guy, said something about paying toll. Anyway, I was still a bit groggy at that point, but the screaming sure as hell woke me up."
He shook his head, eyes taking on that thousand-yard stare, when someone isn't all here, but looking at someone who was looking at something far away. The haunted look in his eye made me shiver despite the warmth of the day.
"I hope to god you never have to hear Taylor scream like that Danny. It's indescribable. Something broke in me then, as I was on my face on the floor in the next moment. I don't know if the guy punched or kicked me, doesn't matter, I only cared about Emma."
My dad was getting paler the more Emma's dad spoke; the colour draining from his face by the second. I was feeling fairly ill myself. A part of me wanted nothing more than to run back upstairs and hide, but the movement would obviously alert the dads in the lounge. I was amazed they hadn't seen me yet. The other, larger part of me kept me rooted to the spot, sketchbook clasped to my chest, eyes riveted on the conversation occurring feet from my perch. I wasn't going to get a better explanation as to what had happened, for Emma's recent behaviour.
"She was laying there, propped up against the alley we'd been dragged to, with a woman standing over her with a knife laid against her cheek, and a second guy with… with…"
He choked on his own words, knuckles whitening as he clenched them in his lap, before forcing the words out between gritted teeth.
"With his pants down his legs."
A sharp intake of breath heralded the first words my dad had spoken since Emma's dad had started.
"Jesus Alan, was she…"
"No, thank God. I don't know what would happen if she was…"
I felt my blood freeze. Emma had almost died? She was mugged in an alley whilst I was in the hospital, maybe even when I was in the forest? She'd even almost been-
I started at the exclamation, focusing on the aghast face of my dad as he looked at me through the bannisters. Engrossed in my thoughts as I was, I hadn't noticed my hand going slack on my sketchbook, my limp grip causing it to fall, bouncing down the stairs to end up on the floor. The sound must have alerted the men to my presence.
"How much of that did you hear?" My dad asked in a choked voice, grasping for me, half-stood from his seat.
"U-uh." My tongue felt far too large in my mouth as I swallowed through a dry mouth and tried to answer.
"A-All the, uhh, important bits. Um, I think…"
My dad sighed, rubbing a hand over his face before gesturing at me, Emma's dad looking on wordlessly.
"Come here Taylor."
I moved slowly down the stairs, afraid to call too much attention to myself. The hope was pointless however, both dads staring at me as I first retrieved my sketchbook, gripping it slightly tighter than was necessary as I carefully picked my way across the floor towards my dad who then drew me into a hug as I reached him.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that kiddo." He murmured into my hair as he held my shivering form.
"It's o-okay." I hiccupped, "At least I know now, I thought it was something I'd done. She said I was weak, that she only stayed with me after my mom died out of… out of…"
"Out of what Taylor?" Emma's dad asked gently, his anger betrayed by the tautness of his jaw and the creaking of bones as he gripped his knees viciously.
"Pity." I sniffled, eyes going blurry as tears rose unbidden at the memory.
My dad suddenly stiffened under me, then started trembling with barely repressed rage as he crushed me even tighter against his chest. Emma's dad bit out a muffled curse and stood with an explosive movement, pacing across the room clenching and unclenching his fists as he moved.
"I knew she was still rattled, but I didn't know it was this bad." He ground out, swinging back to face my dad.
"This was way over the line Taylor, I'm so, so sorry. Christ Danny, I had no idea. You have to believe me!" He pleaded, his face despairing, arms opened wide in a display of honesty.
"No Alan, I know." My dad said gravely, stroking my hair as I slowly calmed down. "You wouldn't let her go that far if you knew, I know you." "This is on her." He continued with a grim finality.
Emma's dad breathed a tiny sigh of relief, relaxing imperceptibly, straightening once more.
"Thanks Danny." He sighed, "It seems like I need to have a talk with my daughter about her behaviour of late. I'll get to the bottom of this."
There was nothing of the pale, worried man I had seen before. Instead, the Lawyer stood in front of me once more, features tight in determination.
"I'll see myself out." He nodded, before quietly making his way out of the house.
It was later explained that an indie hero; Shadow Stalker had jumped in to save Emma and her dad at the point after I'd interrupted the story. After running the thugs off she had stayed to calm Emma down, talking to her until the emergency services arrived. Two days later a girl by the name of Sophia Hess appeared, with the same height, build and personality of the Barnes' saviour.
Didn't take a Thinker to realise Shadow Stalker's civilian ID was Sophia. Not when Emma followed her around like a lost puppy, parroting the other girl's views. And what views they were. The first time Emma's parents heard the reason why she had disregarded me I thought they were going to have a stroke. After the accusations had been thrown around and the explanations finished, Emma was put straight into therapy, and I gained myself a new friend.
Or maybe friend was the wrong term to use.
After Sophia learned I'd survived what everyone thought was a meteorite strike, she'd been fangirling over me worse than some of the groupies on PHO. It was a bit creepy actually. Being the epitome of a 'survivor' mind-set wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I knew I wasn't strong. My family's fracture in the wake of my mother's death was testament to that fact.
Her viewpoint rubbed me the wrong way, I'll admit. Constantly talking about those that were either 'predators' or 'prey' depending on some arbitrary slide-scale quickly got annoying. Especially since she'd used it to turn Emma against me, then done a complete 180 the next day. She couldn't see the thing had invalidated her whole worldview. And that was leaving aside the fact that she saw me as the epitome of her aspirations when I was anything but strong. Absolute ridiculousness.
Emma had slowly been improving since the infamous dad argument, but I was still wary. We were still talking, still friends, but not like we were before. There was this small part of me that would always remember the betrayal, would constantly be looking over my shoulder for the knife in my back.
It didn't take long to discover I was a Tinker. The images floating through my mind, of alien weapons, of things I hadn't even imagined before was proof enough of that. I learned early on that although I could make technology more in-line with what a generic Tinker was known for, I found far more success when making my equipment in a forge, as well as bestowing certain characteristics upon my work. The users of PHO termed this a 'specialisation'. Something all Tinkers had, something that set them apart from their peers. It was probably easier that if you thought of tinkers like Armsmaster and Kid Win as 'electricians', I was a 'blacksmith'. Although, in spite of that I was rather proud of the new computer sitting on my desk at home if I do say so myself. Even more in part of the fact that I had to fight my power tooth and nail to get it to cooperate. Fortunately, computer studies was one of my strengths in school, so I wasn't completely dependent upon my power for the basic knowledge.
Of course Dad wasn't best pleased when I finally found the courage to tell him about my powers. There wasn't really much point about hiding it really. He already suspected that I was a parahuman after I survived the 'meteorite'. The fact that I was going out and buying odd pieces of metal and attempting to make a forge in the basement weren't really subtle either. The Hebert family temper made a brief reappearance then, until I pointed out that there wasn't any point being angry at a chunk of celestial rock, dubious parentage aside. The brief moment of levity headed off his rant before it really gained traction, leading to the rather obvious next battery of questions, such as what I could do, and what I was going to do.
After I'd voiced my desire to be a hero, he'd got this melancholy look on his face, before settling into a rictus of worry and concern. I'd like to think that I won the ensuing debate over my powers, but I think dad managed to wring as many concessions out of me as I did him. My base being a prime example. No-one expects a tinker to hide in a sewer after all. Even if it is disused and far enough away from the working section that the smell doesn't reach, but the premise stands.
I'd started moving my stuff down there last week with a judicious use of the teleportation 'Kanoka' I'd managed to cook up in the basement. Dad still hadn't stopped ribbing me about burning the spare sheets though.
We both decided, that as a tinker, my best advantage was in preparation. Given the amount of bullshit tinkers pull on a daily basis, going out with a pistol and a scarf wrapped round my face seemed like a joke the more I thought about it. Being head of hiring at the dockworkers association, dad knew that the more skills and achievements I had to my name, the more impressive I would look to the Protectorate when I decided to join the Wards. Or, at least that was how I had to sell it to him. It was debatable if I'd managed to convince him though; I'm pretty sure he knew the betrayal had hit me hard, and putting me in with a bunch of new people whilst I was still having trust issues, especially if they'd have to watch my back in combat, wasn't a good thing.
Given that getting the equipment needed for most of my tinkering necessitated invisibility and teleport spam when rooting around junkyards so I didn't get blindsided by one of the gangs, doing anything remotely tinker-like unmasked was a bad idea. In this light, buying vast quantities of metalworking tools and paint was not really an option. Because of this, the composite metal that I used for most of my creations, 'Protodermis', would remain the gleaming silver colour that my power created it as. Even so, the metal was tougher than any I'd tried to use before. Even if I had spent weeks collecting scrap to smelt to create the stuff. It was only due to the masks being different designs and my control power that I knew what everything was in the mass of metal.
Quite possibly the most surprising aspect of my power was the fact that I retained a rudimentary form of control over any of my creations that I imbued with my power. Nothing on the level of true control, but enough to send simple commands such as 'turn on', or 'decrease to half power'. Nothing ground-breaking, but it did allow me to understand every aspect of my creations, as well as give me a limited sort of omniscience, at least within my base. Or any other structure with a high amount of protodermis in it.
There were three main branches of my power; synthesising the protodermis from mundane metals, infusing the subsequent metals with differing aspects, and the small amount of control I exerted over anything I'd built. Each of these had its own sub-sets. When dad and I had talked through all the aspects of my power, this had been a minor stumbling block. We'd eventually written it off as 'tinker bullshit' before we gave up on the rules of physics entirely; my powers completely invalidated the conservation of energy; otherwise I was pulling from an external source. Dad thought that last part was too crazy to contemplate, but I had my suspicions.
The infusion aspect of my power was the part that gave me the most utility, allowing me to infuse my masks, projectiles and parts of my armour with additional characteristics. Characteristics that I could then use as if they were my own power. Tinkers were definitely bullshit; super speed, enhanced strength, flight, and that was only a few of the types I'd discovered. Not all of the infusion characteristics were transferrable however, some of the abilities that I'd infused into my masks I was unable to infuse into my armour, and vice-versa. Some though, like speed, worked both ways. The teleport discs I'd created also allowed me to imbue my armour with the ability to summon and exchange various pieces of my armoury.
Another of my more useful creations was the dome I termed the Suva. A round half-sphere set into the ground and wall of my base, it allowed me to switch between any of the masks that I'd stored in it; teleporting each onto my helmet for me to use as needed. My repertoire of masks at the moment only included three; the Kanohi Calix; mask of fate, the Kanohi Huna; mask of concealment, and the Kanohi Hau; mask of shielding. I'd mainly used the Huna thus far for aforementioned junkyard diving in order to accumulate scrap.
They weren't absolutes however; my shielding mask, the Hau, was a personal shield only, it had two settings, on or off. I couldn't change the diameter or strength of the shield at all, whatever I did it stubbornly remained at arm's length. If I wanted to use it to protect someone, I would have to get in between them and the threat, then pray that whatever it was wasn't able to overwhelm the shield.
Further testing proved similar restrictions.
The Calix, though allowing me to make near-impossible acts of acrobatics, wasn't encroaching on cape territory. It was more like the martial arts I'd seen on the internet, or those parkour videos. Impressive, but only at the level of a normal human. The Huna, though rendering me invisible, didn't muffle any noise I made, nor did it get rid of my shadow. It really did what it said on the tin; 'concealment', not sneakiness. That was down to me, the mask just ensured people couldn't see me.
Eh, I'd probably find something to fill that gap eventually if the bullshit I'd pulled so far was any indication.
Racing through the gloom of the boat graveyard, my breath sounded harshly in my ears as I forced myself through the small gap before me, hoodie snagging and tearing on the jagged edges of the hull as I hurtled through the gap; the thunk of a crossbow bolt embedding itself into the metal behind me spurring me forward.
The differences between myself and Sophia had come to a head last Thursday despite my best efforts, either of us unwilling or unable to comprehend the other's perspective. Her warped predator/prey mind-set had clashed with my own self-depreciation over my mother's death for the last time. We were simply too different, and unless we came to an agreement, we would continue to butt heads. So, we'd decided to resolve the issue the way any self-respecting cape would; with our fists.
How did I get myself into these situations again?
I burst out of the rusting carcass of the boat that I was using as cover, tearing across the uneven ground toward the next hull, counting in my head as I went.
Reaching the third count, I spun on my heel, raising my weapon in the direction of the boat I'd just vacated. Without hesitation, the newest addition to my armoury unloaded a ball of electricity into the listing structure, just as Sophia burst through the warped metal, moving at a dead sprint.
The Zamor Launcher was one of several projects that I'd been working on in preparation for this inevitable fight, but it was the only one to have been completed in time. The white ball soared straight for Sophia, crossing the distance before she'd even finished phasing through the boat.
Unfortunately, that trick only worked the first few times I'd tried it, and Sophia was already moving before she'd even seen the attack, throwing herself to the side and rolling out of the way of the projectile, reverting to her human form as she reached her feet, crossbow loaded and aimed in my direction.
She was good. She had to be, to have survived as a vigilante for as long as she had, but I'd done my research. As the black-clad cape rolled out of the way of my attack, I reached for the Suva, and one of my masks within. Drawing upon the Kanohi Calix; the mask of Fate, I stamped down, causing one of the rusted pipes beneath my feet to summersault into the air beside me.
Rising lightly on the balls of my feet, I spun; delivering a textbook roundhouse to the pipe. My greaves slammed into the metal with a clang; sending the spinning tube downrange. The impromptu projectile reached Sophia just as she straightened, knocking her weapon out of her hands and sending it skittering into the darkness behind her.
Barely flinching at the surprise attack, Sophia slipped into her Breaker state once more, jumping straight into the air whereupon she landed on the deck of one of the ships before reverting once more and turning to face me.
"And you say you're weak!" She crowed, voice breathless with an emotion I was hesitant to identify.
"You've been a cape barely two months and already you can already keep up with me!"
I sighed, already used to the euphoria in her voice from being the focus of weeks of her adoration. I'd just decided to run with it, since she only became more zealous the more I tried to dissuade her. Figures that the only thing that would be able to change her point of view would be through pitched battle. Some people really were simple.
Not even bothering to respond, I launched myself at the hull of the boat Sophia was using as a vantage point. My whole strategy at this for this battle was to deny her the advantage of close quarters combat. Due to the effectiveness of her hit-and-run tactics in tight spaces due to her ability to simply ignore walls, it was in my best interests to draw her to an exposed area bereft of structures she could use to blindside me. Part of this strategy was my electrocution of every conductive surface she put between herself and me, and limiting myself in open areas. Like Pavlov, I hoped to induce a specific behavioural trait into Sophia; specifically, the knowledge that metal equalled pain and open spaces resulted with myself with reduced capabilities.
Of course, this was blatantly untrue. The boat graveyard was filled with so much metal that even the open areas could become a veritable storm of lightning if I so wished. I just had to get her into a situation that I couldn't lose here in the maze of rust that gave the graveyard its name.
True to form, as I lit up the boat Sophia was on with my Zamor, she phased once more, leaping over my head, crossbow bolts raining around me as I ran. Dropping the enhanced reflexes the Cailx granted me for the defensive capabilities of the Hau; I weathered the storm of bolts, darting between two shadowy hulks as I continued to lure Sophia.
"Come! On! Hebert! You can take me head on, so take me head on!"
I smirked, hearing steps start behind me before going silent, a tell-tale sign that Sophia was pursuing me in her Breaker state, just like I wanted. I ducked through the halls of the defunct vessel, portholes flashing past me as I called upon the power of my final mask; the Kanohi Huna, disappearing from sight.
Of course, this did nothing to muffle my footsteps, my boots clanking loudly on the walkways with the ring of steel upon steel. I had no illusions that Sophia wouldn't be able to find me eventually, she'd been at this superhero game for longer than I had, for one. This was only to buy me time to set up the final confrontation.
Which is why I was understandably surprised when Sophia abruptly appeared before me, coalescing into her human form as her leg snapped out, her foot embedding itself into my ribs, sending me and my Zamor Launcher bouncing opposite ways across the floor, winded and visible once more.
Unfortunately, her kick had hit me in one of the few places I was lacking in armour. It took me a month to realise I could make my own metal; protodermis from scrap metal I'd smelted. Due to this, I only had the better part of the last month to construct my various pieces of equipment. Before the confrontation with Sophia, I was only able to make the helmet, chestplate, gauntlets and greaves of my armour. This meant my upper arms, legs and the lower parts of my abdomen were left uncovered, and she'd kicked me directly underneath the part of my body where my armour ended.
Looks like I wasn't the only one who'd done her homework.
As I blinked tears of pain from my eyes, Sophia drew her second crossbow, levelling it at my prone form. The winning conditions of our bout were simple; fight to unconsciousness, immobility or surrender. If she managed to pin me to the floor I was done for, and Sophia would win. Growling, I called on the Calix, windmilling my legs and knocking the weapon from her hands as I leapt up into a crouch.
Sweeping my leg round in an attempt to take her feet out from under her turned into a grapple fight on the floor as she jumped over my outstretched leg, grabbing me by the neck as my back was partially turned. I forced one of my arms up into her hold before she could start choking me out, pulling her hood over her face to restrict her vision with the other as I did so.
We struggled briefly for a few seconds before I heard the rasp of metal on metal just below me. Peering down through my rapidly darkening vision, I saw Sophia attempting to retrieve her crossbow with her leg, slowly pulling it closer even as she attempted to choke me into unconsciousness.
Letting her pull the crossbow just a bit closer, I waited a moment before lashing out with an axe-kick from my position on the floor, slamming my shin into Sophia's outstretched leg and snapping the crossbow beneath it.
Sophia let out a small cry of pain behind me, loosening her hold ever so slightly. Using the room that granted me, I forced my arm up against her arms, breaking her hold on me. I slipped out of her clutches, gasping as I rolled to my feet, putting some distance between us.
"Heh, should have known that wouldn't keep you down Hebert." Grinned Sophia, gingerly resting her weight on one leg until she was sure the leg I kicked wouldn't buckle beneath her weight.
"I knew this was gonna be fun when we started!" She crowed, shaking out her shoulders and settling into a ready stance once more.
Grinning despite myself, I charged, leading with a straight right that she dodged easily, before crumpling around my knee as I drove it up into her gut. With Sophia staggering backwards as the air rushed out of her lungs, I jabbed her in her shoulder, sending the black-clad cape into a spin that she turned into a roundhouse, her foot crashing into me for the second time tonight.
Our positions reversed; I was now the one staggering breathlessly whilst Sophia closed the distance, managing to connect with a solid left jab before I managed to get my guard up, her follow-up right hook glancing off my gauntlets.
My answering right was palmed away, leaving me open; a vulnerability that Sophia exploited ruthlessly. Her right fist came up in an uppercut, striking me on the chin so hard I felt my helmet ring like a bell. Staggering back to gain distance, I was only barely able to deflect the next flurry of jabs, returning with one of my own as she overextended.
My mouth stretched into a wide grin under my helmet, the rush of battle filling me. This was what I needed. This feeling of accomplishment, of tangible results. Me, a novice Tinker with half a suit of armour and little to no weaponry, was holding off an experienced vigilante. On my own. After all the weeks of doubt, of jumping at shadows waiting for the gangs to drag me from my bed, of waiting for Emma to decide I was not worth her time once more, of Sophia's hero-worship and dad's fretting. For the first time since my mother died I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. I knew who I was.
And I was loving it.
I let out a laugh of pure joy as I sent Sophia into another spin, the other girl recovering in a crouch and coming at me like a football player. I rose to the challenge, meeting her halfway. But instead of the impact I anticipated, I almost stumbled in shock as Sophia phased, her wispy form flowing through me, reforming on the other side just in time to wrap her leg around mine, sending me crashing to the ground.
Two can play at that game.
The Calix turned my headlong tumble into a smooth forward roll, but even with the assistance of the mask I barely curled myself into a ball in time. Screeching to a stop, sparks flying behind me, I lashed out with the back of my hand as I closed, teleporting a Zamor directly into my waiting hand as I swung. The improvised Taser caught Sophia as, once again, she phased to avoid my blow, the strike sending her careering down the corridor, skidding along the metal on her back.
Before she could recover, I was on top of her, prepared to bring my fist down in a strike that would end the fight. But before I could connect, she disappeared from beneath me, phasing through the floor as my swing hit nothing but air.
Raising to my feet, I rubbed my ribs and made a beeline for my Zamor Launcher before continuing to the open area I'd spied earlier in the fight. Prolonging the conflict only benefitted my opponent; whilst I may have been holding my own, she had more experience and it would only take one slip on my part for her to put me down hard. Besides, I was starting to tire, and the more I exhausted my reserves of energy the more likely I was going to make a mistake.
Launching myself out of a window with the tinkling of glass to accompany my descent, I hit the ground, tucking into a roll to preserve my momentum as I pelted forward on the rapidly shifting surface, my greaves scattering the scrap metal with every step I took.
Stopping in the middle of the area, I took a moment to check my surroundings. The clearing was a rough triangle shape, hemmed in on all sides by the hulls of rusting ships. It was the sort of area a movie would use for a boss fight. There was no way Sophia could refuse.
Sure enough, a black wispy form vaulted from the ship I'd just vacated, rolling to absorb their impact before charging me straight on, still in Breaker form. Oh Sophia, you really don't think I'm just going to wait for you to reach me do you?
Taking a suitably serious stance, I turned my side to Sophia, raising one arm to point at her, readying my Zamor to fire. It was only due to the enhanced senses adrenaline granted me in battle that saw the minute stiffening of Sophia's posture as her wispy form continued to barrel toward me.
We both knew that the next few seconds would decide everything. If I missed, I would not be in a position to prepare myself before she would be on me. On the other hand, if I hit Sophia, the metal around her would amplify my attack as the lightning grounded itself, leaving her out of the fight.
Good thing I didn't intend to miss then.
Narrowing my eyes and preparing myself for what would happen next, I tensed my muscles in order to move.
It was more of a hop really. It was too small to be called a jump, barely taking me over a foot in height. But it was enough. It was also a stupid decision. The jump heavily impacted my aim, and I wouldn't get my feet on the ground again in time to brace for Sophia's assault. She knew this, and the wispy form of my opponent hesitated for just a moment.
And it was in that moment that I struck.
Flaring my levitation panels to keep myself in the air, I fired. Not at Sophia, but toward the ground.
The metal-strewn, uneven ground.
The ball speared from my launcher, impacting upon the ground before shooting lightning out around me, the white fingers trailing out, spreading across the clearing in the blink of an eye. Sophia was blown back instantly by the impact. Unable to react to my attack in time, she reverted back to her physical form as she tumbled through the air.
Before she even hit the ground, I moved. Throwing my launcher aside, I let myself drop to the ground, my protesting muscles propelling me across the still-sparking ground as I raced to close with Sophia. To her credit, she was halfway to a sitting posture when I reached her, arm up in warning.
We stayed in that position for one endless second; me crouched over her, Sophia still in the process of getting up, before Sophia let out a huff of laughter, splaying her hands in the classic 'surrender' posture. Before she slumped back onto the floor with a clatter of displaced metal.
"Bloody hell Hebert, you win yeah? You should have more faith in yourself."
I let a chuckle escape me as I slumped over, finally allowing my aching muscles to rest as I pulled in great gasps of air to fill my burning lungs.
"You certainly didn't make it easy."
"Couldn't go anything except full tilt against you y'know. I wouldn't stand a chance otherwise."
"Sophia, I've said this before." I laughed, raising my hand towards the sky and clenching my fist, blotting out the star that always drew my eye; "I'm not strong. I've had too many things remind me of that." I finished sombrely, letting my fist fall to my side with a clash of metal.
I started, turning my head to stare at the other girl as her voice took on a more serious tone.
"Maybe you don't notice it yet, but you are strong. Stronger than me at any rate." Her voice took on a self-depreciating tone that unsettled me, but before I could interrupt, she continued.
"I mean, you're new, I've been at this for months. And you beat me. You beat me solidly; without even half your stuff. And even before that; what Emma and I did to you, you got back up from that, took us to task. Hell!"
I jumped despite myself as she shouted the last word, sending another small pile of junk scattering.
"It took a fucking meteor to get you to trigger, and even then you survived it!"
The girl turned to me then, looking me straight in the eye through her hockey mask as she continued;
"Wonder what it would have taken to trigger you if the thing hadn't hit. No Hebert, you're strong. You just need to realise it. You're the survivor. I mean, you enjoyed this right?"
I blinked in surprise.
Had she planned this? Pushed me so far in our arguments until she invoked the Hebert rage? To get me to value my powers, my strength? To get me to see myself through her eyes?
I laughed despite myself, remembering my joy of the fight, of the adrenaline pounding through my body. Of finally belonging.
Well played Hess, well played.
I smiled, letting my amusement over the situation leak into my voice as I spoke;
"Call me Taylor."
"Sure thing." And I could hear the smirk in her voice as she continued; "Tay-Tay."
I barked out a laugh, rolling towards her and swinging my arm over her in a one-armed hug as I manipulated my belt with the other, activating the teleportation disc set into the buckle, the pair of us disappearing from the graveyard seconds before Velocity blurred to a stop where we lay moments before.