Please Explain

Part Two: Explanations

Taylor had … changed.

This was most immediately obvious in the fact that she'd just kicked the crap out of Sophia, who was the toughest girl Emma knew—had been the toughest girl she knew, Emma corrected herself mentally—with no real apparent effort. There was also a clue in the way that she'd picked up Sophia and slung her over one shoulder, after waiting for her to finish puking on the lawn, to carry her inside. She was still skinny but looking more closely, Emma could see real muscle on her arms.

Sophia, still a little green around the gills, was now seated on the sofa. She'd recovered enough to sip from a glass of water that Emma had gotten her, but she wasn't getting up yet. From the wary glances she was sending Taylor's way, it was obvious that she was just as unsure what to do as Emma was.

"Sit down, Emma." Taylor pointed at the far end of the same sofa that Sophia was seated on. "I dunno what's going on, so you're gonna tell me." Her voice, still light and cheerful, held an undeniable note of command. Obediently, Emma sat. Taylor smiled, and perched herself in the armchair opposite. "Okay, so obviously something happened. Mind telling me about it?"

Reflexively, Emma glanced sideways at Sophia, but Taylor cleared her throat meaningfully. "Emma. I'm over here. I'll be asking her for her side of things later." With a flick of her eyes, her attention was now focused on Sophia, who flinched back ever so slightly. "Though while we're talking about it, what's your name? I can't just keep calling you 'her'."

Sophia hesitated, but only for a moment. "My name's Sophia Hess," she said, in a far less aggressive tone than she'd used outside. "And where the hell did you learn to do that?"

"Summer camp," Taylor said lightly. "Now, Emma. From the top. How did you go from best friend to bitch like that?" Her eyes bored into Emma's with almost frightening intensity.

Slowly, stumbling over her words, Emma worked her way through the terrifying events of that afternoon, and how Shadow Stalker had saved her. Taylor listened without comment, only offering an 'Mm-hmm' or a 'go on' when Emma's narrative faltered. Once she was finished, Taylor asked a few probing questions, eliciting a few more details. Emma was reminded strongly of listening to her father in court, teasing out the full story of a cheating husband or an unfaithful wife.

"Okay, then. Sophia, where do you come into this?" Taylor's eyes were back on the dark-skinned girl. "Emma hasn't said anything about you, yet."

Sophia rolled her eyes. "Oh come on," she said derisively, a spark of her old spirit showing through. "You're not fooling anyone. You know she was talking about me."

Taylor chuckled slightly. "Well, I didn't know, but thank you for confirming my guess." Her smile widened at Sophia's chagrined look. "I was willing to pretend, but now that it's out in the open, we can talk about it. Sophia, quick question. Emma said she saw you on top of the car before you attacked. How long were you there before you decided to actually help her?"

Emma blinked. In the space of a long breath, Taylor had gone from bubbly and chatty to intent once more, her eyes fixed on Sophia. She could see Sophia squirming slightly on the sofa, obviously not wanting to answer the question. This day was opening her eyes in more ways than one; she'd never seen Sophia lose a fight before, and she'd never seen her looking so uncomfortable either. And she'd definitely never asked herself that specific question before. Maybe because she didn't want to know the answer. Sophia, please say something. Save our friendship.

"Fuck you." Sophia started to get up. "I don't have to answer your fucking questions." Emma's heart sank at the harsh tone of her voice; it was obvious that Sophia was going to try to bull past everything Taylor was saying.

Taylor was on her feet even before Sophia got there. "That's your choice," she said, in the same light tone as before. "Of course, if you don't want to answer, you walk out that door and you never come back. Because Emma deserves an answer. And refusing to give her one is just a different type of answer. Do you really want that to be the last thing you say to her?"

Sophia glared at Taylor. "You're not the boss of me," she spat. "And this isn't even your fucking house. You don't get to say who stays or goes." Her eyes flicked to Emma, as if challenging her to woman up and kick Taylor out.

Emma drew a deep breath. She didn't want to do this to Sophia, but … "Um, actually, I do want to actually hear that answer. And if you walk out …" She grimaced. "I've never seen you run away from anything."

Shock widened Sophia's eyes. She shot a glare at Taylor, but didn't try anything aggressive. After a long moment, she sat down again. "Okay, fine. What the fuck was the question again?" Emma could almost see the waves of frustrated anger rolling off of her. She could understand the frustration, at least. Sophia had probably thought Emma would defend her blindly.

Also, there was Taylor. One minute, Taylor was happy and friendly; the next, she was focused like a laser beam. It was hard to get a handle on her, and Emma knew her. Well, she'd thought she did. The contrast was almost scary … which was a word she'd never thought she'd be applying to Taylor Hebert, except when it came to her attempts at cooking.

"Oh, good." Taylor's voice was chirpy once more. She seated herself back on the armchair, her legs curled up under her. "So, how long did you say you waited before you helped Emma?" Once again, while her voice was light and unconcerned, there was a deeper and more meaningful emphasis behind the words.

Sophia squirmed again. "I … long enough. To see that Emma was a fighter." She refused to meet Emma's eyes. Taylor said nothing, and the moment stretched out until Emma felt she had to say something to fill the void. But just as she opened her mouth, Sophia spoke again. "I did it for her!" Her tone was almost desperate. Turning her gaze to Emma at last, she said, "You get that, don't you?"

All of Emma's words had deserted her. Long enough? she wanted to ask. What does that even mean? But she felt that if she asked the question, Sophia would deflect and deny. She was good at twisting queries like that, especially when Emma wanted to believe her. Except that now it was Taylor questioning Sophia's motives, and Sophia's excuses were starting to ring hollow.

"Really." Taylor's tone never changed. "Emma's not a fighter. What made you think she was?" She turned her calm gaze to Emma. "Sorry to be so blunt, but you aren't. You're great with people, and you can do amazing things with makeup, and you make any outfit you're wearing look fantastic, but you aren't a fighter. It's not what you do well." While Emma was still gasping over that, Taylor looked back at Sophia. "You, on the other hand, are a fighter. You had to see that Emma doesn't have the right instincts for it. What the fuck made you think it was all right to leave her in the hands of gang members for one more second than necessary? Did you want to see her raped or mutilated or killed?"

Emma flinched back as Taylor raised her voice. "I fought!" she protested. "I did!" I was strong, she insisted in her own mind. I protected myself.

Taylor sighed. "All you did was provoke them. If Sophia hadn't been there, they would've done worse to you once they'd subdued you again." She leaned forward. "Look, I get it that you were in an unwinnable situation. There were no good options. But there were bad options and worse options. You took a worse option, because Sophia didn't step in the moment she saw you. And you only did that because she didn't step in." She swung back to Sophia, her eyes glinting behind her glasses. "And you, Sophia. What if Emma hadn't fought? Would you have stepped in?"

That was another question Emma wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer to. She was sure that Sophia didn't want to answer it, especially not in front of her. This was borne out by Sophia's shifting gaze. The black girl glared at Taylor. "I don't have to answer your fucking questions!"

"And there's your answer, Emma." Taylor didn't take her eyes off Sophia as she pointed. "There's the door, Sophia. If I ever see you within ten yards of Emma, I will kick the shit out of you again."

For a long moment, Emma thought Sophia was going to either get up and storm out, or physically attack Taylor. But she did neither. Clenching her fist, the black girl punched the sofa arm. "She fought! She's a survivor!"

Taylor's voice was flat. "Which means if she hadn't fought, she wouldn't have been a survivor, and she wouldn't have been worth saving. So you wouldn't have stepped in. Yes?" Her eyes bored in on Sophia's, light brown versus dark brown … and Sophia looked away.

"Sophia?" Emma hated the tremulous sound of her voice. Would she have really let it happen? She didn't know that for a fact, although she had a horrible feeling about it. "Tell me you would've saved me anyway."

"A word to the wise, Emma." Taylor's voice had gone back to that eerie controlled calmness. "In Sophia's world, there's fighters and other people. Winners and losers. Survivors and … people who don't deserve to survive. Which is utter bullshit. There are fighters, and there are the people they're there to protect."

"Fuck you!" The outburst was jerked out of Sophia. "If you can't fight, you're weak, and you deserve whatever happens to you!" She pointed at Emma. "She proved she was worth protecting. By fighting."

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Emma was always worth protecting. She doesn't need to fight to prove that to me." She shook her head. "A newborn baby can't fight. Is it worth protecting?" Her eyes were on Emma. "Ems?"

"Uh, sure," Emma said. "Of course." She wasn't sure where this was going.

"Okay, so at what point does this kid who's growing up stop deserving protection?" This time, Taylor directed the question at Sophia. "Take your time."

"When they're old enough to protect themselves," growled Sophia. "Fuckin' duh."

"And someone like Stephen Hawking?" pressed Taylor. "World-class brain, solves the problems of the universe in his sleep, but he physically can't throw a punch to save his life. Does he deserve protection?" She leaned forward again. "Think about this one."

"I don't have to!" Sophia was nearly shouting by now. "Of course you protect someone like that!"

Taylor leaned back, with an odd smile on her face. "Now we're getting somewhere. So if Emma hadn't fought, you wouldn't have protected her. Someone like Stephen Hawking, who can't fight, you will protect. Now tell me, what do you do if you see someone in a wheelchair who can't fight, but might or might not be a genius. Do you help him? Or do you wait for him to quote some genius information while he's being beat up?"

There was a strange look on Sophia's face. Emma realised why just a moment later, when Taylor's trap became clear. "Fuck you!" yelled Sophia. "Stop trying to confuse me!"

"I'm not trying to confuse you." Taylor looked over at Emma. "Are you confused?"

Emma wasn't confused, but nor was she happy. "Uh, no. People in wheelchairs can't protect themselves, so you do it for them." It made sense to her.

"But people who aren't in wheelchairs should be able to protect themselves! If they can't, then they're letting themselves down!" Sophia's voice was raised, as if to put her point across more readily. "It's their fault if they can't protect themselves!"

"And how about someone who's spent all their time learning to be a surgeon, but they have no idea how to fight?" Taylor spread her hands. "Someone who can save more lives than even you can on a daily basis, but because they're so good at it, they can't throw a punch to save their life? Is it still their fault?"

The correct answer was obvious, but Emma could see that Sophia was struggling not to agree with Taylor. Every time a new option was introduced, Sophia's wiggle room was reduced, and she hated it. Point by point, Taylor was demolishing Sophia's philosophy of life, and Emma couldn't argue with her. More to the point, she didn't want to argue with her oldest friend. Emma was always worth protecting. She didn't need to fight to prove that to me. That was Taylor, through and through.

"Fuck you." Sophia's gaze at Taylor was composed of pure undiluted hatred. "I'm strong. I don't lose. And Emma's strong, too. Even if you want to make her look weak."

Taylor chuckled. "Oh, Emma's not weak. Not being able to fight doesn't make you weak. Only an idiot makes that mistake. There's lots of different types of strength. I learned that at summer camp. The best type of strength isn't the one that lets you win, it's the one that lets you keep getting up and trying." She smiled at Emma. "I can see you've got that one in spades. Though there's also a strength in pushing past your own stubbornness and letting someone else help you when you need it most."

"Wait, wait." Emma raised her hand, almost as if she were in class. "The best type of strength isn't the one that lets you win?" Of everything Taylor had said, that made the least sense.

"Sure." Taylor nodded cheerfully. "That sort of strength is great, but what happens the first time you run into someone who's got more of that strength? You lose, and you feel like that strength has deserted you. You feel like you've got nothing. But if you've got the strength that says 'get up, try again', then you'll keep trying till you win." Standing up, she strolled over to Emma's end of the couch and perched on the arm. "You're hurting, I can tell. You're trying to hide what you think is weakness by pushing other people down. If those people want to help, to lend you their strength, then that's kinda the opposite of being strong, you know what I mean?"

"Shut the fuck up." Sophia's voice was vicious. "Emma doesn't need your strength."

Taylor tut-tutted and shook her head. "Sophia, we all need strength from each other. The world's a shitty place, and we're not doing ourselves any favours by turning down help." She put her hand on Emma's shoulder and squeezed. "Emma, I believe in you. Wanna come training with me some time? Dad's got me signed up for lessons. The guy's pretty good. He was helping me with my problems at summer camp, and he can probably help you with yours too. I mean, if you want."

Emma looked up at Taylor. Her friend's hand was warm on her shoulder. She was already intensely regretting the words she'd said outside. For a moment, she glanced over at Sophia. Sophia, who was making her stand on her own two feet and face the world by herself. Fake it till you make it.

Taylor, on the other hand, didn't seem to be a fan of faking anything. She was genuine, all the way through. The way Emma had used to think of herself. Taking a deep breath, Emma looked up at Taylor again. "Sure," she said. "I think I'd like that."

She felt Taylor squeeze her shoulder. She wasn't going to lie; it felt good. "So, Sophia," Taylor said lightly. "Offer's open to you as well. There's some holes in your technique, if you want to try to fill them." Somehow, Emma didn't think she was referring to Sophia's fighting style. Or at least, not totally.

For a long moment, Emma thought Sophia was going to accept the offer, but then she shook her head. "Nah," she said, a lot less violently than before. "But I'll be keeping an eye on Emma, make sure you don't turn her into a total wimp. And any time you wanna spar, come right ahead."

Taylor smiled. "I might take you up on that."