Shadow Stalker - Advent of a Hero
1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
2) I will follow canon as closely as I can (for the exceptions, see below). If I find something that canon does not cover, then I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, then I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
2a) There are a few changes from canon. Ages have been adjusted; Sophia, Taylor and Emma are all seventeen. Sophia is not in the Wards because she isn't as aggressive as in canon. Emma never got accosted in the alleyway. Taylor and Emma are in Winslow, and still friends with each other.
3) I welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion. Posting a negative review from an anonymous account is a good way to get said review deleted.
4) If you think this story looks very familiar, that's because it is. I removed it because of issues, and now that I've addressed those issues, it can come back.
Part One: Introduction
Just moments before, she had been chatting to her father about why it was okay that she hadn't been able to make it to summer camp this year. And then, the side street, the dumpster, the van blocking the street.
"Hold on," he'd said grimly, and rammed his foot to the floorboards. The old engine had roared gamely; the truck leaped forward at the barrier ahead. But then there came a lurch as both front tyres burst; the truck began to swerve. Danny fought with the wheel for a split second, then the back tyres went as well.
Spike strip, Taylor had thought fleetingly.
The truck had gone entirely out of control then, the tyres mushy on the rough asphalt. The swerve continued inexorably, Danny still fighting with the wheel, stamping on the brakes. Neither action seemed to do much good.
The truck had rammed into a brick wall; the impact was tremendous. The engine stalled. Danny slumped forward over the wheel, stunned. Taylor had hit her head, but she was still mostly aware of what was going on.
The truck door had been wrenched open, and hands grabbed at Taylor. She was dragged from the vehicle, unable to resist, unable to think.
"Fuck," said one of the guys. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
She struggled, uselessly.
Rough hands pulled at her clothing, reached inside, mauled at her. She screamed.
"Well, it's apparently a girl," grinned one of the gang members, a girl with green eyeshadow.
"Taylor!" she heard her father call. "Taylor!"
She was forced to her knees. "You're on our turf, bitch," growled the one-eyed gang member holding her. "Pay toll."
"Toll?" she croaked.
"Open your mouth or open your legs," sneered the guy. The girl beside him gave him a shove. "Oh yeah, Yan wants some attention as well."
"You service us all," said Yan, licking her lips, "you go on your way."
"No," mumbled Taylor. "Please, no."
At that moment, she saw the cloaked figure, crouching on the roof of the truck. Her eyes met those of the girl behind the metal hockey mask. Help me, she tried to say, but the words would not come.
She heard her father's voice again. It seemed very far away. She was forced to all fours. The one-eyed guy was behind her, tugging at her pants.
Oh god oh god oh god
The world went away.
Taylor didn't know where she was. It was dark; distant points of light were all she could see. And then two great creatures swam into view, trailing spicules of some sort of material behind them. One such shard hove into view, heading straight at her.
It struck her, pierced to her core.
She didn't even have time to wonder why she wasn't breathing.
The world came back. The cloaked figure seemed to be slumped, unmoving, on top of the truck cab. She felt the tugging at her pants, more insistent now.
She struggled against the arms holding her down. Wrenched free. Shoved one of them. He went backward, falling and skidding on the asphalt. She came to her feet, wrenching her pants up into place again. The one-eyed man grabbed her by the arms; she spun around, breaking his grip, then punched him. He went over backward, blood flying from his nose. The girl moved fast toward her, a slim blade in her hand.
Taylor had been acting on instinct up till now; she tried to jump back, didn't move fast enough. A flash of light on steel, the edge raking across her belly, cutting her shirt. A sharp pain, blood staining her shirt.
She gasped, put her arm across the wound. The girl snarled in triumph. Taylor lurched forward, punched her with her free hand; it felt like a feather-blow. The girl sailed away from her fist, clearing the truck and smashing into the brick wall beyond. She fell out of sight, leaving a bloodstain on the wall.
Gradually, her vision cleared. She looked around. The cloaked figure was looking up from the last of the gang members, slumped on the ground. Danny was climbing dazedly from the truck.
Her stomach hurt. She moved her arm gingerly; nothing seemed to spill out. The cut stung like fire, but she thought it was only superficial. Hoped it was.
The cloaked girl stepped toward her. "That was fucking awesome!" she enthused.
Taylor stared at her. "Why ..." She swallowed and tried again. "Why didn't you help me?"
Shadow Stalker didn't speak for a moment. The girl was taller than her, and skinnier. Long, long legs. Big round glasses, huge tragic eyes behind them. She felt ... something. A stirring. Stronger than she'd ever felt before.
The girl took another step toward her, arm pressed against the superficial wound in her stomach. It wasn't bad; Sophia could tell from the way she moved. No impairment.
"Well?" the girl demanded. "That bastard was about to rape me. And you did nothing."
Sophia grinned behind her mask, shrugged a little. She had her philosophy, but all of a sudden, looking into that serious long face, she felt a lot less sure of its validity.
"I ... wanted to see who you were?" she ventured.
"You fucking what?"she asked.
The dark-cloaked figure, shorter than her, repeated her words. "I wanted to see who you were."
Taylor shook her head. "Oh, you have to be fucking kidding," she growled. She reached out with her free hand and grabbed the cloaked figure around the neck.
"What the fuck does that even mean?" she shouted.
Sophia was startled when the girl grabbed her by the throat. She was strong – she'd just punched that girl over the truck – but strength meant nothing when you could just ghost away from your problems.
She went to shadow form. Easy as pie.
Only, she couldn't move. Was held in place. The girl still had a grip around her throat.
She didn't have to breathe, but …
How the fuck is she holding me?
And then she felt pressure. Actual. Pressure. This is impossible. Shit, I'm in shadow form and she's squeezing my throat!
When the cloaked girl went a little fuzzy around the edges, Taylor was mildly startled, but she still had hold of her. She squeezed a little, experimentally. Yeah, still got her.
"I can squeeze harder," she growled. "Stop doing whatever you're doing, and answer my fucking question."
Sophia reverted to human form.
"How are you doing this?" she husked.
"Answer my question first," the girl snapped. "What does that even mean, you wanted to see who I was?"
"Uh, it's about living and dying, survivor and loser. Predator and prey," Sophia said quickly, working to get the words past the grip on her throat. The girl loosened up slightly – she's got me helpless with only one fucking hand! – and Sophia found she could speak more easily.
"Make sense sometime soon," said Taylor. Her voice was dead level; she didn't have to articulate the 'or else'. She saw Danny standing dazedly, watching her. There was blood on his forehead.
"Uh, if you fight back, you're a survivor. If you don't, you die. I wanted to see which one you were," said the girl rapidly.
Taylor lifted her arm away from the gash in her stomach. "I fought back and I got this!" she screamed. "I could have died! Does that look like the act of a survivor to you?"
She pushed the costumed girl away from her; sending her sprawling. Turning, Taylor stumbled toward her father; he met her halfway.
"Taylor, oh my god, are you okay?" he gasped.
"My stomach hurts," she said, and collapsed.
Daniel Hebert carried his unconscious daughter three blocks until he found a working pay-phone and called the police. When they arrived, he directed them to the site of the attack. All of the gang members were gone, but the truck was still there, with burst tyres.
Danny and Taylor were taken to the hospital, where both were treated for head trauma and bruising. Taylor was also treated for a shallow knife-wound across her stomach, not deep enough to be serious.
A shadowy figure paced them all the way, on the rooftops.
Two weeks later, feeling much recovered, Taylor went back. She carried pepper spray and a knife under her coat, but she had a feeling she would not need either.
She looked over the site where the attack had taken place. The truck had been towed away, there were no longer any unconscious bodies, but the place was still the same. She shivered.
I nearly got raped here. I nearly died here.
What the hell am I doing, coming back?
"You were right."
She whirled. The voice was quiet, the figure almost invisible, in a dark corner of the alley.
"Who are you? What do you want?" demanded Taylor.
"I want to apologise," said the girl, stepping out of the shadow. "You were right. I was being an idiot. I'm … I'm sorry."
Taylor got the impression this girl did not say those words very often. But why was she saying them, to Taylor, now …
Memory clicked into place. Same body type, same place. "You're her!" she snapped.
The girl nodded. "Yeah," she said. "It's me. I'm her." She took her hands out of her jacket and walked up to Taylor. "So hit me. Kick me. Do whatever you want. I won't stop you."
Taylor stared at her. She was dark-skinned, and so pretty, almost cute. And her large brown eyes looked at Taylor's so sadly.
"But … why?" she asked.
The girl stared her in the eye. "Because I would have let that happen to you. Because I thought I was doing the right thing. Because I was being a moron."
Taylor slapped her. She didn't use more than one or two levels of amp, so the slap only spun the girl around; it didn't break her neck or send her flying.
Sophia went to one knee, holding her hand over her cheek. Christ, she thought. That nearly took my head off. And I think she was holding back.
And then she felt hands helping her up. "Come on," said the girl. "Get up. I'm over it now."
Through watering eyes, she stared at the girl. Accepted the hand up.
"I'm Sophia," she said.
"Actually," said the other girl, "let's start again." She held out her hand. "Hi, Sophia, I'm Taylor. How are you doing?"
Sophia shook it, head still spinning. "Fine. I'm pleased to meet you, Taylor."
Taylor smiled. "So, wanna get something to eat?"
Sophia smiled back. "Love to."
The two girls sat outside the street cafe, eyeing each other curiously. Neither spoke until the food had arrived, and not for a little time after that.
"Okay, I'll bite," said Taylor at last, after chewing and swallowing a calamari ring. "Why?"
Sophia looked at her while she took a drink from her shake. "Why what?" she asked.
Taylor bit into another calamari ring. "Why the whole predator/prey mindset? We're human beings, not animals. Surely to God we've evolved past that bullshit."
Sophia very nearly snorted her drink out through her nose. As it was, she coughed and choked, and Taylor had to slap her on the back.
"Sorry," she said eventually, her eyes streaming. "But you just invoked religion and evolution in the same breath. It just sounded funny, is all."
Taylor grinned, her mouth wide, her eyes large behind the round glasses. "I guess I did, didn't I?"
Sophia barely heard her. She could hardly take her eyes off of Taylor's face for a moment. It was like she was seeing the taller girl for the first time, as if the lines and planes of her face had just fallen into an ideal pattern, formed some perfect image, matching a template buried deep within Sophia's subconscious.
It was like she'd been searching for it forever. And now she'd found it.
She blinked and shook her head. Taylor was looking at her oddly.
"Sorry," said Sophia. "I think I zoned out there for a minute."
"Well, yeah," Taylor agreed. "You feeling okay? I did hit you a bit hard, there."
Sophia nodded, cautiously feeling the side of her face. She tasted blood from the inner side of her cheek, where her teeth had cut it. It felt like there was some swelling, but it wasn't going to be too bad.
"Nah, I'm good," she said. "But I'm not going to piss you off again in a hurry. You hit like a fucking freight train."
Taylor grimaced. "Sorry. I only meant to use normal strength. An extra level of amp just … crept in there." She picked up her sandwich, took a bite.
"Amp?" asked Sophia. "What's that?"
"It's what I call ... what I can do," confessed Taylor. "It's probably a stupid name. There's probably something better I can call it, but I just call it that."
"But why 'amp'? What does it mean?"
"Ah," said Taylor. "It's short for 'amplitude' or 'amplification'. When I need more ... well, strength, or durability, basically, I just amp myself up. I get stronger, tougher, denser." She frowned. "But it's weird. I don't get any heavier."
"Okay, I get that," said Sophia, taking a bite of her burger. "Basic Brute power. But how the hell can you still grab me when I'm in shadow form?"
Taylor raised an eyebrow. "Shadow form?"
Sophia stared at her. "When I go all ghosty? I can walk through walls? Nothing can touch me, except electricity, while I'm in that form. But what you do isn't electricity. It's like ... I haven't changed form at all. Like you're ignoring the fact that I've changed."
"Huh," said Taylor. "I didn't know. All I saw was you sort of went fuzzy around the edges."
Sophia blinked. "So I don't even look ghostly to you?"
"Not really," said Taylor. "Should you?"
Sophia nodded. "It's what everyone else says."
Taylor shrugged. "Then I have no idea."
They chatted for a while longer, then parted ways, each heading back home. Sophia gave Taylor her mobile number; Taylor gave Sophia her home number.
Sophia called up a week later.
Danny answered the phone. "Hebert household, Danny speaking."
"Hi, this is Sophia. Is Taylor there, please?"
"Uh, sure. Hold on a moment."
He put the phone down, went upstairs. "Taylor?" he said, knocking on her bedroom door. "Phone call for you. Someone called Sophia?"
She looked up from the book she was reading. "Sophia?" It took a few seconds to place the name. "Wow, really?" She rolled off the bed and trotted downstairs.
Sophia sat on the rooftop with her mobile to her ear. She heard the phone being picked up. "Hello?" came Taylor's voice. "Sophia?"
"Yeah," said Sophia. "It's me. How've you been?"
"Oh, so-so. I keep getting accosted in dark alleys by girls in weird costumes."
"Oh, ha ha," said Sophia. "It was only the once, it was broad daylight, and I wasn't in costume."
She could hear the grin in Taylor's voice. "Yeah, but it sounded good. So what's up?"
"Oh, nothing much," she said, trying to sound casual. "I'm out on patrol right now. I was thinking, once I finish up here, we could go out, get a bite to eat?"
"Actually," said Taylor, "I've got a better idea. How about you drop around? We can always set an extra place for dinner."
"Um, sure," said Sophia. "That'd be great. If your dad's okay with it, I mean."
"Wait one," said Taylor. Holding the phone to her chest, she called out to Danny. "Dad, is it okay if Sophia comes over tonight?"
"Remind me," he said. "Who's this Sophia? One of Emma's friends?"
"No," she replied. She suddenly realised that she hadn't told him about the meeting with Sophia. "She's someone I met awhile ago. She's nice."
Well, she's trying hard to be nice ,she told herself. Making the effort.
Much later, she would wonder why she never asked herself why, at the time.
"Sure, Dad says it's okay," Sophia heard Taylor say. "Any time between seven and eight is good."
She felt her heart unaccountably leap in her chest. "Sure," she said, trying to maintain the casual attitude. "I'll be there."
She was about to continue the conversation, but then she heard a cry of distress. "Whoops, gotta go. See you then."
"Later," said Taylor, but Sophia was already hanging up. She leaped across the rooftops in the direction of the call.
Taylor hung up the phone and looked around at her father. "Thanks, Dad," she said. "I think she's kinda lonely, doesn't have many friends."
"What, like you?" grinned Danny, ruffling her hair.
She grinned back and ducked her head. "Well, if I make friends with all the kids who don't have friends of their own," she pointed out, "we'll all have friends."
"Your point is valid," he said. "So, an extra place for dinner, huh? Did she say what time she'd be turning up?"
Taylor shrugged. "When she could?" she hazarded.
"Thank you, Captain Precise," Danny retorted. "Okay, we'll put hers in the oven until she gets here."
She smiled and hugged him. "Thanks, Dad," she said.
He hugged her back; they were doing this more often, these days. "Anytime, kiddo," he said.
She went to the sofa, and continued to read her book. He started dinner.
Three teenagers wearing gang colours – Merchants, by the look – had cornered a woman with a baby in a stroller and a teenage boy in an alleyway. They closed in, tossing knives from hand to hand and indulging in the usual unimaginative gang trash talk. The baby in the stroller bawled, while the other two shrank back against the wall.
Come on, thought Sophia, fight back. Show you're survivors, not losers.
But then she recalled Taylor's words of a week ago. We're human beings, not animals. Surely to God we've evolved past that bullshit.
And she leaped, turning to shadow in midair as she fell toward the unsuspecting Merchants below.
"So where do you go to school, Sophia?" asked Danny.
"Arcadia for the moment, but that's about to change," admitted Sophia. "I went there on a sports scholarship which has basically run out. So when the break's over, it looks like I'm going to Winslow, given the money situation."
"I'm going to Winslow," said Taylor. "It's not all that bad."
"You do know that the ABB and Empire Eighty-Eight recruit from Winslow, right?" asked Sophia.
"Yeah," said Taylor airily, "but that's okay. I'm not Chinese, and I don't care about skin colour. Plus, I keep my head down."
"What she's saying," said Danny dryly, "is that her friends are going to Winslow, and so even though her grades are good enough to get her into Arcadia, she's choosing to go to Winslow anyway."
"Well, if it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me," replied Sophia with a grin.
Later that evening, they stood outside the house, as Sophia prepared to leave.
"Your dad's pretty cool," Sophia commented.
"He is," agreed Taylor.
"You haven't told him about me, have you?" Sophia noted.
Taylor shook her head. "That's between you and him. Not my business."
Sophia nodded. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"Actually, you know," said Taylor. "If you joined the Wards, they'd probably sponsor you straight back into Arcadia."
Sophia stopped and thought about that.
"…nah," she said at last. "If you can hack Winslow, I can hack Winslow."
Taylor grinned, her teeth white in the darkness. "Take care, Soph." She hugged the shorter girl.
Sophia was more than a little surprised by the hug. But the hug was nice. Really nice. It had been a long time since she had been hugged by anyone other than her mother. It was a novel sensation. Cautiously, she hugged Taylor back. "You too, Taylor," she said.
And then she was gone, a shadow on the wind.
Six days later, the phone in the Hebert household rang, at about a quarter past eleven in the evening.
Danny considered letting it ring, then cursed himself even as he stumbled out of bed and made his way downstairs. He answered the phone in a fairly bad temper.
"Danny Hebert here. This had better be important."
"Mr Hebert," he heard. "Please … help. It's … it's Sophia."
Danny blinked, his temper draining away. "Sophia … ah, you came over for dinner? What's the matter? Why are you calling us?"
"I'm hurt," came the laboured answer. "Can you come get me? Taylor can explain on the way."
Still in her flannel pyjamas, Taylor nursed the large first-aid box as the truck bounced and rattled toward the destination. Danny peered at the road ahead with fierce concentration but was able to somehow carry on the conversation as he did so.
"So you're saying that she's the same one who stood by and let us be attacked last month," he said. "Let you almost get cut open."
Taylor sighed. "She's changed, Dad," she said. "She told me she's really, really sorry."
"Well, she seemed nice enough when she came over for dinner," allowed Danny. "And she sounded pretty desperate over the phone."
Taylor nodded. "She's really independent. Doesn't want to join the Wards. It must have cost her a lot to call for help like this."
Danny pulled the truck over and they got out. Taylor's slippers were inadequate for the rough ground, so she tossed them back into the truck.
He frowned. "There's broken glass and worse around here, kiddo," he warned.
She nodded. "I'll just amp up a bit, then," she said. There was no visible change, but her movements became subtly more ponderous, more stately.
They found Shadow Stalker backed into a corner, down on one knee, a blood-stained cloth bound around one leg. She had both crossbows out, threatening a semi-circle of gang members who were slowly advancing on her.
"Stay back, Dad," said Taylor quietly. She gathered herself and amped up as hard as she could, then leaped.
It seemed like it only took a tap of her foot on the ground and she floated away like a feather. Danny looked down at the four-inch depressions in the asphalt that she'd left behind.
Sophia was starting to think she'd really have to shoot someone when the brightly-clad form, dressed in flannel pyjamas of all things, dropped out of the sky and landed three paces in front of her. The impact drove dust upward all around, and sent cracks radiating outward through the asphalt.
Taylor grinned at Sophia, tipped her a wink, then turned to the gang members. Keeping her face down so that the single overhead streetlight put her features in shadow. "Okay," she said. "Who's first?"
One of the gang members – Merchants, Taylor thought – rushed forward, swinging a pry-bar. Taylor put her hand up, almost in slow motion, and caught it. Despite the fact that she was about half his size, it stopped, ringing with the impact, at her palm. Gently, she deprived him of it, and tied it in a knot, dropping it to the ground thereafter.
Half the Merchants started moving away at this point. Flannel pyjamas or not, cute round-lensed glasses or not, someone who could jump or fly like that, and could bend steel in their bare hands, was not worth messing with.
One of the remainder pulled a pistol. Taylor saw it, and shoved on all the amp she could manage. As he fired, she held up her hand in a desperate warding gesture.
By sheer fluke, she felt the stinging impact on her palm, and closed her hand.
When she opened it, there was a round red mark in the middle of her palm, and the flattened bullet lay beside it.
She took the bullet, held it up, and crushed it flat between finger and thumb. Then she took a step forward; her foot seemed to come down lightly, but it crushed its way through an inch of asphalt and the reverberations of the impact seemed to echo for several seconds.
"Next," she grated, the word taking a second or so to say.
Taylor let the amps fall away; the ringing in her ears stopped, and she felt her heart speed back up to its normal rhythm. The feeling of compression, of sheer inertia, also fell away, until she was moving almost normally.
"Okay," she said to Shadow Stalker, "let's have a look at that leg."
Sophia was staring at her.
"What?" asked Taylor, as Danny hurried forward with the first-aid kit.
"You caught a bullet," said Sophia. "How the fuck did you do that?"
"Uh, put my hand in the way?" said Taylor. "Stung like a bitch, though."
"Uh, girls?" said Danny. "As the only non-powered person here, how about first aid now, power analysis later?"
"Uh, yeah," said Taylor. "Sorry, Dad."
She knelt down in front of Sophia and helped her take the makeshift bandage off.
Three days later, Sophia sat opposite Taylor at a table in the food court of the Weymouth Mall. Her crutches leaned against her seat.
"So how's the leg going?" asked Taylor.
"Can't wait to get back to kicking ass and taking names," grumped Sophia. She frowned. "How about you? Thought of a name yet?"
Taylor shook her head. "Breaker, maybe. Amp? Something like that. But … I'm not really sure I want to do that."
Sophia grinned. "It would be great to have you out and about with me. Backup is always nice."
She couldn't stop staring at Taylor. It wasn't just her face. It was her whole attitude. She was … confident. In a way that not many people could pull off.
Taylor shook her head. "Could you imagine me in a skintight outfit?"
Sophia could, actually. It formed some of her night-time fantasies.
Taylor decided to change the subject. "So, I've been meaning to ask. How long have you had your powers?"
"Oh, about three years," said Sophia. She took a drink from her slurpee. "My big brother and I were out to see a movie; we were cornered by some Empire assholes. They wanted beat him up and do worse to me." She shuddered, lowered her head. "Sorry."
Taylor covered Sophia's hand with her own. "It's okay. You fucked up, we got past it, you apologised, I slapped you."
Sophia grinned. "I couldn't eat with that side of my mouth for two days." She didn't move her hand from under Taylor's.
Taylor rolled her eyes. "I said I was sorry."
Sophia grinned and shook her head. "I still don't get it with your powers. How does that shit work, anyway?"
Taylor took a deep breath. "I'm not really sure. All I know is, when I need … more, I can get more. If I'm really angry or really upset, I can overtop what I need, but it doesn't usually undersell."
"Like when you punched that girl," Sophia said. "That was fucking awesome."
Taylor shook her head. "I think I might have killed her."
Sophia stared. "She tried to kill you!"
Taylor took hold of Sophia's hand. Sophia caught her breath; Taylor didn't seem to notice. "It's not the same, Sophia," she said earnestly. "We shouldn't kill if we have any other option. That's why I just frightened the Merchants off. I didn't need to hurt them; I just needed them gone."
"So, we just let the bad guys go now?"
Taylor shook her head. "No. We need an in-between option. Between 'useless' and 'splat'. My strength tends to scale to my need. So I need to learn not to get angry in a fight."
"Otherwise you might end up putting your fist through someone, gotcha," agreed Sophia.
Taylor shuddered. Sophia squeezed her hand. Taylor looked at her, slightly surprised. Sophia smiled and squeezed her hand again.
"Hey," she said softly. "You're not alone."
"I …" said Taylor. She paused. "When I met you again that first time, I thought I was going to hate you." She squeezed Sophia's hand. "But you're just someone who was trying to make sense of the world the way you saw it."
"And royally fucking it up," agreed Sophia. "But you helped me get my head out of my ass."
Taylor grinned. "But you did take it out of your ass. And I actually think you're kinda cool, now."
Sophia's face darkened with a blush. "Taylor … I …"
Taylor looked at her. "What?"
Sophia couldn't find the words. So she stood, leaning on the table, and kissed Taylor on the lips. Not hard, no tongue, but more than a friendly kiss. Much more.
Taylor's eyes went very wide indeed.
Sophia pulled away, looking at her anxiously. "Taylor …?"
Taylor blinked a few times. "You … you feel that way about me?"
Sophia nodded. "I do. Yes. I have almost since I saw you." She met Taylor's eyes, and her gaze dropped. "But you don't …"
Taylor grabbed her hand and held it tight.
"Sophia," she said firmly. "I like you. I think you're cute as hell. I think I might feel something for you. But I'm not ready for that … not right now. Okay?"
Sophia sat down. She held Taylor's hand tightly. "Still friends?" she asked hopefully. "No weirdness?"
Taylor giggled. "We're both weird," she pointed out. "But yeah, we're good." She brightened. "Oh, hey. My best friend has been out of town on summer break. She gets back tomorrow, I think. I just gotta introduce you guys."
Sophia raised an eyebrow. "'Best' friend, huh?" she said with a grin.
Taylor nodded earnestly. "I've known her since … oh, first grade."
Sophia tilted her head judiciously. "Okay, I'll give you that one. What's her name?"
"Emma," said Taylor with a grin. "Emma Barnes."
End of Introduction