"Emma Barnes, you wipe that fucking smile off your face."
My Emma's hand on my shoulder, her voice in my ear; I lift my eyes and she's half-kneeling next to me, her face upturned and her hair like a beacon in the light from the far hallway.
My hand finds hers, fingers slipping and intertwining, and she looks down at me with that smile that twists in my insides, sweet and secret and filled with relief as she squeezes my shoulder -
And she rises, ball of foot and lifted knee and all the poise of childhood's dance lessons, sharp and bright and her cheeks burning red as she stares daggers at herself.
"I mean, it's not like you planned this, Emmaroid."
Emma's cheeks pale, lips parted as she stares herself down; she flinches a step back, and my Emma takes a step closer like she wants to get some blood on her dance card.
"You just thought, 'Oh, let's leave it in her locker so our little lost lamb can have a surprise waiting for her tomorrow.'"
She lifts a finger like a dart, and I watch as it pins into Emma's skin right below the hollow of her throat.
"Surprise, coppertop. You got what you wanted."
Motion draws my eye from the drama-in-diptych, down to where Sophia's on the floor on hands-and-knees, slowly drawing herself up into a sprinter's crouch.
Her eyes are on me, and the set of her face carries shock and fear that hardens into a snarl of almost-animal hate-
And her face is all I can see as she lunges into me, body colliding with mine and our arms and legs a tangle of puppet limbs as we roll and slide on the smooth, cold floor.
Sophia throws aside my warding arms and strikes at my face; I jerk backwards, hitting my head against the floor as my vision dissolves into static and purple stars and all I can hear is her harsh breathing as she clambers on top of me, teeth bared.
And through the disorientation, the shock, one thing stays with me: that little star-sense of my Emma in my mind, beaconing, beckoning bright, promising something safe.
Something flexes inside me, and that sense of my Emma's star trembles, flares-
And the weight is gone from my chest and I'm off the floor, up on my feet next to Emma as we stare at Sophia Hess going to town on me, her fists sounding wet and dull as she hits me, again and again and again-
Only I'm not me, not anymore, and I don't even have to look down at my hands to know I'm Emma Barnes now, and I can feel her star flickering, guttering under where Sophia sits astride Taylor.
I don't know what's happened, but it doesn't look like anyone's noticed as we all stare at Sophia and I- and Taylor, frozen in snapshot tableau.
And Dad moves, takes a step towards the two of them, starts to take another, only I see the muscles in his back tense as he brings his weight to bear and accelerates a steel-toed shoe into her side. There's a dull sound of impact and the sound of something popping and cracking and Sophia goes tumbling off the other me, sprawling onto the floor.
Dad steps over my body, face flushed red and fists knotted tight as he stares down at Sophia, her mouth a soundless 'oh' as she struggles to breathe.
"You stay the hell away from my little girl." The words drip from his mouth like pitch, thick and bitter and something down inside me flinches because I don't think I've ever heard Dad so ready to hurt someone.
Sophia stares up at him, eyes sharp with pain; her body shudders and she coughs, deep and racking, the sound explosive and echoing against the bare walls.
And then she's gone: desaturated, translucent, sinking through the floor until she vanishes from sight.
Sophia is gone and I'm still Emma and Dad is bent unhearing over my-copy-who-looks-like-Taylor, handkerchief dabbing at the blood on her face. He's looking down at her, a hand cradling her head and a tenderness in his eyes that makes me wish I could switch places with myself again.
Principal Blackwell hesitates, takes a cautious step forward, reaches out with a trembling hand to brush fingers against his shoulder, pulling away when he looks up at her with eyes that smolder with knowledge and anger.
"There's a first-aid kit in my office. Can you carry her there?"
He stares into her eyes. Looks down at his Taylor.
"We're calling the PRT."
And all she can do is nod.
We make an odd procession: Blackwell leading the way like an icebreaker, Emma and Madison flocking close to her, Dad coming along behind with my copy in his arms.
I'm the tag-along on the edge of the herd, small and cometary and somehow cold.
Dad won't let me get close; I'd come over to see how my other self was, but he just looked at me with cold eyes.
"I don't think you're good for Taylor right now."
That's all he says before he looks down at her, dismissing Emma and I and everything else in the world, with the exception of his little girl.
So I follow in superfluous orbit, my head spinning in a mess of revolution.
But Taylor is in Dad's arms.
I'm Taylor and I'm somehow Emma and I don't know what happens next.
I can feel my heartbeat, a fast and thready soldier's-march behind my ears.
God, I wish I could talk to me.
"Donna, I need the crisis binder."
I closed the door to the school hallway behind me as Blackwell spoke with her receptionist, reaching for the office phone. Emma and Madison had claimed one corner of the waiting area; Emma stared at me with flinty eyes.
We'd seen neither hide nor phantom hair of Sophia.
The 'crisis binder' was a thick three-ringed thing, flagged in primary colors. Principal Blackwell tucked the phone receiver between shoulder and ear as she dialed, then started paging through the binder.
"This is Principal Blackwell at Winslow High School; I'm calling to report a parahuman assault on a student."
She paused on a page, spun the binder so Donna could see it and pointed at an entry. Her assistant looked down� then looked up at her, surprise in the arch of her eyebrows, to which Blackwell just scowled and stabbed her finger down at the binder again.
Donna blanched... and finally nodded, turning in her chair to face the PA console and keying the switch for the intercom.
"Faculty and students: the Winslow campus is now under lockdown. Teachers, lock your classroom doors. Students, shelter in place; do not use school hallways until an all-clear announcement is made by an administrator."
I could still hear Blackwell on the phone. "Yes. No. No, not at present. Yes, Wards support would be emphatically appreciated."
She looked over at Dad, still carrying the other me.
"You should take her in my office - the door locks from the inside."
Dad looked at her, slowly nodded. He pushed off the wall he'd been leaning against, carrying Taylor back into Blackwell's office.
I silently followed them in, closing her office door and locking it behind me. When I turned around, he'd already arranged her in Blackwell's desk chair and had turned to face me, one hand flexing and reflexively bunching into a fist.
Which was when Taylor grabbed his wrist and he froze.
"Dad." Her voice was choked, thick. I heard the gurgling-drain sound of something clotted being cleared from her airway. "She's okay."
He looked back down at her; I couldn't see his expression, but I saw the hurt in her eyes.
He looked back at me finally, his eyes hard.
"Go find that first-aid kit. Make yourself useful."
I found the first-aid kit in Blackwell's bathroom, a thick orange-and-black bundle that I carried back into her office.
Dad was still bent over the other-me in Blackwell's chair, looking stooped and worn and somehow older than I'd ever remembered seeing him-
And the other me was slumped against that executive backrest, face pale, sweat beading on her face, one hand pressed to her chest.
I looked at that star-sense of her that I had in my head, felt how it flickered in long, rolling licks of corona like a candle's last gasp.
I didn't think it was going to be this soon.
I looked at her and something sickly twisted inside me as I realized I felt... relieved.
Because I wasn't her.
Because I wasn't the copy.
"Taylor?" Dad leaned in, dropping to one knee. "Taylor, what's wrong?"
And the other me smiled- tried to smile, blood red on the gaps between her teeth.
"Dad." She swallowed. "Love you."
"Little owl." His voice was choked, husky as he leaned in, folding his arms around his little girl-
-and as his arms closed around her, I watched her deform, crushing in his embrace like a piñata that's been left out to soak in the morning dew.
I heard her breathing rattle to a stop as he pulled away, his arms pulling through her and leaving wet-seaweed streamers of skin and muscle waving gently in the air between the two of them, already starting to fuzz and fray and decohere into nothing as he looks into her shock-wide eyes, watches her lips work silently-
-and all I can do is watch as my dad reaches out, a thin animal keening forcing its way from his throat as he watches me tear apart in front of him-
There's a whistling hiss and a thwack, the two sounds almost simultaneous as a carbon-black shaft erupts from the back of his shirt and he slowly topples into Taylor, tearing her apart like wet tissue paper.
I half-turn before I hear that sound again and feel something jab in my back like a pinched muscle.
And as my body stops working, as I crumple to the cheap office carpet, I see Sophia Hess, bandanna tied over her mouth and nose, crossbow pointed down at me.
And then I see nothing at all.