I watched the scene unfold below me.  I was too far away to make out more than a word or two of what they were saying, but I saw Troll pacing sideways, walking around her, looking her over.  She stood her ground admirably, whoever she was.

But of course, I knew who it had to be.  There was only one possibility.  Zoe.

It was my costume, I was sure of that.  Except for the boots… they were taller than mine, with a snugger fit and less heel.  That wasn’t surprising, though, as I knew Zoe’s feet were a size bigger than mine.  We were near enough to the same size otherwise for my suit of stretch Kevtex to fit her.

I almost jumped down there, almost confronted her.  Almost.  Then I realized, I’d never be able to keep my new secret from Troll if I did that, and I was determined that Shadowblade would steer clear of the Guardians at all costs.

I slipped away quietly, back across the rooftops, and made a circuitous trip back to the office.  As I pulled out onto the street on the Triumph I saw my car parked across from my building.  I sighed… I’d have to come up with a different strategy if she was going to be using the office as her jumping-off point.

When I got home, I took a shower and got into my PJs, and I sat in the living room with the lights off, waiting for Zoe to come home.  I had checked the shopping bag in my closet, and found just my two pairs of boots and the green G-comm I’d been issued… the costume itself was, of course, missing.

While I waited for her, I pulled up herospotter.org on my phone and checked the sightings for the previous days… the first sighting of Mystery Woman since I lost my powers was Friday night.  “She looked unsteady,” said one poster, and another replied, “Probably still recovering from her fight with Plasma.  It’s amazing she’s still alive… did you see his fight with Lightning?”

I heard the garage door open, then close, and then the door coming in from the garage opened.  I picked up the remote for the lights and turned them on.

“Oh!” she said.  “Polly, you’re home!”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I came in yesterday, actually, but you weren’t around to say hi to.”

“Sorry about that.  If you’d called, I would have picked you up.” she replied, starting for the hallway to her room.

“Hot date tonight?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Really nice guy.”

“I know all about him,” I said, holding up the shopping bag.  “My college roomie used to borrow my clothes, but this is a bit much.”

“Oh,” she said, her voice small.  “Polly, I…”

“Don’t bother,” I said.  I held up my phone.  “The herospotter people have seen you.  It had to be you, ’cause it sure wasn’t me.”

She reached into her purse, which was the biggest I’d ever seen her carry, and pulled out my costume; it was folded up really small, which was one of the features I’d always liked about it.  I had already seen that she was wearing the boots.  “Polly, I’m sorry,” she said.  “When I realized the switch wasn’t wearing off, that our powers weren’t going back, I started to think… I started to think that maybe San Francisco needs Mystery Woman.”  She sat down beside me on the couch.  “I know I’m not as good as you, Polly, but I’ll try hard not to embarrass you.”

I wanted to be mad at her, but I couldn’t.  She meant well, and she was my friend, and I just couldn’t be angry.  “It’s okay, Zoe.  Really.  I’ll just tell you what Lightning told me… take it seriously.”

“I am,” she said.  “I’m working hard to learn parkour, and tonight I finally found Troll and he agreed to train me.  I’ll learn, I will, I promise.”

I hugged her.  “You’ll be great,” I said, but even as much as I liked her and trusted her, I still wasn’t happy about the situation.  Maybe it was envy, or outright jealousy.  But I don’t like those things in myself, so I pushed my feelings back into a dark corner of my soul and smiled and tried to be happy for her.

One thing was certain, though.  If Zoe was going to hang with Troll, I couldn’t tell her about the sword.  Shadowblade had to remain in the shadows.

The next few days were hectic at work, but we weren’t getting much shooting done.  The insurance company came through with an advance, and I called our favorite construction guys to come in and build us some sets.

Frank found a used furniture dealer who sold us a huge iron-framed bed, the size of two queen-sized beds, which had come from the honeymoon suite of an old hotel.  We set it up on the third floor, not on a set per se but just sitting in the middle of the back part of the room.  The bed sat for almost a week before we managed to get bedding that would fit it.  “I love it,” said Frank after he had it all made up.  “The iron frame, the frilly bedding, the pillows… and all around it the brick walls, and the light!  I love the light in this space!”

“It’s great,” I said.  “A favor, sir?”

“Anything, dear,” he replied.

“Get me a shoot set up on this bed.  Another girl and me, and one of the guys.  That new guy, Kyle, maybe.  What do you think?”

“You and Kyle… and how about Chantelle?”

“Ooh, perfect,” I said, envisioning the scene… Chantelle was black, with medium-brown skin, a curvy body, and lush features, and Kyle was vaguely Italian-looking, pale skin with dark curly hair and dreamy brown eyes.  A nice mix of types, and a good way to break in the new bed.

We built three “floating” sets in the upstairs, staggered so we could work around them; the bed occupied the space where a fourth set would have gone.  We went with a regular bedroom that could be dressed in several different styles, a living room set with a big sectional, and a kitchen set with those big windows behind it that actually worked (as in, we could cook there if we weren’t busy having sex on the counter).  On the second floor we put together four floating sets: another bedroom, a working shower, an office, and an undressed set to be detailed later.

It’s not that we needed all that… it’s that we wanted it, and right then we could afford it.  I knew if we set it up right, the new building would meet our needs for the foreseeable future.

I spent my days trying to get my studio back in operation, and my nights working on my skills.  With Troll and Zoe patrolling the Tenderloin and surrounding areas, I moved my patrols south, into less familiar territory.  Pretty quickly I discovered that was where all the drug dealers and other lowlifes had gone when Troll and I ran them off… I had plenty of work to do.

I remember the first time.  I was just learning to slow down… I had spent so much time running through the city that it had become a habit, but it turned out just walking the rooftops worked too.  I looked down and saw a trio of young women buying pills from a man; they scattered pretty quick when another man came up, evidently another dealer, and the two began having what I assumed was a territorial dispute.  They got pretty loud, and their words confirmed my assumption.  “This is my corner, bitch,” yelled one man, and the other replied by pushing him against a wall.  I saw the first man draw a gun, and then the second had one too.

Obviously, they weren’t watching me.  I couldn’t just jump down and make a three-point landing… I’d break some bones that would take time to heal.  But sliding down drainpipes and fire escapes and the like worked well enough.

I walked out of an alley toward them, trying to make it look as if I planned to pass by, but one of them turned his head toward me.  “Dunno what you playin’ at, but you best git on down the street,” he said.

I curled my hand and the sword appeared, and before either one had time to figure out what had happened, I had hacked both of their guns in two, slashing up, then down.  I was a little surprised, even though I had expected it to work.

The one nearest me turned and pointed the remains of his gun at me and fired.  The bullet flew past my ear… it had been close.  But what remained of his gun fell apart when he fired it, and he threw it down and put his hands up.  “Don’t want no trouble,” he said, as the other dealer threw down his weapon also.

“Find another line of work,” I said, and with a flick of my wrist I cut his belt.  His pants, already riding kind of low, fell down around his ankles.  I quickly turned toward the other one, slashing through the mass of gold chain around his neck.  “You too.”

“Who… who are you?” said the second one, visibly shaking.

“Call me Shadowblade,” I said.  “Tell all your friends I’ll be around.”  I put the sword away, turned and walked back into the alley.

The following Monday I finally got my shoot with Chantelle and Kyle, and it was fun.  Popular, too.  As I was getting dressed afterward, Frank said, “I forgot to tell you until now… while you were away, Bella came in.  The afternoon you flew out, in fact.  I gave her the check we owed her, and she asked me if she could come back and do some shooting.”

“What did you tell her?”

“Same thing you did, dear… she needed to do something different.  Y’know what she told me?”  I shook my head, and he went on, “She wants to shoot with Nick.”

“Aaa!” I said.  “Everyone wants to do the kink.  Why?”

He laughed.  “Bella’s terms were simple.  No men in the scene, and no sexual contact.  Nick does the whole rest of her bit, dominating Bella, tying her up, and so on, but just no sex.  She consented to having her boobs handled, but nothing below the belt.”

I frowned.  “Will that sell?”

“It will, actually.  Sarah did the research.”

I sighed.  “Whatever.  If it makes me money and they’re happy doing it, what do I care?”

“Good attitude,” he said.  “Also, Nick wanted to use the big bed, but I told her she had to wait for your shoot.  Is it okay to let her have it now?”

“Sure, whatever,” I said, waving my hand in the air.  “She seems to be running the show these days.  Is Tabatha still on the job?”

“Yeah, she works with Nick to set things up.  Polly, I know you don’t like her, but Nick is the kind of traffic draw that Bella used to be, and she’s not like Devon… she doesn’t make anyone unhappy.”

“Anyone but me,” I replied.

Frank shrugged.  “Be that as it may… there’s still a demand for you to do a shoot with her.”

I frowned.  “Fine, I’ll do it,” I said.  “Tell Tabatha to set it up whenever she wants.  Might as well get it over with.”

“It’ll be next week at the earliest,” he replied.  “Nick’s next scheduled shoot is Friday.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Who is she abusing this time?”

“Zoe,” he said, and he walked out of my office before I could comment.