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Heroes & Villains [Worm Post-GM AU One-Shot]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Sep 24, 2017.

  1. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Heroes and Villains

    Disclaimers:

    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. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
    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.


    [A/N: This is a one-shot, beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
    [A/N 2: The story diverges just after the start of Gold Morning (Extinction 27.3) when Taylor goes to recruit Sophia Hess from out of juvenile detention. It doesn't go very well.]
    [A/N 3: If the dialogue from the first section seems familiar, it's because it's taken from Extinction 27.3, rewritten to be from Sophia's PoV.]




    2013
    Gold Morning
    Earth Gimel


    Sophia snarled a vicious epithet as she wrestled with the guard, hampered badly by the electrified cuffs holding her hands behind her back. “I’m going to break you!” On the other side of the glass, Hebert seemed remarkably unmoved by the outburst. She didn't even look like she was upset by the chair Sophia had kicked at her through the glass. This only managed to piss Sophia off even more; she'd spent hours practising that trick.

    “Take a minute or two to calm down.” Hebert's tone was almost bored. She could've been reading from a script. “Breathe. If you can relax, if you can look me in the eye and promise you won’t hurt me or anyone else, I’m going to give the go-ahead for you to leave.”

    Sophia stopped struggling in pure shock. She wouldn't. There's no fucking way she'd have the balls to get me released. Or the pull to make it happen. No fucking way. She was only vaguely aware that the guard wasn't wrenching her arms out of their sockets any more.

    “You’re joking.” That was the guard, her tone almost as disbelieving as Sophia's whirling thoughts. She didn't let Sophia up, though. The way her cheekbone was pressed against the ledge inside the window, Sophia was pretty sure she was going to have a bruise. She couldn't even see properly, with her hair all over her face. Air sawed harshly in and out of her lungs.

    Hebert should've laughed then and told Sophia that of course it was a fucking joke. It was what Sophia would've done in her place. Along with a shitload of other stuff, of course. But even as Hebert kept talking, Sophia had her epiphany. She's taking me out to kill me. She'll tell them that I tried to kill her, or tried to escape.

    “Offer’s open just a bit longer, Sophia.” Sophia couldn't see Hebert's face, but she knew that the bug bitch wouldn't have changed expression. With what Sophia had realised was going on, it didn't surprise her. “I want to take some time to get ready, and if you’re coming, you’ll need the same.”

    Hah—as if. She really wants me out of here, so she can kill me. Or have someone else kill me. Make it look like I forced them. Fuck that. Sophia felt the guard moving, but couldn't take advantage of it from where she was. Her arms were hauled up by the chain of the cuffs, until they were held taut above her. Pain lanced through her shoulder joints, but Sophia bit her lip and refused to make a single goddamn noise. With her head down, her hair over her face, she was able to grimace all she liked. Just so long as she didn't give Hebert the satisfaction of hearing her make a noise.

    “I’m not asking you to fight Scion.” Hebert's voice was almost patient. As if she were explaining matters to an idiot. If she thought Sophia was falling for that, she was the fucking idiot. “Just doing search and rescue would be fine. It’s not safe, but-“

    “Will you shut up?” Sophia finally managed to speak without groaning from the pain in her shoulders. “Shut up and fuck off. Fuck off and die, for all I care. Just shut the fuck up.” Silence fell after she finished speaking. She bit her lip, determined to stay silent. The coppery taste of her own blood filled her mouth, but still she kept quiet. You're not pulling that shit on me.

    The sigh from Hebert was almost too quiet to be heard, but Sophia registered it anyway. “If that's the way you want it, Sophia. I thought you were better than that.” She paused for just a moment. “Door to where the others are on Earth Bet.” Silence fell after that.

    A moment later, Sophia raised her head, wondering what the hell that last bit had been about. To her astonishment, there was nobody in the room beyond the window. The door, which Sophia would've heard open and close, remained adamantly shut.

    “The fuck?” she blurted. “Where'd Hebert go?” Almost instantly, she regretted the outburst; not because it would invite retribution, but because it made her look weak and stupid. Weak and stupid were two things she couldn't afford to look like, not inside.

    The guard chuckled, a humourless sound. “Like she said. A pretty little door opened in space and she stepped on through it. Left you behind.” She wrenched Sophia around and marched her toward the door. “Back to your cell, Hess. You don't get to leave today.”

    A sudden doubt ran through Sophia's mind. What if she wasn't going to kill me? Hebert was always weak, but she was never petty. And even if she was gonna kill me, I coulda gotten around her, got these cuffs off. She began to wonder if she'd just made a bad mistake. “Wait, I've changed my mind. Call her back!”

    The guard's harsh laugh pummelled at her ears. “You've gotta be kidding, Hess. Even if I could, I wouldn't.” Sophia knew that there was no more to be done by asking. Instead, she clenched her teeth against the pain in her shoulders. With every step back to her cell, she became more and more certain that she'd fucked up.

    Badly.

    <><>​

    2014
    New Brockton Bay
    Earth Gimel


    The war had been long since won. Sophia had heard conflicting rumours about what had happened to Hebert. The most unbelievable one—that she'd gotten Panacea to push her powers to the next level, Mastered everyone, and kicked Scion's ass—was also the most prevalent one. What had happened after that varied in the telling. Some said she died, some that she went mad. Others said she stepped away through one last impossible doorway in space. But at least she hadn't come back to gloat or to rub Sophia's face in her victory.

    The only thing that Sophia knew for certain was that Hebert hadn't returned for her while the war was actually on. Hadn't picked her for the army of capes which had harried the golden man until he died. She wasn't sure what to think of that; on the one hand, it was somewhat of a relief to still be alive, when so many had died. On the other, there was the nagging feeling of having been judged not good enough.

    “Sophia Hess.” She brought her head up, staring straight ahead at the magistrate, or judge, or whatever he considered himself to be. He was giving her what he probably thought was a stern glare. She returned it, showing him what a real glare was all about. This idiot didn't know the first thing about real judgement.

    “Yeah?” she retorted. A moment later, a shock ran through her cuffs. Not enough to knock her to her knees, but it definitely got her attention. “Fu-!” she grated, biting off the second half of the word. I wish they'd stop doing that.

    Now that I have your attention, Miss Hess.” The asshole's voice was dry. “I will advise you to be careful, or be held in contempt of court.” He paused, obviously waiting for something. Sophia knew damn well that if she said or did anything, she'd just end up with another shock, or whatever other punishment they decided to hand out to her. The judicial system of New Brockton Bay, she had discovered, was a little more robust than what she'd been used to, back before Gold Morning. There was less coddling of inmates, and more of an air of you are here to be punished. Get used to it.

    “You were first imprisoned on Earth Bet in two thousand ten, then again in two thousand eleven,” he went on. “Originally, you were sentenced as a juvenile, but now that you have turned eighteen, your case has come up for review. Normally, I would be inclined to be lenient. Your crimes were committed in another world, after all, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge in that time. However.” He leaned forward, and she felt the first stirrings of apprehension. This did not look like a guy who intended to let her go free.

    A movement caught her eye, and she glanced up. There, leaning back in a seat in the upper gallery, was a familiar face. The blonde hair, the overly smug grin, they could belong to only one person. Fucking Tattletale. Beside the blonde bitch was a slightly younger girl; black, with a faded purple streak through her hair. Sophia had no idea who that was, but from the intensity of her gaze, the girl certainly knew her.

    Up at the bench, the magistrate was still talking. “Upon looking over your case, I have determined that your laundry list of crimes, committed both in your civilian identity and as the costumed so-called hero Shadow Stalker, has not yet been properly addressed.” He paused, looking her over. There may have even been a hint of sympathy in his eye, but she doubted it. Nor would she have trusted if it had even been there. “Do you have anything to say for yourself before I pass sentence?”

    “If I say something, will you slap me with contempt of court?” She felt safe asking that.

    With a slight smile on his face, he shook his head. “No. You may speak your mind.” The patronising tone irritated her more than ever, but she restrained herself.

    “Okay, then. I got something to say.” She took a deep breath. “You got no idea what it's like to be a hero out there. I wasn't just hurting people for kicks. I was being a hero. You know what a hero is? A hero's someone who goes out there and does what needs to be fu- what needs to be done. Anyone can get a cat out of a tree, but when bad guys need to be put down? That's me. Yeah, I might've kicked a few heads too hard, and one or two assholes might've died, but when it came down to it, I made life better.” Breathing hard, but not able to think of anything else, she subsided, glowering at the magistrate. Fucking pick the bones out of that one.

    “Certainly you did,” he agreed, surprising the hell out of her. “For everyone except your victims, of course. The ones you picked on just because you could. The ones you tried to murder, just because they were inconvenient to you. Miss Hess, that's not the definition of a hero. Unless you consider it to be a heroic act to destroy property and to lock an innocent girl into her own locker?”

    Realisation slammed into her. They knew everything. Someone had given them chapter and verse on what she'd done at Winslow, to Hebert, as well as everything else. How did they even find that shit out? And then she looked up again. Tattletale was leaning forward slightly, her green eyes alight with amusement. She gave Sophia a tiny finger-wave, as if acknowledging the new understanding. Beside her, the black girl was less restrained; she gave Sophia the finger with both hands at once, and mouthed something. Sophia wasn't great at lip-reading, so all she got was this is for … Ryan? Maybe Brian? She had no idea.

    “Don't bother answering.” The magistrate was speaking again. “That was a rhetorical question. Sophia Hess, I hereby sentence you to fifteen years in prison, less time served. You will become eligible for parole in five years.” The gavel—actually, some sort of rough wooden mallet—banged on to the bench. “Take her away.”

    Now Sophia saw it all. She hadn't had a chance from the beginning. This had all been a charade, set up to make her think she possibly had a chance to get out of this. And Tattletale had been behind it all.

    She'd been looking forward to this, to her eighteenth birthday, to freedom. Only to have the rug yanked from under her.

    Twelve more years, five if I play the game their way.

    Fuuuuuuck.

    <><>​

    2015
    New Brockton Bay Correctional Center
    Earth Gimel


    Sophia let her eyes wander around the small office to which she'd been taken by one of the guards. There was no desk, just two moderately comfortable armchairs with a low coffee table in between, and a row of cabinets on the far side of the room. The air smelled a little musty, as though this room hadn't been used very much. She wasn't quite sure what was going on; the guard hadn't been very communicative. Probably some sort of therapist, to see what sort of crazy I've got going on.

    The lock clicked—of course they'd locked her in—and the door opened again. The guard leaned in, gave her a suspicious glance, then disappeared into the corridor again. Sophia didn't care either way. She had no plans to assault the therapist; that would screw with the reputation for good behaviour which she'd carefully built up. Plus, the guard would electrify the cuff around her ankle, which would leave her twitching in her cell for hours. So instead, she leaned back in the chair as a woman entered, carrying a tray upon which resided a teapot, a teacup, a bowl of sugar and what appeared to be a small milk jug. The remark about time you got here rose to Sophia's lips, but then she blinked and stared. “Hey, don't I know you?”

    With movements both studied and precise, the Japanese-American woman placed the tea-tray on the small table between them and took the seat opposite Sophia, then smoothed her skirt before answering. She looked almost exactly the same as Sophia recalled her, with maybe a few more lines on her face. “Hello, Shadow Stalker,” said Jessica Yamada, her voice showing none of the surprise Sophia felt. “It's been a few years, hasn't it?”

    “I'm not Shadow Stalker any more,” Sophia said automatically. “That shit went sideways when the PRT shoved me back into juvey.” Even now, she still got the cold chills when she recalled how Regent had so casually toyed with her. Even after he'd told his teammates that he'd set her free, he hadn't. With no effort at all, he'd totally fucked up her life and landed her in a cell. God, I miss being Shadow Stalker. But Shadow Stalker no longer existed, any more than the PRT or even the Protectorate.

    “I don't think being Shadow Stalker had anything to do with wearing a mask and punching criminals.” Mrs Yamada eyed Sophia keenly. “It was always about what was inside you. The costume just let you show it to other people. I think you're still Shadow Stalker inside, where it counts.” She leaned forward to take up the teapot and poured herself a cup of tea, then added some milk. Stirring it in made a tiny chiming noise, but Sophia barely even noticed. With one off-hand observation, Yamada had torn away Sophia's self-assumptions, leaving her reeling and dazed from the implications.

    Sophia shook her head roughly, trying to re-centre herself. “What are you trying to say?” This wasn't the Mrs Yamada she remembered from the Wards sessions. This Yamada's voice was firmer, her words cutting deeper.

    Jessica Yamada sipped at her tea. “I'm saying you've lost your way, Sophia. It happened long ago, and you managed to fool yourself into thinking that you've been on the right path ever since, while in fact you've been going in circles.” She put the cup down and stirred in a little sugar, then sipped at the tea again. “Ah, perfect.”

    Sophia had been gut-punched many times, but this was one of the few times it had happened without anyone ever touching her. “The fuck you say. I know who I am and where I'm going.” But despite her bravado, she wavered. How is she fucking with me like this? It used to be easy to dance rings around her. “And what the fuck are you doing here, anyway?”

    The therapist regarded her steadily over the rim of the teacup. “I heard you were in here. There are so few left from old Brockton Bay, from before Scion destroyed Earth Bet. I couldn't help but feel I'd failed you in some way.” She shrugged lightly. “My work is near here, so I thought I'd come and see what I could do for you.”

    Sophia's laugh was harsh, even in her own ears. “Too little, too late. What did they tell you about what I've done?” She braced herself for the look of condemnation that she knew she'd see on Yamada's face. Yamada would know everything, of course, and just like everyone else she'd see the bad and ignore the good. It was what everyone else did.

    “Nothing.” Jessica Yamada sipped at her tea again. “I didn't ask.” She put the cup down with a tiny clink on the saucer. “I'm here to ask you.” Leaning forward, she let her eyes meet Sophia's, her expression open and non-judgemental.

    Sophia floundered. “What the fuck? You think I'm going to tell you what I've done?” She had no idea what was going on, a feeling she hated. Whatever mind games Yamada was playing, she wanted no part of it.

    “Well, why not?” Jessica Yamada opened her hands, palms facing toward Sophia. “This isn't the Wards, where you can get suspended or worse for admitting to the wrong thing. You're already in jail, Sophia. There's no more reason to hide what you've done, or why you did it. And I'm willing to listen.” She leaned back, relaxing in her chair, her fingers lacing together lightly. “Unless, of course, you're satisfied that you got a fair hearing the first time around.”

    God fucking damnit. Sophia had never played chess and had no idea how the stupid game went, but she understood the term 'checkmate'. It was the same thing as when no matter which way some stupid mook went, she was always three steps ahead. Jessica had just outflanked, outmanoeuvred and outsmarted her. Of course Sophia knew that they hadn't given her a fair hearing. I'm in here, aren't I? And there was supposed to be no better listener than a therapist.

    Sophia took a deep breath. “One question.” Opposite her, Mrs Yamada gestured gracefully, her expression receptive. Go for broke. “If I do this … will it help reduce my sentence?”

    Jessica Yamada tilted her head slightly. “I can't promise anything,” she said firmly. “However, it certainly can't hurt.” Her gaze was as direct as ever.

    Well, at least she's not bullshitting me about it. Sophia nodded in acknowledgement. It was the best deal she was going to get, and she knew it. “What do you want to know?”

    Mrs Yamada's face gave away little of her inner thoughts. “Why don't you start from the beginning?”

    Sophia nodded. That was as good a place as any. “I was twelve when I triggered. A couple of months after my birthday, actually. Mom was out of work, life was just getting shittier all the time, and Stephen wasn't helping.” She grimaced at the memory.

    “And Stephen was your father …?” Mrs Yamada let the question hang in the air as she sipped at her tea once more. She took no notes, showed no impatience, and indeed gave the impression that she was willing to sit there all day merely to listen to Sophia.

    “Mom's boyfriend.” The grimace hadn't gone away. “He was a real asshole. One time he …” She spoke on, talking about things she hadn't even thought about for years. Time ticked on, and Mrs Yamada listened.

    <><>​

    2017
    New Brockton Bay Correctional Center
    Earth Gimel


    Another day, another therapy session, another cup of tea. Sophia had come to look forward to Mrs Yamada's visits. Other therapists had come and gone, but they all came with preconceptions about why Sophia did stuff. Mrs Yamada just … listened. She was the only one who'd known Sophia from before, the only one with whom Sophia could share anecdotes that they could both appreciate.

    By now, they had gone through all of Sophia's history, and were now going back over the stickier points. Mrs Yamada, too, had brought in a second teacup for Sophia, so that they could share the sweet beverage. At first it had been an acquired taste, but Sophia rather enjoyed it now. She liked hers without sugar and with more milk than Mrs Yamada did, a preference that drew no more than a mildly raised eyebrow.

    “So why did you attempt to murder Skitter?” Mrs Yamada's tone was, as always, curious. She spoke like an academic earnestly attempting to learn the cause of a war that had been fought and lost centuries past.

    Sophia grimaced at the reminder of her biggest mistake. She took a drink of her tea, but knew the question would still be waiting for her when she finished. The trouble was although she'd considered her reasons to be good, they weren't standing the test of time so well. “She had my secret identity,” she mumbled. “I didn't know she was Hebert—I mean, Taylor—then. Just that she was a member of the Undersiders. And they'd been blamed for outing the Empire Eighty-Eight, not long before Leviathan hit. So if she'd out them …” That wasn't all of it, and they both knew it.

    “Still, I don't understand,” Yamada said. “You were still a Ward then. We both know the penalty for unmasking a Ward was the Birdcage, and I'm sure Skitter knew it too. Surely murder was a little harsh, under the circumstances. You had her down and helpless; I would think bringing her in for capture was also a reasonable option, and would make you look good.” The irritating part was that she made a really good point. Her logic forced Sophia to face the questionable aspects of her own actions.

    “Yeah.” Sophia expelled the word in a sigh. “I was angry then. I'm still angry now, but I spent a lot of time being pissed about things that didn't really matter. I hated that she knew who I was, and she could hold it over me at any time. And there were the other Undersiders, especially Grue, who didn't like me either. If anyone was gonna use my identity to screw me over, it was them.” She thought back, trying to recapture the white-hot intensity of her anger against Skitter, against the Undersiders. Against the world. Somewhere, somehow, it seemed to have ebbed a little.

    Did they ever try to hold it over you?” Jessica's voice was calm and reassuring. “Did she?” She had to know the answer—in fact, Sophia had answered this same question back when they went over this the first time—but Sophia took her time thinking about it.

    “No.” She paused for a moment to let the thought complete itself. “And you know something? I don't think they ever would've. It wasn't their style. Thinking about it now, I'm not even sure they were the ones who outed the Empire. I mean, seriously, the infodump that happened? That wasn't Tattletale's style at all. She was always about the big reveal where she was in the middle of everything, showing off how goddamn smart she was.” There was venom in her voice now, but that was more to do with thinking about how Tattletale had screwed her at the review than in her battles against the Undersiders.

    “So why did you consider murder to be a more viable option than capture, at that time?” Mrs Yamada leaned forward to refill her teacup, giving Sophia time to think. Sophia knew this had to be deliberate, but she appreciated the breathing space anyway. She asked herself the question, hoping to find a different reason than the one which had initially suggested itself.

    “I … liked the way things were, after Leviathan.” She was surprised at the feeling of mild shame that crept over her. “Less in the way of rules and control. We could do more. Get away with more.” It had been sharper, rougher. She'd never felt more alive, even with villains overrunning the city.

    “Because it reminded you of the days before you were caught and inducted into the Wards?” suggested Mrs Yamada gently. “The feeling that nobody could tell you what to do?” She paused to sip at her tea, leaving Sophia momentarily stunned. That was an insight that she never would've reached on her own, but it was so … right. The heady days of her early time as Shadow Stalker … it had felt the same.

    “ … Yeah.” Sophia shook her head gently. “That's … damn.” A noise caught her attention. It sounded like a scuffle in the corridor. “What's going on out there?” She glanced at the clock; it still showed twenty minutes before the session was up. “Did they reschedule or something?” Carefully, she put her cup down.

    “Not that I know of.” Mrs Yamada frowned slightly. “Hopefully it's noth-”

    The door burst open, and three inmates pushed their way into the room. There were two men and a woman, and they had the slightly crazed look of someone craving their next fix. Mrs Yamada, looking up over her shoulder, made a sound of surprise, but Sophia was already on her feet. “Wrong room, guys,” she said flatly. “Fuck off.” Break out of prison all you want, but you don't fuck with my therapy sessions.

    “The fuck?” The biggest guy was a lump of steroid beef with a shaved head and heavily stubbled jaw. Sophia wasn't quite sure how he fitted into his prison sweats, but removing the sleeves must have helped a little. He had the slabby muscle of someone who lifts weights almost mindlessly, as opposed to a well-rounded exercise schedule. To round out the image, his arms were covered with a mishmash of crudely-done tattoos. He stared at her almost uncomprehendingly. “The fuck you think you're talkin' to, bitch?” Stomping forward, he attempted to loom over her menacingly.

    “Fuck talking!” The other guy was shorter and skinnier, which made him about Sophia's size. Of the three, his eyes were the craziest, and his gingery hair stuck out in all directions. If Sophia had run into him in Brockton Bay back in the day, she would've picked him immediately for a Merchant. “Drugs! Where the fuck are the drugs?” Ignoring the confrontation between Sophia and the big guy, he went straight to the cabinets set along the wall and started yanking at the locked doors.

    “Leave those alone!” Mrs Yamada stood up, but she wisely didn't approach the ginger-haired guy. However, her raised voice got the attention of the female prisoner. This one had only been in for a year or two, as her messy brown hair hadn't finished growing all the way out, but the impression that Sophia had gotten the few times they'd crossed paths was of someone who wasn't playing with a full deck. The crazy bitch looked around and started toward the therapist; as she did so, her right hand went behind her back and emerged with a shank. This one had been made from a sharpened piece of wire fastened to a length of dowel, and Sophia thought she saw dried blood on it.

    Cursing under her breath, Sophia didn't bother with any more warnings. Unlike Big and Stupid in front of her, she'd taken care to vary her exercise routine every morning and evening, to keep her body properly trim. She may have lacked the constant challenge of gang thugs to beat up, but there were always people who took a while to get the message that she wasn't for sale or rent. Through sheer bloody-minded persistence, she'd managed to prevail until the assholes decided to look elsewhere.

    The guy at the cabinets was temporarily occupied, but the mountain in front of her was likely to interfere if she moved away. Reason wasn't going to work on him—not that she had time to try it—so she went with the universal backup. Bracing herself on her off-leg, she kicked him solidly in the nuts, taking care not to give him any prior warning. With a less than manly scream, he temporarily abandoned his aggressive attitude toward her to clutch at the injured part of his anatomy. With that problem momentarily dealt with, she whirled away from him and toward the female prisoner.

    Shank raised, the woman was almost on top of Jessica. Sophia stepped forward and latched on to the woman's right wrist, yanking hard to pull her off balance and turn her away from the therapist. As a continuation of the move, she brought up her right knee into the woman's gut as hard as she could. With a painful whoosh of air, the woman began to double over, whereupon Sophia took hold of the back of her opponent's head with her left hand and drove the bitch's face down onto the upcoming knee. Cartilage crunched and blood flowed, but although the woman staggered, she didn't fall. Worse, she tried to swap the shank to her left hand, which Sophia didn't have control of. So she kneed the bitch twice more in the face, only harder.

    Third time was the charm, for the woman sagged toward the floor. Knowing the fight was far from over, Sophia grabbed for the shank as it dropped from the bitch's hand, but missed; it clattered to the floor and rolled under the small table.

    Shit. Shit shit shit. She would've gone for it, but she saw Mrs Yamada's eyes widening in alarm. Diving forward over the limp body of the woman, she felt the wind of the fist as it brushed through her ponytail; had she remained where she was, the punch would probably have taken her head off. Pulling off an awkward shoulder roll, she came to her feet and turned just in time to duck under another haymaker blow. She let loose a couple of punches into his midsection, something that should've left him gasping on the floor, but his abdominals absorbed the majority of it. This was not going to be the way she'd win the fight.

    When he lunged for her again, his movements were faster than she'd expected. Shit. Wishing she had access to her powers, or her crossbows, or anything that might help her get the upper hand on this monster, she dropped her weight and darted to one side to avoid being trapped against the wall. Scarred knuckles smashed into the panelling, shaking the office. A framed document fell to the floor, the glass face shattering. Instinctively, she kicked sideways at his knee. He screamed as it crunched and sent him tumbling to the floor. Knowing he wouldn't stay down long, she looked for some way to finish the fight. Briefly she eyed the shattered glass, but without something to protect her hand, she'd cut herself as badly as she cut him. A leg from the table was also out, because there wasn't enough time to get it.

    Plan C it is, then. I hate Plan C.

    With a groan, he got up on to his hands and knees. It's now or never. Throwing herself on to his back, she snaked one slim wiry arm around his neck. He was one of those guys whose neck was nearly bigger than his head, but with a little effort, she locked the stranglehold into place with her left arm. His head immediately went down as he tried to block her, but she laughed behind gritted teeth as she hung on for dear life. Too late, asshole. It didn't matter how big or how strong he was; all she had to do was maintain pressure over the carotids long enough and he'd just fall over.

    He clambered to his feet, lifting her with him. Desperate to get rid of her, his thick fingers scrabbled at her arm, to no avail. Then he reached for her head. But this was where his over-muscled form worked against him; he was so bulky that he couldn't reach that far back. He lumbered around the office, bashing her into the wall and the bookcases, but she refused to let go. It spurred her on to feel him weakening. She just had to hold out for a few more seconds. I don't lose, asshole.

    All at once, his hands fell away from her arms—she knew she'd be bruised after this—and he went to his knees, then to his face. Breathing as hard as she'd ever done after running a race, she extricated her arm from around his neck and checked his pulse. It thudded along strongly, and the temptation was there to press on it again and hold pressure until it stopped forever. But she shook her head and banished the thought. That's not who I am, now.

    Staggering to her feet, she could feel every bruise and cut that the brawl had inflicted on her. She looked around to see if Mrs Yamada was all right, and saw the therapist standing, looking somewhat sheepish, over the sprawled body of the ginger-haired convict. He was lying alongside the small table; the shank next to his hand. His head and upper body were soaked with steaming liquid, and Mrs Yamada herself was holding the broken-off handle of …

    “The teapot,” Sophia said, impressed despite herself. “You hit him with the teapot.” It had been a good blow, she gauged; the teapot had been neither light nor fragile. Bits and pieces of glazed ceramic were now scattered here and there on the tea-stained carpet.

    “I had to.” Carefully, Jessica put the handle down on the table. She seemed to be shaking slightly. “I didn't want him to stab you. Or me, of course.”

    Sophia stepped closer. “That was your grandmother's teapot,” she said carefully. “You told me. It was over a hundred years old.” And she broke it … to save me? She searched Mrs Yamada's face for a sign of why she would do such a thing. The therapist was no fighter, but the idea of her sacrificing something so precious beggared the imagination. For me?

    “It can be repaired or replaced.” Jessica met her gaze squarely. “You can't.” She began to shake again, and Sophia closed the distance between them. Tentatively, she put her arms out. Even before she went into prison, it had been years since she'd hugged anyone. The feeling of warmth and closeness as her arms went around Jessica, and felt the return hug, struck a nerve deep inside her. They held each other for a long moment, each deriving comfort and support from the embrace.

    Finally, Sophia pulled back and put her hands on Mrs Yamada's shoulders. “Thank you,” she said simply. There were many more words she could have spoken, and yet they would all have fallen short. Thank you for saving me. Thank you for sacrificing your teapot. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for taking the time to help me. Thank you for showing me that people can be good and decent, in a way that I can understand.

    <><>​

    “Hold still,” Mrs Yamada chided gently. Sophia flinched, then controlled the reaction as the antiseptic stung the cut on her back. Next, she felt the coolness of the dressing being applied. “That should almost do it … ah, here comes the cavalry.”

    And not before damn time. Sophia lifted her head; kneeling on Mrs Yamada's chair with her shirt pulled up at the back, she had a perfect view when the guards burst in through the office door. They surveyed the room, taking in the prisoners—whom Sophia had insisted on restraining before Mrs Yamada began to treat her—and Sophia herself, with Mrs Yamada standing behind her.

    “Are you all right, ma'am?” asked the first guard to enter, looking at the wreckage. “What happened here?” He scowled at Sophia, who didn't even bother to sneer in return. All she wanted was her bed and twenty-four hours of uninterrupted rest. She had trouble accepting that she'd once gone out and done this sort of thing several times per night, three or four nights a week.

    “I'm perfectly fine, Mr Godfrey,” Jessica said, pulling Sophia's shirt down again. “These people came in looking for drugs, interrupting our therapy session. Sophia stopped two of them, and I broke a perfectly good teapot over that one's head.” She brushed a few strands of hair out of her eyes. “I'm afraid that the office is a bit of a mess now.”

    “No kidding.” The guard pushed his cap to the back of his head., then eyed the overmuscled con who was just now discovering that his thumbs had been tied behind his back. “You took down those two, Hess? How the hell did you do that? Your cuff still working?” His eyes went down to the electronic cuff around her ankle. She reached down and pulled up her trouser leg to show him the steadily blinking light. His hand went to the control unit at his belt, and she tensed. If he decided to test it by shocking her now …

    But instead, he must have pressed the self-test button. The electronic unit beeped cheerfully and the green light blinked a complicated code before going back to its standard on-off-on-off pattern. “It's fine,” she said, grateful that she wasn't twitching on the floor. “That one, I kneed in the face. The big asshole, I choked out.” She kept all trace of braggadocio out of her voice. No sense in antagonising the guards.

    The guard—Godfrey—looked from her to the unconscious prisoners, and back again. Eventually, he nodded. “Right.” Then he addressed Mrs Yamada. “Either of you need medical attention, ma'am?”

    Jessica shook her head. “I'm fine. Sophia only had a few cuts and contusions. I've already treated them.” She stepped forward. “She acted only to save me, Mr Godfrey,” she said softly. “I will be submitting a report to that effect. Please take that into account in your treatment of her.”

    He cleared his throat. “Hess has always been a hardcase, but she's never been a troublemaker,” he admitted grudgingly. “She's gonna have to go back to her cell now, until they round up everyone. But she won't be gettin' in trouble for this.” His eyes, as they swept the office and ended up back at Sophia, held a certain amount of respect. “Guiterrez, escort Hess back to her cellblock, then report back here on the double.”

    One of the female guards, a blocky woman who would've outweighed Sophia and Jessica together, stepped forward and took Sophia by the upper arm. Obediently, Sophia got off the chair. “On it, boss.”

    Jessica smiled at Sophia. “I'm sorry about not having a longer session. Same time Saturday?” She still looked a little shaky, but from what Sophia could see, she was bearing up under the strain. That, Sophia decided, was one tough lady.

    “Sure thing.” Sophia gave her a genuine smile in return. “See you then.” With Guiterrez at her side, she left the office. She'd be sore for a few days as everything healed, but that was nothing. There was a realisation that she was just now coming to terms with. Jessica was right, after all. Even without powers, even without a costume, I'm still Shadow Stalker. It's all still inside me.

    <><>​

    2018
    New Brockton Bay Parahuman Asylum
    Earth Gimel


    May had a nice reading voice, Victoria decided, but she desperately needed to work on her pronunciation. Listening to the teenage girl read aloud from her current favourite book—which happened to be yet another trashy romance novel—caused her to wince more than once, no doubt sending ripples through the water in the tank in which she was floating.

    It wasn't that May was poor company. With the assistance of the chart on the wall, she was reasonably good at reading Morse code—almost as good as Victoria was at transmitting it via eye-blink—and so could carry on a decent conversation. It was just that the bustling community of New Brockton Bay seemed to have a distinct lack of people to teach even the basics of literacy and numeracy. When it came time to read aloud to Victoria, May stumbled over the longer words, and managed to mangle some of the shorter ones.

    With so few Case 53s in the Asylum these days—those few who couldn't go out and fight had been hastily evacuated through the portal into Gimel in those frantic days of Gold Morning—Victoria never really wanted for company any more. May, and others like her, were happy to take a basic wage to sit with Victoria and keep her company between Mrs Yamada's visits. But Victoria did wish some days that she could have a TV to watch, along with some way to change the channel.

    “Victoria!” It was Jessica's voice. She sounded breathless as she hurried along the corridor. “I am so sorry that I'm late.” Victoria's eyes cut sideways to the clock on the wall. It was true; Mrs Yamada was over ten minutes late, which never happened. Something important must have happened, she decided.

    She fixed her eyes on the door. When it opened, she blinked out a rapid H-I. Mrs Yamada spotted the movement, of course, and smiled as she pulled her coat off. “Hi yourself, Victoria. I have a surprise for you. You've got visitors!”

    That surprised Victoria more than anything. Nobody visited her any more. Her father had come to see her a few times since Gold Morning, but after a while he'd stopped coming. Her mother had never visited even once. Laserdream—Crystal—had showed up for about six months, but then she'd muttered something about moving to another world with her boyfriend and Victoria hadn't seen her since.

    She didn't really blame them, to be honest. This had been before they'd hit on the Morse code idea, so conversations with the alphabet sheet were excruciatingly painful and mostly one-sided. She obviously wasn't going to miraculously get better, and the most she could do with visitors was drift and blink at them. And then, of course, there was her actual appearance. She couldn't see herself, but she had a rough idea of what she looked like. There was nothing human about her any more; she had eyes, and hair, and a neck, but none of it near each other. It was as if her body had been melded together from the offcuts discarded by a deranged sculptor. Worse, she could eat and drink and breathe, but she had no vocal chords. Sometimes she wished she could die, but she wasn't even sure how to make that happen. Sure, she could fly her way straight out of the asylum, but her eyes weren't placed to make it really possible to see where she was going, and she was still protected by her damn force field.

    And then the next two people stepped in through the doors, and Victoria's eyes widened in shock and surprise. She didn't know the man, but the woman was someone she'd know anywhere. Five long years may have passed since they last saw one other, seven since they'd actually spoken, but Amy's face was one that she'd thought about often. The last words to pass between them had been harsh ones, all from Victoria's side. She'd been bitterly angry over what Amy had done to her, how Amy had changed Victoria's brain with her power, to love her.

    She'd been terribly injured by Crawler's acid, that much she knew. But everything afterward had been a daze, with only vague and confused impressions reaching her, until she woke in this form. It had been Amy's work, she'd been informed by a tight-lipped Aunt Sarah. Why Amy had done this to her, nobody could explain. But her sister had obviously been torn up with guilt, because the next Victoria heard of Amy, she'd had herself admitted to the Birdcage. Everyone seemed to think that Victoria would be pleased because of this; after all, Amy had done this terrible thing to her, and the Birdcage was a just punishment.

    Except that they had all forgotten, or not known, one thing. Victoria still loved Amy.

    Her anger at her sister had prevailed for quite some time, but eventually it burned out until only love remained. She wasn't sure if it was all Amy's meddling, or her natural affection for her frizzy-haired sister was part of it, but all she wanted was to have Amy back. Amy would know how she felt, because Amy felt that way toward her.

    And now she was indeed back. There was an air of confidence about her that had been entirely absent during her New Wave days, and hadn't even made an appearance by the time Victoria saw her last, just after the war against Scion. Then, as now, Victoria had been incapable of speech. Amy had been unwilling to talk, or even look at her. Victoria had been transported back to the Earth Gimel asylum shortly after, and hadn't seen Amy since ... until now.

    She drank in the sight of her sister—older, taller, more assertive—as Amy crossed the floor to stand before the tank. Amy's brown hair was held back in a ponytail, and her cheekbones were more defined than they'd been in her teens. She still had a few freckles on her nose, though. Automatically, Victoria blinked out a quick greeting. H-I—A-M-E-S—H-O-W—R—U. There was no response, and she held back a stab of disappointment by reminding herself that not everyone understood Morse code.

    “Panacea, Victoria just said hello and asked how you are,” Jessica said cheerfully. “May, would you be able to get something for our guests?” She looked at Amy and the older man. “Would you prefer tea or coffee?”

    As Amy took her coat off, still apparently unable to take her eyes from Victoria, the man spoke. “Tea, please, for both of us. Earl Grey, if you have it.” His voice was smooth and refined, but Victoria realised abruptly who he must be. His hair was the same colour and texture as Amy's, and they shared a certain similarity of features.

    Holy shit, that's Marquis. They must've let him out of the Birdcage for Gold Morning along with the rest of them, and he survived the battle. Victoria felt a jolt of tension go through her, but there wasn't much she could do except bombard him with bad feelings, and that might hit everyone else in the room as well. Worse, he might take offence. She restrained her aura as best she could—over the last few years, she'd had a lot of practice at that—but something must've slipped through, because Marquis gave her a quick glance.

    Apparently unaware that the asylum was playing host to old-time Brockton Bay villain royalty, May nodded and slipped out through the door. Amy dropped her coat on May's chair and approached the tank. This close, Victoria could see the tattoos which Amy had gotten on her wrists and arms. They clustered so closely together that she couldn't make out all the details, but they looked awesomely cool. There was a lot of red there, though, which almost made it look as though blood was leaking out from between the tattoos. And … there was something wrong with her left hand. The fingers were shorter. All but the thumb. No fingernails, all foreshortened by one joint. The skin was healed over smoothly, which meant that it wasn't recent. But what the hell happened?

    W-H-T—H-P-P-N—F-N-G-R-S.

    Mrs Yamada, watching her eyes, mumbled to herself, then her eyes flicked to Amy's hands. “Ah,” she murmured. “Panacea, Victoria wants to know what happened to your fingers.” Her eyes seemed drawn to the tattoos, and her eyebrows drew together. Victoria wasn't sure what the therapist was seeing that she hadn't, and didn't know how to ask.

    “Ah, that.” Amy looked at her hand, as if realising for the first time that it had been maimed. Her voice was a little deeper than Victoria remembered, but still achingly reminiscent of the Ames she'd once known. “The Siberian did that. Back before …” She drew a deep breath. “Back before Crawler. Before Jack. Before … this.” The last two words were deeply unhappy. “She chased me. Bit a finger joint off each time she caught me. The Undersiders saved me. That's why I was with them when you saw me.”

    Oh. That filled in a few blanks for Victoria. I didn't even realise she was hurt at the time. Of course, I was really angry at her right then. That had been just after Amy had … altered her. Changed her brain so that she loved Amy with the same intensity, the same desperate need, as Amy loved her. The change had been against her will, of course, and she'd been pissed. It was an old, old saying that love and hate were two sides of the same coin, but it was true all the same. And I still love her. I just had to forgive her first. I wish I'd forgiven her earlier.

    Before Victoria could formulate a question about the tattoos, Amy kept talking. Maybe she'd seen Victoria's eyes lingering on them. “I, uh, got these inside the Birdcage. Dad said to get them done, so I could remember you without torturing myself all the time. They're all about the good times we had together.” She stopped talking, leaving Victoria with the distinct impression that the tattoos meant a great deal more than that. The red ink was ominous, as if Amy considered her hands to be stained with blood.

    Still, wow. My sister got prison tattoos. From the Birdcage. That's serious street cred, right there. Victoria found herself wanting to giggle for the first time in years. I bet nobody messes with her. Even if Marquis wasn't her father. Which was still a shock to the system. She took a deep breath, bobbing in the tank, and tried to order her scattered thoughts. There was a question that she hadn't asked yet, one that she was scared to ask because she didn't know what the answer was going to be. But she had to ask it.

    Y—R—U—H-E-R-E.

    It was Marquis who answered. He'd obviously spotted the Morse chart on the wall, and had been watching her eyes. “Amelia asked to come, Victoria,” he said. “She wants to make amends. She wants to undo what she did.” He nodded toward the mass of flesh and random body parts that was Victoria, floating in the tank. “The time has come to make you whole again.”

    <><>​

    “Okay.” Amy put her hands on the edge of the tank. “First off, I'm gonna see what I actually did back then, and figure out what I have to do to fix it.” She grimaced. “I'm not gonna lie. You're probably a real mess in there. When I did what I did, I was strung out on guilt, fear and about three days of no sleep. I wouldn't have been able to think straight with a gun to my head.” She took a deep breath. “Jack Slash is to blame for some of it too, but he was just stirring the pot. To be honest, most of what came up was already in there, waiting to happen.”

    Wait, when did Jack Slash come into the picture? Did Amy have to face him without me? Victoria was vaguely aware that Jack Slash had since been captured or killed, but she was less concerned about those details than what had happened between her sister and the notorious killer. Rapidly, she began to blink out a query.

    “Oh, wait, sorry. I'm such an idiot.” Amy sighed and put her hand on Victoria's mass. “Can I make a change? Give you a working larynx?” Under her breath, she mumbled, “And I have no idea why I didn't do at least this much, seven years ago.” Beside her, Marquis put his hand on her shoulder. She seemed to take comfort from this.

    Victoria waited until Mrs Yamada was watching her, then blinked out her response. Y-E-S. The therapist nodded, then turned to face Amy. “She gives her consent.”

    “Okay, then.” Amy seemed to concentrate for a moment, and Victoria felt the weirdest sensation in what she decided to call her throat. “All right, try that.” Taking her hand off Victoria, Amy watched expectantly.

    It had been seven years since Victoria had spoken a word aloud. For all but the last few seconds of it, she hadn't been able to speak. But now … she inhaled and exhaled, feeling out what had been done to her. Flexing brand-new muscles, she found that she could make different tones. The structure was still wildly different from what she'd been born with, but all the elements were there. And she had been an incurable chatterbox ever since she'd learned how to speak the first time.

    “Nnnnnnnnnnnn,” she enunciated. “Nggggg. Ahhhh. Aaaaaaayy. Mmmmmmm. Yyyyyyyyy. Zzzzzz. Ssssssssssss. Aaaayyyyymmmmsssss.” She paused, taking a deep breath, feeling inordinately proud of herself. “Aayymmss. Ames.” Another pause, while she figured out how to say the next bit. “Ayyyyy. Eeeee. Eeeeiiiiyyy. I. I kkkkkkh. Kkkkaaaa. Cccannnn. Ttttt. Awwww. I. Cannn. Ttallk.” The feeling of triumph that spread through her body was amazing. “I can talk.”

    The smile that came across Mrs Yamada's face lit up the room. “Yes, Victoria. You can talk. I am so, so proud of you.” She moved across to Amy, who was standing there as if unsure what she'd done. “Thank you for this.”

    “Yyeesss. T'anks, Ames.” Victoria was still having trouble with the 'th' sound, but she got her point across. “T'ank you sso mu, mu, much.” She felt tears start to her eyes. Just being able to speak, after being silent for so long, was intoxicating.

    Amy gave them both a crooked smile that made Victoria feel warm all the way through. “Oh, that's just the beginning. That was just me seeing what I could do, and figuring out what I had to do. I'll probably have to take the voice box away while I fix you, but you'll have one when I finish, I promise.” She mocked cracking her knuckles. “Now for the hard bit. You've got basically all the organs you need for survival, but they're in weird places. I'm gonna be gathering them together, and making bones. You know, building a body.” Going over to where she had left her coat, she pulled out a thick envelope and opened it. “Now, my power doesn't automatically tell me what you should look like, and trying to go by memory is what got us in this mess in the first place. Plus, you're not sixteen any more. So I've got photos of what you used to look like, plus ones of Carol and Aunt Sarah for reference. Anything that the photos don't show, I'm just gonna have to kind of wing it. I hope that's okay?” She gave Victoria an anxious look.

    For her part, Victoria tried for a dry tone. “I'mm ssure I'll mmanazhe … manage.” She wished that her mouth—or what she used for a mouth these days—was able to smile. As it was, she hadn't been able to really laugh—or cry—for the last seven years. When I get out of here, I'm going to settle down with a good tearjerker movie and bawl my eyes out. She felt a little light-headed; just the idea of 'when I get out of here', so long out of reach, was making her head spin.

    “That's the spirit.” Mrs Yamada patted Victoria encouragingly on what might once have been her shoulder. She looked from one to the other. “Now, you're both sure you're willing to go through with this? No last-minute doubts?”

    “It was Amelia's idea to come here.” Marquis' interjection came as a mild surprise. The bearded supervillain had been standing back, sipping at his tea as he observed the interaction. “Of course, I support her in it. If she says she's ready to do it, then it's wise to believe her.” May offered him a tray of biscuits; with murmured thanks, he took one.

    “What Dad said,” Amy agreed. “I'm about five years overdue, but better late than never, I guess. Vicky? You ready to do this?” A glint crept into her eye. “You finally ready to hold still and let me fix what I broke?”

    With just a little shame, Victoria recalled her raging anger at Amy, and her refusal to even consider trusting her sister in this matter. In that moment, she'd been more like her mother than ever before. That was my mistake. “Ssure. Go rright. Ahead.” She took a breath. “And Ames?”

    Amy paused, her hand inches from touching Victoria's skin. “Yeah, Vicky?”

    “Ssorry for b. Being a bitch. About it. Should h-have lisstened. Should have trussted.” I should've been the bigger person. But all I could see was my side of it. I couldn't see Amy's pain.

    Amy's smile was genuine, if a little strained. A suspicion of dampness on her sister's cheek made Victoria blink; was Amy crying? “Hey. Shit happens. But we don't always get a chance to fix our mistakes.” She took a deep breath and scrubbed at her eyes with her wrist. “Okay, then. Dad, I'm gonna have to ask you to leave the room. By the time I'm finished, Vicky's gonna be naked in here.”

    “Ah. Of course.” Marquis bowed slightly. “Miss May, if you could perhaps show me to a waiting room?” The door closed behind them, and Amy turned back to Vicky.

    “Okay, one more thing,” she said. “I'm gonna be putting you out for this. It's liable to be weird and maybe painful, and you don't need more of that. But when you wake up next, you'll be you. Or as close to you as I can manage. Okay?” She gave Victoria that crooked smile again.

    No. Don't put me out. “I want to be -” But it was too late. Amy's fingers touched her skin, and she knew no more.

    <><>​

    “- awake!” Victoria opened her eyes, even as she spoke. At the same time, she sat up in bed, the sheet sliding off of her.

    Sat up. In bed. She looked around wildly, then realised that she was able to look around wildly. Bizarre sensations came from things that were dangling off her torso. She looked down and realised that she had a torso again. And arms, that was what they were called. Raising them in front of her wondering eyes—both pointing in the same direction now, for a mercy—she flexed the fingers. Ten fingers, in perfect working order. I have hands. Thank you, Ames. Thank you so much.

    “Hello, Victoria.” It was Mrs Yamada, of course, sitting in an armchair across the room. “It's good to see you awake.” The older woman carefully closed the book she'd been reading and put it down. Standing up, she came to the bedside and she took Victoria's wrist, checking her watch as she did so. “Pulse is a little elevated, but that's probably excitement. How are you feeling?”

    From pure reflex, Victoria began to blink out her reply—I-M—F-I-N-E—before she recalled that she didn't have to do that any more. “I'm fine,” she ventured, feeling the movement of air in her throat, the shifting of her lips and her tongue in her mouth. Things that she'd missed, so very badly. “I'm really fine.” Lifting her hands, she ran them over her face. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a chin. “Mirror. I want to see myself.”

    “That didn't take long.” Mrs Yamada sounded pleased and amused in equal measure. “There's a mirror in the bathroom, through there. Also, a shower and clothing.” She stepped back to give Victoria room to get off the bed. “Just in case you want them.”

    Victoria realised that she had nothing on under the sheet, but she refused to feel embarrassed. Mrs Yamada knew her probably better than anyone else in the world by now. She'd spent seven years in front of the therapist without clothes; just because she was human again didn't mean anything, not now. She slid off the bed, marvelling at the sensation of carpet under her feet again, and impulsively hugged the older woman. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

    “That's perfectly all right,” Jessica chuckled, giving her a quick hug in return. “Go look at yourself. Shower. Get dressed.” As Victoria let her go, she picked up her book from the bedside table. “I'll be here when you finish.”

    It took Victoria a moment to recall how door handles worked, then she was in the bathroom. Stepping up to the mirror, she studied her face. It was older than she recalled, more mature. She was reminded of her mother, but then she recalled that Amy had spoken about having photos for reference. The rest of her body was … there. Older, more mature, more developed. I'm what … twenty-four now? Boobs, hips, ass, it all seemed to be about right. She was less cavalier about her exploration into more intimate areas, but it didn't seem as though Amy had left anything out, or added anything new for that matter. I'm back. I'm really me again. A rush of euphoria swept through her, and she pirouetted in place, careful not to break anything. Her eyesight blurred and she felt hot moisture on her cheeks. For the first time in seven years, Victoria Dallon broke down and cried.

    After the storm of emotion had passed, there was still the shower. It had been years since she'd had a shower. She turned the water as hot as it would go that she could stand, and luxuriated under it. Soaping her body all over helped re-establish her proprioception, so that she knew exactly where every body part was at all times. Also, it felt amazing. She stayed in the shower till the water started running cold.

    Old reflexes were beginning to re-establish themselves. Briskly, she towelled herself off, and wrapped her wet hair in another towel. The clothing that Mrs Yamada had left for her consisted of underwear, thoughtfully picked out in her (new) size, a T-shirt with a picture of Alexandria screen-printed on to the front of it, and a pair of sweat pants.

    Mrs Yamada looked up from the book as Victoria emerged from the bathroom, letting a huge waft of steam out behind her. “You do look better,” she observed. “How do you feel?” She gave no indication that she'd heard Victoria crying, earlier.

    “Better.” It was true. She probably still needed therapy, but right at this moment, Vicky was feeling fantastic. “Where's Amy and her dad?” She was looking forward to reconnecting with her sister, but she was also kind of glad that they'd kept out of the way for the initial awakening. And while she wasn't so sure about Amy's supervillain dad, he was obviously taking good care of her, so there was that.

    Mrs Yamada grimaced slightly. “I'm sorry, Victoria. They left.” Her expression was compassionate as she put her hand on Victoria's arm.

    “What? No.” Victoria shook off her grasp. “That's not true. She can't just come back into my life and then just leave again. That's not fair.”

    “Victoria. Listen to me.” Mrs Yamada's voice was a little sharper now; Victoria blinked and shut up. “I had a long talk with Panacea over this. She was adamant that if she stayed around, things would get messy and complicated. She was glad to see you, but she thinks that if you want to see her again, you need to go and find her. Also, she left you this letter.” She opened the pages of her book and pulled out an envelope. “I don't know what's in it, but -”

    She was already talking to empty air. Victoria whipped the envelope out of her fingers and tore it open. It contained a couple of handwritten pages, along with a stack of photos. Pulling the page out, she rapidly unfolded it. Amy's familiar scrawl sent a wave of nostalgia through her before she even started to read.

    By the time Victoria looked up from the letter, her eyes were full of tears again. Wordlessly, Mrs Yamada offered her a tissue. Victoria dabbed at her eyes, then blew her nose. “Have you read this?” she asked.

    “No.” Jessica shook her head. “That was between you and her. She took her time writing it, and tore up about a dozen previous versions, so I'm guessing what you've got there is the essence of what she wanted to say to you.” Her expression became introspective. “I spoke at length with her father. Doing this was something she needed and wanted to do for the longest time, but she could never bring herself to come back and face you. Face what she'd done.”

    “Until she did.” Victoria nodded. She took a deep breath, feeling the air fill her lungs, then inspected her free hand. The fingers moved easily under her command. Better late than never, I guess. Tilting the envelope, she tipped the photos into it. One by one, she inspected them. Pictures of herself, her mother and her aunt. Birthdays, holidays, publicity shots. Aunt Sarah was long dead, killed in the war against Scion. She had no idea where her mother was, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know. As for herself … she selected a photo of her own younger face, and squinted at it. There was no pain in that face, no dark memories. It was the image of someone who'd never had a bad day in their life. Well, that's all changed now. Even though it'd been just seven years, she'd lived a lifetime.

    Putting the photos back in the envelope, she tapped it against her hand. “Okay,” she said. “What happens now?” All she had, as far as she knew, were the clothes she was standing up in, a letter and some photos, and a set of super-powers that had always caused more problems than they solved.

    “Well, that's up to you.” Mrs Yamada tilted her head slightly. “I may have some options to offer. If you're interested, that is.”

    Victoria shrugged. “I'm listening.”

    <><>​

    2019
    New Brockton Bay Correctional Center
    Earth Gimel


    “After due consideration, the parole board has decided that the application of Sophia Hess, prisoner 1542-PH-Bet, has merit. Not only has she consistently shown willingness to work within the system, but she also distinguished herself by defending Mrs Jessica Yamada, her visiting therapist, during an abortive breakout two years ago.” The grey-haired man heading the parole board looked up at Sophia for the first time. “Do you have anything to say for yourself, Miss Hess?”

    Sophia stood, the electrified cuffs heavy on her wrists. She knew the reason they'd put these on her—regulations were regulations, after all—but it grated on her. Still, guards gotta guard. “I do,” she said clearly. “Back when my sentence was reviewed, five years ago, I made some comments about what being a hero was about. I would like to state for the record now that my head was firmly lodged up my ass.” She paused to allow the titter of laughter through the room to die away. “I would also like to thank Mrs Jessica Yamada for showing me what a real hero looks like. One day I might even learn to be one myself. Thank you.” She sat down again as a murmur of conversation arose from around her.

    “Well spoken, Miss Hess.” The head of the parole board glanced to his left and right, receiving notes passed to him. He glanced at them and nodded. “We are all in agreement. Parole for Sophia Hess, prisoner 1542-PH-Bet, is hereby … approved.” Lifting a large stamp, he thumped it down on the sheet of paper before him. “Congratulations, Miss Hess. You are now a free woman.”

    There was mild applause from those sitting around her. She knew that they weren't here for her, but were instead waiting for the parole hearings of their own friends and loved ones. In fact, not even Mrs Yamada had shown up to this hearing, which had disappointed her more than a little. Suck it up. The universe doesn't revolve around you. She's probably busy.

    “Thank you, sir,” she said. A guard stooped over her, and she held up her wrists to allow him to unlock the cuffs. She wondered if they'd even been electrified for this hearing, or if it had all been symbolic. If so, it was a powerful symbol; even as the weight came off her wrists, it felt like an even heavier one was lifting off of her shoulders.

    It all seemed to go at double speed after that. The guard courteously escorted her back to her cell one last time, to pick up her meagre belongings. He didn't exactly start chatting with her on the way, but the air of wariness was gone. He didn't have to worry about her trying to escape, after all.

    Changed into civilian clothes and with her possessions in hand—consisting of her toiletries, the teacup Mrs Yamada had given her, and a couple of pen-and-ink sketches of the Brockton Bay skyline—she was led to processing. There she signed half a hundred documents, all apparently promising that she'd be a good girl and never darken their doorway again. Her other possessions, the ones she'd handed over on her arrest, were also returned. One phone, with an extremely dead battery. Bracelets, and a necklace that Emma had given her.

    Emma. Geez. I haven't thought of her in years. Sophia had had high hopes for the redhead. But apparently when Scion attacked Brockton Bay, she'd refused to leave her room, let alone her house. When it was destroyed, she perished along with it. I was an idiot. Instead of telling her she was strong, I should've twisted her arm until she agreed to see a therapist. Mrs Yamada, for preference. Maybe she'd still be alive now if I had.

    With a sigh of regret, she dropped the jewellery back into the paper envelope and turned toward the exit. The guard held the door open for her, and she walked out into freedom.

    The Correctional Centre wasn't as big as prisons went, so she only had to walk a short way before the main gates were opening before her. It was mid-morning and she was walking east, so the sun was glaring into her eyes just a little. She shaded them as she walked out through the imposing portal, to see a figure up ahead, waiting for her. It didn't look like Mrs Yamada, and she wondered who might be there for her. Or even if they were there for her.

    “Hey,” said the stranger as she got closer. Or was it a stranger? Sophia could almost swear that it wasn't someone she knew, but the face was oddly familiar. “Sophia Hess, right? Shadow Stalker?”

    What the fuck? “Who told you that?” Sophia asked. Jessica had told her that nobody in New Brockton Bay knew her. “Who the hell are you?”

    “Don't tell me that Ames did that bad a job.” The stranger came closer, stepping to the side so that Sophia didn't have to squint into the sun any more. “We used to be heroes together, back in old Brockton Bay. Of course, you were in the Wards and I was in New Wave, but still. On the same side and all.”

    Sophia didn't recognise the voice at all, but when she took in the flowing blonde hair and squinted at the face … “Glory Girl?” she asked disbelievingly. “Victoria Dallon? Is that you? I heard Panacea went nuts and killed you or something.”

    “'Or something',” Glory Girl said ruefully. “She messed me up pretty good, and I wasn't even able to go outside till last year, but I'm back now. Better than ever.” She nodded toward Sophia. “I heard you were getting out, so I thought I'd show up and say hi. Old Brocktonites and all.”

    “You do know what I went in for, right?” Sophia decided to tear the bandage off immediately. “I kinda fucked up big time. Screwed my probation, multiple cases of assault and battery, people died. The whole nine yards.” It still amazed her that she was able to talk so calmly about what she'd done. The people she'd hurt.

    Glory Girl—no, she was out of costume, so it was Victoria—chuckled darkly. “Trust me, I know mistakes. You've made 'em, I've made 'em. Everyone makes mistakes. The trick is learning from them.” She gestured along the street, at the buildings in the distance. “Come on, I'll stand you a cup of coffee.”

    “Make it tea and you've got a deal.” Sophia started walking alongside Victoria. “So how'd you get better, anyway?” The question was an idle one; she was just enjoying walking on the sidewalk, with the sun in her eyes and the sky above her, with no walls around her. Breathing free air. A cup of tea was just icing on the cake, so to speak.

    “Ames came back,” Victoria said simply. It took Sophia a few seconds to connect the name to Panacea, otherwise known as Amy Dallon. “She fixed me as good as new. Well, not exactly as good as new. I'm not sixteen any more. But I'm walking around, I've got a job, and I've got a life again.” Her smile should have outshone the sun. “Some days I don't even fly at all, just so I can enjoy walking.”

    “Yeah, I can kinda understand that,” Sophia admitted. “It's really good to be out. No cuffs, no guards, no walls, no goddamn prison regulations.” I just wish Mrs Yamada had been here to see it with me. She was a little surprised at the bond that had grown between her and the Asian-American woman; the debt of gratitude that she held toward Jessica was very real. “So is Panacea still around?”

    Victoria shook her head. “Nope. She headed off again with her father. Her real father. Marquis, you know.” Her tone was wry. “Boy, was that a surprise for me.”

    Sophia blinked. Panacea's Marquis' daughter? “Well, crap,” she said out loud. “I didn't know that one. All those people she healed …” Were there signs that we all missed?

    Victoria sighed gustily. To Sophia, she sounded sad. “Yeah. We all thought she was being a good little hero, when she was just trying really hard to be a hero. I blame Mom, personally. It was like she expected Ames to fail while at the same time telling her not to dare fail. Meanwhile, there was all this stuff bubbling around underneath. Like, Ames was secretly in love with me. That was another kick in the teeth.” Abruptly, she increased her pace, her arms swinging at her sides; Sophia had to lengthen her stride to keep up.

    “Well, damn.” It seemed that New Wave, despite their lack of masks, had been just chock full of secrets. “Sorry to hear all that.” Sophia could feel herself starting to sweat. For all the exercise she'd done in her cell, nothing beat a good walk in the sun.

    “It's done and in the past.” Victoria made a throwaway gesture. “I've learned not to spend too much time looking back. We've got the future ahead of us.” She gestured toward a storefront. “And there's our immediate future. Tea, right?” She flashed a grin at Sophia, who returned it.

    “That'd be fuckin' amazing, thanks. I really appreciate it.” Sophia entered the shop behind Victoria, feeling the immediate relief from the morning sun. The sweat started to cool on her arms as her eyes set about adjusting to the lower level of light. Delectable aromas came to her nostrils, of tea and coffee and sugary pastries.

    “It's nothing. Oh, hey, Mrs Yamada. What a surprise to see you here.” Caught off guard, Sophia whipped her head around to see none other than Jessica Yamada sitting at a corner table with a cup of tea in front of her. Despite her words, Victoria sounded anything but shocked. Going by the equal lack of consternation on the therapist's face, Sophia began to suspect that she'd been set up.

    “You know each other, huh?” she asked, raising a cynical eyebrow. “So how much of an accident is this meeting, exactly?” Her most suspicious glare bounced off of Mrs Yamada's calm demeanour, so she turned it on Victoria instead. All she got in return was a sunny smile.

    “Oh, she's my therapist, too,” Victoria explained blithely. “So how about you go sit down and I'll get our drinks.” When Sophia hesitated, the blonde waved her hand in a shooing motion. “Go on. I'll explain everything in a minute.”

    “Yeah, okay, but this better be good.” Sophia headed over and pulled out a chair at Mrs Yamada's table. “Hey there. Nice to see you.” And it was true; it was nice to see her. Even if she was a scheming schemer. “I'm guessing you set all this up so I would run into Victoria?”

    “I may have done something of the sort.” Mrs Yamada sipped at her tea, a faint smile on her lips. “I'm truly sorry that I couldn't attend your hearing, but I couldn't guarantee to get here in time once it was over.” There was a plate of pastries in the middle of the table, and she nudged it Sophia's way. “Have one. They're delicious.” They did smell very nice; Sophia took one and bit into it. It tasted even better than it smelled.

    “So what's all this about?” Sophia took another bite of the pastry. Prison food had nothing on this. She began to wonder if she could move into the shop and eat pastries for the rest of her life. Though she suspected that such a regimen would quickly have her outgrowing her clothes sideways, with the amount of sugar that was in it.

    “What it's all about,” said Victoria, arriving with a small tea-tray, “is that I need help.” She put the tray down, pulled her own seat out, and sat down. Grabbing a pastry, she bit into it, then beamed at Sophia. “And you can help me.”

    Events were travelling too fast for Sophia. “Wait, what?” She took her cup and poured milk into it. It probably wouldn't be as good as Jessica's, but she didn't turn down free tea. “You can fly and lift an SUV over your head. How the hell do you need my help?” A sip of her tea confirmed the earlier suspicion; it could've been better, but it was still definitely drinkable.

    Victoria glanced around and Sophia echoed the motion, more from habit than anything else. There wasn't anyone sitting close enough to eavesdrop that she could see. “That's all true,” Victoria said. “And yes, I have been going out as a hero. In between doing my actual job.” She looked pleased with herself.

    Sophia frowned. “Wait, you've got a job? What are you doing, newspaper reporting?” That was the standard job every cape in a soap opera got. It was kind of a trope.

    “Pfft, no.” Victoria stirred sugar into her coffee. “Mrs Yamada got it for me. I'm a primary school teacher. Well, primary and middle school. There's a lot of kids and teens out there who never learned to read and write properly, and lots more who think math begins and ends by counting on their fingers. I'm bringing them up to high school entry equivalency.” She sipped at her coffee and smiled. “And of course, in my off-time I'm a superhero. Crime's on the rise, so I put on a costume and mask and go out to stop it.”

    Sophia ate another pastry before Victoria's words caught up with her. “Wait, a mask? I thought you were against that sort of thing.” It had been the entire aspect of New Wave; capes without masks, fully accountable for their actions. She'd always thought the idea was stupid, especially since the murder of Fleur.

    “Nope. That was Mom and Dad and Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil.” Victoria's jaw set. “We kids never got the chance to have secret identities. I mean, I loved it at the time, but it got a bit tiring being Glory Girl twenty-four-seven, you know? But nobody knows that Tori Dallman used to be Victoria Dallon, so I can put on the mask and be Glory.” Sophia supposed that the code-name change made a certain amount of sense; after all, Victoria was no longer a girl, any more than she herself was. The actual name change wasn't a bad idea either.

    “Okaaay,” she said, drawing the word out. “But this still doesn't explain how you need my help.” She was starting to get an idea, but she wanted to know for sure before she said anything.

    Victoria sighed. “I'm not scary enough. When Ames fixed me, she damped down my aura. This lets me get through day-to-day without being outed, but the most I can cause in people is a mild sense of unease. So while I can beat up on thugs, I have trouble scaring them, and if I get so rough they're scared, I risk doing serious injury. And without Ames here to fix that, I'm back to square one.” She sent Sophia an appealing look. “You were always a past master at 'scary'. I'm thinking we could partner up. Glory and the Shadow. I'll dangle 'em off rooftops and you convince 'em that I'm about to drop 'em unless they tell us everything we want to know.”

    Sophia thought back to the last time she'd tried that stunt. It hadn't gone so well for the guy she was trying it on; when he struggled, she lost her balance and had to let him go. She wasn't even sure if he'd survived the fall. That was the last time Emma had gone out with her. But with Glory Girl there to do the heavy lifting, nobody needs to be at risk.

    She took another sip of her tea, eyeing Victoria over the rim of her cup. “So basically, you want me to be the bad cop to your good cop.” It made a for a certain amount of sense. They were both potentially very effective on their own, but if they teamed up, they could cover each others' weaknesses and combine their strengths. So long as nobody else dies. Somewhere in the last few years, she'd picked that up as a core value.

    The blonde brightened right up. “Exactly! And I've got a spare bedroom in my apartment, so you can crash there until you find a place of your own.” She grinned suddenly; Sophia felt a twinge of wariness. “And if you wanted to get away from the Shadow Stalker persona, we can borrow from those old pre-powers comic books. You know, Superman and Batman. Stuff like that.”

    Sophia rolled her eyes. “In case you missed the memo, we're girls, not guys.” Inside, she was trying not to grin.

    “Fine,” Victoria retorted so quickly that Sophia figured she'd been waiting for the line. “Supergirl and Batgirl. They were a thing too, you know.”

    That got a snort from Sophia. “I am not putting ears on my mask.” She wondered how far Victoria was going to take this. “And if you put an 'S' on your chest, I'm gonna tell everyone it stands for 'Stupid'.”

    “Well, okay, we'll stick with Glory and the Shadow.” Victoria made a gesture as if outlining newspaper headlines.

    “That is not going to be our team name.” Despite herself, Sophia was getting more and more amused. This could be fun after all.

    “Okay then, we'll call ourselves Earth Gimel's Finest. Or the Brave and the Foolhardy.” Victoria sounded as though she was having altogether too much fun.

    Sophia mimed pointing a crossbow at her, though her lips twitched into a smile. “I will shoot you.”

    <><>​

    As the two superheroes began to giggle at the absurdity of their argument, Jessica Yamada drank her tea and smiled gently.

    Well, that took five years, and several thousand dollars to get a message to Panacea at the right time, but I believe it was worth it.



    End



    [A/N: Thus end the trials by fire of Victoria Dallon and Sophia Hess. We leave them at the outset of a successful adult team-up. There may be a sequel, but I doubt it.]
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2017
    Martin Rudat, Nothorse, Tnoz and 45 others like this.
  2. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    There's really only one thing to say about this.

    I Ship It.
     
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  3. Akuma-Heika

    Akuma-Heika The Devil Exists Within

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    I enjoyed this very much, although I skimmed the beginning.

    Thank you very much Ack!
     
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  4. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Very nice story! I can see that happening - and it's always nice to see a redeemed Sophia and fixed Vicky.

    Of course, now I want to see a sequel too :).
     
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  5. steamrick

    steamrick Wisdom is in pursuit, but I'm faster!

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    Very nice :)

    A worthwhile character dissertation, I think.
     
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  6. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

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    That was pretty awesome....how much of a hand did Lisa have in this? :p
     
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  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Only insofar as it took to put Sophia back inside after she turned 18. She basically dug up all the dirt on Sophia that existed and handed it over.
     
  8. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    It's worth noting that depending on how you do it, counting on your fingers might not be a sign of poor education. There's a way to do it that works like having a small abacus in the palm of your hand. Abacus users can often make calculations as fast or faster than someone using an electronic calculator.

    It's not a coincidence that one gross is exactly 144 units.
     
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  9. DieKatzchen

    DieKatzchen Know what you're doing yet?

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    Ah, but using your hands as an abacus would be calculating on your fingers, not counting.
     
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  10. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    But if it was easy, we'd be doing it that way. Just saying.
     
  11. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Not too sore, are you?

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    Any mechanical or electronic calculator is easier to learn to use, though not necessarily any faster. Doing it on paper is also easier to learn, and allows teachers to demand you show your work in class. But once you learn how to use an abacus, it's faster than paper & pencil, and just as effective as a calculator.
     
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  12. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I was talking about calculating on your fingers.
     
  13. seeing_octarine

    seeing_octarine Unverified Colour

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    Don't confuse 'easy' with 'obvious'. In principle it's easy to count to 59048 on two hands, but that's incredibly non-obvious for all sorts of reasons. Starting with how everyone these days is too used to thinking in base 10. (Edit: base A, I mean. You see the problem!)

    *looked up how to use an abacus purely for this comment*
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2017
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  14. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    That depends what you're doing. I don't car how skilled you are - you aren't going to calculate 57685 * 112320 on an abacus as fast as I can do it on a calculator.
     
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  15. Aleh

    Aleh Destroyer of Faith in Humanity

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    You'd be surprised.