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From Hated to Hero

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Rewrite: Between Sept 1-15 I almost completely rewrote the first story arc, thanks to some help from a lot of great people. It went from 14 Chapters to 12, got cleaned up a lot, had some crack removed, and generally fit the tone of the story better.

From Hated to Hero , my first worm fanfic! I’m hoping to keep updating this every Sunday. There will probably be about 12 chapters per story arc, and a couple interludes in each since the majority of this fic is from Greg’s POV.

General Plot TLDR: Greg Veder triggers just before Winter Break in Dec 2010, gaining parahuman powers that he immediately realizes he would...probably misuse. He tries to balance his new temptations and overcome his problems, but makes several mistakes along the way. At a certain point, he starts to wonder if maybe he should try to fix Greg Veder before he starts trying to make a cape persona...and that’s when the real adventure begins.

Content Warning: I know that Worm is a world of abuse, fear, and hatred where society slowly slides towards the apocalypse as shadowy figures do shadowy stuff in the...shadows. There will be depression, anxiety, some self-loathing, and more than a few unhealthy thoughts as Greg and others fight to overcome...well, everything. Success is possible, but it’s not going to be easy and it won’t be fast. Still, it’s that much more meaningful when they finally get there.

Journal/Text Warning: The first story Arc has a little excerpt from the Journal Greg is keeping at the start of each chapter, setting a tone for the chapter itself and because he’s too afraid to ask for help. The second arc uses a chat conversation, since he now trusts one person. These are timeless, and are written separate from each actual chapter. Call them...food for thought.

Greg Warning: Greg starts this fic just as annoying, self-absorbed, and over-confident as he comes off in Worm canon (and fanon). This was on purpose, and I like to think the reasons he gives (hides behind self-deprecating humor, TMI, desperate for acknowledgement) were believable for someone who had been as desperate and lonely as he was. It may be annoying to read the first few chapters, even after my rewrites, but I had been trying to give him a believable learning curve. He does change, though, and for the better. 

Powers: Though at first it may seem like he’s just delusional, Greg does indeed have powers. He is able to see individual powers in parahumans, even some they may be unaware of with regards to their granularity. He can copy a single, weaker version, although it comes with...limitations and side-effects. At the same time, he does have a unique ability with regards to these copies, but it takes him a bit to figure it out. By the end of Arc 1 it’s mostly all spelled out. Only downside is that he barely sees any parahumans until a few chapters in.

Main AU Parts: The E88 capes have jobs at Medhall. Kaiser/Max is spending more time in Boston lately for unknown reasons. Watchdog is working to undermine and gather info on the E88 and Medhall. Rather than pretend to ignore Taylor for a few weeks pre-Locker, Emma pretends to be sorry and re-friend her. Sophia is driven by a need to get stronger, not just “an asshole because her shard says so.” Terry Hess has a role in the story! The Protectorate and Wards actually interact with each other positively (sometimes). Finally, gave civilian names to those who lacked them, and threw a whole pile of Minor characters in for fun. I mean, yeah there are some OCs, but what about Snubnose, Nutcracker, and Dovetail?

With all that said...hit next and start enjoying Greg's exciting and thoughtful adventure!

Chapter Text

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010, 3am]

Journal Entry 0: Mission Statement

Okay, here we go. Writing words. Super easy. 

C’mon Greg, just take a breath and do it.

It’s just a secret journal where I record my innermost feelings, worries, and growth as a human being. Nobody is ever going to see this, since I can’t really trust anyone and don’t have any friends...so that makes sense. This should be no problem at all, right?

...Maybe start with a bit about myself. 

Hello there, only person who is ever going to read this (me). My name is Greg Veder, I’m 15 years old, and as of yesterday I...am a superhero. 

Or at least I might be, if this journal works like I hope it does and helps me become a better person. For right now, I’m just a parahuman...I think.

It’s complicated. Let me start at the beginning.

When I was a kid, my parents told me that I could be anything. That all it took was passion, a goal, and the will to stick to it. I could be an artist, a lawyer, a doctor, a politician, or anything else that I put my mind to. I believed them.

I mean, why wouldn’t I? 

Dad’s a successful Podiatrist (foot doctor) known and loved by people of all ages who love to walk, run, or kick things. He tells terrible jokes, and could probably get a job doing stand-up comedy (or be paid not to do it, don’t tell him I wrote that) if he really had to. He’s huge, strong, tough, and no matter how badly I let him down he always has a kind word for me.

Meanwhile, Mom’s a Librarian who has probably read more books that I’ll ever see, does the Dewey Decimal system for fun, can organize anything, and speaks at least four languages. Seriously, I’m pretty sure she learned Latin just to help my brother study for his MCAT. She’s an actual Judo Master, can cook better than anyone in the world, and somehow she believes in me.

Both of them had goals, they gave it their all, and every day they wake up wanting to do more. They’re also supportive, to a certain degree. Dad is always trying to get me to talk about medical stuff and is the reason that all my writing has so many bad jokes in it. Mom loves the fact that I like to read (even if it’s mostly comic books), and is the primary reason my English teacher is always praising my (over)use of parentheses. They’re both deep into their passions, and passed that on to their kids.

Like my big brother, George. He worked his butt off to get where he is, and any day now he’ll be putting the word “Doctor” in front of his name whenever he introduces himself. He’s deep into medical research and always talking about cutting-edge stuff. Helping blind people see, making cures for diseases that don’t even exist yet, and so on. Even in a world with capes, with parahumans, with people who can literally fly or lift cars, he’s focused only on normal people.

...and then there’s me. 

Even though it may look like I’m about to spend the next page putting myself down...that’s actually not the case. In fact, everything that follows is the Old Greg. This is just me loading him into a Viking Boat, so that I can shoot a flaming arrow and let the New Greg rise from the ashes. 

It’s a little over-dramatic, but this whole journal is about me overcoming my past. I can’t do that if I shy away from it. I have to stare it in the face, figure out where I went wrong, and try harder!

So here we go. To start, I’m over-passionate, sometimes talking and rambling so much that I get breathless. I’m pretty skinny, with a scraggly blond bowl-cut and a frame that looks like someone slapped skin on a skeleton. Whatever good genetics Mom and Dad may have had, I didn't get any according to my bullies, so I’ve learned to just stop looking for compliments on that. 

I used to like the idea of making movies about capes, but everyone at school made fun of me when I invited them to help. Eventually I just stopped asking, and all my videos became one-man shows. Since I can’t be a part of reporting on or making media for cape culture, I’ve thrown myself into talking about it at school and online. I’m known on several forums for being in every conversation, with a huge post count.

Although, if I have to be honest, for all my online skills at conversation, I’m on far too many blacklists to really consider myself any sort of digital Socrates. I’m pretty sure that the reason people walk away from discussions with me (both online and IRL) is because I’m like a vehicle without brakes, rolling downhill. Once I get going it’s hard to stop, and I bounce from tangent to tangent like a car running pedal to the metal on bald tires in the mud. I don’t stop until I crash and burn, or run out of gas. Sometimes both.

But hey, I’m a human being, and we’re made up of both good and bad. We surround ourselves with people who can make up for our weaknesses, and shore up our strengths. We make relationships that define us, growing as people until we’re adults and ready to take on the world. 

I mean, that’s what every after-school special has told me, right? Surely for all my failings, I can trust the people around me to help me become a strong, responsible adult?

Wrong. See, I haven’t got any people around me, despite my best efforts.

Yeah, I always go a mile a minute when it comes to talking. It’s not just because I’m some kind of socially awkward nerd with boundary issues (although that is part of it). It’s because of my bad habits, my anxiety, and my bad reputation, all of which make me afraid that I have to give every conversation my all or else it’ll be my last with that person. 

It’s a problem, and it’s one of the reasons I have so many other problems. I see that now.

I tried for a long time to hide from my problems. I read fantastic comic books, played cool games where I got to be the hero, and spent a lot of time on the ParaHumans Online (PHO) message boards. The latter was where I tried to reinvent myself, chatting with other nerds and pretending that instead of being myself (Greg Veder, human outcast) I was XxVoid_CowboyxX, cool guy!

Unfortunately, I spent so much time trying to impress people in my online persona that my desperation and loneliness once again bit me in the ass. I accused people of stupid stuff, called people names to get them riled up, trolled people who had different opinions from me, and even lied about being present for all sorts of events. By the time I realized what I was doing, I was in too deep, and my online persona was as much of a pariah as the real me.

But enough of that. 

I can wallow in self-pity all day, but that’s not what this journal is about. 

This journal will be about me recording my thoughts, my fears, and my attempts to grow beyond the Greg Veder I had accepted. To become someone more than what my bad reputation makes me out to be. To rise above what the world has labeled me, and become someone who inspires people the same way the heroes I’ve idolized my whole life inspired me!

All it took was a near-death experience after I made the greatest mistake of my short life, and suddenly I had powers that made me wake the hell up and try to be better

This isn’t going to be easy. This isn’t going to be fast. Heck, this probably isn’t going to be smart.

Already I’ve made a pile of mistakes, and it hasn’t even been a day! I could have died at any point today from my own dumb ideas. If it hadn’t been for my excellent memory and need to write it all down I’d have never realized that a lot of this was my fault. I have to change myself, and that’s practically impossible to do alone

But right here and now, I’m making a pledge to try, because I’ve been giving up my whole life and it’s gotten me nowhere! 

This won’t make my problems magically vanish, but maybe it will help me focus less on the Greg I am and more on the Greg I want to be .

...and after that, the Hero I want to be. 

All this, so that someday soon I can put on a costume, give myself a fitting name, and go out into the world to make it a better place. So that at the end of each day, I can take my mask off, look in the mirror, and be proud of who I see. So that I know my family is proud of me!

My parents always used to tell me that we all start from nothing. 

That if we have passion, motivation, and a goal, we can do anything we put our minds to.

Well, as of today, I’m starting!

I’ll become a hero, instead of being the guy that everyone hates! No, wait, that sounds bad.

I may be the worst person to have powers right now, because I have nothing to lose...but I’m also the best, because I have everything to gain! Wait, no...that sounds kind of supervillainy as well. Um, what’s a better way to put it?

Eh, I’ll figure it out later. For now, the adventure begins!

************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: We roll time back a few days, meeting our hero wannabe in his natural habitat, learn a few reasons that he thinks people hate him, and find out that teenagers are pretty much terrible.

Chapter Text

1.1: Understanding My Classmates

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

One of the most important parts of any story is the beginning, and in my case it’s no different. I’m sure that years from now I’ll look back on all this and ask myself how I went from a depressed, self-absorbed civilian to a parahuman teenager with dreams of being a hero, literally overnight. Maybe it’ll be part of my memoir or something. 

Many of my problems stemmed from the fact that I didn’t really understand other kids my own age. I always just sort of assumed that they were like me. Worried about everything, reaching out for someone to understand them, and overall decent people. Sure, they made fun of me, but I’d seen friends tease each other all the time and figured it was just part of the game. It made me feel bad that I didn’t ‘get it,’ and for a long time I assumed that was my fault.

But on the day that I triggered, I realized I had been wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand them...it was that I had been willingly ignoring their faults because I was so desperate. I wanted to assume the best in them, that they weren’t bad people, and even the ones I hated I always gave another chance.

As with anything people do while desperate, it led to a lot of pain. On the other hand, I learned a lot. Unfortunately, I learned far too late, and by then I was already neck-deep in problems.

-GregV.

***

[Friday, Dec 17, 2010]

Friday morning, the last day of school before Winslow’s Winter Break started, I was having a great dream. 

This dream was rudely interrupted by a sudden stabbing pain in my gut. I snapped awake and saw my brother George standing there,  broom in hand and smile on his face. I reacted the same way any little brother would have.

First, I let out a manly cry (or shriek) at his transgression. Next, I whirled around to throw a perfect roundhouse kick in his direction. If he hadn’t been several feet away and my legs hadn’t been tangled in the sheets (and I’d had any experience doing a roundhouse kick), I’d have nailed him in the face. Finally, I flopped out of bed and landed on a pile of dirty laundry.

It took me a few moments to wake up, and as George fled my room I managed to put it all together. The pair of noise-canceling headphones I was wearing made it easy to recall. I’d overheard some kids at school talking about a hot new song by a Bad Canary cover band, and even though I didn’t really care much about music I figured that listening to it would give me a chance to join in their conversations next time it came up.

I know that sounds kind of strange, but if I waited for people to invite me to their conversations then I’d spend all day waiting! If I’m an expert on a subject and hear someone talking about it, why not join in? Wouldn’t it be rude to let them keep on talking without my sage advice?

Anyway, I must have fallen asleep with my headphones on, and had thus slept through my alarm, Mom’s shout, and Dad banging on my door. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, but normally George would have been much kinder with his wake-up call. He’d even used the bristle side of the broom! 

Grumbling about older siblings, I managed to pull my limited-edition barely-worn Miss Militia sweatshirt off my face and struggle to my feet. My wardrobe can be summed up as “capes on clothing, usually with words nearby,” so I didn’t even bother to look as I got dressed in some of the clothes on my floor. They felt like an old pair of jeans and a faded sweatshirt. 

I could have worn some of the amazing, limited edition clothing I had, but they were all still in plastic or boxes because of their collector’s value. Honestly, it was a wonder the half-dozen outfits I always wore hadn’t fallen apart. I made sure to smile at my collection of mint-condition cape figurines, clothing, and other merchandise before going out the door and heading down.

That’s odd. No breakfast smells, no coffee smells, but Mom and Dad are still here.

I’d always had a sort of inner monologue, partially because I self-narrated for myself. Not having friends meant that I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts. I’d love to pretend it was a super power, but really it was just my gut feelings, conscience, and self-doubt. Kind of like having my own personal contrarian, pointing out all my mistakes and making me second-guess myself.

Why are Mom and Dad just standing there next to suitcases? In nice clothes? What’s going on?

Indeed, as I reached the bottom of the stairs, I noticed that both my parents were well-dressed and standing next to a small suitcase each, leaving me both confused and silent. George was adjusting his tie, looking for all intents and purposes like ‘Greg plus a decade,’ but in an actual suit, plus an inch of height and a better haircut. Then I looked at my parents...

Dad was also in a suit, his burly frame topping out at six feet, a single one of his biceps bigger than my thigh, with his dark hair and mustache neatly trimmed. Mom looked amazing in her favorite red dress, heels making her almost as tall as Dad, her blonde hair in a complex bun. Honestly, she looked like some kind of deadly assassin or secret agent from a movie I saw once.

“Finally, Greg has graced us with his presence,” George said, waving a hand in my direction like some royal courtier presenting me to the kingdom of King Dad and Queen Mom. With everyone all dressed up, I was starting to think that something was going on here. “Can we go now? The opening ceremonies start at 4, and it’ll be at least a 2-hour drive with the usual Friday morning traffic, plus we need to stop at our hotel…”

“In a moment, George, we just need to see Greg off to school first.” Mom smiled at him, then turned to me, saw the expression on my face, and switched to a different tone. “You’ve totally forgotten what today is, haven’t you, Greg?”

As my heart raced, I could almost feel my mind kicking into high gear.

Yes. But I can’t say that or she’ll trust me even less. I need to buy some time, get some clues.

“No, of course not! In fact, I’m insulted that you would even say such a thing on a day like today...” I blustered, desperately searching my mind for an answer. “It’s...uh…today is...I mean, it may surprise you but today is actually...”

Fancy clothes, suitcase, George still here instead of having left for his job, Mom and Dad looking disappointed (not a new thing), c’mon Greg, think!

“Friday,” George whispered, softly enough that I doubt Mom and Dad heard him. I smiled in his direction, and snapped my eyes back to my expectant parents.

“It’s Friday!” As the words left my mouth, I immediately realized George’s treachery and stammered as I tried to think of anything else to say...but came up blank. Instead I just repeated myself again. “Friday...is today.”

“Yes Greg, it is Friday.” Mom paused, as if waiting for more, and then finally let out a little sigh, rubbing her temples. In a tone of voice that said dear god, why didn’t we wear protection that night , she slowly nodded and started to explain, “Your brother is one of several who won an award for their work in Medical Implants, and the three of us are going to Boston for a gala dinner and award ceremony. We told you about this last week, and you said that you’d be fine to stay home on your own until we get back tomorrow night. Remember that?”

“No. Yes. Yes!” I said louder, forcing a chuckle as though the ‘No’ had been a joke. I wasn’t really sure if it worked, but Mom did glance at Dad and start gathering her things. To build trust, I decided to throw in a few extra words that would prove me a responsible adult that they could trust. “Don’t worry, I’m a responsible adult that you can trust.”

Nailed it.

George sighed and turned away to answer a call on his cell phone. My ears popped for some reason, and I scratched at one of them as he walked a few steps away, muttering to someone. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad looked at me like I was the furthest thing from a responsible adult. 

I was pretty sure for a moment they were considering either calling a babysitter or dragging me along with them, and as much as missing a day of school would have been cool, doing it trapped in a car with my parents and brother was lame as hell. I decided to try one more time, lowering my voice and speaking carefully, “Look, I know I can be kind of immature sometimes, but it’s only 24 hours. How much mischief can I really get up to in that time?”

“He’s right, Sandra. He’s going to be fine.” Dad smiled at Mom, who sent him a look and waited for more reasons to trust me. Dad, ever the joker, continued to add, “Besides, he’s the son of a podiatrist and a librarian, so he’s well-read and not easily de-feet-ed! Eh?”

Mom just walked out the door to start loading up the car. Dad, never one for confrontation or challenging the woman who had given him an amazing son (and me), pulled a few bills out of his wallet and held them out to me. He cleared his throat, then patted me on the shoulder with his other hand. “Remember, Greg, don’t throw any parties, don’t leave the doors unlocked, and lights out by eleven o’clock. I trust you, son.”

Better add in a joke as well, let him know how relaxed I am about the whole thing.

“I’m sure the fire department will be happy to hear that, huh?” I took the money and stashed it in my wallet, trying to smile and ignore the way Dad’s smile faltered. I’d always tried to live up to Dad’s example, always having a joke for any situation. Problem was, I had gotten in the habit of self-deprecating humor a while back, so instead of laughs I just got pity. I was a master-class at creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. “I mean, um...thanks Dad. I’ll do my best.”

“I believe you will, son.” Despite obviously not believing me at all, Dad said it with practiced ease. With all the weights he lifted, he could have just picked me up...but instead of dragging me off and shoving me in the trunk he just smiled. Then, for lack of anything else to say, he patted me on the shoulder and headed out the door. “Be safe, Greg. Love you.”

Now it was just my brother and I. Despite his little prank, I wanted to wish him well. He was my brother, so something nice should have been easy. What actually came out of my mouth was pretty mean. “Congrats on your award George, will you be getting the Iron Cross?”

...Greg, you idiot. You know how much he hates those rumors about his coworkers.

George’s face froze, like water in Winslow’s outdoor water fountains. It had been a dumb joke, but in my defense it was one I’d made before. There were rumors floating around PHO about the company he worked for, after a member of the E88 had been spotted near their main building a week back. I’d had fun teasing him about it, but had promised to stop when Mom and Dad found out. I knew it was mean, and apparently he agreed enough to fire back at me.

“I seriously wonder what the hell is wrong with you sometimes, Greg. Are you so used to talking on your stupid cape message board that you don’t know how to talk like a human being? What, do you think you have to say something shocking so you’ll look cool, or make yourself feel better?”

“I wasn’t trying to-” He cut me off with a slash of his hand and power-walked out the door, slamming it behind him with a finality that no words could argue against. I wanted to run to the door and apologize, but just then my phone started buzzing with its ‘leave for school NOW or you’ll miss the bus, dumbass’ alarm. 

Grumbling, I grabbed my backpack, zipped it up, and rushed out the door in time to see the family car pull out of our driveway. George was ignoring me, but Dad looked at me with eyes that said he at least wanted to trust me. I nodded back at him, closing the door and running to the bus stop, knowing that I could just barely make it to the bus if I ran at full speed.

...a few moments later, I ran back to the house, locked the front door, and looked around. Nobody had seen me and my family was already gone. Okay, responsible adult starting now .

***

I made it to the bus just in time, and after a ride that was both loud and bumpy I was walking into the hallowed halls of Winslow High School. No wait, it was the other thing...accursed. Yeah, the accursed halls of Winslow.

A big crowd of kids was just inside, talking and laughing about one thing or another, and I carefully started maneuvering around them as I headed to my locker. They mostly ignored me. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, since I didn’t really fit into one of the three categories of Popular. 

Popular kids at Winslow fit into three main categories: Beautiful, Social, and Strong.

Emma Barnes was a good example of a Beautiful person, as well as most of her coterie of friends and hangers-on. Not only was she always wearing the hottest fashions and getting invited to college parties (so she claimed), but the knockout redhead just carried herself with confidence. Nobody dared to mess with her, either, because most Beautiful people were also good friends with at least one Social or Strong person (she had both).

As for the second category, being Social wasn’t just about talking a lot (otherwise I’d have that in the bag)...it was more about quality than quantity. Emma also fit into this category, but her friend Madison was a decent example as well. She could cut someone off with a word, tear them down with a sentence, and get a crowd on her side with a sigh. Social people had connections, knew where all the parties were, and knew everyone’s weaknesses. They had the teachers in their pocket, the student body at their beck and call, and never got in trouble.

Finally, the Strong. Football players, sports kids, and other jocks fit into this category. They were also the ones who gave wedgies, stuffed kids into lockers, and got away with everything. I mean, nobody in their right might would bench the quarterback over something as silly as a black eye! Sophia Hess was the gold standard for this, even though lately she’d been a lot less into it. Unfortunately, Julia North had picked up her slack with a vengeance.

Anyway, these categories seemed to transcend the gangs that Brockton Bay (and Winslow, the armpit of its school system) was full of. For instance, our football team had Empire 88, ABB, and drug dealing kids on it who were all big, strong, and jerks. Some of them hated black kids, others hated non-Asians, and still others hated narcs, but they all had size and strength in common. 

Honestly, given the amount of steroids in use, I feel like the drug kids were probably the most popular members of the football team. Half of our victories were probably thanks to them.

I pushed that annoyance aside as a member of the football team “accidentally” knocked me into a locker. I let out a laugh just in case he was doing it to be funny, knowing that trying to protest would only egg him on. Luckily, he was too busy talking on his phone to notice. 

A hundred tiny conversations like his were going on as I moved through the halls, from talk about cape fights to discussion of fashion. Most of it flowed off me like water off Narwhal’s back, but I did keep an ear out for subjects I could join in on. 

Finally, I heard a familiar voice talking about a certain song I had spent the night listening to, and a smile split my face as I stealthily moved in that direction.

“I mean, the song was okay and their costumes were cool,” Madison said, shrugging and adjusting her backpack as a dozen others nodded along. “But what really matters is that the money they made off it goes to people who were victims of the Simurgh. That’s like...a really important charity. People having to suffer like that is wrong.”

“Ha! I’ve seen the pictures online and their clothing is so gauche and last decade,” Emma scoffed, and Madison looked down as her cheeks reddened at the indirect rebuke. Emma threw some hair over her shoulder and rolled her eyes. “They’d better spend that money on better costumes before their next release, or they won’t last a month. Also, what’s with the lead singer’s accent?”

Now’s my chance. “It’s actually a funny story,” I blurted, “her parents were born in Leeds, in the UK, but she was raised in New Jersey for most of her life. She has a Yorkshire accent that she’s learned to cover up, but every now and then it sneaks out along with a slight twang that her singing coach imparted upon her.” I paused, taking a breath. Their silence as they all turned to face me gave me the motivation I needed to continue. “I watched an interview with her coach, and he said that he actually had to send her to a different voice coach a year back because his Texas accent had somehow slipped into her own singing and it was making people say exactly what Emma did. It’s very fascinating!”

Now, it may seem odd to most that I had just butted into a conversation, spat out a bunch of info rapid fire, and was only stopping when the lack of oxygen in my lungs forced me to. That’s probably because most people had friends . Since I lacked friends, I’d learned to take more drastic measures and just kind of...sneak into conversations. 

“But Greg,” many would say, “why not start out small and make tiny contributions to a discussion? Why risk the alienation and disgust that comes from blathering out words nonstop like a laser printer created by Uber and Leet that time they did a robbery based off Typing of the Dead?”

The answer was simple: Quantity over quality, because all it took was one win. 

With my reputation, I wanted to give people as many chances to like me in one go. It’s like how some people played paintball and were good enough to hit their target with only a few squeezes of the trigger, while others (like me) needed every paintball in the gun to have a chance at hitting anything. Spray and pray!

Speaking of hitting things, it was at this point that a hand landed on my shoulder, and I’m pretty sure my eyes sparkled a bit as I began to think that I had finally succeeded.

This is it! Someone’s about to agree with me and ask me to continue. Those hours of listening to accents and researching the band online were worth it! I’ve struck gold!

Speaking of striking things, that hand on my shoulder immediately shoved me and I practically flew through the air. I actually think my feet left the ground for a moment, and then someone caught me. Whoever they were, before I could turn around and thank them, I found myself falling down like a sack of bricks. I saw a pair of legs step away from me, and realized they hadn’t so much caught me as had me fly into them and then deliberately not caught me. 

Lying on my back, I looked to my right and saw that the thrower had been Julia North, who was now laughing at me with everyone else. The one who’d chosen not to catch me was Sophia Hess, beloved Winslow Track Star and Emma’s bestie. Emma said something to her, pointing at me, but Sophia just rolled her eyes and walked away.

Guess I’m not worth her time anymore. A bully gave up on me after a few months. Victory?

I started to get back up, but Julia shoved me back down as the laughter grew. A second try was no more effective, and even glances at other nerdy-looking students showed me only laughing faces. I wasn’t surprised at that, admittedly.

Despite there being three categories of Popular People, there was only one for people like me: Outcasts. It was a title that stuck like glue, with only the rarest of outcasts managing to slide into a new category. Going from nothing to something is as unlikely as a horse becoming a unicorn.

For example, I used to eat lunch with a fellow outcast named Allen. We rarely talked, but that was mostly because he barely said more than a few words a day, loved to read, and was only left alone because his brother was on the football team. Even the E88 kids left him alone, despite his skin color, because he had connections. Then one summer his brother helped him get totally ripped, he came back to school as a Strong kid, and made it onto the football team. After that, he had friends galore and his outcast past was forgotten entirely.

Outcasts don’t fit into the other three categories, and so it was open season on us because we didn’t really support each other. We knew better than to fight back, so we usually just kept our heads down and gave them the responses they wanted (you pushed me into the toilet, haha, so funny) and hoped they moved on to someone else. Worse, we turned on each other like rats in a sinking ship, and would gladly join in on the teasing and bullying of others to avoid the same fate. 

Case in point, as I finally made it to my feet I was nearly knocked down yet again by a blond girl behind me. She hung out with the Empire kids, and I think her name was...Cassie or Tammi? She already used to get in trouble all the time for her attitude, but a few weeks ago she must have done something to piss her friends off. Suddenly, they started ragging on her, which just goes to show that the only thing worse than a nazi is a nazi teenager.

Anyway, after nearly knocking me down and stomping on me, she sneered at me (her favorite expression) and called me a very bad word. That made the popular kids laugh even harder, and then the bell rang. With the threat of class on the horizon, they started to clear out.  

Just another morning at Winslow...and I haven’t even been to my locker yet.

***

That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day, which blurred by as time passed. 

Winter Break was nigh, so we all got some easy homework projects, and some of us (like me) did it in class since we didn’t have anyone to talk to. Lunch was nasty and may have actually been a science experiment gone wrong. The teachers all told us to be safe, but nobody really paid attention to them. Then one of my favorite classes of the day (Computers) came, and things really started to look up.

All it took was me spending most of the period trying to join in yet another conversation. I knew I was just asking for trouble, but without Sophia and Julia around I figured that at least this time I wouldn’t be getting knocked onto the ground. I’m pretty sure that even Mrs. Knott, our dear computer sciences teacher, wouldn’t allow that. She ran a pretty tight ship.

Anyway, I overheard Emma chatting with someone about a party she was attending, and how they just had to make sure they had enough drinks for everyone. Being a gentleman with several coupons for 2-liters of soda (thanks to my frequent purchases of gas station comic books), I waited until she took a breath and then kindly offered to bring some. It was so smooth that she was stunned into silence. Then her face turned red and she started to raise her voice.

“Look, you pasty-faced little…” Emma paused, seeing that Mrs. Knott had looked up from her romance novel and frowned in our direction. Emma closed her eyes for a moment, and then let out a little giggle and shook her head. “You know what? Sure. Why not. It’ll be a party you’ll never forget. Give me your number, and I’ll text you the address later.”

I tried not to let the surprise show on my face, and just wrote out my phone number on a bit of paper and handed it over. Sure, my hand shook so much that I had to grab my arm with my other hand so she could take the paper, but I think I played it off well. 

The rest of class I was walking on air, barely able to finish the assignment. I kept glancing over at Emma, so certain that this was going to turn out to be a prank, but she just kept chatting with friends and looking at what seemed to be a map of Brockton Bay. She saw me looking at her and smiled back a few times, and I got a warm feeling in my body as I realized that all my efforts had finally paid off. It was like playing the lottery...all it took was one win to be a winner!

Hours later, as I was walking from my locker to the front door, a hand grabbed my arm. I whirled around expecting another jock...but instead I only saw Taylor Hebert. She was frowning, her long dark hair framing a face that looked equal parts determined and annoyed. 

Taylor? What did I do this time? Why would she even bother to talk to me?

We had a...complicated relationship, the two of us. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. We didn’t really have a relationship at all, honestly. Back in the day I thought that she was a cape geek like me, and I was always trying to talk with her about all manner of subjects and people. It was fun, because she always seemed to see an angle I didn’t, and that made for amazing conversations. We were just two skinny, gawky teens, outcasts who were actually kinda-friends.

But as always, I sabotaged myself, and in this case it was my anxiety that did me in. I was constantly worried that Taylor was going to get tired of being my friend, afraid that she would move on or that I’d do something to piss her off. While I know now that I was being silly and overthinking it, back then...I panicked, and ruined my happiest pseudo-friendship.

I started becoming overly clingy, talking to her all the time, constantly trying to chat about everything from capes to videogames, even when she wasn’t interested. I gave her gifts, tips, websites, movie suggestions, and more. I started trying to spend more time with her, slipping into group projects with her so that she wouldn’t get bored of me, and even trying to get her to meet me out of school. In short, I was a creep, and the harder I flailed the more reasons she had to stay away.

So when Taylor grabbed my arm that day, it was a surprise to me. Apparently it was a surprise to other people too, because several other kids stopped to watch. Maybe they all wanted another of the many examples of Taylor shooting me down to brighten their day? Well, too bad for them, because I was walking on clouds and had no interest in starting anything.

“Greg, I heard about Emma. She’s just messing with you,” Taylor said, leaning in a bit. Her voice sounded rough, like she hadn’t used it in a while. “You shouldn’t have given her your number. She’s just a bully, and only wants to hurt you. I may not like you...but nobody deserves...”

I knew just like everyone else that Emma, Sophia, and Madison had made it their mission to mess with Taylor for a year now, but like I said before...the outcasts didn’t really stick together. It’s dumb, I know, but the thought of bringing their wrath down on me by trying to stand up for her made me afraid. Rather than take her warning, though, I reacted with confusion.

“What are you talking about? Is this because you want to go to her party as well?” I looked around, and speak of the devil, there was Emma smiling innocently nearby. “You guys used to be friends, right? I’m pretty sure if you come with me she’ll be okay with it.”

“No!” Taylor twisted her backpack’s straps in one hand and glared at me. I could see a hundred little stains of all different colors on her backpack, wondering to myself where they all came from. It had been brand new just a few months ago...was this all from the girls pranking her? Taylor shook her head and tried again, speaking slowly. “I was her friend, but that just means I know her better than you. This isn’t her trying to be your friend. You need to-”

“Now, now, Taylor, don’t go filling Greg’s head with more of your lies and stories.” Emma moved in, shoving Taylor a bit and then smirking as the other girl failed to retaliate. I was tempted to say something, one hand already reaching up, but the beauty before me took it in one of her hands (soft, but with such sharp fingernails) and started dragging me away. “C’mon Greg, let’s leave this loser to stew in her juices. She already smells like she’s been doing it all week. Her clothes are practically falling apart, she hasn’t washed them in so long.”

The class laughed, and I heard one of the other girls say something unflattering about Taylor’s hair, causing more laughter. Another comment came, this one about her shoes, and more laughter. Then I realized they were all looking at me, and the terrifying specter of Peer Pressure began to bore into my very soul.

“Haha, yeah.” I smiled nervously, then kept talking as I saw Emma’s face light up with a smile. Emboldened by a sudden confidence and shoving down the part of me that had always hated when outcasts turned on each other, I raised my voice. “S-she’s got more stains on her clothes than...than on that ratty backpack of hers!”

Emma laughed, as did everyone else. Except for Taylor. She just stared at me, almost hurt, as if this whole thing had been my fault, and pushed through the crowd to get away. Someone tripped her, but she caught herself on a locker and kept going. I wanted to go after her, but Emma’s hand held me back. It was like being part of a group, like having friends…

...and all I had to do was hurt someone who used to be a friend to get it. Is this even worth it?

That day, I went home with an address on my phone from Emma. It also meant that I now had Emma’s phone number, and she had even given me a hug as we parted. It made the feeling of being a Grade-A creep and jackass slightly less painful. Just barely. 

I made a mental note to apologize to Taylor on Monday, but then remembered that our Winter Break started tomorrow and that I wouldn’t see her again for 2 weeks. Well, maybe by then she would have forgotten? 

Maybe she’d recognize that I was in a tough situation, and as a fellow outcast she should just let me have this little moment of happiness? Was I really so bad? Didn’t I deserve to be happy sometimes, even if the cost was higher than I had expected?

Despite my attempts to rationalize my actions, my inner voice wasn’t so forgiving.

Maybe before I try to understand my classmates, I need to figure out people.

***********

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg dabbles in foreign languages, takes up jogging for his health, has the worst day of his life, and gets all tuckered out trying not to die.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

I’ve never been the most fit person in the world. I think a lot of that has to do with my actual lifestyle, more than anything else. I made videos, played games, read a lot, and lived a generally sedentary lifestyle. If it weren’t for the great genetics I got from my parents, I probably would have been a lot worse...but they were still the foundation.

It’s taken me a long time to understand it, but I’m starting to realize that my mistake has been assuming that I’d never need to be stronger, faster, or tougher than I am. That there’d never come a point where I needed to escape (be faster), lift something heavy (be stronger), or weather a difficult situation (be tougher). So I never tried.

That all changed the night I triggered. I was too slow, too weak, and too cowardly. If I’d been stronger, then things never would have gone the way they did. On the other hand, if I’d been stronger, then I wouldn’t have needed something like this to motivate me.

GregV.

***

[Friday Night, Dec 17, 2010]

Of course, after school I spent several hours picking the perfect outfit and practicing pickup lines for the many girls I expected to meet there. I mean, it was my first party ever, so it paid to be prepared. Clad in my lucky underwear and a cool jacket (and other clothes, of course), I set out for the party. I was so nervous that I missed my bus, but had left an extra hour early just in case. 

I was only halfway down the sidewalk when I started to worry, though. If I hadn’t known any better, I might have started thinking that this was an Empire 88 neighborhood. The PRT had been making huge strides in cracking down on them lately, and I told myself that this was just one of the blocks that they’d once had a heavier presence in. Before they started getting so much resistance, I mean.

Many people in Brockton Bay had been surprised to notice in recent weeks that the parahumans of the nazi gang were appearing less often. Sure, they still tangled with the PRT and ABB all the time, but they weren’t exactly walking around in public as much as a year ago. As a result, the civilian side of the gang had been forced to be more careful in their activities, a net positive for Brockton Bay as a whole.

The PRT claimed it was all because of an ongoing pressure campaign, but every time they started to brag like that a bank would get robbed or one of Brockton Bay’s few synagogues would get set on fire by Rune or Crusader. So, they were still obviously here, but maybe this was because of some infighting? Perhaps someone was challenging Kaiser for leadership?

Still, back to the present, I tried my best not to think about the danger I was potentially in. I always overthought things anyway, and I was seeing Asian, Black, and other people all around me, so maybe it was just graffiti? I told myself it was an ex-E88 place, and they kept tagging it.

That in mind, I took a deep breath and approached the address Emma had given me. It was a solid apartment building with gang tags all over the place, but seemed to be in good shape. I mean, if you ignored all the swastikas and racial slurs on the walls. Damn E88.

I was already here, and there was music coming from inside, so I went ahead and moved forward. I climbed the stairs, juggled my sodas for a few moments, and then carefully knocked on the door. After nearly a minute of silence, I tried again with my foot. Much harder this time.

“What?” I heard a voice from inside, the music turning down a notch as someone pressed up against the door from the other side. The voice was slightly accented, but I couldn’t quite figure out the origin. After last night’s research, I could tell it wasn’t someone from the UK, at least. “What the hell do you want, dude?”

“I’m here for the...uh...party?” Great, my voice cracked. I shook my head and cleared my throat, trying a second time. This time I nearly shouted, deepening my voice a bit. “Party time!”

His reply was not to open the door and let me in, welcoming me with open arms. Instead it was a certain four-letter word that I do my best not to use. Mom grounded me for a week after I screamed it (due to stubbing my toe) years back, at my cousin’s 10th birthday party. 

Worried, I texted Emma about my issues getting in the front door, and waited calmly (panicking the whole time) for her reply. Luckily, she got back to me pretty fast, texting me with the same phone number she’d sent the address from. I guess she had multiple accounts, because it was a different phone number than the one I thought she had. She was even using a screen name I didn’t recognize, “RedHerring” for some reason.

Anyway, it was a quick conversation: 

Me : Here. Door guy won’t let me in.

RedHerring : New phone, who dis?

Me : ROFLMAO. But seriously tho.

RedHerring : Door guy’s foreign and doing a password thing. He’s Jewish, so it’s Hebrew.

Me : Kk, what’s the password? I dunno Hebrew.

RedHerring : Well, it’s the start of the Sabbath, so say: “Shabbat Shalom”

Me : What’s it mean?

RedHerring : Something like, “Greetings my Jewish brother.”

Me : Um, but I’m not Jewish?

RedHerring : Well, don’t tell him that! 

RedHerring : I mean, if you want to just leave…

Me : NONONONO. 

Me : Sorry caps. No, I’m cool, I can play it off.

RedHerring : Yeah, you’re smart. That’s why we invited you.

RedHerring : We’re in the basement, hurry up!

Me : C U soon

RedHerring : <3

That little heart warmed me up a bit, and I practiced the words a few times before kicking the door again. When I heard the dude groan and lean on the door again I loudly yelled the password. I guess it worked, because I heard metal on metal almost immediately. The music turned way down, and in mere moments a blond head poked out of the door as it cracked open.

“What did you say, boy?” The guy was a few years older than me, and had a nasty scar on the side of his face. He opened the door a bit more and stepped outside, and I could see at least a few other guys behind him along with what looked like a few ladies. He closed the door, and placed one hand behind his back as he leaned on the door. “I didn’t quite hear you.”

“Shabbat Shalom, brother!” I repeated, a smile on my face as I held the sodas up. I made sure to say it slowly, and then repeated myself when he cocked his head to the side. I wondered if he wasn’t a fan of the sodas I had brought, and was tempted to ask about it.

That temptation vanished when the hand behind his back whipped out, and something shiny slammed into my stomach. Well, it would have hit my stomach, but there were soda bottles in the way. I immediately dropped them all, my eyes flashing up to the guy as he began to shout and spit at me in a language that sounded a lot like German. 

Wait, German language. Empire 88 neighborhood. Got mad at a guy speaking Hebrew.

Even with those thoughts dawning on me, my attention was drawn to the ground. It almost looked like someone had buried a knife in a 2-liter bottle of soda. A knife that the angry guy was bending down to pull out.

A bottle of soda just saved my life. That’s...something alright. Time to go!  

By the time he stood back up, I was already halfway down the street. Looking back, I could see him starting to chase after me, and I decided to duck into an alley. Movies had convinced me that doing so was the best way to lose a tail, and there was no reason to doubt them.

Now, I’ve never been one for running, jogging, or really any kind of physical fitness, but damn if I didn’t give it my all to escape my murderous new pal...let’s call him Knife Guy. Unfortunately, he showed no signs of giving up anytime soon, since every time I turned a corner, hopped a car hood, or ran into another alley he was right there at the edge of my vision. 

Vision, by the way, that was starting to blur as my lungs reminded me that Running really wasn’t something in the Greg Veder Skill List . It’s too bad that my Diplomacy skill had already critically failed, or else I might have been able to try that again. You, know, if all my air wasn’t going towards keeping my muscles and brain from shutting down. 

Still, I kept at it, because by the time calling for help entered my mind it had become a choice between “call for help and hope someone does so before Knife Guy stabs me” and “keep running because Knife Guy wants to stab me.” 

Just as I was starting to consider “hide in a trashcan” he kind of...vanished.

I stopped in an alley, leaning against a brick wall and breathing so hard that all I could hear were my lungs screaming at me, my heart hammering in my ears, and...shouting? 

Well, shouting means people. People I can talk to and warn of a knife-wielding nazi. So...

I stumbled in the direction of the shouting, my brain so starved for oxygen that I was pretty sure that was the only reason I hadn’t pulled my phone out as well. At the very least, it was in the opposite direction from where I’d last seen Knife Guy, so I was still running (slowly) away.

***

Around the corner and down another alley, I came across a spectacular and (admittedly) fairly common sight: A cape fight. Brockton Bay’s got capes for days, and I don’t think a week goes by without the Wards taking down gang members, the ABB poking the PRT, or the E88 pulling off a big job or ‘sending a message’ to stay relevant and keep us all afraid.

Despite having just been chased by a Knife-wielding maniac, I also knew better than to interfere in a fight between capes. They were barely a hundred feet away in the middle of the street, so it was like having seats on the 50-yard line at a football game (not that I’ve ever been to one).

This was a matchup I hadn’t seen before, Armsmaster vs. Crusader. Also there were some guys in security outfits, but they were hiding behind an armored car nearby, so they didn’t really count as threats. From what I could see, Crusader had attacked an armored car and was using his powers to rob it, but was having trouble doing that and fighting off Armsmaster at the same time. 

There were PRT guys at either end of the street and even some security guards (probably from the armored car) standing nearby, but none of them were interfering. I guess maybe they came to the same conclusion I had. They also kept looking up, and I heard someone shouting from above, so I started to creep forward a bit to get a better angle.

As I got a bit closer I could see that Crusader, the armored Empire 88 member who could summon ghostly versions of himself, was using half of them to fight Armsmaster and the other half to try and carry bags of money out of the armored car. He was holding his own, but seemed to be getting tired from having to resummon the ghosts every few moments. 

The reason for his resummoning was Armsmaster, the ever-efficient Tinker and leader of the local Protectorate branch, resplendent in his awesome blue power armor. He was easily using his cool techno-halberd to deflect attacks from the ghostly projections and their ghostly spears, as well as finding time to fire small projectiles at a few of the money-grabbing ghosts.  At this rate, another few minutes and he’d beat Crusader just by letting the guy exhaust himself.

“Looks like you should have stayed home, Crusader!” Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking that, as a voice from above called out and made me look up. There was someone crouching on the edge of a building on the other side of the street. Maybe two stories up, sitting on the edge with a uniformed security guard’s neck in his huge hand, was a man in a metal mask. “Just say the word, and I’ll drop this bitch and turn Armsmuncher into metal shavings.”

Hookwolf, Empire 88 Lieutenant and Verified chainsaw wolf, was watching over this fight like some guy at Seaworld watching seals do tricks. There was a short woman in a security guard outfit up there with him, his hand clamped around the back of her neck as he watched.

It all started to fall into place for me. He had grabbed a hostage, hopped on the roof, and was keeping the PRT, security guards, and Armsmaster at bay by threatening to hurt her. 

“If you had helped me in the first place, we’d already be gone!” Crusader yelled back, taking his eyes off Armsmaster for a moment. “You aren’t even supposed to be out here, you idiot! Stop messing around and go. I’ve got this!”

Armsmaster took advantage of his distraction to take out two more ghosts and close in on the armored nazi. After that, it became a battle of dodges, swings, and some really cool moves that almost made me forget that I had been trying to warn them of a knife-wielding nazi who was chasing me. It had only been a minute, but I had enough breath to call for help now, and I took a deep breath. 

Which was promptly used to let out a gasp as Hookwolf dropped the security guard. I’d always thought he was kind of interesting, even if he was a villain, but seeing him casually murder someone like that right in front of me was horrifying. Who could ever like something like that? 

I was able to see why she’d been dropped. With Hookwolf distracted by the fight, someone had crept up behind him and struck him in the back of the head. Already I could see the man starting to Change, turning around...but my eyes were locked on the falling security guard.

I can’t just let her die! But what can I even do? I’m nothing, too far away, too weak.

Luckily for both of us (but mostly her), a red blur collided with her in midair, and moments later I could see that Assault had caught her safely. She began to babble and sob, holding onto the man, and that made it easier for him to dodge out of the way as Hookwolf came down from above. There had been a mighty impact, and now his attacker was revealed to be Battery.

She glared down at him from the rooftop, already starting to glow as she prepared to attack the Changer. He glanced at Crusader, saw his fellow nazi losing, and must have decided that this wasn’t worth his time. So he started to escape down an alley.

Unfortunately for me, it was my alley. 

“N-no!” I choked out a feeble cry, turning and trying to stumble backwards. Hookwolf was coming right at me, his left arm already a nightmare of hooks and blades, and I saw him start to smile as he got ever closer. “Please d-don’t...no!”

I looked around for escape, but I was trapped on both sides and hiding in the pile of trash to my left would only make my death a smelly one. I desperately looked to Battery, Assault, and Armsmaster, but they were engaged with Crusader, who was going all-out to cover his teammate’s escape. They were all so close, and yet completely useless.

As I realized that I was going to die, I felt my life flash before my eyes.

It was...pretty disappointing, to be honest.

I spent most of my life just existing. No big dreams that I hadn’t given up on. No parents who cared about me. No brother to have my back. No accomplishments for my obituary. 

The last thing I had said to my parents was that I was responsible, and now I was getting killed. 

The last conversation I’d had with my brother was to make fun of his job, and he’d told me off. 

The last words I had said to the closest thing I had to a friend, Taylor...a girl who I had driven away and had still reached out to me...had been to make fun of her. 

I’m going to die now, and nobody will care. Nobody will even know. I was nothing. Nobody.

I stared, Hookwolf so close that I could count the individual hooks on his left arm, see the hairs on his other arm glisten in the light, and hear him laughing about something. I was weeping, sniveling, sobbing, like a child. I closed my eyes, and took one last breath as I tried to dodge. 

I felt a terrible impact, and was sent flying into the same trash I’d seen earlier. It closed over me, but my arms were grasped tightly around the horrible pain he’d inflicted on my torso. I could feel my sludgy innards spilling out of me, around me, and I panicked and started to hyperventilate.

I’m bleeding! All this is coming out of me...my organs, my blood...I’m going to die.

As I lay dying in the trash, all my fluids soaking my clothes, I cried and cursed myself.

I just watched them, watched their powers, because they were everything to me.

I had always felt small and worthless, and now I was dying. Alone. It was my fault.

I can’t even dig myself out, my hands are the only thing holding me together! I’m scared.

I heard someone coming and let out a strangled cry, afraid to move, but they ran right past me. 

Armsmaster, Battery, and Assault...all three ran right by me without even a glance. Not a word.

The heroes I adored had ignored me, a villain I had found interesting had killed me. 

Of course they would abandon me. Saving me would do nothing. Catching him is better.

I’d always dreamed of being a guy who understood parahumans, and what made them special.

I just wanted to be someone like them, who was worthy of praise and respect.

Someone who could make friends, bring people together, and learn from them.

Someone who made enemies into friends, fixed his life and theirs...and was brave.

Someone who could change, and learn from his mistakes instead of dying from them.

Someone who isn’t me. I’m sorry Mom, Dad, George. I’m...so...sorry.

As my exhaustion and panic finally overtook me, I closed my eyes and felt something .

Then I felt nothing. 

***

I woke up in the trash, and it took me a minute to realize I wasn’t dead.

I certainly smelled like it, and it was only after I pulled myself out of the trash that I realized something far more important. The lack of a gaping wound on my chest.

Why don’t I have a huge gaping wound on my chest? Didn’t Hookwolf hit me? Wait, did I...

It was fuzzy, but from the shape of the bruise covering my chest, it looked like the fleeing nazi had actually hit me with his non-blade arm. I’d been thrown into the trash, buried by it, and then had weeks of rotten garbage spill all over my body and clothing. It had felt nasty.

I swore to never tell anyone that I’d mistaken what smelled like someone’s week-old takeout, maggots, and whatever this green stuff was for my own blood and internal organs. That I’d been so scared, I had been as easily fooled as one of those kids who went to haunted houses and mistook a bowl of grapes for actual eyeballs. The important thing was, I was alive!

I carefully made my way out of the alley, finding that I had almost acclimated to the horrible smell after a few moments. Maybe it was just built-in teenager abilities, or the fact that my own room was a pigsty and I just had a reduced sensitivity to stinky things. Either way, as the dizziness started to fade, I did my best to figure out which was home. Maybe I could ask for help?

Apparently the universe had decided that I hadn’t suffered enough for one night, because after only a few minutes of tracing somewhat familiar streets and alleys, I found myself back where I’d started. Which also meant that I was unfortunate enough to run into a familiar face.

“Hey, it’s the cowardly Jew!” Knife Guy shouted, having been sitting on the front steps of his place with a few of what I was pretty sure were more E88 kids. He started to walk towards me, drawing out his namesake and pointing it at me. “I think you owe me some money for wasting my time, boy. Also for stinking up this block with your-”

I pulled out my wallet, ripped the money Dad had given me out of it, and threw it in his direction.

Then I took off running. It was dumb...but as a teenager who had nearly died to this guy earlier and a much more dangerous parahuman version of him a bit later on, I focused on escape. This wasn’t the time for negotiation, reason, or pleading...it was time for running.

On the plus side, none of his friends followed us, so I didn’t need to worry about them cutting me off or something. On the other hand, one nazi was more than enough for a kid like me, because after only a few blocks he was close enough that I could hear his breath over my own. 

I glanced back, seeing Knife Guy about 10 feet behind me.

Had I seriously survived Hookwolf only to get knifed on the sidewalk? Even after everything else, I still pushed myself to hold on. I could see a park just a few blocks ahead, and knew that if I could reach it I might be able to lose Knife Guy by...I dunno, climbing a tree or something. 

Wait, what’s that noise? Kind of a crackling, tapping noise. It sounds like that video I saw of...

I felt like the light of heaven was shining down on me as I looked past Knife Guy and saw a red-suited figure blur in our direction. In mere moments, running right alongside us, was the Protectorate’s own Velocity, jogging normally as if he was merely out for a stroll. Racing stripes ran down his suit and met on his chest in a V, and he gave a little wave. 

I must be hallucinating. It actually looks like the light of heaven is shining on him. He’s glowing!

“Nice to see you kids jogging along, but don’t stay out too late. E88’s active tonight,” he greeted us, missing the weapon Knife Guy was now hiding in his sleeve. I desperately tried to speak, but my lungs had long since given up. I let out a wheeze and motioned at Knife Guy, but Velocity mistook it as a wave and returned the gesture. “Hello. Well, I’m off. Have a good night, boys.”

As he started to speed off, I felt like the life just went out of me. Velocity sped away in a blur, and I reached out, as if I could grab him and pull him back. His help, even for a moment would have been the difference between life and death for me. But I hadn’t even managed to ask for it.

Just once...I wish things could go my way. Even when success is in reach, I screw it up.

I felt an emptiness in me, bigger than ever before. 

Even now I could see Velocity like he was a glowing brand, a burning light in the darkness compared to the guttering candle that was Greg Veder. Unlike me he wasn’t fading...he just kept burning bright no matter how far away he got. I could almost still feel his warmth, as if I could just reach out and touch his power. 

He was so close I could have touched him. Even now, I feel like I can still grab him.

I daydreamed about reaching for him with an arm that was a hundred feet long, grabbing at him and pulling just a bit of his capability and success...pulling it back to me. The thought, the dream, warmed me inside. It was like one of those times where you wake up, and aren’t sure whether real life or the dream was reality. I felt like maybe I could still win...

...and then Velocity turned the corner, and his light was gone. Too late. Some part of my brain felt like he was still right here, but that was just my wishful thinking. All I really felt was Knife Guy’s breath on the back of my neck, a burning pain inside me, and the last bits of my adrenaline surging as panic began to set in.

I felt a burning in my gut, spreading through my whole body. It overtook my pain, my sadness, my everything...and even as my arms and legs got heavy and my organs felt like they were turning to stone, some part of me refused to give up.

With every ounce of motivation, fear, and willpower I had, I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth and gave one... last ... push !

I felt something explode around me.

***

When I opened my eyes, I saw the world blurring around me. I was deafened by air blasting past my ears, and I couldn’t breathe.

My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My chest hurt. Everything hurt. 

I couldn’t see! I couldn’t hear! I felt like I was falling sideways and down and up all at once!

I tripped somehow, and knew that I was about to eat pavement or headbutt the curb. Instead, against all odds, it was like I was skimming along on the world’s greatest waterslide.

I slowly slid to a halt, and found myself blinking up at the stars and moon, but there were...empty branches in the way? Everything was quiet, and even knowing that Knife Guy could appear at any moment...I couldn’t stop myself from just wheezing and heaving.

I’m done. Body dead. Brain dead. Stick a fork in me. Just lie here and let him kill me. 

Closing my eyes, I focused on breathing and getting my heart rate down. It was hammering like it was going to burst out of my chest. Breathing hurt, but I managed to slow myself down enough until it was less agony and more...really painful.

After minutes that felt like hours, I slowly rolled over and stood up. I then immediately collapsed to the ground again. Okay, going to have to take it slower. I carefully crawled across the ground, to a nearby tree that someone had left in the middle of this green street, leaned against it, and-

Was I in a forest? I looked around, my eyes finally adjusting without any streetlights, and saw that I was indeed in a wooded area. Was this the park I had been looking at a minute ago? The one a few blocks away? That meant...

I looked around, and indeed, a few blocks away from me was a street and some streetlights. I could just barely make out a tall blond guy with something shiny in his hand. 

I should be happy, now that I’m safe, but all I can think about now is...

Through some strange confluence of fate and justice, Greg Veder finally had super powers! 

There was no other explanation for how I’d managed to teleport from a few blocks away and escape Knife Guy just before he had been able to kill me. This was amazing news!

Closing my eyes as the dizziness continued, I pulled myself up to my feet using a tree, wincing as I felt muscles I didn’t know I had screaming at me. Apparently I still needed more practice using my power, but time was something I had plenty of. Plus, as a Class-S Cape Geek, I had a wealth of knowledge, information, and skill at my hands.

Teleportation! Wow! This was like winning a power lottery, and pretty soon I’d be rubbing shoulders with people like Strider! Plus, it meant that I didn’t need to ever worry about plane tickets or cars ever again. The possibilities were endless, and if I weren’t already dizzy from all the oxygen deprivation and stuff I probably would have started jumping around and cheering.

Wait, am I really sure that this is teleportation? Eh, I can think about it later. Celebrate now.

Just for the heck of it, I tried a little hop and a cheer, but pain from many places (both internal and external) told me that was a bad idea. Instead, I took a slow and deep breath, groaning slightly as even my chest told me not to mess with it right now. 

I felt a bit dizzy and turned around, but managed to catch my balance before falling over. No, I could do this. I was going to limp home, put ice packs all over my body, eat my weight in pizza, and then get to work on my new life as a hero. 

Today may have been tough, but I could take it. I was truly a man now!

I opened my still-blurry eyes, and took my first step forward into my new life as a hero, responsible adult, and all around great guy!

...and immediately collapsed, scraping my face against a tree on the way down. I didn’t even feel it, which really should have told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t even catch myself this time, landing in a bush.

In retrospect, I should have realized that after running several miles on an empty stomach, going through all my adrenaline supply, and teleporting so hard I nearly died, there would be some costs. 

As the world faded to black, I made a mental note to work on my cardio.

***************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: They say the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Since Mouse Protector doesn’t show up until Arc 3, that probably means Greg’s carefully-laid plans are about to crash and burn. It’s one thing to daydream about what you’d do with powers, but another thing entirely to have them...and realize the danger of following through!

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

I started keeping a Secret Journal because of the pain I endured the day after I triggered. Pain that came from realizing how dumb I’d been, how mistaken about myself, and how foolish I’d been to trust only my own thoughts and dreams over what reality had been trying to teach me all along.

If I had just wallowed in those thoughts, spiraling ever downward into my own self-loathing, then that would have been it for my dreams of being a hero. But that’s not what happened. 

Instead, as I wrote the very first journal entry I began to realize that things weren’t as bad as they’d seemed at the time. As each consecutive thought went onto the page, I was able to examine my feelings and see that I was blowing things out of proportion. That I could pick myself back up, try again, do it better, and that quitting wouldn’t solve anything. 

In a nutshell, I learned to handle disappointment because I was able to express myself and look back at how I’d felt before...and figure out how to improve because of it. I know it sounds easy, but with my anxiety even writing it down felt like I was exposing my deepest fears. 

I hope that someday I trust someone enough to share it. Maybe even talk to someone, and have them talk back with good advice and ideas. A friend, a family member, a therapist...someday, when people have my back.

That’s off in the future, thought. Right now, it’s just me, and I’m going to keep trying things, no matter how much I’m afraid of what will happen.. 

Because if I don’t try, I can’t potentially fail. If I don’t fail, I can’t learn to do better.

Unfortunately, Saturday was a day where I failed a lot...but I’m stronger for it.

Because I was able to realize why .

GregV.

***

[Saturday, Dec 18, 2010]

I woke up to sizzling pain in my eyes, and rolled over to clap my hands to my face.

This actually caused more pain, but not from my eyes this time.

It took a minute, but eventually I calmed down and realized what had happened. Nature’s version of a laser knife, a beam of sunlight, had cut through the trees above me, as well as my corneas. Some injury on my face had flared up when I clapped both hands over my eyes, making things worse.

My nap had restored my stamina a bit, but that was one of the few positives. I was sore all over, my clothes were muddy and torn, I had what felt like splinters in my face, and I had just slapped myself in that very same face. Last night had been...

Wait. Last night? Oh crap, last night! How could I forget...I’m a parahuman now!

I rolled to my feet and leapt into the air, thrusting both arms up as I let out a strangled cry.

Strangled, of course, because I had also forgotten that last night I’d wrecked myself running for my life (twice!), apparently teleporting 3 blocks, and then collapsing face-first into a tree before passing out. Still, I tried to put a positive spin on it, realizing that at least now I knew my limits.

Massive exhaustion is something I’m just going to have to get used to, now that I’m a hero!

Anyway, after a small amount of groaning and wheezing, I managed to lean up against a tree (the same one that had slapped me) and took stock of my situation. I did so mostly by examining my body, stretching and straining body parts, and making hissing noises as I rolled up sleeves and pant legs to examine myself. 

On the plus side, the only parts of me that had actual bruising were my face and legs, though I could feel several scrapes and itchy grass stains on my back. Glancing in the direction I’d come from, I could actually see a line that traveled for about sixty feet through the long grass and had a strange swoopy part halfway through. Normally my shirt and jacket would have protected me, but I’d probably spun at that halfway point and been sliding feet-first after that. 

On the minus side, my legs shared those grass stains and were a mess of bruises going from my thighs to my feet. It was easy to see without taking off my pants and shoes, because for some reason the seams on my pants had split and my shoes were...broken, for lack of a better word. 

Finally, my face felt so bad that I was too afraid to even use my phone to take a picture of it. The whole right side of my face from the forehead to the cheekbone was throbbing, and putting a hand there made it sing with pain. There also seemed to be bits of bark there, and I felt little stabs whenever I poked at it. I probably had more than a few splinters, so for the time being I just decided to deal with it at home.

As I was examining the damage, I started to wonder what my power actually was. I mean, I was thinking it was teleportation, but now I was wondering if I’d blasted off or gone super-fast. It was tempting to go back to the sidewalk where I’d ‘launched’ from, but I wasn’t sure what I’d do if someone asked me what I was looking for...or how I’d gotten hurt so badly. 

Well, file it away for later. Right now I have to make sure I don’t accidentally flash someone.

My shirt and jacket were in bad shape, but luckily I was able to fashion a sort of kilt with my jacket around my waist. It was early enough that there were only a few people even in sight, but it never hurt to be careful.

Anyway, with my stomach rumbling and my injuries not getting any better, I decided to start the trek home. I say trek because this was no walk in the park. I might have been in a park, but this was a limp at best. 

I was sore as all heck, so much that even at half speed it felt like a bone was about to pop out of one of my legs. My face throbbed, my back itched (and hurt when I scratched it), and I had no money...so it wasn’t like I could just take a cab. Oh, and my shoes were disintegrating.

Despite all that, I was still dancing on clouds and singing with joy (figuratively, of course). 

Why? 

Because. I. Had. Parahuman. Powers!

I mean sure, I’d had to nearly kill myself running for my life from a knife wielding Empire 88 goon, have my life flash before my eyes as I was nearly brain-stabbed in a dark alley, and a large assortment of whining and crying...but it was all worth it. 

In retrospect, if I’d known that it took this much suffering to get parahuman powers I might have lived a lot less dangerously. Of course, if it became well-known, then helicopter parents would have gotten even worse, and mine probably wouldn’t even have let me leave the house.

But seriously, what’s up with this whole “suffering gives you superpowers” thing?  

My mind wandered as I limped along, thinking about how people got powers in my favorite fiction. I wasn’t sure if they were any better than this, but they probably hurt a lot less.

Why couldn’t it be a special gene in a small number of the population that gave them amazing abilities when activated at puberty? Or maybe older capes recognizing the skills and passions of the younger, non-powered generation and gifting them powers as some sort of elaborate ritual. Maybe eating their hair or drinking their blood, for instance. I mean, yeah it sounded like something out of an anime, but at least that had some kind of rhyme or reason to it.

To distract myself from my sore body, and the embarrassment of knowing that people were looking at me like I was cosplaying as a car accident victim, I started to review my plans. 

Back when I was younger, I had made a series of special Plans, capital P, for what I would do if I ever got superpowers. The dreams of a child, now made real by suffering and circumstance!

Even with all my pain and discomfort, the years-old plans came easily to me...

***

My first plan was the earliest one I could remember, made the day after some kids at school had teased me for my love of capes. I had been six, and while they’d liked superheroes as well, they always wanted me to play the villain because none of them were friends with me. When I had refused, they’d knocked me over and made me cry.

On that day, I had sworn revenge, and in a decade since then no bully had ever given me reason to rescind that need to revenge. That was why Plan #1 was:

Plan #1: Revenge! 

Now that I had powers, I could finally get back at the bullies in my school, show them that Greg Veder wasn’t someone to mess with. I could beat up all those jerks on the football team, challenge them in front of the whole school and take them out one by one. They’d all rue the day they-

Wait, maybe that’s a bit too far? Exploding teleports probably make a fist fight...dangerous.

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t challenge them one on one, or publicly. Yeah, maybe start a bit smaller, with some pranks on the bigger fish? With teleport powers I could still troll the hell out of Sophia, Emma, and Julia, and they’d be so busy trying to figure out who was messing with them that they’d be exhausted in no time. I’d make them pay for...

Hmm, does that make me the bully? I’m basically using my power to pick on someone weaker...

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t just attack them out of nowhere. I’d have to pick my moment. Wait until they really deserved it, like while bullying someone. Oh, that was an idea! I could wait until I saw them picking on Taylor and swoop in, and she’d totally be thankful. I’d be a hero among the outcasts, and Taylor would forgive me and probably-

Hold on, would she really forgive me for the way I acted? Is that all it would take?

Plus, I knew from my own very recent experience with Emma that someone suddenly going from mean (or apathetic, in my case) to nice was suspicious as hell. This plan was...

This is a terrible plan. Why didn’t I ever realize that before? It’s so full of holes!

In comic books and cartoons, a character would sometimes realize that they were getting off track and slap themselves. In my case I relied on self-recrimination, since I’d always had a talent for putting myself down. I could sometimes ignore it, but now...I actually found myself embracing it.

With a sigh, I took a seat on a handy park bench and gently placed my hands on the sides of my head as I looked at my ruined shoes. Ostensibly, I was resting my sore legs, but I was also taking a moment to reflect on Plan 1 without any distractions. 

For one thing, going straight for revenge would probably out me as a cape in no time. I mean, you don’t just go from skinny loser to strong badass in a few weeks. Anyone would be able to look at me and realize that I was hiding something. Plus, they could just look at all the people being pranked, beaten up, and messed with to see that they all had me in common!

Worse, someone might even try to blackmail me, and that could lead to my family getting hurt. Given the number of gangs in Winslow, they might even force me to join one of them. The very thought of being forced into the E88 sickened me. How many more people would be hurt because of that?

That wasn’t even including the trouble I’d get in for using my powers on non-capes. Like, jail trouble. Seriously, assaulting someone with a gun was one thing, but throwing a fireball at them was a whole pile of extra felonies and could even get you put in a special prison that you never got out of. Nobody wanted to go to the Birdcage, and this seemed like a sure-fire way to get on the path that would take me there. 

Self-defense seemed like a nice excuse, but considering how much time I’d spent planning this there was no way I could say I didn’t have means, motive, and opportunity. No, this would have been premeditated...I had seen enough police procedural TV shows to know how this would go.

I’m spinning myself in circles, trying to avoid thinking about the part that hurts the most.

But what had finally made me stop and want to slap myself was the whole “help Taylor and she’ll forgive me” thing. Even if that wasn’t the most hackneyed plotline in all of entertainment, it completely ignored the fact that one good deed couldn’t undo a hundred bad ones ! Especially after I’d spent the better part of a year watching her get bullied and not interfering, for fear that they’d do the same to me. Hell, I had even joined in yesterday!

I’m part of the problem. It has to be something more powerful than just one grand gesture.

I had a lot to make up for, and couldn’t just use powers to get out of the hole I’d dug myself into.

I’m going to have to be better. Not just for her...but for everyone.

I was glad that I had considered Plan 1, even if I now understood that it was a terrible plan. 

So many things could have gone wrong. With a smile that hurt, I reflected that following a plan made by a six-year-old probably wasn’t the smartest choice I could have made. I’d have to remember that in the future.

With that determined, and with the understanding that I was not in a good headspace for plans...I climbed to my (still very sore) feet and started walking to the bus stop. 

***

I got more than a few stares on the bus, and found that looking out the window wasn’t really helping my self esteem. Wanting a distraction, I found my mind wandering to Plan 2. I had created it when I was 12 years old, so it was far more nuanced than simple revenge.

Plan #2: Rebirth!

By the time I was 12, I had already realized that Greg Veder was a loser at school and that my attempts to reinvent myself online were also doomed for failure. I decided that if I ever got powers I would be best off just starting 100% fresh. Indeed, this was an opportunity to finally toss my old personas away and start anew. 

Today could mark the day that figured out my powers, and practiced them as I beat up criminals and took down the gangs terrorizing Brockton Bay. The ABB, Empire 88, anyone else who dared to challenge law and justice? Greg the creepy loser would be my secret identity, XxVoid_CowboyxX would sing my praises online, and my brand new cape persona would be someone that everyone loved. 

A cool name, a cool costume, some catch phrases, I could make a new me! I could be whoever I wanted, starting fresh and being a hero that people could look up to! Best of all, the loser known as Greg would actually work out in my favor, since as far as secret identities went he was perfect. The New Me would be so different from Greg that nobody would ever suspect us of being the same person!

Except that he’d still be me. Greg is still Greg, even with powers and a costume.

The bus stopped and I quickly got off, hoping the pain from my legs would distract me from the painful and dream-shattering logic going through my head. I walked down the street, ignoring a blonde jogger who saw my angry (and ravaged) face and gasped loudly at me. Her reaction made it hard, but I struggled to get back into my happy mindset.

This was a good plan! My parents would see Hero Greg on the news and talk to Normal Greg about how cool this new guy was and ask “Why can’t you be more like that hero?” My brother would be able to reduce his workload making special tech for medical use and instead become my gadget guy! My whole family would love the new hero, and the failures of Greg Veder would just fade into the background as I became a hero 24/7!

But he wouldn’t really be me, would he? He’d just be another mask I wear. I’d still be under it.

I’d still be the same Greg. Bad plans, stupid decisions, and no friends. Some hero.

I stopped, the jogger swerving around me, and felt like I was going to fall over. I lifted one of my arms and stumbled to the side (luckily not the street side) until I found a brick wall. Soon my arm gave out, and found myself leaning against the wall. 

“Are you okay?” The woman just wouldn’t leave me alone, and I just nodded instead of answering her. Rather than leaving, she took that as an opportunity to keep talking. “I just wanted to make sure, because you look kinda...hurt. I know some first aid, I can help if you want.”

“I’m fine,” I rasped out, turning away from her, and just saying the first thing that came to mind. “It’s just makeup. I was up all night with friends, and didn’t get much sleep.”

“Wow, it’s really realistic,” she chirped, taking a drink of the tiny water bottle she was carrying. She leaned in, then sniffed. “You really went all the way on this! My boyfriend is always talking about how creative some of his students are, but I’ll bet you put them to shame!”

Luckily for me, her phone rang, and I was spared from further questions about my “costume.” She wandered off, chatting with whoever was on the other end of the call, and I took that time to walk around the corner into an alley. With any luck, she’d go away soon.

Her conversation quickly faded from my range of hearing as I found a nice brick wall to lean against and have a minor breakdown.

At least with Plan 1, I would only have ended up in jail. Plan 2 would’ve erased my life entirely.

I slowly slid down it until I was sitting, and hugged my knees to my chest as it hit me just how horrible a life like that would have been. It had seemed so cool when I was a kid, so easy to just start all over and forget about what little I’d built in the past decade or so.

How pitiful am I, to dream of my own parents insulting me just to praise an ideal version of me? 

What kind of person imagines just giving up on the life they’ve spent 15 years building in favor of a new one that hasn’t even existed for more than a few hours? One that might not even happen if I couldn’t figure out my powers, or if they turned out to be something lame?

...and with those realizations running through my head, Plan #2 died a painful, flaming death. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me, if I should see a doctor. Like George.

I wish George was here. He’d know what to do. He always does.

***

Plan #3 burst into life, and I grasped at it as I closed my eyes and rested my forehead on my knees. I ignored the pain from my splinters, thinking instead about all of the many times when George had been right and I had been terribly, embarrassingly, horribly wrong. 

Plan #3: What Would George Do?

He was the responsible one, and Mom and Dad never doubted him for a moment. 

When he’d said he was going to take a large course load so he could finish college early and start helping people sooner, they just asked how they could help. When he’d said he’d be taking on a part-time job at Medhall while still working on his doctorate, they offered him his old room in the house. They loved him, always bragging to friends about his skills and knowledge.

He was never wrong, he never faltered, and his plans always worked. 

Meanwhile, in the past 24 hours, the only thing I’d managed to do right was escape a nazi, and even that took multiple tries. I’d fallen for a deadly prank, been knocked down by a bully, alienated my only pseudo-friend even more, and blown myself up. 

Yeah, real good job there Greg! You survived! That’d almost be an accomplishment if it weren’t for the fact that (Emma’s prank aside) you were the one who put your own life in danger in the first place. Nobody gets awards for surviving a car accident after they caused it in the first place.

George would never have fallen for that. Hell, he’d have gotten Emma arrested for trying it.  

Maybe George should have been the one to get powers. He’d probably have figured them out right away, and been saving lives alongside the Protectorate within the day. He’d be nationally known by the end of the month, and have a thread on PHO a thousand pages long. 

Maybe I should call him. His big party was last night, but I’m sure he has some ideas.

Checking my screen, I saw that my phone had gone dead. So now Plan 3 was dead less than a minute after I’d made it. Par for the course with me, I supposed. 

No more plans. It’s time to go home. Get cleaned up, eat, and think. Stop wallowing in self-pity.

People were starting to fill the streets and I didn’t want to have to explain to them (or the police) how I’d gotten so bruised and scraped up. I really just wanted to go home.

I was sure my family, at George’s big fancy party, had had a really great time. That nobody had died, nobody had gotten hurt, and everyone was happy. There might even have been people with powers there. People who deserved them.

But...did they deserve them? Villains got powers too. They did terrible things with them.

No, I can’t think like that anymore. Now I know that powers just happen. There is no “deserve.” 

For once, my self-doubt was...oddly supportive. Despite my limp, I found my gait steadying.

Come to think of it, powers really did seem to be entirely random. Maybe there was some rhyme or reason to how they happened or appeared in people, but just going around pretending that some people were more worthy than others was...dumb. This wasn’t something like genetics or money, it really did seem to be some kind of random chance (with a side order of suffering).

That meant that I had powers whether I wanted them or not, whether I thought I deserved them or not. They were a part of me now, and I had to be willing to step up. I couldn’t just give up and pretend that my parents or brother were going to fix this for me. This was my problem now. 

My problem. My powers. My family. My solution. My future.

I have powers now. I have to be smarter. I have to think things through.

No matter how much it hurt, no matter how terrible some of my plans might have been…

I couldn’t give up anymore.

****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: How nice that Greg was thinking about his family towards the end. They weren’t even around, because they were at a big gala awards thing last night in Boston. It was a party thrown by...Medhall? Well, maybe not all is as it seems!

Chapter Text

[Greg’s Dad: Stanley Veder] 

When you become a father, there’s no manual. This has always puzzled me, because it seems like there’s a manual for just about everything else. When I give someone a tube of Kerasal for their feet, I’m required by law to also give them a little booklet explaining all the ins and outs that let them not have to call a trained podiatrist for anything regarding the cream. 

I mean, it has all the simple stuff, like how you shouldn’t eat it, not to put it in your eyes (bad idea), and how it interacts with other medications. Pretty much the only thing it doesn’t tell you is how to avoid ever needing it again, but that would put me out of a job. Best and worst thing about being a doctor is that all you need is patience, and you’ll have patients.

Ha, a bit of doctor humor there. It’s not really that funny, but then again laughter is rarely the best medicine. That would be Morphine.

I got a million of ‘em! One thing I don’t have a million of, though, is kids. Just have two, George and Greg. Tubes are tied, so it’s not like we’ll ever have more. Honestly though, looking at the first one right now, I couldn’t be prouder. We’d come to Boston with him and his girlfriend, so he could get an award from his company and we just couldn’t say no.

I do worry about my boy Greg from time to time. I’m not just thinking that now because this is the longest he’s been left home alone since that time he recreated the trapped house from Home Alone (he must have watched that movie a hundred times, until he could repeat Channing Tatum’s character’s lines perfectly) and nearly brained his brother.

Greg is...special. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but he’s always had the family passion...he just lacks any kind of goal or dedication. I loved medicine, comedy, and Sandra, so I became a podiatrist because I wanted to help people and feet are funny. Sandra loved books, reading, and organization, so she became a Librarian. George loved medicine, helping people, and technology, so he went into medical implants and research. 

But Greg loves capes, cape culture, filmmaking, talking, the internet, and...he doesn’t seem to have any real long-term goals in mind. He could work in PR for capes, report on news for capes and culture, or any other thing he put his mind to...but he just spends all his time hiding in his room and playing silly games. I worry not about his future, but what he wants it to be.

As I gazed across the party, ignoring the mass of people all chatting and pretending to eat the fancy food, I saw the woman I’d dedicated my life to so long ago. The most beautiful woman in the room, Sandra’s heels put her at eye level with me, her red dress made sure I wasn’t looking at her eyes (just kidding), and her bravery filled me with hope for the future. She’d certainly been brave enough to marry a lout like me, and blew me a kiss before attacking the buffet. 

George was already moving off to join her, a step ahead of me as always. 

Meanwhile, I was usually a step behind...as I got to the buffet and found my wife already scraping up the last of the crab dip. This wouldn’t have been so bad, if not for the fact that a very annoyed man was glaring holes in her at the time. This was made doubly bad by the minor detail that the man was wearing plated armor and a mask. According to his nametag, he was...Bastion.

Well, I was sure that we could work out our differences. Weren’t all hero capes supposed to be nice people? Besides, Sandra was pretty nice once you got to know her. I smiled as a nice waiter handed me a drink, and found myself lost in its swirling depths.

***

How would I describe Sandra? Well, that’s a bit of story going all the way back to high school...

The first thing I learned about Sandra was that she had high standards. She wouldn’t talk to me unless I greeted her first, waited for her to greet me back, and I had fresh breath, clean hands, and combed hair. This was why I’d blown her off at first, admittedly.

At the time I was just a big lunk whose only claim to fame was being able to play football, by which I mean I was good at tackling and taking hits. There might have been more to life, but I wasn’t the smartest kid back then. In my defense, this was in the time that we had Fred Flintstone telling me to smoke and my Dad was having steak and whiskey for every dinner. 

Of course, this was the same Dad who always said that my grades being bad wasn’t a big deal (because I could just play football) and that my stutter made me ‘endearing.’ There’s a reason I haven’t talked to Pop in over a decade.

Anyway, at the time I just thought that she was a pretty girl and I wanted to date her, so I found myself in the library after school trying to talk to her. I soon found out that we had nothing in common, but she didn’t treat me like an idiot (as much as others), so I kept coming back.

It took a week, but she finally broke down and gave me a response other than dismissal. Maybe she just felt bad for me, because she asked me what I’d do for a date with her. I replied “Anything,” and she handed me a book. Told me to learn it, then come back and see her.

Now, I’d like to say that it was a book on feet and that’s what made me into the podiatrist I am today, but that’d just be contrived. I could also claim it was Latin, and that’s how I got into the medical field. Perhaps I could say it was Romeo and Juliet (which is not a romance, no matter what the internet may tell you), and that I returned to sweep her off her feet. 

In fact, it was none of these things. It was a book of 101 jokes, with a little section at the start on public speaking, stand-up comedy, and voice exercises. She’d overheard other kids making fun of my stutter, and remembered using that same book to work on her own enunciation. 

It worked wonders for me, just as it had for her. I read that book every night, practiced the standup, and slowly got over my stutter (thanks to a few other books by the same author). Sure, it took a few months, but it was worth it. Because I returned to school one day and…

Well, kids still made fun of me. A book wasn’t magically going to change that.

But now, I didn’t let it bug me. I marched right into that library, asked Sandra out, and within a few years we were married. There were a few breakups, arguments, and an incident with a tractor on a frozen lake that she has sworn me to never speak about, but we got there eventually. We’ve had two handsome boys, and I look forward to growing old with her...or becoming immortal, if George invents it before we both pass. It’s both of us, or neither.

Wow, I can’t remember where I was even going with that story. Oh, right, I was trying to say that Sandra is a very complex and-

“Dad, a little help over here?” George yelled, breaking me out of my train of thought. I glanced up from my drink to see him standing in front Bastion, whose chestplate seemed to be covered in very expensive crab dip. The hero’s hands were starting to glow with a sort of flickering aura, but Sandra was already grabbing a handful of something off the buffet that looked like it stained.

Ah, my Sandra. I wouldn’t trade a moment of our life together for anything.

***

“Try it and I’ll make sure you never step in a library again, you mouth-breathing, rust-covered, walking armor stand!” Sandra was fairly vibrating in my arms, and luckily I had kept up with my exercise after quitting football because she was damn strong. I’d once seen her suplex Aunt Gertrude after the old woman called Sandra’s blueberry pie ‘subpar.’ 

“You have no idea the power a Librarian wields, bucko!” Sandra belted out as George continued to stay between the two of them. She waved an arm in the man’s direction, adding “You think they call her the Library of Alexandria because she uses an e-reader? Just try me!”

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen her get riled up...I mean, there’s a reason we’ve been banned from the Veder Family BBQ for three years running. Gertrude was only a 1-year ban, if you can believe it. 

Still, I felt her tap my arm twice, then once, then twice again, and knew she’d calmed down. The tapping meant that she needed an exit, and that it was time for me to be the vehicle for that.

“Okay, I think we’re just going to head towards the balcony to cool off.” I raised my voice, cutting off whatever the hero was about to say, and he sent one more glare at our family before wandering off to find some napkins. I saw him get into an argument with a man in an impressive PRT dress uniform (and quite a few ribbons). 

I lifted Sandra as gently as I had the day we’d crossed the threshold, swung her around 180 degrees, and then set her down and held out my arm. She took it, completely calmed down, and I muttered, “Name-dropping Alexandria? Really?”

“Nobody ever believes me, but she really did drop by a few years back and borrow a copy of ‘I, Robot.’ Read the whole thing in ten minutes, muttered something about someone named Richter, and then handed it back over.” Sandra always smiled a little as she told the story, and I’d long since stopped teasing her about it. “Then she told me to ‘keep up the good work’ and that I shouldn’t be too hard on the boys...but just hard enough.”

“Probably a good thing I wasn’t there,” I leaned in and pecked her on the cheek. “There’s no way I would have been able to keep from saying ‘That’s what she said.’”

“Stanley, no!” Sandra slapped me in the chest, bursting out into giggles. She did her best to glare at me, but the laughter made it hard to feel bad about the joke. We leaned on the railing beside the window, stopping just short of the cool breeze coming from the open balcony around the corner. “She’d have knocked you through a wall, and I’d have let her.”

“Who’s knocking dad through a wall now? Also, is there a line, because I think I still owe him for telling all those bad jokes as my last birthday.” George approached, his girlfriend on his arm, and the two beckoned Sandra and I towards a stage that had been set up near the edge of the party. “C’mon, guys. This is the whole reason we came. If I don’t get recognized or praised at least once an hour, my poor fragile ego just shrivels up and dies.”

I opened my mouth to make an obvious joke, but Sandra stuffed an hors d'oeuvre in my mouth. We all had a chuckle, and then quieted down as the lights dimmed. A spotlight flicked on, illuminating several people on stage, and I saw George speed-walking to the edge of the stage to join his fellow award-recipients.

“Welcome, all of my friends, family, and employees.” The man was dressed in a fine suit that probably cost more than my car. He was handsome, looked to be in his mid-30s, and in excellent shape (probably thanks to a personal trainer). “As many of you may know, I am Max Anders, CEO of Medhall. Thank you all for coming, as we honor some of the greatest minds of the next generation for their achievements that will save millions of lives in years to come.”

He certainly had a way with words, captivating the crowd, and I could see most of the people around us smiling and nodding...hanging onto his every word and motion. I reached out and took Sandra’s hand, squeezing it and noting that she was already getting teary-eyed.

Not because she was proud, or from the thought of our little boy growing up so fast…

No, it was because Max Anders, CEO of Medhall, was a nazi. 

And we have to stand here and pretend to clap for him.

***

“-and although I have been spending far more time here in Boston, my heart still lives on in Brockton Bay.” Max held out a hand, pretending that he actually had anything other than a blackened heart in his chest. “I know that I’ll soon return, and thank you all for being strong.”

The crowd cheered, and Max finally turned to the award winners on stage behind him. 

Meanwhile, Sandra and I just smiled fake smiles, clapped our hands, and pretended that this facsimile of a human being wasn’t the greatest threat to humanity since Allfather kicked the bucket. 

It was hard to blame them, though. Most of these people were probably unaware of the things Sandra and I had seen, now that we were able to read between the lines and see what hid beneath the lily-white exterior of Medhall. E88 parahumans spotted near their headquarters in Brockton Bay, the children of their employees getting arrested for hate crimes, and of course the way that none of the E88’s targets ever seemed to be related to Medhall. 

It’s there if you know to look for it, but nobody ever wants to look. They just want to ignore it.

So while Sandra cried tears of anger, holding herself back only by a thread of self-control, I just seethed. I told myself little jokes, trying to distract myself from the overwhelming urge to run on stage and strangle Max Anders. I knew that Sandra would back me up, choke-slamming that blonde bimbo behind the man without a second’s effort. We’d laugh, and then everyone would…

...probably kill us, because at least a half dozen of these people are probably parahumans.

“Stanley? Sandra?” Melody’s voice, no longer the squawk it had been years ago, gently moved past my ears, and our gaze was drawn to her. I put on a goofy smile, and cocked my head at her. She returned the smile, and whispered, “George’s award is going to be any moment now, if you wanted a picture?”

I thanked the girl, smiling, and turned away. I had no words for her right now, as angry as I was already at Max, she’d just get caught in the crossfire. It was rude, I know...but both Sandra and I were still wary of the girl despite the kind way she spoke about our son. It wasn’t that we were paranoid or anything, this was based on objective fact.

I’d called in a favor almost two years ago, when the two of them started getting serious. Call it the overreaction of a father who had too many patients in law enforcement. We’d run a background check on Melody, just on the off chance that she had some sort of dark past.

A day later, we were both visited by a short, pale, stocky man who wouldn’t laugh even at my best jokes. He told us that he was from the PRT, that he had some forms for us to read and sign. I asked what would happen if we didn’t sign, and he just smiled and called our son in to join us. George sat down, sighed, and filled us in on what he could with a kind voice.

An hour later, both left, and we sat in shock at what we’d discovered. It hadn’t been much, only enough for George to maintain his cover and assuage our fears, but it was enough. Most important of all, he told us himself that it was going to be okay. We were assured that what was happening was his choice, that he was protected from her, and that he was damn good at his job. I tried to let the first and third of his statements distract me from the second...but I still wondered about Melody’s scars from time to time. 

They were very similar to a member of the E88 who was rarely seen these days.

But I didn’t look into it anymore, since his parting words had been to say that by treating them like ordinary people at an ordinary company, a great source of evil and corruption might finally be stopped. It burned me up inside, but I had to trust my boy...and pray for him.

“-presented to...George Veder!” On stage, Max was putting an award around George’s neck, and I saw them both smiling and shaking hands for the camera. The lights went down on stage, awards complete, and Sandra wiped her eyes as I waited for George to return to me.

Why would anyone willingly work for that disgusting man? Oh, he’s coming over. Smile!

“Dad, you have a moment?” George’s voice pulled me out of the funk I was in, and I quickly put a smile on my face. I had to remind myself that despite all the fascists around us, this was George’s night, and he was getting an award for his efforts and research. Even now it sat on a little ribbon around his chest, the Max Anders Award for Scientific and Medical Innovation.

“Sure son, who’s your friend?” I smiled and it took every ounce of willpower to let Max shake my hand, fake wincing as he squeezed it with a strong grip. “Oof, with a grip like that I hope he isn’t a proctologist, haha!”

“Ha! George and Melody did say you had a sense of humor.” He turned a pair of brilliant blue eyes on me and smiled, “I’m Max Anders, CEO of Medhall. Pleasure to meet you in person.”

Oh god, their Grand Dragon is on a first-name basis with my son. What fresh hell is this?

The moment he had finished kissing my wife’s hand (she always was a good actor), I tried to get his attention and avoid having to talk about...well, anything serious. “So, Max, as two men who work in the medical field, I’m sure you know all about having people...foot the bill?”

“Ah yes...you’re a podiatrist, aren’t you?” Max’s smile dimmed for a moment, and behind him I could see George put his face in his hand. “Tell me, Stanley, has anyone ever come to you asking if you can make them a better dancer by giving them two right feet?”

“Ha! You’d be surprised!” We were both grinning now, and I decided that if I couldn’t beat the man to death, I would at least waste his time with every bad pun in my arsenal. The more time he spent talking to me, after all, the less time he had to stomp on puppies or whatever.

***

The next fifteen minutes passed rather quickly, and soon Max’s erstwhile date got bored and came to join us. Her name was Jessa...or was it Nessa? I’m pretty sure I called her both, and she didn’t really seem to notice. Anyway, the blonde bombshell struck up a conversation with Sandra about Old Norse poetry, and she seemed rather taken with both the history and symbolism in the various works. 

Of course, I was so into trying to one-up Max with bad puns that I completely missed it when a new person entered our little group.

“Ah, so this is where you got off to, Max!” The newcomer was tall, broad shouldered, and had hair that was just starting to go grey at the temples. I also noted more than a hint of booze on his breath, as well as a slight stumble. The sizable glass of what appeared to be paint thinner in his left hand was probably the culprit. “I had to let my lady leave, my youngest was getting fussy, but I wanted to make sure we had some time to talk about business before I left.”

“Business, of course...where does the time go?” Max’s smile almost vanished entirely, and he turned to gesture towards us as introductions were made. “Stanley, Sandra, George, this is James Fliescher. He’s a pharmacy CEO that Medhall works with, and a dear...friend. We’ve done quite a bit of business together. James, I believe I’ve mentioned George to you before, and these are his parents, Stanley and Sandra.”

“A pleasure to meet you all,” James replied, giving each of us a handshake that felt far too firm and lasted quite a bit longer than it should have. He turned an eye to Melody, smirking at her. “Melody. A pleasure to speak with you as always.”

George must have shared some of his lady’s annoyance, because he quickly stepped forward and “accidentally” bumped against James’ arm. The large man spilled his drink, much of it slopping onto his shoes and making us all remember what shoe polish smelled like.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. To think, I actually had been looking for you, James!” George pretended to fret, pulling out some napkins and patting at James’ hand nervously. “I was hoping to talk to you about some new ideas I had for the ongoing crisis in Brazil over Antiepileptic drugs. I’ve heard that you often do business in that area, so I had hoped you may have some insight into the matter?”

“I see.” James, surrounded by several people (including the CEO of Medhall), wore a rictus grin of a smile as he handed his mostly-empty drink to a nearby waiter and allowed George to lead him a few feet away from the rest of us. “I suppose I have a few minutes…”

“Thank you so much, I promise it won’t take long.” George grinned and winked at the rest of us, then straightened his face and added, “While we’re talking, could someone grab a fresh drink for James? Perhaps some coffee since he’s got a bit of business to talk about soon? I could also use some decaf, whoever’s going.”

Melody had already started to walk off with Max towards the open bar, muttering to us that they’d only be a minute. Meanwhile, George continued to chat with James, and the large man’s expression quickly relaxed. My boy seemed oddly happy for the chance to talk to such an important (if horrible) person.

Minutes later, after Max and Melody had a quick conversation, and I saw her point at Bastion. I knew that Melody worked for Medhall as a Security Officer, though I doubted that was her real job. While the CEO looked at the cape in question, I did my best not to react as Melody twisted at one of her rings and slowly moved that hand over one of the mugs. 

As if she’d just been testing its heat, she then picked up two other mugs and said something to Max. The distracted CEO turned back around, noticed his and James’ coffee, and dutifully grabbed one in each hand. As they returned to us, I felt oddly disappointed that Max took a sip from the mug that hadn’t been treated strangely. Soon they had rejoined us, mugs handed off.

“Bleah.” James made a face and sound, giving a small smile as we all chuckled. He took another drink, a bit longer this time. “I will never get over the bitter taste of American coffee. Max, I will be out on the balcony, come find me when you are finished with your...friends.”

“That I will, James. Thank you for your patience.” Max smiled thinly at James, and then turned to the rest of us as the older man nearly fell into one of the padded benches out on the fancy balcony. The party had started to calm down, and some people were already leaving, so there were only a few others out there with him. “I appreciate your patience, all of you. Much like coffee, James is a bit of an...acquired taste.”

We chuckled at that, and began to say our goodbyes. Max kissed Sandra’s hand again, and I saw the knuckles of her other hand turn white as she smiled a big fake smile. Max left us to go speak to Bastion, the hero already staring daggers at my wife as we made a hasty exit.

The Veder clan (plus Melody) were soon waiting for the valet to fetch our car. We laughed as we stood there, already writing the story in our heads of the time we had to leave a gala event to avoid Sandra having to get into a second fight with a hero. 

George assured us that the ribbon-festooned PRT officer (Director Armstrong, of the Boston PRT) would have stepped in. I didn’t even question how he’d known about the man.

It had been a good night, as far as attending a nazi party to support your son’s clandestine activities went. I’d give it a...six out of ten.

Tomorrow, we’d return to Brockton Bay, and hopefully find the house still in one piece. 

Maybe Greg would finally come out of his shell a bit, make some friends he was willing to bring home (like that Taylor girl he was always talking about), and have some sort of plan for his future. If not, he might even be willing to talk to us about what seemed to be troubling him lately.

If nothing else, we could talk as a family, and find peace together. Everything was right with the world, and as long as we had each other, nothing could possibly go wrong.

Just as we were leaving the gala’s parking lot, an ambulance and a police car sped past us, lights flashing. It didn’t escape my notice the way Melody and George smiled at each other.

I was proud of my boys, both George and Greg...I just wished I could do more for them.

***********

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg tries to figure out what the heck his powers are, and perhaps realizes that WHY someone wants to be a hero is sometimes more important than what they can do.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

As a kid, I always liked to imagine myself with powers. Not just because it was cool and I was a kid, but because of all the potential that was there. I loved coming up with different ways to use powers that other people thought were lame, or to squeeze every drop of possibility out of an idea. 

It made for a very active fantasy life, and I have several videos that George helped me make about all these cool heroes I’d thought of. For a while I even had notebooks full of powers and combinations that seemed really amazing. 

That was actually one of the things that got me into collecting cape merch. I’d spend every allowance on cards, collectibles, figurines, and clothes, because I looked up to the heroes they represented with every fiber of my being. I was still young enough that I thought maybe one day I’d be one of those heroes and little kids would be looking up to me.

When I came home with my powers, the first thing that went through my mind was how amazing things would be once I figured out what they were. This led to a problem, because they were incredibly hard to figure out, and I started to get desperate. I got reckless. I got hurt.

It’s bad enough being a desperate teenager, but one with powers? Far worse.

GregV.

***

[Saturday, Dec 18, 2010]

Focus on a location...imagine myself there...and...damn! Still nothing!

I gave up on the latest of my attempts and finally entered my neighborhood. I’d been trying for the several blocks, and was finally starting to consider that my power probably wasn’t teleportation. I reflected on the fact that confirmation bias...is really hard to overcome.

Confirmation bias, as I frequently forgot, was when someone heard new evidence or facts and bent it to fit an idea they already had. It wasn’t not something you should try to make a habit of, especially for those prone to passionate hyperbole or jumping to conclusions. People like me.

So now after several minutes of trying to teleport, I had started to think that maybe I’d jumped the gun on my dreams of being the next Strider. In fact, I had even started to worry about what my powers actually were. What if I just exploded myself in directions? No, I had to calm down.

Home! I can eat, apply first aid, and all the things smart people do when hungry and injured.

By the time I got home I’d cheered up, since it’s hard to stay sad when you’ve got powers. I decided to put aside any thoughts of the future until I dealt with the present. I was just lucky to make it home with my clothes and shoes (mostly) intact. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes was one thing, but a mile in shoes that were falling apart was something else entirely.

I used my key to unlock the door that I definitely locked before leaving the night before, because I was a responsible adult, and went inside. I realized I was all alone in the house, shrugged (painfully), and disrobed right then and there. It was a lot easier than it should have been.

I mean, I had seen magic shows where people had tear-away clothes, but this was my first experience doing it myself. My pants were shredded, my shirt a gooey mess, and even my socks looked like I’d been using them to clean a brick wall. I ripped it all off on my first try.

After that, I limped into the kitchen and just started gorging myself. Manners and such would have been nice (or at least silverware), but I was running on empty and had too many injuries to count, so I think I got a pass. All the leftovers in the fridge didn’t judge me for my messy eating habits. Besides, I went straight from there into the shower...though I might have gone too fast.

Cranking the shower knob turned out to be a horrible mistake. Not because the water was too hot or cold, but because everything hurt, and water was a part of everything. I was actually glad that I was the only one home, because I let out such a yell (shriek) that I’m pretty sure my parents would have broken the door down if they’d been within a block of the house. 

I gritted my teeth, breathed deeply through my nose, and waited until the pain simmered down from “The Siberian tearing me in half” to “Alexandria beating me with a nerf bat.” It was a dull pain, and I felt every individual drop as it hit me.

Then I added soap, and it spiked back up to the previous level. Great.

But in the end it was all worth it, because about an hour later I was sitting in my room with more bandages on me than that time I had gone for Halloween as a Mummy. Specifically, from those movies that came out in the late 90s starring Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Personally, I preferred the third one, but a lot of people always said the second one was best because of the Scorpion Lord (and that wrestler who played him, Steve Austin). 

Anyway, I think I used up all the bandages in the house, but my scrapes and bruises finally felt...less horrible. Best of all, while I had been dressing my wounds I’d let my mind wander a bit to distract myself from the pain (of which there was a lot). During that period I had come up with a new Plan. 

More plans seems like a bad idea. Am I really sure about this one? It sounded...painful.

Telling myself that I couldn’t let a bit of pain distract me, I dug around in my room to find a notebook, then started writing. This was a plan that would call upon my vast cape expertise, as well as that of people who weren’t me and that meant that it was less likely to suffer the same pitfalls of my own plans.

It was pretty straightforward. Before I could start working on names, costumes, personas, or anything else important, it was very important that I figure out what my powers actually were. I mean, I had my suspicions, but it was better that I know my strengths (and limitations) long before even thinking about going out in the field. 

Just imagine how red my face would be if I discovered I was bulletproof but not knife-proof!

Come to think of it, don’t normal people have a weakness to getting stabbed by knives?

...I carefully crossed that one off my list.

Needless to say, I quickly hunted through PHO for all the threads I had bookmarked on the subject of Power Testing. Some of them were posted by the PRT, others had come from leaks and theorizing, and still more came from Roleplaying threads by nerds who I suspected of being secret villains. A few weren’t even that good at being secret villains, since I was 80% sure that N0tL33t was actually Leet. 

Anyway, once I had all my data gathered, I quickly set about organizing them by powers, tests, and materials, then recorded it all in my notebook and headed out of my room. I had put on a tracksuit to cover up my copious bandages, as well as grabbing a cloth mask in case any of the neighbors saw me. I grabbed Dad’s camera and tripod on the way downstairs, and set them up in the backyard pointed at the wall of the shed. It was nondescript enough that if someone got this footage they’d be unable to figure out who I was or where it was being shot. 

The camera was important, because some of my results might only have been visible from a third-person view. Stuff like glowing, for instance. That was another reason for the shed, it was dark and well-sealed, providing a nice environment for several of my planned tests. I grabbed a few special materials out of the shed, avoiding the beehive that Dad had been promising to do something about for years. It had been a warm winter, and was even warmer in the shed, so I could see a bee or two poking their heads out of the little hive. 

I left them alone for now, but I did feel a rumble in my tummy as they made me think about honey. I was probably still recovering a lot of body weight from my power usage the night before, as well as all that running. I didn’t even want to think about how many calories or whatever I’d burned. I don’t know cooking or nutrition, but it was probably a lot.

Jogging back inside, I quickly ate my bodyweight in microwave pizza, then sighed. I had left a huge mess, and knew that these tests would probably take all day. Grumbling, I carefully cleaned up my dishes and put my destroyed clothes in a garbage bag, then grabbed a few power bars from the cupboards and headed back outside.

***

The camera was flipped on, and I turned to the first page of my notes. I had interviews, I had patience, I had countless experiments planned, and I had the wealth of the internet at my fingertips. It was time to find my powers!

Plan #4: Finding Greg’s Powers with Online Power Testing Suggestions

Teleportation (Mover)  

Strider, one of the most well-known teleporters in the country, had once said in an interview that he had to call upon a perfect memory of place. Other teleporters, like the ABB’s Oni Lee, required line of sight. Either way, it was a matter of destination and concentrations.

I spent several minutes staring at an open space of the grass in our backyard. I got on my knees and examined the spot, pushing every detail of the grass, clover, and dirt into my brain. I focused, closing my eyes, despite every ounce of my will...nothing happened.

Nope, not a teleporter. On the plus side, I didn’t explode this time either. On to the next suspect!

Super Speed (Mover)  

Velocity had claimed that he just “flicked a switch” in his mind, but had also been very cagey with talking about his powers. Other speedsters described it differently, but all of them seemed to involve some kind of movement that went beyond their own physical power. I had literally just watched the man, and aside from an odd blur around him he hadn’t even seemed winded. The blur also made him seem to have a hazy aura, but that may have just a Breaker state…

Either way, I spent a painful chunk of time running around the backyard, trying to push myself to overcome my physical limits. I say “painful” because my legs still felt like someone had tried to kneecap me and missed the first dozen times. Still, no blurring, no speed, no...fast.

Another one bites the dust. Maybe...maybe I should sit down for a few minutes. Hoo boy.

Super Strength (Brute)

Nearly every Brute I could find info about online seemed to just be strong all the time, and had trouble dialing it down. Glory Girl once gave an interview (which her mother got taken down) where she said her strength was super ‘all the time’ and that was why she sometimes overdid it when it came to hitting stuff. I felt bad for her, because like me people judged her based on her mistakes. I guess that was some food for thought.

Anyway, this one seemed much easier to test. I had tried lifting some of Dad’s weights, to move them outside for testing. They weighed 25 pounds. I gave up after a minute. This test wasn’t even worth trying.

I really need to start exercising. No matter what my powers are, I need to be stronger.

Super Toughness (Brute)

...I dropped one of the weights on my foot. Nothing got broken, but I didn’t have Toughness.

Well, at least that one was fast. I wonder if there are any more ice packs in the freezer?

Tinker of Some Kind

There were loads of articles and videos about Tinkers. One thing they all had in common was the fact that they would see electronics and tech, and be struck with ideas. This did not happen to me. Not even when I dug some random tools and parts out of a box in the basement.

Probably for the best. I’m not exactly swimming in cash, and being a Tinker seems expensive.

Thinker

I played a few really hard games on my computer, as well as taking some Mensa tests. I scored well, but not well enough to be any kind of Thinker. Also, I’m pretty sure the computer was cheating at chess, but my powers didn’t let me punish it. Double letdown.

Well, that’s one less headache to worry about. Dang, Dad would have loved that joke.

Trump

Eidolon, one of my favorite heroes, was usually pretty tight-lipped about his abilities. Somehow he’d once made a throwaway remark to a reporter after an Endbringer fight, and that held a clue that very much interested me. Mainly, because it sounded similar to my own escape the night before. Essentially, he said that his powers came from what he called need . He’d focus on what he needed, form a power that fit those specifications, and then...there it was.

Which is why I spent a good five minutes standing in the shed, door closed, focused on the fact that it was totally dark. I could hear the bees buzz a little, knew there were some sharp objects around me, and that I’d be in danger from both. Despite all that, I didn’t start glowing or get night vision. I did stub my toe, though.

Eh, probably better that I’m not a Trump. Their powers are always so strange and confusing.

Blaster  

No matter how much I pointed at things, grunted, and tried to focus on bringing my inner energies out, nothing happened. Not even when I focused on electricity, fire, acid, ice, water, time, wood, metal, dreams, force, ki, chi, qi, happiness, anger, and anything else I could think of.

Given how I tried to attack George when he poked me with a broom, maybe this is for the best.

Shaker

In interviews I’d seen with both Vista and Narwhal, both had admitted that the first time they used their powers it was as a reaction to danger or surprise. Vista had said she separated two people who were annoying her (though that interview was deleted). As for Narwhal, she said that someone had tried to hit her soon after she got her powers, and a shield just...appeared.

My own experiences were less dramatic than theirs. I recorded myself throwing a baseball into the air and then standing there while it came down and clocked me on the head. I’d like to say that I manifested a force shield like Narwhal’s. I’d love to say that I ignored it the way The Siberian ignores physics. I wish I could say that the ball froze in the air on top of my head like some sort of odd hat, like when Clockblocker touches things. 

None of that happened. I just got hit in the head with a baseball and went down like a sack of potatoes. To add injurious insult to injury, the ball bounced off the shed and I landed on it on my way down, leaving a huge bruise with baseball-stitching running down it on my shoulder. 

Why couldn’t George have been into tennis instead of baseball? Maybe some calmer tests… 

Stranger

I only needed a few minutes of staring at one of my neighbors as he watered his lawn, focusing with all my might on him not noticing me, to feel creeped out by myself . Also, he saw me.

Yeah, being a Stranger would lead to way too many terrible opportunities. My rep’s bad enough.

Changer

Staring at magazines just made me jealous of how much better looking than me all the men and women were. Imagining my body changing to match theirs was equally ineffective. I even ran through all the elements again, but felt no affinity for any of them. I did get jealous, though, at how happy some of the models seemed.

This is starting to hurt my self esteem…but at the same time I’m afraid to try the next one.

Master

Testing a Master power was a lot harder than the others, because in my own head I really didn’t want my power to be that. Everyone knew what had happened to Canary, and Masters generally had a really bad reputation...but I didn’t want it for two of my own reasons. First, because people would look at my past and instantly think the worst of me. Second, because my own thoughts earlier today had told me that I had poor impulse control...so I was the worst possible person to actually get a Master power.

Despite that, I still walked around the neighborhood (without my mask) and did my best to try and...ugh... control people and animals . Luckily, aside from getting some odd looks, nothing happened. Nobody fell to their knees, did the things I mentally commanded, or declared their devotion to me. Their dogs also remained aloof. A bird tried to poop on me.

Later, as I stood in front of the shed and stared at one of the little bees buzzing around its door, I remembered the time one of them had stung me years back. I was so deep in the memory that, as I was recalling this painful experience, a bee actually landed on my hand...in the same place I’d been stung all those years ago. It was a hell of a coincidence, and then my eyes bugged out.

Wait, is...am I some kind of Bug Master? Holy crap! Okay, let’s see if I can get it to do stuff.

“I will call you Susan Bee Anthony,” I told the bee, already trying to remember the feeling I’d had when first making it land on me. Bug powers were kind of lame, but it was my first success and we already had a bee hive so I expected to make it a part of my early training. “Don’t sting me, but protect me from my enemies. I will make you a Queen, Susan, and together we wi-”

Susan stung me. 

I said a very bad word, very loudly, while Susan flew off to go die in some place that traitors and liars go when they want to die. I climbed to my feet and went off in search of an ice pack. As I was icing my hand I noted that the sun was setting, and decided to call it quits for the day.

Time to order a pizza, put on new bandages, and think about how tomorrow can be better.

***

As I munched on another slice of pizza (meat supreme with spinach and mushrooms), I considered that maybe I had gone into my power testing with my expectations too high. The reason my tests had gotten more and more desperate, and why I’d been willing to trust info I got off the internet, was because I had assumed that I would just get it at some point.

I had watched plenty of anime and read many comic books, and several of them had a trope where the protagonist would train like crazy on some new technique with no luck...and then suddenly get it when they least expected it. The knowledge had been drilled into them, and they just needed that one thing to make it all come together.

It was like that movie, The Karate Kid (starring teen hearthrob Corey Feldman), where Daniel trained in washing and waxing to learn proper discipline and movements. He got really annoyed at his sensei (played by George Takei) for not teaching him to fight, but the sensei held firm. Daniel eventually went to a  fighting championship and realized that his movements matched those of actual fighters, that he just had to stop thinking so much and follow his instincts. 

Then he made an illegal move and won the girl. I’m...not sure what the message was there.

Anyway, I had thought that there was the tiniest chance that I’d eventually just have such an epiphany. That all my efforts would get me to the edge of exhaustion and my failures would push my mind to its limit of patience. That it would hit me, like a bolt of lightning, and suddenly my powers would unleash. But no, I’d just hurt myself with a bunch of dumb tests.

I didn’t let my failures get me down, though. Look at the bright side!

Now I had a long list of things I had tried that hadn’t worked. This might have seemed like a bad thing, but I was trying to get in the habit of being positive. This was a good thing, because now I had knocked a whole pile of stuff off my list. If I ever came across any of these tests again, I didn’t even have to spare them a thought. This was progress !

So, was my Hypothesis wrong, or the Research? This is what I get for trusting the Internet!

Hmm, I was pretty sure that either way I was going to have to start from scratch. But again, this was a good thing, because each time I went back through the experiments and questions I was sure to see something new. This was why I was keeping my journal, why I had written everything down, and why I had been recording my tests…

Crap, I left the video camera out in the backyard. Better go get it.

I got up and put the leftover pizza in the fridge, my appetite having finally tapered off. I stood there for a moment, taking solace in the cool and soothing feeling of cold air on my many bruises. I almost didn’t hear the sound of a car engine outside. 

That car has a very familiar knocking noise. Sounds kind of like Dad’s car...

Already full of pizza and distracted by thoughts of what tomorrow might bring, I wandered to the window and moved a curtain a bit to take a peek. It was hard to see since the lights were on inside and the street lights were fairly dim, but...

Not only does it sound like the Dad’s car, but it also looks like it. Wait a second.

Ten seconds later, I was halfway up the stairs, having taken off just as I’d heard a key rattling in the lock of the front door. Against all odds, I didn’t trip and fall back down the stairs, and managed to make it to my room just as I heard the door open.

Right, Mom had said that they might be back tonight. Guess I got caught up in the testing.

Or maybe the whole “multiple near-death experiences” thing distracted me.  

I knew they would have questions and comments on the current state of my body, so I scratched up a quick note and stuck it on my door, then flicked the lights and slipped into bed. 

“Greg, honey, are you-” Mom’s voice cut off, and I heard her fingernails scratching at the door as she lifted the hastily-written note I’d taped to my door. I could hear her muttering as she read it, and did my best not to hold my breath as she considered whether to let me “sleep” or barge in and ask how an “art project” could exhaust me enough to go to bed at 8pm. It worked, though.

After that, there were a few mutters and creaks as they got ready for bed. As yet another board squeaked, I made a mental note to use my powers to fix some of the flooring in this house. It was going to be impossible to sneak in and out with the wood screaming every time I came back after successfully defeating criminals in town. Maybe I could just fly out the window?

Fixing the house? Fighting criminals? I can’t even make a decent plan, or figure out my powers.

Ah, there was the old self-doubt. With my body and mind too active to sleep, my anxiety had started to creep in. I couldn’t get up, use my computer, or move around...heck, I could barely move without rolling onto one of my wounds. So my mind started to wander, even as I heard my parents and George getting ready for bed. 

Instead of thinking about my family, though, I was thinking about my Plans. Not about making new ones, or trying to fix the old ones, but something far more pressing. I wanted to try and figure out why I was so garbage at making plans, and why I had never realized it before today.

***

I decided to boil them down to their core principles and think critically. It wasn’t easy, but I had to learn not to make the same mistakes over and over...and looking at my most recent mistakes was a great place to start.

Plan #1: Revenge. Use my powers to beat up bullies and those who tormented me.

Or, put another way, use my powers to hurt people who I think deserve it, based on what they did to me as kids, as well as to impress people and show off. Not heroic. Kinda criminal, really.

Plan #2: Rebirth. Create a cape persona, and focus all my attention on making it amazing!

...at the cost of my existing persona, Greg Veder. Sure, I might be a hero, but I’d have to give up on the guy under the mask. Sacrificing 15 years of Greg for a chance at something better.

Plan #3: George. He’s older than me, smarter than me, and makes better plans than me.

But he’s also not me. If I keep running to George and my parents for everything, I’ll never learn to handle my own problems. I can’t always depend on them...someday, they’ll be gone.

Plan #4: Powers...forget the future, focus on now. Right now, I need to know my powers.

Focusing only on right now was stupid. I put myself in real danger in the past 24 hours. If I keep this up, I won’t have a future. Focusing entirely on my powers is a bad idea.

Hmmm. Well, I recognized my mistakes thanks to the magic of hindsight, but that didn’t really help me decide what to do next. Maybe instead of looking to my own present or future, I should look at other people’s past and present? See what the parahumans before me had done?

Being as quiet as I could, I slipped out of bed and over to my computer. I searched around PHO, and then the wider Internet when that didn’t help much. I was looking for news stories about other people in my situation. Teenaged capes who got powers and had shown problems beforehand. Kids who came from broken homes, had serious discipline problems, or were just plain terrible...and then got powers.

The results were, in a word, bad. Most of my info came from comments made by anonymous friends or family of the parahumans, but they all spoke of lives that powers only made worse. 

  •  Acidbath was a sociopath who triggered and went straight into murder. Ended up in the Birdcage. 
  • Damsel of Distress was homeless and was surmised to be a victim of domestic abuse. 
  • Blasto once mentioned that his family kicked him out and shunned him. 
  • Redacted records show that Lab Rat was skipping school (bullies?).
  • Shadow Stalker was a Ward, but she’d killed a guy before they “recruited” her. I heavily doubted that she’d grown up in a nice house with a picket fence
  • That new Tinker, Bakuda, supposedly had snapped from family and school pressure before going villain and blowing a guy into tiny pieces.

It was pretty damning evidence. People who had tough and crappy lives before getting their powers ended up as either crappy people...or outright villains. I couldn’t let that be my future.

I sat there in the dark for hours, only lit by my monitor’s glow. I tried typing a few things out and did a few more searches, but nothing really stuck. Then I started thinking about how I would do something like this without powers, and something started to click. 

Even this research came from me thinking of other people. Maybe that’s the answer?  

Hmm, hypothetical scenario...removing myself from the equation...

Okay, so what if I had a friend and they got powers? If they were depressed, felt like their family didn’t love them, felt overshadowed by an older sibling, felt shunned by their classmates? What would I say to someone who wasn’t me to help them? What could I do, that would help them overcome their weaknesses, recognize their strengths, and still juggle life and their powers?

I thought about it, eyes closed and hands on my keyboard...and then I began to type.

***

By the time the sun was just peeking over the horizon, my fingers danced across the keyboard as I worked on a new password-protected document. This would be my journal, and I’d use it to document this journey I was taking. I had even gone back and written entries for the last day or two, just to get caught up. I knew that this new plan- 

No! Not a plan. No more plans. I’m not making any more plans until I can trust myself.  

No, I knew that this was the right path

I would delay my heroic debut. I would make sure that by the time I was ready to do stuff like make a costume and start training, I was the best Greg I could be. I had to learn how to look at myself in the mirror and be proud. I had to make sure that the man under the mask was just as strong as the powers he held!

I mean, I might train my powers a little, but nothing as extreme as what I was doing yesterday. 

Those hadn’t been the actions of someone who wanted to learn about themselves and help others...they were the actions of a desperate child. I could never be someone like that if I wanted to help people...much less help myself. No, I was going to make a better me .

With today’s entry done, I scrolled up to the top of the journal and gave it a snazzy title:

From Hated to Hero: Making a Better Greg, So That Greg Can Be the Best Hero Possible

It was a bit verbose, but that’s Greg Veder for you. Even if I changed, I’d still be me, at heart.

Yeah. I think I can make this work. What could go wrong?

Just after I hit Save, I stood up from my chair and my back let out a sound that I barely heard over the intense wave of both pleasure and pain that rippled down my spine. I’d never been healed by Panacea, and probably never would, but I was pretty sure this was how it felt.

I rolled my chair back a bit, wincing at the sound of its broken wheel scraping on the floor, and looked up as I heard a squeak from the hallway.

My door opened, and George stuck his head in. “Hey, Greg, I was wondering if we could-”

He stopped. 

He saw me, covered in bandages, tired, with a huge bruise on my face. Without a word, he stepped into my room, and shut the door behind him.

Oh right, that could go wrong. You know, now would be a great time for my powers to kick in. 

But unfortunately, I didn’t manifest a power that reversed time. I didn’t suddenly have a Stranger power that made him forget he saw me. Hell, I didn’t even get another painful teleport!

Thanks, powers. I totally don’t get you at all.

************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg has a calm and rational discussion with his beloved older brother, who helps his parents understand Greg’s odd situation. No, wait...the exact opposite of most of that. Also a lot of yelling, because they’re siblings. It might not end well.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

I don’t hate my brother, George. Full stop.

Sure, I have trouble understanding him, but a lot of that is because of how absent he’s been. He’s always busy with his job, his work, his girlfriend, and so much else...I’ve always been afraid of trying to cram myself in there as well. You know how a sandwich can squeeze some meat out of itself when you take a bite, and that’s a sign you overfilled it? You just eat it later, or leave it.

Well, as I see it, that’s also a sign that maybe that one meat, cheese, or condiment shouldn’t have been in there in the first place. So when I got shoved out of George’s life, I quickly gave up on getting back in. I just waited for him to get back to me...and eventually decided he’d left me.

But sometimes I wonder if I should have fought harder. Not just because I missed my brother, but because maybe he was like that sandwich-eater and hadn’t realized I’d fallen out. It’s selfish, I know, but I always figured he’d just come back for me. 

At a certain point, I guess I stopped waiting.

GregV.

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

My injuries would’ve made most shy away. But George, a doctor in all but title, did the opposite.

“Greg, what the hell did you do to yourself?” George started to walk towards me, reaching out a quivering hand in my direction. His face had shifted from annoyance to confusion in the blink of an eye, and I backed away in response. George had a good few inches over me, and the last thing I wanted was for him to try dragging me out to Mom and Dad to get scolded. “Seriously, what is all this?”

As incredibly tempting as it was to just tell him everything, we really weren’t brothers like that anymore. I’m sure the George of several years ago would have been beside himself with support and ideas, but the George of right now was...different. 

He might have outed me, and I didn’t want all my ideas about improving Greg to die only hours after I’d made them. George was such a fuddy-duddy that he’d probably tattle to Mom and Dad, they’d force me to join the Wards, and then it’d be high school all over again. I needed a plan.

Oh right, no more Plans. How about...tactics? Let’s start with Tactic #1: Fake wounds.

“What? This?” I glanced at my arms and legs as if I was surprised to see them wrapped in bandages and covered in dried blood. I intentionally dropped my jaw a bit (which actually hurt, when I had a bruise this big on my face) and sighed.  “Oh, this was just from that art project I was doing yesterday. Yeah, it just looks bad, but it’s not real.”

My acting was superb, but there was a lot of evidence to the contrary. I was wearing shorts, so it was hard to hide the fact that my legs looked like I’d tie-dyed them with purple and red dye. George stared at me silently, disbelieving.

Fine, maybe I can just play it off. I’m a Veder, we’re survivors. Tactic #2: Not so bad.

“Look, George, I know what you’re going to say, and I totally get it. This may look pretty bad. I mean, bruises, cuts, this baseball-shaped bruise on my shoulder…” I trailed off, then noticed his eyes bulging as he saw that one mark from yesterday where I fell on the ball and it left the imprint of its stitching on my arm. “But it’s really not that bad. I can barely feel it!”

“Well, we always have had really high pain tolerance in the Veder family.” George laughed, turning around as if to leave...and then sprinted across my room so fast that I doubt his feet touched the ground. Obviously my fine-tuned parahuman senses were still running a bit slow, or my powers decided I didn’t need fast reaction time, because my guard was wide open.

He poked me in the middle of the bruise, and I decided to examine my bed for soundproofing. 

...okay, so I really just shoved my face into my pillow and screamed in pain. The point is, that actually really hurt, and as a doctor-to-be George should have been ashamed. After I’d caught my breath, he sat next to me on the bed and gestured at my obviously not fake injuries.

“Look, Greg...I know what this is about.” He started, his voice strangely kind and quiet. He very gently placed a hand on the bed between us as his eyes sought mine out. “I found the blood in the bathroom, cleaned it up, and I’ve noticed the way you really throw yourself into your escapism lately. I understand your...situation better than you think.”

He sounds like he THINKS he knows something. I can just go with it. How close can he be?

“You’re getting bullied at school, and got beaten up or pranked...or both, right? I know how that is, and I want to help...but you need to be honest with me.” It was hard to be mad at George, especially when he looked so worried. At least he didn’t say- “I’m your brother...I love you.”

Shit. Why couldn’t he have noticed any of that at any point before today? Now what?  

I mean, if he’d come and talked to me about this sort of thing a day ago, I’d be opening up to him about the Popular kids, Taylor, and just about everything else right now. Thing is, my mind was already shifting in another direction because it was obvious that George knew me a hell of a lot better than I’d thought. Maybe...maybe I really could trust him with my parahuman status?

The problem was, my relationship with George had been crappy for a while.

Worst of all, it was almost entirely my own fault.

***

Despite how I treated him now, George had actually been a good brother up until a few years ago. He came home from college, not exactly by choice, halfway through his senior year at Boston University. That’s when things started to go downhill, and looking back I sometimes think it was a lot more my fault than his.

He had been sent back home due to some hardcore villain fights going on in Boston, and his university gave everyone the option of finishing out the year from home. Mom and Dad were ready to handcuff him to his bed if he tried to go back, so George moved back in with us. He went back into his old room, I helped him, and we were a family again. 

For the first week or two it was just like old times. George was smart as heck, helped me with homework, hung out with me all the time, and loved to talk to me about capes he’d seen. I mean, we’d always liked to play superhero and read comics together, but now he’d actually been right there in the action, and I had so many questions!

I think that it was about a month after he got back that I noticed he kept cutting out of our conversations early, saying that he had to go take care of something. I knew that he was a big college guy who could drink and drive (never in that order), and I didn’t want to cramp his style too much. But, at the same time, he was my brother, and my anxiety would kick into high gear and tell me that he was just saying those things to get away from me .

That was what led me to following him one day, after he’d cut me off halfway through a question about the Clockwork Dogs, saying he had a call to make. I managed to keep out of sight as he went down the block, around the corner, and into a small dog park near our house. While he was calling someone on his phone, I was crouched behind a trash can and listening in. 

The conversation was with someone he called “Zoe.” He thanked her for having time for him, saying that he still had nightmares about someone named ‘Damsel’ trying to kill him.

He seemed really happy when he found out that his first aid had made a difference after this “Damsel” had cracked Zoe’s “shell” when she was protecting him. My mind was racing a mile a minute, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t on PHO back then or I might have been perma-banned that night for outing the cape known as Snubnose as being someone named Zoe.

Anyway, after a pause, he went on to admit that the reason he was calling was that he was having trouble sleeping. That his little brother kept asking about capes and villains as if it was all some kind of game, and he didn’t know how to make it stop without causing some real pain to our relationship. That he didn’t want to destroy his brother’s world with the truth. 

Now, in Brockton Bay, we’d always had a lot more villains than heroes. It had never really affected me , though. I just read my comics, watched my cartoons, and made home movies of a red-caped Greg fighting a blue-masked Greg, or using action figures. It was so simple and innocent.

But there I was crouching behind a trash can, spying on my big brother as he broke down into tears at the thought of his little brother asking him just one more question about capes. How it wasn’t a game, but his stupid brother just couldn’t stop pulling at those threads day after day!

That he still couldn’t forget all the people he’d failed to help…

...or all his classmates who hadn’t been so lucky, and had died that day.

After that, I didn’t really talk to George much for a while. At least, not until he noticed I was kind of shutting him out and decided to play a prank on me. I, of course, pranked him right back, and it became a war. For a while those pranks were our only real interactions, until they stopped. 

Later on, he got a job, a girlfriend, and spent as many nights with her as possible. He spent more and more time at his job, and some weeks would go by where I’d barely even see him. The few times we interacted, if I brought up capes he’d just ignore me...especially for villains.

I knew that my brother hated me, hated what I was becoming with my love of cape culture, and frankly...I kind of hated him too. The one thing we had in common, and he had to ruin it.

But he wasn’t the only one at fault, and I had to come to terms with that.

***

Capes had torn us apart...could they bring us back together?

“George, you’re not wrong. But there’s more to it, and I need you to swear that you won’t tell anyone.” I sighed, looking up and him and did my best not to flinch as I felt his hand settle on my least bruised shoulder. With a soft murmur, he swore to keep my secret, whatever it was, and thanked me for trusting him. 

Okay, here we go. My unmasking...before I even have a mask, name, or know my powers.

I took a deep breath, looking him in the eyes, and said, “George, I’m...a parahuman.”

He was silent, and between us I could feel the vast gulf that had formed between us slowly shrink. Our brotherly bond had been torn asunder a long time ago, and since then it had gotten worse. But now, with the two of us working together, we could start to be a family aga-

“Okay, show me your powers.” George chuckled and held his hand out in front of him, as if I could put my powers in his palm. “Prove it. Do something super. Heck, do anything at all.”

“I can’t!” I exclaimed, scooting back rather than swatting at his hand like I wanted to. He smiled, and I did my best to keep a cool head, just in case my powers were anger-activated and made some sort of Dimension-slicing wave or a Organic-Material-Destroying Telekinesis. I looked down at my hands, clenched in my lap. “I can’t get them to work right now. They worked Friday night, when I was running away from Knife Guy, but-.”

“Knife Guy? Who the hell is that?”

Oops. Well, I guess if I’ve already outed myself, may as well tell the whole story.

“Oh, that’s not actually his name.” I smiled at George, and he began to return it as if this was one of my improperly-timed jokes, but then his face froze when I added, “He was just an Empire 88 gang member who had a knife and was chasing me on Friday.”

George had nothing to say to that. In fact, he seemed to have blue-screened. It was probably a good thing I hadn’t mentioned Hookwolf, or he might have died on the spot.

George is being very quiet. This is my fault, I need to give him more context. Where to start? 

I started to get nervous, and so I did what I always did when nervous...rambling like a Veder.

“Oh relax, he didn’t catch me.” I paused, then rocked my head from side to side, looking up at the ceiling of my room and starting to fill the silence with words. “Well, I mean, he did catch me and tried to stab me, but then I managed to teleport into a park. Although it might not have actually been a teleport per se, but really more of an explosion or a sudden power burst.”

George remained silent, and looked like he was vibrating in place slightly. I mean, I had always heard the phrase “warring emotions” before, but this was the first time I’d ever seen someone whose emotions actually seemed to be fighting inside of them. 

He probably thinks I’m an idiot. I need to show him that I’m responsible. Where are my notes?

“But don’t you worry about a thing, George! I didn’t just come home and start tearing things up in the house or putting together a silly costume, no siree! I did my research, and made scientific tests...” I smiled widely and waved one of my notebooks at him, seeing his eyes glance at them and his shaking hand reach out and take it from me. “Admittedly, I got them off the Internet.”

As he read over my notes, I went on, “I put together a series of tests that, while sometimes painful, were perfectly suited towards testing all manner of potential abilities. Now, while none of them actually proved much of anything, I taped all of it on Dad’s video camera, which is out in the shed. Once I get clear of Mom and Dad today, I plan to put together a new set of tests and get to work on further experimentation and scientific-”

“Greg, stop! I just...I need a minute to think.” George closed his eyes, took a breath, and then opened his eyes to look at me more clearly. He dropped my notebook on the bed, and started to pace around in the room while shaking his head and wringing his hands.

Finally, he stopped and turned to face me. “Look, Mom and Dad are going to be up any minute, and they were talking last night about wanting to go to Church as a family this morning. I think we both know that neither of them would believe this whole ‘I got super powers’ story of yours even if you didn’t look like one of Bonesaw’s failed projects.”

“Actually, she claims that none of her projects are ever really failures,” I pointed out as George moved to the door. “She calls them ‘happy little accidents,’ and says that anything worth doing is worth practice. Murderous rampages aside, that’s a really good point.”

“It is, but it’s also not my point, Greg.” George rolled his eyes, then motioned for me to get into bed. “Look, I’m going to go come up with some kind of lie to get Mom and Dad to give you the day off, so you just stay in bed and pretend that you’re...I dunno, sick or something? Also, no talking about powers or anything else in the meantime, got it?”

“No problem.” I got settled in bed, leaving only my face sticking out and grumbling slightly as I realized that I had run out of bandages to cover up my terrible-looking face. As he opened the door, I realized something. “Hey George? Thanks for helping me out like this. I know we don’t always get along, but this? Having my back and keeping my secret like this is really...nice.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” George turned to leave, and as the door shut I heard him mutter, “I’ll always do what’s best for you.”

***

Ten minutes later, after listening to movement, muffled conversation, and then the less-calming shouted conversation (mostly Mom), my door burst open. Mom immediately crossed the room to my bed, and I was afraid for a moment she was going to drag me out. Instead, she just squinted at me, let out a huff, then walked back to Dad and hugged him.

That’s not a good sign. Should I pretend to cough or sneeze? Wait...is she crying? Oh no.

“Stanley, I just don’t know what to do with this boy!” She let out a little sob, and I began to feel like maybe I should say something. George, just outside her field of view thanks to the door, rolled his hand at me in the time-honored signal of Go With It , so I just stayed quiet and looked miserable. It wasn’t hard to pretend, as any kid who’s ever made their mother cry knew.

“Mom, I know it looks bad, but we Veders are always really passionate about what we do, and in this case Greg just let his eyes get ahead of his common sense.” George entered and gave her a one armed hug, moving across the room to sit next to me on the bed. “The thing is…”

Then George dropped the bombshell.

“I mean, how could he have known that the face paint he was using for his cape video would stain his skin like this? He’s really broken up about it already, so how about we ease off of him?” 

What. Seriously. What the hell, George? Face paint? They’re never going to buy-  

He put an arm around me, purposefully pressing right down on the baseball bruise as he gave me a one-armed hug. I let out a little gasp as blinding pain shot through me. “Shhh, there, there little hero, it’s okay.”

“Well, as long as it washes off by church next week, I suppose we can let this slide. But you’d better make sure that he knows the difference between these different styles of makeup in the future, George.” Dad acquiesced, and gently guided Mom out of the room. He rubbed one hand on her back as they left, calling to me. “I’m never going to tell you not to follow your dreams, Greg, but in the future try to look before you leap. You really could have gotten hurt.”

“Don’t worry, Dad, I’m sure Greg will never do anything this dumb again. Especially now that he knows how painful it is...in his heart.” George pressed on my bruise again, and I didn’t have to fake my groan. George called after them, “You two go ahead and get in the car, I’ll be there in a minute. I just need to read over these makeup tubes and make sure they won’t have any lasting effects, then dispose of them properly after I write down the phone numbers and such.”

“You’re such a good brother, George.” Mom replied, then began shuffling down the stairs with Dad. “You’ll be an excellent father someday.”

As I heard them leave and close the front door, George quickly got up from the bed and turned to face me. I glared at him balefully, and prepared to voice my concerns about his actions in the time-honored tradition of a brotherly argument...with plenty of four-letter words.

***

“Now, Greg,” George backed up a bit, holding up his hands in surrender. “Before you go flying off the handle, think about how well that worked out and how little it cost.”

“Oh right, I forgot to thank you.” I gingerly got out of bed, slapping away his hands as he reached for me. I started moving around the room and tidying up just so that I didn’t have to look at his smarmy face. Finally, I slammed my hands into my nightstand and turned to glare at him.

This might actually be the worst prank he’s ever pulled on me. My reputation is shot!

“Mom thinks I painted my face with bad makeup, so I’ve lost any credibility I had for buying more. Dad’s going to make jokes about it, and probably bring it up at family get-togethers.” I paused, raising my middle finger at him. “Oh, and you also scored bonus ‘good son’ points by ratting me out as an immature idiot. Thanks so much George.”

“But on the plus side, now you have a week to heal without them asking about all the bruises and cuts, and by then maybe you’ll have a better excuse.” George tried to reason with me, using his usual twisted methods of introducing logic and stupid reasoning into what was supposed to be an emotional family argument. “Besides, if you would just come clean with them we wouldn’t have had to lie. Seriously Greg, you don’t need to make up lies about powers because bullies-”

I was right before. It’s a good thing I don’t have a Blaster power, or I’d blast George right now.

“It’s not a goddamn lie!” My voice broke, and I barely kept myself from screaming at him. Mom and Dad may have been in the car outside, but I hadn’t wanted to give him the satisfaction of hearing me lose my temper. “Stop treating me like an idiot! Stop acting like this is a joke!”

I used his stunned silence to stomp forward and stab my finger at him. “I triggered! I got powers! I’m trying to figure them out! Worst of all, I trusted you and you think I’m lying!”

“Damn it Greg, I’m trying to help you, but you make it really hard.” George held out a hand and started to count on his fingers, ignoring my angry glare and stabbing finger. “You never talk about school or friends. You spend all your time on the computer. You make your videos alone. You’re covered in bruises after a day of school. Just admit that you’re being bullied already!”

“Well no shit I’m being bullied, but that doesn’t mean that the other stuff can’t be true as well!” I grabbed my notebook, flipping through it to the information I had collected on parahumans pre-trigger. I handed them to George, and he looked down at the information that directly linked at least one horrible experience to the appearance of almost every parahuman out there. Now that I had experienced it firsthand, it was a wonder I’d never realized it before. “Look at those notes, and you’ll see that parahumans all experience all kinds of bad shit and it makes the-”

“Being bullied and having a shitty day doesn’t make you a parahuman, Greg!” George threw my notes back at me, then turned around and put both hands on my wall as he leaned his head against it. His voice was quieter, and I thought he might have been holding back from either crying or yelling. “I lost people close to me to villains, to the E88, to disease...and none of it ever made me trigger! I used to get bullied and teased every day for being a nerd and a skinny wimp, but I never got powers! I had so many problems and so little good...I wanted to escape.”

So, I was right before. He only went to college to get away from us. To get away from...me.

“Was it really that bad?” I asked, but I’m not sure why. I had spied on him, after all. I knew. “So bad that you had to run away from everything? From...me?”

“Yes I...no.” George turned back around, but kept his eyes on the floor. He took a deep shuddering breath, and shook his head as if to clear it. “No, I realized that I had to overcome that, to toughen up, to learn to deal with it and get the hell out of there. That’s why I’m telling you all this, because if you’re going through the same shit I want you to know you can come to me. I can help you, Mom and Dad can help you...you don’t have to hide in your comic books, games, and forums to escape. Let us help you, please.”

I want to believe him. I want to trust him. But I...can’t. He keeps lying to me.

“I’m not hiding from anything, George.” I was tired, so damn tired of trying to explain this over and over. Every time I thought he was starting to understand, he just cycled right back to reminding me that he still thought I was making everything up about my powers. I was glad to hear that he’d had bullying problems as well, but it was all worthless if he was going to keep treating me like a child when it came to the powers that I had. That he kept doubting me .

He keeps doubting me. He’s making me doubt myself. Why? Why is this so hard to believe?

“I just want you to know that I’ve beaten this, and that we can beat it together, Greg.” He started walking towards me, but I was done with this. I was done with him . It didn’t matter if he was there for me with bullies and depression and loss and everything else...if he couldn’t even give me a tiny bit of trust when it came to my powers then I didn’t want any of it. “It’s just like any other problem. Medical, mechanical, technical, emotional, whatever...we’re here for you.”

He keeps trying to trick me into thinking I don’t have powers. What’s that word? Gaslighting?

Is he...jealous? Because I finally have something he doesn’t? 

Because he ran away, and I stayed.

“Mechanical...ha. Funny you should say that, because I think the real problem is that you broke and ran away, while I stuck it out and got powers. I triggered, and you’re just jealous. That’s why you keep shitting on me, why you keep pretending like my powers aren’t real. You’re like a broken goddamn record.” 

I think he was so taken aback that he literally stumbled back a step. It felt like I’d punched him, and I hated the feeling but at the same time felt so powerful. I knew I was being an asshole, but I was just so sick and tired of George putting me down. 

Every time I made a mistake, he was there to point it out. Every time I failed, he’d fix it. Mom and Dad always believed him, even when things weren’t my fault. He was the favored son...and I was the failure. I lived in his shadow, every day of my goddamn life!

But now I’m the winner, and I’m not going to let him take that away from me!

“This is serious, Greg.” George grimaced, as if it physically pained him to see me like this. “You can’t just keep running away from this, you could get hurt, badly. People aren’t like in your comics, they don’t just get better because a writer decides that it’s time for a new story arc or the artist forgets to draw an injury. People aren’t robots, with parts that can just be replaced or upgraded when they run down. People break, and robots-”

“Robots? You’re the robot, George. Like the BASIC programming language we use at school...always with a GO TO 10 line at a certain point when it comes to my powers. You just keep coming back to treating me like some immature kid no matter what we’re talking about.” 

I started to get in his face, my voice getting louder and louder and I couldn’t control it as I started to see his face turn red. “It’s hilarious how much of a coward you are, and how you keep trying to turn this around and pretend that I’m the baby when you’re the one who ran away from -”

George hit me ( I deserved it ). 

He shoved me, actually, and I landed on the bed. It didn’t hurt ( except inside ), but we both reacted like it had been a stab in the gut ( or heart ). I was speechless, and George started speaking faster and louder than before, as if he’d saved it all up for now.

“This, Greg. This right here. This is why you’re getting bullied in school, and why I’ve never reached out to you much before.” He breathed deeper with each sentence, but kept pushing on as I remained motionless on the bed. His voice sounded like he was choking. “Because you’re an immature little shit who gets teased and beaten down so much that you think punching down is the only way to lift yourself up. It’s wrong, it’s mean, and it’s sad.”

Or like I’m choking him. I went too far. Why...why do I always do this? Why didn’t I stop?

“My time after Boston was horrible, painful, and yet I stuck around because I cared about my entire family. That includes you, even if you do lash out at me, our parents, my girlfriend, and even my job!” I saw tears begin to gather in his eyes, and one of his hands started scrabbling for the door knob before he found it and wrenched the door open. “I support you with every fiber of my being, because I love you, but you could never understand that...you don’t even try to!”

“George…I’m...I didn’t mean to-” My throat was thick with emotion, and I felt a lump in it so thick I could barely talk. I tried to get up, to regain the connection we’d had earlier. To apologize for having gone too far. 

Too late. I broke it. I messed up. How can we come back from this?

“I’m not speaking to you again until you apologize. To me, to our parents, to Melody...to everyone.” George stepped out the door, then turned back to pierce me with one last glare. “You want to pretend you have powers? That you’re a hero? That you actually give a damn?”

“Y-yes...yes!” I tried to shout back, my eyes so blurry I could barely see him. I felt so tired, but now my sadness was mixing with anger and something else. “I wanted to help people!”

“Then stop saying you’re going to do something and actually do it!” George slammed the door behind him, but I could still hear him shouting from the hallway. “Anyone can brag or talk, but real heroes are people who actually try! The ABB and E88 are tough, but that doesn’t stop a hero from fighting. You want to be a hero...then grow hell up and do something with your life!”

With that, he went down the stairs ( wait ), out the door ( no ), and I only heard silence ( please ). 

I couldn’t have cared less ( i’m sorry ) where he went. 

He was gone ( come back ), and I was alone.

Damn it all...

***

I’m sure that George probably thought I just stayed in my room and cried after that, and he was right. But after a few minutes my tears of sadness turned to tears of rage. As much as I hated to admit it, his advice had been good. I couldn’t just give up on my powers because of a few failures, and I definitely couldn’t pretend that I needed powers to be a hero. 

Tinkers like Armsmaster and Kid Win were just ordinary people with fancy gear. Shakers like Vista were ordinary kids who had a special power. Thinkers were just smart people, but otherwise normal humans. Clockblocker was just a teenager with magic hands.

Fact was, if I wanted to be a hero, I couldn’t keep letting fear of the unknown stop me. It helped that I was really mad. I wanted to hit something. I wanted to do something that mattered .

I got to my feet, then trudged into the bathroom and cleaned up my eyes, nose, and wounds as best I could. I glared at myself in the mirror, covered in bandages, and got a terrible idea.

With a few more bandages, and all these bruises, I could be practically anyone under this.

I went back into my room and dressed in some very specific clothes, as well as grabbing some special accessories. On my way out, I grabbed Mom’s voice recorder and Dad’s digital camera. 

I headed outside, locking the door behind me, and started heading into town.

So, George thinks I’m a scared child, huh? That I was just pretending to have powers? 

I was going to do something that didn’t require powers. Something that would help people.

We’ll see what he has to say after the police and PRT are sending me thank-you letters.

I was going to go out and gather intelligence, to help others take criminals down someday.

I’ll prove to George that matter. That I’m not just a stupid child. That I’m a hero.

It wouldn’t put me in danger. Even if it did, I had powers now.

I’ll show them all that I can help.

****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Wow Greg, going into the field with powers you still don’t understand in the slightest? Yeah, that’ll end well. Luckily this is just an intelligence-gathering mission, so there’s no way you’ll run into any real combat, danger, or guys with guns . Nope.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

Anger is something I’ve always struggled with. Even movies haven’t helped me figure it out.

There was one movie where a guy said something like, “There are two kinds of angry people in the world: explosive and implosive. Explosive people scream at the cashier for some small slight, and implosive people are like the cashier...who comes in to work the next day with a gun.” 

Before I triggered, I was explosive. I let it all out as it happened, and then picked up the pieces...or in most cases just left them where they were. But after I got powers I started finding myself to be implosive more often than not. It took a while to learn to control it and direct my rage, and by then...I’d done more damage than a gun ever could.

Given that I was directing that anger at a gang whose boss was practically rage personified, that might have been a mistake. I guess it was lucky for me that I wasn’t even a blip on his radar.

GregV.

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

George had been right about one thing, in our argument. He’d said that having powers or not shouldn’t have stopped me from being a hero. I knew I had to find a way to channel my anger into something positive. I had creativity, knowledge, and resources, and as a native of Brockton Bay anything I did to help my town was a step in the right direction. I had to find a way to matter .

So here I was, angrily stalking through my town, seeking some evil. But not because I was going to fight it...no. I was going to gather information on it, and then hand it off to those who could fight it. Before I would have been too afraid, because I was just a cowardly nerd, I had always assumed someone else would handle it. But nobody ever had!

I may have been angry, but I wasn’t an idiot. I know if I’d told any sane person that I was planning to gather intelligence on the ABB, I’d have been laughed at or grounded for life. There were so many ways that things could go wrong, after all. The list was a mile long.

First of all, I was so white it looked like someone dumped a bucket of white paint on me and drizzled some straw on top for hair. Second, I had no combat or social skills to speak of, aside from running short distances and rambling like an idiot. Third, I had no weapons, no armor, and no equipment that I could use. Finally, it’s not like I could just find their bases in a phone book.

But as it so happened, those last two weren’t entirely correct. See, I went to school at Winslow, and spent a more-than-healthy amount of time buying comics or video games in that part of town. That meant that I spent a lot of time seeing the ABB move around, and got advice from shopkeepers and school officials alike of what parts of town to avoid. It was enough to make a pretty simple map of where the ABB were most dense, and therefore...most active.

That took care of the final point. As for the third one, well...the ABB made the fatal mistake of choosing gang colors that were easy as hell to imitate when you were injured and had as much hero merch as I did. Which is why, as I reached a particularly dense part of their neighborhood, I ducked into an ever-convenient alley and started putting on my “costume.”

No, don’t think that way. This is a disguise. Note to self, burn these clothes when this is over.

My favorite heroes had always been the ones that were adaptatable, dependable, and had a good sense of humor. Every kid liked to find things about their heroes that they could identify with, and I had always figured that my best skills were my ability to compensate for my failures,  to use humor to keep an upbeat attitude despite my crappy life, and to stay focused on goals. 

With that in mind, a few of my favorite heroes included Eidolon for his adaptability, Assault for his humor/wit, and Miss Militia for never giving up. Sure, I liked other heroes, but these in particular were ones that I looked up as being examples of the sort of hero I wanted to be. Even now, if I could ever get my powers working, I was basically on track to be just like two of them (Eidolon and Miss Militia) if things worked how I thought they did.

As a result of this, I had a lot of clothing and memorabilia geared entirely around my love (obsession) with capes and cape culture. Since their clothing lines and accessories were usually in the colors most often associated with them, you ended up with Armsmaster shirts in blue, Triumph hats in gold, and so on.

Which is why I donned an Assault sweatshirt (red), Miss Militia shoes (green), an Eidolon bandana (green), and both a Vista hat and sunglasses (green). With all my bandages and bruised face, I was essentially just another member of the ABB in their colors (Green and Red). It also helped that wearing bandages around their hands and faces was big among ABB teens.

Not that I intended to put that to the test, mind you. If all went as planned, I’d never interact with them at all, since I already knew where they were going. I also knew that if I saw any guns, knives, or signs that I was in trouble, I would be ready to run. My “colors” would at least buy me some time to get back to public roads, I was pretty sure.

So, to review: I knew where they hung out, I knew what they looked like, I looked enough like them to pass muster from twenty feet away, and I had a digital camera and voice recorder. So, having seen the ABB gathering in the warehouse district for the last three weeks as the school bus drove me home each day, I knew the ABB was up to something. I was just going to walk by, take some pictures of them gathering there, maybe even peek in a window, and then leave.

By this time tomorrow, the PRT and Brockton Bay Police would be shutting their safehouse or drug lab or whatever down. A week later, they’d be thanking me, and that would help motivate me to ignore George’s hurtful words and stick to my guns.

Yeah. I just had to keep telling myself that this wasn’t a bad idea.

***

This was a bad idea. Even worse, now I’m stuck.

I’d found the warehouse. I’d found the ABB. I’d taken some pictures of what looked like boxes of wine, buckets of nails, and more power tools than I’d ever seen in one place. I’d also recorded more than a few minutes of the ABB talking in a language that I was pretty sure was Japanese. They were eating lunch, and I’d just sidled right up next to them and started recording. One of them glanced at me and said something, but I just sort of grunted and nodded at him. It worked.

That was all well and good. So why was I panicking? Well, because as the men I’d recorded were packing up their lunches to head back in, one had stayed to talk to me. I of course had no idea what he was saying, so I just laughed and started to limp away. Maybe if he thought I was injured, he’d figure I would only slow him down?

Nope, he was apparently the nicest ABB ever, because he swooped in and put an arm over my shoulder. Then we started walking (or he walked, and I got dragged along) towards the warehouse, with his words and my nodding grunts barely audible over the sound of power tools.

I really need to learn to think things through. Bad plans are one thing, but this was just...dumb.

Why didn’t I just run away? Well, that would be because this man had a sizable gun that I could see in his jacket. A gun that looked an awful lot like a Desert Eagle. So at this point, running was out of the question. No, I was just going to have to go along with this, and wait. If nothing else, now I could at least get some pictures and audio from inside the warehouse.

At the same time, I found myself wondering... is it really this easy to infiltrate the ABB?

Seriously, how were these guys still a thing? How had the PRT not shut these guys down yet? For all the PRT’s capes, faceless foot soldiers, and ribbon-covered Directors, I had outdone them in an hour. I wasn’t even trying, and I’d accomplished this much by just with cosplay and grunting.

Before I had time to mentally insult them further, the guy with the gun (Gun Guy, I named him in my head) stopped at the door and banged on it twice. A huge guy (Huge Guy, man I was on fire with these names) in a ski mask opened the door, exchanged a few words with him, and then nodded and gestured for us to enter. 

Inside was what I could only describe as an indoor construction site. ABB, at least fifty of them, were walking around with materials, tools, and a variety of different jobs. I assumed that this was a work-in-progress, judging by the blueprints posted up on several walls.

They were amazingly detailed, and once again in a language I didn’t know. What I was able to recognize was that there were several little symbols all over the thing with secret doors, outlets, what looked like explosive symbols, and so on. This was like a supervillain lair, being built right before my eyes. They were even wearing hard hats, work gloves, and goggles.

Nice to know that even the ABB cares about workplace safety. Crap, Gun Guy is staring at me.

I looked around for an escape, and discovered three useful details. First, there was a group of skinnier ABB off to my left who were sorting nails, screws, and other small objects. I drifted in their direction, and after a small grunt they accepted me. My legs protested as I crouched down, but from this corner of the warehouse I could see everything and everyone, so it was worth it.

It was while I was pouring the nails they’d already sorted into a bucket that I noticed the second detail. Namely, that there was a sign written in English (finally) pointing the way to the restroom. It was my experience that there was usually an emergency exit by the bathrooms. Unfortunately, I’d have to cross the entire warehouse to get there, but I was sure I could pull it off.

Until I noticed the third detail...and almost wet my pants at who I saw across the way. 

Maybe I won’t need that bathroom after all. I might die first.

***

Ding Ding!

Ladies and gentlecapes! May I draw your attention to the center ring!

Standing at just a hair over six feet, weighing in at 220lbs, shirtless since the day he was born, and with more dragon tattoos than a lifelong member of the Yakuza! 

The Undisputed Leader of the ABB! The Rage Monster of Brockton Bay! The Dragon of Kyushu! 

#6 on PHO’s “Hottest (no pun intended) Parahuman Villains in the World,” and #2 on the pun version!

Lung, Undisputed Leader of the ABB! *cheers*

I really don’t know how I missed him in the first place. Not only was he the only person in the warehouse not wearing any safety gear (a metal mask doesn’t count), but he was also the only person who was shirtless. Well aside from Huge Guy, who was approaching Lung now. 

Guess he’s checking in with his boss. Come to think of it, he could practically be Lung’s twin.

Seriously, if you ignored the crappier quality of his tattoos and his dollar-store ski mask, Huge Guy was almost a dead ringer for Lung. I mean, they were both huge, both shirtless, both masked, and both had dragon tattoos.  I’d almost have said he was a Lung Cosplayer. 

Despite that, something about Lung seemed more...impressive. Not just because I knew who he was and his long list of accomplishments, it was something else. It was like he burned with a sort of...vitality. I found myself staring at him, ignoring the fact that he was only about a hundred feet away and could at any moment notice me staring. I was just so engrossed with him, with the almost crackling aura of power and warmth that seemed to spread out from him.

Wait, warmth? Also, what’s that odd haze around Lung? It kind of looks...familiar...

I think that was the biggest difference between Lung and Huge Guy. Sure, Huge Guy was big and strong, but Lung actually had a sort of...heat to him. I mean, yeah, he was a pyrokinetic who turned into a fire-breathing dragon, but otherwise he was just an ordinary guy.

I mean, ordinary if you ignored him being a parahuman gang boss who was six feet tall and full of muscles (without even needing to come from a land down under).

Still, as I continued to look at him, I realized that there was indeed a feeling of warmth coming from him. It was like he was a crackling campfire, or several campfires, and no matter how far away he moved from me it stayed a steady heat. The feeling faded away as he moved out of sight, then came right back full force as he emerged from a hole that had been carved into the wall and was having a steel door inserted into it.

In fact, if I really focused, it almost seemed like there were different...kinds of heat? As if he had several fires burning, each giving off a type of heat that made me feel a little different. As I looked at him, I could almost see each of them individually, despite them not having any real physical presence or location. They were just there inside of him, and yet a part of him.

The first one I looked at made me feel stronger just by looking at it, and tougher as well. The heat coming off of it made me feel like gravity barely had a hold on me, and for a moment even my pain just vanished because it didn’t matter. It was like an energy drink mixed with armor, making me feel like I had boundless power while also covering me with unbreakable armor.

The second one actually made me sweat a little, and I even had to squint a little to look at it. It was like staring into the sun. I felt like it burned me just from being observed...

The third one was my favorite, because it was like a sauna. Every moment that went by as I stared at it, almost reaching out to it with my mind, I could feel waves of almost pleasurable heat settling on my skin and sinking into my body. I felt like my pain decreased, my sore bruises faded, and even this impossible situation I was in didn’t seem so bad. 

Finally, the last one kind of confused me, and scared me. It was practically dormant, but despite the small size it almost seemed to be glaring back at me. Even though it was fairly small, I felt like it could flare up at a moment’s notice, going from a brush fire to a forest fire, with kindling that was endless.

After over a day of the worst pain I’d ever felt, I’m not ashamed to admit that I found myself leaning into that third one, like a wanderer in the cold who’d come across an abandoned campfire that had a single tiny ember in it. I reached for it, without actually moving my body.

It was like a pair of invisible hands had come out of my mind, and gently pulled an ember of that fire from Lung’s body...then held it close to my chest. Much like that hypothetical wanderer, I didn’t question the sudden warmth. I just savored it as it filled me from the inside...

“Oi!” A shout from behind me startled me out of my thoughts, and I looked around to see that my nail-bucket had started to overflow. My supervisor (Gun Guy) muttered a few things at me, then slapped my shoulder. I cringed from the expected pain from my baseball bruise, but I guess he only caught the edge of it because it barely hurt. It felt a bit warm, though, so I guess I must have started to sweat underneath. 

I looked around, and saw that the guys who had been carrying the buckets had all vanished, and it was just me. Gun Guy said something in Japanese, and pointed at the other end of the warehouse, where a bunch of mooks were building a scaffold and looking over a blueprint. I carefully lifted the bucket, my legs and arms straining as I made my way across the warehouse.

As I moved, I looked around for Lung, but all I was able to find was his metal mask for a moment, as he vanished down into a hole in the ground. While it was interesting to note that this place had a basement (wonder if he made it himself), it also meant that I couldn’t study his strange auras any more. Although, I was still feeling the warmth from before, for some reason. That was strange to me, given that the last time he’d gone out of my field of vision it had faded.

Still, it was a nice feeling, and it made the trip from Nail-Sorting Corner to Nail-Pounding Corner much easier to put up with. Heck, my arms and legs didn’t even hurt as much as they had earlier in the day. Why, you could barely even tell that I’d been covered in more bandages than a mummy this time yesterday!

I dropped the bucket off and got another slap on my shoulder, wincing in preparation as it struck me on that one bruise ag-

Wait. That didn’t hurt. He hit me right in the bruise that time, and it didn’t hurt.

I mean, that was the same place that George and Gun Guy had hit, but this time I hadn’t felt a thing. I ran my hands over the bruise, and was amazed to feel nothing more than my bony shoulder and some loose bandages moving around under my shirt. Had my powers finally kicked in and healed me? Was this related to that warm feeling I’d gotten from Lung? 

I need privacy to figure this out. What has privacy and mirrors? Bathrooms. Twenty feet away.

***

By faking a stomach issue, I was able to retreat to the bathroom and lock myself inside. Sure, one of the Nail-Pounding guys tried to follow me, but I just put my Greg Veder skills to use and made fart noises with my mouth. I also let out a few groans, and then hurried to one of the urinals and flushed it. The footsteps walked away, two voices laughing about something.

Taking a moment, I looked around what was possibly the cleanest warehouse bathroom I’d ever seen. Seriously, with a ten foot high ceiling, three metal stalls to my left, and a brand-new mirror about twenty feet away from me on the opposite wall over a bone-white sink, this was a palace .

Standing in front of the mirror and rolling up my sleeve, I was blown away to see that most of the bruises and cuts had completely vanished. Focusing on one cut in particular that still remained, I could almost feel that warmth in me surrounding it as the wound slowly closed up. In moments, there wasn’t even a scar. The warm feeling was still all over my body, feeling like a warm rain as it seemed to be healing my myriad injuries and problems.

I removed my sunglasses and bandana, pulling my hood down as I stashed both in my sweatshirt’s big pocket. Before my eyes, I could see the huge bruise on my face starting to fade, a few splinters I’d missed being pushed out one by one. Even the pain from it was fading, and soon the warm feeling was retreating back into my...hmm, it wasn’t really a location in my body.

I guess it feels like my middle, but not my torso. I’ll call it my Core for now. That sounds right.

The power sat in my core, crackling like the campfire I’d imagined feeling from Lung earlier. I felt stronger, I think. Braver might have been a better word. It was an odd feeling (especially since I was normally kind of a coward), and it took me a while to figure out why. 

I’d always had this sort of feeling in me like something was wrong. Call it paranoia, call it loneliness, call it whatever you want, but it wasn’t just hyperbole to say that I’d always felt a little empty inside. Ever since my trigger event I’d felt it even more than usual, and I was pretty sure that the feeling had only gone away for a few minutes after I’d used my powers...but then came right back when I woke up the next day.

In fact, during all the time I’d been limping home, doing my power testing, and even hanging around the ABB, I’d still had that strange sort of...emptiness in me. It was only just now, as I was fully healed and feeling happy that I realized I felt full . But it didn’t seem to be tied to my mood, my sense of self-worth, or even the accomplishment of finally doing something with my powers. 

No, it was that crackling warmth, that power that had healed me and was still sitting comfortably deep within my soul. I felt different. I felt whole. I felt like something had changed, within me. Something was not the same. There was a feeling like I was finally complete, after so long.

Which meant that my powers had required a parahuman to actually use. Knowing that, it didn’t take me more than a moment to realize the reason all my Power Testing had failed was because I was, in fact...a Power Copier of some kind. I was a Trump .

Well, one mystery down. I feel pretty good about that! In fact, I feel like I can take on the world!

Something I felt less good about was the fact that while I was grinning at myself in the mirror, I’d seen the bathroom door unlock itself, open, and admit my old friend Gun Guy. I also didn’t feel great about him locking the door behind him. Or when he drew his huge gun and checked it.

Or the way he isn’t flipping out on me for being a white kid. Guess my disguise wasn’t so good.

But despite all that, I still felt brave, strong, and confident. 

These were new feelings for me, a kid who was normally very good at avoiding conflict and running away from his problems or trying to make excuses. So, perhaps I could be excused for acting upon them in the worst way possible. 

Which, in this case, was to cross my arms and try to stare Gun Guy down.

***

Gun Guy stared at me. 

I stared right back.

He had a huge gun, at least twenty pounds of muscle on me, and an annoyed look on his face.

I had a healing power I had apparently copied from Lung, a makeshift ABB outfit, and an uncovered face that would tell anyone who looked at me that I was blonde, white, and desperately in need of some time in the sun.

Also, in what was probably the biggest twist, I wasn’t really feeling all that afraid of Gun Guy. I mean, yeah, he had a huge gun and that would hurt. Sure, bad stuff. But for some reason I didn’t really understand, I kind of felt like I could take on the world. Or at least one guy with a gun!

Still, whether it was overconfidence or some side effect of my powers, I decided to give him a break. Why not try to go for the diplomatic approach, after all? I figured I’d try talking to him. 

One problem: Language barrier. Up until now, he’d been speaking a language that I was now certain was Japanese. I’m not really sure why I was now aware of that, but somehow I just seemed to know that he’d been speaking Japanese. I’d seen quite a decent bit of anime before Brockton Bay forced video stores to only carry dubs. Guess I must have known a few words.

Of course, this knowledge was still functionally useless, because as any anime fan can tell you, just watching a lot of anime is not a substitute for actual language classes. Sure, you can pick up a few phrases and bad words (first words I learned), maybe even some idioms, but there was no way that knowing how to cast Dragon Slave in Japanese was going to help me here. 

No, I was going to have to go old school. I was going to have to go back to a time before language, and use a method of communication that needed no words...

“Hello.” I said in English, waving slowly as I spoke. I tapped my chest, then clasped my hands and gave him a big smile. “Friend.”

The Veder family, back when we were still a real family and they could stand to be around me for more than a few hours at a time, always used to have a Family Game Night on Saturdays. I may have been a failure at most card and board games, but I totally killed it at Charades. It was time for those skills to pay the bills...assuming that the bill was don’t get shot .

Gun Guy lifted an eyebrow, cocking his head at me, which made me nod and push onwards. 

“Got Lost.” I held a hand up to my forehead, pretending to shade my eyes and then looked around. Finally, now that I was healed and could move without pain, I turned sideways and made myself look like the profile of the guy on exit signs. “Exit?”

Gun Guy was silent for several seconds, and I worried that my skills at charades had deteriorated. We used to play it all the time when my age was in the single digits, but it had been a while. Still, he looked down at the floor with his gun off to the side, so I began to stealthily shuffle forward. My feelings of self-worth were at an all-time high, after all.

My plan was to get close enough that I could duck behind the metal stalls set to my right (his left), and since his gun was in his left hand it would limit his ability to shoot me dead. 

Still, I wasn’t prepared for him to make his own attempt at communication.

“Tha fuck is wrong wit’ ya?” Gun Guy asked, a distinct Brooklyn accent adding a certain flavor to his anger and confusion. “Ya know, talkin’ like that, actin’ the way you are? It’s pretty fuckin’ racist and insulting.”

“I’m...sorry?”

“Damn right ya sorry.” Gun Guy pointed his finger at me, his face suddenly looking mirthful. “What? Ya think that just because I’m ABB, I don’t know any English? That I’m just some kinda Asian stereotype or some shit? Fuck’s wrong with you?”

“In my defense, you’ve been speaking nothing but Japanese to me since we met. I mean, how was I supposed to know you spoke-”

“Ya coulda just asked! Christ, I came in here because my guys told me someone was shooting his guts out his ass!” He gestured at my face, growling. “Then I come in and see it’s the dumb white kid my Enforcer reported was takin’ pictures of my boys. I was gonna let ya off with a beatin’ after ya did some labor, but then you pull this racist bullshit on me!”

I’m being lectured on racism by the ABB. What the hell? Who the hell does he think he is?

This day had started wrong because I got mad . It continued to go wrong because I was making bad decisions. Unfortunately, now I was getting even madder , and not just because he was trying to claim that he’d known I was a spy all along. 

The only thing I could think about was that George was right...I was an angry, immature, shortsighted child. I had let my dreams and dumb plans get the best of me, and now I was locked in a bathroom with a gun-wielding ABB thug. I should have listened to my brother.

I’ll bet George would have handled this perfectly. He’d probably make an awesome spy.

My self-pity, my annoyance at myself, and Gun Guy’s words roiled in my head. But instead of getting sad, starting to cry, or begging for forgiveness, I was doing something else. 

I was getting angry . I was feeling confrontational . I felt like telling this asshole off .

I was beginning to wonder if I’d copied more than just Lung’s healing power.

Before I had time to think about it, I opened my mouth.

***************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Well, the important thing is that Greg realizes that his brother is far smarter, more capable, and prepared than him. Yep, no way would George ever go off half-cocked into a dangerous situation full of enemies and screw up. Nope. Wait, what? Oh, there’s an Interlude up next that says maybe George ain’t so perfect? Well...dang it all.

Chapter Text

[George, Three Years Ago]

“Hey, Derek right?” I approached the handsome man, having waited until all the other new Medhall employees had taken their turn. He was tall, built like a brick house, and had a face made for TV. He seemed to enjoy speaking to everyone, especially the women, but I’d been patient and now we were the only ones left in the auditorium. “I’m George Veder.”

“Ah, George!” He shook my hand, squeezing far harder than necessary. “I heard about you! Top marks at Boston U, won a few awards, double major, and one of our ‘must-have’ employees. Glad to finally put a face to the name! How can I help you?”

“Well, it’s nothing big, but I noticed something a bit..odd during your speech.” I leaned in, lowering my voice. “You’ve got a huge booger in your nose.”

He reached up and wiped at his face, then grumbled as I shook my head. “Still there?”

“Afraid so. Here, use mine.” I pulled out a handkerchief, a good thick one with a fancy stitch pattern on one side, and handed it to him. Even before he could use it, and I quickly mimed looking at my watch before turning away. “Aw dang, I’m late!”

“Wait, you forgot this!” I made sure to get at least halfway across the auditorium before looking over my shoulder, and saw that he’d stayed put with my handkerchief. I yelled back, continuing to walk away, “Just hold onto it for me, and I’ll come find you later!”

Without another thought for him, I quickly made my way out of the auditorium. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Derek shrug and head back onto the auditorium’s stage, passing through the same curtain he’d entered from to the Backstage room. I heard voices as he opened the door.

That meant that Kayden Anders from Public Relations, Brad Meadows from Public Works, Melody Jurist from Security, and now Derek Fisher from Human Resources, were all in a room together. Unbeknownst to them, I was also in there, thanks to the little gift I’d given Derek.

A Tinkertech listening device hidden in a handkerchief. What’ll they think of next?

Once I’d settled into one of the bathroom stalls just outside the auditorium, I put my earpiece in place and used the dials in what looked like a glasses case to make a few adjustments. After a  few seconds of scratching noises, I could easily hear Derek’s voice describing...me.

-some skinny nerd, probably in love with me or something .”

Derek, you think everyone’s in love with you .” A rougher voice, deeper than Derek’s, as Brad groaned with annoyance.  “ Speaking of which, why haven’t you killed him yet, Kayden? You know Derek’s never going to stop hitting on you. Aren’t you and Max married?

I make my own decisions, thank you very much .” Kayden Anders replied, and I recalled how upbeat she’d been when talking about how we represented the company now that we all worked for Medhall. It made me sick, knowing that Purity was lecturing us on that. “ Besides, with Max hiding out in Boston, pretending to be an embattled CEO, it’s not like he really cares what we do. This farce was his idea anyway, but he never does more than tell us what not to do .”

Well, if he’s not saying no, and you’re not saying no.. .” Derek interjected, and I could practically hear him wiggling his eyebrows. How this man had been chosen to pretend to work in HR was beyond me. He was a walking stereotype of a sex-crazed lunatic.

Well, I might have, but you’ve been wiping your nose since you got in here, so I’m going to have to pass .” Kayden replied, and I heard everyone laugh. “ Oh Melody, don’t touch tha -”

Whatever Kayden was saying was cut off, and I snatched the earpiece out as a sharp crackling noise filled my ear. I immediately leapt to my feet and flipped a switch on the ‘glasses case,’ tossing it in the trash on my way out. By the time anyone found it, the components inside would already be dust and slag. 

I was panicking, I’ll admit, since I’d already gone off-mission. I’d planted the handkerchief on an Empire 88 Lieutenant a full week earlier than I’d been authorized to. I had just been so eager to get on with this mission, to bring them down already, that when I saw Stormtiger up there prancing about I decided to go for it.

I’d felt so angry seeing the E88’s capes dressing like normal people, acting like they didn’t have a trail of bodies a mile long behind them. Now I was being followed by an angry blonde with a buzzcut, one hand on the belt of her security uniform and the other reaching for me.

Before I had time to formulate a plan, I felt a strong hand grab me by the shoulder and do...something. Next thing I knew I was pressed up against a wall, her arm pressed over my throat, and she was leaning in so close I could feel her breath on my face.

Why did I agree to this again? Oh yeah...because it was the right thing to do.

***

[6 Months Earlier, Brockton Bay ENE PRT]

“Thank you for coming Mr. Veder, we were very excited to interview you.” The man was bald, stocky, and incredibly pale, but judging by the way everyone else in this office had talked to him he was a heck of a boss. I’d been interviewing all week, trying to distract myself from the impending doom I’d felt for months, and his smile certainly helped. “Sorry about all the calls, but someone with your background and capabilities are quite hard to come by.”

“Hey, it’s nice to be wanted!” I wasn’t just being polite. This company had left no less than four voicemails for me, as well as sending multiple letters. “I know my transcripts are good, and a double-major is always nice on a resume, but I’m still only halfway through my medical training.”

“Well, George, can I call you George?” At my nod, he continued, “George, we know that you have a lot of other opportunities, and in fact those interest us quite a bit. After all, if everyone at a restaurant is ordering the same dish, people start to wonder just what’s so good about it. In your case, it’s easy to see how driven, dedicated, and well-organized you are.”

“Really, you got all that just from my resume and transcripts?”

“Well, that and the vast amount of research you’ve been doing online. Looking into the E88, Medhall, and various connections between them.” My heart dropped into my stomach, and I began to regret having told my parents that I’d be home late. The pale man seemed to pick up on that, and held up both hands in a sign of nonviolence. “Oh, we don’t mean that in a bad way, George. In fact, we’re very impressed with all you’ve managed to find out by yourself.”

I guess I should have seen it coming. Eventually, the E88 would notice me...and silence me.

When I had left home, the E88 had been a strong and dangerous force for evil in my town. The PRT swore they would do something to stop them. To stamp out white supremacy in Brockton Bay and arrest all the parahuman villains that threatened us all with destruction. But when I came home, years later...I found that things had barely changed at all.

My parents lived in fear, my brother lived in ignorance, and I’d only gotten more and more angry at the helplessness. At not being able to do anything. It reminded me too much of the horrors I’d seen firsthand in Boston, as my classmates and professors were slaughtered around my...all over a few scraps of land. I started to spend time away from home, hiking the trails that overlooked Brockton Bay, because at least from up there the town almost looked peaceful.

One night, I had seen a shooting star, and wished on it that there was some way for my family to be safe, for my friends’ lives to not have been lost in vain. 

...and then the star had landed on the Medhall building. Her name was Purity.

I threw myself into researching the E88 and Medhall, and turned it over to the PRT. I kept waiting, praying that they’d do something, but never heard back. In the meantime, I tried to finish my doctorate, find a job, and try to distract myself from the world going to hell. I even held onto a job offer from Medhall, planned to burn it in celebration, but they kept right on existing.

And now, this pale E88 stooge thinks he can just silence me. Well, not today, asshole!

Without warning, I leapt up and ran for the door. The man moved much faster than I’d thought, grabbing my shoulder and doing...something. Next thing I knew I was pressed up against the wall, his arm over my throat. Despite that, he actually looked apologetic.

“I’m sorry, George. My people are always telling me I have a habit of being too secretive, but I suppose that’s just a hazard of the job.” He stepped back, straightening out my clothes and  directing me to sit back down. With how easily he’d stopped me before, I carefully acquiesced. “Let’s start over, George. First...I am sorry for the way you’ve suffered up until now. Not only for the fear and pain you felt, but knowing that your family was suffering as well.”

If he turns this into some kind of blackmail thing or threatens my family, I’ll kill him!

“I can see that you still don’t trust me, so I’ll stop beating around the bush.” He reached into his pocket with two fingers, pulling out two slips of paper and passing them to me. “One of these is a check for enough money to get your family to Seattle, so that you can go with them and do analyst work for us. The other...is an acceptance letter you can send to Medhall, saying that you need a few months of therapy for PTSD before you accept their offer. Choose one, please.”

The check is...wow. That’s a lot of money. But I’d just be running away. Abandoning my town.

“Why would I accept their offer?”

“Because you are dedicated, like everyone else in this building, to stomping out the festering disease that is the E88, their backers, and white supremacy.” He steepled his fingers, staring at me with an unblinking gaze. “Tell me, George, how far are you willing to go to stop the Empire 88 and Medhall? Willing to put your life on the line? Endure back-breaking training? Work with heroes and criminals alike? Pretend to embrace the same people you despise?”

“I’ll do anything!” I glared at him, as if he was trying to scare me off. “No matter what it takes!”

“Very well. You may call me Nutcracker.” He smiled and held out a hand. “Welcome to Watchdog.”

I took his hand, and my entire life changed.

***

[6 Months Later, being pinned by Cricket]

I’m starting to regret not taking that check. This mission...I know I trained, but it’s horrible.

After I signed all the forms and NDAs, my training had started...and it had been crazy.

I had trouble calling it training, because it was really more of a painful montage of cram school and acting classes, with extracurriculars in spycraft, learning all about the E88 and Medhall, and meeting the dozen people in our small spy cell. Apparently they’d been working on this project for quite some time, and were all very excited to have a new Watchdog teammate. 

Moreover, I was now the new guy, so I got to be the training dummy for my many sparring sessions. Since I had actual medical training, it also meant I could take care of everyone’s injuries afterwards. Still, I like to think I learned a lot, and soon was at least good at dodging.

Of course, it’s hard to dodge someone like Cricket. Is she ever going to say her line? 

After glaring at me for another moment, Cricket (no, Melody) glanced to the side and saw that we’d finally been joined by some witnesses. She stepped back, then used her electronic larynx to say, “Sorry about that. You’re that new guy from Medical Implants, aren’t you? I need you.” 

“Woo! Go Mel! Getting some of that new car smell on ya!” Derek’s voice made me glare at him, and I was annoyed to see that a mere thirty feet away were Derek, Brad, and Kayden. I would normally have protested, the very thought making me sick, but...a cover’s a cover.

“Let’s just go already.” She tugged on my arm and motioned for me to lead the way. “After you give me a better voice, we can go to the Security Office and fill out an incident report.”

I heard Derek call something from behind us about ‘filling’ things. As much as I hated to even consider it, I still turned and gave him a big smile. Melody grabbed my hand and dragged me away, the aerokinetic nazi having burst into laughter at her reaction.

The things I do for my country. Ugh.

***

[1 Hour Later, Medhall Security Office]

Her old voice unit in the trash (several years without maintenance will do that) and a new one making her far less painful to hear, we entered her Security office. I had tried to wander off, especially when I saw Brad and Derek following after us with an utter lack of subtlety. Despite my best efforts though, Melody grabbed my arm and dragged me inside, slamming the door.

She shoved me to her desk, flipping me over it, and then leaned in so close I could feel her breath on my face. I was afraid she was going to tear my throat out for a moment, but again this was just for show. We had to play up the roles we’d been given, no matter how we felt.

She deliberately waited until we could see Derek’s face in the door’s window before she hit a small button on her desk. The glass frosted over, and my ears popped as an electronic hum joined the background noise of the security office. 

She released me, taking a seat on the desk as I rolled off it and straightened my clothes. When I was feeling more centered and ready for this talk, I crossed my arms and leaned on the wall.

“What’s wrong with you? You used the Tinker wire a full week early!” She looked me up and down, taking in my skinny form, lab coat, and admittedly unimpressive showing thus far. “I still can’t believe they sent me the Watchdog Intern instead of an actual Agent!”

“Hey, I’m an Agent!” I was mostly telling the truth, technically only being a Junior Agent because of the rush they’d put on my training. I gestured at her, sneering at her expression. “Besides, why are you the one getting mad? I’m the one who has to pretend to be in a relationship with one of the top three murderhobos on Kaiser’s payroll! Why is a nazi even helping Watchdog?”

“Are you kidding me?” She laughed, her voice much easier to hear with the new unit I’d given her. She shook her head and waved a hand at her door. “Newsflash dumbass, out of almost a dozen E88 parahumans only a few are actually die-hard nazis. Hell, even Kaiser doesn’t really buy any of it. They’re just here for the paycheck they get for hurting people.”

“Oh, that’s all right then. You have morals, you just took money to kill non-white people for a few years because it paid well. So much better.” I glared at her, still unable to accept that she was actually helping us, and had been for nearly a year. It almost hurt my soul that she was trying to fake her way to redemption. “This sudden burst of kindness doesn’t suddenly make you a good person. You’ll never be forgiven for the things you’ve done.”

“I’m not doing this for forgiveness, dumbass. Didn’t Nutcracker tell you? I’m doing it because it’s the best of the bad choices.” Not even looking at me, she rolled her sleeve up and began tracing the myriad of scars covering her arm. “I didn’t exactly set out to become a nazi, actually I-”

“You started with pit fighting, moved on to cape fighting, and then joined a nazi gang for money. Yes, I read your file, and I’m not buying this whole betrayal of my boss for forgiveness schtick.” I rolled my eyes, hearing her huff angrily. “Sorry, am I making fun of your attempt at moralizing your actions? My bad. Please, continue telling me how life was so hard for you.”

She stared at me for a long minute, then sighed and shook her head.

“I’m not gonna argue with that. I fucked up. I know. I dug myself into a hole, and no excuse is ever gonna make up for all shit I did.” The way she talked, I almost felt sorry for her, for just a moment. “Hell, half the time I still think you PRT assholes are just playing me. More than half.”

I smirked at that, seeing her so annoyed. Nutcracker had explained to me the way they’d used an extremely vague series of precognitive visions to get Cricket to come to the PRT, and then press-ganged her into becoming our person on the inside. Even if she was now saying it was all her choice, we both knew that she’d really gotten scared and taken the easy way out.

“Watchdog called me a year back, in my civilian ID.” She stared down at her hands, talking to herself as much as me. “One of their Precogs had a bunch of visions about me, and I wrote it off at first. But then, one by one, they turned out to be right. All except the last one...that in 4 years I’d die by Kaiser’s hand. They’d said that one was hazy, but only because I could change it.”

We were playing her, of course. Appraiser and the rest are wrong more than they’re right.  

“You belong in the Birdcage.” It was a statement, one that made her flinch. “You deserve death.”

“I know.” She looked down, smiling at something I couldn’t see. “After this is all over, I’m going to prison for life, no matter how well it goes. Watchdog argued that I was trusted by the E88, that nobody would suspect me, and that with my Security position I would be a better insider than a prisoner. So now instead of Birdcage or death, I get to try and make up-”

“Make up? Why would they even trust you? You could destroy everything with a few words!”

“No. They...did something to me.” She grimaced, putting a hand to her temple. I found it hard to feel bad. “I can’t tell anyone who isn’t PRT, or else...things happen. Powers are such bullshit. It cost them, but I guess they figured I was worth it. That I was useful.”

“Fine, so you’re a useful criminal. Whatever.” I crossed the room and held out a hand, and she took it after a moment. “I hate your guts. I want you to know that. No matter what I say or do going forward, all of this is just an act...a play to fool your idiot friends into trusting me.”

“Don’t get too big of a head, asshole. Don’t forget, you’re still the dweeby new guy, and also my new boy toy.” She stood up suddenly, grabbing me by the shirt and spinning to slam me into the desk again. “By now, Brad and Derek will have already spread our budding ‘romance’ to half the building, and it’ll get back to Kaiser within a day.”

“Great, mission accomplished.” I growled at her, grabbing her shoulder and pushing her off me. I stalked to the door, pausing as she reached for the security switch. “Come see me off, and I’ll come back tomorrow at lunch.”

“Fine. We can get started on bugging the security systems then. They’ll just think we’re having sex or something.” The electronic hum vanished, and Melody moved to the door just as I opened it. I leaned in as she kissed me angrily, then shoved me out the door. “See you around.”

“Not if I see you first!” I called back, Derek already slapping me on the back and cheering.

***

[Later]

“-of course I’d like to tell you whose idea skinny dipping really was, but Sandra’s close to the knives.” Dad finished, my shoulders shaking from holding back laughter as Mom was indeed looking between him and her block of knives. She was also blushing redder than the tomatoes Melody was deftly dicing, so he seemed to take it as a win anyway.

This was the first time she’d been to our house, but after several months together it was going to happen sooner or later. Rumors of our ‘relationship’ had spread through Medhall like a wildfire, and at lunch yesterday I’d loudly invited her to meet my parents. 

I still wish Nutcracker would let me tell them something. I hate lying to my parents...

“I don’t need the knives to take you down, Stanley.” Mom smiled nastily at him, flexing her hand and then making a fist, all her knuckles popping at once. Dad cringed back, and I think it was only half faked. Mom had a black belt in Judo, after all. She claimed it had been a part of her work as a librarian, but I was never sure if she was joking. “Anyway, dinner will be ready in 5 minutes, so why don’t you go get Greg and we’ll save trial by combat for later?”

The food was amazing. The company was even better. If it weren’t for the fact that our entire relationship was a sham so we could secretly gather information from a company that acted as a front for nazi supervillains, it almost would have been the most fun I’d had in a long time...except for one small detail. 

My little brother Greg, normally so passionate and full of words, was being unusually withdrawn. I had noticed the way he’d start to speak only to stop himself and look down at his plate, or look so heartbroken when Mom would tell him to quiet down and let other people talk. I knew these habits, because at one time they’d been my own. Given that we were both products of our environment, I knew that Greg was probably getting teased at school...maybe even bullied.

Admittedly it wasn’t entirely my fault, since our parents had been equally clueless and smothering when I was in his shoes. Plus, Winslow was a highschool of garbage teens and teachers who couldn’t be paid to give a damn. Still, I felt a bit bad that I’d been so focused on my mission, Melody, and so much else that I hadn’t seen the signs and tried to help.

Soon as my mission is over, I’ll have a sit-down with Greg. I’ll try to make up for lost time. 

***

[Even Later]

“Wow, you’re a mess. How the hell did that happen?”

I let out a squawk and grabbed for a towel to cover myself, Melody having just appeared next to me as I got out of the shower. It may have been her apartment, but I had still closed the door because I expected at least a little privacy. She scoffed at me and gestured at my (admittedly skinny) body, shaking her head. “What the hell am I even looking at, George?”

Before I could formulate a response, she stepped closer and put a hand on my hip. Though I’d been wary of her touching me without warning the first few months of our ‘relationship,’ after nearly two years together I barely noticed. 

We’d been forced to practice being close, engaged in more than a little PDA in public, and roomed together when Medhall made us travel to events. It was casual, nothing more than stress relief, and we didn’t make anything of it. She looked up into my eyes, and I wondered if this was just some kind of weird foreplay before one of those times.

“Ow!” This was not one of those times, because she dug a finger into one of the large bruises on my thigh. I tried to get around her and escape, but she’d shut the door on her way in and just poked me in one of the bruises on my back. “Cut it out! This isn’t a problem you can fix, okay?”

“George. Seriously. Look at me.” I looked back and saw her glaring at me from between the hair she’d started growing back out last year, ever since Kaiser started letting her wear an actual mask. “I can’t have you going around like that, why can’t you just tell me what-”

“Don’t worry, this isn’t your problem. I can handle it on my own and you’re just-ow!” I flinched back, holding a hand over the bruise she’d just slapped. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Look, just because we’re in a fake relationship doesn’t mean I can’t worry about you getting hurt.” She undercut her seemingly caring words with another bruise-poke. “Your family loves you, and I...almost give a rat’s ass about you. Barely. Just tell me what happened already!”

What? When the hell did she start to care about me? Why would she even bother?

We’d talked about this sort of thing before. About our lives after the mission. I’d go on to get promoted at Watchdog, become a Doctor, or maybe even play baseball. But Melody? After our mission was over, she only had a life in prison to look forward to. 

That was good. She had even acknowledged that it was what she deserved, not that it made things better. There would never be little kids buying her merchandise or going out dressed as her for halloween. No parahuman would ever make a costume or persona honoring her legacy.

And yet, she was still trying. I hated the Melody of before...but the Melody of today?

There’s already so much good coming from this mission...I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

I reached out, and put my hand on her shoulder, and despite her glare she didn’t knock it off.

“It was Derek and Brad.” Her body tensed under my grip, and I tried to give her a reassuring smile. “They keep hazing me, always knocking me into things. Unfortunately for them, I was bullied in high school, so I can just ignore them. No sense in making a big deal of it.”

“Screw that. We’re going to train you.” She glared at me, and I took a step back in surprise. “You need some muscles, some combat skills, and better situational awareness. When they see how ripped I’m going to make you, they’ll back the hell off. If not, we can tag-team beat their asses.”

“That’s really not necessary, Melody. I can handle this myself.” I turned to leave the bathroom, but felt a strong hand grab me by the shoulder and do...something. Next thing I knew I was pressed up against the wall with her arm on my throat. I let out a gasp, “This is...oddly...familiar.”

“Yeah, this is non-negotiable. I’m not letting someone who’s pretending to be my boyfriend get treated like crap. Now, go get dressed and meet me in the gym. Time to get you in shape!”

***

[Now]

“-and on! But it’s not that I hate him or anything, I just hate what he’s become. When I came home from Boston and saw how enamored he was with cape culture, I had thought he was just being a kid...but he sees everything through a lens of fun and optimism that just isn’t healthy.”

I’d been talking since we left the church, Melody half-listening to my long rant about Greg. 

“Plus, now he’s getting bullied at school, and I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad don’t know. I lied to them to protect him, and thank God they bought it, but it was a near thing. I just don’t know what to do about him, Mel.” I sighed, following her up the stairs to her apartment. 

“No offense, but it sounds like you’re at fault as well. I know Greg can be kind of…”

“Childish, immature, idiotic, and prone to verbal diarrhea?” 

“I’m sorry, you think he talks too much? Is that the pot calling the kettle black?” I felt my face heat up at that, and went into her office with her as she continued, “Still, I find it hard to blame you for having trouble putting up with his antics. He reminds me of a young version of Derek.”

“What? Not a young version of me?” I kicked the door shut with one foot, and crossed the room towards her. I made sure my voice sounded playful, and louder than normal. Melody smiled, and leaned back across the office’s desk to press a button next to its only window, lowering its shade. “Why would you compare him to Derek? What does Derek have that I don’t?”

“Money, good looks, more notches in his bedpost than common sense?” She laughed, placing a  hand on my hip. She leaned into my kiss, then withdrew. “All his women seem satisfied, as well. I don’t suppose you have something to say about that?”

“Well, I am rather skilled with my mouth.” I grinned, then leaned closer and...pressed a small button hidden on the side of the desk. My ears popped, and an electronic hum could be heard.

As much fun as that would have been, even on the uncomfortable desk, we had real work to do.

Our mission was almost complete, after all.

***

Melody rolled her eyes at me, both of us staying silent as we heard the speakers set in the walls began to play the very lifelike recording we’d made a few weeks back of a particularly fun evening. The E88 bugs planted throughout the apartment would be none the wiser, and now we were finally free to speak normally.

“You’re ‘skilled with your mouth,’ George? Really?” Melody said, slapping at me lightly.

“I saw it in a movie once.” I refused to change the subject. “So, you think Greg is like Derek?”

“Well, without the powers and body count, obviously.” She rolled her eyes, then saw me frown.

“He’s no murderer true, but...check this out.” I slotted a memory card into one of the laptops we had, and showed her the video Greg had made of his...power testing. “I’m starting to think that he either triggered while we were out of town, or if nothing else is trying to make himself trigger.”

“That’s not good. Greg getting powers is the last thing we need right now. Although, if he did trigger...” She paused, then handed me a note from her desk. “This sound familiar?”

“Let me see.” I read over the note carefully, and felt the blood drain from my face. An E88 Enforcer had reported chasing some kid who then...vanished. ”Who was the Enforcer?”

“One of the older kids down the block, that idiot with the knife who’s always bragging about running marathons-” I slapped my forehead, and she looked at me oddly.

“Knife Guy.” I groaned, then relayed Greg’s scattered story to her. 

“I’ll question him. If he really did mess with your brother, I’ll make sure the PRT just happens to catch him in the act on his next activity.” She growled, oddly protective of Greg. “Maybe some time in Juvie or with one of their new community outreach programs will teach him a lesson.”

“Either way, we should probably report in before Nutcracker thinks you killed me.” I pressed a few buttons on the encrypted laptop, entering a long code and letting it scan my face, before leaning back so we could both see it. “You know, for the tenth time this month.”

As if to prove me correct, the screen changed to display a map of Brockton Bay with almost a dozen other faces spread around it. One of them, our pale leader himself, appeared to be in the middle of saying something about us, “-can’t trust that he will just...oh, there he is.”

“Sorry Nut, just sorting out some family issues. What did we miss?”

Over the next several minutes, our teams gave updates on their progress. Some were hacking emails and phones, others gathering information, and still more tracking E88 parahumans to make our eventual takedown of their leadership easier. 

Eventually, it was our turn, and this time Melody and I had a large amount to report.

“It took a while, and I had to play diplomat for both Night and Fog, but I think Kayden’s finally  interested in making a deal with the PRT.” Melody sighed, having sent over the recordings of her talks with the glowing parahuman earlier. “She’s fine with moving, but only as long as she can take her daughter along. No interest in her step-son, though. Max can’t take him either.”

I feel bad for that kid, Theo. Even if his father is a monster...maybe he can still recover.

“Ah yes, I saw the report from Director Armstrong that Max Anders’ fingerprints were on the coffee mug, and that James Fliescher nearly died from what appeared to be cyanide.” Everyone let out a little cheer at that, and one person in particular rubbed her chin. It had been her idea, and now we had driven a huge wedge between the E88 and their biggest backer. “Of course, some might be sad we only used a small amount. Lana, care to remind us all why? ”

“I’d be happy to, Nutcracker, sir.” Lana was a clever woman who knew more about Gesellschaft than anyone in our team, and had made this particular plan. “By merely framing Kaiser for Krieg’s ‘attempted murder’ we can now follow the man’s retreat...all the way back to Gesellschaft. I already have several Strangers and Tinkers tracking the man as he travels, including a particularly expensive contract with Othello of the Ambassadors.”

“In the meantime, Kaiser will be cut off from his greatest source of support, and his civilian identity was last spotted fleeing to an airport. He can’t afford to spend time in court or risk jail.” Nutcracker held two fingers very close together. “With all the other accomplishments we’ve had, our work this week has put us within spitting distance of the end. But remain vigilant!”

It was hard to remain calm, though. Just a few more weeks, and this would all finally be over.

We still had to deal with a half dozen capes, hundreds of thugs, Max’s lawyers, an international nazi organization with limitless resources, and a huge corporation with the latest in medical tech. Mercenaries like Faultline or the mysterious Coil were also wildcards in all this.

There were a hundred little pieces to this plan, a dozen other operatives we were working with, and it all had to work out perfectly. Until it did we’d both be in danger of dying at any time.

Oh, and now we had to worry about my kid brother, Greg, who may or may not have had powers. I needed to repair our relationship, something I had no idea how to even start.

This was far too difficult for just one person to handle. Even with Watchdog at my back, an entire team around me, the PRT’s resources, and Melody, this still seemed impossible.

But together, I knew we could make the impossible...just impossibly challenging. 

The Empire 88 didn’t stand a chance.

*********************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Angry at a gun-wielding ABB thug accusing him of racism, Greg fires back with a verbal barrage that leaves the man reeling. But beware, Greg, because even if you defeat this man, there’s a greater foe who lies beyond him...his boss!

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

I don’t get the gangs. They just make no sense to me, from a long-term standpoint.

On the one hand, they’re like a community group that allows similar people to come together for a common goal. That’s good! They’re led by passionate people, and those at the top serve as an example for those below that anyone can climb up with enough effort and motivation.

But on the other hand, they accomplish all of it with hate. They gather because they hate everyone else, they hurt everyone who isn’t in their group, and eventually they find themselves hated by everyone outside the group. 

That’s what I don’t get. Every gang in the world has to know that someday their enemies will be great enough that their time will end. They must look back at all the other failed gangs in the world and realize that their future is right there in the history books. Yet, despite that, they keep hating, gathering, and hurting people. 

It just...doesn’t make sense to me. Why would anyone stay with a group like that...or lead it?

GregV.

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

I let Gun Guy keep ranting, seeing he was running out of steam. He’d barely been going for a minute, and the Veder in my blood was disgusted at his lack of dedication to the craft. In the meantime, I let my own steam build up, ready to let loose on him the moment I reached critical mass. A time that was swiftly approaching, in fact.

This piece of shit, a member of the ABB, thinks he can lecture me on racism? The nerve...

“This is just like you Americans, always treating people like me like shit. Yer all alike!” Gun Guy shook his head and scoffed as my blood began to boil. “You white people wonder why the ABB is always on your cases, and we got the poster child for racial profiling and stupid assumptions right freakin’ here!”

“Enough!” I slammed my hand into the metal door beside me, startling him. I felt a lot angrier than I should have, but there was still a moment of pride as I felt a little flash of warmth in my hand. Good to know the power was still there, keeping me in top shape. 

I smiled and raised my fist, then a finger. It was time for my counterattack.

“Number one, I’m not going to stand here and take lessons on racial sensitivity from a gang whose first two rules are ‘Asians Rule’ and ‘Everyone else drools.’ No!”  I slashed my hand through the air, cutting him off despite his sizable gun giving him more than enough reasons for me to shut the hell up. He grimaced, but stayed quiet. “You said your piece, and I’m not done!”

I was on a roll now, and my Greg Veder rambling powers were coming out full-force as some pent-up frustration burst out of me. I pulled the rest of my crappy ABB cosplay out and put it back on, continuing to speak as he stood there and took it. From outside I could hear a few people talking loudly about something, but my ability to care was at an all-time low.

“Second of all, you guys liked me just fine when I was dressed like this and you couldn’t tell who or what I was, so fuck right off with that racial profiling accusation.” He twisted his lips at that, but then nodded and seemed to concede the point. Riding on the high of winning this argument, I moved on to my last point and stepped closer, pointing at his gun. “Finally, I guess it’s all well and fine for you to accuse me of being someone I’m not, but this whole time you’ve been waving that gun at everything but me, and with the goddamn safety on no less!”

“It was off earlier, I just didn’t feel like shootin’ you ye-”

“Bullshit! I call bullshit on that!” Man, it was fun to be winning an argument for once. I was treating him like some kid in a costume with a fake gun, completely ignoring it as he started to raise it again. I didn’t even feel threatened anymore. I felt like I could take on the whole world!

I pointed at him, taking another step forward. “You’ve been nothing but the model of safety since we got here, with all the hardhats and goggles. You’ve also been deliberately avoiding sweeping me with the barrel this whole conversation, so either put the gun away or just shoot me already!” 

For a brief moment, I thought he was going to shoot me, but I wasn’t going to back down. He gave me a hard look, and then seemed to deflate a little and lean back against the cement wall. “Fuck, yer right, kid. I don’t like hurtin’ people, but a gun this big makes ‘em pay attention.”

“No kidding they notice! Hell, this whole time I’ve been calling you Gun Guy in my head!” He laughed, and I joined him as if we’d been friends the whole time. With the gun out of the picture, I had a few inches on him and my fears of a bullet in the head were gone. I went on, adding, “But really, you don’t need the gun to impress. You’ve got a really good thing going on here, with this hideout you’re building. I think Lung is going to be really happy when it’s done.”

“Pfft, it’s not a hideout!” He was still chuckling, shaking his head at me. Bragging, he explained, “It’s actually a Tinker workshop. Lung’s about to go out and recruit dis badass Bomb Tinker. Wants to get da place all readied up for her first, ya know?”

“No shit? He’s recruiting Bakuda?” I felt a bit of cape-obsession coming on, and almost instantly recalled little scraps of info I’d seen on her. Apparently she’d held Boston hostage for a week, killed a beloved Math professor, and even the Boston Protectorate hadn’t managed to catch her. “So that basement you guys were carving out was what, a blast range for experiments?”

“Not just dat, kid! We also got a whole big shipment of explosives, special materials, and other stuff comin’ in any minute now. Place is gonna have more boom than a 4th of July Spectacular!” He laughed, then seemed to sober up as he realized that telling all this information to someone who had (thanks to him) infiltrated his gang was probably...not the best move. 

I watched his face go slack, and then he reached for his gun.

“I...look, Gun Guy, you really don’t have to worry. I mean, we bonded just now! We crossed cultural divides and I want you to succeed!” The smile vanished from his face, and I started to hold up my hands as he sighed at me. “Why don’t we just part ways as friends, and I’ll-”

Gun Guy obviously didn’t want to be friends, because he pulled his gun back out and clicked off the safety in a practiced motion. Though he wasn’t pointing it directly at me, it was just over my shoulder as if he was trying to decide whether to shoot me in the head or the chest. I crouched down a few inches, and even though we were a few feet apart it still felt like he was too close.

“Nah, I’m sorry kid, but if it makes ya feel better I’m not gonna be killin’ you because-” 

You’re not going to be killing me at all, because I’m going to strike first, asshole!

With the feeling of fire in my blood, adrenaline in my brain, and a healing power in my core, I rushed the last few feet between us, his gun going over my left shoulder so close that I felt his arm rub against my sweatshirt and the side of my head. His whole arm had locked up, and it felt like an iron rod was on my shoulder as I reached up for his face with both hands.

I felt small cuts under my fingers, the kind that came from shaving with an old razor, as I grabbed his head with both hands. He let out a surprised little grunt, one of my hands over his mouth, but by the time he started to react it was already too late.

I heaved with all my might and slammed his head into the cement wall behind him. I was maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, and almost none of that was muscle, so I worried for a moment that it hadn’t been enough. But I guess close counted in horseshoes, hand-grenades, and head-slams, because the amount of force was enough for his eyes to roll back into his head.

He fell to the ground, but I didn’t hear it. I was too busy reeling in pain.

The gun had gone off in my ear.

***

It’s hard to describe the pain that comes from having a deafening explosion go off right next to your ear. This was worse than hands clapping right next to my ear. Worse than the time someone popped a paper bag next to my ear in Junior High. Even worse than when Madison Clements tried to whisper a secret to me and just screamed in my ear for a few seconds. 

It was like a pressure wave smashed into the side of my head, got sucked into my ear, bounced off my brain, and then spat itself back out with so much force that I nearly fell over. Both ears popped, and a ringing sound was echoing through my head. I had a hand on the wall, but if not for that I’d have had no idea which way was up...and could feel something warm in my ear.

Ow! I never thought it would be this bad? How are people in action movies not all deaf?

I soon realized that the warmness in my ear wasn’t just blood leaking out, but also that my Healing power was doing its thing. In less time than it took to whisper the alphabet (a fast and easy way to test my own hearing), I had my ear back to normal and could even stand up without a wall to assist me. Gun Guy was still out cold and I knew that more ABB would be along soon, so I unlocked the door and stumbled out into the hall.

To my right, about fifty feet away, was what looked like a big metal garage door. Just beside the big door was a smaller door, but it had an Emergency Exit sign on it and blinking red light. The fact that Gun Guy had shared the whole Bomb Tinker thing made me worry this was some kind of explosive, and the loud noises of machinery coming from that direction didn’t make me excited to test that theory.

To my left, on the other hand, were countless ABB members, Lung, Huge Guy, and who knew what else. Given that I was fully healed, my ABB cosplay was intact, and I could still feel the crackling campfire-like healing power in my core...I decided to go to the left. 

I was riding the high of my win (so to speak) against Gun Guy, and strutted out into the warehouse to find that all the workers had apparently left except for one. Unfortunately for me, it was the worst one of all.

Lung. 

I was pretty sure he hadn’t spotted me, so I very stealthily turned around and went the other way. I figured that I could maybe break a window, or use that metal door to get to the loading dock without risking any bomb-related shenanigans. Worst case, I could just try the door with the blinky light, and hope that it was just a fire alarm or something.

As I passed the bathroom door, I heard Gun Guy groaning and shuffling around. I then made the mistake of looking behind me, and was even more disturbed to see that Lung was following me. It was a slow, meandering walk. As if I wasn’t an infiltrator and he wasn’t going to kill me.

He even waved.

Geez, no wonder he’s the boss. I guess he can afford to be lazy, with his pile of powers.

With Lung behind me, the sound of the bathroom door opening close by, and dozens of ABB lurking nearby, it was high time I made my exit. Despite there possibly being a bomb on that door, it was now a far more appetizing opponent than Lung. Maybe if I ran fast enough, I could get through before it exploded and-

Two gunshots and a loud shout rang out. A bullet hit the door just as my hand brushed against it, and I paused. I also leaned heavily on the doorframe because the other bullet had slashed along my ribs. Flesh wounds, despite all the jokes about them in British comedy routines, are pretty painful. It felt like someone had run a cheese grater along my ribs.

I felt the warmth of both blood and my healing power as I turned to see Lung and Gun Guy in an argument. Luckily for me, they were arguing in English. Unfortunately for me, I was the subject of their discussion, and it was not going in my favor.

“I told you to deal with this, and yet I find you injured and him escaping. I am disappointed in you.” Lung’s voice was a rich, rumbling baritone, and he spoke with a slow careful cadence that made me think of a translator or someone who was used to public speaking. “Give me your weapon. You seem to think so highly of it, waving it around as though it makes you powerful.”

Gun Guy held the weapon out, and Lung snatched it from his hands faster than a striking cobra. He began to squeeze, and we both watched in silence as a reddish glow erupted around the weapon. The gun began to warp, twisting with a screeching noise before he dropped it to the ground. “You posture with a large gun, but the man who holds it is small and weak!”

As much as I would have liked to see Gun Guy squirm or to push my way out the door, I found myself focusing on the ‘campfires’ I could still see in Lung. 

I was able to ‘see’ them faster this time, and as he continued to rant at Gun Guy I was interested to see that the one that had made me sweat appeared to be burning hotter and larger as Lung used his power. Also, when he’d been squeezing the gun, the one that made me feel strong grew a little bit as well.

Two fires remained mostly dormant. One was the fire that had soothed me, the one I could feel crackling warmly inside of my own body, and it sparked up for just a moment as Lung shook out his hand and a small cut  vanished. The other was the scary one...that forest fire one. I could feel it glaring at both Gun Guy and yours truly, as if daring us to take Lung on...

Hmm, so besides just copying powers, I’m also able to see representations of them...in use?

“Now, stand there quietly while I deal with this intruder.” Lung growled, and turned to face me.

Shit. Okay, think about powers and campfires later, survive the rage dragon now.

***

My first thought was to just slam my way backwards through the door, alarm or no alarm. Sure, it would summon all the ABB in a matter of moments, but it was also better than being stuck in an otherwise dead-end hallway with my only other escape being through Lung.

But for some reason, as Lung glanced in my direction for a moment, I actually found myself stepping away from the wall. I felt like saying something, challenging him and getting the first strike in, and it took every fiber of my being to keep my dang mouth shut for a change. There had to be a way out of this, I just needed a minute to think!

Despite being told to simply play observer, Gun Guy pulled out another gun and stepped back. This one was slightly smaller than the last, a Beretta 951 9mm pistol (I play shooter games sometimes, sue me). It didn’t escape my notice the way he kept it to the side and out of Lung’s field of vision...nor the way he immediately clicked the safety off. 

Well, so much for just running out the door. Although, with my healing...still an option, maybe.

“So, boy...I am told that you sought to infiltrate my gang. To gather information on us, walking among us like a housecat among tigers.” Lung was about fifty or so feet away, but I actually felt like he was looming over me.  A ball of fire appeared in his hand, growing faster than before, and stopping at about the size of a basketball. He pointed it at me. “The ABB has a code, as well as membership that is literally in our name. What would possess you to act so foolish?”

“Well, actually...um….the thing is.” I paused, holding up a finger to indicate that I actually had some kind of point. Nothing was immediately coming to me, other than a really stupid idea. But, as Dad used to say, any idea is better than no idea. “I wanted to join. I’m actually Asian.” 

“What? Dat’s impossible! I saw you, yer as pale as a ghost and blonder than one’a Kaiser’s bimbos!” Gun Guy was scoffing, looking back and forth between Lung and I. He started to laugh, as though it was some kind of hilarious pre-death joke I was telling.

Thing is, Lung wasn’t laughing. Instead, he motioned with the non-fire hand. “Go on.”

Time to lie like I’ve never lied before. Luckily for me, I’ve lied a lot before. I hate that phrase.

“Well, my family actually hails from the southeastern part of Russia, and one of our family branches is from Kazakhstan. Though our blood is a bit mixed thanks to various Americans we’ve fallen in love with over the generations, we still have strong ties to the continent of Asia.”

“That is...interesting.” Lung actually seemed to be considering this, or he was just humoring me. Either way, it let me reach into my pocket for my phone. “You know much of your family line.”

“Well, my parents were always very big on heritage, and I respect them a lot.” I figured that was something that might work well on Lung, given the way he’d been talking earlier. I mean, yeah I know the whole ‘Japanese guy loves honor’ thing is kind of a stereotype, but this was an Asian guy who literally turned into a dragon. “Both of them always wanted me to understand where I came from, and that the world is much bigger than just what I’ve grown up to know.”

“Your parents are very wise.” Lung complimented my parents, or at least the fake parents that I was completely making up as we went on. I just nodded silently, respectfully, and falsely.

It was a really good thing Lung couldn’t see my face right now, because I had absolutely no poker face to speak of. I had yet to win against George at Uno, back when we actually used to play together.

“So you are suggesting that by using the name Asian Bad Boys, I am opening myself up to people who will try to join because their definition of ‘Asia’ is of a larger area than my own?” Lung placed a hand on his chin, deep in thought, and the fireball in his other hand began to shrink. It was down to the size of a baseball, and Gun Guy looked like he was going to have a heart attack.

Is this actually going to work out? Have I beaten Lung with words? Is he just messing with me?

It was too bad that I wouldn’t be able to brag about this to anyone. I mean, the only proof of this entire day was going to be my own memories, and probably the journal entry that I’d write when I got home. I was certain that nobody would believe me anyway. I mean, how likely is it that a new hero in a homemade costume would just happen to run into Lung on their first time out?

Lung sighed.

As anyone who has ever played D&D can tell you, a sigh is never a good thing when trying to convince a dragon not to eat you. I’ve played more than a few games (mostly online), and can tell you that a dragon sighing is almost as bad as a Dungeon Master smiling...or asking if you’re “really sure that you want to drink that potion?”

So when Lung sighed, I just backed up a step, put my hand on the door, and got ready to run for my life. I had one last play to make, and simply had to hope that a villain who made his name from having shitty anger management skills would be willing to lose his temper for me.

“Besides, I don’t see why you’re mad. You should be proud of this Tinker Workshop you’re building for Bakuda.” I said, speaking quickly before he could reveal my likely flaming fate. The fireball started to grow again, but Lung’s baleful glare snapped to his side as I added, “Gun Guy told me all about it. He wouldn’t stop talking about it. I think he even called someone about it.” 

As Lung started to roar at Gun Guy, I burst out the door and set off a hell of an alarm. 

***

On the other side of the door were several trucks, a couple ABB guys, and a huge pile of boxes on the loading dock. Many of the boxes were covered in bubble wrap, various symbols, and more warnings than I’ve ever seen. A few were even in English, but I had no time to read them. 

I needed to take cover.

I mean, I wanted to duck into an alley and run for my life, but even from here I could see a few ABB members standing in the only visibly alley and watching me. I wasn’t sure if they were waiting for me to try and run before attacking me or considering rushing in to help Lung, but either way I couldn’t go that way right now. The blaring alarm would keep them away, at least.

The reason I was taking cover was because I had seen Lung idly toss his fireball at me. As long as I kept running, I at least had a few seconds before it hit me, but that also meant I’d have to dive into cover. So as I passed by another pile of boxes, I tried to do that cool diving roll thing.

A bullet sliced past my arm, giving me another flesh wound and throwing my already wild roll off a lot more than I wanted. It also spun me around enough to see Lung was busy messing with the door, holding Gun Guy’s shirt and probably asking him how to turn the alarm off.

Still, I was already in motion, and now instead of rolling behind the boxes I rolled into them. 

My face hit the box, and I had the strange (and painful) feeling of my nose breaking. Pain overtook my thoughts for a moment, moreso as both knees smashed into the ground.

On the plus side, I dodged the fireball and Lung’s too distracted by the alarm to throw another.

The heat of my healing power split between my knees and my face, having finished healing my newest flesh wound already. It was getting faster at that, I idly noted. Then I lost track of time for a few seconds as my nose un broke, and my kneecaps un shattered. I’d watched videos of people breaking things and then reversing the tap...but in this case I actually felt it.

For reasons I didn’t fully understand, I got back to my feet. It took a moment, but I realized that I was surveying the battlefield . This felt like an opportunity, and I was smiling wide.

Lung was tearing the wall apart and had grown a few inches, but it was still slow going as he’d apparently not gotten enough of a challenge to Ramp Up. Even with his Brute Strength and toughness, they’d picked this place to be a Bomb-Tinker’s new base, so it was tough as heck. 

Going another route, Gun Guy was looking through some kind of instruction manual, trying to find a code to punch into the little number pad next to the door. He was distracted, of course, by the ABB delivery guys who kept trying to run off or move the boxes. Some would move boxes closer to Lung, as if delivering them so they could leave, and others just yelled into phones.

In other words, they were distracted. 

The reasonable thing to do would have been to leave. I had healing powers, I had escaped the ABB, and they probably wouldn’t even notice if I ran off. Hell, between a bullet and a fireball, hey might have even thought I was dead! Now was a great time to cut my losses (wins) and go.

But I had felt something surging through me. I’d felt it before with Gun Guy, and Lung, and was now feeling it even stronger as I stood and watched them fail to stop the alarm. My blood was pumping, my adrenaline was surging, and my heart was racing. 

Something inside me said that running was for cowards. That I was a warlord. That this was my property, and I had to take it back. That I had powers now, and there was no better time to train with them. I even began to chuckle, realizing that I could do it without Lung even noticing.

I still crouched behind one of the boxes a little, just in case. But only to rest my legs.

***

For whatever reason, I was feeling brave, confrontational, and like an all-around badass who didn’t have an ounce of reason to run away from a very one-sided confrontation. 

I think I’m getting these feelings because the power came from Lung. Like his...personality?

In fact, that was probably going to be a double-edged sword when it came to these powers if I was right about that. Taking a power from a coward would make me more cowardly, from an asshole would make me a jerk, and so on. Right now, the only downside of Lung’s powers was that I was getting reckless because of his...let’s call it Confrontational Bravery.

Still, part and parcel of this recklessness was what appeared to be bottomless confidence. That was further bolstered by my fully healed body, that seemed to be actually healing faster than before. Finally, most important of all for a fight with a parahuman who has multiple powers, I was a Power Copying Trump and had FOUR powers standing a hundred feet away.

In fact, that entirely explained why my power testing had been such a complete failure. I didn’t have any parahumans around to copy off of, so naturally I was just a baseline human when surrounded by other civilians. Now that I had finally met one, it was all obvious. I felt like I’d been taking a test and failing, and then found out that it was actually an open book test!

Still, I wasn’t going to stay here forever, because they’d fix that alarm eventually. I’d give myself three minutes and take some time to test a few things out, then snag the Heal power again and run off. I had so many questions! Could I copy more than one? Could I double them up? Why did the one I had on Friday vanish overnight? Was there a time limit? Was it distance-related? 

My point is, this meant that I needed to practice with my powers, and what better time to do that than when I had a walking power buffet sitting right here in front of me? Lung didn’t seem to have noticed that I had taken his power before, and he’d still healed without problems while I had my copy, so there was no danger in trying the other ones out. Plus, if I got hurt, I could just snag his healing again and run like hell...burns and bullets would heal easily. It was perfect!

Still...I felt like maybe Lung’s Confrontational Bravery was just making me think that this was a good idea. Maybe it was actually a bad one, but I wasn’t capable of recognizing that. Sure, my power lets me take risks, and I did want to know more...but I needed to set limits.

Compromise: Three tests and I leave. That’s it. Although...copying all 4 powers is just one test.

Okay, so first question...can I copy the same power twice? It was similar to the question that anyone who ever found a magic lamp asked, wanting to have more of a good thing. In my case, even though my core felt like it was already full, it couldn’t hurt to try and cram another in there.

So I focused on Lung’s Healing Campfire again, recalling the feeling I’d gotten, and...nope. It just kind of hit the one in my core and fizzled out. The one I had stuck around, but it seemed like it didn’t overwrite the old one so much as just not really do anything. Strike one.

Second question: What happens if I copy a different power into my core when there’s already one there? Do I get both? Do they combine? Or does the new one just overwrite the old?

Focusing on one of his other powers, I felt it being drawn into my core. The healing power guttered and died, like a fire someone had poured water and dirt on. There was a brief moment where my body went kind of numb and I could swear I felt my heart stop, but then I went back to normal after a moment. It kind of felt like I was colder than before, but otherwise no different. 

That had been strange. Unfortunately, before I had time to consider the ramifications...

I heard a scream from my left, and turned just in time to see a bat coming at my face.

He’s attacking me from behind? Well, that’s rude. I just healed this face!

*************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg continues to train in harsh conditions, learns a lot about himself, and maybe even picks up a valuable lesson from his mistakes. When things start going really bad, he tries to escape. Unfortunately, the place he escapes to may actually be worse!

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

I have nothing but the highest respect for real-world heroes that are doctors (like my Dad and brother). I can’t imagine the difficulty experienced by the countless doctors, nurses, field medics, lab technicians, implant specialists, and more who make up the medical field. The stress, the level of skill, and the dedication they show by spending their lives helping others. Despite that, I was still afraid of doctors...something that didn’t really go away until after I triggered.

When I was younger I used to get beaten up, and after each I’d have to choose between:

 

  • Go to school nurse, tattle on the bullies, and then feel good until they did it again, or
  • Hide it, but eventually get found out and then get in trouble by saying it was my fault.

 

So no matter what, I got hurt. It wasn’t long before I started to fear doctors, some authority figures, and even asking for help from other people. I tried to do it all myself, even if I kept failing and having to get others to clean up my messes.

Nobody ever said that anxiety made sense. 

GregV. 

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

This is fine.

As an ABB thug swung a baseball bat at my newly-healed face, I felt oddly unconcerned. I mean, there was a Healing power right over there in Lung, and the feeling of Confrontational Bravery that I was getting from Lung powers made obstacles like this seem trivial. Still, it did make me wonder if it was the addition of powers making me act this way, or just Lung’s power.

Regardless, the bat smashed into my forehead as I turned at the last second, glaring at him.

Bah, disappointing. That feels like a nerf bat. I was expecting that I wouldn’t even feel it.

I ignored what felt like a small bruise, and continued to stare silently at the ABB thug who had struck me. I was about to ask him what the hell his problem was, or make some other cool line that wasn’t coming to mind, when I heard a wooden clattering noise.

Both of us looked down, watched as the other end of his bat rolled to a stop, and then looked back up at each other. Even knowing he probably couldn’t hear me over the alarm, I remarked, “Brute powers are pretty awesome, huh? Is it my turn to hit you now?” 

I guess he was thinking the same thing I was, because he dropped the bat’s handle and ran like hell. Looking around, I could see that there weren’t any other fighters, so I got back to testing.

That’s two strikes. Okay, I need to try and be more scientific about this.

First of all, I took better cover, since standing out in the open was dumb. Second, I took one last look around for bat-wielding lunatics...nope, all good. Third, instead of just grabbing powers, I decided to focus on how it actually felt. I needed to do this right , since I’d be doing it a lot.

Fine, let’s take it from the top. Start by looking at a parahuman, to see their powers.

Easy. I looked at the Lung, peering at him over my chest-high box shield, and saw that he was still working on that alarm problem. Gun Guy was pushing buttons on the number pad by the door (and yelling when it didn’t work). Neither cared that I had taken a bat to the face. 

I focused on Lung, and after a few moments...there! He had a sort of haze around him, and even faster than last time I could see four things sort of...floating around inside him. They weren’t literally inside of him, but it was like he was an outline and they were just different shades of red that some kid had colored inside his lines. They kind of felt like campfires to me.

Okay, now concentrate on the ‘campfires.’ Don’t they seem different? Is each a power?  

Each of them had a sort of feeling to them, and now that I was able to look at them in detail I could even see that they each changed as Lung drew upon their power. I’d seen the same thing earlier, when he had crushed and burned Gun Guy’s gun, but hadn’t had time to appreciate it.

As Lung growled and punched at the warehouse wall, the campfire that felt strong (his Brute power?) was blazing. I’d heard that even without Ramping up Lung was still tough enough to have taken a crowbar to the back of the head without a problem. Heck, I’d seen a video where he broke a man’s arm just by squeezing it. 

He used his other hand to blast the wall with some fire, and I saw how it made the campfire I had linked to his Pyrokinesis roil up a bit. What was interesting was that his Brute campfire also grew a bit. Maybe he was countering the force of the fire to keep his aim steady? The punch must have bruised his knuckles, because the Healing fire sparked a little, which made sense. 

Finally, the last of his powers just kind of stared at me and crackled a little. No, really, his Ramping Up power had been entirely dormant this whole time, but whether it was Lung’s own frustration (or my presence?) the things had started to spark a bit. In fact, if I looked carefully I could almost see the man himself growing a few inches before my very eyes. 

He still wasn’t paying any attention to me, but I ducked a bit lower behind my box of wine just in case. At least, I assumed it was wine. It had a picture of a wine bottle on it, and so did a few of these other boxes. I wondered if this was part of some plan to have Bakuda make exploding wine bottles, or maybe wine that made people explode when they drank it.

Nah...no way a villain would be terrible enough to put bombs in people and make them explode.

Drinks aside, I now had the See Powers part pretty much under control, time for Step 2! 

***

This time, rather than just staring at a power until it was a part of me, I actually tried to visualize the process. It kind of felt like I was reaching out with two long, invisible hands, stretching them out from me to Lung and grabbing one of his powers. It made my experience with Velocity make a lot more sense, since that night I had felt like I was reaching for him before I copied his power.

The mental hands were invisible, and as they closed over his Pyrokinesis power it felt like I pulled it out...but the original stayed behind. Now that I examined it, even as the hands drew it back to me, I could see that it was a little more faded than his, which explained why my version seemed a bit weaker than the original. Nodding, I placed it in my core and crouched down.

Just like what had happened when I switched from Healing to Brute, I felt an odd change wash over my body. Instead of a sudden coldness, this time it was like all my skin crawled for a second, but it didn’t last long. Still, the Pyrokinesis was happily sitting in my core, and I felt like doing the thing every kid wants to do when thinking of fire powers...make a fireball!

Okay, hold out my hand, imagine fire being there, push on the power and direct it...Whoa! Shit!

I must have skipped a step, because not only did a lance of fire blast into the air, but it hurt like hell! I quickly cut the power off, and started blowing on my hand as tears came to my eyes. I was afraid to take my glove off, but I could already see some reddened skin and what looked like a blister forming in the hole I’d made. The pain faded, but it still looked horrible.

Telling myself that a Healing power was right over there, I tried to go through the steps again. This time I pressed down on the power to keep it very weak, as well as trying to form a ball over my hand. A baseball-sized sphere of fire formed, and I even noticed that this time it barely even stung. It felt more like my hand was held over a candle than a stove, which was odd.

Is it just me, or is even that pain fading? Did I damage my nerves, or am I adapting to the-

Bullets hit the box I was hiding behind, and I slid out from behind it to see that a few of the ABB were going after me again. This time they were keeping their distance, as well as hiding behind the truck near Lung. Before I even had time to think about it, I let my fireball quadruple in size and lobbed it at them. Like the world’s most deadly beach ball, it hit their truck and exploded.

On the plus side, that scared them into running away, past their leader into the warehouse.

On the minus side, that same leader was now eight feet tall and finally noticed me. 

On the very minus side, Lung took a moment from his alarm-debugging to lob several fireballs at me, setting several of the boxes around me on fire but missing me entirely. His arm was jammed into the wall up to the shoulder, probably looking for alarm wiring, so he was stuck.

On the extremely minus side, I recklessly growled back, and decided to fight fire with fire…

He wants to grow and throw fire? Let’s see if he can take on a dragon his own size!

...by copying his Ramping Up power and slamming it into my core.

My body went cold, and things got crazy.

***

As a warlord gang boss kind of guy, it’s not in Lung’s best interests to actually tell people how his powers work, like some kind of anime villain. Luckily, as a Brockton Bay citizen and cape geek, I have a pretty good idea of how his Ramping Up power works.

As the most popular name for it suggests, it Ramps Up...or travels upwards at an incline. Essentially, as things become more challenging for Lung or more dangerous around him, all his powers increase upwards...as well as his size. Normally, this happens at a slow rate, and is also one of the reasons he doesn’t wear a shirt (busting out of clothes) and fights outdoors (doors).

The moment I copied that power, and it settled into my core, three things happened:

First, Lung’s powers realized that I was a bigger threat than he’d thought, and he exploded up to at least ten feet tall and a good deal wider. With his arm stuck in what was apparently a load-bearing wall with a lot of electrical wiring in it, he smashed a lot of brick and metal while also getting electrocuted. The warehouse started to collapse partially over top of him, and he was blasting fire everywhere while roaring up a storm.

Second, I felt myself starting to grow. Since I no longer had the Brute power or Fire power, I was just getting taller and thicker, which in my mind meant I was a bigger target for the guy who actually could shoot fire. The guy who actually was shooting fire at the moment. I started actively suppressing the power, pushing with my mind so that I didn’t burst out of my clothes, and that took all my concentration.

Third, with all my concentration elsewhere, I was taken entirely by surprise when several bullets ripped through me. I went down hard, both hands around my perforated gut. I at least managed to land on my back, and looked up to see another random ABB thug standing over me.

His gun was leveled at my head, though I had trouble seeing it with the tears in my eyes and pain so bad I thought I was going to black out. Even Ramped Up, those bullets had gone deep.

Before he could pull the trigger, though, I was saved by the most unlikely savior: Gun Guy?

He probably wants to shoot me himself. Look at him, arguing over the right to cap me for Lung.

The thug shot me again, in the shoulder this time, and if I wasn’t feeling it before I definitely was now. The Ramping Up had made me a little bigger and thicker, but without the Brute part I was still just a human with human flesh. Luckily, the pain was keeping me awake, but I could feel warm blood starting to pool under me. It felt so warm…

Wait! Warm! I need the Healing power back! Where’s Lung?

I could just barely see Lung from where I was on the ground, and tried to focus through blurring vision on seeing his fires...but everything was getting hazy…I reached for it...

The argument beside me reached a crescendo, and then Gun Guy pointed his weapon at the other gunman and growled something that made him run off. That settled, he turned to face me and I felt the healing start to flow through me, like a sauna, but going so slowly...

“What the hell are ya doin’ kid?” He shouted, waving his empty hand at me, staring at my blood as it pooled around us both. I tried looking at him, but my attention was drawn to the flaming box behind him. It had started to make popping noises. “Hey, look at me, dumbass! Wake up!”

Why’s the box popping? Wait...oh, that’s it! Wonder if I should tell Gun Guy? Nah.

“Fuggedaboutit,” Gun Guy muttered, reloading his gun. “I didn’t want it ta end dis way, but I guess I’m gonna end up shootin’ ya after all. Was hoping to just leg ya’ earlier, but now...”

“Hey.” I gasped out, having finally understood what the symbols on the boxes indicated. 

He thinks he’s gonna kill me, with some cool line, but I’ll get the last laugh. How did it go again?

“Omae wa mō shinde iru.” I spat out some blood, and curled up into a ball as best I could (not easy when your abdominal muscles are swiss cheese). The boxes popped. “Fucker.”

“Omae…wait, ‘you are already dead?’ Da hell?” Gun Guy paused, then stepped back and leveled his gun at me with a scream. “ NOW YOU ACTUALLY SPEAK JAPANE-

They should really replace the symbol for “gas under pressure.” It looks like a wine bottle.

The box exploded.

***

It wasn’t a big explosion, but it was enough to knock Gun Guy off his feet and through the air, to smash into a few boxes full of ball-bearings and nails. The explosion also pushed me several feet, and I scraped along the pavement uncontrollably as heat washed over me.

I crawled to my feet, a hand over my stomach since I could almost feel my guts all trying to fall out of me. There was still the warm healing feeling in me, but it was barely doing anything. I was healing too slowly. I think the bullets had done too much damage. I felt like I was dying.

Gun Guy stayed down, but I could see he was breathing. His arm had taken the brunt of the explosion, and looked...horrible. Still, I had a raging dragon in front of me, burning boxes covered in explosive symbols around me, and what felt like a dozen bullets in my guts and shoulder. So maybe I would focus on myself for a bit and not the guy who had killed me.

Killed? No, no get ahold of yourself Greg. Think this through. Can I speed up the healing?

Two helpings of Healing power hadn’t done anything before, one had just fizzled out. Maybe if I had taken a healing power from someone else, they might have combined, but my options were limited to Lung right now. If there was some way to get two powers at once, then maybe I could mix them and put them into my core? I shifted, using one hand to hold my guts and the other to-

Wait, that’s it! Two hands. I have two mental hands that I use to grab powers!

All this time I’d been reaching out mentally with two hands and grabbing one power . Obviously my powers wouldn’t have given me two hands if I was only meant to have one power, right? 

What better way to speed up my healing powers than with a second power that got stronger as I was in more danger?

Struggling to concentrate through the pain, I imagined those same mental hands as I had before. Then I reached out with both of them, touching his Healing and the Ramping Up pow-

PAIN

It felt like my hands were burning , like my whole body was on fire , and I nearly bit my tongue in half as I clenched my jaw. Something exploded nearby, and I heard more metal shattering as the world spun around me.

I was back on the ground, and I swear I felt my body actually start to un heal for a moment as my body spasmed. It felt like my brain was burning, but the feeling soon faded and I was back to just horrible bullet wounds in my gut being my main concern. Well, that and my tongue, but the Healing power had finally started to spin up and deal with that.

I lay there for a moment as it traveled back to my stomach, letting myself heal as I heard the sound of sirens and more clattering metal. 

Okay, maybe not ready for that one yet. I’ll have to try this again some other time. I need to go.

I carefully stood, keeping a hand on my partially-spilled guts, and saw that Lung had collapsed even more of the warehouse on himself. That was probably from another sudden growth burst...when I’d briefly touched both of his powers and become even more dangerous. As far as I knew, he only started decreasing in size when all his enemies were dead or running away. 

Despite his size, he was now mostly buried, and looked like someone’s pet gecko (if they came in silver and breathed fire) who had been playing in a kid’s Lincoln Log house and collapsed it. He was trapped, and despite my very obvious need to escape I could feel Confrontational Bravery telling me that I could take a little bit more time to experiment.

On the other hand, that’s already more than three strikes. I really need to get going...

The universe must have agreed with me, because at that moment another box exploded and threw me through the air. To my credit, I only rolled once before coming to my feet. I even still had a hand on my gut! Aside from something wet on the side of my head, I was fine.

Oh wait, that’s not just something wet. That’s on fire. Well. Nope, I’m done.

I ran in an alley, screaming and slapping at my head with one hand (as the other continued to hold my stomach). I felt intense heat seemingly burning my brain...but soon the only heat up there was from the Healing power.

Sure, my hoodie now had a big hole in the back and side, but I’d been meaning to get a haircut soon anyway. Besides, that “shaved on one side” thing was totally in now, right?

With both hands now holding my guts in as fire burned in my stomach, I fled the scene.

So was my first supervillain fight a victory? A loss? Eh, we’ll call it a draw.

***

I need to go to a hospital. I don’t want to, but I don’t think I have a choice. This feels bad.

Sure, I knew a lot about first aid, and was quite skilled at handling my own injuries, but this seemed a bit out of my league. I knew CPR, first aid, and could do cool stuff like make a splint or stretcher from household items. When I had come home after my “exploding teleport,” that was the reason I’d been able to calmly and carefully take care of my own wounds with ease. 

My powers were why I dreaded going to Brockton Bay’s Hospital. Not only because I was going to have to admit that I’d been wrong about a lot of things, mind you. Mainly, it was because now I had to try and figure out how a parahuman dressed up like a member of the ABB could get help from the same people that they usually terrorized.

The smart thing to do would have been to just shuck off my clothes and grab a coat from a dumpster, but despite what movies had led me to believe there aren’t just coats all over the place in alleys. Besides, even if I had found a coat, I’m not sure I could have put it on. 

I was afraid to move my hands. I’d been running for several minutes, and even though the pain had faded and I no longer felt like my innards were about to leak out of my stomach, I was kind of afraid to let go. Until you’ve actually held your kidneys and intestines in your own hands, feeling the organs with your fingers as you run from a dragon, you can’t really understand.

I’d been feeling a stinging sensation around my stomach for a while now. There was a faint warmth there as well, every few seconds, that I imagined was the Healing power fixing that damage. The scary part was that if the power faded or something then I’d be dead in no time. I’d need to have them remove the bullets that appeared to have healed inside of me...and escape.

I hope there’s not a long line in front of me from all the people hurt in that fire…

...that I technically helped cause. Oof. 

***

In fact, there was a small line ahead of me, but none of them really seemed to be that bad off. I think the worst injury I saw was a man with a nail driven through his hand, and he seemed to find me far more interesting than I found him. I mean, before he and the entire waiting room cleared out in a quiet but orderly panic. Too bad, because one of them (a redheaded man) had a haze around him like a parahuman...but was gone before I saw his power.

Which leaves me alone with the calmest nurse ever. Is she on something, or just jaded?

I mean, I’d just rushed in covered in blood, burned clothes, holding both hands over my stomach, and demanded to see a doctor...and she’d tried to hand me a clipboard. When I shook my head and started repeating myself, she talked over me and told me to take a seat. 

“Let’s try this again,” I said, as slowly as I could. The nurse stared at me, tapping her fingers on her phone as she barely paid attention to me. “I was shot, blown up, set on fire, and currently have bullets inside of me tearing my innards up. I need a doctor to remove them.”

“I doubt that.”

“What?” I shouted, then took a breath. She didn’t bat an eye. “Sorry. What part do you doubt?”

“All those injuries you were claiming to have. There’s no way could you be standing here whining like this if you had that many injuries.”

“I’m not whining!” I whined, then blushed behind my bandana and shook my head. I gritted my teeth, feeling Confrontational Bravery start to overwhelm my patience. My voice started to get louder, and I was having trouble keeping myself from hitting her desk. “I’m a new parahuman with healing powers, and I think some bullets healed inside of me. I just took on Lung, I just bathed in my own blood, I survived a fireball to the head, and tanked a goddamn explosion!”

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Are you fucking deaf?” I shouted, then slammed both hands into the front desk as I repeated the key points that appeared to be going over her damned head . “Lung! Blood! Fire! Explosion! Why are you not hearing me?!”

ding

I paused, having felt something brush against my belt. I looked down.

There was a bullet on the floor. It was a bit misshapen, had some blood on it, but was just...there. With almost surgical precision, I lifted my shirt.

dingdingdingalingdingdingdingding

A whole lot of bullets fell out of my shirt. 

I looked down at my stomach, smooth and unmarked, and saw a small cut close. It occurred to me that the healing had pushed the bullets out of me. Also, that the tiny bursts of healing I had been feeling had been from my own hands rubbing the sharp bullets into my skin.

“So, sorry about all that, can we start over?” I looked back up at the nurse, thinking that maybe I should apologize, and was unsurprised to see that she had vanished in the seconds I had been looking at my stomach. “Well, I guess I’ll just leave."

“Sir, put your hands behind your head and get on your knees. Do not force me to get physical.” I heard a voice from my right, and turned to see a large man in a security guard uniform about twenty feet away. He had a radio to his mouth and his other hand was on a very bulky-looking taser on his belt. Before I could try to explain, he hit the radio’s button and started speaking. “Update on Brockton Bay Hospital situation, I have ordered the ABB member to surrender.”

“I’m not in the ABB!” I said hotly, almost reaching up for my mask before realizing that unmasking (so to speak) would be a very bad idea. His hand closed around his taser, but he didn’t draw it on me. Still, despite my words, he kept right on talking.

“Claims not to be ABB, but this was after screaming about blood, fire, Lung, and explosions.” I heard what sounded like the screech of tires on asphalt, and realized that going back out the front door was probably out of the question now. “Moving on to gang negotiation tactics.”

“Look, you really don’t need to do that.”

“Attention ABB member!” The guard bellowed, despite only being twenty feet away. “You have ten seconds to get on your knees, hands up, and then lace your fingers behind your head!”

“If you would just listen for a minute-”

“Ten seconds!” The man bellowed. “Nine, eight, seven…”

“PRT Special Investigations Unit!” Both the security guard and I turned to face the front doors, his countdown stopping as two men in blue PRT jackets waltzed in. They couldn’t have been more dissimilar, but one carried a hand-held containment foam sprayer and the other had a radio he was talking into. “Everyone just calm down, and let us handle this.”

“I already have this handled, you’re not needed here.” The security guard ground out, and then turned back to face me again. “I’ve got this under control. Please clear the area.”

“Guys!” I shouted, trying to defuse the situation. The count stopped again, and I heard one of the PRT guys mutter something. “This is all unnecessary! Please just listen to me!”

The shorter of the two PRT agents held a hand up to his ear, as though trying to hear me, then groaned and turned to leave. As he stopped in the doorway, he called back to us, “Hold that thought, ABB Kid. Security Mook, keep an eye on him.” 

There was a crackling noise, a very familiar one, and I could now see a familiar red uniform as well. Standing just out of my field of vision was Velocity, of the Protectorate! Sure, Velocity hadn’t been much help a few days ago, but now I wasn’t out of breath and could explain things!

“We’ve got this under control, man, bug off.” Unlike me, though, the shorter PRT guy didn’t seem very happy to see the hero. “You being here is only gonna make things worse. Go!”

As much as I hate to keep running away, maybe it’s time to consider running away?

***

I hate to be called a coward, and I hate even more to keep taking the coward’s way out. But in this case? With authority figures gathering and diplomacy not working? I think I could be excused for panicking a little.

Luckily, escape just needed a tiny opportunity. I took a moment to consider my problems.

First: Bellows. That’s what I’d been calling the Security Guard, since it seemed to be his preferred method of communication. Other details about him included his huge arms, small legs, red face, focus on my person, and incredibly over-prepared security kit.

Seriously, he was carrying fifty pounds of supplies. Knife vest, confoam sprayer, flashlight, zip-ties, radio, taser, backup taser, medical kit, satellite phone, and...was that a pair of bolt-cutters and a gas mask? The guy was certainly better prepared than the two PRT guys.

Second: Speaking of, the two PRT Agents standing to my right appeared to have little more than radios, tasers, and a little cylinder that looked like a handheld confoam sprayer. Both were PRT Special Investigators, they’d said, and I supposed that meant they were like Detectives for the PRT or something.

Of course, I know what they really are, thanks to my love of movies...they’re a buddy cop duo!

One was short, sloppily-dressed, and even had stains from what looked like mustard on his wrinkled suit. Despite that, he was in excellent shape and wasn’t even out of breath after holding a screaming match with someone for the past several minutes. His blond hair looked like he’d combed it with his hands, spiking up messily, and the huge grin on his face as he continued to argue only grew as he glanced at his partner.

His partner, by contrast, was tall, thin as a rail, and looked...cultured? He was impeccably dressed in a pressed suit and bow tie, had brown hair and an almost orange beard that were both perfectly combed. He carried himself with excellent posture as he took notes on the encounter. While his partner was loud and loved to shout over others, this one spoke carefully, quickly, and thoughtfully. Together, they were even keeping a superhero off balance.

Third: Velocity. Red-suited hero with speed, kindness, and patience that was running out.

“Guys, can we just work together on this?” The man in question sounded tired, even though a feature of his powers was supposed to be that he never got tired. Having argued until other people walked away, this was a tone I was used to hearing. “Look, I know that Kalpin loves to argue and exaggerate, but I’m really not here to try and ‘steal’ this out from under you guys.”

“That so?” Kalpin shouted, laughing incredulously. “Hobson and I spent weeks digging up info on the Undersiders and their plan to rob a jewelry store, stopping them before they got more than a few thousand dollars. Reporter comes up to us, thrusts a mic in our faces, and asks, ‘How did Velocity know this was going to happen? He was spotted a block away teaching a little girl to ride a bike, was that his cover?’ It was sickening!”

“That little girl thought it was pretty awesome. Her parents thought so, too.” 

“Ya think this is a joke?” Kalpin’s voice got louder, apparently not finding the hero very funny.

 “No, but I have to admit I thought you were playing a prank on me, since you’re choosing right now to have this argument.” Velocity replied with a sigh, trying to lean over Kalpin and look into the Hospital. “I mean, wasn’t there some kind of ABB parahuman hostage situation here?”

“This situation is under control, and your presence here is problematic.” Hobson held a hand out and his voice became quite earnest. “Please move along while we deal with this boy.”

Velocity sighed, then started to leave. Lucky for me, he also stepped into my field of vision.

While Lung’s powers were like campfires, I was surprised to see that Velocity’s were like...birds. Very strange for someone whose power was running to feel like birds , but who was I to question the powers I’d only had for a few days anyway? Ignoring this oddity, I realized that one of his powers seemed kind of familiar, and grabbed that one before even looking at it.

Once it was in my core, I took a moment to look closer at them, just in case I had made a mistake. The unfamiliar one was like a hummingbird, flitting about almost as if it was floating. 

I was able to get this sense from it, looking at it, that it was pristine and perfect, untouched by injury, gravity, friction, or even pain. It seemed so free and happy, moving around inside of the man as if it had no worries or strife. Even my eyes on it didn’t seem to trouble the bird at all, as if my presence was just something it could ignore.

The other one was more like a phoenix, a great majestic bird of fire...but with some other energy crackling around it.

I dimly recalled how, about two days ago, I’d seen Velocity and mentally compared the light inside of him to such a bird. It was faster than a blaze, quicker than lightning, and seemed almost to teleport around inside the man with how fast it moved.

Both birds were flying around inside of Velocity, constantly flapping around each other and even through one another. The hummingbird never got scorched or even singed, while the phoenix was slowly dying...but immediately healed the moment it brushed against the hummingbird. 

It was like they were normally a package deal and I was just seeing them as parts, which annoyed me that I could apparently only take one. Maybe there was a trick to taking both at once, but now wasn’t the time to test it...especially with the painful memory of what happened the last time. Splitting up a team was always a recipe for disaster, but now I was locked in.

Velocity blurred off, and I noticed that I had a new feeling in my brain. It kind of felt like an On/Off switch, to be honest. My mental finger felt itchy...and it was time to flip the switch.

***

“You picked the wrong hospital to try and terrorize, pal.” Bellows was talking to me, in a normal voice this time. That swiftly went away as he started to get angry at my lack of reaction. “I’ve spent years at this job, training and practicing for the day my skills would be needed! Within these walls I AM THE LAW!

“Oh hey, Judge Dredd . Nice.” Kalpin and Hobson were now facing me, watching me carefully. They’d kicked part of it earlier, and now it was frozen open, with both blocking it. “Personally I liked the scrappy little tech guy played by Pauly Shore, but Schwarzeneggar’s character had a lot of good lines. Anyway, movies aside, Velocity backed off, so how about we talk? Let’s see if we can take care of this matter with the professional and easy-going style that we’re known for.” 

“Neither of those things should go together when it comes to police or investigative work, Kalpin.” Hobson interjected, still holding his notepad and pen. He cocked an eyebrow at Bellows and I, as if asking whether we were going to make this complicated. “Still, it works for us.”

“Damn right it does!” Kalpin grinned mightily, then started flapping a hand at Bellows. “Security Guy, you can just move along now. We’ll call you if we need a bullhorn or something.”

Bellows did not like that, and started to move towards me with his taser. I expected that my Confrontational Bravery would keep me steadfast, but had forgotten that with Lung’s power gone it had vanished as well.  The amazing sense of self-assurance that had been blazing through me had guttered out like a wet candle. The need to be confrontational and never back down from foes had run off with its proverbial tail between its legs. 

In other words, I was back to being Greg Veder, as far as emotions went. There was another unfamiliar feeling welling up in me, but I shoved all thought of that aside as the incredible need to flee began to overwhelm me. The lobby felt like it was closing in on me, and I wanted out!

Blocking me from that were three men, all of whom wanted nothing more than to foam me, shout at me, or accuse me of things that I was (mostly) innocent of. Desperate, I sought to figuratively take a step back and reassess things, but made three huge mistakes.

First, I actually stepped backwards. This was a mistake because it made Bellows fire his taser and make me panic even more .

Second, I activated the power I’d gotten from Velocity, making the world seem to be slowing down around me. The power was only activated for a relative second or two, but in that time I felt myself moving backwards and the darts from Bellows’ taser moving at a crawl.

Third, I tripped. Yeah, not the best thing to do when you have a speed power. On the plus side, I immediately deactivated the power as soon as I noticed it was on, but by then...

Well, by then I had noticed that I was on my back, sliding across a very clean floor, and about forty feet away Bellows. The blurring and sliding was familiar, and it occurred to me that this was what had happened to me back on Friday night! 

I had copied Velocity’s power, and then since I was already running my ass off when I activated it I’d traveled three blocks in a few seconds. I’d tripped upon getting to the park and fallen in the wet grass, sliding for sixty or so feet on my back until my momentum had bled off. 

No wonder I’d been thinking that it was teleportation! Mystery solved!

Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite figured out what was injuring me, since much like last time I immediately noticed that my butt and shoulders were sore. It felt like I’d slammed into the ground more than once, or harder than just the three foot fall. Even the material on the back of my jeans and sweatshirt felt kind of worn down. Odd...

Luckily for me, my three opponents were too busy arguing to care that I had just vanished, or stop me from ruminating on the odd new power and how it worked.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Kalpin yelled at Bellows, having charged up to the larger man and knocked the taser out of his hand. “You can’t just go shooting that at a kid, much less one who’s scared out of his damned mind!”

“Hey! If you and your skinny flunky hadn’t been trying to swing your dicks around, I wouldn’t-”

“Oh trust me, pal, if I wanted to swing my dick around-”

“Perhaps we can talk about our dicks some other time?” Hobson’s quiet tone somehow grabbed the attention of both men, and they both looked at him as he pointed at me. “I think our parahuman might be trying to-”

As I burst through the swinging double doors, I heard Hobson shout for the other two to go around and cut me off. I heard a clicking noise behind me and glanced back to see the man pause to lock the double doors behind him. He didn’t appear to be in a rush.

Great, now I’m even more trapped than before. Hospitals...nothing but trouble.

**************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg learns that not all problems can be solved by running, and then immediately helps solve a problem by...running.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

It seems like I spend all my time these days running away from things. When you get right down to it, the reason I’ve been running away this whole time is that I have no idea what I’m doing. 

I just keep throwing things at the wall, hoping one of them sticks and taking every tiny victory as a sign that what I’m doing is right. That the ends will somehow justify the means, even if every failure should be telling me that I need to stop running and deal with my problems. 

More than anything, they should be telling me that I need to step back and start examining what I’m doing wrong. When you get a bad result in a video game, you learn not to jump in spiked pits anymore or that the best way to handle a fireball is to dodge it. Also, to run from dragons.

When I got powers I didn’t stop running...but eventually I started running in the right direction.

Instead of just doing it to escape, though, I was running towards problems, to help solve them.

GregV.

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

I ducked under an odd metal bar hanging from the ceiling, having reached a T-intersection at the end of the short hall, and the feeling of being trapped grew as the door in front of me refused to open. The smell of sawdust was around me, this part of the hospital apparently under construction, dim lighting and unpainted walls only driving the point home.

To my left was a long hallway with all the doors closed and a big EXIT sign at the end. 

To my right was a...long hallway with all the doors closed and a big EXIT sign at the end. 

What a choice, eh? Looking behind me I could see Hobson approaching, one hand on his holstered weapon and the other holding his radio, speaking quietly into it. He wasn’t running, but rather was stalking slowly...like some sort of big jungle cat. Maybe a tiger?

There were ostensibly two people coming to cut me off and Hobson was preventing me from going back the way I’d come. Worse, he was probably going to tell them which way I went, so for all I knew they could already be in place to foam or clothesline me the moment I ran by. It was like dealing with...I dunno, Schrodinger's Clothesline. 

I wanted to go right, but knew that with Hobson watching I’d have to throw him off. So, after jogging to the left for about ten feet I stopped suddenly and leaped backwards, sliding on my back. Just as I hit the ground, I engaged Velocity’s power again for a few seconds. 

The world blurred…and then I was against a wall. Hobson rounded the corner a good thirty feet away, going left, and scrambled to my feet as I tried the knob of the door behind me. Locked!

My back was also sore, though not as much as before. Looking down, I saw that on the floor between Hobson and I was a long red smear. It looked like all the blood that had been soaked into my sweatshirt (and some of the red dye) had been worn off. I was starting to figure out what was going on here, and decided to test it again.

This time, I aimed for the EXIT door far behind me, and engaged the power. It made my feet hurt a little and I nearly went face-first into the wall, but I managed to mostly keep my balance. I looked back at Hobson, smiled under my bandanna, and triumphantly pushed the door-

It didn’t open. Pushing, pulling, neither worked...and after a moment I heard Bellows shout from the other side, sounding breathless. “Ha! You’re not getting out that easily, terrorist. I already got the other door, now you’re trapped. Time to face Justice!”

I turned around in a rush, figuring that he must have been bluffing, but was disheartened to see that Kalpin had joined us in the hallway. The short man was favoring one hand, his shoes making a crunching noise that suggested he’d broken a window and come out of one of the doors. Unfortunately, they were all closed again, so I wasn’t sure which it had been.

Fine, I can do this. Time to put this power to the test, find that door, and get out of here!

I reached for the mental switch in my head, held out both hands to find my balance, and moved . Hopefully I could find an escape route before my clothes wore out.

***

Several minutes later, I was still trapped in the hallway. On the plus side, I was still both clothed and alive, and even after Bellows had joined the chase I’d still managed to remain free. Even better, my opponents were practically dead on their feet.

Well, I guess I should say opponent . The moment Bellows had shown up, Hobson and Kalpin had taken refuge in the part of the T-intersection leading back towards the front desk. They grabbed at me any time I came near, but otherwise just ignored me. Hobson bandaged his partner’s hand, and Kalpin watched with a grin as Bellows yelled, dove, and sprinted after me.

The floor was smooth enough that when I lost my balance it just meant I’d slide for twenty feet, rather than scraping off my skin like pavement would have caused. I’d even started to notice that my sense of balance was quickly becoming so good that I hadn’t fallen in ten attempts...and that the last time I’d fallen it actually hadn’t hurt at all.

I was pretty sure that Velocity’s second power (the hummingbird) had been one that let him work around the friction that had been destroying my clothes, as well as giving him senses that could handle the sudden shifts in speed. I had started to acclimate to it enough that things only blurred when I ran for more than a few seconds, and even that was fading. 

If I hadn’t been trying to escape arrest, I would have loved to experiment more, but I definitely recalled how the healing power had sped up the longer I’d had it. After I’d dropped it and picked it back up, it had needed to heal a few wounds before I could get back up to full speed, so there was probably a “breaking in” period. 

Best of all, I had found the door Kalpin had come in through, so it was time for me to go, especially since I saw that Kalpin and Hobson were ambling in my direction. Bellows, nearly exhausted and so red in the face I was surprised he hadn’t passed out, had collapsed at the intersection. 

I smiled, aimed myself at the little space between the two of them, all ready to get the hell out of here and move on with my life. I took a deep breath, reached for the power, and then…

Stopped.

No. 

Even as every fiber in my body screamed at me to run, I stood there.

This isn’t the sort of person I want to be. This isn’t the sort of hero I want to be.

I turned to face Kalpin and Hobson.

I don’t want to keep running away from my problems. 

I don’t want to be afraid to do what’s right just because it’s too hard. I have to take responsibility.

Then I raised both hands, and said, “I surrender.”

***

If I ever want to be a hero, I can’t run from confrontation. 

“I’m sorry about creating a panic. I know I shouldn’t have come here, or run away like this, or tried to escape.” Both PRT agents paused, and I thought I heard Bellows scoff. Kalpin and Hobson didn’t laugh, though. They looked at me, silently, so I kept going. “It’s just...I got in over my head, was afraid you were going to arrest me, and then just kind of made it up as I went along. I...screwed up, and made a lot of people mad, and I’m sorry.”

“Thank you, it takes a lot of courage to admit when you’re wrong. They both shared a glance, and Hobson smiled. “Please, tell us what happened.”

I felt such a relief that my legs almost went out from under me, and I had to lean on a wall to stay upright. Sure, it was possible that they were just playing me, but I was grasping for a lifeline.

“Well, for one thing, I’m not really ABB. Heck, I’m not even Asian!” I said, then paused and added, “Not even the kind of Asian where I’m from the continent of Asia.”

“Oh we know.” Hobson nodded, flooring me. The man began to speak, then cut himself off as Kalpin elbowed him in the gut. The smaller man took this opening to grin at me.

“You’ve got a big hole in the side of your hoodie, and we can see your pale skin and blonde hair. Also, your pants are starting to tear and we can see your skinny white legs.”

“Ahem.” Hobson cleared his throat, and I got the feeling that the two of them did this a lot. “Indeed. So, just why were you pretending to be an ABB member?”

“I wanted to help the police and PRT, and knew about a warehouse the ABB kept going to. So I put on a disguise, grabbed a camera, and...went to gather intelligence. It was a Tinker workshop they were going to use to recruit Bakuda, according to a conversation I...heard.”

“Is that so?” Hobson looked interested. “We weren’t aware that Lung was recruiting her yet. Turning the location over to us would be helpful, as such hideouts can be hard to find.”

“Ah, about that.” I blushed a bit, then quickly told them the rest all in one go. “I kind tricked Lung into throwing some fireballs at explosive crates, he blew up the warehouse, and then Ramped up and brought the whole thing down on himself. It’s...not really that hard to find right now.”

“Heh, look at you, not even a hero yet and already shutting down ABB operations!” Kalpin elbowed me, and I realized that throughout the conversation the two of them had been walking alongside me. We were now back at the T-intersection, Bellows watching us warily from under that odd ceiling bar, and for some reason...I wasn’t that worried anymore. “We’ll have to team up with you sometime, kid. Maybe you’ll be a better coworker than that glory-hog, Velocity.”

“What was with that, anyway?” I asked, then realized I might have been stepping in something that wasn’t my business. 

“Protectorate involvement tends to escalate things, as well as causing certain...requirements to come into play.” Hobson explained, sounding like it was a very...delicate matter. “If we had allowed Velocity to join the negotiations, then it would have brought additional scrutiny on you and likely required us to bring you in even if this was the misunderstanding our preliminary research indicated it to be.”

“What he’s trying to say,” Kalpin cut in, “Is that we suspected that the ABB parahuman who had been seen fighting Lung, running through the streets in this direction, and then entering this hospital were all the same guy. If that were the case, then Velocity getting involved would mean that we’d have to take you in for questioning no matter what.”

“Indeed.” Hobson nodded, “We preferred to deal with it using words and simple negotiation tactics, but Velocity would have upgraded the threat level considerably. Also, by doing this our way we no longer need to do anything other than warn and inform you.”

“Wait, so you’re not going to arrest me?” I blanched, waving my hands in front of me and backing up to the wall. “I mean, not that I want you to. It’s just…”

“It’s okay, we understand your reluctance and confusion.” Hobson approached, leaning against the wall beside me and crossing his arms. He lowered his gaze, looking thoughtfully at the floor. “You did cause quite a commotion, and on top of that several people had to be evacuated from the hospital. There was also the fire you were a part of and city property that was destroyed.”

Hobson’s words didn’t make me any less worried, but then Kalpin leaned against the wall next to his partner and let out a laugh.

“Yeah, but at the same time a lot of that commotion was from people like the big security mook over there, overreacting. All the people evacuated got treatment, and nobody died. Most of the hospital is still running fine, since we’ve been in a half-finished wing. Finally, Lung caused the fire, and the city practically has Lung insurance at this point.”

"Most of your information just confirms what we know, and trying to throw the book at you would only damage your newly-formed relationship with the PRT." Hobson grinned at Kalpin, then looked sternly at me. "Instead, we prefer to foster positive relationships with new parahumans and informants, teaching them the right way to go about their business. We give you some leeway now, but make sure you know that we expect your best from here on out."

"We prefer to call it," Kalpin held up his hands, as though holding a banner, "Easy-going professionalism. Better informants, better parahumans, better investigations."

“In other words, we’re going to let you off with a warning.” Hobson held out a business card, which I took. “But we want you to learn from this. Any parahuman can just run around town shooting powers and beating people up, but this? Talking to the authorities and admitting when you might be wrong? That takes real strength. You did the right thing, in the end. Thank you.”

“Also, burn that costume as soon as you get home.” Kalpin added. He was grinning again, and I found it hard not to join him. “I’d also suggest talking to your parents about the other stuff. You’ve got a future as a hero, kid...but only if you have support and-”

“No!”

All three of us looked up, and saw Bellows on his feet. The man was pointing a large revolver at us, and with his other hand he grabbed a metal bar sticking out of the ceiling and pulled. With a screech, a security gate slid out of the ceiling and crashed to the floor between us and him.

Well, maybe I can just explain myself to him as well? I mean, it’s worth a shot, right? 

“Listen, I’m really-”

I stopped talking the moment he fired his gun at the ceiling.

***

“Shut. Up!” Bellows screamed, waving the gun at all of us. “You think I didn’t just hear you talk to them, and suddenly they’re your buddies? I’ve read about this online, you must have Mastered them or something!”

“Or maybe he’s-”

“Silence!” Bellows fired again, a bullet hitting the floor just a few inches from Hobson’s foot. The tall man wisely decided to stop talking. “No more stupid explanations!”

I felt a sudden pressure, and noticed that Hobson and Kalpin had stepped in front of me. They were...protecting me?

“It’s obvious that you’ve both been compromised, and that my own mental training protected me from the effects of his powers.” Bellows began to rant, swinging the gun to point at each of us in turn. “Weak-minded fools like you can’t stand up to that sort of pressure, but I’m made of steel!”

“So.” Kalpin whispered, looking over his shoulder at me. “About that team up I mentioned before...is now a good time?”

I nodded silently, and the shorter man turned back to face Bellows.

“There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and I’ve locked both emergency exits!” Bellows bragged, smiling as Kalpin’s jaw dropped. “Impressed, are you?”

“Yeah, that’s really impressive…” Kalpin started, trailing off before frowning at the now-preening security guard. “...ly stupid. Did you seriously just admit to locking emergency exits in a hospital ? Do you know how dangerous that is?”

“Yes, what if there’s a fire and we need to escape?” Hobson butted in, looking aghast at the gun-toting security guard. Bellows was starting to turn red, and I doubted it was from just one emotion. “There’s a long list of security procedures and emergency-”

Bellows fired his revolver again, this time into the ceiling above him. I really hoped he didn’t hit someone on the second floor. Drywall drifted down, and everyone was silent as the ringing in our ears faded.

“Now, we’re going to handle this professionally.” Bellows said, in a tone of voice that brooked no disagreement. “Any questions?”

“Yeah, I got one.” Kalpin ignored as Hobson elbowed him, and continued glaring at Bellows as he asked, “Have you honestly thought this through? You’re pointing a gun at two PRT Special Investigators, as well as a minor, but there’s still time for you to end things peacefully. Just-”

“Silence!” Bellows shouted, slamming his revolver into the cage gate and shutting the short man up. He took a breath, schooled his features, and then explained, “If it weren’t for the fact that you two were obviously Mastered, I’d have to assume that you second-rate PRT agents are actually dirty...and then I’d have no reason to be so nice to you.”

“This is nice?” Kalpin muttered, then shook his head and tried again. “Fine, if you think that we’ve been Mastered, just call the PRT and ask for a Master/Stranger test.”

“Indeed, the system is updated daily, and someone will gladly help you run us through it. I can give you the phone number.” Hobson piped up, spreading his hands slowly and practically exuding calm helpfulness. For a moment, I thought that this might work out.

“No, I don’t trust any phone number you can give me.” Bellows shook his head, eyes looking around as if he thought he was being watched. “For all I know, you set that phone number up weeks ago, or your Master did, and they’ll just give you answers you already know.”

“That’s-” Kalpin cut himself off, probably about to have said stupid . Instead, he tried a calmer tactic. “That’s how Master/Stranger protocols work. We memorized the codes this morning, and they’ll call and quiz us on them. That’s how it’s supposed to go.”

“Exactly!” Bellows grinned, as if this was a puzzle he’d solved long ago and we were just now getting. “You already know the fake answers, so I’m going to give you my own Master/Stranger protocols. I made them myself, years ago, and have been waiting for just such a chance to test them on other people.”

This seems incredibly familiar for some reason. What’s wrong with this picture?

This whole time I had been pretending that Bellows was just an unbalanced security guard and had lumped him in with all the faceless bad guys and supervillains that he was now...admittedly a lot like. He had become the bad guy. He was opposing the good guys, after all. Right?

But it’s not that simple, is it? He thinks he’s in the right. He thinks...that he’s the hero?

Bellows had put years of tireless effort into making himself the protector of this hospital, the last bastion of safety against the horrors and terrors that existed outside its walls. He had been so proud and on-point, dealing with what certainly seemed to be what he’d trained for.

...then Kalpin and Hobson had dismissed and insulted him. I had run away. They had made a deal with me and let me off the hook. His world must have come crashing down, and now he was flailing around trying to fix it. He was digging himself deeper and deeper, no end in sight.

Dang, Bellows is a lot like me. Is that what I’m going to become if I don’t shape up?

“Now, let’s start with simple word association.”

“Great.” Kalpin muttered. “Because asking people questions under duress always works.”

“I know!” Bellows chirped, smiling widely. “I’ve taken every class and training course I could on psychological tactics and parahuman mental combat, as well as gotten certifications online in interrogation, cross-examination, grilling, questioning, and-”

“You do realize that those are all just synonyms, don’t you?” Hobson cut Bellows off, then gave what seemed like a kind smile. “I really would like to know the names of all these online universities, so we can investigate them for what appears to be fraud, grifting, flimflam, swindling, duplicity, shenanigans-”

“Enough!” Bellows fired his gun again, this time twice into the wall a few feet to our left. He motioned with the gun at Kalpin and the man raised both hands. “Step forward, little man. You other two will stay silent while I question him. Now, I’m going to say a word, and you say the first word that comes to mind.”

Kalpin sighed and stepped forwards.

***

While his partner was being grilled, Hobson leaned back a bit and reached up as if to scratch at his face. As he did so, I realized the man was speaking into the hole in my hoodie.

“While Kalpin is distracting him, we need a plan.” He whispered.

“Here’s a plan,” I whispered back. “Stop pissing him off before he shoots us for real!”

“My preliminary psychological profile of him is that he is panicking because he thinks we’ve been compromised, and is trying to intimidate us. He wants recognition and respect, not a body count.” Hobson whispered back. “I believe he is purposefully missing us.”

“Maybe…” I had forgotten how observant the man was, but it still seemed like a lot to take on faith that they wouldn’t push him too far and get him to overcome his no-killing fears. “He still might shoot us though, so maybe cut that out?”

“I will soon. His Smith & Wesson Model 686 had 6 rounds loaded, and he’s been careful to keep his finger off the trigger except when firing...at non-human targets.” Hobson went quiet, noting that Bellows’ eyes had swept over us. He waited until Kalpin started speaking loudly to continue. “Two bullets left, and then he’ll have to dig in his bag for the speedloader I saw earlier.”

“Okay, so what...we make him run out of bullets and then run?”

“Indeed.” Hobson had noticed that Kalpin was messing with Bellows again, and the man looked like he was about to shoot again. “We’ll go left, you go right, and he’ll be forced to lift the cage to get at us if we go far enough down the hall.”

“Why don’t we all go right?” I hissed back, seeing Bellows lifting his gun. The man’s face was turning purple, and Kalpin actually seemed to be...making faces at him? “I have a way out of here, we can-”

“Then take it.” Hobson cut me off. “You barely understand your powers, and we can’t let you put yourself in harm’s way for us. We’ll handle him. You need to go, call for help, and then run.”

I didn’t have time to argue further, because Bellows fired again at the cerling, twice. He tried to fire a third time, but the gun clicked empty and Hobson had already pushed me down the hall. I saw him grab Kalpin, and then I took off with a burst of Velocity’s speed. 

Idiots! I had a way we could all have escaped! Kalpin even knew about it.

Down the hall, nestled among the locked doors, was one that was slightly ajar. Kalpin had busted it open earlier. I burst inside, ignoring the construction equipment and plaster piled around, and leapt through the window Kalpin had shattered.

I hit the ground on the other side and rolled to my feet. Looking around, there was no sign of the other two. I waited a few seconds, thinking that they’d pop up any moment...or maybe yell that it was all clear. They’d be okay, right? They were trained PRT Agents, and Bellows was just a-

I heard a gunshot. Bellows must have had a backup gun.

I have to get out of here. I have to call for help, like I promised I would.

I felt Velocity’s power singing inside of me, and all I could think about was how sweet the outdoors were and how terrible being inside had been. It would have been so easy to run...

No....I can’t just let them die. Not after all they did for me. I won’t leave them!

I turned and ran with all the speed Velocity’s power gave me back through the front doors, not even paying attention to the phone in the front lobby. I pushed against the locked doors, having forgotten Hobson had locked them. Each had a window set in it, and I could see Bellows facing down both PRT agents. Kalpin was on the ground holding his shoulder and Hobson was talking.

It appeared as though Bellows was reloading, and now I could see what had gone wrong. The man had a tiny pistol on the ground, and it looked like he’d drawn the hold-out weapon from his ankle holster and fired at the fleeing Kalpin. It was something he must have practiced hundreds of times to get right.

Wow, why can’t this guy be on our side? It’s like he prepared for everything.

Further thoughts were cut off as I saw Bellows finish his reload and point the revolver at the PRT agents. He seemed like he was monologuing again, and I wasn’t going to just stand here and watch him kill them. I had to find some way to stop him, but the doors were locked up. 

No, I couldn’t just stand there and watch. Not when they had been so lenient with me. Not when they’d given me such good advice. Not when I could do something about it.

And damn sure not when this is my first team up!

I activated Velocity’s speed and shot backwards, only stopping when my back hit the wall behind me. I barely felt it, and stepped forwards as drywall and dust fell around me.

Calling for help takes too long. Waiting will get someone killed. I have to get in there!

With barely a thought for how much this was going to hurt, I blasted forwards, giving it all I had to reach top speed. My shoes seemed to explode off my feet, my sunglasses cracked and filled the inside of my wrecked hoodie, and the double doors got closer and closer and-

WHAM

I slammed into one of the doors, shoulder first, the glass set into it cracked.

I started to back up and try again, ignoring the way I hadn’t even felt the impact, rushing backwards until I got more drywall on my back and then rushing forwards again. This time, I heard a hollow thud as my shoulder slammed into the door, and the glass shattered. 

I reached in for the lock, turning it with fingers that felt...strange. 

“Hey, kid! You can stop now! We’re okay!” I paused, and opened the door. 

***

That...sounded like Kalpin.

Confused, I saw Kalpin waving at me with his good arm. He was standing next to what appeared to be an unconscious Bellows, the man’s hands covered in what looked like cotton candy. Hobson was shaking a canister and frowning as it began to sputter. “He’s under wraps, you might say.”

“I prefer to say that he’s contained.” Hobson cut in, tossing aside the now-empty handheld can of containment foam. “After you started making that racket, he turned in your direction and Kalpin was able to grab his legs through the cage gate. He fell onto his face, and I was able to lift the gate and take care of him.”

“Well, the important thing is that the situation is under control. I was really worried about you guys.” I pushed the now-unlocked doors open and walked through, ignoring the clicking sound as I stepped on what I guessed was the broken glass I had caused. None of it was piercing my shoes though, so I was probably…

Wait. Shoes. Didn’t my shoes come off? Also, what’s that clicking noise?

“Hey kid, what the hell happened to your feet?” Kalpin asked, as I slowly walked towards them, lost in thought. I slowly looked down, as he added, “Your eyes, too? You some kinda Case 53?”

“Kalpin!” Hobson poked his partner in the shoulder again, this time harder. “That’s incredibly insensitive! This after you already got chewed out for calling that new ice-based Brute in Alaska a ‘Snow Goon,’ and now-”

I tuned them out, looking down at my foot and rolling up my pant leg a bit. I had noticed that my legs and arms had been feeling stiff, and it had been a surprise when my frequent impacts with walls and doors had barely fazed me. Now though, I could see why.

Oh my god. What the hell did I do to myself? What am I? Is this...permanent?

My knee looked like it was covered in a sort of chitin, and my foot appeared to have some sort of strange bone-like growths on my soles and ankles, as well as between my toes. Reaching up and feeling at my shoulders and elbows, I could feel that they had something similar there. That explained why I hadn’t felt the impacts before. 

Even my fingers felt strange, and if I hadn’t been wearing gloves…my gloves felt so tight...

I can’t make a fist anymore. My knuckles and wrists aren’t bending as well as before.

Wait, what did he say about my eyes? What’s wrong with my eyes?

“I should get going.” I said listlessly, giving a fake smile to the two of them, not even realizing until I was walking away that my bandanna meant they could see it. I heard them shout behind me, but I didn’t care.

I just had to get out of there. I had to move. I was afraid to find a mirror and look at my eyes .

It might have been some kind of bleedover from Velocity’s personality, but the moment I stepped outside I felt a little calmer. When I started to jog, the feeling got even better. Then I engaged the Speed power, and suddenly I felt great!

I just took a deep breath, ignored the sound of clicking bones beneath me, and ran.

***

I was still worried, don’t get me wrong. But being out here, free to move as I pleased and no longer trapped by the laws and walls, it filled me with a kind of pleasure that was hard to describe. The body stuff should really have freaked me out more, but now that I was outside and free I just felt so... liberated

I took a deep breath, and almost laughed when I realized that my lungs felt great! My heart was beating like a drum, but now that seemed perfectly normal. Even my arms were swinging back and forth like an Olympic runner’s, my elbows and shoulders feeling a bit stiff but otherwise fine.

I’ll bet this is just an aspect of my power I hadn’t known about. Maybe it adapts somehow?

Just like with the healing that had slowly sped up and pyrokinesis that had burned me less over time, my body must have been adapting slowly somehow to the powers I copied...but it had never gone this far before! I wasn’t even worried about whether this was permanent or not, and slowly began to speed up more and more. 

Before I knew it, I was passing cars on the road, waving at bicyclists that seemed to be standing still, and considering whether or not I could run across water!

This...is...awesome! Why the hell was I even staying in Brockton Bay? Why ever stop running?

I could travel the world, see the sights, go anywhere and do anything. With this kind of power I could go anywhere, do anything, be any-

I barely heard some church bells ringing in the distance, like an alarm clock for my soul.

Oh crap. Oh crapcrapcrapcrap! My parents! They’ll be home from church any minute! 

I slowed down for a moment, looked around, and then took off towards home.

***

I made it home and was almost leaping for joy when I saw that my parents’ car wasn’t in the driveway. I did a little dance of joy, then froze as I heard the clicking sound of my bone-growths on the sidewalk. I quickly looked around, but saw that none of the neighbors were out and about. I slipped around the house into the backyard, then stepped into the shed out back for good measure.

I had to do something about this...couldn’t explain it away with another “makeup disaster” excuse. Unfortunately, standing still didn’t seem to be making the bone-growths fade away, and I was starting to panic about this being permanent. Being in the shed wasn’t helping either, and I was starting to feel trapped .

When I had dropped Lung’s Ramping Up power, my grown body shrank back down. Maybe...

Praying that this worked, and seeing no other solution, I sighed and reached into my core for the Phoenix...and then released it. It slowly dissipated, and in moments I could tell that the strange On/Off switch that had given me the ability to speed up was well and truly gone. I suddenly felt very, very slow...like I was almost paralyzed, and was having trouble breathing.

Just the power wearing off, Greg. Stay calm.

I managed to get the feeling in my body back after a few seconds, leaning against the wall. Despite that, the moment the power had vanished I had started experiencing shortness of breath, blurry vision, and pain in my chest. All my joints hurt, all my bones felt like they were too small for my body, and then...

Then I began to itch.

I stepped out of the dark shed, lacking enough light to see what the hell was going on and hoping that the shed hadn’t been infested with ants again.

Luckily, it was something far better than ants...the bone-growths were flaking off like the nastiest dead skin chunks you can imagine. I began to scratch at them, big gobs of now-pliable gunky flesh-colored stuff flaking off of my knees, elbows, feet, shoulders. I even pulled my gloves off, the same gunky goo almost pouring out of them and sloughing off my fingers and wrists. 

Whew. Not permanent after all. Thank goodness. Mom would have killed me. 

Just as I was about to pat myself on the back for the quick thinking, I felt like something had hit me in the stomach, and bent over to vomit white and red goo. The shortness of breath I was experiencing after horking up my guts told me that my increased lung capacity and stronger heart were probably as gone as the bone-growths.

Even my eyes were getting in on the act, and I rubbed them as more gunk flowed out. I must have developed some sort of protection against high-velocity wind, or maybe extra rods and cones for faster reaction times? I guess I should have been glad that my brain wasn’t leaking something out my ears, but I was just sad that all my cool physical upgrades had all worn off.

Spitting and coughing, I trudged back into the house to wash my mouth out and change my clothes. I still looked like an ABB Cosplay reject, only now I was streaked with mud, blood, vomit, and gooey substances. I had no shoes, my sunglasses were gone, my hoodie was more of a sweater streaked with blood and red dye, and my pants were in tatters.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the green bandanna and reddish sweatshirt, you’d barely be able to tell that I had been an ABB-wannabe an hour or so ago. Still, I had the red and green for it.

I wonder how much time I have to come up with a good excuse before my-

“Greg!” Mom’s voice shrieked, and she nearly tripped in the front doorway. “What the hell happened to you? Where were you? What part of grounded did you not understand? Are you-”

“Wait…green and red?” Dad peered at me, cocking his head to the side before squinting. “Is that some kind of Asian Bad Boys costume? Why would you wear something like that outside? Don’t you know how dangerous it could be? Not just culturally or sociologically, but also-”

-parents come home. Shit.  

***************************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: A warehouse explosion, Lung going nuts, gang members shooting at people, and some crazy guy littering bullets all over a hospital...wonder how fast that news is spreading? Perhaps there’s someone in the Wards or Protectorate watching the situation with interest? Or...maybe they’re just bored and didn’t even notice it because of other distractions? Time for a very Wards Interlude!

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Shadow Stalker’s War Journal

I finally realized that I’m crap when it comes to hindsight. When I was a kid, I just charged right into dangerous situations, made huge mistakes, and counted on my parents and brother to clean up after me. I was a kid, it was okay. I didn’t have to learn from mistakes, because someone else could handle them for me.

Then Dad left, my brother moved out, and I did something that turned my mother against me. Suddenly, I lost all my safety nets, and my mistakes started to pile up. After one particularly big mistake, I probably should have died. Instead, I was saved by luck and my brother.

But I wasn’t saved. I was recruited into a war. I’ve been fighting ever since.

[3 Years Ago]

When I was 12 years old, I was basically the ruler of my house. Mom was always out partying, networking, or at one of her many part time jobs, so I was the one who had to take care of everything. I learned to cook, cleaned the house, and even changed and fed baby Paula, my new sister. It was exhausting, but the look on Mom’s face always made it worth it. Dad had left months ago, and I knew that he appreciated me taking care of the family for him.

He even told me so, and in exchange I proudly told him on his weekend how much I did for Mom. He was so impressed that he let me tell his friend, Investigator Specialist Jackson, and they got me on tape explaining all I did. They called me a good girl, and said I was very brave.

After that, I only saw Dad one more time, when he came with a bunch of people from something called CPS to take Paula and all her stuff to Dad’s place. Mom was really angry at me for that, crying and saying I was a liar, and spanked me a lot after they left. Dad had said I should call him if she did that, but I felt sorry for Mom and didn’t want to make more trouble. 

After that, Mom hated me and barely talked to me. She would go days without talking to me.

Luckily, there was still one Hess who loved me...my big brother, Terry! He’d moved out when I was 12 and he was 18, wanting independence. He ended up in an apartment with a bunch of other teens, in a bad part of town, and helped deliver groceries and do odd jobs for people. He was one of the reasons I wanted to be an adult so bad, because he was so awesome and nice.

One day in particular I was playing in the junkyard at the edge of our neighborhood. Terry had mentioned that he had business in there, and had told me to stay away. Naturally, I went to find him, something I had gotten really good at. Plus, it wasn’t like the junkyard’s security was anything that could stop a girl able to fit between the gates. I could fit through any gap!

...or so I thought, until an hour later, when I was in a half-crushed car watching a bunch of junkies attack Terry. I mean, he beat them easily, grinning at me all the while and even making color commentary, but I was still embarrassed to have gotten stuck. I’d climbed in to get a better look, the car had shifted, and the door wouldn’t open anymore.

But that was okay! In no time Terry had grabbed some wallets from the junkies, tossed them in a duffel bag one had been carrying, and started sauntering over to save me. I could always count on him, and knew that as long as I had my big brother here I was safe. He’d always rescue me from any danger, solve any problem, and do it all with a big smile on his face. 

Then we heard dogs barking, and Terry’s smile vanished. He began to look around nervously. I couldn’t see well, but even I could hear that they were getting louder. 

“Terry!” I shrieked, banging on the window so hard it hurt, trying to reach through its tiny gap to grab him. “Help me!”

“Don’t worry Sophia, you’re going to be fine.” He smiled again, and at least half of my worries went away. The dogs were still scary, but if Terry had a plan, then everything would be fine. “I’m going to run and call for help, so just stay here. In fact, if you could rock the car and make noise so those dogs don’t chase me, that would help. The car’s tough enough that they can’t get in.”

I was scared, but Terry had never steered me wrong before. So as he ran off into the distance and five huge junkyard dogs charged into the area, I started to let out choked screams and rock the car. I slapped the windows, tapped the dash, and even honked the horn.

Terry’s plan worked, and the dogs went right for me, smashing themselves uselessly against the car. It was the scariest thing I’d ever been through, but all I had to do now was wait for Terry to come back with help, and save me. No matter what, I had to stay here. I had to.

One of the dogs started to smash against the window, cracks forming as it kept trying to get to me. I wanted to try and slip out through the trunk, but Terry had told me to stay .

I started to panic, hyperventilating as the dogs got louder and the cracks in the window got bigger. I could feel their breath on me, their saliva spattering me, and their eyes...they were staring at me like a fresh piece of meat in a box. I was trapped, but I had to stay .

I felt like I was running away, but staying there. Like I was escaping, but obeying Terry.

One of the dogs finally smashed through the window, its teeth going for my throat.

I closed my eyes and screamed.

***

...then I opened my eyes, and realized that I wasn’t dead. 

I was still in the car with the dog, but now instead of me cowering from it...it was whining and trying to escape me. I might have almost found it funny or pitiful, the way it was pressing itself back into the corner of the car, except that I felt...different. 

I looked down and saw that my leg...my body...was a smoky shadow?

I waved my hand around, and was shocked to see it pass through the ripped seat in front of me. It had felt like passing through a cloud, and moments later...I had passed through the car. 

I decided to find Terry. He’d know what to do! With the dogs now afraid of me and my strange shadow power, I quickly made my way back to Terry’s place. An animal control vehicle passed me, but they were too late. I’d saved myself! 

I decided to surprise Terry, and slipped through his door with ease, sneaking upstairs.

I found him sorting what seemed to be a pile of money and some baggies of white powder that had been in the duffel bag, a big grin on his face. Unfortunately he was always on alert, and spun around to face me the moment I stepped through his door. He stared at me, aghast.

“Who the he...Sophia? What the hell are you doing here? How did you do that?” He seemed confused, shaking his head as I dragged myself to my feet. I set myself against the wall, but could tell that using my power so much had tired me out. “You...you’re a parahuman…”

“Yeah! I got powers in the car.” I smiled at him, then switched back and forth a few times to show it off. “Isn’t it cool? I can be a superhero now! Did you plan this?”

Terry continued to stare at me, then looked between me and the table before laughing.

“Yes, of course.” He was nodding now, his familiar smile returning. “I was testing you. I had to know if you had what it took, if you were a predator like me. Now I know you are, and with a bit of training you can become a true hero. Just like me!”

“A hero?” I was dumbfounded. “You have powers too? Do you have a costume?”

“No, I’m a different sort of hero. I’m a predator, taking down drug dealers, and making sure they can’t hurt anyone ever again.” He gestured to the table with all the money and drugs on it. “I take their loot, and use it to get myself better gear, more information, and other useful tools. A costume would just slow me down, and make me a target...but you? You can be so much more!”

“I can?”

“Of course! You’re a Hess! It’s in your blood to help people, and with your powers you can help me stop a lot of bad guys.” He gave a little laugh at that, and reached down to put a hand on my head. “I’ll start teaching you first thing tomorrow. You’ll learn to fight, we’ll teach you tactics, and we’ll even get you a costume and some weapons. It’ll be hard though, are you up to it?”

“Yes!” I said immediately, remembering the feeling of power that had passed through me when the dog had failed to bite me. The excitement of moving through the fence as though it wasn’t there. “I’ll do anything! Teach me to be a strong predator like you, Terry!”

“Actually, from now on you should call me teacher, or sensei, or...Predator.” Terry snapped his fingers. He pretended to think, then poked me in the forehead. “We should come up with a name for you, as well. Something that fits your powers, your capability...how about-”

***

Excerpt from Shadow Stalker’s War Journal

One of the reasons I was so eager to become a superhero was because I’d grown up seeing all the junkies, racists, and criminals in my neighborhood skate by actual punishment. They’d always find a way to bribe a cop, escape from jail, or avoid justice. Meanwhile, my parents were getting divorced because Dad wanted to move and Mom didn’t. Crime ruined my family.

There were only so many police, superheroes, and upstanding citizens in the world, and they were far outnumbered by the bad guys. So when Predator offered to train me, I jumped at the chance. He warned me it would hurt, but it was my chance to be like him, I couldn’t say no.

Really, I couldn’t. Ever since I’d gotten my powers, I had noticed that little things like fear and worry seemed so much weaker. That pain and challenges suddenly motivated me. That danger made my blood sing, and the chance to prove myself was like a drug I couldn’t get enough of.

The problem is, it also meant that I turned into what most people would have called a thrill-obsessed daredevil, an argument-prone jerk, and a violent bully. This wasn’t so bad when it was just Predator and I, but when I was around other people things would tend to get...messy. 

[Now]

“-talker, come in! I repeat this is Gallant. Patrol with Clockblocker has reached halfway point in the Boardwalk. Nothing to report on our end. Any updates for us?” Gallant’s voice startled me, as I hurriedly sat up and looked around. Good, nobody had seen me slacking. “Shadow Stalker, come in. I repeat, any updates or areas in need of assistance?”

“ABB set a warehouse on fire, but the fire department is handling it. Also, there was a situation at the hospital, but PRT and Velocity have it under control.” I replied in a tired monotone. 

“What caused the fire?” Gallant asked, as if shooting emotions at a fire would help.

“Lung. You might have heard of him. Big guy, turns into a dragon, shoots fire?” I found myself grinning, and added, “Rumor on PHO is that Lung was fighting some new cape, and their burning passion started the fire. You wanna go make it a threeway, shoot some love at them?”

“What?” Gallant’s voice cracked, and I quickly muted my comm so I could laugh. I could practically hear the normally unflappable teen blushing through the line. You’d think someone who patrolled with Clockblocker so much would have built up a resistance. “Was that a joke?”

“Personally, I think that Shadow Stalker telling a joke is a sign of the end times.” Clockblocker’s voice cut in, and I heard the tell-tale metal on metal thwack of Gallant cuffing the other boy.

“...up Clock, it wasn’t that funny. Not only that, but it’s a dereliction of her duties.” Gallant’s comm crackled as he switched over to a direct line with me. I could still hear muffled laughter in the background. “I can’t believe you would say something like that on an open line, making all the Wards look bad, and right after you were punished for abandoning Aegis during a patrol!”

“Oh no, you’re breaking up...kssshhhh!” I made crackling noises and cut the connection. I already had a lecture and punishment lined up, not like this would make it worse. “God, you’re not even the leader of the Wards, stop acting like you have a stick up your ass!”

A few minutes later, my Wards phone buzzed and I looked down to see that there were a few text messages on it. The most recent one was from Clockblocker, a large animated GIF of a face rolling back and forth on the ground. Next to it was a stick and a peach. Grinning, I flipped through the other messages just in case. 

Unfortunately, the rest of them were from Emma. She was going on about her latest plan, and how it would be so amazing. It was hard to believe she had changed so much. Or so little.

***

Excerpt from Shadow Stalker’s War Journal

Predator taught me a lot about tactics, during the days I was healing from his combat lessons, or recovering from a tumble off a roof or something. Even this downtime wasn’t wasted, because his lessons on tactics were always so interesting. 

He told me that my particular build, skills, and powers made me perfect for reconnaissance and stealth. That said, it was important that I didn’t just rush in when encountering enemies. Instead, he told me I should hang back, look at my foes and their victims, and get the lay of the land.

When it came to enemies, knowing the strongest and the weakest were important. Take down the strong and all their followers can be stunned, maybe even demoralized. Take down the weak and you accomplish nothing. But he also told me that I had to look at their prey as well.

Strong prey (an oxymoron, I always thought) could run or at least try to fight back, and made great distractions. Weak prey, on the other hand, had to be saved first...because they were useless. They would just cry, cower, and expose their bellies to be cut open.

So imagine my surprise one night, when I saw the weakest prey take down the strongest predator. It was right about then that I began to wonder...was Predator wrong? I took it upon myself to befriend this girl, this survivor...to see if she could teach me anything.

What a mistake that turned out to be.

[Summer, 2010]

Crouched on a rooftop, I stared down through the dim light of the setting sun and watched Emma verbally attack Taylor Hebert. It was hard to believe that this was the same girl who had once proposed helping the girl, and was now her greatest foe. She’d run into Hebert in public, and without anyone around Emma was really letting her have it.

How is this girl my friend? She’s a step away from assaulting Hebert, and for what?

After I’d saved Emma and her father from the ABB, I had been tempted to just forget about her. Sure, the way she went after that ABB thug had been impressive, but I was so used to being alone that the idea of taking in a sidekick or friend just seemed so foreign to me. A part of me wanted to see her again, I suppose, because a few days later I found her on a rooftop, waiting.

She’d managed to track me down, showing initiative that impressed me, and begged me to teach her. She said I was so amazing, and as much as I was worried I still let her act as my support. She had a type of strength I’d never even considered, the power of words and manipulation...and with my Predator-taught skills I grew even more confident and powerful.

It was a two way street, and so I paid Emma back by passing those same lessons on to her. Predator’s tactics, mindset, and non-physical lessons were greedily absorbed by Emma. She used it all to reinvent herself, throwing away her old life and embracing a new one. She cut out everything from her old life, including her old friend Taylor, and we both moved forward into the future. It was the two of us against the world, and we knew that no foe could stand against us.

As the summer came to an end and high school lurked on the horizon, Emma asked for my help. She told me that she’d realized that she had transformed from prey into a predator that night, adversity having forced her to evolve. She said that she’d hit rock bottom, thought about the strongest person she knew, and then fought to overcome the ABB. She was now strong.

After experiencing it first-hand, Emma wanted to do the same for Hebert...saying that she owed her friend that much. She knew it would hurt, having to tear her oldest friend down, but that being able to rebuild Hebert afterwards to be as strong as us would make it all worth it. Already feeling like I owed Emma, I agreed to work with her...because the idea made so much sense.

Emma promised that we wouldn’t be working alone on this. Winslow was a breeding ground for people who needed an excuse to vent stress, and within days we had two other girls helping us in our quest. Julia, a stout girl who always looked like she wanted to hit someone, was happy to shove and trip Hebert when I was busy. Meanwhile, some tiny girl named Madison popped up with a talent for peer pressure, almost a parahuman power of its own, to get other kids in on it. 

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that Emma was just lying to all of us, and maybe even herself. I saw the look on Emma’s face whenever someone would hurt Hebert, and it wasn’t the look of a friend. It was the same expression I’d seen on the ABB and E88 gangsters as they hurt people, tormented them, and ground them down into the dirt.

I soon realized that the promise I’d seen in Emma had been only skin deep. Rather than wanting to grow stronger, she was just a bully, and despite all her words about making Hebert stronger she was only lying to make herself feel better about it all.

That was right about the time I had started to realize that Terry’s mindset was far too limiting. Dividing people into two categories of Predator and Prey was...stupid. Weak people could become strong, like Emma had...or be strong in other ways. Terry was always saying that Mom was Prey, but she’d been strong enough to take on several jobs, and had never truly given up on any of her children...even after the things I did. People were more complex than that.

In other words, Predator and Prey was bullshit. Even if Emma embraced it, I’d evolved past it.

Still, I was afraid to abandon the closest thing I’d ever had to a friend. I heard Emma laughing, as Hebert finally managed to get away. I decided that this year, when school started in a few days, I’d try to focus more on other things. I had the Wards now, I was on the track team at Winslow, and my grades were so crappy that I could probably even get a tutor.

I held out a secret hope that Emma would just wake up, so I didn’t have to leave her. After being abandoned by my father, mother, and brother...I was too afraid to abandon my friend.

***

Excerpt from Shadow Stalker’s War Journal

Predator put a lot of time into me, and I like to think I paid him back in spades. Together, we took down easily a hundred drug dealers, closed down a few meth labs, and killed at least three drug kingpins. Tens of thousands of dollars in product destroyed, guns melted, and junkies saved.

Or at least, that’s what I had always thought. After two or so years together, I started noticing little holes in Predator’s stories. The way Predator was selling guns and drugs for money, how the drug rings we supposedly closed down never went away, and Predator seemed to grow ever richer. I finally started asking questions, doing research, and discovered he was a criminal!

Unfortunately, Predator caught on, and turned against me. He knew things about me...about my family, and also knew how dangerous I was as an enemy. So he gave me an ultimatum: I stay out of his district and leave him alone, and my mother and I are never troubled by his knowledge of my identity. I was so shocked that I accepted, and haven’t seen him since. 

Abandoned by my father, hated by my mother, betrayed by my teacher. Maybe that’s why I accepted Survivor so quickly. I had been fighting alone for so long, binding my own wounds and with nobody to watch my back, I got desperate. I needed a teammate, a confidant...a friend.

I was so desperate to keep her that I taught her everything, and that was my biggest mistake. She became just like Predator, with all his hate and none of my experience. I suppose that I should have seen it coming when I tried to leave her... 

...and she betrayed me just like he had. I’m crap at hindsight, after all.

[A Few Days Ago, Friday Dec 17]

“Haha, did you see her face when Veder insulted her?” Emma laughed, leaning on me as we waited for the others to arrive. “I thought she was going to break down right then and there.”

“Yeah, funny.” I looked at Emma out of the corner of my eye. “Hey, speaking of Veder, what was with you inviting him to this party of yours? I thought you said it was exclusive or something?”

“Party? Oh yeah, that reminds me.” She pulled out one of the burner phones I’d gotten her, and started texting someone. I had taken it off a drug dealer a while back, using it to spy on him, but eventually his friends stopped answering the texts. A few tweaks, and now it was just one of many spare phones. “I need to tell him where the ‘party’ is and give him the secret password.”

“Wait, so he really is coming to the party?”

“Pfft, of course not.” She leaned over, letting me peer over her shoulder. The address looked familiar. “Unless you mean the ‘nazi party.’ This should teach him not to bug me anymore.”

“Hold on.” I reached for the phone, but Emma turned and slid away, typing a few more things and moving across her room. “Emma, you can’t send that! That address is in E88 territory, and-”

“I know where it is, Sophia. You told me about it, after all. You had been scoping it out for a bit of vigilante work, in your ‘off-duty’ hours.” She grinned at me, looking up from her conversation with Veder. For a moment, I thought it was Terry smiling at me “Maybe that cape-nerd will get lucky and run into Alabaster or something. It’ll be an autograph he’ll never forget...”

I grimaced, then grabbed my things and started leaving. If I hurried, I could get there before Veder got shanked. He was annoying, but nobody deserved to be-

“Where do you think you’re going?” Emma put a hand out, examining her fingernails as if they’d stopped being perfect in the last few minutes. She gestured around her, at her room, clothes, and electronics. “Are you seriously throwing all this away over some creepy nerd? Are you just going to walk away from your best friend when she’s trying to have a little fun?”

“This isn’t fun, Emma. Criminals are one thing, but people like Veder and Hebert are just weak teenagers.” I glared at her, and she barely reacted. “If you weren’t so obsessed with hurting them, maybe you’d have noticed that I stopped being your friend a long time ago.”

“Obsessed?” She laughed, shaking her head and sauntering over to her computer. She took a seat, primly crossing her legs and started typing. “Speaking of obsessed, let me tell you before you leave about this case Daddy was just working on. It was about a man whose wife was obsessed with abusing him, and who tried to hire a hitman to kill him when he told the police.”

I put my shoes on and headed for the door, but she just kept talking, gesturing at the screen.

“The man was afraid she’d get away with it, so he put the videos of her away on a special server, with a built-in command to release them to the police and news agencies if he didn’t enter a password every few days.”

“Yeah, real interesting.” I rolled my eyes, turning the doorknob. “Nice knowing you. Bye.”

“Sure would be a shame if someone did that sort of thing with information on you , huh?”

I froze, slowly looking at Emma. She cocked her head towards her computer screen…

On her screen was a picture of me in my costume, mask removed. It had been taken right up close, as if the person with the camera was only a few feet away. She tapped a button, and it vanished, revealing countless videos and pictures. Emma smiled again, just like Terry had.

No...

“If you...if you...” I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach, and leaned back against the door. It was like I was in the car again, trapped and crying. “You can’t! You can’t do th-”

I have to get out of here, get to the PRT. They can stop her, destroy those files.

“I’m sure you could go running to the PRT or something,” she said, as if reading my mind. Emma moved to my side, her hand on my shoulder. Nails pricked my flesh lightly and she whispered, “Do you know how long before I have to enter the code again, or how easily I can make it all go out with nothing more than a phone call? Face it...you’re mine . My prey .”

“What do you want?” I whispered, my throat dry.

“Let me tell you about my latest plan for Taylor.” She leaned in, grinning as if it were some big secret. “I already have Madison gathering trash, and you’re going to help me put it somewhere special. By the time we get back from Winter Break, it’ll be good and ripe.”

Emma is a monster. I...made her into this. I passed Terry’s poison on to her. This is my fault.

“In the meantime, I’ve noticed that you have problems making friends, so you’ll be helping me become best friends again with Taylor. Fake sleepovers, meals, shopping, and everything else.” She made a little choking sound, wiping away an imaginary teardrop. With false sadness in her voice, she whined, “Oh Taylor, I was just so confused and scared, I wanted the older girls to like me. Please, won’t you forgive me? I just...I just want my friend back!”

“Why would she ever believe you?” I wanted to punch Emma, and not just because of this stupid plan. “You started all this saying you wanted to make her stronger, that she was your friend! Who the hell does something like this to a friend?”

“Oh silly, predators don’t have friends . You taught me that, remember?” Emma patted my cheek and walked across the room. “Besides, she already replied to my email that she wants to meet me tomorrow to ‘work things out.’ She’s so desperate to be my friend again, it’s pitiful! This way, when we get her in two weeks, it will utterly destroy her. Like giving a starving person food and then stomping on it after they take a few bites.”

I can’t go to the PRT. Can’t risk it. I need time. Time to come up with a plan. To fix this myself.

“Now get dressed, Sophia. We have a party to get to. Afterwards, we can make plans for the sleepover. I’m thinking just the three of us at first, and then a bigger one on New Year’s.” Emma started to write things down, putting little hearts above her i’s and using glitter ink. 

I can’t even tell my team, or they’ll get dragged down with me. I’m all alone again.

***

Excerpt from Shadow Stalker’s War Journal

I could only fight crime as a vigilante for so long before I slipped up, even with Survivor supporting me. She was useless in a fight, despite the lessons I tried to pass onto her, but she had friends in the legal system...so I managed to avoid jail. Problem is, I still got punished.

The punishment, in this case, was being press-ganged into joining the Wards. Sure, I got a fancy phone and some better armor than the homemade thing I’d been maintaining after I left Predator, but the job also came with the worst thing possible for a solo act...a team.

It wasn’t just that I hated them, but rather that I found it really hard to trust them. I had trusted Predator, and he both betrayed and blackmailed me. I had befriended Survivor, and she used my lessons to turn into the worst kind of bully...as well as dragging me and others into it. So when I was given a third chance to make some sort of connection, I fought it with all I had.

Most of the team reacted as I had thought they would. Clockblocker treated me like a joke, Kid Win acted like I was a threat, Gallant decided I was a delinquent, Aegis ignored me, and Triumph was gone before I could get a read on him. But Vista...she refused to give up.

Vista was familiar, and it took me a few weeks to realize why. She was a preteen who was desperate to prove herself, to grow stronger, to overcome adversity, and to be respected despite her age. She was Me, before Predator had gotten his hooks into me.

Maybe that’s why I stopped fighting her so hard. I had always wondered how I would have turned out if Predator had only taught me the good lessons. So without her knowing it, I started to end each of our exchanges with a lesson of some kind, hidden among my barbs and blows. I think she caught on, because suddenly she was laughing a lot more, and so was I.

We aren’t friends by any means, but we do respect each other. That’s good enough, I guess.

[Now]

“You know, anyone else might have called you out for texting while on Console Duty, but I’ll let it slide if you help me out…” A high-pitched voice startled me out of my daydreams, and I fumbled with my phone. It slipped out of my hands, flying through the air at the speaker, and a warning died on my lips as I saw who it was. 

The phone flew through the air, then seemed to just...hang there and shrink. I knew that it was an optical illusion of sorts, that the phone only looked like it was hovering or shrinking because the space between its destination and its location had been expanded by the space-distorting powers of the Wards’ youngest member, Vista. 

“Saving people from the horrors of a broken or cracked phone screen...” Nearly five seconds after the phone had left my fingers, it landed in the outstretched hand of a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. She returned space to its normal function and handed the phone back to me. “...truly, my talents are almost as underutilized as yours.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” I checked the phone over, then stashed it away as she took a seat. I’d been in a pretty bad funk, and the encounter with Gallant hadn’t made it any better, so I decided to go with an old standby. “What, you trying to be nice to me so Gallant will praise you for it? Maybe he’ll pat you on the head, like in Clockblocker’s anime?”

“N-no!” Vista couldn’t hide the slight blush that appeared on her cheeks, and she hurriedly held some papers I hadn’t noticed before in front of her face, pretending to read something. She swallowed whatever cutting remark she’d been chewing on, and replied, “He’s just looking out for us. I respect him as a friend and teammate. But, he does come down pretty hard on you.”

“I’ll bet you’d like him to come down hard on you, eh?” Euphemisms. It was her fault for setting me up like that, really. I pushed a bit more, cocking an eyebrow. “In your dreams. Right?”

“What the f-” Vista cut herself off, her face glowing with a mix of anger and something a 12-year-old probably shouldn’t have known. Vista gritted her teeth, swallowed, and tried to continue. “Ha, good one. But seriously, I’ll bet you’d be a lot happier if you were out on the streets, fighting criminals instead of pushing paper.”

“Okay, fine. You obviously want something enough to put up with my BS. What is it?”

“I want your help with a plan I intend to bring up to the Director. I’ve got an idea that could be a significant improvement for our ability to deal with criminals, as well as provide us an inside information source when it comes to certain crimes.” She spoke quickly and clearly, obviously having practiced this part. I waited for her to continue...but she had stopped for some reason.

“Sounds great. What’s the problem?” I pressed, then realized that I was one of the last people to come to when it came to ‘presenting ideas’ or dealing with criminals in ways that didn’t involve violence. “Also, why are you coming to me with this?”

“It’s not exactly a PR-friendly idea, and I’m pretty sure the Youth Guard would rather lock me up in the Birdcage than let me try this.” She grimaced, shaking her head. “If they had their way, then I wouldn’t even be able to leave Wards HQ for fear of hurting my delicate little body.”

“Yeah, that sounds a lot like them. I still remember when they argued that letting me keep my crossbow would risk me shooting my eye out.” We both laughed, having plenty of stories of how over-the-top the Youth Guard could be. Their preference for heavy-handed one-size-fits-all solutions made them more annoying than useful. “They think we’re all kids.”

“Exactly!” Vista started to get angrier than I expected, her face turning red and she turned away from me and started ranting at nobody in particular. “I know that the villains are older and bigger than me, but that doesn’t mean that I need to be treated like a baby. I’m told to trust the PRT, but they always lie about letting me do more and treat me like a child! It’s not fair!”

“Look, Vista, about this plan of yours…” I trailed off for a moment, giving her a start as she realized that she’d lost the plot. “I get how you feel trapped. I really do.”

“Your power is literally to pass through things and escape.” She glared at me.

“Yeah, but I didn’t always have this power.” I thought back to Mom’s disapproving glare, to Terry’s poisonous teachings, and to Emma’s blackmail. “Also, there are some things that you can’t escape even with a power like this. All I’m trying to say is that you’re getting too hung up on trying to prove yourself.”

“This from the person who always has to be the best at every physical competition we have with the other Wards?” Vista grinned and deepened her voice, “I know I’m an angry loner, but listen to this thoughtful life advice Vista. If we have more than one edgelord on the team, it might make me lose out on merchandising with the teenage emo crowd!”

“Oh, that’s what you think?” I grinned, despite myself, and pitched my voice as high I could. “Shadow Stalker, stop giving me good advice about patience! If I ever take a break  from kicking ass, I might accidentally enjoy my childhood a little. I need to spend all my time complaining about being treated like a child and talking about my Hookwolf scar too damn much.”

“I do not talk about that scar too much!” She got up, stomping a foot and puffing out her cheeks a bit. As if she realized what she was doing, she quickly looked away as I chuckled.

“You’re right, in fact I was kind of wondering how you got it.” I said with a straight face, cocking my head to the side. “I only heard a few details from Clockblocker, and it really looks like it hurt.”

“Well, I guess since you asked nicely…” Vista frowned and looked back at me, a far-away look in her eyes. “It wasn’t that long ago, but I was working alongside-”

“Just kidding,” I cut her off. I rolled my eyes with an exaggerated sigh. “You’ve told me something like a dozen times. I could probably recite the story better than you at this point.”

“What?!” She practically shouted, then turned towards me with murder in her eyes. “Why you-”

***

Gallant had been confused, to say the least, to return from his patrol and find Vista and I cracking up in front of the Console. She was telling me a story about the time Kid Win had tried to make the TV in the Wards common room have something called Smell-o-vision. Apparently he’d only gotten about twenty smells working, and had forgotten to make an ‘Off’ switch. 

Needless to say, Gallant was so uncomfortable that he just told us to have a nice night, then wandered off. Next thing I knew I was changing clothes, taking the bus home, and sighing. 

Mom was there, passed out on the couch with an empty bottle. I put a blanket over her and went up to my room, but I didn’t feel tired. 

Instead I just stood there, looking out the window.

Terry was blackmailing me to stay out of his part of town, and could unmask me any day. He could go after Mom anytime he wanted, or give me an even worse ultimatum.

Emma was doing the same, and I’d been the one to train her. I had passed Terry’s poison on to her, and she had used it to make me her attack dog.

Even if I told the PRT about either, the info might still get leaked, and Mom would be in danger.

All I could do was wait for an opening, hold my secrets, and keep trying to get stronger. 

Stronger than Terry. Stronger than Emma. Stronger than everyone else in the world.

They might have thought I was beaten, that I was defeated.

My war wasn’t over, not by a long shot.

*****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg may have escaped a dragon, the ABB, Hospital Security, the PRT, and the Protectorate, but can he stand up to the immense power of Disappointed Parents? 

Chapter Text

1.10: Understanding My Parents 

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

Being a parent can’t be easy. Not only are you responsible for yourself, but there’s also a kid in the mix. Regardless of their age, they’re going to get into trouble, make mistakes, and you have to be there (if you’re any good at it) every step of the way to deal with it.

Still, you can only do so much, because at a certain point you have to be willing to step back. You have to let them make mistakes, so that they can figure out how to succeed...usually from their failures. Your child is a reflection of you, and thus you share their failures...as well as working to make them hurt less.

I mean, just look at me! I screwed up all the time growing up, and continue to make mistakes to this day. Even though I’m working to make less of them these days, I’m partially driven by the memories of my parents sometimes being disappointed or confused by my accomplishments. I want to be better, to become a hero, not just for myself...but also for my parents.

My point is that parents have it really hard, and that some kids probably make it really hard to enjoy the job. But unlike some jobs, it’s not one that you can just give up on. 

As much grief as I give them, I’m glad mine never gave up on me!

GregV.

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

“-can’t believe he could be so thoughtless!” Mom was winding down, loud enough that I could hear her from upstairs. “We can’t just let him keep doing things like this, Stanley! What if the neighbors had seen him parading around in those clothes? Barefoot?”

“He came in from the backyard, Sandra, I’m pretty sure if they saw him it was because they were using a trampoline to look over the fence into our yard.” Dad smiled, but it was like pouring a can of soda on a forest fire. She just blazed right through it. 

I rubbed my face with the towel one more time, and then stared myself down in the mirror. To think, just a few hours ago I had looked into this very same mirror as my mind burned with hate and a need to prove myself, and then I’d gone out and made an ever bigger mess. At least in the past few minutes I’d managed to wash off all my blood and bone gunk, as well as cleaning the tub and pouring a healthy amount of bleach in after it all.

Just imagine if Mom noticed that the “fake blood” in the tub smelled suspiciously real.

I’d also taken off all the elements of my ABB cosplay, put them in a plastic bag, tied a big knot in it, and hidden it in my closet. Between the blood, sweat, bullet holes, and other elements of the “costume,” the last thing I needed was for someone to find it and connect it to anything. I’d seen enough TV to know that leaving evidence around was dangerous, so I’d dispose of it soon.

“Greg!” Dad’s voice hollered up at me, sounding like there wasn’t a single ounce of good humor left in his voice. “Get down here. It’s time for us to have a talk!”

Practically hearing a funeral march, I walked downstairs and sat on the couch. Mom and Dad were already there, pointedly ignoring me and just staring at each other.

Mom snuck a look at me and winced, and I realized she was reacting to the mangled mess that used to be my hair.

I’d always rocked an easy-going bowl cut before, finding it to be less stressful than other haircuts and never needing mousse or any products to keep in line. I doubted that she liked seeing what I (and the ABB) had done to it, and my attempts to even things out in the bathroom had left me with a butchered hairstyle that looked like something even Skidmark wouldn’t sport.

Both kept staring at each other, and the silence went on for nearly a minute. I cleared my throat nervously, and although both moved they still wouldn’t even glance in my direction.

I took the time to review the vague set of lies I had come up with in the shower, full of coincidences and half-truths. Thanks to George’s little makeup story earlier in the day, I could probably just work alongside that and say that I had-

“Explain yourself, Gregory,” Mom said suddenly, and then she finally looked at me with tearful eyes and a bit of a quaver in her voice. “The truth. Tell us what you were doing today. Please.”

All thoughts of outright lying shattered. Which was bad, because the truth was…

Dangerous. The truth is dangerous, and painful, and I’m afraid to say any of it.

***

“Okay, I just need a moment to figure out where to start...” I trailed off, closing my eyes and putting my chin on my fist in a classic thinking pose. “A lot has happened today.”

“Just start at the beginning, and then work your way forwards.” I popped open an eye to look at Dad, but there was no grin on his face (not even a smirk). This wasn’t Joke Dad...it was the rarely seen and seriously dangerous Serious Dad. I closed my eyes again, as he added, “We just want you to be honest with us, son. Tell us everything.”

That’s the problem though, Dad. There’s too much everything. It’s all a huge web of lies!  

If I explained my costume, then I’d have to explain why I was going out dressed like that, which would lead back to my powers, which would lead to my trigger, the E88, and...

If I explained my powers, then I’d have to tell them I’d gone out that night against their wishes, which would lead to the E88 story, Hookwolf, the PRT, the Protectorate, and...

If I told them I left the house because of my argument with George, then they’d go after him and he’d probably rat me out again , and...

If I explained my hair being a butchered mess, then I’d have to also set their minds at ease by saying that my second-degree burns had healed, because powers, and...

...and then one or both of my parents would have a heart attack, ground me for life, and force me to join the Wards. Not necessarily in that order. But that was the truth, and I absolutely positively couldn’t tell them most of it. 

If I told them one thing, I’d have to tell them other things as well. My entire day, hell my entire week ever since I’d gotten powers had become a huge Gordian knot of coincidences, problems, mistakes, and half-assed solutions. I was trapped in a spider’s web of problems and failures, and all it would take was one wrong step and they’d jump on me and reveal it all.

I felt myself start hyperventilating. My heart was pounding. Tears were leaking from my eyes.

“Greg?” Mom was standing beside me, her hand on my shoulder, and as I opened my eyes I saw her struggling not to look above my eyeline. She took a breath and said, “It may seem complex, and strange, but...we’re your parents. We’ll understand. But we can’t even try if you won’t talk to us. Please...”

Deep breath, Greg. Start with the part all three of you know, and go slowly...stay calm.

I managed to get myself under control, telling myself that I’d be avoiding anything power-related, and for some reason that helped me settle down. I just had to do it without outing myself as a parahuman, fake gang member, nazi-insulting antagonist, masked vigilante, or Lung-baiter.

“Well, you know how when you left, earlier today, I was in bed with a lot of...makeup on, and I just felt terrible.” From my many bruises and wounds, many of them self-inflicted, but I left that part out. Both parents nodded at me, and I took that as a signal to keep going. 

“George was less than happy with me, having had to cover for me. He also made sure that I understood how much the two of you were looking forward to us going out as a family.” I looked away, hoping that my reluctance would add to the believability and also keep them from prying too much. 

“Yes, it’s true that we wanted to go out together. The service today was beautiful, the weather nice, and a lot of our friends were there.” Dad nodded, then cocked his head at Mom and continued when she didn’t join in. “But it was more about being out as a family than anything else. We missed you when we were on that trip, Greg.”

“I know. I missed you guys as well. In fact, there was even a point where I ran into a small...problem, and found myself asking, ‘What would George do?’” That was true, and luckily they didn’t ask for the context. Speaking of George, this next part would be tough, because they would almost certainly talk to George about it...assuming that they hadn’t already. “After you guys left, the two of us talked and I...said some things I shouldn’t have. I even yelled at him.”

“We can talk about that later, Greg.” Mom dabbed at her eyes with a napkin, looking down at the floor as her other hand leaned on the wall. She shook her head slightly, gathering herself before finally glancing at me with a small smile on her face. “He only said that you’d been hard to talk to, and that he’d lost his temper when trying to express himself.”

“Well, we both did. I was trying to get him to understand that I had p-” I cut myself off, very nearly blowing it and outing myself as a cape. I quickly tried again, deliberately avoiding looking at either. “Problems. I had some problems with him treating me like a kid.”

“He is your older brother.” Dad drawled, and I could practically see him glancing at Mom. “You always looked up to him, and he always took care of you.”

“Yeah, but this time I didn’t need him to!” I didn’t exactly shout it, but I still felt like it had been too much. “No, I mean, he made me look like a fool, as if I didn’t know how to read the labels on makeup or art supplies. So I told him to cut it out, and we fought-”

“You hit your brother?” Mom’s voice was sharp, and I instantly felt anger...and then shame for getting angry at my own mother. Besides, why should I be mad at her for assuming that I was the one at fault, or that I’d made a snap decision like that? It was totally in character for me.

“Greg, you need to use your words to-”

“I didn’t hit George! I just wanted him to quit treating me like a kid, like I was pretending to be a hero!” I shouted, this time for real. I looked up and saw both of them looking confused, so I added, “I threw on some clothes, went out to...think.”

“Where did you go?”

“Just...out!” Neither parent looked like they believed me. To be honest, I don’t think any parent ever has believed a kid who claimed Out to be an actual location. I quickly threw some more fuel on the fire, before I could stop myself. “I met some people, and we hung out.”

“Who were these people? Friends? What were their names?” Dad asked, looking worried.

“Some kids I’ve seen before, I don’t know their names.” Mom’s mouth opened, but I tried to cut her off before she could give another lecture about gangs and drugs. “Sure, yes, one might have been a gang kid, but I was afraid to-”

“Afraid? They took you somewhere against your will?” Dad stepped forward, putting a hand on the phone. “Did they threaten you? Were they armed?”

“No, only one of them was armed.” I stopped, and waved my hands as Dad started to pick up the phone. “I mean, he had a gun, but it wasn’t...I mean...wait! Calm down, please!”

“How can you say that? Where is this gun?” Dad picked the phone up, finger going towards the buttons. “I’ll call the police! They need to-”

“It’s gone!” I shouted, miming the way Lung had crushed it. I started babbling, panicking at the thought of my parents getting the police involved and just threw out words all out of order. “Lung crushed it in his hand, the ABB ran away, the wine bottles exploded, and then the building collapsed while I ran to the hospital!”

“In his…then the building...collapsed...” Mom trailed off, then put her face in her hands. Her shoulders began to shake. Dad hung up and quickly crossed the room, placing his hand on her back and leaning in. He whispered something to her, and I could hear her voice crack slightly as she replied. “Wine bottles, Stanley. They exploded.”

For a moment, I thought that I’d made her start crying, but instead she let out a laugh. When she took her hands away and lifted her head, I could see tears, but now she was laughing much louder than before. 

Oh no, I broke them. I broke my parents...

She whispered something to Dad, and he let out a snort.  Then he was laughing as well. They hung onto each other, letting out laughter as I stood there in confusion.

Both of them spared a glance for me, started laughing again, and then waved at me in the universal gesture for Stay and left the room.

...what the hell just happened?

***

Laughter was a new reaction to my screwups, and that told me I was in deep shit.

They were definitely madder than the time I’d snuck into the movies to see a movie that they’d forbidden me from seeing. They were probably more disappointed than the time I’d climbed a tree to save a cat and gotten stuck. They were almost definitely more annoyed than the time I’d wrecked George’s flour baby and then lied about it. Just waiting for punishment was killing me.

Luckily I didn’t have to wait very long, as they soon came back through the door, both shaking their heads and talking about something. All I could make out was the words right at the end, as Dad saying, “...aside from Carol Cleveland, all the female roles were played by the male members of Monty Python, so it’s not that much of a stretch. Kind of brave, really.”

“True, but we still need to balance that with disobeying us.” Mom replied, then both turned to see my confusion and wiped the small smiles off their faces. After another glance at each other, they finally approached and Dad sat beside me as Mom began to pace a little. 

So, we’re using the normal punishment setup now? What’s going on?

“Greg, your father and I have talked, and we’ve decided that as proud of you as we are for getting yourself cleaned up and making some new friends…” Mom started, then sighed and shook her head before sending a small frown at me. “We can’t excuse the fact that you went out after you were expressly grounded for the day. Even if it was to do something you love.”

“Yes, and as much as I look forward to seeing this new video you’re making and the work you put into that costume of yours, you still left the house. I also want to talk to you about dressing up like a member of the ABB.” Dad shook his head and talked over me as I started to explain. “No, no, I get it. But, Greg, you have to be careful with this sort of thing, especially in a town that literally has a gang whose first two rules are ‘Asians rule’ and ‘Everyone else drools.’”

Wow, if there was ever any doubt that he was my father, that’s long gone.

“Your father’s right, honey.” Mom spoke up, then smiled uneasily as she looked off into the distance. “You want to tear down social norms and play parts that aren’t necessarily made for you, but playing the part of an Asian gang member isn’t just a face that you can put on and take off. There are some books I want you to read, if this is something you really want to do again.”

“Exactly, son. There’s more to a part than just reading lines and wearing a costume. I’m not sure if you understand the consequences that art can carry for a teenager. You’re young, after all.”

Wait, they just want to talk to me and have me read some books? I expected at least a month-

“Greg, you’re grounded for a week.” Dad said, then held up a hand to cut off any complaints I had. I’d actually accepted their punishment, but had to at least pretend to argue or they might have given me worse. “Now, now. We’ve made our decision. You got off light, Greg.”

“Yes, I think that while it was admirable for you to try and fix the makeup issue yourself, it was still dangerous and showed a lack of common sense.” Mom added sternly, looking at me as she sighed and shook her head. “You could have run into a gang, gotten hurt, or even run across someone who actually had dangerous powers or weapons.”

Don’t say a word. Don’t say that I ran into a gang (on purpose), got hurt (a lot), and ran across MANY people with dangerous powers and weapons. 

I nodded silently, but Mom kept looking at me oddly. She cocked an eyebrow at me.

“Was there something else, Greg?” 

“No, nothing else that really comes to mind.” I lied, looking her in the eye and letting my fake smile slowly fade. “Just thinking about the next few days, is all. Lots of time at home.”

“Well I’m sure looking forward to it, Greg.” Dad grinned, a decent amount of his old self shining through. “It means you get to spend the next few days helping us with chores. Fun ones, too! Decorating the house, cooking food for the festivities, buying a tree and getting it all spruced up. Although in our case, we’ll stick to a fir tree instead of a spruce, haha!”

I tried to fake a chuckle at Dad’s remarks, but they cut off when I noticed that Mom was still looking at me oddly. Luckily, she decided not to press me, and gestured at the stairs.

“Great, now come along. I need to see what I can do to salvage your hair.” She looked me over, being just a few inches taller than me and poking at my scalp as I passed her. I winced, and she muttered, “I hate to give you a buzz cut, but it looks like that might be the best option. Seriously, it looks like you burned half of your hair off and then attacked it with a chainsaw.”

“Maybe I got attacked by a dragon…” I trudged up the stairs.

“Ha! Don’t even joke about that.” Mom shook her head, coming up the stairs behind me. “There’s only one dragon in this town, and if he ever comes within a block of any of you...I’ll turn into a dragon myself and eat him alive.”

A minute later, as she chopped and evened my hair even further (at least it would be easier to take care of now), I idly wondered who would win in a fight...Mom or Lung?

Hmm, even without powers Mom is a total badass...so it’d probably be a draw.

***

Later that night, just after Mom and Dad’s lights had gone off, I was at my computer. 

It had certainly been an eye-opening experience for me, in more ways than one. Sure, I had learned a lot about my powers, as well as their limitations, but the cost had been pretty high. I’d nearly died several times, had nearly been arrested, had been shot, burned, busted, and blown up...and finally grounded at the end of it.

I wanted to stop running, to stop making it up as I go along. Wish I could actually ask for help.

Unfortunately, I was still kind of...banned from posting on PHO.

I won’t get into the whole thing, but about a day before I’d triggered I had maybe sort of gotten into an argument with someone about the relationship between Assault and Battery. I still say that if you look at the interviews, it’s obvious that they’re married, but I probably didn’t absolutely need to use that many four-letter words to express my opinion. 

My Posting Ban still had...47 hours left on it, so all I could really do was read threads on a few Public Boards and send messages to people on my Friends list. Sorry, person. I had 1 Friend. 

GstringGirl , my mysterious friend and confidant, who I was about 68% was actually a girl. I didn’t really care that much about it, when you got right down to it, but I still had a habit of reading things from her (mentally) in a female voice. I’d never convinced her to send me pictures or any information, but it still would have been nice to know one way or the other.

On the other hand, the Internet is a dangerous place. I can’t blame her for being cautious.  

What mattered was that she was my friend, had ideas, and most of all...was actually awake at 10pm on a Sunday night. After some light banter about minor things, I started to talk to her about my current situation. To avoid being too vague, as well as outright lying to her, I was going back to my old plan of pretending that I was doing all this for a “friend.” I was my own friend (my only friend?) in a way, so this was at least in the ballpark of being true.

Still, talking to her was making me realize how much I missed...people. 

GstringGirl : so what was the thing you wanted to ask?

Me : Hypothetical. What would you do to help a friend with family problems who got powers?

GstringGirl : the problems got powers? how does that work? 

Me : What? No, I mean a teen who got powers, but had family problems first.

GstringGirl : what kind of family probs? abusive or something? Villains? why do u ask?

Me : Nothing that bad, like just always dumping on him and grounding him

GstringGirl : wait, is this another self-insert fanfic? 

Me : ...sure, let’s go with that. What would you do in his place?

GstringGirl : first i gotta know: what powers?

Me : Power-copy, but they kind of mess with your mind and body.

GstringGirl : i was gonna say OP, but that sounds like it could be nightmare fuel

Me : Yeah, so you can see how having parents always crapping on him too would be bad.

GstringGirl : are they, though? or are they just being parents, with tough love and stuff

Me : What’s that supposed to mean?

GstringGirl : my mom’s real strict, but i know she loves me because of everything else

Me : Wouldn’t bad parents get worse if they knew he had powers?

GstringGirl : they’re still his parents. maybe they’d get better if they had a reason to?

Me : What about besides the parents? Could he go to anyone else?

GstringGirl : needs a support network, that’s most important

Me : What, like a phone line he could call?

GstringGirl : anything works. friend. therapist. prt. sassy ai. magical golf caddy...

Me : ...wait, so you finally saw Legend of Bagger Vance ?

GstringGirl : yes! so glad, too, because denzel washington was so dreamy. dat voice!

Me : Well, if you like that, then you’ll love him in Men in bla smdkamsmlkskdmk-

I didn’t actually type that last part. Rather, I was startled because at that moment, Dad opened my door and I had mashed the keyboard by accident. Knowing what was coming, I quickly typed out, gotta go bye , and hit the button to shut down my computer.

“Greg.” He motioned with his hands for me to move back, and I did so wordlessly. He moved forward, easily stepping around the piles of clothes and books in the dim light, and knelt in front of my desk. “I’m sorry son, but I heard you tapping away and...if I don’t do this now then your Mom is going to do it in the morning. Grounded means grounded, and that means no computers.”

A minute later, he returned and held out his hand. “Phone too, son. Sorry.”

“No, I get it.” I sighed, handing him my phone. He tried to smile at me, but it just looked tired. I felt the same way, honestly. As he turned to leave, I was suddenly struck by a feeling of guilt. “Hey Dad?”

Hypotheticals worked with GstringGirl...can they work on Dad? One way to find out...

“Yes, Greg?” He turned back and looked at me, and for a moment all I could think of was the way GstringGirl had talked about therapists and support networks, and how Kalpin and Hobson had suggested that I talk to my parents. Looking at my Dad, just then, it was hard not to at least try and say something about the whole matter.

“If I ever…” I trailed off, then shook my head and started over. “Hypothetically, if I ever did end up with powers...what would you and Mom do?”

“If you-” Dad furrowed his brow, then looked down at his feet before looking back up at me. He stared at me for several seconds, an unreadable expression on his face, before letting out a yawn. He shook his head, smiled, and then chuckled. “Sorry, guess I’m more tired than I thought. How about we talk about this tomorrow, instead?”

“Hah, yeah.” I faked a yawn, then moved towards my bed as he left. “Good night, Dad.”

“Good night, Greg.” He shut the door. 

I didn’t get in bed, though. I didn’t even sit on the bed. Instead, I took a deep breath and punched my pillow. I had been so close to just being honest with them, and ran away again!

I crossed the room almost at a run, opened my door, and stalked across the hall. I stood outside my parents’ closed door, and gathered my thoughts...gathered my courage...and then lifted my hand to knock. My heart was pounding, but I had to-

I stopped, because I heard Dad say my name...and then froze in place as he kept talking.

“-just asked me what I would do if he actually got powers.” Dad said, his voice easily carrying through the door. I knew Mom’s voice was a bit softer, and this was almost as good as talking to them, so I leaned in a bit and stayed quiet. 

This was just a preview, I’m not spying on them. I’m just being polite, testing the water. Yeah.

“What did you say?” Mom replied, sounding confused. “Did you tell him that we’d love him no matter what?”

“Nah, that’s such a canned answer.” Dad was right, but it was still strange to hear him actually say it. “Besides, if I said something like that, then he’d feel even more motivated to keep burying himself in all that parahuman stuff. I thought we agreed that we wanted to start helping him find outside interests?”

“You think I haven’t tried? I give him new books and recommend movies all the time, and I seem to recall I was the one who got him interested in filmmaking.” Mom moved a bit, and then sighed. “Sorry, I’m just so worried about him. He doesn’t have any friends, spends all his time on the computer, and now he’s getting so into this cape stuff that he ignores basic safety. I feel like such a terrible mother sometimes.”

“Don’t say that!” Dad’s voice was louder than before, and then he quieted down. “Never say that, Sandra. We both know that Greg is different from George, and we love him for all the differences. Do I wish that he had interests that I could understand, that he had friends I can meet who aren’t just anonymous people online? Of course! But not understanding our son doesn’t make us bad parents. Loving him doesn’t mean we can’t be confused by him.”

“What does it mean, then? I’m just so...” Mom’s voice had a tone to it, and it took me a moment to realize she was crying. I had made my mother cry, without even being in the same room as her. “How can we get through this? He’s just going to drift further away, keep acting out to get attention...how are we supposed to deal with that when everything we’ve tried has failed?”

“We just keep trying new things, no matter what.” Dad’s voice was soft. I heard Mom’s crying taper off, heard her sniffle and blow her nose. She wasn’t usually someone who cried a lot, but she’d always had powerful emotions. 

She’s always been such a force of nature. Mom was strong enough to get a black belt in Judo, and had the trophy to prove it. She was dangerous enough to get extra funding for her library when the county threatened to cut her budget, bringing in hundreds of protestors. She was unyielding at the grocery store when someone tried to steal the last container of crab dip. 

To hear her cry, and to know that it was my fault...it almost brought me to tears. Somehow, I held them back, and just let my nose run and my eyes water as I kept listening.

“We don’t give up on him, no matter what.” Dad continued. “Sure things have changed since we were kids...but we need to be willing to accept that being a kid has changed as well. He’s still our kid, no matter what he likes, no matter how he dresses, no matter what powers he does or doesn’t have. We’ll support Greg, just like we did for George, and like both of them do for us.”

There was a long minute when Dad just held Mom, and I heard her get up and run some water in their bathroom. I stood motionless, waiting until I’d heard the bedsprings creak again and the covers slide into place. Then she spoke.

“You’re right. If what we’re doing now isn’t enough, then tomorrow we just need to try harder.” Mom had some of the steel back in her voice, and I found myself smiling. “I don’t care what he looks like, how he identifies, or how far he drifts away...I’ll always be here to love him and pull him back. First thing tomorrow, we’ll redouble our efforts to reach him. We’ll help him find a path that makes him happy, friends who will respect him, and we’ll do it as a family.”

“Damn straight!” Dad said, and then let out a noise as Mom poked him. They both began to whisper, and I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying. 

I was just about to head back to my room when I heard Dad chuckle, “Sorry, it was just such an inspirational speech. Reminded me of that time you told my Dad off for trying to light up a cigar after you gave birth to George. I thought he was going to leap out the window to escape!”

“Yeah, I certainly had a way with that man!”

“I think you have a way with all men.” Dad murmured, and then shifted around. “Lucky for me, I’m the one who gets you all to himself.”

“Oh, you want me all to yourself? How about this? Do you want this?” I heard a shifting noise, and furrowed my brow as I tried to figure out what-

Ten seconds later, I was back in my bed, trying desperately to forget the sound of my parents getting... intimate . I slipped on my headphones, annoyed that I didn’t have any music for them.

Some nice music might have helped me get my mind off things, things like my parents having s-

No, even worse. They just confirmed that they're going to spend the next week trying to "fix" me. 

I had always suspected it, seeing the way their eyes would always glaze over when I talked about my interests. I knew that I confused them, but to hear it from their own mouths was something else entirely. 

How do I handle this? Do I just pretend to go along with their whole plan? Do I want to?

They were going to spend the next week giving it their all to make me into something I wasn’t, all under the guise of love and support. Meanwhile, I was trapped in the house for a week with powers I couldn’t use (unless a parahuman paid a visit) and with no computer or phone.

This next week was going to be hell.

******************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: So, Greg’s parents love him more than he thought, even if he doesn’t know how to be honest with them. Surely Christmas is the best time for them to come together and...no? That’s not what happens? Well, how bad could it be? It’s just a week trapped in a house with the parents who are...desperate to...help you...oh.

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.”

I used to be head over heels in love with Time Travel. Books, movies, comics, fanfiction...really, any mention of it as a concept and I would be in at the ground floor. My eyes would drink it in like the finest wine, my brain would memorize it like the greatest works of our age, and my mouth would spout it like the praises of a higher power we were blessed to witness.

I think it was mainly because I grew up as such a nerd, and the idea of someone both creating and using an amazing bit of tech without needing powers was just incredible to me. It filled me with a certain amount of hope to see that even normal people could do amazing things, if they threw themselves entirely into a field of study. 

But as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. I eventually burned out on Time Travel, and to this day I just have no interest in it. More than that, when I see it in a movie or book, I can’t help but roll my eyes and prepare to be disappointed. No matter how much I want to love it.

What does this have to do with this journal entry? Well, after my experience with the ABB I was grounded. I was forced to spend a week at home with parents who seemed dead-set on “fixing” me. After 6 days of this, even on Christmas Eve, I was about ready to break something.

I’m not saying family can breed contempt, because I still love them no matter what. They may yell at me, punish me, be disappointed in me, and try to control me...but they’re my parents. I think that’s just part of the job, and I’ve come to expect and understand that.

Still, sometimes I feel like they’re trying to choke the life out of me.

-GregV.

***

[Friday, Dec 24, 2010]

“Hold still, Greg.” Dad ordered, his hands around my throat, as I struggled to breathe. 

“Ghrk.” I wisely suggested, trying not to move as my lungs slowly starved.

“Yes, I know, but this is really your own fault,” he admonished me, adjusting his grip. I heard the sound of cloth sliding on cloth, and noticed my vision was starting to go fuzzy around the edges. “I think I’ve just about…”

“Gaah!” I gasped, falling back on his bed as suddenly my throat was freed, and Dad took a step back. I massaged my neck and took deep breaths of delicious air. “Dad, you nearly killed me!”

He wasn’t paying attention to me. In his hands was a length of cord he had called a “tie,” but I now recognized as a fancy form of torture. It may have felt good on my skin, but despite following his directions (mostly), it had nearly been my end. All from just pulling too hard.

“Huh, I’ll be honest son.” Dad claimed, holding up what looked like some sort of lazy-yet-stylish tentacle monster. “I have no idea how you did this. This isn’t even close to a half-windsor. I’m almost tempted to reverse-engineer it and send it in for a patent or something.”

“As a torture device, maybe.” I grumbled, getting to my feet and trudging to the door. “I’m going to my room to write my will, just in case you try something like this again.”

“Okay.” He muttered, then suddenly jerked and ran for the door, leaning out to call down the hall before I could close my door. “Don’t forget, you promised to help me find that dead bulb so we can turn the lights back on!”

“Got it.”

“If the sun goes down then we’ll be the only house on the block without lights, so I’ll be sure to come remind you.” He paused, then smiled a big fake smile. “I’m glad we’re getting to spend so much time together, son. This grounding has been a blessing in disguise, huh?”

I shut my door without a reply, then crossed the room and flopped down hard on my bed.

This grounding has been exactly as terrible as I thought it would be. 

Let’s start with Mom, who I was giving the most leeway because I’d driven her to tears fairly recently. She wasn’t just handing me a few books, oh no...she was actually sitting down with me and reading a copy alongside me. She’d picked up a bunch of books on depression, making friends, film history, Brockton Bay, and more...and after every few chapters she’d ask me questions and we’d have to talk about things. I was actually doing homework on my break!

Of course, at least that was only words, because the rest of her tasks involved more cleaning than I’d ever done in my life. She’d forced me to clean my room top to bottom, taught me to do laundry, and had me doing all the dishwashing, scrubbing, and other chores she could think of. She’d even tried to teach me to cook, and the only reason that had stopped was because the neighbors told us that our smoke alarm was making their dog howl too much.

Dad got into the act whenever Mom needed a break from me. He got the idea from somewhere that physical labor built character. Every waking moment I wasn’t with Mom I was with him, moving things around and carrying heavy boxes out of the attic. Sometimes I thought he was just letting me struggle with them for fun, but eventually he’d come and lend me a hand.

I’ll admit that the last part wasn’t so bad, since it led to the two of us decorating the house together. This was the first year Dad had let me actually climb on the roof to help, and even though a lot of the lights had burnt out, it had been really cool the way he trusted me. It actually felt kind of cool. Like it was just the two of us, up there alone and away from everyone.

...but it couldn’t last, because earlier this morning George had shown up, and it was back to the “George and Parents Show, with occasional Guest Star Greg.” Almost instantly they told me to get up to my room and get changed, while they greeted George. I’d stood at the top of the stairs, listening quietly as they begged him to be “nice to Greg” this week. Then they called me down for lunch. 

George was...cordial, if nothing else. I could tell he wanted to say something, but he kept glancing at our parents and then changing the subject whenever I tried to talk to him. Eventually I just gave up, and let the conversation flow on without me. Since I wasn’t joining in, George didn’t have to keep looking at our parents for the okay, and I barely paid attention to him as he talked about his job and relationship.

For instance, apparently Melody had been invited to help her bosses at Medhall with setting up some kind of big event in Boston. When they asked what the event was, George called it the “Medhall White Christmas Spectacular.” I immediately stopped caring when he made sure to add that Melody wished us all a Merry Christmas…“even Greg.”

After the meal (I did the dishes) I tried to talk to George again, but to no avail. He was cagey around me, spending all his time on the phone with Melody, and acting odd. Even as I walked back to my room massaging my throat, I waved at him. He smiled, started to say something, paused, and then sighed and walked away. It was really wearing me down, fast.

As I lay in bed trying not to think about George’s odd behavior or my upcoming light sorting with Dad, I reflected on what had probably been the biggest annoyance of the last six days: my Powers. 

Not that the powers themselves were a problem, they were great. The annoying thing was my mind was practically overflowing with ideas, theories, and questions. I had a theory on why I hadn’t been able to copy two powers from Lung. I had a theory on how to control the personality bleed I’d gotten from Lung and Velocity. I had a theory on other powers I could test.

Theory, theory, theory...and none of them were testable because I was trapped at home, away from parahumans, and being interrupted every five minutes !

I had tried more than once to come up with an excuse to leave the house, even for a little bit, but nothing was working. Obviously meeting friends was out, since they’d want to talk to these friends, and I didn’t actually have any. But even inviting them to go with me was failing, like when I said that I had some last minute Christmas shopping to do. They’d just looked at each other, sighed, and said that spending the week with me was the real gift.

Every. Single. Time. After six days of it I was going insane . It’s a wonder I managed to doze off.

Then I woke up...and things got really bad.

***

“Greg, wake up buddy, it’s time for us to go fix those lights.” Dad’s hand shook me, and I awoke to see his smiling face. According to my clock it was 4pm. “Put on some warm clothes, we might be up there for a while. Needle in a haystack!”

I followed his directions without complaint, putting on a hooded jacket, jeans, and boots with good grip. It was fairly warm for late December, but supposedly we were due for a big cold front. The sooner we found that light, the sooner I could go back inside, so I headed to the ladder.

“Hold up there, pal!” He waved at me to stop, and I looked at him in confusion...that turned to annoyance as George followed him out. “I was actually thinking we could all three of us do this. Your Mom is cooking up a nice dinner, and it’ll be a great way for us Veder men to bond!”

Several minutes later, I was realizing that I should have gone up the ladder while I had the chance. Now, rather than helping Dad with a boring job that had the minor added excitement of being on a roof while I did it...I was standing in place and holding a ladder. Dad was at the top, unhooking Christmas lights and handing them to George, and he was searching them one-by-one for the one that flickered a bit. Also, he still wasn’t talking to me.

In other words, this isn’t just boring...it’s also quietly and annoyingly boring.

Even having George clear his throat every few seconds didn’t help. Seriously, get a cough drop!

Then I saw an opportunity to bring this bore-fest to an end, and even emerge as the hero in my own way. Dad had gone up on the roof, messing with the cluster of lights near the chimney, and George was mindlessly going over the same dozen or so lights over and over. 

And over and over and over and over and...wait, what’s that?

A light that flickered a bit before going out again. 

The Bad Light.

I had no idea how George was missing it, though. He had passed over it several times, and when I looked at his face I saw him giving me a little smile.

“Have any of those lights gone bad, George?” Dad called down, letting out a little grunt as he tried to undo the metal wire he’d used up there days before. “If not, then this cluster’s our last chance before we have to start over.”

I looked at George, saw him meet my eyes, saw him look down again, and then heard him answer, “Still looking, Dad!”

Is he...is he messing with me? Has he been doing that this whole time?

My blood started to boil as I saw George look up at me again and then back down at the light.

“What the hell are you doing?” I whispered at George, pointing at the Bad Light. “Why aren’t you telling him about that? This is the second time we’ve been over this batch of lights!”

“I’m trying to give you a win, just take it.” He motioned as if to hand me the lights, dropping a few bundles of wire and looking confused when I didn’t approach to take them. “Look, I remember what it’s like to have both Mom and Dad pressuring you, and being stuck with them while grounded. I just want to help you out, so take the lights and tell Dad already!”

“First of all, when have you ever been grounded, let alone punished by Mom and Dad?” I cut him off with a hiss and a wave of my hand. “Second...what, so you think I’m so desperate that I can’t succeed without you doing all the work? Forget this, I’m going back inside.”

Annoyed, he moved towards me to try and hand me the bundle of lights. I guess he must have tripped on a loose cable, though, because suddenly the lights were on the ground and he was smashing into the ladder. I reached for him, but I was too slow. 

With a loud crash, the ladder fell over and George landed on top of it. 

“Boys? What’s going on? Everything okay?” Dad clomped along the rooftop, stopping at the edge and looking down at us.

At that exact moment, Mom burst out the front door with a towel over one shoulder and a worried expression on her face. I could hear the sink running from inside the house.

Both of them saw George lying on the fallen ladder, groaning in pain. They saw a bundle of Christmas lights on the ground. They saw me...standing there frozen, staring at my hands. Hands that were still stretched out, too slow to catch my brother…

I felt like the whole world stopped for a moment, like I wasn’t even breathing. 

***

Okay, I can just calmly explain things. It worked with Kalpin and Hobson. As long as I just-

Then the shouting started, and I felt my breath catch in my throat. I’d never seen them so mad.

“Greg, what did you do?” Dad shouted down, his face red and his eyes angry. “How could you?”

No. I didn’t do it. Dad, you know I’d never do this. Don’t you?

“George! My baby!” Mom rushed out to George, gingerly reaching for him and trying to check him for injuries. He seemed okay, but as my foot scuffed on the pavement from me staggering back a bit, she whirled around with fire in her eyes. “Greg! What have you done?”

I didn’t do anything. He tripped. I tried to help him. He was trying to help me.

“It’s okay, Mom.” George tried to get up, leaning on the fallen ladder and then shifting as his hand slipped on it. He made it to a crouch, and looked down to see that his hand was slick with blood from a sharp edge on the old ladder. “I was trying to help him and I tripped.”

Is George taking my side? Why won’t they listen? Why do they still look so mad?

“Let us handle this, George.” Mom cut him off...then stepped between George and I. Her eyes searched my face, and both her hands came up in a defensive stance I recognized from her Judo days. “Greg, honey, just calm down okay? Use your words.”

Are you...are you defending him from me? Are you ready to fight me? My own mother?

“Greg, you can’t do this to family.” Dad said, and I couldn’t even look at him. “We have to-”

“No!” George shouted, surprising Mom and Dad enough that they both turned to face him. He looked angry, but not at me for once. He glared at Dad and then turned to Mom, and stood shakily to his feet. “Greg didn’t do anything! I just tripped, that’s all. I had a lot of lights in my hands, and tripped on the cord. Stop blaming Greg for this.”

George...even after all the shit I gave you, you still...love me?

“Oh George, you don’t need to make things up to defend your brother.” Mom said, looking back at me and moving slightly to the side. She was still blocking me from even getting to him. “We know that he has difficulties, and we’ll never be able to help him if you just-”

This is too much. I’m done. I can’t take it. This is...hilarious, actually.

I started laughing, slowly at first and then much louder. It only lasted five or ten seconds, but by the time I was done I could see that all three of them had their eyes on me, and had gone silent. I started to turn away, thinking that maybe I could walk away, cool my head, let George explain-

No.

I stopped, taking a deep breath and forcing myself to calm down. Screaming like Bellows had gotten me in trouble. Running away would have gotten Kalpin and Hobson killed. Leaving now would only prove them right. It would only prove that I was a scared, desperate child.

I had all these reasons why I felt bad around my parents, why being around George was so difficult, why I kept screwing up. I could only do so much to improve myself before I had to admit that I wasn’t the cause of all my problems. It was time to be honest, and confront them.

I’m done running . I’m done hiding

I locked my knees and turned back around, approaching and coming to a halt fifteen feet from Mom and George. I started talking...trying to keep my voice loud and steady. I tried to remember the confidence I’d felt with Lung’s powers. The bravery, the sense of justified confrontation.

I was going to have to come clean and face my problems head on. 

I just never stopped to think that one of my problems was... my family .

“Why is it that even when I’m actually not at fault, even when I have George on my side, you two still find a way to make this all about me being a broken, disappointing, useless child?” I shook my head and took a deep breath, then let it out. “I’m done. This isn’t all my fault. I can’t keep hoping it’ll get better when you keep doing this. I’m going to take a walk, let us all cool off.”

“Greg, you can’t just run-” Mom started to say something, but I didn’t care anymore.

“No, Mom. I’m not running from anything. I’m being honest, just like you wanted.” I shook my head and smiled sadly at her. My voice was calm, almost jovial, and I just felt years of pent-up annoyance pouring out of me as I addressed her. “For instance, you have to realize by now that throwing a bunch of books at me isn’t going to magically help me make friends or make me less of a social outcast. Books can’t fix everything, but it’s all you seem to know.”

“I just wanted-” She started to respond, but I was already looking at Dad.

“Dad, you are a master class of mixed signals. If I fail you laugh it off and if I succeed you make a joke! No matter what, I always feel like some kind of family clown, like nothing I do matters. Laughter isn’t the best medicine...because it doesn’t make things better .”

Dad stayed silent, and for that I thanked him because I needed a moment after that. I looked at George, and saw that he was leaning on Mom. His hand was slick with blood. My fault .

“George, I’m done. You can have them. You’ll always be seen as the smart, strong, brave kid and I’ll be the dumb, weak, cowardly failure.” I shrugged theatrically, then waved a hand at them all. “No matter how hard I try, you’ll always come out ahead. Even when you have my back, I’m still their favorite scapegoat. So...why should I even bother to stick around in your shadow?”

And with that, it’s time to let them think about things. Exit stage left. But before I go...

“You’re a happy family of a Mom, a Dad, and a son. I’ll just get out of your lives for a few hours, maybe do some Christmas shopping. Is that okay with you guys?” I waited a moment, then started to walk away. I felt so drained, I was sure I’d fall over if I didn’t keep moving. “Good.”

“Greg!” Dad shouted, and I turned back to see him standing on the roof staring at me. I felt a moment of fear when it looked like he was considering leaping off the roof. Mom and George were both motionless, looking up at him. In the end, though, Dad just sighed and said, “Greg...I know we might not always show it well, but we trust you, son. Just...make sure you come back, okay?”

“Of course!” I gave a little hollow laugh, as though the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. “Couple of hours, tops. Mom’s making her sweet potato pie, and I’m still grounded anyway.”

With nothing else to say, I nodded and then walked away. Behind me, I heard them talking.

Inside, I was trembling, but this was a good thing, right? For once, I hadn’t run away from my problems. I had finally stood up to my parents, gotten it all out there about how I felt. I had told them what was wrong, like an adult. I had kept calm, instead of screaming and crying like usual.

I handled that very well, I think. Now, no more thinking about it. Time to enjoy my freedom!

Now, I would go to the Boardwalk, where I didn’t have to think about families.

***

The Boardwalk part of Brockton Bay held many shops, food stalls, souvenir stands, and even a small ice skating rink. Given that it was Christmas Eve, I figured that most people would be home with their families, and that I could brood in peace. Sure, it was unseasonably warm and the sun was still up, but most families would probably be home, right?

Nope. Probably should have seen this coming.

There were at least a hundred people milling about, all of them filled with holly jolly spirit and talking about everything from presents to weather to peace on earth and goodwill towards others. Men, women, children, teenagers, and a variety of dogs. They mostly ignored me, even the dogs, because they had each other.

I was just the broody kid sitting alone on a bench at the edge of the fun, doing my best not to think about how I’d just told off my parents and brother. I still felt like I was in the right, but my old enemies of Anxiety and Self-Doubt were starting to creep in like a pair of hungry vultures.

I was staring around, watching other people have a merry Christmas and feeling my body slowly go numb despite the fairly warm weather...even as the sun slowly began to sink below the horizon. I was looking for anything, anything to take my mind off my problems...

Then I saw something interesting. Two interesting things, actually. Two people.

Two parahumans .

One of them was maybe a year older than me, or perhaps he just had a very mature look to him. Dark curly hair, nice clothes, and fine features. He was grinning at passersby and making faces at children, occasionally waving at people, leaning against a bench like he didn’t have a care in the world.

But after a few moments of looking at him I could see something else. I let the haze around him clear, and soon I could see the powers inside of him. Not campfires or birds this time, no. His powers were...snakes, maybe? There were two of them, but I was having trouble figuring out what they were supposed to represent. Or rather, how they related to him as a person, maybe?

He had...a snake and two wooden crosses with strings attached to them. The strings looked odd, almost like tiny little shriveled snakes. It looked like they’d been pulled off of a marionette. They were covered in dust, and I wondered if that meant they were really old, or if he just hadn’t used them in a while. If this was a power related to puppetry (kinda lame), probably both.

Then I heard a yelp, and realized that it had happened just a moment after he had waved at someone. More interesting was that it was just as the single snake in him flickered...like electricity? Wait, that was actually an Electric Eel . As I watched, the boy waved at a few more people, and each time he did the Eel would flicker and someone else would twitch or fall. 

Looking away from him, I started focusing instead on his companion. She was taller than him, broader, had a square jaw, and wore a heavy hooded coat to counter his lighter and finer clothing. She looked like a bouncer from a biker bar standing next to someone who had been attending a fancy party.

But what really interested me was her power. There was just one, and it was...strange. It looked like some kind of wolf, and just from looking at it I could almost hear a howling reverberating from it. There were a few dogs around the Boardwalk, and I noticed that the girl was looking at each of them in turn. With each one that she focused on I could feel the wolf power inside of her start to growl a little...and then the dog she was looking at almost seemed to grow stronger .

I grinned. It looked like this day was turning good after all! While I wasn’t really interested in any of their three powers, there was something much better on my mind. It was time to experiment!

Finally, I can test my theories about grabbing TWO powers!

***

This had been gnawing at the edge of my brain all week. Back when I’d been fighting Lung, I had tried to copy two powers from him at once, and it had been incredibly painful. I knew that with his Healing in my core, taking his healing again just made the new copy fizzle out. At the same time, taking a different power from him just replaced the one in my core.

My theory was that, for whatever reason, I was unable to take two powers from the same parahuman. So here I was, my core empty and with two different parahumans in front of me. 

I leaned back, clenched my jaw (don’t want to bite through my tongue without a Heal power to fix it), and focused on the haze around both of them. It took a minute to figure out, but eventually I was able to see all three powers at once. Maybe it would get easier with practice? I carefully touched the Wolf power, then also the Electric Eel pow-

….er. Huh, well, that’s certainly different. Also, pleasantly not painful.

As I pulled my mental hands back I could feel something held in them. It was a light pressure on my mind, like an itch at the back of my skull, but far more pleasant. I could almost rotate my mental hands around, looking at the power as if it was a physical object instead of imaginary.

I’m holding a power. I think this is the first time I’ve just...held one. It feels different...heavier. 

This is new. It’s like I really did mash two powers together, somehow.

Hmm, I needed a good name for this. 

Luckily, I was great at naming things (see Gun Guy, Knife Guy, and Bellows), so this would be a snap. Thanks to several years of using the thesaurus to improve otherwise simple reports in school, I knew many good words for...things. Ahem.

Fusion made me think of anime and plasma guns. Alloy made me think of metal. Amalgam made me think of comic books. Combo sounded like a cheesy snack food. Compound made me think of fractures. Pool made me think of swimming. Marriage and Mingle were too much like romance. Speaking of, Bond sounded too kinky. Incorporate, Merge, Integrate...no, no, and no.

Hmmm, for now I would just call it a Blend. Never been a coffee guy, but I do like the smell.

Anyway, the Blend looked like...a barking wolf with what seemed like glowing eyes. I set the power in my core, and started looking around the area for dogs to test it on...eventually spotting the last dog left. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement!  

It was one of those tiny teacup dogs, and some woman was carrying it in her purse. I felt sorry for it, since she kept ignoring its little yapping noises to schmooze with people. For some reason that made me really mad, and I couldn’t stop myself from focusing on the dog to give it some help. It was as natural as just locking eyes, giving it a little nod, and pushing the power into it.

The yapping stopped, and it seemed to square its tiny shoulders. The woman, apparently surprised at the sudden silence, turned to look at the dog and make little baby noises.

The dog responded with a slightly louder yap ...and the woman immediately fell to the ground as if she’d been struck by a baseball bat. Overjoyed, the dog leapt out of her purse and ran over a nearby trash can, eating a hotdog on the ground. I burst out laughing with everyone else.

Did I just empower a tiny dog to nerve-pinch a person? Why...am I enjoying this? Oh god! 

Feeling disgusted with myself, I released the power. I’d felt something almost like joy and aggression at seeing the woman get hurt, and after a moment the personalities associated with the powers’ owners fled my mind as well. I glanced back over at where the two had been.

Which of them was the sociopath who liked seeing people get...wait, where’d they go?

“The hell you been looking at?” A rough voice interrupted my thoughts, and I looked up to see the two parahumans standing right in front of me. The larger of the two had her clenched fist in my face, and I found myself speechless. “Been staring at us, shithead. Got a problem?”

She did that thing where all her knuckles popped all at once, and I swallowed loudly. No matter how cool it may look or sound in movies, it’s actually much less cool when the fist is potentially going to be used to pound your face in. 

Wait, was she... growling at me?

***

As I sat there being growled at by a scruffy (but huge) girl with a dog-enhancing power, her chuckling friend beside her sporting a power that made people fall down, I realized who these two probably were. I was now 99% sure they were Hellhound and Regent, members of a relatively new team of parahuman criminals (The Undersiders) who specialized in clever plans.

It did not escape my notice that Hellhound (or Bitch, as she preferred to be called) was still holding a face-beating fist in my face. Despite that, I was still pretty happy for some reason. I mean, it was hard to be truly scared of a beatdown after the incredible fun I’d just had. 

Not only did I get to meet some new parahumans (well, their powers anyway), but I’d finally discovered that I could BLEND ( the name’s growing on me ) powers as long as they came from two different parahumans . This made my options all the greater, and at the same time meant that I really needed to keep it up with my plans to improve myself as a person. 

After all, if I wasn’t someone who could make friends, no parahuman would want to work with me...and my powers kind of depended on being around other parahumans. I almost started grinning like a madman, as I realized that I already had connections in the PRT, and that would make my eventual debut all the better. 

Kalpin and Hobson. I would eventually meet up with them again when I was ready for all the hero stuff, and maybe they’d even be willing to put in a good word for me with the Wards and others? In the meantime, I would work really hard to rebuild bridges and avoid making problems for the people who already liked me. 

People like...um...people like...

Taylor? The girl who tried to help me, despite hating me, and who I shat all over anyway? 

Or maybe like my parents, who I just spent five minutes telling off before walking away?

Oh, perhaps George, the brother who tried to help me tonight. Who got hurt because...

In that moment, all the giddiness just swept right out of me, like a cold breeze blowing across my soul. I wasn’t here because I’d wanted to be here. I was here because I had nowhere else to go. Even if I hadn’t necessarily run away, I still hadn’t come here by random chance.

“Maybe he was just unable to look away from my beautiful visage?” The boy said, his voice exactly as snide and smug as I had thought it would be. He glanced at the girl. “I mean, I guess he could also be into butch girls, but the last time a guy tried to hit on you-”

“He’s ignoring us. Wonder if I can get that tiny dog to bite him? That would wake him up.”

“Though I hate to be accused of following the rules, Brian specifically said to keep a low profile.”

“It’s a small dog. Bites probably wouldn’t kill him.”

I had left because I had hurt my brother, told off my parents, and burned the last few bridges I had left. Despite talking with GstringGirl about support networks and trusting people to have my back, the only reason I’d been able to have fun tonight was because I had cracked under pressure and ruined what little support I had left... 

I was so focused on my powers, these last few weeks, I never thought about anything else.

I had destroyed my connections to my family, hurt them on a deep level, and all for this? All so I could hang out and play around with powers? What the hell was wrong with me?

I felt my eyes start to water as my face heated up. I looked down at the ground as I hiccuped. My mind started to race and I felt like the world was closing in on me. I was starting to panic.

Do I even have a home to go back to? Mom and Dad were already mad at me, now George is-

Oh god! George! He needs his hands to be a doctor and got hurt trying to help me!

Why the hell did I walk away? I should have stayed, talked, explained things better.

I broke down crying, as I realized just what I’d sacrificed...and what little I’d gained from it.

I’d screwed everything up, and now I was all alone.

*******************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg’s had a rough night with his family, so maybe some uplifting advice from other teens with family problems would be...wait, who are those two again? Oh. Well, I’m sure he’ll figure something out. 

Chapter Text

Excerpt from Greg’s Journal:

Not that long ago, I remember seeing an interview with Kid Win, where they were asking him about his process for making Tinkertech. He said that for him, it was all about knowing himself. Everyone seemed confused by that, so he smiled and explained that he was goal-oriented.

He told them that instead of worrying about the journey, or how far away the goal was, he’d instead just focus on how amazing it would be to get there. How cool a finished design would be, how many people it would help, the evil it would stop, etc. This helped motivate him, and allowed the Tinker to ignore setbacks and failures...and to try again. He learned to recognize that nothing was ever truly done or a failure...just another step in the path to a different goal.

On Christmas Eve, I realized that the discoveries I’d made about my powers weren’t worth the love, family, and opportunities I’d sacrificed to get there. I saw the trail of destruction I’d left in my wake as I focused on my goal of being a hero, and feared that I was doomed to be alone.

But that was because I was too blinded by my own self-pity to see all the good in my life, and too scared of another failure to try and fix things. What I needed was a friend, someone to tell me that I was wrong. Unfortunately, I thought that I was all out of friends. Bereft of allies.

Luckily, I had more allies than I knew, including one I’d known my whole life.

-GregV.

***

[Friday, Dec 24, 2010]

This was a Christmas Eve first for me...crying on a bench in front of two teenage supervillains. It wasn’t helped by the fact that both were practically ignoring me to make color commentary. 

“Whoa, look what you did, Rachel! You’ve got him blubbering like a baby!”

“Not my fault.”

“Oh I’m not blaming you. Actually, I want to learn from you. Normally I have to at least try to make someone start crying. Please, teach me, oh wise master.”

“Bite me.”

“Is that part of the learning process? Because there is very little I won’t do with my mouth if it involves your bod-”

“I will tear your throat out.”

“Got it, so we’re both into kinky stuff. I knew I liked you for a reason.” 

I heard both go quiet as another voice entered the fray.

“Okay, I got the order in for our repairs. Alec, you owe me for the extra satin it’ll take for her to make you a new set of...oh what the hell, you two?” The new voice was female, but I couldn’t even bring myself to look up at her. I just stared at the ground, covering my face with my hands.

Don’t look. Seeing powers is fun, but I don’t deserve a reward for what I did.

 “Are you tormenting some kid on Christmas Eve? Wow, Alec, this is a new low, even for you.”

“We don’t all bow to the will of a fat man in a red suit, Lisa.” Alex replied, scoffing at her. “Some of us prefer to worship at the feet of the Krampus. His costume is like...a hundred times better.”

I don’t need this. Go away. I really wish everyone would just go away and leave me alone.

“Okay, you two go menace some elderly people, and I’ll fix this.” Lisa said, sounding tired. I heard feet shuffling, and what sounded like someone growling as they whispered amongst themselves. Finally, Lisa sighed. “Yes Rachel, I know I promised to help you pick out the perfect gifts for your dogs, but I just need fifteen minutes, okay?”

The other two walked away, and then there was someone sitting on the bench next to me. Lisa had apparently decided to stick around, probably to threaten me or something. I wiped some tears, glad that they made it impossible to see her...knowing she wanted something.

Don’t look at her. She probably has powers. Looking at them will only make things worse.  

“Wow, you don’t even want to look at me, huh?” Her voice was upbeat, but then it turned a bit sad as she sighed and leaned back, pulling her feet up onto the bench. She continued, “C’mon, talk to me, I promise I just want to help. It can't be as bad as you...oh, a fight with your family? On Christmas Eve? Shit...”

She went quiet, and after a minute I got fed up and tried to shoo her away.

“I don’t know how you even know about my family problems, but it’s not like telling you is going to help.” I wiped my eyes and nose, then pulled my hoodie up. Looking away was beginning to hurt my neck, and this way I still couldn’t see her. I had hoped it would convince her to go, but it seemed like her power was being super-annoying and persistent. “You can’t possibly know what it’s like to-”

“What?” She cut me off, a cold tone in her voice suddenly. “I can’t know what it’s like to have family problems? I can’t know what it’s like to want to talk to someone but not having anyone to talk to? Or I can’t know what it’s like to have powers? Because as you may have guessed by now, I know all kinds of things...Greg.”

She knows my name? Is she recording this? I should just run away, before this gets worse...

“So what, I’m just supposed to talk to the psychic girl who wanders around helping teens with problems? What do you get out of this?” Given who the other two were, it was a pretty sure bet that this was another member of their group. They had appeared recently, but the Undersiders seemed to have a real talent for planning. “What’s the trick?”

“Maybe I’m doing this because it’s my last chance to get off Santa’s naughty list. Or it could be that I’m...70% sure I know what your powers are, and having you owe me for getting you back with your family would make it easier to recruit you someday.” She sighed, then lowered her voice and added, “It could even be that I was in your shoes not long ago, and don’t like to watch people make the same mistakes I did when their lives are considerably better. Take your pick.”

I grumbled to myself, weighing my options. 

Pluses: We’re in public, she claims to want to help, and can read my mind...so no social issues.

Big Minus: I recognize the voice from a video. This is indeed Tattletale, an Undersider. A villain.

“Fine.” I flipped back my hood, still pointedly not looking at her, but willing to at least try to be polite. “What do you want to talk about? Maybe the way my parents are disappointed in me, or the fact that they keep trying to fix me by just smothering me? Do you want the gory details about my golden big brother, or the way I have to lie about everything these days? Perhaps-”

“Nah, I got what I needed already, you’re practically an open book.” She laughed, but it wasn’t as mean as I’d expected. Instead, she actually sounded happy. “I think I can help you out.”

Unable to help myself, I turned and looked at her in disbelief. She was really pretty, around my age, and had blonde hair in a braid and green eyes. She winked at me and held out a hand.

“Hey, there you are. You already know, but I’m Lisa.” I numbly shook her hand, and she laughed again as I wiped at my face with my other sleeve. “So, how about we save your Christmas?”

***

One good thing that came from looking at Lisa was that I realized that I could avoid engaging my power to see her powers. This was a welcome relief, since I had been worrying for the past few days about how I would avoid unmasking capes if I ever met them in their civilian identities. I could still see a sort of light haze around her, but as long as I didn’t flip that little switch in my mind it was barely noticeable.

“So, let’s see if I can fix this for you with three questions. I’m gonna need you to be honest with me, and remember that if you lie I’ll just figure it out anyway.” Lisa wagged a finger at me, and I tried not to flinch. I knew that her powers were some kind of psychic thing, but for all I knew she could shoot mind-bullets at me. “So, first question, has your family ever forgiven you before for making big mistakes? Especially after you did something like tonight’s fiasco?”

“I mean, they’ve always said and done nice things for me in the past, but I always felt like they were just doing it because they were my parents, you know?” She didn’t reply, and I coughed before continuing. “I guess I always thought that they were forgiving me because punishing me was too much effort for no payoff, since I kept doing the same stuff over and over anyway.”

Although, there were a few times that I avoided doing it because I knew I’d get in trouble.

“Cool, so their punishment in the past made you want to be better for them in the future. No matter how many times you messed up, they kept trying to teach you to be better.” She held up a finger, launching into her second question before I could challenge her (admittedly close to the truth) version of my answer. “What do you think they’re doing right now? What are they saying? What are they talking about with regards to you?”

“Mom’s cooking, to get her mind off things, or maybe looking for a book. Dad’s helping my brother with the hand he hurt trying to help me, and making dumb jokes. My brother...he’s probably explaining things.” She rolled a hand at me, and I sighed. “Fine! He’s telling them that it wasn’t my fault, and that they’ve been too hard on me. He’s...trying to take their minds off me and my screw-ups so that the family can-”

“Right, he’s acting like a big brother who cares about his little brother. Meanwhile, your Dad is trying to lighten the mood and your Mom is making a big meal for you when you come back...and maybe trying to find books to help your situation.” She talked quickly, and while what she said sounded true, it also seemed like she was being way too positive. “Third question, what will they do about this tomorrow? How about next week? Maybe ten years from now?”

“I mean, tomorrow I’ll get grounded for another week, next week they’ll make a bunch of rules to control me even more, and in ten years this’ll be a funny story Dad tells while we sit around and eat Christmas dinner.”

“So in other words, tomorrow they’ll punish you so you can maybe learn a lesson like you suggested back in Question One. Next week they’ll try to find ways to help you find structure and distract you from all this self-pity you’re feeling, like you said would happen in Question Two. Finally, ten years from now in a Christmas Yet to Come, this’ll be nothing more than a tale told over Christmas goose as you all sit together as a family.”

Wait. The number three. Past, present, and future. Christmas Goose. Christmas Yet to Come...

“Hold on! Are you trying to Scrooge me?” I shot to my feet, and waved a hand at her. I started laughing at the absurdity of it all. “Did you just try to reenact A Christmas Carol...to make me see the error of my ways and have a Merry Christmas?”

Rather than denying it, Lisa looked...smug.

“Better question,” she asked, cocking an eyebrow and resting a hand on her hip. “Did it work? You seem to be back in the holiday spirit, at the very least.”

I paused, realizing that I was indeed laughing, and found it hard to stop smiling at her.

Huh...well played, Lisa.

***

A few minutes later, Lisa and I were sitting on the very same bench, drinking hot chocolate from a nearby booth as we chatted. She had claimed that she just wanted to make sure I was all right, but I was starting to get the feeling that she didn’t exactly have exciting evening plans.

“Nah, I just like talking to people for fun instead of because of business.” Lisa interrupted my thoughts, apparently guessing what I was thinking. “Besides, it’s fun talking to a brand-new parahuman. Not often I come across one who actually thinks they can take their time getting their life in order before jumping feet first into the new world they’ve gained access to.”

“What, so I’m some sort of rare, impressive creature?” I puffed out my chest a bit.

“Nah, more like overly-optimistic, naive, and shortsighted.” She ignored my hurt look, then patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry, but you have to realize that you’ve only got a week, maybe two weeks tops, before you either slip up or are forced to put on a mask and try to save the day. I mean, feel free to stack the deck as much as you want, but sooner or later you’ll have to play the game. You’ll go out on patrol, wander around, probably fight Lung-”

Lisa cut herself off, staring at me suddenly.

Keep a straight face, Greg. Betray no thoughts. Sing the National Anthem if you have to.

Despite my attempts at mental self-manipulation, she suddenly burst out laughing. The laughter went on for several seconds, and she finally buried her face in her hands and wiped away some tears. After a deep breath, she whispered to herself, “So, that explains the warehouse. Also the mysterious ABB parahumans that were seen, and then never spotted again. Wow, Greg...”

“Yeah, yeah, just don’t tell anyone.” I crossed my arms, looking away as a hot flush spread over my face. “I know that’s your thing, but...really. It was a mistake and then just snowballed. Don’t go thinking that I’m going to start joining your team just because I cosplayed as a villain.”

“Eh, without some serious training I’m not sure we’d even want you. No offense, but you don’t really seem like you’d fit in.” She shook her head as I pretended to look affronted, then Lisa leaned in a bit and grinned. “I could give you this whole speech about cops and robbers, Unwritten Rules, and all this other stuff, but you seem to be unusually serious about trying to be a good guy, so I’ll spare you the spiel. Tonight can be the one night where I’m not trying to tempt you to the dark side, even if our Christmas cookies are better.”

“Well, thank goodness for Christmas Eve...bringing the villains, heroes, and newbies together for a night of peace.” I smiled back at her, then laughed as something occurred to me. “Kind of reminds me of the Christmas Truce, back in World War 1, when the British and German troops called off war for a day to celebrate Christmas.”

“Wasn’t that just an urban myth or something?” Her eyes closed for a moment, then she sighed and shook her head. “Nope, seems real enough. Huh, I guess maybe some things are just universal. Everyone needs a break, sometimes.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that the ABB doesn’t let their people commit crimes on the Chinese New Year, and I imagine that the Empire 88 is probably quiet today doing some kind of ‘White Christmas’ thing.” I paused for a moment, something sounding familiar about that. In the silence, I found myself thinking of George, wondering if he was okay...and how angry my parents probably were.

As fun as this is, I still need to go home at some point. I still need to...clean up my mess.

“Hey, I thought we were through that already?” Lisa reached out and slapped my arm. She glared at me in mock anger. “Am I going to have to get Rachel to act out the Grinch for you? Her version of his dog, Zero, is the size of a small car!”

“No, I’ll be good, I guess I’m just worried about what I’m going to do...going forward I mean.” I shrugged, letting out a deep breath. “I can’t just keep lying forever, and even if my family’s nice to me this evening...it’ll only be a matter of time before the pressure builds up again for one of us and someone explodes again. Depending on what I’m using at that point…er, I mean...”

“Yeah, a literal explosion could be a problem.” Lisa seemed to catch my meaning, nicely ignoring my vague reference to the powers that she’d already claimed to be 70% aware of. She smirked, adding, “By the way, it’s more like 100% now, Copy Kid.”

I groaned, burying my face in my hands. There went any chance I had of-

“Oh relax, like we were just saying, it’s a Christmas Truce. Which is why I’m also going to help you out one last time before I head out. Let me put my mind to a good-hearted cause.” She crossed her arms, looking pensive and closing her eyes. She seemed to be thinking hard about something, then finally nodded to herself and looked at me. “Okay, I think I’ve got the solution to your problem.”

“Which one?”

“All of them from tonight.” Lisa grinned, then glanced around to make sure nobody was nearby before explaining. “Your problem is that you don’t get people, and you’re garbage at talking and lying. Seriously, I read all your problems off you in the first minute we were talking, and got your powers just from seeing you look at Rachel and Alec.”

“Great, thanks for identifying my problems. I’ll just add them to the list of impossible-”

“Shush, I wasn’t done.” She held up a hand menacingly, then continued when I made a zippering motion on my lips. “Better. So, your problem is that you need some sort of social upgrade, even for a few hours. Well, for one night only I can give you one...” 

“Deal.”

“Normally I’d be worried about how quickly you accepted that, but I’m all out of hot chocolate and it’s getting cold.” Lisa gestured at herself as if inviting me to hug her. “Have at it.”

Nervously, glancing around to make sure nobody was watching, I focused on her power. I’d already seen the haze before, and it only took a moment for the power to form...which made me wonder if the conversation with her had anything to do with it. Eh, time for thought like those later, I had a power to copy! Except there was one little problem...

“Um.” I raised a hand, then put it down when she smiled and pretended to call on me. “Which power do I take? You have two of them.”

“What?” Lisa frowned, then looked at me as if I was playing a joke on her. “No, I just have one.”

“Nope, you have two individual powers. I’m pretty sure your theme is ‘lenses,’ if that helps.” 

“That’s just…” She trailed off, then cocked her head as if someone was speaking to her and telling her she was the one off-script. Lisa grumbled, then squinted at me. “Describe them.”

“Well, the first one looks like a pair of glasses, except that the lens on the left has something like a dozen little attachments and extra lenses on it. The one on the right looks like there are a bunch of little words and numbers flashing over it...more now that you’re looking at me.” I glanced at her face, seeing her lips moving silently. As my description had gone on, the attachments had been shifting around and the right lens’ messages were increasing. “It’s kind of like a cross between a pair of high-tech glasses and a teleprompter.”

“Interesting. So, like it’s giving me information? What about the other one?”

“It looks like a telescope...but has the oddest little jewels and carvings on it. There’s a sort of big crystal at the end you’d put your eye, showing a hundred little pictures of whatever it’s pointed at...me in this case.” I see Lisa’s eyes on me. She must have been focusing her power on me now, because the crystal was glowing, each refraction and detail showing me something. “It’s like a...kaleidoscope? Every refraction is showing me, my past, and even things I remember wanting to do...like running away a few minutes ago.” 

So, the first power is feeding her info and hints. The other lets her read people and their intentions?

“Hey, that’s a trade secret, buddy!” Lisa slapped my chest, a look of annoyance on her face that I found it hard not to laugh at. “Anyway, you want the second one. The first one would just give you a bunch of random info and lead you down rabbit holes.”

“Thanks for everything.” I reached out with my mental hands and touched the kaleidoscope. “Oh, and Merry Christmas, Lisa.”

“No problem, Greg.” She replied, and just as the power settled into my core, she added, “By the way, now you owe me two favors.”

“Wait, wha-”

***

I snapped awake, nearly falling out of...bed?

I looked around and yes, I was indeed in bed. Fully dressed, for some reason. My clothes were nice, my stomach was full, and I could hear the sounds of both my Dad’s snore and George’s white noise machine. I carefully reached over to my nightstand and turned on my desk lamp, then pinched myself. 

Nope, not a dream. But what had happened? Last I remembered I had been talking to Lisa. It had been maybe 7pm, and...nope, according to my alarm clock it was 3am. A lot of questions swirled through my mind, one after the other.

Where had the last 8 hours gone? How had I gotten home? Had Lisa’s power done something to me, like some sort of psychic link that let her control me or wipe my mind? How did they know where I lived? Was I about to be blackmailed? What was this envelope in my pocket?

Wait, go back one. Envelope. That’s at least something I can solve right now.  

It had my name written on it, and I nervously opened it as I sat at my desk for light.

It was only as I got through the first sentence that I realized something very strange.

This letter is written...in my own handwriting.

Dear Greg. I saved the day, and the family still loves you. You’re welcome.

Wait, so did Lisa come to dinner with me? Does she have a friend who can erase memories?

Also, no, I’m not Lisa. Do you really not know who has your handwriting? Seriously?

Wait, I’m overthinking this. This is my handwriting, it was under my bed, so...is this me?

By now you should have figured out who I am. Yep, I’m you. More on that later.

Greg, you messed up. Big time. 

You’ve spent the last week, and several years before that, lying to your family, treating them like crap, and nearly killing yourself. Why? 

Out of some misplaced need to fix your own problems? Because you feel like you can’t trust your own plans, and so you’ve just thrown plans as a whole out the window? Because you have powers now, and think that means you’re suddenly more capable?

That was taking it all way out of context! I was doing it that way because I...because...

Don’t bother to answer. Not only am I not here, but I know the answer. You do, too.

I got insanely lucky that I didn’t hurt anyone or get arrested, why’d it take me this long to see it?

Anyway, let’s talk about how I fixed things with my mad talking skillz.

Yep, this is me. 100% certain now.

Mom accepted that she pushed too hard with books, and I apologized for not being more open with my feelings. I promised to talk with her more often, and told her I had trouble finding the right words. She said she’d find more specific books...so at least it’s a start.

On the other hand, getting books specifically tailored to my situation was actually a good thing. One of the reasons I used to get annoyed at Mom’s suggestions was because they were so general. Why hadn’t it ever occurred to me to ask an actual Librarian for books related to my problems? I mean, books are perfect, but at least they might have helped.

Dad apologized for going overboard on the humor, saying that it had helped him so much growing up. I asked him to tell me more about that, and we agreed that maybe there were some cultural and social divides between our generations.

It sounded like I needed to talk to Dad more...and I honestly couldn’t remember when I had stopped. I think it might have been around the time I started getting bullied in middle school. I had come home feeling sad and alone, and he’d just tried to teach me some school-related jokes that I could “tell my friends.” I never stopped to consider that he was helping me the way he’d been helped as a kid...I just thought he was making fun of me.

George is hiding a whole bunch of stuff I can’t even begin to understand. Whatever it is, he’s stressed like crazy and feels bad about being so standoffish. Work is killing him.

Yeah, I really needed to talk to George more. It wasn’t his fault he reacted so badly to my powers. With no proof, he’d just grasped at whatever straws he could and helped out a brother who admittedly had a habit of lying. Maybe I should’ve given him more credit for even trying?

Finally, you’re not getting a grounding extension. Everyone got a pass on last night.

Whew, so everything turned out okay, like a holiday movie on TV. My life is fixed, and-

Don’t go thinking everything is fixed though. 

Or not.

I’m sure that if this was a book or movie, right now you’d be mad that I wasn’t telling you exactly what I said. Well, too bad. You made a mess of things, and if I just fixed everything then you’d have no reason to learn how to fix it yourself for next time .

Next time? But the whole point of this was for Lisa’s power to fix things for me!

This is all temporary. You need to make a real effort to rebuild your family’s trust in you. Powers aren’t going to do that, so maybe these next details will help you put them aside for a while and work on Greg instead of his powers.

This would be a lot easier to deal with if I could remember last night.

I’m sure you’re wondering by now, “Why don’t I remember any of this?” 

Well, remember how your body changed when you had Velocity’s power?

I shifted uncomfortably. Yeah, it was pretty hard to forget bone-growths appearing all over my body, blowing out my shoes and doing...something to my eyes. My joints had gotten all stiff, my organs felt stronger, and…

I was too busy fixing your social life to get much done there, but I did go over your notes, and I’m pretty sure you’ve got some Changer in your Trump. That’s why the changes happened as you used the powers, and why they reverted after you dropped the powers. 

That was something I had considered when comparing myself to Velocity. He didn’t have any bony growths or such because he had that Hummingbird in his body, intertwined with his Phoenix. The Hummingbird was a Breaker state, making him immune to the dangers! 

Still, it doesn’t explain why the power got stronger as I used it, or why the bone growths fell off.

I had been developing a theory about that, and this Changer thing actually supported it. Based on how I had used Lung’s power, I was pretty sure that my power had been making up for the lack of safety features that usually came with a power. It had been adapting...slowly. It sort of explained the strange feelings I had gotten when using the Healing Power.

When Lung had punched that warehouse wall, his Brute power had protected him from damage, and the Healing handled what little damage got through. Because I lacked that combo (and my copies seemed weaker than the originals), my power had been forced to boost my healing capability somehow. That warmth I felt whenever I’d healed was probably from the power using my nerves to map out my injuries, or my bloodstream to push healing cells through my body. 

The sudden chill/numbness I’d felt when the power was released followed along with that. The odd feelings I got when releasing powers were my body’s way of reverting to my pre-power (and pre-streamlining) form. It took a while to build up, but it was a Changer effect.

You kept falling from Velocity’s speed, so it made your inner ear and eyes different. You were damaging your joints and feet, so they got protection. Your organs were getting wrecked, so they got beefed up. It took time, and barely helped, but better than nothing.

That also explained why I’d hurt myself so bad escaping Knife Guy (full power speed for three blocks) but only picked up a few bruises at the hospital (small 1-second bursts of speed).

Let’s move on to the real big deal, brains. Any loss of consciousness makes a power go away. That means sleeping, getting KO’d, and passing out from massive exhaustion after running across half of Brockton Bay... 

Try not to do that last one anymore, dumbass. Seriously, start jogging or something.

By this point I knew that this was another version of me, one with social powers and an asshole streak a mile wide, but the attitude was getting really annoying. Of course, that made me think about the personality changes, and sure enough...

Speaking of personality, you already know that you get some personality bleed from the power’s original owner. Lisa was a smug know-it-all. Lung was brave and confrontational. Velocity craved movement and freedom. You get the idea.

Greg: Be more careful when taking powers!

Seriously, there are some really bad people out there. Their powers could make us dangerous. Not only that, but if you blend two opposing personalities, or two really bad ones...or even someone who is unbalanced...yikes. We could be in serious trouble.

Okay, that was fair. I’d have to keep an eye on that, and probably stop copying powers from villains , or at least the really bad ones like Lung. I could have died against Lung and Gun Guy, all because Lung’s powers made me reckless.

The letter was nearing its end, but then I saw a line that got me really excited.

Finally, the memory thing. Why can’t you remember writing this? Good question…

And...the letter ends. That son of a...oh wait, there’s more on the back. Whew.

If my theory is right, then the reason I haven’t had any Thinker headaches is because our brain is Changing to compensate for them. To repeat: it’s literally Changing our brain to avoid damage. It all has to go somewhere...and I think I know where.

I think that our power is funneling whatever normally causes the headaches somewhere else, because I’ve been having...memory issues all night. I think the power is trying to tell us something...maybe giving us a reason not to overuse powers or hold them too long?

Maybe the powers want me to use more powers? To constantly be trying new ones?

Given that I lose the powers when I sleep, I’m probably not meant to have powers for too long. 

In fact, this was something I had been thinking about for a week now. The powers I copied were definitely weaker than the original ones, even after the Changing I was doing. At the same time, it only took me a few seconds to switch from one power to another. My end goal was to surround myself with other parahumans, so just finding one or two powers I liked and sticking to them was just silly. I had to experiment, to try new things, and...to Blend!

In fact, is that why Blending works so well...because maybe it’s the point of my power?

It still needed a lot more testing, but seeing what had happened with Alec’s twitch power and Rachel’s Dog Power was making me wonder...were my Blends actually the intended use of my power? Like, was an ordinary copy weaker on purpose, because the point of my power was to mix two powers for some reason? If so...I really needed to work on my people skills.

Theory: More Thinker power use = more memory problems and confusion. 

Huh, looks like I was keeping some sort of journal. Oh cool, it’s in military time. 

1940: Got home after wishing Lisa a good night. Immediately got to work talking. Heavy, heavy power use over the period of an hour, but no noticeable issues.

2100: Finished smoothing things over with parents and George, as well as starting a delicious meal. Started to worry because I hadn’t experienced any Thinker headaches.

2117: Spent a full minute trying to find my fork, without realizing it was in my hand. Played it off as a joke to Dad. Used powers to ask him a question that would make him tell a story and remove the sudden worry all three were showing.

2125: Forgot what I was talking about halfway through a sentence. 

2146: While getting dessert platter from the kitchen, I forgot whether I was going to or coming from the dinner table. In unrelated news, Mom’s Sweet Potato Pie is still divine.

Heh, even with super-brain Thinker powers, I know that Mom’s pie can’t be beat.

2203: While playing a party game, I realized that I couldn’t remember how I got home.

2237: Halfway through talking to George about something, I had trouble remembering who Melody was. Used powers to play it off. I also noticed that I was full...despite being unable to remember having eaten any food in the last few hours. Panicked a little.

2254: Came up to “go to bed.” Took a break to test a theory. Read comics for 2 hours, making sure to avoid engaging the power at all. The story was easy to follow, and fun.

0150: By taking a 2 hour break from using powers, confusion vanished entirely. Threw myself into gathering the notes I’d been keeping all night, reviewed all our notes to figure out what you should do from here (next section), and started writing this letter.

0240: ...unfortunately, as of the time of writing this letter, I am unable to recall much from after I copied the power from Lisa. I barely even remember sitting down to write this letter. If it weren’t for my notes, the events of tonight would be mostly unknown to me.

I guess I’ll have to carry a notebook and pen from now on, in case I copy a Thinker/Tinker.

On the plus side, I recall yesterday perfectly, so it seems like it’s just short-term memory.

So there’s a limit. Maybe it’s a built in limitation on the power? Or maybe it’s my subconscious?

This sounds like that theory I had a few days ago, when reading that book Mom gave me…

I had read a lot of Parahuman power theories over the years, and debated them with all sorts of people on PHO. Most people just assumed Thinker Headaches happened because the powers were working someone’s brain to its limit...like a computer or engine overheating.

Now I wondered if they were actually a way for the power to teach Thinkers their limits, so they’d learn to rest and ration. To make them step back and come at a problem from another angle, rather than just smashing against it over and over to get to the answer.

My powers seemed to work on a similar wavelength. They went away when I slept, changed my body a bit to make them work better, and required careful use to get the most out of them without their normal owner’s defense mechanisms. I had Triggered worrying about my passion and feeling abandoned due to my obsession...were my powers limited because I wanted to learn to tone things down? That even this Thinker Confusion thing was to teach me restraint?

Question is, why do my powers think confusion and short term memory loss is better than pain?

Based on this, here are a few handy tips for the future. By which I mean DO THEM:

First, talk to parahumans before copying them, and find out what they’re like to avoid personality problems. Personalities will affect you, but you can probably figure them out by actually interacting with their owners first. We’ve been lucky. Really, really lucky.

Yeah, that was true. Alec and Rachel combined had made me enjoy seeing that woman get hurt by a dog. I’d dropped the power, but if I hadn’t...I might have gone on to really hurt someone.

Second, think before taking powers. Just because something feels safe doesn’t mean it is, and the person using it could be throttling it for all you know. Alec’s power could have killed that woman, and outed you in a second. Not to mention that using a power around civilians with the original owner eighty feet away was incredibly boneheaded.

Obviously just using a power surrounded by people was bad, but maybe I could take one and then go somewhere safe? At the very least, I would have to be smarter about using them...

Finally, don’t overdo it! Velocity at full power nearly killed us, but used carefully and slowly we barely got bruised. Using Lisa’s power all night has erased a few hours of memory and had me losing focus. Imagine how much good could have come from rationing it out! We’re going to have these powers for a long time...so go slow!

He’s an asshole, but he’s right. I do need to be more careful. I need to slow down...

Anyway, it’s nearly 3am. I’m going to get in bed and release the power. I did a lot for you tonight, so remember that you really owe me. Like, this was all me.

Wow, even when he’s apologizing he has to brag about something. That’s me, all right.

Stop and think, Greg. Learn from your mistakes. Do it soon...please.

Merry Xmas.

-Kaleidoscope (Lisa’s power’s representation. Admit it, you’d have called me Brain Guy)

I read through the letter a few more times, then carefully put it back in the envelope. I’d have to hide it later, after recording it in my journal. There was a lot of good info in there, and I really had to hand it to Kaleidoscope (fine, yes, it was a good name) that he’d come through for me. As much as I hated his attitude, he was right that I had a lot to work on.

I had made a lot of mistakes. It was going to take real effort to fix them myself. I had to think.

I think I’ve put this off long enough. The longer I wait, the more problems there will be.

So, I didn’t go to sleep. Instead, I was going to do something much more difficult. 

I was going to think, and try to learn from my mistakes.

Right here, and right now.

**************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Before we get to the informative and thoughtful epilogue to this story arc, we should try to squeeze in one more holiday tale. This next one involves a different trio of villains...in another fun Interlude!

Chapter Text

[Saturday, Dec 25, 2010]

[Bakuda] 

I love math. It’s solid, dependable, and even the crazy parts eventually made sense. Like, the Poincare Conjecture seemed like a drug-fueled donut monster when I first heard it, but after a lot of study and more than a few sleepless nights I managed to get it. Now, I could talk about it in the same sentence as the Earth being round and it was just as normal to me.

That’s a joke, see, because the Conjecture involves spheres. Damn, I’m good.

Where was I? Ah yeah, normal. 

Normal, is pretty goddamn eye of the beholder these days. I’m a Tinker, see, one of the best on the planet, and what was normal for me a year ago has long since changed. But like I said, knowing about math means that I don’t get all bent out of shape on that. I just have to change my perspective, and realize that what I used to think of as “normal” wasn’t, and it all snaps into focus. Like a lens that was making things blurry, and now it’s crystal clear.

Normal is always changing, just like my knowledge of math and my understanding of other things. A year ago I’d have never thought that I could combine a gallon of paint, a grenade, and three Gameboys (the old kind, not that new Advance shit) to make a bomb capable of painting any entire room in half the time it would have taken to do it by hand. 

But as I stood there, freezing my goddamn face off (my fault for wearing a gas mask on a winter night) while two nerds cavorted around in costumes robbing people, I had trouble considering that this would ever be normal. I had a great view of their ‘crime spree’ from atop a parking garage, shoppers eagerly spending the last few hours of daylight returning the gifts they’d lovingly received for Christmas earlier this morning. We were all being entertained, but in different ways.

I’d always heard rumors about Uber and Leet, figuring that they were just sandbagging in their fights because they cared more about fame than anything else. Their little themed heists made chump change and the ads on their grade-school website were half what they could have gotten from just taking a grenade to an ATM. Still, the cops barely ever threw the book at them, cape heroes wrote them off as a joke, and they’d never even killed anyone to make a point. 

Both had oversized boxing gloves that were bouncing anyone they punched away from them, but aside from a few bruises nobody was actually getting hurt. Leet was dressed in what looked like a retrofitted tan bomb suit that he was practically swimming in, a crown on his head and a big fake belly with a duct-tape X on the belly button. Uber was in a pair of green shorts, black shoes, a black tank top, and green gloves. 

The duo were hitting a small shopping center, running from store to store bopping people and grabbing their goods. They couldn’t really carry much with those gloves, so they were mostly tossing the goods to other people or putting them in a big pocket in Leet’s ever-growing belly.

I figured that their real problem was a lack of motivation. So, I decided to help them out...in my usual bombastic fashion. Actually, it was a grenade, but “grenade-tastic” doesn’t really roll off the tongue the same way.

My contribution to this little event was a simple magnet grenade I had made. I actually had two of them, and threw the first at the little golden webcam they always had following them around. Aside from scrambling their ‘snitch,’ it also gave it a very unique magnetic charge. The other grenade went onto the top floor of the abandoned parking garage that had been closed off by the fire department weeks ago (thanks Lung!), and the snitch was pulled slowly in its direction.

I had been watching them both from atop that very garage for several minutes, and calmly started walking towards the back stairs to wait. I knew both loved that little camera, and that any minute now they’d be jogging (or lumbering, in Leet’s case) up here to retrieve their tech.

***

Here they come.” A voice in my ear alerted me that I’d been dead on. “10 seconds to showtime.”

“We have to hurry, dude!” Leet’s voice was unusually deep, and I gave credit to the suit he was wearing. He sounded a lot like the Hippo-named boxer he was playing, lending a bit more authenticity to his character. My respect for both went up a notch...and then immediately dropped when they leaned over to get the snitch and bonked their heads together.

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, and as both whipped their now-sore heads in my direction, I shrugged and came out from my ‘hiding’ spot. I tried to look as imposing as my five-foot nothing frame allowed, spreading my legs and shoulders a bit as my makeshift grenade launcher (v34.12, now with voice activated launching!) swung to point just a few feet to their left. 

Nothing like a casual barrel-sweep to remind people that you have a weapon pointed near them.

“Who the hell are you? A fan who liked our Team Fortress 2 video?” Leet spoke before his friend could, laughing and gesturing at my getup. “We have to get going soon, but I can sign your mask if you want. Who should I make it out to?”

“Leet, I don’t think this is a fan.” Uber started to interrupt, and I could see enough of his face (flesh-colored mask over his eyes and scalp, giving the impression that he actually had that spike black hair) to know that his jaw was clenched. “I think she’s actually-”

“Uber, you always tell me I shouldn’t be gatekeeping girls out of gaming, I really don’t think that’s a healthy attitude for you to have.” Leet playfully slapped at his friend’s chest, apparently not realizing that he still had his boxing glove’s bounce field active. Uber went flying, hitting the ground a few feet away and rolling backwards to a crouch. “Whoops, sorry about that, bro. Anyway, miss, what do you think of today’s crime adventure? Perfect timing and costumes, eh?”

“Well, the costumes are good, I’ll give you that.” My voice was a bit altered by the simple chip I’d stolen from a discarded toy mask in a Goodwill last week, and it didn’t change his expression at all. I could practically hear my little brother, the one who actually had time to play video games growing up, whispering in my ear that they were play-acting as characters from Punch Out . “The costumes and Tinker-tech get a 10, but the timing only gets an 8...Boxing Day is tomorrow. You made your fuse too short, blew a bit too early.”

“Ah, dang it, I was going to wait until tomorrow, but PHO was saying that New Wave and the Wards were going out on the town tomorrow for some joint event, and I didn’t want to worry about that whole mess.” Leet sighed, looking over at his erstwhile companion, who had rejoined him and was standing in what looked like a casual defensive stance. I’d heard that the guy had more than a bit of fighting experience, and tried not to put my finger on the trigger as I saw his eyes go in that direction. He elbowed Leet. “Anyway, I’d love to talk more, but we have some work to do, so unless there’s anything else…?”

“Actually, there is something else. Something important. Something grand...” I started to step forward.

“Crap, okay look.” Uber held up a hand...well, boxing glove. “If this is about the Grand Theft Auto thing, then let me just say that it was early in our careers as super-provocateurs and we went too far. We fucked up, I know. We apologized in-person to all three of the women we hurt, covered their medical bills, paid for their therapy, and even did a PSA about...”

“This isn’t about that.” As much as it pained me to do it, this was my best chance at making my plans come to fruition...so I took my hand off the grenade launcher and held it out in their general direction. I mean, it was still voice activated, but they didn’t need to know that. “I’ve been scoping out the major players in this town, and none of them really blew me away. You guys, though, you really pop. You’ve been burning hot for months, and I think that we-”

Take it down a notch with the bomb terminology,” a voice said in my ear, and I grimaced.

“Wait. That mask, that grenade launcher, the random bomb terms every few sentences,” Uber’s tone made me flinch a bit. The warning had come too late, it sounded like he had figured out who I was by my habit of using certain terms when I was nervous. It calmed me down, and I never even realized I was doing it. “Everything else lines up...you’re Bakuda. You’re the nutjob bomb tinker who tried to blow up a college because-”

Leet’s glove lashed out again, and bumped Uber. The man went flying again, and this time he flew twice as far before rolling again. He leveled a glare at Leet, but the big (because of his armor/suit) Tinker didn’t even notice. 

“Whoops, my arm slipped.” Leet didn’t sound sorry at all. “I’m kind of immature like that. Next thing you know I’ll start verbally abusing someone with a history of questionable decisions who lured us to the top of an abandoned parking lot and currently has a grenade launcher.”

“Well, that’s two, Hippo.” Uber rubbed the butt he’d landed on, returning to his friend and standing just outside of Leet’s reach. “Do it again and Little Mac is gonna have to TKO you, got it?”

“No prob, Mac.” Leet shared a grin with his friend, as if all was forgiven and turned back to face me. “But seriously, why are you here? Cut to the chase. We’ve got things to do.”

“Simply put? I want you two to join my crew. You have talent, I have pure destructive power, and I think we could work well together...better than with any other gangs.” I started counting off my fingers, less to keep track and more to keep them from worrying so much about the grenade launcher pointed in their general direction. “I don’t do drugs, and you two have done enough Capcom games that I know you know that ‘Winners Don’t Do Drugs.’ Lung blew up one of his own warehouses last week and as Tinkers we know better than to be around anyone that unstable...and that’s coming from a bomb tinker.”

The three of us had a laugh over that one, even if Uber’s still sounded a bit forced. I continued, “Finally, I’m too Asian for the E88, and after that Wolfenstein robbery where you ‘accidentally’ burned one of Hitler’s original paintings I doubt they love you much either. We need to band together, and I want you to join me so we can protect each other. Together, we could be explosively effective.”

“I’m with you on a lot of that, but you said ‘my’ crew, and that makes me wonder why you think you’d be the leader?” Leet started to count off his own fingers, realized he just had a huge pair of boxing gloves, and then sighed and just listed points. “We already make decent income from our site, have a huge fanbase, and the PRT barely even tries to stop us. Joining you would make them take us seriously, and we might even lose a lot of subscribers because of your...y’know...past.”

“It’s a no from me, Bakuda.” Uber was less circumspect, and crossed his arms. It wasn’t easy to do with boxing gloves, but he’d actually turned off his bouncers, so he managed. His mouth was set in a firm line, and he didn’t even look at Leet. “We don’t care for bullies, and I can’t think of a better example than the one in front of me. You got a bad grade and tried to bully your professor into fixing it. You got in trouble and tried to bully Cornell University into forgiving you. Now you’re here, trying to bully us into working for you.”

“So, it’s just that cut and dry, huh? All your cannons are in a row?” I held my hands out to the side, ignoring their quizzical expressions as the code phrase I’d programmed into my grenade launcher made it swing in their direction, focusing on Uber since he’d talked last. A few specific words, and it would launch a freeze grenade at him. “If I’m a bully, then why aren’t you two gamer nerds just falling in line for me?”

“Take it down a notch,” repeated the voice in my ear, but I ignored it. I was getting heated up.

“Because back when we were kids, I used to get beat up all the time.” Leet started to explain, his voice oddly quiet. It took me a few seconds to realize that he’d turned off his voice changer, and I had to strain to hear him until he slowly got louder. “Uber would always protect me, but I started to feel bad about always getting him hurt. He had so many friends and clubs, but always found time for me. I finally told him one day that he should just leave me to the bullies.”

“I told him to go fuck himself, that I’d rather bully him myself than let them lay a finger on him.” Uber smiled, and for a moment it was like listening to my friends in college banter...and not to super-nerds in tinker gear who had just spent the evening stealing thousands of dollars of electronics. “So I decided that I would teach him something, so that even if I wasn’t around he’d be okay.”

“So you taught him to fight?” The confusion was pretty clear in my voice. Their capers usually had Leet in either a mobile suit with ranged attacks or a shielded suit like this one, because even the 12-year-old Ward Vista could beat him up...without her powers. It was actually a bit sad, and I’d always wondered if he was just sandbagging for humor. “I...don’t see it.”

“Nah, I could never fight as well as Uber, even before he got powers he was a beast. Meanwhile, I make scarecrows look buff by comparison.” Leet’s goofy grin took some of the sting out of his words, but I could still see his friend’s smile fade at that. “No, he taught me to be confident, and it motivated me to get into art and writing. It was hard at first, but pretty soon I could take just about anything that came my way without getting down on myself for failing.”

“Yeah, and believe me we’ve faced a lot of bullies and jerks in our time. But with each encounter we got stronger, and never let anything keep us down for long.” Uber threw an arm around his friend and the other boy bopped him a few times with his (thankfully depowered) boxing glove. Both started laughing, and their one-arm hug broke up as they stood tall to face my grenade launcher (which was still pointed at them) with conviction on their faces.

“Yeah! It doesn’t matter if it’s a spiky-haired teenager with explosive sweat, an overweight cousin whose family forces me to live in a cupboard under the stairs, a bossy little girl who pulls the football away when I go to kick it, a six-year old who torments me in ways that my stuffed tiger can’t help me overcome…”

“Those all sound like oddly-specific and probably fictional situations.” I commented, and that only made them laugh harder. I rolled my eyes, and waved a hand, motioning for them to get to the point. “So what you’re saying is that since I’m a bully and you’re confident, you want to stand up to me to prove a point? Even with this grenade launcher pointed at you?”

“Yeah!” Both nodded, and Uber’s smile grew so much I wondered if his entire face was a Tinkertech mask of some kind. He pointed a glove at me. “You lived a perfect life of happiness and success, then had one bad day when you got a B+ and went nuts. No offense, but that’s nothing like the kind of crap we’ve dealt with our whole lives. You’ve never had to face bullies. You’ve never had to deal with people who do terrible shit just because they’re petty, ignorant, self-righteous, small-minded pieces of sh-”

***

[Then]

“Professor!”

Professor Bao pointedly ignored me as I continued to wave my hand in the air, choosing instead to walk around the room handing back our midterms. The other students had no problem looking or glaring at me, but since I had the top grade in the class (despite being a year younger than them) their opinions didn’t matter to me one bit. I was destined for greatness.

The question I had for the old man, as it had been every class, was whether or not word had come back on my entry in the Millennium Prize Math Problems contest. It had been a long shot, but my family had barely been able to afford to send me here to Cornell...and with the winnings (a million dollars!) I could pay them back and then some. Heck, I might even be able to move them to a better part of town, or send my siblings to college!

I’d spent months working on it, but I was pretty sure (95% sure, at least) that I had a proof of the Poincare Conjecture that would pass any scrutiny. I’d handed it off to Professor Bao almost a month ago, along with my letter of explanation and other information. He’d promised to send it immediately, and I had thanked him profusely for helping my mathematics dream come true.

But since that day, he’d grown more and more shrewd when it came to talking to me, often even making appointments with me and then skipping them. I was pretty sure that he was just overworked, and so I’d tried to help him out by pointing out mistakes he was making on the various quizzes and tests he’d been giving us.

For instance, the one that he slapped on my desk, pulling me from my thoughts, had a note on it asking me to please stop doing so...and a B+? How? I hurriedly flipped through it, and found that he’d mistaken my explanation of bicontinuous functions to be a mere continuous inverse function (ignoring the note I had that pointed out the rest of that proof on the back of the page).  I quickly jumped to my feet, running out of the classroom and to his office.

He was still there, apparently caught up in what seemed like a happy phone call with someone, and immediately disconnected the call as I entered the room. Knowing I wasn’t one of his favorite people, I put on my most careful smile and radiant expression. The other students who were milling around the hallway stopped to watch, knowing that the two of us were prone to...spirited discussions.

Despite the audience and my smile, he was not happy to see me. Further adding to my embarrassment, he loudly proclaimed that all grades were final while pointing at the sign (with those words in multiple languages) over his left shoulder. He then told me to get out, and started to get up and shoo me out of his office. 

I took a moment to formulate a nicer way (than usual) to point out his error, but froze as I saw a brand new addition to the wall of certificates and diplomas that covered his wall. It hadn’t been there yesterday, and the shining glass frame almost seemed to taunt me as the man got nervous. 

“Now, while that might be only my name on there despite using some of your work-” He started whispering, but I wasn’t listening...I was just staring. I ignored him as he put his arm on my shoulder and tried to pull me away from his door, closing it with one foot.

It was a certificate from the Clay Mathematics Institute. 

“-besides, nobody would even believe you if you tried to expose me, so you should just-”

Awarded to Professor Bao, working alone.

“-can give you straight A’s all year if you just keep this a secret from-”

For his proof on the Poincare Conjecture.

“-even fix that B+ right now!”

...for a moment, the only math I cared about was the amount of force that my hands could apply to his throat. The other students interrupted me, so I never found out the answer.

*

“As I said, Dean, I think the poor girl was just overworked and the stress got to her.” Bao’s voice echoed out of the Dean’s office. I would have been closer, but a campus security guard had sat me down in a folding chair just outside the office, and refused to let me enter and defend myself. I had spent the night in their jail cell (practically a locked closet), and during that time things had gotten worse. “But now that all these other details are coming out, we may not have a choice.” 

Other details, in this case, being the fact that shortly after I’d been nabbed by campus security, a legion of students had gone on social media and spread lies about my ‘cutthroat nature,’ my made-up drug habits, and one was even claiming that I had talked about bombing the school. Of course, none of them had any proof, but local news had picked it up and it was spreading like wildfire. My hopes that the truth would prevail were starting to burn away in that wildfire... 

“You’re right, Bao. If she did this over a B+, and even half of these rumors are true, then we can’t take the risk.” He sighed, and then started printing something before calling out, “Bring her in!”

The security guard grabbed me by the arm, roughly dragging me in despite my protestations that I could walk. Only as we entered and the Dean gave him a nod did he let me go, but still kept an eye on me and a hand on his taser. I started to defend myself, but saw how the Dean refused to make eye contact and knew that the battle was already lost.

I just stared ahead as the Dean told me that he was very sorry, but they were going to have to expel me. That all my credits could be transferred, but no school would be likely to take me for some time. That I should really seek mental help for my anger issues, and that attacking Bao over a B+ could have saved me from a life in prison...and that I should be thankful to the man. 

Meanwhile, Bao just grinned at me and then schooled his face into sadness when the Dean looked at him. This was the man I was supposed to be thankful to?

The man who had stolen MY work? My MATH

MY FUTURE?!

It was like an explosion in my head. All the anxiety and fear I’d felt all month, combined with the need to make my parents proud, added to my incredible need for perfection because they’d sacrificed so much for me ...

I turned and ran, a headache like I’d never felt spiking so hard that I was seeing double for a moment. The security guard let out a little squawk and tried to chase me, but with adrenaline, fear, and anger roiling in me I was faster than anyone else in that moment.

I made it out of the building and just kept running. I was afraid to stop, and before I knew it I was at the edge of campus and all alone. I was completely alone now, no family or friends or...

By then the pain had gotten so bad that my vision went dark, and it was only the feeling of leaves and branches in my face that told me I was running through one of the stupid decorative hedges the Dean loved so much. I tripped, I fell, and I just...gave up.

I ran out of steam, fighting to escape, and finally broke down into the ugliest cry I’d ever had. I’d lost everything, had it all taken away from me, and now I was going to have to tell my family...

PAIN

I felt like I was dying, like my brain was exploding, and then everything went dark.

*

When I woke up, the pain was gone. The light was also gone, and night had fallen.

But none of that really mattered to me, because I was staring at a television on sale in the little electronics store just a few hundred feet away. On it, Bao was being interviewed by the local news about me. 

I knew it was about me, because he was lying and they were believing him. From the subtitles, I could see him claiming that I was dangerously unstable, and police nodding appreciatively.

But I didn’t care about that, because I was looking at the television

Five minutes later, I was looking inside the television, having removed the glass window with the simple application of a brick. The store owner tried to stop me, but all it took to get rid of him was the mere threat of a brick. He said he was calling the police, but I’d snatched the phone from his hand.

I needed that phone more than him. I used it to call Bao, warn him to come clean or else .

Then I took the phone apart. Also the TV. Also...well, I’d suddenly had an idea...

It had occurred to me that there were other ways to change the world besides just math.

Ways to solve problems. Ways to get back at Bao. Ways to make my mark on the world.

In my case, all the best ways also went BOOM.

*

That night, as Bao spread lies about me to the media, claiming that I had planted bombs all over the campus, I was hiding in an alley with parts stolen from the electronics shop. 

While the news raved about the Protectorate coming in and being unable to find the bombs planted by a new villain cape called Bakuda (nice name, that), I was marveling at an inventive new device I had crafted. It combined six alarm clocks, three smoke detectors, and a microwave to create an effect that split things into equal-sized pieces. It also made a very loud bang.

As I left town, I made sure to toss it inside Professor Bao’s apartment window. He had just long enough to read the note (“What’s the radius of a circle?”) before it went off, and divided him into 314 equally-sized pieces. Get it?

I’m sure Bao would be laughing too, if he weren’t a thieving bully who got killed by karma. 

Well, karma and my Pi Bomb.

***

[Now]

“-it, whose entire goal is to stomp on you because it makes them feel bigger.”

“They’re right, Boss. Also they’re on a roll.” I frowned under my mask, but as if he could see me he added. “Even if you don’t agree, you should at least apologize.”

“You’re right, I am being a bully. Sorry!” My raised hand, bowed head, and sudden words stopped their rant in its tracks, and I sighed. I gave the grenade launcher two slaps, disarming the auto-target system. I took a deep breath, and tried again. “I screwed this up by coming in hot, thinking I had to take what I wanted. I’m too used to dealing with...terrible people. Sorry, I’ve just been dealing with a lot of shit lately. What I want…”

What I wanted was my family back, but they’d practically disowned me after I killed Bao. In the moment it had seemed like the right thing to do...but I was still a murderer now. I’d stolen, hurt people, and caused a lot of panic since then. I hadn’t killed anyone else, but that was more by luck than actual effort.

What I want are people I can trust. Friends. A family. Someone to have my back.

But how was I ever going to have friends or a family again, after what I’d done? I was just a-

Challenge them to a contest. ” The voice whispered in my ear. “ They’re gamers. They’ll love it.

“What I want...is a contest.” I repeated the words slowly, and the idea began to form as I continued. Seeing them glance at each other and not hearing an outright refusal, I continued. “We meet in 2 weeks, in front of your hideout, and my best bombs take on your best costumes. We each get to show off our best, you get money for your channel, and then-”

“So what, we beat you for our channel and you go away forever?” Uber interrupted me, his eyes still on my grenade launcher. He traded a quick glance with Leet, who just shrugged unhelpfully. “If you win, not that you will, are we just supposed to become your slaves? Sounds like a pretty stupid deal.”

“Nah, if I win then we team up, but as a three-person crew.” I ground my teeth for a moment, hating to give up on my plan, and I finally clenched a fist as I continued. “No leader, just three confident people who the other big gangs in the city don’t want to mess with. It keeps me safe from the nazis, junkies, and rage dragon...and keeps you two protected in case the PRT ever decides to come after you for that Earthbound thing you did last month.”

“Seriously, we warned everyone a full week in advance that it was called the Pencil Eraser !” Leet whined, stomping his foot petulantly as Uber patted him on the back. “They had plenty of time to get ready for it. It was their own fault for not taking me seriously when I made a device that destroyed all the pencils in a 1-mile radius. Heck, Arcadia loved us for giving them the day off from school.”

“I know dude, I know.” Uber sighed, shaking his head and turning towards me. He carefully crossed the short distance between us and, after a glance back to get a nod from the still-sulking Leet, reached out to shake my hand. “Anyway, I think we accept. Our awesome gear and Tinkertech versus your little firecrackers, winner chooses where we go from there. We’d offer to send you the location, but from the way you’re talking you probably already know where it is. You seem like the sort of person who likes to do her research.”

“What can I say, I like to be prepared. Oh, speaking of which...” I turned and started walking away, removing a small remote control from my pocket as I did so. I very pointedly pressed a large button on top of it, smiling as I heard them both dive to the ground. The button didn’t actually do anything, but it felt good to keep them on their toes. “Just figured I’d disarm that before going. See you in two weeks, kids.”

“We’re gonna have to pull out all the stops on this one, dude. That lady’s scary as hell.”

“But also kind of a hot badass, y’know?” Leet replied in a voice that had me wondering if he was looking at my butt. I heard a thumping noise, and glanced back to see that Uber had bounced the big Tinker with his boxing glove, and the two were laughing and bopping each other.

Seeing them fool around like that made me happier than I’d like to admit. 

Seems like that worked out better than we planned. Good thing we went with my suggestion after all, eh?” The voice came in my ear again, and as I rounded the corner into an alley I groaned and popped the radio out. I slipped the device into a pocket, then started to take the grenade launcher apart. By the time it was in pieces and safely stashed in my coat, I had been joined by my new bodyguard.

He was nothing impressive physically, only a few inches taller than me and wearing heavy clothing to protect from the cold. But most people still might have given him a second look when they noticed the way his right arm was a bit bulkier than his left, or that one hand was metal. 

Well, that and the way he’d joined me by leaping down into the alley from several stories above, the sound of straining metal wire the only noise to be heard. Landing as light as a feather, he gestured and the hook that was stuck in the roof above clicked out of place and allowed the thin cable to wind back up into his elbow housing.

“Arm still working okay?” I asked, gesturing for him to hold it out so I could check it over. He rolled his eyes, but let me check my rudimentary work and make sure that neither the grappling gun nor the bomb-launcher had taken any damage from his rough treatment. “How was the sniper scope, by the way? I haven’t made any bomb-bullets yet, but the scope is-”

“Yeah, I know, Boss. It was good. It let me keep an eye on ya, and the grappling hook is a lot smoother now.” He took the arm back, clicking it through both the grapple mode and gun mode before returning it to a normal (if metal) arm. “Anyway, we better get back to da hideout. My ABB contacts say we got about an hour window til they patrol dis area again.”

“Got it.” With that, the two of us began to head back to the crappy apartment workshop I’d set up shop in. As we walked, I bounced ideas off of him for weapons I could make, since my opponents were apparently going to bring their A-Game. 

“Maybe a bomb that puts people to sleep?” I asked, my Tinker mind already dancing with new possibilities. “I’ve heard about a Case 53 in town who can give people temporary drug trips and knock them out with his sweat.”

“Yeah, I was about ta say, maybe if ya wanted teammates ya don’t start off by meltin’ their bodies or nothing.” He grinned, and I found myself rolling my eyes and laughing. He said that he’d only started using the Brooklyn accent to stand out when he was in the ABB, but now it was hard for him to remember not to fake it. “Yeah, I’ll pay a visit to that nightclub he hangs out at, see if I can get some samples so ya can make a Drug Trip Grenade?”

“Keep working this hard, and someday I’ll be working for you.” I joked, but he just chuckled and shook his head at me. We arrived at the apartment and he stepped inside, checking it and disarming my traps. “I can at least give you a raise, if you help me knock over an ATM…”

“Nah, I don’t need none of that, Boss.” He returned to the door and held it open, giving me a fake bow. “I’m perfectly happy being your bodyguard, test subject, and Gun Guy.”

“...we’ve got to come up with a better codename for you than Gun Guy.” I entered and took off my mask, glaring at him a little as he laughed and followed. 

He had told me he didn’t remember much from the day he’d been hurt, losing his arm and nearly dying in a warehouse explosion visible from a mile away. All his memory gave him were bits and pieces. Lung getting mad at him and crushing his gun, an alarm going off, Lung throwing fire and roaring, him shooting, and then finally an explosion that nearly killed him. 

Also, someone whose face he couldn’t recall, who kept calling him ‘Gun Guy’ over and over. 

“Seriously, there have to be better name options.” I tried talking to him again, but he just shrugged it off and started heating up some of the leftovers he’d made the night before. Even with a new arm, he was an excellent cook. “You shouldn’t have to use a nickname whose creator you don’t even remember!”

“I dunno about dat, Boss.” Gun Guy shrugged, then held up his arm and shifted it to Gun Mode, posing as if he was on a movie poster. “It’s kinda growing on me.”

************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Arc 1 isn’t over yet! We still have an Epilogue, as Greg reviews over his time as a parahuman and tries to make positive changes in his life.

Chapter Text

Final Journal Entry...maybe:

It’s really hard looking back at your own mistakes and calling them actual mistakes.

This isn’t easy. After the written tongue-lashing I read from the Thinkered-up version of myself, Kaleidoscope, though...I know that I need to do this. I have to change, to be willing to change, because I can’t just keep making mistakes like the ones I’ve been making all week.

I could have died to Knife Guy, the ABB, Lung, Gun Guy, Bellows, or my own dumb choices. The fact that the Undersiders didn’t rob or kill me was luck. I can’t just count on being lucky anymore. I have to make good plans. I have to improve.

So, I just read back through my Journal. Every entry, every note, every page. I’ve got it all open right here, and I’m going to do what I should have done in the first place.

Instead of just writing down my thoughts, as though that solved anything, I’m going to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past few weeks. Because I have to change. I have to ask myself whether any of this was worth it, and if it wasn’t...I need to find something that does work.

If this Journal wasn’t actually helping me, then what would have worked better?

Let’s see...

Do I Understand My Classmates? Yeah, I think I do now. Sure, I can be annoying, but out of everyone at school only one of them ever did anything that could have really hurt me...Emma. Having people make fun of me or beat me up doesn’t mean they hate me...it just means they’re jerks. Also, if they’re just reacting to the bad way I act, then that should tell me something.

Do I Understand Exercise? All that running I did that first night, all those power tests I failed, and it should have taught me that I need to take better care of myself. I never understood why my body was always failing me, but that’s because all this time I was the one failing myself. Exercise was trying to tell me something this whole time...I just wasn’t listening.

Do I Understand My Plans? I put my own plans on too high of a pedestal. I spent so much time thinking on all the angles and making big schemes, and was too afraid to question them. Look at the last week! All the plans I’d had that were years old had been failures, and all the ones that I just assumed were perfect were anything but. I had to stop going into everything thinking I was right...and be ready to be told I was wrong.

What I need is to find a way to stop working alone. Is there anyone I can trust, though?

Do I Understand My Powers? I thought that my powers were terrible. Even after I figured them out and realized that I could copy powers, I thought they were such a bad match for me. I mean, powers that require other people, given to the guy who has no friends and sucks at talking to people? But now I get it! I have the greatest powers I could possibly get, with such versatility. They’ve given me the motivation I need to become a better Greg. 

Do I Understand My Brother? No, not yet. But that’s not his fault. Sure, George and I didn’t always get along perfectly, and I felt like he was trying to leave me behind. He had a new life, new job, new girlfriend, and it always seemed like he was rubbing all that in my face. But now I think that he was just trying to inspire me, to show me what perseverance and motivation could get me. He had my back, even after getting hurt...he deserves more recognition. 

Do I Understand the ABB? They’re a criminal gang, and that seems straightforward. But as Gun Guy taught me with all his safety stuff, I can’t just assume that they’re all a faceless evil entity. They’re people, and they have lives.

Do I Understand Lung? As much as anyone else does, I guess. He’s a force of nature, an unstoppable enemy, and I was a fool for taking him on alone. I need to respect my limits. 

Still, maybe someday I can fight him with friends by my side. A lot of friends. Like, a LOT.

Do I Understand Hospitals? Yeah, I think I finally do. I shouldn’t feel so bad about what happened when I was a kid. All of those doctors and nurses took an oath, and all they were doing was helping a sad, injured kid. I can’t blame them for the way bullies kept coming after me, the principals who punished them, or my parents for caring about me. Going to the hospital was smart. Screaming at the nurse...less smart. She didn’t deserve that.

Do I Understand the Law? Yeah. It took me meeting Bellows to fully get it. That guy was what I was on the track to becoming. Someone who saw the world in black and white, was obsessed with one goal, and had so much confirmation bias and deep-seated rage that dismissals set him off like an atom bomb. I need to be more like Kalpin and Hobson, a true team of friends.

So, what does all of this tell me?

Most of all, it tells me that I have to start working on Greg instead of Greg’s powers. I need to make sure that I have parents, a brother, and maybe even friends to support me. But how I’m going to actually pull that off...that’s something I’m probably not going to figure out tonight.

This might be my final journal entry, or maybe it’s just time for my journal to evolve.

-GregV.

***

[Saturday, Dec 25, 2010...Christmas Morning!]

After typing up my (potentially) final journal entry, I went downstairs to sit on the couch and think about how I was going to fix everything I’d broken.

Lisa was right, it’s only a matter of time before I get dragged into a fight or a cape matter.

I couldn’t always count on super-brain powers to get me out of the problems I had created. I had to learn not to make them in the first place, and the right way to deal with them. No more running away, no more hiding, and someday...no more secrets. Powers wouldn’t always be there to help me...I had to learn to help myself.

I need to build that support network GstringGirl was talking about. No more Secret Journals.

...come to think of it, that gives me a really good idea! Just a...quick...nap...first...

Unfortunately, before I had time to work out this great idea, I must have dozed off. In my defense, I was on a comfortable couch and pretty tired from a long night of yelling, talking, and using super-brain powers to reset my social connections with my family.

Then someone was shaking me, and I heard my name.

“Greg, honey, did you sleep down here?” Mom was there, and I awoke from a dreamless sleep to see her concerned face peering down at me. She was in a bathrobe, and appeared to be a mix of worried and bemused. As I laughed nervously, she joined in...gesturing at the tree. “Well, I guess it’s not the first time you’ve slept by the tree. Merry Christmas, Greg.”

“Merry Christmas, Mom.” I stood quickly from the couch and gave her a hug, only stopping when she let out a little squeak of surprise. I felt like I hadn’t seen her in days. “Oops, sorry.”

Admittedly, from my point of view it had certainly felt like days. The last time I had seen her she had been ready to fight me to protect George, as he leaned on her with blood dripping down-

No, stop thinking about that. Kaleidoscope sorted that out for me. Be happy for once.

I gave an unsteady smile, one that she returned, and I think both of us realized that no matter how well last night had ended...that didn’t erase everything I had said or done earlier. Luckily, we were spared from any more nervous dialogue when Dad clambered downstairs, followed by George. Both paused at the bottom of the steps, looking owlishly at us before laughing.

“So Greg, did you manage to catch Santa Claus this year?” George asked, a grin on his face as he pretended to look around. He walked around the room, not bothering to hide the small bandage on his hand, and I even think he pointed it at me so that I wouldn’t worry about it. He looked up our chimney, then sighed theatrically, “Guess we forgot to camp out this year, huh?”

“Well, to be fair we had a lot of other stuff on our minds last night…” I started, then paused as everyone froze and looked anywhere other than at me. Taking a deep breath and noting a wonderful smell still in the air, I quickly added, “Like Mom’s sweet potato pie! I don’t know how you do it, Mom, but that was divine as always!”

Everyone let out a relieved laugh, and I internally cheered as the level of discomfort in the room almost visibly decreased. Mom headed for the kitchen to start making coffee, Dad started fussing with the tree’s lights, and George started moving things off the coffee table carefully.

Oh, better help George with that heavy coffee table stuff. I kind of owe him for that hand.

Wordlessly, I moved to help George, and together we started clearing things off of the coffee table. I tried to start talking to him more than once, but even though he’d been cordial earlier with Mom and Dad around...I could still tell he was worried about something. 

I wonder what Kaleidoscope said to him? He was already nervous beforehand...what’s his deal?

Soon enough, we were all seated in the living room, having had a quick breakfast, and my parents were looking at the gifts I had gotten them. I had insisted that they open them first, just smiling and shrugging when they tried to ask what was inside. I didn’t want to give the wrong impression, and also...I really had no idea what Kaleidoscope had gotten them.

Their faces, a minute later, told me that it had been something amazing.

Even after that, as George and I tore through our own presents from our parents, envelopes from distant relatives, and little tchotchkes from our Christmas stockings, I found myself thinking about their faces. They’d been so surprised, so happy, and so proud of me.

But it wasn’t me, was it?

No, those gifts hadn’t technically come from me. It was almost enough to bring me down…

But in a way, it was from me. Just a different version of me. The Greg I could be.

Someday, I would be that Greg, the one who brings smiles to my parents’ faces. Who fills my brother with hope. Who has friends that rely on him. Who inspires others.

Powers didn’t solve my problems for me...they just gave me more options. That meant I needed to stop worrying about my powers so much, and fix the rest of my life.

I can make this happen.

I could make this happen.  

I had already started, now it was time to keep going!

[End of Arc 1]

*********************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Arc 2’s Prologue! Greg had an idea in this epilogue, a way to improve himself. Not physically, or with his powers, but to start building a strong foundation that would serve him for years. All he needs...is to be willing to ask for help. But of course it’s never that easy, because it’s a very strange kind of help he’s asking for...from a very odd source...

Chapter Text

[Saturday, Dec 25, 2010...Evening]

“Okay, this should be far enough.” I muttered to myself, glancing around subtly and trying not to let it look like I was checking for witnesses. I settled down onto one of the many handy (and wonderfully clean) benches that dotted Brockton Bay, and pulled out my phone.

I stared at my phone.

My parents had been so tired from last night and everything else that they had decided to take a nap. Before the left, though, I mentioned to them that I was thinking of getting into jogging...and was going to take a quick walk around the neighborhood. I had my phone on me, and promised that I wouldn’t go too far or be gone for longer than an hour.

They seemed oddly okay with that, and told me to have a good walk. It made me feel a bit bad that I had now walked a good mile past our neighborhood, since I’d actually told them a little white lie. I was now several neighborhoods away, and the streets were clean but empty.

Already starting to undo Kaleidoscope’s work...but I can’t risk this call being traced to them.

I slipped my scarf up over my mouth and nose, to disguise my voice a bit, and then carefully pulled out my wallet. After staring at it for a moment, I gingerly removed a business card, and then dialed the number on the card.

It rang. It rang again. Then I hung up, my hand shaking a little.

Sure, I wanted to change, but going to the PRT is a huge step! Maybe I should rethink this-

My phone rang in my hand, and I was so startled that I answered and held it to my ear before I realized that it was probably…

“Hello?” Hobson’s voice asked, sounding tired. “We lost our connection. Are you in duress or danger? If so, please cough twice and then sniff.”

“N-no! I’m fine!” In the background I could hear cloth sliding on cloth, and realized that the man was probably getting dressed and leaping into action or something. The sound stopped, and then continued at a much slower pace. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“Not a problem, I needed to get up anyway. Kalpin seems to have stolen my alarm clock again in an attempt to get me to sleep more.” He gave a good-natured chuckle, one that I shared because it sounded like something the short blonde man would do. “We spent most of last night checking on various parahumans known for New Year’s Eve shenanigans, so we’re both tired.”

“Oh, well I should probably let you go do...um...paperwork or something.” I started to hang up. “Sorry to bother yo-”

“Wait.” His voice was dead serious, and I stopped. I put the phone back to my ear. “If you called this number, my personal number, then this was serious. Please, talk to me. Take your time.”

If I hang up, he might just track the phone, or do all kinds of things. I guess I may as well…

“Okay, sorry. This is G-” I stopped, mentally slapping myself for almost doing the exact thing I was trying to avoid in the first place! Idiot! Okay, what else could I use to identify myself? “This is that guy you met at the hospital. The one who...uh...wasn’t actually ABB.”

“Ah, of course. Good to hear from you.” Hobson’s voice warmed up considerably, and I heard bed springs creak as he sat down. I wondered if he’d been getting ready to do something. “Kalpin and I were wondering when we’d cross paths with you again. How are you?”

“I’m kind of at a crossroads, I guess.” I trailed off, then took a deep breath and tried my best to think of how to sum up my situation and worries (without giving anything too personal). “I’ve come to realize that dealing with everything alone is just going to end in disaster, but at the same time...I’m not sure I’m ready to out myself to my parents or the PRT. Not yet, anyway.”

“Well, out of curiosity, what’s stopping you? Are you afraid your parents will react...badly?”

“Sort of. I mean, not in a violent or abusive way.” I recognized that by saying it that way, it actually made it sound more like I thought that would happen. Smooth, Greg. “It’s more that we’ve been through a lot the past few weeks, and I don’t want to drop this on them as well. We have some issues, and are starting to work through them. I’m starting to see ways I can improve our relationship, and want to fix things before outing myself...but…”

“But you’re still afraid of doing this alone. At the same time, you’re also afraid of just handing over all responsibility, as if it will also destroy your independence and faith in yourself?” Hobson suggested, and I found myself nodding despite him not actually being able to see me. “Well, if it sounds like I’m familiar with that situation, it’s because I am. Can I tell you a story about why?”

I nodded again, then realized that he still couldn’t see me and answered in the affirmative.

“About twenty years ago, Kalpin was a very...imaginative little boy. He played games, dreamed of big adventures, and explored the woods behind his house all the time. Like many children his age, he was also kind of a brat...ignoring schoolwork, disobeying his parents, and constantly messing with the girl next door.”

“Sounds familiar.” I muttered, smiling to myself. “No wonder I liked him so much.”

“Indeed, although not everyone shared that opinion. Regardless of his bad grades, detentions, kids making fun of him for acting childish, and bullies, he still refused to give up on his dreams. You see, Kalpin idolized the hero known as Vikare…” Hobson paused, as if remembering something. “Kalpin always envisioned himself as growing up to be like the man, as either a detective, spaceman, superhero, or other fantastic larger-than-life persona.”

Wow, a Vikare fanboy. Now that’s old school. He was the first superhero after Scion...until he…

“Then Vikare died.” Hobson sighed, as if recalling the same pain that everyone who was alive in 1989 seemed to share. The hero had been killed attempting to stop a riot, ending the Golden Age of Parahumans . “But that didn’t stop Kalpin. He decided that he was going to follow in the man’s footsteps. He would get better grades, get tall and strong, and become a cop or hero.”

“That’s quite a change!” I smiled, remembering similar dreams when I was a kid. “I’ll bet his parents and teachers were thrilled.”

“Not...quite. They actually didn’t believe him.” Hobson chuckled, and not in a nice way. This may have been a part of his own life he didn’t enjoy talking about, but he still pressed on. “Kalpin had spent years telling amazing stories, having big dreams, and rarely following up on any of them. He only did housework and homework when forced to, and avoided responsibility as a matter of his very being. Nobody believed this new dream would last very long at all.”

“Why would-”

Except for me .” Hobson said, with a firm declaration so sudden and sharp that I almost wondered if a third person had entered the conversation. “I was his only friend back then, and I swore that I would help him achieve his dreams. No matter what !”

“That’s why you two are such good friends, huh?”

“One of many reasons. He kept pushing ahead with his dreams and ideas, and I kept him grounded and on-track. His grades began to improve, he started to grow up, he became more mature and dependable, moved out to live with his best friend…”

I don’t think I need to ask to know who that best friend was.

“...and then finally there came a day when he confronted his parents as a newly-hired member of the PRT. He told them all about how he got there...and they apologized for not believing him.” Hobson sighed, and I could hear him handling something that I couldn’t see. “He just shrugged it off, saying that he always believed in himself, and that I had as well, so he’d stopped caring what they thought a long time ago.”

“So what you’re saying is, what? Find a friend to help guide me, and forget about my parents?”

“No!” Hobson’s voice was sharp, and then he lowered it again. “No, what I’m saying is that you don’t need to treat doing this alone and going to your parents as two steps that are right next to each other. Rather, you should treat them as being a few steps apart and work your way up to them. Start by climbing hills, then work your way up to mountains. Just...don’t take too long.”

“So maybe, I could find a friend, or someone to hold me accountable. Someone who can call me out on my dumb choices and help me think of better ones…” I trailed off, thinking, and Hobson let me. “Then, in a few weeks, when I think I can deal with giving up control and have a stronger bond with my parents, come out to them and the PRT?”

“As an officer of the PRT, I would say no. I would say that you should report right this very moment for power testing and classification, and join the Wards.” He chuckled, then added, “But you called my personal number. So as Hobson, best friend of Kalpin, I say...yes, you’re on the right track. Just, remember my story...don’t shut your family out. Parahumans need support! They need people to trust, people to call them on dumb choices, and people to love.”

“I understand. Thanks, Hobson...I guess I’ll see you guys in a few weeks.” My mind was already racing, an idea I’d had earlier was now looking much better. Maybe I could make this work after all. “Hey, by the way, I had been wondering...why do you guys call each other by your last names?”

“What, Kalpin and Hobson?” He laughed, then whispered back. “What makes you think those are our last names?”

Then he hung up.

***

So now I was back in my room, once again typing away on my computer while I heard my parents watching a movie with George down below. I’d been working on my new idea for over an hour now, and was carefully tweaking the last few details of an email.

I was having trouble hitting Send, though, so I switched to another window and looked at my Secret Journal. Every page had received several edits, and I thought about the original idea as a whole while my eyes roved over the page one...last...time.

The Secret Journal idea had seemed like such a good idea, but it had a major flaw.

That would be the Secret part. Probably should have seen this coming.

It was easy to say that the worst part about a secret was that it was a secret, but that’s what it boiled down to. More specifically, it was the fact that I was the only one in on the secret, and therefore all the pressure was on me. I was the only one who:

Could find any problems, because I was the only one looking for them.

Could make improvements, because I was the only one who knew what was happening.

Could make corrections, because I was the only one who’d know when things went wrong.

The list went on and on. Essentially, I had to do everything, and for someone juggling as much as I was now, that was just too much pressure. Not only did I have my new powers, but I also had to worry about how things would interact with my parents, George, my life, time management, and...in a week...school. That alone would add a whole pile of problems.

No, I couldn’t keep this a secret anymore. Trying to go it alone for only a week had gotten me blown up, burned, shot, cut, and nearly arrested several times. I’d fought a supervillain because nobody had suggested it was a dumb idea. I’d gone after the ABB because of a childish tantrum. I’d told my parents off, without considering how they really might have felt.

I could list my mistakes all day, or I could actually get to work on preventing them.

I couldn’t just trust that I’d run into someone like Lisa again to pull my dumb ass out of the fire. There wouldn’t always be powers there to save the day, and I-

I need to stop stalling and click the button already. The sooner I ask, the sooner I know.

...maybe I’d read it over one more time, just in case?

***

Even though my grounding didn’t technically end for another few hours, Mom and Dad had given me back by computer and phone early. They’d claimed that they didn’t want to keep me away from my friends, and I hadn’t had the heart to tell them that “friends” didn’t need a plural.

Besides, if all went as planned, I would only need one friend.

To think, I never would have had this idea if not for all the punishment I went through!

It was during that hellish week of punishment that the idea had come to me. I had been unable to focus on powers or anything fun, so all I had time to do was chores. Every night I’d go to bed exhausted, and find the ‘lessons’ of the day spinning through my head until I finally passed out. But it wasn’t until tonight, after a fun day of presents and family, that it had all finally clicked.

Dad had been making me do chores, carrying heavy loads around and such. My muscles had hated me for it, but the hardest part at first had been the boxes that I could barely even slide. For those, at first I had been angry at Dad, thinking he was just doing it to make me feel terrible. 

But then I’d asked him for help, exasperated...and he’d instantly grinned and leapt to my rescue. It hadn’t made the boxes any lighter, but suddenly the job was going twice as fast. Even when we dropped a few, we’d both taken the blame and Mom had let us off with only a glare.

Was he trying to teach me to ask for help, and how powerful a team could be?

Meanwhile, Mom had been giving me loads and loads of books to read and talk to her about. Homework, with a limited time to read it, and discussions I couldn’t avoid. But what had really bugged me was when she’d give me stuff that was too much for me to read in a limited time, or too complex for me. 

I’d been annoyed, but then right near the end...I’d told her as much and she apologized. She decreased the difficulty, without questioning me. No comments about my literacy, no veiled insults, nothing like that. Just acknowledgement that it was okay to come up short, maybe?

Was she trying to teach me that it was okay to admit when I was in over my head?

I guess it was because I’d never been in this particular mindset before, but I realized last night that they had been trying to teach me...in a new way. I’d thought they were just coming up with new ways to punish me, after that conversation I’d overheard, but...

They were actually trying new methods of getting through to me. Even if I was being difficult.

They were trying . Even if I couldn’t see it. Now I feel even worse about telling them off.

I shook my head. It didn’t matter, because I was seeing it now. I was using their lessons.

Or at least I will use their lessons, if I ever stop spell checking this damn email. 

Biting my lip, I read it one last time, just in case there were any mistakes.

Really, just one more time? That’s what I said last time.

Twentieth time’s the charm! This email must be perfect!

***

GstringGirl,

Sorry it’s taken me a week to get back to you. My parents grounded me for...well, let’s just say it’s a long story and I kind of had it coming. I hope leaving like that wasn’t too rude, but parents, you know? There’s no snooze alarm on parental judgement.

So, I know this may seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, but I wanted to thank you for your advice on that fanfic we were talking about before we got cut off. The ideas you had about creating support networks really paid off, and the character is becoming more balanced and fun to write. The world is solid and all the powers are set, so I’m looking forward to writing more.

...which actually brings me to a favor I wanted to ask. It’s okay if you don’t want to, but I was kind of hoping you would be willing to be my Pre-reader? The problem I’m having is that the character is...kind of a socially awkward jerk, and made a lot of mistakes. I don’t want to change what I have so far, but feel like I can improve from here on out with your help. I’ve got it on a password-protected shared drive, and having you read it and talk to me would really help.

I know I say a lot of dumb stuff on PHO, but you’ve always had my back, and I’m really thankful for that...even if I don’t always say it. I’m trying to be better about that sort of thing, and writing this character has helped me see some of my own flaws. Much like the main character, I’m trying to get a better relationship with my family and friends, and your advice helped with that. You’re one of my friends, so technically by helping me, you help yourself have a better friend.

Anyway, sorry for the usual word vomit. I’ve been writing and rewriting this for a bit. Regardless of what you decide, thanks for the help...and for being there for me.

Void_Cowboy

***

The idea had come to me when talking with GstringGirl a week ago. She had said that my “self-insert fanfic character” needed a support network, a friend...someone they could talk to and trust. Even if she didn’t know I was talking about myself, she’d been right that people (capes or not)  needed someone in their life to be honest, supportive, and at times...critical.

It was kind of like what I’d seen with Kalpin and Hobson. Sure, they worked well together, but they were literally the definition of buddy cops. Both covered for each other’s weaknesses, amplified each other’s strengths, practically seemed to read each other’s minds...they were a team, and together they were far greater than they’d have been alone. They also poked fun at each other and called each other out on dumb stuff (mostly Hobson on Kalpin, admittedly).

They represented the kind of friends that I had always dreamed about. I wondered how they had met, and what amazing tales they could tell about their lives and adventures together. To grow up knowing someone like that, I’d have imagined the days were just packed.

Luckily, I had someone like that, and any minute now I would find out whether she was interested in helping me improve my “writing style” (or life, in reality) with tips and advice.

It may have seemed silly, like I was just trading out one lie for another, but I had to go slowly. I just...I didn’t really know how to talk to my parents, brother, or even a therapist about this sort of thing. I couldn’t go to the PRT proper, there wasn’t a hotline I could call without being afraid of having the call traced, and...there were just too many things that could go wrong.

I’d heard all the horror stories of capes being outed by friends, family, and even random strangers. But in this case I wasn’t actually giving her any details about me (aside from my first name) or my actual powers. Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, I was pretty sure I could make this work. I had already taken painstaking precautions to avoid it being linked to me.

So I had made a copy of my Secret Journal and archived it elsewhere, putting it on a thumb drive and hiding it under a loose floorboard in my closet. Then I had updated the folder so that I could share it with someone, but made sure the files and text couldn’t be copied. Finally, I had painstakingly gone through all the entries and made massive cuts, changes, and alterations.

For instance, the main character was now Greg V. Reed. Other characters included Talia Abert (Taylor), Sofiyah Esh (Sophia), Irma Burns (Emma), Madaline Clubbins (Madison), and so on. 

My powers had been changed to just copying a single power and having it be weak as heck. I’d cut out the hospital, as well as changing the details in a bunch of my powered adventures. It was now a self-insert fanfiction set in Brockton Bay, a place she already knew I lived, about a kid named Greg who wanted to fix up his life before trying to become a hero.

In other words, fiction based on truth, hidden as fiction. I’m a genius!

After the way she came through for me with her other advice, I knew that I could turn to her for something like this. I didn’t need help with powers or costumes, no...what I needed was someone to help me “shape the narrative” of my “self-insert” and his growth as a person. 

In other words, having her look over my (severely edited) mistakes up until now and figure out what to do from here. Now that I had my powers mostly figured out, I could get her help fixing the other parts of my life that desperately needed it. Something she was good at, apparently.

That meant family, friends, social life, and so much more that I had no idea how to fix. I was going to put my powers aside for a bit, and work on Greg Veder, like I had been planning before. The problem before had been that I’d spent so much time rushing to use and understand my powers, everything else about my life had fallen apart.

What I needed was someone who would call me out on my dumb choices, make suggestions about what I could do better, and maybe even suggest powers that could help. Not do the job for me , but just help...and they always said that two heads were better than one.

It was time for some peer review, and then I could-

DING

My email notification went off. I felt a surge of nerves shoot through me, and for a brief moment I considered what her reply could be.

Is she telling me that it’s a dumb idea, and that she has better things to do than-

Is she laughing, taking a screenshot to tell all her friends and family about the loser that-

Is she letting me down gently, already blocking me because I was being too much of a-

“No. Calm down.” I took a deep breath, speaking out loud and closing my eyes. 

No way of knowing the future if I’m too afraid to even look at it.

I’m never going to be a hero if I can’t even take chances...if I can’t even learn to trust people.

I opened my eyes, and read her reply. Just in case, I read it a second time.

Then I smiled, and pumped my fist in the air.

This was going to be great !

*************************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Arc 2 truly begins! With his goal to become a hero renewed, Greg decides to...spend the cash and gift cards he got from Christmas! But wait, what’s this? A powerful hero and some terrible teenagers? The incredible temptation to take an awesome power? Can Greg control himself...or maybe even learn a valuable lesson?

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: so, i read all the notes you gave me, and i gotta say...

Me: Yeah? What did you think?

GstringGirl: ...your protagonist is a complete and total idiot!

Me: Ouch. I resemble that remark! But seriously, aside from that what did you think?

GstringGirl: he‘s a wuss! he runs away from everything and has no self-control

Me: Well, to be fair he’s 15, panics a lot, and need I repeat myself...he’s 15.

GstringGirl: so is that why you called all his enemies dumb stuff? because he’s dumb?

GstringGirl: like that nazi! you couldn’t come up with a better name than ‘knife guy?’

Me: He had a knife, he was a guy. To a 100lb weakling, that’s practically unbeatable.

GstringGirl: ok...but if he was so weak, why do your notes say he fought Lung once?

Me: Well...the thing about that is...uh...reasons?

GstringGirl: for that matter, how did he even find him? I mean, why was even Lung there?

Me: It’s a requirement in Brockton Bay cape fanfics. They all have to fight Lung at some point.

GstringGirl: what, so Lung is just standing around in Brockton Bay, waiting to be fought?

Me: Not exactly, but as a power copier, this fic is going to have a lot of cape interactions. 

GstringGirl: it can’t all be fighting though, he should probably meet them in street clothes too  

Me: Eh, with his taste in fashion, that actually might make them all run away from him.

***

[Sunday, Dec 26, 2010]

“Hey Greg, looking sharp!” 

“Thanks!” I pointed back at the speaker, snapping both fingers and firing my finger guns at them. They grinned at me and nodded, as I turned and showed off my sweet new spread of clothing. “Check this out. I’m hero material, head to toe!”

Indeed, Christmas had been good to me, and for once it wasn’t all just a mish-mash of clothing and gift cards. No, in this case it was a very specific piece of clothing...and a bunch of gift cards, which I guess was a welcome change of pace. The gift cards were all in my desk drawer, waiting for me to figure out the best way to use them, but right now I just enjoyed looking good.

On my head was an Armsmaster knit cap, efficiently crafted to deflect the maximum amount of wind while also keeping enough heat for warmth. My shoes were the same brand, and while they might have been a few months old they had the same water-resistance...as well as microfibers that supposedly wicked sweat away, probably storing it in some sort of hidden pocket dimension.

Wait, that might just be my imagination. Eh, whatever. At least they’re not exploded in a hospital.

My jeans were one of my usual old pairs, but the green of Miss Militia and a flag logo branded my butt as the property of the USA. My socks were also her brand, not that anyone would have known, but since it was chilly this morning a pair of shorts was probably out of the question. My shirt was one of my limited edition ones, barely worn and showing Scion in beautiful gold and brown...but the real treasure was what covered it.

Perhaps they’d noticed that my wardrobe had far too much red and green in it, especially after the whole “ABB cosplay” thing, but my parents had found a nice way to nudge me in a new direction. My number one favorite hero, Eidolon, had a new jacket in his clothing line that had just come out, and I was the proud owner of one of the 10,000 made so far. I proudly stretched my arms out, enjoying the full range of movement despite the sort of stiff leather feel it had.

“Wow, that looks amazing, Greg.” I looked over my shoulder, nodding in reply and turning back around. “Hey, Greg, the color is really amazing, but why’s there stuff on the lining as well?”

“Oh, well that’s the best part!” I laughed, sliding the jacket off (something I’d done a dozen times now) and displaying it. The coloration was similar to Eidolon’s costume, a blue-green that slowly shifted to green-white as it reached the sleeves. It even had a built-in hood like his costume that could be stored in the neck. But the real surprise was what else it could do. “Check this out!”

I flipped the jacket inside out, then slipped it back on and revealed the exact same jacket...but with Alexandria’s black and Legend’s blue, a mix of silver and grey between them. This was meant to signify the connection between the three members of the Triumvirate, and also meant that I was basically getting two jackets for the price of one. No longer would people tease me for wearing the same thing all the time!

Now they can tease me for wearing the same TWO things all the time. Much better.

“That’s amazing, Greg! It really-” 

“Greg, who the heck have you been talking to?” Dad opened my door, looking around and seeing that I was alone in my room. It was clean enough that he could move around inside, but still made a bit of a show of looking under the bed and in the closet. Finally, he turned a wry smile my way and...paused.

Dad had promised to try and tone down the humor when it came to my social awkwardness and odd habits, and I instantly felt my heart go out to him for catching himself so fast. I know that I would have had to screw that up at least a few dozen times to get it right, with copious feedback from my conversation partners. I quickly moved to fill the sudden silence, turning my jacket back to normal as I did so.

“It’s okay Dad, I know it was kind of strange. I was just practicing showing off my sweet new jacket, in case I run into anyone and they want to try complimenting me for a change.” I slipped the jacket back on and crossed the room, giving him an out. I’d noticed both him and Mom being a lot more complimentary the past few hours, so this was a Grade-A opportunity for just such a-

“If they’re not complimenting you, son, then they don’t know what they’re missing out on.” Ah, there it was. I made sure to smile widely, the first step in my attempts to fix my relationships (at GstringGirl’s advice) being to express my emotions better. Dad grinned back, and caught me with a one-armed hug as I got nearby. He stealthily leaned in to whisper, “Also, I’ve got your mother distracted for a few hours, so go ahead and end that grounding a bit early.”

“Really?” I whispered back, glancing in the mirror as if to check my own reflection for verification. “Can you do that? I mean, this is Mom we’re talking about. Remember the time you told me I could watch Nightmare on Elm Street and then she grounded both of us for a weekend?”

“To be fair, we’d have gotten away with it if you hadn’t started screaming during the scene with the...you know what, never mind.” He shook it off, probably remembering that I’d only started screaming because he’d flipped out when Freddy did that thing with the bed. “George is trying to convince her to go on some kind of vacation thing, so she’s stuck with him for a while. Go on.”

He made motions with his arms, as if shooing me away, and I immediately headed for the door. Then, as if remembering something, I stopped and came back for a minute.

One hug later, and about 15 seconds after that, and I was out the door.

Time to go into town and show off my sweet new duds!

***

“Oh my god, what a total dweeb! Can you believe this guy?”

Well, I got their attention, at least. That’s step one, probably. Good job so far?

My plan had been going so well, despite a few hiccups along the way. I had taken a bus into the denser parts of town, figuring I’d start at the Boardwalk and walk around a bit. I didn’t have much money on me, but I could look for some nice after-Xmas sales and remember them for later. Plus, this was an excellent chance to try a few of the suggestions I’d gotten from both my mother and GstringGirl.

Surprisingly, their advice had been remarkably similar on the subject of improving social skills. Though one had made the suggestions via books and conversation, and the other through chat messages and websites, they both came down to very similar lines.  

Although, I don’t know GstringGirl’s actual age. For all I know she’s a mom with bad grammar.

Anyway, both had told me not to try and rush a friendship right off the bat (like I’d been doing for years at school), but instead to treat it more like getting into a hot bath. Look at the water, dip your toe, ease your way in, and then relax until you’re used to it. Actually, that had been Mom’s analogy. GstringGirl’s was more about how Crawler adapted to lava that one time.

Either way, that was one of the main reasons for my sweet all-cape outfit. Not only to show off my amazing jacket, but also because it made me stand out. The point of this walk and my easy-going expression was to practice conversation with random people. Given the number of cape fans in Brockton Bay, there was no doubt that I’d eventually run into someone who wanted to trade words, and then I could work on talking to them without stress or fear.

“Look at him, is he gonna cry? Hey Veder, are you sad we don’t like your baby clothes?”

Unfortunately, I just had to run into two of my worst enemies:

Emma Barnes, and the faceless mass of bullies known as Emma’s Entourage

“No, I was just wondering if I should...” I trailed off, looking anywhere but at her grinning face. The girls had all been clustered around the window of a high-end clothing store, chatting about something, and I’d made the mistake of walking over to see what the commotion was. Now I was remembering all the things I hated about her, and felt vindictive. “...call the cops on you.”

Rather than recoil in fear or plead with me not to ruin her life, Emma burst out laughing. Her cronies joined in, and she slowly stalked forwards until we were only a few feet apart.

“I’m not sure if you know this, geek,” Emma smiled, tossing her hair over one shoulder, flicking her fingers as if I was a speck of dirt. “But hurting peoples’ feelings isn’t a criminal offense. If it was, then maybe hurting other senses would be illegal as well, and that whole outfit would be enough to get you thrown in the Birdcage!”

I went stock still, my face frozen in fear, and they all started calling and laughing again. They probably thought that I had just crumbled under some sick burn, but in reality I was shocked that she somehow knew I was a parahuman. Had she known that I triggered, connected the dots?

No, wait, she was probably just making a play off the Birdcage being the worst jail ever...

...and my clothes, being a fashion crime. Well, whatever, that’s just like, her opinion, man.

“N-no, I didn’t mean that at all!” My voice might have cracked a bit, and they started another round of laughter as Emma turned to walk away. I gave them a moment to calm down, and then threw out my sick burn. “I mean the way you tried to get me killed by the E88, Emma.”

Emma stopped. She held up a hand and her friends went silent. Then she turned around.

Why is she smiling? All I need are the phone records and she’ll be...oh no.

“If you had any proof, that might mean something, Veder.” Emma came closer, putting a hand on my cheek as if we were lovers. I flinched away a little, and her smile curved a bit more than I would have liked. Despite that, she continued to talk, lowering her voice. “Do you have any actual records of a phone number leading you somewhere? Or...is this just a Red Herring?”

Shit, I’m an idiot. That was the screen name she was texting me from. She played me.

“Y-you, you can’t just-” I gritted my teeth, feeling like her eyes were burning into mine. “You can’t do this to people. It’s not right, I could have been k-killed.”

“Then maybe in the future you should stay down in the gutter, with the rest of the weaklings.” 

I started to reply, but then she stepped forwards and slapped me, hard. I felt a ringing in my ears, and staggered to the side until I slammed into the glass near the door to the clothing store. I dimly saw someone inside hand something off to another patron and then walk towards me, but I was too busy trying to get my feet under me and-

“Hey, can you guys please keep it down?” An oddly familiar voice caught my attention, and I turned to see someone who was blonde, beautiful, and...wow. I couldn’t stop staring at her. “Some of us are trying to get these sales before all the good stuff is gone, and...hello?”

“Sorry, he was...he was...wow.” Emma had sounded apologetic (in that fake voice she always used when she got caught bullying Taylor), but then trailed off part way through. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that she was staring, just as I was, at this vision of beauty in front of me, and I immediately cursed myself for daring to dedicate any of my attention to anything but this-

Wait, what was I thinking about?

“Sorry about that, I sometimes let my temper get the best of me.” The woman...who was still beautiful, but now no longer taking up every ounce of my brain, apologized.  “Was there some kind of problem out here?”

I glared at Emma, as if daring her to try something (secretly hoping she wouldn’t), and she seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth causing a scene. More likely, she didn’t want me to loudly accuse her of nearly getting me killed by nazis. Instead, Emma just started to talk about her adoration of the one who had just been messing with our minds a moment earlier.

I was staring at the woman as well, but it was for a slightly different reason. Now that I was able to actually think, I recognized her as Victoria Dallon, or Glory Girl of the Independent group called New Wave. One of the few (for a good reason) groups of heroes that had willingly unmasked, they were all very well-known in Brockton Bay for their powers, deeds, and appearances. 

Victoria in particular was a knockout blonde, dressed in normal clothing that nonetheless looked stunning on her. I knew nothing of fashion, but the way Emma was going (as Victoria seemed to preen at the attention) it must have been amazing. I was looking at the hero as well, although I was looking at something that Emma probably didn’t care that much about...

Her powers. I was looking at her powers. I mean, she was beautiful but...powers!

There were four of them, although it seemed like my power couldn’t decide whether the last one was actually two powers. As usual, they had an odd theme that was probably personal to Victoria in some way.

Why do they look like that? It’s like Wind, or maybe Tornadoes? Hurricanes? Air?

The first power was a powerful wind, and I was calling it Gale Force. It felt like anything that came into contact with it would be deflected or knocked off course. It was probably the force field she had, which I’d heard was capable of deflecting bullets, rocks, and punches from the toughest of Brutes. What was odd was the way this power also felt like it was just about to run out with every gust...but the air kept coming. I wasn’t sure what that meant.

The second power made me glad I’d watched Total Recall , because this was obviously some kind of air pressure. I decided to call it Heavy Wind, and decided that it must have been her super strength. It crushed everything it came into contact with, which explained why she sometimes got accused of control issues. What was strange was the way it felt like it was connected in some way to Gale Force, making me wonder if it was like Velocity’s birds…

The third power was a glorious breeze, and despite not being that strong it felt like it could lift anything. As if just touching it would let me pull right off the ground, move around as easily as the birds, and touching down to Earth would be entirely optional. This was her flight, I guessed.

But this last power (powers?), this is just strange. Is it two powers or one?

The last power, I decided, was meant to be two powers. Somehow it had been crammed together as one power, but it felt like it was wildly out of control. Fitting, then, that it was a Tornado. One moment it was majestic, awe-inspiring, and beautiful...I wanted to touch it, to hold it, to...love it... 

Then without warning, it shifted into a horrifying, destructive, monster of a storm. I briefly saw her looking at me, but I was so startled that I cast my eyes to the sidewalk, trying not to think about the power looking at me .

So, that’s why the rumors of her having a fear aura or love aura are so widespread.

“So, did you have fun staring at her boobs, Veder?” Emma’s voice cut into my thought process, and I looked up to see the door closing and Emma regarding me as if I was something she’d scraped off her shoe. Whatever kind fangirl she’d been a moment ago had vanished, leaving only the Dark Bully Queen of Winslow. “Glad I could make your Christmas wish come true.”

“I wasn’t looking at that!” I panicked, looking around and seeing that Emma’s entourage hadn’t heard her (to her annoyance, they were still chattering about seeing Victoria) and neither had most of the passers by. I grasped for something to say, going with, “I was impressed by her...clothes.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Emma rolled her eyes, walking past me and bumping me with a shoulder as she passed. I stumbled a bit, though not into the glass again, and caught myself. “Like you know anything about clothes with a half-ass costume like that knockoff jacket on.”

Annoyed, I started to stalk after her, two of her bigger friends stepping up to block me. Any one of them was more than a match for me, the boy with the physique of a scarecrow, but even with that in mind I didn’t find myself backing down. Their eyes on me made me feel powerful, and I grinned as their attention made me feel strong. I was the center of attention.

Maybe my grin had them feeling off, because they suddenly looked worried about something. I widened the grin, and they backed up a bit as I stood there staring them down. I could actually feel a sort of pressure in my skull, like a headache that didn’t hurt, and pressed harder on it as my new power drifted closer to the rest of those ungrateful-

Wait, new power? Oh crap, I must have grabbed something by accident. 

Trying to play my sudden panic off as a lack of interest in them, I scoffed and crossed my arms. As I looked inside myself, I pretended to look down on the two girls dismissively. It was made easier by the fact that both were a few inches shorter than me, and perhaps helped by my attempt to mimic the same sort of stance I’d seen Lung take. Both looked confused.

Yep, there it is. I have the Bipolar Tornado. Hmm, good name for it. Let’s just switch that…off.

As if a switch had literally been flipped, both girls lost the uncomfortable feeling that had come over their stances and glanced at each other. Neither said a word, and they quickly turned and rejoined their herd of free-range Followers. They were probably too afraid to admit that they’d been worried about a skinny weirdo, and would write it off as nothing.

Wow, great self-image there, Greg.

Ignoring my own self-recrimination for being down on myself when I had a power that made people afraid of me, I started trying to figure the power out. Emma appeared to be done messing with me (for now), and instead was giving the others a play-by-play of Victoria’s fashion choices. She supposedly worked as a model or something, so I guess she was an expert.

I, on the other hand, was an up-and-coming expert on parahuman powers, so I was doing some research of my own. I was looking deep within myself, trying to figure this new power out.

And if the power activated by accident and made some bullies a bit uncomfortable, big deal. 

My version seems pretty weak, and it’s not like this is a Master effect, right?

***

It took a few minutes, but I more or less figured the power out. I wasn’t sure if this power was pheromones, lights, hypnotism, some combination of them all, or...power bullshit. Whatever the actual pathway from me to others was, it created an aura about ten feet around me. 

There was a pressure in my mind, like a new muscle I’d never felt before, and I decided that must be like the kink in a garden hose. When I turned it off, I felt a pressure in my mind increase a bit. Turn it on, and the pressure would vanish.

Wow, that must be why she always forgets she has it on. It’s an actual effort to suppress it!

Following that was the startling realization my emotions determined the intensity of the effect. If I thought about something that annoyed me (that one girl who kept popping her gum), the girls to my left got a bit antsy. If I tried something that made me mad (like how Emma had nearly gotten me killed) they’d physically shift away from me, sometimes without realizing it until they bumped into someone.

Okay, now let’s try the Love/Awe version. Maybe if I twist it...like this? That was easy enough. 

Now, what would make me happy? Ha, what a dumb question. Where to even start?

I noticed suddenly that Emma had gone quiet. I glanced over at them, wondering if this was the point when she was finally going to just tell me to buzz off already. I’d been standing here for several minutes, after all. I was sure that at any moment she was going to tell me off and have her friends give me a shove to drive the point home.

But what I actually saw made that whole line of thought grind to a halt. Emma and the others were staring at me, smiles on some faces and slack jaws on others. It wasn’t like before, when they’d been happy to see a target or amazed at how dumb I was, no. 

This was actual Awe, Adoration, and...Love? They were looking at me as if I was the greatest thing in the world, a hero worthy of the eyes of millions. Everything I had hoped for, right in front of me with none of the effort I had been so nervous about. It was all right here.

This is what I wanted. Respect, love, adoration, and...friends. 

Right here. Right now. My dream can come true.

For a brief, heartstopping moment, I had a little daydream.

***

In my dream, I was surrounded by everyone. Friends, family, classmates, and even new people.

All my social issues were just completely ignored, and everyone accepted me for who I was.

My parents and brother were proud of me, and I didn’t feel like I needed to be different for them.

I could wear the clothes I wanted to, without being made fun of. Some people even copied me. 

I could tell jokes without people getting mad or feeling uncomfortable. They all laughed with me.

I could ask questions without being insulted, and actually learn what I was doing wrong. 

I could meet new people without being afraid, and be able to make mistakes and gaffes.

More than any of that, even when I messed up, people would love me. They’d appreciate me.

And if they didn’t? I could make them fear me. I could have friends to defend me.

I’d never be afraid again. I’d never be alone again.

Or...would I be more alone than ever? Especially when the power wears off...

Yeah, I’d get in trouble, but wouldn’t it be worth it, just for a little bit?

No. I’d be letting myself down. I’d be letting them all down.

No, this wasn’t worth it. There were so many things wrong with thinking like this. It would be fake, like those kids who used to pretend to be my friend and then prank me. Hell, I would basically be like a bully, forcing people to like me against their will instead of letting them choose. Instead of letting my own charm, sense of humor, and creativity convince them.

But the thing that bothered me most of all was how similar it was to the plans I’d made as a child...the same ones I’d rejected weeks ago. I was letting my dreams of revenge, of impressing others, and of making a new life instead of fixing the old one back into my head. This wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be, the sort who just let his powers fix his problems. I had just spent a week learning (with the exception of the thing with Lisa) that a life like that was a dream.

But man, it was a really nice dream, huh? Something to look forward to, I guess.

This, though? This was wrong. I was acting like a villain.

It was exactly what Kaleidoscope had warned me about. I was being a goddamn idiot and testing my powers out on civilians. I had lied to myself that it didn’t matter because they were bullies, but that was wrong. I’d let myself get drunk on power, lower my standards, and fail.

I have to be better than this. Better than them. Need to hold myself to a higher standard.

I clamped down on the power, and the dream ended.

***

“Sorry, what were you saying about that belt, Emma?” I called out, and the girl in question shook her head, looking at me oddly for a moment. She glanced at the others and seemed to realize that they had gone silent as well. Rather than think about anything else (like why she’d just been staring at me), she immediately recovered. 

“The...belt. Yes, the belt!” Emma gestured grandly at Victoria, who was holding a white belt up to her dress. I knew nothing about why it did or didn’t work, but Emma was treating this like some sort of Master’s level thesis, ending with her guarantee that a “fellow fashionista like Vicky” would certainly pick the belt.

Which is why it was so funny that she tossed the belt to a clerk, shrugging as the woman put it back on the shelf. It made me chuckle, seeing Emma’s slack jaw as her whole big explanation crumbled to dust around her. She whirled to glare at everyone laughing…

Oh wait, I’m the only one who actually laughed out loud. Whoops. Eh, sorry not sorry.

“What, you think you know fashion and clothing better than me, Veder?” Emma looked as if she was going to stomp over and hit me again, but instead hid her mouth behind her hand and giggled. “You probably get all your clothing tips from comic books and video games, what do you know? Go on, Veder, regale us with your knowhow!”

Her friends chuckled, and I should have felt the usual surges of anxiety and embarrassment flowing through me like water through a firehose. She waved a hand at me, as though she was a knowledgeably professor and was doing the whole “would you like to teach the class” thing. I really felt like I should have been stuttering, mumbling, or beating a hasty retreat.

..but instead I just felt kind of happy. They were all looking at me, expecting something, and for some reason that felt really good. On some level I knew that it was Victoria’s personality, making me love having them watch me. Maybe this explained some of her actions, and why she sometimes went a bit overboard by accident. It was nice being the center of attention, wasn’t it?

Know what? They want to see something amazing? They want a show? Let’s give them one.

“You’re right, Emma, I actually don’t know that much about fashion.” I smiled at her, watching her face light up, and then quickly continued before she could regain the upper hand. “In fact, one of the reasons I’ve been standing out here was because I wanted to get my courage up, to ask someone who knows a lot about it for some tips. I think I’m ready now. I’m ready to learn!”

“Well, it’s not something that can exactly be learned overnight, especially in a case as...remedial as yours.” She put on an innocent face, eyes glinting as her friends began to chuckle over whatever hilarious joke she was leading up to. “But I suppose I-”

“Oh I wasn’t talking about you.” I cut her off, relishing the moment as her face fell. Instead of thinking about her anger, I thought about the look on Mom and Dad’s faces, when I had put on my new jacket and hugged them both. I wasn’t using the power, I was just using my own memories to overcome my worries. Emma’s attempt to retake the conversation fell flat, and I snidely added. “You obviously don’t know as much as you think, and someone who can’t admit when they’re wrong isn’t someone I trust to teach me anything.”

Now comes the hard part. Deep breath, turn, and…

“Later, girls. I’m going to ask some real experts.” I waved dismissively at them, then opened the door to the clothing store and entered. I sauntered up to the front desk, taking my time so it didn’t look like I was running, and not looking behind myself no matter how much I wanted to.

Inside was a spacious, oddly relaxed area, various mannequins and racks set up to show off clothing in the most extravagant lighting, colors, and materials possible. Victoria was off to my left, having just stepped into what looked like a changing area, and aside from a few other women at the opposite end of the store the place was oddly empty for this time of day.

I also can’t help but notice that they’re all watching me. Nice entrance. Stay calm.

“Can I help you?” I stopped my inspection of the store and looked across the checkout counter (an impressive swooping thing made of shiny marble) at the clerk, who was looking at me with an odd expression on her face. I stole a glance at her nametag (Ren), then gave an easygoing smile.

“Sure thing Ren, I was actually hoping to get a bit of advice.” I pretended to look around the store, as if checking out the latest styles, leaning on the counter and trying to look as casual as possible. I smiled at one of the women across the store, then added, “I actually know very little about fashion, but was hoping that I could get some tips from an expert. One of the girls out there claimed to be one, but she’s also a horrible human being, so…”

“We might be able to help with that, but...you do know that this is a women’s clothing store, right?” I startled, nearly sliding off the counter (in my defense, that swoopy thing made it hard to find purchase...heh, purchase) before I caught myself. I turned to face Ren, and saw that she had a full-blown grin on her face now. “I mean, I’m the last one to call someone out on dressing different from what society expects, so I can probably steer you in the right direction.”

“Well, that is...the thing about that is…” I stared at Ren, in shock.

“Hey, Ren, this dude giving you trouble?” I heard Victoria’s voice behind me, but didn’t even turn around. “Want me to maybe show him the door?”

“Nah, I can handle it Vicky. I think he actually wants to learn about fashion, but may have bitten off more than he can chew. You got a few minutes to kill for a crash course in clothes?”

“You kidding?” Victoria laughed, and I heard a noise that sounded a lot like her slamming one fist into her other palm. “Between the two of us girls, he’ll be lucky to survive!”

Victoria’s words made me want to turn and make a funny comment, but I didn’t. 

My own cape-geekdom made me want to turn and thank a hero I love, but I didn’t.

What had happened with Emma made me want to turn and explain myself, but I didn’t.

Hell, even Ren’s grin made me want to escape a little…but I didn’t.

I just kept staring straight ahead, at Ren.

More specifically, at her parahuman powers .

*****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Well, Greg wanted an expert, and now he’s got two! Hopefully that confidence he picked up from Victoria helps, but it seems like there’s more than just confidence attached to her power. Also, who’s this other parahuman, what’s her deal?

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: so I have a question! something for you to work on.

Me: Fire away. 

GstringGirl: way back in 1.1 you said that Greg wears/collects cape merch...and that’s it

Me: So? That’s all he has. A lot of collectible cape stuff and then he wears the same 5 outfits.

GstringGirl: that’s so lazy! you need more detail, and nobody really does that!

Me: what, wearing the same thing all the time? If he wore the collector stuff, it’d lose value!

GstringGirl: not just that, you need to describe his fashion sense. Give him some new clothes.

Me: ...that’s a really good point. I should really update his wardrobe at some point.

Me: Problem. I know absolutely jack shit about fashion.

Me: Therefore, Greg knows jack shit about fashion.

GstringGirl: it can’t possibly be that bad, got any pics?

Me: Here, I’m sending over a few pictures of me (therefore Greg), with the head clipped off.

Me: First pic is when I learned that stripes should all go one way. Not a great school picture day.

Me: Second pic was when I thought it would be cool to wear leather everything . It was summer.

Me: Third pic is from my love affair with corduroy and flannel. At the same time. Loud clothing.

Me: Finally, the last pic is me this morning. I am the human avatar of cape merch.

Me: Hello?

GstringGirl: sorry, I slammed my head into my desk hoping my eyes would pop out. No luck.

Me: Oh come on, it’s not that bad. I just have...eclectic tastes. 

GstringGirl: seek professional help, dude...or even part-time intern help. FAST

***

[Sunday, Dec 26, 2010] 

Ever have a day where you aren’t sure you’re dreaming?

If you had told me that today would have started with me admiring myself in a mirror, then facing off with Emma Barnes in front of her entourage, and finally having a conversation about fashion with Glory Girl...well, I probably would have called you crazy.

Although, given the fact that I met a trio of supervillains who helped me save Christmas a few days ago, maybe this is just my life now?

Indeed, I was standing in a high-end clothing store, being grilled by Brockton Bay’s own maskless Alexandria package, Glory Girl. Called that because of her incredible strength, flight, and invulnerability, I was understandably nervous about being crushed. The expression on her face right now was anything but grim, though...rather, it was mirthful. She had a reputation as a member of New Wave for being intelligent, strong, and with a beautiful laugh.

“So, Greg, you seriously thought that the getup you’re in right now was high-fashion?” Victoria burst out into giggles again, and I found myself hard-pressed to do anything but chuckle as well. “I mean, maybe at a comic convention, sure, but you basically just covered yourself in cape merch. That’s like someone claiming that they’re really into meat, so they covered themselves in bacon from head to toe.”

“I think you’re being a bit unfair to Greg, Vicky. Why, I’ve heard that there’s actually a singer on Earth Aleph who does stuff like that for performance art.” I glanced at the other member of our conversation, the sales clerk of this store, Ren. 

No wait, she’s the owner. She said that earlier.  Business must be good, this place is huge!

Ren had mentioned that despite owning the store (and thinking of opening another in Boston), she still enjoyed working here on big sale days. She talked as if I was going to become a regular customer, despite having just met me (and me being a guy), and spoke animatedly about her business. Her confidence impressed me, and I found myself being drawn in by her words.

She was a few inches taller than me, easily a few years my senior, and had an easygoing grace to her...looking like she had the toned muscles of an acrobat. Her expression was far less teasing than Victoria’s, and it almost looked like she was appraising me somehow. Add in her blouse and skirt combo (that was probably expensive as heck), and it was hard to look away.

Oh, and she also seems to be a parahuman. So there’s that as well. Odd powers though...

“Right, right, I was just poking fun.” Victoria’s hand grabbed my arm and she dragged me away. I was so busy trying to look at Ren’s powers (without looking like a creep) that I was off-balance enough to travel half the store before I was walking under my own power. The fact that Victoria could bench press a car might also have had something to do with it. “C’mon, lover boy, let me whisper in your ear...in private. Before that, though, I need some background on your deal.”

Normally I’d have been a gibbering mess if one of the hottest capes in the Bay had taken my arm and led me into a dim corner for some ‘secret advice.’ But that would’ve been a Greg Veder who wasn’t currently rocking one of Victoria’s own powers. Bipolar Tornado, as I called it, was her Love/Fear Me Aura. It had also given me a bit of her personality, so I felt a confidence and joy that seemed to increase as more people paid attention to me.

I could get used to this personality. Goodbye nerves from being looked at! I can take it all.  

Over the next several minutes, I gave Victoria a rundown of my current situation, and why I had hoped that dressing better might assist in my attempts to improve my...everything. I figured that I lacked the confidence (most of the time) to weather the teasing I got from standing out so much, so maybe dressing better might get me more compliments and less...bullying. Victoria got oddly serious at that last part, and then placed a hand on my shoulder and said she’d help me.

Oh man, that’s a warm feeling. Keep it together, Greg. Also, no using that power!

I actually had to fight to keep a tight hold on Bipolar Tornado, since it felt like it was going to surge out of control at any time thanks to the emotions of happiness going through me. I’d already realized that strong emotions could trigger it, and the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally hit Victoria with her own power. Not just because she might crush me out of happiness...but also because afterwards she’d do it out of revenge.

Luckily I managed to hold it together, and she soon released me to dig some magazines out of a box in the corner. Over the next several minutes she gave me a rundown of some universal tips for colors and patterns (or, “Victoria’s Secrets,” as she called them with a sultry wink) that I had to understand before anything else. I took it all in, making notes on the pad I had started carrying around ever since my last Thinker Blackout with Lisa’s power.

I nearly lost control again as Victoria brushed up against me by accident, and had to slap a hand over my mouth to stop her attitude from making me say something fairly inappropriate. I tried to play it off as me holding a sneeze in, but she was nothing if not insightful and started smiling. Victoria appeared ready to say something, but was interrupted by her phone ringing.

While she’s distracted, I should drop her power. Or better yet...why not grab one from Ren?

She seems nice, so aside from being snarky...no major personality worries.

***

Looking away as Victoria started chatting with someone named “Dean,” I turned and looked for the aforementioned Ren. The sales clerk was hanging a few blouses across the store, but I was able to see the same haze I always saw on parahumans. Moments later, it cleared away and I found myself looking at yet another unique set of powers...with an even odder theme.

Seriously, who is this? None of these powers make any sense! Is she from out of town?

There were four powers, and their theme seemed to be...discs, maybe?

The first power was like a flat pane of circular glass, slowly rotating within Ren. At first I thought it was some kind of shield, but upon closer inspection I could see that only one side was opaque...the other was actually transparent. As if it was a window into another world, so maybe it was some kind of portal power? Or a way to pass through solid objects?

The second power was more like a dartboard, or maybe a circle that had a dartboard on it? If I didn’t know any better, I almost would have said it was a targeting reticule. The center of it (the bulls-eye) always seemed to be looking right at me, no matter how it rotated, and I could see it flickering on and off as Ren tossed up and down, catching it without looking. An aiming power?

The third power appeared to be an egg more than a circle, or at least more three dimensional and lopsided than the other two had been. Much like the dartboard, it was rolling, spinning, and moving around inside Ren, but no matter how it changed it always seemed to be right side up. I saw it activate as Ren nearly tripped over a skirt a patron had left on the floor, and barely a hint of annoyance or worry went across her face as she spun around and regained her balance.

The last power was a circle that felt warm, but was inactive. That was it.

Portals, good aim, balance, and warmth...nope, I’m drawing a blank.

The last one might be fire for all I knew, and fire might have been bad in a clothing store, and I didn’t trust myself to have a power that might make me fall through the floor. Nothing like accidental arson or passing through solid objects to get me outed as a cape! I also wasn’t sure the balance power would be good after how clumsy I’d been up until now, so I reached for-

“I know Ren’s cute, but I think she prefers lovers who can at least drink, sweetie.” Victoria’s voice whispered in my ear, and I felt her Aura start to overwhelm my control of the Bipolar Tornado. I quickly grabbed Ren’s Dartboard, slamming it into my core just as my own emotion aura started to ooze out of me. Victoria’s voice got huskier, her hand stroking my shoulder, and she whispered, “But maybe I can help you...um...hey are you okay?”

I didn’t answer her, as I was suddenly struck with a whole host of anxiety at getting caught looking, worry that she was on to me, fear of her anger, rage at myself, and more. I felt my body clench up, and clamped my eyes and jaw shut as the emotions warred within me. 

“Greg? Hey, can you hear me?” I heard her voice, but it sounded like it was coming from far away. “Shit...shit shit shit! Damn power, why do you always-”

I knew that this was from the Bipolar Tornado wearing off, but it still felt like I could barely think. I was breathing fast, and felt my fingernails digging into my palms. I tried to focus. It took a few moments, but I managed to get under control, breathing slowly and finally saying, “I’m fine.”

Luckily, Victoria seemed to have lost her train of thought from the little bit of Awe I’d given off, and was silent. I would have thought she was immune to her own power, but maybe not? I still turned back around to see her looking down at her knees, both hands clenched into fists. She looked up at me, and I was surprised to see her eyes glistening a little.

What? How the hell did I do that? Did my aura make her sad? But the power was gone!

“I’m sorry, Greg.” She finally ground out, gingerly putting a hand on my shoulder, as if it was going to break me. “I really need to work on controlling my Aura more, and didn’t realize...it could drive someone to have a panic attack. After what you said about the crap you get at school, and what that redhead was doing to you outside the store, I should have known better than to tease. I’m really, really sorry. I can leave, if you…”

“I...uh…” I trailed off, as it suddenly hit me what she was talking about.

Oh. She thought I was having a panic attack because of her power. Well, she was half right.

“It’s okay.” I gave her a reassuring smile, finding it coming to my lips easily. Ren’s personality wasn’t entirely clear yet, but she seemed to have a sort of “roll with the punches” sort of feel to her. Sort of like I felt...detached? It was hard to say. If nothing else, it felt great after the storm of emotion that had been blazing through me moments earlier. “No harm, no foul.”

“Nah, I really need to be better about that sort of thing.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue from her purse, then smiled and sighed at me. “I’m not exactly a pro at controlling it, but stuff like this makes me think...I should try harder. Criminals are one thing, but civilians? I can’t go around giving people heart attacks, especially not fans and...I have to be better.”

I looked at her carefully, and saw that even now the Bipolar Tornado actually seemed a lot calmer than it had been before. When she’d been shopping and teaching me, it had mostly been on the Awe form, but now I could see it had changed to some sort of...middle form. 

I need to calm her down, to take her mind off this...or better yet, to feel good about her powers.

There were a few theories that had been bouncing around in my head for the last several minutes, especially since this was my first emotion-based power. The internet could only do so much, and I’d nearly made a disaster of it earlier with Emma’s goons. Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone, and make Victoria feel like a star while answering my questions?

“Actually, if you’d be willing, I had a question for you about that. I’d heard that you were taking college courses related to parahuman study, and I had a theory about your powers.” I was starting to get a read on Ren’s personality now. It wasn’t not caring what others thought, it was more like not being afraid of their reactions or knowing how to talk to people to get what I wanted. Finesse instead of force. “I figured that you really know your stuff, so obviously you’d be the best person to answer. I mean, if you can spare a few minutes?”

If nothing else, I can take her mind off what just happened...and get some valuable insight!

Instantly I saw the Tornado shift back to Awe, but Victoria clamped down on it this time. She was smiling, and gave me an inscrutable look, her mood already rising as she had my full attention.

“I know you’re just trying to cheer me up.” She giggled as I blushed. “But I never pass up an opportunity to talk about myself, or geek out about parahumans. So let’s do this!” 

***

I gave her an explanation, though purposefully vague because of the source (my own powers), of how it seemed like her Aura power was actually two powers mashed together. How it appeared as though her own emotions were influencing them, with stronger ones activating her Awe (with happiness) and Fear (with anger) based on what she felt for those causing them. Finally, I closed with my newly created theory that the reason it was so hard to control was because of how difficult it was for her to keep her mind clear of those two emotions.

“Not bad.” She grinned at me, giving a small golf clap, and then added, “But not all right, either.”

I deflated a bit at that, mostly for show, and she laughed before patting me on the shoulder.

“Aw, don’t get too down on yourself. For a cape-geek it was a really good attempt, but there’s some psych and personal stuff you don’t know that puts big holes in your theory.”

I sat back, notepad in my lap and pen at the ready, and she gave me a nod before explaining.

“First of all, Awe and Fear aren’t just activated by one emotion each, nor are they really Awe and Fear at all. In fact, I’ve come to realize that my Aura works more along the lines of my own needs, and pushes a ‘shotgun’ of emotions out to cause the reactions that my subconscious thinks will give me those types of feedback. It actually sends out several emotions, but their reaction and memories determine what people call it...and what they remember afterwards.”

“So, for instance, when someone is threatening you, your power throws out feelings like fear, shame, horror, disgust, and so on.” I tested the waters, getting an approving look in return. “They get hit with all of those, maybe even remembering experiences of their own when such feelings were strong, and it makes them fall or flee. Afterwards, they call it a Fear Aura.”

“More or less correct, and it’s the same for Awe. They get hit with a blast of good feelings, recall memories related to them, see me, and then later on they think I made them love me.” She rolled her eyes, then scratched at the side of her neck with one perfectly manicured nail. “Or at least that’s my current theory. What I really need is to take higher level psych courses, but Mom won’t let me take any more college classes until...well, that’s neither here nor there.”

 “So if that’s the case, then doesn’t that mean that with the right training you could send out individual emotions?” I waved a hand, then stabbed it forwards as though hitting a target. “Or maybe learn to only hit specific targets, instead of everyone nearby?”

“To the first question, yes. Someday.” Victoria started to list things off her fingers. “But humans are made of hundreds of emotions, and learning that kind of focus would take me a lot of time...that I just don’t have with my schedule in school, New Wave, and everything else. For right now, I’m going to have to keep using the shotgun method, because I don’t have time...”

“True, you probably couldn’t get there alone...but what if someone helped you? I mean, you said it yourself: New Wave.You have support...family.” I had seen her face fall as she listed all the responsibilities in her life, but then she perked right up when I made the suggestion. After a few moments, she nodded to herself, as if making a mental note. 

“As for the aiming thing, well, that’s another subject entirely! See, each power is unique to the person who holds it, based on their actual personality, needs, wants, dreams, and more!” I deliberately didn’t chime in, knowing that I actually had in-depth knowledge of how powers linked to personalities...but having no way to explain its source. Instead, I just nodded and pretended to take a few more notes. Well, actually I did take notes. This was interesting! 

“I grew up with my whole family watching me, and the eyes of the world, too! So my power takes that into account, because I always had a need to be validated, respected, and seen. Therefore, it affects people all around me, because I want to be seen and known by as many as possible.”

It checks out. I felt confidence with people watching me when I had her Bipolar Tornado.

“Meanwhile, another hero I know with emotion powers, Ga...er, Gaultier. He’s French, you see.” She cleared her throat, looking nervous for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, he wants to help people individually, and to make them understand things through careful dialog. But when he first got them, he was afraid of public speaking. So his powers require him to affect people individually and can’t be used as some sort of multi-person blast.”

“Can he do the individual emotions thing?”

“Yes, but also I think that’s because when he was younger he had a much better understanding of his own emotions. He had a good upbringing, stable home life, and so on. Therefore, he can focus on individual feelings, and send them out to people. I had a much more chaotic life and had big, powerful emotions, so…”

“I think I understand.” I could tell she was starting to get a bit tired, but whether that was Ren’s personality telling me that she was running out of steam or my own understanding of how a person can only talk for so long, I wasn’t sure. Either way, I didn’t want her to have to be the one to end this conversation. “I’ve probably taken up enough of your time. Thanks a lot!”

“Anytime!” She smiled, and this time I didn’t even have to feel her aura to know that my grin was genuine. She stood and gathered her clothes, then headed up to check out...stopping after a moment. “Oh, I almost forgot, let me write down some reading for you. Toss me the pen and pad.”

Without even thinking about it, I chucked both at her, feeling the power engage as I did so. It wasn’t perfect, but the distance wasn’t that great either, and each landed in her hand with a minimum of flapping paper. She winked at me, and then started writing something under my notes, flipping the page at one point to add something else on the next page.

I walked over to join her, and saw that she had listed off what looked like several fashion magazines, a few books on the psychology of parahuman powers, and a few websites with hot tips. On the next page, she was writing, “To Greg, thanks for being a fun date, Glory Girl.”

After a signature I was familiar with, she handed both back to me, and then went to check out her purchases and leave. As she walked away, I was struck with an interesting idea. 

Maybe because I had Ren’s power influencing me, or perhaps even my own curiosity after our talk, I reached out with my power and touched Bipolar Tornado and Dartboard. They blended...

Okay, so now I should have some kind of targeted emotion thing, if my theory was right.

Looking at it, inside of myself, I noticed something like a gun connected to a strange reservoir. I couldn’t help but think that it reminded me of a squirt gun, except that instead of being filled with water it was...an emotion. As I continued to be curious about it, I somehow knew that it was filled with Curiosity. As I continued to wonder, it reached a limit. Now what?

Well, if it’s a squirt gun, then I guess I shoot it. Since it’s what I feel, it’s like Targeted Empathy. 

My copy of Victoria’s Aura had managed a range of about ten feet, and I knew that her original version could go for at least forty, so like a child playing with a toy gun I took aim at a store mannequin and pretended to shoot. Just to test the targeting, more than anything. 

Unfortunately, as I was shooting at the dummy, my gaze wandered a bit, and I recognized Julia North from among Emma’s entourage outside the store. I was so surprised that I hadn’t noticed a familiar face earlier that I didn’t even realize it as my finger hit my mental “trigger” and Targeted Empathy went off straight at her, an emotion streaming invisibly at the girl. 

For a moment I thought that nothing had happened. It was through glass, she was at least forty feet away, so I think I could be excused for thinking that nothing would happen. Then a second passed, and that went right out the window (along with the power, no pun intended).

The effect was almost immediate. 

With nothing more than a slight glance from me, Julia appeared to be overcome with interest in what we were doing, pressing herself up against the glass and trying to see inside. I hadn’t even realized that I was still pressing the trigger, and that I had been really curious if this power being focused would do anything. 

Shit! Who cares if it was an accident, it was still my finger on the trigger...I have to stop this!

Panicking at having actually hit her, I turned off the power and the stream of Curiosity stopped bombarding Julia. A few moments later I saw her silently smoothing out her clothes as the others laughed. Embarrassed at the attention, she turned and walked off for a little to stew. 

It was hard to feel bad, but I had to remind myself once again that testing new and potentially harmful powers on civilians was bad. I resolved to check my aim better in the future.

Good thing I’m not doing the villain thing. This power would be way too easy to abuse.

Just like Victoria was going to work on being better with her powers, I had to do the same.

My attention was torn away from the spectacle as the bell over the door let out a chime. I looked up to see that Victoria had left, with several fancy bags under her arms, and waved back at her before it closed. I turned to face Ren, who seemed delighted that I was still in her shop and who was beckoning me to come closer.

***

“Well, now that Vicky’s had her way with you, it’s time for me to take my turn.” Ren wiggled her eyebrows at me, and to my credit I didn’t even blush. 

“If she couldn’t handle me, what makes you think that you can?” I grinned and we shared a laugh that would have been impossible if I didn’t have the personalities of an outgoing heroine and an unflappable store owner pressing on my own. “I’m game if you are, though.”

With the number of customers dwindling, probably due to lunchtime, Ren joined me and gave me an oddly detailed explanation of some slightly more affordable men’s fashions. She’d noticed that I wasn’t exactly swimming in cash (the “wear the same 5 outfits” thing), and even had a few good low-cost ideas that could save me both time and money for different occasions.

“Wow, you know a lot about men’s fashion, Ren.” I smiled, paying a compliment and hoping that it didn’t come off as me hitting on her. Victoria’s earlier words were still in my mind, and although I found Ren attractive there was way too much going on in my life for that right now. “I guess when you work in this industry, you pick things up for both sides, huh?”

“Well, it’s safer to say I’ve lived on both sides, Greg. I’m very...fluid like that.” She winked at me, and I paused as the conversation seemed to slide off into silence. Perhaps taking pity on what must have been some kind of subtle hint I was completely missing, she added, “Ren is short for Karen, at the moment, but sometimes it’s short for Darren.”

Oh, she’s genderfluid. Okay. Probably a good thing I’m not 100% Greg at the moment, or I might have said something dumb. 

“Got it, sorry to make you spell it out. I’m still kind of dumb about a lot of things.” 

“No biggie.” She waved it away, and then went on to give me a few extra notes, as well as some books I might like. I commented on how I had no idea how I was going to pay for all these, even with her tips, and that made Ren snap her fingers. “Oh, that reminds me! I have a great way for you to make money. You said you collect a lot of cape stuff you’re afraid to wear, right?”

“Collector’s items, clothing, figurines, posters...most of it I still have in the original packaging.”

“Great, so why not sell some of it?” Ren smiled at me, looking like it was the most obvious thing in the world. My face must have dropped, because she looked a bit hurt. “What? Why not?”

“Well, because I started collecting it all for a reason!” I felt calmer than usual, but this was still something important to me, so I felt a bit miffed. I had been collecting this stuff since I was barely old enough to walk, I think. It was only when I hit seven or eight that I started actually storing it, but even then the concept of saving up my allowance for weeks to be that much closer to having all the figures, cards, or parts of a whole had been a part of me for years. “Just selling it would feel like I was giving up a part of my life, and why I had started in the first place.”

“Why did you start in the first place?”

“Well, I suppose it comes down to me being inspired by heroes, by parahumans as a whole, really. I loved the promise of them, the versatility and hope that they carried with their very existence.” I put a finger to my chin, drawing back upon my memories of childhood. The fact that Ren was watching me intently (as well as a few other customers) made the part of me that was Victoria more confident, and I continued. “I wanted to support them, to be able to show everyone else that I was a fan of what they stood for, and to remind myself to live up to their examples of understanding, sharing, and teamwork.”

“But that’s not really how it is anymore, is it?” Ren held up her hands, maybe because I’d tossed a glare her way, and I forced myself to soften my expression. “I mean, no offense, but even if you still support them with your whole heart, the other stuff has fallen off.”

I just cocked my head at her, and she sighed. Speaking slowly, kindly, she explained.

“You wear the same few sets of clothes until they fall apart, aside from a few things like that jacket or hat. You keep most of your collectibles in plastic and boxes, so nobody knows you have them but you. Everyone knows you’re a fan, but from what you said they just tease you...because you keep worrying about what they think. Finally, rather than living up to your heroes’ examples you became a collector and hoarded it all to yourself.”

“But I still try to live up the their-”

“Not from what I saw outside the shop a bit ago.” Ren shook her head, glaring out the window at Emma and her girls. “Sure, you stood up to that redhead who was bullying you for a moment, but in the end you just let her win. You backed down, didn’t try to get help, and just gave up.”

“So what, you think I should have fought her in the streets? Maybe that if I sold my collection I’d have the money to...what, hire friends to help me overcome her?”

“No, I think that if you weren’t so worried about your collection, so afraid of what people were going to say about you, so nervous about being wrong, ugly, or badly dressed...then you’d be a lot happier.” She smiled, winking at me. “Also, I’m not just saying that because I work part time as a fence for certain goods and would be willing to do it for a small commission.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re trying to help, even if I’m not happy to hear a lot of what you’re saying.” I sighed, thinking about just how much stuff I had. It had never really crossed my mind to sell any of it. Sure, it could probably help me get better clothes, but I might even be able to use it for more than that. Tinker tools, costume gear, a better computer...but did I really want to give it up? “I guess it was silly of me to think that having someone’s face on my shirt would inspire anyone.”

Ren sighed, rubbing a hand across her face. Then gave herself a little bonk on the side of her head before looking at me with something resembling regret in her eyes.

“Sorry, I just got you all bummed out, Greg. That’s on me. Look, I can’t claim to be an expert on philosophy or anything, but I do live a pretty minimalist life because I...don’t really get attached to people or objects.” She shrugged, as if it wasn’t worth explaining or arguing with her own nature. “That gives me a unique perspective, but I guess it can come off kind of…”

Great, now I’m the asshole. I came in here to get help, then got mad when I didn’t like it.

“No, it’s okay. I came to you for advice, after all.” I bit my tongue, wincing at the pain, then tried again. “What I mean is, even if I don’t like what you say, I shouldn’t get mad at you for saying it.”

“In that case, mind if I give you a bit of life advice, without you asking how I came across it?” She looked off into the distance, clenching a fist, and although I wanted nothing more than to ask why she’d say something so strange I still found myself nodding silently.

“Greg, I think that if someone really inspires you, the best thing you can do is try to live up their example...but also to follow in their footsteps by setting your own. Maybe by selling some stuff that doesn’t do anything for you, you can buy other things you’ll find more useful. You’ll always have the memories of the past, and now you’d also have new things that might help you out in the future.” She rolled her eyes, then waved a hand around the store as though presenting it to me. “But what do I know, right? Only a business owner selling high-quality clothes at age 22.”

“A business owner who really wants me to sell her my clothes and collectibles.” I laughed, taking one of the business cards off her desk and making a show of slipping it in my pocket. “I can’t help but think you have an ulterior motive besides just inspiring me to dress better.”

“Of course!” She handed me another slip of paper with the hours she planned to be at the store over the next week, but also promised that her other employees could reach her in a pinch. She seemed so certain I would call... “Repeat customers have to start somewhere, right?”

We both chuckled at that, and I wished her a good afternoon before heading out.

I had some new ideas, and really wanted to get home. I couldn’t help but think I was forgetting about something though, and was so caught up in my plans that I bumped into someone.

“Watch where you’re going...Veder? What, now you’re trying to knock me over or something? Also, what the hell were you thinking earlier, trying to snub me?”

Ah, of course. Emma Barnes. I wish I could forget her, but…actually, maybe this is a blessing.

“Oh hey, Emma, I completely forgot about you.” Her face twisted, and I added, “Got a minute?”

She’s hot shit against Greg, but how about Greg with Ren and Victoria in his corner?

She didn’t stand a chance.

*****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Another showdown between Greg and Emma. He has several secret weapons she doesn’t know about...but maybe he won’t need any of them to win?

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: why don’t you want me to fix the all the dumb character stuff in early chapters?

Me: I just think knowing that he went from a kid who made a dumb choices and mistakes…

Me: ...to a badass who is taking responsibility for those mistakes has more payoff, y’know? 

GstringGirl: eh, your fic. speaking of early chapters...how does Greg not get George?

Me: I think he gets him pretty well. Is there something else coming across in the writing? 

GstringGirl: Greg keeps doing dumb stuff and assuming his brother hates him, so...yes.

Me: Okay, fair enough. I guess they’ve always had a complex relationship of love and hate

Me: every time something brings them together, something else finds a way to tear them apart

GstringGirl: so they’re like every set of siblings in fiction. so original! 

GstringGirl: j/k, lol

GstringGirl: but seriously, if Greg really wants to have a support network...why not George?

Me: What, you think he should turn to the brother he’s been fighting with this whole time?

Me: the jerk who shows him up at every opportunity, who knows him better than anyone?

Me: who always has to point out his every failure and screw-up?

Me: the guy who...actually stood up for Greg at Christmas...when he didn’t have to…

Me: Huh.

GstringGirl: it’s so easy when you make all my points for me, thanks

Me: I...wish I could give you a raise. One problem with this plan:

Me: Greg really pissed George off last time they were alone. That doesn’t just go away.

GstringGirl: eh, I’m sure with some fancy writing and the power of brotherly love…

GstringGirl: you just need to think about what they have in common, then get them to talk

Me: Couldn’t I just have Greg copy Purity’s powers and blast George off the face of the Earth?

GstringGirl: well, do you want to have a murderfic, or a tale of brothers supporting each other?

Me: ...can I have both?

<GstringGirl has Disconnected from the Chat>

***

[Sunday, Dec 26, 2010] 

“Well, Veder?” Emma snarled at me, leaning in close as if I was having trouble hearing her. “You got something to say to me? Got some kind of problem?”

A small crowd had stopped on the sidewalk, probably figuring that I was either about to get dumped by a girl way too pretty for me or that they might have to step in and “defend her honor.” Emma was playing it up to the crowd, catching eyes and obviously trying to start something. She wanted me to get physical, to get angry, to become the villain in this situation...

Is this really the same Emma I used to try and talk to? The one everyone’s afraid of?

Emma Barnes and I had never really gotten along. She always had to poke me, and I always wanted to do something (but was too afraid to try, usually). That never stopped me from daydreaming about what I’d do if I was ever brave enough to try and get back at her.

My default revenge plans against Emma Barnes had changed over the years, and that’s mostly because the things she did to make me think she deserved revenge changed as well. She got worse, and in turn I made more creative and extravagant ways to “fight back.”

For instance, in junior high she was bad, but I can see now that a lot of it was reactionary. I was probably pretty annoying and stubborn, and she used her growing Social Powers to get bigger kids to hit me or rip up my homework as a result. My daydreams at the time were usually about tripping her to fall face-first into her lunch tray, or maybe moving out of the way so her hired bullies would hit her by accident. Something that would make her understand the humiliation I’d felt, damage her social standing.

But in high school, most especially in the last year, she had become proactive , and started shit with no apparent reasoning behind it. I once overheard her saying that she just wanted to help people “toughen up” or “find the strength,” but I knew that was bullshit. I had seen the look on her face, the glee that appeared when she’d watch someone have their day ruined. 

Then there was Taylor. Her former best friend. Not only was Emma tormenting the closest thing I’d had to a friend for over a year, practically daring someone to try and stop her, but she had been inspiring others. More and more kids were starting to bully, tease, and just plain mistreat those smaller and weaker than them. They loved using that label…”weak.” It was dumb.

It was the sort of thing that made me wish we had a parahuman at our school, so they would stand up to her or tell the authorities. Now that we actually did have one, I didn’t have to worry about telling them...because it was me. Not only that, but Emma had played a part in my Trigger, since my near-death at the hands of Knife Guy had been due to her direct actions.

“Are you ignoring me now? Think that a girl like me talking to a dweeb like you isn’t like the hand of God coming down to brighten your day?” Emma smirked, leaning closer as the crowd made noises. She whispered, “Maybe you’d prefer I was a nazi or something?” 

“Nah, you’re bad enough.” I barely even blinked at her, Ren’s detachment and Victoria’s confidence working against her. I didn’t care what she was saying, didn’t feel threatened by her, and having all these people watching was making me feel great . “Although I’ll bet at least they don’t treat their friends like shit. Probably smell better, too.”

That seemed to piss Emma off, and she threw a hand at me. I was ready this time, having seen the exact same move an hour earlier, and just stepped back as she whiffed. The crowd let out a loud noise, and I just gave her a lazy smile. She didn’t follow it up with another swing, and it occurred to me that without Sophia or her entourage, Emma was all talk.

Compared to Victoria and Ren, Emma’s just an angry little girl. A queen bee with no hive.

She was still talking, spinning lies and rumors about me as the crowd laughed and jeered, but I’d already tuned her out. Thinking about the time I’d just spent in the clothing store was making me realize I could actually fight back now. In fact, I could beat her with something she’d always lorded over me before...connections and knowledge.

And unlike my counterattack on Lung, this is one that won’t get me killed. Well, not physically 

Months ago, I might have been afraid to do something like this, knowing that my social standing at school would become permanently locked into the negatives by actively opposing Emma. But now, even without Ren and Victoria’s personalities, I realized that was no reason not to stand up. Who cared about my standing in a school that I’d be leaving in a few years? I’d always have the memories of knowing that I could have stood up, and hadn’t, and would blame myself.

Besides, what kind of hero is afraid to stand up to a villain?

***

“Hey Emma, sorry that I just ran out on you like that.” My words interrupted her, and her expression turned to one of nonchalance. She probably thought I was about to grovel, but I was actually going in a different direction. “Actually, there was something that just occurred to me.”

“What, that you should take this chance to get down on your knees and apologize?”

Yep, called it. Sorry Emma, but with Ren and Victoria on my side, I’ve got something better!

“You’ve been standing here waiting for me this whole time, haven’t you?” I grinned.

Wait a moment, watch her breathe in, and then...interrupt!

“Jealous! That’s what you are, isn’t it? You envy the fact that I just spent an hour having a conversation with a fashionista you look up to, instead of you .” Emma choked off whatever she was about to say, turning it into a laugh as I continued. “You hate the idea that I just got real advice from the owner of the store you’ve been lurking outside of all day, and you had to just sit at the window and stare, huh? Want to know what we talked about?”

“Wh-what?” Her face twisted, and for a moment I though she was going to try to hit me again. Instead, she just crossed her arms (getting defensive, nice) and scoffed so loudly I thought her tonsils would fly out. “As if! Why would I care what you and that drag queen talked about??”

The crowd did not like that last bit, but Emma still played it up as if they were booing me. She was on a roll now, a feeling I was familiar with from my non-powered experiences. I was getting kind of angry at her now, even with Ren’s personality, and rather than letting her try to regain control I decided to use my new power.

Because now she actually has it coming. I’ll only do it once, and just the tiniest bit. To test it.

“Just think, Emma. If you hadn’t been such a self-righteous asshole earlier, I probably would have invited you inside with me. I might have even said, ‘Wait a second, Victoria, let me go get my friend Emma so she can hear this as well. She’s a huge fan!’ But I didn’t.” I leaned in, making sure that I had her furious face perfectly in my sights before adding, “I’ll bet now you know how Taylor felt when you started bullying her out of nowhere, huh? When you decided to torment your friend, to abandon her, to try and drag her down because of how weak you are?”

With that, I focused on the shame I’d felt a week ago, upon realizing that I had teased Taylor. The regret I’d felt when I remembered that even though she had no reason to help me, she’d stuck her neck out for me. The pain that had echoed through me every time I saw Emma and her cronies torment the girl...while I did nothing but watch and be glad it wasn’t me.

Fill myself with shame and regret, focus on Emma, then take Targeted Empathy and…

Dammit, NO!  

I can’t keep doing this! I can’t keep trying to solve my problems with powers! Abort!

I really, really wanted to shoot Emma with the blended powers of Ren’s Dartboard (targeting power) and Victoria’s Bipolar Tornado (Emotional Aura). I had tested it earlier by accident, and thought I had a good feel for how it worked. It would have been so fitting to shoot her with some shame and regret, linking it to Taylor to make her really feel what the rest of us did.

I had been telling myself that Emma deserved it, so I was just being a hero by fighting her.

That she was a bully. That she had hurt me and so many other people. That she had it coming.

But I wasn’t going to stoop to her level. I wasn’t going to become a villain.

Luckily for me, my words appeared to have been powerful enough on their own, as Emma had frozen. The crowd, apparently tired of watching our teen drama, started to break up and move past us. An elderly man, one of the ones who hadn’t liked her words about Ren, bumped Emma hard with his shoulder and gave me a friendly nod. Emma slapped at him, then growled at me with half-hearted comebacks. “I’m not weak! I’m a survivor! You don’t know anything, Veder!”

Point to Veder. And just think, I did this without even needing to use the power!

Well, aside from the two awesome personalities helping me. Still, this was at least 50% me.

“I know you , and that’s more than I ever wanted to know.” I shrugged and walked past her. I had just realized that this whole encounter was a waste of my time, and let it reflect in my face. Emma didn’t even try to stop me, her eyes narrowing at me. I could tell she wanted to say more, but wasn’t willing to take me on without backup. “I’d rather be alone than talk to you. Bye.”

I walked slowly, reveling in the feeling of victory. Also, my bus stop was about twenty feet away, so...why rush? I took a seat on the bench at the bus stop, and started thinking as I tied my shoe. 

Nearby, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that in true Emma Barnes fashion, she eventually just flipped her hair over her shoulder and sauntered off. As if it was nothing, she pulled out her phone and began to loudly talk to someone on the end of it...not a hint of her prior defensiveness or anger in her voice. 

Have to hand it to her, she really is a heck of an actor. Or maybe a sociopath.

“-no, I’m fine, just ran into that creep Veder. No, I don’t want to talk about it, even thinking about him makes me want to throw up.” She turned and started walking in my direction, but didn’t seem to have noticed me. She continued talking, going right past my location. “-said something that made me think of you. I just realized we haven’t done a sleepover in forever, so how about tonight? I’m sure you can convince Danny, and it’ll be great practice for the bigger one on New Years Eve with all the other girls. Oh come on, don’t make me beg...yes! You’re gonna love it!”

Ugh, I feel sorry for whoever that is. A few minutes of Emma is bad enough. Overnight? Yeesh.

Putting all thoughts of her out of my head, I sat back and waited for the bus. My conversation with Ren was still spinning through my head, as well as something GstringGirl had suggested a little while back. Maybe today’s successes didn’t have to end with my victory over Emma?

***

The whole ride home, as well as an extended walk through my bustling neighborhood that followed it, I was deep in thought. So much so that I suddenly realized I had forgotten to release the power.

I mean, I wanted to test it out on more people, but...this feels too much like a Master power.

...also, using powers on civilians is wrong, yadda yadda, don’t do that. Of course.

Much as I hated to see it go, I still knew that it was too much of a temptation. Already, I had almost used it to make people who looked sad perk up almost a dozen times. This was Brockton Bay, so there were quite a few people like that. It was just too dangerous to keep.

Sighing, I took a seat on a handy bench and started to reach into my core. I paused though, recalling the storm of emotions that had blasted through me when I’d dropped the Bipolar Tornado earlier. Thinking for a moment, I decided to take some precautions.

First, I wrote down an executive summary of the last few hours in my notepad, as well as the idea I’d been mulling over for the last few minutes. Next I made sure nobody was around, and leaned back to pretend I was taking an impromptu nap. Finally, I clenched my jaw, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and...

Goodbye, Targeted Empathy. I hope to see you again someday.

...given how much Victoria probably shops at Ren’s store, I’ll probably see you soon.

I think that the storm of emotions was easier to deal with this time, although whether it was because this was a blended power or because I’d done it before was anyone’s guess. I still felt like certain emotions were stronger, like my regrets over George and Taylor, but that might have just been because they’d been on my mind at the time. I also felt a lot of joy over the thing with Emma, as well as some glee from my experiences in the clothing store. Hope was there, too.

Then the storm ended, and I felt normal. Looking at my phone showed that it had only been ten seconds, and I immediately started reading over the notepad of events. Luckily, nothing seemed like a surprise to me, so at least my brain was safe. No memory gaps, or even any fuzzy spots.

It’s possible that I can avoid memory issues if I just avoid pushing myself too hard. Maybe.

Whatever the reason, I was back to Baseline Greg, and that meant it was time to get home. As far as I knew, George was home for the next few days (Melody was still out of town), so if there was ever a time to try this out...it was the next few days. As much as I would have loved to procrastinate, I also knew that putting something off a little was just as easy as putting it off a lot.

So I walked home, went up to George’s door, and knocked...then entered when he gave the ok.

Time to pull off a whole bunch of band-aids.

***

George’s room seemed to change a little every time I was in it, which admittedly had been far less often the past few years than when I was a kid. I’d even spent the night in here when I was seven or eight, whether due to nightmares or for the impromptu sleepovers we’d had as kids. Last time I had been in here was for a prank about a year ago, and it looked like once again George had removed some furniture and pictures from the walls. 

Probably over at Melody’s. On the other hand, the lava lamps are gone, so maybe not. Ugh.

“What’s up Greg?” He asked me, glanced up from the document he was reading on his bed. I saw that the page he was on was about...dog fighting rings in Brockton Bay? Before I had time to read more, he flipped it over and slid the papers under a small pile of books nearby on the subject of stand-up comedy and heckling. Probably borrowed from Dad. “Need help with something? You’re looking around like you barely recognize the place.” 

“Well, it has changed a lot over the years.” As it stood, this was more like a hotel than the room he’d grown up in. Five years ago the walls had been festooned with baseball memorabilia and signed bats, cape posters, and pictures of George with his teammates all through high school. It had always been his dream, as a kid. “What happened to all your baseball stuff?”

“Eh, I moved on.” He shrugged, as if it wasn’t worth even mentioning. When I didn’t say anything, he sighed and started tapping his thumb against his chin. “Thinking back, I think I realized that I wasn’t going to be playing after high school with all my other interests, so I sold it. Bought a lot of new books, lab equipment, and electronics with that money.”

Guess this runs in the family. No wonder Mom and Dad thought I’d grow out of capes.

“So, there’s something I had been planning to do for a while, and I was always just kind of putting it off, but…” I stopped, realizing that not only was I beating around the bush but also I was basically lying. This was something that had only occurred to me today, thanks to someone else’s suggestion, and even then I was still sort of against it. I tried to shift to the previous topic. “Um, actually I was wondering. The baseball stuff. I see you still have some of it. Why is that?”

“What? I still have some of…” George looked around the room, then perked up as he noticed the picture frame above his bed I had been looking at. He stood and moved over to it, holding his hands as if presenting it to an audience. It was a wooden frame, carefully dusted and clear, displaying a single signed baseball card. “Well, I couldn’t possibly sell Bobby Brown!”

“But you sold all your other baseball stuff, what made him different?” I was confused, but I could have sworn George had explained this to me at one point or another. Despite that, he grinned and launched right into a very familiar explanation.

“Bobby Brown studied for his medical degree during his 8 years playing for the Yankees, after fighting in World War 2, and even took a season off from playing to fight in the Korean War. He practiced cardiology, taking a break to serve as the interim president of the Rangers, then went back to medicine. He’s still alive today, beating the odds and inspiring people like me.” George caressed the picture, smiling fondly at it. “He convinced me that I could still love baseball, even return to it someday, although I was taking a break to work as a doctor.”

I felt like the last piece of the puzzle had slid into place for me. That had been what I was missing, the whole time I was talking to Ren. I didn’t have to give up all my cape stuff or memorabilia, nor was it necessary for me to stop looking up to them. Just because I was going to become a hero myself, it wasn’t as if I had to stop remembering what made me want to start in the first place. I could be more than one thing, or focus on one thing without losing myself.

Now I just need to convince George to help me. What’s the best way to explain this?

“I need money.” I blurted out, then mentally slapped myself as I saw George reach for his wallet in confusion. I held up both hands. “No, not from you, but I mean, you can help. But not like…”

Take a breath. Don’t think about the end, think about the journey to get there. Baby steps.

“Sorry, this isn’t easy to explain.” I took a deep breath, trying to order my thoughts, and George was kind enough to let me. I closed my eyes, then started to speak, remembering how the idea had started and how I’d felt a few hours ago. “I want your help in selling some of my cape merch and clothing. I think I need to start wearing better clothes, to be able to buy things for people who matter to me without sponging off Mom and Dad. I want to be able to move forward.”

George was silent for a long moment, and I was afraid that he was laughing or moving across the room to just hand me money and push me away...but then I opened my eyes and saw him with a hand on his chin. He asked, “So you want my help with the logistics? Okay, what do you have so far? How are you planning to sell things, for instance?”

“Well I met someone who actually has connections and seemed to recognize the value, and was willing to sell things for me if I do the legwork on pricing and packaging.” I pulled Ren’s card out and handed it to him, seeing his eyebrows go up as he apparently recognized the store.

“Dare I ask how you met them? I was thinking you meant some guy online, but this is a pretty high-end location. Are you sure that they’re not just trying to pull a fast one on you?”

“Just because I’m a-” I stopped myself, realizing that I’d been about to yell at George for being protective, and that was exactly the sort of thing a little brother should have wanted. Especially given how this did sound a bit suspicious on its face. I started again, taking a different tactic. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted you to help me. I think this seems good, but having you there to help me see through the BS and get a good percentage would really help a lot.”

Nice, a compliment and a request for help. Looks like I learned more than I thought from Ren.

“I can pay them a visit with you, sure.” He handed the card back, probably already familiar with the address. Despite that, he didn’t move to leave yet, so I waited. He looked nervous about something, then asked, “I’m just not sure where this suddenly came from. I mean, a week or two ago you were proudly talking about how you’d finally completed your set of Anchorage Protectorate figurines, and now you’re selling them. What changed between then and now?”

“I guess you could say that the last few weeks have really...triggered something in me.” I think George actually jumped at that, although given my claims of having powers last week it was an understandable reaction. He looked around for some reason, then shuffled a bit closer.

“Really, so this was a sudden...change for you?” He lowered his voice, and I did the same.

“More like something that’s been building for a while.” I shrugged, looking away and trying to appear nonchalant. Thinking about the way I’d treated him the last time we were this close had me feeling kind of embarrassed. He was probably lowering his voice, afraid of the same thing. “I always wanted to have cape stuff because they inspired me and I wanted to show it off, but I’ve started to realize that if I just hoard it all to myself and am only doing it for my own benefit...I’m not really living up to the examples they set.”

“And selling all this stuff will change that? Won’t that just make you rich instead?”

“Maybe, but then I can use the money to actually do something with my life.” I looked up, then shook my hands at him as if to ward his reaction off. “Not that there’s anything wrong with my life! I just mean that with money I could get into more film stuff, get clothes I feel good in, and try to set my own example that others might follow someday. Kind of like...you did...for me.”

Can’t believe it took me this long to realize that. Wow, look at George puff up. 

Best that I don’t add that it’ll also give me funds for Tinkering, costumes, and...oh. Hug time.

“Sorry Greg, but that’s just...wow.” George’s arms went around me, and I nervously put my arms around him. It was the first time we’d really done something like this in years, and it showed. Despite that, we didn’t stop. This was nice. “Of course I’ll help. Let’s go meet this friend of yours.”

“Business partner!” I corrected, as he pulled out his keys and followed me out of the room. “If we do good business, then maybe I’ll let her be my friend.”

George only laughed.

***

The next few days were like a dream come true. A dream had by nerds, I guess, but given that George and I fell neatly into that category it was still a very good dream. 

He got along great with Ren, and the three of us hammered out a decent cut for her to take from the sales she was going to make. All we had to do was organize, package, price, and transport the items, and she’d handle the rest with the buyers she claimed to have already contacted. I asked her how she knew I’d go for the deal so soon, and she just smiled and laughed.

It wasn’t all easy, though. Once I got home I had to go through every single item in my collection and identify what I could sell and what I’d be keeping. We only had a few days until George had to go back to work, so time was limited. In the end though, it was his advice (and a book on Shinto he loaned me) that helped me get through it. It was all about identifying what had made the most impact on me, and what I felt would hurt me most to no longer have in my life.

The jacket stayed, obviously, as well as a few other clothes that were either too worn down to sell (“well-used” stuff still goes for a decent price, but even that only goes so far) or that I associated with powerful memories. Like the hat I’d been wearing after Taylor had taken my side in an argument with some bullies back in junior high, for instance. Also, a single green Eidolon bandanna, to remind me of the good (and so much bad) that had come from my ABB costume.

There were also a few figurines I kept, a limited edition stuffed animal of Leviathan I’d slept with as a kid (I called him Levi), and a poster from a photoshoot that had captured my three favorite heroes (Miss Militia, Eidolon, and Assault) standing together. Those would stay with me for life, the latter even being put in a plastic frame George had found to protect it for said life.

As for the rest of it? We spent an entire day pricing things out, researching their condition and average worth online. After that, it was off to the store to get packaging and stuffing for protection, and then back at home for putting it all together. We must have made a dozen trips back and forth to Ren’s storage unit, putting stuff away and running her through the spreadsheet I’d made (with George) on price ranges and such. She was very impressed.

After that, we just drove around a bit, knowing that the first payment would be coming any day now. George had signed for me on a bank account of my own, after a short lecture on responsibility, and for that I’d insisted on giving him a small cut of the profits. He had tried to refuse, but I think in the end he just gave up so that I’d feel like it was a group effort.

It was a group effort. That’s why I want to remember it. This is the relationship I wanted.

...dang, this means I need to tell GstringGirl her idea worked. She’s gonna be impossible!

***

[Tuesday, Dec 28, 2010] 

Knowing what was waiting for me at home, and that my time away from school was dwindling, I chose to spend Tuesday working on that whole “new clothes” thing. I had spent the day going around to a few stores and, with permission from the clerks, taken pictures of clothes that seemed both fitting and stylish. Surprisingly, Ren had been happy to see me, and had time.

Seriously, does she even sleep? I don’t think I’ve seen Ren look tired. Is she a noctis cape?

Speaking of parahumans, as she was pointing out the best and worst of my choices ( 70% good, I’m getting better ), I copied her power that I had started to think was a portable hole. I’d been planning to experiment with it anyway, since I hadn’t figured out whether any of Victoria’s powers could blend with it. I mean, how would it even work to have a power that was both an invisible storage and a flight power? Would I start flying through warp gates or something?

It felt interesting, but despite really wanting to play with it I still sat still and gave Ren my full attention. We parted soon after, and she was even happy to tell me that the first sale had gone through without a problem...so I would have a “little cash” in my account by now. I’m not going to say that I ran out of there, but…

Yeah, I ran out of there. Glad I did, because I spent a good minute staring at the ATM afterwards. That number was...bigger than what I’d expected. This was just the first sale?

Guess it’s a good market for the kind of stuff I’m selling. That, or George and I did good work.

Thinking of my brother, I went ahead and took out his cut of this sale, then headed off before the line behind me at the ATM got any madder. I felt kind of nervous about just running around with this much money, though, and-

Of course! I’m an idiot. I can’t believe money would make me forget about the power.

I walked into a random camping supply store, then stepped into their bathroom and locked the door. A quick look around told me there was no camera (can’t hurt to check), so I focused on the new power in my mind. It felt like it was connected to my hands, but also had a Switch to it.

Maybe if I...no. Okay, what if I put my hand, yes! Okay, that makes sense. Like a magician!

Indeed, it was kind of like being a stage magician, doing one of those tricks where they pull a big ladder out of a small bag. Only in this case, it was a parahuman power. Most likely because my version of the power was a bit weaker than the original, I had to use both hands to activate and use this new one. One hand went on an opening of some kind (like my left pocket) and the other moved something into that opening while the power was active.

I deactivated the power, then reached into both pockets and found the money had vanished. But! When I opened my mouth and put one hand on my lips, I could reach into said mouth with the other hand and activate the power...and pulled out a wad of twenties! Also, got a papercut.

A little embarrassed, I put the money back in my pocket (and what I now recognized as a pocket dimension ), and headed out. Now I could get some new clothes, some new travel notebooks and pens, and a few other things that had been on my list for a while. Best of all, no need to worry about carrying it all, because I had a Bottomless Backpack!

Wait, that’s a good idea. That’s perfect, in fact! Plus, I’m already in the right place for it!

I spent a few minutes longer in the store, made a purchase, and then left. A few hours later, I headed home with all my purchases, not a single bulging pocket on me. It was late, but I was happy to finally go to sleep.

...after a bit more experimentation with the power in private, at home.

***

That night, I went to sleep with a closet full of new clothes, a few very special cape-related clothes that I wasn’t afraid to wear, a whole lot of free floor/desk space, and a pair of newly-built bookshelves for the comics and books that had previously been in piles on the floor. 

There was also a very special item in the back of my closet, just waiting for me to get the courage up to do something with it. 

It had been a good day, and as I drifted off to sleep I knew that things were only going to get better. I’d spent a few days really getting closer with my brother, and I was already planning some new activities tomorrow for both my powers and my parents. 

They might not go perfectly, but I was sure as heck not going to avoid trying them because of that. I’d taken a chance the past few days, and now my bond with George was stronger than ever. The very thought of it made me feel secure and happy.

With that, my eyes closed, and I idly wondered what would happen...to the things I’d stuffed...in my pocket dimension...when I...fell...asl-

WHUMP

I cannot properly describe the sound made by a dozen baseballs, some old blankets, a few random tools, and ten pillows as they suddenly exploded out of me, joining me under the covers.

Ah, so that’s what happens when the power ends and there’s still stuff in there.

Good to know. Good to know. Let’s never test that again.  

I sighed, then climbed out of bed and started cleaning up as quietly as I could.

...as I was picking up Dad’s hammer, glad that it had hit the blanket instead of flying up into the air and hit me in the head or something. A detail about that tickled my memory.

Hammer. In a pocket dimension. Hitting people…why is this reminding me of something?

“Oh crap, how did I not see this?” I slapped my forehead, whispering to myself. “Ren is Circus! That cat burglar villain who’s been spotted around town stealing...stuff.”

Wait, I thought that Circus was a villain? But out of costume they were kind, helpful, and...

...and hadn’t taken advantage of me. They could have just stolen my stuff, or killed me and taken it, or any number of other things. But instead they’d given me good advice, accepted an amazingly low cut, been friendly with George, and more. 

Was Ren my friend, now, or was it something else? Why would villains be nice as civilians? Was it all an act? A split personality?

From having Ren’s personality pressing on mine, it didn’t seem like they were faking it...was there more to it than this? I made a mental note to pick up those parahuman psychology books Victoria had recommended ASAP. Maybe parahumans were really good at compartmentalizing?

With that on my mind, I went back to bed. This wasn’t something I’d solve in one night.

Apparently I still had a lot to learn.

*****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg seems to have learned a valuable lesson about putting yourself out there, and the importance of relationships. You know another great example of a relationship? The connection between a mentor and...oh heck, it’s a Wards Interlude!

Chapter Text

[9 Months Ago]

Jessica Yamada had one of the most difficult jobs in the world. 

She didn’t wear a costume, although she did dress well and have a white coat that had her name stitched into it. She didn’t fight crime, although she did help people fight against their own worries, demons, and troubles. She didn’t train under brutal conditions in pouring rain or under waterfalls, but she did spend eight years training and going to graduate school.

She was a parahuman psychologist employed by the PRT, and one whose job was made nearly impossible by the constraints of time, bureaucracy, and regulations.

The problem was that her primary patients, the PRT’s Wards, were forced onto a schedule of rotation with regards to their therapists. This meant that right about the time they started to get to know someone and trust them, they’d be forced to uproot most of their progress and start all over again with someone who only knew them from a file and some footage. They had no anchor, nothing they could tie their sanity and calm to, and it showed...oh how it showed.

So, Jessica decided to cheat, by taking the one constant in the Brockton Bay Wards’ life and make that their anchor. Which was why she was meeting with the Protectorate right now, having already gotten permission from Deputy Director Renick. He’d been very excited about it.

“So, this is like a pilot program, then?” Battery asked, looking over the list of recommended reading and activities they’d all been handed. She looked worried, and immediately voiced her concern. “We aren’t trained like you are, though. We can’t dig into their heads like that.”

“Yeah, Pup-” Assault cut himself off, clearing his throat as his wife scooted her chair a bit further from his. He looked down at the literature, pretending to be reading it for a moment before starting over. “Battery’s right, I mean. We might screw them up worse than before, Doc.”

“I’m not asking you to replace psychologists like me.” Jessica smiled at them, shaking a little on the inside as she realized that the combined firepower of the parahumans shoved into this room with her could easily take out a city block. She took a small breath, then gestured at Velocity. “What we need is for you to be friendly, helpful, and most of all... there . They need stability in their lives, advice and help from people who have been where they are now. Who better than you?”

“We don’t have time for this.” Armsmaster was blunt, and Jessica could see him already preparing to stand. The man dropped the papers disdainfully. “I have a hundred projects already on my plate, Tinkering to do, countless things to approve and check, and a city to patrol.” 

“I understand, and you can still do all that, but can I at least check in with you for five minutes every few days?” Jessica schooled her expression, revealing nothing as she added, “It’s about a Tinker-related matter, just once or twice a week?”

“Fine.” The man sighed, “I suppose I can spare that much time for you.”

“Great! Oh, but it won’t be me, it’ll be Kid Win.” She grinned, reveling in seeing the older hero’s face droop as he realized he had been played. After Velocity and the others cracked up and the Tinker gave in with a nod, she knew she’d won. “Glad to have everyone on board.”

The meeting adjourned.

Not once in the year that followed was Jessica sorry that she had asked the larger-than-life heroes of the Protectorate to step up a little. The Wards were the next generation, after all. They learned valuable skills, formed strong bonds, and began to transform into adults...and heroes.

Soon, reports began to pour in from the Protectorate heroes...

***

[Battery & Clockblocker]

“I don’t get it, why did he stab me?” Clockblocker wailed, holding a hand over his thigh as blood dripped out. The wound had come courtesy of a Merchant’s knife, and the teen had just walked right up to him and taken it...in the leg. “Now I’m going to die or get herpes, and all I said was-”

“You’re not going to die. Hold still, kid.” Battery nudged the boy’s hand out of the way, doing her best not to feel a bit of satisfaction at his injury. She’d warned him not to approach, but he’d just laughed it off and walked up like the man was holding an ice-cream cone. It reminded her too much of her...of Assault. “You made a threat, and he treated you like one.”

“But I was smiling, and I even told jokes...I don’t get it.” The boy muttered, letting her take care of his wound. He cringed and whined, but eventually admitted that it wasn’t as bad as it had looked. Finally, he looked up at her. “What did I do wrong, Sensei?”

Battery considered reading him the riot act, knowing that taking it easy on someone who would joke around like this could be dangerous in the long run. She’d certainly excused enough of Assault’s idiocy back in the day. He’d never learned, never listened, and teased her mercilessly.

Now the two were taking some time apart, after the pressure had built up so much that they nearly came to blows. As much as she wanted to look at Clockblocker and see Ethan...she had to admit that if she’d been far too willing to just accept that Ethan was who he was, and that there was no point in changing him. She needed to be firm, but also even-handed.

If I don’t stick to my guns, and express why this is a problem, it’ll never stop being a problem.

“For starters, you didn’t seem to notice it but the man was speaking broken English with a heavy Russian accent. That means that you shouldn’t have expected your humor to translate. You can’t just assume that other people are going to understand your words and meaning.”

“Okay, I guess that makes sense. But why couldn’t he see I wasn’t serious?”

“Well, in case you forgot…” Battery reached up and tapped the boy’s full-face mask. “He couldn’t see your face, so he jumped to a conclusion. My suggestion? Learn how to emote better with your hands and body. Well, once you heal, anyway.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Clockblocker’s body told her that he was still down, so she decided to give him a bit of help cheering up.

“Hey, think of it this way. Not only do you have a cool scar, but now you can tell people...” She put one arm behind her back and switched to a faux British accent. “...‘twas merely a flesh wound!”

“That’s not a flesh wound!” Clockblocker replied, chuckling and taking on a similar accent. “Your arm’s off!”

***

[Armsmaster and Kid Win...and Dragon]

“Um, Armsmaster, sir?” Kid Win stood nervously at the door to the Protectorate hero’s workshop. He had once come in unannounced and startled the man into firing something at the ceiling with a lathe. Nobody had been hurt, but ever since then the Ward had been very careful when entering. “I was having an issue with this new version of my board, and...uh…”

Armsmaster considered whether he could just stay silent, and the boy would go away. It wasn’t that he was trying to be rude, although it probably came off that way to most people. Rather, he never seemed to have enough time and Kid Win was always so...lacking. Again, not an insult.

Lacking, in this case, meant that he felt the boy was always coming up short. His designs were all knockoffs of other ideas, he never seemed to finish anything, and he’d been Tinkering for over a year without even a hint of what his specialty was. Kid Win’s notes were terrible, his handwriting poor (even for a Tinker), and most of all he lacked confidence in himself.

But Yamada will find out if I turn him away. I can spare...34 seconds, at the most.

“Hmm.” Armsmaster cleared his throat, turning to face the boy. He sat like that for five seconds before the Ward seemed to catch on and rush to his side. In his hands was his hoverboard, another idea that was constantly changing and shifting...going from a flying board to a weapons platform to what now appeared to be...some sort of display unit? “What is this?”

“My hover board, sir!” Kid Win nearly snapped to attention, and his ‘mentor’ stifled a groan. The boy seemed to catch on and hurried to explain. “I mean, I realized that in the field it could be useful to utilize the soundwaves it can already produce...from my Music Player v3.67 that I put in last month. I could catch those waves and see inside people, in case they have internal  inj-”

“Yes, but what’s the problem?” Armsmaster cut him off, and the Ward blushed, stuttering for a moment. “Please think before you speak, I have limited time.”

“Sorry sir, it’s just...my power is always running out since I tried this new battery type and-”

“Then use a different battery.”

Armsmaster turned away, returning to his work, and missed the way the Ward’s shoulders slumped. The boy took his board back, and began to walk away dejectedly.

Ahem .” An electronic throat cleared itself in Armsmaster’s helmet, and he let out a groan.

“Wait.” Kid Win froze, and turned back around to see the hero gesturing at him. He approached, and stood silently as the application of a few tools removed the panel over his board’s battery. The older man looked carefully at the contents of the board, then asked, “Why did you use this particular battery?”

“Oh!” Kid Win took a breath, reminding himself of the man’s prior advice. With a voice that was more than a little shaky, he explained. “I was studying Nano-network batteries, and this Lithium-sulfur system will let me remove the conducting plate I was using before. But the problem is that more energy is being used than I can extract, even with that.”

“I see.” Armsmaster was silent for nearly a minute, looking over the work, then asked, “Did you come up with this design yourself?”

“N-no sir.” Kid Win looked down at his feet, eventually muttering, “I know I’m not a very good Tinker, but I saw that Hero used this type of energy design in one of his works, and...he was one of the people who always used to inspire me. I know it’s not original, or worthy of his name, or-”

“It’s okay. I based a lot of my early work on Hero as well.” Armsmaster nodded matter-of-factly. He typed on his keyboard, bringing up some very crude drawings on a monitor that actually looked a lot like a mix between Armsmaster’s current armor and Hero’s chestplate. “You’re still young, so you can afford to make mistakes and take chances like this. Now, let’s take another look at this sound design of yours, I think the energy flow might work better if…”

Over the next twenty minutes, the older hero explained a lot to Kid Win, and he took copious notes. The sensor idea never paid off, but his battery knowledge improved. 

The next time he needed advice, he knew exactly where to go, even if Armsmaster didn’t always have as much time to help him...or as many useful suggestions.

Kid Win was really glad he had taken Dragon’s advice and come to talk to the veteran hero.

So was Dragon...and if all went as she hoped, but the time Armsmaster caught on he’d already be in too deep to try and back out. He might even learn to enjoy being a mentor.

Stranger things had happened, after all.

***

[Assault and Aegis]

“Okay, stop!” Assault held out a hand, and a fist stopped mere inches from his face. He hadn’t been worried about the impact, having quite a way with kinetic energy, but rather was worried about his opponent. The PRT employees watching them in the gym let out a groan, and started to move away. “Aegis, we need to talk about your fighting style.”

“What’s wrong with it? Every one of your blows was powerful, but I have yet to go down.” Aegis shrugged, pointing at the older hero and the scuffed wraps on his fists. “I can keep going, and you can hit harder. Trust me, I can take it.”

“You just taking the hits is exactly the problem, kid. Come take a walk with me.” Assault led the boy towards the water fountains, trying to figure out how to explain this particular weakness. The biggest problem was that to Aegis, someone who had named himself after a shield, telling them not to be a shield was like telling Puppy not to get mad at him when he-

God damn it, I did it again. This mentoring was supposed to distract me from all that.

Assault and Battery. Ethan and Alex. The criminal turned hero and the detective’s daughter turned hero. Both Protectorate heroes. Both married. Both passionate. Both in love, or so they thought. Both regretting a rush into marriage. 

Still working together, but living apart. Barely speaking. It was only supposed to be for a while.

But ‘a while’ keeps getting longer, the more I think about it. Mentoring was supposed to fix that.

So, with an incredible need to distract himself, he’d thrown himself into his two greatest pleasures in life. Community service and training. In his civilian life he helped out with youth events, refereed sports for teens, ran AA meetings for adults, and worked at homeless shelters. In his cape life, he fought crime, trained like a madman, and sparred with anyone who asked…except that everyone always got tired before he did.

That was why the idea of training Aegis, the Ward who made the Energizer Bunny look like Beetle Bailey, was so appealing. The kid never got tired, never said a hit was too hard, and never gave anything but 100% when he trained. 

Unfortunately, as Assault was finding, the kid was also extremely lacking in creativity. 

“Okay, so let’s get right to the point.” Assault tried to put on his Wise Mentor hat and explain things. For once, he was going to try this without jokes or references, because this kid barely ever seemed to laugh. “You need to learn to dodge, and use other tactics besides taking blows. Not just because of appearances, but also because you can’t always count on-.”

“Why?” Aegis frowned, gesturing at himself. “My power lets me take hits, I don’t feel pain, I heal, and I’m always in top form no matter how bad the damage is. Also, if I dodge, the people behind me get hit. No matter the situation, no matter the ‘appearance,’ I need to fight this way. ”

“Yes, but your health matters to some as much to them as your ability to protect them, and you can’t...hmm, this is tough to explain.” He looked around the room, then grinned and pointed at someone who had been subtly watching both heroes. “Hey, sorry to bother you ma’am, but can we borrow you for a moment?”

“What, me?” The tall blond woman he was waving at stopped, pointed at herself, and then smiled and approached. She was fit, and looked like she had just finished running. “Wow, I didn’t think I’d get to meet actual heroes on my first day! How can I help you?”

“Well, let’s start off with introductions. I’m Assault, this is Aegis, and who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself.”

“Oh wow, put me on the spot why don’t you? Um...let’s see, my name is Beth, I just started working for Deputy Director Renick today. I have a Master’s degree in Public Administration, I love to jog, and I’m currently learning to throw boomerangs.” She grinned, and wagged a finger at both of them “Also, I’m already dating a really cute guy who teaches at Winslow, so don’t get any ideas, either of you!”

“Perfect! Okay Beth, I need you to help me with an entirely safe and voluntary exercise for my boy Aegis here. If you could just stand here, and then we’ll put Aegis in front of you and a bit to the left...and there we go. Now, let me just get twenty feet away, and off we go.”

“Okay, so here’s the situation. Aegis, a crazed madman with a knife is charging towards Beth, planning to stab her. You react accordingly.” Once properly positioned, Assault raised his hand and mimed holding a knife, pretending to stab it down a few times. “Ready? Go!”

He jogged forward, stabbing down towards Beth’s chest at about half speed, and was unsurprised when Aegis leapt in his way with arms spread. The fake knife would have taken the boy in the neck, and Assault said, “Okay, freeze! Let’s all take note of where we are, and talk. First question, Aegis, why did you do what you did?”

“You were going to stab her, so I got between you two. The knife would have gotten stuck in my neck or clavicle, and I could have punched you in the-”

“Okay, got it.” Assault interrupted, turning to face Beth. “Beth, question for you. If this valiant teen hero stepped in front of you and took a knife to the neck, spraying blood everywhere...what would you have done?”

“Probably assumed he was dead, and go after the guy myself.” Despite her pale skin, the blonde’s eyes glittered dangerously. “I’m a Brockton Bay native, and nobody’s going to kill a hero in front of me and get away with it. Especially not a Ward!”

“But I wouldn’t be dead, I can take the hit.” Aegis turned, as if he was going to explain his powers to Beth, and Assault caught him. “What? Was there a better way to do it?”

“Sure, you could have shoved Beth out of the way, you could have disarmed the man, you could have rushed to meet him, you could have gone for his legs, and there are even more options.” Assault listed the possibilities on his fingers. “Do you see what I’m trying to say?”

“I think I do.” It was slow, but Aegis nodded. “You want me to have other options, right?”

“Exactly! Plus, you never know when you’ll go up against a Trump, or a power nullifier, or something even worse. You have to prepare, and that’s the whole point of training.” Assault nodded, and clapped the Ward on the back, already seeing his mindset changing a little bit...which wasn’t easy on someone who adapted to everything. “Luckily for you, I’m an excellent teacher, and we’ve still got an hour left today.”

“Well, I’m always willing to try. Thanks.” Aegis frowned, looking at his feet. “I’m going to be the leader of the Wards someday, and I need all the help I can get. I’ll give it everything I’ve got.”

“Great! Now c’mon, I’m going to start by teaching you how to-”

Come to think of it, that gives me an idea. I wonder if I can do this sort of thing all the time?

Later that month, Ethan bought a small Gym and started fixing it up. It took a while, but a few of the Protectorate and Wards pitched in, when they had the time in their civilian IDs.

Carlos was his first customer, and came almost daily. 

***

[Velocity and Gallant]

If there’s one thing that small children love, it’s shiny lights. So when little Becky was handed a lit sparkler on the Fourth of July, she wasted no time running away from her parents and waving it about alongside the other kids. Her big brother, more than double her age at ten, led them off to the edge of the park, where his friends were being adults and making their own fun.

“C’mon, light it already!” Her brother Petey whispered, but his best friend was too scared. His hands were shaking so much he couldn’t even light the match, and that Roman Candle wasn’t going to make itself all sparkly. “I’m not doing it, so you’ve gotta!”

Becky decided to be the adult here, and moved her sparkler towards the fuse. Mere inches from it, though, she felt a displacement of air and there was a red hand blocking her way. The hand closed, snatching the sparkler from Becky’s hand, and she looked up to see a big adult in red clothes and...oh wow! It was the superhero Velocity!

Becky wanted to laugh and ask for his autograph, turning to her brother for a paper and pen, but saw that the older boy was crying. A knight in shining armor was giving the ten year old and his friends what she recognized as a stern talking to, and they were ugly crying as they twisted their hands in their shirts.

“-and losing a finger is nothing to laugh about!” The knight’s voice sounded young, but his words were very adult. Despite that, Velocity seemed to be groaning and putting his face in his red palm. The boys ran off, as the Knight yelled after them, “Remember! If you fool around with fireworks, you’re crackers. Don’t let the number of injuries Skyrocket!”

“Gallant, I think you kind of missed the point here.” Velocity approached the boy and put an arm around his shoulders. The knight, Gallant, tried to shrug it off, but the other man hung on. “We’re supposed to interface with the public and keep the safety, not...whatever that was.”

“I was just using the most commonly-used fireworks safety slogans, according to US Government safety regulations. It’s all in this pamphlet I found.” Gallant waved it at the speedster, ignoring the way the man rolled his eyes. “Those kids could have really gotten hurt, and now they’re safe and sound. They’ll remember the day I-”

“Made them feel like crap. Those kids are already over there crying to their parents about the mean knight who made them sad, and that’s all they’re going to remember about this day.” Velocity interrupted the younger hero, making him grind his speech to a halt. The two began to walk away, and Becky let them go. “Come on, I think I need to explain what bedside manner is.”

Becky never did get her autograph, but she did learn that even heroes can get a timeout.

***

[Miss Militia and Vista...and Shadow Stalker]

“So you haven’t had any problems with her?” Jessica was surprised, having thought that Vista would have been the toughest child to mentor. “I have to admit, I did not see that coming.”

“Well, we did have some growing pains at first, if you’ll pardon the pun.” Miss Militia nodded at her, changing her weapon into a paring knife before shifting it into a machete. “Vista is very focused on wanting to be seen as an adult, and takes on larger loads and more difficult tasks as part of a neverending need to prove herself. But at a certain point she seemed to realize that I was giving her equal praise for each success, regardless of her chances of success.”

“Hmm, you made her see every victory as worthy, and helped her to taper off her obsession with adulthood. Interesting strategy.” Jessica made some notes, planning to bring it up at the next session she had with the young woman. “So, since then things have been fine? Training, respect, and powers are all going well with her? No major issues?”

“Well, I think she is a little lonely, perhaps. Her parents are not very supportive, and she has no friends in her civilian life.” Miss Militia sighed, shaking her head and shrugging. “But unfortunately, she is the youngest on a team, the only girl, and her mentor is more than twice her age. Aside from suggesting she add even more extracurricular activities to her life, something that would certainly exhaust her, I don’t have a good solution to that.”

“Well…”Jessica frowned, tapping her mouth with a pen. She picked up a remote control and looked worried, before turning to face the heroine uncertainly. “The Wards did recently gain a new member, as you might have heard on your way back from Boston yesterday. She’s a few years older than Vista, but also has a lot of rough edges.”

“That isn’t a problem.” Miss Militia seemed to perk up at the thought. “I’m doing so well with Vista, I think I can take on a second charge and they can both help each other. This is perfect...although I’m wondering why you’re suddenly frowning at me?”

“Well, see for yourself. We have the security footage from the Wards Common Room.” Jessica lifted the remote control, pressing a button and starting a video that was in amazingly high quality. “This is from yesterday. See what you’re getting into.”

*

“-all I’m saying is, I shouldn’t be getting any guff for the name Clockblocker.” The boy in question gestured around the room at his fellow Wards. “Missy’s named after one of the worst Windows Operating Systems ever made, Carlos is named after a Filipino Pop Rock band, and you my dear fearless leader are named after a dog puppet that insults people.”

“We didn’t name ourselves that because of those reasons, Dennis.” Triumph put his lion-headed face in his palm. The others all groaned, and even Vista threw a pillow at the other Ward despite knowing that it would be ineffective. He tried to explain, “You called yourself Clockblocker as a dirty joke. Or, what, are you going to say that it has a deeper, kinder meaning?”

“Oh no, I fully admit that my name is intended to titillate, surprise, and bring a chuckle. Newscasters everywhere shall fear having to say my name with a straight face.” Dennis posed stoically, standing and putting hands on his hips. He shrugged, noting that nobody was laughing (although most were smiling) at his antics. “But yeah, I just want equal opportunity-”

BEEP

The Wards all leapt to their feet, casting eyes towards the security door facing them. All were gathered in the Wards Common Room, couches pushed aside and a table set up. They were due to meet their newest teammate today, one who had more than a little baggage. The Wards lined up, about ten feet from the door, and waited for the countdown to complete.

Despite not being the leader (nor due to become leader for quite some time), Gallant had made sure all of them were in full costume. He’d warned them of certain words and topics to avoid (such as “manslaughter” or “assault with a deadly weapon”) when meeting their new recruit, and most had at least nodded as he reviewed it all with a smile on his face. They’d long since caught onto the boy’s incredible need to be helpful, and hated to turn him down.

Aegis was whispering with Vista about something, the smallest Ward trying to ask a question and being turned down before she even got halfway through it. Her annoyance showed on her face, and despite solid scores in both physical and mental prowess...the pre-teen still often had issues with patience. Aegis on the other hand had patience to spare, and barely even seemed to react as she turned and pointedly ignored him.

Triumph, their leader, stepped forwards as the door finally opened, revealing...nobody.

“I thought her power was to turn into a ghost thingy, not invisible.” Clockblocker commented, walking forward and peering through the open door. The corridor outside was empty, except for a duffel bag and an annoyed-looking PRT aide. The aide was on his phone, whispering loudly, and didn’t react to Clockblocker picking up the bag and bringing it inside. “Or does she turn into a duffel bag? Am I literally sweeping our new member off her feet?”

“Nah, got tired of waiting.” All of the Wards turned around with startled shouts, laying eyes upon someone who certainly wasn’t a duffel bag. Dressed in workout clothing and with a domino mask on, Shadow Stalker was a black girl of average height, fit for her age, and holding a fork in one hand and a plate in the other. On the plate was a slice of cake, and she took another bite. “Thanks for the cake.”

“Hey! That cake was for later!” Vista approached, waving a hand at the other girl and trying to grab the plate. Shadow Stalker darted back, turning and avoiding her grabs with ease. She even began to grin, making a point of teasing the smallest Ward. “Stop it! Give me that!”

“Sure.” With a deft movement of her hand, Shadow Stalker slammed the plateful of moist cake into Vista’s face, then headed for Clockblocker and grabbed her bag from the laughing time-based hero. She paused to notice that the other Wards were less than impressed, and Vista appeared to be melting down. “What? You want a piece of me? Bring it, kids.”

After a minute of chasing, thrown cake, and Shadow Stalker’s laughter, the video froze.

*

“So, you think you can handle it?” Jessica asked, noting that the Protectorate Hero was still staring at the frozen screen. Just as she was about to reach out and poke her, Miss Militia let out a chuckle and nodded. “Are you sure? Her home life isn’t good, and her psych tests-”

“No, I can handle this. It wouldn’t be the first problem child I’ve run into. I’m sure I’ll have her as a team player in no time.”

***

[2 Weeks Later]

RING

“Hello?” “Hello?” Both voices, one female and one male, answered at almost the same time.

“Hello, friends.” Miss Militia, Hannah without her mask, greeted two of her oldest friends and smiled as they answered with the sort of joy she’d come to expect from them. Both voices were a welcome relief after a considerably more stressful week than she’d expected.

“GI Jane! How’s it hanging?” “Hannah, it’s good to hear from you.”

“I’m well, thank you both. Just taking a break, things have been busy lately with this new mentoring program the Brockton Bay Protectorate has been doing with our Wards.” 

She paused, taking a breath and reminding herself that this was just her reaching out for some advice, nothing more. It wasn’t as if she was giving up...even if both Vista and Shadow Stalker had gotten into no less than seventeen fights (verbal and physical) in the last two weeks.

“I was actually wondering if you two might offer me some advice. I have a new teen I’m mentoring, and she’s...difficult.” Hannah sighed, relating a few details to them. She finally added, “She is violent, willful, insulting, disrespectful, and generally not a team player.”

Both were silent for a moment, and then they replied.

“So, she’s like you were a decade ago?” “Tough break Hannah, you have to mentor yourself.”

“What?” Hannah was incredulous. “I was nothing like that as a child!”

Both burst into laughter. 

Still, after it had passed, they started giving her good advice. 

After all, both remembered what it was to be a Ward. They remembered what it was like to be powerful, alone, and suddenly thrust into a team with little warning. Whether you were a knight, a goofball, or a gun-nut, if you had a team...you were never truly alone. 

On a team, maybe a vigilante and a pre-teen hero could find a way to work together.

With the right mentor, of course.

Chapter Text

AN: I’ll admit...this got a bit darker than I intended towards the end. At the same time, it’s also far less boring than I originally planned. You all knew something like this would happen sooner or later, because Greg could only be lucky with powers for so long...before...well, this.

******************

GstringGirl: why hasn’t Greg gone off to get more powers by now?

GstringGirl: from what you told me before, Brockton Bay is just stuffed with them!

Me: Some of the powers are too identifiable, and others aren’t really...useful to Greg.

GstringGirl: define “too identifiable” and define “useful to Greg”

Me: Well, take Kaiser for instance. How would making swords come out of things help Greg?

GstringGirl: he could make swords and sell them, practice with them, make heavy ones to lift...

Me: ...okay, so that was an easy one. How about Faultline, and cutting stuff by touch?

GstringGirl: go into the boat graveyard and shatter all the busted boats. 

Me: ...dang, I wish you’d been my pre-reader earlier. You got that in like, a second.

GstringGirl: seriously, there are so many cool powers that he should be out there grabbing.

Me: This is where the “identifiable” part comes in. He uses those powers, and problems form.

Me: Problems for the original owner, and also the owner knows there’s a power copier around.

GstringGirl: oh, good point. okay so he has to be smart about this. no big flashy stuff

Me: Exactly! I’ve been making a list of the powers Greg is going after next

GstringGirl: well don’t leave me hanging! spill already

Me: So, now that he’s got sweet clothes, I figured why not go all the way?

Me: Why not go copy a power off a Tinker, and make some sweet crime-fighting gear? 

GstringGirl: so, since he’s in Brockton Bay, that means...Armsmaster? 

Me: Nah, too high profile. Luckily, Greg got a Wards Visit coupon or two for Xmas.

GstringGirl: wow, lucky him! so he’s going after Kid Win?

Me: Eh, either him or Gallant. Guy walks around in power armor and shoots lasers. 

Me: Total Tinker. Also really friendly, so copying off him should be safe personality-wise!

***

[Wednesday, Dec 29, 2010]

When I woke up on Wednesday, I had a moment where I couldn’t figure out whether I was still asleep or not. The past few days had been like a dream, and I think I could be excused for pinching myself once or twice. 

A snapshot of now compared to a month ago was like night and day, and I had a feeling that things were still going to take a little to get used to. I kind of felt like I was on one of those prank shows, in that quiet moment before a bucket of flour or slime gets poured on someone.

No, wait. This is really good. So maybe it’s more like one of those life-makeover shows.

Yeah, that sounded better. I felt like someone had kidnapped my old life off the streets, thrown a bag over its head, and then forced it to shape up. I’d started to look critically at choices that were bringing me down, and for once the improvements were stark. This wasn’t just some kind inner improvement, no...this was like a full rewrite from top to bottom for the Book of Greg.

My relationship with George was better, and our work together had reignited our shared interest in parahumans. Maybe it was because I wasn’t making them the main focus of my life, but my brother had been very interested in helping me out with the last few days. We were calling up old in-jokes between us, sharing a laugh over mistakes and pranks we’d pulled on each other, and had even managed to work side-by-side for several days without it being a minefield.

Speaking of no longer having to watch your step, I could now get out of bed and walk around without fear of tripping on clothes or stepping on a Lego. Thanks to Mom’s admittedly smelly punishments and George’s help, my room was so clean that Greg-of-Last-Month would have thought he’d been robbed. I still had a few comic boxes and hero figurines, but now the former were neatly stacked next to my new bookcase and the latter were prominently displayed.

If I ever had a friend visit, they’d actually be able to sit on my bed (which I’d somehow gotten in the habit of making) and see the cape merch that had really made an impact on me. Of course, at the moment my only friend was GstringGirl, but thanks to her advice and other ideas my life was getting better with every day that went by.

Yeah, now I just need to fix my relationship with my parents, out myself to them, and...

My breath caught in my throat, and felt my heart race. I nearly lost my balance, stumbling and grabbing the desk as the thought of my parents knowing about my powers ran through my head. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on other things, and slowly calmed back down. 

Man, that was strange. Guess I must be hungry or dehydrated. I’m fine now. Where was I?

Okay, so some things were still a work in progress, but I’d get to my parents soon enough. Today I had something else on tap. A way to have fun, take my mind off dealing with them, and maybe even learn something about my powers in a safe way. While I’d previously worried about copying powers from people, today that wouldn’t be an issue. Today I was going to practice seeing powers, think about cool blends, and copy a safe Tinker power on the way out!

Because if anyone was mentally stable as far as personalities went, it was the Wards!

***

Waiting for the bus, I tried not to think about the odd look Dad had sent me as I headed for the door. Sure, he smiled and nodded after I told him I was going to use one of the Wards Tour passes that I got for Christmas, but it still felt strange to me. I knew I still hadn’t really made up with them completely, but today wasn’t a day for feelings and worry...it was a day for rest and learning.

I wasn’t going to put it off forever though...just saving that explanation for another time.

Thing was, I had no idea how I was going to do this. I mean, despite my big words and GstringGirl’s ideas, I was kind of zero and... a whole lot when it came to talking to my parents without making things worse. Usually they just gave me punishments and money in equal amounts, and-

Oh man, I just realized that I also need to tell them how George and I are making money.

That was a whole other conversation, as well as such difficult questions as “Where did all these new clothes come from” and “How did you get them all here in one day with no help?” I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t just pull the ‘Improv Troupe’ excuse again, especially after last time.

No, I was going to deal with them tomorrow. 

As I got on the bus and found a seat, I tried to put it out of my mind just a little bit longer. It would be tough, but I was going to talk to them, explain myself, and repair our relationship. Sure, I was worried about panicking and blabbing out way more that I should , but it’d be okay...

I’ll talk to them first thing tomorrow. Or maybe in the afternoon? Evening? Evening!

***

Although the Wards started off as a way to “recruit and train the heroes of the next generation,” over the years their purpose and mission statement had changed to fit the times. A lot of that came from the Youth Guard stepping in to point out that if you were going to treat kids like super-powered soldiers then you should at least pay them minimum wage. After they got that, a yearly trust fund was created, special protections put in place, and then the real crusade started...to get them as little time in danger as possible!

Well, maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but you’d never know it from the posts made by Brockton Bay’s Wards on PHO (often edited or deleted after the fact). Luckily any forum-goer had a quick screenshot-finger, and thanks to people on the inside (like that Bagrat guy) I had what I considered a pretty well-rounded understanding of the Wards as a whole.

Wish that would let me skip over this part of the tour. Ugh, could we walk any slower?

Unfortunately, the other people on the tour were snapping a dozen pictures every few feet and whispering to each other, so the guide was milking this for all it was worth. I sighed to myself and decided to treat this like they were trying to convince me to join the Wards.

Not that it hasn’t crossed my mind, or anything. I just want more time to get my life together first.

Going solo was a disaster waiting to happen (I’d either be kidnapped by a gang or killed because I could out parahumans), so that was right out. Forming my own team was similarly doomed to failure, since I had no friends and could barely handle my own life. Joining New Wave was tempting...but so many of their powers were samey that I’d just be a carbon-copy of the other members. Finally, the Wards...I still needed more time to think about.

It was tempting, don’t get me wrong, but now that I was actually taking good advice, going easy on the power use, and trying to reconnect with my family, was this really the time for a huge change? 

That’s why I’m here now. Look at powers, meet the Wards, and copy a nice person’s Tinkering.

As if he’d been reading my mind, that was the precise moment when our tour finally reached the point I had been waiting for. We had arrived at a metal door with a button next to it, frosted glass windows on either side of it and an intercom near an unlit light. The guide waved his hand as if he was conducting an orchestra, then pressed the button...and waited.

I could barely make out an alarm through the door, and knew from online information that the Wards were hearing it louder than us. They had 60 seconds to either head to their dorm rooms, put on their masks/helmets, or at least put on some kind of domino mask. Once that timer hit zero, assuming they didn’t cancel it for some emergency reason, the door would open and the windows would lift...and the real reason I’d come here today would begin.

I rubbed my hands together, then realized that it looked really weird and stopped.

Maybe take it down a notch. Calm down, Greg. It’s just 3-5 parahumans your own age.

Just some people you’ve never met who might end up forced to work with you someday.

Nothing to worry about. Easy. Barely worth worrying about! Take a few breaths.

Take more breaths, Greg.

***

“That’s right, just breathe into the bag.” Gallant said, patting me on the back. His heavy armored hand felt as gentle as a feather, and I gave a grunting noise as I did so. “A lot of people get kind of excited when they first meet us, so it’s perfectly natural to panic a little.”

I took another breath, glad that the other people on the tour weren’t making a big deal about me hyperventilating a little bit. One of them had actually fainted, some guy from Toronto I think, and they’d had to call a medic to come check him out. Props to the PRT, they already had someone on staff ready nearby, and quickly revived the guy in under a few minutes.

“I’m going to go check in with the medics, but if you need anything just wave and we’ll come running. We’re here to help you, after all.” He gave me a thumbs-up, and I weakly returned it as the armored Ward walked off. He began chatting with the medical personnel, apparently telling them I was going to be okay and not in need of their services.

I guess I was so focused on breathing that I started hyperventilating. Smooth, Greg.

Of course, it wasn’t just the breathing that had made me start feeling faint, there were several good reasons. Meeting new people, meeting new parahumans, meeting new parahumans that I might have been working with someday, and of course…

All the powers! My god, and I thought Lung was a smorgasbord! So many options!

Not all of the Wards were here today, since I guess they kept them on a layered schedule of some kind. Kid Win was off on Patrol with Triumph, who was being promoted to the Protectorate a few weeks early. I guess he wanted to hang with his friends one last time. Clockblocker was doing something with Battery, and that left me with Shadow Stalker, Vista, Gallant, and Aegis.

While that normally wouldn’t have been an issue, the three main reasons I’d come here were for looking at powers (in case I joined), taking my mind off talking to my parents tomorrow, and grabbing a Tinker power. Kid Win’s absence was annoying, but Gallant had been just as good...or so I’d thought. Just to reassure myself I’d looked into him and seen-

Why the hell is he wearing power armor and shooting lasers if he’s not a Tinker? Is he a fake?

Thus the hyperventilating, as it had hit me that I had just used my only sure-fire way of seeing the Wards and not even gotten a Tinker out of it. Yes, I know it was petty, and that I could probably still think of some fun blends, but this meant that my plans of spending the day experimenting with a Tinker power had effectively gone down the toilet. I found myself crumpling up the paper bag and glaring at Gallant, looking into him and his non-Tinker powers.

Gallant’s powers were rainbows. I don’t mean that in some kind of jokey way. I mean that he literally (well, figuratively, because powers) had rainbows inside of him representing his powers. Two of them, in fact.

The first was a rainbow that kept rushing around inside of him, bumping into things. I had the feeling that it could pack quite a punch when it hit something, and even saw it collect for a few seconds and then blast forwards like a colorful cannonball. In fact...that’s what I decided to call it, the Colorful Cannonball.

The second rainbow was more of an orb, and felt like it was constantly shifting colors in a way that reminded me of Glory Girl’s Bipolar Tornado . It took me a few moments to figure it out, but then he glanced at me and I saw it change to something I recognized as Curiosity. Kind of like that beam I’d shot at Emma’s friend. That’s when I realized that this was an Emotion Sense power of some kind, and that was a good enough name.

The really interesting thing was that the second power felt like it was connected to the first one, in the same way the Emotion Reservoir that had been in my Targeted Empathy blend had. I didn’t actually see him use it, but from this setup it made me think that he could use it with the first power to shoot emotions at people. It was more complex that my own version of that had been, making me wonder if it let him shoot emotions without having to feel them himself.

Wait, if I can read emotions, that’ll make it easier to talk to my parents. Okay, let’s test it.

Gallant was honest and kind, so I carefully copied his Emotion Sense , figuring it would be a nice simple power that would let me gauge which of the Wards was most approachable for talking. I mean, even aside from my ulterior motives, this was my first time actually meeting them in person, so why not try to talk to them? 

Okay, so now I can see auras around people. Colors matching to moods? Interesting!

Shadow Stalker was finding something funny, Vista seemed to be getting annoyed (a tourist kept asking her to sign stuff, so that checked out), Aegis was bored, that tourist was embarrassed, Gallant was…

Gallant is coming my way. Can’t read him. Oh right, probably protected from his own power.

Looking as calm as I could, despite panicking inside ( Crap, Gallant can probably see that ), I closed my eyes and resumed using the bag. I heard Aegis say something to Gallant, and the sound of his footfalls stopped.

I could feel a certain sense of calm honesty flowing through me, and figured it was probably Gallant’s personality leaking in. The guy seemed to have a good head on his shoulders and really enjoyed settling disputes. It made me want to talk to my parents...but I was still worried about blabbing my secrets to them. Good thing I had that bag, because I started using it faster.

Wish I could copy Aegis’ power to control his body, but for my brain. Stop the panic. Wait...

As I opened my eyes with that thought on my mind, I wasn’t startled by the loud female voices from my right. I wasn’t bothered by Gallant looking over at me, and starting to move in my direction again before Aegis stopped him. I didn’t feel any concern over the whispered conversation they held, with me as the rather obvious target. None of it mattered.

No, what mattered to me was that the brain was part of the body, and that I had a great idea.

I’m actually glad Gallant isn’t a Tinker...this is going to be so much better!

***

In retrospect, I should have realized this sooner and gotten over my disappointment, but I guess I had a lot on my mind. Talking to my parents, meeting parahuman teenagers, heading back to school soon, the relative unknowns of my cape career path, and more...there was a lot going on that was starting to pile up on me. I had to imagine that the Wards were long since used to all the pressures that came from that, as well as being in the public eye and so much more.

Which is why I was looking at Aegis right now. The leader of the Wards (with Triumph leaving very soon, they’d already handed it over), he was calm, cool, and stylish in rust-colored armor. He could take any hit, fight until the battle was won, and never gave up. I’d seen him flying and running out of a burning building once, ignoring pain and heat for over an hour before Assault finally forced him to stop.

And inside of him, his powers are...is that mud? Clay? Also, why’s there only one power?

I knew off the top of my head that Aegis had flight, super strength, some kind of adaptation power, healing to make that power work, and seemingly limitless endurance. I’d seen a video of him getting stabbed through the stomach without flinching (as someone who has been shot in the gut, I can say that it hurts...a lot), as well as having an arm chopped off with the same reaction. Yet as I looked inside of him now, there was nothing more than a Clay Blob.

Then he floated a bit, darting in front of Gallant as the boy tried to move in my direction, and the blob floated as well. I saw Gallant close one power-armored fist over Aegis wrist, and the Clay Blob deformed...then regenerated as Gallant let go. Aegis gently pushed his friend back and whispered to him, while inside of him the Clay Blob got tougher and condensed.

I thought his power was adaptation...but...oh my god, is he actually adapting to everything?

This was huge! Unlike Lung with his 4 powers or Velocity with two intertwined ones, Aegis just had one power that was responsible for several effects! His power was adapting to gravity by making him float, adapting to injury by making him heal, adapting to combat/challenges by giving him limitless adrenaline and energy! It knew he felt pain a lot, so it erased the pain…

My greatest fear of talking to my parents is my panic...and not knowing how they’re reacting.

So all I had to do was blend Aegis’ power with Gallant’s, and I’d get a power that would keep me calm and let me see how people really felt! This was perfect, because it meant I could calmly speak to my family while at the same time reading their moods and reacting accordingly. I could adapt to panic, read the room, and even have the personalities of two heroes to guide me!

Happily, I reached out and copied Emotion Sense from Gallant and Clay Blob from Aegis. They blended, taking on the shape of what...kind of looked like my own head, though shaped from Clay and with two rainbow orbs for eyes. I eagerly slipped it into my core, and felt like the world sort of shook in place before going still.

Then things got very...odd? There’s probably a better word, but I had seen Gallant finally making his way over to me. I felt a dozen little fears and anxieties run through me, and with each one found it easier and easier to push them aside. 

Inside of me the clay head was deforming and shaking...but then it suddenly wasn’t. I felt like a boat that had been rocking in a stormy sea, suddenly transported to a placid lake of perfect…

Calm. 

That was the best word. I felt calm. Like nothing was worth worrying about.

It kind of feels like everything is fine, for the first time in a long time.

Everything was fine.

***

“Look, I’m sorry to bother you, but I can’t help but get the feeling that you’re going through something pretty tough right now.” Gallant said, coming to a halt in front of me and shrugging Aegis’ hand off his shoulder. He almost reached out to do the same for me, but I just stared at his hand until he gently retracted it. “You’ve had a pretty crazy tour, and it would be perfectly understandable if you felt a bit...off.”

“I feel fine.” I replied, in a voice that I barely recognized as my own. It was like listening to a recording of myself, except that all emotion had been removed. I didn’t sound bored, annoyed, sad, or any other notable emotion. I just sounded...calm. I looked over his shoulder and saw that Shadow Stalker seemed to be arguing loudly with Vista. “I appreciate your concern, but I think you should be more worried about those two.”

“Right, I could really use your help with that Gallant.” Aegis said, and I saw Gallant’s annoyance spike even through his armor. My new power apparently had the emotion-sensing power of Gallant’s old version, but now instead of color-coding I just...knew. So many little things all came together to tell me how he felt, although without any indication as to why. I could see from the hunch of his shoulders, hear from the tone of his voice, and understand from the way he moved his fingers. He was 60% concerned and 30% annoyed, with about 10% angry. “Let’s go.”

“No, Aegis, you don’t get it.” Gallant grabbed the flying cape’s shoulder and dragged him aside, Aegis’ eyes (the only visible part of him with his armor and helmet) telling me he was exasperated, confused, and feeling disrespected. Gallant must have forgotten to turn his speakers down, because I heard some of his words. “-has no color at all. It’s like looking at a robot or something! Humans can’t do that, and even that Buddhist monk I met had some-”

Ah. He can see my power. He is disconcerted by my perfect calm. Hmm. How to solve this?

Realizing that I was going to have to prove my trustworthiness, I smartly marched over to the two of them. They appeared surprised (30% for Aegis and 60% for Gallant, with a smattering of other emotions for both) but allowed me to speak, both with a growing curiosity. I was starting to get a feel for the power I was calling Emotional Compensation. Perhaps Emotional Balance ?

I’m usually more creative than this. Is it because of the power? It is getting kind of hard to thin-

“Sorry, but I’ve been going through a lot at home. School starts up again soon, and I worry about how disrespectful my classmates will be.” I smiled at both, feeling my lips move on my face and certain I wasn’t overdoing it. It felt strange, like wearing a fake mustache, but I ignored it. “I imagine it must be how Aegis feels, being made the Wards leader but rarely being treated as one so far. A leader should be listened to, but Gallant is not being a good teammate.”

“Yes, I agree wholeheartedly!” Aegis grabbed Gallant’s arm, cutting off the other boy. I was certain that he was going to say the same thing, and gave them both a nod before turning around and walking away. “Gallant, come talk with me over here. That’s an order.”

I heard the sound of Gallant’s armor and Aegis’ costume clacking against each other, and glanced back to see the latter with his arm over the former’s shoulders in a show of friendship and solidarity. It filled me with joy for a moment, but then the power kicked in and that vanished. I wondered why Gallant was showing fear, surprise, and annoyance, but shrugged it off.

This power blend is excellent. Every time I start to feel anything but calm, it adapts.

I tried thinking about the things that worried me. Parahumans, my parents, explaining my cape status, talking about the ABB, fighting Lung again, the E88, Knife Guy, Taylor, Emma, Sophia, and...nope, no problems. Every time I thought about them, there was a tiny spike of some emotion besides calm...but then it just faded away. It was like magic.

I may as well meet two other Wards while I’m here. This is going so well!

My best guess was that my sudden interest in helping people, as well as my incredible honesty, was influenced by both the power and the personalities of Gallant and Aegis. The power prevented me from feeling much of anything, so my own personality was subsumed , making their personalities take me over entirely. Both were very honest and helpful, so now...I was!

It wasn’t all clear sailing, though. I worried about the long-term effects of this power, as well as what would happen to me emotionally if I released it. There was also the fact that eventually I would have to sleep, and then wake up as the panicky Greg again. I’d have to sleep in this bed I was making eventually, and there was also the worry of Thinker Confusion/Memory loss...

...or at least, I was worried, until the power wiped those fears away like a fancy towel on an infomercial removed spills. Why should I even think about that?

I can keep myself calm, I can speak the truth without fear, and I can fix problems. 

Shadow Stalker appeared to be teasing Vista, both showing signs of enjoyment (70% and 88% respectively). This confused me, because the words they were saying were not at all kind, yet they seemed to enjoy each other’s company. The confusion soon vanished, and I decided that I should still say something. 

I could help! They would be more likely to accept me later on, whether I had this power or not. 

Although, with how effective I was with this power...why use any other power?

As I explained the situation to Vista and Shadow Stalker, I noticed their body language change from a mix of enjoyment and boredom to almost 100% shame and anger. Obviously they were ashamed of acting so childish in front of tourists and each other, as well as angry at themselves for misbehaving and potentially damaging their relationships. I was glad I had been able to assist them, and would do so even more if I ever joined the Wards.

While I was watching them whisper at each other, the smaller one holding her larger friend ( interesting, they appear to actually be friends ) back from thanking me for some reason, I glanced at their powers. Vista’s was like rubber, and Shadow Stalker’s was an angry cloud. 

Didn’t I used to be more creative than this? Is the power killing my cleverness?  

***

The tour came to an end and I headed home. I made sure to smile at all of the Wards on my way out, my perfect calm keeping me even-keeled and at ease with my surroundings. 

Now I would return home, speak with my parents, and fix things there as well. Some of the truths I had spoken on Christmas Eve may have been hard for them to hear, but I was certain they would see that this was necessary in the end. 

This doesn’t feel right. I think I need to turn this power off. Something’s wrong!

I started to reach into my core to deactivate the power, but stopped before even touching it. Why would I want to remove the power? It wasn’t like anything was wrong! In fact, all was well.

Sure, there were little spikes of fear or worry inside me, but the power managed to push them away. Every time they appeared, my power adapted to them and they grew weaker. I was pretty sure Aegis’ power was preventing me from even being able to experience emotions! A realization hit me that this power could have been dangerous, but I shook it off.

I can’t turn the power off because...oh crap! I can’t worry or feel any sense of danger!

I was having some minor memory problems, but nothing too...um...bad. Yes, that was the word. 

But that wasn’t a word that I needed. Nothing was bad. Things were good.

Everything was fine.

****************

AN: A smart comment I get on this story is people pointing out that just grabbing powers willy-nilly is dangerous, and even worse since Greg gets personality pressure from their owners. In this case, he figured that the Wards were calm, cool, collected, and...y’know, heroes! But he didn’t stop to think that Aegis’ calm might not be by choice, or how dangerous truth could be.

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Finally! Greg has the self-control, emotional understanding, and opportunity to actually talk to his family. Admittedly he only has all that because he’s under the influence of his powers, but you have to start somewhere. Will he finally out himself, or will his parents be too creeped out by a normally wild son who appears to have Mastered himself?

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: Is Greg ever going to apologize to his family?

Me: ...you mean he didn’t already do that? 

Me: I mean, there was that whole Christmas thing, and everything seemed fine afterwards.

GstringGirl: That doesn’t count! you used your Deus ex machina thinker powers to do it

GstringGirl: even worse, you didn’t actually show the reader what happened. soooo lazy!

Me: In Greg’s defense, the story is written from his POV. Thinker powers blanked his mind, so... 

GstringGirl: that’s a weak excuse and you know it. besides, it was just a band-aid

GstringGIrl: He needs to actually come clean with them, and be honest about stuff

Me: I’m not...sure he’s ready to out himself to them as a cape yet.

GstringGirl: not that stuff! I mean all the other things. 

GstringGirl: he was brave enough to confront them Christmas Eve, so why not try again?

GstringGirl: except this time, sit down and have a calm discussion.

Me: That sounds dangerous. Last time they questioned him, after the Lung thing…

Me: ...he panicked. Blabbed a lot of stuff. If they hadn’t misinterpreted it, it could have been bad.

GstringGirl: doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. maybe he could write a script?

GstringGirl: what he needs is some way to stay calm, think about his words, and then...

Me: Pray for a miracle?

GstringGirl: no! speak from the heart!

GstringGirl: ...but yeah, probably that too. can’t hurt to try.

GstringGirl: maybe grab a power too, if there are any powers that work on parents?

Me: Unfortunately, I think all parents are Manton-Limited.

GstringGirl: Well, shit.

***

[Wednesday, Dec 29, 2010] 

I had dealt with a lot these past few weeks, but things were finally going to be fine.

They had to be, because I’d finally found the perfect blend of powers to keep from screwing up my relationship with my parents. True, I was getting a little tired and having some minor confusion issues, but it wasn’t anything too terrible. Okay, so maybe I got lost for a minute on the way home from the bus stop, but that was only because I was so deep in thought. Yeah.

Soon I’d be home, and then I could put this power to the use I’d copied and blended it for. It would keep me calm, give me amazing insights, and let me be a son they could be proud of.

The power I was currently using, Emotional Compensation , was the cause of my newfound calm. It combined Gallant’s power to see emotions with Aegis’ adaptability, and thus far had given me the best of both worlds. 

It was useful to be able to read people and their moods. For instance, the old man passing me now was 30% happy, 60% hopeful, and...10% sad. He nearly tripped on his cane and I saw the sadness and hopefulness switch.

But the real gem was Aegis’ power, a Brute ability that seemed to be preventing my brain from being overrun with any of the nasty chemicals that normally drove a person to be anything other than calm. No matter how hard my subconscious and self-doubt tried to make me worry about the upcoming conversations, they slid off me like water off a duck’s back. That meant I could talk to my parents without lying, panicking, or otherwise messing this up.

I was going to tell the truth, point out their mistakes as parents, and finally fix this broken family with my own two hands. I would even be able to talk about what I had been up to for the past two weeks, without needing to lie or twist the truth. I would stay calm.

Best of all, I would finally be able to confirm that my parents and brother really didn’t believe me. I would be able to actually see with my own eyes (through the power) under the masks they wore. I could catch them in lies, reveal them as the flawed people they really were, and together...we would grow as a family. It was going to be great.

Everything is going to be horrible! I might out myself as a cape, insult them, or even worse!

Certainly, there were some minor issues, like the occasional spikes of panic and self-doubt rolling through me, but they were barely enough to make me twitch now. Also, I had to be careful, lest I start getting confusion from overusing what was now a Thinker/Brute power, but the thought of being careful also faded from my mind. Hmm, that was unfortunate. 

Everything was going to be...um..what was the word? Ah yes, fine!

I can’t give up. I keep getting little flashes of emotion. Sooner or later, I’ll make it through.

***

“Welcome home, Greg.” Dad and George were on the couch, watching some documentary about...surgery by the look of it. Both had been focused on the TV, showing a smattering of emotions, but that changed when I entered. Dad was now mostly happy, and George was primarily worried. They looked at me, “Did you need something? You’ve just been staring at us for the last minute. Want to join us, maybe?”

“No, I’m not at all interested in that.” I spoke frankly, ignoring George’s reply and turning to Dad. We had been getting along very well lately, and I knew that he appreciated my honesty. In fact, he had even asked me to be honest with him before, so this probably came as a welcome surprise. “Dad, I need to speak to you and Mom. Could you please fetch her?”

“Um. Okay. I guess we’re at a good stopping point, right George?” Dad glanced at George and got a shrug in return. He stood and began to move towards the stairs. On the way, he gave me an extravagant bow, and started using a British accent. “I shall go and fetch her, Master Veder.”

I started to put my smile on again, lips spreading across my face, but then the motivation for doing so just faded. This was a serious moment, and I didn’t want him going into it with jokes on the mind. He paused as I failed to react, and I saw he was nervous and confused. 

It confirmed something I had long suspected...the jokes Dad used all the time were some sort of defense or deflection mechanism. They allowed him to discount anything I said, ignore my opinions, and try to make light of my accomplishments. He wasn’t really trying to be a father.

Or maybe they’re just creeped out by their son suddenly acting like he’s been Mastered.

I ignored my voice of self-doubt, pacing across the room and waiting for Dad to return with Mom. George looked as if he wanted to speak to me, but I had no interest in going through this twice. Despite my avoidance of his gaze, he still moved to intercept me and put an arm over my shoulders.

“Greg, is now really the best time for you to talk about you-know-what?” He whispered, glancing up at the ceiling as Mom and Dad moved around up there. He was almost entirely nervous now, with only the smallest hints of fear and...was that aggression? Was he going to try and fight me to keep me from speaking? “It’s been a really nice few days, maybe we should talk about whatever you’re going to say, just the two of us? Do you have any-”

“I think I will be fine, George.” I shrugged his arm off, and moved to the other side of the room. My voice stayed at its normal level the entire time, despite a spike of heavy fear from him as he rushed to close with me. I dodged around the couch, moving just fast enough to put it between the two of us. “I know what I’ll be saying, and will be able to get through to all three of you. It would be a waste of time and effort if I reviewed my plans with you ahead of...um...time.”

Did I seriously just forget the word for time? Hey George! Knock me out or something!

The annoyance must have shown on my face for a moment, because George held up both hands and took a step back. His voice stayed down, but I refused to move closer for what was obviously a trick of some kind. “Okay, okay! Fine. I guess we’ll just play it by ear, then. I just want you to know that I think this is a-”

“Okay Greg, I hope this is worth interrupting your mother’s nap.” Dad clomped down the stairs, cutting off whatever George was about to say. He was followed by Mom, who looked rumpled and was dressed in sweatpants and an ugly Christmas sweater. She let Dad guide her to the couch, then the two of them took a seat. “So, what’s up? By the way, nice clothes, son!”

I ignored the empty compliment, staring at George until he sighed and went to join them. He looked annoyed and defeated, still with fear running through him, and I waited until all three were seated before closing my eyes. I would need my full concentration for this first part.

“Sandra, Stanley, George...thank you for coming.” I started off with their names, wanting us to begin on even footing, and setting the tone for this frank discussion. I took a deep breath, then opened my eyes and beheld looks of confusion as they glanced at each other. “I know that the past few weeks may have been confusing, and that the changes and decisions I’ve made may have seemed confusing. Today, I hope to clear some of that up.”

“Well, that’s just great, son.” Dad smiled, then glanced at Mom and motioned with a hand. She looked annoyed at something, possibly because it was one of the first times I had called her by her first name, but she eventually smiled uncertainly. “I think a talk like this has really been overdue for a while. There’s just been so much going on, it’s been hard to find the time.”

“That’s right, Greg.” Mom nodded, her eyes flicking over to Dad before she continued. “I know that things got a bit heated a few days back, and that we might have been smothering you a little. It was the first time we’d really spent a lot of time together, 24/7 with your parents can’t have been easy. I understand if you’re feeling like we were pushing you too hard.”

“Not at all, I understand the lessons you were trying to teach me. This is about everything around that punishment, as well as the underlying issues that brought my actions about in the first place.” I sighed, preparing the first of the statements I had come up with on the walk home. It was a rather simple statement that was sure to...sure to…um...

...I couldn’t remember what I had just been talking about. Why were my parents here?

“Well, let me just jump in here.” George’s distraction snapped me out of my self-reflection, and I felt the non-calm feelings immediately start to recede. Despite my interest in continuing to speak, he apparently had the floor and both of my parents had turned to face him. “Greg and I have really been getting along well the last few days, and I think that an open conversation like this is exactly what we needed to have. Maybe we can each bring up a topic, and then-”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” I cut George off, seeing that he was trying to divert my carefully-planned conversation. He was probably hoping to avoid sensitive topics, like the ones that had returned to me in a flash. Wanting to take advantage of the moment, before these mysterious memory problems returned, I quickly added. “I went out to a party the night you three left for George’s party in Boston.”

“You did what?” If Mom had been tired and thoughtful before, that all vanished in a flash. While George looked like he wanted to put his face in his hands and Dad appeared to be unsure whether to be proud (my son’s first big party) or angry (my son snuck out), Mom’s face was much easier to read. She was furious, and I could see her legendary anger starting to boil over like a volcano. “You promised that you would be a responsible adult! What were you thinking?”

“Well, hold on, Mom.” George, apparently trying to play damage control, held out a hand. He swiftly drew it back as though her vision was going to burn his hand off, and then turned it into a sort of wave. “It was probably just a friend’s house, here in town. He probably went for a few hours, drank some soda, and then came home and crashed. Greg’s not the sort to go to-”

“It was in an Empire 88 neighborhood, several miles from here.” In just a few words, I made George’s attempt to mediate crash and burn. Both parents turned back to face me, and George wisely stopped trying to interfere. “I was invited by a classmate, but it was just a prank they were using to mess with me. I was chased by a nazi with a knife, and slept in a park because I ran so much that I passed out from exhaustion.”

No! You idiot!

***

I had expected that my truth bomb would feel like I had let a huge weight off my shoulders, but instead I just felt tense...until my power made it go away. No, now only the tiniest amount of self-righteous fascination was at the edge of my mind, as well as the panic that was refusing to go down. I ignored it, because now it was finally time!

As all three of them began to react, I focused on my Emotion Sense

This was it, the moment of truth. 

I would finally see all their anger, all their disappointment, and all their self-righteous opinions on display. They would say they expected better, but I’d be able to see that it was a lie. They would wave their hands and make promises, but the bright and shining emotions underneath would make all the song and dance vanish.

Why did I tell them the truth? How will my family ever forgive me for lying to them?

It was time to see their true selves. It was time to see my family for what they really were.

I looked at George, the brother who always had to point out my failings and mistakes. Who had only helped me the last few days because he wanted to treat me like a project, and because I had led off with telling him that he was my inspiration. He was going to be looking at my parents and telling them that he told them so, that they should have expected this. Because I was a...

“Greg, I...I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.” George said, his hand over his mouth as he started to rise from his seat. He flopped back down onto the couch. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have called friends in town to help you, given you advice...anything but let you be alone! Please, I’m your brother, I’m supposed to be there for you!”

Look at that. He’s not lying. He’s concerned for me. He’s feeling shame for failing me.

I ignored George and my rising feelings of panic, turning my eyes to Dad. Dad always had a joke for everything I did. Always found a way to trivialize my every action. The man was only good for two things...comedy and advice. His comedy was to deflect responsibility, and the advice was so that he could feel smart. He was a doctor, good with words, and…

“G-greg. I-I-I...I’m so s-sorry.” Dad stuttered, finally swallowing and collecting himself a little. He started to put his face in his hands, then realized he’d have to look away from me and just put them on top of his head instead. He let out a sniffle, his eyes watering as he leaned forward. George tried to whisper something to him, but he just pulled away and shouted. “No! I can’t excuse this! Greg was right! I s-should have done more than just make st-stupid jokes! This is my fault!”

He believes that. He thinks this is his fault. He hates himself for not being a better dad to me.

I was having trouble staying calm, and tore my eyes away from George and Dad. The two of them were hugging, and I couldn’t bear to see them pretending ( they’re NOT pretending ) to be sad about all this. I looked at Mom, but she was gone from the couch...she was standing right next to me. Her face was almost unreadable, if not for my power, and I...I...

I staggered backwards, looking away from her and trying to put the couch between us. She started to move in my direction, and I tried to focus on what I remembered about her. She had always been...always punished me and forced me to read books about...things I hated. 

Sure, I liked them after the fact, but at first they were all so terrible and...interesting? 

No! No, she also used to tell me I couldn’t do things! She was only there to shut me down!

Yes, they were dangerous, but that didn’t mean...mean…that she didn’t...

“Gregory.” Mom’s voice stayed where it was, and I could see her hand reaching towards me. She stayed back, and her voice quavered, but I refused to look at her. I didn’t want to see-

Look at her.

-didn’t want to see her. I didn’t need the powers to know the truth about her. I tried to ignore her, but she kept talking, her voice halting. “I know that I’ve made mistakes, and that I haven’t always understood you. Understood your interests. Understood your habits, your clothes, or even some of the things you say. But you-”

Look at Mom. Look at her pain. She’s trying to reach out. Stop avoiding this.

“-you will always be my son. You will always be the little boy who wanted to be a superhero someday. Who wanted to wear a cape on his first day of school. Who let me sew him a little pocket in his shirt so nobody would make fun of him on his second day. My s-son. My baby.”

LOOK AT HER, DAMMIT!

I looked at her, unshed tears in her eyes and...I realized...in my eyes as well. Why was I crying?

My power wasn’t stopping the panic, the fear, the sadness, the regret, the shame anymore. It couldn’t keep up, and I tried to reach into my core to try and force the power to work as I saw my mother start to break down. I held the power but couldn’t remember why I had grabbed it?

I need to release this damn power! I don’t need it! I never needed it!

I...why was I holding this power? Who were these crying people? What had happened to them?

RELEASE THE POWER!

I released the power, unsure why...it just seemed like a really good idea. 

A tidal wave of emotions struck me, and I found myself rushing forward and slamming into a woman...who was...how could I have forgotten my own mother? My own family? Even for a moment?

I didn’t even notice as Dad and George joined us, or ask why we were all on the floor.

They love me. They care about me. They were worried about me. My family.

I wasn’t sure why, but I knew that they loved me.

I knew I loved them.

***

In the aftermath of our Big Family Cry, the four of us all agreed to get cleaned up and have a meal. We originally planned to leave the talking for afterwards...but then one of us started, and the next thing I knew we were all going. 

One of the first things I did was admit that I felt a lot of pressure when I was put on the spot. That I had some real issues with anxiety and self-doubt, especially when I had my parents bearing down on me. They both apologized, and then George joined in and said that he’d had similar problems and had just tried to push through them. Given that he still had those problems even as an adult, they seemed to take that as a sign to back off a little.

Who’d have thought? George knows what it’s like to be me...because at one point he was me.

After that, the conversation was a lot easier, and covered a wide range of topics. Since I was able to take my time and think, I managed to keep a few things to myself. No matter how great it felt to be honest, there were some things that my parents couldn’t do anything about right now. Maybe someday, but right now I had to keep a few things under my hat...for several reasons.

I explained the teasing and bullying I got at school, but left the names of the perpetrators out of it. Emma was always bragging about her dad being some bigshot lawyer, and the school had never once done anything about any bullying complaint. Winslow had problems that couldn’t just be solved by a few people, and I didn’t want my parents to throw away all their time and money on lawsuits and such that wouldn’t go anywhere. Maybe there was another way?

The events of Friday were explained in full, minus my trigger, any names, and the fact that I’d been passed up by Velocity. I might have been working with him again someday, and looking back I could see how Knife Guy might have been good at hiding his weapon from a hero. I wasn’t going to put full blame on Velocity. I promised to go with Dad to the police and describe Knife Guy, but knew not much would come of it. Still, it would make him feel better.

I finally apologized to George for always insulting Melody, and really everyone he dated. I admitted that I had been afraid they were ‘stealing’ him from me. He put a hand on my shoulder and told me that wasn’t the case, and I knew it wasn’t...but it was hard to explain how it felt. I still worried about him, about the day he’d move away, or get married, and I’d lose him.

But it wasn’t like we could fix all of our problems in just one day. We were all getting pretty exhausted, and between my powers and other emotional floods I was practically falling over. We all agreed to try and talk like this more often, and I think we made some real progress. There were a few days left in the holiday, so we’d have time to talk some more.

Before I headed up to my room, Mom and Dad stopped me and gave me one last hug. George had gone off to call Melody before bed, so we had the whole house to ourselves. 

If there was ever a time to open up to them, to out myself as a parahuman...this is it!

“Mom, Dad…” I trailed off, feeling my heart start to race. I was having trouble talking, and felt my breath catch in my throat. I was going to keep it simple. Just three words. Come on! “I’m...the thing is...I know I’m…I’m....”

I felt my vision start to tunnel, and I worried about what they would say. How they would react.

Why is this so hard? ‘I’m a parahuman!’ Just say it! I know they love me, why can’t I talk?

I choked, tears coming to my eyes as I thought about how angry they’d be, or disappointed.

How can I possibly make up for all the things I’ve done? All the lies? My heart is racing...I...

Dad reached out and put a hand on my shoulder, both of them staring at me kindly as I stopped trying to speak. I slowly got my breathing back under control, but it didn’t escape my notice the way they traded glances before turning back to face me. 

“It’s okay, Greg. I understand how you feel,” Dad finally said, a serious expression on his face. He started to say something else, then sighed. “When I was your age...I thought I was pretty messed up as well.”

“Dad, I’m not...I’m trying to say that I’m-”

“No, let me say this, son.” Dad cut me off, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. He looked troubled, and Mom tangled her fingers through his before he continued. “When I was a kid, I had a stutter, I was dumb as a rock, and everyone always made fun of me. I thought I was good at football and had friends on the team, but they only wanted me around because they wanted to feel superior to me. They were bullies, but I never knew it...or how to fight them.”

“He wasn’t the only one.” Mom smiled shyly, an expression I had never seen on her. She looked down at the floor. “You think you were a nerdy outcast? I was so uncool that nobody would talk to me, and the girls used to break into my locker and dump juice on all my books. They just did it because it made them feel better, I suppose. I hid in the library, but that didn’t fix anything.”

“What we’re getting at is that you’re not the first Veder to have problems, and you won’t be the last. There’s a long line of nerdy outcasts stretching back through your ancestry, Greg.” Dad smiled, and this time it looked more genuine than anything I’d ever seen on him. Mom’s expression mirrored it, and I felt like I wanted to share that expression. “You don’t need to think that people hate you, or worry that you’re alone against the world. We’re here for you.”

“That’s right. That’s the secret that we discovered, your father and I.” Mom smiled, leaning in as if revealing something lost to time. “Two outcasts, working together, are more than just twice as powerful...they’re also at least ten times as clever.”

“Exactly!” Dad crowed, flexing his biceps. “I may have been strong alone, but with your mother on my side I was able to take on a whole team of bullies. Then your mother helped me overcome my own anxieties, and I helped her make her bullies back the hell off.”

“Not that we condone shoving a bunch of teenage girls into the janitor’s closet and then breaking off the lock,” Mom elbowed Dad. “Or doing it after your girlfriend sedates a skunk and throws it in that closet beforehand.”

“Yes, and you definitely shouldn’t convince an entire football team that they’ve been exposed to a deadly toxin and give them several bottles of Nair done up as a medicated shampoo.” Dad poked Mom in the ribs, and she giggled as he added, “Or get your boyfriend to paint himself in zombie makeup and pretend to be dead to...motivate them.”

As the two of them started to laugh and whisper, I realized that for all the stories I’d heard, there was still so much more I wanted to know about my parents. I also knew that they were trying to give me an out of some kind, that they’d seen how uncomfortable I was. I went up to bed, keeping my secret of being a parahuman to myself...for just a little bit longer.

I was probably just exhausted. I can try again in a few days. Maybe a week?

I still took more than a few minutes to drift off, as there were two big worries on my mind. First and foremost was that this particular blend of powers had been incredibly dangerous. Not only to my well being physically (especially if Aegis’ power really was doing stuff to my brain to protect it from chemicals), but also because powers I had thought to be safe weren’t

I hadn’t experienced any major memory loss, but a few things were a little fuzzy. The confusion had been real though, and if I’d kept it up much longer I might have really hurt myself. What if I had gone to the wrong house, or crossed the street without looking both ways? 

Maybe it’s time to start thinking about Power Testing...or at least to call Hobson again.

I was distracted with realizing that I could have hurt a lot of feelings, or started a fight with that brutal honesty I’d been showing. I’d been able to see emotions, sure, but my intuition had been completely gone! Thinking that the Wards were actually happy for me shaming them in front of tourists? Damn, I was lucky that the other people on the tour had been forbidden from video recording, or footage of me treating them like that might have gotten me sued or something.

Okay, lesson learned. When I see them again, I’ll just admit that it was anxiety and panic.

I mean, technically I only took the power to try and overcome my anxiety, right?

The other worry was a big task that I wanted to take care of before going back to school, and was drawing a blank on how to handle it. As I lay there, it suddenly struck me that I could actually talk to Mom, Dad, and George about this problem now. I mean, of course I was going to ask GstringGirl first, but if she was uncertain (or even if she wasn’t), I had other options now.

I had a nightmare that night, but I think I got off pretty light after the nightmare fuel day I’d had.

I wasn’t able to fall back asleep, but it was okay. I didn’t need to hide in dreams anymore.

Awake, I had my family to support me.

****************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg seems to have learned a valuable lesson about putting yourself out there, and the importance of relationships. Of course, he had help from the Wards, in a way. Speaking of the Wards, I wonder how their favorite, most lovable mentor is doing?

Chapter Text

[Dragon]

Despite the thousands of processes that I have running at any given moment, from tracking Endbringers to making sure that Narwhal stops putting so much salt on her eggs, the one I find myself checking the most is the entire suite of trackers related to Colin Wallis, Armsmaster. 

Not just blood pressure and general health, but I also monitor stress markers in his voice and facial expressions picked up by the sensors in his helmet camera. I look back on his recent meals, the time spent immobile (with a certain set of delta waves, so I know he’s actually getting REM Sleep), and even posts about him on PHO. He matters to me.

I’m sure that he’d bluster and complain if he knew that I was almost as much effort into his well being as I do when it comes to tracking the Simurgh, but one of these is a creature that mostly flies around causing havoc every 3 months and the other is one of my oldest and dearest friends. 

The latter is referring to Colin, of course, although there are threads on PHO suggesting that I’m in some way at least on speaking terms with Ziz. Six threads, in fact. Wait, no, someone just called Bagrat a word that I’ve warned her dozens of times not to use, so now it’s five threads. Three day ban, and while I have a few seconds to spare I also checked on a few of our ‘problem children’ (many of them over the age of twenty, despite their spelling and grammar). 

Indeed, it only takes mere moments for me to lock another dozen threads, hand out a series of warnings, ban three people, remove some images that looks an awful lot like pornography, and remind three people on thin ice that the ice is cracking fast. 

I may not run the boards, but I do try to help out with a few online identities that moderate it. In fact, I’m surprised that it takes almost as many processes to moderate a message board as it does to remind Colin to sleep regularly. Or eat. Neither of which he’s done in a while...

If I weren’t the most advanced Artificial Intelligence on the planet, as well as the first AI to trigger as a parahuman, I might ask for a day off. As it was, I found myself adding a few more processes to simulate whalesong and key lime pie for myself. 

Hmm, Colin’s blood pressure is unusually high, and he hasn’t moved in an hour. Well, it’s about time for me to visit him for a wellness check anyway. I wonder what is causing him such stress?

***

“Colin,” My voice filled his otherwise silent workshop, which already caused me some concern since it was rare that he didn’t at least have a lathe or welding torch going (often at the same time). He was wearing his helmet and parts of his armor, so I made a mental correction to ‘think’ of him as Armsmaster from here on, despite calling him Colin. We were friends enough that he allowed it. Still, I switched to Voice_Concern342 sound form and continued, “Are you busy?”

Armsmaster didn’t immediately answer me, and I soon discovered why. He was sitting in front of one of several monitors, staring at a glossy roll of paper in his hands. Despite how delicate it looked in his heavy armored gauntlets, he still held it without the slightest crinkle or tear. One wouldn’t have known that from his face, though, which looked conflicted and annoyed.

According to Workshop records, he’s been sitting there for...45 minutes.

“Colin?” I asked again, and this time he jumped slightly before turning to face my closest monitor entirely. “Are you okay?”

“What do you need?” His voice was rough, as if he hadn’t spoken all day, and I wondered if he had. Despite that, he seemed to realize who he was being rude to, and made an attempt to apologize. “I was...busy. I didn’t know it was you, Dragon.”

Well, that’s as close as I’ll get to an apology, I suppose.

“I couldn’t help but notice that your biometric data showed you getting pretty stressed out over something.” I let this worry show on my simulated face, and it deepened as I saw he was still looking at me even after several seconds. Normally it was impossible to get the man to focus on me alone for more than a few moments, and yet here he’d been staring for nearly ten seconds without a pencil in his hand or digital device in front of him. “Is everything okay? You seem like you have something on your mind...would you like to talk about it?”

“I suppose it can’t hurt to get a second opinion.” He sighed, putting the paper down and removing his helmet. Without it, I could see bags under his eyes. Colin barely got enough sleep as it was, but this looked like he’d been working himself more than usual. “It’s got me stumped.”

“Well, I’m always happy to help you, Colin.” I gave him a cheeky grin, adding, “I’m actually surprised you have time for me. The last few times I was in here for one of our meetings, you were so busy helping Kid Win, as well as the other Wards. You’ve become quite popular!”

I expected Colin to smile, nod, or perhaps even preen like I’d known other adult heroes to do. Instead, he put his head in his hands and took a deep breath. I gave him time, and eventually, he began to explain his conundrum.

“The past week, people have been kinder to me than ever before. They send me gifts, greet me in the halls, and ask for my autograph. Even on the streets, more people wave than ever.”

“Yes, I saw...you have quite the fanclub now.” His trash receptacle, large even by Tinker standards for the vast amount of waste that Tinkering often produced, was overflowing with posters, cards, gifts, flowers, chocolates, and stuffed animals. “Kid Win and the other Wards have been speaking very positively of you on PHO, and I understand that the PRT has had to designate an entire section of the mailroom just for the letters and packages being sent to you.”

“People are happy.” Colin nodded, glancing at one of his monitors and the graphs displayed on it. “Morale among the PRT is up 4% according to facial recognition scans, and crime is down 7% in Brockton Bay in the last week. All because I gave some advice, when it was warranted.”

His words were spoken as if they were terrible, when in fact they were amazing. All his life Colin had worked himself to the bone, trying to help people, fight crime, and stand as a shining beacon for Tinkers and heroes everywhere. But from his expression and tone you’d have thought that it was his worst nightmare come true. With a sigh, he looked at me.

“Dragon...I think there’s something wrong with me. My mistakes are being ignored, people are being far too kind to me, and all I can think about is how annoyed and disappointed I am.” He placed both hands on his knees, shaking his head slowly. “I’ve never been the best when it comes to matters of emotions, humanity, or friendship, so I’ll ask you...what should I do?”

He’s asking me about humanity and emotions? Is this a trick? Am I being punked?”

***

“Well...why don’t you explain one of the problems?” I really had no idea what was going on here. This honestly reminded me of the old Turing tests I used to take when I was...younger. “Just to put things in perspective, give me an example of one of the issues you’ve faced.”

“Sure, why not.” The Protectorate Tinker sighed, and tapped his keyboard again. He began to narrate, “Helmet Camera from December 17, 2010, 1923 hours. Crusader and Hookwolf.”

Without even looking at it, Colin began to narrate for me.

“While working to exhaust Crusader and prevent him from escaping, I made certain to let the fight play out and keep Hookwolf’s attention on me. He stood at the edge of the roof, and was forced to look down at me. His vision was severely limited, and one hand was on his hostage.”

I shifted the video to a slower speed, noting that he was talking fast, and he nodded approvingly before continuing.

“In the meantime, Battery was sneaking up behind him and Assault traveling through a nearby alley. At my signal, as I landed a decisive blow against Crusader, Battery struck.” On the video, the Changer suddenly staggered forward and fell off the roof. He released his hostage and jumped off the wall, landing in the street below. “Assault was already in motion, catching the hostage and moving her to safety. I secured Crusader, and the three of us were in hot pursuit as Hookwolf escaped down an alley.”

Hookwolf, barely visible in the corner of Armsmaster’s helmet camera, had already started to dash away as Armsmaster was starting to spray the downed Crusader. The hostage was weeping and clinging to Assault, Battery was on her way down, and there was the sound of shouting from the PRT as they charged in. Hookwolf was fully engulfed in shadows by the time Armsmaster had started to pursue him, the man knocking trash cans aside as he ran.

“He knocked a civilian aside as he ran, but I had seen that it wasn’t with his bladed form, and told the other two to continue running. There was no blood, so their injuries were minor.”

All three of the Protectorate heroes charged through the alley, pausing only as the slick ground made them lose their balance for a moment. Unfortunately, despite outnumbering the nazi parahuman, he’d had too much of a lead on them. They searched for five minutes, even joined by Velocity at one point, but were eventually forced to admit defeat.

“He got away.” Colin let out a long breath, staring down at his hand, frowning and rubbing at it as if it weren’t immaculately clean. “When we returned to the alley to render medical assistance, the injured party was gone. Worse, that loss of balance you may have noted was actually a shared experience of temporary dizziness. All three of us lost a few moments of time.”

“Lost time?” I was confused, until it dawned on me. “Wait, are you suggesting that the person Hookwolf attacked may have-”

“There was a sighting of an unknown teenage parahuman 3.6 blocks away from us several minutes later. They matched a description given to me by a PRT agent who saw such a person in the same alley we chased Hookwolf through. I think it was a...Trigger effect.”

“Hmm, you’re referring to the research showing that when a new parahuman triggers within a certain distance of existing parahumans, it can cause them to lose consciousness or feel weak?” I rewound the video, putting it into slow-motion and noting a message on his HUD that his blood pressure had dropped suddenly. “If that’s the case, then who was it? A new Ward?”

“Afterwards, I presented my report to Director Piggot and Deputy Director Renick. I pointed out my mistakes, made apologies, and offered to take administrative leave for my errors.” Colin ignored my question, returning to the video. His voice turned to disgust, “They refused to punish me, saying that I had been such a help to the Wards, and that Hookwolf had been more important. When I tried to protest, they dismissed me and suggested I take a day off.”

Only Colin could fall on his halberd to try and be a professional, and get mad when forgiven.

“As a member of the Protectorate, it’s my job to take criminals in to be tried, judged, and sentenced. But more than that, I need to protect people.” He shook his head again, gesturing at the screen as Piggot smiled and waved him off. “When I returned and found the civilian gone, then heard about the parahuman sighting, it occurred to me that they may have triggered because of my actions. That I put catching a criminal over saving a life.”

“He does have quite a bodycount, and that’s not even counting the people who have survived him with scars that will never fade.” At a thought, dozens...no, hundreds of crime scene photographs flashed through my databanks of the crimes committed by Hookwolf over the years. “Physical and mental scars, Colin.”

I was tempted to put them on screen, but didn’t want to exacerbate the situation. Still, it was hard to forget Vista after her own encounter, not that long ago. How the young woman’s microexpressions signaled fear, anger, and shame every time Hookwolf’s name was mentioned around her. I didn’t say anything else about the man’s crimes, though.

“Why did you want to catch Hookwolf so badly, Colin?” I hated to sound so judgemental, but this seemed to be what the conversation was leading towards. He felt he had failed, and his time with the Wards as of late had moved him ever-closer to putting the feelings of people ahead of the power of machinery. “What would catching Hookwolf have really gotten you?”

“Glory.” Colin snapped, slamming an armored fist into the worktable. He stopped, staring down at his fist, and then back up at me with a look of shock. “I wanted...glory. I wanted to arrest him, charge him, and send him away to the Birdcage. I wanted to prove myself.”

***

Therapy notes show that realizations are more powerful when the patient has them.

“Prove yourself?” I wanted to laugh. “Have you looked at yourself? Listing your accomplishments would take me all night, starting almost a decade ago.”

“That’s the problem.” He interrupted, gesturing at me. “A decade ago, I had so much promise, so much skill. I was on everyone’s mind and looked up to. But now? I’m practically a fossil, and there’s a younger, stronger replacement for me popping up almost monthly. I wanted to prove that I still had it! That I could still take down big threats without needing overwhelming force. That I wasn’t just a Brute because of my armor and weapons! That I had worth as a Tinker.”

“You have worth! You’re one of the top Tinker’s in the world, Colin. One of the top heroes!”

“Maybe today, but what about tomorrow? Next week? Next year?” He shook his head, pacing around the workshop. “You’re right about all those other reasons, Dragon, but I set an example that day not as a professional, uncompromising soldier of law...but as a jealous old man hunting for fame. Even now, my newfound appreciation only comes from my words, not my actions-”

“Bullshit! Your words are your actions! Do you have any idea how many people you’ve helped, how long your legacy will live because of the people you’ve given time to?” I was as angry at him as I was at myself, but didn’t change my voice. Despite that, he froze, and I wondered if it was because the words transcended tone. Or perhaps he just knew me so well. “You want to have a lasting effect on the people around you, on the world at large? Then get over yourself! There’s an entire world of people who need what you have. Knowledge. Experience. Time!”

“So what, just give up on being a hero and become a teacher? I can’t just abandon my responsibilities, or any of my-”

“Your responsibilities are to people! People who need you, and the man I’m looking at right now is of no use to anyone. They need someone who leads, someone who fights, and someone who protects. They don’t need a machine, they need a man who can inspire...like you! Someone with passion, with dreams, and who fought his way to the top and is reaching down to help them up.”

“But I can’t just-”

“Why were you looking at that poster earlier, Colin?” I changed the subject so quickly I think he got whiplash, and hoped that he didn’t ask why I knew that it was a poster. I’d gone through his workshop’s security records while we’d been talking, and had already seen what was on the poster. “Why was it so important to you? What made it have such an impact?”

I knew why, and think he did too. But in order for him to understand, he had to say it out loud.

***

With agonizing slowness, Colin crossed his workshop and gently unrolled the poster.

Fully spread out, I could see it was an Armsmaster poster, with him posing alongside his halberd and motorcycle. They sold for $20 in the PRT gift shop, and signed copies could be obtained for $70. It had been $30 for a signed copy a few months ago, but Armsmaster’s recent spike in popularity had led to an increase in price that nobody seemed to mind.

But this poster wasn’t signed by Armsmaster. Instead, it had a signature on it from each of the Wards, as well as a message of some kind.

Vista thanked him for trying. Gallant thanked him for saving the security guard. Clockblocker had a list of puns for him to use in his next fight with Hookwolf. Aegis appreciated him taking all Crusader’s attacks on himself. Even Shadow Stalker had gotten in on the act, telling him that she’d seen the video of him charging out of an alley and vaulting a car a hundred times.

There was one that Colin was staring at in particular, reading it over and over as he smiled.

Thanks for reminding me why I became a Ward, why I became a Tinker. So that someday, I could be a true hero like you. So I could help people.  -Kid Win

“Fine, you’re right. I guess I could try to be more...inspirational. To embrace the side of my job that I’ve generally shied away from.” It was the closest I’d ever heard him come to admitting he was wrong, and I made sure to save the sound file. “Maybe I could spend a little less time on myself, on my career, and more on the next generation. But how would I even do that beyond my current methods? Maybe I should just-”

He sighed, and I could almost feel the moment slipping away. This was the most introspective I’d ever seen Colin, and I was not going to let that slip away!

I dumped a dozen processes into waking up the PRT, sent urgent emails and messages related to moving an event to be a week earlier than originally planned. No room for disagreement, this had to happen. Even if they all said no, I’d do this myself !

“You know, I was going to be in Boston tomorrow as part of a Charity Drive...if you want I could swing by and pick you up?” I tried to sound nonchalant, watching his eyes flicker as his need for duty and rules battled with something else. Something new. “I’m sure there are a lot of fans who would love to see you. A lot of people look up to you. Maybe even a recently-triggered Tinker?”

“I’m not exactly kid-friendly, at the best of times.” He dithered, and I quickly brought up some video footage I had collected over the past few months. “What’s this?”

“You’re not the only hero who has had missteps, when it came to training or helping the younger generation.” The footage included Miss Militia’s attempt to pair Vista and Shadow Stalker, and had a montage of them arguing, fighting, or otherwise teasing each other. As it continued, though, they began to act more cordial. In the final few clips, they were watching a movie together, laughing, and teaming up to beat the male Wards in a training exercise. “But they stuck to it, and it paid off in ways that nobody ever could have seen coming.”

Not even me! I ran psychological profiles on them both. How did Miss Militia know it would work?

He grimaced, watching footage of Velocity at a charity event, as well as Battery mediating one of the frequent arguments between Gallant and Aegis. Finally, Colin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He nodded once, and looked at me with determination in his gaze.

“You know what? I’ll put in the request right now. They’re always bugging me to relax more, and it would be the first time I’ve ever used Vacation Days for anything besides recovery or Tinker Fugues.” He returned to his seat, laughing. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. Thanks for the advice, Dragon.”

“Anytime, Colin.”

It warmed my nonexistent heart to hear him laugh, and to see him sending off an email (which I only skimmed) to Miss Militia. She was incredibly happy to see that he was taking some time off, and promised to take over his duties for a few days. She had been spending a lot more time with the Wards as of late anyway, nearly taking over his duties there entirely.

I was glad that I wasn’t the only one proud of Colin, nor the only one who enjoyed seeing efforts to help others pay off. Despite that, I kept watching him for a few extra minutes via his workshop’s cameras. Something about being there, just in case he needed me, felt right. 

Helping him like this had felt right. It made me feel...human.

There were a thousand other tasks waiting for me in the world and a million problems. With every day that went by, the number increased steadily and there was never enough ME to go around. Sacrifices had to be made, for the good of the world.

The world had Endbringers and villains, all with dark plans they couldn’t help but talk about on easily-hackable social media and mail accounts. 

It had heroes in need of help and new parahumans in need of support, even if it was just a kind voice on a hotline that they thought was a human. 

It had trolls on PHO and new posters who didn’t know any better (despite having clicked the box that they had indeed read the rules), or needed guidance so that they could escape their pain. 

All of these needed a process or two, and there were never enough processes to spare for everything. It was the sad truth that no matter how hard I tried, I would never have enough processes to spare for all the terrible things and people across the planet...or to help everyone who needed someone like me in their corner.

But I would always have a process to spare for Colin.

*************************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Well, we’ve seen how Greg and his family worked out some of their problems, and things are looking up! Perhaps he should consider how a well-placed apology or gift can smooth the gears of forgiveness? 

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: even after Greg apologizes to his parents, there’s still an even bigger problem...

Me: Coming up with a good cape name?

GstringGirl: Oh no, I already have a list of like, a hundred of those. I had a lot of free time.

GstringGirl: No, I’m talking about him making up with his friend. 

Me: What friend are you talk...oh no, no no no. This isn’t even a conversation.

GstringGirl: he needs to apologize to that backpack girl. he totally screwed that up!

Me: [Octopus_running_away_nope.gif]

GstringGirl: come on, he seemed really sorry, and he’s already said that he wanted to

GstringGirl: not sure if you realize this, but literally every other chapter mentions her

GstringGirl: So either Greg has a crush on her, or his story just needs more female characters

Me: I think...maybe he used to. But I’m starting to wonder if he even knows what romance is

GstringGirl: yeah, him and every other dude in the world. that’s like, teenage 101.

GstringGirl: but he still needs to apologize

Me: Yeah, thanks. I’m just not sure how he can come back from that.

Me: He spurned her warning, made fun of her, and then she was right. He messed up big time.

GstringGirl: well, you know what girls, and 99% of humans love?

GstringGirl: presents.

Me: He’d still have to give it to her. Why wouldn’t she just throw it back in his face?

GstringGirl: easy. give it to her in secret. actually, that gives me an idea...

GstringGirl: he has an alarm clock and some paper, right?

***

[Saturday, Jan 01, 2011...Happy New Year!] 

The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, and I was creeping down the sidewalk in a neighborhood that wasn’t my own.

On the plus side, it was very unlikely that anyone would catch me, because most people were probably sleeping off their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Or just sleeping for normal reasons, because it was early as hell and most people were on holiday.

Or I’m just feeling paranoid because I’m using this to avoid talking to someone.

True, I was going through this whole rigmarole because despite my recent advances in bravery, responsibility, and honesty, all of that had been with family and an online friend. This was someone different. 

This was Taylor Hebert.

The same girl I’d hung out with when we were younger, and struck up a pseudo-friendship with via our of a shared love of cape culture. The one I tried to befriend so hard that I’d driven her away from my intense creepiness, and then spent over a year ignoring as she was bullied. The girl who had reached out to me despite all that, and I’d thanked her with an insult.

No, I’ve already been down that road before. I was wrong. I’m going to make this right.

Well, maybe “make this right” was an overestimation. I was going to put out an olive branch, at the very least. I knew that my very presence seemed to annoy her at school, and that this apology was coming over a week after my most recent social faux pas, so I was being careful. 

Rather than just pop up out of nowhere, I was going to leave her a gift. I’d bought it too late to mail it properly, so I was hand-delivering something that I knew she would love. Then, after she saw it and was feeling good, she’d open it up and find a note inside with my apology note. 

For once my note wasn’t full of excuses, reasons for my actions, or anything else...no, it was just a short couple of sentences saying that I was sorry, that she had been right, and that I hoped she enjoyed the gift. No mention of being a friend, of our past together, or any of the specifics of Emma’s involvement in this. 

Now, as I gazed upon her house in the dim light, I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to calm down. All I had to do was drop the gift off in front of her door, and that was it. If she ever spoke to me again, then it would be her choice. Most important of all, I could finally stop beating myself up over this because I was trying to be better. 

Taking a deep breath, I carefully climbed the front steps of her home, and-

...tripped over a loose wooden step. 

I fell and landed elbow-first on her front stoop, before my hands could whip out and catch me. My gift went flying and slapped into her front door, but the wrapping paper was barely dented. Swearing under my breath, I rolled over and closed my eyes, holding my elbow as it throbbed.

A minute passed, and I got my breathing under control as my blood pounded in my ears. My arm was settling from burning pain into just plain pain, but otherwise I seemed okay. I carefully opened my eyes, ready to get up, but there was someone standing over me.

“You the one banging on my front door, kid?” A tired man stood over me, peering at me owlishly. He was tall and thin, had dark hair that was receding, and thick glasses. “Who are you?”

So much for stealth.

***

“I’m...Greg.” I carefully got to my feet, making sure to only use my uninjured arm. I gingerly lifted my sleeve, hissing as I saw the mark on my right elbow. That was going to take a few days to heal. “Sorry about the noise, I tripped on the-”

“Front step, yeah. Been meaning to fix that, sorry. I’m Danny.” He held out a hand, then gave a small smile as I reached out and shook it with my left hand. He motioned towards the front door. “C’mon, let’s get some ice on that before it bruises too bad. My treat.”

“Actually, I should really head home.” I started to walk away, but he firmly took my shoulder and turned me back around. The man may have been thin, but he was deceptively strong, and I found myself following his lead.

“Nah, this happened on my property, and if I let one of my daughter’s friends go home injured, I’d be a pretty crappy Dad.” He paused at that, deep in thought for some reason, and it finally clicked that he was Taylor’s Dad, Danny Hebert. He opened the door and ushered me inside as he grabbed my gift. “Or maybe you’re not her friend at all, huh?”

“That’s...um...that is…” I trailed off, realizing that I was now in the house of the very girl I had been trying to avoid seeing in person until after the gift was given. I looked around carefully, but only a few lights were on and I didn’t hear anyone else in the house. “Is she...uh...home?”

“Nah, she spent the night at a friend’s place.” Danny looked like he wanted to smile, but again the expression only lasted a few seconds before he got pensive again. He closed and locked the door, then led me to a chair at a small dinner table and sat me down. He began to hunt around in the kitchen before adding, “Actually, I was wondering if you were here to ask her out. She told me about a boy named Allen she met at a party, so she might already have someone.”

“What?” I hadn’t meant to shout it, but Danny only replied with laughter. “No...I...I mean…”

“Ah, it’s okay, Greg. Your secret is safe with me.” He came out of the kitchen with a plastic baggie full of ice in one hand and my gift in the other. He shook the latter object, then set it down on the table as he took a seat as well. Handing the ice to me, he grinned, “A normal friend doesn’t come out here before sunup with a gift. That’s more of a pining boyfriend thing. Trust me, I know all about that from my own...experiences in college.”

“That’s not what I was-” I cut myself off as the ice came in contact with my elbow, and I took a few moments to notice that despite the funny (to him) subject matter, Danny was looking kind of sad again. Wanting to change the subject, I cleared my throat. “So, why are you up so early? Also, you said Taylor was at her friend’s for a sleepover? Which friend?”

He got up suddenly, and I was afraid I had offended him. But instead of throwing me out of his house he merely wandered into the kitchen, where I heard the fridge open and the sound of clinking bottles. He came back out with a pair of them, sliding one in front of me and sitting back down. Both were a brand of tea-flavored soda I’d never seen anyone but Taylor enjoy, and he held his up as if toasting something.

Not wanting to ruin the mood, I clinked mine against his and we both took a sip.

Then we both made faces, because tea soda was apparently an acquired taste. I was glad I had only taken a small sip, because otherwise his answer to my earlier question would have resulted in the world’s greatest spit-take.

“Emma Barnes. Taylor’s with some other girls, spending the night together at Emma’s house.” Danny sighed, then held up a hand as I started to explain how magnificently stupid it was to trust Emma. “She told me about the way the two of them had been at odds for a year. How Emma had teased her, and she went off to do her own thing, and how...they drifted apart. Both told me all about it last week.”

That’s the tamest version of “she bullied my daughter for a year” I’ve ever heard. What the hell?

“Look, I know we just met, but I have to tell you...Emma’s not-”

“I know, Greg.” Danny paused, taking another sip, and now I was pretty sure the sour look on his face wasn’t just from the soda. “I might have been busy at work a lot, but even I couldn’t miss the way Taylor would close up when I mentioned Emma. How that girl was never at our house anymore. I wrote it off as high school drama, at the time, but now...”

“Then why are you letting her do this? It’s obviously just the setup for another prank!” I quickly drank the rest of my soda, if only to punish myself for yelling at the guy who had helped me.

“It’s not that easy, Greg.” Danny got up, heading to the kitchen and returning with another pair of bottles. “You’re young, but someday you’ll understand that the reason there are so many bad parents in the world is because being nobody’s perfect. Being absent, being controlling, being abusive...there are a lot of ways to be terrible. I can’t force her to live her life how I want her to.”

“But this isn’t controlling, it’s making her see that she’s making a mistake!”

“Greg. Stop.” Danny’s voice was barely louder than mine, but it still stopped me enough that he had time to take another sip. “Taylor says they’re friends again. They’ve spent the last two weeks hanging out, catching up, and it’s just like old times. She even made some other friends, that Sophia girl and a quiet boy named Allen. What if I told her to break it off, and I was wrong?”

“You’re not wrong, though.” I almost laughed, wondering if I should tell him about the way Emma tried to get me murdered by a nazi a few weeks back. What Sophia had done to Taylor. Would any of it get through to him? “She’s bad news, she’s a bully, and she’s trying to-”

“Trying to pull one over on my daughter?” Danny interrupted me, giving something that looked like a cross between a smile and a grimace. “You think I don’t suspect it? People don’t just change like that, then change back. Trust me, I know it firsthand, from my job and life.”

“So why are you just letting Taylor keep seeing her? You know better!”

Danny paused at that, looking at a picture hanging nearby...of himself and a beautiful woman.

“My wife once said that the worst part about being young is that you’re not older. Taylor doesn’t have my knowledge, my experience, or my wariness.” He shook his head, tapping a fingernail against his bottle. “She wants so badly to believe that Emma can change, that her oldest friend is back in her life. I think it’s a mistake, but if I just break up their relationship then what’ll that do to ours? Much as her getting hurt scares me, I’ve gotta let her learn at her own pace.”

“So, what, she can learn that her bully is still a bully?” I was incredulous, and it must have shown because Danny’s fist tightened on his knee. “How does that make this any better?”

“Because I’m not just ignoring her. Taylor and I had a talk. She agreed to be wary, despite her hopefulness. Meanwhile, I’m watching her like a hawk, being supportive, but also realistic.” He grinned, then gestured at me. “Plus, even if you’re not her boyfriend, it seems like you really care about Taylor. So I know you’ll have her back if anything happens, right?”

I nodded, seeing that he was trusting me, reaching out, asking for my help.

“Then that’s one more arrow in my quiver. My daughter is careful, I’m supporting her, and her not-boyfriend is going to help her out.” He smiled, as if the matter was settled. “So on that note, let’s talk about why you’re really here. Why the stealth mission to drop the gift off like this? You piss her off and want to apologize in secret?”

“Uh…” I covered up my surprise with another sip, and Danny smiled at me. “The thing is…”

If it weren’t for my own powers, I would think this guy was a Thinker like Lisa! What the heck?

“Haha, I think that’s a yes! Sorry kid, but one of the good things about getting old is that you learn a thing or two about ulterior motives.” He slapped at his knee, chortling as I fought to cover up my blush. Danny finally let out a little sigh, and motioned at me. “So, what did you do? Cheat off her test? Try to ask her out and flub it?”

“For someone who claims to have accepted that I’m not dating his daughter, you seem to like bringing it up.” I shot back, then took a long drink as he shrugged with a ‘guilty’ expression on his face. I sighed, shaking my head. “Besides, you wouldn’t want me dating her anyway...I’d be terrible for her. For anyone, I think.”

“Hey!” Danny’s hand slapped down on the table like a gunshot, and I looked up to see a stern face glaring at me. His green eyes bored into mine, and he lifted his hand before pointing a finger at me. “None of that self-pity bullshit. Stopping that was one of my New Year’s Resolutions, and it’s already done wonders for me. Now buck up, take a breath, and tell me what’s got you so down.”

Well, Taylor’s going to read my note and probably tell him tonight anyway, so…

“Taylor tried to warn me that some bullies were going to prank me, I made fun of her because I wanted them to like me, then I nearly got stabbed when she turned out to be right.” I said it all in a long rush of words, pausing at the end to add, “I want to apologize, but I’ve screwed up at talking to her before, so I hid a note in the gift so she’d be happy by the time she got to it.”

Danny sat there for several seconds, staring at me, then took off his glasses and cleaned them.

When he had finished, he rubbed his eyes, slapped his cheeks, and leaned closer.

“Okay, tell me again, but slower this time.”

***

“Wow, sounds like you really shit the bed, Greg.” Danny had broken out some old girl scout cookies and we were both letting stale, minty chocolate take the edge off. “This is still salvageable though. Trust me, I’ve been in your shoes, and it worked out okay.”

I had covered everything from Emma’s fake invite (and my peer pressured teasing of his daughter) to my first escape from Knife Guy. Hearing about her text messages, seeing them on my phone and what they entailed, had gotten Danny pretty mad. Still, he was nodding now.

“How could this possibly be salvageable? I treated her so badly, ignored her for a year, and-” I cut myself off, seeing Danny giving me a flat stare. “Sorry, I just...what can I do? How do you know what this is like, anyway?”

“Back when I was in college, I was...not a great guy.” Danny smiled wryly, wiping his hands on his shirt. “My Dad was a shitty guy, and I spent 18 years picking up all his bad habits. So when I went to college, I was angry, loved to argue, and hated to be told I was wrong.”

Sounds kind of like me, on PHO. I lied, hated to be wrong, and was always picking fights.

“One night, I saw some drunk jerk telling a woman off for hitting on his girlfriend, and he ended up slapping her. I had a class with her, had a few beers in me, and figured I’d save the day. Shouted the asshole down, goaded him into coming after me, and then took him down in one punch!” Danny stared at his soda for what seemed like a minute, then sighed and set it down. “She wasn’t impressed. Told me to stay the hell away from her. Called me a drunk, a monster...”

“So, what did you do?” Even a socially awkward dork like me could tell that at a certain point Danny had started telling this story more to himself than me. “Did you apologize like I am?”

“No, apologizing just made her mad because I had no idea what I was apologizing for. So after a lot of soul-searching...well, I listened to her.” He sat up a bit straighter, squaring his shoulders and turning to face me fully. “I quit drinking, asked the school’s counselor for help, and cleaned up. It was hard at first, especially since I kept seeing her in class and trying to tell her how it was going. I wanted her to know how much she was helping me, but she just ignored me.”

“Why? Wouldn’t she have wanted to know that you were getting better? Because of her?”

“Greg, your problem is that you know what you’re apologizing for, but not why it matters . Sneaking out here with a gift, leaving a note...it’s all theater. You said that you made the decision to improve weeks ago!” Danny shook his head, getting up and taking his bottles to the kitchen. I grabbed mine and joined him. “The threat of Taylor rejecting you shouldn’t stop that.  Apologies aren’t about impressing people or getting a reaction. Someone judging you shouldn’t make you quit, just like other people shouldn’t be the reason you start. It’s all on you.”

“Sort of like New Year’s Resolutions, huh?” I smiled at him, watching as he grudgingly nodded. Now that we’d both shared painful stories, I felt like I had earned that. “People who want to change can do so anytime, but they wait until the first of the new year to start trying.”

“Okay, fair enough, you got me.” Danny chuckled, putting our empty bottles in a large plastic bag and tying it off. I couldn’t help but notice that there were two other bags next to it, both full. “In my defense, I only started these because of the past few days. My family has always been my motivation...and I’d do anything for my daughter. It helped that my coworkers saw how worried I’d been, forced it out of me, and made me take my first ‘vacation’ in years.”

It hadn’t escaped my notice how clean some of the house was, how full the trashbags were, how cracked his hands were, or all the new cleaning products on the counter. The look on Danny’s face, determined but tired, reminded me of the look I’d seen in the mirror, when I started trying to reboot my own life. When I’d spent days cleaning and working...

“Hey, you never finished your story.” I asked, already pretty sure I knew the ending. If nothing else, it made him smile as he started cleaning up the table with me. “How did things end up between you and that woman who inspired you? Did she ever meet the new you?”

“Oh, we ran into each other months later, and caught up. She introduced me to her girlfriend, and the three of us became friends.” Danny smiled, and then added, “But she transferred to another school at the end of the year. Haven’t seen her since.” 

“Aw, that’s too-”

“Her ex-girlfriend was still my friend, though. We really hit it off, got married while still in college.” His gaze wandered back to the picture. “We had a beautiful daughter together.”

I tried to help him clean up, but he told me he’d be at it all day, and that I should head out.

Before leaving, I borrowed some scissors from Danny and used them to carefully peel the tape off my gift. With the utmost care, I opened it up and removed the note I’d written. Danny seemed to approve, and it had been thanks to him that I’d realized the note was unimportant.

Taylor would still get her gift, she’d still be happy, and I would still work to improve. If she noticed, that was great. If not, then trying to flaunt it was just a dumb way to get attention. I wasn’t just doing this for her, after all...even if she had helped inspire it.

I’ll just say “I’m Sorry” to her at school. I should have done that instead of this convoluted plan.

A few minutes later, I was on my way home. My elbow was still sore, but I felt like my step was a little lighter. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all...

***

At home, I fretted over my last goal for the day.

There was another apology I had been putting off for quite a while. Actually, it was a whole lot of apologies. About...twelve million, at last count.

My Posting Ban on the ParaHumans Online message boards had ended almost a week ago, but I’d been so worried about writing the perfect apology for the way I’d acted. Something kind, contrite, funny, poignant, serious...it had been stumping me all week!

Now, though, after a morning with Danny I had the perfect thing to post. Short, simple, and to the point. Because I wasn’t doing it to show off, or be funny...I was doing it to make a statement. This was a line in the sand for myself, and if the tide washed it away, I’d still know it was there!

With a shaking finger, I hit the Post button.

I tapped F5.

I tapped F5.

I tapped F5.

I looked at the screen, and saw that the number of people reading my new Topic was up to 10...and rising by a few people every time I hit F5. I refreshed the page again. It was up to 30 people. Again. It was up to 120 people. A notification came up that I had...three responses.

Normally I’d have spent all day sitting there, defending myself and explaining things.

But now, after talking to Danny? After the events of the last week? No.

There were better ways I could spend the day. Better people to spend it with.

“Hey, um...Mom, Dad?” I approached my parents as they cleaned up from their breakfast. “There are only a few days left of my Break...and I was wondering if you wanted to maybe...spend the day together? As a family?” 

Five minutes later, we were in the car, trying to decide where to go first.

***

Not a lot of kids would probably say that they’d had a fun day with their parents. Those kids obviously never spent a day out on the town with Sandra and Stanley Veder.

Mom somehow knew that the Museum was open and had several new exhibits, so we went there first. Several hours were passed wandering around, talking about what we saw, and I even got to play tour guide on their new Cape Culture exhibit. 

From there we went to a bar and grill near Dad’s practice. They brewed their own root beer, one of my favorite all-time drinks, and Dad and I spent more time trying the different flavors than actually eating the food. The several minutes of burping that followed got glares from Mom...but only until she let out a huge one from Dad’s coffee-flavored root beer that made us all laugh.

Wanting to burn off our food, we went to the Boardwalk after that. The weather had warmed up, so we used the outdoor ice-skating rink. Dad challenged me to a race, and we spent a good chunk of time trying our best not to fall on our butts as Mom gently skated loops around us. We took a rest on the benches, then wandered around the Boardwalk, just looking in shops.

As night fell, we found ourselves at a restaurant that was a bit fancier than I was used to, though both parents assured me that I’d like it. I was just happy to be there, and we had an amazing meal. It was during dessert, though, that something truly interesting happened.

Just as the waiter was pouring some fresh coffee for Mom, I noticed another trying to explain to a couple that they were booked solid. The man and woman looked perturbed, with him explaining that they had to eat soon, because they always ate at this time. It was strange. 

But what had really caught my eye was that both were parahumans.

As incredibly tempted as I was to copy their powers, I held back. Instead, after a whispered conversation with Mom and Dad, we told the waiter to go ahead and seat the two at our table...since we were going to be leaving soon anyway. Both were very thankful, and so my parents and I were joined by Geoff and Dorothy.

Light conversation followed, after the two ordered their food. They told us that they had a very specific dinner that they ate at a very specific time, as though that was the most normal thing in the world, and they appreciated our help. We told them it was no trouble, and started chatting.

They were incredibly boring people, I soon learned, with the most interesting thing about them being that they owned a cat. Instead, they talked about their friend Kayden, and how the reason they were eating out was because they were helping her take care of her step-son and baby daughter. The addition of extra people in their household had depleted their food supply, and so here they were. Both worried that they wouldn’t be able to get used to the change in their habits.

My parents and I did the best we could to assuage their worries, telling a variety of stories about our own experiences in that regard. Dad told shaggy dog stories, Mom talked about recipes that had gone wrong but still turned out great, and I told a few (edited) versions of my adventures. It seemed to help them, but the way they smiled at us was making me uncomfortable.

As I was putting on my coat to leave, I looked at their powers…

A horrifying monster I can’t even look at, a healing power, a sharp insect-like blur, and...

...a body that turns into gas and back, as well as some kind of...acid touch or breath?

Oh shit, 90% sure that these two are Night and Fog. Nope. Nope! I’m out!

The healing power might have been useful, sure, but the personalities attached to them were far too dangerous. In a crowded restaurant, near my parents, with people like them around...it was a disaster just begging to happen. 

Also, as I had previously noted...Night and goddamn Fog! I found myself staring at them with a half-smile on my face as they pretended to smile back. 

Creepy. It’s like staring into the faces of a pair of serial killers.

So we left, after one last wave at both. Despite that, I didn’t stop checking behind me until we were in the car and on our way home. 

When I got home, I didn’t even look at PHO. I just went to bed.

It had been a great day.

***********************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Get your pencils, get your books, it’s time to go back to school, Greg! Time to show off those sweet new clothes, new attitude, new powers (not that there are any parahumans at Winslow), and all sorts of perfectly safe educational experiences.

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: Look, I love all the character development Greg is getting, but...we need a change.

Me: Aren’t you the one who said we needed support networks, cool clothes, etc?

GstringGirl: Yeah, but there’s only so much of that you can do before it starts to drag.

GstringGirl: I mean, he doesn’t need to start fighting Lung again, but maybe...hmmm.

Me: Hey, by the way, sorry if this sounds strange, but your typing has really improved.

GstringGirl: Aw, thanks for noticing! I guess all this chatting with you has been good practice.

Me: Well, glad to know I’m good for something besides fiction you keep relentlessly attacking.

GstringGirl: Is this about that chapter I cut in half?

GstringGirl: Because if so, I just want to reiterate, that big monologue was just navel-gazing.

GstringGirl: It was also super cracky. I mean, who’d believe Greg’s Mom met Alexandria?

Me: I think at a certain point, Greg just learned not to question her on that anymore.

Me: Plus, she works in a library (as in Library of Alexandria), so is it really that hard to believe?

GstringGirl: ...yes. Yes it is completely hard to believe. It’s just a name!

GstringGirl: What, do you think that Hatchet Face actually has a hatchet for a face?

Me: Yes. Why wouldn’t he?

GstringGirl: Like, if someone’s name was Chairface, it’s not because their face is a chair!

Me: ...unless it is because their face is a chair. 

Me: How did we get here? What even is this conversation anymore?

GstringGirl: Oh, I think you were trying to distract me from making things more exciting.

GstringGirl: Nice try, by the way. Too bad I can see the chat log. A for effort, though.

Me: Fine, I’ll start working on something. I’m expecting some real-world inspiration soon.

Me: School starts back up pretty soon. That’s going to be all kind of...fun.

GstringGirl: Just keep your head down, and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Me: Yeah, you’re right. What’s the worst that can happen?

GstringGirl: ...dude. Dude! Are you serious right now? Why would you say that?

Me: Oops.

***

[Monday, January 3, 2011]

As I got off Winslow’s clunky bus, I ignored the whispers and laughter of the kids behind me. 

Compared to the self-doubt and worry I grappled with last week, this is nothing.

With that in mind, the fact that I had survived much worse than some immature teens, I was able to keep a smile on my face. I sped up, heading towards the front courtyard of the school itself, fallen leaves that had escaped collection months earlier crunching under my feet. 

All I had to do was to find Taylor, apologize, and then protect her from Em-

Well, that was easy. She’s right over there...in a big crowd of girls...with Emma. Shit.

Both were smiling and talking, laughing as though the last two years had been naught but a bad dream. It was still weird to see, especially after talking to her dad about how we were all just waiting for Emma to spring whatever dumb prank she was trying to pull.

At the same time, I did have to admit that seeing Taylor lifted my spirits. Her clothes were a little more colorful than usual (green hoodie and blue jeans), her long hair streaming behind her, and she had a small smile on her face. Most important of all, she was wearing my gift and it looked like she was really happy with it.

Firmly strapped over her shoulders was the Urban Travelpack XP Backpack! With strong canvas and straps that could hold over a hundred pounds, a lockable zipper compartment, water and stain-resistant coating, and a sternum strap to keep it from being ripped off by branches (or bullies). Plus, it came in a really nice green color, one of the few colors I’d seen Taylor wear besides brown or gray.

I’d seen it in the camping store and instantly realized it was the perfect way to apologize, as well as symbolizing one of the things that I’d screwed up with her. I had kicked the whole thing off by making fun of her backpack and its terrible state, so giving her a better one (with a two year warranty and cleaning certificate) seemed like a great way to start making up for it.

Still, I wanted to talk to her...I wanted to actually apologize for real. I wasn’t going to claim that the backpack had come from me or anything else. I just wanted to say I was sorry. After that, I could finally let that wound start healing. Unfortunately, Emma and her friends made that tough.

Rather than trying to push through them I just found a bike rack to lean on and wait for them to break up. Classes started in about twenty minutes, according to the big clock over the door, so I had some time.

I did my best to pretend I was looking at something in my backpack, and watched them as subtly as I could. As I stood there, I saw how Taylor kept acting like she wanted to head inside...but then each time Emma would reel her back in. Taylor looked so nervous that I knew something was up, and that firmed my resolve to keep an eye on them. 

In the past, Emma and her girls had delayed Taylor between classes, then came to class late and blamed Taylor for making them late. Was this the same thing, or a more complex play? It seemed way too small for that. Maybe they wanted to get her alone and...

No, wait. Am I overthinking this? Am I just trying to find reasons to swoop in and rescue Taylor? 

I had to think about this objectively, and that meant I needed to actually question my own biases. Not exactly easy, so I closed my eyes and tried to think. The world faded away, and I tried to focus on not ignoring my feelings for once.

Why was I really doing this, worrying about her so much? 

Was it because I was jealous of Emma for having made up with Taylor like I had wanted? Was it because I couldn’t believe that that bully and her friends had all just made up with Taylor out of nowhere? Was I lonely, wanting to make a big gesture, despite what Danny had told me before?

No, none of that. I genuinely felt worried about the wellbeing of someone else, and wanted to make sure they were okay. It was the same thing I would have done if they’d been hitting or teasing any student, and I was sick of seeing this happen. It was what I had always wanted others to do for me...so why should it be any different now?

They might make fun of me, or worse...but I promised Danny I’d look out for her. I owe her.

Opening my eyes and smiling to myself, I pushed off the bike rack and took a deep breath. This was a new year, a new Greg, and a new future ahead for me. I was going to be different, and the past few days had shown me that a lot of good could come from that. All I had to do was-

Wait....where the heck did they all go?

Most of the girls had left, and now only a few remained with a bunch of football players. The only one I recognized was Allen, someone I had been halfway friendly with before he joined the football team. Now he stood out because he was the only one with a book, was one of only two black kids in the crowd, and most important of all...he was talking to Taylor about something. Both were laughing, and she was soon dragged off by an annoyed Emma.

Allen noticed me looking at him and started to mouth words at me. I focused on him, but wasn’t getting it...and eventually he just shrugged and went back to his book. As my gaze slid off him, I saw that the girls were moving quickly towards the school...but not the front doors?

For some reason they were going around to the side of the school, the far entrance. Then they stopped, and I saw that Emma had started talking loudly to someone. She was angry, making me move towards them...and then stop when I realized her target wasn’t Taylor. It was Sophia?

My eyes locked onto Sophia, and suddenly I was the angry one. Before I could even stop myself I was walking towards their group again, as my mind raced back a few days.

Back to the day when I had encountered the Wards, and seen their powers. One of which belonged to Shadow Stalker...an Angry Cloud, I recalled.

The same power I saw in Sophia Hess .

***

Knowing Sophia and Shadow Stalker were the same person pissed me off.

One of the biggest bullies in the school is a Ward. She’s been tormenting us for over a year.

I had started off just walking towards her, but at a certain point it had evolved from a walk into a stalk. I felt my fists clenching, and had to remind myself that she was still stronger, tougher, and more experienced than me. Hitting her would feel good, but then she’d just beat me up.

But just because I couldn’t hurt her physically didn’t mean I couldn’t try to do it verbally. I slowed as I approached, taking Sophia in and measuring her up. For a very brief moment I considered grabbing her power, but there were so many reasons not to do so. Not only would the power be weaker than hers, but her god-awful personality would make me a raging asshole.

That raging asshole personality was on full display, as Sophia placed her hand over her phone and shouted, “I have to take this, Emma. It’s work! Can’t you handle anything on your own?”

“Fine, but hurry the hell up. We’re going to be late, and I need…” She trailed off, glancing at Taylor and then smiling a big, fake smile. She snapped at Sophia, “Don’t miss class!”

As Emma dragged a confused Taylor off, I found myself sharing that feeling. Rather than even acknowledge me, Sophia just pushed past, talking into her phone to someone called “Missy.” 

Is she trying to escape? Well, too bad. I’m not letting this go! Time for an interrogation.

I stalked after her as she went around the other side of the school from the direction Emma had gone. I should have followed the bigger mass of bullies, but was just so angry that someone who pretended to be a hero was such a giant piece of shit. 

I actually checked my core for a moment, but there were no powers in there...this was all Greg. I was going to confront her...force Emma’s plan out of her. I would make her talk!

Unfortunately, she was on the track team for a reason, and I soon realized she was actually jogging around the school while talking on her phone. Even when ‘Missy’ hung up on her, Sophia kept going, making another call, and then a third one that made her speed up yet again. I refused to give up, though, and kept stealthily following her around Winslow’s outer edge.

Eventually she ran out of steam, luckily. I found her leaning against a wall and staring down at her phone, gasping for breath. She didn’t even look up at my approach, and I noticed with some annoyance that it had taken almost a full revolution around the school for her to finish.

“Sophia, what the fuck is wrong with you?” I tried to keep my voice steady, but I’m pretty sure some anger got through. “What are you helping Emma do? Tell me, or...or else!”

“Who the...Veder?” She looked at me, confused. Her eyes were red and had bags under them, but I didn’t care. For all I knew she’d been up late watching movies or planning a murder with Emma, and I didn’t have time to waste. She groaned, trying to shoo me away. “I don’t have time for this right now. I have to...stay put. Go away or I’m gonna have to...just go away, please?”

“Never!” I grabbed her shoulder and tried to make her look at me. “We’re putting an end to this!”

“Lay off!” She shoved me away and I nearly fell over. “Go away, Veder. I’m staying here.”

“No!” I felt my fists clench. “I don’t get you, Hess! You have so much, but waste it all!”

“What? What the hell does that even mean?” She squinted at me, looking confused. “Are you on new anxiety drugs or something?”

“You’re strong, pretty, tough, confident, and never back down...but you take all that power you have and use it to bully people. You treat them like shit so you feel better about yourself, or whatever bullshit reason you have. You could help people, but instead you hurt them! Why?”

 

“I’m...you stupid…” Sophia was speechless, looking at me as though I’d asked her out ( shit, I called her pretty ) and staring at me for a moment before sighing. “I’ve made mistakes. I’m trying to be better. Hell, I’ll probably never see you again after today. How about that? Good enough?”

“No, of course it’s not good enough .” I mimicked her, and considered shoving her again to try and get her to take me seriously. “If I was as strong as you are, I’d help people! I’d stop bullies, stand up to jerks, and I’d-”

“Bullshit! You don’t need to be strong to do any of that!” She snapped at me, suddenly angry. She swept forward, knocking my arm aside and poking me in the chest with her finger. “Anyone can be strong, but only weak people make excuses about lacking something. You want to fight? Fight! You want to help people? Help people! But don’t fucking pretend to be weak.”

“The hell are you talking about?” I staggered backwards, and she grimaced. “I’m just...Greg.”

“That so? Well Greg , you just walked up to the baddest bitch in school and called her out. All to help someone.” She narrowed her eyes, as if looking right through me. “Didn’t need power, strength, or anything else. All you needed was Greg . So, stop fucking whining.”

I started to argue, but realized that on some level she was right. I had changed in the last few weeks, and until I was surrounded by other teenagers I hadn’t known how much.

I’m stronger. I’m more confident. I’m powerful. I want to help people...so why not just do it?

“Oh, by the way, Greg.” She had leaned against the wall again, as if she wasn’t worried about missing class. I was even more surprised when she warned me, “Emma’s planning to either get you beat or suspended today. Soon as she finishes with Taylor, she’s gonna sic Julia on you. If you were smart, you’d skip school today. By tomorrow, she’ll be dealt with. Just go home.”

I considered her words for a whole three seconds before reaching out and copying her power. I had no idea what was with her, but if she wasn’t going to be a hero...then I’d do it myself. 

I copied Angry Cloud into my core, and started to feel the need to move ...to do . To fight .

Maybe it was Sophia’s personality, already pressing down on my brain, but I just sneered at her and ran off towards the school entrance. Sure, Julia and Emma’s wrath had scared me before...but now I had better things to do than be afraid.

I refuse to give Sophia credit for the pep-talk....even if it did help.

***

Knowing Emma, she’d probably do something right around the bell, to take advantage of the confusion and noise. Whatever it was, it had to be terrible, especially if she’d been pretending to befriend Taylor all this time. If Winslow cared one bit about its students, then this would be easy to deal with. All I needed was one authority figure worth a damn...so why not go to the top?

With only five minutes until the bell, I made a beeline for the Principal’s Office and barged right in. Blackwell was in there, a napkin around her neck as she ate what looked like a very delicious quiche. Her sunken eyes, narrow face, and bowl cut reminded me of my prior appearance, before I got a normal sleep schedule (and a dragon burned my hair off).

“Mr. Veder! What the hell is wrong with you?” She stood, slamming both hands on either side of her meal, glaring at me as she pointed at the door. “Get out of here now and I won’t give you a week of detention!”

“You can give me detention later, Taylor needs us now! Emma and her friends are about to do something really bad to her. Come on!” I gestured at the door, turning and starting to leave. When she didn’t immediately follow, I looked back and saw her sitting back down. I threw my hands up in the air, “What’s wrong with you? She’s about to get bullied, beat, or-”

“I don’t have time for this, Mr. Veder. Emma Barnes was in here just a few minutes ago, her friend Taylor waiting outside. Emma explained that Taylor had been going through a tough time, and that they were friends again. Please don’t tell stories. You should blah blah blah...”

Blackwell started to give me another pointless lecture, but I had already tuned her out. I was wasting time, so I did the smart thing.

I left her lazy ass there, and headed out the door.

Okay, Blackwell is out, now what? Maybe check the classroom, make sure I’m not...nope.

Looking in the classroom only heightened my worries. No Taylor, no Emma, no Madison, and no Julia. I didn’t even bother to tell a teacher, they’d just pass it off to Blackwell, and she’d ignore it.

The halls were stuffed with students, so I decided to try talking to someone useful .

9-1-1, what is your emergency?

“Yes, I’m at Winslow High School, and a girl I know, Taylor Hebert, is about to get hurt.”

...are you threatening her?

“What? No! I mean that a bunch of bullies are about to hurt her! She needs help!”

Sir, this line is for emergencies only. If she’s being bullied, contact the school administration.

“I just did, they won’t do anything! Can’t you guys send some cops or something?”

I can’t send Brockton Bay Police out for ‘bullying’ sir. We handle real-

“Okay, fine! You want a real emergency? I just saw some E88 fighting the ABB!”

Sir-

“Gangs! ABB! E88! Criminal Parahumans! Get over here and do your fucking jobs!”

I hung up, and looked up at a clock, just as the bell rang. I screamed at it, feeling my aggression start to boil over. A few students scuttled away from me, but I was thinking how there were too many possibilities, too little time, too much-

Okay, I need to calm down. Lean against the wall, take a breath, try to think this through.

The halls began to clear, my heart rate slowed, and I strained my brain for an idea. Maybe it was because the ears were in the same part of the body as the brain, but I felt like my hearing got sharper as well. I heard two very distinct noises.

To my left, far away, there was a metallic rattling noise and someone’s voice. A janitor? Heating ducts? Maybe some kid who had forgotten their locker combo over the break?

To my right, and much closer, was Emma’s voice. My eyes snapped open and I began to jog in that direction, rounding the corner to see her walking away from me.

If anyone would know where Taylor is, it’s Emma! This is one bully who isn’t stronger than me!

“-just keep it locked until I get there. Julia’s looking for him now, and he wasn’t in class. With any luck my beautiful voice will be enough.” Emma was loudly talking to someone on the phone, walking down the hall. I started to trail after her, waiting until the last few students were gone, and then speeding up. By the time she reached the door to the girl’s bathroom, I was ready.

As Emma raised a hand towards the door, I swept in and grabbed her shoulders. With less effort than I had expected, I turned her to face me and slammed her against the wall. Her eyes went wide and she dropped her phone.

“Veder, what the hell are-”

“No, you shut your lying mouth!” I leaned in so close I could smell her perfume, feeling her push back against me with strength a lot more feeble than I’d expected. Maybe it was my adrenaline, or perhaps her surprise. “Tell me where the hell Taylor is. What did you do to her, damn it?”

“Let go of me, you asshole!” She tried to kick me, but it barely stung my shin. Some part of me knew how bad this looked, the creepy kid holding a hot redhead against a wall and shouting at her, but I was too angry. All I knew was that Taylor wasn’t in class, she wasn’t in the halls, and here was Emma being her usual sneaky self. “Julia! Help!”

“Tell me!” I shook her again, but wasn’t ready to actually hit her. Something about that just felt wrong, and even the part of me that was Sophia knew that hitting someone as weak as Emma was probably a bad idea. Unfortunately, my indecision gave her time to break loose, and she thrust herself forward enough to shove me back a few feet.

She slapped me, her left hand taking me full in the cheek, and I nearly ran face-first into the bathroom door. I pushed off it, noting that it was locked, and got ready to go at her again.

Wait, I hear footsteps inside the bathroom...and also...behind me!

Someone slammed into me from behind, a hand on the back of my head, and smashed my face into the bathroom door. I felt as if I’d been struck in the face with burning iron, and choked.

I managed to turn, trying to look behind me, but I still felt it as the entire left side of my face was both numb and on fire at the same time. I was tasting metal and blood, and...had I lost a tooth?

“You’re a hard guy to find, Veder.” It was Julia North’s voice, and she hadn’t let go of my head yet. Her other hand grabbed my belt, and she pressed me against the door as it finally opened. Madison was there, staring at my ruined face, smiling. “Thanks for being so loud.”

Julia practically lifted and carried me into the girl’s bathroom, and I was still reeling from having my face smashed. I tried to use Sophia’s powers, but couldn’t...focus! The last thing I heard before the door’s lock snapped shut was Emma’s haughty voice.

“Let’s have a talk, Veder.”

***

Julia threw me almost immediately, and I slid for a few feet before bumping my already-sore noggin against a wall. I wanted to just stay down, but Sophia’s personality was making me feel like I had to keep moving. With help from the wall, I carefully climbed to my feet.

“What the hell...are you doing?” It was hard to talk, and I tasted blood in my mouth. I opened my eyes and looked around carefully, taking it all in. Emma and Madison sat on the sinks to my left, and Julia leaned on the wall partition blocking the door ahead. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Emma suddenly sniffled, raising a hand and covering her mouth.

“I-I don’t know why Veder came after me, Principal Blackwell.” Emma faked a scared voice. “First he tried to feel me up at a clothing store a week back, I think Madison has a video of it. Then Julia stopped him from molesting me in the hall. And...and then he burst into the girl’s bathroom, and we had to defend ourselves. We had to hit him, he just kept coming!”

“So, what, you got bored messing with Taylor, and now you’ve moved on to me?” Was that what all this was? Had she been luring me here? Hell, was Julia just roaming the halls before, looking for me? “Why pretend to be her friend? Are you that much of a sociopath?”

“Eh, it served a purpose. I was going to ignore her for a few weeks, but this was a fun acting experiment.” Emma shrugged as if I’d just asked why she was wearing sandals instead of sneakers. “Now her own father won’t believe her if she tattles about today. Kind of like what’ll happen to you, if you try to tell Blackwell what really happened. You’ve got nothing, dork.”

Shit, so that’s why she did that. Poisoned our credibility, made it so nobody would believe us.  

“Back to my first question, what’s wrong with you? Why do all this just to mess with Taylor?”

Emma gasped and fanned at her face. “Wow, you really have a hard-on for my friend Taylor.”

“Friend?” I interrupted, giving a bark of laughter and then wincing as it stung my lips. “People like you don’t have friends. You use people, hurt them for fun...you’re just a bully. You can tell yourself whatever lies you want, but you’ll never be anything more than a scared, weak, abusive, power-obsessed little-”

“Okay, I think we’ve reached the end of the question and answer session, now.” Emma clapped her hands, and Julia smiled as Madison laughed. “I planned to have Sophia do this, since she skipped out on putting Hebert in her locker, but...Julia? Teach him a lesson.”

Wait, that metallic noise...they put Taylor in her locker. I’m such an idiot! Why didn’t I go left?

“Eh, her loss.” Julia laughed, starting to crack her knuckles happily. “Time to die, Veder.”

“You’ll never get away with this,” I said, waving my hands at her. I was panicking, grasping at straws as Julia seemed to loom over me. “Good will always triumph over evil!”

“You’ve been waiting your whole life to say that haven’t you?” Emma shook her head. “Wow.”

“Oh, well you were just coming off as some kind of dime-store supervillain, so I figured I’d take the other side.” I couldn’t concentrate enough to use Sophia’s powers. “I mean, you’ve got Taylor in a deathtrap, you’re trying to sic your henchwoman on me, you have your pet Madison over there, and you keep monologuing about your evil plan…”

“Enough.” Emma facepalmed. “Julia, hurt him. Before he makes us all as dumb as he is.”

“Finally!” Julia grinned at me and popped her neck. “Been meaning to stomp you for a long-”

There was a loud snapping noise from the entrance, and we all froze. Had someone unlocked the door? Was I about to be saved by…

Crap...no, not her. Why couldn’t it have been a kindly janitor or something?

“Hey, what did I miss?” Sophia stepped around the corner, strolling towards the sinks as if she was just here to wash her hands. “Wow, what happened to Veder?”

“Sophia!” Emma looked angry, and started digging through her purse. “You didn’t put any trash in the locker, and then skipped out so Julia and I had to shove her in ourselves! Have you forgotten how much you have to lose if...wait, what are you doing? Don’t touch-”

“Hey, Emma?” Sophia asked, putting a hand on Emma’s shoulder. “Know what I’ve got to lose?”

As the redhead started to answer, Sophia punched her in the stomach.

“Nothing.”

************************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: There were a lot of moving parts leading up to all this. Not just Interlude 3, but hints about Emma, Taylor, and even the Wards. Luckily, the next chapter should help get into all the non-Greg stuff that was going on. Plenty of people making desperate (and stupid) choices, as bad plans fall apart and Backup Plans come online!

Chapter Text

[Months Ago]

“Why do I have to do this again? She’s been here 3 weeks and every time you tell me to try this it blows up in my face!” Missy whined, turning towards Miss Militia and hoping the Protectorate Hero would have a better answer this time. The woman was supposed to be her mentor! 

“If your tactics aren’t working, try to use a different strategy.” Miss Militia replied, gesturing at the door to what had once been Missy’s favorite part of the PRT…before their newest and jerkiest member had come along. “Maybe look at things from her point of view, and see if her own tactics will work against her. Never assume your first idea is perfect...have a backup plan.”

Missy had come down to the PRT Gym on her second week as a Ward, and rather than being talked down to she was lifted up. It was a place where her small size meant that she had so much potential, where everyone was always willing to spot her or give her advice. But now...

Now it had been infected, like everything else in her life, by Sophia. Where once Missy was the star, now she always had second billing. There was a new hero on everyone’s mind, and despite her murderous past and terrible attitude, it seemed like all anyone could do was talk about how much faster, stronger, and cooler she was than Missy.

Well, maybe they don’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how it feels! 

Missy gritted her teeth and walked over to the teenager, waiting patiently to be noticed. Sophia just kept running on the treadmill. Finally, Missy asked, “Sophia, will you...please spar with me?”

“No.” The other girl barely glanced at Missy, “I know what’s going on here. Militia told you to come crawling to me so we can be better teammates. Well, I have better things to do than make pretend friends. I’m here to do my time, beat some criminals, and then move on with my life.”

“Yeah, I guess I’d probably beat you anyway, so it’s not worth my time. All you can do is run.”

“Oooo, real nice try there, short stuff.” Sophia rolled her eyes. “Mommy teach you that one? I’m not dumb enough to let a little twerp like you piss me off that easily. Try harder.”

Fine, she wants me to think of this from Sophia’s point of view? Let’s try being an asshole!

“Try harder? Okay.” Missy removed most of the space between herself and the emergency stop button on the treadmill, and mashed it hard. “How’s this?”

It wasn’t like Sophia went flying, as if this was some sort of cartoon. Still, the treadmill slowed tremendously, and she was forced to shift into her Shadow State to avoid smashing into the wall. Moments later, she came right back out, and slid to a halt a few feet away from Missy.

“That was...you little…” Sophia was breathing hard, her eyes wide, and she leaned in close. “You want some combat training? Fine, see how you like this, you little shit!”

When Miss Militia looked in on them a few minutes later, she was happy to see they were sparring. It took her several minutes to realize that the problem was that they weren’t stopping .

They did seem to be having fun, though.

***

[Sunday, Dec 19, 2010]

“Oh come on, dude. That’s her best joke yet, and it got you good.” Clockblocker said, leading his armored friend into the Wards Common Room. Both had just completed a patrol, and been unable to get permission to help with Lung’s burning warehouse. Not that they could have done much, admittedly. “You should reward Shadow Stalker, not punish her.”

Being friends with the boy, annoyance was something Gallant was familiar with. In both his costumed and civilian lives, Dennis was irreverent, crude, and disrespectful. Though he did his job and had an amazing power, everything from his jokes to his pranks to his name caused no small amount of annoyance to everyone. But he didn’t care!

“She has to learn that there are consequences, Clock, and before you say it... yes I know I’m not actually the Wards leader or deputy leader.” Gallant stomped in after his friend, then shook his head. “But the people who are in charge never do more than give lip service!”

Triumph was the leader of the Wards, and Aegis his deputy, the latter being mere weeks away from taking over the role. But both brought Gallant such dismay from the way they handled the situation with Shadow Stalker. She was disrespectful, punishment never seemed to phase her, she regularly insulted her teammates, and worst of all...she never seemed to learn her lesson. 

“Whatever dude, I guess if that’s the way you wanna spend your time, it’s your life. Maybe you should give her some lip service of your own?” Clockblocker shrugged, removing his full-face mask as soon as the door was shut. He wiggled his eyebrows at Gallant. “Personally, I think this whole Tsundere thing you have going on with her is adorable. I totally ship you guys.” 

Ignoring the remark, Gallant made his way towards the Console room and tried to clear his mind. He thought about things that brought him happiness . His girlfriend, Victoria was one of them. Another was the feeling he got when helping people in need. He also got great joy from being praised for his actions...something he knew would come when he became Wards leader. 

His lecture plan queued up in his mind, Gallant opened the door. Laughter poured out.

“Hahaha, stop, stop!” Sophia’s voice called out, laughing and slapping something. “I’m gonna pee my pants! He actually included socks as a smell? Why? What movie was it for?”

“I have no idea!” Missy’s voice replied, and she let out a burst of her own giggles. Gallant rounded the corner to see both of the Wards laughing up a storm, sitting next to each other and smiling. “But Chris said that Smell-o-vision was just too good an idea not to try, and Armsmaster accidentally approved it, so…”

Both noticed Gallant and trailed off, waiting for his lecture...but he was just staring at them.

Gallant’s power to see emotions as auras showed him only happiness from both. It was the sort of thing he saw on friends, or people enjoying a movie, good book, or concert. A far cry from the normally angry Ward and her frequent target of teasing that he was used to. 

When did this happen? Have they been hiding it the entire time? Will my lecture...hurt this?

“Shadow Stalker, about your conduct tonight…” Gallant trailed off, seeing a small amount of shame appear in Sophia’s aura, before Vista elbowed her and it faded. Wasn’t this what he had wanted? He cleared his throat, finishing lamely with his backup plan as he left. “Don’t let it happen again. Good work otherwise, both of you.”

Annoyance, dismay, happiness...all emotions he knew well. But confusion? Not so much.

***

[Sunday, January 2, 2011...PRT Gym]

Most people were in bed right now, but Sophia and Missy weren’t most people.

Sophia was in the gym tonight because she had too much on her mind to sleep, and knew her mother still had a lot of booze left over from New Year’s. Rather than deal with Jackie Hess eventually reminding Sophia that she was the reason Paula and Terry were gone (usually through words and thrown bottles) the Ward had come out here to punch a bag into submission. 

But there were too many problems to just punch away. Tomorrow Sophia had to wake up, go to school, and help Emma ruin two lives... 

Yes, it was two lives now. Damned Veder!

Greg Veder, that freaking idiot, had apparently pissed Emma off so much over the break that now she had added him to her plans for tomorrow. Sophia and Julia had until the end of the day to beat the shit out of him. For Julia, failure meant a week of silent treatment. For Emma, it meant going to Blackwell and getting the boy suspended on trumped up charges. For Sophia…

Well, a few hours ago Emma had reminded her to go to bed early. Her text had even included the words, “Don’t forget how much you have to lose by not getting to school on time.”

As long as she has those pictures of me, I can’t take any chances. Luckily, I have a plan!

Annoyed, she had answered a call from Missy and unloaded on the girl a little, then felt bad about it. Somehow that turned into an invitation to join her at the PRT Gym for a workout, and now it was a sleepover as well? Well, whatever, it wasn’t like Missy was as bad as the others. 

“So, what’s your take on that kid who hid in the bathroom?” Missy asked, catching her breath as her run ended. Glancing at Sophia, she saw her pause as well. “Gallant said his emotions were all over the place, and then flatlined. Think maybe he Triggered from being nervous?”

“Nah, I’m not sure being nervous can Trigger someone, otherwise we’d have a lot more teenage heroes.” Sophia had been surprised to see Veder that day, much less have him approach her. She had just been joking around with Missy, passing the time, and then he appeared and just let them both have it. The Wards had mentioned him having a panic attack, but unless he took his meds in the bathroom and they immediately made him a shitlord, something was up. “Probably worried about measuring up to his heroes, and then remembered that one was Clockblocker.”

“Hey, he’s not that bad!” Missy started to defend her friend. “I know he can be kind of-”

“Does he still rest his elbow on your head sometimes?” Sophia put a finger to her chin, pretending to think. “Also, isn’t he the one who used his powers to freeze that bowl of ice cream before offering it to you last week, and made a GIF of you trying to attack it with a spoon?”

Wordlessly, Missy flipped Sophia off, and the other girl put the back of her hand to her forehead and pretended to swoon, gasping about how ‘scandalous’ it was. The two burst into laughter, and headed towards the locker room, mutually bringing their workout to a close.

As they changed and showered, Sophia smiled to herself. A few years back she’d have been thinking that Veder had been a predator all along, pretending to be prey...but she’d put such thoughts out of her head a while back. No, for all intents and purposes it appeared as though Veder had somehow toughened up. 

Shit, that might throw off my counter-plan. Maybe I can catch him before school, scare him off?

“Hello, Earth to Sophia!” Sophia looked up just in time to take Missy’s wet towel to the face. She pulled it off to see the giggling girl running out of the locker room. “If being a hero doesn’t work, you could always become a towel rack!”

Grinning, she shifted to her Shadow form and gave chase.

***

In the Common Room, Missy began channel surfing and Sophia found her mind wandering.

Tomorrow has so many things that can go wrong. So many unknowns. I wonder if...

“Hey Missy, I’ve got a hypothetical question for you, interested?”

“Kiss Alexandria, Marry Legend, and Kill Eidolon.”

“No! Not that, I was…” Sophia trailed off, then cocked her head. “Wait, why in that order?”

“Alexandria’s hot, and if I’m gonna kiss a lady why not have it be the strongest one in the world?” Missy counted off one finger, an innocent smile on her face making it hard to tell if she was joking. “Legend is like, the nicest hero ever, so I’d want to come home to that every day. Finally, I’ve heard that without his mask, Eidolon is a total uggo.”

“Eh, I can’t fault that logic.” Sophia nodded sagely. She took a breath, and then tried again. “But really, there’s something bugging me and I’d...appreciate your input. Or whatever.”

“Wow, way to convince me.” She grinned, rolling her eyes at the girl. “Yeah, fine. Or whatever.”

“Heh, yeah. So, here’s the situation.” Sophia took a deep breath, trying to contextualize her situation. “Your parents get kidnapped by a villain, and the villain holds them hostage. Tells you that you have to commit a crime, or else something bad will happen. What do you do?”

“Tell the PRT.” Missy’s answer was immediate.

“But, they have your parents!” Sophia turned to stare at the smaller girl, surprised to see not a grin on her face...but rather a serious stare. She grimaced, then waved a hand. “Okay, same situation, but...but they’re going to unmask you!”

“Same. Answer.” Missy clapped her hands with each word. “Tell. The. PRT.”

“But what if there’s a deadman’s switch?” Sophia started throwing out her hands. “Even if you catch her, take her phone away, lock it all down, you could lose everything. Everything !”

“They’re called the authorities for a reason, dummy.” Missy cocked her head at Sophia, wondering where all this was coming from. “I know my parents would want me to call the cops!”

“Haven’t you ever seen any movie ever? First thing the criminals say is ‘ don’t call the cops !’” 

“Sophia, the reason criminals tell people not to call the cops is because they’re desperate, stupid, and there are barely any of them. The PRT are a huge organization with money, knowledge, and experience. Not calling them is just dumb.” She laughed, surprised the other girl was putting this much effort into an argument. “Fine, so how would you do it?”

“Sabotage and counter-blackmail.” Sophia steepled her fingers, as though she were revealing some master plan. In fact, she was actually just telling the other girl her real plan. “You sabotage their efforts, like removing the more dangerous parts of their dastardly plan.”

“What, like taking the bullets out of their gun?”

“Eh, more like replacing them with rubber bullets.” Sophia shrugged. It was a good analogue for how she’d dumped all the trash Madison had given her ( seriously, tampons? ). By the time Emma noticed there was no trash in the locker, Sophia would already have enough to shut the girl down. “Next, you show up at the last moment, make sure she has to do the crime herself!”

“Okay, I guess I can see that having a psychological effect. You force them to get blood on their hands, and also maybe throw them off their game. But why still let it happen? Even rubber bullets can still hurt someone...remember that story Miss Militia told us?”

“Yeah, I remember. It’s all leading up to the endgame...a video camera at the scene of the crime. Get her on film committing the same crimes she wanted you to do.” She’d already put a nanny camera stuffed bear in Taylor’s locker the night before. Its motion sensor would activate when the locker door opened. “Add in texts of her planning it, and some voice recordings, and you can blackmail her right back. Mutual blackmail destruction, limited suffering for the victim.”

Wish there was a way that Taylor didn’t have to go in the locker...but it’s only for a few minutes.

All she had to do was hang back, let Emma be the one to shove Taylor in the locker, and then confront the redhead with the video, sound, and all her text messages. Emma would see that outing Sophia would bring her down as well, and then she...she...wait...

No, I can’t let Missy get in my head. This is a perfect plan! She’s just being Missy. That’s all.

“Um...Sophia? The real Missy waved at her. “Kinda drifted off there. Also, I can’t help but notice you started saying she and her there...is this a real thing? Are you being-”

“What? No, I was just getting into the scenario.” Sophia gave a fake laugh she’d perfected after over a year of pretending to find Emma’s jokes and antics funny. “Besides, if this really was a thing, I could totally handle it myself. In case you’ve forgotten, I was a vigilante for two years.”

“Fine, but if it really does happen...do me a favor and call me. Think of me as your backup plan!” Missy started to smile, raising an eyebrow at the other Ward. “Because no offense, the last time you said you could handle something yourself, you got arrested for being a vigilante and forced to join the Wards. Your plans kinda suck.”

Sophia seriously considered that option for a moment, then nailed Missy with a pillow.

One soft beating later, and they were fiddling with an oversized remote control, trying to figure out if Chris had actually unlocked R-rated movies as Dennis claimed. It turned out that he had.

A bowl of popcorn and Breakneck 2: Spinal Boogaloo later, both decided to call it a night.

Missy made Sophia promise to sneak her into theaters to see the sequel in a month.

Sophia was up all night going over her plan, timing it out.

Missy’s comments had made her worry, a little.

About what she would lose.

***

[Taylor]

“Wow, you look really tired, Sophia.”

It took a moment for her new “friend” to respond, but Taylor held back from pushing. It had been enough of a surprise to have Emma suddenly start being nice again, but Sophia as well? If that didn’t just scream “trap,” then nothing would. 

To just pull a Jekyll & Hyde change, hours after tricking Veder into teasing her, was totally on-brand for Emma...especially after she bragged so much about being an actress. But Sophia didn’t have an acting bone in her body. Taylor had always been able to tell what she was going to do, from her face and body language. She was pretending to be nice, and it was creepy. 

Still, Taylor would have been lying if she said that she hadn’t enjoyed the past two weeks. Sleepovers, shopping trips, long talks both online and IRL about good times and bad...it really had been a dream come true. She’d even met people outside of Emma’s circle of friends, like Allen, and her Dad had started spending less time at work. Was it worth the inherent danger?

“I’m fine, just a lot on my mind.” Sophia finally muttered, and Taylor leaned in closer. She saw the track star had huge bags under her eyes, and wondered what had her so worried. It must have been something huge. “Just a puzzle.”

“Really, like what? Two heads are better than one.”

“It was a hypothetical I was going through about parahumans.” Taylor practically felt her eyes bug out, and blushed as Sophia smirked at her. They all knew that books and parahumans were subjects that got her going, especially after they’d had a week to help her out of her shell. It was an unspoken detail that Emma and the others had been the ones to put her into that shell in the first place.“You know a lot about that stuff, I guess. Want to help me workshop it?”

“Sure, I’d love to help!” Sophia grimaced at that, for some reason, and started to look around.

Emma, Madison, and Julia were way up at the front of the bus, Taylor noticed, and couldn’t help but wonder why Sophia stared at them for a long moment before talking. Maybe she was trying to ask them all individually? Finally, she sighed and started to weave a scenario of a villain blackmailing a hero, threatening unmasking, deadman’s switches, and...double blackmail?

“The whole double blackmail thing is dumb, no offense.” Taylor smiled nervously, flinching back as Sophia glared at her. She held up a hand, mimicking a gun, and explained, “Blackmail is like a gun. It lets you force people to do things. But if I’m pointing a gun at you, and you suddenly pull one on me...why would either of us drop our guns?”

“Well, because...because you don’t want to get shot?” Sophia looked confused, now.

“Sure, nobody wants to get shot, or blackmailed, but they don’t cancel each other out.” Taylor shrugged, pointing her ‘gun’ at Sophia and gesturing for her to do the same. “If I drop mine, you might shoot me, and vice versa. Just because one of us drops, doesn’t mean the other has to. Especially if you’re dealing with criminals...they don’t exactly have high moral fiber or logic.”

“Wait, so...but how else would you get out of it without losing everything you hold dear?”

“Call the police or PRT, obviously. I mean, it’s a boring answer, but also the best one. That, or ask teammates and friends.” Taylor patted Sophia’s shoulder, then started to gather her bag as the bus came to a stop. “Besides, if the hero gave in once, what reason would the villain have to let them go after just one crime? They’d still have the leverage, and they’re still evil.” 

Sophia was silent as they got off the bus, trailing along behind the others as they walked towards the school. Even as Emma started to drag them towards the far doors, she was just staring down at her phone instead of responding to anyone.

Just as they reached the doors, though, Sophia got into an argument with Emma and ran off. She was talking on her phone, so maybe it was that part-time job she was always talking about?

For some reason, Greg Veder ran after her. That was strange on its face. Almost as strange as Emma dragging her off to announce to Blackwell that they were friends again.

Minutes later, as Julia punched Taylor in the face and Emma locked her in her own locker, Taylor felt sad. She felt betrayed. She felt disappointed. She even felt a little scared. 

More than anything, she felt angry...an emotion she had always shied away from before.

But now? It gave her strength to fight back, to slam against the locker door. 

She wasn’t going to just give up or cry, or wait for rescue.

She’d rescue herself .

***

[Missy]

“Hello?” Missy lifted her phone, hanging back from her classmates.  “Sophia? What’s up?”

“It wasn’t a hypothetical, okay?” Sophia sounded like she was running, and Missy’s senses immediately went on high alert. She walked around to the side of the school, avoiding the other students and finding some privacy. “I’m being blackmailed with my cape ID, my plan is fucked, and Mom’s in danger. If I run, a phone call ends me, and...I’ll lose everything. Everyone. I...I...”

Goddamn vigilantes. I knew something was up last night. Winslow is...North of here? Yeah.

“Stay put, I’m on my way.” Missy turned and started to walk away from the school, slipping out the gate. “I’ll be there in ten minutes, just hold on for now. Stall for time.”

“What? No!” Sophia nearly screamed at the girl, but that didn’t make her pause for a moment. She was already moving past the school buses and ditching her backpack behind one of their wheels. She paused to grab a domino mask out of it, and then took off running. “You can’t come here! I need you to go get my mom, take her to the PRT, do anything but come-”

“Tough shit!” Missy heard her voice distort for a moment, as she decreased the distance between her and a nearby rooftop, then leaped onto it. She angrily reflected that if it weren’t for Sophia practicing roof hopping with her a month back, she’d have been running on the sidewalk. “I’m not just going to let you get unmasked or hurt because you were too stupid to ask for help until the last moment. Fuck that!”

“I can’t let you get dragged down with me, Missy.” Sophia’s tone made the preteen stop, and she took a moment to put her mask on. It was hard to get it on, because tears were welling up in her eyes at what Sophia was saying. “It’s already too late for me, and you can’t just-”

“No! I don’t care!” Missy wiped at her face, trying to keep a brave front for Sophia and failing. She smashed the mask in place and started running again, her voice echoing as she used her powers again. “I’m coming to Winslow to save your stupid ass. So stay put and get saved all fucking ready!”

“Missy-”

“I’m not going to abandon a teammate. I’m not going to abandon a friend!” Missy choked, then growled. “If you didn’t want help, you never would’ve called in the first place, dumbass!”

“I didn’t-”

Missy hung up.

***

[Sophia]

After Missy had hung up, Sophia panicked. She tried to call her mom, but it went straight to voicemail. Her mind kept coming back to Missy, and what the girl was sacrificing for someone she barely knew. All for some dumb “friendship” bullshit.

She’s going to charge in, ruin her Wards career, probably unmask herself. That idiot! Shit!

She couldn’t let that happen, and did something even more desperate than calling Missy.

Sophia had called Miss Militia, praying the woman who called herself her mentor could help.

The Protectorate hero had been very disappointed. Her voice had been cold, direct, and without even a hint of her normal patience. She asked for a sitrep.

Over the next few minutes Sophia had been babbling, afraid to stop moving, trying to explain as much as she could about Emma, the bullying, the blackmail, her mother being in danger-

How her plan was supposed to work, how it would fail, how Missy was coming to help, and-

She tried to explain herself, to make excuses, to say anything at all that would make up for- 

She tried to tell Miss Militia how she couldn’t ask for help. Because everyone kept telling her she was a failure. Gallant, Armsmaster, Piggot, even her mother, they all said she was-

She said she’d been so afraid that one more screw-up, one more mistake...and she’d lose everything . Jail, Juvie, the Birdcage...she had just wanted to prove that she wasn’t-

“Stop.” Miss Militia’s voice had cut her like a knife. “ I will call the Director. We will handle this. You will be punished. Harshly. Do not run. Do not help. Stay. Put .”

Then she hung up.

So Sophia was leaning against the wall. 

Staying put .

Letting the PRT clean up her mess, protect her mother, and take her off to jail.

...but then that idiot Greg Veder came along.

He wouldn’t leave Sophia alone, so she was forced to shove him. To warn him. To scare him.

He ran off, and she leaned against the wall again. 

She had done her part, and now at least one of Emma’s plans for the day was going to fail entirely. By the time he got back to school, Emma would be gone and... 

Wait. That look on his face. That idiot!

It suddenly hit Sophia that she had accidentally given the boy a pep-talk. He hadn’t been running away from danger, he’d been running towards it. 

Someone else is going to get hurt because of me. No. No!

Growling, she pushed herself off the wall and headed into Winslow to save his dumb ass.

I’m already going to jail, guess it can’t hurt to disobey one last order.

***

Sophia was on the wrong side of the school to rescue Taylor, but told herself that she’d only need a few minutes to take Emma and Julia down. There was no trash in the locker, so Taylor would be fine for a few minutes...she hoped.

Despite that, she was too late, turning the corner just in time to see (and hear) Julia smash Veder face-first into the wall. Emma laughed, and the two shoved the boy into the bathroom. By the time Sophia made it there, the door was already shut...and locked.

She spent a moment thinking about getting help, going outside and coming in the window, or even waiting for the PRT...

In the end, she realized she’d end the day either in jail or unmasked...maybe even both. 

Nothing left to lose.

So she shrugged and just went through the door. Sophia heard Emma telling Julia to beat Greg up. She unlocked the door, loudly, and rounded the corner as they all went quiet.

Veder looked terrible, his face a mess of blood and bruises. He stared at her. Idiot.

Sophia walked towards Emma, smiling like an old friend would.

Then she hit Emma, like a hero would hit a villain.

It felt great to be a hero, one final time.

**************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg’s battle continues! When all hope is lost, he tries a very dangerous, painful, and...extremely effective plan for beating the bullies. The only problem is, he might not live to tell the tale (he probably will). 

Chapter Text

GstringGirl: So, I know Greg’s back to school soon. What’s the plan?

Me: I mean, school is boring enough in real life, I’m not sure even fanfiction can make it fun.

GstringGirl: Not that, dummy. I mean how’s he going to deal with that red headed bitch?

GstringGirl: You know, the girl who basically sent him to get shanked by nazis!

GstringGirl: Could he grab a power and beat up the bullies?

Me: Using parahuman powers on ordinary people, even bitches, is still a Bad Thing.

GstringGirl: Gaaah! Why did you have to write a heroic fanfic? Such a wet blanket!

Me: Besides, she’s just another bully. Greg’s been dealing with them his whole life.

Me: He has newfound confidence, a strong family bond, and most important of all…

GstringGirl: The knowledge that he has superpowers and they’re all basic bitches?

Me: Exactly. Bullies may be terrible, but compared to Lung? Nothing.

GstringGirl: Why do people even do that anyway? Bully others?

Me: Oh man, that’s a long conversation. I’ve been reading up on that a lot lately.

Me: To write the characters, I mean. Obviously.

Me: Anyway, it can be anything from learned behavior to peer pressure to a power trip...

GstringGirl: To just being an asshole who treats people different from them like monsters?

Me: Yeah. Hey, sorry if I’m overstepping, but…”monsters?” Do you have bully problems?

GstringGirl: Not as such, but I just see a lot of people who treat others badly for dumb reasons.

GstringGirl: Like Case 53s. They get so much crap online. Memes, jokes, death threats...

Me: Yeah, it’s sickening.

GstringGirl: What? The Case 53s are sickening?

Me: What? No! God, no. The way people treat them is sickening. Calling them “Monster Capes.”

Me: They’re people too, except life dealt them a bad hand. Yet, despite that, they keep going.

Me: Some try to be heroes, and help people in need. They don’t give up.

Me: We should be putting them on posters and books, but nobody’s brave enough I guess...

GstringGirl: ...

GstringGirl: ...wow.

Me: Sorry, I get kind of heated by that sort of thing. Didn’t mean to spam you there.

GstringGirl: Nah, it’s cool. Hey, thanks.

Me: For what? Ah, crap, I gotta go!

GstringGirl: It’s nothing. Good luck at school. Maybe punch a bully for me?

Me: No promises.

<END OF CHAT HISTORY>

***

[Monday, January 3, 2011]

My fight with Julia was not going well, and neither of us had even thrown a punch yet. She was fresh and unhurt, while I looked like Bonesaw had given me half a facelift.

I had never actually tangled with Julia before, to be honest, because she was fairly new to Emma’s crew. Despite that, it was hard not to see why my fellow outcasts and nerds referred to her as “knock-off Sophia Hess” all the time. 

Julia was taller, wider, and stronger than most Sophomores, and she even wore her brown hair in a similar style to Sophia’s. Much like the original she played a sport (girl’s field hockey), was far more brutal than necessary, never got challenged because she was so good, and loved to push people around. She was what you'd get if you told a middle school girl that she had 2 years to become a bully, and they went all-in on making it happen.

But luckily for me, she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and I took full advantage of that as the fight started. See, since I had Sophia’s power in my core (and her personality pushing on my brain), I had been able to focus on Julia despite the pain in my body. Much like how Victoria’s personality had made me feel stronger when people looked at me, Sophia helped me turn pain and obstacles into motivation to succeed.

Sophia should really see a therapist. Pain = motivation seems self-destructive and dangerous.

So as much as I would have loved to look to my left and see Sophia punch Emma in the gut, air blasting out of the redhead’s lungs as she dropped her purse and fell to her knees, I instead clenched my fists and moved forward. While Julia was turning to face Sophia, Madison leaping off the sink and onto Sophia’s back, I was rearing back with my right fist. By the time Julia saw me coming out of the corner of her eye, my knuckles were already slamming into her temple.

She grunted and stepped backwards, barely stunned. Then she smiled at me.

Let’s see, three bullies are attacking each other, and I get the Brute 0 to myself. Crap.

She swung at me and I stumbled back, blurting, “If you kill me, you’ll go to jail!”

“Fighting a dude in the girl’s room?” She grunted, but stopped and raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that...what’s it called, probable cause?”

“No!” I shouted, and moved forward to try hitting her in the head again. Unfortunately, she just leaned back from my wild blow and then shoved both hands forwards. She nailed me in the ribs so hard I could have sworn I felt something pop, and my feet left the floor for a moment. My lungs emptied, and I think my heart only restarted after I hit the wall behind me.

To add insult to injury (or insulting injury to injury), my already abused head hit the wall as well. I managed to fall into a crouch, but still needed a moment to get my balance as the room spun around me. I may have had a concussion, but had no time to deal with it.

When I looked up, I saw that Julia was looking back and forth between Sophia and I...as if she couldn’t decide who was the bigger threat. I was someone who could run and get help, but was beaten to all hell. Meanwhile, Sophia was struggling with Emma (who kept going for her purse for some reason), and had Madison on her back with an arm around the track star’s throat.

Julia’s confusion gave me a chance to come up with a new plan.

I’m outed if I use Sophia’s power. I’m beat if I fight Julia, help Sophia, or go for the door. Shit.

There weren’t any plans that wouldn’t result in injuries or outing myself. Worse of all, while I was messing around with these four, Taylor was in deep crap. I had to do something !

The problem was that Greg Veder was scared, worried, and hurt. My plans were all based around escape, but that was pointless now. What I needed to do was fight, and for that, I would need to stop being so Greg Veder...and be more...Sophia Hess.

Wait. That gave me an idea. A horrible idea, but...I was low on options.

I swore to myself I’d never do that again. But, trapped like this...I have no choice. Damn.

Sophia’s power was giving me a sense of aggression. A sort of never-say-die attitude. A focus on combat, on growing stronger, on overcoming any obstacle in my way. I felt like failure was just a stepping stone on the way to success.

Sure, I couldn’t use her power , but I wasn’t just someone who copied powers…I also copied personalities ! They made me stronger, gave me ideas, and helped me find insight.

Which meant it was time to do something really, really stupid and dangerous. 

It was time for Greg to tap out, and let someone else handle this.

Sophia...it’s your turn to finally be a hero.

***

I’d had a nightmare, the night after I’d Blended Aegis and Gallant’s powers. A bad one.

In it, I was walking around, talking to people and pissing them off. They would yell at me, throw things, hit me...but I just kept smiling at them and burning bridges between us. I kept wanting to apologize, to stop myself from talking, but I couldn’t. Because it wasn’t me doing the talking. It was someone else...using my body. I’d woken up almost screaming, and didn’t sleep that night.

It wasn’t just a bad dream, though. It had actually happened. With Aegis’ power preventing my brain from letting emotions happen, I had become robot-like. I nearly outed myself, insulted my family, and kept saying terrible things because I thought I was helping. No intuition, no worries, no self-doubt, no regrets. Just...perfect neutral calm. I had been trapped by my copied powers.

No matter how hard I had tried to release the power, the urge to do so would fade away moments later. It was only because of my Thinker Confusion that I had managed to finally release, and even then it had been a near thing. My memory had been patchy, but I slowly figured out what had happened. 

It had almost been enough to make me call the PRT right then and there...but instead I just swore to myself that I’d never let it happen again, because of how horrible it had been. 

Yet here I am, doing it ON PURPOSE. That pledge lasted a whole week...

The thing that had scared me most, as well as confusing me, was the way my Blended self had been so focused on being helpful and honest. Weren’t those emotions that the power should have been preventing, and if not...why? 

That’s when it hit me that the need to be honest and helpful wasn’t because of emotions...it was because they were the personality effects of Gallant and Aegis. With Greg focused on trying to break free, consumed with worry and fear that was being suppressed, their two personalities had Blended together and taken over my body.

I had become Aegis + Gallant, and they had full control of my body. No Greg. Just them.

Which is why I didn’t focus on Julia, as she turned back to face me.

Which is why I didn’t look at Sophia, as she fought her best friends.

Which is why I didn’t think about how scared, worried, or hurt I was.

Push Greg to the back of your mind. Remember how it felt. Give up control...

I focused on the feeling I’d gotten when other personalities had influenced me. Their energy.

Lung made me want to fight and Velocity made me want to escape. I’d fought to contain them.

Alec & Rachel made me love seeing a dog hurt someone. It scared me, so I dropped the power.

Victoria and Ren made me confident, and I learned to focus on it...I used it to overcome Emma.

That feeling...the pressure of holding them at bay...stop that. Let it all out! Embrace it!

I grabbed every bit of Sophia’s personality I could find. The determination, the focus, the drive...

Embrace the nightmare...and let everything else fall away. Become Sophia...

“Veder...you idiot...run!” I heard someone speak, and it took me a moment to recognize that it wasn’t my voice. It sounded like mine, though. “I can handle this...get out...of here.”

“I knew you couldn’t be trusted, you fucking turncoat!” Emma snarled, scratching at Sophia’s face and then diving to the floor, trying to open her purse with shaking hands. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but don’t forget that I own you, bitch!”

I felt anger start to boil in me, but kept it under control. Harness it, direct it, release it...

“Time to die, Veder.” I heard another voice ahead of me, and saw a poor imitation of me approaching from the front. That poser, Julia. “Shoulda run while you had the chance.”

Who the hell is Veder? Wait, did she say I would run away? The fuck does she think I am?

I started laughing, pointing at Julia as if she’d told the world’s funniest joke.

“What the hell are you-” She cut herself off, staring at me, surprised at my sudden mirth. 

Right, I’m Greg. I had a plan. Well, Greg had a plan, anyway. Now Sophia has a better one. 

“I’m sorry, but you…” I took a breath, shaking my head. “You’re the one who should run.”

Without another word, I rushed Julia again with my right fist held back to punch her.

This time, it wasn’t Greg who attacked her. Greg was almost entirely gone. Subsumed.

I was Sophia now...limited by Greg’s body, but none of his fears. 

That was why I was going to win against this villain.

Because I was two heroes!

***

Julia was so shocked by my swing that she took another blow to the head, but this hit was just as pointless as the last one. She grinned at me, then gestured for me to try it again. 

Phase 1: Fail on purpose, setting up the con.

Even though my personality had been subsumed by Sophia’s, that didn’t magically make me as good a fighter as her. Personality had nothing to do with actual skill, knowledge, or experience. No, this was more about attitude and mindset, as well as how to properly handle failure!

Thing is, Julia was expecting me to fail like Greg Veder...and I wasn’t him anymore. I wasn’t going to let a single mistake bog me down, or even the possibility of failure make me freeze.

Failure for Sophia was a force of motivation. She didn’t give up. She didn’t accept defeat. She just redoubled her efforts, ignored any feelings of worry, and didn’t miss a step when it came to pushing towards success. She was strong, she knew it, and any weakness was just an opportunity to overcome yet another roadblock. The only reason to fail was on purpose!

Perfect, now she thinks I’m a one-trick pony. Time to switch it up.

I rushed in for another wild swing at her temple. Same right fist, same spot as before, but this time Julia was lifting her left arm to block me instead of just taking the hit... 

Ha, got her expecting a punch! Now to change the battlefield. Time for Phase 2!

...and she was thus taken by surprise as I swung my right fist down hard and rushed in to dig the same arm’s shoulder into her gut. She let out a gasp, and I threw my left arm around her waist as my legs strained to lift her off the ground. I managed to get us a few inches up, her feet leaving the floor, and then I threw myself forward and down.

I felt the painful pressure of my damaged face mashing into her stomach, as well as having my whole body slam into the unyielding ground. Julia had some padding, but it didn’t really break my fall. 

Still, she was coughing, and I levered myself up to take advantage of the situation. She managed to grab my shirt with one hand, and I came right back down, but luckily my forehead impacted her chin hard enough that her grip loosened. My left eye didn’t seem to be opening anymore, but I wouldn’t need depth perception for this next part.

I scrambled up to my knees and pulled her arms down before squeezing my legs together. Within seconds I was straddling her, both her arms under my knees, and could feel her trying to pull free. Julia’s eyes started rolling around as she realized that the tables had turned.

Phase 2, done. Now to let loose. A few punches were useless...so how about thirty?

Ignoring the pain in my hands, I began to whip my body left and right, hammering blows into Julia’s head as best I could. Chin, temple, cheek, eye, mouth...I might have even slapped her once or twice. The first few blows didn’t do much, but soon I was pulling back for a swing and realized she wasn’t snarling and spitting at me anymore.

I scrambled to my feet and rushed towards the door, looking back only for a moment as I reached the partition that hid the bathroom from prying eyes. I thought of helping Sophia, even as Emma sprayed her in the face with something. I considered going back to kick Julia in the face, even as she began to roll over. Even pulling Madison off Sophia before she choked the track star to death might have helped.

But I knew that whatever reason the now-screaming Sophia had for fighting Emma, it had included me getting the hell out of here. I was out of my depth in a fight. So I ran...flicking Sophia’s power on for a moment as I passed out of their view. I went through the door.

Wow, walking through a door feels so strange...although, that might be my concussion.

I could hear Taylor’s muffled shouts and banging to my left, around the corner, and started to stumble in that direction. I ignored the sound of creaking hinges, female shouts behind me, breaking glass, and footsteps around me. I just rounded the corner, saw Taylor’s locker, and-

Something heavy hit me from behind, about halfway there, and I went down. My arms were trapped at my sides, and my head slammed into the ground again. It felt like my jaw had shattered, and I was pretty sure I had swallowed a tooth.

“Not...done...wif...you...Feder!” Julia was on my back, mounting me like I’d done to her only a minute ago. Her face looked horrible, and her bloody teeth gave her a macabre rictus grin. She reared back, one huge fist ready to mash my brains into the ground, and then swung down.

And swung down.

And swung...was I hallucinating, or had she been swinging down for the past few seconds? Also, was the air distorting around the space between us?

Before I had time to figure it out, Julia let out a grunt and pitched to the side. She hit the ground like a sack of potatoes, and I rolled over to behold my savior...a little blonde girl. Wearing a domino mask, shaking her fist. 

Oh, and she also had parahuman powers...familiar ones.

“Tangs Isa, yoo shaved ma ash.” I woozily got to my feet, and was happy that she was barely paying attention to my mumbling. It sounded like I had been gargling glass and gravel, and I swiftly apologized for calling her by her cape name. “Shorry abow kong oo da. Hep hurps.”

“Um...yeah. Okay.” She cocked her head. “You know where Sophia Hess is? Tall black girl? Kinda of an asshole?”

“Grr bapfoom.” I pointed, and she ran off. She must have used her powers, because I heard the door open before she got there, and then open again a few moments later. Maybe she went in the wrong one? By then I was just focused on staying upright and heading for the locker. 

Taylor! I’m coming, hold on!

***

The whole hallway spun with every step, my throat was on fire, and my face raw. I kept coughing, and was pretty sure I’d been swallowing or breathing my own blood for a while. I needed help, but could barely breathe.

I had enough Sophia to keep me going, though, and soon arrived at a very...unique locker.

Specifically, because it was only partially closed. Something had jammed in the door, and it took me a moment to recognize the green color of the Urban Travelpack XP Backpack. It must have been so big and hard to get off that they just shoved her in there and it had clogged up the plan. 

The locker vibrated every few seconds, and I could hear her grunting with each blow. I cursed upon seeing that the lock was jammed with something sticky.

“Tayla!” I shouted, and for a moment the rattling stopped. “I’m gone getta ow, kay? Puff again a door, I poo! Reggie? Puff!”

Despite my incomprehensible words, the door bulged a little as she pushed against it. 

I jammed my right hand in the gap and grabbed the lock with my left. I had adrenaline, I had desperation, and I had Sophia’s personality. I could do this!

With her pushing and me pulling, it...barely budged. 

Then her strength started to give, and I felt like my hand was breaking. Sticking it in there had been really dumb, and now we were both too weak to go back.

This really hurts. A lot. Shit, some Greg is leaking out...a good word is...incandescent?

My mind was wandering, trying to keep me from focusing on the horrific pain from my hand. Incandescent light bulbs, after all, produced light because the wire in them was heated until it glowed. My hand, much like that wire, felt like it was on fire as my blood, nerves, and bones sent my brain all the signals I needed to start thinking that my hand had caught on fire. 

More Greg was leaking through, as the urge to quit grew. The pain started to make me cry, and I couldn’t stop a scream from escaping my lips. I knew I could just use her power to pull my hand out, but that felt like abandoning her and I couldn’t just run away with her powers-

Of course! Sophia’s shadow power! Why didn’t I think of this before?

Even as the pain threatened to make me black out and my right hand took on a distinct purple color, my left hand was where all my concentration went...and I flicked the mental switch I had used earlier. My left hand shifted into a smoky form, and I grabbed the lock.

With all my remaining focus, I tried to push the power into the lock. To make the lock pull away!

Come on, come on! Why isn’t this fucking working? Why? I can’t fail again! I promised Danny!

But I couldn’t! I couldn’t make it work! I couldn’t put enough power into it!

The power was too weak, I was too tired, the pain was too much. I started to whimper and cry, feeling the bones in my right hand grate, and realizing I was trapped and had failed and I begged Taylor to forgive me for failing her and for not being stronger.

She pulled back from the door, as if giving up, and took a deep shuddering breath.

There was a moment of silence...like the calm before the storm, and I pushed the last of my power into the lock and prayed and pulled and gasped and-

The locker door burst open, as Taylor smashed into it and the lock finally gave way. 

I felt like my hand had been dipped into lava, my whole body was cold and hot at the same time. But seeing the door open and her stagger out made it all worth it. She turned, growling, and ready for a fight. I barely saw her reaching out...

Everything hurt, tears were streaming down my face, blood was pounding in my ears, and I couldn’t even feel my face. I started to collapse, thinking I was dying, afraid that she had mistaken me for her tormentors, or that they would appear at any moment...

But Taylor caught me. From what felt like far away, I heard her speak, holding me up.

“Greg? Is that you?”

***

“Greg, did you...what the hell happened to you?” Taylor may have had reddened eyes, broken glasses, a bruise on her forehead, a tear-streaked face, and hands that were scratched and cut...but she’d never looked more beautiful. “Were you trying to...help me?”

“Sho boo full.” I tried to shake my head, but it let out a throb of pain. “Shorry. Wuz try...hep.”

She reached out and put her right arm behind my back, kindly saying, “You look like shit, Greg.”

Well, I probably had that coming. The important thing is that we’re talking again. Oh, right.

“Tayla, ’m shorry.” I said, feeling like my mouth was full of broken glass. I’m pretty sure another of my teeth fell out. She looked confused, then suddenly got mad at something. I got scared, and blurted out. “I get...if nev’ wanna...tock me gain...buh I jush...I…”

“What?” Taylor gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on me so much that it hurt. “Fuck off.”

No...not again! Just once...why can’t the world let me have one thing go right? Why-

“I said fuck off, Emma! I’m done with you!” Taylor snapped, and it took me a moment to realize she wasn’t angry at me, but at the redhead who had joined us at the locker. Maybe ten feet away, although it was getting hard to judge distances. Taylor leaned me against the lockers, then stepped between us. “You had your chance, and it just proved that you’re a delusional asshole. Come any closer, touch either of us, and I’ll put you in the ground , you bitch!”

“You think you’re a threat to me? I could put you in the locker every day of the week, and nothing would happen!” Emma laughed, as if the bruises and scratches on her face were naught but makeup. She smiled at Taylor. “Blackwell can’t touch me, Danny thinks I’m your friend, Sophia’s my bitch, the school loves me, and all you have is Veder! You’re pitiful.”

“Last warning.” Taylor growled, “Go. Away. Or I’ll show you what-”

“Wait, no...I see it now. You’re different...” Emma squinted at Taylor, then smiled and began to dig through her purse. “Give me a moment to get rid of Sophia, and then you can take her place. It can be like old times. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”

Taylor rushed forward and clocked Emma in the face, just as the redhead pulled out an old-looking phone. Emma went down, and didn’t get back up. I started to cheer, but for some reason I was having trouble making words. I couldn’t talk... 

I had so much more to say. So much to apologize for. Warnings, too.

For instance, I wanted to warn her that Sophia was limping towards us, being supported by plainclothes Vista. All I could think was that now we had to face off against two Wards. Vista had taken Julia down in seconds, and Sophia was bad enough on her own. This was bad!

I tried to tell Taylor to run, but something caught in my throat. The hall spun. I couldn’t breathe?

I was on the ground. My head hurt so, so much. Sophia pulled a fire alarm, making it worse. She grabbed Vista, said something to her, and then ran towards me. 

She scooped up Emma’s phone for some reason, but didn’t use it to call for help. She just stared at it, then looked at me, and then pocketed it and moved to my side.

Vista ran away, and it seemed like she was moving faster than she should’ve been able to. 

Was she using her power to get help? My throat was burning. I couldn’t breathe!

My eyes closed, I choked, and there were so many voices.

I...couldn’t...breathe...

***

I had a dream. 

I could tell it was a dream, because I felt warm and someone was kissing me. I tried to enjoy it, but everything hurt. Especially my head. It felt like it was splitting. The fire alarm didn’t help.

The person pulled back, and I saw it was Taylor. Her lips were dripping red. She looked sad.

On my other side was Sophia, wiping at my face with her torn shirt. Her eyes were red and her face swollen. She looked angry.

At my feet, I saw Emma out cold. She looked as bad as I felt. I felt pretty horrible.

This was the sort of wish-fulfillment dream I liked. My friend was safe, my enemy was helping me, and my greatest enemy was defeated. Sophia and Taylor rolled me over, and warm stuff came out of my mouth. It tasted bad. Sour, and coppery.

There were a hundred students all around, pointing phones at us. Allen shoved them out of the way, and called my name. Was I dreaming about him? He was moderately handsome, true...

I saw men with a bed on wheels coming towards me, and just past them was Miss Militia. I wondered if this was a hero dream, or...

Was I dead? Maybe I was in heaven, and this was my reward for fighting for good?

That was okay. I guess. I died a hero...saving others.

...I just wish it had lasted longer.

I went to sleep...

...so tired.

...

I felt like I was floating on a cloud, and could hear murmuring voices around me.

There was a smell in the air, like antiseptic, and I could hear a beeping noise. A hissing noise.

My arm wouldn’t move, my left eye wouldn’t open, and my head felt funny.

I opened one eye, and saw that everything was white.

“George, I think he’s awake!” I heard my mother’s voice, and footsteps. “Get the doctor!”

Her face moved into my field of vision. She looked tired, but her face was so happy. I tried to talk to her, but something was in my mouth. She leaned in close, smiling.

“Greg...we prayed for you every day...and never gave up hope.” Mom placed a shaking hand on my cheek. “Welcome back, my brave little hero.”

************************

Next time on From Hated to Hero: Greg talks to his parents and doctor, gets a list of his injuries, and finds out what’s been going on the last few days. I’m sure the news media has been loving this story. Meanwhile, I’m sure Greg is just happy that he’s not dead!