(Author’s Note – Unnannounced sabbatical, sorry about that. Updates will resume soon, as for now, a story that was intended to be a part of a writing project based on MMORPG City of Heroes, with two main characters, showing the rise and growth of a pair of young women learning to be heroes.)
The wooden cage towered over the young girl. From between the vast beams of wood running vertically in evenly spaced spots, she could see the courtroom below. Faceless people toiled at weird typing machines, or jotting notes down. The people arguing had faces, but they were featureless. Hard to place. Instead, their tongues lashed out with fire and ice, spluttering across the court at each other as the argued and haggled. The judge on the other hand looked from side to side with one vast eye, unblinking as it, working in tandem with giant ears, took in the details.
The man in the dock on the other hand was feature-perfect. Cold eyes and snarling lips were focused up at the broken man besides her, before his gaze shifted to her. She met that unrelenting stare back with the bravery of a child, until he smiled and her will faltered. ‘Bang’ he whispered, and there was blood around and behind her. The vast darkness in front of her was framed by a metallic circle, and from the depths of that barrel into the void, a distant gleam could be seen.
‘Bang’ the voice whispered again, and she met the bullet surging at her with fire boiling behind it.
Grace Ritchie jumped upwards from her bed, her cry of terror swiftly halted by clamping her hands over her mouth. The same nightmare, the same cold sweat. Her strawberry blond hair clung to her skin uncomfortably, just like her sweat-dampened nightshirt did. After a moment, the dark of her bedroom, typical of any seventeen year old American girl’s in its décor of albums, posters, books and clothes was banished with a flickering blue flame.
“Same bad dream, Grace?” A voice came from the floor, soon followed by a younger looking girl sticking her head up above the edge of the bed.
“Same bad dream, Kari. Isn’t it always?” Grace sighed, pushing the hair away from her forehead with a hand. It wasn’t long before her friend was out of bet and sitting cross-legged by her, offering a bottle of water. Faint flecks of blue flame emanated from her eyes and hands, as above Kari a hovering ball of fire bobbed merrily in the air.
“Thanks,” Grace took a long gulp from the bottle before sighing. “Nice night light.”
“Powers have their perks.” Kari shrugged, the flame giving a little spurt of light in affirmiation.
“I’m surprised you’ve never gone for being a hero, I mean, you’ve got mystical blue fire-”
“A nice bonus from some weird times in my mom’s far past. Oni, warring periods, all that kind of mystical Japanese mumbo-jumbo.”
“And you’re pretty good in self-defence classes, not to mention all of your extra-curricular, internet-credit training.” Grace grinned. “Sometimes I think you are a hero without telling me.”
Kari pulled a face at that. “I told you Grace, I’m not becoming a hero unless you do. And you could do it!”
“Yeah,” Grace took another pull from the water bottle, “I’d be great. One glimpse of a gun and I’ll be out of there cowering in a corner somewhere.” A yelp escaped her throat as her friend jabbed a big toe against her knee. “Ow! What was that for?”
“Best Friend’s Agreement, remember? Self-doubt and lack of confidence is to be poked at. Literally.”
“It’s not as simple as asking a boy out who I like. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Kari shuffled over and placed a hand on Grace’s shoulder. “You’re strong, I know you will. And when that day comes? Paragon’s villains beware. Anyway, we have our class at nine, and it’s almost three now. Sleep.”
Grace groaned and set the water bottle on the bedside counter. They’d have to be up in four hours, in prep for a morning of self-defence and sports. Settling back on the bed, she squirmed to get back into a comfortable sleeping position. The blue flame above them flickered out.
“Night, Grace. Sleep well.” Kari called up from her sleeping bag on the floor.
“I’ll try, Kari. See you in the morning.” The reply came, but Grace just lay there staring off into the darkness. The idea of becoming a hero was ludicrous, but not quite as ludicrous as getting over her fear of guns. Even the fake ones brought out in self-defence training classes made her hyperventilate. They were always told only to use any skill to disarm in a life or death situation, it being better to not be in that position in the first place. She knew how the technique was done, but the last time she tried it out with Mister Connor, the instructor, she shrieked and fainted right there on the mat. Grace forced herself to settle down, she wasn’t the greatest morning person, and with a lack of sleep she knew she would not be great company for the rest of the day.
“Again.” Nathan Connor, the self-defence for women instructor at Steel Canyon Community Centre said. He was a fairly tall man, with light brown hair and the muscled form of a soldier. Grace knew that he was a hero instructor with the Unity Vigil, an old soldier who was born in 1932 yet looked to be in his early thirties. In response to his command, Grace lashed out at the training dummy with a solid set of blows from fists and knees, finishing with an upwards jab from her elbow that sent the head of the dummy wobbling back and forth. Panting from exertion she turned to face him, and smiled at his approving nod.
“Very good, Miss Ritchie. Your form was excellent, you guarded your centre, and you’ve reigned in your theatricality.” Mister Connor said, before looking over to Kari, busy delivering spinning kicks to a training dummy similar to her own. “Unlike Miss Gray there.”
“I like doing that too, I find it more… fun? But you said I needed to perfect the basics, so…”
“Indeed. Have you ever considered competing?” Her tutor asked appraisingly.
The shake of her head was immediate. “No, I mean, I have thought, but… I wouldn’t. This is exercise and might come in useful. I’ll keep it to that.”
“Fair enough, I just thought I’d ask.” He nodded before looking around to the class. “That was good work from all of you today. I’ll see you all next Saturday. Have a good week.”
Kari wandered over to Grace as their tutor left. “Want to spar for a bit?” She offered with a grin, making a few playful shadow jabs at her.
“I think I’ll pass, the last time we sparred you singed my hair by accident.” Grace recoiled at the smell of burning hair, and the trip to the salon to have the damage fixed.
“… Good point. Lunch then shopping?” Came the counter-offer.
“Much better offer.”
The tram from Steel Canyon North to their nearest stop in the residential area between Steel and Atlas Park was surprisingly non-cramped for a Saturday afternoon. Grace was rather happy with that, as Kari had insisted on going into a Turkish patisserie for baklava, currently kept free of bite-marks in card boxes in their shopping bags. Clothes had been purchased, some DVDs and Kari had raided Cloud Sound’s world music section for the latest Tokyo Dragonboyz album.
“They’ll be coming to Paragon next year to play at Talos Sportsdome, I’m already asking for tickets for Christmas.” Kari bounced on her seat, just looking over the still shrink-wrapped album with tour date stickers plastering it.
“Are they really dragons?” Grace asked, peering at the half-naked group of four men, covered with intricate ink work of dragons and dragon symbology.
“Kenji Thunder says they all have the souls of dragons. That’s gotta count for something.”
“And you buy that?”
“Check out Miss Sceptic, even though her best friend has Japanese demon blood and pretty blue fire powers.” Kari teased.
“I’m just saying, four of them all happen to form a band? Some of it’s got to be fiction.”
“I prefer ‘heightened reality’.”
“Now approaching Steel Canyon South,” The train announcer spoke through the speaker system, a chiming fanfare provided before her voice. “Alight here for: Paragon City University – Steel Canyon Campus, Wentworths, and the Steel Canyon Medical Centre. The next station is Steel Canyon South.”
“Just one more station to go.” Grace sighed, slumping back on her seat.
“You want to come over for dinner?” Kari offered. “I think Mom’s making her awesome Teriyaki chicken pizza.”
“The current station is Steel Canyon South. The next station is Atlas Heights.”
“Sounds good, I’ll drop my stuff off at home and grab a shower first though.” Grace said. “I think summer shopping in Steel makes me sweat more than training.” The carriage was filling more with people now. Grace and Kari both drew their limbs in a bit more to make room and avoid being tripped over.
“Might as well get some overnight stuff too, if you’re coming over for dinner you can always just spend the night.”
“The next station is Atlas Heights.” The announcer spoke as the tram pulled away, heading for a tunnel section that ran through one of the War Walls and through an underground section for a short way of the trip.
“Sounds good…” Grace trailed off, something at the back of her head tingling. She glanced to the slightly concerned looking girl on her right.
“You okay, Grace?” Kari asked.
“Know what Mister Connor says about gut feeling, third eye, all that stuff?” As she spoke, she knew what her friend’s reply would be.
“Yeah… I feel it too.”
“Cash, cellphones and jewellery! Hand them over or get shot!” A rough looking man in sweatpants and a bulky jacket yelled, pulling a pistol out from the waistband. Grace made a rather strained whimpering sound, her breathing rapidly picking up in pace as the gunman started pacing towards them, gesturing his gun from left to right while collecting the offered items in a grubby cloth bag.
“It’s okay Grace, it’s fine, I’m here, I won’t let him hurt you.” Kari was whispering under her breath, clutching at her friend’s hand with one of her own, grip tight. “Don’t run, if you run he might startle, stay here, it’ll be okay, I promise.”
She had nowhere to run. Her brain was going into overdrive, imagining in gory detail all the bad endings to any action she might take, super-imposed on her recurring nightmares.
“You two! Hand over your stuff, or else!” The man barked the order, looming over them with gun in hand. Kari grumbled under her breath. Living in the City of Heroes, and not a single one in the carriage at the time. Except, maybe…
“All right, all right, just don’t hurt us!” Kari pleaded, pulling her hand away to root in her handbag. A jolt in the tram sent her out of her seat, standing half crouched. She wouldn’t be a hero without Grace… but Grace -was- right there at the time. “Here!” She pulled her hands out of her handbag, no purse within. Just a bolt of blue flames that shot out in a spark, hissing in front of the man’s face. A cloud of thick black smoke erupted around his head as he recoiled in shock. Her hands snatched his, twisting the gun out and sending it skittering to the floor. A sharp raise of her knee sent the robber staggering back.
“Grace, he’s unarmed, don’t panic, you can-” Her words were cut off by a powerful blow to her stomach, doubling her over. The robber’s next blow was coming straight down for her head.
Grace gripped the seat and kicked with both legs, sending the man careening off to one side. “YOU!” She shouted, off from her seat with fists swinging at the man. “DON’T!” The train was out of the tunnels as she brawled with the potent-smelling unwashed man. “HURT!” Her elbow slammed into his eye-socket as he made a grab for her throat. “MY!” They tumbled towards the exit, passengers scattering and staying as far away as they could. “FRIEND!” Grace brought her fist down straight towards the man’s nose.
“The next station is Atlas Heights.” The announcer cheerfully said as the blond girl was thrown off the robber. Grabbing his spoils, he barged through the opening doors and onto the platform.
“They’re the greatest, you really should go.” Officer Cartwright said enthusiastically to his partner as they wandered up the steps to Atlas Heights Tram station.
“I’m really not a fish and chip person, it seems way too greasy for me.” Officer Victors replied, memories of such dishes from food shows unsettling her stomach.
“Any officers near Atlas Heights station please respond, an emergency lever on the tram currently in the station has been pulled.” Their radios squarked.
Exchanging a look, Officer Cartwright took his radio up. “Patrol Unit 27 here, we’re heading into the station now, will let you know more when we find out.”
Just as they reached a corner in the staircase, an unshaven man in a jacket and sweatpants came bounding down, looking worse for wear while clutching a heavy looking dirty cloth bag. His eyes widened at seeing the police, and he turned on his heel to head back up the staircase. Both officers jumped as a war-cry came from further up the stairs, followed by an athletic teenager in jeans and a spaghetti-strap top vaulting down and colliding with a powerful kick to the man’s torso. He bounced off the wall and into an uppercut that knocked him to the ground, twitching. His dropped bag spilled out its contents of wallets, purses and consumer electronics.
“Uh…” Officer Victors blinked, looking between the senseless man and the panting girl.
“He’s a robber and he had a gun and my friend disarmed him and he hit her and I hit him andohgodKari!” The girl babbled, before running back up for the train.
“You go, I’ll call this in and get some support down here.” Cartwright said to his partner, handcuffs in one hand and radio still in the other.
Officer Victors had gotten all the people who had been robbed off the carriage, and had started processing them with the support unit for getting their stolen items back. With everything in hand, the tall woman approached two girls. One was the blond haired attacker who had felled the robber with a leaping kick and uppercut. She was busy fussing over a young Asian woman with a short bob of dark hair. The blond looked somewhat scared as she noticed the police officer approaching.
“It’s all right, girls. I’m Officer Gina Victors, and I just want to talk.” Officer Victors smiled, crouching down besides the two. “I’ve heard a few things from the passengers, and I want your side of the story now. You’re not in trouble.”
“It’s… my fault, really.” The Asian girl admitted, eyes downcast. “Grace here is terrified of guns, and she was really freaking out when he approached. I’m… kind of a mutant, sort of, and I take self-defence classes. I managed to disarm him using my powers and skills, but he winded me with a stomach punch.”
“He tried to hit Kari on the back of her head, so I kicked out at him and started fighting.” Grace added, one arm around her friend. “He threw me off when the train pulled into the station, grabbed the bag of things he’d taken and ran for it, and I just… followed. It was stupid, I know-”
“I was able to get up at that point, so I pulled the emergency alarm. I wanted to go after Grace to look after her but I was still really winded.” Kari interrupted.
“Well, we have enough witnesses to charge him for armed robbery, but you two are lucky you were not more seriously hurt. And you’re lucky that the criminal wasn’t hurt either.” The officer said, looking between the girls. “The Citizen Crime Fighting Act may be there to make use of the talents of people with extra-ordinary skills and abilities, but they still have to follow the law, and will be held accountable if they break that law. Before you think of doing any more heroics, you might want to see about getting some professional training on the law and how it relates to you.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just… no one was doing anything, and-”
Kari was shushed by the police woman. “I understand, but we cannot recommend teenagers fighting back. It’s a good way for people to get hurt. Yourselves, the criminal, bystanders. Just keep that in mind for if you plan to do any more daring take-downs. And if you do decide to? The FBSA over in City Hall are there to help, as are Freedom Corps and the PPD. Understand?”
“I understand, Officer. It won’t happen again.” Grace apologised.
“Yes, Officer, I’ll do that. Sorry, Officer.” Kari added.
“All right, now head on home. I think you’ve both had enough excitement for a summer afternoon.”
“I think she was on to something.” Kari said, voice muffled as she pulled her pyjama top on over her head.
“Who, and about what?” Grace asked, eyeing a raspberry poptart and wondering if she could have just one more.
“Officer Victors. We could train as heroes.” Kari suggested, shaking her hair after her head popped through the hole. “You’ve got that objecting look, so just hear me out. We’ve got weeks till summer break ends, We could do a whole load of training, getting fit for our self-defence classes, for sports stuff, and learning neat stuff. Not fighting anyone, just learning the skills.”
Grace looked unconvinced, and was now nibbling on the edge of the poptart. “What kind of skills?”
“Things like free-running, computer skills, first aid, lockpicking, you know, all things a hero should know.”
“Heroes, lockpicking?” Her question came with a sceptical look and a raised eyebrow.
“To get into criminals’ lairs! I saw an article about it online.” Kari grinned. “Think about it, we could come up with a list of things to learn and check them off as we get closer to the start of school. If it isn’t fun, we can always just give up and do something different. And if it is fun, we learn some neat stuff and are in better shape.” She gazed hopefully at Grace, hands linked in a pleading expression.
“If it’s not fun we’ll give it up?”
“And we won’t do anything dangerous, or illegal, or stupid?”
Kari nodded again, her smile brightening.
“You’re sure about it, Kari?”
“Absolutely one hundred percent positive.” She beamed.
“And if I say yes now, can we talk about it more in the morning, I’m -really- tired now.”
Grace sighed. “Alright then, I’ll give it a shot. One other condition: You put the light out. I’m on the floor, remember?” Setting the half-nibbled snack down she sat on her sleeping bag and began running a comb through her hair.
Kari laughed. “You don’t have to sleep down there, my bed is big enough.”
“You steal blankets during the night. And kick in your sleep. I had bruises for a fortnight after we slept over at Trina’s seventeenth birthday party.” She grumbled in response, wincing as she combed a knotted bit of hair out.
“You drooled on my shoulder when we were coming back from Disneyland when we were fourteen, but I don’t bring it up.” Kari harrumphed.
“You don’t bring it up except when you bring it up about not bringing it up.” Grace teased, and had a tongue stuck out in her direction for her comeback.
The lights had only been out for half an hour when Grace whispered: “Kari, you asleep?”
“Yeah.” Kari joked, before a tiny blue flame flickered above them, Kari shuffling to the side of the bed to peer down. “What’s up, Grace?”
“You were really brave today.” Grace said in a subdued voice. “You disarmed him for more than just stopping him robbing us, didn’t you?
There was no response for a while, before a hand came down to pat Grace’s. “I hate seeing you scared like that. You’re my best friend, I’d be a pretty terrible one if I didn’t try to cheer you up.”
“By assaulting armed, creepy robbers?”
“Exactly! And you were hardly lazy, Grace. I got careless and got hit. You were brutal! In a really, really good way. I said you were strong, and you were. You even chased after him when he made a run for it.”
“I don’t know what I was thinking, you heard what Officer Victors said, anything could have happened.” Grace took the offered hand in her own.
“You weren’t thinking-”
“Thanks.” She said drily.
“Not like that. You went on auto-pilot. You could be an amazing hero, you were in the zone! Unlike me.” Kari chuckled. “Just please, don’t tell Mister Connor that I got hit. He’d get me doing basics for weeks if he knew.”
“I won’t.” Grace promised. “But if we’re gonna be training… I’ll get you doing basics for weeks.”
“That’s not fai- hey! You said you were tired, wanted to sleep and talk about this in the morning!”
“Well I’m intrigued now!” Grace explained, before starting to go over some of the ideas she was thinking, adding to the various ideas Kari had been thinking of while trying to sleep. A note-pad had been drafted in for writing the ideas down, and it was a couple of hours before Kari slipped off to sleep, her blue flame lantern extinguishing on its own. Grace stared up at the ceiling, her eyelids heavy as she started to drift towards sleep, wondering just what she was getting into, and why the idea seemed so very fun.