It starts with a car on fire.
It's not Diego's muscle car, or the sleek thing Allison's been photographed driving in all the popular magazines, thankfully. Vanya doesn't know why her thoughts immediately go to the two of her siblings who can drive when she sees the flames licking at the roof of the car, but they do. She shakes the cloud of guilt and loneliness that always accompanies thinking about her family away and stares at the wreck.
She's half a city block from her apartment building. Vanya had been waiting for the light at the crosswalk to change when the truck had T-boned the powder-blue sedan right in the middle of the intersection. While the truck had been relatively undamaged- she'd seen the driver staggering away, having climbed out the passenger side door- the sedan was less lucky. She and a dozen other pedestrians had watched, gasping and screaming, as the compact car had flipped, once, twice, three times. It had landed upside down, tires still turning, smoking and looking not unlike an overturned beetle on its back.
Then the engine or whatever had burst into flames.
Vanya's heart catches in her throat as the passenger side of the sedan opens and a man fumbles his way out. The glass of the windshield and the front two windows explodes outward in the next moment, having caved to the heat of the fire.
The driver still doesn't emerge.
Vanya's seen wrecks like this on the news before, in movies and on t.v. She's not sure how much of what she's seen is true, if the car will go up in a pillar of flame soon or if it takes more time, the destruction more subtle- but she knows there's not much time.
The sirens have already begun to reach her ears but the driver isn't moving (she can see her long blonde hair spilling over the ground as her body hangs in place upside-down thanks to her seatbelt) and Vanya knows they won't make it in time.
People have begun to move around her- some run from the sight, like the group of frightened teenagers on her right, who take off down the alley behind them. She can't find it in her heart to blame them. Some start forward but are warned off from approaching by the heat and the screech of melting metal. The fender detaches from the sedan and falls to the pavement with a dull thunk and a hiss.
No one wants to approach the vehicle and risk their own necks. Vanya looks around, sending a glare to the much more capable looking gym rat whom she knows was staring at her ass five minutes ago; he's cowering back from the wreck now, eyes glued to the car but body unmoving. He blanches at her stare and takes several large steps back. Then she makes up her mind.
If no one else is gonna step up, it might as well be her.
Vanya abandons her violin case on the curb, taking a precious moment to shuck her overcoat before dashing into the street. Thankfully all traffic has stopped in the face of this disaster so she doesn't get hit by a passing car. The gravel crunches underfoot and Vanya can feel the air getting hotter and hotter, until her hair curls from it. A breeze sends a flurry of sparks at her face but Vanya raises an arm to protect her eyes and continues on.
She can hear several voices shouting at her to stay back, that she's an idiot who's going to get herself killed, that it was a lost cause anyway. Vanya ignores them and skids to a halt next to the vehicle.
Unsure of what to do now that she's here, Vanya starts by crouching down to check on the driver. The middle-aged woman blinks at her; she looks out of it, and Vanya guesses she's probably at least concussed. There's blood coming from a nasty looking gash in her forehead. Ash is already collecting on her skin.
"Help me?" Her voice is soft and high like a frightened child's. Vanya is reminded of some of her more timid students, the ones who are afraid to ask for help but who know they need it desperately.
So she does the same thing she does for her students and smiles kindly. She tries to keep the fear and anxiety that threaten to choke her out of her eyes. Vanya's fingers twitch for another pill (it would make the fourth this morning, double her daily recommended dose) but she has more important things to worry about than her own feelings right now, and besides she left the bottle in her coat pocket.
"It's going to be okay," she says instead, trying for soothing and probably ending up somewhere around hysterical. "You're going to be okay."
The door handle burns her so badly when she touches it that Vanya can see a layer of her skin peel off when she yanks her hand away. Her stomach flips but Vanya swallows the bile.
"Help," the woman gasps; she tries to move but just ends up flopping around like a dying fish. The smoke is getting thick and Vanya can see flames licking at the dashboard. "Please help me."
"I will. I am. You're okay."
Reaching through the broken glass, Vanya ignores the stinging, tearing pain in her arm and manually unlocks the door. The rubber at the top (bottom?) of the frame is marginally cooler than the metal so she tugs at it until the door swings open with a scream of metal. More sparks fly into her face, singing her hair and burning her, but Vanya can't stop now.
She's just gotten the woman's belt unlatched (she tumbles to the roof of the car and lays there moaning for help) when the flames reach them. They lick up Vanya's wrist, trailing a line of heat to her elbow. She wonders if she should be feeling pain right now but suspects it's the adrenaline that keeps it at bay. Vanya shakes her sleeve which results in some scraps of still burning cloth detaching, hopes that will be enough for now, and latches onto the woman's shoulders. She gets a good enough grip on her sweater collar and hauls her none-too gently from the cab. There's the crunch of broken glass and Vanya winces, but after a moment the woman's legs are free of the vehicle and Vanya shuffles them both back and back and back, never once slowing down-
The sedan goes up in a fireball about five seconds later.
Vanya backs them up to the curb, doesn't stop until her knees give out and she collapses in a heap beside the woman whose car just blew up.
"Thank you," the woman sobs. Her hand finds Vanya's and Vanya doesn't have the heart to pull away even as pain stabs through her palm. It's the hand that she burned. After a few minutes she can't stand the burning sting and she extracts her fingers from the woman's grip rather ungracefully. She pats out the lingering flames on her sleeves and smiles shakily. The woman is still crying. People are beginning to gather around them. Vanya thinks maybe a camera flashes.
"You just saved my life," the woman cries. She seems to find her strength (wouldn't have that been helpful earlier) and sits up to press her teary face into Vanya's shoulder. "I could've died . Thank you so much."
"Uh, yeah," Vanya stutters. This is the most physical contact she's had in- well, a long time. Unsure, she drapes her uninjured arm around the woman, careful of the singes in her clothing. She's starting to realize that all her muscles feel like water, she's trembling and she can faintly taste vomit at the back of her throat courtesy of the smoke inhalation. "Um, sure. Don't- worry about it?"
Then tires are screeching to a halt and a fire truck is there and the police complete with the flashing lights and screaming sirens and Vanya's head is pounding-
Vanya turns, arms still wrapped around the stranger, and looks up into her brother's eyes for the first time in years. She swallows. "Uh. Hey, Diego."
Number Two gapes at her, glances at the on-fire wreckage just across the road, and takes in her singed appearance. Vanya is never going to be able to wear this shirt again, that's for sure- one sleeve is almost completely burned away, revealing the tender pink of burned flesh, and there's a myriad of holes from where the sparks landed. Vanya inhales fast, trying to find the words to explain her situation, and ends up choking on ash.
"What the fuck, Vanya," Diego says. He sounds like he's very far away, like he can't believe what just happened. Vanya doesn't blame him- she's having a hard enough time wrapping her head around it and she's the one who did it.
"I don't know," she answers him honestly. Something in her tone makes his eyes go hard and flinty, his back ramrod straight. He puts his hands on his belt (he's wearing his police uniform, Vanya's never seen him in it) and scowls at her. Back to business, then.
"You could've been killed."
Vanya shrugs. "She couldn't get out on her own." She looks up at the paramedics who have made their way over and releases the other woman into their waiting arms. She tries to smile when the stranger looks back but she doesn't know how comforting she looks, all burned out and small on the sidewalk.
"That was really fucking stupid, Seven." He's rattled- that's the only time he ever slips up with their names. "You're hurt- you could have been hurt worse."
Something strong and angry flares in her chest then- maybe it's the residual adrenaline, maybe it's shock. Or maybe it's the fact that she just went through something she's gonna have nightmares about for weeks to come and he can't even offer her a fucking hand up.
"I wasn't hurt worse. And she wasn't either. You were too slow and she was trapped so I did something about it."
"You're not a hero," he snarls at her. "Stop acting like one." Vanya knows somewhere deep down that he's scared, lashing out because he doesn't want to see her hurt, especially when she has no powers to help her- but at the same time-
"Well you weren't around, were you?" Vanya snaps. She hauls herself to her feet, batting away the hand he offers belatedly. His expression shutters. "I was and she was hurt and gonna be hurt worse and no one was doing anything about it. So I did your job."
She stalks off before Diego can reply and spends the entire time the paramedics are checking her over resolutely ignoring the eyes boring into the back of her skull.
It's three in the morning when Vanya wakes up to the sound of the window in her living room sliding open.
Should've locked it, she chastises herself. There's a baseball bat in her closet- why hadn't she put it any closer to the bed?
Shaking her head, she slips from her covers and retrieves the bat with only minimal stumbling. Her lungs feel too small because of the smoke earlier, and her arm throbs beneath the layers of gauze. Her palms are sweating, the bandaged right one stinging from the second degree burn she inflicted upon herself, and she can't hold the bat right.
She steps out into the hallway anyway.
There's a figure in dark clothes slipping in through the window. Vanya curses to herself and adjusts her grip on the bat. Should she hide instead? Run for the phone?
Instead, Vanya flips on the light, hoping to disorientate him and rushes forward. Only the familiar scar on his face and her brother's scowl draw her up short, making her swing much slower than it would usually be.
The bat is about five inches from the side of his head when Diego throws up a hand and catches it. "Jesus, Vanya! What the hell are you thinking?"
" Me? " She yelps, pulling away. "What the hell are you thinking? You're breaking into my apartment in the middle of the night!"
"Yeah, because you left the window unlocked! You're in the middle of the city, Vanya, and rapists can climb!"
"That is so not the issue right now!"
Diego huffs and glares. After a second of awkward staring, Vanya steps back and heaves a sigh, gesturing for him to enter the room. He pulls himself the rest of the way through and only grumbles a little.
It's only then that she sees what he's holding. Diego notices her surprise and, strangely shyly, hands her violin case over. She looks up at him, eyes wide, and he scruffs the back of his neck. Her coat is folded over the other arm.
"You left them at the scene," Diego informs her unnecessarily. He holds out her coat and when Vanya takes it, fishes her pills from his pocket and hands those over, too. "I didn't want them to fall out."
"Thank you," Vanya breathes, relief flooding her at the mere sight of her prescription. She hadn't even noticed it was missing, she'd been so tired and mixed up. She clutches them to her chest, looking up at her brother as if she's never seen him before. Maybe she hasn't- not this version, at least.
"About today-" he stops, and Vanya shuffles back a little.
"I know it was a bad idea, okay?" She's so tired. She's always so tired. She doesn't remember a time she wasn't tired. "I know I shouldn't have gone in without thinking like that but she was gonna die, Diego. No one else was gonna do anything."
"That's not-" Diego starts off harsh but reigns himself in when he looks at her face. "I wasn't going to say that. I think i-it was-"
He stops, carding a hand through his hair. Vanya remembers this frustration from their childhood and waits instead of prodding him to continue. Finally Diego exhales, looks her in the eye and says, "I-I think it w-was re-really brave of you. You s-saved her li-ife."
"Oh." Vanya says blankly. Then the words set in. "Oh! Uh, I mean, I guess. I just- did what I would want someone else to do for me."
"I wouldn't let that happen to you," Diego tells her seriously. Even though warmth spreads through her chest, Vanya smiles thinly and shakes her head.
"You're not always around, Diego." Maybe it's not the best time to bring up their separation, the way their family has drifted apart, but if not now then when?
Diego flinches as if she just struck him and Vanya thinks about taking her words back. But again, she's not wrong and really, all she meant was that no one could be everywhere to save everyone and sometimes you had to rely on the kindness of strangers. She just wishes if that happened to her that someone would go get her out of the burning wreck.
You're not important enough.
She shakes the thought away just as Diego's face clears. There's something like resolve in his eyes. "I will be," he says, conviction lacing his tone. "I'll keep you safe. I p-promise."
Vanya smiles wanly again and offers him the couch.
He's still there when she wakes up in the morning. He's there the next night, too.
Vanya puts a throw blanket on the couch, exchanges the pillows for better ones, and says nothing.
The reporters are camped out in front of her building the next day. Vanya is rushing to rehearsal, having woken up late because an unapologetic Diego had sabotaged her loud alarm in the name of sleep. As such, she's busy fiddling with her hair and checking her bag and almost barrels the pretty brunette over before a microphone is thrust in her face.
"Uh," Vanya says. "What?"
"Ms. Vanya Hargreeves, how does it feel to be a hero?"
"What?" Vanya repeats. Oh God. That's a big camera. Are they on television right now?
The newscaster smiles with too many teeth. "You saved a woman- a working mother of two small children- from a burning car yesterday. We have photos- so how does it feel to be a hero?"
"I-she-" She guesses she should have expected this. Should she have? "I'm not a hero. It was just the right thing to do. I mean... The car was on fire."
"Oh, such modesty! But really, what made you put aside your fear for your own well-being for a complete stranger?"
Vanya stares at her. "The car was on fire."
The other woman looks a little upset now, glancing at the camera and then Vanya with a certain amount of strain in her jaw. "Yes, we saw the footage. But you have to have some words of wisdom as to why you would risk your life for someone else?"
"The car was on fire," Vanya enunciates every word carefully. "I just didn't want that woman to be on fire too. That's not heroic."
Hastily, she excuses herself and runs for the next cab she can spot. It's only moments later, in the cloying darkness of the back of the car that she realizes what a bad idea it was to take one to work. She spends the rest of the ride quietly hyperventilating and trying not to pass out.
After rehearsal she calls Diego.
"You still at band practice?"
She rolls her eyes at her brother but can't help the twitch in her lips. "Just finished. You still staying for tonight? I've got stuff for pasta."
"I might hang around," Diego replies casually, like he hasn't spent three nights at her apartment this week. "You going home now? Take a taxi- I don't like the part of town your theater is in."
Vanya's going to have to table the way her heart swells at that for now. Just thinking about being inside a car right now is making her sick. "I I- don't really feel up to cars right now. I'll hustle on my walk home, it'll be fine. I just wanted to give you a heads-up if I'm a little later. The spare key is under my mat."
"Stay there. I'll be there in fifteen."
Diego walks her home every night after that. It's not as awkward as Vanya would have thought, even though he knows next to nothing about classical music and she couldn't tell you a thing about law enforcement. His scowling, looming figure is also great at scaring off any stray reporters.
She thinks maybe that will be the end of it; the reporters will wander off looking for a new story, Diego will feel he's fulfilled his role as big brother for the next few years and split and Vanya will get these bandages off and go on living.
You call this living? Pathetic.
Then a night comes, only two weeks later, when Diego had called the theater with an apology that he was called out last minute and couldn't walk her home (he begged her to get a cab- she'd evaded answering) and Vanya finds herself walking home in the dark. She's a few streets from her apartment this time, maybe a little over a mile, when she hears it. Someone is getting jumped in the alley to her right.
Don't do it. How could you possibly help them anyway?
For a second it seems so easy to listen to the voice in her head, to turn and go back to her walk home; she's in a not so great part of town and she's alone and she's five feet of no muscle whatsoever and really, she's done her good deed for, like, a century already. Then a soft cry goes up, much higher than the muffled thumping and cursing she can just catch at the mouth of the little lane where she stands frozen, and it sounds- it sounds-
It sounds like Klaus.
Vanya turns and sprints down the alley.