Earning Her Stripes

Part One: Three Vials

[A/N 1: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: This is an AU; details will show up in the narrative.]

[A/N 3: Taylor does not have a connection with Queen Administrator in this fic.]

Early August, 2010
Barnes Household

"So what's going on?" asked Madison. "You didn't give me any details. Just told me to come right over."

Emma shrugged. "I have no idea. Sophia called me up and said there was something really interesting I should know about. So I decided to bring you in on it."

"Ooh, okay." Madison's face lit up. "Is it about Taylor? Has Sophia found out that all the shit we've been saying about her is true? That would be amazing."

"Dunno. Sophia didn't say much, just that she needed to show it to me." She looked around at a knock on the front door. "That should be her now." Heading over to the door, she opened it. It was, indeed, Sophia.

"Come on in." Emma stepped back to allow her other best friend to enter. "What's this all about?"

Sophia waited until Emma had closed the door, then looked around. She held a backpack carefully in her hands. "Is your family home?"

This was getting stranger by the second. "No," Emma said. "Anne said she'd be staying over at a friend's place, and Mom and Dad are at the Augustus Country Club. They always stay late there. Why? If this is about Taylor, we've still got a month to figure out what we're going to be doing to her once school lets back in." She didn't think it was about Taylor, but it was always good to cover that base.

Sophia shook her head. "Forget Hebert. This is more important." While Emma was still wrapping her head around that statement, the black girl went over to the TV and turned it on. A Slaughterhouse Nine retrospective was playing, reviewing some of the infamous gang's worst atrocities. They'd been going downhill for the last ten years, trying harder and harder to get back into the public eye. When Jack Slash got his head blown off by a twelve-gauge shotgun in the course of an ill-advised home invasion in 2005, it had spelled the beginning of the end. Now, despite the name, the gang rarely had more than five members at a time, and they never attacked big cities at all.

Ignoring the screen, Sophia put her backpack on the sofa and delved into it. To Emma's confusion, she came up with three cloth-wrapped bundles. One at a time, she unrolled the wrappings until she was holding three glass tubes, plugged with black rubber corks. Each one held a metallic liquid which reflected and refracted the light in weird ways as Sophia held them up to the light.

"Whoa …" breathed Emma. "What are they?" She stared at the tiny vials, fascinated despite herself.

"I honestly have no fucking idea," Sophia replied. "All I know is that there was some kind of cape fight between a bunch of people I've never seen before. The fight moved around a bit, and I saw a dead guy holding a case, so I took a chance and grabbed it. The case had these in it."

"And they didn't realise you had them?" Emma considered that to be the high priority.

"By the time they started looking, I was well away from the action, and the PRT was on the way, so they had to bolt." Sophia shrugged. "They never saw me, and they got no fuckin' idea who I am."

"Where's the case now?" asked Madison, frowning slightly. "It might be important."

"Fuck 'important'," retorted Sophia. "Something like this, there's almost certainly a tracking beacon involved. Soon as I got the case open, I dumped it. Along with the canisters these things were in. Just in case."

"You should maybe have left them in the canisters," Emma suggested diffidently. "They look kind of fragile."

"Yeah, no shit." Sophia made a rude noise with her lips. "I accidentally lost two already when they broke against each other. But I've been keeping the rest of them wrapped up and separate from each other since then, so they're good. I just don't know what they are, or why those assholes were fighting over them. They've gotta be valuable somehow, right?"

Emma knew where she was coming from. Independent vigilantes had it the worst of all capes. Sophia had to maintain her costume and her gear all on her own dime, while the Protectorate got paid a wage to go out there and wear costumes for the government, and supervillains literally stole money with their powers. The only break she got was that knocking over a drug house meant she could walk away with some of the money and the cops would look the other way, so long as she didn't get too greedy. Technically speaking, selling something she found at the scene of a cape battle could be seen as the same? Maybe?

"I think so," Madison said slowly. "I think I know what they are. And we're not going to be able to sell them. Or at least, the people who are likely to pay the most aren't the kind of people we want having them."

"You're not making any sense," Sophia said impatiently. "What the fuck do I care what kind of people they are, so long as they can pony up the cash?"

"I might be wrong." Madison didn't sound like she thought she was wrong. "But I like reading the tinfoil-hat boards; you know that. And this stuff, these vials … they look awfully like what Cauldron vials are supposed to look like."

Emma burst out laughing. "Oh, for fuck's sake," she managed after about thirty seconds. "You're saying these are powers in a can? That's bullshit. You have to know that's bullshit. There's no such thing." She'd read the same pages Madison was alluding to, though she hadn't gone as far down the rabbit hole. The whole 'Cauldron' conspiracy theory, especially the concept that they gave out 'powers in a can' to people who were particularly deserving, or whoever paid them a small fortune (the stories varied) was deeply appealing. Which was why she distrusted it so thoroughly. Nothing in this world was too good to be true.

"But what if it's true?" asked Madison. "From what you're saying, people were ready to kill for them." She eyed the tubes that Sophia was holding. "I'm pretty sure that's not the new Fugly Bob's secret sauce formula there."

"Well, if they are powers in a can …" Emma stopped. She'd been about to say, 'how much can we get for them', but another thought intruded. "… can anyone drink one?"

"What, you want powers?" Sophia raised her eyebrows. "Who said I'd let you drink any of them, anyway? My fuckin' vials, I do what I want with them. Maybe I'll sell 'em to the highest bidder."

"Who will almost certainly turn out to be a supervillain," Emma pointed out. "Do we really need three more supervillains in Brockton Bay? Wouldn't you rather have a partner to help kick the bad guys' asses?"

Sophia seemed to be considering that. "What happened to Miss 'screw the vigilante life, it's too much work'?"

"We could be a team!" argued Emma, ignoring her words. "Don't tell me you couldn't have done with backup from time to time!" She turned to Madison. "If I drank one, you'd drink one too, right?"

Madison blinked. "I … guess? Whoa, shit, we really could, couldn't we?" She shook her head. "It's just so weird, talking about the idea of just having powers, you know?"

"Yeah, we could." Emma's grin was getting wider all the time. "If we're drinking two of them, who do we give the third vial to?"

"Julia?" suggested Madison. "She's pretty cool. Backs me up in Mr G's class when we're screwing with Taylor."

Sophia shook her head. "Fuck Julia," she said bluntly. "She's a fuckin' wimp."

Emma frowned. The more she thought about it, the less anyone she knew was actually worthy of having powers. Except for her and Madison and Sophia, of course; and Sophia was already a parahuman. "Well, we can't just leave it sitting on the shelf. What if it's got a use-by date?" She eyed the vials. "Maybe we could split the last one between us?"

Madison shook her head violently. "No, that's a bad idea. I read on the boards that mixing vials is a prime way to end up as a Case Fifty-Two. One of the bad ones. Like, no arms and your head's where your butt's supposed to be."

"Yeah, and how do they know this?" Emma tried to feel as sceptical as she sounded. "Did they try it?"

"Maybe." Madison glared challengingly at her. "Where do you think they come from, anyway?"

"For fuck's sake, nobody's going to be mixing any fucking vials!" Sophia made a cut-off motion with her free hand. "Try to think of someone who'd be good to bring on board, and who wouldn't fuck off and do their own thing with their powers once they had them. The last thing we want is someone pulling a Legend."

That was a very important point. The Protectorate—the core Protectorate—had become the Triumvirate after an extremely public falling-out between the four main heroes. The reason for Legend's defection from their ranks had never been made public, just the fact of it; the Triumvirate weren't talking, and Legend wasn't making himself available for interviews.

Which meant that if Emma was going to be giving someone permission to have super-powers, they needed to know who was in charge. There was no sense in giving someone power if she couldn't give them orders once they had that power. She tried to think of someone in her circle who wasn't a total drip, who could also be a useful asset.

Madison's eyes opened wide. "Holy shit," she murmured. "I just had the best idea of what to do with the last vial."

Emma raised her eyebrows slightly. Madison's plans tended to be a little on the elaborate side, but they were usually worthwhile once she and Sophia pruned the deadwood away. "Shoot."

A manic grin split Madison's face. "We give it to Taylor."

Sophia wiggled her little finger in her ear. "Just for a moment, I thought I heard you say we should give the fuckin' thing to Hebert. And I know you didn't say that."

Emma frowned. "I heard it too. What the hell, Mads?"

"No, no, no, listen!" Madison was so excited, she was jiggling in place. "Not right now. We keep one aside, and me and you each drink one. We get used to our powers, and get proper costumes, and Sophia shows us how to be heroes, and we make a name for ourselves." She gestured at herself and Emma and Sophia. "I mean, whatever powers we get, we should make a pretty rockin' team, yeah?"

"Okay …" Emma tilted her head slightly. "Still waiting for the explanation about the bit where we give Taylor one though."

"Yeah." Sophia snorted. "Hope you weren't thinking you'd be inviting her on to our team. She's so fuckin' lame she'd get negative powers." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Unless you wanted to make her do all sorts of twisted shit so she could prove she's worth letting on to the team? That could be worth a laugh."

"Yeah," giggled Emma. "Tell her if she wants to join the team, she's gotta Sharpie a swastika on to Lung's left butt cheek. And get photos."

"That'd be funny as shit," Madison admitted. "But I got an even better idea."

Emma looked at her. "I'm listening."

"So we've got powers and costumes, and we're a proper hero team, right?" Madison made a come-on gesture to the other two.

"Right," agreed Sophia. "So what's next?"

Madison showed her teeth. "What's next is that we jump her on the first day of school in September. We force-feed her the vial then shove her in her locker. We're wearing most of our costumes under our clothes already, right? Soon as we've done that, we go change the rest of the way. By the time the stuff takes effect and she gets her powers, she'll be panicking. Everything I've ever read says that if you get powers while you're in a panic, you lash out. So she lashes out, and breaks stuff, and maybe even hurts people. And that's when we come swooping in."

Sophia's eyes had opened wide, and Emma's were not far behind. "Holy shit." Emma's voice was reverent. "That's absolute genius. We'd be the big damn heroes."

Carefully laying the vials down beside the backpack, Sophia smacked her fist into her palm. "Three on one? We'll kick her fuckin' ass. And we don't even have to be careful about it."

"And the best bit is, she's instantly outed." Madison beamed at the other two, pleased at their approval. "Nowhere she can run and hide. We can kick her around all day until the PRT shows up, then we hand her over. She either escapes or she goes to juvey. If she escapes, we get to hunt her down, kick the shit out of her all over again, and hand her over to the PRT. Rinse and repeat."

"What if she just does her time and gets out?" Emma felt she had to raise the probability.

Sophia shrugged. "Then we frame her for something, kick the shit out of her—because we'll be the fuckin' heroes and she'll be the villain, so who'll believe her?—and send her straight back. Every time she gets out, we put her back, 'til they throw her in the fuckin' Birdcage. Win-win."

The more Emma thought about it, the fewer problems she could see. She shook her head. "I have to hand it to you, Mads. You've absolutely outdone yourself this time." She offered her fist; blushing pink with pleasure, Madison bumped it.

"Hey, before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, we need to work out the logistics of this," Sophia broke in. "When are we gonna do it, where are we gonna do it, and what are you two gonna do for costumes?"

Emma rubbed her hands together briskly. "As soon as possible for the 'when'. We want to be established heroes before school starts. I'll leave the 'where' up to you, Sophia. You're the professional vigilante." She smiled sweetly. "And as for paying for costumes, all I'll have to do is bat my eyelashes and ask Dad for an advance on my allowance so I can have up-to-date outfits for school. I figure I'll be able to cover you and me both, Mads."

"Maybe we should wait to see what powers we get before we start talking costumes," Madison advised her seriously. "It would suck if you paid up front for a totally rockin' outfit, then got flame powers and had to start from scratch with something that's fireproof."

"Good point." Emma studied the vials on the sofa. One looked silver with a green tinge, one was gold with a blue tinge, and one was muddy grey with flecks of black and white. In her own mind, she decided that she was going to take the gold and blue one. "So, the first step is powers. Seeing what we get, and figuring out how to use them."

Sophia nodded. "Powers and power training."

Madison grinned widely. "We're gonna have powers!"

She held up her hand; Emma high-fived her.

End of Part One