AN: Set roughly three years after the series, making Bubbles eight. Bubbles special powers, in canon, include the Sonic Scream and the ability to process any language and communicate with animals. I own nothing, of course. Enjoy.

Bubbles gazed up into the sky. All she saw--all she ever saw anymore, no matter where she looked--was grey. She tried not to think about it. Once, she could see for hundreds of miles, and now … now … she thought about something her Daddy had said, about pulling the wool over someone's eyes. That was about right. She knew the world and all the beautiful colors she loved so much were right there, even if Him had trapped her in this endless mist. On her good days, it gave her hope: in spite of everything she had kept Townsville in one mostly whole, vibrant piece. On days that, well, weren't so nice, she cursed her perfect memory, in all its full color glory, for reminding her what she'd lost. Even if--when, when--she got Daddy and her sisters back, she knew her father wouldn't be able to fix her. Her instincts had told her as much, that she had to learn to deal 'cause this was it. And when she listened to them, really listened, her instincts were never wrong.

Her world was all about listening now.

But even if she couldn't see it, she knew how Townsville looked. She had lived and fought in red, cloudless, constant dusk for months before Him had taken it all away on her birthday, the one day when she had dared to let herself be completely happy, if only for a little while. No sun, just a shimmering pink pink-red mist that despite her best efforts, kept them sealed in, and the world locked out.

Eighteen months since Blossom, Buttercup, and the Professor--Daddy--had disappeared. At first, she had assumed the demon had finally bored of playing, and decided to turn Townsville into hell on earth. Bubbles sighed, shaking her head slightly. Hell? Before all this, I woulda been so embarrassed to even think that kinda word, even if I'm not gonna say it. She shrugged. But it's not like I'm just goin' around cursin' up a blue streak. Hehe. I made a funny.

But that notion had only stayed with her a few days. If this was supposed to be hell, why had Him made sure they had running water, and electricity, and kept the stores stocked with food and the hospitals with medicine? It had taken her several months to figure it out. We're his toys, and he takes good care of his playthings. She sighed. 'Cept, I'm the only thing he's interested in. Everyone else is just someone to threaten to get my attention. She screwed her eyes shut. The world was still just as grey. Bait. But what does he get from all this? I don't understand... For a year and a half he'd sent monsters against the town, nastier and more dangerous than anything he'd ever conjured before he had banished Blossom and Buttercup.

Then again, she had changed, too. She couldn't match the beasts' viciousness, even when she tried. Anger actually made her more sloppy, weaker, more likely to let someone else be injured. She wasn't like Buttercup. She couldn't be that mean, even to monsters. Careful planning, like Blossom would have done, was never an option. She never had that kind of time, and her mind didn't really work that way. But that didn't mean she didn't figure out a way to be strong enough. It had been so obvious, but she could have never figured it out when Blossom and Buttercup were still with her, coddling her or trying to mould her into the kind of hero they thought she should be.

Sometimes, even though she tried not to think about it, Bubbles wondered what Blossom and Buttercup would think if they could see her now. I'm supposed to be the sweet, happy one. She very carefully never thought of what their father would say. Not that she wasn't still happy, when she felt safe, but it was getting harder. As long as she was in this town, with Him sending his little pets, she would never really be safe. None of them would. And she was stronger and faster now, but she wasn't stupid: she wasn't ever gonna give up, but she couldn't keep this up forever. Not without more people getting hurt.

The monsters Him used now, they weren't like the old ones, they--he sent them at random, for no other purpose but to terrorize. Sometimes once a day, sometimes once a week. From Christmas Eve to New Years, one every hour, more vicious than the last. And they could hurt her so easily, she nearly forgot she was supposed to be invulnerable. Had he always been so powerful, and just toyed with them before? Bubbles wasn't sure she really wanted to know. She had nearly died too many times, and too many other people had suffered.

Enough, Bubbles. You're...what did Mayor Bellum call it? Brooding. Yeah. Lunch'll be over in twenty minutes. Gotta get back to school soon. She sighed. She wished she could go back to Pokey Oaks. She always felt safe there. But she was a big girl now, and big girls went to elementary school, with mean ol' Mr Krachett, who seemed to hate having her in his class, no matter how good she was. Already done a patrol. Still, I should probably double check, just in case.

Bubbles took a deep breath and shut her eyes, not that it made any difference, and reached out with her ears like she never would have guessed she could when she still had her eyes. The city flooded into her brain, all its screeching, beeping, scraping, pounding, clanking, tinkling, laughing, talking, and a million other sounds music to her ears. Years ago, she might have felt overwhelmed by it all, but not anymore. It wasn't anything like being able to see the beautiful colors, but she was connected to the whole city, and that was almost as good. Slowly, she began filtering out the sounds she didn't need and pushing them to the back of her mind and down, just like the blind or near-blind animals at the zoo, who had to rely on the sounds just like she did, had taught her. And those blind spiders in the Insect House who had helped her learn to focus on the details of every vibration. She couldn't forget them either. And to think I useta be so scared of bugs. Daddy was right. They're so clever, and have so much to teach. Even roaches. Yuck.

She could have filtered the noise quicker, could do it in an instant when she really had to. But she was in no hurry, so she started slowly. First, the noise of cars in perfect working order, the gentle hum of Townsville's electricity grid, and the sound of almost five-hundred thousand calm, healthy heartbeats, and nearly as many deep, full breaths, though too many people for her liking were sick and didn't have hearts or lungs that sounded quite right. But that was natural, her mother had said, and there wasn't anything she could do about it. She gathered them all up in her mind and pushed them down till they were just a gentle buzzing in the back of her head. The same gentle buzz that was with her always now, after months and months of practice. Doctor Stevens said it was like she had her finger to Townsville's pulse. It sounded kinda cool, when he said it like that.

Carefully, she found all the other noises that didn't need her attention and likewise gently pushed them away--not so far that she wouldn't notice if they needed her, but just enough that she could focus on other things. She ghosted over conversations, trying not to pry but wanting to make sure she heard any calls for help. All the while, she kept her mind alert for sirens, screams, guns being cocked or knives being drawn, the whooshing noise of something falling from a great height, or any of so many other warning sounds she had learned to recognize without thinking.

Bubbles stopped sifting suddenly, a wailing cry filling the space between her ears. Baby? What's wrong? She tensed, focusing in as her animal friends had taught her. She relaxed again as she found the baby's strong, rhythmic heartbeat, heard the whoosh-whoosh of blood in its veins, and the suckle of air as it filled up its lungs for another wail that was just a hair away from hurting her ears. All normal baby sounds. She pulled her awareness just slightly away from the baby and heard a woman's voice, gently cooing. "Mommy's here, Timmy. Don't cry now. Stephie didn't mean to spill those green beans all over your head. Shh...Shh…" Bubbles smiled, then focused for a few moments, quickly finding all the other healthy, safe babies crying about a million completely harmless things, and pushing them all down to join the bees in their hives, the cars on the streets, and the teenagers kissing and ripping at their clothes (Ew. Why do they do that?), and everything else that was like it was supposed to be. A few more minutes of careful listening and sifting told her everything was basically okay, for the moment. Not that it would stay that way. It never stayed that way.

Still, before she flew back to school, she decided it wouldn't hurt to check up on a few people in particular. She was kinda in a funk today, even if she didn't wanna admit it, and listening to them might make her feel better. She concentrated, and this time it took less than a second to start finding the heartbeats she wanted…

To the north: strong, but deliberate and calm, just like the rest of her. Mayor Bellum. Bubbles listened for a moment more, and heard her long, thick hair slide against her suit jacket as she rolled the cricks out of her neck and sighed, a paper crinkling on her desk as she wrote something down…

Westward, at MacIntire Elementary, a heartbeat surrounded by the sounds of the cafeteria at lunchtime. Slower and maybe a little weaker than it had been before Him took Bubbles' family away, but still healthy and strong. Bubbles frowned. Robin just couldn't get as much exercise as she used to. She listened longer, and Robin laughed as Bubbles heard the sound of metal sliding against oiled metal as rubber wheels rolled against sticky linoleum, Robin's fingers sliding over the handrims on her chair, looking for the best grip. She was laughing and talking to someone, so Bubbles smiled slightly, even as she wiped at the moisture gathering at the corners of her eyes.

Robin's heartbeat had been the first Bubbles learned after Mommy's, and she could still remember what it was like then. Strong and fast, almost beating in time with her laughter somehow, even faster when they would play during recess. Bubbles still remembered the way her feet fell when she ran, too. Quick and nimble, but always confident in where they were landing. Clop-clop-clop-clop... Bubbles always thought Robin would have been good at ballet or tap or basketball or something else that needed quick reflexes and sure feet, if … well. Bubbles hadn't been quite as good with her ears, then, and it had taken her longer to react than it should have when the bear-monster-thing had thrown that car. She had caught it before her friend had taken its full, crushing weight, but it was enough. Bubbles cringed at the memory of the crunching noise, and the way Robin had screamed…

Robin's father had long since forgiven her, and Robin was never angry, but her mother--Bubbles supposed she couldn't really blame her. She had failed them.

She sighed again and rubbed at her nose. So much for making herself feel better. Maybe if she asked, she could go see Doctor Stevens early this week. She was having too many not-nice days lately.

Bubbles was distracted from her thoughts as a new noise caught her attention: something growling, and big, underground and digging, digging, digging towards the surface. With--she was too far away to figure out how many of whatever kind of arms it had, but definitely more than two. She stood quickly. Where? Southeast… In less than a heartbeat she had it, and it felt like that time Buttercup had dumped her in the water at the North Pole. No! She was flying before she realized it, calling for more and more speed until all the sounds started to garble and bend. Sound barrier. Can't go any faster, or I really will be blind. As fast as she was going, from the top of the bank clock tower to Pokey Oaks would only take a few seconds. Holdonholdonholdon--

Far away but growing closer, dirt and concrete exploded upwards with a deep growl and a snapping of … things. "Children! Everyone inside! Now! Hurry, down to the basement, quick--" A crunch, and a scream, and two dozen other, smaller, younger screams, slamming doors, and the next heartbeat she had been about to look for thudding madly in panic as a muffled wail reached her ears.

Bubbles flew just a little bit faster, not even caring that the world itself was starting to flicker in and out of existence around her. "Mommy!"


***

Sandra Keene bit her tongue to keep from screaming again as she pulled herself to a sitting position against a tree, and only let up when she started to taste blood. She took a deep breath and did her best to ignore the burning in her leg where the creature had struck her. She tried to move further away from the … the thing that had thrown her across the schoolyard, but that just made her leg feel worse and white flashes dance across her vision, so she forced herself to go limp. Can't pass out. She took more deep breaths, and concentrated on trying to think past the pain. But she didn't think it was working. Black haze gathered at the edge of her already blurred vision. Oh, God. She saw the creature out of the corner of her eye, and forced herself to turn and concentrate on it, if only to keep herself awake. It was a dumb one, still busy taking apart the extra shiny parts of the playground that had distracted it, but that wouldn't last long. She tried to open her mouth to call for help, but clamped her jaw shut when she felt another scream starting to build in her throat. She couldn't draw the thing's attention again, or she would die. And she couldn't do that to Bubbles. Promised I wouldn't leave her alone. Another shuddering breath. At least the kids got downstairs. Really wish I hadn't dropped my cellphone when it threw me.

It was big, at least as tall as the school, and red like rotten strawberries and dried blood. If it stopped moving, she was sure it would blend perfectly into the blood red dusk. It was an octopus out of a Dr Seuss nightmare: mouthful of glistening fangs, rows and rows; each of its eight waving arms tentacles capped with a claw at least as large as Sandra herself. It had one huge, lidless eye, the iris a putrid yellow. Sandra gasped as it seemed to grow bored, and turned its attention towards the school. Sandra's fogged mind suddenly cleared, adrenaline flooding her brain--she had children to protect. Building's not strong enough to keep it away from the kids...not if it's strong enough to hurt Bubbles. They always are. "B-Bubbles, honey," she managed to whisper, finally finding her voice as urgency muffled the pain. "Hel--"

A powder blue streak shot across the sky, curving down towards her. Sandra felt herself smile. She and her students were safe now. The blue streak of light flew past her, and the sound of flesh hitting flesh rattled her bones as the octopus-thing went flying, not stopping until it impaled itself on the remains of the jungle gym with a sclop that made her stomach lurch unpleasantly, its single eye growing dim. It didn't move again, at least not before Bubbles filled her vision, kneeling in front of her with a worried frown on her face, tears leaking out from flat, grey, empty eyes. "M-Mommy? I heard you scream…"

Sandra took another deep breath before answering. Her Bubbles had grown up a lot since kindergarten, and she couldn't be prouder, but--God, why did it have to be like this? Sandra forced herself to check Bubbles over for injuries, finding nothing: not a single rip on her blue jeans or drop of blood on her white sneakers, or even a smudge of dirt on her powder blue shirt. Sandra smiled slightly; the shirt was Bubbles favorite, "'cause it's Hello, Kitty, Mommy. Even if I can't see her." Her blonde hair hung in a messy ponytail, held in place with the only one of Blossom's bows they had managed to recover from John Utonium's house after Him had demolished the place, singed and frayed but otherwise in one piece, even after all this time. The remains of Buttercup's sea green security blanket, stained and more like the skin of a rotted lime now, hung tied around her neck. Sandra tried not to think about how much of Bubbles' blood and various bits of monster goo was trapped in those stains. But her little angel refused to part with it, and Sandra couldn't bring herself to make her. Sandra forced herself to look away, her eyes falling on Bubbles' hands, navy blue fingerless gloves not hiding the dozens of little knicks marring her fingers. The half-dozen bigger hair's-breadth marks on her forearms stood out against her pale skin. She wanted to look away, but it wouldn't have made any difference; Sandra knew where every mark was, anyway. Even the ones no one else knew about. The last Powerpuff Girl wasn't vain, but she did her best to make Townsville think she was invincible, even if everybody knew better and just didn't want to admit it. Oh, Bubbles. I'm so sorry. For everything.


***

"M-Mommy? I heard you scream…" Bubbles heard her adopted parent take a deep, shuddering breath, and turned her ears fully onto her, listening carefully. Her lungs sounded fine: no escaping air or fluid that wasn't supposed to be there. She couldn't hear anything else that sounded like it was leaking either. Her heartbeat had already started to slow to something more normal and less alarming, no longer reminding Bubbles of the way Mr. Mayor's had thundered and spasmed when a heart attack took him away from them. She had held his hand when he left, unable to do anything but listen… Bubbles heard fingers clenching and unclenching, and reached down, smiling when a petite hand, still larger than her own, took hers, wound their fingers together, and squeezed. She breathed a sigh of relief as Mommy took in several slow, calming breaths and her pulse slowed down, still too high, and focused in on her heart. The whoosh-slosh-whoosh of blood pumping out from the left ventra--ventre--big important tube thing, then to the aorta, and on to the rest of her body sounded like it had when the doctors gave her tapes of healthy people's hearts so she could recognize them.

Bubbles focused on all those veins and arteries and little tiny blood vessels, listening for clogs or leaks or anything else that sounded wrong, and frowned at the way the flow turned messy and confused below Mommy's left knee. It didn't sound like all of it was flowing back towards her heart the way it was supposed to, like some of it was getting stuck somewhere, or--she finally made out the drip-drip-drip she had missed before--that she shouldn't have missed--but it was hard to concentrate 'cause this was Mommy and Mommy wasn't ever supposed to get hurt, ever. Bleeding. She was bleeding. "I'm fine, honey," Mommy whispered. "I just hurt--"

"Your leg," Bubbles whimpered. "It's bleeding and cracked or fractured or," Mommy twitched from her head to her toes, the way people twitched when they were really hurt and trying not to show it, and Bubbles' eyes widened at the sound of bone grinding against bone as Mommy bit her lip and swallowed back a scream, "b-broken." Bubbles took a deep, calming breath of her own as Mommy squeezed her hand again, and forced herself to relax as much as she could, digging in her pocket for her cell phone. "I'll call an ambulance, and tear off some of my shirt so we can stop the blood. C-can't fly you like this," she murmured, pulling the little flip phone out, flipping it open and running her thumb over the braille keypad, looking for the nine. "They'll fix you."

Mommy pressed a clammy palm against her cheek, and Bubbles leaned into it, closing her eyes and grinning tightly. "It's okay, baby. I'll be f-fine. They'll patch me u-up in no time." Bubbles heard her smile, and smiled back as best she could. She didn't sound anywhere close to okay.

Sclurch--cliklikliklik….likliklik… Faint. Too quiet for a human to hear. On the jungle gym. Uh oh.

"Mommy?" she said, trying to sound calm and in control. "Can … can you call the ambulance guys? The monster is knitting itself back together." Aww...I really don't like the ones that can do that.

Mommy tensed up and took another deep breath, and when she spoke again she sounded more like herself. "What? Honey, are you sure? It looks pretty … um ... dead."

Bubbles nodded. "I can hear it."

"Da--well, alright, then. Let me … have your phone. Be careful, sweetie." Bubbles heard a ruffling of fabric as she put her phone down next to Mommy, and a hiss of pain, and realized her mother was using her jacket to try to stop the blood flowing from her leg.

Bubbles nodded. Hafta make it quick. The ambulance can't come if the monster's still up and around. She turned her ears downward, and heard all the kindergartners whimpering and whispering fearfully in the basement. Can't let it fall on the school. It's too big. She snapped her attention back up and forward, towards the monster, and frowned as she floated forward, balling her fists, shoving her emotions and the reluctance to hurt another living thing into a tight little ball behind her belly-button as best she could, just as she had done when she punched the creature into the jungle gym. Just as she had done in a thousand other fights since Him sealed her in and she learned how to be strong. Blossom and Buttercup had it easy. They both liked to fight. Bubbles hated it, but loved protecting people, and that wasn't really the same thing. Once she realized that was okay, that she didn't have to enjoy the fight the way her sisters did, things were so much easier.

She still felt just a little flare of anger--this thing had hurt Mommy--but she could deal with it, and it wouldn't get in her way.

Lots of long, narrow, wavy things (tentacles?) that she hadn't really had the chance to examine before were busily untangling themselves from the gym, and something wet and slimy slid against groaning metal. It's pulling itself off the bar I stuck it on. Aw, man. A huge roar hit her like a tidal wave just as she heard Mommy start talking to someone on the phone. But she couldn't listen to that conversation right now. Sounds mad. … That makes two of us. Bubbles' frown deepened. Time to get a clearer picture. Bubbles gathered the biggest, deepest lungful of air she could, swallowed it down into her middle, and yelled, careful not turn everything in her Sonic Scream's path to rubble.

Her awareness warbled for a split second as the ultrasonic waves bounced back towards her and her head vibrated from her jaw up to her hairline and all the way to the base of her skull, like it was about to fall off her neck. She really didn't like having to do that. If she was a dolphin or a whale or a bat, she would have had the special squishy bits in her forehead that turned the sound into a crystal clear impression. What she got instead was muddled ripples in the grey that made her stomach sick if she concentrated on them long enough, but--

Oh. Bubbles tilted her head up, to where she knew the red sky was. "Betcha think that's real funny, don'tcha, Him. Giant evil Octi with pincers." She shook her head. "Fine." Bubbles cleared her throat. If I beat on it or smash it, it'll just grow itself back together. Mommy and all the little kids don't have time for that, and I don't want this thing escaping and smashing its way across Townsville. Bubbles gritted her teeth. This is gonna hurt.

Bubbles blinked once, twice, then called the fire that always waited just behind her eyes, gritting her teeth as she almost instantly felt the burning, hot, wrongness spreading from the bridge of her nose across her skull. The monster yowled, the sound of its body knitting itself back together overshadowed by sizzling and popping. Burn it. Burn it away. Bubbles focused on the knitting, moving her head and eyes towards wherever she heard it and holding her non-gaze there until only the smoldering pops and hisses of char-broiled monster flesh remained, swallowing hard against the pain and the scent of burning flesh and monster goo attacking her nose, both trying their best to make her toss her cookies. The concrete around the beast shattered, metal groaned and creaked and warped, and it really, really, really hurt.

Warm, thick, slippery wetness started flowing from her eyes, and Bubbles gulped, clenching her fists tighter and hoping the clicking noise of healing flesh would stop soon. She couldn't quit 'till she was sure the Octi-thing wasn't gonna grow itself back--she had learned that lesson with the giant fire-breathing panda bears that had knitted back together five times before she had figured out what to do--Owie ow ow!

And just as quickly, the clicking was gone. The monster was dead. Really dead, this time. With some effort, Bubbles cut her eye-beams. It always felt like that time Mojo had burned her arm with that really big laser cannon, and the skin was all tight and stiff and didn't want to move. Another moment and the burning was gone, a dull throb in its place. She hoped it didn't last too long this time. She had a math test at two. "Gotcha," she whispered, the corner of her mouth twitching up just slightly. Can't hurt anybody else now. She ran her fingers through her hair and turned, flying quickly back to her mother. Mommy wasn't saying anything, just taking deep, slow breaths. Bubbles frowned. "Mommy? I … I got it. It's really dead now."

Mommy sighed, and from the sound of her voice Bubbles could tell she was looking off towards where the monster had been. "I can tell, baby," she whispered, sounding sad. Bubbles heard her hair rustling, and a sharp intake of breath. Mommy was looking at her again. She must have looked pretty messed up. "Oh, honey. Come here," Mommy whispered, voice tight.

Bubbles felt suddenly exhausted, which didn't make a lot of sense -- that monster had barely taken any effort at all to deal with -- and squatted down next to her mother, leaning into her side opposite her broken leg, which Bubbles was doing her very best not to listen to. Mommy pulled her around until Bubbles was leaning back against her shoulder, resting her head in the crook of her neck. She smelled like soap and honey perfume, and Bubbles felt a weight lift off her shoulders. "The ambulance and the police will be here soon. … Here. I have some tissues in my pocket. Hold still." And then Mommy pressed soft tissue to her cheeks and chin, wiping slowly and gently. After a few moments, she stopped. "All gone." Mommy kissed the top her head, and Bubbles felt a small grin cross her face. "Could you do me a favor?"

Bubbles sat up straighter and turned her face towards the voice. "Yes, ma'am?"

"Would you go check on the kids? They were very scared when I hustled them all into the basement. I'll bet you could distract them for a few minutes until the police show up. The authorities will lock down the school and call their parents, so you can get back to class."

Bubbles frowned. "But, I wanna go to the hospital with you! You can't go by yourself."

Hair rustling again -- Mommy shaking her head. "Honey, I don't want you missing more school than you have to, and you can come visit me just as soon as you're done. I'll be fine, I promise. And … I don't want you listening for me at the hospital, okay? I'll have to talk to the doctors and I want to do that in private."

After a moment, Bubbles nodded slowly. "Yes, ma'am." They would have to fix Mommy's leg and that would probably really hurt until they gave her lots of pain medicine, and Mommy didn't want her to hear that. And Bubbles didn't really like hospitals, anyway; they smelled like sickness and death and all the cleaning chemicals made her nose itch. Bubbles frowned again, until she had an idea. Even though the hospital didn't smell good, she knew something that did, and they would be pretty, too. Mr. Cloop down at the flower-shop would help her pick out something nice. Bubbles nodded to herself, feeling a little bit better, and decided to go check on the little kids. The less she thought about what had almost happened to Mommy, the better. You'll haaaaaaave to think about it eveeeeeentually, a nasty little voice whispered in the back of her head. She repressed a shudder at Him's intrusion into her mind. You can't protect them forever, little Bubbles. Someday, no matter whaaaaaat you do, one of them will diiiiiiie. And the Mayor doesn't count, you know. It's hardly my fault he couldn't stand the heat. Bubbles kept her face serene, but imagined gritting her teeth and growling at the presence in her mind. I can save them. I will. Watch me. The slight pressure of Him's presence left her mind, and she breathed a sigh of relief, leaned over, and kissed Mommy on the temple, where her pulse beat loudly. "I'll be listening for you 'till the ambulance comes, so if you need me, just call. I love you."

"I love you, too, sweetheart. I'll see you soon." Bubbles nodded and flew, trying to pull a happy look onto her face, or at least something that wasn't sad or scary to look at. She didn't want to worry the kids she was supposed to be comforting.


***

Sandra watched Bubbles disappear into the building, and bit her lip, fighting back a sob. That would call her back in less than a second. She looked down at her lap, at the blood-soaked tissues she held in her hands, bright red against her own pale skin. No matter how many times Bubbles had to fall back to using her eye-beams, and no matter that Sandra knew using them couldn't really do any more permanent damage, she could hardly stand it, seeing Bubbles standing there not-staring at her with blood streaming her face. She wondered, a sudden flash of anger surging from her cheeks to her stomach, if Him had sent one of his self-healing monsters just to force her to use her eye-beams, knowing the pain they caused her now. She felt a sudden stab of hatred for the red demon, but pushed it down. Bubbles had told her negative emotions--hopelessness, despair, hate--made Him stronger, and she would be damned if she gave the beast an iota more power to use against Townsville and her adopted daughter. She tilted her head, looking up at the sky.

Enjoy it while you can, Him. We won't be your little ant-farm forever. Bubbles and her sisters will beat you. Somehow. I know it. And in the meantime, we couldn't have a braver guardian. Sandra shook her head softly. I just pray I can keep her together until this is over. She was never meant to have to do this alone. Sandra would never admit it aloud, but Him had broken Bubbles; the point of no return had come and gone on her birthday. Sandra shuddered at the memory. An image came to her mind, unbidden, of cake and balloons and weeping, terrified children, and Bubbles kneeling on the ground in front of Him, mewling and clutching her face as blood ran between her fingers. "Haaaapy Birthdaaaaay, Bubbles." Him had said, grinning, the remnants of his acid spray oozing between his teeth. Sandra shook her head sharply, banishing the images from her mind, though they would surely return in her nightmares. They always did.

What Him had certainly not counted on, what had surprised and awed them all, even if they should have known better than to think she would just crumble, was the way the girl had forced herself back together, learned to adapt. She wasn't quite the same, and never would be--Sandra really hoped John Utonium and her sisters would be able to accept that--but she was stronger, tougher, and less likely to give up than she had been before, even if she was a bit cracked and shattered around the edges. Sandra thought suddenly of Venus de Milo, beloved and cherished as much for its beauty as the fact it had survived the fates attempts to destroy it, even if it had been horribly scarred. Bubbles was their Venus: brilliant and beautiful in spite of all the broken places. Perhaps beautiful in part because of them. But Sandra knew she couldn't be pushed much further without losing herself completely. Professor Utonium--John--Blossom, Buttercup … I know you're out there, trying to get home. Hurry. She needs you.