AN: Four more fics that aren't one sentence at all. Again, all set before chapter 1 unless marked with an asterisk (*), in Bubbles' POV unless otherwise noted. Speech appearing in brackets indicates Bubbles isn't speaking English. Note: Number 24 is told from the POV of a crossover character. The first person who guesses the fandom she comes from in a review gets to pick a POV character for me to use in the next set. Note 2: Re-uploaded to fix formatting errors and re-add missing text in Fall, which FFN stripped out for no reason I can determine. Sorry about that.

24. Mask (*) (Theresa Lamaise)

When she was smaller, sometimes Theresa got bored and daydreamed of being a comicbook superheroine. Oh, she was perfectly happy, even if the Ashleys constantly made fun of her for being so small and none of her other schoolmates really seemed to pay her any attention except for Gus and his friends, but sometimes she liked to imagine what it might be like to be one of those strong, invincible, brave women who flew without wings, stood up to dozens of bad guys with a grin, and always came out on top, no matter what happened. She wanted to have that perfect confidence, instead of being the little meek kid the older bullies went to steal lunch money from since she was only about as tall as their arm.

Now, she'd like to say she doesn't know why she never really fantasized about being like one of the world's real superheroes, not counting that most of them are big, macho, kinda stuck up guys, but she'd be lying. She always knew about the Powerpuff Girls - everyone did, they were all over the news - but they were real: they always beat the bad guy, but they had chores and school and bedtime and rules like any other kid. And it was more than that. Something in the back of her mind made her uncomfortable with idolizing them the way she did Wonder Woman and Batgirl and Rogue.

Then, one day Theresa was waiting in Townsville Airport to fly home with her Aunt Flo when a giant red monster clown - with a voice like rotten honey and eyes so burning with hate and crazy that when Theresa saw him that first day she nearly wet herself - appeared and trapped her and everyone else in the city so he could kill them all 'cause he was bored, or … something. Just wipe them all out like their lives didn't mean anything. She cried for days, and refused to leave their hotel for two weeks, afraid of being gobbled by a demon. It didn't take Theresa long to admit to herself exactly why she had tried to ignore the Powerpuff Girls. They - Bubbles fights demons who want to kill everyone, and unlike the comics, the demons can win.

Theresa's lucky: she's never personally been attacked by a monster. She's never had to watch a battle, even though the shaking ground and the terrifying sounds of deadly fights - monsters (and too often, a girl, about her age) howling in pain, flesh smacking against flesh with window-shattering force, the terrible stillness when the battle ends and everyone wonders if Bubbles is still with them - still come to her in nightmares that send her scrambling to her Aunt Flo's room more often than she'll ever admit. They're in the same class at school, and even though they've never spoken, Bubbles is always there, and Theresa can't help watching her. She's in the lunch room, on the playground, slumped in a desk at the back of the classroom, everywhere. Theresa's seen her bruised, cut, battered almost down to nothing. Remembers her pretty blue eyes, and knows why they're gray and empty now. Seen Robin Schneider, pale and miserable and afraid even more than the rest of them, hunched over in her wheelchair eating lunch alone after the news announces that Bubbles got stabbed through the stomach and had to be taken to the hospital and the doctors aren't sure if she'll live till the next morning.

Theresa doesn't think even Major Glory would have lasted this long. Part of her is proud that one of the world's toughest superheroes is a girl.

But knowing the world is full of such wickedness that they need Bubbles makes Theresa's stomach clench and quiver and her heart ache when she thinks about it too much. She can't imagine doing the same thing herself, standing alone between the city and total doom without the promise that she gets to win in the end thanks to some benevolent writer who fixes everything at the last minute.

She feels like a coward sometimes; her father would be ashamed.

But she's stayed alive. She's safe if she's invisible: head down, shoulders drawn together, so quiet people forget she's there, always out of the way, always knowing where to find shelter in case the city alarm goes off. She even plays cello in music class; the instrument the snobs say no one notices unless it's missing. She's spent the last year and a half purposefully avoiding Bubbles. The Powerpuff has plenty of friends, after all.

Doesn't she?

Robin's been out with pneumonia for two weeks now, after she and her parents got caught out in the rain for three hours, and Theresa never noticed it before, but no one else really hangs out with Bubbles. Sure, almost everyone adores her and speaks to her when they see her, but they keep their distance, like they're nervous … or afraid. Mitch Mitchelson seems to try a little harder, but it's always really awkward; rumor is he liked Buttercup better and that makes things weird for them. And that snit Princess makes sure to take digs at her whenever she can. She's worse than all the Ashleys put together.

For the last two weeks no one's gone near her and she's spent her recesses slumped on a swingset doing that listening-to-the-world thing, looking worried and miserable, and Theresa doesn't think she can take it anymore. Everyone says Bubbles watches her foster mother like a paranoid hawk, just waiting for something bad to happen. Theresa's Momma and Dad always taught her to face challenges head on, and she would've done something sooner but -

There's a demon after Bubbles, and he's never hesitated to taunt her after a tragedy: he took her sight from her just because he knew how much she loved all the colors in the world; he paralyzed her best friend just to prove she wasn't fast enough. Trying to be her friend means getting on his radar.

Or she could keep going like she has been, wearing her carefully built perfect wallflower mask. Leave Bubbles alone.

And then it hits her. Alone. Cut off from having real friends. Isn't that just what the demon wants? He's probably the one that made Robin sick. He's tried everything else to make Bubbles crack.

It's so clear now. That's exactly what he's trying to do. I'm helping him. We're all helping him, every time we pull away 'cause we're afraid.

Theresa loves her Aunt Flo, but the demon took her away from her parents and her grandma and all her friends. She constantly tries not to wonder if this is the day when she can't hide from the monsters and they finally come to eat her. He's destroyed her life, and she won't let him use her for anything, or keep her from doing something she wants - needs - to do, ever again.

She steps forward with sure feet, even as her hand twitches, wishing for a comforting bag of corn chips, 'cause she's suddenly nervous that maybe Bubbles won't want to bother with her since she's not Robin, but then she's there, plopping herself into an empty swing, and Bubbles turns her head, a curious look on her face. Theresa feels her eyes drawn towards the adorable little purple octopus clip holding a thick lock of blonde hair over the edge of her face, hiding the pale scar running from her temple to her jaw from when something tried to cut her face off. The same something that left the hair-thin scar across the bridge of her nose, if the rumors are true. Theresa represses a shiver. It's too late to back out now.

"Hello, Theresa," Bubbles says quietly, and at first Theresa's creeped out before she figures that someone with super hearing probably knows everybody's name, and the sound of how they move. Superman did in the comics. "Is something wrong?"

Theresa blinks, pressing her fingertips together. Was Bubbles that unused to people coming up to her that didn't need help? She takes a deep breath. "N-no, no. I was just … you looked kinda bored and I just thought maybe you might like to play some … jacks?" Theresa blinks again. That didn't come off nearly so cool and confident as she had hoped. At least I didn't stutter. Much.

Bubbles not-stares at her for what feels like minutes, but can't be more than a few seconds. "Seriously?" She sounds hopeful, and Theresa wonders how long it's been since someone besides Robin or Mitch has asked her to just play with them. She hears herself giggling a little and nods, before remembering Bubbles can't see. She mentally scolds herself and is about to speak when Bubbles actually smiles, a quick, happy flash of white, perfect teeth. "Sure." Huh? How'd she know? She can't hear that well … can she? She still sounds a bit surprised, but Theresa tries not to think about it.

Bubbles floats off of the swing, and Theresa still thinks that's one of the most amazing things she'll ever see, and but then stops suddenly, turning to her.

"Say, if I accidentally break your jacks set, you're not gonna suddenly decide to become a super-villain, are you?" She asks, completely seriously. "It's kinda happened before. … I thought I should double check."

Theresa gapes, wondering if this was a good idea after all. "I … wasn't planning on it?"

Bubbles smiles; she's not showing her teeth this time, but it's still there. "Cool."

Theresa grins. She's on her way to making a new friend and the warm feeling in her chest makes her sure she's done the right thing.

She tries not to wonder exactly what she's gotten herself into.

Strength (Ms Keane) (*) (Takes place at least 3-4 months after Mask)

"Evenin', Sandy! Thanks for saving me a seat."

Sandra jumped a little in her seat, tearing her eyes away from the auditorium's main stage and it's drawn curtains to look at her companion. His green eyes sparkled with mirth as he ran his fingers through tousled red hair. Definitely a cutie. Too bad he isn't available. … Nice to look, though. "You know that's not my name, Ray. For twenty years you've known that's not my name." She shook her head, unable to keep a small smile from her face. "Shouldn't you be with the other faculty?"

He shook his head. "And have to deal with Lisa flirting with me all night?" He shook his head. "No thanks. Besides, I wanna see my kids bring down the house up close. That's why I teach music, you know. To live vicariously through my tiny minions of rock." He shook his head. "And, you know, nurture a healthy learning environment, and all that other jazz we're supposed to be in favor of so we don't get fired, but mostly I'm in it for the minions. Oh, hey! Did I tell you we finally raised enough money for that used stage laser light disco ball after our last bake sale? And Marty's gonna get his shop class at the high school to build us a fog machine. The holiday concert is gonna be excellent this year."

And this is why we don't let you near the PTA meetings. You're having way more fun than the rest of us. Of course, I can have fun, too... She shook her head to hide her smirk. "You're dodging the subject, Ray, and making me jealous that I don't get paid to have small children reenact my KiSS Army fantasies. I still don't understand why you won't just let Lisa down gently. Tell her you're not interested. … And if you make some crack about being irresistible, I will personally make sure my most tone deaf student makes it into your chorus class just as soon as they get to elementary school."

Ray winced, entirely too dramatically. "You really know how to punch below the belt, Sandy." He paused, looking uncomfortable. "Seriously, though, with Lisa - I'd just hate for things to get, y'know … awkward." He paused, then lowered his voice and tried to sound husky. And failed. "Wanna tell me more about your KiSS Army fantasies, Sandy?" She snorted and elbowed him, in a not quite friendly way. "Guess not," he wheezed.

Sandra suddenly felt guilty. "Lisa grew up with you," she smiled, "just like me. She's not gonna turn on you. … She is going to be very disappointed you're more likely to be her competition than anything else. Especially with those pants, which I may break into your house and steal at any time."

His cheeks flushed. "Surely you think there's more to me than tight pants."

She giggled. "You've got the singing thing to go with the tight pants. Like … Tom Jones … with Carrot Top's hair. … I'm not helping, am I?"

"...Please tell me you did not just compare my hair to Carrot Top's. … I think I may die. Or get my head shaved." He looked genuinely stricken, and Sandra suddenly remembered the dozens of hair products he kept in his bathroom; some of them even glowed in the dark.

Right. Change the subject, quick. "Focus on the Tom Jones part. … So, the girls are up next. Any chance you can tell me what they're planning? I haven't been able to get a thing out of Bubbles. She's even hauled her drums to Theresa's basement." Sandra smiled, thinking of the quiet, shy little girl that had decided her Bubbles could use another friend. Not from Townsville, she brought a dose of normal to her daughter and Robin that no one who grew up with monsters and master criminals and a crime rate that was downright terrifying if you stopped and thought about it could hope to match. It had been her idea to enter the school district's talent show, "cause you are actually good at stuff besides beating up monsters, y'know. Besides, they won't let Robin and I in with just a trumpet and a cello. It'll be fun!"

And here we are. She suppressed a sigh. I wouldn't blame you, sweetie, but I really hope you don't run away when you get caught up in the doom that follows my girl around.

He chuckled. "Dunno. They practiced a few routines. All of it's good, but I'm not promising anything. They're going to rock, and probably get beaten by some overweight talentless kid juggling hams."

She groaned. "I can't believe you - we were ten, Ray. Aren't you ever going to let that go? And shouldn't you not be taking sides, Mister Music Man?"

"No, probably not. But those three are the only students I have in this shindig, so I'm not rooting against any of my own. Totally ethical." He peered at her as the lights began to dim. "And one other thing: you and I sang opera, Sandy. We got beaten by a fat kid tossing frozen pig thighs in the air. As a teacher and patron of the fine arts, of course I can't just let that go. There's only one kind of hamming it up that's appropriate for the stage, sister, and that ain't it."

Okay, so she was still kinda miffed about Ham Boy, too, but she wasn't going to admit it when she was pushing thirty. "Your therapist must love you," she whispered playfully, punching him the shoulder. "Now shut up. It's starting." Bubbles and her friends would be going first. No one had come out and said it, but Sandra was pretty sure they were letting them go ahead of everyone else in case Bubbles had to leave in the middle of the show to save them from (themselves?) Him's latest idea of fun and games.

The curtains began to draw back, the noise of the crowd dulled to a low murmur, and he grinned. "Shutting up. This should be awesome."

As the floodlights lit the stage, Sandra caught sight of Bubbles and her friends. Her daughter floated serenely behind her drums, one foot resting on the pedal for the bass, twirling her drumsticks absently between her white-gloved fingers, blond hair falling in ringlets that Sandra had strategically locked in place with transparent hair pins to hide the worst of her facial scarring. ("Mommy," she had whispered, "can ya do something to hide my … my ..." She tossed her hair. "Please?") For once, she wore large black sunglasses ("Can you get me something like on the Blues Brothers, Mommy?"), and Sandra made herself not think about the way Bubbles did everything possible to minimize people's attention to her body for the show, since she wanted them all focused on her friends and their music. Instead she ran her eyes over the clothing Bubbles had saved up to get: white linen slacks and a matching sport coat, a powder blue silk dress shirt: all perfectly pressed, crisp, and shiningly clean in the stage lights. How they had managed that in Townsville, Sandra had no idea, especially when everything was constantly trying to ki- Focus, Sandra. Even as she noticed how adorable and excited Robin and Theresa looked in their matching blue dresses and white shoes - Robin perched in a straight-backed wooden chair to Bubbles' left fiddling with her trumpet with a serious look on her face and Theresa smiling out from behind the huge bulk of her cello on Bubbles' right, bow clenched in her small hand, looking more than a little surprised to be in front of so many people - Sandra could admit that she only had eyes for daughter.

For the first time in more than a year, Bubbles didn't look like Townsville's lone weathered, twitchy defense in the increasingly desperate fight against depraved, immortal demonic tyranny. Sandra looked and saw a normal, happy little girl, grinning, giggling and whispering the stage fright away from her friends. The joy Him had done his level best to eradicate from Bubbles' heart danced across her face as she tapped her drumsticks over her head to count them in, and Sandra smiled. She stole a glance at the judges' table as Queen began to fill the air, Bubbles' voice nothing at all like Freddie Mercury but rousing nonetheless, thought of the likelihood of surprise ham jugglers, and dismissed Him - and the judges - from her mind.

"The show must go on …"

Ice (*) (Boomer JoJo) (Some subtle differences from canon implied here, mostly to do with the timing of when the Rowdy Ruff Boys fought the Girls the first time, and the resolution of that fight. Tweaks for the sake of realism and internal consistency. Also, in this universe the RRB were not seen in Townsville again after "The Boys are Back in Town.")

It was always so much fun to be evil, Boomer thought, trying as always to flex his frozen fingers, before he and his brothers were actually, y'know, evil. Sure, when Dad - Mojo; that furry bastard is nobody's father - when Mojo created them and set them Townsville, they tore into the city without a second thought. Destroyed what they wanted. Took what they wanted. Bullied who they wanted. Nobody could stop them, Mojo let them do what they wanted, and life was good.

Then they showed up. Blossom. Buttercup. Bubbles. Silly little girls that had the … the - Damn, I miss Brick. He'd have some freaking fifty-dollar word for it - calzones to float there and say they had to stop, just 'cause it was wrong. Well, no, wait. Blossom wanted them to stop 'cause it was wrong, and wouldn't freaking shut the hell up about it; Buttercup wanted to use their behavior as an excuse to kick their asses; and Bubbles didn't really wanna fight them at all, but wasn't going to let them hurt anyone else, even if she had to turn them into pretzels. He and his brothers were being stupid and sloppy about their fun and looking back on it he's surprised they didn't maim or kill somebody by accident, not counting the hundreds of minor injuries they gave out like balloons at a clown party.

Fucking clowns.

Maybe if he'd been smarter, or cleverer, or someone … someone who wasn't him, he would have noticed then the differences in the way Bubbles and her sisters thought about things, but hell, he was five, and pissed because these little goody-goody sissy girls were trying to tell he and his brothers what to do, and it wasn't too long before he found himself in the middle of a huge fist-tossing session with Bubbles.

He smirked - or tried to, before reminding himself for the freaking 10,000th time that the only thing he could move were his damn eyeballs (what he wouldn't give to be able to blink just once). Little sissies my ass. Damn, they can fight. 'Specially Bubbles; Brick's an idiot. If she had decided to stop pulling her punches, she'd have had my ass that first day. Would've had it anyway, if we hadn't pulled our little dirty trick and left them in a smoking crater. Burritos. Damn, that was lame. Shouldn'ta worked, probably. Got lucky.

And now, looking back (because honestly, there wasn't much else to do), he was certain that was the moment when he and his brothers had proved that they may have been brutal, vicious little bullies, but they weren't really evil. Mojo wanted the girls dead. What'd he and his brothers do? Humiliated 'em and left 'em to lick their wounds in a huge hole in the ground, sure the little sissies would be too scared to try again. Yeah, right. If they'd wanted 'em dead for sure, it would've been easy. Just pound 'em into jelly while they were clocked out.

His body tried to shudder, and he fought down bile. He knew from experience throwing up without being able to open your mouth was … uncool. At least he didn't need to breathe. Sorta. It would've been so easy. Gotta focus: not evil. We're assholes and jerks and probably bastards, too, but we're not evil. Or we weren't. Damn.

He felt a new wave of anger. Man, fuck Mojo. I've figured out we weren't ever anything but weapons to him, not like the girls really are old Utonium's daughters, but he could'a made our bodies sturdy enough to survive the … excitement? The whatever the hell it was we felt when we got our first kisses. Can't believe we nearly exploded. What the fuck, man? That can't be the real reason we almost blew, can it? … I wish I was smart. Or really had exploded.

Death, he sometimes admitted, floating alone and frozen in the dark, might well have been better than this. And I might be stupid, but I know that's not healthy. It was beside the point either way. Him had "saved" them from their untimely deaths … somehow (he learned quickly how stupid it was to question demons).

"I have plaaaaaaaans for you, boys. We're going to have so much fuuuuun together." Since the very moment those words left the demon's lips Boomer has wished he had taken the chance to fly away, as fast as his body and his powers could carry him. He was always the swiftest of his brothers, especially in the air. He might have made it. But that would have meant abandoning Brick and Butch, and he couldn't. He just couldn't.

He loved his brothers so much, and had never said it. The Rowdy Ruff Boys didn't do that mushy shit. He was sure the Girls did. He was surprised that realization made him more glad than jealous.

Super memory is a bitch when it lets you remember the … the … he doesn't have words to describe the wrongness of the slimy tentacles shooting out of Him's claws as they wriggled down his and Brick's and Boomer's ears as they all screamed in terror and pain. He does remember hearing Him laughing madly as he felt some unnamable something that he's now pretty sure was his (small, admittedly crappy) conscience being forced down and locked away as Him pumped their minds full of noise and hate and twisted and pulled until he knew nothing but how good it felt to make people hurt, and how they must always, always obey the Master.

Then he amped up their powers with his magic and set them on the Girls. Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup had thought nothing had changed. And what remained of his conscience, locked away and beaten down, watched in horror as he and his brothers taught them they were wrong. It would've been simple to kill them in those first few seconds; Him had pushed so much of his power into them any one of them could probably have wiped out all three of them. But that wasn't what the Master wanted.

"Make them heeeeeeeelpless. Beat the hope out of them and uuuuuuusssseee them as you would toys. Make them beeeeeeeeeg for death. And then, at the end, I shall offer them the chance to jooooooooin us. Or die."

And they had, without feeling or regret. Every kind of pain they could give, every humiliation they could imagine, every one of the Girls' worst fears twisted and made real and used against them. We tortured 'em. For hours. And I can't remember feeling anything but … but … a rush. It was fun. Fuck. Still don't know what Him meant when he was complaining that we weren't old enough for the really interesting stuff. Damned bastard. What more could we have done to 'em than … than ... Even as the gorge rises in his throat and tears brim in his frozen eyes, he can't help thinking: You really must be the heroes. Anybody else we'd have done that to would'a killed us outta revenge when they were free. He knows that Bubbles, at least, was terrified of them after what they did to her, though that would probably just make her fight harder. That hurt, for some reason.

Now, he can take comfort in the fact they failed, that the Girls found the huge, gaping hole in Him's plan and used the last of their strength to drive a Mack truck straight through it, just like always. Him had snatched he and his brothers back up, still unable to feel anything, like their souls were bricked up behind a wall, and sealed them in the black, massive crystals deep in his lair, where they rested still. Boomer can remember feeling real fear as Him's rage hit him like a thousand sledgehammers and a rabid mongoose, then nothing, just a black void and a not a single thought.

He doesn't know how long Him's magic kept him asleep, but one thing about having the superpowers he shares with his brothers that no one else seems to think about (aside from the Girls, probably), is how you're really, really in tune with your own body. He has always been able to tell without much thought how long he's been awake. And since he hasn't been able to sleep since he awoke, the feeling of the binding magic in the crystal weaker and fitful but paralyzing still, like Him had sucked most of the power away for something else, he knew it had been about nineteen months since whatever happened to give him back his awareness. And whatever it was must'a been huge, and taken nearly all of Him's attention, 'cause not only was he awake, but his conscience was back, and he would've wept with joy if he could've, macho-ness be damned.

Boomer really hoped Him was pulling on all the magic he had because the Girls had finally had it with his shit and had decided to kick his ass from one end of the earth to the other. Man, that'd be sweeeeeet.

Even the guilt over what they had done when they'd been Him's hate puppets was worth it, because it was a feeling, and one he certainly deserved. Maybe he could even tell the Girls he was sorry before they pounded his face in.

'Course, he had to get out of this damned crystal prison thing, first. He knew his brothers weren't free, 'cause they would rescue him if they were. They'd never leave him behind, not ever. For all he knew, enough of Him's magic was still in their crystals that they were fast asleep, with no consciences, Him's hate still flooding their minds. When that idea had first occurred to him, a few days after he'd woken up, the horror of it had been enough to make him scream loudly through his closed mouth for hours, until his throat was raw, until he realized if Him heard him he'd likely put him to sleep again.

He had realized then he might well be the only one even half-free from the demon. That meant it was his responsibility to save his brothers, so he had to get free.


So here he was, still stuck, using all his strength to will his fingertips to move. After weeks of trying to strain every muscle he had like a crazy person and getting nothing for his efforts but cramps and stiffness, he'd remembered an old cartoon he'd seen, way back from the 1960s or something, where Bugs Bunny had bungled up this huge Martian death machine thing that was supposed to be indestructible by throwing a pebble into the works. That had given him the idea to start small: if he could get his fingertips moving, then he could free his fingers, then his hands …

Yeah. Great idea at the time, and sometimes he even felt like something might be about to give, but he wasn't any closer to being free and it had been so long and -


Boomer JoJo's heart skipped a beat as his hands stilled, shock washing over him. Had he … ? He tried wiggling his fingers again, and whooped with joy when his left thumb moved, ever so slightly. Well, tried to whoop. It came out more like a creepy, stifled moan, but he didn't care.

It worked. Took too damn long, but I'm wearin' this thing down. Yeah! I'm gonna get free, Him, you just wait, then I'll … I'll … huh.

He realized suddenly he'd never thought this far ahead. Okay. Keep it simple, stupid. He couldn't fight Him on his own, and he couldn't quickly break the crystals holding his brothers. He'd have to escape and get help. The only help worth gettin' is the Girls, and they gotta hate our guts. There's no way they'll - Bubbles. Yeah. That's gotta work. Blossom might not be able to see them as anything but criminals (and probably wouldn't be able to stop speeching at him long enough to listen to him beg, which he was totally willing to do), and Buttercup would punch his face in given the chance, especially after what he and his brothers did to Bubbles the last time they met. But Bubbles - and he was not too much of a macho jackass to admit noticing this - was different. It was so clear now, looking back on that first fight. She was … pure, he guessed. She didn't want anyone to hurt or suffer from evil, and no matter what they had done, he and his brothers were being hurt by the most evil thing there was.

He would beg her to let him explain everything, and he would tell the truth, and she would listen, and even if she really wanted to pound him for what he and his brothers did, she would help. She had to. As much as he'd been disgusted (or enraged) by it at the time, he'd never met anyone who was so sweet, or cared so much, even about the people who tried to hurt her. She had to listen. She had to help, even if she couldn't convince her sisters. If she didn't …

If she won't, no one will. … Can't think about it now. Gotta escape. He went back to working his thumb against his crystal prison with gusto, thinking of how he could convince Bubbles to help him. For the briefest moment, he found his mind wandering towards thoughts of seeing the only pair of eyes in the world that were as blue as his. … Weird. Whatever. Brick … Butch … I'm gonna get out, and get help, and we'll be free. I won't screw this up. You'll see.

Fall (*)

I … I think I'm dyin'. Blood burbled past her lips (… Punctured lung … ? Oh, God ...) as she spread her palms against the rain-soaked dirt and tried to push herself to her knees, succeeding in nothing more than flopping back down into a pool of her own blood as her slashed chest screamed in burning protest, more of her life pumping out of her torso and her ruined shoulder with every heartbeat. The determination she knows so well, the love for every living thing in Townsville that's always kept her going no matter how badly she's been trounced … she feels it at the edge of her mind, but it slips through her fingers every time she tries to grab it, and she can't seem to care. Why wasn't she dead yet? 'm a superhero. Should be hard ta' kill. … Not hard enough. … W-why am I here? With not a little mental effort, she managed to will her brain back into working at full tilt; if she's gonna die, she's gonna remember why.

The fog rolls away from her brain, and Bubbles remembers. Her chest is burning agony, and she wishes she didn't. The explosion filled her ears even as she grouched happily with Robbie and Theresa about losing at the talent show to some fat kid juggling frozen slabs of deer meat. "Bubbles!" Mommy sounded panicked as she wheezed, the noise of coughing and screaming and moans of pain and burning building blocking out nearly everything else. "...Bomb...Help…" She was in the air even as she tossed her cell phone to Robin, telling her to call the fire department and send them to the preschool 'cause it was on fire. She was already hundreds of feet away before Robin had snatched the phone out of the air with a hissed "Gotcha," and a frightened, shocked "B-be careful" from Theresa. She wished they both carried phones of their own, just to be safe. Yeah, they're probably too young, if they lived anywhere else. She decided as she flew - because truly, she needed something else to think about to fight down her rising panic - to get Mommy to talk to their parents about it. Because Mommy would be fine.

She can't really remember flying to the school, though she can still perfectly recall getting close enough for the smell of burning gasoline to hit her nostrils. A few quick sonar blasts and she knew half of Pokey Oaks was pretty much caved into rubble, and the other half was quickly becoming engulfed in flames, by the sound of it. Mommy had her students barricaded in the basement. Aside from a half dozen or so who were too close to the window and got burned - two of them really badly, from the scent and the way their blood is (or isn't) flowing, though she made a point not to think about that yet, either - the most they seem to be in immediate danger from is suffocating from the smoke.

They needed her to save them. She would save them. Her Mommy was there. She had to. So she cleared her mind, took a deep breath, focused on what she needed to do: make a tunnel first, get everybody out. Then take out the fire if the trucks aren't here yet.

And that's what she did.

It had taken longer than she wanted, and more than once she wished she had Blossom's ice breath. She and Mommy had gotten everyone out through the tunnel she punched into the basement, but by the time the fire department arrived (Thanks, Robin…), the building supports were so far gone the school gave one final shudder and collapsed in on itself as she and Mommy held each other. No one had been killed, and that alone was a minor miracle, but one she wouldn't let herself enjoy until everyone was whole and out of the hospital. Mommy clutched her tightly even as the paramedics settled her onto a gurney and wrapped her burned legs and fitted her with a special mask that smelled of too-sweet oxygen to help her breathe. Bubbles felt like part of her childhood had just gone up in flames. There's no goin' back to the way things were, I guess. She was just about to climb in the ambulance after Mommy, who had to be hurtin' cause her students were hurt and Pokey Oaks had been her life years before Bubbles was born, when an out of breath policeman ran up to her.

She had immediately tensed, waiting for trouble. Since Him had sealed them in the dome, Townsville's admittedly pathetic police force had been forced to shape up as the criminals got more and more desperate and it became clear Bubbles couldn't save them all without help. After they started running out of bullets for their guns, even as the bad guys seemed to always have plenty (thanks, Him), she had been so proud of how the ones who didn't resign in fear, and bravely kept at it, and got in the best shape of their lives. "You're not the only one sworn to protect and serve, kiddo," the Police Commissioner had told her when they had talked, once, "we just took a bit too much of a shove to remember. Hope you'll forgive us." She had told him he didn't owe her any apology; Townsville was a scary place, and she knew that. She was just glad they were all in it together. "And you mean that even after the way we treated you and your sisters all those years, don't you?" He had laughed and shook his head like he couldn't believe she was a real person. "Forgiveness must be one of your superpowers. Stay sharp." Maybe it was. But mostly, she knew the world was spun glass and snowflakes in her hands, and she didn't have the luxury of hanging onto anger for things that happened in the past if she didn't want to accidentally shatter something. Or someone.

So she knew, as the officer - barely old enough not to be a boy anymore from the sound of his voice and the way his heart beat and blood moved - skidded to a stop in front of her, that he wasn't just in a mindless panic. Something was wrong. "Miss Utonium," she must have given him a funny look, because he had started again. "Bubbles. The Vice Principal over at Hawk Elementary just called the police. Robin Schneider and Theresa Lamaise never got on the bus this morning. We know Robin called the fire department about two minutes before you arrived here, but apparently you were the last to see … er … you were the last one with both of them. Do you know where they are?"

Without even having to think about it, Bubbles extended her hearing - previously drawn in close to let her deal with the details of a burning, half collapsed building and burrowing through rock and packed dirt deep underground - looking for the heartbeats of her best and oldest friend, and the sweet, normal, lonely little girl who had wormed her way into their lives because she didn't think they deserved to be alone.

One, two, three seconds, and Bubbles couldn't hear them anywhere. Her blood ran cold.

In ninety of the longest, most terror-filled minutes of her life, she covers every bit of Townsville's airspace, once, twice, three times over, the thousand million sounds in her ears all the more deafening for the two that are missing. She threatens all the local gang leaders and wannabes, not even caring when she makes a few of them wet themselves, and none of them have any idea where Robin and Theresa are. She's even searched the sewer system, with a GPS locator strapped to her belt and the voice of a kind, worried old Irish Power and Water Authority supervisor in her ear guiding her way, because Townsville's been subject to random monster and supervillian attacks since 1927, and the whole sewer system is reinforced with just enough vibration-absorbing duranium-steel alloy to make her hearing nearly useless underground.

How could they be lost? No one can get in and out of Townsville anymore. No one's ever completely disappeared from her hearing without … without dying. And they're not dead. It has to be the truth, because if it's not … if it's not …

Her brain is so desperate to get away from that thought that it struggles for any sort of new plan, however desperate. There's a chance she somehow missed them in the sewers. She'll go back and tear the whole thing apart if she has to. A whole layer of Townsville she can't hear …

Places I can't hear…

It hits her then that she's missed the obvious, and Blossom would be ashamed. She quickly shakes that thought: Blossom isn't here, and Bubbles long ago decided she can only do things her own way. Been listenin' everywhere for ya'. Can't hear ya. What else can't I hear?

Another flight over the city, laying down sonar blasts that she's always thought were more trouble than they were worth, letting them smash back into her skull until she's developing the beginnings of a splitting headache, and is more convinced than ever that they're nearly useless, but she can't stop. There should be something, somewhere, that doesn't vibrate like everything else around it, and when she finds it, there should be a gap in her hearing, some place where there should be sound, even if it's only the noise of wind brushing against something solid, but there isn't.

No one's ever figured out how to block sound from her before. Doesn't mean no one can.

It only takes thirty-seven seconds to find what she's looking for, two vibrationless voids, coffin sized and shaped, on the ground in one of the Restricted Zones, near something vibrating like an empty car as her sonar slams into it. Even the craziest of criminals won't come to these places anymore, so severe is the damage from the battles Bubbles has waged with Him's varied and bloodthirsty demons. Her sonar, warbling and detail-less as it is, let's her pick out what has to be Robin's wheelchair, folded, tipped over, and forgotten near one of the coffins. Her breath catches.

She's on the ground within seconds, and looking back now, as she lay dying, she can admit her relief made her sloppy. She couldn't hear anything of what was inside either of the coffins, but scrabbled her hands across the nearest one looking for the lip of the lid, and threw it open, even as a voice in her head screamed Trap! Trap!

In the first half-second, her ears and her nose let her know she's found Robin, gagged and trying to scream, her heart hammering with panic and her blood flowing in patterns Bubbles' instincts and training recognize as bleeding (blood everywhere), bruises, cuts, and broken bones, patterns her experience has taught her mean beating, her legs jerking with uncontrollable spasms as her damaged nerves misfire. In the last half second, as she tries to pull herself back from the horror trying to wash over her, those same ears and nose scream warning that Mr Kratchett, recently fired elementary school teacher, smelling of too much alcohol and blood pumping wildly and breathing ragged as though he's taken too much meth-metha-speed like she helped the police seize last month, is lying under Robbie, pinning her against him, then grabbing her, throwing her out of the coffin only to slam bodily into the other one and fall to the ground with a crack and a whimpering tangle of limbs.

Bubbles can go from zero to one-hundred miles per hour in less than a second when she runs; zero to three-hundred in the same time if she flies. A few seconds more, and she can brush against the sound-barrier without breaking a sweat. But every survival instinct, every reflex seemed to seize, as she tried and failed to understand this … this. What-?

Her brain registers the knife only after he's slammed it between her ribs, twisting savagely, and even as she tries to scream and just sort of gurgles, she hears his other hand come up, thumb pulling back the hammer of a -

The bullet slams into her shoulder, or maybe the forearm just below - Oh, God, it hurtshurtshurts - and she can feel the bone break even as she's thrown back off the knife, cordite and sulfur filling her nose as blood rises up her throat and her innate sense of self tells her something is very wrong in her chest, even as she knows he's somehow gotten hold of Antidote-X laced weapons and vibranium sheets the police promised her they had destroyed. How…?

And so here she is. Her lung is punctured. She's been shot. She is going to die. Because Mr Kratchett, who even now is standing above her and ranting and zapping her with a cattle prod she's still too superhuman to feel, one of the people she swore to give her life to protect, hates her and wants her to die for … for … she doesn't even know. Her hearing is fuzzy and the world feels like it's shrinking and I'm sorry, I'm so sorry for whatever I've done to hurt you. Let them go after I die. Though she knows he won't. Neither Kratchett nor Him. She knows she should get up and fight. Somehow. But she promised to protect them and save them and … and he shot her. Part her mind that hasn't completely caved in remembers a talking to one of the doctors that taught her how to do emergency first aid. She remembers learning about shock, the kind that makes you shut down when you're hurt, and wonders if that's what this is. She's been hurt this bad before. Been hurt worse. But never like this, not by a human armed with nothing but cleverness and hate. MommyDaddy ... ButtercupBlossom ... RobinTheresa ... Iloveyou. Sorrysorrysorry ... She's run her race, and she lost.

"Get up," Robin whispers in her wavering perception, voice steady even if laced with pain and fear. "Bubbles, you gotta stand up for me." Bubbles focuses on the voice in spite of her lethargy. Even if she's about to die, Robin's trying to talk to her. She should listen. Her ears open up that much more, even as she filters out the sound of Kratchett's mad rambling and the cattle prod she can't feel. She hears Robin dragging herself over to the coffin Theresa must be in, then grabbing at the latches. "I'm gonna get her out of here, and then we'll take you to a doctor, and y-y-you'll be fine. You just gotta stand up, and stick with us a little longer." She throws the latches, and Bubbles can hear her raising the lid and clapping a hand over Theresa's mouth even as she starts to scream. "Shh, quiet, Theresa. K-Kratchett will hear you unless you whisper. You gotta help me into my chair without him noticing, then find the car keys he left in the car. You can be my feet when we drive Bubbles to the hospital, okay? We can't do this without you." Her breathing is ragged, but her voice is calm and determined and Bubbles feels something warm inside even as the cold of blood loss tries to sweep over her completely. Bubbles hears Theresa nod. "Yeah, okay. Good." Her whisper changes tones a bit, and Bubbles knows Robin is talking to her again. "Kratchett's lost it, Bubbles, and after he nabbed us he wouldn't shut up about what he was gonna do to you. I - we won't let him, okay? You, me, and Theresa," Robin's begging now, Bubbles can hear tears in her voice. "We won't." She takes a deep breath and stifles a moan as Bubbles hears her broken ribs shift. A sudden spark of hot anger shoots through her, and she grabs at it, holding tight. Her mind begins to clear. Robin needs her. Theresa needs her.

Robin is whispering again, pleading. "You haven't done anything wrong. You can save us from monsters and bad guys, but we've gotta do some of it ourselves. It's not on you if someone's so bitter and hateful that they - t-they - Bubbles, you gotta stay. We - your mom and dad and sisters and Theresa and me - we love you, and we'll never use you and blame you and hurt you when things go bad, no matter what anyone else does. Not ever. We'll win, and this'll be over, and we'll be happy. But you gotta stand up, first. Stand up, Bubbles." Bubbles hears Theresa get the wheelchair up and unfolded, and try to help as Robin pulls herself into it. "Please. Let's go home."

She's right, Bubbles thinks, willing the shock away. Humans can hate, and hurt just as bad as any monster, but … we love, too. Mommy and Daddy and Blossom and Buttercup and Theresa and Robin all love me, and it's real, in spite of Kratchett, and the ones who killed Ace, and all the rest. Love makes the whole world go 'round, and it's worth dying for. But it's much, much more worth living for.

Bubbles takes a deep breath, in spite of one of her lungs being half full of blood, and gathers up all the pain in her shoulder and chest and rolls it into a tight little ball and tosses it aside, 'cause it doesn't really matter. She flattens her palms against the dirt, and begins to push.

Her name is Bubbles Claire Utonium. She loves the whole world, and everything in it. She loves her family, most of all, and she'll protect them always, just like they'll protect her. And even though it's full of evil and pain and people who hurt other people every second of every day, she'll watch over the world, always. Because someone should. Because she can. It's really not more complicated than that.

She's still bleeding, and it still hurts, and she's still kind of dying, but that doesn't stop her from blowing Kratchett over with a gust of wind that sends him slamming bonelessly into a broken tree. She's not dead yet. She pulls one of her knees up until she's got a foot flat on the ground, as she hears Robin and Theresa whooping and hugging and running (rolling) towards her. Theresa's shaking hands grab her under the arms, and Robin's taking her hands in her own (soft, but strong and calloused in ways completely different than Bubbles') and pulling, explaining how they're gonna drive back into town with Kratchett's car until they can find someone who can help (even though Bubbles already heard all this), and all she has to do is make it to the car and everything will be fine.

Bubbles stands up.