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Masks Upon Masks

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Her second week of school one of the boys in the homeroom next door hears the teacher call her back to class, something about a project due next week she's already finished, and snorts. "Mindy? What kind of stupid fucking name is Mindy?"

So she breaks his nose. And then she hits him again, and again because her dad had given her that name. She thinks that maybe she's saying that out loud even, but it doesn't matter because it's so much fun to be in a fight again.

Being in the principal's office all that day isn't as much fun, though. Especially not when Marcus finally gets there and just looks at her all sad and disappointed and, she thinks, just a little scared. They have a long conversation that night about her getting into fights, how if that happens again they might take her away. There's a mean, rebellious part of her that wants to say so what, she'll be fine, but that would hurt Marcus and she doesn't want to do that, ever. Only the bad guys hurt good people. She can't promise she'll never get into another fight --- they both know that would just be a lie --- but she promises to watch her temper. It's a promise she keeps, although she she can't stop enjoying the little thrill she gets at the way that boy looks at her when he finally gets back to school, the same way those drug dealers and goons used to look at her dad every night.

***

Of course, her dad gave her two names, but she's not allowed to talk about the other one. Sometimes she writes it on top of her test papers in very neat, very faint letters, just to see how it would look before erasing it.

***

Late at night, when she's sure Marcus is asleep, she digs out her mask and wig from the hidden panel under her closet and puts them on, because she's beginning to forget what she looks like.

***

She still patrols. Oh, nothing big, just sentry stuff, practically baby patrols, but every so often a dealer comes up with a weapon she hadn't guessed at or some gangbanger manages to actually connect with something and the night manages to get interesting. She thinks she likes those nights the best, actually; she can hear her dad running down the fights in her head. Oh, child, she knows he would start, and her hands ball into fists because no one ever calls her that anymore.

She keeps this up almost five months before a broken fire escape gives way under her feet and she falls two stories. She's lucky; she lands in a trash heap and it's not so bad, really, just a sprained wrist and a dislocated shoulder but she almost doesn't want to go home because there's no way Marcus won't notice. When she does go back --- really, there's no place left to go anymore --- she's in the middle of setting things up to fake a fall down the stairs when he suddenly appears behind her. He doesn't lecture her, doesn't even say a word, just calls the school to let them know she won't be there and makes ice packs for her shoulder and wrist. The silence hurts even more than the sprains and bruises.

It lasts almost until bedtime, when he pulls up a chair and looks at her with those sad eyes. "Look, kiddo," and she forces herself not to flinch, you didn't show your emotions like that, "I understand. I really do. But the Hit-Girl thing has got to stop. I want you to have a normal life while you can, but Mindy, you have got to meet me halfway."

So no more Hit-Girl. She promises, and her dad taught her to keep promises. And if she does secretly sleep in her costume every night for two weeks, she doesn't think that really counts.

***
She hits a growth spurt at thirteen and seemingly overnight her body gets uncoordinated and stupid. It seems like just when she gets handle on one change another one catches her off-guard, like some mugger she's forgotten to frisk properly; she feels gawky and top heavy and doesn't recognize her own silhouette. One morning she wakes up to bloody sheets after a day of the worst cramps she'd ever had, like a dockworker kicking her in the stomach, and for a split-second assumes she's been attacked. Of course she quickly realizes that's not true --- she does have an A in health class, after all --- but Marcus finally calls his sister over to have a Talk with her. It isn't much of a talk --- Lisa really isn't that much more comfortable explaining what Marcus calls "woman things" than he had been --- and things finally break down to, "Honey, didn't your father teach you anything?"

Other than Frank D'Amico, she's never hated anyone so much in her entire life.

***

The day she realizes she can't even do a simple kip up properly she knows she has to get on top of this. Asking to take martial arts is out, she knows; Marcus would see through that in a second and really, she doubts any of the other students would be much of a challenge. Then one day she sees a flier for the school's gymnastics team and clings to it like a lifeboat in a shipwreck. Finally, something that would pass Marcus' Normal Life test and still let her do something approximating training. She never feels quite the same, but after a few months the flexibility, the balance, it all comes back as she learns how to move in this new, weird body.

When they win their first meet one of the other girls wraps Mindy up in a bear hug; she stiffens, not really sure what's going on, but quickly learns to watch the other girls and learns how she's supposed to be celebrating. A week later she's invited to her first slumber party; it's like learning a new language, with mash notes and truth-or-dare replacing grammar and curse words.

She always picks dare. She knows they'll never believe the truth and she'll just have to do the dare anyway.

***

Police sirens still wake her up from full sleep, and even if she can't follow them anymore sometimes she climbs up on the roof to watch them go by and imagines what would happen if she did.

***

She saves her allowance and buys a police scanner, hiding it beneath a pried-up floorboard under her bed. She tells herself that it's for "just in case."

***

On her fourteenth birthday she realizes that she's grown out of the Hit-Girl costume. Only the mask still fits, and only just; she squeezes it on and cries in her closet for hours. When Marcus brings out the cake she pretends to be happy, because he's happy, and she blows out the candles wishing for things she knows she can never have again.

***

She tries to forget everything. She focuses on Mindy, what Mindy would like, what Mindy would do, because thinking about Hit-Girl is like throwing herself down a deep black hole with no handholds and no rope. She stops getting in trouble for cursing in class, no more fighting, just school and gymnastics and the mall with her friends, everything normal, normal, normal.

Hit-Girl still bleeds through sometimes; one day at school she sees a boy her age she vaguely recognizes land a perfect muay thai spinning heel kick on the gym heavy bag and wonders if this is what having a crush is like. When she asks her best friend at lunch who he is Steph just laughs. "You're not after Jake, too, are you? Heather's going to freak." When she just stares Steph continues, one eyebrow raised, "Jake Slater? Hottest guy in our grade? Everyone's after him, and now you too, I guess? Heather's been mooning over him for weeks now?" And truthfully, Mindy doesn't really listen when Heather talks, because she's always mooning over something, but Steph just shakes her head. "Mindy, it's like you're an alien sometimes."

She feels her cheeks flush and bites down the urge to say that perfect technique is at least a reason to notice someone and learns how to moon over boys, too. Because it's normal. Silly and dumb and teeth-achingly boring most of the time, but normal.

In a weird way, she's sort of happy. And she manages to make it last for a full year.

***

The hospital smells like antiseptic and floor cleaner. There's a detective in front of her saying that they'll do everything they can to find the people who put Marcus in the bed beside her, who put three bullets in his chest and a tube down his throat and a scar all the way down his torso, and she knows he's lying. She knows it because Marcus had been working a case involving heroin disappearing from evidence. She knows because she's eavesdropped on the conversations, because she's heard her father's name thrown out a threat, as a cautionary tale, because she's seen Marcus up late with his head in his hands. Because two nights before he sat down on her bed and told her that sometimes you had to do the right thing, even if it scared you, even if no one else agreed with you, and that he loved her like she was his own kid.

She knows because her dad had taught her to know when people where lying, and that when you looked close you could tell which ones were dirty and which ones were clean. And this detective, and the two who had come earlier, and the one who would come later, all being so supportive, so concerned, they're so dirty she can smell it.

She gets her confirmation that night, when that same detective comes back that night to extend some more sympathy by standing over the bed with a pillow in his hands. The man doesn't see her creep out from under the bed and doesn't even know what hit him when she breaks his jaw. And his nose. And his ribs.

She knows where all the other ones live. It's a busy night, but she manages it. The moment she calls one of them "cocksucker" feels like meeting an old, old friend.

***

If Kick-Ass could cobble together a costume, so can she. A lot of her dad's old suppliers have closed up shop but there's still a few she can find; kevlar from this one, the mask from that one (one-way mesh, opaque on one side and translucent on the other), boots from here (bladed compartments in the soles), the cape from there (military grade polyfiber, have fun ripping that). And a grapple gun, because you always need a grapple gun.

As long as Marcus is recovering someone needs to protect the city.

She's just not prepared for all of the new hero-wannabes out there, some of whom make Kick-Ass look like a natural athlete. And the names. She doesn't understand why boys always seem to pick such horrible names.

She never does get around to picking one for herself. It just doesn't seem very important.

***

One night she sees one of the other heroes, one of the more competent ones who fights with taser gloves and calls himself The Pulse, throw a perfect muay thai spinning heel kick and she's so astonished that she almost falls off the building ledge she's hanging from. The next day at school she follows Jake Slater around for a full day, looking for a sign that her instincts are wrong.

Two weeks after that she happens to find herself pounding on the same group of gang bangers as Pulse --- purely by coincidence, of course, it was the gang's name on the scanner she was interested in, not his --- and one of them lands a lucky shot with a switchblade and slices her mask open. She covers up quickly, but there was almost a three second gap where her face was showing. The gang members are taken care of, obviously, but it really isn't them she's worried about.

Her heart pounds almost the entire next day at school. Just when she thinks she's about to get off scot free Jake Slater corners her by her locker and she's sure he's going to out her to the whole school.

Instead he asks her to the prom.

Heather keys a swear word into her car door, but Mindy's too astonished to even notice until she gets home.

***

Jake kisses her on the way home from school and it's the same warm feeling as picking a really hard lock.

Sometimes she wants to tell him that he's calling her by the wrong name, but the other one doesn't fit anymore, either.

***

The night of the prom a riot breaks out in one of the big housing projects; she stands by the foot of the stairs in her dress, transfixed by the footage when Marcus finally breaks the spell. "Well, you going out there or what?"

Her mouth drops open and he rises from the couch --- he's all but recovered now --- and looks at her, his head cocked to the side. "That is you, right? Black mask, cape, grapple gun?"

She drops her gaze to the floor. "I...I thought you'd be mad. You want me to be normal."

"C'mere." She leans into the hug. She's barely a few inches shorter than him now, when had that even happened? "I wanted you to have the chance to be normal. And I think I gave that my best shot, but Mindy, you're practically grown. Less than a year, you'll be eighteen and you won't even have to pretend to listen to me anymore. If this is what you want, it's what you want but I wanted you to know what your options were." He tips her chin up. "Is this what you want?"

"I...." This question would have been so clear at eleven. Now her brain is all cluttered, her coach telling her she should try out for the US team, kisses under shade trees, the feel of a mobster's tooth cracking under her fist. She knows what Mindy wants. She knows what Hit-Girl wants. She has no idea what the middle even is anymore. "I don't know. But I want it tonight."

"Well, when you figure out the rest, you tell me. I'll be with you either way."

***

Most of the city's heroes come out for the riot. Some of them even manage to be helpful. After all the fires are out she finds herself sitting on a rooftop with Pulse, as if they both hadn't known that was going to happen as soon as they saw each other across the same burning apartment. He looks at the sky for a while, then says, "My mom died when I was ten. Car jacking. I was so messed up I didn't know what to do with myself. All I did was get into fights, screw up, run away. Then on the news I saw this girl my age dressed up in a costume, just kicking ass, and I just thought, 'That is awesome. That's what I wanna be like.' That's why I started martial arts. I thought, maybe I could meet her, y'know? Then she just dropped off the face of the Earth." He turns to her. "Was that you?"

She looks away, picking at a piece of loose roof tiling. "Maybe. But it's not anymore."

"Who are you, then? Really?"

She considers it for a long time, then unhooks her grapple gun and kisses him on the cheek through her mask. "I'll let you know."

"Hey!" he says, as she fires at the building across the street, "where're you going?"

She looks back over her shoulder. "Someone asked me to the prom."

She hears him laugh as she rappels away, and an hour later he's at her door, bits of costume hastily tucked into his suit.

She's going to have to make a decision soon, between the prom dresses and the masks, between college and meets and beating up bad guys. Very, very soon.

He puts a battered corsage on her wrist, and she grins as she realizes he must have had it on him for the entire riot.

Soon. But not tonight.