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For Better or For Worse

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Four Years Ago

Five crisp, cheerful knocks echo in the quiet of the peaceful neighbourhood. The pattering of young feet from inside the suburban house follows, along with the indignant cry of the child's mother.

The door swings open, reveling a sixteen year old with a toothy grin and unruly red hair.

Anna smiles, the corners of her eyes crinkling in amusement. "So we meet again," she says, with a teasing bow.

"Oh shut up," Merida laughs, her Scottish accent almost too thick to understand. She pulls Anna into a bone crushing hug, leaving the older redhead winded.

"God," Anna wheezes, "have you been wrestling with freak'n giants?"

Elinor, stepping into the entryway from the kitchen, chuckles. "You're not far off," she says, with a knowing glint in her eyes.

Anna's chest swells with pride, and she grins. "She's going to follow in your footsteps, then?" she asks, backing out of Merida's embrace. "Beating up people who annoy you?"

The teenager turns to her mother, her throat fluttering with restrained laughter. "Do you actually?" she probes, teasing.

Elinor flushes, her cheeks turning a bright, rosy red. "Now that's enough of that," she says, with an awkward clearing of her throat. "Merida, dear," she adds, before the firecracker can respond, "why don't you go to the table and start your homework?"

"But mom!" Merida yelps, gesturing to Anna. "I hardly ever see her!"

Anna raises an eyebrow. "That's not how my memory recalls it."

"Nor mine," Elinor agrees. "Now go. I need to speak with Anna in private."

Merida narrows her eyes, but one unimpressed eyebrow from her mother makes the teenager mutter under her breath and scurry into the house. The moment the young woman is out of earshot, Elinor's face falls grim.

"Is it time?" she whispers.

Anna winces, her amusement fading with one, stiff nod. "They captured members from our junior Protector league; General, Shadow and Scar," she breathes, glancing around her. At the right angle, the sun makes the heavy bags under her eyes stand stark to her tanned complexion. "Hades and I were able to retrieve them, but Scar, he . . ." Anna closes her eyes, letting out a shuttering breath. "We got to him in time, but something was done to him. Black Dragon and Athena are looking into it now, but they're not sure if they can reverse whatever process the Ambassadors started.

"Then there's the issue of their threat," Anna growls, pinching the bridge of her nose, "and the fact that humanity remains blissfully ignorant. Our cards are limited if we want to continue operating with the world's support after everything is said and done."

"So a small hit-and-run Intel recon team is required," Elinor says, running a hand through her bangs. "Who are you thinking?"

"The original members," Anna answers, with a shrug. Elinor nods, unsurprised. "You and Athena will be the distraction," Anna continues, "pretending to discuss the issue of our junior members. Hades, Black Dragon and I will infiltrate the restricted areas of the ship and pull what information we can. If we're not done by the time you're finished, head back to Earth without us – Hades can get back safely, even if his portal method is"—she frowns—"unstable."

"A hell gate tends to be fickle, yeah," Elinor comments, her eyebrows furrowed into an unamused line. "Athena and I will not leave until you're onboard the ship. Experiencing that portal trip once is enough to make a lesser person go insane; I'd rather none of us risk another."

"I'm immune," Anna says, shrugging.

Elinor sighs. "Maybe," she murmurs, her posture sagging just enough for Anna's keen eye to notice. "But that doesn't make you invincible."

The redhead chuckles, her fingers twitching. "No one needs to know that," Anna says, with a stiff smile. She nods inside the house. "Spend the rest of the day with your daughter," she says, turning and hopping down the front steps. "Our plans can wait until tonight."


One Month Later

Anna trudges up the pathway to Elinor's house, her shoulders slumped and face drawn. She's been making visits to all the residences of her former team and this is the last stop on her list; but she doesn't expect it to go better than the previous ones have.

She stops on the front steps, her throat tight and her chest clenched. How did it come to this, she wonders, as she raises a hand and gives a hollow, five rhythm knock.

The response is slow, heavy, and when Merida opens the door—

Anna sucks in a breath through clenched teeth, taking in the teenager's coiled muscles and her narrowed, bloodshot eyes. "Hey," the veteran superhero croaks, twitching a broken smile. "I heard—" her voice cracks, tears blurring her vision.

"Anna!" the Bear screams. "Snap out of it; this isn't you! Just let us—" Anna drives her fist into her teammate's diaphragm, sending the mighty shape shifter straight through a nearby wall. The Bear struggles to her knees, a string of blood hanging from her bottom lip. "Please," Elinor rasps, her body swaying, "don't do this."

"The accident," Anna says, gritting her teeth. "If she hadn't been on that flight when the debris from the Ambassador space ships—"

"Save it," Merida growls, her lips down turning into a harsh scowl. "If you really cared you would have been here two weeks ago, and you would have shown up to the fucking funereal." The muscles in the teenager's jaw jumps, fresh tears glossing over her reddened eyes. "I needed you, Anna, and you wouldn't even answer your stupid phone. You didn't even send a goddamn text message!"

Anna curls in on herself, clutching her abdomen and biting her tongue to stop herself from screaming. "Make the antidote," she orders, her body spasming. A choked groan forces it's way past her mouth, the agony in her voice making even herself cringe.

"An antidote isn't possible," Calhoun says, her disembodied voice echoing in the empty Protector hall.

"Then make a suppressant!" Anna shouts, gurgling out a scream. "Do whatever you need to do to! Just make it stop."

"I . . ." Anna frowns. "I'm sorry." It's a weak answer, but there's no excuse in the world she can fabricate that will make things right with the woman in front of her. And, because of her sins, telling the truth isn't an option, either.

"You're sorry?" Merida bellows, shoving Anna off the front stoop. The superhero stumbles down the two stairs, narrowly avoiding landing flat on her back. "What kind of friend up and disappears the moment you need them? Not the kind you keep!"

Anna blinks, her heart clenching and her lungs refusing to operate. "That"—she swallows, hard—"t-that's fair," she croaks, wincing. She reaches into her pocket. "I just wanted—"

"Get a fucking clue!" the teenager roars. "I don't want you coming around here anymore! The only way you could ever make it up to me is if you bring me Arson's fucking head, which we both know you can't accomplish; so leave or I'll call the fucking cops!" She slams the door, the sound echoing in the dead silence of the neighbourhood.

Anna sighs and steps forward, setting Elinor's wedding ring in front of the door. "I just wanted to return this," she whispers, straightening her posture as much as her guilt allows, and walking away from the house she's always viewed as a second home.

Despite everything, Merida's reception was still better than the other places she stopped by. The redhead's focus is drawn to the throbbing in her lower back, and she hangs her head in shame. Now she can never be free of her mistakes, even if she never picks up Arson's mask again.


Present Day

Anna stands at the edge of the skyscraper's roof, lined with a short cement wall, watching over the nightly bustle of Arendelle city.

Donning her black, heat resistant villain costume with her hair done up in a tight bun, she could be taken for a statue. The only hint of her being a living human—and she uses that term in the vaguest sense—is her tanned, rosy complexion and the sharp edge of her eyes.

How did she get here? Sometimes she wonders that herself, on the rare occasions she allows herself to remember the superhero she used to be. The one who wore a skin-tight crimson red body suit, a white half-face mask and her hair in twin braids. Anna will still wear her hair in braids, when she's Anna instead of Arson, but she doesn't allow anything else to remain the same.

Heavy grade boots instead of speed shoes. Armour plated cargo pants and long-sleeve shirt instead of the simple onesie. Knuckle plated gloves instead of bare hands. A fire and heat retardant metal respirator that filters what she breathes out instead of what she breathes in.

She doesn't deserve to be concerned over her health. Not after what she's done.

Her phone buzzes in her pocket, and the villain sighs. Anna has all but dropped off the face of the earth in her civilian life, meaning the only people who could be calling her are connected in the ever expanding web of metahumans and their allies. She lets the caller go to voice mail. It doesn't say her name, or contain her voice. Makes it easier when using the same phone for both of her lives.

It's only when her phone buzzes to alert her of the voicemail that Anna takes out her phone and looks at it. She has three missed calls, all from restricted numbers. At least they got a hint and left a message this time. Anna doesn't make a habit of returning the calls of numbers phone networks don't allow her to see.

The wind picks up, a winter bite nipping at the villain's exposed skin. It's a sensation she's come to dread.

"Great," Anna mutters, raising an eyebrow and side-eying Blizzard as the hero perches on the corner of the skyscraper's roof, ice crackling under her feet. The winter storm that propelled the ice-armoured champion dies off, allowing Anna to see the taller woman in all her righteous glory.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Anna drawls, her voice distorted by the respirator. She leans against the cement wall lining the edge of the roof. "But as you can see"—the redhead gestures around her—"there are no fires to douse here. I suggest you go somewhere and be useful for a change."

Through Blizzard's helm of ice, which covers her whole face sans the eyes, Anna can make out the icy woman's sneer.

"Cut the shit, Arson," Blizzard growls, her gauntleted hands tightening into fists. "Tell me where you took my parents."

Anna's eyebrows fall into an unamused line. "I don't know if you've noticed," she drawls, "but I'm not exactly known for kidnapping, or subtlety. If I found out who your parents were and felt compelled to do something to them, you would've find their bodies burnt to a crisp instead of missing." Blizzard's eyes flash, snow whipping around her in angry arcs. Anna holds up her hands in a pacifying motion. "Relax," the metahuman mutters, "I'm not known for stone cold murder, either."

"No," Blizzard snarls, "just white hot slaughter."

"Okay, that was more like acidic slaughter," Anna says, "and it was only the one time. You should let it go."

"You've killed thousands of people, most of them in the period of one day," Blizzard barks. "I am not letting that go; this city isn't going to let that go, and that was not the last time you took someone's life."

Anna shrugs. "Yeah, but they all deserved it," she says, with a saucy grin her counterpart can't see. "Whoa!" Anna shouts, dodging an icicle and setting her body aflame to melt the next one. Her outfit illuminates with red designs, activated by the heat. "Calm the fuck down, woman, it was a joke!" Under her breath, she mutters, "Kind-of."

"A bad joke," Blizzard rumbles, her icy armour dancing with the golden orange reflections of her rival's power. Despite the hero's tone, she doesn't make a move to continue her assault. Anna grabs the opportunity.

"Look, Blue," Anna says, raising from her fighting stance and letting her flames dissipate. "You want your parents and I want you to go back to being a rational human being. Think we can come to an agreement? I help you find good 'ol ma and pa and you stop accusing me all the damn time? Seriously, twenty-five percent of the time you harass me I haven't even done anything."

Blizzard raises an eyebrow. "Twenty-five percent compared to the amount of times we've crossed paths isn't very high," she dead-pans.

"It totally is, because you always blame me for the big things," Anna accuses, crossing her arms over her chest. "The time city hall caught fire from a wiring malfunction"—Blizzard winces—"or when the city council head dude burst into spontaneous combustion," Anna lists. "Or the time when a cruise ship on the middle of the Atlantic blew up. Each time I had to fucking prove that I was innocent for you to stop shouting for my execution. I don't know what kind of villain you think I am—"

"The kind that goes after the most influential people of any given country because they piss you off," Blizzard snaps.

"Well, yeah," Anna states, "but I've never killed any of them." For the most part, Anna adds, in the comfort of her own mind.

"No," Blizzard agrees, "but you tortured them. Left them with irreparable damage."

"I doubt that," Anna says, waving off the concern. "They were all treated by the Golden Flower. Her powers would've healed any damage I caused to them."

"Physical damage, maybe," Blizzard scolds, "but she can't repair psychological damage." Anna hums, uninterested. Blizzard scowls. "My point is that I have more than enough reason to assume you are the culprit when things go array," she says.

Anna throws her hands into the air. "My powers aren't limited to fire, you fucking jackass," she shouts, the intensity of her words dulled by the mask. "When CEO Hans-the-douchebag got the shit beaten out of him I bet the thought of me as the culprit hadn't even crossed your mind because, 'Oh, well, there's no evidence fire here so it can't be Arson, because Arson can't possibly have fucking super strength.' Even though you've fought with me enough times to realize that I can rip a five story house out of the ground with my bare hands, which you know because I fucking threw it at you."

One second. Two seconds. Thr—

"You beat up Hans Westerguard?" Blizzard asks.

Anna blinks, taken off guard. Out of everything the hero could have freak'n reacted to she just had to choose— "Uh," she sounds, dumbly. "No?" Definitely not, she thinks, as if it makes a difference.

Blizzard raises an eyebrow. "Well," she hums, "as much as I hate to say it; if you did do it, don't tell anyone. I was able to pin the blame on the Weasel and his experiments, and you know how hard it is to get him locked up."

Tell me about it, Anna thinks. She's wanted Weselton out of the picture even after she turned into a villain, as did most of the big bads. Being one loose screw away from being a total nut case did wonders in demolishing any good relations he might have had.

"You mean I'm being offered a freebie from the protector of freedom and justice herself?" Anna asks. "That's not something you hear often."

"Don't push your luck," Blizzard warns. "I still have a list of crimes that could send you away for life."

"Yeah," Anna allows, because it's true. The Ambassador debacle alone—that ended in the annihilation of Ambassadors' 'peaceful' fleet and four dead superheroes—would be enough to have Anna locked away for five lifetimes. The redhead sighs, shaking her head. The reminder that she used to be the face of justice long before Blizzard and the Golden Flower even constituted as front-page news stings. The fact that everyone outright blames her without knowing the details stings; but it's better that way. If living this life of crime prevents the world from learning the truth, then it's a life worth living.

"Enough banter," Anna grunts, her mood souring. "Do you want my help or not?"

Blizzard's fingers twitch. "So you can figure out my identity through them? No thank you," she declines, repulsed by the notion.

Anna shrugs. "Okay," she says, uncaring. The less she has to do with the Protector league and Calhoun, the base's AI, the better. So she turns and bolts to the edge of the roof, shouting, "don't say I never tried to be nice!" as leaps off the building with a whoop, fire rocketing out from the soles of her feet and propelling her through the night sky.

Blizzard watches the redhead fly away, trying to prevent her fingers from curling into fists.

"Fuck!" the blond shouts, ripping off her helm and smashing it against the rooftop. Her heavy breathing mists in the chill that surrounds her, and she tries to take comfort in that. At least some things remain normal.

With a steadying breath, Blizzard reforms her helm and uses her powers to propel her in the opposite direction of the once treasured hero. She has more important things to deal with than an amber who fell from grace.