After the prison riot, Vance Astrovik found himself in a place of greater respect among his fellow inmates. It was a pleasant surprise; he'd only done what was right, seeing as how they were all human beings in this place — correction, they were all sentient beings of varying species — in the Vault. They all deserved rights. And he was one of them till the end. It was nice to see the others respected that; it restored his faith in the humanity of convicts, in a way.
Of course, it was jail, and they didn't all love him. A few inmates were only in here thanks to Vance and the New Warriors, after all. But those with violent feelings towards him at least had the sense not to act on it, and things weren't bad. No worse than they were for anybody else locked up in this compound, anyhow.
He was thinking about all this when he was marched out to the cafeteria for breakfast one day. In prison, most everybody ate in familiar groups. It was good to know who your allies were; for that matter, it was good to have allies in the first place when you were in such a hostile environment as the Vault. Vance liked to sit with everyone. He wasn't stupid, he had a few oftens, and he didn't go out of his way to dip in the Kool Aid and barge into tight knit groups of muscle mass. But he found it incredibly easy to slip in places — besides, he was kind of a guards' favorite, and he didn't like seeming like he was hanging on their sleeves. But it was cool. Vance was well liked, considering everybody was a criminal.
As he came back with his tray of mush, he caught the eye of Max Dillon, received an amicable nod, and began to make his way over to the Sinister Six table. Another figure, a small one, slipped its way behind him to make its path to a lonely spot in the corner. Vance paused to look.
It was… a boy, maybe five feet tall. Was he old enough to be put in here? He was small and lanky, and his jumpsuit looked at least a couple sizes too big. His dark hair was a tangled mess of dreads of varying thickness — well, he must have done that himself, it sure as hell wasn't professional — and there seemed something very familiar about the boy, something made him immediately feel at home. Suddenly with a jolt, Vance realized it was because he reminded him of a shyer, chocolate-skinned version of a depowered Robbie Baldwin. Damn. Anyhow, the guy must've been either newly incarcerated or newly relocated, because Vance had never seen him before.
Vance smiled at the boy in pure curiosity, trying to catch his eye. The kid looked, over, their eyes met for a second. Then the kid instantly looked down, and began to pick at his mush intently. Vance watched him.
"Ugh," Aleksei grunted from across the table, spooning through his own mush.
"We know, we know," Max rolled his eyes quite affectionately, "worse than the jack mack, but hey, big guy like you needs your vegetables! Think how strong it'll make you to squash the bug in the future."
"You can talk," Aleksei muttered. "Your sentence is almost over."
"Yessiree! But for real ain't no way you'd be the one to finally squash the bug either, so does it really matter for the sake of the argument?" Max took a huge gulp, but his smile looked pretty strained.
"You know, this would be fine, if only we had pancake syrup," Herman fantasized dreamily.
"The fuck," Max snorted.
"Shuddup, loser," Aleksei told Herman calmly.
"Vance, you think you could get us a favor and season this grub?" Herman yipped, ignoring them.
Vance managed to swallow down a spoonful of his mush, but his eyes were on the kid. He looked scared, trying very hard not to make eye contact with anybody. Well, that was a decent start. Evidently the boy knew something about jail 'safety', especially among supervillains. He was so little! What had he possibly done that had wound him up in here?
"Vance!" Herman tapped him on the shoulder. "You in the car? Pancake syrup!"
"What?" Vance blinked as reality jerked him back. "Oh! Herman, you know I don't have that kind of juice card! Sure, guards might've been friendlier to me at the start for being an ex-superhero, but I ain't been riding leg… Don't mean I have any more rights than you, specially after the riot, you know that."
"I hear chatter you'll probably get early parole," Max grumbled.
"Just 'cuz I'm so handsome," Vance smirked playfully, but his heart thudded when he imagined seeing Angelica again, her fiery red hair, her sparkling smile, her beautiful… curves. The image faded as he looked back at the kid. A man was standing there in front of him, one that hasn't been there before: a handsomely ripped white man… with swastica tattoos. One of Red Skull's supersoldiers, or surely something Captain America fought. The boy looked terrified.
"You wanna join up with me, once we get out?" Herman offered suddenly to Vance. "I'd be truly honored to have you on my team. I mean, now that you're one of us—"
"Uh, pass, I'd rather not spend my freedom beating on Spider-Man. When I get out, I plan to devote myself to justice — real justice — better than any of us received on the outside." Making a snap decision, Vance stood up suddenly, and waved at the kid. "Hey, new guy!" He stood up on his seat, glanced at the guards, then stepped back down. Jumping up and down on a bench was probably not the wisest move for a guy like himself. He took a step forwards, but the Nazi was already retreating, with an overly smug look. Well, that wasn't a good sign. Looking somehow even more alarmed, the boy grabbed his tray and scampered over to the Sinister Six's table. Vance patted a seat, glancing back at Herman as if nothing had happened. "I appreciate the offer, though. You're good people." Casual. That was the way to make this child feel comfortable. Not embarrassed, like he'd been rescued; not afraid, like he was thrown in the limelight; but like he belonged.
"Shit," Max widened his eyes a little, then shook his head with a laugh. "Scared off by a Jew, that must've stung his jacket." He paused before adding, "Him being a Nazi, y'know. I like Jews. I had a Jewish teammate once. The original Vulture, you know? Not that I'd classify you alongside that geezer."
Vance chucked, flushing at Electro's awkward backpedalling. "I'm not offended, just chill or you coming off like a monkey mouth. Okay, this is Herman, Aleksei, Max… I'm Vance. Hey." He tried to smile warmly at the kid. He wasn't sure it had the best effect, though. The boy's eyes widened at the names. Presumably he was able to match Herman Schultz, Aleksei Sytsevich, Max Dillon; to the corresponding supervillain aliases: Shocker, Rhino, Electro.
The boy sat down gingerly where Vance indicated, placing his tray on the table. "Hi." His voice came out very quiet and pretty high, to the point that Vance wondered if he'd even properly hit puberty yet. The boy swallowed, adding, "I'm Martin."
"Nice name," Vance smiled. He wanted to say welcome or some shit like that, but welcoming somebody to jail was bound to come off pretty ironic, and maybe not even welcoming at all.
"Okay, excuse me, what the hell are we doing with a runt?" Max raised an eyebrow. "Anybody?" He paused. "Okay, stupid question."
"How old are you, boy?" Aleksei asked, in a very Russian way.
There was a silence. "Fifteen," Martin mumbled. Well, least he was a little bit older than he looked. Just like somebody else Vance knew.
"Cool," said Vance, even though it wasn't. Okay, it was cool that he was the same age as Robbie, adding to the similarities; but it wasn't cool that supposed authorities were locking up children in the Vault. "I'm eighteen," Vance added amicably, "so not too much older. Just enough to be wise, son."
"Kids," Max sighed exaggeratedly.
"Hello?" Vance raised an eyebrow at him.
Max stood up. "So you'll negotiate the pancake syrup sitch for Herman, attaboy, Vance? Well… I think I'm done my mush. I'm heading to the ghetto penthouse before our unit ends up on lockdown… again…" his eyes read some very conspicuous 'not naming names, you get the blame' all over them.
"Same here." Aleksei stood up. "I haven't caught TV in a week; I'm not eager to miss news of the outside world again."
"No offense, 'Justice'." Herman patted Vance condescendingly on the head.
"My name's not Justice," he snorted, then paused. That did sound pretty good. But then the three were gone, and Vance sighed. "No offense, really," he shook his head to himself, choking down another spoonful of mush. Damn, these Vault chefs could really use some cooking lessons. He glanced at Martin again, who totally looked petrified. Poor kid. "They're good people," Vance promised. "Easily overwhelmed, maybe. And definitely misguided. But hey, how else do we end up in here, right?"
Martin didn't answer. He stared at Vance with wide eyes, then suddenly started shoveling through his mush again, nodding vaguely. Very quiet. Well, that was one way he differed from Robbie.
"Hey, I won't hurt you," Vance said presently, in a very serious but quiet tone, so that nobody else would overhear. "That was a nasty man that was bothering you, but we can keep you safe. I mean sure you wouldn't want to cross him in a fight, but he just sells wolf tickets here. I don't need to tell you this place is rough, and sometimes it's hard to hold onto your sanity, but stick with me and you'll be fine, alright?" He felt awful for the kid, no matter what he had done to be in here, he should be outside making mistakes the way teens should; but what more could Vance do for him than stand by his side? He paused. "We're on lockdown more than you'd expect, and we each have our own power-inhibiting cells, so there's that. Relaxation galore, just close your eyes and imagine you're wearing pajamas instead of peels, imagine the cots are big and fluffy actually (you know) soft. I daydream a lot in here. And work out. And write letters. We can do kites, there are bugs, it's a thing. You got any folks who you could write letters to?" he asked, tripping over his river of words in realization of his new mentorship role. He was already thinking about how serious he had to take this.
"My mama," Martin replied, actually taking a bite of his food. That was a start!
"Then write her," Vance said, encouragingly. He paused. "It'll help both of you. I don't have family I'd write letters to, but I send kites to my girl all the time. It makes you feel better to keep in touch, trust me. More hopeful, and empowered. And occasionally, we get phone calls."
Martin nodded, biting his lip. Suddenly, he asked a question. "Didja do what you in for?"
Vance nodded slowly, concern filling his chest. "Yeah. Why? Are you innocent? Oh man, I'm sorry…" Duh, he was a little boy… he must be here… because he was black? Damn. Vance wished he knew more about this topic, but rich boy Dwayne was never in a situation where he wouldn't have a million lawyers on his back anyhow. And Vance just didn't tend to discuss racist police with Dwayne or Elvin or any of his black friends — it was never really relevant to himself. Vance thought hard, wishing he knew what to do here. But he was no lawyer. Dammit, Robbie would know what to do.
"Nah, I done it, too," Martin mumbled. "You just… you just seem too nice."
"Ha, well you seem nice too!" Vance pulled a faint grin, enormously grateful he'd kept his thoughts to himself. There he'd been finding Max's whiteness suffocating with the 'Jew' comments, and here he'd been just the same. "I believe our crimes don't define who we are. We're not villains just because we did some bad shit. Not necessarily."
"Yeah right…" Martin whispered, irritation tugging at his brows. Okay, good sign, if he didn't seem too utterly terrified of dissing him anymore. "So what you in for?"
"Second-degree murder," Vance said simply after a pause. He didn't feel like expanding. It still hurt to think about. "You?"
"Gang violence, and drugs. I didn't kill nobody." Martin looked a little alarmed at the murder charge. "Though I'm always… willing to expand my horizons? Uh… you in all day?"
Oh, so he already knew some of the jargon. He must've known some ex-cons before he got locked up (either that or just listened to a lot of gangsta rap). "Relax, I'm not promoting murder. My sentence is eighteen months. So far it's been almost a year," Vance replied, trying now to detach emotion from his voice. "It was a crime of passion. I didn't… premeditate… to kill… him, so I get off easier." He paused, a little curious. "You didn't know? Wasn't I on the news for, like, weeks, when it happened? I'm Vance Astrovik."
"Oh, uh…" Martin scratched his head. "Our TV ain't been working for a while now, so… I don't make a point of keeping up with news stories."
A while. Poor kid. That must've been a pretty long while. "Guess 'Marvel Boy' doesn't mean anything to you either, then?" Vance asked.
Martin tilted his head, slowly eating mush. "Dunno, sorry, feel like I heard it someplace though… Is that you?" He seemed to be developing some manner of ease with Vance. That was good.
"It was," Vance flushed softly. "Not anymore."
"Aw." Martin gazed at him. "I ain't never been no supervillain, so I ain't got no codename yet, but… maybe I'll think of one."
"Oh, I wasn't really…" Vance trailed off. Crap. He wasn't a supervillain. But he was in the Vault, he was doing time for his crime, and he needed to stop faking like he was somehow high and mighty, because he wasn't. "I don't recommend supervillainy," he amended.
"Ain't sure I got it in me, nohow," Martin mumbled.
"So you're in a gang?" Vance wasn't sure how personal a question that was, but hey. Martin had drilled him enough, so it only made sense that he ask him questions back.
Martin nodded slowly. It was interesting. How had such a puny little kid even been allowed in a gang? They did some sort of hazing, right? But he answered soon enough. When he started talking, he still seemed somewhat stiff and reserved, but soon his eyes were welling, and Vance could tell he was speaking from the heart. Vance could tell Martin was pouring his soul out to him. "Ain't had no choice, not in my hood, not if you wanna be safe, you gotta pick a side. My older brother… he broke bone to get me a place among them niggas that hardly place him that high up. He a rough man, my brother, but a good one. He even tried to plead me innocent, but you know how cops be. So what had happened was, next thing, there's a massive firefight I ain't even prepared for. But I try, oh God, I try to back up my man, but I ain't got what it takes to shoot to kill, I don't want to kill people, and… And then the po-po show up and blast it all to hell and brothas clapped in irons every which way. They make me take a plea deal, but with my superpowers, I stillend up here." He sighed. "All my peeps is at the normal jail, but I'm in here with the real big time evil folks who fight the goddamn Avengers! How's that right?" He clenched a fist, anguish flashing across his baby face.
"It's not," Vance sighed. Life really wasn't right… life wasn't fair. How was there any fairness in the fact that he had grown up abused by the man who was supposed to love him the most? "Well, least you've got one hell of an origin story," Vance offered, trying to be on the bright side.
"Right," Martin mumbled.
"Are you a mutant?" Vance inquired more gently. He wasn't sure if he should — he knew he didn't like the main noticed fact about himself being his mutantdom, it was a part of his identity that had brought him nothing but suffering, but for context… Martin nodded slowly. "Me too," Vance empathized. "Telekinetic. What are your powers?"
"Wish I could show you…" Martin put a finger to the inhibitor collar around his neck.
"Yeah, I wouldn't do that." Vance winced slightly. "Gives you an awful shock if you pull too hard."
Martin sighed, and went back to his mush. "Nothing useful. I read palms. Not a trashy fake voodoo way, either, but real fucking scientific palm reading. I could see random shit from your future on them hands, if I ain't had on this tech."
"Serious?" Vance was impressed, and Martin needed to know it. "How is that not useful?!!"
"Ain't stop me coming here, did I?" Martin looked miserable. Well, no surprise. He was in jail, and he clearly was uncomfortable with his conscience to boot. All Vance wanted to do right now was reach out and give him a tight hug, but he didn't want to frighten the kid. Last thing he needed to top off his first day of prison was a hug from a creepy Jewish ex-superhero in front of the whole cafeteria.
"Well…" Vance scratched his head thoughtfully. "Accurate palm reading had got to be a fair moneymaker, right? And at least you're under eighteen, so your record can still be purged. When you get out, I will see to it that you can move out of your neighborhood and clean up your act. Take your mother, your brother if he's willing. I know it's scary, but I can help you out. If you want." He didn't know Martin's sentence — hell, he didn't know with what money Vance'd fulfill this promise — but there was a fair chance he'd be out first. There was time to figure it out. To guilt-trip Dwayne. No way he was going to let the kid's life fall to ruin because of the life and the circumstances and the privileges he'd been born to.
Martin stared at him, rubbing an eye, the mush all but forgotten. "Why? You don't even know me… Why would you do that?"
Oh, dammit. Vance reached out a tentative hand and placed it over Martin's. A small gesture — he didn't want to seem like one of those rapey pedophilic creeps who end up all too often in prisons — nor like a prison wolf, which weren't exactly uncommon here — a hand-touch was the least he could do to show support. That he cared. And he knew this kid wasn't Robbie, he wasn't hyper like Robbie, Robbie was a respected white lawyer's son while this boy was seemingly anything but, yet… he was like Robbie. In every way that mattered. He was a child who deserved better.
Vance looked Martin directly in the eyes. Martin gazed back, open. He looked comforted by Vance's hand. Thank goodness.
Vance licked his dry lip, and when he spoke, there was a surprising earnestness to his voice. "Because you're human. You deserve a chance. And hell if I'm not gonna rain down JUSTICE on this whole damn earth."
There, well he'd said it. Martin's mouth creased into half a smile.
A smile. Martin had a beautiful smile. Vance tucked that knowledge away in his mind for future reference. A sweet, gorgeous smile.
Suddenly, Vance knew that everything would all work out. He was already making a difference for justice.