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For Better or For Worse

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Four Years Ago

Elsa lands a block from her home, dissolving her icy armour before trudging to her apartment and locking herself inside. The moment she hears the bolt clicking into place, her cell phone rings. She pulls it out, whimpering when she sees Rapunzel's number. But she can't ignore it; not with pieces of the Ambassador ships falling through the atmosphere. Even if she has been on hero duty for the last twenty-four hours, fixing the mess the elite Protectors appear keen on ignoring.

"Yeah?" Elsa sighs, groaning as she sinks into her less-than-stellar living room couch.

"Turn on the TV. Put it on Arendelle news," Rapunzel demands, her voice stiff. The blond frowns, following her friend's instructions.

What she sees makes her sit up, back ramrod straight, her eyes widening in horror.

"No," she whispers, her chest contracting. "Why are they—?" Words fail her, and she watches in growing dread as a frantic reporting team catches:

Arson, her pupils glowing moonlit black and her irises a smoking red, grabs Hades by the hair and slams his head into the pavement, concaving the immediate area. Arson growls, heat waves shuddering off of her form, and she swings, throwing Hades to—and through—some nearby wreckage of an Ambassador ship. The fire superpower hunches over, her muscles coiling, and she roars, smoke filtering through her mask and rolling up the curves of her face.

Hades slams into her from above, appearing through a hell gate. He takes them both to the ground.

"It's time to pay for your crimes," Hades hisses, an odd glint in his eyes. Shadows lick his form, and they attach themselves to Arson as he slams his fist into her chest, the crack of breaking ribs reaching the reporter's microphone. Arson cries out, her back arching into the road.

The redhead's pupils narrow into pinpricks and, in a move too quick to catch, Hades is the one on his back, getting his skull driven into the ground under an assault of flying knuckles. Arson howls, silver laced black fire spilling around her mask.

Hades, eyes widening, opens a hell gate beneath him – dragging Arson with him. Moments later they fall from the sky, fists flying and magic blasting at deafening velocities.

When their height reaches the tops of the skyscrapers, Arson releases a blinding explosion, sending Hades hurdling towards the concrete. At the last possible second he opens a hell gate, opening the other end beside Arson, using his momentum to slam into the redhead and send them both crashing clear through a nearby skyscraper.

Arson propels herself through the air with fire when they exit the other side of the building, expertly avoiding Hades as he jumps from hell gate to hell gate, trying to drag his teammate into an early grave.

With an arcing twirl, Arson grabs Hades by the shirt and throws him into the ground, sending cracks through the road, sidewalks and nearby infrastructure.

"Yes," Arson rumbles, landing beside the wheezing man and driving her heel into his sternum to keep him down. "My crimes do need to be answered for," she says, her voice a deep, rolling growl, "but that doesn't mean I'll pay for mine before you pay for yours." A sadistic spark lights in her eyes. "Goodbye, Hades."

Arson sucks in a breath, the very air around her trembling as her powers build on her tongue. Her suit, specially designed to resist her powers, begins smoking, flaking under the pressure.

The redhead surges forward, screaming what might have been, 'die!' but is lost in the screeching roar of glowing silver, midnight black fire.

When the fire clears, there's nothing left of once mighty 'God of Hell.'

Arson cracks her neck, a deep laugh crackling through her lungs as she tilts her head to the sky, the corners of her eyes crinkling in amusement.

"Oh my god," the reporter gasps in horror, off screen.

The redhead blinks, her eyes boring into the reporter when her lids open, then directly into the lens of the camera. Arson's head lowers, her irises glowing brighter as she stalks forward, her fingers twitching with stray, normal, flames.

"Is this a live broadcast?" the superhero rumbles, when she's looming over the fallen cameraman. Arson glances to the side, taking in the reporter's non-verbal response. "Good," she growls, grabbing the camera and the reporter's microphone. She takes to the sky, putting herself center stage and spinning, slow enough to see the destruction of the city around her, littered with pieces of the peaceful alien fleet.

"Citizens of the world," Arson says, her voice dark, menacing, "I bring you a public update regarding the current global dishevel." She leans forward, her eyes narrowing. "I am the only elite Protector remaining," she snarls, irises flashing, "and I am the cause of the hell you're all experiencing. The Ambassadors experienced slaughter you can never hope to imagine, by my hand, and I hope to give you an accurate depiction of what will happen should you try to detain me for my crimes."

The camera shifts, turning until it's looking straight down, the frightening height only mildly dulled by the light flares the flames from Arson's feet cast on the lens.

"Imagine your life is in my hands," she whispers, her breath puffing against the microphone. "Now," Arson whispers, closer, "imagine you start slipping"—the camera jiggles—"and imagine you beg, but I just stare at you, watching realization hit you like a freight train." The camera falls an inch and dangles, swinging back and forth. "Realization," Arson repeats, as if she were in the room next to you, "that the mighty hero you know and love, can and will let you die."

The camera falls, lens facing down.

Arson's cackling sounds in the background, ever distant—she must have dropped the microphone—and then, nothing.

Elsa's phone lay on her lap, long since fallen from her still raised hand.

"My god," the blond croaks, her mouth dry. Her heart throbs, as if something essential to her continued existence was robbed from her.

Arson, her hero, the world's hero, just slaughtered Hades before the eyes of millions, admitted to murdering an alien fleet unprovoked and threatened humanity's continued existence in one fell swoop.

"This must be a mistake," she murmurs, numb. She pats her lap, bringing her phone back up to her ear, upside down. "Was this footage confirmed?" she croaks.

"Yeah," Rapunzel says, her voice strained. "It aired live in England a few hours ago. We're . . . we're one of the last news stations to show it. Arendelle refused to believe—"

"Screw what they believe," Elsa snaps, "I don't believe it. Arson has done nothing in the past to suggest a mental break of this magnitu—"

"Elsa," the Golden Flower interrupts, her voice rough with restrained tears. "Please, you aren't helping."

Tears burn in Elsa's eyes, her chest heaving in silent sobs. "No," the inspiring hero chokes, her throat tightening. "I refuse—" her breath hitches, and she curls in on herself, feeling her insides wither.

"The General is taking temporary control over the Protector base," Rapunzel continues, her brave face holding strong. "He's calling all metahumans to"—she swallows—"to show up for an open recruitment. To fill the empty positions."

It takes Elsa way longer than it should to catch on, and even longer to process. Even then, the only thing that breaks her from her trance is:

"I'm going," Rapunzel says, almost too soft to hear. "Will you come with me?"

Elsa thinks about that, staring at the continued babble of the news station, reporting on the collective damage the world sustained from being assaulted with spaceship debris. How much of it could have been avoided if the elite Protectors were still alive? The blond's eyes narrow.

"Yeah," Blizzard growls, her features hardening. "Count me in."


Present Day

Elsa storms into the Protector base, dissolving her armour.

Belle steps out from the kitchen with a raised eyebrow. She takes a sip of tea from the mug in her hand, examining her leader's body language before saying, "You look like someone dragged you through hell."

"They might as well have," Elsa says, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I didn't find out anything useful," she whispers, trudging into the common area and collapsing on the closest couch. Belle follows her.

"What did you expect?" Belle says, sitting on the couch's armrest.

"Something," Elsa murmurs, flopping onto her stomach and burying her head in her arms. "Did you find anything?" Belle shakes her head, even though the other woman can't see her.

"No. Unfortunately," the brunette says, "what I needed is in the part of the database Calhoun protects from seeing the light of day."

Elsa winces, not daring to say, 'but you're Decryption, getting through network blocks like that is what you do.' Calhoun has a defense system that attacks hacking users personally, no matter what country they're in, no matter what planet. The superheroes of the league tried inquiring about how, but Calhoun would only say, 'you do not have the clearance for that information.' When they asked who did have access, the AI said, 'that information is classified.' Elsa can't imagine why, but it's a headache she's long since put on the bottom self.

"Did you find any potential leads, at least?" Belle asks.

Blizzard opens her mouth to answer 'no,' but pauses. After a moment, she rolls onto her back and stares up at the ceiling, a critical expression on her face.

"I might have," Elsa allows, her lips curling in distaste. "But I'd rather not bargain with Arson."

Belle's back stiffens, her mug halting halfway to her lips. "Arson, huh?" Belle asks, her voice strained. Her eyebrows furrow. "What did she say?"

"Mainly to fuck off," Elsa drawls, "but she did mention helping me if I 'stop blaming her for everything.' Whatever her twisted mind translates that to mean."

Belle hums, the attention in her eyes fading. Elsa watches, wondering what memories the French woman associates with the world's most wanted criminal. Is it the obvious, with Arson's recorded crime and confession, or something more personal?

Elsa stares at a random point on the far wall, absent.

Despite Arson's crimes, her malice, when the blond finally meet the woman, she didn't find herself facing the cold hearted villain she thought she would. Sure Arson was brutal and nearly beat Elsa to death, but there was something crucial missing in the villain's eyes, and something there that shouldn't have been.

Arson's gotten better at hiding these edges throughout the years, but every now and then Elsa will catch a glimpse of her rival before the woman notices her presence. Elsa rarely sees Arson's face in these moments, but she doesn't have to – because the clues are in the set of the villain's shoulders, the way her head hangs forward, the way her fingers tremble when no one's looking.

Arson is . . . subdued, compared to her villain debut that went world-wide within a matter of hours. Elsa wants to believe, in those rare moments she sees Arson with her guard down, that the superhero she used to love is still in there somewhere. But then Arson looks at her, and Elsa knows it's a fool's dream. The hero she idealized died a long time ago.

"Do you think she could pull it off?" Belle asks, her tone carefully blank.

"She certainly has the connections," Elsa replies, "but she's not someone I want to get into a habit of collaborating with. It's too tempting to . . . forget, what she's done." She winces, appalled by her own weakness. One would think four years would be plenty of time to allow reality to sink in far enough to prevent such a foolish notion.

Belle twitches a forced smile. "Perhaps," she concedes, taking a sip of tea. "How many potential leads do you have left?"

"Not many, but there are some," Elsa says, with a shrug. "Enough to find my parents."

Belle glances at her leader out of the corner of her eye. "Yes," she says, slowly, "but is it enough to find them before something happens to them?"

Elsa cringes. "God, I hope so," she whispers.

Belle glances down, watching her tea as she swirls it around. "Arson's number is programmed into the system," she states, her eyes hardening and the muscles in her jaw jumping. "Calhoun has the exact number locked in her blackout zone, God knows why, but she can make the call should you decide you need that woman's help." She rubs her eyes, fingers trembling.

"I won't need to," Elsa says, sitting up. "Don't worry," she whispers, "I'm not going to give Arson the chance to weasel her way back into our hearts."

"You may not have a choice," Belle says, standing. She turns and walks back to the kitchen, spine stiff, saying, "Not unless you're okay with finding your parents dead, or broken."

Elsa's throat clenches, and she lays back down, fighting the rising urge to cry. That's something she certainly isn't okay with, but she's not okay with working with Arson, either. Then there's Shang, Mulan and Jane to think about – those who used to be junior Protectors during the rule of the original elites. Arson has used the trio's identities as leverage on more than a dozen counts to blackmail her way out of trouble. Jane staged her death, and that of her old superhero identity in turn, just to be released from Arson's thumb – but that only works so long as Arson doesn't see Jane's face.

The strange thing is that no one in the trio knows what Arson's civilian identity is – nor the other four former elites. Apparently they were a tight-knit group, who kept as many secrets from the world as they did from the junior leaguers.

According to them, the former elites had collective secrets larger than the restricted area of Calhoun's database.

"Would you like me to dial Arson?" Calhoun asks, from one of the many hidden speakers in the base.

"No," Elsa sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. "I got this."

"Yo," Megara, otherwise known as Hercules, says, poking her head in the room. "Some weirdo in Russia is asking for you. Something about the Headless Horseman haunting Moscow?"

"Fucking hell," Elsa says, groaning as she rolls off the couch. "I can't have five minutes without someone causing shit, can I?"

Megara shrugs. "Apparently," she says, following her leader to the main meeting room. "Who do you want to deal with it?"

"I don't know," Elsa grumbles, running her fingers through her bangs. "Merida and Kida, I guess, unless the Horseman is doing stranger shit than usual."

Megara raises an eyebrow. "Those two working together is a disaster waiting to happen," she warns.

"Merida is a disaster waiting to happen," Elsa mutters, "but I need her out of the way for a couple of days while I search for my parents."

Megara frowns, grabbing Elsa's arm before the face of the Protectors can enter the designated meeting room, the Russian 'weirdo' already up on one of the many picture-window-sized screens. "We can help you," the mighty woman whispers. "You don't have to do this by yourself."

Elsa nods. "Yeah," she agrees, "but I might—" she grinds her teeth. "I might have to cooperate with Arson," she says, spitting the name like a curse. "And I'd rather prevent potential . . . hiccups, before they happen."

Megara's head snaps back, eyes wide. The corners of her mouth tighten, debating what to address; the fact that it's Arson, or the fact that Merida will personally try to murder Elsa if she works with the villain.

"I would tell you how bad of an idea that is, but you already know that," Megara says, releasing her hold on Elsa's arm. "Just, be smart. Whatever you do."

Elsa nods, and disappears inside the meeting room.

Megara sighs and rubs the back of her neck. "God," she murmurs, "I don't envy that decision."

"It's not one she should be forced to make," Mulan, Shadow, says, appearing from nowhere. Megara jumps.

"Fucking hell," Megara hisses, with a sneer. "Could you not?"

"I've been checking in on everyone," Mulan says, as if the strongest metahuman alive hadn't spoken. "Elsa's only in this predicament because our AI refuses to allow Belle the access she needs to find the culprit ourselves."

"Incorrect," Calhoun says, making Megara jump again.

"The pair of you are going to kill me, I swear," Megara mutters.

"Belle was attempting to access irrelevant information connected to what data she had available to her," Calhoun continues, undeterred. "And for your information, I have been searching for Elsa's parents on my own." That catches the pair's attention. "Whomever the culprit is, they're smart enough to not leave an electronic trail. In order to find Agdar and Idunn, Elsa will need to crack down on the underground and villain networks."

"Or get someone else to do it for her," Mulan murmurs, eyebrows furrowing. "I still don't like the idea of that person being Arson. Sure she'll get the job done, but at what cost? With what details hidden in the fine print?"

Calhoun doesn't respond and, in lieu of an answer, Megara shrugs. Mulan sighs.

"I guess that's Elsa's decision, in the end," Mulan says, turning and walking away for once. "I'll see you around," she adds, over her shoulder.

"Yeah," Megara mutters, heading in the other direction. "The question is whether or not I'll see you."

In the Protector database, Calhoun settles part of her awareness in the blackout zone, her mind thumbing Arson's file. A particular recording jumps out at her, and she allows herself a second to process it.

"You can't let them know," Arson mutters, backing away from the knocked out junior leaguers, tears burning in her eyes.

"They'll understand," Calhoun tries to reason, scanning the young metahumans for their individual states of health. They had caught Arson inside the base and attempted to reason with her, then subdue her when that failed. The former hero could have prevented the whole debacle by explaining her situation, but the redhead outright refuses, and Calhoun can't think of a single reason why.

Arson shakes her head, her body trembling. "No," she whispers, gritting her teeth. "I don't want them understanding," she says, tears streaking down her cheeks. "I can't have them trusting me. It isn't safe."

"Anna," Calhoun sighs, "be reasonable."

Arson's eyes harden at the sound of her name, her posture straightening. "No," she repeats, harsher this time. Her eyes slide to the closest camera. "And never call me Anna again. From henceforth both my profiles will be locked into your blackout zone with only my authorization for unlock except in extraordinary circumstances when the leaguers have no chance without it, even then only relevant information may be disclosed. I order this under the hero clause subsection fifty-one. Only public known knowledge may be accessed in your database by anyone other than you or I. Do you confirm?"

If Calhoun still had a jaw, she would be grinding her teeth. How can one human, gifted or not, be so stupid. "I confirm," she grits.

Arson's eyes soften, and her gaze flicks away from the lens. She glances around at the mess the earlier fight had made of the base, and she sighs. "I'm sorry," she murmurs, turning heel and bolting to the secret exit only she and Black Dragon knew about. Now only Arson knows of it's existence.

Calhoun shifts a base camera, getting a better look at the three teenagers the future of the league rests on. Will they be enough, she wonders, or has Anna doomed more than her own reputation in her recklessness?

"Calhoun!" Belle calls, again, grabbing the AI's attention.

"Yes?" Calhoun asks, projecting her voice into the right room.

"Ahh, I was wondering where you were," Belle says, typing away on one of the base's terminals. "Before you start zapping me with your secret poison powder, again, am I allowed to access the home folder this information comes from?" Calhoun scans the data the terminal is tapped into.

"No," the AI says, wanting to wince when she sees Belle sigh.

"What's the point of having so much accumulated records if only the AI is allowed to know what's in them?" Decryption whispers, more to herself than to anyone else.

Calhoun doesn't answer, or else she fears the words she'll say will out just how vulnerable the base's security system is to the leaguers number one enemy. Not because of Arson's personal locks or because of the staggering access she still retains, but because Calhoun's security system is useless against the villain. Not unless she wants to turn one of the strongest metahumans alive into a mindless murder. Not if she wants to prevent history from repeating itself.