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[personal profile] lb_lee
The Reality Warper
Series: Battle the Universe
Word Count: 3000
Summary: A former superhero breaks out of the mental hospital, and reality starts to go horribly wrong. Tank tries to help.
Notes: This story was sponsored by the generous Patreon crew! It takes place after Tank got fired from respectable superheroing, and references some of the events in The First Rule of Blackmail, but you don't need to read any of the other stories to get this one; all you need to know is, Tank is multiple, and Kara and Lucinda fielded this case.  Scroll to the bottom to see the content warnings.

Helena Liu woke up and reality wasn’t real.

Oh, it looked real, but Helena knew. She always knew. Proper reality had a texture, a special way it felt against her fingertips, and if it wasn’t there, then she knew it wasn’t real. When she woke up, there was no texture, and even though everything still looked all right, she knew it wouldn’t for much longer.

She tried to tell the hospital staff, but they wouldn’t listen to her. They told her to keep to her routines, take her medication, and they just didn’t understand. To act like this was acceptable would be to encourage it, and Helena couldn’t do that. She’d made a promise.

But she couldn’t explain that to them.

This wasn’t the first time Helena had woken up without the texture, and she’d built her own set of skills to bring it back, but none of them worked this time. Nothing felt real. She even tried to slam her hand in the door, which she hated doing but this was an emergency, and even that didn’t work. The door just bent like putty in her hands and squished harmlessly, and despite her best efforts, she couldn’t get it back into its frame afterward.

Oh god. It was getting worse, not better. Panic rose, then determination as she realized it was time to act on the crisis plan she’d made for herself, years prior.

“Helena?”

Helena gritted her teeth. “Not now, Aman,” she said. “I tried to tell you.”

“Helena, please--”

But Helena had planned for this too; after all, she’d been the All-Seeing Eye’s coworker for years, and she knew how to keep him out of her head. The roll of tinfoil in her bedside drawer was stereotypical, even comedic, but it was cheap and simple, and the bemused hospital staff had never tried to take it from her. But when she tried to touch it, it started to melt in her hands, and she had to drop it.

“Helena, let’s talk about this. You don’t have to do this! I care about you. I--”

Helena ignored the voice and turned to her roommate, a large older woman who was convinced she was the mother of Jesus. “Pardon me, Mary, but I need some help.”

Mary, bless her heart, understood completely. She’d been through this before. “Of course, sweetie,” she said, and in five seconds flat made a serviceable hat out of the foil and put it on Helena’s head. Aman’s voice vanished.

“Better?” Mary asked.

“Yes, much, thank you.” Helena said. “I’m afraid I have to go now. Hug me bye, but careful, don’t touch my hands.”

Mary gave good hugs. Helena would miss them.

“Go save the world,” Mary said as she squeezed Helena.

Helena smiled, even though it hurt. Mary had never heard the full truth, but at least she understood that Helena had to get out, far from anyone she could hurt, even though it would cause some property damage and fear in her wake.

Then Mary stepped back and left the room, so she wouldn’t get caught by accident, and Helena reached into the wall. Her hands sunk through like it was peanut butter. With one good wrench, she pulled it apart, and she stepped out onto the lawn.

This was not the kind of hospital that barricaded patients in, but there was a fence with barbed wire at the top; she could see it dancing in the sun. It was moving too much for her to catch right away, but it melted in her hands and she shuffled through, carefully holding her arms away from the rest of her body.

“This is okay,” she said. “I can do this...”

The cars were made of cotton and the sky was full of trees. It was getting worse. Helena made a sound of distress, shut her eyes, and rocked for a moment, focusing on the feeling of the ground through her thin canvas shoes. It felt reassuringly strong and stable under her feet, real. Good, that was good. Her hands couldn’t be trusted, but her feet were still true to her. She scrunched her toes in her socks and shoes, feeling the fabric, focusing on the texture. Breathe in, breathe out.

She risked opening one eye. The world was melting. She shut it again, trying to control her breathing, control herself. She recited her name, the year, the month, and the day of the week; she worked her way through her family’s birthdays in reverse chronological order. Something harmless and tedious that helped her focus and stay calm.

They hadn’t really discussed this, her teammates and her. Martial Law hadn’t wanted to deal, and Blind Justice couldn’t because she didn’t know everything. Helena had tried to talk to the All-Seeing Eye—dear old Aman Singh—about it, but even he had proven not to be that kind of friend. He hadn’t wanted to accept the damage she could do. But Helena knew the risks of powers with hers, with a mind like hers, and she’d planned all of this out.

Fortunately, durability was not one of her powers. It wouldn’t be hard to end this, to just find the right place…

When she opened her eyes and finished her recitations, it was snowing black but at least things were mostly staying in the right place. She didn’t dare look back at the hospital, but she could hear the sounds of alarm and confusion; it was time to go.

She reached into the fabric of reality around her, twisted, and found herself somewhere on a grassy strip median on a small, abandoned street. Not far from her, it turned into a bridge over a river. Good, perfect, no traffic to ruin or people to alarm. (Well, except for whoever found her, but there was no avoiding that.)

First, though, she had to catch her breath. It’d been years since she’d last tried to move herself; it had never been easy. Little dots swum through her vision, and she had to squat down and breathe for a while. When they resolved, she straightened up and started moving.

The snow turned iridescent, but she made it to the bridge without incident. It was an old-fashioned one of metal and wood, and she didn’t trust herself to touch it with her hands, so she had to carefully get up on the railing using just her legs and elbows. Challenging, but she managed. The deep muddy smell of the river encouraged her, proving that it wasn’t illusory.

Then she made the mistake of looking down. Underneath, the river drifted by, brown, slow, and very far away. Which was the point, but now she found herself scared, and annoyed at herself for being scared. She was (had been) a superhero, for God’s sake! She’d planned all this out! Better to just leap, not think about it, and now it was too late to make it easy.

She closed her eyes. This wasn’t how she’d wanted things to end.

“Hello? Helena?”

The voice was unfamiliar, male, but Helena didn’t dare look at him. “Please don’t come near me,” she said. “I’m not safe.”

“Okay. That’s okay. I’m about six feet to your right, okay?” And indeed, she could hear his feet on the wood planks, too far away to touch her.

“Okay,” she said.

“I’m going to sit down now,” he said, and she could hear the shuffle of his clothes. “Would you like to sit down?”

“No,” she said.

She heard him finish sitting. She risked a peek out of the corner of her eyes. He was an ordinary white man in street clothes. He seemed to be okay, but just in case, she shut her eyes again.

“Do I know you?” she asked. “You know my name, but I don’t think I recognize you. Do I?”

“I’m Tank. I worked with Eye for a while.”

She sighed. Damn it, Aman; he’d probably been calling this guy the whole time Mary had been foiling her. But then the name Tank sunk in, and surprise almost popped her eyes open. “Wait, I do remember you! You were on TV!” Now she felt mortified on his behalf. “They fired you. For…”

“Being crazy, yup,” he agreed.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s not your fault.”

She doubted that but didn’t want to explain. She needed to jump, but somehow, it seemed less reasonable to do it with someone watching her. How she must look to Tank—a bedraggled, pudgy woman in a tinfoil hat and hospital clothes, standing on a bridge rail. Part of her wanted to feel shame, but mostly, she was worried about him. As a superhero, he’d probably feel obliged to stop her, and she couldn’t for the life of her remember what his powers were, whether they’d protect him from her.

“Eye said you’ve talked about doing this,” Tank said.

“Look, I’ve done the job, I understand how it is with jumpers, but this is different. When I go, it won’t be your fault. Just… let me fix this, okay? I have to; I promised.”

“I respect that.” The voice had changed again—sharper, colder. She wondered who exactly she was talking to, but the voice had already shifted back. “But, I’m sorry, I’d really rather not help you die. Eye called me to help you, and he was very clear about the whole thing.”

Helena sighed. Her nose itched, but she didn’t dare scratch. “You don’t understand.”

“Persuade me.” The sharpness was back. “All I know is that Eye contacted me from miles away to say your name and that you broke out of the mental hospital and needed help.”

Classic negotiation, Helena thought. Keep the jumper talking, calm them down, stall for time. Helena had been taught the exact same things, and she wondered if Justice’s seminar had changed at all in the ensuing years.

But Tank seemed genuine. And Helena remembered too many suicides (both successful and failed) from her own Law and Justice days to want to inflict it on someone else. Besides, she was scared to jump. Maybe talking would calm her down enough to do it.

So she stood there on that railing, eyes shut and hands held away from her body, and she started talking.


Her name was Quantize, she was twenty-nine years old, and she was a superhero.

The name was Law’s idea, of course. Some nonsense about her powers involving quantum physics. Helena doubted that had any scientific reality; it was all spin, intended to reassure civilians that her powers were researched, understood, and under control.

Her powers were different in those days, weaker and less nightmarish. Mostly, they were practical, non-offensive: moving small objects and breaking through fortifications. Sometimes she felt her only use on the team was as a living can-opener and Kevlar vest, since goodness knew her powers didn’t record well.

Law and Justice were different then too. Martial Law and Blind Justice were there, running things, but Eye had only just signed on after lengthy legal haggling about accommodations for his wheelchair. During Helena’s time, Law was their main fighter, along with Hyde.

Helena and Hyde were teased as a couple for the media, but they were never close. Not that Hyde was a creep or anything, nothing like that. He was just… distant. There was a bottle of pills in the headquarters bathroom with his name on them, but he’d avoided any discussion about what they were for, even when Helena had put out her own bottle of antidepressants in hopes it would loosen him up. Finally, she’d decided that Hyde was just stuffy and private, and left him alone.

Really, Helena felt more at ease with Aman, as her fellow non-combatant superhero. Neither of them were much good in a brawl, and that seemed far more foundation for a friendship than being mentally ill and Southeast Asian, which as far as she could tell was all she had in common with Hyde.

Superheroing seemed gentler then. Less punching and more helping. Helena would miss that later on, the food drives, the visits to shelters and hospitals, warping objects around the room to make sick children laugh.

But then they fought Exhibit.

Exhibit’s personality had come from the foulest bowels of the Internet, as apparently did her powers: the lowering of inhibitions. Combined with the side effects—loss of coordination and short-term memory, slurred speech—she’d been tagged with a million rude nicknames, none of which she appreciated, and her acts of supervillainy had grown increasingly frightening as she sought respect.

Exhibit teamed up with a new villain, the Magnifier, whose only power was to enhance others’. All-Seeing Eye had caught wind of the plan, and Law and Justice had planned an ambush, catching the two supervillains in their headquarters and taking them in before civilians could be involved.

It seemed simple at the time. But things went wrong. When Helena came in through the wall, the Magnifier panicked and enhanced everyone’s powers, not just his colleague’s.

All-Seeing Eye’s duties on the team were communication and crowd control. He kept all of Law and Justice telepathically linked—but now his powers exploded, both enhanced by Magnifier and made sloppy from Exhibit, who suddenly felt less like a few drinks and more like alcohol poisoning. Everyone’s minds were smashed together in an uncontrollable flood of id.

Martial Law, protected by his own enhanced strength and endurance, mostly kept his head. And Justice was back at headquarters, running tactics, and managed to seal herself in her lead room before she did more than get a throbbing migraine. But Aman, Hyde, and Helena--

It turned out Hyde was distant for a reason. His powers came from rage. And with the Magnifier and Exhibit...

Helena was too busy vomiting and sobbing to see much, but she still remembered the sound of his clothes and skin tearing, his roar of agony and fury. She remembered her coworker combusting into feral madness in her head, ripping her and Eye’s minds apart.

When she’d come to, Eye had passed out, Hyde had beaten both villains and a cameraman to death, and the only reason he hadn’t done more was that Helena had melted the building on top of him.

Law told her that she’d done it to stop Hyde. Helena had her doubts, but she remembered nothing after a certain point, and if Eye did, he wouldn’t tell her. Despite her worries, she wanted to believe Law; he was a spin doctor, but he was fundamentally a good man. She wanted to believe that.

Her powers had never been the same after that, nor her mind. She’d maxed out all her paid leave, then unpaid, and then finally resigned. Law had gifted her with a very expensive basket of fancy smoked meats and cheese—she hadn’t let him throw her a going-away party, and she suspected he felt the need to do something. God help him, he still sent her yearly Christmas cards, even. Aman had promised to stay in touch, and sent her monthly letters, some of which she even replied to. Blind Justice had been phlegmatic about it.

Thanks to Law’s spin, Helena’s reputation remained intact; she was a tragedy, rather than a terror like Hyde. But she could never be a superhero again. Or much of anything.

And always lurking in the back of her mind dwelled the knowledge that it could happen again.


“...So now you know,” she finished. “I was part of the Hyde breakdown.”

Tank was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Helena said, and sniffed, carefully wiping her nose with the back of her sleeve at her forearm. “That’s what they always say. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” She laughed a little. “And you know, I used to try and comfort myself, because at least it was over, right? But it’s never over. Hyde wasn’t even multiple, for God’s sake! I don’t know what he had, but it wasn’t that. But ever since then, there’s been this… this bogeyman of the crazy superhero gone bad, and anyway Hyde had a stupid name and the papers ran with it and--”

“Um...”

“Right. Sorry.” Even with her eyes closed, she could tell reality was twisting under the force of her feelings. “Give me a second.”

She started mentally rattling off the periodic table backwards, and it helped. She calmed down. Before her powers manifested, she’d dreamed of being a chemist…

This was embarrassing. She’d planned this a million times, but still couldn’t jump. And Tank was the superheroic equivalent of her first cousin, so she couldn’t ask him (them?) to push her. It wasn’t fair.

But then again, they didn’t know that...

Tank’s voice was flat and sharp again. “Have you had any other disasters?”

“No,” Helena admitted. “Just a few close shaves. But would you count on that?”

“Hmm.” Silence for a moment, as though Tank were looking around, or talking to Eye. “Reality reverts when you calm down. Have you noticed?”

“I can’t exactly look and check,” Helena said, exasperated.

“I can. Aside from the big hole you put in the hospital, nothing’s gotten permanently hurt.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Here. Open your eyes, and I’ll prove it.” The voice was soft again.

For a moment, Helena hesitated. But she opened her eyes and looked, and she saw that Tank had a phone in his hands. It was one of the old models, but it had a camera, and it was recording.

“I can’t touch that,” Helena said.

“I’m going to put it over here on the railing. You can come and look at it without touching it or me getting close, okay?”

Helena nodded, and Tank put the phone on the railing and then backed away. Helena shuffled forward carefully and looked.

To her eyes, reality was still running like a wet painting. But on the phone, all that was happening was strange colors in the sky, and a few melting snowflakes. She nudged the phone with her foot to be sure, and the picture changed accordingly.

Her eyes were lying to her.

“I’m fine with killing dangers; I’m just not convinced yet,” Tank said in the cold, sharp voice.

Helena started crying silently. It was just all too much for her to take in. Eight years, she’d been carrying this. Eight. And now, with just a phone screen...

Helena sniffed and stared hard at Tank. “Who are you? The one whose voice sounds like that?”

They looked startled for a moment. “Kara.” Then their voice shifted and softened again. “Do you want to come back to the hospital?”

Helena scrunched her feet in her shoes, felt the solid metal through them. Real. Still... “Not until Kara promises to kill me if she’s ever convinced.”

“But--”

Helena made a move. “I will jump! I swear I will! We’re superheroes; we have a responsibility.”

Silence; she wondered what she wasn’t hearing.

Promise!” she shouted through her tears.

Kara’s voice: “Deal.”

“Okay,” Helena said, and she let Tank take her by the shoulders and return her to the hospital.

Content Warnings:   suicidality, mental illness and hospitalization, and ableism over all of the above.
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