Val stepped out of the taxi cab and sighed. No matter how far she traveled, or the dizzying number of people she met, there really was no place like home. That didn’t mean returning was necessarily easy though.
“You’re late!” Sophia Perez, Val’s mother said, bapping her daughter on the shoulder. Val’s mother wasn’t a fighter. Not in the technical sense that Val was anyways. That didn’t mean she couldn’t throw a decent punch though. Val’s interest in fighting had been fostered by her mother first and foremost. Fortunately her mother didn’t throw actual punches at her loved ones. Those were reserved for the people who dared to raise a hand against her family.
“Hey!” Val complained. “I got here an hour before I said I would!”
“An hour early and a year late!” her mother said, and picked up both of Val’s bags as the taxi cab driver passed them over. Val groaned. It wasn’t that her mother was wrong but that didn’t mean Val felt like admitting that she hadn’t been home in far, far too long.
“Is Elena home yet?” Val asked, wishing her sister had been the one to meet her rather than her mother. Elena would have teased her too, but Val would have been able to tease her back.
“You probably know better than I do,” her mother said, starting up the stairs that lead to their second floor apartment. “She talks to you on the texts more that she talks to me.”
Val tagged along in her mother’s wake, knowing that trying to wrestle her bags away was not a battle she needed to wage at the moment. Sophia Perez had opinions about her children leaving her, and while she was far more reasonable than she pretended to be, there were times when she felt the need to demonstrate her feelings forcefully.
Val could have objected. She was an adult and could have demanded to be treated like one. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Or the hundreth probably. Moreso than wanting to avoid a fight though, Val went along with her mother’s desire to herd her into the apartment because she felt like she was the Prodigal daughter coming home at last.
They’d parted on poor terms many times in the past, but their last parting hadn’t been a bad one. It had been in a hospital, the day before Val was moved to a facility to start six months of physical therapy. There’d been tears but they’d been happy ones.
Six months was a long time though, and it had been longer than that before Val was back to feeling 100%, and in that time, a strange guilt over not reaching out to her mother had settled into her.
On the long list of items she had to work on while she was home, making up for her long absence was near the top of the list.
“Val? You’re early!” Elena called out when they got into the apartment. Their mother scowled at that but didn’t correct her youngest daughter.
Val and her mother were starkly different in their appearance. There were a few similarities, the shape of their noses, the cast of their chin, things an artist might notice but weren’t strong enough to mark them as related to unfamiliar eyes. Elena on the other hand could have been her mother’s clone. Pictures of Sophia from when she was 16 years old and pictures of Elena as she currently was could have been mistaken for images of the same girl.
The only differences lay in their eyes and the expressions they most commonly wore. At 16, Sophia’s eyes showed the toughness that she would carry with her throughout her life. Her lips were often tight and her jaw set, ready to kick life right back in the teeth when it tried to knock her down. Elena’s outlook was a hundred degrees warmer. She hadn’t lived a perfect life, but she’d had people behind her, helping her up when she fell, and urging her onwards when she was ready to fly on to new things.
Sophia Perez had failed at many things in her life, but she had never failed to give her children the love and support she herself had always craved.
“I was afraid the flight back from Denver wouldn’t arrive on time, so I hopped on an earlier one,” Val said. She didn’t explain that she’d been connecting through Denver after spending a weekend at an amusement park. If she had, they might have asked why she needed a weekend off in the middle of the country and an answer of “to soak away the Nazi blood I got all over myself when I rescued a bus full of kidnapped children” would have led to entirely too many questions she didn’t feel like getting into.
“Must be nice,” her sister said.
It was and it wasn’t. Val liked being able to believe in the work she did. She was overwhelmingly glad she’d been able to get to the right place, at the right time to save a little boy from some of the worst monsters to ever walk the earth. Despite that though, men had died. Killed by their comrades thanks to her subterfuges. Men who arguably deserved to die, but celebrating their deaths was a path Val knew she didn’t want to start walking down.
It was glorious to be alive, it was wonderful to feel safe again, but the cost of that had been confirming that the men who died would never be anything more than the monsters they’d devolved into. Val was a soldier, despite her honorable discharge, and she knew that sometimes winning required acknowledging that the best solution was unreachable. Sometimes for someone to win, somebody else had to lose. A true victory though didn’t leave people dead. A true victory left them changed. It left the people who were imperiled safe and secure and those who imperiled them yearning with all their hearts to change for the better.
“You’re in your old room. Nothing’s changed,” her mother said, dropping Val’s bags on the bed that she’d slept on since she was twelve.
Val glanced into the room. Her mother’s claim wasn’t strictly true. The room was clean for one thing and it had never looked like that when it was Val’s personal sanctum. Apart from that though, it did look reasonably similar to how she’d last left it.
On the top of the bureau stood her collection of trophies, including the two Regional Championship trophies for Muay Thai kickboxing and the one for Escrima. They’d been a source of pride to the whole family when she’d won them, her mother’s cheering only slightly louder than her father’s during Val’s final bouts.
The trophies weren’t in their old arrangement though. And her nightstand didn’t have her favorite frog charm on it any longer. In her absence things had changed, but Val had to smile at the work her mother had done to put things back as best as they could be. Whatever else was missing, the love was still there.
“It looks perfect,” she said.
“Don’t settle in too much,” Elena said. “We should get going to the fitting. If we’re late for that Lara’s going to kill us.”
Val glanced at her mother, wondering what the reaction would be to her leaving so soon after arriving.
“You know when dinner is,” her mother said and wandered off to the kitchen. In Mom-speak that was code for “you are free to go”.
The fitting for her bridal gown turned out to be Val’s least favorite part of the day. Not because the gowns were terrible. Lara had chosen a golden cream color for her bridesmaids that Val felt she looked reasonably decent in. The seamstress was in a hurry to get through the fitting though and jabbed Val more than once, in what Val suspected was revenge for Val not standing perfectly still.
“I thought Lara was going to be here with us?” Val asked, thinking that some forms of suffering were meant to be shared.
“She had her fitting last week,” Elena said. “Her and Sam were going to check out the spot they had picked out for the bachelorette party.”
“Together?” Val asked, turning to see if Elena was serious. That earned her another jab from the seamstress. A deliberate one.
“Yeah, they wanted to make sure it was going to have enough space,” Elena said.
Val’s thoughts swam.
“Wait, I thought Lara didn’t want a bachelorette? Is this Sam’s idea?” she asked. “How many people are going to be there?”
She thought she’d signed up to be part of a small, relatively quiet affair. Sam’s family wasn’t local and Lara’s was a not yet sure about the wedding.
“Just a few people.” Elena was terrible at lying when she was amused. Prying the truth out of her would have required bribery equal to whatever the surprise was though and Val didn’t think she had that kind of capital to work with.
“So what’s this Sam like anyways?” Val asked, frowning but staying still, lest she take another needle jab to a soft bit of flesh.
“She reminds me of you,” Elena said.
“She’s been in the military?” Val asked, wondering why she’d never asked Lara for a picture of her fiance.
“No. She’s a fighter though,” Elena said. “She’s got a bunch of trophies like you do, but hers are newer.”
“Ha.” Val didn’t dare move or actually laugh at the notion. She didn’t really need to either. Her competition trophies felt like they were from another life. One she was glad to have lived, but that she could put behind her too. Tournaments were fun, but they demanded a lot of preparation and commitment. Joining the Second Chance Club had given her rewards that were a lot more fulfilling than a collection of statues on a bureau. Especially the rewards with names and lives that they got to keep on living.
“Were you going to swing by the gym?” Elena asked.
“Why? Need me to spot you?” Val asked in return.
“No, I’m not fighting anymore,” Elena said.
“I thought you were planning to go to the City Wide tournament this year?” Val asked.
“I was. I still could I guess, but tournament training isn’t that fun. I just like sparring.”
“You’re still working at Lara’s gym though?” Val asked.
“Yeah, I’ve decided I want to go into sports medicine,” Elena said.
“Really? That’s awesome!” Val said. She knew her kid sister was smart, but there’d always been a question of how Elena would choose to apply her gifts. This was the first time Val could remember that Elena had expressed a definite interest in something. “What made you look into that?”
Working at the women’s boxing gym that Lara owned, would have given Elena plenty of opportunity to see various forms of sport-related injuries. Between the classes in Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu, people were regularly bruised and battered in any number of novel ways.
“You did,” Elena said.
“What?? I’ve never studied medicine,” Val said, which wasn’t strictly true but she didn’t count the first aid training she’d received in the Army the same as the kind of training Elena was looking for. The healing magics the Second Chance Club had access to were also a different matter, since they were unreliably available and usually required calling in favors that were better saved for as long as possible.
“Not like that,” Elena said. “More like, well, we didn’t really start texting until you were doing your recovery. I mean, I know that whole thing sucked for you, but the stuff you talked about? A lot of that it made sense. How they had to work each muscle independently and as a whole system. I remember seeing you on the hospital bed. That was not good. I didn’t think you’d ever be walking again. But, look, here you are!”
Val knew even better than Elena or anyone else did how bad off she’d been. If fate had followed its natural course, the car crash that ended her military career would have done more than put her in a coma for six months.
By all rights, Val knew she was supposed to be dead.