Missing Moments: JL Short Stories




1. Secret Origins


1997

Abingdon, VA


Eric woke up, and knew that it was a day for great things.

He rose from bed and stretched, his muscles welcoming the day as they popped into place. Soft Saturday sunlight filtered in through his window shades, making everything in the room look bright and new – his racecar bed, his Star Trek action figures, his oversized framed Spice Girls poster. Everything seemed to glow with potential, with the possibility that today could be the greatest day ever.

With a spring in his step, Eric strode to the bathroom and hopped into the shower. The hot water awakened his pores, filled his entire being with so much excitement that he couldn’t resist belting “Walking On Sunshine” to the white-tiled walls. When he was finished he stepped out, toweled off, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. Looking directly at himself in the mirror, he smiled.

“It’s going to be a good day,” he promised. “I can feel it.”

He returned to his room, swiped deodorant under his arms, pulled on his socks, and headed downstairs. The morning was almost gone, and no one else was in the house, so he made a quick breakfast from one of his younger brother’s Danimal yogurts and a leftover slice of meatloaf. And then, with nothing else to hold him back, he walked outside to greet the world.

It was a beautiful, crisp February day in Abingdon, feeling more like early fall than late winter. As he walked up his street he began to whistle, the joy almost bursting out of him. He couldn’t quite explain why he felt this way – yesterday had been a day like any other, occupied by school, hockey practice, and homework. He hadn’t fallen in love, hadn’t achieved anything great, hadn’t done anything more than cruise through his daily existence as an eighth grader. And yet, today he felt like an entirely new person. He suspected it might have something to do with this “puberty” thing he’d heard so much about, but it seemed much deeper, much bigger than that. He felt fresh, confident, and intimately connected with everything around him. As he passed neighbors doing chores outside of their homes, he waved and wished them a good afternoon. They must have sensed the indescribable joy burning inside of him, because every one of them stopped and stared, speechless.

When he reached West Main Street, he realized that he didn’t know where he was going. At first he considered walking up to Veteran’s Memorial Park and just spending some time by himself, basking in the glow of the day. But he immediately realized that was selfish – a day this wonderful would be a waste if he didn’t share it with someone. So he turned right and headed down to the café where his sister Sarah worked. It was right across from the Barter Theater, so the sidewalk was crowded with locals and people from neighboring towns, here to see whatever show was playing that weekend. The crowd parted for him like fog, conversations faltered to silence, and heads turned abruptly. For a moment Eric felt self-conscious, but then the confidence returned.

They know that there’s something special today, he thought. They’re looking at me like I’ve found the meaning of life… and maybe I have.

He walked into the café, and every eye turned to him. People gasped. At least three coffee mugs clattered to the floor, hot liquid spilling everywhere. Sarah came around from the counter just in time to see him. Her jaw dropped, and she backpedalled into the check-out counter, her order pad falling from her hands.

“Eric,” she managed eventually, breaking the silence that had fallen over the café. “What are you doing?”

He wasn’t sure exactly how to answer that – how to put the sublime joy he felt into words. He looked around for some help, hoping to see someone else smiling, nodding in recognition, someone who could explain to his older sister the ineffable joy that electrified his heart. And that’s when he saw himself in the mirror.

He was naked. Totally, absolutely naked, save for the pair of socks he’d pulled on before leaving the house.

And suddenly, everything made sense.

Sarah was still staring at him, pale. “What the hell happened to you?”

Eric couldn’t speak for a moment, his mind reeling with revelation. But then he turned back to his sister, and smiled.

“Something amazing,” he said.

* * *

Bozeman, MT

Everybody at Neary’s school was a fucking idiot.

This wasn’t news to her – she’d been surrounded by nothing but morons since daycare. But there was something constantly and freshly infuriating about just how fucking stupid kids got when they reached high school. Not that she really cared. They could talk about her all they wanted – call her a bitch, a slut, make fun of her name. She’d stopped caring what people thought about her a long time ago. It was the fact that, even after all of that shit, they still wanted something from her. Like Stephen Holtz. Today he’d been loudly complaining about what a stuck-up bitch she was, but by the end of the week he’d inevitably seek her out and tell her that, you know, a way she could really improve her social standing at the school would be to go out with him. He always tried to play it off as a joke, but every muscle in his body would be tense and his eyes would be bright with desperate longing. It made her want to punch him in the face.

She was walking home on Villard Street from tennis practice, schoolbag slung over one shoulder, racket clenched in her hand like a club. Neary hadn’t passed anyone on the street since leaving school, which was probably a good thing – right now she wanted nothing more than to smash someone over the head. Stupid fucking Stephen Holtz, with his stupid jokes and his stupid muscles. If he wanted to date her, why didn’t he try being nice to her? Not that Neary had ever wasted any time trying to be nice to him, but still. She wasn’t the one with the crush, apparently. And it probably wasn’t even a crush. He probably just wanted to fuck her.

Well tough shit, you stupid asshole, she thought. You can enjoy yourself with Kayla and Chloe and the rest of those skanks, but the borders of Nearyland are forever closed to your lame ass.

Fucking idiot. He was probably gay, anyway.

The whole time, Neary had been walking with her head down, blocking out everything but the pavement. So she was never really sure what it was that made her look up at that moment. But she did look up, and what she saw froze her in place.

Something was falling from the sky. It was small, small enough to miss, just a sliver of orange heat arcing down from the clouds. It got bigger as it approached, but not by much, and now that she was paying attention she could hear a low whistle as whatever it was ripped through the air. It streaked over her head and vanished behind the trees of Villard Street. A moment later she felt a tremor in the sidewalk, like someone had dropped something heavy.

“Huh,” she said. “That’s weird.”

Not being in any particular rush to get home, she turned up Sixth Street and hurried in the direction she thought the falling thing had gone. A few blocks down she saw what she was looking for – a thin, wispy line of smoke rising up and vanishing into the salt-and-pepper sky. It was coming from the field behind Whittier School.

Neary looked around. There were a few cars on the street, but otherwise the block was deserted, all of the elementary school kids having gone home a while ago. Checking to make sure no one was watching from one of the nearby houses, Neary crossed the street and ran towards the smoke.

There was a dark hole of ash the size of a tire about a third of the way into the field. And in the center of it, smoking, was a small, blue rock. Neary had never seen anything from nature that was exactly that color before, that slick, glossy blue. She crouched down for a closer look – it was about the size of a golf ball, oblong, and totally smooth. If it had been cracked or even dented by its plummet to the ground, there weren’t any signs. Even from a couple of feet back, Pinzz could feel the heat coming off of it. She wondered how far it had fallen. To heat up like that, it had to have entered the atmosphere from outside, right? But she was also pretty sure that something this small would just burn up entirely – wasn’t that what meteorites were?

Gingerly, she flipped her tennis racket over and reached out with it, poking the rock with the handle. It felt like a rock. Neary was a little disappointed by that – she’d been hoping it would dissolve into liquid or melt the rubber off of her racket or something. She poked it again. Nothing.

“Well, this is boring,” she muttered, and reached out to touch it with her hand.

This was, in retrospect, a stupid idea. Obviously the blue rock was extremely hot from the friction of its descent, and touching it probably would have been a guaranteed way to burn the tips of one’s fingers off. Neary was dimly aware of this as she reached, but – as typically happened when someone tried to caution her – she pushed the thoughts aside and touched the rock anyway. It was, indeed, hot, although not as hot as she might have expected. But despite the heat, she picked the rock up.

It melted in her hand.

Neary jerked back and let out a yelp as thick blue liquid covered her palm. But before she could toss it away, the liquid crawled up her fingers and pressed itself into her pores, seeping in, and vanishing.

Neary stumbled away from the crater, dropping her racket and backpack. A sickly warmth was radiating down from the tips of her fingers, through her hands, down her arms, and into her body. Something flipped in her stomach and suddenly the field pitched to the side and she felt herself hit cold grass. She rolled onto her stomach, her body growing warmer by the moment, and puked. The most sick she’d ever been was this past summer, when she’d drank Everclear at Sandi Markowitz’s lake house and spent the end of the night in the backyard, hurling into Mr. Markowitz’s kayak. This was so much worse. Her whole body was failing her, her limbs growing numb at the extremities, her eyes flitting wildly in and out of focus. She summoned all of her strength and reached out with one hand, but even as she did it occurred to her there was nothing to reach for.

The ground lurched beneath her stomach, and she saw black.

“I wasn’t drinking, Mom,” Neary said, as they walked into the house. “I was coming back from tennis practice. You think they just hand out margaritas every time you get a point?”

It was her first day back from a week plus in Deaconess Hospital, and her mother already had her wishing she’d never woken up.

“You can’t blame me for asking,” her mother said, dropping a bag of frozen dinners on the kitchen island. “After what happened in August? Well, I guess you don’t remember, but I do. There’s still a nice little stain on the stairs, if you want to remind yourself.”

Neary rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say I never drank, I said I wasn’t drinking this time. It was something else.”

Her mother arched her eyebrows, and suddenly Neary felt embarrassed. But she was too angry to back off now, so she said:

“It was a rock. A little… blue rock that I found. It, like, melted and went inside my hand and then… I don’t know. I got sick.”

Her mother stared at her for a long time. “Are you doing drugs?”

“I’m not doing drugs!”

“My daughter’s doing drugs!” Mrs. Djordje threw her hands in the air. “First she’s drinking and throwing up on my stairs, now she’s doing drugs!”

There was a pounding of footsteps as Neary’s little brother, Matt, came down the stairs. He was three years younger than her, an eighth grader at Chief Joseph.

“Stephanie’s doing drugs?” he asked, walking past her and heading straight for the grocery bags, digging in to find snacks. “That explains a lot.”

“Shut up,” Neary growled.

“Don’t talk to your brother like that,” her mother said. “I can’t believe this. What have you been doing? Pot? Ecstasy? Acid?”

In truth, Neary had smoked pot a few times since the summer, but she didn’t think that was relevant. “Mom, I’m not taking any drugs. You take more drugs than I do.”

“Frozen dinners again?” Matt asked, rummaging through the bags.

“Do you want to make dinner?” Mrs. Djordje turned back to Neary. “This is absolutely unacceptable. Don’t you care about the example you’re giving your brother?”

“Nah, she’s a good example, Mom,” Matt said, heading for the fridge. “When I start drinking, I won’t get caught.”

Mrs. Djordje scowled. “If you drink in high school, I’ll lock you in your room until you’re twenty-one.” Back to Neary. “Listen, Stephanie, I…”

“Neary, Mom.”

And for the first time since they’d walked through the door, the house was silent. Neary and her mother just stared at each other, daring the other to make the next move, both dreading what that move might be. Matt stood frozen at the refrigerator, his smirk replaced by frightened vulnerability. Moments like this could go one of two ways – either they’d both give in, or the fight would escalate, and then things would get really ugly.

Her mother caved first. She sagged a bit, and said, “Neary. You know I’m just worried about you.”

The moment of tension had driven the anger from Neary as well, and she suddenly felt tired. “Yeah, well… I’m not on drugs.”

“Maybe you had food poisoning,” Mrs. Djordje said. “Maybe you were hallucinating?”

Neary didn’t think that was the case, but she also didn’t want to argue the point. She felt worn out and beaten up, almost as bad as she’d felt when she’d woken up in the hospital. And adding to that was a dull itch behind her ear, probably a bug bite or something like that. She reached up to scratch it, and found a soft nub protruding from her skin.

“Weird,” she said. “I’ve got a huge bug bite up here.”

“Maybe a spider laid eggs in your face while you were passed out,” Matt said, back to being a brat now that the tension had passed.

“If it did I’m going to let them hatch in your bed,” Neary said. She touched the bump again, and then poked it.

What happened next announced itself first as a spreading warmth, moving out from her neck until it covered her entire body. It was such a pleasant feeling that Neary closed her eyes for a moment to enjoy it. She didn’t realize anything was actually happening until she heard her mother scream.

Neary’s eyes popped open, and suddenly she noticed that her skin had become heavier, thicker. Her mother was staring at her, a grocery bag lying burst and spilling at her feet, her face pale with shock. Neary looked down at herself, and saw that her entire body was covered by what seemed to be a tough, formfitting shell. A very smooth, very blue shell.

She looked up at her mother and grinned, triumphant.

See? ” she said. “Told you I wasn’t on drugs.”

* * *

Philadelphia, PA

“There you are,” Liese said, when she saw Curtis walking up the street. “I thought you pussied out.”

“Making fun of your friends and confidantes,” Curtis said, as he meandered up Umbria. “Not a very distinguished start to your super hero career.”

That sent a thrill through Liese that couldn’t be contained, resulting in a mile-wide grin spreading across her face. “I’m sure there’s a learning curve.”

Curtis was breathing heavily by the time he reached Liese’s stoop. Manayunk was all hills, but Curtis’ neighborhood in North Philly – Francisville – was relatively flat. Besides, Curtis was a hefty kid, close to three hundred pounds with a Brillo pad of black hair and big, square glasses. Liese had a flash to the first time she’d ever seen him, the kid sitting by himself outside of Masterman on her first day of junior high, reading Asimov and trying not to be noticed. It hadn’t been easy for him, she knew – a fat, shy nerd growing up in the hood, he was the antithesis of the popular idea of black masculinity. And by their junior year, Curtis knew for sure that he was gay, which made things even worse. Still, it had just made the two closer friends, and was the reason that Curtis was the first, and so far only, person who knew about her powers.

They walked back through her empty row house and into the backyard. It was early summer, just a few weeks after their graduation, and both of her parents were still at work. The neighbors on either side of the house were too, which meant they wouldn’t be interrupted.

“Is this your costume?” Curtis asked.

Liese was wearing a black t-shirt and gray pants. “Well, uh, yeah. I mean, this is what I’ve been wearing, so I figured I’d just stick with it. Besides, Spandex sucks. That’s why I stopped doing gymnastics.”

“It’s fine for our little covert missions,” Curtis said, referring to the various “test runs” Liese had pulled over the past year, stopping petty crimes in order to prepare herself for the big leagues. “But now that you’re going to be a career super heroine… I don’t know, it lacks something.”

“Well, maybe the city will start paying me and I can afford a new one.”

“They’d pump more money into you than the schools, I’m sure.” Curtis frowned. “No mask?”

Sticky sighed, and pulled the black cloth mask she’d been using from her pocket. “I hate this thing. I look like a fucking bandito. Who’s going to trust me if I wear this thing?”

“It’s not about trust,” Curtis said, “it’s about keeping you and your family and your humble non-super-powered friends safe.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she mumbled. “But when I get established, I’m losing this thing.”

“One step at a time.” Curtis hesitated for a moment, and then swung his backpack around and started to dig into it. “By the way I, uh, I made you something. For the occasion.”

He pulled out a pair of thick metal rectangles, each with a circular metal strap attached to the bottom. “You know how you punched that mugger in Old City, and you almost broke your hand?”

“I’ve been going to the gym more,” Liese muttered.

“Well, that’s good, but I’m hoping these will help as well.” He attached one of the metal objects to his lower arm, slipping the circular cuff around his wrist. Then he lifted it, pointed it at the chain link fence that circled the yard, and squeezed a wire that curled from the device into his palm. There was a light THPPPT sound, and a stream of off-white tape sprang from the device and smacked into the fence. Curtis let go of the wire, and the tape stopped coming out, creating a line from the fence back to the device on his arm. He tugged on it slightly, and Liese saw how firm it was, how well it clung to a surface.

“Wrist-mounted tape launchers,” he said. “I’ve been working on them all year, and I finally got them working. I figured it would be the perfect finishing touch.”

“These are amazing,” Liese said, taking the tape launchers and fitting them to their wrists. “Can I swing from these?”

“Of course. But I didn’t want to mention that because, you know, copyright infringement and all that.”

She aimed at the corner of her roof and fired. Tape flew up, snagged the roof, and held. Liese walked over to the wall and, using her power of adhesivity, began to walk up the wall, using the tape as a line. When she was halfway up, she pushed off, and suddenly she was swinging over the yard like Tarzan.

“Holy shit!!” she cried. “Oh my God, this is incredible!!”

“You might want to practice with them a bit more before you try any serious Spider-Man tricks,” he said. “But… I’m glad you like them.”

She aimed herself, pushed off from the wall again, and let go of the tape, executing the best somersault she’d done since sophomore year and landing on the old picnic table in the back corner. She leapt off and gave Curtis a quick hug, which left him shuffling in place, embarrassed.

“This is it,” she said, beaming. “See? This is the beginning. We’re about to do something huge, Curtis, and it all starts here.”

She couldn’t deny that there had been frustrating moments over the past year – just having super powers didn’t automatically make you fit to be a super hero, after all. But now, standing in her costume, tape launchers on, ready to go out and do something good, the world seemed full of possibilities. After all of the plans, all of the training, here she was. All of the struggles seemed worth it now – her parents’ disgust, her own agonizing doubts, and even the unrelated traumas and heartbreaks of high school. Looking back, she could see that it had all been leading her here, to this one perfect moment.

She was going to change the world. She knew it.

“Don’t get shot or anything,” Curtis said, with a weak smile. He was scared, of course, and Liese knew she should have been as well. But she wasn’t, couldn’t be.

She slipped her mask on, and then aimed her tape launcher at her roof.

“All right, Philadelphia,” she said. “Here comes Sticky Spectre!”

* * *

The Evans Estate

Wellsville, NJ


“All right, world… here comes Oreo Avenger!”

Anne did a running jump over the banister and flew down to the foyer floor, purple cape billowing around her. Claire cheered and clapped, but her father just smiled, concern lining his brow. Geoffrey applauded politely.

She planted her feet firmly apart, and thrust a fist into the air. “I am Oreo Avenger, the champion of justice! In the name of the cookies, I will right wrong and triumph over evil… and that means you!” She thrust a finger at Claire.

Claire rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t suppress a smile. “Don’t say that, Anne. Everyone’s gonna know you’re ripping off Sailor Moon and then they’ll think you’re a big nerd.”

“How could I be a nerd when I have such an awesome costume?” She did a quick spin to show them the whole thing. “Is this awesome or what?”

“Very professional, Ms. Evans,” Geoffrey said.

“I helped Dad with the cape,” Claire said.

Anne looked to her father and spread her arms. “What do you think?”

Dr. Evans was still smiling, but the worry lines had only deepened. “It looks great, Anne.”

She felt a little pang, but tried to play it off. “Come on, Dad, don’t be so serious. I’m not going out to fight Captain Destructo or anything, this is just my public debut.”

“No, of course,” he said. He tried to smile wider. “I’m old and sentimental. Don’t let me spoil the moment.”

“I’ll just do a few flybys over the City, talk to some reporters, stop a mugging if I see one, and be back by dinner,” Anne said. “I’ll be fine. I promise.”

“I know you will,” he said. “But… well, you know. This was a day your mother always looked forward to. And if she were here right now… she’d be just as proud of you as I am.”

Claire pretended to study the potted plant that had once been Hellbeast the Cat, surreptitiously rubbing at her eyes. Anne felt the tears coming as well, but she held them down. If she lost it, then Claire would lose it, and then their dad would lose it, and then she’d have to go out on her first day as a super hero with her eyes puffy and snot all over her face. Besides, she’d had a good cry last night, looking through old photo albums. She’d taken out one of her favorite pictures – a wallet-sized portrait of her mother in full Crimson Avenger costume – and slipped it into her Oreo satchel. Even if her mother couldn’t be here in person, she’d still be along for the ride.

“Thanks, Dad,” she said, and hugged him. “Home by dinner. I promise.”

“There’ll be a cheese platter waiting when you get in,” he said. “Good luck out there. Make sure you know what’s going on before you jump into a situation. And if you use your Oreos on anyone, make sure you give the police an antidote cookie as well!”

“I will.” She gave Claire a hug as well. “If I’m on the news, make sure you tape it.”

“You will be, I know it,” Claire said. “I looked into the future last night, and I saw it. Nothing but good things are going to happen from now on.”

“I hope so. All right, I’ll see you guys tonight.” She walked to the doors and pushed them open. It was a beautiful July day, the sky a sheet of sapphire dotted with cotton ball clouds. Looking back over her shoulder, she waved to her family one last time and then blasted into the sky, streaking over the green-and-beige patchwork of Lowell County, heading for the City.

Dr. Evans and Claire walked out to the front drive to watch her go. They stood for a moment in silence, and then Claire said:

“Dad… you know what I said about my vision? About what I saw last night?”

“Yes, Claire?”

“… I lied.”

Dr. Evans nodded. “You gave her hope, Claire. That’s a lie we all need sometimes.”

Together they watched as Oreo Avenger became a brown dot on the horizon, streaking off towards her first adventure.

* * *

Opelika, AL

The bar was crowded with college kids, drunk and jubilant after watching Auburn defeat the Georgia Bulldogs on their home turf. Because of that, the karaoke stage was uncommonly busy, a constant parade of giggling girls and stumbling guys, belting out tone deaf versions of “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” Beers were spilled, drunk kids made out, and the speakers shuddered.

Lori didn’t notice any of it. She was too focused on Chris – his jokes, his easy smile, how good he looked even in a pair of jeans and an Auburn Fire Department t-shirt. It was hard to believe she’d only known him a little under a month, that up until a few weeks ago she hadn’t known anyone like him existed. And here they were, chatting like it was nothing, like the last three weeks had covered decades. Lori had thought she’d been in love before – she’d thought it a lot, to be honest. But it had never felt this natural, this easy.

“These kids are terrible,” Chris said, as a group of four girls stumbled through “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” “I’m not saying I haven’t done a few drunk sing-a-longs in my day, but at least we carried a tune.”

“A bunch of drunk firefighters singing?” Lori said. “That’s something I’d like to see. Why don’t you tell some of your friends to come?”

Chris shrugged. “They’re not big fans of the college scene. Besides, if I invite all of them, you might realize that you started dating the ugly guy in the firehouse.”

“Really? Then you should definitely have them come over.”

He laughed, and reached out beneath the table to squeeze her leg. Lori felt a surge of genuine happiness, and realized that this was the best she’d ever felt, ever. When she was with Chris, none of the other crap in her life mattered – her family drama, her sister, the weird blue box she’d found in the woods. And Hamlet liked him, which was practically miraculous. He’d even seemed okay with not coming along tonight (although Lori was suspicious that she’d seen a familiar shadow dart beneath a parked car earlier in the night).

“Well,” she said, “maybe the next song will be better.”

The current round of drunk girls finished, and the DJ said: “Next up is Lori, singing a song for someone very special. Is Lori still here?”

She glanced at Chris and was gratified to see that he was smiling.

“I didn’t know you sang,” he said.

“A little. I haven’t in a while, though, so you can’t make fun of me if I suck.”

“Make fun of you? Never.”

“You’re a jerk,” she said, and kissed him. Then she strode up to the stage and caught the DJ’s attention.

“Hi y’all,” she said into the microphone. She saw Chris staring at her, and suddenly realized how she must look to him up here, bathed in the spotlight, with her chestnut hair and flowing red dress. Stunning. Beautiful. Loveable.

“A few weeks ago, I met someone really special,” she said. “So, um, this song is for Chris. My boyfriend.”

A bunch of the college kids applauded, but Chris just beamed, waiting.

He was probably expecting a sweet, slow love song – Celine Dion or someone like that. It seemed like everyone was, because the girls leaned closer to the stage and the guys all seemed to lose interest. But they all turned to watch when the speakers exploded with a strumming guitar and a rumble of drums.

“Lord Almighty, I feel my temperature rising!”

The bar burst into applause, Chris the loudest of all, throwing back his head and laughing. Lori closed her eyes as she sang, basking in the moment. This was it. This was happiness. This was what she’d been waiting for her entire life.

And then the screaming started. And she opened her eyes.

And the song died in her throat.

* * *

Sacramento, CA

Jasy Williams was whistling when he walked into the lobby of 2342 J Street. He looked striking, if he did say so himself (and had, several times today) – a black pinstripe suit, a clean white shirt, and a red tie with a diamond pattern. His blonde hair was gelled regally, and he’d moisturized his chin today to give it an extra shine. He sent the security guard a million-gigawatt smile as he strode across the lobby. She was so awestruck to be in his presence that she didn’t even look up from the magazine she was reading.

Boarding the elevator and pressing the button for the fifteenth floor, he took a moment to straighten his tie in the mirror, and practice a few Meeting Faces – the smile that said, “Jasy Williams, nice to meet you,” the furrowed brow that said, “Yes, that’s a very important concern to me as well,” and the confidential eyebrow waggle that said, “I think we’re on the same page here; want to go back to my place and take our clothes off?” He was hoping to use them all today (well, assuming that that one hot agent, Jessica or Jennifer or whatever, was in his meeting as well).

The entire fifteenth floor was occupied by the Avalon-Zimmer Talent Agency, as evidenced by the metal letters placed on the wall directly opposite from the elevator. As Jasy walked through into the main reception area, he passed a wall of autographed photos of AZTA’s biggest clients – movie and television stars, professional athletes, and musicians. But the biggest picture, of course, belonged to their star of all stars, the crown jewel of AZTA’s client rosters:

Studmuffin. Super hero extraordinaire.

Jasy paused, as he always did, to admire the picture. His muscles looked huge in that costume – which was good, because they were huge. He especially liked the way that he’d posed, simultaneously conveying awesome strength and a down-to-Earth approachability. He had a much bigger version framed in his apartment on 15th Street, hanging just above the gas-powered fireplace and its complimentary snow leopard rug. When he eventually hired someone to write his memoir, he wanted to use this picture for his bio on the dust jacket.

Tearing himself away from the portrait with some effort, he continued down the hall to the reception desk. The receptionist was another hottie – maybe if Jennifer or Jasmine or whatever wasn’t in the meeting, he could give her the Eyebrow Waggle of Seduction. It was always good to have options.

“Hey there,” he said, walking up and leaning one arm on the reception desk. “Jasper Williams, here to see Johnny Avalon. Have we met, by the way?”

“Every week, Mr. Williams,” the receptionist said. “Mr. Avalon’s waiting for you in his office.”

“Right, great. It’s Laura, right?”

“Colleen.”

Jasy nodded proudly. “I knew it was something like that. How’s your day going, Carly?”

“Great.” She didn’t smile, or put much affect at all into her voice. She must have been nervous, Jasy realized. He sympathized – it was very intimidating to be around someone as awesome as him.

“Today’s a big day, Caroline. You know why?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me, Mr. Williams.”

“Today, I’m going to display a new side of myself,” he said. “Because, you see, I’m more than a pretty face, and incredible superhuman powers, and a body of chiseled muscle akin to that of a Greek statue. I am all of those things, certainly, but I’m also so much more. Because I don’t just use this.” He flexed a bicep and gestured. “I also use this.” He tapped his temple.

Colleen nodded.

“And also, this.” He pressed a finger into his chest, and filled his eyes with gooey sincerity.

Colleen glanced at her computer screen.

“And also…” His hand began to travel further south, but before he could cross the line into full-blown sexual harassment, he heard someone call his name.

“Jasy! My main man, how are you doing today?”

He turned to see Johnny Avalon, Agent to the Stars!, crossing the main floor of the office towards him.

“Duty calls,” Jasy said, with a final wink at Colleen, and then headed over to meet him. “Johnny! Great to see you.”

Johnny Avalon was a short, stocky man, his face round and amiably squashed; a large mouth beneath a bulbous nose and close-set eyes. He always wore the most expensive suits, and they were always slightly rumpled, like he’d worn them through an overnight bus ride. There was a large college ring on his left finger, and a gold marriage band that vanished from time to time. Although Jasy had begun his career as Studmuffin before meeting Avalon, the agent was the real mastermind behind the Studmuffin franchise. He was the one who’d engineered the merchandising deals, the public appearances, the interviews, and the series of workout tapes (“Studmuffin’s Chi-robics!”). And his pride in his star client was evident when they walked into his office – the walls were a mosaic of framed photos, newspaper clippings, and thank you notes from important people, all somehow Studmuffin-related. Avalon’s three favorites, however, were hung directly above his desk – each a letter from a media outlet who had turned down Avalon’s initial offer of exclusive rights to Studmuffin’s first public interview. He kept them in this place of pride as a reminder of how far they’d come, and so that whenever a representative from one of those media outlets came begging for table scraps, he could point to the letter and tell them to go fuck themselves.

“So, what’s the emergency?” Avalon asked, lowering himself into his desk chair. Jasy pulled up one of the cushioned arm chairs nearby and seated himself.

“Not an emergency, but it is urgent,” Jasy said. “I’ve had a brilliant idea.”

Avalon nodded. “Of course. You’re a brilliant man, you’re full of brilliant ideas. That’s what I’m always saying to people, I’m saying – ‘You know, Studmuffin, he’s not like the rest of these super heroes. He’s not just muscles, he’s got a brain on him.’”

“I was just telling Maureen that!”

“Who?”

“The receptionist.”

“Oh. Uh, right. So, okay, what’s this brilliant idea?”

Jasy leaned forward. “I’ve been doing pretty well with my solo career so far, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well? Kid, I’ll tell you, you haven’t just been doing well, you’ve been doing good! Great, even!”

“That’s what I think, too,” Jasy said. This was why he loved working with Johnny – they were always in sync. “But I was thinking… maybe it’s time for something of an expansion.”

Avalon nodded, pursing his lips. “Expansion. All right, are we thinking movies? TV? The modeling agencies have been breaking down my door since those Hanes ads…”

“Not that kind of an expansion,” Jasy said. “Although, uh, what kind of movies?”

“What kind of movies do you want?”

Jasy considered this. “Period drama, preferably set in the Lower East Side during the Industrial Revolution. I’d like to play a child working in a sweatshop.”

“… I’ll see what I can do. But anyway, you were saying?”

“Right! An expansion. See, I’m really proud of the work I’ve been doing, but I was thinking that I could be doing so much more. And that’s when I had this really great idea.”

He paused for dramatic effect, and Avalon gratified him by arching his eyebrows and leaning forwards.

“I want to start a super hero team,” Jasy said.

Avalon just stared for a moment. “A team… a team?”

“Yeah! Like, I’d get a bunch of other super heroes together, and we’d all work side by side to make the world a better place! Wouldn’t that be cool?!”

“Um, cool, yes, very… cool.” Avalon pursed his lips. “There’s not a whole lot of other heroes around this area, though. I mean, I’ve got this new guy, Cinematic, who’s talking to my office about representation, but I don’t know if he’s necessarily on your level…”

“Well, that’s the other thing,” Jasy said. “I want to do it on the East Coast.”

Avalon blinked. “The East Coast?”

“Yeah, in the City! You know, where the Guardians were? That’s what gave me the idea – I was watching a show about the Guardians and I thought, ‘Hey, why doesn’t someone do that again?’ The world could definitely use it, right?”

“Yeah, I mean, we all need things,” Avalon said. “What I’m thinking, though, is about a lot of the deals we have with the city of Sacramento and the California government, and there’s a lot of local businesses around here that are working really closely with us and, uh…”

“You guys still represent Bill Biloxi, right?”

“Well, sure, but…”

“Even after he got traded from the Raiders to the City Titans?”

“Yeah, I mean, telecommunications is better than ever now, so we can still represent him from across the country, but for you… for you, Jasy, I want to be able to provide the same personal level of representation that I always have. Not that another one of our agents wouldn’t do a great job if I had them out there, but I mean, for me to leave Sacramento? This town grinds to a halt if I go to the Bahamas for a week, you know what I’m saying?”

Jasy began to deflate a bit. “You don’t think it’s a good idea?”

“No, no, it’s a great idea, just… maybe not this year, huh? Let’s take some time, talk to some people, move things around, and see where we are in a bit.”

Jasy could feel a lump of disappointment rising in his throat, but he swallowed it back down. “All right. I understand. But Johnny, I’m really serious about this. I really think this could be great. So let’s work on this, okay?”

“Anything for you, boss,” Avalon said.

He nodded, accepting it. “Okay. Next year?”

Avalon gave him a flat smile. “We’ll see what we can do.”

* * *

1998

The City, USA


“To be honest with you,” Johnny Avalon said, “I figured he’d just get distracted by something else and forget about it. The kid, he’s great, you know? But he’s not too bright. But hey, he kept on it, and once I really started looking into it, I saw what he was onto. I mean, representing the biggest super hero in the US is one thing, but representing all of them, together? I’d have to be crazy to pass that up, am I right?”

“Wouldn’t seem like a wise decision,” his lunch guest said, with a generous smile. He gestured for the waiter. “Can I get another beer, and another martini for Mr. Avalon?”

They were sitting upstairs in the White Rose Tavern in Central City, the City’s downtown hub. It was a nice place – all polished dark wood and tall windows, but with a relatively casual bar down on the first floor. It was mostly empty now, during the lunch hour, and Johnny Avalon and his guest had the second level entirely to themselves.

“So, here I am.” Avalon leaned back and spread his arms, taking in himself and the City. “I’ve been meeting with people from City Hall, people from the county, cops, contractors, all of this shit. And you know what? I think it’s gonna happen. I really do.”

“My organization does as well,” his guest said. He was a tall man with short blonde hair and pale blue eyes. He had a distinctly military build, but he was unflaggingly pleasant. Avalon was grateful for that – he was worried he’d have to deal with some humorless hard-ass. “In fact, if I were a betting man I’d say that the City will accept the offer by the end of the summer.”

Avalon arched his eyebrows. “You’ve heard something?”

“Nothing on the record,” the other man said. “But they need the revenue. You’ve heard of the last mayor, Jennings? Mayor for eight years, and this city hemorrhaged money the whole time. Mayor Williams is looking for anything she can get her hands on – tourism money, especially.”

“Well, we’ll be bringing in plenty of that,” Avalon said. “The biggest super hero team in American history! You know I had my agency open up an office in New York just so I could get out here and oversee this myself? This is gonna be huge. It’s great for me, of course, but that’s not what’s important. I’m in this for the greater good, you understand. Wish they’d let us build the headquarters in the City, though.”

“Eh, you’re better off,” his guest said. “Try to build around here and it’ll take years to do it. Nobody wants super heroes living – and fighting – in their backyard, especially not in the middle of the city. You said you were looking at spots in Geauga County, right? The zoning will be much easier out there.”

The waiter brought their next round of drinks, and returned a moment later with lunch – salt-encrusted prime rib for Avalon, vegetable orecchiette pasta for his guest.

“The biggest thing for us right now,” Avalon said, as he started to cut into his rib, “is membership. Can’t build a headquarters if we don’t have a team to put them in.”

The other man nodded. “Of course. And that’s what you want to talk to us about?”

Avalon shrugged, popped a chunk of meat into his mouth, and chewed. “I heard that’s what your branch does. You research this kind of thing, right? Super hero stuff?”

“You could say that.” He ate some orecchiette, took a sip of beer. “Who do you have already?”

“Studmuffin, of course,” Avalon said. “He’ll be the leader. And I tell you, the kid was born for the role. He’s the perfect front man. You know Brad Pitt’s already said he’d play him in a movie? I’m telling you, this kid could be the next Captain Justice.”

“Hmm. Who else?”

“Technically that’s it right now, but we’ve got a few folks we’re going to send invitations to. That guy from New York, Superdude. Oreo Avenger. Invisible Girl, whatever her name is…”

“Rosma Galak.”

“Right, her. That guy in Connecticut, Insipid Justice, although to be honest he’s more of an alternate than a first choice. SuperNova. And we’re thinking about talking to Fortius, although I don’t know if he’ll be okay playing second string to my boy.”

The other man nodded. “Strong choices. I don’t know how much of a joiner SuperNova is, but do you remember that other heroine from Philadelphia? Sticky Spectre?”

Avalon shrugged.

“I think she would be really good for this,” he said. “In fact, I’ve got a list here of some folks we think could work pretty well from what we know of them – stable personalities, good track records, exciting powers, all of the stuff you said you’re looking for.”

“Excellent, excellent,” Avalon said. “I really appreciate this, believe me. Although I’m assuming these recommendations aren’t coming free?”

His guest grinned. “You’re a dealmaker, Mr. Avalon. What do you think?”

“Hey, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Wouldn’t do anything less. Just name your price.”

“There’s one name on this list that you probably haven’t heard, unless you’ve been spending a lot of time in the City. If I give you this list, I want this person on the team.”

Avalon nodded, noncommittal. “All right. This a… friend of yours? Someone you’ve worked with before?”

“No, nothing like that,” the other man said. “But he’s a good kid, and I think he really needs something like this. And believe me, Mr. Avalon, I’m not trying to put any dead weight on you – this guy’s been doing big things this summer. He’s the number one reason organized crime can’t keep a hold on the eastern docks, and he’s even been down in South Side a lot, and that place is like the Wild West. But the kid’s holding his own, and for a new super hero, that’s pretty damn impressive. He’ll bring a lot to the team, I guarantee it. His name’s X-Raytor.”

“I may have heard the name,” Avalon said. “Smalltime, mostly in this area, right? Yeah, hey, why not? We need more guys anyway. Too many ladies and Studmuffin’s bound to get distracted, you know?” He laughed heartily. “How do I get in touch with this kid?”

“He’s kind of transient right now, but he’s got a drop box and we know where it is. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention me when you send your invitation. Maybe just say… a mutual friend who wishes to remain anonymous.”

“No problemo,” Avalon said. “Well, I don’t usually say this sincerely, but it’s been a pleasure doing business with you… Captain? Lieutenant?”

“Sampson is fine,” the other man said.

“Mr. Sampson. Great. Well, Mr. Sampson, cheers.” He lifted his martini glass. “To beginnings!”

Sampson smiled, and lifted his glass.

“To beginnings.”





2. Moving Day

August 3, 1999

Sticky Spectre pulled up out front of the warehouse, and leaned over to get a full view of it. It was an enormous, vacant building the color of dried blood, with the enormous white letters of whatever company that had once owned it still barely visible across the façade. She wasn’t sure she had the right place at first, but then a rusted metal door slid open and X-Raytor stepped out. He was wearing his full costume, as always, and carried a backpack slung over his shoulder. Before he walked over to the car he pulled the lid from an aluminum trash can by the door and tossed something into it.

“You live here?” Sticky asked, when he got into the car.

“Being a super hero doesn’t pay crap,” he muttered.

“You live here?”

“No, I used to live here,” he said. “Now I live in a mansion. Or I will, as soon as we leave.”

“Is that all of your stuff?” she asked, glancing at the backpack now sitting between his feet.

“You don’t really get this living-on-the-streets thing, do you?”

“And what’s with the trash can? You live in an abandoned warehouse but you hate littering?”

“That’s my drop box,” he said. “Or, well, it was my drop box. I just left a little note in there to let my informants know that I’m not using it anymore. You know, in case none of them watch the news.”

“A drop box, that’s a smart idea,” she said. “I wonder if we’ll have anything like that at the new place.”

“I bet we’ll have an official tip line. And an e-mail account.”

Sticky turned and looked him over, and then frowned. “Do you have more than one of those costumes?”

“No.”

“All right, well then I hope we have laundry, too.”

“I wash it!”

“Ugh, and showers.”

“I shower every week!” X-Raytor said. “I go to this drop-in center on Tonawanda! At least once a week!”

“Yeah, I can tell.”

X-Raytor slid down into his seat, pouting. “Can we not live on the same floor?”

Sticky grinned, and switched the car into drive.

“Hall of Justice, here we come!”

* * *

A long, white limousine with a silver R painted on each side pulled into the circular drive in front of the Hall of Justice. Not that it was much of a hall at the moment – just a single, rectangular building, with a large main space and a two-story wing with rooms off to the right. The chauffeur noticed as much and frowned as he rushed around to open the door for his passengers.

“I’m just saying,” Oreo Avenger said, as the chauffeur offered her his hand and helped her out, “if your parents are willing to give you a limousine, we might as well. Thank you, Fenwick.”

“No,” Rosma Galak said, stepping out herself. “Not a chance. If I do that, it’s just one more way I’m buying into the person they want me to be. And what do superheroes need with a limousine, anyway? It’s not like we can chase anyone with this thing!”

“We won’t have to. When villains see the Limo of Liberty coming their way, they’ll surrender immediately.”

“Don’t call it that.”

“What, the Limo of Liberty? No criminal can escape the stretch limo of the law!”

“I’m not talking to you until we’re finished moving in.”

“How about a yacht? We could definitely use a yacht!”

Fenwick helped them to start carrying their luggage up to the front door, the three of them struggling the most with Oreo’s sloppily-packed cooking equipment.

“If you want a limo so bad, why don’t we just use your limo?” Rosma asked.

“My dad didn’t offer our limo. And I thought you weren’t talking to me.”

Before they could get to the Hall, the front door swung open and Studmuffin stepped out, wearing a t-shirt version of his costume and jeans. In all honesty, Rosma hadn’t gotten a great impression of Studmuffin. Part of that was prejudice, of course, just from seeing him on the news – when he’d arrived in the City about a year back, he’d pretty much acted like God’s gift to super heroics, snatching the spotlight away from actual homegrown City heroes with his West Coast flash and good looks. But even if this initial judgment was just based on seeing him on the news (and, sure, maybe a little jealousy), it had been exacerbated by actually meeting him last night. He’d seemed certain that Rosma and Oreo (and all of the other girls in the room) had been dying to meet him, and he’d even said to her: “Like the cloak, love the dress,” while giving her a little up-and-down leer. But then, ten minutes later when they were all introducing themselves, he’d pretty much dismissed her power as not being as good as the others. Or he’d implied as much, at least. And his nervous attempts to backpedal had just made her angrier.

Now he was walking towards them grinning, like they were best friends already. Of course, Rosma thought, because who could ever hold a grudge against the mighty Studmuffin?

“Ladies, welcome!” he said. “Come on in! Can I help you with that?”

Without waiting for a reply, he stepped forward and lifted a heavy box and a suitcase from Rosma’s hands, carrying them into the house. Rosma just stood there, mouth gaping, staring after him in disbelief.

“Did he just do that?!” she hissed at Oreo.

“Yeah,” Oreo said, “he didn’t even try to get my stuff.”

“That’s so sexist! I was carrying that all just fine!”

“Hey, want to carry some of my stuff?”

Rosma turned on her heel and stalked back to the limo, where she dug around until she found the heaviest suitcase she could, and then returned to the front door.

The living room was still set up the way it had been during their meeting last night, but now there were painters and construction workers milling around, putting finishing touches on the building. They all politely ignored Oreo and Rosma as they walked through – Rosma assumed they’d been very well paid to do this job competently and confidentially. Probably a deal worked out by that agent Studmuffin had mentioned yesterday.

Agent, she thought. Is that why he thinks he’s such a big shot? Stuck-up chauvinistic Hollywood pretty boy.

“This is just the start, of course,” Studmuffin was saying as he led them through the living room. “Once we start making some merchandising money we’ll build another wing with more facilities like a gym, holding cells, maybe put a big dome on the top? And a hangar, that would be sweet! We’d need a plane first, but…”

“How about a limo?” Oreo asked. Rosma gave her a death glare.

Studmuffin laughed. “Nah, we’ll just rent limos. Anyway, the rooms are right this way. There’s two floors, obviously, with a bunch of big single rooms, and a few doubles, in case anybody wanted to pair up.”

Rosma was sure he gave her a quick eyebrow waggle when he said that, but it happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to call him out on it.

Oreo glanced at Rosma. “Do you want to share a room?”

“What happened when you and Claire shared a room that one time, when your whole family was in town?”

“Um… she accidentally got into my Oreo satchel and turned herself into a caterpillar?”

“I think we’re good with separate rooms,” Rosma said.

“Cool,” Studmuffin said. “I’m down at the end of the hall, but otherwise, feel free to take any room you’d like.”

“You’re down at the end of this hallway?” Rosma asked, pointing.

“Yes indeed.”

“Great.” She turned and patted the door beside her - the very last door on the opposite end of the hall. “I’ll take this one.”

Something flitted across Studmuffin’s face then, but it passed too quickly for Rosma to tell what it was. “Uh, great! Here, let me put this stuff in there…” He nudged the door open and walked through.

“I think I’m going to take a room on the second floor,” Oreo said. “It’ll be easier to fly out of the window, if need be.”

“Want to take the one above mine and we can build a secret escape tunnel?”

“Absolutely.” Oreo glanced at the door to Rosma’s new room, where Studmuffin was setting her luggage down. “Try not to murder him before I get back, okay?”

Rosma smiled sweetly. “Only if you hurry.”

* * *

More and more of the team arrived throughout the day. Sticky Spectre and X-Raytor pulled up half an hour after Oreo and Rosma arrived, with Pinzz and Superdude arriving shortly afterwards via their respective super powers. Pinzz heard Studmuffin’s offer of double rooms and immediately announced that she was taking one.

“Great,” Studmuffin said, “it’ll be just like a dorm! Who’s going to room with you?” He glanced furtively at Sticky Spectre, and it was obvious to X-Raytor, who noticed the look, that Studmuffin had already developed a Pinzz-Sticky roommate fantasy, probably involving pillow fights and Loofa mitts. Not that he blamed him, considering that X-Raytor had pretty much had the exact same fantasy.

“Nobody’s rooming with me,” Pinzz said. “I’m just taking the double room.”

“Why do you get extra space?” X-Raytor asked.

“Because I’ll be doing twice as much work as the rest of your asses. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

It took Superdude and X-Raytor the quickest to unpack, Superdude because of his speed and X-Raytor because of his almost total lack of material possessions. He looked around his empty room and frowned. He’d have to call Bill and get the few things that had been salvaged from his house – a family picture, his sophomore yearbook from Hugo Danner High, his Bono poster. Superdude stuck his head into the room.

“Dude,” he said, “this place is huge! We could totally play laser tag in here!”

“It’s not really fair to play laser tag with me,” X-Raytor said, but then considered. “Super Soakers, on the other hand…”

“Yo, that would be crazy!!”

“Yeah, it’s just too bad we don’t have…”

Before X-Raytor could finish his sentence, Superdude vanished and reappeared inside the room, carrying two newly-purchased Super Soakers in Target bags.

“… any. Awesome!”

Ten minutes later, Rosma almost dropped the frame she was hanging as the entire Hall was rocked by an enraged scream. She stuck her head into the hall just in time to see a green-and-yellow blur fly down the stairs, followed by a terrified X-Raytor who was pursued by a furious, soaking Pinzz.

“I’M GOING TO MURDER BOTH OF YOU!!!!”

“IT WAS FUN!!” X-Raytor shrieked. “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE FUN?!”

“That’s probably not good.”

Rosma turned to see Studmuffin standing in the hall behind her, toolbox in hand.

“I hope she doesn’t kill them before our first press conference.” He grimaced at the thought.

“They probably deserve it,” Rosma said. She glanced down at the toolbox in his hands and scowled. “And before you ask, no, I don’t need help putting anything together, nor do I need anything else ‘screwed,’ ‘nailed,’ or ‘hammered.’”

Studmuffin blinked, surprised. “Huh? Oh, this? No, I was just going to put my bed together. You can borrow them later, if you want.”

Rosma’s anger subsided, and she felt a bit embarrassed. “Uh… sure. Thanks.”

And then Studmuffin leaned forward and arched his eyebrows. “It’s a canopy bed.”

Rosma slammed the door in his face.

* * *

Around noon they took a break for lunch. By that point moving vans crammed with Oreo, Rosma, and Pinzz’s stuff had arrived, along with several vans full of newly-bought furniture for Studmuffin, with a note that read, “Happy moving day! – Johnny” taped to one of the boxes. X-Raytor and Superdude had both been pressed into service, helping Pinzz carry stuff and assemble furniture, and both were famished. When the doorbell rang, X-Raytor tossed away the screwdriver he’d been using to assemble one of Pinzz’s dressers and ran downstairs.

“Oh, sweet glorious food!” he cried. “Manna in the desert! Give us this day our daily pizz…”

He threw the door open and collided with Scarlett Fyre, who had been about to push the door open and walk inside. The two tumbled onto the front lawn, X-Raytor landing on top.

“Um… you’re not the pizza boy,” he said.

“Is this how you usually treat pizza boys?” Scarlett asked.

X-Raytor had noticed her Southern twang last night, but it struck a particular chord with him now, considering their position. “Well, let me tell you, the ways of the North are strange and mysterious. If you’d like, I could show you around, help you…”

“Get off of me before I light your eyebrows on fire.”

“Just trying to be neighborly,” X-Raytor mumbled, and got up. He offered her a hand, which she ignored. Scarlett looked down at her red dress and scowled.

“Grass stains,” she said. “I just bought this dress.”

“No offense, it’s a lovely dress – and I do mean lovely – but are you sure that was the best choice for, you know, moving?”

“I figured I’d just get one of you neighborly Northern gentlemen to do the heavy lifting for me,” she said, and shoved a heavy suitcase into his chest. X-Raytor let out an explosive gust of air and almost dropped the suitcase. As he struggled to keep his hold on it, Scarlett breezed past him and into the house. Her black cat hopped out of the rental car and walked up to X-Raytor, looking at him impassively.

“I think she likes me,” X-Raytor said. “What do you think, little buddy? You’d like me and your owner to become friends, right? Right?”

Hamlet raised one paw, and extended his claws.

“Fuck, never mind,” X-Raytor grumbled, walking back towards the Hall. “Southern hospitality my ass…”

* * *

The pizza arrived while X-Raytor and Superdude were still carrying Scarlett’s luggage from her moving van, and once it was all inside they all sat down for a break.

“I didn’t even know anyone owned that many shoes,” X-Raytor complained. “I smell like leather!”

“You don’t own any shoes,” Sticky pointed out.

“I own a pair. I mean, I threw them out before I came here because they were falling apart, but I did own a pair! That’s how you gotta live on the streetz. With a Z. Which is where I lived.”

“Is whining like a little bitch something else they do on the streetz?” Pinzz asked. “Because you’ve been doing a lot of that.”

“Hey guys, let’s not fight,” Studmuffin said. “This is our first day in our new headquarters! Isn’t that exciting?”

Everyone agreed that it was, around mouthfuls of pizza.

“It’s a nice place,” Oreo said. “You said you wanted to build more?”

“Yeah, I figure we’ll have to expand eventually,” Studmuffin said. “Once we really start rolling, I’m sure a bunch of people will want to join us. And we’ll need room for holding criminals, and a sick bay, and that hangar I was talking about…”

“Do y’all have a plane?” Scarlett asked.

“Not yet,” Studmuffin said.

“I had to take cabs everywhere in Alabama,” Scarlett said. “I’d just be happy with a car.”

“Or a limo?” Oreo asked.

“Let it go,” Rosma growled.

After lunch, Scarlett took a tour of the two dormitory floors. They were all very nice – roomy, well-lit, nice hardwood floors – but they lacked one essential component: adequate closet space.

“I mean, I guess I could get rid of some clothes,” Scarlett said.

Hamlet purred skeptically.

“You’re right, probably not,” she said. She looked at the closet in the room she’d chosen and frowned. “Studmuffin was saying they’re building another wing. Maybe I can design a room with a great big walk-in closet. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“Mraaoow,” Hamlet said.

“What? I didn’t ask. If they’re still painting downstairs I can’t imagine the Internet’s set up yet.”

“Meeooow!”

Scarlett rolled her eyes. “Hamlet, you’ll survive a few days away from your RPGs. Remember that time you were lost in the Congo? You couldn’t post then, could you?”

“Maaaooow!”

“Whatever, I’m sure they’ll install it soon,” she said. “It takes you, like, three months to write a post anyway.” She heard the pounding of a hammer from Sticky Spectre’s room, and winced. “You know what else I was thinking? It might be nice to have a little separate space. I don’t know how sold I am on living with all of them all of the time. And Phabio’s working around here now, I bet he could find me a place…”

Just then there was a yelp from outside and a loud thump. Scarlett and Hamlet ran to the door and looked out to see X-Raytor lying on his back in the hallway while Pinzz stood over him, a foot planted on his chest, repeatedly spraying a Super Soaker into his masked face.

“Isn’t this fun, X-y?!” she demanded. “Huh?! Isn’t it?!”

“Mmmfmrrmlmfflmrrr!!!!” X-Raytor protested.

“This is so much fun!! WHY DON’T YOU LIKE FUN, X-Y?!?!”

“In fact,” Scarlett said, “maybe I’ll call Phabio today.”

* * *

The rest of the day was spent moving in the present Justice Leaguers’ stuff and buying furniture for those who didn’t have any yet, all on Studmuffin’s dime. X-Raytor got a bed and a dresser, although his attempts to get Oreo Avenger to try out the mattress with him failed miserably. Scarlett disappeared for half an hour and then reappeared carrying four new pairs of red shoes. Studmuffin bought three more couches for the common room in order to flirt with an oblivious sales girl, which just seemed to make Rosma moodier.

When it was finished they all crashed in the common room around the newly-installed big screen TV. Earlier in the day everyone had talked about making dinner together, but in the end they just ordered Chinese food. The conversation was much livelier after a full day together, with in-jokes established and rapport built.

This is great, Rosma thought at one point. I feel like I could actually be friends with these people. This is it… this is where I belong now.

“We should have a dance!” Scarlett said at one point.

“Whoo!! Dance party!” This came from Pinzz, who had mixed herself a few drinks during dinner. She hopped up, turned off the TV, and flipped the radio that the construction guys had been listening to earlier to a pop station. “Livin’ La Vida Loca” was on, and although everyone else thought that would kill the dance party idea right there, Pinzz simply grabbed another Mike’s Hard and started dancing on one of the couches.

“I love dance parties!” X-Raytor said, jumping up on the couch himself. Pinzz gave him a look that clearly said “Keep your distance,” and which X-Raytor read as “Wait five minutes, then start grinding on me.”

“I meant like a classy dance,” Scarlett said, but by then everyone was up dancing, or at least tapping their feet and singing along. The night quickly devolved from dancing to group karaoke, with everyone (except Scarlett, of course) belting out whatever came on the radio. They were all throwing themselves heart and soul into “I Want It That Way” when the front doors of the Hall swung open, and their last member entered.

Insipid Justice was carrying a pair of unremarkable duffel bags, and seemed nonplussed by the sight of his teammates standing on furniture and screaming: “DON’T WANNA HEAR YOU SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!”

Studmuffin hopped down and turned the music off. “Insipid Justice! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you to show up all day!”

This was not the truth. In fact, Studmuffin and everyone else in the room had literally forgotten that Insipid Justice was even on the team.

“Oh, well, I got stuck in traffic,” he said in his dreary monotone.

Studmuffin winced. “Ooh, that doesn’t sound…”

“Bumper-to-bumper on I-84.”

“Ugh, that sounds boring,” X-Raytor said.

“And my radio was broken and I don’t have a CD player, so…”

“Really boring,” Sticky said, and yawned.

“But I’m here now,” Insipid Justice said. “I guess I’ll just get my stuff in the morning.”

“Uh, cool,” Studmuffin said. “We were just having a little, uh… team bonding. Want to join us?”

“Thanks, but no. I’m tired, so I’ll probably just get in bed and read.”

Pinzz blinked. “Read?”

“Yeah.” Insipid Justice reached around to the back of his costume and pulled out a crinkled book. “Wallpaper in 19th Century France: Interpretations and Perspectives. I’m about three-hundred pages in now.”

“Well, I’m sure that’s… interesting?” Oreo said.

“Really?” Superdude blurted, before Scarlett elbowed him in the side.

“Not really,” Insipid Justice said, and shrugged. “Where are the rooms, by the way?”

“Uh, just down that hallway, or up the stairs,” Studmuffin said. “We put beds in all of them, too, so if you have some sheets…”

“That’s okay, I can just sleep on the mattress,” Insipid Justice said. “Well, good night everyone. See you all in the morning.”

After he had walked down the hallway, everyone stood in silence for a moment.

“So, uh, should we put the tunes back on?” Superdude asked.

“After that?” Sticky Spectre said. “I can’t, my buzz is totally ruined.”

“Yeah, I’m going to bed,” Pinzz said.

The others agreed, and soon everyone was heading off to their respective rooms. There were a few awkward moments when everyone realized that there were only two communal bathrooms on each floor, but for the most part they handled it gracefully.

Rosma was in her bathroom brushing her teeth when the doubt hit. Was this really the right thing for her? Was she making a really stupid mistake? What if a month from now she didn’t even care about being a super hero, and wanted to go back to her old life? She could see her parents welcoming her smugly home, the prodigal. She looked at herself in the mirror and blushed. Rosma Galak. Her freaking Jedi name. What was she thinking?

When she stepped out of the bathroom, Studmuffin was waiting in the hall, wearing a gray muscle shirt and a pair of blue Ren & Stimpy pajama pants. He was carrying a little shower tote, with what looked like at least a dozen different brands of skin product.

“All yours,” Rosma said, hurrying past in the hopes that he wouldn’t have time to hit on her.

“Thanks,” Studmuffin said. And then, when she was just a few feet down the hall: “Uh, Rosma?”

She gritted her teeth and turned around. “What?”

“Look, uh, this isn’t easy for me to say,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “But I, um… I’m sorry if I acted weird at all today. It’s just, I’m… I’m really happy to have you on this team, and I was worried you weren’t going to like it.”

Rosma folded her arms over her chest. This was the ploy he was using. “Yeah? And why are you so happy?”

“Well, when we were researching people to be on this team, you’re someone whose work I really admired,” he said. “The way you handled that situation with, what’s his name, Johnny Krueger? That was awesome, and really creative, too! I mean, if it had been me, I would’ve just whacked him with my Chi powers, but you took him out just by being smarter than he was.”

She was actually a bit taken aback. “You heard about that?”

“Oh yeah. We were already looking at you because you were in the area, but when I read about that? I said, ‘This is someone I want on the team.’” He shrugged, and smiled. “So, I’m really sorry if I was an idiot or anything. Don’t leave the team because of me.”

“I’m not leaving the team,” she said.

“Great!” he said, with unexpected enthusiasm. He quickly covered up: “I mean, uh, cool. Whatever. … Cool. All right, well, good night!”

“Good night,” Rosma said, as he hurried into the bathroom.

When she walked back to her room, she found that she was smiling.





3. Applications




August 20,1999

“So last night, I was thinking,” Rosma said. “Yesterday’s press conference went really well, obviously. So well in fact, that before the day was out, we had a new member!” She beamed at Raven. “And it occurred to me – if Raven saw us on TV and came to join the same day, it’s more than likely that we’ll have plenty of other people coming to join us in the immediate future!

“And so I stayed up all night, and created what I think is a very efficient application process for us!” She patted a pile of papers sitting in front of her on the kitchen counter. “Every time someone comes and wants to join, we’ll have them fill out one of these forms and then do a panel-style interview with them. Now, we’ll certainly have people like Raven who will come on their own, but for everyone who officially responded to our Justice League e-mail address, I created a little interview schedule. This,” she pulled a pink piece of paper from the top, “is an availability grid. As you can see, I have each of our applicants and their scheduled interview times written down, with three open slots next to them. Just write your name down on any and all that you’d like to be present for, and we can coordinate from there. Since I’m organizing this process, I’ll attend all of the interviews, just to maintain continuity.”

She smiled, flexed her fingers. “Well. That was a lot of information. Does anyone have any questions?”

Pinzz raised her hand.

“Pinzz?”

“Rosma,” Pinzz said. “Do you have any fucking idea what time it is?”

Rosma blinked. “I… it’s only…”

“It’s eight in the fucking morning!” Pinzz snapped. “I don’t wake up before ten unless I have to! Especially if I was out patrolling for half the night.”

“Patrolling?” X-Raytor asked. “I didn’t know you patrolled in a tube top and tight jeans. Fascinating!”

Pinzz glared at him.

“Eight is a perfectly normal time to wake up,” Rosma said.

“Sleep is for the weak!” Oreo added, although she was busily brewing an enormous pot of coffee.

“Besides, I knew if I didn’t call you all down for a meeting right now, you’d all go off and do other things.”

“I’m not doing anything today,” Insipid Justice said. “I like forms.”

“Do I need to fill out one of those applications?” Raven asked. She had, as Rosma said, shown up the night before, wearing her blue-and-yellow armor and toting a train of medium-sized roller suitcases tied together with twine. Each was plastered with stickers from performance venues, landmarks, and restaurants from all around the country. At first they’d been concerned by the fact that she was so young – only twelve, in fact. But despite her off-kilter sense of humor and strange crow-like laugh, they also got the sense that she had seen a lot and was more than capable to serve on the team. And ages weren’t being entered into the official identity database at the moment, so there was no insurance liability. It was a potentially dangerous and horrific loophole, yes, but a loophole just the same. Besides, minors had served as sidekicks in the past – why not full-fledged super heroes?

“No, I figured that wouldn’t be fair,” Rosma said. “But feel free to sign up to facilitate an interview!”

“She can’t seriously fucking do this, can she?” Pinzz asked Studmuffin.

Studmuffin blinked. “Huh? Why are you asking me?”

“Aren’t you the leader?”

He flushed. “I, but, uh…”

“Screw this,” Pinzz said. She glanced at the schedule. “Nope, booked all of those days. See ya later.”

She was halfway to the door when Rosma said: “Pinzz, if you don’t sign up for one of these interviews, I’m going to tell one of the new people that you’re looking for a roommate.”

Pinzz whirled around. “You can’t do that!”

“Sure I can. I’ll move them in personally while you’re out ‘patrolling.’”

“You put anyone in my room, and they won’t make it through the night.”

“Guys, this is stupid,” X-Raytor said. “We’re a team, remember? How about we grow up and, you know, act like a team?”

There was a brief moment of stubborn silence, and then Pinzz sighed loudly and returned to her seat at the kitchen table.

“Thank you, X-Raytor,” Rosma said. “I appreciate your maturity.”

“No problem,” he said, taking the block schedule. “All right, I’ve got Violet Princess, DragonGirl, and, uh… is OMEGA a chick? In fact, you guys can take a break, I’ll conduct private interviews. I think it’ll be more, um, comfortable that way.”

“No, no girls for you,” Rosma said.

X-Raytor sighed. “Fine, I guess I’ll take Eric and this Xiao dude…”

“Xiao’s a girl,” Rosma said. “OMEGA’s a guy. You can interview him.”

“How many people are we going to accept, anyway?” Sticky Spectre asked, taking the schedule from X-Raytor.

“Well, we haven’t really decided on that,” Studmuffin said. “Johnny and I have talked about a few different options, but we figured we’d just see what the interest level is and leave it open until then.”

“Okay, because I’m just worried about this getting too unwie-” She stopped, and looked back at X-Raytor. “Wait, ‘Eric’?”

“That’s what I said.”

“I thought it was, like, a cool fighter name or something! Like A-R-R-Y-K. This literally just says ‘Eric’.”

“Hey, I was just going to roll with it,” X-Raytor said.

“That’s how he signed his e-mail,” Rosma said. “I think. It was kind of hard to read.”

“It’s not like we don’t already have a ton of stupid names,” Pinzz said, glancing at Oreo, Studmuffin, and Insipid Justice in turn.

“We can’t all achieve the monosyllabic brilliance of ‘Pinzz,’” Oreo said.

“Listen, we need some kind of process,” Rosma said. “We can’t just let anyone walk in here and join. And remember, whoever joins is someone you all are going to have to work and live with, not just me. So if you want some say in who you have to share the bathroom with, and who has your back when we’re fighting super villains, sign up for a damn interview.”

“Sorry, excuse me, just one more question,” Superdude said. “What happens if we do get more drop-ins?”

“We’ll just schedule them when they appear,” Rosma said. “And whoever’s around can handle the interviews, if you’re willing.”

“I’m very willing if they’re girls,” X-Raytor said.

“Me too,” Studmuffin added earnestly, like he was doing everyone a favor.

“Besides,” Rosma said, ignoring them, “how often do you think people will just drop by out of the blue?”

Just then the doorbell rang. Everyone looked at Rosma.

“I should probably know better than to ask questions like that,” she mumbled. “Okay, if that is a drop-in, who’s able to…”

There was a sudden flurry of feet as everyone except Oreo Avenger, Studmuffin, and Insipid Justice fled the room.

“Fine,” Rosma grated. “Let’s go see who it is.”

* * *

“So, Isomorphix,” Oreo Avenger said. “Where does that name come from?”

The newcomer looked supremely uncomfortable sitting in a plush La-Z-Boy in the middle of the living room. It wasn’t that he seemed nervous to have the attention of the four super heroes sitting on the couch entirely focused on him, or even that he seemed to be getting a little toasty in his black leather trench coat. There was something about him that suggested a dark, coiled energy – Oreo could imagine he wouldn’t seem comfortable anywhere except on the move, on the hunt. She glanced at the sheathed sword on his hip, and wondered what he could do with it.

“From the term isomorphism,” he said. “It’s a concept from abstract algebra, the idea of mapping in order to reveal a relationship.”

They waited for him to say more. When he didn’t, Studmuffin said:

“I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t have any, uh, classical super powers.”

“I don’t have any super powers,” Isomorphix said.

Studmuffin faltered, not ready to have his attempt at politeness tossed back at him. “Uh… I guess what I’m trying to say is, what makes you interested in joining a super hero team?”

“We all have our motivations,” he said.

The four super heroes stared at Isomorphix. Isomorphix stared back.

Finally, he said: “If you’re wondering what makes me think I can match up to the super human abilities of my prospective teammates – I’m skilled in surveillance, investigation, and deduction. I have a network of contacts spread throughout the City’s underworld, and an extensive knowledge of how the various criminal organizations of this city are connected and interrelated.”

“You can put the pieces together,” Rosma said. “Like isomorphism!”

Isomorphix glanced at her impassively, before continuing. “I am also more than proficient in the art of the Japanese katana.”

He drew the sword from its scabbard so quickly and silently that it almost seemed to appear in his hand. Even in this relaxed setting, there was no mistaking what it was – a sleek, clean tool of death.

“Swords are sweet!” Studmuffin enthused. “Where’d you get that?”

“I’m also very good with computers,” Isomorphix said, sheathing his sword. “Are there any other questions?”

“Do you like standing in corners?” Insipid Justice asked.

Isomorphix thought about this for a moment. “I… tend to stand in corners,” he admitted. "They typically offer the best view of any given room, and prevent anyone from sneaking up behind you."

Insipid Justice nodded, and glanced blandly at the others. "I'm all set."

"One more question," Oreo said. "No offense, but I get the sense that you're not that much of a joiner. If you join this team, you're going to be expected to work with everyone in this group. Can you do that?"

"Oreo," Studmuffin whispered. "Not around the sword-ay."

"That’s not pig Latin," Rosma said.

"I have certain investigations that I am conducting privately, and I will from time to time have to devote my full focus and energy on those," Isomorphix said. "But otherwise, I will be a loyal and dedicated member of this team." He frowned. "I do not attend parties, however."

“All right,” Rosma said. “I think that’s all we need. Do you have any questions for us?”

“Is there wireless access in this building?”

“There will be next week,” Studmuffin said.

Isomorphix nodded. “That’s all.”

“Great,” Rosma said. She glanced at the others. “Do you guys want to step into the other room and confer?”

“I don’t know what confer means,” Studmuffin said, “but I like that it involves me and both of you at the same time.”

They stepped away into the kitchen, and spoke in low voices, although Oreo had the sneaking suspicion that Isomorphix might still be able to hear them.

“He’s kinda weird,” Studmuffin said.

“But look at his skills,” Rosma said. “He could really be an asset to the team.”

“Yeah, if you like sissy Batman-type heroes.”

“We have a lot of strong powers already,” Oreo pointed out, “but we don’t really have anyone who’s got experience with investigation. I mean, Sticky’s pretty good at it, and I picked up some stuff for my dad, but it might be good to have our own personal detective. Plus, we need more than three guys on this team.”

“Four,” Rosma said.

“Four?”

“You’re forgetting Insipid Justice.”

“Carp! I need to stop doing that!” She looked around. “Where did he go, anyway? Wasn’t he just on the couch with us?”

Studmuffin blinked. “Did you just say ‘carp’? Have I been pronouncing that wrong this whole time?”

“Guys,” Rosma said, in a tone that implied her patience was starting to wear thin. “Do we have a decision?”

A few moments later, they returned to the common room. Rosma walked up to the brooding adventurer and extended her hand.

“Isomorphix,” she said, “welcome to the Justice League.”

* * *

August 21, 1999

“So are you actually a princess?” X-Raytor asked the purple-haired girl sitting across from him.

She laughed. “Not really,” she said. “I mean, that’s what my grandmother always called me, and that’s what I wanted to be when I was a little girl. But, no, I’m just a commoner from outside of Albany.”

“I could have sworn there was something regal about you,” X-Raytor said. “Maybe you’re descended from European nobility. I like the hair by the way.”

“That’s why they call me Violet Princess,” she said, and laughed again. She was laughing a lot – nervous, eager to impress. X-Raytor was having a hard time balancing his humane, sympathetic side, which wanted to help her feel more comfortable, and his raging horn-dog side, which was trying desperately to get into her leotard.

“I have to be honest,” X-Raytor said, “when I first read your name on the schedule, I thought it said Violent Princess. I think I like ‘violet’ better.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “We already have a few violent girls around here.”

“I’ve made that typo so many times,” Violet said. “Funny story, actually. Violent Princess is my cousin.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, my crazy cousin Jess. She taught herself magic and tried to blow up this mall in town before I stopped her.”

“Really?”

Violet laughed. “No, not really.”

“And she’s funny,” X-Raytor scribbled in the notebook balanced on his knee. “I’m telling you, this has been one of the most impressive interviews I’ve taken part in. And believe me, that’s saying a lot.”

“I guess that’s a good sign,” Violet said, trying to hide a blush. She glanced around. “Um… but isn’t anyone else coming?”

Just then, Rosma burst through the front door, out of breath. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she gasped. “There was a call on the emergency hotline about a hostage situation in downtown, but it must have been a stupid prank, because no one was there when I…” She glared when she saw X-Raytor. “What are you doing here, X-y?”

X-Raytor sat straight up suddenly. “Don’t call me that,” he said, and then turned to Violet: “Nobody calls me that.” Back to Rosma: “Oh, and Pinzz didn’t tell you? She switched spots with me.”

“I told her she wasn’t allowed to do that!”

“It’s all right, Violet Princess and I have been having a great conversation.”

“I’m sure,” she said, giving him a poisonous look. “Hi, Violet Princess, my name’s Rosma Galak. We talked through e-mail? Nice to meet you.”

“Hi,” Violet said, shaking her hand. “Yeah, it’s really no problem, X-Raytor’s been making me feel very welcome.”

Rosma ignored that comment, but X-Raytor saw her fists clench spasmodically. “Did you get a chance to fill out an application?”

“Oops,” X-Raytor said.

Rosma sighed. “Okay, hold on, I’ll go get one. X-Raytor, could you come with me for a second?”

“Er, well, don’t you think it’d be rude to leave our guest unattended?”

Rosma gave him A Look.

“Coming,” X-Raytor mumbled, and followed her into the hallway that led to the first-floor living quarters.

“I swear to God,” Rosma hissed, “if you creep her out and she doesn’t join, I’m going to kill you.”

X-Raytor threw his hands up defensively. “I haven’t been creepy at all! I’m actually quite charming when I want to be, although some people never seem to notice…”

“I can turn invisible, X-y. You’ll never see it coming.”

“I promise!” X-Raytor said, putting a hand on his heart. “I wouldn’t do anything to screw something like this up, I swear! I have some self-control.”

Rosma arched an eyebrow.

“I said some.”

“Whatever,” Rosma said, and sighed again. “How is she?”

“She’s cool,” X-Raytor said. “Seems very friendly. And she’s got a good power, even though I don’t totally understand it. She’s been doing a sort of under-the-radar solo career up around Albany since earlier this year, which is why we haven’t really heard of her. But she showed me some articles, and it’s all good stuff.”

“And you think she’s hot.”

“Well…”

“Well, at least you actually showed up,” Rosma said. “Superdude and Scarlett were supposed to help out with this interview, too, and I don’t see them anywhere.”

“Oh yeah,” X-Raytor said, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “I think there was, uh, another call to the hotline, after you left. Something about, uh, a big fire? And a lot of people who had to be evacuated quickly?”

“Really?” Rosma asked. “Wow, what are the odds of…”

She stopped, and her eyes widened.

“You didn’t,” she said.

“Didn’t do what?!” X-Raytor demanded, way too quickly. “I didn’t do anything! I’ve been here all day, away from the phone!”

“You called in fake emergencies so you could hit on her without us interfering?” Rosma asked. “You’re a sociopath, you know that?”

“I prefer ‘sex addict,’ but…”

“Go get the freaking applications,” Rosma snarled. “Before I murder you.”

“Aye aye, captain,” X-Raytor said, and scurried off down the hallway.

“We should have started this thing with an application process,” Rosma muttered to herself as she walked back to the common room.

* * *

August 25, 1999

“Absolutely not,” the shadow said.

Rosma, Superdude, Pinzz, and Raven all looked at each other, puzzled.

“Sorry,” Xiao said. “That’s Fred. I was just about to say, my powers aren’t technically mine… I get them from this demon, who possessed my shadow.”

“A demon?” Superdude repeated. “Yo, that’s crazy!”

“The demon’s name is Fred?” Pinzz asked.

“That’s Evil King Fred to you, mortal,” Fred snapped. “Show some respect for your inevitable overlord.”

“There’s an evil demon in your shadow,” Rosma said, “but you want to be a super hero?”

“Yeah, uh…” Xiao faltered for a moment, and then said. “I know the powers aren’t coming from a good place, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do good things with them, right?”

Is that the lie you tell yourself, slave? Fred whispered in Xiao’s mind. I’d find that amusing if it wasn’t so unoriginal. Do you think this will make you feel clean, important? Do you think you can deny what you’re becoming?

“I mean, there’s people with good powers who just go out and do bad things, right?” Xiao said, trying to ignore him. “Besides, Fred’s not… that bad. He just gets moody.”

Moody?! I’m never moody! You’re the moody one, you pathetic whimpering worm!

“And he doesn’t like forms,” Xiao said, indicating the application in her lap.

“I feel no need to defend my abilities to sacks of meat like you,” Fred said to the others. “You should be pleading with me to allow my vassal to join your meaningless little team.”

“We’re not trying to offend anyone,” Rosma said, in what she hoped was a soothing tone. “The application process is just so we can have a standardized way of getting to know everyone. So if you could please just fill out the form…”

The clipboard holding the application went spinning off through the air, ricocheting from a chandelier and zipping through the kitchen door. They heard a crash, and Violet Princess yelping in surprise.

“Shove it up your rapidly-decaying excrement hole,” Fred snapped.

“This is going to be a long one, isn’t it?” Raven whispered to Pinzz.

“That’s why I took shots before I came down here, Ghost Girl…”

* * *

August 28, 1999

“His power was what? ” Rosma said.

“He… I’m not even sure he has a power,” Sticky Spectre said. “He was just… naked.”

“Naked? Like, totally naked?”

Sticky glanced at Scarlett. “I mean, he was wearing socks…”

“There was something weird about it,” Scarlett said. “Like, I wasn’t nearly as scandalized as I should have been. After the first twenty minutes of the interview it seemed kind of… normal, for some reason. I mean, unless you thought about it.”

“Naked?” Rosma repeated. Suddenly, her face paled.

“Oh, don’t worry, we thought of that too,” Oreo said, reading her mind. “We put a trash bag under him. And we had him sit in Studmuffin’s chair.”

“Thank God.” She sighed. “Well, I guess we should have expected that we’d get some crazies. How did you guys get rid of him? Did you just tell him we’d be in touch?”

The three girls exchanged looks.

“Well, here’s the thing…” Oreo started.

Just then, Eric walked in from the kitchen, carrying an offensively-large sandwich. “Hey guys, this place is awesome! Oh, hey, you must be Rosma! I’m Eric, nice to meet you!”

He walked towards Rosma to shake her hand, and Rosma immediately let loose with a thunderous fake sneeze.

“Ugh, don’t touch me, I’m ridiculously sick,” Rosma said, affecting a rasp. “Nice to meet you, though.”

“Yeah, you too. Feel better!” He walked upstairs and disappeared from view. Rosma turned back to the others.

“What the fuck?”

“I’m telling you, it was weird!” Scarlett said.

“I can see that!!”

“No, I mean, there was something about his nakedness that you just got used to. And we thought, well… maybe that is a super power. But it’s not like anyone’s going to take him seriously on his own, and he’s such a nice guy…”

“He’s like a puppy,” Sticky Spectre said. “A big, naked, human puppy. We just felt so bad for him. He said his family isn’t even talking to him anymore, and it doesn’t seem like he’s got anywhere to go.”

“He’s a naked guy!!” Rosma cried. “We’re super heroes!!”

“Insipid Justice is just a boring guy,” Oreo pointed out.

“But at least he has a costume!”

“Eric has socks.”

Just socks!!”

“Look, this is what I’m thinking,” Sticky said. “Back in the day, everybody got their powers from accidents, right? A few people were natural – Captain Justice, Crimson Avenger – but most people were caught in a radiation explosion or a chemical spill or something. But today? We’ve got more and more people coming out with natural powers all the time. And some of them are like Oreo, and they can fly. But some of them don’t have awesome, marketable powers. I mean, look at me. Without my tape launchers, I’m just a girl who can stick to stuff. It doesn’t make me stronger, or faster, or smarter. When you get right down to it, I’m a freak.” She paused and swallowed, apparently warding off something. “But I’m a freak who found a way to use what she has. Insipid Justice is the same way. And we’re going to keep meeting people like this, if we keep this team going. People whose genetics have made them different, special, but not powerful. And a lot of them are going to want to help the world just as much as we do. Shouldn’t this team be a place for them, too?”

“But if we’re just taking everybody,” Rosma said, “what’s the point of even having an application process?”

“It’s not that we have to take everyone,” Sticky said. “But maybe it could be, like, a less formal process.”

“All right, you know what? Fine. Clearly you guys don’t like my application process. Fine. Whatever. I’ll drop it. But I’m not running these things anymore. If you guys want to do it your way, then you do it. You set up the interviews, you actually show up, and you decide who’s just a naked guy and who’s a naked guy with naked super powers. I’ll be upstairs re-watching Deep Impact.” Rosma turned and stomped up the stairs.

“Yikes,” Sticky said.

“Yep, that probably wasn’t a good idea,” Oreo said.

“Listen, we can do this,” Sticky said. “We should have been doing it before anyway, instead of being lazy and putting it all on Rosma. We’re responsible adults, right?”

Oreo and Scarlett exchanged looks.

“Well, almost,” Sticky allowed. “But, come on guys! We’re here to save the freaking world. How hard can it be to interview people?”

* * *

September 4, 1999

The door was open when Adam knocked, so he nudged it open and stuck his head inside.

“Um, hello?”

The common room was empty except for Pinzz, who was lounging on the couch watching TV. “Hey, what’s up?” She glanced briefly away from the screen. “You’re not a Jehovah’s Witness, are you?”

“Uh, no,” Adam said. “My name’s, um, Adam Hehr… this is the Hall of Justice, right?”

“You see any other mansions around here?”

He had seen a few on the bus ride in, but he decided not to share that tidbit. “Um… I’m a super hero, and I’m here to join the Justice League. My, uh, my ‘codename’ or whatever is OMEGA. I e-mailed Rosma Galak a few weeks ago…?”

“Cool,” Pinzz said, turning the volume up slightly. “Welcome to the team.”

Adam blinked his luminescent blue eyes. “Really?”

“Yup. There’s some rooms available on the first floor. They’re still working on the east wing, if you want to move later.”

He looked around, expecting to see hidden cameras, or to hear the snickers of a concealed audience. “There’s not, like, a form I have to fill out or anything?”

“Eh, not really,” Pinzz said. “We got tired of doing that. But once the others get back, we’ll do a powers demonstration out back. And we’ll probably talk to you a bit, to make sure you’re not a psycho. But other than that? Yeah, you’re pretty much in.”

From his youth onward, Adam’s life had been an unbroken series of rejections. When he’d finally worked up the confidence to come over here and apply, he was sure he’d have to work his ass off to prove his worth. What Pinzz was telling him didn’t even make sense. And yet, no punch line came, no laughter or catcalls. This acceptance, baffling though it was, was real.

“Wow,” he said. “That was easy.”

“Well, something you’ll learn about us, OMEGA, is that we’re nothing if not efficient.”

She lifted the remote and changed the channel.





4. The First Christmas


December 25, 1999

“I’m Mr. White Christmas, I’m Mr. Snow!” X-Raytor sang.

“Could you please shut up?” DragonGirl snapped. “You don’t have to sing along to every song!”

“This is how we celebrated Christmas at my house,” X-Raytor said. “I mean, usually we’d go into the City and do something, but we always watched all of the Rankin-Bass movies!”

“Well, this isn’t your house, and we’re trying to watch it quietly.”

The entire Justice League, minus Studmuffin, was in the common room, wearing a variety of freakishly ugly Christmas sweaters and watching TV. They were supposed to be having a party (a small one, of course – the Victorian Party and yesterday’s Christmas Eve Party had wiped out most of their social budget for the rest of the year), but Studmuffin had yet to return with the various supplies he’d insisted on picking up himself. At first there had been a good amount of awkward small talk, with awkward being the operative word – Raven and Xiao were teenage girls, DragonGirl was a bit stand-offish, Iso and Insipid Justice were Iso and Insipid Justice, and OMEGA had a tendency to make bad jokes, loudly and frequently, whenever he felt uncomfortable. Fortunately, X-Raytor had been inspired to turn on ABC Family, and they’d all just sat down to watch Christmas movies instead.

“I think we should do a Justice League Christmas Special,” Superdude said.

“That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” X-Raytor said. “Like, we’re all planning this big Christmas party, and all of a sudden someone bursts in and tells us we have to save Christmas!”

“Yeah, like, Santa Claus has been abducted by rogue elves, and we need to go to the North Pole to rescue him! And there’s songs, and miracles, and we meet a talking polar bear!”

“And at some point we have to fly the sleigh, only none of us know how to fly it, so we’re all like WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!”

“WILL YOU TWO SHUT THE FUCK UP?!” Violet screamed.

The entire room fell silent. It was the first time any of them had ever heard Violet curse. X-Raytor was terrified, and vaguely aroused.

“Thank you,” Violet said. “God.”

Just then, Studmuffin burst in through the front door. “Holy crap, guys!” he shouted. “There’s an emergency!”

Everyone jumped to their feet. Isomorphix and DragonGirl both had their swords half-drawn in a moment. The two shared a fleeting look of recognition. Violet caught it, and frowned.

“What’s wrong?” Pinzz asked. “Did you knock someone up?”

“No,” Studmuffin said. He paused. “I don’t think. But, look, that’s not the point! Something terrible has happened, and now the worlds needs us to… to…”

“To what?” Rosma asked.

Studmuffin pulled himself up to his full height and said:

“The world needs us to save Christmas.”

“Oh HELL yes,” X-Raytor said, tearing off his ugly sweater to reveal his costume. He turned to Superdude. “Let’s do this!!”

“We’re coming Santa!” Superdude said, and ran for the door, X-Raytor immediately behind him.

“If we actually meet a talking polar bear tonight, I swear to God…” Pinzz mumbled.

They all piled through the front door and were suddenly blinded by a bright, white light. As they shielded their eyes, a harsh wind picked up, flinging dirt and snow through the air in whirls, driving them back against the house.

“What’s going on?” Scarlett demanded. “Is this a super villain or something?”

“No,” Studmuffin said. “It’s the miracle of Christmas.”

Before anyone could ask him what the hell he was talking about, the light snapped off, and they were all able to look up.

A jet was landing in the front yard. It was long, sleek, and black, descending straight down like a helicopter, little rockets on the bottom easing it to the ground. There was an enormous ribbon with a mammoth bow wrapped around the cockpit.

It hit the ground, and a hatch opened on the side, revealing a ramp. Johnny Avalon came down the ramp in a tuxedo, holding two bottles of champagne, and grinning.

“Folks, meet the Justice Jet,” he shouted. “Merry Christmas!”

Everyone stared.

“That’s a plane,” Rosma said.

“Hey, I said if we were building a hangar, we needed something to put in it,” Studmuffin said.

“A plane’s better than a limo,” Oreo said.

“A plane’s better than our stupid van,” Pinzz said. “Holy shit, Mudstuffin!”

“Johnny and I figured we needed something special for our first Christmas as a team,” Studmuffin said. “I hope you guys like it!”

“Only the best for my team, right?” Avalon said, walking over. He was beaming, the tension that had been growing between him and the team forgotten for the night.

Everyone continued to ooh and aah over it, except X-Raytor and Superdude, who were quietly dealing with the fact that they did not, in fact, have to save Christmas.

“Now this is a surprise,” Pinzz said, popping one of Avalon’s bottles of champagne. “Way better than a stupid carriage ride.”

“Who’s going to fly it?” Sticky asked.

“Well, we’ve got a pilot for now,” Avalon said. “My sister’s son-in-law, nice kid. He’s willing to give some of you guys flight lessons, if you want.”

“On it,” X-Raytor said. “Sign me up.”

“Never going to happen,” Oreo Avenger said.

“What? Why? I have the best eyes of anyone on this team. And I’m a good driver.”

“You’re not a bad driver. And that’s a plane, not the van.”

“Listen, the only person absolutely not allowed to fly that thing is Violet,” Pinzz said.

Violet blinked. “What? Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to die in a fucking plane crash.”

“Guys, come on,” Studmuffin said, stepping in. “Let’s not fight! This is a huge step for us as a team – let’s enjoy it!”

Everyone agreed, and they headed towards the Jet to get a tour. Only X-Raytor and Superdude lingered behind.

“I was really pumped to kick ass on some rogue elves,” Superdude said.

“I know, man.”

Superdude sighed. “Well, maybe next year…”





5. One Time Thing


January 13, 2000

Rosma woke up feeling like the entire previous night had been a dream. Her head was still buzzing from the gala dinner in the Masonic Temple’s dining room, the fancy clothes, the politicians and local celebrities, the food and champagne, the band, the cameras, and at the center of it, the Justice League, all in costume, all legitimately humbled by the outpouring of gratitude. The dinner had been the City’s way of simultaneously welcoming the team, and thanking them for defeating that Sister Sinister psycho on New Year’s. Rosma had actually had a twenty-minute-long conversation with Mayor Williams, who remembered her from a campaign event she’d had at the Reynolds’ mansion.

But the thing that had been the strangest and, at the same time, the most thrilling, was when Studmuffin had asked her to dance. He wasn’t the best dancer, certainly, but nowhere near as bad as she might have imagined. And the way he smiled at her, joked with her, had made it clear that he was interested in even more. They hadn’t done anything non-platonic since they’d hooked up at the Victorian Party, and Rosma had honestly been wondering if he even remembered that. Apparently he did. And that had been nice, hadn’t it? Embarrassing, yes, especially when Oreo walked it, but still… nice.

Then a monkey wrench had been thrown into the works. The dance ended, but before she and Studmuffin could engage in more winking verbal foreplay, Oreo had appeared at her side and whispered that they needed to go. Rosma glanced across the dance floor and saw Oreo’s grandfather, Senator Evans, making a big entrance. Apparently he didn’t know Oreo’s secret identity, which didn’t totally make sense to Rosma, but, hey, it wasn’t her crazy family. So they’d snuck out through the back door, and taken a cab home. X-Raytor came with them – he’d spent the entire night sulking, avoiding the champagne, and pretending not to notice Sticky Spectre holding an engaged conversation with a young, good-looking city councilman. She didn’t have a chance to let Studmuffin know that she was going, but she assumed he’d figure it out. When they got home, Rosma went to her room, grabbed the book she was reading, and sat up in one of her chairs, planning on staying awake until he came back. She almost left the door cracked, but she didn’t want to look desperate.

She woke up three hours later, the book in her lap, a crick in her neck. At that point she’d been too tired for disappointment, and had just slid into bed and back into unconsciousness.

And this morning, maybe there was a little disappointment. But one missed opportunity was nothing – they lived in the same house, after all, there would be more chances. She wasn’t quite ready to admit that she wanted there to be more chances, but she was getting there.

Rosma grabbed her toiletry bag and walked down the hall to the bathroom to shower and brush her teeth. She still felt buzzed, but it wasn’t any leftover champagne – last night had been intoxicating enough on its own. Afterwards, she gathered her things and stepped back out into the hall, wrapped in her extra-comfy bathrobe.

She almost ran into the girl coming out of Studmuffin’s room.

Rosma didn’t remember her from the night before, but she was wearing expensive earrings and a small necklace of real pearls. She was still wearing her turquoise cocktail dress, and carrying a pair of heels that gave Rosma vertigo just looking at them. Mascara was slightly smudged around her eyes. She gave Rosma a quick, awkward smile, and then hurried past down the hall. Studmuffin followed a moment later, and stopped dead when he saw Rosma. They stared at each other for a long moment.

“I, uh,” he started. “She’s… um…”

“It’s okay,” Rosma said. “You don’t have to… explain anything. We live together, stuff like this is going to happen.”

“But, uh… I mean, I thought, sorry, after what happened at the party, I thought…”

“It was a one-time thing,” Rosma said. “I knew that then. Don’t worry about it. You should catch up with your friend.”

She walked into her room before he could stammer at her some more. For a moment she just stood there, trying not to feel anything. And then she sighed and settled down in front of the mirror to brush her hair. Last night’s dreams floated away from her, and popped like champagne bubbles.





6. Visionary


January 2000

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite lovely ladies of the Justice League!” X-Raytor said, walking into the common room.

Oreo Avenger, Sticky Spectre, and Violet Princess all looked around.

“I think he’s talking to you guys,” Violet said.

“I think he’s talking to those imaginary girls he’s always talking about,” Sticky said. “You know, the ones who want to sleep with him?”

“Ladies, ladies, ladies,” X-Raytor said, dropping down at the end of the couch. “How are we doing today? Anything I can do for any of you? Massage? Striptease?”

“I need some chocolate powder for my baking,” Oreo said. “Could you run to Nebraska and get some for me?”

X-Raytor grinned wide enough that the fabric of his mask stretched. “Oh, my sweet Oreo. You know you love me.”

“I mean, I haven’t murdered you yet, so I guess that means I’m tolerating you…”

“Don’t you guys think there’s serious sexual tension between Oreo and I?” X-Raytor asked Sticky and Violet. “I mean, even more than I usually have with the rest of you. It’s palpable, really. Electric.”

“Actually, I think that’s a gas leak,” Sticky said. “You should probably save yourself and evacuate.”

X-Raytor ignored her, which he seemed to be doing a lot of lately. “If you ever do need help with baking, let me know,” he said to Oreo. “I look great in a chef’s hat and an apron.” He paused, waiting.

Oreo sighed. “X-y, we know what joke you’re going to make, so you don’t ha…”

“And only a chef’s hat and an apron!” he finished.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Oreo groaned.

“Do you guys have Johnny’s number on you?” Violet asked. “I want to ask him how we report sexual harassment.”

“Well, ladies, it’s been lovely,” X-Raytor said, standing. “Violet, love the hair. Sticky, love the scowl. Oreo, if you ever want to make our love public, just let me know.”

“You’re extremely annoying, do you realize that?”

“Palpable sexual tension!” X-Raytor said. “Palpable!”

“X-y,” Oreo said, “go away.”

“I appreciate you playing hard to get, but…”

“Go away!” Oreo snapped, standing. “You’re so freaking annoying! Leave!”

X-Raytor was so thrown by the outburst that he didn’t even say anything for a moment. Then he mumbled something that might have been an apology, and left.

Oreo sank back onto the couch, growling.

“I get to that point every two weeks or so,” Sticky said. “And every time, he gets all sulky, just like that. It’s like he doesn’t even realize how much of a fucking creep he’s being.”

“I just ignore him at this point,” Violet said. She raised an eyebrow at Sticky. “Although I guess it’s worse for you, since you keep getting drunk and making out with him at Christmas parties.”

“That was two times,” Sticky said, exasperated. “And you guys weren’t even supposed to know about any of them. I didn’t know there were security cameras on the roof! And the first time, at the Victorian Party, that wasn’t my fault.”

“That’s an image that is forever burned across my mind,” Oreo said. “You’re not the victim in that situation, I am.”

“It’s also not my fault that no one else in this house gets any,” Sticky said. “I hope I get to walk in on one of you and freak out as much as you guys did.”

“That’s a weird thing to hope.”

“Besides, it’ll automatically be better for you,” Violet said, “because if you walk in on one of us, we won’t be with X-Raytor.”

“I kind of feel bad for yelling at him,” Oreo said. “I do like him. We get along pretty well. I just can’t stand it when he keeps doing that shit.”

“He’ll grow up one of these days,” Sticky said. “Either that or Pinzz will kill him. Whatever comes first.”

* * *

Oreo pushed her cart up to the fifteen-items-or-less line, and realized to her horror that she actually had sixteen wheels of cheese. For a moment she agonized over which she would return, and finally just surrendered and got in line for a regular cash register. It was a busy night, and the line moved slowly. Oreo was relieved when it finally crawled close enough to the magazine rack for her to be able to read the tabloids. At least that would provide some entertainment.

The front page of The Inside View was dominated by a story about Bill Clinton living in a wild bachelor pad in Florida, including a picture of him, Fidel Castro, and Boris Yeltsin throwing back beers. Not as entertaining as last week’s investigative report on Rosie O’Donnell adopting a half-human, half-cat baby, but it would get her through the wait. She was about to pull a copy from the stands, when the headline of The Daily News caught her eye:



LOVE AND JUSTICE



Super Heroes Engage in Super STEAMY Tryst!



She laughed, and pulled the paper out. The front page was the Justice League’s official portrait, with a smaller caption that read: WHICH SEXY SUPERS ARE CUDDLING WHEN THEY’RE NOT CRIMEFIGHTING? FIND OUT INSIDE! This was fantastic – everyone at the Hall would get a kick out of it. And even though The Daily News was histrionic, it was more of a legitimate newspaper than The Inside View. The whole article was probably rumors but, still, it was sure to be an entertaining read. She checked what page the story was on, and flipped to it.

Immediately, she stopped laughing.

* * *

“WHERE IS X-RAYTOR?” Oreo demanded, storming into the Hall.

Rosma, DragonGirl, Superdude, and Raven were sitting in the common room. They all stared at her, alarmed.

“WHERE IS X-RAYTOR?!” she shouted again. “BRING ME X-RAYTOR!”

X-Raytor appeared at the top of the stairs. “Oreo! How are you doing today?”

She held up the newspaper, her face flushed with fury.

“Oh, did you buy a copy?” X-Raytor asked, smirking. “Because I picked up a bunch when I was out earlier, I could have just given you one of those.”

“What is that?” Rosma asked, standing and taking the paper from Oreo. She read: “ ‘X-Raytor and Oreo Avenger carry on madcap, whirlwind affair. Sources within the Hall of Justice claim that the sexual tension is…’”

“ ‘Palpable,’” X-Raytor finished, grinning.

“All of these pictures are from our private events,” Rosma said, looking at the four shots of X-Raytor and Oreo Avenger talking, or standing in some vague proximity. “How did they get these?”

“YOU.” Oreo roared, pointing at X-Raytor.

Rosma looked from the paper to Oreo, back to the paper, and then up at X-Raytor. “Seriously?!”

“Pretty good, huh?” X-Raytor said. “I couldn’t live in the shadows anymore, Oreo! I wanted to shout our love from the rooftops!”

“YOU.” Oreo shouted. She seemed to have trouble saying anything else.

“My personal favorite quote from the anonymous source is the one about us having – and I quote – ‘wall-rattling sex at all times of the day.’” He looked at Oreo. “Come on, I got you pretty good, right? Isn’t this funny?”

Oreo moved so fast, they almost couldn’t see her. In the space of a moment she had flown up the stair case and had X-Raytor by the fabric of his costume. Before he could say anything, she tore his mask off and shoved an Oreo into his mouth.

For a moment, nothing happened. And then X-Raytor fell backwards, letting out an unpleasant sound as he began to change. From the ground floor, no one could see what was happening, but they each imagined something absurdly horrible happening to him.

So they were surprised a moment later, when X-Raytor said: “That’s it? What did you even do?”

His voice sounded a bit different, higher, but he wasn’t mooing or quacking or anything.

“Ugh, I feel weird,” he mumbled. “And how many times do I have to tell you people not to take my mask off. Oy, that really feels… I’ve got radiation eyes, you know? That’s dangerous. I could mutate you. There we go.”

He pulled the mask on and stood, giving the Justice Leaguers on the first floor their first look at him. Everyone’s jaws dropped.

“What?” X-Raytor asked.

“Dude…” Superdude said. “You’re… not a dude.”

“What are you…” X-Raytor looked down at himself. “Holy fuck!!”

The Oreo had changed him.

It had changed him into a woman.

It was still him, certainly, but his features had softened, his hair had grown out, and, of course, his entire body shape had changed. If X-Raytor had a twin sister, everyone imagined this was what she would look like.

X-Raytor wasn’t imagining anything of the sort. Indeed, his brain wasn’t working at all at the moment.

“I’m sick of your gross bullshit,” Oreo snapped at him. “If you’re not going to respect the women in this Hall, then let’s see how you like it.”

“I can’t… this can’t… you didn’t…” X-Raytor pulled the front of his… her… pants out and let out a yelp. “Where’d it go?! What did you do with it?!”

“Enjoy, you freaking pig,” Oreo said, and then walked away.

“You can’t just leave me like this!” X-Raytor shouted. He looked back down at the others. “She can’t do this, can she?!”

“Jesus, X-y, you got off easy,” DragonGirl said. “If I were her, I’d have turned you into a lawn gnome.”

“This is terrible!” X-Raytor wailed. “I was a jerk, I know, but I didn’t do anything to deserve this!”

“X-y, you realize that there’s nothing wrong with being a woman, right?” Rosma said.

“There is for me! I’m a dude!”

“Not anymore, apparently.”

“This isn’t fair! This isn’t right!”

“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t have humiliated her like that,” Rosma said. “Personally, I hope she leaves you this way for a while.”

“It was a joke!” X-Raytor said. “Why can’t any of you girls take a joke?”

“Maybe you’ll figure it out now that you’re one of us,” Raven said.

X-Raytor came downstairs. Her costume was just slightly baggy now, due to the way her muscle mass had moved around. Long brown hair was poking out from under her mask.

“Figure what out?” X-Raytor asked, voice now low with wonder. “Are there sacred Girl Secrets that I get to learn now?”

“No,” DragonGirl said, “but maybe you’ll get some fucking empathy.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“Obviously.”

“Are you trying to say it’s harder for girls here than it is for guys?” X-Raytor asked. “Because that’s bullshit. There’s more of you, for one thing…”

“Even more now,” Raven said, smirking.

“… And you’re constantly doing terrible things to us. Like this.” She indicated her new body.

“Yeah, but none of us disrespect you guys the way you do to us,” DragonGirl said.

“You are pretty disrespectful, dude,” Superdude said.

“Thank you, Superdude,” DragonGirl said. He flushed with gratitude and couldn’t look at her for the next five minutes.

“How am I disrespectful?” X-Raytor asked. “I’m… complimentary. Maybe a little flirtatious. Besides, even if I am a little rude, it’s not like I’m going to start hitting on myself now. How am I supposed to learn this big life lesson?”

“Easy,” Rosma said, and then shouted: “STUDMUFFIN, THERE’S A NEW GIRL HERE!”

Studmuffin came pounding down the stairs, caught his breath, and sauntered up to X-Raytor. “Hey, how are you? I’m Studmuffin, leader of the Justice League. And who might you be?”

“Studmuffin, it’s me. X-Raytor.”

“Oh.” Studmuffin squinted at her. “You’re a chick now?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.” He shrugged. “So, what are you doing later? Because I’ve been taking this online massage therapy course, and it would really help me study for my mid-term if you’d let me practice on you.” He looked X-Raytor up and down. “In that costume, I can tell your muscles are tight. In fact, I can figure out a lot from that costume, if you know what I’m saying.”

“Dude!! Stop!” X-Raytor said, backing away, and folding her arms over her chest.

“I think that means she’s into me,” Studmuffin stage-whispered to the others on the couch. “Hey, wanna come watch me lift weights?”

“No! Fuck you!”

“Maybe later,” he said, and winked. “All right, see you all later.” He pointed at X-Raytor. “Especially you, Sexy X-y.”

Studmuffin walked away – or, more accurately, waddled, since he was pinching his glutes as hard as he could, and occasionally glancing over his shoulder to see if X-Raytor was watching.

“I feel violated,” X-Raytor said, once he was gone.

“Hey, at least he can’t see through your clothes,” DragonGirl said.

“I’m not that bad,” X-Raytor said.

“You can be,” Rosma said.

“Worse, sometimes,” Raven said.

“How am I worse than that?”

“You hit on me,” Raven said. “I’m a teenager.”

“I don’t seriously hit on you!”

“It’s still creepy!”

“Okay, fine, maybe I’m a jerk sometimes,” X-Raytor said, “but doesn’t anyone think this is a little extreme?”

“Nope,” Rosma said.

“I’m fine with it,” Raven agreed.

“It’s actually brilliant, in some ways,” DragonGirl said.

X-Raytor looked to Superdude, but he just shrugged helplessly.

“You are the worst kind of people,” X-Raytor snapped, and then stomped off to her room.

* * *

“Well, at least I’m a hot girl,” X-Raytor said, admiring herself in the mirror of the bathroom closest to the kitchen.

“Could you stop doing that?” Pinzz asked from the kitchen table. “I don’t want to have to think about you molesting yourself.”

“I molest myself no matter what gender I am, thank you very much,” X-Raytor said. She ran her fingers through her long, brown hair. “Jesus, this stuff gets tangled quickly.”

“Sex,” Pinzz said.

X-Raytor glanced over her shoulder. “Right now?”

“No, I’m saying, you meant sex,” Pinzz said. “Not gender. Sex is biological, gender’s a social construct.”

X-Raytor stared at her.

“Fuck you, I read sometimes,” Pinzz growled. “Look, you’ve got a woman’s body, but you’re still your own pathetic gross dude self inside.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” X-Raytor said. “I’ve got a vagina.” She paused. “Words I never thought I’d say.” Shook her head, continued: “That makes me a girl. I wish I wasn’t, but…”

“Biologically, sure,” Pinzz said. “But all the stupid shit that you think defines what makes someone a man or a woman is gender – all of that Men Are From Mars bullshit. That’s stuff the world puts on us, not stuff that comes from what your junk looks like. For example, all of the stupid closeted macho crap you and Studmuffin do? That’s gender. That’s you thinking that the only way to be a man is to whip out your tiny toothpick dicks and wave them in everyone’s faces. And whenever some asshole reporter gets offended because I’m not a proper fucking lady with good manners and a gay-ass skirt, that’s them making a gender assumption.”

“So, what you’re saying is that even though I’ve got a hoo-ha, I’m still a dude on the inside?” X-Raytor squinted at her. “Wait, are you actually trying to make me feel better about this?”

“No,” Pinzz said. “I’m just saying that turning you into a girl doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to learn something, because you’re still the same stupid dickhead. Also, you weren’t using ‘gender’ correctly.”

“You just used ‘gay’ as a pejorative.”

“Bite me.”

“Hey, is anybody in here?” Xiao asked, running into the kitchen. “Oh, good. There was a call on the hotline, and everybody else is out on patrol…”

“Thank God, I was getting bored,” Pinzz said, standing up and activating her suit. “What’s up?”

“Somebody with powers just robbed the First National Bank of Monay. The police got there while they were doing it, so now the guy’s stuck inside with a bunch of hostages.”

“Awesome,” Pinzz said. She turned to X-Raytor. “Hey, are you paying attention? Hostages. That means you should probably get your costume on.”

“I can’t go out like this!” X-Raytor said.

“You can still use your powers, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then get your ass in gear! We’re probably gonna need all the help we can get!”

“But everyone will know I got turned into a girl!”

Pinzz rolled her eyes skyward. “Oh for fuck’s sake. Look, remember those stupid theme costumes Avalon got us? The ones with the different colors for different environments or whatever?”

“Yeah…”

“They’re in a box in the basement,” Pinzz said. “We’re gonna put them in the trophy room once it gets built. Go down there and grab one of yours, and we can just pretend you’re… I don’t know, a new member. And hurry the fuck up!”

“Actually, you guys should probably go without me,” X-Raytor said. “I can’t fly or anything, and the Jet’s out…”

“Xiao can fly you with her powers, right?”

Xiao flushed. “I, uh, I, I mean, sure, if you, um, if you really wanted me to, I, uh, I could ask Fred if, um, if you, uh…”

“Never mind, OMEGA’s here,” Pinzz said, remembering. “Go get your costume!”

“But…”

“GO!”

X-Raytor returned a few minutes later carrying a red version of her usual costume. Pinzz had a pair of scissors in hand, and, taking her mask, cut a small hole in the back of it.

“What’s that for?” X-Raytor asked.

“Hold on,” she said, and turned to Xiao. “Got a hair tie?”

Xiao pulled one from her wrist and handed it over. Pinzz went to X-Raytor and pulled her hair back into a ponytail.

“Ugh,” she said, when she touched it. “Did you even wash your hair this morning?”

“I didn’t realize how much shampoo you people use! And I don’t even know what conditioner is!”

Pinzz secured X-Raytor’s ponytail with the hair tie, and then tossed her the mask. “Put your hair through the hole in the back. At least you won’t look stupid.”

“I guess not,” X-Raytor mumbled, looking at herself in the mirror.

A few moments later they were out the door, with Xiao flying and OMEGA lifting himself, X-Raytor, and Pinzz with telekinesis for extra speed.

“Hey X-Raytor,” OMEGA called as they flew. “At least now you don’t have to use your powers whenever you want to see a naked girl, right?”

“Wow, that’s hilarious,” X-Raytor muttered. “And don’t call me X-Raytor! We’re pretending I’m someone else. Call me… Visionary! Yeah, that’s cool! Visionary!”

“Whatever you say, X-y.”

“Visionary!”

When they reached the bank, a barricade of police cars was blocking off the street. OMEGA dropped Pinzz down so she could talk to the officer in charge, while the others circled the block. When they picked Pinzz back up, she said:

“Okay, the good news is that no one’s been hurt yet. The bad news is that it’s Black Coal.”

“I hate that guy,” X-Raytor growled. “Actually, you know what? This is great. Now I finally have someone to take all of my frustration out on.”

They landed on the roof and devised a quick plan of attack. And then it was a tense, fifteen-minute journey down into the bank, using back stairwells and avoiding security cameras, until they finally reached the lobby where Black Coal was keeping the hostages. The four super heroes slipped in through different doors and immediately found cover, waiting for their chance.

“Why the fuck aren’t they showing anything?!” Black Coal was screaming at a TV. “What are they doing out there?!”

He was a short, stocky man, wearing a grayish-yellow flight suit, a black miner’s cap complete with a light on the front, and strapped to his back was his rickety, coal-powered jetpack. His jumpsuit and skin were smudged black from the smoke that the jetpack gave off whenever he flew. In one hand he held his energy pick, its wicked double blade glowing with electricity. He was so worked up by what he saw on the TV that he didn’t even seem to remember the enormous pile of money he’d just stolen from the bank, lying a few yards away.

“Show something, motherfuckers!!” he roared, eliciting frightened yelps and moans from his hostages. The reason they weren’t showing anything, X-Raytor knew, was because the cops had convinced the reporters in the area to conceal the Justice League’s entrance by filming anywhere but the roof. But Black Coal seemed to know something was up, judging by how agitated he was getting.

“I swear, if this is some kind of a trick…” He raised his energy pick, and pointed it at a nearby clump of hostages. “You wanna see what this thing can do? Huh?? You saw what it did to that vault, you wanna see what it’ll do to your fucking face?!”

Time to shut this down, X-Raytor thought, and right on cue Pinzz rolled from her hiding place and fired the fingers on her right hand, wrapping them around the handle of the energy pick and yanking it from Black Coal’s hand. He turned around, surprised, to see the four Justice Leaguers advancing on him.

“The Justice League? How the fuck did you get in here?”

“Any idiot can break into a bank,” OMEGA said. “You did.”

“Can’t even send in the varsity team, huh?” he said. “What, stretchy girl, shadow girl, the dude with the blue eyes, and, uh… who’s this broad?”

“Visionary,” X-Raytor said. “I’m… new.”

“Another one? How’d they sucker you into joining, sweetheart?”

Sweetheart? X-Raytor thought. “I heard I got the chance to beat up morons like you, so I signed up right away.”

“Well, let me tell you, toots, that was the biggest mistake of your life.”

“I have a name, you know,” X-Raytor grated.

“And you know what I got?” Black Coal asked, smirking. “I just got enough time to charge up the battery on my lamp laser.”

The four Justice Leaguers stared at him.

“Shit,” Pinzz said.

They scattered just as a white beam fired from the lamp on Black Coal’s helmet. Everyone leapt for cover behind furniture as he continued to lay down fire, energy beams sizzling through the air. The hostages were fully panicking now, running for the back of the bank, diving behind potted plants.

“Burn you stupid Justice fucks!!” Black Coal laughed. “Burn!”

From behind the giant buffalo statue that dominated the lobby’s left end, X-Raytor tried to catch her breath. Her chest hurt, and suddenly she understood what bras were for. Good to know.

She looked around the corner of the statue to see Black Coal shooting at Pinzz, who was running along the side of the wall, trying to draw his fire away from the hostages.

He’s as distracted as he’s going to get right now, X-Raytor thought, her heart pounding. This could be my chance to take him out. Only problem is that if I screw it up, I’m dead. I really need to consider other career options…

Pinzz changed direction and ran back across the wall the other way, causing Black Coal to turn his back on X-Raytor’s hiding place. She took the chance to break cover and ran towards the super villain. She had a few yards to cover, and she pushed herself as fast as she could, praying that Pinzz would keep him distracted. But then, just as she was a few feet away, Black Coal whipped around to face her. He actually grinned as the lamp on his helmet began to glow…

Suddenly the helmet went flying, as if smacked by an invisible hand, the beam firing off and smacking harmlessly into the ceiling. OMEGA, X-Raytor thought, and tackled Black Coal. The villain was reaching into his flight suit for some other ridiculous miner-themed weapon when X-Raytor blasted him in the face with a stun beam. He collapsed, unconscious.

“Owwww…” X-Raytor moaned, rubbing her breasts. She kicked Black Coal. “That’s for making me run, and for your stupid fucking costume.”

They let the cops in to handcuff Black Coal, confiscate his weaponry, and attend to the hostages. The press flooded the stairs, and before the Justice Leaguers could make an escape they were surrounded by microphones. Pinzz grudgingly walked up to make a statement, somehow only using words that could be aired on national television.

“And is that a new member?” One of the reporters asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Pinzz said, glancing at X-Raytor. “This is, uh, X-Raytor’s cousin.”

“X-Ray Girl!” Someone called. “X-Ray Girl, can you give us a spin? We want to see your costume!”

“It’s Visionary, actually,” X-Raytor said, but her voice was drowned out by more questions.

“X-Ray Woman?”

“Visionary.”

The reporter blinked. “I don’t get it.”

“That’s a great costume,” someone else called. “How do you accessorize with Spandex?”

“Huh? What does…?”

“Are you dating anyone on the League currently?” another reporter asked. “Do you have a secret super hero crush?”

“Can we maybe talk about how much ass I just kicked in there?” X-Raytor demanded. “We just handled a difficult hostage situation and you’re asking me who I’m dating? Seriously?”

“Don’t worry, Ms. X-Ray,” the first reporter said. “We’re treating this story with the utmost dignity and seriousness.”

* * *



THE DAILY NEWS



MEET THE NEWEST JL BOMBSHELL!



SEXY SUPER HEROINE SAVES BANK HOSTAGES



“This is just fucking ridiculous,” X-Raytor growled, tossing the newspaper aside. “I’m a super hero, damn it, and a good one. Why is the fact that I’m a girl the only thing they want to talk about?!”

“You really need me to explain sexism to you, X-y?” Scarlett asked.

“It just sucks,” X-Raytor said, sinking down into her chair. She pulled at the front of her costume. “And bras suck, too. Who invented these things?”

“Please don’t talk about your bra,” Scarlett said, her face scrunching up in disgust.

“Hey, I’m a girl now,” X-Raytor said. “I get to talk about girl things!”

“You’re still you, and that makes it gross.”

“Why do you all think I’m so gross, anyway?”

Scarlett threw her hands in the air. “Are you serious? You flirt with us all the time, you look through our clothes, you’re a complete pervert… just because you’re joking about it more than Studmuffin is doesn’t make it annoying. And the way you feel right now, reading that headline? That’s how you make us feel.”

“Girls in high school liked it,” X-Raytor mumbled.

“Girls in high school are idiots,” Scarlett said. “I liked that kind of thing in high school. Well, except the looking-through-clothes part, that always would have been creepy. Besides, just because someone lets you treat them like crap doesn’t mean you should actually do it.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” she said. “How long do you think Oreo’s going to leave me like this?”

“She hasn’t said anything since the last time you asked,” Scarlett said. “But I would assume that she’s waiting for you to apologize.”

“I did apologize! Right after she did this to me!”

“Yeah, but did you really apologize, or did you just make excuses?”

“That doesn’t count?”

Scarlett scowled at her. “You are supposed to be learning something from this, right?”

* * *

Oreo didn’t respond when she knocked on her door, so X-Raytor eased the door open a little and poked her head in. She was sitting on the floor, recipe sheets spread out around her, chalk board pulled over so that it was close at hand and a piece of chalk held loosely between thumb and forefinger. She had headphones on, attached to a Walkman sitting in her lap.

“Hey, Oreo?” she said, and Oreo glanced up at her. For a moment she thought she might just ignore her, as she’d been doing all week, but instead she reached up and slid the headphones off.

“What’s up?” She frowned. “If you’re going to ask to borrow my clothes, the answer is no. It’s not my fault you have a complex about washing panties. Get used to it.”

“No, it’s not that. I was just wondering if we could talk?” She didn’t like how plaintive he sounded, even though much of that was a function of her voice now being in a naturally higher range.

“We both have mouths, vocal chords, lungs,” Oreo said, ticking them off with her fingers. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure we can talk.”

“Look, I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” X-Raytor said, pushing the apology out before she could get defensive. “Seriously. You’re right, what I did really sucked. And, honestly… it wasn’t even about you.”

Oreo raised an eyebrow.

“No, I mean, I wasn’t angry at you. I was angry at… somebody else, and I was being stupid and I ended up taking that out on you. And I’m not trying to say that excuses anything. What I did was really disrespectful to you and… you know, I wish I could say it was a fluke, but we both know it wasn’t. I’ve been a dick to you, and the other girls. And I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t realize how shitty that could make you feel. And I know you might not believe me right now, and that’s cool. If it helps, I’m okay with you leaving me as a girl as long as you want, until you believe I’m really sorry. But I am.”

Oreo just sat there for a few moments. Finally she said: “I believe you mean that. And I think, right now, you really want to change. But honestly? Two weeks from now, you’re going to start falling back into the same patterns. Maybe you’ll be a bit better – I hope so – but you won’t be a completely different person. And I understand that, and I’m cool with it. But if you only walk away from this experience with one lesson, let it be this: if you mess with me again, I can do terrible, terrible things to you.”

X-Raytor blinked. “Um, okay. Fair enough.”

Oreo reached into her satchel and pulled out a cookie. She tossed it to her.

“What are we going to tell people happened to Visionary?” she asked.

“I think we should all just pretend this was a mass hallucination, and never speak of it again,” X-Raytor said. She looked down at her boobs and sighed. “It was nice knowing you, girls.”





7. Valentine’s Day (Part I)


February 14, 2000

“I hate Valentine’s Day,” Violet said.

“Hmm,” Isomorphix said.

“I always have, and I actually got valentines in high school,” she said. “I always had a date to the Valentine’s Day dance. But I still don’t like it. How are you supposed to condense romance into a single day, and sum it up with stupid cards and novelty gifts?”

“Mmm,” Isomorphix said.

“But all of my friends loved it,” she said. “My one friend, Blake? She was all about it. And she never had a good time – she always fell for the wrong guys, and she’d get so wrapped up in them, and then they’d screw her over. But she still loved it, her and my… my sister. So I always had to pretend I liked it, so I wasn’t being the downer. I mean, Emory knew, but she played along well enough.”

“Mm hmm,” Isomorphix said. “Now these properties, I believe, are fronts for drug money.”

Violet blinked. “Huh?”

“These, along the Miller Street corridor,” Isomorphix said, turning the laptop so she could see. “The only problem is that I don’t know who is using them. The company that owns the buildings doesn’t correlate with any of my other investigations.”

“Uh, that’s too bad,” she said. “So, um, what do you think about Valentine’s Day?”

Isomorphix looked up. “What?”

“Valentine’s Day. What do you think about it?”

“I don’t.”

“You don’t have any thoughts about it at all?”

Isomorphix shrugged. “It’s not relevant to anything I’m working on.”

“Right. Of course.” Violet stared at him as he returned to his laptop. “You’re not a robot, right?”

“I didn’t realize my humanity was contingent on whether or not I have an opinion about a meaningless holiday.”

“Just asking,” Violet said, standing. “I’m not going to do anything tonight, I think. I’m just going to sit inside and watch… I don’t know, something that isn’t romance. Feel free to join me if you get bored.”

“Hmm,” Isomorphix said, peering at his laptop screen.

Violet walked down the hall from Isomorphix’s room, kicking herself. Why did she have to be such a masochist? Of all the guys in the house, she had to fall for the one with no feelings. Granted, there were two of them in the house, but even Insipid Justice seemed to smile more than Iso did. And it wasn’t like there weren’t other guys interested in her – X-Raytor hit on her every day, had been hitting on her ever since her interview. And while he could be annoying, he was also funny and occasionally, unexpectedly, nice. And he was better than Studmuffin or Eric, definitely. Superdude was a nice guy. And OMEGA… well, OMEGA was a little weird, but he seemed nice.

But no, that would have been too easy. She had to fall for Isomorphix, who was all brooding and long absences and intense stares. And it wasn’t like he’d ever done anything to deserve her affections – it wasn’t like he cracked jokes, or complimented her, or that they had good conversations or anything. The most she could say was that Isomorphix seemed to be the least annoyed by her out of anyone else on the team. And even that thought filled her with swelling, stupid joy.

As she walked downstairs into the common room, she was considering volunteering to be on the nighthawking team tonight. At least that would give her something else to do except sit around and be miserable. Her thoughts were interrupted, however, by the sight of most of the rest of the Justice League, sitting in the common room while X-Raytor addressed them all from the front of the room.

“And so, ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pride that I institute a new Justice League tradition,” he was saying. “It’s a tradition that I think will greatly increase our team morale and cohesion, and, if I do say so myself, make us all better people. From this day forward, whenever we celebrate the feast of St. Valentine, I will select a member of our team to receive the incomparable honor… of being my date.”

Everyone either groaned or laughed.

“You can pay for my dinner if you want to,” Pinzz said. “But you’re not getting anything.”

“I’m appalled by the suggestion,” X-Raytor said, voice saturated with mock horror. “No, believe it or not, this is not just another ploy to get into your respective pants. If you’re selected as my Valentine, you’ll receive a fancy date in the City, sparkling conversation with me, and a guarantee that I won’t even try to hold your hand at the end of the night. Um, unless you want to. Like, I won’t shoot you down or anything if you really want to have sex with me. I’m just saying, I won’t try anything.”

“Is this part of a campaign to prove you’re a legitimate human being?” DragonGirl asked.

“Who’s the lucky lady?” OMEGA shouted.

X-Raytor held out his hands to silence them. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I announce that my first official Justice League Valentine is… Violet Princess!”

Violet had paused on the stairs to listen, and now she felt every eye turn to look at her. She flushed.

“Me?”

“Who else?” X-Raytor asked, with only the slightest sideways glance at Sticky Spectre. “What do you say?”

“I don’t know, X-y,” she said, coming down the stairs. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“Listen, I had a life-changing experience last month,” X-Raytor said. “Getting turned into a girl taught me a lot about respect, and trust. I’m a new man.”

“Sure.”

“Well, at least a slightly remodeled man.”

“You’re lucky to be any man,” Oreo said.

“My point being, if you go out with me I’ll show you a good time with nothing creepy. Scout’s honor.”

Violet frowned. Hanging out with X-Raytor might be fun, but at the same time she didn’t really feel like dressing up and being social tonight. Especially not when she was feeling so bummed out about…

“Iso!” X-Raytor said, looking up at the top of the stairs. “You’re a good judge of character! Don’t you think Violet should go on one, friendly date with me?”

Isomorphix had been on his way down the stairs, katana strapped to his waist, obviously heading out on one of his many solo missions. He stopped and stared at X-Raytor like he’d sprouted another head.

“If she wants to, I suppose so,” he said. “I’m following a lead right now, and I don’t really have time for this conversation.”

“Oh, well, as long as you’re polite about it…” X-Raytor mumbled.

Violet, on the other hand, stared at Iso in dismay as he walked towards the door. He didn’t even blink, didn’t even give a shit that she might go on a date with X-Raytor. Defiant anger bubbled up in her and she snapped out: “Yes, I’ll go on a date with you.”

Isomorphix reached the door and maybe, maybe he paused before he opened it. But before Violet could determine whether he actually had or if she’d just imagined it, he was out the door and gone.

* * *

At eight, X-Raytor knocked on her door. He’d removed his costume, which wasn’t something he did too often – everyone else kept their costumes at hand when they hung around the Hall, just in case, but Violet had noticed that X-Raytor kept his on all the time. Now he was wearing a white button down with vertical gray stripes, beneath a black blazer, and a pair of dark jeans. He also wore his sunglasses, his non-costume option for containing the poisonous radiation in his eyes.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said – announced, really, and produced a bouquet of flowers and a large red box of chocolates. “You’re looking lovely tonight, by the way.”

Violet did look good, wearing a purple dress she’d bought for New Year’s and never gotten to wear thanks to that Sister Sinister idiot. She’d decided to leave the tiara at home – there was no hiding her purple hair, but at least she could try not to look like Violet Princess. And, after some debate, she’d chosen a pair of silver heels that made her legs look fantastic. It wasn’t that she wanted X-Raytor looking at her legs, necessarily, but when she left tonight she wanted Iso to see how good she looked, and to realize: Crap. That could be me.

“Thanks,” she said, taking the gifts. “Are we ready to go?”

“Yep! Ride’s waiting out front,” he said.

“You aren’t getting one of the others to drive us are you?”

“Hell no. Does this look like high school? I rented a car and a driver for the night.”

A few of the other Justice Leaguers were in the common room when they went downstairs… but no Iso.

“Oh my goodness, look at you crazy kids!” Raven said. “Ah, to be young and in love.”

“Where’s everybody else?” Violet asked.

“Out nighthawking,” Pinzz said. “I’m about to go get my drink on. Call me if any space monsters attack or whatever.”

“Well, we have reservations to make,” X-Raytor said. “You all have a nice night.” They started to walk towards the door, and then he stopped. “Oh, Sticky, by the way, that car service you told me about? It worked out. The guy’s actually outside right now.”

“Great, I’m glad,” Sticky said, glancing up from the book she was reading. “You guys have fun.”

“Uh, yeah.” X-Raytor stood awkwardly at the door for a moment, and then turned and walked out. Violet followed.

A black town car was idling in the driveway, the suit-clad driver holding the door open for them. They started to drive down the dark Geauga County road on which the Hall sat. X-Raytor was quiet now, watching trees go by through the window and Violet suddenly felt bad for him. She decided to make conversation:

“So, are you going to tell me where we’re going, or is it a surprise?”

“A surprise, definitely,” X-Raytor said, snapping out of it. “That’s the only way to do this kind of thing, you know.”

“Whatever you say,” she said. “Why are you doing this, anyway?”

He shrugged. “I figured it was a good way of getting to know people.”

“Girls.”

“Yeah, sure, but still. I don’t know, I feel like I haven’t been representing myself as well as I could be. I’m not just a horny pervert, you know. I have layers. Horny, perverted layers, but still.”

“Are you hoping to, like, meet someone by doing this?”

X-Raytor shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m not even sure dating somebody on the team is a good idea. We’re all pretty weird people, in case you haven’t noticed. And I’m not sure if that means we should only be allowed to date each other, or if we should never, ever date each other.”

“I wonder about that, too,” Violet murmured, imagining herself back in Iso’s room.

The restaurant was called Carmine’s, and it was a few blocks away from Pearl University, just one of several upscale restaurants and bars that had sprouted up around the campus. Indeed, the hostess seemed to assume they were college kids themselves, since she asked to check their IDs after they sat down. It was a very nice place, Violet thought, but not too nice – she was actually pretty happy that X-Raytor hadn’t done something really intense, like Les Déchets Chers, because it made the whole thing less awkward. The waiter came by with a basket of warm bread and prepared a plate of olive oil for them to dip it in while they watched. When he left, he said: “Buon appetito.”

Despite Violet’s initial worries (and, if she was reading him right, some nervousness on X-Raytor’s part) the conversation actually went just fine. It was nice, Violet found, to get away from the Hall and talk to just one person who understood how crazy their day-to-day life was. They laughed about stupid super villains, rolled their eyes at Johnny Avalon’s latest marketing stunt, and both admitted, somewhat guiltily, that OMEGA gave them the creeps. The only thing missing from the conversation was flirtation, and Violet was fine with that.

By the time their entrees had arrived, Violet felt comfortable enough to say:

“So, James, can I ask you a kind of sensitive question?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, spearing some gnocchi. “I’m all about full-disclosure with my dates. I think it’s only fair to let them know what they’re getting into.”

She hesitated for a moment, trying to figure out how to word it, before finally saying: “Do you like Sticky?”

X-Raytor stared down at his plate. “I mean… yeah, she’s cool.”

Violet arched her eyebrows, and X-Raytor sighed. “Fine. Yes, I do. But she apparently doesn’t give a shit about me, so…”

“But you guys hooked up,” Violet said. “Twice. I mean, that’s the closest anyone on our team has gotten to being in a relationship. Even Rosma and Studmuffin only did it the one time.”

“We only really got together that one time,” X-Raytor said. “The second time was, like, a kiss. And she’s barely spoken to me since, so I’m pretty sure she’s not interested in anything more than that. Which I thought would be fine with me – I mean, believe me, generally I’m a big fan of hot girls just wanting to use me for sex. But… I don’t know, with her I’m not fine with it. It sucks.”

Violet nodded, cut off a piece of chicken. “I understand. I… okay, you can’t tell anyone this. And if you do tell anyone, I will hunt you down and…”

X-Raytor threw his hands up defensively. “Jeez, calm down! I swear, I won’t tell anyone that you’re madly in love with Iso.”

“Good, because if you do, I’ll…” Violet trailed off as his words sunk in. “Wait, you know?”

“I thought I noticed some telltale signs in the way you act around him,” X-Raytor said. “But I wasn’t sure… I mean, I honestly couldn’t believe it. But then Oreo said she noticed it too, and I think that makes it pretty legitimate.”

“Oreo knows?” Violet buried her face in her hands. “Oh my God, does everyone know?”

“No! I mean, I don’t think so. Come on, if Pinzz knew, she’d already be giving you shit about it.”

“Hmm, that’s true.” She sighed. “So do you guys think I’m a huge idiot, or just a regular-sized one?”

“Hey, Iso’s got his charms,” X-Raytor said. “He looks good in black. He’s a deep thinker. I’m pretty sure he could kill us all before we had a chance to fight back which, I mean, I guess that’s cute to some people…”

Violet laughed. “So, a huge idiot.”

“Look, I’m not one to talk,” X-Raytor said. “I’m giving myself gray hairs over a girl who’s pretty much human glue. And even though Sticky’s a better conversationalist than Iso, you know how she can be. She gets sensitive, and hung up on things, and angry… really, I don’t even know why I think us getting together would be a good idea. All I do is joke about shit, and she actually, you know, cares about things without having to hide behind wisecracks. Probably a stupid idea.”

“It’s not your fault,” Violet said. “We don’t get to choose who we fall for.”

X-Raytor sighed. “Yeah, I guess not.” He glanced up at her. “We could just start dating. That’d show ‘em.”

She laughed. “That’s a great idea. Maybe Iso would challenge you to a fight for me.”

“We could, you know,” he said, but now there was a little bit of a hitch in his voice, the joke cracking to reveal the truth underneath. Violet almost considered it for a moment, but only for a moment. You didn’t get to choose who you fell for.

“They’ll come around eventually,” she said. “And if they don’t, they’re idiots.”

“Word,” X-Raytor said, relaxing. Whatever he’d been feeling a moment ago, he let go. He lifted his water glass.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said.

Violet rewarded him with a smile. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”





8. The Forest Fire


July 7, 2003

At the Justice League Headquarters, Saph looked uneasy.

Things aren’t going the way they were supposed to. I was never supposed to end up there. The Delivery Men weren’t supposed to end up like that…

“I’m getting out of here,” Saph announced to the empty room. The others were huddled around in the living room as X-Raytor checked to make sure his tapes still worked. Saph ducked into the study and grabbed a copy of the blue prints and technical readouts of the HQ.

“This’ll just have to satisfy them.”

She left a quick note explaining how she couldn’t handle the pressure and was going away. And then she ducked out the front door, duffel bag in hand…

And immediately collided with Pinzz and Crystal, who were both carrying McDonald’s bags. For a moment the three women stared at each other, alarmed. Saph realized she had to take control of this situation, control the conversation before it turned to her suspicious duffel bag. She was going to try something casual and light (Maybe flirty? She’d initially profiled Crystal as a lesbian but she didn’t have any confirmation, and Pinzz was more difficult to read), but then she actually looked in the McDonald’s bag and blurted:

“Did you guys just get fries?”

Sure enough, both bags were stuffed with fries, salt and grease glistening through the flimsy paper.

“Okay, look,” Pinzz said. “When we were out hunting for your asses, X-y made me pull over to get fries, and I thought he was an idiot at the time but since then I’ve been craving them all fucking night. Don’t judge me.”

Saph frowned. “Is it really healthy to eat that many fries?”

Pinzz rolled her eyes. “I have the body of a Victoria’s Secrets model. You think this is something I do frequently?”

“I just don’t get fat,” Crystal said. She looked Saph over. “Do you?”

“Uh, I do, actually,” Saph said. “Actually, when we were kids, the only way anyone could tell us apart was that I was, like, three hundred pounds. It scarred me for life. Which is exactly why I’m going to the gym at this time of night!”

She hefted the duffel bag. Nice going, Lylah.

“You know we have a gym here, right?” Crystal asked.

“And it smells way less like farts since Mudstuffin left,” Pinzz added. “Here, I’ll show you where it is…”

“Uh, no, that’s okay,” Saph said. “I prefer using the gym in town anyway so, uh…”

“You’re not gonna go in your dress, right?” Crystal asked. “Shouldn’t you be in, like, civilian clothes?”

Saph tried to think of a good excuse, but her mind was blank. Why would she be going to the gym in a dress?

“Uh, right,” Saph said. “I guess I’ll, uh… I guess I’ll go change, then.”

She walked back in and milled around in the kitchen, grabbing a glass of water, while Pinzz and Crystal joined the others waiting (not-so-patiently) for X-Raytor to find his tape. Now what was she supposed to do? If she just walked out again without changing, that would arouse at least a little suspicion. She considered sneaking out through the back door, but her absence would be noticed too soon, robbing her of the head start she needed.

“Ah, here it is!” X-Raytor announced, from the living room. “Rush My Hour, starring master actor and film impresario Ronald Schlonger!”

Saph allowed herself a quick relief from planning her escape to smile. Ah, Ronald. She wondered how he was doing.

“Why are we doing this again?” Drew asked.

“Because it’s hilarious,” X-Raytor said. “And sexy!”

Rush My Hour?” Pinzz demanded. “Who would make a porn parody of Rush Hour?”

“Ronald Schlonger, obviously!”

Saph looked around the kitchen door, gauging the distance between the couches and the front door. Yeah, there was no way she was getting through there unnoticed. As she watched, Pinzz extended a finger and snatched the video from X-Raytor’s hands. She frowned at the description on the back, and then slipped it out of its box.

“This isn’t even the right movie,” Pinzz complained. “This is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

“Uh, actually,” Twisk said, looking over her shoulder, “I think it’s Clitty Clitty Gang Bang.

Saph froze. Oh, shit.

“Wait, seriously?” Pinzz said. “Oh my God, we are totally watching this!”

“That’s what I’m saying!” X-Raytor said.

Saph had to get out of here now. Or at the very least, within the first three minutes and twenty-two seconds, before she made her entrance in the film.

She peered at the dark woods out back, wondering if it would be possible to evade them out there. Probably not: the Justice League often trained out there, and Iso was out there all the time, while Saph had never set foot in them. She didn’t even know how deep they went before hitting the cliffs over the Ohnoee. Still, it was tempting. All of those trees, all of those shadows…

And that was when Saph had a brilliant idea. This wasn’t a rare occurrence, but she still really enjoyed it whenever it happened. Setting the duffel bag on the floor, she unzipped it to let Horatio slip out. “Change of plans,” she whispered, stroking him between the ears. “When things start getting crazy, grab the bag and meet me out front. Got it?”

Horatio purred in affirmation, and Saph stood, ready. She walked over to the back door and focused on the nearest line of trees.

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” she whispered. “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name…”

One tree burst into flames, and then another, and another, each sprouting shining yellow blooms. Satisfied with her work, Saph walked back into the living room.

“What are we watching?” she asked.

“A cinema classic,” X-Raytor said, from the VCR. “If I could just get this thing to work…”

“Is it plugged in?” Drew asked.

“Drew, I might not be a technological genius like you, but I think I’d know if…” X-Raytor paused. “Uh, huh. How about that.”

“It’s not plugged in, is it?”

“I think it just, like, got shaken loose. Like, right this minute. After you said something. So, uh, just let me get back here and fix it…” He dropped to his knees and started to slip his arm into the narrow space between the wall and the shelf that held their VCR, DVD player, and TiVo.

Saph settled into a chair, feeling relaxed for the first time since the botched abduction. The fire should be spreading by now. All she had to do was wait for them to notice…

* * *

“We should have just searched for her ourselves,” Isomorphix griped, as he and Rosma pulled up in front of the Hall of Justice. “This is critical time that could be better spent…”

“Yeah, but we’ll be able to search the City more effectively if we have the whole team on it,” Rosma said. “Besides, Midnight and Scarlett are on it.”

“Scarlett just escaped from a prison,” Iso pointed out. “She should be recuperating. Or, at the very least, debriefing us on who’s behind this.”

“Honestly, if I was Scarlett? I’d just want to distract myself by going on a mission, too,” Rosma said.

“Hmm,” Iso said, staring off towards the Hall. He’s worried, Rosma realized, and was surprised by how much that insight shocked her. He’s worried we’re going to lose someone else. Even getting Scarlett back isn’t making him feel better…

But of course not. If it had been Violet… well, there was no point in speculating about that. One miracle was more than they were owed anyway. Still, there was something gratifying about seeing Iso actually express (or, well, imply) a human emotion.

Stop it, she snapped at herself. She’d already been through this: being attracted to Iso was a dumb idea. Endlessly frustrating at best, legitimately dangerous at worst. And he wasn’t even her type. She’d always gone for the All American Boy, like Robert or… well, she wasn’t sure if she’d call Studmuffin her type, exactly, but…

Maybe I’m just lonely, she thought. I’ve been burying myself in super heroics for so long, but maybe that’s not enough. Not like I have time for anything else…

And with that in mind, maybe enjoying sharing a moped ride with Iso wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It was nice to have someone close, someone strong and warm. Feeling painfully self-conscious, she inhaled a little, taking in the scent of leather, of sweat, the fuel from the moped: the scent of Iso, dark and lethal and on the hunt…

“That’s strange,” Iso said.

“WHAT’S STRANGE?!” Rosma demanded, leaping off of the Justice Moped and putting more distance between the two of them than she’d have thought possible. “NOTHING’S STRANGE. I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING. YOU’RE STRANGE!!!!”

Iso gave her a curious look, and then pointed at the thick smoke rising from behind the Hall of Justice.

“Oh,” Rosma said. “Um, yeah. That is strange.”

“The forest,” Iso said. “It must be. Perhaps another one of those monsters that attacked Studmuffin…?”

“Or X-y, like last time,” Rosma mumbled. “I’m sure the others are on top of it. I mean, they’re all home, so…”

Rosma looked towards the front windows of the house, and saw the entire Justice League, lounging on couches in the living room while X-Raytor did something in front of the TV. There was a crash and a burst of sparks behind the house as a tree collapsed.

“I literally hate everyone on our team,” Rosma growled.

“Call the fire department,” Iso said, leaping off of the Justice Moped and sprinting towards the house.

“Be careful!” Rosma called, and then paused. “I mean, not that I care! I mean… I… I’m calling!”

She exhaled deeply as she dialed 911. I need a freaking vacation…

* * *

They hadn’t noticed. Saph couldn’t fucking believe it, but they hadn’t noticed. For the last five minutes they’d all just been arguing over the best way for X-Raytor to plug in the VCR (which, by the way, couldn’t be that fucking hard). Pinzz had left to go to the bathroom a couple of seconds after Saph sat down, and she was sure that she’d see the enormous fucking conflagration in the backyard. But so far she hadn’t returned, probably puking up the fries she’d just gorged on in order to preserve that “Victoria’s Secret model” body.

Kohl’s catalogue model is more like it, Saph thought, but even being nasty didn’t calm her down. How hard was it for super heroes to notice an emergency?!

“There we go!” X-Raytor said, as the TV went black. A moment later the title card A Ronald Schlonger Production appeared while a jaunty soundtrack – whimsical Victorian as interpreted by a really cheap synthesizer – filled the room. And then some footage of London rooftops that, if memory served, was stolen directly from Mary Poppins, while the title CLITTY CLITTY GANG BANG appeared in looping white letters.

“How many times have you watched this, X-y?” Raven asked.

“I’m gonna plead the Fifth on that one,” X-Raytor said. “But whatever number you’re thinking: more.”

The shot changed to an “inventor’s laboratory,” which was actually a garage on the Schlonger estate. And there was Long Ron himself, wearing a formal vest and an ascot, tinkering away at a model of a suspiciously-phallic looking rocket ship.

In two seconds, Saph knew, she’d appear. And then everyone would know, and there would be no slipping out of her unnoticed. She considered just lighting X-Raytor’s mask on fire and then escaping in the resulting chaos…

When Isomorphix came barreling through the front door, snapped “Forest fire,” and then ran past them, and out of the back door. Everyone sat in silence for a moment, and then X-Raytor raised the VCR remote and hit “Pause.”

“Yeah,” he said. “We should probably follow him…”

* * *

Isomorphix exploded into the backyard to find the front portion of the woods alive with flame. One of the trees had already collapsed, and others looked to be well on their way. The fire was spreading, too, deeper into the forest.

If we don’t contain it, the entire forest could burn. Not to mention the Hall, or any houses nearby.

A flash of blue alerted him to the fact that there was someone else out here. He saw Pinzz, her fingers extended and wrapped around the trunk of a tree. The suit is flame resistant. She’s using it to smother the flames. A good plan, but far too slow to save the entire forest…

“Fucking FINALLY!” Pinzz roared when she saw Iso. “I’ve been shouting at the back of the house for you idiots to come out for the past ten minutes!!”

The others followed shortly after, Eric and Netic carrying two of the Hall’s fire extinguishers. Netic tossed hers to Pinzz, who immediately began to douse the trees nearest to her. Isomorphix reached out for Eric’s, but the naked man tore past him, laughing maniacally, and fired foam at the flames himself.

“YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!!!!” Eric shrieked. “FIRE BAD!!!! FIRE BAD!!!!!!”

Meanwhile, Twisk began firing water in every direction, drowning fire wherever she could.

“How did this even happen?! ” Crystal demanded.

“Lightning?” Raven suggested.

“It’s not raining. I wish it was raining. How the hell do we not have anyone with weather powers?!”

“We could invite Meteora,” X-Raytor said. “From Chicago? She’s hot.”

“She’s, like, fifteen,” Xiao said.

“X-y, didn’t you set this place on fire once?”

“Once,” X-Raytor mumbled. It had been an accident, back in the early days of the Justice League. And that time, Isomorphix remembered, had been even worse. Twisk hadn’t been on the team then, for one thing. And it had taken the fire department an hour to arrive, because Insipid Justice made the emergency call, and his description of the fire and their address kept putting the dispatcher to sleep.

We had DragonGirl, then, Iso thought, remembering the way she’d absorbed the flames with her scales. Not to mention Superdude, zipping past the burning trees and extinguishing the fires like a blown-out birthday candle; or OMEGA, lifting trees that were about to collapse and crushing them to ash over the Ohnoee river. Or Violet…

“Hey! Hey!” A shout came from behind them. “Civilians! Back away from the fire!!”

Isomorphix turned to find two local firefighters approaching, fire extinguishers mounted to their backs. Neither looked pleased to see the Justice League.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Twisk said. “I have water powers, I can…”

“That’s great,” the first firefighter said. He was an older man, a full head shorter than Isomorphix, with a full face covered in burst capillaries. “But we’re actually trained to fight fires so, like I said: step away.”

“We fight fires all the time in the City!” Netic said. “We’re always rescuing people from burning buildings, or…”

“Yeah, I’ve seen,” the firefighter said. “And I’ve also seen the budget cuts the department’s getting over there. What, it wasn’t enough to steal cops’ jobs, you had to start stealing ours, too?”

“We’re not stealing anyone’s job,” Isomorphix said, annoyed. “We have a charter with the City to provide emergency services, and…”

“And you’re not in the City now, are ya?” the second firefighter, younger and taller said. “So back off and let us do our jobs.”

“Whatever,” Twisk snapped. “If you don’t want my help, fine. Just… just whatever!”

Isomorphix was about to tell her to just ignore them, to continue fighting the flames anyway… when he heard the scream.

* * *

The fire had gotten so much bigger than Saph had expected. Though she couldn’t be too surprised, considering how long it took these idiots to notice it.

And now, for my grand exit, she thought. She hadn’t been able to stay back at the Hall and slip out while they were distracted, but being this close to the fire gave her the opportunity to use another old trick. She figured a little Blake would be appropriate here.

She began to whisper, lower than anyone nearby would be able to hear: “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Flames began to creep up her skirt. She could control them at this range, keep them moving slowly, direct their course. She sent them all the way around the bottom of her dress: it would look more impressive that way, and the fire-retardant mesh on the inside of all of her dresses would protect her from burns.

The last time she’d done this was in Amsterdam. She’d lit her own dress on fire, and tricked some angry fashion designers into thinking that she’d been consumed by flame, while she escaped into the shadows. It would work even better here, in the dark and confusion.

“My- my dress!” Saph cried, as she drew the flames higher. She started to scream, gratified by the sight of the Justice Leaguers looking on in horror. That’s right, keep watching the flames, you idiots, keep watching the flames…

“I’m burning!” she screamed. “Oh my God, I’m burning!! I’m…”

And suddenly Eric was in front of her, fire extinguisher in hand. A burst of foam caught Saph in the mid-section, and then it was all over her. She lost her balance and dropped onto her butt on the grass.

“Got it!” Eric crowed. “Fire ain’t got NOTHING ON ME!!!!”

“Hey, want to use that on the actual fire?!” Pinzz shouted, from where she was still fighting the flames. The two firefighters were with her – Saph could only imagine what Pinzz had said when they told her to back off.

“Yeah, you should do that,” Saph said, standing up. “Uh, I think I’m going to go back inside. It’s just the, uh… the pressure! There’s so much pressure!”

“Tell me about it,” Crystal muttered, freezing the burning foliage.

“It’s, yeah, it’s so intense,” Saph said, as she hurried back towards the Hall. “I don’t even know if I can handle it anymore! Uh… bye!”

She broke into a run when she was sure that they weren’t paying attention to her anymore. Rosma was coming through the back door when she reached the Hall, but she just shouted something about needing a new dress and squeezed past her. And then she was through the Hall and out the front door, where her blue motorcycle was waiting on the pavement, Horatio sitting on the seat and licking his paw. Saph jumped on, made sure the duffel bag was secure, and revved the engine.

“Aaaaaaand scene!” she said, as they sped off into the night.

* * *

“Well, that was one of the worst ways I’ve ever spent a Monday night,” Pinzz said, flopping down onto the couch.

“Midnight called,” Rosma said. “He said he found Oreo, and they’re on their way back.”

“We should probably talk about Scarlett being alive, right?” Raven asked. “I mean, that’s pretty… how did that happen?”

“We need to assess the threat of her captors,” Iso said. “Scarlett said Bo Powers was involved. Maybe this is the smoking gun we need.”

“Guys, seriously,” X-Raytor said. “After the last forty-eight hours, my head is going to explode if we do more super hero stuff. Can’t we just relax for, like, half an hour? And watch this classic movie?”

“We don’t have time for pornography,” Isomorphix said, disgusted.

“See, that’s your whole problem,” X-Raytor said.

“I hate to say this, but X-y’s right,” Pinzz said. “Let’s just chill for an hour, and then we’ll start working on the next crisis.”

“You can do whatever you want,” Isomorphix said, heading for the stairs. “I have research to do.”

“Someone should go talk to him, right?” Rosma said. And then, scowling. “Not me! I didn’t mean me! Who said me?”

“Just put on the damn movie, X-y,” Pinzz said.

X-Raytor hit play, and the movie started up exactly where they’d paused it. On the TV, a very familiar figure walked onto the screen, wearing nothing but see-through shoes.

“Hey, she looks oddly familiar…”

“The blue…the blonde hair…”

“What is she doing with that…oh…I see…”

“SAPH!”

“You know, I knew I recognized her,” X-Raytor mused.

Just then, Typho came down the stairs, scratching his armpit and yawning. “Yo, I just took a snooze-izzle. I napped like a mad mofo, knamean? Whassup, skillets?”

He noticed everyone’s shocked silence, and paused on the stairs.

“Uh… did I miss something?”



9. Hunters


August 1998

Neville Simms was afraid.

He had every right to be – it was the middle of the night, and he was running up the steps to his loft hideaway in a rehabbed factory building in the northern extremes of South Side, pursued by a shadowy figure who clearly wanted to do him harm. The chase had begun earlier in the night, when he’d stepped off of the bus that took him to and from the construction company he worked with for extra cash, and noticed a shadow flit between the rooftops behind him. After that it had become clear that he was being followed, but he didn’t know what his pursuer’s intention was until he’d pulled a gun and tried to ward them off. The shadow had just chuckled and threw something hard and dark that sent the gun flying from his hands. And then it had whispered a single word:

“Run.”

So Neville Simms was quite justifiably afraid. But he knew that if he could get to his loft, he would be all right. His loft held enough weaponry to hold off a militia, certainly there would be something in there that would kill whoever was on his tail. After all, in a previous life Neville had been the Welder, famed super-criminal and crafter of super villain accessories and weaponry. He’d continued the work in his spare time as a hobby, mostly – there weren’t a whole lot of super villains around these days – but all of the pieces functioned just fine. They’d kill this idiot well enough, at least.
He pounded up the last flight of stairs, jammed his key into the lock, and threw his door open –

The shadow waited inside.

Before he even had a chance to back up, the shadow seized Neville by the front of his shirt and dragged him into the room. It threw him into his work table, scattering bits of metal and equipment everywhere. Neville scrambled to find a weapon, any weapon, but his hands only closed on empty air. And then the shadow was upon him, lifting him up and slamming him down, back-first, onto the table, holding him there and getting right into his face.

The shadow was a girl. A girl in a mask.

“Where are they?” she snarled.

Neville just stared at her dumbly. He’d never seen her before in his life, and yet there was something vaguely familiar…

“Where?” she demanded.

“Who? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” she said, leaning closer. “Where are the bastards who killed my mother?”

“Lady, I don’t know what you’re…”

And then he saw it – the hair, those eyes, even the mask. Holy shit.

“Cr-Cr-Crimson Avenger,” he gasped. “You’re… you’re the daughter, the, uh, the…”

“Oreo Avenger,” she snapped.

“How did you find me?”

“The Lancastrian blacksmiths owed me a favor,” she said. “They’ve been keeping tabs on you.”

Neville’s entire body had broken out into a cold sweat, his heart shooting around his chest like a pinball. “I… I didn’t have anything to do with that, you know. I… I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even in the…”

“I DON’T CARE!!” Oreo shouted. “You know who was there? Night Lord. Scarlet Fever. The Barbarian. And who made all of their weapons? Who built all of the crap they used to murder my mother?”

“Please, I…”

“YOU DID!!” she roared. “Now, you know who I am, right? And you know what I can do to people. Right?”

Neville nodded vigorously.

“And do you want to spend the rest of your life as a piece of sheet metal, Neville? Do you want to be hammered into shape, and heated, and molded? Do you want to know what it feels like to rust?”

“No,” he whimpered.

“Good. Then you’re going to tell me where I can find them. All of them.”

“I… I don’t know. I haven’t talked to those guys in…”

“Don’t give me that SHIT!!” Oreo said. “I know you’re still talking to them! You built that new sickle that the Reaper was carrying around last year. And I know for a fact that Night Lord is the only one keeping you safe from Lady Napalm’s people, after she found out what part you played in putting her away.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Neville, I’m done shouting at you,” Oreo said, and reached into her satchel. “Decision time. Tell me where they are, or I’ll shove this down your throat.”

“I can’t,” he said.

“Do you want me to count? Fine, one…”

“Please, you have to believe me!”

“Why? Two.”

“I swear to God, I can’t!”

“That’s too bad Neville. Three.”

“They’re dead!!!”

Oreo paused, the cookie she’d just produced a few inches from Neville’s lips.

“What?” she said. “Who? Which ones?”

Neville gulped, not taking his eyes off of the Oreo. “All of them.”

“All of…? You’re a terrible liar. Goodbye, Neville.”

“Wait!” he squealed. “I can prove it to you!”

Oreo sighed. “I don’t know why you think delaying this is going to make it any easier for you but, fine, prove it to me.”

She let go of him and stepped back. Neville rose painfully into a sitting position – he wasn’t in the best of shape anymore, and hadn’t been in a physical fight for years. He lowered himself off of the table, onto his feet. Oreo stood before him, arms folded, watching his every move.

“It’s back this way,” he said, and led her back to the loft’s bedroom.

As he walked, he considered snatching something from one of the walls – there was an entire row of death rays hanging on pegs to his right. But as if she had heard his thoughts, Oreo Avenger barked: “If you try anything stupid, I won’t just feed you an Oreo, I’ll beat the living crap out of you. Make this at least a little bit easier on yourself.”

This was his last chance, he knew. He resigned himself to whatever this crazy woman would do, and led her back towards his bedroom closet.

Neville opened the door, flipped a light on, and then pounded the wall in a specific pattern. Suddenly what had appeared to simply be any other rectangle of wall paper popped forward, revealing a hidden compartment. Neville reached inside, and pulled out a manila folder, which he handed to Oreo Avenger.

“Here,” he said. “See? Newspaper clippings, from all over the country. Tell me if you recognize anybody.”

Oreo studied the clippings, frowning. “Brant Bellarmine, Erik Soberg, Genevieve Garrity, who the hell are these people?”

“Brant Bellarmine was Night Lord,” Neville said. “He was found in a creek on the Watchung Reservation six months ago with his throat slit, see? And Erik Soberg, the Barbarian. Stabbed fifteen times, found under a bridge in Cleveland. Genevieve was Scarlet Fever, another stabbing. When they found her, she was missing fingers.” He pointed to the folder. “The rest are all in there: The Reaper, Skullface, and Blackfriar. Everyone who teamed up to take out your mother. All dead, all killed with a knife of some sort. I’ve been keeping tabs on it because at first I thought it was some new villain, killing everyone off to get a rep. But there hasn’t been a killing in two months now, and everyone who got killed was there the day your mom died. It can’t be a coincidence.”

Oreo flipped through the folder, and then dropped it on Neville’s filthy camp bed.

“You’re a piece of shit, you know that?” she said. “But I’m not going to hurt you. My mother wouldn’t have liked that. So when you’re thanking whatever half-assed conception of God you have tonight for the fact that you’re still breathing, remember that it’s Crimson Avenger who saved your pathetic life. The woman your weapons killed.”

With that she turned and walked to Neville’s window. She pried it open and leapt out, flying off into the night air.

As Oreo flew away, she found that she wasn’t quite sure what to feel. Frustration? Doubt? Relief?

They were dead. All of them. Her mother had been avenged.

But not by me, she thought.

Maybe that was a good thing. Even talking to Neville had gotten her angry to the point where she’d been ready to seriously hurt him, and he was peripherally involved at most. She wondered if her mother had ever gotten this angry, if she ever had this much trouble keeping herself in check.


So maybe whoever’s doing this, if it is just one person, is really doing me a favor, she thought. Maybe they’re sparing me from crossing a line that a hero should never cross. Maybe I’ve got a guardian angel.
She tried to find some comfort in that thought, but it wasn’t much use. For the rest of the night, the doubt lingered: Was someone else taking vengeance for her… or taking it from her?

Neville went back into the main room of the loft and began to clean up everything that had been knocked from his work table. Crazy fucking super heroes. That’s why he’d (mostly) left the business, so he wouldn’t have to deal with so much crazy on a day-to-day basis. He started to think about making a full retirement, selling off all of the weaponry in his loft and using the profits to move to Cancun or somewhere like that.

The first thing he felt was the hand closing on his hair, yanking him into a standing position. For a moment he thought it was Oreo Avenger, and then he felt the knife puncture his kidney. A hand clamped over his mouth to stifle his scream, and the knife slid in again and again and again.

Neville hit the floor, his back on fire. A pair of scuffed brown loafers moved into view.

“The file,” a man’s voice said. “Where is it?”

“Bedroom,” Neville rasped. “Please, I…”

The shoes moved away, towards the bedroom. Neville tried to push himself onto his hands and knees, but was only able to succeed in flipping onto his back. With the floor pressing into him, he could feel how soaked his shirt was with blood. His assailant walked back in – a young man, maybe not even out of his teens, pale with short brown hair. He was flipping through the newspaper clippings in Neville’s file, the suggestion of a smile on his face.

“Memories,” he said, and glanced up at Neville. “Did you show this to her?”

Neville didn’t even know how to answer the question. He wanted to ask the man to call 911, but he couldn’t get the words out. Something warm and metallic was welling up in the back of his throat.

“Of course you did. You told me, and I didn’t even have to torture you. Still, it doesn’t really matter,” the young man said, tossing the file onto the table. “Even if she does realize one person did all of these, she’d never guess who. Still, once we’re finished I’ll burn it, just in case.”

He walked back over to Neville and squatted down beside him, looking into his eyes. Neville didn’t see where he pulled the knife from, but he saw the blade clearly enough, looking cold and clean beneath the fluorescent lights. Then the blade vanished from view, and he felt it pressing up against his throat.

“When you see Night Lord and Scarlet Fever and the rest of them,” the young man whispered, “tell them Charles Hunter says hi.”

The knife bit deep.




10. The Ballad of Neary & James


November 1998

Bozeman was a pretty big city in its own right, but it had nothing on the City. Pinzz had left her apartment an hour ago to do her usual patrol route around Central City, and she was completely lost. Some of the street names looked vaguely familiar, but the numbered streets that ran north to south were way off. She wasn’t even sure how she’d gotten this far east.

By swinging around and not paying attention, like an idiot, she reminded herself. Hey, maybe if I just keep swinging around I’ll end up back home. Or in the river. Whatever comes first.

She’d been meaning to spend some time looking at a map, just to get her bearings, but she kept getting distracted by stuff like sleeping, TV, and arguing on the phone with her mother about how much she was charging to the credit card. Besides, even in the relatively quiet area of Central City where her apartment was there was plenty of spillover from South Side, so there was almost always work to do in the immediate area. The weekends were better of course – lots of drunk yuppies stumbling away from bars and into the sights of professional muggers. What she hadn’t seen a lot of were super villains, which was a pain – one of the main reasons she’d left Bozeman for the City was because this is where the action happened. Or, well, where it had happened, back in the day – the home of the Guardians, a constant target for villains like Captain Destructo and Blackhole. But these days there seemed to be plenty of super heroes, and not too many villains – like everyone who got powers had decided that they only wanted to do heroic, selfless things with them. It was fucking with her view of human nature.

She used her stretchable fingers to grab a streetlight, and swung herself down to the street. It was a residential block of brick and Formstone row houses, empty except for parked cars – a quiet Thursday night. TV lights flickered in some of the windows, and there was a liquor store/deli on the corner that glowed like a giant bug zapper. Pinzz looked up at the street sign. Bowers. Where the hell was Bowers? She walked up to the intersection and checked the cross street.

“97th?!” she shouted. “How the fuck did I get to 97th?!”

“Quack!”

Pinzz hadn’t been expecting a response, and even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t have been a quack. She whirled around and saw… a duck, standing in the doorway of the corner liquor store.

She stared at the duck. The duck stared back.

“Okay, I guess that makes sense,” she said. She walked over to the store, expecting the duck to fly away. Instead it just stood there, staring. When she got closer, it turned and waddled back into the store. Curious, she followed.

The store was empty, although a TV in the corner was playing something in Korean. The duck waddled around the back of the check-out counter, and quacked again. It was standing over something, Pinzz saw when she came around the corner, a little pile of dirt. She reached down and picked some up. Not dirt, crumbs. Hard, dark crumbs that crumbled when she squeezed them. It looked like they’d come from some sort of chocolate cookie.

The duck looked at the crumbs and quacked again.

“Do you want a snack?” she asked. “Listen, feeding pets isn’t in my job descr…”

She cut off as she heard a door in the back of the store creak open. She wasn’t alone.

Pinzz remained crouched behind the counter, and looked up at the TV above her, which displayed the security camera feed. There was a dark figure moving around behind the shelves, a figure wearing a black mask. He was wearing a full black body suit, in fact, and creeping slowly around the edges of the room. Pinzz realized that he must have heard her talking to the damn duck. Was this a robbery? Had the masked man done something to the cashier?

Well, I won’t find out by hiding down here, she thought. She kept an eye on the TV, waited until the man was just beginning to edge out into the open…
“Freeze!” she shouted, leaping to her feet.

“YAAAH!!” the masked man yelped, and suddenly a pair of red beams were lancing towards Pinzz. She leapt to the side and they smashed through a pair of whiskey handles on the counter behind her. Reacting quickly, she fired three of her fingers and wrapped them around the man’s torso, squeezing his arms to his side.

“Hey! Ow, that hurts!”

“You just shot at me!” she snapped. “Where’s the gun?”

“No gun,” he said, and another pair of lasers sprung from his eyes. With her fingers wrapped around her attacker, she didn’t have time to dodge and the lasers struck her in the chest. The suit absorbed most of it, thank God, but the force was enough to send her stumbling backwards. As she fell back she yanked her arm, causing the masked man to go flying towards her. He hit the counter diaphragm-first, and lay doubled over it. Pinzz took the opportunity to restrain him with her fingers again, including on planted over his eyes, which she hoped would prevent him from firing.

“Try anything and I’ll choke you out,” she snapped, pushing him down into the countertop. “Who the hell are you? What are you doing here?”

“What are, errr, you doing here?” he snapped back, struggling against her. “Are you with the idiots who robbed this place?”

“I’m with you, aren’t I?” she said. “Listen, asshole, my name’s Pinzz. You’ve heard of me? Then you know that I make my living beating the crap out of morons like you. So just shut up and maybe I won’t break anything.”

“Pinzz?” he said. “Pinzz the super heroine? Hey, hold on, I think there’s been a mistake…”

“Yeah, you fucked with me. That’s always a mistake.”

“No, wait, I’m a super hero, too! My name’s X-Raytor.”

Pinzz paused. That sounded familiar. “The guy who’s been cleaning up the docks?”

“At your service. Uh, I can’t really breathe…”

She frowned. “Prove it.”

“Why do you think they call me X-Raytor?”

“Because you’re a tool?”

“X-ray vision,” he said. “Notice where I was shooting lasers out of?”

Pinzz suddenly remembered seeing him on the news once, shooting lasers at some powerless idiot in a cheap costume. “Okay, fine. But what are you doing here?”
“You know, I can’t lie to you, there are times when I really enjoy getting tied up by a girl,” he said. “But, uh, I’m pretty sure one of my ribs is about to crack, so…”
“All right, but if you try anything I’ll rip your fucking x-ray eyes out. Got it?”
“Yeah, sure, fair enough.”

She paused a moment longer, and then let him go. X-Raytor stood up from the counter, rubbing his arms. “Jeez. What’s your suit made out of, anyway? Is that…?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Right, sorry. I was patrolling around here – this is kind of my turf, after all – and I saw this duck hanging around outside…”

“Yeah, me too,” Pinzz said. She looked over and found the duck hiding beneath the counter, where it had assumedly been since the fight began.

“Well, I came in and it was empty, as you can see, so I went into the back to watch the security tapes, and… well, you should probably see this for yourself.”

A few moments later they were in the back, squinting at an ancient TV. X-Raytor had rewound the tape to about an hour earlier. The cashier was still behind the counter then, leaning against the wall and watching TV. Suddenly, three guys in ski masks burst through the front door. One of them was carrying a gun, the others pillow cases. They forced the cashier to fill the pillow cases with booze and money from the register. And then something weird happened.

The gunman forced the cashier back behind the counter and pressed the gun to his temple. Pinzz winced – she’d known when she got involved in crime fighting that she would see some messed up shit from time to time, but she still wasn’t ready to see a guy get his head blown off. The gunman was talking, but there was no audio on the tape. The cashier was listening intently, and started nodding. Then, one of the other robbers reached into his pocket and pulled something out. He handed it to the cashier who took it with shaking hands and… ate it.

“What is…?” Pinzz started to say, and suddenly the cashier was gone. He’d simply blinked out of existence.
The gunman stepped back, laughing silently, and revealed… a duck. Standing on top of the cashier’s now-empty clothes.

“What the fuck?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” X-Raytor said. He glanced back towards the store, and found the duck standing in the doorway. “That didn’t look like fun.”

“Quack!”

“Right. Hold on, sir, we’re going to get some help.”

“They turned him into a duck?” Pinzz demanded. “How do you do that?!”

“I don’t know,” X-Raytor said. “The quality sucks on this thing so I haven’t been able to figure out what it is they feed him, but I bet that has something to do with it.”

“Feed…” Pinzz sat up, struck with revelation. She turned back to the duck. “Wait, is that what you were trying to show me? Those crumbs on the floor?”

“Quack!”

“… Is that a yes?”

The duck nodded.

“What crumbs?” X-Raytor asked.

“There’s, like, cookie crumbs over behind the counter,” she said. “Do you think that could have been what they fed him?”

“Maybe. Isn’t that what that Oreo Avenger girl does? Transforms people with cookies?”

“You think those guys are working with Oreo Avenger?”

“I didn’t say that… but at least we know there are transformationining cookies out there somewhere.”

“That’s not a word.”

“You know what I mean.”

“We need to find these guys,” Pinzz said. “Oreo Avenger has anecdote cookies, right? Maybe these guys do, too. Can you tell where they went?”

“Yeah, there’s another video feed from the back of the store. You can see out the front window.” He switched the view over, and rewound until he found the robbery. “There, see? They drove up in that car.”

Pinzz leaned forward, and saw a huge, white Buick sitting outside. After the robbery, the three men jumped into it and sped away down Bowers.

“Can’t see the license plate of course,” she mumbled. “Screw it, if they park it out in the open, I’ll find it.”

“Can you fly?” X-Raytor asked.

“No, but I swing. Okay, you stay here with Duck Boy, and I’ll go find these idiots. Call the police.”

“Hey, hold on,” X-Raytor said. “This is my neighborhood. I want a piece of these guys as much as you do.”

“Can you fly?”

“… No. But I can run! And you’ll want back up going after three guys anyway. Especially when we know they have at least one gun and probably magic cookies.”
“I don’t have time for this. Bye.”

“Hey, hold on!” X-Raytor cut around in front of her, and for a moment Pinzz considered tossing him into the wall. He dug into his pockets (she wasn’t sure where he had pockets in that costume) and pulled out two small Walkie Talkies. “I just bought these and I’ve been looking for a chance to use them.”

Pinzz raised an eyebrow. “How big of a nerd are you, exactly?”

“Just take one. And if you find them, let me know so I can come back you up.”

“Yeah, if I think of it,” she said, but took one anyway. “Call the cops.”

She ran outside and a moment later was swinging away, heading down Bowers the way the Buick had gone.

“She’s got an attitude, huh?” X-Raytor said, once she was gone.

“Quack,” the duck agreed.

“Probably hot beneath the suit, though.”

“Quack!!”

“God, fine, I’m calling the police! Don’t start molting or anything…”

* * *


She found the Buick parked about eight miles south, on a weed-clotted side street close to the water. This neighborhood was a bit more rundown than where the liquor store robbery had taken place – lots of boarded up vacants and graffiti. The street that the Buick was parked on was almost entirely deserted, with just a few houses that still looked occupied. She had to swing around for a good fifteen minutes before she heard voices coming from one of the vacants and knew she’d found them. Originally she was just going to kick the plywood over one of the second floor windows in and do it herself, but something made her hesitate. A moment later she swung up onto a house across the street and used the Walkie to call X-Raytor.
He arrived fifteen minutes later, hopping out of a cab that pulled up at the end of the block.

“Is that your X-Ride?” she asked, smirking.

“Listen, we can’t all have rubber fingers.” He looked up and down the row of dead houses. “Probably should have figured they’d be from Gammontown. There’s a lot of shit happening around here, lot of drugs. The Shuster projects are just a few miles that way.”

“Are we in South Side, now?”

“Nah, this is still dockland. White people projects. It’s one of those right-after-World-War-II developments, it used to be the families of stevedores and people who worked at the shipyard before it…”

“Oh, hey, sorry to interrupt,” Pinzz said, “but I really don’t give a shit.”

X-Raytor gave her a look (or she assumed he did, considering that she couldn’t see his face). “When you were growing up, your parents skipped that whole thing about making a good first impression, huh?”

“Can we get back to, you know, crime fighting?”

“Right, sorry. So where are they?”

Pinzz jerked her thumb at a brick house covered in grayish-maroon paint. “I could hear them talking. I figure I’ll take the front door and you take the back.”

“Insert joke about back door here,” X-Raytor said.

“What?”

“Nothing. See you in there.”

As X-Raytor jogged around to the back of the house, Pinzz quietly approached the front door, and listened. She could hear muffled conversation inside, laughter, bottles clinking. God, I hope they’re drunk, she thought. That would make this so much easier.

Her Walkie Talkie crackled once; X-Raytor was in position. Pinzz counted to ten, and then smashed the plywood board in.

The bottom floor of the row house was a gutted mess, strewn with discarded bottles, plastic bags, and a single busted mattress. There were three men standing in the middle of it, pillow cases of liquor bottles at their feet, their faces frozen in confusion as Pinzz and X-Raytor came bursting into the room, shouting. But before they could take advantage of the surprise, one of the three men recovered and produced a gun, pointing it directly at X-Raytor.

“Don’t move!! Don’t move!”

The two super heroes paused. Pinzz glanced at X-Raytor out of the corner of her eye and saw that he’d put his hands up. Can’t fly and he’s not bulletproof, she thought, annoyed. If only the idiot had aimed the gun at her, this probably would have been fine – her suit was pretty good about protecting her from bullets, even if it wasn’t perfect. X-Raytor’s suit, on the other hand, looked like something he’d found in the dumpster behind a Halloween store.

“What the fuck is this?” one of the other two men demanded. They all looked to be in their mid-twenties. The speaker had close-shaved red hair and two metal ear studs, the guy next to him lanky with a mess of brown hair, and the gunman was shorter than the others, with a spiky goatee and the hint of a tattoo creeping up above his neckline.

“Oh man,” the lanky guy said. “It’s super heroes, dude!”

“Shut up,” the gunman said. “What the fuck are you…” He paused, squinted at X-Raytor, and then grinned. “Well lookit that. You guys see who this is?”

“Oh, fuck,” X-Raytor grumbled.

“You know these guys?” Pinzz asked.

“Kind of,” X-Raytor nodded at the gunman, “Roy Sadowski,” then the redhead, “Eamonn Moore,” and finally the lanky guy, “Jason Caslowitz, they call him Caslo. Dockside knuckleheads. Longshoreman’s kids who decided being professional assholes was a better life decision than sticking with the unions. Petty theft, armed robbery, public drunkenness…”

“I’ve been waiting for this since you cockblocked us outside of Jack’s last summer,” Roy said.

“Right, and attempted rape,” X-Raytor said. “That’s the last time I saw them. How did you guys get out of jail, anyway?”

“Eamonn’s brother was one of the cops that picked us up,” Roy said. “Told him you just jumped us and beat the shit out of us for no reason. He let us go.”

“I hate this fucking neighborhood,” X-Raytor sighed.

“Who’s the bitch?” Caslo asked, looking at Pinzz over Roy’s shoulder.

“The bitch who’s going to arrest your ass for that liquor store robbery,” Pinzz said.

“Shut up,” Roy snapped. He looked at Pinzz. “Go stand next to him.”

Pinzz sighed, and walked over beside X-Raytor. “I could grab the gun,” she whispered.

“Please do. I’ve always wanted to get shot.”

“Shut up,” Roy said again. He looked them over and smirked. “Holy shit. I can’t believe you just walked right in here. Like tonight wasn’t great enough already! Payback’s a bitch, huh?” He sneered at Pinzz. “And I’ve heard of you. You’re that gooey chick I keep seeing on the news.”

“ ‘Gooey’?!” Pinzz repeated.

“It does look kind of gooey,” X-Raytor said.

“I bet they thought they were gonna kick our asses,” Roy said to his friends. The other two guys, who only now seemed to be realizing that they had the upper hand, forced laughter.

“What they don’t know is, we’ve got some super powers too. Eamonn.” He nodded at the redhead, who grinned and walked further back into the room. When he returned he was carrying two plastic bags, one red and one blue.

“Show ‘em.”

Eamonn reached into the red bag and pulled out an Oreo. Cookies, Pinzz thought, feeling vaguely proud of herself. Only vaguely, though, since this moron had a gun pointed at them.

X-Raytor gasped. “You’re going to feed us?!”

“Shut up,” Pinzz growled.

“Nah, he’s right,” Roy said. “You said you were at the liquor store, huh? Then you know what these can do. Each one of them turns you into something different.” He reached over and took one from Eamonn. “This is a pig one. Pretty cool, right? And the ones in the blue bag are pretty awesome, too. They get you fucked up. Like, seriously, you take one of those and you ain’t feeling no pain. Better than weed, better than dope, better than anything.”

“I’m sorry, maybe I missed something,” X-Raytor said. “Why do you have Oreos that turn people into shit and, uh… get you high?”

Roy shrugged. “We bought them from a dude.”

“… Wow, that explains absolutely nothing.”

“Some super villain dude,” Roy said. “He said he needed extra money for porn so he was pawning his old super villain shit. His name was, like, Rosey something. I think he was a queer.

“Anyway. He said the ones in the red bag were supposed to be weapons, and the ones in the blue bag were supposed to be, like… I don’t know, like when he and his friends took over the world, they were supposed to pasteurize the people.”

There was a brief silence, during which Pinzz prayed X-Raytor wouldn’t say anything.

Of course, he did: “Pasteurize? Like… like with the cream?”

Roy blinked. “Huh?”

“He meant ‘pacify,’” Pinzz said.

“Yeah, right,” Roy said. He glared at Pinzz. “Shut up.”

“Oooooh,” X-Raytor said. “Um… I don’t know what that word means.”

“Let’s just do this, Roy,” Caslo said.

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Roy said. “Eamonn and Caslo are gonna feed you the Oreos and turn you into something. And if you try anything funny, I’ll shoot you.”

Pinzz frowned. “That’s it? You’re just going to point a gun at us and make us eat them? You can’t, like, throw them at us like Oreo Avenger?”

“I’ve got a gun,” Roy said. “Who needs super powers.”

Pinzz glanced at X-Raytor out of the corner of her eye.

“Okay, just checking,” Pinzz said.

A pair of lasers struck out and smacked into Roy’s gun, sending it flying from his hand.

A moment later two long blue fingers whipped forward and snatched the Oreos from Eamonn and Caslo’s hands.

The three thugs stood there, puzzled for a moment. And then Roy looked from Pinzz to X-Raytor and smiled weakly.

“Hey, uh… looks like you’ve got us beat, huh? We weren’t really gonna do it, you know, we were just gonna…” His face fell. “You’re not gonna beat on us, are you?”

Pinzz cracked her knuckles. “Don’t worry. This’ll only hurt a lot…”

* * *


An hour later, Pinzz and X-Raytor dropped a chicken, a turtle, and a very unpleasant-looking pig off at the 52nd Precinct station house.

“You’re not fucking serious,” the desk sergeant said.

“I already brought in a duck,” X-Raytor said. “It’s not like you have to suspend disbelief that much.”

“Are you just fucking with me? Seriously, is that what this is?” He gave Pinzz a sideways glance, but didn’t address her.

“These are the guys who did the liquor store robbery,” X-Raytor said. “When we were fighting them, their powers backfired and they turned themselves into, well…” He gestured to the animals. “I’ve got their wallets here. Roy Sadowski, Eamonn Moore, Jason Caslowitz.”

“Really?” The desk sergeant looked down at the animals. “Roy, how many times I tell you not to be an asshole? Your sister’s gonna fucking kill me, you know that?”

“I think he’s the pig,” X-Raytor offered.

“Tell me you at least know how to turn these guys back.”

“Well, uh, see, that’s the thing…” X-Raytor said, and glanced at Pinzz.

She sighed. “Look, these morons didn’t buy any antidote cookies, so we can’t. But it seems like it’s the same principle as Oreo Avenger’s cookies, so if you get her down here, I bet she can change them back.”

“Now I have to call Oreo Avenger?” He jabbed a finger at X-Raytor. “You just love fucking with me, don’t you?”

“Hey, Michalski, how about you actually be a cop and take these guys into custody?”

Cursing X-Raytor under his breath, the desk sergeant got a couple of passing uniforms to herd the animals deeper into the precinct house. Pinzz handed him the red and blue bags.

“These are the Oreos they used,” she said. “The red bag is the ones that actually transform people, but the blue bag is some sort of narcotic, I think.”

“Fucking cookies now,” Michalski growled. “Look, I’ll take the red bag into evidence, but I don’t need the blue bag. My lieutenant’s gonna give me enough shit about this as it is.”

“It’s an illegal substance,” Pinzz said. “You have to take it.”

“They’re fucking cookies. I wouldn’t be taking the other ones if I hadn’t seen the animals. Now get out of here, you’re giving me an ulcer.”

X-Raytor snapped him a salute. “Keep on serving and protecting.”

“I’m gonna get your ass one of these days, too,” Michalski said. “We don’t need assholes like you running around interfering with shit.”

They walked outside into the chilly night.

“So you guys are friends?” Pinzz asked.

“What a dick. I fucking hate cops.”

“Is there anyone around here who likes you?”

“I don’t do this because people are grateful, I do it because it’s right,” X-Raytor mumbled. Pinzz could tell that she’d struck a nerve.

“What are we supposed to do with these?” Pinzz hefted the blue bag.

“I don’t know… toss them in the harbor?”

“What if that pollutes something or, like, turns all of the fish into sea monsters or something?”

“Well what do you want to do with them?”

Pinzz looked at the bag. “Burn ‘em, I guess.”

“Works for me.” He watched a patrol car cruise down the street, the two officers inside glaring at the super heroes on the sidewalk. “Well, you know, for a first-time team-up, that went pretty well.”

“You’re calling this a team-up?”

“We teamed up, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” She sighed, looked around. “I have no idea how to get home from here.”

“Where do you live? I know every inch of this city.”

“Central City, 43rd and Summit?”

“Oh yeah, that’s easy,” he said. “You just have to go west until you hit Patriot Boulevard. It’s that big north-south arterial that goes through Liberty Square. Just head north on that for a while, and you’ll get to Summit eventually. Then you just have to go west to 43rd.”

Pinzz nodded, thinking she’d just call a cab. “Cool, thanks. Well. It’s been fun.”

He didn’t say anything in response to that for a moment, and Pinzz realized he didn’t want to leave. What was that all about? It wasn’t like she’d been particularly pleasant to him, and even though her suit was pretty form-fitting, it didn’t really give you a sense of what she looked like underneath it.

He’s lonely, she realized. She knew the feeling well – along with studying a map, another thing she hadn’t had time for was a social life. She’d go entire days without talking to anyone but the criminals she beat up and the cops she handed them off to.

“Yeah,” he said, finally. “Hey, uh, do you want to get a drink or something?”
Pinzz frowned. She didn’t know him at all, and she got the sense that he wasn’t someone she’d enjoy spending a prolonged amount of time with. But then she thought about her empty apartment, the TV, calling her mom and starting an argument just to have someone to talk to.

“Shit,” she said, “why not?”

* * *


“Who the fuck makes magic Oreos, anyway?” Pinzz asked, waving her fourth Mike’s Hard Lemonade to emphasize the point. “To take over the world? Seriously? Super villains are idiots.”

“I’ve only met a few,” X-Raytor said, cracking a new Yuengling, “but, yeah, they all seemed like tools. None of them even had super powers. Well, except this one guy, the Game? But I didn’t really bump up against him too much.”

“ ‘The Game’?”

“Yeah, it’s a whole story.” He dropped down next to her on the couch. They’d gone back to her place after a quick trip to a liquor store with Pinzz’s fake ID, and now they were well on their way to wasted. They’d changed from costumes into civilian clothes (with X-Raytor curiously slipping a pair of sunglasses on after his costume was off). The blue bags of Oreos sat on the table, surrounded by empty bottles.

“So, how about you? Did you have a hometown villain?”

Pinzz snorted. “My mom. But no, not really. Bozeman had some crime, but it wasn’t a lot. Mostly I was rescuing people from stuff – fires, car crashes, bears…”

“Bears?”

“There’s a lot of bears where I come from.”

“Right. Missouri?”

“Montana.”

“I knew it was somewhere like that,” he said.

Pinzz stared. “Have you ever even looked at a map?”

“I kind of slept through US History.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. The point is, I wasn’t going to make a real super hero career out there, so I came here. I thought there would be a lot more going on than there actually is, though.”

“Eh, it’s probably the calm before the storm,” X-Raytor said. “Things always get worse. That’s the way it goes.”

“Aren’t you a motherfucking ray of sunshine.” But she smiled a little. He was funny, she’d discovered after a few drinks. Annoying, yes, but funny. And not bad looking, despite those stupid sunglasses. “How about you? You seem to know the area pretty well. Are you from around the docks?”

“Me? No, no, I’m from the suburbs. My mom grew up around there though, and my grandpa was a stevedore. I do most of my work there just because that’s where I ended up.”

She nodded, sipped her Mike’s Hard. The conversation lulled.

“So,” he said, “has anyone ever told you that you look like Carmen Electra?”

“Only everyone,” she said, smirking. “Anyone ever told you that you look like Ben Affleck?”

His eyebrows went up. “Uh, no, actually.”

“Probably because you don’t.”

“Ooh, you’re funny,” he said. He had a nice smile, anyway.

“What’s with the sunglasses?” She asked.

“Radiation,” he said, tapping the lens. “I lined these with tinfoil to keep it in.”

“Doesn’t that make it tough to see?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“X-ray vision, right,” she said. “Now I feel stupid.” She narrowed her eyes. “Hold on, does that mean you can look through my clothes?”

“Um, theoretically?”

“Have you?”

Before he could answer, Pinzz’s phone tinkled. She picked it up and looked at the number.

“Ugh, my mom,” she said, putting it back down.

“Not a fan?” He asked.

“She’s a bitch,” Pinzz said. “Everybody else thinks she’s really nice, but she’s actually a bitch. I mean, she’s cool sometimes too, but mostly she’s a bitch.”

X-Raytor nodded. “That’s… um, my mom was kind of tough, too. She drank a lot, you know?” He looked at his beer, seemed to consider making a joke, then decided against it. “And she could get mean when she was drunk. I never got it too bad, but my brother… well, let’s just not even get started on my brother.”

They sat in silence for a moment, both brooding.

“What was the point of all of that?” Pinzz asked, nodding at the bag of Oreos.

“Huh?”

“I mean, why the fuck did we waste our night on this bullshit? Three fucking morons who turned a dude into a duck – a duck – with fucking cookies so they could get free booze. That’s who we’re using our incredible super human powers to stop? Like, what the fuck?”

He shrugged. “We took out some bad guys. That’s what super heroes do.”

“Fuck that,” Pinzz said. “The cops could’ve handled those guys. They didn’t even have more than one gun!”

“Hey, at least we’ve got this sweet bag of Oreos out of it,” X-Raytor said, picking the bag up from the table. “You think burning these things is the best way to get rid of them?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Or we could eat them.”

He scoffed. “Sure.”

“Hey, they sounded pretty good,” she said. “I’m already drunk, I’d be fine getting totally wiped out.”

“Those guys were idiots. This shit could be poison.”

“Yeah? You got something to live for?”

X-Raytor’s face went dark, and she realized that she’d hit a sensitive spot.

“I’m just saying,” she said, more quietly. “He said they make you feel no pain. Wouldn’t that be cool, at least for a night?”

He stared at the bag for a while, and then grinned. It wasn’t a happy grin, but the look of someone who was willing to let everything go. “Screw it. Let’s try it out.”

They each pulled an Oreo from the bag, and inspected them for anything weird. Pinzz felt a bit like she was about to play Russian Roulette.

“See you on the other side,” she said, and they ate.

* * *

“Tell me a secret,” he said, eating another Oreo.

For a moment Pinzz was giggling so hard that she couldn’t say anything. Finally she said: “My suit? It gets damaged by olive oil.”

“Olive oil?”

“Don’t make fun of me!” She punched him in the arm and fell into his chest, both of them laughing. “Okay, tell me a secret.”

“No, I’m a man of mystery. That’s the whole point.”

“Fuck you!” she said, and punched him again. “Tell me a secret! What’s your real name?”

He hesitated, and then said, “James.”

“James,” she repeated, in an exaggerated British accent.

“It’s really my middle name,” he said. “My first name’s John, but I always wanted everyone to call me James.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “My dad’s a John James, my grandfather’s a John James. I wanted to be at least a little bit different.”

“Well, that’s not too weird. My name’s Stephanie, but I had everyone call me Neary.”

X-Raytor choked on his Oreo. “Neary?”

“It’s a nickname!”

“How do you get Neary from Stephanie?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Tell me, I’m not going anywhere.”

For a moment, she actually considered it. “James what?”

“Huh?”

“Last name.”

“Oh. Jansen.”

“Jansen,” she repeated. “That’s a solid last name.”

“You like it? Hey, let’s get married and you can have it. Neary Jansen.”

“Neary Jansen! Sounds good!”

She was lying on the couch now, with her head in his lap. He beamed down at her, reflecting her own hungry eyes back at her in the lenses of his sunglasses.

“We’re gonna have sex tonight,” she told him.

“Oh yeah?”

She sat up and kissed him, and he actually pulled back he was so surprised.

“I know I’m going to regret this,” she said. “But fuck it. Let’s make this last as long as possible.”

His mouth worked silently for a while, before he said: “I think I’m in love with you.”

“No, you’re just high,” she said, and then snorted.

He smiled. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Pinzz got up, and stretched. “Bedroom’s back here. Come on, James.”

“Anything for you, Neary.”

* * *

When he woke up his tongue felt like a dry sponge and there was artillery thumping behind his eyes. He sat up and his head went spinning, forcing him to fight a violent wave of nausea. He wasn’t in the warehouse – he was in a room with wooden walls, framed paintings of forests and streams, dark wood furniture. And he was sleeping in an actual bed, which was a huge change.

And, he realized suddenly, he wasn’t alone. There was a dark-haired girl passed out next to him on her stomach, her face turned away. The sunlight coming through the window had created a yellowish rectangle across her bare shoulder blades.

He had no idea who she was.

Rising agonizingly from the bed, he tried to remember where he was, or even what day it was. He slipped out of the room as quietly as possible, and headed downstairs.

Outside he could see a wall of forest, all brown and orange in autumn. I’m in a cabin in the woods, he thought, almost awed by how messed up his life was. Well, at least this is different from where I usually wake up.

X-Raytor struggled to remember the night before, but only came up with hazy memories of laughter and yellow light. The last thing he clearly remembered was standing outside of the precinct with Pinzz after their team-up, discussing what to do with the Oreos.

The Oreos.

The blue bag that they’d been in was lying on the kitchen table, empty. Holy shit, he realized. I ate the whole thing. Me and that girl, probably. What the hell is wrong with me?

He dropped down onto a nearby couch, his head pulsing even worse than before. This was so fucked up. Waking up God knows where, with no memories, an empty bag of potentially-lethal narcotic cookies on the table and empty bottles and cans everywhere else. A girl upstairs that he didn’t know. Had he even worn a condom?
The regret flooded down on him, relentless, and he almost broke. He just felt so goddamn tired.

I need help, he thought. It was hardly the first time he’d thought it, but there seemed to be extra weight behind the idea now, a tragic honesty that made him want to cry. He knew it then, and he forced himself to say it out loud:

“I need help.”



11. Crystal at the Social


August 26, 2002

“Hold on,” Pinzz said. “Watch this.”

And Crystal did watch. That’s all she’d been doing tonight, it seemed – watching Pinzz.

She was wearing a long, pastel-green dress with a plunging neckline and elbow-high silk gloves. In Crystal’s opinion, she’d never looked better… but it still galled her that Pinzz had dressed up this much for that little creep X-Raytor. Last week she couldn’t stand him, but a head-bump and a reclaimed memory later, and they were attached at the hip.

Right now was pretty much the only time they’d been separated all night (well, except when he was streaking), with Pinzz serving as self-appointed “Drink Master” at the mini-bar, and X-Raytor scaling a nearby wall with plungers tied to his arms and legs, calling out obscure Spider-Man references that only Oreo Avenger seemed to understand. Crystal felt a sudden, powerful urge to freeze him in place and just leave him there for the rest of the night.

Pinzz had stumbled around to the back of the bar and pulled out a glass, orange juice, strawberry flavoring, and a cold Mike’s Hard Lemonade. She scooped ice into the glass and then shouted: “Twisk! Shock me!”

Laughing, Twisk walked over and extended a hand. She squirted water into the glass, followed by a tiny burst of electricity from that messed-up mutation Neo had given her. Freakmatrix, Pinzz would say. Maybe if she gets knocked on the head again she’ll fall in love with him.

Pinzz pulled the electrified liquid over and poured in the rest of the ingredients. The entire Mike’s Hard didn’t fit, and she threw back the rest of the bottle in a single gulp. Finally she pulled a little paper umbrella from a cup and dropped it in. The finished product was red and it glowed faintly.

“ElectaDrink,” Pinzz said proudly.

Crystal raised an eyebrow. “ElectaDrink? Shouldn’t it be ElectraDrink?”

“Who’s Drink Master here? Me or you?”

Crystal took the drink and sipped, gingerly. It was sweet, and tingled a bit. Not the greatest thing ever, as everyone else at the Social seemed to think, but at least it hadn’t electrocuted her. That was stupid, she thought. Drinking something with electricity in it? Why did I think that was a good idea?

The answer, of course, was simple: because Pinzz had given it to her. She would have drank a cup of ground glass if Pinzz offered it to her. It was fucking pathetic, but it was true.

“You’ve got to get drunk,” Pinzz said, mixing herself an ElectaDrink. “You haven’t even been dancing all night.”

“I danced,” Crystal said, annoyed. “I did. All of the guys here are clumsy as fuck.”

“James is a great dancer,” Pinzz said, glancing up to where X-Raytor had lost his handholds and was now hanging upside down from the wall, as Rosma and Oreo loudly discussed using him as a pinata.

“ ‘James,’” Crystal repeated, unable to keep a growl out of her voice. “I didn’t even know he had a life outside of that costume. And how about you, Neary? When were you going to tell me about that?”

“Fuck you, bitch,” Pinzz said, gulping down half of her ElectaDrink. “It’s in my JL profile. Do some fucking research.”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah, whatever, Madeline.”

“Blow me.”

“What? Do you prefer Maddie?”

“Oh fuck no,” Crystal moaned. “Only my grandmother’s allowed to call me that.”

“Yeah, that’s how I used to feel about ‘Neary,’” Pinzz said, swallowing the rest of her drink, and swaying slightly. “But that was only, uh…”

“This is my gift! This is my curse!!! OW!!!”

They both turned to see X-Raytor, still hanging upside down, swinging to avoid a stick Oreo had produced from somewhere. Pinzz laughed, and winked at Crystal before walking off towards him. She shoved Oreo out of the way and pulled X-Raytor’s mask halfway down, giving him a long, deep, upside down kiss.

Crystal walked around the bar and poured herself a glass of vodka with a splash of orange juice. She took a swallow, winced, took another.

“Need me to spice that up?” Twisk asked, walking over.

“I’m pretty sure having you shock these things is like playing Russian Roulette,” Crystal said. She watched as Pinzz briefly activated her suit to pull X-Raytor off of the wall.

“They make me wanna vomit,” Twisk said, but she laughed when she did. No one but Crystal seemed to actually be angry about the James/Neary situation, which just made her angrier.

“He does, anyway,” Crystal said.

“Yeah, seriously,” Twisk said. “I mean, really, if I had been his pity date I guess it wouldn’t have been so bad. Like, I probably still would have just hung out with the girls most of the night. But still. I feel like I dodged a bullet.”

Remembering that X-Raytor had already had a date before this whole memory thing didn’t help Crystal’s mood. Is there someone up there looking out for him? She wondered. Or does someone up there just really like to fuck with me?

“It’s totally weird that they hooked up, though, right?” Twisk asked. “I mean, obviously, he’s weird. But Pinzz is such a bitch. How did that even happen?”

“She’s only a bitch when she has to be,” Crystal said.

Twisk grinned. “Like you?”

“No, I’m only a bitch when I want to be. Which is always.”

Pinzz and X-Raytor were heading back towards the bar now. Crystal tried not to look at him, just in case he picked up on the Death Glares that she was shooting at him.

“Twisk,” Pinzz said, almost bumping into the bar. “Give me some juice for James!”

Twisk fired more water and electricity into a glass, and Pinzz mixed in orange juice, strawberry flavoring, and sugar, before handing it to X-Raytor. While he was distracted by drinking, Pinzz leaned over to Crystal and whispered: “I had to make it virgin for him. He’s an alcoholic.”

Crystal slammed down the rest of her vodka orange to prevent herself from saying anything. Great. Fantastic. What a fucking catch he is. But the anger was twisted up with a dizzy light-headedness, brought on by the smell of Pinzz’s breath: strawberries and alcohol and cigars from earlier in the night.

“Can I get another drink?” Crystal asked, dropping the empty glass on the bar. “Something hard.”

Pinzz mixed her drink and then went back to making out with X-Raytor, so Crystal decided to stretch her legs. There was only so much self-abuse she could take. The whole thing was stupid – she shouldn’t even care. For the first few weeks that she’d been at the Hall, she hadn’t felt anything for Pinzz. She was hot, sure, and they got along, and they were roommates, but that was it. And then, one day, there was more to it. She couldn’t even remember what it was. Pinzz did something stupid – laughed a certain way, or rolled her eyes, or said her name – and suddenly Crystal couldn’t think about anything else.

Maybe it was all the horrible shit that had happened to her when she was a kid. Maybe it was all of the fucked-up stuff she’d survived in the foster system. Whatever the reason, she had grown up hard and angry. But the armor had never been complete, had never protected her heart as much as she’d intended. There’d always been a little weak spot, and somehow Pinzz had wedged her way in there.

And then, like everyone else who’d ever gotten past Crystal’s defenses, she’d royally fucked it up.

Crystal was planning on going over to one of the tables and sitting for a bit, but Violet was over there already. And if anyone had a monopoly on moping at this party, it was Violet. Isomorphix. Another stupid boy. Not as stupid as X-Raytor, but still. Where was the appeal?

Maybe she could go nighthawking. Someone had to, right? And even though the City had been weirdly quiet lately, there were still little instances of crime. That liquor store robbery she and Twisk had stopped, for instance. But a quick look around the room confirmed that everyone else was having too good of a time to want to go to work right now. Besides, if she left, Pinzz would ask her about it later, and she’d have to come up with some stupid lie.

At least she’d notice, she thought, and felt pathetic.

No, she had to admit that she was trapped. Trapped here at this stupid fucking formal in this stupid fucking toga watching Pinzz get her face swallowed by stupid fucking X-Raytor. Stupid fucking Pinzz.

She turned back to the bar, intent on making herself another – much stronger – drink, and almost collided with Raven, Rosma, and Oreo Avenger.

“Fucking watch where you’re going!” she snapped, flushing.

Rosma frowned, and looked like she was about to point out that Crystal had run into them, but Raven cut her off.

“Crystal,” she said. “We want to recruit you for a plan. An evil plan. A cruel, sadistic plan that will, in all probability, ruin Midnight Chatter’s night, for the sole sake of our own amusement.”

Crystal blinked, the words settling in. She glanced over at Pinzz and X-Raytor, engaging in a nauseating tickle fight, and shrugged. “Yeah, why not. Might as well make someone else fucking miserable. Just hold on while I get a drink.”

When she walked away, the other three girls exchanged glances.

“What’s her problem?” Rosma demanded.

Oreo shrugged, watching Crystal pour herself a new drink.

“That’s just the way she is, I guess.”




12. Boys Are Stupid


October 27, 2003

X-Raytor stepped out into the hallway feeling seasick, his head and stomach reeling from the confrontation. But what sent him spinning the most was what he’d almost said, the words that had welled up inside of him when he’d looked at Oreo. He’d turned to her, he’d actually opened his mouth, and…

Well, he hadn’t said anything. And now he was walking down the hall, heading in the opposite direction from his cabin, just walking to walk, to do something, to not think about what had just happened.

A door banged open behind him. He turned to see Oreo walking towards him down the hall. For a moment he was overcome with the irrational hope that she’d somehow read his mind, that she knew what he hadn’t been able to say and had been… moved, touched, whatever the best possible response was to that sort of thing. The hope only lasted until she got a few feet closer, and he could see the anger in her eyes.

“Uh, hey…” he started to say.

“No,” Oreo said, holding up a finger. “You don’t get to talk right now. You’ve talked enough.”

He closed his mouth.

“What the hell was that?” she demanded. “Do you know how hard this has been on me, and MC, and Scarlett? And the best you can offer is ‘girls are stupid’?”

“Well…”

“Not finished!” she snapped. “ ‘Girls are stupid?’ Are you fucking serious? Like, really, have you ever interacted with another human being before? In what universe did you think that would all be okay to say?”

“I… look, I wasn’t trying to be offensive,” X-Raytor said although, really, he was. He’d been pissed, and when he was pissed he lashed out. Hell, it was only when he was pissed that he spoke up about something like this. “It’s just that I was getting sick of the… the drama. I mean, everyone is, and I was just saying…”

“I know everyone else is sick of it,” Oreo said. “But you know what I’m sick of? Crystal being pissed off all the time. And Eric using our shower. And Typho doing… I don’t know, whatever the hell it is that he does! But I don’t flip out about it and embarrass people. And you know why? Because we’re a team. We knew going into this that we were going to have to put up with each other’s baggage and weird tics and even drama, because we’re committed to working together to make the world a better place. So we just deal with it. And if it’s something that’s really a problem, then we talk to the person who’s bothering us, not insult an entire room because we’re pissed.”

“Pinzz does that,” X-Raytor pointed out.

“Which brings me to my second point,” Oreo said. “Even if the three of us do need to get called out on causing drama, who the hell are you to say anything? Need I remind you that –

besides this, Viomorphix, and the Rosma/Studmuffin Incident – literally every piece of romantic drama that this team has ever fucking seen has had something to do with you?”

X-Raytor blinked. “I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

“Sticky Spectre,” Oreo said, counting on her fingers. “The DragonGirl-Superdude thing. Your Neary Issues. Those whole four months where you pretty much vanished because you were dating Cara.”

“All right, all right,” X-Raytor mumbled.

“Not to mention when Xiao had that crush on you, which you made the rest of us deal with. And the groupies! I know there weren’t a ton of them, but there were enough! Remember that girl who ate all of my cheese?”

“I get it,” X-Raytor said.

“This is what I’m saying,” Oreo said. “You’re so goddamn sensitive, and you act like you know what’s best for everyone, and you try to be this mature, kinda-nice guy, but at the same time you’re a giant, wise-cracking boner! You’re like a walking John Mayer song!”

“I was just trying to help,” X-Raytor said, not even looking at her anymore. One of the best things about his costume, he’d found, was that no one could tell how scarlet he turned when he blushed.

“Well if you really wanted to help, you know what you should have done? You should have gone and made sure Scarlett was okay.”

He didn’t even have a response for that one. It hadn’t even occurred to him to think about how much this whole thing must have been tearing Scarlett up. A wave of self-revulsion swept over him, making him dizzy again.

“Well, what do I do now?” he asked.

“What do you think?” Oreo said. “Go find Scarlett. And be nice to her!”

X-Raytor stared, puzzled. “But… but you don’t even like Scarlett right now. Why would you want me to be nice to her?”

“It’s called being a grown up,” Oreo snapped. “Try it out sometime!”

She turned, cape whirling, and stomped back down the hall, vanishing through the door to the room where the social would be held. X-Raytor stared at the empty space she’d occupied a few moments ago, silently letting all of the anger and shame bleed out of him. When it was gone, all that was left was the bare, brittle truth. In the empty hallway, he said the words he hadn’t been able to say back in the room:

“I don’t like seeing you hurt,” he said. “I don’t like seeing you upset. I wish… I wish I could make you feel better.”

He stood facing the door, waiting for her to come back outside, hoping that she’d heard him somehow. And then, after a few moments, he turned away back down the hall, and went to find Scarlett.





13. Where Do They Go?


December 2004

“Well, there’s really more than one answer to that question. Some of them, about two hundred and forty species, actually, migrate south for the winter. They go to Florida, places like that. But most of them actually just stay right here in the Park. Does that help?”

Raven and Holden looked at the groundskeeper and then, together, turned to look out at the frozen duck pond in Central Park South. They stood there, quietly, for a long time, and eventually the groundskeeper started to feel uncomfortable and slowly walked away.

“I thought it would be something more… significant,” Holden said, at last.

“I guess we probably should have realized that a groundskeeper would take that question literally, instead of recognizing it as an existential conundrum,” Raven said.

Holden was quiet again for a little, turning in a slow circle to take in the scene around him. Raven wondered if he was looking for the ducks who had stayed for the winter. Finally he stopped, frowning at a nearby building.

“Essex House? I wonder if anyone named Essex ever really lived there. I bet not. I bet it was just some phony tourism campaign designed to make it all sound ritzy. I can’t stand crummy stuff like that, crummy phony stuff. It’s all just… it’s all…” he trailed off, and now his face was tight and pale, the disappointment kept just barely at bay. “Stupid phony ducks,” he mumbled.

“Hey, Holden?” Raven said. “I think the main point is that everyone has to make their own way, and learn how to deal. You know? You can’t just fake it and be… phony. If you’re a migrating duck, you migrate. And if you’re a park duck, well, I guess you just hunker down and wait it out.”

Holden stared at her. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “But I’m crazy.”

They both laughed for a long time about that, and then went off walking through the Park.

“This was cool,” Raven said, eventually, “but I really should get back to the Hall. I’ve been out so much with this Lansky stuff, I should probably go fight some crime before they kick me off.”

“You don’t have to, you know,” Holden said. “The Justice League, all of that stuff… that’s what got you addicted to PM2 in the first place. I’m not saying Lansky was right about anything (even though sometimes I still miss the son of a bitch), but maybe that isn’t, you know, the best place for you to be.”

“That’s my home,” Raven said, and even she was surprised to hear the word. “If that’s not where I’m supposed to be, then… I don’t know where I could ever belong.”

Holden hesitated a long moment, before finally saying: “You could come with me.”

Raven blinked.

“I mean it,” he said, not looking at her. “I mean, I know I don’t have any job prospects and I’m not as smooth as that bastard Stradlater, but still…”

“Listen, Holden. Back when we were in Lansky’s hospital, you guys told me to do the thinking for all of us. Well, I’ve done a bit of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you need to go your own way now. Do you know what you’d have to look forward to staying with me? Super villains, cookie monsters, aliens, and more craziness than you ever thought possible. And I promise you, if you get together with me, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.”

Holden stared at her, a little shocked but at the same time not terribly surprised.

“Hey,” Raven said. “We’ll always have the psych ward.”

“I understand,” Holden said, and gave her a quick, awkward hug. When they pulled back, he looked her in the eye, and said:

“Here’s looking at you, Kitty Cat.”

“Holden…” Raven said.

“Yeah?”

“… Never call me that again.”

“Oh. Uh, sorry.”

They walked on in silence, and after a while it started to snow. Eventually they were soaked and headed for the edge of the park, to find somewhere to be inside. But as they left, Holden thought he heard a sound, faint beneath the winter wind.

He was sure he’d heard a quack.




14. The Proposal


September 14, 2011

“You know,” Firehop said, scooping more green curry from her bowl, “I was starting to worry that you were never going to appreciate Thai food.”

X-Raytor’s mouth was full of savory drunken noodles, so he had to chew and swallow before he could respond. “I’ve had Thai food before. We had Thai food in Thailand.”

“Four years ago! But how many times have I tried and failed to get you to eat Thai food since then?”

“We went to Thai Arroy a couple of times.”

Firehop rolled her eyes. “Thai Arroy doesn’t count. That’s like going to Crown Fried Chicken and saying you’ve eaten Southern.”

“Well, maybe my tastes just lie in other Asian countries.”

She raised a scarlet eyebrow. “Like?”

“China.”

“China?”

“Sure. I eat at Panda Express, Great Wall, Ming Garden – your favorite – that Fugakyu place in the Mason Mall…”

“Okay, for one thing, Fugakyu is Japanese.”

“It’s mall food. It’s made in test tubes.”

“Exactly my point,” she said. “Going to Ming Garden isn’t the same as getting actual Asian food. It’s like… remember when we went to get pupusas in Southside?”

“Yeah, it was the apotheosis of my week.”

Firehop sat back, stunned. “Whoa.”

He shrugged. “I found one of my GED workbooks today. There’s a vocab section”

“Anyway, this place is like the pupusa place. Ming Garden is like… Taco Bell.”

“But you love Ming Garden.”

“Okay, then maybe it’s more like Chipotle.”

X-Raytor sighed. “You’re just a hypocrite.”

“Yeah, well you’re a racist.”

“Well you’re ugly.”

“Well you’re stupid.”

“I don’t even like you.”

Firehop grinned, and took another sip of curry. X-Raytor reached out beneath the table with his foot and rubbed her ankle.

“Besides,” he said, “it’s your first birthday since things calmed down. If we can’t do something special for that…”

They were at a restaurant called Ayutthaya, one of a crescent moon of bars and eateries along the City’s waterfront. The area had been renovated about five, six years back, a multi-million dollar facelift that had more than paid for itself in tourism dollars. X-Raytor remembered patrolling this area occasionally back in the day. The City’s western waterfront had never been as compromised as the eastern docks, but for years it had been one of the few areas of Central City you didn’t really want to walk around at night. It was an uncommonly warm September, and they’d been able to get seats out on the water, watching boats cruise down the Ohnoee River, and a few lights twinkle across the way in Geauga County. From Firehop’s seat you could also see the towering grandeur of the Evans Bridge (formerly the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge). X-Raytor would have had to turn halfway around to see it from where he was sitting, but that was okay – there were a lot of bad memories associated with that bridge, and he didn’t need the extra stress tonight.

Firehop lifted her beer bottle, with a white and gold label reading “Singha,” and took a sip. It was a golden lager, and looked delicious. Usually she didn’t drink if they were out together, although he’d told her a few times that he didn’t mind (which was mostly true). For her birthday, however, he’d insisted she have one beer.

“So, is this a multi-part birthday plan?” she asked. “Are we going out for dessert? Carriage ride? Water taxi? Walking along the waterfront?”

He scoffed. “Like I’d be that predictable.”

“I know you. You like big plans and surprises.”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise, would it?”

She smiled. “Because, you know, if you don’t have more stuff planned… or if they’re easily cancelled plans… we could just head back to the Hall after this.”

He felt sweat suddenly prick up all over his body, and hoped it didn’t show on his face. “Um… everybody’s going to be out nighthawking.”

“Exactly,” she said, her foot finding his under the table. “We’d pretty much have the whole place to ourselves.”

X-Raytor took a large gulp of his water, and tried to keep his hands steady. “Oh. Right.”

* * *

A bit further down the waterfront there was a small park, which included a short tunnel made of arched, wisteria-covered trellises. From within this trellis, three shadowy figures watched X-Raytor and Firehop eat, passing a digital camera with a zoom lens from person to person.

“Emptier than I thought it would be,” one of them said.

“Of course. It’s a Wednesday.”

“I’m just saying… makes this easier.”

“Can I see?”

The camera changed hands. “Wow. She really has no idea, does she?”

“Well,” said one of the others, retrieving the camera, “that’s kind of the point.”

* * *

“So, what do you think? Mango and sticky rice for dessert?”

X-Raytor blinked and looked back at her. “Huh?”

“Dessert?” Firehop repeated.

“Oh. Uh, sure!” He paused. “Unless you did want to rush back to the Hall. Because, you know, if it’s dessert you’re after…”

“Just for that,” she said, “no.”

“Pfft, your loss.”

“I doubt it.”

“But sure, mango and sticky rice. You know what I always say: if you’re going to have rice, it might as well be sticky.”

She shook her head and smiled, used to his weirdness by this point.

“So, how do they make the rice sticky?” he asked. “I mean, is it a process or do they just…”

His sentence was cut off by a shrill scream.

The two super heroes looked up just in time to see a man in a dark hoodie and a ski mask pelting down the waterfront’s concrete walkway.

“He stole my purse!” the same, shrill voice screamed. “Someone stop him!”

X-Raytor glanced at Firehop. “I’m sure there’s security around here some…”

“Who are you kidding?” she asked, already out of her seat. X-Raytor sucked in a deep breath, and followed her.

The purse snatcher had a good lead on them, but X-Raytor and Firehop began to close the gap quickly. On the weekend this would have been impossible – the walkways would have been crowded with tourists, shoppers, and diners. But on a Wednesday night like this one, they were pretty much alone: just the fleeing criminal and his pursuers.

All right, X-Raytor thought, as he began to get closer. Now a quick stun beam to close this down, and we’re golden. Regardless, his heart started thumping faster and faster, the sweat leaping from his pores again as a cold flash ran through him. He tried to concentrate, aimed, and fired a pair of eye beams…

That soared harmlessly over the thief’s head. X-Raytor almost stumbled in disbelief. He’d missed! How the hell could he miss? Now?!

But before he could berate himself further, things went from bad to worse.

“I’ve got him!” Firehop shouted, and threw her hand out. X-Raytor looked up – in slow motion, it seemed – back towards the restaurants, to the Bahama Breeze they were passing. It was one of several chains, with a big tacky neon sign, a pair of potted palm trees… and a pair of tiki torches.

X-Raytor just had time to open his mouth, about to form the word No! And then the flame leapt from the nearest torch, slashed through the air, and collided directly with the thief’s back. A moment later the hoodie was on fire, and the purse snatcher was on the ground, howling and slapping at himself.

Oh shit, X-Raytor thought. He sprinted up to where the thief lay. “Shit! Are you okay?”

“Ow! Fuck, ow!!”

“Stop, drop, and roll!”

“I did drop!”

“Well roll!”

“Will you help me?!”

Firehop caught up to them. “What the hell is going on?”

X-Raytor felt that cold flash again. “Er…”

“Ow ow OW!!!” The thief flailed about for a moment, and then gave up. “Will one of you please fucking douse me?!”

“Ahh, shit!!” X-Raytor said, regaining his focus. “Put him out!”

Firehop blinked. “Don’t you want to stun him first?”

“Fucking mother…” the thief shouted. “Stephanie! It’s me! It’s Galen!”

Firehop’s eyes widened. “Galen?”

“Will you put out the fucking fires?!”

“Oh, crap!” Firehop waved a hand, and the fire vanished from the thief’s back, leaving only gray smoke and the smell of cheap cotton burning. The thief tore off the ruined hoodie and knocked off his ski mask in the process, revealing the face of none other than Galen Grant, better known as the Gauntlet.

“Holy shit,” Galen said, flapping the back of his shirt like he was trying to air himself out. “Now I know how burgers feel.” He scowled at James. “Weren’t you supposed to take me down?”

Suddenly there was a flurry of footfalls, and Kevan Smythe (also known as Cinematic, of the West Coast Justice League) and Eric (also known as… Eric) appeared beside them.

“Holy shit!” Kevan said. “Are you okay, dude?”

“I got lit on fire,” Galen snapped. “Steph burned my ass!!”

“See, this is why I say clothes are a bad idea,” Eric said, although he was, for once, clothed. “They’re a safety risk! Clothes will be the death of you all one day, mark my words…”

Firehop looked from Eric to Kevan to Galen, and then back again. After a moment, she was able to say: “Why are you guys here?”

The three men suddenly fell silent.

Firehop glanced at X-Raytor. “Why are they here? Why is Galen dressed like a mugger? Why… why?”

“That wasn’t exactly supposed to go like that,” X-Raytor mumbled. “Um… I was supposed to hit Galen with a low-powered blast, just enough to make it look like I stunned him. And then when we caught up with him, I was supposed to get this.” He reached down and picked up the purse Galen had been carrying.

Firehop stared. “You wanted… a purse.”

“Um, no,” X-Raytor said. “Just what’s inside of it.”

He reached into the purse, and suddenly his entire body was vibrating with terror. He’d been in hundreds of fights, battled super villains, mutants, aliens, trans-dimensional Neo-Nazis, terrorists, and even some members of his own family… and he’d never been this nervous before.

“See, I didn’t actually just want to bring you out here for a birthday dinner,” he explained, as he rummaged around inside of the purse. “I’ve just been thinking a lot about, um, about our relationship and, you know, how much you mean to me and, um…”

He stopped, turned to Galen. “Did you hide this thing?”

“It should be right in there.”

“It’s not.”

“Oh, shit… maybe it fell out.”

X-Raytor’s face turned a frightening shade of white. Later, Eric and Kevan would swear that his head had literally been about to explode into a thousand slimy chunks, when Galen said: “No, wait! Here it is!”

He passed something to X-Raytor, and X-Raytor turned around… holding a small, white box.

Firehop stared.

“So, I…” X-Raytor paused again, glanced at his friends. “Actually, could you guys, like, go up there a little? I think I’m going to need some space.”

The three retreated, and X-Raytor turned his full attention back to Firehop, whose face was rigid with shock.

“Anyway, look, this was a stupid plan,” he said. “I wanted to make this a big surprise, but I probably should have taken into account that I’m terrible at coordinating anything like this… anyway. I just wanted to say that I’ve been thinking about us, about you, a lot lately. And, you know, we’ve been through a lot. The Sentinels, the new Justice League, all of the crazy shit that happened this year. And, to be honest with you, back when we first started going out? I thought maybe that was all there was to it. Maybe we were only getting so close because we had to deal with all of that crazy shit, because we’d been forced to rely on each other. And I started wondering, when things quiet down, is it going to be the same?

“And, you know what? When things did finally quiet down… relatively speaking… I didn’t even notice. There wasn’t any difference at all. Because the way I feel about you, it’s not about the danger or the energy or the adrenaline. It’s about being with you. I’ve had some really great friends in my life, but I’ve never been as happy around any of them as I am with you. I mean, you’re the funniest person I know, you’re the smartest person I know, you’re… you’re pretty much the best person I know. And somehow, you still put up with me, which is just mad impressive.”

He paused, took a deep breath. He could barely remember anything he’d said beyond the last three words. He knew he should have practiced this.

“I love you,” he said. “I love you more than I think I’m ever going to be able to say to you. You’re my best friend, you’re the one person I always look forward to seeing, every day. And when I think about my life, and where it’s heading, I realize that… the only life I want to live is a life with you.”

Firehop was still just staring at him. He wasn’t sure what that meant.

Screw it. He’d gotten this far.

“So,” he said, and then, pulse screaming, heart ricocheting around his ribcage, he got down on one knee. He flipped open the box to reveal the ring. It was a clean, white gold band clutching a square diamond between four prongs. Set on either side of the diamond was a tiny, red stone.

“Stephanie, will you marry me?”

There was a short silence, filled only by the sound of the water against the nearby piers. Stephanie was still staring at him, eyes wide, mouth gaping. The fear was pounding inside of his head now, only now it seemed so much more real. This might actually fall apart, he might have actually fucked this up, oh shit oh shit oh shit…

“Holy shit,” she said, and that was when he realized she was staring at the ring.

“Is that a…?”

She almost jumped, startled. “Oh my God! I’m sorry! Yes! Yes, absolutely, yes!”

It was his turn to stare. “I… really?”

Firehop was grinning now, her entire face flushed. “Are you serious? Of course!”

X-Raytor stared up at her, his brain slowly processing. Out of the corner of his eye, Kevan’s digital camera flashed.

“Wow,” was all he could manage, and then she forcibly dragged him to his feet and kissed him. The camera flashed a few more times, and Eric and Galen started clapping.

After a long time, Firehop stepped back. Of all the outcomes he’d imagined for this, X-Raytor never could have anticipated the joy in her crimson eyes.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Oh, wait! Wait! Let me see the ring again!”

He handed her the box and she slipped it onto her finger. “Oh my God, it’s gorgeous. It’s perfect. How did you…?”

“Pick out such a nice ring when I have absolutely no taste?”

“I was going to say it nicer than that, but sure.”

He shrugged. “I’ve been living in a house full of girls since I was eighteen.”

Firehop gasped. “Wait, you guys knew about this,” she said, looking at Kevan, Eric, and Galen. “Did everybody else know?”

“Pretty much,” X-Raytor said. “I didn’t tell Crystal because she still pretty much isn’t talking to me, but everyone else…”

“And what the hell was this?!” she asked, pointing at Galen. “This was your proposal plan?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise!” X-Raytor said. “I wanted it to be funny!”

“You’re an idiot,” she said, and kissed him again. “I love you so much.”

“Jesus, all right,” Kevan said, cutting between them. “You dragged us out here, can we at least congratulate you guys before you go back to making out?”

Hugs were exchanged, X-Raytor’s back was slapped a few times, and Eric asked if the ring had cool powers like those ones on Captain Planet. After all of the congratulations had been exchanged, X-Raytor said: “All right, we should probably go back and pay for dinner. Do you guys want to bring the van around?”

Firehop looked like she was somewhere between ecstasy and collapse. “Are we not getting dessert, then?”

“Nope,” X-Raytor said, feeling on top of things for the first time all night. “Something better.”

* * *

Note: And then they go back to the Hall and everyone’s waiting to have a big engagement party. This was supposed to be the start of a longer story about them planning their wedding and the actual crazy-ass night itself, but this is all I actually wrote. Here’s some of the plans, though!

The actual wedding would have been in October 2012. This is after all of the Dr. Fallow stuff is over, although Xiao’s still out there with all of Fred’s power. Firehop’s been a practicing Catholic all her life, so it was held at St. Brigid’s Church, with Fr. Andrew McClendon presiding (note that this is the church where X-Raytor got “ordained” that one time, and McClendon is the priest who ordained him). Below are the wedding party, the guest list, and the various ideas I had for what would happen that night:


The Groomsmen

Bill Naumann (best man)

Kevan Smythe (Cinematic)

Galen Grant (Gauntlet)

Eric Pudor (Eric)

John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!)

The Bridesmaids

(Firehop’s best friend from high school is the bridesmaid)

“Valerie Ryan” (Violet Princess)

Bridget Farrell (Sparks)

Katherine Devinne (Raven)

Seraphina Braddock (she and Bill are married, but she kept her last name)



Liturgy

First Reading: Jane Wilkins-Blake

Second Reading: Anne Evans

Prayers of the Faithful: Lori Dixon and Topher Gillette

(Scarlett might also sing, while wearing a power dampening bracelet or something?)



Guest List:

Jasper Williams and Margaret Ann Reynolds (Studmuffin and Rosma)

Anne Evans (Oreo Avenger)

Claire Evans

Lori Dixon (Scarlett Fyre)

Madeline Quinn (Crystal Freeze)

Christopher “Topher” Gillette (Midnight Chatter)

Charlotte Fyre (Twisk)

Cameron Keegan and Adriana Drew (Netic and Drew)

Joseph Surface (Jo Surf)

Edmond (Mac Attack)

X.Voodoo

Jane Wilkins-Blake (along with her dads)

Nuala O’Hagarty

David Jansen

Johanna, Lady of Darkness (dramatic reverb)

Col. Emma Webb

Billy Borek (Silver Falcon) and Rachel Vasquez

Tim Tillmann (T.T.)

Gary “Rex” Markus (Pimp-o-Saurus Rex)

Carlos, Jenna, Reese, Lewis, Tania, Sheraya (from X-Raytor’s old AA group)

Assorted friends of Firehop

Note that not everyone who’s invited would actually come – Webb would probably politely decline, but send a gift, and X-y might have lost touch with some of the folks from AA… also, some of the folks listed might be dead, and Twisk and/or Jo may have quit the JL again.

Sampson sends a gift from hiding, and Sticky sends one with Jane. There might be some contact from RWM, as well.

During the service, there would be a special part dedicated to remembering those who can’t be there (perhaps at the end of the prayers of the faithful), with all of their names read aloud.

Pygmalion, the Sentinels’ costume designer, designs Firehop’s dress.

I’m sure at least one super villain would attack on the wedding day.




15. WHAT IF… X-Raytor Hadn’t Gotten Powers?


February 1998

James Jansen was drunk.

This wasn’t terribly unusual, because he’d been drinking a lot ever since his first party sophomore year. But two things about this particular instance were unusual.

First, it was the middle of Saturday afternoon.

Second, he was at his mother’s work.

James’ mother was an obstetrician at Wylie Hospital, and that’s where James had come when he’d gotten tired of watching TV and drinking the bottle of Bacardi that had been under his bed since that party at Bill’s three weeks back. He’d caught the bus in downtown Chamberlain, passed out for about thirty minutes, and woken up just in time to stumble off at the hospital stop. Halfway across the lawn to the hospital, he realized that he couldn’t remember what it was he’d wanted to ask his mother about. Something about drinking – she was a pro, probably the best person to ask. But what, exactly? Eventually he decided he didn’t really give a shit. He’d at least go find her and ask for a ride home. Say he was visiting a friend from cross country with an injury. Something like that.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t actually been in Wylie since the renovations, so he couldn’t figure out where, exactly, his mother’s office was supposed to be. So he’d just been wandering around the bright, sterile hallways, lost.

Everything was so polished here, it hurt his head. Still, it was nice to get out of the house and do something. He hadn’t been doing much of anything lately, not since the fiasco that was supposed to have been his first night with Elena. The memory made him stagger with shame, and he wished he’d brought the Bacardi along for this trip.

“Whatever,” he mumbled. “Fuck it.”

Now where the hell was his mother?

He turned a corner, almost bumping into a pair of orderlies. They gave him suspicious looks as he passed, and he did his best to walk straight. He didn’t do very well. He passed a folded up wheelchair leaning against a wall and for a moment considered opening it up and sitting down. He was so damn tired all of a sudden. He had to find his mom, go home and sleep it off.

James stopped at the next sign and squinted at it. RADIOLOGY. What the fuck did that mean? He needed to find the maternity ward. He scanned the sign, but didn’t see it listed. But another word did catch his eye.

X-RAYS.

X-rays. Of course, radiology – the x-ray machines were around here. That was pretty cool. And that was when he had a brainstorm: Maybe he should x-ray himself! How sweet would that be? Show up at school on Monday with an x-ray of his head. Bill would think that was pretty funny, and Elena would too, and they’d laugh and suddenly it wouldn’t be awkward anymore. Also, he’d always been curious about what, exactly, went on inside of his eyes.

With his mind set, he stumbled down the hallway until he reached an x-ray room. He looked around to make sure no one was watching, and then stepped inside.

Our lives are determined by the smallest things. A moment’s choice, a brief gesture of kindness, the slightest miscalculation. We all make big choices, certainly, but it’s the millions of tiny moments leading up to those choices which really determine our paths.

This is one: Brian Comly, an orderly at Wylie Hospital, was placed in a situation where he had two choices. After passing what appeared to be a drunk teenager in the hallway, he could have either turned around to see what the kid was up to, or continued to walk on his way. This decision, again, would have been influenced by a million other tiny factors – the fact that he hadn’t pissed since this morning, his frustration at a doctor’s incompetence, the desire to keep pace with the orderly beside him, whom he was trying to sleep with. Not to mention his moral conditioning, the various lessons about the right thing to do, about stepping up, all of the times he’d succeeded and failed, in countless miniscule ways, to walk the righteous path. And all of these pieces came together in one similarly small moment – the decision to keep walking, or to turn around.

What he never could have considered, however, was the effect that his almost-arbitrary decision would have on others, the ripples that it would send through the rest of reality. He never could have imagined that, in another world, another time, his decision to keep walking would lead indirectly to the birth of a hero, and a completely different life for the drunk kid behind him. Nor could he have imagined how different things would be if he turned around.

“Hold on a second,” he said to the other orderly. “I’m gonna go see what that kid was doing.”

The x-ray machine was enormous, and thrummed ominously. It looked brand new, and was apparently set up for demonstrations, because when James walked over to the computer console he found that it was all ready to go. There was literally a button that said SCAN in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. He clicked the button and then dashed over to the machine and lay down, sticking his entire head inside. The machine rumbled and shuddered around him, and he felt a sudden thrill of fear. Should he have put a lead vest on or something? What if he got radiation poisoning? What if it cooked his balls and sterilized him?

What would that matter? He thought. I’m not a man. I couldn’t even get it up for Elena.

He wondered if there would be a flash, and if he should close his eyes, and then…

The machine whined and went silent. James was puzzled for a moment, and then he felt a pair of hands grabbing his shirt and yanking him from the machine.

“What the hell are you doing?!” the orderly demanded.

* * *

They made him go to counseling, but that was pretty much it. His parents seemed to think the drinking was just a result of the depression he’d been mired in for the last few weeks, and while that was partially true, he also knew it wasn’t that simple. But that was fine – he was sixteen, he had no interest in AA. It wasn’t like he was an alcoholic, anyway.

It was a pain in the ass, but at the very least it gave him the chance to get some stuff out. Not everything, of course, but even the little he released helped him feel better, and it made him realize how stupid his weekend day-binges had been. By March, he was only drinking at parties. Hell, he was going to parties again, not just sitting in his room. That had to be improvement, right?

The toughest thing had been making amends. After he’d fucked up with Elena he’d pretty much dropped his entire social life, not to mention school and track. James found he had a lot of people to apologize to, which wasn’t something that came naturally to him.

His parents, of course, had been tough – not just for the obvious reasons, but because every time he did apologize he thought about his mother’s drinking, and the resentment bubbled up like lava. Alex, on the other hand, had been almost too easy.

“Look, man,” he’d said. “What I did was really stupid. I know I’m supposed to be a, uh, an example for you, and I wasn’t doing that.”

“That’s okay,” Alex had said, not looking away from the TV.

“Seriously, you shouldn’t do anything like what I did. Drinking and stuff, I mean. It’s not worth it.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

James found the question vaguely offensive. “Why? I mean, because it’s fun… it’s a good way to hang out with other people.”

“So?”

In the end, James just assumed that he got the point.

Bill was pretty easy, of course. They’d been friends since kindergarten, and a few months weren’t going to change that.

“Dude, I could tell you weren’t okay,” Bill said. “I just didn’t know what to say. I mean, I knew it had something to do with Elena, but…”

“It was stupid,” James said. “I didn’t need to take it as hard as I did.”

“Did she just shoot you down, or…”

For a moment, James considered telling him the truth, about how his dick had just lain there numb and flaccid, how Elena’s attempts to comfort him hadn’t meant anything compared to the shame. But he didn’t.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“You know,” Bill said, “if you really want to apologize to anyone, you should apologize to Sera.”

“Wait, she told you about that?”

“Yeah, I hung out with her a few weeks back…”

James raised an eyebrow. “Why were you hanging out with my cousin? Where?”

“Long Branch. But listen…”

“You went out to Long Branch…”

“Dude, shut the fuck up,” Bill snapped, and the sudden heat in his voice surprised them both. “Listen, the point is, I heard what you said to her, and that wasn’t cool. She’s like your fucking sister, and she doesn’t deserve that shit. I know you were messed up and whatever, but that’s still fucked up.”

“Yeah, I know,” James said. “Look, I’m going to talk to her soon. She’s just gonna be pissed.”

“She should be.”

James frowned, wondering how Bill and Sera were best friends all of a sudden. But he figured he probably couldn’t expect to be in the loop anymore.

It took him a few weeks to actually call Sera – partially because he spent that time apologizing to the rest of his guy friends and practically begging Coach MacArthur to let him stay on the track team. But when he did call her, it was only awkward until he got the apology out.

“You’re an asshole,” she said. “But I’m glad you’re all right now. But next time I tell you to get help, fucking do it. Don’t tell me all of the shit I need to work on.”

When he hung up, James felt overwhelmed by the magnanimity of the people in his life, by the number of people who actually gave a shit about him. In the darkest moments of the last few months he’d felt totally alone, totally incapable of being loved. Maybe he just hadn’t been looking in the right places.

The last, and the toughest, was Elena. At first he hadn’t thought he would ever work up the balls to do it, that he’d just avoid her until graduation. But when MacArthur told him he could stay on the team, he realized that there was no way that plan would work. And he wouldn’t be able to deal with dreading going to practice every day – running had always been the part of his life he used to escape from everything else, his one guaranteed safe haven. At the very least, he had to try not to make it awkward.

He finally worked up the nerve at the end of the month, and when he saw her at her locker between classes, he forced himself to walk over.

“Hey,” he said.

She turned. “What?”

“I just wanted to…”

“Are you talking to me now?” she demanded. “You cursed me out in the hallway two months ago, and now you want to talk?”

“I just want to apologize!”

“Two months later!” she snapped. She glared at him for a moment. “Well?”

“Huh? Oh!” He floundered for a moment. “I just… I really want to apologize for, shit, for everything. The way I treated you, the way I reacted… I was an asshole. None of that was about you, it was about… I don’t know, the fact that I can’t deal with my own shit. I’m really sorry I put it all on you.”

Elena continued to glare at him. Finally she said, “Fine,” and then turned and walked away.

“Well, that’s probably as good as it’s going to get,” James mumbled.

* * *

But over time, it did actually get better. There was no chance he and Elena were getting back together – they hadn’t even been able to salvage their friendship – but by the end of the year they got to the point where they could say hi, or hang out with the same group of people without making everyone feel awkward. He pulled his grades out of the shitter (even if just barely) and Hugo Danner High’s track team finished off strong, if not on top. By June, his parents were even letting him take the car out again, which was good because the summer before senior year was packed with parties.

Link and Kevin rented a house in LBI with some lifeguards they knew, so there were almost-constant parties. And there were always girls in the house, some of them girls James knew from Hugo Danner, some lifeguards, others just from around, so James was there as much as possible. After an entire semester of depression-enforced celibacy, he was ready to get back in the game. And, sure, he was nervous the first time he hooked up with a girl that he wouldn’t be able to get it up again. But when that time came – with one of the lifeguards, a freckled girl named Liz from some rich suburb in Union County – he’d been fine. It’s because I don’t care, he thought. If I’d never cared about Elena, it never would have been a problem.

In July, one of his ex-girlfriends, Ashlee Markland, started hanging around the house because she was hooking up with one of the guys who lived there. James had been annoyed at first, and even skipped a few parties to avoid her. But when he eventually caved, he found that they actually got along pretty well. He remembered the things he’d liked about her in the first place – the sharp wit, the occasional girlishness, the fact that she was absurdly hot. Inevitably, they’d hooked up at a party, and by August they were pretty much back together. “Pretty much” in that he still hooked up with other girls, but tried to keep it to girls at home and girls he met when he visited Sera in Long Branch. He figured that counted for something.

He knew it couldn’t last. But it was summer, he was having fun, and when fall came he’d have to start worrying about college. Besides, it was a good time to be away from the City, apparently – South Side had become even more violent than usual, with a drug war exploding down in the Bottom. There were rumors that there had even been super powers involved, but James didn’t know enough about it. Some of the new super heroes in the area – Oreo Avenger, Rosma Galak, that girl Pinzz who’d just moved in from somewhere out west – had gotten involved, but by then most of the damage had already been done.

Whatever. Not his problem.

* * *

James and Ashlee: Round Two lasted mid-way through October before imploding. It was even uglier than the last break-up, which was impressive. Ashlee had actually hit him with something, although he was too drunk to actually know what – when he woke up the next morning he had a splotchy bruise on his forehead. But it was senior year, and he was happy to be free.

The party momentum slowed a bit into first semester as everyone got bogged down with college apps. He and Bill still found plenty of reasons to drink, especially with Sera now at Campion right across the river. His continued to pull his grades up, to the point where they were only lackluster, instead of terrible. It was enough, apparently, because Campion offered him a cross country scholarship, and by April he and Bill knew that they were going to college together.

The rest of the year was quite literally a blur. Parties after games, parties after dances, parties when nothing else was going on. He met a girl named Frances, and hooked up with her enough times to feel justified in asking her to prom. It was kind of a rushed decision, partially brought on by the fact that Bill was bringing Sera, which was awkward, and that Elena was going with her new boyfriend, which was… also awkward. He did his best not to watch them dance, and to ignore Bill and Sera holding hands, and to pretend he was interested in whatever Frances was saying. They took the limo down to Long Branch afterwards to post-game in a rented house, but it was a few hours before James could escape all of his friends and just get Frances upstairs into one of the rooms. The moment had been so intense, so charged with sexual promise that he didn’t even grab a condom at first, just sunk into bed with her and went at it. It wasn’t until the very end, when he was about to hit the grand finale, that he realized he’d never put the condom on. He could have pulled out, should have, but he didn’t. Afterwards, when she realized, she sat on the end of the bed and cried for forty-five minutes. James knew he should have comforted her, but he was drunk and exhausted, and after a few minutes he was asleep. When he woke up the next morning she was downstairs, curled up on the couch, arms wrapped tightly around a gray throw pillow. She didn’t say a word to him after she woke up, and got a ride home with someone else. He never heard from her after that, so he figured it all worked out.

They spent most of that summer in Long Branch. In all honesty, James was just happy to be out of the house. His parents’ usual annoying tics had started to grate on him more and more as college got closer. With real independence so close but still just barely out of his reach, he found that he was much more tense, blowing up more easily than usual, picking fights, walking around pissed off all the time whenever he went back to Chamberlain. It was easier to just stay down the shore. He went to Campion a few times over the summer, for orientation and a few parties Sera invited him to, and each visit made him more and more excited. In a month and a half he’d be living in the City, having the time of his life.

Through it all he was dimly aware of Alex growing quieter and quieter, but he didn’t realize anything was actually bothering his brother until he said something. James was home for his birthday, and at the end of the night Alex had come up to his room and awkwardly stood in the doorway.

“What’s up?” James asked.

“Hey, James,” Alex said. “I, uh, I wanted to talk to you.”

In all honesty, James just wanted to be left alone. He hadn’t fought with his parents yet today, but that was only through an incredible exercise of willpower.

Come on, man, he thought. He’s your brother, and you’ve barely talked to him all summer. Give the kid a break.

“Sure, come in.”

Alex had a shy smile, and he let it break across his face now as he entered the room. He was small for sixteen, with high shoulders and long, knobby arms. Of the two of them, Alex looked more like their father – the sharp nose, the blonde hair, the wide eyes. James had always taken after their mother.

“So, what’s up?” James asked. He raised an eyebrow. “Wait, I know, I had the same question when I was your age. Yes, that is where babies come from. Believe it or not.”

Alex didn’t laugh. “No, it’s… you’re leaving for college in August.”

“Hell yes,” James said. “You can come visit if you want. Is that it?”

“No, it’s just that… I’m gonna, you know, I’m gonna miss hanging out with you.”

James smiled. “Hey, we’ll still hang out. It’s not like I’m gonna abandon you.”

“Yeah…” Alex looked away, and his mouth went hard. “But you’re not gonna be around as much as you are now. And Mom’s still here, and I’m gonna have to deal with her on my own…”

“Alex, I’m serious, if you ever want to come stay with me, you can,” James said. He hadn’t expected the conversation to get this serious, but now that it was, he found that he already knew what to say – they were things he’d been feeling for years now, but never expressed. “I know it’s not easy for you… with her. I know how she gets when she’s drinking, I mean… I’ve been on the receiving end, too. But, still, I know it’s been worse for you. But, dude, believe me, there’s a whole world outside of this. You just gotta put your head down and bear with it for two more years, and then you’ll be golden.”

His brother stared at the floor for a while, like he was trying to see through it.

“I’m scared,” he said.

“It’s all right man, you don’t have to be scared of…”

“I’m scared of myself,” Alex said, and when he looked at James there was something in his eyes that killed the words in his throat. “I’m scared of what I’m becoming. I’ve been having these really messed up thoughts, like really, really messed up, and I’m freaked out because… because I’m not freaked out by them. I think I… I actually like them, you know?”

James wasn’t quite sure where he was going. “Do you mean, like… thinking about sex, or…?”

Alex let out a brittle laugh. “Yeah. Kind of.”

“Look, everybody thinks about weird stuff sometimes. Like sometimes, I imagine that I’m dressed up in wom…” He decided not to use that example. “I’m just saying, it’s normal, and it’s nothing to…”

“James, I think about cutting girls up,” Alex snapped. “I think about fucking them and then carving pieces off of them. That’s not normal!”

Alex’s eyes had gotten cloudy and red, but no tears fell. James just stared.

“It’ll be okay if you’re here,” Alex said. “I know it will. Please don’t leave.”

He struggled with the words for a moment. “Alex… I have to go to college. I mean…”

His brother sagged, looked back at the floor.

“It’ll be okay,” James said. He figured he should reach out and pat his shoulder or something, but he found – to his intense disgust – that he was actually scared to touch him. “We’ll… we’ll work on this together, okay? You’ll be fine.”

Alex nodded, and walked out. A moment later, James’ AIM chirped. He walked over to his computer, still feeling shaky and slightly nauseated, and saw a message from Jenna Bellini, asking him if he wanted to come to a party at her house in Tonganowei. Jenna, whom he’d been flirting with at the shore before she started dating that Rutgers dude. Jenna, who was apparently home for the weekend, sans Rutgers dude.

He didn’t want to go. He wanted to go find Alex and ask him more questions, find out what it was he was so afraid of. He wanted to talk to his parents or anyone, get his brother some help.

But he didn’t. He had the chance to get drunk and get laid. What else could he do?

* * *

Later that night, sprawled on top of sweaty sheets in Jenna’s bed, he found that he couldn’t sleep. The beer and his conversation with Alex were still buzzing in his head, and eventually he said: “I wish I could do something good.”

Jenna shifted next to him. “Huh?”

“I wish I could do something good, like… for the world. For other people.”

She came up on one elbow, looking groggy. Apparently she’d started to slip off to sleep in the five minutes since they’d finished. “You’re a nice guy.”

“Not really.”

“You are. There’s guys who are way worse than you.”

“That just means I’m not as much of an asshole, not that I’m a nice guy.”

She shrugged. “Well, okay, then do more stuff for people. Be nicer to people, I guess. You’re going to Campion, right? Do community service stuff there. My ex-boyfriend, Rob? He went to St. Jerome’s, and they have, like, forty hours of volunteering they have to do to graduate, so he did it all at this community center in South Side with, like, ghetto kids? He said that was, like, the happiest he’s ever been.”

James looked up at the ceiling. There were glow-in-the-dark stars plastered above them, old enough that they only had the vaguest sheen to them anymore. She’d been sleeping in this room since she was a little kid, he realized, and felt guilty.

“I guess I just always thought I’d do something more with my life,” he said. “I always thought I was heading for something bigger.”

She shrugged and dropped back down onto the pillow. “There’s college. Do something big there.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe.”

* * *

College started a bit later than anticipated. He’d originally been supposed to go in for an early orientation program at the end of August – a “get to know the City and your fellow freshmen” kind of thing. But then, in mid-July, something insane happened:

Captain Destructo came back.

The most powerful, most dangerous super villain of the past decade broke out of whatever supposedly-inescapable prison they had him in and returned to the City, looking to settle some scores. He’d gone on a rampage, terminating in Liberty Square, where he’d been prepared to murder everyone in the surrounding area with his powers. And after that, who knew? Maybe he would have gone on killing and killing until he got exhausted or there was no one left. Fortunately, that was purely speculation, because before he’d had a chance to massacre everyone in the Square, something had distracted him and a S.W.A.T. sniper took off half of his head.

Still, there were millions of dollars worth of damage, including to the area around Campion, so pre-orientation programs were postponed so that the campus could undergo repairs. No one probably would have been in the mood, anyway – after Destructo was killed, the police had found Captain Justice dead in his home, the first victim of his arch-rival’s revenge. Flags were hung at half mast, and a general pall fell over everything. When he thought back on it, James seemed to remember it raining a lot that August.

But by September, everything was back on track. James moved to campus and the cramped, cinderblock-walled double that he and Bill would share for the year. The parties started before classes, and James found that he fell into a routine pretty easily – work out, go really hard at class and schoolwork for a few hours, party even harder, repeat. The cross country team had a mandated dry season, but he found there were plenty of other chances to drink, so it worked out.

Midway through October he joined a CLC group because Bill didn’t want to do it alone. They were on their way to the first meeting when James found out that CLC stood for “Christian Life Community” and tried to bail.

“It’s not like an indoctrination thing,” Bill said. “People just, like, sit around and talk about life. It’s not all about Jesus or anything.”

“You’re a Catholic!” James said. “You’ve already been indoctrinated! I don’t want to join your cult!”

“Dude,” Bill said, “Campus Ministry girls are hot.”

James paused. “How hot?”

“Holy shit, dude.”

“Where is this meeting, again?”

As usual, Bill was true to his word – the meeting wasn’t a weird Jesus freak thing (aside from a prayer at the beginning and the end which made James uncomfortable), and a few of the girls were really hot. One of them was a sophomore named Tara McCairn.

“I think I saw God most in my week during service,” she said at one point. “I’ve been doing the Subway Runs on Tuesday nights? We go to this park where there are a lot of homeless people hanging out, and we bring them sandwiches and hang out with them for a while. It’s just incredible how grateful they are, even though they don’t have anything.”

“That sounds awesome,” James said.

“It’s really inspiring,” Tara said. She smiled at everyone in the group. “I’m actually thinking about doing a fundraiser concert for one of the big non-profits in the area, if I get on CSG. Did I mention I’m running for student government?”

“I’d vote for you,” James said.

“It’s to be a sophomore class rep, so you won’t be able to,” she said. “But you’re cute, thanks.”

“Sure, I, uhhhhhhh…” James said.

They were in the common room of the group leader – Kerri’s – six-person apartment in Gonzaga Hall, which was next to a half kitchen and a hallway that led back to the bedrooms. And it was from that hallway that they suddenly heard a shrill scream.

Everyone looked at each other for a moment, and then ran back into the hallway to see what was wrong. In the back room they found one of Kerri’s roommates, standing in front of her TV in a state of shock.

“Alana, what’s wrong?” Kerri asked. “Are you okay?”

“Okay?” the roommate repeated. She didn’t even look at them, just stood there trembling, the light of the screen reflecting eerily off of her glasses.

And then, slowly, she smiled.

“Okay?” she said again. “No, I’m not okay. I’m fucking AMAZING!! This is the best day of my life!”

Everyone stared at her, blankly, and Alana stepped back, pointing to the TV.

“See? See?” she said. “It’s Studmuffin. Studmuffin’s coming here. STUDMUFFIN’S COMING HERE!!!! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!”

James winced, the scream knifing through his brain, but he did step around to look at the screen. Indeed, there was a shot of Studmuffin, grinning and waving like a fucking tool. The shot quickly changed to stock footage of several other super heroes – Oreo Avenger, Sticky Spectre from Philly, Superdude from New York. And underneath all of them was a banner reading: BREAKING: NEW CITY-BASED SUPER HERO TEAM ANNOUNCED.

“They’re calling it the Justice League,” Alana said. “They’re gonna build their headquarters, like, right on the other end of that big bridge. Isn’t that awesome?!”

“The Justice League?” Bill repeated. “Isn’t that, like, copyright infringement?”

James just stared at the screen. The shot had shifted to video of a press conference that was apparently still going on, Studmuffin standing at a podium on the steps of City Hall, with several other super heroes behind him. He figured he should have found this cool – everyone else seemed to – but the sight filled him with something else, instead. A kind of dull sadness, a distant sense of loss.

“The Justice League,” he said. “Huh.”

* * *

He and Tara hooked up for the first time after winning five successive games of beer pong on Halloween. He was dressed as Spider-Man, she as Lara Croft, so before the clothes came off it had looked like a particularly ill-conceived piece of smutty fan fiction. Afterwards, it had been incredible. Aside from Ashlee Markland, James had never been with a girl as confident during sex as Tara, never been with someone so driven and energized. In the end, he almost felt dizzy, lying there with one arm beneath her, while she went into a buzzed monologue about her grand plans for Campion Student Government. When they both woke up the next morning with only the slightest of hangovers, they had sex again. It was James’ first experience of morning sex, since he was more used to morning apologies and awkward small talk. Afterwards he decided that he finally knew what it meant to be in love.

They were never officially dating (which was good, because that meant James never officially cheated on her), but they hooked up steadily through the rest of the semester, and well into the next. It was the closest to a serious relationship James had ever been in – they started hanging out when they weren’t drunk, went out into the City a few times, watched TV. He even got to go to her house once over Christmas break, an enormous mansion in the northern reaches of Marble Gardens. He met her father, a wry old Irish guy who seemed pleasantly menacing. Her brother, Mac, was friendlier – a bit too friendly, really. He’d given James a slow, salacious once-over when he’d walked into the room, and a suggestive wink when he left the hall bathroom. Mac had also been high the whole night, his eyes shot through with crimson veins. James was able to stave off having Tara come to his house until spring break, although he got the sense that she wasn’t terribly interested.

And it was only a vague sense. While people like Bill and Sera considered Tara an acquired distaste, James was smitten. He even started volunteering because of her, riding the subway with Tara and six other Campion students every Tuesday night to a park outside of St. Fulrad’s Catholic Church, on the eastside. It was a hangout for homeless people from various parts of the City, one of the few places they could lay their heads all night without getting rousted by cops. They’d bring two big blue coolers of ham-and-cheese sandwiches – prepared earlier in the Campus Ministry office – and three plastic urns of drinks (one was always water, and then iced tea and lemonade when it was warm out, or hot chocolate when it was cold). After handing out the food, they’d just hang out for an hour or so with whoever was around.

It started out as a pretty superficial thing – James was really just going for Tara, and he got the sense that she was only doing it to make herself look good. But he found that he liked it, and even after things inevitably tanked between him and Tara later in the year, he kept going. Over time he got to know some of the folks who were there regularly. Some of them were mentally ill – like a wide-eyed middle aged man everyone called Deacon, who talked in circles, wrote compulsively on discarded scraps of paper, and claimed that Jesus spoke to him through TVs. But most were just people who had fallen on hard times, or were in the thrall of one addiction or another.

There was Eddie, a former longshoreman who had lost his job after permanently injuring his leg on the docks, and ended up getting addicted to his prescription pain killers. Back in the day he’d gone to St. Fulrad’s as a parishioner and seemed to vaguely remember James’ Uncle Bubba from high school.

And Clara, crack-thin and constantly in a state of jerky alertness. Occasionally she would calm down enough to carry on a conversation, and when she did she invariably told a story about something terrible that had happened to her at IHOP.

Or New York, a wiry guy who wore sunglasses year-round, who bantered with everyone, flirted with all of the Campion girls, and occasionally revealed some hint of his past as an NYU grad and high school teacher.

James liked it so much partly because it mostly involved standing around and bullshitting, and – unlike just about every other part of college aside from drinking – he was good at that. But it had the unintended side-effect of giving him a front row seat to these peoples’ pain, and that did strange things to him. Once, he’d spent the entire time after food distribution off in a corner of the park, talking to a guy whose name also happened to be James, effectively trying to make an argument for why he should even keep on living.

“I’m just so damn tired, man,” other James said. “I want to quit, I got to, I try to, but as long as I’m in this city? In the neighborhood I’m living in? It just ain’t gonna happen. Everybody I know, everybody who’ll still talk to me, they’re all into this shit. And even leaving don’t help. My brother, Orlando, he live up north, Jersey City? Shit, they got dope in Jersey City, too. I went up there to stay with him, wasn’t two days till I figured out where to cop and got my blast. Fuck, man.”

He wiped his face, and his eyes were glossy with restrained tears. The memory of that, more than anything, filled James with a thick sense of helplessness.

I should be able to do something, he thought. This isn’t right, people shouldn’t have to deal with this shit. I should be able to do something to help.

But there was nothing to do except go back to campus and get blitzed in the dorm. Bill wasn’t around – most likely at Sera’s – so he just sat in bed and watched TV while he drank. He’d been watching the WB (Tara was busy, so the only action he was getting tonight was from his right hand, with a little help from Jessica Biel and Sarah Michelle Gellar) when the local news came on at 11. The lead story was about something the Justice League had done, some charity photo op. A few of them – Studmuffin, SuperNova, Violet Princess – were up front, with big shit-eating grins on their faces. But in the background he noticed Sticky Spectre, hands in her pockets, scowling. Before he could meditate on that intriguing image, the shot changed to a close up of Studmuffin, beaming into the camera and promising that this was a new day for the City.

“Fuck you,” James muttered. He clicked the TV off and sat in the silence.

* * *

One night in May he was startled awake by his dorm phone, impossibly loud in the early morning quiet. He’d fumbled, blood pounding, and finally found the receiver.

“Uh, yeah, hello?”

“James?” His mother’s voice. He recognized that almost-gone tone – the last time he’d heard it was in February when she called to say that the police had found his Uncle Bubba’s body, dead on some little island in the Ohnoee River from a heroin overdose.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, the fear tying a queasy knot in his stomach.

“It’s Alex,” was all she got out, and then started sobbing.

The next day, when he saw the amount of blood sprayed on the bathroom mirror and over the sink basin, he realized how amazing it was that Alex had survived at all. A towel that James had used all the time as a kid was on the floor – stiff, coiled, and red – the only evidence of his mother’s attempts to cut off the blood flow before the paramedics had arrived. And even though Alex lived, when he woke it was a full day before he’d say anything to anyone. When that happened, he only asked for James.

Walking into the hospital room, James was struck by how small his brother looked. Under the stark tube lights, his skin looked a sickly yellowish-white. His face was totally flat, his eyes blank.

“Hey, man,” James said, gingerly approaching the bed, trying not to look at the thick bandages around his brother’s wrists. “How are you feeling?”

Alex just stared at a far corner of the room for a moment. Finally he said: “I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. I knew I was just going to end up hurting someone. There’s a girl in my class, Corinne. I started following her after school. I learned her whole routine, and I’d watch her and get excited that she didn’t know. But I knew that wasn’t gonna be enough. I knew I was going to end up doing something else, I was gonna end up hurting her. So…”

He lifted his bandaged arms weakly, dropped them, shrugged.

“You shouldn’t have left,” he said. “It all would have been okay if you hadn’t left.”

The shame was so suffocating that James felt like he was going to puke from the pressure. He had to get out of there, get out of there and have a drink.

No, he told himself. Don’t do this. You have to stay. You have to be here for the kid. For once in your stupid fucking life, you useless sack of shit, just stay here and do the right thing. Say something.

“Alex…” he started, and then found he didn’t have anything else.

“You could have stopped me, if you’d been around,” Alex said. “You would have stopped me from hurting anyone. But you weren’t. So I had to stop myself.”

James had a sudden mental image of Alex standing in the bathroom, looking his reflection in the eye as he dug the knife deep into his wrist, and he almost did puke. Something hot and bitter surged up in his throat, and he had to choke it back down, his eyes watering.

This is your fault. This is on you.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but Alex had tuned out. He sat there pulling at a thread on one of his bandages, his face in shadow. After a few more moments of silence, James left.

They had him committed, in the end, at the incongruously-named Zaphod Breeblebox Memorial Asylum. James had gone with his parents for the intake. He and his mother were drunk, Alex doped up, his father the only sober one in the bunch. After an orderly took Alex off to the juvenile ward, and his parents stepped into a doctor’s office to discuss the conditions of Alex’s care, James sat on a bench in the wide, marble-floored hallway. His head was fuzzy with alcohol, and he’d sat there staring at a row of framed portraits of board members (DR. JOHN R. LANSKY, PSYD.), trying not to feel anything. When he got home he’d lapsed into a kind of deflated sobriety, his whole body heavy and bland. He called Carolyn Gardner, one of his more regular non-Tara booty calls, and she brought over some pot. James didn’t smoke too much as a rule – he didn’t like the way it smelled, or the malaise that settled over him whenever he was good and high. But it mellowed him out, made all of his edges fuzzy, and fuzzy was what he wanted right now. Carolyn seemed to think that pot made sex better, but it just numbed it all for James. Still, his equation for dealing with pain was two-part – anesthetize and release – and the sex served the second half. So he just lay on his back, let her enjoy herself while he glanced around the room, hazily taking in the halo from Bill’s desk lamp, that black-and-white poster of the two chicks kissing on the wall, and finally the door, opening slowly, Tara stepping in, her eyes popping comically wide. James was too blunted at that point to even tell Carolyn to stop. He just smiled weakly at Tara. She glared at him fiercely for a moment, and then turned and left, the door slamming behind her. Carolyn slowed, looked around.

“Did somebody just walk in?” she asked.

James could only laugh.

* * *

The rest of college revolved over and over through the same cycle of self-destruction, so many times that James didn’t even find it interesting anymore. He mostly drank, pulling it together enough to pass most of his classes, but only through natural intelligence rather than any hard work. He declared a Communications major, but didn’t put much heart into it. He did churn out a few inspired opinion pieces for a Journalism assignment, but that was about the limit of his accomplishments. After Tara he didn’t even have a halfway-girlfriend, and slowly he alienated and made enemies of every single one of his hook-ups. As he got older he’d just focus on girls from the classes behind him, who didn’t know about him yet, but they all ended up hating him, too. It was only when he’d finally chased off Natalie – a sweet, smart girl who’d actually wanted to put up with him – that he realized that he wanted to be hated.

Even his friendships were poisoned. He and Bill had a slow falling out over the course of sophomore year, and eventually stopped talking to him altogether second semester. That was at least partially because Sera wasn’t talking to him anymore, a consequence of James’ inability to be there for her when her parents got divorced in February. Junior year he lived with a few guys from the track team, although at that point he’d started drinking uproariously in the dry season, and by the end of the year he found that his spot on the team – and the scholarship that had come with it – were gone. His parents freaked out, of course, but in the end they agreed to pay for his final year as long as he got a job on campus, assuming this would teach him responsibility or something.

The job, as it turned out, was to be a Desk Assistant in a freshman dorm. The special substance-free housing, in fact, which James found all kinds of ironic. He’d show up to most of his shifts (usually eight to midnight) toasted, and use a water bottle of liquor to keep his buzz going from there. Somehow he was able to maintain enough focus to check the incoming students’ ID’s, so none of his supervisors ever noticed anything amiss when they reviewed the security cameras hanging in the corner. He’d spend the four hour shift drinking, hitting on the freshmen who walked past, and, when the night was really quiet, watching shit on the TV next to his desk. Mostly, it was stuff about the Justice League. Gossip about Superdude and DragonGirl’s latest date. Gossip about Studmuffin’s newest celebrity paramour (Jessica Biel, apparently). And rumors about the Outsiders, the group Sticky Spectre had formed after she split from the Justice League in 2001, a consequence of the Yeerk invasion and the 9/11 attacks. Her team – which included former Justice Leaguers like Pinzz, and new folks like that girl with the ice powers and that kid who seemed like a human bomb – were taking a much more aggressive tact. They had laid siege to a super human testing facility on the outskirts of Xiamen, and even broken into the Pentagon, if the hysterical news reporters were to be believed. The Justice League had vowed to stop them, but so far nothing much had happened on that front. James didn’t think anything ever would, but he enjoyed watching just the same.

His life had become very solitary. After work, he’d stagger back to his room in Campion’s Arrupe Court, which he shared with some other gym rats he’d semi-befriended the year before. Occasionally he’d go back to some freshmen’s room, which was usually more pleasant. He was twenty-two now, and had realized that most people must go through life with a deep-seated loneliness. Or, at the very least, he was going to, and he might as well resign himself to that. So he had, and it felt… well, not like much of anything, really.

Still, he had his job, and the occasional hook-up, and the TV. And the TV provided a constant source of entertainment. Occasionally it skewed too dark – for instance, in March of his senior year, when the Justice League had been ambushed while protecting the Oscars. DragonGirl, OMEGA, and Rosma Galak had been killed in the fray, with Violet Princess seriously wounded and Isomorphix threatening – on live TV, of course – to quit the group. James had watched the coverage breathlessly through a particularly long Sunday night desk shift, from the moment that the cameras cut out at the Norton Amphitheater, to later that night when the pundits were weighing in and the Outsiders were swearing revenge through a third party. The most he’d hoped for was that Eric might make out with Scarlett Johansson. This was much more interesting.

James graduated, barely. He’d at least had the decency not to feel proud of himself at graduation – he knew it was only by some miracle that he’d skirted by with passing grades, and that if he wanted to go any further in life he’d actually have to apply himself. So, of course, he’d promised himself that he would, and even made a few moves in that direction – reading up on law school, trying to psych himself up to take the entrance exam. For a moment it seemed like a great idea – there was so much fucked up in the world, maybe this was his best chance to do something about it. Besides, it was about time that he started paying society back for all of the destructive shit he’d done in his two decades of living. He road this little stream of ambition until he saw what grades he’d need to get into a decent law school, and started flipping through the exam practice books. And that was the end of that.

He got a job as a bartender at a bar on the Westside called the Cargo Hold. It was out on the end of a pier in Van Ruiten Bay, which smelled constantly like day-old fish, and it had a kind of kitschy sailing theme – all wooden-plank walls and life preservers and nets with plastic crabs hanging from the ceilings. But it was a job, and best of all, it was a job where he could drink. He didn’t get a lot of tips – the customers were primarily either crusty locals from the just-north-of-Southside neighborhood Sparrow’s Point, or suits from the adjacent PowersCo Building and business park, and therefore all much more interested in the female bartenders than him. But it paid enough to keep him from having to move back in with his parents, which made it worth it. The owner, Hank, liked him for some reason and would occasionally slip him a little extra under the table. James got the sense that Hank saw something of himself in James. He wasn’t sure how he felt about a 280-pound, never-married, lifelong-bartender seeing him as a mirror image, but he appreciated the extra cash.

Eventually he started dating one of the other bartenders, a short blonde named Alison who’d dropped out of the University after freshman year but was hoping to start back up again next winter. She lived in Sparrow’s Point, on a little side street where the road was still made of cobblestones and wiry white boys in wife beaters eyed James challengingly every time he walked to her door. But she was sweet, and funny, and didn’t ask too much from him. He didn’t cheat on her too much, which he figured was pretty close to settling down. James felt like that’s what his entire life had been over the last few years: pretty close. Pretty close to meaningful, pretty close to successful, pretty close to happy. Maybe that was the best you could hope for.

But every so often, he’d get struck with this strange, deep feeling of loss. It wasn’t for his friendship with Bill, or for Alex, or his wasted college career, or any of the other actual failures in his life. It was more an ache for everything that hadn’t been, for all of the potential he’d believed in when he was a little kid, for all of the opportunities that had, it seemed, narrowed one by one as he got older. One time it hit him while he was sitting on his couch, 5 a.m. on a Sunday. He’d gotten home late from a Saturday night shift and was too buzzed from shots and his backroom tryst with the new girl (What’s-Her-Face) to sleep. So he’d flopped down on the couch and turned on the TV.

The Justice League was in the news again, as he expected they’d always be. Things were heating up between them and the Outsiders, especially now that Isomorphix and Scarlett Fyre had switched sides. Studmuffin seemed to be getting more and more distracted, the aggressive SuperNova was taking charge, and Oreo Avenger was trying in vain to hold the team together. There was a new guy, some powerless tool named Typho, who had stepped in after Superdude quit, and didn’t seem to be helping matters. And things had gone from bad to worse this weekend, when the Outsiders had deposited the mangled remains of the mob boss who had orchestrated the Oscars massacre outside of the ruined Norton Ampitheater. Only his weird, Brad Pitt-look alike face had been left untouched. James was sure that there was no one on the Justice League who wasn’t happy to see the bastard dead, but it wasn’t like they could let the Outsiders get away with murder. All-out super human war seemed inevitable in the near future, and there were rumors that Bush had granted emergency authority to M.O.R.P.H.Z. to deal with the crisis.

Not their finest hour, and yet, as James watched the story, he felt that unanswerable longing again. And sitting there on the stained couch, he knew with perfect clarity that there was a hole inside of him that would never be filled. Maybe, somewhere along the line, there had been an opportunity for everything to work out all right. Some tiny moment that could have changed everything, if he’d only been paying attention. But he’d missed it, and he knew that he’d never find it again. This was his life now. This was all it would ever be.

He glanced at his phone. 5:36.

Well. No time like the present.

James walked to the kitchen, and got another drink.