JUSTICE LEAGUE

24

The Big Kahuna and Uncle Bubba
 

The second barrage of coconuts slammed the security guards into the already-shattered armored car.

The four men fell to the ground, bleeding, gasping. They looked up in terror at the towering monster in front of them.

It looked, of all things, like a monstrous tiki- stubby body, wide, fierce mouth and a large crested head. Its entire body seemed to be made of wood, except for the slivers of wires and steel that could be seen between the joints- a robotic suit. Two eyes glowed electronically red from the wooden "folds" of the face. In one stubby hand, the "tiki" held what seemed to be a miniature palm tree, with a hole right at top, pointed at the guards. A Coconut Launcher.

"You rent-a-cops think you make enough an hour to take another hit of that?" A man sneered from within the tiki suit. "Then give me the money- as much as each of you can carry. And make it snappy!"

"P-please." One of the security guards moaned from the ground. "Please, just- just take it. Take whatever you want!"

"Oooooh no," The tiki-man said, and his electronic eyes glowed intensely. "I want you to crawl over here and hand it to me. I want you to give it to me."

"Oh, if you say so..."

The tiki-man whipped its massive head around- just as a pair of black-clad feet smashed into the side of his wooden face.

"...But you walked right into that one." X-Raytor said, as he landed on his feet a yard away from the tiki-man.

The tiki-man stumbled, but his suit had taken the brunt of the blow. "You little idiot!" He growled.

X-Raytor raised his fists, but paused. "Uh... what are you supposed to be?"

"Isn't it obvious?" The tiki-man demanded.

"Uh... no?"

"I am- the Big Kahuna!" He crowed. "I mean, duh. What did you expect?"

“Well, I was going to guess ‘Big Stupid Schmuck in an Ugly Wooden Suit,’ but, damn it, wrong again!”

The Big Kahuna's red eyes darkened. "Oh, you think you're funny? Well try this one, smart guy!"

He snapped the Coconut Launcher towards X-Raytor, pulled a hidden trigger and-

WHUMP!

"Gah!" X-Raytor ducked just as a coconut went hurtling by him, slamming into a parked car. The coconut smashed the car's door like tin foil.

"Sheesh!" X-Raytor said. "Well, I didn't exactly know you could shoot coconuts now, did I?"

He dodged another blast, and flipped, landing on his hands and propelling himself at the Big Kahuna. He landed a double-kick to the wooden chest of the man's suit, and then bounced back.

"But, y'know, why should I have guessed? You don't exactly expect someone to be running around dressed as a freaking souvenir and shooting hairy fruit at you from a mini-palm tree, now, do you?"

"Kill you!" The Big Kahuna raged, and tried to swat X-Raytor with the Coconut Launcher, but he ducked. X-Raytor grabbed the Coconut Launcher's barrel and tried to wrestle it from the tiki's grip.

"Unh- and what's with this whole- rrr- Hawaiian bit, anyway? I mean, what, did you get the idea from 'A Very Brady Sequel?' Or did you just want to be like- grr- Hoku?"

X-Raytor shoved the Coconut Launcher down, and forced it onto the street with his foot.

“And while we’re on the subject, not only are you offending the world of fashion with that stupid costume, you’re harming all of Hawaiian culture. I mean, have you no shame? It’s like having a criminal who calls himself ‘The Leprechaun’ and shoots potatoes at you out of a shamrock-shaped gun.”

“Oh, for Pele’s sake- get off of me, you little s***! Off!”

“Yeah, it pisses me off, too. Stupid cultural stereotypes.”

X-Raytor swiftly brought his fist back, and shoved it into the Big Kahuna's "mouth." It felt like he had hit the man's face, but the Big Kahuna swept out a wooden fist and sent him sprawling backwards. X-Raytor felt like he'd taken a sledgehammer to the gut. He couldn't get any air in- couldn't breathe!

"Little bastard-!" The Big Kahuna growled, and aimed his Coconut Launcher.

X-Raytor's breath was returning slowly, but he was still in a world of hurt. He needed a second to- but the Coconut Launcher's muzzle was a black eye staring at his forehead-

No! No way! I cannot be defeated by freaking Easter Island Man! Come on, X-y, put that amazing superhero-crime-fighter brain to work!

Oh. Wait. Right. Oopsies.


X-Raytor focused in on the Big Kahuna's arm, and fired. A pair of lasers cut into the wood, but spattered on the suit's robotic insides.

"Ha!" The Big Kahuna said. "Just grazed the skin, @#%$!"

X-Raytor got painfully to his feet, and pointed at the Big Kahuna's arm. "Uh, I think you might be a bit mistaken there, Mr. Kahuna."

The Big Kahuna turned its monstrous wooden face down towards its arm- and the flames that were creeping slowly up it.

"AAGH!"

"Yeah, I thought you'd say that."

"AAAAARRGGH!!!" The Big Kahuna waved his arm- which was now fully engulfed in flame- around wildly.

"Hey, let me help you out there, pal- whoops!" X-Raytor focused his laser-vision into two narrow, continuous beams, and drew them across the Big Kahuna's back. Flames leapt up from either side of the shallow, charred line, and spread over the suit. Whatever wood the outside was made from, it was burning easily.

"GRRR!!!! YOU LITTLE S***!!!!!!" The Big Kahuna roared through the fire. "YOU ARE SO F***ING DEAD!!!!!!!"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," X-Raytor said, stepping back to a fire hydrant. "Let me help you out there, Woody," He shot the screw off of one side of the hydrant, and a white fist of water exploded from it. The fountain blasted the Big Kahuna in his flaming torso, and sent him flying back.

"So," X-Raytor said, sidling over. "Had enough?"

There was a sudden whir of gears, and with the sound of rusted metal on rusted metal, the Big Kahuna stood up. He was utterly drenched and the wooden covering of his suit was nearly gone- but the steel of the actual robotic suit was untouched. X-Raytor stood before a towering mass of solid metal muscles and sinew. The glowing red eyes flickered, and then glowed even more intensely than before.

"You... little... f***..." He growled.

"Uh..." X-Raytor said. "Shouldn't the, um, water have, like, short-circuited you or... something?"

"Water doesn't affect me," The Big Kahuna snapped. "You think I'm stupid? I build this suit and you think I'm an idiot?"

"Well," X-Raytor said. "You were trying to rob an armored car in broad daylight..."

"DIE!!!!!!" The Big Kahuna roared, and brandished his Coconut Launcher. X-Raytor somersaulted, dodging the first barrage, and let out a rapid fire blast of eye-lasers.

Spack. Spack Spack.

The lasers hit the steel exoskeleton, and disintegrated. The Big Kahuna didn't budge.

"That all you got?" The Big Kahuna sneered.

"Well, uh, I was sorta hoping that would work..."

"HA!" The Big Kahuna fired.

The coconut rushed at X-Raytor faster than he could comprehend-

Fire!

A pair of lasers caught the coconut and it exploded, showering white chunks and splatters of milk everywhere.

A few of the milk drops hit the Big Kahuna's robotic body- and sizzled.

"Uh..."

"Well,” X-Raytor said. "That's good to know."

“Screw it,” The Big Kahuna growled, and raised one of his hands, stubby, metallic figures pointing at X-Raytor. “I was prepared for this. Suck Kilauea, moron!”

X-Raytor leapt out of the way as four molten streams of lava shot at him. He could smell the air burning next to him. He lava hadn’t come out like napalm, or from a flamethrower- one continuous stream of liquid fire- but in single, serpentine bursts.

The lava blasts hit a nearby grocery store- melting the brick exterior, and one blowing the window inwards. People on the sidewalk scattered, shielding their heads.

X-Raytor cursed. I should’ve taken this idiot down before he knew what hit him. He’s gonna hurt somebody!

X-Raytor heard police sirens, from not too far off, and grimaced again. The cops have no chance against this guy. I’ve gotta take him down. Now.

“Hey, um, could you shoot some more coconuts at me?” X-Raytor asked.

“Nice try, runt!” The Big Kahuna said, and fired four more lava blasts.

“Back! Get back!” Someone on the sidewalk yelled. X-Raytor dropped onto his stomach and the lava streaked by overhead, smashing into the side of a building. A few drops flew off of the streams and hit the street near his head. He watched the asphalt sizzle.

F***.

X-Raytor fired another laser blast, aiming for the Big Kahuna’s still-gaping mouth. As expected, the criminal jerked his head around, and the laser blasts smacked uselessly into the side of the suit’s head. But it gave X-Raytor enough time to dive behind the armored car. Tiki-boy wouldn’t blow this up, he was sure- the money was still in there, after all.

Okay, okay, so what did he know? Well, it looked like coconut milk had some sort of effect on the wiring of the suit. Why the Big Kahuna hadn’t realized that his suit would be susceptible to that was beyond X-Raytor. Of course, it was entirely possible that he hadn’t built the suit himself, but-

WHUMP!

BAMM!

The armored car shuddered against X-Raytor’s back. Was that idiot shooting it? With the Coconut Launcher? What did he think that was going to do?!

“C’mon out, shrimp!” The Big Kahuna cried gleefully. I wanna look at you when I roast your loser heinie. Either that, or I’m gonna knock that freakin’ armored car over on your f***ing head!”

Oh.

As if to underline the point, the Big Kahuna fired again- WHUMP!- and the coconut hit the opposite side of the armored car, closer to the top, causing it to tip slightly.

Damn it. I need some f***ing coconuts. Maybe if I dart out there fast enough and shoot one just as he fires… ah, crap, but how do I know he isn’t expecting that? He might have his Magical Mystery Lava Fingers ready for me when I come around the corner. Man, this sucks. I can run away and double back, but how do I know he won’t have hurt someone by then? How do I-

Another coconut his the armored car, tipping it once again, just as X-Raytor had an idea.

Oh man- I can’t believe I’m even thinking this…

X-Raytor got down on his stomach and slid under the armored car. The vehicle was built pretty low, but years of running around this city- and never using blurbs like those other lazy slugs- had kept X-Raytor slim. He was able to get under without much trouble, and pull himself across the asphalt. He stopped when he had a good view of the Big Kahuna but, unless he was looking, his attacker couldn’t see him.

The Big Kahuna was aiming his Coconut Launcher with his left hand and, sure enough, his lava-producing right hand was pointed towards the front of the armored car.

Well- glad I didn’t try Plan A…

“Okay, this is your last warning!” The Big Kahuna shouted, and X-Raytor noted a hint of annoyance in his thundering voice. “Either come out or I open up rapid-fire-like and crush you like the ballet-tights-wearing bug you are! Choose now!”

“Choose now.” X-Raytor thought. Where does any costume-wearing maniac get off telling me to ‘choose?’ I swear to God, next guy who gives me an ultimatum… oops, better be ready.

After a moment, the Big Kahuna shrugged. “All right, ‘smashed’ it is!”

He aimed, and so did X-Raytor.

For a moment, the Big Kahuna hesitated, his finger playing restlessly on the trigger-

He fired!

WHU-

And just as the first coconut left the muzzle of the Launcher, X-Raytor fired as well.

The lasers nailed the coconut dead on and it exploded. Coconut milk and charred coconut chunks splattered all over the Big Kahuna’s steel chest.

“Oh cr-“

There was a deafening crack, and then Big Kahuna’s suit seemed to burst into light. Electricity ran up and down the suit, occasionally shooting off to the side, as tiny explosions ruptured all over the Big Kahuna’s metallic skin.

“AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGH!!!! AAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHH!!!!!!!”

X-Raytor pulled himself out from under the car, and stood up, dusting himself off.

“AAAAAAGH-AAAAAAGH-AAAAAAAAGH!!!!!! AAAAAAAAARRRRRGH!!!!!”

“Really,” X-Raytor said. “I was just thinking that myself.”

Suddenly, with a final crackle and POP, the Big Kahuna stopped, and then dropped onto his face with a metal thunk that shook the street.

X-Raytor walked over to the fallen criminal, and poked the head of his suit with a foot. “Hey, you still awake in there?”

“Ooooh…” Someone moaned from inside. “Damn it… I give up, I give up. I can’t move anymore, okay? The suit’s shorted out. Ooooh…”

“Good to know,” X-Raytor said, patting the back of the steel tiki head. He turned to the crowd that had assembled. “And may that be a lesson to all of you youngsters looking to get into the not so lucrative field of having a guy like me conk you one on the head… oh, never mind. Tell the cops to lock this guy up, willya?”

The bystanders began to applaud, and X-Raytor was about to make his exit- when he saw a brown-haired girl a little younger than him standing on the other end of the street, opposite from the crowd. X-Raytor grinned beneath his mask and walked over.

“I’ve had guys leave dates with me for some pretty strange reasons,” Cara said. “But never to fight a coconut-shooting-tiki-costume-wearing-robot guy.”

“Hey, it’s the bonus of dating me,” X-Raytor said. “You get the clinical depression, the weird clothing, and the giant-robotic-tiki-robbers for free! Want to go back to lunch?”

Cara checked her watch. “Sure. I’ve still got a solid twenty minutes before I have to be back on set. I told them not to throw our food out.”

X-Raytor and Cara walked back to the restaurant- the Quick Stop Restaurant- talking.

The fact that X-Raytor was out on a date, and, more importantly, out on a date with Cara DeLizia, had really put his everyday life in perspective. Sure, he had just fought a big, probably ugly, idiot in a robotic tiki suit, but a lunch date with Cara DeLizia? How often did that happen?

The Quick Stop Restaurant was a new chain, started by some convenience store owner from New Jersey. The idea was to make a faster, more efficient type of fast food restaurant- with the furnishings of an actual sit-down restaurant! How? By having the food on the table when you got there!

Of course, most of the food was in freeze dried form but, hey, all you had to do was add hot water!

X-Raytor and Cara walked in through the lavender-trim door, and X-Raytor gave a thumbs-up to the concierge.

“Ah, Mr. X-Raytor!” The concierge (who was also, incidentally, the manager, waiter, and fry cook… even though they didn’t need a fry cook) said. “You were in the privacy room, yes? Everything is exactly how you left it, sir!”

“Thanks.” X-Raytor said, and turned to the right, heading up the short flight of stairs to the “privacy room.” It was actually the attic, and it got a little musty in the summer, but they X-Raytor needed the privacy, and the proprietors of the restaurant were all too happy to oblige. After all, X-Raytor had saved the restaurant from certain doom when, during a fight on Broad Street a few months ago, when She-Man had hurled a compact-mirror-grenade at the building in order to distract the heroes. X-Raytor had snatched the grenade out of mid-air and thrown it away.

Of course, he had blown up the laudromat across the street, but no one went there anyway! Besides, they put in that neat-o Blockbuster there! Score!

“… So that’s why I never eat Scandinavian food.” Cara said.

“Wow. I’m never going to Minnesota again.”

“Good plan.”

“Okay, so the food is still here,” X-Raytor said, sitting down. “Just my luck to find a Cup of Noodles today! Usually they just have those little cube things…” X-Raytor poured boiling water into his Cup of Noodles.

“Eh, it’s cold,” Cara said, poking the contents of her bowl with a spoon. “And I really wanted to have some instant maple and ginger flavored oatmeal, you know? They banned it back in California because, like, a lot of people started going insane from eating it. They said it caused a genetic imbalance in the brain. Or something.”

“Hey, I just noticed something,” X-Raytor said, staring at his Cup of Noodles.

“That it only says ‘Cup Noodles?’”

“Yeah!”

Cara nodded, and picked up a freeze-dried pasta bowl. She turned it over, grimaced, but poured hot water into it anyway.

“You know,” X-Raytor said, tapping his spoon against the table. “I really would like to, you know, have an actual date. I mean, I haven’t gotten to take you anyplace fancy or put on a clip-on bowtie or anything!”

“This is what I’d call a real date,” Cara said, glancing at the microwave. “Hanging out, talking about freeze-dried food… even though I think we should get sandwiches or something tomorrow.”

“No problem,” X-Raytor said, laughing. He lifted up the bottom of his mask, pulled it up to right under his nose. He scooped some noodles from the cup and brought them up to his mouth.

“Um,” Cara said, glancing up at him, and then down at the table.

X-Raytor knew what she was thinking and sighed. “It’s the mask, huh?”

“No offense or anything, but, um, couldn’t you take it off to eat at least? We are alone…

“It’s- I mean, it’s not like I don’t want to, but I can’t. It’s- it’s dangerous.”

The microwave started beeping, and Cara reached over and turned it off. She didn’t look away from him. “Dangerous… like, what?”

“Like, okay, check it out,” X-Raytor brought his hand up, index finger and thumb extended. He tapped his head next to his eye. “I’ve got x-ray vision, right? Well, with that, I’ve also got God-knows-how-much radiation leaking from my retina every second. And the only reason why I’m not making everything glow in the dark and sprout six arms is my mask. Specifically the eye pieces- they’re made out of some sort of aluminum derivative- Isomorphix made them for me. So, yeah, I can’t take it off.”

Cara blinked. “Oh. Well, uh, that makes sense.”

“Yep. Not that I wouldn’t want to take it off, if I could. And not that I have anything to hide! Nope! Not at all!”

Cara smiled as she stirred her pasta bowl. “I’m sure.” Suddenly she dropped her spoon and groaned. “Crap. I’ve got, like, five minutes to get back to the set, and we’re filming across town today. I’ve really got to-“

“No problem,” X-Raytor said.

“Okay,” Cara grabbed her handbag, and headed for the door, pasta bowl still in hand. X-Raytor followed her outside, and waited as she waved down a taxi.

“Okay, I’ll see you at lunch tomorrow,” She said. “Oh, and hey, call me about that fancy-dinner-clip-on-bowtie thing.”

“Sure, no problem.” X-Raytor said. “Um, you can afford that sort of thing, right?”

Cara laughed and got in the cab. “See you tomorrow!”

“Bye!” X-Raytor said, waving. The taxi pulled away. “…And I was serious about the paying thing… being a super hero pays crap.”

X-Raytor began to walk down the street.

Maybe I should get a side job, He thought. I mean, seriously, I’m not getting any pay now. Zero. I got more working at the freaking Cinnabon. I wonder if they have an opening there…

X-Raytor cut down the next alley, climbed a fire escape, and began going from rooftop to rooftop. The Justice Moped was only a few blocks away.

Maybe I should just pull a Spider-Man- go into show biz or something. I mean, it’s like that Marco guy was always saying- I’m an awesome special effect! … Well, actually, all I can do is shoot lasers out of my eyes and look through crap. Maybe I could be a corporate spy! No, no, that’d be illegal…

X-Raytor reached the alley where he’d left the Justice Moped, and climbed down the fire escape. Good, it was still there. X-Raytor was about to hop on it and drive back to the Hall, when a man in a suit stepped out from behind a nearby dumpster. For a second, X-Raytor just stared. When the fact that a guy in a suit had just stepped out from behind a dumpster in an alley in the middle of the @#%$ city, he said, “Uh, hi.”

“Hello.” The man said. He was what people were always describing as “an older gentlemen.” And he was, indeed, older, and he did, indeed, seem to be a gentleman. Vaguely British as well, but maybe it was just the suit making him think that…

“Um, listen,” X-Raytor said. “I have no problem with you waiting for me or, um, whatever, but, uh, if you want an autograph, I don’t really have a pen and I’ve got sort of a finger cramp-“

“Actually, I’m here to deliver a message, Master John.” The man said, in his vaguely-British voice.

“Well, that’s okay, you can just drop it b-” X-Raytor froze. A burning, terrifying realization grew in the center of his brain and spread out, seeping down into him until he was thawed out enough to say, “W-what did you just call me?”

“Master John, my name is Mr. McPherson,” The man said. “I am your uncle Robert’s butler.”

“M-my uncle?” X-Raytor said. His mouth was dry. Oh no, oh Christ no…

Uncle Robert. Or, as his family members knew him, Uncle Bubba. X-Raytor’s mom’s brother. The man who, despite his usual aloofness, and strangely caustic attitude, always delivered the most powerful, crushing hugs at family reunions.

Uncle Bubba who had been mutated, along with everyone who had been at that final family reunion when X-Raytor was sixteen. Uncle Bubba, who had become a deranged, homicidal- and green- giant emperor penguin. The Green Penguin. The Green Penguin, who had tried to kill X-Raytor last year, and who X-Raytor had supposedly killed in a battle atop the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge.

Uncle Bubba, who two M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents had recently hinted might be alive.

But no- no! It was impossible! The Green Penguin had drowned, after being hit with a serious amount of chocolate- a substance lethal to penguins. Maybe- maybe this was some other Uncle Robert. Someone on his dad’s side or something. No need to jump to conclusions-

HE KNOWS WHO I AM!!! X-Raytor raged at himself. He knows I’m f***ing X-Raytor!!! What other Uncle Robert would it be?!?! I knew it!! I knew I heard him say my name!! JESUS CHRIST!!!!!

X-Raytor tried to keep himself composed. “Wh-what’s the message?”

“Your uncle,” McPherson said. “Would like to have you come and join him for dinner tomorrow night. He is currently living in the top floor penthouse at the Century Plaza, at 104 Burbank Street. He requests that you do not come in costume, although you can bring it along, if you’d like.”

“T-tomorrow?” X-Raytor repeated.

“Yes, sir.”

“Um, I’ll- I’ll need to get back to, um, to you on that.”

“There will be a limo around to pick you up tomorrow evening.” McPherson said, apparently not listening.

“I- I,”

“Oh, yes, one last thing,” McPherson said, reaching into his suit jacket. X-Raytor tensed. “Your uncle wants to know if you approve of the dinner menu for tomorrow. He’d like you to sample this… onion!” McPherson whipped the onion out and shoved it in X-Raytor’s face.

“Gah!” X-Raytor jerked back, his eyes immediately watering. Onions always did that to him. “Oh-oh man, hold on. I need to- can you turn the other way? I need to take my mask off.”

“Of course.”

X-Raytor pulled his mask off, and went to wipe away the water coming from his eyes. And at the same time, it was hard to hold back the real tears- his uncle, his uncle who he had supposedly murdered, was alive? He was going to kill him! He was a crazy mutant penguin! But- but how? How could he be living in a penthouse and still be…”

X-Raytor felt his mask slip from his hands, and he bent down after it. The water blurred his vision, so he tried feeling around until he found it. He must have run up against the Justice Moped, because, at one point, he felt something poke into him, beneath his eye.

When he finally got his mask, he wiped away the water, and secured it. “Okay, I’m good.”

McPherson turned back around. “Should I tell your uncle that you’ll be attending?”

X-Raytor let out a shaky breath. This was too weird, and definitely not a good thing- but if Bubba was back… well, he had to handle it. On his own. Family matters and all that.

“Sure,” X-Raytor said. “I’ll be there.”

“The limo will pick you up around six,” McPherson said, and without another word, turned and walked out of the alley. X-Raytor dropped into the seat of the Justice Moped and sagged.

Oh man…He thought. What am I going to do?

***

The crickets chirped audibly against a background hymn of hoots, howls, stirring leaves and other various sounds of the night. A shrouded figure sat cross-legged in between the pools of moonlight filtering through the trees.

Isomorphix opened his eyes from his meditation and looked skyward.

Dawn approaches, he thought, looking at the tinge of blue that had crept upon the horizon.

Picking up his katana that lay beside him, Iso rose to his feet.

He had not been able to rest for the past few nights. Perhaps it was still an after-effect of the Oscars - which still had not been fully investigated. Or perhaps it was due to the recent pizza/teleportation event that went unanswered for. Not to mention the closely related escape of Scarlett from her still unknown captors.

And Miss Saph Fyre, Oreo Avenger, and Studmuffin are still unaccounted for, Isomorphix mentally grumbled.

Too many loose ends. Isomorphix didn't like loose ends. To complicate matters, Rosma had been acting... strangely... around him. Or at least that's what Iso deducted.

I've been sitting here wasting my time for far too long, he realized. It's time to start tying some knots.

Isomorphix slid his sheathed sword into it's proper place under the right side of his belt, letting his trenchcoat flow over it. He took a last glance down at the Justice League Headquarters, barely able to make out the forms of two people sleeping on the rooftop.

It would probably be a while until he saw any of them again.

Turning around, Isomorphix disappeared into the shadowed wood just as the first rays of light began to signal a new day.

***

Xiao was hanging out with Drew, of all people, in her lab at the Justice League. Drew didn't seem to enjoy visitors in her lab, and Xiao found secret pleasure in bothering her.

"What's this do?" She asked, reaching for an odd, octagonal shaped device. She flipped it over in her hands, looking for switches or buttons, but the entire surface was smooth.

"That's a prototype piece for my upgraded shield generating machine." Drew said, automatically reaching for the object, which Xiao handed to her. Drew put it away on a large table that was littered with odd chunks of metal, wood, and even what looked like a hand-held dracon beam. Or maybe it was a flashlight.

"What's this?" Xiao flicked a switch on a box labeled 'DANGER: DO NOT TOUCH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE".

Drew grabbed it, fumbled with the switch and set it down. "Could you PLEASE go bother someone ELSE?"

Xiao was looking over another complicated gadget. "Hey I think I know what this is! It's an Ectoplasm Detector/Resonator 4-X9!"

"No it's a--" Drew paused, then turned around. "How did you know that?"

Xiao shrugged modestly. "I might've picked up a few things from Fred."

"Oh. Right." Drew rolled her eyes and turned around. Xiao was sure she heard a muttered, 'Demons, honestly.'

She frowned for a moment, then put the ED/R4-X9 down carefully where she had first picked it up. "You sure like machines a lot."

Drew didn't say anything, she had her back turned and was leaning over some metal, shaping it with her flash--er, laser.

"Maybe you'd like to be one?" Xiao asked, sweetly. She was suddenly puzzled. She'd never been one to really pick fights--think of fighting, yes, jealousy or envy, okay, but actually pick a fight with a fellow JL member? But it wasn't like Fred was controlling her. That felt entirely different. Maybe she was just tired. Or........umm......The whole Antarctica thing.. Her brain fumbled for a reason.

"Pardon?" Drew looked up from her work, turning off the laser.

"Nothing," Xiao muttered, and left the lab, careful to not touch the door, as it would electrocute anyone who dared. She wandered around the halls for awhile, then ran into Typho.

Typho seemed submerged in his own thoughts, so Xiao tried to get past him before---

"Hey sister! What's goin' down in ya hood?" Typho looked up.

"Oh, um, hi, Typho. Find the Invisible Justice Jet yet?" Xiao fidgeted.

"No, sorry. I looked everywhere for it, but I couldn't find it." Typho shook his head, then suddenly realized his mistake…..

"Well that's too ba--Hey! You uttered a coherent sentence!" Xiao's eyes widened. “That didn’t have any slang or odd references to things no one has ever heard of!”

"When ain't it, sista? The shizzle couldn’t be frizzled." Typho said energetically. She knows my secret. I must kill her! he thought wildly.

"Oh. Nevermind, it must've been my imagination." Xiao relaxed. "But...for some reason...I thought I could understand what you just said..…..and…” She trailed off and her eyes suddenly glazed over. “You're so cool!"

Typho nodded, shaking a mass of gold necklaces and other badass accessories with him. "I--"

“I’m surprised you made it back okay. And-“ She suddenly spat out a string of Latin.

"You've snazzled me, sista." Typho raised an eyebrow. In a cool way.

“Er…sorry about that,” Xiao said, shaking her head, trying to regain control of her body again.

“No problem. Boy, that demon thing is like, totally Charmed-meets-Buffy-with-Tales From The Crypt, isn’t it? I’ll bet he could do some nasty tricks.”

"Wow….. I…don’t…. want to read into that and while from anyone else it could be taken as something perverted, from you it actually sounds funny. And…cool….” She suddenly blinked, and her eyes glazed again. “Can I follow you around and be your dutiful servant?" She asked. Her voice sounded a bit deeper, and hollow, but as soon as the words were out her shadow suddenly darkened, and attempted to throttle her. Typho rushed over and began to peel the shadow material away.

"Insufferable ingrate! I'll have you know there can only be ONE master of this body!" Fred raged. In his anger, he lost control of the morphic resonance of his…er….flesh…. and suddenly a large, bristling and growling dog was facing Typho. “RRRRRRrrrrrr.”

"Easy demon-dog-man," Typho said, raising his hands, trying to pacify the dog. "Be cool."

Xiao watched the display dreamily, lack of oxygen (or maybe brain cells?) giving everything a fuzzy edge. "My knight in shining armor!"

Typho turned to Xiao, eyes wide. "You're crazy!"

Fred had taken a humanoid shape again, and was attempting to throttle her again. "You....insolent.....mortal! I AM THE DESTROYER OF ALL---"

"GGGGhhhhhh!" Xiao interrupted, trying to breathe.

Typho contemplated this. On one hand, Xiao seemed to be able to tolerate him, which was more than any woman had ever done in his life, even though he was a pimpin' gansta. On the other, she was possessed by an evil demon, which could at any time attempt to kill Typho while he was in the same vicinity as Xiao. Typho reached the conclusion that Xiao really wasn't that bad looking, and anyway, if he saved her life and she clung to him, it would be the least he could do to indulge her for awhile, right? And besides, it might hike up his babe-o-liscious meter--chics always digged guys who saved old ladies from muggers, animals, and children. Though which category Xiao fit into was a bit hazy---His brain made a decision. He ran forward and dived into the demon, who promptly disintegrated, with a final angry rumble.

"Yay!" Xiao said, a bit sharply. She panted heavily for a moment, getting her breath back, rubbing her neck.

"That was an experience." Typho said, looking at his fingernails. (Coolly, of course).

"Yeah" She hyperventilated, trying to get air back into her lungs, and then, quite abruptly, collapsed. Typho caught her before she hit the ground.

Somehow this doesn’t seem like the start to a great and long passionate relationship… Typho thought.

Hey! It’s the muffin man! Xiao thought, before she slipped into unconsciousness.

***

X-Raytor, in full costume once again, leapt from rooftop to rooftop in the moonlight, trying to put as much distance between himself and the Century Plaza as possible.

He cleared an alleyway, his mask revealing nothing, and landed on the next rooftop. He ran, made it to the edge of the roof, and leapt again. Maybe he would just keep running and running and running until he was too far away to care. But fatigue won out first, and X-Raytor came to a stop on top of a tenement building. For a moment he stood, at the edge, just looking down at the street, at the cars and people passing below.

And then, with a sudden full-body shudder and a strangled gasp, he tore his mask off, fell to his hands and knees and vomited over the edge. He hurled until there was nothing left to hurl, and after a few wrenching dry-heaves, fell back into a sitting position.

“Ugh- God! Ugghhh!”

He buried his face in his hands, and struggled for breath around the sobs and the heavy taste of vomit.

“Oh God!” He whimpered. “What am I going to do?”

One hour ago…

X-Raytor was waiting outside the Hall of Justice when the black limo pulled up. He was wearing street clothes, and, of course, his pair of protective sunglasses. In one hand he carried a knapsack, containing his costume. Not that he’d have time to put it on if Uncle Bubba went psycho on him.

The Hall had been relatively quiet all day, and X-Raytor was glad. He hadn’t told anyone that his uncle was back- and wouldn’t. This was his problem. He didn’t need anyone else interfering. Not that anyone really would- Oreo and Rosma were out of town, visiting their families. Isomorphix had been absent all day. And, thankfully, someone had been occupying Typho- even if X-Raytor hadn’t been in the middle of a crisis, he definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be around Typho. Everyone else was either out doing their thing (the lack of organization in the League was appalling, really. X-Raytor rarely ever used the word “appalling,” but that’s what it was), or just didn’t care enough to wonder what he was doing.

The limo pulled up from the street, and parked next to X-Raytor. A black-suited chauffeur got out, walked over to the back door and opened it. The man named McPherson- his uncle’s butler (where the hell did he get a butler? Where did he get a freaking penthouse?!)- stepped out, and walked up to X-Raytor, hand extended.

“Master John. I take it you have everything you need?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said, flinching slightly at his real name. Then again, he had always flinched at that one- he had preferred for his peers to call him by his middle name, James, and for adults and authority figures to call him John. A stupid, immature thing to do, but it did sort of separate his two worlds.

When X-Raytor didn’t shake his hand, McPherson let it drop. “Now, if you’ll just come this way, your chariot awaits.”

“Uh, yeah,” X-Raytor mumbled. “Thanks.”

Oh Christ, X-Raytor thought as he climbed into the back seat of the limo. Oh Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?

The chauffeur closed the door, and got back into the driver’s seat, leaving X-Raytor alone with McPherson.

He couldn’t remember ever being this scared. Even at the Oscars, when his friends were dying, and everything had looked hopeless, he hadn’t been this scared. His entire body stood on end- every bump in the road caused a shock to run through him. Every movement that McPherson made caused him to jump.

“Have you ever been in a limo before, sir?” McPherson asked.

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said. He remembered the ride to the Oscars, the jokes, the carelessness, Violet and Superdude and DragonGirl and OMEGA, all hanging out and laughing, not knowing that they were mere hours away from death. If he had known- oh God, if he had known he would have said something, told them what he felt, how much he appreciated them-

But that wasn’t going to happen. No matter how much he beat himself up, it wasn’t going to happen.

DEET-DEET-DEET

X-Raytor started, whipped around and prepared to fire-

But it was just McPherson’s cellphone. The butler pulled the phone from his suit jacket and answered.

“Yes? Yes.”

X-Raytor tried to settle back and relax.

“No. He’s with me now.”

X-Raytor sat back up. Was- was that Uncle Bubba on the phone? Right now? Checking up on him? What was this?!

“Yes, sir.” McPherson said, and hung up. He returned the phone to his jacket, and glanced up at X-Raytor.

“W-was that my uncle?” X-Raytor asked.

“Yes, Master John. We should be arriving at the Century Plaza in a few minutes.”

Well, that was helpful. >X-Raytor thought. He shifted in his seat, tried to get comfortable again. Nope, that wasn’t happening. He turned to look out the window. They were passing over the bridge into the city now- the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge. It was here that he’d last seen his uncle, as the Green Penguin. He remembered battling on the top of the bridge, Uncle Bubba pulling him into a lethal “hug,” his rib cracking-

X-Raytor’s stomach turned over, and he looked down at the water under the bridge. He looked up at the steel support work of the bridge.

A monstrous green penguin glared balefully down at him.

X-Raytor gasped and drew back. He looked back up-

Nothing. There’d been nothing there in the first place. God, he was letting this get to him too much- it was driving him nuts. And that’s probably what Uncle Bubba wanted, too. He’d need to stay on guard, stay focused, if he was going to get back to the Hall alive.

About ten minutes later, the limo pulled up in front of the Century Plaza. The sun had finally set by then, and when the chauffeur opened the door, he stepped out into the night. McPherson led him into the Plaza, across the glistening lobby (or foyer, it was probably called- fancy places like this always used names like that) and into the elevator.

“Your uncle is in the top floor penthouse.” McPherson said.

“Yeah, you told me.” X-Rayor said quietly.

McPherson produced a silver key, and stuck in into a keyhole on the top row of the elevator’s button panel, and turned it. The doors immediately closed, and the elevator started upwards. The penthouse was relatively hard to access, then, X-Raytor realized. He wondered if Uncle Bubba even allowed the cleaning crew in there. Probably not, if he was a giant penguin.

And that brought him back to the eternal question- how could he be back? How could he possibly be back?

BING.

“Here we are,” McPherson said, as the doors slid open. X-Raytor stepped out, into what had to be the most refined room he’d ever seen.

For one thing, the penthouse was enormous, it ceiling higher than the ceiling of X-Raytor’s house, way back when. The floor was marble, except for the occasional lush rectangle of carpet, and the walls were painted ivory. The wall to his right was an enormous window, spanning the length of the room. It offered a spectacular view of the city, all lit up in the night. X-Raytor could see the bridge, and the dots of traffic moving back and forth across it. There were couches and love seats and recliners all over, and a gigantic big-screen TV at the far end of the room. A nearby staircase lead up to what must have been a loft, probably with more chairs and couches and coffee tables. It was the perfect party spot- it didn’t get much cooler than this.

“Wow.” X-Raytor said.

“Your uncle would settle for nothing more than the palatial penthouse,” McPherson said, with a hint of admiration. “Now, if you’ll come this way,” He led X-Raytor halfway across the room, and then to the side, down a hallway to his left. The hallway was well lit, but that didn’t ease X-Raytor at all. His legs were tingling- even if his mind was trying to be cool and rational, his legs weren’t denying that natural instinct to run the hell away. The hallway was decorated with the usual hotel pictures- landscapes; scenes of hills and fields and heaths. Looking at them just made X-Raytor even more nauseous.

At the end of the hall were a pair of large, mahogany doors. McPherson stopped in front of them, and gestured for X-Raytor to go ahead. The butler wouldn’t be joining him, incidentally.

“Um, what is-“

“Your uncle wishes to see you before dinner,” McPherson said. “I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do.”

Yeah, we sure do. X-Raytor thought. “Uh, okay, thanks.”

X-Raytor walked up to the doors and paused. His hands had involuntarily tightened into fists at his sides.

Oh man… I never should have come. I think- I think I’m gonna be sick. I’m gonna faint. I am so not f***ing ready for this- not after the Oscars, not after everything that’s happened. I’m not prepared. Oh Christ…

X-Raytor let out a shaky breath, and brought one hand up to one of the door handles.

Okay- okay. This is it. I should definitely run away. I should just- like, run. But I can’t. I’ve got to handle this. I’ve got to face it. Okay, okay. Whatever this is- okay. I’ve got to do it. I’m doing it.

He exhaled one last time, and pushed the door open.

The room was dark. The only light came from the two wall/windows, giving him a slightly different view of the city than the den had. There as a dark, curved desk at the far end of the room, and behind it, on a black marble column, was a wide TV screen. X-Raytor walked slowly across the hard, black floor. He passed a giant, rectangular aquarium, superimposed in another black column, this one more rectangular than the one that held the TV screen. In the green glow of the aquarium, X-Raytor could see a pair of octopi. Why there were octopi…

X-Raytor walked towards the desk, and when he was about a yard away, the TV screen snapped on. X-Raytor jerked back in surprise, and looked up-

On the screen, X-Raytor saw himself in the middle of the Norton Amphitheater, on Oscar night, just as all hell was breaking loose. A thug came up from behind him and grabbed him around the neck, lifting him bodily off the ground. The thug leered and said something, and then X-Raytor went limp. The thug turned and yelled something- wham! X-Raytor’s foot swept up, caught the man under the chin, and sent his head jerking back.

“Acting!” X-Raytor announced on the screen. “TA DAA!”

“AHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

X-Raytor jumped and spun around, as a booming, sardonic laugh filled the room.

A man stepped out of the shadows from behind a black pillar. “I’ve watched this clip so many times this weekend, I thought I was going to burn a hole in my TiVo.”

The man stepped fully into the light, smirking confidently. There was an arrogant bounce in his step.

Uncle Bubba.

“So? Huh?” Bubba said, still smirking. “How do I look? Better or worse than the last time you saw me?”

X-Raytor’s mouth was dry, but the answer was obvious- Bubba looked much better than the last time they’d met, and not just because he wasn’t a giant, green penguin. In fact, he looked better than X-Raytor had ever remembered seeing him. His gut, which had been quite prominent in his pre-mutation days, was gone. Uncle Bubba’s body had evened out, and any flabbiness had been replaced with rock-hard muscle. His face was clean-shaven. And instead of the flannel shirt and jeans he had always worn in the past, Bubba now wore a black shirt with a wide neck, and black trousers, both of which seemed to be designed to accentuate his muscles. X-Raytor would have made a crack about that, if he weren’t scared piss-less.

“So, you got it out of your system, I hope?” Uncle Bubba asked casually as he strode by X-Raytor, behind his desk.

X-Raytor struggled and finally produced the words. “Got- got what out of my system?”

Uncle Bubba aimed his controller over his shoulder, aiming at the screen, and pressed a button. The scene immediately changed, to X-Raytor running across the theater with Cara. Someone yelled his name and X-Raytor whipped around. One of She-Man’s compact mirror grenades arched through the air, and X-Raytor let fly with two laser beams. The lasers hit the grenade at its zenith, and it exploded.

“This X-Raytor crap. You’re done.” Bubba said, never losing that arrogant smirk.

“Wh-what’s going on here?” X-Raytor demanded, getting a little bit of a grip. “How are you alive? What the hell is going on?” He tried to make the last sentence forceful- a demand- but it came out weak. Bubba sneered.

“Well, I thought you’d be happy to see me. See your handy-work. Because, you know, this is all your fault.” He paused the TV screen, and set the controller on the desk. He pulled over what looked like a cigar box.

“Although, really, can I blame you?” Bubba asked. “Of course not. Really, I should be thanking you. Well, at least, that’s one way of looking at it. If you look at it my way, thanking you doesn’t make any sense. When a miracle, a natural miracle occurs, do you give thanks to the catalyst, or do you give thanks for the natural potential that existed all along, and made that miracle possible? Because that’s all you are, John, a catalyst. This- this greatness, this magnificence, it was inside me all along, your rotten little radioactive eyes just helped me realize it. And now, you owe everything to me.

“And that’s why we have to stop this idiotic ‘caped crusader’ thing. It’s embarassing. It’s childish. It’s- it’s just ill-conceived. And, really, you should throw out that stupid costume. You look like an idiot. So, you’re done. I’m sure this little game of dress-up has been fun, but, it’s over. Besides, we have bigger things to discuss.

“And as for how I am alive…” Bubba opened the cigar box, and reached in. He produced a very, very large hypodermic needle, and X-Raytor cringed. He did not like the look of this- even worse, the green substance inside. Bubba held it up for X-Raytor to see, and grinned widely.

“…I’ve evolved.”

Before X-Raytor could react, Bubba jammed the needle into his neck, and injected.

Holy- X-Raytor didn’t know what to do. Had- had he just- what? Maybe he’d killed himself or something, maybe he was that insane. Something told X-Raytor that was wishful thinking.

Bubba walked around in front of the desk, fists clenched, veins straining on his arms.

“Ungh… Okay, watch this,” He said, grimacing, and slowly bending over. “I’m sure you’ll just love this.”

Bubba grunted, and suddenly doubled over. His fists became even tighter, knuckles white. X-Raytor was paralyzed-

“Hold on-” Bubba gasped, and then suddenly straightened up, clutching at his chest. “Grr- AGH!”

Bubba reached up with a convulsing hand and tore at his shirt, ripping it in half. His other hand, still a fist, slammed into the wall behind him. And as X-Raytor watched, Bubba’s skin was suddenly covered with transparent bristles- like his entire body was covered with fuzz. As Bubba grunted, and gnashed his teeth, the bristles- feathers- became green, and the coloring spread all over his body. His torso rounded out and elongated, but the muscles remained, grew, even. His arms flattened and his fingers melded together, forming two pairs of enormous, muscled wings, far stronger than the fins that any real penguin ever had.

His eyes, shut tight, slide to the side of his head, as his hair receded to the green and black feathers. His nose and lips melded, elongated, and hardened into a black beak, with a streak of green down either side. His legs shrunk, and his feet became large and three-toed, but he still towered over X-Raytor- seven feet at the very least. His eyes opened, and they glowed a baleful yellow.

“Gah!” X-Raytor stumbled back a step.

Where Uncle Bubba had been now stood the monstrous figure of the Green Penguin. His clothes were in shreds at his feet.

And somehow, the glowing eyes and the rigid beak formed Bubba’s blood-curdlingly-familiar smirk.

“Now,” The Green Penguin said in a rumbling version of Bubba’s own bass tones. “What was your question?”

He took a step forwards, eyes burning gleefully, wings spread out. X-Raytor took a quick step back and stumbled, landed on his butt. The Green Penguin took another step, leaned over him, a massive, sneering wall of green and black.

X-Raytor knew he was dead. And while he’d been sure he was dead before, at other times, this time it was certain. He wanted to crawl away, run, use his powers, fire a laser and roast Bubba’s @#%$ head, but he was stuck to the floor, powerless. It was like being up to your neck in quicksand, while ice coursed through your veins.

The Green Penguin loomed closer, the strange beak-smirk widening- and then backed off. Simply took a step back and dropped his wings, like someone had yelled “Cut!” The smirk didn’t go away.

“Okay, just so we know who’s in charge.” The Green Penguin said.

X-Raytor’s body thawed immediately, and his skin became hot as the immediate fear left in a rush. He dropped the hand that he had half-raised to protect himself. “Wh- what did you do?” He managed.

“Well, therein lies a story,” The Green Penguin/Bubba rumbled. “When your friend shot me, and you sent me diving off of that bridge, I, much as you did, I’m sure, thought I was finished. However, I had underestimated the abilities of my new form. Not only was I- and as I am now- far stronger than any man ever could be, but, being a penguin, I had the extra advantage of being aqautic. Even though your fellow side-show freak’s cookies were lining my veins and internal organs with cacao, and slowly killing me, I was able to drag myself to a small island, just a few yards down the river. I’m sure you’ve seen them- the really narrow ones, just covered with forests. People picnic or fish there sometimes,”

X-Raytor’s brain was numb by now. Why was Bubba telling him all of this? And how could he say it all so calmly- like he was telling X-Raytor about his lovely vacation in the Rockies.

“I stayed on that island for a few weeks, and over that time, I gradually returned to my own form. How? I’m not sure. But, I’ve theorized that the chocolate merely killed the penguin, not me. It’s like I said before- natural potential. I realized a long time ago that I was always meant to be this way, stronger, faster. Superior. The mutation just helped me realize my destiny. The Green Penguin is just an avatar for my greatness. And a fine avatar it is, of course. But there’s the problem, you see. I found myself human again, but unable to return to my advanced form. I returned to the city, and with some colleagues of mine, devised a solution based on my own blood, and blood samples left around the island, from the wounds I had sustained as the Penguin. I was able to mutate myself, yes, but it was pathetic. You should have seen it- I’m sure you would have enjoyed it.”

And what did that mean? Bubba didn’t seem nearly as bitter and vengeful as he had been the last time X-Raytor had seen him. He was talking in complete sentences in his penguin form, too. But that wasn’t the point. Was Bubba still angry? Did he still want to crush X-Raytor? Or- or did he think X-Raytor was a monster, like him. A malicious little sadist.

X-Raytor remembered the time that Uncle Bubba had thrown the half-dead rat from the roof of his house, the rat X-Raytor had brought to him. He shuddered.

“Very pathetic,” Bubba said. “I looked more like the Green Dodo. But this was just a temporary roadblock for me. They always have been, you know. Temporary. I realized that to perfect the mutation, I would need a sample of the radiation that had caused the original change. So, yesterday, I had McPherson gather a little optic runoff sample directly from the source.”

He smirked again (how did he do it with the beak? And how was he able to make it just as infuriatingly superior as when he had lips?), and waited for X-Raytor to figure it out. For a moment, X-Raytor was lost, and then he remembered- McPherson had shoved the onion into his face, made his eyes water. When X-Raytor had taken his mask off, dropped it, and was trying to find it on the ground, he had felt something poke him right beneath the eye. At the time, he had thought he had run into the Justice Moped, but now he knew- McPherson must have stuck a beaker or a jar or something under his eye and collected some of the moisture. Despite his rigid appearance, the butler was a tricky dude…

“Wait,” X-Raytor said, his cynicism momentarily conquering his terror. “You got the sample yesterday? You’ve only had this solution for, like, two days?”

“I tested it first, of course. All last night, and earlier today. Besides, I’d been using the original solution quite regularly. Even though it is far inferior to this,” He swept his wings over himself. “There are some things you can only see in this form. Things… things that mere mortals could never see, or even comprehend. Even you, even you can’t see it.” His yellow eyes glazed over. X-Raytor twitched slightly on the floor.

Bubba shook his head clear. “Like I said, natural potential. And in case you’re wondering, I still have all of my secondary powers- those constricting snowballs, you remember them I’m sure. They’re a pain to get off the wall, though- takes so much heat to melt the damn things. Now, I believe it’s almost time for dinner, so if you’ll excuse me…”

He walked- waddled- around the desk, back to the cigar box, and produced another hypodermic needle, filled with what seemed to be the same green substance. He was able, although a little awkwardly, to pick it up with the tip of his wing. He immediately jammed it into his left shoulder, and, with a quick tap of his wing, injected. He went bent over again, his right wing futilely trying to form a fist.

“Ugh… this is the worst part.” He mumbled. The glow of his eyes dimmed a little, and his muscles tightened. Veins showed through his feathers.

“Rrr- grrrk… oh… gu-rrrr…” He doubled over behind the desk, clutching at himself with his wings. Then he dropped onto the floor, out of sight from where X-Raytor was, groaned and cursed for about thirty seconds, and then fell silent.

X-Raytor slowly got to his feet, and crept over to the desk. He peered over it- and there was Uncle Bubba, human again, sprawled naked on the floor (on his stomach, thank God). Sweat droplets rolled down his forehead and biceps.

“There.” He said, looking up at X-Raytor and regaining his smirk. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes, dinner.”

X-Raytor looked away as he stood up, walked over to a nearby coat rack, and pulled down a green bathrobe. X-Raytor didn’t look back up until he was covered up again.

“I’m sure you’ll like dinner- great chefs here,” Bubba said. “Oh, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention any of this to McPherson. He’s very loyal, but for now it’s our little secret. Our first bond as men. Well, if you don’t count that rat thing…”

X-Raytor just wanted to die. Just wanted to bash his head in against the desk.

“Because from this day forward, now and forever, you belong to me.” Bubba said. “You work for me. You do as I say. And for that you will be rewarded. Your future in this world will be a fine one, trust me. But there may be some things you have o do that you might not agree with- some decisions I make that you don’t understand. And even though you may not appreciate my grand vision just yet, you will obey me. Because if you do not… well…”

Bubba turned away from X-Raytor, and seemed to inspect the octopus tank. “Because if you do not, well, first I will torture and possibly murder your League friends. I’ll probably do it right in front of you. Or maybe I’ll just destroy your little girlfriend. Cara, right?”

X-Raytor’s mouth fell open, but nothing came out. He caught his reflection in the glass aquarium, and saw a mask of absolute horror. Without turning around, Bubba continued.

“Then I might amuse myself in pummeling you with snowballs and crushing you to the edge of death. Not to death- just the edge of death. I will let you try and heal. And, unless that radiation in your eyes gives you some sort of advanced healing factor, I’m sure it will take a very, very long time. The things I can do to you- trust me, it will take a long time. And it will hurt like seven Hells. But you most probably will heal. And then, just as you feel yourself becoming human again…”

Bubba turned around and looked X-Raytor in the eye, his grin wider than it had ever been. “… I will beat you to death.” He shoved his hands into his robe pockets. “Do we understand each other?”

All X-Raytor could do was stare. How could this be happening?

“Good.” Bubba said, smoothing his out his hair. “Let’s go.”

X-Raytor numbly followed him out of the room, down the hallway and into the den. McPherson was waiting.

“Dinner is ready, sir.” He said. If he thought it was odd that his boss was wearing a bathrobe, he didn’t say anything.

“Excellent!” Bubba said. “Sorry we took so long, me and my favorite nephew had so much catching up to do. Isn’t that right, John?”

Bubba reached over, and put a fatherly hand on X-Raytor’s shoulder. Cold sweat pored down X-Raytor’s face and neck, but his body felt frigid. His hands were compulsively shaking at his side.

“I… gotta go…” X-Raytor managed. There was a sudden pressure in his bladder, and it was all he could do to stop from pissing himself as he ran for the elevator. The door slid open and he dashed inside.

Behind him, McPherson took a step forward, but Bubba waved him off. “Let him go.” He looked up at X-Raytor, and winked. “I’ll see him again soon enough.”

The elevator closed too slowly, and even when they did, X-Raytor could still feel Bubba’s mocking, predatory eyes on him.

Now.

X-Raytor walked into the Hall feeling nauseous and horribly empty. No one was in the main area, and for that he was glad- if anyone tried to talk to him he’d break down, spill the whole thing. He dragged himself quickly to his room and locked the door behind him.

For ten minutes he sat on the bed and cried. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried like this- in utter loss and hopelessness. Bubba- he could never call think of him as his uncle now, never again- had him by the good-and-plenties. Why? Why now? Why, after all of this, did he have to acquire his own maniac stalker? And what would Bubba have him do- steal for him? Kill? And if he didn’t- if he didn’t, what was he going to do? Would he even be able to protect Cara or the others? Could he even protect himself.

And he wasn’t sure what was worse- the total, waist-deep load of crap he was in now, or the knowledge that it was all his fault. If only he’d never played with that stupid x-ray machine. If only he hadn’t gone to the hospital s***faced in the first place. And if only- if only he hadn’t been so weak that he had needed to be hammered, if only he hadn’t failed-

X-Raytor’s cell phone, on the bedside table, rang and he jumped, reached involuntarily for his mask. He reached over and answered it. “Hello?”

“X-Raytor?”

Relief broke over him. “Cara?”

“Yeah. I’ve been trying to call all day- where were you at lunch?”

“I-” X-Raytor wiped his face. He’d actually been hiding in his room, agonizing over the approaching meeting with Bubba. “I wasn’t feeling all that well. I meant to call, but- you know.”

Not exactly a lie.

“Oh, okay. Are you feeling any better now?”

“Yea- no.” X-Raytor sighed, and quickly fought down a sob. “Listen, something- something happened. Something really-“

“What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“Y- no. I’m not sure. Oh man… listen, I- I can’t talk about this right now.”

“Okay,” Cara said reluctantly. “Will you be at lunch tomorrow?”

“I- maybe. I’ll call you if I… you know.”

“Okay.” She said. Paused. “Goodnight.”

“’Night.” He said, and hung up.

X-Raytor knew he wouldn’t be going to lunch tomorrow. How did he know that Bubba wouldn’t just sweep down and attack him out in public- or, even worse- attack Cara? No, he had to stay right here, right here until he could figure out how to deal with this…

“But how do I deal with it?!” He raged. “How the hell can I possibly deal with it?!”

The walls of his room didn’t answer. He picked his mask up, and hurled it across the room. He reached over on auto-pilot, and turned off the bedside lamp.

For a long, long time, he sat there in the darkness.