Studmuffin was only aware that he was slipping in and out of consciousness due to the changes in temperature and light levels. Occasionally, he was conscious when someone, no doubt the older woman, fed him something that tasted like sour mud. Gradually, the blackouts lessened, and his body stopped its tremors. His fever still persisted, but like the summer season, it eventually succumbed to winter. Chills shocked his body awake.
Suddenly, Studmuffin sprang up, scaring the wits out of the teenage native who had co-cared for him. Everything was blurry, but his vision slowly became clear. Glancing around, he was in a dark wooden hut, on a mat made from some kind of reed or vine. A rectangular doorway that lacked any kind of actual door let in whatever small light that was in the hut. By the brightness, it looked like midday, coming on to dusk.
The teenager was crouching against the wall, clenching at a wet cloth and staring at Studmuffin wide-eyed. She looked to be about 16, and had long ebony hair and skin like deep bronze. She was slender and very well-developed. And topless. Studmuffin quickly blocked her view of his crotch with his hands. The movement caught her eye and Studmuffin saw her eyes glance down. Her frightened face melted into a smile, then laughter. Nervously, Studmuffin joined her, while secretly cursing spandex.
"Então são homem!" she said with a giggle.
"Umm, right. Heh. Does anyone speak English here?"
She looked at him oddly, none of the words registering in her eyes. "O que disse?"
"Umm, English? Do you or anyone here speak English?"
"Receberei o chefe." She stood up and started to leave.
"W-wait!" Studmuffin called out.
She stopped and looked at him. "Thank you." Studmuffin said. Despite the language barrier, she seemed to understand, at least on some level, and headed out the doorway.
Studmuffin looked around his confines, the place he had stayed for countless days. It was direly sparse in furniture, and beyond the mat he had been sleeping on, which he could easily have mistaken for a doormat, the room was completely empty. A small bowl of water lay near the mat, and a marinated cloth lay where the teenager had dropped it. The bowl looked like it was made of something oddly foreign, almost like…plastic? Studmuffin walked up to the bowl and picked it up, careful not to spill the water it contained. It definitely felt like plastic, and holding it up and peering at the bottom of the bowl, Studmuffin could make out the words "Made in China" in the dim light of the hut.
"Well, I'll be…" Studmuffin bent down to set the bowl down as gently as he could, stubbed his toe on a plank that was slightly warped and raised uneven with the rest of the floor, and dropped it. Water went everywhere, but quickly vanished down the gaps between the floor planks.
"Oops." Studmuffin glanced around awkwardly. He was still alone. Then he heard voices outside, talking in that strange language. They were moving closer to his location. Footsteps up wooden steps, then a old woman ducked in, followed by an old man, a young man, and the teenage girl. The old woman approached Studmuffin, looking him up and down. Her hair was graying, and her breasts sagging. Studmuffin tried averting his eyes.
He was still crouched over the spilled water. The old woman noticed, and then barked some kind of order to the teenager. She responded and trotted over to the bowl, bending down to pick it up. Her hand brushed up against Studmuffin's momentarily, and with a quick look, she snatched the bowl and hurried out of the room. Studmuffin thought he caught a shy smile in that look, but it was too brief and the lighting inside too dark.
After the teenager left, Studmuffin stood up and the old woman took hold of him by the shoulders, pulling him down to her level and closer to her face. She peered into his eyes, deeply, intently, as if looking for something. Studmuffin felt vaguely uncomfortable.
The woman's inspective glare shifted to a confirming grin. Her wrinkled face came alive in that smile. She kissed him on either cheek, then glanced back at the older man and said, "O estranho é curado. O veneno é ido dseua alma."
The old man's somber face came alive just the same. "Muito bom! Devemos celebrar este grande dia!" he said gleefully. He turned to the young man and said happily, "Vá, conta o descanso da vila sobre a notícia. Conte-os começar preparações."
Meanwhile, Studmuffin felt a headache was imminent.
A few hours had past, in which Studmuffin had been invited to bathe in the river along with some of the hunters. With hand gestures and sound effects, Studmuffin conveyed his fear of flying piranhas with laser eyes. At first the hunters looked confused, but seemed to understand the dirt picture of a fish with giant teeth he drew. They laughed and shook their head, saying in so many words that he was safe. With his accumulated stench from days in bed, the hunters would have no doubt forced him into the water anyway, so Studmuffin decided to just go along with them.
Upon getting out, Studmuffin found his clothing was gone, and in its place was his very own loincloth. The other men laughed at his stunned look, and coaxed him to try it on. Moderately embarrassed, Studmuffin gave it a try. The men erupted into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, some even falling to the ground, faces flushed red. One of the men, trying desperately to stop laughing, pointed to his own loincloth and then to Studmuffin's, and made a circular gesture with his hands. "Usam em para trás," he said.
Then Studmuffin realized what they were all laughing at. He was wearing his loincloth backwards. After a quick reversal and the men regained their composure, they headed back to the village. Along the way, Studmuffin muttered to himself, "How the heck are you supposed to know which way without a tag!"
The village seemed different when they returned. There was energy about the place, like a buildup of excitement that permeated into the tangible, and brought the place to life. The people had smiles on their faces, and walked with a bounce in their step. Not being a native himself, Studmuffin couldn't be sure if this was normal behavior or not. It almost freaked him out, being from the city as he was. There, the most polite thing someone would do is not spit on you. But to actually smile? Out in the open? Creepy.
Night encroached on the jungle, and villagers began lighting torches. A hunting party broke through a clump of large ferns on the outskirts of the village, proudly bearing a slain boar on a pole. Evidently, dinner was served.
The entire tribe seemed to be gathering at a single camp fire, with who Studmuffin would guess was the chief taking the spotlight. The boar was being roasted over this same fire, and with darkness having finally descended and choking out the life of the day, Studmuffin hurriedly joined the crowd.
The pig was being slowly rotated on a spigot over the fire as the chief spoke about something. He was giving some kind of speech, that much Studmuffin could tell from the tone of voice. Standing next to the chief was the teenage girl, and after a moment, the chief paused and glanced around at all the silent faces, as if searching for someone. His eyes seemed to lock onto Studmuffin, and the chief motioned towards him. Studmuffin looked around bewildered, and those around him began nudging him forward, a grin on their lips. Like a cow into a corral, Studmuffin was forced into the center of the circle with the chief.
The firelight cast deep shadows, a spooky orange radiance dancing across the dozens of staring faces. They were hanging on the chief's every word. It was then that Studmuffin really wished he had some kind of Star Trek translator, because, being called into the circle by the chief must obviously mean he was talking about him. And Studmuffin's ego had been feeling like a dried out sponge lately.
The chief put his hand on the teenager's shoulder and then placed his other hand on Studmuffin's shoulder. He spoke a few more words, and on the last one, the teenager glanced at Studmuffin with that same shy smile he has thought he'd seen earlier, and the crowd exploded into cheering.
The men hoisted the pig off the spigot and laid it to rest on a kind of table, where they began slicing the boar into servings that were handed out to the crowd. The first piece, a mighty piece of leg, was given to the chief. The chief then turned to Studmuffin with a resplendent grin, and handed the piece to Studmuffin. Another leg was served to the chief. Had Studmuffin been more of a diplomat, he might have picked up on the fact that he had just received the first piece of the meal from the chief himself. But, since he wasn't, Studmuffin just shrugged and dug in. He was hungry.
The night progressed into a sort of native party, a drink being dispensed that gave Studmuffin a clear buzz. Most of the younger villagers had gone off into huts, but the young men stayed around Studmuffin, laughing, cheering, and drinking.
Studmuffin was the clear center of attention with the men, and they seemed to be moving him further and further from the main village. Before he lost sight of the village itself, he could see that the women had clustered into their own group. The teenager was with them, and seemed to be their focus.
Craftily, the men led Studmuffin out into the jungle. At least, as craftily as a band of drunken jungle boys can manage. Once there, they devised a game. A relay race of sorts, as the men tried to explain best they could to Studmuffin with gestures and mimicking the actions he'd have to do. What it came down to was two of them would race at a time through the jungle 100 meters, each carrying a torch, and running with a mouthful of the jungle beer. If someone loses their mouthful by spitting it out or swallowing it along the way, they lose and have to drink another cup. If both people make it back without losing their mouthfuls, the winner spits out his mouthful across his torch and the loser must swallow his mouthful and drink another cup.
The jungle was pitch black, the canopy obscuring any possible moonlight. All they had for light were their torches. One person with a torch waited at the end of the "race course" with a torch, so they could see where to go. Studmuffin and another man were up first. They both took in as large a swig as their mouths could hold, and then they were off!
The other man launched off so quickly that Studmuffin almost lost his mouthful through his nose in surprise. Physically, Studmuffin was superior, but his competitor knew the jungle terrain better then Studmuffin could ever hope to know. Only by sheer dumb speed was Studmuffin able to keep up with the man, who agilely jumped over logs and ducked beneath branches. Studmuffin smacked his legs into the logs and crashed through the branches. The loud noises startled the man, and for a second he glanced back.
The man hit his head against a branch in that second of distraction, and crumpled to the ground. Studmuffin passed him without a second glance, and made it to checkpoint man. Turning back, Studmuffin passed his competitor again, who was just getting up from his fall. Surprisingly to Studmuffin, the man almost caught up with him, but Studmuffin still beat him to the finish line with a second to spare. Agonizingly, the man swallowed his mouthful, which he has somehow managed to keep even after the collision, and took another cup to drink as his punishment. Studmuffin blew his mouthful over his torch, which sent out a column of fire 6 meters out. The men were dually impressed.
Amazingly, the competition progressed through many rounds with little reduction in skill from the jungle beer surging through their veins, or the exhaustion of constant racing. Studmuffin wagered they did this sort of thing often, and had his work cut out for him. He lost twice, but won four matches.
Even the best Amazon native has his limits, and soon the alcohol became apparent, as they tripped and spilled their mouthfuls more often, and hit their head against branches they had dodged not more then one race ago. When this happened, the spectators erupted in laughter, and had a merry good time watching their fellow racer's fumbles. In the end, no final winner was determined, as they had all lost count, and returned to the village in a drunken stupor. Only by sheer luck did they even stumble in the right direction towards the village.
The women were there, waiting expectantly, and each approached a man and led him to a place to sleep. Oddly enough, the teenage girl took to Studmuffin's side, and guided him to a room. Once he hit the mat, he was out.
Dawn broke in the form of mid-afternoon, and Studmuffin was assaulted by a heavy headache. He seemed to remember something about Roseidous, a prom, and some large hot dogs. In Albuquerque, maybe? He shook his head. That was a mistake. If the boar leg hadn't been fully digested, he would have almost certainly puked it right back up at that point. Next time, he'd have to lay off the jungle juice.
Oreo Avenger stirred with the wooden spoon, slowly adding vanilla to the mixture. Exactly fifty stirs with a rowan spoon, slow, steady strokes; too fast and it'll explode, too slow and it'll congeal.
Today was Oreo-making day. It was essential that she make a plethora of Oreos. Her magical Oreo-conjuring powers hadn't returned. They may never come back. So it was back to building her arsenal the hard way.
"…forty-nine…fifty," she muttered.
The oven beeped, and Oreo Avenger removed the chocolate cookies from inside. Moving quickly, she flipped them off the cookie sheet and onto the cooling rack on the table, then slipped another couple cookie sheets of batter in the oven.
"Those smell really good," a voice behind her said. "Can I try one? Unless they're going to change me into something, 'cause I don't want that. Although if you have one that turns annoying superhero wannabes into cute puppies, well, I could use that."
"What?" Oreo Avenger said. "Midnight Chatter, what are you doing in here? Didn't you see the sign on the door?"
"You mean the 'Enter And Die, This Means You, Midnight Chatter' one?" He shrugged. "Nope, didn't see it. Although I did see where the Invisible Jet is hiding. It's in the most obvious place, no one could ever guess. You know the-"
"If you don't get to the point, I'm going to feed this to you," Oreo Avenger threatened, waving an Oreo. "I have no idea what might happen, so I'm very excited to test it out."
"Um…" He nervously took the wooden spoon from the bowl. "You've been avoiding me."
"Yes." There was no point in denying it.
"So I haven't been able to tell you anything." He absently licked the spoon. "Scarlett said she doesn't have any feelings for me, romantically you know, and I should get on with my life. And that hurt me, because once I thought I loved her. Now it's different, of course, because you and me, we had that special perfect moment in the cage. So I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with me sometime. When you're not busy or anything."
Oreo Avenger shook her head. "I'm busy all the time. And then I have to wash my hair."
Midnight Chatter looked like he was going to cry. He stuck the round end of the spoon in his mouth.
"Stop it, you're getting angst all over my cookies." Oreo Avenger removed a batch of cookies from the oven and placed a new one inside. "First and most annoying of all, you don't respect my boundaries. I put that sign on the kitchen door not only because I was avoiding you, but because I am making Oreos, and making Oreos is a dangerous business. Unpredictable. What if something exploded and turned you into a giant chicken for the rest of your life?"
Midnight Chatter morosely sucked on the spoon.
"Secondly," she continued, "no matter how much you say it, I don't believe you're over Scarlett. There's no way you've talked things over. Lastly, and this relates to the firstly, you stuck my favorite wooden spoon in your mouth. While that is a terrible crime, it also had Oreo frosting on it. Any minute now you'll be feeling the effects of the creamy filling, unrestrained by a chocolate sandwich cookie! Wait, I need to get my camera!"
Midnight Chatter threw the spoon across the room. "Eep! Am I going to explode?! I don't want to! Superhero splatter isn't good for the walls! Once I saw a seagull eat Alka-Seltzer, and it was awful! When he flew away, he SQUAWK!"
With a loud pop, Midnight Chatter turned into a giant yellow canary. Squawking and flapping, he filled the room with whirling yellow feathers until, with another loud pop, her turned back to normal.
Oreo Avenger snapped her camera shut. "That was disappointing. You were supposed to turn into a giant eagle. Must be too much sunflower oil…"
Brushing feathers off the counter, she wrote in a notebook there. "If you stick around, we can test out that formula again. I'd love to see what a little strawberry extract will do," she called over her shoulder.
All he left behind was a pile of yellow feathers. Oreo Avenger shrugged.
"I guess not, then."
Scarlett finally left the ruins of her secluded cottage, including a note to Hamlet, which she taped onto the fireproof security box.
I know when you get this letter, your first impulse will be to come find me. But you did that once, and I can’t ask you to do it again. You are my dearest friend, Hamlet, and I can only be thankful that you’ve remained untouched so far. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you, and that’s why I’m begging you not to come after me.
I put your stuff in this safe. You know the combination.
Thank you for everything, Hamlet.
At the Hall of Justice, the front door creaked slowly open. A filthy, disheveled figure peered in, her brown hair covering her face in tangles. No one paid notice as she hurried past the kitchen amid snatches of conversation between Oreo Avenger and Midnight Chatter.
“--once I thought I loved her. Now it's different, of course, because you and me, we had that special perfect moment in the cage. So I was wondering if you'd like to have dinner with…”
Scarlett bit her lip. She had been right about Midnight after all.
Not that it matters. If they can’t take care of themselves, they’re off limits, she reminded herself as she made her way to the only remaining refuge she knew.
X-Raytor ran into the Justice League Walk-In Closet to give himself a final once over in the mirror(sure, he wore a full suit and a mask, but did that mean he wasn’t going to keep up his appearance?) before he left to go see Dr. Lansky. After assuring himself that all was looking good, considering what he’d been through not too long ago, and knowing he was running late, he started to leave, but stopped, hearing something coming from a back corner of the closet.
X-Raytor’s eyes went wide. It was…it was…
“Oh, my God-- are you okay? Scarlett!” This was an unexpected turn of events. “Scarlett? What happened? I…I thought you were dead!”
“Not dead. Unfortunately.”
Scarlett didn’t kill herself…but…where has she been all this time then? “Are you hurt? Did someone hurt you?”
“No. No…I'm fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Scarlett wiped her nose with a charred, tattered sleeve. Gave X-Raytor a grim look. “Yeah…”
“Wh-what are you doing?”
“Loving life. Don't worry, X-y. I'm a tough chick. I'll be fine.”
“O-okay, then.” He started to leave, not knowing what else to do.
“Yeah, go ahead!! Everybody else leaves me-- you go too. Go right ahead.”
Upon hearing this, X-Raytor hesitated, but he was running late. And he wasn’t sure when he’d be able to afford another session with Dr. Lansky…
X-Raytor turned. “Hey hey hey...what's--what's going on?”
“I-- I think I killed Eli…and the Hot Scottish guy…I wouldn’t give up any information and they’re dead and…”
“I don't think...”
“I saw the gun! He threatened to shoot them if I didn’t say anything. And I didn’t! I killed them!”
“Maybe-- I don't know-- uh-- maybe it was out of your hands. You can’t blame yourself for it, Scarlett.”
Scarlett looked up at him. “I heard…him…say the words: "Just remember--you’re the one who killed him."
“I killed them! Me!”
X-Raytor knelt down and took Scarlett by the hands. “Come on, Scarlett. Let's-- let's get up out of the closet.”
“No, I'm fine right here.”
“Please, Scarlett. Let's just-“
“I'm fine right here!”
X-Raytor glanced at his watch. He was already ten minutes late. “Scarlett, I-- I want to talk with you-but I-ugh-I have to go. I have to do something... really important.”
“It's just that-hey! Let's hang out later this afternoon. You want to? Just talk and-
“Just go-- it's okay.” She wiped her face with her sleeve again.
“I'll find you later. I promise.” He left Scarlett in the closet, dealing with her demons.
…not literal demons, of course. That’s just Xiao.
Dr. John Lansky sighed. It was going to be another long, silent session.
He leaned forwards. “X-Raytor,” He said. “Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk about?”
“Uh…” X-Raytor shifted slightly on the couch. “No. Not that I can think of.”
“The Green Penguin- your uncle, I believe you said- returned.” Dr. Lansky said levelly. “Scarlett Fyre came back from the dead. You’re dating that actress you’ve had a crush on since you were a fetus, and she was almost killed during the Penguin debacle. I find it very hard to believe that you have nothing to talk about.”
X-Raytor straightened his mask. “Sorry, new mask. Still haven’t gotten quite used to it. And, well, like, what should I talk about? I think it’s pretty obvious how I feel.”
“And that would be…”
X-Raytor drummed his fingers impatiently on his stomach. “Well, I probably killed my uncle… again… but he was a monster and it was in self-defense and all…”
“And Scarlett… well, I’m glad Scarlett’s alive, and… uh…” X-Raytor trailed off, and Dr. Lansky noted a hint of embarrassment.
Well now. That was interesting.
“And how has Ms. Fyre been adjusting?” Dr. Lansky asked. “Did she know that you all thought she committed suicide?”
“I, uh… I guess she’s doing fine… um…” He paused for a moment. Lansky would have sold his right arm to know what was going on in that spandex-covered head.
“Um, actually,” X-Raytor said. “Could I, um, could I get, like, some advice?”
“Of course, J- X-Raytor. That’s why I’m here.”
“Um, okay. Okay.” X-Raytor sat up, swung his legs off the couch. “I, uh, I have a friend…”
“Would this be Ms. Fyre?” Dr. Lansky asked, raising his notebook.
“I’m glaring at you just so you know,” X-Raytor said. “Anyway, I have a friend who’s going through some… some crap, right now, and I was wondering if you had anything I could tell, uh, them-“
“Her?” Dr. Lansky suggested.
“THEM… that would help.”
Dr. Lansky considered this for a moment. The very idea that X-Raytor was asking him for advice was extraordinary, but advice on how he could act as an impromptu therapist to another super hero? And did this mean X-Raytor actually respected his methods? Was he making some sort of progress with him? Was the therapy actually helping? Amazing.
“Well, what sort of, ah…”
“Crap.” X-Raytor said.
“Yes. Crap. What sort of… crap… are we talking about here?”
“Uh… crappy crap?”
“Okay… could you, perhaps, elaborate on that?”
X-Raytor scratched absently at his bicep. “Um… well, I don’t want to go into the specifics… but, um, stuff sort of like what I’ve dealt with. You know.”
“Well, X-Raytor, I might not be able to help much there, seeing how you never tell me anything…”
“This isn’t about me.” X-Raytor said. “But, like, what should I tell h- uh, them? Do you have any… um… lines or anything?”
“No! Like- like therapist… lines…”
Dr. Lansky cocked an eyebrow. X-Raytor shrugged.
“Well,” Dr. Lansky said, putting his notebook down. “What would you say, if I used some of those… ‘therapist lines’… on you?”
“This isn’t about m-“
“Actually,” Dr. Lansky said. “It is. What would you say?”
“I probably wouldn’t say anything.” X-Raytor said. “I’d probably, well, sit here and think you were full of crap.”
“And don’t you think your, um, friend might feel the same way?”
X-Raytor hesitated. “Well, maybe…”
“Any advice, any counseling you give, it can’t just be some cliché stolen from a self-help book. You have to say… well, you have to say what you think will help, but you must be honest as well. You can’t just tell someone what they want to hear. You say that your friend’s situation may be somewhat similar to your own, right? Well, what is the one thing, the one thing that you wish to God that someone would tell you?”
“If I knew that, I don’t think I’d be here.” X-Raytor said.
“Just think about that. The one thing that you deeply, honestly wish someone would tell you. And not just ‘don’t worry about it’- go deeper than that. From my experience, the answers are most always found inside.”
“Did you get this from a fortune cookie?”
“No. From my brother, actually. He’s a supercilious, authoritative, orthodox man. And he’s a New Yorker. You’d like him.”
X-Raytor pondered this for a moment, and then slowly nodded his head. “Okay… okay.” He stood up. “You know, Doc, this is scary. I’m actually getting some decent therapy from you.”
“What can I say,” Lansky said. “I’ll try better next time?”
“Well, thanks Doc! I’ll see you next session!” X-Raytor headed quickly out the door.
Lansky glanced at his watch. Wow. He’d gotten X-Raytor to stay for a full fifteen minutes this time.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad day after all.
X-Raytor immediately lost all previous confidence when he opened the Justice League Walk-In Closet. “Uh… hi.”
Scarlett still sat on the floor, and her eyes were still puffy and red. She wasn’t crying right now, and, frankly, he wished she was. It was much easier to try and comfort someone when they were crying, not when they were looking at you in a mix of anger and annoyance.
“Um… I’m back.” X-Raytor said, shifting nervously.
“Huh.” Scarlett said.
“Um… can I come in?”
Scarlett shrugged, and moved back, making room. X-Raytor walked in, and closed the door behind him. After an uncomfortable moment, he sat down on the floor.
“So… um, how you doing?”
“Fine.” Scarlett said, but not as defensively as before. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t… uh, you don’t look fine.”
X-Raytor’s mind immediately lit up. No! No! Of course she looks fine! Pick-up line! Pick-up line now! Use “fine!” Uh… You must be a parking ticket, because you’ve got fine written all over you!
He mentally smacked himself. No! Hormones at bay! Fine meaning her emotional state! Christ!!
“I’m. Fine.” Scarlett said, and looked away.
“Okay…” X-Raytor said. “Okay… but, um, listen… I’ve been, um, I’ve been going through some crap myself recently… and, like, if you want to talk about anything, uh…”
Scarlett laughed, and it was a surprisingly harsh sound. “Oh, really? Get anybody you loved killed recently, X-y?”
“Almost…” X-Raytor said. “And- and I think I killed my uncle…”
“He was a monster.” Scarlett said flatly. “The Green Penguin, right? He was a monster. A mutant. Eli…” She choked. “Eli was innocent! Eli wasn’t in this at all!! He- he never helped us out! He never- he was never involved… The only reasonthey came after him was me! The only reason- the only reason- he’s dead is me!! Don’t you understand?!”
“I- I do.” X-Raytor said. “Well- no, I don’t. But, in a way… Cara got thrown off a bridge. She got thrown off of a @#%$ bridge simply because she- she was going out with me. And- and you know what I did to my family, and… you know.”
“X-y, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m really not feeling all that sympathetic for you right now.”
“No, no, that’s not what I’m trying to… Listen, what I’m saying is… I’ve been there. I- I think I might be able to help.”
Scarlett’s arms were folded, and she was slowly massaging her upper arms with her hands. “I don’t need any help. I’ll- I’ll get through this. I told you… I just need some time, that’s all.”
“But, listen, what I’m trying to say is… it’s not all that easy. I-I thought it was, but it still… I still can’t let go of it.”
“You can’t let go of anything.”
“Scarlett.” X-Raytor said. “Listen, I know you’re confused, I know you’re pissed off, but I’m just trying to help, all right?”
“Sorry…” She said. “But, really, I’m fine. This is… this is something I have to do by myself.”
The words were all too familiar to X-Raytor. He knew what this was like, he knew that there were some things that just had to be figured out alone. He’d respect that. He was about to get up when he’d remembered what Dr. Lansky had said.
“You don’t have to, though. That’s the point.”
Scarlett was silent for a few moments, and when she spoke again, her voice was barely above a whisper. “Please… go away…”
“I know what it’s like.” X-Raytor said forcefully. “I know what it’s like to feel like- like a murderer! And I don’t just mean Bubba, I-“
He paused, and suddenly realized what he was about to say. Something in the back of his head cried out for him to stop, but he plowed ahead.
“At the Oscars… I killed Tony Norgate.” He said.
That got Scarlett’s attention. “You did?”
Her face was hard. “Good.”
“I- I know.” X-Raytor said. “He was- he was as much of a monster as B- as the Green Penguin, but… but, I just- I got so angry, and I didn’t just kill him, I beat him up first. I just- I just beat him. I beat the living crap out of him, and then- then when he pulled off my mask-“
X-Raytor stopped, and squeezed his eyes shut. “It was… Oh God… it- his face. His face just… disappeared…”
“He was a murderer.” Scarlett said. “He’s the one who imprisoned me in the first place, he’s the one who got everyone killed.”
“But he was still… he was still human, you know? Maybe not by much… but he still was. And I just- I shot him. I’ve never killed someone with my powers before. I’ve- I’ve wounded people, I’ve stunned people, but… He was a man. He was just this pathetic little man who- who wanted to be something…” X-Raytor cut off. No. No, this wasn’t the time to dwell on it. He was supposed to be helping Scarlett. “All this time, I’ve been dealing with this alone. I haven’t told anyone-“
Scarlett glanced at him.
“Anyone. I mean, what would they think? That- that I’m a murderer. They wouldn’t say it… we’re not all saints, you know that as well as I do… but some of them… they’d be thinking about it. They’d… So it’s been here inside me this whole time. And I can’t- I can’t talk to anyone about it. Who would I talk to? Who would understand?”
Scarlett’s face remained blank. X-Raytor hoped he was getting through.
“So… I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m here. Yeah. You, uh, you know where to find me.”
He laughed softly, but Scarlett didn’t respond.
“So, um… yeah. Really, Scarlett, I mean it… if you ever… you know.”
“Yeah,” Scarlett finally said. “Um… thanks. Thanks. But… I just- I can’t. I can’t right now.”
“Okay…” X-Raytor said. “But, if you need anything…”
“Yeah.” Scarlett said.
“Um… okay.” X-Raytor said. After a moment, he stood up awkwardly, and slowly left the closet, closing the door behind him. He walked over to the couch, flopped down on it and let out a long sigh. Hopefully… hopefully that had done some good.
X-Raytor sat up, shifted into his favorite position on the couch, and sat, listening to the silence. Where the hell was everyone? There were more Justice Leaguers than he could count, and every one of them was off doing their own thing? He couldn’t remember talking to Netic in… months.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
“Grrr, why isn’t this thing on vibrate?” X-Raytor mumbled, pulling his cell phone out of his pants and answering it. “Hello?”
He immediately brightened. “Oh, hey Cara.”
“Hi. Um, X-Raytor…?”
“I, uh…” Long pause. “I need to tell you something. Are you able to, um…”
“Oh, sure!” X-Raytor said. “Do you want me to come over to the set, or-“
“Actually, um, is there somewhere more… private? If, um… yeah.”
X-Raytor didn’t even need to consider this. “Cara, I think it’s time I showed you my roof.”
“A-are you sure the roof’s the best place?” Cara asked as they stepped out through the roof door. The sun was slipping below the horizon, still giving off faint hints of light.
“Well, it- it’s just this is sort of my, um, sanctum or whatever. My quiet place and all that…”
Cara looked uneasily towards the edge of the roof.
“So… what did you want to talk about?” X-Raytor asked. His heart was hammering in his chest. He’d never been this excited… not in a long time at least. It was like high school dating all over again. He’d almost forgotten the thrill of moments like this, of wondering what she was going to say…
“Um…” Cara said.
“Yeah?” X-Raytor smiled, but, of course, she couldn’t see it.
Cara looked down at her feet, and put her hands in her pockets.
“Um… is something wrong?” X-Raytor asked. The anticipation was changing slowly to worry.
“This…” Cara started, and then cut off.
“What?” X-Raytor asked, as softly as possible.
“This isn’t it.” Cara said. “I thought that this would be it… but it isn’t.”
Pause. X-Raytor said, “What are you talking about?”
“Us!” Cara said, looking up at him suddenly. “This isn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
“I- I don’t understand-“
“This!!” Cara said. “This- this whole thing… the last few days have been a living hell for me, James.”
He flinched slightly at the sound of his real name. His common name.
“I-I-I’ve been having these nightmares- every night! Every night! Nightmares that- that you die! You die or- or-or-or I die.” She looked slightly hysterical now. “Do you know that I relive the bridge thing. I keep reliving the moment- the exact moment when I was just thrown- tossed off the top of the Richard Simmons Bridge! Sometimes- sometimes it happens when I’m awake- I’m on set and- and- I’m trying to film a scene, and then, I- I start falling.”
X-Raytor just stood, listened. What was he supposed to say? What could he ever say to make any of this better?
“At first it- it was cool.” Cara continued. “I’m dating a super hero. Oh my God- I… But, X-Raytor… James… you’re going to die doing this. You’re going to die in that stupid costume! And I know that there is nothing I can say to stop you from doing it. Someone is going to kill you. I-I-I-I can’t do this.”
“Cara…” X-Raytor tried to say.
“So…” She said. “So… we’ve decided to move filming back to Vancouver.”
It took a second to register. “Wh-what? Y-you’re…”
“Yeah,” She said. “Yeah, I’m going with them. I- I mean, I have to. But… but I also need to get away from here. I need… I need to get all of this in perspective…”
“X-Raytor… James… oh God. It’s- it’s not you. It’s not you on your own, but- but it’s this whole super hero thing. I mean- every day, every day you fight, like, a- a giant penguin monster or- or a guy in a giant tiki suit who shoots napalm out of his fingers. It’s all…”
“But-but hey,” X-Raytor said. “We can still make it work. I mean… I- I could find a way to get rid of my powers, maybe. I could- somehow- I could. And- and no one knows me outside of the costume, I could just take it off, and we-“
“It’s… it’s not that. It’s not that simple. There’s always the possibility… and, and even if you do quit, that doesn’t mean that they won’t still come after you. I just- I just can’t…”
“Cara…” X-Raytor said. His heart stopped. “I- I love you.”
Cara stared at him, and then wiped a hand over her face. “Oh God… I was hoping… hoping you wouldn’t say that…”
“But- I do!” X-Raytor said. “I’d- I’d give up all of this for you! I would. I swear.”
“I know, I know…” Cara said. “But- that’s part of it, too. I really like you. More than just a friend… you know. And- and maybe… maybe in time… but… I’m… I’m just not in love with you.”
It was like the roof had simply dropped from under him. A hammer blow to the chest. And even that wasn’t describing it accurately- this was no explosion of pain or shattering heart moment or anything like that. This- this was far more subtle, far more crawling and insidious and far more painful. For whatever reason, he noticed that his hands were numb.
“I’m sorry…” She said. “I’m so, so sorry… but I can’t.”
“I’m…” But that was all X-Raytor could manage.
“I, um, I just wanted to ask you one more thing…” Cara said. “And, and I know, I know, if you don’t want to and you want me to just get the hell out I’ll totally understand, but… oh man…”
“Wh-what is it?” X-Raytor asked.
“Could you…” She sighed, closed her eyes. “Could you… take your mask off. Just once. I just- I want to see you.”
And some dark, sullen part of X-Raytor wanted to snap at her, say something bitter and cutting… But that part was far, far away.
…And then reached up and pulled off his mask.
Cara looked, finally, at his face. His short, unruly brown hair. His brown eyes. His slightly-too-sharp nose. His large ears. Him.
X-Raytor wanted to close his eyes, protect her from the radiation that was undoubtedly streaming from them… but no, no, this wouldn’t be enough to hurt her.
Cara tried to say something, but it came out as sort of a gasp-sob. She fidgeted for a second, and then stepped forwards, and hugged him.
And X-Raytor could feel himself slipping away into her, and he knew, he knew that if he could just kiss her he would flow even faster and fall deeper into those green eyes, and anything more… and anything more and he would be able to lose himself completely in her, to her, leave himself and become one with her in blessed, blessed oblivion…
But after a moment, she stepped back. She was crying now, and X-Raytor… X-Raytor wished he was. There was a lingering phantom of warmth where she had been.
Down below, a car had pulled up to the street in front of the Hall, and seemed to hesitate, as if it was unsure if it should continue down the driveway. Cara gestured towards it.
“That’s, um, that’s my ride.”
X-Raytor didn’t say anything. He couldn’t.
“I- keep in touch, okay?” She said, managing a weak smile. “I still have your email.”
“I will.” X-Raytor said. His voice sounded different, and so far away…
She hesitated at the roof door, chewed her lower lip, and said, “Thank you. I- I won’t… Goodbye.”
And X-Raytor wanted to call her back. He wanted to throw himself onto his knees and beg and beg and beg her to come back, to have him, to just run away with him to- to wherever and they could just be together forever, and never have to worry about costumes or super heroes or the stupid Justice League ever again.
Instead, he said, “Goodbye.”
Cara turned, and disappeared down the steps. A few moments later, he watched her leave the Hall, and hurry down the driveway, towards the car. Once, she looked back, just once, and gave him a small wave. X-Raytor raised his hand limply and returned it.
He didn’t put his mask back on until the car’s taillights had faded into the distance, becoming another speck of light on the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge.
The sun was gone now, and the stars were just starting to appear in the darkening sky. X-Raytor didn’t care. He really didn’t care about anything, and, honestly, he didn’t want to. He sat, back resting against the giant dome in the center of Hall of Justice. He lay his head back against the cool surface, and looked up at the tiny flowers of light in the vast darkness above.