JUSTICE LEAGUE

42

Julian
 

Over the buildings, over the ring of cops around the bank, Oreo Avenger crashed through the window, trusting the trench coat to protect her from laceration. Everyone looked up at the sudden disturbance.

Everyday people cowered on the floor. Bags of money sat in a messy pile by the door. Only two people stood. Deborah Walters with the fake Oreo Avenger’s arm around her neck and a glowing weapon threatening her hair.

Oreo Avenger’s eyes narrowed to slits. The fake looked almost exactly like her. Monster.

“I-I’ll do it!” the fake yelled, her weapon crackling with electricity. “I’ll kill this strumpet right!! Right in front of all these people!” Hand trembling, she moved the weapon closer to Deborah’s head. A few hairs sizzled away. “You…you back away and go out the way you came! Just fly out that window and get out of here!! I’m not scared you!”

Hate boiled out of Oreo’s eyes. The weapon swung erratically.

“I’m not! And I’m not scared of your little bag of tricks!”

“Bag of knives.” In one motion she took the big butcher knife from her bag and hurled it at the fake. Years of throwing Oreos perfected her aim. The knife drove through the fake’s hand, sending her weapon flying.

“AAGGH! My hand!”

Deborah Walters scrambled to join the others on the floor.

“Murderer,” Oreo growled, launching herself at the imposter. Fast as light, she threw the woman at the ceiling fan. The fake’s mask fell off as she hit the ground with a satisfying thud.

“You murdered someone today,” Oreo said like a judge pronouncing a sentence. Cold rage seared through her. “A scientist and a good person. Do you know that? Do you even know what you’ve done?”

“Get away from me!”

“You murdered someone. You dressed up like me and murdered someone. Did you think I wasn’t going to do anything about it?” Oreo floated directly over the girl. “I owe you pain.”

Oreo’s fist swung, and the fake slammed into the wall, shattering the wood paneling.

“Did you think I wasn’t going to do anything about it?”

The fake Oreo Avenger tried to crawl to the exit.

“What is this about?” Oreo picked the imposter up by her hair. “Money? Attention? Do you even know?” She threw her into a display extolling the virtues of checking. The hostages scattered away from the debris.

“People think I murdered a man! People think I stole! They don’t trust me now and for what? For what reason?”

“Get away,” the imposter croaked.

Oreo grabbed the imposter by the hair, every move deliberate. “I see people like you all the time. Idiots, running around the city grabbing whatever they can.” She punched the imposter across the face. “Like they live in a videogame!” A punch in the other direction.

“P-please.”

“You killed him!” Oreo screamed, punctuating every word with a blow. “You killed him! You killed him!”

Her face on this other person’s body, beat up almost beyond recognition.

“All these people are sitting here fearing for their live, praying they go home to their families, just so some idiot can try and steal some money!”

“No…”

Oreo shook her. “What’s to stop me from murdering you?”

The wig, loosened from the fight, came off in Oreo’s hand. The imposter slumped to the ground, short blonde hair plastered to her head.

They’d always remarked how alike they looked, she and her cousin Jane. At family gatherings, the two girls dressed the same and wore wigs from their grandmother’s costume collection. Jane’s family took her home with them a couple times.

A megaphone squawked outside. “This is Detective Hall! Anyone in an Oreo Avenger costume come out with your mask off and your hands above your head!”

Former hostages streamed past Oreo as she tied her cousin up with her trench coat. If only she had an Oreo to tape to her head. Jane didn’t even know about her cousin’s alter ego, just saw an opportunity to cause trouble and cast the blame elsewhere.

“Oreo Avenger, Deborah Walters here.” Deborah shoved a microphone in Oreo’s face, waving her cameraman over. “Could you make a statement about this woman carrying out a crime spree in your name? Do you know each other? Does this have anything to do with the recent troubles the Justice League finds itself in?”

Oreo pushed aside the microphone, numbly flying out the broken window.

“There you have it, America, Oreo Avenger is speechless after her defeat of…”

A few blocks away, Oreo had to land on top of the nearest building until she stopped shaking. She’d almost killed someone. Murdered her. She never knew she could get so angry. It just creeped up on her. She’d wanted to see Jane bleed. Who would she be if she’s killed Jane? What would she be?

***

“Violet!” Scarlett shouted. She took off her high heels and ran to the side of her fellow superhero.

Violet’s head snapped up. She looked around, dazed for a moment, until finding Scarlett’s face. Violet’s cheeks were streaked with mascara, and a large purple welt was forming on her right arm.

“I…I…” she tried to explain, but Scarlett would hear none of it. For days she had listened to Violet’s excuses about being tired, drinking coffee at night, and watching too many scary movies. Something was wrong, and Scarlett had had enough with the young woman’s stories. She helped Violet to her feet and led her into the house.

“What’s wrong?” she asked bluntly. Violet pursed her lips. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”

“I’ve been having these nightmares,” she said quickly.

“In the daytime?”

“No!” Violet held her head in her hands. “Just at night. You can’t tell anyone. They’re already so upset about-and it’s hard for them to believe that I-“

Scarlett’s face softened. “We all need our secrets.” She paused. This didn’t explain why Violet was having a breakdown in the middle of the Lawn of Justice. “What are these nightmares about? Sometimes it helps to talk.”

Violet looked up at her friend. Her eyes were sad, pained. “If I told you, it would make you sick.” As if to prove her point, Violet fought her way to the sink and threw up into the basin. Scarlett walked over and rubbed her back, reaching with her other hand to turn on the faucet. Perhaps a talk would have to wait until Violet felt better…

Fifteen minutes later, Violet had changed into new clothes and sat curled up on the couch. Scarlett handed her a glass of orange juice and sat down beside her.

“Talk.”

“I’ve had them since I…got back. They always take place in a Japanese village during a war or a raid or something.” She took a sip of OJ. “I see people killed, and it feels so real. I want to do something, but I can’t. My powers are gone, and all I can do is stand there. Then I wake up.” Scarlett didn’t need to know anything about the faceless soldier.

“So what happened today?”

“I was so tired I fell asleep outside and had one of the dreams,” Violet answered quickly. Scarlett raised one eyebrow, unsure whether to believe the young woman. But Violet couldn’t tell her about the other part. About the faceless man who began to show up during daylight only a few days ago. No, Violet was supposed to control illusions. Not fall victim to them. Right?

Scarlett sighed and leaned back in the couch. “They started after you came back,” she said aloud. “Do you know how you came back?”

“No.” Violet shook her head. “I suspect it had something to do with-“ she cut herself off. “I don’t think they have anything to do with my coming back.”

“You can’t think of anything?” Scarlett pressed. Violet shrugged, not wanting to carry the topic any further. Instead, she set the now empty glass down and stood up.

“Want to play cards?” she asked, a youthful twinkle in her eyes. For a moment, Scarlett forgot that Violet had ever been gone. She smiled, the discrepancies in Violet’s explanations only a dull annoyance in the back of her mind.

***

Swift was huddled up on a seat - a jet seat, mind you, none of those crappy cramped ones on commercial airlines - and silently cursing her situation as whole-heartedly as she was watching for any wrong moves on the parts of the Justice freaks.

Her hand was deep inside one of the trenchcoat’s pockets, coiled around a switchblade she always kept close, though what worked for thugs wasn’t guaranteed to stop superheroes. Considering the state of the pockets (big bottomless things that were always almost overflowing with wallets, loose change, movie stubs, hair accessories, credit cards, and cash) it was amazing she'd been able to find the thing so fast, but adrenaline did that to a person. Especially if that person had just almost died a la pancake.

Eyeing them nervously as they heatedly debated what had just transpired, Swift began to believe in fate. Why else would she have not only gone to the same chain restaurant as the masked goons, but suddenly be identified with them? That, perhaps, was what set her teeth most on edge. The rumors would spread and she'd be in them, all because she chose to be conspicuous and choke on a pancake.

The Leaguer seated in front of her - a guy dressed in an interesting clash of bright colors more painful to the eye than Swift's own - suddenly departed from the discussion and turned around.

"Hi! I'm Midnight Chatter, but everyone calls me MC. What's your name? What's your power? Can you make yourself invisible? Rosma can make herself invisible, but fluorescent lights are her weakness. Do you have a weakness? Say, where'd you get that coat? Do you think you could find one in orange? I really like orange and-"

Swift stared at him, knife forgotten. A dull ache was forming right between her eyes and getting worse the longer this weirdo talked. With no hope of ending his chatter, she took up the only option currently available: she disappeared.

The talkative one went quiet with shock for half a second, and then began to shout.

"She's gone!"

All conversation ceased and every single Justice Leaguer turned their attention to where Swift had formerly been ensconced.

"Damnit, who put her by MC?!"

"A teleporter?" someone else wondered out loud.

A couple got up and began to cautiously check behind seats and in shadowed crannies, obviously remembering her brief show at the IHOP. Swift smiled, slid out of the chair and hopped over to the one MC had formerly occupied before settling down to wait.

Swift didn't fully understand her abilities; most of what she knew about them had been discovered through trial and error. Not being able to vanish when she'd just booted a punk in the back of the knee for making a snide comment because it was raining, but still being able to run like hell to get out of that one, and so forth. As far as she understood, her vanishing didn't have anything to do with invisibility or changing her skin color; it had more to do with tricking people's eyes into not seeing her.

Swift glanced down at herself, sitting smugly in the jet seat. From this point of view, her upper body was masked by a wispy glowing grey, but where her legs should have been was simply air and seat and carpet. It had something to do with the light being refracted - and it never lasted for much longer than a minute, tops.

She started to fade back into view - something she couldn't really control all that well. It was probably a little bit creepy to watch, as she didn’t bother speeding it up this time, a faint shadow of a body that ever so slowly became solid. She was sure she looked freakishly like that one cat in that one book she never bothered finishing.

Seeking always to get the most of the moment, she coughed politely when Midnight Chatter went by, a look of utmost concentration on his face as he both walked and talked his way through the search.

"--the weirdest thing ever! One moment she was here and the next she wasn't. I hope she doesn't think I'm rude. I wonder if I scared her off? Maybe she'll join the team! ....Oh, my...."

His eyes went to the size of dinner plates and Swift was forced to appear for fear of his heart stopping, grinning hugely as she took advantage of the moment's silence.

"Swift, camouflage, no, water, a dumpster, and I doubt it. Everything covered?"

***

Ari waited in the alley for a while, leaning against a brick wall, staring at a stray cat. It was odd. No one had ever seemed to recognize her as a Justice League member before. It figures the only publicity I get is bad publicity.

She decided she couldn't stay there all day, so she headed back into the street, feeling extremely self-conscious. No one else seemed to recognize her again as she made her way to the Sentinel building. Which was a relief.

When she actually arrived, she stood outside the large double-doors, confused. What exactly was she supposed to do now? Just walk right in and demand to see "Staff Writer George White"? No one else was even using the doors.

Feeling a little nervous and starting to question herself on whether or not this was actually a good idea, Ari walked up to the doors and opened one.

The immediate inside room of the Sentinel HQ was rather small, Ari decided. On one wall there were several elevators, the other wall had restrooms, and in front of her was a large receptionist desk, where several secretaries were working at computers. The Sentinel logo was tiled on the floor in gold, contrasting the normal black tiles. Behind the secretaries there were several plain doors, and near the entrance there were several plush benches.

"Excuse me," Ari said, approaching the desk. "I'm looking for T…ah... George White?"

"Do you have an appointment?" The secretary she addressed didn't even bother to stop her work.

"Uh, well, not exactly, but I'm sure if you told him who it was, he'd see me," She realized how ridiculous that sounded. I'd hope he would. She added silently.

"You'll have to make an appointment. Mr. White is a very busy man," The secretary said in a monotone, as though she had repeated that phrase a thousand times. She looked up long enough to give her a decidedly unfriendly stare.

"Couldn't you beep him or something and tell him it's Ari Gabriels?" Ari pleaded. I've come this far...

The secretary sighed, exasperated. Ari saw her nametag said 'Nancy.' "I'll humor you, only because I'm a nice person, in a good mood, okay? But next time, make an appointment."

Ari thanked her profusely as she picked up a phone and quickly dialed. After a moment, she said, "Mr. White? There's a-" Nancy paused, and glanced at her.

"Ari Gabriels," Ari repeated.

"-Ari Gabriels to see you." Nancy's voice dripped with more and more disapproval as she continued. "I told her how busy you were but she-" She paused to listen. "You'll see her? Uh-huh. I see. Well then. I'll send her up."

She hung up the phone and pointed to the elevator. “Take the elevator to the second floor. It’s the third door on the left.”

"Thanks!" Ari headed quickly to the elevator and pressed the button. After what seemed an eternity, there was a "bing!” the doors slid open, and Ari stepped in. She pressed the "two".

Hokey music drifted from a hidden speaker. It was a nice elevator though- carpeted, with a mirrored wall. Pretty classy. The next “bing” came a lot sooner.

The doors slid open again, revealing a plain, gray hallway. "Third door on the left..." She repeated to herself, and found it almost immediately. When she opened the door, her ears were met by a dull roar. The sound of people chattering away as they did their work- the clickey-clickey of keyboards, and even the deeper sound and dings of typewriters.

The room was packed. Cubicles and desks seemed crammed into every possible space. There were several rooms--offices--on the side, but mostly, there were cubicles. And lots of loud, noisy, somewhat obnoxious people.

There were papers everywhere. Copies of The Sentinel littered the floor, and were posted on the walls, and bulletin boards. Several copies of rival papers were around too. Post-It notes covered almost every visible surface. Notebooks were strewn about.

It was one of the strangest places Ari had ever been to.

She didn't see George anywhere, either, even when she stood on tip-toe and tried to peer over the cubicle walls at their occupants. Ari made her way into the room, looki-

"Ari!" An oddly familiar voice called her name. She turned, and saw-

Typho. He had a tidy haircut, a gray shirt, and khaki pants, and a reddish tie, but it was him. Somehow it seemed to work, in a very odd-dressy sort of way. He waved to her. Then she shook her head, hard. It was not Typho. It was George White, Journalist. Not Typho, Wannabe-Superhero.

Ari made her way towards him, slightly stunned. Finally, she got close enough to speak to him, when she slipped on a rogue November volume, and stumbled forwards. He caught onto her before she fell, steadying her. He held her a fraction of a second longer than was necessary, and Ari felt something in her stomach. Possibly that coke she'd had. Or maybe, just maybe...

"This way," He said, releasing her as though nothing had happened, and gestured toward a nearby, empty office. "We shouldn't be in here, but it'll be OK. Maurice is gone today, so no one's using it." He opened the door, flicked on the lights, and shut it after them. "This way we can have some privacy."

She took a good, long look at him. Without the goofy clothes and medallions, he seemed normal enough. There was a bit of Typho in his manner, though. An easy-going style...But…he was so different…so…so...Not Typho.

"I must say, I didn't expect to see you here." He sat in one of several empty chairs. "What can I do for you?"

"I...well...I..." Ari paused, unsure where to start. Everything was so...surreal, like a dream. She ought to be nervous, and she was, but she also felt very calm and steady. It was a feeling she had encountered before, but never quite like this. "I came to see you."

George flashed a smile. "Well, you accomplished that much."

Her nervousness caused butterflies in her stomach, she laughed. Then again, maybe it was his smile... "Yes. Yes, I... I guess I did."

"What else did you want?” He asked, leaning back into a more comfortable position.

"Ah...” Her confidence suddenly evaporated at the sight of him slouching in a Typho way. "Well... Like I said, I wanted to see...you. But...The real you, not the made up you. I wanted to...well...to... to understand you. I wanted to understand why you felt you had to do what you did. I wanted to know how you could live with yourself after doing it. After betraying us. We took you in, and this…this is how you...?”

For a long time, he was silent. Finally, he spoke. “I was doing my job. There’s nothing else to it. I had a deadline, and I delivered.”

Annoyance flickered through her. "You had no right to violate our trust that way!"

"Why do I get the feeling you mean ‘No right to violate me?’" George’s question grated Ari’s nerves. “Why do I get the feeling that you don’t care about the article so much as the fact that I lied to you?”

"You even admit it! You even admit to lying to me, but you can still sit there in that chair, and not feel anything!” Ari’s voice began to rise as anger seeped in. “You act as though I’m the one at fault, that me falling in love with y...Typho...was wrong! You could have stopped me! Instead of pulling this crap! Instead of making me look like a fool in front of everyone, of putting us all in the spotlight. You could have at least turned me off, instead of encouraging me! You never did anything, you…you bastard!"

George sat perfectly still, soaking it in. He seemed unperturbed at her tirade. "Did it ever occur to you that I did try to discourage your advances?"

"What?! Name one example. One time you stopped me from doing anything. One time you said no." She grinned triumphantly as George remained silent. “You never did stop me. And there were times you sought me out, not the other way around. AND I seem to remember some rather immoral suggestions coming from you at the Social!!”

“Just keeping in character,” George shrugged.

“So if you’d been in a position to have sex with me, you would have, is that it?” Ari demanded. “If I hadn’t done anything about it, you would have? Because it was ‘keeping with your character’?! Something Typho would do in that situation!?”

“Well, nothing that drastic, I can assure you.“ He rose from his seat, and Ari backed away from him.

“I don’t hate you,” Ari said, instantly calm. “I despise you. You… You pulled all this… and then…” She shook her head and took a deep, steadying breath. “You expect me to actually be decent to you?”

“No, I don’t. It’s perfectly understandable that you would be upset-“

“Stop that!” She shouted. “Stop saying that! It is understandable, but I don’t need you to say it!”

He fell silent for a long while. Then he sighed, and gazed at her eyes, searching them for a moment. “Then what do you want me to say, Ari?”

Ari collapsed in a chair, facing away from her, dropping her head into her hands. “I don’t know.”

“I was doing my job, Ari. I can’t help what I did now. I can’t fix it, or make it all go away with a snap from my fingers.”

“Can’t you?” Ari raised her head to look at him. “Can’t you do something to make it better? Run another story about us in the paper. A…a good one this time.”

George shook his head. “That wouldn’t fix…you.” He held up a hand to stop her from talking when she opened her mouth to answer. “Let me tell you something Ari. I really couldn’t give a damn about your friends- the other Justice League members. Even if I did, probably no one would listen- or care. They want to hate you. You’re the only one that I even give a glimmer of feeling for. I can’t change the things I said or did when I was Typho- even if I wanted to.”

“You could explain yourself.” Ari said bitterly.

“I’ve already explained what I saw was necessary to.”

“’What you felt was necessary’?” She laughed. “’You were just doing your job’! You never meant to hurt anyone!” Her eyes narrowed. “Spare me the crap, George.”

“Haven’t I?” George asked her patiently. “If you would just listen to me-“

“I don’t want to listen to you!” Ari cried, standing. “I don’t want to listen to anymore of your…your lies!”

“Then why did you come here?” His calm exterior suddenly evaporated, and his tone was icy.

Ari had no answer for that. She simply returned his angry gaze with one of her own, and walked out of the room.

“Don’t trip on your way out!” George called after her, slamming the office door shut after roughly shutting off the lights. Several people turned to stare at them, and there were a few suggestive leers in Ari’s direction. She huffed to herself, and continued to the hallway. George caught up with her.

They made their way to the elevator, where they stood in stony silence, not looking at each other. He escorted her to the front door, and held it for her. Ari glared at him for a long moment, and then stepped out onto the sidewalk. She stomped towards the street, checked her pockets, and decided she had enough for a cab.

When one finally pulled up, she yanked open the door, cast one last look at The Sentinel, and slid in, slamming the door. “I need to get to the Justice Hall.”

“What are ya, one of those freaks?” The cabbie looked at her in the rearview mirror.

“I GUESS I AM!” Ari yelled at him, flinging the door open and getting out. She’d just have to walk home instead.

Home, She thought again. An image popped into her mind- one of a pastel suburban house, rather than the dizzying architecture of the Hall. Yeah...Yes, that's right.

***

The Cargo Hold was packed. Rick wasn’t surprised-it was packed every night, full of cargo haulers and trawlers and fishermen ready to get faced after a long day’s work. Rick wasn’t any of the above-he’d never worked on the ocean and didn’t intend to. He didn’t like fish, he didn’t like rust, and he didn’t like water in his socks. Although, right now, it was almost looking like an option-he’d lost his last job just two days ago.

If he could have retired, he would. He was forty-two, and every morning he was able to notice more and more that his forehead had expanded a little into his hairline. If he could find a girl who wouldn’t kick him out after a week, he’d settle down. That and if he were the kind of guy to get tied down. He really couldn’t picture ever doing that-how, exactly? How did anyone do it? How was anyone able to suffer through the same routine day after day, year after year, and so on?

He decided to forget about it and ordered a Jack Daniels.

Around midnight, Rick wasn’t even sure what he’d been worried about. Yeah, maybe he was forty-two, but here, here at the Cargo Hold, he was Big Rick. He was still the stud he’d been in his twenties. They laughed at his jokes, they gravitated around him like he was the center of the universe. You could see it on their faces-they wished they were him.

He considered staying and getting completely smashed with one of his stand-by girls. But he knew that if he wanted to eat after tomorrow, he’d have to go job hunting. So, around the time that the edges of his vision started to get blurry, Rick detached himself from the party and made his grand exit.

“Don’t walk off the pier, Big Rick!” Hank, the bartender, called after him. Rick laughed, and the bar laughed with him.

And then he was outside, in the dark, quiet night. He could hear the ocean as it lapped up under the docks and piers, and further off the sounds of city traffic. Behind him, the muted sounds of laughter and some Eagles song lingered.

He was standing under the yellow-orange lamp over the door, from which an aluminum CARGO HOLD sign hung. Neon Budweiser and Coors signs glowed overhead. He was digging in his pockets for his car keys when he noticed someone standing just outside the circle of the lamp’s light. They were watching him.

Slowly, Rick pulled his hand from his pocket. “Hey, there,” he said. “You need something?”

“Are you Rick Degen?” The voice was young and male. Rick frowned. A kid? Why would a kid be looking for him.

“Well, that all depends,” Rick said. “What do you want?”

“I just want to talk to you,” the kid said, staying in the shadows. “Are you Rick Degen?”

“Yeah,” Rick said. “Now, who are you?”

The kid took a step into the light. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen. He was a little short for his age, and his hair was greasy and black, and hung in bangs over his forehead. His face seemed both sharp and soft at the same time, and his mouth was a thin line.

“I’m your son,” he said.

Rick’s eyebrows shot up into his receding hairline. His surprise immediately gave way to dull annoyance-not another one.

“Listen,” Rick said, “I’m not your father. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Yes, you are,” the kid said. “My mom told me.”

“Well, your mom-“

“My mom is Beth Firestone.” The kid said. He arched an eyebrow.

Rick searched his memory, but he couldn’t remember anyone named Beth Firestone. He couldn’t even remember anyone who looked even remotely like the kid.

“I don’t think…” Rick said.

“You met her in 1986, in that bar on the east side. Jack’s.” The kid said. There was something latently threatening about his voice, and Rick shifted uncomfortably.

“I honestly don’t-“

“She- she had blond hair,” the kid said. “She was a little taller than I am now, I think. It was on May 7…”

“Listen, kid!” Rick said, exasperation beating out patience. “I don’t remember her, okay? Maybe I did run into her then, but-listen, to tell you the truth, even if I am your father, you’re better off without me. I’d be a crappy dad, believe me.”

“I’m your son,” the kid said. “Can you deny that?”

“Kid, I don’t know!” Rick said. “In all honesty-I’ve got at least half a dozen kids from here to Ohio, and I’ve told any one of them who’s ever tracked me down exactly what I’m telling you now: if I met your mother, I’m sorry, but I don’t remember. And I do the best I can to make sure that… this,” he pointed at the kid. “Doesn’t happen, but sometimes I mess up. Believe me, you’re better off not knowing me. So tell your mother that-“

“My mom is dead,” the kid said. “She died of Parkinson’s disease a month ago.”

Rick blinked. “Well, listen, I’m sorry, but-“

“I’m actually surprised that you don’t remember her,” the kid said. “She wasn’t just one of your regular one night stands.”

Rick laughed. “Sorry, kid, really, but if you think I was in love-“

“That’s not what I’m saying,” the kid said. “What I’m saying is: you raped her.”

Silence.

“No.” Rick said. “Hey, no. You can say I got your mom pregnant or whatever, but no way do you go there. I do not do that. What the hell do you think I am?!”

“My mom told me,” the kid said, and his eyes burned. “She told me exactly what happened.”

“Sorry to speak ill of the dead, but your mom lied,” Rick said. “I’ve done a lot of bad s***, but I would never do something like that.”

“You can say whatever you want,” the kid said. “I know the truth.”

Rick sighed, and ran a hand over his face. “So, fine. What do you want from me? Money? You want to sue me? Blackmail me? What do you want?”

“What do I want?” The kid asked. He stepped forwards, and Rick took a step back. The kid’s eyes were hard and dark.

“You,” he said.

***

If it’s not something it’s nothing.

That was X-Raytor’s thought for the day. He was running over the roofs of low shops and offices, already on his second pair of blurbs. This was, actually, the least harrowing experience he’d ever had with them. He’d even been able to make it to a roof before the first pair crapped out, so there wasn’t that pesky heart-stopping fall through the air, either.

There was, however, one problem:

Damn it’s boring, X-Raytor thought. Seriously-the whole city hates us, there’s no shortage of idiots hyped up on super powers or just idiots in general… so why am I bored? I mean, is it All Psychos Off Night and someone didn’t tell me? Because, seriously, that’s the sort of vacation I need. Me and the whole freaking city.

Despite this, he was glad to be nighthawking again. It actually felt like he was doing his job, for a change. Of course, there was also the fact that he had gone out for the sole purpose of skipping Swift’s initiation. He was so sick of new people-so sick of them. The last thing that they needed was a new Justice Leaguer. And not just that, but Swift fell into the category of “streetsmart girls with attitudes,” a category which encompassed Pinzz, Crystal, Netic, and Drew already, and, as much as he loved them all like obnoxious sisters (okay, so maybe he didn’t think of them as sisters exactly-friends who happened to be girls. Obnoxious friends who happened to be girls), they annoyed the living hell out of him.

Then again, he thought. I annoy the living hell out of them, so I guess it all works out.

And after the Typho betrayal, there was something he just didn’t like about a new girl who he couldn’t see. It was fine that Rosma could do it-she was moody, but he trusted her. He honestly had no reason to trust Swift-they’d picked her up because she passed out on the IHOP floor. Which was why, of course, he never went to IHOP-bad things just happened there. Fact of life.

Raven had agreed: “This is why I never go out for breakfast-only crazy people go out for breakfast!”

And then Eric had piped in with, “I told you we should have gone to the Burger King drive through!”

X-Raytor and Pinzz had glared at him.

Boooooored, X-Raytor thought. Boooo-ored. B-O-R-E-

BABOOM!

X-Raytor whipped around in midair to see wood and water explode violently into the air, from somewhere by the docks.

Huh, X-Raytor thought. Okay.

***

When X-Raytor arrived about fifteen minutes later, the police and Channel Five were already on the scene. And the scene was not a pleasant one.

Where there had once been about a yard of pier, and a squat, dockside pub called the Cargo Hold (which X-Raytor had visited more than once during his solo career) there was now a gaping hole of black sea, strewn with shredded wood and debris. There was a literal sheet of dust over the water, which was still rocking fitfully against the tide. The Cargo Hold’s roof, which now resembled a mass of giant, loosely-joined toothpicks, was half submerged in the sea. There was a police boat next to it, and a sizable hole had been torn in the roof. About six people, wet and sputtering, had already been pulled out and loaded onto the police boat. There was a larger Coast Guard boat, with a spotlight fixed on the roof. X-Raytor could see several divers on the boat’s deck, each carrying orange life preservers. There was a third police boat, a little ways away from the others. As X-Raytor watched, they hauled something that looked like a pile of wet towels from the ocean, and dumped it on the boat’s deck. It was only then that X-Raytor realized that it was a body.

“S***…” he said. He disengaged his blurbs, and climbed down a fire escape. He walked up to the first police officer he saw.

“Uh, hey,” he said. “Er, I don’t want to start any trouble or anything, but, uh-what happened here?”

“We honestly don’t know.” The officer said. She rubbed her forehead. “It looks like it was a bomb, maybe, but the two that came over from homicide-the two detectives-they said that there’s no sign of burning or anything, just from looking at some of the debris. So…”

“Thanks,” X-Raytor said. He looked around and finally spotted two people down by the remains of the pier, watching the boats. One was a tall man with dark hair and pronounced sideburns, the other was a shorter dark skinned woman with straight, shoulder-length hair. He guessed they were the detectives.

“Uh, hi,” he said. “Are you two-“

“Detective Price,” the man said. “This is Detective Tyler.”

There was a brief pause, and then:

“We got it,” Detective Price said.

“Huh?”

“We’re handling it,” he said.

“Oh, um, okay,” X-Raytor said. “Is there anything I can do to-“

“No.” Detective Price said. “We got it.”

“Why don’t you be an @sshole about it, Dave,” Detective Tyler said. Then, to X-Raytor, she said, “Yeah, there is something you can do. You see that roof out there? Look through the building that it’s attached to, and see if there’s anyone still moving in there.”

X-Raytor blinked. “Er, okay.” He switched on his x-ray vision, peered through the water, through the sides of the submerged building…

He saw the eerie, glowing forms of several kicking skeletons, all at the waterline, hands raised to the police above. And then, down below, other skeletons, these not moving, and some that, even from the distance that X-Raytor was seeing them at, were not in natural positions.

“Gah-” X-Raytor said, switching back to regular vision. “F***. That’s-“

“Is there anyone still alive down there?” Detective Tyler asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” X-Raytor said. “They’re all above the water, though. But, there’s some people down at the bottom…”

“How many?” Detective Price cut in.

“Uh, six, maybe?” X-Raytor said.

“Six, maybe?”

“Six.”

“Cast Guard will handle that,” Detective Tyler said. “Okay, you’re X-Raytor.”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said.

“Well, Mr. X-Raytor, we’d like to ask you a few questions,” Detective Tyler said.

“Um, sure,” X-Raytor said.

“Did you witness this?” Detective Tyler asked.

“Um, no,” X-Raytor said. “I was out-patrolling, and I heard an explosion…”

“An explosion?” Detective Price repeated.

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said, trying not to sound too irritated. “Just, like-boom. It was a little… duller, I guess you’d say, than other ones I’ve heard, but it was an explosion.”

“And did you see any fire?” Detective Tyler asked.

“No,” X-Raytor said. “I turned around and I saw all of this stuff go into the air, but no fire.”

“Well,” Detective Tyler said, looking at Detective Price.

Detective Price raised his eyebrows. “Well.”

“Well?” X-Raytor asked.

“I’m sure you remember the Jackson Prison explosion, right?” Detective Price asked. “You guys helped clean that up, right?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said.

“Well, that’s one out of two mysterious explosions that have happened in the past few months,” Detective Price said. “The second being this doozy here. Though, granted, Jackson did have fire-kind of makes you wonder.”

“I… guess so?” X-Raytor said.

“So, Detective Tyler, what do you think could have caused such an explosion, without any fire?” Detective Price asked his partner.

“Hm, I’m not sure, Detective Price,” Detective Tyler said. “Certainly no normal bomb.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking, Detective Tyler,” Detective Price said.

“Why, thank you, Detective Price,” Detective Tyler said.

The hairs on the back of X-Raytor’s neck stood on end.

“Wait, if you think we had anything to do with this…” he said.

“I didn’t say that,” Detective Price said. “Though, you know, now that you mention it, that is an interesting idea…”

“Listen, do you guys really need me here, or are you just screwing around?” X-Raytor asked.

The detectives exchanged glances, and Detective Tyler shrugged.

“Sorry to waste your time,” Detective Price said. He and Detective Tyler turned back to the crime scene.

… Huh… X-Raytor thought again. He retreated into the shadows, and turned his blurbs on again. If he was going to help at all, he’d have to do it from the air.

He ran over the ocean, watching as the Coast Guard divers went under and the police continued to pull survivors through the roof. The boat carrying the single body was making its way through the rubble. From the air, X-Raytor could see that it was a man.

He was about to head home, feeling crappy and useless, when he noticed something wet and lumpy sprawled across a piece of pier. He descended until he was hovering over the waves, and looked closer.

It was a kid, a teenager, soaked and pale, clutching to a piece of debris.

“Hey, kid,” X-Raytor said. “Kid!”

The kid looked up, and his eyes widened. “Wha- who the hell?! Oh my-“

“Hey, hey, kid, don’t freak out,” X-Raytor said. “I’m going to get you some help, hold on a second…”

“Where am I?” The kid demanded shrilly. “What is this?!”

“Listen, the police are right over there, I’ll get them to-“

“What happened?! Where am I?!”

“I’ll just get the police-“

“No, wait!” The kid’s eyes were wide and desperate. “Don’t! I- I- I have powers! They’ll think I did it!!”

X-Raytor blinked. He hadn’t exactly been ready for that. And he only had about five minutes left on his current pair of blurbs.

“Maybe…” he said slowly.

“They’ll throw me in jail!” The kid said. “I’ve seen how angry everyone is. You’ve got to help me! Take me with you!”

X-Raytor looked down at the kid and suddenly felt sick. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen-exactly the age X-Raytor was when he had been left alone, with nothing but his powers. This was just a scared kid…

No, no way. If I remove this kid from a crime scene-A CRIME SCENE!!-God, I will be in such deep s*** if the police find out. What was with those detectives? That’s the last thing I need-to be a suspect in a murder case. No, no way. I’ll just bring him over to the police. Not like…

But X-Raytor remembered the scene at IHOP this morning. He remembered how angry the people had been, how close to a riot they had come. The whole damn city was turning into a mob scene-every time he woke up at night, usually with his heart pounding, sweaty from some nightmare, and opened his bedroom window to cool himself off, he half expected to see a thousand people carrying pitchforks and torches, with Margo Westfall at the head, singing that “Kill the Beast” song.

It would be like her to sing a Disney song… X-Raytor thought, shaking his head. Then he remembered the situation at hand.

“Okay, okay,” he said. “F***. Just-swim to that pier over there. I can get you to the Hall from there. And I swear to God, if you’re lying about the powers…”

“I’m not!” The kid said, sounding more exasperated than scared. “Jesus Christ, take a f***ing pill.”

“Just needed to be sure,” X-Raytor said. “Now, come on. Hurry up before someone sees you.” He rose into the air a bit on his blurbs, and then looked down again. “Oh, hey, what’s your name?”

The kid looked up as he began to paddle silently towards the pier.

“Julian,” he said.