JUSTICE LEAGUE

43

Going Back
 

It was some time later before he could get to his feet. When he did manage to pick himself up from the ground, however, it was through gritted teeth. His left arm and leg screamed at him, and a dull ache still lingered in the back of his neck. Unable to do much for the pain-stricken limbs, he lifted a hand to massage his neck.

What now? he thought. He was alone - lost - in the middle of a forest with absolutely no memory of who he was or what he was doing. And injured, on top of that.

Craning his collar to get out any kinks, he surveyed his surroundings once more. Pine needles and dead leaves littered the underbrush and melting snow still clung to the shadowy areas at the feet of tree trunks. Nothing had changed except for the sun, which had dropped from its high point in the sky.

Probably late afternoon, he surmised. He would have to do something soon, or risk being stuck in the woods at night. Shifting his weight onto his right leg, he half-dragged his left foot behind him with each step. He didn’t know where he was going, but at least it would do some good to start walking.

Reach.

Step.

Pull.

Reach. Step. Pull.

Reach. Step. Pull. Reach. Step. Pull.


After limping for what seemed to be ten whole minutes instead of just ten steps, he finally managed to reach the brook cutting through the trees. Carefully avoiding his bad leg, he bent down onto his knees and looked into the flowing water. A face stared back. It was lean, but well built with high cheekbones, framed by black hair that fell just long enough to cover the earlobes. A moderately fair complexion was masked by dirt and grime caked into the skin. Chocolate brown eyes were piercing, and thin lips were pursed with a monotonous quality. All in all, it seemed to be a fierce visage.

Who was this man? And why did he look so gloomy? After analyzing the morbid countenance for a few moments longer, he decided it didn’t bother him all that much. Cupping his hands, he let them slip under the surface of the water, shattering the reflection. Bringing them up again, he let the water splash over his face. A few more times, and he was relatively cleaner than before. Still, the bite of the cold air was more pronounced against his wet skin. He suppressed a shiver.

Stealing one more glance into the brook, the man noticed his attire for the first time. A long, black trenchcoat hung from his shoulders over a similarly black long t-shirt. Black cargo pants covered the tops of heavy, black combat boots.

What am I supposed to be? A Matrix rip-off?

Funny. He could remember the name of a movie, but he couldn’t remember his own?

Letting the thought slide, he began to rise to his feet. That was when a something blunt poked him in between his ribs. Whipping around abruptly, he winced as pain shot up his leg.

Nothing there. But then what was…?

Then he suddenly became aware of something long and narrow resting below his left arm. It seemed to be tangled in his clothes. What could have gotten in there? Probably a stick or something that got stuck in his belt when he was still lying down. Pulling his trenchcoat aside, he found that there was indeed something fixed through his belt. But it was no stick. Black fabric weaved in a crisscross pattern over white ray skin, ending in a pommel at the top. Below, a ring of blackened iron separated the semi-oblong rod from glossed wood about three times its length. It was a sword.

Katana, he corrected himself, hardly noticing how the word had seemed to pop into his head. Without realizing what he was doing, he slowly grasped the hilt, pulling on it just enough for the seal to open with an audible CLINK. With a swift jerk of his arm, he freed the sword completely from its housing. The blade made a distinct whine as it sliced through the still of the air, much like a tuning fork being struck. The sound echoed in the woods for a brief moment.

He swung the katana a few times, the feel of its weight in his hand somehow familiar… the gracefully sinuous movements suggesting a fine degree of control. He stopped and brought the flat of the blade level in front of him. It was definitely oriental, an elegant curve adorning its length. The gleaming steel offered a far better reflective surface than the creek, and he looked at his own features with stunning clarity.

What am I? he thought. Some sort of martial artist? What was a martial artist doing in the middle of the woods dressed like some sort of undertaker? With a sword on his belt, no less? Well, he wasn’t going to find out standing there all day. He was just about to resheath the katana when a marking caught his attention right above the hand guard and just below the mirror image of his eye at the base of the blade. His left finger still felt prickly as he traced it over the tiny indentations in the metal. They were some sort of symbols. Alien, yet strangely recognizable at the same time…

”Be mindful. You must be at one with the sword. It is an extension of yourself, and you an extension of it. Now, get up! Again!”

What was…? The words were loosely connected with something more… memories… places… faces. He tried to reach out… to grab at the fleeting response that his subconscious had conjured up. But the words slipped through his fingers like smoke, not given a chance to solidify into anything more. Already, the gravelly voice was fading away.

Damnit! he cursed mentally. Looking at the foreign letters again didn’t bring back so much as an inkling. He gently slid his fingertip over the cool steel, away from the inscription and towards the margin. Just as he reached the border, a sharp burning sensation caused him to reflexively jerk his finger back. A small drop of crimson began to ooze out of the cut. He had drawn blood. Just how sharp was the thing?! Upon closer inspection, he couldn’t really make out the razor edge. Deciding not to let his curiosity linger any further, he slid the sword back into its scabbard.

The sun was beginning to droop lower, and it wouldn’t be long until it began to set. He had no time to loiter about. He quickly rummaged through his pockets for any form of identification. Hopefully, he’d carry a wallet with some ID like any other person. A thorough search of his garments only yielded some loose cash and a pair of gloves.

Guess not, he thought, donning the gloves. The black fabric was torn away so that two-thirds of his fingers remained naked, but it still kept his palms warm.

He would just have to rely on his surroundings to get by. He glanced down at the length of the stream and found it disappearing into the shrubbery some distance ahead. If he followed the flow of water, he could surely get out of the forest. And since the light was fading opposite to the flow of water that meant downstream was westward. Having gotten his navigational bearings, the trenchcoat-clad man began to trudge down the side of the creek. He hadn’t gotten far when something unseen caught his boot. He fell onto the ground, scraping his elbows and knees on impact. Fortunately, the grassy earth was still damp after soaking up the melted snow. Ignoring the pain on the left side of his body, he crawled up into a sitting position and tried to get a look at what he had tripped over.

Expecting to see a jutting tree root, he was taken somewhat by surprise to find a ribbed rubber rod peeking out from under a bush. Whatever it was, it was definitely manmade. Brushing himself off, he got up, the pain in his arm and leg beginning to numb over from constant stimulation. He reached down with his good arm and tried to pull the object out. It didn’t budge. It was heavier than he had expected. Putting some force behind his pull, he finally managed to heave the object out of the bush. It took him a moment to realize that he held a small motorbike by the handle. What was a moped doing in the middle of the forest? Was it his? Another mystery object found in the woods where it shouldn’t be… it certainly fit the criteria. A key still poked out of the ignition. He turned it. Nothing.

Well, there’s no way it could be driven through this myriad of trees, he reasoned. It had to have come from somewhere. That was when he noticed the earth below had been disheveled, and the disturbed soil extended as skid marks up a gradual slope. Hopeful that it meant what he thought it meant, he followed the trail up to higher ground. His boots eventually made contact with asphalt.

Bingo.

***

“Not too bad,” Swift muttered as she walked through the front doors of the Justice Hall, tilting her head to get a better look at the massive ceiling and overall impressive structuring of the place. The yard was pretty torn up, in contrast to the faint smell of paint that lingered inside and the evidence of recent renovations that only Swift would have picked out.

In truth, despite her nonchalant words and rather cool glance around, Swift was growing uneasier by the moment. This, in no way, was what she had been planning on. After her performance on the jet there had been angry mutterings among the members, and more than one pair of eyes watching her distrustfully. She’d met every look squarely; after all, they were the ones that had dragged her into this, not the other way around. But that was what was so unsettling: with little reason, they’d saved her from the mob and had trucked her back to their headquarters without a question (barring what she assumed was Midnight Chatter’s normal mode) as to who she was and where she came from. Could they have known the interest she’d begun to take in them, what her plans had been to show them up? If they were such good guys, why all the questions?

She refused to let it show, though, and continued to look over the place as if she owned it. In fact, since her parents’ house it was the largest, most comfortable place she’d ever set foot in - and five of her parents’ sizable homes probably would have fit here.

Somebody tapped her on the back and she snapped to face them before she’d even realized her moment of reverie had been broken. A blonde guy - cute, she registered, but not her type - looked back at her, apparently startled by her speed.

“Yes?”

“Uh, yeah, dude, Rosma wants to know if you have any stuff you want picked up when I go get the van.”

Swift stared at him for a moment, blankly.

“You are staying here, right dude?”

One last glance around the Justice Hall was enough to make up her mind. Questions or no questions, she could learn to like civilized life in a place like this.

“Of course.” Swift smiled her absolutely undeniably adorable smile, whipped a set of keys at him, waited until he fumbled and caught them to offer her hand. “I’m Swift.”

“Jo Surf.” They shook, and she nodded at the keys. “The address is on the keychain, and there’s not too much in there. A couple boxes worth. Nothing that should give you any trouble.” She flashed her smile again, tossing her head enough to bounce her long curls. Jo, as she predicted he would, smiled rather pathetically back.

“Hey, dude, I have some time before I leave.. Do you want a tour?”

She agreed and he led her off, ignoring the looks of the League Members that had yet to dissipate.

* * *

“…And this is the totally groovy gym.” Jo pushed open yet another door, though by this time Swift had lost count of just how many rooms they’d seen. She was getting a little bored of both Jo and the tour, but wasn’t ready to admit it. The Hall was bigger than she could ever have dreamed it being.

The gym was probably the last straw. Gym, as far as Swift was concerned, brought to mind a couple weight machines and a TV for aerobics tapes. No such luck when it came to the Justice Hall.

A full basketball court stretched before her, with several hallways leading off of it. Half-dazed, she only caught key words of Jo’s conversation as he led her through the large chamber, words like “quarter mile track”, “16 kinds of weight machines”, “racquetball”, “tennis court”, and, most interesting of all, “training simulation room”.

“What was that last one?” Swift returned to reality, tilting her head.

“The training simulation room? Its not as high tech as it could be, but its pretty cool. Us superheroes have to keep ourselves in good shape.” His chest veritably puffed out as he said this, and though Swift could not help but notice it was a pretty impressive chest, she inwardly rolled her eyes.

Noting her interest, he brought her to the training room. It was large, but completely empty. Swift gave it a quick once over and then turned to make a comment of some sort to Jo, only to realize he wasn’t beside her. Immediately her guard went up - and sky rocketed when she noticed shadows creeping along the walls with no source.

They began to converge - and with a blink, she was gone. The shadows were undaunted and lurked closer, kicking Swift into high gear. Flash - the other side of the room. Then back again. The left corner, and then the right. She darted back and forth, watching the shadows endlessly, gauging their reactions. Slow at first - and then they began to track her movements, attempting with increasing speed to surround her. Again and again she sped past them, though began to tire.

“JO!” She shouted, stopping in a corner, panting for breath and sinking her hand into the pocket of her trenchcoat, trusty blade at the ready as she watched the shadow things creeping closer. “What the F*%@ is this?!”

All at once they vanished. Distrustfully, Swift backed deeper into the corner, the blade in her hand and springing out with a sharp snick. Without warning, a door to her right that certainly had not been visible before appeared, and Jo stepped out with a worried look on his face.

“Dude, chill, I’m totally sorry. I thought you knew it was just a bunch of holograms.”

She stared at him, taking a deep breath and carefully getting her emotions and fear under control. “Holograms. Right.”

Jo looked uneasily at her knife, but glanced at his watch. “Its just about time for grub. Want to head up?”

Swift nodded, put away the knife and followed him back upstairs, her lip-biting the only sign of her rampant discomfort. Had Jo been testing her abilities, or was he honest in his mistake? There was too much damn uncertainty..

The pair re-entered the foyer just as the doors again opened and the one they called X-Raytor entered with another boy - probably her age - dripping water all over the floor. He wasn’t too unattractive himself, despite the dampness, but Swift surveyed him with the same critical eye she intended to keep on everyone in this damn mansion. He met her gaze but didn’t hold it, looking around the massive space.

Newbie Night at the Okay Corral. Swift concluded, before following Jo to the kitchen.

***

Muffled birdsong startled her awake. For a moment, she was caught in a state of "waking up"- she was thoroughly confused and disturbed by her surroundings. The light, pastel colored walls were not her own, and neither was the tasteful art that decorated them. Nor were the bookshelves, filled with classic works hers. But then full consciousness returned, and she remembered.

She had come here yesterday to talk with her Aunt. When she first arrived, her Aunt was nowhere to be found. Ari had let herself in by the key that was hidden in the lawn gnome's detachable hat, and made herself at home while she waited. It wasn't hard to do either- Aunt Sue's place was filled to the brim with things to do. Uncle Renald had been loaded, and Aunt Sue didn't have anything better to do than fill her house with oddities.

Ari had spent nearly three hours watching the news on the disturbingly large television when Sue finally arrived, her arms full of heavy bags. Ari never did see what was in them, but she wagered it was probably her aunt's idea of grocery shopping: 2/3 vodka and 1/3 food.

"Ari! Good to SEE you, dear!" Her aunt trilled. "Give me a minute and I'll be RIGHT with you!"

"You don't need help?" Ari asked, standing.

"Oh, NO dear, I'm PERFECTLY capable to handle this MYSELF," she said, waving a hand dismissively. She carted the bags into her kitchen, made a second trip, and then shut the front door. "Care to enlighten me what brings you here, Ari?"

"Well, I guess," Ari said, not expecting it to come up so soon. Then again, Sue wasn't known for her tact... "You've probably seen the news."

"Oh, yes." Sue frowned, sitting on the couch. She leaned over for a moment, fumbled under the couch's cover, and eventually withdrew her hand, holding an unlabeled bottle. "So! This..."Typho" was it...? He seems to have turned out to be quite an unfriendly sort. You never would have realized it: he has an honest man's face, all right. I saw his picture. WELL! After I saw it on the news, I had half a mind to rush over to the paper and give that fellow a PIECE of my mind!" She took a long drink.

"Yes...well.. I saw George today," Ari reported.

"George?! George?!" Aunt Sue shook her head vigorously at the name. "All the Georges I've ever known have been horrendous. I should've known, after all... Well. I'm sure you gave him quite the shock, eh? Eh?"

Ari was surprised that Sue wasn't talking as much as she normally did. She must have really caught her attention for her to be so quiet. "No...well...It didn't seem to be a surprise to him. I... We were getting along okay, but then..." She trailed off, and was silent for a moment. Sue put her bottle down, to give Ari her full attention. "I just got so...so...so MAD! I wanted...”

"I understand, dear," Aunt Sue reassured her. "I've been there, oh, Lord knows I have! Why, all the stories I could tell you of MY younger days! Why, first there was Ralph and Hidalgo…and my, then there was Maxwell. HE had some fire in him!” She winked conspiratorially at Ari, and lowered her voice. “My parents didn’t really approve of Maxwell. He- well… Maybe when you’re older, dear, I’ll tell you ALL about it.”

“Um. Okay,” Ari said, struggling not to laugh. She was glad she had taken this path after all. Aunt Sue could really help her relax.

“The NERVE of some of these journalists! I met one back in my day, his name was Nathan. Thought he was high stuff. But that was just the effects of the drugs.” She shook her head, and took a gulp from her bottle. “He ended up getting beaten. Kind of a pity, but it helped him quit his drug addiction. He didn't seem to like having them stuck in his...well...Drugs are such awful things, smelly junk. They don’t have much of a kick, either. I know these things, Ari, don’t go trying them now. Because the only place they’ll get you is the gutter. Like those garbage men. Who would be a garbage man for a living if they had a choice? Nope, nope, drug addicts all of them! But don’t go telling Harry that, dear. He’s been working here for so long I’m getting used to him. Anyway...”

“I think I still…” Ari sighed, leaning back in the deep, plush sofa. “Did you ever hate someone so much you loved them?”

Susan looked surprised. “Of course, dear. What, you think you INVENTED emotion or something??” She winced. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sound like your mother there, Ari, but honestly. Kids these days! They think they invented angst or something! And their music is TERRIBLE. I can’t understand how all that bass is so popular. A good thumping is good every now and then, but what’s the point of bass if you can’t hear the words because of it? Dreadful stuff, reminds me of the shrimp they have at the Lobster place. That red one, you know? But yes, there have been several occasions in my life where I encountered what you described.”

“What happened?” Ari posed, interested.

Her aunt raised an eyebrow. She took a swig of her drink, and swished it thoughtfully. “Edward was a horribly infuriating man. He had the worst habits-but I won’t get into that now. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t exactly good man material. But we had the most wonderful times…and then all the sudden he’d ruin them somehow-another story for when you’re older, Ari-and eventually I got sick of it. Then came Howie. His idea of a good time was going to the dam to…Your mother can tell you about THAT. He didn’t last quite as long. If my memory serves, it was only a few months. I haven’t seen him in AGES. Must be what… twenty years? That makes me feel old. We’ll say ten instead. Don’t let people restrict you because of your age, Ari. Anyone who does is a ninny, as the Cyclops said.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Ari promised sincerely. “But what did you do? Didn’t any of them work out?”

“Of course! Renald, dear, Renald. He was one of those men I absolutely loathed. Stubborn as a mule, and about as smart, too. Still, he hit it off one day, invented that, thing. You-well. You should probably be a bit older before you learn the nature of that. Somehow though, he managed to crack my shell. The bang on the head couldn’t have hurt, either!” Sue laughed for a moment, and then stopped when she realized Ari wasn’t laughing either. “Well. I guess that story’s a bit before your time. Anyway. These things generally sort themselves out. However. If this fellow continues to give you any trouble, just call me, alright dear? I’ll sort it all out.”

I’m sure you would. With the sharp end of a pointy stick, Ari thought, but she said, “There’s no need to, Auntie. I can handle my own problems.”

Her aunt waved her hand dismissively. “Nonsense! When I was your age, I couldn’t handle anything! Besides…never mind. I would have been glad for anyone to help me. Especially the cute young man who sat in my chemistry class! He could have tutored me anytime to help me with my grades.”

“I guess,” Ari said, doing her best to ignore the last part. “But your concern is enough, Auntie, really it is. It makes me feel…wanted.”

“Good. You can stay here as long as you want, dear.” Her aunt rose to her feet, staggered a little, and patted her on the shoulder. “I’m always here for you. Except for right now. I have to do something. If you want anything to eat, just call me.”

“Thanks, Auntie,” Ari stood, and stretched, as Susan wandered off.

The rest of the evening had been pretty uneventful. Susan had gone to sleep after their conversation, and Ari had followed suit, not realizing how exhausted she was. And now in the morning light, everything seemed very…sharp, and in focus. She realized that right now, there was probably nothing she could do about George. And she should probably be getting back to the Hall. Ari was a bit shocked to realize that she felt more comfortable here right now. Maybe it was just because she knew going back to the Hall would probably mean a string of unpleasant events. Or maybe she just felt to tired to deal with any of the crap that was probably happening there. Besides, after the last ride she had tried to grab, she’d most likely have to walk there. Which didn’t sound very appealing. Still, she didn’t want to impose on her aunt any longer, and the talk they’d had had made her feel a lot better… After a quick breakfast, she’d head back, she decided, and left her room.

She ran into her aunt in the hallway, though. "Ari, dear!" Sue called. "I need to run to the store. Do you need a ride anywhere? A certain newspaper building, or a League of Justice Hall, perchance? It's not on the way, but I don't mind."

"Sure," Ari said, surprised, following her aunt. As she hadn't exactly brought any extra clothes or anything, she didn't need to pack, so it didn't take her long to get ready.

They headed outside, threading through the army of gnomes that now littered the front yard, replacing the quaint pinwheels that had been present at Ari's last visit. Eventually they got to her aunt's car, which was a gaudy shade of purple, with yellow stripes. Ari slipped into the passenger side, and her aunt took the wheel.

Ari was a bit afraid when they took off, a bit faster than Ari was comfortable with, but none of the cops they saw bothered to chase them. So Ari decided Aunt Sue knew what she was doing. They made it to the Hall quickly enough for Ari not to endure any major discomfort.

"Bye, Ari! Come visit anytime!" Her aunt said, waving, and pulling out a bottle. "Remember, don't drink and drive. And save this for later, when you really need it. Like during one of those crime episodes. Try splashing it in their eyes. Or drink it, whichever you think will help, dear!" She handed Ari the bottle.

"Uh...Thanks, I guess," Ari said, confused. She sniffed the bottle and wrinkled her noise, but was pleased to discover it was not her aunt's favorite beverage, but some sort of flavored water.

"Homemade recipe!" Her aunt grinned. "Share it with those delightful friends of yours."

Ari thanked her and headed into the Hall. Behind her, tires squealed, and dust clouded the air. Ari shook her head.

***

Scarlett looked herself over in the mirror in the Justice League Walk-In Closet before she started to walk out. She thought about taking her cell phone with her, but what was the use? Hamlet was the only one who had the number now.

"Brriiing! Brrriiing!"

Scarlett looked at the cell phone. "Now that's good timing." She ran over and flipped it open and on.

"Hamlet?"

"No, this is Bonnie Dasani. Is this Lor--er, Scarlett Fyre?"

"Yeah...wait, you're the lawyer, right?"

"Yeah. Your aunt, too, but I don't think I saw you but maybe twice."

"Oh...so you're the sister who deserted us after you married money?"

"I went to college to become a lawyer, Scarlett. I'm not about to claim sainthood."

"A phone call wouldn't have hurt."

"What is this, then?"

"Fine, fine. So what's up, lawyer/aunt-I've-only-seen-three-times-in-my-entire-life?"

"The police won't be bringing any charges against you."

"That's good, seeing how I haven't done anything."

"Yes, I know. You had a untouchable alibi."

"So, how much is this phone call costing me?"

"Well, normally I charge $75 an hour, but you're family--I'm doing this pro bono."

"Thanks so. I'll send the check in the mail."

"No, Scarlett, pro bono means it's fre--"

"I know what it means. But I don't care."

"Look, Scarlett, you don--"

"No. Listen: Forrest, Wilde, Grandma and GranGran, they're family. Hell, Saph's even family. You never even called us. You can't just stroll in and free me from an interrogation and expect me to hug you and give you a copy of Grandma's chicken and dumplings recipe. It doesn't work that way, Bonnie."

"Damn. I really wanted that recipe, too."

"Look, thanks for what you did, Bonnie. But f*** off, okay?" Scarlett hung up.

"Brriiing! Brrriiing!"

"Oh, right, like I'm going to talk to you again, Bonnie," Scarlett said to the phone. She left it resting on a chair, not even bothering to check the Caller ID.

It didn't take long for her to find Jo in the kitchen, where he was scarfing down the last of dinner, a fork in one hand, the other arm wrapped around Barbara Ann as usual. "Hey, Jo."

"Scarlett? What's up, surfer girl?"

"You said you needed help getting the Justice Van?"

"Oh, man, I totally forgot about that. Yeah, yeah, let's go." He got up and they headed to the Garage of Justice. "I'll drive us to the IHOP in my X-Terra, and you drive the Justice Van back while I pick up that stuff for Swift?"

"That works."

"Awesome."

***

Violet silently concluded, as she walked into the rec room, that there were way too many people in the Hall.

It was a conclusion she reached when she discovered that she could hear a rousing game of “Who will control the remote?” even through the bedroom door. Of course, the noise did keep her from sleeping, an aspect she did looked rather fondly on.

But, it was noise nonetheless.

Violet cleared her throat.

No response.

Violet forced a smile, and suddenly, it began to snow inside the rec room. It was an illusion, of course-but the kids who hadn’t seen her use her powers before didn’t have to know that.

“Lower the noise, or I’ll make it into a blizzard,” she said calmly once silence fell over the room. Catching X-Y’s eye from across the room, she grinned. He did not return the favor.

“Very clever, Violet. Knock it off,” Pinzz asked ever so politely. Violet didn’t hear her. She was puzzled by the grave look on X-Y’s face. He didn’t seem very amused by her little trick. It was understandable, of course, after all that had happened, but…

Violet let the snow disappear and retreated to the upstairs bedrooms.

***

Max Stevens ghosted through the crowd, a handful of wallets already weighing down his pocket. These rich folks, bored and angry, forgot all about their money when they tried to change the world. Like it worked. As far as Max could see, the only thing changed by these protests was his bank account. Like taking candy from a cripple.

“Who are they to impose their morality on us?” The red-faced woman at the front of the mob threw her arms wide. “Will we stand idly by as the Just-Us League destroy our city?”

Max shouted with the rest of them. “No!”

“I said, will we let them destroy our city?!”

“NO!”

“Badges, not masks!” The woman started the chant. “Badges, not masks!”

Still shouting, Max liberated a purse. Didn’t matter what he said, so long as he was seen participating. The other kid working the crowd, Fast Eddie, he stood too still. He’d get caught before long.

Movement on the edge of the crowd, as a couple left. They looked like they just came from some yuppie office job. They argued. Max followed.

“Disgraceful, that’s what it is,” the man said. “They never would’ve done this kind of thing in our day.”

“They did it all the time!” the woman said. “Every other week, it seemed.”

“But they were never so, so…and anyway, Flora, back then they protested anything. Don’t you remember that zodiac protest? Crazy hippies.”

Flora looked away, her chin high.

“I didn’t mean you, sweatheart. It’s just…they hate their heroes. I never remember it being like that for us.”

“Since when do you listen to the vocal minori-Hey!”

Max saw his opportunity and struck, snatching the purse from the woman’s hand. Shouts chased him. He looked back to check pursuit and a rainbow ball of daisy-scented energy struck. Max froze.

“Flora, what are you doing?”

“That was my favorite purse.”

“If anyone from that mob catches us, we’re dead.”

“I’ll be quick.”

As soon as Flora touched her purse, the rainbow energy disappeared. Max ran as fast as he could before anything else happened. Freaks. They should wear a badge or something, so honest citizens would know not to take their stuff.

Max finally stopped in an alley a dozen blocks away. At least he got away with most of the loot. He rummaged through one of the wallets, looking for cash for a hot dog. Family pictures…credit cards…didn’t anyone carry cash anymore? He took out another wallet. Thirty-five cents tinkled to the pavement. Max bent to pick up the change when a clattering in the shadows made him freeze.

“Who’s there?” He grabbed his gun. “I-I don’t want to have to hurt you!”

A knife whizzed out from behind a trashcan, pinning his coat sleeve to the wall. The gun clattered out of his hand. Another knife pinned his other arm.

“Who are you?!”

A dark figure approached. “I am the terror that flaps in the night.”

“But it’s mid-afternoon.”

The figure stepped through a beam of sunlight. Her bloodshot eyes glared at Max. White skin peeked through tears in her clothes. Drawing a knife out of her purple bag, she approached Max. She looked familiar.

“Oh, hey, you’re one of those Justice League chics. Okay, you’ve caught me. Take me to the cops. I won’t resist.”

“What makes you think you’re going to the police?”

“Um, isn’t that what you do?”

She stopped a few feet away from Max, tossing the knife from hand to hand. Max’s head bobbed, following it.

“Tell me, have you ever killed anyone?”

Max whimpered. He didn’t like the way this was going. “N-no.”

The knife flew out of her hand, burying itself near Max’s ear.

She took another knife from her bag. “I’ll ask you again: Have you ever killed anyone?”

“No! Never! Don’t hurt me!”

She looked around the alley and threw the knife into the street. A car screeched to a halt.

“The police will be here in a second.”

Max heard yells and swearing, as the police officers searched for the knife thrower.

“I thought you used Oreos!” Max shouted as she walked away.

“Cookies are for children,” she said, taking off.

She misjudged the location of the nearest building and scraped her arm along it. Those buildings, always getting in her way. Oreo landed on the roof, a yawn taking over her mouth. When was the last time she slept? She yawned again. It didn’t matter. She needed to be out here, bringing criminals to justice. That was her job, and she wouldn’t let stupid concerns like sleep get in the way.

She poked the scrape. It hurt. She poked it again. Still hurt. She made a fist and watched the blood seep out faster. So red and alive.

Shouts rose from the alley. The police must’ve found the thief. Oreo looked in her satchel. She used the last of her knives on him. Now that was an important concern. She needed knives. Without knives, she couldn’t fight crime, and if she didn’t fight crime, people died. No help for it; she had to go to the Hall. She knew the secret ways in and out of the kitchen. She’d be there and gone before anyone noticed.

***

For the first time, Claire laid eyes on the Hall that haunted her dreams. She couldn’t stay home any longer. Grandfather had descended upon the once-peaceful manor, intruding on her quiet grief. As much as he told the press about needing quiet moments with his family, he still brought his entourage. After all, he had a re-election to worry about.

All those people, patronizingly asking her how she felt…it was driving her crazy.

She came in through a forgotten secret passage, successfully avoiding the reporters at the gate. She paused at certain places, touched the walls in others, avoided apparently empty sections of floor. Finally she reached the end of the passage. A series of complicated knocks later, the panel swung open.

“This is where the secret passage ends up,” she said, entering the room.

“How’d you get in here?”

Claire looked around. The room was messy and male. The asker of the question sat on his bed, an open book in his hand.

“I’m Oreo Avenger’s sister.”

“Who are you?”

Claire blinked and tugged the end of her nose. “Sorry, I left my precognition on.”

“What?”

“Never mind. I’m Claire.”

“X-Raytor,” he said, shaking her hand.

“Oh my God!” She didn’t recognize him at first without his signature Spandex. “You’re X-Raytor! Oh my God! Ashley so owes me twenty bucks! She thought you had the full bodysuit cause you’re black and didn’t want to deal with the racism and all, but I told her you were the whitest white boy who ever walked out of Whitetown, and I was right! Oh my God! I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you! I’ve been following your career ever since I saw you and my sister-Oh! You need to sign your action figure!” Claire dug around in her backpack, finally producing the action figure and a marker.

X-Raytor cleared his throat. “So…how you doing?”

Claire squeed. “Say something else!”

“Um…there’s a fire in my pants?”

“Again!”

“In the darkness is the light.”

Claire took the action figure from him and reverently placed it in her backpack. “You’ve made my day so much better, you have no idea. Can you tell me where Anne’s room is?”

“Who?”

“Oh, Oreo Avenger.”

“Down the hall to the right. There’s a big O painted on it.”

“Thanks!” Claire bounced out of the room. She’d actually met X-Raytor! Sure, she could’ve met him long ago by just visiting her sister her, but she’d wanted to keep Anne’s superhero life as far away from her as possible.

Claire found the door marked with the white O and went inside.

Claire had thought Anne’s room was a mess when she lived at home, but this took it to a whole new level. Piles of books and clothes and mystery objects littered the room, creating a mountainous landscape out of the flat floor. Claire sighed as she got to work cleaning her sister’s mess. Something mindless to do.

***

“The O.C.!” Raven yelled, holding the remote over her head.

“Shark Week!” Twisk yelled back, jumping for the remote.

“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy!” Eric shouted. The two girls looked at him. “What? I like the fashion advice.”

“Shark Weeeeeeeek!” Twisk leapt at Raven. She went right through her and crashed into the wall.

Raven pointed the remote at the TV. “All mine. Cwahaha-ACK!”

A blast of water sent her and the remote flying. Eric grabbed it out of the air.

“HA!”

“You give that back!” Raven yelled, chasing Eric around the room. Twisk sat on the floor, jetting water at them both.

“You got my socks wet!”

From the relative safety of the couch, Swift looked at Rosma. “Is it always like this?”

“Pretty much,” Rosma said. “Um, where did you get those cookies?”

Swift swallowed a bite. “The kitch-“

With a load pop, an evil-looking cat sat where Swift used to be. Its one yellow eye glared at the water flying overhead.

“That’s it!” Pinzz yelled, entering. “This is the last time I-oooh, kitty!”

Eric ran past, prancing ahead of Raven.

Pinzz scratched Swift behind her stubs of ears.

“I’m going to see if I can change you back,” Rosma said. Swift purred loudly, leaning into Pinzz’s hand.

“Okay then.”

Rosma dodged around Eric, then Raven, then a stream of water to get to the kitchen. Oreo had to had some kind of antidote somewhere in here. Opening a cupboard, Rosma found a bottle marked “Antidote” in Oreo’s handwriting. That was easy. She looked in the bottle. A dead spider stared back. Maybe not so easy.

A sudden noise from the other side of the room and Rosma flashed invisible. Something was on top of the fridge, something with tentacles coming out of its head. It seemed to be hacking them off. More than half of the thing’s tentacles were already gone. Rosma squinted at it.

“Oh, hi Oreo,” Rosma said, becoming visible. “What are you doing?”

“Cutting my hair.”

“Why?”

Another long lock of hair joined the pile on the counter. “Because it’s too long.”

Rosma gritted her teeth at the sound of knife through hair. “Why are you on the fridge?”

Oreo blinked and dropped the knife. Stretching her neck, she looked over the edge. “I…I needed a place to sit.”

Rosma looked at the empty chairs surrounding the kitchen table. “Okay.”

“It’s really quite comfortable,” Oreo said, resuming her haircut. “In the future, I think everyone will be sitting on fridges.”

“Oreo,” Rosma said slowly in her talking-to-crazies voice. “Someone got transformed by one of your Oreos and I need to change her back.”

“Why?”

“Because she doesn’t like being a one-eyed cat.”

“My Greebo cookie!” Oreo giggled. “It’ll wear off soon.”

“How soon?”

Oreo carefully counted her fingers. She thought a moment and counted again. “Soon. Very definitely soon.”

Rosma took a seat on the table. “Is there something wrong?”

“Long song bong frong. Clong!”

“Have you been drinking?”

Oreo wrinkled her forehead. “No. Wait…no. Have you been drinking?”

“No.”

“Would you like to? I’m sure there’s some in this fridge.”

“That’s okay.”

“Are you sure?” Oreo leaned over to open the door. She kept leaning until she toppled off the fridge.

Rosma ran to her friend. “Are you all right?”

Oreo lay facedown where she fell, unmoving. “No. I’ll never be all right. Just go away.”

“You can’t stay on the floor,” Rosma said. “Come on. Who knows the last time someone swept. Get up, Oreo.”

Oreo didn’t answer. She was asleep.

***

Ari entered the Hall of Justice, and headed for the lounge, where she could hear lots of screaming and yelling, still carrying her bottle of "flavored water".

"--EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY!!!!" Eric yelped, trying to hide under a table.

That was the partly scary part. The REALLY scary part was the mean-looking, one-eyed cat sitting on the sofa. It was roaring at Pinzz. Claws like meathooks were extended. Ari saw more evil in that one eye than in any demon she had encountered.

"Uhhhhh..." Was all she could manage.

"Hey Xiao!" Twisk said, pausing from tormenting Eric long enough to wave.

"Stupid &**% cat!" Pinzz cursed, snatching her hand away from the claws. All of the sudden, the cat was replaced by a young woman, dressed in blinding colors.

"Oreo?" Ari asked.

"Oreo," Raven agreed, wrestling Twisk for the remote, who was yelling "Shark Week!" every time she hit Raven.

"Oo. Newbie?"

"Newbie," Pinzz grumbled, sitting on the sofa again.

"Here's an idea. Why don't we all watch some safe, violent, mind-numbing cartoons?" Ari suggested, thumping on the sofa, sniffing the water suspiciously.

The others paused a moment. Then they went back to screaming and fighting, and um, wetting. Twisk was, that is. Er,....

"Okay, I'll take that as a no."

"Gee, some-%^#@-one's a little too &%$#@ cheerful." Pinzz said, poking her.

"I guess it's this water." Ari peered into the bottle. "IT'S FLAVORED!"

"Uhhhh." Swift said.

"Oh! Right," Ari extended a hand to Swift, who stared at it. Ari blinked and withdrew it, a small happy bubble popping with it. "I'm Ari. Er, I mean, technically, I'm Xiao. Anyway, I don't have a superpower. Not right now, as it is. So I kind of just hang out now. Until like...well, it's a long story, and I don't want to bother you with boring details, but without Fred I'm pretty much worthless in the whole fighting crime department. So what's your name and power eh? Would you like some of this water it's very refreshing." She hiccupped.

"No thanks," Swift looked disdainful. Ari raised an eyebrow, and Pinzz shook her head.

Shrugging, Ari stood. "Well, whatever." She peered into the bottle she was holding again, and a small shiver ran through her. Swift exchanged a glance at Pinzz, who seemed unfazed by Xiao's weird behavior. "Yo! Twisk! Hook me up!"

Twisk spun around, sensing danger, and shot a stream of water at Ari, knocking her to the ground. "Ahh, that's the stuff."

Pinzz blinked. "Now that was $#@^ weird. AND random."

"HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHA SHARK WEEK!" Twisk cackled, holding the control triumphantly. She quickly changed the channel of the television and then ripped the batteries out.

"Hey!" Eric and Raven said at the same time.

"Mwhaahhahahahahahahhahahaha!" Twisk laughed, throwing the useless remote to the ground. Eric and Raven sighed and took their seats in the comfy chairs where they were suddenly pummeled by the squishy pillows by the Spanish Inq- er, I mean, were forced to watch documentaries about sharks and their victims forevermore. The End.