Rosma breezed into the kitchen, grabbed a soda from the refrigerator, and spun around, opening the can. Studmuffin sat at the kitchen table, alone, eating a bowl of what she hoped was cereal. It was vaguely rainbow-ish.
“So where is everyone?” she asked.
“Oh.” She pulled out a chair and joined him. “What are you doing today?”
“I dunno.” He trailed off, staring into his bowl.
Rosma glared. “Are you even listening to me?”
“No you’re not. You’re listening to the things in your head.”
“Right.” Something in the cereal was apparently fascinating.
“Right,” Rosma leaned back, considering. What would get his attention? “Want a chili dog?”
“Before or after we have sex on the kitchen table?”
“Okay then.” She stood up, taking her soda with her. “I’ll just be in my room if you need me.”
Rosma narrowed her eyes. Another tactic. “I’ll be in there planning our wedding. I set the date for January 12th, if that’s okay with you.”
“Sure, that’s fine.”
Okay, time for drastic measures. “Oh, and I made a list of baby names for our daughter. Ones that don’t start with R-O-S. Did you pick any yet?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Good. See you later.” She gave up and pushed open the kitchen door. She almost made it out before he looked up at her.
“Wait, what were you saying?”
Finally. “Where’s everyone else?”
“I have no idea. They haven’t been through here lately. I think the guys are going out or something.”
“Oh. Well, thanks.”
Six figures in brown, hooded robes stood in a circle around the small fire. The fire had been set in a small black cauldron, and was the only source of light in the room.
“We gather together,” the leader intoned. “We gather together as One to initiate this, the newest member of our brotherhood.”
“We are gathered as one,” the circle of cowled figures said simultaneously.
“Uh, is this really necessary?” The shortest of the assembled men said.
“Shh, it’s an initiation rite,” said the leader. “We all had to go through with it.”
“I didn’t,” said the tallest of the figures. “Though it would have been appropriate, considering the long history of male rites of passage and-“
“Could we just get on with this?” The leader asked.
“Just one question,” said another of the figures. “Do I really have to wear this robe?”
“Yes,” the leader said, “we all do.”
“But doesn’t that sort of negate the purpose of my-“
“WE GATHER TOGETHER AS ONE!!!” The leader said loudly. “To observe the… oh, forget it. Welcome to the team, Julian.”
The figures pulled back their hoods, revealing X-Raytor (the leader), Midnight Chatter, Jo Surf, Right Wing Man, Eric, and Julian. Eric quickly shed his robe, and began to scratch himself in an inappropriate place, as Jo put out the fire with a miniature rain cloud.
“Where was Studmuffin, anyway?” Midnight Chatter asked. “He was the leader at mine.”
“You got one?” Right Wing Man asked.
“I got one, too,” Jo said.
Right Wing Man frowned. Clearly, he thought, they must have realized my supreme manhood the moment I walked in the door, and therefore did not think that a rite of passage was necessary. Clearly.
“Studmuffin’s up in his room being a whiny little baby,” X-Raytor said.
“That’s cold, bra,” Jo said.
“Yeah, he did go through that whole thing with the aliens and those guys with containers for heads and all,” Midnight Chatter said.
“And I was possessed by demonic residue that fed on my sanity and my waning will to live! You don’t see me whining about it!”
“You kind of are…” Eric said.
“Well-well you don’t see me sitting in my room all day, moping and making pouty faces at the wall until I either A) start making similar pouty faces, just at Rosma, or B) run off and hang out with the Tri-Leaders.”
“… What did you just say?” Midnight Chatter asked.
“Oh, never mind,” X-Raytor said.
Julian stared at them. “So… you guys have, like, never gone on a date,” he said. “Ever.”
“You bet!” Eric said.
At the same time, X-Raytor said “I’m pacing myself!,” Midnight Chatter mumbled something about “Scarletoreo Avengefyre,” and Right Wing Man pretended he hadn’t heard the question Jo looked uncomfortable.
“Let’s just go,” X-Raytor said. “We don’t want to be late.”
“What porno are we seeing, anyway?” Julian asked as they headed up the basement steps.
“I prefer the term ‘adult film,’” X-Raytor said.
“I prefer the term ‘nudie movie,’” Eric whispered, and Midnight Chatter giggled.
“Fine,” Julian said. “What ‘adult film’ are we seeing?”
Jo reached into the pockets of his swim trunks and produced a flyer. “Ben Hung.”
“Classic,” X-Raytor said. “Dirk Diggler and Amber Waves. Dirk’s a Roman chariot racer who really knows how to ‘Hail Caesar,’ if ya know what I mea-“
Just then, the phone rang.
The guys continued to walk towards the door.
The phone rang again.
“Uh, shouldn’t somebody get that?” Midnight Chatter asked.
“Let one of the chicks get it,” Julian said. “That’s what we’ve got them here for, right?”
“One would assume,” Right Wing Man said.
The phone rang a third time.
“IF SOMEBODY DOESN’T GET THAT, I’M GOING TO BREAK THAT F***ING PHONE!” Pinzz yelled from somewhere in the house.
High off of the testosterone flowing from his male buddies, X-Raytor yelled back, “GET IT YOURSELF!”
The phone rang again.
Rosma walked into the room. “Does everything have to be a freaking battle here? It could be a crime, morons!” She mumbled, and picked up the phone.
“Well, you can handle that, right, Rosma?” X-Raytor asked, stepping out the door with his head held high. Show Pinzz to yell at hi-
He turned to see Rosma, holding out the phone and smirking. “For you.”
He sagged and walked back into the house.
“Come on, we’re gonna be late!” Eric said.
“Let’s just go,” Midnight said. “He’s seen it already.”
“Well, jeez, thanks for the brotherhood, guys!” X-Raytor said.
“X-y?” Rosma waved the phone at him.
X-Raytor said, “You guys go ahead, I’ll-“
The guys were out the door before he could finish. He heard the Justice Van’s engine rev and then roar down the driveway.
X-Raytor sighed and took the phone from Rosma. She winked at him, and went back upstairs.
“Hello?” X-Raytor said.
“X-Raytor.” The voice was deep and muffled. He was absolutely sure it was being altered.
“I have information for you.”
“Okay…” he said. “Um, I’m sort of on that ‘Don’t Call’ list…”
“I’m not a telemarketer,” the voice said. “Listen, this is a matter of paramount importance. Do you want to know why everything that’s been happening recently has been happening? The anti-super hero sentiments, Lansky’s book, White’s article? And all of this immediately after fighting the Seekers? All seems a little too close to be a coincidence, doesn’t it? If you want to know the truth, meet me at the old Stockton Fish warehouse on the east docks. Come alone.”
“Uh… how do I know I can trust you?” X-Raytor asked.
“How do you-uh… because… just be there, okay?”
X-Raytor frowned. It could have just been a prankster. And, if he didn’t know people who would legitimately call up with masked voices promising to give him classified information, that’s the assumption he would have made. But a lot had changed since the Oscars.
“Sorry, guys,” X-Raytor murmured. “Looks like I’ll have to miss the movie.”
X-Raytor parked Right Wing Man’s SUV across the street from the abandoned Stockton Fish warehouse.
He’d realized when he walked into the hangar that the other guys had taken the Justice Van, and he’d have to find some other means of transportation. The Justice Moped would have been fine, except that that bastard Iso had disappeared on it without leaving so much as a note saying “I’ve gone to find out what shady, anti-social planet I come from; save me some meatloaf.” Usually, the only other alternative would be the Justice Jet, which he figured was a bit too conspicuous for this type of meeting. Fortunately, the recent influx of annoying newbies had one plus: two new vehicles. He’d had his choice of either Jo’s X-Terra (which, Jo had revealed, was now named “Rhonda;” he had a creepy way of giving all of his inanimate objects female names. He insisted they were “Beach Boys references”) or Right Wing Man’s SUV. In the end, he figured that Right Wing Man would be the least likely to miss his car, and he wouldn’t have to listen to the Beach Boys the whole way there.
(Actually, he’d had to listen to classical music, since the only other thing the SUV’s radio picked up was a news station, a political talk show, and, inexplicably, a station devoted entirely to fashion tips. More inexplicable was why it was one of Right Wing Man’s presets. But that was another story.)
Now, it seemed, he really hadn’t needed to be so cautious. No one was around. The only manmade sound was the distant rumble of city traffic. He was too far from the docks to actually hear the ocean, but the air was tinged with salt water. The Stockton Fish warehouse was a large, gray building that looked suspiciously like it had been made from sheet metal. Every window had long since been broken, and the Stockton Fish Co. sign over the door was half covered in rust.
X-Raytor locked the SUV, and dropped the keys into his shallow spandex pockets. This created the lovely impression of an ill-formed lump growing out of his thigh. X-Raytor guessed that his mystery contact wouldn’t mind.
He stepped through the doorway, and he was immediately blinded by the darkness of the warehouse. After a few moments his eyes adjusted. He could barely see anything-vague outlines of what he thought were scaffolds of some sort. There was no light, except for that coming from the door.
Wait… there’s windows here… X-Raytor thought. So why wasn’t there any sunlight coming through?
“X-Raytor.” A voice boomed out from the shadows.
X-Raytor squinted into the darkness. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m alone.”
“Did you come alone?”
“… I just told you…”
“Wha- well, well tell me again!”
“Uh, okay. I came alone.”
“Good. You know how to follow directions.”
“Dude, I’m sorry to ruin your moment or whatever,” X-Raytor said. “But can we just get to the point… General Sampson?”
A long silence. And then black curtains fell suddenly away from the windows, letting the sunlight lance into the dark room. X-Raytor covered his eyes against the sudden brightness, and when he was able to see again, he stared up at the figure standing atop the nearest scaffold.
He was tall, and not as much powerfully built as conveniently misshapen. His legs were parted, his arms folded over his chest, and his lips were curled into a triumphant sneer. He wore all black.
“Sorry, but I think you’re just a teensy bit mistaken,” said John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!).
“You!” X-Raytor said.
“Surprised to see me?” John asked. “It’s been a while. A bit over a year, in fact.”
While John was not usually the best with numbers, he was right in this case. The last time X-Raytor had seen him was in March of 2003, at the Oscars. John had been, inexplicably, in the employ of the Head Honcho. Granted, he hadn’t killed anyone, but he’d provided a minor nuisance for some of the other Justice Leaguers. The last time he and X-Raytor had interacted, however, was even longer ago, when the Justice League, at the request of the Tri-Leaders, raided John’s secret cave hideout. X-Raytor had faced off with John in the depths of the cave, and had been beating him soundly, when John took a totally cheap shot and won.
“Think they’re all caught up?” John asked.
“Never mind.” John put his hands on his hips. “So, you didn’t answer my question! Are you surprised to see me?”
“You set this up?”
“Yep! All me!” John said.
“Well, the way I see it,” John said. “We have a score to settle, you and I.”
“No we don’t,” X-Raytor said abruptly. “I mean, uh, no. We don’t. Why would we?”
“Because I spanked your black hiney last time!”
X-Raytor raised an eyebrow. “Was that a racial slur?”
“Huh? No! No, I meant-your costume! Your costume is black!”
“Yeah, I bet.”
“Hey, my costume is black too!” John said. “Just sexier. And it’s not really a costume, it’s bad ass evil pimp clothes.”
“Whatever,” X-Raytor said. “But, really, if you think I care that you sort of kind of almost beat me that one time because you’re a sucker punching little bastard, you’re wrong.”
“Wait, you couldn’t have set this up!” X-Raytor said. “On the phone you didn’t sound like an idiot.”
“Ha! Well, that’s because I was reading off of cue cards!” John said, nodding proudly. Proud, presumably, that he needed cue cards to make a phone call.
“But your voice-“
“My nifty Voice Masker!” John said. “Didn’t you notice that your mysterious caller sounded a lot like Ben Affleck?”
X-Raytor thought for a moment. “Now that you mention it…”
“As I said, courtesy of my neato Ben Affleck Voice Masker.”
“Why, dare I ask, do you have a Ben Affleck Voice Masker?” X-Raytor asked.
“Silent Jim made it for me,” John said. He leaned forwards. “You know Silent Jim, right?”
“I saw him at the cave. And on the news a few times…”
“Okay, good,” John said. “Well, he made it for me, so that I could operate in secrecy while orchestrating my masterstroke at the Newlywed Game!”
“… It let me call a stripper without being recognized.”
“Ah,” X-Raytor said. “Gotcha.”
“Sure it isn’t for gay phone sex?” X-Raytor asked.
“Why would I have sex with a gay phone?!” John demanded.
X-Raytor stared at him. “… Never mind.”
“Anyway,” John said. “I took all the trouble to get you out here, so we might as well get started. I don’t have all day to kick your patooty all over this place.”
“ ‘Patooty’?” X-Raytor repeated. “And I’d reconsider that if I were you, kid. You don’t have your fancy cave of tricks anymore. And I’d really hate to have to beat on you, because that would just be sad. And pathetic. And way too easy.”
“Well, aren’t you cocky,” John said. “I’m not a kid anymore, I’m an adult. I can look at naughty websites and everything!”
“Sorry, but ‘big boy who can go to the bathroom all by himself’ isn’t the same thing as ‘adult,’” X-Raytor said. “And, sadly, you’re neither.”
“I’m 18 now, Mr. Smarty Pants,” John said. “And not just that, but I’m 18 and two months!”
“Way to go.” X-Raytor said. “And I’m 23. Vippy whoo.”
“Yeah, but you only just turned 23,” John said, and his smile widened. “On the thirtieth, I believe.”
X-Raytor blinked. “Uh… why do you know my birthday?”
“That’s you, right? Born on June 30, 1981 at…” he rummaged around in his cloak and finally produced a small piece of paper. “9:25, at night.”
X-Raytor’s eyebrows shot up. His birthday, that was common knowledge-he’d mentioned it in that Fourteen interview, as well as a few other places. But how in the hell did John know the exact time of his birth?
“That’s right,” John said. “I know all about you. John.”
“I, uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Oh, don’t play smart with me! I had Silent Jim hack into your computer files!”
“… But the time of my birth isn’t on the Justice League main frame…”
“Yeah, he kinda hacked into these government computers too,” John said, waving his hand dismissively. “But that’s boring. I say to him all the time, ‘Silent Jim! I’m trying to take over the world, here! Could you stop wasting time hacking into government computers and think of something useful to do?’ It really is a shame.”
“Government computers?” X-Raytor asked. “Which government computers.”
John looked blank. “The American ones?”
“No, I mean, which, like, division of the government?”
“Um… I don’t remember?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Well- well it was some letters!”
“All capital letters?”
“Separated by period?”
“Those are those little dot things, right?”
“Good! Then you know who I’m talking about!”
“Which letters were they?” X-Raytor pressed. “CIA? FBI? M.O.R.P.H.Z.?”
“It was not the NRA!”
“How do you know?” John asked, sticking out his tongue. “I don’t seem to remember you hacking into a government computer.”
“Listen,” X-Raytor said. “It has been a very long couple of days. The other day, I had to stop the Masked Monkey from robbing his fourth bank in three weeks. Three. Weeks. And right now, I’d much, much, much rather be sitting in a cheap-o theater watching vintage porn than standing here, talking to you. So right now, I am going to turn around, walk out this door, and drive away. If you bother me again, I’ll just send the cops next time.”
“I’m not done yet,” John said.
“Too bad.” X-Raytor turned around and headed for the door.
“Okay, I’ll tell you the truth. This isn’t about us settling a score,” John said. “This is about you explaining yourself.”
X-Raytor stopped, sighed, and turned around. “Explaining myself for what?”
Without a word, John produced a folded piece of paper from his cloak. He tossed it down to X-Raytor.
Of course, being a single piece of paper, it just sort of fluttered downwards, and X-Raytor had to take a few steps forward, snatch it out of the air, and then step back to his original position before he could read it.
It was a photocopy. Everything else on the page was crossed out, except for a small paragraph halfway down the page. It read:
In the time span from 3/26/03 to 7/24/03, subject was frequently in the company of one CARA DELIZIA (cross-reference with 00-87XL4). She was involved in the second ROBERT ADAMSKI incident (cross-reference with 03-47HV9). Afterwards, face-to-face contact was broken, but constant telephone and Internet communications maintained (cross-reference with Totally Constitutional and Ethical Patriot Act Telephone, E-Mail, and Instant Messenger Surveillance Tran*****s).
“What were you doing hanging around Cara Delizia?” John demanded.
“Oh, you didn’t know?” X-Raytor asked, folding up the paper and putting it in his pocket. “We were dating for a while.”
The smirk vanished from John’s face, and his eyes became huge. “What?”
“Dated. Me, and Cara. For about four months.”
“What… did… you… do?” John managed, his voice barely above a whisper. His skin had taken on a strange, off-white color.
X-Raytor grinned beneath his mask as John trembled in fury. “Well, what do you think we did?”
John’s teeth clenched so hard and so suddenly that X-Raytor literally heard it. The Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!)’s hands bent into twisted claws.
Before X-Raytor could react, John had leapt from the scaffold and tackled him, smashing him into the ground. He swung a fist at X-Raytor’s fist and, in an almost impossible feat, missed.
“WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY GODDESS?!?!?!” John roared.
“I didn’t do anything you f***ing psycho!” X-Raytor snapped. He jabbed John in the gut and pushed him away. John rolled and came up on one knee, clutching his stomach.
“We hung out,” X-Raytor said. “We went to lunch.”
“Did you touch her?!”
“… Uh, we held hands a few times… we hugged once…”
“Not that it’s any of your business…”
“Jesus Christ, yes! That’s it!”
“You know,” John said. “You know that if you’d touched her, or if you ever touch her, I will rip out your spleen, jump up and down on it, and then force feed you my boot, right?”
“I don’t doubt it,” X-Raytor said, rubbing his shoulder. “What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?”
“Although,” John said. “That’s pretty pathetic.”
“Well, you were dating her for four months and you only hugged once?”
“… Yeah? So?”
“So… that’s pretty pathetic.”
“Yeah, and you’ve done better.”
“Hey! I’m the mack master!” John said. “I know all about boobies and- and No-No Parts!”
“I do,” John insisted.
“Whatever. Are you satisfied now?”
“Well, kind of…” John said.
“Good,” X-Raytor said. “I’m leaving.”
“I don’t think so,” John said. He stood up. “Although you didn’t violate My Goddess in anyway-and be thankful that you did-you still were presumptuous enough to date her when she is, by destiny, mine. You’re not leaving until I teach you a lesson about getting in my way.”
“First off, I don’t think Cara is technically anyone’s. Secondly, if you want a fight then stop wasting time and fight. I don’t have all day here, you know?”
“Fine, then,” John said. “Let’s do it!”
He giggled. “Ooooh, clever Animorphs reference there! Usually that would be old hat, but so long after the series it sort of came out of left fi-“
X-Raytor charged John and slammed him against the nearest wall. John squealed, and somehow wiggled his way out of X-Raytor’s grip, and ran back towards the scaffold. He began to climb it, and X-Raytor followed. John looked down and lashed out with one foot, almost striking X-Raytor square in the face. Instead, his foot just smashed X-Raytor’s left hand, causing him to let go of his hand hold and go:
“OW OW OWIES!!!”
John scrambled up over the top of the scaffold as X-Raytor cursed and waved his hand in the air. He recovered, and rushed up the scaffold. His head cleared the edge of the scaffold’s top.
The most horrifying face X-Raytor had ever seen looked directly into his. He cried out, and lost his grip. For a moment he wind milled his arms, but John, smirking, extended a hand and poked him lightly in the forehead.
X-Raytor toppled backwards into open air. He scrambled, and grabbed a bar of the scaffold as he fell. The bar broke off in his hand, but it slowed him down enough so that when he finally hit the concrete floor, it only hurt a lot, as opposed to a hell of a lot. And there was one other fortunate side effect.
The scaffold began to shake and, without the bar that X-Raytor had torn loose, collapsed in on itself with a roar of metal on metal. Somehow, the platform that John was standing on remained flat the whole way down, and, in fact, when it reached the ground, it took John a few seconds to realize that the scaffold had fallen at all.
In those few seconds, X-Raytor stood up, and punched John in the chin.
“Ow! Hey, no fair!” John said.
“You don’t think that’s fair? Well try this!” X-Raytor said, and fired two eye beams. John ducked, and the beams flew past his head.
“EEEE!!” John said, and bolted for a nearby pile of wood. Red lasers flew around him, sometimes pitting the floor at his feet, but never actually hitting him.
This kid has some amazing f***ing luck, X-Raytor thought, darting behind a steel pole. He poked his head around, and saw John stick his head out from behind the woodpile, and then quickly pull it back down.
Okay, okay, let’s think here, X-Raytor thought. Last time I fought this idiot I underestimated him… because he’s an idiot. And while I could probably just run over there and beat the crap out of him, because I’m bigger, stronger, and I have x-ray vision… I don’t know. I don’t know what it is about this moron, but it’s like he’s charmed or something. Or he just has a hell of a lot of dumb luck.
Suddenly, X-Raytor stood up straight and blinked. Wait. What the hell am I doing? I should just walk out while he’s hiding over there. Man, wish I had thought of that earlier…
“What’s wrong?” John called from behind his woodpile. “Is the mighty X-Raytor scared?”
“No!” X-Raytor called back, eyeing the door.
“Ha! And you should be, for I am John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!) and all tremble at my name!”
“… I said I wasn’t scared.”
“Oh. Well, you will be! You will be!!”
“Kid, I already slapped you around once, and screwed up two of your plans.”
A brief silence. “No, just one.”
“Two,” X-Raytor insisted.
“There was the Oscars, and that wasn’t even mine, and we didn’t even, like… uh… interface that whole time!”
“You mean ‘interact’?”
“Whatever. That’s only one plan that wasn’t mine that you didn’t screw up!”
“And the Second Battle of Albuquerque.”
“We were there. We kicked ass.”
“Yeah, but… wasn’t that all Super Shibes.”
X-Raytor scowled. “No, it was not all Super Shibes.”
“Whatever happened to that guy, anyway?”
“I helped defeat the Hot Dog Men,” X-Raytor said. “And I blew up your stupid troop transport.”
Another brief silence. “That was you?”
“Yeah. And even though we had to get a new Justice Jet, I have to say that it was pretty bad ass.”
“… Do you know how long it took to make that supply room so that it would blast off?!”
“Now I have a big useless cave that I can still store stuff in, but the floor’s all rocky and cold and uncomfortable!! I want my storage room back!”
“… Uh, I think that’s kinda impossible…”
“So that’s why you’re so scared of me!” John crowed. “You fear my vengeance!”
“There’s nothing scary about you, kid.”
“You fear me! Admit it!”
“I’m not scared of you,” X-Raytor said. “But you, you must be scared. I mean, the scary music and the cloak and all? You must be up to your eyebrows in insecurities.”
“I am John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!)! I fear nothing!!”
“I don’t! You’re the one who’s scared!”
“Stuff scares me, but not you.”
A brief silence. “Like what?”
“You know… scary stuff.”
“C’mon, you can tell me!”
There was another long silence. X-Raytor looked back at the door. He should have run, but there was something strange in the pit of his stomach. His muscles felt like lead. He wanted to…
No way, no way no way no way, he thought. This is just stupid. This is just so stupid.
“I- I’ll tell you if you tell me,” he said.
“I said-I’ll tell you what scares me, if you tell me what scares you.”
Another long silence. X-Raytor immediately felt stupid. Maybe John would just say no, and he could get the hell out of-
“Okay, fine,” John said. “But, uh, it’s because I’m evil! I’m just going to use it against you, you know!”
I seriously need a new therapist, X-Raytor thought, and stepped out from behind the pole. John slowly stood up, and then stepped over the pile of wood, almost getting tangled in his cloak.
“All right,” X-Raytor said. “A lot of things scare me, not the least of which being giant radioactive penguins and having loaded guns pointed at my face. Guys in gigantic robot tiki suits who shoot coconuts and lava, those are pretty scary too. Oh, and Courtney Love. Courtney Love is scary as s***.
“But I guess the one thing that scares me most is that I’m going to do something stupid, I’m going to do something stupid and irresponsible, and I’m going to get everyone killed. I’m scared as hell that I’m going to let everyone down.”
John listened to this without comment, and looked at the floor. When he spoke, he sounded more like he was being forced than he had volunteered.
“I’m afraid that someday everyone’s going to forget about me,” he said. He looked up and met X-Raytor’s gaze with empty eyes. “Sometimes I’m afraid that even I’ll forget about me.”
The warehouse was silent. They stood, neither looking at the other. The air was suddenly charged by the confessions, with something that went beyond anger and fear. X-Raytor balled his hands into fists.
“Let’s finish this,” he said.
They came together again, punching and striking each other at close quarters. There was something more animalistic about the fighting now, and the air was suddenly very thick. X-Raytor’s right arm was pinned to his side, while he beat at John’s back with his left arm. John was desperately trying to hit him in the ribs with his right arm, while kicking at his lower legs. X-Raytor wrestled his right arm free, and immediately John’s other hand was in his face, pushing him away. He grunted, and punched John in the side, hitting him as hard as he could. John’s right hand was grabbing at his left arm now, but X-Raytor tore free of his grasp, and tried again to free his face from John’s left hand. Finally, he just bit down, through the fabric of his mask, on John’s palm.
“OW!” John cried, and suddenly his elbow smashed into X-Raytor’s chin.
X-Raytor stumbled back, rubbing his chin, and suddenly he was gripped with rage.
“That hurt, you little f***,” X-Raytor growled. He grabbed John by the collar and pulled him close. John swung a fist, but X-Raytor smacked it away. Looking into the Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!)’s eyes, X-Raytor punched him in the face.
John’s head rocked to the side, and X-Raytor hit him again. His heart started beating faster, and there was energy racing through his arms. This felt good.
He punched John again, and the Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!)’s feet slipped out from under him. Only X-Raytor’s grip on his collar kept him from hitting the ground. X-Raytor swung his fist again, and a tooth went flying. Drops of blood flew onto his suit. His arm moved like a piston, punching John again and again, exhaling sharply at each blow.
“How do you like that?” He demanded. “Huh? Tough guy? Think you can just go around doing whatever the f*** you want? Huh?!”
Blood gushed from John’s nose.
“You worthless little zero. You pathetic little nothing!” His entire being was on fire, raw with power. “All of the s*** you do, trying to take over the world, trying to make everyone bow to you!! And what are you? What are you?!”
John groaned, and X-Raytor punched him in the mouth.
“NOTHING!” X-Raytor roared. “You’re NOTHING! Nobody! But you keep trying to hurt people, you keep trying to dominate, you keep trying to mess everything up for good, worthwhile people who don’t have anything the f*** to do with you!!”
He gripped John’s collar with both hands now, and shook him. “So why shouldn’t I just kill you?! Huh?! Give me one reason! Give me one good f***ing reason!!!”
And suddenly he wasn’t in the warehouse anymore. He was backstage, at the Oscars, screaming into Tony Norgate’s thin, bloodied face. And suddenly Tony’s face was gone, erased, replaced with nothing but a dark, bloody cavity.
And suddenly he was John again, a rounder face, but still black and blue with bruises, dark blood streaming from his nose and mouth. His left eye was swollen and bloodshot.
He was a kid. He was just a kid.
X-Raytor took two sudden steps back, and John dropped to the floor. He got onto his hands and knees and coughed, spitting blood onto the dusty concrete floor. He tried to look up at X-Raytor, and then fell onto his face.
X-Raytor hesitated a moment, and then hurried out of the warehouse.
My name is Marco.
I can’t tell you my last name or where I live. Believe me, I wish I could. I would like nothing more than to be able to tell you my name is Marco Jones or Williams or Vasquez or Brown or Anderson or McCain.
Marco McCain. Has kind of a nice sound, doesn’t…
Scarlett skimmed a little ways down. I live in a paranoid world. But just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I don’t have enemies.
“You and me both, Marco.” She flipped a few pages, past the beginning chapter she knew by heart. Marco the superhero. He wasn’t too much younger than her. Sixteen in 2001 made him…well, sure, 19 might be a little young for a 25-year-old…Scarlett sighed. “It’s not cradle-robbing. Not at all. He’s legal!” She stopped flipping near the middle of the book.
Part of me just wants to say, “Dad, get it together. Let her go. She’s dead. She doesn’t want us to spend our lives in mourning.”
But I never do sa- Scarlett skipped quickly past, on to her favorite part. Visser One nodded. She looked up at us with those dark brown, human eyes.
Eyes I knew. Eyes I remembered.
The same eyes that watched me sleep every night from the framed picture beside my bed.
My mother. Not dead.
Scarlett stared back at the words, silent for a few moments, fingering the tattered spine of the book. Then she closed it and shoved it under her mattress. The only book she hadn’t burned down with the cottage.
“Must be nice, Marco,” she said out of nowhere. She slid off the bed and put on her shoes before leaving the room she now shared with Violet. Because “resurrected” super heroines belonged together. Or super heroines with colors for names. Or super heroines who’d been in love with famous actors who turned out to be evil. Or super heroines with dresses the color of their names for costumes. Or…Scarlett stopped as she noticed a red light blinking on a console in the old surveillance room.
She pushed the door open wide. Large swirls of dust flew around her like large swirls of dust. “Gah. We haven’t even checked the Crime Monitor in ages.” Scarlett fiddled with a few switches before figuring out how to read it.
“Holy…” Scarlett trailed off before she could sound like Robin, Boy Wonder. She looked around wildly, but there were none of the old blurbs in sight. “Dammit,” she muttered, turning tail and running outside. She checked the Justice Garage, but there were no vehicles inside. She would have to morph.
Scarlett fluttered to the ground in an alley near the area the Crime Monitor had indicated. After a quick scan of the alley, Scarlett began to demorph. Birds were the worst. It was mostly the legs. Almost every other morph was random, but birds were usually the same for her.
The wings were the first to go, the long wing feathers condensing into flesh with feather patterns, and then the eyes dimmed back to Scarlett’s human eyesight, melting from golden to blue. Scarlett grew, shooting up to her normal height. Lips appeared on the edges of the beak, then the beak softened and shriveled until her mouth was human. Long brown hair shot out from her head, and the rest of her head became human.
She was completely human, covered in feathers, except for her legs. And then the legs finally began to change back; her dry, yellow bird legs cracking open to reveal pink, fleshy legs.
It was gross.
The feathers, however, were actually kind of cool; Scarlett had long ago forced herself to learn how to morph clothing; better to be grossed out for a few minutes than mortally embarrassed until she could find clothes. The feathers shifted colors like they were steeping in red ink, at the same time combining into the various layers of cloth that formed Scarlett’s dress. She was demorphed. She couldn’t morph shoes, but that was only an excuse to buy more when she got the chance.
Just the same, the broken glass that littered the alleyway was not Scarlett’s friend at the moment. “I have feet that would scare away people with foot fetishes,” she noted with a wince as she stepped on a shard she hadn’t seen. A few minutes later, she made it out of the alley and onto less littered ground, namely the sidewalk in front of a long row of office buildings. Dusk was starting to fall, and she picked up her pace; Scarlett didn’t get far before someone yanked her roughly into another alleyway.
“I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re messing with the wrong scantily-clad woman,” Scarlett yelled as she twisted free to face her attacker…or attackers, since there were several similarly dressed figures behind the first white robed figure. A blue pair of eyes stared up at her. Up because the figure-all of the white robed figures, in fact--was somewhat on the short side. The letters KKK were written in red crayola crayon over the chests of each figure. There were maybe six of them in all.
Scarlett stared. “Who are ya’ll?”
The lead figure twisted his arms around in a strange, almost cheerleader style and jumped back with a half kick before shouting “Karate Kid Klan, positions!”
“…Karate Kid Klan? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Scarlett told the leader.
He shook his head. “No, ma’am! We’re Karate Kidding you!” Scarlett groaned at the pun, and the other Karate Kids started to giggle until the leader turned around. They snapped back to attention.
“Karate Kid Klaaaaaaaaaaaan: ATTACK!” They rushed her, and in seconds, Scarlett was pined to the ground, unable to move.
“I did not come down here to get my butt kicked by a bunch of ten year olds! Aaaaaaaaaah!” she screeched, hitting a very odd note.
“Aaaaaaaaaah!” screeched the KKK members suddenly as flames engulfed their white robes. There were shouts of “Not fair!” and “Mom’s not going to be happy about her sheets!” and “Stop, drop, and...what was the other one?!” Scarlett jumped up and snagged one of the smaller members before he could escape.
“Who sent you?”
His face balled up and he started crying.
“Don’t start that with me, kid. Ya’ll f***ed with the wrong person today,” Scarlett said, lifting him up by the neck of his KKK robe and shoving him against the alley wall. “Who sent you?”
“So this is how the superheroes of the Justice League treat little kids. I’m sure the Sentinel would be interested in a story like this.”
Scarlett turned at the familiar voice, dropping the kid, who tore out of the alley before she could catch him again.
“Lylah.” It wasn’t difficult to read Scarlett’s feelings from the tone of her voice.
“Lori,” Saph replied in a lighter tone. “It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?”
“I could ask the same thing about Horatio.”
“And I could tell you he was killed by a giant sewer rat.”
Scarlett snorted. “And what, I should feel sorry for you?”
“No, I wouldn’t expect that from you. But you might want to avoid the sewers in the future.”
“What are you here for? Are you going to knock me unconscious and have me locked away again so you can spy on my friends some more? Or maybe you’ll impersonate me and drive away another guy who cares about me. Is that what you’re planning? A high school repeat?”
“You’d be safer outside the Justice League, Lori.” Saph stepped forward.
Scarlett stepped back. “Safe from what? Psychos like you?”
There was a trace of a smile on her lips before she replied. “Something like that, yeah. You could be with people who care about you.”
“F*** that, Lylah. The people I live with? They care. Some of them have nearly died showing how much they care.”
“Yeah, that’s why they searched for you after the body went missing at the morgue. That’s why they rescued you from that basement dunge-or…wait…that was Hamlet, wasn’t it?”
Scarlett’s face went red.
“And Oreo and Midnight, I bet that was a pleasant surprise, too.”
“They thought I was dead!”
Saph shook her head. “Even amateurs know if there’s no body, no one died.”
“If you care so much, why didn’t you get me out?”
“I had other things I had to do, and I knew you were safe.”
“Like lifting the schematics to the Hall of Justice? What about Eli? And the Hot Scottish Guy?”
“What about them?” Saph frowned.
“They weren’t F***ING safe, were they?!” Scarlett rushed at Saph, reaching for her throat. Saph grabbed one of Scarlett’s hands, pushing it off her throat, and tried to step back, out of Scarlett’s way.
Scarlett swung wildly, grabbing a fistful of blond hair; Saph waited for her to yank out a tuft, but Scarlett kicked her in the shins instead. Saph fell to the ground, and Scarlett started to kick her. Over and over and over.
“B****! Just…leave…me…the…HELL…alone!” She panted between kicks. A trickle of blood seeped from Saph’s nose, pooling over her lips, and Scarlett leaned down, placing a finger over Saph’s bloody lips to hush her. “I don’t need you to fix things for me.”
Scarlett reached back and sucker punched her; Saph groaned and rolled over. Scarlett looked at her fist, her fingers now splotched redder than her dress in places, and fled the alleyway. A few minutes later, a black leopard bounded off in the direction of the Hall of Justice.
Saph lay there in the alley, silent, focusing on the lines she’d memorized years ago instead of focusing on the pain. Focusing on a different pain.
She looked up at us with those dark brown, human eyes.
Eyes I knew. Eyes I remembered.
The same eyes that watched me sleep every night from the framed picture beside my bed.
My mother. Not dead.
“It must be nice, Marco,” Saph whispered. “It must be nice to think you can save her.”