JUSTICE LEAGUE

49

Freedom of the Press
 

“George! Glad you could make it!”

Margo Westfall stepped back, and opened the door all the way, allowing George White to step in.

“Um, hey,” George said. He glanced quickly about the room-a habit picked up from dozens of interviews and his months undercover. Margo’s dorm room didn’t look much different from the girls’ dorms he’d been in during his own time at the University-posters and clippings all over the walls, perfume and other cosmetics covering the bureau, clothes thrown everywhere (this last trait was characteristic of more dorms, though in a girls’ dorm, there was a feeling that it was more of a temporary arrangement). There were two beds, both on risers, with desks at their heads. On Margo’s desk there was an open laptop, with about a thousand IM windows open. Her bed was covered with books and computer printouts. On the other bed, a good looking girl with blond-streaked hair, lounged, reading a battered copy of Jasmine Yuen’s The Carrucan’s of Kurrajong. The girl didn’t look up as George entered.

“How was the trip downtown? Not too busy?” Margo asked, walking over to her computer and checking her messages. George took a second to run an eye over her. Not bad. A little short-maybe 5’4”-and that hair… that really was an obnoxious shade of orange. But on the whole, she didn’t look half bad. She was a junior-a rising senior, really-which made her twenty-one, most likely. Which was absolutely fine by George. Besides, he’d been involved with younger girls.

He thought of Ari and immediately grimaced. That had turned ugly. He fought to come up with one of his many, many justifications for why she shouldn’t have been mad, but instead he shook his head and answered Margo’s question:

“Not really. The bus is sor-“

“Great,” Margo said, typing rapidly into an IM window. She hit enter, and then put her away message up. She stood, and turned back to George. “Thirsty? Hungry?”

“Er, not really.”

“Good, ‘cause we don’t have anything. Take a seat.” She pushed some books off her bed. They landed with a thump, and her roommate raised her eyebrows over small, rectangular glasses, not looking up from her book.

“Didn’t have any trouble with security?”

“Nope,” George said, sitting down. Margo pulled her desk chair around and sat on it backwards, folding her arms over the chair’s back. “Uh, how are you guys here, anyway?”

“Well, Britney here’s working with frosh summer orientation,” Margo said, jerking a thumb at the other girl. “You’ve met Britney? ‘Course not. George, my roommate, Britney Rourke. Britney, George White.”

“Hi,” George said.

“Huh,” Britney said from behind her book.

“He’s going to be one of the main speakers at the rally tonight,” Margo said. “He came over here so that we could figure out the scheduling and all.”

“Huh.”

“The rally’s gonna be great.” Pause. “It’s the biggest one ever.”

“Huh.”

“She loves it,” Margo said, turning back to George. “So, anyway, you’ve got your speech all memorized?”

“Yeah. I’ve got some index cards, too, in case I forget.”

“Good. Excellent. This is going to be big, you know? And not just big-huge. Biggest one ever.”

“Yeah,” George said. Of course he knew it was going to be the biggest one ever. Margo had only told him that, oh, a million times. The girl was very, very proud of her organizational skills.

George had his doubts. After all, this was going to be a lot of people, a lot of angry people, all getting together to commune and, well, be angry. There’d be beer, and probably drugs. And that always meant trouble. He just hoped they didn’t decide to burn down the stage or anything in protest of the Justic- “Just-us” League.

“You’re giving the first speech,” Margo said. “I’ll introduce you, after I make my big opening speech. The mics will be set up and all, so it’ll be ready when you get up there.”

“Okay.”

“You’re gonna be great. We’re really gonna get them fired up. Really gonna stick it to the capes!!”

“Sure,” George said.

“We’ve got a ton of people. It’s gonna be huge! You know who I was trying to get to speak? That Lansky guy. But he wouldn’t do it.” She rolled her eyes and made a pfft noise. “Guy’s too ‘intellectual’ for us, I guess. Only cares about selling his stupid book and not actually getting rid of these fascists.”

George nodded.

“Hey, afterwards,” Margo said. “How about we go somewhere? Just you and me?”

George’s mind went blank. “Uh…”

“Oh, hey, look!” She hopped out of her chair, and ran over to her computer. “Ha! Tim got it! All right!”

George craned his neck, trying to see the computer screen. He was too confused to stand up and look.

Margo looked back at him and smiled, her eyes narrowing. “A little surprise. A little something special.”

George shifted on the bed. Uh oh…

Margo just grinned. “We’re gonna have some reeeeeal fun tonight.”

***

“MEN!!!” Right Wing Man roared. “MEN!! MEN MEN MEN!!!”

“Uh…” Julian said.

“MEN!!!” Right Wing Man repeated. “WHAT ARE WE?!”

“Uh…”

“WHAT ARE WE?!”

“Men?”

“WHAT?!”

“Men!”

“WHAT?!?!”

“MEN!!”

“WE ARE!!”

“MEN!!”

“WE ARE!!”

“MEN!!”

“WHO ARE WE?!”

“MEN!!”

“WHAT DO WE WANT?!”

“GIRLS!!” Julian yelled, at the same time that Right Wing Man yelled, “MEN!!”

A long pause. Julian stared at Right Wing Man.

“W- we- wh- girls. Girls.”

Julian nodded slowly, as a harassed-looking Crystal Freeze walked in from the kitchen.

“What are you morons doing in here?”

“We were asserting our nature as Men to the universe!” Right Wing Man said.

Crystal looked at Julian, an eyebrow raised.

“Um, sure,” Julian said. “That.”

“So, you were yelling loudly in case someone forgot you were here.”

“Yes!” Right Wing Man said. “No… get me a sandwich!”

“What?”

“I said, have you seen Oreo Avenger recently?”

“Um… no?”

“Do you know where she is?”

“She’s… somewhere. She’s having some problems now, you know.”

“Yes,” Right Wing Man said, and very lightly ran his upper teeth over his lower lip.

“I’M SCARED!!!” Eric screamed, running down the stairs. Everyone jumped.

“I heard everyone screaming, so I decided to scream in case someone forgot I was here!” Eric declared. He came to in front of the couch, and stood, fists on his hips. It took a moment for all of him (if you get my meaning) to stop moving. Crystal grimaced.

Julian pretended to look at one of the potted plants. He still hadn’t gotten used to having a naked man running around all day.

“So, what’s up?” Eric asked.

“Aside from the screaming idiots I’m living with?” Crystal asked. “I’m making myself lunch. A grilled cheese sandwich.”

“With butter?” Eric asked.

“Uh… yeah…”

“Ooooh, that’s my favorite kind of grilled cheese sandwich…” Eric said, his eyes glazing over.

Crystal’s upper lip curled in disgust. “Are you getting aroused?!”

“Of course not!” Eric said. Then he looked down. “Oh. Right. Guess I am.”

“Swear to God, someday I am going to just freeze this whole freaking place…” Crystal muttered, storming back into the kitchen.

Once he was sure she was out of earshot, Right Wing Man said, “And get me a Mountain Dew, woman!”

Eric flopped down on the couch next to Julian. “So, what’s on TV?”

“Uh, you know, I’m going to go, uh, do… something,” Julian said, standing up quickly. He was halfway to the staircase when Jo Surf came bounding down, almost knocking Julian over with his big, stupid surfboard.

“Hey, is that The O.C.?” He asked.

“Sure is!” Eric said.

“Radical!”

Jo went over and plopped onto the couch between Eric and Right Wing Man (who was pretending to focus on flexing his bicep, while stealing glances at the screen). Eric raised the remote and turned the volume up.

Julian stared at the three of them. “I don’t even wanna know,” he mumbled, heading up the stairs. Living in the Hall… it was a mix. The way everything was so comfortable, the TVs and the bathrooms, and the girls-those were all sweet. Julian had absolutely no problem with those. But living in a house-even a big ass one like this-with twenty people was a serious, serious pain.

“Why am I awake?” A voice demanded from above him.

Julian looked up to see Pinzz standing at the top of the staircase, on the first step down from the landing. She had one hand on her hip and her other on the railing. She wasn’t wearing her blue suit-now she was wearing a brown tank top and a pair of navy sweatpants. Her hair was tousled and her eyes were bleary-she’d obviously been asleep. Of course, Julian only noticed this after he looked up from the brown tank top, though the tank top was indicator enough that she’d been napping-it wasn’t the sort of tank top you walked around in, unless you wanted lots of obnoxious guys staring at your chest.

That thought set off a warm sort of tingle below Julian’s belly. Yeah, she walked around dressed like that because she wanted guys-she wanted Julian-to look at her. That’s the way she liked it, tha-

“Well?” Pinzz demanded. Her eyes narrowed.

“Oh, uh, it was… Right Wing Man and, um, Eric,” Julian said, looking at her knees. He willed his voice to rise above a low mumble, but with little result. “They were-- … sorry.”

“Christ,” Pinzz mumbled. “I just want to get some f***ing sleep. Is that too f***ing much to ask?”

“I know, I know,” Julian said. And then, louder. “I know. It, uh, I told them to stop. So… you can go back to sleep, now.”

He finally looked back up at her face, and fought to maintain eye contact.

“Thanks,” Pinzz said, after a long pause. It might have been Julian’s imagination, but her eyes quickly flitted over him, before returning to his face. “If they do it again, I’m personally going to throttle them.”

Julian laughed a little, and when he was done he wasn’t able to raise his eyes above Pinzz’s knees again.

“All right,” Pinzz said. She turned around, and walked back up the stairs. Julian watched her go, and then headed up the stairs himself. She disappeared into her room without turning around.

Man… Julian thought, and sighed. He turned around and walked down the hallway to the room that he shared with Right Wing Man. He needed some time alone. He flashed on Pinzz, her brown tank top, and felt himself get hard (or harder, as the case was). Yeah, he definitely needed some time alone…

“Hey! Hey, Julian!”

Julian looked over his shoulder to see Netic walking up to him. He smiled. Well, maybe alone wasn’t the best idea right now. After all, it takes two…

“Hey, Netic,” he said, stopping and turning around.

“Jeez, I’ve told you, like, a thousand times,” Netic said, catching up with him, still smiling. “Call me Cameron.”

She was pretty hot; about his height, with long black hair and very blue eyes. She was in shape-not muscular and manly, which would have been gross, but fit. Slim muscles on an already nicely shaped body. A nice, tight little package, all in all. On the job, she wore a black trenchcoat and sunglasses, but now she was just in a black shirt and jeans. She obviously had a black thing going on, but a hot black thing; not an obnoxious Goth black thing. She was a year older than him, he thought-and that was odd, because usually he couldn’t look older girls in the eye, much less flirt with them. But Netic was different, for whatever reason. And, again, she was hot.

“Okay, Cameron,” Julian said, and flashed a smile. He felt a little taller, all of a sudden.

“I watched that movie you told me about,” Netic said.

Julian blinked. What movie had he told her about again? He didn’t remember talking to her about a movie or-

“Taps?”

“Right!” Julian said. “Right, right. Sorry. What’d you think?”

“It was great!” Netic said. “It- it was awesome. And Tom Cruise was so young in it!”

“Yeah, he’s pretty sick in that,” Julian said.

“So, um,” Netic said. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Well, nothing,” Julian said. “Yet.”

Netic grinned. “ ‘Cause, see, I was thinking that we could hang out. I mean, I haven’t been back in my old neighborhood for two years, and I was thinking of just dropping by and seeing how things ar-“

“Where’s your old neighborhood?” Julian asked.

“Oh, we had this house-or condo, I guess, we shared a wall with this Puerto Rican family- down in Shardstown, in Central City. You know where that is? It’s this neighborhood on 44th street, a little north of South Side?”

“Yeah,” Julian said. “That’s really weird. I’m from Bucktown.”

Netic’s eyebrows shot up. “Bucktown? Really? Damn, we were right down the street!”

“Yeah! Man, where’d you go to school?”

Netic shrugged. “I didn’t. My mom was smashed all the time, so we really weren’t able to afford the finer things in life, like tuition. Or air conditioning. Or, uh, food. But, hey, all you need is a quick hand and you’ll never starve.” She winked, and Julian laughed.

“I went to Alexandria,” Julian said. “I was on this kind of financial aid type thing. I played baseball and they gave me a serious break on my tuition.” He frowned. “My mom was kind of a drunk, too. She had a job, but then a few months ago she got sick…”

Julian stared at the wood paneling on the wall, not really seeing anything. Netic rubbed her left arm with her right hand.

“What happened?” Netic asked.

Julian exhaled. “Well, she died just, like, a few weeks before I came here.” He felt a lump forming in his throat, and swallowed.

“I’m sorry,” Netic said.

“It was horrible,” Julian said. “She started-it got really bad, towards the end. And she told me some things about-about some stuff that I really could have gone without hearing.”

“What?”

Some part of Julian admired that her questions weren’t apologetic, that she didn’t ask permission ask. But even stronger was a growing feeling of rage. Who did she think she was, asking him more than he wanted to tell her? Where did she get off…? She was a girl, just a girl!

Julian fought the rage down. No, no he had to get this out. Even if she was kind of uppity.

“She told me about my dad,” he said. “I never knew him. He, um, he left before I was born.”

Netic nodded. “My dad left when I was little. He and my mom used to be scientists, and… but, anyway, you were telling your story.”

That’s right, Julian thought. I was. Christ.

“Well, she told me that, um…” Julian swallowed again, and closed his eyes. “My dad raped my mom. That’s how she got pregnant. They were-she was just this guy she met in a bar, and he took her upstairs and they were just talking and he…”

“God…” Netic said. “I’m… oh my God…”

Julian was washed in self-satisfaction, but he tried to keep his face neutral.

“Yeah,” Julian said. “Tell the truth, I wish I didn’t know.”

“Listen to me,” Netic said, and she reached out and touched his lower arm. “Everything’s going to be okay now, okay? I know it sounds corny, but-but we’re your family now.”

Julian looked down, and nodded, sniffing. He thought, Family, huh? How about a little incest?

“Thanks,” he said, and, smiling sheepishly, held his arms open. Netic grinned, and stepped in, hugging him. Her chin rested on his shoulder, and he could feel her hair against the side of his face. He slowly began to stroke her back; lightly at first, in case she objected, but then more deliberately, feeling the curves of her back and-

“Well, hello there!”

Julian turned around and leapt back from Netic at the same time. X-Raytor was leaning against the wall. Beneath the fabric of his mask, Julian could see his eyebrows waggling.

“Looks like the Hall of Justice is turning into the Hall of Love!” He said.

“Oh, screw you, X-y!” Netic said. “Godd*** peeping Tom…”

“Hey, if that counts as voyeurism, then I don’t want to know what my little x-ray transgressions are.”

“… Did you just use words with more than two syllables?”

“I lost a bet with Raven,” X-Raytor muttered, sagging. “She made me read this stupid SAT vocab novel.”

Julian could have strangled X-Raytor. Didn’t he see what was going on here? He was about two seconds away from getting Netic’s clothes off!

“Anyway, I’m going to go downstairs where there aren’t any perverts hiding in the corner,” Netic said. “Julian, are we on for tonight?”

“Definitely,” Julian muttered, not looking at her.

“Cool,” Netic said, and headed for the staircase. “And remember! Cameron!”

“Right,” Julian mumbled.

Once she was gone, Julian rounded on X-Raytor. “What the f***, man?!”

“Sorry,” X-Raytor said. “Living here has sort of desensitized me to tender moments. Believe me, unless you’re in your room, every time you get anywhere near intimate with someone, there’ll be some dumbass who will start going ‘Ooooooh! X-y and Neary!’”

“If you hate it so much,” Julian said. “Then why do you do it?”

X-Raytor was silent for a moment, and then sighed. “You’re right. Sorry, man, I wasn’t thinking. Didn’t mean to be an a**hole or anything.”

“It’s cool,” Julian said, though his blood was still hot with rage. “And who’s Neary?”

“Pinzz,” X-Raytor said. He pushed off the wall, and started to walk to the stairs. “That’s her real name, but don’t tell her I told you that. We used to date, you know.”

Julian’s heart leapt, and he fell in step behind X-Raytor. “Really?”

***

“It’s on,” the Leader said. The secret meeting room (located secretly in the upstairs room of Comics Toast on West Durham Street) went silent.

The Leader walked in, closing the door, and made her way to her customary seat at the head of the green card table set up in the center of the room. The other five people in the room had never seen her face-she perpetually wore a gray cloak with a cowl. They knew that she was young, though what age-or even age group-was uncertain. There had been some whisperings among her followers that she was a super heroine-maybe the daughter of a figure from the First Super Hero Era, or maybe even one of the old heroines (maybe Crimson Avenger?) secretly returned. There had even been rumors that she was Sticky Spectre, the former Justice League member, turned over a new leaf and out to aid her former teammates.

The Leader got wind of these rumors and quickly put them to rest. She was just a girl-she had no more powers than the rest of them. She even let them scan her with a confiscated police powers detector. And so the rumors died, though the Leader’s true identity remained a secret.

“She didn’t move the date?” Joe Bertinelli asked, leaning against the far wall. He wasn’t a shady guy by nature, but he did have a strange aversion to chairs.

“No,” the Leader said. “It looks like the security breach wasn’t too bad. Steve.”

Steve, a tall, lanky twenty-something with shaggy hair, hunched his shoulders. “Sorry, guys…”

“You are such a loser,” Mark mumbled. Mark and Steve had joined the group together about three months ago; both after being kicked out of Campion University.

“I wasn’t thinking straight at the time!” Steve said. “It- I just kind of let it slip.”

“You told Margo Westfall- Margo Westfall- that there was an anti-anti-Justice League force: the one thing we’ve been trying to keep a secret since we started,” Mark said. “And you did it while you were sleeping with her!”

“I don’t think she remembers I said that,” Steve said. “In the morning, she called me Eduardo, and then asked her roommate why her brother was in her bed… it was weird.”

“Regardless,” the Leader said. “She didn’t move the date. The protest is going as planned.”

“Well, there was no way she was going to change it anyway,” Mark said. “This thing’s gotten too much media exposure for her to wuss out now.”

“She will wuss out!” Amanda Dufresne said. “She’s such a bitch! And look at that hair!”

“And even if she doesn’t,” Kelly Dimmick added. “X-Raytor will totally kick her butt! He’ll just show up and say, ‘Get a life and go home, you loser’ and she’ll totally cry!”

“And he’ll cut off a little bit of her hair with his lasers if she argues!”

“Yeah!”

The other four members of the Justice League Support Army cringed. Amanda and Kelly were the youngest members (unless, under her hood, the Leader was younger); two fourteen year old girls from St. Martin of Tours High School, they joined only a few weeks before. They were eager and dedicated to the cause, though how, exactly, they were helping was still a mystery.

“Have you guys ever actually met X-Raytor?” Joe asked.

“Well, no,” Amanda said. “But we practically know him! You should see our website!”

“Yeah, our website is the best X-Raytor website ever!” Kelly said.

“We made it ourselves!”

“It rocks!”

They both giggled, and Joe blinked.

“How about you, Joe?” Mark asked, a little defensively. “Did you ever meet Twisk?”

“Yeah, plenty of times,” Joe said. “First time we met, we ran into each other in this CD store-“

“Which one?” Steve asked.

“Does it matter?”

“… Maybe?”

“Acrat.”

“Ah.”

“Anyway, we hung out, like, once the next week, too. And we talked on the phone a few times.” He nodded. “You know, I was on the phone with her, like, two seconds before those barrel-head guys attacked the Hall. Isn’t that insane?”

Amanda and Kelly listened to Joe with fascination. He was the second youngest, next to them-around seventeen-and they listened to him more than the other members of the Army.

“We need to get down to business,” the Leader said. “Mark, what’s the current headcount?”

“We’ve got two dozen people ready and willing,” Mark said. “And you know that, once the s*** hits the fan, people are going to join in. Once the lines are drawn, I think all of the closet supporters will come right out of the closet. Unfortunately, that’ll happen on both sides.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s just what we need,” Joe said, with a derisive snort. “More people coming out of the closet.”

Amanda and Kelly giggled, and Mark frowned.

“They’ll come,” the Leader said. “They will realize that we stand for Good, and want to protect the soldiers of Good against these agents of banality. How is Evil supposed to be kept in check if Good is being weighed down by the masses?”

“But we’re not really looking for a fight, right?” Steve asked. “I mean… there’s a lot of them…”

“There’s worse things than getting beat up,” the Leader said. “And there are worse things that you could get beat up for than the battle for Good.”

“X-Raytor could take them all on!” Kelly said.

“He doesn’t know any karate, but he thinks he’d like to take lessons at some point,” Amanda said, nodding sagely. “He said that in his interview with People, in March 2000.”

“Speaking of fights,” the Leader said. “I don’t think you two should be there tonight.”

“But we want to show our support!” Amanda said. “We want to help the Justice League!”

“And show that Margo girl just how much of a loser bitch she is!” Kelly added.

“It’s a little too dangerous,” the Leader said. “And it’s past your curfew anyway.”

“We could sneak out!”

“You could get arrested.”

“W- no we wouldn’t! Like, we’re just kids!”

“Still…”

“She’s right, guys,” Mark said. “This really isn’t going to be a place for kids. No offense.”

“I don’t think it’s a place for me, either,” Steve said.

“Oh, shut up.”

“We can handle ourselves, Mark,” Amanda said. “Jeez, you’re worse than my brother.”

“And her brother’s pretty bad,” Kelly said. “And he doesn’t shower.”

“He doesn’t,” Amanda affirmed.

“Well, think about it,” Joe said. “What if you’re on the news, and your parents see? What if you do get arrested- what if, what if!- then you’d be in serious trouble, right? And there’s going to be all sorts of crazy liberals out there-you could get hurt.”

“You’re right, Joe,” Amanda said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Kelly said.

Mark fumed.

“Then we’re ready,” the Leader said, rising from her chair. “Tonight we make our stand: for Good, for Honor, and for Justice.”

***

“So,” Raven said. “How are you liking the Hall?”

Swift slid her eyes slowly away from the computer screen, not moving her head. She studied Raven, sitting two computers down from her, and then said, “Mansions don’t impress me much.”

Raven blinked, and glanced quickly back at her computer screen. There was no one else in the computer room. There were a few people in the rec room, but only she and Swift were in the computer room. No one would know if she just played a little Princess Maker 2…

No! No, no. She was a week (or thereabouts) clean, and she wasn’t going to ruin her streak now. Sadly, Swift wasn’t much of a distraction from the craving, anti-social weirdo that she was.

“Did your parents have money or something?”

A long pause, and then: “They were CEOs.”

“Ah.” Raven said. “That’s cool.”

“Not really.”

“Were they CEOs of any companies I would know of?”

A long pause. “Probably.”

Well then. Raven glanced back at the computer, and bit her lower lip.

“So,” Raven said. She searched her mind for a conversation topic, and finally came up with: “What’s with you?”

Swift blinked, and turned to look at Raven. There was a moment of silence, and then Swift started laughing, loudly and fully, throwing her head back. From the rec room, Eric yelled: “What’s so funny about Seth’s heart being broken?!”

“Thank you,” Swift said. “I’ve been waiting for someone to cut the crap.”

“Didn’t answer my question,” Raven said. “What is with you?”

“Well, I’m just naturally a people person, so that’s why I’m so friendly, and I never shut up or stop partying to all hours of the morning,” Swift said. “But, really, can you blame me? I pass out in a pancake house, find myself on a jet with a bunch of BDSM video rejects who take me to their big old mansion in the boonies-“

“This isn’t the boonies,” Raven said.

“I’m a city girl. This is the boonies to me,” she said. “Besides, after all of this, and after living in a house with a bunch of people who are truly, truly insane running around… can you blame me for being antisocial?”

Raven shrugged. “I don’t blame you for being kinda withdrawn. It’s the suspicion that gets me.”

“I don’t trust anyone,” Swift said. “That’s something you’ll just have to get used to.” She turned back to her computer screen.

For a long moment, Raven was silent. Then she said, “Well, I won’t stab you in the back, if you don’t stab me in the back, chameleon girl.”

“Sounds like a deal, Kitty Pryde.”

Raven rolled her eyes, but couldn’t suppress a smile.

***

“Okay, okay, put that over there, by that thing,” Margo said, pointing with her clipboard. She looked back at George. “Jeez, did you ever think that putting something like this together would be so much work?”

George blinked. “Yes?”

People ran here and there, all over Liberty Square. The Square was currently surrounded with yellow police tape for the set up, but in an hour or so, the tape would be removed, letting the crowds in to witness the demonstration. A makeshift stage had been erected in the center of the square, behind the statue of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. George had once written a feature story on it for journalism class in high school. It was based on the famous statue “Winged Victory” (or “Nike at Samothrace”), only with a head and arms, with gold painted wings, and a torch in her right hand. It was made of bronze and carved by the legendary sculptor Alex Laforge in 1904, the same year that the Square was established…

“Derek! Derek! Move the mics back from the edge, a little. Back! Jesus Christ!” She shook her head. “Man. But it’s worth it! This is gonna be the hizzy for rizzy!” She giggled.

Shizzle fo’ rizzle, George corrected silently. He felt a sharp pang of nostalgia. How long had it been since he talked Ebonics? He hadn’t called anyone “dawg” in months.

“Excuse me, Ms. Westfall?”

George looked up to see a blond woman in a black blazer crossing the Square towards them. George groaned. Oh, great…

“What’s up?” Margo asked, turning towards the blond woman.

“Ms. Westfall, hi,” she said. “My name’s Seraphina Braddock, I’m with The Sentinel, and I’m writing a story on tonight’s protest. I was wondering if I could talk to you a bit.”

“Absolutely,” Margo said. “Hey, The Sentinel? Then you must know George, right?”

“Yeah, we know each other,” Sera said, glancing at George. He scowled. The bitch was always so suspicious around him. She was one of those uber-ethical journalists, the extremely anal types who just couldn’t take someone being a reporter maybe to, you know, get somewhere, not just sit in an office writing stories about godd*** city council meetings for the rest of their life.

Sera flipped open her notebook and produced a click pen. “Okay, so I’ve heard this is going to be the biggest demonstration yet?”

“That’s right!” Margo said. “We’ve got more people confirmed for this one than any other demonstration. And of course, people will be coming in off the streets to support us. We’re going to have an awesome turn out, believe you me! Really get the capes shaking in their spandex.”

“Okay,” Sera said, scribbling furiously. “Okay. Now, I know you’ve talked about this before, but could you give me a quick rundown of why, exactly, you oppose the Justice League?”

“Well, it’s not just the Justice League,” Margo said. “It’s these superf***s in general. Can I say that?”

“I can’t print it as that, but, uh, sure,” Sera said.

“Whatever. What I’m saying is, it’s not just the Justice League, it’s all super ‘heroes.’ The Justice League-our main problem with them is that they’re damn elitists, and their lazy and corrupt, and they live in a freaking mansion while there are homeless people on the streets-and they’re doing nothing! But, really, the root problem is with all super people. Look: we’ve got these people running around with these insane powers, right? And we’re going to let them go and start deciding what’s right and what’s wrong for us? We’re afraid of them, really. The fact that we’ve let them to take the law into their own hands is proof of that. Besides, how would we be able to stop them from doing whatever they wanted?

“Think about it. Say that Studmuffin guy, say he starts thinking, ‘Hey, why am I so much more powerful than everyone else? What if it’s because I’m supposed to rule over the entire planet?’ He could start wasting capitals with his Chi thingamajiggy, and we’d be able to do exactly squat. And by telling these people that they get to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, we’re just making it even more possible that they’ll start thinking like that.”

“All right,” Sera said, her pen moving at lightning speed. “What do you think we should do about super heroes?”

“For one thing, make powers illegal,” Margo said. “And then make sure they stay that way. Even if it means giving them all power-dampener earrings or something. That sounds kinda drastic, I know, but it’s better than having a bunch of fascists in spandex running around, telling you what you can and can’t do. Things keep going like they are now, and I swear to you: in, at the very most, two decades, the capes will rule the world. We’ll be their slaves because we can’t fly or turn invisible or see through walls. We need to stop this before it gets that far.”

George turned away from the interview. He should have been writing this story, not Sera. After all, she was all about powers. He knew the type-normal guys weren’t good enough for some chicks; they needed a guy who could bend iron bars with his pinky fingers. She had some sort of thing for X-Raytor, he was sure of it. But their editor, Carl Rosen, said that since George was giving a speech, it was “conflict of interest.” Whatever.

His speech. George exhaled slowly. He’d practiced it plenty of times, but, still. It wasn’t exactly a rousing, rowdy demonstration speech. In fact, whenever he looked over it, it looked more and more like one of those stupid persuasive essays he’d written in high school:

“In fact, super heroes actually encourage super villains. This has been proven numerous times, where super villains have debuted immediately after the appearance and success of a super hero. In conclusion, super heroes are bad.”

It wasn’t that bad, but, still.

Either way, it was certainly going to be an interesting night.

***

“Well, there it is,” Joe said, as he and the rest of the Justice League Support Army officers-those being, at this point, the Leader, Mark, and Steve-stood in an alley about a block down from Liberty Square. “When do you think they’ll start?”

“As soon as the sun goes down, I’m sure,” the Leader said, still hidden behind her gray cowl. “More theatrical that way. And you know that these self-proclaimed revolutionaries are all about theatrics.”

“Er, so is that a good or bad thing, in our case?” Steve asked.

“We’re not revolutionaries,” the Leader said. “We’re the Old Guard. We’re the defenders of the stalwart ideals of Good and Justice, against these cowardly, radical vermin. We don’t need cheap theatrics, when we have the Armor of Righteousness.”

There was a long pause, as Mark, Steve, and Joe waited for the Leader to realize that she’d just totally contradicted herself, but then gave up.

“The others should be here by then,” Mark said. “I was talking to Jessie, and she says they’re finishing up some signs and stuff.”

“See, that’s a job I think I’d be better at,” Steve said. “Making signs and posters. My teachers said I was great at arts and crafts, you know…”

“You know who you remind me of?” Mark asked. “Shaggy. From Scooby Doo.”

Steve mumbled something.

“Oh, there’s your girlfriend by the way.”

“Margo wasn’t my girlfriend! … There’s no guys there, right? She’s not hanging around with anyone?”

“You know,” Mark said. “That reporter guy is hanging around her a good bit…”

“Reporter?” The Leader asked sharply.

Mark nodded. “You know, that one who was on the Justice League. George White.”

“The traitor!” The Leader hissed. “Ooooh, it comes as no surprise that Westfall would employ the treacherous Typho in her foolish little insurrection! There shall be a reckoning!!”

“Hey, one thing,” Joe said. “I’ve been thinking about this, and I bet there’s gonna be some fights before this night’s over. So I think, at first, we shouldn’t throw any punches. If we only fight back, we might not get arrested.”

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “Arrested?”

“Speak for yourself,” Mark said. “I’m a young black man. They’ll arrest me on principle.” He looked back at the Square. “But you know-man, it would be worth getting arrested, just to wipe the smirk off of Margo’s face.”

“Come,” the Leader said, swishing her cloak. “We still have much to do.”

***

X-Raytor was making himself a microwave dinner when he heard someone call his name.

“What’s up?” He asked, turning around. But there was no one else in the kitchen, except for Neomatrix (or “Fred Jr.,” as he’d heard Xiao calling him). The llama was looking at him.

“Okay…” X-Raytor said, and then turned back to watching his rice bowl rotate.

< X-Raytor, it’s me, Neomatrix. >

He turned around and stared at the llama. The llama stared back.

“Uh… who’s doing that?” He asked loudly. “Because it’s really lame and not funny at all.”

< It is me, X-Raytor. I’m communicating with you telepathically. >

X-Raytor blinked, and then said, “Uh… I didn’t know you could do that?”

< It is not a natural ability. It seems to be a side effect of being in this body. >

Now that he thought about it, the voice did sound like Scarlett’s “thought speak” thing when she was in morph. Only without that sexy Dixie twang.

“Er… could you always do this? I mean, since you were trapped in morph?”

Pause. < Probably. >

“Okay.”

< X-Raytor, > Neomatrix said. < I have something to tell you, and I fear that time might be running short. >

“Um, okay…”

< There’s something big happening, > Neomatrix said. < Something very, very big. I do not know what it is, exactly, but it seems to have a lot to do with you. >

X-Raytor blinked. “Er…”

< You, the Green Penguin, the Seekers, the “Head Honcho,” Bo Powers, the rest of the Justice League… it’s all connected somehow. I haven’t been able to figure it out, and I don’t think that I will before my time is up. But you, you and the others, you must figure it out after I’m gone. You must figure it out before it’s too late, or your entire world may be in jeopardy. Will you promise me that, X-Raytor? >

“I-yes. Sure. I’ll- I’ll do whatever I, uh, can.”

< Thank you, > Neomatrix said. < This puts me very much… at ease. Thank you. >

“Sure. Glad to help.”

< Enjoy your meal. > He walked out into the common room, his hooves clicking on the kitchen floor.

X-Raytor stood, staring for a long time, until the microwave went off and startled him back into reality.

It was probably nothing to worry about. Just some crazy alien… whatever. Nothing to worry about at all…

***

Set up took longer than both Margo and the JLSA anticipated, and by the police tape and saw-horses had been removed, and the demonstrators allowed to spill into the Square (under the careful watch of several City police officers), it was 8:30, and the sun had long since been replaced by neon lights and flashing screens. The Square was packed-Margo had long since given up trying to take a head count. And the exact number didn’t matter, anyway-what was important was that there were a lot of people, and, more importantly, a lot of people here to listen to her. TV news crews were set up all around the perimeter of the crowd; Channel Five News even had a helicopter hovering above the Square. She grinned up at it, and hoped beyond all hope that the Justice League was watching.

How do you like it now, you bastards? She thought. How do you like this? No one’s afraid of you, and no one’s going to let you just run around and do whatever the f*** you want anymore. It’s your turn to be afraid, f***ers.

She stepped up onto the impromptu stage, and the crowd exploded. She trembled-this was her moment. She threw both hands into the air, fists clenched, and walked over to the microphone.

“Welcome everybody!” The crowd applauded again. Margo grinned; she’d been to her share of political rallies, but they had felt too rigid, too much back-patting and self-righteousness, without actually proving anything to anybody. But this, this was alive. They were going to rock the world here tonight. They were going to make change.

She grinned even wider, and unhooked the mic from its stand. “Let’s get this started.”

***

Behind the stage, Typho shuffled his index cards. How was he actually going to use these onstage? How lame would that look? He was pretty sure he had most of it memorized, it’s just that-

“I want to thank you all for coming here tonight.” Margo’s voice echoed back to him from across the Square. The echo was sort of annoying, but if he moved around in front of the speakers, he’d be deaf. “It’s easy to be afraid. Especially when the people we oppose are so powerful, and so willing to use that power to intimidate, and cause fear. But just by showing up here tonight, you have already shown the Just-Us League that you will not be intimidated, and you will not be crippled by fear!”

The audience went wild. George shook his head; she’d just adlibbed that entire thing. Why couldn’t he do that? Well, probably because he was a journalist, not a political science major. Not that that necessarily had any effect on her public speaking skills, but, still, it sounded pretty… political to him.

And the roar of the crowd reminded him of another thing to be worried about-there were a lot of people here. A lot of angry people. A lot of angry people, all packed into a relatively small space, so that they could all come together and be one, big, angry crowd. Back where George came from, that’s what they called a “mob.” If the s*** hit the fan, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. Maybe he could crawl under the stage! But, wait, what if they burned it down? Maybe he could make a break for one of the surrounding buildings. No, wait, they were all closed for the rally. Well, maybe he’d just stand his ground, and if any foo’ started frontin’, he’d spank their ass wit’ his mad typhoon skillz!

George closed his eyes and smiled. “Fo’shizzle!”

“What?” Derek, one of Margo’s top guys, asked.

George slumped, and began to shuffle his index cards again. “Nothing.”

***

From their vantage point, at the entrance of Moonn Street into the Square, right behind the portion of the crowd concentrated there, the members of the Justice League Support Army, now numbering twenty-eight, could hear Margo’s speech much more clearly.

“Tonight, together, we will take the first step,” she said. “What we start here will, I believe, pave the way for a world where we do not have to live in fear of the powerful. A world where the potent do not impose their views of morality and society on us. A world where we are free to take responsibility for the ills in our society, and fix them, actually fix them, not just punch them or blast them or freeze them. Tonight, we take matters into our own hands!”

“Oh yes,” the Leader hissed. “We do.”

***

“Our enemies are corrupt, selfish, elitist, and powerful. But we will not be deterred, and we will not be silenced! We are many, and together we are stronger than any league of ‘heroes.’”

“Could someone pass the popcorn?”

“What’s the magic word?” Violet asked.

X-Raytor frowned. “Is that some kind of Harry Potter joke?”

“… Never mind.” She passed him the popcorn bucket.

“Ah, I get it,” X-Raytor said, scooping up popcorn. “It’s a magery thing. I getcha.”

Violet sighed as he handed back the bucket.

The entire Justice League-and, that is, the entire Justice League, including the Incredible Evans Sisters, and sans Isomorphix-was in the common room, watching the Channel Five broadcast of the rally. And because the entire Justice League was in the room, X-Raytor was not in his usual place on the couch. Of course, neither was Oreo, or any of the girls who ever dared to sit on the couch with him, so he wasn’t complaining. Besides, the carpet was actually quite fluffy.

“This truly is an outrage,” Right Wing Man said. Earlier, he’d told X-Raytor that he’d been gone for a few days, making an appearance at the Bush-Cheney convention in Portland, but X-Raytor had hardly noticed. There were too many damn people in this damn Hall, how was he supposed to keep track of them all?

Besides, he’d only been watching the news for mentions of John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!), of which, so far, there had been none. He wasn’t sure what that meant, if anything.

“We should go,” X-Raytor said. “We should totally go, and just walk up to the front of the stage and start cheering. I bet you absolutely anything she’d blow a gasket.”

“Yeah, sure, we’ll do that,” Scarlett said. “Why don’t you streak while we’re doing it?”

X-Raytor’s eyes widened. “You are a genius!!

“Will everyone just shut up?” Pinzz said, lifting the remote. “I’m trying to listen to the ranting crazy bitch.”

***

“So let’s come together, and show the Just-Us League, once and for all, that we are not afraid! We are NOT afraid!”

Liberty Square shook from the crowd’s response. Margo stretched out her arms, letting the wave of sound hit her, and she smiled. Oh yes.

About five minutes later, after the applause had lowered to a slightly-less-than-deafening level, Margo spoke again. “But, before we begin, we have something special.” She turned around and yelled over her shoulder: “TIM! NOW!”

A greasy haired guy-supposedly Tim-ran out onto the stage, hefting a bulging sack on his shoulder. He set it down in the center of the stage, next to the microphone stand, and tore the sack away.

Underneath was a life-sized straw dummy of a man. No, a super man-the dummy was dressed in a costume similar to Studmuffin’s.

For a moment the audience murmured uncertainly, and then broke into applause again. Tim dashed off stage, and then ran back on carrying a metal pole on a stand. He picked up the dummy, and hooked it onto the pole, so that it hung limply, facing the audience. Tim scurried off stage.

Grinning, Margo produced a matchbook from her pants pocket, and lit a match. She held it up for the crowd to see, and then tossed it on the dummy. The fire caught quickly, engulfing the super hero effigy in a matter of seconds.

The crowd screamed in appreciation, in rage, in triumph. A Pepsi can flew from the audience and bounced off of the burning dummy, spinning back off the stage. It was followed by more cans, a bottle, and the occasional piece of food. Margo laughed, but the sound was drowned out by the crowd.

“Oh, that- is- ENOUGH!!” The Leader screamed. “NOW!!”

The Justice League Support Army soldiers threw back the bags and jackets that had camouflaged their signs and posters, hoisting them in the air.

“JUSTICE FOR ALL! JUSTICE FOR ALL!” The Leader cheered. “HOW DO YOU LIKE THIS, YOU F***ING ANARCHISTS?!”

It took about two seconds for the demonstrators to notice. A ripple went through the crowd, as more and more people turned to face the JLSA. Fists and teeth clenched. Eyes narrowed.

All around the Square, policemen reached for their walkie-talkies.

“They don’t look too happy,” Steve said.

“You can say that again,” Mark said.

“So… wh-what now?”

Mark’s mouth settled in a grim line. “We fight.”

The demonstrators nearest to them charged.

***

“Well,” Pinzz said. “S***skies.”

***

In almost twenty minutes, the demonstration had turned into a full-fledged riot. Other, smaller demonstrations in different parts of the City exploded into violence as they either saw the action in the Square on the news, or were confronted with Justice League supporters of their own.

When the first punches were being thrown, Margo had laughed and urged the crowd on. The blood was pounding behind her ears, and she felt like she would OD on the adrenaline rush. But as the crowd-the huge, huge crowd-spilled out into the streets, and the THUP-THUP-THUP of police helicopters filled the air, she became quieter and quieter.

“Hey,” she said into the microphone. “Hey. Someone? Someone listen to me. Anyone?”

About two seconds later, she slipped off the stage, and ran, as fast as she could, in the opposite direction of the Square. George White had done the same the second the straw dummy had gone up in flames.

It was only after police had called in from all areas of the City, reporting that the s*** had most definitely hit the fan, that the Hall of Justice hotline rang.

“Uh, hello,” Rosma said, picking up the phone with her eyes still glued to the TV. “Hall of Justice, Rosma Galak speaking. How can-“

“Rosma, this is Mayor Williams.”

Rosma blinked. Mayor Shameeka Williams? “Uh… hi?”

“Rosma, is the entire Justice League available?”

“Um, pretty much… Isomorphix isn’t here, but, uh-“

“Isomorphix… he’s the one with the, uh, the sword, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. No big loss. Listen, I would not be calling about this if it wasn’t urgent, but I want to formally request your help in restraining these riots.”

“Uh, me?”

“The Justice League, yes.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Okay.”

“… Well?!”

“Er… I’ll need to check with-“

“We need help now!” Mayor Williams snapped. “There’s too many people running around being maniacs. The riot teams can’t handle them all, and if we don’t act quickly I am absolutely certain that this night will end with a body count. So, and I say this as a publicly elected official- GET THE F*** OUT HERE BEFORE THE WHOLE F***ING CITY IMPLODES!!!”

“Uh… sure?”

“Thank you. We’ll have to set up a photo op for later.”

CLICK.

Rosma hung up the phone. “Uh… who wants to do the mayor a favor and stop the riots?”

Silence.

“So,” Pinzz said. “They’re asking for our help now?”

“Typical,” X-Raytor said. “They blame us when they can handle things, but the second it gets too hot to handle, they start kissing our butts.”

“And you know, you just know that if we go and stop those riots, they’ll just call us fascists tomorrow.”

“Absolutely.”

“So I, for one, say we sit here and enjoy the show.” Pinzz used her fingers to steal the popcorn bucket from Midnight Chatter.

“Have fun,” Raven said, standing. “I’m going to go stop them before they level the mall.”

“Count me in,” Scarlett said. “I’ve been waiting all week for something like this.”

They both looked at X-Raytor.

“What? Why am I the noble one all of a sudden?”

Scarlett and Raven raised their eyebrows.

X-Raytor sighed. “Fine, fine. But I have dibs on any hippie chicks!” He turned back to the others. “Oh, get up, you lazy bastards. Let’s do something different and actually be super heroes for once.”

“All right!” Right Wing Man said, springing up. “Let’s really put these jokers through some changes.”

Pinzz sighed. “You’re all going to be impossible to live with if I don’t come, aren’t you.”

“Yep!” Eric said, scratching himself.

Pinzz stood up and stretched. “Fine, then. Everyone break up into teams-I want everyone at least, at least in teams of two. And turn on your little earphone walkie-talkie things.”

“Ooooh, forgot about these,” X-Raytor said, poking his through his mask.

“I’m glad my hard work is appreciated,” Drew mumbled.

“All right, people, we’ve got a job to do,” Pinzz said. “If you need blurbs, get ‘em, if you don’t, great-but lets move some ass! Looks like we’re actually going to be earning our keep.”

***

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!!!”

“You’re liking the blurbs?”

“WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!”

X-Raytor sighed. Frankly, he found the blurbs terrifying. In fact, every time he used them, he always swore that he’d never ever ever use them again. Just another of the long, long lists of promises he hadn’t kept. The only redeeming feature was that Drew had finally upgraded the blurbs, so that they each had an hour’s power, as opposed to just fifteen minutes. So, no heart-stopping drops or mid-air shoe changes. It was still all vaguely horrifying.

“So where are we going?” Julian asked.

“We’re going to hold down the east side of Central City,” X-Raytor said. “There’s a whole mini-riot concentrated in dockland.”

X-Raytor had picked that area on his own-it was his old beat, from back in his solo career. Jack’s Bar was there, so there would most likely be a few drunks. Probably more than a few. Back in the day, he’d dealt more than once with rowdy drunks from Jack’s.

It was also in the back alleys of the east side five years ago, with the red glow of Jack’s sign reflected off of the recently rain-soaked street, that a desperate, broken man had shot himself in the head while X-Raytor, Oreo, and Sticky Spectre watched.

He shook his head, clearing it of the memories. He had to focus on the here and now. If he didn’t, then someone might die tonight, never mind five years ago.

They were over the east side now, a little ways south of Jack’s, and X-Raytor had already begun to scan the streets. There were very few people out now-when the whole city was erupting in riots, people tended to stay home. The docks were silent.

The docks…

X-Raytor glanced over at Julian, to his right, and about two feet higher. An explosion without fire. What did that mean? Hell, what else could it mean?

Again he pushed the thoughts away. Now. Focus on the now. Hadn’t Superdude told him something about being in the moment, years ago? It was one of the few philosophical things the guy had ever said. X-Raytor suppressed a pang of emotion. Superdude had been a pretty good friend, back when they were just starting out. Back before everything with Sticky, and Insipid Justice. He wished, as he always did when he thought of Superdude, that he’d been a better friend in those last two years of Superdude’s life, instead of avoiding him and-

“Hey! I think I see them!” Julian said.

X-Raytor looked down and there, indeed, was a large crowd of people standing around and yelling. Even from here, he recognized Jack’s red neon sign.

“All right,” X-Raytor said. “Okay, J- er, Quake,”

“Warhead,” Julian muttered.

“Quake. For right now, I think I should handle this. There’s going to be a lot of people in a very tight place, and your powers might do more harm than good.”

“Dude!” Julian said. “Come on! I come all the way out here and you’re not even going to let me fight?”

“Just for now,” X-Raytor said. “But if things go badly, and we do have to fight, try to do as little damage as possible, okay? Just little blasts, not like what you did to the Encouragers. Can you do that?”

“I know how to control my powers,” Julian snapped.

X-Raytor ignored his tone. “Cool. Now, let’s get their attention.”

“Uh… what?”

X-Raytor angled his feet downwards, and the blurbs reacted immediately, slowly lowering him towards the rooftops. As he got closer to the crowd, he could hear them more clearly. They weren’t yelling anything specific, just giving incoherent voice to their rage and defiance and (probably) s***-facedness. He brought his feet back up to their normal position so that he hovered, his knees just below roof level.

“Hey, I was looking for the super hero bashing party, I was wondering if you guys could give me directions?”

No response from the crowd. No one even looked up.

“Uh… hey, I’m looking for a bunch of lynch mob maniacs to be in this movie and-“

Again, no response. He sighed. Desperate times…

“SEX!!! HOT HOT SEX!!!!”

Every face in the crowd turned abruptly up towards him.

“Ha! Made you look!”

“It’s one of them!” Someone yelled.

“That’s right! Okay, now that you’ve seen me and you’re all star struck and all, how’s about you all just go home?”

A beer bottle whizzed by X-Raytor’s head.

“Jeez! Well, if you guys really want to party, I’ll be two alleys over. See you there!”

He jetted up over the rooftops, and then ran towards the alley. He landed near the mouth of the alley, his back facing the street. Julian followed.

“They’ll be coming from down there,” X-Raytor said, pointing to where the alley ended in a T intersection. “If we need to fight, just make sure your back’s to the street, all right?”

Julian nodded his helmeted head.

X-Raytor looked around. As he’d expected, there were no windows or fire escapes in this alley, so no chance of a surprise attack from above. There was a dumpster to his right, about a few yards in front of him. Now the only thing to worry about was if the mob wasn’t drunk and stupid enough to not think of splitting up, and surrounding them from both ends of the alley.

This was it. He pushed everything out of his head except for the present moment. He exhaled slowly, and then assumed a stance, legs set defiantly apart, fists balled at his hips.

“Bring ‘em on,” he whispered.

A few moments later, the entire angry mob came around the corner of the T intersection. The first ones stopped when they saw X-Raytor, standing in the middle of the alley, but then moved forward down the alley, stopping only about two yards from him. The entire mob squeezed in behind the front guys. There were, at the very least, twenty of them. Not as intimidating as the Head Honcho’s troops at the Oscars, sure, but at least then they’d had the entire Justice League, as opposed to just… two.

The mob stopped, watching him, waiting for him to make a move.

“Nice night, huh?” X-Raytor said, after a moment.

“So, between now and when we last spoke, anyone decide to go home?”

“F***ing fascist!!” Someone yelled. A beer bottle flew from the wall of people towards X-Raytor’s face. Without flinching, he fired a pair of lasers, and the beer bottle exploded a yard away.

Silence.

“Okay,” X-Raytor said. “Anyone want to go home now?”

“You better get outta here, super boy,” someone yelled.

“You’re not wanted here!” Someone else said. “We want real cops! Badges, not masks!”

“Badges, not masks!” Someone else echoed.

“F***in’ Just-Us League!”

“Oh, enough of this bulls***,” X-Raytor muttered.

He fired two more beams from his eyes, and burned a line across the ground between himself and the mob. He looked up, and when the smoke cleared, he said, “Time to put up or shut up. Anyone who really wants tango, cross the line. Otherwise, go home.”

Absolute silence. He saw a few of the people in the mob turn to look at each other, trying to figure out what to do. X-Raytor tried to keep his posture solid. Please let them wuss out, please let them wuss out…

A mutter ran through the mob, low at first, then getting louder, and they were getting ready to charge-

BABOOM!!

The blast knocked X-Raytor off his feet, blew him almost entirely out of the alley. He hit the ground, and looked up to see half the mob on the ground, clawing over each other, trying to get up. People were screaming and cursing and running. A few people had enough sense to pick up some of their fallen fellows and carry them away. In a matter of seconds, the entire mob had vanished down the T intersection, but X-Raytor could still hear their screams and curses.

Where the dumpster-the dumpster he had seen before, on the right side of the alley-had been, Julian stood.

“How cool,” he said, flipping up the visor of his helmet and grinning. “Was that?”

X-Raytor didn’t know what came over him, but suddenly he was on his feet, and running towards Julian. The kid’s face registered shock, and then X-Raytor punched him, sending him sprawling on the ground.

“What the F***?!” Julian demanded.

“What the F***?!” X-Raytor responded. “What the hell did you do?!”

“I just saved your ass is what I did!” Julian got into a sitting position, rubbing his chin. “They were about to rush you when I blew the dumpster and got rid of them.”

“You…” X-Raytor realized what had happened now. Somehow, Julian had climbed into the dumpster. How had he missed that? Regardless, Julian had climbed into the dumpster, and once it sounded like the mob was going to charge, he’d detonated, blowing the dumpster, and sending a hell of a lot of shrapnel into the mob.

“You are so f***ing lucky no one was killed,” X-Raytor said. “Do you even realize what you could have done?!”

“Dude, they were attacking us!” Julian said. “Even if one of them did get killed-which they didn’t-it totally would’a been in self defense!”

“Doesn’t matter!” X-Raytor snapped. “We don’t kill people! Period! We’re f***ing super heroes and we do not f***ing kill people!”

“Are you really that stupid? Look around you, man, look at the whole f***ing city! You think any one of these motherf***ers would think twice about killing one of us? Huh?”

“It doesn’t matter what they’d do,” X-Raytor said. “We- we are above that. We hold ourselves to- to higher standards than-“

“This is such bulls***,” Julian said. “You people. One second, you’re all ‘Ooooh, we can’t fight anyone! That would be infringing on their rights!’ And the next you’re like, ‘Oh, we’re so much better than them, they need us to figure out what’s right and wrong.’ It’s such bull!!”

“It’s not like that,” X-Raytor said. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“I- what?”

“What- do- you- mean?”

“I mean that you can not just do that. The way we beat these people is not by- by blowing them the f*** up!!”

“Whatever, man. Don’t cry to me when they storm the f***ing Hall and string you all up like f***ing-“

“You know who you sound like?” X-Raytor demanded.

“Who?”

X-Raytor paused, and then looked down the alley. “We should get going. There’s more mobs arou-“

“Who do I sound like?”

X-Raytor sighed, and met his eyes. “You sound like Sticky Spectre.”

Julian didn’t say anything. His face was blank.

“Now,” X-Raytor said. “We have to go.”