JUSTICE LEAGUE

50

Riots
 

"So, it's only fair. You listened to my little grudges against the world. I'll listen to yours. Or pretend to, anyway."

"Grudges?" asked Raven. "Christian rock, I guess. Mayonnaise. Do you see her anywhere?"

Swift touched her earphone. "The girl with the orange hair? No. Why are we looking for her, anyway? We should break up the @#%$ riots first."

"She might be able to help."

"I don't think it'll work. It's too chaotic here. Nobody's going to hear her, even if she's willing to talk."

Raven paused in the midst of the crowd, solidifying. "Where are you? I lost you."

Sticking together had been a problem for Swift and Raven; Raven could move much faster through the tightly packed crowd, and Swift was just difficult to see, especially with so many people.

"I'm by City Hall."

"I'm near the Sentinel building."

"Okay. I'll catch up with you."

"Take your time." Raven stared up at the news building, and then back across the crowd.
"I can't see anything from here." she mumbled.

"What?"

"Nothing. Like I said, take your time. I might be a while."

With that, she turned toward the building and walked through the wall.

"HEY!" Raven heard a cry behind her as she fell through the wall. She raced down the halls toward the fire escape, flung herself through the door, and started up the stairs.
She reached the third floor, and entered the closest office facing the square, not bothering to read the name on the door. She felt thuds against the wall. Rocks were being thrown against the building.

"Should've been more careful,” she mumbled, and when she was sure it was safe, she peered out the window.

***

"They got the East side; we got tha Wes' side! They's got the East side, and we's gots the Wes'!" Midnight chanted. "The-"

"Midnight?"

"Yes?"

"I'm only going to say this once. But if you insist on talking the entire way there...or at least repeating that over and over again... I'm afraid I'm going to have to remove your blurbs and leave you plummeting to your untimely and unquiet death." Crystal said, teeth clenched. She was starting to get tweaked.

"Oh. Okay then, Crystal. Whatever you say. You know, this reminds me of a movie. Now what was it called? With that one guy and that other actress and the terrorists and then they..."

Midnight Chatter, Crystal Freeze, and Xiao...Fred were on their way to patrol the west side of Deerfield Heights. The suburbs were eerily quiet, considering what was happening just a few miles away, towards City Hall.

Crystal and Fred did their best to put some distance between themselves and MC's endless blabbering. It helped that, going at the speeds they were, it was difficult to hear anything but yelling.

"Look's like trouble up there," Crystal shouted to Fred and MC, pointing to almost directly in front of them. There was a mob of people, surrounding another, smaller, caped, mob of people. As they got closer, Fred could hear a few screams and angry shouting.

"Sounds like it, too," He said, playing his part of Xiao, the heroine. Or Captain Obvious. Whichever. "Shall we split up to surround them, or stick together?"

"Normally I'd say split up, but with MC....we better go in together, at least at first," Crystal decreed, coming to a stop as they neared the Hall. "Let's walk from here. That way they can't see us."

"Good idea! This is just like that episode of The Outer Limits, where all the people get taken over by alien forces and start killing each other and going crazy, and-"

"Shhh!" Crystal said, putting a finger to Midnight's mouth. Ice covered lips, freezing them shut, temporarily.

"Good idea," Fred cackled. Crystal looked at him oddly, and he shrugged. They began walking, cutting across lawns, backyards, and eventually one or two back roads, until they came upon the street (aptly named "Park Street") that ran parallel to the Metro Park.

As they drew nearer the two groups, words could be distinguished from the random yelling.

"FREAK SYMPATHIZERS!"

"CAPE-LOVERS!"

"We're going to go to Washington, and Oregon and then we're gonna take over Michigan, and then we're going to take back the White House, YEAAAAAHHHhhhh!"

"LAWLESS JUSTICE HATERS!"

The inner circle of people were decked out in capes and tights. Some waved banners that denounced the 'Anti-Justice League', and praised their favorite heroes and heroines. They were pressed tight, avoiding the almost foaming fanatics that had encircled them. A rousing chant of "Badges, not Masks!" came up from the Anti-League rioters.

"Alright, let's put a stop to this. I'm going to make People Popsicles. Xiao, go and try to protect those people on the inside. MC? Just...do whatever it is you do, okay? And try to stay out of my way, okay?" Without waiting for an answer, Crystal ripped the blurbs off, and headed towards the angry mob. In a matter of moments, several Anti-League rioters found themselves frozen solid. Crystal was making short work of them, but there must have been a twenty-five, maybe a little more, people that really hated spandex-wearers.

As soon as they noticed something happening, their attention shifted to Crystal. Several of the Anti-Anti-League people began shouting excitedly, and pointing. Some cheered. A scuffle began between one costumed character and a man with a sign that said "Just-Us League". Fred headed in their direction. With a light kick (and a little help from his blurbs), he landed in the middle of the scuffle and easily disarmed the man of his sign. Too bad he misjudged his strength and broke his wrist, too. Fred smiled wickedly. Not like he would need a wrist much longer...

When he was finished with that demonstrator, he faced three others that were glaring angrily at him. Each had a busted bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade. Fred rolled his eyes, and with little effort, initiated a perfect kick that knocked the bottle from one of them. He snatched it up off the ground, and hurled it out of sight.

"You shouldn't be playing with nasty toys like these," he lectured. "You might meet something much worse some day, that won't appreciate it."

"Oh yeah? Like what, you %$#@ing cape?"

"Exactly," he grinned, grabbing the two still-armed protesters by their collars, and knocking them together in classic fashion. He drained them, and eyed the unarmed man.

"You're not really a freak!" He said, almost trying to reassure himself and build up some courage. Because a brown-haired medium-build girl is sooo intimidating. "You're just one of those, those, sympathizers”- he nearly spat the word- “who knows karate or some crap like that."

"I beg to differ," He said, as black claws sprouted from his...Ari's...hands. "I'm just not as obvious." He savored the man’s look of fear, until a hand on his back startled him. The claws disappeared.

"We'll help you, Xiao!" several caped crusa-...er, people chorused. They rushed to his side, and Fred mentally cursed them. "Take that, misguided anarchist!" One over-excited Anti-Anti League member cried, thrashing the unarmed man with a poster mercilessly. Fred gave an inward groan.

"Ahhh! Paper cuts! Darn you to KJOS!" Fred heard MC cry from somewhere. Meanwhile, Crystal was still freezing people. Fortunately, the activists were trying to attack her, so she wasn't creating a ring of ice around the unarmed Justice League supporters. Well, they had signs. And banners. Fred watched, amused, as five supporters tied up a couple of the Anti-Heroes with a giant blue and red banner that said "WE LOVE YOU, JUSTICE LEAGUE"

"Well, thanks," He said, trying to sound Xiaoish, ignoring MC’s cry. "But, if you don't mind, I don't want any of you getting hurt. Y'know. By my mad fighting skills."

"Oh, sure! But, um, can I have your autograph first?"

"Maybe later." Fred gritted his teeth. His slave getting this much attention, while he had to struggle to get recognition as an evil mastermind? What was this world coming to? He imagined throttling the impertinent human, but restrained himself.

Fred returned his attention to the mob. There were only a few left, as the Anti-Anti-League had taken out a sizeable number with their own shenanigans, and Crystal even more- maybe fifteen of the protestors- and MC...Somehow MC had talked everyone within range, demonstrators against and for the Justice League, unconscious. And he, an evil demon, had only stopped three people! Well!

"Time to get serious," he muttered. "Alright, you want to destroy the League, you drunken idiots? Well, you're going to have to go through me." Because I've got claim to it first, he thought.

Quite a few people took him up on that offer. In a scene that could've been stolen from The One (or numerous other martial-arts filled films), Fred waited impassively as they closed the short distance between them. With a grunt, he dropped to the dirt, and quickly performed a round kick on one of the attackers. A hook kick brought a second to his feet. Sliding up to his feet, Fred took the third out with a well-aimed punch. Demonic strength and speed came in handy sometimes, he mused, making sure they’d stay down for good. More of the morons stepped up to take their places.

A spinning heel kick knocked an opponent down before he could react. The others fell back for a moment, then flanked around him. Fred smiled grimly, and winked at one, who looked deeply offended.

"You're done imposing your morals on us, freak," A woman growled, brandishing a poster on a stick.

"Me? Impose morals on anyone? Ridiculous!" Fred cried indignantly.

They attacked, not quite as one, but in near-unison. Ducking under one strike, and twisting a bit to avoid being hit from another busted bottle, Fred managed to grab one of the Anti-Justice League fanatics, and throw her in the way of her friends. It was like bowling, except they moved. They were easy to handle, once they were on the ground, Fred decided. Very easy…except for the squirming...

Crystal was having difficulty, now. One of the demonstrators had got a shovel from God-knows-where, and was brandishing it like a two-handed sword. Frowning, Fred glanced back at the next, smaller group of his would-be assailants, to Crystal. Using the blurbs, he kicked off from the ground and floated gently down near her. "Need a hand?" He asked.

"Sure," Crystal grunted, avoiding a swipe from the Shoveler. The ground beneath her was slippery. Mr. Shovel misstepped on the slick ground, and Fred took the opportunity to grab the shovel, and used it to throw Shoveler off-balance, into Crystal, who froze him.

"There's so many of them," She said, stopping to catch her breath. "How many left?"

"Only six or seven, I'd say. You took out quite a few of them," Fred said, giving her a congratulatory clap on the back. "And MC, well, did whatever it is he does and unless they wake up, we shouldn't have to worry about them. And I took out ten or twelve myself. And surprisingly, those Anti-Anti activists took out a few, too. Of course, a few of them might need some immediate hospitalization as soon as we're done here, but I haven't seen any stiffs. Well...not on their side, anyway."

"Killing these idiots isn't going to enhance our reputation at all. And it kind of goes against our ethical code. The unwritten ethical code. I don't think we have a written one. If we do, I've never heard of it." Crystal shook her head.

"I didn't say I killed any of them." Fred reassured her, truthfully. He hadn’t said anything about killing them. "You might want to take a breather though."

"I'm tired, I'm cranky, and I'm ready to kick even more anti-league butt, and then go home and sleep it off while the media denounces us yet again after saving their skins." Crystal said, standing up. Most of the remaining protesters had noticed their depleted number, and were running away. Two or three were still trying to gang up against their opponents, but they weren't fairing very well. MC was nowhere to be seen.

“Well? Shall we?” He asked, indicating the scrap.

“Yes.” Crystal answered. She made her way to a tussle between several Anti- and Anti-Anti personages. She froze them, easily. Not all of them- just the non-costumed ones. It was a good thing they decided to wear such ridiculous outfits, she decided, or this would be much more difficult.

Midnight came up to them suddenly, followed by several caped citizens. “Well, we’ve cleared this place up. Oh, and I called an ambulance for them, using Hank's cell phone. And the police are on their way, too, to pick up all these rioters, once they thaw, or wake up, or recover from whatever overtook them. I don’t know where they’re going to hold all these people. I mean, there must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands involved in that rally. It’s amazing, I never realized so many people hated us. I wonder if I didn’t something to offend them, or said something wrong? I would apologize if I had and knew about it.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Crystal said. “Let’s…see if anyone needs any back-up or if we should just go back to the Hall.

“Sounds good to me,” Fred stretched. "Anyone know how these ear-radios work?"

"Yup! Drew explained them to me before we left, see, all you do is-" Midnight began a long lecture about how they worked, and also the price of tea in China. Fred tuned him out for a moment, for some inner dialogue.

Well, Slave, it seems no one has noticed your disappearance. I am a good actor, am I not? He chuckled. He waited, but there was no answer. Perhaps they noticed and prefer me to you...? He gave up when there was still no reply. Annoyed that his sport was cut short, he tuned back into MC.

"So you see, you just press this piece here and talk and they can hear you!"

"Great," Crystal said, rubbing her forehead. Was that the beginning of a headache? "Awesome. You handle that, I'm going to stand over there, waaaaaay over there, and wait for the cops, or paramedics. Whichever comes first. You say here. Stay."

"And I'll, um, watch the other direction," Fred added hurriedly, and joined her. "MC, when you're done, make sure these League fans don't cause any trouble, okay? Tell them some amusing anecdotes, or…something."

***

Scarlett and Violet rounded a corner to find a group of miscreants outside a comic book store. They had cornered the cashier, a skinny guy with acne, and were shouting at him.

“You support them, don’t you!”

“We don’t want your type here!”

“It’s people like you who attract those freaks! Hero worshipping losers!”

“Please, I just work here,” the comic store guy, whose name was Jerry, said. He was cowering beneath She-Hulk Issue #6.

Scarlett and Violet looked at one another. There was a slight smile dancing in the corner of Scarlett’s lips.

“Hey, you!” Scarlett called to the mob. There was about eight of them, all but two were men about 20 years old. The others were women, the same age. In a single motion, they all looked at Scarlett and Violet, and their faces twisted with anger. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Get out of here! Freaks!” one of the women shouted.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Violet said. Comic Book Jerry looked very relieved, and he lowered his She-Hulk shield. Unfortunately, one of the young men grabbed the magazine and threw it towards the heroines. It fluttered to the ground and landed at their feet.

“Hey, Scarlett, I’m feeling angry.”

“Please, Violet, that movie was awf-“ But Violet had already changed into the character on the cover of the comic. She was tall and muscular, with green hair and skin.

“Oh, sh*t…” a short guy with dark hair said. He took a step backward, tripping over one of the others.

“Hey, there’s still only two of them!” a particularly cocky man said. One of the woman grabbed his arm and pointed. Scarlett was changing. Thick, black hair was sprouting on her arms and legs. Muscles rippled beneath her skin, and her face became soft and leathery looking.

< If you’re smart, you will all go home before the Violet Princess and I really get angry. >

The small crowed nodded absently, letting go of the comic book guy. They eyed the gorilla, unmoving.

< Go! >

And they were gone, disappearing down the next street. Nervously, Comic Book Jerry muttered a quick thank you and retreated into his store. Violet and Scarlett changed back to normal when they heard a scream a few blocks over.

“What was that?” Violet asked, looking for the source of the yell.

***

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

As the other superheroes rushed out, Oreo looked at Claire. “You’re staying here.”

“Like I’d go out there.” Claire rolled her eyes. “I’m not a superhero.”

“Good. Don’t you forget it.”

Oreo stood, a plan beginning to buzz through her brain. She stopped at the kitchen and then flew to the garage. She’d need someone she trusted for this plan to work. Rosma, or X-Raytor, or, heck, even Scarlett.

The garage echoed with argument. A gang of naked shelves gave testament to the blurbs that flew into the night. The only people still around were Rosma, standing alone by the open garage door, and Right-Wing Man arguing with Drew. As Oreo approached, Rosma flew out after Studmuffin. Oreo looked around, hoping Raven would pop out from behind a tool chest, or Violet’d walk through the door. Nothing. Oreo sighed and walked over to Right-Wing Man.

It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Right-Wing Man, not exactly. She barely knew him. Whenever they ran into each other in the Hall, his face turned red and he quickly walked away. On the rare occasions they talked, he kept his eyes on his feet and responded with single words.

Right-Wing Man was talking with wide gestures, back to Oreo. “…obviously don’t understand how vital-“

“If it’s so vital you can walk!” Drew said. “I already told you, there’s no more blurbs.”

“We’re out of blurbs?” Oreo said.

Right-Wing Man whirled around, glanced at her face, chest, then down to his feet.

“And headsets,” Drew said. “With all these newbies,” and she glared at Right-Wing Man, “there’s not enough for everyone anymore.”

“So everyone’s already gone then.”

“Everyone but you and this guy.”

Oreo smiled cheerfully at Right-Wing Man. “Looks like you and I are partners.”

“Yes.”

“How do you feel about piggyback rides?”

***

“We’re almost there!” Oreo shouted over her shoulder.

“Woo!” Right-Wing Man yelled, punching his fist in the air.

She wobbled, trying to compensate for the extra movement. She hadn’t given a flying piggyback since Claire was little, and Claire weighed considerably less than Right-Wing Man. The extra weight made her fly slower and lower, so she could touch the tops of buildings if she wished. Still, it was faster than a car.

Oreo saw a familiar grid of streets below. The old neighborhood, where she lived as a fledgling superhero. A mob ran the streets, the core group striding forward with destructive determination while smaller groups trailed behind.

“Remember, don’t use your powers unless absolutely necessary! And follow my lead!” Oreo didn’t wait for a response. “Hang on!”

She entered a steep dive. Right-Wing Man screamed, whether in fear or delight she didn’t know. Landing, she ate an Oreo. Her features shifted slightly, nose losing its point, eyebrows shifting shape. Oreo checked her reflection in a window. She looked the same, but different. Like a cousin.

She stood under a lamppost with a jelly sandwich in one hand and a thermos of cocoa in the other (and a sandwich and cup for Right-Win Man) when a curve of the street brought the shouting mob into sight.

Oreo leaned against the lamppost and took a sip of her cocoa.

She might as well have taken her shirt off. The mob slowed, quieting, then stopped completely a few feet away. No one drinking a nonalcoholic chocolate drink had ever been the center of so much attention.

“We’re breaking the law, you know,” said a young man moving with a quick dart-forward-dart-back movement.

“Is that right,” said Oreo.

“Are you going to arrest us then?”

“No me,” said Oreo cheerfully. “I’m on break.”

“Yeah?” said the man. He pointed to Right-Wing Man. “He on break too?”

“Justice never takes a break,” Right-Wing Man declared.

Oreo half-turned, shooting Right-Wing Man a Look.

“But I am, in fact, on break.”

“So when do you come off your break?” said the man.

Oreo paid him some extra attention. The stance was a giveaway. He was ready to fight, even though he didn’t look like a fighter. There was a bottle sticking out of the man’s pocket. He’d been drinking his defiance.

“Oh, around Thursday, I imagine,” said Oreo, eyeing the bottle. The was laughter from somewhere in the growing crowd.

“Why Thursday?” asked the drinker.

“I’ve my day off on Thursday.”

There were a few more laughs this time. When the tension is drawing out, it doesn’t take much to snap.

“I demand you arrest me!” said the drinker. “Come on, try it!”

“You’re not drunk enough,” said Oreo. “I should go home and sleep it off if I were you.”

The man’s hand gripped the bottle. Here it comes thought Oreo. By the look of him, the man had one chance in five…

Fortunately the crowd wasn’t too big yet. What you didn’t need at a time like this were people at the back, craning to see and asking what was going on. And the lit-up street fully illuminated the lit-up man.

“Friend, if you take my advice you won’t consider it,” said Oreo. She took another sip of her cocoa and saw Right-Wing Man do the same. It was only lukewarm now, but along with the sandwich it meant that both her and Right-Wing Man’s hands were occupied. That was important. They weren’t holding a weapon. No one could say afterward that they had a weapon.

“I’m no friend to you people!” snapped the man and smashed the bottle on a trashcan.

The glass tinkled to the ground. Right-Wing Man tensed beside her. Oreo watched the man’s face, watched the expression change from drink-fueled anger to agonizing pain, watched the mouth open…

The man swayed. Blood began to ooze from between his fingers, and a low, thin animal sound escaped from between his teeth.

That was the tableau under the light. Oreo and Right-Wing Man under the lamp with their hands full, the bleeding man several feet away. No fight, no one had touched anyone…she knew the way rumor worked, and she wanted this picture to fix itself in people’s minds.

She stayed very still for a few seconds, then stood up straight, all concern.

“Come on, help me,” she said, tearing off a shirtsleeve.

A couple of men, jerked into action by the voice of command, steadied the man who was dripping blood. One of them reached for the hand.

“Leave it,” Oreo commanded. She gently wrapped the sleeve around the man’s unresisting hand. “He’s got a fistful of broken glass. Right-Wing Man, would you pick him up before he falls over? Here, use my cape as a blanket. Does anyone know if Dr. Pratchett still lives around here? Speak up!”

Someone among the awed bystanders volunteered that he did.

“Show us the way.” Oreo pointed randomly at figures in the crowd. “You and you and you and you and you too, ma’am. You can help take this young man to Dr. Pratchett, okay?”

Oreo took a deep breath, hoping the crowd couldn’t see her shaking hands. “Anyone know who this man is? Come on, someone must…”

A voice in the crowd volunteer that the man could well be the tailor William Strunk.

“Let’s hope we can save his hand, then,” said Oreo. “I could use some new clothes.”

It wasn’t funny at all, but it got another of those laughs, the ones people laugh out of sheer frightened nervousness.

“Now,” said Oreo. “Let’s get to Dr. Pratchett’s.”

“Why should we trust you, cape?” a voice shouted. “You’re going to kill him! Badges, not masks!”

Oreo ripped off her mask and let it flutter to the ground. “Listen to me, all of you! My name is Anne Whitney! I lived over on Westway! You all want to see we treat our boy Willie right? Fine, come along. Or you can go home. It’s a cold night and you should all be in your beds. I know I’d like to be in mine. And yes, we know about Liberty Square and we don’t like it either. And that’s all I’ve got to say tonight. Now...anyone who still wants to take a swing at a cape can step right up if they want to. I’ve got my mask off. We’ll have a go, here and now, in front of everyone. Anyone?” Oreo looked around the crowd. “Okay. We’ve got a job to do, ladies and gentlemen. If anyone wants to walk us to Dr. Pratchett’s, and frankly, I’d be obliged if you do, you’re welcome to do it. Thank you for your patience.”

Oreo kept her eyes forward and fell into step beside Right-Wing Man.

“What are they doing?” she said in a voice for his ears alone.

“Some are wandering off but most are following us,” he said.

And so they made their way to the doctor’s, the former mob an honor guard against the dangers of the night.

***

"Come on!" Studmuffin landed next to Rosma and pushed her into a deserted alleyway. He looked up and down the street quickly, and then followed her in. He searched around the alley, behind the trash bins, and under the discarded cardboard boxes.

Rosma waited impatiently, tapping her foot until he was finished. He finally walked back towards her.

She sighed. "What? Making sure no one is back here to catch us?"

He seemed confused. "What are you talking about?"

"Haven't you noticed? The whole Justice League has been all about sex lately. It must be something in the water. Honestly. So if you brought me back here to have your way with me, then let's hurry up about it, I have things to do."

"I didn't--" he shook his head. "Listen, I don't have time for that, either."

"Good to know."

"I have to tell you something! In private!"

Rosma looked around the alley. Nothing moved. "Right."

"Rosma, Fred is gone."

"Gone? Gone where?"

"I don't know! He's not in my head anymore! The Seekers don't know how he got out, either, but he did."

"And that's...bad?"

"Yes! I mean, no! I mean, think about it! If he's not in my head, then he's somewhere else. And you know what he was trying to do last time he was free."

"Trying to kill all of us and take over the wor--oh, I get it. So it is bad."

"Yes!"

Rosma considered. "Then we'll have to find him, won't we?"

"I wouldn't even know where to start looking."

"Me either. But I know someone who might."

"Yeah?"

Rosma nodded and turned her blurbs back on. "Xiao, of course. Let's find her and see what else is going on out there."

***

Several police vans and cars pulled up, followed closely by a number of ambulances. They got to work right away, carrying away the worst victims on stretchers, and doing what they could for the more minor injuries. The police even seemed to be readying one of the vans to take any leftover, less urgent needs to the hospital, as well.

Crystal began talking to one officer, presumably about the few activists that had gotten away. Fred waited a little, to make sure nothing was said about his own handiwork. When that got boring, he wandered off and watched with interest as the police cleaned up as many Anti-League demonstrators as possible. Fred spotted a number of people he had dealt with be lifted up and put inside one of the vans. As for Crystal’s handiwork, the police seemed to be willing to wait around until they melted, to avoid taking care of the leftover mobs themselves. One of Midnight Chatter’s sleeping beauties had woken up and was shouting at the officers dragging him to their vehicle, “YOU CAN TAKE OUR LIVES, BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE OUR FREEDOM! WE'LL GET YOU CAPES, JUST YOU WAIT!!!!!”

Fred shook his head at the customary revenge statement-and the five exclamation points to boot- and was startled by a tap on his shoulder.

Mostly because he was still getting used to having a shoulder again, mind you. He was a little jumpy, that's all. He knew as well as anyone what could lurk in the dark...

“Xiao! We’ve been looking all over for you!” Studmuffin grinned, Rosma standing next to him silently. They both looked a little tired. Rosma had no blurbs, Fred noted.

“Why didn’t you use one of the communicators?” He asked casually.

Rosma glared at Studmuffin, who stuttered, “Er, because, well, I…er…didn’t want to take the chance of blowing your cover! Right! That’s why.”

“Oh,” Fred accepted. “Well, that was thoughtful of you.”

“Yes! It was!” Studmuffin puffed up. Rosma rolled her eyes.

“Xiao, you haven’t heard from Fred at all, have you?” She cut to the chase, eyes narrowing.

“What?!” Fred coughed, and Studmuffin gave him a hearty whack on the back to help. Inwardly, he was racing to come up with an explanation for what he knew was coming. He hadn't taken into consideration that Studmuffin might notice he was missing. Or that he would care that Fred was missing.

“He’s been gone a while now,” Studmuffin explained. “We…I…don’t know where he is, and we thought that, with you being his former, er, vessel, you might know where’d he gone.”

“Of course not!” Fred lied, feeling a little queasy the way Studmuffin was eyeing him as he asked that question. "He never said anything about his plans before he, um, left, and I haven't seen him since!"

They’ve got you now, Fred. They’re going to know it’s you, not me, and then they’ll get rid of you.Ari surfaced from her sulking. There’s no way you can talk yourself out of this.

I didn’t ask for your worthless opinion on the matter! Fred growled, then added with some glee, Even if they did find out about me, which they won’t, they wouldn’t be able to get rid of me! We made an agreement, and like it or not now, you have to keep your word. Promises are very binding, you know...

“Are you all right, Xiao?” Rosma asked, concerned. A look of consternation had crossed his face as he jabbed Ari.

“I’m fine, just all that buttery popcorn came back to haunt me.” Fred said through gritted teeth. He forced himself to relax, and not show the emotions he was feeling. Which included contempt, frustration, and anger…and maybe a teensy bit of concern that they’d put two and two together. Just a little.

Fred, give me another chance! Ari pleaded. I won’t tell them anything about what happened.

No, you won’t… Fred reassured her. I’ll make sure of that…and stop squirming like that, Slave! I command you, stop that!

“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you need to go back to the Hall?” Rosma asked. Fred thought he saw the glimmer of suspicion in her eyes.

“Of course not,” He grimaced as Ari struggled against his control. It wasn’t hard to impersonate her, or stop her, or control her flimsy body, but the combined effort was taxing on his strength. She must have been saving herself for such an occasion, he decided. He could easily crush her...but he wanted to conserve as much power as he could, so that when the time came he could effortlessly carry out his plans. ”It’s just a passing spell. Please…I need…to…” His voice choked off.

“Xiao!” Rosma grabbed his arm as he slid to his knees. It was Ari’s doing, Fred knew, seething. Meanwhile, Rosma lowered him slowly to the ground, and watched, concerned, as his inner struggle took place. Studmuffin looked for a paramedic, but they were already gone.

Damn you, Slave! Inexplicably, he couldn’t speak. Fury helped Fred make up his mind. He focused all his will on squishing her, like the insignificant insect she was, and easily slapped her away. But he feared that now Rosma and Studmuffin had noticed his discomfort, unless they were thicker than he thought.

It was doubtful that he would be that fortunate.

He sat up, gradually, testing his control. It seemed complete, and sturdy enough… You will pay for that, Slave. Out loud he said, “I’m okay now. Sorry about that, I…I don’t know what came over me.”

“You should get back to the Hall,” Rosma said. “Studmuffin can take you back--that way, if you feel sick again, you won’t have to worry about your blurbs. And you shouldn't be fighting if you're sick.”

Fred could see no better way out of this. “If you say so.” He slid the blurbs he was wearing off, and handed them to Rosma.

“Today must be my lucky day,” Studmuffin commented to no one in particular, considering he'd already given Rosma a lift around while they searched for Xiao.

“Yes…lucky….” Fred mused; wondering what would happen if Studmuffin suddenly found his soul being drained at a few hundred feet. …No…that would be too suspicious, if he succeeded, especially if Rosma already suspected him. And failure meant a definite giveaway. He would just have to bide his time and allay their doubts about him. And deal with his slave accordingly…He inwardly frowned.

“Let’s go,” Studmuffin said.

***

The crowd outside the comic store now dispersed, Scarlett demorphed. Violet decided to stay in her She-Hulk form for the moment, and they headed east, making their way further into the city as they kept their eyes out for the next throng of protestors.

Three figures, one of them obviously not human and one of them entirely too spherical and fluid to normally be alive, were making their way south along the street across the way. Violet and Scarlett would run into them at the intersection in just a few more moments. “Is that…”

“Yeah,” Scarlett said, rolling her eyes. “Why Llama Boy thinks he can do anything out here…” They kept walking and were soon at the intersection.

< Scarlett? >

Scarlett looked at She-Hulk. “Did you just-“

< It’s me, Scarlett. >

“NeoMattr-Matrix?”

< Who else would be this cute? Check out this fur. Check out this little llama smile on my little llama face. >

“…What are you doing?”

“He’s walking with us,” Twisk said, briefly changing back from her water bubble form.

“I don’t want anyone wandering around alone with the riots,” said Pinzz. “Not even talking Llama Boy.”

Scarlett and Violet nodded, and then Pinzz, Twisk, and NeoMatrix continued south while Violet and Scarlett resumed their eastward trek.

***

Eric looked at Jo, who was staring up at the sky as they walked. “Looking for something?”

“No. It’s just getting dark, dude.”

“Yeah.”

“And we didn’t bring flashlights. Or glow sticks,” Jo said, swapping the arm carrying Barbara Ann. “Dude,” he added as an afterthought.

“Nope.”

“I haven’t seen any rioters.”

“They’re frightened away by the manly vibes of our exposed cinnamon-tan flesh.”

“Dude…you’re walking around in the buff.”

“You’re half in the buff.”

“I am way more buff than you. Totally.” Jo stopped to flex his free bicep.

“Do you know you sound like a Valley Girl sometimes?”

“Like, whatever. Look, I’m getting bored walking down the same old strip here. Let’s find a new place. Where the kids are hip.”

“And where you can buy a flashlight?”

“You’re a mind reader, dude.”

“There’s a Wal-Mart a couple blocks over. They probably have flashlights.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes, until the large Wal-Mart store glowed up ahead of them. The two superheroes had almost reached the front entrance when Jo frowned. “Wait a second. Are you a mind reader?”

“No.”

“You’re just a naked dude?”

“I have socks.”
***

Somewhere in New York

Hamlet cautiously approached the sound studio where Ewan was supposed to be recording lines for his newest movie. Security would find the guard he’d knocked unconscious in minutes, so he would have to move fast if he was going to kidnap Ewan. Unfortunately, the doors were pull-open doors, so Hamlet wasn’t able to open them heimself; a quick circuit around the building turned up no open windows.

He would just have to wait until someone came out.

***

“What are you stopping for?” Scarlett asked as Violet, who had finally given up on the She-Hulk form when several small children laughed at her, stopped in front of Ramu’s Gentleman’s Club.

“I…I’m not sure.” Violet gazed at the neon pink outlines on the sign almost forlornly.

“Well, come on! I heard shouts coming from down the street!” Scarlett said, yanking Violet by the arm, away from the opaque windows. Before they got very far, they could see a mass of people swarming in front of the T. Howard Fine Arts Museum.

“Oh, my…”

“God. They’ve got the doors ripped off the hinges. They’re going to tear it down if we don’t stop them.”

Violet looked at Scarlett, eyes wide. “Got any ideas?”

“You could try the She-Hulk thing again, and I can morph…something. Fire isn’t really going to help the situation if they’re trying to destroy the place.”

“I can do better than She-Hulk, I think,” Violet grinned. “So, in the words of everyone’s favorite heroine!”

“By the power of Grey Skul-“ Scarlett stopped when Violet gave her a strange look. “What? You’re into magic. You never watched She-Ra when you were a kid?”

Violet rolled her eyes. “Let’s do it.”

“You know you just jinxed it, don’t you?”

“You like Marco way too much for your own good, Scarlett.”

***

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to cover yourself.”

“Excuse me?” Eric and Jo turned around to face the Wal-Mart employee. He was wearing a brown manager’s vest.

“You are walking around this store in the nude. Several customers have already complained. This is public indecency.”

Jo stepped between Eric and the manager. “Dude, this is the pet department. He’s just au naturel, the way Mother Nature intended. Like all the fluffy little animals.”

“Sir, if you don’t put on some pants, I’ll be forced to call the authorities,” the manager said, shoving Jo out of the way.

“Well,” Eric said, checking the nametag. “Well, Todd, you do that. My friend and I are going to buy a flashlight and then leave this excuse for a “super” establishment to continue our job of quelling the riots.

Todd walked off in a huff, and Eric and Jo continued on to the Sporting Goods area. “Think this high-powered lantern will work?” Eric said, hefting it up.

“Yeah, it’ll be perfect, dude. How many batteries does it need?”

Eric checked the box. “Eight double Ds.”

“Bodacious.”

They walked up to the front to pay for it and the batteries.

“Cash or credit?” asked the girl at the checkout counter.

“Uh…”

“Dude, we don’t have any money, do we?” Jo pulled the pockets of his swim trunks out to no avail. There was no money, just a couple of sticks of DoubleMint gum.

“Put it on the Justice League credit account,” Eric said.

“Sure,” said the girl. “Wait, that means…which ones are you?”

Eric and Jo exchanged glances. “I’m Studmuffin,” Eric said, flashing a smile.

“And I’m Right Wing Man,” said Jo.

“I’m Michelle...you know, I didn’t think Studmuffin was the guy who walked around naked. I thought he had like, good karma powers or something.”

Eric let out a resounding laugh. “Why, no, that’s Eric. That guy rocks. He’s the coolest guy in the Justice League.”

Jo grunted. “Not as cool as that new guy. Jo Surf is so gnarly.”

“I’ve heard about him. My friend Holli has this total crush on him. But what do you do?”

“Well, Miss, I-“

“There he is, officers!” a disgruntled Todd walked up with two Wal-Mart security officers. “Naked, just like I said.”

“Sir, we’re going to have to arrest you for public indecency.”

“Dude, it’s just his birthday suit. And socks.”

“Sir, you can leave, but we’re going to have to take this man to the station,” one of the officers told Jo.

Eric laughed. “You realize there’s probably no one there, right? The city is full of rioters. Rioters my friend and I were about to go have a talk with.”

“There’s always someone down at the station. If there are riots, they’ll be booking people left and right. You’re coming with us, sir.” They carefully took Eric by the arms and began to escort him outside.

“Don’t worry, dude! I’ve got a radical flashlight now; I’ll stop the rioters and then we’ll come get you!”

***

Inside the T. Howard Fine Arts Museum, chaos reigned. “The Da Vinci exhibit! Down with DaVinci!” shouted one of the crazed protesters. “Those Just-Us f**ks love that Robert Langdon guy!”

< Violet, you’re closer! Get that guy leading the Da Vinci charge! >

The giant gingerbread cookie smacked the leader and five people standing next to him, then turned to continue her chase after several people carrying various works of art. “Outside! All of you! Quit trashing the museum!”

No one was listening. Scarlett continued using her trunk to snatch paintings off the walls and place them up on the support beams holding up the ceiling, safe out of harm’s way. The Da Vinci protester stood up seconds after Violet knocked him down, and flung himself in the other direction. “To the Monets! Down with the Monet Code!”

Scarlett hauled butt after him, and caught up quickly. Her trunk quickly wrapped around the man, who had to be at least forty. Or older. < Look, what is your problem with art? >

“You’re one of them, aren’t you? Let me go! I’ll sue, I swear!”

< I don’t doubt it, but you’ll probably have to wait until you get out of jail for destruction of public property. Unless you want to take your friends and go home. > She squeezed, just a little.

He pounded his fists on the outside of her trunk. “And what if I don’t? I’ve done my research on your kind! I know what will happen!”

< And what exactly is…wait a second. Are you wearing Harris tweed? >

“I…of course not!

< F*** it, you are! You’re freaking Dan Brown! > The man slumped visibly. < What are you doing trashing Da Vincis? >

“Turn loose of me. I’ll go home.”

< I don’t think so. I want an explanation. >

He looked around wildly. “The others are still trashing the place.”

< Violet can handle them. As for you…do you have any idea how annoying your fans can be? >

***

The door to the recording studio swung wide. “Hey, ah’m recording here,” said Ewan McGregor. “Do yah mind leaving me be?”

The door slammed shut.

“Thanks. Now, where was ah? Auch, right, Halle’s character was about to-hey, that’s not funny, Mac!” Ewan shouted as the lights switched off. The sound of feet padding closer filled the room. “What the-arrrghh!”

***

“BADGES, NOT MASKS!” the cry of the rioters floated through the City. Pinzz, Twisk, and NeoMatrix had seen little action until a throng surged from the city center, running straight for them.

“Twisk! Cool them off!”

“What…I’m not Crystal!”

“Water! A splash of cold water is all most of these bastards need!”

“On it!” Twisk veered to the left, and slowed most of the rioters on that side. Squishy sneakers don’t run around half as well as dry ones do.

Pinzz, meanwhile, had blended into the concrete wall of the building to the right. As the mob surged past, she jumped out. “You screw-ups need to go home and be thankful we bother to protect your sorry asses!”

They ignored her. “Hey! There’s that llama that’s always with them!”

“The mascot!”

“Get him!”

NeoMatrix looked at the crowd of people as several of them grabbed him roughly and began yanking his fur out in tufts. < Please leave me. I’m the last of my kind. You would be doing a terrible thing. >

“There’s plenty more llamas in petting zoos! To the Hall!”

“To the Hall!”

Twisk continued to soak them with water, but with a member of the Justice League now in hand, they were too frenzied to be stopped with water. Pinzz punched several of them, but they were hundreds strong and she could only do so much damage. City Hall was only a block away, next to the T. Howard Fine Arts Museum, and there were obviously more rioters inside.

“I thought we were going to the Hall of Justice,” Pinzz heard one girl say to a friend as she struggled to keep up with the angry mob.

“City Hall’s closer,” the friend said, shrugging. “Just as good a place as any for this.”

“For what?”

The people carrying NeoMatrix walked up the steps, forcing him up there with them. He looked awful. “String him up!” shouted one of rioters. Others joined in.

“String him up!”

“Lynch him!”

“Lynch the llama!”

NeoMatrix, having already uttered his plea, stood mute before the mob, even as the leader apparent knotted a rope tightly around his llama neck. She threw the other end over a branch of the old oak tree next to the City Hall building. People at that end took hold of the rope and pulled back, yanking NeoMatrix from the steps, now suspended over part of the crowd. Shouts of “Lynch him, Llama lynching!” echoed, even as NeoMatrix’s four legs thrashed wildly in the air.

Pinzz and Twisk were pulling people from the rope, punching them, biting them, anything they could think of to get them to turn loose, but it was in vain; even with the help of a few mysteriously garbed kids, others simply took the places of those hanging onto the rope.

Seven minutes later, NeoMatrix stopped moving. Pinzz and Twisk stopped when they realized he was dead, and the mob pushed them back. The leader instructed the people holding the rope in tying it around the trunk of the tree, leaving NeoMatrix still hanging there above the crowd.

She then ran into City Hall and came out wielding a broom. “It’s time to beat the crap out of this pińata!”

***

"Swift."

Swift jumped. She reached up and touched her ear. "Where are you?"

"Look up. And now to the right."

"You aren't in..." Raven tried to see where Swift was.

"Oh, but I am. Though I do think people should stop throwing rocks. This is such a lovely newspaper building."

Raven didn't see it, but Swift was grinning. "Breaking and entering? I didn't see you as the type."

"I didn't break anything. And I needed a better view. Using blurbs would've been too obvious."

"Well, this doesn't seem much less obvious." Swift eyed the rock-throwing protestors.

"Yeah, we should put a stop to this." Raven took a deep breath. She'd only tried this twice before, and she'd fallen both times.

"Third time's the charm, right?"

"What?"

"Nothing." She walked out and focused on the air beneath her.

Platform...make a platform

She stood on the air and tried to assume a beatific pose while not looking down. "STOP!!!"

"Oh my God, she's not human. No human could do that!"

"Evel Knievel could." Raven snapped.

There was a moment of silence as everyone looked at the camera and winked.

"SHUT UP, CAPE!" someone yelled, throwing a rock. Raven managed to phase into nothingness just in time. She stumbled, her control on the air below her slipping. She caught a look at the ground, three stories below her, and bit back a scream, starting to sink.

"I think we should go, man!" yelled a voice. "She's like, an angel or something!"

There was a long minute and much muttering, the crowd dissipated.

Raven fell to the ground. Swift ran over.

"An angel?" Raven said, her eyes closed.

"It was the best I could think of." Swift reached down a hand. "Are you okay?"

"No, but I'll live." Raven's eyes were still closed. She rubbed the back of her head. "We should go. I saw some sort of problem on the south side. And the east side. And the north side. And here. Pick a direction."

Swift started walking south.

***

It was about one o’ clock in the morning when Mark burst into the upstairs room of Comics Toast on West Durham Street. He stood in the doorway, bent over, hands on his knees, gasping for air. There was a large, bluish bruise under his right eye. He looked up, and his breath caught in his throat.

“Hello, Mark,” the Leader said.

“Jeez,” Mark said. “You scared the crap out of me.”

“What’s the situation?”

“It’s completely insane out there. The entire goddamn city is tearing itself apart. I mean, it’s not just anti-Justice League people against pro-Justice League people, it’s- people are just running around doing whatever the hell they want. It’s total f***ing anarchy!!”

“And the others?”

Mark steadied his breathing. “S***. Okay, okay. Steve had a bottle broken over his head, but he’s cool. I got him to the hospital, and he’s going to need some stitches I think. I don’t know what happened to Joe. The others ran after a while, I think, and I was with Jessie for a while. We- we ran into that guy who brought the dummy up, and Jessie… s***. She f***ed him up really, really bad. She kind of- s***, she lost it, and I don’t know what happened after that.”

“True warriors all,” the Leader said. Her tone was somewhat distracted, almost bored.

“Where did you go, anyway?” Mark asked. “I turned around and you were-“

“If they captured me,” the Leader said. “It wouldn’t have been good for any of us. Now would it?”

“You just- you ran,” Mark said. “We were still there fighting, and you ran.”

“I strategically retreated.”

“Bull.”

The Leader shrugged. “Oh well. Doesn’t matter anymore anyway. I’m outta here.” She stood up, and began to shuffle around in the darkness behind her chair.

“Y- what? You can’t just leave! You started this, you have to finish it!”

“Hey, you like it so much, you can finish it yourself,” she said, and stepped back into the light, with a knapsack over her shoulder. “Besides, the winds have changed. Time to dump this hero shtick.”

She reached up with one hand, and pulled back her hood, revealing a brown haired girl who looked to be younger than Amanda and Kelly. She couldn’t have been more than 13.

“And you can cut that ‘Leader’ crap,” she said. “Call me Katherine.”

She walked past a stricken Mark, and out the door.

***

“Have I ever told you,” Detective Sarah Tyler said, “that I worked on SWAT before homicide?”

“Yeah,” Detective David Price said. He flipped through a pile of notes on the Rick Degen/Cargo Hold case. They had recently interviewed a number of Degen’s ex-girlfriends-and they were only halfway through his little black book. A few had moved out of state, and didn’t respond to their phone messages. There was also a Beth Firestone, who had died of Parkinson’s Disease a few months ago. And they had yet to reach Degen’s most recent girlfriend, a Lara Deschaines.

“I worked SWAT for three years,” she said. “ ’98 to 2000. And I never saw anything like this.”

The TV was showing live feed from a Channel Five news chopper, hovering over an area in South Side where protestors choked the streets. As if South Side wasn’t enough of a criminal hell hole. Occasionally, she could see Netic, alone, trying to control the crowd.

“But my big brother, Hank, he was on SWAT in the Eighties,” she said. “He got called out for those riots on the University campus in ’84. And, see, he was pissed as hell about it, because all through the Sixties, there wasn’t jack-s*** in terms of super hero protests. I mean, sure, there were some, but no one really focused and no one really cared. But then, in the Eighties, when the First Super Hero Era was winding down, when everyone had pretty much slipped into that post-Sixties complacency, that’s when the anti-super hero stuff really started up. He could never understand that.” She sighed. “At least with the climate these days, it’s no big surprise.”

“The thing that surprises me,” Price said. “Is that it’s not as big an issue as it could be, seeing how it’s election season and all. But neither party’s really harping on it, like they are with everything else.”

“More important things to worry about,” Tyler said. “I think more people are worried about Iraq and this whole war on terror than super people.”

“I guess,” Price said. “But, still, it seems a little off. I mean, this is still a big concern, even if it hasn’t gone national yet. It’s almost like everyone in the government has agreed not to go after super heroes. And when everyone in the government is together on something…”

“Then that usually means something bad for everyone else,” Tyler finished. “Tell the truth, I get that feeling sometimes too. But it doesn’t make sense, you know? What possible reason would they have?”

Price shrugged. “It would have to be a damn good reason-the Bible Belt’s been railing about all super heroes for a long time now. I don’t think Bush would back away from something like that.”

“Maybe they’re just testing the waters,” Tyler said. “You know, trying to see which way the public is going to swing.”

Price looked up at the TV, where he could now see Jo Surf trying to disband a crowd chained to the downtown statue of Marvelous Man with a miniature rain cloud. The rain cloud looked like something out of a cartoon-it couldn’t possibly exist. And yet, because of whatever super ultra-juices that Jo Surf had running through his body, it did.

“I hope so,” he said. “I really freaking hope so.”