JUSTICE LEAGUE

53

Reunions
 

“Julian,” Detective David Price said. “Julian Firestone.”

Detective Sarah Tyler frowned. “Firestone. Where have I heard that?”

“One of Degen’s ex-girlfriends,” Price said, pulling his chair over to Tyler’s desk. “Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Firestone. She died of Parkinson’s a few months ago.”

“Right, right,” Tyler said. She scanned her memory. “Lived in a brownstone in… Bucktown, right?”

“Yeah,” Price said. “Degen met her on May 7, 1986, during one of his Jack’s periods.”

Tyler nodded. They’d gotten Degen’s last girlfriend, Lara Deschaines, on the phone earlier that morning. She explained “Big Rick’s” bar hopping methods-he switched between the Cargo Hold on the west side and Jack’s on the east side, depending on where his current girlfriend went-so that she wouldn’t see him picking up other girls. The way he operated, it seemed, was that he had one steady girlfriend who fed him and gave him a place to sleep, and then various go-to girls for whenever he needed a change of pace. That any woman would put up with that sort of crap made Tyler nauseous, but she could imagine-Rick Degen was probably charming, funny, and smooth, and he knew how to find women who were insecure or lonely, women who would let him leech off of them between jobs. She sniffed. He reminded her of her father.

“I’m guessing it was just a one-night thing, because most of his lady friends knew the others, and no one I called has ever heard of Beth Firestone.”

“You did all of this this morning?”

“I don’t need sleep.”

“Okay…”

“Anyway, I went down to Jack’s-“

Tyler raised an eyebrow. “You went down to Jack’s? Recently?”

“Yeah.”

“… In the middle of the big f***ing riot?”

“Hey, the streets were as empty as I’ve ever seen them. I got over there in, like, five minutes.”

“You are a maniac.”

“Thanks. Can I keep going?”

Tyler waved him on, shaking her head in exasperation.

“Okay, so, I went down to Jack’s and I talked to the bartender, and I showed him a picture of Beth Firestone that we have on file. And he said that she’d just been in the bar this past January. She came in, dressed in a bathrobe, demanding that someone tell her where Rick Degen was because, and this is apparently a quote, ‘he’s going to get it.’”

Tyler arched her eyebrows. “Hm. Well, that would certainly sound like a motive. But isn’t she kind of, um, dead? And didn’t she die before the murder?”

“She did. But,” Price said, “she has a son.”

Tyler nodded slowly. “Yeah, I remember seeing that. What about him?”

“I just called Beth Firestone’s sister a few minutes ago. She lives out in Geauga County. Anyway, she told me about Beth’s son, this kid named Julian, 17 years old, apparently has a bit of a temper.”

“And?”

“And, she said that his father was some guy called ‘Big Rick.’”

Tyler slammed her hand down on the desk. “Yahtzee!”

“So, we’ve got a 17 year old with an anger problem, whose mother had a vendetta against Degen-who is, of course, the father that abandoned him as a kid-and not just that, but his mother is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, so her brain’s all out of whack, and who knows what she’s telling this kid…”

“So maybe, once she dies, our boy Julian decides to get revenge on his own.” Tyler said.

“Exactly.”

Tyler stood up, and started to put on her jacket. “Do we know where this kid is now?”

“No, but he was enrolled at Alexandria High. Apparently, they’ve opened for the day, because all of the students are local.”

“Then how about you and I pay this Julian a little visit?” Tyler said, and they headed for the door.

***

“So, to say the past few days have been insane… well, I guess that would be a bit of an understatement. I mean, I’ve got all the normal problems-my tights ride up, all of the girls want me but none of them will admit it; that sort of thing. But there’s also been all of this other crap recently, too. All of this serious f***-uppery.

“For one thing-the riots. Did not need that, to say the least. It’s bad enough that the cops are lazy and pretty much make us do their job for them-now we’ve got people getting pissed of at us for doing it? ‘Badges, not masks’? When was the last time the police were any damn use in the City?! They were useless when I was just starting out too.

“And I tell you, I saw a lot of crap in the inner-city and the waterfront. Drug deals gone bad, drug deals gone good, gangs, assassinations, drive-bys, prostitution, child pornography, rapes, murders… The cops weren’t there then, you know? And, I mean, not to dump on the cops, they’re good people and all, but the fact is-in the inner-city, you can make more money by working with the dealers and pimps than you can by locking them up. I’ve never said that publicly-I wanted to say it at that one press conference, remember? When I said the cops had to start doing their share, and the entire city was pissed off at me for months?

“But this whole thing… this Margo girl, what’s her deal? Some college kid has to get all up in my face because I’m trying to actually, you know, help out? Trying to make the world a better place? It’s not the most effective way, sure-I’ve always said, we should just be dealing with super stuff, because everything else… it’s just kind of overkill, y’know? You don’t need a guy with x-ray vision to catch a purse-snatcher. Do you need me to catch, say, a nutjob with machine guns for fingers? Absolutely.

“Which brings me to a whole ‘nother load of s***, namely that Magic Finger gets to spend a few months in therapy, walk out and say ‘I’m cured!’ and everyone is fine with it. I could literally cut off my left hand and give it to a hospital for a transplant or something, and people would still be suspicious of me. Of any of us, really. This isn’t just about me.

“And then there’s Julian… or Quake, or whatever. Man. The kid annoys the hell out of me, but he’s, like, my responsibility, because I just had to bring him home. From a crime scene, no less. A crime scene involving an explosion with no fire, and six dead bodies.

“S***. S*** s*** s***. I do not even want to think about that. And the thing is, he doesn’t remember anything. He doesn’t remember anything, like, before the explosion. I mean, he knows who he is and all and I think he knows where he’s from… but he doesn’t remember what happened. At least, he better f***ing not.

“Jesus H. Christ. Six people.

“And that stunt he pulled in the alley-is he insane?! Someone could have gotten killed! He can’t just go around blowing himself up all over the place. I mean, I’m not exactly Mr. Responsibility when it comes to my powers, I know that, but even with all the people I’ve hurt, and even with all the people I’ve gotten killed, I could never do half the damage that he can. He has to be more careful. But try telling him that. No, seriously, go ahead. He is absolutely one of the most arrogant teenage f***s I’ve ever met.

“And Neomatrix… goddamn it, I didn’t really like him, I’ll admit it. He weirded the hell out of me. But what they did… I don’t understand, how could you do that? Even- even to a llama, how could…

“Sorry, sorry. F***. Don’t know what happened there. You know I don’t cry. Still… it sucks. And there’s what he said right before… he said there was something big going on, and I was involved. Not just me, everyone, but he singled me out too. What was up with that? It was probably just some weird Neomatrix thing, but…

“Damn it… this is really getting to me, man. I’m still so f***ed up from Tony Norgate, and then fighting that Lord of Darkness kid… what’s wrong with me? And there is absolutely no one I can talk to about this anymore, since Lansky turned out to be just as much of a skeez as I always suspected he was. And, like, maybe, at some point, I could have talked to Violet, but… I don’t know. It’s just so weird now, with this whole resurrection thing. That just-but I’ve gone into that before. And I could probably talk to Scarlett, but it’s just… I don’t know.

“And there’s Oreo, but she’s got her own stuff going on right now. Christ, her dad died. Her cousin killed her dad. That’s… Maybe I should talk to her. Maybe I should, like, be reciprocal with the whole ‘good friend’ thing. F***, why am I so selfish?

“… I miss Cara. But I’m not going to call her. No. She has enough to do. And I can’t call Bill, because he’s got grad stuff to do. Besides… he’s been cool about this whole thing, but he’s got new friends now, after four years of college.

“Sometimes I think it’s better this way, you know? It seems like every time I get really close to somebody, really close, something bad happens. Ebony, Cara… Jessie… Sticky. F***. F***, I miss her. I really, really, really do. I miss them all, I do, but I think I miss her the worst. Damn it.

“I don’t know what to do. There’s so much crap, there’s so much bad stuff going on, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. What if Julian did kill those people? What if there’s another riot? What if someone else dies? What do I do?”

He sighed, and looked up. “What would you do, Bono?”

The gigantic U2 poster on the inside of X-Raytor’s closet door didn’t answer.

X-Raytor sighed. “I need a f***ing therapist…”

***

“Has X-Raytor always been an asshole?” Julian asked, picking up a circuit board from the long, metal table. Drew walked by, and snatched the circuit board from him as she went. She set it down on another table and went back to work on a pile of metal and circuits.

“Long as I’ve known him,” Netic said. “Okay, well, maybe not an asshole…”

“Yep, yep, an asshole,” Drew said, cutting a circuit.

“No, look,” Netic said. “I don’t think he tries to be a schmuck, but he’s just… I don’t now, he’s got one of those personalities. If you get to know him, he’s really not that bad.”

“He’s a perv,” Drew said.

“Hey, at least he wears clothes. It’s just that he always takes everything as being, like, his responsibility, and that can just be annoying as hell. And, yeah, what the hell, he’s a perv.”

“It was so annoying being with him all night,” Julian said. “It was like he had this giant stick up his ass.”

“I thought you liked him,” Netic said. She grinned, sitting Indian style on one of the plastic chairs in Drew’s lab. Julian was slouched in another, minus his costume. Everything would have been fine if not for, well, Drew. Of course, Julian wasn’t going to get pissed or anything, on the outside at least, because Netic and Drew were best friends (how that happened…). And girls had this annoying thing about their friends-a girl’s friends didn’t like you, and that was it. End of story. Forget sex-they’d barely even talk to you.

“So, what are you building, anyway?” Julian asked.

Drew didn’t look up. “A mini-EMP generator.”

Julian and Netic exchanged looks. “What?”

“EMP. Electro-Magnetic Pulse.”

“… Okay…”

“It’s like this: during some physical reactions-like, say, the detonation of a nuclear weapon-an intense pulse of electromagnetic radiation is given off. Hence, electromagnetic pulse.”

“Wait… the detonation of a nuclear weapon?” Netic asked.

“Yep.”

“So…”

“So if I do something wrong here, yes, I will wipe out the entire surrounding area.”

“… Then why…”

“Because it’s hard, it’s dangerous, and I’m bored!” Drew snapped. “Besides… I think that, maybe, using mini-EMPs we might be able to disrupt some peoples’ powers. Not sure how well that’ll work out in reality, but, until then…”

“You’re being safe though, right? You’re not going to blow us up?”

“I will if you two keep distracting me.”

Be nice to her, Julian reminded himself. Be nice to her until you get with Netic, at least. Then either she won’t be worth it and you can just flip Drew off, or she’ll be your girlfriend and she’ll have to do what you say, anyway. Just don’t deck the bitch, just let her be her smug little techie self…

“But, anyway,” Netic said. “What did X-y do to piss you off. I mean, usually, people complain because he’s looking through their clothes, but I’m guessing that’s not what happened… uh, right?”

“He was just-he was being this complete bitch all night.”

“Hey.”

“Sorry. He was being a complete… dick?”

“Better.”

Bitch. “He wouldn’t let me do, like, anything. Didn’t I already prove myself? I saved his and Violet’s asses from those three dudes, but no, I’m still not good enough for the mighty X-Raytor to let me do anything.”

“On my first mission, he gave this big speech about super villain fighting and all,” Netic said. “See, Xiao was kidnapped by Magic Finger-you know Magic Finger?-and me and this other new girl, Firehop, we went with X-y, Pinzz, and Twisk to rescue her, and-I don’t know, it was weird. He was really sulky for a bit, and then he gave this whole speech, like he was Michael Ironsides in Starship Troopers. I don’t know what his deal is… it’s like, half the time he’s this big goof-off, and he’s kind of fun to be around, and the rest of the time he’s this really uptight ‘veteran’ guy who has to look out for all of us inexperienced super weenies, even if we have better powers than him-“

“Especially if we have better powers than him.”

“And, you know, he got his powers as a teenager?” Netic asked. “I mean, mine aren’t natural either, but I’ve had mine since I was a little girl. So, really, I’ve had mine longer than him. I haven’t been using them to ‘fight crime’ or whatever longer, but I’ve still had mine longer.” She cocked her head. “You know, you never told me how you got your powers.”

Julian shrugged. “I guess I was born with them. I remember that sometimes, as a little kid, I’d get really pissed off and throw a temper tantrum or whatever, and then all the windows would blow out and everything would go flying-the explosions weren’t as big then, but it still messed up the house pretty bad. And I used them a little when I got into baseball-I did that little bounce thing I showed you, and I could catch, like, anything. It was awesome.”

“So you think your powers are natural?” Drew asked from her work table.

“Well, yeah. I wasn’t in any sort of accident, or-“

“What I’m trying to say is-and I’m not a biologist or anything-but it seems kind of weird that something like that would happen in nature.”

“Something like what?”

“A human bomb.”

“Drew, come on,” Netic said, “don’t you remember where we’re living? We’ve got a girl who can turn invisible, a guy who can shoot lasers out of his eyes, a-“

“Think about it:” Drew said. “All of the stranger, more specific powers? They’re not natural. They’re from accidents, or experiments, or whatever. X-y’s x-ray vision, Rosma’s invisibility, Crystal’s ice power, Jo’s weather powers, et cetera. Cam, you got yours from drinking some sort of weird electrolyte smoothie.

“And then look at the ones we know are natural-Right Wing Man, Raven, Swift, Studmuffin. Their powers aren’t so much powers as they are enhancements. Right Wing Man’s strength is increased, Raven has better control over her molecules, Swift has natural camouflage, Studmuffin is able to harness his own internal energy. Their abilities aren’t totally out there, they’re just better versions of things that we all have. Same with Oreo’s flying.”

“But what about Twisk?” Netic asked. “She was born with water powers.”

“Twisk is an interesting case. Maybe it was something with the placenta or her umbilical chord… of course, we don’t know if Twisk’s mom was exposed to radiation or something while she was pregnant. Her mom was a drunk, too. So maybe something happened while the alcohol was passing through the placenta?”

“Uh, sure,” Netic said.

“You know, something I figured out about Twisk, but I never got to tell her,” Drew said. “She could have used her powers to pull all of the water out of someone’s body, dehydrating them in the most thorough sense.”

Netic blinked. “Er… you don’t spend all day thinking about ways we could kill people, right?”

“It’s just interesting to think about,” Drew said. “You guys, you find one or two ways to use your powers, and that’s it. You don’t try to experiment, to develop them. I mean, look at Julian. He isn’t just a human bomb-he’s figured out how to use his powers to jump higher and to break his falls.”

Julian looked down to hide his smile and the red creeping over his cheeks.

“And Scarlett?” Netic asked.

“We don’t know that Scarlett’s natural.”

“She isn’t?”

“We don’t know. It just doesn’t seem that pyrokinetics could really happen in nature. OMEGA’s telekinesis… I can see that, sure, but not pyrokinesis. Or, to go back to my original point, a human bomb.”

“See? She keeps calling me a human bomb,” Julian said. “So I should totally be Warhead. My powers have nothing to do with earthquakes.”

“I can’t disagree,” Drew said.

“Eh, it’s just a name,” Netic said. “Pinzz gave me my name.”

“Well, Pinzz is cool,” Julian said, not looking at either of them. “Violet named me.”

Silence. Drew slapped a tiny door shut on her mini-EMP generator. She held it up-it looked vaguely like a gun, with a large, cylindrical section dominating it, and a small protrusion extending from the bottom, with a few switches and buttons on it.

“There! All done!” She looked at the other two and waggled her eyebrows. “Want to try it out?”

“Yeah, good idea,” Julian said. “Let’s nuke the Hall. While we’re in it. Couldn’t we go hit, like, the prison or something?”

“Yeah, blow up Jackson now that they’re finally finished rebuilding it.” Netic laughed.

“I’ll just make a little pulse,” Netic said. “It won’t blow anything up, but it might make the electricity crap out or something.”

“How strong of a pulse is it?” Julian asked.

“I can make it so that it’s not too strong.”

He grinned. “Try shooting me with it. Let’s see if I can stay standing.”

Netic laughed, but looked a little nervous.

“The force won’t be that bad,” Drew said, “but I’d be worried about the radiation.”

“Hey, like you were saying earlier, maybe I’m already irradiated,” Julian said. “Come on, seriously. I’ve probably taken worse hits playing ball.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t-“ Netic said.

“All righty,” Drew said, taking aim. “Whatever you say.”

She flipped a switch and pulled a trigger.

For a moment, Julian saw what he could only describe as a disturbance slicing towards him through the air. And then he was hit in the mid-section. It was like catching a speeding baseball with your diaphragm-the force knocked him back, sent him clear off his feet for a few seconds, and then brought him crashing back down onto the floor. The lab’s lights flickered and went out. There was a loud hum as the Hall’s electricity shut down.

“Crap,” Netic said. She felt around in the darkness until she found Julian’s hand, and then started to pull him up.

“I can do it,” Julian said, pulling his hand away and struggling to his feet. He was wheezing slightly.

“You okay?” Drew asked.

“Yeah, just f***ing dandy.”

“Hey, you asked for it.”

Julian wanted to snap back at her, but realized that he had absolutely no comeback. Rage and frustration built up inside him-

Nothing. For a moment, he forgot the pain in his abdomen.

Any time he felt angry, he could always “feel” the edges, the impression of that tiny “ball” in his chest, the ball that he could squeeze until it became an explosion. But now he felt… nothing.

He tried again, tried to make himself as angry as possible. He thought about Drew, about X-Raytor, about his fa-

Nothing.

“My powers,” Julian said. And then, more shrilly, “My powers!!”

“What’s wrong?” Netic asked.

“My powers! They- my powers aren’t working!”

“Really?” Drew asked. The note of scientific curiosity in her voice pushed Julian over the edge.

“You did this to me, you stupid bitch! You f***ing-you took my powers away!! You took away my powers!!”

He could feel tears coming, but he didn’t care. He wanted to hit something. Netic was right next to him…

Just then, with another hum, the electricity started back up again. The lights came back on. Drew’s machines started beeping wildly.

“The effects of the pulse are wearing off,” Drew said. “Check now.”

Julian kept trying, but didn’t feel anything, until- “Ha!” The ball! There it was! Faint, but getting stronger all the time.

“Two minutes,” Drew said, checking her watch. “Well, Mr. Firestone, looks like you now have a super weakness to go with your super power.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Netic said. “Who are you going to fight with an electromagnetic whatever anyway?”

Julian didn’t look at Drew. Well, I guess that all depends…

***

Alexandria High School
3445 48th Street
12:05 p.m.


“Principal Martin, I’m Detective Price, this is Detective Tyler. We want to speak to one of your students in relation to a homicide.”

Principal Lee Martin’s face immediately went pale. “Uh… well, yeah, sure. Who do you want to, um, talk to?”

“Julian Firestone,” Sarah Tyler said. “We think he’s a junior here?”

“Yes, Julian,” Principal Martin said, shaking his head. “A senior, actually. But he hasn’t been to school in the last… God, since March. He was on a sports scholarship, playing baseball for- er…”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Martin,” Price said. “How you recruit is not our concern.”

“Okay. Um, anyway, he was on a scholarship, but he was in danger of losing it a few times. Had a real temper, that kid. I’ve been a principal for thirteen years, so I know a trouble kid when I see one-and Julian, he was a trouble kid.”

“A temper?” Price asked.

“Yes. And a bit worse than the usual teenage angst, I’m afraid. Sophomore year he was on probation for throwing a pen, then a notebook, and then his schoolbag at his English teacher.”

“Do you think we could talk to this teacher?”

“She quit after that. Shame, really.” He shook his head. “I have her number, though, so you can give her a call, if you want…”

“Then is there anyone who might have seen him that we could talk to?” Tyler asked.

“I’m sure. I know a few of his friends, I can have them pulled out of class. Would you like an empty classroom for the, um…”

“That would be great,” Price said. “Thanks.”

12:17 p.m.

“Man, I don’t care what that old lady said, I don’t know nothin’ about no cherry bombs in no mailboxes!”

Price and Tyler exchanged looks.

“Okay…” Tyler said.

“Maybe we’ll talk about that later,” Price said, “but right now we want to ask you about your buddy Julian Firestone.”

The kid-a lanky, bleached-blond in a military-green trench coat, glanced at the classroom door, where a piece of cardboard was taped over the window. He was scared, but Tyler knew he was still going to be trouble.

“What about him?”

“Well, Kevin, Julian hasn’t been in school for the past eight months. Any idea where he might be?”

“You check his house?”

“Julian hasn’t been there since his mother died. Did you know about that?”

“Whatever.”

“Ooh, tough guy,” Price said. “Is that chain wallet supposed to be tough, or is it just a gay rights thing?”

“Yo! I’m no faggot!” Kevin snapped. He blinked, and then settled back into his chair. “You’re trying to screw with me so I’ll tell you something. Well it won’t work. I don’t know nothing.”

“Anything.” Tyler said.

“I told you, I don’t know nothing!”

“No, I mean-never mind.”

“I don’t know where Julian is. Last time I heard from him was, like, right after his mom died, and that was when he told me to go f*** myself in the hallway after third period. It’s not even worth lookin’ for him, though. He’s probably, like, in Texas by now.”

“Uh huh,” Price said. “So why do you think he’d be running away?”

“Running away? Dude-no, no, he wouldn’t be running away, he’d be off looking for destiny.”

Price raised an eyebrow. “ ‘Destiny?’”

“Don’t worry about it. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“If I explained it all to you, it would shatter your stupid little world.”

“Is this one of those punk rock things?” Tyler asked.

“No! This is so much-look, here’s the thing: everyone has a destiny, and what you have to do is grab that destiny and make it your own, and use everything you have for yourself. In the world to come, that’s the way it’s going to be-everyone with a strong destiny will embrace it fully and rule, and everyone with a weak destiny will just accept it and become our servants.” He smirked. “You two’ll probably be cleaning toilets.”

“And did you come up with this all on your own? Or is this one of Julian’s brilliant ideas?”

Kevin reached into his military green trench coat, and produced a small book with a cover of flimsy red faux-leather. He tossed it on the desktop, and Price picked it up.

Destinee: Yor Plase in My New Wurld, by John, Lord of Darkness (Dum Dum Duuuuuum!).

“Oh, wonderful…” Price muttered.

“So, what, you’re ‘evil’?” Tyler asked.

“That’s not it,” Kevin said. “It’s-never mind. Julian wasn’t a real believer, anyway. He liked everything about personal… never mind. I don’t even know why I’m explaining this.”

“Look, let’s just go back to simple questions,” Price said. “How would you describe Julian’s personality?”

Kevin gave him a look, but then shifted and said. “Well, he was pretty cool. He could be funny. But, like, if you ever told a joke about him that was just too far. He could make fun of everyone else, but you couldn’t make fun of him. And he, like, always took everything personally. Oh, and he had these weird moods where he’d just, like, start acting like he was better than you, or more ‘grown up’ or what the f*** ever.” He paused, considering. “Y’know, now that I really think about it, he really was an asshole. He was only fun when we were doing something fun. Oh, like that time we cherry-bombed that old lady’s mailbox!”

Silence.

“F***.” Kevin muttered.

***

X-Raytor walked down the stairs, whistling “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” He turned into the kitchen, whistling merrily-and stopped, when he saw the rest of the League, sitting around listening to some guy he didn’t know.

“NO!” X-Raytor shouted. “We do NOT want to protect the BET Awards!! Now get the hell out!” He turned to the others. “Jesus, do I have to babysit you guys ev-“

“Sit down, stupid,” Pinzz said.

X-Raytor’s jaw froze in mid-scold, and he sat down on the floor, his back against the wall.

“Um, X-y, this is Boyd Billeh, of Domaghan and Billeh. He’s going to help us with our public image.”

X-Raytor looked up at Boyd. “Can I hug you?”

Boyd looked blank. “Um…”

Pinzz’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sobbing?!”

X-Raytor coughed, and stuck a hand under his mask, wiping at his eyes. “I- I’m just so happy…”

Pause.

“And, uh, what’s with the door?”

“Crystal and Twisk quit,” Oreo said.

“Nice!” X-Raytor said, jumping up and patting Boyd on the shoulder. “I like your work already!”

“They actually left because of one of my suggestions,” Boyd said.

“D- does that mean we’re actually having a Justice League Swimsuit Calendar?!”

“I repeat,” Pinzz said, “Sit down, stupid.”

X-Raytor sat down, only slightly peeved.

“So, anyway, like I was saying,” Boyd said, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity. People are frightened by your super powers, yeah, but we can risk it in some non-crime fighting situations. Hanging out at the International House of Pancakes? Not one of those situations. Using them to clean up the City, after the riots? Certainly one of those situations. Remember how you helped with the Jackson clean-up? Exactly.

“And it’s not just the riots and Ms. Westfall and all of that-you’ve got some PR scars that still haven’t scabbed over. That trip to Camp Milk and Cookies, for instance. There should have been a press conference immediately after that, explaining why it happened in the first place, and publicly denouncing the Tri-Leaders. We don’t want to do it now, though, because that will just draw attention to it again. We’ll offer that one up as irreparable, at this point, and then move on. But, from now on, think before you interact with the Tri-Leaders. I know, I know, they’re like the Rolling Stones of evil, but they’re still bent on world domination, and that is just totally antithetical to what you guys are all about. You know, being super heroes and all.

“So, there’s rule number on: stay away from the Tri-Leaders. Rule number two: stay away from Bo Powers. It’s not that I don’t believe that he’s a scumbag,because, seriously, how many people that rich and powerful aren’t, but unless you have ab-so-lute proof that he, I don’t know, that he killed somebody-it’s never going to work. You put him in jail, he will be out within a week, and he will be the victim. This city loves him, so you’re just going to have to forget whatever it is you’ve got against him for now.

“Now, I was saying before that we need to start showing you all as people. You’ve done interviews and all-well, most of you, anyway-and that adds a personal layer, but we really need to see you being people. So, again-community service, volunteer work, fund raising, charities, appearances at benefits, photo ops-we need ‘em all. Also, we need to get your zing back, a bit. We need some rescues-not just arrests, not just beating up pickpockets, but actual rescues, actually saving people. So be on the look out, and never leave it up to the police or the fire company. I don’t care how insignificant you think it is, in the long run it can only help you.

“And finally, you have really got to be more careful about the press-“

DING DONG!

Silence.

“Was that the doorbell?” Boyd asked.

“I’ll go tell them to sit on a traffic cone,” X-Raytor said, standing up.

“Politely!!” Boyd yelled after him.

I bet it’s Crystal. Or Twisk. Why would either of them really quit? I mean, seriously? Nah, no, they didn’t really quit. It’s just a… it’s temporary. Ugh, what if it’s Iso? He’ll probably do his little moral outrage thing about us selling out with a PR guy. Oh, God, what if it’s a newbie? And where’s Julian, anyway? Shouldn’t he be up here, moping?

DING DONG!


X-Raytor reached the door and opened it. For a moment, he almost lost control of his bladder.

A blond woman, a year older than him, but half-a-head shorter. She was wearing a dark blazer, and a press badge. X-Raytor knew her very, very well.

“Hi, I’m Seraphina Braddock, with The Sentinel.” She smiled. “Remember me?”

***

X-Raytor did, indeed, remember her, because their last meeting had been, quite possibly, the creepiest moment of his life.

She’d come to do a story on Super Shibes, when he joined in November of 2002. Afterwards, she’d talked to X-Raytor for a while, and had begun to hit on him, even doing that playful squeezing-his-leg/arm-when-he-said-something-funny thing that girls did.

Now, normally, this wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Girls hitting on X-Raytor was never a bad thing. Especially hot girls.

However, there was the undeniable fact that Sera was his cousin.

X-Raytor’s father had been the fourth of seven children, preceded, in descending order, by X-Raytor’s Uncle Peter, his Aunt Martha, and his Uncle Richard, and then followed by X-Raytor’s Aunt Rose, Aunt Arika (or Erica, as she had been born), and Aunt Caitie. Aunt Rose, just a year younger than X-Raytor’s father, had always been his favorite aunt (nothing against Aunts Arika and Caitie, but quite a bit against Aunt Martha).

She’d married a dull, bitter man named Walter Braddock, which X-Raytor never understood-Aunt Rose had always been the most fun member of the family. Maybe there was something more to Uncle Walter, but X-Raytor had always just seen him as a schmuck.

They had three kids, the oldest being Tom, a tall, meathead, clone of his father, just coupled with a violent streak. He was two years older than X-Raytor, and the guy who had always shoved his face in the dirt at family reunions, up until about the age of 12. The youngest was Aaron, who was four when X-Raytor last saw him in 1998, but had already begun to affect the same glum, cynical personality of his father and brother.

And then there was Sera. She was a year older than X-Raytor, and absolutely the closest of all his cousins. Sera was as much a facet of his social life as Bill and his other track and school friends-actually, they were more like a facet of her social life, since she was the one who got them into the best parties.

Sera and her family lived in Long Branch, the Jersey town right over the border from Geauga County. Maybe a twenty-minute drive from X-Raytor’s house in Chamberlain. They’d hung out almost every weekend-it was kind of like having a sister, only without the annoying sibling parts. Okay, well, actually, with Sera he got the annoying friend parts, but those were never as bad as sibling stuff.

And so, when she’d been squeezing his leg while giving him “the eye”… X-Raytor’s skin had almost crawled off of his body.

Not that it was her fault, of course. She didn’t know he was who he was-as far as she knew, her good old cousin James had been taken into government custody along with the rest of her family six years ago. As far as she knew, he was just X-Raytor (and let’s admit it, who wasn’t attracted to X-Raytor?).

***

“Um, yeah, hi, come in!” X-Raytor said. He immediately slammed the door.

He was stunned for a beat, and then opened the door again. “Um… oops?”

Sera raised an eyebrow, still smiling somewhat sharply, and stepped into the Hall.

“So, um, you’re here…?”

“I’m doing a story on you guys,” she said.

“Ah. Um, what for?”

“… The riots?”

“Oh! Right! Of course! Um, listen, I’m not sure if right now is the best time. We just got this new PR guy, see, and we’re all talking to him and it-“

“PR guy?”

“Yeah. Boyd Biloxi or something. Uh…”

“Boyd Billeh?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Of Domaghan and Billeh?”

“Uh… sure?”

Before X-Raytor could blink, a notepad and a pen had appeared in Sera’s hand, and she began scribbling on it. “Is he here right now?”

“Yeah, he’s in the kit-“

Sera was already walking across the room.

“Uh…” X-Raytor said, following her.

“So, anyway,” Boyd was saying in the kitchen, “we just need to get s- um, hello.”

“Hi,” Sera said, as X-Raytor caught up. “Seraphina Braddock, Sentinel. I’m doing a story on the Justice League for tomorrow’s paper, and I was wondering if I could sit in?”

Boyd blinked. “Um… we’re, um, we’re not exactly ready to give any statements to th-“

“When do you think you will be ready?”

Boyd glanced around the kitchen. “Er… could you give us a few minutes?”

“Sure,” Sera said. “Do you all mind if I just chill in the living room?”

Silence.

“Thanks.” Sera turned around and walked back into the living room. Everyone stared at X-Raytor.

“Uh… I’ll go, uh…” He turned around, and followed Sera.

“So, I guess I made an impression,” Sera said, once they were away from the kitchen door.

“Huh? Oh, no, everyone’s just a little spaced from the riots and all of this-“

“I didn’t mean them,” she said, fixing him with a knowing look. “I meant you. You’re pretty freaked out.”

“Who? Me? Never! Never!!”

“…”

“Um… I’m high-strung?”

“Look, I know I came on a little strong last time,” she said, “so I’m sorry if I weirded you out or got you in trouble with your girlfriend or-do you have a girlfriend, by the way?”

“No. But, listen, no, it’s not you, it’s… well, actually, I guess it is you.”

Sera’s eyebrows shot up.

“But it’s me, too! Me too! It’s, uh, both of us?”

She stared.

“Jesus Christ,” he murmured. “Okay, we need to talk. Let’s go up to my roo- uh, my… office.”

Sera concealed a smile, and walked towards the stairs. Under his mask, X-Raytor blanched, and then followed.

As Sera was stepping onto the staircase, Julian came from the hallway to the back wing. He saw Sera, and immediately looked away. Instead, he looked at X-Raytor, and grinned broadly. “Yo! X-y! What’s up!”

He crossed the room, keeping his eyes pointedly away from Sera, and punched X-Raytor in the arm. “How’s it going?”

“Uh… goingly?”

Netic and Drew came out from the hallway as well.

“Oh, hey!” Netic said. “Miss… Braddock, right?”

“Yep. And it’s Sera,” Sera said.

“Hi.” Julian said, not turning to look at her. “So what’s-“

“Um, you three should go to the kitchen,” X-Raytor said. “That new PR guy is here.”

Julian’s face fell. “PR guy?”

“Hey, it wasn’t my idea. I’ll be back down later.”

“Leave the door open, X-y,” Netic said as she walked by. Drew stifled a laugh. Julian followed them, after giving Sera a quick, uncomfortable nod.

“I hate living here…” X-Raytor muttered.

When they reached his room (and Sera, to his extreme displeasure, sat immediately on the bed), X-Raytor closed the door.

“You like U2, huh?”

X-Raytor closed the closet door with his foot, concealing his Bono Shrine (and the numerous other things piled in his closet). “Sera, listen, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

X-Raytor took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. “I’m your cousin. James.”

Silence. When X-Raytor opened his eyes, Sera was glaring.

“Bite me,” she said.

“What?”

“That isn’t funny, asshole. If you’re not attracted to me, just say so.”

“No! Really! It’s me!”

“Really? Okay, then prove it.”

X-Raytor knew there was only one way he could prove it, but damn it, he wished there was another way. After all, Sera was the only family he had left, the only member of his family who wasn’t mutated…

He sighed, and took off his mask.

He felt the usual shock of being unmasked-the air on his naked face, is eyes adjusting to sight without the eyepieces, air coming into his mouth and nose not obscured by latex.

I was stupid to be worried. It took a lot more than just this for him to mutate someone with his eyes. The day of the family reunion… that had been early in his time as a power. The radiation was still fresh, his powers still developing, and his family had had the misfortune to hang out with him on a day when that radiation was particularly strong. Sera wasn’t going to mutate, he knew that.

Not that it helped at all, but he knew it anyway.

Sera’s face went blank.

“Um… hi,” X-Raytor said.

“James?!”

“Yep.”

“What the hell?!”

“Yep.”

“I don’t believe it!!”

“I know,” X-Raytor said. “Who would have thought that your good old cousin James would actually be the incredible X-Raytor?”

“I hit on my cousin!!!” She buried her face in her hands.

Pause. “Er, yeah, that’s pretty unbelievable too…”

“Ewwwwww… I feel so… ewwwwww…”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I mean, not just my cousin, but you! I hit on you. Ewwww…”

“Um… you can stop, now.”

“That is so gross.”

“Thanks.”

Silence.

“JAMES!!!” Sera tackled him in a hug and sent him slamming into the wall. “I thought everyone was dead! I thought everyone was locked up in Area 51! Oh my God, I can’t believe it!! I’m so happy!!”

“Well, what can I-“

She pulled away. “And, hey, why the hell didn’t you ever tell me you were X-Raytor, asshole?!”

“Um…”

“You know how worried I was?” She glared at him. “You know what it was like, to suddenly have your entire f***ing family taken away? I should shove your head up your ass…”

It was X-Raytor’s turn to glare. “Actually, yes, I do know what it’s like.”

Sera’s face dropped, and immediately X-Raytor regretted saying it.

“Hey, come on,” he said. “It’s cool. We’re still here, and we’re-well, okay, I’m a freak, and you hit on me… but for the most part, we’re okay.”

“I can’t believe this,” she walked back towards the bed, stopped, turned around and looked at him. She just shook her head. “I mean… s***.” Her voice cracked, and she turned away again, scrubbing furiously at her eyes.

“Still the drama queen.”

“Oh, go f*** yourself.”

“So… what happened to you?” X-Raytor asked.

Sera stared at him. “What happened to me? Dude… what happened to you?”

“Oooh boy. Long story, that. Let’s sit down.” They sat down on X-Raytor’s bed. “You know how my mom used to work at the hospital?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I was there one day-like, spring of 1998, I think; a few months before everyone… anyway, I was there, and I was kind of, um, faced.”

“Was this after the Ebony thing?”

Silence.

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said. Another long moment of silence. “I’m sorry. You know, about what I said…”

“So you were at the hospital?”

His heart sank. Did that mean she didn’t forgive him for-no, no, that was a good long time in the past, and he’d been angry and depressed and… His gut twisted, remembering it, his mind suddenly felt heavier.

“Yeah. And you know how stupid I got when I was drunk. So, I went over to this x-ray machine, and I stuck my head in it…”

“… Why?”

“I wanted to see what was inside my eyes.”

“… Why?”

“Because I was drunk?”

“… Okay.”

“So, anyway, that didn’t work out, and I was blind for a little…”

“Oh, hey! I remember that!”

“Yeah, I think you visited when I was in the hospital.”

“Of course.” She frowned. “Wait, how did you know?”

“My mom told me.”

“Oh, okay.” Pause. “I’m not mad at you, you know.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think you do.”

“I do.”

She sighed, and then smiled. “So…”

“So when I got my sight back… I was like this.”

“You were wearing tights?”

“I could see through things.”

“… That was a joke…”

“Anyway, that’s how I got my powers,” he said. “A little while later, the laser beams developed. I almost blew my eyelids off the first time, and I totally set my carpet on fire.”

“Yeesh.”

“Yeah. But, turns out…” He stopped. How could he tell her this? How could he tell her what he’d done?

It doesn’t matter how, he thought, because the fact of the matter is that you have to.

“Turns out, I had all of this radiation pouring out of my eyes. And everyone who I saw-or, well, everyone who was around me, they got exposed to it. My friends didn’t, because, you know, I kind of cut them off after the- the Ebony thing, but a few girls… um, well, they got mutated. And there was this other kid who… well, I don’t know what happened there, but I’m not even going to get into that.”

“So… what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that everyone else in our family was mutated. By me.”

Silence.

“What?”

“I mutated them. I- I irradiated them because I was too stupid to-“

“Wait, you said it was only people who were around you a lot, right? Or something?”

“Um… yeah, kind of.”

“You weren’t around everyone else in the family all the time.”

“Well, you remember the last family reunion we had?”

“… No?”

“Well, that’s because you got to ditch for a formal or something.”

“Oh. Okay. Ah! I remember that. It was Henry Hudson Regional’s senior prom.”

“Um… cool.”

“I remember everything.”

“I know. Which is why you were always such a pain to lie to, because you remembered absolutely every-f***ing-thing.”

“Anyway, continue.”

“So, I guess the day of the family reunion… the radiation was just really strong, or something. I don’t know exactly what the deal was. But somehow… everyone got mutated. All of the aunts and uncles, all of the cousins.”

“So you’re the reason why I don’t have a family.”

It was so blunt an accusation, that X-Raytor could only answer it bluntly. “Yes.”

She looked him in the eye for a good minute, expressionless. Then her upper lip curled, and the muscles in her neck tightened-

She tackled him again, hugging him so tight that his arms were pressed into his ribs.

“F***!” She shouted. “F***! I can’t- f***!! I love you. You know that, right? I love you.”

X-Raytor, confused as hell, patted her back. “I love you too.”

“You are my absolute favorite family member ever. Ever ever ever. F***!!!”

“I-um, you too.”

“F***.” She sat back again, wiped her eyes on the sleeves of her blazer.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am.”

She didn’t look up at him. “That night, I remember now, my dad puked green for, like, ten minutes. And Tom hit me. He seriously, like, walked into my room and just backhanded me, and walked out. I don’t… f***.”

She lifted her head. “Do you know what happened to everyone?”

“Yeah. The government came and carted them off to somewhere in the Dakotas.”

She nodded. “Yeah. They didn’t tell me that… but when I got home, my parents and brothers were gone, and there was this suit waiting there and he gave me some bulls*** explanation. You know, I’ve been looking for answers since then? As a journalist I have access to all sorts of stuff. I have some sources… but none of them will tell me enough. Every time I get too close, the lead I was following just disappears.”

X-Raytor nodded. “Yeah, they’re like that.”

“So… what do you think?”

He sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, I hope they’re all alive. But I only know one for sure. And I’ve got to tell you right now, it’s not your mom.”

Sera sagged. “Too much to hope for I guess.” Her voice broke on “guess.”

“It was my mom’s brother,” he said. “You remember him? My Uncle Robert. Uncle Bubba.”

“The hugging guy?”

“Yeah.”

“F***! Out of everyone who was-him?!”

“Believe me, I’m not his biggest fan either.”

“Did he ever get a woody while hugging you?”

X-Raytor blinked.

“Never mind,” Sera mumbled. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well-well, he came back. He got turned into this giant green penguin thing an-“

“The Green Penguin?!”

“Yeah.”

“You’re telling me that you’re X-Raytor, and your uncle is the Green f***ing Penguin?!”

“… Pretty much.”

“That’s it. That is it. We officially have the most f***ed up family in the universe. Polls are closed. We win.” She paused. “Does that mean he’s dead?”

X-Raytor looked down. “I think I killed him, the last time we fought.”

Sera looked away.

“He wasn’t just the Green Penguin last time I saw him, either. He was-he was Bubba, but if he injected himself with this crap, he could turn into the Green Penguin.”

Sera rubbed her face. “God. Damn. It.”

“Welcome to my life.”

She sighed, sniffed, and smiled. “We’re both here, though. We’re around, at least. And, I mean, look, between the two of us… I bet we could find them.”

“Who? Our family.”

“Yeah!”

X-Raytor blinked. “You know… I never thought of that.”

“You haven’t been looking for them?”

“I’ve been scared of what I’d find. Of what I did to them.”

Sera patted his shoulder. “It’ll be fine. Okay? James? James, say it’s going to be fine.”

He smiled. This is how she always tried to cheer him up. “It’s going to be fine.”

“There. Good. F***, it’s good to see you again.”

“And you can’t tell anyone,” X-Raytor said. “Anyone.”

“Oh, no, I know!” Sera said. “I’ll just-I’ll write myself a note, make sure I don’t write ‘James’ every time I mean ‘X-Raytor.’”

“That would be nice.”

She sighed, and sat back. “So… it’s just us? I mean, aside from your uncle, it’s just us? We’re the only ones left?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor lied. “Just us.”

***

“I’m very disappointed, boys,” Mr. Goob said. “Very disappointed.”

He was a shadowy figure-mostly because the room was shadowy, and he was wearing a fedora, keeping his eyes in shadow. His three-piece suit was black, with white pinstripes. He was smoking a cigar.

“I think you know how much I hate bailing you out of jail,” he said. “And you know how much Mr. Powers hates it.”

“We’re really sorry, boss,” Tricky Vic said. “We didn’t know they had that exploding kid…”

“Well, you know now.”

“And we really are grateful for you bailin’ us out, Mr. Goob,” Goat said. “Oh, and ‘specially for getting back my necklace.” He tapped the “GOAT” pendant around his neck.

“They threw out mine,” Vic muttered. “Do they know how hard it was to pry those bones out of wise guys’ fingers?”

“Vic,” Mr. Goob said, “you know as well as I do that those bones were from a bucket of KFC wings.”

“Yeah, well… never mind.”

“That’s right. Now, you boys have to make yourselves useful now that we’ve spent bail money on you. And, of course, the extra cash to replace Sixtus’ guns.” He took a drag from his cigar.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Goob,” Vic said. “We’re gonna pay those idiots back, and take care of another problem, at the same time. Kind of a two-birds-with-one-stone thing. Only I’m thinkin’ the killing’s gonna be a bit more than metaphorical…”

***


It wasn’t a long walk through the woods before he came upon the structures. They appeared to be a group of closely packed buildings. Probably warehouses. As he approached one, he noticed the back door was padlocked. Fortunately, it was encrusted with rust and gave way after a short hammering.

The door creaked as the man stepped through and slammed it shut behind him. It was dark. There were a few windows near the ceiling - probably used for ventilation - that allowed a few beams of light to fall through. His entering seemed to have sent up a waft of dust particles that clouded the air in the angled window light. A musky smell hung in the air. The place was old and neglected - possibly abandoned.

Failing to find a light switch, the amnesiac limped through the darkness past several isles of stocked packages. Finally, he slid down onto the floor where the sunlight pooled from the windows. Behind him, a path of crimson smeared the wall.

He was hurt. He laid his sword on the concrete floor and looked down at his shirt. It was wet and hung heavily around him. His body was sore and stung to the touch. His left shoulder, however, was beginning to feel cold. Working cautiously, he grabbed the fabric of his shirt and tore at the seam above his shoulder. A large, triangular piece of glass gleamed back at him in the natural light, protruding from his skin.

The amnesiac winced. A deep laceration. The cut missed the subclavian vessels, or else there would be a lot more bleeding. It seems to have nicked one of its subsidiaries, though. Judging from the angle, I would say it was the thyrocervical trunk.

Again, his mystery knowledge surfaced when he needed it. But at the moment he really didn’t feel like questioning it. If he did it might jinx the whole thing and then he’d be screwed.

No apparent neural damage… I can still feel and move my arm. The brachial plexus must still be intact. It should be safe to remove.

Setting his jaw and grinding his teeth together, the amnesiac firmly took hold of the shard. Despite the pain and despite the severity of the situation, the man’s thoughts couldn’t help but linger on how this felt eerily familiar. As if he was…

He was sitting on a bed. It was rather unremarkable - bleach white sheets stretched over a thin mattress. Just like one of those hospital beds. In fact, an IV unit hung on a stand to his left and beds much like his own were arranged in a linear sequence down the length of the ward. A fresh, squeaky, antiseptic scent was almost overpowering.

The clock on the wall indicated it was two in the morning. Late - or early, however you looked at it. Either way, the place was silent - any occupants most likely asleep. The calendar just below the timepiece was adorned with pictures of snowflakes and brown leaves. November 3, 1999.

Across from him, on a chair, was the first and only person he saw in the room. Lavender locks of hair framed a worried face. She was beautiful, a young woman in her early twenties. She seemed to be saying something, but he couldn’t hear her. Could he not remember her words? Or was he just not paying attention?

Her silent lips continued to move voicelessly as his hands busied themselves with the task at hand. There was a sharp pain in his shoulder. He was handling a pair of tweezers - the ends of the lustrous steel obscured by blood. His blood.

There were plans to install an automated med system. But the contractor for the technology said the design schematics weren’t finalized yet. That was fine. Computer logs or doctors wouldn’t do, anyway. There would be too many questions asked - too much documentation. He had to do this himself.

A wave of dizziness passed over him and he faltered slightly. The woman held him by the arm, propping him up. He reapplied the tweezers to his shoulder. It was still lodged in there.

Agony, and then…


Blood pumped out, slipping between his fingers as he forcefully applied his hand to the wound. The stained wedge of glass lay nearby. Taking his shirt between his teeth, he tore a strip of cloth from it and tied it securely around his shoulder. It didn’t seem to stem the flow of blood that much, but his brain told him the pressure would do the trick.

Not a significant fraction to induce hypovolumic shock, was the supposed explanation. But once he said the words, they didn’t seem as alien anymore. As if he could understand the knowledge he didn’t know he possessed on some underlying level.

The amnesiac shifted slightly against the wall, and quickly became aware of the numerous other lacerations on his body. Carefully, he began to pull the glass from himself, one shard at a time. The other wounds weren’t as severe, but the pain still registered. Neurons still fired repeated signals to his brain - sparking inactive synapses to life…

”Mmm… man, this is good! Did Rosma make these?”

He was back in the grassy field where he had sparred the woman with the claymore, the sun bright overhead. Only this time there was a house a horizon full of trees. It looked simple enough, but there were hints of construction - a few pillars being erected on what was once the patio. And, of course, there were other people. A man wearing a black bodysuit was asking the question, his facemask rolled up to his nose and a sandwich in his mouth. The swordswoman was there as well. And the blue-skinned girl and the one with purple hair.

“No,” said a woman in a silver cloak, “Oreo did.”

A redhead with a purple cape and a large O on her brown shirt smiled sweetly.

The bodysuit guy went stiff and stopped chewing immediately. A roar of laughter erupted from the group, who were sitting around a tablecloth spread on the ground.

A man in green and yellow spandex was playing football with a couple of others, but ran so fast it looked like he was tossing the ball to himself. A guy with blond hair was at the grill, cooking some burgers. He wore an apron sporting Kiss the Cook over a black and red outfit.

There were fifteen people in total. The warrior woman with the sword had just arrived today.

The man himself was sitting under a tree, his katana by his side.

“Hey, Iso!” called a voice. He looked up. It was the girl with purple hair. “The burgers are ready, why don’t you come and try some?”

He said nothing at first, but after a moment he rose to his feet and…


He stumbled over himself, using the length of his sheathed sword to regain his balance. The cuts, now without any broken glass to fill them, bled freely. But the amnesiac wasn’t paying attention to that right now.

The woman with the sword… and the one with the blue skin. And the one with the purple hair. All these people. He knew them. What was it she had called him? Iso? Was that his name?

He pushed himself a few feet further, peeking out of the doorway. Who knew if some other crazy idiot would try to kill him again? Satisfied there was no one waiting in a tree to snipe him, he turned back to his thoughts.

Where was that place they were having the picnic at? He could vaguely remember a road leading down to the riverside… a large city beyond the bridge, and the ocean stretching beyond that.

What if… could it be? Was that the City?

The thought came with much difficulty, as if he had suddenly had an epiphany. Yes! Surely it must have been. And the blue-skinned girl… he had seen her on the news last night. Maybe they still lived there? It was worth a shot.

Looking down at the tatters that were his shirt and the tears in his pants, he decided to don his trenchcoat to avoid looking suspicious. It was chilly out, and besides… carrying that sword in the open would look odd. Slipping the weapon underneath the shroud, he stepped out onto the gravelly tarmac. There was a road just ahead. If he stayed near the trees, he would be able to keep out of sight. Hopefully.

After half an hour of walking, he began to feel dizzy. He could see the City in the distance, over beyond the ocean. It wasn’t far, now…

“I think… I think I underestimated… the bleeding,” he mumbled to himself, through shortened breaths. His vision was beginning to play tricks on him, the road ahead blurring occasionally. It wasn’t far now… just a bit further…

And in his head, reality collided with memory, past with the present…

Everything was black. Voices echoed across the emptiness.

”What do you mean you’re leaving?!”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… beholder… beholder…”

“Just look at yourself! Who do you think you are?!”

An image formed from the blackness, swirling into existence. A bathroom, filthy and disheveled. Bare concrete walls. Broken bits of porcelain crumbling from the toilet. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

There was a mirror above the sink, but the reflection wasn’t clear. He stepped over a stray brick, towards the faucet, narrowly missing a rat. The rodent scampered across the floor and disappeared through a crack in the wall.

In the mirror, a man looked back. He was haggard, a day’s growth on his face. But it was his eyes that stood out. They were so cold and hollow…

Eyes…

She had green eyes. They were a remarkable shade of emerald, almost as if he were looking into crystal green lake. Flecks of topaz occasionally streaked out from the pupils, a subtle quality.

Breath was hot upon his cheek. So close. His heart was pounding loudly in his ears.

Lub-DUB. Lub-DUB. Lub-BANG.

Was that his heart?

No - it was fire. Drawn across his chest - burning.

Fire…

The flames in the fireplace cackled audibly, adding to the warmth of the atmosphere. The tinkling of wine glasses and fine sound of Beethoven on the piano filled the room.

Diamond chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Originals by Picasso and Monet adorned the walls.

There was eating and dancing. There was chatter and gossip.

And then there was only chaos.

Noise. Like firecrackers set off in sequence. The shattering of glass. Screams.

Then silence… interrupted only by whimpering and moans.

There was someone else there… he couldn’t see who. They were crying, gasping…

And then… and then…


The vision of a doorway filled his eyes with a start. He staggered forward, like a man who had one too many shots of scotch, and pressed the doorbell. There were footsteps and then the door swung open.

“I swear, if that PR idiot invited any of his friends, I’ll… Iso?!”

It was her - the girl in the blue skin. He only managed to catch a brief glimpse of the surprise on her face before he collapsed on the doorstep.

***

At the sound of Iso's name, Violet’s chair slid back as she stood up abruptly.

“No…” She marched through the kitchen and into the den. “No!” she shouted again, pushing past Pinzz. For a moment, she just stared at the dark-haired man lying in an unconscious heap in the doorframe. Other superheroes began to move past her. Pinzz commanded someone to grab his right side while she got his left and heaved him upright. Iso was quickly taken to the infirmary with talks of the riot abound. Violet stayed where she was, absently shutting the front door.

“This isn’t real. It must be an illusion,” Violet announced to no one in particular. She felt a hand on her shoulder. It was gone before she could see who it was.

Only an hour earlier, Violet had called the hospital in upstate New York. The nurse on the phone was pleasant, but indifferent.

“Ryan, Emory. I’m afraid we don’t have any patients named Ryan,” she said.
“You have to. That’s my sister. Can you tell me if she was released?”
“Without proof that you are related to the patient, I cannot give you that information.”
“She’s my twin sister!”
The nurse sighed. “Your name, please?”
“Victoria Graham.”
There was a tapping noise as the nurse typed away on the keyboard.
A pause.
“Is this a joke?”
“What?”
“Very funny, Miss. Victoria Graham, the ‘superhero.’ Do you really expect me to believe that? This is a hospital. You can’t make prank calls to a hospital.”
“I just want to-“
Click.

Violet hung up the phone. Ten minutes later, she sat on the bathroom counter, her hair pulled up in a messy, purple-gooey bun.

And now, still standing in the foyer, Violet wanted nothing more than to break into a million little pieces.

***

After the excitement with Isomorphix’s miraculous appearance, they returned to the kitchen with Boyd Billeh. Boyd continued listing off different ideas for the League to improve their image, but Xiao was still stuck back on the fact that Twisk and Crystal had just walked off, quitting, and Iso had finally reappeared, half-dead only to be rushed to the hospital, and some reporter from the Sentinel was upstairs with X-y, possibly receiving a “private interview”, knowing him. Which was creepy, because really, what girl in her right mind would…..and X-y….and…yuck.

“Presenting scholarships, that’s another thing you could try,” Boyd said. “Perhaps a ‘Good Citizenship’ award at local schools, encouraging positive actions and behavior of students, and so forth....”

The Sentinel, Xiao thought. She hadn’t thought of George in awhile, not really, except of course, the moments where she wasn’t worrying about what Fred might try next, or when she was being squeezed like a grapefruit inside her own mind, or almost getting herself killed in other times, or that the other heroes (and heroines) might discover that Fred was actually inside her.

Crystal and Twisk couldn’t really be gone. They’d have to come back, wouldn’t they? Pinzz had returned, everyone came back... You either died or stuck together, right? Superheroes didn’t often take the lone wolf approach. You had a side-kick, or you had ten other people backing you while Dr. Malicious and Johnny Krueger tried to make mincemeat out of hostages in order to cause your doom.

Right?

Well… maybe not.

Absently, she leaned against the wall, fidgeting, barely listening to Boyd. There was so much…drama going on, it was ridiculous. And what if they noticed that she wasn't paying attention and the found out that Fred was in her and that he was plotting against him. In fact, she couldn't have any more to worry about unless there was some crazy family emergency...

The phone rang, startling the group. Xiao automatically grabbed it, as she was nearest. “Justice League,” she answered, after a pause.

“Hello? Hello? Oh. I’d like to speak with…” there were some muffled voices for a moment, and then she was able to hear again. “Seyoh?” The speaker sounded confused, as if they knew they weren’t quite getting it.

“Xiao, do you mean?” She asked.

“Er... Right. Yes. Can I talk to her?” The voice was beginning to sound really familiar.

“Speaking,” Xiao said, as the other JL members waited, somewhat impatiently, for the conversation to end.

“Ari... We’re at the Mercy Hospital, in room 320…you need to come right away... it’s your brother…”

“What? What happened?” Xiao recognized who it was. It was her father.

“He’s been hurt, Ari…during the riots, he was injured, and we only just found him…”

“I’ll be there,” Xiao promised, and hung up. The others looked at her for an explanation, which she tried to hurriedly give. “Something’s up with my brother. I…have to go see him at Mercy Hospital. Something…happened…during the riots. He…he got hurt. I’ll be taking the Van of Justice…” She grabbed the keys off the Assorted Keys of Justice Ring, and darted out.

“Er…Bye then!” MC called to her, too late, as she shut the door.

***