The phone rang just as Scarlett flopped onto her bed.
“Let it ring. I’m not getting up.”
“Oh, fine. But so help me God, if it’s another Midnight fan calling to give the Justice League their condolences…” she said, sitting up, then reaching for the phone. “Hello?”
“This…may I please speak to Lori?”
Scarlett almost dropped the phone. “Who?”
“Lori? Is that you?”
“This is Scarlett,” she said. “Scarlett Fyre.” The voice on the end sounded feeble but resolved.
“Lori, you have to come home. Your grandfather…he isn’t well.”
“Lori, the doctors, they-“
“What happened?” Scarlett closed her eyes.
“It was the kidnapping. He was supposed to retire from the force next month, and there was a kidnapping. That Lately man’s only child. Cecil was shot during the rescue.” There was a pause, as though she was collecting herself. “Lori, it’s bad. Dr. Cambridge said he might not make it.“
Scarlett stood up from the bed. “I’ll be on the next flight out-don’t worry about picking me up, I’ll meet you at the hospital.” She looked at Hamlet, who jumped to his laptop to book the next flight to Dixie.
“He’ll be glad to see you again, Lori. But hurry.”
“I will.” Scarlett hung up the phone, then went tearing out of her room.
Rosma peeked out from her room. “She’s nighthawking with Netic and Right Wing Man.”
“She borrowed my suitcase and I need it now, but I don’t know where it is.”
Rosma raised an eyebrow. “You’re not taking another trip to Scotland, are you?”
“No. But I need my suitcase.”
“Have you checked her room yet?”
Scarlett stopped pacing in the hallway. “Actually, no.” She marched down the hall to Xiao’s room and flung open the door. Her red suitcase was lying atop a trunk, in all its still-packed glory. Scarlett promptly opened it and dumped all the contents onto Xiao’s bed.
“I don’t think Xiao’s going to appreciate that.”
“She’s a superhero. She’s dealt with worse than a pile of dirty clothes.” Scarlett took the empty suitcase and made her way to the Justice League Walk-In Closet. After staring at the assortment of red dresses and shoes, Scarlett went back to the room she shared with the long-absent Violet, with Rosma tagging along.
“What, you need more red dresses?”
“No.” Scarlett flung open her dresser drawer. Threw socks and underwear into the suitcase. Then looked up at Rosma. “I need normal clothes. All my normal clothes burned up with my cottage. Who has normal clothes?” She turned and looked at a picture sitting atop the dresser. They’d posed for it at the field day, ages ago. A brown shirt caught her eye.
“Oreo!” they both cried in unison. Scarlett bolted out the door and ran to the kitchen. Oreo was halfheartedly stirring something in a bowl. She looked up.
“Cake,” she muttered. “Cake is always good.”
“Oreo, can I borrow some of your clothes? Just for a little while. Jeans and a couple of t-shirts, maybe?”
Oreo stared for half as second, then jerked her wooden spoon at Scarlett. A glop of batter dripped onto the floor. “What’d you do to Scarlett? Where is she?”
“Oreo, I don’t have time for this.”
“Get back! Don’t come any closer, you imposter!” Oreo waved the spoon menacingly.
“Fine! I’ll steal a pair of X-y’s jeans. They’re feminine enough.” Scarlett started to leave the kitchen.
She turned to face Oreo again. “Well, yeah. Those jeans of his aren’t cut like any pair of men’s jeans I’ve ever seen.”
“No, about my clothes.”
“I need normal clothes. I can’t go home and parade around in my superhero costume. Dixie isn’t like the City.”
“You’re going home? But you’ve never-“
“Just for a little bit.” I hope, Scarlett thought. Dixie had a way of sucking you in.
Studmuffin added another can of chili to his shopping basket. He considered, sighed, and then added a few more. It wouldn’t do to run out. Besides, he didn’t feel like coming back to the grocery store for a while. Not with all the people staring at him on each aisle. Okay, so maybe the costume was a mistake, but he didn’t feel much like changing into more normal clothes.
How many of zhose zings are you going to eat? Mughead asked. I am tired of zhem.
Oi've got to say, Oi'm right tired of 'em meself, Jughead added.
Zhank you, Herr Jughead. I knew someone vould agree vith me.
Everyone agrees with you. Can we get oot of here, now, eh? Keghead asked.
What’s so wrong with chili dogs, guys?
Studmuffin felt the others pause and blink.
Pothead, mate, you spent far too much time living in America. Jarhead said.
“Shut up, all of you,” Studmuffin ordered. A little girl looked up at him, frightened. “Oh, not you.”
Studmuffin quickly picked up the few other groceries on his list and checked out. Outside, he paused. He didn’t want to go back the Hall of Justice. There were still too many grieving people there. Not that he wasn’t grieving, too, but being surrounded by it was tiring. And depressing. Then again, if he didn’t go back there would only be so many people left to protect the city. The superheroes were dropping like flies.
He mentally reviewed. Of those who remained in the Hall, only Netic, Raven, Oreo, Pinzz, Swift, Rosma, Right Wing Man, and X-Raytor were capable of doing any good and most of those were questionable. He could only hope there was no big crisis or the city would be in serious trouble. Iso still didn’t remember who he was, Xiao was having who knew what kinds of issues with her family (she seemed to disappear to the hospital all the time, or so she said), Drew, Claire, and Eric (mostly) couldn’t fight, and they had stopped trying to get Jo out of his room. And, of course, Crystal, Twisk, Violet, and Scarlett were gone.
Studmuffin looked around. Apparently, he had been wandering without paying attention and was taking the long way back to the Hall. He was currently in Bennie’s Alley, in the town’s historic district and two figure dressed in black had stepped out of the shadows in front of him.
“Hi, Studmuffin,” the woman said.
“I am so not in the mood for this. What do you want?” he asked.
“Not very friendly,” her male companion noted, aiming some sort of weapon at the superhero. “Can I zap him?”
“No, and stop asking me,” she waved him off, stepping closer to Studmuffin. “What we want, is you. Or rather, what’s inside your head.”
He narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
No one knows about us, do they? Pothead sounded concerned.
Of course not, you git, how could they?
The woman was continuing in a calm voice. “You know exactly what I mean. I want you to come quietly and bring those Seekers with you.”
Studmuffin froze, as did all sounds from his head. Well, except one.
Whassat? Whut’s goin’ on out here, huh? Whutzeesayin’? Whut are you young’uns up to? Mad Hamish asked. Mad Hamish was one of the voices from Jackson Prison and was rather proud to be the oldest voice in Studmuffin’s head, even if he usually had no clue what was going on.
“Who are you?” Studmuffin asked.
“I’m Agent Morgan-Wall and this is Agent Ruskey. We’re from M.O.R.P.H.Z. But that’s not important. We need to be going now.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You don’t mean that you actually want the Seekers to stay in your head forever. Ah well, I tried,” she turned to leave.
“Wait a minute! What?”
“You heard,” she crossed her arms impatiently. “Now let’s go if you’re coming. We’re on a schedule here.”
“Um…how would…what would you do to get rid of them?”
“Just some experiments,” Agent Ruskey said, eagerly, still carefully aiming his weapon. “Then they’ll be all gone. For good.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re not experimenting with my head,” Studmuffin said.
“Whatever you say,” Agent Morgan-Wall really did walk away this time. Over her shoulder, she called to Agent Ruskey, “You can zap him now. Just enough to keep him unconscious for a while.”
“Wha-“ Studmuffin barely had time to blink before the world went black.
Dude, I can’t see!
Vhat do zhey mean, get rid of us?
Oi’m not goin’ anywhere, that’s for bloody sure.
Do be quiet, Mad Hamish. Go take a nap.
Damn these frail human bodies,.
"What do we do now?" Emory asked, rubbing her eyes roughly.
Violet sat down next to her and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. "I think…we decide where we are."
"For now. We decide where we are, and then we can get out."
Emory sniffed. She pushed her hair out of her face. "We're no where, Vi. We're not in any place. This is…I don't know! What if we're stuck here forever?"
"No…no…it doesn't work like that. Okay?"
Emory nodded blankly.
"Blake did this. Blake injected something in me…she said I'd experience what you did. The coma-it doesn't make sense."
"We're inside your head for real?" Emory snorted out a laugh. It was uncomfortable and harsh. "So you're dreaming? Wake up."
"It can't be that simple, Emory. I mean, okay, now there are two of us awake in one head?"
"Look." Emory waved her hand and books fell from the sky. The covers showed portraits of Violet's friends, her fellow superheroes. Scarlett, Oreo, X-Y-the books tumbled down into a huge pile. "Wherever we are, it's like a dream. So we figured it out. Now wake up."
"But we don't know what will happen-"
"What do we have to lose?"
Violet glanced at the pile of books, or memories. "Everything."
Emory's face fell. She stood up and pulled her sister to her feet. "You have to do something. You have to. Wake up!"
Violet gasped. She bolted upright, but the ropes held her to the bed and bolts of pain shot through her shoulders. Emory was gone; she was back in the windowless room. The only light came from a single bulb that hung from the ceiling. Blake's petite, blonde figure stood in the doorway.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully. "Have a nice nap?"
"What did you give me!"
"Oh, just a little cocktail." Blake waved her hand. "Have any interesting dreams?"
"Shut. The @#%$. Up. Blake."
"Well then, someone's got a temper." Blake waked to the end of the bed and rested her left hand on a post. Her right hand held a small handbag that she set down on the dirty mattress. "My boss wants me back in town, so I'm afraid we've got to cut our little rendezvous short. I have a proposition for you."
"Please don't rip off Star Wars…"
"Oh, no, no, no. Victoria, nothing like that. See, I have a syringe here filled with 20 c.c.'s of that special cocktail. It's enough to put you in a permanent comatose state."
"Blake, stop this. Stop all of this. One person can't be filled with so much anger. Emory died in an accident, and there was nothing either of us could--"
"Don't lecture me, batgirl." Blake scoffed. "You choose the syringe…or the local law enforcement. I bet they'd be real curious about why a superhero-the one who came back from the dead-was hiding out in an old warehouse filled with explosives and plans to attack 30 banks in a 50 mile radius."
"Oh, please…" Violet pulled against the ropes, but they were too tight. Her arms ached from being held above her head for hours. "I've been doing this for five years, Blake. I've dealt with people a lot worse than you. Even if you get the police in here and have them arrest me, you don't think we have lawyers?"
"Fine," Blake said starkly. "Then I guess it's the alternative."
Blake opened her handbag and pulled out a small syringe. Violet's eyes widened, suddenly aware of her miscalculation. She tore against the ropes--
"Don't do it."
Blake looked up. Her eyes searched Violet. "Why not?"
"Because if you hurt my sister, I will haunt you for the rest of your life." Blake's face went white as her eyes moved from Violet to the ghostly figure next to her.
"Oh, God…" Her eyes flashed with anger. "What is this? It's an illusion."
"No, Blake, it isn't. Untie her."
The young blonde shook with anger and fear. She threw the needled down and hastily untied the bindings on Violet's wrists. Violet tore off the bracelets. Her arms and her head ached. The illusion of Emory faded and Violet stood to her feet. Blake searched the room.
"Emory?" she called out. "Em-"
Violet stepped forward and punched Blake in the jaw. She was knocked backward, a look of shock plastered on her face.
"You have five minutes," Violet growled. And then she was gone. Alone, angry and afraid, Blake sat down on the musty bed. She pulled out a cell phone and dialed a number. Her hands were shaking.
"Boss," she whispered. "I need a transport out here…now."
Panting, Violet let the illusion fall when she finally found the large main room of the warehouse. She pushed through a pair of double doors into the night. She was still in New York, Violet decided. She rubbed her wrists; her skin was raw and it stung. The metal bracelet on her right wrist had cut the skin on the top of her hand, not to mention left her with a horrible ache in her temples after that final illusion. Whatever that metal was, it hadn't been as strong as the gloves-she'd need to ask Drew to help her find out what it was.
Why hadn't she done that the first time?
Iso-Iso was back. Did he remember?
That's not important. Emory. Emory was in her head somewhere. Only…she couldn't find her now. But she was there. She had to be.
Violet ran, following a line of streetlamps. She'd get to a bus stop soon, she was sure. She needed to get home.
What should I do? Xiao asked, in the privacy-ha, privacy!- of her own mind. Earlier, after they had decided to go night hawking, Fred had told her she would eventually have to find an excuse to separate from the others. He had not asked her to bring anything special with her, not even the bizarre (yet, Xiao had to admit, wonderful) sunglasses he had given her. Not even a duffel. Where do I need to go?
She felt drained after the funeral. It seemed that whenever things finally began to slip back into the domain of normal, something, something downright shitty would happen. And this was shattering.
For a while now, she had been wondering--not actually lately, she had to admit. But she had begun to think, to question...it was why Fred had possessed her, kept her a prisoner in her own body for so long: first Dragon Girl and the others, now Midnight Chatter… what if they (whether "they" was destiny, God, Powers-That-Be, or whatever) were saying, Stop now. Before it’s too late. Before something terrible happens, before you lose what control you have, before you cause something like this to happen.
If she continued to serve Fred, if she continued to help him, instead of resisting… The others would die. Xiao knew it. Because when Fred finally put his plan (whatever it was) into action, the Justice League would be forced to intervene. They would have to try to stop him, and they would lose. She could feel it. She knew. Fred would show no mercy at that time, would not hold back. It would be the culmination of all his planning, maybe even centuries of waiting for a chance at…at what? World domination? The enslavement of mortals? Some stupid, "cosmic" game that humans were caught up in?
Xiao did not need Claire’s ability to see the future to predict what would happen when that day came. It would be Buffy, except real. Real in the sense that no human, Slayer or Superhero, would be able to face a demon, and live...would they?
How could she have ever agreed to give her soul to Fred? It was a question she had thought about often...whenever something had happened that...that could have been prevented if she hadn't gone along with him. When she had first spoken to him, first heard his voice, it was…inconceivable, almost dreamlike. She had given herself without realizing the consequences, willingly, to him. He owned her now-could do whatever he liked with her, as was demonstrated by his habit of taking complete control of her whenever he wanted.
Steadily falling behind the others, without Fred answering her, Xiao became even more lost in her dark thoughts. She didn’t even notice that the next time she landed, she stopped moving at all, and just stood, brooding.
There had to be some way to fix this mess. There had to be. She could see a priest, have...him...exorcised, or tell the others. Somehow she would turn things around, and maybe she would have to leave the Justice League, maybe she wouldn’t be able to save her brother, but at least no one else would be hurt. No one would have to go to another funeral, at least, not because of her.
In an almost sneering tone, Fred scared her by proving that "the privacy of her own mind" was indeed nothing but a joke.
It would be wise to remind you that, being far less superior to myself, slave, I can read your mind. I would also advise you that if you ever dare to betray me, I will be forced to absolutely destroy whomever you tell. As you well know, there are much, much worse things than death... Besides, if they were really so... important.... to you, he continued, and now the sneering was gone, replaced with disgust, you never should have agreed to let me back in your body, or given me command over yourself.
Don’t delude yourself, slave, you care nothing for them. All you want is power. Power that I will give to you--if and only if you serve me without question--which seems to be a definite problem for you. But you are fooling no one by pretending to have these...doubts and fears about my plans for this world. You need me, slave. Only I can give you what you want, what you wanted at the Oscars, what you wanted when you gave yourself completely and utterly, I may remind you, to me…that is only a taste of the powers I will grant you..... if you do not fail me. So what if a few die for it? More die every day, for no reason. They would not be superheroes if they weren’t aware of the risks.
Xiao was shocked; but whether by his blunt comments on her own character or by his...appeal?…to her to serve him, she wasn't sure. Before he...he had always used threats--threats garnered more at her own person than at others. What could this mean?
But as she stood and thought about what he said… it began to make...(sickly) sense. When Fred had come back to her, she hadn’t even thought of saying no, had she? But she could’ve. She had thought at the time that it was so she could keep an eye on him, stop him from doing whatever it was he was planning, but now…...now she wasn’t so sure.
Was he right? Had she, secretly, been thinking of the power he had offered her? Maybe he was right about that. But she didn’t want Scarlett, or Eric, or Oreo, or Drew, or X-Raytor, or any of the others to die. She had convinced herself that they would be all right, and that Fred wouldn’t do any real harm. She had been lying to herself long enough that she had come to believe it, over time.
I think the other fools are far enough away that it is safe now, slave. But we must be sure…if they follow us…He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to. How could the others trust her after hiding Fred from them? After helping him with his plans, plans that would mean their deaths? Xiao resigned herself to following Fred implicitly...at least for the time being.
Fred guided her quickly to an even deader part of the city; Xiao was thoroughly lost (not exactly a major achievement or anything, though). They entered an alley and immediately what sounds of life they had been able to hear- distant traffic sounds, somebody’s television that was too loud, and even a short burst of sound that she could swear was gunfire- was muffled, and then deadened completely. Even the sound of her footsteps seemed oddly quiet, and she wondered if that was Fred’s doing....or if he just knew how to pick really creepy dead-ends. The darkness seemed complete here, unbroken even by streetlamps (they had all been shot out, broken, or, in the case of one lonely light, obliterated by a motion of her hand that Fred asked her to make. Which was pretty kickass, really). If she wasn’t possessed by a demon, she probably would have avoided it completely.
But that was the point.
Fred suddenly shoved her consciousness back, and after a quick search- quick because there was nowhere to hide in the bare alley, except under the empty beer cans or assorted small trash that littered the ground- began to make several complicated gestures in the air. For several moments, nothing happened. And then, brilliant darkness filled the alley. Brilliant, because it was obviously not regular darkness. It was...shimmering (darkly) and twisting in on itself, and the fact that there was a very definite separation between the regular darkness and the odd kind. Describing the symbols Fred had drawn in the air with what could possibly be described as a kind of fire.
The light...or fire was so black that the natural darkness seemed pale and luminous by comparison. Out of the darkness came a vaguely familiar shape. Xiao remembered suddenly, as soon as Fred greeted the figure in front of him.
“Sadiss. I’m glad you could make it,” Fred said, from her/his/their body.
“Yes. Although I hope this meeting is quick. I don't have much time to spare, Fred.”
“I’m here to collect a favor,” He began. Sadiss’ expression did not change, at least not that she could see. “It is very important. I need you…” He stopped, and glanced around as if afraid to be overheard. When he continued, it seemed as if Sadiss would be unable to hear him unless he put his ear next to Xiao’s…Fred’s lips. “You must head north and find me….a very special human. He owns...a certain key. I think you know the one.”
Sadiss’ eyes widened. “You know where… But he...Of course." He shook his head in amusement, or possibly disbelief. "I will do it, Fred. But…you will owe me for this, I think. You understand why.”
“Yes." He did not bother to try and argue. "I can’t have any rumors going around. When the time comes, I will reward you for your help…and your silence. When you find him, send me a message. Keep him under your watch--and deal with anyone who tries to interfere." Sadiss seemed about to speak, but Fred continued before he could interrupt. "I know about your geas, Sadiss. No one ever said erasing a few memories was out of the question...It shouldn't be too hard to avoid unnecessary attention. You will know where to bring him, and when the time is ideal.”
“I can imagine,” Sadiss smiled grimly. “I can imagine it will be hard not to know when. Very well. I’ll leave immediately.”
Sadiss was good to his word. He stepped back into the darkness and was gone, and the black fire vanished. The fire left afterimages in “their” eyes, and Fred stared at the place Sadiss had been standing for some time, before finally shaking his head, and backing up. He searched the alley one last time, to be sure that they had not been seen. Only then, and sounding distracted as he did so, did he direct her where to go to find Right Wing Man and Netic.
The two were still searching the city for crime, apparently. They were both more than a little upset by her absence, and had been looking unsuccessfully for her.
“Where the hell were you?” Netic demanded, looking Xiao up and down. "We were about to call back to the Hall and grab the others to look for you! I can't believe that these stupid communicators don't even work. They're worse than my cell phone...." She muttered.
"I...I'm sorry Netic. I was thinking about Midnight...and...and the Oscars...and I guess I got sidetracked and didn't even realize I had fallen behind you all." Xiao explained. It was true- it was how she had become lost, at least. Fred must have handled the communicators--Xiao hadn't even thought about them... "I got so depressed and then...and I just didn't notice where I was..."
"Well, you're just lucky we didn't have to come rescue your ass from whatever, or drag everyone else out..." Netic mumbled for a moment, but she too seemed dejected. Or maybe that was just the effect of being stuck alone with RWM for too long. "Onward ho, then...."
"You didn't call the Hall then?" That was Fred, using her voice. "You didn't speak with Drew?"
"No. The communicators weren't working..."
"Good, that means there is even less of you to fix..."
It didn't take long. Fred easily grabbed Netic before she could move, and held her, rigid, eye to eye. Netic's mouth opened and closed, and her eyes turned glassy. RWM seemed confused. Xiao wasn't attacking Netic, really, but...something was going on.
Just as he reached the decision to pull the two apart, Fred released Netic lightly, and intercepted RWM. He held him still, unblinking.
"You two really should be more careful," He said, when he was done. "Especially you, Right-Wing Man. Running into Netic while in the air...We don't need another funeral..."
"Watch it," Netic said, glaring at RWM. "I'll let you off easily this time, but next time, you won't be so lucky."
Xiao was dumbfounded. What were they talking about? Running into....
Of course. He had altered their memories. They would have no idea Xiao had ever left, would be unable to tell anyone about her strange activities.
Glad to know you're catching on, slave. Now that we're all on the same page... "We might as well go back for the rest of the evening. It's been quiet all night. It's a mere parlor trick compared to some of my abilities, anyway...
"Er..yeah." Right Wing Man still seemed to be a little dazed. "Quite quiet..."
"He must have hit his head...?" Fred suggested, to Netic's puzzled look.
"He's so thick, it wouldn't make any difference," She snorted.
On a secluded corner on the roof of the Hall of Justice, a tiny fire burned. By all rights, the blaze should be huge, but in spite of all the gasoline and matches and curses, only a tiny fire burned in the center of the logs. Perhaps the wood was too wet.
The flames made shapes, grinning demon faces gone as soon as they were recognized. Oreo stared at them, a bag of marshmallows forgotten in one hand, a pointy stick in the other, hypnotized by the fire. She didn’t hear the footsteps approach, nor did she notice the figure until it spoke.
“Hey,” Claire said. She stood awkwardly across the fire, her shadow making an odd dance in the flickering firelight.
Oreo jumped, dropping both stick and marshmallows into the dirt.
Claire scuffed her feet. “Where’d all this grass come from?”
“The Sodfather owed me a favor,” Oreo said. “I’m thinking of starting a garden up here. Nothing big, maybe a few herbs so I don’t have to track down Arnold Sideways whenever I want to make an Oreo. Honestly, you’re lucky you don’t have to deal with him.”
“It’ll be nice up here in the summer. Maybe I’ll get some hummingbird flowers. You remember that hummingbird we found in the back yard? I kept it under my bed and every day we brought it fresh flowers.”
“I remember,” Claire said.
“Died anyway.” Oreo speared a marshmallow and held it over the hottest coals. “Do you want to roast one? I can get you another stick.”
“No, thank you.” Claire took a seat next to Oreo. “You should come inside. They’re concerned about you.”
Oreo shook her head. “Everyone’s treating me all weird. Right-Wing Man even gave me a hug, and he’s barely said two words to me since he’s joined up. I just want to go back to normal--Crivens! There goes my marshmallow!”
Oreo pulled the stick out, but the marshmallow was nothing more than a blackened blob.
“Want to talk about it?” Claire asked.
Oreo sighed, throwing both stick and marshmallow into the fire. “There’s not much to talk about. Once again I am denied a delicious marshmallow treat.”
“No, I meant…” Claire turned to face Oreo. “Midnight died, Anne.”
Oreo shook her head. “He didn’t die.” She stood and poured a bucket of water over the fire, sending smoke billowing skyward. “He was murdered.”
“What?” Claire got up and followed her sister to the edge of the roof. “Anne? Where are you going?”
Oreo leapt. “To find who did it!” she said over her shoulder.
Claire watched her fly away, a hand half-raised in farewell.