JUSTICE LEAGUE

63

Alex and the Legion of Legends
 

Justice League

Part Sixty-Three - Alex and the Legion of Legends

October 17, 1998

James Jansen was seventeen and deliriously in love.

Delirious was the only word to describe it-the sort of love that sent him half-skipping down the city streets, humming loudly to himself, flashing impulsive smiles at strangers from behind his tin foil-lined sunglasses.

It was the sort of love that only the young and relatively callow are able to appreciate. His sexual track record was lengthy indeed-from that first time that What’s-Her-Face had gone down on him in seventh grade, to actually losing his virginity to Stacy Parker freshman year, to the unfathomable series of hook-ups leading up to the last one, the worst one, in the January of his junior year. And many of these had been in the context of relationships, sure, but they had never seemed like such a big deal to him; usually they went on for a few weeks, and then he and whoever he was with would get bored, and it would be over. There had been a few arguments, and a particularly ugly break-up with Ashlee Markland, but it was never anything that had stayed with him for more than a few days. The only time he’d ever been really hurt was with Elena, that night in January, and that was… well, that was a completely separate case from everything. He wasn’t going to worry about it now.

But the reason, he figured, that the endings of these relationships never bothered him was because he’d never really gotten any joy out of them. The closest to that had been, again, with Elena, but even with her (and maybe this was just an obstruction of memory by his current state of loving) it had been at least fifty percent a physical attraction thing. Not that he wasn’t physically attracted to Jessie, and not that they hadn’t already acted on that a few times, but…

Well, it was hard for him to describe. He’d never experienced anything quite like this (and wouldn’t again for years, until after he was X-Raytor, with Cara, and Pinzz, and, for brief, fragile moments, with Sticky Spectre)-this heart-bursting feeling of levity, the feeling that he was lit with his own personal sunbeam, and that flowers sprung up after his every step, and the sense that, surely, he must be glowing, because there was something vast and golden and beautiful burning in his chest, and he never, ever wanted it to stop.

Again, despite his somewhat extensive relationship history, the reason that James was able to appreciate his joy so fully was because he was largely innocent. It was puppy love-the sort of giddiness that is brought on by only seeing love’s light side, feeling it as a bolster, something that builds and strengthens. It would be a while before love would make him feel small, make him feel vulnerable and angry and undeniably wrong, and even longer before he could reconcile these two perspectives. To again look ahead down the timestream, he would feel the closest to this unity during his relationship with Sticky Spectre-a very deep, serious, and quietly sweet relationship, which had always felt, vaguely, as if they were on the brink of death, and there was no time to hold anything back, to play games when they were alone.

But that, again, is ahead. Then he would be nineteen, rougher around the edges, gingerly becoming fun again, cautious and guarded, and he would be X-Raytor.

At the moment, however, James Jansen was seventeen and deliriously in love.

He’d met Jessie while looking for work at the small grocery where she worked. He hadn’t gotten the job-James had a sneaking feeling that it was because he wasn’t Italian-but he had gotten Jessie’s name, and, after a few subsequent visits, he’d gotten her to go to dinner with him. In the end he was only able to pay for her meal and had to wash dishes to pay for his own, sure, but it had worked. Or, rather, they had worked-this was about compatibility, James thought, not about ploys or strategies, like that stupid high school shit.

Eventually, she’d let him come back to her decrepit, one-room apartment.

He hadn’t slept anywhere else since.

Sometimes, he’d come home late, his hair sticking out at odd angles, sweat running down his face. She’d look up at him from bed as he came in, shoulders hunched and face tight.

“Did you have to help someone again?” She’d ask.

“I tell you, some people are just stupid as hell,” he said. “I don’t carehow friendly the neighborhood looks, you do not wander down dark alleys at night. Not in this city, not in any city. It’s like wearing a big, neon sign that says ‘MUG ME!!’”

“Did anyone get hurt?”

He sighed. “Nah, I dealt with it. Guy had a knife, so I had to zap his hand, and maybe I roughed him up a little tying him to that lamppost, but, no, nobody else was hurt.” Pause. “Though, really, every time I have to risk exposing myself to save some moron’s butt, I should be allowed to give them a swift kick in the ass. You know, for compensation.”

She craned her neck to look at him, causing soft, horizontal lines to form across her throat. She smiled.

“You know what your problem is? You’re a nice guy, you just don’t want to admit it.”

She was three years older than him, with shoulder-length red hair (not her natural color) and blue eyes, and he was absolutely smitten.

The neighborhood was run, at least in his own mind, by a thug named Macho. He had the face of a pit bull, the arms of a gorilla, and the brain of a battery-powered toaster. He didn’t have a posse, he didn’t have mob connections, he didn’t even have street cred on the next block over. What he did have was a Glock and persistence.

To go into the reasons for James and Macho’s showdown would be a digression. Suffice it to say that it had to do with Macho’s attempts to exact a tribute from the grocery store (one of the few businesses not already paying tribute to the Mafia in this neighborhood), and certain business proposals to Jessie that related to Macho’s desire to begin “pimpin’ ” (a concept he had learned about on MTV). And suffice it to say that this showdown was merely the end of a long, dangerous feud that had spanned the month of October. It’s really a terrific story. Too bad you don’t get to hear it.

Because this isn’t the story of how James beat Macho, and broke the hold that he and his gang (he had one in the later weeks of October) had on the neighborhood. It’s the story of what happened after.

He walked down the street, evening cooling the pavement, his mind reeling with his recent victory and the thought of going home and telling Jessie, of seeing her again…

When they’d said goodbye that morning, before he’d gone off to settle things, she’d only betrayed slightly her fear that he might end up dead. She knew about his powers, yes, but she (and he) had been scared nonetheless. It wasn’t anything she’d said, just a particular tightness in the way she held him, like this would be the last time.

And all of that for nothing! James was returning to the apartment triumphant, with barely a scratch on him, and Macho firmly beaten.

It seemed like days since he’d last seen her, as opposed to hours. Grinning broadly, and carelessly pushing his sunglasses up into his hair, he began to run, his heart pounding ecstatically as the apartment building came into view. He cleared all three of the stoop steps with a single jump and burst through the door, nearly running into Mrs. Noreni. With a friendly, shouted apology to the old woman, he careened up the stairs, up and up until, at last, he reached the seventh floor and their room. The door, as he’d hoped, was unlocked; she was back from work by now (if she’d gone at all), and she’d be there waiting.

He threw the door open and bounded into the room. “Look who’s-”

Jessie was on the bed.

She was in pieces.

Five pieces, to be exact. Her abdomen had been quartered-a diagonal slash from her right shoulder to her left hip, and a matching one from the other side. A charred, bloody X. Her tanned neck had been cut through, leaving her head separate from the vaguely diamond-like portion that had once been her upper chest and neck. She was naked. Her eyes were still open, wide and red, staring horrifically at the ceiling.

The sheets, the blanket, were absolutely sodden with thick, maroon blood, and now James could smell her, could smell what was inside her. He stood, not comprehending, his mind a single, bloody line of horror, confusion, and disbelief.

A boy, a boy of about fifteen years, stood at the window, silhouetted against the pink-and-orange evening sky. His hair was short and light blond, his shoulders high. He was instantly familiar.

The boy turned, unhurriedly, casually, halfway around, and raised a hand in greeting. The side of his face that was visible split with a smile.

“James,” he said. “Good to see you again, big brother.”

He found his voice, but only slightly. The name he spoke came out wavery, at half-volume.

“Alex.”

“Well, you’re looking well,” Alex said. He still didn’t turn all the way from the window. “Sunglasses… for the radiation, right? Yeah, I never bothered with that. If someone gets a little tainted, that’s their problem. Doesn’t mean I should walk around looking like a douche, right?”

There wasn’t anything in James’ heart now. It was hard to imagine that there ever had been something. His brain felt crammed and frantic, like it was trying to download a planet.

“But, yeah. You’re looking well. I was afraid you’d let yourself go to waste, but, nope, still fit as ever. Well, assuming you didn’t pick up some sort of dick-rot from this piece of garbage here…”

He gestured dismissively at Jessie’s body.

“What’s with the hair, anyway? Did she really think that was a good dye job? It’s like… what’s that one crayon, that one between orange and red? Whatever. Anyway, I never really took you for a red-heads guy…”

He glanced again at Jessie’s body, following James’ stricken gaze, this time with a slight curl of his upper lip and a look as if he was trying to figure out what, exactly, his brother found so interesting about it.

“I didn’t rape her,” he said, after a moment. “Just so you know. Probably had something anyway. You know what they’re like, huh? They get something and they don’t tell you, because then they can lure you in, pass it off, take your money and get the treatment themselves. Cunts.”

James knew he had to do something, but he wasn’t quite sure what. He felt, perhaps, that he should speak, but words failed him. He started with the one that he already knew he could pronounce:

“Alex…”

“I’m all better from the last time I saw you,” Alex said. He lifted his right arm, and pulled the sleeve of his jacket up to his shoulder. There was a circle of pink flesh in the center of his bicep. “That was a pain in the ass for a while. You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to find someone who would, and could, do it. Oh, and don’t worry, you don’t have to apologize. We’ll be cool if you just admit that you… overreacted a little.”

And now words were no longer an option, but his thoughts were becoming clearer. Jessie was dead. There, that was the planet-sized bit of information he’d been trying to assimilate. And here was Alex.

“I know we didn’t part on the best of terms,” Alex said, “but I thought… well, maybe we could start over, y’know? We’re brothers. We’ve gotta watch out for each other. I mean, in a world overrun with cock-leeches like that, you need someone to watch your back. Especially you, big bro.”

His thoughts, which had slowed down briefly, now began to flash through his mind in an ever-quickening torrent. His heart began to beat faster, the blood surged fresh through his veins. He became conscious, once again, of his entire body, of every muscle and sinew, of every strength, and the vicious, seething power within his eyes.

At that moment, the purpose of James Jansen’s existence became very clear.

“Alex,” he said. “I’m going to kill you.”

At first Alex laughed, a guarded laugh, not quite sure if his brother was joking or not. And then his expression became one of genuine hurt and deep anger.

“Are you serious? Are you serious? How can you say something like that?! You’d kill your own brother? Over- over this trash!”

“Stop calling her- ”

“That’s what she is!” Alex roared. “That’s what they all are! They latch onto you and get you off and they poison your f***ing mind with their twats, and they use you! Every single one of these bitches uses you and hurts you, and you never do anything about it! Anything!!” He paused, and wiped his wrist savagely across his face-dashing away tears, James realized.

“I’m your brother,” he said, more quietly, calmly, now. “If you’re not going to protect yourself, then I have to. It’s what brothers do.”

“You killed Jessie.”

“For you!” Alex said with a mix of exuberance and desperation. “Don’t you see? I did it for you.”

“Goodbye, Alex.”

The room was bathed momentarily in crimson light, and the window shattered as Alex, perhaps a moment too late, threw himself to the side. He hit the ground, and then scrambled up onto his haunches. Smoke rose from his right shoulder, which now contained a dark, ragged notch.

“You shot me!” He said. “I can’t believe you actually shot me again!”

Well, then you’re really not going to believe this, James thought.

But he didn’t get a chance to fire his next blast. With a feral grunt, Alex was up on one knee, head thrust forward like a hunting dog.

A pair of blue lasers lanced from his eyes.

James was quicker than his brother, always had been, and dodged the bolts easily. Still, it occurred to him with a sudden burst of fear and adrenaline that this wasn’t like any fight he’d had before-he didn’t have the advantage here because of his powers. In fact, as far as powers went, he was pretty evenly matched.

But as for skill…

James dove, hit the floor and looked under the bed, hoping to cut Alex’s legs out from under him. A pile of boxes and old newspapers obstructed his view, and Alex was already moving anyway, trying to get around the bed.

He leapt up, firing another pair of lasers, but this time Alex was ready and jumped back, avoiding both beams. They pierced the wall, and the wallpaper around them-old, yellowed, and peeling-began to crackle with flames. The wall where Alex’s first shots had hit was already beginning to blaze.

James fired again and again, as Alex threw himself to the ground. His brother’s head was just past the edge of the bed, and soon James was scrambling away from a sapphire volley.

Flames were now crawling rapidly across the walls and the ceiling, and from somewhere outside a fire alarm began to ring.

James took cover behind the large, rotting armchair that Jessie had salvaged from the trash once. He got down on his haunches, hoping to leap up after Alex fired next.

But his brother didn’t fire. For a few moments, there was no sound except the increasingly loud snap-hiss of the fire. It occurred to him that Jessie’s body was still on the bed, unprotected from the blaze. Nothing he could do about that now, and what would it matter if he could?

He tensed. Still, Alex didn’t fire. And then, the sound of pounding footsteps.

James sprang up, as Alex sprinted past, dashing madly for the apartment door. With an inarticulate scream of rage, James fired at him, but his shots went wild, missing his brother’s head by inches.

With a single, wild laser blast over his shoulder, Alex was into the hallway and gone.

James made to follow, muscles screaming, lungs (distantly) heaving as the room filled with smoke, tears streaming unrestrained and unnoticed from his eyes. And then he stopped, looked back at Jessie. On her bed. Their bed. He saw her through flame-tinged smoke, and for a moment she seemed suffused in golden light.

He started towards her, to get her body, remove it, but then stopped. He had to follow Alex, had to get him, had to end this. But he couldn’t just leave her there…

A moment later, the fire made up his mind for him, as the roof began to collapse around his head. Blinded by tears of rage and shame, he ran.

***

A few minutes later he stood on the roof of a nearby building, watching the blaze from behind his sunglasses. A fire truck had arrived, but wasn’t having much luck-the building was far too old and unstable to survive this. The roof of Jessie’s apartment had collapsed completely shortly after he’d run. A funeral pyre.

Alex had disappeared.

Standing there, unseen by the crowd that had gathered on the pavement below, with the flames of what was, most likely, his last chance at happiness glinting off of his sunglasses, James knew what he had to do.

When he and Alex had separated, after months of living on the streets together, after helping his younger brother evade the government forces that had spirited away the rest of their family, they had argued about responsibility. Their powers, Alex had said, were a mandate; they should use them to do whatever they wanted.

James knew better-they were a curse. Plain and simple. He hadn’t wanted anything to do with them. He’d just wanted to disappear.

But that was stupid, wasn’t it? No matter what… these powers are my responsibility now. No matter what, I can’t get away from them. I either have to make something of them… or just get it over with now.

He looked down at the crowd below. Wouldn’t that make for an interesting evening? A fire, and then a jumper. One to tell the bambinos, for sure.

But what could he do with his powers? After all the harm they’d caused, that he’d caused, what good could possibly come from them?

Well, whatever good you make of them, stupid. In later years, he’d imagine that it was Jessie’s voice that had spoken to him then, Jessie’s or Elena’s, or someone’s.

In reality, it was merely his own. But it would be a cold day in Hell before he actually trusted himself.

“Well, okay,” he said, aloud. “But I’m not wearing any kind of stupid-ass costume. And especially not tights.”

It was the first of many promises he would break.

***

Under his bed, in the Hall of Justice, X-Raytor had a cardboard box. In it he keeps several items of personal importance. A family picture from when he was fourteen, and his brother Alex was twelve. A photo of himself and “Neary” at the first Justice League Social. A photo of himself and Oreo at the Tri-Leader Prom, before everything had gone wrong. His sophomore yearbook from Hugo Danner High School.

At the bottom of the box, he has a collection of newspaper clippings, over a dozen, detailing a number of murders across the United States.

In each case, the victim was decapitated, and their abdomen was sliced into four pieces by a large X, all of this done by some unidentified weapon, which cut cleanly and cauterized the wounds.

In each case, the victim was a woman.

The most recent one had been out in Tulsa, in September 2004. A Sunday school teacher and sales associate for a pharmaceuticals company named Cheryl Bont.

Sometimes, at night, X-Raytor takes them out and looks at them. And when he does, he remembers the night that he said goodbye, both to Jessie and, effectively, to James Jansen.

He also remembers a night even further back, in June of 1998. The night of his seventeenth birthday. The night that he returned home to find his mother and father on the kitchen floor, bloated and warped from a radiation sickness that had suddenly and brutally caught up with them. And he remembers the last thing his father said, before his tongue became too thick and inhuman to speak properly with:

“James,” he’d said, “take care of Alex.”

X-Raytor looks at the articles. Seven murders in all. Eight if you count Jessie’s, which the media had never connected to this particular serial killer. And he remembers…

“Don’t worry dad,” he says, and his voice is hard and absolutely truthful. “I’ll take care of Alex.”

***

Two days before...

"Hungry?" Vance held up half a sandwich. "PB and J."

Loren looked away from her kidnapper, opting to stare at the crack in the doorframe. A ladybug was crawling out. Fly away home, Loren thought briefly, but then realized that thinking metaphorically never helped anyone get out of a kidnapping situation.

"Honey, you gotta eat sometime. You've been here three days. I know you're hungry." He took a bite of his half.

Almost on cue, her stomach let out a grinding moan. "Allergic," she said finally.

"Your loss," said Ed as he stood up from his seat behind her. He ambled around and rested a hand on her shoulder. He started fingering the bra strap under her blouse; Loren stiffened. "All in good time, sweetheart," he whispered into her ear. "I know you can't wait."

Loren closed her eyes briefly, disgusted. His pastrami breath lingered even after he stepped back. She looked over as Vance checked his watch. "It's about that time," he said, nodding at Eddie.

"Red's got the phone."

"I sent him for that six pack an hour ago. Where the f*** is he?"

"Probably traffic. D*mned college students back in town now."

***

Now

Scarlett rubbed her left leg. Pale from years of long dresses, now they were red with sunburn as she tried to make herself comfortable standing around in khaki shorts and one of Oreo's brown t-shirts. There wasn't a trace of red on her person beyond the stark pinkness etched onto her skin; most of Dixie had hopefully not kept up with the Justice League, but even so, she didn't want to jog anyone's memory.

Her grandmother was standing at the vending machine in the waiting room, trying to coax it into giving up a Cherry Coke.

"Where's my f***ing Cherry Coke, b*tch? I gave you a nickel!" she said, kicking the machine. Scarlett walked over, spare change in hand. Knowing this wouldn't be pretty.

"Grandma, it costs 60 cents, not five."

"Who the f*** do they think they are, selling this sh*t for that much? We're not all godd*mn doctors, for christsake! It's a Cherry Coke." By now, half the waiting room was staring at them.

"Don't worry about it, I got it," she said, feeding another nickel and two quarters into the machine. Her grandmother looked at her with disdain.

"And you, with your superhero nonsense. Your whore of a mother would've been ashamed, her daughter parading around in a red dress with a bunch of kids."

Scarlett shrank back into the wall the vending machine rested against. The few people left in the waiting room who had been politely ignoring the vending machine discourse were now turning to steal glances at her. "I'm going to the restroom, Grandma," she said as she walked by her.

"Yeah, run away, Lori. That's what my f*cking granddaughter is good for. Helping strangers, and forgetting her family!" she yelled as Scarlett shut the door to the restroom.

She walked over to the sink and ran the tap. Splashed her face with water and looked into the mirror, because that's what you do when you escape to a restroom for a moment of peace.

"It was the telephone voice," she said. "She sucked you in again." Scarlett reached for some paper towels to dry off her face. "Papa will get better and I'll leave tomorrow. I don't have to stay here anymore. I won't." She stared into the mirror, collecting herself for another moment, then left the restroom again. A doctor had just walked into the waiting room, and Scarlett knew something was wrong, otherwise the nurse would've come.

"Mrs. Fyre? I need to speak with you for a moment out here." As her grandmother stood up slowly, the color drained out of her face; even Scarlett couldn't hate her at this moment.

***

At the Hall of Justice

Jo Surf peered out of his tiny room into the hallway; it was empty. He stepped out, suitcase and guitar case in hand. A small, shiny yellow chunk dangled from a chain around his neck, replacing the shark's tooth that originally occupied that space.

He walked down the hall quietly, and made his way to the Justice Garage, where his yellow X-terra, Rhonda, was parked. After he opened the garage door, Jo set the suitcase and guitar in the back, then sat down in the driver's seat. He cranked the engine, and backed out of the Justice Garage for the last time.

As he drove out of The City, he switched the radio on. For the first time in a long time, it wasn't playing the Beach Boys.

***

Clear-blue streaks canvassed the sky in the distance, marring the morning grays. Violet sat on a bench outside a strip mall, hungrily eating an Egg McMuffin. The night before, she had managed to find a bus station and taken the first bus south to the New York-Pennsylvania border before her money had run out. As soon as she finished her breakfast, Violet decided, she would call the JL and someone could pick her up.

She should have called someone last night.

Violet sighed and crumpled up the wrapper of her breakfast sandwich. She tossed it into a trashcan and headed toward the mostly-empty bar at the end of the strip. "O'Brien's" read the green sign out front. Next to it was a dollar store, and beyond that several small clothing boutiques and a nail salon. Violet rapped on the glass doors, alerting the 40-something man who was wiping the counter.

"We don't open 'til eleven!" he mouthed.

Violet put her hand to her ear, signaling that she needed to use the phone. The man sighed and unlocked the door.

"Thank you," Violet said. She paused, glancing at the clock on the wall. It was eight-thirty. "It is a bit early, isn't it?"

"I'll say," said the man. "I have a private party coming in at nine. Shriners. Why they picked my bar-" the main trailed off. "The phone's in the back," he said and pointed to the rear of the bar. A white and blue sign clearly labeled a payphone.

Violet walked to the phone and picked it up; the man returned to wiping the counter. She dialed collect and waited for someone to pick up. Finally, a female voice answered.

"Hello. You've received a collect call from:"

"It's Violet."

"Please say 'Yes' to accept this call."

"Yes," she answered. The call connected.

"Where have you been?" asked the voice. Violet recognized it as Raven's.

"I'll tell you about it when I get back, for now, I need someone to come pick me up, I'm at-"

"Have you seen the news?"

"No, not really-"

"MC is dead. It's pretty bad over here. We're falling apart. Permanently, temporarily. I don't know. You've been gone for weeks, Violet." Raven sighed. She didn't wait for Violet to answer before she continued. She sounded drained, older than the teenager normally acted. "Where are you?"

Violet rattled off the address on one of the bar's business cards. She heard shuffling from the other end and assumed Raven must be writing it down.

"I told Rosma. Are you hurt or anything?"

"Not badly. I'm okay."

"Okay."

"Okay." The phone went dead and Violet hung up. "Do you mind if I sit here for a little while? I just need to wait for a friend," she said to the bar owner.

The man looked at the clock and then the door. He looked at Violet and his eyes narrowed. Recognition flashed across the pupils. "You're that Violet Princess girl?" he asked. It wasn't really a question. Violet nodded, and the man shrugged. "Don't cause any trouble. I figure you can't be any worse than this Shriner's Convention, you know? It must be my karma or somet'ing. Be nice to you and God'll overlook-" the man paused and chuckled to himself. "Take a seat over there." He gestured to an empty booth.

"Thank you," Violet said as she sat down. She gazed out the glass windows and waited for Rosma, or anyone, to take her back to the mansion.

***

Everything had been fine, until the stripper showed up dressed like a super hero. That, and Cara subsequently storming from the room in tears, had heralded the end of the bachelorette party. While her mom and sister, Melissa, herded the rest of the guests out of the door, Thalia and Lisa stepped gingerly into her room.

“Um, Cara?” Lisa said. “Cara? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Cara mumbled from under her sheets. “Go away.”

“Cara, dear, you’re hiding under your sheets,” Thalia said. “We know you’re not fine.”

“I’m fine.”

“Then why don’t you come out and talk to us, Caspar?”

Cara slowly pulled the sheets down, revealing her face. Her eyes were red and puffy.

“Oh, Cara,” Lisa said, sitting down on the bed and hugging her. “What’s wrong?”

“Mmmf mrrffmmf?” Cara asked, from Lisa’s shoulder.

“What?”

She pulled back slightly. “I said: ‘Whose idea was that?’”

Lisa cocked her head. “I thought you liked strippers. Remember that time, sophomore year, when we went to the Popsicle Stand…”

“Whose idea was it to have the stripper dress up as a super hero?”

“Um… me. I didn’t know you’d have a problem with it. … Why, do you not like super heroes or something?”

“She doesn’t like one,” Thalia said.

Lisa blinked, and then blushed. “Oh…”

“Exactly,” Thalia said, joining them on the bed. “Cara, come on… calm down. He’s not worth it. He’s just a big, stupid, horny child in tights and you shouldn’t let him ruin your bachelorette party.”

“The stripper?” Lisa asked.

“No. … Well, maybe. But I mean… you know…”

“X-Raytor?”

Cara made a choking noise, and Thalia sighed. “Thank you for that, Ms. Tact.”

“Sorry,” Lisa said. “I just… I’ve never met the guy…”

“He’s pondscum,” Thalia said. “When I was dating him, back during that street theater thing on the East Coast, all he did was either look through my clothes or try to get me out of them. And then, once we finally… did it-which, I should mention, is an experience that I will remember with shame and incomprehension for the rest of my life-he stopped coming to my shows, stopped pretending to know anything about theater, pretty much just stopped trying. He’d just come over to my apartment really depressed and whine and cry and get drunk and start cuddling with me. I finally dumped the bastard when he tried to move in and live on my couch.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Cara said. “Not with me. He was different then… he was nicer, I guess…”

“But he was still a moody, depressive little putz, right?”

“… Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly like that…”

“Oh, yes you would.”

Cara sighed. “Oh, yes I would. He’s a clingy and moody and he doesn’t understand what a break-up is, and he is a complete and total bastard for getting me this upset during my freaking bachelorette party!”

Her face was red now, eyes narrowed.

“I think he’s secretly gay, too,” Thalia said.

“Uh, is everything all right in here?” The stripper asked, poking his head into the room.

“What the hell are you still doing here?” Thalia demanded.

“Yo, I’m not tryin’ to, like, interrupt or anything, but, uh, I’m supposed to be here to take my clothes off and- and…” He sniffed. “I’m feelin’ kinda underappreciated.”

“Oh, spare me…”

“Hey, these are quality goods here!” The stripper said, pointing at his G-string. “You can’t just find this s*** on the streets! This is top-shelf, motherf***in’ five-star top-of-the-line berries here, and I’m not gonna have y’all insulting them!”

“We’ll pay you, just leave,” Cara said.

“Hey, were you crying or somethin’?”

“Leave,” Thalia said.

“No, c’mon, what is it?” He glanced at his chest. “Is it the scars?”

“It’s not you,” Cara said. “Old boyfriend.”

“Ah,” the stripper said. “Well, I know it ain’t my business or anything…”

“No, it’s not,” Thalia said.

“… but, listen, I got this boss… uh, not the dude at the stripping agency, I mean this other dude… lives in a cave… anyway, he had a tough time with this chick once, and I know it got him real bad. You know what it’s like when a bitch breaks your heart, right?”

All three glared at him.

“ ‘Course you do. Anyway, he does a lotta serious work and s***, and I wonder: how does he keep goin’, when he’s got this big heartbreak and all? I mean once, me and my girlfriend broke up-uh, kinda had a bad prom-and I know that messed me up, like, uh, emotionally for a long time. I couldn’t get my, uh, heart into my work or nothin’. Plus, I got blue balls like a f***in’ racquet ball court. Buuuuuung!

“But, like, even with all that s*** with the love of his life, and all the other s*** that’s happened to him, he’s always sayin’: ‘Past is past, why should it bother me?’ Or something like that. He doesn’t say it exactly like that, but, uh… y’know. So, like, what I’m tryin’ to say is… don’t let your ex-boyfriend ruin your night. You’re getting married now, right? Well, that means he’s not important anymore-that silly asshole missed out big time. If anyone should be feelin’ bad tonight, it should be him! You know what I’m sayin?”

Cara nodded, and, with great effort, smiled. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“No problem. So, you gonna party or what?”

“I think I am,” Cara said. “Yeah. Let’s have fun.”

“Good,” the stripper said. “Okay, so… you guys want some weed?”

Silence.

“Uh… I’ll be dancin’ naked in the other room if anyone needs me,” the stripper said, and hurried out.

“Feeling better?” Lisa asked, squeezing Cara’s shoulder.

“Yeah. I guess so. Yeah,” she said.

“I’m really sorry about that…”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Great,” Thalia said. “Now, come on, let’s go see those ‘quality goods’ of his. And promise you won’t think about that smarmy piece of crap X-Raytor anymore.”

“I promise,” Cara said, and wished she could mean it.

***

Earlier that day… in the Eastern Time Zone… um… yeah

“Wait, wait, let’s watch this!” Netic said.

“But I want to watch Laguna Beach!” Eric said.

“After the news. This might be important.”

Eric scoffed. “More important than L.C.’s hot date? I don’t think so. I love Laguna Beach. It’s like The O.C.… only real!”

“It’s not real,” X-Raytor said.

“Yes it is!”

“Sure,” X-Raytor said. “It’s about as real as the Tooth Fairy.”

Eric looked at X-Raytor, wide-eyed and wary. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Pinzz said, glancing sharply at X-Raytor.

“There’s a Tooth Fairy, isn’t there?”

“Of course there is. Why wouldn’t there be?”

“Oh, okay!” Eric said.

“Shhh!”

On the news, a man in a silver-and-black armor suit was speaking from a podium. His name, according to the panel on the bottom of the screen (and as all of the Justice Leaguers already knew) was Silver Falcon. Another graphic announced that the video was live.

“Who cares?” X-Raytor asked. “This guy is on the news every other week hyping his Mid-West Justice League.”

“Just shut up, okay?” Pinzz said.

“… happy to finally be making this announcement,” Silver Falcon said on the screen. “Today I stand before you, here on the steps of the Capitol Building…”

“The Capitol Building?” Drew repeated. “I thought he was in Chicago?”

“Shhh!”

“… to reveal our new team, fully assembled for the first time!”

A crowd cheered in the background, and cameras flashed.

“Why don’t I hear anyone yelling ‘Badges, not masks’?” X-Raytor muttered.

“When I first announced the idea for this team, I intended it to be a protective unit for the Mid-West and Great Lakes region,” Silver Falcon said. “Much like the Justice League has been for… the East Coast. However, and this is the second part of my announcement, the finished product is a bit… different from what I’d envisaged… and much better!”

Another roar of applause. Silver Falcon waited for it to quiet down, before continuing.

“Shortly after I conceived this idea, I was approached by representatives of our country’s government, with an interest in forming a… nationally-active super team.”

“Wait… jiggawhat?” Netic said.

“I’ve worked closely with members of various federal peace keeping agencies while choosing the members of this team, and we have all been the subject of extensive background checks and psychological evaluations. While we will wear costumes, or real names will be public knowledge, and biographical information will be freely available for anyone interested. If we’re going to ask you to put your trust in us, we’d better give you a good reason, right?

“And so, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present to you the first, and only, super hero team backed and funded by the United States government. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… the Legion of Legends!”

The applause on the TV was drowned out by the Justice League’s response:

“WHAT THE F***?!”

“BACKED AND FUNDED BY THE GOVERNMENT?!” Pinzz demanded.

“THOSE- THOSE- F***S!!!!!” Netic said.

“Bummer,” Swift said, picking at her fingernails.

“MOTHER-- S*** OF ALL S***!!” X-Raytor raged.

“And here’s our team,” Silver Falcon said, and the shot changed suddenly to a tall, blond woman in a white top and skirt, with a red cape and boots. There was a yellow bursting star design on her chest. She was floating a few inches above the Capitol’s steps, and seemed to glow just slightly. Her eyes were blue, hard, and dispassionate.

“Super Nova,” Silver Falcon said. “Philadelphia’s famous protectress, she now joins us in the national fight against crime! Born Diana Thelen, she was gifted with the powers of a star, and is one of the most successful powers on the Eastern seaboard. No shadow is too dark for her light of justice to penetrate!”

“Who wrote this speech?” X-Raytor asked. “Do you think he wrote this speech? He seems like enough of a tool to write this speech. Even Karl Rove couldn’t write shlock like this.”

“Oh, I don’t know. This sounds like the sort of thrilling elegy to super humans that our modern day Virgil would write,” Right Wing Man said.

“Glad to be here,” Super Nova said on the TV.

“And our next member, Virgil Reyes, a.k.a., The Lash!”

The camera shifted over to a young, Hispanic man in a green-and-white costume. He grinned and waved, and his arm stretched up and up, lengthening by a yard. The Lash flattened out his hand, and then whipped his arm suddenly, causing it to crack audibly in the air, like… a lash. It returned to its original length, and he flexed his bicep, showing that no harm had been done.

“The Lash joins us from Miami, Florida, where he spent some time-before his successful, but quiet, crime fighting career-as the Amazing Rubber Boy with the Leonardo Travelling Troupe circus!” Silver Falcon glanced over at him. “So, Virgil, how does it feel to be the… long arm of the law?”

“Oh, KILL ME!” Pinzz said.

“Well, Falcon, I’d say that’s a bit of a stretch,” The Lash replied.

“I don’t care how much bad stuff we’ve done,” X-Raytor said, “just for that… they are evil. Evil.”

“And now, a face that’s probably familiar to most of you, Stephanie Beckal, a.k.a. Firehop, formerly of the Justice League!”

“Excuse me a second,” Netic said. She stood and walked into the kitchen, and returned carrying a glass of water. She tipped some into her mouth… and then spewed it all over the TV screen.

“WHAT?!”

Firehop was a bit older than the last time they’d seen her, two years older to be exact, 20 now. Her hair was long and red, hanging down over her crimson leather jacket. Beneath the jacket was a black T-shirt, with a bright FH logo surrounded by flames. She wore a pair of red-tinted sunglasses. Her smile, which had always been wide and bright, hadn’t changed.

Wow, X-Raytor thought, she’s actually… really hot…

Pause.

Ah, f***, now they’ve got me punning…

“Firehop joins us from Sacramento, California, where she moved after leaving the Justice League,” Silver Falcon said. He was practically jiggling with excitement, the tool. “She has, as I’m sure you know, the incredible ability to control fire, and is a world-class gymnast. As our youngest member, she brings a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to the team.”

“What a bitch!!” Netic said.

“I swear to God, if Crystal is on this team,” Pinzz said, “I am swinging down to D.C. and killing them all.”

“Well, well, hey,” X-Raytor said, still staring at Firehop. “Let’s not begrudge a former teammate a new career. I mean… they’re not that bad…”

The shot then changed to a young black woman dressed in purple and black, wearing a pair of smoked goggles.

“And this is Mackenzie Maynard, a.k.a. Optix, from Cloverdale, Kansas,” said Silver Falcon. “No evil deed escapes her amazing… x-ray vision!”

“Oh bullSHIT!” X-Raytor roared.

“X-y, I want you to know that we do this out of love,” Oreo Avenger said, a moment before the entire team burst into laughter.

“You guys suck,” he grumbled. “I bet she can’t even shoot lasers out of her eyes! She’s like- like a flea market version of me! She’s Showtime to my HBO! She’s- ”

“Yeah, but I bet she doesn’t talk half as much,” Pinzz said. “Now shut up!”

“And next,” Silver Falcon said, “is Abd al-Malik, a.k.a. Horus, who joins us all the way from Seattle, Washington!”

Horus was a muscular, bronze-skinned Arabic man, dressed in a flashy ancient Egyptian style-complete with the King Tut headdress and the kilt thing. He was shirtless, and there were gold bands around his biceps. There was a design drawn in black around his right eye.

“Horus doesn’t have any super human powers,” Silver Falcon said, “but he is highly trained in over a dozen forms of hand-to-hand combat, and he has strength, speed, and agility to match those of a metahuman! We’re glad to have him.”

Horus nodded his head austerely to the cheering crowd.

“And, of course there’s me, Silver Falcon, also known as Billy Borek, from Chicago” he said. “My powers-strength, speed, and flight--are entirely in my robotic falcon suit. I’m the chairman of the group. Kind of an unofficial leader.” He laughed, and the others laughed goodnaturedly along with him (except Horus, who was stoic and silent).

“Well, America, we’re here, at long last,” Silver Falcon said. “We won’t let you down!”

“I feel like I’m in a nightmare that just never freaking ends,” Pinzz muttered.

“What is this?” X-Raytor demanded. “Government funding? For super heroes?! And not just funding, but support and- and- they got to choose the members? What the hell?! What are they trying to pull?! This is… this is…”

“This is a travesty!” Margo Westfall exclaimed as she burst through the front door. “This is a disgrace, this is an outrage, this is a- a- a mockery of our democratic system! This is a coup by the country’s right, is what it is! They’ve been trying to take over this country for the past few decades, and now they have a bunch of super powered thugs to back them up! And I will- not- stand for it!!”

The Justice Leaguers stared at her in absolute silence, jaws dropped, eyes wide. The shock was so great that none of them had even regained the ability to think.

“Now, it’s not that you all don’t disgust me,” Margo said, beginning to pace back and forth across the foyer. “No, you’re brutish fascist pigs, all right, the lot of you… but you don’t have the financial support of the f***ing United States government!! You’re not a corps of super Nazis, hand-picked, hand-picked by the directors of the FBI, CIA, and MORPHZ, as well as our dipshit president. Hell, they don’t even like you! And you know what they say… the enemy of my enemy is my friend. For a little while, at least.”

More silence. More blank stares.

“So, what do you say?” She stopped pacing and enveloped them all in a wide, eager grin that looked vaguely hysterical. “Will you stand with me? We can have a photo op ready within thirty minutes.”

The word “photo op” seemed to shake Boyd from his state of shock, and he immediately began to bluster.

Pinzz regained her senses next, and asked the question that was slowly etching itself across all of the Justice Leaguers’ minds: “How did you get in here?”

Margo jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “The door was unlocked.”

“Don’t we have a restraining order against you, or… or something?!”

“… I don’t think so… do you?”

“We obviously need one,” Pinzz muttered. “Leave.”

“What? Listen, I just came by to talk a little business…”

“Don’t you have a riot to start or something?” Drew asked.

Margo sighed. “Okay, okay, I admit that that got a little… out of hand. But, jeez, I thought you guys would have forgotten about that by now…”

“Forget?” X-Raytor asked. “Forget about, let’s see, you causing the entire city to erupt in an Armageddon-sized riot, resulting in the deaths of a few dozen innocent bystanders, as well as the murder of one of our teammates? That’s what you think we should have forgotten by now?”

Margo didn’t meet any of their eyes. “Yeah, well…”

“ ‘Cause, you know, I remember that pretty clearly,” X-Raytor said. “How about you guys? You remember that?”

“And elephant never forgets!” Right Wing Man said. He scowled at Margo. “Begone with you, you hippie twat! And how dare you even think of contradicting one of our president’s decisions! In times like these, we need strong, decisive leaders who…”

“In case you’re getting as lost as I am,” Pinzz said, “he’s telling you to leave.”

Margo blinked, opened her mouth to speak.

“Leave.”

“Well, I was just-“ Margo said.

“Get the f*** out!!”

“Fine, fine! Don’t have to get so hostile. Jeez. But if you guys want to take down this Legion thing… give me a call.”

“GET OUT!!”

And Margo did promptly that. A few moments later, there was a far-away shout of “Badges, not masks!”

“Bitch,” Netic mumbled.

“Tell me about it,” said the black-and-gray suited man standing next to her. His hair was long and chestnut, hanging down almost below the neckline of his Spandex suit. No one had ever seen him before.

“GAH!” Said the Justice League.

“Yo,” said the man.

“Who are you supposed to be?”

“Oh, me? I’m the Wraith,” he said. “Or Trent Davenport, if you want my slave name.”

“How’d you get in here?”

The Wraith grinned, and disappeared, reappearing on the other side of the room. “Like that,” he said, causing most of the League to jump. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“Oh,” Raven said. “Uh, well, sorry, Mr. The Wraith, but we’re not accepting new members as of this time. If you want to fill out an application…”

“Oh, no, I already have a team,” he said. “I just came by to drop something off.”

He removed a folded piece of yellow, lined paper from a pocket in his suit, and put it on the coffee table.

“Okay, there you go. Nice meeting you all.” He grinned and winked. “T.T.F.N.”

And then he was gone, silently popping out of sight.

“This has been the weirdest f***ing day…” X-Raytor muttered.

“What’s the note say?” Right Wing Man asked, as Pinzz picked it up. She read it, frowned, read it again, frowned deeper, and then read aloud:

“ ‘How’s it going, all? Sorry about Midnight Chatter. Just saw the news, so in case you’re wondering: don’t worry, I’m not even going to waste my time with the Legion. All collaborators will pay their due in time. You’re all still my favorites. Much love, S.S.’”

Silence.

“Please tell me that stands for Super Shibes,” Oreo said.

“Does it sound like Super Shibes?” Pinzz asked. She scrutinized the note. “Yep, it’s her handwriting. Well, I guess that means she hasn’t already died in a ditch somewhere. I’m guessing that was too much to hope for?”

X-Raytor didn’t say anything. He folded his arms tightly around himself, and watched the TV.

“Is that the first time we’ve heard from her since… you know?”

“I think so...”

“Where does that bitch get off talking about MC?” Pinzz asked. “She didn’t even know him.”

“Wait, I don’t get it,” Swift said. “What’s the big deal?”

“Hold on a second,” Eric said. “That guy… the Wraith, he works for Sticky?”

“I guess so,” Pinzz said.

“And he can teleport?”

“Looks like it.”

“So one of Sticky Spectre’s guys just teleported in here, with absolutely no problems?”

Silence.

“I’m on it,” Drew said, and the next sound they heard was the door of her lab slamming shut. She had recently begun a longterm project of improving the Hall’s defenses, ever since Studmuffin had disappeared a few days back. After all, the last time Studmuffin had disappeared (if you didn’t count that Tri-Leader thing), he’d come back in the wake of three homicidal uber-aliens. Actually, as Rosma had helpfully suggested, what they had to worry about this time was that he was going to melt Antarctica and flood the Earth. There were no signs of that, thankfully, but, despite extensive searches and many, many freak outs, no sign of Studmuffin. The less-effective nighthawkers had been put on search duty, (“B Team” as X-Raytor, who had somehow managed to make “A Team,” called it) and had been canvassing everyone from here to Trenton over the last few weeks. They’d even called Studmuffin’s family in Los Angeles, which yielded few answers (which was to be expected, since they hung up before Rosma could finish her question). This morning they had just returned from an all-nighter, beating the nighthawkers back to the Hall by a few hours. The only reason they were all watching the news now was to get some rest before the daytime shifts began.

“Wow,” Eric said. “Thanks for that helpful chunk of exposition!”

On the news, they were gathering words of commendation for the Legion of Legends. And not the half-assed costume whackos they interviewed about the Justice League, but big names. Captain Justice-the first one, from World War II, the one who was still alive; Cassie, government official and the last of the Animorphs (ever since Jake, Marco, and, allegedly, Tobias, had stolen a Yeerk ship and disappeared into space, during the early months of 2005); and, of course, the president.

“This is,” Boyd Billeh said, “this is… a coup. That’s… it’s a coup. I can’t believe I didn’t know anything… it’s so… perfect.” He shook his head wonderingly, and looked at the Justice League. “My first impression, as a professional, seeing this? You guys are screwed.”

“That’s very encouraging, Boyd,” Oreo said.

“But not to worry,” Boyd said, leaping up. “Not to worry! I am going straight home, and I’m locking myself in a room with a legal pad and a bag of coffee, and when I come out I will have enough ideas to choke a horse! This will work in our favor, trust me! Trust me!” He ran to the door, and then paused. “And, guys, I know you’re all tired… but you can’t miss out on the daylight shifts today. Some of you-the big leaguers, no offense-have to be out there, and very visible. If you stay inside, you just look sullen and jealous. Get out there and do your jobs like nothing’s changed. And if anyone calls here, or tries to interview you on the street-which they absolutely will-you will say: ‘It’s good to see that more people are trying to make the world a better place,’ and that is it. No comments on government funding or backing of super heroes, pro or con. No comments on the team. In fact, don’t even use the word ‘super’ if you can help it. And when they ask about Firehop: ‘She’s looking well. Good to see she’s still in the game.’ Anything more than that, and you have to run and do important super heroic things. Okay? I’ll come by later tonight. We’ll get through this!”

And then he was out the door and gone.

Almost immediately, the phones began to ring.

“Well, this has been fun,” X-Raytor said, “but I’m going upstairs. If the world needs saving or anything, knock first.”

He walked up the stairs and disappeared into his room.

After a moment of hesitant silence, Eric said: “Now can we watch Laguna Beach?”

***

There were often days when X-Raytor wondered why he even bothered getting out of bed in the morning.

So today, since he couldn’t come up with a good answer, he crawled back into bed, pulled the blanket up over his head, and resolved to never, ever come out, ever again.

And you can’t make me, he thought, mentally sticking out his tongue at… “you.”

It wasn’t just the Legion of Legends. It wasn’t just Sticky’s note. Well, okay, it was partially Sticky’s note. For one thing, there was an undeniable, though somewhat guilty, thrill knowing that she was still alive. He’d always known, of course, even if they hadn’t heard from her for five years, and at some times had even thought things would be better if she was dead, but now that he knew she was alive… he couldn’t help but feel relieved.

On the other hand, this was the first time she’d gotten in touch with them for five years… and she hadn’t even mentioned him. Not even a mocking little “Hi, X-y” or anything, anything that would show that she was thinking about him… that maybe, on some level, she still cared.

Now you’re just being stupid, he thought. Grow up. She’s a heartless, murdering, genocidal bitch, and you can’t be in love with her. She’s evil. She’s stupid. She kills people… for what? For no reason, she just kills them because she’s a bigot, and she’s crazy as hell, and she’s so goddamn selfish, and petty, and cold, and mean that she can’t even say ‘Hey, X-y’ in the first note she’s written after five f***ing years, and she couldn’t even let us know she was alive or anything, noooo, that would take too much of Ms. Sticky Spectre’s precious f***ing time and…

… Oh, crap.


He pulled his blanket down tighter over his head, and resolved to not think anymore, either. You’d think that would be easy for him.

But he had more on his mind, again, than just the stupid Legion of Legends, or Sticky Spectre. He’d seen on the news (read: obscure message boards) that Cara’s wedding was, well, tomorrow night. He wasn’t invited, he knew that. He didn’t want to go, anyway. Although…

Although, maybe he should go. Not even go to the ceremony, but just drop by and talk to her right before, tell her how he felt, and how, even though it was tearing him apart, he was okay with letting her go, if that’s what she really wanted. He’d almost called to tell her that, but hadn’t even finished dialing. It only felt right the way he imagined it, her smiling gratefully, and perhaps a little regretfully, looking radiant in her wedding gown.

And, of course, it was entirely possible that she would just call the wedding off. Well, maybe not entirely possible, but maybe seeing him, this one time… But, no, no, that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted her to be happy, and if she felt she was going to be happy with Ben… well, then, that was what she wanted. And he wanted what she wanted. He was perfectly okay with letting her go.

He was. After all, why wouldn’t he be? Nope, there was absolutely no reason why he wouldn’t be perfectly okay with this. And if he did have a reason, it would be a totally selfish reason, and he was not totally selfish. He was perfectly, totally, one-hundred-percent okay with her getting married. Totally.

I should call her, he thought, and tell her that.

It was at that moment that his cell phone began to hum on the nightstand. He burst from under his blanket and snatched it up, flipped it open.

His heart skipped a beat. He didn’t recognize the number, but he recognized the area code. 213. Los Angeles.

Before answering, he took two seconds to calm himself down. After all, he knew a few people in Los Angeles (right?). It wasn’t necessarily Cara calling from another number, telling him that the wedding was off and she wanted him to fly out immediately. No reason to needlessly get his hopes up, right?

He answered, and immediately said: “Hi, Cara?!”

There was a somewhat confused pause on the other end, and then a short, masculine laugh. A dude. X-Raytor sagged.

“Sorry, thought you were someone else,” he said, not masking his disappointment. “Who is this?”

“Has it really been so long that you don’t recognize my voice?” The caller said. “You don’t recognize your own brother’s voice?”

X-Raytor’s hand clenched so compulsively that the phone’s plastic casing creaked under the strain. When he was finally able to speak, his voice came out as a rough, baffled whisper.

“Alex?”