Kinda Super Gay Bonus Chapter Three

“Looks like we have a breaking news update, folks,” Barry Ring said, picking up a piece of paper that had fallen under his seat. “Nothing has changed.”

“Barry,” Andrea said. “I don’t think that’s news.”

Barry shrugged his shoulders. “You’d be surprised.”

“Barry, sometimes I’m surprised you even bother to show up in the morning.”

Barry laughed. “Me too, Andrea. Me too.”

Cathect sat on the couch, his bare feet propped up on the table, much as they had been for the past several weeks.

Nano walked into the living room, “Hey, Cathect. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Cathect said.

“I just got a text from Bubblegum Shaman.”

“That girl you met on OKCupid?” Cathect asked.

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

“She wants to go check out that redheaded scientist we dealt with.”

“The one with the kids who took over a Chinese restaurant and also a criminal empire?”

“Yeah,” Nano said. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“So?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to do it.”

“You should probably go.”

“I know,” she said. “I just really don’t want to.”

Blue walked into the room.

“Hey, Blue,” Nano said. “I forgot to ask. How was the first day at the internship?”

“Good,” Blue said.

“Good as in, ‘good’, or good as in, ‘I’m going to say it was good because I don’t even know how to describe my pain’ sort of good.”

“It’s not bad,” Blue said. “The guy I’m working for is just,” she searched for the word, “peculiar.”

“Peculiar?” Cathect asked.

“Nothing’s ever simple,” she said. “Anytime he says something, it takes an hour to get to the point.”

“So?” Nano asked.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said. “It’s just annoying.”

“So he’s not a furry,” Cathect said.

“What?” Blue asked.

“When you said there was something peculiar about him,” Cathect said. “I figured you meant to say that he was a furry.”

“No, that’s not what I was saying. It’s just annoying when we’re trying to hunt animals and he–”

Cathect began to ask, “When you say that he hunts animals–”

“Pest control,” Blue said. “If you’ve got a superpowered beastie that needs taking care of, you call Jeremiah the Hunter.”

“So he’s not a furry,” Cathect said.

“Why are you so worried about him being a furry?” Blue asked.

“It’s not so bad, right?” Nano said. “People can be furries if they want to. Like, don’t judge, you know?”

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with furries,” Cathect explained. “It’s just that I’d like to know whether or not he was a furry. If he’s hunting animals while getting off on it, that’s a little bit uncomfortable. It’s like having a masseuse with a foot fetish. It’s not a problem that he has a foot fetish. It’s that he has a foot fetish, and your foot is in his hands right now.’

“Do you think some people get off on office supplies?” Nano asked. When everyone looked at her strangely, she said, “It’s an honest question! Don’t judge me.”

Hellfire walked through the front door, carrying the mail. He set it all down on the table, then walked towards his room.

“You get anything interesting in the mail?” Blue asked.

“No,” Hellfire said. “Nothing interesting.”

He walked into his room, a letter in the pocket of his leather coat.

Blue sifted through the mail, finding the latest issue of Forbes. She also saw that Cathect had gotten the latest issue of a magazine called Naughty Capes.

“Cathect,” Blue said. “What is this.”

Cathect wore a blasé expression as he leaned over and spied the magazine. “Porn star clone.”

“Okay,” Nano said, “but you can’t just say that like it’s a full explanation. Your clone is a porn star, so you order a superhero porn magazine? Like, there are a lot of pages without him in it! Probably whole issues!”

Cathect shrugged.

Back in his room, Hellfire stared at the envelope. The address on the front was written with his dad’s handwriting. Hellfire’s chest felt heavy.

He slipped his finger under the envelope’s flap, ripping the envelope open. He took out the letter inside.

The note was short, which somehow made it all the worse: “Me and a couple of the boys are burning down St. Mark’s Church tomorrow at 2 P.M. If you want my forgiveness, that’s how you can get it.”

There was no signature.

— — —

Blue and Jeremiah sat in his Jeep, staring through the glass at the monkey, looking for signs of trouble.

“You want to hunt a monkey that’s already in a zoo?” Blue said, dubious and weary, among a host of other emotions.

Jeremiah laughed a burly, gentleman-hunterish sort of laugh. “That would be a plum fool thing to do.”

My thoughts exactly, she thought. But you are a moron, so…

“No,” he said. “We’re observing the monkey in its cage.”

She looked at the monkey, noting how much it looked like a monkey. You know how a monkey generally looks like? That’s what this monkey looked like.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“A monkey,” Blue said.

“Yes, yes. Of course. But what do you see?” He pointed his pointer and middle fingers at his eyes, then at the monkey, essentially giving the monkey the ‘I’m watching you’ signal.

“What do I see?” Blue asked, repeating Jeremiah’s motion.

“Yes,” he said. “I would like to know what it is that you see.”

“I see a monkey,” she said.

A monkey,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “A monkey.”

“But what do you see?” he asked.

She was about ready to punch him in the face, but refrained. Then she looked at the sign on the zoo’s cage.

“Oh,” she said. “The sign says that there are supposed to be two monkeys here, but there are only one. You couldn’t have just told me that?”

“That wouldn’t have been nearly as fun,” he said.

“This was fun?” she asked.

— — —

“You see, Andrea. I’m on the seafood diet.”

“I’ve heard this one, Barry,” Andrea said, voice weary. “You see food, and you eat it.”

“No,” Barry said. “That’s pansy shit. I see food, and then throw it at someone. I do that instead of eating it. It’s a surprisingly good way to lose weight.”

Cathect kept his feet propped up on the table. How many hours of Barry Ring had he watched? 100? 1000? How many hours could he sit there, watching this old, suspendered man?

It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. The team barely got called on these days, since Metahuman Affairs was busy dealing with internal matters. Blue had her internship, Nano had her girlfriend, and Hellfire…

Well, Hellfire was a demon. Who knows what the fuck demons do.

Cathect sighed, his feet sliding farther and farther across the table. No magic, no superhero stuff. He was just some college dropout — useless, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. So he would sit here, watching Barry Ring til his eyeballs fell out.

Actually, wasn’t this a rerun? Since when did they need to rerun Barry Ring? He was always on with a new episode.

A tap on the glass.

Cathect jumped for a second, then rubbed his eyes.

He saw a silver-haired fairy staring at him on the other side of the TV screen. Barry Ring and Andrea were talking, but their voices had been muted. The room was silent.

Am I drunk? Cathect asked himself. He began saying the alphabet backwards, “Z, Y, X… Close enough.” He wasn’t able to do it sober, anyway. He was probably sober.

Am I on drugs? he asked himself. He put his hand on his chest, but his heart didn’t feel like it was going to explode, so that probably wasn’t it.

Am I crazy? he asked himself. He probably was, but that wasn’t anything new.

The fairy tapped on the glass again. “I need your help.”

Cathect nodded his head, staring at the screen.

“Oh,” he said. “This is like Doctor Who.”

“Doctor Who?” she asked.

“That’s an old joke,” he said.

“Which doctor?” she said.

“You’re serious? Philistine.”

— — —

Nano and Bubblegum Shaman stood inside the elevator. Its doors closed.

*ding*

“I can’t believe you never followed up with her,” Bubblegum Shaman said.

“Don’t be mean!” Nano said. “I didn’t know her name or where she lived or anything.”

*ding*

“You knew she was a redheaded scientist who had created a body-swapping machine,” Bubblegum Shaman said. “It wasn’t that hard to find her in the Metahuman Database.”

*ding*

“I guess I just didn’t care enough?” Nano said. “When I see middle schoolers, I want to head in the opposite direction, you know?”

“I know,” Bubblegum Shaman said.

*ding*

“But,” she continued, “you’ve got to follow up. You can’t just let supervillains go.”

“How was I supposed to know she was a supervillain?” Nano asked. “She was a scientist. That doesn’t make her evil, necessarily. I mean mad scientists tend to be scientists–”

*ding*

“–just because of the name and all that, but not all scientists are mad. That’s a stereotype!”

“If you’re babysitting kids and they take over a criminal empire, child negligence is involved, at least.”

*ding*

“Kids are monsters!” Nano said, as the elevator doors opened. “And I’m not ready to judge people based off of first impressions.”

*CRACK*

“KILL ALL HUMANS,” a robot said, whirring and buzzing as it broke through the apartment’s front door and sped down the hallway. “KILL ALL HUMANS,” it said, looking like a robot straight out of a 50’s science fiction film. “KILL ALL HUMANS.”

Bubblegum Shaman gave Nano a look. “Can I trust my first impression of this situation?”

“You judging me like this would be such a problem,” Nano said, “but I like your butt so all is forgiven.”

Bubblegum Shaman gave Nano a puzzled look, but Nano replied with an incredibly sassy look.

“And anyway I was talking about judging people, not robots. So this is totally different.”

— — —

Hellfire stood in front of the church, getting accosted by the church lady.

“Have you heard the word of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” she asked. She wore a Mumu and a little hat. In one hand she held the Bible, in the other hand she held another, smaller Bible.

“Yeah,” Hellfire said, his eyes shifting around the Church’s courtyard. Everyone else was giving him looks, but this lady didn’t even seem to notice what he was.

“What do you think of it?” she asked.

“Well, uh…” he stopped to think about it. “I don’t think it’s for me.”

“Nonsense!” she said. “The Bible’s for everybody: kids, adults, people of any creed or nationality. Did you know Jesus was a Jew?”

“That’s really interesting,” Hellfire said. He was beginning to sweat. Had he ever been in such an uncomfortable situation?

“Oh,” she said, invading his personal space. “I’m sorry. I’ve got cataracts, so I can’t see too well. Are you one of those homo-sexuals?”

He sighed. “That’s not–”

“Jesus loved everyone, gays included,” she said. “I tell most people to try and forget about Deuteronomy. It’s the most boring book of the Bible, anyway.”

“Miss,” he said. “Could you–”

“My favorite book is Revelations,” she said. “I always thought Tom Cruise would have been great in the movie adaptation.”

“I have to go,” Hellfire growled, slipping away from the church lady.

— — —

Nano walked into the living room, only to find that the TV was silent. Her left eyebrow raised, cartoonishly and without thought. She moved closer to the couch, trying to figure out what the heck Cathect could be doing, where he could even be.

She walked towards his bedroom door and knocked on it.

No answer.

She jiggled the handle, only to find it open. A peek inside, only to find that no one was there.

Actually, though, she’d never seen his bedroom. There was a massive poster hanging on one of the walls, featuring a naked man with his junk covered up by whip cream.

Finding that curious, she stepped into the bedroom, walking towards it, getting close enough to read the tiny message scrawled on the whip cream.

It read: “We appreciated the apology letter. Come by again and we might have what you’re looking for. ;)”

Nano looked at the message, then looked at the naked man. Looked at the message, then looked back at the naked man.

That wasn’t a cum pun. Please don’t let that have been a cum pun.

She made her way out of Cathect’s bedroom, quickly and with great consternation.

She shut his door and leaned her back against it, taking in a deep breath.

Please for the love of god please don’t be a cum pun, she thought.

Not knowing what to do, Nano decided she might watch a bit of TV. It would be kind of nice, actually. She’d barely been able to touch the remote, with Cathect around.

She once again made her way to the remote, then turned on a random channel.

“Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis are hard men,” the television yelled, showing Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson climbing up a rope in nothing but their underwear. Bruce Willis was just one body length behind Liam Neeson.

“I once killed a man who stole my Go-Gurt,” Liam Neeson yelled.

“I once killed two men for improperly impersonating Santa Claus,” Bruce Willis yelled.

“I once telekinetically ruined a multibillion dollar franchise.”

“I once participated in kinky sex with Quentin Tarantino.”

Both men stopped climbing for a second, so that Neeson could look down at Willis.

“You’re right,” he said. “You are harder.”

“It was a good day to get hard,” Bruce Willis said. The camera zoomed in on his face, and he smirked.

“Nope,” Nano said, turning off the TV set.

She looked around, feeling smothered by the silence.

“Cathect?” she yelled. “Hellfire? Blue? Anybody?”

Blue’s bedroom door open and she walked into the living room. “What’s going on?”

“Cathect’s gone,” Nano said. “Not in his bedroom, not on the couch.”

Blue nodded her head. “That is kind of weird. But really it’s a good thing.”

“How is it a good thing?” Nano asked. “If he’s not here, he’s probably been kidnapped.”

“He’s been a little depressed recently,” Blue said. “He probably just had to get out of the house for something. Whatever it is will do him good.”

Nano sighed a bit, looking suspiciously around the room. “Alright,” she said. “But if Cathect becomes a ghost and decides to haunt us, I’m totally going to tell him to haunt you first.”

A bit of a smile slipped from Blue’s lips. “I’m so afraid.”

“You should be,” Nano said. “He’ll eat all your snacks.”

— — —

Cathect floated through televisual reality, unable to shake from his mind how similar this was to an acid trip he’d taken once.

“What are you?” Cathect asked, looking at the silver-haired thing flying in front of him.

“Me?” she asked. “I’m a fairy.”

“Hey,” Cathect said. “That term is really offen…”

“It’s what?”

“Nevermind,” he said, looking at her butterfly wings and generally sylvan body type. “I thought you were going somewhere else with that. Yeah, no. Say what you were going to say.”

“I’m the fairy that finds missing people.”

“That’s your job?”

“What’s a job?” the fairy asked.

“Ok, this isn’t… What’d you take me for? Slow workday, so you had to make someone missing just to create a bit of work for yourself?”

Her laugh was something of a titter.

Titter. There’s something uncomfortable about the word, isn’t there?

“No, silly,” she said. “The problem is that I’m new to this thing. I don’t understand your human world with all your human entertainments. So I had to kidnap an expert — someone who could explain this world to me while we find the man I’m looking for. And with your metahuman background, I figured you could handle yourself on this adventure!”

Cathect couldn’t help but smile. This is why he’d wanted to become a superhero, wasn’t it? For the wild adventures? The random happenstances? Everything had felt so regimented in the metahuman world — with all its forms and papers and rules. But originally, when he’d been some punk kid wearing a domino mask, patrolling the town with his childhood friends, it’d been all about wonder. All about possibility.

“Who are we looking for?” Cathect asked.

“Barry Ring,” she said, “a man who spent so many hours on television that he actually fell into televisual reality.”

“Cool,” Cathect whispered.

— — —

Blue kept her head down, walking with Jeremiah down the crowded sidewalk.

“You have to follow the monkey, you see?” Jeremiah said.

“Yeah,” Blue whispered. “I’m following the monkey.”

There was a throng of people in-between the two of them and the bipedal monkey. The monkey currently walked down the sidewalk wearing a trench coat and trilby. And Blue wanted to make sure they kept as close to the monkey as they could, without tipping him off. Doing so required great stealth.

“Yes,” Jeremiah said, much too loud for Blue’s comfort, “but are you following the monkey?”

“Sir,” Blue said, “All due respect, but I’m following the monkey.”

“Yes,” Jeremiah said, “but are you visualising the monkey, as you see it? Are you becoming the monkey as you follow the monkey? Are you feeling the monkey swirl around in the brain bits? Are you feeling its soul touch your soul, as souls sometimes touch each other? Are you following the monkey? Are you following the monkey? Are you following the monkey?”

“Sir!” Blue yelled, stopping. “I can follow a fucking monkey without you continuously repeating my need to follow a fucking monkey! Do you think I’m incompetent? Do you think I’m worthless? How dense do you think I am that I’d be completely unable to follow this fucking monkey?”

Blue took in a breath of fresh air, looking at her surroundings. Most people were looking at her, and the monkey was nowhere to be seen.

Crap, she thought.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said.

“Quite alright!” Jeremiah bellowed, patting Blue on the back in an uncomfortably grand way. “We all make mistakes while we’re learning. I just want to make sure that you’ve learned.”

“Make sure that I’ve learned?” she asked.

“I need you to tell me where you went wrong.”

“Sir, please don’t make me say it.”

“Blue,” Jeremiah said. “I really must insist that you say it.”

“Sir, I really don’t want to–”

“If you can’t admit to your mistakes, you can’t learn from them,” Jeremiah said. “So tell me. Where did this hunt go wrong?”

“I didn’t follow the monkey?” she asked.

“You didn’t follow the monkey,” Jeremiah said.

“I didn’t follow the monkey,” she whispered, voice filled with pain.

— — —

Hellfire’s father sat on a throne of swords.

I know what you’re thinking: Dear Narrator, hasn’t that already been done? Didn’t Game of Thrones do the sword throne thing first?

To that I say two things, dear reader. One, Hellfire’s father was a big fan of Game of Thrones. Is that such a crime? Do homages so burden your soul? And two, shut up!

Back to the narrative at hand…

Hellfire’s father sat on a throne of swords, while his monkey assistant stood next to him.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Hellfire said. “I wanted to burn the Church down with you, but the Church lady…”

Hellfire’s father, arms folded, gave a great and solemn nod. “I understand, my child,” he said. “We didn’t end up burning down the Church, because of that very same church lady.”

“Father!” Hellfire said.

“She was incredibly annoying,” the father said, “and therefore not worth the effort of vanquishing.”

“But Dad, if people find out that you gave up so easily–”

“Worry not, my child,” Father said. “My furry companion has a plan.”

“You see, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in this world,” the monkey said, speaking in the voice of a very old man, “but nothing makes people crazier than Nutella. So what I’ve been trying to tell your father is, why not waste all the Nutella? Steal all the Nutella, then just throw it in the sewers or something. You know how pissed off people will get?”

“Evil…” Hellfire grunted. “Dad, how could you?”

“Once the idea was presented, the option was easy,” Father said. “The question is, are you willing to join us, Son?”

“Dad,” Hellfire growled, tears welling up in his eyes. “I don’t know if I can.”

— — —

The redheaded mad scientist sat on the porch, watching four middle schoolers act like middle schoolers in the front yard. Which is to say, three of them beat the shit out of each other, while the fourth wore a Charizard hat and played on his Gameboy DXL Doobideeboop, or whatever the heck the latest iteration of that machine is called. (Gameboy 2015? Gameboy 4D? Gameboy Crack?)

As soon as she saw Nano and Bubblegum Shaman turn the corner to come and talk to her, she leaned her head back and muttered, “Crap.”

One of the middle schoolers ran up to Nano, yelling, “Hey douchebag you’re a piece of crap haha fuck you shitbag haha what’s on your mouth it’s shit haha get it shit shitty shit I love South Park.”

Nano, usually a more anxious person, took a deep breath. When faced with such a douchebag-y pipsqueak, she didn’t find that there was much to be anxious about: he was a douchebag, she was not. And that was all she needed to know.

She pushed him out of the way, walking towards the mad scientist.

The boy then walked up to Bubblegum Shaman, saying, “Hey, can I have a piece of bubblegum?”

“Sorry,” she said, “you can’t. This is special bubblegum.”

The boy pointed his finger at Bubblegum Shaman, yelling, “You’re a shitbag douche!” He then ran back to hang out with his friends.

“Do you think Amish middle schoolers are like this?” Nano asked, walking up the three wood steps that led to the porch.

Bubblegum Shaman laughed, shrugging her shoulders. “Honestly, I think that’s a very stupid question, but I appreciate you anyway.”

The scientist stood on one side of the screen door, while Nano stood on the other.

“Are you here about Barry Ring and that monkey switching bodies, because I swear to you that was the children’s doing, not mine.”

Nano paused for a second, trying to collect her thoughts. She took in a deep breath of air, then said, “No, but now I am.”

— — —

“I feel kind of bad now,” Nano said, riding a spaceship through the televisual waves. It was a small thing — something of a tight fit for both her and Bubblegum Shaman.

“What?” Bubblegum Shaman said. “Don’t feel bad.”

“That scientist is in jail now!” Nano said.

“She was also responsible for four children who switched a talk show host’s body with a monkey.”

“Which is a bad thing,” Nano said, “but middle schoolers are monsters! Honestly? If you left me alone with a pack of middle schoolers for more than five minutes, they’d probably end up assassinating the President.”

“That’s good to know,” Bubblegum Shaman. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

The televisual waves were incredibly surreal, but at this point Nano and Bubblegum Shaman barely noticed how weird some things were. For the less jaded readers, though, a description might be necessary.

Imagine a really glow-y tunnel — a wormhole, to be precise. Now imagine that this wormhole was filled with all the flotsam and jetsam of society: the soap opera that got cancelled after fifty years, that 80’s sitcom that people have mostly forgotten but it had the really catchy jingle that randomly gets stuck in your head, Regis Philbin. That’s exactly what this wormhole looked like.

On a strange floating circle there sat a man — nay, a legend. His name was Barry Ring, and he’d been live on television for far too many hours. There were two other people, though: Cathect and the silver-haired fairy.

Nano landed the ship. She and Bubblegum Shaman got out, looking at Barry Ring.

“Cathect, what happened?” Nano asked.

“Barry Ring is a monkey?” Cathect said.

‘It’s a long story,” Nano said.

“Ooh ooh ah ah,” the monkey in Barry Ring’s body said.

What the fuck did you expect him to say?

— — —

Jeremiah the Hunter drove his Jeep, while Blue sat in the passenger seat.

“What are we doing now, sport?” Jeremiah asked.

“We’re following the monkey,” Blue said.

“Ah, yes! But are we following the monkey, or are we following the monkey?”

Blue paused for a moment, “I’m going to go with the second one.”

Jeremiah laughed, shaking his head. “You’ll learn, young one. You’ll learn.”

Meanwhile, Hellfire’s dad followed Blue and Jeremiah the Hunter in another car. Hellfire sat in the passenger seat of his father’s car.

“There’s no Nutella here,” Hellfire said.

“No,” Hellfire’s dad said. “It isn’t.”

“I thought you said–”

“Why can’t you be like all the other demons?” Hellfire’s dad asked.

Hellfire gazed out the window, moodily. “I’m half-human.”

“But you can’t let that stop you,” Hellfire’s father said. “You need to be mean and evil and cool if you want to survive in this world.”

“Maybe you just have to be kind,” Hellfire said.

“Kindness?” Hellfire’s dead said. “Pha! Ptew! I spit on kindness. You know where kindness gets you? Heaven.”

“Gross,” Hellfire said.

“Exactly,” Hellfire’s dad said.

“So, Hellfire. Our furry friend is helping us out here. He’s luring Blue out into the open. And son, I need you to do something to prove your fealty to the inhuman cause. I need you to kill your teammate.”

“Father no!” Hellfire said.

Meanwhile, Nano, Bubblegum Shaman, and Cathect were looking for Barry Ring’s mind (which was currently in the body of the monkey). Bubblegum Shaman was driving, while the silver-haired fairy sat in the passenger’s seat, Nano, the monkey (which was currently in Barry Ring’s body), and Cathect sat in the back seat, in that order.

Since Barry Ring was still technically missing, the silver-haired fairy could trace his mind.

“He’s somewhere in the east,” she said in a dulcet tone, her eyes closed and her arms outstretched.

“So you don’t know the names of any streets, or anything?” Bubblegum Shaman asked.

“I don’t know anything about streets,” she said. “I only know where the missing have gone.”

“Seriously?” Nano said. “This whole ‘I don’t understand human civilization’ thing is already pretty old.”

“I’m not a member of civilization. I’m only a fairy.”

“Don’t worry,” Cathect said. “She can say that, because she is a fairy.”

“Why wouldn’t she be able to–” Nano said. She stopped mid-sentence when she realized what Cathect was saying. Leaning over the monkey, she slapped him. “You are such a douchebag.”

“Ow!” he said. “Watch out for the monkey.”

“You’re worse than Chick-Fil-A,” Nano said.

“I think we found him,” Bubblegum Shaman said, taking a turn at the intersection and cutting off Blue and Jeremiah’s car, “unless there are other monkeys driving cars in this town.”

“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised,” Nano said.

“Cool,” Cathect said, smiling.

So the four cars drove down the street. First there was Barry Ring’s mind, which was stuck in the body of a monkey. He was driving the first car, which must have been super-illegal, especially because his legs were kind of short and it was pretty hard for him to reach the pedals.

Then there were Bubblegum Shaman, Nano, Cathect, and the rest, in the car behind the monkey. Behind them were Blue and Jeremiah, and behind them were Hellfire and his dad.

The monkey, having difficulty driving on account of his short legs and general monkey nature, accidentally hit the brakes instead of the gas pedal. Bubblegum Shaman, though mildly startled, knew well enough to hit the brakes herself. Jeremiah the Hunter, with his many years of experience in trailing people, had the quick reflexes required to stop his car before it hit Bubblegum Shaman. But Hellfire’s father, distracted by how much of a disappointment his son was, didn’t hit the brakes hard enough. His car slammed into Jeremiah’s car, which bumped into Bubblegum Shaman’s car.

Blue jumped out of her car, trying to get to the monkey before he could speed away. The monkey, distracted by the small collision that had happened behind him, didn’t notice the woman racing towards it. She opened the monkey’s passenger door and hopped in, just about ready to strangle the bloody thing.

Cathect said, “What the fuck? That’s Blue.”

“We should check it out,” Nano said, opening her car door.

“What about Barry?” Cathect asked.

“He’ll be fine in the car,” Nano said.

Bubblegum Shaman decided to follow her girlfriend, so the three of them got out of the car, running towards the monkey’s car.

All the while Jeremiah sighed, unbuckling his seat belt. “Not following the monkey,” he muttered, getting out of the car and slamming the door shut.

Meanwhile, Hellfire and his father sat in the car.

“They’re going to escape,” Hellfire’s dad said. “You have to kill them! You have to kill them all, if you want to be cool!”

“Maybe life’s not about being cool, Dad,” Hellfire said, unbuckling his seat belt. “Maybe it’s about being kind.”

“Yeah, well look where kindness got your mother.”

Hellfire looked up at the sky, shedding the most dramatic tear you could ever imagine. Like I don’t mean to be a drama queen here but I’m pretty sure the tear was sparkling or some crazy-ass shit? It was like a liquid disco ball was falling from his face, but that really doesn’t give the impression of how damn emotional the thing was. For real. It was a symphony on his face.

“To Heaven,” he said. “Sorry, Dad. But I’m not you. I’m going to help my friends do whatever the fuck they want to do to that monkey!” He paused for a second. “Unless it’s sodomy.” He nodded his head, deciding that was a sufficiently dramatic speech. He opened the car door, then slammed it shut.

Hellfire’s father sighed, watching his son run to help his friend. He muttered the most offensive word he could think to call his child, “Uncool.”

Then, shaking his head, he pulled away from the scene, driving away.

Nothing more evil than speeding away from a car accident, he thought, giggling to himself. Haha, I’m so evil.

Hellfire ran towards the car, only to find that the real scene was happening on the sidewalk by the side of the car.

“You’re not following the monkey!” Jeremiah yelled.

“I have the fuking monkey in my fucking arms,” Blue yelled, wrestling with the monkey, the two of them such a mess of limbs that no one else really knew what to do.

Bubblegum Shaman stood there, concerned and not quite used to the insanity that seemed to follow this group around. Nano stood there, a little concerned but really all too used to the insanity that followed her and the team around.

Cathect? That motherfucker was just standing there, tears running down his face because he was laughing so hard.

“How can I–” Hellfire began. He wanted to help. He was there to help. But he wasn’t sure this was the sort of situation that could be helped.

“We have to get your brain back inside your body!” Blue yelled.

“No!” Barry Ring yelled. “No way Jose! I like it in here.”

Blue stopped struggling. Barry Ring did, too.

“Wait, what?” Blue asked.

“I like being in the body of a monkey,” Barry Ring said. “Those kids didn’t force me to switch places with the monkey. I wanted to.”

Cathect’s smile grew wider and wider. He was meeting his idol and for once in his life he knew exactly what Barry Ring was going to say next.

“I’m a furry,” Barry Ring said.

Everyone kind of just stood there, not knowing what to say.

Finally, Bubblegum Shaman said, “The monkey didn’t consent to any body-swapping. We have to put you back.”

The silver-haired fairy flew through the air, eyes closed as she sped towards the group.

“Hey, fairy!” Cathect said. “Sorry,” he whispered to Nano, but she just smacked him again. He continued, louder, talking to the fairy, “What happened to Barry Ring’s body?”

“It’s gone missing!” she yelled, flying away from them.

“Isn’t that your job?” Nano yelled back. “How can the fairy of lost thing lose something?”

“You’re bad at your job,” Cathect yelled.

“I don’t know what a job is!” the silver-haired fairy yelled.

Then, she was out of hearing range. Soon after that, she couldn’t even be seen. She’d flown into the clouds, towards some more mystical place where monkeys take on the form of men.

“So,” Blue said, trying to catch her breath from the exhaustion of the fight.

“So,” Barry Ring said, looking expectantly at Blue.

“I guess this is your new body,” Blue said.

“Looks like my work here is done!” Jeremiah yelled, exuberantly.

“What do you mean?” Blue asked.

“You learned the most important lesson of all.”

You crazy motherfucker don’t say it or so help me god–

“You followed the monkey,” Jeremiah said.

“I followed the monkey,” Blue said, ready to die.

Nano smiled, putting her hands on her hips. “All in a day’s work.”

“This is a day’s work for you guys?” Bubblegum Shaman asked.

“You better believe it,” Nano said. “You better believe it.”

Next Serial

Bonus Chapter Two

Table of Contents

Kinda Super Gay Bonus Chapter 2

“I’ve got it under control,” Bubblegum Shaman said, talking on the cell phone. My left hand was finger-locked with hers, as we strolled through the mall. “If I get attacked, I’m going to tell the press, ‘Bubblegum Shaman / fighting monsters in the mall / pop pop nirvana.’ Yeah, just make sure the book deal isn’t a total disaster. Just talk to him, okay? Yeah, alright. Talk to you later.”

She hung up. That was the third phone call she’d gotten during the date, but I was okay with that. Like, at least some conversation was going on, you know? It was better than the awful dates with Sotto Voce. So much better.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“My agent,” she said.

“I thought the last call was from your agent.”

“That was my book agent. The one I was just talking to was my PR agent.”

“But you were talking about a book.”

“My PR agent and my book agent sometimes coordinate,” Bubblegum Shaman said. “You know, to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.”

“Oh,” I said, swallowing hard. “Okay. That makes sense. You want to get some mall food?”

“Yeah,” she said. “That sounds good.”

So we walked through this kind of fancy mall, which had some indoor palm trees, an uncomfortably large number of fancy clothing stores, and two Teavanas.

Passing by an Auntie Anne’s kiosk, she asked, “You don’t have an agent?”

“I mean, I have an agency liaison,” I said. “My mom, which is kind of cool.”

“No, yeah. That is cool,” she said. “But I mean, you don’t have a PR agent?”

“No,” I said. “Should I?”

“No,” she said. “You don’t need to. It’s just nice, you know? To always have someone watching your back, making sure you don’t get bad PR.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “People just don’t really seem to care about what I do.”

“Not true,” she said. “I care.”

“Enough to be my PR agent?”

“Not even close,” she said, laughing.

“Figured it was worth a shot,” I said. The two of us entered the food court, a crazy kaleidoscope of all too many food choices. “I always feel like I’m making the wrong choice, when I’m here.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Like, no matter what I get to eat, there’s always going to be something tasty. When I’m in a room with pizza, I’m really going to want to have the pizza. But then again, when I’m in a room with Chinese food, I’m really going to want to have the Chinese food. And if I’m in a room that has good burgers? Forget it. I’m done. I gotta have it.”

“Mall Chinese food?” she asked. “It’s so bad. So fake.”

“Yeah,” I said, as we walked towards a guy offering falafel samples. “But it’s kind of like Mayo. I know it’s bad. As I’m eating it, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is disgusting,’ but there’s still something irresistible about it.”

“That sounds like a problem,” Bubblegum Shaman said, grabbing two pieces of falafel by the toothpick attached to them. She handed one to me.

“The tongue wants what it wants,” I said, taking the falafel and plopping it into my mouth. Wait. Shit. That wasn’t supposed to be an erotic statement.

“Oh, really?” Bubblegum Shaman said.

“Yeah,” I said, rushing to get away from the topic of my tongue. “Honestly, I wouldn’t even eat falafel, except that they offer free samples of it all the time.”

“Good marketing,” she said.

“I guess,” I said. “I mean, I even eat falafel, occasionally. Because I feel bad about always taking their free samples.”

“See?” Bubblegum Shaman said. “That’s good marketing.”

“Yeah, I–” I didn’t finish the thought. Instead, my attention was drawn to the small green man, furiously making his way towards us, mumbling something or other.

I looked at Bubblegum Shaman, and she looked at me. Neither of us seemed to know what to do.

He got close enough so that I could hear him mumbling, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.” Then he pushed past the two of us.

I let go of her hand, and she let go of mine. The little green man charged past us, mumbling bits of various Christmas songs.

“What is that?” Bubblegum Shaman.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Egregoric spirit?”

“Maybe,” she said.

We both watched the little green man turn a corner. Bubblegum Shaman began to follow him, and I followed her.

“Let’s make it interesting,” she said. “Ten bucks says you’re wrong.”

“Okay,” I said. “Yeah, sure. Girlfriend, bookie. What’s the difference?”

“I better be the only bookie you make out with,” Bubblegum Shaman said.

I laughed, which felt good. There was a little tingle up my spine. This felt good. Her and me? It was really good.

The two of us turned the corner, watching the little green man prance through the mall.

“Pretty sure you’re the only bookie I’d ever want to make out with,” I said. “Aren’t most of them fat old bald guys? Or is that just a stereotype? Am I being bookie-ist?”

“You’re ridiculous,” she said. “But, like, in a good way.”

I smiled. “Damn straight. Wait, that’s not what I–” I didn’t finish the sentence.

Instead, I watched the small green man take out his gun. He pointed it at a speaker, which was currently playing, “Call Me Maybe”.

“That’s not Christmas music!” he yelped, his creaky high-pitched voice hurting my ears. He shot the speaker, and people all around him fled, which was a pretty smart choice, all things considered.

“Jesus,” Bubblegum Shaman said, “What a nightmare.” She blew a big pink bubble of gum, then stuck her hand in it. It didn’t pop, like normal gum might have. Instead, it accepted her hand. Then, she pulled a small slingshot out. There was a little stone inside the sling.

She sucked the gum, and it went right back into her mouth.

“Sleigh bells ring,” he continued. “Are you listening?”

“Hey, Eggnog-for-brains!” Bubblegum Shaman yelled, pulling the slingshot back “Christmas is over.”

“But the Christmas spirit!” the elf yelled. “Oh, yes. The Christmas spirit is here forever!”

“Not on my watch,” she yelled. She closed one eye, then let the sling go.

*POINK*

The stone got the elf right in the head. He collapsed to the ground.

“I mean really,” I said. “Isn’t two months of holiday spirit enough?”

Bonus Chapter Three

Bonus Chapter One

Table of Contents

Kinda Super Gay Bonus Chapter One

“Star Wars was kind of a weird name for the first movie, don’t you think? Really it was just one war,” Barry Ring said, blathering on the TV set.

Cathect sat on the sofa, bare feet propped up on the living room table.

“Why is that guy always on TV?” Blue asked. “Does he have multiple shows or something?”

“One show,” Cathect said, “but I think whenever they have an empty spot in the schedule, they get him to fill it.”

“Why?” Blue asked.

“Guy’s a social media sensation,” Cathect said. “Ironic, probably.”

She sighed a little, sitting in a chair and looking at her laptop. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

“Better than watch Barry Ring? What could be better than watching Barry Ring?”

“Figuring out your future, becoming an actually valuable member of society,” Blue said, “There are so many options to choose from.”

“I’m valuable,” Cathect said. “I do things.”

“Oh really,” Blue said.

“Yeah, really,” Cathect said. “I’ve got an arch-nemesis and everything!”

“You’re serious?” Blue asked.

“Her name’s Arcana. Childhood friend turned criminal witch. You can figure out the rest.”

“I’m flattered,” Blue said, “but I really can’t.”

“She’s actually what got me into the whole superhero thing. When we were younger–”

“Oh my god,” Nano said, walking into the living room. “What do you wear on a gay date?”

Blue and Cathect sat there for a moment, looking at Nano, who looked perfectly fine.

“What you would wear on a normal date,” Blue said.

“Is this a trick question?” Cathect asked.

Nano took in a deep breath. Then she said, “It’s not like I’m nervous or anything. I mean, I already know Sotto Voce, you know? We’ve talked. We’ve fought bad guys together. I mean, this has to be better than fighting a guy with a fedora, right?”

“You sound nervous,” Blue said.

“It’s just–” Nano paused, trying to figure out why she felt so nervous. “What if I mess up, you know? Like, she saved my life. More than once! What if I’m boring? What if I say something stupid? It’s like, I feel like I owe her. I feel like… ugh. I don’t know.”

“She wants to go out with you,” Blue said. “Don’t worry about the rest. It’s not important.”

“Besides, if the date goes horribly–”

“Cathect!” Blue said.

“I said ‘if’!” Cathect said. “If it goes horribly, it probably won’t be your fault.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nano asked, scrunching her face up a little bit.

“I’ve met some egregoric spirits before. They’re always…”

“They’re always what?” Nano asked.

“I don’t know,” Cathect said. “They’re always–”

“SHIT!” Hellfire yelled, shirtlessly bursting into the living room.

“Hey, Hellfire,” Nano said. “How’s your sanity holding up today?”

“My jacket,” he said, holding it out in front of him. “It’s gone.”

“I thought you took it to the dry cleaner’s,” Blue said.

“I just called them,” Hellfire said. “They lost it.”

“Geez, man,” Cathect said. “I’m sorry. But you’ve got others ones, so I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“That was the original jacket,” Hellfire said, “My favorite jacket.”

“Okay,” Cathect said.

“I’m a motherfucking demon,” Hellfire said, storming towards the door. “My jacket will be returned.”

He swung open the door and left the apartment.

“Should someone go after him?” Nano asked.

“I actually have to get ready for my internship.” Blue turned off her laptop.

“I can’t, either,” Nano said. “You know, first date and everything.”

Cathect’s phone buzzed. He looked at it and said, “Arch-nemesis just texted me. Says she’s going to break into some old guy’s tomb and steal this mad-powerful ring.”

“Your arch-nemesis texts you?” Nano asked.

“What, is that weird?”

“That’s pretty fucking weird, Cathect,” Nano said.

Cathect shrugged his shoulders. “Well, we’re all going to be pretty busy tonight, so we’ll let Hellfire figure out his own shit.”

“Works for me,” Blue said.

— — —

“… psychosphere. Mellow Yellow [incoherent Scottish shit],” The Web said, standing outside the warehouse door, his face bathed in fluorescent lighting. He wore a pink fur coat, round sunglasses with purple lenses, and the most obnoxious soul patch imaginable.

Blue stood next to him, utterly confused.

“Understood,” Blue said, nodding her head.

The Web looked at her, pointing at the door. He mumbled some more incoherent Scottish shit. It sounded a little impatient, so Blue decided to make an impatient move.

She grabbed the handle of the large warehouse shutter. Then, using all her strength, she pulled it up. As soon as the shutter was above her head, a swirling yellow mass flew towards her. She heard something that sounded like clicking or chirping — she couldn’t decide which.

The yellow mass circled around her. It almost looked like paint getting brushed against the sky. But it moved of its own volition. Blue got a headache just trying to look at it.

She closed her eyes and punched at the thing. It felt sticky, but she hit it again.

After a few seconds, it stopped encircling her. It darted off into the dark black night.

“[Completely unintelligible Scottish shit] fuckin’ fuck ye shit fuck [more unintelligible Scottish shit] hole in reality that [idek if it was Scottish or tongues it was just really fuckin’ weird].”

“Hear you loud and clear,” Blue said. “We’ll get it next time.”

— — —

I need that jacket, Hellfire thought, standing in line at the dry cleaner’s. He waited impatiently behind a group of four theater geeks, confused by their frantic snapping and general overenthusiasm.

“I am a superhero!” one sang.

“More like a superzero,” the second chimed in.

“And one and two and three and four,” the first one sang.

“Bang!” “Plow!” “Boom!” “Pow!” all four of them sang, trying desperately to be in harmony.

“Four sequin vests,” the dry cleaner said, a thick short man with heavy eyebrows and no noticeable smile.

“That’s us!” one sang.

“That’s us!” the second one sang.

And so on and so forth.

The four of them snapped their way out of the dry cleaner’s, taking all noticeable signs of life with them.

Hellfire walked up to the dry cleaner’s counter, fuming.

“I need my jacket,” Hellfire said, setting his hands on the counter.

“Ah, yes,” the dry cleaner said, standing on the other side of the divide. “You are jacket-loving man-demon.”

“Sure,” Hellfire said. “Where’s my jacket.”

“As I try and explain on the phone,” the dry cleaner said. “We lost the jacket.”

“Any ideas where it could’ve gone?” Hellfire asked.

“Is possible that was mixed up with other man’s clothing. Sometimes happens.”

“Whose.”

“Eh, there are several possibilities,” the man said. “I write them down?”

“Sure,” Hellfire said.

The man picked up a pen and notepad. “First there is bronze bunny rabbit. Very disconcerting. I ask him, ‘Why you wear Uggs?’ He say, ‘Bronze bunny get cold, just like everybody else.’”

That went on for a while.

— — —

Cathect waltzed into the tomb, whistling. It was even colder than here than it was outside, which made him glad he’d worn a sweater.

“Hey,” a voice said from behind him.

“Ah!” he yelled whipping out his wand. He spun around. “Abracadabra!”

Arcana leaned against the wall, smiling. “You stole that, didn’t you?”

“I had to give away the Tarot cards. A guy does what he has to to get by,” Cathect said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that you are evil and I am good and therefore I get to kick you butt.”

“Says the thief.”

“Shazam!” Cathect yelled, pointing the wand at Arcana.

“Oh no,” she said unconvincingly, sticking her hands in the air. “You got me. How will I ever survive?”

“What is this?” Cathect asked. “Are you messing with me? I’m a really awesome superhero. So give back the amulet or whatever that you stole.”

“It wasn’t here,” she said. “I’m hoping for better luck next time.”

“Well you’re still obviously a bad guy. Go go Power Rangers!” Cathect said, not really surprised when the wand didn’t do anything.

Arcana shook her head, walking up to him. She grabbed the wand, pointed it at him, and said, “Repellendum.”

Cathect flew back a foot, landing on the back of his head.

“Oh, shit,” he said, head throbbing. He put his finger on the wound. There was some blood.

Arcana walked up to him and put her lips within an inch of his. “Better brush up on your Latin,” she said. She dropped the wand on the floor and walked away.

— — —

Nano realized she and Sotto Voce hadn’t said a word for the past five minutes. She took a sip of water and looked around the restaurant, trying to think of what she could possibly say.

“So,” she said. “Cloaks.”

Sotto Voce sat there, looking somewhat mouseish, wearing her cloak. “Yeah.”

“Doesn’t get, y’know, hot or anything?”

“No,” Sotto Voce said. “Not really.”

“Mhm,” Nano said. “You fight crime?”

Sotto Voce looked around for a second. “Yeah. You know that.”

“Yeah,” Nano said. “I do.” She laughed nervously, taking another sip of water.

As their waitress came by, Nano said, “Ma’am, can I have the check?”

The waitress looked down at Nano. “You guys haven’t ordered anything yet.”

Nano laughed nervously, again.

— — —

“So then I say to the guy, ‘I don’t care if you screw goats. I just don’t want you screwing my goat. Only I can screw my goat,” Barry Ring said, laughing at his own joke on the TV set.

Nano stood in the kitchen, pouring some milk into a bowl. She looked over the countertop and saw Cathect in the living room, feet on the table.

“Hey, Cathect?” Nano said.

“Yeah.”

“You’ve had a lot of girls break up with you, right?”

“Yeah,” he said. “How’d you–”

“Just a hunch,” she said. “I was wondering. Did anyone ever break up with you in a nice way? You know, like, if you’d saved someone’s life and then you went on a date with them but then they broke up with you it was the sort of break-up that wouldn’t upset you?”

Cathect took in a deep breath of air. “Nope. Not really. Break-ups suck, universally. Date with Sotto Voce didn’t go well?”

“We just didn’t have anything to talk about,” Nano said. “I mean, life-threatening danger is nice, but what about when we actually need to just sit down and understand each other, you know? How’s that supposed to work?”

Blue walked into the living room, fuming. “It’s like Scottish people speak a different fucking language!”

“They do,” Cathect said. “It’s called Gaelic.”

“That’s not what I mean, you stupid dipshit,” Blue said.

“You okay?” Nano asked.

“It’s this internship,” Blue said. “My boss just doesn’t make sense. He has this really heavy accent, and whenever he says something that I can just barely make out, it’s about tears in the universe and psycho-whatevers. I can’t do it! I can’t take orders from a guy I can’t understand!”

“Sounds like a problem,” Cathect said. “Shame Craig Ferguson just stopped doing his show.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Cathect said.

“I’ve been watching Youtube videos of Scottish guys,” Blue said. “But none of them make sense. None of them.”

Hellfire opened the front door, stumbling in.

“Hellfire,” Blue said. “Where were you?”

“Going through a list of names,” he said, bumbling towards the bedrooms. “One of these people has my jacket.”

“It’s noon,” she said. “You’ve been out all night?”

“I’ll find that jacket,” he said. “Just… need… nap.” He opened the door to his room and slammed it shut.

“At least you’re not him, right?” Cathect asked.

“What’s been going on with you, Cathect?” Nano asked. “How’d the battle with your arch-nemesis go?”

“Pretty well?” Cathect said. “She threw me to the floor, but it turns out the amulet wasn’t even there.” He sat for a second, debating whether or not to say the next part. But he had to know: “I think my arch-nemesis wants to have sex with me. Or maybe I want to have sex with her. I’m not sure. Is that normal?”

— — —

Cathect stood in front of the sex shop, scratching his head as he looked up at the neon sign, which glowed with the words, “Good Vibes.”

This feels like a mistake, he thought to himself. At least it’ll be a fun mistake.

He pushed open the door, walking into the sex shop. He was greeted by a massive picture of a naked man, with a thick clump of whipped cream hiding his crotchular region.

Not bad, Cathect thought.

He turned to his left and saw a werewolf standing at the counter.

“Are you guys…” Cathect stopped. He knew this was a mistake, but Arcana was hot enough to make him throw caution to the wind. “Did you guys lose a magic dildo recently?”

The werewolf stood there for a second, side eying Cathect. “Is this a joke?”

“Probably,” Cathect said. “I heard… A source of mine said that a magic dildo was stolen here in the last 24 hours?”

“Get the fuck out of my store,” the werewolf said.

“That’s fair,” Cathect said, shaking his head. “Yeah. I think I’ll do that.”

— — —

Four names left. Hellfire had googled one of them, Burt Dudly, tracking him down to his apartment. Burt stood in the bedroom, donning Hellfire’s leather jacket. Hellfire perched on the rooftop across the way, staring him down.

The half-demon took a sip of black coffee. He winced, crushing the styrofoam cup and tossing it to the side.

“Not good,” he muttered to himself.

He watched Burt. He waited.

The man put on two spiked leather gloves. He donned a ski mask, grabbed a bat, and walked out the door.

Hellfire raced down the fire escape, shoes clacking against the metal. By the time the man walked out the front door of the tenement building, Hellfire was standing there. Watching. Waiting.

Burt stood there, wearing the ski mask and wielding the bat. “Can I help you?”

“Going to a Halloween party?” Hellfire asked.

“It’s December.”

“I know. Weird time to be having a Halloween party.”

“Yeah,” Burt said. “That would be weird.”

“You’re not going to a Halloween party, are you, Burt?” Hellfire said, snarling.

“I never said I was–”

“That’s my leather jacket.”

Burt pointed at the jacket he was currently wearing. “This jacket?”

“That jacket.”

“You want it back?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re already wearing a jacket,” Burt said. “How many leather jackets do you own?”

“Just give me the jacket,” Hellfire growled.

Burt set the baseball bat down, taking off the jacket.

“You into Little League Baseball?” Hellfire asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Burt said.

“Yeah, well I’m Babe fucking Ruth, Burt. And I don’t like to see guys with baseball bats and ski masks running around my city.”

“Alright,” Burt said. He handed the leather jacket to Hellfire. “It was just cold out.”

“And the bat?” Hellfire asked.

“Big Leagues,” the man said, turning around to walk back inside his building.

Hellfire held one leather jacket, wearing another. He stared at the door, for several seconds. Then, shaking his head, he began the walk home.

— — —

“Minds are webs and [incoherent Scottish shit],” The Web said, sticking another pin into the pinboard. The collection of note cards and pictures was about as coherent to Blue as the man’s accent.

A photo of red Rocky Horror Picture Show lips was pinned to a red string, which led to a note card that said, “Fiction is Real.” The “Fiction is Real” notecard was pinned to a yellow string, which led to a picture of a green vibrator, which had the words, “Men are Irrelevant,” scribbled at the bottom in Sharpie.

“Scotland Coyote,” The Web said, only to drift back into his incoherent Scottish accent.

Blue looked around the room for something to bang her head into, repeatedly.

— — —

“So,” Nano said, sitting on the park bench, moon high in the sky. “This has been fun.”

Sotto Voce sat down on the park bench. “I just got here.”

— — —

Cathect sat on the couch, gazing in horror at the video on his laptop.

“…magic dildo was stolen here in the last 24 hours?” the twelve-second video of him said.

“Get the fuck out of my store,” the werewolf said.

“Oh,” Cathect said, out loud. “Oh, no.”

“What’s up?” Nano asked, walking into the living room.

“Five hundred thousand views,” Cathect said.

“What?”

“I just checked out that website Blundered Capes. An embarrassing video of me got five hundred thousand views in a single day. I thought Arcana was into me, but really she was just getting me to trust her so I’d say some stupid stuff for her stupid video.”

“Oh,” Nano said.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, no,” Nano said.

“Yeah.”

“Cathect, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Cathect said. “My life’s over, but it’s fine. My porn star clone isn’t even on the first page of Google results anymore. Now the first page is just everyone making fun of what a dumbass I am. They don’t know me.”

“Well…”

“C’mon,” Cathect said. “Don’t kick a man when he’s down.”

Blue walked into the living room, smile on her face. “How are you guys?”

“Socially ostracized, a complete laughingstock,” Cathect said.

“Old news,” Nano said.

Cathect sighed. “Blue, you look really chipper. Are you happy my life’s ruined?”

“I talked to the internship coordinator,” Blue said. “She said I can transfer to have another superhero show me the ropes. All I have to do is stick with The Web for one more night. One more night, and I won’t have to deal with that awful fucking accent ever again.”

Hellfire burst out of his room, making his way through the living room. “Lord, let me be your instrument.”

“Are you talking to Jesus?” Cathect asked.

Hellfire paused for a moment. “No. Satan, Lord of Hell.” He walked out the front door.

“At least he got his jacket back,” Blue said.

“Yeah.”

“Hey, Nano,” Blue said. “With all the trouble this internship’s been giving me, I forgot to ask about your date last night. How’d it go?”

“Good,” Nano said, voice cracking a little bit as she lied so blatantly. “We had a lot of fun. I think we’re going on another date next week and everything.”

Blue’s cellphone rang. “Crap,” she said, taking it out and answering it. “Oh, yeah? You want me to kill– Okay, yeah. I’m glad that’s not what you said. No, I haven’t ever– Yeah. Okay. I’ll be right over.” She hung up the phone.

“Your boss?” Cathect said.

“Yeah,” Blue replied. “Thinks he’s got a lead on Mellow Yellow. At least, I think that’s what he called me about. Crap.” She walked towards the door.

“You want us to back you up?” Nano asked.

“No,” Blue said. “I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”

She rushed into her room to grab a coat. Then, she rushed out the door.

Cathect sighed. “So, how are things really going with Sotto Voce?”

“Shut up.”

“No, really,” Cathect said. “I’m not trying to make fun of you. It makes sense if you guys have problems.”

“Makes sense?”

“In the heat of battle, everything seems sexy,” Cathect said. “But you can’t fight bad guys all the time. That’s not how relationships work.”

Nano nodded her head. “I guess you’re right.”

“It’s hard to be a genius.” Cathect leaned back, putting his hands behind his head.

Nano smirked, leaning over and turning on the Blundered Capes video again.

“A source of mine said that–” the video said. Cathect muted it.

“Point taken,” he said.

“Should we go help Blue out?” Nano asked.

“She said she didn’t want backup.”

“Yeah,” Nano said. “I know. It’s just that she kind of seems like she might need help. I don’t want her to get a bad reputation on the intern scene.”

“What did you just say?”

“I… I don’t want her to get a bad reputation? On the intern scene?”

“There’s an intern scene?” Cathect said.

“I don’t know. I mean, there must be, right?”

“A rumor mill, maybe. But a scene?”

“Whatever,” Nano said. “You want to help her or not?”

Cathect set the laptop aside, fumbling to grab his wand, which he’d left on the floor. “You have Google Translate on your phone?”

“Yeah,” Nano said.

“Find it and look up ‘Find her’ in Latin.”

— — —

No matter where she was or where they were, the wand pointed in Blue’s direction. Nano drove, while Cathect wielded the compass-like wand.

“I guess a magic dildo would be pretty impractical,” Cathect said. “I mean, it might be fun, but why would a supervillain need it?”

Nano kept her eyes glued to the road. “You really need to ask me that?”

“You’re right,” Cathect said. “I just don’t see how the need for a magic dildo could be related to their criminal enterprise.”

“I mean, are criminals smart like that? Does everything they do really have to be related to building an empire? Especially the sort that go and rob sex shops?”

“I guess you’re right,” Cathect said. “It’s just that I wanted to believe Arcana so bad. You know, because she–”

“–had a nice body,” Nano said.

“I was going to say, ‘Seemed nice.’”

“I know,” Nano said. “I wanted to stop you before you lied.”

— — —

Hellfire leaped from one rooftop to the next, his form flying silently through the air. He landed, continuing to prowl.

Burt walked on the sidewalk below, baseball bat strapped to his back. Hellfire figured he was some sort of non powered vigilante; probably unregistered. That said, you never knew until you saw these guys in action. Unregistereds were volatile, unknowable.

And so Hellfire followed. And so he waited.

— — —

“[Incoherent Scottish shit that sounds like it’s coming from a dog who’s just learning to understand the human language],” The Web said.

“Yeah,” Blue said, standing outside the art gallery and wielding a bat. “Mellow Yellow’s hiding out here.”

“[The dog understands how syllables work for the most part, but he hasn’t fully come to understand the order they belong in].”

The Web’s words sounded like a confirmation, so Blue said, “You want me to get in there and find him.”

“[The dog’s trying really hard. He deserves a treat or something, seriously. A dog trying to learn how to speak English? That’s fucking awesome.]”

Blue took the words as a confirmation, so she ran up to the gallery door and kicked it.

*CRASH*

“[The dog is angry, and nobody has any fucking clue as to why. Seriously, dog. Is there a mailman nearby? Are you pissed off I haven’t gotten you that treat I just promised? Christ, if you just knew how to fucking speak English it’d be easier on all of us. Seriously.]”

Blue ignored The Web, walking into the art gallery and looking for her prey. The bat felt heavy in her hand. She was ready for a fight, which had to be better than trying to decipher The Web’s speech patterns.

“NO!” a man screamed, running towards Blue. He swung a bat at her just as she pivoted. She swung her bat, deflecting his blow just in time.

*THWAP*

The man’s name was Burt, though Blue didn’t know it yet. He was practically frothing at the mouth as he raised his bat high in the air. He moved to swing it down upon her, but Blue hit his face, first.

He fell down. Blue wiped sweat off her forehead.

Hellfire entered the gallery; The Web was just behind him.

“[The dog is frightened. Why, little dog? Why are you so frightened? Wait, some little girl’s stuck in a well? Holy shit, Fido! Time to go spelunking!]”

Hellfire, now in his bulkier, demon-y form, leaped through the air, crossing the distance between him and Blue in order to attack Mellow Yellow, who was right behind Blue.

“Holy shit,” Blue said.

The yellow streak attempted to wrap itself around Hellfire, but the demon was stretching it, trying to rip it apart.

Cathect and Nano entered the room just as Burt said, “No. Stop. That’s my wife.”

“What?” Blue asked.

Hellfire stopped fighting Mellow Yellow. As he did, the yellow substance began to stretch across his body.

“She… was just watching two superheroes fight,” Burt said. “One of them broke through a space-time barrier. Yellow Matter spilled out. And now she’s… Now she’s this thing.”

“[The dog is ready to piss on something. Seriously, dog? Why couldn’t you be a parrot? At least parrots pretend to make sense.]”

“Oh,” Cathect said. “Blue, whack it with the bat a couple times.”

Blue looked puzzled, but took the bat and whacked Mellow Yellow with it. It vibrated a little bit, weakening its grip on Hellfire. Blue whacked it again. Mellow Yellow weakened its hold. Back and forth it went until Mellow Yellow unstuck itself from Hellfire, spinning rapidly in the air.

The rapidly-spinning Mellow Yellow turned into a portal. A woman spat out of the portal, landing on the ground. Then, Mellow Yellow spun itself out of existence.

“What,” Nano said.

“[The dog is suddenly a scientist. Sure, it’s a scientist that doesn’t speak English, but what that really means is that you’re the idiot. You don’t understand this genius dog? It had the answers all along. Oh, the perils of language barriers. Oh, the perils of your stupidity.]”

“What,” Nano repeated.

“Guys, he’s speaking English. It’s just that he has a slightly Scottish accent.”

“Yeah, but sir,” Blue said. “I honestly don’t have any clue how you make English sound like that. Cathect, what is he trying to say?”

“Alternate timelines,” Cathect said. “Crises on a bunch of different earths. Something about dark matter turning into yellow matter. Something about the woman travelling through different dimensions.’

“What,” Nano said again.

“You have no fucking clue, do you?” Blue said, sounding a little winded.

“No,” Cathect said. “Not really. I think he might be on drugs.”

“[The dog has given up. The dog is ready for a revolution. Viva la revolución, Fido!]”

Nano’s phone buzzed. “Hold on, I probably care about this text way more than whatever this is.”

She opened her phone and read the text message from Sotto Voce. It said: “going to be out of town for the next year. bye.”

“Oh,” Nano said.

— — —

“Andrea, normally I don’t like to get too personal on this show, but since we’ve been on-air for the past twelve hours, I’d like to share with you a somewhat personal thought of mine,” Barry Ring said, blathering on the TV screen.

“This isn’t going to be about the Illuminati again, is it?” Andrea asked.

“No,” Barry Ring said. “It’s about the way I see my own identity. You see, sometimes I like to think of myself as a cross between Alan Moore and Kathy Griffin.”

“It wasn’t like a break-up break-up,” Nano said, sitting on the couch, watching Barry Ring. “It was more of an ‘I’m leaving this town and it might be because I want to avoid you for the next twelve months’ sort of thing.”

“Egregoric spirits,” Cathect said. “Can’t live with ‘em.”

Blue walked into the living room, arms raised high. “Freedom.”

“You have a new boss?” Nano asked.

“Yeah,” Blue said. “I talked to him on the phone. Understood what he was saying and everything.”

“What was his name?” Nano asked.

“Well…” Blue said.
“Can’t be worse than crazy drugged-up incomprehensible Scottish guy, can it?”

“He’s called ‘Jeremiah the Hunter’.”

“That sounds bad. What’s his deal?” Cathect asked.

Blue opened her mouth to explain, but Nano said, “Honestly, I don’t want to know.”

“Fair enough,” Blue said.

Hellfire walked into the living room.

“Look what Satan dragged in,” Cathect said.

Hellfire stopped.

“Cathect, why are you like this?” Nano asked.

“Genetics and bad parenting, probably,” he said.

Hellfire scratched his head. “Sorry I’ve been busy. How’ve you guys… been?”

“Good,” Nano said. “Actually I’m kind of curious. Why does that jacket mean so much to you? Like, I know you said it was just because you looked cool, but you’ve got a bunch of them now and you’re still so attached to this one. Why is that? Like, I hope I’m not–”

“It’s fine,” Hellfire said. “You’re right. It’s not just because it makes me look cool.”

“So,” Nano said. “Not to push the point, but why’s it such a big deal?”

Hellfire sighed, taking his jacket off. He walked over to Nano, showing her the patch sewn on the inside of the jacket. With sewed on letters it said, “Your mother loves you.”

Cathect laughed. “Turns out you were a sap after all.”

Bonus Chapter Two

Previous Chapter

Table of Contents

Chapter Seventeen: Out of Here

“So,” Jane said. “This is awkward.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, walking across the glass floor.

“That this is awkward?” Jane asked, obviously confused.

Marquez raised her eyebrow. “There’s nothing you can do to me that would warrant an apology.”

“I’m sorry what society did to you,” I said. I stopped, about ten feet from Jane and Marquez. Charlie was to the left of the desk, tied to a chair. She looked pissed, but also afraid. Sotto Voce sat in the chair next to her, getting tied up by Jane, who was wearing Sotto Voce’s cloak.

Marquez crossed her arms, nodding her head a few times, like she was really thinking about what I’d said. “Me too.”

“Things could’ve been different,” I said. “In another world, I bet you would’ve been really cool.”

“I’m cool in this world,” she said, almost purring the words. There was a glimmer of danger in her eyes, a glimmer of anger.

“You’re hurt in this world,” I said. “You’re mean and you’re hurt and it’s all because people didn’t accept you for who you were. They didn’t accept you for being gay,” Jane looked uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get through to Marquez, I wanted her to know that I understood.

“How are you so sure?”

“I know the stories, Marquez. Charlie told them to me.” Marquez cast a glance at Charlie. I kept talking. “She told me how you two dated when Charlie thought she was a guy and you thought you were straight. And she told me that you two had a nice breakup when you realized you were gay. Charlie said you should tell your parents. But when you did try telling your parents, they kicked you out. Charlie told me your mother tried to kill you, when she found out.”

Marquez closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “The stories she told you are true,” she said. She cast a glance at Charlie. “Your mother never was a liar. But that’s the thing about people hurting you. They do it again and again, until you stop giving them the power. You let straight people hurt you until they can’t anymore. Eventually, you stop caring about them. That’s when you strike back.”

“But I never hurt you,” I said.

“No,” she said. “You didn’t.”

“Charlie didn’t mean to,” I said.

“She sided with them,” Marquez said. “The cis people. The cysts. Those ugly, ignorant people who never even stopped to think how fluid the world is, those sheep who are merely along for the ride, never stopping to think about their pathetic different lives. She said I should see my father again. She said I should forgive him, for marrying that wretch of a woman. Those stupid–”

“Not all–” I began.

“Don’t,” she spat, cutting off my words. “I hate Charlie because she defended them. And now I’m going to show what happens when we turn on our own.”

“How?” I asked, afraid.

“By offering you a choice,” she said. “Come closer.”

I paused.

“Come closer,” she said. “Wasting my time isn’t good for your mother’s health. Not for your friend, either.”

Jane stood next to Sotto Voce. A piece of darkness from the cloak that Jane was wearing grabbed Sotto Voce’s throat. Another stretched over and covered Charlie’s mouth and face.

I walked over to Marquez. She opened a drawer.

“If you don’t do exactly as I say, Jane’ll kill them both. Isn’t that right, Jane?”

“Yeah,” she said, giggling. “You always know how to make things fun, Mac.”

Marquez slipped her hand into the drawer and pulled out a gun.

“You’ve got two options,” she said. She gently took the gun and turned it around, so that it was pointing right at her forehead. “Come on. Lean in a little.”

My hands were shaking, but I did. I leaned over the desk, my hand only an inch away from the gun.

“Hold it,” Marqeuz whispered. “Grab it.”

I couldn’t. My hands were sweating. My heart felt like a bomb that exploded with every beat. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.

Marquez used her free hand to grab my wrist. She guided my hand over to the gun. I held it, loosely. She carried the weight, but my hand was there, wrapped around the gun. It felt cold.

“Kill me,” Marquez purred, “or your mother will die.”

“What?” I asked.

“Kill me,” Marquez repeated, “or your mother will die.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks. “Why?” I whispered.

“Because I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” she said. “Because it doesn’t matter what shape I turn into. People won’t ever accept me for who I am. Not if they know. And if I’m going to go, I might as well ruin Charlie, with me. And seeing you turn into a murderer? That will ruin her. And her ruination make the afterlife worth living.”

I looked over at Jane, to see if any of this was a surprise to her. Could she really watch the woman she loved kill herself? I could barely see her, she was so covered in shadow. But a bit of her face peaked out from behind the cloak’s hood. She was smiling. She looked turned on.

I yanked the gun out of Marquez’s hand.

*BANG*

The cloak receded from Charlie and Sotto Voce’s necks. It moved to capture the bullet.

*BANG* *BANG* *BANG*

The cloak caught each bullet as I ran towards Jane. I hit her over the head with the gun, and she slumped to the ground.

That,” Marquez said. “Wasn’t an option.”

I held the gun out, pointing it at her as I tried to untie the knot binding Sotto Voce’s wrists.

“I didn’t like the options,” I said. “I know who I am, and I couldn’t take either of those options.”

I’d almost finished untying Sotto Voce when I felt Marquez reach out and swat the gun away from me. Sotto Voce groaned a little bit while Marquez grabbed my wrist, pulling me away. Her arms were stretched out, but shrunk some as she pulled me closer.

“You know who you are?” she asked. “You’re queer. That’s who you are. That’s all you are. And all that you’re doing is denying your true nature.”

“No,” I said. “I am queer. I am hella queer. But I’m so much more than that. And I’m not going to let some fucked up bitch tell me that I have to go crazy to be gay.”

“When people see you,” she said, her flesh pulling me in. “They only define you by one thing. ‘Fat,’ ‘Black,’ ‘Crazy’. Only one thing defines you in people’s mind — that one thing that everyone thinks of you as. And it’s whatever makes you different. It’s whatever makes you Other. You and I? We’re queer. We’re queer from now til doomsday.”

“I’m queer,” I said. “And I’m proud of that. But I’m so much more.”

I squeezed my arm out of her arms, which had wrapped themselves around me. I jabbed one of my fingers into her eyes. She recoiled, letting go.

I turned around just as Sotto Voce was shaking in her chair. She pushed herself just far enough so that the chair tumbled on its side. She was inching closer to her cloak.

I dashed over to her. I checked behind me and Marquez was stretching her arm out, trying to grab me. I jumped, landing flat on my face, but just close enough to the cloak that I could fling it Sott Voce’s way. Marquez dragged me back towards her, the thick glass floor squeaking as my face slid across it. I looked at the fish in the water, wondering if fish ever had to deal with shit like this.

Sotto Voce’s cloak reached out, veering straight past me. I craned my neck in the most awkward way possible, just barely managing to watch Sotto Voce’s cloak slap Marquez. Something about that was rewarding. She let go of me and tried holding onto the shadowy cloak. But it was no use. Sotto Voce threw her against a wall. Marquez slouched to the ground.

“Sorry I thought you were a psycho killer,” I told Sotto Voce.

“It happens,” she said. “Though just so you know, the whole ‘all killers are crazy people’ thing is a myth.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But that’s good to know. You wouldn’t happen to want to grab a coffee sometime, would you?”

“Yeah,” she said, blushing just a little.

“We should probably untie Charlie, first.”

“Yeah,” she said.

*CRASH*

I craned my head even more awkwardly, looking to see who had just burst through the door. It was Hellfire, in his most demony form. He was surrounded by an aura of flames. He was breathing. He was alright.

“I have ridden through the astral plane to fight my mortal enemy. I have tricked the gods of life and death, and I have inverted the very laws of nature, all so I could put him back into the pit of Hell. And you want to know something? I’m ready for more. Who wants to fight?” he bellowed.

“Uh, Hellfire?” I said. “That was a pretty cool speech, but you’re a little late. Sorry.”

He cast his glance towards the floor, sighing a bit. “Oh. Okay. That’s alright. Next time.”

— — —

After we’d talked to the cops about everything that had happened, and after everyone else had gone to bed, it was just me and Charlie. She stroked my hair while I lay in her lap.

“Mom, is superhero stuff this weird for everyone?” I asked.

“For everyone?” she said. “Probably not. Definitely not.”

“Then why’s it so weird for me?”

“You’re not everyone,” she said.

That made me feel better. I could never be everyone. It was true! It was an undeniable fact! I let Charlie pet me some more, and this felt like home for the first time.

“Do you think Marquez will ever be alright?” I asked.

I felt Charlie sigh, her stomach retracting just ever so slightly.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think she will be.”

“That’s sad,” I said.

“It is,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s–” I paused for a second. Then I backtracked, trying to say what I wanted to say. “I just wish she didn’t feel so– you know. I wish she felt better. Was she always like that?”

Charlie sighed a second time.

“Yes and no. She’s gotten worse over the years. Life did that to her, sadly. But she always hated people who weren’t like her.”

“You mean gay?” I asked.

“Not just that,” she said. “But that was a big one.”

“Do you think I’ll– Do you think I’ll ever become like that?”

“No,” she said. “Society was a big part of the problem with Marquez. People treat you differently for being gay, and that doesn’t feel good. But Marquez had it so much worse. Her own mother didn’t accept her. Her own mother didn’t want her to live. There’s something soul-crushing about that. Something Marquez could never recover from.”

Charlie took in a deep breath, “I don’t want to apologize for Marquez, but it’s hard not to see why she turned out the way she did. Most of us have it better — we don’t have to worry for our lives, at least not to the same degree. We can let the hate of others roll off our backs. Of course we’ll see the bad in people, but we’ll see the good, too. And I’d say that’s the key. Defending yourself and calling people out when they give you shit, but never letting it bother you too much. The trick is loving people, even if you also hate them.”

“Marquez didn’t have that privilege,” Charlie said. “Her mother messed her up so bad, she wasn’t able to escape the hate.”

I nodded my head, knowing I should tell Agent 09 who I was.

— — —

My heart felt like it was going to explode, reform itself, explode again, and then shoot out of my chest, Alien-style. I wondered if I was exaggerating. I decided that I wasn’t.

“Sorry, Sarah, but you don’t have my full attention,” Agent 09 said, typing on her computer. “You see, the ideavirus has left us pretty short staffed, and it turns out that Francisco Franco is not dead. Therefore I–”

“Mom,” I said. “I really need to talk to you about something.”

I don’t know if it was something in my voice or the fact that I’d called her mom, but she stopped typing. She swiveled in her chair and looked at me.

“Sarah,” she said. “What is it?”

“Mom,” I said. “I’m gay.”

I really wasn’t a fan of the big pause that came after that. Agent 09 sat there, her eyes just a little bit wider, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Oh,” she said.

“Oh?” I said.

“I just didn’t expect this,” she said.

“I was kind of surprised, too, once I figured it out,” I said.

“You’re sure?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure.”

“In that case,” Agent 09 said. “I’m happy for you. I know I can be cold sometimes, but I really do love you. I want what’s best for you.”

I smiled.

— — —

Hellfire, Blue, Sotto Voce, Cathect, and I all sat in the living room. Sotto Voce and I sat on the hard backed chairs to the right of the sofa, while Hellfire, Blue, and Cathect sat on the sofa itself.

“I’ve got to come up with a better name, and I really don’t think there’s going to be a better one than Cannaboy,” Cathect said.

“What about Douchebag?” I asked.

“Ooh, or maybe Jack-ass,” Blue said.

“Loud Mouth?” Sotto Voce whispered.

“Hey,” Cathect said. “I barely know you! Who said she could make fun of me?”

“It was pretty obvious,” I said. “Just given how we all think of you as a person.”

“I don’t know why you guys always have to be this way!” Cathect said. “I’m a very valuable member of the team!”

“You were asleep during the ninja attack,” Blue said, “you didn’t help us escape Sum Industries, and you got knocked out during our last fight.”

“But I’m the one who got you guys to the fight in the first place!” Cathect said. “Remember? The Chariot?”

“So you’re like a bus,” I said. “You’re as useful as a bus.”

“Buses are incredibly useful!” Cathect said.

“As useful as superheroes?” Blue asked.

“More useful!” Cathect said. “Superheroes fighting all the time means that it’s dangerous to go from one place to another. Buses, on the other hand, help people get from one place to another.”

“I’ve got it,” Hellfire said.

“Got what?” I asked.

“Porn Boy,” he said.

“Porn Boy?” Blue asked.

“Porn Boy,” Hellfire said. “Cathect’s new name.”

“Porn Boy,” Cathect said out loud, looking and sounding intrigued. “Porn Boy,” he said, just a little louder and a little more forcefully. “Porn Boy!” he yelled. “It’s my name! It’s my destiny! My clone will love the attention!”

“Clone?” Sotto Voce asked, leaning over and whispering to me.

“Long story,” I said. “It involves a clone of Cathect that’s also a porn star.” Actually, though, as soon as I said it I realized that basically was the story.

“My name is Porn Boy, and I am burdened with the weight of serious superheroics!” Cathect yelled.

The alarm went off. Blue grabbed the remote and turned on the TV.

“Hello, superheroes,” Agent 09 said. She sounded a little warmer, and even gave us an almost-smile when she talked. “You’re needed.”

“What’s up, mom?” I asked.

“Turns out a sphinx has taken a bank hostage, demanding that she speak to this team.”

Cathect,” I said, pointedly.

“I’ll admit it. Mistakes were made,” he said. “I’ll also admit that almost all of them were made by me.”

Bonus Chapter One

Previous Chapter

Table of Contents

Chapter Sixteen: THAT MUST BE SO ILLEGAL

“So Marquez isn’t Marquez,” Agent 09 said, driving her car down the street. I’m not going to lie, it was really freaking awesome: like a combination of a spy car and a Hummer. It wasn’t great for the environment, but when people were shooting at you, I guess you didn’t care so much about the environment?

“Marquez is Plastique,” I said, sitting in the passenger seat.

“Charlie’s arch-nemesis,” she mumbled.

“Yeah.”

“That explains a lot,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Do you have any music?” Cathect asked. “I feel like this is a really good time to have a bad-ass soundtrack.”

“I really like techno,” Sotto Voce whispered. That all made me break into a smile, which I appreciated, at a time like this.

“You know what, Cathect?” I said. “I don’t hate you. I don’t even hate you a little bit.”

“I do,” Agent 09 said. “Why did I let this fool onto the team again?”

“You’re going to take a left up here,” Blue said.

“I know how to get to Sum Industries,” Agent 09 said. “The problem is figuring out how to take them down.”

“Do you have rocket launchers?” Cathect asked. “Think about how cool rocket launchers would be.”

“Can we get help from Metahuman Affairs?” Blue asked.

“The only agents that are alive right now are just doing their best to survive,” Agent 09 said.

“What about the police?” Sotto Voce asked.

“Tied up with all the escaped prisoners.”

“You think Sum Industries had something to do with the prison escape?” Blue asked.

“Almost certain,” Agent 09 said. “It makes us easy pickings. Cripples the system that’s supposed to protect us.”

“What about the ideavirus?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Agent 09 said. “That would take a lot of reach. I just don’t know.”

I screamed. Bullets rattled the car’s windshield. Agent 09 barely flinched.

Cathect screamed, like, five seconds after it started.

“A little late!” I yelled.

“If either of you scream like that again, I’ll shoot you,” Agent 09 said, jokingly. Well, actually, it sounded kind of serious. But it had to be a joke, right?

Haha?

The window definitely looked the worse for wear, but it’d held up, which was definitely a plus. I guessed it was, like, super bulletproof?

The bullets let up for a second and I saw where they were coming from: The Patriot and The Hound. Actually, it might’ve been more accurate to just say The Patriot was responsible for the shooting, because The Hound was kind of just sitting there not doing much. The Patriot, on the other hand, looked really into it. His shirt was off and he stood behind a stationary machine gun that looked straight out of World War I.

They were a block or two away from us, but the streets were mostly clear of people, so the bullets flew.

“BY THE SEVEN SONS OF SODOMY!” he yelled.

The bullets started up again. The window looked like it was about to pop through. We were still speeding towards him.

“You know these guys?” Agent 09 asked.

“Yeah, but they’re not my friends,” I said.

“I figured that one out,” she said, speeding forward.

“You kids better have your fucking seat belts on.”

Just as I thought the window was about to break, the hail of bullets stopped. The car jerked to a stop, slamming into the machine gun. The air bags burst open.

*BANG*

My ears were ringing. The airbags popped, letting out air through the bullet hole Agent 09 had just made.

“DID YOU SERIOUSLY JUST SHOOT THE AIRBAGS?” I asked. “THAT MUST BE SO ILLEGAL.”

Agent 09 said something, but I couldn’t hear. I opened the car door, and found The Hound there. He looked kind of afraid, but still his fists were raised, as if ready for a fight. I could tell he was saying something, but it sounded like mumbling. Still couldn’t hear him over the ringing.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU JUST SAID BUT I’M SURE THAT IT’S STUPID!” I yelled.

He flinched right before my fist met his face. Which made me feel kind of bad, once I’d punched him. But really, if you’re going to be a supervillain, you shouldn’t flinch when you’re going to get hit. Like, really? You threaten people’s lives and you’re a flincher?

Cathect stumbled out of the car and said something. I didn’t hear him. I was about to punch The Hound again, but he was just on the floor whimpering, so I didn’t. I kind of just kept my eye on him, in an “I’ll heck you up” sort of way.

“WHAT?” I yelled.

“IS YOUR MOTHER CRAZY?” he yelled. “SHE JUST CRASHED THE FRIGGIN’ CAR!”

From behind me I heard Agent 09 yell, “I REALLY DON’T LIKE THIS KID!”

I yelled, “I REALLY WISH YOU HADN’T SHOT THAT GUN SO CLOSE TO MY EAR.”

“I SAVED YOUR LIFE,” she said. “AND I CAN TAKE IT AWAY.”

“HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET TO SUM INDUSTRIES?” I asked.

“BY FOOT,” she yelled. We started to move, and I felt my hearing slowly coming back to me.

“WE’RE, LIKE, TEN BLOCKS AWAY FROM THERE,” I yelled. Blue and Agent 09 led the charge, while Cathect and I held back.

“THAT’S WHY WE’VE GOTTA MOVE FAST!” she yelled.

Sotto Voce said something, but I couldn’t hear her.

“WHAT?” I yelled.

She said it again, but I still couldn’t hear her.

“WHAT?” I yelled.

“WE SHOULD PROBABLY START MOVING!” she yelled. It was the first time I’d ever seen her yell.

“OH,” I yelled back. “I’M SORRY I MADE YOU YELL THAT A BUNCH OF TIMES.”

“IT’S OKAY,” she yelled again. “LET’S GO.”

The four of us moved, running at an uncomfortably fast pace. Things were quiet, but they were quiet in the way that felt incredibly, dangerous, you know? The quiet was less chill and more ‘You’re probably going to get stabbed soon’. Which, you know, I kind of wasn’t wild about.

“Wait,” Cathect said, panting.

We were right next to an alleyway, and a guy popped out of a trash can.

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE NEWEST SAMSUNG?” he yelled.

*BANG*

Agent 09 shot him in the shoulder and he toppled over, bringing the trash can with him.

“Bullshit advertising,” she mumbled.

“It has all… the latest… features,” he whimpered, more quietly than before.

“What the Hell was that?” I asked.

“Ideavirus,” Agent 09. “It’s ugly out here.”

Cathect flipped through his Tarot deck and took out a card. “The Power of the Chariot!” he yelled.

Sure enough, he flicked the card onto the ground before us. The card cast a yellowish light, which solidified in the form of a chariot.

“Onward!” he yelled, jumping in. The rest of us followed suit.

“See?” Cathect said, as the white horse galloped across the sidewalk. “I’m useful. I’m a valuable member of this team!”

“You’re definitely a member of this team,” I said.

“HAVE YOU TRIED THE NEWEST SAMSUNG?” a lady yelled, chucking a beer bottle my way. Sotto Voce grabbed it with her shadowy cape and chucked it right back at the lady.

The chariot rushed us past her and Cathect said, “That was almost as bad as telemarketers.”

“Almost?” I asked.

“You heard me,” he said, sassily.

“Guys,” Blue said. “We’re here.”

Sure enough, we were. I got off the chariot and looked up at the huge Sum Industries building. Agent 09 rushed in first, pushing open the big door.

Inside the lobby, I didn’t see Gary the Gargoyle or The Invisible Ferret (not that I would have seen the Invisible Ferret, but you know what I mean). Instead, there were four ninjas standing there, poised for attack.

Before anyone could really react, Agent 09 shot one in the leg. She then went for a second one, but she no longer had the element of surprise. They all went for the attack.

“You, Cathect, and Sotto Voce find Charlie,” Agent 09 said. “We’ll take care of the rest.”

Sure enough, Blue immediately pounced on one of the ninjas. Agent 09 kept the other two busy. Cathect, Sotto Voce and I looked at each other. We ran for the elevator.

Much to our disappointment, the elevator didn’t work. Which made sense, in a way. So we ran towards the staircase. The door looked a little rusty and intimidating, but that was nothing compared to the staircase itself which looked ancient and concrete. Like, it was weird to see that such a nice building looked so old. I wondered if that was on purpose?

We ran up the narrow staircase.

“How many floors is this place?” Sotto Voce said on the third floor.

“I think it’s, like, 30,” I said.

“Oh, fuck me,” Cathect said.

“Gross,” I said.

We wound our way up floor after floor, huffing and panting and thankfully not puking but let me tell you it was close.

On the 29th floor, we ran across creepy bearded telepath guy. He wasn’t wearing the comic shirt, and I’m not going to lie, a different wardrobe was a lot more than I expected from him.

Still, he was the grossest. His yellowing teeth showed as he leered at me, his pencil-thin smile growing just a little while. He enjoyed seeing me.

I felt him reach into my mind. It was what I imagined trepanning was like, this hole getting bored into my brain. There was pain and confusion, and I felt lightheaded.

I was on my knees. I glanced over at Cathect, who was 100% passed out. I felt like joining him. Just so long as I could get this pain out of my head.

Sotto Voce wasn’t doing too well, either. Her cape lashed out, not hitting anything in particular. She wasn’t focused enough to fight. She was just trying to get rid of the pain.

I guess he’d figured out how to take on groups of people? You didn’t try and take over anyone’s minds. You just made them hurt. You just made them feel pain.

I realized the telepath was wearing Cargo shorts. And I can’t tell you what exactly it is about a guy in cargo shorts, but I laughed. And the laughing made me feel better. I grabbed onto the staircase railing and dragged myself up, laughing.

When I’d gotten myself as upright as I could — upright, but leaning on the staircase railing — I looked at the sad, pathetic man.

“I am a lesbian because that’s who I am. It has nothing to do with you and your stupid telepath-y stupidness,” I told him. “And in case you were wondering, you are an asshole because that’s who you are. Your stupid telepath-y stupidness only makes it worse.”

I punched him a couple times — I didn’t really count, but it was enough times that it felt good, and enough times that he was knocked out. So, it must have been the right number of times.

Sotto Voce wobbled her way up and walked over to me.

“That was pretty cool,” she whispered.

“Thanks,” I whispered back. “You’re pretty cool.”

“Thanks,” she whispered.

“Hey, do you kill people?”

“I–” she paused for a second. “You mean because the Sotto Voce thing?”

“Er,” I said. “Yeah.”

“No,” she said. “You mean because of Becky Gale, the Sotto Voce who killed all those people. No. She lived a hard life, a really hard life, so she snapped. That wasn’t because of the spirit. That was because of who she was.”

“So, you’re not going to kill people.”

“I’m not going to kill people,” Sotto Voce said. “It’s not who I am. Besides, most killers are men, anyway.”

I smiled. Then I looked down at creepy telepath fedora guy.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Yeah?” Sotto Voce said. “What?”

“Can I kiss you?” She smiled, then blushed.

“Yeah,” she said.

I pecked her on the lips. It felt nice. Warm. Good.

I went over to try and wake up Cathect. I lightly smacked his cheeks a couple times, but no dice. He was drooling on himself.

“Should we leave him here?” I asked Sotto Voce.

“Nothing else we really can do,” she said. That made sense, so I got up. We walked up the last flight of stairs. Step after step, it was kind of hard. Not because it was that exhausting — I mean I’m not Hercules but I had a pretty good adrenaline rush going — but because I was afraid of what was going on at the 30th floor.

I opened the old, rusty door and walked into the hallway. It smelled clean, but in an awful sort of way. You know how cleaning materials smell so bad? I always wondered about that. I always wondered why clean smelt worse than dirty.

Anyway, I walked down the hallway, the wood panel floor reeking of over-cleanliness. Marquez’s door was at the end of the hallway. The left side was just a boring old wall, but the right side was all glass. I looked down at the city below, at the little specks. Though actually it was pretty rude to call them little specks. They probably would have preferred the term “people.”

It probably wasn’t even fair to call them little specks. I mean, it was obvious to me that they were people. It wasn’t like I was so far up that I literally couldn’t distinguish them from a dot. I don’t know.

Thinking about people while up on high is just a weird thing to do. Even weirder was the naked speck running down the street, holding a sign. I couldn’t read the sign, but it probably didn’t matter. I mean, did anyone really care what the sign said? When you see a naked man running down the street holding a sign, are you really going to try and read what the sign says?

I reached the door. I opened it.

“Oh,” the secretary said. “It’s you again.”

“Yeah,” I said, very surprised to see her there. She was sitting behind the desk, just like the last time I’d seen her. She didn’t look particularly panicked, or anxious, or even different.

I looked over at Sotto Voce, who kind of just stood there, looking back at me. The secretary didn’t acknowledge her.

“What brings you here, again?” she said, sounding annoyed, but not anymore annoyed than last time.

“I’m trying to take down your boss?” I said. “Your evil boss who owns the evil corporation that you work for?”

“Oh, that,” the secretary said. She rolled her eyes and then sighed. “Superheroes.”

I walked closer to the front desk, looking for traps. Or something. Literally, this room didn’t look any different than it had the last time I’d been here.

“You know shit’s going down, right?” I asked. “I don’t want to be, like, a jerk or anything. But you’re acting like nothing has changed.”

She rolled her eyes again. I wondered if I should start keeping count.

“I’ve worked here for seven years,” she said. “You get used to it.”

“Ideaviruses?” I asked. “Evil bosses? Lies, kidnappings, murders?”

“I can’t believe you didn’t see this coming,” she said, shaking her head. That really should have been offensive, but it was hard to see it as offensive when she said it in such a blase sort of way. She pressed a button on her intercom system. “Yeah, Marquez? Yeah, the girl’s here to see you. She brought a friend. So, two girls are here to see you.”

“Which ones?” Marquez’s wife Jane asked.

Which ones?

“Um, I forget the one’s name. Nono?” the secretary said.

Nano,” I said.

“Oh, right,” the secretary said. “I don’t know what emo girl’s name is, but the one I recognize calls herself Nano. Which doesn’t really make much sense. She’s not that small.”

“Yeah, send them in,” Jane said. The secretary lifted her finger off the button.

“You know, nanotechnology?” I said. “Like, I had this suit–”

“Where’s your suit?” she asked.

“It broke.”

“Stupid name,” the secretary said.

“Whatever,” I said, walking towards Marquez’s office, Sotto Voce in tow. “You’re kind of a jerk, anyhow.”

I opened the door to Marquez’s office. Charlie was there, tied to a chair. Marquez sat on her chair, looking straight at me.

“Seriously,” I asked. “Who else would be visiting you right now?”

*THUD*

I turned around and saw Sotto Voce on the floor. Jane was there, dragging Sotto Voce with one hand, and a massive mallet with the other. She wasn’t in her banana outfit.

“Don’t you hurt her,” I said.

“I don’t want to hurt her,” Jane said. She stood next to a second, empty chair and put Sotto Voce in it. She untied the cloak and took it off Sotto Voce. Then she put it on herself.

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Chapter Fifteen: Getting Real

Was the world really crazy, or was it just me? Was all of this normal? Like, really?

“The bipedal penis has escaped the building,” a cop yelled into his walkie talkie, running down the hospital’s hallway.

No. There was no way in Hell this world was normal.

Detective Kirby was standing there, breaking the bad news to me. Cathect and Blue were there, too.

“I’m sorry,” Kirby said. “We don’t know where Charlie is. But she was a valued member of the force for a lotta years, and we’re dedicated to finding her.”

The words didn’t feel like words. They were just random sounds that I was supposed to comprehend, but couldn’t: Charlie was missing. Agent 09 was missing. My parents were missing.

Marquez was Plastique.

But what the Hell did it all mean?

“I understand,” I said. “Things have gotten pretty crazy, haven’t they?”

“These past two days have been crazy. Metahuman Affairs crippled, all of these villains getting broken out of jail,” Kirby said. “Haven’t seen anything like this since Hell opened up and I arrested Satan.” The lady who’d arrested Satan had promised she’d find my mother. That had to count for something, right?

“Whatever happened to Satan?” Cathect asked, like we were suddenly in some bad VH1 show that looked into the past.

“He escaped,” Kirby said, though really she grunted it more than saying it. You know, the way angry vigilantes talk? “Not on my watch, though. He would never escape on my watch.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Cathect asked.

“A lot of heroes are coming together, but you’d have to talk to your handler to find out more specifics,” she said.

“Our handler is missing,” I said. “Our handler is my other mom.”

“I–” Detective Kirby looked for the right word. But it didn’t seem rambly or unconfident, as it often seemed when I couldn’t find the right word. It just seemed like she wanted to say the right thing. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” I said.

“I should go help out,” Kirby said. She put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re going to be alright, kid. You got that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”

Kirby nodded her head, then made a quick exit, rushing down the hall.

“We should do something,” Cathect said.

“No,” I said. “What the Hell’s the use, anyway? Superheroes end up sad. Superheroes end up dead. Screw it, I’m not even a real superhero.”

“You can’t think like that!” Cathect said. “I’m going to call–”

“I don’t care,” I said, walking away. I felt bad about that, but I really didn’t care. I just wanted to be out of here. I just wanted some space to think.

I knew Cathect and Hellfire were talking, but I couldn’t hear whatever it was that they were saying. I just slinked off towards Hellfire’s room.

I opened the door. Hellfire was still there in a coma, but I saw that Barry Ring was on. His female co-host was talking (thank god):

“Essentially, these two guys dressed up like various film characters while they ran around and got hired by a bunch of supervillains. They would mess things up for one organization, then move to another one before they got caught. Turns out it’s all part of a PR stunt for a new superhero video site called ‘Blundered Capes’.”

Barry Ring nodded his head, sagely. “Andrea, if I’ve learned one thing in my sixty years of journalism, it’s this: there’s no quiet way to unwrap a Rice Krispie Treat. Unwrap it quickly, and it crinkles everywhere. Unwrapping it slowly is even worse. Just as loud, but that much slower.

Andrea forced a smile. “Barry, what does that have to do with the new website?”

“What website?” Barry Ring asked.

I almost laughed, but put the TV on mute. It felt kind of disrespectful to watch this show while I was in Hellfire’s hospital room, seeing as how he didn’t really like it much. Which makes sense, knowing him. I mean, Barry Ring wasn’t exactly cool.

Hellfire looked at peace. His chest rose and fell at an unhurried pace. It was calming, even though I wondered if everything was going to be alright.

Cathect said he’d be fine, said he was just astral projecting. The doctors agreed that he was astral projecting, but they were less sure about the results. Sometimes people ended up fine, finding their bodies and going right back to what they were doing. But other times, they weren’t so fine. The body separated from the soul, and the two couldn’t come back together.

“You okay?” Blue asked.

“Yeah, I’m not the one…” my thoughts trailed off. “You know.”

“Yeah,” Blue said. “It’s a lot to take in. Agent 09 missing, Marquez evil, Hellfire gone. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do. I just don’t know what to say.”

Blue nodded her head. She turned her head, looking out the small hospital window. A tree branch was pressed against it, green leaves blocking most of the view. Under the window was a hospital bed, where Hellfire’s roommate lay. He snored. Not obnoxiously, though. He was a quiet snorer.

“Say what you feel,” Blue said.

“I feel bad,” I said, which was dumb. I mean, that was a given, wasn’t it? Of course I felt bad. But why did I feel bad? “I feel like bad things happen to superheroes. I feel like I was happy, before I figured out how things really worked.”

I went on, “Or maybe the problem’s that I’m an adult now. I mean, things were easy when we were kids, right? You just do your best, have fun, and try to be nice. That’s all it takes to be a good kid. But it’s like, now that I’m an adult, there’s so much more responsibility. It’s not good enough to do your best. You do your best, and the world still finds a way to make you feel awful.

“You know the last time Agent 09 and I talked, she lied to me? What if that’s the last time she ever talks to me? I tried to be a good daughter, I really did, but it got harder the older I got, and at a certain point…” I didn’t know what I was trying to say.

“It sucks that she lied to you,” Blue said. “But she’s involved in some pretty bad stuff. Do you think she lied to you to protect you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know that I ever will know.”

Hellfire breathed in, Hellfire breathed out.

“Things are hard enough,” I said. “And then I have to make it harder by being gay. Why? Why do I have to– Things are already hard enough, you know?”

“Yeah,” Blue said. “Being different sucks. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry it sucks so much.”

“Worst part is, I don’t even deserve what I have. My life is shit, and it’s still more good than I deserve.”

“What?” Blue asked. She looked surprised, which didn’t surprise me. It was hard to see what I had to be thankful for these days.

“I’m fucking worthless,” I said. “I didn’t even earn this crummy life. Agent 09 allowed me to pass the Metahuman Fight Exam even though I shouldn’t have, she gave me a suit I didn’t even deserve, she gave me this team I didn’t deserve. Hell, the whole Sum Industries job was another thing I didn’t deserve. I didn’t even earn Marquez as a villain. Even my villains are hand-me-downs. I can’t do anything for myself.”

“It’s tough,” Blue said, moving her arm forward to scratch my back. Her nails felt good. It wasn’t even a romantic thing. Like, I still felt like she was pretty, but she was straight, and I totally understood that. It was just nice to come into contact with a person. It was nice to feel like I wasn’t crazy. “Life’s tough,” she said.

“What do I do about it?” I asked.

“Persevere,” she said. “I think that’s what we all do, in the end. That what adults do, I mean. We fight. That’s how we live. That’s why we live.”

“Sounds awful,” I said.

“I think you’ll get used to it,” Blue said. “Most people do.”

Hellfire breathed in, Hellfire breathed out.

“You’re young,” Blue said. “You, me, Hellfire, Cathect. We’re all young. So yeah, we might get help from our parents. Yeah, we’ll look stupid. Yeah, we’ll rely on the wrong sort of people, or we’ll rely too much on the right sort of people. Either way, we’re young. We’ll figure this out. We’re adults, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask for help, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said. Maybe I needed a lot of help right now, but I guessed I wouldn’t always need it. Or at least, if I always needed it, I wouldn’t need so much of it.

“I wouldn’t worry about Agent 09 giving you the suit,” Blue said. “It’s useless, now. And I wouldn’t worry about her letting you slide by with the exam, either. You still have to fight, and really not having to pass the exam just made things harder, in the long run. And Marquez? I don’t think you should want to make your own enemies. I’m sure you will, since pretty much everyone else in this business does. But it’s not something to strive for. It’s not something to be so concerned with.”

I watched Hellfire’s roommate. The guy looked wild, decked out in green spandex, with a bright gold mask that covered the right half of his neck and curved up, obscuring only the left part of his face. They’d put a breathing tube in his mouth.

He breathed in, he breathed out.

“That makes sense. I guess–” I began to say, but then I lost my train of thought. “That makes a lot of sense.”

“I try,” she said, smiling. She took her hand off my back. “Do you want to get some food from the cafeteria? You haven’t eaten in a while.”

I was suddenly aware of how empty my stomach was.

“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t– Yeah. Thanks. I’ll go do that.”

The blood rushed out of my head as soon as I stood up. I really needed to grab a bite to eat. My head was still swimming with everything that’d happened since the team had been formed, but somehow I felt a little more at peace. Like, maybe things were happening the way they were supposed to happen. It’d be tough, but I’d get through it.

I kept my line of sight focused on the floor, noticing grayish white tile after grayish white tile. I guess it was the repetition that I found so comforting.

I breathed in, I breathed out.

Superheroes dealt with problems all the time. That’s just what we did. And the more problems we faced, the more we got used to facing them. Things were tough at first, but eventually I’d settle into the role. Eventually, I’d feel like I knew what I was doing.

When I reached the cafeteria, I found Sotto Voce. She looked smaller than I’d ever seen her, looking up at the tall purple-haired woman. The woman, of course, was Agent 09. My mother.

She turned around when she saw Sotto Voce looking at me. I’d forgotten how tall she was. When I was little, I’d figured the tall thing was just because I was so little. But now I realized she really was tall. Definitely over 6 feet.

Sotto Voce practically squeaked out, “When I couldn’t find you, I found your mother.”

Agent 09’s face looked bloodied. She was breathing, too. Heavily. Her steely glance stared me down, and I knew shit was about to get real.

“Marquez has fucked with the wrong woman,” she said. “She has fucked with the wrong family. And Honey, believe me when I say this. We’re taking that bitch down.”

I smiled. I’d forgotten how cool she could be sometimes.

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Chapter Fourteen: Dirty Blues

After a silence that had dragged on for all too long, Cathect began to sing, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer. You take one down–”

“You are the worst,” I said. “Also, I hate you. Also, why are you like this?”

“All questions you’ve asked me before,” Cathect said. “All questions that I’ve asked myself. Maybe there is nothing new under the Sun.”

“Guys,” Blue said. “We have to figure out a way to get out of here.”

“There is no way out. Don’t you get it?” Cathect said. He let out a bit of a laugh that sounded less humorous and more insane. “Nano had a robot break through the ceiling, and it still wasn’t enough. Nothing’s enough. We’re doomed.”

“We’re not doomed,” Blue said.

“We’re kind of doomed,” I said. “But not entirely doomed. Semi-doomed, at most.”

“What do you mean, semi-doomed?” Cathect snapped. “You either are doomed or you’re not doomed. There’s no semi-doomed. You can’t half-ass eternal dread and suffering.”

“On the one hand,” I said. “I don’t think we’re getting out of this.”

“Thank you,” Cathect said. “By which I mean shit. Wait, I’m glad that I’m right but I don’t–”

“On the other hand,” I said. “We don’t know what Marquez wants with us.”

“You said she said she was going to kill you,” Blue said.

“She said she wasn’t going to tell me why she was doing this because she was just going to kill me soon. But then she told me anyway.”

“So?” Cathect said. “She’s indecisive. She’s going to partially kill me and then debate about finishing the job. Great. Super great. You know what? This sucks. My life sucks. I’m gonna die, and I bet Hell is going to suck.”

“You’re kind of being a Debbie Downer,” I said.

He let out a bit of a smile, which was nice. It looked like I’d pulled him out of the despair he was feeling, if just for a second.

“You just called me a Debbie Downer?”

“Well, you weren’t being a– You weren’t being a– What’s the opposite of a Debbie Downer? Happy person. You weren’t being a happy person,” I said.

“I can’t believe you just called me a Debbie Downer. That’s ridiculous,” Cathect said. “We’re tied to chairs, our lives are in perilous danger–”

“Watch out, or I might have to call you a Negative Nancy,” I said. We both laughed at that one.

“I can’t die,” I said. “I’m too funny to die.”

I looked over at Hellfire, and that knocked the laughter right out of me. He still hadn’t woken up. I wondered if he’d ever wake up. Cathect followed my line of sight and turned around, looking back at Hellfire.

“I don’t think it’s the tranquilizer, anymore,” Cathect said.

“Then what is it?” I asked.

“He could be faking,” Blue said. “Pretending to be knocked out while waiting for the moment to strike.”

“Could be,” Cathect said. “I wonder if he’s astral projecting himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Astral projection!” Cathect said, exasperated. “You know, when–”

“I know what astral projection is,” I told Cathect. “But why do you think that’s what Hellfire’s doing?”

“I don’t know that he’s doing that,” Cathect said. “It’s just a possibility. It would explain why he was alive, but not really here. I know he– Demons can psychically transfer themselves places. Which is actually what Satan did with the snake… Shit. Hellfire was right about that.”

“Nano,” Blue said.

“Yeah?”

“Is there anything you could whip up to get us out of here?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, if you built that suit, you must be pretty good at making things,” she said. “We’ve got some rope and some wood chairs. You’ve got a hairpin and I’ve got some gum in my pocket. Can you do anything with that?”

Cathect burst into incredulous laughter. “You want her to MacGuyver this shit? Come on.That’s ridiculous.”

“None of it’s going to help,” I said.

Marquez and her gang had tied us up pretty well after our last escape attempt. Our wrists were tied to the chairs, and the chairs were bolted to the ground. Still, I thought there might be a way. No, screw it. There had to be a way.

I leaned to my right, resting my lips on the ropes surrounding my lips.

“What are you doing?” Blue asked.

“Something stupid,” I said. Then I began to chew through the rope. It was pretty gross, tasting like, well, tasting like how things you shouldn’t eat often taste: not good.

“Oh, motherfucker,” Cathect said.

My teeth were kind of hurting, but I was making headway with the rope. It was loosening up. Breaking apart.

“I would clap,” Cathect said. “Really, I would clap. But you know, my arms are kind of otherwise occupied.”

I took a break from chewing the rope to briefly say,“Yeah, well I wish you’d keep your mouth occupied with a goddamn piece of tape so I could think for a second.” It was a little harsh, but like give me a break.

“I’ve got some gum in my pocket,” Blue said.

“So?” I asked.

“So, do you want to add it to the rope? You know, chew it while you work? Make the rope tastier?”

I knew time was of the essence so I didn’t say anything. And really, I really didn’t have a response to that.

Cathect, on the other hand, had a response that I couldn’t necessarily disagree with. “What the fuck?”

“I’m just brainstorming,” Blue said.

“I know I said there are no wrong ideas when it comes to brainstorming. I know that was me. I know I was the one who said that. However, I was clearly wrong, because that was incredibly stupid.”

“Alright, how about you actually try and help us figure all this out, smart-ass,” Blue said.

“My plan is to accept my fate,” Cathect said. “Despair isn’t so bad, you know.”

The rope was almost off my right hand. Then the door opened.

Before I could get my teeth off my wrist, I heard a voice just go, “Oh.” You know the really awkward sort of ‘oh’ that someone says after they’ve just witnessed something they really didn’t want to.

I looked and saw that it was Jim and Don, now sporting bruised faces.

“Nano’s trying to chew her wrist off because she’s on her period!” Cathect blurted, uttering what I thought was genuinely one of the stupidest–

“We didn’t mean to interrupt,” Don said. “Not that we didn’t not mean to interrupt. I mean, we’re not perverts, we just–”

“Do you need some alone time?” Jim asked. “Because we can– uh. I have laundry. Dry cleaner’s appointment. My dog has a yoga appointment.” Jim trailed off, scratching his head. “Let’s go,” he told Don.

Don nodded his head. “Yeah.”

“Is this what a period looks like?” Jim asked Don, ever so loudly.

“You asked that question very loudly, Jim,” Don whispered even more loudly. “You’re screwing the pooch.”

The two of them moved to leave.

“Wait,” I said. “Don’t go.”

“I don’t want to watch whatever–” Don said.

“I have to pee,” I said.

“Oh, shit,” Jim said. “I didn’t think about that.”

“No, siree. We did not take that into consideration,” Don said.

“Can you hold it in?” Jim asked.

“If she could hold it in, do you think she’d be asking you?” Blue asked.

“This sounds like some sort of trick,” Jim said.

“My bladder is not a trick!” I yelled.

“Can’t you just, you know, hold it in for a while?” Don asked.

“Women’s bladders don’t work like that,” Jim said. “When they gotta go, they gotta go.”

“What happens if they don’t?” Don asked.

I almost screamed back, “We pee our pants like everyone else, you dumbass.”

But instead, I said something I immediately regretted, “Blood. Everywhere.” I mean, it was obvious I was lying, right? I couldn’t make a more obvious lie if I tried.

“Uh oh,” Don said. “That sounds real bad.”

“Yeah, we better not mess with that,” Jim said. He leaned over to untie me, but then he pulled back. “Cover my six, Don,” Jim said.

Don pointed his gun at the front door.

“No, my back,” Jim said. “Cover my back.”

“Right,” Don said, taking his gun and pointing it at Jim’s back.

Jim leaned over and untied my left arm. Then, before he noticed how loose the rope on my right wrist was, I broke it free. I wrapped my arms around his neck and headbutted him.

“Oh, shit!” Jim said. “Don! I need some help here!” He fought me, trying to pull away, but I wasn’t letting go. I wrapped my left arm all the way around his head, so that when Jim went to get his gun, I had a free hand to grab his wrist.

“Uh, Jim. I don’t know what to do, Jim,” Don said.

“Shoot her!” Jim said. “As you and I both know, you can shoot her! Your gun has bullets! And the threat of shooting her should be enough to stop her!”

Don pulled out his gun and pointed it at us. “I’m going to shoot you! I’m not afraid to shoot you! Don’t think I won’t shoot you!”

Jim and I fought, Jim squirming and writhing. I’d never ridden a bull, but this was what I imagined it would feel like. Except that this bull was wearing a tie and he was trying to grab for his gun. Which, just to throw in a brief sidenote, makes me really glad that bulls aren’t allowed to carry guns. Can you imagine the revenge killings?

“Shoot her!” Jim said. “Shoot her! I know you can shoot her!”

“But Jim!” Don yelled. “I can’t shoot her! You know I can’t shoot her!”

“I believe in you!” Jim yelled.

“I don’t believe in me!” Don yelled.

“You’ve got the gun in your hand!” Jim yelled.

“But I don’t have the–”

“Shoot her!” Jim yelled.

And after what had felt like a really long struggle, Don pulled the trigger.

*CLICK*

“Your gun doesn’t have bullets?” Blue asked.

“Shit,” Jim said. “Shit, Don. You screwed the pooch.”

“You said I had to believe in myself!” Don yelled.

“I was bluffing,” Jim said. “You should never believe in yourself.”

This all was a relief, but there was still the matter of escape, which I wasn’t that much closer to.

I headbutted Jim again. I headbutted him a third time. Then I headbutted him a fourth time. My head hurt badly, for obvious reasons, and I was starting to feel faint. But I knew I had to keep going.

I headbutted him a fifth time, and he slumped over.

I reached into his pocket, grabbed his gun, and pointed it at Don.

“Does this gun have bullets in it?” I asked Don.

“Uh, well… “ Don trailed off. “I dunno. I never seen Jim use it.”

“Are you feeling lucky?” I asked. “Are you, punk?” I was feeling really glad that I’d been in the room while Cathect had been watching Dirty Harry.

“I, you know, I don’t know if I feel like I’m a lucky guy,” Don said. “I buy lottery tickets all the time but never win nothing. Never win coin flips, either, but I think Jim said that’s ‘cause the guy I always do it with has a two-faced coin and I always choose tails. Uh, you know? I don’t think I feel like a lucky guy. Nope. No siree. I don’t feel very lucky at all.”

I didn’t know whether that was funny or sad. Probably funny? Mostly funny.

“Then you don’t want to see if this gun has bullets in it, do you?” I asked

He stood there for a moment, seeming to consider the possibilities.

“You know what?” Don said. “I don’t want to be a coward. No, I’m gonna stand up to you! You don’t scare me!” He began walking towards me.

Shit. Shit. Shit. There was no way anybody was going to trust these two with a loaded gun.

“I’ll shoot!” I yelled.

“No way,” he said.

“I will!” I yelled.

“You won’t!” he yelled.

I shot.

*BANG*

The gun had bullets in it.

Before I could even process what had happened, Don was on the floor, writhing in pain.

“Oh god,” he said. Oh my god. I’m so unlucky. Oh, momma. Why am I so unlucky?”

That was the first time I’d ever shot a gun. My  hands were shaking. I was sweating everywhere.

“Nano,” Blue said. “Good job. But we gotta get out of here.”

“Oh, man,” Don said. “Oh, the pain. Oh, wow. Getting shot is no fun at all.”

“Nano,” Blue yelled. “We have to get out of here.”

“Right,” I said, walking towards Blue.

“That was so bad-ass,” Cathect said.

My stomach felt like a fish. It flopped while I finished untying Blue’s right wrist. As soon as I was done, I puked a little.

“Oh,” Cathect said. “That was a little less cool.”

I went and untied Blue’s left wrist.

“Why hasn’t anyone come in here?” I asked.

“Soundproofed walls, I’m guessing,” Blue said. “Do you have any idea where we are?

“I have a guess,” I said, finishing up on Blue’s last knot. “Might not be a good one, but I have a guess.”

I untied Cathect’s wrists, while Blue untied Hellfire’s. Blue draped Hellfire over her shoulder, and the four of us walked out that door.

As soon as we did, we knew where we were.

“Sum Industries,” I said, almost disbelieving.

“Hey!” Gary the Gargoyle said, flying through the halls. “You guys been fighting bad guys?”

“Yeah,” Blue said.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Swell,” I said, forcing the fakest of smiles. “We’re doing swell, Gary. Thanks for asking.”

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Chapter Thirteen: Villains and Blues

I woke up.

My head felt awful and things definitely weren’t great, but I woke up. And the fact that I woke up meant that I wasn’t dead.

Unless I was in Hell? I turned to my right and saw a demon, which had me being like, “Holy shit I’m in Hell,” but then I realized it was just Hellfire, and then I wondered if it was kind of weird that I was friends with a demon.

I had bigger problems to worry about. For instance, he and I were both tied to chairs.

He was still unconscious.

I looked to my right. Blue was there, and then Cathect. Cathect was out like a light, I swear to god. He was drooling and everything. But Blue was awake, alert. She looked defiant.

“Glad you’re awake,” she said.

“Me too,” I said.

“Me three,” Jane said, wielding a huge mallet and wearing a banana costume. Shit. She was The Banana. I should have known. I should have remembered.

“The Banana,” I whispered.

“Here to slip up justice,” she whispered back.

I was really glad Hellfire wasn’t up for this little tete-a-tete. The last thing I needed was him getting ideas from this lady.

“You should quip better,” Blue said. “Also, you need a new costume. Also, you shouldn’t be such a fucking bitch.”

Wow. I don’t think I’d ever seen Blue so pissed off before.

“You’re angry. Is it because I’ve left you vulnerable, peeling your outer layer and revealing that of a scared little girl?”

“No,” Blue said, squirming to get out of the rope. “It’s because you’re a stupid fucking bitch with a stupid fucking costume and I can’t believe you fucking call yourself Banana.”

I really wished Cathect would wake up already, because someone needed to point out that the costume basically made her a walking penis symbol. I mean, really. Bananas. Penises. It wasn’t that hard to see the correlation, and it was gross.

“What did you just call me?” Jane the Banana asked.

“Oh, shit,” I said. “Did I say that out loud?”

“The thing about calling me a walking penis?” Jane asked. “Yeah. Yeah, you said that.”

“Well, uh,” I said. “First of all, let me say, ‘Whoops.’”

“Oh, shut up,” Jane said.

“I don’t know what you and Marquez are trying to do,” Blue said. “But it won’t work. You’re stupid to even try.”

“And yet here you are,” Jane said.

“And here you are,” Blue said. “In a banana costume. I think we have you beat.”

“Will you guys let the fucking banana outfit go for two seconds?”

“Well,” I said. “I know that you could probably kill me so I don’t want to get on your bad side. But at the same time, it’s kind of hard to overlook. I mean you really do look like a walking penis.”

“What is this obsession with penises?” Jane asked.

“I’m not–” I said. “I’m, like, the least obsessed with penises. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I don’t like it, and I just wish you could wear clothes like a normal person.”

“You’re the one making it weird!” Jane yelled.

“You’re the one wearing the banana costume!” I yelled back. “It was already way weird before I opened my mouth!”

Marquez opened the wood door, and I really started to wonder where I was. This place looked like little more than a concrete box. It had four cement walls, five wood chairs, and one of those flimsy lights that dangled from the ceiling.

I was guessing basement, but I was far from sure.

“Told you not to wear the banana outfit,” Marquez said.

“Costume,” Jane said. “It’s a costume! This is why I hate it when you bring work home. It makes me feel insecure.”

While Jane and Marquez had their problems, I tried hitting the calling beacon on the inside of my wrist. I just hoped it would come before they … I don’t know. What do bad guys do when they have people tied up? I mean, I wasn’t killed when I was a kid, but that was different. I was a kid! People don’t kill kids. Not even supervillains. You know the sort of people who kill kids? Soon-to-be-dead supervillains.

“Let’s have this conversation outside,” Marquez said, eyeing the four of us.

“Alright,” Jane said. “But I want to have a real conversation! No more banana puns.” She whispered to Marquez as the two of them walked out the door. “I’ve heard so many banana puns.”

As soon as the door shut behind them, Blue said, “Anybody got a plan?”

“Retire,” Cathect said. “This job is too weird.”

“A little late for retirement,” Blue said.

“As soon as we figure this out,” Cathect said. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got a nice cozy job available for me at a porn company.”

“Can’t you just get that stuff for free online these days?” I asked. “I didn’t realize there were still, like, companies for that sort of–”

“The point,” Blue said. “The point is that we need to get out of here.”

“Oh, okay,” I said. “I have a plan. But, uh, should I say it?”

“Why wouldn’t you say it?” Blue asked.

“What if they have cameras in this place?” I asked.

Without turning to look around, Blue said, “They don’t.”

“You’re–” I began to ask.

But Blue cut me off. “Photographic memory. I’m sure.”

“Right,” I said. “But what about a two-way mirror?”

“There are no mirrors here,” she said. “Only walls. I’m thinking basement?”

“That’s what I figured.”

Cathect groaned.

“Cathect!” I said. Didn’t get a response. “Hey, Cathect!”

“Yeah?” he asked. “What’s–” he stopped for a second. “Oh, that’s right. We’re here.”

“Nano has a plan to get us out of here,” Blue said.

“What is it?” Cathect asked.

“She doesn’t want to say,” Blue said.

“Why?” Cathect asked.

“Thinks the bad guys can hear us.”

“Perfect,” Cathect said. “So what are we supposed to do? Just sit here while Nano does something that probably won’t work.”

“Um, hey ye of little faith. How about being nice for once?”

“You want to see me nice,” Cathect said. “You should probably look for me when I haven’t been drugged and tied to a chair. Hey, what’s up with Hellfire. He still asleep?”

“Yeah,” Blue said.

“Bet he could get out of those ropes,” Cathect said. “You know, with demon-y stuff.”

“They probably gave him a heavier dose,” Blue said. “Marquez isn’t dumb.”

“Her partner though,” I said. “Seriously, Cathect. You missed the banana suit.”

“What banana–” Cathect began. But he got quiet as soon as the door opened again. Two burly-looking guards walked into the room, wearing suits and sunglasses. I thought I recognized them from the dining room.

“Oh, goody,” Cathect said. “It’s the Blues Brothers.”

“Is he trying to insult us?” the short fat one said. “Because seriously, I consider that a great compliment. It’s probably the greatest compliment I’ve had all week.”

“Ol’ Jimbo here is a Jim Belushi fan,” the tall skinny one said.

“John Belushi,” Jim said.

“That’s what I said,” the tall skinny one said.

“No, Don,” Jim said. “You said ‘Jim Belushi’.”

“Jim Belushi,” Don said. “The guy you like.”

“No,” Jim said, starting to look a bit angry. “John Belushi was a comical genius! John Belushi was a man whose very existence recalls the Messiah! Jim Belushi, on the other hand, is a hack! A hack who takes his brother’s Holy name and–”

“Jim!” Don said. “Stop! I hate it when you get worked up like this. You know it’s bad for your heart.”

“Jim Belushi is bad for my heart!” Jim said, clutching his chest. “Oh, that man.”

My suit broke through the ceiling, crashing on the floor right in front of Jim and Don. Its arm arced back and it swung a punch right in Jim’s face. Then it kicked Don in the shin and karate chopped him on the back of the neck. Both of them fell down before they could even move to grab their guns.

“Okay,” Cathect said. “So we should definitely let Nano take her suit to more of our missions.”

“Yeah,” Blue said.

My suit walked over to me, untying the ropes around my wrists. It wasn’t quite done when three more guards burst into the room. They shot at the suit, but their bullets just ricocheted off. One struck the guard in the thigh, and he fell to the floor.

When the suit had finished untying me, it opened up. I stepped into it, and it closed up again. Then I turned around, confident with the protection of the suit, and socked one of the guards in the jaw. It felt good to sock someone in the jaw. I’d hit people before, obviously, but nothing so strong as a good old fashioned ‘sock’ to the jaw. It made me feel superhero-y.

I took the other one and rammed his head into my knee. Man, I felt cool.

“Whoa,” Cathect said, as I turned around and untied the ropes around Blue’s wrists. “Hellfire would love this.”

Right. Hellfire still wasn’t awake. Damn.

When I’d done that, Blue went over to untie Hellfire’s wrists. I moved towards Cathect.

“So how’d you get the suit, anyway?” he asked.

“Luck,” I said. “Obviously.”

“Agent 09 didn’t help you at all?”

That made me stop for a moment. Not on the outside, of course. On the outside, I went to untie Cathect’s wrists and get away from the crazy supervillain who had kind of surprised me (even though I shouldn’t have been surprised because she was the CEO of Sum Industries, but man, I just wanted so badly for her to be good).

On the inside, I realized how uncool I was. I realized how much I’d relied on Agent 09 for everything I had, even though she never even seemed to care. Was all this just her way of showing that she cared? Or did she just let me have this to feel less guilty about all the stuff that had happened when I was younger?

Either way, I hadn’t gotten the hang of the whole, ‘being an adult’ thing. Didn’t adults do stuff for themselves?

“No,” I said, responding to Cathect’s question. “Me getting the suit is a long story.” I’d untied his wrists. “I’ll tell you about it sometime.”

Cathect stood up, shaking his ropes off.

“I can’t wake Hellfire up,” Blue said.

“We’ve gotta move,” I said.

“Duh,” Cathect said.

Marquez walked into the room, Jane in tow.

“Looks like these four are trying to peel,” Jane said.

“Honey,” Marquez said.

“I’m my own woman, dammit,” Jane said.

“Not now,” Marquez said.

I walked over to Marquez. “I trusted you.”

“Your mistake,” she said.

“Why are you like this?” I asked, grabbing her wrist. “Why are you so evil?”

A smirk spread across her lips. For a second I thought I was seeing things, but her fingers grew. They stretched like putty, slipping into the crevices of my suit. Then she pulled her hand out, taking wires with her, which definitely wasn’t a good thing.

Plastique.

I felt my suit short out. I tried moving my arms or my legs, but nothing happened.

“Answers don’t always come easy,” she whispered into my ear.

I felt cold. Couldn’t see anything now that the suit was dark.

I heard Blue struggling. She groaned. Then something fell to the floor.

“I surrender,” Cathect said. “I mean, I don’t even–”

Cathect groaned. Something else fell to the floor.

Damn, it was cold in here.

— — —

“Have you ever been to a psychiatrist?” I asked, “Because I really feel like you could use a couple of crazy pills.”

“I have,” Marquez said, sitting in the wood chair, her calm steely gaze meeting mine. “They’re not ‘crazy pills’, they’re medication. And the fact that you’d try to tie someone’s mental illness–”

“You’ve tied me and my friends up in chairs,” I said. “And you’ve now knocked us out twice. So I don’t think crazy is so far from whatever it is that you are.”

She laughed, leaning back a little. “Whatever it is that I am,” she said. “Whatever it is that I am. Interesting way to put it.”

“You’re crazy,” I said.

“Crazy has nothing to do with it,” Marquez said. “And it isn’t a word that should be so carelessly thrown around. No, it has nothing to do with insanity. I tied you and your friends up because I’m a villain.”

That tripped me up for a second. Supervillains aren’t supposed to say that they’re supervillains. That’s not what they do. They’re supposed to have reasons for doing what they do. They’re supposed to justify their actions with a tragic upbringing or whatever.

“You think you’re a villain?” I asked.

“What else would I think of myself as?” she replied.

“No, it’s just–”

“You think I’m stupid?” she asked.

“No, it’s just–”

“Ask yourself this. Why are villains considered villains?”

“Because they’re bad,” I said.

“And why are they bad?” she asked.

“Because they do bad things,” I said.

“Bad things,” she said. “Like murder. Like robbery. Like kidnapping.” She stopped talking. For a while, I thought she wouldn’t continue. But then she did, “Or, perhaps, just being different.”

“That doesn’t make you a villain,” I said, my mind reeling.

“Villains are the people who break the laws of society.” Marquez said. “Some of the laws are written down, while others go unspoken. Some of them are laws meant to protect people, others are laws meant to protect people’s sensibilities.”

“It’s not like that,” I said.

“How many Confederates saw Abraham Lincoln as nothing more than a villain?”

“I–”

“Didn’t the British colonists think of Gandhi as a villain?”

“It’s–”

“How many gay people have been killed by straight people, painted as villains for loving the people that they love?”

The thought killed me.

“A lot,” I said.

“A lot of people have been ostracized by society while trying to fight for the rights of others. But a lot more have died just for being who they are. For being different.”

“Everyone’s different,” I whispered. I at least needed that. I at least needed that hope.

“No,” she said. “Everyone has differences, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s different. There are people out there who are all too similar, indistinguishable, awash in a sea of straight rich healthy abled whiteness–white maleness. I’m villainized because I’m not one of these people. I’m sure you’re sometimes villainized for not being one of these people. I’m a villain because society pushes me to do things.”

“Pushes you to do things?”

“You see things go wrong all the time,” she said. “People who don’t realize how good they have it, people who think other peoples’ pain is funny.”

“You’re doing this because of what people find funny?” I asked.

“I’m a supervillain,” she said. “I’m a fucking supervillain, because I refuse to work for a society that was built on the backs of slaves, that’s perpetuated on the backs of the poor, that relies on sexism and heterosexism and cissexism to just get from one fucking day to the next.”

“So you work against society.”

“Because I have to,” she said. “And I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t have a problem with who I am. I don’t. I really don’t. People used to look at me everyday like I’m a freak. Now that I’m rich, now that I think I mean something in their narrow worldview, they look at me like I’m a person again. But they won’t, soon. I’ll wipe their smug grins off their fucked up faces. I’ll make them know how deeply they’ve fucked up.”

“You’re angry,” I said.

Damn angry,” she said.

“Because you’re gay?”

“Because of the way society treats gays, sure,” she said. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s about the way society treats everyone.”

“I’m gay,” I said.

“I know.”

“But I’m not angry.”

“And why do you think that is?” she asked.

“Because I have a different perspective,” I said. “Because I don’t think people hate just to hate. Because I think that people are stupid, but you have to like them anyway.”

“You have that perspective,” Marquez said, “Because you’re young. And more importantly, stupid.”

“I–”

“Nevermind,” she said. “It’s not worth talking to you.”

She turned around and began to walk out the door.

“Why am I here?” I asked. “If you want to get back at straight people, why me?”

“I thought it would be obvious,” she said, stopping right in front of the door. “I hate the way your mother treated me. After everything we’d been through together, I hated how she’d defend others.” She turned her head to the right, and I saw a glimmer in her eye. “The world thinks of me as a villain because I want to change things. But me? That’s not why I see myself as a villain. No. I know, deep down, there’s something angry underneath. I know I need to get back at your mother, before I can be happy.”

She walked out the door.

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Chapter Twelve: 99 Problems and Probably Only One of Them Involves Netflix

“What do you mean, she’s missing? Are they ruling it as a Temporary Death?” I asked the guy on the television screen. He was old and white, with the wrinkled skin to prove it.

“We’re not sure,” he said, looking sternly at me and my teammates. No typing on the computer, no ignoring us. His attention was a hundred percent focused.

“So what does that mean for us?” Blue asked. “The team.”

“You still have the charter,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.”

“But what about Agent 09?” I asked.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” he said. “This sort of thing happens all the time–agents falling off the map, only to come back a couple months later. If she’s lucky, she might even come back with superpowers!”

“Or she might’ve found something that drove her insane,” I said. “Or she could’ve lost a limb. Sorry, but I’m kind of having a bit of a problem because we just don’t know anything. Like, you can’t tell me what case she was working on?”

“That’s classified,” he said.

“Where was she?”

“That’s classified.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“That’s classified.”

“Did it involve the ideaviruses?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to know about anything of the sort,” he said. “So I’d advise you to shut your mouth about that. It’s classified.”

“And what the Hell isn’t classified?” I asked.

“Your mother’s probably going to be fine,” he said. “I’m sure she wants to come back to you as soon as possible.’

“That’s not an answer,” I said. “That’s bullshit.”

“It’s all I’ve got, and now I’ve gotta go,” he said.

Just like that, static littered the screen.

“Damn,” Cathect said. “You have a lot of problems. My biggest problem is figuring out what to watch on Netflix. But you? You’ve got problems.”

“You want me to–” Hellfire began to say, but I cut him off.

“No.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Blue asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “No. I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. We don’t know where she was or what she was doing or who she was working with. We have no idea what happened to her. I don’t even know how we’d begin trying to find out.”

“I guess the best thing to do is just keep on living,” Blue said. “I’m sure Sum Industries will keep us busy while we wait to figure out what happened to your mom.”

“We’ll find out what happened,” Hellfire said.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Blue said.

“I hope so,” I said. “Thanks, guys. This means a lot.”

The truth was I felt awful. These guys were being nice to me. They were willing to do anything to help me out. And here I was, lying to them. But how could I tell them about Sotto Voce? What would happen if I did?

Cathect turned on Barry Ring.

“I’ve got a question for you. Whatever happened to The Banana? She committed one of the biggest crime sprees of this century, only to split…”

— — —

“Did you friend know much about Marquez?” Sotto Voce asked, sitting on my bed. She looked kind of cute, actually, with a red curl sticking out from under her cloak.

Oh god. It was a bad idea to think Sotto Voce was cute, right? I mean, she claimed she was trying to help me out, but I didn’t really know whether or not that was true. Plus, she could have been some super violent crazy person.

But that 20th century Sotto Voce who had gone and killed a bunch of people was different than this Sotto Voce, right? Was it right to judge one person based off of what their predecessor did a bunch of decades ago? She wasn’t necessarily a super crazy killer, right?

Was this going to turn into a Patty Hearst situation?

“There wasn’t too much to know, apparently,” I said. “Nobody knows her. She seems clean.”

“Nobody knowing her doesn’t make her clean,” she said. “Makes her mysterious–dangerous.”

“I guess,” I said. “I don’t know. I just wish I knew more about her.”

The truth was, I actually kind of liked what I knew about her. She’d been super nice to me and the team, she was interested in everything I knew because of my parents, and she really seemed to want to know me. I don’t know, it was nice. And of course, the fact that she was gay made everything different. It meant that she was like me.

I guess Charlie was like me, too. But it felt different. When she’d been born, everyone had treated her like a man. She’d known she was a woman, but she’d been treated like a man. And that does stuff to a person, you know? There were so many ways I could relate to her, but when it came to that, I couldn’t even imagine what she’d been through. And what did that do to a person? What did that do to a person’s sexuality, when they were misgendered by so many people for so long, including themselves?

I hoped Charlie was happy. I didn’t know sometimes. It must’ve been so hard to be her.

— — —

I decided to tell Marquez the truth.

“I’m in contact with Sotto Voce,” I said. “She’s broken into my room a couple times, now.”

That’s dangerous,” Marquez said. “She’s dangerous.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But it’s not exactly like I invited her in. I wasn’t like, ‘Hey, lady. I know you’re being possessed by a crazy egregoric spirit and everything, but that’s nbd. Wanna hang at my place?”

“That’s cute, but this isn’t the time for jokes.”

“Feels like jokes are all I have,” I said. “Mom’s gone missing.”

“Which one?” she asked.

“Agent 09,” I said.

“Any idea what happened?”

“No.”

“I’ll look into it,” she said.

“Thanks.”

“It’s not a problem. Just make sure you watch your back around Sotto Voce.”

“I will,” I said. “Can I ask you about something else?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Are you gay?”

She let out a huge laugh. “Rather forward way of asking that question, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s just that– I don’t know. I’m gay. But I still don’t know about a lot of things. I feel so unsure. And when I heard that you were gay, I thought, ‘OK, that’s cool. She’s kind of like me.’ And I was just wondering–”

I couldn’t find the words. What the Hell was I wondering about?

“How I felt,” she said. “You were wondering what it was like to be an older lesbian.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Want to know the secret that I tell anyone who’s willing to listen?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I really do.”

“Things are never perfect in life, and being gay makes it all even harder,” she said. “You just have to find the happiness where you can. Now, not to change the subject, but my wife was wondering. Would you and your team like to join us for dinner tonight?”

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why I felt sad.

— — —

“Does she even know who I am?” Cathect asked. “Or am I just invisible to her?”

“Don’t be like that,” Blue said.  “Marquez has been good to us.”

“Easy for you to say,” he said. Marquez talks to you. She invites you into the her office. But me? I’m chopped liver.”

“Have you ever had chopped liver?” I asked. “Has anyone ever had chopped liver? That always seemed like a weird turn of phrase to me.”

“That’s the whole point. Nobody has chopped liver. Nobody likes chopped liver. Nobody really even sees chopped liver anymore. That’s why I’m chopped liver.”

“Sorry,” I said. “But I don’t play the violin. I don’t have even the tiniest violin to play for you.”

“Whatever,” Cathect said. “You don’t have to worry about getting Marquez’s attention. She loves you.”

I mean she didn’t really care about me. I figured she was just interested in me because of Sotto Voce. But I couldn’t tell Cathect that.

“Why does she like you so much, anyway?” he asked.

“Probably because I’m super charming,” I said.

“Look, if you don’t want to share your real opinion, that’s fine,” he said. “But I just wish you’d be a little less obvious with the lies. You? Charming? Come on.”

“Hey!” I said, shoving him out of the way so that it was just Blue and I in front of the mirror. “I am super charming, and everyone knows it.”

“She does really seem interested in you,” Blue said.

Blue had a point. Thing was, it seemed like a lot of people were interested in me these days. I wish they all had a little less of that “there’s a distinct possibility that I’m a supervillain” vibe, though. Ohmygod. What if they both Marquez and Sotto Voce were supervillains? What if I was just some supervillain magnet?

“Cathect,” Hellfire said, walking into the bathroom. “I took your red tie again. Hope you don’t–”

“I figured,” Cathect said, in a resigned sort of way. “It’s fine.”

“I think it makes me look cool,” he said.

“It does,” Cathect said.

“What do you think Marquez’s wife is like?” I asked.

“Must be interesting,” Blue said. “I don’t think Marquez would settle for less.”

“That was fast,” Cathect said. “What, have you thought about that already?”

“I like getting a read on people,” Blue said. “And I don’t think Marquez is the sort of person who settles for stupid or uninteresting.”

“What if she was married to a gorilla?” Cathect asked.

“Don’t be such a–” I began, but got cut off.

“No, really,” he said. “I mean, Bo is married to that fashion designer, right?”

“Marquez is not married to a gorilla,” I said.

— — —

A gorilla opened the front door. And there I was, my jaw near the floor. And there the gorilla was, dressed in a nice formal suit. But wasn’t Marquez supposed to be a lesbian? Maybe it was a butch lesbian gorilla?

Blue covered us, as usual.

“Nice to meet you,” she said, sticking her hand out. “Mis–”

“Po,” the gorilla said.

We stood there for a couple seconds, and I felt really awkward, so I blurted, “Are you–”

“The madames are ready for you,” Po said, talking over me. I was glad. Maybe it’d gotten that question a bunch over his time working for the Marquez’s? It made an elaborate bow and then moving out of the doorway so that we could walk through it.

Cathect shot me a look and jabbed me with an elbow. You know. Because he’s really good at subtlety. Then we followed Hellfire and Blue through the door.

The house was really nice. And it smelled nice, too. You know those fancy-ish two story suburban-y houses, that are nice-looking but not too nice-looking? The sort that make you feel like they’re a nice American Dream-y sort of home?

That was what Marquez had. It made me feel good that she’d been so accomplished. It’s like, I knew we didn’t live in a society that burned lesbians at the stake or anything. But sometimes I still wondered. Would people treat me differently for who I was and who I loved? Would that change me?

Some of them would, obviously. But at least there was a chance that I’d be able to laugh at them one day with my perfect home and my totally-not-a-monkey-wife. Even if it made me sad sometimes, I guessed…

I don’t know. I just wanted to be happy.

I heard footsteps above us. They didn’t sound like gorilla footsteps.

Before long Marquez was walking down the staircase.

“So glad you four could make it,” she said, with such ease.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said.

“I hope that’s not true,” she said. “If the world was in danger, you’d really need to leave this party.”

“Classic superhero problem,” Blue said. “But we have our priorities straight.”

“We always find a way,” Hellfire said.

“That’s nice,” Marquez said, seemingly unsure quite how she should take the comment.

“Where’s your wife?” Blue asked.

“She’s still upstairs, getting changed,” Marquez said.

“Is she a–” I began to say. But I stopped.

A petite blonde came loping down the staircase, a handbag draped across her shoulder. There was such a lightness to her step that it looked like she was walking on air.

She smiled wide, practically running towards us. It was only when she’d gotten off the stairs that I realized she wasn’t wearing any shoes.

“You’re the superheroes, I take it?” she asked, extending her hand. I shook it.

“Yeah,” I said, softly.

“You make it sound like such a secret. We’re not afraid of superheroes in this house.” She laughed, moving to shake Hellfire’s hand.

“Honey,” Marquez said. “What happened to your shoes?”

“Oh, those?” the blonde asked. “I couldn’t figure out which to wear, so I figured I wouldn’t wear any at all!”

Something seemed off about her. Or maybe it wasn’t her that was off, but how I felt about her. Did I know her from somewhere?

“My wife is quirky, to say the least,” Marquez said.

“Oh, you just say that when I do something you don’t like!” she replied.

“You’re not wrong,” Marquez said.

“Come on. Let’s eat!” She grabbed Blue by the hand, practically dragging her to the dining room table.

Marquez seemed to move at a slightly slower pace. Cathect leaned over to me, whispering, “She didn’t shake my hand. What am I, invisible?”

“Better invisible than chopped liver,” I said.

“They mean the same thing!” Cathect said.

I shut up for a second when I realized that Marquez and Hellfire were having a more interesting conversation.

“My CFO has some interesting things to say about you,” Marquez said.

“What things?” Hellfire asked.

“Nothing in particular,” she said. “Just a couple–”

I didn’t hear what she said, because Cathect got all in my face.

“You’re ignoring me, too!” he said. “Am I ugly? Am I boring? You’d tell me if I was boring, right?”

“You’re not boring,” I said. “You’re a lot of things, but you’re not boring.”

The six of us sat down at the dining room table. Cathect was on my right and Marquez was on my left. Marquez was at one end of the table, while Blue was at the other end. Hellfire sat across from me and the blonde was next to Blue and Hellfire.

“I don’t think we got your name,” Blue said.

“Jane,” she said, with a mildly obnoxious smile.

“Goodall?” Cathect asked.

I didn’t want to laugh, but I did. Just a little bit. I absolutely hated Cathect for that.

“No, Jane never rolled around with apes,” Marquez said. “Unless you consider men apes.”

“I don’t really like to consider men at all,” I said.

That got a bit of a laugh from Cathect. “I get it,” he said. “Because you’re a lesbian.” I would’ve said something, but he went on. “Wait a second. I’m the only straight white guy here! Is that why everyone’s ignoring me? Is that why I’m boring?”

“Yes,” Marquez said, deadpan.

Jane let out a long sigh, and Blue looked over at her for a second.

“Something you want to say?” Blue asked.

“Oh, no,” Jane said. “Nothing.”

“Why do I feel my team isn’t welcome here?” Blue said. “I’ve enjoyed working for you, but why were we invited here?”

“I don’t mean to offend you,” Jane said. “It’s just that I always hate it when Marquez brings her work home with her.”

“What?” I said.

“I said,” Jane said, a lot more loudly, “‘I hate it when Marquez brings her work home with her.’ It’s nothing personal, you know. It’s just that things get so messy with supes.”

“Messy?” Blue asked.

“You know,” Jane said. “Messy.”

“I don’t know,” Blue said. “What do you mean?”

“Things always happen when you guys are around,” she said. “Broken buildings, missing people. You do your best to save the world. And trust me, I appreciate that. But still. Sometimes I think the world would be better off without you guys.”

“Really?” I said. “I mean, bad guys would still be bad guys, powers or no. So if you give bad guys powers, you’re going to get supervillains. Aren’t they the problems? Aren’t supervillains the problem?”

“Someone from Sum Industries should know a lot about supervillains,” Cathect said.

“Cathect!” I said. This was embarrassing. This night was going so awfully. And Marquez was just sitting there, not saying anything. I would say that wasn’t like her, but how much did I know her? Maybe she just let awkward situations play out? Maybe that would be a way for me to be less awkward. Maybe–

“He has a point,” Hellfire said. “You dislike superheroes, but your wife runs Sum Industries? That seems strange.”

“My wife is a strange woman,” Marquez said, finally speaking up. “She has many contradictions.”

“It’s not that strange,” Jane said. “I don’t like your job.”

“You’d be much happier doing what you used to do?” Marquez asked.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Jane said.

“What’d you used to do?” Hellfire asked.

“Nothing interesting,” she said.

“Why are you lying?” Hellfire growled.

“Hellfire!” I blurted.

“She’s lying,” he said. “I don’t like liars.”

“I imagine you don’t like a lot of things,” Marquez said. “The way my CFO tells it, you can be a bit of a handful.”

“Never trust a demon to say good things,” Hellfire said. “They don’t.”

“Guys,” Blue said. “Let’s calm down.”

“Why should I calm down?” Jane said.

“My wife has a point,” Marquez said. “We invited you into our home.”

“I’m sorry we’re, like, being awkward.”

“You’re not being awkward, Nano,” Marquez said. “That’s not the problem.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I said.

“More than you could ever imagine,” Marquez said. “We’re ready for dinner!”

One man came out of the kitchen, then another and then another and then another. Four in total poured into the kitchen, wearing suits and brandishing guns.

“I knew it,” Hellfire said, pounding his fist on the table. He began to transform into his demon form, but one of the men took out a dart gun and shot him in the neck with it. As if on cue, three other men took out dart guns.

*THWAP*

*THWAP*

*THWAP*

My neck stung, and I began to feel woozy. I grabbed onto the table for support. I think I knocked something over, but everything felt so numb that I couldn’t be sure.

I fell to the floor. Everything was beginning to fade, and I struggled to speak. But still, I asked, “Why?”

“I’d tell you,” Marquez said. “But you’re going to be dead soon, so what’s the point?”

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Chapter Eleven: One of These Things Is Kind of Like The Other If You Squint Real Hard

Sotto Voce and I stood in my bedroom. I couldn’t even believe we were having this conversation.

“I have to tell my teammates. They’re, you know, they’re my teammates!”

“What if one of them has been hired to kill you?” she asked.

“None of them have it in them.”

“You all work for Sum Industries, don’t you?” she asked.

“I thought you said you’d stopped following me.”

“I did,” she said. “You’ve got a welcome letter from them on your desk.”

I turned around to look at my desk. She was right.

“So, not creepy,” she said. “But I’m not blind, either.”

“I don’t think you get to decide whether or not you’re creepy,” I said.

“Call Agent 09. Confirm my story,” she said. She got up and walked towards the window.

“How will I find you?” I asked.

“You won’t,” she said, opening my window. “I’ll find you,” she said, crawling onto the windowsill. “Stay safe,” she said. She jumped.

“Wait,” I said, but it was too late. I ran over to my window, but she was gone. Gone with the night wind. “Running out in the middle of a conversation?” I muttered. “Douche move.”

— — —

“You ready for today?” Blue asked, as the four of us walked towards Sum Industries.

“Define ‘you,’” I said. “And ‘ready’. And ‘today.’”

“Should I take that as a no?” Blue said.

“Yeah,” I said. “But how could I be ready? We have absolutely no idea what Marquez wants us to do.”

“Yesterday we dealt with body-transferring white ninja babies. How bad could today be?” Cathect asked.

“I really wish you’d stop bringing that up,” I said. “The more we talk about it, the less I can pretend it was just some weird fever dream.”

“Maybe we’re all just some big fever dream,” Cathect said, which would have been funny if it wasn’t terrifying.

“You’re awful and I hate you,” I said.

“I’ve come to learn the hard way that that’s just your way of saying that you love me,” Cathect said.

“You’re stupid.”

“By which you mean a genius,” Cathect said.

“When you say things my ears bleed.”

“By which you mean I have the voice of an angel,” Cathect said.

“We’re here,” Hellfire said. “Time to kick down the door.”

“Don’t kick down the door,” Blue said.

“I was being cool,” Hellfire said.

“Were you, though?” I asked.

“I was, right?” Hellfire said, looking over at Cathect.

“Sure,” Cathect said. “That one was pretty alright on the cool scale.”

The four of us walked through the revolving door, one by one. We walked to the front desk, where the 12-inch gargoyle was looking at some papers.

“Hi, guys,” the gargoyle said. “Good to see you again. Glad I didn’t scare ya! Haha!”

“Hi, Gargoyle,” I said. “Hi, Invisible Raccoon.”

I looked at the front desk’s empty chair, trying to see some movement–just any sort of clue that would tell me whether or not the Invisible Raccoon actually existed.

The gargoyle laughed, looking at the chair. Then he looked back at me.

“That’s not his name,” the gargoyle said.

“Then what’s his name?” I asked.

“I’d tell you,” he said. “But you don’t speak raccoon. Take the elevator up to the top floor. Marquez wants to see you guys.”

“Do you know why she wants to see us?” Blue asked.

“No clue. Destroy any buildings recently?” the gargoyle asked, wings fluttering. He let out a bit of a laugh, the hoarse, breathless sort of laugh old men often gave out when they’d cracked themselves up and couldn’t get any air. Then he said, “Metahumans can be such assholes sometimes.”

We all looked at each other for a second, unsure what to do.

Blue said, “Let’s go.”

The four of us made our way to the elevator. As soon as the doors shut, I asked, “So is the Invisible Raccoon real, or is he just messing with us?”

“I don’t know,” Hellfire said.

“I don’t really think it matters,” Blue said.

“I wouldn’t trust anything that guy says,” Cathect said. “Seems to me like he’s really stoned.” Cathect snapped his fingers, turning them into finger guns with his mouth opened wide. The rest of the elevator ride was spent in silence, Cathect pointing his finger guns at each of us and trying to get someone to laugh.

We got off the elevator, which directly faced another front desk. The lady sitting there seemed pretty normal: no extra limbs, no wings, no glowing eyes. Honestly, normal seemed kind of weird in this building.

“Marquez is waiting for you, Hellfire,” the secretary said. Hellfire nodded his head and went into Marquez’s office.

I walked up to her and asked, “Do you have any powers?”

“No,” she said.

“Is that scary?”

“I’m more afraid of how much more boring this conversation could get,” she said. “Do you enjoy boring people? Is that your superpower, or something?”

Wow.

I didn’t say anything else, but simply moved over to the chairs in the waiting room. Cathect and Blue were both sitting there. Neither really looked like what they knew what to say.

“I almost forgot what the word ‘bitch’ meant,” Cathect whispered. “Really glad she could clear that up for me.”

“I’ll fight her,” Blue said. “If you want me to fight her, I will.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked. I was just curious, you know?”

“Yeah,” Blue said. “I know.”

I guess I wanted to know how she felt about not having superpowers. Because really, I didn’t have any superpowers either. I had the suit, which was a nice enough replacement, but if I didn’t wear it, I would basically be helpless. And the thing was so inconspicuous, I still hadn’t actually worn it on a mission. Which was frustrating.

Hellfire walked out of the office, wearing a blank expression.

“Nano, you’re next,” the secretary said.

I gulped hard, walking to Marquez’s office. The second I crossed the threshold, I felt super intimidated. The office was super huge, and there were all sorts of cool things in it. On the right wall there were four turtle shells lined up in a row. Each had a word spraypainted on. Taken together, they said, “We Will Never Forget.”

The floor was actually made of glass. Underneath the glass there was water, and a whole bunch of fish.

“No sharks?” I asked, too nervous to even look at Marquez.

“No sharks,” she said.

“That’s good,” I said. “Because if there were sharks in there, you’d definitely be a supervillain.”

She laughed. “I promise you I’m not. But that’s enough about me. It sounds like you had an interesting day yesterday.”

“I did.” As I said that, I finally reached the desk where Marquez was sitting. I sat in the comfy rolly chair across from her.

“Body-swapping ninjas. I imagine it’s a lot to handle on your first day.”

“It definitely was,” I said. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Can I be candid with you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.”

“You’re being followed,” Marquez said. She opened one of the drawer desks and took out a folder. She slid it my way and said, “Open it.”

I did. The folder was a dossier on Sotto Voce, showing a bunch of the places she had probably followed me to. Some of them I’d known she was there for, others not so much.

“Wow,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Was it safe to tell Marquez that I knew about Sotto Voce? Was it safe to tell anyone?

“You know her?” she asked.

“I’ve seen her around,” I said. “But I didn’t know she was following me.” A little white lie couldn’t hurt, right?

“Well she is.”

“How’d you get this?” I asked.

“As you’ll quickly come to realize, I have my ways,” she said. “To tell you the truth, this is one of the reasons why I want your team to come and work for me. We’re interested in Sotto Voce.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Many reasons,” she said. “I was hoping I could get you and your team to track her down–turn the tables and figure out who she is, where she lives. All of that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We can do that.”

“I don’t know how familiar you are with Sotto Voce’s place in history?”

“I know a little bit,” I said. “Queer female spirit, Bloody whisper. You know. The highlights.”

“That should be enough,” she said. “You already have her interest. You just need to capture her.” She grabbed a pen and some papers on her desk, as if she’d completely forgotten about me for a moment. “Oh,” she said. “You can go now.”

I did.

Walking back out, I saw that Cathect actually looked pretty nervous. Blue didn’t, though. I wondered if she actually wasn’t nervous, or if she didn’t want her nervousness to show. I mean, I guess she’d been here longer than the rest of us, but still. There was something very intimidating about being a superhero in a building so well known for supervillain-y.

“Blue, you’re next,” the secretary said.

Blue got up and walked to the office. I swear to God, I thought I saw her smile.

“Did she feed you to the sharks?” Cathect asked. “Hellfire said there was a fish tank under the floor.”

“No,” I said. “PS, you’re stupid. Anyway, Hellfire. What’d Marquez want to talk to you about?”

“Demon stuff,” he said.

“Like?” I asked.

“The CFO here is a demon,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”

“He wants to apologize,” Hellfire said. “For everything. Marquez wanted to know if I could meet with him.”

“Are you comfortable doing that?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”

“I wonder what she wants to talk to me about,” Cathect said. “Do they have a porn division at Sum Industries?”

“We know your clone is a porn star, Cathect,” I said. “You don’t have to keep bringing it up all the time.”

“Isn’t it impressive, though?” Cathect asked. “I mean, someone with my body became a porn star. There’s my body, there’s the porn star’s body, and they’re the same. I’m thinking about getting business cards made. I’ll say my position is ‘Porn Star Creator’.”

“I thought your position was, ‘Professional Jack-ass’,” I said.

“That’s a little kinky for my tastes,” Cathect said.

“One man in Hell gets fucked by a donkey, every day,” Hellfire said.

I looked at him. “What?”

“I thought that was a joke,” he said.

“You were trying to be funny?” I asked. “Please Dear God tell me that the man getting fucked by a donkey isn’t real?”

“I was trying to be funny,” he said. “And it’s real.”

“Why,” I said.

Blue walked out of Marquez’s office.

“Did you get eaten by a shark?” Cathect asked.

“That wasn’t funny the first time,” I said.

“I’m sorry you don’t understand the art of humor,” he said. “Which, I’ll admit, is complex and multi-faceted. But I assure you that joke was very funny.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So funny.”

“What’d she want to talk to you about?” I asked.

“Nothing interesting,” Blue said. “She just said ‘Hi’ and hoped that everything was going well. I didn’t even get to sit down. How about you?”

“Nothing interesting,” I said. “I guess.”

“What about me?” Cathect asked. “Is it my turn? Is it my turn to go in now?”

The secretary glanced up at Cathect, seemingly surprised by his very existence. She glanced at her computer screen for a second, then turned right back towards him.

“No,” she said. “Marquez didn’t want to see you.”

“It’s because I’m really cool and don’t cause her any problems, right?” Cathect asked.

The secretary laughed for a moment. “Hun, she doesn’t even know your name. How could you cause problems for her? No, the truth is that she just doesn’t care.”

Cathect looked at her, surprised and disappointed. Then he said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Yeah,” Blue said. “Let’s go.”

I felt kind of bad as the four of us got into the elevator. Cathect actually looked dejected. It was almost as if he had feelings or something.

“Sorry the secretary made fun of you like that,” I said. “I don’t know why she was being so weird.” I leaned over and patted him on the back as awkwardly as possible. Awkward but genuine. It was my way.

“Yeah. Maybe she’s been talking to you,” Cathect said.

“Aw, I don’t mean it,” I said.

He looked at me, disbelieving.

“Well, okay,” I said. “I believe some of the things I say. But even though you’re annoying, you can be kind of cool sometimes, too.”

Cathect smiled.

— — —

Agent 09 was totally unreachable, which was really unfortunate. Without her, I couldn’t figure out what to do about Marquez and Sotto Voce.

On the one hand you had Sotto Voce, who had definitely been stalking me. She was honest about stalking me, which was nice, but she’d still stalked me. Also, she was from a long line of spirits, several of them murderers, which, all things considered, doesn’t weigh in her favor. Even then, they were homicidal maniacs who fought for lesbians and queer people in general, which was pretty cool. But I really was less than one hundred percent cool with the whole murder thing.

Then of course there was Marquez. She was really cool and really seemed to care about what I had to say. But she was also the CEO of a somewhat villain-y corporation. That said, she hadn’t stalked me personally. She’d maybe had Sotto Voce followed, but she hadn’t done it herself, so it was different. And if Sotto Voce was dangerous, wouldn’t it be a good thing to follow her? Wouldn’t that make Marquez one of the good guys?

Then there was the fact that I wasn’t able to tell any of my teammates about this. But was that right? Should I really hide all this from them? Teams were all about helping each other, after all. And I could really use some help right now. If only I could be certain nobody on the team was trying to kill me.

Actually, thinking about it, the number of people in my life who might have been trying to kill me was alarmingly high. Or was I just paranoid? Is it called paranoia if everyone’s after you?

The window behind me opened, and I jumped in my seat a little.

“What did Marquez want to talk about?” Sotto Voce asked.

“Sorry I scared you,” Sotto Voce said. “What did Marquez want to talk about?”

“You’re back.”

“I said I would be, though you should really lock your window,” Sotto Voce said. “What did Marquez want to talk about?”

“You really like asking that question,” I said. “A ‘Hello’ would be nice, first. So you didn’t scare me half to death.”

“Hello,” she said. “What did–”

“Seriously,” I said. “You said you’d stop following me.”

“I did stop following you,” she said. “I’ve started looking at the other three, to see if they were hiding anything. Just so happened you were with them at Sum Industries.”

“Ugh, can you stop following people in general?”

“Following people’s my job,” Sotto Voce said. “A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”

“How about we start simple, then,” I said. “How about you stop following me and the people around me.”

“Your life is in danger,” she said.

“Probably,” I said. “And I don’t know who’s endangering it. It could be you. It could be someone you work for.”

“It could,” she said, her voice growing softer. “I won’t follow you or your friends anymore. But first, tell me. What did Marquez want to talk to you about?”

“She wants me to help track someone down,” I said.

“Who?” she asked.

“The Operator,” I lied. Then I told the truth, “One of the supervillains who kidnapped me when I was little. One of Mom’s old enemies.”

“They think that you can help track down The Operator?”

“Well, yeah, I said. “I’m the best option they have, apparently.”

“But you only interacted with The Operator when you were a baby, right?” Sotto Voce asked. “You wouldn’t have any reason to talk to him again.”

Shit. All that lying had been hard. But telling the truth would be even harder.

“Not exactly,” I said. “No. Not really at all.”

“You kept in contact with him?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?”

“I–” It was hard to say. It was one of those things that felt so weird, you know? It was one of those things that made me feel alone when I tried to talk about it. Because how could anyone understand? “Plastique almost killed me when she found out that my parents were about to save me. But The Operator stopped that. It’s not like I feel grateful to him or anything. I mean he kidnapped me, which is pretty douchey. But I liked that he was good like that. I liked that he was good, even though he was a villain.”

“So you talked to him again?”

“Yeah,” I said. “A couple times.”

Actually, The Operator knew a lot of guys from Sum Industries.

— — —

“Nano,” The Operator said, sitting across from me behind a wall of glass. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”

“That’s alright,” The Operator said. “I understand. You’re at that age.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been really busy, actually.”

“Oh, yeah?” he asked. “With what?”

“Sum Industries,” I said.

“They said they were going straight,” he said. “They broke their word again?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“If you don’t think they’re doing anything evil, why would you be fighting them?”

“I’m not,” I said.

“You’re–” he paused, looking confused. “What are you doing with them, then?”

“Working for them,” I said.

“You’re–” he paused, looking less confused and more angry this time. “You’re telling me that you’re working for Sum Industries? This is what you’re telling me?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you.”

“To tell me you were taking up a life of crime? That’s what you wanted to tell me?”

“No,” I said. “That’s not what I’m doing at all.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” he said.

“You said they went straight.”

“I said that they said they went straight,” he said.

“You don’t think they did?”

“They never do. They’ll swear up and down they’re going straight. But every time, at the end of the day, they end up getting involved. You know, with the criminal element.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But I was thinking about it, and I don’t know. I was thinking that Marquez didn’t seem so bad, you know? Maybe she’s actually trying to make Sum Industries a not villain-y thing?”

“Maybe,” he said. “But I wouldn’t bet on it.”

“I was wondering if you could, you know. Talk to some of your friends about it? See if Sum Industries was really trying to follow the law?”

“I’ll ask around,” he said. “But there are two things I can tell you about Marquez. Real easy–right off the bat.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “What?”

“One, none of the guys I talk to have heard of her. That doesn’t mean too much, since she could be from another dimension or something, but it’s still a helluva lot better than if they had heard of her.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That’s good to know.”

“Two,” he said. “She’s gay.”

“Oh,” I said.

That changed everything. It felt like it shouldn’t change everything. It felt wrong that it was changing everything, but still.

That changed everything.

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