... In Which Joni Indulges in Extracurricular Activities and Carrie Has a Nerdgasm
The Blue Parrot Bar, Gateway City
Several Years Later... (2022)
The Blue Parrot had started its life as a dressmaker's shop, and had, in its lifetime before it was a bar, been a haberdashery, a pawnshop, an antique shop, a music store and a café. Around the turn of the 21st century it had become a Sun-Dollar Coffee shop, a corporate chain of coffee-shops that had started in Coast City and found its way to every mall and busy street corner in America by 2003, pushing out the Metropolis based YesCoffee! completely by 2005. In 2008, because of investors' perspective of the company as having overextended themselves, the company began a reorganization of its "less valuable assets" and the corner shop stood abandoned for two weeks before being purchased by Amanda Joan White and reopened as a bar two months later.
Amanda Joan White had served as a member of the K-Brigade before being discharged for injuries sustained during the first few months of the War. Upon opening, she pinned the pictures of her fallen comrades to the wall over the bar, as per the advice of a patron and acquaintance in the Black Hawk Corps. Since then, it had become something of a tradition for the metahuman and enhanced-abilities community of Gateway City.
"Cowgirl!" the three patrons said in almost-unison as the woman in the Black Hawks uniform entered the bar, heralded by the jingling over the door. Several other patrons, mostly older men and women, took notice of the dark navy-blue Blackhawk uniform.
"It's 'Wraith' now, actually," she said, taking her seat and putting her combination cap in her lap.
"We were just talking about that, actually."
"Yeah, well... now that I'm in Jillian's old squadron it just felt wrong... to keep using her old call."
"Fair enough – do you have the picture?"
"Right here." Wraith pulled the black-and-white photo out of her inner coat pocket.
"What do you say we put it up by Jillian's picture, there's a space between her and Charger."
"I was thinking we put her up there over Brannon," Wraith said, passing the picture to Omega.
"It's your call, sister," Attica said, washing her hands of the decision.
"Oh, I love this picture," said Omega, passing the picture to Attica. "It's a cropped photo from the 2007 Wayne Foundation Charity Ball – I've this in one of my old scrapbooks. Why'd you cut yourself out of it?"
"Just superstitious, I guess," Wraith shrugged. "Don't want my picture up on that wall till my number comes up – besides, that horrible purple dress, gods, I'd purge the world of that picture of me if I could."
(15 years prior...)
"Yeah, well at least I'm making an attempt to deal with reality here!" Joni shouted.
"And what the fuck is that supposed to mean? You gonna drink the kool-aid and sign up with Carrie's geek patrol too? You gonna start going to stupid conventions in costumes now too? Is that what constitutes 'reality' for you now, because...!"
"This has nothing to do with...!"
"Bull-shit it doesn't! You...!"
Carrie was weighing the pros and cons of sticking around and watching Eris and Joni argue, or continue on home without them. They were a block or two away from the point where they usually split up anyway... But that would mean she would be home with her parents all that much faster. Carrie stood her ground and rummaged about in her bag for something to read while waiting for one of them to get totally exasperated and storm off.
The tinkling of a bell roused Carrie's attention and she saw two people exiting the Sun-Dollar Coffee Shop on the corner. Looking back at her friends... she went into the coffee shop.
"Can I have... a medium mint tea, please?"
"Spearmint or peppermint?"
"You got it, that'll be $2.97... Thank you, out of five... $2.03 is your change... Miss?"
"Huh? Oh! Thanks." She took her change and receipt, turned her eyes back to the far end of the shop. "Well... if Joni can do it..." she muttered to herself.
"Sorry, what was that, Miss?"
"Oh, nothing," Carrie smiled at the barista. "Thanks." She took her tea.
The girl sitting alone at the corner booth was reading last week's HEROTAB. She was wearing a puffy black jacket and an emerald-green hairband holding back long black bangs. The hairband was the same colour as the girl's vividly green skin.
"Hi..." Carrie trailed off, timidly.
The girl looked up from her magazine.
"Hi," Carrie reaffirmed. "You must be Adara. I'm Carrie." She put her hand out.
"Why?" the other said, blinked, cocked her head to the side.
"Why am I Carrie?"
"Why must I be Adara? You said 'must,' indicating a lack of all other options – I'm curious to know what your criteria were for this deduction."
"Oh... um... Page thirty-seven."
"Page thirty-seven of the HEROTAB you're reading."
The girl kept eye contact with Carrie as she turned the pages, glanced down quickly before looking back up, holding Carrie's gaze until she looked down a second time, turned one more page. Studied what she saw. "It's not a very good picture of me... small as well. How do you know I'm not some other Coluan? Do you know the individual morphologies that differentiate members of my species?" She locked her eyes on Carrie again, unblinking now, her eyes wide and her expression, though not stern, was eerily commanding.
"Well... I hadn't heard of any other Coluans besides Indigo, and she's comatose in STAR Labs Metropolis right now, and... any others here without United Nations Approval would be violating the Sovereign Earth Act, so... I doubt they would be casually reading in a coffee shop in northern California this close to the Themyscrian Consulate. Their main mandate, well, one of them I guess, is to defend the western seaboard against alien invasion. So... I made an informed assumption...?"
Adara released Carrie from eye-contact. "Pretty good. I'm not sure I would have left it at that, and I don't necessarily agree with all of your assertions, but, as it happens, I am Adara Rice."
"Okay... well... I'm a student at St. Elias."
"Oh, yeah, um, well, congratulations on your admission. Maybe I'll see you around the school sometime?"
"Thank you." Her smile was subdued and deliberate, her voice slow and unassuming. "That is a likely scenario."
Carrie nodded. She patted her own thigh absently with her free hand. Adara blinked.
"Well... see you around."
"Bye." Adara kept smiling. "And have a pleasant day." She turned back to her magazine.
Carrie opened the door to the street and nearly collided with Joni. "There you are," Joni said, sounding exasperated. "Come on, let's go."
Carrie didn't ask what had happened to Eris.
"Her head is just so far up her ass...!" Joni was explaining anyway. "ERRRGH!" She gesticulated angrily. "Amazons and Aquatics aren't out-of-sight/out-of-mind out in the middle of the ocean any more – San Diego is under water and full of Aquatics, Amazons are stationed in every major city to protect us from New Kryptonian terrorists – freakin' alien terrorists! Earth's meta-forces are taking part in interstellar civil wars for God's sake! It's the world we live in now! And people – like Eris! – want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend these people don't exist! Or that they somehow are so bizarre that they're not even real or worth considering!"
"You don't have to preach to..."
"It's like people who deny the Moon Landing ever happened! Or who – who keep up this endless mental masturbation to the Zapruder Film, or – god help us! – keep insisting that the Batman is some sort of mass hysteria or media hoax! It's..."
"Joni – just SHUT UP!" Carrie screamed.
Joni turned and looked at her friend as if she was surprised to see her, furrowed her brow and studied the other quizzically.
"Just shut the hell up... I hate it when you go off on these... whatevers..." Carrie pushed past her friend and continued towards her parents' apartment. "Just go to work and calm down, call me when you don't feel like raving anymore."
"Carrie!" Joni caught up in about three strides. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Eris just..."
"And what's gotten into you this afternoon? – Lunch, what was that about? You've never shown an interest in this sort of thing before?"
"Honestly? I just... I don't know – bored?"
"You are a horrible liar, you know that? But fine, fine, you've got my number when you want to talk – though if it's more trouble with your parents I'm swamped with issues of my own, so, I'm afraid I'll be no help there..."
"No, my folks are..." Joni shrugged.
"Well, whatever, I've got to go walk in on another awkward moment in their run up to inevitable divorce – have fun at work."
"Ha," Joni said, turning the corner left while Carrie crossed the street to the right. "Right, fun..."
It was Friday. Joni had a stock job at a hardware store on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school. On Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays, if any of her friends came looking for her there Mr. Clifford, the store's owner, or Justin or Rajeev, her fellow employees, told them that she was working in the back and couldn't be bothered, though this rarely happened. Not for the first time she wondered just how much Carrie actually knew about her home life – it would only take about a quarter of an hour on Google for anyone to figure out her entire life story. Either Carrie genuinely had no idea who her parents were or she was being nice and pretending not to notice out of respect for Joni's privacy. Still, to keep up appearances she kept the job at Clifford's and refused to take a limo to and from school.
She waved through the store window of Clifford's Hardware at Rajeev as she passed the store. He waved back, smiled, assuming she was off to something fun and illicit, probably with an older man, or whatever other salacious improprieties he might have come up with to explain her strange behaviour to his satisfaction. She took the alley that ran alongside the store until it came out along Howard Street, followed it to Wade, which ran along the very edge of the commercial district, stores on the one side and trees on the other. She walked along the side with trees until the sidewalk ended. Then she walked along the street, in the bike lane until that ended as well and the street became a road, bordered with a dirt path, twisting and turning, trees on both sides.
Like the other two large cities in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Gateway City was its own county. But, also like Los Angeles, Gateway City was by no means homogenous – there were neighbourhoods and burrows and sections that were miniature cities unto themselves. Trevorsville was a historical region that no longer appeared in print on any map, but was known by the locals as the extreme southeast corner of the city that bordered the forested area Joni walked through after school along Old Wade Highway, a road which had originally be laid to connect Trevorsville with the logging mill which had once been where the shopping district now stood. Joni turned off onto an unnamed side road after about a ten's minutes walk. It took about another fifteen to reach her destination. The tree line ended about fifteen yards from the main gate where she entered her pass-code. The iron gate made a buzzing clang and swung open. About ten seconds after she entered, it closed behind her with a screech and another buzz-clang.
She walked along the path – on the interior of the gate, there were several trees and a considerable amount of undergrowth, barely contrained by the gate. As she walked, she, for some reason, smelled the distinct suggestion of cinnamon on the breeze as she approached the main house and slipped one arm out of her backpack's shoulder-strap, carried its weight entirely on her right shoulder. With her left hand she fiddled with something in the pocket of her school blazer.
The item in her pocket was making heavy metallic clicks as she played with it, accompanied by the sound of the fingernail of her left index finger tapping along the side of it, occasionally digging into the divot of a screw.
"Hello, Ginger," Joni said as she knelt and took her left hand out of her pocket to pet the lemon coloured cat that ran up to her out of the bushes. The cat smelled of wet leaves and dust and of sour tobacco smoke that clung to the heavy drapes Ginger habitually clawed at. "You certainly know what day it is, don't you?" Joni crooned to the cat as it rubbed up against her leg and purred ecstatically, barely containing its excitement.
Joni pulled the bag off of her right shoulder with her right hand and extracted a tin of sardines from a zippered outer pocket, opened it for the animal as it pressed its face against her hand and the top of the tin, ate greedily as Joni scratched the back of its head. "Enjoy," Joni whispered as she continued on toward the house.
It was big – fifteen bedrooms and almost as many bathrooms, a pool and a pool house, a greenhouse that would have filled a quarter of a football field, lawns that sported a veritable army of statues and topiaries and, classically, a two story fountain wreathed by a round in the road before the main steps of the house.
Joni abandoned this road and kept to the grass toward the north side of the property, toward the greenhouse and the various sheds that supported the efforts of the gardeners. "Hey, Douglas."
"Hello, Sophia – how was school?"
"Boring. How's the raccoon traps coming?"
"Not a bloody racoon yet – caught lots of opossums, and that skunk that's been bothering the dogs. But they're still too smart for their own good."
"I say we just let Layla shoot the damn things, if they're that much of a problem." Joni sat on an ancient, felled log, her bag beside her. Opening the main compartment she shifted her math book, a small first aid kit and a compass-and-pencil, pulled out a warm, half-drunk water bottom. She finished it as she rested a moment from her walk – about two and a half miles as the crow flew.
Douglas, the groundskeeper, didn't respond, though he did shake his head as he continued to tinker with the wire and sheet metal trap. Joni stood up and picked up a modestly clean shovel and stuck the business end straight down into the ground, hung her blazer on the top of it. She then removed her blouse, re-buttoned it, folded it and put it in the secondary partition of her bag. In her sports-bra and tank-top she walked over to the axe and pulled it out of the stump by the handle, set up one of the foot-long, nine-inch-thick logs beside the rude gash in the stump's surface – lined up her swing...
Swoop-thwack, the two half logs fell, one into the dirt and one on its side on the stump. Joni set this latter up on its end, lined up her swing... swoop-thwack! She picked up the fourths and threw them into the pile, set up the first half log and gave it similar treatment. Swoop-thwack, clunk-clunk...
A new log. Swoop-thwack! Clunk, clunk... Tap... Swoop-thwack! clunk-clunk... tap... Swoop-thwack! Clunk-clunk... Tap. Twelve more logs given the similar treatment.
"Got the axe stuck yet?"
Joni turned to see Layla, smiled in her direction as she set up the next log. "Not yet." She lined up her swing... swoop-smack! "Well, there you go, you jinxed me..." Joni levered the axe handle downward to free the blade, set up her next swing... Swoop-thwack! Clunk.
"You do know there becomes a point where this becomes playing and no longer a true workout, right?"
"Would that be the point where it starts to become easy?" Joni wiped a droplet of sweat from behind her ear.
"About. Did you want to try out the pneumatics again?"
"I thought you said I needed to work on the basics before we go back to the hardware?"
"You've been making progress recently... I thought..."
"You're not coming back with us this time, are you?"
"We've been called up."
Joni hugged the taller woman, felt the cool metal dogtag chain at the back of her neck with her red hot palm, felt some of the sweat at the back of her jaw and side of her neck smear across Layla's cheek and jaw.
"Probably just another milk-run with Brannon and the Blackhawks. Long time since Metropolis."
"Some might say that means we're due..." Joni inhaled sharply through her nose. "Sorry, I didn't mean it... like that... I mean – sorry for being the voice of doom and gloom."
"No, no, speak your mind. Everybody else is thinking it."
"Come on, I've got the dummies set up on the other side of the greenhouse."
The "dummies" were solid marble lawn statues. Joni threw her first punch at the head of a statue of Apollo – replacing the face with a jagged crater and raining shards across the hard packed earth of the training field.
"I want to see severed heads, soldier!" taunted Layla.
"Yes, Ma'am," Joni intoned, returning to her fighting stance. She took another swing at the Olympian's head. It came away in chunks that fell to the ground about ten feet away.
Joni's pneumatic armour hissed and whined as the compressors recharged their reservoirs.
"Arms!" Layla cried.
Joni gave a one-two punch to the statues arms, breaking them at the shoulders and causing them to fall to the ground.
Joni made a slide into her next "opponent," the impact pistons in her gauntlet forming a crater in the gut of a statue of Alexander. Her legs gathering underneath her, she swung a hook with her other arm that sent the great Macedonian's head flying to the right in, mostly, one piece.
"Good! Backflip, switch up!"
Joni jumped up and kicked off of the headless statue's chest-plate, landed in front of a nymph statue and smashed half the face away with an upward elbow thrust.
"Careful! Those couters don't have impacters!"
While Layla spoke Joni had already spun around and landed a good momentum hit on the other side of the nymph's head with her vambrace, probably a little too close to her wrist for Layla's liking, Kevlar ailette notwithstanding. An uppercut sent the remainder of the head flying up into the air.
It went on in like fashion for the better part of a half hour, until Joni's tanktop was soaked all the way through, and the interior padding of her pneumatic arms were hot, sticky and itchy.
"Take a break!" Layla called out.
Pneumatic armour did a lot of the work, but it didn't do everything. Joni collapsed to her knees, her arms hanging at her side like six-hundred and fifty pound weights. Her shoulders, her thighs and triceps and biceps were screaming and her hands felt like they were swollen to ten times what they should have been. Her heart was beating so fast and so hard it felt like it shook her upper body with each beat, a deep rumbling from her chest. What's more, all the heavy impacts going up her arms had really given her a massive headache...
This one always surprised Joni, no matter how many times Aunt Layla did it. At least now she knew better than to let her surprise paralyse her. She caught the water bottle with a sore hand at the end of a sore arm and struggled to work her numb fingers at the twist cap. "Damn..."
"No, Miss... damn...!"
"Here, let me."
The pneumatic armour over Joni's arms and shoulders enhanced all the movements of her arms and there were pistons on the knuckles designed to trigger when she smashed them against something solid – but they did nothing for the strength of her fingers. For all her protests Layla snatched the bottle from her hands easily, threw the cap to the ground and tipped about a half cup of water over Joni's right arm.
Steam and a substantial hissing sound accompanied the water as it poured over the metal components of the armour. "These things still have trouble with overheating, if you ask me... how do they feel?"
"Not... well, it is better, anyway. Either the insulation or the heat distribution is doing a better job than the last set... lower cannons still feel like they're buckling a bit on lateral impact..."
"They are called 'vambraces,' Soldier, not 'cannons' – cannons are something you shoot, not something that fits over your arm."
"Yes, Miss. Sorry, Miss."
"You're forgiven. Here, drink."
"Yes, Miss. Thank you, Miss." She drank.
Layla knelt down and deactivated the impacters on Joni's arms. "You think you can give me one hundred full ones, Soldier?"
"Of course, Miss." Joni put her knuckles on the ground and began to get into position for push-ups.
"Attagirl." Layla kissed the top of Joni's head. "Keep a loud count of it, it helps."
"Yes, Miss. One...! Two...! Three...! Four...!"
Layla walked away from her student, but not out of earshot, surveying the marble carnage around them, picked up a head or two and considered them briefly before discarding them. When she walked back over to Joni she placed her palm on the girl's back once, not to correct her form, but to keep her honest and to let her know she was still watching.
"Ninety-seven... ninety... eight... ninety-nine... one... hundred..." Joni stopped in the up position and waited.
Joni collapsed onto her tummy, rolled over onto her side, and then flopped down onto her back, panting, choosing to flex her fingers at the dirt at her sides rather than curl her arms into a foetal position.
"This, Soldier," Layla crooned, picking up the closest head and showing it to her student. "Is the head of Gnaeus Julius Agricola – the Roman general who oversaw the invasion and conquest of Britain. And you knocked his head off."
"He had a... stupid haircut... for a general," Joni said between panting breaths, smiling.
"I'm not sure that excuse would hold up in court, but... okay, next question. What do you think a hit like this would do to a human skull?"
"I... don't know, Miss."
"The word salsa comes to mind – chunky style."
This earned a giggle out of Joni, but only a little before she bit her lower lip.
"Yeah, that is a little funny," Layla admitted. "Have you ever seen a dead body, Soldier?"
"No, Miss." Joni turned her head and looked up into Layla's eyes.
"Do you know what the Batman rule is, Soldier?"
"Recite it for me, Soldier."
After a moment's pause, to assess what Layla really wanted from her, Joni spoke calmly and clearly, as if reciting from a textbook. "No lethal force, not even in self defence. No exceptions, no second chances."
"And who abides by this rule?"
"The Justice League of America, the Justice Society of America and their subsidiaries, Miss."
"Because..." Joni paused to consider whether Layla was asking for a legal or ethical answer. She decided to go legal. "Because, even though the JSA operates at the pleasure of the President of the United States..."
"Since when and why?" Layla interrupted.
"Since Executive Order X of 1942, Miss, which granted legal authority to all of America's masked vigilantes to defend the homeland under extreme circumstances."
"Even though the JSA operates at the pleasure of the President and the JLA operates under the auspices of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they are, unless a state of war or global emergency is declared, a civilian organization given extraordinary authority – therefore, they must be held to an extraordinarily higher standard and provide their own oversight."
"Correct. I would also have accepted 'because killing people is wrong.'"
"Yeah, that too... Miss."
Layla smiled down at her student and reached out a hand. Joni took it and Layla helped her to her feet. Joni managed to keep the painful groaning to a minimum. "I sense you had another 'talk' with my parents?"
"Yes. I did."
"And the result?"
"They want me to introduce you to Jay Garrick."
"No!" Joni made an exasperated sound. "No. I'm going to join up! They can't talk me out of it – when I'm eighteen I'm enlisting."
"And what if you don't get into the special forces, what then? The Black Hawks only take Americans from the Marines and Navy special forces."
"Then there's the open tryouts in Prague every May Day..."
"Your father won't let Ferris Aircraft sponsor your entry, sweety."
Joni opened her mouth to speak, closed it, did it again, like a fish. "He told you that?" she managed, finally.
"You're father's boss..."
"Carol Ferris or my mother?"
"Both – it's... I guess you would call it an 'Old Girl's Network,' just like Waller, Olivia Reynolds, Cathy Cobert – your mother and your Auntie Carol – all thick as thieves since the 80's. You're mother asked Carol not to sponsor you, a trade in for a personal favour I might tell you about when you grow up..." that didn't get the laugh Layla hoped it would. "She justified it as wanting to avoid the appearance of nepotism."
Joni sat down on the grass at the edge of the practice-ground, drew her knees up and rested her chin on her folded arms, feeling the warm metal under her chin, thinking, fuming, frowning. "I don't want to be stuck in some parochial, national agency – the JSA can't even go into Canada without the JLA's say-so!"
"If you want to see the world, why not join the peace corps?" Layla glowered down at her student.
Joni frowned back up at Layla.
"I'm serious. This isn't about the scope of jurisdiction – this is about service. At least that's what I thought I was training you for. I won't bother with you any more if all you want to do is fulfil some romantic fantasy about going off to war!"
"I'm sorry... I just... really wanted to..."
"I know. Come here." Layla helped Joni to her feet again. "You just have to remember, it doesn't really matter, in the long run, which group you sign up with, you're parents just want you to finish collage before you..."
"Essentially." Layla's smile was disarming enough to coax one out of Joni. "You have to remember that once you've established yourself, however that is, if it's a student in the Society's school in upstate New York or if it's getting coffee for someone at the Power Company headquarters in San Francisco – once you're in, in whatever capacity, you're in for life. You get invited to the JLA/JSA Thanksgiving parties and the Teen Titan Spring Break getaways and you're, basically, signed up for the Article-X draft and on and on and on... it's a small community, and you can't minimize any way into it. The industry is intense and we're intensely protective of our own."
"So..." they were at the expansive row of glass doors and windows that bordered the banquet patio. Layla had her arms around Joni's shoulder and back, her other hand on Joni's closest shoulder, but Joni could feel neither of these directly, only as the welcome, if distant, pressure of contact through the quarter inch of armour and plating. "It's back to some sort of Pierce agreement, then?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"And after I get my degree?"
"Whatever you want, after that. As far as your mother has said, anyway."
They entered through the door to the kitchen. There were a few cooks at the far end getting ready for the servant's dinner, but the Jjones would be flying out to Gotham before the usual dinner hour – it was a virtual skeleton staff. They headed through a servants' corridor toward the training room.
"So, will Sasha be there this year?" Joni probed.
Layla gave Joni a sidelong look, her eyebrow raised cagily. "Somewhere, I'm sure, working security. Her and the GCPD."
"Lots of masked heroes this year?" Joni persisted.
"Of course – Kara Zor-El will be there representing Starware Industries, Jesse Chambers will be representing Quickstart Industries and the JSA – Zinda Blake will be there representing Blackhawk Airways and as a special guest of the Mayor..."
"I'm not just talking about the public heroes, Miss," Joni grinned to herself.
"You've been reading too much in that Fairchild woman's book again – it's all just wild speculation."
"Still, it makes a lot of sense when you think about it – Batman uses a lot of high tech toys – they have to get their funding from somewhere."
"There's that 'they' again. Batman was... is one man as far as anyone knows."
"So why does his description change so much? Does he wear a blue and grey outfit, or an all black one? His height keeps changing from year to year – there have been at least five Robins and Batgirls..."
"Okay, okay. Enough. Either I don't know the answers you want or, if I did – which I don't – I couldn't talk about it as a matter of course. Where's your paper?"
Having reached the training room, Joni set her backpack down on a workbench and pulled out a folder containing thirty one sheets of unstapled paper, her weekly research assignment printed on the front and back of each page. The cover sheet read "Superheroes and Society: A Refutation of the Chambers Hypothesis."
"Bold title – I take it that this means you read 'Impact of Superheroes on Society' and Why the World Needs Superman?"
"And Dr. Barbara Gordon's Treatise on Administrative Justice."
This caught Layla by surprise. "Did you now?" She began flipped idly through the pages. "And what made you choose that particular work?"
"What indeed?" Joni nudged, grinning.
"Cheeky. Okay then," Layla said, setting the folder down. "Your next and final academic assignment from me – if you think there are going to be non-public superheroes at this party in their civvies, you try to pick them out, who isn't wearing what mask and let me know after the party."
"Will you tell me if I'm right or wrong on each?"
Layla snorted a brief laugh. "Hell no. I'll tell you if you're way wrong or mostly on the ball overall, but I won't confirm or deny specific cases. Bones or Waller would nail my ass to the wall if I did, Soldier."
"One of these days you're going to have to tell me who this mysterious 'Bones' and 'Waller' are."
"I don't have to do anything," Layla retorted. "Here now, you want to have a go at the simulator before we head to the airport? My friend at Edwards sent me a great new program I think you're going to enjoy..."
Caroline Keen Kelley had been the first to get home. Her parents were still at work, no doubt avoiding each other on a conscious or subconscious level – Carrie didn't really factor into those sorts of plans. She tossed her keys in the bowl sitting on the hallway table and slammed her bedroom door. She tossed her backpack onto the floor next to her bed and belly-flopped onto the mattress. She focussed on the positive events of the day. Cassandra, Hope, Iris – she had been resisting the urge to call Kressida and gush about it all day since lunch. It had gotten to the point where she had physically removed her cell phone's battery so as to better avoid the temptation.
Fishing it out of her bag she reconnected it, waited for it to power up. No missed calls from her parents, no voicemail. She shoved her phone under her pillow, pulled off her glasses with her other hand, buried her face in her pillow, smothering her unbidden grin. She reached down toward her bag again, half-sitting up to look over and down at it, pulled out her geometry book. Pressed between the pages, between two other clean napkins, she pulled out the autograph that Cassandra Elizabeth Sandsmark, Wonder Girl, daughter of Zeus, had addressed to her, had kissed for her – "To Carol, From Cassie" kiss. No one had called her "Carol" since she was little, but she had no complaints, considering the source. The napkin which had been pressed on top of the autographed napkin, to preserve it and stop it from getting print from her book all over it, had taken on a pale outline of the very light impression of Cassie's red-orange lipstick. She held the napkin with this lighter impression over her face, imagined she could smell Cassandra's breath, the smell of her skin off of it, pressed it to her own lips...
She held it over her mouth and nose with her whole hand, breathing through it... Above her bed, on the wall above the headboard, was a huge poster of Wonder Girl, flying midair, taken in San Francisco, both Alcatraz and Titan's islands in the background. She was wearing her trademark silver bracers with red stars embossed into the metal, skin-tight, flared jeans, 4-inch square-heeled boots and a red and gold skin-tight top with the double-W's across her breasts, just a bit of exposed mid-rift, a gold-eagle (the symbol of her father) on her belt-buckle. She was pulling tightly on her war lariat – a gift from her half-brother Aries – her blue eyes alive with the lightning of the Gods, her golden hair caught in a mid-California breeze, or perhaps the winds of battle, her porcelain white teeth clenched and bared like a mother wolf's...
On the wall along the side of her bed she had a poster of 13-year old Cassandra, before her secret identity had been revealed by the media – she had worn glasses and a black wig, matching black t-shirt and bicycle shorts, a WWG on her shirt, denim jacket and aviator goggles in her hair. Next to that was a poster of her at 15: red denim pants with white stars on the outsides of her thighs, black crop-top, her natural blonde hair in pigtails and her aviation goggles pulled up to her hairline. On the ceiling above her bed, age 16: red, skin tight spandex pants, black knee-high boots, red crop-top with metal WW's across the chest, red hair-band, casually reclining against a giant green tiger, her war-lariat held loosely, languidly in her right hand, her left hand on her shin, drawing her leg closer to her body, smiling at the camera – her Optitron Corporation publicity photo from when Optitron was the major sponsor of the Teen Titans.
Some months ago, Cassandra had needed to single-handedly contain a jail break at Alcatraz's Hyper-Max Metahuman Prison – one very lucky photographer with the associated press, with a telephoto lens on the deck of an SF-Bay ferry, had captured a photograph of Cassandra, hovering midair above the scene at Alcatraz, wearing a red tank-top (gold-eagle's wings across her chest, a diamond studded WW belt-buckle, silver war-bracers covering her lower arms, red-star earrings and blue jeans, calling down thunder on the escaping inmates, gold hair swirling, her eyes blazing with the red light of Hades, her war-lariat coiled around her fists and bracers, yellow lightning arcing off of the entire length of the rope in every direction. After the photo hit the internet news stations there was no longer any question as to her demigoddess status, nor whether she was qualified to run the Teen Titans after Robin's departure. The new question was why the Titan's had had Robin in charge in the first place when they had an Olympian with the strength and powers of Superman and Livewire combined in their midst? A colour printout of this photo was taped to Carrie's bedroom wall, next to her pillow.
Carrie stared up and around at the posters and photos and recalled the images to mind of Cassandra flying or walking, the movement of powerful muscles beneath silken, rosy skin, the fall of her hair, her strong shoulders, the slope of her thighs and bum under her jeans or beneath a teasingly short plaid skirt...
Carrie's free hand found its way to her thigh, her inner thigh...
Carrie inhaled sharply through her nose and pulled the napkin away from her face, put it back on top of the autographed napkin and set them on her nightstand, got up and stretched her arms over her head, her fingers interlocked. She shouldn't lie down in her full uniform. She put her blazer on a hanger, removed her shoes, put both blazer and shoes in the closet, removed her skirt and shirt, changed her socks, crashed back onto her bed, opened the second drawer in her nightstand and flipped through the folded photo-paper pages that nearly filled the shallow drawer. The new HEROTAB page-five was a reprint of a poolside photo shoot with Rebecca Carstairs and Zatanna Zatara. Carstairs (Witchfire) was lying on her stomach on a deck-chair, sunning herself, topless, wearing a dark burgundy g-string, grinning at the camera, while Zatanna stood, hands on hips, in a two-piece white bikini, white high heels and white bowtie, her raven hair caught by the wind, also smiling at the camera. The page's floating caption read "The Magic of Summer." Not really the best type of picture for September...
She folded the page and put it back in the drawer. Last issue's picture of Rita Farr had been more provocative – she was expanded to near her full height, around twelve stories tall, sitting naked leaning against a building, an arm and thigh strategically placed, the floating caption reading "Big is Beautiful."
When all else failed, there was always the issue of Meta-Monthly with the Manhunter spread – tasteful nudes besides Manhunter keeping her mask and gauntlets and boots on, of course, along with an interview with LA's favourite, and only, superhero since Infinity Inc. closed down in the 90's. She was... amazing in her tanned skin, more-so with those red and grey alien boots and metal claws, the long black ponytail and red mask... that tiny freckle shaped birthmark on her bum...
For some reason she was thinking of Wonder Woman again, wearing her fur-lined cloak, walking out of that café in Los Angeles – and then wearing only that cloak, wrapping them both in that cloak as she pulled Carrie against her in the warm Southern California sun... Carrie's breath coming slower, deeper, through her nose as she pressed her head back into her pillows, her waistband of her panties pressing against the back of her hand, the coarse thatch of red hair tickling her palm, lips warm, pliable, welcoming... Wearing a short, blue wrap dress on the beaches of Themyscria, Lara Kal-El and Cassandra Sandsmark laying down on either side of her on the sand after an exhaustive aerial workout, stripping off their costumes – shouting into the setting sun at the liberty they felt doing so – Lara's long, flowing black ponytail draped over her shoulder, so black it gave off an iridescent blue sheen, hanging between her breasts as she stroked her hair smooth, her skin wet with sweat and shining with orange light, looking as a Kryptonian's skin naturally should, as it had evolved to look, bathed in red sunlight, radiant in the native sun of Earth. Cassandra's hair is long but wavy and blonde, bunching at her shoulder and the back of her neck as she lay on the sand with her arms above her head, one knee up, kicking a bare foot at the sky in the unadulterated freedom of Paradise Island. They were both stripped down only to their metal wristbands, and teased and prodded Carrie in the thigh to remove her dress as well, both snuggling up to her and helping her undress, unpinning the broach that held her Greek dress together, giggling as they nuzzled their heads up against the side of her head and Cassandra rubbed Carrie's tummy, Lara rubbed the small of her back...
"Aaaaaagh...!" Carrie moaned, opening her eyes to see Cassandra's face looking down at her from the poster on her ceiling, lounging against her Green tiger, watching her, smiling down at her, encouraging her with her bemused little grin, the love in her eyes.
A green tiger-skin rug beneath them, both of them bejewelled in Egyptian gold and copper finery, Cassandra is on top of her, looking into her eyes and she is holding Carrie's calf in her hand, lifting it up, making her gold anklets jingle, her hot, Amazonian breath on Carrie's chin, her other hand massaging and exploring and coaxing Carrie, her hands gripping the same green, ever-so-soft fur of the rug that cushions her bum and her upper back, her lower back arched, sticking out her stomach to meet Cassandra's own...
"Oh... Gods... I.. I love you, Cassie...!"
Cassandra grins with her eyes and kisses the line of Carrie's jaw, nibbles on it, her thumb rubbing her centre, her other hand bending Carrie's leg farther toward her shoulder, and Carrie wraps her other leg around Cassandra's impossibly firm body, the amazing strength underlining the amazing gentleness the super woman is taking with her frail human lover... "Aaaaaahhh... Ooh...!"
"Caroline? I'm home!"
There was a jingle of keys going into the bowl in the hallway, followed in short order by a knocking on Carrie's door. Carrie's hands were trapped between her tightly clenched thighs and she was on her side, though her door was locked. Her stomach was a solid peace of mahogany, tight, held in perpetual anticipation and it was hard to breath – it took her a minute to be able to confidently reply without panting. "I'm changing!" She called to her mother.
"Okay!" She called back. "I don't have anything planned for dinner, you want to order out? Pizza fine?"
"Sure!" Carrie called, trying to sound nonchalant, swallowing hard breaths, unable to stop herself from continuing silently.
"Alright, I'll get the usual, I'll let you know!"
"Fine! Thank you!" she tried not to sound angry.
Carrie rolled over, looking at the small internet printout of Cassandra in her full Olympian glory over the San Francisco Bay, and breathed a staggered sigh in silent prayer to the Demigoddess as she stroked the digitally printed face with a single hot, red, slightly moist finger, caressingly... gently... "Oh, Cassie, I love you..."
Hope's life before Gateway City was complicated. When Hope was eleven, she had gone back to living with a member of her mother's former street-gang, Miranda, over Miranda's auto-garage. Miranda had a daughter of her own, Faith, and it was, by Hope's recollection, alright for a few years. Hope's mother made frequent visits in those days, would ask questions about her life, the precautions she was taking, how Miranda was treating her, if she was eating properly, if she was keeping up with her prayers and supplications to Athena and Sekhmet, quiz her on Amazonian history, both Thema and Bana versions of it, whether or not Miranda was teaching her to speak Banyha, and would quiz her on her vocabulary. She would always give Miranda money to buy Hope things she wanted her daughter to have, but said that for security purposes money was the only tangible thing she could give her daughter – it wasn't safe, otherwise, but giving money to Miranda could be interpreted as bribe money to keep her quiet about her work.
More than anything, though, Hope's mother tried to instil in her daughter a deep and all-permeating fear of Hope's father, and would often tell stories about the horrors he had visited upon his other children, those that were still alive and those that were dead. Her mother, on her semi-frequent visits, would also ask Hope to try to strike her in the face, in order to test her fighting skills. Only twice had Hope's mother given her broken limbs, as by age twelve her bones had already begun to harden past the strength of quartz, her muscles to firm and thicken to the consistency of fibrous mahogany, but still – her mother was always stronger. "Broken bones are always harder after they heal," her mother had said.
Only once had Hope managed to land a blow on her mother, surprising her enough to land a punch to her mother's stomach. Hope had fractured seven individual bones in her right hand with that one blow, and had earned a broken tooth when her mother backhanded her. "I said try to strike my face, not my body. We'll try again next month."
And then, as was customary, Hope, once she had regained control of her voice and managed to struggle to her feet again, had thanked her mother for the lesson and waited for Miranda to finish her work before taking Hope to the Thompkins Clinic to have her hand and tooth looked to.
By fourteen Hope had joined her first street-gang, having run away from Miranda with Faith into the societal sink-trap neighbourhood of Tricorner. She had also had her first encounter with a masked hero. Cassandra Wayne, then Cassandra Cain, (Batgirl) had tried, and succeeded, in stopping her gang, the Lost Girls, from controlling of the Gotham drug trade – but not before Hope, Faith and their street sisters had pummelled and drugged her, taken her mask and saw her true face. With reinforcements swooping in, however, there was no hope of salvaging the situation, and Hope had been registered into the system as a juvenile metahuman offender – transferred to a maximum security "orphanage" in upstate New York under the jurisdiction of the Department of Extranormal Operations as a ward of the Department of Metahuman Affairs.
"What is this crap?" Hope said tossing a balled up wad of paper at the TV screen.
"T-the M-Miss Universe Pageant..." Lucia stammered.
"If it's the Miss Universe Pageant why do I only see human women on the screen?"
"All Ariadna women too," Iris offered, though she did not look up from her book.
Hope tore out and balled up another page from her notebook, chucked it at Iris's head. "Mother doesn't want us using that word, Rissa."
"Sorry, Opey," Iris intoned insincerely.
"Seriously, though," Hope said, turning back toward the metahuman girl on the sofa, repositioning herself on the armchair with her legs over one armrest. "Haven't you had enough of beauty pageants to last you a lifetime? Isn't there a point where this ceases to be a hobby and becomes an unhealthy obsession?"
"Stockholm-syndrome," Iris muttered.
Hope cleared her throat furiously. "I didn't say it but there is that as well," Hope said to Lucia.
"I'll t-turn it off... i-if you want."
"Well, no, I mean – yes. But I'm just trying to understand what your..."
"Hello, sexy bitches!" came the grating, squeaky voice of PopRocket. She had a towel over her shoulders and was carrying her water bottle. She jumped over the couch, feet on the coffee table, grabbing the remote away from Lucia. Hestia House had a basement gym where PopRocket could be found at least four hours out of each day.
"Hi... J-Jane..." Lucia said, haltingly.
"What's this crap?" Poppy said regarding the screen.
"That's what we were trying to figure out," Iris said.
"Don't make me jump over this chair and spank you," Hope threatened.
"Don't be such a tease, Opey." Iris turned the page in her book.
"Seriously, Lucia, you are one sick kitty." Poppy flipped the channel a few times. "You'd think after what your pervert-ass stage-Dad put you through..."
"DON'T!" Lucia shouted, invisible claws cutting gashes across the upholstery, cushion-stuffing popping out through the rips. "Don't talk about Daddy like that!" There were three red claw marks across Lucia's own face, dripping red, and blood was becoming visible as it seeped into her shirt and sleeves from the gashes hidden beneath.
"Whatever..." Poppy said, unconcerned.
"DON'T!" Lucia shouted again, this time the gashes were larger, farther apart and in PopRocket's direction.
One second PopRocket was there, the next she was across the room, a red blur her only visible movement. "Okay! Stop clawing up the furniture! Bad kitty!"
Craning her neck, Hope saw that PopRocket was in her fighting stance, and Iris had put her book down on the ground and put her fingers in her ears, already curled up into a little ball behind Hope's armchair. Hope threw a tissue-box at the panic button on the wall. It was a large, round, red button, the sort of thing which begged to be pressed. Hope hit it squarely, of course, and followed Iris by covering her own ears as the piercing alarm sounded.
PopRocket was a speedster – at least partially. Most speedsters had not only speed, but possessed a frictionless aura that stopped them from burning up when they moved faster than sound. PopRocket was incredibly durable, but when she moved too fast the air burned, and, hypothetically, she could run herself to death if she wasn't careful. She used her speed for quick bursts and stopping power, running her fists into people with the force of a shotgun – she had been the favourite on the underground arena circuit before the authorities, Jostice, Inc. particularly, shut them down and freed the combatants. The fight organizers had kept Poppy hopped up on enough chems to put an elephant to sleep most of the time, and hyped her up with enough Velocity-9 to send a normal person into orbit during fights, let alone a speedster. Hope had no way of knowing what she was like before the Darkside Club had gotten their hands on her, but she didn't like what they had turned her into.
Supersonic, in her black costume adored with purple spirals, was the speedster on call to deal with Poppy and the handful of other girls possessing super-speed at Hestia House. Supersonic was one of those speedsters at the Flash's level, able to, effectively, be in two places at once by running back and forth between the two places at close to, or beyond, the speed of light. All Hope knew was that Supersonic was one of Mother Superior's freaks, and that she was most likely one of the Orloff children all grown up. Supersonic must have caught Poppy halfway along her trajectory, because Hope could smell the smoke and ozone from Poppy's indelicate burst of speed. And now she was swearing and calling Supersonic a fascist and no better than Granny Goodness – her former keeper when she was a slave to the Darkside Club's decadence.
Lucia, on the other hand, was comatose, the small, unassuming girl standing over her muttering to the small glowing object she held in her upturned palm. Apparently Lucia had begun to manifest a sphere of invisible claws around herself in reflex against Poppy's surge. There were claw marks on the carpet in a circle around where she had fallen, and half of the coffee table was kindling and splinters. Misty, the small dark-haired girl standing over Lucia, was no more than thirteen at the outside, with long black hair and a black gothic tee-shirt and shorts and ripped fishnet gloves. The six-sided die in her hand was of particular interest to Hope, and she always tried to get a good look at it whenever Misty appeared – usually in a puff of smoke, smelling of cinnamon.
As Misty muttered to her magic playing die, the blood-stains on the carpet and Lucia's clothes began to slowly face, as did the open wounds on Lucia's skin.
When the siren shut off, and Hope could hear Yolisha's angry footsteps coming down the stairs, Hope waved to Misty to get her attention. "Hey, do you think you can do something about the couch?"
Misty looked up at Hope (surprised?) and then at the sofa where Hope was pointed. Looked back at Hope and nodded.
"What in the sweet name of... oh hell." Yolisha Pérez's English was perfect, except when she was angry, which was most of the time in Hope's opinion, when her accent showed through.
"They're both off their medication," Misty whispered to the tall Latina woman.
"I'm not taking any more pills! You're no better than Granny!"
"Misty, could you, please?"
Hope noted Yolisha seemed more exasperated today than angry. Hope's mother must have had Yolisha doing the paperwork while she was out of town.
Misty whispered something unintelligible to her toy and PopRocket fell limp in Supersonic's arms, like a puppet with its strings cut. Misty wandered over to PopRocket, looked as if she was asking questions of her die, paused as if listening to voices only she could hear. "Morpheus is always so kind to this one – curiouser and curiouser..."
"Right," Yolisha cut in. "Could you please tuck Miss Brown into bed?" She asked Supersonic. In another instant both Supersonic and PopRocket were simply gone.
"Hope...?" Yolisha asked, arms crossed.
"Poppy was telling it like it is about Lucia's dad – and then she started cutting up the place."
"Wonderful," Yolisha sighed. "Are you two okay? Iris, sweety?"
Iris was still huddled behind Hope's overstuffed armchair, and allowed Yolisha to stoke her hair apologetically, hamming up her "traumatized little girl" act for the extra attention it gleaned from Yolisha – who in reality, her past as the supposed super villain, "Scorcher," notwithstanding, was a big softy. Then Iris's cell phone went off. "Hi, Mom!" Iris said into her phone, beaming from ear to ear. She jumped up, around Yolisha, and into the next room, happy as could be.
Hope rolled her eyes and transferred herself to the side of the sofa where Poppy had dropped the remote control to the TV.