Identity Crisis - Chapter 5/10: Here to Save the World, Dressed Like a Girl

By Jenny North
Artwork by Fraylim and Splutt

One day while flying through the city, I accidentally happened to see Marty Maddox sitting on the top of his building having lunch, and—

Actually, that's not entirely right. In fact, it would be a complete lie.

In point of fact, I'd been hovering around the AGON Technologies building for several days—literally hovering—around lunchtime in the hopes that he would be out there. I was going out of my mind with Prodigy and I didn't know who else to vent to. Caleb wasn't as ingrained in the culture as I was, and Trixie seemed to be doing so well with Demetria that she didn't understand. I needed the advice of a professional sidekick, and Marty Maddox was the guy. A couple times I'd seen him out there, but he was already been talking to some other young heroes and I didn't want to interrupt. So, by the time I was finally able to catch up with him, I was about ready to pop.

"I hate him," I said.

"Yeah, I can see how that might be very—"

"Hate him. And he detests me. He doesn't value a single thing that I do, and I haven't learned a single thing from him. That pompous and decrepit old windbag is just using me as a human shield."

He smiled as he put down his sandwich, obviously trying not to laugh.

"It's not funny!"

"Prodigious Girl, if it's so awful, why put up with the abuse? Why not just ditch the, um..." He hesitated.

"Windbag," I declared, eliciting another grin from Marty. "It's complicated," I grumbled as I took a little bite of the brownie he'd offered me earlier. "Besides, I hate giving up. And I have learned a few things, I guess."

"There are other mentors," he pointed out. "What about that Demetria person you said your friend recommended?"

"She was nice," I said.

"And...?"

"She was...nice," I repeated.

"So? Nice is good, right?"

"I don't know. She's not for me. Maybe I've just been kicked around for so long that I'm suspicious of everybody."

"Did you mention her to your mentor?"

"What, Prodigy?" I asked, incredulous. "Nooo. No way."

Marty tilted his head in acknowledgment. "Yeah, there were plenty of things I didn't share with Promethean back in the day."

"I think Prodigy would have to stand on a stool to kiss Promethean's butt, if you ask me." Then a thought occurred. "Did you know Prodigy?"

He shook his head. "Sorry, never met him. You gotta understand, it was a crazy time back then. And I guess I never had cause to track him down later. In fact, I'd heard he was dead."

I grumbled again as I took a bigger bite of the chocolate brownie.

Marty gave me a lopsided grin. "Look, I get it. You got taken in by all of the flashy costumes and capes, the thrilling derring-do. And then, under the surface..."

"Everybody is a jerk," I said with my mouth full.

He tilted his head in agreement. "The villains want you dead. The heroes are glory hounds out for fame and fortune. The press is just waiting to catch you in a scandal. And most people who don't think you're a menace will criticize you for not doing more."

"So why do it?"

He sighed. "That's something only you can decide. But you've got your whole life ahead of you. You think it's hard now, wait until you're working a full-time job and trying to make a relationship work. And then a family? Kids? Most regular people can barely make it work without being a superhero."

I furrowed my brow. "Are you saying I should give up?"

"I...look, miss, I don't know you all that well but I can already see that you're bright, you're talented, and you have a good heart. And you can apparently fly and lift a car over your head," he added with a grin. "At your age, you're nothing but limitless potential. But when you're old and looking back on your life, surrounded by your kids and grandkids, do you really think your life's worth is going to be measured by how much you could lift or how well you could take a punch?"

My lip twitched as I thought about what he said. "I should probably get going," I said.

He nodded. "You be safe out there."

* * * * *

The Kobayashi Maru. Geek shorthand for a no-win scenario, although technically it's really meant to describe a test of character when faced with such a trial. When I became a superhero I knew that I would someday have to face such dilemmas. Do you save the girl or disarm the bomb? Rescue the innocents or capture the villain? Sacrifice was always going to be required.

So, what desperate quandary was I now faced with? And who was the pitiless and implacable foe forcing me to make this decision?

"Chris, you're going to need more dresses and girls' clothes," Mom informed me as she put her coffee cup into the dishwasher. "Do you want to buy them yourself, or would you like me to come with you?"

I gaped at her over my bowl of cereal as I fumbled with the spoon in my suddenly senseless fingers. It was Saturday morning so per the terms of my punishment I was already dressed as a girl. I was wearing a casual red skater dress and sandals along with a faux leather jacket that my mom had initially decried as too boyish until she saw it with the dress and agreed that it made for a cute outfit, and she complimented me on my fashion instincts. We'd bought this and a couple other outfits during that initial shopping expedition, but her meaning was plain—if I was going to serve my sentence, I was going to need more clothes.

For a moment I almost suggested that I might borrow some of her clothes, except that she would probably have misgivings (admittedly reasonable) about sharing outfits with her teenage son. And since "borrowing" clothes was what got me into this mess in the first place, this was obviously part of my parents' plan to publicly expose me so that I might get over my embarrassment at everyone thinking I liked to dress up like a girl.

Sorry, Mom and Dad, don't hold your breath on that one.

But of course I wasn't being given a choice if I wanted to go, but rather if I wanted her to go with me. If I said yes, then she'd invariably out me to the salesgirls when she talked to them. But if I said no, there was at least a chance I might pass for a girl who was out shopping...until I had to hand over my debit card to the salesgirl at the register. Or if they figured it out sooner, then they'd realize that I was a teenage guy on his own pretending to be a girl and out shopping for dresses.

Kobayashi Maru.

I never imagined I'd face it while wearing a wig and a dress over a bowl of Froot Loops.

An hour later Mom dropped me off at the mall and told me to call her when I needed a pickup. As I watched her pull away and felt my skirt flutter in the midmorning breeze, all I could think was that normally by now I'd be fighting some power-mad supervillain and he'd be grinding my face into the pavement with his boot. Instead, I found myself looking at the display mannequins in the window and wondering if the horizontal pleats on the pastel dress I saw there would make me look too bosomy. I sighed.

I started off by silently praying for a supervillain attack to rescue me from the monotony of rifling through rack after rack of clothes, but my prayers went unanswered. However, a few hours later I'd managed to find a few outfits that I thought were kinda cool and should pass muster, a new pair of sandals, some mod boots I liked, and even some inexpensive new jewelry.

I'm not saying I was having fun exactly, but I had to admit it was a little entertaining to walk unseen among the women and girls like I was some kind of spy. Being Prodigious Girl was all about flash and being the center of attention, but this was like a weird kind of invisibility, like my secret identity had a secret identity.

I was feeling pretty confident in my deception and was holding up a nifty-looking necklace in the mirror when I spotted two girls from my school and froze in a panic. They hadn't spotted me yet but the pictures and stories of me as the openly transgender teen had made me something of a legend among my peers. I knew if they spotted me, things would probably get loud and awkward.

I put the necklace down and backed away slowly, suddenly feeling a lot more unsteady in my low-heeled sandals. I just needed to—

"Oops! Pardon me," a guy's voice came as I bumped into him. I fumbled and accidentally dropped one of my shopping bags.

"Sorry," I apologized as we both bent down to pick it up. He got to it first and handed it to me.

"Here you go. Oh, wow, those are cool earrings," he complimented me. He was about my age, maybe a year or two older and with the darkest black hair that I'd ever seen. He wore it a little long in kind of a loose rebellious style and as he brushed it back I noticed that he was wearing a silver stud earring.

I felt a little uncomfortable the way he was looking at me, the way a guy looks at a girl. But I felt compelled to say something.

"Oh, thanks. I like yours, t—"

I stopped short as I stared at his ear and noticed the little nick that was cut out of it. A nick that was identical to the one I'd noticed in Killbane's ear when I'd grappled with him at the warehouse and he'd nearly burned me to death. At first I thought it might be a coincidence, but as I looked at his face and jet-black hair, the resemblance was unmistakable.

His brow furrowed slightly. "You know, you look really familiar," he said. "Is it possible—"

"Nope."

He shook his head. "No, I swear I've seen you before. Do you go to Midtown High?"

"Um..."

He snapped his fingers. "Oh, my God, you're that girl!"

"Huh?"

He moved closer and lowered his voice. "I mean, that's what you like to be called, yeah? You're transgender, right? Wow, that's so cool. This takes a lot of guts, what you're doing. You look awesome, by the way."

"Thanks?"

He nodded. "Hey, look, I gotta get going, but maybe I'll see you around?"

"S-sure."

As he started to walk off, I shook off my bewilderment and decided to try for a sentence that was more than one syllable. "Wait!" I said. "I didn't get your name?"

"It's Derek," he said with a grin.

We stared at each other for a moment before I realized he was waiting for my name. "Oh. I'm, uh, Christie," I said as flashed me another smile and headed off into the mall. I had no idea why I'd felt compelled to give him a girl's name instead of just 'Chris,' it just came out that way. But now I had bigger concerns to occupy me.

Still stunned by the realization of who he seemed to be, I turned to see my two teenage classmates giggling and tittering as they had obviously witnessed the exchange. But I ignored them as I hurried after him and tried to stay out of sight.

I tailed Killbane—or Derek, or whatever his name was—out into the main part of the mall and was pretending to look at some jewelry on one of the carts when I spotted Caleb chatting with a couple girls from school. I hurried over to him and grabbed him by the arm, startling him.

"Oh, um, hey, Chris! What—what's up?"

I craned my neck to keep an eye on Derek. "Hey," I said distractedly, not really aware how I was snuggling up to his arm, but the two girls definitely noticed. "Um, I need to talk to you about something important. You got a minute?"

The girls giggled and rolled their eyes as they gave Caleb a little look which sailed right over my head.

He started to object, but as the girls walked off, he looked at me with annoyance. "I do now."

"Huh? Oh, sorry," I said as I let go of his arm. "Dude, that guy over there with the dark hair—don't look at him!—that's Killbane! That's the villain who almost killed me!"

"The guy buying the Jamba Juice."

"Yes!" When Caleb looked at me skeptically, I told him, "Evil people can like smoothies, too."

"Uh huh. Evil smoothies. Yeah, well, I think you're in the clear, I don't think he's looking to throw down here."

"That's just it! I bumped into him and we got to talking! He's really...nice."

Caleb looked at me strangely. "Are you thinking about dating him?"

"What? No! Why would you think that?"

He shrugged helplessly. "Look, Chris, I'm mostly trying to keep up, here. First you're a superhero. Then you're a superheroine. Now you're a girl—"

"I'm not a girl."

"You're doing a pretty good impression of a girl," he said as he looked down at my outfit and the bags in my hands from teen girls' stores. "Y'know, I'm trying to be a friend, but I kinda miss the guy I used to hang out with who'd have sword fights with me using cardboard tubes while we made lightsaber noises."

"I'm still that guy!" I told him. "Oh, crap, he's on the move again. Here, act like my boyfriend or something so we won't draw attention," I said as I jammed the bags into his hands and then hung girlishly off of his arm as we followed Derek into the mall.

"Oh, yeah, this is just like old times," Caleb deadpanned.

"Dude, why is he not in jail? And what's with him? He was like the nicest guy when I talked to him."

"Maybe it's just a cover?"

"Ten minutes ago he complimented me on having a lot of guts for being transgender, but the last time I saw him he was screaming at me and calling me a stupid cunt as he tried to roast me alive."

"Maybe he's bipolar?"

"I don't think the two poles get that far apart. Wait, what's he doing now?" I asked.

I pulled Caleb out of sight behind a mall directory and we watched as Derek went into a greeting card store.

"You're kidding me with this, right?"

I hurried us over to the store but I couldn't see Derek inside so I grabbed the bags from Caleb and shoved him towards the entrance. "Go! Go! Find out what he's up to!"

Caleb just shook his head and wandered inside as I waited outside the Hot Topic next door and pretended to look at the merchandise. A few minutes later Caleb emerged and I hurried over.

"What is it? What's he doing?"

"Chris, seriously, I don't think there's a story here."

"Why? What's he—?"

Just then, Derek came out and started to walk in the other direction. He was carrying a floral basket that had large heart-shaped helium balloons floating overhead that said, "Happy Birthday, Mom!"

Caleb sidled up next to me. "So, do we follow him? Who knows what nefarious scheme he might be hatching! And I don't like the sound of this 'Mom' character."

"Fine, I give. But can you just do a little digging, please? Maybe he really is a nice guy, but if he's got an evil twin or something, I'd like to know it."

"Okay," he grumbled. "I live to serve."

"In the meantime—" I put my shopping bags down and retrieved two rolls of wrapping paper from the display in front of the greeting card store. "—you can defend yourself, Sith lord." I tossed him one of the rolls and held up my own in salute before striking a fighting stance.

He grinned. "Okay, you can be Rey."

"The heck with that. If I'm gonna be a girl, I'm gonna be Mara Jade."

IC_Ch05_01-small.jpg

* * * * *

I got home from the mall and grudgingly showed Mom my purchases. I wasn't sure if she was trying to be supportive or maybe just teasing me, but I flatly refused her suggestion to model my new outfits for the benefit of my dad, who in turn seemed pleased by my decision. Even more than my mom, I felt really weird standing there dressed as a girl in front of him, as though I'd broken some fraternal bond or something. To his credit, if he ever felt the same way he never let on, at least not in front of me. Although on more than one occasion I'd caught my parents sharing little glances of detached amusement that were something like silent befuddled shrugs at the concept of having a son who apparently liked dressing like a girl.

Sometimes I imagined just coming clean and telling them the truth. In the movies, it's usually pretty simple: Bruce Wayne looks his love interest square in the eyes and says, "I'm Batman." Or he just removes the cowl. Me, I'd dramatically rip off my blonde wig, proclaim I didn't really want to be a girl, and then I'd...change into a girl. Then I'd explain I was a superheroine, but only temporarily...well, the heroine part, not the superhero part. Even if I thought they'd overcome their biases against superheroes, the whole thing just didn't have the same dramatic sting. I'd have to resort to flip charts to explain it all.

During dinner my cell phone beeped a message from Prodigy who asked me to meet him downtown, so I quickly finished eating and blathered some excuse about meeting Caleb for a school assignment.

"Really. On a Saturday night," my dad said.

"He said he wanted the materials to work on it tomorrow morning."

My parents shared one of their little looks. "Mmm," my Mom intoned. "Well, don't be too late. Don't forget we're visiting your cousins tomorrow."

I sighed. The thought of seeing my dad's brother and his family dressed like a stacked blonde teenage girl was pretty much the last way I wanted to spend my Sunday afternoon, coming in even lower than getting my face punched in by supervillains. "Do I have t—" I started, but a quick look at their faces told me that it was a lost cause. "I mean, yay," I said unenthusiastically. "Anyway, I gotta run, so—"

"Aren't you forgetting someone?" Mom said, casting her eyes downward.

"I'm in kind of a hurry..."

"That's what you said the last three times. He's your dog, Chris. Caleb can wait."

As though he sensed that we were talking about him, my dog looked up at me. He was a yellow Labrador/Chihuahua mix that was cute as a button and roughly half as smart as the neighborhood squirrels that bedeviled him. Given the task of naming him, I very cleverly named him "Underdog." Unfortunately, Underdog was my first real pet and I hadn't considered how problematic it was to give a three-syllable name to something you'd be yelling at to behave. Caleb had belatedly suggested that "U-Dog" might be a good nickname, but unfortunately since I'd frequently slacked off taking care of him during his formative years, the micro-brained canine now responded solely to my mom's nickname for him: Undie.

"Okay, stupid, let's make this quick," I muttered, heading for the front door with the dog in tow.

"C'mon, Undie," I protested. Having to walk around the neighborhood in a dress was bad enough, but now in all the excitement of going for a walk my dog had apparently forgotten why we were outside and now stared up at me as if to say, "Dude, what are you wearing? Have you no shame?"

I tugged on his leash, which motivated him to move almost eight feet before he started sniffing at a tree.

"Speed of lightning, roar of thunder," I said beseechingly as I gave his leash another tug. But he stubbornly stayed put and buried his nose in the base of the tree.

"Undie..." I whined.

"You're always trying to flash your undies, Patterson," a guy's voice called. "I guess that's why you like to wear skirts."

I stiffened up. "Hey, Ash," I said with a grimace. My heart skipped a beat as I realized I'd come within a whisker of calling him "Blaze." I still couldn't believe this punk that used to torment me was the same guy I fought alongside. When I'd first gotten my powers, I'd had frequent fantasies about bending Ash into a pretzel for all the grief he'd given me, but ironically as Prodigious Girl the first thing I'd done was to throw myself in front of all kinds of attacks to protect him as my teammate. If I'd known who he was, I wouldn't have been so diligent.

I looked away shyly, embarrassed to be seen by him like this. The news of my feminization was common knowledge across the school, so I knew he'd heard about me. And while I figured there was little chance he'd recognize me as Prodigious Girl, it still made me nervous.

"Hi, Chrissie, it's nice to see you, too," he said teasingly, obviously mistaking my grimace for a smile. "Ooh, what a pretty dress," he said, plucking at my skirt.

I swatted his hand away. "Knock it off, Ash."

"Oh, little Chrissie is so pretty when she's angry," he said with a pout before breaking into an annoying laugh. Even with that stupid voice synthesizer in his costume, how had I not recognized that? He did a better job at protecting his identity than I gave him credit for.

"I always knew you were a fag, Patterson. Now at least you look the part."

I balled my hands into fists and prayed that he'd be stupid enough to give me an excuse to defend myself. I promised I'd only break his collarbone a little bit.

"Yeah, well, if dressing like this means that I don't have to act like a douchebag like you, I'd much prefer to dress like a girl any day," I shot back. Then I paused and blinked in confusion. Jeez, that was my comeback? That was practically incoherent. I really had to work on my quips.

Ash didn't seem to notice. He reached out and brushed the hair of my wig back from my face. If he'd thrown a punch I would have reacted in a split second, but I was so flabbergasted by the unexpected intrusion I didn't know how to react.

"Aww, are those your mommy's earrings? Does she let you borrow them?"

"Leave me alone, Ash," I said as I took a half-step backwards to put more space between us. His hand that had touched the hair of my wig fell down in front and I'm pretty sure brushed against one of my jutting falsies. "I mean it."

"Oh, what's the little queer gonna do? You know you want a real man to—"

His voice trailed off mid-sentence as he got a weird look on his face. I wasn't sure what was going on until I smelled it, too. We both looked down to see Undie doing his business on Ash's shoe.

"Ahh, sick!" Ash complained as he shook his foot in disgust. He looked me up and down and said, "You're just...sick!" he repeated before storming off.

As he retreated I turned to look down at Undie, who stared back at me with that same perplexed look on his face as before.

"You are a very good dog," I told him.

* * * * *

I entered the garage to find Prodigy hunched over the workbench, soldering something that looked like a steel wire whisk onto something that looked like a power drill.

"Sorry I'm late, I had to take Undie for a walk."

Prodigy looked over his shoulder at me. "Is that some dumbass teenage euphemism for masturbation?"

"Eww, no! Don't be disgusting. He's my dog!"

"Good, because you can buff your muffin on your own time," he snapped. "And while we're at it, let's add 'eww' to the list of crap I never want to hear out of your mouth again."

"Any chance we add 'muffin buffing' to the ban list?" I muttered as he pulled up a spreadsheet of timetables on the computer and printed them out and handed them to me.

"What's this?"

"It's the Faraday City bus schedule. Just make sure your mutt is playing in the street at the right time, and you won't even need an alibi."

"I'm not going to kill my dog!"

"Suit yourself. Just don't come crying to me when Scooby blows your secret identity. They have a brain the size of a walnut, but dogs are responsible for outing more heroes than any three tabloid rags."

"C'mon, didn't you ever have a pet when you were young? Like a woolly mammoth or a baby triceratops?"

"You can be replaced, you know. There's nothing special about you."

"But then you'd miss watching me get mauled by bad guys all the time," I countered. "Which I'm assuming is why I'm here?"

He held up the device he'd been working on and inspected it closely. "I'm meeting up with the Liberty Squadron. I'm already late."

I perked up at the mention of the city's premier super-team. "Really? All of them?" I asked as I tried to keep the excitement out of my voice. "Will Promethean be there, too?"

"Don't get your panties damp. I said I'm going," he snapped as he shoved the device into my hands on his way to the car.

"So what am I doing?"

"I got a tip on a metahuman incursion going down tonight. The coordinates are on your I-Comm. You need me to hold your hand?"

"No," I said. "Because any time I get into a tight spot, I just think to myself, 'WWPD?'"

"Good policy."

"Yep, never fails. I just think, 'What Would Promethean Do?' and it all works out." He gave me an annoyed look and I examined the device in my hands. "What's the egg beater for?"

He opened the car door and looked at me like I was making him even more late for the big-time hero gig I wasn't invited to. "It's a sonic destabilizer. Charge for ten seconds and keep it pointed at her for five and you'll be back home doing your nails in no time."

I was about to say something sarcastic but he'd already climbed in the car and cut me off with the sound of the car door slamming shut followed by the squealing of the tires. Of course the really galling thing was that I actually did promise my mom I'd paint my nails before the family get-together tomorrow. It was still an insulting thing to assume, though.

"Jerk," I muttered as I inspected the device. Well, at least this time I'd be the one with the ace up my sleeve and not just the target dummy.

* * * * *

"AAHHH!" I screamed, gripping my ears tightly as another sonic scream slammed me with enough force to send me flying through the wall of the security building and into the street outside. I landed in a heap not far from where the useless techno egg beater had fallen earlier and I paused to wonder if it was better at making omelets than it was at taking out rampaging metahumans. Based on its track record so far I figured it'd have to be.

"Give it up, lady!" I shouted as I saw my opponent climb out the hole I'd just made. My only saving grace was that I didn't think she'd had time to grab whatever it was she'd come to steal before I showed up. That was pretty much the only thing that was going well so far.

"I am not just a lady," she said with a taunt. "I'm Milady Melody Malady!" she proclaimed as she launched another sonic scream in my direction. Fortunately this time I was able to dive out of the way and only caught the edge of the attack and managed to keep my feet.

"Y'know, I realize this probably sounds disingenuous coming from someone who calls herself Prodigious Girl, but the cutesy wordplay doesn't help the dumb name."

She shrieked again and I flew along the street to grab a sizable piece of pavement from where I'd crashed a moment ago. I swooped upwards and launched it at her, hoping that I might catch her off-guard by attacking from a new angle. Unfortunately she was too quick for me and vaporized the incoming projectile before it could connect.

"Is this the best you can do?" I said. "I mean, seriously, this volume is like at the level of a Taylor Swift concert. Do you at least do requests?"

"Do you ever shut up?" she challenged.

I laughed. "Okay, but you firs—WHOA!" I yelled as I dodged out of the way of another tightly-focused sonic burst. I decided to take the offensive and flew right at her in the hopes that I could power my way through whatever she hit me with and plow into her with enough force to knock her out. But I hadn't made it twenty feet before she hit me with something new and everything started to spin out of control. Whatever it was threw off my inner ear equilibrium and I barely had time to register the attack before I slammed face first into the pavement. For a moment it hit me that this was a similar tactic to what Prodigy had used against me the night I'd met him, but unfortunately my mentor never saw fit to teach me a counter-strategy. But while that thought was still running through my head, Melody pounded me again with another blast that hit me with enough kinetic force to cause me to dredge a ditch through the pavement, butt first.

"It's got a good beat but it's tough to dance to," I groaned as I struggled to pick myself up. I'd barely put my hands on the pavement when I caught the distinct smell of brimstone.

My first thought was that she'd hit me hard enough that I was hallucinating, but as I turned to the side I saw a pair of boots right next to me, and they were on fire. As my gaze traveled upward, I saw the man they were connected to—another super dressed in black and dark reds—and he, too, was also engulfed in flames. I blinked my bleary eyes and realized who it was: Killbane. The villain who'd very nearly roasted me alive that fateful night at the warehouse.

"Oh, poop."

"You're gonna pay for what you did!" he yelled, and I knew he had me dead to rights. I braced myself for the incoming assault, but I was in no way prepared for what happened next: as I watched, he launched a curtain of flames over at Melody, and she fell to the ground shrieking in agony. After a few seconds, she collapsed in a heap as I sat there in the ditch watching. I then stared up at him, not sure what to do.

He looked down at me and after a moment the flames around his body subsided and he leaned down and offered me a hand.

I stared at it stupidly. He could have been offering me a can of Vienna sausages and it would have made more sense. But after a moment, I blinked and took his hand to help me up.

He said something, but my ears were still ringing from all of the sonic shrieks.

"Sorry, I didn't catch that," I said as I poked my finger in my ear. "Did you say you wanted to start fighting now? 'Cause if it's all the same to you, I could use a minute."

His eyes went wide. "No! I said I was sorry for breaking up the fight!"

"Oh. Because you want to kill me yourself, right?" I had to admit, this was the most civilized pre-fight discussion I'd ever had with a villain. It was like the British aristocrat version of a "Yo Mama" fight. ("I daresay, Reginald, your matriarch is so obtuse that she believes her gluteus maximus to be named after a Roman emperor." "Ho! Well played, good sir. Well played.")

He looked at me in alarm. "What? No! I just wanted to help! I mean, you're a hero, right?"

"Well, yeah..."

"Oh, thank God," he sighed. "For a second there I thought I might have taken out the wrong one. We need jerseys or something to tell who's who, like blue side and red side. Sorry about jumping in unannounced like that, I'm sure you could have handled her. I hope I didn't step on your toes."

"Uh uh," I said, shaking my head slightly.

"Oh, sorry, my name's Blamestorm," he said.

I peered at him closely. He was wearing a mask, but there was absolutely no doubt in my mind this was Killbane. The same face, same powers, same little nick out of his ear. And this was also the same guy I'd met at the mall, I was certain of it.

He apparently took my silence as a rebuke and shrugged. "Yeah, I know it's a dumb name, but it kinda made sense. My flames aren't as hot as they look, but they fire the target's pain receptors directly. It's apparently pretty excruciating."

"Yeah, it is," I agreed, remembering my firsthand experience at the warehouse. "I-I mean, it sure sounded like it when she went down. I, uh, I'm Prodigious Girl," I said, watching his face closely for any sign of recognition.

"Good to meet you."

I nodded slowly, still watching his face. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare," I told him. "You and I haven't met before, have we?"

He smiled. "Oh, no. I'm sure I'd remember."

"Yeah, you'd sure think so, wouldn't you?" I wondered.

* * * * *

I flew straight home tired and sore from the fight and since it was after 11:00 I decided to just sneak into my window as Prodigious Girl. It was a dumb move on my part but I was so preoccupied with Killbane's behavior that I wasn't really thinking straight. However, both my parents were early risers so I figured they'd both be asleep by now.

I flew in through my window and as I landed I caught a glimpse of myself in my bedroom mirror and paused. It was weird seeing myself as Prodigious Girl surrounded by the accoutrements of my normal male life right alongside the dresses and makeup I had to wear in my off-hours. It was a weird "worlds collide" moment as my three lives met in a weird detente. When I decided to become a hero I knew there'd be challenges maintaining a dual identity, but this was over the top!

Tired and ready for bed, I tapped my I-Comm to summon my warp closet to retrieve my CosFit device and change to my civilian identity. Of course that would be my female civilian identity since I'd left home dressed as a girl. So, even once the CosFit had done its job I'd still have to undress and scrub off all my makeup. I sighed heavily. It's like I had to excavate through layers of girl stuff to get to my guy self that was buried underneath.

The warp closet opened with its usual vorp noise and I dug through the clutter to retrieve the CosFit device. I really had to clean in there, I thought.

"Chris, is that you?" my mom's voice came from downstairs.

I'd forgotten she was working on her research paper! "Yeah, it's me," I called back and immediately clapped my hands over my mouth in a panic since I'd forgotten I was still Prodigious Girl.

There was a long pause. "Did you come in through the front door?" she asked, the suspicion evident in her voice.

Crap, I had a fifty-fifty shot on this. I tried to lower my voice into a masculine register and responded, "Uh, I used the back door. I didn't want to wake you." I sounded ridiculous.

I heard the sound of her footsteps and immediately knew I'd guessed wrong. If she'd been working in the kitchen she would have seen me come in the back door, and from there it didn't take much imagination to realize I'd snuck in and to wonder why. Shit!

I activated the CosFit device and felt the familiar prickly march of the nanobots against my skin as they began to transform my costume into the last outfit I'd been wearing. I closed the warp closet with another vorp and tossed my I-Comm across the room as I watched the nanobots' progress. They seemed to be taking their sweet time about it.

"Young man, so help me, you had better be dressed as a girl up there!" my mom warned as she marched up the stairs.

"Uh huh," I said with a frog in my throat as I shapeshifted my body back into Chris. Meanwhile, the nanobots blithely marched merrily along as they transformed my clothes, unheeding of my desperate exhortations for them to hurry.

Mom knocked firmly on my door. "Christopher, open up this door this instant!"

"One sec! I'm just, um, finishing this, uh...pie." Damn you, lizard brain!

"Now!"

A few seconds later I pulled the door open and hid my left leg behind it as the nanobots were still tickling their way down my thigh.

"Hey, what's up?" I chirped pleasantly.

Mom looked me over suspiciously, obviously trying to figure out if there was some way I'd done up my makeup, hair, jewelry and outfit in the last few seconds.

"Christopher, did you sneak in just now?" she challenged as she noticed my open window.

I looked aghast at the very idea. "Mom!" I laughed. "No, I came in the front door, like I said. I just lost track of time, is all. I mean, can you imagine me climbing up the trellis in a dress and heels?" I expelled a little pfft of air as I shrugged in disbelief.

"I bet you'd get a nasty run in your pantyhose," she said slowly as she looked down at my leg. "Let's see the other one."

"Hmm?"

"Your leg. Show me your other leg."

"Oh, right. Because there'd be a run there, wouldn't there? I can see how if there was a run there, then that could look suspicious."

She stared at me impatiently.

"Aaaaand here...you...go," I said as I pulled my leg out for her to see. I turned my calf back and forth to show her.

"Hmm." She stepped into my room and checked behind the door. "Was there anybody else in here with you just now?"

I shook my head. "Nope, just me."

She furrowed her brow. "So odd. I thought I heard..." She looked at me quizzically. "Have you been practicing doing a girl's voice?" she asked.

"I-I have, yes," I nodded.

"Oh," she said. "'Cause it sounded really good. Very natural," she admitted. "Nice job."

"Thanks," I squeaked in a fake little falsetto. Then I cleared my throat. "I'm still working on it."

"Okay," she said, obviously not satisfied but unable to push it any further. "You get to bed, now. And no more eating pie in your bedroom."

"Will do. Because that's how we get ants," I added conversationally as I tried to hide my wince. My lizard brain and I were gonna have a long talk after this. "G'night!" I said brightly.

After she left I collapsed onto my bed and sighed in relief as I stared at the ceiling. My heart raced as I caught my breath and absently brought my hand to my chest. Of course all I got was a soft handful of my fake bosom, and as I looked down at myself through the hairs of my blonde wig I saw my hand resting on my falsies that tented my dress upwards.

"Secret identities are so stupid," I complained.

* * * * *

"Blamestorm?" Caleb laughed.

"It's not that bad a name," I said as I put on my earrings. Caleb had come over to my house early so I could fill him in on what had happened, but I was still finishing getting dressed for a family outing. It always took longer to do my makeup than I thought it would. When I turned into Prodigious Girl my "makeup" was actually just different pigmentation that I shapeshifted onto my skin, but I figured doing that as Chris might get noticed so I had to learn how to do it the hard way. All this girl stuff was a pain in the ass.

"No, no," Caleb said with a funny expression as he watched me touch up my lipstick in the mirror. "It's actually kind of cool. See, people always complain that it's hard to come up with a clever superhero name, but that one's pretty good."

I glared at him.

"I-I mean, that one wouldn't have made sense for you, obviously. Not with your powers," he hastily amended.

"Nice retreat. And keep your voice down," I admonished him. My parents insisted that I keep my bedroom door open whenever I had company over. It was a new rule they instituted not long after I started dressing as a girl, but I suspected that despite my protestations to the contrary, they were worried that Caleb and I might be more than just good friends and wanted to keep the funny business to a minimum.

"But you're sure it's the same guy?"

"Positive."

Caleb thought about that. "Maybe he's like the mirror universe version of Killbane who's got the same powers but this one's a good guy. Did either of them have a goatee?"

"No such luck."

"Hmm," he said. "Hey, I wonder what your mirror universe version would be. I mean, would PG be an evil girl, or would you be the girl, and she changes into an evil guy? Or maybe it's just a gender flip and he'd be a hero? 'Prodigious Guy'...it's not quite the same."

"Caleb..."

"Ooh, just imagine Prodigious Girl as a villainess! A real bad girl. Like...'Lady Prodigy,'" he said. "Oh, wait, no!" he amended as he held his hands up as he mentally pictured the scene. "Voluptua," he said breathlessly.

IC_Ch05_02-small.jpg

I started to rub my eyes in irritation, but I stopped when I realized I was about to mess up my eye makeup. "Caleb? Focus, please?"

"D'you think maybe there could be other alternate versions of you? Like a magical girl version? Magically Endowed Prodigious Power Princess to the rescue!"

IC_Ch05_03-small.jpg

I raised an eyebrow. "With her best pal, Cutie Caleb the cat?" I deadpanned.

"Hey!" he objected. "That would..." He paused to consider that. "That would actually fit within the genre," he admitted.

"That's it. No more watching Star vs. The Forces of Evil before meetings," I told him.

"Ugh, you're no fun," he said. "But I did a little digging on all the super-enthusiast forums and trackers. Killbane and Killdozer fell off the face of the earth after you fought them, but I also didn't find any mention of them getting arrested, even though there was mention of the mercenaries who were with them getting arrested for the robbery."

"Attempted robbery, you mean."

"No, robbery. That's what it said."

"But we stopped the robbery," I said. "None of this makes sense. Something happened after we left, and the last person who was with them was Harridan."

"Do you know her?"

I shook my head. "No, but Trixie does."

We locked eyes with each other.

"You think it's Demetria?" Caleb said. "Maybe Harridan is part of that Children of the Corn thing she has going on?"

I thought for a second. "I think you mean Village of the Damned."

"Ugh, was that the M. Night Shyamalan movie?"

"No, you're thinking of The Village. That was pretty bad."

"So's this, if you ask me. But do you think Demetria put the whammy on him? Maybe mind controlled him somehow?"

"I don't think so? I don't think her powers work like that. But there were a bunch of supers in her little getaway. Maybe one of them is working with Harridan. I'll see if I can talk to Trixie and get her read on it. Not much I can do about it right now."

Caleb nodded. "Oh, by the way, I got you something." He reached into his bag and handed me a folded-up piece of hot pink fabric. I opened it up and saw that it was a girl's T-shirt with the words "Prodigious Girl" in an eye-catching print.

"Gosh, you shouldn't have," I told him.

"I agonized over the font, but I think it captures the whole 'girl power' thing. I wasn't sure if the pink shirt clashed with the logo, but I figured girls like pink, right?"

"And, why, again...?" I said helplessly.

"I've had to sign up for some pay sites to stay plugged in on all the superhero stuff. It's getting kind of expensive so I figured we could sell some merch online to help cover costs. People have been asking."

I looked up in surprise. "People want to buy stuff with my name on it?"

"Cool, huh?" He pointed at the shirt and pulled out his phone. "Hey, can I get a picture of you wearing it? I said I'd post a picture of what it looked like."

I glanced nervously towards the hallway. "Dude, I can't transform here! They'll see me!" I hissed.

"Well, just put it on and I'll crop it so it's only from the neck down."

I gave him an exasperated look, but from long and bitter experience I knew I was eventually going to cave, anyway. "Fine," I muttered. I tugged at the bottom of the shirt I was wearing and was about to pull it up but suddenly felt self-conscious with Caleb watching. "So, turn around," I told him.

"Why? It's not like they're real."

"That's not the point!" I contended, although I had to admit it actually was a pretty good point. I wasn't sure why it bothered me as it did, but I just glared at him and made a face like the answer was obvious.

Grudgingly he turned around and I quickly took off the printed top I was wearing and picked up the T-shirt. I was pleased to note that the pink still matched the miniskirt I was wearing, although it bothered me a little that I was forming opinions of such things quite so readily.

I pulled the shirt over my head and quickly discovered that Caleb had ordered the wrong size. "It's too small!" I protested.

"It's a girly-fit tee, it's supposed to be snug."

With some effort I wriggled my way into the shirt and pulled it with some difficulty over my breast forms. As I arranged the hair of my wig I looked down in dismay to see the lettering on the shirt stretched tightly over my jutting bosom as the shirt clung to my body. I looked up to see Caleb giving me a lascivious little grin.

"Huh. Maybe you do take a size larger," he smirked.

"Ya think?" I snapped as I tugged vainly at the shirt and struggled to adjust it. "Oh, just take the stupid picture."

He stepped back and seemed to take forever to line up the shot while I posed. Then he started to fiddle with camera settings while I stood there like an idiot with a smile frozen on my face. "Take the freaking picture," I said through gritted teeth.

"Ok, I think I've got it," he said, then the camera flashed. "Let's just do one more to make sure. Gimme kind of a three-quarters pose so I see more the outline of your boobs."

I sighed in disgust and posed again as he took another picture. "Do you think my boobs look big enough yet?" I asked sarcastically.

IC_Ch05_04-small.jpg

His face froze as he looked at me. Or, more specifically, as he looked over my shoulder. To the open doorway.

I winced and turned slowly around to face my parents who stood there in the hallway, obviously having heard my proclamation. They looked down at my shirt and then glanced at each other. My dad just shook his head and headed downstairs.

"Well," my mom said. "Isn't that...fun."

I glanced down at my prominent breasts with the logo stretched across them. "She's a superhero," I explained.

"She's really cool," Caleb interjected.

"I'm sure. Well, it's time to go, you can see your friend later."

"Okay. Just give me a second to change my shirt..."

"Oh, don't bother! That looks so—" she stared at my bosom, "—cute on you. I'm sure your cousins will love it." She had a critical look on her face but the tone of her voice said she meant business. "Now grab your purse, say goodbye to your friend, and let's go."

* * * * *

Meeting my cousins...well, I guess it could have been worse. After the initial shocked expressions and mild teasing ("You look silly," my six-year-old cousin Lydia informed me), things quieted down a bit. My older cousin Tommy quickly ditched me which was kind of a bummer since we'd been thick as thieves the previous summer, leaving me to hang out with Lydia who informed me that we would be playing with her dolls, now. She was in the middle of a play date with her little friend Evie so at first I was mostly relegated to being a babysitter for the two girls, but when Evie's mom picked her up, Lydia insisted that I be a more active participant.

My diminutive cousin looked me over and then handed me a blonde Barbie doll in a little pink top and skirt that resembled the outfit I was wearing. "Here. You can be her," she decided.

"Swell."

"Are you supposed to be a girl?" she asked me as she wheeled up the pink Corvette with the Ken doll behind the wheel.

"Um...kinda?" I said as I listlessly put Barbie into the passenger seat. (Even playing with dolls I still didn't get to drive the car!)

"No, he's not, honey," my aunt Jessica corrected me as she cut through the room and gave me a disapproving look.

That look of disapproval pretty much set the tone for our visit. Neither she nor my uncle said ten words to me the entire time, but I overheard some hushed arguments they had with my parents that included the words "permissive" and "abnormal." I paused just long enough to hear my father say, "—son or daughter, it's no business of yours!" They hushed up when they saw me standing within earshot, but I gave my parents a little smile. It was kinda nice to have someone come charging to my rescue for a change.

We'd planned to spend most of the day together—my dad and his brother were huge basketball fans and they'd been looking forward to seeing their rival teams vying for the playoffs—but unfortunately tempers were already starting to flare. I felt guilty being the source of the familial strife, but when Aunt Jessica suggested that we "just go out for a nice lunch somewhere instead," nobody complained.

We went to a friendly little bistro downtown ("since you're...casual" my aunt proclaimed as she looked askance at my T-shirt and how I was filling it out) where the adults made a heroic attempt at small talk. Meanwhile, my cousin Tommy buried his face in his phone in between sneaking obvious glances at my chest.

"This one is my favorite because she's the prettiest," Lydia informed me as she brushed her doll's long blonde locks. During our playtime together, Lydia had made manifestly clear the importance of being pretty.

"So, what does she do?" I asked politely. "Is she like a business lady, or a doctor, or maybe a teacher?"

Lydia looked at me in bewilderment. "She's just pretty," she explained. She didn't add the implied "duh" at the end, but she delivered it with an affected air of condescension that was impressive for her tender years. Prodigy himself could scarcely have done better.

I was about to launch into a lengthy commentary regarding how girls shouldn't allow themselves to be constrained by society's fickle standards of beauty when I realized that I wasn't in much of a position to be critical of Barbie considering that I was currently dressed as a voluptuous and overly made-up blonde girl in a tight-fitting T-shirt. As I pondered that conundrum I looked up just in time to see Tommy sneak a picture of me with his phone.

I sighed heavily.

You know what sucks about being invulnerable? You can't even look at the silverware on the table and fantasize about killing yourself.

Lydia tugged on her mother's elbow. "Mom, I'm bored," she complained.

Lydia was getting antsy so I volunteered to walk around with her, which seemed to suit absolutely nobody—Lydia included—but since nobody else wanted to do it, the two of us left to explore the restaurant. I got a number of other disapproving glares from the other patrons and at first I wondered if they could tell I was a guy until I realized that a girl with my figure in a 'Prodigious Girl' T-shirt probably wasn't winning Daughter of the Year, either.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" Lydia asked.

"Uh...no," I said.

"I do," she informed me. "His name's Mason. He lets me have his cookie at lunch 'cause he thinks I'm pretty."

"Lydia, it's not always about being pretty," I said, exasperated. "You can be smart, or funny, or...what is it?" I asked as she made a face.

"I gotta go."

"Go where?"

She gave me an insistent look. "You know. Go."

Reluctantly I brought her into the ladies' room, feeling like an intruder in a sacred space. Lydia seemed more than capable of handling herself, but was taking her sweet time as I waited outside her stall. I felt wildly awkward as women kept walking in and asking if I was in line even as I could hear Lydia quietly humming to herself.

"Lydia, I'll be right outside," I whispered to the stall door before making a hasty exit.

I slumped against the wall next to the bathroom door. "I hate my life, I hate my life," I muttered. Then, from just down the hall through the open door to the alleyway outside I heard the crash of dumpsters, obviously the sound of a garbage truck making its rounds. Classy. Then there was another crash, and I saw a dark van drive up and screech to a halt.

Followed by the unmistakable sound of exo-armor powering up.

I glanced quickly at the ladies' room door and then to the open door leading outside. Keeping one eye on the bathroom door, I edged down the hallway to peek into the alley and saw a plain black van idling there and heard two or three guys arguing followed by what I was now certain was the sound of powered exoskeletal battlesuits. From prior experience I knew suits like that didn't offer much protection, but they increased the user's speed and strength and had some wicked targeting computers built in.

"You sure this is the place?" a guy said.

"Shut up, the shit's inside!" another guy responded.

"What should I do?" came a third voice from inside the van.

"Keep the motor running, dumbass! We'll be right back! And get this shit out of the way!"

Oh, good, Rhodes Scholars. I crept into the alleyway and crouched behind the restaurant's dumpster that was next to the open doorway to get a better look and heard the first two guys break into the building next door. Meanwhile the third guy—the driver—sounded like he was getting out of the van in his own exo-suit, apparently headed to move a dumpster that was blocking the vehicle's path.

"What are you doing?" Lydia asked from right next to me.

Startled, I turned to face her just as the driver kicked the dumpster out of the way and it smashed into the one we were hidden behind with enough force to knock it twenty feet. Or it would have, if I hadn't caught it one-handed.

Lydia's jaw dropped as she saw what I had done.

"How did you do that?" she gasped.

"Who said that?" the driver demanded. He had been heading to get back into the van and rushed around to the passenger side where we were concealed. He then roughly muscled the dumpster out of the way to uncover our hiding place. But we weren't there anymore.

Currently we were hovering thirty feet overhead as I held on to an astonished Lydia and motioned for her to be quiet. Any other time I would have loved to stop and appreciate the look of wonder on her face. I'd gotten so matter-of-fact about my powers that seeing the gobsmacked expression on my little cousin's face reminded me how incredible all this really was.

Unfortunately I was a little too busy grappling with how much danger we were in. My first priority was to keep Lydia safe and even if I had wanted to throw down with these losers my CosFit device was back in my purse in the restaurant. And these knuckleheads were obviously of the "shoot first and ask questions later" variety. I hated to just let them go, but I figured if they made a clean and quiet getaway at least nobody would get hurt.

That's when I heard the sound of the burglar alarm go off inside the building. Because of course these idiots would set off the alarm.

Well, that changed the math. Now they'd be heavily armed, stupid, and panicky...never a good combination. I figured I had to intervene or people were going to get hurt. But I needed to do it quickly and quietly. Reluctantly I looked at Lydia and whispered something to her. She nodded back.

The driver also heard the alarm and made for the driver's seat. But as he rounded the back of the van he stopped dead in his tracks, obviously not expecting to see a six-year-old girl standing next to the van.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" he asked.

"I'm helping."

"Yeah, well, I don't need your hel—" he said as I mugged him from behind and slammed him against the van.

"I dunno, I think she's doing a pretty good job," I said as I dumped his unconscious body into the van. I then rushed over to Lydia and touched her face desperately. "Are you okay, sweetie?"

"Yeah."

"You're sure you're okay?" I repeated. "Oh, I shouldn't have done that. I should not have done that," I said. I couldn't imagine the guy would just open fire on a defenseless little girl, but that was stupid to have used her that way. "Okay, I have to get you someplace safe. We—"

"C'mon, move it!" a guy yelled from inside the building.

I could hear the two other guys coming and knew we had to get out of there before they showed up and started a firefight. But I also needed to keep them contained. Unfortunately every thought I had to disable the van in the next few seconds would either be noisy or put them on their guard that a hero was nearby.

I gathered up Lydia. "Hold on to me really tight, okay?" I said. Then I paused and looked at her. "You know you should never, ever, ever do anything like what we're doing right now, right?"

"Uh huh."

"Okay, good."

A few seconds later the two guys burst into the alley. They were holding what looked like particle beam rifles along with whatever swag they'd just boosted. But as soon as they emerged they stopped short and looked around, perplexed.

"Where the fuck's the van?"

"That idiot must have moved it!"

Fortunately for me neither one of them thought to look straight up as I hefted the van over my head and flew quietly upwards while Lydia clung onto me. Thankfully it was a short building and as quietly as I could, I put the van down on the roof.

"Well, what the fuck do we do now?"

"Shit!" the other one swore, obviously straining his mental faculties. "That pussy must have bolted when he heard the alarm. Cops'll be here any minute, we're gonna have to carjack a ride."

Great, more panicking and more shooting. Why was there never a hero around when you needed one? But at least Lydia was safe. Then as I looked at her, I had an idea. "Lydia? You're going to be safe up here. And you're being super brave. But I need you to do one more thing for me, okay?"

"Okay."

"I want you to stay hidden here, count to ten, and then make a whole lot of noise. But keep out of sight, got it?"

She nodded.

Ten seconds later the two guys had edged closer to the end of the alleyway, obviously waiting for the traffic light to change so they could jump out and make their move. Then from above came the sound of Lydia's shrill little voice.

"You two guys are fart heads!" she cried, followed by a raspberry that was impressive in both volume and duration.

"What the..." one of the guys said as they turned to look upwards. "Dude, is that our van?" he asked.

"Ahem," I said from behind them.

I was still floating two feet above the ground, so as they turned they only had a moment to glimpse my Prodigious Girl shirt on prominent display. So, confident that neither one of them was looking at my face, I slammed their heads together and knocked them both unconscious.

I quickly tore the power packs out of their armor and tossed the two goons and their friend into the dumpster and retrieved Lydia. ("I used the F word," she mischievously informed me.) I could hear the sounds of sirens approaching so we discreetly reentered the restaurant and after I washed my hands, Lydia and I had a little chat about the importance of keeping secrets.

"Where have you been?" my mom asked as we returned.

"Just cleaning up," I said as they all peered out the window at the police cruisers that had gathered outside. Across the street, I could see people pointing at the roof of the building next door and...crap, I knew I'd forgotten something. Oh, well.

Lydia tugged at her mom's elbow insistently and I held my breath.

My aunt seemed more interested in the growing crowd on the street, but ultimately Jessica drew the line at being prodded with a Barbie doll. "What?" she huffed irritably.

"Mommy, can Chris be my babysitter from now on? I like her."

I covered my smile as my parents gave me puzzled looks of approval. But as my aunt and uncle scoffed and went back to looking out the window, I noticed that Lydia had returned to playing with her Barbie doll, having abandoned the hair brush in favor of fashioning her napkin into a little cape.

* * * * *

I entered Prodigy's garage a few days later to find him working on the computer, but as soon as he saw me he blanked out the display and switched it to a news feed.

"You're late," he growled.

"Sorry, there was an industrial accident down by the docks." That was true, but I'd actually stopped it an hour earlier. After that I'd gotten involved talking with some grateful people and some fans who wanted to take pictures, which I viewed as one of the perks of the job. For all the ogling and junk it was one of the few times I didn't really mind being a girl, or at least I didn't think about it as much. It was kind of nice to just be appreciated.

Usually in those situations Prodigy preferred to leave the scene before the reporters arrived, but on those occasions when that wasn't possible he'd usually just sit brooding in the background. At first I followed his lead until one caper where a busload of schoolkids had been involved. An ambulance had taken the injured driver away and the kids were crying, so I sat with them and entertained them with stories to keep them distracted, and at first I didn't even notice how all the cameras had taken an interest in us. But after that, Prodigy informed me that henceforth I should handle "all the touchy-feely bullshit."

This time, part of the reason I stuck around with the fans as long as I did was that there was an actual HeroVerse reporter who wanted to interview both me and the other hero who'd helped with the rescue. That was kind of a big deal since usually it was just a news drone that flew in to snap a few pictures. So as I waited for the reporter to interview me, I listened in as she asked the other hero questions like his opinion on the proposed anti-vigilante legislation and if he was concerned about the recent surge in gang activity.

When she turned to me, I was all excited. I felt so important to be asked my opinion on such matters.

"Prodigious Girl!" she said brightly. "Meggan McKay, HeroVerse News. So, I guess I'll start with the most obvious question: Are you seeing anybody?"

That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the interview. She smoothly transitioned into such hard-hitting journalistic questions as:

"I love your costume. Did you design it yourself? Do you consider yourself a winter color scheme?"

"Do you think the short cape look is here to stay?"

"Your makeup always looks so good, even after a super-fight. Any makeup tips for the girls out there? What skin care products do you use?"

Although I have to say my favorite question of the interview was, "Okay, real talk, girlfriend. You're obviously very comfortable with your body, but do you ever feel like your bodacious figure holds you back?"

I blinked once. "You mean like being treated differently? Like maybe feeling that the way I look was being used as an excuse to make very personal assumptions about me, or having people just assume I'm totally superficial?"

"Yeah! Has that ever come up?"

I stared at her incredulously. "...Sure."

Still, I guess I couldn't complain. The recognition was actually rather rewarding in its way and I was glad to be helping people. But my relationship with Prodigy was another story entirely, and I definitely didn't feel like I had been getting as much out of the partnership as I'd hoped. But I had something to ask and figured I should butter him up first.

"Hey, how'd that thing with the Liberty Squadron go the other day? I didn't hear anything about it in the news."

"Yes, surprisingly, not every crisis gets news coverage. Sometimes you just save the day or die in obscurity without the spotlight and adulation of the crowd. Not all heroes are glory hounds," he said. "Unlike that asshole Arcturus," he muttered.

"Asshole," he repeated as I mouthed along silently. Then I moved closer to the old man and perched myself on the desk where he was typing away at the computer. He made an annoyed grunt and grabbed some papers from the desk and swatted at my butt to shoo me off the table.

"Oh, which reminds me," he said as he typed on the keyboard, "I saw something you might be interested in."

A moment later, there on the screen was me giving my HeroVerse interview. I couldn't help but notice that at one point when they did a split screen of me and the other hero the camera had framed him in a tight head-and-shoulders shot, whereas for me it was shot wider. And lower.

"I guess that's why they call it the boob tube," Prodigy said.

"I can explain..."

"Oh, wait. This is my favorite part," he said as he turned up the volume.

On the screen, a bubbly Meggan took one of my hands and held it up for the camera. "Oh, I love this color! Zoom in on her nails," she told the cameraman. Then she asked me, "What color is this, anyway?"

"It's, uh, 'Fierce and Fearless,'" I volunteered weakly.

Prodigy paused the playback there and I winced as I saw my pained and embarrassed expression on the screen. I suspected it was probably the same exact same face I was making that very moment.

"It's not how it looks," I said.

Prodigy wagged his finger in the air. "No need to apologize, this is important stuff! In fact, you've inspired me. I'm scheduling a mani-pedi for the both of us. We deserve a spa day," he said patronizingly before rolling his eyes and returning to work on the computer. "Brave new world," he muttered.

Chagrined, I stood there quietly for a few seconds and counted them off in my head so that I didn't speak up too soon after my upbraiding. Cautiously I straightened up and held my hands behind me. "Sooo...I had a lead on something I thought we could check out?" I volunteered.

He sniffed derisively.

"What?"

"Like I'm going to take any advice from someone who reads Teen Beat to know the trendiest lip gloss to wear."

"What the heck is Teen Beat?" I asked, bewildered.

"It's a magazine!"

"What the heck is a magazine?"

He stared at me in shock.

"God, I'm kidding, relax, I know what a magazine is. No idea what that teen thingy is, though." He went back to work on the computer again and I bit my lip uncertainly and edged closer.

"Say, that database of dossiers on all the supers you gave me...is it complete?"

He eyed me suspiciously. "It has everything I'd trust you with. Why?"

"It's something weird," I said as I reached past him to type on the computer. He bristled every time I touched it, but recently he'd come to trust me enough to use it to look up some reference information for our cases. "It's this guy," I said as Killbane's file appeared on the screen, which I noticed listed him as being still at large. "I've fought him before, but the other night when I fought Melody Malady he showed up to help me, but this time he said he was a hero named Blamestorm. But I didn't see that entry in the database."

"So?"

"So, he was like a completely different person. He was...nice."

He scoffed. "He played you and you fell for it. He probably had a grudge against Malady and didn't want to throw down with a hero."

I shook my head. "I don't think so. And it's more than that. The last time I saw Killbane my friends and I took him down, but a heroine named Harridan stepped in before we could turn him in to the police. I think Harridan is working for someone named Demetria Valasellis, and I'm thinking that maybe she did something to him."

"Did what?" he snapped.

"I don't know! He just seemed different. You know, not so...evil."

Prodigy stood up from the computer and got right in my face. "What are you, a fucking child? Oh, never mind, of course you are. Looking at people like knights in shining armor or evil monsters. Well, I got news for you, little princess, but the world's a lot more complicated than that."

"But—I just—"

"You want to know what you did? You let a villain go, and now the rest of us have to clean up after you. Now drop this."

"But—"

"Drop it!" he demanded as he stalked past me.

I watched as he stormed out and I turned to look up at the computer screen that still had the image of Killbane on it. "Not likely," I said to myself. And I knew just who to talk to.



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