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Remember to check the latest on the availability of the Wonder City Stories novel at judemclaughlin.com! We have eBooks up, but the Kindle version is still to come!

All the Secrets and the Mysteries You've Been Selfishly Withholding

Ira sat in the Guardians' waiting room with his coat folded on his lap. Andrea sat on one side of him, slowly and deliberately texting one of her friends with her Starphone. Suzanne sat on his other side, also texting, probably her beau Simon. Ira couldn't help but notice how Suzanne's hands had aged as she'd lost weight on the chemo. Only Andrea's knobby knuckles and age spots differentiated the two women, if he only looked at their hands.

He studied the watercolor landscape prints on the beige wall of the waiting room, and felt very much like he was in a doctor's waiting room. Possibly this had something to do with how often he was in doctors' waiting rooms these days.

The door opened, and a tall man in his 50s with short dark hair showing silver streaks at the temples emerged, wearing a grey pinstriped suit and metallic copper tie. He smiled and said, "Ah, Mr. Feldstein and Mrs. Morgenstern." His smile froze as he added, "Mrs. Feldstein."

Suzanne looked up from her phone and gave him a slow smile that did not reach her eyes. "Hello, Terry. Ira, Andrea, you might remember Terry Fillmore, the Copper Guardian."
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L'illusion des sosies


Ira Feldstein came into the living room at the best jog a fit 87-year-old could manage. The last time Andrea had used that urgent tone, she'd just fallen and broken her hip. However, this time, she was sitting in her favorite pink overstuffed chair, leaning forward, pointing at the television and staring at him in horror.
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Happy sixth anniversary to us! More things to be said tomorrow; for now, please enjoy this finale for Volume 3, with its special surprise just for you all.

Everything Dies

Angelica was changing into her new dress in Madame's bedroom—carefully, carefully, so as not to muss either hair or makeup, done professionally less than an hour earlier—when she heard the commotion out in front of the house. X knocked on the door a few moments later and said, "Our chariot is here."

"Come give me a hand?" Angelica said, after struggling with her dress halfheartedly and deciding she'd rather have a handsome helper. She deserved it for dealing with today.

X came into the room. Sie was wearing an exquisitely tailored black three-piece suit and a snow-white dress shirt with French cuffs and onyx rose cufflinks. The tie was deep blue silk with a pattern of pale grey gingko leaves, and was restrained by an onyx rose tie clip that matched the links. Angelica gave a low whistle.

"You're too kind," X said with a small smile. "What can I do?"
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After a painful episode, let's have something a little more lighthearted. I hope your holidays (if you celebrate them) are very gay (or queer! or whatever you would most like them to be!) indeed. I hope to get one more episode up before the New Year, but my schedule is looking very tight, so I'm not sure that will happen. If so, it will be a nice lagniappe for the year. If not, see you next year!

Think of All the Things We Learned

"He's in here, shouting at the TV," Andrea said, walking into the living room with Madame Destiny.

Ira had, in fact, just been shouting at the TV. He was used to remembering things differently from other people, but this slapped-together retrospective on Jane Liberty's life was officially Too Much for his usual high tolerance level. (Also, he had to admit to himself, he'd been on a shorter fuse with everything lately. Andrea told him it was usual with anesthesia and having your insides muddled with, but it didn't make him like himself very much.) Jane had NEVER been romantically linked to anyone but the Flag for any real length of time. The idea that she and the Damned Yankee had had a secret thing going was ludicrous.

"Madame!" he said cheerfully, glad of the distraction, and starting to get up.

"Oh, Ira, stay in your chair," Madame said, coming over to take his hand. "You've had a big few weeks." She was wearing one of her astonishing outfits, of course, this one involving a gold silk dress with a floral pattern in it and a confection of emeralds at her throat and holding her matching gold silk turban together.

"I really ought to get up more often," he said guiltily. "My cardiac rehab trainer will kick my ass if I don't." He shot a smile at Andrea, and she snorted.

"Have a seat, Madame," Andrea said. "I'll just go get us something from the kitchen."

Madame opened her mouth, probably, Ira thought, to protest that she'd come to help, but then shut it again and sat down in the chair across from Ira. Andrea had a fantastically repressive look sometimes.

"So why are you shouting at the television?" Madame inquired.

"No good reason," he said, sheepish. "Tell us about what's actually going on out there." He waved a hand generally toward the front of the house. "As opposed to the dribs and drabs on the news."

"Well, all the humans from the ship and everyone who could be found that was part of the Men In Black have been jailed and charged with conspiracy to world domination," Madame said, sitting back and clattering her many gold bracelets together. "There's a call for the US citizens to be prosecuted only in US courts, but the World Court and all other signatories to the World Domination Prosecution Accord are prevailing."

"I saw that West fella is pulling the Flag defense on his wife," Ira said, grimacing. "Can't imagine how Lady J feels about that."

"Angry," Madame said simply. "I hear that the Ultimate is working on that, though I'm not sure what she can actually do. In any case, the enhanced paras who were all involved in dominating particular geographic regions are all locked up in New Alcatraz—except Renata, of course. The one that was mind-controlling all of England is, I guess, not in very good shape. It looks like he may end up in care rather than in prison."

Ira grimaced again. "What a mess, what a mess," he mumbled.

"There are also a few countries that are starting para registration," Madame sighed. "And doing it badly, of course. They all do it badly."

"How many dead so far?" Ira sighed too. It was hell getting old and seeing this over and over.

"No Amnesty reports yet," Madame said, shrugging. "The governments are saying, 'Only a few,' and the activists are saying, 'Hundreds or thousands.' Of course, the activists are going to probably have more correct numbers."

Ira rubbed his face. "Well, how's X doing?"

Andrea swept back in with a tray holding plates of sandwiches and cookies, and three cold Arnold Palmers as Madame said with a shrug, "Sie is getting used to the… unpleasant little interruptions in life that the Oracle brings. Inheriting during a very complicated time makes for more interruptions. I keep assuring zir that it will settle down as the world settles down. I'm not sure sie believes me."

Ira raised his glass as high as he could (which wasn't as high as he'd like—having one's chest muscles cut by the Vorpal Sword does that, despite some regeneration from Madeline) and said, "Well, here's to the world and the Oracle settling down."

They all drank to that. Then Andrea said, "You're looking like the cat that ate the canary, Madame."

Was she? Ira peered at her face more closely—he'd gotten used to not watching people's faces when he was losing his sight, and he really had to get back into the habit. Madame was, in fact, looking well-rested and fairly youthful for a lady of a certain age. She also smiled and blushed at Andrea's comment.

"Well, as a matter of fact," Madame said, examining her dark red manicure, "I'm dating someone, and it's really quite lovely." She dimpled at them. "I thought the two of you would be the most understanding of my friends."

Andrea beamed and Ira was fairly certain that he blushed. Damn Madame and her perceptiveness! She must've been sitting on that for weeks.

"Can I ask who the lucky sod is?" Andrea said. "Do we know him?"

"Well, as to that," Madame said, covering her mouth with her fingers, "perhaps you remember Juniper Wolf?"

Ira's jaw dropped, and he was having trouble following the next couple of moments of conversation. He didn't know why he was so shocked that Madame had gotten together with the woman who'd been Women's Libra back in the 70s. He'd just been suspecting that they'd trained in martial arts together a few weeks ago. But Madame was just… she was always so… he'd heard of her dating… but… but… but…

The part of his brain that had so readily accepted Simon kept swatting down the "buts".

When he tuned back into the conversation and levered his jaw shut, Andrea was saying, "All right, I'm going to be crass: I never thought you were gay."

"Not gay," Madame said primly. "Bisexual. And really, after fifty-odd years of having a cosmic being tucked into your head, the body and all the cultural beliefs hardly matter any more."

"You always dated fellas, though, didn't you?" Andrea said, sipping her drink.

"I didn't date very much at all," Madame said mournfully. "Having the Oracle suddenly manifest in one's bed is quite a turnoff, I've found."

"I bet," Ira said, trying to imagine it. He'd thought Madame was quite a looker back in the day, and he'd always thought she was just swimming in men, but now he tried, he couldn't remember a single name or time when he saw her out with someone. She'd even come stag to the Christmas parties. Flirted with everyone, of course, but never left with anyone.

"I've tried talking to X about it, as a matter of fact," Madame said, frowning with concern, "but sie only ever says that sie doesn't think it will ever be an issue."

"Huh," Andrea said.

"So you're dating Juniper," Ira said with a disbelieving grin. "What's she been up to all these years?"

"Oh, this and that," Madame said, with a clattery dismissive gesture. "She's a massage therapist now."

"Nice hands, then," Andrea said approvingly.

The two women cackled conspiratorily, and Ira suspected that he blushed again.

"Anyway," Madame said, finishing her drink. "I should be getting along. I'm meeting with Zoltan and Washington to discuss the request for an 'official' Mystikai response to the World Court."

"Washington's reaction is going to be her middle finger," Ira said with a wry twist to his mouth.

"You're probably right," Madame said. She got up and so did Andrea and, after a moment's work, Ira. "But Zoltan's family will probably want something more serious. They're not so used to being asked for input."

They all hugged. "You'll be getting an invitation to a party," Madame said. "I'm inviting all the Forgottens over, just for one last meeting, you know?"

"Yeah, I was starting to miss those," Ira said. "But why make it one last meeting? Why shouldn't we all just keep on meeting? At least us old folks."

Andrea said, "Let's have the one after that here." She glanced over at Ira. "That okay with you?"

Ira felt a warm rush of something threaten to make his legs turn to jelly and also to make him cry. It was her house but… "That's just fine with me," he said, grinning, possibly stupidly.

"You two are just adorable," Madame said as she sailed out the door.

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I have the most magnificent surprise for the end of this story arc, and I can barely contain myself over it, I have to just start cranking out the rest of the episodes for volume 3, right?

Apology Is Policy

Suzanne steered as gently as possible over the speed bumps in the hospital driveway so as not to jar Ira. He said he was having a lot less pain in his chest, but she didn't actually believe him.

"Who the hell puts in speed bumps at a hospital?" Andrea groused from the back seat. "Stupidest planning ever. When I had the breast lump out, I would've screamed over every goddamn one, even with that bandeau thing they had me strapped up in. Can't even imagine people with abdominal surgery dealing."

Ira embraced his red, sort-of-heart-shaped-but-mostly-oblong pillow to his chest over the next speed bump, confirming Suzanne's suspicions. (He'd been given the pillow to clutch and brace his sternum against when he had to cough.) "Sadists," he muttered grimly.

He dozed after they got onto the regular streets, waking up only if she accidentally hit a pothole (she managed to dodge most of them, but clearly the Wonder City road crews hadn't yet gotten to the area around the hospital). She and Andrea exchanged occasional looks in the mirror, but didn't say anything. What was there to discuss, after all?

Ira leaned on her arm as they walked into Andrea's house. Andrea held the doors and Ira puttered in slowly, Suzanne behind him in case he stumbled.

He stopped and stared into the living room. Andrea and Suzanne gave each other tight little smiles as they waited for his reaction. The two of them had rearranged it to ease his navigation from living room to kitchen and bathroom, and Suzanne had brought over his favorite recliner from her house.

"Oh, girls," he said, his voice shaky. "My chair. And everything. Oh, girls." He reached up and rubbed at the corners of his eyes.

"Well, I have some experience with you guys with your heart surgery," Andrea said, referring to her late husband David and his long saga of heart issues. "We got in a hospital bed as well, so you can prop up until you feel better."

"So much trouble," he mumbled. "You really shouldn't have. I could have managed."

Suzanne said, "It wasn't much work at all, Ira. And you deserve to be comfortable. After all," she added with a wry grin, "you did help save the world."

"Ha!" he said, turning to hug Andrea, then Suzanne. "Yeah, I guess I did. One more time," he said, winking at Andrea, "for old time's sake, right?"

Andrea visibly restrained herself from shaking his shoulder. "I'm just glad you made it through, you blasted old goat."

"Me too, me too," he said, shuffling over to his chair and slowly lowering himself into it. "I think I'll be well enough to go to that memorial for Jane."

"Don't push yourself," Suzanne said.

Andrea snorted. "He'll be fine. They're still planning it. It'll be weeks before it happens, you know. They have to get the President in and all."

"She never got to meet this one, did she?" Ira said with a faint smile. "She was always so proud of meeting every president since FDR."

"I think we can put it down as a posthumous meeting," Suzanne said.

Andrea waved a hand dismissively. "I'm going to make some lunch. You keep him company, Suzanne."

Ira appeared to doze off immediately, leaving Suzanne to sit on the couch and check her email on her StarPhone. She was considering an email from an ex-coworker asking for a recommendation with some dismay when Ira said, "Have you called him yet?"

Suzanne looked up, slightly alarmed and distracted. "Who?"

Ira opened his eyes. "Simon."

She dropped her gaze back to the tiny screen. "Oh… no."

"Why not?" he said.

Why did he have to ask her hard questions now? He was supposed to be recovering from major surgery! "I… I just haven't."

"But you remember him now," Ira said, one of his hands rubbing lightly over the well-worn tweedy fabric of the chair arm.

Suzanne looked away from the screen, away from Ira, face burning with shame. "Yes. Yes, Renata helped me with… with that."

"Things aren't going to get any less awkward by avoiding the phone call," Ira said gently.

"I know but… he's probably got a whole new life now, a new…" She swallowed the word "girlfriend" and let the sentence trail off.

"I'll tell you something," Ira began, but he grabbed his pillow and coughed several times. After he was done, he fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at his eyes, where the pain had sprung tears. "Okay, now I'll tell you something," he said with a weak smile. "I'll tell you that boy made you happier than I've ever seen you, and I've known you at least thirty years now. You glowed when you came home from seeing him. I don't care what garbage that flim-flam artist filled your mind with about Simon and other… dammit, why don't I have a brain? … other people like him, but you know it's garbage and I know it's garbage, and you need to do your best to put that garbage out on the curb. You're not going to do that by sitting around feeling bad."

"Oh, Ira," she said, biting her lip and trying not to cry. "I don't know what to say to him."

Ira laughed a little, hugged his pillow and coughed. "Oh, sweetheart, just call him and say you're sorry, and ask him how he is."

She did cry then, and said, "Maybe it's just better to let it go entirely. It's… it's been almost a year since I knew who he was."

He reached over to her and gripped her hand. "Life is too damned short, Suzanne. You've lost a year you could've had with him — it was taken from you by those damned assholes on that spaceship. Yes, it may be over, but you need to know whether it's over or not so you can move on. And it may not be over. You won't know until you call him."

Suzanne folded over his hand and wept harder than she had since she thought Ira was going to die. At some point, Andrea pushed a box of tissues into her other hand and sat on the couch with her arm around her shoulders. And at some later point, she promised both of them that she'd call Simon.

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I know at least a couple of my readers have been wanting this episode for a while.

Even Though You Broke My Heart and Killed Me

Madeline's face: "I've got him."


"Charge to 360 joules."

"Still in VTach, doctor."

"Blood pressure dropping."

"Crank it up. They said he was Class 5."


"Get me a second stent."

"Deploying second stent."


Madeline's eyes, drawn and tired above the surgical mask: "Damn you, Ira Feldstein, I'm not going to let you do this."


It was a very long, very echo-ey, dimly-lit metallic hallway that curved gently to the right. He could hear his footsteps very clearly as he walked. Oh, you have to be kidding me, he thought. Really? Superheroes always see a damn satellite base when they die in the movies.

A tearing pressure in his chest lifted him out of the hallway. Madeline, gloved and gowned arms red nearly to the shoulder, was bending over him. He thought he could hear her singing softly as she rummaged in his chest, "... has only got one ball. Goering has two but very small…"

Ira wanted to protest that this song wasn't really appropriate for the time and place, but every time he tried to open his mouth, she tugged on something inside his chest that made everything snap shut. He felt a bit like the action figure of himself that came out in the 1970s, all held together with elastics.

Ira walked past a door. It slid soundlessly open, and he could hear many voices, and music, and the clink of glasses inside, though the light in there was too bright to see in. It sounded like one of the old Christmas parties! He could swear he heard Jane Liberty bellowing a carol with Bernie and June.

He was on his back again, staring up at a giant, blinding light. He felt something land on the sheet over his belly. He heard the voice of his old nemesis, Dr. Noontime, from one side of the gurney say, "Two kings."

"Oh, my dear sir," another man said, and Ira had to scrape around in his memory for the name—Professor Fortune! that murdering scumbag. "You can hardly hope to win his body with just two kings."

Body? Whose body? MY body? Ira thought and wished he could move. He felt an overwhelming urge to shout, "It's only a flesh wound!" Was that a quote from somewhere?

"Shut up and play, Fortune," Dr. Noontime growled.

A hand took Ira by the shoulder and squeezed gently as he peered in the door at the party. "No, Ira, not yet."

He spun around in time to see a familiar smile and brilliant blue eyes. "Lizzie?" he nearly shouted.

She winked, still young. Well, middle-aged. "You're still needed, you…"


Andrea, leaning over him: "... stubborn old goat."


Lizzie, at the side of the bed, looked up at him from a battered copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, and smiled.


Suzanne, leaning on the edge of the bed, covering her face: "I'm so sorry, Ira. I'm so, so sorry."


A nurse: "Just checking your drain, Ira."


Andrea, again: "You're a silly old man and you need to wake up soon." She leaned back in her chair and stretched. "These hospital chairs will be the death of me."

Ira tried to say something but it came out a mumble because his mouth was so dry that things were sticking together in there.

She came to attention. "Ira? Suzanne, he's awake!" Andrea reached to the side and produced a familiar little sponge on a stick. "Can I wet your whistle, mister?"

Ira nodded feebly, and she gently (and expertly—he remembered that her husband David had spent a lot of time in hospitals) wetted his lips.

Suzanne appeared on the other side of the bed and squeezed his hand. "I'm so glad."

He realized he was in a hospital bed, cranked up till he was nearly sitting upright, and had tubes in his arm and other tubes running places he wasn't sure of. "What happened?" he croaked. His chest hurt like hell, and he didn't like breathing too deeply.

"You tried to keel over on us," Andrea said.

"You had another heart attack," Suzanne said. "Worse than that little one you had."

"They tried stenting you," Andrea added. "That kept you stable-ish until the riots settled down enough that we could transfer you to Wonder City General."

Riots? Ira wondered, but didn't ask. All things in good time. He looked around surreptitiously for a deck of cards.

"Well, that and Madeline practically growing you a new heart," Suzanne said.

"Anyway, you've had open-heart surgery," Andrea said. "Four bypasses."

"How did they get in?" Ira asked, guessing and dreading the answer.

Andrea shrugged. "I called Carolus, like we did for getting Josh's feeding tube in."

Ira could feel himself blanch. He was glad he hadn't woken up for that part. Carolus Lew, the Master of Wonderland, had access to the Vorpal Sword, which could pierce pretty much anything. If you knew him and were friendly with him, he could often be persuaded to use the Sword to help medical procedures on invulnerable paras. Word was that he actually had trained as a surgeon before he became the Master, though Ira really didn't know when that had been. Possibly before anesthetic became a thing.

Snicker-snack, indeed.

"You've been really slow to come out of anesthesia," Suzanne said.

"Probably because you're old as dirt," Andrea said.

"Anyway, we were getting worried," Suzanne said with a small roll of the eyes at Andrea.

Ira smiled. A wave of exhaustion washed over him just then. "I'm gonna sleep I think," he mumbled. And he let himself slip off to sleep, with his family holding his hands.

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Yes, this is terribly short! Help me decide whether to be merciful and post the next section this week: can we bump Wonder City up higher on Top Web Fiction? Click the link at the bottom of the episode and get us up to 20 votes, then I'll post the next episode!

Let Go the Jumble of Worn Words

A nurse in scrubs sprinted out of the cath suite toward the emergency room. Suzanne looked at Andrea, and their gazes met and held.

The nurse returned just a minute later, with Madeline running behind her. There was a streak of something across the white coat Madeline was stripping off as she went by. The pair went through the doors without glancing at the two women across the waiting room.

Andrea reached over and took Suzanne's hand. They sat in the renewed silence, hanging on for dear life.

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Apologies for the late-in-the-week posting -- I have been on the road back from Wiscon for the past couple of days!

Eyes Met and Unmeeting

It surprised Suzanne that she wasn't weeping, sitting in the horrible little waiting room near the catheterization room. She'd been such a waterworks for the past several weeks, no matter what she did to stop it, no matter how many times Pastor Al told her she needed to stop crying because it was damaging other people.

They hadn't had any news since Madeline walked out of the room, saying, "They're in," and hurried back to the emergency room, pulling on someone else's white coat as she went.

Andrea was sitting next to her with the calm air of someone who'd done this before. That nonchalance enraged Suzanne unreasonably.

Finally, Suzanne managed to say, "It was really inappropriate for you to slap me."

Andrea looked at her, opened her mouth, then closed it. After a moment, she said, "I'm sorry."

Suzanne was stunned back into silence. She couldn't remember another time that she'd heard Andrea apologize without also justifying what she'd done.

Maybe Andrea was more shaken than she thought.

A few minutes later, Andrea said, "He's been living with me, you know."

Suzanne looked at her, but Andrea was looking at the floor. "I didn't know," she said.

"You didn't even try to find out where he'd gone after you threw him out," Andrea said, her voice a deadly even non-question that made Suzanne wince.

"I… didn't have time," Suzanne said, looking away at a dull landscape print on the wall. "I was… they kept me busy."

"I see," Andrea said. After a moment, she said, "He's a good man."

"I know," Suzanne said. "He's the best."

"I hope I haven't realized it too late," Andrea said. Her voice was oddly thick.

Suzanne had to swallow the lump in her throat before she could say, "Me too."

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Welcome to the Wonder City Stories Fifth Anniversary Week! It's not exactly an extravaganza, but there will be a second episode on Thursday, and on Friday, I'll post download links for the set of short stories I'll be posting for you -- the collections will be functionally identical, but one will include the NSFW episode and one won't, so you don't have to have the NSFW ep if you don't want it.

Some of you have stuck with Wonder City Stories for five whole years, while some of you only started reading over the past several months, and I just want to thank you ALL for your support. I couldn't keep doing this without you.

Come With Me If You Want To Live

Suzanne burst through the doors of Westside General and snapped, "We need some help out here!"

She felt extraordinarily focused, even though there was a mess in the back of her head. Something about one's father figure at death's door perhaps? A woman responded to the tone of her voice, grabbing a wheelchair. Beyond, the emergency room was crowded with people, some shouting, some ashen and still -- the nearest had a bloody rag held to his head. A group, some of whom were holding someone upright, was standing in front of the desk where the receptionist, headset slightly askew, was speaking and gesturing for them to go to the waiting area. There was a loud rumble of talk, beeping machines, and the PA system crackled, "Doctor Armstrong, Doctor Rock, Doctor Steel, to main lobby stat."

She stepped back through the sliding glass doors with her wheelchair-pushing compatriot and found Lady Justice carrying Ira toward the emergency room, Madeline hurrying beside her, speaking to Ira. Ira's face was gray and his eyes were fluttering as he tried to speak.

The woman with the wheelchair (a nurse?) said, "Sorry, we're shortstaffed. It may be a while before we can see him."

"He's having a heart attack," Suzanne said helplessly. It hurt to say it out loud. She hadn't even had a chance to apologize.

Lady J set Ira in the wheelchair and Madeline kept pace with the wheelchair as the woman moved it inside. The rest of the crew was trailing behind, and Andrea caught Suzanne's elbow and hurried her forward through the doors after the wheelchair.

Inside, Madeline paused, looked around the room. "No one in charge?" she asked the nurse. The nurse pointed at a young man, probably a resident, who was staring around, then back at his clipboard, then around again. He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his face, then shoved it back in his trouser pocket.

Madeline snapped out, loudly, "I need vital signs and intake assessments on everyone. Alert the cath suite for an acute anterior ST-elevation MI in need of possible angioplasty and stenting." As the people in scrubs responded to the authority in her voice, she snagged a gurney-pushing orderly, and helped lift Ira onto the gurney, asking, "Does the cath suite have Class 5 equipment?"

A passing white-coated woman said, "No, we only go up to Class 4. You need Wonder City Hospital for Class 5."

"We can't get to Wonder City Hospital because of the riots!" Andrea exclaimed, gesturing around at the crowd.

Madeline passed her gaze over the room again as directed motion started to happen. She reached out a hand to touch the bleeding arm of a toddler as her mother was carrying her past, and the wound closed, ejecting a small shower of tiny bloody glass shards as it did so. The mother stared. Madeline smiled briefly and said, "I don't see any other damage, but why don't you have a seat so someone can check her over when we have a chance?"

Madame Destiny stepped forward to Ira's side. She looked at him from the top of his head to his feet, a strange, distant look in her eyes. Suzanne wondered what the hell she could do without the Oracle. Reading Tarot cards was not going to save Ira.

Madame reached out and plucked a Sharpie out of the pocket of a passing person in a white coat. One of the nurses had already wrenched open Ira's outer shirt, cut his Mister Metropolitan t-shirt from neck to waist and cut on down through his belt (his favorite belt! Suzanne thought pointlessly) and trousers. While the nurse was applying EKG electrodes to Ira's chest, Madame grabbed Madeline's shoulder. Madeline slewed around to look at her.

"Cut right here," Madame said, drawing an X on the inside of Ira's thigh. "His invulnerability is weakest right there. I think Class 4 will work."

Madeline nodded and murmured, "Bless you, I'd forgotten." One of the orderlies started pushing Ira's gurney down the hall, through the crowd, and she moved after it, answering questions as she went, calling, "I'll be back in a moment to help with triage," to the resident.

"Forgot what?" Suzanne said vaguely.

"That Madame's original para power was to see weaknesses," Watson said beside her.

Suzanne was about to ask how she knew, but remembered Ira. As Andrea, Suzanne, and Lady J started after the gurney, though, a crackle and light change made them turn. X's eyes were crackling with blue lightning. There were some screams in the waiting room as the light spread over the room with its terrible revelation of, well, everything.


Lady J stared and said, "I was going to…"

"IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU RETURN TO THE DEN OF WOLVES," the Oracle said, and X collapsed to zir knees, released from the terrible light of possession. Madame hurried over and helped zir to stand.

Lady J turned pale, swallowed, and said, "All right, then."

"We'll call and let you know how it goes," Andrea promised and she and Suzanne started after Ira.

"Right," Lady J said. She looked at Watson.

Watson said, "Let's go then," and the last Suzanne saw, before she moved into the noisy chaos of the cardiac care bays, was Madame Destiny, X, Watson, and Lady Justice pushing through the crowd and out the door, heading for the Divine Sarah.

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And we have 5 new additions to the TVTropes page! Thank you so much! (I would've posted earlier, but by computer apparently reloaded a cached version of the page when I checked earlier. Sigh.)

You Have to Learn to Pace Yourself

Ira clutched at his chest and gasped for breath. He was pretty sure Dr. Noontime's Giant Foot was invisibly pressing on his chest, somehow. It was hard to inhale completely, and something hurt. But I'm invulnerable, the Foot shouldn't be able to break my ribs, he thought vaguely.

"Dammit, where's his nitro?" Andrea was saying somewhere far off.

"He keeps it in this pocket!" Suzanne said, and Ira could feel her going into the correct pants pocket.

"Watson, go! Drive! Go go go!" Lady J said somewhere else in the car. The van lurched into motion.

"I've got him," Madeline said in a low, even voice. "Ira. Open your eyes, Ira."

The pain eased some and he pried his eyes open—he hadn't even been aware they were closed—and Madeline was kneeling on the floor of the van in front of him, one hand resting lightly on his chest.

"We need you to take your nitro, Ira," Madeline said.

Such a pretty girl, he thought. Always so sweet and thoughtful, such a shame she never married.

Suzanne pressed a tablet to his lips, and he opened his mouth and let it fall under his tongue. The pressure let up a bit, though it was still hard to breathe and his brain was fuzzy and his arm and back were aching. Maybe too much punching?

Everyone grabbed at him and the seat as Watson guided the Divine Sarah around a corner at speed, practically tipping up on two wheels.

"Given what's on your laptop," Madame said calmly, "we won't be able to get to Wonder City Hospital, Watson."

"But…" Watson said, then she glanced at Madame and nodded. "Right, you're right. West Side General is probably clear, and it's on our way." She took the next right.

"Don't close your eyes, Ira," Madeline said a moment later. "Keep looking at us. Does it still hurt?"

Ira pried his eyes open again, nodded, and obediently took another nitro tablet.

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Ten comments by Friday again?

Purity Control

"They have come to persecute us, my brothers and sisters!" Pastor Al bellowed through the speaker system. "And they have struck down Brother Michael and Brother Damian without provocation!"

Ira rolled his eyes and continued to walk with the others as they rounded the corner of the Welcome Pavilion that Washington had just brought down on the heads of the two burly uniformed security guards who had drawn guns on her. When Lady J had given her a Look, Washington just said, "They're alive," and kept walking. Dragons.

"The time I warned you about is upon us!" Pastor Al continued. "It is time to defend your right to peaceful assembly!"

Ira wondered how close they had to get for Lady J's power of truth to kick in. He was kind of looking forward to hearing Pastor Al's ranting turn to confessions.

It was standing room only in the fenced and covered field, with approximately 500 hopefully normal humans between them and the transmitter that was presumably under Pastor Al's feet. Ira heard Lady J say, "Washington, can you fly?"

Washington snorted and said, "Yes, but I would crush everyone here if I did."

"Damn," Madame said mildly, watching people stand and pick up baseball bats and other similar items that were kept apparently at the ready.

Another voice—deep but somewhat panicked—cracked over the speakers. "Get the ones without weapons! Get them!"

The crowd surged toward them in terrifying almost-silence. Washington crashed into part of the tide, arms spread, crumpling the front line and eliciting gasps, grunts, and cries from her opponents.

Madame immediately deployed her own weapon, the little rod telescoping out into a staff her own height with a flick of her wrist. Apparently, this took her off the radar temporarily, and people ignored her to swing their weapons at Lady J, Ira, and Andrea, who made up the other three of the four-person wedge that would drive toward the transmitter at the same time as Washington—hopefully the wedge or the dragon would reach it and destroy it, and it didn't matter who was first.

It had been quite some time since Ira had to make the snap judgements of whether, where, and how hard to punch, but it came back to him pretty easily. He overestimated his strength a few times, but he compensated on the next punch, or throw, or whatever he was doing. Rusty, but fairly competent. And old, of course.

A couple of people got in good shots, of course. One big fellow's bat connected squarely with the side of Ira's head, and then the guy stared, appalled, at the bat in his hands. As far as he could tell, he'd just tried to crush the skull of a little old man. Ira drove an elbow into his gut and left him wheezing in their wake.

He caught glimpses of the others in between combatants. Lady Justice, of course, was her usual competent self, if a little weak on the stroke side. Andrea was sloppy, but able, and surprisingly athletic.

It was Madame Destiny who would have had his jaw dropping if he'd had time—she moved smoothly and fast, for all her apparent chunkiness, kicking high, punching hard, throwing people effortlessly, taking stubborn foes down with a sweep of her staff, never once pausing, never once getting snagged by any reaching hands, never once breaking her intense look of concentration.

Ira guessed she had kept up the training and was a helluva high level blackbelt at this point. Who knew?

It was going as well as could be expected. Ira couldn't see the dais, and the crowd was roaring now, drowning out the speakers. All he could see was another person in front of him, all he could feel was another impact of his fist or his elbow or his knee on some other human being. He followed Lady J's lead and assumed they were making progress. Most of their opponents were people who weren't used to being hit and hurt, and so they tended to stay down or run away once they were hit, unlike most hardened supervillain mooks.

That was when he noticed that the mob was turning on its own—anyone who hadn't picked up a weapon, or who'd dropped theirs, became a target. He glimpsed a few but couldn't get to them, but then…

"Oh, god, Suzanne!" he shouted, and shoved through the two people in front of him, ignoring Lady Justice's restraining yell. He leapt over the heads of the next little wave of people, and landed just in time for someone to break a plastic folding chair across his back instead of over Suzanne's head.

She looked at him with wide, unrecognizing eyes. He grabbed her against him just in time to shield her from another wild swing from one of her compatriots.

Then, of course, she kneed him in the groin. Hard and extremely competently.

Invulnerable or not, those parts were still delicate.

It also threw him off-balance as he tried not to flinch, but dammit, he'd lost his really good cup somewhere over the years, and the two of them fell—Ira onto hands and knees to continue to shield her—under a rain of bats, clubs, and chairs. Suzanne was also fighting him from underneath, and he saw stars when her forehead connected with his nose.

He wasn't sure how long they were like that before he heard, "You idiot!" from Andrea and Lady J shouting, "Ira! Ira, are you all right?" as the dogpile was dispersed by force.

Lady J dragged him to his feet, and he saw Madame shrug a pair of football player types over her hip and shoulder. Andrea got Suzanne up and after staring into her eyes a moment, slapped her. "We don't have time for this!" she bellowed.

Suzanne blinked, putting a hand to her reddening cheek. "Andrea?" she said faintly.

"Ira, get her out of here!" Andrea said, shoving her toward him.

"Ira?" Suzanne said, staring at him as he put an arm around her. He smiled reassuringly at her, though he was feeling quite out of breath and sore.

"No time," Lady J said. "We're almost there, look!"

The platform was all of twenty feet away, Ira saw through a lull in the crowd. Off to their right, a small geyser of people erupted and Washington emerged from the center. She was grinning in a way that made something in the back of Ira's head cringe.

Madame Destiny led the charge, but she wasn't heading for Pastor Al. She ran at a sweaty, pasty-faced middle-aged man who was clutching a thick book and a microphone. Before he could say anything else into the mike, Madame's fist crunched into his nose, and he slid down the pole next to him into a heap. "Mind control is a nasty power," Madame said primly, compressing her staff and tucking it into her pocket.

Lady J grabbed up the book and tore it open, revealing all the tiny transmitter parts inside, then smashed it back together with enough force that Ira saw parts fly off in all directions. Then she turned toward Pastor Al.

Pastor Al, for all his apparent terror, had perfect, unruffled hair and a suit without a crease. Ira imagined, though, that there was quite a set of sweatstains on the crisp white shirt.

The fellow tried to run for it, but Andrea was too quick for him and laid him out flat. When she dragged his unconscious form upright by the front of his coat, though, Ira had to blink several times. She was holding a different man entirely. This one was handsome enough, but not nearly the perfect televangelist face. And his suit was rumpled. And his hair wasn't nearly so flawless. In fact, Ira could swear he'd seen him somewhere before.

There was a loud rending noise, and when Andrea and Ira turned, Lady J had ripped open the platform and was lifting out two handfuls of wires and plastic shreds.

Madeline, who had been picking her way across the field, healing people as she put them to sleep—Ira didn't know where she learned that trick, but was damned glad for it—caught up with them at last. "Is that it?" she said to Lady J.

Lady Justice nodded, flinging the transmitter bits aside.

"Good," Madeline said, "because Watson says we need to run for it. Riots are breaking out across the city… across the country. We've got to get out of town now!"

Lady J nodded again. "All right, folks, let's go." She looked over at the little cluster of armed security guards who had closed with Washington. "I think she'll cover our retreat."

"Are you all right?" Ira said to Suzanne.

Suzanne rubbed the side of her face and stared at Pastor Al for a moment, then said, shakily, "As right as I can be. Let's get out of here."

Andrea threw Pastor Al over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. To Ira's inquiring look, she said, "He might have useful information about the aliens."

They all started running across the field, heading for their rendezvous at Zoltan's van, the Divine Sarah.

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Want another episode this Friday? Let me know you're reading! Can we get 10 comments?

Like Dust, We'll Rise

Lady Justice looked up at Ira as they watched the Young Cosmics' announcement of the alien invasion and mind control on her StarSeed. "She's got some screen presence, all right. Good choice."

"Better than Mercury, I think," Ira said. "He's too jittery and fidgety, like his old man. Look at him in the back there, just kinda vibrating."

They turned to the others. Andrea was standing on her left leg with her right leg propped on a nearby bike rack and was carefully stretching forward. She was wearing a tight black running suit with racing stripes. Madeline was watching passerby from behind her sunglasses, lounging against the back of the park bench Watson Holmes was sitting on, staring at her computer screen. X was listening to the cell phone updates from Tizemt. Madame Destiny was in jeans, which Ira didn't think he'd seen her in for twenty years, and was carrying, Ira knew, a small telescoping staff in the inside pocket of her jacket. He couldn't remember who had taught her to fight back in the early 70s—he suspected maybe Karate Jo or Women's Libra—but he hoped she'd kept up on the training.

And there was… another… person.

She was tall and willowy, with long white hair. Her clothing seemed to consist entirely of black leather. And Ira had not yet seen her move, except to blink. She crouched on a low wall about fifty feet away. X had introduced her as Washington and assured them that she was there to help.

X tucked the cell phone into a pocket of the short, military-style jacket zie was wearing. "Tizemt says levels are optimal. It's time to go in and shut the backup transmitters down. Jane is on standby once we know the lay of the land."

Everyone looked at Watson, who said, "Judging from these aerial photos I got from Hel, I'm guessing the transmitter is right in the middle of the camp, probably right under Pastor Al's feet when he's speechifying. So it really doesn't matter whether you go in the front gate, through the audience, or the back gate, through the staff, except you're more likely to get armed resistance from the staff." She smiled wanly.

Washington stood abruptly and walked forward to where they were gathered around Watson. "Then let's go in the front gate. Closer, faster, better for you old humans to get through."

They all stared at her for a moment, until Watson said, "Tactless, but I concur."

"Good, let's go," Washington said, striding past toward the front gate of the revival camp across the park.

"'Old humans'?" Ira said to X.

X smiled. "Reptilian-American."

There was a small chorus of "Oooooohhhhh!" from them all.

"Right, let's get this show on the road," Andrea said, linking arms with Ira and almost dragging him after Washington.

"You sure you're okay with this?" Ira said.

"Jane gave me back my invulnerability and tuned up my strength," Andrea said. "I should be fine. How about you?"

"I'm good," he said, pulling open his buttondown shirt a bit to reveal a Mister Metropolitan t-shirt underneath.

"You old fool," she said fondly.

Ira glanced back and saw Lady Justice, Madame, and Madeline following in a little knot. Watson and X were to wait outside, watching, prepared to call Jane in if needed.

"We should have a team name," Ira muttered.

"Well, we're technically Gold Stars for this," Andrea said.

"But we're not, you know that," Ira said. He knew he sounded silly, and maybe a little petulant. The Gold Stars had never wanted him.

Madame apparently overheard and said, "Well, Ira, we can be the League of Forgotten Heroes, because the only reason we can do this is everyone forgot us."

"And 'The Underestimated' is too long for a team name," Madeline said.

Ira looked at Andrea and they both laughed a little. He said, "I like it."

They reached the front gate of the camp where Washington waited for them irritably. There was something going on inside—Ira couldn't make out the words from the speakers, but it definitely sounded like Pastor Al was going at it. The metal mesh gate was shut tight, but there were no guards posted that they could see.

"Everyone set?" Lady Justice said. When everyone nodded (or, in Washington's case, grunted and tapped her foot), Lady J said, "All right, then, let's move out!"

Washington snapped, "Finally," and ripped open the gate with her bare hands.

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"No," Jane said tiredly. "It can't be me."

"Why not?" Lady Justice asked. "You can be psionic. You have been plenty in the past."

"Because no one should trust me with a power that could dement the whole city," Jane said, covering her eyes with a hand. "Because I may look like I'm holding it together and am like I was ten or fifteen years ago, but I'm not."

Ira rubbed his face and looked around at the group of dissidents, awkwardly dreading the possibility of Jane Liberty crying and just wanting to say anything to turn attention away from her. "All right, Lady J, Jane knows best on this point. The question is, if not Jane, then who?"

"I wish we had some idea of what the deadline is," Madeline said, stopping herself from playing with the beaded fringe of the scarf on the couch arm.

"I'm sure our sources feel the same way," Pearl said, steepling her fingers thoughtfully. "I can say that I don't know anyone who qualifies as a 'powerful psi' though. Not among my acquaintances, nor among my clients."

Lady J sat back in her chair and pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead. "Ideas, Madame?"

Madame glanced at X, and they both shook their heads. "The Oracle doesn't qualify as 'psi' and wouldn't consent to be used that way anyway. And I can't think of anyone else. It's so frustrating that Renata is up on that spaceship."

Andrea fiddled with her teacup. "Tinkermel says he's ready. Everyone else has said they're set. We have to move quickly, given Renata's warning. What about…" She drifted off, staring toward the kitchen, where the younger people were putting together a snack for the group. "What about Kendis? Is her power psionic? If it is, is she powerful enough to work through Tinkermel's device?"

Everyone turned to stare at Andrea for a long moment.

"Well?" she snapped irritably. "Can't you imagine how much it would help people to have their minds cleared or boosted or whatever it is she does after all this mess?" She waved a hand around, generally indicating the city.

Ira nodded at Andrea, grinning and giving her arm a little friendly squeeze that made her smile. Damn, that was a nice smile.

Lady J said, "Jane, what do you think? You're the power expert here."

Jane gave her a weary nod. "I think she projects in the psi spectrum, and I know she's powerful. Convincing her, though, is going to be a chore."

Lady Justice pushed herself to her feet and said, "You leave that part to me," with a wry little grimace. "I'm good at being persuasive, remember?" She strode toward the kitchen.

"Oh, I remember," Jane murmured, resting her head against the wing of the chair and shutting her eyes.

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Revolution By Committee

"All right, folks," Lady Justice said, self-consciously smoothing her strangely stylish iron gray hair (Ira couldn't remember the last time it was that neatly done) and mock-cracking her knobbly knuckles. "I certainly have some news, and I get the impression some of you do too."

Madame Destiny, looking better and younger than Ira had seen her in a long time (even before he lost his sight), dimpled in Ira's direction, then sobered and said, "Well, I think most of you know the big news here." She gestured over at X, who, while still immaculately pressed and dressed, looked haggard around the edges. X's cheekbones and jawline were just a little more pronounced than Ira thought they had been, and there was the hint of dark circles under the terribly perceptive eyes. "X has taken on the burden of the Oracle."

Pearl reached for X's hand and squeezed it gently. X turned a wan smile on her and returned the caress.

"How is it going?" Madeline asked. "I remember when we first found you, Madame, back in '62 or '63. Things were rather out of hand."

"Madame has been extremely helpful," X said smoothly.

"One of my issues," Madame said with a smile, "was that the previous 'vessel' had died and I'd had absolutely no introduction or guidance. The Oracle came into me out of the blue, and I'm very lucky to have kept my sanity."

Madeline nodded. "It was touch and go."

"It was," Madame admitted. "But that was a long time ago, and besides, the wench is fine now." She smiled. "The other bit of information is that we have some Mystikai support. Financial support from two of the local Reptilian-Americans, safe houses offered by the Family -- you may not know, but their homes are heavily shielded from emotional emanations by magic -- and an offer of physical participation in any actual combat from the youngest of the Reptilian-Americans."

"Well, that's something," Madeline said, eyebrows high. "I can't recall a dragon getting involved in our doings since the War."

"They're a standoffish bunch," Jane Liberty said from the depths of one of Madame's overstuffed chairs. "And the safe houses are good. Any limitations on who can take them up on it?"

"Not that Zoltan mentioned," Madame said, "but I expect that he'll be the gatekeeper." She gestured to Ira. "Go on, Ira, you're bursting."

"Oh, well," he said, feeling a little abashed. He knew he'd been grinning like a loon through the whole proceedings. "Everyone's probably guessed it. Jane, Madeline, and Lady J took me off and got my silly old eyes fixed the other day."

There were exclamations of delight all around, a clap on the shoulder and a handshake from the burly black man Ira guessed was Tinkermel, applause from the handicapped thirtyish black woman he figured was Kendis, a hug from Pearl, a radiant grin from X, and even a lightly-perfumed kiss on the cheek from the tall, beautiful Hispanic woman who had to be Angelica.

When everyone had settled back down, Andrea patted his hand and smiled at him. It had been a long time since he'd seen her smile at him. Really, had she ever? Since he couldn't remember their married life at all, it was pretty much a new experience to him. She was an angular old lady now, but that smile led him to believe she must have been quite a looker once.

"Well!" Lady J exclaimed. "That was the sort of thing we need in these meetings more often."

"Definitely lifts the energy," Angelica said. "What have you got, Lady J?"

"I've had a messenger from Hel," Lady J said. In response to the very odd looks that came over the faces of Kendis, Angelica, and Tinkermel, she laughed and said, "Doctor Hel Blau, the Sentient Airship."

This only slightly cleared Kendis and Angelica's faces. Tinkermel's face broke into a broad smile, and he said to the two women, "I'll explain later why that's just so awesome." Ira wasn't sure how a man that big could squeak like that.

"In any case," Lady J continued, "she was able to do a high pass over Wonder City and environs with her cameras going -- she doesn't normally come near the place these days, but did it as a favor to us -- and her messenger brought me not only the photos but Hel's analysis of them." Lady J held up a rolled poster and said, "She's overlaid a map of the city on this set of photos, and marked where they've hidden the major receiving and transmitting station. She also detected that they've got backup transmitters -- she spotted the generators and antennae -- in the tent revival camp."

"Which is horrible, but not much of a surprise," Angelica said. "The Shining Brethren are behind the God Squads roaming my neighborhood and other areas of the city."

X nodded. "One of my friends refers to the God Squads also as Mod Squads. She says she's pretty sure there's at least one telepath in each group, and they're altering the minds of troublemakers."

Ira wondered what friend that was who had that kind of insight.

Angelica briefly closed her eyes and laid two manicured fingers on the gold cross at her throat. "More reason to avoid them," she said.

"Yes, indeed," Lady J said. "The key here is that we'll need to somehow take out the main transmitter, I think. But I'm not sure what to do beyond that. I mean, they could just replace it."

"We need a coordinated attack," Pearl said. "Not just superheroic action, but information warfare. We need to explain to people what's happening."

The group collectively frowned into silence.

Hesitantly, Tinkermel said, "Well, I think I've got something that might help."

Every head turned to him.

He fished in one of the inner pockets of his biker jacket (it was lined in purple silk, Ira noticed, bemused) and extracted a small plastic ball, about the size of the tip of his thumb. It was strung on a piece of black rat-tail. Inside the ball was a constant swirl of pink glitter. "This," he began.

"Is fabulous," Kendis said, staring at the swirl. "How have you got it doing that?"

"If you hush, girl, I will tell you," Tinkermel said with a disapproving glower.

Angelica nudged Kendis with her elbow. "Give him his big reveal."

"Thank you," he said, then turned his attention back to the ball dangling from his fingers. "This is my Omni-directional Personal Venus Nega Charm. It gives off similar emanations to what's transmitted through those rings, but in a way that interferes with the waveforms. So it significantly reduces the effects of the transmitters on anyone wearing it." He smiled at Kendis. "And the generator vibrates very slightly at the center of the globe, moving the glitter, so you always know if it's working or not."

"That's amazing," Madeline breathed. "You've tested it?"

"You bet," he said, beaming proudly. "I developed a detection device for the emanations, and when I'm wearing the Venus Nega Charm, the quantity of emanations that reach me are reduced by almost 75%."

"Oh!" Angelica exclaimed, her eyes lighting up. "Oh, I know someone who could really use that."

"So do I," Ira said, thinking of Simon's sad whine.

"That's terrific work!" Lady J said, rising and coming over to shake Tinkermel's hand, which seemed to daze him. "Just terrific."

"Say," Andrea piped up suddenly, "do you think you could do something like that on a larger scale? Because that might just could help the sort of thing Pearl was talking about, freeing some minds so they'll be receptive to a little knowledge about what's going on."

Tinkermel's massive brow settled into a frown. "I'd need the materials, and a bigger space to build."

"Well, we have offers of financial help," Lady J said. "Think about what you'd need, while the rest of us think about how to get that for you."

"I'll do that," Tinkermel said. "Meanwhile, I've brought Nega Charms for everyone." He pulled out a handful of them, all in different glitter colors, and handed them around with a grin. "You all tell me right away if you have any strange effects from wearing them. I didn't notice any, but I don't have the powers some of you do."

X picked up a silver Nega Charm, examined it for a moment, then handed it to Madame Destiny with a smile and a little shake of the head. Madame nodded and took it for herself.

Ira took a rainbow glitter one and slung it around his neck. He did feel better.

"Well, this has definitely been productive and no mistake," Lady J said. "Anyone have anything else?"

Jane stirred in her chair. "I was wondering if anyone had room to put me up for a little while," she said.

Lady J gave her a sympathetic grimace, while everyone else looked startled.

"Dottie and I are great friends," Jane said, "and I'd like us to stay that way. Her place is really only big enough for one, and I'm not the easiest person to live with. So, anyone willing to give an old girl a break?"

"No room," Kendis said briefly, and Ira was startled by the undercurrent of hostility in her voice. He glanced aside at Jane, who smiled, just a little, very oddly.

"We don't have a viable guest room right now," Pearl said. "My partner is coping with all this--" she waved over her head "--by renovating everything."

Ira could practically feel Andrea gathering herself to make an offer -- she'd told him that she and Jane disliked each other from something that happened long ago, but she liked Lady J a great deal -- when Angelica said, "I have room!" with the biggest, most starstruck smile Ira had seen in a long time.

Kendis looked aside at Angelica as if she'd grown a second head.

Jane smiled gratefully at Angelica across the room, and that settled that, then and there.

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Sorry! I had this all ready to go and then got caught up in a work deadline. Here's some Ira for you Ira-lovers.

The Milkweed of Human Kindness

"But I don't understand, ladies," Ira said plaintively. "Where is it you want to take me?"

"Just get in the van, you stubborn old buzzard," Jane Liberty said, taking his hand and putting it on her skinny arm.

Her arm might be withered from her more fleshy prime, but it was rock steady as she led Ira down the front steps of Andrea's little suburban ranch house to Lady J's van.

"We'll take good care of him, Andrea, I promise," Lady J was saying behind them.

"Oh, I never worry about him," Andrea said, and Ira smiled, since she'd done nothing but fuss him since taking him in like an abandoned puppy from the roadside.

Jane helped him into the van's seat and buckled him in. "I can do that," he mumbled, swatting uselessly at her hands. He was beginning to remember why Jane Liberty had been such a terror to everyone who knew her. It was easy to forget that indomitable will, given how her mind had gone in the last few years before they put her away.

He heard Jane and Lady J get into the van and shut the doors, and then Lady J started up the old engine and pulled smoothly away from the curb.

"So where are we going?" he asked again.

"We're going to get your eyeballs taken care of," Lady J said cheerfully.

"What?" he said, thinking it had to be a joke.

"I've got to be good for something," Jane said sourly. Oh, yes, the sarcasm and bitterness were all back with her mind. It was so nice to hear it. "Don't you dare trip or anything in the next few hours, Ira. I've knocked down your invulnerability."

"What?" he said, and his voice cracked over it. That was the one thing he had going for him, after all.

"Just temporarily," Jane said. "Look, we're going to this eye doctor Dottie and Madeline know who works on paras all the time. He's going to take out those damned cataracts, and then I'll bring your power back online."

"Really," he said, sitting with his shock. He appreciated the act -- he only missed Lizzie more than his sight, really -- but he'd liked to have been consulted, at least.

Lady J must have given Jane one of her Looks, because Jane said, hesitantly, "Look, Ira, I know this is all… sort of sudden. But we need you in top form for whatever's coming. And besides…" She paused, then forged on, her voice only wavering a little: "Besides, what's the damned point of having all these damned powers if I can't help out one of my friends. Will you… can you let me do this for you?"

Dammit, there went the old man tears again as he leaned forward and reached for her shoulder, and she caught his hand in hers. He blinked and dashed water from his cheeks and said, "Jane, who the hell could say no to that?"

So there was no more discussion, and Lady J drove them wherever it was she was driving them. When they got out of the van, Madeline was there.

"You told him?" she asked anxiously.

"Of course," Lady J said.

And of course, Madeline would ask, he thought, given how much she'd gone under the knife nonconsensually in the War.

The three women bustled him -- carefully -- out of the parking lot, onto the sidewalk, and into the quiet office. As they sat in hard chairs in the lobby, Ira said in a low voice, "Jane, I just… how am I going to pay for this? I have Paracare, but I'm not sure they'd cover this without a referral and all…"

Jane patted his hand. "Turns out I'm a stupidly rich woman, Ira. Comes of having smart friends invest everything for me, not touching any of my royalties and licensing fees for nearly a decade, and having put money into a couple of up-and-coming computer companies back in the day who've now struck gold. Don't you worry about a thing."

"You're not serious?" he said, but he knew she was. After all, Lady J was in the room, and therefore even Jane couldn't lie.

"Completely," she said, and then a girl called his name, and they all got up and went down the tiled hallway to the room.

"This is Dr. Sato," Madeline said. "Doctor, this is my old friend, Ira Feldstein."

Dr. Sato's handshake was warm and firm. "Good to meet you, Mr. Feldstein. I understand you've got some issues with your eyes."

"Yes, sir," Ira said, and allowed himself to be settled in an examination chair.

After the exam, Dr. Sato said, "You've got some pretty good cataracts there. We can definitely get those out today, and my staff has gotten me your last prescription before you really started losing vision. I'd like to replace your lenses with correcting lenses. I think you'll only need to wear glasses to read. Is that okay with you?"

"If I had to wear glasses all the time, Doc," Ira said earnestly, "it would be fine with me."

The doctor explained the procedure carefully, and Ira was pleasantly surprised that he followed almost all of it. He was feeling pretty sharp today, really. Maybe it was just hope.

Madeline did correct the doctor when he started in on the several weeks of healing. "That won't be necessary, though. I'll take care of that."

The doctor paused and then said, "Of course you will! I forgot."

The procedure hurt more than the doctor had let on, and Ira wasn't used to that kind of pain -- he only dealt in a long, slow, grinding old person ache. He gritted his teeth and gripped Jane's hand hard, trying not to make any noise or move while the doctor worked. He was embarrassed at one point when a whimper slipped out, but Jane squeezed his hand supportively.

Light was pouring into his eyes, though, and he caught glimpses of the doctor's middle-aged face and the office beyond as work proceeded. Real glimpses. Real seeing.

It took a long time to do both eyes. It was a lot of pain. At the end, Madeline put her hands over his face and he felt the pain leach away slowly. His eyes felt strange as things shifted inside them.

"Are you sure it's safe to heal him so fast?" the doctor asked.

Madeline made a small, strangled noise of surprise and did not quite take her hands away, but it was Jane who said, "Maddy, how many times have you been through medical school?"

Ira heard Madeline laugh very softly, very bitterly, before saying, "Three."

"Three?" Dr. Sato said. "But... why aren't you in practice?"

"Because they never gave me a degree," Madeline said.

"They said your power was cheating, didn't they?" Lady J said.

Madeline sighed. "The first time, it was because I was Asian and a woman and probably unstable after my ordeal in the War. The second time, it was because I probably wasn't stable after my ordeal in the War, and, unspoken, because I was Asian and a woman. The third time it was because my power was, yes, cheating."

"That's insane!" Dr. Sato said. "Your power is something any doctor would want."

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Madeline said, finally taking her hands away from Ira's eyes. "How are you feeling, Ira?"

Ira opened his eyes slowly, the light making them water. But the first thing he saw was Madeline's face, clear as daylight and twice as beautiful. "Oh..." he gasped, and tears and semi-coherent words of gratitude spilled out in a sudden torrent of joy. Madeline gripped his hand and smiled.

"Here, Ira," Lady J said, pushing a handkerchief into his hand. "It's clean."

"Don't blow too hard," Madeline said, looking a little teary herself, patting him on the shoulder.

He blew his nose as gently as he knew how and looked around again, realizing he'd never really known what the phrase feasting your eyes meant before that moment.

Dr. Sato was an Asian man in this mid-to-late thirties, with short black hair, square glasses, and a white coat. He was grinning. Lady Justice was looking younger than Ira had seen her in years -- this leadership thing was treating her right -- dressed up in a navy blue pantsuit with her iron gray hair brushed and cut stylishly short for an old lady. She was grinning. Jane Liberty was a tiny, ancient bird of a woman, her white hair cut not so stylishly short and her clothes baggy and hanging on her. But she was grinning widest of all.

"This is what being para is all about," Jane said, wiping at her eyes with the heel of her hand. "Making miracles happen."

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My apologies for falling down on the posting last week. It's been an interesting couple of weeks, with very little time or brainspace for writing, but I'm attempting to put coping mechanisms in place. While we wait to see if they work, here's your next episode!

Resistance Is Futile

Ira was listening to the television when Suzanne said, suddenly, "Ira, will you please come to church with me tonight?"

He hadn't heard her come into the living room, her steps on the carpeting drowned out by the news coverage of some sort of atrocity in the Midwest, another house firebombing, the third that week. His surprise addled his wits for a moment. "What?"

"I need you to come to church with me," Suzanne said, and there was something strange in her voice, something half-desperation and half-tears.

"Suzanne, sweetie," Ira said gently, "I've told you before that I don't like churches. I'm a nonobservant Jew, and I'm happy that way."

"Please," she said.

He thought about it. What cost to him if he went with her? But she'd changed so radically after starting there, and he was worried about what sort of technological mental broadcasting was happening at those gatherings. He certainly wasn't one of those people who couldn't be affected telepathically -- his encounters with Master Mind in the 60s were proof of that. And what if he started talking about the sedition happening in Madame Destiny's living room? No, the potential costs were too high. And besides, he really didn't like churches. "I'm sorry, sweetie," he said.

After a long moment, she choked on a sob. "Oh, Ira," she said, and hurried from the room.

He puzzled over that as he listened to an interview with an "expert on superherodom" discussing the apparent absence of the Gold Stars. "We're better off without them," the expert said. "They're a danger to every American, both morally and physically, particularly heroes that style themselves as ultimate humans." He put an emphasis on the word "ultimate," of course. "They're just the sorts to put themselves above the laws of man and God."

He heard Suzanne come in this time. Her voice was subdued as she said, "I'm sorry, Ira, but I have to ask you to... to leave." She hiccuped.

Ira went cold from his scalp all down his back. He didn't have to ask her to clarify; he understood perfectly. It was, in fact, the sentence he'd thought he'd hear three years ago, after Josh died. His stomach tying itself into knots of panic, he kept his voice as steady as he could when he said, "When?"

Suzanne gasped around another sob, swallowed, and said, "Before Sunday."

Sunday. Sunday. What had she been saying yesterday about Sunday? That the tent revival was coming back to town. He tried to force his brain to focus on the conversation at hand. "All right," he said, feeling an unnatural calm settle over him, and he knew it for shock and welcomed it. "I see." Well, he didn't, but he wasn't going to go there.

"I'm sorry," she said again, miserably. He could imagine her wringing her hands.

"It's all right, sweetie," he said, and the endearment drew another sob from her. He fumbled for the remote and shut the television off. "I guess I'm making things difficult for you."

"I have to go," she said, voice thick with weeping vibrato. "To church. Tonight."

"You go ahead," he said, nodding slowly. "Just go on."

He heard the front door slam shut a few moments later, and sat in the silent house, waiting for the reverberations to die away.

Slowly, his brain started to turn over the possibilities of why this was happening, but he quashed that. No use speculating now. There were more important things to think about -- specifically, where to go, and when.

Madame's was right out -- the second bedroom was X's, and the guest room had been turned into holding space for Madame's extensive wardrobe. Jane was staying in Lady J's tiny house with her. Maybe Ebb and Flo could put him up for a bit. There might be other folks he wasn't thinking of. And then there was always his old friend, the YPCA.

As to when... staying after tonight was out of the question, he suddenly decided. He couldn't stand the idea of Suzanne drooping and sniffling around him until Saturday -- he couldn't stand it for even one night.

He stood up and fumbled his way to what used to be his bedroom.

Suzanne had thoughtfully organized the room so he could always find things by touch, folding and hanging his clothes in the same places week after week. He opened his closet and reached into the back to find his battered old leather suitcase. He set it on the bed, opened it by old instinct -- he'd once used it a great deal, when he was subbing for different hero teams week after week -- and started to pack. Underwear and undershirts first, then his two best dress shirts and a half dozen lesser shirts, and two pair of his khaki trousers. His one suit. His sneakers, his loafers, and his dress shoes. He packed his precious little box of mementos of Tin Lizzie, his wife-who-never-was, and his lockbox of papers last, padding around them with socks and his shaving kit. He closed the case and snapped the catches into place.

He sat on the bed for so long he lost track of time, thinking about the years of living there, caring for his comatose son, and existing in the same space with Suzanne. He'd long since come to think of Suzanne as his child, and he knew he was going to be devastated in a day or two. Better to get this over with now. Rip off the bandaid, Ira.

Ira stood and picked up his suitcase, carrying it easily to the front door. There he set it down and started to populate his pockets with his wallet and everything else, but stopped when he got to his keys. With fingers that trembled a little too much, he tore the metal that held the housekey to his keyring and dropped the key into the bowl with a dull clink, the only evidence of his reaction. He took up a pen and the pad of paper that was always there, flipped to the second page, and shakily wrote his best sightless version of, "Will send for the rest when I have a place."

He put on his overcoat and hat, took up his suitcase, and extended his white cane with a flip of the wrist. He went out the door and pulled it shut behind him very softly but firmly, and then made his way to the bus stop.

Upon entering the Y, he immediately collided with the new chairs that hadn't been there last time he could see. He stifled a curse and made his way toward where his desk had been.

"Ira!" a familiar voice exclaimed from down the hall.

He turned that way, feeling utterly betrayed by his deity and the universe at large. He heard the hurried footsteps on the tiles and tried to force a smile. "Andrea," he said, and his voice sounded dead in his ears.

"Ira," his first ex-wife in this timeline said angrily -- she said almost everything angrily -- "what the hell are you doing with that suitcase?"

He glanced downward at the suitcase in his hand as if he could see it. "Carrying it," he said.

"That's your old suitcase," Andrea said. Then, more softly, "I thought I'd thrown that damned thing away years ago."

"Yep," he said. He felt something trickle down his cheek and drip off his chin, and nearly died of embarrassment on the spot as he realized he was weeping old man tears.

"Ira," Andrea said almost softly, laying a hand on his arm. She smelled of talcum powder and a faint lilac perfume. "Ira, sweetie, what's wrong?"

"She's... she asked me to leave, Andrea," he said, and bit his lip in mortification as more tears made their awkward way down his lined cheeks. "Something with her church, I think. I didn't ask."

Andrea started to say something several times and stopped each time, until she finally said, "So you were just going to come break your back on these springloaded cots, rather than call any of your friends. Just like you, you proud old beast."

"Just until I could think of someone to call," he said plaintively.

"You're coming with me," Andrea said firmly.


"With me," she said. "You can stay in David's room." She added, uncharacteristically apologetic, "I... I haven't gotten around to clearing it out..."

He was about to try to refuse, recalling that her husband had only died six months earlier, but she'd already taken his suitcase from him, tucked his arm in her free elbow, and started towing him down the hall toward the parking lot door. "Thank you, Andrea," he said in a low voice.

Andrea sniffed as they emerged into the open air. "I'm not about to leave an old blind man to stay alone in the goddamn Y, even if he is my ex-husband."

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Ain't Got Nothin' But Time

More people came to visit while they were sitting shiva than to the graveside service, which was just fine as far as Ira was concerned. Not many of his old friends were willing (or able) to brave the sleet and snow and freezing temperatures, though he had appreciated those that had. The tables in the kitchen and living room were piled high with food people had brought, and the wine rack on top of the refrigerator was restocked. Suzanne moved around the room when people were there, the gracious hostess, somehow buoyed up when things should have been beating her down. He watched her with vague admiration through the slowness of his brain.

Andrea chatted amiably with people from her enthronement in the corner that day. Her husband David was whisking away abandoned glasses and plates and dealing with other logistical matters in a low-key way that made Ira think uncharitably of a butler.

People talked to Ira. Sometimes he recognized them. Nox the Night-Stalker still had those amazing eyes that reached into you and grabbed you by your figurative lapels so you couldn't help but pay attention to him. Madame Destiny was another person you couldn't ignore, and that strange apprentice of hers... The Equestrian showed up the second or third day, all apologies for not meeting him to give him warning. She finally realized he wasn't really responding to her, or anyone, and had just hugged him hard. Her horse patted him on the shoulder and given him a sad look.

Ah, how the great -- or at least mediocre -- have fallen. Pity from a horse.

Ira didn't recognize her until she had stood in front of him for a long moment, young and nervous in her black dress and battered brown winter coat. She smiled tremulously when he focused on her and put out her hand. "Mr. Metropolitan, I'm... I'm very sorry."

He saw the details of her: brown hair, pale skin, hazel eyes, and freckles. Very, very young. He stood abruptly and took her hand. "I... I'm glad you came. Ruth... the Ultimate, you know... explained what happened. I'm afraid I don't understand all of it..."

"Neither do I," she said with a twitch of a smile. Her hand was hot and a little damp and after shaking Ira's hand, she shoved it into the pocket of her coat and stood awkwardly.

"Why don't you sit down?" Ira said, gesturing to the chair next to his. "Do you want a drink or a plate of something? So many people have brought food, I don't think Suzanne and I will be hungry for months. Ruth brought a big pot of red rice, and the Silver Guardian brought over her potstickers, and Carolus brought these little... cheese things that I'm a little afraid of..." He was vaguely aware that he hadn't spoken so much since it all happened.

She started to sit, then rose, alarmed. "Oh, no! That's fine, I'm not really hungry right now."

Ira made pat-patting motions and seated himself. She sat down too. They looked over the living room together: it was crowded with people who were para or friends of paras. Several of the Guardians were there, along with some of the ex-Junior Guardians who were active when Josh was active. A few of the Gold Stars had drifted in and out, but there was, understandably, no big organizational attendance. Ira spotted a couple of the Young Cosmics, High Speed's youngest boy Mercury and that android the Cosmics had rescued some time back -- Citizen Kane or something.

Suzanne, sleek and handsome in a grey pantsuit, swept up, smiling at the girl. "Thought you might like something warm," she said. "It's pretty bitter out there." She slid a cup of hot mulled cider into the guest's hand, winked at Ira, and made her way back into the crowd.

Ira and the girl watched her go.

"She... doesn't seem like a widow," the girl ventured, sipping her cider.

"It's been hard on her, all these years," Ira said. He sighed. "I expect she's been ready to get on with her life for a long time now."

The girl looked at him. "What's going to happen now? I mean, will you live alone?"

Ira shrugged. "I don't know. This is her house, you know. I earned my keep, as much as I could, by helping take care of Josh. And now..." He shrugged again. "We haven't talked about it."

"She wouldn't throw you out?" the girl said, sounding a little outraged.

Ira smiled. "She'd be well within her rights to do it. I'll just... I'll find some place. It'll be fine. But what about you?"

The girl's gaze dropped to the carpet. "I... well, I'm where I wanted to be."

"You are?"

She nodded, looking into her cup of cider, then taking a swig. "I made a deal with her... it... whatever it was. It would get me out of my parents' nightmare of a house, out of that crappy little town, and to Wonder City, and I wouldn't have to deal with any of it but the aftermath. And she... it... got the use of my body until its mission was over."

Ira stared at her, struggling with disbelief. Then he thought about the second Bombshell, who had told him late one night after the gang's Christmas party about how she'd gotten her para powers: she'd been terrified to leave her father's house on her own, afraid of the streets and afraid of her father, so had preferred to be taken aboard an alien spacecraft, bombarded with unknown rays, and taken off to a distant planet to fight in someone else's war to staying even one more day there.

Really, it wasn't that odd.

"I understand," he said, patting her hand. "Sometimes you have that one opportunity, and you have to take it."

"Yeah," she said. "I still have my room at the Y, and she... it... we got a job at this coffee house. So it's not like I'm living on the streets or anything."

"You're doing all right, then?" he said.

She nodded. "It'll be fine."

They smiled at each other for a long moment. Then she stood up. "I should go. I'll... see you around the Y, right?"

"Sure thing," he said, rising to take her hand again. "I'll be back there next week. Thank you for coming."

"No problem," she said, clasping his hand firmly.

She took a step away, then turned back. "I forgot to tell you," she said, "my name isn't actually Lizzie."

Ira smiled sadly. "I'd wondered."

"My name is Robyn," she said in a low voice. "But... would you mind if I kept using Lizzie? I... kind of like it. And I don't really like who I'm named for."

Ira's smile threatened to crack his face. "No, darlin'. I don't mind. And I think you would've liked my Lizzie, if you could ever have met her."

"Thank you." She hesitated, then kissed him on the cheek. "See you around."

He was still smiling as he settled back into his chair.

The Outsider came over to give him a cup of tea. "That the girl?" she asked.

He nodded. "Sweet kid," he said. "Nothing like her, of course. I wonder why I thought so?"


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Of Blessed Memory

Suzanne stood between Andrea and Ira, looking down at the plain wooden coffin with its Guardians flag drape. Ira held her hand tightly, his fingers cold in the frigid air. The forest green pavilion was all that stood between them and the sleet that was resolutely and appropriately falling on the company.

Attendees were a little sparse for the death of a superhero, even if he had turned villain in the end. The full set of Guardians, even the Golden Guardian, who was almost never seen any more, stood in the precipitation, tiny, sharp ice droplets hissing off their armor, black bands with a bronze metal stripe conspicuously present on everyone's arm (though there was no clarification as to which Bronze Guardian it applied). A smattering of Gold Stars -- Midnight Mask, the Ultimate, and Sekhmet -- stood in a cluster near them; the Ultimate and Sekhmet were out of costume in black suits and long black wool coats, but Mask was in his dark blue (and hopefully insulated) spandex. Behind Suzanne and the rest of the family, huddled under the inadequate roof, were some of Ira's friends from the old days: Lady Justice, Carolus Lew, Harry Dash, Atomica, and a wizened, bent old man with a walker that she suspected might be Nox the Night-stalker. Madame Destiny stood to the side of Ira, resplendently plump in a long black gown that had a rather daring neckline for a woman of her years, arrayed in her best mystical jewelry, including a vast gold pendant set with a dozen or more different cabochon stones that reclined luxuriously against her cleavage. Mother Necessity's three granddaughters stood near Andrea, who had been a good friend of their mother's, as well as being their honorary aunt.

From the corner of her good eye, she noticed Simon, sharply dressed in a tailored black suit but still on crutches, accompanied by the Hispanic-looking giantess she now knew was Megan Amazon, in a less well-fitted black suit. Megan held a golf umbrella over both their heads. They kept a respectful distance from the proceedings, not coming within conventional earshot, though Suzanne guessed that Simon could hear everything anyway.

She herself wasn't really hearing what the rabbi was saying. She stared at the coffin, felt Ira's fingers squeezing her hand painfully. He'd watched Josh's body stop breathing, the Outsider had said, weeping the whole time, and had let himself be led away and put to bed after it was over. He'd barely said a word since and didn't seem to be sleeping much, though he'd eaten when someone had put food in front of him. She was going to have to discuss the situation with Andrea, who was already fairly harrowed by events and the media. But Andrea at least had David, who worshipped the ground she walked on and took meticulous care of her.

And Suzanne had Simon.

Ira had no one but some hired companions. Would the Guardians stop footing the bill for those now?

She glanced aside at the old man, and felt both oppressed by the responsibility he represented and desperately sad for and protective of him. She loved Ira, as troublesome as he could be. Her own parents were gone -- dead, possibly, but she'd never bothered to find out. They'd given her far too much insanity over the years for her to care.

The coffin was pale wood with brass fittings. There were no flowers.

Suzanne had always known that Josh was a bit of a bastard, but hadn't known that he was a killer. Wasn't that always the way, though? Hardly anyone really expects her or his husband to come home from work one day, having decided on committing mayhem. Not really. Really? She'd always known it was possible -- hell, she'd specialized in stories like this when she was a reporter. Well, at the end of her career, anyway. Maybe she should've paid attention to the things that were catching her attention then, after being married to Josh for several years.

She tried to summon back a memory of loving him and failed. All she could remember was Mitch -- the sweet, unkempt, desperately poor Southern boy who sent nearly all his money home to his mother and the siblings living with her. He was a tall and thin and dark-haired, with a farmer's tan and a tendency to have five o'clock shadow at eleven in the morning. He worked as the Guardians' receptionist and administrative assistant when he wasn't in his Guardian armor, and they paid for him to take his GED and start college. They'd made him have extensive dental work done on his teeth, which were brown and chipped and full of cavities, since he'd grown up without fluoridated water or even a single dentist appointment. She'd first met him -- out of armor -- when he'd come back to the Guardians headquarters, face full of novocaine and giddy from three hours in the chair. Josh had been busy, so she took Mitch out for drinks. He slurred out his life story to her in a desperate attempt to avoid thinking about what had just been done to him.

She thought that, perhaps, she'd fallen for him then.

The rabbi was wrapping up his speech, whatever it was he'd said, and she found herself weeping. She covered her mouth with her handkerchief and choked a sob. Poor Mitch. Poor idealistic superheroic Mitch. He'd just been doing the right thing, like he always had. And Josh...

And Josh...

Andrea put an arm around her waist and patted her shoulder. Ira turned his watery gaze to her and tightened his lips in something close to a smile.

The coffin was lowered into the grave. She took her turn with the spade, and bit her lower lip to keep herself from grinning vindictively as the clods of earth echoed on the wood.

Then it was finished. The rabbi was shaking her hand, and Ira's, and Andrea's.

Netted between Josh's parents, Suzanne turned away from the grave and started into the sleet. Various black-suited undertakers with golf umbrellas materialized to escort them to the limousine.

She looked up from the ground once, and squarely met Simon's gaze. He hadn't replaced his shattered glasses yet, and the wolf's eyes probably disturbed other people. But not her, not now, not any more. She wanted to throw herself into those eyes and not have to think for a while.

He mouthed three words to her. She stared at him for a moment, stricken, and opened her mouth to respond, but was gently pushed into the limo by Andrea.

The door closed, and she indulged in a savage torrent of weeping, though she couldn't have explained why.


From Jude:

And here is a bonus episode because I couldn't think of a better way to thank my latest donor! I hope you all enjoy it. :)

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In Absentia Dementia

"Andrea, I'm so sorry to bother you," Suzanne said, rubbing her face and eyes tiredly. "I'm really at my wit's end."

Andrea put an arm around her daughter-in-law's thin shoulders. "It's all right, hon. Let's go get something to eat, shall we? Things always look better with food."

Suzanne left Andrea chatting with the office receptionist and retreated to her cube. She leaned over her keyboard and finished the email she'd been composing when Andrea had arrived. The email went off with a swish and she pulled her purse out of the lower drawer. "Sheila, I'm heading out," she called over the cube wall.

"You go on, kid," Sheila said, leaning back to look at her. "You look like hell. You going home?"

"Nah," Suzanne said, checking the time on her cell phone. "Andrea and I are having dinner."

"You have fun," Sheila said, waving and returning to her computer.

Andrea took Suzanne's arm as they walked down the front steps. "Where shall we go then?"

Suzanne squinted into the late afternoon sunlight. "Oh, why don't we try the Great Scot? We had lunch there the other day, and the sandwiches are good."

The other plus of the Great Scot, Suzanne thought as they stood in line, was the eye-candy. She hadn't paid much attention to the looks of other men for years now, but there was something about the smile of that pretty college boy that caught her interest. He slung coffee like it was the greatest job in the world, and smiled at her like she was beautiful. "Here y'go, miss," he said, handing her coffee over the counter. "I hope you have a great evening!"

"At least this place seems to know what customer service is," Andrea said as they settled at a corner table, away from the singletons working on their laptops.

"It does, doesn't it?" Suzanne said.

"So what's going on, Suzanne?" Andrea said, taking a bite of potato salad.

Suzanne stared at her sandwich for a moment, then took a swig of coffee. It was too hot, of course, and burned all the way down her esophagus. Eyes watering, she said, "It's Ira."

"I figured that out," Andrea said, blue eyes narrowing. "Give me some credit, after all."

"I'm sorry," Suzanne said. She folded her hands and looked up at Andrea. "I think he's finally gone completely over the edge."

Andrea pursed her lips and set her fork down. "What's he done now?"

Suzanne picked up her fork and moved her french fries around on her plate. "I got a call from the Gold Stars. He apparently went to them to tell them that Josh had woken up to warn him about... about some impending invasion." She sighed. "They were very nice about it."

Andrea's penciled eyebrows rose precipitously. "He said that Josh woke up? When was this?"

"Oh, a couple of days ago," Suzanne said. "He called me at work to tell me. But of course, Josh had just gone back to sleep or whatever right then, so he couldn't talk to me. Now he keeps a tape recorder next to the bed. He knows I don't believe him."

Andrea grunted. "Worse than the last time. At least then he was willing to admit that it was just a random noise Josh made."

They ate their sandwiches in silence for a few minutes. Suzanne was distracted by the excellent garlic aoli on her roasted tomato and fresh mozzarella sandwich.

"You know," Andrea said, "it's been a long time coming. He hasn't been right since the Great Gulf, you know."

"When he forgot you," Suzanne said.

"Yes," Andrea said, looking up into the trendily exposed rafters. "You have no idea how much the fact that he forgot Violet too made up for forgetting me."

Suzanne giggled.

"And he replaced us with some woman named Lizzie." Andrea took another bite of her sandwich, chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and said, "In all the years he ran around on me, I don't think he ever took up with a Lizzie."

"So you think she was a fantasy, or a hallucination, or something?"

Andrea shrugged. "Or something." She frowned. "Did Josh ever actually say anything to you about Tin Lizzie?"

Suzanne shook her head. "Ira always said that Josh remembered her too, but Josh was always really... vague about it all. And he seemed to remember you just fine."

Andrea shrugged again. "Well, one never knows what happened in the thick of things. I remember how crazy those fights could get. Still, this new thing with Josh is..." She rolled her eyes and waved a manicured hand.

"I know," Suzanne said.

And they ate again in silence for a time. Suzanne glanced around, catching the caffeinar's eye by accident. He smiled, and she smiled back, dropping her gaze immediately.

"You're going to have to arrange for a regular visiting nurse," Andrea said.

"I know." Suzanne took the penultimate bite of her sandwich a little savagely. "I can barely afford the monthly visits and the PT. The idea of having someone in daily... oh, god, Andrea, what am I going to do?"

Andrea pursed her lips. "Not you. I'm sorry, Suzanne, I should have done this sooner. I'm going to go to the Golden Guardian. The pittance the Guardians have been paying out for Josh is ridiculous. The man saved the world. I have a few favors still hanging around from the old days."

"Oh, Andrea, it's such a bother," Suzanne said.

"No, it's not," Andrea said, dabbing at her lips with her napkin. "It's his due. And yours."

Suzanne nodded. Her gaze slid sideways to the young man pulling his apron off over his head and strolling out from behind the counter. A little short, but he had very nice shoulders. She'd always been partial to good shoulders.

Andrea finished her coffee. She glanced at Suzanne, then looked away through the window. "You've been tied to a dead man for 10 years. The least I can do is to try to make it a little easier."

Suzanne decided that there was nothing she could say to that, so she drank her coffee.

As they walked out the door a few minutes later, they passed the caffeinar. He was getting on a red mountain bike, a small backpack slung over both shoulders. He caught Suzanne's eye and smiled. "Have a good night, ladies. Come back and see us sometime!"

"Of course," Suzanne said.
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Memory Sticks

Ira sat at the front desk of the YPCA, reading his book of the week, magnifying glass in hand. This one claimed to be an history of the formation of the Gold Stars, but Ira knew that it was mostly historical fiction. He hadn't been part of the earliest waves of heroes, and certainly was never a first-class hero, so he was never invited into the Gold Stars. But Lizzie had been first-class, and she'd spent twelve years as a Gold Star.

Of course, it was hard to tell whether the differences between what he knew and what was written down was fiction or the revised timeline. He found it more enjoyable to believe he was reading fiction.

"Hello, Ira."

He looked up quickly, muscles (such as they were) tensing. He didn't notice if people walked up to his desk from inside the Y, only if people came in the front doors.

Andrea Morgenstern, her blue eyes keen above her bright smile, leaned on the counter overlooking his desk. She was impeccable in an expensive pink sweatsuit, and her vast chandelier earrings caught the track lighting and helped light up her barely-wrinkled face.

Speak of the timeline devil.

"Hello, Andrea," he said, politely closing his book and putting it down. "How can I help you?"

"I just thought I'd come up and see how you were doing," she said, raising her gym bag into view to indicate that she'd been at the Y on legitimate business.

"That's very nice of you," he said. He never knew exactly what to say to Andrea, so he tried to be very polite.

"How's Josh?" she asked. "I haven't been by to see him lately."

"Same as always," he said. "We have a new physical therapist for him."

"What happened to that Meredith girl?" she said.

"Got married," he said with a shrug. "This one's an Ashleigh. With an 'i-g-h', not a 'y', she explained."

"Oy," Andrea said, rolling her eyes. "Well, I'll try to come by sometime soon. David's been in the hospital, did I tell you?"

"No," he said. "I'm sorry to hear it. His heart again?"

"This time it's the veins in his legs," she said with a shrug. "This getting old, it's for the birds, don't you think?"

"Yep," Ira said.

"How're you doing?" She peered at him closely. "You're a little thin these days."

"Suzanne keeps me in food, if you're wondering. I'm all right. Vision's shot." He gestured at the magnifying glass.

"I wasn't wondering," Andrea said, an edge in her voice. "That girl works too damned hard and cares too damned much. Still can't operate on those cataracts then? I was never so glad that my invulnerability wore off than when I had that lump a couple of years ago."

"That was benign, though," he said.

"Oh, yeah, but how long would I have waited to see if they hadn't been able to operate?" She smiled again. "Well, I'll see you later, hon," she said, reaching over to pat his hand. "Give Suzanne my love, will you?"

"Sure," he said, watching Andrea's retreating back. Could he ever have been married to that woman? Really?

He sighed and shook his head. No, there hadn't been an Andrea or a Violet or any of the women they claimed he'd run around with behind their backs. He'd been married to Lizzie, and only Lizzie.

He wished he could just ask Timeframe or Chronastic to put things right again, but he knew that Lizzie and the original Golden Guardian were holding the universe together somewhere in the Great Gulf. Even Dr. Eternity couldn't recall them to reality.

He just wished he were still allowed to have his memories in peace.


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Wonder City Stories

June 2017

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