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A Loose Confederation of Evil Forum Index McClarney's Bar Trickster's Vignettes
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Wed May 17, 2006 4:25 pm
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Post subject: Trickster's Vignettes
It was a beautiful sunset. The sun dipped shyly into the warm ocean in a spectacular burst of red and orange that set the water on fire. The silver-haired man stared directly at it. His eyes were perfectly dry. The man wore nothing but a ragged pair of denim shorts, two daysí worth of beard, and a faint sunburn.

Sand crunched, and a much younger man clad in knee-length blue bathing trunks dropped quietly to the sand next to the blind man, forearms resting on his knees. The blind man continued staring staring straight ahead.

"You know, I never did catch your name," the young man said. "Itís so awkward calling you Manny."

The blind man spat into the sea and said nothing.

"So do your powers still work?" the young man asked. "I mean, did you know I was going to ask that or what?"

"Go fuck yourself," the blind man muttered.

"You know," the young man said, "Iím one of the few people in the world who can actually do that. It isnít as much fun as it sounds, believe me."

The blind man spat again. The young man paused for a moment, then said, "You brought this on yourself, you know."

The blind man rounded on him. "How the hell can you say that? You took everything. You took away my career, the woman I loved, even my eyes. It was all you."

"You tried to kill me," the young man countered. "Remember? Ship, crash, boom, thud? I donít know how many times I can say that before it sinks in."

"Iíd never even met you," the blind man snapped.

"Ah, the excuse generals give the world over." The young man leaned closer. "Iíll let you in on a secret--if you hadnít given your men permission to use lethal force, we wouldnít be sitting here right now. How come you didnít foresee =that=?"

"So why do you keep coming here?" the blind man demanded. "Itís not enough to destroy my life, take away my vision, and drop me on a desert island?"

"You left out the fact that everyone thinks youíre dead, so no oneís looking for you. That includes my associates, by the way."

"And thatís not enough? You canít leave well enough alone?"

The young man shrugged. "Someone has to drop off the MRUs so you donít starve to death. Or have you figured out how to pick coconuts?"

"Fuck you."

"Iím not into the daddy type." The young man leaned back on his elbows in the white sand. "I also brought you a whole crateful of braille books and magazines. Youíll have to teach yourself to use them, but I figure you donít spend much time clubbing these days."

"And how long are you going to leave me here?"

"Canít you answer that question, or canít a blind man see the future?"

"Why do you hate me so much? I canít believe Iím the only person whoís . . . whoís tried to kill you."

"Ah, step one--admitting to the problem. Eleven more steps to go, Manny, and youíll be free and clear." The young man stood up and brushed sand from his swim trunks. "I donít hate you, per se. I just hate what you tried to do to me. You wonít do it again as long as youíre here, so all is forgiven. You still owe me your life, of course."

"I donít owe you a fucking thing."

The young manís voice took on a steely note. "You owe me your fucking life. If I hadnít pulled you away and covered your disappearance with an illusion, your molecules would currently be spread from sea to shining sea."

"Maybe that would have been for the best."

"And maybe thatís why I didnít let it happen."

The two men fell silent, one sitting, one standing. Abruptly, the young man pulled off his swim trunks and flung them into the ocean. They floated on the gently-lapping waves for a while, then sank out of sight. The young man flung his naked arms wide to the soft sea breeze.

"You know what I like best about spending time with you, Manny?" he said with a laugh. "The fact that I donít have to hide anything. Itís so . . . freeing. I donít have to keep up a disguise or spin a stupid shell. Iím standing right next to another human being, and Iím wearing nothing but the skin I was born with. All illusions stripped away. God, it feels good."

"Canít you do that when youíre alone?" the blind man asked, curious in spite of himself.

"Yeah, but it isnít the same."

Another pause. "That whole thing with those men . . . raping Constance. That wasnít real, was it." It was a statement, not a question.

"Iím a thief, not a rapist."

"So whereís Constance now?"

The young man dipped his foot in the blue water. "Sheís back home, teaching little mutants how to fingerpaint and taking Mr. Tickles for nice walks in the park. At night she sheds a few tears over her loss and falls asleep, determined to forge ahead in her life."

The blind man thought a moment. "But that could be a lie."

"Everything I say is a lie," the young man said. "Including this statement. Now you answer one. Why did you choose the Liberty Bell instead of Constance?"

"Because youíre a thief, not a killer, and I realized that she was nothing but a trick."

"Too bad Constance didnít know you knew that."

"You always do this, donít you? Tricks within tricks, lies within lies. Is there any truth in your life at all?"

"Iím standing naked on a tropical beach with my worst enemy. You donít get much truer than that."

"Too bad you have to travel a thousand miles to get it." The blind man shifted. "Are you going to tell Ion what you did?"

The words burst out of the young man before he could stop them. "You leave him out of this."

"A blind man can still see the truth. Do you have real feelings for him, or do you just =think= you do? You said I canít see my own future, but you canít see through your own lies. You donít feel anything. You just lie to yourself."

The young manís jaw went tight and his naked fists glowed an angry red. The blind man turned scarred, empty eyes toward him, expectant, hopeful. Then the young man laughed and opened his hands. The glow vanished.

"Very good, Manny." He stepped forward and kissed the blind man on the top of his head. "This is exactly why I keep you around. You keep me honest."

"Another lie."

"Maybe, maybe not. Iíll see you next week." And he walked away, leaving the blind man alone.
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Wed May 17, 2006 4:26 pm
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"I killed a man."

The blind man turned empty eyes toward the voice that had addressed him from the darkness. His beard had grown in like scruffy silver moss and his hair was getting long. Several weeks ago the ragged denim shorts had finally given up the ghost and fallen apart, so he went naked these days. Not that there was anyone to see him, including himself. By now he knew every inch of the tiny island by sound and by touch, especially the place where new supplies of food and braille reading material mysteriously and regularly appeared.

"You think I care?" the blind man said. He was sitting under a palm tree, in the shade. The heat told him it was a sunny day.

Neil Fade sighed and sat down on the sand next to him. He wore his habitual yellow swimming trunks and sandals. "I know you donít care. Thatís why Iím telling you."

"Leave me alone, then."

"You donít mean that, Manny. Iím the only person who knows youíre alive, the only person who ever talks to you. Without me, itís just you and your dick."

The blind man didnít answer for a long time. Then he said, "It bothers you that you killed someone."

"Wouldnít it bother you? Oh wait, I forgot--you like killing people. Or ordering their deaths."

"I thought we were talking about you."

"Fuck." Neil got up and kicked a footful of sand. An errant breeze blew the grit back at him.

"It really bugs you," the blind man observed. "Whatís up with that? Did you commit murder?"

"I donít know," Neil said.

"Donít lie to me, buddy. Thereís no percentage in it."

"Itís true. I really donít know. He had this sword and he was trying to cut me. It didnít seem to matter that I was phased out or invisible--he knew where I was and the sword cut me anyway. So I grabbed it from him. He came at me, and I swung . . . "

He trailed off. Waves lapped against the sand in a soft, regular rhythm. "And you killed him," the blind man finished.

"I cut him in fucking half," Neil burst out. "I didnít think it would do that. I just wanted him to back off. And then he was sliding to the floor in two pieces . . . Jesus."

"Poor baby. You want forgiveness? Absolution?"

"I doubt youíd give it, even if you could."

"Got that right," the blind man said. "You feel guilty? Good! I hope youíre fucking miserable."

"Iím not a killer," Neil said.

"You are now."

"Look, Iíve never even seriously hurt anyone."

"Except Ion."

"Shut up."

"Youíre the one who wanted this conversation, not me."

"Iíd never hurt Ion. Not on purpose, anyway. He doesnít . . . he doesnít talk to me much anymore anyway. Now itís Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, twenty-four seven."

The blind man blinked. "Who the hell is Ryan?"

Neil gave a barking laugh. "You want fucking irony? Ryan is me."

"Oh ho!" The blind laughed for the first time in months. It came out harsh and raspy. "Jesus Christ. You really got yourself in a mess this time. Donít tell me--Iíll tell you. Letís see. You created this Ryan persona to get closer to Ion. Probably to spy on him or . . . or . . . holy shit. You didnít!"

Neil drew back. "Didnít what?"

"Ryan is a superhero, isnít he? You became a fucking superhero. Itís the only thing that makes sense. Your powers would make it easy to fake any number of abilities. And one superhero can sympathize with another. Itís someone you can share secrets with because they know what itís like to fight on the same side." He leaned toward Neil. "And youíre using Ion to infiltrate the Justice Legion."

Neil was too startled to speak. The blind man rushed ahead, encouraged by his silence.

"Except Ion started to fall for Ryan," he said. "You encouraged it, partly because it served your purposes, and partly because you feel the same way about him. But now itís all gone wrong, hasnít it? Youíre falling into the classic trap of the double agent--caring about the people youíre going to betray. Howís that feel, hmmm?"

"Like I have a rock around my neck," Neil muttered.

"Your tricks are catching up with you. Do you think Ion will still care about you once he finds out that you lied, that Ryan and the Trickster are one and the same?"

"They arenít the same!" Neil burst out. "Ryanís a different person. Heís a good guy. Heís kind and heís helpful and people like him."

"And Trickster is a killer," the blind man supplied viciously. "Ryanís a good place to hide from that, isnít he? Ryan didnít kill anyone."

"Iím not hiding from anything," Neil snapped. "I know what I did."

"Does Ryan?"

"No! Heís not--" Neil halted, confused.

"Not you?" The blind man let a handful of sand trickle through his fingers. "Tell me something. How did you get past old Shady? I canít imagine he let you into the Legion without a pretty intenstive background check, and heíd arrange for a telepath to read your mind--or heíd do it himself. After all, a hero would have nothing to hide, and Shady loves to know other peopleís secrets. Make no mistake--he adds everyoneís piccadillos to his collection while he snoops through your head. Youíre good at hiding, but youíre not that good."

"I have ways."

"Uh huh. A telepathic friend to create false memories, perhaps? I did my research before you blinded me. One of your colleagues is pretty talented. He created this Ryan persona for you, didnít he? He put this hero into your head. And now youíre confused. You donít know who you are anymore. You got a taste of love and adoration, and you like it."

"No one loves a villain," Neil said. "They arenít worth loving."

"But they love a hero," the blind man pointed out. "Even a false one. How do you think Ion will react when he finds out?"

"He wonít," Neil said. "We spent three months trapped in another dimension together. I saved his life and he saved mine a hundred times. And he never knew."

"Because you lied to him," the blind man said in a honeyed voice. "When you slept beside him and he reached for you in the night, did he whisper your real name?"

"Ryan is my real name."

"Funny. I thought it belonged to someone else."

"Ryan is real. I have a birth certificate, social security card, school records, a tax history, an apartment in my own name. Trickster doesnít have anything. Thereís no record anywhere that Neil Fade ever existed. Whoís the real person now?"

"Who am I talking to right now?" the blind man asked. "Is this Ryan or Trickster?"

Silence.

"You donít even know anymore," the blind man cackled. "Oh, this is fantastic! Caught in your own web of lies. Whatís the spider look like, I wonder?"

"Youíll never know. You canít see it."

"I can see more clearly than you can." He got up and stretched. "Go on--leave me alone now. Iíve had my quota of yakking for this week. And bring me some braille porn next time, would you? I want to know how it feels to read it."

He fell silent, his empty eyes staring across the ocean at nothing. After a long moment, his companion walked silently away.
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Wed May 17, 2006 4:27 pm
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Ryan Black turned over with a groan. His entire body ached, as if he had just gone ten rounds with the space pirates that he and Ion--Grant--had fought with and then befriended. Captain Quay had had a vicious right hook. Carefully Ryan sat up and staggered into the shower. The hot water helped immeasurably. The bruises on his abdomen, however, puzzled him. He didnít remember taking any shots to the gut lately. Still, since he had joined the Justice Legion, he had gotten into so many fights that they were blurring together.

He swallowed some ibuprofin, dressed in simple sweats, then popped out into the hallway. The doorman always left the dayís mail on the mat for him. On top of the small pile of letters was a padded envelope the size of a book. It had his name and address on it, but no postage and no return address. Puzzled, he ran it under a scanner he kept in his office to ensure it wasnít dangerous--it wasnít--then opened it. A DVD dropped out. What the hell?

He slotted it into the player. The screen flickered, then resolved itself into an image of the Patriot. He was fighting an enormous robot. The quality of the shot was shaky, and it had clearly been done with an amateur camera with a long zoom lens, but Patriotís familiar face and costume were clear enough. Ryan looked at the robot, then blinked. It was the mysterious robot that had saved Manhatten from that tidal wave and then disappeared. The news had been full of the story, complete with amazing photos. Why was Patriot trying to destroy a savior of the city?

In the middle of the fight, Patriot abruptly broke away. He seemed to stare at something only he could see. He grabbed at empty air for a moment, then he fled the scene, vanishing into the clouds. The robot, battered and damaged, fired hidden jets and soared into the sky where it too vanished.

The picture changed. More amateur video shot from a distance. This time Arsenal, encased in his golden armor, rose above the city--and blasted a building full-force. The building thundered into rubble. Ryan stared at this as well. The building seemed perfectly ordinary. He backed up the image and watched several times, but he couldnít spot a reason for Arsenalís strange behavior. Where was the threat? Why had Arsenal destroyed the place? Any number of people could have been injured or killed by falling debris. The date in the lower right corner indicated it was weekend, so the building had probably been empty, but the potential for collateral damage was immense, not to mention the cost of clearing the rubble and rebuilding--billions of dollars. The word "vandalism" didnít begin to describe it.

The picture changed yet again. This time view was from above, and the words "Traffic Cam 16A" sat in the bottom corner. Atlantean, resplendent in his gold robes, raised his hands. Golden light twined around the feet of an old man clutching a baby. The old man looked frightened, and the babyís face was twisted by terrified cries. Ryanís mouth fell open. The Atlantean was going after an old man and a =baby=?

The picture changed one more time. It had a green tint to it, as if the video were shot in the dark using a night camera. A man in a hat and trenchcoat was standing with his back to another figure, also wearing a coat, though he had a long scarf pulled over the lower half of his face. Ryan instantly recognized the Shadow. The other figure was . . . Trickster? Before Ryan could react further, the Shadow pulled a gun.

"No!" Ryan shouted. "Trickster, look out!"

The gun went off in silence. Trickster staggered, then spun around just in time to take a second shot. Dark blood stained the front of Tricksterís trenchcoat. The Shadow was clearly laughing, though the video itself remained silent. The date and time ticked impassively in the corner of the screen. Ryan realized his heart was pounding and his palms were sweaty. Panic clenched his stomach, though he couldnít say why. It was just a video. It didnít involve him.

Trickster collapsed to the floor, below the range of the camera, and the video ended.

Ryan removed the DVD from the player and with shaking hands checked the inside of the envelope it had come in. A single sheet of paper was inside. Printed on it in anonymous computer print were the words, "At noon today, this goes to all the news services and the Internet." Ryan checked his watch. 11:30.

###

"I hope you have good reason for calling an emergency meeting, son," Patriot said.

Ryan--now dressed in his Spectrum costume--swallowed hard and nodded his head. He was a full member of the Justice Legion, with the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities of even the most seasoned Legionnaires. In theory it meant he could do anything within the group that Patriot or Ms. Miracle did, but in practice he was still a rookie and therefore had to justify everything he did. Seated around the table were most of the other members--Atlantean, Shadow, Patriot, Velocity, Ion, even Ms. Miracle, looking half-naked without her sword. She sported several bandages. [Authorís note: Since we didnít specify Arsenalís fate at the end of the last session--Dr. Science had planned to force Arsenal to commit suicide but John put off ruling on that until next time--Iím ignoring him for the moment.]

"You need to see this," Ryan said. "I got it with my morning mail. Itís about the yesterdayís fight and break-in."

"Do you have any more leads about how that woman got in here?" Patriot asked Shadow.

Shadowís eyes were hard above his mask. "She used Ionís retinal patterns and codes to get past the security system."

"Mine?" A look of shock passed over Grantís strong features. "How?"

"Computer records show you entering just before the attack started," Shadow said in his low, harsh voice.

Anger rose in Ryanís chest. "Are you saying Grant let her in?" he demanded hotly. "Because if you are--"

"Heís not saying any such thing, son," Patriot interrupted. "Are you, Shadow?"

There was a long pause as Shadowís eyes flickered from Ryan to Grant and back again. Ryan felt a strange combination of fear and loathing wash over him.

"No," Shadow said at last. "She somehow managed to forge credentials. The internal cameras have her on video, but the alarm system ignored her because it thought she was Ion."

"Who could forge something like that?" Velocity asked.

"Trickster could pull it off," Ion said slowly. [Authorís note: Yes, I know this isnít how it happened. Itís a reasonable conclusion, but incorrect.]

"He was certainly involved in the attack," the Atlantean said.

"Yeah," Ryan said. "About that. This is why I called everyone here." He checked his watch. 12:00. Then he pointed the remote at the enormous viewscreen that took up most of one wall in the meeting room. The DVD flickered to life and played out all four scenes. The assembly heroes watched in startled, shocked silence. The scenes ended and still no one spoke. Then everyone exploded into outraged speech.

"Thatís not how it . . . "

"I canít believe anyone would . . . "

"I would never . . . "

"SILENCE!" Patriot bellowed, and the noise died away. "One at a time!"

"That old man was a demon wearing Severusís body," Atlantean said. "That baby was a hostage. I would never attack mere civilian."

"Thatís not how it looks on the traffic cam," Ms. Miracle said. "And we have Patriot fighting the robot that saved New York and we have Arsenal causing billions of dollars in property damage for no visible reason."

"And we have the Shadow." Patriot turned to face the hard-eyed man. Shadow had not moved or even reacted to the entire video. "You swore to me an oath that you would never again use deadly force. Is this video the truth? Did you shoot a man in the back and then shoot him again when he turned to face you?"

Ryan glanced at his watch again. 12:15. Without knowing why, he used the remote to switch the video screen from DVD to television. Before Shadow could respond to Patriotís question, a news report boomed through the room.

"We interrupt this broadcast for an important new bulletin. Disturbing videos of some of Americaís greatest heroes were recently released to this news station. We show them here . . . "

"Oh god," Velocity said as the scenes rolled across the screen. "Even if all these situations can be explained, the accusation is what people are going to remember. And thereíll be government investigations, along with reporters who want to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Weíre screwed. Jesus. Severus is dead, and now we get this."

Patriot, however, hadnít taken his eyes off the Shadow. "Well?" Patriot said. "What do you have to say?"
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Wed May 17, 2006 4:29 pm
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CONVERSATIONS AT JUSTICE LEGION HEADQUARTERS

Ryan Black entered the computer lab, pointedly making noise. The Shadow sat at one of the terminals, his back to Spectrum. The Shadowís fingers moved, and the screen went blank before Ryan could read anything on it.

"What do you want?" the Shadow asked.

"I want to help you find Trickster," Ryan said. His heart was pounding, but he kept his voice steady.

"Why?"

Ryan suppressed a grimace. The Shadow didnít mince words--he minced criminals. Criminals like--

=Keep focused,= he told himself.

"I want to learn," he said in a flat voice. "Iím not kidding myself. My powers are nowhere near the level of everyone else in the Legion. If I want to be an asset, I need to learn other skills. And if Iíve learned anything in the last few months, itís that superheroing is more than half detective work. I know you like to work alone, and Iíll understand if you say no. But everything you can teach me would help the team. And it might catch Trickster."

The Shadow gave him a long, silent look.

"Okay," Ryan said. "Just keep me in mind, okay?"

He could feel the Shadows eyes burning into his back as he carefully left the room.

###

Ms. Miracle stretched a little and winced as she walked the hallways at Justice Legion headquarters. Her injuries were almost healed, but a few twinges still hit her at odd moments. Though what felt really odd was the empty scabbard that lay across her back. She hadnít realized how used she was to the swordís weight until it was gone. It felt like she was missing an arm.

And then there was Severus.

It was hard to believe he was really dead. The thought sent an arrow of pain and fury through her. The bastards who did this would pay. They would--

"Look, why donít you just say it?" came Velocityís familiar voice from around the corner ahead of her. "Get it off your chest. Youíll feel better."

"What do you mean?" Patriotís voice responded. "Get =what= off my chest?"

Ms. Miracle paused. She shouldnít eavesdrop. It was rude, wrong. But something made her creep silently forward, wincing again as the movement pulled at her wounds.

"Anyone with half a brain can see it," Velocity said. "You still love her, donít you?"

"Oh god," Patriot groaned. "Is it that obvious?"

Velocity snorted. "Iím not stupid, my friend. None of us are."

Miracle froze. A dozen different emotions flickered through her. Patriot . . . Memories of their tempestuous love affair washed over her with unexpected intensity. It was over between them. They had both decided it was for the best. Hadnít they?

"Do you think =she= knows?" Patriot asked in a shaky voice. "I mean . . . Iíve tried never to give any indication. It wouldnít be fair to her or the team."

"I have no idea if she knows," Velocity said. "Why donít you ask her?"

"I couldnít! We both decided it couldnít work between us. But . . . "

"But what?"

"When I saw how badly that demon had injured her, when I saw her throat all torn out, I thought my heart would stop. I wanted to lay down and die right then."

Miracleís hand stole automatically to her throat. A thin white scar was the only evidence of the terrible gash that had spilled her lifeís blood.

"I didnít even react when I learned Severus had died," Patriot continued. "All I could think about was her, how I couldnít go on if she died. God. I canít eat, I canít sleep. Not that I do much of either, but you know what I mean. Every moment Iím close to her, I think Iíll go insane. Iím afraid itíll tear the team apart if weíre both on it, but I couldnít leave without explaining why. And I certainly canít ask =her= to leave. That would be the worst thing I could say to her."

"Geez," Velocity said. "I didnít realize it was that bad. You want me to talk to her?"

"No! Iíll . . . Iíll figure something out. And keep this to yourself, all right? No matter who asks you. Especially if =she= asks you."

"I promise."

Footsteps faded into distant silence. Ms. Miracle peered around the corner at the empty hallway, lost in thought. After a long moment, she slipped away, completely unaware of Neilís invisible grin.

###

"Come on--whatís bothering you?"

Neil shrugged, feeling oddly naked despite the Spectrum costume. =Ryan,= he told himself. =Youíre Ryan right now. Or Spectrum.=

"I donít know if I should say," he said aloud. "I donít know if itís my place."

The Atlantean placed a friendly hand on Ryanís shoulder, but the gesture came across as more condescending than anything else. "Youíre a full member of the Legion. If somethingís wrong, we need to know."

"I dunno . . . "

"Tell me!" Atlantean ordered with mock ferocity.

"Well . . . okay." Ryan paused. "Itís the Shadow."

"What about him?"

"He took an oath never to use deadly force again, right? Itís the only reason Patriot let him join the Justice Legion instead of going to jail. But . . . he shot Trickster in the back. Twice. Thatís deadly force, right? And Patriot isnít doing anything about it."

"Patriot has his reasons, Iím sure," Atlantean said, but with a shred of doubt in his voice.

"Yeah, I guess," Ryan said. "I mean, heís a great hero. Iím honored to know him."

"We both are."

"Heís a great leader, too. Heís got real charisma, you know? Itís too bad =heís= not in charge of the government," Ryan continued, as if to himself. "If Patriot would just step up and . . . I donít know . . . run for president or something. Maybe then the world would be a better place."

"I couldnít agree more."

"He deserves it," Ryan said. "I find myself in awe every time he walks into the room. But he doesnít seem to want . . . well, maybe Iíve said too much."

"No, go on," Atlantean said, leaning forward. "I want to know what youíre thinking."

"Well," Ryan continued slowly, "it seems like he doesnít want to lead more than just us. Ha! Just us. Justice. I made a pun."

Atlantean gave a little laugh, one without humor. "But . . . ?"

"But he should take his place as leader of the civilized world," Ryan said in a rush. "The UN doesnít do anything to stop war or hunger, but Patriot could. If heíd just =see= that." Ryan paused again. "Maybe he just need someone to pave the way for him. =Make= him step up."

"Perhaps," Atlantean said distantly.

Ryan shook his head. "What am I saying? Patriot would never do anything, not unless some kind of emergency forced him to take the reigns, and I canít think of anything that would do it. Unless aliens invaded and destroyed the government or something. Ha ha."

"Ha ha," Atlantean echoed.

"Well, it was nice talking to you, sir," Ryan said. "Iím on monitor duty soon, so I should head off. Iíll see you."

"See you . . . "

AND A CONVERSATION AT THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE LOOSE CONFEDERATION OF EVIL

The black manís thick fingers danced delicately over the keyboard. It was the third board he had used today. The other two lay in pieces in the wastebasket. This body was so =strong=. It made some of his work difficult, but Dr. Science liked the feeling of power that thrilled through him, so he kept the body around.

And then Trickster was standing near the table. Dr. Scienceís startled fingers jerked, and the keyboard snapped. He hid a sigh. One day he would have to teach the boy some proper respect. "What?" he asked. "Iím very busy."

"You always are, Doc," Trickster said amiably. "And I donít want to make you even busier, but . . . but I canít think of a way to finish that sentence without lying."

"What do you want, then?" Dr. Science growled.

"Have a look at these." Trickster dropped two objects on the stone table. They bounced, clattered, and lay still.

"What are they?" Dr. Science asked.

"Two bullets. The medicos at you-know-where dug them out of me after the Shadow shot me in the gut. I was phased at the time. I want to know how he did that--and how to stop it from happening again. Can you analyze these puppies and see what you can come up with? Hell, maybe you can figure out where they came from. Might give us a clue to who the Shadow really is."

Dr. Science leaned over to look at the bullets, intrigued despite himself. "Hmmmm . . . "

"Iíll take that as a yes," Trickster said with a grin. "Thanks, Doc."
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Wed May 17, 2006 4:47 pm
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" . . . and SAVE SAVE SAVE! Wallside Windows, where--"

"Is this on? Hello? We've broken in nationwide? Oh good. You know, you'd think that after we did this the last time, someone would have added some extra security to--oh, right. *cough cough*

"HELLO, AMERICA! Trickster here, with a friendly public service announcement. I just thought you might want to know that some associates of mine have gotten the full and undivided attention of the Justice Legion. You remember them. Arsenal, who destroyed a building for no ready reason. Patriot, who attacked the robot that saved New York. Shadow, who shot me in the back. Twice. Isn't that attempted murder or something? And there's the Atlantean, who attaacked a helpless old man and a baby. These great and wonderful heroes--who can apparently break the law whenever they like and get away with it, unlike us regular citizens--are so concerned about my associates and me--and I assure you that =I= have never shot anyone in the back =or= the front--that they've enlisted the help of the Justice Squadron, the Old Man, and some of his friends.

"Yes, ladies and gents, they've pulled out all the stops to find little old me. Those of you with IQs over fifty have already figured out what that means. Heads up, all you villains out there--most of the heroes in America are busy. Engaged. Occupied. This is your big chance to get out there and rape, pillage, loot, and do all that other stuff you so enjoy. Those of you who just broke out of prison--now's the perfect time to come out of hiding. The Legion, the Squadron, and the Old Man are all doing something else.

"Aaaaand I see by our old friend the clock that it's time to go. Enjoy your day, everyone. I know I'll enjoy mine. Ta!"

"--for all your feminine hygiene needs."
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Fri Jul 14, 2006 1:20 pm
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Game Master

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TO: Zapper

FROM: Fadeaway

RE: Emergency Meeting

Meet me at 458 Park Avenue West, Apartment 2512. No tricks.

Neil Fade looked at the text message for a long moment, then clicked "Send." He shut off his Blackberry--a one-shot he had bought twenty minutes ago--and got up to pace the apartment. It was large, with high ceilings and polished wood floors. The furniture was spare and tasteful. French doors opened onto a balcony that overlooked Central Park many hundreds of feet below. Neil went out onto the balcony and raised his face to the warm sun that shone overhead.

=Let me go!= came the voice in his head, and the sun seemed to turn cold.

"Shut up," Neil snarled. "Or Iíll jump right now. And this time I wonít fly up at the last minute."

The voice fell silent. Neil stared moodily down at the tops of green trees that marched across Central Park. Maybe he should just jump and not fly at the last minute. It would mean an end to pain, an end to fear.

And wouldnít the Shadow just laugh at that? Neil set his jaw and kept his feet on the flagstones.

A knock came at the door. Neilís heart beat fast and he trotted across the floor to open it, leaving the balcony doors wide open. Grant OíDell stood on the other side. He was blond as sunshine and handsome as a statue. His blue eyes snapped with sparks. He wore a polo shirt, khakis, and tennis shoes. The latter was a touch Neil found hopelessly endearing. Neil himself wore his own face, with its foxy, pointed features and even, brown hair. He always felt naked when other people could see that face, but he forced himself not to hide it behind a shell of light. ĎNo tricksí meant the meeting would stay between Neil and Grant. No illusions, no electricity.

=No electricity=, Neil thought. =Right.= He wordlessly stood aside to let Grant in, then shut the door. God, it felt good to see him again.

=Grant!= shouted the voice. The helpless tone of it tore at Neilís heart. =Grant! Help me!=

=Shut up!= Neil told it.

"You havenít sent me a Ďno tricksí message in months," Grant said without preamble. "Whatís going on?"

"Letís talk in the dining room," Neil said. "I made coffee."

"Nice place," Grant commented as they passed through the apartment. "Yours?"

"No," Neil said. "The ownerís in Italy. Wonít be back for at least six months. He lets me use it."

"Lets you?"

Neil flashed a small grin. "Iím sure heíd say it was okay if I asked."

They entered the dining room and Grant burst out laughing. A hugely elaborate silver coffee set dominated the table. Cakes, cookies, and pastries heaped huge platters, enough for two dozen people. Neilís heart lightened at the sound of Grantís laugh, and he tried to file the feeling away for later, in case he needed it.

"You expecting the entire Justice Legion?" Grant said.

"Weíre growing boys," Neil said. "We need our sugar and caffeine."

They sat cater-corner from each other at the dining room table, coffee cups and pastries at their elbows.

"Okay, Neil, whatís this all about?" Grant asked. "On the one hand itís great to see you. On the other, you and your friends almost killed Ms. Miracle. I should haul you in."

"I had nothing to do with that demon," Neil said. "I didnít want her--it--around from the start. But I didnít have any say in the matter. And then the Shadow shot me in the back, and it was all I could do just to get away."

"Why were you there in the first place?" Grant countered. "You had to know what Polaris and that science guy were up to."

"I didnít have a choice," Neil said, his voice oddly hoarse. His stomach tightened like a screw. "Grant, you have no idea whatís been happening to me."

"Then =tell= me! Whatís going on?"

Neil abruptly grabbed Grantís wrist. His heart was pounding and his mouth was dry. A tiny tingle of electricity flickered up Neilís arm, and he wondered how much of it was Grantís power and how much was something else. Grant met his eyes and Neil detected a longing there. Neil swallowed.

"Grant, I have to know," he said. "Tell the truth. Do you have feelings for me any more?"

Grantís face went blank and Neilís heart chilled. "Why do you want to know?"

"Just tell me," Neil said. "Please. Tell the truth."

"Like you always do?"

"Iím not Trickster," Neil said. "Not here. Tell me."

Grant paused for a tiny moment, then put his hand on top of Neilís, the one that still held Grantís wrist. "Iíve never given up on you. Ever."

A bit of relief softened Neilís tension, but still he said, "Even though youíre seeing Spectrum."

=Leave him alone, you bastard!=

=I said, shut up! Iím trying to help you. Help us both.=

"What do you expect, Neil?" Grant pulled his hands away. "That I should save myself for you? I donít hear from you for months, and when I do see you, itís on the battlefield." He leaned forward, and Neil could smell the ozone around his body. "But I know thereís a good person inside you."

Neil closed his eyes for a moment at that remark. "Does Spectrum love you?"

=Yes!=

Grant shrugged, a little too elaborately. "I donít know. Heís never said. But I suspect."

=Tell him yes!=

=Shut up!= Neil said. Then said aloud. "Do you love him?"

"None of your business, Neil. God, whatís with you? If you and your friends are planning to kidnap Spectrum or something--"

"No!" Neil said. A hard lump came to his throat. "I canít . . . I couldnít kidnap Spectrum. I wouldnít do that to you. Or him."

"Jesus, Neil--you look like youíre ready to cry. Tell me whatís wrong."

A wave of exhaustion suddenly dropped over Neil. He slumped in his chair, his coffee growing cold and forgotten. "Iím so tired, Grant. So fucking tired. Everyone treats my mind and body like a playground ball. They kick me around, beat me up, do things to my head. And they think itís =funny=. They laugh and make snide jokes."

"Who does, Neil?"

"Iím tired of being a chew toy," Neil said, ignoring the question. "I never wanted to hurt anyone. All I wanted was to have some fun and steal enough money to make me safe forever."

"I know that," Grant said. "Those . . . people youíre with all the time. Theyíre corrupting you, making you into something you arenít."

Neil gave a harsh laugh. "You have no idea. Oh shit--you really donít." He took a sip of cold coffee. It was bitter. His heart was pounding again. The big moment had come. After this, everything would change, one way or the other.

"Look, I have to tell you something," Neil said. "And Iím scared to. Iím scared itíll end everything between us and that youíll hate me forever."

Grantís _expression became guarded and Neilís heart jerked. Grant didnít trust him. On the other hand, why should he? But Neil had already started down this road, and there was no turning back.

"Go on," Grant said. "You may as well get it over with."

Neil swallowed. This was the hard part. "Several months ago, Dr. Science decided there was only one way to destroy the Justice Legion. It had to be done within. He needed a mole, someone to feed him information from the inside. So he created one."

"Created one?" Grant looked confused. "What are you saying? That thereís a spy in the Legion?"

"Yeah."

"Who?"

In answer, Neil shifted his shape. A dark-haired young man in his mid-twenties occupied the chair. Grant folded his arms.

"Very funny," he said.

"Grant!" The young man leaned across the table and grabbed Grantís shoulders. "Grant, help me! I donít know whatís going on, but theyíve got me trapped in here. Help me!"

"Ryan?" Grant blurted out.

"Please! Get me out of here! I donít know what they did or how they did it, but--" The young manís form shifted again, and Neil was sitting in the chair again.

"Tell me that was a joke," Grant said, his eyes wide and staring. "Tell me youíre just kidding around."

"I wish I were," Neil said hoarsely. "Grant, Iím Ryan Black. Spectrum. Itís not a trick. Think about it. How my powers work. Spectrum can fly, like me. He has a laser. Like me. He can turn invisible. Like me."

"And he can create holograms," Grant finished. "Like you. Jesus. Oh god. You mean all this time . . . every time Ryan and I . . . all those months we spent in that other dimension together . . . that was =you?="

Neil nodded. "Iím sorry. Iím so sorry. Dr. Science made me do it."

Grant looked like he had been hit on the back of the head with a board. "What do you mean Ďmadeí?"

"Dr. Science wanted a mole in the Justice Legion, and he knew that I was the only one who could pull it off. Heís a powerful telepath, Grant. I couldnít . . . I couldnít keep him out of my head. He knew that anyone who wanted to join the Legion would be investigated closely. I have dozens of false identities set up, ones that can withstand close scrutiny. He picked one--Ryan Black--and then he created a set of false memories for it. Then he staged my fights with that giant robot so Spectrum would get the Legionís attention. Polaris animated the robot. Sheís a fucking psycho, you know that? After Dr. Science got into my head, Polaris made several copies of my brain patterns and transferred them to a computer. She tortures them. So does Corrupter. Both of them think itís just hilarious. One of the copies escaped, got a body for itself, and became this time travelling freak who almost destroyed the entire universe. I stopped him, but only barely."

"Jesus," Grant muttered.

"Jesus doesnít listen to me," Neil said. "You know what happened next. Spectrum--I--was asked to join the Legion. Severus ran a telepathic check, but he only found Ryan Black, so I was in. Spectrum--Ryan--doesnít have my memories, but I have access to his, so I could report on what happened. Except I just today found out that the Shadow knew about it. Heís known about it for months."

="What?"= Grant said. "And he didnít tell us?"

"I guess not," Neil said. "He kept it to himself. And a few hours ago, he kidnapped me. Ryan. Both of us."

"That warehouse down by the docks that just fell apart?" Grant said. "That was . . . "

"That was part of it, yeah. Shadow was holding me there. Grant, I donít know how to say this, so Iíll just say it plain." Tears welled up in Neilís eyes. "The Shadow killed me."

"Killed you?" Grant echoed.

"He got inside my head," Neil told him. His throat felt thick, and it was hard to talk. "He deleted my memories. I felt . . . I felt myself slipping away, piece by piece. When he was done, I was gone. The only part left was Ryan Black. He murdered Neil."

Grant looked stricken. "Then . . . then how are you . . . ?"

"Sitting here now?" Neil finished. "Thatís the weird part."

"You mean itís not weird yet?" Grant said with a feeble attempt at humor.

Neil managed a tiny smile to let Grant know he appreciated the effort. "I was . . . someplace strange. I canít describe it."

"Heaven? Hell?"

"I donít know. Somewhere. And then suddenly I was standing inside a mirror, looking at myself, except it was Ryan. He was bound by a rope. And I saw Dr. Science and Polaris and Corrupter there. And a demon. They had found a demon, or a necromancer, or something. The demon pulled my soul out of wherever it was, and trapped it in the mirror. And then there was an awful moment of pain, and then I was back in my own body again."

"How did they get you away from the Shadow?"

"Iím not sure," Neil said. "I was dead, remember? And Ryan was unconscious for most of it. But Dr. Science . . . he has some powerful shit. I think he teleported me out somehow, and he had Corrupter destroy the warehouse so no one could track him. It wouldnít do to have his precious robot mole get caught."

Grant put his hands to his mouth and blew on his fingers, as if his hands were cold. "I donít know what to think."

"I donít either. Ryan is inside my head. Heís a separate person. I donít know what to do. Iím so scared. So many people have fucked with my head--Dr. Science, the Shadow, my dad."

"Your dad was a villain?"

"No. Just your garden-variety abusive asshole. He used a pipe wrench instead of telepathy, but the effects were the same."

Grant reached across the table and grabbed Neilís hand. "What do you want?"

"I want . . . I want you to help me. Will you help me?"

"Dammit, Neil--of =course= Iíll help you. Iíve been trying to help you for years. You just havenít let me. Come on. Weíll go talk to Patriot, and--"

Neil yanked his hand away. "No! Patriot wonít help. He knows the Shadow is a murderer, but he doesnít do anything about it. Heíll just lock me up and let the Shadow loose on me."

"No, he wonít. I know Patriot. Heís a great guy. He wonít let the Shadow hurt you."

"Can you promise that absolutely?" Neil said, his eyes boring into Grantís. After a moment, Grant looked away. "Thatís what I thought."

"So how can I help you?"

Neil took a deep breath. This was the biggie, what this entire meeting had been leading up to. "I want to be myself. I want my mind back. But I canít just get Ryan wiped from my head. That would be like murder."

"What do you want, then?"

"I want us to be separated. I want him out of my head and in a body of his own."

Grant shook his head. "I canít help you there. The Legion might be able to clone a body or find someone who was brain dead, but the only telepath I know of who has enough skill to transfer a mind into another body is--was--Dr. Severus. And heís dead."

"Not necessarily."

"Severus is =alive?"=

"The Confederation brought me back," Neil pointed out.

"Oh. You think theyíd bring back Severus? They were the ones who killed him."

Neil caught the reference. Grant had said "they" instead of "you." He didnít think of Neil as a member of the Confederation of Evil, which made Neil feel better. He shrugged.

"Iím a trickster, Grant. I can probably arrange something. If I brought him back--or arranged for it--do you think heíd transfer Ryan out of my head and into a new body."

"I donít know for sure," Grant admitted. "But he might. Neil, what do you want =me= to do?"

"Get the Shadow off my back. He killed me, Grant. He doesnít care about justice or truth or love or anything else. Heís on a power trip. He claims heís dispensing justice and balancing karma, but itís just an excuse to play with peopleís lives and commit murder for fun. Heís a serial killer, Grant. He shows all the symptoms--the delusion that the people he kills are less human than he is, the lack of empathy, the use of torture. Classic case. But heís smart. Heís figured out a way to do his killing and make everyone think heís one of the good guys. Grant, you have to convince Patriot that the Shadow is evil, not good. The Legion canít let a serial killer work with them. Talk to Patriot. Maybe heíll see reason."

"Iíll try," Grant said. "Uh, can you let me talk to Ryan?"

"Actually, I canít," Neil said. "Iím sorry. If I do, weíll both probably die."

"What are you talking about?"

In answer, Neil gestured. The apartment vanished and for a fraction of a second, the two men sat on nothing. Neil caught a glimpse of a giant green face. Then, before they could fall, the apartment reappeared. Grant leaped to his feet.

"What the hell was that?"

"Weíre not in the apartment anymore," Neil said. "I had to move us out once you arrived. The Shadow is monitoring you because he knows about you and . . . Ryan. And me. He followed you, so I had to get us out of there. Weíre actually perched on top of the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Donít worry--youíre safe and no one can see us. But if I let Ryan take over, this place will disappear, and itís a long drop."

"Your powers--"

"Are growing," Neil finished. "Yes. The scenes I create have a certain amount of reality now. You can stand on one and not fall. I wonít let you fall."

Grant let out a long breath. "This is a lot to lay on me all at once."

"I know. Iím sorry. Iíll . . . Iíll understand if you donít want to see me ever again."

In answer, Grant came around behind Neilís chair and hugged him hard. "That wonít happen. Iíll never give up on you."

Neil gave a heavy sigh of relief. "You have no idea how much I needed to hear that." He turned away for a moment. "I guess youíd better go. The longer weíre together, the greater the risk."

"How do I get down?"

"Just take the stairs as normal. Once youíre on the ground floor, youíll recognize the scenery."

Neil watched Grant go, and kept up the illusion for him until the other man was safe on a staircase inside the statue. Then Neil banished the illusion. He slid down the torch to the tiny balcony that ran around it, the one that was closed to the public. He gazed out across the harbor for a long time, and his shoulders began to tremble. Then they shook. Neil hid his face in his hands. Choking, gasping sounds slipped from between his fingers. One outside observor would have thought he was crying. But another would swear Neil was laughing.
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