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The last few hours have been weird. I mean, weird even for Metro City. Any time you have a giant fairy-tale castle appear in a city park, with the entire city claimed in the name of someone named Emperor Charming, while hordes of fantasy monsters roam the streets as imperial enforcers... Well, that's some powerful weird, ya know?

Well, first things first, I made it back to my apartment, changed into my costume, and hit the Panic Button to get everyone on fantasy-monster cleanup duty.

I was actually one of the last people to arrive on the scene, and there wasn't a lot to clean up. The monsters were just patrolling around the castle, and all the normal people were keeping their distance.

Atlas started to fly into one of the open windows toward the top of the castle, but when he got about 10 feet away from the window, there was a tremendous blast of green lightning that shot out from the castle, knocking him out of the sky.

Defender caught him -- but Atlas is pretty heavy, especially falling, and even with the low-grade superstrength she gets from her suit, she wasn't actually slowing him down that much. Miss Mega ended up catching both of them before they hit the ground.

"Some kind of active defense," said Express. "I'm willing to bet I can move faster than they can aim, and I can probably outrun their lightning bolts, too."

He was off like a shot, rocketing for the open drawbridge. And just before he stepped foot on it, there was another blast of green lightning, and he was blasted back onto the lawn around the castle moat. Gamma Girl flew off to retrieve him, and we found out that both Express and Atlas were unconscious but basically uninjured.

There was a crackle in the air, and a green-tinted translucent image appeared before us. It was a man dressed in a tailored purple and gold -- well, it was like what kings wear in fairy tales. He was clean-shaven, handsome, and smiling at us a bit smugly.

"Greetings, heroes of Metro City!" he said. "I am Emperor Charming, but you may address me as Your Highness. Just a bit of quick humor there for you. Now you may have noticed my castle defenses. The bad news is they'll zap any powered individuals who try to enter my castle. They never miss -- because they're magic! And the first zap is free -- in other words, the first time you get hit, it'll just knock you out. After that, it'll kill you stone dead. Any questions?"

"Could you please go away and leave us in peace?" asked Defender.

"No, not at all!" said Charming. "Any other questions? Quickly please, I've got an empire to oversee."

"Could you come outside your castle so we can kick your ass?" asked Jonni.

"I can tell this isn't going to be a very productive meeting," said Charming with a broad smile. "So I'll just leave you with a simple bit of advice -- get used to the idea of being my subjects. You can't get to me. You can't get to my castle. My militias will take my frustrations out on the populace if you make me angry. And really, I'm a very nice ruler -- no significant taxes, no random executions, nothing really odious. I just expect absolute obedience on the part of all my subjects, and once we've got that, we can all live happily ever after!"

"Like hell," said Iota. "We'll find a way to beat you -- I doubt it'll even be that difficult."

"I wouldn't advise you to waste too much time in the efforts," Charming said. "I find futile rebellions depressing, and the citizens of the empire prefer their emperor to be happy! Ta-ta, kids, gotta go make plans for the celebratory imperial festivities!"

And his image faded away and disappeared.

We asked the cops to set up a perimeter around the entire park. Told 'em what'd happen to anyone who got too close to the castle. And then we all took a walk.

We all headed for Pop Mhan Thai over on 87th, got their back room, and ordered their lunch specials. By this time, Atlas and Express had woken back up, and we filled them in on what happened.

"First problem we got," I said, "Is that we've got a player I've never heard of. I thought I knew all the metahuman players, especially the ones able to create giant castles out of nowhere."

Atlas and Star looked at each other significantly. "We've heard of him," said Star. "The Assembly of Order dealt with him a couple of times."

"Why am I not surprised to hear that?" asked Express.

"Emperor Charming is an interdimensional magelord with an eye on pan-dimensional conquest," said Atlas. "Similar to Zorgannux the Zorcerer or Baroness Bathory or Maginok the Malignant, at least as far as his general motives go."

"He's been to Earth four times before," said Star. "Once in the 1600s, when he was apparently responsible for the inspiration of every European fairy tale we know of. The second time was in the early 1940s, another in the '60s, and the most recent one was in the '80s. The Assembly took him on during those last three appearances."

"Obviously, Star and I hadn't joined up with the Assembly until much more recently," said Atlas. "But the team's official records show that he appeared in Philadelphia in the '40s, New York in the '60s, and Stuttgart in the '80s -- every time, his M.O. was the same: his castle appeared, he claimed the city in the name of Emperor Charming, and he sent his Mother Goose minions out to enforce his new imperial orders. Superhero spellcasters learned that his plans involved anchoring his castle in a city for a period of 72 hours, finding a local girl to marry, then highjacking the entire city to his native dimension."

"Apparently, getting married is an important part of his city-kidnapping procedures," said Star. "His wedding seems to be the last thing he does before making the city vanish."

"Yeah, and there was no shortage of girls wanting to marry him either," said Atlas. "Nightmask's notes said he thought the Emperor had a permanent love spell cast on him. Any woman who met him fell head over heels and took weeks to get over him, too. It wasn't mind control, but it sure made it easy for him to find potential spouses."

"He actually managed to kidnap Stuttgart in '82," said Star. "The entire Assembly had to chase him back to his home dimension, beat him down, and drag the city back."

"Why have I never heard of this guy before?" I asked. "I was pretty sure I knew all the movers and shakers, especially the ones with enough power to steal a whole city."

"He was obviously kept secret," said Atlas. "There was some feeling that there'd be worldwide panic from people just knowing that someone could show up and steal a city. There were also concerns that people would want him to come back and take over. He's extremely charismatic, possibly magically so."

"Not something that makes a lot of sense to me, really," Star said. "We've faced greater threats and even lost to more awful people, but those are all public knowledge. It's always seemed silly that they tried to hide knowledge about him away."

"Ultimately, I don't care why they kept it a secret," said Penitente. "How do we beat him?"

Atlas looked uncomfortable. "Magic," he said.

"Oh, that's great," said Jonni.

"In 1941," said Star, "Nightmask, Janet Jinx, and the Unknown used ancient Enochian magic to hurl Castle Charming out into whatever dimensional sea surrounds the corporeal plane. In '68, it was the Assembly and the Starchildren teaming up on him -- they had to combine Order and Chaos Magic to dislodge him."

"In '82, the Unknown, the Presence, and the entire Council of Thaumaturges hauled the full membership of the Assembly to Charming's fairy-tale world to drag Stuttgart back to the real world," said Atlas. "They had to use some kind of storytelling magic to cast Charming as the villain of his own fairy tale so they could steal the city back again."

"Apparently, that's one of Charming's gimmicks," said Star. "You have to beat him with a different style of magic every time he appears."

"Have we been able to contact the Council yet?" I asked Iota.

"Nothing yet," he said. "All communications outside of Metro City are cut off. I suspect there's a some kind of magical defense shield surrounding the city, too. If Emperor Charming is as big a threat as you say, his castle appearing anywhere on Earth would ring alarm bells with the Council, and they'd be all over the city by now."

"Part of the reason his previous attempts on Earth were thwarted was because he'd neglected his defenses," said Atlas. "What do you want to bet he's beefed up his defenses big time?"

"So what do we do now?" asked Hybrid. "We can't touch the castle, we can't get outside help, we've got no local spellcasters, and we have less than three days before the whole city gets teleported to another dimension. Do we have any kind of plan?"

Everyone looked at me.

"Not yet," I said. "Let's put everyone on call. At least four people watching the castle at a time -- from a safe distance, please. Give everyone a buzz if anything interesting is happening. No one touch the castle -- and that includes shooting at it."

"Maybe I should just go walk inside that place," said Daphne. "No way they're gonna manage to hurt me with any magic lightning."

"Daphne, that goes double for you," I said. "I don't care how indestructible you are -- you know what a pain in the ass magic is. All bets are off when it comes to really high-powered sorcerers. Last thing we need is our unkillable private eye getting killed."

"We should all watch the castle," said Squid Kid. "Give 'em less chance of pulling any funny stuff."

"No, there'll be plenty more chaos around the city," I said. "Let's try to keep order elsewhere, too."

"What do we tell the press?" asked Hypothermia. "They're going to ask what we know, and telling 'em the city may get kidnapped to another dimension might kick off a panic."

"Good question," I said. "I have no idea. What do you guys think?"

"If there's a serious panic, you can forget having anyone watch that castle," said Daphne. "You'll need everyone to help clear wrecked cars off the freeways and prevent looting."

"Hell, try to look like we're on his side," said Wheelman. "Maybe he'll let us into his castle then."

"No, if you lie to everyone, they'll remember that forever," said Miss Mega. "We'll have given up any trust they have in us."

"Okay, tell you what," I said. "Let's go with telling them what the Emperor's hologram told us -- the guy wants to rule us as an emperor, people with powers can't enter the castle without the possibility of getting zapped or killed, and he's got a bunch of fantasy monsters he's going to start siccing on people if they don't submit to his will. Still makes it clear he's a bad guy with evil plans for the city, but doesn't mention the bit about stealing Metro City into another dimension."

"Maybe the local cops will be able to go in and arrest him," said Phantasmo. "Wouldn't that be something?"

"If they do, I hope they'll be careful about it," said Express. "That lightning bolt hurt like hell."

As it turned out, they weren't careful about it. The Metro City Police Department sent in their SWAT team after we talked to 'em. They didn't get any lightning bolts, but they did get run out of the castle by a bunch of griffins. Nine injuries, four serious. I wish they'd just sent a hostage negotiator over to talk to Charming instead. Might've done more good to find out more about him.

What was even worse, though, was that Charming took it as an excuse to send his militias out on a rampage.

I told Daphne and Gearbox to keep watching the castle to make sure they weren't going to try anything sneaky while we were all occupied, but everyone else was on monster-fighting duty.

I wasn't able to keep track of where everyone was, but I ended up in the vicinity of 112th and Isabella, with Gamma Girl and Hypothermia. We were knee-deep in, well, adorable woodland animals, all decked out in medieval armor and weapons.

"I hope no one is filming us right now," said Gamma Girl, blasting a pink-furred bunny carrying a polearm. "If my kids see me doing this, they'll never forgive me."

"Oh god, I hadn't even considered that," said Hypothermia, putting up an ice shield between us and a cat riding a baby deer. "Oliver has seen videos of me fighting villains before, but never anything quite this, well, cute. Did you have any way to deal with it when your daughters were younger?"

"Oh, Dr. Mauro, I haven't been doing superhero stuff nearly long enough," said Gamma Girl. "I think you should be the one giving me the advice."

"Well, I meant parenting advice, Renee," Hypothermia said. "I don't get nearly enough time with Oliver as I wish."

"We should really get together and talk superhero-parenting stuff," said Gamma Girl. "Dan and I feel like we're at our wit's end sometimes, and the girls --"

"Less chatter, more punching of adorable woodland creatures, please," I said, slugging a badger in the stomach and kicking a woodchuck in his jibblies. "We need some more ice shields up before those bluebirds come in on another strafing run."

Wheelman flew past in a late-model Hyundai. He went into a fishtail spin and smacked his bumper into a half-dozen heavily-armored turtles, knocking them several blocks away. "Whoo-hooooo!" he shouted.

It went on like that for longer than I would've preferred. There were a lot of those cute woodland animals who'd been given paramilitary training, and the people around me just weren't taking them seriously enough.

Elsewhere, Atlas, Hybrid, and Defender had to deal with a bunch of genuine ogres, Miss Mega had her hands full taking care of a quartet of storm giants, Express, Iota, and Squid Kid almost got turned into field mice by some fairy godmothers, and the Star and Jonni Rotten had to fight some Big Bad Wolves.

The most notable success went to el Phantasmo, who ran into a group of castle ghosts and talked them into defecting to our side. Gotta love a kid with the power of Undead Charisma.

All the bad guys withdrew after about 20 minutes. This wasn't a serious bid to conquer the city, just Charming's way of sending a message -- "Don't make me hurt you," for lack of a better phrase.

About the time Charming's militias got back to the castle, I got a buzz from Gearbox and Daphne, asking me to come pay them a visit at the top of one of the skyscrapers near the castle. By the time I get there, Penitente has joined them.

"Hey, people, what's the word?" I asked as I landed on the rooftop. "Got anything interesting to report?"

"Yeah, you could say that," said Daphne. "You could goddamn say that, couldn't we, Penitente?"

Penitente shrugged and smiled, half defensive, half defiant. "Show her the video, Gearbox," he said.

Gearbox morphed a video screen out of his right hand. It flickered to life, showing a close-up of the castle entrance. A bunch of shabbily dressed men, mostly black or Hispanic, were being led inside the castle.

"Are those... day laborers?" I asked.

"Look at the guy who's third from the end," said Daphne.

It was a muscular Hispanic man with buzzcut black hair and a close-trimmed beard. He looked more than a little familiar.

"Alfred Dominguez," I said. "What the hell were you doing there?"

Penitente shrugged again. "A bunch of guys dressed like a Renaissance Fair showed up near the community center asking about getting guys to work for a few hours," he said. "Who am I to pass up some extra cash?"

"I'm calling bullshit," I said. "What does a guy with a castle need with day laborers?"

"I asked 'em the same thing," he said. "They said most of their people were out on patrol duty beating up cops and superheroes. And I didn't see a whole lot of other guards or other workers in there -- a couple rhino guards, a few playing-card servants, and the Ren-Faire guys who were giving us orders."

"What'd they have you doing?" asked Gearbox.

"Believe it or not, party decorations," said Penitente. "Moving tables around, setting up streamers and tablecloths and candles and stuff like that. They wanted us to do bouquet arrangements, but none of us knew how. They said they'd use magic for it instead."

"Okay, so why did you even go in there?" asked Daphne. "What the hell were you thinking? Were you gonna try to beat the bad guy all by yourself?"

"Of course not," said Penitente. "I wanted to see what I could see of the inside of the castle. And I wanted to see if those lightning bolts would target anyone who was a superhero, or just anyone who had powers."

"You didn't get struck by lightning or chased out by guards," said Gearbox. "A nice piece of the puzzle."

"Right," said Penitente. "The lightning only triggers if someone with powers tries to enter the castle, and as long as I don't seem to be a threat, the guards will probably ignore me."

"That last bit could still prove to be a huge problem," I said. "I don't like the idea of you trying to take on Emperor Charming and his forces all by yourself."

"We could load him down with super-weapons," said Daphne. "Some stun gauntlets, some hard-light weapons, some ray guns..."

"And it's very possible that possessing those kinds of weapons would cause the castle to re-classify him as a powered individual," said Gearbox. "One zap later, and we'd be back to square one."

"Ya know, I can go the stealth route if I need to," said Penitente. "A guy like me has to do a fair amount of infiltration. If I can make it back in with a crew of day laborers, I bet I could sneak away and do some more reconnaissance around the place, maybe even get the drop on the Emperor."

"I don't know," I said. "I'm really not a fan of sending you in there with no backup. We'll keep it in mind as an option. But let someone know next time you go undercover like that, okay?"

"Hey, I woulda called you, but I didn't really have time," said Penitente. "The center's gonna gimme a ring if they hear those guys are back looking for laborers -- they don't know why I'm interested, but I can convince 'em I'm just looking out for my muchachos. In the meantime, I'm gonna go see if there are any of those leftover ogres I can help beat up."

Once Penitente was heading back downstairs, I turned to the other two. "Okay," I said. "I've known for a while that Daphne knew he was Alfred Dominguez, but when did you figure that out, Gearbox?"

"Just over 13 months," said the robot. "He's been offering me safe haven in the community center's attic. It's nice to have somewhere relatively secure to recharge your batteries."

After that, we all split up again. I went flying around the warehouse district for a while to see if any of the usual gangs were going to try to take advantage of the chaos. Things were unexpectedly quiet. Or at least they were until every radio, TV, and computer in the city -- including the ones in my helmet -- got turned into Emperor Charming's personal public address system.

"Greetings, former citizens of Metro City and new subjects of the Kingdom of Emperor Charming!" the Emperor's voice boomed in my ear. "I hope everyone is adjusting well to the new order of things. And to help everyone get over the shock, I'll be hosting a Grand Ball tomorrow night for the city's crème de la crème. No, sorry, no peasants or servants allowed, though I believe your TV stations will certainly want to broadcast from the red carpet. And of course, the most beautiful women in the city are invited -- something tells me a royal wedding will close out the evening!"

And with the announcement delivered, all the TVs and radios and my earbuds went back to normal... for about two seconds before everyone else started radioing me.

"What the hell was that?!" shouted Atlas. And Express. And Star. And Jonni and Iota and Wheelman and Squiddie and everyone else.

"Okay, everyone chill out, alright?" I said. "Everyone leave me alone for a while so I can get some research and thinking time, and we can talk about this then."

And of course, they didn't leave me alone. I got a call just three minutes later from Miss Mega.

"Hey, Cobra," she said. "Ya busy?"

"I did ask for some time to think about this, remember?" I said. "Three minutes is just barely time for me to get past the 'Maybe we can dress Penitente in a gown and get him to attend the dance' phase of my thought processes."

"Any chance that would work?" she said.

"We'd have to convince him to shave his beloved beard first," I said. "Do you have anything else you want to annoy me with, or can I go back to trying to figure out some way to get rid of that goddamn castle?"

"Actually, we've got an idea about this Grand Ball," she said. "Feel like flying down and chatting?"

"We?" I said. "You and who else came up with this idea?"

"It's me and Hybrid," said Mega.

"What, just because both of you know my secret ID, you're going to start hanging out with each other?" I said.

"Maybe we will," she said. "You gonna get your battlesuited butt down here or what?"

"Fine," I said. "Where you guys at?"

"Top of the Infantino Building," she said. "See ya in a few?"

"Sure, I'll head over now," I said as I adjusted my flight trajectory toward the Infantino.

Even then, folks weren't leaving me alone. Defender flies up next to me. "Got a few minutes, Cobra dear?" she asked.

"Honestly?" I said. "I might not. Miss Mega and Hybrid think they have an idea. Want to come along? Maybe I'll have a bit of time afterwards?"

"Sure, why not?" Defender said. "I need an audience to appreciate how complicated my life is getting."

We both came in for a landing on top of the Infantino. Miss Mega was feeling smug about her idea and trying to look cool. Hybrid was a lot more obviously charged up about it. They insisted that we go inside, so I had to pick the lock on the exterior door, and once we got inside, we all ended up standing in the stairwell, because the rest of the building was full of offices and apartments, so the stairwell was the only place we had any privacy.

"Okay, before we start talking about your plan, darlings, I'm going to vent first," said Defender. "Because we all know you'll want to talk about your plan instead of listening to my tale of woe."

"Oh my god, Defender," said Hybrid, rolling her eyes. "I swear, you're as addicted to attention as Wheelman is."

"Oh, Hybrid, I would certainly spend time putting together a witty riposte," Defender said. "But it would get in the way of pointing out just how severely this Grand Ball complicates everything."

"You thinking of the 72 hour time limit before Charming can supposedly kidnap the city?" I said. "I know that's still a ways in the future, but I am a bit concerned that he's somehow set something up where he'll be able to make his move before that deadline."

"No, I'm not even talking about that," she said. "I just got a call from my father, saying that a flying pegasus just delivered my personal invitation to that Grand Ball."

"Wait, they're sending out personal invitations to this thing?" asked Hybrid.

"Yes, apparently they're being delivered to those of us who make the society pages on a regular basis," Defender said. "And yes, there's your hint about my secret identity for the day, ladies. I'll trust you not to go digging through back issues of the Metro City Metropolitan, please."

"This actually matches up kind of neatly with our idea," said Miss Mega. "We were thinking that we could try to smuggle some of us into the Ball to try to take Charming down from inside the castle."

"Well, that would be fairly pointless," said Defender. "Even if you could get past the magic lightning, you'd be a bit distinctive, darling. Not that many eight-foot-tall socialites in the city, you know."

"No, obviously, no one with powers could make it through the door," Hybrid said. "But without your armor, the castle's magic wouldn't register you as a metahuman."

"Oh dear, no," Defender said. "I'm sorry, that wouldn't work."

She held up one arm, and the seemingly solid metal glove melted before our eyes, then was absorbed into her skin, leaving most of her forearm bare.

I'd seen this a few times, but Mega and Hybrid hadn't.

Miss Mega drew back a bit and gave up a very diplomatic "Oh, that's... interesting."

Hybrid went into full-scale, cringing revulsion. "Ewww, ew, ew, ew, that's horrible!" she cried.

Wimps, both of them. The first time I saw Defender's costume trick, I made her keep doing it for five minutes, just so I could keep watching it ooze into and then out of her skin. Hey, I like gross stuff. Always have, always will.

"Obviously, sneaking into the castle isn't going to be an option for me," Defender said as she re-extruded the glove of her costume. "It may look like powered armor, but it's as much a part of me as your blood."

"So what happens when you decide to retire from the Intergalactic Defense Patrol?" Miss Mega asked. "Do they just extract that stuff, or is it... replacing parts of you?"

"Retire?" Defender said dryly. "No one retires from the IDP, dear. You're in it 'til you die, then they recycle the equipment for the next recruit. I'm guaranteed a closed-casket funeral, darlings."

"Oh my gosh, that's so sad," said Hybrid. "I'm so sorry, Defender."

"Oh, think nothing of it," Defender said with a wave of her hand. "We're superheroes, darling. Leaving a mangled corpse is part of the job."

"So what are you going to do about that invitation to the party?" I asked. "I wouldn't be that surprised if a pumpkin coach shows up at your door tomorrow evening, with a lot of guards to drag you along to meet the Emperor."

"Oh, I'm quite expecting it," Defender said. "I plan to be nowhere near the house, and I expect I'll tell the rest of the family to go spend the night in the Waid-Claremont. No need for them to get harassed on my behalf."

"Okay, well, it was a nice enough plan, guys," I said. "But we'll have to keep trying to come up with something else."

"No, actually, we had someone else in mind to attend the Ball," said Miss Mega.

"Like I said before, in what I assumed you knew was a joke, you'll never get Penitente to shave his beard," I said. "And honestly, I doubt any amount of makeup would make him look like a woman."

"Cobra..." said Miss Mega. She and Hybrid were both smiling at me, and I clearly wasn't getting... the... joke...

"Oh, no," I said. "No, no, no."

"Come on, it would work," said Hybrid. "Without the armor, you're just a very smart martial artist. And I'm pretty damn sure you don't hide that costume under your skin."

"That's actually a very intriguing plan," said Defender. "If anyone can take down an interdimensional magelord, with or without powers, I think you'd be in the top five, dear."

"No, seriously, no way," I said. God help me, all superheroes are crazy. "Defender, these two have seen me in my secret identity. I would never be able to pull off something like a formal ball. My brain just doesn't work that way."

"Cobra, you know we're right," Mega said. "You're our best shot at this. You can get into the castle, you can take out any guards they throw at you, you can figure out a way to shut off the castle's defenses."

"Dammit, I don't even own a dress," I said. "I can't do polite small talk. I slurp my soup."

"Alright, just a moment," said Defender. She stepped in front of Miss Mega and Hybrid. "Okay, watch me closely. No, on second thought, don't watch me at all -- if you didn't like seeing me absorb the glove, you'll really dislike watching me get rid of the helmet."

"Oh god, oh god," whispered Hybrid, covering her eyes with both hands.

Miss Mega tried to remain diplomatic for a moment, then turned her face toward the nearest wall. "Oh wow, Defender, I hope you know what you're doing."

I tried not to watch too closely. I like gross stuff, like I said, but watching that big mirrored helmet get sucked into her head is a bit too much even for me. The sounds aren't any fun either, and both Miss Mega and Hybrid end up clapping their hands over their ears.

"Okay, all done," she said after about 15 seconds. "Pleased to meet you both. My name's Heather Van Ness."

Weird enough -- and irritating enough -- to watch her just hand over her secret identity without a struggle -- but I suppose, not completely out-of-character for a pampered, attention-starved, media-savvy socialite -- but it got even worse when both Miss Mega and Hybrid unmasked and introduced themselves, too.

And then Heather turned toward me and got a serious look on her face.

"Okay, Cobra," she said. "Off with that mask."

"You are fucking kidding me," I said.

"No," she said. "Off with the mask."

"Just because you guys are willing to share your IDs doesn't mean I'm under any requirement to reciprocate," I said. "Just because I knew your ID before doesn't mean I have to give you mine now."

"You want to have a shot at throwing Emperor Charming back to his own other-dimensional backwater?" said Defender. "Off with the mask, darling."

"You," I said, "are nuts."

"No," she replied. "You are going to have to attend a formal ball, wearing a gorgeous fairy-tale gown, with a gorgeous fairy-tale hairdo, acting like the most enchanting and refined princess on the planet. And I am rich enough to buy you the gown and hairdo, and cultured enough to teach you how to knock Emperor Charming's socks off, even before you literally knock his socks off. So Cobra, seriously, off with the mask."

"None of us with powers can do it, Cobra," said Darcy. "You're the only one of us who has a chance of getting through that door."

"And you need some serious behavior pointers to pull it off," said Megan. "You know it, too. And we're not going to be able to get a dress for you if you go into the dress shops wearing the mask. Desperate times call for desperate measures, Cobra."

Goddamn it. I hate it when other people are right.

I pulled the mask off. I know I probably slumped over immediately -- I've been told I get slouchy when any part of my face is clear -- but I at least pulled my hair out of my face, too.

"Hey, yo," I said. "Name's Barf."

"Oh my god," said Heather. "How could you cover up that beautiful blonde hair?"

"Pfff," I said. "Whatevs."

"And I can see we've got a lot of work to do in the next 23 or so hours," said Heather. "So let's get with it as quickly as possible, okay, dears?"

And 20 minutes later, after we'd all gotten changed into civilian clothes, I embarked on the greatest challenge of my life: learning good manners.

It seemed likely the fate of the city depended upon it.

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