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I had a dream last night, and it was the same dream I have almost every night.

I was a kid again. Just got back from a productive day selling coke and shoplifting from convenience stores. I turn on the TV and start giving lip to my Moms and my brother Robert, just like the asshole I always was. Moms is angry, her rosary wrapped in her fist as she tries to keep herself calm. Robert is disgusted, turns away to go back to his room.

The front window shatters. Moms falls backwards, blood spurting from her shoulder and her hip. Robert is knocked against the wall, three bullet holes in his back. There's a screech of tires and mocking laughter from the street.

I scream and scream and scream, and I don't stop 'til the moment I wake up, bedsheets wrapped around myself, panting for air, weeping like a baby.

In a way, I guess it beats waking up to a loud alarm clock. Haven't needed one of those in years.

I get up, shower, make sure my beard is trimmed right, get dressed, eat some fruit. I call Moms (she recovered fine because she's always been tough), tell her I love her, and beg her to forgive me. I call Robert (he's in a wheelchair now and works as a computer programmer in Denver), tell him I love him, and beg him to forgive me.

They both say they forgave me years ago. I'm not sure I can believe them. But I ask them anyway because I still can't forgive myself. I was such a fucking ass.

I'm pretty sure neither one knows what else I do, in addition to calling every morning and evening to apologize, to try to make up for my stupid mistakes.

So I guess that'd be what got me started on this weird life -- knowing that I'd fucked things up that badly motivated me to want to go out and beat the crap out of the thugs who'd pulled me onto the wrong path and shot my family.

But it's not like you can just run outside and turn yourself from a normal kid into a vigilante. I mean, I tried, and I just got beat up a lot. I was a natural athlete, and I've been pretty creative with turning everyday objects into passable weapons all my life. But it really took years of training and practice and pain and frustration before I was ready to walk out in public and start calling myself a crimefighter.

Even after making my official debut as Penitente -- Metro City's foremost unpowered superhero, expert at bullwhips, improvised weaponry, and somehow avoiding being pulped by supervillains -- it was still a giant struggle. I had to prove myself to the citizens of Chesler and to the other superheroes in town. I had to prove myself to the crooks and supervillains, too, but that was more fun, because it meant I got to beat up lots of bad guys.

But eventually, it got to where they all accepted me as a hero. That helped out a lot -- at least until I'd think of my mother and brother, and the shame and horror and revulsion would be back, stronger than ever. Doesn't matter how many supervillains I beat up. Doesn't matter how many people I pull out of burning buildings. I'll always look in the mirror and see the stupid, arrogant ass who got his own family shot.

But enough about my past. It's time to go to work.

When I'm not running around in my blue and gray costume, however, I'm just plain Alfred Dominguez, director of the Herbert Block Memorial Recreation Center. And we've got a pretty busy day ahead of us. 

I greet our usual first-thing-in-the-morning clients -- some of the local senior citizens who come here to play dominos and chess, plus our early-morning exercise class. We have a fast staff meeting -- our assistant director Angela Dooley, the gym manager Douglas Venetti, food bank coordinator Hannah Kyle, and our primary social workers Tania Buckley, Rhonda Malone, and Joshua Estevez.

After that, it's time for today's special guests to arrive.

First in the door are 250 kids from McDuffie Elementary School. They're excited, noisy, rambunctious, and almost overflowing the bleachers we've got set up in our main gym. Close behind them are a few VIPs -- three city council members, Roderick Campbell, Oscar Seaton, and Ronelle Dey, a reporter and photographer from the Metro City Metropolitan, a dozen or so parents, and two of our biggest donors, the incredibly wealthy explorer Peter Crawne and the incredibly shallow but good-hearted socialite Heather Van Ness.

Finally, the Express zooms into the building.

Obviously, I know the Express pretty well. But while I know that his real name is Derek Battle (everyone knows that, actually -- he has a public identity), he doesn't actually know that Alfred Dominguez, the guy who runs things at the Block Rec Center, is also Penitente. So I won't get to do much more than watch Derek do his thing.

Express does these public appearances for schoolkids periodically. He'll show up at a few schools around the city, usually the ones in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. He visits us a couple times a year, and he talks to the kids about the importance of education, staying true to your principles, resisting the temptations of crime and drugs. I've heard him give the talk several times -- he's very good at it, and the kids are always really enthusiastic about him.

This year, things are a little different, because he brings a surprise guest of his own -- Laura Quinn, better known as the professional wrestler and fledgling superhero Piledriver.

I'm fairly surprised to see her. Just last night, I watched her jump out of a car while the Wheelman was driving it up the side of the Infantino Building. She fell 80 stories and ended up extensively damaged -- hell, almost destroyed. Her mad scientist uncle, Dr. Agamemnon Xerxes Quinn, took her back to his lab, saying he could get her fixed right up.

And here she is now, completely repaired and looking 100 percent okay. I've got to resist the temptation to rush over to her, shake her hand, and ask how she's doing -- and apologize for not realizing that she'd hate riding in a car enough to panic and jump out in mid-air. But of course, I can't do that -- in a way, secret identities take all the fun out of being a superhero.

Anyway, Piledriver is as big a hit with the kids as Express is. She's a professional wrestler and a superhero and a full-body cyborg. For a lot of kids, that's basically the most awesome thing possible. She does some of her over-the-top monologuing, and the kids just eat it up.

And what's really cool is after the main program is over, she takes all the girls into our secondary gym and gives them a mini-talk all their own, focusing on the same pro-education message, but with a serious girl-power twist. The girls come out of that one even more excited than the boys. She's amazing.

When it's all over a couple of hours later, we have as much of a reception as we can manage on our budget. Donuts, fruit tray, coffee, and juice in our staff lounge. Rec center staff, two superheroes, three city council members, and two donors.

Honestly, I love these. That's why I've always insisted on having these receptions after Express gives his programs. It's just fun to get to hang out with other superheroes when they don't realize you're one of them, too. It's like a game -- can you hold a conversation and not blurt out, "Damn, Quinn, how did your uncle get you put back together so fast?!"

It's probably really boring, too. Politicians from the city council are generally the dullest people on earth. And while all of us at the rec center love to tell people about the good work we're doing in our community, I'm pretty sure Express is checking his phone messages periodically at superspeed, and it wouldn't surprise me if Piledriver was reading e-mail on her in-brain Internet connection.

Probably the only thing saving the reception is our donors. Normally, these super-rich charity hounds are even more boring than the politicos, but both Crawne and Van Ness are born raconteurs. Crawne has so many stories about mountain climbing and hang-gliding and fighting with pirates off the coast of Thailand, and Van Ness has met far too many celebrities and has a gift for making fun of all of them.

The two of them have just tag-teamed us with completely different and equally hilarious stories about explorer/tycoon Richard Branson when there's a flash of light in the middle of the room. When our eyes clear, there's a two-foot-tall fairy princess hovering before us. She has a ridiculously ornate ballerina costume and tiny fluttering insect wings.

"Greetings, my wonderful, illustrious subjects!" she says in a high-pitched sing-song voice. "It is my pleasure to announce that your beloved friend Sugarplum has returned to grace you anew with her presence!"

Well, crap. I'd hoped I'd never have to see Sugarplum again.

We're pretty lucky that she tends to roam worldwide, always targeting locations with large numbers of metahumans. One month, she'll torment the People's Glorious Metahuman Collective in China, the next, she'll show up in Milwaukee to target the Power Brigade or in Honolulu to mess with the Howlers or in Salem to ruin things for the Darksiders. She's even sought out villain teams from time to time, including the Doom Chorus and the Nowhere Men.

And what's her preferred method of torture? Just the stuff a stereotypical faerie loves the most -- fun and games.

Remember when all the buildings in New York City came to life, and the Brooklyn Brigade had to win a dance contest to get them all to settle down? That was Sugarplum. Remember when the Ethereals all came back to life and had to kill themselves to get their ghostly powers back? That was Sugarplum. Remember when London was changed into Camelot and the Queen's Knights had to defeat Mordred and Morgaine le Fay to change things back? That was Sugarplum.

Remember when everyone in Metro City was changed into cartoon animals? Yeah, that was just great, wasn't it. My name was Penguintente then. And yeah, that was Sugarplum, too.

Oh, yeah, she's just a barrel of laughs. Just a funny little magical imp who does all this crazy stuff -- and always causes insane property damage, pointless injuries, terrible chaos. Everyone hates her, and boom, here she is, right in the middle of my damn rec center.

"As always, dear friends, I come seeking your city's mightiest champions!" she says happily. "And since this room currently houses the most superheroes in the whole city -- well, here I am, and here we are!"

Express makes a superspeed grab at her, and incredibly, Sugarplum manages to wrap him up in a wave of magical energy and make him hover off the ground.

"Oh, no, no, no!" she says. "We have things to discuss as civilized people! And we don't need non-superhero witnesses either, so... TIME STOP!"

"This is the least effective time-stop I've ever seen, lady," says Piledriver. "Not that I've seen a lot. But this has got to be the worst."

"Ahh, but only the non-superheroes are affected, my mechanical princess!" says Sugarplum. "You superheroes can see, talk, and interact normally!"

Well, great. That means I have to stand as still as I can. The Express is cool, Piledriver is a flake, but really, I'm not interested in revealing my secret identity to either of them, if I can help it.

"What about Dominguez here?" says the Express, still hovering in Sugarplum's magical grip. "I got superspeed eyes -- he's moving a hell of a lot more than the others."

Oh. Well, should've known that couldn't last long.

"And what about the socialite?" says Piledriver. "I got super-senses up the whazoo. Not literally, I mean. Anyway, doesn't matter how quiet she tries to be -- I can hear her heart beating."

Van Ness and I turn and gawk at each other for a moment.

"Oh my word, Penitente!" she says. "You've got that magnificent manscaped beard and everything, darling! Why didn't I ever see that?!"

"You don't even try to disguise your voice!" I say. "Everyone should know who you are!"

"What can I say, darling! It's the face-hiding helmet! Now are we going to beat down this fae fraud or what?"

We launch ourselves at Sugarplum. And I guess unsurprisingly, she gets us with the hovering magical energy thing, too.

"Well, foo," Defender says, as her costume seeps out through her skin to coat her body. "That wasn't nearly as successful as I'd anticipated. And what are you doing down there, Laura?"

Piledriver is still sitting in her folding chair, holding an uneaten donut and a cup of juice in either hand.

"Express is a hell of a lot faster than I am, guys," she says. "You want me to throw myself into some futile gestures just for appearance's sake? I mean, I'm willing, but I didn't see that listed in my hero handbook."

"You are truly a joy, young lady!" Sugarplum sings. "But I need you all in your proper costumes!"

She waves an arm at me, and my street clothes change into my costume. I really hope she just magicked my clothes into my office or my apartment. Those were my good pants.

"Now I am ready to start my games!" she says happily. "Delightful games that will bring happiness and wonder to every soul! Does anyone have any requests or suggestions?"

"Not a chance in hell," says Express.

"Same here," I say.

"And here, too," says Defender. "Unless it's a wish for you to leave the city, you demented pixie."

"That wish is no fun at all!" says Sugarplum. "But perhaps my new motorized friend would have some ideas for me? Your heart's desire? A wonderful treat for the whole city to enjoy?"

"No way," says Piledriver. "I was in Los Angeles when you brought all those movies to life. The serial killers and James Bond villains were bad enough, even without the kaiju and disaster movies."

"No, no, that was an escapade of great imagination and excitement!" Sugarplum says. "You are remembering it wrong!"

"Everything you do is bad karma, lady," says Piledriver. "But ya know, watch your head -- karma's got a way of turning around on ya when you're not ready."

At that moment, all the time-stopped civilians -- my coworkers, the city councilors, the other donor -- all vanish in a puff of rainbow smoke.

The moment after that, the lounge door gets blasted off its hinges, and Atlas, the Chrome Cobra, and Hypothermia charge into the room and plow into Sugarplum. Her spell falls apart, and Defender, Express, and me all drop to the floor. Express is back in the fight immediately, throwing dozens of superspeed punches, and Defender, Piledriver, and I jump into the battle as the Star and Silver Protector Kumiko come in the door.

Our more physical attacks don't really have much effect against a highly magical faerie, but they are pretty distracting. That gives the Cobra more than enough time to stick a hard-light sword through her, for Piledriver to hit her with taser shots, for the Star to disrupt her form with cosmic energy, for Kumiko to destabilize her even more with her spells. I think we're actually close to either shorting her out completely or weakening her to the point where Kumiko can bottle her up in some artifact and ship her off to the Council of Thaumaturges.

Of course, nothing's ever that easy. Sugarplum explodes, knocking us all back against the walls, and reforms for a second or two as a 10-foot-tall green-skinned troll before returning to her more familiar form. Brambles sprout from the walls to tie us all down. Not even Atlas is able to break free.

Kumiko says, "Celestial Silver --" but then a sandpaper gag appears over her mouth.

"None of that from you," Sugarplum hisses, sounding winded and furious. "None of that from any of you."

"You're not wanted here, Sugarplum," says the Cobra. "Hit the road. Pick another city. Or better yet, don't pick any at all. No one appreciates your so-called games."

"You're wrong," she says, slicking her hair back into place. "My games are appreciated and enjoyed. It may be that you simply do not have the proper spirit of fun."

"You turned the Starchildren evil," says Hypothermia. "There's no possible way that was fun for anyone. You de-aged the Infra-Raiders to three years old. And then you sped up Team Toronto's aging process until they almost died. You turned the Seattle Seven into cows. You actually lost the entire nation of Luxembourg in the timestream for almost three weeks!"

"You're responsible for two different zombie apocalypses," says the Star. "And a clown apocalypse, for god's sake."

"Everything went back to normal afterwards," says Sugarplum. "That's the nature of the game! And everyone loves clowns."

"Enough," says the Cobra. "Get out of town. We're not playing your games, and that's final."

"Oh, it's final?" she says. "You're bound and helpless, and you deign to dictate terms to me? But perhaps I would prefer not to allow any of you to play my games. After all, you attacked me so hurtfully. Why should I allow you the privilege of enjoying what I would bring to Metro City?"

"Fine, if you're getting out, just get out," says Atlas. "Rationalize it any way you want to. Just take off."

"Oh, I'm not taking off at all," says Sugarplum with a happy smile. "But I will find someone who truly appreciates what I can do for everyone."

And she vanishes, just like that. The brambles holding us to the wall wither away, and we all drop to the floor.

"That was less than encouraging," says the Cobra. "Someone alert the rest of the heroes in town and warn 'em that Sugarplum's up to something. She may try to entice one of the less experienced heroes into whatever she's planning."

"First things first," I say. "There were a bunch of civilian hostages in here, and they all vanished. Kumiko, did you teleport them somewhere, and are they okay?"

"Yes, that was me," she says. "I moved them to the gym. We felt it'd be safer to have them out of the way to make sure they wouldn't be hurt."

"I assume you had some magical alarm signal that let you know the famous fae freak was in town?" says Defender. "Excellent work, dear."

"Nah, I called everyone in," says Piledriver. "In-brain cell phone, guys. Made some calls, took some pictures, downloaded some tunes."

"Okay, good," I say. "What's our next move? I'm not in the mood to get cartooned up again."

"I thought you were pretty funny as Penguintente," says  Hypothermia.

"Whatever, Hippothermia."

"Quiet, both of you," says the Cobra. "Like I said, touch base with everyone else. Make sure everyone knows who Sugarplum is, and let's try to be ready for whatever she's about to do to the city."

We all go our separate ways, for the most part. I find my civilian clothes had been teleported into my office, and I change back as quickly as I can. I see the visiting politicians off -- they're just happy not to have been injured. After that, I head back to the lounge with some of my staff to inspect the damage.

Obviously, the door is completely destroyed. And in fact, the door frame is gone, too, and some pretty serious chunks of the wall around the door are a wreck, too. I start trying to calculate how much of our budget we're going to have to re-arrange to get this repaired, but it's just too depressing. I'd hoped we could improve some of the equipment in the gyms, maybe even hire some of the local teenagers as part-time coaches. Looks like we can forget all that for another year.

I send everyone off to do their regular duties. We've got classes scheduled, clients coming in, plenty of activities already planned. I'm about to head to my office to call some contractors to come look at the lounge when Defender reappears, in her real identity as Heather Van Ness.

She glances around to make sure no one is watching us, then she holds her hand out, and we bump fists. Yeah, it's a little loco, but I guess knocking fists is what us superheroes do, right?

"Mr. Dominguez," she says, sounding just as hoity-toity as ever. "I just wanted to thank you for a delightful visit. I have not often seen that many superheroes in one place at one time."

"Ah, yes, Ms. Van Ness," I say. "Luckily, we don't see stuff like that very often. I'm not sure the building would survive much more than that."

"Oh, I heard your assistant director mention that there had been some extensive damage to your lounge door," she says. "Honestly, my personal funds are tapped out for the moment, but I'm quite sure I can persuade my parents to help out. They have more discretionary funds available, and a little simple construction work would barely dent their pocketbooks."

"Ms. Van Ness, you've already been very generous," I say.

"Oh, I know I have!" she says. "I'm so good at this! But my parents do love to bestow charitable donations on those who've helped keep their daughter from harm, so don't even attempt to persuade me otherwise."

"Well, it would make things a lot easier for us, budget-wise."

"Tell you what, darling, I'll have Mother send you a check today," she says. "Just remember, I do so love having buildings named after me."

We fist-bump again, she winks at me, and she heads for the door. Okay, a little extra funding helps solve one really big headache.

I work the rest of the day at the rec center. Cobra decided there was no reason for anyone with a secret identity or a job to take off -- we didn't even know what Sugarplum would do or when she'd do it. Hell, we didn't even know if she'd do anything at all.

So I spend the day taking care of my normal work duties. I take another couple minor meetings and consultations with staff. I help out with the kids' exercise classes. I do a little minor maintenance on the elliptical machines. I accept a check delivered by courier from Defender's mom, write her a thank-you note, and gleefully call a contractor to start work on repairing the lounge.

Not all my duties are all that pleasant. I do some first aid, some minor -- a senior citizen who pulled a muscle during aerobics, a kid who skinned a knee coming into the center -- and some less minor, like Jay-Jay Escobar, a teenaged geek who comes in for chess lessons. He got chased down by one of the local gangs and beat up. Bandaging cuts and contusions is bad enough. Dealing with his terror of having to walk back home, and his guilt over losing the chess set his mother bought him -- that's probably worse.

I hate having to deal with the gangs. I'm not afraid of them. I'm not even afraid of what I'd do to them. I mean, I beat up gangbangers almost every night when I'm running around in the mask. But as a civilian, as the director of a recreation center on the wrong side of the tracks, I'm generally not allowed to have anything to do with them.

We get funding from all levels of government, from churches, from private individuals, from corporate donors -- and all of that could be jeopardized if I went out to confront these thugs. It doesn't matter if I beat them up or if I tried to negotiate with them to get them to leave our people alone.  Oh, I can deal with 'em if they come onto our property, but I can't go out and look for these assholes. People worry about the stability and safety of the facility, its clients, and its staff when you go out seeking any kind of contact with the criminal element.

We're still a pretty safe zone, thanks to that great guy Penitente, who's made it more than clear to the gangs that if they do anything to the rec center (or to the churches or schools within the Chesler area), they'll get treated to the full attention of at least one superhero and probably all the rest of them, too. Gang punks are stupid, but they're not that stupid.

I remind Jay-Jay that he doesn't have to bring his own chess set since we have plenty here at the center, which just sets him off on a crying jag. Terrified and embarrassed all at once, poor guy. Junior high is a terrible time for anyone.

I take him into my office and give him the cheap set I keep in my desk. Remind him that these things sell for about five bucks at the dollar store -- they're the ones that he should take to school, 'cause they're easy to replace.

I get him to describe the guys who took the set, and his description is good enough for me to recognize two of the gangsters. They're definitely not chess types, and the local pawn shops know better than to accept obviously stolen goods. I resolve to go check the dumpsters in the area tonight -- might be able to find the kid's set just fine.

If I can't find the set that got stolen, I'm gonna have to replace it. The kid's mom spent over fifty bucks on his set, and I'm just too big a softy to let that kind of gift just disappear.

By the end of the day, I've had enough little emergencies crop up at the rec center to distract me from whatever Sugarplum may be planning. I clock out and make my daily stop at St. Simon's for confession. I never mention anything about superhero activities -- I may be Catholic, but I don't necessarily trust priests to keep secret identities truly secret -- but I detail my faults throughout the day, as well as the time I got my mom and brother shot. And as usual, Father Leon shouts at me for confessing the same sin every day. Still don't know if he really understands.

After that, I head for home, dish up a bowl of tortilla soup from the crock pot, do a little quick housecleaning, call my Moms and brother to apologize again, say my evening prayers, re-trim my beard, suit up, and head down to the garage. It's a little early for my usual patrols, but this stuff with Sugarplum has me nervous.

Once I'm down in the garage, I give my bike its nightly checkup to make sure it's running in top shape. I load up on a few likely supplies -- brass knuckles, a handful of paper clips and rubber bands, four pencils, a roll of twine, a simple first aid kit, a couple hard rubber balls, a good hunting knife, a dozen packets of my Moms' habanero sauce, and the bullwhip, of course.

I take the bike out and tool around Chesler for an hour or so. I check a few likely alleys and dumpsters, but never find any chess set. It's a fairly quiet night, so I head uptown.

It's not long before I find a small gathering of super-people. Iota, Squid Kid, and Calypso are lounging around a picnic table at the edge of Fox Gardens when I pull up at the curb.

"Hey, guys," I say. "Is crimefighting that dull tonight? Are we gonna have a picnic?"

"Lay off, Penitente," says Squid Kid. "We're just taking a break."

"But it does seem to be a pretty low crime night," says Iota. "Nothing going on that anyone seems to need us for."

Polyphemus comes galloping up about that time, holding a cardboard carry-tray with three convenience store mugs of coffee.

"Mr. Penitente," he says, passing out the coffee cups to everyone else. "I apologize -- I only brought coffee for these three."

"It's alright, Professor. It's a bit early for me anyway. I can pick up a cup later on tonight. Didn't get a cup for yourself?"

"I prefer tea," he says. "And these days, these little cups simply aren't big enough for me."

"So what do you drink your tea in?" asks Squid Kid.

"A bucket," he says.

"Come on, be serious," she says.

"I am serious," he replies, a little sadly. "No one makes a proper teacup for someone my size. I use a bucket. A very sophisticated plastic bucket."

"Oh," Squiddie says. "I'm sorry. That can't be much fun."

"Professor, I know some people," says Iota. "They might be able to get you some cookware that's more appropriately sized-up for you. It wouldn't be fine china, but I'm sure tea would taste better in it."

"No, no," Polyphemus says. "I take too much charity from you people."

"Shush, just take it," says Calypso. "Or I'll tell the Cobra you're drinking out of mop buckets. You'll really get in trouble then."

"No kidding," says Squiddie. "The only thing scarier than the Cobra when she's angry is the Cobra when she's feeling nurturing."

"I don't object to receiving the occasional gift," Polyphemus says. "But I accept far too many gifts from you people. A professor's salary allows me a certain number of luxuries, but improbably large dinnerware, on top of new clothing, a retrofitted home, and so much more -- I'll never have enough money to pay back so much."

"But you really don't have to pay me back," says Iota.

"Iota, silencio," I say. "I understand what he's talking about. Getting too much for free can make you feel like you've lost all your self-sufficiency. Work out a way he can pay you back, either with money or barter."

"I'm not sure my talents would lend themselves well to barter," says Polyphemus. "Do your scientist friends need me to discuss the literature of the English Renaissance with them?"

"Actually, let me think it over" Iota says. "I'll talk to the guys and see if they've got any ideas about barter or price or any of that stuff. They may feel like the challenge of creating the dishware is reward enough, but I'll see if we can come up with a good solution for some sort of payment. I'll get in touch with you in the next few days, Professor."

"Well, thank you, I suppose," says Polyphemus. "I'm sure it will be interesting to hear what you devise. As long as they don't want me to do some mad advertising gambit."

"Ah, yeah, their marketing division would probably come up with something like that," says Iota. "I better make sure they know not to try anything like that."

"Hey, listen, not to change the subject over to superhero business," I say. "But has anyone heard anything about the Sugarplum situation?"

"Nothing since this morning, unfortunately," says Iota. "Silver Protector Kumiko is trying to track Sugarplum's magical radiation output, but hasn't had a whole lot of luck with that yet."

"Has she called in the rest of the Council of Thaumaturges?" I ask. "Seems like a good time to get the rest of the magical heavy-hitters out here."

"They're not allowed to!" says Squiddie. "Can you believe it? She forced the whole organization into a magical agreement almost a century ago where if more than one of them takes her on at the same time, she gets to start rewriting the laws of physics worldwide."

"Yeah, she's really got 'em over the barrel," says Iota. "Us, too, of course. Kumiko's doing all the research she can without using the Council's resources -- they don't want to risk tripping that bargain on a technicality. But I'm not sure it'd do us a lot of good if we had the entire Council here -- Sugarplum can basically do anything she wants. We're lucky she's so obsessed with playing games instead of something like turning the planet inside out."

"So do we have any kind of strategy for dealing with her?" asks Calypso. "As far as I can tell, she can do anything she wants, and she's mostly unpredictable. Can we beat her? Can we maybe talk her into leaving town? What's our plan for this whole thing?"

"Really, it's the same plan we have for every crisis in this town," says Squid Kid. "Stay loose. Be prepared. Don't panic. Don't get in trouble. Watch out for everyone else."

"That strategy sucks," says Calypso.

"It does seem to suffer from a lack of our usual desperate violence and chaos," says Polyphemus. "Normally, I'd consider that an improvement, but I suspect it will lead to even greater desperate violence and chaos later."

"Okay, you guys want my advice on this?" says Iota. "Don't even worry about Sugarplum. Maybe she's run off. Maybe she's going to pick on the bad guys this time. Either she'll do something crazy, maybe she won't, but obsessing about what she's up to is counter-productive."

"We should treat tonight like every other night," I say. "Go out, fight some crime, do some good, go home late, and don't get enough sleep. If Sugarplum wants to cause trouble, we'll find out about it, and we'll take care of it. Otherwise, our duty is to protect people in Metro City, just like every day."

"I'm betting we won't even see anything else from her," says Squiddie. "I looked her up this afternoon -- when she shows up, she's got a scheme ready to go every time. The fact that she hasn't started any trouble yet tells me she got scared off. Mark my words, guys."

That's when a 50-inch flatscreen TV appears in front of us and hovers in mid-air.

"Lenore!" Iota groans. "Why did you have to say it out loud?!"

"How was I to know?" Squid Kid shouts. "I say stuff all the time, and this is the first time a magic evil TV's appeared like that!"

"You know how much karma hates us!" I say. "You know karma is always looking for excuses to ruin things for us!"

"Just shut up and watch the TV, guys," says Calypso, rolling her eyes at us.

The set flickers to life, and as I think we were expecting, Sugarplum's face fills the screen.

"Good evening, Metro City!" she says. "My name is Sugarplum, and you may remember me from how much fun we had together when I turned you all into cartoon animals! Wasn't that nice? It was a wonderful game -- or at least it was until your dumb stupid superheroes decided they didn't enjoy whimsy and joy and turned everything back to the boring way it was before."

"Oh, like there was so much whimsy and joy in losing my spine and eating with a beak and squirting ink at everyone," grumbles Squid Kid before Polyphemus shushes her.

"And once again, this city's so-called protectors have tried to prevent me from bringing fantasy and magic and happiness and fun into your lives! In fact, they actually attacked me! Yes, me! And I'm so adorable, too!"

"Yeah, she's just so adorable," I scoff. "When we hit her, she turned into an ogre, believe it or not."

"An ogre in a tutu?" asks Calypso.

"So very not adorable," I say.

"Therefore," Sugarplum continues, "Since Metro City's guardians have proven to be so thoroughly unheroic, I have decided to appoint new superheroes -- heroes who truly do want to serve and protect! Heroes who have clearly proven their own civic pride! Heroes who only need powers of their very own!"

The camera pulls back to show a line of six people standing proudly behind Sugarplum.

There is a gigantic, savage human-panther fusion wearing the remnants of a pink party dress; a man in a red, white, and blue costume and a tattered American flag around his neck, superspeed vibrating so fast he's mostly a blur; a red-skinned demoness; a man wearing a fedora and trenchcoat, barely visible in a haze of murky shadows; a blue-haired woman outfitted in futuristic armor and weapons; and a hyper-muscular man wearing a highly ornate red and gold costume.

"Citizens of Metro City!" Sugarplum announces. "Allow me to introduce the League of Real-Life Metro City Superheroes! Princess KittyKat! Super-American! Demonica! Fedora Man! The Woman of the Future! And Captain Metro!"

"Oh, great," moans Squiddie. "This is either going to suck hard, or it's going to suck really, really hard. Anyone wanna put money on it?"

"And you may want to ask yourself a question, Metro City," says Sugarplum happily, "What does one group of superheroes do when they meet another group for the first time?"

"I'm new to this superhero business," says Polyphemus. "What does one group of heroes do when they meet another?"

The answer, unfortunately: they fight.

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