Dance With the Demons
There was a gathering of heroes in a satellite. Most were familiar visitors there. Some were less so.
The Justice League of America contemplated the metallic device Firestorm had recovered from a tree a mile away from Wayne Manor. Much of its mechanism had fused, due to an acid capsule's breaking when it had fulfilled its only function.
"So this thing was able to transmit pictures of Bruce and Selina leaving the mansion, and the firing mechanism was mobile enough to target her," said Nightwing, pointing with his thumb to the lump of metal in the middle of the meeting table. "With this kind of thing, who's safe from assassination anymore?"
Nobody at the table had a good answer for him. Starfire, sitting beside him, squeezed his hand.
"No one seems to have witnessed who did the job," said Superman. "It wasn't hard to track, however. The owner of the property on which the tree with the device was located has been missing for a week. Since shortly before the wedding, to be exact. I doubt that we'll find him alive."
"I doubt that we'll find him, period," put in Green Arrow. "So you and Hawk and the Lantern still can't find out who manufactured the thing?"
Hawkman turned his great plastic hawk's mask towards the archer. When they first met, the sight of the big winged hawk's head on the Thanagarian's face unnerved him. Now, it just irritated him. "The Absorbascon can theoretically gather all information on Earth, Ollie. But it will always be limited by my ability to interpret it. I'm sorry. I haven't learned anything."
Black Canary, sitting beside the Arrow, touched his thigh. "We need to go down there and see Selina," she said. "All of us worked together on that industrial case awhile back. I really got to like her."
"First time you met, she conned you into helping a gang of lady thieves on a heist," said Green Arrow.
"First times don't count," said Dinah. "Once we wrap up the thing we're working on, we're going to see her."
"I'll tell her you asked about her," said Nightwing, a tad wearily. He had been up too many hours as it was. Trying to sandwich his honeymoon between his efforts to learn who was behind the attempted murder of the Catwoman was tough. He knew Kory was feeling the strain, as well. But he couldn't bow out on this kind of a case. Even if he'd just gotten married.
He also didn't want Bruce to learn about his involvement.
Ralph Dibny stopped his nose from twitching. Everyone, including him, knew it was a mystery. "I've checked in with Bruce on a daily basis," said the Elongated Man. "He's said, in effect, we're to leave this one to him and his group. That means our involvement, such as it is, has to be covert."
"Which won't be easy, given Bruce's powers of observation," said Green Lantern. "But we've all got our own lives to attend to these days. More so now than ever, I guess. So. Everyone in favor of continuance as is?"
The others in the meeting room nodded, or spoke their assent.
"Unanimous," said Hal Jordan. "Robin--sorry, Nightwing--I hope I'm correct in assuming that we can count on the Titans' aid, if need be."
"You know it," said Nightwing. "I just wish Bruce wasn't playing this so close to the chest. It'd be so much easier to lend a hand."
"That's why he's not playing it that way," said Superman. "We both know that, Dick."
"The Corps members with me can be called up as well," said the Lantern. "Batman has aided them on a couple of occasions, and the Guardians more than that. Kilowog, Ch'p, Salaak, Kat, and John have indicated their assent. We're going to find out who attacked Selina Kyle, ladies and gents, even though I have a feeling Batman will find out first. Any further business?"
"Then meeting is dismissed," Green Lantern declared. "Wonder Woman will chair the next one. Oh, and Firestorm?"
The subdued young hero with the firetopped head looked at GL with blank eyes.
"Good job," said Hal Jordan.
"Thanks, Hal," said Firestorm. "A lot."
"I've got a wedding coming up at the end of the week," said Green Lantern. "Let's try and get this thing cracked before then."
Barbara Gordon threw herself against Croc's gunarm as much as she could and jostled it a bit. He had a steady enough hand not to squeeze the trigger accidentally. The powerful man with the reptile's skin tightened his hold on her, and Barbara found it difficult to breathe. She tried kicking back at his crotch with her thigh, but it didn't seem to do any good.
She was Batgirl, and she wasn't able to stop this maniac from holding a gun on her father.
Commissioner Gordon had drawn his gun, but both he and Croc knew that he wouldn't fire with Barbara in the way. "Drop it," said Croc.
"You first," said Jim Gordon, tersely. His arm did not waver.
Croc scowled for a second. "All right," he said. "Let's see how long it takes you to drop it if I point the gun here." With that, he shoved the muzzle of the gun against Barbara's head.
The commissioner faltered. He had no guarantee Croc wouldn't ventilate both himself and his daughter if he lay down his weapon. But it was a certainty that Croc would kill Barbara if he didn't. He had seen the man's handiwork too often to doubt his capabilities.
He could retain his gun, try and bluff Croc, tell him killing Barbara would only get him a bullet in the brain. It would, too.
But the alternatives were these: Croc would not honor his bargain, and would kill Gordon and Barbara; Gordon would hang fast, and Barbara would get killed; Gordon might bluff Croc into putting down his gun, which was not bloody likely; Gordon would lay down his weapon, and, even though he was sure to die, Barbara might be freed. Or at least kept alive as a hostage.
"You can't get out of here alive, even with her as a shield," warned Gordon.
Croc clicked the hammer back.
Barbara wished that she was within reach of her purse and the many crime-fighting gimmicks within. The tear-gas bombs might cause him to pull the trigger anyway. But at least there would be a slight chance of her escaping. But that didn't do any good, as he had pulled her away from the seat beside which her purse lay.
Gordon began to stoop, holding his gun. "Don't do it, Dad," warned Barbara. She tried to step on Croc's instep as hard as she could, but it got her a strangling pressure from his forearm.
The commissioner lay his piece flat on the floor and stood up. Undoubtedly they were on monitors right now. But the situation was too precarious for the director to send in more guards. He stood up, smoothed his jacket, and stuck his hands in his pockets. He tried to give Barbara a reassuring look, then gazed defiantly into Croc's eyes.
The ex-gang boss smiled a horrible, toothy grin. Barbara Gordon clutched at his forearm, without much effect. The crook's stolen gun did not waver from Jim Gordon's direction.
That is, until the batarang with the rope on it wound itself around Croc's arm and a terrific yank on the end of the line yanked the arm and gun hand upward. A shot went off into the ceiling and came up through an inmate's floor, chipping a bit of bark off the Floronic Man.
Croc turned his head, instantaneously, and almost got a chance to see beyond the five knuckles of brass that smashed into his face at warp speed.
Barbara Gordon cried out the name of the blue, black, and grey-clad man who was pounding his fist with a speed that would have shamed Muhammad Ali into the jaw, eyes, cheeks, nose, and throat of Killer Croc. The villain tried to say, "Batman," but got only as far as "Bat" or "Ba" three times, and gave it up. He let go of Barbara and tried to bring his other hand up.
The redhead snarled and stuck her thumb in his eye. Croc howled. She hauled off and planted her high heel in his crotch. He howled more.
Batman took the opportunity she gave him to quickly tie the loose end of the Batarang rope to a section of wire frame that still remained undamaged, on the desk that had separated Croc from the Gordons. Then he waded in with both hands freed, and was not smiling a bit as he did it.
Barbara went to her father's side. This time, Batman scared the hell out of even her.
Croc's free arm did him little good after the Dark Knight's armored knuckles slammed into a nerve cluster there. He might have tried to kick or butt, but Batman just wasn't interested in giving him the opportunity. The Masked Manhunter's fists lashed out, twin piledrivers sheathed in metal, pounding and pounding and pounding. In the face, the ribcage, the stomach, the throat. Blow after blow after blow crunched into the villain's craggy body, and the Batman wasn't hanging back a bit.
Commissioner Gordon forced himself to speak up. "Stop it, Batman. You'll kill him."
"I know what I'm doing," said Batman, calmly, and knocked Croc's head to the side.
The reptilian mobster was sagging. He tried to pretend that his hurt was even more incapacitating, to sucker Batman, but a double-blow crashed into his solar plexus and he didn't have to fake it.
Somewhere, a thousand miles away, his hand held a gun, uselessly. He couldn't think of anything to do with it.
Croc was tough, and Batman knew that. His mutant-shelled flesh could take more punishment than a normal human by far, so Batman had dealt out much more punishment than a normal human could take. With another foe, he wouldn't have thought about donning the brass knucks.
Croc's misfortune was that he could take it. Batman was making sure that he did.
The hero avoided a kick to his own genital region and smashed a knee into Croc's already-hurting crotch. Croc's head jerked up, and a small cry escaped him. He didn't even have energy enough left to scream.
Batman held Croc's face in one hand, and waited till the bad man's eyes focussed reasonably well on him.
"If you ever try to hurt Jim Gordon or his daughter again, this won't stop until you're dead," he said. "Understood?"
Croc's head rolled.
Resignedly, Croc nodded.
"Good," said Batman. He turned away, walked two steps away.
Then he whipped around and smashed another blow to Croc's jaw. The badman went unconscious, his body dangling limply by his roped arm.
Batman looked at him for another few seconds, then turned again, pulling his reddened brass knucks off of his gloves.
"That way, he remembers the clincher," he explained to the Gordons. He untied the batarang rope, lowered Croc's arm enough to take the gun away, and handed it, barrel first, to the commissioner. Jim Gordon took it by the nose and dropped it in his coat pocket.
"I might have guessed you'd turn up in the nick," said Gordon, a trifle too nonchalantly. "But where my daughter is concerned, I wish you'd show up a nick faster."
"That's all right, Dad," said Barbara, stepping closer to him. "You know we're both--very grateful--to the Batman for saving our lives. Again."
The masked man regarded them both. He and Jim both knew that Barbara was secretly Batgirl, and Barbara knew that Batman was Bruce Wayne, though his identity was still a secret to Commissioner Gordon. He also knew that Barbara was secretly ashamed that she had not been of more use in fighting Croc before his arrival. But, since they were probably being monitored, she couldn't admit to that.
Just as he couldn't admit that he had come to Arkham Asylum as Bruce Wayne, hoping to talk to the commissioner and establish his presence there in his civilian identity, thus throwing suspicion off his "abscence" from the Gotham scene.
"You did a good enough job yourself, Miss Gordon," replied Batman. "Few women would have dared attack someone as deadly as Croc. Tonight, he won't be recovering from just the hits I gave him."
She looked at the fallen man balefully, as the door flew open and an ad hoc SWAT team of armed guards poured through.
"If I had my way," she said, "he wouldn't be recovering at all."
Upstairs in the Wayne Mansion, the female Outsiders were engaged in what was probably the team's first slumber party. On the morrow, they'd be off to India to track down Kobra. But tonight, Looker, Element Girl, Halo, and Katana noshed on pizza, abused the stereo Bruce had lent them, and sat around in their pajamas.
"If I have to listen to Bette Midler again I will positively ralph," swore Looker. "Can't you dig up some old Rolling Stones or something?"
Katana, in her red p.j.'s, looked at her teammate stoically. "The albums we are listening to are Mistress Selina's. Master Dick took his record collection to Titans' Tower when he moved out. Our leader's tastes run more to classical, progressive jazz, and show tunes. If it please you, I could ask him for permission to--"
"It would not please me, Tatsu," Looker sighed. "I'll put up with Catty's stuff, but I don't want to hear ‘You Got To Have Friends' again in this life."
Halo scrunched over in her blue nightie and rested her head on her fists and her elbows on her knees. "You're not nervous, are you, Lia? I mean, it is Mister Snake-In-the-Face we're going after tomorrow. But we're going as a whole unit and, I mean, we've fought him before."
"I haven't," pointed out Element Girl, and finished off a slice of pepperoni.
"Well, most of us, anyway," amended Gabby Doe. "And this is just such a nice way to spend the night before a battle, like, having a party with your best friends and all. It's positively ginchy, y'know?"
Looker choked back laughter. Then she went ahead and let it out, careful not to drop her pizza slice on the scandalous nightdress she was wearing. "Oh, gawd, Gabby, I love you. Don't ever get yourself killed. You're the only one who can make me laugh the night before I'm scheduled to pull off a suicide mission. Really."
Tatsu was not pleased. "You should not mock our young one's naivete. You well know the cause of it, Lia. Should I treat our new recruit, Urania, to a demonstration of the martial arts using you as my practice dummy?"
"Now, wait a minute," said Looker.
"No, Tat," said Gabby, laying a hand on the Japanese woman's forearm. "Gosh, I know that what I say doesn't always come out the way I want it to, and I know you think I act like a little kid. But if Lia feels like laughing at me, she can laugh. After all, we're friends, aren't we, Lia? And friends are entitled to laugh at each other. Aren't they?"
Lia's smile wasn't model-perfect. It was natural and unforced. "Of course we are, honeybunch. Come over here and let Mama give you a big Lookerhug." Obediently, Gabby did so, and was embraced. "One of the best things about this team is not being the only woman in it," Looker declared. She nodded towards Urania. "And we're getting more all the time."
If Element Girl could have blushed through her calcium-colored face, she would have done so. "Um. Thanks, Lia. A lot. God, I thought I'd never get past that agoraphobia. I thought I'd never see another human face, except on the TV screen. Then Rex dragged me out of that stuffy old apartment, and here I am. I haven't known you girls for a month, and I already feel like I've known you for ten years."
Tatsu favored Urania with a slight smile. "In our line of work, Urania, bonding is done quickly and thoroughly. It is not unlike being part of a military unit."
"Not unlike it at all," affirmed Looker.
"Well, I don't know anything about the military except what I saw on M*A*S*H and Private Benjamin," said Halo. "But this does remind me of the scene where Private Benjamin and all the other girls are sitting out in the open, talking about the first time they--well, you know. And I thought that was so cool. Didn't you?"
"Yes, Gabby, it was definitely cool," Lia said.
Rainie Blackwell shifted on her differently-colored legs. "Y'know, Rex has told me that one of the things heroes do when they get together is trade origin stories. Why do you think they do that? Just to get to know each other better?"
"It is a way of bonding, yes," said Katana. "The passage from normal man to masked vigilante is usually a dramatic one, and super-heroes are as curious about each other as the common man is of them all. We tell each other how we came to don costumes and risk our lives this way. Then we learn if we wish to be friends with each other or not."
Element Girl swilled some Seven-Up, then said, "I know that I'm glad to be friends with all of you. But Rex hasn't told me all about you yet, how you came to be heroines--um, what a dumb term. Would it be okay if we traded origins? I mean, if you don't have anything else you want to do right now. I'm up for it, or a game of gin, in case we can scare up a deck."
"Gin?" Halo looked at her. "You play cards, Rainie?"
"I'm better at poker," confided the green-haired woman.
"Origin stories are fine by me," said Looker. "Who goes first?"
Rainie raised her hand. "I started this, so I'll be first. You all know about Rex's origin, right? How he got trapped in that Egyptian pyramid, and got turned into Metamorpho by that radiant meteor?"
"Certainly," said Tatsu. "We even went back with him to ancient Egypt, and learned more about how he gained his elemental powers from their very source."
"Well, I got ‘em from the same source," confirmed Rainie. "I used to work for the Company, you know. Rex's origin wasn't a big secret, and Uncle Sam wanted to see if a CIA agent could gain the same powers. They tried three people before me, and--well, the results weren't so pretty. Turns out it takes a specific body type and physiology to gain the metapowers. So they ran a lot of us through the mill and found out I was the closest to him, even though I was a woman. They offered me the chance and I went with it.
"I got into that old pyramid, found myself in that mechanized passageway, and got taken straight to the same meteor by it. I mean to tell you, it was unnerving. I've been on enough missions not to freak when I'm in danger, but...up until then, it was theoretical. When I was staring straight at that thing not five feet away from me, I knew--I knew--that I was going to be changed, and that I'd never really be Rainie Blackwell anymore. Mentally I would, but physically, I'd be this...a four-toned freak-out who could alter her body into the pure state of any element found in it, and change myself into all sorts of shapes, like Plastic Man.
"But it was too late to back out. I'd been a good soldier too long. Back then, if the Company told you--told me--to do something, I did it. Period. So I stared right at that thing, and it got hot as hell, and I just about tore my clothes off. Then I passed out.
"When I came to again, the stone slab I was sitting on had taken me back to where I'd first fallen on it. There was an ancient mirror of polished metal nearby. I found out it was the same one Rex had first seen himself in as Metamorpho, months before. I saw just about the same thing. I'd become an Element Girl.
"You wouldn't know this unless you'd seen a picture of me, but I used to have auburn hair. It was really great-looking, if you'll excuse me for saying that. And that...it wasn't auburn anymore. It was green. Green as grass, green as chlorophyll, green as mint mouthwash...I just...that was the biggest shock to me. Not that I was five separate colors, but that my hair was green.
"I wanted to cry, to throw up, to scream, to do a lot of things in that line. But I didn't. I just swallowed, and wondered how I was going to get out of there. There was a ladder where I'd climbed down into the pyramid. I..." She swallowed.
"It's okay, Rainie," said Halo, and hugged her.
"That's all right, Halo," Element Girl responded. "I have really, really heavy memories of this stuff. But I've dealt with it. So...I'll finish up. Where was I? Oh, yeah. The ladder. I looked up it, and I was about to grab a rung.
"Then I thought, ‘How do I know I've got the powers? How will I know unless I try them?' And I wondered how Metamorpho did it. If he just thought about it, or willed it, or if he said a magic word or something.
"So I drew my hand back and I just thought real hard about changing into a gas...into helium, because it was lighter than air and it'd float up the passageway to the outside. I just thought about changing myself. For a second or two, I was sure nothing had happened. Then I opened my eyes and saw that I was going upward.
"Don't ask me how I can see or hear when I'm in another state. Rex just calls it ‘perception', but it works. I was scared as hell. I was really in an unsolid state. You don't think about your body being a solid, having weight and substance, unless you have an experience like I did...I had no sense of touch. I couldn't even see myself...I was just a gas, going up a tunnel.
"So the first thing I thought of was turning back into myself again. I mean, I wanted to be Rainie Blackwell again, but if I had to be this Metamorpho-woman, I'd settle for it, as long as I was solid. When I did that, I solidified again. I could feel my body contracting back to its normal shape. But the bit was, I was falling down the passage! So I grabbed hold of the ladder rungs and held on. I banged against the ladder and the interior wall of the passage, and it didn't even hurt that much. That was how I knew things were going to be different, even in that stage. Because as Rainie Blackwell, I knew I would have gotten my arms dislocated from that, and it would have hurt like hell when I banged the ladder. But it didn't.
"I just hung there, grabbing the ladder with my arms and legs, until one of the guys above yelled down and asked me if I was all right. I told him, ‘Yeah, I'm all right.' Then I climbed back up the thing, and they saw me, both of the guys who were on the mission with me, when I came close enough to them. One of them went, ‘My God.' The other one didn't say anything. But I could tell from the looks they gave me that I was going to be seen as a freak.
"And I used to be beautiful." Element Girl closed her eyes. "That was why the government recruited me, to seduce enemy agents. I used to be a beautiful girl."
Looker bit her lip and said nothing.
"Rainie, you're still beautiful," said Halo. "Don't you see? It's your inside I look at, and that's bound to be more beautiful than you ever were as a spy girl. Honest."
"Thank you, honey," said Rainie, pecking Halo on the cheek. "That does mean a lot to me, and I'm being honest, too. But let me finish the story.
"Part of the bit was that I had kind of a crush on Metamorpho. Don't ask me why, but he had an interesting background...tough guy, race-car driver, soldier of fortune for Simon Stagg, one of the world's richest men, and now a super-hero. Y'know who he said his biggest rival was on the race track, when he was starting out?"
"Who?" asked Katana.
"Cliff Steele. The guy who became Robotman."
"Yeah, the Doom Patroller," said Looker. "We met him in the Monitor's satellite. Heck, we met everyone in the Monitor's satellite."
"Well, to make the proverbial long story short, I got a lot of counseling from a Company shrink, learned how to use my powers, and then was assigned to recruit Metamorpho for a job and team up with him against this super-villain named Stingaree. He was shocked as hell when he saw me, but I convinced him I was a good girl and he agreed. And during the mission, Stingaree nailed me with that chemical stinger of his. It felt like the mother of all bee stings, and I passed straight out. It was loaded with elemental poisons. Simon Stagg had to bring me out of a coma, and it took months. When I came around, I started being more or less a partner to Rex. I also got into a bit of a rivalry with ol' Sapphire, who was Rex's girlfriend at the time. And that was a lot of fun." Rainie grinned with mirthful female malice, and the others were glad to see it.
"Anyway, there was one last big case Rex and I finished up, and we cleared him of a murder charge when we did it. Then Staggsy made him a big offer. He told Rex he had a process that just might transform him into a human again, but it'd take a long time, years, in a bunch of glop that'd put him in suspended animation. I asked if I could undergo the treatment too. But Staggsy flat out refused me, and I could guess why: Sapphire wanted me to stay an Element Girl. If Rex became human, she'd have him all to herself.
"So Rex went into the glop, and I went and did some things for the Company. But they gave me early retirement thanks to my mental state, which wasn't too great at the time...I was a lonely, depressed freakess...and I tried some of that crime-fighting stuff, but didn't get much of anywhere with it. I had enough money...my folks left me a good inheritance, and I got paid well enough by Uncle Sam.
"That's when I started holing up in my room. I had a plastic mask that looked like my real face, and I could go out in public when I wanted to. But I stopped wanting to, so much.
"At first I wasn't totally a recluse. I'd go out and watch movies, have dinner out, alone, and that sort of thing. But I was afraid, the more I went out. I was so afraid something would happen, that my mask would slip, or somebody would find out some other way that I was, was a..."
Katana went to Rainie, and Looker was astounded at the uncharacteristic display of affection from the Japanese woman. "Rainie, you are not a freak. You never were. You are a heroine, and you are our friend. The only regret I have about you is that we did not know you sooner, that we might have ended your loneliness all the earlier."
Rainie was sobbing. "I don't know, how many years, I spent like that. Even when Rex went, back in action, I just...I just didn't know how to meet people anymore."
"Didn't he, uh, call?" asked Halo, who was beginning to have doubts about her longtime teammate.
"Oh, yeah, yeah, he did," said Rainie. "And I'd always be, so chipper when he did. He wanted to, come over, but I didn't let him. Finally he just, stopped calling. I thought about, about suicide, but I didn't know how. I was just...I was going to be alone, for as long as a, metamorph, could live.
"Then a few weeks ago, you know what happened. He turned himself into, into a liquid, and flowed right through my door lock. He saw me there, with all the dishes stacked up and unwashed, and all the mess I was in, and he said, he said, ‘Blue blazes, Rainie, what have you done to yourself?' He was just staring at me. But he was staring like he wanted to help, wanted to be my friend.
"I tried to run away, transmuted into a gas, but he did the same thing and followed me. We flowed to the roof, and we actually had a fight. I changed into different elements, trying to get him to go away. But he kept countering me, and he wouldn't stop. So after awhile, I found myself back in my normal form again, and I was crying...just like now...and he was holding me and just being there for me, you know.
"I tried to get him to leave me alone, but he wouldn't. He said he was damned well going to bring me back to humanity, and he wasn't going to leave me alone till I did. I knew he was married, saw the news reports on TV, so I knew I didn't have a chance with him there. But he was still a friend. And I didn't know how much...how much I needed a friend."
Looker nodded. "You won't believe this, but I--know just how you feel."
"Thanks, Lia." Rainie sniffed, trying to bring her emotions back under control. "He brought me to the Stagg mansion, and they were all so nice to me there, even Sapphire. She looked kinda guilty, but I told her not to be, it wasn't her fault. Even that old lunkhead caveguy, Java, tried to be nice to me. Then Rex took me out on the town, to some public places, and he insisted I go with him as Element Girl. It was crazy! The paper in Haneyville plastered a pic of us on their front page, and I never knew people even remembered me until I started getting letters from them at Stagg's place. I guess...I guess none of us is really forgotten.
"Then he brought me to Bruce Wayne's mansion, because he said the Outsiders used it for an h.q. sometimes. He had me wait in the guest room, and I got to talk to Alfred and Selina for the first time. You know she'd already moved in. I was shy as hell at first, but they kept making me feel at home until I started talking to them and just couldn't hardly stop. It was like the dike had finally burst.
"Anyway, Rex came back in and said, ‘Come on, Urania. There's somebody I want you to meet. He led me down the hallway to a room that was kind of dark. He made me go inside myself, without him. I was kind of nervous, but I heard a voice inside, saying, ‘Hello, Urania. Don't be afraid, just come on in.' You know whose voice it was. So did I, after I went in and the door closed and the lights came up. Batman.
"I was even more nerved at first, but he just kept talking to me until I started talking, just like Selina and Alfred did. Turned out he wasn't like his publicity at all, that he was a really nice guy, when you're on his side. He finally said to me, ‘Metamorpho wants to sponsor you for membership in the Outsiders. If you're willing, I'd like to give you the chance.' And you know the rest."
Halo nodded, soberly. "I remember when he introduced you to us. Gosh, you seemed so shy. I didn't even know what you'd been going through."
Rainie nodded, then moistened her lips. "It was just what I put myself through. I can see that now, that I was making myself a freak in my own mind a lot more than people made me in theirs. I thought that I'd turn them off, but...my gawd, you wouldn't believe some of the offers of marriage I've gotten in the mail! And a lot of it isn't even for marriage!"
"Oh, I'd believe it!" said Looker, and cracked up. "You should see the mail my manager wouldn't let me see!"
Katana said, "You are stronger than you know, Rainie. A weaker woman might have gone insane from the transformation you underwent. Or from the isolation you imposed upon yourself. But you did not. You are anything but a freak. You are a strong woman, and a good woman. And you are our friend...and my friend."
Element Girl elongated her arms and crushed all three women to her in a powerful hug.
The other three decided, without saying it, to save their origin stories for a later time.
In another place, a man was being suspended by his wrists over seething liquid.
There were sixteen other men in the chamber, one of whom sat on a portable throne. All of them were masked and costumed. There were also two women, neither of whom was masked or costumed. One of them only wore a scanty bikini, and lounged by the throne of her lord.
At any other place and time, the bound man's attention might have been distracted by the two ladies. But this was hardly the occasion for such thoughts.
The man tried to keep himself above the acidic waters by flipping his legs above his head and catching the edge of the lowering mechanism with them. It worked, but only for a few more seconds.
The hanging edge of his white trenchcoat dipped into the liquid.
"Kobra," said the man, very coldly, "you are a lousy, motherloving son of a b--"
That was all he had time to get out before the liquids stolen from the Lazarus Pit covered him.
Kobra looked impassively at the waters of transformation, into which his guest was now fully emerged. He said nothing for the full eight minutes the trenchcoated man spent in them.
Finally, the mechanism began to rise again, hydraulically. The captive's hands were seen first, clenching and unclenching in fury. The rest of his body emerged, and his eyes were vacant, fierce, and terrible. He hung above the Pit, thrashing not in pain, but in rage.
Kobra did not say anything, and his soldiers were too afraid to. The unclad woman looked upon the thrashing man with a hint of sadistic arousal. The other woman looked on, trying to mask her numbed horror.
Eventually, the rage passed, and the man hung from the wrist-holders, breathing a bit heavily. He looked upon Kobra and his men without anger.
The master of the horde made a motion with his finger. A cult member at the controls of the lowering device had its holding arm swing the captive onto the lip of the second Lazarus Pit, setting his feet on the solid marble, and then releasing his wrists. The man's arms came down, and he brushed his soggy clothing, then rotated his arms to get the kinks out of his shoulders.
"Tell me your name," said Kobra.
The man looked at Kobra, then fumbled in his coat pocket for smokes. But the cigarettes were chemical-sodden and unsmokable. So he stuck his hands in his pockets and faced his host.
"King Faraday," he said.
Kobra gave the slightest of nods. "What is it that you do?"
"Spy. American counter-intelligence. Done that for a long time."
"You do know the Batman?"
Faraday laughed. "Hell, yes. Worked with him a couple of times. Including that big one with Ra's Al Ghul. Glad he was around then, or I'd be a mine slave now. Or dead."
Kobra leaned forward a bit. "I wish you to help me kill him."
The spy looked at Kobra curiously for a moment, and ran a hand through his still-damp hair.
Then he shrugged. "Sure. Tell me when and how you want to do it."