Ray had chosen Bakersfield carefully. It was large enough to disappear in, small enough that most superheroes and supervillains alike tended to overlook it. It was exactly what he needed.
Of course, that didn’t mean that the city was free of run-of-the-mill criminals, and right now Ray was crouched by the mouth of an alleyway, listening to a mugging take place.
Crap, he thought, crap crap crap, what do normal people do in situations like this? His hands fluttered over the pockets of his jeans and he felt the outline of his cell phone. Right. They called the police, of course.
Ray pulled his phone out but didn’t get further than dialling 9 and 1 before someone darted past him and went straight into the alleyway. He was short and had shoulder length black hair, but beyond that Ray wasn’t sure what he looked like. A mask covered most of his face and he was dressed in black and green, the sort of brightly coloured outlandish clothing that only a superhero would wear. He was even wearing gloves.
Ray looked around into the alleyway. The newcomer had gone after the mugger and they were fighting. It seemed pretty one-sided; the superhero obviously had some kind of martial-arts training and moved easily out of the way of the mugger’s strikes. Less than a minute later, the mugger was pinned on the ground.
The mugger’s would-be victim had picked himself up and straightened his glasses. “You’re Bulletproof!” he exclaimed, seeming way more excited about that than concerned over the fact he’d nearly been robbed.
“Yeah,” said the superhero with a grin. He looked over at Ray. “Did you call the cops?”
“Oh, right,” said Ray, quickly making the call. He’d done his research before he’d left New York, of course. It would have been stupid not to. Bulletproof was one of Bakersfield’s resident superhero gang, the Runners. Stupid name. His powers were nothing more than extremely good senses, which he backed up with hand-to-hand combat skills.
“That was awesome!” the kid was saying when Ray got off the phone. “He nearly stabbed you, and you grabbed his arm without even looking! Say, um...”
The kid pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, and Bulletproof dutifully took them. “What’s your name?” he asked a little wearily, and the kid bounced.
“It’s Brendon,” he said, “Brendon with an ‘o’.” He bounced on the balls of his feet as Bulletproof scribbled. “It’s like you’ve got spidey-sense,” he exclaimed.
Bulletproof scowled. “Yeah, just like that,” he snapped. “Except I’m not a whiny little punk.” His crabbiness didn’t seem to deflate Brendon’s excitement at all. Ray wondered if all the supers in town were this douchey. He lifted his head, looking back towards the street, and said “The cops are nearly here. I’ve got to go.” A few seconds later Ray started to hear the sirens too. Bulletproof walked a few steps away and then stopped. “Fuck,” he said. “Make sure to, like, stay safe and shit!” He waved before jogging away.
“Thanks!” Brendon called after him. He looked over at Ray. “Wasn’t that amazing?” he asked.
“Which part, the bit where you nearly got mugged?” Ray couldn’t help asking.
Brendon waved a hand dismissively. “Getting to meet Bulletproof,” he said happily. He held up the signed scrap of paper. “Spencer’s going to be so jealous,” he added. “He won’t admit it, but he totally will be.”
Cops spilled into the alley and arrested the mugger, and then took statements from Brendon and Ray. They frowned when Ray’s address was a cheap motel in a shitty part of town, but Ray just shrugged at them. He didn’t like it either, but he hadn’t had time to find an apartment yet. He really needed to find a job first, and he’d only arrived in Bakersfield that morning.
Still, he was the one who’d called the mugging in, which seemed to quell whatever suspicions the cops had, and the whole thing was over with thirty minutes later. The cops left with their arrested mugger, giving another warning to Brendon about staying out of alleys, and then it was just him and Ray.
“So,” said Brendon, looking at him with only slightly less admiration than he’d shown Bulletproof, “Does that mean you’re looking for a place to stay?”
Brendon lived in a three bedroom house in quite a nice suburb. It seemed way nicer than someone on Brendon’s budget should be able to afford – he was a college student, he said, living off scholarships and student loans – but it all made sense when Ray learned he had three roommates and needed one more.
It was a lot of people in one house, but appealing nonetheless. He wouldn’t be able to afford anything half as nice if he wanted to live by himself, and as far as potential roommates went, Brendon and the other three seemed nice enough. They’d doubled up in two of the bedrooms, so Ray would be able to have one to himself.
That was assuming that Brendon’s friends agreed to let him stay. Ryan had barely deigned to notice his arrival, and Jon had greeted him with a friendly smile and handshake, but Spencer seemed to need some more convincing.
“And then Bulletproof gave me his autograph!” Brendon was saying, waving the scrap of paper under Spencer’s nose which didn’t seem to distract his glare from Ray at all. Ray was sort of impressed. “It was awesome!”
“You think we should rent the spare room to this guy because he helped you get Bulletproof’s autograph?” Spencer asked, his voice low and sceptical.
“Well, no,” said Brendon. “But he called the cops. It’s almost like he’s a superhero too!”
Ray winced and tried to hide it, tried to dredge up a non-threatening smile. Almost like a superhero. He could work with that.
Spencer scrutinised him and Ray wondered how such a young kid managed to be so intimidating. His eyes flicked over the guitar cases and he asked, “Musician?”
“Yeah,” said Ray.
“You found work yet?”
“Not yet. I’ve filled out a few applications but haven’t heard back. I just got into town yesterday.”
Spencer seemed to be considering the idea but at that moment Ryan reappeared, acoustic guitar in hand, and said, “What do you play?”
“That’s not really relevant, Ryan,” Spencer protested, but Ray was always keen for a chance to talk about music, and after half an hour of enthusiastic discussion (maybe a little more) and some jamming (not that much, his and Ryan’s tastes didn’t overlap a whole lot) he had found a place to stay.
Ray hoped he’d be able to pick up some session work and live gigs as he settled into the new town, but in the meantime he was going to need regular work, so he picked up a job in a music store a short drive from his new home. He worked nine to five four days a week, and sometimes weekends too. He had the time for it, now.
When he wasn’t working, Brendon and his roommates made pretty good company. They were all into music, which was cool, and they were all, to varying degrees, superhero fanboys, which was annoying but tolerable.
Ryan was the least overt about it, but Ray had seen the posters tacked up on his bedroom wall. There was one of The Phoenix, and Decaydance, and there was actually a framed, signed photograph of him standing next to Masterstroke on the dresser. There was a large, blank space on the wall where it looked like a poster had recently been taken down, but Ray didn’t ask about it, afraid of what he might find out.
Jon had more of a professional interest. He was the one who’d taken that photo of Ryan and Masterstroke. He worked freelance for a few different local magazines, covering local events. He’d photographed The Runners a few times, which made Ray look at him a bit differently. Superheroes were picky about who they’d let photograph them, and it suggested that Jon had to be a pretty decent guy. So far, that assumption seemed to be spot on.
Brendon was the most enthusiastic. For days after the attempted mugging, he was giddy about having Bulletproof’s signature and mentioned it at every opportunity. Spencer did seem a little envious, but really Brendon’s excitement was enough to make the other three look restrained.
Spencer, now, he tried to play it cool, but usually he failed utterly. He had, not one or two, but six posters of Aftershock hanging in his room, and one of them was signed.
Aftershock was the one downside to living in Bakersfield. Ray had done his research and eventually decided that the risk was acceptable, but still. Aftershock had the most raw power out of the three Runners. He could probably have joined a higher profile superhero group, or even become a solo super in a major city, except for one thing. His power – his main power, the one he was named for – was a stun attack, and when it was used on another super it gave him the ability to read their powers. That was the sort of thing other that made other supers uneasy. They guarded their identities closely.
All Aftershock would need to do was stun Ray and he would know exactly who he was. It was unlikely to happen, of course. Provided Ray gave Aftershock no reason to think he was anything other than an ordinary citizen, there was no reason to worry about Aftershock discovering his alter ego. And he wouldn’t. That was all in the past now.
The thing about supers, the thing that made them super, wasn’t the powers. Not all supers had powers. The Phoenix didn’t, and he was basically a legend. Supers were super because they had the drive to help people, to risk themselves on behalf of others. And unfortunately it didn’t go away just because Ray wanted it to.
It was Ray’s lunch break and he’d walked across the road to the mall to get a sandwich at the food court. He was standing in line reading the menu when he heard some sort of commotion from the other end of the mall.
A mustard-coloured gas was creeping through the air towards him. Ray dropped to the ground and pulled his shirt up to cover his mouth and nose. Farther along the food court, closer to where the gas was coming from, people were already dropping.
Ray thought rapidly. The Taint was a supervillain who lived in or near Bakersfield, and his powers included a poisonous but not deadly gas. He seemed like the most likely culprit for this, and as Ray watched, a short, balding man stepped into view. He was wearing yellow and green, with some kind of silvery metal band around his head and a mildly deranged expression.
Out of habit, Ray swiped his phone out of his pocket and quickly tapped a message to the owner of the music store, Brian. ‘Might be late getting back,’ he wrote. ‘There’s a problem at the mall.’
It was only after he’d hit send that he realised what a stupid impulse that was. Normal people who got caught up in supervillain attacks contacted the police, who either intervened themselves or contacted the superheroes to send in. Only supers thought about coming up with excuses for not being where they were supposed to be. Only supers didn’t bother calling the police because the person most equipped to deal with the threat was already there. Ray had to stop thinking like that.
The Taint was walking into the mall now, breathing another cloud of poisonous gas ahead of him. Light glinted off a metal blade held in his hand. “Tremble before The Taint!” he bellowed, and everyone who was still conscious cowered. Ray rolled his eyes. Imagination was not a common supervillain quality.
Ray was debating the merits of sneaking away and finding help against knocking The Taint out – no one was looking at him and he thought he could get away with it – but he was spared having to decide when the sliding doors at the other end of the mall opened and Aftershock stepped through them.
The Taint was Aftershock’s nemesis. Really, Ray supposed he was the nemesis of all the Runners, but it was Aftershock he seemed to focus on. He pointed one arm that way and bellowed “We meet again!”
Aftershock didn’t look all that impressed, although it was hard to tell under the yellow mask which said ‘Good Luck’. Ray blinked at it, a little confused. What kind of superhero mask was that?
The Taint threw something towards Aftershock, who deflected it with his psychic shield. The weapon – a small throwing star – rebounded and returned to The Taint’s hand. He reared back and made ready to throw it again.
Ray edged across the floor towards the counter of the sandwich shop, hoping that he might be able to get behind it somehow. The two supers were moving towards one another and so converging on Ray’s position on the ground. Ray’s hands found the cool metal of the counter, and he felt his way towards the gate without taking his eyes off the battle happening in front of him.
Aftershock was trying to stun The Taint – at least, that’s what Ray figured he was doing. Each time he raised his right hand, a flash of faint white light shot towards the supervillain, and the metal band around The Taint’s head glowed for a second before returning to normal. Ray figured it must be a device to neutralise Aftershock’s stunning powers. The Taint was attacking with his throwing stars, and Aftershock was able to shield himself each time. Neither of them could gain the upper hand.
Ray found the gap in the counter and slid through, leaning over to look through the glass case and see what was happening. The Taint was standing over one of the unconscious shoppers, and reached down to grab their collar with one hand and hold a throwing star to her throat with the other.
Shit. This was getting out of hand. Aftershock’s body language changed, became more tense and cautious and watchful. Ray stuck his head up just enough to see over the top of the counter. Aftershock stilled, raising his hands and keeping them open. Ray itched to do something, but he couldn’t, not with The Taint’s blade so close to the woman’s throat. It was a standoff.
The Taint straightened up slightly, lifting his hostage and backing away. “Don’t try to follow me!” he snarled. “There’s nothing you can do to stop me now, I’m immune!” He was edging back towards the main doors of the mall. Aftershock took a step towards him, but The Taint pressed down with his blade, opening a shallow cut on the woman’s throat.
Aftershock immediately stepped back. “Don’t hurt her,” he said. “I’m backing off.” His voice quavered. The Taint lifted the blade away slightly, and Ray took the opportunity, releasing a powerful energy blast which knocked the supervillain off his feet.
The force knocked The Taint a few feet to the side; Ray was capable of more powerful attacks, but he didn’t want to risk harming the woman The Taint was holding hostage. The Taint dropped her and looked spooked, searching the area with a wild expression in his eyes. Ray ducked down behind the counter and hoped he hadn’t been seen. Aftershock seemed startled but obviously didn’t want to let anything distract him from The Taint. Ray hoped that would last; one of Aftershock’s powers was some kind of enhanced vision and while Ray didn’t think it extended to x-ray vision the possibility worried him.
“This isn’t over,” The Taint snarled, and he began to run for the doors. Aftershock chased after him with one look towards where Ray was hiding. Ray waited until he was sure they were gone, and then, after making sure no one was looking his way, he slid back under the counter and made his way back to the music store as fast as he could.
He had an excuse all ready for Brian, but the other man didn’t seem too concerned.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked. “The effects of the gas usually wear off pretty quick, but some people react badly to it.”
“I’m sure,” said Ray. “I didn’t breathe it in, I got out of there as fast as I could and hid until I could get away.”
Brian seemed to buy that, and Ray got back to work, noticing as he did that Brian had been working the register by himself. “Where’s Mikey?” Ray asked.
“Oh, he went to clean up the back rooms before Frank starts teaching tonight,” said Brian. “That was a while ago, actually. He should be done by now.”
So Ray headed into the back of the store, where Frank taught guitar lessons and Greta taught piano lessons in the evenings, to check up on Mikey. He wasn’t in the break room, the store room or the lesson rooms, and Ray was about to go back and tell Brian he’d disappeared when the door to the tiny bathroom opened and Mikey stepped out.
“Hey,” said Ray, feeling kind of awkward. “Brian was wondering where you’d gone.”
Mikey rolled his eyes. “Does he want me to let him know every time I go to the bathroom now?” He wasn’t wearing his glasses. As Ray watched, he pulled them out of a pocket and started to polish them on the hem of his shirt. Ray gave a quiet laugh and walked back to the front of the shop, but he noticed on the way that the trash hadn’t been taken out. If Mikey had really been cleaning up, he hadn’t got very far.
The incident was on the news that night, just a brief segment sandwiched between a story about forest fires in Washington and something about a local football player being injured. It seemed like the reporters didn’t know much of what had actually happened; there was no mention of a third super being there much to Ray’s relief.
“What was it like?” Spencer asked, and Ray tried to think what he could tell him.
“Kind of scary,” he said, “but I wasn’t there for much of it. I snuck out and ran. The Taint never saw me.”
“He means, what was it like to see Aftershock,” Ryan said, his voice going high and fluttery on the last word.
“Shut up, dick,” Spencer snapped. “We all know what you’d be like if you ran into Soundwave.”
As soon as the name left Spencer’s lips a chilly silence fell on the room. No one was looking at anyone else. Ray tried to keep his face still, keep from giving anything away. He stole a glance at Ryan and saw that his expression was blank and cold.
“If I ran into Soundwave,” Ryan said in an emotionless voice, “I wouldn’t care.”
Ray shifted in his seat, and Jon looked at him. He worried that he was blushing or fidgeting or revealing himself through some other tell, but Jon only smiled faintly and looked away again.
“It was an accident,” said Spencer.
“That’s not the point!” Ryan said. “Of course it was an accident, I know that, everyone knows that! But after, he just left.”
“He didn’t want to,” said Ray without thinking. “The other New York supers asked him to leave.”
The four of them looked at him and Ray quietly panicked. Shit. They probably wouldn’t have heard that; he didn’t think the supers would have spread that information around to just anyone. “That’s what I heard, anyway,” he added quickly, hoping that he’d covered well enough.
“That’s awful!” Brendon exclaimed, looking upset. “Superhero teams are supposed to be like family; they’re supposed to take care of one another.”
“That is pretty stupid of them, if it is what happened,” said Jon thoughtfully. “Sometimes accidents happen, things go wrong. Super or not, they’re still human. The public has to accept that.”
They all nodded and Ray looked down at his hands. That was the crux of it. Public opinion could be fickle. People loved supers when they saved people, hated them when they failed. Ray’s old team had got scared, worried that people would turn on them, so they’d acted to make sure that they turned on Ray instead.
They split up after that; Brendon went to practice one of the millions of instruments he was learning to play for his music degree and Spencer had a paper to write. Jon went to call his girlfriend and that left Ryan and Ray sitting in the living room with nothing to do.
“Want to put a movie on?” Ray suggested after a moment.
“Sure,” said Ryan. “Like what? I picked up Life is Beautiful last week, or I’ve got the Three Colours trilogy in my room somewhere...”
“We’re watching The Rock,” said Ray, sliding the DVD case off the shelf. “If you want popcorn, you should go make it now before it starts.”
Ryan made a face but didn’t protest. Ray had figured out that, although he genuinely liked the pretentious films that comprised his collection, Ryan really did enjoy trashy action movies as well. For some reason Ryan thought he couldn’t admit it without invalidating his hipster credibility, but if someone forced him to sit down and watch ninety minutes of explosions he would always have a good time.
Despite Ray’s warning, Ryan made him stop the movie halfway through so he could go and make popcorn. He grabbed some of Spencer’s chocolate out of the fridge as well, and poured them both a glass of soda, and by the time the movie was over Ray didn’t really want to move, even to turn off the DVD player. Ryan was half asleep and leaning against his shoulder. But Ray knew he had classes the next day and wouldn’t be pleased if he was left to spend the night on the couch.
“Ryan,” he whispered, nudging Ryan’s shoulder gently. “Ryan. Wake up.”
“Mmmm,” said Ryan. He turned his head to push his face deeper into the crook between Ray’s neck and shoulder. It was cute, and Ray let himself enjoy it for a minute before nudging Ryan again.
“Ryan, you need to go to bed,” Ray murmured. “And so do I. It’s almost midnight. Come on.”
Ryan swatted at Ray’s chest with one hand, but he finally sat up and opened his eyes. “Tired,” he grumbled.
“That’s why it’s a bad idea to stay here,” Ray explained helpfully, standing up and lifting Ryan up too. It took a moment for Ryan to find his footing, and he leaned into Ray’s chest for that moment, still sleepy and loose. Ray’s breath caught for a moment until he reminded himself to breathe normally.
“Thanks,” Ryan mumbled. “You know, for... tonight was good.”
“Yeah,” Ray agreed, letting his arms tighten around Ryan for just a second. “It was.”
Ryan dragged himself upstairs but Ray was pretty thirsty from eating three quarters of a bowl of popcorn, and stopped in the kitchen to get a glass of water. He hadn’t realised that Spencer was still up, but he was sitting at the kitchen table when Ray walked in.
“Hey, Spence,” he said as he took a clean glass off the dish rack. “You’re up late.”
Spencer didn’t reply straight away. Ray filled his glass and took a long drink, looking at Spencer over the top of it.
“Ryan really looks up to you, you know,” said Spencer at last, his voice even.
“What?” said Ray, trying to ignore the chill that crept over him. “Ryan’s only known me for a few weeks. I don’t understand.”
“Shut up,” Spencer retorted. Ray did. He’d faced down some serious supervillains in his day, but somehow, none of them had been quite as intimidating as Spencer Smith. “It’s not my place to share the details, but Ryan’s been through a lot of shit, and it was always you he talked about when he needed to feel better. Saving the world through music. I don’t know exactly what happened in New York but Ryan took the news pretty badly.”
“As badly as me?” Ray asked, because he could respect a good ‘treat my friend right’ speech, but that was out of line.
Spencer, to his credit, blushed a deep red. “Fair point,” he allowed. “That’s not my business, I won’t butt into what happened-”
“Big of you.”
“-but if you screw around with Ryan’s feelings you’ll have to deal with me. I don’t care if you turn me into a frog.”
“I can’t turn people into anything,” said Ray. “And I’m not going to screw around with Ryan’s feelings.”
Spencer smiled at him. “Then we won’t have any problems, will we?” He walked to the doorway and paused there, looking back over his shoulder. “And if you’re really going to try with him, you should think about telling him the truth. I’m not great at keeping secrets from Ryan.” He left the room quietly and Ray nearly dropped his glass when he tried to drink the last swallow from it. If that kid hadn’t already been investigated for supervillain tendencies, he probably should be.
The problem with the Runners, Ray mused as he rang up several boring purchases in a row, was that they had no offensive capabilities to speak of. Bulletproof was a good martial artist, sure, but no better than any regular human could be with lots of training. His super senses made him harder to hit, but that was all. Masterstroke’s claim to fame was his ability to paint things which became real. It was a limitless power in theory, but in practice, by the time the finishing touches were put on the impenetrable supervillain containment cell, the supervillain would probably have vaporised the entire city with their death ray. Aftershock was the only one with an attack ability worth taking notice of, and even that was only a temporary stunning attack. Its effects lasted less than a minute; Ray had done the research.
It had him worried; Ray could admit that to himself even if he couldn’t think of anyone he could discuss his concerns with. There wasn’t anyone who would really understand where he was coming from, not in Bakersfield. Maybe Spencer, who knew who he was now, but... no.
Once the line at the register was gone, a customer wanted Ray to explain the difference between steel and nylon guitar strings and he pulled down a few different guitars to demonstrate the sound. He meant to play just a few simple riffs, nothing fancy, but he tended to forget himself once he had an instrument in his hands and the scattered applause from the other customers in the store came as a shock. The customer made their choice and left, but once things in the store had quietened down Mikey said, “Hey, can you play something else?”
Ray was surprised but happy to oblige. He played through the rest of the afternoon, each time there was a quiet moment, while Mikey made more and more ridiculous requests. It was an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon until Brian turned up and blinked at Ray like he was a two-headed lizard.
“Uh...” Ray’s fingers stuttered to a halt of their own accord, flattening themselves over the guitar strings to silence the noise. “Sorry?”
Brian didn’t seem to take much notice of the apology. “You mentioned you could play,” he said. “When did you start?”
“I would have been... eleven? Twelve maybe?” Ray answered, trying to remember.
“Sounds like you know your stuff,” said Brian.
“Yeah, I used to play a few clubs in New York,” said Ray, and he rattled off the names, trying to guess which ones Brian would be likely to recognise. He must have done okay because Brian nodded and looked impressed.
“Ever done any teaching?” Brian wondered, and Ray started to suspect where this was going.
“A little. Not much.”
“Right,” Brian said with a nod. He rolled his eyes. “Frank can’t do his lessons tonight, he’s not well,” he said, and Ray guessed there was an unspoken ‘again’ left off the end of that sentence. “And there isn’t anyone to cover for him, unless you could do it?”
Ray considered it. He wouldn’t mind, teaching was more interesting than working in the shop and the money was better. “Sure,” he said.
“Is Frank okay?” Mikey asked from his position behind the register.
“Yeah,” said Brian. “Just a bad cold, from the sound of it. He thinks he’ll be better by tomorrow. If Ray teaches this afternoon, can you keep an eye on the shop by yourself?”
“I guess,” said Mikey, although he didn’t sound sure. “I might give Frank a call, though, in case he needs someone to come check up on him. You know what he’s like.”
Brian nodded in a familiar way that suggested he really did know what Frank was like, and then got on with explaining who Frank’s guitar students were and what they were learning. The lessons started at three and would run until nine, which made Ray realise that... “Fuck!”
“Something wrong?” Brian asked, all business.
“I left my keys at home,” Ray said. “If I’m going to be out late, no one will be home to let me in.” The others all had plans. Jon apparently had a date, Ryan was dragging Brendon to see some pretentious play and Spencer had a shift at the restaurant where he worked.
So Ray hustled off to the break room where he’d left his phone. He was at the door when he realised Mikey was in there, talking on his cell to someone he supposed must be Frank.
“Seriously, don’t give me any bullshit,” Mikey hissed. “If you’re not actually sick and you’re just trying to cover up the fact that you’re doing something you should have backup for...” Mikey turned slightly and noticed Ray, who waved an apology and backed out of the room. It seemed like a private conversation.
It seemed like an odd conversation, really. It sounded like Mikey thought Frank wasn’t actually sick, and while he certainly wouldn’t be the first person to fake an illness to get out of work, what Mikey had said suggested there was more to it than that. It got Ray thinking, but he knew he couldn’t let it become more than idle speculation. There were plenty of perfectly ordinary explanations for what he’d overheard, and even if there was something more to it, supers respected the secret identities of other supers. Not doing so was unthinkable.
Eventually Ray managed to get a text message to Jon, who replied that he would drop the keys off, and then Frank’s students started turning up. Ray came out of a lesson an hour or so later to find Spencer standing at the counter talking with Mikey. Spencer held the keys out and Ray walked over to collect them.
“I thought Jon...” he said stupidly. He hadn’t been trying to avoid Spencer exactly, he just hadn’t really been ready to see him again after the previous night.
“He’s flipping out about his date,” Spencer said with an eyeroll. “So I said I’d drop these off on my way to work.”
“Ray,” said Mikey with a touch of censure in his voice. “You didn’t tell me that you knew cool people.”
Spencer preened and Ray tried not to gag. “Have you been waiting long?” he asked Spencer pointedly.
“A few minutes,” Spencer answered.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
Spencer sighed and stepped away from the counter. “Yeah, I’m gonna be late if I don’t hurry up.” He glanced back towards Mikey. “Next time, though...” he said, grinning.
“Oh, yeah,” Mikey agreed, his lips curving up in a definite smile. “I’ll call you. I’ll get your number off Ray.”
Will you? Ray wondered irritably. “See you later, Spencer,” he said, annoyed.
Spencer hurried out of the store, waving over his shoulder at the two of them – mostly at Mikey, if Ray was being honest.
“What type of music does he listen to?” Mikey wondered as they watched Spencer leave. “Because I was planning to go to this show next week...”
“He’s twenty,” Ray said instead of answering Mikey’s question.
“Yes, and I’m twenty-six,” Mikey retorted, giving nothing away. “Not ninety-six. And Frank’s next student is waiting for you.”
Ray walked away and tried to put Spencer the Hypocrite out of his mind. He had more important things to do. By the time he’d finished the evening’s lessons, the shop was closed. Brian had locked the front door and Ray and the last student exited through the back. He waved goodbye to the kid and was about to head home himself when Brian stopped him.
“Would you be interested in doing some more teaching?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Ray without having to think about it too hard.
“Frank only teaches a couple of nights a week – his schedule’s a bit too unpredictable for him to commit to more. I keep having to turn prospective students down because there isn’t the space for them. I could probably organise a night or two of teaching for you each week, if you want.”
“That would be great,” Ray said enthusiastically.
“Give me a week or so to sort things out, then. I’ll let you know.”
Ray went home with a spring in his step.
When he got home, the house was quiet, and he put the news on just for some noise while he made a quick dinner. The news bulletin quickly demanded his attention, though, and he sat on the couch to watch it while his tinned soup went cold.
There had been a high number of missing person reports in the last week. Thirty-five, the newsreader said. The police had no leads, and the channel had tried to reach the Runners for comment but failed.
Ray flicked through the other stations, who were all playing similar reports and didn’t seem to have any additional information. None of them seemed willing to offer up speculation about what was going on.
Ray had a theory, though. He didn’t like it, but this was a pattern he was familiar with, something he’d seen before. He switched the TV off and tried to finish his lukewarm soup. That wasn’t his life anymore. He didn’t have to worry about that stuff now. He was just a normal guy, and this sort of problem belonged to the police and the Runners.
Ray took his bowl into the kitchen to wash. His cell phone buzzed on the counter and he picked it up to find a message from Brendon. The play had been cut short and police were instructing people to return to their homes and stay indoors. Brendon and Ryan would be home soon.
This wasn’t a problem Ray could ignore. Not if he was right about the cause, and he was pretty sure he was. The Runners were going to be trounced if he was right.
Accepting that he really was going to go looking for the source of the trouble, Ray got dressed and ready to go out. He eyed the guitar case he kept hidden in his closet – not the guitar he played for Ryan sometimes, but the other one, the one The Phoenix had made for him. It didn’t feel right to go out on a mission like this without it, but taking his guitar along would be like sending a message to the whole world that Soundwave was back. He wasn’t ready to do that, so he just took his cell phone, wallet and keys, like he was walking to the store.
He spent a bit of time with Google Maps first, figuring out where in Bakersfield he needed to look. After taking some detailed notes and scribbling a rough map, he was ready to go.
He’d sold his car when he left New York, and spent the money on random train and bus tickets until he decided he needed to stop somewhere. He’d spent what was left on a fifteen-year old Honda Civic, scratches down the passenger side and a large dent in the rear bumper. But the nice thing about the car was that no one would give it a second look, especially not in the run down industrial neighbourhoods he was planning to investigate.
It was the early hours of the morning before Ray found what he was looking for. A warehouse that, according to all the information he could find, was supposed to be abandoned, but clearly wasn’t. Two guards were stationed at the door. The windows flickered with light, from flashlights and gas lanterns by the look of it. Ray drove past, trying not to make himself conspicuous by driving too slow. He parked the car a short distance away and wondered if he should risk going in for a closer look. It was a big risk, and stealth had never really been his thing, but he needed to see if his suspicions were right.
He didn’t walk right up to the warehouse doors, but kept to the streets nearby, listening and waiting. He was careful not to go too far from the car after passing a few parked vehicles with several days’ worth of parking tickets on them. It wasn’t a big thing, but seeing three in a fairly small area made him wary. He didn’t want to end up being jumped by whoever was scheming in the warehouse.
Ray felt horribly naked without his guitar. With it, he could move quickly and be immune to harm, but unfortunately not silent, which was why he’d left it behind. But without it, he had no real defence if something went wrong.
He turned a corner and saw someone approaching from further up the street. He recognised a police uniform and tried to look like he was going somewhere, but prepared himself to be stopped and questioned. The cop didn’t even seem to see him, though, his gait not changing at all. He walked with stilted, almost robotic movements, and Ray felt a chill down his spine. He got close enough to look the other man in the eye and knew that he needed to do it, even though it would make him more noticeable.
The man didn’t look at Ray, even when he passed close enough that their shoulders touched. His eyes were covered in a grey film which rendered the pupil almost indistinguishable from the iris. Ray kept his shoulders stiff and didn’t look back over his shoulder even though his every nerve was screaming at him to do so. He needed to summon all the self-discipline he had not to break into a run until he was well around the corner. He reached his car and pulled away from the curb, not caring about the screech of tires he left behind. Ray’s suspicions were confirmed, but that didn’t mean he had to be pleased about it.
He’d seen eyes like that before. The Taint had teamed up with Cogito.
Once Ray had learned what he needed to know, he realised that it was of limited use unless he could pass the information along to someone in a position to do something with it. He couldn’t face down these two supervillains by himself. The trouble was he wasn’t sure who to tell, even if he could figure out how. An anonymous tip to the police wouldn’t do the trick; he’d passed one cop while he was there, and the man had already been under Cogito’s mind control. The police weren’t going to be any use.
Unfortunately, talking to the Runners posed a lot of the same problems. Ray didn’t really think they were up to fighting Cogito and The Taint working together. Finding them to explain what he knew would be a challenge, not to mention dealing with questions about who he was and why they should trust him. Ray didn’t really want to deal with that.
Once Ray had eliminated those options, there was really only one left. It was the one he’d been trying to avoid – his whole reason for coming to Bakersfield was to try to leave the superhero life behind. But he had to be realistic; few supers ever managed to retire properly. He’d always known it was a long shot.
It was getting close to dawn and Ray knew he needed to return home. If he was really going to do this, he needed to organise a few things.
He pulled into the driveway and Spencer and Jon came out of the front door, waving at him.
“You’re back!” Jon exclaimed. “You’re back! Oh my God, are Brendon and Ryan with you?”
“Huh?” Ray asked, taken aback by the fervent welcome. “No, they’re... aren’t they here?”
“They haven’t been home since last night,” Spencer answered gravely. “We thought... we were hoping they were with you, and that you’d all gone... somewhere.”
“A heap more people have gone missing,” Jon added, the words carrying just a touch of hysteria. “And people have been attacked in the streets... the police caught a few of the people involved, but most of them are still at large. There’s a rumour that Cogito’s here, and working with The Taint.”
Well. Ray involuntarily looked at Spencer, who was gazing back at him, unflinching. “Did you try calling their cells?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Jon. “And yours. None of you were answering.”
Ray flushed and fished his cell out of his pocket, turning it back on. He’d had to turn it off while he was sneaking around, and then he’d forgotten about it. He grimaced when the screen lit up and revealed that he had three unread texts and seven missed calls.
“We were really worried about you,” said Spencer, and Ray felt awful.
“Sorry,” he said, scrolling through the missed calls. One was from Brian, and he’d left a voicemail. “I didn’t realise.”
“What are we going to do about Ryan and Brendon?” Jon asked, while Spencer hustled everyone inside.
“There’s nothing we can do, Jon,” said Spencer gently. “We just have to wait.”
Ray listened to his voicemail and tried to pretend he couldn’t feel Spencer’s glare burning into the side of his face. ”Hey, Ray,” said Brian’s voice. ”I just wanted to let you know I’m not opening the store today, so you don’t need to come in. Mikey and Frank weren’t too keen on going out, and they’ve got a point. Stay safe.” Well, that was one thing taken care of.
Ray looked back to the others. Jon looked miserable. Spencer had an arm around his shoulders and was talking to him quietly, but he didn’t look any happier. Occasionally he sent a pissed off glare in Ray’s direction, but Ray thought he was starting to figure out how Spencer worked, and the anger was just his way of trying to cover up how worried he was.
Spencer was the problem, really. Too perceptive by half. If he hadn’t figured out who Ray really was, Ray would have just slipped out of the house while they were distracted and figured out a story later. But if he disappeared now, Jon would be worried and Spencer would be sure to cave and tell him the truth. He couldn’t just disappear.
“It’s okay,” he said with a sigh. “I’m going to go find Ryan, and bring him home.” He nodded to Spencer, then walked out of the room.
“You’re going to what?” Jon asked, following him. “You can’t! Come on, Ray, we’re all worried, but there’s nothing we can do. Cogito is seriously bad news.”
Ray walked into his bedroom and started pulling out clothes. Too bad he’d destroyed his old costume when he left New York; he was going to have to make do with whatever he had on hand. The other two didn’t take the hint and give him the privacy to get changed, though, instead piling into his room and making it unbearably crowded.
“What are you going to do?” Spencer asked. Ray didn’t bother to answer, instead going to the closet and opening the door. The guitar case sat right at the back where it was mostly hidden by clothes and junk. Ray pulled it out and laid it on the bed. It was locked, but he always kept the key close by.
“What is that?” Jon asked, but Spencer shushed him.
It was a seriously, ridiculously, over the top flashy guitar. Ray always thought it had been Decaydance’s idea of a practical joke; The Phoenix tended to listen to his ideas at the worst possible times. It was black and red and silver, to match the costume he’d thrown away. Ray supposed the instrument’s gaudiness had worked in his favour. No one had ever connected Ray Toro, big haired guitarist, with Soundwave, musical superhero. It was also probably one of the most recognisable guitars out there.
“That’s Soundwave’s guitar,” Jon breathed almost reverently. “You’re Soundwave?” He sounded like he didn’t quite believe it. “Spencer, are you seeing this?”
Spencer shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, sounding unaffected although his eyes kept flicking towards the guitar and his voice was a little higher pitched than usual. “I sort of figured it out a couple of days ago.”
Jon’s eyes bugged out. “You did not!”
“Yes, I did!”
Jon opened his mouth and Ray sensed that this was going to take a while. “I need to get changed,” he said firmly. “Out, both of you.”
He closed the door behind them but he could still hear Jon saying, “I can’t believe you knew, and you didn’t tell me!”
The sun was just coming up. Its bright orange fingers stretched out over Bakersfield, and Ray let them lead him to where he needed to be. A series of major arpeggios let him soar over the houses and offices, and he played a bit louder as he saw people looking out of windows to see what the noise was all about. They wouldn’t see anything; when he played he lost his physical form, it was what allowed him to travel so fast. But some of them might recognise him anyway.
He’d never been a stealthy superhero, and this was why. He could travel as fast as the waves of sound he created, but it meant people always heard him coming. He’d used it to his advantage; made the approach of Soundwave a thing that supervillains feared.
When he neared the warehouse, a bright red arrow shone in the air for a moment and then disappeared. Ray figured Masterstroke was behind it, and followed the arrow into a narrow side street where he landed in front of the three Runners.
They stood in silence for a few seconds, studying one another. It was Aftershock who spoke up first.
“So,” he said. “It was you, that day in the mall. I wondered.”
“Hey,” said Ray, trying to put the right note of superheroic confidence in his voice. “I thought you guys could use a hand.”
“What happened to your helmet?” Masterstroke asked. Ray rolled his eyes.
“I don’t have it anymore,” he said shortly. His hair was so distinctive, when he became a superhero the options had been to wear something that covered his head entirely or cut it off. This time, he’d had to make do with a scarf that wrapped around his head and covered his face. “What’s up with the hats?” he asked, noticing for the first time that the three of them were each wearing identical silvery skullcaps instead of their usual headwear.
“Anti-mind control hats,” Masterstroke said, tapping his with one finger. “I didn’t make one for you, though.”
“That’s okay,” said Ray. “Cogito won’t be able to get me while I’m...” He gestured towards his guitar and the other three nodded. “So what’s the plan?” He was the interloper; he really couldn’t come in and start throwing his weight around.
“Well,” said Masterstroke, a little testily, “It was to observe undetected for a while, but...”
Oops. “Sorry,” said Ray.
“People are coming,” Bulletproof said suddenly. “A lot of them. We need to move.” He bounced on the balls of his feet like he meant to run off then and there.
Ray peered around the corner to see a group of mind controlled minions coming their way. He directed an energy blast at them to buy some time.
“Be careful!” said Masterstroke. “They’re just civilians. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
“I know,” said Ray. “I’m holding back, I won’t hurt anyone.”
“There’s too many of them,” said Aftershock.
Ray nodded, but really, he was more worried about the fact that most of them were armed, some with knives, some with guns. “That could work to our advantage,” he realised. “The more minds Cogito tries to control, the more tenuous his grip is.”
“So we might be able to break it?” asked Masterstroke. “How?”
Ray looked at Aftershock. “I think stunning them would do the trick.”
Aftershock nodded at him, and they moved seamlessly into the street like they’d been fighting together for years. Masterstroke and Bulletproof stood either side of Aftershock and slightly in front of him, so that he could still shield either of them if he needed to. Ray didn’t need shielding and was able to move more freely; when he moved through the frequency of the music he lost his physical form and attacks passed straight through. He couldn’t use his energy blasts at the same time, though, and constantly changing back and forth between the two forms meant he was still at some risk.
His theory was correct; the people Aftershock stunned got up after a minute or so and ran away, free of Cogito’s control. The problem was that stunning didn’t seem to work on all of them; some of them were wearing the same type of band that had prevented Aftershock’s stun from working on The Taint.
Bulletproof wrestled one of the headband-wearing minions to the ground and yelled, “We need to pin these guys down somehow!”
“No civilian casualties, Bullet!” called Masterstroke.
“Come on, I barely touched him, he’ll be fine!” Bulletproof tried to dodge an attack from another minion while still restraining the one he was holding down. Ray hurried over to help him, dragging the second man back and pulling the gun out of his hand. The minion turned around and tried to hit him, and Ray was so shocked he almost didn’t block it in time.
It was Brendon. Ray grabbed his other arm and held him still, examining his headband. “It won’t come off,” he said. “We just need to restrain these guys and then deal with whoever’s inside.”
Masterstroke took care of that, painting bonds around their prisoners that he said couldn’t be broken by anyone else. They left them in a group on the street, and Ray looked over his shoulder at them as he reluctantly left Brendon behind. He knew they needed to keep going. Ryan was still unaccounted for.
“Better not get yourself killed then, or put in a coma, or those guys will be sitting there for a long time,” said Bulletproof as they advanced on the doors to the warehouse.
Masterstroke sighed. “You’re not as funny as you think you are, Bullet.”
“No one could be as funny as Bullet thinks he is,” added Aftershock, moving to shove open the doors.
“Oh, can I do that?” Ray asked. “I love this bit.” The other three looked at him quizzically, but stepped aside. Ray released an energy blast that not only blew the doors open, but knocked them clear off their hinges and into the room beyond.
Inside, the warehouse appeared to be deserted. “Avon calling?” Bulletproof called as they stepped through the empty doorway. Ray looked at him.
“What?” Bulletproof demanded. “You’ve got to say something when you break into the supervillain’s lair. Surely you’d know that.”
“Never really been an issue for me,” Ray admitted. The helmet had always made talking too much of a pain in the ass. Besides, his voice was pretty distinctive and so he’d always tried to keep quiet.
“Can you hear anything?” Masterstroke asked, and Bulletproof shook his head. “They’ve set up white noise generators,” he said, apparently for Ray’s benefit as the others didn’t seem surprised. “But I can smell The Taint. That way.” He pointed, and Masterstroke stopped in his tracks.
“Breathing masks, everyone,” he ordered, and the Runners pulled out what looked like white surgical masks to tie over their faces. Ray knew there had to be more to them than that, though. If Masterstroke had painted them, he could give them whatever qualities he wanted.
“Sorry,” said Masterstroke to Ray. “If I’d known you were coming...”
“It’s fine,” said Ray. He adjusted the scarf to cover his mouth better, and tapped the neck of his guitar meaningfully. Masterstroke nodded.
Bulletproof followed his nose further into the warehouse. Makeshift walls had been put up, erected out of stacked crates and empty cardboard boxes. They made their way through the maze until shayky light revealed that they’d found what they were looking for.
“Morning, boys,” said The Taint, from where he stood at the far end of the room. “Nice to see you again. Oh, and you’ve brought a friend.” He grinned at Ray, yellowing teeth standing out in his pallid face. “Is it you who gave me all that trouble at the mall a few days ago?”
“Soundwave,” said a different voice, and Ray’s skin prickled. Cogito stepped up beside The Taint and sneered at him. “I’m surprised to see you show your face... well, anywhere, after that messy business in New York.”
Ray clenched his jaw and reminded himself to focus. Cogito was just trying to throw him off balance.
“Give up, Cogito, you’re outnumbered,” he said instead. Cogito threw his head back and laughed.
“Are we?” he asked. “Well. What if I even up the odds a little?”
Ray had already begun to play before Cogito’s hands began to move. He was safe while he stayed in this form, but it was more difficult to maintain than usual. The white noise generators were interfering. Ray tried to get into a position where he could turn his energy blasts on the two supervillains, but he was reluctant to leave the protection of the music and take on a form that was susceptible to being mind-controlled.
The Runners moved in instead. Between their anti-mind control and poison fog gear, and Cogito and The Taint’s stun protection bracelets, all the relevant superpowers were effectively neutralised. It was kind of sad watching them brawl like a football team, particularly since only Bulletproof seemed to have any sort of unarmed combat skills.
Of course, The Taint and Cogito didn’t need to have unarmed combat skills when they had armed combat skills, and they both pulled out rather nasty looking weapons. The Taint had his throwing stars, of course, but he was also carrying some kind of high-tech looking gun. Cogito had a gun which was similar, but larger. Aftershock was able to use his shields and Bulletproof never seemed to be where the shots landed, and Ray hoped that that would be enough. He sped over to where three minions had been working, apparently building more of the anti-stun headbands. They were each wearing their own, but they hadn’t been wearing any protection to The Taint’s poisonous gas, and so they were all unconscious. At least Ray wouldn’t have to fight with them, but it did mean he’d have to carry them out.
He went to the nearest of them, lying face down on the floor, and when he rolled him over it was Ryan. Ray hoisted him over his shoulder and ran towards the exit, hoping that the Runners were distracting the supervillains enough to protect him. He got outside and gently set Ryan down. He didn’t want to leave him, but there were two more civilians inside and Ray wasn’t going to screw this up. The situation was eerily like the one that had gone wrong in New York, except that time he had been the one distracting the supervillain while the rest of his team was supposed to be rescuing the hostages. He had no way of knowing how long the Runners could keep Cogito and The Taint occupied, and he needed to move fast.
The second civilian was a woman a few years older than Ray. The battle was moving across the floor of the warehouse and it was hard to stay out of the way, but the Runners formed a wall to shield Ray from attacks and he got the woman outside safely.
Ryan was just stirring when Ray set the woman down beside him. He hesitated, knowing that he needed to go back in for the last civilian, but he realised that he also needed to make sure Ryan was free of the mind control before he left him. Ray watched Ryan’s eyelids flicker and waited until he got a glimpse of clear brown eyes, unclouded by grey. Then he ran.
They were having trouble inside the warehouse. When Ray got back inside, Cogito had Bulletproof cornered and The Taint blasted Masterstroke off his feet before Aftershock could shield him. Ray sent an energy blast at first The Taint and then Cogito, more powerful than the ones he’d used against the minions. He didn’t want to turn away from the fight, but he knew he had to trust the Runners to have his back while he rescued the last civilian, and he made himself go. It was an older man, heavier than the other two, and Ray wanted to run but he was getting tired. It hadn’t taken long for living a normal life to catch up with him; he was getting out of shape.
Outside, Ryan was sitting up, almost crouching over the woman who was just coming around. He stiffened when he saw Ray approached, but then blinked in disbelief when he caught sight of the guitar hanging from its strap across Ray’s back.
Ray lowered the man to the ground and looked at Ryan. There were so many things he should say that he couldn’t decide where to start. “Are you okay?” he asked, almost as a reflex.
Ryan didn’t react to Ray’s words, but he didn’t really seem hurt either. He blinked slowly and Ray wondered if he was still a bit dazed from the mind control.
“Soundwave?” he asked. “Are you really here?”
Ray sighed. It wasn’t the right time to have this conversation, or any conversation. He would have to deal with Ryan learning the truth about him eventually – Spencer had made it clear that he wasn’t going to keep Ray’s secret forever – but now he needed to focus on other things.
“Can you watch these two?” he asked. “I need to go help the others.”
He ran instead of using the guitar, and was rewarded when he managed to slip into the warehouse undetected. Cogito and The Taint had gained the upper hand again. Masterstroke appeared to be injured and was hanging back, painting something on the floor. Aftershock was battling The Taint, but Cogito had Bulletproof on the ground and had removed the hat protecting him from being mind controlled. Panicked and hoping he wasn’t too late, Ray blasted Cogito across the room. Bulletproof retrieved his hat and Ray felt a wave of relief.
“What are you making?” Ray asked Masterstroke.
“Something to melt off those headbands,” Masterstroke said, painting furiously. “If you can take it...”
“Yes,” said Ray. “Quick.”
Masterstroke finished working and Ray watched, fascinated, as the flat design painted on the floor slowly took shape. Masterstroke picked it up and wrapped it around Ray’s hand. It was light and thin enough that it wouldn’t interfere with normal hand movements, and Ray flexed his hand inside it.
“Just put your hand over the headband,” Masterstroke said. “It will melt right through the metal, but it shouldn’t do any physical harm.”
“They’re trying to kill us!” Ray said, standing up and readying his guitar.
“That doesn’t mean we have to stoop to their level.”
There was no time to argue with Masterstroke about whether that made any sense or not. Ray lifted his hand and began to play.
He went for The Taint first, because Aftershock was fighting him and he needed Aftershock to react the second the supervillains were vulnerable. He wrapped one hand around The Taint’s forehead and felt the metal bubble under his hand. The band fell away and The Taint tried to bring his gun around to shoot, but Aftershock was faster and knocked him out. Ray didn’t wait around but went straight for Cogito, hoping that Aftershock was just behind him.
Bulletproof wasn’t moving as fast as he usually did, and seemed to be favouring his right leg. One of his gloves had been torn, and Ray got a glimpse of tattoos. No wonder he kept his arms covered. Cogito was raising his gun to line up a head shot, and then Ray was in front of him.
He put a hand to Cogito’s head and the supervillain turned to look at him, sneering. “Mistake,” he hissed, while a grey haze descended over Ray’s vision.
Ray thought only a few minutes had passed. He was sitting on the floor of the warehouse, and The Taint and Cogito were sitting not too far away, thoroughly secured with more of Masterstroke’s bonds.
“What happened,” he gasped. “Did I hurt anyone?”
“No, we’re all fine,” said Aftershock easily, walking over to him. “You were only out for a couple of seconds. When I stunned Cogito, you collapsed. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” said Ray, checking himself over to make sure. “Yeah, I am.” A memory struck him. “Ryan’s outside!” he said.
“Ryan?” Aftershock asked.
“Fuck. Um, nevermind. Forget I said that.” Ray was pretty sure Aftershock was smirking at him, although his expression was partly obscured by the mask.
When they dragged the two supervillains outside the police were on the scene, talking to Ryan and the other two rescued prisoners who didn’t seem to remember much of what had happened. The minions who had been tied down by Masterstroke had regained their right minds and were clamouring to be released.
“You can let them go,” said Masterstroke. “They weren’t helping of their own free will. Soundwave, come get these headbands off them.” He led Ray over to help them while Aftershock and Bulletproof handed over their supervillain prisoners.
Brendon was beside himself when he was released. Ray finished his work as fast as he could and backed away, not sure how to handle his adrenaline-fuelled hyperactivity. Masterstroke seemed to take it in stride, and Ray went to remove the headbands from the people he’d carried out of the warehouse.
The older man he’d saved said thank you, and the woman hugged him, and that left Ryan, who had been hanging back.
“So you really are here,” Ryan said. “I thought maybe I’d imagined it.” He was still looking a little dazed, but then he shook his head and blushed. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m a little... anyway. I’m a big fan.”
Ray put Masterstroke’s melting device over Ryan’s headband, trying to be matter of fact about it. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said, because the pool of things he could say without being even more of a lying jerk than he already felt like was pretty limited.
“Thanks to you,” said Ryan. “Um, listen... I don’t want to impose, but do you think...” He was searching through his pockets and eventually came up with a stubby pencil and a crumpled post-it note.
“Not right now,” said Ray, trying not to wince at Ryan’s hurt look. “But I promise, you’ll get another chance to ask me. If you still want to.”
“O-kay,” said Ryan, looking confused. Ray nodded and started to turn away, not sure what else he could add and needing to leave. “Hey,” Ryan called after him. Ray stopped and looked back. “Um...” said Ryan. “It wasn’t your fault,” he blurted. “New York, I mean. It wasn’t... I mean, I wasn’t there, I guess I don’t really know what happened, but...”
“Thanks,” said Ray, surprised to feel a lump in his throat. He wanted to ask Ryan how he was going to get home, but he couldn’t do that. Soundwave wouldn’t do that, would have no reason to. Ryan gave a half-smile and walked away.
The problem with being without a team was not having a ride home. Ray started to walk, but he wasn’t sure how he was going to get back to the house. The guitar was the problem; Ray couldn’t use it to go anywhere without leaving a shiny trail for any supervillains still at large, but it was also pretty conspicuous. He couldn’t just pretend to be a busker travelling bus route 305, everyone who saw it would know who he was.
He’d walked a few streets without reaching a solution to the problem when a car pulled to a stop in the street beside him. Bulletproof leaned out the window and waved at him.
“Hey!” he called. “We thought you could use a lift.”
Ray almost refused before he came to his senses. “Sure,” he said, moving to open the door.
Aftershock was driving, and he pulled away from the curb without asking Ray where he needed to go, which Ray appreciated. There was a process for this sort of thing.
They were all pretty quiet, with the exception of Bulletproof. “That was an awesome fight!” he said enthusiastically, and the rest of them grunted, not with agreement or disagreement, but just the tired grunts of those who were too tired to commit either way.
“Seriously,” Bulletproof insisted, “best fun in ages.”
“Seriously?” Aftershock asked sarcastically. “We were all nearly killed multiple times.”
“Seriously,” Masterstroke said, “we would have been killed, if you weren’t there.” He looked over at Ray. “Thanks for helping out.”
Ray shrugged. “It was the right thing to do.”
There were a few more minutes of increasingly awkward silence before Masterstroke finally said, “Okay, I know we’re all wondering, and I’ll be the one to ask – what happened in New York?”
Ray shrugged and looked away. “You must have already heard what happened.”
“Sure,” said Bulletproof, “but not your side of the story.”
It wasn’t that Ray didn’t want to have his side heard, just that he didn’t want to have to talk about it. “We went up against Black Blade,” he said. “He had six hostages trapped in a house. I was supposed to keep him busy while the other guys got them out. I was supposed to give them fifteen minutes.”
“But?” Aftershock asked quietly.
Ray shrugged. “They must have run into trouble, been delayed somehow. I didn’t get a chance to ask them, after. After fifteen minutes, I brought the house down on Black Blade. The hostages were still inside. Two of them were killed instantly, and another died on the way to the hospital.”
The Runners digested that silently. “The other guys said that I got trigger happy, that I jumped the gun. The next day, I was asked by the rest of New York’s superheroes to leave the city.”
Not all of them had signed the petition. The Phoenix hadn’t, and neither had Decaydance. But all his former teammates had, and that had hurt.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Masterstroke said at last, after a long pause. “They didn’t fulfil their part of the mission, and then they hung you out to dry!”
“They got scared,” said Ray. “You know what people are like.”
“Selfish assholes,” Bulletproof grumbled.
“So,” said Masterstroke, his tone indicating a change of subject. “Are you planning to stick around?”
Ray thought about it. “I don’t really feel like moving on again,” he allowed.
“Cool,” said Masterstroke. “Because if today’s business is any indication, we could probably stand to expand our lineup.” He glanced at Ray again. “If you’re interested.”
Ray fought down a grin. He’d missed having a team. He’d told himself that it was better, safer, to be self reliant, but he’d missed it.
“I think I could be talked around,” he said.
“Cool!” said Bulletproof. “In that case, I think we should exchange cell numbers.”
Ray’s stomach tightened with nerves. Sharing one’s secret identity was a big deal, and he’d already done it once today. The code among supers was strict, and most of them would rather die than give up someone else’s identity, but it was still a massive show of trust.
Of course, Ray suspected the identity revealing was more of a formality than a necessity in this case, and by the glint in Bulletproof’s eye, he thought the same.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve already got your cell,” he said, keeping his tone light. “Those tattoos of yours looked pretty damn familiar.”
Bulletproof laughed and slapped his leg. “Yes! I knew it. You owe me twenty bucks,” he said, leaning over from the passenger seat to point at Aftershock.
Ray looked over at Aftershock, who was lifting up his mask to reveal Mikey’s face. “You didn’t think I was Soundwave?”
Mikey rolled his eyes. “I didn’t think you’d admit it,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d trust us enough.”
Ray flushed. “You watched my back in there,” he said.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be.” Masterstroke grinned at him. Without the mask, he looked younger than Ray would have expected. “I’m Gerard,” he said, offering a hand for Ray to shake.
Ray wrapped his scarf around his guitar before he left the safety of The Runners car and walked into the house. Everyone was there, watching the front door, and as he walked in the focussed attention of four sets of eyes made him freeze on the spot.
Ray’s mouth dried up. He couldn’t speak, even if he’d known what to say.
“Is that it?” Ryan asked, nodding to the scarf-wrapped guitar.
“Yeah,” Ray said with a nod, unwrapping the scarf.
“I knew it!” Brendon crowed, and Spencer snorted.
“Brendon,” he scoffed. “Shut up. You did not.”
“I might have done,” Brendon insisted. “You don’t know.”
“I do know, because you couldn’t keep a secret if your life depended on it. I knew. I kept it to myself.”
Ray tuned the bickering out and looked back at Ryan. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” he said, truly meaning it.
Ryan shrugged, not quite meeting Ray’s eyes. “Don’t be,” he said. “You couldn’t. I understand.”
Ray shook his head. “I wanted to. I really did. But it’s just not... there’s a reason we don’t tell everyone we get close to.”
“I know,” Ryan insisted. But he was still standing back a little, and his eyes flicked to Ray’s guitar more than they did to Ray himself.
“Do you want to play it?” Ray asked impulsively.
Ryan’s eyebrows lifted. “It won’t make me all...” He waved a hand around in the air.
“No,” said Ray with a smile. “The dematerialisation stuff works because of my energy powers, it won’t work for anyone else. You can use it as just a guitar.” He handed it over and Ryan gripped the guitar eagerly.
“I didn’t want to leave New York,” said Ray as Ryan began to play softly, “but I’m glad I came here.”
Ryan looked up from the guitar and straightened, and suddenly his face was just inches from Ray’s. “So am I,” he said, and if Ray had bothered to listen he would have heard Brendon and Spencer and Jon whistling and cat calling, but he didn’t. It wasn’t important. Not with Ryan just there, waiting to be kissed.