The cat was eventually discovered on top of Rachael and Stacey's filing cabinet. It scrunched up its fluffy orange face and hissed at anyone who came too close, punctuating that with a wicked swipe of the claws that left Ed begging to be sent home for the day.
"I'm sure it's not that bad," said Jon, striding down the hall with a tearful Ed and an anxious Stephen (whose cat it was) in tow. "And if for some reason those scratches do mutate into life-threatening wounds, we'll take the surgery cost out of Stephen's paycheck."
"Hey!" protested Stephen. "This clearly falls under on-the-job hazard pay! Or are you questioning Walter Clawkite's relevance to my hard-hitting investigative journalism?"
Rachael was already in the office, fast asleep on top of her desk with a coffee-stained binder as a pillow. She had been sleeping in various equally incongruous places, uninterrupted but for the occasional zombielike shuffle to the bathroom and back, ever since returning from the cross-country trip in the Daily Show news van: a trip during which she had subsisted almost entirely on Mountain Dew, crushed No-Doz tablets, and herbs not regulated by the FDA whose names Jon couldn't pronounce. He considered trying to wake her up and ask permission to borrow her step stool, then decided not to bother.
"I don't see why she gets ADA-sponsored steps," grumbled Stephen, not for the first time, as Jon dragged the carved walnut stool over to the filing cabinet. "Just because she's a foot shorter than me, the government decides she deserves free stuff and I don't? That's discrimination against tall people."
"I would offer you a comforting pat on the head if I could reach that high," countered Jon, climbing to the top stair and facing down the cat. "Shut up a minute, will you? I need to focus on being friendly and soothing."
"Because you're so good at that," muttered Stephen under his breath. When Jon failed to respond, he shrugged, picked up a marker, and started doodling on Rachael's face.
"Hiss," said Walter Clawkite.
"Easy, kitty," said Jon, holding up his hands. "Good kitty. I'm a friend, you see? A very safe, very comforting, not dangerous at all, friend. Certainly nobody you need to go all Friday the 13th on."
The cat let its mouth close, unbaring its teeth, but its slitted eyes and wrinkled nose spoke of a healthy continued mistrust of all things non-feline.
Think cat, Jon told himself. Furry. Orange. Whiskery. Familiar. No threat at all. "I'm gonna hold out my hand now, real slow," he soothed. "So you can smell for yourself that I'm a nice guy. Okay?"
He stretched his fingers towards the metal corner of the cabinet. The cat lifted its head from its paws and gave them a cautious sniff.
"There you go," breathed Jon happily, as Walter's furry cheek rubbed possessively against the side of his hand. "See, that wasn't so hard, was it? C'mere. Come here."
The cat made no resistance as Jon scooped it up and gathered it into his arms. It even purred a bit, attempting to headbutt Jon's chest.
"For a vicious little monster, you're pretty cute," said Jon, scratching the downy fur behind the cat's ears. "Hey, guys, I got him."
Ed's jaw dropped. Stephen, when he finally looked up from his handiwork on Rachael, did a double-take. His Sharpie clattered to the floor.
"It wasn't that hard," stammered Jon. "Just needed a little patience, and...and...uh, guys? Is there something wrong?"
Still gaping, Stephen slipped a hand into his pocket and retrieved the mirror he always kept within reach. Without a word he flipped it open and held it up.
The cat tore from the room in a bolt of fur and claw as Jon shrieked.
"So how did you do it?" demanded Stephen from his perch in Jon's desk chair.
"Wha?" came Jon's muffled voice from the far side of the bathroom door. In spite of the fact that his face had reverted to normal seconds after he caught a glimpse of it, he was still insisting on checking every inch of his body for spontaneous fur growth, and had refused Stephen's generous offer to help him out. "If I knew, I wouldn't be freaking out in here!"
"Obviously you don't know how to use your power, Jon!" said Stephen impatiently, twirling in a circle in the chair. "I'm asking how you got it! Radioactive cat bite? Deal with an ancient feline goddess? Are you secretly half Cheetah Person?"
The door opened and Jon leaned out, clutching a grey shirt in front of his skinny torso. "You think this is a superpower."
"Of course! What else could it be?"
"Most likely? Someone with hex powers was doing a flyover, and they accidentally dropped a curse along the way. Remember in April when one of them turned half the city purple."
A wistful smile spread across Stephen's face. "Yeah, that was neat. Would've been nice if Soledad O'Brien had stayed that way, though. It was a good look on her."
"Soledad O'Brien could look good in any hue." Jon tugged the baggy shirt over his head, leaving bits of his dark hair sticking out at odd angles. "As far as I can tell, the rest of me is normal. No reason to think this wasn't a one-time thing."
Stephen eyed him suspiciously. He seemed pretty confident, but then he had seemed like a shallow wisecracking cynic with no faith or poetry in his soul, too, until last year had proven that Stephen's judgments were not always on the mark. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better?"
"I'm mostly saying it to make me feel better," admitted Jon, facing down Stephen from the far side of his own desk. He looked pretty good from this angle. Stephen would have to borrow his office more often. "Can I have my chair back now?"
"Patience!" chided Stephen, thrusting a pink index card in his direction. "Can you cut this up for me?"
"Uh, sure." Jon accepted the card, and had absently sliced it in two before he thought better of it. "Hang on. What is this, anyway?"
"Doesn't matter." Normally when Stephen said such a thing, he was hoping it would pass for truth with enough gravitas on its side. This time it was actually true.
"Stephen, that schedule was all finished," groaned Jon, eyes darting from Stephen's face to the corkboard behind his head, specifically the new card in the Wednesday column labeled Colbert - Dramatic Reading (Tek Jansen). "You can't just trick me into destroying the card for Stacey's field piece."
"Well, gee, Jon, I would have done it myself," countered Stephen, who was sick and tired of there not being room on the corkboard for an excerpt of his 800-page unpublished sci-fi masterpiece, "but I can't do that!"
He pointed with a flourish at Jon's left hand, which no longer had conventional fingers. All five digits, including the thumb, had been replaced by a gleaming pair of scissor blades.
A second later they split and reverted to flesh, but not before Jon had burst out with a whole new variation on his blonde-in-a-horror-movie scream. (How many of those did he have, anyway?) "It happened again!"
"Of course it happened again!" exclaimed Stephen, pounding on the desk in a flash of fury. "Where do you get off landing your very own superpowers when you don't even know how they work? How dare you?"
Rob and Ed were whispering fervently to each other when Jon slipped into the break room. He chalked up the quiet to a desire not to disturb Rachael (pillowed on the tiles with her back against the bottom row of cabinets), and took care not to step on her as he filled a mug at the sink.
The microwave was humming contentedly when Rob refuted his theory by speaking up. "So, Stewart! Heard you can turn into things now."
Jon, who had just popped a couple of Swedish Fish into his mouth, swallowed with a start and felt one of them go down whole. "Uh, sort of," he coughed, drumming a fist against his sternum. "Mostly by—hrm—accident. Every time I notice, it snaps back."
"Oh," said Ed, face taking on the cast of a disappointed chipmunk.
"What do you mean, 'oh'? What kind of morphing were you planning on conning me into?"
"Not 'conning'," protested Ed. "Innocent curiosity, that's all. Just innocent, idle—"
"We were wondering if you can make it bigger," interrupted Rob, folding his arms with the matter-of-factness of a gritty beat reporter asking the hard-hitting questions. As it were.
Heat to rival the microwave rushed into Jon's face. Okay, the possibility had occurred to him, but the last thing he wanted was to screw up somewhere along the line and wind up with his junk permanently replaced by an umbrella, or something. "I don't really think that's appropriate workplace conversation."
"For the record, Rob was the one who brought your penis into it."
"Thank you, Ed," sighed Jon, switching off the microwave a few seconds before it started beeping. He warmed his hands on the ceramic, helpfully printed with the logo of one of their sponsors.
"I was wondering if you could give yourself boobs," continued Ed.
Jon hastily put the cup down, hot water splashing on his hands. "That's really not much better," he said as he peeled the lid from the can of powdered cocoa.
"It's not better at all!" cried Rob, aghast. "If you're gonna change a body part, the genitals are the place to go, hands down! No pun intended, but if you laugh I won't hold it against you."
Ed's eyes dewed with understanding. "Rob? Have you been selling family heirlooms to pay for orders from shady Internet businesses again?"
"I—what—that was only the one—shut up!"
"I will not shut up. You shut up!"
Rob made a grab for Ed's hair, which he only barely managed to duck. "Guys, guys!" cried Jon over the scuffle, as Rachael shifted in her sleep and grunted. "Take it outside, will you? There's a lady trying to get some shut-eye, here."
Once effectively alone in the room, Jon sank into one of the chairs to enjoy the peace, as well as his hot chocolate and another handful of Swedish Fish. Someone had left a smear of pizza sauce on the card table, as he discovered when put his elbow in it; with another sigh, he cast around for a napkin.
They were on top of the fridge.
"Maybe the universe just hates me," muttered Jon under his breath, side-eyeing the massive white behemoth as if he might have the advantage if he snuck up on it unawares. No such luck. He would have to co-opt a smaller person to help, or walk all the way up to Rachael's office for the stool, or...
Jon sidled up to the refrigerator, shook himself to make his nerves stop jangling, and reached.
In his peripheral vision (the focus of his eyes was locked on the photo of the towers, pinned to the fridge by a grinning Mr. Met magnet) his forearm narrowed and stretched. Garden-variety muscle and bone and skin rearranged themselves, coalescing into what looked for all the world like the red plastic broom handle he used to ferret out cobwebs from the furthest corners of the eldritch darkness under his bureau. On the far end he wiggled his fingers; the nerves all still seemed to be hooked up. Jon decided not to think too hard about how that worked.
He closed his hand around a sheaf of napkins, yanked it backwards, and squeezed his eyes shut as his arm did a combination of dragging and swelling that he sure hoped meant it was snapping back into place.
When he finally got up the courage to check, his heart was going at it like a timpani. His arm looked fine (with the exception of the tomato sauce), and a quick flex confirmed that it still bent at all the normal spots. But if he'd screwed something up under the surface....
Maybe it was time to see a doctor.
"Come to think of it, why didn't I just do that in the first place?" said Jon out loud. "And I call myself a hypochondriac."
Rachael snored lightly in agreement.
"Can't someone move her out of here?" demanded Stephen halfway through rehearsal, pointing at the petite blonde figure taking up space on his interview couch. (Technically Jon's interview couch, but as long as Jon was delegating his hosting duties, Stephen figured he had no right to make a fuss over furniture ownership.)
"Oh, let her sleep," urged Stacey from his right. Stephen had to twist his neck to hear properly; he wasn't about to relinquish the host's half of the screen, but it did get awkward when all the action was on his deaf side. "It's the most comfortable place I've seen her all week. Yesterday she was under the sinks in the second floor ladies' room."
Stephen wasn't sure what a Shetland moor had to do with the ladies' room, and didn't want to look stupid by asking. "As long as she's out of here by show time," he relented.
"I'm not sure Jon would—"
"Well, if Jon were here, instead of gallivanting around in sunny California without taking the rest of us, that would be different, now wouldn't it?"
Stacey's finely plucked eyebrows arched in a way that Stephen was going to have to learn. "I see. So now going in for examination at the world famous suprahuman treatment wing of the Purple Paladin Memorial Hospital counts as 'gallivanting'."
"It does if he isn't taking it seriously!" exclaimed Stephen. "Which he obviously isn't, or why wouldn't he have asked for all the help he could get first? People who have connections! Like, oh, I don't know, the moderator of the most high-traffic Major Havoc fan mailing list on the Internet!"
"That does sound like an awfully significant position," admitted Stacey, a softer note creeping into her voice. "Is it hard, when people don't understand the weight of responsibility on your shoulders?"
"It is." Tears sprang to Stephen's eyes as he recalled some of the moments that hung heaviest. "Earlier this very summer, I was forced to sacrifice an entire weekend in the quelling of a vicious flame war."
And it hadn't helped that his wife had dismissed the whole trial as yet another excuse for him to avoid sex. As if she didn't believe that it took a heroic effort for him to suppress his own manly raging heterosexual libido in the service of a greater, more noble cause! Sure, maybe the occasional hot throbbing homoerotic image snuck up behind him and tried to stick its hand down his pants, but he suppressed that, dammit. Had it really been too much to ask for her to do the same?
"That must put a lot of stress on you," murmured Stacey, touching her slender hand to Stephen's in a tender, calming gesture.
"The dress had nothing to do with anything!" wailed Stephen, and covered his face with one hand while waving the other at the nearest intern. "Tissue!" he squawked. "I need a tissue over here!"
Jon had a vague memory of seeing an internship at a technical research center on Mo's résumé when he first hired the correspondent. He hadn't realized the place was owned by mad scientists. Or that Mo had gotten to keep some of the gadgets, and was ready to break them out the instant Jon returned from the West Coast with a clean bill of health and a stack of informational pamphlets.
"Your morphing still appears to obey the laws of conservation of mass," he concluded, pointing to a blue line on the screen which he had helpfully turned to face Jon, though as far as Jon was concerned it probably made more sense from the back. "You can't increase your volume without a corresponding decrease in density, and vice versa. For example, if you were to transmute your body into iron, which has approximately seven times the density of the human body, you would come out looking like a Giacometti sculpture."
Absurd as the visuals were, Jon was kind of relieved to have some more specific feedback than was outlined in So Now You Have Transmutation Powers! "Thank you, Mo. It's a relief to have someone who's willing to be rational and scientific about this."
"Or if you were to attempt to enlarge your penis, it might end up filled with air."
"I retract my previous statement."
"Could he turn into something radioactive?" put in Stephen, whose elbows were planted on the back of the chair in which Jon was (superficially, Mo insisted) strapped. "Only hypothetically, of course."
Mo blinked owlishly behind his thick glasses. "Well, hypothetically, I suppose—"
"Hang on!" exclaimed Jon. "Stephen, are you trying to get me to bombard you with gamma radiation to make you develop mutant powers?"
Stephen, who still hadn't talked directly to Jon since the day of the discovery, spoke over his head to address Mo. "Please tell Jon that he is being ridiculous. I would never expose myself to that kind of risk."
"I see. Jon, Stephen says—"
"First I would expose Walter Clawkite," continued Stephen. "Then, if he didn't die in horrible caterwauling agony, I would have him bite me, and that would make me develop mutant powers."
"A theoretically interesting plan," said Mo. "With only a few small flaws."
"Yeah, I know. I might not roll anything more useful than the power to lick my own butt. But I'm willing to take that risk."
"I'm not irradiating anyone!" cried Jon. "Household pets included! Maybe I'd be willing to break out these powers to stand in for missing office supplies, but I'm not going to start getting reckless!"
He caught his breath, shifted his right thigh into a slab of pine, and rapped it lightly with his knuckles. "Knock wood."
Stephen crowded around Jon's TV along with maybe half the staff, trying to draw comfort from the warm mass of bodies pressing in against him. Rob was doing something to Ed that under less emotionally stressful circumstances Stephen might have harangued as cuddling, while Jon's eyes were hollow and the streaks of grey at his temples seemed to have blossomed since a few hours earlier. (Not that Stephen was looking.)
As usual, HeroNet had the best coverage. The regular networks couldn't get near the bridge without being attacked by giant mutant lampreys.
"Can't just leave us alone," hissed Jon under his breath, clenching and unclenching his fists. Stephen wondered if he had noticed the knife blades that kept extending from his wrists, gleaming flashes of metal melting back with each clench and then re-coalescing, like a stubby imitation of Wolverine. "Barely even been a year, can't they just back off, you can be a supervillain and still have some common decency...."
"Eight separate superheroes—or nine, depending on how you count Divangelic—have been dispatched to the scene," reported Femifist from the television. "The villain, known only by his self-chosen alias Cod of Death, has so far managed to keep all comers occupied through a self-created army of mind-controlled mutants, drawn from the native wildlife of the East River."
"Curse those environmentalists!" burst out Stephen. "If they had only let us wipe out the local fish population when we had the chance, none of this would have happened!"
"We take you now to some overhead footage of the main conflict at the Brooklyn Bridge, captured just moments ago."
The humanoid figure rose out of the water beside one of the bridge's stone pillars, where it plucked the webbing of the suspension cables like a harp and laughed an eerie, gurgling laugh. Several baffled-looking fish were swimming around within its frame; one of the caped heroes aimed an energy blast at what would have been its heart, only to have the effort pass straight through it and hit the river below in a cloud of steam.
This was the point when Stacey gasped. "I know that guy!"
"What, the hero?" asked Stephen, feeling a flare of jealousy partly over Stacey's association with a cape, and partly over the cape's surprisingly well-muscled legs.
"No! Cod of Death! Well, he was still going by Brad when we dated. And he swore to me he would never use his powers for evil, too! Ooh, I'm gonna castrate that goat!"
"He told you about his powers?" blurted Jon. "Stacey, did he ever give you any information that could help defeat him?"
"Theoretically, you can disperse his powers by exposing him to pure scarcerarium," admitted Stacey. "But now that he's reached this size? Where would they find enough to be effective?"
Stephen was only half listening, wrapped up in the images on the screen, heart in his mouth as he waited for part of the bridge to snap and crumble. An unexpected creak offscreen made him jump, elbowing the writer next to him in the ribs. "Don't do that!" he shouted at the noisemaker. "Can't you see this is a very tense—"
Evidently, not only could Jon see it, he was invested in making it worse. The window creaked again as he shoved it to the top of its old and warping frame, kneeling on the sill and reaching out into the frosty New York air.
The room burst out in a frenzy of anxious cries. "Don't do it!" and "You have so much to live for!" and "If you leave me, Stewart, I'll never forgive you!"
"Everybody calm down!" roared Jon, in a way that a man that small should not have had the lungs to pull off. "I'll be back soon, okay? Keep an eye on the TV, you'll see. And if something goes wrong—well. Stay safe. Look out for each other. Try not to fight too much over who gets the couch."
Outside, his hand bulged and swelled like a blown-up surgical glove, tiny fingers bobbing out from its surface, which went translucent when it reached several feet across. Suspended by his makeshift balloon, Jon launched himself from the window, kicked off against the brick, and soared out into the air.
In the speechless silence left in his wake, the yawn from the far end of the room seemed to echo.
"Hi, everyone," said Rachael, leaning against the wall by the doorway as she stretched like a tiny blonde kitten. Fading Sharpie whiskers made the image complete. "What have I missed?"
Okay, maybe Jon could have thought this one through a bit more.
The flight-by-helium-filled-hand with the aid of steering-by-hairdryer was working a lot better than a plan thought up in five seconds had any right to, in the sense that he was moving in the general direction of the Brooklyn Bridge at a respectable clip. But he could have thought to grab a coat before he took off. Not to mention he had never tried shifting into scarcerarium in the first place.
His teeth were chattering like a cartoon Halloween skeleton as he soared out over the water, a couple hundred yards downriver from the battle. The struggle against the biting air currents was worse here, hitting Jon with a wave of nausea that threatened to spill over when in the distance a Matchbox-sized car pitched off the side of the bridge and into the waves.
Trying not to think about how he was running out of limbs, Jon aimed his hairdryer-foot away from the bridge, bobbed unsteadily towards it, and reshaped his free arm into a megaphone. "Hey! You with the capes! I know this guy's weakness! Hey," wincing at his own irony, "can I get a hand over here?"
Two more cars of increasing size had tumbled into the foam when a pair of heroes broke from the pack and soared over to meet him: the buxom twins joined at the shoulder collectively known as Divangelic. The one on the right (her right, not Jon's right), flapping a leathery wing that was only outdone by her skintight outfit, addressed him first: "Who are you?"
"Uh, Jon," stammered Jon. "Not that that tells you anything useful...listen, I do this morphing thing, okay? And I can take that guy down, I think, and...please say you two can carry me, because if I try to keep staying up like this I'm gonna crash in about thirty seconds."
"On it," said the sister with the wing of purest-white feathers. "Grab his shoulders, Vanity. I'll get his legs."
Jon's extremities snapped back to normal seconds after he was hoisted into an unconventional princess carry. He curled his now-bare restored foot against his pant leg, clamped the thin-stretched hand under his armpit, and explained the plan as best he could without getting too distracted by the leather-clad curves that didn't seem bothered by their lack of jacket. Or sleeves. Or a midriff.
"Sounds pretty far-fetched to me," said Vanity gruffly. "No, Charity, don't tell me: you want to give him the benefit of the doubt."
"He seems like an honest man," protested her twin. "And can we really afford to pass up the chance?"
"WHEEEEEE!" cried Rachael, careening the Best F@#king News Van Ever through yet another police barricade. Stephen ducked back through the passenger-side window just in time to avoid getting walloped by an orange plastic traffic cone, then leaned back out and pegged a mutant sturgeon at fifty feet.
"I really think this might have been better left to the professionals!" protested Mo from the back, where he and Ed were desperately trying to keep two expensive camera setups from pulverizing each other.
"Was Rosa Parks a professional bus-sitter?" demanded Rob, hoisting his own weapon in the seat behind Stephen's. "Is Jon a professional hunk of scarcerarium? No! And that didn't stop them!"
"The man has a point," agreed Stacey, putting a shambling mass of scales that had once been a catfish out of its misery. "Rob, would you say we're more like Rosa Parks or the Three Musketeers?"
"Why can't we be both?" cut in Stephen. "We're making great strides for the rights of ragtag everyman news teams coming to the rescue of their bosses. One for all—"
"—and all for Jon!" finished Rob, taking out a bluefish herring before it could sink its newly-discovered fangs into their roof.
In the distance, Cod of Death let out a watery roar.
Jon couldn't feel his legs.
The deep green sculpture that had replaced his left foot stuck disconcertingly from the end of his pant leg like the world's most expensive department store mannequin. The density of scarcerarium meant it must have been hollowed out to maintain the size, and Jon thanked whatever force had been responsible for his powers in the first place that he couldn't feel that.
Below them, the water monster roared like a drowning lion and hurled a couch-sized sphere of water in their direction. It struck true, exploding over them in a drenching shower of cold.
"It's working!" exclaimed Charity, grinning in spite of the way her sopping costume clung to every inch of skin it had bothered to cover. "The last couple times he did that, they were solid!"
With a faint groan, Jon wrapped his arms around himself. His hands were still flesh and blood, but he was starting to lose the feeling there too.
"So he's losing his distance weapons," said Vanity, spitting out a clump of seaweed that had whacked her in the face. "His body's still going strong. C'mon, Jon, keep up that hardening action!"
Jon might have tried to come up with a witty, flirtatious retort if his lips hadn't been mostly numb. He shifted his arms from the fingertips on up to the shoulders, looking distantly at the anatomically perfect dark green hands clinging to his shirt as if seeing them in a dream.
"Closer," he whispered.
Divangelic soared above the bridge's stone tower, falling into a pattern of tight circles not far above the water monster's head. It swiped ferociously at them with an arm that didn't quite reach.
"And now he's lost his ability to grow!" said Charity. "We're getting there!"
The wet and wind-blown fabric of his shirt tugged on skin differently than it did on scarcerarium. He could almost watch the dividing line as it moved up his torso.
"Just a little more," whispered Vanity, hot breath stinging against his frozen ear—
—and then Jon couldn't breathe.
Stone lungs, thought Jon dizzily; then, gotta start changing back, now, or—
—then, not in my city, then
"Now, Rachael, remember, you've got to stop once we get out on the bridge, right?"
"Of course! What good would this be if we sped right past without rescuing Jon? I know I've been a bit of a maniac on the road in the past, but from now on I'm sworn only to use my superpower of high-speed driving for good!"
The flat surface of the finally-emptied Brooklyn Bridge stretched out in front of them, blank except for another round of mutants, scattered chunks of masonry and steel, and a few smoking wrecks. Cod of Death wavered and gurgled at its side.
"High-speed driving doesn't count as a superpower!" cried Stephen, aghast.
"It does the way I do it!" laughed Rachael.
Stephen's protest was lost in the roar as the water-monster fell through the webbing of the suspension bridge and dissolved into an ordinary nonsentient tidal wave, sloshing down its lanes and breaking against the river's surface with a mighty crash.
Divangelic touched down with care on one of the glistening steel girders that spanned the traffic lanes, four high heels all managing not to slip in spite of the wet surface or the extra weight throwing off their balance.
"We can't just leave him," said Vanity. "Someone's bound to run off with him. What kind of fate is that for the man who just saved the city?"
"The city isn't safe yet," countered Charity. "There are plenty of mutants left, there might still be people in the water...we can't ignore all of them, either! Besides, there's no guarantee someone will try to take—"
A van barreled down the pavement, spraying through puddles and shooting down a couple of six-foot rainbow smelt that tried to get in its way. It squealed to a halt a dozen yards past Divangelic, where a man, in clear defiance of every theme-park ride announcement ever, threw himself out the passenger-side door before the vehicle had come to a complete stop.
"He's ours!" shouted the man, stumbling wetly back toward them. "Give him here!"
"See?" smirked Vanity.
There were others climbing out of the van's cabin and back now, a few dragging weapons, though when they aimed at all it was at the lingering mutants that shambled in their direction, not at Divangelic. The first man had a semi-automatic hanging from a strap over his shoulder, but moved as if he didn't even remember it was there. "That's our boss!" he continued, flapping his hand at the figure in their arms. "We're here to rescue him. Hand him over!"
"See?" smirked Charity.
Vanity wasn't buying it. "How could you know from a distance who this was?"
"Because he only owns one kind of shirt!" said the man without missing a beat. "Come on, he's basic cable's Jon Stewart, his name's printed right there on the van—he never wanted to be a superhero, just a dude with a TV show. He beat the bad guy, right? You don't need him anymore! Now give him back!"
Divangelic scanned the faces of the ragged assembly behind him. All boasted the same blend of fear and determination: the look of ordinary people who had accepted their extraordinary circumstances and decided to go all-in.
"Into your hands we deliver him," said Charity softly, and the pair descended.
Ed and Rob took Jon's body and lowered it to the ground, where the others could all kneel around and see what had become of him.
It was as if someone had tried to make a life-size sculpture, but had somehow been unable to find a big-enough rock to depict him standing up. The deep green mineral outlined a figure whose waist and knees were bent, head ducked, arms folded across his chest. The chinos, double layer of grey shirts, and one lone sneaker were intact; the shirts in particular were clearly not coming off until his arms got less stony or one of them broke out a pair of scissors.
"He did it," breathed Mo, running some kind of scanner along one carved forearm. "That's pure scarcerarium."
Stephen had only ever seen scarcerarium on TV, in reports about the latest cutting-edge quantum advances or E! Hollywood Lifestyle specials on the insanely wealthy. He had always meant to get his hands on some one day. He hadn't planned on having it shaped into a mask of someone he really only pretended to dislike, much less to have that mask contorted into grim-jawed, stony-eyed, abject misery.
"You pulled off the rest of it, too," added Ed, plucking at a damp and worn sleeve. "You took down the supervillain. So you can come back now, okay?"
"Yeah, come on, quit overdoing it," agreed Rachael, chucking him playfully on one unresponsive knee. "Besides, who's gonna host the show without you? Stephen? As if."
"You know it's true," said Rob.
"Of course it is! Doesn't make it polite to say so!"
"Ladies and gentlemen, please," cut in Stacey with the soft voice of reason. "There's no point in fighting about this. Jon has always shifted back before, and there's no reason to think he won't do it now. Isn't that right, Mo?"
"About that." Mo was squatting a few inches from Jon's crumpled form, his hands cupped around the measuring device. "He's never shifted everything before. Limbs, extremities, the front of his face, but this is the first time his brain's shut down. And...I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I'm not getting any readings that suggest...."
"Shut up!" cried Stephen. "Don't you dare! You want to pronounce someone dead—"
He swung his rifle up and around. The others flinched.
"—make it that catfish!" He fired, a clean hit to the heart; the mutant, the last one in sight, dropped with a heavy thud.
"Maybe we shouldn't have told him," said Vanity under her breath, as Divangelic soared at the tail end of the bevy of capes converging on the bridge.
"I'm sure he has a good plan," replied Charity, biting her lip. "There's a reason Major Havoc is in charge of strategy."
The water was clear and the mutants all taken care of; the rest of the cleanup was a matter for civilians, not capes. All, apparently, except Jon, whose body they discovered still on the bridge with his comrades huddled over him: six bedraggled human beings who stared with mixed awe and trepidation when a circle of heroes landed around them.
"Is it true?" demanded Major Havoc, cape fluttering dramatically in the wind. His outfit was the only one that hadn't gotten unbearably soaked during the battle. "Is it pure scarcerarium?"
"He," said a man with glasses (no, not that one, the other one—no, the one without the bowtie). "And, yeah, he is. For now. He's going to change back any minute, though."
Havoc surveyed the deep green form with a hungry glint visible under his cowl. "Think of the money that would bring," he said, as if to himself. "We could fix up the space station...start that charity I've always talked about...pimp out the HavocRide with totally ghetto rims...All right! Decision made. We're taking it. Hand it over."
A man with glasses (yes, that one—the one who had first spoken to Divangelic) shook off his abject awe with a flash of righteous indignation. "You can't do that!"
"I think you'll find we can."
"What gives, huh?" demanded the bald man, addressing Divangelic. "You let us have him!"
"Sorry, but..." began Charity.
"...he's our boss," finished Vanity.
"Well, Jon's ours," replied the tiny blonde, clinging to a shotgun almost half her size. "You wanna fight about it?"
A man with glasses (the one with the bowtie this time) clapped his hands over his mouth to muffle a squeak, while a couple of the capes shifted into attack stances. Havoc just burst out laughing. "You? Fight us? What could a bunch of normals possibly do against the most awesome hero in the nation?"
With the sorely undramatic squelch of wet socks, the man who had first spoken leaped to his feet. "I'll tell you what we can do!" he shouted, planting himself squarely in front of Jon and their colleagues. "You try to take Jon, and I—I will delete your most high-traffic mailing list!"
Major Havoc started, a gasp escaping his throat. "You—you can't be—!"
Visibly quaking in his super-boots, the Major waved his fellows back. "Stand down, heroes!"
"I said stand down!" shouted Havoc. "Our work here is done!"
Stephen stayed on his feet until the last caped crusader was a speck against the clouds, then dropped weakly to his knees at Jon's side. "Did you see that? You guys all saw that, right? I just defeated eight superheroes at once!"
"Or nine," put in Stacey. "Depending on how you count Divangelic."
"So not the point," giggled Stephen. "It's like you were saying, Rachael—anything can be a superpower. It all depends on how you use it."
"You did good, Colbert," said Rob, shaky with the relief of having dodged a bullet, or more likely some kind of painful super-eye-beam. The others all nodded, offering a low medley of assorted noises of approval.
"Now it's your turn." Stephen cupped Jon's unseeing face, trying not to shudder as he pressed his palm against the icy cheek and stroked the exquisitely carved shock of stone hair at Jon's temple with his thumb. "I just went to all that trouble to save you, so it would be pretty rude not to thank me, right? But you have to change back first. Come on, Jon. We need you."
He stopped to pull off his glasses and dab at the lenses, because his vision had started to get blurry, which probably meant they needed to be cleaned.
A gasp went up from the rest of the team.
Fumbling his glasses back on with as much speed as he dared, Stephen did a frantic scan of their open mouths, then followed their gazes to Jon's head. Where his thumb had rubbed, like the first smear of grass emerging through the snow, a patch of grey stood out against the green.
Later, when Jon remembered the rest of that day, it all revolved around Stephen.
(Well, except the first few seconds of awareness. Those had revolved around cold, then so damn cold, then what—?)
Stephen and Mo peeling off his wet clothes in the safe confines of the back of the van, resisting what must have been a mountain of easy jokes about shrinkage before wrapping him in Ed's trench coat, which could have been warmer but was at least dry. Stephen and Rob helping him into the building, not letting go until he was safely on a couch—one of them must have called ahead, because it had a thick quilt and a hot water bottle ready and waiting. Stephen hovering at his side while Stacey fixed him up with a steaming cup of tea and a matching cup of instant noodles, and Rachael turned a blowdryer on the lingering dampness in his hair.
Everyone who hadn't already gone home to be with their families stopped by to see him before leaving, until in the end it was down to the two of them plus Walter Clawkite. Stephen only left his side once, and then only long enough to track down the cat, whom he lauded as the best source of heat in the building.
"What if he doesn't want to stay?" asked Jon, as Stephen planted the cat on his chest.
"Duct tape," said Stephen firmly.
Thankfully, Walter never had to find out what his owner had been planning, as he curled up uncoerced in a cozy purring catloaf on Jon's stomach.
"If that's still not enough, I can crawl in there with you," continued Stephen, adjusting the scarf he had tucked around Jon's neck and ears. "Like you're supposed to do if you get trapped in a snowstorm. Then I would have two superpowers. The power of being famous on the Internet, and the power of generating lifesaving body heat."
"Think I'm through the worst of it," said Jon. "But thanks. Can you turn on the TV? Want to see how the news is taking this."
Stephen turned on the TV. He even rolled its cart over so that Jon could see it, though he refused to turn up the volume and risk disturbing the cat, so all Jon could hear was the wordless drone of newsmen over the rattling purr. After the third overhead shot of the bridge made his gut lurch, he turned his head away and closed his eyes, only to be hit with a sudden fear that bits of him might start turning into cement when he wasn't paying attention.
"You're just falling asleep, right?" asked Stephen in a stage whisper, crouching by his side. "Because you can't die now. Not after I went to all the trouble of saving you."
"Yeah, I'm okay." Jon shook off the images of accidentally waking up in pieces, or not at all. "Listen, if I start turning into something, wake me up, okay?"
"Can do," Stephen assured him. "I also have the superpower of yelling."
On a sleepy whim, Jon leaned over just far enough to brush a kiss against his cheek. "My hero."