Of Masks and Marvels (Part 16)
Of Masks and Marvels
By Bek D Corbin
edited by Steve Zink
I felt someone lightly slapping my face. "Max? Max, are you all right?"
I shook my head. I was lying on the floor, and Amy (or Ms. Hex, if you must) was leaning over me. "Nnnggg.. What happened?"
"Well, I asked you if you were going to tell Ted that you're a man, and you fainted."
"How ... how did you know?"
Amy shrugged. "Well, I didn't read your mind, if that's what you're wondering. On the other hand, I have been picking up some weird signals from you for a while now."
"How long have you known?"
"Well, I had some doubts from the get-go, but I only pieced it all together about two months ago."
"Why haven't you said anything?"
"Hey, it's none of my business! I mean, compared to some of the weirdoes on either side of this business, you are pretty white bread. To be honest, it only became my affair at all because Ted is a friend of mine. Which brings us right back to my original question - are you going to tell Ted?"
"I'm not really sure. To be honest, I haven't had the chance to really sort all of this out."
"What do you mean? It must have taken a lot of effort to put that female act of yours together - it must have crossed your mind at one time or another!"
"Actually, I've been doing a lot of not thinking about it."
It was good to hear that Little Miss Know-It-All could be taken by surprise. "Is there somewhere we can go to be alone? I don't want Sapphire, Tigress or Twist to stumble in here and get an earful before you understand what's happening here."
"Hmmm... Let's see, can't go down into the Lab - Bernice said that she had something to take care of before she joined us-"
"Lovely - that probably means that she has an entire console open and its guts spread out over half of the floor."
"There's a monitoring camera on the Danger Room and its Control Room, so they're no good. Well, why don't we get you to the bathroom and get that cocoa spill out of your pajamas before it stains?"
"What cocoa spill?"
"That one. You spilled on yourself when you fainted."
"I _didn't faint_! I just---"
"I was temporarily overwhelmed, thank you very much!" Then I looked down at my PJ top. "Oh shit! You weren't kidding! And this is silk!"
Hex gave me a long look, and we hurried to the kitchen to get some salt on our way to the bathroom.
While I gently scrubbed the chocolate stain out of my top, I ran down my situation, starting with the Power Tower. I tactfully omitted my relationship with Reyes. Hey, I'm entitled to some secrets! When I got to the part with Berserker and the plasma gelatin batteries, she started snickering and had a hard time keeping it in. "Why Is It that women seem to find that so freaking funny?" I asked the empty air. This, of course, only made her laugh louder.
When I finished, Amy looked at me strangely. "So, you're changing, physically."
"I don't know why this surprises me. I've seen stranger physical transformations. And practically everyone who manifests the Power changes physically."
"Sure! When we interviewed you that first time, didn't Tigress say that she'd been a chubby kid before the Power kicked in? And I - well, let's just say that I didn't have this physique when _I_ started out, either!"
I gave Amy a once over.
Yep, she was a very fit, very good-looking woman. And she'd been in the Superhero business for... "Amy? How long have you been Superheroing?"
"Long enough that I'm not answering that question, thank you kindly! Yes, I'm probably old enough that I really shouldn't be running around getting shot at. Not that that's gonna stop me!" She gave me another look. "Come to think of it, there aren't that many what you'd call homely Superheroines running around."
"True. Before, I always assumed that it was because they either were very athletic and the ones with less than fashion model features hid it behind their masks, or they created form adjusting costumes and masks to help them hide their secret identities better."
"Good thought, but there would still be the 'big horse' amazons, or the 'beer keg' physique battleaxes. But you don't see that many of those kinds."
"Maybe they start out that way, and as the Power that you keep talking about changes them, they alter their costumes to show off their improved chassises."
<heh!> "That would explain Bette Noir's new outfit. Yes, I'm definitely starting to think something like that may be at work here." She shot me another look askance. "So, Max, you say that your body is becoming more and more feminine - how far along would you say that you are?"
I took a deep breath and sighed. "Well, I now have to wear a false beard and a padded suit to look anything like the guy that I used to be. I have a 26-inch waist - from 42-inches. I have 35-inch hips. I-"
"That's not what I'm asking. How far...along in this...transformation...are you?" She gestured in the vicinity of her groin.
"Well, I was never what you'd call 'the envy of the locker room', but I was a normal sized guy. Now, if I went into a locker room, they'd probably name me 'Peanut', or 'Acorn'."
"And how large would you say that it is, fully erect?"
"That _is_ fully erect."
"The testes are both shrinking and drawing up closer to my body. I genuinely think that my hipbones are widening somehow. And as for my chest-" I pulled one of the gelatin packs out of my bra. "These things used to fill the entire bra. Now, I keep having to re-shape them in order to make room." Then I stuffed it back. "The hell of it is, I don't know how far this will go. And if it does go 'all the way' - will I be fertile? Isn't that connected to the genes, not just the organs?"
"I'm not really sure, one way or the other. But it does put a rather unique spin on the situation with Ted - by the time that it does get to the point where it's a real issue, you may very well be a female."
"Oh, thank you, that's just what I wanted to hear!"
"Don't get snippy with ME, girl! I'm not trying to score off of you. I'm just trying to figure out what the best thing to do is."
"Well, when you figure it out, let me know - I've been trying to suss that out for months!"
"Well, I suppose the real issue right now is what's going to happen with Ted. Exactly how do you feel about him?"
"Well, I admire him - he was always the kind of guy that I wanted to someday become. That is, y'know, if I started lifting weights and took karate classes."
"But how do you feel, now that he's the opposite sex - for all practical purposes?"
"To tell the truth, I dunno. I mean, would I even really know if I was attracted to him, even if I was?"
"So, what are you going to do, when you go to see him?"
"Again - I dunno. I guess I'll just play it by ear. After all, I can't read too much into it. And even if he _is_ interested in me... Oh, Christ, I don't know. But I can't just brush him off. From everything that I've heard, he's had no luck with women. If I just gave him the cold shoulder... I don't do things like that to my friends."
"Hmmpph.. Well, this isn't going to be easy, for any of us, is it? Very well, Max. Play it as you see fit. I won't trip you up. _But_ if you hurt Ted-"
"Believe me, Miz Hex, compared to what my own conscience will do to me, your worst curse would be like a love tap."
She gave me a long hard look. "You mean that. You really do. Oh, this is going to be interesting, I can tell!" She took a deep breath. "Well, enough of that! Is that cocoa stain out? Good! We'd better get back, or the others will think that we're keeping all the really good dirt to ourselves? Ah, come to think of it, _we are!_"
With that, I put the pajama top back on, and we rejoined the girls just in time for a rousing game of Twister©.
"T-t- Twister??" Eli bleated as I helped him get ready to leave the hospital. "Y-you mean ... You...Tigress...Power Woman...Sapphire...Twist...Ms. Hex...all together...your bodies all tangled together...on a plastic mat...on the floor..."
"Why, Yeeesss..." I grinned evilly. "There we were, our bodies glistening with sweat..."
"Maxine! Stop tormenting your brother!" Ma snapped.
"Okay, okay- actually, it was all very innocent. And Power Woman wasn't there. And believe me, it loses something when three of the five women involved can levitate."
Eli made noises like he was somehow mollified, but I could tell that images of the AEGIS women playing Twister were going to play a major role in his stroke sessions in the foreseeable future. I have GOT to get him a girlfriend.
Eli had recovered enough that they were letting him out of the hospital. He'd be wearing the neck brace for a few weeks, but they had him fitted out with one of those inflatable ones that don't get all hot on you.
As we drove home, Eli asked, "So, what was behind all that nonsense last night on the Toob? McGwuire was saying something about 'going in for a close-up', I heard you call McGwuire an idiot-"
"Actually, I called him a 'Moron', if memory serves."
"Whatever- you called him by his right name, and there was this brief shot of a black hand reaching for the camera, a *bam!* the connection gets lost. Wha' hoppen'?"
I snickered. "Oh, that idiot McGwuire-"
"See? What did I say?"
"Okay, score one for the guy in the neck brace - McGwuire puts this really hot baby spot on the guy who's bound up in ice-"
"Oooh, I can see where this is going."
"Yeah, but it gets better! After we put Nasghul - that's our baddie du jour - down for a second time, McGwuire tries to cover his bleeding ass by getting on my case about a couple of comments that Nasghul had made. He made a few 'Mike Wallace' style wild-ass accusations, but he only succeeded in making himself look like even more of an idjit than he usually does. Schroeder had the presence of mind to not broadcast them, but the other stations did a quick clip of it - sort of a 'see what jerks our competition is?' kinda thing. Right now Schroeder has McGwuire scheduled to cover all the flower shows in the area."
"Ah, MAN, and I missed it!"
"Not to worry, Brother Elijah, Reyes has copies of the unedited tapes."
"Ohhh, Yeah!" Eli exulted as he leaned back in the car.
A couple of days later, Eli was getting a case of cabin fever. Since he was walking around by himself okay, we decided to go out and get a drink together. As I was getting my coat on, Ma came in. "And where do you think you're going?"
"Out for a drink. Eli's starting to bounce off the walls, and playing Scrabble with him is getting hard. He keeps trying to eat the vowels."
"Hold on for a minute."
"What's the matter? I look okay!"
"That's a matter of opinion, dear. No, what you have on will do, at least for going out to get a beer. Actually, I have something for you that I've been working on since you told me about all this nonsense." I looked at Eli as she started rummaging through the front closet. "Ah! Here it is! I was going to save this for a special occasion, but the way that you're going, you're going to need this before your birthday."
She handed me a rather nice black patent leather purse, the kind that goes with everything.
I took it and looked at it. "A Purse. The kind that goes with everything."
Inside the purse was one of those oversized women's wallets. At Ma's prodding, I opened it up. It was empty - except for a DMV ID, a driver's license, and two credit cards, all in the name of 'Maxine Shana Fitzgerald'. The DMV ID and the driver's license both had my picture on it, and they listed our address.
"Maxine Shana Fitzgerald?" I raised an eyebrow at Ma.
"She was a girl of about your age, who died in a car crash when she was eleven. I managed to get her Death Certificate withdrawn from the State Archives. From there, getting a Social Security Number was easy. I've been spending the past three months getting the 'transcripts' from her Grade and High Schools 'corrected'. Her parents were in the habit of moving every few years - I get the impression that they weren't the most honest people in the world - so her paperwork was already so scrambled that creating a school history for you wasn't that hard."
"Yeah, but don't worry about it - if you ever run into anyone who claims to have come from that school, just say that it was so long ago and you were only there for such a short period of time, that you just don't remember any details."
"What about college?"
"An Associate's Degree from a rinky-dink junior college. The real bear is gonna be getting you a history with the IBEW."
"Well, this is nice, Ma, but I doubt that I'm gonna get carded tonight."
"I didn't think that you would. But, people are going to ask who you are, and now you finally have a last name to go with you first one. Just remember, you're renting a room from me, and you moved in a week ago."
"Yes, Missuz Maxham!"
"Don't smart-mouth your mother. Now, go get your brother that drink, and don't embarrass me. I don't want it said that I was renting to some cheap bimbo!"
It was a weeknight, so I didn't think that going to a downtown bar would be very much fun. The bars would either be in 'weekday decompression' or serious 'meat-market' mode. Eli couldn't do very well with that stupid brace, and I wasn't looking forward to giving the cold shoulder to a bunch of romeo-wannabees. So, we decided on a local bar. Not Drolich's, but some place close by. Brendan's usually caters to a more 'lace curtain' crowd, so we decided on that.
But, it was 6 o'clock; some of the regulars should have been there, but the place was almost empty. There was one guy at about retirement age sitting at the bar, and a middle aged couple sitting at the booth. Other than that, there was only Doyle Brendan, the owner in the place.
We walked up to the bar. "Hey, Doyle!" Eli greeted the owner/bartender, "I'd like you to meet Maxine..." Eli reached for the new last name that I'd have to be wearing.
"Fitzgerald," I finished for him ñ with a quick kick on the shins where Brendan couldn't see it. I stuck out a hand. "Nice to meet you."
He took my hand gently and shook it. That's something that I'll have to get used to, the changed handshake. With men, it's always at least an attempt for a firm handshake; with women, it's kind of limp and soggy, like men are afraid to hurt them. "Nice to be met! And what's a fine looking young woman doing, hanging around with a good-for-nothing like Eli Maxham?"
"Well, I'm renting a room from his mother, and he said that he'd show me the local places and treat me to a couple of brews."
"Well, that would explain it. Just don't let him get you into any kind of card game. He cheats." Brendan looked at Eli. "Your mother's taking in boarders now?"
Eli nodded. "Yep. Dan finally found a place on the other side of town, and Ma wants to make a little money on the side. And I DON"T CHEAT!" He went a little shame-faced. "At least not when money is on the table." Then Eli looked around. "Running a little late, are you, Doyle? Usually you have at least a couple or so people in here."
Brendan made a sour face. "Business has been kinda slow recently. I gained some new regulars - the kind that I can do without."
I started to ask who, but my question was rather obviously answered, when the door opened. Kurt Baumgartner, his little brother Silas and his two butt-licks, Luke and Steve walked in, like they owned the place.
Oh yes, that would explain it. As I said before, Brendan's caters to a more 'lace-curtain' clientele. I sort of wondered what Baumgartner and his 'crew' was doing, hanging around here. Then it became painfully obvious.
Baumgartner greeted Brendan with all the breezy cheer of a bully who knew that he wasn't welcome, but was too big to get kicked out. He ordered rounds for himself and his boys, and told Brendan to put it on their tab.
Brendan's doesn't run tabs.
Baumgartner took a long pull off of his beer, and looked around the place. He sort of glossed over the old man and the middle aged couple as too easy; he'd only have his fun with them if nothing more interesting showed up.
Then he saw Eli and me at the bar. That wide sleazy grin of his just sort of oozed over his face.
"Wellll...Eli Maxham! Long time, no see! Where's that good-for-nothing lardass brother of yours? He owes me money!"
Eli made a point of calmly drinking his beer before answering. "Since when?"
"We had a bet, and he cheated!"
"Baumgartner, HOW do you cheat in a drinking contest?"
"He swallowed something that kept him from getting drunk, that's how!"
"I don't know! But you two bookworms would! Hell, that's the only way that a wimp like him could drink even so much as a single bottle and not be puking up his guts all over the place!"
"Baumgartner, I hate to tell you this ñ no, actually I don't hate it at all, past having to talk to you in the first place - but that is complete and utter bullshit! There isn't anything that can do that!"
"Yeah, well, you see it in the movies all the time!"
I snorted, keeping an all-out guffaw under control. Eli shook his head as much as his neck brace would let him. "Baumgartner, that's the freaking movies! In the movies, they also have beautiful women falling passionately in love with the hero after he uses the dumbest come-on lines, and when's the last time THAT happened in reality? It's called a 'plot device'. They don't make anything that can keep you from getting drunk - it's all out of some damnfool lazy writer's imagination. No, the simple truth is that Dan drank you under the table and picked up his winnings with a steady hand afterwards. You lost, Baumgartner - just deal with it."
"No, THAT'S bullshit, Maxham. But my question stands - where's that asswipe brother of yours?"
"Dan isn't living at home anymore. He found a place over on the other side of town, probably to be closer to his girlfriend." Girlfriend?
"Naw, he just lit out 'cause he knew that if I caught up with him, that I'd pound that money right out of his over-upholstered ASS!"
"You can believe that if you want to, Baumgartner - though, personally if I were going to make myself believe a complete fantasy, I'd come up with one that involved Gwenneth Paltrow..."
"Yeah, well, laugh this off, funnyman! Since yer brother's too much of a wuss to stay and take his punishment, then I'm just gonna havta pound the money outta YOU!"
"You lay a finger on him," I interrupted, "and it will be a coin-toss as to who will tear into you worse - the Cops, for Aggravated Assault and Mayhem, or the Personal Injuries Lawyers. Y'see, he just got out of the hospital a couple of days ago. That brace isn't on his neck because it's a cutting edge fashion statement. Didn't you hear that he was in a big crash about a week or so ago? He's okay, but if you even so much as joggle him, why, that could cause horrible injuries! And more to the point, actionable injuries!"
Eli grinned savagely at Baumgartner. "That's right, Kurt- hit me! I could use the money!"
Baumgartner snarled and swung his head to tell me to mind my own business. Then he got a better look at me, the snarl died, and the smirk was back. "Mmm, mmm, mmm! Look at what we got here, boys! Hey, honey, wha'choo doin' hangin' aroun' with this wimp for? Dump the Zee-ro and get with the Hee-ro!"
I gave him my best disgusted look and then looked away, shaking my head. The really nauseating thing about Baumgartner's come on is that he's actually had his fair share of success with it. He actually can pass himself off as a reasonable facsimile of a 'bad boy', and, God Help Us All, there are women who like that sort of thing.
"Hey, don't be like that, babe!" He sat down and draped an arm over my shoulder.
"The Arm. Move it. This is a new jacket, and I don't want to have to fumigate it just yet."
"What? You think that you're too good for me?"
"Oh, you think you're special? You're too good for an honest working stiff?"
"Honest? I just heard you spin some bullshit line about Eli's brother cheating on a drinking contest - I mean, lying about losing a drinking contest, how lame is that? - and then you threaten to beat up an injured man. And you call that honest? Tell me, I'm curious - what color is the sky in that little private world that you live in?"
"Hey, listen up, Bitch-"
"Bitch? Did you just call me Bitch?" I shoved Baumgartner's arm off my shoulder.
"Yeah, I called you bitch, Bitch! Wha'cha gonna do about it?"
I poured his beer in his lap, and smiled snidely at him. He snarled and tried to backhand me.
Y'know, ever since that 'fight' back at Drolich's, I've gone over what I did and wondered how I could have done it better. While I haven't studied Kung Fu or anything, I'm strong enough and fast enough to fake it in front of people who don't know Martial Arts. I intercepted his slap, locked his arm and threw him to the floor. I got up and stepped away from the bar.
Brendan bleated out, "Hey, we don't want any trouble here!"
"Don't worry, Doyle!" Eli grinned, "Maxine here can take care of herself. And these yutzes, too. Pour me another beer, willya?"
While Kurt scrambled to his feet, brother Silas and friends Luke and Steve encircled me. Even wearing a nice skirt, I wasn't terribly concerned. Kurt got up and sneered. "Oh, so you think that you're hot shit, 'cause you know some karate, hunh?" Then he assumed a stance that he could only have learned from watching too many Steven Sagall movies.
Of course, a ratsass like Baumgartner would only do that kind of thing if he was trying to fake me out. Sure enough, Steve came at from behind, trying to pin my arms. I quickly stepped back and shoved my elbow into his face. When he yelped, Luke and Silas came at once. I stepped over, grabbed Luke and threw him into Silas. As Steve was pulling his bloody hand away from his nose, I spun around and did the 'slam both hands on his ears and pop them' gag. It doesn't work as well in real life as it does in the comics, but it does hurt. Kurt tried to take advantage of my turned back, and got a mule back-kick in the stomach for it. As Silas struggled up, I grabbed him by his jacket and gave him a knee in the stomach. After that, it was mostly mop-up.
When Luke went down for the last time, I reached into Baumgartner's jacket and fished out his wallet. "Mister Brendan, when this putz came in here and ordered a beer, he told you to put it on his tab. Has he ever paid that tab?"
"How much is it by now?"
"Oh, at least a couple of hundred bucks by now"
"A couple of hundred bucks? How long have they been pulling this crap?"
"About two weeks now."
I opened Baumgartner's wallet and fished out some twenties, some tens and a handful of fives. "Isn't it amazing how somebody who spends most of his time hanging around bars can have so much loose cash on him?" I looked at the middle-aged couple. "Would you two please take note that I am, indeed, only taking two hundred dollars out of this man's wallet as payment of a legal debt, and placing the remainder back in the wallet and returning it to him?" I counted out two hundred dollars, put what looked like another hundred at least back in the wallet and put it back in Baumgartner's jacket. "Do you have a Dumpster out back?"
"Well, these guys are definitely going to need a place to sleep it off, and that seems like a fitting place. Would you grab this guy's other arm?"
As we pulled them one by one out to the back, Brendan said, "That was real gratifying, but you may be causing me more trouble than you solved. These clotheads aren't gonna like being made to look like fools."
"So, play it to your advantage."
"Well, let me guess - when they came in before, they were real loud and real obnoxious and they got in everybody's face, but they never did anything actually illegal, now did they."
"Nope. They knew to the inch exactly how far they could push it, before I could sic the Cops on them."
"Well, now they ain't gonna be such fancy dancers, now are they? They're gonna be mad, and they're gonna do something stupid to prove that they're still badasses, right?"
"I'm seeing a LOT of broken glass in my future."
"So, invite a couple of off-duty cops to watch a baseball game or something, so's they're there at about the time when these yo-yos usually show up. The second that any of them break anything or lay a hand on you, the cops will be all over them like a heavy sweat. Cops get real offended when anyone leans on their watering holes. And the second that they go in a cell, you get a restraining order slapped on the lot of them. They set one little tootsie in your door, *Bam!* they're doing at least a month for Contempt of Court."
Brendan nodded reluctantly. There's a fine old Irish tradition of only showing up in court at the point of a gun, but if he didn't these yahoos would sponge him out of business and he knew it.
With that noxious chore out of the way, I freshened up and had that beer with Eli. We chatted with the other patrons of the bar and assured them that I wasn't vicious, just someone who didn't take kindly to being pushed around. A few more regulars sort of drifted by and dropped in when they saw that Baumgartner and his crew weren't in attendance. From the way that the old guy and the couple were talking to their friends, I had a feeling that the word would get out about Baumgartner real quick.
After a bit, Eli and I left, with Brendan telling me that I was welcome back any time. We walked back, and I was feeling better than I had in a long time.
About halfway home, Eli asked me, "So...Max...what's this that Ma's been telling me about you having a date with Justiciar?"
"Date? I don't know anything about any date! Justiciar just asked me if I wouldn't meet him Tuesday and talk something over!"
"Yeah, well, if you're both going to be in uniform, I guess that you can't really call it a date."
"Well...actually...he kinda asked me if I wouldn't meet him in my civvies."
"It's starting to sound like a date t'me!"
"He just wanted to meet with me! If it were a date, then he woulda said something about dinner, or a movie or something."
"Maybe he's just cheap!"
"Hey! He is NOT cheap!"
Eli smirked and just kept ignoring my complaints all the way back home.
Come to think of it, I still haven't decided what I'm going to wear when I do meet Ted.
I don't believe this! I spent TWO WEEK'S pay worth of money on clothes, and I still don't have anything to wear!