Prologue

 

 

THE HOUSE was quiet.

For once, fortune seemed to be in Wrath’s favor as he slid the back door shut. Remembering that Scarlet Queen and Wiccan Witch were camped out in the living room, he eschewed flipping on a light switch. A candlewick-sized puff of flame appeared in the palm of his hand instead as he stepped forward through the back foyer. Wrath closed his fingers around the fire to block some of the light as he passed through the living room.

His bedroom was just inside the hall to his right. Seeing no movement from the two futons on the floor, Wrath slipped noiselessly into his room and shut the door behind him. Once there, the flame in his hand automatically went out. Wrath switched on the light and sat down, placing the package he’d been carrying on the bed next to him.

For a minute he remained perfectly still, staring down at the metal box.

“Come in,” he called out to Wiccan Witch, who he sensed was standing on the other side of the door.

A second later, the door popped open. There stood Wiccan Witch, one hand still raised in a fist like she was about to knock.

“Empath, remember?” he said.

“That’s pretty damn cool,” she said, smiling at him. “Sorry if I was disturbing you. I’d gotten up to use the bathroom and saw your light on.”

“You wanted to see if I was planning on murdering everyone while they slept?”

Wrath frowned slightly when Wiccan Witch didn’t flinch at the remark. “You don’t fit the profile of a compulsive killer,” she retorted. “For one thing, there haven’t been any pets reported missing since you guys showed up.”

“It’s still early,” Wrath said, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “And between the plane crash and giant robots, going after cute puppy dogs wouldn’t get me nearly the amount of attention I crave.”

Wiccan Witch’s smile didn’t fade. If anything, it grew broader.

“Forgive my annoying tendency to be nosy, but what’s that?” she asked, pointing to the box on the bed. “Is that what you were looking for?”

The comment startled Wrath.

“I was there when the sheriff mentioned it,” she pointed out, “remember?”

Wrath did and kicked himself silently for not putting the box in the spacious closet just a few feet away when he first walked in.

“It’s something I lost back when I was here before,” he told her, sensing she wanted to sit down. “When I came back the first time and was caught.”

Wrath moved over some, even though there was plenty of room. Wiccan Witch accepted the invitation, however, and surprised him by sitting down between him and the box.

“Do you mind?” she asked, reaching for it.

Wrath shrugged, pretending it didn’t matter, but watched closely as Wiccan Witch held the metal container up gingerly with both hands.

“It looks old,” she noted. “Banged up, too.”

“It was inside an old storehouse,” he explained. “One of those places where the local police keep old evidence. I’d been going through the town records since I got here trying to find it.”

Wiccan Witch’s hand brushed up against the small lock holding the box closed. “Here,” she said, passing it to Wrath. “It’s yours. You should be doing this instead of me.”

Wrath took the box from her, then went digging into a pants pocket for a pair of wire clippers. “The lock’s been on there for ages,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anyone tried to open it after I was arrested.”

Wrath held the lock between the wire cutter’s teeth. “The key wasn’t where I remember hiding it before I ran away,” he went on, waiting a moment before breaking the lock. “It must have been thrown away when the house was renovated.”

Wiccan Witch was watching him closely. “Do you need me to go?” she asked plainly. “I don’t mind if you want to be alone for this.”

Wrath considered her offer for a moment. “No,” he decided, hair falling into his face as he shook his head. “You can stay.”

Wiccan Witch smiled and brushed the stray locks out of Wrath’s face so he could see what he was doing. Grasping the cutter tightly, he gave a soft grunt of satisfaction as the tool snapped the lock right off.

Wiccan Witch reached over and plucked the broken lock off Wrath’s leg for him while he thumbed the latch open.

“You’re right,” she said, noting the latch’s resistance toward being moved. “It doesn’t look like this thing’s been opened in years. I guess that means whatever is inside hasn’t been tampered with.”

“Good to know,” Wrath said before slowly raising the lid. “I’d hate to have to hurt someone over this just when I was getting used to the idea of being a good guy.”

A smile tugged at Wiccan Witch’s mouth, but she held her laughter in while Wrath opened the metal box. Now that she thought about it, the box resembled an old container for tools.

Wrath’s face, meanwhile, lit up as his hands touched whatever was inside.

“A comic book?”

Wrath turned the comic toward Wiccan Witch so she could read it. “Walt Disney Adventures?” she read aloud.

There were several other comics still inside. “Donald Duck,” she read again, noting the title on the cover. “‘Spider-Man, Storm, & Power Man Battle Smokescreen’?”

Wrath was blushing.

“It was one of those antismoking campaign things they pass out at school,” he explained, covering the comic. “I got it in first grade.”

Something else caught Wiccan Witch’s eye. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at a small plastic lump in the shadows. “A toy truck?”

Wrath held the two-inch toy up for her to see. “It was the prize from a McDonald’s Happy Meal,” he said. “My mother hated eating out, but one day when we were in town, I managed to beg her into stopping at McDonald’s. This was the prize they were giving away that day.”

“And you kept it?”

The smile on Wrath’s face faded a little. “I played with this thing for weeks,” he said softly, “rolling it over furniture and the floor until she threatened to throw it away. I was so afraid I’d lose it. I stuck it under my bed near the headboard. Even then, I was convinced she’d find it, so I started looking for a better hiding place.”

Wrath gazed down into the toolbox. “That’s when I found this,” he went on, touching the box’s edges carefully. “It fell out of the back of my father’s truck, and he didn’t even notice. The lock and key were inside, so I snuck it into my room and started keeping things in it.”

Something occurred to Wiccan Witch as she listened. “What about all your other stuff?” she asked, frowning. “Why did you keep these things?”

Wrath refused to look at her. “This was all of my stuff,” he finally admitted, taking the truck out of her hand and putting it back in the box. “I was a bad kid. I wouldn’t stop playing with matches and setting fire to things, so my parents punished me by giving away all my toys. I cried for the rest of the day when that happened.”

Wrath’s whole body went rigid as he realized what had just slipped from his mouth. “Anyway,” he said in a terse voice, shutting the box with a loud snap. “After that, I hid anything that came my way in here so no one would steal it. At the time, it didn’t dawn on me that I was making things easier by keeping it all in one convenient place.”

“So you came back for it,” Wiccan Witch said, understanding now. “After New Orleans, you came back to Shove Point to get it. That’s what you were doing here.”

Wrath scowled at her correct assumption. “Everything I’d had in New Orleans was gone,” he muttered ruefully. “Losing all my toys the first time taught me that I had to cherish whatever came my way. Eventually, it would be gone. When the Association brought down the Deadly Seven, I was back to square one. The only thing left to my name was what I’d neglected to take with me when Sloth made his offer, so I came back for it.”

The room was dead quiet for several minutes. “I didn’t want to be a criminal,” he said, feeling foolish. “But I couldn’t stay in Shove Point. They were talking about sending me away, and Sloth’s offer was exciting. No one had ever treated what I could do like it was special or important. Thank Goddess I had Pride to look after me, or else I’d have died from doing some pretty stupid things.”

“Have you heard from her?” Wiccan Witch asked warily, knowing Wrath might get the wrong idea. “Pride, I mean. Has she tried contacting you?”

Wrath glanced at her suspiciously for a moment, then relaxed. “No,” he said. “The only members of the Deadly Seven I’ve had any contact with at all are the ones here in Shove Point, and them I could live without.”

Wrath felt Wiccan Witch’s eyes on him as he picked aimlessly through the box’s contents. A small Ninja Turtle figure sat underneath a single issue of a He-Man comic. There was also a handful of change, some quarters and pennies scattered. Wrath couldn’t remember what he’d done to earn that, or if he’d done anything at all. More than likely, it was change he’d picked up off the ground when no one was watching.

Slowly, Wrath closed the lid.

“I’m ready for my abuse now,” he said dryly over the sound of the latch snapping back into place. “I know it was stupid, but it seemed important at the time.”

Wrath jumped as he felt Wiccan Witch’s hand slide over his. “It isn’t stupid,” she said, squeezing. “It’s yours, so you should have it.”

Wrath stayed perfectly still as Wiccan Witch waited patiently. “Don’t tell anyone,” he asked pleadingly, keeping his eyes forward. “I don’t want anyone to know.”

“I won’t.”

It was a bad idea. Wrath could think of a whole printout of reasons why he shouldn’t do what they were about to do. When Wiccan Witch slid the box out of his hands, he didn’t try to stop her. Keeping both eyes on him, she leaned forward and slipped the box underneath the bed.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to check under there,” she told him reassuringly.

Wrath looked at her finally, kicking himself the whole time. It was stupid, but he’d been in prison for a decade. Besides, there was an old proverb about how the bigger fool in a situation was the starving man who rejected an offer of free food.

Now that he’d decided that, though, there was the rather awkward matter of not knowing where to start. It had been a long time, and, despite his reputation, Wrath had never been the player most people assumed. Now, as Wiccan Witch grinned impishly at him, he wondered who the idiot was that started those rumors in the first place. All they’d done was set a bar impossibly high and leave him feeling inadequate next to his own reputation.

Wiccan Witch saved him the trouble by kissing him first. After that, things started to progress a little more smoothly. Pretty soon, Wrath was stretched out on top of the covers with his head against the pillow. Wiccan Witch’s comfortable weight pressed him down into the mattress as they french kissed. Her body was soft in all the right places, but underneath that, Wrath’s fingers touched the hard muscle built from a daily grind.

She was steel wrapped in silk and felt glorious. Her bangs tickled his forehead when she would tilt her head slightly. Wrath’s senses were on overdrive as he forced himself to remember each miniscule detail. There was a chance this wouldn’t happen a second time, so he was determined to recall everything.

Thinking this, his eyes flew open as her hand drifted down his shirt toward his pants.

“Not here,” he said, jerking back far enough to speak.

Wiccan Witch blinked, startled by the sudden movement. “What?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”

Wrath smirked sheepishly at her. “Oh, nothing like that,” he reassured her. “It’s just that… well, this used to be my parents’ bedroom when I was a kid.”

“Okay. And?”

A blush crept up his face as he met her eyes. “I’ve had enough trips down memory lane for one night,” he tried feebly. “Is there any way we could do this somewhere else?”

The answer came to Wiccan Witch as she opened her mouth to ask why. “Oh,” she said, pursing her lips. “I see.”

Wrath shrugged, hoping it looked casual. “I think I was four,” he elaborated. “It was before my powers started manifesting. I’d come to ask for a glass of water, and… things went downhill after that.”

“Sucks to be them,” Wiccan Witch retorted disdainfully. “But sure. Did you have a particular place in mind?”

Wrath thought quickly. “Scratch’s room is probably free,” he said. “I doubt he’ll be using it anymore, and we could always wash the sheets for him.”

Wiccan Witch laughed. “How thoughtful,” she said teasingly.

Wrath shrugged again. “I’m evil,” he stated, “but I’m not that cruel.”

Wiccan Witch shot him a look that said she wasn’t buying it. “I’ve got a better idea,” she decided, getting up off him. “Is there a spare blanket or something around here?”

Wrath answered by getting off the bed after her and rolling up the heavy bedspread. “Done,” he said, tossing it over one shoulder. “What now?”

“Come with me,” she replied, taking him by the hand.

Wrath followed after her, remembering to kill the bedroom light on his way out. With Wiccan Witch in the lead, they eased quietly through the living room past Scarlet Queen, who was resting soundly on the futon.

“She’s a light sleeper,” Wiccan Witch warned. “Try not to bump into anything.”

The moment those words left her lips, Wiccan Witch’s toe struck the side of the couch. Wrath reacted fast, placing a hand over her mouth before she could cry out.

“Thanks,” she said, after he pulled his hand away.

“No problem.” Wrath tensed inside as the next sentence flew out before he could stop himself. “I know I’ll regret asking, but is there a reason why we’re sneaking around like a couple of teenagers?”

“Force of habit,” she replied promptly. “My roommate has had problems sleeping through the night for years. The slightest noise will wake her up, so I have to creep around if I do anything in the middle of the night.”

Wrath looked away, feeling bad now for asking.

“Come on,” she said, taking his hand again. “Let’s go.”

Wiccan Witch led them out of the living room, into the kitchen, and through the foyer that connected Push’s bedroom with the back door. Wrath kept his eyes facing forward, refusing to look back while Wiccan Witch fumbled with the lock. Closing the door behind them, he caught sight of Push’s room before the back door blocked the view.

“Okay,” he said, breathing in the cool night air. “What now?”

“This way.”

A moment later, Wrath had spread the bedspread out onto the grass. Wiccan Witch had already disrobed and was helping him do the same.

“Are you sure?” he whispered in her ear as she kissed along his collarbone.

Wiccan Witch answered by seizing the back of his head and yanking him down. “Do it,” she hissed out between kisses. “Please.”

A decade behind prison walls had, if nothing else, given Wrath the time to expand on his diction.

“Okay.”

Just as he felt the head of his shaft press against her soft folds, something flashed in the corner of Wrath’s eye. Wiccan Witch saw it at the same time and jerked her head. Their eyes widened as three police cars came down the street in their direction with lights flashing.

“Shit!” Wrath swore, reaching for his pants.

Wiccan Witch was dressing herself at a speed that would have made Clark Kent feel proud. “What do they want?” she wondered, as Wrath stood with his pants on.

“Nothing good,” he assured, standing close by, wearing a grim face. “I recognize that car. It’s the sheriff.”

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

WARM.

He was so warm.

Push watched as Scratch’s chest rose and fell in an easy rhythm. His best friend, his boyfriend, had been out like a light for hours. Push had dozed, meanwhile, waking every so often at the smallest sound. Each time, his eyes had drifted over Scratch, confirming the man entangled in his arms was real.

Feeling the solid weight of Scratch’s body was pure bliss. Push tightened his hold on the man he loved, careful not to wake him, and savored each second that passed.

It had been a long day. In fact, it had been a long week for all of them. Push rewound the events in his head until they made him dizzy. So much had happened already. The worst part was that it wasn’t over yet.

Something rattled behind him. Push turned toward the bedside table and saw his phone wobbling uncontrollably. He’d set it on vibrate before going to bed. For the past few days, the team had done little other than make phone calls. It was imperative that they account for each and every Real-Life Superhero Association member. A few stragglers still hadn’t reported in yet.

After snatching the phone up, Push quickly untangled himself from Scratch, got out of bed, and dashed to the bathroom. Once inside, he flipped on the light switch and blinked spots out of his eyes before answering.

“Push?”

The voice made Push sigh in relief. “Mind Bender,” he replied in answer, sitting down on the toilet. “Where the hell have you been?”

“In the hospital,” Mind Bender said, and now Push could hear the noise on the other end of the line. It sounded as though Bender was still there.

“I’ve been visiting the people that were injured in the bombing,” his friend continued. “The ones that made it out alive, at least. It’s been a nightmare.”

“I know,” said Push, sighing heavily as the weight of the past forty-eight hours crashed down on his shoulders. “The team and I have spent most of our time tying up the phone lines, trying to account for who all is alive and who’s dead.”

“I just saw the latest update on the site,” Bender said sadly. “They’ve found several more dead heroes in the rubble.”

Push said nothing in reply.

“I was glad to see you and Scratch weren’t there,” Bender went on in a bittersweet tone. “Then I remembered that you were training the new guy somewhere down south.”

“Right.”

Push didn’t know what else to say.

“How’s that going?” Bender asked. “I heard he was a handful.”

“Not really,” Push admitted. “He hasn’t been the real problem since the Cape Cabinet transferred us.”

“What’s been happening?”

Push let out a deep breath. “It’s late,” he said apologetically. “And a very long story.”

“I’m waiting to hear whether Starbolt will live through the night,” Bender replied gravely. “The medics pulled her out from under several warped support structures. Half of her rib cage is crushed, and she’s probably damaged her spine. I’d rather hear a long story from you than sit in the waiting room not knowing whether to pray for her to live or to die in peace so she doesn’t live the rest of her life as an invalid.”

Push thought of the warm bed where Scratch was sleeping and the cold hospital waiting room that Mind Bender currently sat diligently in.

“Here goes,” Push said before taking a deep breath. “You heard the part about Wrath, the new guy we’re training, being an ex-con, right?”

“Right,” Bender affirmed. “And that he’s got a superpower like you.”

“Not like me,” Push corrected. “I’m telekinetic, as far as anyone can tell. Wrath has pyrokinesis. He starts and controls fires. Wrath was a member of the Deadly Seven.”

Mind Bender stayed quiet for a second. “I was hoping that part was just office gossip,” he said tersely. “What was the Cape Cabinet thinking?”

“Actually, he’s not so bad,” Push countered before he could stop himself. “Annoying, but nothing like I thought he’d be at first.”

Mind Bender didn’t sound completely convinced. “You remember what that guy has done, right?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral. “The guy isn’t exactly the ‘drink your milk, kids’ type.”

“No, he isn’t,” Push acknowledged. “And I know what he did when the Deadly Seven had the run of the New Orleans crime syndicate. Wrath doesn’t deny any of that. I also learned why he joined the Seven in the first place.”

Push paused to take a deep breath. “Much as I hate to admit it, that’s made me look at him in a slightly different light. Plus, he’s been a great big help down here since we arrived.”

“It sounds as though you like the guy,” Mind Bender teased. “Have you finally given up on crushing after your straight roommate? If Wrath isn’t interested in guys, you might have some sort of complex going on.”

Push winced on the inside. It had only come out a few days prior that several of his friends had known about Push’s crush on Scratch all along. Apparently, the girth of that circle stretched farther than he’d thought.

“Funny,” Push retorted, knowing he had the upper hand on Bender regardless. “I’ve wondered that same thing before. But no, I’m not pining for a former supervillain. Scratch and I have been too busy getting our own relationship off the ground for me to bother trying.”

Nothing but the dim echo of waiting-room conversation came through the phone.

“Um. What?”

It was very hard for Push to keep from snickering. “Scratch and I are in a relationship now,” he reiterated. “We got together not long after arriving in Shove Point.”

More silence followed. “What?”

“Scratch is my boyfriend,” Push clarified, unable to hold back the giggle fit he was having. “He’s asleep in the next room right now. I could wake him up if you feel like you need to hear it from him.”

Mind Bender was silent once more. “He doesn’t mind if you know,” Push went on, enjoying himself immensely. “In fact, Scratch was the one who brought up us telling all our friends so I didn’t need to feel like it was some big secret.”

It took Mind Bender a moment, but he finally found his voice. “Okay,” he began, utterly befuddled. “Bizarro Push, would you mind giving the phone back to the man you were cloned from and stop messing with my head? Scratch is the biggest horndog in the whole Association. His tights see more action than Batman’s.”

“I can’t speak for Batman,” Push replied coolly. “But it’s what Scratch has under the tights that impresses me.”

Push snickered as Bender was stunned speechless yet again. “Talk to me about something else,” Bender begged after a moment. “I need several minutes to process all this. Tell me about what’s going on in the quiet, peaceful southern burb of Shove Point, Arkansas.”

Push’s mouth twisted into a frown. “The part about me and Scratch is actually the most normal thing happening right now.”

“I refuse to believe that,” Mind Bender insisted. “Talk, now.”

“Well, a small commercial jet crash-landed on the town right after the Association made our transfer official,” Push began.

“I heard about that,” Bender said, his voice serious. “Until the Association building bombings, it sounded like the worst thing any of us have dealt with since the Big Brawl in New Orleans with the Deadly Seven.”

“It was pretty bad,” said Push. “The part where it gets weird was finding out that a spacecraft brought the plane down in the first place.”

When Mind Bender said nothing, Push went on. “Then a bunch of aliens showed up late one night. They were snooping around in the rubble left by the plane like they were hunting for something. Wrath helped us track them through the woods to where the craft had washed up on the shore of a lake. Only it turned out that Wrath’s old boss, Sloth, was looking for the damn thing too. We still haven’t figured out what he wants with it, but Wrath was able to fight him off. Then the craft ejected a pod out of it and exploded.”

“Uh,” Bender began, but Push cut him off.

“We tried telling the Cape Cabinet what we found, but they’ve refused to comment. So we went back to capturing Sloth like they told us to. At least, that’s what the plan was until our wheels came to life and went on a rampage. Apparently, someone stole a bunch of microbots that the organization’s brain trust had been developing from an Association warehouse.”

“Microbots?” Mind Bender interjected. “The Association is building microbots?”

“According to Professor Trixter, they are,” Push said. “Someone stole them, though, and programmed the machines to go on a rampage through town. Luckily, Scarlet Queen, Wiccan Witch, and Trixter had come down for a visit. Even then, it wasn’t easy. The microbots built giant bodies for themselves out of salvage-yard parts and almost stomped over the town.”

“Giant robots,” Bender said disbelievingly. “First spaceships, then aliens and microbots, and now giant robots crushing an already half-flattened town?”

“It’s been a busy week,” said Push, giving Bender a moment to absorb everything. “We got the giant robots shut down, but it was supposed to be temporary. Professor Trixter thinks that the machines will reactivate within the next twelve hours, give or take. It looks like tomorrow is going to be busy, and we still haven’t captured Sloth.”

Mind Bender was muttering to himself now. “Aliens,” Push heard him whisper. “Spacecrafts, giant robots, and you and Scratch are dating now?”

“Yeah.”

Before Push could finish answering, the line went dead. “Mind Bender?” Push asked, pressing the phone closer to his ear. “Hello?”

A dial tone followed.

“Weird,” Push said, hitting the redial button.

All that followed was a busy signal. Concern gripped Push for a moment, but then he remembered that there had been no bombings reported anywhere other than Association property. “Maybe he got word about Starbolt,” Push said out loud, getting up off the toilet. “Oh well.”

Much as he hated dismissing an injured hero’s plight, Push knew he would be no good to anyone if he didn’t get some rest. There would be time tomorrow to mourn the fallen and check on how the recovering were doing.

The bed was calling to him, and so was the sleeping body resting comfortably inside it. Push couldn’t help but smile when he caught sight of Scratch breathing deeply under the covers. Leaving the bathroom door open, he crossed the room and crawled in beside the man he loved.

Before Push closed his eyes, something Mind Bender had said popped into the forefront of his mind.

“It sounds as though you like the guy.”

Mind Bender had some funny ideas. “I don’t like Wrath,” Push said to himself, tightening his hold on Scratch again. “Not that way, anyway. He’s not so bad as a member of the Association, but….”

Whatever else Push had been about to say faded as sleep rolled over him. Just as his mind entered the threshold of what looked to be a wonderful dream, a loud knock jerked Push awake.

“What?” he shouted, rising up in shock and startling Scratch awake as well.

“Huh?” Scratch blinked and pushed himself up off his pillow as a sharp set of knocks echoed from the front of the house, followed by the doorbell.

“Who could that be?” Push wondered.

“No one with good news,” Scratch replied calmly, rolling slowly out of bed. “No sane person would ever ring a doorbell at this hour.”

The doorbell rang again, more insistent this time, and was punctuated by pounding. “I’m coming! I’m coming!” they heard Scarlet Queen shout from the living room. “The hell is wrong with you people?”

Push waited, listening as the living-room door swung open. Silence followed, only to be broken by the sound of an older man’s voice speaking in a low but sharp tone. A moment later, Scarlet Queen’s footsteps were heard stomping across the kitchen tile.

“We’ve got a problem,” Scarlet Queen said as she entered Push’s room unannounced.

“I’m not surprised,” Push said, struggling into a pair of pants. “Who is it?”

“The sheriff,” she answered flatly, leaning against the frame. “Apparently, we’re all under arrest.”

 

 

IT HADN’T been that long since they were inside the sheriff’s department. Push had to remind himself of that as he and the others were led inside wearing handcuffs. Scarlet Queen, Wiccan Witch, and Professor Trixter hadn’t been with them the first time they’d paid Black a visit after arriving at Shove Point. The same receptionist from before was sitting behind the glass window, watching them file in one after the other.

Inevitably, Sheriff Black had called his two favorite deputies, McGee and Fortenberry, to help load them up. Both men were grinning from ear to ear as though Christmas had come early.

&l