Every single person in the room shifts their chairs to the side with a cacophony of screeching, squeaking, rubber and metal on linoleum when I walk in to this month’s Supervillains Anonymous meeting in the basement of one of Comet City’s many rec centers.
I don’t blame them. I know what I look like, who I am. Nearly six feet tall with dark brown skin and purple scales spattered like paint across it, I look just normal enough to pass as entirely human. At least until I open my mouth and people get a look at my fangs and forked tongue and remember that some snakes are poisonous.
But then, what else could anyone expect from someone that used to be Mama Mambo’s prized protégé, Viper?
Despite the fact that all Villains Anonymous meetings are supposed to be well… anonymous, there’s no getting away from the fact that my face is famous. At least, it is among my fellow villains. Even when I’m among the worst of the worst that Comet City has to offer, my maskless face still strikes fear into their hearts.
We’re supposed to leave the drama outside.
Inside these meetings, it’s not supposed to matter whether you were Mina the Merciless or a sidekick-turned-villain like Purrsia. It’s not supposed to matter who kidnapped whose kids or who sold who out to the Feds or the League.
Supervillains Anonymous meetings are supposed to be about the here and now. They’re supposed to be about helping villains — the newly retired and the still slightly active alike — manage in a world that doesn’t want them wandering around on the street. These meetings are supposed to be a safe space. They’re supposed to be somewhere where all villains are accepted, not feared. We get enough of that on the outside.
I take a seat in the back rather than walk all the way to the front of the room and cause more panic than my arrival alone already has. One empty seat on a full row that quickly becomes an island in a sea of empty space. Everyone moves away when I sit down, even the heavy hitters like Mallah and Surge.
I smirk, lips quirking up even though nothing here is funny.
Here I am surrounded by people that’ve killed cops and capes for a living long before I was even born and yet I’m the one they flinch from?
The chair I sit in creaks ominously as I lean back in it, bending under the weight of so many bodies before me. In the still, nearly perfect silence of the basement room, the sound slices through the air like a knife or a set of claws.
Movement from the people at the front of the room catches my eye along with everyone else’s, distracting them from me and me from the urge to cause trouble. When Klaw stands up from a rickety folding chair, the room falls into an even thicker silence.
Klaw is one of those villains that you read about in comics or on the news, but avoid in public.
Back when I was a kid at Mama Mambo’s knee, I knew that Klaw was one of the few villains that we didn’t mess with. Not if we wanted to come out with all of our limbs attached. Five years retired after a stint in Irongate hasn’t softened any of Klaw’s rough edges.
Seven-foot-something with broad shoulders that strain against the thick brown fabric of a hooded sweat shirt, Klaw is easily the tallest person in the room. Ze towers over the microphone stand, claw-tipped fingers curving gently around the mic as ze fumbles with it.
No one even thinks to offer help.
No one would in this crowd.
Minutes later, Klaw dips zer head down towards the microphone.
“My name is Klaw,” ze says in a rasping, tone that almost makes my skin scrawl to hear it. “And I am — was — a supervillain.”
As one, we greet Klaw.
Maybe it’s Klaw’s first meeting, or zer first one on stage, because ze bares zer sharp teeth in something that approximates a smile before continuing. The resulting gasp from the audience is too loud to miss and Klaw’s grin falters for a moment before strengthening.
“I faced temptation yesterday,” Klaw says, voice strengthening with every word that ze says until the rasping note to it is more of an undertone. “Yesterday, I saw an armored truck stopped for gas in my neighborhood. I could’ve knocked it over in a minute an’ made off with a million easy.”
“Why didn’t you?”
I recognize the person that speaks as a newer retiree with the unfortunate street name of ‘BoomBoom’. If there’s more to the little girl than that, I’ve never heard of it.
Forcibly retired by the League at the ripe old age of nineteen, BoomBoom is one of the villains that has yet to get used to life as a normal. She lives for the thrill of committing crimes, but now, with a power inhibitor locked around her wrist and all of her strikes used up, there’s not much that she can do. I don’t know BoomBoom that well, but I know the sullenness in her voice.
The moderator, a skinny slip of an old woman with light brown skin and silver hair, looks tiny compared to Klaw.
But then, who doesn’t?
I watch, smiling a bit to myself as she tries to wrest the mic away from Klaw’s grip in order to address BoomBoom’s rudeness.
“Why?” Klaw says, zer voice rumbling with what I hope isn’t anger. Ze takes a step forward before pausing, the mic stand half-off the stage. “I am good now. I live with my mate and we stay out of trouble. We have a good life —”
I must be psychic because I know what’s going to happen before it does.
BoomBoom takes a step forward as she points at Klaw.
“I can’t believe that you call hiding what you are a good life,” she calls out, anger vibrating in her voice as she shouts. “You used to be someone special. Now — now you’re just a boring old freak playing house. Are we supposed to want to be like you – boring and pathetic as you try to be normal?”
That’s what I’d been expecting.
Klaw launches zerself off of the stage, dropping to the ground with a thud that sets the floor to shaking.
Instead of moving away from the chaos, I move towards it, pushing through the crowds of people trying to escape the potential for violence that is all but screaming from Klaw’s hunched over posture and the way that zer big hands are clenched into even bigger fists. If ze hits BoomBoom –
We’ll be cleaning the girl off of the wall for days.
I can’t let Klaw ruin all zer hard work over a moment of anger and a young girl’s rudeness.
“You don’t want to do this, Klaw,” I say as I walk closer, lifting my voice loud enough to be heard above Klaw’s panting breaths. “You do this –you hurt her – and it’s all over for you. The capes will come and take you down, one of them might even kill you. You don’t want to throw your life away for something like this.”
At first, I don’t think that Klaw hears me. Ze’s too busy staring BoomBoom down with loathing darkening zer pale eyes to even look at me for an instant.
“I – I didn’t mean it,” BoomBoom squeaks, glancing between Klaw and me as if she doesn’t know which of us is the most terrifying. “I just – I didn’t – I’m sorry!”
When Klaw snarls at her a moment later, BoomBoom squeaks and then falls silent, green eyes glistening with tears.
I don’t know why I do decide to do what I do next. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for kids or because I wouldn’t have been anything more than a smear on some wall if Mama Mambo hadn’t taken pity on me and intervened when I’d tangled with the wrong person.
I move into the line of fire. Standing between Klaw and BoomBoom isn’t the smartest idea that I’ve ever had, but I can take a damn sight more damage from Klaw than BoomBoom can, that’s for sure.
“Listen to me, Klaw,” I say again, holding out my hands with my palms facing zer to show that I’m not interesting in harming zer. “You know me. I used to run with Mama Mambo as Viper. I got out. I tried to keep my nose clean. Like you.”
When Klaw turns zer big head and looks at me, I feel the skin on the back of my neck prickle, but I fight back against the instinctive fear and keep talking.
“If you hit this kid, you will kill her,” I say. “You’ll be taken down by capes and cops that look at you and see a monster and one of them will hurt you badly. You won’t ever see your mate again.”
“She called me a freak,” Klaw says in a voice that almost sounds plaintive. Ze gestures at BoomBoom with one massive hand as zir thin-lipped mouth twists with a frown. “A freak! She –”
“She’s a kid with more bravery than common sense,” I point out. “She was on the street as a villain for less than a month before she used up all three of her strikes when she got caught knocking over the same jewelry store three times in a row. Clearly, she’s not the type to think things through. But you are, Klaw.”
Klaw frowns. “You – you may be right,” ze admits in an almost abashed tone.
“I’m always right,” I say, managing a wider than usual smile for the big ex-villain in front of me. “Now, if BoomBoom apologizes, do you think you can get back onstage and finish talking?”
When Klaw nods zer head, I allow myself to relax and glance back at where BoomBoom is busy trying to look as though she isn’t moments away from crying.
“You ready to apologize, kid?” I ask.
BoomBoom nods hard enough that I worry that she’s about to give herself whiplash.
“Y-yes, Viper,” she blurts out. “I mean – ” When I shake my head at her, BoomBoom’s mouth closes with a near-audible snap of her jaw and then she tries again. “I – I’m sorry, Klaw. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.”
We turn towards Klaw as if one, expectant looks on our faces.
Thankfully, ze feels like accepting BoomBoom’s apology. I wasn’t feeling up to picking a fight with someone strong enough to pick up an armored car and crack it like an egg.
“Apology accepted,” Klaw rumbles.
Before either BoomBoom or I can say anything, the little old woman from before appears out of nowhere. Maybe she’s a teleporter or she’s just that quiet, because I sure as hell didn’t notice her before that moment. There’s a faint frown on her face that starts to vanish when she realizes that no one has been beaten to a pulp and that there’s no blood for her to have to clean up.
“Are you quite finished?” She asks.
Klaw’s heavy head inclines with a shallow nod. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good,” the old woman says sharply. “Now I don’t want to have any more nonsense from the three of you. Behave or find yourself another SA meeting to attend.”
I find myself blinking at the wrinkled old woman’s face.
“The three of who,” I say, frowning down at her, “I was helping!”
Hell, if not for me, we’d probably be picking pieces of BoomBoom off of the ground.
The old woman in front of me doesn’t seem as sure of that.
“You’re one of Mambo’s kids,” she says, her voice suspicious and sharp. “Your idea of ‘helping’ probably isn’t anything close to it. Next time, leave things to the professionals before you get someone killed.”
If that’s what being a hero gets you, I can see why Comet City has two times more villains than capes. I scoff, trying to hide my frustration, and then turn to face BoomBoom.
“It was nice saving your butt, kid,” I say to her, “Next time, maybe try not to antagonize someone who’s trying their best to do the right thing. Chances are, that I won’t be around to get you out of trouble.”
I stalk away from the trio, my head held high and my shoulders set. I don’t look back. I don’t frown. I walk through the slowly refilling room as if I couldn’t care less about the way that the other former villains and their ilk flinch away from me.
We’re supposed to leave the drama at the door to these Supervillains Anonymous meetings. Our pasts aren’t supposed to matter, only our present.
Too bad no one else got the memo.