I am really !@#$ing sorry, son. I shouldn't have made you try to catch up to me with that !@#$ nasty French whiskey. I wasn't trying to poison or kill you, I swear. I just wanted you loose enough to understand what's coming next.
Are you okay in there? I haven't heard you throw your !@#$ guts up in a while.
*knock knock* You alive?
Okay then. I'll take that weird noise as a yes. Now, where the !@#$ was I before you started making like a fratboy's halloween costume of Mt. Vesuvius...?
Oh, yeah. I'd gotten Mr. USA back, for the first time in decades, and learned what my evil twin had !@#$ing been up to. And then I lose him, only to get him back, but in such a way that I have no !@#$ing idea it's him, which is pretty !@#$ funny, you gotta admit.
(And, yes, seeing Shift again after losing him the first time... that kind of !@#$ed up my ability to ask any questions.)
But then came the day the masks all came off.
* * *
"I take it you had no idea about any of this, either?" The President is asking, looking at how SPYGOD is looking at Mr. USA.
"I..." SPYGOD gasps, shaking his head.
"Well, that's twice I've had you at a complete loss for words," Mr. USA says, leaning backwards to stretch his muscles, as if they were just standing around talking at a spa, somewhere, and not at an all-star gala on the White House lawn. Strategic Talents from all over the world are there, tonight, celebrating the world's freedom, and if some of them actually understand the significance of what's just happened, they let the two men deal with it on their own.
"All along," SPYGOD says, finally, grabbing a drink off a plate as someone walks past with it.
"All along," Mr. USA confirms.
"So... what was this, you and Shift teamed up, and he... what?"
"It's a long story," Mr USA says, putting both his hands out: "How about we !@#$ing make up and talk about it later?"
SPYGOD looks at Mr. USA, realizing that he'd never heard the man utter a blue word in casual conversation before.
"I think you're supposed to hug him, SPYGOD," the President says, smiling and walking away.
And that's about the moment he can't talk it, anymore, flings his drink down, and hugs the other hero for all he's worth.
"I'm not going to break you or anything, am I?" he asks after about five minutes of them both laughing and crying.
"No, I just look old," Mr. USA says: "Well, I am old. But..."
"Ah, shut the !@#$ up," SPYGOD says, hugging him tighter, as though he were the anchor keeping him attached to the world.
"Now, what the !@#$ happened, here?" SPYGOD says, breaking off the hug ever so gently and stepping back: "The last I saw you..."
"Simon Pure sent me away," Mr. USA finishes, nodding: "And then he brought me back. And... well, there's a few things that have to remain quiet about that-"
"Oh !@#$ you," SPYGOD laughs: "Okay, what can you tell me."
"I can tell you that I've been leading an amazing life," the old man says, smiling: "I found a way to beat the monster, (REDACTED). After all those years, we finally beat him."
"What did you do?"
"I went back to my wife and children," he says, taking a drink from a waiter and passing another to SPYGOD: "Shift took me back to the point just after I called to tell her goodbye, and I explained what had happened. After after that, we just kept a low profile, with Shift's help."
"That crafty bastard," SPYGOD says, knocking his drink down in one smooth gulp.
"I had no idea he had it in him. But my wife and children, we had a lifetime together, and he never saw. By day we lived as husband and wife, and at night, well..."
Mr. USA smiles and taps his nose: "Let's just say I've been really busy. Mostly keeping that monster from seeing her or the kids. But also doing other things."
"Like pretending to be my right hand on Earth while I was off doing !@#$ knows what !@#$ knows where?"
"Like that, yeah," Mr. USA says, smiling as he sees the President walk up to a podium. He puts an arm around SPYGOD as the man starts talking, and then releases it to applaud as he's joined by his wife and daughters.
"Didn't know you got all teary at speeches, old man," SPYGOD chuckles, seeing that Mr. USA is crying.
"I don't, normally," the older man says: "But we do have a lot to talk about."
"I'm game if you are."
"When the time's right," he answers, putting his hands down and his arm back around his friend: "I promise."
* * *
'When the time is right' was right, alright. But !@#$ was that a bad time.
Of course, you already know all about that, don't you, son? That's part of why I'm all !@#$ing locked up in this high-end prison cell disguised as a luxury apartment...
Ah, !@#$ it. No sense dwelling on that now. Plenty of time at the trial.
But that's the problem with trials, son. If they're done right, everything comes out. And that's including the things you don't want to wear on your sleeve, or around your neck.
So Mr. USA admits to the fact that he'd been blackmailed by my evil twin for years. That all those decades he was supposedly America's greatest superhero he was actually sitting on his hands and letting terrible !@#$ing things happen, just to keep his wife and kids from being slaughtered by that evil son of a !@#$.
Now, me? I understand. This is the kind of world I live in, after all. Blackmailing, suborning, turning... I've !@#$ing lost track of the number of strategic talents I've had in my !@#$ back pocket at one time or another. It's a nasty !@#$ing business, and it never ends well.
But you try telling the world that, son. Normal people just do not !@#$ing understand these kinds of things.
And then, you try !@#$ing telling your friends and allies, who've thought all along that you were the epitome of American heroism.
Yeah. That did not go well.
* * *
"I just can't believe it," New Man is saying, not even wanting to look Mr. USA in the eyes.
They're all back at the common area of the cluster of rooms the TU were kind enough to provide. Talon's been sent off to bed, thankfully, but the rest of the so-called adults are all there, listening to what Mr. USA has to say.
And it feels like the room's temperature has dropped quite a few degrees.
"Well, look," SPYGOD says, standing right behind Mr. USA, and holding up his hands: "Before we all start using this man as a !@#$ing dart board, let's not forget the whole picture. There were... circumstances."
"There was no excuse," Mr. USA says, shaking his head: "I should have told him to get lost. I should have told other people. I shouldn't have let the world burn for me. And that's exactly what's happened here."
"But then you did what you could to fix it," Straffer says, edging a little closer in his seat to both SPYGOD and the older hero: "As the Leader."
"Yes, but that was after the fact," New Man says, scowling: "And you'll pardon me if I don't consider it an adequate apology. He should have found some way to warn us."
"I lost my entire family because of them," The Owl says, her eyes wet with tears: "My son..."
"Your son's alive, Martha," I remind her.
"You call that being alive?"
"I call it something," Winifred says, not looking at anyone: "And that's better than my friend has."
"I'm sorry?" Mr. USA asks: "I thought Myron made it through okay-"
"Not him," she hisses: "Jesus !@#$ing Christ, don't you even remember what happened to me? I went to one of their !@#$ white boxes to find Dagworth. I found him in a pit along with everyone else they !@#$ing used for bodies or brains. He was alive enough, then, and he found a way to get me out. But when the internet got turned off..."
She doesn't have the strength to finish the thought.
"And what's all this about you having gone back in time?" The Owl asks: "Is it true?"
"Yes," Mr. USA says: "I went back to my wife and our children. I was with them the entire time. And at night, I went out and made sure everything that evil thing was going to try and do to my family was nipped in the bud."
"But that wasn't all that you did, was it?" SPYGOD asks: "Don't be !@#$ing bashful, man. Tell us."
"I also did things to prepare for the Imago. I built networks, created relationships. I stopped things from happening and made sure that other things did."
"So you built the groundwork for the resistance before there even was a resistance," Straffer surmises, nodding: "Nice work."
"It still doesn't mean he couldn't have found a way to warn us," New Man says, getting out of his seat: "I mean, for crying out loud, he had all those years! Couldn't he have found a way to stop this from happening at all?"
"I couldn't alter the timeline," Mr. USA said: "I could work in the small undefined spaces where no one saw anything, or made certain that things that were supposed to happen did. But if I tried to change too much, or stop it, well... I know some of you understand what happens when timelines bend back on themselves."
"That doesn't make me feel any better about what's happened," The Owl says, leaning back into her seat: "I still feel like there was something-"
"Martha, be reasonable," SPYGOD sighs: "I know you're hurting-"
"How the !@#$ do you know how I feel?"
"Because your father was one of the finest men I ever knew!' SPYGOD shouts back: "Don't you think I'd give anything to bring him back? Don't you think I'd do anything to stop what happened? And if I can't think of a way to pull it off without blowing a big !@#$ hole in time, then what makes you think Mr. USA could?"
"How about the fact that he was running around with Shift the entire time?" Winifred asks: "Isn't he supposed to be one of those supergods?"
"Yes, and he had his limits, too," Straffer says: "Just like they did. You remember why they aren't around, anymore."
"I thought being a hero was supposed to be about breaking the rules to uphold what was right and good," New Man says, shaking and angry: "I thought that's what we were doing."
"Some rules you can't break," SPYGOD sighs: "No matter how much I wish we could. And you know exactly what I'm talking about, there. You and Dr. Power had monitor duty for that one."
"And I didn't have the courage to pull the trigger," Mr. USA says.
"So, does this mean that what Doctor Manhattan said is true?" Winifred asks: "Are we all just !@#$ing puppets on a string? Do we actually have free will, or is time already set in stone?"
"What does that have to do with this?" Straffer asks: "We're talking about changing things that already happened, not making choices-"
"Don't you see it's all the same thing?" Winifred pushes the point: "I mean, if he had known what the !@#$ was going to happen all along, then why didn't he take steps to make sure the President's daughter didn't die at..."
She blinks. She bites her lip. She looks askance.
Mr. USA sighs.
"What?" New Man asks.
"Honey, what are you talking about?" the Owl asks, putting her hand on the girl's shoulder as she starts to sob.
"Agent," SPYGOD says, looming over her: "What happened?"
"Doctor Power tried to make us forget what happened, when he fixed things," Mr. USA explains: "But his powers were so weak at that point that the spell didn't last. We all remembered, recently, and swore to each other we'd keep it a secret."
"Keep what a secret?" SPYGOD asks, not turning to look at the man's face, and getting a really sick feeling.
* * *
So they told me. And I had to excuse myself, and go throw up for a few minutes.
And that's about when my newfound respect for Mr. USA went right down the !@#$ter.
But hey, son. Buck up. We haven't even gotten to the really bad part of the show, yet, have we?
That's where I take the witness stand, bend over, and !@#$ myself in the !@#$.