There's a moment of bright light, and then nothing, and then something again.
In the strange, seemingly-forever space between destinations, Mr. USA wonders if he'll be coming back, again. It's an old fear, maybe, but a sensible one. The human mind wasn't meant to be broken up in one place and re-assembled somewhere else, no matter what those with teleportation powers may say.
The world comes back suddenly, like a smoker's cough. He closes his eyes, and holds up his hand, suddenly hearing voices in French and unfamiliar smells.
"Ah, bonjour, Msr. Vice President," some tall fellow in a suit and tie says, extending a hand: "Welcome to Paris. It is two in the afternoon, if you care to set your watch?"
"I think I'll keep it set to my time, thanks," he says, looking around the small room the French hero teleported them into. There's no windows, a single chair and a small table, and a single door -- strong, with several locks.
Mr. USA can tell that they're underground, based on the poor air quality and decreased solar radiation, but how far down isn't certain. They didn't tell him where, exactly, they were going, other than "Paris." So he could be anywhere, and as far down as they care to dig.
Not exactly the greatest feeling in the world.
"Is he in there, then?" Mr. USA asks, gesturing to the door. The greeter's smile wavers just a little, and that's answer enough.
"He will send for us when he is ready," the hero who brought him here says, wandering over to sit down in the chair and light up some nasty, filterless cigarette: "In the meantime, you must get used to waiting. It is the way of things, here."
"I understand," Mr. USA says, understanding that there are several snubs going on here, but choosing to pretend not to notice them: "If you will tell Msr. Geraud that I'm here, and have a limited window?"
The greeter's smile wavers just a little more, and he nods, and, turning, talks into his watch. The tone and urgency of his jabber reveals quite a lot.
"Balto?" the hero asks, offering him a cigarette. Mr. USA nods, taking him up on his offer. Of course, he doesn't have a lighter, but the man's kind enough to touch the tip of his own, giving him a jump-start.
"Smooth," he lies, not really liking the taste or the sensation, but realizing that -- out of everyone he's met from the Terre Unifee -- this dark blue-clad fellow's the only one who seems to not be putting on any pretentious airs, and is just being himself.
And a man like that's a good person to have on your side, especially when the !@#$ starts pouring into the room and you need to know where and how to swim.
* * *
(Lucky for Mr. USA, his bladder is still stronger than his right hook.)
A large, meat-faced guard with too many guns for his own good unlocks the door from the other side. He keeps a hand on his sidearm at all times when Mr. USA leaves the room, and walks right behind him as the thin fellow leads their procession. At some point in their march down the long hallway -- full of other, well-locked doors, all on the right side -- the blue-clad man teleports away without so much as an explanation, much less a goodbye.
The three men walk down that long hall, through another, and then through a well-guarded security checkpoint, full of men as meatfaced and overly-armed as the guard that brought them there. As they stand by, guns trained on his head, Mr. USA is scanned by several large machines, and then waved through.
The tall fellow does not advance with him. He merely gestures to a large, imposing door, past the human wall of guards: "Msr. President is expecting you now, sir."
"Thank you, gentlemen," Mr. USA says, smiling at them all and then heading for that door. It vanishes before he gets two steps towards it, revealing a well-lit office that's a strange mixture of neo-classical and futurist.
"Msr. (REDACTED)," a thick voice says: "Please do come in."
"Thank you," the hero says, walking into the room and looking around. The moment he's inside, the door re-appears behind him, and he can feel the room shudder into motion, somehow. The view outside the windows becomes rather bright, its illumination causing the gilded angels -- which adorn every flat surface in the room to varying degrees -- to glow like stars in the early evening sky.
"We are in transit, now," the small, thick fellow on the plastic couch -- made to look like a richly-embroidered and padded sort of thing -- says, gesturing to a plastic chair of a similar make and model: "We cannot be observed, overheard, or unduly influenced, here. We may say and do as we like."
"That's always good to know," Mr. USA says, sitting down and getting a good look at the short, fat-faced fellow who's so intent on getting the planet together.
"You knew my relation, I believe?" the interim President of the TU says, leaning forward: "Celestin Halevy, of the Armée de Libération du Peuple Supérieure?"
"I never met him," Mr. USA admits: "I heard of him, and all he did for your country during the War, of course."
"pfft," the little man snorts, waving a dismissive hand: "Grand-pere Celestin did nothing, Msr. Vice President, if the truth is known. He wandered about the landscape, looking for heroes to win our war for us. He had opportunities to find a better way to throw off the Germans, and he squandered them all, too fixated on his dreams of victory and revenge. It would not be until after the war that his true genius was discovered."
"Running Direction Noir," Mr. USA says, nodding: "And disguising its true intent, purpose, and efficiency."
The little man smiles and nods: "So you have understood?"
"I understand that we could have used some of your efficiency during the Reclamation War," he says, leaning back a little: "I lost a lot of good friends, that day. A lot of valuable allies gave everything they had to fight the Imago. And you pretended you had no one, and nothing, and all the while you were surrounded by wonder."
"We decided to become the unknown reserve, just in case-"
"You sat on your butts and did nothing so you could come out, after the war, and do this," Mr. USA states, calmly and without heat: "And there isn't a country out there that doesn't know that, either."
For a moment, Mr. USA thinks the little man is going to shout at him. Instead he laughs, and claps his hands. Three of the gold angels come to life, just then, and begin flitting about the room, assembling a wine and cheese repast for the two of them from a refrigerator and pantry, hidden in the corner paneling.
"I knew I would like you," Henri Valentin Geraud says, reaching up to take a glass of fine, red wine as it's gently flown to his hand: "So many of you Americans, you speak so diplomatically. I appreciate a man who will call me on my bull!@#$."
"Well, that is the Vice President's job," the hero says, also accepting a glass from the tiny, gold robots: "This is quite the layout you have here."
"Yes. We collected many things, over the years, in our quest to create a secure net of superhuman power. People, ideas, inventions, relics. This is but one of many things that The Maker created, before his unfortunate disappearance at the end of the Cold War."
"Not familiar with him," Mr. USA lies, having a sip of the warm, rich wine.
"Well, he was a quiet sort of fellow," Geraud says, sipping at his own: "He mostly stayed in his workshop, creating ingenious things for Direction Noir. Many of the small toys and weapons we carried into the field were of his design."
"Kind of like Q from MI-6?"
"Well, more like Z from MI-10, but that is another story entirely."
"Agreed," Mr. USA says, putting his wine glass down. One of the angels flits by and refills it by !@#$ing in it, as though it were a fountain. The look on the hero's face when this happens causes the interim President to laugh out loud for a full minute.
"So, what does the President think?" Geraud asks: "Does he believe that America should go it alone, as your God of spies and so many of your countrymen think? Or has he seen the wisdom in a world united against this threat that approaches, as well as so many other issues?"
"He thinks he needs more time to weigh the possibilities," Mr. USA says, hoping to avoid getting into any details: "He's also willing to discuss other arrangements. Trade agreements, military cooperation, the like."
"He does realize that, should he not join, he will soon be on the outside, looking in?"
"Hasn't harmed us before."
"In the world to come, it just might," Geraud says, holding his glass out for another angel to refill it: "I would hate to see America become the pariah nation it turned so many other states into, in its time."
"I don't think that would happen."
"Are you so sure? Did you know that England is about to sign up?"
"No I didn't," the hero lies, wondering if this small man knows exactly why they've done this: "I bet that must be a thrilling turnaround?"
"It is, yes."
"And that's why we're being cautious," Mr. USA admits: "You see, you have to admit... you're taking the wrong attitude towards this whole thing. It doesn't feel like considerate and careful nation building. It really just feels like a nation that had great ideas, but never put them into place before someone else came along and beat them to it, or beat them at it. And now, here you are with a winning hand at the table, and you're about to grab the whole pot."
"Strategy, I think your previous President would have said?"
"That's one way to look at it," the hero says, picking up his wine and sipping at it: "But, between you and me? That man couldn't even spell the word without using a dictionary."
"And your new President... what of him?" Geraud says, leaning forward: "Flailing at his desk as his country goes to pieces. People trying to leave, no one coming together, his own government trying to replace him during a crisis. You have heroes playing at being police and your money is worth nothing.
"And now... these problems," the man says, leaning backwards and waving a hand over his wine: "This delicate matter in Israel, handled in such a terrible and final way..."
"We had to act," Mr. USA says, not letting the man get to him: "Something I didn't see you exactly doing."
"We were waiting for the right moment."
"You were stalling to see what happened next. And I don't blame you. But while you waited, we acted. And maybe you don't like what happened, then. I know I sure don't. But I know why it had to happen that way."
"And then there are the matters of your unfortunate revelations," Geraud pushes: "You and what you did, or did not do. And SPYGOD! Mon dieu, Msr. I do not see how either of you can sleep at night."
"I was brainwashed-"
"That is a lie," Geraud says, smiling: "You forget, I know of you, and what you can do."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
"It was the Imago's early mind control tests, used by their agent on Earth. I got three times the normal dose-"
"Lies!" the little man shouts, spilling his wine: "Do you take us for fools, Msr? We have all the proof we need to know that you are lying."
"Other than knowing exactly how and when the Imago created their mind control? Well, there is the matter of the phone call between you and your President..."
Mr. USA glares at the little man, who smiles back.
"So you're not above blackmail?" Mr. USA says, trying to calm down.
"No. And we would push the point home, in these negotiations, Msr. Vice President. In fact, I would call your superior right now, and tell him what a terrible job you are doing. But then, this horrendous thing that has happened, in the President's own home, to his own family..."
"Yes," Mr. USA sighs, thinking about that, and what the President had to say about it: "I remember all too well."
"I think, perhaps, the less stress upon his weary head...?"
Mr. USA glares at the little man, again: "You underestimate him. And his resolve."
There's silence between them, then. The little man never stops smiling. And Mr. USA never stops glaring.
"So," Geraud says, snapping his fingers and attracting the attention of an angel with a sheaf of papers: "Shall we go over my proposal, again? I have made a few amendments since the last batch. Things that might, as you say, sweeten the pot?"
"I'm happy to listen," Mr. USA says, accepting one of the piles and getting out a pen.
And all the while thinking how good it would feel to fling that pen right through the interim President's tiny little skull.
Mr. USA nods to the guards outside the apartment door. The two men nod, salute, and get out of his way.
"Any trouble, so far?" he asks.
"No, Mr. President," the guard to the right says: "They've been in there about ten hours, now. Been some noise and some shouting, maybe some gunfire-"
"He still has his guns?"
"I think it's the cat, sir," the other guard says: "And I'm sorry, sir, but no one is getting near that thing. Not under Presidential orders, sir."
"I don't blame you, son," Mr. USA says, clapping him on the shoulder: "Let me in, please."
"Do you need an escort, sir?" one asks as the other opens the door.
"No, I think I'll be fine," the hero lies, and enters !@#$.
Inside is bedlam. Hundreds of boxes are everywhere, in various degrees of unpacking. There's the smell of fast food, stale beer, and mansweat.
And cursing, of course -- a bright, blue streak of it, coming from the front room.
"!@#$ing little ingrates," SPYGOD is hissing as he stands in front of the window, wearing only his boxers and shoes: "!@#$ing !@#$s! None of you are fit to sniff the !@#$ out of my !@#$, you know that?"
"Oh, give it a rest," his boyfriend sighs, tossing a kitchen towel at his head: "Come back and have some pad thai, hon. They'll be there in the morning."
"I'm afraid they will, too," Mr. USA says, breaking in on their reverie. For a moment he expects SPYGOD to spin and point a gun at him, but the man just turns around and heads for the table his lover's seated at, as though he wasn't even there.
"How are you, Mr. President?" Straffer asks, apparently embarrassed by his lover's lack of decorum.
"Never better," the hero sighs: "How are you two?"
"Pretty decent, actually," SPYGOD says, tucking into some of the Asian noodles: "For a house arrest, anyway."
"Any news on when they might schedule the trial?"
"After New Year's," Mr. USA says, sadly: "They want the Christmas season to be light and joyful, and then... back to reality."
"Some reality," SPYGOD snorts: "I feel like I'm being !@#$ed to death by a swarm of small-!@#$ed pygmies all strung out on martian cocaine."
"We'll get through it," Straffer says, gesturing to an empty chair: "Our legal team-"
"Said we're !@#$ed."
"No they didn't, hon. They said we had a challenging case."
"That means we're !@#$ed."
"You're !@#$ed," Mr. USA admits, declining to sit: "The TU are going to try you, just like they did the Imago, in Paris. They're going to drag every last grieving parent into that room that they can, one by one. And then they're going to bury you under the weight of their dead children. I'm sure your legal team might be able to get a word or two in edgewise, but..."
There's silence, then, broken only by SPYGOD continuing to eat.
"A challenging case," SPYGOD chuckles, having a hit of singha: "I think that's what Charlie !@#$ing Manson's court-appointed lawyer called it."
"Well, as long as you don't carve an X into your forehead?" Straffer says, winking: "I can forgive most fashion faux paus, but that's a step too far."
"I was thinking of shaving my head-"
"Aren't you taking this seriously?" Mr. USA shouts, trying not to bang his fists down on the table: "They're talking about putting you away for life, (REDACTED)!"
"I'm sure they !@#$ing are," SPYGOD says, eating some more pad thai: "So what do you think we should do about it?"
"Well, I don't know-"
"Well, I do," SPYGOD says, pointing his chopsticks at the man: "You're the !@#$ing President of the United States of America, now. You have the ear of the man who's the President of the TU. All you have to do is throw a !@#$ing wrench into the works by telling the !@#$ truth, and it's all over."
Mr. USA blinks. He coughs. He stutters.
"But you can't do that, can you?" SPYGOD says, looking away: "Because if you do, then that little !@#$ who was in charge of the TU, but is now overseeing their !@#$ing law enforcement branch, will make with the truth about what happened to you, all those years ago. And then the whole !@#$ing world will look back at you, instead of me. And then you'll be out of a job faster than you can slide a fresh baguette up an old leather queen's !@#$hole.
"And then... who !@#$ing knows," he goes on, looking back at him: "Riots in the !@#$ streets? Secessionists taking the initiative and seizing power? Chaos, anarchy, martial law?"
"You forgot cats and dogs sleeping together," Straffer says.
"Заткнись, иди на хуй," a growly voice comes from a box, nearby. An AK-47 is poking out the top.
"Sorry, Bee-Bee," SPYGOD chuckles.
"I can't do that," Mr. USA says, sadly: "I wish I could, but the stakes are too high."
"Oh, I understand," SPYGOD says, taking another hit off his Singha: "I know what it means when it's all on your !@#$ shoulders and you can't do anything."
"Sure. What was that I said to New Man, back in Paris, before you all let the really bad news slip?"
"You said 'some rules you just can't break,'" Mr. USA says, trying desperately to hold onto his composure.
"And then New Man said that being a hero was all about breaking the rules," Straffer adds: "Something about upholding the right and good."
"I think those conversations went in reverse."
"Yeah, I think you're right," Straffer admits: "Want some pad thai, Mr. President?"
Mr. USA looks at them, and the food. He sees the smiles on their faces and know that they're false. He can see the contempt in their eyes and feel the helpless anger in their hearts.
And all he can do is smile, shake his head, and turn to leave.
"I'll do what I can," he says as he heads for the door: "It may not be much, but I will try."
"Eh, no bother," SPYGOD shrugs.
"No, it is," Mr. USA says, turning back: "I told you I had your back. And I do. I just have to find a way, here. But I will. I swear I will-"
"We understand, really," Straffer adds, pointing to the copious amounts of food on the table: "You want some to go?"
"Please!" Mr. USA cries: "Please believe me! Please don't hate me! Everything I've done... everything, I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. But... it's all going wrong. Just... terribly wrong...."
And the two men at the table just look at him as he tears up -- his face red and shaking -- but they say nothing. They just stare, as if embarrassed.
"I swear I will..." Mr. USA says, and leaves -- exiting the apartment so quickly that the guards at the door don't even have time to realize their President had been crying.
* * *
"Well, that !@#$ing sucked," SPYGOD says, pushing his noodles away from him.
"Yeah," Straffer admits, daubing at his eyes with a paper napkin: "Did we really have to do that?"
"I was talking about the noodles," he says, winking: "After I've had yours, everything else tastes like !@#$."
"I'm serious, (REDACTED)," Straffer says, holding his hand: "Did we have to do that to him? Really?"
"Yes," SPYGOD sighs: "I don't !@#$ing like it any more than you do. But there's a sequence to these !@#$ things, now. And that's part of it."
"I just wish we knew more."
And SPYGOD looks out the window, knowing who's watching him.
"I'm afraid we're going to wish we knew nothing at all, here, pretty !@#$ soon."
And there's precious little to say after that.