I started toward the exit, all too aware that there was a big, slightly bloody rip in my dress which was exposing perfect, uninjured flesh.  I got about halfway to the door when a woman said, “Oh, Miss, are you okay?”  I smiled and nodded and mumbled something, my hand covering my side, and I tried to move away, but her question attracted the attention of another woman, then three older men.  Suddenly I felt very surrounded.

Then I felt a jacket being put over my shoulders.  “She’s with me,” said a voice, and I looked behind me and saw Doug, my “date” for the dinner.  I turned around and went with him, and I guess that was enough for the others.  He didn’t put his arm around me, though I half expected him to… I guessed his “exclusion zone” still applied even when he was being chivalrous.

Normally I don’t have much use for chivalry, but right then it was any port in a storm, you know?

I went with him down the corridor, through the rambling crowd that had spilled out of the conference room following the police and the bad guy.  He bypassed the front elevators, where there was a line, and led me to the back elevators instead.  All the while we said very little, but if we met anyone he’d smile and nod politely.

In the elevator he pressed a floor number, and when I reached to push mine (I was on a higher floor), he practically danced out of the way.  He seemed keyed up, excited, and as the elevator started up he began bouncing on the balls of his feet.  I could feel it through the floor… and a suspicion came to me then.

I leaned close to him and whispered, “Slapstick?”

He spun around and assumed a defensive pose, and I took a step back and raised my hands.  “Hey, hold it,” I said.  “Not your enemy here.”

He frowned, straightening up, and when the doors opened he said, “Would you mind coming with me?”  I nodded, and he led me to his room, opening the door and ushering me inside.

When the door was securely closed he said, “How did you know?”

“It wasn’t hard,” I said.  “When you were bouncing up and down in the elevator, I could feel it.  You weigh more than you should for no bigger than you are.  An, um, associate told me about you once.”

He stepped closer and laid his hands on my shoulders.  He was gentle, but I could feel them… hard and cold, like a marble statue.  “Who?”

“Doctor Hyde,” I replied.

“Hyde,” he said, anger evident on his face.  His hands gripped my shoulders painfully.  “Who are you really, Polly?”

“Please,” I said, and he realized what he was doing and drew back his hands.  “I am… I used to be Mystery Woman.”

His face was blank for a moment, then he said, “Oh, from San Francisco.  One of the new Guardians.”

“Not anymore,” I replied.  “I lost my powers.  Traded them, really.  Plasma…”

“The new guy with the nasty guns?  You’re who he shot?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking down.  “I thought I was invulnerable, until he came along.  A friend traded powers with me, giving me her regeneration and taking my invulnerability and strength.”

He sat down in an easy chair.  His room was a single, not as fancy as our suite, so no meeting table.  I sat down in the other chair, and he said, “How did you trade powers?”

“A potion left for us by the Wanderer,” I replied, and he nodded.  “Anyway, I’m not Mystery Woman anymore.  Not until this thing wears off… if it ever does.”

“But you can regenerate, right?  So you’re still pretty tough.”

“I feel everything, though.  My friend never became a hero… said she’d be nothing but a punching bag.”

“I see,” he said.  “I guess that makes sense.  Weird that you and I would be paired up randomly like that, isn’t it?”

I laughed.  “My life is so weird sometimes that things like that seem pretty ordinary.”  We were both silent for a moment, then I said, “Hyde told me you couldn’t let anyone touch you, or your identity would be given away.  That’s part of how I figured you out.”

He looked down.  “My power is a curse, Polly.  Nothing really hurts me… the last time I felt pain, it was because of Hyde, and much as I hate him I actually think I miss it sometimes.  But I can’t be close to anyone.  I mean, even if I wanted to tell a woman about my powers, we couldn’t make love.  I’m too strong, too heavy, and way too hard.  It would be like having sex with a statue.”

I smiled.  “There’s no such thing as a man who’s too hard.”

“Really?” he said.  He held out his hand, and I laid mine in his.  He slid his hand up a little and wrapped his thumb around my wrist.  “Now pull away from me,” he said, and I tried but I couldn’t.  After a moment he lifted his thumb.  “Here’s the thing, Polly… I wasn’t trying to hold you.  My hand was almost completely relaxed… my flesh is just so hard that I’m the only person who can make it move.  Now, do you want me to embrace you?  Would you want me making love to you?  You couldn’t move, couldn’t get away, couldn’t resist at all, and with every movement I might break your bones accidentally.”

“That’s terrible,” I said.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand.  Maybe if I had my own powers…”

He looked at me very strangely.  “Polly, we barely know each other… are you really considering whether you want to have sex with me or not?”

I looked back at him, gave him my most challenging stare.  “What if I am?  You’re a man, a very hard man at that… it might be fun.  If you wanted it and I wanted it, what would it matter how well we know each other?  It’s not like I’m proposing marriage.”  And at that moment, I made a decision.

I stood up, threw off his jacket, then let what was left of my dress slip to the floor.  I stepped out of it and out of my shoes, and stood there in front of him wearing just my panties and my jewelry.  I could see him getting… well, let’s say erect, because of course he was already hard… and I put my hands on my hips and said, “If you’ll do what I tell you, I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Whatever you say,” he replied, standing up.

“Undress.”  And he did, fumblingly taking off his shirt and shoes and pants and underwear.  He wasn’t ugly, exactly, just kind of ordinary.  He had no particular muscle definition; his skin was white and pale, and in no way was he any kind of sexy.  He did have a rather impressive erection, but even his private parts were very ordinary looking.  “Now, Doug, I want you to keep your hands down, okay?”  He nodded, and I walked up to him.  I actually saw him flinch, just a little, his trained reflex trying to make him move away from me.  I put my hand on his chest and caressed him… he had no chest hair, in fact no body hair at all, and very little on his head.  Curious, I slipped my other hand up his back, feeling him shiver from the unaccustomed sensation; I caressed his back, then slid my hand up his neck and into his hair.  It didn’t look like much, but it was like steel wire.

I leaned against his side, kissing his shoulder, one hand on his head and the other on his chest.  His skin was cold like stone, and felt like stone too.  But I could tell he was feeling everything I did to him.  I raised up on my toes and kissed his ear, then tried to nibble on his earlobe, but it was even hard as rock.  I put my hand on his cheek and tried to turn his head toward me, but I might as well have been trying that with a statue.  “Do what my hands want,” I said, and he moved, turning his head toward me.  I kissed his lips, probing with my tongue, and he got the message and opened his mouth, and I played with his tongue… even it was stony, and so rough that I had to withdraw, tasting my own blood in my mouth.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and I shook my head.

“Don’t be.  I’m already healed.  Just stay with me.”  And I caressed him lower, and he responded.  It was so strange to feel his body move, to have my hand on that inflexible stone and to feel it flex or twitch or bend.  After a moment I knew he was ready, and honestly so was I… I knew this time would be different.

“Lie down on your bed,” I said, stepping back.  He moved quickly to comply, lying down in the very center of the bed.  I stood at the foot of the bed where he could see me, slipped off my panties, and joined him on the bed.  He was very, very ready, but I still spent a little time “winding him up” as Zoe likes to say.  Then I gave him what he wanted.

It was very, very different.  He was so hard that I had to be careful how I moved, or he would poke me rather painfully.  When he started getting close, he wanted to raise his hips up into the air; usually I would like that, but I had to stop moving and make him lie still.  In a way, that may have made it better for him… when he finally reached his release it seemed to go on forever.

I managed to enjoy it too.  A couple of times, in fact.

When he was done, I laid down across his chest, and he put his hand on my butt.  It felt good, until I realized I couldn’t move.  “Hey, hands off, okay?” I said, and he got the picture and let me go.

I got up after a moment and started putting my clothes, such as they were, on again.  “Can I ask you a question?” I said.

“Sure, anything,” he said, sounding very satisfied and happy.

“What’s with all the bad jokes and cartoon antics?”

He sat up and slid to the edge of the bed.  “Look at me,” he said, but of course I was.  “I’m the most boring person you ever saw.  I’m an accountant, the most boring job in the universe.  I can’t talk about work to anyone who isn’t an accountant, because they get bored.  I spent my life being a boring person that everyone ignores.  But then I step in a puddle of toxic waste, and the next thing I know I’m a superhero.  So I’ve made my boringness into a joke… take my costume.  Please.”  He grinned ruefully at  his terrible old joke.  “It’s generic, boring, and that’s the idea.  I make a lot of stupid jokes, prance around like I’m on Monty Python, and I take a lot of hits from bad guys not because they are better than me but because I can.  It’s funny, or at least memorable.  No one ever forgets seeing me fight a bad guy.  I could be hard and cold… I mean, I am, so that’s something… but why?  There are enough serious heroes in the business.  I’m something different.”

I had to agree with him there.

I borrowed his jacket, promising to get it back to him, and I slipped out to the elevator and up to my suite.  Shawn was already there.  “I was getting worried,” he said.

“You should have called, or texted,” I replied, tossing Doug’s jacket on a chair.  He looked at it strangely, and I said, “Doug loaned it to me, to help me get out of the conference room.  I mean, look at my dress!”

He laughed.  “Yeah, well, it could have been a lot worse.  He could have hurt a lot of people.  Thanks for giving me cover to change.”

“You’re welcome.  I guess it’s better Steel hit me than someone who couldn’t heal up.  Maybe there is a place for a human punching bag.”

“Human Punching Bag,” he replied, and I could hear the capital letters.  “Terrible name for a hero, and what kind of uniform would you need?”  I laughed, and he went on, “I ordered a couple of beers.  Are you hungry, or did you get enough before Steel crashed the party?”

“I’m fine,” I replied, slipping out of my dress.  “Beer would be nice.  I’m going to go take a shower real quick, if you don’t mind.”

“No, go ahead,” he said, giving me an appreciative glance as I left the room.

I dreamed the dream again… tripping Nemvex, killing him with his own sword, then turning to face Plasma, too slow to strike him before he fired.  I sat upright in bed, suddenly awake.

Shawn was lying beside me, asleep.  I slipped out of bed, shaking from the emotional shock of the dream, and left his room as quietly as I could.

I closed my door and sat down on my bed, trying to get a grip on myself.  I could still feel it, the fire on my skin, burning me… I could almost feel the sword in my hand.  Almost.

I thought about the torn sheets.  Torn, or cut?  I thought they were cut when I first saw them.  Maybe they were… no, it was too weird.  Then I thought, what part of my life wasn’t weird anymore.

I stood up in the darkened room, lit only by the glow of the alarm clock.  I held out my hand, curled my fingers, thought about the shape and the hardness and the weight of the sword.

And it appeared.

I looked at it for the longest time, sure I was dreaming.  I turned, looking for Plasma, ready to kill him this time, but he wasn’t there.  I wasn’t dreaming.

I dropped the sword, and it disappeared before it hit the floor.

I sat down, peering at my palm in the dimness, as if I could see the sword there somehow.  After a while I stood up again and turned on the light, then held out my hand again.  The sword came more easily the second time.  I waved it around, getting a feel for it… it felt so natural in my hand, and I felt so much safer somehow, knowing, feeling how it could cut almost anything.  Then I imagined myself dropping it, but I didn’t actually do it… and the sword disappeared from my hand anyway.  I practiced calling it and sending it away, until it was easy, automatic even.

Suddenly I knew I was back in the game.  With Zoe’s power, I was just a human punching bag, but with that plus the sword I could be a hero.

What I couldn’t be was a Guardian.  I had already seen how they treated The Edge, and honestly I found myself agreeing with his position.  If they questioned me, I’d answer the same way he had.  Hell, I’d shove the sword into Plasma without hesitation, and I might just take the head off of Fritz Rossi if I ever found him, just for trying to kill me and Zoe and for killing other people I had known.  He deserved it, I had no doubt.

I was going to be a hero again, but I was going to be something different than Mystery Woman.  I just wasn’t exactly sure what yet.