"You didn't need to be so hard on her," I said as we stepped out of the hospital.
"Yeah, I did. I've been on both sides of this equation," Sumerset said, pulling a cigarette out of his front pocket. "She comes home for a day, tells you she'll go to rehab in a week. Next week? Oh, something came up--she'll go next week. So on until the goddamn rapture."
"You've been in rehab? You did drugs?" I said.
"'Did' drugs? I still do 'em," Sumerset replied, lighting his cigarette and giving it a tap for emphasis. "Everything's an addiction, kid. The trick is to stay away from the ones that'll screw you up beyond all recovery."
"Like you-know-what," I said, thinking of the costume.
"Like you-know-what," he replied, and then he grinned. That grin stayed on his face for a whole five seconds; then he caught sight of a newspaper vendor outside of the hospital exit. He cursed, fishing a few quarters out of his pocket and pulling one of the papers out.
"What is it?" I asked, my eyes straying to the front page. There was a black and white image of me in the Skull suit, on the rooftop--clotheslining the soldier. The image was a little blurred, and taken from some distance away. Above it, the headline read: THE SKULL REVEALED AS A WOMAN!
"God damn it," Sumerset said. "This is why you listen to your goddamn handlers, girl!" He was moving toward the car, now, keeping his voice low. As soon as we got inside, he rolled up the windows and started up the engine.
"The Skull returns after five years, takes down a villain, and proceeds to beat the crap out of a Federal agency equipped to take down capes just like her," I said, holding the newspaper as he handed it to me. "...and the only thing they focus on is the fact that she has a squeaky voice?"
"That's how it always is. People always focus on the wrong things. Damn it! This screws everything up," Sumerset said, pulling out of the parking lot.
"I don't see what the big deal is, anyway," I said. "So the Skull's a girl, now. Who cares?"
"Everyone," he said. "The fact of the matter is that the Skull was terrifying because no one knew anything about him. He was a goddamn ghost--a mystery. He showed up, handed you your ass, and disappeared."
"But people already knew--or thought they knew--that he was a guy," I said.
"That doesn't count," Sumerset said. "We assume all capes are male until someone tells us otherwise. You tell us they're a girl, suddenly, everything we know about them changes."
I rolled my eyes. "Still not seeing the big deal."
"That's because you ain't been in this business as long as I have," Sumerset said. "Once people know that somebody's got t--... Once they know that you're a girl," he said, correcting himself, "half the people you meet will go all creepy stalker on you and the other half'll refuse to take you seriously until you break their face in."
"So? Break their face in. It'd be fun. And you'd, like, challenge their expectations, and--"
"Christ, girl, what do you think this is, some sort of movement? It ain't about 'challenging expectations' or any goofy crap like that. It's about getting the job done--effectively, efficiently, and quietly. And the best way to do it? Pretend to be a guy. Your mother understood it," he added.
I felt my teeth clench down. My hands pulled into fists.
Sumerset didn't seem to notice. But he sighed, shaking his head. "...I'm sorry. I mean, I'm still right, but I'm sorry about that last part. Shouldn't throw your mother out at you like that. Last thing you need is someone else comparing you to her."
The brief flare of anger started to simmer down. I still felt like he was wrong, but the apology made me feel less frustrated about it. "It's okay," I said. "Besides, who cares? I'm not the Skull anymore. We're through, right?"
"Yeah," Sumerset said, and then he laughed. "Maybe it's best this way. One last middle finger thrown up at the world at large. Who knows? Maybe your mom's cackling in her grave. All her villains now know that they got their asses handed to 'em by a woman."