"I'm just saying. My aunt is old school, alright? Just behave around her. Please," he said. "For me."
Paladin and Jack Mulligan stood on the doorstep to the former's house--Paladin was out of uniform and Mulligan was in his usual shirt and tie. He had a cigarette perched between his lips.
"So," Mulligan said. "No smoking, then?"
"No smoking," Paladin told him, and he plucked the cigarette out of his mouth and crushed it into the sidewalk. "Frankly, I'd prefer it if you just tried to keep your mouth shut. No offense."
The door opened; Paladin's aunt--a large woman with burnt walnut skin who was several heads taller than both of them--promptly enfolded her nephew in her arms and pulled him into the house.
"Good God, boy," she said, squeezing Paladin breathless. "Men in suits've been stomping around here all day. Something about 'protective custody'. I've been worried sick."
"I'm sorry, auntie," Paladin said, his voice sheepish and meek. He wriggled out of her grip. "It's been a rough few days. Some mask got loose and made a lot of threats toward Epoch. Society doesn't want to take any chances, so they're keeping an eye on us and our families."
"That's well and fine, but--who exactly is this?" she asked, her eyes suddenly centered on Mulligan. The boy stiffened and straightened his tie restlessly.
"Oh," Paladin said. "This is, uh, Jack. One of my teammates. I don't think you've ever met him--"
"Oh, yes," she said, reaching out to give Mulligan a hug. "You're the one he never brings by--always got some excuse. What was it last time?"
"Wouldn't know myself, ma'am," Mulligan replied, bearing the hug as best as he could. He grimaced and gave Paladin a dirty look; Paladin just shrugged.
"He was, ah, off fighting--I think it was the Murder King?" Paladin said. "The one with the crown."
Aunt Sylvia finally released Mulligan and shook her head. "So many ridiculous names. You don't have a ridiculous name, do you, Jack?"
"Folks call me Mulligan, ma'am. It's my last name."
"I'm glad to hear that. Says a lot about you when you have a good, solid, Godly name," she said. "And the costumes--skin-tight--wretched, sinful things. You don't wear anything like that, do you, Jack?"
"No, ma'am. This is my costume," Mulligan said, gesturing to his shirt and tie.
"Good. A man who wears a uniform to work--a real uniform--that's respectable," she said. "I'm glad to see at least someone here takes his work seriously." She shot a look at Paladin, who shuffled in place.
"Jack doesn't have a secret identity like I do, auntie," he said. "I gotta wear something to--"
She waved her hand. "Forget it, I shouldn't have brought it up. You're here to relax and see family, not get lectured. I've got something on the stove--you boys hungry?"
Mulligan and Paladin exchanged looks. "Yes, ma'am," they replied in unison.
After dinner, Mulligan ducked out into the backyard to have a smoke. The skyline was dark, now; but if he squinted just right, he could still make out the distant glow of Metro City.
He was getting ready to stub the cigarette out and head back in to help Paladin with the dishes when he realized he wasn't alone.
"Evening, Jack," Aunt Sylvia said.
"Ma'am," Mulligan replied. He quickly dropped the smoke and twisted his heel on top of it. "Sorry, just--"
"Don't worry about it," she said. Something about her voice unnerved Mulligan--it was sharper, now. Quick and to the point. "You're not the behavin' sort, are you, Jack?"
"I'm no fool. I can tell when someone's doing their best to be something they ain't."
Mulligan shifted awkwardly and turned away. "Palad--James. He asked me to."
"Well, I do appreciate it. I can tell it's not something that sits well with you--keeping your tongue down."
"Is it that obvious?"
"A lot of things are obvious," she said, and then she gave him a hard look.
"Oh," Mulligan said, and this was followed by a blink, and another more emphatic 'Oh'.
She sighed and shook her head. "Just tell me this much. Is my boy in trouble?"
"I guess. I mean, we're always in trouble. Comes with the job," Mulligan said. "This mask--Scourge--he's particularly dangerous. Tends to get a lot of other masks to work for him. But so long as I'm with James, he's safe."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Is that something you can guarantee?"
"Yes, ma'am." Mulligan grinned. "I'm one of the few people who can."
Outside, the agents posted in the van across the street grew restless.
"I don't even see why we're here," one of them said. "It's not like anyone's going to show up. Scourge would have to be a moron to go after these guys. We could call down Sovereign on them."
"Bureaucracy," one of the other agents said. "Have to justify our pay-wages somehow. Besides, I heard Scourge once managed to beat the Sovereign."
"What? You're screwing with me," the other agent said. "Scourge? We're talking about the same guy, right? The one with the dopey skull theme?"
"Yeah. Apparently, he was serious business back in his day."
"Right," the other agent said, and then he laughed. However, his laughter promptly stopped when something flickered across his headphones. "Hey. Do you--uh, hear that?"
"That sound--it's kind of distant. Coming from some of the bugs we've got positioned around the street. It sounds--uh. Can you listen to this, make sure I'm not hearing something?"
The agent reached for the second set of headphones and put them on. For a moment, all he could pick up was static and noise--the chirp of crickets, the sound of wind against the microphones. But then he caught it--something distant and building. The sound of...
"Music," he said, staring straight ahead with shock. "That's... definitely music."
"Someone singing," the other agent agreed. "Like--uh--"
"Maybe we should call this in."
"Maybe it's just a band practicing?" the other agent asked.
"Yeah, but let's call it in anyway," he said, and he reached for the radio.
As soon as he flicked it on, the same song they were hearing in the distance started playing over it.
"What is this?"
"Oh, shit," the other agent said. His eyes were locked on one of the monitor screens. "Oh, shit."
When the first agent turned to see what his partner was looking at, his jaw nearly dropped to the floor.
"Get your cellphone. Call Sovereign. It's him," he said. "Scourge recruited Rockstar."
Solid granite stomped down on asphalt.
What had started as a straining melody was rapidly building. Every surface capable of resonating with a pitch was now carrying the song; it rumbled from car windows and crackled across radios, TVs, and speakers.
In house after house, people tried to turn off or adjust their devices--only to receive a sharp, electrical shock. Once the Rockening had begun, no mere mortal could hope to stop it.
Clad in a black studded leather jacket and with a sunburst brown Jimmy Page Signature Les Paul in his hands, a man made of solid rock walked down the suburb street. Behind him, the music grew to a deafening roar; as he reached the house and van, he opened his mouth and began to sing:
"You've been... THUNDER-STRUCK!"
Every car window on the street exploded outward as the sound swelled into a wave. The van's front-end buckled and disintegrated beneath the force; the wheels slid off the ground as it jack-knifed to the side and crashed to its side. The windows at the front of the house popped like firecrackers as a network of cracks spread over the stairs.
Paladin exploded out of the front of his auntie's house, clad in his uniform of shimmering white. His first priority were the agents in the van--he darted across the street and flung himself on top of it, turning one arm into a over-sized crowbar and shoving the sharp end into the grooves of the door. With a grunt and twist, he popped the door off its hinges and reached inside.
"Society," he said as he plucked the first gasping, bloodied agent out. "Did you call them?"
"Can't," the agent said. "He's--all our equipment, it won't do anything but play that song--"
"Run. Find a phone. Something, anything. Call backup, now," Paladin said, and he dropped him to the street. He reached for the second agent, just as he heard Rockstar starting up another guitar riff--
"I was shaking at the knees--could I come again please?--the ladies were too kind--you've been... THUNDER-STRUCK!"
Paladin snarled as the sound lashed out and struck him like a spear; even sheathed in his armor, it was like getting hit by a missile. He was thrown from the top of the van and hit the side of a telephone pole--timber cracked behind him as he slumped to the ground.
The second agent stumbled out of the car and gave Paladin a look. Paladin shook his head, mouthed the word 'run', and struggled back to his feet. Then he immersed himself in a full suit of gleaming white armor.
"It's a school night," Paladin said over the rumble of music, an immense sword and shield appearing in his gauntlet-sheathed hands. "Let's turn it down a bit, huh?"
Rockstar grinned. "I've only got two settings," he said. "And the other one rocks harder."