A/N - This one-shot slots between the episodes "Staycation" (Snowstorm cancelled everyone's vacation plans; December 15th) and "Dr. No-Voice" (Dr. Two-Brains lost his voice after over-exerting himself at Villain Karaoke the previous night; December 22nd).
Our story today takes place the eve of December 21st. "Kid Math" (A new, bumbling kid superhero arrives from the planet Hexagon and begins "helping," forcing WordGirl to take him under her wing for proper training and a morality check) occurred a month ago (December 2nd - 4th). WordGirl and Captain Huggyface have been showing Kid Math the ropes of being a superhero for the last few weeks with… marginal success.
The dates are purely my own interpretation and I make no claim that they are canon; they're just included as reference for anyone curious. "Staycation" and "Dr. No-Voice" are back to back in production order, so I went with December. Becky is 11 and Rex is 8.
.:: AlgoRhythm ::.
Algorithm: A precise, unambiguous way to solve a problem; a set of rules to be followed
Logarithms, functions, derivatives too. log5(44); f(x) = 3x^3 - 4x^2 - 2x+5; y=-6x+15. Each precious, breathtaking shape replicated perfectly among the shadowed clouds. Sharp curves, gentle arcs. Jagged slopes and graceful falls. A lone, bubbly giggle splashed the night by storm. Like a snap, an icy streak of blue blasted between the falling snowflakes, rising faster than it ran. It looped the spire on a skyscraper at a speed best described as c = (1.4 (286.9 J/K kg) (273.15 K))^.5 and jolted upwards at a precise 75° angle.
The streak was a person, too. One with flecks of pebble-y hail slicing at his cheeks. Without his glasses to block the wind, his eyes dried up even faster than usual. And speaking of fast, he pushed himself even faster, blasting straight through the underbelly of the great gray clouds. Smoky swirls tangled with his staggered breathing- a physical scrape of foreign air against his little awkward lungs; he tossed his head to fling those thoughts away. Erupting from the cloud layer in a blur, he scraped right up against a certain upper left corner of the sky and arced into horizontal position again.
"Whoa, now! Watch where you're jumping out there, Kid Math." There came the sudden but unmistakable sound of a nonexistent hand brushing off a nonexistent shirt somewhere in the general vicinity. "Share the sky. Keep in mind that some of us actually like the peace and quiet up here."
The blue light somersaulted forward, the sudden cut to its speed popping him from a sonic blur into the distinct form of a child once again. Oops. Rex screeched to a halt and twisted (with a sheepish grimace) back around.
"Hi there, Mr. Narrator, sir. Say!" Planting his hands on his hips, the boy glanced expectantly from left to right. Then left again. Aaand right again, after that. "Have you so happened to see WordGirl and Huggy around here? I can't seem to find them because she has my glasses. I need those to improve my vision, which is why I wear them. When I, uh… actually have them, that is."
"Really?" the Narrator asked. "WordGirl took your glasses? That doesn't really sound like the WordGirl I've come to know." (Actually, being the Narrator and all, it was his job to know everything that went on behind the scenes, but it was also his job to keep the story moving forward; you know how it goes.)
"Oh, but WordGirl's really just holding onto them for me," Rex said quickly, lifting his hands. It would do no good to get her in trouble, especially at this time of night. A cramp had started setting in one of his legs; he shook it back and forth in vain. Doing a backflip helped with that, a little bit. His gloved hands came together in a clasp before his chest. "She says it's good for me to practice navigating the city with restricted vision, just in case I face a villain one of these days who decides to play dirty by knocking my glasses off when it really counts!"
His clever play on the word "counts" went unpraised tonight. Rex searched the patch of empty air above him. His smile began to strain. Aww, well… Okay. Maybe tomorrow.
"Sorry," the Narrator murmured through an obvious yawn. The familiar silkiness of his voice stretched into a warbled ripple, as though translated from underwater all the way across a frog pond. "Sorry, sorry. It's after hours and I don't get overtime pay. I didn't mean to break your concentration" (Rex indicated that he didn't mind with a little shrug.) "Kid Math, don't you have a criminal you're meant to be pursuing home to his secret lair? Maybe a certain evil villain whose name begins with 'S' and rhymes with 'be more?'"
"Huh?" Rex blinked and rubbed his bare eyes with his fists. The situation presented in the Narrator's gentle cue did sound familiar. He scowled at his palms, fists closing in and out. Be more? Did he? "Uh… Well, gee, I guess I do. I'd best be off, then. We can finish this discussion later."
"Actually, I'll be keeping pace right alongside you. I'm the Narrator. It's my job. Provided I don't fall asleep along the way."
"Ah." Rex snapped his fingers. "Right. I'll factor that into this equation."
Since he was floating in mid-air, he didn't have the leverage required to execute the burst of speed he wanted to. Perhaps this minor problem would have disrupted a lesser superhero, but Kid Math was no lesser hero. After offering the Narrator a semi-farewell wave, he shot not forward, but down. Black clouds crushed around him in a blanket. He tumbled through the bottom layer. The wind and hail followed soon enough. Rex stretched forth his arms and allowed himself to plunge.
These were the moments he loved the fiercest. The reason why he'd left his home planet's gravitational field behind. The perfect structure of Hexagon's high-tech cities and subway systems just weren't the same when compared with the rushing spiral of energy coursing through his blood. Here on Earth, he could fall without any fear.
True, he wasn't nearly so quick in the sky as his newfound friend and mentor WordGirl, but he did have her beat in one crucial category… WordGirl's preferences erred on the side of flying in a straight line from Point A to Point B, regardless of the winds that might buffet against her. But that was the simple way, and his proud Hexagonian blood would not allow shortcuts to become his habits. Instead, Rex identified the thermal updrafts with ease, and painted backflipping spirals through the air high above the sleeping city. He made his way downtown in a most efficient way. How's that for Hexagonian style?
His loop-de-loops morphed into a dive again. He fell like another gust of the wind all around him. Thick skyscrapers rose to greet him halfway. Two meters from the sidewalk, Rex pulled from his free-fall and zigzagged between a decorative row of bundled saplings. Warm breath gushed between his teeth. Now this was the real test of skill. He kept himself as precise as a function that passed the vertical line test, leaving a scattering of glowing plus signs drifting in his wake to prove it. Apart from one skittish man with a ponytail and a baggy green sweater out for a stroll with his wife, the streets were deserted. Rex couldn't resist another cackle as he shot over their heads. A flabbergasted yell for help echoed after him. Oops. He weaved an infinity sign in the air long enough to double back and offer a salute in apology, then adjusted his course to perfectly replicate y = 20x + 1000.
This. Was. The. Life.
Finding WordGirl outside the city library was easy, and almost accidental. She perched on a metal bench with one leg crossed over the other, a ticking stopwatch in her hand. Every click bounced against his eardrums. Captain Huggyface sat beside her, licking the last few drips of an ice cream cone's tail end. Both the girl and faithful monkey sidekick wore padded coats with their respective insignias emblazoned across the chest, and Huggy's feet were even outfitted in a pair of fuzzy socks that accommodated his opposable toes. Practical. When Kid Math swerved to a puzzled stop just a meter above them, WordGirl brought her thumb down on the stopwatch. It clicked softly in her hand. The ticking died away.
"28 minutes and 13 seconds. Oh, boy…"
"That's less than half an hour. That's good!"
Huggy shook his head, chittering his disapproval. Hmph. Rex wrinkled his nose.
WordGirl's fingers moved to one of her eyebrows, pressing in as though she were in gentle pain. Her breath billowed against the cold night in a graceful dollop, wreathing around her head like the tail of a speech balloon. "Kid Math, what happened? You were only supposed to fly six streets over from the May I Have a Word? studio. I mean, it's not like it's that far."
"Oh. Hm. I was, wasn't I?" Rex hovered closer to the ground, holding his hands out for his glasses. WordGirl set them in his palm and he inspected the square lenses for smudges before sliding them into place. Still fighting with the snags of his curly hair, he clucked his tongue and said, "Sorry 'bout that, Becky" ("It's WordGirl"). "I may have gotten a little carried away. I didn't realize you were going to time me."
Huggy squeaked again in an accusing manner. WordGirl let go of the stopwatch. It bounced against her chest on its lanyard. "Well, that's kind of the whole point of running these training exercises. See, if Huggy and I hadn't been able to zip out here in time, then Seymour Smooth would have gotten clean away." She hooked her thumb behind her, indicating the dents and shattered glass that now marred the library's grand entryway. The wrecked convertible lay on its side nearby, still smoking from one tire. "The police already carted him off to jail while you were zipping around up there."
Rex shrugged this observation away. "Oh, I never doubted our amazing skills for a quarter of a second. And, you know, you kind of made this task more difficult than it should be by asking the police to set off all those practice alarms all over the city. Do I at least get acknowledgement for having tracked the right alarm here in the first place?" (Acknowledgement had been the word of the day. You don't get credit for saying them after hours, but it just feels right, somehow.)
"After like seven stops along the way over," she muttered. Would she never be satisfied? Rex crossed his arms.
"Hey, it's not really that easy to focus on a single tiny sound in all the chaos of a big, strange city! Besides, didn't you tell me just last week that chasing villains isn't a race?"
"You did tell him that just outside the grocery store," the Narrator confirmed, prompting both superheroes to glance up at an ambiguous patch of sky (Rex beamed, while WordGirl closed her eyes and shook her head very slightly). "In fact, I believe it might be filed here in my minutes from last Tuesday."
"'Minutes?'" Rex asked, tilting his head. The word was familiar, but not when used like this. He looked to WordGirl for the proper definition, and Huggy contributed a few monkey noises to put in a request of his own. After blinking snowflakes from her eyelashes, she obliged them both.
"In this context, minutes is short for minutes of meeting, or informal notes that someone might take that relate to an event. So when our Narrator says he kept minutes on how I told you catching villains 'wasn't a race', he's saying he took a written record that now proves it really happened."
"Ahh, I see. Minutes. I like it. I'll see if I can slip that one in a little later."
WordGirl removed her elbow from the back of the bench. As she stood and began to levitate, she lifted the stopwatch in her hand again. "Granted, when I said that, I was specifically referring to times when you and I might partner up to take down a single villain together. 'It isn't a race' doesn't mean you can dilly-dally on your way to arriving at the scene of a crime."
Huggy nudged her in the side.
"But good job, Kid Math! You did… really great for a third try."
Rex giggled, suddenly struck bashful. "Well, technically I was here earlier to catch that fella Seymour in the act. I only left because I'm supposed to keep my identity a secret, and I didn't want anyone to know this crime was stopped by the likes of Kid Math!"
On those final words, he punched the air in front of him twice and then kicked it for good measure. Huggy covered his eyes with one arm, scoffing softly. WordGirl held up her hands.
"You know, you can take credit for stopping criminals anytime you're wearing your Kid Math uniform. It's actually proper protocol to wait around for the police to arrive and pick up a captured criminal, if at all possible."
"Aha, but that's just what they'd expect me to do! It's also a waste of time anyway, isn't it? I'm positive that our city's legal system knows what they're doing."
"Right…" WordGirl leaned back in the air and gave a roll of her eyes. Her fingers clenched more tightly at her elbows. Hm. Maybe she was cold. It was this planet's cold season, after all. Rex floated backwards, holding his arms out in her direction.
"And besides, even if I was a bit slow on the uptake, you showed up to help me! We brought that no-good scoundrel to justice in the end, no matter how long it took. We make a terrific team of epic proportions. Ooooh!" He brought a finger to his lips as a new idea blossomed in his mind. It rapidly took on form like the precise execution of an exponential equation. "Hey, WordGirl! I know what'll warm us up! Can we spar again? I really liked it when we did that last week."
"Rex, there isn't time for that…"
"Oh?" He leaned out of her way, although she didn't move. "Why isn't there time? Each of us can fly the same speed on this planet that sound travels through the air, and by my calculations, that would mean we have at least four hours before you even need to leave to get home. We could spar a little and be done by 7:45 tops! I won't make you late, I promise!"
WordGirl sighed. A great puff of breath billowed in front of her like the sail of a watership. "Kid Math, we agreed we had a training plan today. If we deviate from it, we won't get everything done that we planned to."
"Ohh… So can we spar again? That would be a fun way to train. Or at least I think so."
"No." Her arms crossed, firm and unrelenting. Huggy mimicked the gesture at her feet. "Keeping your physical strength up is an important part of being a superhero, of course, and we'll get to that soon. I promise. But for now, the most crucial thing to master is navigating the city safely without feeling overwhelmed. This week is all about testing the boundaries of your super-hearing. Next week, we'll experiment with your tetrachromacy."
WordGirl rolled her hand in the air, which Rex kind of felt was only slightly better than having her roll her eyes at him. "Having tetrachromacy means you and I see more shades of colors than almost all the people on Earth do. We pick up on certain depths and cues in places where most people just see solid color."
"Oh." Well, so much for that meaning he could extend four chrome-plated metal arms from his rib cage or something. His eyes wandered away, and her voice softened.
"Hey. I know sensory overload training might not be as exciting as… punching people" (She said it with a wince) "but just imagine how much easier your life will be once you can spend longer than ten minutes in the grocery store without feeling sick!"
"Ten" was probably a generous estimate at this point. He couldn't help it- he didn't like the grocery store. Too bright. Too loud. Still, Rex sighed through his nostrils. It almost wasn't fair. They weren't even supposed to be having this training session tonight. WordGirl had made it very clear that she was supposed to be out of town for the week, visiting a warm, sunny beach with her family. Something had come up: poor weather had grounded from taking off. A horribly inefficient system. His mind had been promised the rare opportunity to take charge of hero work as he pleased, completely unsupervised, so losing that chance and getting back into the swing of WordGirl's and Captain Huggyface's monotonous training program was an idea he had to force every step of the way.
He poked his boot into the smashed snowbank, lifting a crusty chunk onto the toe. It wasn't like it weighed a lot, but trying to keep it centered there while levitating suddenly made his balance shaky. He let it drop back down with a crunch, splash. "Okay…"
"That's the spirit," the Narrator cheered, if cheered maybe meant the same thing as "Started to speak, then yawned halfway through, lost it, and never finished." Wasn't that guy supposed to leave for the night hours ago? Maybe he needed rescuing.
Rex fixed his glasses again. "So, uh, WordGirl. You said you had something extra particularly special for me to try tonight? Y'know, before the whole Seymour thing."
"If you're still up for it." She smiled thinly. It was not the friendship smile. It was the mentor smile (They differed by a very noticeable two and a half inches, and the mentor smile was never that good). "I'll give you a clue: It involves searching the city to find the source of a particular sound… on foot. Well, not exactly on foot, because we'll cover the area faster if we fly, but Huggy and I want you to keep close enough to the ground that you'll get a feel for what all the buildings look like from down here. You won't always be able to navigate by the roofs."
Rex pursed his lips. Hmm. Actually, now that she'd brought it up, that option did sound rather interesting. Not to mention useful. The practical side of the training exercise was there, about finding his way across the city without the landmarks he'd grown familiar with from above, and it was wrapped in a challenge he just couldn't resist.
Still levitating, he flipped upside-down. His breath swirled after him in a cloud. Pushing up his glasses, he pleaded, "Couldn't we spar first, then go on a walk through the city? Just for a little while? I've been working hard to perfect my right hook, you know, and I'd really love to try it out on you for constructive criticism."
"Nice word, Kid Math," said the Narrator, temporarily jolted from his drowsy haze. Constructive had been the other word of the day.
"Why, thank you! Huggy taught that one to me."
WordGirl ducked under his arm, casting her gaze to the ground. She pushed a scrap of her hair back inside her helmet. Huggy, painfully loyal, hopped after her without a squeak. "Well," she began with careful slowness.
"Are you worried that I'll beat you?"
She snorted. "Sparring can be dangerous."
"But we're superheroes!" She did remember that, didn't she? Rex brought his clenched fists beneath his chin. "We're invincible!"
"Well, I didn't necessarily mean for us. It's just that sparring can be dangerous to the safety of the whole city. If we exhaust our abilities on each other, then we won't have all the strength we need to confront any criminals who might choose this exact moment to spring a crime."
"Aww…" Rex righted himself with a swift kick of his legs and dropped into the parking lot behind her. He regretted that decision immediately when his shoes squished in seeping slush. They were boots, but still. He stuck out his tongue. Yuck. The tilt of this planet's axis combined with the geographical location of his new home had cursed the world with gross gray slime, now that the fluffy whiteness had already had its fun. Earth was a cute little planet on its better days, but after three weeks of fickle December weather, it was a real struggle for a little Hexagonian not to long for the climate-controlling machinery that granted his home planet its perfectly predictable weather patterns.
Hearing him say it like that, WordGirl paused. Huggy leaped onto her back and questioned her hesitation with a few chitters. As Rex watched, her knuckles pressed against her forehead.
"Oh, my soon-to-be aching… Oh, boy. Well, it is the holiday season. I suppose you and I could spar for half an hour or so tonight. You know. If you're still up for it after the party."
Rex jerked up his head. "Party?" This was news to him. You know, as evidenced by his reaction and all. Swishing in front of her, he grabbed her arm and asked, "Is that the super special thing we're doing tonight? We're having a party? Is it for me?"
"Well, yeah." A small smile slipped across her face. WordGirl drifted past him. "It's a nice medium-sized event held around this week every two months."
"That's an A-B pattern," Rex breathed. His hands rose to his mouth. "Ohh. That's my favorite kind of pattern."
"Believe me, it took a lot of asking on my part. I had to sacrifice my leisure time for two weekends. But in the end, they agreed that we could come just this once to officially introduce you to everyone all together. There will be good food, fun party games (I think), and plenty of people I'd like you to meet." She lifted her palms in a shrug, still not turning back to face him. "Of course, if you're feeling a little off your game tonight, Captain Huggyface and I could-"
"No, no! I'm up for it! Really, I am, and I have the graphs to prove it! But…" Rex flew ahead of her again, this time blocking her in her tracks. He squinted. "What exactly is the relation between this and my sensory training?"
A misty expression took over her face. "Finding the party. You'll need to use your super-hearing."
"Sounds fairly reasonable. I'd be up for that."
"Fantastic! Because this party is going to be attended by the most notorious criminals in the city!"
"D'wha?" Well, THAT took an unexpected angle! All the air flew out of his metaphorical balloon. Rex backed away. "Are you serious? We can't go to a party hosted by villains! Isn't that…" Desperate for support, he turned to Captain Huggyface. "I mean, that's gotta be like, against the rules of being a superhero, right?"
"It's not really a regulated code."
"But villains commit crimes." Rex jabbed his pointer finger down into his palm to make sure she understood. "And heroes catch villains. Then the villains go off to jail, and they become the city's problem after that, at least until they get out again and decide to commit another crime. That's how it's supposed to work." Each of those last three words burst out like its own sentence. "Criminals are bad. And superheroes are good. It's against everything we stand for and all the values we've sworn to uphold if we attend a party with all the city's criminals. Those are the rules."
WordGirl tongued the inside of her cheek. Huggy shifted to her other shoulder. She ducked her head and kicked once at the ground. "Rex, do you know what socialization means?"
He muttered that he didn't, not really. To his confusion, WordGirl did not dive immediately into the definition, as she so often seemed prone to do. Several seconds passed in silence. When he looked up, she was staring down at her interlocked fingers. Thumbs twiddling.
"Socialization," she began, obviously taking extra special care with her word choice, "is a certain kind of training that someone needs to have in order to become comfortable with their place in the world, especially when it comes to their relationships with other people. When I introduced you to Violet, Scoops, my mom and dad, T.J., and everyone else in the city you've met so far, that was a way of socializing you to help you feel comfortable being around those people. Now you've created this schema… Well, you've formed this sense of community, this sense of trust. That's good socialization."
Rex frowned, sliding his hands down his sides. They settled on his hips. "Was it a trick?"
"No, it's nothing like that," WordGirl assured him hastily. Her feet lifted behind her. "See, if you're going to live in this city as a superhero, you're going to run into the same villains time and time again, just like Huggy and I do. Over time, as you talk with them and understand their histories, you'll connect with them in a special way. They might never become your close friends, which is fine, because you're right: They are criminals. They're also people, too. Like it or not, even if you try to fight it, you'll come to know, understand, and even want to look out for them."
He said nothing. Neither did the Narrator, who snored noisily from his designated patch of sky. She went on.
"Huggy and I talked about it and, well… We believe it's critically important to your development as a superhero to join in this small social event between us and some of the local villains that you'll be facing day after day, possibly for years. This way, you'll have the chance to introduce yourself to everyone you haven't met yet, and maybe that will help you to keep your secret identity secret, and not accidentally feel pressured to reveal it when you run into them again."
Rex looked away, glaring into the soft swirls of snow dancing in the air. He kept his palms flat against the sides of his legs. That part was easy. Fighting back the urge to curl them into fists? Much harder. This "hanging out" with criminal nonsense didn't fit his pattern. It upset every algorithm he knew about how a good superhero was supposed to behave. He knew better than this. He'd been trained better than this at the learning facility. He was Hexagonian.
But the only word to leave his lips was a small, "Okay."
WordGirl was… maybe… more knowledgeable than he was in this particular area. It might bruise his tender ego, but he would brush that off. She wasn't only his co-worker, but he also looked up to her as a mentor figure. Fair City had become her beloved home long before it had ever welcomed him. And if she and Huggy both thought it would be a good idea to introduce himself to the other villains in the city he hadn't met yet, then, well… I mean, he had to try at least once with his best efforts, right?
"Great!" WordGirl backed away, and gestured to the entire city with a great wave of her hand. "In that case, the stage is yours. Go find that villain convention."
"Right." He untied his favorite red hoodie from around his waist and started to pull it over his head, but WordGirl put her foot down there.
"Wait, wait, you can't bring that with you!" She flung her hands forward, drifting away at the same time. "That's part of your regular earth kid disguise! You don't want any of the city's worst villains to connect the Rex side of your identity with your Kid Math one."
Rex looked down at the hoodie, then up again. "But it's cold out here. I wanted to put it on."
Huggy chattered in WordGirl's ear. She sighed with a slight slump of her shoulders. Her fingers flickered briefly to her brow, eyes clenching shut. "Fine. We have a ways to go and we might be out here for awhile, but you'll have to take it off as soon as we're close enough to see the building, okay? Even before we step through the front door. We need to let the villains associate you with the way you look as Kid Math. We don't want them to get any ideas about what you look like in other clothes at all, especially your favorite disguise."
"Got it." He paused, pursing his lips. "But can I bring it inside anyway so I can use the pockets?"
WordGirl's hard stare was all the answer he needed. Guess not. Rex examined the thick fabric again. Usually, he wore this over his superhero costume. But maybe tonight, he could wear his costume over it instead.
Snuggled happily into his hoodie, with WordGirl and Huggy close behind him, Rex began his careful search of the city. As he'd promised WordGirl, he kept near the ground even though he was floating. Leaving the library, they soon passed the school, and then the police station three blocks after that. He zipped to the end of one street at a time and always paused for a few seconds to listen in. WordGirl hung back and allowed him to make the decisions at his own pace, even when she knew he was going the wrong direction, which was so frustrating, and kind of an impractical waste of time. He didn't exactly know what he was searching for… maybe the distant sound of evil cackling or the beeping of ray guns firing up… but whatever he heard, WordGirl had sort of made him think he'd be able to tell it was right when he found it.
And then he did.
Truth be told, he'd heard sounds like this before. When he'd lingered a few extra minutes in the hallway at school instead of going straight into his classroom after the bell. When he'd gone out flying late in the afternoon and zipped by an open bedroom window. When he'd strayed too near the dentist's office. The sounds rang out in his head, and they were much louder than typing fingers or scratching pencils. "Ah," he grunted, falling back and covering his ears. It didn't stop the white-on-black sensations forming patterns across his eyes.
"Hear something?" WordGirl asked, stopping beside him. She touched her hand to the back of his head. "Are you okay?"
"I…" Rex grasped the front of his costume in both fists. He scrambled several steps backwards, then dropped one hand to brace himself against the road. Super-hearing was a tricky thing, and now that he'd noticed the noises, it was difficult to tune them out, even though he'd backed away. They were rapid noises, pulsing noises, accented with the occasional cheer or pounding of hands. "Those sounds. You, uh, hear them too, don't you, WordGirl? I hear them, and… I see something. Something's happening in my eyes. Little flashes."
After a few puzzled seconds, and a question from Huggy, WordGirl said, "That's called chromesthesia. It's a type of synesthesia, and it means that when you hear certain sounds, then photisms of color will pop into your head."
"Something set it off," he muttered. As the cheers and applause died away, he said, "There. That's it."
WordGirl listened too, her head to one side. Far away, the talons of a spotted owl latched into a mouse's small body. A paper bag blew about in the wind, beaten back by flecks of hail. But what she said was, "The music?"
Rex shoved his fist across his eyes, and then across his nose. "Music?"
"Music. It's a mixture of sounds to express emotion. You don't… have music on Hexagon?"
"Mmm," he said, pressing his fingers deeper against his skin. The patterns in his mind's eye tangled together, never losing their soft edges and easy curves. Under his breath, he muttered the first string of prime numbers that popped into his head, starting at 193.
WordGirl bit her lip. "Right, silly question. Logical science planet, not the artistic one. I see. Well, because we both have synesthesia, hearing the music is allowing you to see color. We'll have to take the time to experiment with it more-"
"I don't see colors," Rex whispered. He clenched up his eyes, but the images playing across the backs of his lids didn't disappear. "I see… shapes. White shapes. Cones and cylinders. They're swimming around. Oooh, with stripes all down the sides."
"Hmm." He could hear the thoughtful frown edging WordGirl's voice. For once, she didn't seem to have an answer for him. Maybe this was one superpower the two of them didn't share. "Is this the first time your synesthesia has activated? Mine is on every second every day. You get used to it."
Rex squeezed one hand to the side of his head. "Well, um, it sounds like it might be a word or a sound thing. Maybe Hexagonians are less sensitive than Lexiconians are? Maybe it only works for us some of the time."
"Do you want to stop?"
He looked up, tongue-tied speechless, to find WordGirl floating above him. Her arms weren't crossed in anger, nor was she glaring down at him. That was… almost new.
"The Narrator fell asleep anyway, so he won't miss us. We could fly back to my hideout. It's far outside the city and much quieter out there. Will that help?"
Stop? In the middle of a task? Was that an option? She really wasn't Hexagonian, was she? He didn't respond. Her soft question came again, and her fingertips touched his shoulder.
"Hey. Don't do this if it's too much. We can go home whenever you're ready."
"No. No, I'm perfectly fine." Rex dropped his hand away from his ear. The music sang gently again. No more yelling. He could do this. "I want to go to the party. I want to see the other villains. I'll be all right."
He had a good read on the music now. It was pleasant, actually, rippling together in his ears in myriad patterns until it almost became too much. The background noises of the city sank away. They couldn't be far from their destination now; three miles away at the very most. Possibly even two. Rex followed the trail in careful bursts like a hunting hound. He would zip one way, listen for a moment to reorient himself, then zig-zag to the other side of the street to examine the music from another angle.
Over the better part of half an hour, the sounds became clearer. Music. Yes. This was definitely the music he was after. Up ahead, between the gentle snowflakes, he could just make out the form of a dinky motel by the side of the road. A neon blue sign flashed a simple picture of an Earth bed every 3.42 seconds.
This was the place. He'd be sure of it even without super-hearing. For one thing, WordGirl pointed to a large sign at the edge of the parking lot, and shared a chuckle with him over the very idea of clueless villains announcing their presence to everyone. For another thing, vehicles of assorted shapes and sizes littered the parking lot, ranging from blocky vans to a sandwich mobile to a few bikes and a motorcycle. There was even a helicopter on the roof and a giant robot sitting calmly on the ground with an enormous crocheted scarf wrapped around its neck. Rex ducked behind it long enough to pull off his hoodie, which he left carefully in a tree. Hail melted in his hair. He shivered every limb.
And finally, a rather skinny, villainous-looking lady in a red mask and thick red sweater seemed to be standing guard at the entrance of the motel. At their approach, she snapped to attention and stepped forward.
"What are you doing here? Don't you know you're trespassing on a private event? Shouldn't this weather have scared you away?"
WordGirl waved her hand. Her arm came around behind Rex's shoulders. "My friend and I were specifically invited here to give a special announcement."
The sweater lady folded her arms, remaining stiff and straight. "Why should I trust you? Aren't you a superhero? And aren't I a villain?"
"I really like your hair," Rex murmured, lifting his shoulders to his ears.
The villain (He remembered then that she was a villain, and inwardly flinched) turned her narrow eyes on him. They flicked down his boots, then up again. "Who exactly is this?"
"Uh…" Rex ducked his head behind WordGirl's arm, his heart pounding against his ribs. He was now separated from the noisy bustle of the villain convention by only one thin door. Every footstep in there was a stomp, every flutter of paper a gunshot, and every clink of metal the beat of a gong. The music still played in the air, burning through his brain like corrosive acid into wood. It shaped rectangular prisms out of nothing in his mind's eye. But it was all too much, for being so little. And now he'd been put on the spot, too. He pressed both hands against his ears, biting into his lip.
Fortunately, WordGirl was there to cover for him. "This is my protégé, Kid Math."
"Where is his accent from? Why is it so grating? Is it supposed to sound like that?"
Slipping past the accusations, WordGirl said, "Kid Math, this is Ms. Question. She's not one of the higher threats on our list yet, but she's definitely working her way up the ladder. Her superpowers give her the ability to confuse others with bursts of temporary amnesia. It's also important to note that she's strictly vegan, which means she's chosen not to eat anything containing animal products."
Ms. Question sniffed. "Would you go so far as to say I was ultra-recyclo-vegetarian in a past life?"
WordGirl shook her head, not glancing over. "When Ms. Question goes to prison, and actually stays in prison, I try to check up on her every few days to ensure Warden Chalmers hasn't slipped up in her diet requirements and given her something with meat in it. You'd be surprised how often it happens."
Rex blinked. "Wait. Hold on. You what?"
"And am I supposed to take that ladder-climbing quip as a compliment?" Ms. Question folded her arms, her scowl deepening. "Why was I not informed you'd be here tonight?"
Just then, a short, round man with fuzzy brown hair and a soft red hat poked his head through the doorway. Oh! Rex tensed up the instant he saw him. This guy was none other than one of Dr. Two-Brains' henchmen. Specifically, the one who had aimed an enormous ray gun at his forehead while he'd been held captive during one of his first attempts to stop crime here in Fair City. Not exactly his favorite person, if he had to choose between them.
"Oh, yeah," said the henchman, his voice low, but thoughtful. "Ms. Question, Charlie and I forgot to pass the word along, but WordGirl and Kid Math here will be joining us for the party tonight. Chuck and Butcher said it would be okay as long as it didn't become a habit." Suddenly his tone shifted darker. "Not that it's going to be much of a party for me and Charlie. The boss is breaking our backs over this big scheme for the new year…"
WordGirl lifted her hand. "Hi, Forrest."
He glanced over at her, unimpressed. WordGirl faltered. "Really?" Ms. Question sneered. "You can't remember his name? How long have you been hauling him off to jail, again? Hasn't he been on your list since the very beginning of your superhero career?"
"It… it was Forrest, right? No? Fergus? Franklin? Freddie?"
The man sighed. "Close. You get closer every time you try, really."
WordGirl grinned, but even Rex could sense the flustered strain behind it. "Sorry!"
He shook his head and disappeared through the door again. Ms. Question hmphed and gave her foot two taps against the ground. "Do you realize that everything you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell tonight must be held in the utmost confidence? Can we really trust you to contain such valuable private information?"
"Well, yeah. I'm a superhero. And if you can't trust a superhero, who can you trust? Am I right?" WordGirl brought her hands together in a clasp at one hip, fluttering her eyelashes. Then she coughed and added, "Also, I already know what goes on in most of your conventions, because I hear you guys gather together in the same place at the same time every year. I have super-hearing. Even if you chased us off, we'd have to go pretty far to ensure we don't accidentally eavesdrop."
Ms. Question shook her head in disbelief. "Who am I even keeping a lookout for, then? Why do we need a guard in the first place? Were they just trying to get rid of me? Does something about my presence bother them?"
"Take it up with Chuck and The Butcher," WordGirl said with a shrug. She started towards the door, Huggy on her back and beaming.
Rex didn't move.
"Are you nervous?" WordGirl asked him, turning back around. He swallowed and dropped his gaze.
"Uneasy, or uncertain. You don't really want to be here."
"I just…" Rex stared at his boots, almost invisible against the pale snow. His hands fiddled about- tugging at his collar, pressing against his glasses, massaging behind his neck. He scuffed the sidewalk with one foot. "See, I'm a superhero. Associating with villains feels vastly incorrect."
WordGirl gave his shoulder a gentle pat. "I know. But they're not so bad when you meet in neutral territory."
"But they're villains."
"And tonight, we're their guests. They're all so curious to meet you after the stories that were passed around in jail this month."
Rex kept his stubborn feet planted on the ground. Finding the source of the music had been fun. He could still hear it now, slapping strange pyramids and prisms across his vision like splatters of paint. But stepping inside a single room filled to capacity with nobody except villains set his teeth on edge all the way down to their roots. The fact that their Narrator had fallen asleep and couldn't keep watch certainly wasn't helping his heartbeat. He clamped his fingers into the fabric of his costume, refusing to unfold his arms. "Weren't you the one who said villains are always trying to trick heroes like us? Couldn't this be another sort of trick?"
WordGirl sighed, but didn't remove her hand from his shoulder. Her pat became a slight squeeze. "I'll be with you the whole time."
With that, she opened one of the motel's two front doors and (gently) pushed him inside by the small of his back. Rex braced himself for noise and found it laughing there. Shoes squealed. Chair legs scraped across linoleum. Heavy fans whirred in the air conditioning system overhead. A half-frozen cricket huddled in the warmth of an indoor plant, shifting the substrate around by just a hair. The Butcher had the audacity to tap his fingers on his knee. It filled his mouth with agony. The mixed scents of meat, cheese, and assorted types of sandwiches smashed into his face all at the same time. Large, hulking figures bumbled around, jarring each other with elbows and tipping over food trays. The more agile villains darted about at a ridiculously rapid dodge-and-weave speed, laughing in a high-pitched way. Almost of their own accord, Rex's hands flashed up to his ears. They had cold music playing underneath it all. It tasted like isosceles triangles sailing through the dark.
"Aww." WordGirl brought her clasped hands near her cheek. "Aren't they just so adorable in their natural habitat?"
She was taking this a lot better than he was, naturally. Of course. She'd grown up on Earth, with all its bright and noisy stimuli that were much too novel for a simple Hexagonian like him. She'd created her own reality, her own little awareness of the world, her own little safety bubble. But… maybe he could… try. As people began to realize the two superheroes and monkey sidekick were there and faces turned towards the door, Rex removed one hand from his ear and offered up a friendly wave.
"Hi everybody! Boy, it sure is a great day not to be Kid Math, huh?"
WordGirl's pointy elbow caught him in the chest. Rex stumbled back a step in surprise and found her staring at him with one of those thousands of expressions he could never seem to read quite right. She made a swooping up and down motion with her hand to indicate his body. Or more specifically, to indicate what he was wearing. Rex blinked and looked at his clothes again, drinking in the slick, pale blue fabric of his costume and the familiar equals sign logo branded across his chest.
"Ah, right!" He smacked himself above the ear with the heel of his hand. "I'm in my superhero outfit. I remember. Don't worry, I've got this."
"If you say so," WordGirl murmured, and Huggy let out a soft moan. It wasn't a loud noise by any means, but it did add another layer to the noise in the motel. Walking, talking, music, gossip, squeaky doors, crunching chips. And did The Butcher have to drum his fingers like that? Rex spun in a full circle in search of him and saw the man waiting for refreshments, calmly holding a plate in both hands. Which would not stop tapping.
Hmm. Rex folded his arms. Then, out of curiosity, he flashed over to see what was being served at this villainous party. Bunches of stolen goods, no doubt, although he didn't have enough proof to speak up about it. He skimmed his eyes across a tall hot chocolate dispenser, puddles of yogurt, a dozen plates of cheese, mountains of sandwiches, spirals of strawberries, columns of carrots, heaps of garlic bread, and so much more. Weird choices. Neat party. And on the end? … A carton of something fluffy and white?
"Whoa," said The Butcher, stumbling a step when Rex appeared in front of him. His shoulders tensed up. "Hey. Hey, no cutting in line, little blue."
Little blue? Was that supposed to be him? Rex flipped over, snatching one of three large cartons off the dessert table. It was cold to the touch and left frost across his fingertips. Now, why would anyone want to eat something so freezing in weather like this? He shrugged. And, to The Butcher, he cried, "The name is Kid Math!"
"Uh… Yeah." Here, The Butcher looked away and rubbed behind his neck. "We've, uh, we've met and stuff before. You remember that, right?"
Rex flipped the carton around so he could read the nutrition label. He didn't make it far down the list before pulling a face and letting it drop back on the table. Ice cream. Empty calories. Not to mention, dairy products did not agree with his stomach in the first place. Oh well. He shot a pained look at the carrot sticks, but resisted the urge to grab any, since he had, after all, jumped the line. He was a superhero, and someone here had to be a good example for the bad guys. And so, he righted himself and zipped away, back to WordGirl's side.
"We'll want to get the itinerary from Chuck," she was saying as though from far away. She was facing the other direction, and Rex wondered for a moment if she'd even noticed that he'd gone. Sure, she had super-hearing, but considering everything else she was probably listening to, maybe he'd slipped beneath her radar. He put on his widest smile anyway, holding his hands together in front of him to appear as adorable and innocent as he possibly could. "I'm not really sure when he wants us to introduce you… Now? Do we do it now? Oh, where is he? Huggy, do you see him anywhere?"
He squeaked, patting her head in sympathy. Rex's eye twitched. Then again. Playing the waiting game was not precisely one of his specialties.
"No," she murmured, "I really think Chuck was supposed to have it. He was so proud of being in charge this month."
And still she didn't acknowledge him. The overhead lights glared against the tiles, and those glared against his eyes. Rex glanced away, searching the noise of the party for a single conversation to focus on. One voice cut above the rest.
"Hey, WordGirl! Kid Math! Captain Huggyface! Hey, over here!"
Rex spun towards the call, trying to be less obvious about plugging his ears than he was. "Ooh, was that Chuck just now?"
Indeed. Rex had spoken with Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy a few times before, but only with a set of bars between them. He must have gotten out of jail only recently. Watching the cheery criminal wave their way and gesture for them to approach, Rex found it impossible not to lick his lips. WordGirl noticed this and nudged him again. Hard.
"What?" he whispered, wiping his mouth dry on the back of his glove. "His head is a sandwich; just give me this, WordGirl."
They drifted over to a large empty space that all the metal folding chairs in the room faced to get a better look at what he was working on. Chuck knelt on the floor beside a small machine with several buttons across its top and dials down its front. The soft music swirling about the meeting hall seemed to be leaking out of there. The narrow outlines of white squares and gray trapezoids swam across his vision. Hearing it up close for the first time, Rex couldn't help but glow with pride. He'd managed to pick up something that quiet from three miles off? Not too bad at all. And to think he'd only had super-hearing for a month.
"Um." Chuck adjusted the strap of his goggles as he sized up Huggy, who was scowling at the floor. "Did I offend your sidekick with something that I said?"
WordGirl gave Huggy's head a long stroke. "I think it just hurt his feelings to hear you call Kid Math's name before you called to him. It's no big deal. We're all adjusting to us bringing a third member on our roster."
Chuck pressed his fists against his mouth. "Oh no. I didn't mean to be so… Tch. Oh, what's that word that means you're kind of being rude? You know, the one you helped me with just a week ago?"
"Yeah, I think. I didn't mean to be insulting, honest! I just saw you guys come in over there, and Kid Math's a little bigger so he's the one whose name came out first. There's nothing else going on between us, I swear. WordGirl, you know you're the only superhero in the whole city for me."
She pointed a finger at him and made a clicking sound with her teeth. Huggy remained silent for a few seconds more, then looked up at Chuck. A smile crept across his face. He voiced his reassurance and made a waving gesture with his hand to signal the apology was accepted. WordGirl shifted to allow him a better perch on her back. Wiping his brow, Chuck turned all his attention back on Rex.
"And you. It is Kid Math, right? Did I say that right? Hey, how is the superhero gig treating you so far? You look good. You been working out?"
"Um…" Rex fought to keep his eyes from widening. The music produced by the big music box had turned from squares to circles. One of them settled just above Chuck's head like a dinner plate. "I've been… Yeah. Eating well."
WordGirl made a strange gesture across her neck with her hand. More than once.
"Oh, good, I'm glad to hear it." Chuck leaned his weight on his hands, smiling like a line segment. "I like your hair. It's nice."
"Really, are your curls natural? They suit you perfect."
"Perfectly," WordGirl corrected. Kid Math blinked.
This was all so wrong. He hadn't fought day and night to complete the superhero certification path at the Hexagonian Children's Learning Facility and hauled himself all the way to Earth just to stand around and make nice with evil villains who should really be spending their whole lives in jail. Rex opened his mouth, but before he could order Chuck to back off and keep his hands where everyone could see them, Chuck pulled a small, squishy, blue and brown… thing out of the small backpack at his side.
"I don't know how long you guys can all stay tonight, so I want to give you it now in case we run out of time later. Here. I made this for you." And with that, he presented a doll shaped and colored just like Kid Math.
Rex… found himself speechless. And that didn't happen often. He rubbed his eye, chasing another of the music circles across his vision.
Chuck continued holding out the doll, like he truly wanted Rex to take it. "I sew, you know," he was saying. "My mom taught me as a kid- You remember my mom."
"Oh. You? You made this? By hand? But…" Rex pushed his fingers through his hair. "You made this? It looks so soft. And not metallic."
Chuck blinked. "Wha? Of course it's soft. It's a plushie action figure."
"He comes from a high-tech, metal-based planet," WordGirl whispered behind her hand. "They're not squishy, fuzzy types. Just go with it."
"Well, anyway. You know, it was no big deal. I just happened to have all this blue cloth lying around, and I wasn't really in the mood for planning another crime spree the same week I got out of jail, you know how it goes… So I made two of these Kid Maths to add to my stuffie collection. I want you to keep the one that came out best." Chuck chuckled. "I figured no one else has put any merchandise of you out on the market yet and so maybe you'd want one."
Rex's eyes flashed from Chuck to the simple, pudgy doll and then to Chuck again. He squinted. This was probably a trick. The doll probably contained a listening bug, or a hidden camera, or even something explosive. And yet…
He took the doll in both hands and brought it to his cheek, still glaring. "Well calculated, Charlie. Well calculated indeed." Ulterior motives were a risk he was totally willing to take for this.
But Rex was only half-listening now. The doll went into the thin pocket sewn on the side of his costume. For the moment, he had eyes only for the music-making box sitting there beside Chuck's left knee. Spirals and swirls oozed in the air like a river of cream. The sound itself felt heavier than before. Each finger of it pressed down as though in soft sand. Rex closed his eyes.
"That sounds like three dancing pentagons, hopping back and forth in Quadrant IV."
"Oh, do you like it?" Chuck asked, a shy note of hope threading through his voice. Rex hesitated before nodding, very slightly. It really made his stomach grumble to agree with a criminal, but at the same time, well… he did like it.
"Do another music," he said, his eyes flying open. "It should be just like that one, only different."
"Another song," WordGirl put in. Chuck searched the music machine and carefully pressed the play button with the pad of his thumb. The song shifted into something with a slightly slower pace, but lighter tones. Rex leaned back, sighing, and placed his hand against his cheek.
"That's a triangle in Quadrant II. Scalene. Sharp. Oh, that's nice."
Chuck smiled and gave the box a pat. "Well, that's how my little karaoke machine here works. Do you like it? It's new. That's right, guys. Once we get this baby fired up, this party will really start swinging. Ooh, just make sure you don't sit right in front of The Whammer. Sometimes he gets excited, and I don't want either of you to get hurt. Um… Any questions about the party?"
"Just one." Rex dropped his arms. "What's karaoke?"
WordGirl interjected here with, "Karaoke is a type of musical performance, usually performed in front of a crowd, and maybe on a stage. It's when you sing a song with its music track behind you, but without any background vocals, so you really have the chance to let your own voice be heard."
"Ohh." Rex dropped his gaze to the ground, bouncing his hand against his hip. WordGirl tipped her head.
"Any other questions, Kid Math?"
"Um." Rex scratched his arm. This was probably a stupid one, but… "What's singing?"
WordGirl blinked. "What? Singing is… It's… Huh. You know, I've never actually had to define 'singing' before." She looked at Huggy, who shrugged. "Well… Singing is the creation of music with your voice. It's when your emotions are so strong, it feels like the only way to let them out is through song. Kid Math, your synesthesia activates around music. When you hear words that go along with that music, that's called singing."
"Oh." Kid Math rubbed his lower lip and drifted away from the karaoke machine. "So it's equivalent to a mating call."
"No! It's for fun!" WordGirl smacked her hand against her forehead. "It's just silly!"
"Here." Chuck held out a skinny tube with a black ball attached to one end. It had whiskers and mouse ears too. "Since everyone's mostly still eating right now and they haven't gotten around to forming a line yet, you can go ahead and try it out, if you want. I don't mind. After all, you were here first. Go ahead, pick a song from the list."
Huggy made a soft "Uh-oh" sound, possibly mirroring Rex's suspicion that none of these "songs" were going to consist of anything even slightly familiar to him. WordGirl evidently sensed the same problem, because she flicked a finger at the ceiling.
"The words of the song will appear on that screen hanging up there, if you want to look at them while you sing. Just read the words and let your emotions take over you. I'm not a singer myself, but I'm sure you'll do great."
Rex chuckled at the very idea. But he stopped when he saw the way WordGirl was looking at him. "Oh. You're serious?"
Chuck glanced up from his fiddling with the machine. "You know, if you're nervous about it, but you still want to give it a try, it might help if you pick a signature song in advance. Try to come up with one that you really, really like and sing all the time, like when you're putting away your laundry or making your biggest and most tasty sandwich of the week. In Japanese, they call this your juhachiban."
The Butcher, The Whammer, and Dr. Two-Brains all happened to be passing by at that moment, and they all looked at him. Chuck dropped his gaze to the floor and mumbled something that was almost an apology. The three backed away from him with their palms out.
"Nice word, Chuck," WordGirl offered. Chuck mumbled again. Rex stayed where he was and simply sniffed.
"Well, you wouldn't get me doing 'karaoke' if you promised me the equation for manipulating space-time. Me? A Hexagon? Read the alphabet?" He held his arm out towards WordGirl. "I beg your pardon, but WordGirl here is the only Lexiconian I see. I'm Hexagonian. I only work with numbers. It's a mutually exclusive relationship."
"Do you mean to tell me you can't read?!"
WordGirl's voice spiraled into a shriek of distress. It pierced his eardrums through and through, made worse by both his sensitivities and the faint sonic abilities underlying her natural voice. The sound almost triggered another shape across his vision. Wincing, Rex took three steps backwards. When he was certain she wasn't going to explode, he took his fingers from his ears.
"Well, uh, I suppose I'm flattered you believed me to be so qualified, but may I remind you, I'm from the planet Hexagon. Hexagonians don't have a written language. As if there's time to invent that!" Rex rolled his hand with a flutter and resisted the impulse to roll his eyes too. Barely. "And there's always a plethora of Lexiconians hanging around our research centers anyway. They're happy to help and never make any spelling mistakes. That's what we pay them for, after all. See, the only words of wiggly little alphabet letters I can actually read with my own two eyes are related to dairy products and calorie counts."
WordGirl's fingers twitched near her chest as though clutching and pinching some small, invisible animal. "You can't even read. You cannot read. As logic-based and scientific as your planet is, they do not value reading. You've never… Okay." Now her fingers began to tap. She swallowed. "Sure, that's fine. Not every culture develops a written language, I get that. So, uh, how do you guys solve story problems without reading them, though?"
Rex tilted his head. "'Story problems?' Well, anything related to the written word is a matter of Lexiconian concern. They'll get around to it eventually. It wouldn't be my place to get involved."
"Of course," WordGirl muttered, turning her back on Chuck, who continued picking at the karaoke machine. She had her fingertips to her chin now, attention on the ground. "But you say you can read dairy-related words?"
"In over thirty languages. See, I can't eat dairy products without upsetting my stomach. This way, I can read the nutrition information on nearly any label that looks even a little like it might contain dairy." Rex brought his knuckles to his chest. "Clever planning on my part, if I do say so myself."
WordGirl twisted to gape at him for several long seconds, and Kid Math almost, almost thought he'd stupefied her with his vocabulary. But instead, her fists clenched together at her forehead.
"What?" Chuck lifted his hands, making a small, distressed triangle with his upturned palms that pointed towards the ground. "Why didn't you ever tell me? Allergies are serious, you know?"
"Oh, I know." Leaning back, he said, "Even a single mouthful of dairy products brings me to my knees."
"Kid Math," WordGirl hissed. She crossed her arms in a great X, then uncrossed them again. When he only blinked at her, she did it again.
"Seriously," Chuck pressed, sitting back on his heels, "I could have brought lactose-free ice cream tonight if you'd only let me know."
Rex shrugged. "I've never really been a big fan of this whole dessert thing anyway. I confess, I prefer a more balanced diet of fruits and veggies. I've run all the calculations to give my body the exact amounts of fuel that it so needs each day."
Huggy squeaked in dismay at the thought of someone turning down fattening treats on a regular basis, his toes clinging even more tightly in the fabric of WordGirl's costume. She sighed, with something like a smile in it. Her arms folded. "You're certainly an oddball kid by this planet's expectations, Kid Math."
He chuckled and spread his hands in a second, smaller shrug. "What can I say? Being odd is just part of nature's deal when you're from the planet Hexagon!"
"Did I catch you fellas over here saying one of you is lactose intolerant?"
Both superheroes jolted and whirled around to find Dr. Two-Brains standing off to the side. He had an enormous serving platter covered in cheese balanced in one hand, a glass of milk in the other. The horror oozing from his pop-eyed, mouth-gaping expression was otherwise indescribable, and his frizzy white hair only added to that effect. "Yes," Rex said, at the same WordGirl blurted, "No! It's fine!"
"Seriously," Dr. Two-Brains pressed, "you're lactose intolerant?" Setting the milk on the refreshment table, he tossed three pieces of cheese into his mouth. Even before he finished chewing, he said, "Man, that is just the worst. I am so sorry for you."
He wandered off with his cheese again, the shorter of his two henchmen hurrying after him with a box of spare parts and broken ray guns. WordGirl dragged her hands down her face. Apparently, she hadn't wanted this intolerance information to get out, although Rex couldn't imagine why.
Then she jerked up her head. Had she heard something? Was she searching for someone? She scanned the faces in the crowd on the other side of the metal chairs, and then, to Rex's utter surprise, raised her hand and actually gave a wave. "Ah, Mr. Big! Do you have a second to network with us?"
"What?" Rex hissed, kicking back his legs. (Well, actually it was more of a whisper-scream than a hiss since even he knew enough about language to recognize the lack of hissing sounds in the word, but you get the point.) He grasped his cheeks in his hands. "What are you doing?"
"Mr. Big" turned out to be the tall, broad-shouldered man with the dark business suit and wispy white hair. His calm face radiated a certain power, all straight lines and sharp edges. An odd purple mask obscured all the features of his face above his nose. Something about WordGirl's wording must have appealed to the man tremendously, because he wasted no time in ducking through the crowd of mingling villains to meet them halfway. A blonde woman in a red suit followed close on his heels, clipboard in hand.
"Hello," he boomed, his voice boisterous and cheerful. Rex dropped his forehead against the heel of his hand as tiny triangles flew across his mind's eye. Of course. Leave it to his oblivious co-worker to try and keep making nice with evil villains without even thinking of the consequences.
Oh well. Sometimes, you just had to tackle a problem with exuberant amounts of confidence.
"Mr. Big." WordGirl gestured to him first, then moved her hands towards Rex. "This is my friend and fellow superhero, Kid Math. He's still in training right now, learning to protect the city. We're starting small in terms of assignments he takes on, but every now and again, he might be the one to show up and stop you from committing crimes instead of me."
"That is absolutely correct!" Rex jabbed a thumb into his chest, taking care to straighten his posture. Mr. Big's professional aura just encouraged that kind of behavior. "Who knows? With a certified hero like me around, WordGirl might even be able to retire by age 15!"
Huggy groaned in disapproval.
"Aww." Mr. Big leaned his hands on his knees, and cocked his head to one side. "For a little hero waif, he's adorable, isn't he, Leslie?"
"Yes, sir," drawled the blonde woman behind him. She scribbled something on her clipboard, darting her eyes between him and the paper.
Rex shrugged a modest shrug and WordGirl snickered. Turning back to him, she said, "Kid Math, Mr. Big is a Tier 3 professional villain."
Tier 3? That was equivalent to a high threat level, but with a lower amount of physical exertion than what might be expected of a superhero facing a villain who fell in Tiers 2 or 1. Rex grimaced, even though he tried not to show it. He was more of a punch-something-until-it-breaks-or-begs-surrender kind of guy, more comfortable facing off against Chuck or The Butcher than against a real criminal mastermind who favored brains over brawn.
WordGirl nodded as though she'd read his thoughts. "His specialty is mind control, and he's one of the toughest criminals I've ever faced in my career. It might take a few years before Huggy and I decide you're ready to face him completely solo, but next time he tries to mind control everyone in the city into buying giant exploding squishy bunnies or something along those lines, I'll see if I can squeeze you in for a little on-the-job training."
Mr. Big's eyes widened in apparent delight. "Giant exploding squishy bunnies. I love it! Leslie, write that one down."
"If you say so, sir."
"Well, it sounds like you'll be an interesting acquaintance, then," Rex offered, looking hesitantly up at the businessman as he extended his hand. Mr. Big grasped it in a clammy (but firm) shake. The typical Earth greeting, just as WordGirl had promised. Rex smiled, but couldn't hold eye contact. He pulled his hand back to his chest the moment Mr. Big let him go. The tall man's eyes followed, studying the logo printed on his superhero costume.
"So. Kid Math, eh? You know, with a name like that, I'm sure you have all sorts of clever little math-y thoughts tucked away there inside your pretty little head."
"Yes! I, Kid Math, hail from the planet Hexagon! And I was almost top of the class in my learning facility. I graduated with my full certifications and everything."
Mr. Big's fingers came together at their very tips. His eyes slid to one side. "Then I look forward to rewiring that wonderful brain of yours and using it for my own nefarious purposes. Mwaha. Haha. Ha ha ha ha!"
This time when Rex moved, he took care to move backwards and not just sideways. "Well, uh, not sure how you figure that…"
"It isn't as terrible as it sounds," WordGirl assured him as Mr. Big's chuckling went on. "The effects are always reversible. Mind control sounds intimidating when you try to explain it aloud, but actually, the hardest part about fighting Mr. Big is just getting past all his brainwashed minions. Finding and destroying whichever device is powering his evil scheme of the month is usually very simple."
"Huh." Rex continued to eye Mr. Big with his most distrustful glare anyway. Chills rattled down his back. After this "socialization" activity was all over, he was definitely going to ask WordGirl for permission to shower at the Botsford residence. Hanging around all these proud and open villains just carried with it a certain weighty… ick factor. And this one hadn't even given him a present.
Mr. Big straightened up. He gave Rex two pats on the back of the shoulder as he scooted by. Leslie began to follow, but paused to adjust her glasses. She checked her clipboard over again, then turned her monotonous attention on Rex.
"Hi?" Rex offered. Her stare seared the center of his forehead as though she were looking through him and into his brain. Could she control his mind with hers? Could she read it? Was that how it worked? Automatically, he shifted a little closer to WordGirl. He could feel Huggy's muscles tensing up, and WordGirl's stance turned a hint less friendly and more cautious. "Um. Ms. Leslie, wasn't it? I guess it was, huh? Well, I suppose you work for Mr. Big."
Leslie inclined her head, clearly bored with their conversation already. "My name is Leslie Lohanson. Call me Leslie. Or Leslie Lohanson." Even her tone oozed boredom and distaste. Her eyes weren't even on him as she spoke, but somewhere in another world. She held out a tiny slip of paper, precisely 3.5 x 2 inches. "Would either of you care for a business card in order to help you manage all of your big business and/or self-care and life-influencing needs?"
"I don't see why not!" With an offer like that, how could he refuse? Rex took the card with one hand and offered the other for a handshake. "And by the way, I'm Rexagon Pemdas. Just call me Rex."
"No!" WordGirl's hands fastened around his shoulders, yanking Rex away from the scene so fast, he accidentally let go of the business card Leslie had given him. It fluttered in a spiral and fell like a snowflake to the tile. Before he even fully registered what was going on, WordGirl had hurled him at the beaten sofa in the dingiest corner of the motel lobby. The lumpy cushions sagged beneath him. His glasses jerked down his nose. Rex looked up in alarm to see WordGirl looming overhead. The poor lighting painted her in shifting shadows. Having Captain Huggyface clinging on her shoulder like a disbelieving gargoyle didn't exactly make her appear any less intimidating. No, no it did not. She radiated the sheer power of Lexiconian stars so strongly, her hair practically crackled at the roots.
He bit his lip.
WordGirl's expression shifted instantly when she noticed his wide-eyed restlessness. Abandoning her levitation, she dropped down to one knee and planted her hands around his collar. "Listen, Kid Math. You're Kid Math to everybody in this room today, remember? Not Rexagon."
"Oooh." Rex rolled his pupils to the lower corners of his eyes and set his teeth in an anxious frown. "Ah, that's right. I'm terribly sorry I keep doing that over and over so many times in a row, WordGirl. It's just so hard when all my life, I've thought of myself as Rex inside my head. Keeping secrets was never really programmed into my natural instincts."
"Yeah, no kidding." She gave him a very, very slight shake before letting go of his shoulders. Her hands dropped to her knee. "And you're going to be even more sorry if the wrong villain gets ahold of that information and uses it against you. You have got to be less flippant with your secret identity."
"'Flippant?'" Rex sounded the word out carefully, surprised that it was new to him. WordGirl studied him briefly, then sighed. She bowed her head.
"Behaving flippantly means you're being careless, or acting without thinking through the possible consequences of your actions."
It dawned on him gradually. Rex covered his mouth with his fingertips, stifling a hiccup of a gasp. "Ooh. So, if I accidentally let it slip that Rexagon Pemdas is really equal to Kid Math, that's being flippant." Or maybe equal wasn't the right word, since WordGirl was always insisting that the two weren't quite as interchangeable as an equals sign would suggest.
"Exactly." WordGirl craned her neck, staring past his tall, curly hair. Her clenched fingers relaxed in a just-noticeable way. "Fortunately, I don't think Leslie really processed what you said; I didn't hear her taking notes. Who else? The Whammer by the window, Big by the bean bag chairs… Oh, boy." Her eyelids flickered shut, then flew open again. She fixed a stare into his head, not unlike the one Leslie had given him just a moment ago. "Kid Math, are you sure you're ready to be here tonight? Because we can try again next time if you don't yet feel confident in your ability to keep your secret identity only between the two of us."
Huggy chattered from her shoulder with a sudden burst of irritation and swung himself down to the floor.
"Sorry. The three of us."
Him? Ready? Ha! The Hexagonian Children's Learning Facility didn't just hand out superhero training certifications to kids who weren't ready. Rex puffed up his chest. Pushing WordGirl's hands away, he sprang off the sofa. "I'm not merely 'sure,'" he shouted, and swung his arm towards the ceiling. "I'm as positive as an absolute value!"
"Great." WordGirl started to levitate again, only to make a sudden jerking motion for her neck. Her eyes crossed. Her tongue came out. She squealed as though she were being strangled. Kid Math blinked and pulled back to study the situation from a new angle, but it didn't take long to discover the culprit.
"Yay, WordGirl is here now!" With a metallic blip sound, a pale young man wearing enormous glasses and pristine blue clothes shimmered into view. Huggy yelped and Kid Math tensed as the formerly invisible villain squeezed WordGirl's neck in a crushing…
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, WordGirl! Haha, full and unending yaaay!"
"Boundaries," WordGirl croaked. Her fingers wrapped around his wrists.
The no-longer-invisible man released her, grinning like a great parabola. Blip! He disappeared from behind WordGirl's back and reappeared directly in front of Rex. With a flourish, he presented a long, thin certificate of some sort. It had a list of puzzling words all over it in tiny print that made Rex go cross-eyed when he tried to search them for anything recognizable. "Guess who just got the biiig thumbs up to go back on Adderall!" the man crowed. "Guess, guess, guess! Haha! Did you guess it yet?"
Rex sighed. He ducked his head and gave it a soft shake. "Now, how am I supposed to determine a solution to this question from so little information?" And what was Adderall, anyway? Was that a planet? That might be a planet. It sounded like it could be a planet.
With another blip, the skinny man vanished into thin air. Two beats later, he blipped back into existence. Only, now he was standing on a patched-up armchair nearby, the certificate held high above his head. "Invisi-Bill! Invisi-Bill! That's who it was! It was me, Invisi-Bill, all along! Hooray, Invisi-Bill! Yay, WordGirl! And again, another yay for Adderall!"
"Oh, I see." Rex made a small circle around Invisi-Bill with his finger. "Your name is… it's a clever joke. Hm. I have to say, that's awfully logical."
Blip! Invisi-Bill was gone again. Rex nodded, listening closely to the sound of sprinting feet. And, blip, Invisi-Bill soon popped back into view on the opposite side of the meeting hall, at the front of the line that led to the refreshments table. He flashed his… certificate… thing again at the villain nearest him: a man who looked fairly normal in all respects, aside from his left arm, which was absolutely enormous. Invisi-Bill held up his hand to initiate the Earth custom known as "high-fiving" and the guy with the big left hand, apparently without thinking, smacked it enthusiastically.
Big mistake. Invisi-Bill's weight was too light, and Big Left Hand Guy's strength was too great. Pfft. Anyone could have calculated that. The force of his gigantic high-five sent Invisi-Bill flying backwards. Kid Math had to jolt towards the ceiling just to avoid being hit. Invisi-Bill crashed against the nearest wall, face twisted in shock, and slid down to the floor. There he curled into a jittery, giggling ball. But not for long. The Whammer abandoned the refreshments table and rushed to his side to examine him for signs of injury. Or at least to hoist him to his feet.
"No problem, just doing my job," WordGirl coughed, still rubbing her throat with her hand. Huggy chirped uncertainly and took her by the other arm. WordGirl gave herself a shake. Then, picking him up, she floated along the edge of the room. Rex drifted after them, fists to his hips. The public display of affection between the excitable villain and his co-worker was quite befuddling, to say the least. But if WordGirl didn't have a problem with it, then he supposed he could extend this Invisi-Bill character the benefit of the doubt too.
Still, he hung back to observe in silence as WordGirl one-sidedly chatted up the second of Dr. Two-Brains' henchmen over by a storage closet. The taller of the pair, who held a loop of tiny light bulbs on a cord in his hand and looked very uncomfortable to be standing there alone. Rex had already met him before, as Kid Math, so another introduction wasn't really necessary.
"WordGirl?" he blurted as soon as the two had exchanged good-byes. "What's Adderall?"
She turned, holding one hand to Huggy's shoulder as he adjusted his weight on her back. "Oh. Right. Adderall is a medicine that helps a person focus better. For example, you just met Invisi-Bill. He may have the power to turn himself and the clothes he wears completely invisible, but he's a terrible criminal who would never succeed at a crime if he acted on his own, because his hyperactivity makes it difficult for him to focus. Thanks to his scattered attention span, he tends to blab things out and reveal himself right in the middle of completing a crime. It makes him pretty easy to catch, especially compared to his dad…" Her eyes zoned out, lost in thought.
"Oh." Rex's puzzled frown deepened even further. "But, uh… isn't Invisi-Bill a criminal? Maybe even a supervillain?"
WordGirl blinked and looked over at him again. "Yes. Why?"
His hand moved behind his head. "Well, by letting Invisi-Bill use this medicine that helps him focus on his crimes, aren't we just helping him become a better criminal?"
"Yes- NO!" She shifted backwards, shaking her hands back and forth as though trying to get him to stop in his tracks. The music on the karaoke machine shifted at the same time, splashing the world with jagged stars. Rex frowned and gestured towards her with one finger.
"But didn't you just say Invisi-Bill's lack of focus is the only thing keeping him from becoming a master criminal?"
"And if we're superheroes…" Rex's brows pinched together. He shifted his eyes between his upturned palms. "… and they're the villains… Shouldn't we take advantage of every opportunity we can in order to stop them from committing crimes?"
WordGirl groaned. She lifted just one hand and Huggy clung more tightly to her neck. "Listen, Rex. From a completely logical standpoint, no, maybe it doesn't make sense. Still, I'm capable of besting Invisi-Bill with or without his Adderall, and I know you will be too. He'd just try to rob the pharmacy anyway if we didn't give it to him, and he'd probably knock everything on the floor and cause a lot of unnecessary chaos in the process. The point is, I asked the city to pay for all his medicine because it's the right thing to do."
"Not in the long run." Unable to stop himself, Rex clenched his fists at his sides. "WordGirl, this system is completely nonsensical." He swung one arm forward in a cutting motion. "Criminals shouldn't have nice things in jail! They shouldn't get any rewards if they're going to break the law! If this Adderall thingie is something Invisi-Bill wants, then he shouldn't be allowed to have it unless he actually gives up committing crimes forever. He should have to, I don't know, successfully pass at least six months without doing anything wrong before we give him anything nice, and we should get to take it away from him whenever he goes to jail!"
"It would be nice if he'd give up on crime," WordGirl agreed, actually sounding wistful. Her fingertips came together. "But the way I see it, I think it's important that we don't treat the medicine that can help improve somebody's life like it's a reward for good behavior. Having the chance to live a healthy, somewhat normal existence, even if you happen to have superpowers, is a right everyone deserve just by being a person."
"I'M a person!" Rex slapped his hands to his chest. He knew he was yelling, and that heads were turning in their direction, but it was so illogical. "How does him getting better at committing crimes help me? Us? The heroes of the city? We're the good guys! Why are you playing for their team?"
WordGirl gazed at him for a long moment, bobbing slowly up and down in the air. Rex clenched his teeth and threw his stare at the ground. It was too bright. It was too loud. Her hands dropped to her waist, fingers still interlocked.
"Here's my interpretation of things, Kid Math. Being a good superhero isn't about doing what sounds like the most logical thing in your head. It's really about being kind to others using the logic of your heart. That's what makes you a true hero."
Raising his head again, Rex squinted. His hand moved to his chest. "But, uh… Now I'm lost. What does a heart have to do with logic? It's just the organ that pumps your blood."
"Never mind." As she floated past him and in the general direction of The Butcher, WordGirl patted him on the head. "You'll understand when you're older."
Older? Rex crossed his arms and scowled at the flapping tail of her cheerful yellow cape. Was that even fair? By the Hexagonian calendar, he was 51 years old now. On her actual home planet, she'd only be 7. So logically…
He sighed, lowering his head. Even he knew he was getting cranky. He couldn't help it; he could really use a break from all this socializing stuff. It was too hot, too loud, too bright in here anyway. And the more he thought about how hot, loud, and bright it was, the more antsy he felt about it. Half-shielding his face, Rex slipped along the wall. He slunk past the potted plants, beneath the blinded windows, and all the way around to the double doors that guarded the hallway on the opposite side of the meeting hall… lobby… whatever this place was. When WordGirl wasn't watching, or at least he thought she wasn't, he bolted through the doors. The hinges squealed. Thump, thump went the wood behind him.
No one was in the hall, but he could hear water running nearby. Rex spurred himself onward. A public boys' restroom? Oh, that was perfect. He dove inside and shut the door with his back. There was still carpet beneath his feet. A large, tattered couch shaped like a perfect right angle absorbed most of the corner opposite the door. Cracked mirrors crowded the walls- so many of them that just looking at himself made him dizzy. Hm. What was the point of the sitting room half of the bathroom if the motel owners were just going to let it fall to ruin? Oh, well. Leaning his head against the door, Rex let out a soft sigh.
"Ah, geez. All those noises, all those shapes… They really wear on you. Even on a superhero. I know I haven't even been here half an hour, but boy, I could sure use a break."
"Oh," said another voice. It was young (male, of course) and about Rex's age. He blinked and opened his eyes. The sitting area in this much-too-fancy-for-a-seedy-motel bathroom was empty. But when Rex pushed himself off the ground and floated towards the other doorway, he found someone washing their hands at the sink in the next room. The, uh… tiled, dirtier part of the room, where the actual bathroom activities happened.
Hmm. It was that taller blond boy who built the giant robots and always tried to wreck random city buildings. What was his name again? Oooh. Tobey. Theodore McCallister the Third, in fact, which was a number, which was a welcome relief. Their gazes met in the mirror. Tobey pushed his glasses up with his middle finger and twisted around for the first time. His hands went to his bowtie.
"Tobey," Rex tried to say. It came out in a bit of a squeak. He braced his hands against the door behind him. They touched a paper flyer of some sort, which he bunched up out of instinct.
"Erm…" Tobey's eyes searched up and down his costume. He reached one hand forward, palm upturned, but he seemed to be blanking on his name. "Yes, right. You know, I heard tell that you and WordGirl would be… making an appearance tonight. You're late. Let's take a look here. I see you remember me just fine. Now, MathBoy, was it?"
Rex's smile was shaky, but the question was familiar, and not a difficult one to answer. "Uh, MathBoy? Ha! Ha ha. No, that is not my name, civilian! You see-" And with that, he flew into the air, thrusting his fist high. It almost hit the freckled ceiling tiles. "I'm Kid Math! Here from the planet Hexagon to solve all the unbalanced inequalities in the city, and order all your criminal operations back within the lines of justice!"
Tobey did not appear to be impressed. His other hand didn't even leave his cheek. One knuckle rubbed his nose, but that was all. "Mmhm. So, another would-be superhero who thinks he has what it takes to steal WordGirl's position someday. Tch. No offense, but I don't see how anyone could ever measure up to the likes of her."
"Actually, I'm very good at measuring," Rex assured him.
"Mm. Yes." Tobey folded his arms behind his back. Twisting on his heel, he paced to the opposite end of the bathroom. His shoes squeaked every step of the way. "Let's just review the facts now, shall we? WordGirl is amazing, and you, well…" When he chuckled, it was mirthless. "You know. Need I even go on?"
"What are you talking about? Is this about me? Because, uh, it sounded at first like this was going to be about me, and it kinda got my hopes up."
"So…" Tobey kicked one foot gently against the floor. "Kid Math. You're maybe close with WordGirl, aren't you?"
"She and I are equals," Rex said, arching his eyebrows. He pulled himself a little closer to the floor, more at Tobey's level. "We work together as partners in stopping crime."
Tobey chuckled. "Yes, of course you are. Well, what you don't know is, WordGirl has made a prior commitment with a certain boy genius." Turning around again, he brought his hands together and asked all in a rush, "So, do you think you could maybe set us up?"
"Set you up? To be together in the same place? Er…" Rex rubbed his elbow. "See, I don't feel good about doing that. Especially not without asking WordGirl first."
"Oh, Kid Math," Tobey laughed and started to pace again. "Come on now. It's for the greater good! Think of it. WordGirl and I, an afternoon alone, and all the time in the world to discuss the possibility of my going good!"
The older boy stopped walking behind him, standing between Rex and the door. Rex hesitated, glancing up to watch their reflections in the nearest mirror. Tobey seemed… nice. He was smiling, after all. Rex glanced away, scratching his head. "Well, I mean, I guess she could maybe meet you in the park for the whole afternoon sometime. I think her schedule is mostly free this Wednesday…"
"Oh-hoh, yes! Splendid! Wednesday would be perfect." With that, Tobey cleared his throat, then straightened his bowtie. "Now then, if you will pardon me, I need to ensure that no one here dares schedule any crime this coming Wednesday afternoon! And should they cross me, then they shall have my robots to answer for!" He pronounced it robuts, with the emphasis on the first letter. With that and a chirpy "Cheerio," he disappeared with a two-fingered salute against his brow. Rex waved good-bye. The door fell shut behind him.
Rex sighed through his nostrils again and brought his hands up to squish his eyes. Silence was solitude. Not that it was total silence, no. The party was only just picking up, with the promise of a long night of noise to go. He'd probably hear it all the way from WordGirl's super secret spaceship hideout when the two of them were finally ready to call it quits. The music looked like arches. And beneath the nearby noises, he had an approximate radius of four miles to answer for. Sure, they were all little white noises. Crackling tree branches in the park, car wheels splashing through slush down a road. But all those little noises sure added up when they came at him from all different directions at once.
He sniffled before he could stop himself and rubbed his wrist across his nose. Yikes. Adjusting to life on Earth and to having superpowers for the first lasting time was hard. You know, he'd been unsure about sharing a whole city with another superhero at first (especially one with possessive, grabby hands), but now, he was just grateful he'd ended up under her wing at all. If he had to be attending a villain convention like this one all by himself, well… Let's just say, no thanks.
When he opened the restroom door to step back into the hallway, Rex found himself face to face with WordGirl. Her mouth sagged nearly to her knees, her fingers crooked in strangling position. Huggy wasn't with her. Without waiting for his sputtered explanation, she grabbed Rex by the front of his costume and hoisted him into the air.
"You set me up on a date with Tobey McCallister? In the five seconds you were left alone?"
He hesitated. "Actually, I was alone a lot longer than five seconds. And I said that maybe you could meet with him sometime to discuss the end of his villainous days. It sounded like a worthy cause."
"Oh, boy." WordGirl brought their foreheads together and smacked his lightly with her own three times while she searched for the right words to express herself. Each smack jarred his brain. Rex felt his eyes roll in both directions. When she stopped, her fingers clenched tighter. "Kid Math, he was tricking you. Tobey doesn't want to give up villainy. He wants to date me."
"Gee, uh, maybe you could define the word 'date' for me?" It was the only thing he could think to say that might urge her to calm down before she decided to crush something. Wasn't that what people sometimes did when they were upset? Crushed something?
For the first time, WordGirl seemed to realize she was holding him awkwardly in the air like that. She let go of his costume. And her hand, predictably, went against her head. You know, she seemed to put it there a lot whenever she talked to him. "When I say that Tobey McCallister wants to date me, what I mean is that he thinks he's in love with me. His plan for life is that he wants to marry me when we both grow up."
"Oh," Rex said. He thought about it a few seconds more, and a shudder wracked his body. "Ihhhck." And then he thought about it for a few seconds longer than even that. He put his hand against his mouth. "Ohh. That's why you're not happy right now. Oh."
"You think? Now who's playing for the villains' side?" Her fingers came out again, reaching halfway towards his neck, although she jerked her hands to a halt before they could close around their target. "Kk- Why would you do this to me?"
Rex glanced left, then right. "Because… Tobey asked me to?"
"Argh." WordGirl clapped one hand against her face and drew it slowly down her cheek. "No. Never mind." She rubbed her knuckles across her eyes. "I'll deal with this later."
Oh no. Oh no. She was about to express sad emotions. Here, in public, where someone might notice. Rex grabbed her arm, wrenched her forward, and clapped his hand over his mouth. Then he moved his other hand to her helmet and made as though stroking her hair. His own breathing picked up faster. He pulled her into the corner, near a yellow potted plant. "No, it's okay! Shh, shh, don't tell Grandma! It was an accident. Shh, it's okay. I'll fix it. Shh, I'll give you candy."
He perked up as a new thought snapped into his head. "Ooh, I have an idea! You can just not go! Ta-da! Problem solved! You're welcome."
"What?" WordGirl shoved him off. Rex flew backward and bumped into one of the half-broken mirrors on the wall. Not hard, but just hard enough to be confused. "I can't not go! Now he's expecting me, and he's telling everyone about it, too. I just- I don't feel comfortable betraying his trust by breaking my word, or your word, even if it is Tobey. It…" She looked away, bunching her knees closer to her chest. "It feels like lying. I can't do it. I don't want to go, but I'll need a really good excuse to get out of this, like a crime breaking out on the other side of town, because I don't want to lie, either."
Rex knit his brows. "But… you lie to people all the time. You told me we had to make excuses to everyone when it's time to change from our regular Earth kid disguises into our superhero costumes in order to protect our secret identities."
"No, no, no! It's not like that!" WordGirl collapsed on the battered sofa, dropping her head into her hands. Rex studied her curiously. A moment passed. She said nothing. Then, looking up again, she stuffed her hands beneath the armpits of her puffy coat. "2 + 2 will always be 4 to you, won't it?"
"What?" The question came so randomly that Rex almost lost his ability to levitate. He straightened himself out, albeit a bit closer to the floor. "Of course. 2 + 2 is 4, no matter what medium is used to convey such an equation. That's what makes it math. Math is reliable."
She sighed again and peeled herself off the couch. "I'm not going to let this haunt me all night. It's a party. Let's enjoy ourselves. I'll try to figure out how to cancel with Tobey tomorrow."
Rex shook his head and followed her towards the door. "You know, he's not very smart if he really thinks he'll end up marrying you, is he? I mean, of course you're going to grow up and marry me."
WordGirl froze. Her fists, which had been dangling at her sides, suddenly splayed their fingers. She did not turn around. The one wall she was facing happened to be the wall with the door, which also meant no mirrors, which also meant Rex couldn't see her face from his current angle. Scratching his wrist, he tilted his head. When WordGirl still didn't move, he took just one tiny floating step towards her.
"I mean, you are, right? It's really the only logical conclusion. I'm the only other superhero from our home solar system on this planet, and Tobey is an evil criminal, and then that boy Scoops you're always looking at on the playground doesn't like you back. So, well, my understanding is that you and me are going to be a 'thing' far away in the grown-up future. Unless it benefits us both to produce separate progeny who could marry each other instead. Ooh, I know! See, if we drop all the Earthlings somewhere else and repopulate the entire planet with Lexicon and Hexagon superchildren-"
"Stop it." WordGirl pinched her nose between two knuckles. "Just. Stop it. We're kids. I'm not going to deal with this right now."
Rex rolled his eyes all the way around until they landed back on his boot. He linked his hands behind his back and shrugged. "Yeah, all right… But if I don't find someone else first, you are going to marry me, right, WordGirl? Because I think you should know for future reference that on Hexagon, it's traditional for a groom-to-be to vanquish precisely 100 other potential suitors in front of his admiring bride, so you're going to want to prepare a list of foes for me to-"
WordGirl finally turned around. Without saying another word, she jabbed a finger into the hall. Go. Oh. Okay. Rex gave her the satisfaction of physically thrusting him out of the restroom with her hand against his back. It was rougher this time than usual. She slammed the door behind him instead of following. Rex looked at it for a minute, then knocked.
"WordGirl? I just thought I should remind you that that's the boys' bathroom. So, um. Okay, then. I guess I'll see you when you get out."
He hadn't made it far down the hallway when he spotted something very odd. All three of the ice cream cartons he'd seen earlier on the refreshment table came drifting towards him, suspended in mid-air. Hm. He could hear the slap of flip-flops on the tile and the shuffle of elegant clothes underneath the cartons, but he couldn't see them. Rex put his hands against his hips and floated into the invisible figure's way.
"Invisi-Bill? Is that you?"
The ice cream cartons stopped, dead. So did the footsteps.
"Invisi-Bill, I can see you. Well, I can see you sneaking off with all that ice cream."
The cartons lowered, slipping down as though hiding behind someone's invisible back. Rex shook his head. Then, all at once, the cartons dropped to the floor. A pair of invisible hands snatched his collar and yanked him forward. Blip! The next instant, Rex found his face smashed against Invisi-Bill's as the no-longer-invisible man shouted, "You like numbers!" in his ear. Rex saw stars, and not the kind that accompanied music in his mind's eye.
"Um. Yes?" Not that Invisi-Bill's statement was even a question.
Invisi-Bill beamed. Their glasses clacked together. Spinning around, Invisi-Bill grabbed both of Rex's wrists and dragged him down the hall in the opposite direction of the main meeting room. He left the ice cream on the floor. "Castle! Dungeon! Fortress! Go! Yay!"
Rex scrabbled for purchase on the carpet with his feet. "What?"
"You can be our other player, Math Kid! Play on BLHG's team, and fight me and Whammer with your goblins and trolls!" So excited was he, he flickered in and out of view with almost every other word. Rex finally dug his heels into the ground, and forced the villain to stop walking.
"Actually, there's, uh, important superhero business I need to attend to in the other room."
"Oh." Invisi-Bill's smile faded. He sagged forward. But, obediently, he released Rex's hand. Rex rubbed his wrist and darted away before Invisi-Bill could change his mind. His heart thudded against his bones. Or, maybe those were his lungs. Either way, he flew back into the motel lobby so fast, he slammed straight into a tall blonde woman who'd stepped into his way. Lady Redundant Woman? Probably. Super speed plus super strength meant he was the one who kept going. When the woman he rammed into fell, he accidentally flipped over and crashed into the first row of metal chairs. With all the noise, you'd think he'd just hit a train. Chuck sprang to his feet in alarm, but the first one there to help him up was actually The Butcher. Enormous hands patted down his front and back.
"Whoa. Hey, you okay there, little blue?"
"Ihh!" Rex jerked away, flapping his arms to shoo The Butcher off. "Don't handle me like I'm fragile. I'm a superhero."
"Here." Chuck bent down to pick up the Kid Math doll that had fallen from his pocket. "You dropped your stuffie. Drink a little warm milk; it'll calm your nerves. Oh wait, I guess you can't do that. You're lacking… Oh, what was that word again? You know, my mom has a special recipe-"
This was getting out of hand. Rex snatched back the doll, squeezing it in his hand. "I'm a superhero! I don't need your evil 'help,' sandwich-head!"
Chuck flinched away. The Butcher's hands flew to his chest as though in shock, and then went to Chuck's shoulders. He lifted Chuck's goggles away so Chuck could rub his reddening eyes. Rex scoffed. Villains playing nice together; what had this world come to?
Then WordGirl was there, because of course she was there, in a blur of scarlet and gold. Captain Huggyface crowned her head. "Kid Math-"
"Don't you start too!" He pulled his arm away. WordGirl's palm slapped against her head. Then, taking him by the shoulders, she twisted him around and pushed him all the way across the room, towards the refreshment table. Rex shut his mouth. Even he could sense the steam leaking from her ears.
"Listen," she said when she stopped pushing him. She even let him turn around. "I know you're new here, but I really thought we went over this a dozen times already. You were a bit direct back there. Chuck and The Butcher are sensitive people. They really take your words to heart. Kid Math, I'd really like you to try and show a little respect for everyone here tonight. Especially since this is their party, and they didn't really want to invite us in the first place."
"But it's so illogical!" His fingers curled upwards. "WordGirl, everybody here keeps committing crimes because you let them feel like they can. You let the villains of this city walk all over you, and give them anything they want as long as they're sitting tight in prison."
Her eyes turned to slits. "I wouldn't say it like that."
"First the vegan meals. Then the Adderall. All the fake and gooey niceness." Rex shook his head in absolute disbelief, and thrust his glasses higher on his nose. "It's just preposterous! Criminals don't deserve merciful treatment. They know they did something wrong. They should go to jail! They deserve justice!"
"Which is exactly what they get in prison," WordGirl said, shooting him a pointed look. "Justice. Not revenge."
Crinkling his brow, Rex fell back on his heels. He lowered his fists. "What do you mean? Aren't those two things equivalent?"
WordGirl bobbed up and down for a moment, folding one leg a bit behind her. She exchanged a look with Huggy. He chittered and shrugged in reply, then dropped from her back to the floor. Facing Rex again, WordGirl brought her hands together. "Let me put it this way. Ms. Question is a vegan. She doesn't eat meat. How do you think she would feel if she went to prison and was forced to eat meat for every meal?"
Rex looked at her, not sure he understood the question. WordGirl tried again.
"Logically, is it fair and just for Ms. Question to be force-fed food she's chosen to cut from her diet based on her personal beliefs?"
"Well…" That wasn't a good question. Rex opened and shut his mouth a few times, trying to feel for a way around it. On the one hand, he strongly believed that catering to criminals by bending over backwards to bring them their favorite elaborate meal in jail was a show of weakness, not to mention not a good system of punishment in general. But on the other, something about the idea of kicking a villain who was already down didn't sit right in his stomach. It was one thing to don his mask and fight back on the city's behalf if someone was wrecking buildings or robbing the bank. It was another to stick out his leg and deliberately trip a person who used a cane when walking, even if that person had spoken rudely to him earlier. He shrugged without saying anything further, biting his upper lip.
"And if Adderall helps Invisi-Bill manage the little parts of his day, like having normal, focused conversations with someone, and this is a change he really, really wants to make to feel better about himself and his life, then don't we as heroes owe it to him to help? We're just helping him meet a low bar that comes more naturally to you and me than it does to him." WordGirl positioned her palms so they faced each other, several inches apart. "Also, imagine our friendly, enthusiastic Invisi-Bill, but with boundaries."
Rex was not convinced. "Boundaries may be good, but at what price? He'll learn to be a better criminal!"
"Then learn to be a better hero, Kid Math."
He floated there, arms wrapped around his head, just gawking at her. No words came out of his mouth. After blinking a few times, he found he had to shake his head. His throat was tightening up, and that helped to clear it out. WordGirl folded her arms.
"Kid Math, there's a reason I've been putting you through all these training exercises since you came to Earth. Yes, maybe the villains will learn new tricks and sharpen their skills over time… Well, except Amazing Rope Guy over there."
"Aww, man! Come on!"
She shook her head. "The thing is, you're already such a capable superhero now. Imagine how much better you're going to be with a few more years of practice. You're going to learn, grow, and improve over time just like the villains do. And at the rate you're going, you'll stay a few steps ahead of all the city's criminals forever. I know you can do it."
"WordGirl, I…" His fingers slipped down to his eyes. "Mmmm!" That just sounded terrible. Still, it was all he had. Clutching his hair, he forced out the words, "That doesn't count."
"Heh heh," she said, smiling very slightly. "Math jokes. Here. Look, Kid Math. If you're going to live by a superhero's oath of respect and justice for all, you can't play favorites. Everyone in the entire city has the right to a certain amount of respect, no matter what their past."
"But they're in the wrong."
WordGirl made a frame with her fingers. "Just try to look at our justice system from their angle."
"Oh, that's not fair," Rex muttered, folding his ears to the sides of his head. "You know, I happen to really like angles. Don't ruin this for me, WordGirl."
But she went on anyhow. "Believe me, superheroes can end up in prison too. Some days, the clever villains win, and you get framed for what they did. Imagine if a day comes when you're ever accused of committing a crime and tossed into jail for the night. Do you think it would be fair and just if Warden Chalmers fed you only milk and ice cream for an entire day, even when you're lactose intolerant?"
Rex did not remove his fingers, although he did lower his gaze. "Mm… I estimate that you want me to say 'No', don't you now? No, I suppose it most certainly would not be fair and just if Warden Chalmers did such a thing to me. Dairy upsets my stomach something awful."
"'No' is kind of the answer I'm looking for, so yes. See what I mean?" WordGirl took hold of his shoulders and rotated him around, so he faced the majority of the villains present here tonight. "How about now? Do you see it? Really see it?"
Rex looked down at the ice cream carton on the dessert table right in front of him. His head went to one side. He said nothing. Instead, he swept his attention across the meeting hall. It was holding up swell, really. Certainly, The Whammer had gotten excited and accidentally "whammed" a few chairs with his sonic blasts, but other than that, it didn't seem as though any of the villains at this convention had done any real damage to the place. Small lights on dangling cords still lined the motel's ceiling corners near the front door, although that guy who liked the ropes had somehow gotten himself tangled up in them (He now swayed from the ceiling by his foot).
One folding chair lay overturned on the floor, but everything else seemed to be flowing in a smooth order. For the most part. Villains mingled freely with one another, conversing over warm food and steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Over by Chuck and the karaoke machine, Invisi-Bill balanced on The Whammer's shoulders, babbling to Big Left Hand Guy, who just shook his head and smiled up at him. Behind them, Captain Tangent and his faithful parrot seemed to be making a tremendous effort to keep a short man with a mustache and a whistle around his neck from launching himself at Hal Hardbargain (owner of the villain supply shop by the bridge), in a blind fit of rage. Ms. Question and Mr. Big had gotten to talking, as fast as old friends. She held a plate of fruit on her fingertips, while he leaned against the frame of the front door. Just outside in the parking lot, Rex could pick up the sounds of Tobey talking to the giant robot that had carried him here. Granny May was with him, saying something about the quality of yarn in the robot's enormous scarf. Even Lady Redundant Woman had found something to do, her store clerk instincts having kicked in and prompted her to grab a mob and clean spilled hot chocolate from the ground. A round man in a yellow jumpsuit slunk around the edges of the convention, keeping quiet and making no attempt to speak to anyone.
In fact, the only ones who didn't seem to be enjoying the party were Dr. Two-Brains' henchmen, still running back and forth with boxes or messages at his command, as they'd done for most of the night. But as for everyone else, they belonged here. That much was clear in how much they laughed and smiled. This felt right to them. Membership in an exclusive club. A friendly atmosphere. Neutral territory. A respectful truce. Rex looked back and forth and drank it all in. Every sight. Every smell. Every sound.
And his eyes widened.
"Ohh! You know, I really think I get it!" He whirled around, whipping his cape behind him, and faced WordGirl with his hands clasped and eyes shining. "Criminals are people too! Even evil villains have depth in a third dimension!"
WordGirl flung out her hands. "Yes, exactly! No one is made of cardboard."
"And we need to treat everybody with respect by being sensitive to their feelings and their needs, even when we're engaged in epic battles of good vs. evil!"
"Criminals yearn to be corrected, and forcibly molded into the good and law-abiding citizens I've calculated they can be!"
"So close." WordGirl's proud, air-punching hand fell against her forehead, and Huggy mimicked the gesture with a soft slap. "We were… so close… to getting through to you. Hey, we're on the right track. I still count this as a victory."
"I never really saw it that way before," Rex murmured. His gaze dropped. Unable to stop himself, he swung around to stare at the mismatched crowd one more time. Chuck waved his arms around to attract attention and gather them all up front to the karaoke could start. Oooh! His fists went to either side of his chin. "A superhero helps everybody. Even the villains! That is, when it feels like it's right to help them."
WordGirl shrugged. "That's the honor code that I believe in living by, anyway."
Unable to contain himself any longer, Rex leaped into the air. "Haha! Yes, it all makes sense!" He zipped to Lady Redundant Woman's side (definitely because she looked like she could use some assistance and totally not because her multiplying powers were his absolute favorite). "Having trouble with that spill? Never fear! I can help you wipe it up, because I'm Kid Math!"
Lady Redundant Woman lifted her mop from the floor. "Actually, that won't be necessary. You're too late. It would be pointless and ineffective and a waste of time for you to try anything. I've already finished here. The stain has been vanquished. It's gone."
"Oh." Rex frowned, but left her alone. His enthusiasm had deflated. He began to wander. Everyone was moving towards the metal chairs. Even Invisi-Bill, Big Left Hand Guy, and The Whammer reappeared from the hallway with the ice cream. Without really meaning to, Rex ended up beside Chuck at the front of the hall. Chuck hovered nervously on the sidelines as The Whammer took the floor. His thin arms kept shivering, clutching his face and encircling his head.
So there was Rex, beside the sandwich man. There, he stood a moment beneath the karaoke screen with his arms folded, staring and staring upwards as words scrolled past in rows of endless gibberish. After The Whammer came Mr. Big, then The Butcher, then Lady Redundant Woman, and then Invisi-Bill. Rex clenched his teeth. It hurt to hear everybody sing. It was easy for them.
No one else was really dancing, but she was, all the way in the back where no one else was watching. She slid back and forth, shaking her fists in the air. Eyes squeezed shut. Tongue poking between her lips. And she looked as though she was having the best night of her week, even considering the undesirable company. Rex came over and tugged on the end of her cape.
She turned, cracking open her eyelids, but not wholly stopping her dancing. Her tongue, at least, did disappear back inside her mouth. "What's the word, Kid Math?"
"Um… I know I'm not supposed to do this. It was just a silly thought I had. You can say no. I mean, I realize it's not exactly my place to ask, because I'm Hexagonian and I'm just supposed to build bridges and design spaceships and plant grapes and things, but…" Clenching his eyes tight, he shook his head. "As part of my superhero training, would you teach me to read words, like Lexiconians do? I'll teach you how to read numbers like a Hexagonian. I mean, if you want. It's okay if you don't want to."
WordGirl's eyes softened. She lowered her swinging fists. "What brought that on?"
Rex remained silent, watching dodecahedrons and tangled coils dance across his eyes. "Uh…" He hiked up his shoulders and kicked once at the ground. "I don't know what shape I sound like when I sing. And I really want to know."
"Do you want to try the karaoke? I mean, I know they call it Villain Karaoke, but Chuck's in charge. I don't think he'll mind letting you have a turn if you ask politely."
He blinked and looked up. "But I don't know the songs and I can't read the words."
"But you do have super-hearing." WordGirl pointed at the screen dangling from the ceiling. "And I can read. If I stand back here and whisper the words, you can repeat them back as a song."
At Chuck's side, clutching the microphone in both hands, Rex asked that question again. Could he? How did this happen? Suddenly he was there, standing before practically all the known criminals in the city. They watched him with a mix of skepticism and curiosity. Waiting for him to start. Waiting for Chuck to push play on the machine, and for musical words to come out of Kid Math's mouth. In the back of the room, WordGirl and Captain Huggyface both gave him double thumbs up.
This was ridiculous. He couldn't do this- The racket of the city- Jabbering far away- The tap of Butcher's fingers- the blink of Whammer's eyelashes- There was so much- How was he possibly supposed to concentrate on a single sound in all of this-
Rex closed his eyes and forced his breathing to steady out. It jittered up again anyway.
This wasn't going to be easy. He knew that from the start. But still, he wanted to try. He was Hexagonian. There was no glory in ignoring a problem that you hadn't even attempted to puzzle out. Anything worth doing was worth doing to the best of his abilities. Even when his abilities were shaking this hard.
"Um," he said into the microphone. Invisi-Bill waved at him from the front row, swinging his legs. Big Left Hand Guy placed his namesake on the back of the man's head, slowing his happy movements to subtle fidgeting. Ms. Question arched one eyebrow. Tobey rolled his eyes, arms snugly folded in a purple sweater with a drooping collar that Granny May wouldn't stop tugging at.
"Oh, please," Rex heard the boy mutter. He pushed a fluff of blond hair away from his eyes. "Leave the karaoke to the professionals."
The Whammer's hands were already a few inches apart, poised for enthusiastic applause. Leslie had her clipboard out. Mr. Big lounged beside her with his arms behind his neck and eyes closed. In the back of the room, WordGirl made an encouraging rolling motion with both hands.
He licked his lips. "Um. So, I'm Kid Math." When he drifted to one side, the microphone shrieked. It continued shrieking until he scrambled back. "Okay. I'm here to sing. Well, I'm actually here on Earth from the planet Hexagon, and I'm going to be a superhero! Here to cancel out crime and bring evil villains along the straight path to justice!"
Nobody clapped. Somebody coughed. Rex switched the microphone to his other hand and brushed his fingers through his hair.
"Okay. I haven't finished calculating how all this karaoke works, so I'm going to keep this precise and short. The song I'm going to sing up here is one WordGirl says is from a moving picture movie that she and Huggy want to watch with me sometime soon. And yeah."
He looked over at Chuck. Chuck looked back at him, then jumped. "Oh wait, you mean now? You want me to start it now?"
Invisi-Bill made as though to spring from his chair. Big Left Hand Guy and The Whammer joined forces to keep him seated.
When Chuck started the karaoke machine, Rex turned his attention on WordGirl. She floated slightly above the rear row of chairs with the confidence of someone who'd had the song memorized since she was five years old. She cupped her hands around her mouth and, as promised, whisper-sang ahead of the beat. For a moment, Rex closed his eyes. He straightened his feet. Right.
"Bless his heart, racing from the start.
Pick him up and package him and throw him in a cart.
Now let's go. Barrel through the snow…"
"And that's…" He blinked. He blinked again. Splashes of white and shaking lines tumbled over his eyes like fallen logs clattering down a heap of firewood. They began taking up space at the bottom. They weren't even good shapes. He shook his head. "Uh… That's all I'm picking up here. Sorry, everybody."
The look on WordGirl's face morphed from hope to disbelief. Rex shifted his eyes away from her for an instant, rapidly calculating upcoming rhythms and possible rhymes. He caught Chuck staring. Erm. When Rex glanced back, he could just make out WordGirl's lips moving with extra emphasis. Huh? He squinted, blinking against the warbled motel lighting. Blood pounded in his ears. He could also hear it in his feet, and hear himself digesting, and hear everyone else digesting, and the snowflakes pattering down on all the cars in the parking lot, and it all made it so difficult to concentrate.
"With fantasy and vanity,
you'll never end up bored…
And singing is a past-time great
like a hamster on a bungee cord!"
"What?" WordGirl mouthed, throwing her arms in a shrug. Rex rolled his eyes. Okay. When Plan A fails, it's Plan B's time to shine. Simple logic. Surrendering to the music, he pumped his fist to the sky and finished with, "And that's what makes me me!"
The crowd sat in silence while the music continued to swell and swirl behind him. The Whammer and Tobey exchanged a glance, their lips pursed and eyebrows arched. Um. That was good, right? Good and respectful?
Chuck switched off the machine, and snagged back the microphone when Rex walked past him. "Well, um, everybody say thanks to Kid Math for coming up here today so we could all have a chance to meet him…"
"Bwa ha ha!" Dr. Two-Brains burst from his chair and whipped the microphone from his hand. "What is with you superheroes and your complete and utter inability to sing on key? You call that karaoke? Out of the way, rookie. Let D2B here show you how it's really done."
Rex tried to fling a grin at him, but it died before it made it far. All right. Well. That was fun to try just once. He drifted to the other side of the room, where there was a little more space and a little less noise. Comparatively speaking. After clearing the area further, he took his position in the middle, stretched his arms, and flexed his hands.
"What are you doing?" WordGirl asked, floating over next to him. Huggy leaped from her shoulder to the refreshment table. Rex tossed her that grin he'd missed before.
"Dancing! Since there aren't any villains running amok right now, I'm going to take this little opportunity to dance. By my calculations, the music will make it even more enjoyable."
WordGirl placed her hands against her hips, shaking her head in amused disbelief. "You didn't know what music was before coming to Earth, but you know how to dance?"
"Of course. We dance on Hexagon. Like this!" Without waiting for her reply, Rex grabbed WordGirl's hands and jerked her forward. She squeaked, but didn't struggle against him. He searched the floor. When they were floating, his feet didn't go down much farther than her knees. Hmm. He gave one of her legs a nudge to ease her backwards. With an ounce of hesitation, WordGirl complied. He shifted his hands to her shoulders and allowed her to hold him in a similar way. In that way, they traced the outline of a hexagon on the floor. First a large one, then a smaller one. Then a larger one again. They swung around at every corner, or sometimes he tried to twirl her beneath one arm. It was a simple dance, but one that grew exponentially faster and faster with every turn.
When he brought them both to a stop at the end of Dr. Two-Brains' song and the cheers exploded, her face had flushed pink from the rush of spinning around. Rex giggled and let go of her arm. "Of course, you know, on Hexagon, we don't actually fly while we do this dance. Gravity gets in the way. I'm only doing this because you're the taller one between the two of us and I want to lead it." He ducked behind her, popped up on her other side, and nudged between her ribs with his elbow. "For now."
"Pfft." WordGirl glanced away and flapped one hand back at him. "Yeah, I don't think so. There's no way you're going to end up taller than me. I don't think that's how it works at all."
"Hmm." Rex put his fingers to his chin and squinted just one eye. His head tipped slightly to the left, and when he spoke, it was through a sly smile. Without drifting any higher, he stretched his arm to the tallest point he could reach and waved it vaguely back and forth above her helmet. "Just playing off my knowledge of averages here, I think I'll be taller in the end. Oooh, you know what would be most practical, WordGirl? If you prepare for this inevitable eventuality by focusing your training on the more agile aspects of our superpowers. Meanwhile, I'll focus more on punching things with my own super strong fists! We'd be each other's perfect complements! No one could stop us."
"Aha, no, no." WordGirl kicked out her legs and drifted backwards. At the same time, she raised both her pointer fingers. "For something to be inevitable, it would have to be totally expected and certain to come true. You saying that you think you'll grow up to be taller than me might be your prediction, but I wouldn't say it's inevitable, no, I wouldn't say that."
Rex tilted his head a little farther, keeping both his smile and the hand on his hip in place. WordGirl stared at him for another several seconds. He let the subject drop like an exponential decline. Well, maybe he'd give her a few more months to adjust to the idea before he brought it up again.
They lingered by the refreshment table for a moment, holding plastic cups of warm soup that smelled delicious but which they weren't sure if they could safely risk drinking considering that any villain could have come along and drugged the stuff with something that might make them sick and dizzy. After the latest singer, Tobey, wrapped up his act with a moving ode to advanced robotics and the wires of the heartstrings, Rex turned his head in WordGirl's direction. Huggy was alternatively stuffing his face with meat and loading up a plate, but she had floated over to the window, watching the snowflakes tumble through the dark. Every time they passed through one of the motel's outer lights, they lit as though they glowed.
"WordGirl?" he asked, hovering up beside her.
"Can we, uh, go now? I'm done."
"Sure." She stretched her arms above her head. "It's starting to get late anyway. Thanks for 'inviting me over' so I could 'help you practice for your speech on fractals.' Wink wink."
Rex blinked. "What? I'm supposed to prepare a speech? When is this? If I have a speech to work on, why did we spend so much time here?"
WordGirl shook her head, slipping her hands into the pockets of her coat. "No, that was our cover story, remember?"
They took Huggy along (despite his half-attempted protests about leaving the food) and waved their goodbyes to anyone who looked their way. The motel's front doors swung shut behind them. Voices began to whisper behind their backs, flying from one villain to the next, as though they'd completely forgotten the two superheroes had super-hearing and all and totally could have heard them from three miles away.
"That was nice," WordGirl said, softly. She took the hood of her coat in her fists and flipped it over her helmet. "I don't get to go to as many parties as I'd like to. Getting to know the minds behind the evil schemes is one of my favorite parts of the job. I'm so happy for Invisi-Bill. And it seems like Chuck is really doing better too. The Butcher's been having a hard time since his dad Kid Potato moved into the home of retired superheroes and supervillains, and tonight was the first time in two weeks I've seen him perk up like that. Even Lady Redundant Woman looked a little chipper."
Rex exhaled, bundling his hands away in his armpits. "Well, I know I'm worn out for the next hundred days, at least. Don't invite me to another party for awhile."
"Really? Because with the New Year, I thought maybe you might want to-"
"I'm fine. This was all I needed." He paused. "But, um, WordGirl?"
"Well." He kicked a patch of snowdrift in the parking lot that hadn't yet been trampled by stomping feet. "I was just curious, but… You said before the party that you see colors for every sound, every second of the day. Right?"
"Actually, yes. My synesthesia never turns off."
"Even right now, with two of us just talking? No music?" He could still see triangular prisms and rolling cubes.
She nodded. Rex scratched behind his neck, not really sure if he was allowed to ask this, or if it was considered private, intimate information in Lexiconian culture or something. He switched which of his feet was closest to the road. "Uh. I was just wondering, but if you see colors every time you hear any sound at all, well, what color does 'Kid Math' sound like?"
She adjusted her balance as Captain Huggyface pulled himself higher up her back. "Blue, of course. Six shades of them, actually, all overlapping and spiraling together."
He bit his lip. He really probably shouldn't ask her this question, but he really wanted to. "And… Is that equal to what 'Rex' sounds like? Or is 'Rex' less than 'Kid Math?'"
There. It might break him, but he still wanted to know.
WordGirl grinned, ruffled his dark curls, then flew off instead of answering. Huggy squealed. Oh. Of course. Rex rolled his eyes at their little game and chased after her with a laugh. She spiraled back to catch him off guard from behind, and so it was. That was what they were. Just two regular, normal co-workers sparring playfully in the snowy sky, one constantly correcting his glasses and one constantly correcting the weight of her monkey. And they were equals.
Only, they were greater than equals. Greater than any mere co-workers. Friends.
Rex didn't even need to hear her sing to pin down which soft and thoughtful shape his best friend was.