Fat raindrops splattered against the bay window, the sky outside ominously dark and rumbling. Every few seconds, a bright shock of light would rip across the sky, followed by a 'boom' that rattled the foundations of the house. Several car alarms in the neighborhood went off simultaneously at the thunder that followed, adding to the chaotic cacophony.
Richie looked out the window, wondering what Virgil thought of the weather. Knowing is best friend as well as he did, he was probably getting a kick out of it. Rain, or water in general, tended to make him short, no pun intended, but the sheer amount of electric energy in the air probably felt like a tickling massage all over his body. Virgil mentioned something as much once, when Richie walked out of the gas station to find him standing outside in a spring storm last year, holding an unfolded wire hanger high above his head, and giggling in a very undignified manner.
While all of his technology was waterproof, Richie himself was not lighting proof, and it didn't take a super genius to know that flying around with Backpack perched on his back like a lightening rod wasn't a good idea. Having been shocked more than enough for one lifetime by Virgil, accidentally or otherwise, didn't endear him to the sensation. So, he was staying in tonight - not that he had much of a choice anyway.
Shifting in his desk chair, Richie took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, feeling a crick starting to form in his neck from the awkward way he was holding the phone between his shoulder and his cheek. One of those headset things would be nice, he reflected. Maybe, if activities such as the one he was currently engaged in became commonplace, he'd see into getting one.
"Now, open the file titled 'sysram.rme'," he said into the phone, slipping his glasses back on. "It should be in the subfolder labeled 'oprfile'."
Richie's instructions were answered by silence on the other end. He waited patiently, trying not to fidget or tap his fingers restlessly. The person on the other end was doing the best he could, Richie knew. Not everyone could be a super genius. Then again, maybe not everyone should be playing around with operating protocols they didn't fully understand, but Richie wasn't going to say that.
"I've opened the file," came the quiet, gentle voice at last. Richie could almost imagine him frowning. "What should I be looking at?"
"Scroll about halfway down. You should see a line of code that starts with 'filemxcli'. Do you see that?"
A pause, then, "No."
Richie bit back a sigh, slapping his hand to his forehead. "J'onn, I don't think this is going to work," he said, switching the phone to the other ear. "The system protocols are really complex up there on the Watchtower. I don't think I can describe it without looking at it. Just how bad are the climate controls right now?"
Another voice answered his question. Clearly, the Martian Manhunter had him on speakerphone. Speaker phone would be nice, too, Richie thought, but he couldn't do that right now for the same reason he was stuck in the house and not at the gas station or Virgil's.
"It's like a desert in the gym and it's snowing in the cafeteria," said Flash, sounding far too amused. "We're thinking about starting up a snowball fight. You should come up and join us, Gear!"
"I can't," Richie said for what felt like the millionth time.
"Flash does have a point," J'onn said, "though perhaps not about the snowball fight. It may be best for you to come up to the Watchtower to correct this problem personally."
"I can't, I can't, I can't!" Richie knew he sounded like a two-year-old, but he didn't care. "I already told you I'm grounded. I'm not even supposed to be on the phone!"
"Come on!" Flash's voice got remarkably louder. He must have moved up to the speaker. "We'll beam you up, you can fix the software, build a snowfort, and be back before dinner. Nobody'll be the wiser!"
"Oh, so now the Justice League is advocating disrespect to a person's parents?" Richie said, shaking his head - not that he gave a flying flip about that, exactly. Of course, talking back to his father when the man was in one of his moods was what got Richie grounded in the first place, so he didn't particularly feel like pushing any more of the man's buttons. "Look, guys, I'm sorry, but it's just going to have to wait until next weekend. Besides, I don't trust that beaming technology."
Silence, once again. Then, J'onn cleared his throat. "Gear," he said slowly, "you designed it."
"For use in an extreme emergency only," Richie snapped, leaning back in his chair. "I still haven't calculated the long-term effects of what dematerializing can do to a person. I told you that when I sent the specs to Batman. There's too much electromagnetic energy in the air here in Dakota right now anyway. I don't want to end up on the Watchtower inside out, thank you."
"That was a risk?" Flash shouted. "Why didn't anybody tell me that was a risk?"
A thump, then a bang, and Richie suspected J'onn pushed Flash out of the way. Or punched him. "What should we do until you are able to come up to the Watchtower then?" he asked. "Perhaps you could try to walk me through it...?"
"I've been trying to walk you through it for..." Richie trailed off and glanced at the clock, then blanched. "Almost three hours! It's not going to get any better. The only thing I can suggest is to break out the mittens, rain gear, and sunblock, because you guys will simply have to learn to cope. It's not my fault somebody up there was misusing the technology to download porn!"
"Don't look at me like that, Wonder Woman!" Richie heard Flash say. "I didn't do it!"
Before anybody could respond to that, another 'boom' came from outside Richie's room, but this time it wasn't due to the weather. Looking down at the carpet, he heard the boom come again, then another, a rhythmic pounding. Then, the voice of his mother, loud enough to be heard even up at the Watchtower, drifted up from the first floor.
"Stupid!" Kick. "Piece of..." Kick. "Why does nothing..." Kick. "In this God damn house..." Kick. "...ever..." Kick. "...ing work?" Kick, kick, kick.
"Guys, I gotta go," Richie said, standing up. "My mother's either about to break the dishwasher or her foot. I'll call back later tonight and we'll try - again - to see if I can tell you how to fix it. Otherwise, well, stay frosty, I guess."
"That is not funny..." Wonder Woman started to say, but Richie disconnected the phone call with a quick jab of his thumb.
Tossing the cordless down on his desk, Richie reached under his bed and grabbed his toolkit. He opened the door to his bedroom and tromped down the sitars, heading into the kitchen. His mother stood in front of the dishwasher, still kicking it bitterly, tears of frustration making her eyes shine. He set his toolkit on the ground, then went and put his hand on her shoulder, stilling her from inflicting the machine with anymore abuse.
"I'll fix it, Mom," he said, gently pushing her aside. "Sit down, relax, and have a cup of tea or something."
"Thank you, Richie." Maggie grabbed a cup from the drying wrack on the sink, filling it with water and shoving it in the microwave. "Are you sure you can fix it?"
"It's gotta be easier than getting it not to snow in the cafeteria," Richie said softly, pulling open the dishwasher and waving off his mother's curious look. "Inside joke, Mom. Don't ask."
"I've learned not to." The microwave beeped and his mother took out the steaming cup of water, tossing a tea bag inside of it and sitting at the table.
Peering into the dishwasher, Richie saw the problem almost instantly. One of the washers had cracked and broken off, not surprising since the machine was older than him. A standard fail-safe, built into the machine to prevent the entire kitchen from flooding, had kicked in, which was why it wasn't turning on. At least that part worked. Richie didn't relish the thought of spending the rest of the evening mopping the floor.
Reaching into his toolbox, Richie grabbed a screwdriver and a replacement washer, getting everything fixed up in no time at all. It was an easy fix, nothing even his father couldn't handle, but it was just as well he did it now, before he got home. His mother spewing curses and kicking the machine would pale in comparison to his father's likely outburst at the thought of having to fix yet another broken down thing in their home.
Slamming the dishwasher closed, Richie moved the little handle over, nodding in satisfaction when the machine roared to life.
"Oh, thank goodness," his mother said, smiling at him with obvious relief. She stood up and went over to the refrigerator, grabbing a soda and tossing it to Richie, who caught it easily. "I'm so glad you fixed that before your father came home. When did you become so handy?"
"Shop class has its benefits," Richie lied through his teeth, sitting down across from his mother when she gestured to a chair. He tapped the top of his soda. He'd heard somewhere the kept it from blowing up when opened, but he didn't know if that was actually true. It might warrant some study. He popped it open with a 'fizz'.
"You took shop?" his mother asked. She frowned, then looked suddenly regretful. "I didn't know that."
Guilt coursed through Richie and he sighed softly. "No, not really," he said after a moment, staring down at his soda can. "Just, you know, sometimes things needed fixing around the community center before Mr. Hawkins got that funding from Alva Industries, so he taught me a few things."
Another lie. Always lies. Richie didn't like lying to his mother, but lately, that felt like all he ever did. His mother bought that one, though.
"Oh," she said, sounding sad, looking down at the table. "That was nice of Virgil's father to do that for you."
The silence that filled the room screamed awkwardness. Richie filled with his soda, wondering how his mother would take it if he excused himself back to his room. That was where he was supposed to be anyway, contemplating respecting one's elders and not hanging out with 'hood' friends and listening to bad music.
"I'm glad you're here," his mother said suddenly and Richie looked up at her in surprise. "Not glad you're grounded, of course, but I'm glad you're home. You're not home often enough. I've missed you."
Richie suspected his mother wasn't talking only about his extended absences from the Foley residence as of late, what with crime fighting, trips to and from the Watchtower, and general avoidance of his father at every turn. He couldn't remember the last time he and his mother sat down like this, just talking, just hanging out. They used to do it all the time when he was little, when his father wasn't home, before he started really hanging out with Virgil.
"You used to make me Mexican hot chocolate, remember?" Richie said, smiling at her, "and you'd buy those oversized marshmallows and drop them in, even though Mexican hot chocolate isn't supposed to have marshmallows."
"Hot chocolate should always have marshmallows," his mother replied with mock-sternness, waggling her finger at him. "It's a crime, otherwise."
"True, true." Richie held up his hands in defeat. "Far be it from me to argue one of the Foley Family Rules of Law."
"Damn straight," Maggie said, and she raised her teacup. Richie met it with his glass of soda, tapping it in an impromptu toast. She raised her cup in approval, then took another sip. "So, how's school going, kid?"
"Oh, not bad," Richie hedged, then decided to border on something close to honest. "It's been pretty easy, actually. The classes aren't very hard."
"You've always been very bright," his mother said, looking wistful. "I remember your teachers telling me that they thought the reason you were only pulling straight B's is because you weren't challenged enough. I wish we had the money to send you to St. Mary's."
St. Mary's was a private catholic school in the area. Richie tried to hide his cringe. While he was certain he probably would have gotten a better education at St. Mary's, prior to the Bang, anyway, he didn't relish getting his ass kicked walking home from school wearing a tie and blazer. Plus, the bible classes would be torture. He went to church on Sunday only to appease his mother.
"It's cool, Mom," Richie said. "Dakota Union High is fine. I've got plenty of friends and you've seen by my report cards that I've turned things around. Plus..." Richie gave her a wink. "I made a very fine member of Destiny's Child at last year's talent show. I doubt I would have gotten away with that at St. Mary's."
His mother laughed, nearly choking on her tea. "Yes, I remember," she said, covering her mouth with her hand. "I still have the pictures in my drawer. Thank goodness your father never saw them. Can you imagine his face? He'd get all red and... blotchy."
"'No son of mine will ever be allowed to wear pleather!'" Richie bellowed, doing his best impression of his father, which made his mother break down in a fit of amusement.
"You're such a good friend, doing that for those two girls." Maggie wiped the tears out of her eyes, still giggling. "I'm glad I was able to get off of work to see it."
"Me, too, Mom," Richie said seriously, some of his humor leaving him, replaced by an unusual sensation of gratitude.
No, she hadn't made it to every talent show, recital, science fair, or parent-teacher night, but she tried her best. Richie couldn't fault her on that. She always tried her best, not only to be supportive, but also to field his father's moods away from him. Maybe they'd lost touch a bit over the years, but that was Richie's fault as much as her own. She worked hard, sometimes pulling double-shifts and barely having a chance to breathe before it was time to go to her second job.
It was a matter of contention between her and his father that Richie noticed had been going on for as long as he could remember. His father didn't like the fact that his mother worked, felt like it was a personal failure that he couldn't provide enough for them on his own, even though, with the exception of maybe Daisy and Frieda, most of his friend's lived in dual-income households, some of them even having to get part-time jobs on the side just to keep food on the table. The old, traditional way of living had vanished in the realities of the new economy, but his father tended to be steadfast in his ways, stubborn.
His mother reached out, patting his arm, some indefinable, but good, emotion shining in her eyes. Maybe being grounded wasn't so bad, Richie thought, if it meant moments like these. For the first time in ages, he didn't feel like he needed to be somewhere else.
"Just think," his mother said, her voice tinged with nostalgia and maybe a little regret. "In just a few short years, you'll be off to college, leaving this wretched, polluted city behind."
"Well," Richie replied, not wanting to burst her bubble, "actually, I think I'm going to just go to Dakota Community College, Mom. I don't want to go too far."
His mother frowned. "Nonsense," she said, waving him off. "We have a little saved for you for college. It's not much, but it should at least get you started. You've got a lot of potential, Richie, and I don't want you squandering it. Neither your father or I got a college education. It's something we've both regretted, though I doubt you could get your father to admit that."
Richie didn't reply right away. He couldn't tell her the reason he had to stay behind was due largely in part to the continuing reemergence of Bang Babies and other metahuman-related issues. Oh, he wanted to get out of Dakota, the thought of leaving the god-forsaken pit hole behind so sweet, it made his teeth ache. But that wasn't going to happen - ever, if Virgil's vision of the future held any water. No, he was good and stuck.
But he couldn't tell her that.
"It'll be cheaper," he said instead, the half-lie, half-truth slipping through his lips as easily as water, already well practiced in front of numerous guidance counselors. "I can always decide to go to college later, if I want. For now, it'll be easier just to stay close to home."
However, not in his current home, he didn't add. That was pretty much common knowledge. The day his eighteenth birthday rolled around, Richie was outta there. His mother knew that already.
His mother looked like she wanted to say more on the issue, but dropped it, for which Richie was grateful. "I suppose you have your reasons and I'm certain they're well thought-out," she said, taking her spoon out of her teacup and setting it on the table.
"I have," Richie said with confidence tinged with regret. "It's the right choice."
The phone rang, then, the high-pitched sound startling the quiet atmosphere in the kitchen. Richie glanced at it, catching a look out the window at the same time. It had stopped raining at some point, but he hadn't even noticed.
His mother glared at the phone, but stood up to answer it. "Hello?" she said, holding the receiver to her ear.
A look of confusion crossed her face and Richie had a bad feeling. Nobody ever called their house, aside from his father's gambling buddies, collection agencies, and telemarketers. Even Virgil usually called on the shock vox, not wanting to risk getting Richie's father on the line.
"Yes, he's here, but who is this?" Maggie frowned deeply. She pulled the phone away, covering it with her hand. "Do you know somebody named 'Wally'?" she asked Richie. "He sounds too old to be a school friend of yours."
Richie did know Wally, in fact, and he was going to kill him in short order the next time he saw him. He didn't care if he could move faster than a person could blink. Richie knew he could find a way to slow down The Flash long enough to smack him around. Strange older men calling his house and asking for him was sure to raise alarm bells in his mother's mind, especially considering he thought she had some inkling of why, exactly, Richie agreed to dress up in pleather and do a number from Destiny's Child at last year's talent show.
"He's a volunteer at the community center," Richie lied quickly. "I was helping debug some new software they got there before I was grounded. He's probably just calling about that."
"I see," Maggie said in a tone that said she didn't believe him in the slightest. She uncovered the receiver. "Well, I'm sorry, but Richie can't talk right now. He's grounded."
Times like this, Richie wished super hearing was part of the package deal with his own super powers. That would be terribly useful. Instead, he had to sit there, trying to judge his mother's changing facial expression to get an idea of what stupid thing Wally was saying to her. Knowing him, he'd probably just shot to hell the lie he'd made up.
"Yes, I can understand that," Maggie was saying, pacing back and forth a bit, as far as the cord would let her, "but as I said, Richie's grounded. What is it that you need, exactly?" She paused, mid-step. "Snowball fight? But it's spring!"
"Mom, can I please talk to him?" Richie asked, standing up. "Just five minutes, I promise, and I'll get him to hang up and make sure he doesn't call back."
Maggie gave him a considering look, then held out the phone. "Five minutes," she said, her tone a warning.
Richie took the phone from her, seeing her sit back down at her chair, her eyes fixed on his back. Nope, he wasn't going to get privacy on this call, not that Richie could blame her. It did look odd.
"How did you get this number?" Richie snapped into the phone as soon as he raised it to his ear.
"Nice to hear from you too, kid," Flash answered, "and Batman. The guy knows everything. It's creepy."
"I already told you I can't mess with this right now," Richie said, speaking in a low voice. "Try putting a parka over the spandex."
"Well, the situation's gotten a little more complicated since we last chatted," Flash continued, ignoring Richie's jibe. "You see, Booster Gold..."
"Stop." Richie held up his hand, even though he knew Flash couldn't see it. "Stop, don't say anymore. Why did J'onn let him near it?"
"He didn't let him, per se..."
Richie sighed. Why, oh, why did lay people have to mess around with things they didn't understand? It was like that time his father tried to fix the car and ended up ruining the transmission beyond repair. Richie wouldn't let a plumber do brain surgery on him - why did people think technology was any different?
"How bad is it?" he asked grimly.
"We've moved past snow and into blizzard in the cafeteria and the gym... I think the walls are melting."
"Hell..." Richie took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead.
"But, the radar shows the storm over Dakota cleared out so we could, technically, beam you up," Flash went on, "although I am still a little annoyed you failed to mention that turning inside out was a risk!"
"But, I can't." Richie looked over at his mother, who was watching him with a completely blank expression on her face. "Not right now."
"Try," Flash said, oddly serious for a moment, a moment that passed too quickly. "Talk to your mom. Hey, by the way, she sounds hot. Is she hot?"
"Goodbye." Richie slammed the phone down without another word. He turned back to his mother, who still looked strangely calm. "Mom..."
"The software bug a little bigger than they thought?" she asked, taking a sip of her tea.
"You could say that." Richie walked back over to the table, picking up his empty soda ca and crushing it in his fist. "It sounds like the whole system is crashing."
"They need you."
It wasn't a question - just a statement of an undeniable fact. Richie looked at his mother in surprise, but her expression hadn't changed, except maybe growing a little more thoughtful and resigned. She pointedly looked at the clock above the stove.
"Do you think you can get back before your father gets home at two?"
Richie felt his jaw hit his chest. His mother, the peacemaker, suggesting direct defiance of his father, even though they both knew what terrible consequences that could cause? It had never happened before, not as far as Richie could remember.
"Uh, yeah," Richie said at last when she raised an eyebrow at him. "Yeah, definitely. I can be there and back again before you know it."
"I'll let you go, then." Maggie rose from her chair, circling around the table, catching up Richie in an unexpected hug. "We don't want it falling out of the sky. Be careful. Don't let them push you around or take advantage of you. Remind them that you're still just a kid."
She knew. There was no question about it. For all his lies, for all his attempts at keeping the truth from her, she knew.
His mother pulled out of the hug and tapped him on the forehead good-naturedly. "You think a green visor is going to hide the fact that you're my son? I didn't go through sixteen hours of labor, not to mention sixteen and a half years of worry, not to recognize my boy. Give your mother a little credit."
"Does..." Richie was completely floored, so remembering how to speak was proving difficult. He tried again. "Does Dad know?"
"Your father wouldn't notice if I dyed my hair green ran naked through the house," she said, rolling her eyes.
Well, I that /I mental picture wasn't going anywhere any time soon. Richie grimaced. Nope, forever ingrained in his mind from this point forward.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Richie asked her.
Maggie shrugged. "I didn't want you to worry. Now, go on with you. Your father will be home in five hours. I'll cover for you if I have to, but I'd rather not lie to him."
Richie nodded, stepping back from her. "We're going to have a long talk when I get home, aren't we."
It would be an interesting talk, that much was certain. Still, Richie was looking forward to it. Already, it felt like a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He didn't think his mother would be anything like Virgil's father, not calling them during patrol or checking up on them on a regular basis. Maggie Foley has raised an independent, nearly self-sufficient son and they both knew it.
"Thanks, Mom," Richie said earnestly. "For everything."
"You're welcome," she replied. "Now, go."
With one last look at his mother, Richie hurried up the stairs to his bedroom, fishing through the pile of dirty clothes on his bed for the signaling device that would tell the Watchtower where he was and that he was ready to be picked up. He didn't bother changing into his Gear outfit. They all knew who he was anyway.
Pushing the button, Richie closed his eyes as he felt the world pixilate out of existence around him and he sincerely hoped he wouldn't get turned inside out.