The list of demands had been Cosma’s idea. She occasionally had to mind her nieces for long periods of time and had found that small children responded better to having to do their chores if they were allowed to make certain demands after long enough periods of compliance. “Just be careful you spell out anything she’s not allowed to demand ahead of time. The little monsters get very unruly if they think you’ve been acting in bad faith.”
Spelling out all of the things Fink wasn’t allowed to demand had been easy—or so Professor Venomous over-confidently, he realized now, had thought. She wasn’t allowed to demand any of the foods she was allergic to, especially not shellfish (No matter how much she begged, especially considering they’d found out she was allergic to it the hard way). She wasn’t allowed to conduct an experiment in the lab unsupervised; it was going to be a few years before Fink had the kind of fine motor control that would suffer allowing her to handle some of the more delicate materials or equipment. And by no means were they ever going back to the zoo, not since that time one of the zookeepers had taken Fink for an escaped zoo animal and tried to shoot her with a tranq dart.
Venomous had instituted the list of demands a few months ago, and so far, all had gone well. If Fink did her chores, then every other weekend she was allowed to write her latest demand on the list pinned on the front of the fridge by some of the refrigerator magnets they’d picked up the last time they were in the airport. She never really demanded anything too outlandish or beyond his ability to provide. Some of it had been, dare he say it, fun. (Vandalizing that billboard in sight of P.O.I.N.T. Headquarters had been very fun.) But today?
“You… want to go roller skating,” Venomous said blankly.
Fink grinned, showing off a mouth full of big, sharp teeth. “Yes!” One of those teeth was loose, and she whistled a little when she talked.
Venomous looked at Fink. He looked at the list, then stared around the kitchen and living room of their condo, then back to Fink. “You don’t own any roller skates,” he pointed out. “And if I get you roller skates, you’ll just outgrow them in a few months.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to go buy roller skates, Boss!” Fink protested. She puffed out her cheeks, eyes narrowed slightly. “I said I wanted to go to the skating rink!”
The skating rink. Try as he might, Venomous couldn’t quite help but twitch a little at the thought of it. Not being able to let things go was, to a certain extent, just part of being a villain, but there were some things he’d probably do better to let go of. This particular thing would be easier to let go of if he simply stayed away from any and all roller skating establishments.
“I honestly don’t know where to find any skating rinks,” Venomous tried. And it was the truth. The local skating rink when he was growing up had moved to another location about ten years ago. Not being the kind of person who frequented skating rinks, and not being the kind of villain who targeted them, Venomous had never bothered to find out where the new location was.
But Fink was not to be deterred by such a thing. “I got you covered, Boss!” She whipped out her phone, typed something on it and held it out to him, grinning. “See?”
Too late, Venomous remembered that Fink’s phone had a map app on it. She’d already taken the liberty of plotting their course; the skating rink was seven miles northwest of the condo, fifteen minutes by car in present traffic. That close, huh?
For a moment, Venomous considered telling her to think of something else to do today. He considered making up some story about why they couldn’t go to the skating rink, something involving an old arch-nemesis and a run-in with the cops. But Fink had gotten to the point where she could pretty much always tell when he was lying. Cosma’s horror stories about what her nieces did when they got “unruly” loomed in the back of his mind. And most importantly, there was the bright-eyed look of anticipation on Fink’s face…
“Alright,” he conceded. “Let’s be ready to go in half an hour.”
…that Venomous couldn’t quite bring himself to mar with disappointment. Heh, that probably had something to do with why he was a Level -7 and not a Level -10 or lower. Oh, well. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
Around forty-five minutes later, Venomous was looking at the front of the skating rink through the car windshield, and already a sense of foreboding was building within him. He couldn’t really pinpoint the source. The sun was shining; what few clouds were in the sky were thin and white, rather than gray and stormy. Nothing about the building screamed “obvious trap for villains looking to go roller skating.” But still, he was getting the same feeling he’d gotten the last time he ordered a robot from Boxmore, right before the blasted thing had fallen apart after that first hit.
There weren’t as many cars in the parking lot as he had been afraid there would be. Less people meant less chances of a meddlesome hero deciding that a villainous bioengineer and his evil minion just weren’t allowed to do normal, non-villainous things in their free time. But the fact that there were less people here than he’d expected, on a weekend of all times, might be commentary on the quality of the rink itself.
And then there was the sign.
“Come on!” Fink ran out ahead of him, stopping by the black-tinted glass doors as Venomous walked at a more sedate pace behind her, staring up at the sign all the while.
‘STARDUST’ was spelled out in big, bold Plexiglas letters. The interior of the glass was coated in silvery-blue glitter which sparkled in the daytime sun. An image of a silver disco ball shimmered just below the sign.
Well, maybe it was just a holdover from the last location.
And maybe it wasn’t.
He’d been unable to hear it from outside, but once they walked inside the rink Venomous heard clearly the music blaring over the speakers. Upbeat synth-pop that he was pretty sure he’d heard over the radio or in a club sometime around twenty years ago, just a little too loud for comfort.
The next thing Venomous was struck by after he took in the music was how dark it was. The light levels would have been more appropriate for a night club where the goal was to never get too good of a look at the person you were dancing with. For a skating rink where the presence of small children was presumably not only expected but accepted, it seemed a bit… dim.
Then there were the lights over the rink itself.
It was easy to pick out the rink. Located in a massive depression in the center of the building, surrounded by guardrails (that were spaced so that an enterprising child—say about Fink’s size—could have crawled under the lowest rung, Venomous couldn’t help but notice) and accessible only by stair, it’s not like anyone could miss it. Situated at multiple points over the rink were colored spotlights that glowed dimly on the polished, gleaming wood floor. They shone the full range of the color spectrum, slowly shifting from one end to the other. And over the center of the rink, there dangled a gigantic disco ball, from which shot beams of silver light.
Disco. Venomous glared up at the disco ball. This place just had to be disco-themed.
“Boss?” Fink tugged on his hand and pointed impatiently at a desk off to the side of the rink, near a massive display rack full of sheets and safety equipment, and a row of lockers. “Check-in’s over there.”
“Alright, alright!” In spite of recent unpleasant revelations, he could still laugh. “It’s not like it’s going to grow legs and run away!”
Manning the check-in desk was a teenager who, to put it mildly, looked bored out of his skull. Boredom wasn’t on the list of things Venomous typically associated with a skating rink, but he supposed that if you came in here every day, it was bound to lose its novelty sooner or later. The teen was dressed in clothes that Venomous could only describe as a mash-up of a disco dance floor reject pile and 80s workout clothes. Sweatband and knee-high leg warmers and long, tasseled fringe and far too much polyester. Workplace uniform, Venomous supposed. Hoped.
“Welcome to Stardust Skating Sanctuary,” the teen intoned in what was honestly the most unenthusiastic tone of voice Venomous had heard since the last time he’d snuck into Gar’s bodega in disguise. Just like the cashier in the bodega, he was busy typing away on his phone, not even looking up. “How may I help you?”
“How much does it cost to rent out a pair of children’s skates?”
Without looking up, the teen pointed backwards at a sign behind him, which read “UNDER 12—10 TECHNOS. 12 OR OLDER—15 TECHNOS.” “Linda at the skates will help you get set up,” he droned, busily typing on his phone.
Without further ado, Fink headed over to the skates rack, where a woman with four eyes and six arms was waiting with a child’s foot measuring device. For a moment, Venomous considered being offended by the cashier’s visible disinterest in paying customers, but he decided to just drop it. If he had to dress like that for work every day, he’d be done with everything, too.
Venomous handed the teen his credit card and waited, staring around the rink. At the back on the left-hand side, there were a few arcade cabinets. A trio of preteens were hanging around them, two of them squaring off at a dance machine while the third looked on. At the center of the back there was a sign for the restrooms. On the right-hand side, there was a small food court with tables set up in front of it; the aroma of fresh pizza wafted over to the check-in desk. Venomous let out a quietly relieved breath. At least there’d be somewhere for him to sit and wait while Fink was skating.
“Sir?” When Venomous turned his attention back to the teen, the latter was frowning at Fink, who was still looking for skates her size while Linda helped. “If your daughter is under four feet tall, you must accompany her into the rink.”
“Fink’s not my daughter; she’s my minion,” Venomous replied automatically. Like that would help him now.
The teen opened and shut his mouth like a fish stranded on dry land. When he found his voice again, he fixed Venomous in a flat stare and told him, “If your minion is under four feet tall, you have to accompany her into the rink,” like he had already had to explain this to far too many people. “Otherwise, she can’t skate. House rules.”
He pointed off towards the rink. When Venomous saw what he was pointing at, it was all he could do not to slap his forehead in dismay.
Off by one of the stairways down into the rink, there was a cardboard cutout. The character was decked out in inline skates, helmet, knee and elbow pads, and the sort of one-piece exercise suit that should have died with the 80s. Totally without explanation, it was a badger. It was holding its right hand about four feet off the ground, and a sign next to it read, “Boris the Badger says you must be this tall to skate by yourself. If not, ask your parents to join you!”
Venomous’s gut reaction was to refuse. He knew he’d have to put on skates to go into the rink; by no means would they make him do that. Never again. Venomous didn’t like making a complete fool out of himself in public any more than the next person.
But he’d already promised Fink that she could skate. Going back on his word now would be setting one heck of a bad example for her. Villains could double-cross their enemies any day of the week; that wasn’t just acceptable, but expected (Though if your enemy happened to be powerful or influential, perhaps not the best idea). However, villains—especially very young and inexperienced ones—really shouldn’t get the impression that double-crossing their allies was a good idea, especially not over something so trivial. Villains, real villains who didn’t traffic in things like moral ambiguity, tended to have limited social circles. You needed to be careful about just what you did with your social capital.
Of course, the chances of Fink, young as she was, doing anything but scrunching her face up in confusion if he spoke to her about ‘social capital,’ were close to nil, but the principle stood. Venomous really did slap his forehead this time. “Alright,” he muttered. “One child and one adult.”
By the time Venomous made his way over to the fitting area for skates, Fink appeared to be almost done finding something that fit her. They were down to two pairs of skates.
One of which was inline.
“Not the inline,” he vetoed, before Fink could say anything. “They’re too difficult to balance on. You’ll fall.”
Fink’s red eyes opened wide in indignation. “I will not!”
“You’ve never worn skates before. The inline skates are too advanced for you. You’re not wearing them.”
Fink stuck her tongue out at him, but grabbed the quad skates and went to wait on a bench by the rink, back turned to him.
“Do you have men’s quad skates in a size 10?” Venomous asked Linda. “I’m not picky about the color.”
Linda nodded. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Oh, sir? Is your daughter—“
“She’s my minion, not my daughter.”
Linda glared at him with all four eyes. “If your minion is less than seven years old, she’ll have to wear a helmet. Is she less than seven years old?”
Venomous had designed Fink to have stronger bones than nearly anyone she would ever encounter; the only reason they weren’t stronger was because his research suggested that that could lead to… problems. The likelihood of Fink ever winding up with broken bones or a skull fracture was close to zero. However, her soft tissue and internal organs were no sturdier than the average, healthy human’s. Going out on the rink without a helmet could still end poorly for her.
He weighed all that against one very important caveat: Fink’s ears. The helmet didn’t have any holes, so Fink’s ears would be completely covered, and she wouldn’t be able to hear a thing. There was also a risk of damage to her ears if they were pressed flat against her head for too long.
“She’s older than seven,” Venomous lied, and decided they’d just have to take their chances. He could stop her from taking a serious fall without much difficulty.
Linda looked less than convinced, but rather than trying to argue the point, she held out a key on a hot pink spiral bracelet. “Here is the key to a locker, so you won’t have to leave your shoes or any of your valuables out in the open. Now, if you’ll come with me, I think we can find skates for you…”
A short while later, Venomous had his skates (hot pink, again) and went over to where Fink was waiting. Well, sulking would be a better word for it. She glowered up at him when he approached. “I could’ve done it,” Fink groused, crossing her arms over her chest.
“If you do alright with the quad skates and we ever come back here, I’ll let you try them then. For now, you need to start off with something more stable.”
To show just how little she thought of that, Fink made what was, honestly, an impressively grotesque face. Venomous had seen corpses still trapped in a death rictus that were more pleasant to look at than that.
He smiled slightly. “Keep it up. Your face might stick that way.”
Fink beamed, anger apparently forgotten. “You think so?”
Since another rule was that skates were not to be worn outside of the rink itself, they took their skates down into said rink. There were about thirty people using it, a near-even mix of children and adults, but the rink was large enough that it was fairly easy to find a quiet spot to sit down and get their skates on.
These are stiff, Venomous thought to himself as he struggled to get his skates on and laced. Apparently this particular pair of skates hadn’t been worn that often. That seemed a bit unlikely, considering there had only been ten pairs of skates in his size to start with, but perhaps they were new.
A faint odor of sweat clung to the cool air here, accompanied by shoe leather and a very weak pine-scented air freshener. Venomous wasn’t entirely sure how that was even possible, but the music was even louder here than it had been up above, so loud that it was making his teeth chatter. He spared a concerned glance for Fink—her hearing was much keener than the average human’s, after all—but inexplicably, she seemed unbothered. I suppose I should have her ears examined the next time we go to the doctor’s, he thought wryly.
Most of the rink was lined with a guardrail that, Venomous supposed (and hoped it was strong enough to serve the purpose), was meant to aid fallen skaters in getting back up. The only place with a break in the guardrails, asides from the access points at the stairways, was almost directly across from where he and Fink were sitting.
Painted on the wall, there was a smiling tiger dressed much the same as ‘Boris’ upstairs. Off to its left, a large sign read:
TAMMY THE TIGER SAYS SAFETY ROCKS!
Tammy’s Safety Rules:
No pushing or shoving
No biting or clawing
No food or drinks on the rink
No use of superpowers
No duels to the death
ESPECIALLY no ray guns
Stardust Skating Sanctuary is designated neutral territory for heroes and villains, as well as assorted sidekicks, apprentices, minions, henchmen, and robotic servants. So everyone remember to get along and have fun!
Neutral territory? Well, at least that minimized the chances of some trigger-happy hero or their trigger-happy sidekick to take a potshot at them. Venomous tapped Fink’s shoulder and pointed out the sign. “Have you read the safety rules yet?”
When Fink got to the end of the sign, she made another face, though this one looked more like she’d swallowed a lemon than done an impression of a death rictus. “Oh, not that again! So we can’t mess with any heroes even if they’re hogging the rink?!”
“Not unless you want to get kicked out—and never let back in.” Venomous smiled thinly down at her. However, if a hero tries to hassle you, I’ll hardly be angry if you give them what they gave you, and twice again.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Boss, I will,” Fink assured him.
All too soon, the moment of truth arrived. Venomous got to his feet, slowly, very slowly, clutching the guardrail in a death grip. He put as much weight as possible on his feet, willing them not to roll out from under him. Suddenly, he was finding himself inundated with a flood of memories from earlier years, none of them entirely pleasant. Ever so slowly, he began to remove his hand from the rail.
Fink, on the other hand, pushed off of the wall with all the confidence of someone who had no doubt of her success. She whirled around on her skates, cackling like someone who was plotting to take the world hostage with a doomsday weapon (One day. One day). “What were you worried about? This is easy! See me—oof!”
Of course she had fallen over. Planted face-first onto the flood, to be precise. Whoever was in charge of things upstairs loved punishing people for overconfidence, especially if they were villains. But before Venomous could even try to make his way over to her, she was right back up again, undaunted, and rocketing around on the skates.
I wonder if she even knows how to brake. But still, he smiled a little. Now, to let go of the guardrail…
He took a few tentative strides forward on the skates, careful not to stray too far from the rail. The floor must have been waxed just that morning; Venomous could see his face reflected there all too clearly, furrowed brow and clenched jaw. It was entirely too slick for his liking; every time he moved forwards, it was like trying to walk down a sidewalk coated in ice without falling over.
Venomous bit back a frustrated growl and moved away from the rail. He could walk around in go-go boots all day without a problem; why should roller skates (quad skates, too, not inline) be any different?
His first thought, after a few hesitant strokes, was that this wasn’t so bad. Certainly, it was beer than the last time, though that was hardly an achievement to applaud. With only a few minor hiccups, he could keep his balance without much trouble—this rink was level, and that certainly helped. He wasn’t going very fast—not like Fink, who was currently racing (as much as her short legs allowed) around the rink, with the other skaters scooting out of her way. Going that fast wasn’t the name of the game. Staying upright was.
This… wasn’t so bad. It was never going to be good, per se, but it wasn’t so bad.
His ankles wobbled ominously.
History taught a lesson that still held true in present day: once his ankles began to wobble, it was all over. He was not going to regain control, was not miraculously going to find himself steady again. It was all downhill from here. Still, Venomous tried to steady himself. Tried to stop, in vain.
Why did the ground always rush up to meet him so quickly, so hard? Venomous knew how the laws of gravity and inertia worked; he had paid attention in high school science classes. Still, it didn’t seem quite fair that the landing should be so unforgiving. At least he had landed flat on his back instead of landing on his face or his leg.
“You okay?” Fink called from the other side of the rink.
Venomous waved a hand weakly in her general direction. The light above shone blue, then purple, then black. “I’m fine.” The music seemed even louder than before; he nearly had to shout to hear himself over it. “Just keep on doing what you’re doing.” The silver disco ball was just barely in his field of vision. He scowled up at it, as though it was responsible for his fall.
The skates were not going to beat him. If he had to wear them, he would master them. If he could bioengineer a person like Fink, he could roller skate. Small children could do it; it only stood to reason that he could, too.
The second fall came maybe three minutes after the first.
The third fall came around thirty seconds after the second. Thrusting his arm out in front of his face was the only thing that kept Venomous from face-planting right onto the gleaming floor. This time, he didn’t get up. He really couldn’t be bothered. He just stayed where he was, lying face-down on the floor, his bones vibrating roughly in time to the music.
Before he could spend too much time enjoying his new career as a man-shaped roadblock, Fink skated over to him. Venomous could feel her poke his back cautiously. “Boss? You okay?”
“I’m dying,” he moaned.
A few more pokes followed that, more insistent. “You’re not dying,” Fink retorted. She prodded between his shoulder blades with her fingertips. “You just fell over!”
“I’m dying,” he insisted, struggling to keep laughter out of his voice and instead adopt a suitably morose tone. “Avenge me, Fink.”
“On what?” She jabbed her finger into his back. “The floor?”
Fink began to poke his back incessantly, until maintaining the ruse would have just been completely ridiculous, and, not without some reluctance, Venomous sat back up. He brushed his hair out of his face and grimaced down at her. Fink regarded him with a deliberately neutral look on her face, before that neutral look broke into a grin and she began poking his chest, hard.
Venomous batted her hand away. “Alright! Have some mercy on your creator; I’ve never taken to this as well as you have.”
Fink mimed at poking him one last time, but pulled her hand away, that grin still affixed to her face. “Have you ever been here before, Boss?”
He shook his head. “Can’t say that I have.”
It wasn’t a lie. The local rink had only been in this location for around ten years, after all. He’d never set foot in this building before today. It was good that he didn’t have to lie to her. Fink would have been able to tell, and there were some things he wasn’t ready to explain to her. When she was older, perhaps, but not now, when she still possessed a child’s black-and-white understanding of the world.
Mercifully, Fink didn’t pick up on any evasion of his. She merely raised an eyebrow and asked, “So I guess you can’t skate that great, huh?”
“I’m afraid not.” Leave aside the fact that if you wanted to learn to roller skate, there were more places to do it than just the skating rink. You didn’t often see an adult learning to roller skate on a sidewalk; outside of sports competitions and skating rinks, you didn’t often see an adult roller skating, period.
Fink regarded him in silence for a moment, before breaking into another grin. “I can show you how!”
Venomous tilted his head downwards and stared dubiously at her. “Says the girl who’s been roller skating for all of fifteen minutes.”
“I can!” Fink insisted, putting her hands on her hips. “You’re always telling me we gotta try new things. Just trust me.”
And she’d said it. There went the death knell of any chance Venomous had of just sitting this one out, clanging so loudly that suddenly the music didn’t seem so loud after all. It was not use that the ‘gotta try new things’ Fink referred to had much more to do with trying to get her to eat foods she was unfamiliar with than with anything else. With little to no confidence of his ability to stay upright, he got back to his feet. Oh, well. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. At least no one he knew happened to be at the rink today to watch him fail repeatedly.
Fink grabbed his hand in her own and set off down the length of the rink. “See?” She laughed. “It’s easy once you get the hang of it!”
It really wasn’t, but it was hardly going to hurt him to just let her have this. It wasn’t always the kid who needed to learn new things.