CHAPTER 1 -- DANIEL'S BIG SECRET
My name is Frank Dexter Williams. I'm 43 years old, stand 6'1', have brown hair and brown eyes. I'm fairly average-looking, though I exercise a lot so I'm in great shape. I don't show it off though, favouring flannel shirts and looser jeans most of the time. To look at me, you wouldn't know that I'm one of the costumed crimefighters you hear about on the news. Truth be told, I don't always wear a costume anyway. You see, my body can generate an energy field that appears to be hundreds of arcs of blue lightning cascading around my body. It obscures my features while not hindering my senses or actions in any way. It also protects me from injury when it's on, so I've trained myself to activate it as soon as I'm startled. Unfortunately, if I'm attacked by surprise, I can be knocked out or injured like any normal man. The field also redirects the kinetic energy of my punches, making them pack quite a wallop. It's why the press dubbed me "Thunderfist" when I first started.
The lightning field obscures what I'm wearing so if I get caught in an emergency and I'm out of costume, I just generate the field and you can't tell if I'm wearing a three-piece suit or a speedo. I do have a blue and white costume I wear when I'm on patrol or attending a Guardian Society function. The Society is the team of heroes I've been a part of for the last two decades. I'm now considered one of the team's elder statemen, and I never really seriously considered hanging up my costume. I love the hero life too much to give it up. Costumed heroes have all kinds of reasons for getting into the "business". Some do it out of a sense of duty, guilt or responsibility. Not me. I did it for the thrill.
It was that attitude that attracted me to my late wife Angela, who was known as Shrieker. She was a beautiful heroine who could emit a loud cry that would wreak havoc on anyone unlucky enough to hear it. She was already in the Society when I joined and just as much of a thrill-seeker as me. We hit it off from the start and it didn't take long for us to become an item. Our parents thought we were both too reckless for our relationship to last but less than a year later, she left Bay Town to come live with me across the country in Crescent City. It was clear things were becoming serious between us and on the one-year anniversary of our moving in together, I popped the question. She said yes, we spent seven months planning the wedding and she became Mrs. Angela Baxter Williams in the early summer. We'd wanted a wedding in late spring but had to postpone when an alien race called the Taraxians tried to invade Earth and the Guardian Society spent a few weeks fighting them off. Even then, signs that I'd never have a normal life were apparent.
Despite the hiccup, Angela and I settled into domestic life fairly well. Neither one of us held a full-time job (I'm a writer, she was a marketing consultant, both of us freelance) so we could indulge our adventurous urges whenever it pleased us. Please note that by "adventurous", I mean as regards superhero adventures. Our sex life was what you would call "vanilla" and we both liked it that way. We made love quite often but only to each other and with very little kink. I know there are rumours that we super-types get into some pretty wild shenanigans but that wasn't the case with Angela and me. A few years after we were married, we decided it was time for us to bring on the next generation so Angela got pregnant and gave birth to my son, Daniel Alexander Williams.
Superheroes have been around since the late 1930s and my wife and I were not the first superhero couple to procreate. Studies on the children of super-powered people have shown that most of the time, they too develop powers. Said powers usually manifest as the child enters puberty but very rarely match those of their parent or parents. In that sense, Danny was typical and atypical at the same time. His power to transform his body into whatever animal he could visualize manifested very early in his life (far earlier than I was aware of, it would turn out, but more on that later). To say that this presented a challenge as a parent is an understatement. When Angela and I dropped him off at kindergarten, he had explicit instructions not to turn into anything. It can be hard to keep your temper in check when you're trying to lecture a moody child who keeps turning into a giant cobra. Admonish him for being too lazy to clean his room, find yourself facing a giant sarcastic sloth the next time to you see him.
After Danny started transforming at four years old, Angela and I did our best to raise him as normally as possible while teaching him to control his powers. In that, we were helped by another member of the Guardian Society, Spellbinder. She's a French sorceress who claims to be over 450 years old, despite still looking like a gorgeous fashion model. She's not as active a hero as other Society members because she acts as a den mother to her colleagues and is very involved in training younger supers. When I was accidentally electrocuted in a factory when I was 17, she was the one who showed me how to use the powers the accident gave me. Most of the members of the Society have similar training experiences with her so whenever we come across anyone who needs help with any sort of super ability, she's usually our first call. Actually, she tends to show up whether we call her or not.
Spellbinder took charge of teaching Danny various forms he could turn into. She visited us a lot during Danny's elementary school years and she became as close to Angela and I as I've seen her get with anyone on the team. When Danny started referring to her as "Aunt Marie" (Her real name is Marie Delacroix), we didn't correct him and Marie just seemed to accept it. Still. she's got a lot of weird habits which she's picked up in her very long life so she's not always the warmest person. And I noticed her looking at Danny sadly sometimes when she thought nobody was paying attention. At the time, I just shrugged it off as Marie being Marie, but it turned out that she was seeing something nobody else could.
Because Danny's powers had manifested so early, he was very experienced in using them by the time his eighth birthday rolled around. As a birthday present, Marie gave him a special outfit that could change shape along with him and inducted him into Youth Force, a team of young heroes she was mentoring. He took on the name "Were-Kid" and became the youngest member in the team's history. Angela and I were proud as Hell. Although I got my powers a little too late in life to be a member of the team, Angela had been a member as a teenager (as "Tantrum", which I occasionally bugged her about) and most members of the team usually joined the Guardian Society when they reached adulthood. I worried a little about how well Danny would fit in, seeing as he was younger than the others. But the members of Youth Force were good kids and they treated him like an equal in their adventures together.
A few years later, disaster struck. A giant mystical portal appeared in India and thousands of mindless super-strong creatures poured out. The Guardian Society had four members on a press tour in Japan and Angela was one of them. Starblazer, the veteran hero on the scene, decided the four should go in without waiting for the rest of the team in order to blunt the horde's advance and save the thousands of people it threatened. Unfortunately, the four were overwhelmed before the rest of the Society could get there and they were ripped to shreds. When the Guardian Society finally arrived to take on the army of creatures, I fought like a madman while hoping Angela had been taken prisoner and could be rescued. But by the time we'd beaten back the invaders, other members of the team had found what was left of her. I know sometimes we super-types are written off as dead and then we find a way to pop back up again, but this wasn't the case for my poor wife.
The funeral for her was a big deal. The President stood next to Danny and I when her casket was lowered into the ground at Heroes Hill. I was in bad shape emotionally, as you can imagine, though I kept it together for Danny's sake. Marie visited often in the months that followed, helping guide the two of us through our grief. Like her, I became a semi-active hero at best for a while. Danny, on the other hand, kept on going on adventures with Youth Force without much of a pause. Marie assured me this was part of his way of dealing with the loss and that I shouldn't worry about him. I eventually rededicated myself to my heroic career as well, though it took me more time than it had Danny. Marie still came by at least once a month to check up on us.
When Danny was a few months shy of his 15th birthday, everything turned upside down. Danny had been spending his time at home keeping more and more to himself. I attributed it to his growing up, becoming more independent. I'd discussed it with Marie who advised me to let Danny have his own space and I was doing just that. But then the Mesmer Master showed up with his latest scheme to get back at the Guardian Society for having put him in jail so many times. As you might have guessed from his name, hypnosis is his main weapon and this time out his plan was to use the Society's sidekicks and partners to get back at us. We clued in that something was wrong when Danny and some of the other members of Youth Force turned up missing after working a case. The Mesmer Master had started out as a carnival mind-reader before finding an ancient Aztec statue that had boosted his abilities tenfold. Because of that, he had a penchant for using abandoned carnivals as his hideouts, and this time was no exception. The other members of the Guardian Society and I split up to cover more ground trying to find the villain or the missing teens. I ended up in the hall of mirrors where I was confronted by a girl I'd never seen before.
She was wearing a costume almost identical to Danny's Were-Kid outfit. Tight tan top with brown sleeves, yellow gloves and boots. But where Danny wore tight brown shorts, this girl had a box pleat skirt of the same colour on instead. She had black hair like him, but you couldn't see it when he was in costume because his head was covered by an open-mouthed cowl. She, on the other hand, had a yellow facemask that covered her mouth, chin and cheeks but left her eyes, forehead, ears and hair uncovered. Pretty much the opposite of Danny's headgear. Her long straight hair, tied in a ponytail, was also markedly longer than Danny's. And where Danny was 5'7' with a somewhat scrawny build, this girl was at least six inches shorter with wider hips and the curves of a healthy girl her age.
By that point in my superheroic career, I'd encountered doppelgangers from alternate dimensions, alien impersonators, robot duplicates and the odd cosplaying super-fan, so I had no idea who or what she was. I was also aware that I could be facing my Danny that Mesmer Master had hypnotized into swapping genders as a ploy to mess with my head. Danny could impersonate other people, through he didn't do it often and hadn't, to my knowledge, practiced that aspect of his powers much. But when whoever I was facing turned into a gorilla and attacked me, I knew they had Danny's powers and combat training. I was at a disadvantage because I knew, whether she was Danny or not, this girl was acting under the Mesmer Master's influence. I didn't want to hurt her too much, but she was under no such restraints. As we battled, I noticed that she was a little slow to change from one form to another when we were at a standstill. I realized that the mind control made her slow to respond to a quick change in her surroundings. So I slammed my fists together, which created a powerful kinetic explosion that destroyed every mirror in the hall (It's a good thing I'm not superstitious or I'd have gotten a lifetime of bad luck). Unable to shift into a defensive form in time, my opponent was knocked out by the shockwave. I still didn't know who I'd been fighting as when my Danny lost consciousness, he always reverted back to his normal form but this girl remained a girl. I scooped her into my arms and made my way towards the sounds of a fight at the carnival's grand carousel. By the time I arrived, I found Agent Freedom had snuck up on the Mesmer Master and knocked him out with one punch to the jaw. The girl in my arms woke up and turned into the male Danny I was familiar with. He apologized for having fought me as the other heroes there received similar apologies from the enthralled teens they'd fought and defeated. It seemed nobody had noticed Danny's gender swap in all the confusion. Since everybody was in good spirits after the villain was taken down, I decided I would wait until we got home before I'd ask Danny about it.
Marie had been in on this case and checked the kids out at the Guardian Society's Guardhouse HQ in orbit around the Earth. She said there seemed to be no long-term effects from the Mesmer Master's influence and that the kids were okay to head home. I took her aside and asked her why Danny hadn't turned back into a boy when I'd knocked him out. She said I'd understand when the three of us got home. We used the Society's matter transporter to get to my house from orbit. When we were back in the living room, Marie bade me sit down while she took Danny's hand in hers and they both sat on the couch next to each other.
"Danielle" she said as she faced my son. "Your father needs to understand what happened with you today"
(I'd failed to notice it because of her French accent, but Marie had used the feminine form of Daniel's name.)
Now, I've seen my son take on rampaging giants, axe-wielding psychopaths, fire demons, combat robots and genocidal maniacs without blinking an eye. But I don't think I'd ever seen him look as nervous as he looked as he turned to face me and started explaining. As he spoke, he looked down at the floor or away from me, unable to meet my eyes.
"You remember a couple of years ago when the team and me took down the Kid-Catcher? All the orphans we found ended up in an orphanage. I felt bad for them, so one day I went to the attic to get the old toys we'd put away there so I could give 'em to the kids, right? Well, when I was up there, I found some of Mom's old clothes that I guess you didn't wanna give away. I was looking at some of 'em and it made me kinda sad, which I guess is a normal thing, right?"
"Yeah, I think so" I agreed. I remembered the Kid-Catcher's case as being an emotionally tough one for Youth Force because of the dozens of orphans he'd maltreated in captivity.
"So I was looking at one of her dresses" Danny continued. "And I was missing Mom. And there was the big mirror we got up there. The antique floor-length one, y'know? So I was looking in the mirror and I decided to turn into Mom and see if I could put on the dress. Just to have a few more moments with her, I guess. But of course, it didn't work because I was too small."
I should probably explain at this point that although Danny can change forms, he can't add to or decrease his mass. So when he turns into, say, a tyrannosaurus rex, he gets the scaly skin (not historically accurate, but that's how he made the form) and sharp teeth but doesn't get any bigger. Likewise, if he were to turn into a house cat, he'd still be no smaller than a full-sized cheetah. So he would have been unable to become a duplicate of his mother of the correct size until he became an adult.
"As I was looking in the mirror" Danny said, "I tried making my legs smaller so I could make the top half of my body the right size. I ended up looking pretty weird, and it didn't make me feel like I was looking at Mom like I wanted anyway. And I couldn't get the hair right. I mean, it was getting it like some of different ways I remember Mom had it. But I kept thinking it wasn't right, so I kept changing it. Then I got it straight and down to the middle of my back and I realized that's the way I wanted to have it. I know Mom's hair was always curly so mine wasn't like hers at all. But it felt right to me. So then I looked at the face and I started to change some things there too until I got them to way they were supposed to be in my mind. Not like the way Mom was, but the way that seemed right to me. And then..."
Danny looked to Marie, who have him a slight nod to get him to continue. In that moment, I realized that she wasn't hearing this story for the first time like I was. She was already privy to the secret Danny was now sharing.
"I got took off my xlothes down to my underwear and started changing other parts of my body" he went on. "I've stufied human anatomy so that I can imitate people better and some of those drawings were of women. So I used that as a starting point and I kept going and changing things and getting them to the way I felt they should be. And when I was done, I had a girl's body. I'd never thought about turning into a girl before but there I was and it felt right. When I learn a new form it takes a while before I really get comfortable with it but in this case it felt good from the start. The only problem was, I had no clothes to wear and Mom's stuff was all too big for me. But then I remembered my super-suit changed form when I did so I went to my room and put it on. And while I was doing that, it changed to fit my new body just fine, except the mask changed and the shorts turned into a skirt. Unfortunately, I had a boy's underwear on but I eventually bought some girls' undies with my allowance. Anyway, I stayed a girl for a little while until I knew you were gonna be home soon so I turned back into a boy and my costume changed back with me. A couple of days later, when it was your turn to do monitor duty on the satellite, I knew you were gonna be gone for a while so I turned into a girl again. Then when you got back, I went back to being a boy. After that, whenever I fell asleep, I woke up as a girl, so I was really careful to totally cover myself up in case you ever walked in to wake me up. And then the next time Aunt Marie came over for one of her visits, as soon as we were alone, she asked me how I liked being a girl."
"So you knew from the start?" I asked Marie.
She kept her eyes on Daniel and began gently stroking his hair as she answered "I knew long before that. The very first time I laid eyes on Danielle I knew something was unusual. The baby's energies were all wrong. I didn't know exactly how, so I didn't mention it until I could understand the child's nature. Eventually I came to see that what Carl Jung would have called her animus was too strong in her. But by that time, her powers had already exposed themselves and your family was so happy. Since Danielle was in no imminent danger, I said nothing."
"Wait a sec" I interrupted her. "How could this animus change her gender?"
"It didn't" she explained. "She used her power to do that on her own. She changed shape in the womb, François. I suspect that you and Angele were hoping for a boy when she was pregnant, yes?"
(Marie has a habit of referring to people by francophone versions of their names. That's why she called me and my wife that)