JUSTICE LEAGUE

21

Ghosts
 

The next day, they held a small ceremony in the trophy room. Photographs of the fallen five decorated a small alcove by a window. Some gave speech and some raged against fate. Oreo Avenger hugged Rosma as she cried. Tears started pricking her eyes and--no. No crying. Tears never brought back the dead.

There came a point where everyone was silent. It felt like the ceremony was over, but no one wanted to be alone just yet.

"That's enough of this," Pinzz said. She launched herself out of the nearest window to resume her search for Neomatrix. The alien hadn't been seen since before the Oscars.

Most people went their separate ways. Rosma, X-Raytor, and Oreo Avenger retired to the rec room. Someone had thoughtfully put out snacks. Or left them out from yesterday. Whatever.

"Cheese!" X-Raytor said, pouncing on the plate.

"Ugh," Oreo Avenger said. "I don't even want to look at cheese for another," she paused, "three and a half weeks."

Rosma and X-Raytor looked at her oddly, but the doorbell ringing interrupted whatever they were going to say. And it rang again. Ring! Ring! RingringringringringRING!

"I'll get it!" Oreo Avenger flew it the door. It'd better not be another reporter. Those vultures had been circling all day, trying to get something to rival Deborah Walters-Thompson's report. The next one that showed up was going to spend the rest of their life as a...a...well, something suitably horrible. Especially any reporters with bouncy hair. She opened the door.

A tall boy jumped as the door opened, pulled his finger out of his nose and struck a pose. It probably was intended as heroic, but it looked like someone had just punched him in his center of gravity. The primary-colored Spandex didn't help much either.

"I have chosen to lend my superpowers to the Justice League!" His attitude dropped when he saw who answered the door. "You're Oreo Avenger! OhmiGOD! Do you know Studmuffin?"

She sighed. "What do you want?"

He struck another pose, not quite as painful as the first. "They call me Typho and I want to join the Justice League!"

"Typho like the disease?"

"No, like 'typhoon'. Like I'll beat them, typhoon style!"

"Listen kid," Oreo Avenger started. The kid who was, if anything, a couple years older than her, stopped flexing his muscles. "You don't want to join."

"I do too!" he whined. "I saw you guys at the Oscars! It was awesome. Like Bam! Pow! Whack!"

Oreo Avenger stared at the kid. Only one coherent thought worked through her brain. "How did you see us at the Oscars?"

"There's this new DVD! Superheros Gone Wild! All kinds of wicked cool fighting! And there's ten bonus hours! That wild Mardi Gras footage was something else. X-Raytor's such a freak! And you and that Pinzz girl..." he trailed off, eyes glazed over.

"We're not getting any royalties for anything like that!" She shook her head. "I mean...Typho? Wake up Typho!" She smacked him. He jumped. "So what are your superpowers?"

He struck yet another pose. "I am totally badass."

Oreo Avenger slammed the door in his face. "I'm going to bake a cake!" she yelled to the rest of the Headquarters.

***

Xiao was distraught. She had sat through the little service for the others, and retreated to her room, wanting to be alone, but she also was desperately hoping for someone-anyone- to come through that door, and rescue her. Save her from herself.... Her thoughts were spinning wildly out of control- flipping from the deaths of her friends, herself, and...Fred.

She wasn't quite sure how to deal with the demon. While inside, she felt afraid, and weak, she tried to keep a strong front, so Fred wouldn't...wouldn't know, wouldn't try.....she felt fear, its coppery taste filling her mouth. How could she be here, alive, breathing, moving around, when Scarlett and Violet and the others...were gone? They had been so much braver than she. Xiao had been half-full of jealousy of the others, and they had been stronger. They had fought to save people, and ideals, while Xiao had allowed an evil demon to take over her shadow, and, at times, her body, who threatened the lives of millions- if he ever got the chance, he would...

She felt ashamed for herself, for her horrible choices in life. How could she have been so selfish, as to let Fred.....take her....

Her thoughts were disjointed, and she lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling. The ringing of the doorbell interrupted her thoughts, and she sat up, startled. As she moved, her shadow followed her. Xiao stared at it for a long time, hoping Fred was not about to say anything. She knew now, that silly as he might seem at times, he was dangerous. What if he took her over again, and no one knew? What if...if he took control, and she never got her body back? Fred was strong, very strong now. She hadn't imagined how much just a few weak souls could do to raise his power. Or maybe he had been that way from the beginning, and was only pretending, playing a game. With her here, at the Justice League, he could keep an eye out for any activity that might hinder his mission, watch for anyone who might be a challenge to his power.

The shadow didn't do anything unnatural, and so Xiao stood and left her room, shutting the door behind her.

In the rec room, X-Raytor and Rosma were there, laughing about something on tv. Xiao flopped down onto the floor nearby to watch a taped re-run of The Late Show. She felt uncomfortable for a moment (they hate me....?). It was hard to keep Fred's words out of her mind- she wondered, for a moment, if he was pushing the thoughts to her, or if they were just guilt thoughts.

Xiao shook herself mentally, and tried to focus her attention on the screen, and finally managed.

That night, Xiao removed herself from the others- she had tried to surround herself so she would forget, if only for a little while, her shadow. It was hard, to see it reflected everywhere. Even when Fred wasn't active in her shadow, it was different from the others. It was slow to follow her movement, and it wasn't quite shaped to her. If she looked at it just right, it was bulkier, and taller--a man's shadow, rather than a woman's. She wondered if the shadow were just a little darker, she tried to think what he was thinking right now...

Xiao dreaded sleep, when Fred would coil around her, and speak to her, trying to kindle a spark of jealousy in her again for things she had never had, and would never....like power, and strength. And part of her remembered the fight with Magic Finger, how amazing she had been.

All you have to do is help me...

What would have happened if Magic Finger had been absorbed? If Fred had satiated his hunger, his desire for an evil soul?

She felt like laughing, at herself she thought, but she knew if she started, the laughter would never stop. It would just keep coming, until she heard his voice, promising relief....everything would be okay... And she knew, eventually, if things kept up, her heart would say no, but her mind would say "Yes." No matter how many times she wanted to say no, it would always come out as yes for him.

***

Poke. Poke. "Oreo, wake up."

"Go away," she tried to say, but it came out more like "Gnoww."

"I mean it. If you don't open your eyes I'm going to kick you."

Oreo Avenger opened her eyes but quickly squinted them back shut. Standing over her was Raven, lit by the fluorescent lamp. "What are you doing in my room?"

"You're in the kitchen."

She opened her eyes once again. Indeed, she was in the kitchen. She must have fallen asleep while working on that new Oreo recipe. With a wet schlup, she lifted her head from the countertop. A mixture of drool, cocoa powder and tears had stuck it there.

"Raven," she said, "it's the middle of the night. Why are you in the kitchen."

The younger girl raised her eyebrow. "What are you doing in the kitchen?"

"I asked first!"

"Fine. I needed a glass of milk. What's your excuse?"

Oreo Avenger gestured to the ingredients loading down the counter. "I'm making a new kind of Oreo! One with a timer. Seeing Paper Kut again got me thinking. Why do my Oreos have to work until another Oreo cancels them out? A timed cookie would mean that we wouldn't have supervillians hunting us down for revenge and stuff."

"If you want to talk..." Raven started.

"I'd go to some therapist like Dr. Lansky. Now there's only five more hours until sunrise and I need to make some muffins for breakfast."

"Um..." Raven chewed her lower lip. "You can wake up early to bake and get some sleep."

"I CAN SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD!" Oreo Avenger turned her back and started slamming cupboard doors. Raven waited a few moments before leaving, her glass of milk forgotten.

Oreo Avenger waited until she heard Raven's footsteps on the stairs before she let herself wipe away the tears. Now, muffins. They still had some leftover blueberries from the pancakes. It would be perfect. Just the thing to perk up depressed superheroes. She reached for the cookbook. What looked like a disembodied face floated past the window.

"Ack!" She creamed, flying into the air.

The head was equally as startled. It darted from side to side, unable to decide where to run. Oh, it was attached to a body. Oreo Avenger looked closer.

"Son of a--Typho, what the hell are you doing out there?" She opened the window and he crawled in. As soon as his black Spandex came into the light, they turned their normal primary colors.

"Well, I saw a light on and thought there might be trouble."

Oreo Avenger dragged him out of her kitchen, towards the front door. "Just go home."

Very briefly, a trace of sadness flickered over his face. "I already did today."

She stopped her dragging. "Um, I guess you can sleep on the rec room couch. Eric sits on it without wearing pants, but it's reasonably clean."

"Nah, I'll just hang out with you."

"Actually, I was just going to bed." She saw him smile and open his mouth. "And before you say anything, no, you can't come with me."

Typho, with the help of Oreo Avenger, got settled onto the couch. Before she left him alone however, she turned on the security system for the room. Anyone trying to leave would be met with a forcefield and 1,000 volts. Then she went into her own room. Maybe now she was tired enough to sleep without those nightmares.

***

The complex crumbled around me; I just sat there and closed my eyes....hoping, hoping.....that somehow someone would find me....

***

ARRRRGGHHH!!!"

The primal yell pierced the stillness of the night as shards of bark and splinters flew.

Isomorphix looked at the battered form of the tree before him and couldn't help but see the faces of the fallen.

The fallen.

They had fought bravely and died. And where was he? Sprawled on the grass, lying unconscious. Useless.

"You know what Iso? You think you're such a f***ing hard ass- if you had been here a few minutes earlier, Violet would still be alive. Not that you care anyway- you know how much she liked you, don't you? And you just turned your nose up at her, you arrogant son of a bitch!"

" ... if you had been here ... "

" ... would have still been alive ... "


X-Raytor's words echoed repeatedly in his mind. The anger boiled up inside him again as the grip on his katana tightened.

They are dead while I still live. I did nothing! I should have fought and died as one of them... yet I live.

Useless.


The pent up rage loosed itself once more as Isomorphix assaulted the already ripped tree. Cutting about three-fourths through its base, he delivered a firm sidekick to the upper end. With a great dying moan, it crashed to the ground, upsetting the tranquility of the night once again.

Isomorphix dropped to all fours, breathing heavily.

"You know, killing trees isn't going to bring them back..."

Isomorphix whipped his head around to see Oreo Avenger standing at the edge of the woods, looking at him. Her face had a solemn look to it, and from the swollen look about her eyes it seemed that she had been recently crying.

"What do you want?" Isomorphix gruffed, picking himself up.

"I was just about to go to bed... and I heard noises outside," she replied softly.

Isomorphix didn't reply, but instead turned his head up towards the sky. The heavens were beautiful tonight: A full moon and a pinch of stars spread across a midnight blue sky. A slight wisp of clouds added to the serenity. It was the mirror opposite of what Isomorphix was feeling.

"Useless..." Iso whispered into the night.

"You really ought to get some sleep..." came Oreo's voice from behind him.

His gaze didn't falter, Oreo's words seeming to slip by him. A cold breeze picked up, blowing through their clothes and chilling them to the bone.

Isomorphix could hear Oreo shuddering behind him. She wasn't leaving.

"I'll be fine. Go inside. It's cold out here," Isomorphix said flatly.

About ten minutes passed until he heard footsteps, first distinctly, then growing faint.

The moonlight poured into the crater created by Jarhead, filling it with sinister dancing shadows as the forest swayed in the breeze.

" ... if you had been here ... "

Clutching the wrapped grip of his sword, Isomorphix eyed the adjacent tree.

"ARRRRAGGGGHHHH!!!"

***

Dr. John Lansky tapped his pen with just a little bit of impatience against his note pad. There were only two lines written on it- preliminary notes about his patient. The rest was blank; the session was not going very well. He let out an inaudible sigh and glanced around his office- his wooden desk with the swivel light, his framed diploma from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and under that, the framed picture of himself and two of his classmates, Don Grace and Tathagata Rajagopalachari, and covering that unbearable stain, a photo of his older brother, Philip, outside of his office in Winetka Falls, New York. The window, with the shades drawn. And, of course, the long couch in front of him, and the black-clad figure flopped on it.

X-Raytor looked at his hands, clasped over his chest. Or, at least, seemed to. Dr. Lansky could never tell, with that stupid mask on. He had filled an entire note pad with speculation on why X-Raytor constantly wore it (“perhaps he considers the mask to be his face,” “perhaps he sees the mask as an emotional shield, blocking him from the outside world”), but X-Raytor, as with all things, hadn’t helped him in figuring it out.

After two more minutes, Dr. Lansky couldn’t take the silence anymore. “Are you sure, X-Raytor, that there’s nothing you want to talk about?”

X-Raytor flexed his fingers distractedly. “Not really.”

“And why is that?”

“Nothing to talk about.”

Dr. Lansky cocked an eyebrow. “Although it’s your choice to tell me what you want, I can’t exactly believe that. I do, you know, watch the news.”

X-Raytor stopped drumming his fingers. “Well-“

The Brad Pitt look-alike… the Head Honcho… grinned. “That was called a hologram. This is called a trap. And I’m calling you dead.”

“No,” X-Raytor said. “Nothing.”

“Are you-“

“I’m sure.” X-Raytor said. “Are we done?”

Dr. Lansky frowned. “I only ask because some of your fellow League members have come to me with some, ah, concerns,”

That got X-Raytor’s attention. “Concerns?”

“Yes. About the situation at the Oscars, the suicide of, um…”

“Scarlett,” X-Raytor said.

Dr. Lansky leaned forward. “You seem to be able to say the name pretty easily. How are you handling Ms. Fyre’s untimely, ah, departure?”

X-Raytor jerked back. So, you’re trying to trick me into talking? You prick, if it weren’t for the others, I wouldn’t have to see you in the first place. I bet that diploma’s fake too, you f***ing quack- your @#%$ ADD treatment is already wearing off. I bet you wouldn’t even be able to handle all the s*** I could tell you, you son of a bitch. “Well, sure, Dr. Lansky, I’ve got some things to tell you. Try this on for size- I had to see four of my friends get slaughtered while some f***ing Brad Pitt look-alike yutz stood around laughing and, oh yeah, sicked an army of heavily armed thugs on a theater full of civilians. Oh, and did I mention that I blew a guy’s face off? Plus, I got the lovely surprise that Scarlett had committed suicide- two seconds, might I add, before I went through with my own suicide, and- and Violet, and- M.O.R.P.H.Z. and the possibility that my f***ing uncle is still alive, and I haven’t talked to Cara since the show because I’ve been so messed up, and I think that if I don’t see her soon I’m going to go nuts- and, and, AND I had to remember everything, every F***ING thing that happened when I was sixteen, and, and, and F***!”

And, of course, there was the overwhelming fact that he wasn’t dealing with Scarlett’s suicide well. Not at all. He broke down every time he heard “Sweet Home Alabama” now, for Christ’s sake!

“X-Raytor?” Dr. Lansky pressed.

“Yeah,” He said, trying to just let the words come out on their own. “I- yeah.”

“Yes…?”

“No, no,” X-Raytor shook his head, tried to clear his mind. “I meant no. I haven’t been dealing with it all that well. Scarlett- or, or Violet.”

“Violet…” Dr. Lansky said. For a moment, X-Raytor thought he was trying to trick him into saying the name again, but then Lansky began to flip through his notes. “Violet… Princess? Holli…something?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said. “Was that her name? Holli? …No, wait, I knew that. Okay, okay.”

“Can you be specific about why you aren’t, uh… dealing?”

X-Raytor chewed his lower lip under his mask. “I- uh. It’s just…”

“Were you, what’s the term?, ‘involved’ with either of them?”

“What? No!” X-Raytor winced. “No, I mean. It’s just… I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Do you think, maybe, this has anything to do with that subconscious affection trait we talked about?” Dr. Lansky asked, scribbling furiously.

“What, that thing where I fall in love with every girl I hang around for more than two minutes?”

“Subconsciously.” Dr. Lansky said.

“Yeah, okay, whatever. It happens on both levels for me, you know.”

“Hmm,” Dr. Lansky said.

“What?” X-Raytor said.

“Nothing.”

“It’s true.”

“I’m not trying to analyze you,” Dr. Lansky said. “But it would seem that you’ve been acting more on the subconscious level for the time I’ve known you. Is there some sort of emotional-“

“I thought you said you weren’t trying to analyze me, Doc,” X-Raytor said.

Dr. Lansky nodded, and backed off.

X-Raytor sighed. “Well, maybe that whole subconscious thing was going on… Christ. Scarlett, Violet. I must have a thing about colors, huh?”

“Would you consider ‘Oreo’ a color?” Dr. Lansky asked, writing.

X-Raytor sat up and looked directly at Dr. Lansky. “Don’t even start with that.”

“Well, you do tal-“

“She’s the only one who can control me, alright?!” X-Raytor snapped. “She turned me into a girl once! I’m scared of her, for Christ’s sake! That’s it!”

Dr. Lansky shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

“It is!”

“I’m simply agreeing with you, John.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Sorry. X-Raytor.”

X-Raytor sat up. “Are we done now.”

“If you want.”

“Yeah, I, uh, I’ve got stuff to do. Important super hero stuff, and all that.”

“Of course. I’ll see you for our next appointment.”

“Yeah, sure. Later, Doc.”

The door closed behind him and Dr. Lansky frowned. He glanced down at his hastily scribbled notes- he’d have to recopy them, for clarity’s sake.

After all, this would all make excellent material for his book.

**********************************************

When X-Raytor tried to call the Disney/Fair Dinkum Productions studio on the other side of the city (where the fourth season of “So Weird” was being filmed), all he got was a crabby security guard or something who said X-Raytor sounded like he had a sock over his head, and then hung up.

X-Raytor dropped the receiver and frowned. “My mask does not make me look like I have a sock on my head!”

Eric walked in from the kitchen. “GAH! Come quick! It’s the dastardly Sock Head Man!”

“It’s me!” X-Raytor said. “And how does his look like a sock? It’s black!”

“Of course it’s black!” Eric said. “Because you’re evil!”

“I am not!”

“Are too, Evil Sock Head Man!”

“At least I wear clothes!”

“Clothes are overrated!”

Pinzz came down the stairs. “Your lives are overrated.” She muttered, and walked to the fridge.

“At least she didn’t make a mom joke…” X-Raytor said.

Eric quickly shoved Ian, King of Unparalleled Nastiness, out the window before he could fill the mom joke gap.

“No!” Someone said from down the hall.

“Uh oh…” X-Raytor mumbled.

“No!” Oreo Avenger said, walking into the rec room. Behind her, her newly attained, primary-color-adorned tag along, Typho. X-Raytor didn’t like him, mostly because he reminded him a lot of himself. Plus, he had stolen the extremely cool power of being bad ass. X-Raytor secretly fumed in jealousy at that- Why didn’t I think of that?

Maybe Oreo would turn him into a girl…

Oreo Avenger spotted X-Raytor and grinned. “Typho! Look! It’s X-Raytor!”

Beneath his mask, X-Raytor’s face took on a look of abject horror, but it was too late.

“Hey! X-Raytor!” Typho said. “ ‘Sup, G?”

X-Raytor considered saying, “Just chillin’ in da hood, my brotha, how ‘bout you, homes?” but decided it would be best not to encourage him.

“Uh, hi, Typho.”

“Yeah, the man with the x-rays! Lookin’ large!”

X-Raytor nodded slowly. “That’s great, Typho. That’s- yeah. Listen, I have to make a call…”

“Who are you calling?” Typho asked, leaning forwards.

“…Someone…”

“His giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirlfriend!” Oreo Avenger said from the kitchen.

“Really?!” Typho practically yelped. “Who is it?”

“She’s not my girlfriend,” X-Raytor said sullenly. “Well… not yet, at least. She’s just a girl, who I, uh,”

“Cough! Worship! Cough!” Pinzz said. Eric looked at her oddly and offered her a cough drop.

“ ‘Worship’?” Typho repeated. “Like, as in a kinky, demonic cult? Are you all in it? DO YOU WORSHIP THE RESURRECTED WITCH GODDESS OF THE GATEWAY?!”

Silence.

“Wow!” Eric said suddenly. “He is badass!”

“Really?!” Typho asked.

Behind Typho’s back, X-Raytor made a cutting motion across his throat. Eric didn’t exactly get the message, but he got confused enough trying to figure it out that he forgot to feed Typho’s ego.

The phone rang, but this time, the security guard or whatever picked it up and immediately hung up. Huh. They must have had caller ID. So… what now? He could just forget about Cara, and waited until she called him like she’d said, or whatever. Or, if he was really impatient and needy and, well, obsessed, he could go down to the set right now and try to see her.

“Er, okay, everybody, I have to go out for a second,” He paused. “And do something that is in no way related to the phone call I was about to make or the person concerned within. Nope. Not at. All.”

“Hey, Eric,” Pinzz said. “Could you pass the stalker?”

“What?”

“I said, could you pass the cheese?”

Oreo Avenger grimaced and backed away from the table.

“Can I come?” Typho asked.

X-Raytor stared at him for a second. “Um, no. Hey, maybe you can help Oreo with her new cookie recipe!”

Typho brightened and Oreo gave X-Raytor the death-glare.

“Okay, well, I’ll take the Jet,” X-Raytor said. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Try not to crash it!” Eric called helpfully.

“If you see Neomattress, tell him I’m going to gut him like a fish!” Pinzz added cheerfully.

“Will do,” X-Raytor said, and walked down the hall to the hangar.

“Boy, he’s a wacky guy!” Typho said, grinning.

“Yeah, that’s the word I’d use,” Oreo Avenger said. “Or something very, very close to that.”

“He must be, what, the coolest member?” Typho said.

Pinzz snorted. “Oh, he’s cool all right.”

For a moment Typho was confused, and then he seemed to realize it was sarcasm and laughed. “Yeah, he’s like, such a loser.”

“I wouldn’t say loser,” Oreo Avenger said. “He’s more like… winning-impaired… I think the perfect one, though, would be…”

“Clinically depressed?” Eric supplied.

“A big whining baby in spandex?” Pinzz said.

“I was going to say Holden Caulfield-ish, but yeah, I guess those two work into that.”

“How would you describe me?” Typho asked.

Oreo stared at him for a moment, and then shook her head. “Nah, it’s too easy.”

“What?”

“Oh, nothing! Nothing at all!”

“Typho…” Pinzz said. “You know, if you want to be a real help around here, why don’t you go, um… try to find the Invisible Jet!”

Typho’s eyes widened. “There’s an Invisible Jet?”

“Yeah,” Eric said. “But no one can find it.”

“Does this mean I get to go in the hangar?!” Typho grinned widely.

Oreo, Pinzz, and Eric exchanged looks.

“Sounds good to me.” Eric said. Pinzz gave him the death-glare.

Oreo said. “Actually, Typho, I think we lost the Invisible Jet in the, uh…”

“Back yard…” Pinzz said.

Typho frowned. “The back yard? But isn’t that, like, a big crater now?”

“And a few miles of woods!” Oreo Avenger said cheerfully, shoving him out the front door, and locking it behind him.

“Remind me to never let anyone sleep on our couch ever again,” She mumbled.

**********************************************

X-Raytor frowned when he saw the security booth, and the portly guard inside. Not because he was worried about getting by it, oh no. It was just that, well, why the hell did every set have a tollbooth-like structure out front, occupied by a portly, male Caucasian security guard, who was either bald or balding, and always with brown hair? Maybe every studio just hired an actor to play the part of the portly security guard… in fact, now that he looked at him, this guard did look a bit like the one from “Animaniacs.”

Only, you know, real.

X-Raytor blinked, and shook his head clear. Yeah, Dr. Lansky’s ADD cure was definitely wearing off. But X-Raytor would never, ever tell anyone. Ever. He would rather be locked in a room with Typho than have to watch “Richard Simmons: X-Posed!” ever again.

And, seriously, shouldn’t they have discontinued that movie? Especially after the Load of Darkness (insert stupid, cloak-wearing teenager theme music here), and his daughter (X-Raytor shivered) had killed the famed aerobics instructor. Which, of course, is why that stupid bridge was named after him, when it should have been the… X-Raytor Pre-Memorial Bridge! Yeah! Booyah!

X-Raytor looked around. Where was he again?

Oh yeah.

X-Raytor continued to walk towards the boundaries of the set, glancing at the Disney, Fair Dinkum Productions and Sugar Entertainment signs. He didn’t see the name of the show anywhere but, clearly, if they had put a big “So Weird” sign up, the set would be flooded. Which, of course, is why the show was moved to 3:30 AM. Because of all the fans. Yeah. The actual set was surrounded by a chain link fence, with hedges grown behind it so that you couldn’t see what was going on on the other side. This wasn’t the actual filming set, after all- more like “So Weird” HQ during filming- where all the trailers and junk were.

But it was making a comeback now, that was obvious! X-Raytor giggled to himself. So, some of those nasty letters he’d sent to Disney had worked. He was a bit worried about what this meant for his Goddess’ character on “Boston Public” (he was still, of course, waiting for her to dump the guy who had made her pregnant, turn to the camera and say “Joh-“ er… “X-Raytor is the only man for me!”) but, hey, he had his “So Weird” back, right? He was worried though- would Disney tone down their original ideas? Nix the “Rainbow” plot? MAKE HILARY DUFF AND SHIA LABOEUF MANDATORY GUEST STARS?!

It was about then that X-Raytor walked into the security booth. The guard (who was definitely a real life version of the guy from “Animaniacs”) glanced down at him. “Was wonderin’ when you’d stop walkin’.” He said.

X-Raytor rubbed his forehead and stood up. He had to stop ending up in the same room as that Lord of Darkness kid… it was definitely rubbing off.

“Uh, hi, I’m X-Raytor, famed super hero and member of the Justice League!”

The guard flicked a crumb off of his shirt. “Uh huh.”

“You may have seen me on the news recently. You may have a teenage daughter who hangs posters of me in her room and bows before them, swearing off all men until the day that I realize that we are destined to be together. You may have seen me in that EconoCleaner commercial last year as well!”

The guard leaned forward, sticking his head out of the booth window. “Lissen, buddy, you know how many people I have comin’ here everyday in costume, tryin’ to get on set cause they’re ‘in the Justice League’?”

X-Raytor blinked. “Uh, but I really am X-Raytor.”

“Sure you are.”

“Listen,” X-Raytor said, a little annoyed now. “What if I gave you a amazing demonstration of my powers?”

The guard jerked his thumb at the tollgate, which was pierced by a pair of scorched holes. “I’ve already had some of you Trekkies comin’ up with your little makeshift phasers attached to your faces. And I swear, if you burn any part of this booth, I’m gonna feed you that mask.”

“B-but I am X-Raytor!” He said.

The guard smirked. “Lissen, if you’re X-Raytor, why don’tcha look through my pants and tell me if I’m wearing boxers or briefs?”

“Because of the all-too-likely chance I’ll have to see sweaty, fat, security guard undies?”

The guard glared. “Get outta here before I call the cops!”

“Listen, I’m sure I have some sort identification around here some-“ X-Raytor stopped when he remembered that his costume didn’t have pockets. “Uh…”

“Leave,” The guard grunted. “NOW!”

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving!” X-Raytor said, walking away. “Sheesh!”

When he returned to the Justice Jet, X-Raytor tried to devise a new plan.

“Maybe if I land the Justice Jet on top of his stupid booth he’ll believe me.” X-Raytor muttered. “But I bet some Trekkie already did that. You can find schematics for anything these days- the Nebuchadnezzar, the Justice Jet, game show stages in the mall (but only if some foolish carpenter leaves them lying around)…” He sighed. “Maybe I should just wait until she… I don’t know, calls me or something. What other option is there?”

X-Raytor looked over at the row of lockers along the nearest wall, and he froze. There was another option…

“Oh man…” X-Raytor moaned.

A few minutes later, X-Raytor walked back to the booth. Without his costume.

He had put on a pair of casual street clothes- jeans and a t-shirt, sneakers. And on his face… nothing. Nothing except a pair of sunglasses, with tin foil in the lenses- similar to the ones he’d worn to the social. The feeling of the breeze against his skin… way too reminiscent of standing in front of that shattered window, right after the Oscars…

He tore his mind away from the memory. Focus on something else. How freakin’ pale he must be. Or how freakin’ pale he should be. He remembered, that time Crystal had tried to give him a make over- he wasn’t too pale then. He did take his mask off at night, after all. And sometimes, very, very rarely, in the day. But only when no one else was around, and usually up on his roof. It felt weird to have the sun on it again anyway, and he had this creeping feeling like someone was going to recognize him…


X-Raytor went rigid. What if- what if someone from his old high school saw him and recognized him? What if- what if one of his teammates or some girl he’d dated or just some random guy recognized him and-and if they brought up Ebony or Grace or- or-

He smoothed out his hair. Mask hair. Much, much worse than hat hair, seriously. Especially since he hadn’t had a hair cut in a few months. Maybe today…

“No! Focus!” He snapped at himself. A woman walking down the street gave him an odd look and he smiled weakly.

X-Raytor stuck his hands in his pockets, and then took them out. And then stuck them back in again. That still looked casual, right? No, no, of course it did. He knew that. Yeah.

…Where was he again?…

X-Raytor spun and slammed his fist into the nearest wall. His bear knuckles hit the hard, sun-roasted brick wall of an apartment building and stayed there. X-Raytor breathed heavily, closed his eyes behind his sunglasses, and tried to get it together, tried to focus.

Okay. He breathed in again. Okay.

He slowly retracted his fist from the wall, and looked down at his mangled knuckles. Blood was already seeping from the scraped and ragged skin, but it wasn’t too bad. He’d had much, much worse, anyway- like that time Crystal had slapped him and frozen his cheek at the same time. Christ, that had hurt…

X-Raytor flexed his knuckles and winced at the sting. Maybe he could wash it off when he got onto the set. And speaking of that…

X-Raytor walked up to the street corner and glanced around. The “Animaniacs” guard’s three-dimensional brother was still manning the booth, of course, and watching a mini-TV. X-Raytor shoved his hands into his pockets again, mustered up the best smile he could, and sauntered down the sidewalk towards the set.

When he reached the booth, the guard glanced up at him and nodded. “Good afternoon. You’ve got some business here, sir?”

X-Raytor flashed his smile (the “dorky smile”?) again, and stuck out his hand. “That I do. My name’s Zach Bloom and I’m here to talk to Mr. Sugar about directing an upcoming episode.”

The guard didn’t look up from his mini-TV. “No you’re not.”

X-Raytor paused for a moment, but then said, “Um, y-you’re right! I’m not! Because I’m really, uh, Rick Williams, Agent to the Stars!”

The guard brushed something off of his uniform. “No you’re not.”

X-Raytor’s face fell. “Uh… I’m Matt Kilgariff, and I-“

“Nope.”

X-Raytor clenched his fists, causing his scraped knuckle to sting, and then sagged. “I’m the nameless caterer.”

“Now that I believe,” The guard said, turning to face him. “Why didn’tcha just say so before?”

“Uh… I have an inferiority complex… about the job…”

The guard shrugged. “It happens to the best of us. Okay, you’re cleared.”

The toll-gate rose, and X-Raytor quickly walked through. Without the hedges blocking his view, the set/show HQ spanned out in front of him. It was a collection of squat buildings (which X-Raytor guessed were prop store houses), trailers, and the occasional RV. All over, people in everything from suits to T-shirts darted this way and that, talking on cell phones, reviewing clipboards, lugging large set pieces. X-Raytor didn’t see any of the actors, or anyone he recognized, until, well, he looked to his left.

“Oh… sweet… Jesus…” X-Raytor managed. His mouth had dropped in utter awe, and tears of wonder and joy began to build under his sunglasses. He had never seen anything so beautiful and now, here it was, here it was before him, at long, long last!

X-Raytor staggered forwards, and fell to his knees… in front of the Molly Phillips tour bus.

“It’s so beautiful!” He sobbed. “A customized 1991 Eagle Bus, painted blue and white with ‘MP’ on the side in flowing font! The same bus that crashed through Gabe’s fence! The same bus that Bricriu, in the guise of Jack, was on when he first showed us the Nexus!” He paused, and frowned. “The same bus that that blasphemous strumpet Annie filled with her putrid presence! Oh, you must be cleansed, dear bus, you must be cleansed! But, then again, Fi- er, Cara- has been on you! You are cleaner than clean now! You are holy once again! Oh, praise be to-“

Someone behind X-Raytor coughed. He turned around to see a man in an expensive, but relatively casual, suit, curly blond hair and round sunglasses, looking down at him, with one sandy eyebrow raised.

X-Raytor blinked and then stood up. “Uh… hi?”

“…Hi…” The man said. He tentatively held out a hand. “Steve Fulloschitz. Hollywood agent extraordinaire, and head of the casting department. If you’re here looking for work, I’m the man to talk to.” He paused. “You are an actor, right?”

“Oh, uh, of course!” X-Raytor said, shaking his hand. “That’s what I was doing! Uh… acting! Yeah!”

“Oh, good,” Steve Fulloschitz said, grinning. “I liked that little performance piece there. You know, if we do an episode with a cult or something, it’d be handy to have a guy who can play a fanatic, am I right?”

“Uh, sure!” X-Raytor said. “Yep, I sure am good at, uh, playing a fanatic! Yep! Playing.”

“That’s great.” The blond agent said, still grinning. “Say, why don’t you come over to my office so I can ask you a few questions?” He gestured towards a blue-gray trailer a few yards away.

“Uh, yeah, sure.” X-Raytor readjusted his sun glasses, and fell in step behind Steve.

“It’s like this show’s got some sorta lucky streak in it, y’know?” Steve said. “Everywhere we film, be it Vancouver or here, there’s always this big freaking local talent pool. You walk out on the street, and bam! You’ve got your entire secondary cast for an episode without breaking a sweat. I mean, some parts of this city can get a little schmutzig, no offense, but, hey, what city doesn’t?”

“I, uh, I guess that’s what we have the Justice League for.” X-Raytor said, repressing a grin.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Steve said, smiling shrewdly. “And what’s your name, again?”

X-Raytor fumbled. “Uh… I’m, uh, Chris Payne. Yeah. Chris Payne.”

“Payne, huh?” Steve said. “That a real name or a stage name?”

“Uh, real name.” X-Raytor said.

Steve stopped at the door of his trailer and unlocked it. He ushered X-Raytor in, and then closed it behind him. The trailer was small, but plush. There was a pair of cushioned chairs in the main area, and Steve pulled one over so it was facing the other. He sat down in it, and motioned for X-Raytor to do the same.

This is so cool! X-Raytor thought. I’m going to have a bit part on “So Weird”! Man, that Lord of Darkness kid would kill me now if he knew…

X-Raytor blinked under his sunglasses. Wait, shouldn’t I be looking for Cara? Why am I-

“Okay, Chris, babe, I’ll just ask you a few questions,” Steve said. “You can fill out a full resume and all that later.”

“Er, sure,” X-Raytor said.

“Okay, first off, have you done any professional acting before this?”

X-Raytor froze. “Uh… not exactly…”

Think! Think think think! What was the last play you saw?!

“Uh… I played, um, Tyrael in an amateur production of ‘To The Barricades’…” X-Raytor said.

“Really.” Steve said, nodding. “I didn’t hear about that. Where was it?”

“Uh… a place.”

“What place?”

“A local place?”

Steve raised a blond eyebrow over his round sunglasses.

“Um… we did it for a friends dinner party…” X-Raytor said. “Me and my… uh… theater group.”

“Ah, okay,” Steve said, grinning again. “What theater group is that, by the way?”

X-Raytor was starting to feel weird, like someone else was in the room, watching him. He looked involuntarily over his shoulder. “Uh… what?”

“What theater group do you belong to?”

“Um… the Dead Playwrights’ Society.”

“Okay…” Steve said. “Haven’t heard of them. Local?”

“Yeah, we’re very, uh, small. We don’t even have a website yet.”

“Alrighty,” Steve leaned back in his chair. “So, how’d you find out about our show, here?”

X-Raytor blinked. “Um… I ran into Cara DeLizia a few days ago… and, um, she told me to come over here and… yeah. I was actually, uh, going to see her, before…”

Steve nodded. “Okay. You won’t find Cara here, though. She left half-an’-hour ago.”

X-Raytor frowned. “Oh.” He got the eyes-on-his-back feeling again, and goosebumps ran up his arm. What the hell was going on here?

“Anyway,” Steve said. “How-“

There was a low beeping, and Steve dug a cell phone out of his pocket. “Oy! I forgot, sorry, this is my three thirty. Listen, come back sometime later, all right, and we can talk some serious business.”

“Um, sure!” X-Raytor said. “I- uh, thanks for, uh, seeing me.”

“No problem,” Steve said, and without another word answered his phone.

X-Raytor quickly- but quietly- left the trailer, and stood outside, shaking, for a few seconds. Why was he so jumpy? Why did he feel like-? Was this some sort of set-up? What the hell?!

“Christ,” X-Raytor mumbled. “I am going nuts…”

**********************************************

X-Raytor returned to the Justice Jet, quickly changed out of his street clothes, and put his costume back on. As he slid the mask over his face, the jumpiness he’d felt disappeared. He ran his hand over his arm, reassuringly clad in black spandex.

He flew the Jet back to the Hall of Justice, noticed the colorful dot that was Typho, wandering around in the woods, and landed it in the hangar. He walked down the hall, back into the common, room, and found Xiao and Raven on the couch, restlessly flipping through the channels. Someone, Oreo Avenger, he guessed, from the brown hair, was sitting in the recliner that didn’t face him.

Raven hit the channel on the remote control.

“Sucks.” Xiao said.

Raven changed to the next channel.

“Sucks.” Xiao said.

Raven changed to the next channel, and then dropped the controller. “There! You can’t go wrong with Sci-Fi, right?”

“Hmm…” Xiao said. She stared at the TV for few seconds, and then said, “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

Raven growled, and changed the channel again.

“Uh… hey guys,” X-Raytor said.

“Hey, X-y.” Xiao said. Followed swiftly by. “Fox Family? Are you serious?”

“Uh, should I ask why Typho is wandering around in the woods?”

Xiao grinned. “Oreo and Pinzz sent him to look for the Invisible Jet.”

“Maybe I should send you after him,” Raven muttered, changing channels. Then she glanced up at the recliner and said, “Oh, yeah, X-y, you have company.”

Cara’s head poked out from around the recliner. “Uh, hi. I tried to call but the line was busy…”

X-Raytor straightened up. “Er, hi! Yes, hi! Hello! Hey! Yo! Um… hi!” He paused. “Uh, I was just down at the set looking for you, actually…”

“Huh. I must have just missed you.” She stood up.

“So, um, yeah. Okay. Xiao and Raven haven’t scared you at all, I hope,”

“Look who’s talking,” Xiao muttered. “Wait! That channel was good!”

“Which one?” Raven asked.

“Uh… not sure. It was a few back. Try going in that direction.”

Raven sighed, and changed the channel.

“So, um, I promised you a tour, right?” X-Raytor said.

Cara shrugged. “Uh, yeah, sure! Lead the way.”

X-Raytor headed towards the far hallway, and Xiao waggled her eyebrows at him. He would have glared, if his mask hadn’t been on.

X-Raytor began his grand tour. “So, um, this is the Hall of Justice. Back there was the rec room and the kitchens, and the computer room was over to the right. We’ve got three wings- we’re heading towards the bedroom wing, and the hangar wing is in the other direction. Now, my room is on the second floor-“

“What’s in the third wing?” Cara asked.

“Um… other stuff.”

“What kind of other stuff?”

“Oh, you know, junk, old stuff, training rooms, labs, that sort of stuff. Now, the bedrooms-“

“No offense, but could we go and see the third wing?”

X-Raytor grinned hopefully beneath his mask. “Don’t you want to see my room?”

“Maybe on the next date,” She said, winking, and X-Raytor went red underneath his costume.

“I wasn’t- uh- okay, we can go to the third wing…” He walked past the entrance to the bedroom wing’s hallway. “This hallway we’re in goes all the way around the circular part of the Hall. We can get to the lower level parts of each wing from here. The stairs, as you saw, are mostly in the main area.”

“X-Raytor- that’s what you wanted me to call you, right?”

X-Raytor bit his lip. “Um, yeah. No offense or anything, but, like, the secret identity thing and all-“

“No, that’s, that’s okay,” Cara said. “Listen, um, have you been thinking about the Oscars.

Only when I’m awake. Or asleep.

“Uh, yeah, a bit.” He paused. “It’s not really something that’s easy to forget about.”

“Yeah,” Cara said. “Um, have you been, you know, having any nightmares about it, at all?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said. “Oh yeah.”

“Me too,” Cara said. “It’s, like, every time I try to go to sleep, I close my eyes and- man, I see those walls disappearing, and all those guys behind them and- and I feel myself hiding under the seats while people are running all around me, and I always feel like they’re going to crush me or suffocate me or-“ She cut off and coughed. “Christ.”

“It’s- yeah.” X-Raytor said. “I know what you mean.”

X-Raytor closed his eyes, and saw the gaping, bloody maw that had been Tony Norgate’s face.

“I know exactly what you mean,” He rubbed the back of his head. “Listen, um, if you ever want to, you know, talk about it or anything…”

“I know it doesn’t look like it right now,” Cara said. “But, I- I’d really, really rather not. I just, I wish I could…”

“Forget?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been trying to do that for years,” X-Raytor said.

Cara brushed hair from her face. “So, um, how old are you, anyway? Did you tell me this?”

“Oh, um, maybe.” X-Raytor said, glad that she had changed the subject before he’d said something stupid. “But, anyway, I’m twenty-one. I’ll be twenty-two on the thirtieth.”

“My birthday was last April,” She said. “The tenth.”

X-Raytor pretended that he didn’t already know. Because, of course, he wasn’t a creepy stalker. No, of course not.

“Are you, uh, nineteen, now?” X-Raytor asked.

“Yeah,” She said.

X-Raytor grinned beneath his mask. “Um, anyway, here’s our stop,”

He gestured at the large, steel door in front of them. The Justice League insignia was emblazoned on the front. As X-Raytor walked up, the door slid open with a hiss. The hallway inside was massive and polished, with fluorescent lights glaring down from the ceiling. Lining the hall were doors, similar to the entrance, but each had a keypad and a screen on the wall next to it.

“Wow,” Cara said. “How do you guys pay for this, again?”

“Minor government contract,” X-Raytor said. “Plus, Rosma won the lottery a few years back.”

They walked down the glowing hallway, X-Raytor pointing to each door they passed.

“That’s where we keep any special hardware,” X-Raytor said. “Blurbs, some containment devices, other stuff.”

“Containment devices?”

“Yeah, any special equipment we need to capture a super villain. The holding center is in the basement, incidentally.”

“Huh.”

“And that’s Drew’s lab,” X-Raytor pointed. “She’s probably still in there. And she doesn’t like to be disturbed- there’s a field on the door that shocks you if you try to knock.”

“Okay…”

“She’s sort of tempermental.”

“What’s that, down there?” Cara asked, squinting against the glaring lights at the door at the end of the hall. Two things made the door unusual- one, it was huge. And two, it was the only thing in the hall made of wood.

“Oh, um, that’s the Trophy Room,” X-Raytor said.

“The Trophy Room?”

“Yeah, it’s- well, it’s sort of our own personal museum…”

Cara paused a second before saying, “Can we see it?”

X-Raytor bit his lip. Did he really feel like confronting the old ghosts today? But Cara… Cara. He could go through it with Cara there.

“Sure,” X-Raytor said, and walked up the massive oak door. He punched the code into the key pad, and the door unlocked from the inside. X-Raytor turned one of the brass handles and swung it open.

“Wow.” Cara said.

“Impressive, huh?”

The Trophy Room was massive, filling both floors of its part of the wing. The floor was covered with rich, red carpet, and the walls were painted ivory. And all over the room were glass display cases of every size and shape, all holding many, many strange and wonderful things. Strange and wonderful in a “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” way, only not edible. The walls were lined with framed newspapers and photos and certificates, and the farthest wall was covered with portraits.

“What is all this stuff?” Cara asked.

“Everything.” X-Raytor said. “Everything we’ve acquired over the years, from, well, everywhere.”

“Holy- look at all of this!” Cara said. She walked around the display cases. “This is amazing!”

She stopped at a group of display cases, each with a pair of togas inside. “What’re these from?”

X-Raytor winced inside. “Oh, uh, these are from the Justice League social/toga party. There’s one display case for each couple.”

Cara looked down at the photos at the bottom of each display case. “Okay, Twisk and Eric… Oreo Avenger and Superdude,” (X-Raytor winced again at Superdude’s name)

Cara frowned. “Yours only has a plaque?”

X-Raytor glanced down at the brass plaque at the bottom of the display case. It read “PINZZ AND X-RAYTOR.”

“Um, yeah,” X-Raytor said. “We, uh, we lost the picture.”

The truth was, X-Raytor had asked for the picture to be removed- it was far, far too painful. Pinzz, of course, didn’t have any problems with getting rid of the picture, either. What she didn’t know, though, was that X-Raytor still kept it in his room, hidden in a scrapbook. Sometimes, when he was sure everyone was asleep, he would take it out and look at it, just the way he’d look at that old Justice League promo picture, and his sophomore year yearbook…

“That’s too bad,” Cara said.

“Yeah.” He paused. “But, uh, you know, me and Pinzz were just there as friends after all, and, uh, yeah.”

X-Raytor coughed, and walked over to another display case. This one was a glass box, set on a granite stand. In the case was a yellow and red mask, on top of a folded costume and a pair of gloves. Underneath was a pair of a man, wearing the costume. “This is the mask of the Spelunker, one of our earlier villains.”

Cara looked down at the mask. “ ‘The Spelunker?’”

“Well, you see, he would break into buildings through an improvised system of underground caves. Every time he escaped from jail, I had to ride around in the Justice Van with my face on the floor, looking through the streets to see if he was there. And he was an idiot, too- kept trying to rob the same building. It got to the point where all we needed to do was go inside the building, wait for him to come up through the floor, and then stomp on his head. But he kept tunneling out of jail, nevertheless.”

“So, what happened to him?”

“One day he decided to rob a different building, across the street, to throw us off.”

“And?”

“And he hit a water main.”

“Really? What happened?”

“Well, we got knocked all the way back to the cell he’d tunneled out of. The guards found him completely soaked and half-drowned. Next thing we know, he’d mailed us his costume, and a letter of resignation.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, I wish all villains were that easy to deal with.”

Cara walked over to the nearest wall, which was covered with framed newspaper clippings. In the center was a large photograph, in a very elaborate, gold-plated frame.

“Is this the original Justice League?” Cara asked.

“Yeah, this is what we were when we first started out.” X-Raytor pointed to each member. “Okay, from left to right: Rosma, Oreo Avenger, Superdude, Pinzz, Studmuffin, uh…” X-Raytor hesitated, and then skipped the next person. “Then, um, it’s… it’s, um, Scarlett, and all the way on the right there is a guy called Insipid Justice. And that’s me, kneeling in front.”

Cara frowned. “You skipped over the girl between Studmuffin and Scarlett. Who’s she?”

X-Raytor stared at the picture for a moment before responding. “She, uh, she was one of the earlier members. We don’t really talk about her that much. Just- um, just- well, she quit. Let’s just say that.”

Cara sensed that it was a touchy subject and moved on. “So, there were only nine of you to start out?”

X-Raytor shrugged. “Not really. They took this shot for publicity in, like, the second week after our founding. We hadn’t even done anything as a group yet. And then, Raven, Isomorphix, and, um, and Violet, they all joined within three days of this picture, and Xiao joined the next week. Before the month was over, Eric, Superdude, OMEGA, and DragonGirl all joined too. So, you know, by the time we actually started doing stuff, they were all there.”

Cara nodded, and looked up at the picture. And as much as X-Raytor knew she was trying not to, Cara kept glancing at the girl between Studmuffin and Scarlett…

“Here, look at this,” X-Raytor said, and led Cara over towards the far wall, the wall covered with portraits. “I usually don’t show people this, because, well, there’s a lot of old ghosts on this wall, but… here. This is our Wall of Past Members.”

Cara looked up. “Huh. I think I recognize some of these people. That’s that Insipid Justice guy you mentioned, right?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said quietly.

“And that’s definitely Super Shibes, I remember him from the newspapers, and-“ She looked at the five empty frames underneath the others, and didn’t say anything, even though she knew exactly who they were for. “So, um, when you say ‘past’…”

“Either retired or, well, past.” X-Raytor said. “Like, first there’s Insipid Justice.” X-Raytor pointed up to a portrait of a young man, in a gray costume, and a gray mask. The only remarkable thing about him was his shock of dirty-blond hair. “He, uh, he’s dead. He died a while ago, too. 2001, I think.”

You know. You know the exact date, you worthless piece of-

“Bad run-in with a supervillain,” X-Raytor said. “He wasn’t a bad guy, really, even if he was pretty dull.”

The next portrait was of a teenage girl, with red hair that went down a little below her shoulders, wearing red-tinted sunglasses over unnaturally red eyes.

“This is Firehop,” X-Raytor said. “She got kicked out of her house at seventeen, God knows why, probably because of her powers, and hopped a plane to here. She was able to generate and control fire, sort of like Scarlett, only Firehop’s was more through pyrokinesis than singing, I think. She was also very agile- I think she might have been a gymnast before, but I’m not sure.” He shrugged. “She was only with us for a little bit, and then she quit. From the stress, I guess. She turned eighteen before she left, though, so I guess she didn’t have to go to a foster home or anything. I didn’t really know her too well.”

X-Raytor sighed when he pointed to the next portrait- Super Shibes. Super Shibes was a young man with an abnormal amount of stubble on his face, and a rag-tag costume, made from a t-shirt, baggy pants, and a torn cape. “That’s Super Shibes of course, who wielded the amazing powers of ‘shadiness’, whatever that is. He came from New Jersey, I know that, and I think I once heard him say that he owned a motel, but I could be wrong. Anyway, like I told you… the other night… he, um, quit- yes, quit, clearly not kicked out- a little bit after Albuquerque and he’s now working the drive-thru at a Moobie Burger in Camden.”

“You know, he was on ’60 Minutes’ a little bit ago,” Cara said. “But you couldn’t understand what he was saying.”

“Trust me, even if you could, it wouldn’t make any sense.” X-Raytor pointed to the next portrait. “Now, here comes a sad story.”

“There’s a lot of those here, huh?”

“Yeah. Price of fame, I guess.”

The next portrait was of a teenage boy, wearing white mechanic coveralls, with a lightning bolt logo and a letter S on the front. His gloves, boots, and cape were yellow.

“This is the Shocker,” X-Raytor said. “His real name was Ryan Walton, I think. Father owned a mechanic’s shop. He had the ability to absorb, and then control and generate electricity. He could also turn himself into an electrical current and travel through power lines.”

“How does that work?” Cara asked.

X-Raytor shrugged. “Hell if I know.”

“He wasn’t with you guys for very long, huh?” Cara said. “I don’t see anything about him around here.”

“That’s because he never joined.” X-Raytor said.

“What?”

“He never got the chance. You see, he started cleaning up crime in his hometown, somewhere in Maine, and he once told reporters that he was planning on joining us. Well, Magic Finger- I’m sure you remember him- found out, and figured he didn’t need someone this powerful joining us. So he hunts this guy down, finds out he’s just a teenage kid, and kills him. Just, like, breaks into his house and kills him in his sleep. We posthumously made him an official member, as much good as that did.”

“I’m sorry I ever even asked what sucked about being a super hero,” Cara said. “This is like those stories I tell when people ask me what sucks about being in show business, just a few million times worse.”

“So, here we are,” X-Raytor said. “Two people trying to make our ways in relatively dangerous, somewhat overrated, but all-in-all important jobs. I can’t think of a more perfectly messed up couple.”

Cara smiled. “This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to ask. Why, exactly, did you have Scarlett arrange for us to meet?”

X-Raytor started sweating, but found control over his voice and said. “Well, to be honest, I’ve had the biggest, most obsessive, John, Lord of Darkness-esque crush on you for the longest time.” He paused. “Only, uh, I never made a shrine, or stood outside the ‘Boston Public’ set screaming ‘MARRY ME, MY GODDESS!’”

“Well, he is persistent,” She said. “But, yeah, not to sound stuck-up or anything, but I had a feeling that Scarlett hadn’t just set us up randomly.”

“And now you’ve got enough depressing stories to last a lifetime! Aren’t you glad?”

“You’re forgetting, I’ve been on ‘Boston Public’ for two seasons. I’ve had my share of depressing stories.”

X-Raytor laughed. “Listen, we should go out to eat sometime, have a real date. I mean, we can’t really go anywhere expensive, I don’t have a lot of money…”

Cara glanced around the room and raised an eyebrow.

“Really! In fact, there’s only one thing that you ever do get a lot of in this job.”

“What’s that?” Cara asked.

X-Raytor looked around the room, at the display cases, at the newspaper articles, at the four portraits and the five empty frames, and the sun illuminated a single silver droplet on his tinfoil eye piece.

“Ghosts.” He said.