JUSTICE LEAGUE

28

The Show Must Go On
 

Doodling idly in her sketchpad, Oreo Avenger waited for the last batch of cookies to be done. Hundreds of them were already finished, gleaming in the light. She'd added a new sugar glaze to half of them. Hopefully it'd make the Oreos less breakable. She hated cleaning crumbs from the bottom of her satchel. More importantly, it should stop the Oreos from exploding. The ones she made recently, the ones with a timer, became volatile and prone to explosions. Apparently the morphing ingredients and the timing ingredients, mixed together in the crème, didn't like each other. Now they were separate; morphing formula in the crème and timing formula in the glaze.

She stepped back and looked at the doodle. It turned out to be a portrait of sorts, sketchy and unfinished, but with a definite resemblance to someone she knew.

Ack! It was Midnight Chatter! The doodle was Midnight Chatter! His mouth was open and his eyes happy, talking about whatever was on his mind. Oreo Avenger angrily shoved the sketchpad back in her satchel. Why was she thinking about him anyway? She'd tried her best to squash his heart in her fist. Turning him into a canary had been a happy accident. He hated being used as a guinea pig, and he should hate her as well.

"Mail for you!" Twisk called out, sliding an envelope under the door.

Oreo Avenger picked it up. It was heavy, expensive paper. In bright green ink, the address said Oreo Avenger, The Kitchen, Hall of Justice. There was no return address. She opened it.

A letter, folded in thirds, dropped out.

My dear Anne,
I greatly enjoyed your visit the other day, though I was saddened you had to cut it short. I would relish your company tonight for drinks at 9 PM. My Deliverymen have already extended the invitation to your dear friend Midnight Chatter and he has graciously accepted. Please invite all your friends. It will be a delightful party.
Sincerely, Charles Hunter


Oreo Avenger looked at the clock. It was already 8:30.

**********

"Here's what we do," said Pinzz from the front of the Justice Van. "We get Midnight Chatter, shut down the Deliverymen, and get out."

"And eat hors d'oeuvres!" Eric yelled.

"No! Don't eat anything!" Oreo Avenger shouted from the driver's seat. "We already went over this!"

"But the invitation said drinks," Eric whined. Beside him, Typho nodded enthusiastically.

"Eating there would be like eating one of Oreo's cookies," Rosma pointed out.

"What if there's cheese?" Typho asked.

Oreo Avenger hesitated. "Well…"

"Nothing!" Pinzz yelled.

Oreo Avenger glanced at the dashboard clock. Quarter to nine. She'd gathered as many of the Justice League as she could. It was a tight fit in the van, Netic, Eric, Typho and Xiao in the back seat, Scarlett, Rosma and X-Raytor in the middle, and Pinzz and Oreo Avenger in the front. Crystal stayed behind to monitor the city in case anything attacked

Twisk held the letter in her hand. "This is so polite. Are you sure it's a threat?"

The van screamed around a corner.

"Same to you!" X-Raytor shouted out the window.

"Absolutely," Oreo Avenger said. "Chuckles is a bastard. When we were little, he'd feed squirrels, tame them, and then cut them open to see how they worked."

The van slid to a halt a block away from their destination. The clock said 8:51.

They piled out of the van.

"Chuckles' building is that way," Oreo Avenger said, pointing. "X-Raytor, what do you see?"

He turned his head in the indicated direction. "Okay, I see it. The back door's blocked up, looks like steel and lead. There's only one door, the front, and…wow! That's a lot of people!"

"What?" Netic demanded.

"Fifty…seventy…looks like a hundred of them guarding the front door."

"Our dinner escorts," Oreo Avenger said.

"We don't have time to fight a hundred men!" Scarlett groaned.

"They're not all men," X-Raytor said. "There's one woman wearing So Weird underwear. I wonder if she'll take them off for me?"

Being nearest, Scarlett smacked him in the head.

"What? They're for my So Weird collection. Perverts."

"We have to get in that building," Oreo Avenger said. "Arg, if only we had a couple Holocaust Cloaks!"

Xiao pulled a bundle out of the back of the van. "I've got four of them here."

"Where did those come from?"

"Last time I was in Drew's lab I…liberated them."

"Now I'm getting a plan!" Oreo Avenger looked at the Justice League. "Rosma, X-Raytor, and I are going to find Midnight Chatter before Chuckles does anything to him. The rest of you are going to capture as many of these Deliverymen as possible and shut down their operation. But first, we need a distraction."

**********

Bob Sprague straightened his gold hat once again. He was the newest Division Leader in the Deliverymen; promoted after the old Division Leader suddenly had business out of the country. Three other Division Leaders stood out in the crowd, gold caps proudly marking them. He was in charge of a quarter of these people. Their mission was to guard the door against all outsiders, and if any kind of superheroes showed up, to politely yet firmly escort them upstairs. The door was solid adamantium, with only one key. They were to guard that door with their lives! That was their mission, and they would fulfill it! Through rain or sleet or dead of night, delivering products in twenty minutes or less! That was the Deliveryman motto, and Bob Sprague believed every word of it.

He watched the four figures float gently down the street towards them. They all wore robes and, arms wide, eyes blazing, voices booming in unison, they chanted "WE ARE THE CHI DANCE QUARTET! THERE WILL BE NO SURVIVORS!" They said it over and over, voices echoing and reverberating as the rage increased.

Bob, fingering his gold cap, was reasonably upset. Not that he doubted his hundred people could easily dispatch the floating figures; the upsetting thing was that, of course, the figures would be aware of that too, and logically there must be somewhere around a shadowy corner any number of floating figures. Who could tell? Still, his people held together remarkably staunchly.

Non nobis domine, domine

The Deliverymen looked around, curious where the singing came from.

Non nobis domine

Suddenly, happily, the four figures burst into flame and continued saying, "NO SURVIVORS! NO SURVIVORS!" in a manner that could only indicate deadly sincerity.

Sed nomini, sed nomini

It was seeing them happily burning and advancing that started Bob's Division to screaming. And once that happened, everybody panicked and ran.

tuo da gloriam

"Gary Condit is coming for my SOUL!" someone screamed, running away.

Bob didn't know what to do. None of the training videos covered this situation! Fortunately, he had the sense to take the only key to the building and slip it into his pocket before full panic took over. He huddled in a corner of the entryway, hoping that OJ wouldn't find him or, even worse, Jennifer Anniston.

As the singing stopped, the figures landed. They tore off their robes and one of them doused the flames with water. Bob hid his face in his hands. It was even worse than he imagined; one of the figures was naked!

Rosma, X-Raytor, and Oreo Avenger ran to Bob. "Give us the key," Rosma said.

"I have no key," Bob replied. Loyalty was very important in a Deliveryman.

"Burn his arms off," Oreo Avenger said to X-Raytor.

Underneath the mask, he grinned. His eyepieces glowed red as he readied the blasts.

"Oh, you mean this key," Bob said, pulling it out of his pocket. "I have so many it's sometimes hard to keep track."

Rosma grabbed the key and the three of them ran to the door. A couple moments later they were through.

Now was the perfect time to get away. The four formerly flaming figures were joined by two more, rounding up stray Deliverymen and throwing them into a cage one of the girls controlled. Bob slipped past, making a run for it. He tripped.

"You don't want to get away," a voice above him said.

Bob looked up and saw a girl standing above him. The voice was too deep, too male for her. She reached for him. There was something about her shadow…

The shadow chuckled, and Bob felt terror like never before. Then he felt nothing.

**********

They ran up the stairs, taking them five at a time. The elevators refused to work for the heroes. After the second, or maybe it was the seventh, flight of stairs, Oreo Avenger stopped.

"This is ridiculous," she said. "I can fly up these things, but you two'll be too tired to do any fighting." She dug around in her satchel. Pulling out two of the sugar glazed cookies, she said, "These will make you fly. They're Oreo Avenger Oreos. But I put them on a timer so they'll only last a few minutes."

Rosma turned visible and ate her Oreo.

"I can walk!" X-Raytor said. "Really! That's what legs are for."

"Just eat it," Oreo Avenger said.

X-Raytor stuck the Oreo under his mask and presumably ate it.

"Are you ready?" Oreo Avenger asked.

"Let's do it!" Rosma shouted. She leapt into the air, X-Raytor and Oreo Avenger following.

Flying was the best thing about being a superhero. Every part of your body was weightless, zooming upward. Oreo Avenger saw a grin on Rosma's face before her friend became invisible again.

In no time, they reached the top. Rosma invisibly opened the door.

In a clatter, four men came running around the corner. They didn't wear the brown suits of the Deliverymen downstairs; instead, they were dressed in suits, black, with clubs in hand.

"You again, Teatime?" Oreo Avenger asked.

"How many times do I have to correct people?" the center man asked, exasperated. "It's Teh-ah-tim-eh."

"We're your escort," said another man, a dark man.

X-Raytor jumped over them, using the last of his flying ability to land on the other side. They turned to face him, ignorant of the invisible girl behind them.

"You take care of these flunkies!" Oreo Avenger yelled, flying down the hall. "I'm going to find Chuckles!"

X-Raytor smiled under his mask. Finally, some real violence.

"Raaaaaaaarg!" they shouted, charging towards him as a group. The ugly one went down immediately, shoelaces tied together by Rosma's quick fingers. He hit his head on a decorative table and was out. The dark one was brought up short, struggling with something invisible on his back. That left X-Raytor with Teatime and the big bald one.

He couldn't fire in here; no way of knowing where Rosma was. Teatime hung back, letting his associate do the dirty work.

"You my friend, are exactly what the doctor ordered." X-Raytor did a handspring, feet connecting squarely with the big one's face. The man staggered back, club swinging.

"Aw, look at you, putting up a little fight. I appreciate the effort, really I do." Grabbing the club from the big one's hand, X-Raytor thwapped him on the head. The man went down and stayed down.

"Next time, work on your follow-through."

The thug fighting Rosma finally realized he was battling an invisible opponent. It was too late to do him any good. She weakened him, persistent in her jabs and kicks. She made herself visible to taunt her enemy.

"Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!" She jumped away, invisible, as he lunged for her. Time to end his misery. She grabbed the base of his neck and he sank to the floor, unconscious for the next few hours.

"Tie them up," Rosma called over her shoulder. "I'm going after Oreo."

X-Raytor tore the drapes down. Binding the thugs, he had a nagging feeling he forgot something.

The something hit him in the back, slamming him into the opposite wall. Teatime fought like a madman, punching and biting and yelling. X-Raytor tried to kick him, to slap him, anything to get him to stop.

"Teatime," he spat.

"Teh-ah-tim-eh! What is so hard about that?!"

X-Raytor took advantage of his enemy's loss of concentration. He spun around and, point blank, shot Teatime in the eye. Not enough to kill, since the blast was only medium power, but just enough to disable him. Hopefully.

Teatime sprang away and did a genuinely remarkable and unexpected thing: he turned and ran. Down the stairs he clattered. X-Raytor made to follow, but a scream interrupted him. Oreo Avenger. He switched directions and ran down the hall. Those downstairs would get Teatime.

**********

Oreo Avenger flew down the hall. "You take care of these flunkies!" Oreo Avenger yelled. "I'm going to find Chuckles!"

He'd be in the dining room, waiting for her to show up. He was predictable in his way. There was the door to the dining room. Oreo Avenger walked through it. There was Chuckles, at the head of the table, feet nonchalantly resting on its surface. With a metallic clang, the door slammed shut behind her.

"You're late," he said by way of greeting.

Oreo Avenger looked at the clock. 9:01. "I had a few delays."

"I'm afraid we had to cancel dinner. You should have called notifying me you were late."

"Chuckles, I'm tired of this. Where's Midnight Chatter."

He stood up, walking to a window. "You always spoil my games. Remember that time with the cat? You told on me the minute I started having fun."

"You tied its legs together and threw it in with the dog," Oreo Avenger growled. "Now where is Midnight Chatter?"

"How cliché. The girlfriend coming to save her lover."

"He's not my lover!"

"Then the surveillance tape of the cage lied. We learned all kinds of useful things from you two lovebirds. Anyway, he's safe for the moment." Chuckles threw back the drapes, revealing Midnight Chatter, gagged and bound to a metal office chair, perched on the window ledge.

"This is my favorite part," he said, clapping his hands a little with giddiness. "No, don't come any closer! That rope is the only thing holding him up. If my finger should slip onto this red button, who knows what will happen." He clutched a remote control in his hand. "Oh, let's find out."

"No!" She held out her hand to stop him. His superior grin infuriated her. "What do you want?"

"There's a problem with you superheroes," Chuckles said, crossing to his chair. "A genetic accident and suddenly you're the masters of our fate. The people I represent, they don't appreciate your meddling in their affairs. So my associates and I were contracted to…even the playing field a little."

"You're trying to rid superheroes of their powers!"

"We're really doing them a favor. They can finally be normal like they've always wanted. No more worrying about the persecution for being different. Of course, the formula isn't perfect yet. That's where you and your little band of freaks come in."

"Your formula doesn't work," Oreo Avenger said. "My dad figured out how to stop it in one night."

"Yes, it's a pity he didn't die in the attack that killed your mother. Ah, well, the best laid plans."

Oreo Avenger blinked. A realization dawned in her brain. "You're the one who sold us out."

"Don't look so shocked," he said, playing around with the remote control. "It was the natural thing for me to do. I wanted to further my criminal career and your parents were in my way."

"You were fifteen years old." Oreo Avenger didn't hear the rattling and pounding on the door behind her.

"It was an important moment for me. I was there when they blew out the side of your house, when your father pathetically tried to protect his wife. Best of all, they let me land the killing blow on the Oreo Avenger. To kill without remorse…Anne, it was glorious."

"My name is Oreo Avenger," she said, grabbing a cookie from her satchel. "You killed my mother; prepare to die." She launched her Oreo at him. He dodged, but it cut a path along his cheek. Briefly he became a snake wriggling on the floor before popping back to human. The remote control lay where he dropped it.

Oreo Avenger slowly walked towards him, each step deliberate and terrible.

"Anne, please, think of what you're doing." Chuckles circled the table, keeping its comforting wooden mass between him and the terror she'd become.

"My name is Oreo Avenger; you killed my mother; prepare to die."

Another cookie cut across his cheek. Suddenly, he turned into a rat, scrabbling for a hiding place. With a pop, he was back to normal.

"My name," she said, louder, still closer. "My name is Oreo Avenger; you killed my mother; prepare to die!"

"Stop saying that!" Chuckles' nerve, already frazzled, began to snap. He scooped up the remote control. She was close enough to touch. "You let me go, and I'll let your boy go."

Oreo Avenger reached into her satchel. "What else can you offer me?"

"I've got money! Loads of it. A-and power! All that I have is yours."

Oreo Avenger leaned in close, noses almost touching. "I want my mother, you son of a bitch." She shoved an unglazed Oreo in his mouth and leapt back.

The changes were immediate. His arms stretched up, breaking through the ceiling. His wide, screaming mouth expanded, becoming a hole in the trunk. Feet and legs became roots, flying across the floor. It was one of the roots that pushed the red button into the wall.

Midnight Chatter abruptly dropped out of sight.

"NLACK!!" she screamed, sinking to the floor. The tree that once was Chuckles finished its rapid growth. She faced the door and saw a circle being burned into the wall nearby. How strange.

A few well-placed kicks, and Rosma and X-Raytor sprang into the room, ready for a fight. They found a destroyed dining room, Oreo Avenger sitting in the middle looking lost. Rosma joined her on the floor and gave her a hug.

"I killed Midnight Chatter," she sobbed into Rosma's shoulder. "I should have made sure he was safe but I had to get Chuckles. And then he fell from the window and now he's a splat on the pavement!"

X-Raytor looked out the window. "Over here?"

"Yeah."

"Was he tied to a chair?"

"Yeah." Oreo Avenger joined X-Raytor at the window. Far below under a streetlight, Netic pointed at a chair with someone on it and made it bounce up and down. The person tied to the chair did not appreciate that.

"He's alive!" Oreo Avenger jumped and hugged X-Raytor. "I didn't kill him! Netic caught him! This is wonderful!" She kissed X-Raytor on the cheek.

"Aw shucks," he said.

Rosma joined her in the happy dance. X-Raytor cleared his throat.

"So, what happened to Chuckles?"

Oreo Avenger gestured toward the giant oak. "I turned him into a tree." She giggled. "For the rest of his life he'll be a tree. Trees live a long time, too."

Rosma looked closer at the tree. It did have a human look to it. "You're never going to change him back?"

"He killed my mother," Oreo Avenger replied. "A couple centuries as a tree is not enough. He got off easy."

"Let's go home now."

"Okay!"

***

"Well, that was way too much excitement for one evening." Rosma said when they arrived back at the Hall. "I'm going to bed."

"Hey, wait!" Eric said. "You missed this."

He picked up a letter that someone must have shoved under the door while they were gone. It had "Rosma Galak" written across the envelope.

Rosma made a face. "That's my mom's handwriting. Throw it away."

"Oh, come on." Oreo Avenger said, taking it from Eric. "Look, it doesn't even say Margaret on it. Read it."

"You read it."

"Okay, I will." Oreo tore open the envelope and the rest of the group gathered around to hear.

"Dear Rosma, Your father and I want to apologize. You were right that we don't accept you for who you are now. We should know better. You are not our Margaret anymore; you are a superhero. To show our newly found support for you and your friends, we have purchased a new vehicle for you. The Justice Yacht will be delivered next week. Be at Dock C near the Richard Simmons Memorial Bridge to sign for it. Love, your parents."

***

“We need to have a talk.” X-Raytor said.

General Jeff Sampson glanced at the shattered window, and the Justice Jet, circling around on autopilot. “Do I have a choice?”

They were in Sampson’s personal office on the top floor of the M.O.R.P.H.Z. MB’s central tower. Sampson had been preparing to go and get a very late dinner at the cafeteria, when a certain black-clad super hero had broken his window and dropped in.

“How did you know how to get here?” Sampson asked casually.

“I just followed you after you left that, um…”

“Novelty store.” Sampson supplied.

“Yes. ‘Novelty store.’ The new issue of ‘Brainy Chicks,’ huh? I have a subscription.”

“What do you want, X-Raytor?”

X-Raytor sighed, and rubbed the back of his head. “This is a nice office.” He muttered. “Come with the job?”

“It’s nicer when the window’s not shattered.” Sampson said. “Now…”

“Nice view, too…”

“X-Raytor.”

X-Raytor sighed, ran a hand over his face.

“What do you want?” Sampson asked.

X-Raytor looked up at Sampson. “I want you to take my powers away. I don’t want them. I don’t want to be X-Raytor and I don’t want my powers.”

Sampson sighed. “X-Raytor…”

“And I know your can do it! I know you can inject me with something or- or- or spray me with something and I can go back to a normal life!!”

“X-Raytor, just calm down…”

“Do you realize how much I’ve lost?!” X-Raytor demanded. “Do you realize how much these stupid f***ing powers have cost me?!”

“Well-“

“I’ll give you the list.” X-Raytor snapped. “I mutated my parents, my family, and half the girls in my class. I-I’ve had to abandon everything that I knew, everything that I was so I couldn’t hurt people anymore. And- and I’ve had to fight and- and kill my uncle twice!! And- and I killed Tony Norgate, and- and-“ X-Raytor grabbed his head and cursed. “I don’t want to do this anymore!!! I want my life back to where it was before all of this!! I want this to stop!!”

He stood, panting, fists clenched at his sides. Sampson studied him for a moment, and then, quietly, calmly, said, “No.”

“What?! F*** you!!” X-Raytor snapped. “You can’t- you can’t just leave me like this!! You can get rid of them- I know you can get rid of them- and- and I want you too… you can’t!! I’m telling you! I don’t want this!!”

“What happened, X-Raytor?” Sampson asked.

“Listen to me-“

“What happened X-Raytor?”

“Listen to me-“

“What happened X-Raytor?”

X-Raytor sagged. “Cara dumped me.” He muttered.

Sampson almost laughed. “Kid, trust me, if you’re looking for girl advice, you’ve come to the wrong guy.”

“She dumped me because of my powers… because I almost got her killed.” X-Raytor said, fighting to keep his voice neutral.

“Oh.” Sampson frowned. “Well, there’s definitely not much I can do there. And, well, I’m not trying to say ‘I told you so’ or anything, but… well, this is exactly the reason that I told you to not tell her anything. Civilians can’t handle this sort of thing- people who have spent all of their lives in safety… this tears them apart. I know it did for me when I started, and I know it did for you.” He paused. “And- and it sucks. Getting dumped in general, I mean. It always sucks.”

“That’s not just it, though…” X-Raytor said. “These- these powers. This costume. They’ve- they’ve made me into a murderer.”

“You’re not a murderer, kid.” Sampson said. “No more than I am.”

“Oh, that’s real comforting.” X-Raytor mumbled.

“Seriously,” Sampson said. “I know- I know with Norgate… well, that wasn’t the most pleasant way to go, but still- the man planned and organized mass murder. He not only would have gotten you and all of your friends killed without a second thought, he would let all of those other people in theater die, too. How can you not say that a man like that doesn’t have it coming to him. We would’ve given him the death penalty anyway.”

“Doesn’t make it any better, though,” X-Raytor said.

“Kid-“

“And why do you keep calling me kid?” X-Raytor demanded. “How much older than me are you, anyway?”

“Ten years. At least.” Sampson said levelly.

“But still… still, I killed a man. I- I shot him in the face and I didn’t even need to… I could have just knocked him out, given him over to the police…”

“Well, that would have probably helped us find out who his boss was…” Sampson said. “Hmm, you have a point there.”

“Are you listening to me?!!” X-Raytor exploded. “I killed someone. I want you to do the right thing. I want you to-“

“I heard you.” Sampson said.

“I don’t WANT this!!” X-Raytor yelled.

“Kid, you had a rough day. Everyone has them. And when you do- do what I do. You ask yourself: Anybody’s life better because of what I did today? If the answer’s yes… then stop your whining. If not, well, do better tomorrow.”

“I can’t just shrug this off.” X-Raytor said. “I’ve been neck-deep in s*** ever since I got these powers and- and-“

“But haven’t your powers made peoples’ lives better?”

“Yeah, but they’ve also-“

“X-Raytor, I don’t think you realize how much value one truly good act has in this crap world of ours.” Sampson said. “Even one good act, compared to whatever bad you may have unintentionally done, makes a difference.”

X-Raytor looked at the floor. “I’m no saint…”

“Who is?”

“I guess you’re right… I still feel like s***, though.”

“Listen- go home. Get some rest. Hang around or something. You’re working yourself too hard- not everything is your personal responsibility. Take a break, even if it’s just for two minutes. And as for being dumped… well, mourn. That’s what I’ve always done, it’s natural- but don’t get carried away. Eventually, well, hopefully, you’ll get over it, and then you can just enjoy being single again.”

X-Raytor didn’t answer.

“Well, now…” Sampson said. “I actually have a question for you .”

X-Raytor looked up, surprised. “Uh… okay. What?”

“What happened to, uh…” Sampson thought for a moment. “The ringleader at the Oscars- what did he call himself?- the Head Honcho. What happened to him?”

X-Raytor looked at Sampson blankly. “Uh… Bo Powers killed him?”

“Bo Powers killed him.” Sampson repeated.

“Uh… I think…”

“You think he killed him?”

“Well… he did sorta shoot him full of holes…”

“Where’s the body?” Sampson asked.

X-Raytor was silent for a moment. “In… the… hospital? I thought some medics took it away. Weren’t they your guys?”

“I haven’t heard anything about him since Oscar night.” Sampson said.

Another long pause. “But… but he has to be dead, right?” X-Raytor said. “I mean- he got an anvil dropped on his head… and then he got shot… in the chest… I saw the blood-“

“Kid.” Sampson said. “There’s not too many actual rules to this game of ours, but one of the big ones is: If there’s no corpse… the guy’s alive.”

X-Raytor ran a hand over his head. “Man. This day just keeps getting better.”

“I’m serious, kid. Go home. Shower. Read… read the new issue of ‘Brainy Chicks,’ for all I care. But, uh, please, just read it. Write some crap angst-poems about being dumped. Shoot lasers at your ex-girlfriend’s picture. Relax!!”

“Okay…” X-Raytor said. “Um, and I’m sorry about the window.”

“It’s okay.” Sampson said, with a grin. “You can go downstairs and have your plane-thing pick you up on the docks. I’ll call ahead so that security doesn’t roast you.”

“Thanks.” X-Raytor said, heading for the door.

“No problem.” Sampson said. “But next time you want to talk to me- make an appointment. Or I’ll shoot you.”

X-Raytor hesitated for a second, and then hurried out into the hallway.

Sampson sighed, and walked over to the pile of broken glass on the floor. “Kids.”

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

X-Raytor hurried down the dark hallway. His meeting with Sampson hadn’t left him feeling much better than he had before- in fact, once he had burned out all of his rage and frustration fighting the Deliverymen, he had just felt constantly like crap. All he really wanted to do was go to sleep, and be away from himself for a while.

“I-I-I’ve been having these nightmares- every night!” Cara said. “Every night! Nightmares that- that you die! You die or- or-or-or I die.”

All his fault. As usual.

X-Raytor passed rows of office doors, all like Sampson’s- dark wood against the manila walls, with a name plate in the center. None of the names meant anything to him- no reason why they should, of course. He walked-

Stopped.

The door was exactly like the others, except that the nameplate was newer, more recently added, and made of a different material. And this name certainly did mean something to X-Raytor:

JAKE BERENSON

“Holy crap.” X-Raytor mumbled. Was this- the Jake Berenson? The Jake Berenson? Was that possible? No, no it couldn’t be. He was in California, why would he-

But- on Oscar night! X-Raytor remembered now, an Army officer had mentioned that Berenson had been called in. But why would he still be here? Was he finally following through on all of the Animorphs-related craziness that had gone on here- those stupid Helmacrons that had crashed in the Hall of Justice, for instance. Maybe- maybe even Scarlett’s morphing powers?

X-Raytor knew he should probably just keep walking. Just keep on moving, get in the Justice Jet, and leave before Sampson changed his mind and the M.O.R.P.H.Z. security force shot him full of holes. He definitely should have.

Instead, X-Raytor reached over, and turned the knob of the office door. It was unlocked. He pushed it open just a little, waiting for an alarm. Nothing. Slowly, X-Raytor opened the door all the way. Still nothing. He stepped gingerly into the room.

No alarms. No land mines. No killer clowns with machine guns dropping from the ceiling and blowing him away.

“Wow.” X-Raytor said. “Security sucks.”

< Tell me about it. >

“GAH!!” X-Raytor jumped, looked around- there! A dark form in the half opened window! X-Raytor yelped, and let loose with a low powered shot.

< AAH! > The thing at the window toppled onto the floor.

“Gah! GAH!!”

< Will you SHUT UP?! >

“Who are you?!” X-Raytor demanded. “What the hell is this?! Get out of my head!!!”

< You’re the one who’s scared? > The voice- the shape on the ground?- demanded. < Guy comes in here dressed in black tights, shooting lasers out of his eyes, and he’s scared of a bird? Man, you really are a spaz. >

“Uh… I-is that you talking?” X-Raytor asked.

< No. No, it’s the talking freaking bird behind you. Of course it’s me! > The shape- a bird, X-Raytor saw now- some sort of a hawk- struggled to its feet. < Christ, it’s like you’ve never heard of an Animorph. >

Silence.

“Y- you’re one of them.” X-Raytor said. “You’re one of the Animorphs!”

< Oooh, you’re quick. >

“Uh… sorry about that. Is your wing okay? It should only be stunned for, like, a minute or two.”

< Nah, I’m okay. Falling off the freaking window hurt a little, but, you know. > He fluttered his wings, looked up at X-Raytor with unnerving, predatory eyes. < And you really are a spaz. >

“Yeah, so I’ve heard.” X-Raytor said. “You’re, uh… you’re Tobias, right?”

A pause. < Yeah. >

“Oh. Cool. Um, I’m X-Raytor.”

< Yeah, > Tobias said. < I’ve heard of you. Justice League, right? >

“Yeah.”

< Huh. I’ve heard a little bit about you guys. Sounds like you’ve done better than we ever did. >

X-Raytor stared. “B-but you saved the world! You- you stopped the Yeerks, you captured Visser One-“

< We blew up half the city. > Tobias said. < We got nineteen innocent kids and a few hundred soldiers slaughtered. Not to mention everything we did before that- every atrocity, every mistake that you never hear about. And… well, I’m sure you know about Rachel. >

“Yeah, I remember that.” X-Raytor said. Tobias glared at him- or, well, he thought he was. It was sort of hard to tell with those hawk eyes- they always looked intense, fierce.

“Well, if it means anything,” X-Raytor said. “We seriously haven’t been doing much better. Me in particular. And at least you guys actually ended up saving something. All we ever do is- is little things. And for every bad guy we bring down, more and more good guys are hurt in the process. And- well, you know about the Oscars. Four of us got killed, and- and the big bad guy got away. At least with you guys it was in a war-“

< Doesn’t make any difference. > Tobias said.

“Yeah, but- but at least with you guys it was all in self defense.”

Tobias considered this. < Don’t believe everything you read. >

X-Raytor sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, I should know- damn.” He paused, and then said. “Hey, um, you went through a lot of the same stuff as me… sort of. What- what do you do when, like, when you’ve had a really, really crappy day?”

Tobias laughed in his mind. < Man, I’ve been having nothing but crap days since I was three months old. And, well, now, what I’d do would just be to take off and fly for a while. But I guess you can’t do that- right? >

“Yeah.”

< But, like, what can you do? What can you possibly do to make the crap days better? There’s some things- some things that you just plain can’t make better. There’s some things… I think you know what I mean. >

“But you’ve been through hell and back, man!” X-Raytor said. “You’ve- you’ve seen things- Listen, I guess what I’m trying to ask is… how do you deal?”

Tobias was silent for a long time. < I don’t know. > He finally said. < I’ve been running from my problems all my life. >

Suddenly Tobias’ head jerked up. X-Raytor looked over his shoulder- just as another guy walked into the room. He wasn’t much to look at- tall, brown hair, brown eyes. He had broad shoulders, and a face that was way, way too serious. X-Raytor had seen him a thousand times on the news, on TV, in the headlines and on the cover Time a few months ago. He was the living embodiment of the Great American Hero- George Washington and George Patton and a bunch of other famous people not named George, all rolled into one. The hero of the Yeerk wars. The savior of humanity. The leader of the Animorphs. Jake Berenson.

“Ho-ly S***!” X-Raytor said. “You’re f***ing famous!!”

Jake stared. “Uh…”

< Smooth. > Tobias mumbled.

“Um, hi.” Jake said. “What are you doing in my office?”

“Uh… I was looking for the bathroom?” X-Raytor said lamely.

“Uh huh.” He peered at him. “Is that you, Marco?”

“Er… no?” X-Raytor said. “I’m, uh, I’m X-Raytor.”

“Oh, yeah, hi.” Jake said, and extended a hand. X-Raytor shook it.

Wow. Just like meeting the f***ing President.

(Only, you know, without the cowboy. Budum ching!)

Then Jake looked down, and his face became immediately neutral. “Tobias.”

< Jake. >

X-Raytor glanced between the weird little stand-off. He had no idea what was going on. Animorph stuff, probably. X-Raytor immediately felt very uncomfortable.

< Well, I was just about to get going, > Tobias said, flapping his wings. < Nice talking to you, X-Raytor. … Jake. >

Before Jake could say anything, the hawk spread his wings, and fluttered up onto the windowsill. Tobias glanced back once, and then sailed off into the night.

“Uh…”

“Sorry about that,” Jake said. He walked over, closed the window, and turned back to X-Raytor. “So, um, if you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing in here?”

“Well, um… sir,” X-Raytor winced- was he supposed to call him ‘sir’? Probably. Didn’t the guy have a rank or something? “I, uh, I actually wanted to talk to you.”

“Okay…” Jake said. “And you don’t have to call me sir, really.”

“Yes, sir.” X-Raytor said. Crap. “Uh, sorry.”

A smile flickered across Jake’s face, like he had just remembered something, and then it vanished. “What did you want to talk to me about?” His voice has just the slightest hint of wariness.

“Um, well, you know,” X-Raytor began. What was he supposed to say? What was he supposed to say to a living f***ing legend? “You know, this… super hero… thing, we do, it can… uh, suck.”

Holy s***. I did not seriously just say that. F***, I’m such an idiot!!

“What I’m trying to say is-” X-Raytor said. “I’m trying to say- s***.”

“Go ahead.” Jake said. “I’m listening.”

X-Raytor sighed. “All right. You know better than anyone, probably even me, that this whole saving-the-world thing is no party. I mean, to say the very f***ing least.”

Jake nodded.

“Well, like, when it all gets to be too much… when you just have a really, really, really bad day… what do you do?”

Jake thought about this, and he looked like a very, very old man. And for some reason, it was then that X-Raytor realized just how young he was. Christ… this guy was, what, eighteen? That was three years younger than him. Was that possible? Could this- this- kid seriously be the hero they always played him up to be? How could he handle the sheer magnitude of it all? The responsibility?

“Well,” Jake finally said. “That’s sort of hard to say. I mean, just between you and me, I haven’t been doing my best since- since the war. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get a second chance. Not that I want another war, but… but I would like a chance to do it all right for once. Not make any mistakes. But anyway… I guess that’s nothing new. We all want that. But, when I do need to- to deal, I guess you could say, I do something I’ve been doing for a long time- from back when I was an Animorph. I think about what happened each day, what I did, what happened to me, and I ask myself- is anyone’s life better because of what I did today? Have I done even a little bit of good?”

X-Raytor raised his eyebrows. It was almost exactly the same thing Sampson had said.

“Does that make any sense?” Jake asked.

“Yeah, yeah perfect sense,” X-Raytor said. Jake nodded slightly, like he’d needed the reassurance. “In fact, uh, Jeff Sampson just told me something a lot like it a few minutes ago.”

“Sampson, huh?” Jake said.

“Yeah… I sort of passed it off as bull because, you know, he’s sort of a hard guy to figure out…”

“Hmm,” Jake said. “I have to agree. But, uh, you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Um, sure.” X-Raytor squirmed a little. “He told me to go home and relax, too.”

“Now that’s seriously good advice.” Jake said. “Trust me, you do not want to make everything your responsibility. It’s nearly impossible to do, and then, when you do, it is impossible to let go.”

X-Raytor nodded slowly. “Okay. And, hey, thanks. It was… uh, an honor meeting you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jake said with a somewhat melancholy smile. “And, hey, I’ve been watching you guys- the Justice League and all- and you really shouldn’t have to worry too much.”

X-Raytor looked up at Jake, and for once, the guy looked slightly his age.

“Because, as far as I’m concerned,” Jake said. “You guys are doing just fine.”

X-Raytor couldn’t think of anything else to say besides, “Thanks,” and then hurried back out into the hallway. He didn’t run into anyone else one his way to the elevator, but a pair of M.O.R.P.H.Z. agents escorted him to the Justice Jet. He took off, and turned the Jet back towards the mainland.

X-Raytor had come to the MB looking for help, for some way to feel better. And, really, he wasn’t feeling that much better than before now. Cara was still gone- no changing that. And that would hurt for the longest time- he knew better than to expect anything else. But there was something else now, something… something like acceptance.

Was anyone’s life better because of what he’d done today? Probably. He hoped so, at least. Oreo’s was, of course. Dr. Lansky, too. Maybe even Scarlett.

Maybe even Cara.

And maybe others, in ways he couldn’t even begin to guess. Maybe today was the beginning of a thousand improvements, a thousand changes for the better. Maybe every day was. And he knew that he would never be able to say it for sure, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to say that he had made a difference in anyone’s life everyday…

But as long as he could… well, then it was a damn good day.

***

Xiao had left the Justice League building. She didn't want to be alone; if she had, she'd have stayed in the Hall. But she hadn't been into the city for a while, except when she was on the job, and she was ready for an afternoon out.

She decided to visit an Aunt who lived in the city. Aunt Sue was a bit crazy, and had two lovable, extremely spoiled wire-haired dachshunds. Sue was also rather rich, and blunt. Tact was not one of her strong points, to say the least. If she didn't like something (or did) you'd hear about it. Even if it had to do with a private matter. It was just her way. And Xiao could do with some cultivated rudeness. Besides, she could ask Sue about Typho.....

When she checked the Justice Garage, there were no vehicles left. The van, the car, the Jet- they were all gone. Muttering to herself (or maybe it was Fred...) she called a taxi and waited. The car that pulled up had a license plate that said fresh and dice in the mirror.

The guy asked, "Where to?"

And Xiao said, "Yo, home to Deerfield Heights!"

Well, it was something like that.

The driver rambled on about the weather, and his newborn baby ('We named him Reginald, after my father.'), until Fred finally cracked.

"GAAAAAAHHHH! You little WORM! SHUT UP!" Fred roared. "I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR BABY, OR THE FACT THAT IT'S COLDER TODAY THAN IT HAS BEEN ALL WEEK! I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR RIDICULOUS DOGMA!!!!"

The cabdriver's mouth dropped open as he glanced in the back of the truck to see Fred take the shape of a R.O.U.S.

"Ummm.. let me out here!" Xiao said, opening the door of the cab when the driver slammed on the brakes in reaction to Fred ramming the glass that separated the front of the cab from the back. She leapt out, and Fred reluctantly followed, flowing back into his regular form.

As it happened, they weren't to far from Aunt Sue's home. The place was hard to miss, thanks to the fact Sue had planted a bunch of those little windmill thingies that look like flowers but really they're plastic. In fact there were hundreds. Xiao stepped carefully between them to the porch and rang the doorbell. A second later the door opened and Aunt Sue dragged Xiao in.

"Ari! It's so GOOD to SEE you again!" Aunt Sue said, emphasizing her words. "Come in, come in! Sit down, sit down.... Right here!" She sat Xiao down in a large leather sofa. Xiao sank down a foot, then managed to resurface.

"Can I get you anything? A drink? Something to eat? How are you?? Working for the Justice League, I hear. Tell me, dear, what's your superpower? How'd you get it, anyway? Isn't there a superhero that can fly? How come your never in the news with the rest of your little friends? Is it fun? Do you have a boyfriend? Tell me everything!" Aunt Sue said in one breath. Xiao suddenly remembered that Aunt Sue could have MidnightChatter's ability for talking.

"Water, please. No thank you. I'm fine. It's my shadow. I opened a bottle I found on the ground and a demon took over my shadow. Yes, it's Oreo Avenger. I don't do that much work, Auntie. It's okay. No." Xiao replied evenly. Her Aunt ran to the kitchen, filled a glass with some water, and came back.

"Your shadow? How interesting! My bridge partner had an odd shadow. It was pink, as I recall. Passed away last summer, got hit by a drunk driver." Aunt Sue sipped something from a bottle that smelled strongly of vodka. "Your lot's been having a hard time, I hear. What with the Oscars, and that Penguin fellow. Never did like Penguins, they're sneaky. What kind of bird is it that swims rather than flying? Pelicans and seagulls and ducks fly. Respectable birds, ducks. Have you ever seen those Mallard Fillmore comics? I don't much like comics, they're too short. Get through 'em to fast. Now recently I've been reading those Martha Stewart magazines, good ideas in there, too bad the woman's a nutter. Anyway, I hope she rots in jail. Have you heard about that basketball scandal? Quite interesting fellows, basketball players." Aunt Sue paused to take another large gulp. "Tell me more about your life, Ari, dear. I haven't seen you in ages! And your family, they visit every once and awhile, but they never talk about you, did you have a falling out? I can talk to them, if you want. And why is your hair like that? I liked it so much better shorter. Get it cut."

"Well, I don't know if you'd call it a falling out," Xiao shifted nervously. "They were the ones who brought it up."

"Ahhh, I see. Want to get rid of the freak," Aunt Sue nodded knowingly. "Well, they're only human, just like you, Ari, dear. Don't hold it against them."

"I won't." Xiao said truthfully. After all, look at what Fred was and did. She'd have gotten rid of herself too. Or, so she had convinced herself.

"Sooo. You don't have a boyfriend," Sue said, putting the bottle down and looking at Xiao earnestly. "Any prospects? I've seen a few of those heroes on the television, some of them are pretty niiiice." Sue winked. Xiao laughed in spite of herself.

"Well, there is this one, his name is Typho, and his power is...umm........being....cool?" Xiao fumbled for a moment. "Er. Anyway, he kissed me and I think I like him and I think he likes me but I'm not sure, and I don't know with my shadow like this and he's kind of annoying but it's kind of cute at the same time so I'm not sure what I should do which is part of the reason I came here today, to see you."

"Ooooooh. Girl talk, huh?" Aunt Sue nodded, thinking a moment. "Is he good-looking?"

"He's okay. I mean, he's not acne ridden or anything, and his power *coughifhehasonecough* seems to help." Xiao paused, then added, "And his nose is straight."

"That's good," her Aunt said seriously. "Crooked noses indicate a tendency to be crooked. What about his eyes? Are they set too close together? People with eyes set close together are sneaky, oh you can be sure of where a man is by the position of his eyes." Aunt Sue closed her own for a minute, lost in thought. "Renald had good, honest eyes. Deep blue with a hint of gray... never seen eyes like that since....."

"No...." Xiao felt awkward. Renald was Aunt Sue's dead husband.

Sue snapped out of her memories and into the real world. "Bring him over here one of these days, I'll look him over for you. See if he's a sleazy one....Aunt Sue can tell these things, you know." She suddenly took the bottle off the table and downed the entire thing, setting it gently onto the floor when she was done.

"I know you can. That's why I came... Plus just to see how the family is doing....How are mom and dad?" Xiao asked. "I haven't seen them in...since I left."

"They're okay, I guess. Your father is putting on weight again, though. I told your mother it's not healthy, him being with the blood sugar problem and all, but will she listen? Stubborn as a mule, the pair of them. Stubborn stubborn stubborn."

"Sounds like them. And you? How are you, Auntie?" Xiao looked at her Aunt. She looked a little pale, a little sickly.

"I just had a bad cold. Maybe the flu. Got some medicine I gotta take for it. But otherwise I'm peachy, couldn't be better, couldn't be better...... You don't eat enough, girl. I can see your bones!"

"Don't change the subject," Xiao said, shaking her head. She was kidding, though. "I should probably go, though, Auntie. They'll.....miss me at the Hall."

"Okay, Ari. You be a good girl, now. Remember, bring that Typho boy over here sometime, hogtie him if you have to," she broke into a slight cackle there, picking up the bottle from the floor and shaking it. "I'll look him over. But you be good.....come visit more often. You should go see your folks. They don't know what they've done, kicking you out, Ari. You're such a good girl, Ari." Her Aunt was talking in circles...

Xiao passed it off to the liquor. "I will, Auntie." Sue hustled her out the house and watched her grab another taxi.

"Such a good girl," Aunt Sue said, as she shut the door. "Pity about the shadow."

***

Scarlett stood in the shade of the large pecan tree, staring at the words on the tombstone. The body had been found in a dumpster not too far from the Justice League. A cruel gesture of "kindness."

Until the body had been found, Scarlett had hoped. Prayed.

Not again...

She left, closing the gates of the cemetery as the sun began to set.

She wouldn't be coming back for a long time. But she had had to do that. It had been difficult even to see it from a distance...at least it was in a different cemetery than... Scarlett shook off the thought. Not going there. She began to head back to the Hall of Justice.

The past few days had been sooo...well, there was no other word for it. Weird....people had begun to pair off in her absence, and of course her "return from the dead" didn't make things any less odd.

They all thought she had killed herself. They hadn't really even questioned it...of course, if Scarlett had had her way...she would have killed herself.

And Saph...infiltrating the Justice League. God only knew what Saph had found out in the week she'd been there. What weaknesses would be played upon.

And Saph would do it. Saph would do anything.

God. If X-Raytor hadn't been going out with Cara the whole time...Saph would have. She would have. She had always asked about him...him more than any of the others. Even Eric, and Saph was twisted enough to go for him.

X-Raytor. The one person who'd blundered upon her in that closet.

"..I’m here. Yeah. You, uh, you know where to find me.”

"Just remember. You're the one who killed him."

"I know what it’s like to feel like- like a murderer!"

This is something I have to do by myself.

"You don’t have to, though. That’s the point.”


Another hero, another mindless crime...” Music wafted from an old jukebox as Scarlett passed by an ice cream restaurant.

"Scarlett!" called several voices.

She whipped her head around. Sitting at a booth inside were X-Raytor, Raven, and Eric. Eric had used his powers to secure the only free booth in the restaurant.

"What are you doing?"

"Come eat with us!"

"What are you guys doing here?" she asked, walking up to the booth and sliding in across from X-Raytor, next to Eric...but not right next to him. She was friendly, but she had her limits. She looked at the glass full of green...something...with large black flecks...that X-Raytor was eating with spoon.

He saw her eyeing it oddly. "What? Never drowned your sorrows with mint chocolate chip ice cream before?"

The waiter walked up just at this point. "Actually...I'd rather have chocolate chip cookie dough. Have you got that?" she asked the waiter.

He brought her ice cream a few minutes later, just as Raven finished telling about her latest PM2-related adventures. Scarlett ate a spoonful, laughing.

”Inside my heart is breaking...my make-up may be flaking...but my smile still stays on…”

X-Raytor looked at Scarlett. She seems better...

Scarlett noticed his glance and smiled back.

***

Xiao stopped the next taxi just in time before Fred went ballistic again. She could hear a bit of music playing from an ice cream store, and decided to wait over there for the next cab.

"I'll say this, Fred. You sure make it easy to avoid paying cab fares." Xiao leaned against the wall of a shoe store next to the ice cream place. She heard him mutter something about "insolent" and "worms".

Looking around, Xiao saw some familiar faces inside the ice cream shop. X-Raytor, Scarlett, Eric, and Raven.

"How'd you like some ice cream, Fred?" Xiao asked, heading over.

”The show must go on!”

"What an odd song," Xiao said, coming up to the other's booth. "Sounds familiar......I want to say Zidler. Who's Zidler?"

"Hey Xiao!" Eric said. "You can sit next to me......"

"No thanks. I'll stand. Besides, it's a bit crowded with Scarlett on one side, the wall on the other, isn't it? I mean, I'd probably have to sit on your--"

"Please don't finish that thought," Raven said, finishing her cone.

"No worries," Xiao assured her. Another waitress came up to their table.

"You want anything?" The waitress pulled out a pad and a pen.

"Oh! Yeah, I'll have a chocolate and vanilla swirl, and my shadow will have plain chocolate. Regular cones." Xiao said.

"Your shadow, huh?" The waitress rolled her eyes and headed off to deliver the order.

"Boy, some people sure can be rude," Xiao shook her head.

"What brings you to the neighborhood, Xiao?" X-Raytor asked, eating his minty chocolate chip goodness.

"Eh, nothing much. Just....visiting a relative. You know how it goes."

"Er.....do I?" X-Raytor wiped some ice cream off his face.

"I'm surrounded by MORONS!" Fred suddenly appeared. "MORONS, I tell you, MORONS!"

"Aren't we all?" Eric wondered.

"I think he's having a bad day," Xiao observed. "I think he's angry we didn't let him absorb the souls of Teatime and his other buddies."

Scarlett suddenly laughed for no apparent reason.

"What's so funny?" Raven asked, folding a napkin into a swan.

"Xiao actually said Teh-ah-tim-eh. Not Teatime." Scarlett said in between giggles. "It was just surprising."

"Ooooh."

"Here's your swirl and the plain chocolate," the waitress said, handing Xiao two cones. Xiao handed one to her shadow, and the waitress stared as Fred began to eat it. "For your.... shadow...."

"Thanks!" Xiao said. Fred waved the waitress away.

"She looked kind of sick," Eric said. "I hope she's okay."

"Yeah, can't imagine why someone's shadow eating ice cream would make anyone think they were hallucinating." X-Raytor said sarcastically.

"Neither can I," Eric said.