JUSTICE LEAGUE

32

Wake Up
 

“Get back!! All of you!! Get back or I swear to God I will blow this broad’s head clean off!!” The man shouted. His face was covered by a stylized mask which everyone present thought looked vaguely familiar. One of his arms was wrapped around the neck of a woman in a long, green apron, and his other held a gun to the woman’s head.

“We’re not advancing, sir,” Lieutenant Denise Bradley yelled back over the door of her police car. She looked back at Officer Will Costello. “Why the hell don’t we have snipers?”

“Uh… we didn’t call S.W.A.T.?” Costello said.

“And why didn’t we call S.W.A.T.?”

“Because we didn’t think that a midnight Subway robbery would turn into a hostage situation?”

And that was, indeed, the case. The woman who was now being held hostage had been closing up the Subway when the masked man had burst in, demanded a six-inch meatball sandwich on Italian bread, with American and Parmesan cheese, swiftly followed by an order for all of the money in the register.

“Subway- Eat Fresh!” Officer Costello sang under his breath. Lieutenant Bradley glared at him.

“I want those cars backed up!!” The robber yelled. “Don’t make me unleash the horrific powers of my mask upon you!!” He looked down at his hostage. “Where’s my sandwich, by the way?”

“Uh, inside…”

“And why the f*** is that?!”

“Because you have me out here…”

“Wha- hey!! Don’t f*** with me!! Don’t you dare f*** with me!!”

Lieutenant Bradley groaned. “This is getting ridiculous. Someone call S.W.A.T. Now.”

No one noticed as a shadow sped quickly overhead, dropping from the UniBank next door onto the Subway’s roof.

“I said move those cars back!!” The robber yelled, his oddly familiar black mask trembling. “Back!!”

“That’s it, move ‘em back,” Lieutenant Bradley said. “Costello, where’s my team?”

“Something big’s going on,” Costello said. “All of the S.W.A.T. teams are on Second and Moonn.”

Lieutenant Bradley frowned. “The Square? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Costello said. “Something with that Captain Destructo guy. Something big.”

Bradley frowned. Anything “big” to do with Captain Destructo wasn’t good.

“They can’t spare anyone?” Bradley asked.

“Nope.”

“Hm.”

“Okay, I am sick of this!!” The masked robber exploded. “If those cars don’t move back by the count of motherf***ing ten, I am going to splatter this broad all over the pavement!!”

“Let’s just-“ Lieutenant Bradley started to say.

“Hey, look!” Officer Costello said.

What seemed to be a living shadow had dropped from the roof of the Subway and was descending towards the robber. Before Lieutenant Bradley could say anything or raise her pistol, the robber yelped, and the gun hit the street.

“ ‘Broad’?” The shadow asked, landing on its feet. “ ‘Broad’? Dude, what do you think this is, the thirties?”

“Oh no…” Lieutenant Bradley said, slapping her forehead.

The police had run into this guy in this part of the city before, a young man in a black costume, and a super hero in training it seemed. He called himself X-Raytor, or, at least, that’s what he’d told a Channel Six reporter recently.

And while he could be a big help sometimes, there was the undeniable fact that most of the time… he just screwed everything up.

The robber snatched a knife from inside his jacket, and placed it against his hostage’s neck. “Don’t you move!!” He shouted.

X-Raytor shook his head. “Don’t you people ever just give up? I mean, seriously. I disarm you once, just give up. It’d be much easier for all of us, don’t you guys agree?” This last part was shouted back to the police.

“Uh… yeah!” Officer Costello said, and caught a stern look from Lieutenant Bradley.

X-Raytor turned back to the hostage. “And how about you, Miss… uh…”

“Yeah, this’d be much easier if I was, like, not here,” she said.

“See?” X-Raytor asked. “And I’d say that she’s a reliable source, Miss…”

Pause.

“Uh, is that really important right now?” The hostage asked.

“Well, you could just give me your number…”

“Don’t make me unleash the powers of my mask on you!!” The robber snapped, sensing that things were getting away from him.

“You know, that mask looks pretty familiar…” X-Raytor said.

“Stop f***ing around and take him down,” Bradley mumbled to herself, fists clenched.

“Holy- hey!” X-Raytor said. “Holy s***! That’s a Power Rangers mask, isn’t it?”

The robber stiffened. “Uh… no!”

“Hey… it is…” Costello said. Bradley didn’t say anything, but she had realized it too.

“A Power Rangers mask?” The hostage demanded. “You are such a loser.”

The robber tried to say something, but then stopped. He seemed confused for a few seconds, and then just stood there.

“So…” X-Raytor said. “Want to, uh, go talk to the nice police now?”

“Man…” the robber said.

“Yeah, bummer, I know,” X-Raytor said. He was about to say something else, some brilliantly witty and cutting wisecrack that would have left the robber speechless and amazed, but then the robber let his knife hand drop to his side.

And before X-Raytor or the police could do anything, the robber jerked the knife up and jammed it into the Subway girl’s upper arm. She cried out and he shoved her away, diving for the gun.

X-Raytor, on instinct, lashed out with his foot and caught the robber under the shoulder. He dropped, mid-dive, and X-Raytor dropped onto him, forcing his arms behind his back. And then Lieutenant Bradley was there, forcing the handcuffs around the robber’s wrists.

“So, uh, guess I kicked some serious butt, huh?” X-Raytor asked. Bradley glared at him.

“Yeesh.” X-Raytor said. “Well, guess I won’t ask if anyone can give me a ride home.”

He stood and waited, and when no one said anything else to him, he turned and walked into an alley.

Why did so many encounters end like that? Didn’t everyone realize he was just trying to help? After all, X-Raytor had only been at this super hero thing for, what, about a year now? He’d only turned eighteen about a month ago- they should give him at least a little slack.

And, sure, there were a few other super heroes in this city- Pinzz, who he’d recently conducted a case with, that Oreo Avenger chick, and that guy from the West Coast who’d just come in, the really annoying guy- Mudstuffin or whatever his name was- but, still, this city needed him. And as disgusting and weak as he knew he was, he actually felt like he was getting the hang of this super hero thing. So he was young. So he was living in an abandoned building. So, up until about three months ago, he’d spent every cent that he could get on getting drunk off his ass. None of that mattered- he was a big time super hero now!

He reached the abandoned warehouse that had been his home since the summer of ’98. After making sure that there was no one following him, he checked his mail drop, the rusty aluminum trash can leaning next to the building’s doorway. The few friends and informants that he had usually dropped off case information and the like here, occasionally newspaper clippings.

X-Raytor lifted the lid, and there was a single piece of paper lying on the bottom. An envelope, which wasn’t unusual. He reached down and pulled it out, and checked the front. Blank. Again, not unusual. X-Raytor wedged a finger under the flap and broke the seal with his finger. He pulled out the piece of paper inside, unfolded it, and found that it was typed, very professional looking.

X-Raytor’s eyebrows arched. Not that was unusual. He read:

“Dear X-Raytor,

“I am writing to you as a fellow member of our somewhat unique profession. I have seen you in the newspapers quite a bit recently, and I am impressed with the job you have been doing around the docks. I am contacting you now thanks to a mutual friend who wishes to remain anonymous.

“As you know, we are not the first to don costumes in the defense of justice. And while we do fit into the select group of crime fighters with actual super human powers, we are in no way the originals. However, as I am sure you know, many of the old crime fighters are beginning to fade from the face of the earth. It is motivated by this that I make this proposition:

“There has not been an effective crime fighting team for a number of years. Major crime fighting has recently been limited to a few leftovers from the Sixties, running entirely on name recognition. Our ‘super-generation,’ however, is something different. There has been a larger number of crime fighters with super powers, and some of the other people I’ve contacted show considerable promise. In short, it is my belief that if we were to pool our powers, we could create a crime fighting team unlike any the world has ever known.

“Plus, if we could get everyone to bring chips, it’d be a major party. And I’ve done the math- there are at the very least 60% more super heroines than super heroes these days. You know what that means? It means chicks everywhere, dude! I mean, yeah, I’m incredibly sexy, so they’ll most likely all go to me, but I’m sure there’ll be some for you!

“Anyway, I hope you will consider my proposal, and I hope I can count on seeing you at the first meeting of the new Justice League.

“- Studmuffin”

There was a date, time, and place under the signature- a place right out of town, over the bridge.

“Justice League?” X-Raytor read aloud. “Huh.”

***

Now.

Oreo Avenger leaned her forehead against the glass observation window of the infirmary. She was still aching all over from when the Seeker named Jughead had tossed her into the air, causing her to land painfully a good five feet away, but the Hall’s automated medical system had diagnosed her completely healed and ready for action. “Action,” so far, had been standing around and drinking hot chocolate.

She was pretty much alone in the Hall. Anyone who could do any good was over at the rubble of Jackson Prison, helping in the rescue efforts. That was fine with Oreo- she wanted to be alone, and at least now she didn’t have to hear anyone whining about “How are we gonna pay for all of this?”

The entire front of the Hall was demolished, the little stone over the stairs had been destroyed, and there were two holes in the gigantic dome. Plus, there were Seeker innards all over the place, a result of Studmuffin’s rampage (which, by the way, Oreo was still completely and frustratingly confused about). The bodies of the three Seekers had been taken by the police, and were currently being examined in the city.

And then there was Studmuffin himself. He seemed to be doing slightly better since they had returned from Antarctica, but he still wouldn’t actually talk to anyone, and he still spent a very, very long time wandering around the Hall. Oreo wondered if he even slept anymore. Then again, she barely slept either.

And here she was again, at the miraculously intact infirmary, looking through the window at the five forms lying on the white beds. Pinzz was almost recovered, even though the skin where her suit had been cracked now boasted a dark blue scar. She was already awake, and impatiently waiting for the medical systems to finish their final analysis. Xiao and Right Wing Man were unconscious- Right Wing Man had a concussion and Xiao seemed to be suffering some trauma from losing Fred. There seemed to be nothing wrong with her physically, though, aside from the fact that she’d been asleep for the past three days.

And then there was Midnight Chatter. He had already recovered, but he was resting up, sleeping in the bed closest to the window. Oreo pretended that she wasn’t watching him.

And finally, there was X-Raytor. Like the others, he had been unconscious all of this time. But unlike the others, he had an enormous, black hole in his stomach, directly under his ribs. The blood flow had been stopped for the most part, but twice a day, it would start to bubble and bleed again. The medical systems had no idea what was wrong with him, aside from the fact that he was, slowly but surely, dying. No one had removed his black mask.

“You know, you could get stuck like that.”

Oreo pulled her forehead from the window, leaving a round mark on the glass. She looked over her shoulder to see Scarlett.

“I was just checking up on everybody,” Oreo said.

“Yeah,” Scarlett said, and joined her at the window. She waved at Pinzz, who glared. She, also, made a point of not looking exclusively at Midnight Chatter.

“How’s it going?” Oreo asked.

Scarlett shrugged. “I wish someone had just woken me up and let me morph. I’m still sore from those stupid machines fixing me up. How are they?”

Oreo shrugged. “The same. Pinzz should be out in a few minutes. I heard that Right Wing Man’s going to be out for another day or two.”

Scarlett nodded. “How about X-y?”

“How do you think?”

Scarlett frowned. “That much better, huh?”

“The med system can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong with him,” Oreo said. “Is this going to happen every time we win something big? I mean, can’t we ever just win one without someone- you know.”

“No one’s dead.” Scarlett said.

“This is worse, I think,” Oreo said. She paused, and then said, “Do you remember when Insipid Justice died?”

“Yeah.”

“And we had the big ceremony and everything, and we all made those speeches and stuff?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve always felt bad about that,” Oreo said. “I mean, the guy died and we had this big soulless parade. Everything felt fake.”

“I think it’s the only way any of us knew how to do it,” Scarlett said. “And to be honest, I really didn’t know Insipid Justice at all. I didn’t really feel like… you know. Like I was all that close to him or anything. And I know that shouldn’t matter,”

“But it does.” Oreo finished.

“Yeah.”

Pause.

“You guys gave me a nice funeral, right?” Scarlett asked.

“Very nice.”

“Hm.”

“But what’s going to happen if he dies?” Oreo asked. “I mean, he’s been such a big… well, such a big pain in the butt, really, but what’s going to happen if he’s just- gone?”

“Don’t think about it.” Scarlett said.

“I can’t not think about it,” Oreo said. “How can I-“

“Then don’t tell me!” Scarlett snapped.

Oreo looked down into her hot chocolate, and suddenly felt like a stupid little kid. It was times like this that she remembered that Scarlett was a good four years older than her. And wasn’t it weird (the thought came unexpectedly) that Midnight Chatter was younger than both of them?

“Sorry,” Scarlett said. “This is just… yeah.”

Silence.

“Maybe this is all of our faults,” Scarlett said. “We probably couldn’t have done anything about the Seekers, but Fred’s screwed us before. We should have been watching him…”

“Fred.” Oreo said. Suddenly, her eyes widened. “Wait… did you ever see any of the other Seekers do that- that finger thing that Fred did to X-Raytor?”

“No,” Scarlett said. “… Why?”

“Well- well maybe that’s the problem!” Oreo said. “Maybe the reason that the med system can’t figure out what’s wrong with him is because it isn’t- I don’t know- it isn’t physical or whatever. Maybe medical technology doesn’t apply to demon stuff.”

“So, what?” Scarlett asked. “Do you think we should get him exorcised?”

“Couldn’t hurt…” Oreo said, and suddenly wondered if she was just getting desperate. “Where do you think we could find someone who could do that?”

“Well,” Scarlett said. “The National Priest Convention is in town today, did you hear about that? They’re all down at the Dowed Banquet Hall, down on Forty-sixth and Ridge.”

“Huh,” Oreo said. “Well, isn’t that a convenient plot device- er, coincidence.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Scarlett said.

“Yeah…” Oreo said. “Should we try to get anyone else?”

It was then that Midnight Chatter sat up and screamed: “WHAT LIGHT THROUGH YONDER WINDOW BREAKS?!”

Oreo and Scarlett stared, mouths hanging open, through the window. Midnight Chatter looked at them, and nodded proudly. “Told you I knew it.”

He hopped out of his bed, rubbing his neck, and headed towards the door. Pinzz, who was still receiving her final examination, watched him in outrage.

Midnight Chatter walked through the two sealed doors and into the waiting room. He stood, looking at the two of them. “Hey guys. What’s up?”

“Uh…” Oreo said.

“What?” Midnight asked.

“Um, MC…” Scarlett said. “That hospital gown…”

Midnight Chatter looked down, and saw that his hospital gown was uncomfortable short and breezy. He quickly dropped his hands between his legs and tried to grin. “Uh, say, either of you guys no where my costume is?”

Oreo and Scarlett exchanged looks, simultaneously making a decision, and sizing each other up. This was, they both knew immediately, going to be an uncomfortable trip.

“Might as well,” Scarlett said.

Oreo sighed. “Okay, Midnight, get some clothes on. We’ve got a convention to go to.”

“Oh boy!” Midnight Chatter said. “Is it like that comics convention that I was at a few weeks ago? Because that was crazy! I never knew that so many people were bilingual in Klingon and Elvish!”

They left, leaving the room silent aside from the whirring of the med systems and the shallow breathing of the sleepers (as well as Pinzz’s occasional curse). And in the bed on the furthest end of the room, X-Raytor lay. His body was slowly shutting down, his heart pumping slower. But his brain was still active, the neurons still fired, and in that way, at least, he was alive. And behind his eyelids, X-Raytor saw…

***

August 2, 1999

X-Raytor arrived at the house a few minutes early. It wasn’t anything special, from the outside- a small, square building, at the edge of the forest. It was quiet here, and X-Raytor found that somewhat disturbing. He’d been living in the heart of the city for about a year now, and he was in no way used to silence like this. It was also the first time he’d been over the bridge in he didn’t know how long.

The lights were on inside the house, but there was no one else outside. X-Raytor didn’t see any cars either. Had everyone had to walk, like him? Then again, maybe some of these people had crazy transportation super powers. Who knew?

X-Raytor found that the white double doors were opened a crack, and he stepped through. He walked immediately into a large living room, with a couch and a few wooden chairs arranged in a loose circle. The room was filled with people in costumes- eight of them. There was a guy in bright green and yellow spandex, and a girl wearing a long, silver cloak. A few of them looked over, and X-Raytor raised a hand weakly. “Uh… hi?”

“Well, looks like our last member’s here!” Studmuffin said. X-Raytor recognized him immediately from the news- tall, muscular, sandy-blond hair, and a costume obviously inspired by Superman’s. The only real difference was the red-and-black color scheme. “I guess we can get this meeting started! If everyone would just take their seats…”

X-Raytor sat down in the wooden chair nearest him. A dark haired girl sat next to him.

“So, what’s new?” She asked.

“Uh… not much?” X-Raytor said. Then, he realized- “Oh- Pinzz? Hey! Sorry, didn’t recognize you without the…”

X-Raytor had met Pinzz a few months ago. They’d busted an illegal Oreo smuggling ring together, even though the next few days were a blur. It had been about three days before X-Raytor finally realized that he needed to go to rehab. He glanced at a half-emptied bottle of wine on one of Studmuffin’s tables, and looked quickly at the floor. The guy in the bright green and yellow spandex sat on his other side.

“Okay, is everyone ready?” Studmuffin asked. “Well, firstly, let me say I’m pleased to see so many of you here. Very pleased. Secondly, for those of you who don’t know me, my name’s Studmuffin. My real name’s Roseidous, if you care, but officially I’m Studmuffin!”

X-Raytor saw a girl in a black shirt, a girl with her ash blond hair pulled back, and two strange devices on her wrists, roll her eyes and smile. Something about her made X-Raytor gape, something he couldn’t quite-

“Third, uh, I guess I should welcome everybody to the first ever meeting of the Justice League!” Studmuffin said. “Not a very original name, I know, but hey, who’s keeping score? And our name isn’t as important as what we’re going to do.

“Now, before we start the actual meeting, how about we do some introductions? We can just go around the circle, clockwise. As you know, I’m Studmuffin, and I’m from L.A., and before that I’m from Washington. I have the power to harness my Chi, the spiritual energy inside of my body, and use it to my will. I could use it to, say, fly, or concentrate it into energy blasts or something to that effect. Next?”

The girl sitting in the seat next to Studmuffin, the girl he had seen earlier in the long, silver cloak, cleared her throat and said, “Um, hi. My name’s- uh, you can call me Rosma Galak.” She seemed to be around X-Raytor’s age, maybe a little older. He could now see that, under the silver robe, she wore a simple black dress. Of course, if he had felt like it, he could have seen what was under that as well, but he was too wired right now, too on edge. And he kept looking at the ash blond girl in the black shirt…

“I’m from, uh, I’m from around here,” Rosma said. “And my… my powers, I guess, are that I can turn invisible. That’s pretty much it.”

“Okay,” Studmuffin said. “Welcome, Rosma. Next?”

X-Raytor looked back at the ash blond girl. Yeah, he was definitely getting some sort of vibe there. Normally, he’d try to make eye contact or something, but his mask sort of made that a problem. Maybe she’d look over anyway…

X-Raytor started, and looked over suddenly as the girl next to Rosma Galak began to speak. She was wearing what seemed to be normal clothes- dark brown pants, and a dark brown shirt, with a white circle or O on it. There was a brown mask around her eyes, and a purple cape draped over her shoulders. There was a tan bag lying on the ground next to her chair. Her hair was red.

“My name’s Anne, but you can call me Oreo Avenger.”

“Oreo Avenger?” Studmuffin blurted.

“Yeah, Oreo Avenger,” Oreo Avenger said. “You see, I can make Oreos appear in my Oreo satchel,” she indicated the bag on the floor. “And if you eat them, they can… change you.”

“Change?” Pinzz asked. “Change how?”

“I used to live with Sebastian the Devil Cat from Hell,” Oreo Avenger said. “Now I live with Hellbeast the Lovely Potted Plant.”

“Really?” Studmuffin asked.

“Yep.” Oreo Avenger said.

“Hot dog!” Studmuffin exclaimed. X-Raytor cocked an eyebrow beneath his mask.

“Now that’s a super power!” Studmuffin said. “Man, do you realize what having that power will do for the team? This is great!”

X-Raytor realized what was going on now. This whole Justice League thing, it was Studmuffin’s brainchild. More than anyone, he wanted this to work.

Studmuffin looked at Rosma. “Er, I mean, not that your power isn’t great, too! I meant to say it was, but, uh…”

“Uh, okay,” Rosma said. X-Raytor noticed a glimmer of distrust in her eyes.

“I can fly, too,” Oreo Avenger said. “So, uh, yeah. Good to be here.”

“So, you can change shapes with those Oreos?” X-Raytor asked. “Do you happen to have any that change people into, say, super models? Because I think we really need a Tyra Banks look alike here, just to, uh, set the mood.”

A few people laughed, and X-Raytor felt reinforced. This was how he’d always eased into a situation- making jokes, usually really lewd ones. He didn’t want to go back to being the schmuck he’d been in high school, but, still, this helped.

“Sure,” Oreo Avenger said. “I can feed you one right now, if you’d like.”

X-Raytor gulped, but then laughed. She was just kidding… right?

“Nice Spider-Man costume, by the way,” Oreo Avenger said, and X-Raytor felt his face get hot under his mask. Was it his fault that he couldn’t come up with an original design? He would have shot back with something about her casual clothes costume, but dropped it. He didn’t feel like sulking tonight.

The guy on X-Raytor’s right spoke next. He was the only one who kept as much concealed as X-Raytor- only his face was visible through the green and yellow spandex. “Hey, whassup everyone? I’m Superdude, and I just ran down here from New York. Now, you may all be wonderin’- what’s my incredible super power? Well, let me tell you, Superdude is supafast! I can run up to, like, sixty miles per hour! Maybe even sixty five, if I stretch enough!”

Silence. Did he just refer to himself in the third person? X-Raytor thought. What a loser! X-Raytor can’t believe anyone would do that! X-Raytor thinks Superdude is a conceited- uh, oops…

Superdude, clearly taking the other super heroes and heroines’ silence as awe, folded his arms over his chest and nodded proudly. “I know kung fu, too. I learned it from Bruce Lee.”

Silence again.

“Wait…” X-Raytor said. “Didn’t Bruce Lee die in 1973?”

Superdude stiffened. “Uh…”

“Looks like Superdude is supa full of crap.” The ash blond girl said, looking slyly at X-Raytor. He stifled a gasp, and managed a quick smile. Of course, it was underneath his mask, so it didn’t really matter…

“Hey, come on…” Studmuffin said.

“Naw, it’s cool,” Superdude said, grinning and holding up a hand. “You caught me. I really learned from Kwan Lee Ho’s Mini Shaolin in China Town. But, yo, sayin’ Bruce Lee sounds cool. Might be good for PR or whatever,”

“You’ve got a point,” Studmuffin said.

X-Raytor rolled his eyes behind his mask. He glanced over at the ash blond girl, and, sure enough, she was looking at him. He realized, suddenly, that everyone was looking at him.

“Oh, gah, my turn?” He said, utilizing all of his smoothness and charm.

“Yeah,” Studmuffin said.

“Oh, um, okay,” X-Raytor cleared his throat. “My name is X-Raytor. I’m from- here. ‘Home grown super hero’ or whatever it was they called me on Channel Five that time. Anyway, um, my power is x-ray vision. I can see through things, and I can peel things away at different layers.”

Like, say, clothes,

“Oh, um, I can also kick up the power and shoot sorta laser beams from my eyes.” He winced inwardly. Why hadn’t he prepared this? “I can also change the levels on that. Oh, um, and there’s actually a reason why I’m keeping this mask on- there’s, well, there’s sort of radiation pouring from my eyeballs.”

Silence.

“But, uh, this contains it?” X-Raytor said quickly. “Sort of? Enough, at least. I mean, nobody’s at risk or anything…”

“Smooth,” Pinzz muttered.

“Well, the mask also protects you all from being blinded by my radiant sexiness.” X-Raytor said. “But, yeah, that’s pretty much it. I’ll be here all week.”

“You can penetrate on varying layers, is that what you said?” The ash blond girl asked.

“Uh, yeah,” X-Raytor said.

“So, you could technically look through our clothes.” It wasn’t a question or an accusation, just a statement.

All of the girls, with the exception of the ash blond girl and Pinzz, stiffened.

Could? X-Raytor thought. Already have. Quite a bit, actually.

“Er, well, I’m sure X-Raytor wouldn’t, er, do that,” Studmuffin said. He was looking at X-Raytor like he very, very badly wanted to be him.

“Oh, uh, of course not,” X-Raytor said. Pause. “Well, that is, in case anyone wants me to check for unsightly moles or something, because then I’d be glad to… uh… never mind.”

Pinzz muttered something, and Rosma gave him a dangerous look. The ash blond girl laughed.

“Okay, I’m next,” Pinzz said. “My name’s Pinzz, and I’m from Montana. I’ve got the thing- the thing where, if I push this little button behind my ear, I can activate this suit. Well, look, let me show you.”

Pinzz stood up, and pressed a button behind her ear. Immediately, blue covered her entire body, like a new, shiny skin. It spread out from her ear, looking a bit like wet Playdoh, until it had covered her from head to foot. Her eyes peered from beneath blue lids.

X-Raytor wasn’t surprised- he’d seen her do this when they had teamed up a few months back. It still creeped him out, though. She had told him it had come from touching some sort of glowing space rock or something- it was weird, to say the least.

“When I’m like this,” Pinzz said. “I can stick to walls, and blend into the background, and I can stretch my fingers out and use them to swing or whatever. I can also use them to, like, pull myself to a wall or something. It’s pretty cool.”

“Uh, great!” Studmuffin said, as Pinzz deactivated her suit and sat back down. “Next?”

The girl on Pinzz’s other side sat up. She was a chestnut haired girl, wearing a long, flowing dress of red and orange fabric, with various slits up and down it- almost like tongues of fire. It looked like the sort of thing a princess in one of those old school Disney movies would wear. X-Raytor could tell that she was a bit older than him.

“Hey, y’all,” she said. “I guess you’ll all call me Scarlett Fyre, but my real name’s Lori, and I’m from Alabama. I’ve got two powers, actually. One is that when I sing, I- I can make fires. So, like, be careful with Christmas caroling and all that. Also, I’ve got a sort of weird power… I can, pretty much, turn into any animal I touch. I got this from some sort of- of magic box thing, it’s hard to explain. But I’ve got a few of these… transformations that I can do now. The most useful one’s probably the elephant, but I’ll be getting more soon.”

There was a brief pause, and then Scarlett said, “Listen, I want to make something clear. This thing we’re doing, this- League. This isn’t just a publicity stunt, right? Because- because I want to help people, I want to do something good. And if we’re not gonna do that…”

“We will,” Studmuffin said. “Trust me, we will.”

Scarlett nodded. “Okay, then. Sounds good.”

“Cool,” Studmuffin said. “Next?”

X-Raytor turned to look at the guy between Scarlett and the ash blond girl, and felt a burst of surprise. It was like he hadn’t even noticed the guy before. And now that he did… well, now that he did, it didn’t seem like there was really anything special about him. He was wearing a gray costume, with the letters IJ on his chest. There was a gray mask covering his eyes, but even without that, X-Raytor thought, he wouldn’t have been distinguishable in a crowd. The only thing in anyway remarkable about him was his somewhat wild hair. He began to speak in a bored monotone:

“Yeah, my name’s Insipid Justice, and I’m from Hartford, Connecticut. I have the powers of insipidness, and that allows me to sort of blend in to the background sometimes. So, like, in a fight I can sneak up on people, and everything’s just sort of bland so I can’t really feel pain or anything. Uh huh.”

And suddenly, X-Raytor, the X-Raytor who lay on an infirmary bed in 2003, flashed quickly to a vision in black and white, a fight in a dark alley somewhere. He saw Insipid Justice walk up behind a wild looking man with a knife, and grab his arm. The knife wielder whipped around and suddenly the black and white was broken by the sudden appearance of red on Insipid Justice’s arm. His face blank, not showing pain or fear or anger, Insipid Justice slammed his fist into the thug’s face. The man stumbled back and Insipid Justice hit him again. He fell to his knees. Insipid Justice swung his fist, caught the man in the side of the head, caused blood to fly out of his nose and mouth. And Insipid Justice hit him again, and again, and the entire time his face was horrifically blank and bored and empty-

Another flash to a few moments later, and Insipid Justice, his knuckles now wet and red, reached up and pulled the knife from his arm. He looked blankly at the gash in his arm, and then looked away, like it was just a rip in his sleeve-

And then he was back, back to the meeting in 1999. Studmuffin stifled a yawn and said, “Uh, thanks. Next?”

“That’s me,” the ash blond girl said. “It looks like we’re all doing this business like, and I guess we’ll be calling each other by our game names or whatever, so, here you go. Call me Sticky Spectre. My power’s sort of weird- I’m pretty much tape incarnate. I can change the… adhesiveness of my skin, and that allows me to stick to things, or make things stick to me. I could also make it so that I’m not adhesive at all, so that nothing would stick to me, if I ever needed to do that. It works through my clothes, too, by the way.”

“So, you can stick to anything, huh?” X-Raytor asked, waggling his eyebrows in a way that he knew could be seen through his mask.

“Except little perverts in tights,” Sticky Spectre said.

“What are those things on your arms?” Studmuffin asked.

Sticky Spectre raised one of her arms. “Some extra help. Tape launchers. I can shoot tape out of this and tie people up or something, and I can also use it to swing around with.”

“Way to go with the Spider-Man rip off,” Pinzz said.

“Look who’s talking,” Sticky Spectre said immediately. Pinzz scowled.

“Yeah, guys, stop ripping off Spider-Man!” X-Raytor said. “What sort of depraved human being would rip off Spider-Man, in any way, shape, or form? That’s just cruel and unusual! Come up with your own ideas, for Pete (Parker)’s sake!”

“Uh… yeah. Anyway, I think that’s everyone!” Studmuffin said. “Now, we can really get down to business! I’ve been thinking about what our general mission should be, and I think our focus should be on crime fighting and helping on a domestic level, because everything else gets into waaaaay too much crap.” Pause. “At least, that’s what my agent tells me.”

“We have an agent?” Superdude asked.

“I have an agent.” Studmuffin said.

“We have an agent?”

“Well, we’re gonna need an agent if we want to go public,” Studmuffin said. “But, hey, enough of that boring stuff. We need to figure out how we’re going to go about this whole crime fighting thing.”

“Is that really the best you can do?” Sticky Spectre asked.

“Uh… what?” Studmuffin said.

“I mean, no offense,” Sticky Spectre said. “But there’s all of us here, and you think the best we can do is fight crime? I mean, dude, there’s so much more that we could, and should, be doing.”

“Well, politics is just messy,” Studmuffin said. “I mean, I failed high school Gov, but even if I didn’t, it’s still really messy.”

“I’m not even talking about politics,” Sticky Spectre said. “I mean, like, if we’re this big group, we’re not just gonna be fighting petty crooks or anything, right? I mean, whatever we do, it’s gotta be big.”

“I agree,” X-Raytor said. “I mean, I’ve been fighting inner city crime for a while, and that’s all fine, but if there’s going to be a lot of us here, we should be doing… I don’t know, bigger stuff. Let the cops handle the rest.”

He wondered- did he really agree with it, or was he just trying to mack on Sticky Spectre? Well, something about it did seem right… but X-Raytor knew better than to trust himself.

Sticky Spectre rewarded him with a smile, and he got a little tingle. Interpret that as you wish.

“We should be trying to help where we can,” Scarlett said. “We can’t just be jerks and say we’re too high and mighty to do certain things. We need to use our powers to do good wherever we can, whenever we can. If not, then what’s the point?”

“Hey, better than wasting our time on small stuff and missing the big stuff,” Sticky Spectre said. “That’s all I’m trying to say.”

“Well, hey, this whole super hero ethics thing is interesting,” Pinzz said. “Oh, wait. No. It’s not. So how about we get down to what really matters- where the hell are we supposed to be doing all of this from?”

“Well,” Studmuffin said, spreading his arms out. “Here. I’m sure we can add onto it a bit.”

“And are we seriously going to be the Justice League?” Oreo Avenger asked.

“Sure, why not?” Studmuffin asked.

“Well, it’s just… sort of a rip off.”

“Hey, we’re a league promoting justice!” Studmuffin said. “I think we’re entitled to it. Anyway, unless anyone has any other objections, I think we can say that the Justice League is official!”

“Shouldn’t we have, like, a toast or something?” Scarlett asked.

Rosma’s face flickered briefly.

“Well, we still have some wine…” Studmuffin said.

X-Raytor grimaced. “Er, could we not? I’m, uh, I’m seven weeks sober, and I’d really…”

“Oh, sure,” Studmuffin said. “Uh, does anyone have anything else?”

“I’ve got some Oreos,” Oreo Avenger said.

“Er, anything else?” Studmuffin asked.

“Oh, no, not the ‘special’ kind,” Oreo Avenger said. “I’ve got some plain old Oreos.”

“Oreos it is, then!” Studmuffin said, and Oreo Avenger began to pass them out. When everyone had one, they stood in a circle, holding their Oreos like wine glasses.

“You know, this actually looks really stupid,” X-Raytor said. Someone hushed him.

“To the Justice League!” Studmuffin said. “May we live long and prosper!”

Oh, great, we’ve got a Trekkie leading us, X-Raytor thought. But, at the same time he felt… happy.

“To the Justice League!” Everyone said, knocked their Oreos together, and ate them. X-Raytor had to push his mask up to under his nose to eat his, but that was as far as he’d go.

A moment later, Superdude turned into a hedgehog.

“Oops…” Oreo Avenger said.

***

Now

The image stayed frozen in X-Raytor’s mind for a moment. The early Justice League- it felt so foreign, but still familiar. Studmuffin trying to make everything work, Rosma not trusting anyone, and himself, of course, always hanging on Sticky Spectre. His heart rate was dangerously low now, and he couldn’t feel a thing…

***

“How’s the neck?” Scarlett asked.

Midnight Chatter shrugged. He was in the driver’s seat of the Justice Van. The others had, apparently, taken the Justice Jet down to the wreckage of Jackson Prison. “Still sort of sore. That jar guy really did a… whatever it’s called, on me.”

“A job.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, we’re just glad you’re all right,” Oreo Avenger said from the back seat. “Take a left up here. Left!”

“The light’s turning yellow…” Midnight Chatter said.

“Then gun it!!”

Midnight Chatter flew around the corner as the light went from yellow to red.

“See, this is why I should be sitting up front,” Oreo Avenger said. “I could help you with the directions.”

“Well, don’t worry,” Scarlett said. “I have a pretty good idea of where the Banquet Hall is.”

“Ever been there?”

“Once.”

“I’ve been there twice.”

“Uh… do I take a right up here?” Midnight Chatter asked, sounding somewhat uncomfortable.

“Yes.” Both girls said. There was a brief, tense silence.

Then Scarlett said, “We should play a car game.”

“Sounds like fun.” Oreo said evenly.

“What do you say to… Twenty Questions?” Scarlett asked.

“Sounds good to me.”

“Me too. What category?”

“Pastry making.” Oreo said.

Moulin Rouge,” Scarlett countered.

“Er… how about Broadway musicals?”

“Fine.” Scarlett said.

“Fine.” Oreo said. “Who goes first.”

“I’ll go first,” Scarlett said.

“That’s okay, I can go first,” Oreo said.

“Uh… I could just go first…” Midnight Chatter said.

“NO!” Scarlett and Oreo yelled.

“Uh, okay…” Midnight Chatter said, ducking his head.

“I’ll go.” Scarlett said.

“I’ll go.” Oreo said.

“No, that’s okay, I’ll go.”

“I will.”

“I will.”

“I will!”

“Guys!” Midnight Chatter said. “Come on! Okay, okay, listen… I know there’s some, like, weirdness going on here with the three of us, and I think it’s about me… but can we, like, please, just forget about that right now? I mean, aren’t we supposed to be getting X-Raytor some help?”

“Right,” Oreo said. “Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Scarlett said. “Didn’t mean to get all crazy on you.”

“One thing though,” Oreo said. “Who said this was about you, Midnight?”

“Yeah,” Scarlett said. “That’s pretty conceited.”

“Men!” Oreo said. “They think everything’s about them!”

“Tell me about it!” Scarlett said.

“Uh…” Midnight Chatter said.

“Oh, look!” Oreo said, leaning up between the two front seats. “There it is!”

Up ahead was the Dowed Banquet Hall, and over the front door was a huge banner: “SIXTH ANNUAL NATIONAL PRIEST CONVENTION. WELCOME!” Underneath it was a Bible verse that Oreo couldn’t read from where she was.

“Well,” Scarlett said. “Here we go.”

***

December 24, 1999

It was Christmas Eve, but the city had yet to receive any snow. It’s cold enough, X-Raytor thought, as he sat on the roof of what they were now calling the Hall of Justice.

The building hadn’t changed much since the first meeting, although there were plans drawn up to add three more wings (they were already showing the computer model as the “official” picture on the news). Some of the other Justice Leaguers had also been pushing for a big dome on top, and some more Roman-style architecture, but X-Raytor didn’t really care.

The roof was, about, the only quiet place in the entire building. He’d moved out of his little abandoned warehouse months ago, and in that time he’d remembered, exactly, why he’d hated Friends (well, aside from the fact that it was pure and unbridled crap). Why Studmuffin had thought two bathrooms would be enough for nine people, much less the sixteen that the League had grown to over the past few months. Of course, for all of his amazing Chi powers, Studmuffin didn’t seem to have too much going on upstairs.

Maybe if it had just been him and the girls upstairs, and Studmuffin, Superdude, and Insipid Justice in the basement, then maybe he wouldn’t have minded. But now, sharing a small house with fifteen other people… it was driving him nuts.

In the last two weeks of August, new people had started joining the League like crazy- which was fine, since if they were going to be doing some major good, they’d need more than nine people. But these new people…

Well, there was Violet Princess, who he didn’t mind at all. No, not in the least bit. He especially liked the black leotard and tights. Very nice. He didn’t get her power exactly- magery, she’d said. He assumed that had something to do with magic. Hadn’t he heard that word before, maybe among the Tolkien-worshipping, D&D nerd population at his high school. He seemed to remember giving a fifth level mage a swirly once. Or was that a seventh level ranger…?

Then there was OMEGA, who had a relatively useful power- telekinesis- but was a bit of a loner. He also had these glowing blue eyes that gave X-Raytor the serious heebie jeebies. He also got the distinct impression that OMEGA had once been among the ranks of the aforementioned Tolkien-worshipping, D&D nerds. He didn’t get on X-Raytor’s nerves, though, so he really had no problem with him.

Then there was Eric. Eric was just frightening It had been X-Raytor who had answered the door that one day in August, to find Eric standing there, in nothing but his socks. He hadn’t really gotten an invitation or seen a want ad or anything, but had apparently just wandered up to their door. And for reasons that X-Raytor was still trying to figure out, Studmuffin had let him stay. He always had wondered about Studmuffin…

There was Dragon Girl, who he didn’t know very well. She claimed she could turn into a dragon, but X-Raytor had never seen her do it. There was Raven and Xiao, who were both in their early teens but, surprisingly, not all that annoying. They were, really, (with the unfortunate exception of Eric) the only newbies that he’d actually hung out with. He’d try to hang out with Violet Princess once, but his cheek still hurt, and he wasn’t sure if it was safe to talk to her just yet.

And then there was Isomorphix. He was a shady guy, dark and mysterious and all of that. Smart, too. He didn’t have any super powers, but X-Raytor did not want to be on the business end of his katana. Iso never talked about his past, but X-Raytor had a feeling that hearing about it would turn even his blood cold.

Beneath him, the First Annual Justice League Christmas Eve Party was in full swing. He’d gotten sick of it quickly- the snacks were cold, the punch sucked, he couldn’t touch the wine, and none of the girls seemed to want to stand under the mistletoe with him. He could have been like Insipid Justice or Isomorphix and just hung out in a shadowy corner, or something (well, actually, Insipid Justice hung out in the brightly lit, boring corner), but he’d decided to save what was left of his dignity and come up here to the roof.

The winter air was doubly cold through his spandex, but he was used to it by now. He’d spent the winter of ’98 in the abandoned warehouse, with nothing but his spandex (and the occasional Sam Adams) to keep him warm. Starting a fire would be too risky- he couldn’t risk anyone finding him.

The moon was out, among the gray clouds, and out in the distance he could see the lights of the bridge. And beyond that, the city, shining like an enormous urban gem. He felt homesick, almost, whenever he saw the city at night. He’d even felt it before he’d begun living in the city, in the warehouse. Even back when he lived in suburbia, he’d felt like the city was his true home. He could see the Metropolis Tower, all lit up in green and red as it was every Christmas. He could remember, at the age of ten, going into the city to see the Christmas Magic stage show at the Stanley Music Hall. He could remember going too the massive Buy Me Toys on Thirty-seventh Street. He remembered the snow bunched on the sides of the street, black from the car exhaust and pitted with rocks. He remembered…

“Pretty cold up here,” someone said.

X-Raytor looked around, and saw Sticky Spectre standing on the roof behind him. She had a black jacket on around her, but underneath she was still in costume.

“I really need to get long sleeves,” she said. “How’s spandex?”

“Not much better,” X-Raytor said. “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing,” Sticky Spectre said. “I just sort of got tired of being down there. I’m not a party person.”

“I’m a party person,” X-Raytor said. “But this is way too tame. Besides, I’ve been living with you guys for the past few months, and- no offense- I’m sick of ya.”

Sticky Spectre laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I’m wondering if I should just go back to my apartment. Maybe you guys can page me or whatever.”

“Well, hey, we could just go to a cheap hotel room right now,” X-Raytor said.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

X-Raytor grinned under his mask.

“So, this is where you’re always disappearing to,” Sticky Spectre said. “Huh. Well, I guess it is pretty quiet up here,”

“Quiet enough,” X-Raytor said. “It’s weird, a few months ago the silence would have driven me crazy. Now I just want everyone to shut up.”

“This whole thing is weird,” Sticky Spectre said. She walked up and stood next to him, looking out at the city. X-Raytor glanced quickly at her leg (well, you know, since it was right next to him).

“When do you think we’re actually going to start doing stuff?” Sticky Spectre asked. “Shouldn’t we have, like, some super villains to fight or something?”

“I don’t know, I’m not sure I want to go up against a guy with super powers just yet,” X-Raytor said. “Besides, how about last week? We finally broke up that sexy orange hat smuggling ring. I’ve been trying to bring those guys down for ages.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s just,” Sticky Spectre exhaled, and her breath wafted up as steam. “It’s just that, you take something like that down… and another ring is going to take its place. I mean, that’s just the way crime is. It’s human nature. I think we should be handling stuff… above the norm, above human nature. Things on our level. Because, you know what will happen- they’ll get lazy. They’ll expect us to clean up the mess they make of their own stupid society, and we’ll just be like their stupid super powered guard dogs. I’m sure you’ve noticed how useless the police are. It’s gonna get worse, believe me. The second I debuted in Philly- bam. The police department went to crap. The Round House was, like, just this lounge for them all or something.”

She sighed. “Sorry, I’m rambling. It’s just that, we have these powers, right? And we’re going to help people with them, because- because we can. But, in the end, people are just going to take us for granted.”

“Well, that seems pretty inevitable,” X-Raytor said.

“I guess so,” Sticky Spectre said. “But, hey, we’re super heroes, right? If anyone can make a big change, it’s us.”

“Even Eric?” X-Raytor asked.

“Well… maybe not Eric.”

X-Raytor laughed again. This night wasn’t turning out to be so bad after all.

“So, what’s going on under that mask?” Sticky Spectre asked.

X-Raytor looked up. “Huh?”

“I mean- do you ever take that thing off?” She asked. “No offense, I wear my costume twenty four-seven now too, but- you do have a face under there, right?”

“Yeah,” X-Raytor said. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I have a face.”

“Any chance I can see that face?” She asked.

X-Raytor ran his teeth over his lower lip. “Well, see, here’s the thing- it might not be safe. I’m not sure how this radiation thing works… but it may have, like, stored up under here. You might sprout an arm or something.”

Sticky Spectre laughed. “So, pimples, huh?”

“No, no pimples.” X-Raytor said.

“Sure.”

X-Raytor smiled. “Well, if you want a picture- I’m your average white boy with brown hair and brown eyes. I also happen to be hot beyond all reason.”

“For a second there,” Sticky Spectre said. “I thought you were almost going to say something without being… well, you.”

“I’m tricky like that.” X-Raytor said.

Sticky Spectre grinned. Then she reached down, and grabbed the bottom of X-Raytor’s mask. “Okay, let’s see what’s going on under here.”

“Hey, come on!” X-Raytor said, laughing and trying to pull his mask back down. She got it up to under his nose before he was able to pull away, almost falling over.

“Boy, do you have issues,” Sticky Spectre said, still grinning.

“Hey, you get to see my manly jutting chin. I think that should be enough to tie you over.”

“Hmm.” Sticky Spectre said. There was a moment of silence, and X-Raytor realized how close she was. She had blue eyes, he saw now.

“What’s your real name, anyway?” X-Raytor asked, and his voice came out a bit more hushed than he’d intended.

“Liese.” Sticky Spectre said. “Liese Taylor. How about you?”

“I’m… James.” X-Raytor said. “James.”

“James,” Sticky Spectre said. “It really is cold up here.”

“Yeah.” X-Raytor said, but he really couldn’t tell. She was so close, her face was right there. He could feel her breath, he could see her shoulders move as she inhaled and exhaled. He could almost feel the warmth from her body. Something rose up in his throat, and he said,

“Sometimes I feel like you’re hiding something.”

Sticky Spectre smiled a little, and said, “Maybe that’s just my amazing super heroine mystique.”

“No, really,” X-Raytor said. “I feel like- like there’s something…”

“Well, maybe there is,” Sticky Spectre said.

And then she kissed him. X-Raytor felt electricity race through his body, he felt his heart pounding like it was going to explode. But there were so many memories like this, so many times where he…

He shut his eyes against them, and sat up, almost desperately pushing his lips into hers. And he could feel how warm she was now, and he wanted to reach out, and he wanted to touch her-

And then Sticky Spectre stood up, slowly, and looked back down at him. “Merry Christmas.”

She walked back to the roof door, and down the staircase, back inside.

X-Raytor sat alone, on the roof, his mask pushed lopsidedly up over his mouth. Something had just happened to him, something bigger than just kissing a girl. He felt like he was at a turning point, a hinge or something like that. He felt like there was something enormous and mysterious hanging over his head, and he wouldn’t be able to get a good look at it until…

X-Raytor shivered. But that may have just been the cold.

***

Now

“Okay, here’s the plan,” Oreo Avenger said. They were standing, a bit conspicuously, at the front door of the Dowed Banquet Hall’s Kennedy Room. The room was filled with priests, standing, or sitting, and talking, while a few others milled around on a stage across the room. There was a long refreshments table, covered in a white tablecloth.

“Just mingle, casually,” Oreo said. “Talk to some of these guys, and then ask them, politely, if they know how to undo the works of shadow demons from the underworld.”

“Er… I’m not sure if that’ll work too well…” Scarlett said. “They’d probably kick us out if we did that.”

“Hmm, you’ve got a point,” Oreo said. “Let’s try to do it… carefully, then. I’ll start on the left side of the room.”

“I’ll do the right.” Scarlett said.

“I’ll canvass the refreshments table!” Midnight Chatter chimed in.

Oreo Avenger wandered around, receiving strange looks from many priests as she passed. It eventually dawned on her that she had no idea what she was looking for. She decided to pick a priest at random, and selected a tall priest with graying hair. As she approached, she could read his nametag:

FR. BANION
CALIFORNIA

The name of his parish was too smudged to read.

“Hi, Father Banion?” Oreo said, extending a hand. “I’m Oreo Avenger, and I’m a member of the Justice League. You may have heard of us,”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard of you,” Father Banion said, a little guarded.

“Anyway, a friend of mine needs some help, and I was wondering if you had any experience in-“

“Young lady,” Father Banion said. “Have you ever heard a speech on chastity?”

Oreo paused. “Uh… what?”

“The city has many allures for young people,” he said. “I hope you have not been pulled into the dark world of promiscuity by, oh, living in the same building with several men.”

“Er… no, of course not…” Oreo Avenger said, shifting uncomfortably.

Father Banion gave her what Oreo’s father would describe as “the fish eye.” “Now, young lady, your parents asked me to talk to you today because they are very concerned about your behavior.”

“I think you have me mistaken with, uh…”

“In our society,” said Father Banion. “Many people rush into unattached sexual relationships because they feel that they will never have the true, pure, genuine love that they’ve always dreamed of. But that’s not true! Oh no, it’s not true in the least bit. Now, I’m not going to tell you that sex is bad. For, indeed, it is not! It’s an incredible gift from heaven, and a treasure of love exchanged between two people. But to receive this gift for all it is, you must make it as heavenly as it was intended to be! And that is where the virtue of chastity comes into play. You see, some think that ‘chastity’ simply means ‘not having sex,’ but that is actually abstinence- what you can’t do and can’t have. But chastity is what you can do, and can have, right now. You see, chastity…”

And with each word, Father Banion’s voice seemed to get louder. As his voice got louder, more and more people began to look over, and stare at Oreo Avenger, sometimes shaking their heads or wagging their fingers.

Please, if there’s a God, Oreo thought. Pleeeeeease just kill me now…

On the other side of the room, Scarlett Fyre had set her sights on an old, hunched priest. She figured, if he was older, he might have more knowledge of this sort of thing, maybe. His name tag read: “FATHER JEREMY SPLAINE, ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON.

“Hi, Father Splaine?” Scarlett said. “My name is Scarlett Fyre, and I was wondering if I could ask you a, uh, theological question.”

“Father Jeremy, please,” he said. “Back in the day, they called me Jemmy!”

“Well, uh, Father Jeremy,” Scarlett said. “Do you know anything about… exorcisms?”

Father Jeremy frowned. “No, no, not really. They taught me the Prayer of Exorcism a long time ago, but now…”

“Oh, well, thank you anyway, Father,” Scarlett said.

“But if there was anyone who could do it,” Father Jeremy said. “It would have been Cardinal Stephen Fermoyle, God rest his soul! Never met a finer man! I first met him when he was just a young Roman curate, coming home after studying in Vatican City. I was one of his altar boys, you know…”

Meanwhile, Midnight Chatter was making a detailed examination of the refreshments table.

Vegetables, vegetables, oooh, muffin! Hmm, here’s some bread. I wonder what this spread is, here? Looks sort of like spinach or something. I guess I could try a litt- oh, that’s good!

It occurred to him, suddenly, that he should be talking to priests, seeing how X-Raytor was, most likely, dying slowly and horribly back at the Hall. He looked around, and located a priest standing apart from the rest, a man with dark hair and a growing bald spot. He was glancing anxiously at the door, and as Midnight Chatter approached, he saw him start to pull a box of cigarettes out of his pocket, and then stuffed them back in.

“Uh, hi!” Midnight Chatter said. The priest jumped, and then calmed down.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m trying to quit smoking, and I’m sort of on edge. Uh… is there a reason you’re dressed like that?”

Midnight Chatter saluted. “Midnight Chatter, sir! Justice League, Level Five!” He wasn’t sure what “Level Five” meant, but he said it anyway.

“Uh huh,” the priest said. “I’m Father Michael Staub, Our Lady of the Roses parish. It’s up in Chicago. You can call me Father Mike.”

“Hi!” Midnight Chatter said. “I’m Midnight Chatter!”

“… Yeah.”

“Anyway, I was wondering,” Midnight Chatter said. “Do you know anything about exorcisms?”

Father Mike looked at him blankly. “I can say the Nicene Creed backwards…”

“Oh,” Midnight Chatter said. “Because, you see, I have this friend, and he was blasted by this demon in this alien body or something, and now there’s all of this crazy demonic residue in his body, and he’s dying and stuff, and the only way for us to save him is if we get an exorcism, which actually may or may not work since-“

“Breathe!” Father Mike said. “Breathe. Please. Listen, don’t tell anyone I told you this, but if you want to find someone who can do exorcisms, ask Father McClendon. He organized this whole thing, he’s the local priest, you might know him. He knows everything that goes on here.”

“Wow, okay!” Midnight Chatter said. “Thanks, Father Mike! Good luck with the quitting!”

Father Mike shut his eyes tightly. “Prayer of Serenity… Prayer of Serenity…”

Midnight Chatter found Oreo and Scarlett by the refreshment table, but neither of them were eating.

“Hey, guys!” He said. “How’d it go?”

Oreo’s eyes were wide and ringed. She shakily held up a laminated card with her signature on it. It read:

I, Oreo Avenger, agree to abstain from sex until after marriage

“I have a ‘I’m Worth Waiting For,’ shirt in my satchel,” she said, and her face twitched.

“Er, how about you, Scarlett?” Midnight Chatter asked.

Scarlett just looked disgruntled. “Every single person I talked to… every single one… If I hear one more thing about that Stephen Fermoyle guy…” She clenched her teeth. “How many lives did he touch with his wisdom and grace anyway?!”

“Okay…” Midnight Chatter said. “Um, I think I found out something.”

“What?” Oreo asked.

“The guy who organized this thing, Father McClendon, apparently he knows everything about everyone here.”

“Worth a shot,” Scarlett said. “I just saw him, too. He’s over by the stage.

A few moments later they stood before Father McClendon, a short man with a red face and white-streaked hair. After Oreo had explained why they were there, he said, “Exorcism, you say?”

“Yeah,” Oreo said.

“Well, you see,” Father McClendon said. “The Church usually doesn’t like to make any public notice of exorcisms. It encourages people to believe that they are possessed, and to seek out spiritual help when they really may need physical or mental help. But, from time to time… well, from time to time, you occasionally get something real. And that’s what we want to focus on- those blessedly rare times when it’s real.”

“This is real, Father, believe me,” Scarlett said.

Father McClendon bit his lip and nodded. “Follow me.”

He led them across the room, to a priest in his mid-forties, with dark hair and wire rim glasses.

“This is Father Sean McQuinn, from Michigan,” Father McClendon said. “I believe he can help you.”

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

April 3, 2000

“Nighthawking!” X-Raytor said. He ran, bunched his muscles, just like he had at so many track meets, and leapt from the roof of the building. He landed squarely on the roof of the next building, and kept moving. The roofs were damp from the recent rain, but that didn’t affect his traction any.

The irradiation that had given X-Raytor his powers hadn’t affected the rest of his body in anyway. He didn’t have anything like super speed or strength. But he had done track all through high school, and while he hadn’t done it at all between… between what had happened at the beginning of junior year and when he got his powers, he still hadn’t been able to wear off all of his muscles. And after spending a year on the streets, he felt healthier then he ever had.

Above him, Oreo Avenger flew, cape flapping behind her in the night wind. Sticky Spectre was ahead of them, tape slinging from building to building, occasionally sticking herself to a wall and waiting for them to catch up.

“Where do you think she got that name from, anyway?” X-Raytor asked. “Nighthawking. Why do we even need code words? I think Pinzz has seen one too many episodes of Mission: Impossible.”

Through the wind and all, seeing how she was flying, X-Raytor doubted that Oreo Avenger could hear him. But if she could, he was sure, she would have been amazed at his unparalleled wit.

Up ahead, Sticky Spectre had stopped again, sticking to the side of a large air conditioning system on top of a building. She was doing the thing where she stuck to a wall using only her back and feet, leaving her arms free or, as the case was now, folded over her chest. X-Raytor came to a running stop on the roof of the building, and stood, panting. Oreo Avenger landed next to them.

“See something?” Oreo asked.

“Nah,” Sticky Spectre said. “I just figured we needed a break. Besides, how are we supposed to stop a crime if we’re going by too fast to see it happening?”

“I’m fine with resting,” X-Raytor said, and sat down on the roof. “Whoo! I haven’t run like that for a while.”

“What, do you have a secret life as a gymnast, X-y?” Oreo Avenger teased.

“Don’t call me X-y,” X-Raytor muttered. “And, no, I was on the track team in high school.”

“You were a jock?” Sticky Spectre asked, raising an eyebrow. “You always struck me as more of the drilling-holes-in-the-wall-of-the-girl’s-locker-room kind of guy.”

“Your point being?”

“He’s still that kind of guy,” Oreo said.’

“Once again, your point being?”

“Man, high school,” Oreo Avenger said. “I almost wish I’d finished high school. But, you know, whatever. This is better, I think. My dad pretty much taught me everything I could learn from there anyway.”

“What’s your dad, some sort of genius?” Sticky Spectre asked.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Oreo said. “He’s a scientist.”

“I hear scientists are impossible to live with,” X-Raytor said. “Especially scientist chefs.”

“That wasn’t even funny.” Oreo said.

“Ouch.”

“No, she’s right, it wasn’t,” Sticky Spectre said. “My parents weren’t geniuses, I can tell you that. Didn’t mean they weren’t impossible to live with, but they weren’t geniuses in the least bit.”

“My parents were cool,” X-Raytor said. “They used to fight a lot, when I was little, but you know, things got better as I got older.”

Everything went sort of quiet. A little bit ago, at some weird Justice League bonding thing, X-Raytor had told everyone what he had done to his family. How he had mutated them all, how he had no idea where they were now, or if they were even alive. He had regretted it at first, because people had treated him with pity. He didn’t want pity- disgust, disgust he could handle, he gave himself enough of that, but not pity. There was nothing to pity him for, anyway. It was his fault. Things were mostly back to normal now, but everyone still viewed it as a sort of touchy subject.

“My mom,” Oreo Avenger said. “My mom died a while ago. Well, no, she didn’t die, really. She was killed.”

Silence again. “What happened?” Sticky Spectre asked.

“Well, someone…” Oreo’s eyes narrowed, and her mouth went into a line. “Someone. Someone sold out my mom to some of her enemies, and… yeah.”

“Your mom had enemies?” X-Raytor blurted. “I mean, sorry…”

“No. Yeah, she did.” Oreo sighed. “My mom was the Crimson Avenger.”

“What?” X-Raytor said, at the same time that Sticky Spectre said, “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Oreo said. “I didn’t mention it because I thought it’d sound too… I don’t know. I don’t like talking about it anyway.”

There was another pause, as X-Raytor tried to figure out something to say. He managed: “I-“

And then the night was broken by a gunshot.

“Well, there we go!” Sticky Spectre said. She hopped down from the air conditioning machine, and looked over the edge of the roof. X-Raytor turned to say something to Oreo Avenger, but she was already in the air.

“I think it came from down there…” Sticky Spectre said.

X-Raytor looked over the roof just in time to see a man run out of the Wine and Spirits store, and run across the street, towards the building they were perched on. He diisappeared down an alley a few buildings down.

“Oreo, see what direction he’s going in!” Sticky Spectre said.

Oreo flew to the other side of the building, and then flew back. “He’s headed this way.”

“We can try and cut him off, then,” Sticky Spectre said. “X-Raytor, can you make it to the ground from here?”

“Uh, sure,” X-Raytor said. He looked over the edge. After all, this wasn’t the highest building he’d ever jumped off of… he thought…

Oreo had already swooped down into the back alleys, and X-Raytor ran to the other side of the roof. He glanced down once, made sure there was a dumpster below him, and then hopped over.

And as he came up in a short arc, directly over the edge of the roof, for some reason he looked back. He saw, against the moon, Sticky Spectre, perfectly in profile. It was like the shape of her body had been engraved against the dark sky, and now it was being engraved into his head.

And then he was falling, feet first towards the ground. He hit the dumpster, and sank into the trash. X-Raytor quickly pulled himself up, and landed on the street, as Sticky Spectre lowered herself down on a line of tape.

“You would not believe how gross that is,” X-Raytor said.

“Shh!!” Sticky Spectre and Oreo said.

There was silence for a moment, and then someone called. “Who’s there?” Pause. “Who’s there?! You better- you better show yourself, right now!!”

“Well, let’s give the man what he wants,” Sticky Spectre said.

The three Justice Leaguers leapt into action. X-Raytor fired a pair of laser beams upwards, illuminating the dark alley in red. The guy who had run out of the Wine and Spirits store, who X-Raytor now saw was clearly holding a gun, was lit up along with everything else, and Oreo and Sticky Spectre leapt at him. The guy fired off a wild shot, and then ran, pounding down the alley.

“Don’t lose him!” Sticky Spectre roared.

X-Raytor ran, pushing himself even harder than he had on the roofs. He hated it when they ran. Hated. Didn’t anyone know how to just turn themselves in anymore?

The alley was amazingly dark, even with the moonlight, and X-Raytor soon found himself relying entirely on the sound of the man’s footsteps and his frantic breathing to know that he was still there. He was gaining, he was sure, and pushed himself harder.

Suddenly, the man’s footsteps and breathing changed, and X-Raytor caught a flash of something in the moonlight-

“He turned!” X-Raytor yelled, racing down the side alley that the man had taken. Oreo Avenger and Sticky Spectre didn’t reply. Had they gotten too far ahead? Well, until they caught up…

The man ran out onto the street, almost getting hit by a taxi in the progress.

“Idiot!!” X-Raytor yelled, as he followed him into the traffic. Cars screeched to a halt, but none of them impeded the gunman’s way. He reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and disappeared into another alley, a few seconds before X-Raytor.

This alley was just as dark as the last one, and X-Raytor had to strain to hear the man’s footsteps over his own breathing. Where were Oreo and Sticky Spectre?

X-Raytor suddenly realized that he recognized where he was. This was the system of alleys near the docks- he hadn’t realized they were so close. He knew these alleys like the back of his hands- he’d spent most of his solo career in the dock area. X-Raytor turned down the next side alley, and hoped that the man would be too panicked to realize that X-Raytor was no longer behind him.

X-Raytor followed the side alley out onto the street and pelted down the sidewalk, dodging the few people who dared to be on the streets here after dark. He didn’t stop running until he’d reached the red neon sign for Jack’s Bar. He waited until he heard footsteps race by in the back alley, and then he headed down the side alley. At Jack’s Bar, he knew, the back alleys came to a dead end. The gunman would be trapped.

Sure enough, X-Raytor came around the corner just as the gunman was turning around, his back to the brick wall. From here, he could still dimly see the red light of the Jack’s sign, shining on the wet asphalt.

“Sorry to be so cliché, but end of the line, sparky,” X-Raytor said.

There was a breeze, and then Oreo Avenger landed next to him. Sticky Spectre joined them a second later.

“Good job, X-y,” Sticky Spectre said.

“Don’t call me that.” X-Raytor said.

“Now, you,” Sticky Spectre said. “What’s up with you?”

“Nothing!” The guy said. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Hmm, let’s see,” Sticky Spectre said. “We hear a gun shot, then we see you, with a gun, come running out of the booze store. And then, after we meet you in a dark alley, you shoot at us. Care to explain that?”

“I- I was…” The man tried to say. And then, he waved the gun in the air, like he was batting away a fly or something, and started to cry.

“Oh God,” he sniffled. “Oh Go-o-o-od,”

“Hey, come on, what happened, man?” X-Raytor asked.

“I didn’t do anything wrong!” The man sobbed. And now X-Raytor saw that he wasn’t much of a man. He looked to be in his early twenties, at most. “I was just- I needed the money or they were gonna take everything away. They’re gonna- they’re gonna take my apartment, and they’re gonna put my brother in a- in a f***in’ foster home, and now you’ve just f***ed it up!”

“What happened at the liquor store?” Oreo Avenger asked.

“F*** you.” The man sobbed.

“Did you hurt anyone?”

“Guy pulled a gun on me,” the man said. “I didn’t- I didn’t kill him or nothin’. I just got him in- in the shoulder, and I should’a- should’a taken the f***ing money!! But I didn’t! And now- oh God!!”

“Just- just calm down, dude,” X-Raytor said. “Listen, you didn’t kill anyone, you didn’t steal anything, you can probably- you’ll probably get off pretty easily, man…”

“It’s all over,” the man sobbed. “It’s all over. They’re never gonna let me keep Mark now that I shot that guy.” He made a noise, some mix of a whimper and a moan.

“Listen, just put the gun down, and come with us, and we’ll see what we can do, okay?”

“No, no,” the man said, like they’d been offering him an extra five bucks. “It’s all over.”

And then he raised the gun, and placed the barrel under his chin.

X-Raytor yelled “NO!” and fired and Oreo Avenger threw an Oreo like a discus-

The gun flashed and exploded, and the man fell over. X-Raytor’s lasers smacked against the brick wall, and Oreo Avenger’s Oreo dropped into the dirt.

“Oh- oh my God,” Oreo Avenger said, and then X-Raytor heard a retching noise and a splatter. His nostrils curled involuntarily at the smell of vomit, but X-Raytor didn’t notice any of it. There was a man lying on the dark ground in front of him, where the asphalt reflected the red light of the Jack’s sign, and he didn’t get it. He looked numbly over at Sticky Spectre. Sticky Spectre who hadn’t done anything.

“Huh.” Sticky Spectre said. “Well, that’s a mess.”

“Oh God…” Oreo moaned. “What did we do?”

“What did we do?” X-Raytor asked Sticky Spectre.

“It’s like I can see through things,” Sticky Spectre whispered. And then she looked at X-Raytor, and gave him a pitying, disgusted look. “Guilt’s a bitch, huh?”

And then she turned, and walked back down the alley.

“You guys can take care of this right?”

Neither X-Raytor nor Oreo Avenger said anything.

“Good,” Sticky Spectre said. She raised an arm and fired tape from one of her tape launchers, up at the wall. “See you back at the Hall.”

And with that, she hopped onto the wall, vertically, fired her tape launchers again, and vanished into the night.

***

Now

X-Raytor’s heart rate spiked suddenly, and then began to decrease, faster than before. His body was in its last stages now, the fugue, the last inning. He was going to die. And if he had been there, if his mind had been in the present and not in the past, he would have been happy.

***

“Let me get this straight,” Father McQuinn said from the back of the Justice Van. “You want me to exorcise your friend, who’s a super hero, but not completely exorcise him, because he isn’t possessed, but is just being slowly killed by demonic residue.”

“Pretty much,” Scarlett said.

“You said you’ve done this before,” Oreo Avenger said.

Father McQuinn sighed. “Yeah, sort of. But that was an actual possession. My niece… yeah, I’ve done it before. It’s not a fun experience, believe me. But- you said this isn’t actually a possession. So maybe it’ll be a bit better…”

“So,” Midnight Chatter said. “Are you one of those priests like that dude in The Exorcist?”

“Yeah, I’m a Jesuit,” Father McQuinn said.

“Cool,” Midnight Chatter said. “So, you guys are like commando priests?”

“Uh… not really?”

“But- but you do kick butt on demons every week, right?”

“MC, leave him alone,” Scarlett said. She looked back at Father McQuinn. “I know this must be weird, but thank you for coming along.”

“No, believe me, if there’s anything I can do to help, so I’ll help you if I can,” he said. “I believe I’ve got to try.”

“Well, we all have our parts to play,” Scarlett said.

“Yes,” Father McQuinn agreed. “And I am playing mine.”

I don’t know about Another World, What beyond this curtain lies!” Midnight Chatter sang.

Silence.

“Uh, sorry,” Midnight Chatter said. “I thought that’s where you were going with that…”

Father McQuinn hopped out of the van when they reached the Hall, and the three Justice Leaguers led him to the infirmary. Pinzz was gone now, and only Xiao, Right Wing Man, and X-Raytor remained. Oreo Avenger checked the computer screen next to X-Raytor’s bed, and saw-

“Oh, man…”

“We’re not too late,” Father McQuinn said. “He’s still got- he’ll probably be able to hold on for a few more minutes. Listen, I- I- is he Catholic, first off?”

The three Justice Leaguers exchanged looks. “Uh…”

“He’s an atheist,” Scarlett said. “I don’t know if his family was anything. I think- I think his mom’s side might have been Catholic, but I don’t think he was baptized or anything.”

“Okay, well, I’m not doing the Prayer of Exorcism anyway,” he let out a deep breath. “Okay, okay. What’s his real name?”

“John.” Oreo Avenger said.

“James.” Scarlett said.

“I think he went by James, but it’s his middle name,” Oreo said.

“Do any of you know his last name?”

Oreo, Scarlett, and Midnight Chatter exchanged puzzled looks. “He never told any of us,” Scarlett said. “I don’t even think it’s on file.”

“Okay, then James will have to do,” Father McQuinn said. “Where’s he hurt?”

Midnight Chatter reached down and peeled back the bandage under X-Raytor’s right ribs. Underneath it was a black hole, with something like tar or oil around the edge. It bubbled slightly, and then dark blood began to run down X-Raytor’s belly.

“Eeeeeeew.” Midnight Chatter said.

Father McQuinn crossed himself, and then stood over X-Raytor. He said:

“Exorcizo te, omnis spiritus immunde, in nomine Dei,” he made the sign of the cross again, and continued. “Patris omnipotentis, et in noimine Jesu,” sign of the cross, “Christi Filii ejus, Domini et Judicis nostri, et in virtute Spiritus,” sign of the cross again, “Sancti, ut descedas ab hoc plasmate Dei, James, quod Dominus noster ad templum sanctum suum vocare dignatus est, ut fiat templum Dei vivi, et Spiritus Sanctus habitet in eo. Per eumdem Christum Dominum nostrum, qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem.”

He touched X-Raytor’s nose, through his black mask, and said, “Ephpheta, quod est, Adaperire. In odorem suavitatis. Tu autem effugare, diabole; appropinquabit enim judicium Dei.”

Father McQuinn stepped back, and produced a small dropper bottle of holy water from his jacket. He began to apply drops onto X-Raytor’s wound, whispering something in Latin at each drop. And then he stepped back, and kneeled at the foot of the bed. He folded his hands, and said:

“May the Hand of God purify you, may the Hand of God heal you.” He repeated it. “May the Hand of God purify you, may the Hand of God heal you.”

He said the prayer again, and again, over and over. Oreo Avenger felt the hairs on the back of her neck standing at attention.

And then, as Father McQuinn continued his intonation, the black around the wound began to fade. First the darkness in the skin, and then, slowly, the actual tar-like substance around the wound. After a few moments, all traces of black were gone, and the wound appeared to simply be a red hole. As Father McQuinn continued his prayer, the automated med system thrummed to life, and robotic arms moved in, cleaning off X-Raytor’s wound and applying a new bandage. Nothing was impeding them now.

“It- it worked,” Scarlett said.

Father McQuinn said his prayer a final time, and then crossed himself and stood up. He was breathing shakily.

“That was hard,” he said. “But the demon wasn’t in him at all. You were right, he just had something left over from the attack.”

And it was then that Midnight Chatter said. “Hey! Hey, look!”

The computer screen next to X-Raytor’s bed showed… no change. His heart continued to slow, his body continued to shut down, and he was very, very close to being shut down completely. He was still dying.

“What…?” Oreo said. She looked at Father McQuinn, whose brow was kneaded.

“That- that little thing there,” Father McQuinn said. “That measures his brain, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” Midnight Chatter said.

“Okay,” Father McQuinn said. “Because- I might be wrong- but it looks like his brain is functioning perfectly. I think… I think maybe something from the- the demonic residue might be affecting him.”

“Affecting how?” Scarlett asked.

“He may be having- visions, maybe,” Father McQuinn said. “Or maybe dreams. Or memories.”

“Is it too much to hope that they’re good memories?” Oreo asked.

“I would guess that they’re very bad memories. Or dreams. Or whatever.” Father McQuinn said. “His wound is healing, and he should be able to recover… but he may not let himself. Depending on what he’s seeing, he may decide that he just doesn’t want to wake up.”

“His brain’s working, though,” Scarlett said. “So- so maybe he’d be able to hear us, or something. Maybe we can convince him to not…”

“But what do you think he’s seeing?” Midnight Chatter asked.

Oreo Avenger frowned. “I’ll give you one guess…”

***

Why?

Just because. Why not, even? Why did people ever change? Why should this be any different?

After all, why had X-Raytor changed? And he had changed, hadn’t he? He wasn’t as much of a bastard now, not as much as he’d once been. But that was a change, he knew, of about a centimeter. And even if he wasn’t a bastard, he was still useless.

But why was it so hard to see with Sticky Spectre? It didn’t make any sense. Even if she had been a little lofty at the first meeting, even if she had been a bit bitter sometimes (who on the Justice League hadn’t been at one point or another?), and even how she had responded that night in April, when that man that kid that man had killed himself in the alley, even the way she’d reacted to that, it didn’t make any sense why she would-

Her betrayal… why hadn’t he seen it? Maybe, maybe that night in the alley had meant something? “It’s like I can see through things.” Had he missed some- some sign or something? Could he have done something?

Of course. Of course he could have. He could have helped her, he could have stopped her before it had gotten that far. But he didn’t. He’d been too stupid, too oblivious, too selfish, too busy whining and looking at everyone’s boobs and just being himself to notice. As usual, he had failed.

Maybe it was all better like this. Maybe that guy in the alley, maybe he was right.

Sticky Spectre. Liese Taylor. Liese.

Maybe he was right, and maybe she was right, and maybe everyone in the world was right, but X-Raytor didn’t know and he didn’t care.

He let go.

***

“You’re being an idiot,” Oreo Avenger said.

“Oreo!” Scarlett said.

“I thought you said you were trying to help him!” Midnight Chatter said.

“I am,” Oreo said. “And I think X-y needs to know that he’s being an idiot, and an immature, whiny little baby.”

“Er, I’m actually wondering myself how this is helping…” Father McQuinn said.

“Trust me.” Oreo said, and turned back to X-Raytor. “Where was I? Oh, yeah. You’re an idiot. In fact, you’re possibly the most… guy guy I know. I mean, are you serious? You’re going to just- just let go because of her? Get a goddamn grip, seriously,”

“What’s she talking about?” Midnight Chatter whispered to Scarlett. Scarlett hushed him.

“Listen,” Oreo said. “She- I know what she was like. I know what you felt like when she- when she did what she did. It messed us all up. And I know that as much as I hate her, as much as she disgusts me, I miss her, too. And that’s what you’ve been feeling and what you’re feeling now, and that makes sense because she was a good friend and all… but you can’t blame yourself for her. What she did… she did that on her own. There was always something sort of… missing, from her. I think that- that whether we’d done anything or not, whether we’d seen any warning signs or not… I think, regardless, she would have snapped eventually. She’s twisted, she’s messed up beyond belief, but the fact that she’s messed up isn’t your fault. There was nothing your- or me- or any of us- could have done. It’s… it’s just the way she is.”

Oreo sighed. “And- and I still think about the alley, too. It’s sort of hard to forget. And I feel horrible about that. I think that- that maybe if I had been faster, or if I had just taken him down earlier, or if we hadn’t stopped for a rest… maybe it wouldn’t have happened. And- and maybe that was our fault. Maybe if we had just, like, disarmed him, and tried to- I don’t know, tried to talk to him, instead of chasing him down like an animal, maybe he wouldn’t have lost it… I don’t know.

“But I can’t change what’s happened, and I can’t change what I’ve done, and I can’t change what other people have done because of me. And neither can you. The only thing we- the only thing any of us can do is to try to make up for it, every day, and to try to not screw up again. Live and learn, that sort of thing. But if you just give up, if you just drop everything, then you’re not doing any good for anyone. So here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to take everything you’ve ever done, all of the crap in your life, everything, you’re going to take it, and you’re going to accept it for what it is, and you’re going to keep moving. Now wake the hell up.”

Silence.

“Uh, wow,” Midnight Chatter said.

Everyone else was still, perfectly still for a moment. And then X-Raytor’s heart monitor began to beep faster. A slow increase at first, but then faster and faster until his heart beat was average again. Blood seeped from under the bandage, but the med system cleaned it away. X-Raytor’s breathing became less of a shallow rattle, and was eventually the deep, sound breathing of a sleeper.

Oreo exhaled, and sat down on the floor.

“I think he’s going to be okay,” Father McQuinn said. “Good job.”

Oreo Avenger nodded. “Thanks for your help, Father.”

And X-Raytor’s heart monitor continued to beep steadily…

***

Two Days Later

X-Raytor stood in the trophy room. His costume was back on, in full, and he was finally getting the feel of that infirmary bed out of his back. There was still a big, white bandage over where Fred had hit him, but the blood flow had stopped, and the wound was healing quickly.

The sun came down through the windows, down from the blue sky. It looked like another green Christmas, but X-Raytor didn’t mind. He was happy to just be awake.

When he’d woken up, Oreo and Scarlett and Midnight Chatter had told him about some weird exorcism some priest had performed on him, and how Oreo had made some sort of Academy Award winning speech, but he still wasn’t sure exactly what they were talking about. He vaguely remembered hearing Oreo’s voice from far away, and now and then he’d remember snatches of words… but that was it. The only thing he could recall after being knocked out were the dreams, the memories, he’d floated through in his sleep.

And that was why he’d come to the trophy room. He was on the far side of the room, opposite from the large double doors. He’d shown Cara this wall the time she’d come over- this wall covered with newspaper clippings and photos and just about everything else they’d been too lazy to throw away since the League was founded.

Above him was a group shot, an early publicity shot, which had been taken a few weeks after their first meeting. This was before Raven or Xiao or Iso and the others had joined, and only the members who had been there for that first meeting were there. He was right up front, crouched in front of everyone else, with his arms resting on his legs. The others stood behind him (and Insipid Justice behind them, looking as mundane as always). Rosma was first on the left, and then Oreo, and then Superdude, and then Pinzz, in her blue suit, and then Studmuffin. And right next to him, right between him and Scarlett was Sticky Spectre. She looked as she always did- a black shirt with blue jeans, tape covering any rips or tears in the fabric. Her ash blond hair was pulled back, except two strands that framed her blue eyes. He could see her tape launchers, strapped to her wrists.

How long was it, since she left? Don’t call it that, he snapped at himself. Don’t say ‘left.’ She betrayed you- us. Everyone. She betrayed the League. She betrayed the whole godd*mn human race.

True. But, still, how long ago was it? Summer of 2000, that’s when she’d done it. But when, exactly? Well, it didn’t matter. Nowhere near now. But it was almost Christmas Eve, almost the four year anniversary, he could say, of that night on the roof…

“X-y!” Someone yelled. “Are you in there?”

The doors opened, and Pinzz walked in. She wasn’t in her suit, but she still look relatively intimidating.

“Er, hi,” X-Raytor said.

“There you are,” she said. “Come on, we’re going! Rosma’s about ready to throttle you.”

X-Raytor looked back up at the photo. That had been a long time ago, but it all felt fresh. He felt something, almost like nostalgia, if nostalgia could stab you in the gut.

X-Raytor turned away from the picture, and smiled. “Okay, let’s go.”