Simon was dead.
Of course, Ruby Peet would argue that an alias technically couldn't die, since it never was alive to begin with - but the important part was that Simon wasn't around anymore. Supervillains had stopped wearing skull masks in tribute to him, and nobody made "Simon says" puns about him. He was gone.
That didn't mean that Ruby fully trusted Heathcliff now. Especially now that he was allowed to sit through mission briefings at the Playground.
"I'm assuming we've got the first seasonal bad guy," Ruby said as she and her teammates sat down.
Agent Brand nodded. "You would be correct. Benjamin?"
On cue, Benjamin projected three small holograms into the table. "These are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, respectively. Identity, unknown. Powers, unconfirmed. For the last five years, they have been targeting various military stations. They have stolen classified data of all kinds. And now -"
"Wait a second," Heathcliff said. "Did you say five years? Why are we only being called in now?"
"The individual stations were all working on projects of total secrecy. They were reluctant to report that the information has been stolen. This time, however, the Ghosts announced their heist beforehand... while also bragging about their previous crimes."
Jackson leaned forward to look at the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. "Okay, I got it. What are they after?"
The holograms faded and then reappeared as one long brick building. It didn't look like much, but then compared to the Playground all other government buildings were hopelessly out of date. Ruby glanced at the sign. "Area 52?"
"Yes." Benjamin whirred. "For a long time the public has thought that aliens were being held at Area 51. The truth, however -"
"Aliens?" Flinch. "Really?"
"I doubt it." Heathcliff. "I've seen aliens -"
"I don't know." Duncan. "Considering all the other stuff we deal with -"
Ruby hit the table a bit harder than she probably needed to, and the others fell silent. "Benjamin, continue."
"While Area 52 does not contain aliens, it is the center of a different type of research." He stopped there.
The NERDS waited for him to describe just what kind of research they did.
It was a long wait.
They looked at Benjamin, then at Agent Brand and Miss Viktoriya. Miss Viktoriya seemed just as confused as they were.
Agent Brand, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling with something.
Finally he said: "Just tell them what they'll be doing, Benjamin."
The ball whirred back to life. "The base has been closed for now, and the information moved to the Nevada State Capitol Building. You will join a public school class for their field trip there, but, of course, your mission is to apprehend the Ghosts and protect the research."
"Understood," Ruby said. "When do we leave?"
Half an hour later the team was lined up behind a bunch of civilians, touring the capitol.
"This is the exact spot where a senator declared his ambition to be ruler of the world!" The guide's voice made Ruby's ears itch. "Then, naturally, all the rest of them did the same, and by the end of session they'd declared war! Isn't that interesting?" She laughed. The civilians laughed, too.
Duncan glanced at his watch. "Five more minutes."
"Alright, team, be ready," Ruby ordered.
She was about to say something else, but then a voice rang out - "It's the Ghost of Christmas Past, everybody!" - and the ceiling crashed in.
The civilians panicked and ran. The tour guide screamed and ducked into a room. The dust cleared.
The Ghost looked around. "Hm? Children?" It smiled. "How fitting."
It snapped its fingers, causing a spark. In a moment the spark became a fire. "Come at me, kid!"
"Braceface, don't let him escape. Flinch, Wheezer, go get him!"
Ruby's arm itched. She whirled around and came face-to-face with who she assumed to the be Ghost of Christmas Present.
This one didn't talk. It didn't have to, being ten feet tall. It lifted a fist and brought it down - but Ruby jumped out of the way. The Ghost didn't seem to mind. It laughed and ran after her with more grace and speed than bad guys usually had.
Odd, really, how much time Ruby had spent running from people who wanted to crush her. Also odd: she had never gotten used to it.
"Flinch, help me with this one!"
Her hyper teammate turned away from the first Ghost and was by her side in moments.
"Gluestick, is there any sign of the last guy?"
"Not that I see."
"Alright. Head to the main chamber and make sure the legislature's safe. Protect the data. Now!"
Jackson's voice rang in her head. "Hey, Pufferfish? About that third guy?"
"I think he's here."
And suddenly everything grew dark.
Now, Ruby had seen more darkness-themed supervillains than most. She'd dealt with mind-controllers, reality-warpers, photokinetics, and people who tried to cover cities with a very large blanket. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come ranked near the top of her list of most terrifying.
She wasn't afraid of the dark. It just made things harder to organize.
"Wheezer, you think you can give us a light?"
Immediately a fireball blasted through the main hall. And Ruby found herself face-to-face with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Her first thought was, why didn't my allergies warn me?
Her second was, really? Another skull mask?
She didn't have time to have a third thought. The Ghost pounced.
She woke up in her bed at home.
Which wasn't a bad thing, necessarily. If she'd just dreamed everything up, alright. If she hadn't, then just being here safe meant things were okay.
Then she noticed the kid sitting at her desk, typing on her computer.
"Excuse me. Who are you?"
The kid turned around. "Hi, Pufferfish. Never thought you'd see me again, did you?"
It was Simon.
Ruby's heart skipped a beat - she was allergic to being scared - and she looked into the eyes of his skull mask. "What do you want?"
He pushed the mask up. It wasn't the old Heathcliff behind it; it was the new one, fake teeth and all. "First things first. You're dreaming. I wouldn't watch you sleep in real life. Just so you know."
"Okaaay. What's the second thing?"
Heathcliff leaned back. "You know, the two of us are pretty messed up."
"You are." Ruby stood up. "Or were."
"We. Are.. I've gotten my redemption arc. You still need yours. Of course mine was more painful 'cause I betrayed you and became a supervillain, but you know -"
Ruby glared at him.
She sighed and scratched her neck. "I'm stuck in A Christmas Carol, aren't I. You're Marley and now I'm going to get haunted."
"Well, kinda. There's a bit more to it than that."
"Okay then. Fine."
Neither of them moved.
Ruby waited for him to disappear. When it looked like he wouldn't, she spoke.
"Um. You can go now. I've got the message."
Heathcliff turned back to the computer. "I know. It's just... I had this whole speech planned out! An entire evil monologue, and now I can't say it 'cause it's completely pointless."
"And I'm still mad that you pushed me over a cliff."
He turned back to her. "Alright. Forget it. I'm dead and you killed me. I hope you're happy."
He snapped his fingers.
A clock that wasn't there before struck midnight.